Author Archives: K.Mandla

One existential crisis at a time, please

Not everything I keep around the house is an absolute winner. I do feel like I can pick and choose the machines that stay with me, and which ones go on to new owners and new lives. But sometimes there are machines that really test my principles.

Here’s one. This is a lowly Dell Inspiron 4000. And it’s definitely not a model specimen.


Quite to the contrary. This machine is a veritable best-of list for everything that can possibly go wrong with an old laptop. When it came to me,

  1. It had no memory.
  2. It had no battery, and no power supply.
  3. It had a CD player, but the door mechanism is broken, and if you don’t hold it in, it doesn’t read the CD.
  4. It had a floppy drive, but I shook so much dust out of it that I’m seriously concerned about jeopardizing one of my few remaining floppy disks by testing the drive.
  5. It has no rubber feet left, and what remains causes it to rock on a flat surface.
  6. The screen is in good shape, but takes a while to warm up. Until then, the display has a red tint to it.
  7. It has one — only one — USB port, and that’s a version 1.1 port, so it’s phenomenally slow. To make matters worse, it feels like the port is losing its grip on the motherboard, because the port flexes when you push in a drive. Scary.
  8. About a fourth of the keys — mostly in the upper right quadrant — don’t work. Either the keyboard is on the fritz, or the signal isn’t being caught by the machine. I guess the former.
  9. The CMOS battery is dead, so you have to set the date each time the machine boots. Which is tricky, because again, a quarter of the keys don’t work.
  10. It has no built-in network port, or rather, this particular model has a plastic shield over the ethernet port, which usually was a sign that the board didn’t carry that port.
  11. It has more than its share of cracks, dings, scrapes, gouges, split seams, broken corners, busted lips, scuffs and scratches.

It looks a great deal cleaner now than it did when I got it. It still needs a complete disassembly and scrubbing — if it stays, of course.

And that’s where the existential crisis comes in. Because in spite of all that damage and all those deficiencies, it still works. Its saving grace is the the fact that it belongs to the Dell C-series, which means that laptops from about five or six years before and five or six years after it all used compatible parts — including this one.

So, after calling in some favors for a 256Mb stick of PC100, then borrowing the battery and a modular DVDRW drive from the 8200, I turned it on, and it came back to life. The Windows 2000 installation was still in place and functional, even if it was hideously slow. The touchpad is in good shape. And the screen is clear and free of flaws.

I gave it an Atheros-based PCMCIA wireless card, and started it up with a PLOP CD and the Arch Linux install ISO on USB. From there I could ssh into it and work up a system, for as long as the battery would last. And as you can see, after some slight delays, it’s functional again.

But from here it becomes a question of worth, because at its core, it’s still a 600Mhz Celeron, with only 256Mb of memory, a lowly 30Gb hard drive … and all-over barely functional. Sure, it has all-Intel guts and an ATI Mobility card. But it’s not something your day-to-day computer user, circa 2014, wants to take home to meet the family.

So the jury is still out on this machine. I still haven’t tried it with a proper power supply, and I need to know for sure that the keyboard issues are just in the keyboard. I have a feeling that it will cost me more than the value of the machine just to find that out, which is why I’m debating disassembly for parts.

I hate doing that, but sometimes you have to make difficult decisions. :|

Linux desktop hate, and the profit in yellow journalism

I’m going to give you two links today, but I don’t want you to click on them.

Usually when I have links I don’t want you to see, I just withhold them altogether. It’s safer that way, and I can generally give you an idea of what’s there without inflating your blood pressure by sending you to those pages.

This time both articles are critical of Linux, and if you’re reading this you’re either familiar with Linux or a proponent of it. The first is Matt Asay’s insistence that Linux abandon efforts toward a desktop, and the other is John C. Dvorak pulling the plug on Linux’s viability at the desktop.

I’m not sure why the Linux “desktop” is getting so much hate these days, but then again, I’m not really sure what the Linux “desktop” is. If there is a concerted effort to corral the efforts of every free software project out there, and herd the masses toward the “desktop,” I wasn’t aware of it. The Linux desktop has always just “been there” for me, and so maybe I take it for granted.

But it’s worth looking at both articles, for wider reasons that actually move beyond the scope of this site.

Matt Asay should be a name you’re familiar with, if you’ve been around the Ubuntu fan club for a year or two. Matt was a former company officer with Canonical, and apparently has links to Novell and did some academic work with open source licensure.

It might be easy to see why a former Canonical headman might prefer the Linux “desktop” expire. For half a decade now, Ubuntu has been trying to convince me that my computer is actually a cellphone, with no success. Unity’s glaring shortcomings aside, it’s easy to see how someone who drank so deeply of the post-2010 Ubuntu Kool-Aid might walk away insisting that Linux abandon the “desktop” and embrace its smartphone/server renditions.

Mr. Dvorak is another matter, with a slightly longer repertoire in the tech industry … including insisting as far back as 1984 that a computer mouse was nothing appealing, that Apple should jettison the iPhone, and that the iPad would end up in the dead zone of tablet computing.

Perhaps with such a track record for faulty divination, his dismissal of the Linux “desktop” for its lack of a killer app might actually be a good sign.

