Tuesday, February 27, 2007

ditching grub

Mainly due to ignorance, I've ditched grub on this laptop and am going with lilo.

Long ago I partitioned my hard drive into swap, a 6GB partition (/dev/hda4) for the OS, and two (/dev/hda5, /dev/hda6) very large partitions for data. At one point I needed to switch from one distribution to another, so I installed Ubuntu alternative on one of the large partitions. Ubuntu uses grub by default. And I wanted to switch root partitions from /dev/hda5 to /dev/hda4.

I just couldn't figure out what the right magic was for getting grub to switch. I created a small /boot partition and copied the /boot from /dev/hda5 to there (/dev/hda2). But I couldn't figure out how to get the menu.lst in /dev/hda2 to be applied onto the MBR of the whole drive. After a few days of trying (desultorily, this wasn't a big deal at all) I finally found a way to corrupt the MBR so that finally I couldn't boot into Ubuntu at all. So I whipped out the trusty rescue CD (ubuntu alternative installer) and finally just edit /etc/lilo on /dev/hda4 to point at the right kernel, ran lilo, and voila, everything is good.

No doubt that could have been done with grub too. But I've always used lilo and i've only stuck with grub because I thought that everyone says grub is so much better, there must be some reason to that.

For my own use, however, I don't see any advantage go grub. Long ago, lilo had problems with large partitions. Those have been fixed though. Possibly, grub has a better interface, but I can't benefit from that advantage since I can't see it. Lilo does everything I need it to do, I already know what to do. It's a great tool for rescuing borked MBRs (booting into linux, anyway). From now on, I'm uninstalling grub from all my Ubuntu installations and installing lilo. If I have to manage /etc/lilo.conf, well, that's no big deal. I already know how to do that, and I know how to fix things when I do the wrogn thing.

If I knew to whom

I made a major mistake yesterday and today I don't know to whom to apologize.

The DSL connection at home went down sometime on Friday afternoon. My brother-in-law called PLDT to see if there was a problem and they said they didn't know of any. They said we should wait a day or two to see if the problem would fix itself. I thought this was incompetent. I still do. But I can see why PLDT does it. They are trying to keep costs down.

So we waited two days. Closer to three, actually. I was busy with timmy, and going out with sol and friends (and timmy). So I ignored the fact that the internet was down ON A WEEKEND. Last night though, Sunday, I called PLDT DSL technical support and gave the call center person a piece of my mind. I told her (all of this is true) that clearly there was a problem with the modem since, when I connect to it directly with a LAN cable, it won't reply to pings except for about 5 seconds, right after a reset (pressing the reset button with a screwdriver for 7 seconds after turning it on).

The modem is supposed to be configurable with a web browser. I tried that, and also ping, and it just wasn't replying at all.

So I told the DSL person to send some technician over with a spare modem because clearly the modem was bad.

Well, the technician came over today and he reported that the modem goes online (I haven't gotten around to testing if it replies to pings) and the problem was that the phone cables had gotten discombobulated. I don't know who touched the phone cable Y connector, but apparently it was enough to kill the DSL signal even though the phone still worked for voice calls.

That'll teach me. Jerry Pournelle formulated Pournelle's law, stating that

Cables do matter. When something doesn't work, always check the cables and their connectors first.

I've said that before, elsewhere. But apparently, I haven't said it here yet. Now I have. When something doesn't work, check the cables first. This is a special case of the first law of debugging, "It's your bug". Don't look at other causes of the bug, first look at your own code or other things YOU've done that might have caused it.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Installing KDE Again

I'm installing KDE again, for real, on my wife's new Thinkpad. I'm embarrassed http://monotremetech.blogspot.com/2007/02/installing-kde.htmlto note that konsole *does* have a "New Window" option under Session. Maybe I was just confused the other day. Or what I meant was that there's no way to open a New Window in one simultaneous keystroke (e.g., Ctrl-Shift-N with the gnome terminal).

Or maybe it's in there somewhere, I just haven't used it enough to see what it is.

