Category Archives: Arch Linux

Tricks of the trade

I had to remind myself the other day that I’ve been using Arch Linux for more than eight years. I did my first trial installs early in 2006, and while I cut my teeth on Ubuntu, as time wore on, Arch eventually became more like home.

With the exception of strict i586 machines, I’m more likely to install Arch on any given computer, with Linux Mint coming in a close second. The logic there is that I can get it running faster with Arch, but there are some features that I use so rarely that I’d rather a distro like Mint take care of them — things like CD burning or encrypted file systems.

I can do those things in Arch, but it’s rare that I need them, and Mint usually sets them up quicker and better than I do.

Over the years I’ve jotted down a few minor notes on one-shot commands or quick-step loops to tackle oddball tasks. I keep them in a flat text file called “tricks,” and when I need to get to one of them, I just grep through it until the command I want appears. Adjust for minor differences or filenames, fire, and forget.

For example, a while back I found a command to list all the packages that are installed on your system, in alphabetical groups. I modified it a little bit, to:

for i in {a..z} ; do echo -e $(pacman -Qq | grep ^${i}) >> packages.txt ; echo >> packages.txt ; done ; fmt -w $(tput cols) packages.txt

The original post (which I don’t have a link to any more :( ) split them out differently, and words broke at the end of the line, sometimes making them hard to read. I solved that with fmt, which is more than happy to wrap text like a word processor, but likes to run together lines. Hence the extra echo. Oh, and it doesn’t seem to like to have text piped into it, so the external file was necessary.

I think the original post caught some flak for 26 iterations of pacman, but I don’t have a problem with that. Might was well put the system to use for a little bit. If it annoys you, feel free to adjust it.

Some of the “tricks” were my own creation. Back in September I got the (stupid) idea that I would dump all the executables from bsd-games, util-linux, coreutils and even binutils into my list of text-based software, just to be sure I hadn’t missed any hidden gems. :roll:

It turned out to be a real hassle, and the results of it were one of my biggest lists of oddball commands in the history of that blog or this. In any case, this was the command that got me in trouble:

for j in {util-linux,binutils,coreutils,bsd-games} ; do LEN=$(echo ${j} | wc -c) ; for i in $(yaourt -Ql "${j}" | grep bin | cut -c$(($LEN+10))- ) ; do echo "${j}" >> temp/"${i}".wiki ; done ; done

Most of that was done to trim off the extra stuff that appears with grep’s output; since the length of the name of each package was different, I had to check where the title ended and the actual binary name began. wc takes care of that, with the -c flag. And to keep this from polluting my home directory, it dumps everything into temp/. The .wiki suffix is just for the benefit of vimwiki. ;)

Not everything is Arch-specific in that file. Here’s one that I use more often than I thought I would: Taking a folder of files, and moving each one to prepend the original name with its date stamp:

for i in * ; do mv "${i}" "$(stat -c %y "${i}" | cut -d' ' -f1)-${i}" ; done

stat comes through this time, as a way of generating the timestamp of the file. cut that down to the first field only — the date — and voila, moved to a new name, listed by date. Suddenly your folder has organization.

I use yaourt on a daily basis, and with good reason. With such an abysmally slow Internet connection, I have a tendency to hoard software packages, which is not generally an advisable habit with Arch. Occasionally I make a mistake and wipe out my cache, or just slip after a failed upgrade, and need to pull in a fresh copy.

And so … download a new copy of everything that’s installed on your computer. This one took on a new meaning when I realized you could pipe yes through another program, if you wanted to automatically feed it a positive response:

yes | yaourt -Sw $(yaourt -Q | grep -v local | cut -d'/' -f2 | cut -d' ' -f1 | tr '\n' ' ')

Get a full list of packages from yaourt, which will be preceded by repo names. Filter out anything from “local,” since that’s built and not just downloaded. First cut off the repository name at the slash, then cut off the version at the space. Finally, tr substitutes every carriage return for a space, so we can give one giant command to the outermost yaourt, which will download the entire list. Better leave that one overnight. :|

If you don’t use yaourt, you’ll need to adjust that a little bit, since pacman -Q does not show group names. It also means your “local” packages will be mixed in with your downloadables. Just so you know.

Since we’re on the topic, yaourt lets you do some funky things with your cached packages, and also with the materials it downloads to build local software. If you look in /etc/yaourtrc, you’ll find:

EXPORT=2           # Export to 1: EXPORTDIR or PKGDEST
                   # 2: pacman cache (as root)
EXPORTSRC=1        # Need EXPORT>0 to be used
#EXPORTDIR=""      # If empty, use makepkg's connfiguration (see makepkg.conf)

I’ve adjusted those values to do a few things.

