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...Ubuntu Linux, which I just installed on my laptop.
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what the hell IS recompiling a kernel
The Linux kernel, the core of the operating system, is open source. So, you can go to kernel.org and download the source code to it. Then you do like make menuconfig (or make xconfig, make gconfig, etc) to bring up a menu to configure it with the options you want. For example, you could tell it to compile a driver for an ATi card, but not to compile USB support. Then you do the actual recompiling, which is turning the source into a binary.
I tend to do this quite often because I'll either switch out hardware frequently, or I like to experiment.