This is a lovely laptop. Only 1.75Ghz, but that's fast enough for most things not gaming related. And there's 1GB of RAM, so everything runs much better. The previous laptop (which will be going on sale) had 256MB of RAM. That's just not enough. I'm going to receive a memory upgrade of that soon though, so it'll be a lot easier to sell with 1GB of RAM in there. The Thinkpad keyboard is great, it's got a mousepad AND a touchpoint and, because of how those are placed on the keyboard, there are two left click, and two right click buttons. It's going to be a pin to get used to where the Insert/Delete/Home/End/PgUp/PgDn buttons are, but sol will get used to it. And it won't be hard to get used to it, I think. Easy for me to say though, since I'm not the one adjusting :-)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Test the cables

I run rdiff-backup to do cheap (space-wise) generational backups on my home directory (my mail, my documents, nothing that is in version control though since that'd be redundant).

Lately, my computer was failing (linux would get corrupted, couldn't ssh in, etc). It seems to have had to do with the nightly backup. After having the data and power cables to my hard drives re-seated, the problem has gone away.

Jerry Pournelle formulated the eponymous "Pournelle's Law" to the effect that a lot of the time, hardware or drive problems are due to bad cables. In this case the cables weren't bad, they just weren't seated right. Possibly they'd jiggled themselves loose over many months in continuous use (my slow work computer is a sort-of server now, so it never goes off anymore).

Of course I back up to a second disk ;-). If the drive really is going bad (despite suddenly getting much more stable the last two nights due to reseating of the data and power cables), then I'll be backed up anyway. I'm glad to see, though, that the drive is probably good (tested with badblocks too, and xfs_check, no errors found).

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Installing KDE

Ok, so Linus is ranting about Gnome again, and he's submitted patches.

I use gnome because I got tired of having to manually manage the menus and toolbar in icewm, and because it runs well enough even on my slow (but 640MB) desktop at work (it certainly runs very well on my fast and 1GB laptop).

I don't see the problems that Linus has with gnome. But then that's probably because, since I come from icewm, my requirements of a window manager/desktop environment are minimal. ESR was ranting at some point about printing being difficult too. I wouldn't know since I never print anything, ever.

I'm going to install kde as an alternate desktop on this Edgy laptop though. I'll do it for fun, and to see if I actually find anything good to use in kde. I installed kubuntu on my wife's laptop and I don't like how it works. But that's probably just because I just haven't worked with kde enough to figure out how to make it work how I want it to work (e.g., I like having multiple terminals instead of multiple tabs in one konsole window, and I can't find the "New Window" option in konsole).

I'll also install kde on my slow desktop at work and see if it's usable there. At one point I think I tried that and gave up because KDE was slow. But maybe I'm more patient now, or they might have shaken out the performance issues in KDE by now.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

It's the indexes, not LDAP

OK, I've had the LDAP over openvpn running for a few hours now and I see no slowdown. So I guess it's the indexes. When next evolution slows down, I should remember to delete the index and index.dat files.

If I can't remember that, well, I hope that when I ask google about this a few months from now I'll ask the right question and it'll bring me back here :-)

evolution slow -- maybe fixed

I had problems with my email for a week or so. I've been busy on other things though and couldn't pay attention enough to the email problem to figure out what the problem was.

I use Ximian/Novell Evolution. I looked at Mozilla Thunderbird and a few others, but I can't switch away from Evolution for now. The Search Folders are too useful and I can't work without them (e.g., I've got a big archive of pgsql-general mail, when I need to read only the unread ones [instead of going to the folder that has all of pgsql-general where there are so many read emails it's pretty much impossible to find the first unread one]) I just go to the Unread-Pgsql-General search folder.

Evolution got slow though, and when I would do a top -d 1 I would see that evolution-data-server was using all the CPU. I let that be for a few days since I didn't have any ideas. At one point, and because I could do it unattended, I installed the debug versions of evolution and evolution-data-server. I couldn't figure out how to use those though, and they didn't help, so I removed them.

I tried two more things and one, or the other, or both fixed the problem. I removed all the *.index* files (*.index and *.index.data) in the .evolution/mail/local directory (while evolution wasn't running). Starting evolution made it rebuild those indexes. I also turned off the automatic LDAP email address completion (which goes to my $DAYJOB's LDAP server over openvpn). Evolution is running very well with both of those off. I'll turn on the LDAP auto-completion later today to see if, by itself, that brings the problem back. If it doesn't, then I'll know that every once in a while evolution needs to have its indexes blown away.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

linux swap on USB flash drive

My wife's laptop is slightly memory challenged. Years ago 256MB was a lot for a laptop. These days, KDE crawls on 256MB. I've got a 512MB flash drive and I thought to experiment with making that the higher priority swap device.

sudo swapon -p 31415 /dev/sda1

does the trick. The laptop is now much more responsive. It's not as responsive as it might be if it had 1GB of RAM, but it's much nicer. I've also installed xfce (this is kubuntu edgy, so I had to install xfce from debian repositories) and I'll test that out. It might be that I won't need to upgrade the RAM at all if the swap on flash plus xfce makes it less painful to develop. I'll need to convince my wife to switch to xfce though.