First, EXPORT=2 will send the built package to pacman’s cache, which is a wise move if you ask me. By default yaourt builds everything in /tmp, and it evaporates when you’re not looking. I’ve lost more than one hard-built package by not moving the final product out of that directory. :'(

EXPORTSRC=1 does the same thing for the source files and git trees that it downloads. This too can be a lifesaver if you lose the completed package. EXPORTSRC will send everything to EXPORTDIR, or in the absence of that, to the destinations listed in /etc/makepkg.conf. And what are those?

#-- Destination: specify a fixed directory where all packages will be placed
PKGDEST=/home/packages
#-- Source cache: specify a fixed directory where source files will be cached
SRCDEST=/home/sources
#-- Source packages: specify a fixed directory where all src packages will be placed
SRCPKGDEST=/home/srcpackages

By default, all those folders are commented out, so makepkg’s configuration leaves everything in the same folder where it was made. Change those values above, and it will shuffle packages and source files to those directions. It will also create a symlink to the package it just built, so you’re not wasting space.

Let yaourt use those directories, and it will follow those rules, and tar up its $srcdir as well, before sending it off to that destination. In that case, yaourt will tidy up its efforts and leave you all the pieces you need to do it all over again.

And yaourt is generally smart enough to check those directories for source files before re-downloading them. Or so it seems, in most cases. :\

Two more smaller non-secrets I should share:

yaourt -G pkgname

will create a folder named “pkgname,” download its PKGBUILD and all the patches or installation scripts for that package, ready for building. It’s another reason I use yaourt, to be honest. And:

pacman-optimize

It’s not often that your pacman database will need optimizing, but I can vouch for it on slower machines as a way to speed up searching and filtering. Again, just so you know. ;)

Clearing out the bookmarks … again

I did it again: I collected a mass of bookmarks that I figure I’ll need at some time in the future. Maybe I used them and will again … and maybe not. Either way, they may still prove useful. I do refer back to this site when I can’t remember a page or a topic, you see. :roll:

So here we go again: More links for future reference.

  • I sometimes keep links to pages that have instructions for lightweight systems for old distributions; here’s one for Debian Lenny and one for Crux 2.7 (in the i686 flavor, which doesn’t really matter). That might seem counterintuitive, but I will fall back on old distros when working with old hardware, before making the leap to current flavors of Linux. For an example, peek here.
  • Along those same lines, I found a fairly coherent tutorial on how to install Exherbo. I had a link to another one, but apparently the author took it down. :( I have been wanting to spend a little more time with Gentoo (and possibly Exherbo) but I’m always attracted to the way Crux handles things. That being said, Crux dropped i586 support years ago, and hasn’t had i686 ISOs (unless they’re hiding) for a year or two at least. :( Story of my life. …
  • I use dd a lot, not just to blank drives or scramble the contents of files, but for other things too. To that end, a speed comparison at different block sizes is actually very useful. Of course, I’ve seen some posts on StackExchange that might offer different solutions.
  • Along those same lines, this page gave me a little insight on how to mount a specific partition in a disk image. It saved me a little time with a copy of an old 10Gb hard drive, since I didn’t have to write it back out to a drive to get at the files I wanted. On the downside, counting out all those offsets was a trick. I’m surprised Linux hasn’t thought up a more straightforward way to do that. …
  • I used to be real nit-picky about fonts, but these days I don’t really mind. I did find a good collection of font suggestions for Arch on Reddit, but I’m not the kind of person who installs two dozen font packages just to see a few extra characters in my terminal emulator. Now if we were talking about fonts for virtual consoles, I’d be much more interested. …
  • Since I’m in fix-it mode, here are a few pages about
    • installing python programs to different directories with pip, which is interesting because I’ve thought for a long time that there is no setup.py uninstall;
    • checking to see if directories exist with bash, which came in handy just a day or two ago;
    • how to install Arch from within an existing Linux installation, which I want to try sometime, just to see if it works; and
    • the difference between single brackets and double brackets to bash, which I never knew but explains why some of my long-ago scripts didn’t work as expected.
  • emacs fans would probably love to run just emacs on a Linux kernel with nothing else, and this post can tell you how. It reminds me of my long-ago attempt to trap Midnight Commander within a tty session, much like could be done a long time ago with rtorrent.
  • I should take the time to set up mutt with multiple GMail accounts, like this. I don’t dislike alpine, but I only keep it around because I’m too lazy to set things up. :\
  • From the Department of Ancient Awesomeness comes three flasbacks that just made me nod my head: one on the best distros of the year 2000, another of the best window managers of the year 2000, and perhaps best of all … a complaint from 2008 about how Firefox is utter bloat. The more things change, the more they stay the same. …
  • I watch the Debian systemd soap opera with only a little interest. I’ve been using Arch for quite some time now, and I have no complaints about the newcomer. All the same, if you’re wondering where you’ll stand when the revolution comes, raymii’s chart from earlier this month might be helpful for you, as might this systemd vs. sysvinit cheatsheet. Neither page will convince you one is better than another, but might help you understand how they each handle the startup task. Knowledge is power. :twisted:
  • You won’t hurt my feelings if you find some Linux know-how somewhere else; even I found this list of tech podcasts rather interesting. I don’t really get into podcasts much, but from time to time I will grab one and spin it up.
  • Finally, from the Completely Unrelated to Anything Else Department, here‘s an interesting project: An Android browser that displays web pages (believe it or not) by way of relaying the content through SMS messages. O_o Now I’ve seen everything.

