When Things Go Wrong
While learning how to manage your own devices and software can be good for privacy, the trade-off, often, is time. However, when things break or go wrong, you may experience an extra level of pressure to solve problems quickly, especially if you have set up systems for other people in, or even outside your home, to use.
In today's post, I want to explore the importance of not panicking when things go wrong - though, invariably, panic is a natural first response when systems you manage stop working. I'll outline some specific problems I've run into as I began to take greater control over my own devices, and I'll end with some lessons I've learned from those experiences.
Examples of things that went wrong
- Not long after proudly setting up my first Ubuntu Server on https, we experienced an electricity blackout in our house. I suspect it was an old toaster that caused it. This was stressful, because I'd invited several friends to a shared music library on Nextcloud, and so I felt some added responsibility for data and accounts that weren't my own.
- I will describe this in more detail in a future post, but I run an instance of Whoogle (a de-Googled, open source Google-based search engine) on a Raspberry Pi Zero 2W. This works great most of the time, and I've persuaded my kids to set our local Whoogle instance as their default search engine. But sometimes, Whoogle stops working, which leads to error warnings in the browser. It's usually related to updates. I am not always able to resolve these issues remotely (over SSH) and so need to find the adapters and cables to connect the Raspberry Pi to my monitor, mouse and keyboard.
- Before using CalyxOS, I had /e/OS installed on my first de-Googled phone. One day, that crashed and, oddly, showed an attempt to call a location in Texas. I think I ended up reinstalling the operating system.
- My biggest crash happened last summer, when my main laptop refused to boot up during a cloning session. Clonezilla had uncovered a serious hardware issue, and, as a result, the system shut down. I had to start from scratch. Luckily, I had another laptop I could work on. This experience made me reconsider how I organise my systems. Because my data was stored on the same partition as my operating system, I could no longer access my own data locally. What saved me is that I'd paid for a cloud-based backup service (Backblaze at the time, now pCloud).
If you're just tinkering on your own, then a crash or breakdown is a nuisance, especially if it happens at a point when time is precious. It can be tempting to think: maybe I should just return to the mainstream alternatives, so I don't have to deal with these issues.
However, if you have managed to bring a few family members or friends on board, then this ramps up the consequences. You'll have encouraged them to participate on your self-managed data server, or use your Whoogle search instance as their default search engine. When things crash, you might inadvertently discourage them trying privacy-respecting software alternatives. To add to that, if you yourself are just a beginner at managing devices and software and don't have expertise to fall back on, you may feel under pressure. The experience can make you feel like an amateur.
But in the end, it's never as bad as that. The friends who were using my Nextcloud instance were not totally reliant on it for day-to-day use; the shared audio library was more of a fun side project. And my kids, they know how to switch to DuckDuckGo whenever the Whoogle instance stops working.
Here are a couple of practical lessons that I've learned from these experiences:
- Keep a sense of perspective; most of these crashes are not the end of the world
- Make time to address the problem properly, and don't multi-task; fix one issue at a time
- plan a sequenced to-do list for more complex issues; cross off items as you fix them
- learn methods for trouble-shooting and take detailed notes of outcomes
- refer to documentation you wrote while setting up the systems
- related to the last point: write good documentation for yourself, including step-by-step instructions; I use Standard Notes
- if you are not 100% confident in your own admin abilities, understand it's perfectly fine to rely on a third-party application for extra data backups (pCloud backups, for example) in case of emergency
- Once a setup is up and running, clone the system and save the image somewhere
- schedule regular manual backups, or, learn how to automate backups
- keep your operating system separate from your data; create partitions if you only have one hard drive, but if possible, put the operating system and your data on separate physical drives. This way, if the system crashes, your data doesn't get mixed up in it
- have a second-hand Linux laptop around for easy formatting of hard drives and other fixes
- buy a USB adapter cable so you can quickly read and format extricated hard drives
Learning how to manage your own devices and systems as a beginner, and trying out privacy-focused software alternatives like the Whoogle search engine can be very rewarding, but you have to anticipate crashes.
I still feel all of this is worthwhile, as long as you can afford the cost in time that it will take to fix problems. Secondly, make sure you're clear about your own levels of competence if you decide to bring other people on board your self-hosted systems, so they don't end up rejecting privacy alternatives as a result.
--------------------Discuss on Reddit--------------------
Subscribe to my blog via email or RSS feed.
Back to Blog