I’m not going to criticize either gentleman on the grounds of their technical or academic backgrounds, mostly because my own resume doesn’t include a CS degree, or any computer, electronic or technical expertise beyond “hobbyist.” Asay is a career corporate officer, Dvorak is a history and chemistry major, and my own academics are similarly distant from technology. We all found our way here somehow.

But here are a couple of thoughts for you, before the topic widens.

Matt Asay’s rant appears on TechRepublic. CNET bought TechRepubic in 2001. CNET is part of the holdings of CBS Interactive and subsequently CBS Corporation.

John C. Dvorak posted his casual dismissal of the Linux “desktop” on PC Magazine is published by Ziff Davis, which has sold off some media assets to QuinStreet but has a parent company in j2 Global.

That’s no great feat of investigative journalism on my part; it’s really just following links through Wikipedia or About pages. I hope, though, that it shows a trail of bread crumbs back to news and information corporations.

And this is when the word “clickbait” should spring to your mind … and hopefully now, you can see why I didn’t want you to visit those links.

I worked in journalism for a long time, which was a mixed blessing. When paste-up print media faded and graphical page design took over was around the same time journalism on the whole began to decay.

It would be easy to blame technology and the Internet for that, but that’s not completely the case. Newsprint in particular never had a sky-high profit margin, and even in the golden days of 50 or 60 years ago, a lot of journalists were in the field because of a sense of social responsibility, or out of respect for the tradition.

If I had to pick one point in time, I’d say things changed with 60 Minutes, which showed that the news could turn a profit. It didn’t matter that 60 Minutes, even into the 80s, was at times an exceptionally well written and well researched program — in other words, good journalism. The profit was there, and some smelled the potential for more.

From then on — roughly 20 or 25 years ago — the news was no longer a business held for generations by liberal-leaning family-owned corporations. Decades of thin profits earned through a “noble” pursuit of news were hacked down to increase the amount of money moving upward.

If newspapers were slipping by the 1990s, the Internet probably greased the slope. Even so, newspapers and media corporations in particular were eager to throw out the paper model, and I can recall editors foaming at the mouth when the prospect of going all-digital appeared. Ad men and editors alike were all too eager to drop a physical medium for an electronic one.

But with that came a corresponding drop in quality — after all, if you can skimp on the medium, you can skimp on the message. It was easy to slap a story onto a web page, and it was even easier to hire someone off the street to concoct a rambling 36-inch story about fly-fishing, pieced together without ever leaving the office. The biological tendency for reporters to plant themselves in front of computer monitors and dredge up a few quotes off the Internet became the norm.

I can recall a particularly painful moment when I and a city editor ransacked an editor-in-chief’s office one night, looking for the application materials for a writer who had been on our staff for about a month. We were dumbfounded that the man was such a horrible writer but had gotten the job; when we saw his application test we realized he couldn’t string two words together to save his life. But he worked cheap and had ten fingers, so they hired him.

The corollary: There are no good reporters, only good editors. Remember that, and you’ll do fine in life.

But in a nutshell, that’s how we find ourselves where we are today. Asay and Dvorak are just the latest in a trend of yellow journalism that publishes uninformed or poorly researched news material in the hopes of winning a visit from you. In the old days, circulation, single-copy sales or viewership determined how a newspaper or television station was performing; these days your click is one out of a million, but they all add up to revenue.

You too can post a profit with one inciteful (but not necessarily insightful) writer and a pay-per-visit contract with an ad company. And the Linux audience is no different, as Asay and Dvorak have shown.

I could go on about this for hours, but no one is served by it. It is my hope that the next time you see a particularly vitriolic article deriding any point on the social continuum — be it the Linux “desktop” or otherwise — you pause just long enough to follow the bread crumbs back to the corporation that’s making the money from your visit.

It’s always easier to recognize a marionette when you can see who’s holding the strings.

Postscript: If for some bizarre reason this topic is interesting to you, Paul Steiger wrote a long but terrific memoir in 2007 of his days on the Wall Street Journal that encapsulates the less-than-graceful shift from paper to Web site. Alessandra Potenza’s defunct but exceptional investigation into journalism in Italy, Europe and America is also worth visiting. You can compare those to a the perspective of a younger journalist who joined the profession at the crest of the digital wave, and see how the focus shifts away from social values and toward the technological element. Some of that can be attributed to experience, some to inexorable sea changes. You be the judge.

All for fun, and fun for all

I used to distro-hop — a lot. Not out of any sense of dissatisfaction, although there were some distros even just five or six years ago that were making grandiose claims of “lightweight-ness.”

No, usually I was just interested to see how different communities packaged their Linux experiences. It was a good way to learn the ropes, test different systems and see how different distros stacked up against each other. In most cases, it was a harmless but educational experience.

I don’t distro-hop much more, mostly because I feel like I reached a logical extreme with in the pursuit of lightweight installations when I managed my day-to-day workload with a 150Mhz Pentium running Crux.

On top of that, after a while I couldn’t see much difference between systems, only in the software they installed by default. Unless a distro went completely haywire and built up its own desktop just out of spite (ahem, Unity), the only real differences between distros were the default arrangements, and the software that came on the ISO. Beyond that, with a little elbow grease, a decent internet connection and a few hours time, you too could make a default Fedora desktop look and behave like Ubuntu, or vice versa.

