Category Archives: Uncategorized

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:

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 PCMag.com. 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.

A late realization

Using this machine every day, while outdated and by most standards underpowered, has brought to light a small note worth mentioning.

The oddball thing about that Nvidia card is, the proprietary driver was always just a hair shy of complete. It worked well enough, but if you didn’t make one small change to your xorg.conf, you got a blank, dead screen.

Which is what I got, when I tried to use the 96xx-dkms drivers in Arch, out of the city repo. And that’s probably still what I would have now, if I hadn’t made that one small note on this site, seven years ago almost to the day.

And that’s the realization: that even if I shifted the bulk of the content off this site, I still rely on it as a reference tool — sometimes on a weekly basis, sometimes more often. But there’s always some silly gimmick that I annotated here, that I end up digging after to solve some problem that I have run into. Sometimes more than once.

And apparently some other people still find it useful, since this site still gets twice the traffic of the other, despite falling silent for years.

There is a sad corollary to that realization: For the two or three years that it’s been grayed out, I’ve missed the opportunity to fill in more details that, with all likelihood, I’ll be searching for in the future. Two-plus years of continuing to tinker with Linux, but not making proper notes in an accessible format. Tsk, tsk. :(

That was always the original intent of this site, and the second blog simply took on the task of whittling away at the gargantuan list of applications I had collected. They each have their own focus.

The moral of the story is that I’ll try to add specifically to this site when I can, and when there’s enough reason to. Unlike the other site, I’ll try to keep this technical, and not so much the Sisyphean task of wading through a list of a thousand console apps.

Keeping notes of your Linux adventures is a habit I endorse mightily, because you never know how far down the road you’ll be looking for the answer to a dead screen problem. :shock: You might as well learn over again, from yourself. ;)

P.S.: I also plan to rearrange these pages, and get away from that 2008 look. It’s time. ;)

The end of the end

I suppose the secret is out; a desktop image was leaked a week or two ago into the Unix screenshot area of reddit.

That can mean only one thing: Yes, I’ve been answering e-mails and concocting some low-end systems again, for better or for worse.

So yes, I suppose I am … you could say, if you want, maybe, it’s possible, kinda-sorta … back in the game. :shock:

But there’s been a definite sea change. After a year and a half of inactivity, I can’t just suddenly pick up and run.

The best way to handle a transition of this magnitude is to acknowledge the closure, and start again fresh.

So without any further ado, here’s a new page for you to visit: inconsolation.wordpress.com.

That’s meant to be a double- or triple-entendre there. I want the focus to be on software for text-based systems, the kind of software that was a joy to write about here, again and again, for so many years.

Therefore, in the console. (Cheesy, I know, but with the layered meaning that I know geeks will appreciate. :) )

Fewer personal rants, fewer esoteric system settings, and more applications that are useful for embedded, text-only, or very low-end hardware. More of the goodies.

And good grief, I know I still have enough software to skim through. :shock: My hands were full when I shut down this site, and are still full now.

Either way, this is the end of the end — things are starting up again, albeit in a new location. If you can take the time, please stop by and see what new toy I discovered. And tell me about your favourite. I do love a good text-based gizmo. … ;)

The elephant in the room: A coda

Before I even get started, before I deliver the unhappy news, I should say first and foremost “thank you,” to everyone who left notes or sent e-mails over the past four months.

There were a lot more than I anticipated, and I apologize if I didn’t get the time to reply to all of them. Regardless, you were all too kind. I am humbled.

It has been four months though, and I have to acknowledge the ugly truth now — I’m very, very unlikely to be able to pick up the schedule I had even six months ago.

Priorities change, life rearranges, and there’s nothing anyone can do except shrug and soldier on.

If it’s any consolation, my “life changes” were good ones — no one went to jail, no one is missing or suddenly responsible for newly arrived little humans. ;)

This was simply a reshuffling of job-related tasks, a few new projects that came to the forefront, and as a result less time for the projects I held dear.

I had hoped that I would be able to adjudicate my resources and keep something fresh on the menu here. But I looked around the other day and realized my collection was actually dusty, which I would never have tolerated a year ago.

