Category Archives: Debian

Remembering the twins

I waited this long to recap the two Dell Latitude LMs I had as guests last month because I couldn’t find the pictures I took while I was poking and prodding. This doesn’t usually happen where I lose photos of something, but I did find one leftover on my camera, taken the day they left.

2014-11-13-84kbn-dsl

That at least proves it wasn’t a dream. :roll:

The picture, of course, shows the ironclad and eternally trustworthy DSL running in its most basic form on the prettier of the two machines, replete with a wireless network connection courtesy of an old WPC11v3 b-only card. That was not my most successful attempt — and I really wish I could find those other pictures :evil: — but DSL did at least tell me that the guts of the machine were working.

I don’t have a picture of DSL’s graphical desktop on that unit because I never got one. DSL isn’t picky when it comes to hardware, but I have seen more than one computer over the years that is less-than-visual. In this case, both the vesa and VGA attempts, in every variation, resulted in a scrambled video display.

Some of my other attempts were also less than successful, but a few bore fruit. I had better luck with early, early versions of Debian and Fedora, but some very bad experiences with … anything after 2002 or so (which thanks to this machine, did not come as a surprise). :\ And of course, I managed to get a blinking cursor on a Crux 2.4 installation, which I count as a flawless victory. :lol:

The biggest difficulty in working with these machines (I say “these,” but I did almost everything on the one you see in the picture) was twofold: First, these computers were not intended to boot from CD — only the primary hard drive or the floppy drive, of which I had none (and by that I mean the owner had none). Don’t even talk to me about a USB port. You know better than that. >:(

That’s a huge complication, but not something I haven’t had to work with before. I’m not above creating an entire system in an emulator, writing out the image file to a hard disk, and transplanting it physically into a target machine.

In that sense, these are great designs for that task. I’ve run into machines that were a bit curmudgeonly in that respect, but the drives on these laptops pull out of the front left corner like a drawer, connect firmly in a dedicated tray, and are more or less exchangeable in seconds. What’s more, there’s plenty of space in the tray for an IDE-to-whatever converter, which in my case was an SDHC adapter.

I did run into an additional mystery though, which constitutes Biggest Difficulty Part Two: a hesitance to boot from some systems, and I’m not sure why.

It may have been some sort of partitioning inconsistency, between the BIOS and the installation. Occasionally a system wouldn’t boot that I had written out via dd, but other times preinstalled or original installations wouldn’t boot either.

I don’t suspect hardware issues; instead, I suspect either (a) the old BIOS drive dimension limit, cropping up again decades after its relevancy, causing problems again in its passive-aggressive way of suggesting you should get a new computer, or (b) some misalignment between the way GRUB or LILO worked two decades ago, and what the BIOS expected.

I’ve seen machines — in fact, this EzBook 800 has it — that have a BIOS-switchable option for Windows-esque drive arrangements, with the other option as … “other.” :\ I know of one or two machines in my past that couldn’t boot an “other” system if the BIOS was set to Windows-ish, or vice versa. This old warrior was one of those.

I don’t have any way to document that, and I don’t know how or why it happens, but that’s my underlying suspicion. Since the BIOS in these Latitudes doesn’t have an option to switch, it was a crap shoot to see what will boot and what won’t.

Both of these issues, and their underlying problems, are magnified by the glacial pace of working at 133Mhz, and with the added time of swapping drives and bouncing between drive caddies. Plus, the constant risk of snapping or bending a 20-year-old pin array, or the natural brittleness of aging plastic. … I imagine even that caused a little hesitation on my part.

I can say with some honesty, if these were my personal machines, I’d probably be a little more aggressive in seeing what they were capable of. I tend to be a little antsy around other people’s computers though, for no other reason than general courtesy.

In any case, I gave them back a few weeks ago after giving each one a quick cleanup, and they returned to their home of record.

The irony of their departure is that the owner, when he came to pick them up, hinted that I might be able to keep them if I were inclined, and if my offer came within the range of what he thought they were worth.

I declined politely, partly in fear of bringing more wayward laptops into the house on a permanent basis, but also because I know he feels the pair together, with the power supply and a Dell-branded PS/2 ball mouse (woohoo!), are worth close to US$100. I put them around a quarter of that, maybe a little more. I doubt we could come to compromise, even if he were a little more realistic.