But I got hold of the LinuxBBQ “Cream” ISO the other day — the one with 72 (76? 78?) different window managers installed and configured by default — and I have to say it: I haven’t had that much fun since I was 8 years old and found US$6 in a parking lot, and blew it all on Battlezone.

It’s a fantastic collection of nonstandard desktops and window managers, from the completely outlandish and esoteric like spectrewm and yeahwm, to the mainstays and favorites like i3 or Fluxbox, to those usually relegated to full distros, like Enlightenment or Openbox or xfwm4. It’s an amazing collection to say the least.

And if none of those grabs you, there are tmux and framebuffer sessions as well.

Beyond that though, someone — some saint, I expect — has taken the time to set up each window manager, so you’re not just jumping into a blank suite of empty menu lists or unconfigured software. Hotkeys are working, menus are fleshed out, and the included software is nothing to scoff at.

The whole business is installable too, and is based on Debian Sid, so even if you’re not keen on 75 out of the 76 (?) available window managers, you’re still getting a Debian system at the core.

I don’t have any screenshots to share, but even if I did, it would be a paltry addition to the gallery available at the home page.

How does it compare to other full-fledged distros? I don’t really know. How does it perform on outdated computers? I’m not sure. I didn’t jump into it to be a critic, I just wanted to try out some unique and unusual window managers without getting my hands too dirty. All for fun, in a manner of speaking.

The masses have spoken: The ’41s

I wasn’t expecting the avalanche of replies and e-mails asking — sometimes demanding — to hear more about the hardware I have in the house right now. I’m flattered, and just for the record I wasn’t being self-deprecating or fishing for compliments when I said reading about my old junk would be boring. I honestly thought it would get a bit tedious.

But apparently not. So I might as well drag out a couple more basement dwellers, and show them the light of day. Here are a couple I refer to obliquely as “the ’41s.”

2014-08-19-kl-mkc96-t41 2014-08-19-lv-c5551-x41

Through some twist of fate I came up with two Thinkpads from the same release era: the X41 tablet on the right and the stock T41 laptop on the left. Every picture tells a story, so here’s a little background for each.

The X41 was a deliberate purchase that coincided, ironically, with my plan to transfer all my personal electronic documents to an encrypted live system. This is a true Centrino, with the 915 graphics card, a 1.5Ghz processor and PRO/2200 wireless.

00:00.0 Host bridge: Intel Corporation Mobile 915GM/PM/GMS/910GML Express Processor to DRAM Controller (rev 03)
00:02.0 VGA compatible controller: Intel Corporation Mobile 915GM/GMS/910GML Express Graphics Controller (rev 03)
00:02.1 Display controller: Intel Corporation Mobile 915GM/GMS/910GML Express Graphics Controller (rev 03)
00:1c.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) PCI Express Port 1 (rev 03)
00:1d.0 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #1 (rev 03)
00:1d.1 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #2 (rev 03)
00:1d.2 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #3 (rev 03)
00:1d.3 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #4 (rev 03)
00:1d.7 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB2 EHCI Controller (rev 03)
00:1e.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801 Mobile PCI Bridge (rev d3)
00:1e.2 Multimedia audio controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) AC'97 Audio Controller (rev 03)
00:1e.3 Modem: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) AC'97 Modem Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.0 ISA bridge: Intel Corporation 82801FBM (ICH6M) LPC Interface Bridge (rev 03)
00:1f.2 IDE interface: Intel Corporation 82801FBM (ICH6M) SATA Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.3 SMBus: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) SMBus Controller (rev 03)
02:00.0 Ethernet controller: Broadcom Corporation NetXtreme BCM5751M Gigabit Ethernet PCI Express (rev 11)
04:00.0 CardBus bridge: Ricoh Co Ltd RL5c476 II (rev 8d)
04:00.1 SD Host controller: Ricoh Co Ltd R5C822 SD/SDIO/MMC/MS/MSPro Host Adapter (rev 13)
04:02.0 Network controller: Intel Corporation PRO/Wireless 2200BG [Calexico2] Network Connection (rev 05)

It’s a good combination for Linux in particular; I haven’t seen a thing on this computer that required more than the tiniest measure of configuration. About the only hiccup I ever see is a recent hesitation by the 2200 card to keep connections under Arch Linux. I see this in other machines though too, so it’s not specific to this computer.