And with that realization, I gave it ten minutes’ thought, and decided to cull the herd one last time.

And so it’s all gone.

Everything down to the last spare hard drive, quirky PCMCIA wireless card or giveaway floppy disk. All. Gone.

Gone to the local secondhand shop, gone to friends who could use a second computer, gone to the aluminum recyclers, as a last resort.

I’m left with the X60s, a few USB flash drives, and an odd cable or two.

I kept some rarities — all the CF cards and adapters are still mine, as well as a scarce-as-hen’s-teeth 64Mb stick of PC66. I’m not dumb.

But I look around now, and you’d never guess this was a bastion of Linux zealotry. From here, the battle was fought?

The experience has left its mark though, and the mark is indelible. I flip-flop these days between an Arch Linux installation cut to look like Windows XP (it’s a personal joke, really) and Linux Mint Debian. One or the other can usually get the job done.

Windows will never be back. The real stain of experimenting with Linux for nigh-on-six years is that you realize how things ought to be, and realize you just can’t get everything you want — or need — from Bill & Co.

And even in parts of my life that ordinarily are unrelated to computers, I find the same mindset slipping in.

My latest project — which I won’t link to, out of embarrassment ;) — is licensed under the GFDL, because I want that same spirit of sharing to be repeated there.

And really, that’s what I take away from six years at the keyboard: That the same principles most of us were taught as children — to share, and not to exclude others — are still the best ones we have today.

The world would be a much better place if we all followed the same rules we were taught decades ago, in the sandbox.

If you want to know numbers, I can tell you that, by far and large, the most popular post in this site’s six-year history was the rtorrent tutorial. A close second was the list of things you can do with an old computer.

The busiest day was February 9, 2011, when more than 56,000 people wandered past that same page, to see what the big deal was.

And believe it or not, after four months with zero activity, I still get upward of 1,500 visitors a day — sometimes peaking at 2,000. Who’d’ve thunk it.

I’m not one for long and tearful goodbyes, and I’ve really blabbered on long enough. So let’s call it a wrap.

Thanks for everyone who left comments or offered help in my adventures. Your insight and contributions were instrumental every step of the way.

Thanks in particular to the staff of the Ubuntu Forums and the Ubuntu community in a larger sense. Say what you like about Ubuntu (I did, all too often), but it’s the collective helpfulness and camaraderie of the people who use it that got me out of the starting gate, and where I am now.

And finally, thanks for reading this far.

さようなら, tsamaya ka khotso, and cheers. Be kind to one another. We’re all we’ve got. :)

Hiatus

As I have mentioned in the past, my real-life responsibilities include some middle-management tasks. Quite glamorous.

Unfortunately, as they did last month, those responsibilities became more time-consuming last week, and don’t seem to offer any foreseeable break in the future.

I must put this site into hibernation for a while, and if I can recover the free time it takes to maintain it, I’ll reopen it again.

I apologize if that is disappointing or an inconvenience for you; it is also a little disappointing to me. But unfortunately there are only so many hours in a day, and right now they’re just not enough.

I will probably disable commenting after a few days, but please keep in touch via the e-mail form on the About page. I may get a chance to answer you, but I can’t promise anything.

Keep your fingers crossed. Cheers, and be kind to one another. ;)

Hey, Ridley, ya got any bmon?

Time for another quick look at the wonderful world of console applications.

This is bmon, and it would be easy to dismiss this as yet another network monitor for the console. But actually, I like it a lot.

Most monitors require you to declare an interface at startup, and most of those are tied to that interface until you close the application down, or start a new instance.

bmon is nifty in that it gives you a look at just about everything that’s running, on every interface available. And includes mega-cool svelte animated graphs showing traffic, as it happens.

This would be very useful indeed to anyone using more than one network port on a machine, or perhaps a machine dedicated to relaying network traffic.

For me it’s a little overkill. But the nice thing about console programs is, even when they’re overkill, they’re hardly a drag on your system. Enjoy. :)

P.S.: Thanks to nico for pointing it out. ;)