But if I were to find one of these in the recycling dump, I wouldn’t pass it over. It would be almost impossible (by my cursory research) to find replacement parts now, and even if you did, you’d likely be paying incredibly inflated amounts for something worth a fraction of the price tag. So you’d have to find one complete, unadulterated and in pristine condition to really appreciate it.

There are better machines of this era to experiment with. But treading the 20-year-mark on hardware this old, perhaps this exhibit machine and its “scavengee” comrade are a good investment. Maybe his offer isn’t far off the mark after all. :|

(And in a worst-case scenario, it’s reassuring to think that Dell actually still has Windows drivers for machines of this pedigree. That, in itself, is amazing, even if the nightmare of running Windows 95 on those machines is only partially massaged by the thought of rehashing a few sessions of Age of Empires.)

Who knows? Junk — ahem, I mean, vintage computing is nothing if not an unpredictable hobby. :mrgreen:

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. … ;)

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 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. ;)

Another gray area: Ascii Sector

Speaking of gray areas, I never know whether I should jump for joy or just raise a minor ruckus when I find a game that runs in textmode under SDL.

Dwarf Fortress is one example, although Dwarf Fortress qualifies as something beyond “game.” The complexity and detail and variety push it to something … something beyond “game,” anyway.

Ascii Sector is probably another, although this one incorporates a striking amount of action — more than I would expect from a textmode game, anyway.

As I understand it, Ascii Sector attempts a faithful rendition of Privateer, which you might remember as an evolution of Elite … which I have now mentioned twice in the space of a month.

I’ll be honest and say I only played Privateer well after its heyday, and at the time didn’t see much that hadn’t been touched on when I was still using a C64.

Ascii Sector amuses me though, mostly because it captures a lot of the space trading genre, without ever needing much in the way of graphics.

And of course, any time you can strip away graphical requirements and still have a speedy game with depth and action, I’m all for it.

Which makes this one a lot like Dwarf Fortress to me: It relies on a measure of graphical power to run — to wit, SDL and therefore Xorg. Your mileage may vary, but I’m thinking something even as slow as a Pentium III can do this.

But there’s another reason Ascii Sector (and Dwarf Fortress, of course) is dangerous: It’s far too engrossing to be left alone with. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. … :twisted:

Debian and Arch

I’ve mentioned two or three times now that I have been spending a lot of time in Arch and Debian these days. I hold both distros in equally high regard for being fast, light and good starting points for outdated machines.

Debian gets points for reaching all the way back to the 486 generation, which means I can use it on my very very old systems. At the same time though, I find myself floating back to Arch more often than not.

On a machine that postdates the Pentium, Arch’s flat configuration is just more to my liking. I appreciate Debian 6 for picking up things like Grub2, but I strongly dislike the need to edit /etc/default/grub, then run an updater, if the configuration files are in a different place completely.

I don’t know the rationale for that, so it might be something inherited from the developers of Grub2. All the same, it’s a little inconvenient, particularly if you only want to change one digit.

If I can continue being honest, I also dislike the update-alternatives system for determining things like a default window manager, or a default terminal emulator in X.

Again, I don’t know how or why that’s in Debian, but it seems like a huge obfuscation. I have tried to learn the system over the years and sometimes it will actually work in my favor, but more often … not.

I think my underlying dislike for it is similar to my complaint about Grub2 — why is there another whole layer of configuration, just to trigger which emulator springs into view when I press Super-L-plus-Enter?

That, to me, is something that should be configured in the window manager’s files, edited directly and not relying on links, names, paths and priorities. And so I usually do just that — configure the window manager and ignore the alternatives system.

But I’m probably not being fair, since Debian has more uses and applications that I can even dream of. No doubt that system works well for someone else who needs Debian for more than just resurrecting an old Pentium I.

If I have to be honest though — and I might as well, since I’ve been dangerously honest up to know — those two things and a few others like them are what keep me from using Debian on my newer, faster machines.

For those, it’s just quicker and easier for me to set up Arch, and tinker directly with the software. To each his own, I guess. :|

Oddly enough, ‘Five gets it right

I just realized something odd: I have a drive that is occasionally reported at the wrong size — it’s a 120Gb drive, one that fell out of the sky on me, years ago.

Sometimes operating systems, to include Linux, report it at only 40Gb. Arch does that, and so does Debian 6.

But not Debian 5. El cinco reports it at its full dimensions, and will partition it normally.

I wonder why that is. :|