Courtesy of inxi:

System:    Host: lv-c5551 Kernel: 3.13.0-32-generic i686 (32 bit, gcc: 4.8.2) Desktop: Gnome Distro: Ubuntu 14.04 trusty
Machine:   System: IBM (portable) product: 18665GU version: ThinkPad X41 Tablet
           Mobo: IBM model: 18665GU Bios: IBM version: 75ET34WW (1.05 ) date: 09/07/2005
CPU:       Single core Intel Pentium M (-UP-) cache: 2048 KB bmips: 1197.1 clocked at 600.00 MHz 
           CPU Flags: acpi apic bts clflush cmov cx8 de dts est fpu fxsr mca mce mmx msr mtrr 
           nx pae pbe pge pse sep ss sse sse2 tm tm2 tsc vme 
Graphics:  Card: Intel Mobile 915GM/GMS/910GML Express Graphics Controller bus-ID: 00:02.0 
           X.Org: 1.15.1 drivers: intel (unloaded: fbdev,vesa) Resolution: 1024x768@60.0hz 
           GLX Renderer: Mesa DRI Intel 915GM x86/MMX/SSE2 GLX Version: 1.4 Mesa 10.1.3 Direct Rendering: Yes
Audio:     Card: Intel 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) AC'97 Audio Controller 
           driver: snd_intel8x0 ports: 1c00 18c0 bus-ID: 00:1e.2 
           Sound: Advanced Linux Sound Architecture ver: k3.13.0-32-generic
Network:   Card-1: Broadcom NetXtreme BCM5751M Gigabit Ethernet PCI Express driver: tg3 ver: 3.134 bus-ID: 02:00.0
           IF: eth0 state: down mac: 00:0a:e4:3b:c5:b2
           Card-2: Intel PRO/Wireless 2200BG [Calexico2] Network Connection driver: ipw2200 ver: 1.2.2kmprq bus-ID: 04:02.0
           IF: eth1 state: up mac: 00:13:ce:86:7f:18
Drives:    HDD Total Size: 40.0GB (9.0% used) 1: id: /dev/sda model: HTC426040G9AT00 size: 40.0GB temp: 31C 
           Optical: No optical drives detected.
Partition: ID: / size: 36G used: 3.4G (11%) fs: ext4 dev: /dev/sda1 
           label: N/A uuid: 01e3748a-7b12-457b-b480-32d25b36afa8
           ID: swap-1 size: 1.60GB used: 0.00GB (0%) fs: swap dev: /dev/sda5 
           label: N/A uuid: f1d61a8b-cd4a-4d44-8acd-b1accc79dd11
RAID:      No RAID devices detected - /proc/mdstat and md_mod kernel raid module present
Unmounted: No unmounted partitions detected
Sensors:   System Temperatures: cpu: 46.0C mobo: 39.0C 
           Fan Speeds (in rpm): cpu: 0 
Info:      Processes: 152 Uptime: 10 min Memory: 334.2/1499.9MB Runlevel: 2 Gcc sys: 4.8.2 
           Client: Shell (bash 4.3.11) inxi: 1.9.17

Yes, that does show Ubuntu 14.04 on it; the photo is a much more agreeable Arch Linux system. But I’ve never used a tablet computer for any length of time, and I have talked down the Unity interface for so many years, I figured I should at least test it in a tablet/smartphone style before continuing to deride it.

It’s more or less what I expect: It’s completely unintuitive for me as a regular desktop user, the application search tool is particularly obtuse, and I really, really dislike the injection of so much Amazon and online searching crap. But it’s not intended for me, so my complaints are moot point. Perhaps some other time I’ll tell you what I really think about it.

Here’s it’s bigger brother, the T41:

00:00.0 Host bridge: Intel Corporation 82855PM Processor to I/O Controller (rev 03)
00:01.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82855PM Processor to AGP Controller (rev 03)
00:1d.0 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801DB/DBL/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-L/ICH4-M) USB UHCI Controller #1 (rev 01)
00:1d.1 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801DB/DBL/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-L/ICH4-M) USB UHCI Controller #2 (rev 01)
00:1d.2 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801DB/DBL/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-L/ICH4-M) USB UHCI Controller #3 (rev 01)
00:1d.7 USB controller: Intel Corporation 82801DB/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-M) USB2 EHCI Controller (rev 01)
00:1e.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801 Mobile PCI Bridge (rev 81)
00:1f.0 ISA bridge: Intel Corporation 82801DBM (ICH4-M) LPC Interface Bridge (rev 01)
00:1f.1 IDE interface: Intel Corporation 82801DBM (ICH4-M) IDE Controller (rev 01)
00:1f.3 SMBus: Intel Corporation 82801DB/DBL/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-L/ICH4-M) SMBus Controller (rev 01)
00:1f.5 Multimedia audio controller: Intel Corporation 82801DB/DBL/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-L/ICH4-M) AC'97 Audio Controller (rev 01)
00:1f.6 Modem: Intel Corporation 82801DB/DBL/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-L/ICH4-M) AC'97 Modem Controller (rev 01)
01:00.0 VGA compatible controller: Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. [AMD/ATI] RV200/M7 [Mobility Radeon 7500]
02:00.0 CardBus bridge: Texas Instruments PCI4520 PC card Cardbus Controller (rev 01)
02:00.1 CardBus bridge: Texas Instruments PCI4520 PC card Cardbus Controller (rev 01)
02:01.0 Ethernet controller: Intel Corporation 82540EP Gigabit Ethernet Controller (Mobile) (rev 03)
02:02.0 Ethernet controller: Qualcomm Atheros AR5212 802.11abg NIC (rev 01)

And from inxi:

System:    Host: kl-mkc96 Kernel: 3.15.8-1-ARCH i686 (32 bit gcc: 4.9.1) Desktop: N/A Distro: Arch Linux
Machine:   System: IBM product: 2375FU1 v: ThinkPad T41
           Mobo: IBM model: 2375FU1 Bios: IBM v: 1RETDRWW (3.23 ) date: 06/18/2007
CPU:       Single core Intel Pentium M (-UP-) cache: 1024 KB bmips: 3191 clocked at 1600 MHz
           CPU Flags: acpi bts clflush cmov cx8 de dts est fpu fxsr mca mce mmx msr mtrr pbe pge pse sep sse sse2
           tm tm2 tsc vme
Graphics:  Card: Advanced Micro Devices [AMD/ATI] RV200/M7 [Mobility Radeon 7500] bus-ID: 01:00.0
           Display Server: N/A drivers: ati,radeon Resolution: 145x55
Audio:     Card Intel 82801DB/DBL/DBM (ICH4/ICH4-L/ICH4-M) AC'97 Audio Controller
           driver: snd_intel8x0 ports: 1c00 18c0 bus-ID: 00:1f.5
           Sound: Advanced Linux Sound Architecture v: k3.15.8-1-ARCH
Network:   Card-1: Intel 82540EP Gigabit Ethernet Controller (Mobile)
           driver: e1000 v: 7.3.21-k8-NAPI port: 8000 bus-ID: 02:01.0
           IF: enp2s1 state: up speed: 100 Mbps duplex: full mac: fc:1f:19:e1:a9:0d
           Card-2: Qualcomm Atheros AR5212 802.11abg NIC driver: ath5k bus-ID: 02:02.0
           IF: wlp2s2 state: down mac: 00:05:4e:47:fd:c4
Drives:    HDD Total Size: 30.0GB (94.1% used) ID-1: /dev/sda model: IC25N030ATCS04 size: 30.0GB
           Optical: /dev/sr0 model: MATSHITA UJDA755zDVD/CDRW rev: 1.20 dev-links: cdrom
           Features: speed: 24x multisession: yes audio: yes dvd: yes rw: cd-r,cd-rw state: running
Partition: ID-1: / size: 28G used: 27G (96%) fs: ext2 dev: /dev/sda1
           label: N/A uuid: dcff29f5-b72d-40dc-9535-704e57eea88e
           ID-2: swap-1 size: 0.21GB used: 0.03GB (16%) fs: swap dev: /dev/sda2
           label: N/A uuid: f93b41a6-efd1-4cc1-9248-ed09f27d26b0
Info:      Processes: 71 Uptime: 6 days Memory: 139.1/498.4MB Init: systemd Gcc sys: 4.9.1
           Client: Shell (bash 4.3.221) inxi: 2.1.29

The T41 has a little more interesting history: I literally pulled it out of a trash heap a couple of months ago. The hard drive had been physically ripped out, taking with it a chunk of the palmrest, and there was no power cord. But the battery was there, and everything else was intact.

I took it home, diagnosed its shortcomings and checked on replacement parts. A meager US$16 later, it had a new palmrest, a new drive caddy and cover, and a compatible after-market power supply. Reborn, from the ashes of its previous self.

It has a few eccentricities though; most recently it has become somewhat hesitant to start. The normal Thinkpad lamp test finishes, the battery light illuminates, but the BIOS logo screen never appears. It’s a little disappointing, but the problem seems to revolve around using the power cord and battery together — start from battery alone and it’s fine; start from power cord alone and it’s fine; connect both at the same time and there’s some sort of unhappiness in there.

But I’m still pursuing that. I am a patient person; if it is suffering through the last of its short life, I’m willing to work with it and offer palliative care. ;)

That’s about it for now. Machines come and go in this household; I divested myself of two dual-core Latitude machines just a week or so ago. Don’t ask about those; I’m doing my best to keep you up-to-date, and a week makes a big difference around here. :mrgreen:

The trailing edge of the wave: The CTX EzBook 800

For as many times as I’ve introduced old laptops on this blog, you’d think I’d have a formula or a template page tucked away somewhere.

But I don’t, and here we are again with another underdog to report. I hope it’s not too dull for you; if it’s any consolation, I have three or four other laptops that I haven’t bothered to mention, because I imagine it to be terribly boring for you.

This one though, I feel is noteworthy. Not because it’s a cherished acquisition, like this one is, but because it’s such a curmudgeon that I have a feeling someone, somewhere down the line — probably me — will need information about it in the future. So I put it here, to avoid slogging through all the quirks again. And because that’s what this site was originally for. ;)


This is a CTX EzBook 800, the top-of-the-line model for EzBooks of 15 years ago. It’s a pure K6 machine, meaning it lacks a lot — and I mean a lot — of the requisites that most people saw in the computers of a decade ago, let alone now.

I got this as a castoff from a friend, who is also a bit of a technophile and prefers to work with out-of-date machines for a number of reasons. My friend is primarily a Windows person though, and I have a feeling this was such an underperformer that he was glad to see it go. I know he considered putting Linux on it and even asked a few questions online, but was out of his depth and didn’t see much future in it.

Apparently he paid about $1 in an online auction for it, plus the cost of a new power adapter. Not bad.

This is not my first EzBook, and that was one of the reasons I agreed to adopt it. I have had 700 and 700E models in the past, and if I remember right, that 700E was one of my first test runs with Linux. It didn’t go well, but I lacked the experience then to make it work.