And now I’ve listed everything. If those are at all useful to you, please bookmark them in your own system. Hold on to them for about four months, and then yell “I gotta do something about these bookmarks!” and offload them to your own blog. It seems to work for me. … ;)

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.

2014-09-14-insp-4000

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. :|

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. ;)

2014-08-06-ezbook-800-bootup

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 2.6.23.9 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 2.6.23.9 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. ;)

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.

2014-07-13-6m47421-blackbox

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:

betty and the cult of personality

There’s a case to be made for making things easier — particularly for newcomers. And of course, there’s a case to be made for keeping things as they are, and expecting everyone — newcomers included — to learn the basics and gain some ground-level proficiency.

I’ve seen more than a few web sites and forums drop links to betty over the past couple months, most touting it as a way to use natural (English) language patterns at the console. For Linux newcomers or CLI-o-phobes, betty is probably a godsend.

As I understand it, betty interprets a request and attempts to link it to a standard Unix-ish command. I like the idea; it suggests one could send instructions to a computer, using natural language (or perhaps even speech-to-text), and expect an intelligible answer or appropriate action.

Usually betty does a pretty good job, so long as she (I’ll just call her “she” for convenience ;) ) can figure out what you want.

2014-06-08-6m47421-betty-01

And that’s the real trick: Making sure what you want is what betty understands. For example, she has no issue at all with this:

kmandla@6m47421: ~/downloads$ betty how many words are in this directory

She dutifully replies with:

Betty: Running find . -type f -exec wc -w {} \; | awk '{total += $1} END {print total}'
100

which in this case, was correct. Unfortunately, ask

kmandla@6m47421: ~/downloads$ betty how many files are in this directory

and betty returns:

Betty: I don't understand. Hopefully someone will make a pull request so that one day I will understand.

It’s odd to me that betty can tear apart a directory to count out individual words, but gets confused when asked how many files there are. Is word counting in a directory a command used so frequently that it gets taught to betty? I honestly don’t recall ever needing that before, although I daresay I could piece it together on my own, if I had to.

Moreover, is it really more convenient to type out “betty whats my username” — and here, it’s actually important to deviate from correct English punctuation, because the apostrophe would throw bash into a tailspin — than just to use whoami? whoami is shorter, and given that it’s just a contraction of the natural English words “who am i”, I don’t see how betty’s way is an improvement.

betty’s git page has a long list of precise commands she understands, and can reply to. I have an even longer list of precise commands that betty has no knowledge of, and can’t seem to comprehend — most of which are just one-word changes, like above.

It’s my unfortunate opinion that betty is no more effective or efficient than a mile-long .bashrc jam-packed with aliases for specific commands. If betty doesn’t actually pick apart and interpret a command, in the same way a valid artificial intelligence might, then what betty actually does is obfuscate things: She turns most basic commands, some of which were derived from natural language, into longer commands that carry their own eccentricities.

In other words, betty is the anti-alias. :shock:

The entire business reminds me of a time a few years ago, when I accompanied our CEO on a survey of a local school building in Japan. In the lull between our arrival and meeting the school representative, my boss showed me his smartphone, and demonstrated how it could interpret his speech and return a map showing directions to the school.

Except it didn’t work. He tried four or five times, rephrased his question four or five different ways each time, and the closest he got was the home page for the school. The arrival of the representative saved him the embarrassment of admitting it wasn’t as great as he liked, and me the embarrassment of pointing out that he could have gotten the same information directly, 10 minutes earlier, if he had taken charge of the situation and sought out the map himself.

Shortcuts and gee-whiz tools aren’t really improvements if they don’t work in the way people think and behave. Expecting someone to type out the exact line “betty please tell me what is the weather like in London” (which is supposedly a valid command but returned an error from the git version I installed in Arch) is not an improvement for anyone who instinctively asks, “betty what is the weather in London” or “betty what is the weather report for London”.

On the other hand, learning whoami and its syntax means you can probably navigate almost any variation on “betty whats my username” … with or without the punctuation errors.

I didn’t intend for this to be a hate-fest against betty; as I said above, I like the idea, and I think were it to actually parse and deconstruct language and find a likely solution, it would be near-genius.

My complaint is partly in the fact that, as it is, it’s no improvement — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. And partly in the fact that, as it is, I can get the same results from a long, long list of aliases.

And partly in the fact that, as things are, Linux users seem too eager to join the cult of personality of any tool that “streamlines” console lifestyle, without really taking into account what the tool does … or doesn’t do. :|