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Ubuntu disaster (blank screen after software update), Debian recovery

Posted 12-26-2014 at 07:57 PM by flshope
Updated 01-06-2015 at 08:45 AM by flshope (Correcting directory of grub file)

A few weeks ago, I did a routine Ubuntu software update. When I rebooted after the update, all I got was a blank screen.

Actually, it was just my backup computer, a 2003 Pogo Linux desktop ( whose dated hardware is still working fine. The machine -- Pogo2003 -- was recently updated to Ubuntu 14.04, which caused me some initial display anomalies because Ubuntu dropped the Nvidia display driver I was using (Nvidia-96). The display was pretty messed up but not inoperative. In between struggling with the distorted desktop GUI and shelling out with ctl-alt-F1 to run apt commands, I was able to eliminate my problems by installing Bumblebee-Nvidia. Oh, yeah, I had to abandon Unity and go back to Gnome Flashback Services; but that was OK with me. I find Gnome classic easier to use for what I do, and it doesn't require a petaflop computer for adequate graphics response.

So, there I was, machine working OK, when the Ubuntu Update Manager informs me of a routine software update. I note that one of the updates is for the Nvidia-304 driver, which I am not using. So I click the install button and go back to working on my main machine, a 2011 Pogo Linux desktop. A half hour later, I switch back to Pogo2003 and allow the required reboot to finish the update. Result: I get only a blank screen. So I sit there, waiting, panic-stricken, wondering what to do. After a few long minutes, I get a boom (from the speakers) indicating the GUI is ready for someone to log on. But the screen is still blank. I shell out with ctl-alt-F1, but the screen remains blank.

Over the next several weeks, I try lots of things to get control of the machine. I discover that after a ctl-alt-F1, even with the blank screen, I can still execute commands in the blind. For example, logging in as administrator, I can blindly but successfully execute 'sudo shutdown -h now' to halt or 'sudo shutdown -r now' to restart, blindly entering the password for the administrator when expected. So I can execute commands but can't see the system response. May be useful. I also note that I am not getting the Grub menu during boot, which would allow me to boot to text-only recovery mode, perhaps before the bad video driver can grab screen control.

I do have some bootable disks prepared in advance. The aged machine does not have a DVD drive, only a CD-RW, but I do have several bootable CDs containing various Ubuntu versions. The machine does boot OK off these disks; but, sadly, they do not offer a recovery mode. Worse, even if I try to install, they hang saying something about "bad mirror". Manual entry of various mirror site URLs doesn't make any difference. Perhaps they are not making an internet connection.

I try several hot keys (shift is one that is said to work) during boot that may intervene in Grub's work and put up the Grub menu, but nothing I try works. I always end up the blank screen and an eventual boom from the log-on GUI. I even try blindly logging in through the (imagined?) GUI, but what would I do with the desktop when I can't see anything?

Three times during the several weeks' struggle, the machine did unexpectedly boot all the way to the log-on GUI for reasons unknown and conditions I could not repeat. Since this was unexpected, I didn't have a good plan of action. I looked at the installed video drivers with the Software Center and tried to remove the Nvidia-304 driver, but the system said Bumblebee-Nvidia was dependent on some 304 components. This almost confirmed that the 304 update was what disabled my machine. What I did not know how to do at the time was how to enable the Grub boot menu, which might have allowed me to at least boot into a readable text-only shell. On the final successful GUI log-in, I decided, for reasons no longer apparent to me, to remove the Nvidia-bumblebee driver. I may have thought this action might force the OS to try to find another driver that might work -- certainly a last ditch effort. Of course, it didn't work.

At this point I started considering other OS options. Debian ( offered a live CD download as did Ubuntu for 12.04 and 14.04, but the Ubuntu images would not fit on my CDs. The Debian did fit, and I burned a bootable live CD for Debian 7.7.0 using Brasero (CD Creator didn't seem to offer an iso burner option). With this CD I was able to boot Pogo2003 to a Debian RAM-only configuration but for text-only. I was able to mount my disks (e.g., 'sudo mkdir /SDA1', 'sudo mount /dev/sda1 /SDA1'). The only software included were some the common Linux terminal commands and the editor nano. I doubted that I could do anything with the Ubuntu drivers under Debian, but I did edit /etc/default/grub on sda1 to comment out 'GRUB_HIDDEN_TIMEOUT=0' ('#" inserted in column 1), but I couldn't get 'sudo update-grub' to implement the change. I tried rebooting to Ubuntu, shelling out with ctl-alt-F1, and executing 'sudo update-grub' in the blind, but that apparently didn't work (don't know why). No grub menu on reboot.

Seeing no other remaining options, I simply tried to install Debian, over writing Ubuntu. Again, I got the "bad mirror" message, but Debian offered to install without mirror access. This was successful: reboot resulted in a fully visible text shell. I immediately activated the Grub boot menu, which appeared on reboot as hoped. All of my disks were mounted and I had access to the USB ports by way of manual mounting (e.g., 'sudo mkdir /media/USB1' and 'sudo mount /dev/sdc1 /USB1'). I apparently did have internet access, as pings to known web sites were returned. However, I did not have a GUI. I did have 'aptitude', but the 'sources.list' file was set up only to access the CD, which did not include a GUI.

I had previously downloaded "The Debian Administrator's Handbook -- Debian Wheezy from Discovery to Mastery" by RaphaŽl Hertzog and Roland Mas ( They gave a current recommended 'sources.list', which I moved from Pogo2011 to Pogo2003 via a USB flash drive. When I ran 'aptitude' and updated the packages list, there were thousands more packages to consider installing, including Gnome. So I started the process to install Gnome. The process ran for about 2.5 h and then appeared to crash after downloading something called Dropbox. I let it alone for about 30 min and then tried to kill it without success. Finally, I did a ctl-alt-del reboot and started 'aptitude' again. 'aptitude' indicated it had been interrupted and that 'dpkg --configure -a' should be executed to resume. The install then finished quickly. After reboot, I was presented with a beautiful full-GUI log-on screen. I logged on with Gnome Classic and was off and running again, a "EUREEKA!" moment.

And for a moment there, but just a moment, I felt like a steely-eyed computer geek.
Just for reference, this machine is described as follows:
Altura Workstation (32 bit)
Athlon-XP 2400+ (2.0 Ghz) 266 Mhz FSB Processor
Asus A7V8X KT-400 Chipset Motherboard
1024 MB PC2700 DDR333 Memory (2 X 512 MB)
(2) Maxtor 120 GB UDMA-133 7200 hard drives
NEC 40X / 10X / 40X IDE CD-RW drive
Gainward GeForce4 Ti-4200 64 MB AGP video adapter
Creative SoundBlaster Live Value
Intel EtherExpress Pro 100+ adapter
82540EM Gigabit Ethernet Controller
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