And it seems that I still lack some experience now, given my rather lackluster success at getting the 800 version to sing along. Not that I have terrifically high expectations, but I do have a reputation to preserve. :???:

Here’s a rundown on the guts, and I can explain the implications later.

00:00.0 Host bridge: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. IT8330G (rev 03)
00:10.0 VGA compatible controller: Neomagic Corporation NM2160 [MagicGraph 128XD] (rev 01) (prog-if 00 [VGA controller])
00:12.0 ISA bridge: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. IT8330G (rev c1)
00:12.1 IDE interface: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. IT8330G (rev 11) (prog-if 0a [SecP PriP])
00:12.2 USB Controller: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. Unknown device 1234 (rev 03) (prog-if 10 [OHCI])
00:18.0 CardBus bridge: Texas Instruments PCI1131 (rev 01)
00:18.1 CardBus bridge: Texas Instruments PCI1131 (rev 01)

The hard drive is a Fujitsu MHD2032AT, and the optical drive is a TEAC CD-220EA. My friend maxed out the memory at 128Mb, which complements the 300Mhz K6 quite nicely. I’ve had good success with NeoMagic cards (better than the Tridents, that’s for sure >:( ), and having USB ports on a machine this old makes it an absolute treasure. Phoenix made the BIOS, which is important because the USB ports and a few other things are enabled or disabled through that.

There are some critical points in there, if you’re fighting with a similar machine or one from this era. Please bear with me, and I’ll work through them slowly.

My friend said he could get no modern version of Linux to work on it, and even though I suggested both Slackware and Debian, he still claimed no success. I can attest to that now: Both Debian 7.x and Slackware 14 ran into problems either locating the CDROM or hard drive, or both. You can add these to that list:

  1. Alpine Linux 2.7 for x86, which boots and will configure itself to the live CLI environment, but can’t find the hard drive.
  2. Puppy Linux, slacko in the non-PAE version, which spit out errors demanding a CPU with cmov.
  3. TinyCore, in its newest version, which reached text mode but couldn’t find the hard drive or CDROM.

In most cases, those were dealbreaker attempts, because the live or installation environment couldn’t find hardware I would need to move forward. Here are some others that fell flat, but for slightly different reasons.

  1. Crux Linux 2.7, which was the last i586 rendition. Refused to boot past connecting to the CDROM and ended in the jaws of the mythical “can’t access tty; job control turned off” error.
  2. Debian 5.1, which installed but boots into a soft lockup and seems content to spend eternity reporting its hopelessly frozen state at 90-second intervals.
  3. *buntu versions after 6.10, which usually didn’t get so far as Debian 5.1, and reported no hard drive or no CDROM or both.
  4. Slitaz, the 4.0 release, which booted into text mode and would allow me to install, but locked on boot.

Just out of curiosity, I also tried:

  1. ReactOS 0.3.16, the live rendition, which amazingly worked better on that machine than any other I’ve tried in recent years. I reached a Windows-esque blue desktop and a brief show of some wallpaper, but then it hung and became unresponsive. That may have been a low-memory complication.
  2. FreeDOS 1.1, which took an exceptionally long time to install, and would boot with the assistance of the installation CD. From there it would need the obvious additions of useful software and perhaps a graphical desktop.
  3. Clonezilla in recent 486 versions couldn’t find the hard drive, which is only important because it means any system I build on there will have to be dd’d off via USB1.1 for backups. :shock: Oh well, it’s not the first time. …

The real plot twists come here:

  • Ubuntu 6.06.1 and Xubuntu 6.06, both of which would find the hard drive and CD drive, and install over the course of an hour or so. The resulting desktop was forced into 800×600 (on a 1024×768 screen), and was marginally useful. I tried hand-editing the xorg.conf file but only managed to bork the display so badly as to require starting over. No network access through the PCMCIA port, which sounds familiar.
  • DSL 4.4.10 would of course work, but I ran aground again with the system freeze on wireless insert bug, which I blame on the 2.4 kernels. I used to suspect the PCMCIA-to-CardBus switchover for that, but it seems even CardBus PC cards inserted into a CardBus bridge will trigger it. My only orinoco-based card just doesn’t respond with DSL. :(
  • Crux 2.4 for the i586, which includes kernel by default but could have a newer one implanted. Booted, found CDROM, found hard drive, and installed without major incident.

For me, what is at issue here is the evolution of PC hardware away from ISA-based components to the standards which are more common now. Along with that, there was the shift away from the old kernel support for PATA hard drives to the newer SATA-style code. Add to that an ATAPI CD drive, and it’s easy to see why some distros just didn’t work, and others worked reasonably well.

You can almost pick out a month and year when the trailing edge of the wave fell away. This machine seems to have ridden the far edge of that crest, and as a result finds itself drifting on the other side. :sad:

My proof for this is in the kernel configuration for Crux 2.4, where the old-style ATA options are enabled and all the drives are found. That should correspond to the mid-2000s versions of Ubuntu, where the last support for those same drives is found. After 6.10 or so, the machine falls off again.

