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How do I stop system hangs?

What kernel or other settings can I set to let me keep control of my
computer during a runaway process? Basically, how do I tell Linux to
keep just enough resources free so I can drop into a shell terminal
and figure out what's going wrong?

In context, this evening my computer hung for 30 minutes. The hard
drive activity light went solid and it took about 10 minutes after
hitting CTRL + ALT + F1 for a bash shell to appear. It didn't matter
anyway, though, since the login process timed out if I attempted to
log in.

Unfortunately, there's a 30-minute gap in journalctl, so I can forget
about figuring out what caused the hang or filing a bug report to the
maintainers' satisfaction. Therefore, I'm more interested in keeping
control of my computer in future.

With thanks,

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