I've been an icewm nut for a long time but I'm tired of not being able to put things on the desktop, and having to edit the toolbar and menus by editing files. It's time to look at more featureful but still trim windowing environments. Long ago I couldn't stand gnome. I now use gnome though on my work desktop and my personal laptop. I might try to install gnome on this box too, although I don't have a lot of hope that it'll be much better than KDE.

For the moment though, swap on flash rocks. I don't care too much about the limits on write cycles to swap. USB flash drives are now so cheap I can get 1GB flash drives for only a bit more then $10, maybe I'll just buy 3 of them and throw them away as they wear away :-). Or my wife will, since this is for her computer :-).

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Inexpensive dental care

I need to take next off to work on a special project and I decided to also have a whole lot of dental work done. The main work to be done is to have my front teeth porcelain capped. Some of them are capped already, but due to discoloration of one of my front teeth, I had the cap similarly discolored.

My wife's family has a great family dentist and with the cost of caps being very low, I've decided to have a lot of those teeth capped. I'm unsmiling just now because my four upper front teeth have been filed down and they don't have temporary caps yet :-). Those will be in tomorrow. And then the permanent caps will be fitted on Tuesday and fixed up the rest of the weak so that the bite works well.

I'm not sure when I'll have the other 5 or 6 lower front teeth capped. Maybe immediately after, or maybe during a future week off. I think it'll be immediately after though. I just don't have so much vacation that I can afford to spend 2 weeks off waiting for my teeth to get done :-).

The 4 upper front teeth are going to cost me only $260 or so. That's really cool. Altogether, all 9 or so teeth will cost me less than having one cap in the U.S. (well, back when I was there and had a cap done, I don't know what prices are anymore).

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

edgy gnome on 800Mhz

I'm running Ubuntu Edgy (or, as my fingers mistyped it, Ubunty) Gnome desktop on a P3 800Mhz box at work. I'm pleasantly surprised. It's surprisingly usable. Maybe it's the 640MB of RAM. I've tried Gnome on other distributions on similar hardware and they were slow to unusable.

But then those were 128-256MB boxes. RAM makes a lot of difference. It still gets slow (firefox, in particular, and evolution with 4GB of mail in there, are the main culprits although the occasional CPU eating php command line program steps in to be counted too). But it's very usable.

I may try to install KDE on this box to see if KDE is similarly usable. KDE on my wife's 1.5Ghz 256MB laptop isn't particularly snappy. It's usable, but there are irritating pauses, particularly when starting applications, or even just new instances of gnome-terminal. I need to get more RAM for that box so she'll be happier. Either that, or sell the laptop and buy the incoming Thinkpad R50 :-).

Monday, February 05, 2007

Downloading Kubuntu and an accidental rant

I'm downloading Kubuntu for installation on my wife's laptop. It's coming down the wire at 50 kbytes/second and will complete in around 4 hours. That's very cool. I'm supposed to get 384 kbps on this pldt mydsl link, but when the link is fast I'm getting close to 512kbps. That's very nice. I used to get better speeds with Destiny Cable Internet but that was also less stable. The PLDT download speeds are slower than Destiny at it's best, but it's very stable.

If I had Destiny internet where I live now, I'd probably go with that. Higher speeds much of the time, and much better technical support, and their higher bandwidth (I used to be able to get 1.5mbps, and sometimes even 2mpbs) comes at PLDT's 999 monthly cost. Since Destiny isn't available though, PLDT is a close second for line quality. I just hope I never have DSL link problems since I don't want to talk to PLDT's technical support people ever again.

The last time I talked to them, all I got was that they couldn't help me. It seems they have relatively limited scripts and can't talk to anyone who actually knows what they're doing. That's a reasonable position to maintain, certainly, and more profitable since there are more noobs out there. It's frustrating though that all I can do is hope I never need technical support.