I can’t account for Lenny’s soft lockups though, and I don’t see much help online for that particular issue. I tried the old noacpi gimmicks from a decade ago, but whatever plagued the 5.x versions of Lenny persists.

But all is not lost. If I absolutely gut Crux’s kernel, I can compile it in about 45 minutes at 300Mhz, and best of all, I can boot to a graphical desktop with blackbox, which comes by default. (Now you understand my recent affection for blackbox. ;) )

In fact, short of getting a CardBus network adapter to respond, the entire machine works fine.

And depending on how CDs I’m willing to burn, I could conceivably hopscotch my way up from 2007 to circa 2011. The bulk of those packages is precompiled and available on the ISOs, with the exception of the contrib ports. And I have time these days to babysit it, as it churns away at the code.

There’s a little voice in my head that keeps telling me to yank the hard drive and install it externally, and then replace it. Usually there’s another little voice right after that one though, that says I’m too clumsy to get the case open on this without cracking or scratching the body somehow, and it’s too pretty as it is.. And of course, there are no service manuals online any more. … :(

So while all is not lost, this is definitely on the verge of falling through the cracks. And let’s be clear: I have no aspirations of bringing this machine into the 21st century, or for that matter, playing a YouTube video with it. Those days are over, friends. We have the Internet to blame for that.

I can’t deny it’s a terrific challenge though, and I am enjoying smacking my head against the screen for hours on end. But it does feel good when I stop. ;)

Poor man’s SSD: A cryptic twist

If you’ve suffered through this site over the years, you will recall there was a time in the previous decade when a little idea paid off big, and an ancient laptop got a nifty upgrade.

Fast-forward to this year, and again, a little crablike thinking seems to have paid off.

Let’s start at the beginning. Remember this machine? It’s humming along nicely, and with only a few shortcomings, I expect it will last quite a while into the future.

Among those shortcomings are a lack of USB2.0 ports, and nothing to interface with SD cards. For some reason Dell never swapped out the USB1.1 ports that were part of the early 8000 line for the higher-speed ports that were more common with Pentium 4 machines. Design flaw, or programmed obsolescence? You decide.

Regardless, the obvious solution is a PCMCIA-to-USB2.0 card, which costs all of about US$2 these days. They’re literally recycle store giveaways, to be honest.

Which means the two omissions — USB2.0 and an SD card reader — are related in an odd way: From PCMCIA to USB2.0, to USB-to-SD reader, to an SD card. It’s not as ungainly as it sounds, and really, I’ve done much worse in the past. At roughly US$6, something like this was well worth the price.

And with a lot of leftover SD cards lying around — mostly from the same camera I’ve owned for about seven years now — this is a good way to pick up a little extra storage space, in oddball sizes.

Now shift gears for a little bit, to a larger, grander scale. Online privacy is something that I think about a lot more these days, and I hope you do too. Knowing that most anything that’s transmitted unprotected is likely to be archived somewhere by someone for sometime has, in short, caused me to retract just about anything I kept on the web — everything to the lowliest .conf file — and either keep it locally or repost it encrypted.

A few months ago I decided the best way toward physical security for that data was to dedicate one entire machine to the prospect of data storage. Starting with the operating system, I wanted something that could encrypt without excessive entanglement, require several passwords to access, be more or less impervious to environmental issues, be self-sufficient and not need network access or frequent updates.

No, I’m not Edward Snowden. I just have a hope of protecting electronic documents, and I don’t think I’m too far from the target.

Hopefully the picture in your mind at this point is about the same as the one I had in mine. I decided to use one of my many leftover machines for the purpose, and even went so far as to purchase a small, inexpensive SSD to avoid the pitfalls of data errors or drive crashes. I installed Linux Mint 17, encrypted the entire drive, encrypted the home partition, and even password-protected grub. I turned the wireless switch off, put it in a generic black laptop sleeve and set it on a bookshelf next to a copy of Walden and a can of compressed air.

And then I got to thinking: Now I’m dependent not just on that drive, but on all the components that keep it running. Why did I lock myself into that particular computer? Just because it was available? Only the drive is important.

So I took it back down off the shelf, unscrewed the case and took out the drive, and put the drive back on the shelf between Walden and the canned air.

And then I got to thinking again: Now I have to put that drive into the computer, every time I decide to move a file on or off of there. That’s terrifically inconvenient.

So I took it back down off the shelf, took out an old USB drive enclosure, dropped it in, and started screwing it back together.

And then I got to thinking, and this was the last time: I only really need about 20Gb of space, for family photos and scanned documents. The drive is three times as big as that, and the remainder will basically go unused.

I have SD cards that are plenty big for that. And while some machines won’t boot from a card reader, almost anything after 2002 will boot from a USB port. And I have a USB-to-SD card adapter. Why couldn’t I just reinstall everything to an SD card?

It’s much more portable. It’s easier to back up. And prices on SD cards are falling. A 128Gb SD card, at the time of this writing, was only about US$60. That’s as much as the value of Vista-era computer I was using, and I spent almost as much on an SSD.

You can figure out the rest of the story. I re-ran the entire installation and encryption process on a leftover 64Gb SD card I got from a family member last year, and it works like a champ. I transferred all my sensitive files onto the SD card, put it back in its teeny-tiny plastic case, and put it on the shelf between Walden and the can of compressed air.

I’ve tried booting that same SD card on a half-dozen machines now, the fastest being a 2.4Ghz core 2 duo Penryn-based machine, and the slowest being an old, 1.6Ghz non-PAE Pentium M (a good reason to rely on 32-bit versions). Perfect performance, every time.

Great security too: Knowing the grub password might grant access to recovery mode, but doesn’t give you access to the drive, and knowing the drive password doesn’t give you access to the privileged user’s home folder. And if I encrypt anything inside there, that will be one last small measure of prevention.

And no hardware issues, since Mint is smart enough to adjust itself to the hardware of the host machine, no questions asked.

I know there are some downsides. It takes a little while longer to boot across a USB port, particularly on that Pentium M. And there’s the rumor that SD cards have limited read-write lifespans … whatever that happens to be. :roll: And besides: I might start up from that card once a week at most, probably less. I’m not real concerned about lifespans right now.

But I’m satisfied at present with this arrangement. It streamlines the entire process and doesn’t lock me to one particular machine into the future. I can drop that card in my pocket, I can dd between two cards and have a duplicate in a matter of hours, I can mail it cross-country without worrying about someone intercepting it, and I can lose it without fear of anyone picking through my 2011 vacation photos. :roll:

So there it is: The poor man’s SSD strikes again. Perhaps I shall sit around for a little while again today, and try to dream up new uses for old ideas. :D

blackbox, as seen in the wake of Openbox

I haven’t posted much here lately, and that’s a sure-fire sign that I’ve been quite busy. You probably know what with. ;)

Yes, after literally years of baby-stepping through the alphabet, I finally finished that ginormous list of applications for the console. The one that I discovered four years ago, dragged around for another couple of years, and finally dissected over the course of the last 18 months.

So, yes, in that alone I’ve been quite busy.

On top of that though, there have been some recent hardware adoptions that I’ll show off later. A couple of them are real prizes, and some might be … curses. More on that in the days to come.

Today though, I needed to come to grips with blackbox, for reasons that will be clear in the future. Suffice to say that it was worth learning on my “production machine,” and sounded vaguely like fun after May’s run-in with twm.


That’s Arch Linux again, for no particular reason other than it was easier to strip down my existing Arch-based desktop, and build it back up again with blackbox.

I first remember blackbox from my very earliest days with Ubuntu, and I daresay I tried blackbox before I ever got into Openbox. I even tracked down the original how-to I used to set it up, almost a decade ago.

Some of what’s in that post doesn’t really apply though; there are small changes in what bluevoodoo1 was doing, and what you can do with Arch now, eight years later. Most of those changes are not deal-breakers.

I have to give blackbox credit for being infinitely easier to configure by hand than Openbox. The menu system is strictly brackets-parentheses-braces, for the command-title-executable, and that’s a huge advance over Openbox’s XML-based configuration files. Yes, I know I’m a weakling for complaining about XML. I’ve learned to live with my shortcomings.

Configurations, if you can believe this, are mostly done through the right-click menu. There are quite a lot of settings that will require you to edit your .blackboxrc file — especially the path to your styles (think: themes) — but I’d guess 90 percent of blackbox’s setup is handled through the right-click menu … a la Fluxbox.

And since I mentioned it, blackbox “styles” are fairly easy to handle too. I don’t hold theming against Openbox since that’s generally a single file that needs attention. And part of that can be managed through obconf.

From a ground-zero setup I’d have to say blackbox was quite manageable. I had it up and working in a matter of minutes, and configured to my liking over the course of an hour or so, while I allowed myself to be distracted by events on television.

Once it’s in place, it plays a lot like Openbox, with obvious additions and subtractions here and there. blackbox has its built-in “toolbar;” I don’t recall seeing anything like that in Openbox. blackbox has a “slit” that I generally ignore; I don’t think Openbox uses a slit (Fluxbox did, last time I checked).

Openbox can do a few things blackbox can’t, of course. Most painful to me are the loss of programmable hotkeys — Super_L+1 for alpine, Super_L+2 for Midnight Commander, and so on. If I understand things right, there was a bbkeys utility, a half dozen years ago, that could handle keystrokes like that, but has since faded away. AUR can’t build it, and Debian dropped it.

On the purely aesthetic front, it would be nice to insert proper separators into right-click menus. All my menus in blackbox look like hastily scrobbled lists of programs mashed up against each other. And since I can’t relegate them to key presses, the list is longer and scrobblier than ordinary.

I do admire blackbox’s austere default schemes though. As you can see above I removed some of the frills that remained and came up with a very flat, very rectangular desktop … that springs into life like a 1950s American housewife on prescription methamphetamines.

So in spite of reaching maturity at a time when dual core machines were just mirages in the desert, blackbox has managed to win a few points with me. It definitely shows a degree of greater usability than twm, even if it never approached the feature-completeness of Openbox.

But really: Yes, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that Openbox has learned over the past decade, but it does manage all the fundamentals without becoming overburdened with XML gobbledygook or bogged down in the need for endless ancillary graphical tools.

I never thought I’d say it, but in that sense, I prefer this to Openbox. :shock: