In Business

I guess it’s pretty clear that I don’t really blog any more. There have been more important things going on for the last year or so and I don’t really have my finger on the Linux/Open Source pulse these days, so there’s no great incisive commentary for me to make on what’s been going on, there are people far better informed to deal with that stuff, like the Open Rights Group for example. If you really feel the need, you can absorb my devastating barbs of social comment via Twitter. I’m @adamdsweet. You’re not missing too much though. Regarding blogging though, the world moved on to other things and so did I.

About a year ago, along with some business partners, I set up my own business as I’ve been threatening to for some time. Although I tailed off some time before that, that’s the primary reason I’m not much of a blogger these days.

My company, Transitiv Technologies Ltd, specialise in Linux and Open Source support. We do a lot of network monitoring in particular, but lots of other things too. So, to end this shameless plug, if you need training, support, development or consultancy for Linux or any Open Source application we support, then please give us a call.

Phone This Guy

419 email  received today:


I am quite aware of the impact strange e-mails like mine do have on persons especially when they are unsolicited for, I must therefore apologize for intruding.

However, I am getting in touch with you as regards the assets of a client (deceased) who you share the same family name. He served as a contractor for Jiyeh Power Station Lebanon until the power station was bombed by the Israeli air force during the Israel-Lebanon conflict in 2006 (leading to his death).

I am Geoffrey Owen. I work as an investment adviser for an assets management firm. It is our responsibility to locate the family of the deceased and pass on the assets by intestate succession. I advise you to contact me ASAP seeing that the assets are about to be confiscated to the Her Majesty Treasury if nobody comes forward for it.

I patiently await your response. I can be reached at 011 (44) 787 228 2424 or +(44) 787 228 2424 for further discussion

I appeal for your tolerance if my message is contrary to your moral ethics. Thank you.

Yours Faithfully,

Geoffrey Owen.”

I would love somebody to phone this guy.

Quiet Times and New Beginnings

I’ve haven’t blogged for some time for some time and as I don’t use Twitter I guess to many it might appear that I’ve disappeared but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I got made redundant last summer as the company I worked for went into administration after I’d been there only for about 8 or 10 weeks. I haven’t had much luck with jobs since I left my first post-grad job, I’ve had to job hop a few times to avoid redundancies that were sweeping through some of my previous places. That last job hop, while done for the right reasons turned out to be a worse move than staying put. So, in between job hunting, I set about starting my own company and I hope to be able to announce it soon. Woohoo 🙂

In the meantime, the clues are out there, check them out and if you have any need for a Linux sysadmin give me a shout.

Passion Star Interview on The Milk Bar

While of work this week, I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Jason Forrest and Zoe Turner on The Milk Bar about my band Passion Star. The show came out yesterday and you can have a listen here. The interview is right at the end around 55 minutes but there are Passion Star songs played throughout the show. If you’ve not listened to The Milk Bar, show should give it a listen.

It’s funny how stuff to do with Passion Star crops up every now and again, I’ll get an email from a fan, or one will add me on Facebook or somebody I don’t know will approach me in the street or in a bar and ask me about it. It seems so long ago now, it’s easy to forget I’m still the same person.

While on a shameless, self-promotion spree, you can:

  • Read more about Passion Star here.
  • Download MP3s of many Passion Star tracks here.
  • Join the Bring Back Passion Star group on Facebook.
  • There even seems to be a Passion Star page on Facebook. Not sure where that came from.

Otherwise, I bought the domain in January with the hope of doing something with it in the future, but for now it lies dormant, merely pointing at my website holding page. Should there ever be anything there:

In the meantime, go listen to the Milk Bar interview and maybe download some Passion Star MP3s while you read the Passion Star story.

Thanks to Zoe and Jason for having me on the show 🙂

Portable Ogg Player Required

As I sit here at the beginning of a long overdue week off work, stranded in Rugby after working late to finish a project and getting my car locked in the car park, my thoughts turn to my recently deceased 16 GB Cowon iAudio 7. I loved that thing. It was a fantastic player, near enough 60 hours continuous playback (honestly), tiny and like the rest of the iAudio range, it plays Oggs and the sound quality was excellent. None of that iPod bullshit for me 🙂 We were planning to marry and raise a family.

My romance with Cowon started in 2006 or 2007 when I was looking for a portable media player that supported the Ogg format, which offers better quality and smaller file size compared to MP3 and is unencumbered by legal bullshit. On a recommendation I bought a Cowon iAudio X5 and was delighted with it, even though I never actually watched any movies on that ‘larger than anybody else but still quite pokey by today’s standards’ colour screen I paid unnecessarily for. It finally died last year when I dropped my bag on the connector which was propped upright, meaning it could no longer be attached to the charger or a PC and I’d just bought a replacement battery for it, having worn out the factory fitted one.

I drifted for a little while, with various vain attempts at glueing it back together making it worse until I came across this post by my evil twin Felim Whiteley about the iAudio 7. After asking a few suspicious questions I decided to buy one and was really, really happy with it, even more so than the X5. It works on Linux, it shows up as a USB storage device, it’s tiny, lightweight, the battery really does last the advertised 60 hours of playback, it plays Oggs and the sound quality is way better than an iPod. Then I dropped it last week and it wouldn’t turn on any more 🙁

Having destroyed the screws with an over sized screwdriver, I had to get my dad to drill them down so I could prize it open, but having done so and re-connected the on-off button to the internal mechanism, either the fall did more damage than I thought or the drilling/reconnecting process damaged other stuff. It turns on but the screen is corrupted, it doesn’t play anything and well, the casing looks pretty shitty after being drilled in each corner. And I can’t find anyone who stocks a replacement. The last one was £116, but they’re out of stock now and so it seems are everybody else. What appears to be the replacement in the product line is the iAudio 9 (sometimes referred to as the i9 to differentiate it from the Cowon S9) and it seems to start around the same price as it’s predecessor, but is larger, less attractive to my eye and has half the battery life (though 30 hours isn’t bad, if they’re as honest with this one a they were with the iAudio 7).

So, the purpose of this winsome ramble is to solicit opinion. I need a new Ogg/MP3 player. Smaller would be better, Ogg playback is essential, looks not so important, 12-16 GB preferable, sound quality should be very good, battery life should be more than 24 hours, must show up as a mass storage device on Linux and understand when you copy new tracks to it without using some bullshit media player to update an internal database before it will notice you added new songs.

Specifically though, I’d like to hear your recommendations, particularly from owners of other Cowon models, other manufacturers who support Ogg and maybe, with hope in my heart, from anyone who has a 16 GB Cowon iAudio 7 they would like to sell 🙂

Guess I’m going to end up buying an iAudio 9.

Number 5 is Alive

Thought I’d better raise my head above the parapet to say I’m alive and well. Don’t think I’ve blogged in nearly 6 months despite saying last time that I would try to blog more frequently. I’ve clearly failed, but it’s not because I don’t like you 🙂

For the most part the last few months have been more or less occupied by working and renovating my house, which is now pretty much complete (the garden doesn’t count…). More than anything though, I think I’m just out of the habit of blogging, so while before I used to think about blogging something fairly soon after it happened, these days I don’t and then the (arguably) blog-worthy detail is gone as the days merge into one another. I don’t think I’m alone in that, most people have migrated their public thoughts to Twitter. I haven’t done that, after publicly declaring it to be pointless web 2.0 cack, I’m still hoping for the novelty to wear off while I wait patiently to be right, without a Twitter account.

Well anyway, no doubt I won’t blog again for another 4 or 5 months, so until then I bid you farewell and leave you to feel happy for me that Wolverhampton Wanderers secured another season in the Premier League 🙂

It’s Been a Long Time

I haven’t kept you up to date very well. It’s been 4 months since I last said anything of any note here. 4 months. Some might argue that I’ve not said anything of note here ever, but I’d like to think otherwise and in any case, that’s not the point.

Where on earth have I been for the last 4 months? I’ll try to blast it out in some kind of chronological order.


  • Had a new BT Business telephone line installed which resolved the problems experienced here at the cost of around 100 GBP. My ISP waived the migration fees and put me on a new, cheaper tariff, which was nice.
  • Felt proud as my team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, return to the Premier League as champions.
  • Left my previous job and took 2 very much needed weeks off before starting my new job. It was good to decompress for the first time in over a year.
  • Been to V Festival 2009 at Weston Park, Staffordshire and the most fun I’ve had in years. Really, I had a blast.
  • Earned the nickname of ‘Inappropriate Boy’ for many of the reasons I enjoyed myself at V so much, mostly to do with lacking any kind of social acceptability filter between the things which pop into my head and them pouring out of my mouth to enormous personal comedic satisfaction. Nobody was offended thankfully and it was taken mostly as intended – a bit of maladjusted cheekiness.
  • Moved house, down to Rugby in Warwickshire. BT Business contracts are 1 or 2 years. Umm. Not sure how to solve that problem without paying an enormous settlement fee. Apart from the people I work with, I know one guy in the area. Not sure how I’m going to avoid being single for the rest of my life in a strange town where I don’t know anybody.
  • Started a new job as an Open Source Consultant.
  • Been to Mönchengladbach. Met some dazzlingly intelligent, friendly people. Very impressed.
  • Organised LugRadio Live 2009, the last ever one. An awful, arduous process beset by impending disaster at every turn. As if every other year is any different. We seem to have the hang of this now, which is a bit late 😉
  • Been ill, just a cold.
  • Moved back to Wolverhampton to bridge a gap between houses. My house is currently being renovated so it wasn’t comfortable, but I was only there for a couple of days at a time.
  • Been to Yorkshire for a week.
  • Been ill again, unknown cause. Suspected stomach bug, felt like death for 4 days then miraculously started to feel better. Relieved.
  • Ran and attended LugRadio Live 2009, which despite all my complaining about the planning and organisation, actually turned out very well. It was great to see everyone there again. Unfortunately, I still haven’t worked out how not to get completely destroyed beyond all reasonable recognition on Friday night and then spend the rest of the weekend feeling so ill as to be barely human and even less functional as one. Bruno Bord is one of the funniest, most intelligent human beings alive.
  • Watched the finished version of Ubuntu UK Podcast presenter Tony Whitmore‘s LugRadio documentary – Don’t Listen Alone: A documentary about LugRadio, for the first time. Utter, utter brilliance. I’d seen a few draft versions before and they were fantastic, but the finished version was incredible and was liked universally. It took a total of 2 years to complete end to end. I can’t think of any other superlatives to heap on him, so, Tony, thank you. It’s fantastic. You’re a legend.
  • Accepted that there may well be another LugRadio Live show, not an event, just a live show, provided somebody else, such as you, organises the event.
  • Went to OggCamp. An excellent event and great fun. The combined Linux Outlaws and Ubuntu UK Podcast live recording was really good fun, very engaging. It was strange being in the audience watching other people do what I’d been doing the day before. I look forward to it next year 😉
  • Turned 33 🙁
  • Went to Dublin for a week and got very little sleep, not as a result of having fun.
  • Moved to a new house in Rugby. Nice place, shame about the heating.

So, you see, it’s not that I don’t love you or anything. I’ve just been a little pre-occupied with changing jobs, moving house repeatedly, travelling and organising the best Open Source conference which will never happen again. Things are about to get back to normal though, but not until after I:

  • Go to Devon for the weekend for my best friend’s birthday celebrations and probably make a fool of myself again.
  • Go back to Dublin for another week.
  • Go to Mönchengladbach for a long weekend to celebrate my company’s 10th anniversary.
  • Move house again probably.

Once all of those things are done, I will probably start to pay you the attention you deserve. In all seriousness though, the last 3 months have been absolutely crazy. I’ve never been so consistently occupied by real life stuff going on and changing under my feet than the last few months, so bear with me. Thankfully, I don’t feel unduly unsettled, I’ve just rolled with it and got on with it to be honest. Maybe the maturity which is lacking in my sense of humour is there in other areas.

Maybe catch up again soon?

Dealing With BT

I know I’ve posted about my ADSL problems in the past. Although I haven’t mentioned them since then, they have been lurking all the time and frequently re-appear, meaning the Internet is either painfully slow or unusable for days, even weeks. My normal ADSL speed is something around 4.5 to 6.5 Mb/s, I live about 1.5 miles from my exchange. That speed is not so bad, it’s the dropouts and the serious speed drops which are annoying, somewhere between 16Kb/s and 1.5Mb/s which made the Internet as it is today, full of flash and graphical adverts, pretty painful and almost unusable for geek purposes (ie downloading Linux isos, or updating machines, or installing an OS over a network). At the worst times, I just can’t connect for hours. Though that doesn’t happen that often, it did happen a couple of times at the weekend.

I think I’ve reported this to my ISP perhaps 5 or 6 times, possibly more. At one stage, my employer paid for a business phone line to be installed in my house with a business ADSL connection over it. When the engineer came, I explained the reasons why we were having this extra line and so, as the cable for the new line had two sets of wires in it, he replaced the cable into the house and ran both lines over the new cable. I got a consistent 7.5Mb/s with the same equipment for over a year until leaving my employer meant losing my business line. That’s an average of 2Mb/s faster than the good speed on my residential line.

After losing the business line, I went back to my old ISP (free activation, you see, the old connection had been ceased). And I’ve been having the same recurring problems ever since. I’ve tried 3 routers, 2 Linksys and a BT Business Hub, 4 or 5 microfilters, I’ve removed all of the extension cables from the house long ago and now it’s my ADSL router on a 1m cable and a single wired phone in a microfilter plugged into the BT master socket. I’ve already checked and I don’t have a bell wire, which is known to add noise to a line and is only of use to old phones which actually have a bell in them. BT will sell you a ‘noise reducing face-plate’, which simply disconnects the bell wire for around 10 GBP.

So anyway, last time I was having real problems was around 4 or 5 months ago, I went through the usual ISP support/BT fault/submitting speed tests routine and although I was able to demonstrate the appalling line speed, I ultimately came up empty handed. The only remaining option was to have BT send an engineer to perform tests at my house, with the risk of being charged 150 GBP if they found nothing wrong, but since I know my line is noisy, I can hear it pop and crackle and scratch with just a phone plugged in, no DSL equipment, I was pretty confident. My man turned up, and he was an incredibly nice guy, but couldn’t find any problems. As I explained the now ceased business line didn’t have any of the problems with the same equipment that my residential line had, he simply went to the exchange and switched the cables over, probably in no officially recorded way, meaning that my residential line was now running over the cables which served the business line. I led a happy life from then on.

That was until about 2 weeks ago when I came home to find a parking fine, a card telling me to submit a gas meter reading or get an estimated bill and some unrelated alarming news which I had to share with my parents. As freephone numbers aren’t free from a mobile phone, I picked up my otherwise unused land-line to call the parking and gas people. I never use my landline for anything other than calling numbers which cost more from a mobile and for receiving calls from people who don’t have mobile phone contracts (ie my mother), everybody else uses my mobile number. My landline had no dial tone so I reported a fault with BT. I got a call a day or so afterwards to tell me that they had done some tests from outside of my property and have fixed the fault. I got home and still had no dial-tone, so I called the engineer back, I explained that I had 2 lines in my house and that an engineer had previously switched the wires at the exchange as I’d had so many problems, he said this probably explained the hassle they had finding the fault and asked me to try the other line, I did and I had a dial-tone, so I was back on the old residential line and my ADSL problems have returned. At this point, I’ve had to disconnect my telephone so I’m able to use the Internet. I have the same problems with 3 different phones and 3 different routers ad nauseum.

After the issues became pretty acute over the weekend, I called BT yesterday morning to discuss the issue with them. The wiring outside my house, from the telegraph pole to the box at the end of the road and from there on to the exchange is almost certainly pretty old, probably anywhere between 20 and 50 years old, I think my house was built in the 1920’s. Since the cable from my house to the pole and the master socket had been replaced about 18 months ago and my equipment has no problems on the other line, I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong with the cabling between the pole and the exchange for my residential line. As I said, with just a phone plugged in, my line is really noisy, at bad times, I can barely hear the person on the other end.

I wanted to explain the issue to them and have them conclude to either do something about the cabling, put somebody with some technical understanding on the case to diagnose the cause of the problems or otherwise just decide that they would solve the problem by moving my line officially from the residential line to what was my business line.

The person who answered put me through to customer services in India. I personally have no problem with Indian call centre workers, but I was relieved to be put through to support in the UK as I find Indian call centres to have a lot of background noise, making the person on the other end hard to hear and the accents difficult to understand. The next person I spoke to refused repeatedly to allow me to explain the issue and said that he couldn’t understand what my issue had to do with my phone line. At least twice I asked him if he would stop interrupting me and allow me to explain the issue, when he didn’t I explained that I was getting pretty annoyed with him and the fourth time I put the phone down. He called back twice, the first time, I ignored it because I was still simmering, the second I answered it as I’d calmed down a little, I realised that he would keep calling and that I wouldn’t get anywhere without speaking to him. He said that he was sorry but we seem to have gotten cut off for some reason, I bluntly told him that I had put the phone down on him because he kept interrupting me. No doubt I now have a ‘rude or difficult customer’ mark on my customer records.

After allowing me to cut to the chase and explain that I can’t use my phone because it makes the Internet go off and I need the Internet more than the phone, he put me through to another support department. I briefly explained the problem and given my problems describing the nature of the issue with the last person, I said that ultimately I would like to move my residential line to use the wiring which served the business line I once had. The lady explained that it would cost 122.50 GBP. Why? The wiring is already here. I already know that from a technical point of view all they need to do is switch the wires at the exchange, they just have to record it in their systems too. I think at this point, I used the word ridiculous and asked whether it was a joke about 3 times each. The lady explained that it was a standard charge. I asked who it was standard to, I was pretty sure that it was standard only to BT, which makes it not standard at all, but proprietary to BT. She didn’t answer, she just asked whether I wanted to go ahead, I said no. She said that for ADSL problems I would have to speak to my ISP, since my ISP wasn’t BT. I neglected to point that out that I had repeatedly done so as I was still pretty much flabbergasted.

The problem is you see, for the benefit of people from outside of the UK, that in the old days, BT built and ran the telephone network and were owned by the UK government. In the 1980’s, the ruling Conservative party government, headed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided to modernise Britain by privatising most of the government run utilities, like the gas, electric and phone companies, to increase competition and thus performance and no doubt to wrestle political power away from the workers’ unions which generally funded and proivided the backbone of support for the main opposition party, Labour. Despite privatisation, BT still own the telecommunications network almost exclusively, a few other companies set up their own networks, but none of them took off. Mercury Communications was the most notable but was eventually absorbed into it’s parent company, Cable and Wireless. In the 1990’s a separate telecoms industry developed, using cable technology, headed primarily by Telewest an NTL which has since bought Cable and Wireless. BT still had an almost complete stranglehold on the traditional PSTN/copper wire telephone network and dial-up Internet connections. Though you can get dial-up and more recently ADSL from any number of companies, your supplier would still be supplying you with a connection from BT Wholesale since BT own all of the exchanges. Your alternative would be to use cable from whichever supplier covered your area. A few years ago, Telewest, with it’s consumer broadband division since re-branded as Blueyonder, bought NTL and the combined company was then bought up by Virgin to become Virgin Media.

Still with me? Ultimately that means BT still own all of the copper telephone network and you either get ADSL from them via a reseller or you get cable. Since I live just outside the cable area, literally by about a mile or 2, cable is no option for me and 3G Internet is still extortionately expensive for such an unsuitably small bandwidth allowance which I could blow in a busy evening, I’m stuck with a BT phone line and an ADSL connection from BT Wholesale. In any case, I’m in a 3G dead spot. The problem with BT is that they are a telephone company and their ‘bailiwick’, to quote an American phrase, is the phone network, they were caught completely unaware by the explosion of the Internet and then broadband, even today, they are still catching up. The long vaunted BT 21CN (21st Century Network), which will bring fibre to the home, is still about 18 months away from being enabled in my area and 21CN doesn’t support IPv6 (yet). So long as your phone works, they don’t care. The Internet is a secondary service. If the Internet doesn’t work, they don’t care unless your phone doesn’t work either. For Internet problems, you have to go to your ISP, who have to go to BT.

A few years ago Ofcom, the UK communications watchdog, nailed BT to the cross and told them to allow other companys to access the telephone exchanges to install their own equipment. The result is what is known as Local Loop Unbundling or LLU. LLU providers are generally quicker to market with newer ADSL technologies than BT Wholesale, consequently LLU providers have been doing 24 Mb ADSL 2+ for a couple of years while I think BT are only just rolling it out. Sadly my exchange is supplied by only 2 LLU providers, none of which do static IP addresses, which as an IT professional I need (I have firewall rules and host servers at home and so on). In any case, my ISP offered to upgrade me to a 24Mb service and then told me my existing line wouldn’t support it, though my former business line would, so officially, I can’t use 24 Mb, unbundled or not.

So, to boil all of this down:

  • On my existing line, my phone and ADSL connection are not usable at the same time.
  • BT won’t fix the problem because they won’t investigate it any further than they already have and my phone line is capable of making phone calls, which means their network works in their eyes. The Internet is unimportant and they’re not going to replace the stretch of cabling between my telegraph pole and the box at the end of the road or my exchange, just for me.
  • My ADSL provider can’t fix the problem since it just gets forwarded to BT.
  • Since BT don’t care, I have to diagnose the problems myself.
  • I can’t get cable.
  • 3G is too expensive, the bandwidth limit is too low to make it an option (around £30 for 5 GB per month) and I live in a 3G dead spot.

This leaves me with 4 choices:

  1. Pay 122.5 GBP  to BT to switch the phone lines over, probably pay my ISP for the migration too.
  2. Get rid of my BT line and try to use 3G instead.
  3. Pay thousands to get a leased line.
  4. Move house.

Not too much to choose from there since 2, 3 and 4 are completely out of the question. I recall reading somewhere else, that since the rollout of ADSL, ordinary people have had to become experts in telecommunications and PPP protocols just to be able to argue with their ISP and BT about their service problems. Never been more true and I’m technically minded. No doubt, housewives across the land with useless ADSL connections are just getting ushered quietly away and told that it’s not BT’s fault.

BT are slowly moving towards replacing parts the existing copper network with ‘fibre to the home’, or at least to the box on the end of the street, something which should have been done 5 years ago, top cable speeds are currently double the ADSL 2+ top speeds and maybe 8 or 9 times that of the fastest ADSL Max product which are notoriously advertised at up to a theoretical 8Mb, which as we know, nobody can ever get. Virgin Media are now trialling 200 Mb/s cable. It’s not all rosy on cable though, Virgin Media’s support are widely reputed to be dreadful and their network management techniques are equally questionable.

My apologies for making you sit through all of this boring drivel, I just need somebody to rant at, almost as much as I need somebody at BT to help solve the issue. I think another call to my ISP and to BT is in order.

UPDATE 15/07/2009: It turns out that when you cancel a telephone line with BT, for a residential line they ‘close’ the line, but leave the equipment connected at the exchange. For a business line, they ‘cease’ it and disconnect any equipment at the exchange. The cost of reconnecting a former business line is therefore the same as installing a new telephone line, which means I don’t save money by simply asking for a new 3rd telephone line altogether.

My existing ISP charge £46 for a migration, though they would consider waiving it should I agree to minimum contract period.

Using SSL with Exim 4 and Courier IMAP/POP3 on Debian

I’ve been meaning to set up SMTP, IMAP and POP3 access over SSL to my mail servers for quite a long time and the other day I just sat down and did it, it’s actually pretty easy once you know how. I use Debian, Exim and Courier IMAP/POP3 on my servers, so for the most part, I was able to glue things together from a few tutorials and the CA Cert wiki. I used SSL certificates from CA Cert as I’m non-commercial and generally, I’m my only user.

In any case, I wrote it up here on my wiki so you can do it too. I hope you find it useful.

Good Days

After my last blog post quite a few people have been in touch to check I’m ok… and I am. Genuinely. It’s been a difficult, stressful few months but I’m back in the saddle now, in fact I’ve been positively buzzing for about a month. I don’t know whether it’s the good weather or the fact I have a fantastic new MP3 player after a few months without one, but I’ve been feeling back to my usual intelligent, witty self, even on not such good days. That last post was probably the first very good day I’d had in a long time and for the record, the day after was just as good, as have most others since.

So, thanks to everybody who cared, I really do appreciate it.

Dark Days, Baby

It’s been a difficult time recently, a lot has happened and you’ll have noticed my tail off in blogging. In the last few months I got a cat, bought a house, broke up with my girlfriend, made my first Ebay sale, thought I was cracking up, didn’t crack up, thought I was cracking up again, been miserable, been happy, slept a lot, not slept very well at all, wished I’d become a plumber, had a depressed 4 day hangover, been unsociable, thought I was the loneliest, saddest individual ever, thought I was weird, thought I was great, had a good laugh and watched too many films.

Today has been a good day. Work has me under pressure quite a lot, we’ve got some big things going on and it’s burning me out. I’ve not taken any holiday yet and we’re half way through the year, I’ve found it difficult to switch off and get to sleep, which is a problem I encountered before when I was working too much and not taking any holiday. I’ll lie awake, half asleep but never actually drifting off, with my mind processing solutions to things I’m doing at work. Not a good state to be in on top of a major relationship break-up.

Today was a good day because my sleeping pattern slips at the weekends, without having to get up in the morning I’ll work into the early hours on things that I don’t get to do in the week, then you get up late and feel terrible all day. Last night I made myself stop and go to sleep at a normal time, so today I got up at a normal time and went out shopping with my new MP3 player in the bright, warm sunshine. Warm, sunny weather always makes me feel better, so today I felt much more like the bright and confident individual I am, with an added bounce in my step thanks to the fantastic sounds in my ears. These days come only once every 2 months or so recently. I’ve always envied people who have those days every day.

There have been some pretty dark days over the last 3 months, but today was a good day. Let’s hope tomorrow is too.

New Hardware

I was bored this evening and I started playing around with some stuff I had lying around, like the USB Missile Launcher I bought in 2007, known as a Dream Cheeky Missile Launcher, for which I never found a GUI control tool under Linux. I never got that guy’s code to work before, it would always fall over when configuring or trying to compile. Tonight I realised it was just because I had stuff like automake, libgtk2.0-dev and libusb-dev missing and that the automake symlinks were version specific. The code compiled after I fixed that stuff and the app ran but some of the images were missing and it still wouldn’t control my Missiler Launcher, so I did a quick apt-cache search missile and found pyrocket. It works! I think I tried it before and it didn’t but now it does. My Missile Launcher works!

I discovered that my Sony Eye Toy webcam works and works well under Ubuntu, I tried in most Ubuntu releases since I was given a PS2 for Christmas a few years back but it never worked and most times I Googled, it wasn’t expected to work any time soon. Well now it works and the output looks very good. Fresh from this success, I decided to try another webcam I have lying around, made by Genius, I think Jono Bacon gave it to me last year. That never worked either but now it does. Output is pretty dark but I guess that’s down to the webcam’s sensor.

Another recent triumph was my USB Serial converter. I did a CCNA a few years back and it dawned on me that most modern PCs, desktop or laptop, don’t come with serial ports any more and pretty much every Cisco device uses a serial cable for (at least initial) configuration so I bought a cheap USB serial converter from Ebay straight from Hong Kong for about £3 including delivery. Came with a Windows driver CD, but didn’t work under Linux, even though there was a driver for the Prolific PL2303 chipset it used, so I had to buy some for ~£20 from Maplins which did work. It didn’t work from Dapper right through til the last time I checked which was some time around Hardy or Intepid, but now it works.

I don’t know whether this is the work of the Linux Driver Project, existing drivers getting tidied up and supporting more variations of hardware which uses the same chipsets or just natural maturation of the kernel and widening of the supported hardware base, but damn people, you work hard and you surprise me. Thank you.


As I said before, this is blissful. Like a scene from a religious experience. The most uplifting song I’ve ever heard. I present the song Inní mér syngur vitleysingur by Sigur Rós, taken from the album Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. Crazy Icelandics.

Link for those who can’t see the video.

No, you won’t understand it, it’s in Icelandic, but the title means “Within me a lunatic sings”, which is an incredible title for a song and the album title means “With Buzzing in Our Ears We Play Endlessly”. Unfortunately, it contains possibly the worst place to hit a bum note ever, but you’d never know unless you’ve heard the studio version, which is here. Go listen and make your day.

In Luuurrrrve

At the weekend I was driving on an errand and I happened to pass PC World. While I’m not a fan of PC World particularly, I do like to drop in as I pass by to browse the laptops and netbooks, particularly the netbooks as it’s the only place you really get to compare one against another. I noticed they were selling the HP Mininote 2133 for £200. At first I thought they were just selling off the display model, but that was the stock price.

I bought a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 in December and was a little disappointed with it, aside from the fact that I waited 3 months for the Ubuntu version to have matching specs as the Windows version and for Dell to start offering accessories like a carry case as they did in US, I even phoned them and asked but they declined to say whether there were any plans to do so. Eventually I got pissed off, bought the Windows one and installed Ubuntu. There’s nothing wrong with the performance of the machine, I just can’t type accurately on the keyboard no matter how hard I try, some keys are just way too small for my fingers and the screen is just a little too pokey to make checking my mail comfortable. I wanted a ‘throw in the bag and forget I’m carrying it’ web browser, mail client and SSH client, so my three major use cases were immediately uncomfortable even when using Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which is very nice and is designed specifically for limited screen real-estate.

The HP Mininote was marketed as a school or business mini notebook and cost around £360 last time I looked. I think it was probably immediately overlooked by everybody looking for a netbook on that count, it’s not something you can buy the kids for Christmas or birthday or a geeky treat to oneself at that price. Also the 2133 uses a Via chipset and C7-M ULV processor (mine is the 772 specifically) which was Via’s netbook architecture while it developed it’s next gen netbook architecture, the Nano. While many are prejudiced against non-Intel PC hardware, I’m not. My first PC was a Via Cyrix 133MHz that my cousin built for me out of spares and it was f***ing awful in performance terms, not that I’m ungrateful of course, I wouldn’t be doing what I do now if it weren’t for that machine; and my main desktop was an AMD Athlon XP for four and half years. However while early netbooks used either the C7-M or Intel Celerons, as soon as the Intel Atom hit the manufacturers, the Via C7-M was immediately in the cold and was at least 3 years older in design. Time will tell us what the market thinks of the Nano, but I suspect that Via are already too late to the party. Interesting discussion on netbooks, including how Via missed the boat is at Ars Technica here.

The major selling points of the 2133 over all the other netbooks are:

  • Higher screen resolution at 1280×768 (most netbooks are 1024×600)
  • Excellent display quality
  • 92% keyboard
  • Build quality. While most netbooks are plastic, the Mininote 2133 has an aluminium outer chassis and anodised magnesium inner casing. The keyboard is coated to stop the keys collecting gunk or the transfers wearing off
  • 1 Gb ethernet
  • ExpressCard slot
  • The screen has a protective outer shield
  • The hard disk has an accelerometer which means the drive will park the heads if it detects that it has suddenly tilted or is falling.
  • A button to disable the mouse pad and mouse buttons

All this alongside the usual netbook fare:

  • 1.2 GHz Via C7-M CPU
  • 1GB RAM
  • Bluetooth 2.0
  • Wireless b/g
  • 5400 RPM 120 GB HD
  • 0.3 MP webcam
  • Available with SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10.1 (which is pretty dated now), Windows Vista Home or Business

The Dell Mini 9 comes with 0.3 or 1.3 MP webcam, I chose 1.3 on mine (bigger is better right?), but as I’d read elsewhere that it would, the machine struggled to keep up with the webcam and the screen representation was blurry. I don’t know if this is a Linux driver issue or a CPU issue. The mouse buttons on the Mininote are on either side of the mouse pad, like the Acer Aspire One. I thought this might be horrible but it’s actually quite comfortable.

It turns out they didn’t have any more in stock in the store I was in, so I drove over to the one in the next town to get one and came home with my new toy. I bought the SLED version. First thing I noted was that the battery is completely discharged. I had to put it on the charger before it would do anything which put paid to playing with it in the car. On boot up I went through a pretty detailed OEM setup, which asked some questions I couldn’t answer without a network connection, something about registering for updates.

On completion, I rebooted and got a SLED GDM login screen, logged in and got the Gnome desktop, with the SLED slab menu and single desktop panel. While it was attactive, being an Ubuntu user it was completely alien to me, so I completely re-laid out my desktop, adding an extra panel, moving the applets around and added the Gnome default menu. While doing so, my first thoughts formed:

  • The machine was pretty sluggish.
  • SLED’s version of the default Gnome menu is a complete mess full of pointless sub-menus and duplicate entries.
  • YaST is shit and it’s icon tool-tips don’t adequately explain what each tool does.
  • There seems to be another ‘Control Panel’ for no apparent reason. This seems to be a castrated version of Gnome’s Control Centre.
  • There didn’t seem to be anywhere to configure the fonts or desktop appearance.
  • It took me ages to work out how to do this registration thing so I could get updates. I didn’t know whether that meant software updates or product announcements by email.

My primary objectives with any new install is to set up my desktop environment how I like it, install security updates and then install additional software. To get security updates I needed to find this registration thing, it took ages but I found it in YaST. I’d already started Firefox to see what my webmail looked like on the screen and the default home page was the page to create a Novell login, so I’d already done that by the time I found the registration app. When I completed jumping through the registration hoops, an update manager applet whirred away for around 20 minutes making the machine barely usable before telling me I had 3 updates. It went away for another 20 minutes when I told it to install them. I rebooted and the update manager made my system slow for another 20 minutes before telling me I had another update. I installed, rebooted, waited for my machine to stop being slow again before being offered a few hundred updates, which again took 20 minutes. I rebooted again and got a usable desktop again as all updates were applied.

There are several software management tools, I tried a few of them but nothing allowed me to install extra software. I tried to install gnome-games but I kept getting asked for an installation DVD which didn’t come with the machine. I decided to add another package repo but after Googling I came to a Novell page which offered repos for the latest version of Banshee, and Firefox, repos for the OpenSUSE build service and links to the OpenSUSE repos accompanied by the warning that mixing SLED 10 and OpenSUSE packages should work but may lead to dependency hell. At this point, I began to regret buying the machine.

I decided to fuck everything, I had been willing to try SLED 10, even though it’s really old as I didn’t want to try something else, find nothing would work and then be left with no OS as the machine didn’t come with a restore disk. I’d already read the Ubuntu Laptop Testing Team page on the 2133 and it sounded troublesome but I tried 8.10 anyway. The screen corrupted and X locked up when displaying GDM, a known bug. I’d already had a recommendation that Mandriva 2009 worked, but I’d try that if I couldn’t get Ubuntu to work at all, so I tried the latest 9.04 alpha build. It installed fine and all of the hardware worked, I got none of the awkward bugs or workarounds described in the the testing team 2133 wiki page. More relieving than that was the the machine wasn’t slow any more, it wasn’t sprightly but it didn’t feel slow to use. It didn’t feel any slower than the Mini 9. I installed all of the updates available and the machine didn’t churn like it had under SLED. Quite interesting was the fact that for an alpha release I found it completely usable and largely un-broken. I think the only bug I came across so far was that Flashblock, the Firefox extension for blocking Flash media, kept forgetting it’s whitelist, but that was fixed after an update.

My HP Mininote 2133 Desktop under Ubuntu 9.04 alpha 5

My HP Mininote 2133 Desktop under Ubuntu 9.04 alpha 5

The only issues of note with the Mininote 2133 that I have found so far are:

  • You have to add acpi_osi="!Windows 2006" to Grub’s menu.lst and reboot to make CPU frequency scaling work. I did and it works. Saves on battery. The CPU will scale between 1.2 GHz at full speed and 800 MHz as shown above.
  • The wireless works with Free drivers out of the box, but a proprietary driver is available and you need it if you use networks with a hidden SSID. I’ll stay with the Free drivers.
  • The graphics performance is not great and the drivers aren’t very featureful.
  • Battery life isn’t great. The SLED version comes with only a 3 cell battery, which should give you about 2 to 2 and a half hours battery life, which doesn’t seem to be much worse than the Mini 9 in my experience. I seem to get 90 minutes to 1 hour 45. You can get a 6 cell battery which protrudes downwards and props the laptop up a bit which some people seem to prefer.
  • The machine runs hot as a result of the Via C7-M processor, not uncomfortably so, but it does make you wonder about the lifespan of the other components in that heat.

The first two points are informational only, they work as they are but you have to make some slight mods if you want absolute functionality. The last two I was already aware of. Ultimately, battery life will go through the roof, along with performance as netbook hardware develops, we’re just at the beginning of the upward curve at the moment.

The main point though I think is the graphics performance. The machine uses a Via Chrome9 HC graphics chip which pulls in 256MB of your system RAM, though I think 786 MB RAM is enough for most netbook use cases. However, the graphics drivers are an issue. You essentially have 3 choices. By default you get the openchrome driver from which is perfectly adequate but lacks features such as 3D acceleration, dual-head support and MPEG2 and MPEG4 acceleration. I don’t know whether this is a driver or a chipset limitation but playing Youtube videos is ok though not great, make them full-screen and they become pretty choppy. A quick, unscientific test by playing the same Youtube video on the Mininote and the  Mini 9 at the same time showed that the Mini 9 can play the video in full-screen with roughly the same performance as the Mininote can when playing the small embedded movie within the page. The Mini 9 only started to get noticeably choppy in full-screen, while the Mininote is a bit choppy playing the small embedded video. I recorded no stats, it was just naked eye observation. When your desktop background draws on the Mininote after logging in, you can see the background change colour in sequential re-draws, like a slow-ish VNC or RDP session, it’s not bad but just enough to be noticeable. That said, I’m not knocking the guys who work on openchrome, as it may be the chip itself, but in any case they’re doing a good job without too many hands on deck. If you use Via graphics chips and can code in C, then maybe you could help. Via has always been unhelpful towards the Linux community and despite setting up various Linux driver initiatives and making big announcements, they themselves still don’t seem to have come up with a release quality driver, so I doubt the openchrome guys are getting much assistance from Via. Writing graphics drivers with no help from the vendor has always proven to be a thankless task.

Via drivers are your other choice, they come in a variety of flavours, 3D or 2D and proprietary or open source. Currently they are all either beta or alpha quality and are built around Ubuntu 8.10, 8.04 or other select Linux variants, based on specific kernel versions. According to the openchrome wiki, the proprietary drivers do MPEG2, MPEG4 and 3D acceleration but the applications requiring MPEG acceleration must run as root, which is insecure and pretty crazy. The open source drivers from Via are the same with some stuff taken out including the MPEG acceleration.

I haven’t tried any of Via’s drivers, I’m not sure I will until there are 9.04 packages. At the moment, the openchrome drivers do the basics and that’s all I need. If I need to do multi-head then I guess I’ll have to try the Via drivers, I don’t expect to need 3D acceleration (if I’m honest, I use a few things like the Terminal Server Client Applet and VNC client password boxes which don’t like it), but better video playback and screen re-drawing would be nice.

What I haven’t really talked about yet though is what I think of this machine in use. You can probably guess though. It’s in the post’s title. I love it. It feels great to use. The chassis is solid, inflexible and hard, in fact it feels nice to run your fingernails against while you’re thinking (weird huh?). The keyboard is nice to use and feels great on your finger tips, the screen resolution makes the machine comfortable to use compared to any other netbooks I’ve played with. It’s not sluggish to use and you can do real work on it, unlike most netbooks. The ever militant Peter Cannon, bless him, pointed out that he’s seeing netbooks appear in the second hand market as many people bought them thinking they’d be a full featured laptop, just smaller and cheaper, then found that they were just a bit too under-powered to do anything other than browse the net (even though the clue is in the name). The HP Mininote is a step up terms of usability, it’s not a fast laptop but it is usable as a result of the higher res screen and the bigger keyboard. My next laptop might be an HP if the build quality and feel is this good. I remember the last time I was looking for a laptop, I showed Ade the one I eventually bought and he pointed out to me that I didn’t need anything so big and heavy as it would be awful to carry anywhere, I just needed a little one, like his tiny Samsung (I think). Almost immediately after purchasing the one I showed him, I agreed.

While Via isn’t the currect choice for netbook hardware, I can’t complain about the performance (though in SLED it was horrible, I can’t imagine Vista was great either). It won’t feel like this for more than a year or three though, I expect it to get bogged down sooner rather than later, but still it will be the same with all current netbooks. In any case, it’s easier to maintain Linux and keep it sprightly, with Windows you have to reinstall when it starts to feel sluggish.

It will be interesting to see what the Via Nano does to the Atom netbook market, but already the reason for the £160 price drop on the Mininote 2133 is that HP has replaced it with the Atom based Mininote 2140. It looks the same and provides the same functionality as the 2133 while addressing most of the complaints about the 2133, namely increased battery life and the machine runs cooler. The 2140 also offers a larger hard disk or an SSD and 2 different resolutions, either 1024×576 or 1366×768 with the latter yet to be released. On the other hand though, it will probably price itself out of the comfortable netbook price range again and people will buy the larger netbooks from the likes of Asus, Dell, MSI and Acer. (Side point, everyone I know who bought an Acer Aspire One loves it too).

For now though, I luuuurve my 2133. You should get one too while they’re cheap. Probably some photos to follow in an update.

Wikipedia articles:

HP Mininote 2133 and 2140

Dell Inspiron Mini Range

Acer Aspire One

Asus Eee PC

MSI Wind (aka Medion Akoya or Advent 4211)

UPDATE 30/04/2009:

  • I hear that Vista is dreadful on the Mininote 2133, if you’re buying one I recommend using Ubuntu 9.04 (which is current at the moment).
  • The Ubuntu Netbook Remix interface runs badly on the 2133 due to the openchrome graphics drivers being unable to do 2D acceleration. There are a few other Netbook Remix bugs too.
  • Still no Ubuntu 9.04 drivers from Via. Their last release was 2nd December for 8.10 which just about 5 weeks after the Ubuntu release on October 30, so maybe they will release some 9.04 drivers in the next month. It would be nice to release them in time for the Ubuntu releases.
  • The Via processor includes what is called Via Padlock for hardware encryption which supports AES encryption of data up 25 GB/s, SHA hashing of data up to 20GB/s and random number generation of up to 20 million random bits per second. This is supported by the Linux kernel and by OpenSSL but doesn’t seem to work under Ubuntu 9.04 (in the beta at least) (old Launchpad bug #119295). The padlock-aes and via-rng modules load fine but aren’t loaded by default. The padlock-sha kernel module crashes if you load it and configuring it to load at boot time results in the machine hanging during boot up (Launchpad bug #355384). With the working modules loaded, OpenSSL recognises that it is padlock ready but the CPU is not. Ubuntu forum discussion on Via Padlock.
  • HP’s guide price for the 2140 starts at $449, which is pretty pricy for an Atom machine with a lower vertical resolution than pretty much every comparable machine out there at the moment. Cheapest I can find online is around £360 ex VAT as predicted.
  • I still like my 2133, which is pretty good considering the honeymoon period is over.

Happy With That

It’s not often that things satisfy expectations so I thought I should give some credit where it’s due. I’ve never bought digital audio in the past for a number of reasons:

  • Digital audio always seemed like an intangible product compared to vinyl and CDs, in much the same way as software did to computer manufacturers in the early home computing days. I’ve always preferred to buy something I can touch and hold as a testament to the beauty of it’s content, like a book compared to a computer screen. The artwork, the sleeve note and the packaging make it a valuable, desirable artefact. I much prefer to buy the CD over just owning the songs.
  • I don’t like much music, but what I do like I become utterly absorbed by. Consequently, for a lot of music out there, I might like one or two tracks on an album, but have to skip over the rest or put the songs I like in a playlist. At that point, buying CDs is uneconomical.
  • The marketplace for digital audio has always been dominated by a few suppliers who restrict their music with DRM meaning you need Windows, a Mac, an iPod, iTunes or Windows Media Player to play them. No good for Freedom loving Linux types like me. You can’t move your music files from one MP3 player or PC to another. DRM is deliberately unsupported under Linux.

Of course you can also download music illegally, but I prefer not to do that. I’m happy to make my own music available free of charge and am happy to pay for music if it is affordable and available in a format which doesn’t restrict my fair use. It’s only recently that that has happened.

Recently there have been a couple songs that I listened to on the radio which I really liked, but I suspected I wouldn’t enjoy the full albums as much so I decided to see how much they were as digital downloads. I vaguely recalled announcements by Amazon and that they were selling legitimate MP3s unrestricted by DRM. Amazon sold tracks for 69 pence each at 280 Kb/s, while sold them for 70 pence at 320 Kb/s. While the small price difference for the extra audio quality may have been worth it, I actually chose to go with Amazon. Play offers you a limited number of downloads of the same file in case you delete it accidentally or somehow fail to download it successfully. Amazon offer a single shot download but force you to use their Amazon MP3 Downloader application, presumably to ensure a successful download regardless of connection breakages.

What interested me was they had a Linux version. Not only that, but they had versions for a number of distributions, such as .debs for Ubuntu 8.10 and for Debian and .rpms for OpenSUSE 11 and Fedora 9. That’s far better than I would have expected. On the downside, I happened to be on a 64 bit Linux machine and they only offered 32 bit packages which gdebi refused to install. Perhaps I could have forced the installation on the command line though that might have demanded all sorts of 32 bit packages, when I already have the 64 bit versions, I don’t know. Additionally, what Gentoo, Slackware and all of those other popular distributions that don’t use a mainstream package manager are supposed to do, I don’t know. In reality, I think I would probably prefer a straight download with the possibility of going back if I lose my hard disk or something, but I was interested to see how this Amazon tool worked so I switched to a 32 bit machine.

Well it seems to be a native Gnome GTK application, Amazon provide you with an ‘.amz’ file which opens automatically in the downloader application and pulls down your music for you. It was really simple. It uses stock Gnome icons and obeys your desktop and icon themes.

So, while I didn’t try downloading from, I will, but I was very happy with Amazon and I will buy music downloads from them again.

All this inspired the renaissance in getting a WordPress widget working, which in turn resulted in me changing my WordPress theme. I’d been using the Rubric theme by Hadley Wickham (sadly no longer linkable) as seen here since I set this blog up in 2004 and used the updated version hacked to work with WordPress 1.5 and later by Tom Raftery. Sadly though it seems a little dated now and didn’t support WordPress Widgets. Also, I’ve been updating WordPress from SVN since around 2.0 which means that it won’t update any files I’ve modified manually, which with a theme which doesn’t support extra functionality like Widgets was growing with every modification I made so I decided to start with a fresh install of WordPress and a new theme. At the moment, I’m using the stock theme with a few additions, I don’t expect to stay this way for long.

So anyway, I tried again with the widget I installed a while back but the Flash file it called wouldn’t load so I had to look into the code. It’s basically just a WordPress Widget wrapper around the widget, however have moved all their widget stuff around which is why the Flash file won’t load. So I went to the website and looked at the widgets. You set up your widget and it gives you the code, so I just removed all of the code between the $widget = <<<LFM and LFM; lines, replaced it with the code from the website and hey presto.

As a result, I now have a nice, albeit temporary theme, widgets and a box proudly displaying my musical taste. I also found a Facebook application which hooks into on the website so now there’s no hiding from the embarrassing songs in my collection.

Anyway, after all of that  waffling, I just wanted to say that I was very happy with the Amazon MP3 download service and will use it again. It’s nice to see a big retailer like Amazon consider Linux users and even more so, to actually realise that there is more than one version of Linux and not leave all of the users that don’t use an old version of Red Hat in the cold by providing a single, out-dated binary, as hardware manufacturers did a few years back, or making the same mistake with Ubuntu users in more modern times. Good show. Just build some 64 bit packages, 32 bit is edging it’s way out.

Linux on Dell Laptops – Don’t Press the MediaDirect Button

I’ve been pulling late nights at work on and off for around 4 or 5 days. Last night was one such night. Upgrades and updates dragged into the night with me waiting on standby to go in and do my thing. My thing started around 2 hours later than planned and I got to bed pretty late. Straight from the computer screen I found it hard to get to sleep and it took maybe another hour to get to sleep. 3 hours later, with the work continuing, somebody triggered our monitoring system and I blearily stumbled out of bed to attend to the triggered alarm and see what the fuss was about. Unsteady on my feet I reached in the dark for the the power button on my stupidly large and heavy Dell XPS M1710 laptop, overbalanced slightly and instead pushed what felt like a smaller button, but the machine powered on all the same.

What I got instead of the Grub bootloader and Ubuntu’s pretty usplash boot screen was something light blue in colour and Windows like, telling me it was scanning for media files, then a Grub boot error appeared behind it, which looks pretty weird in a Windows environment.

Thankfully, somebody else beat me to the monitoring alert but what they didn’t do while dealing with the alert was recover my laptop’s partition layout and all of my files. That would have been hard for them to be honest as my laptop’s filesystem isn’t monitored by work’s monitoring system as you might expect, so perhaps they could be forgiven.

Now, someone had told me that they made the same mistake doing almost exactly the same thing, blundering around, all half-asleep in the dark. I won’t say who that is, it wouldn’t be fair, though the person in question happened to be at a developer summit for a very popular Linux distribution at the time and the following morning, had one of the company employees, who worked on the development of the kind of low-level tools used when dealing with this kind of thing to take a look. MediaDirect had destroyed his partition table, thankfully however, the dev was able to do all sorts of crazy shit and put his partition table back how it was before. I don’t have a dev who can do crazy partition table shit and neither do you.

Put simply, the Dell MediaDirect button, when used to power on your machine will delete any non-Windows (FAT or NTFS) partitions and replace them with a Windows partition which is like an instant-on media player, similar to the instant-on Linux system you can get on some Dells. That’s even though I completely blew away the entire pre-installed Windows OS, including the pre-installed MediaDirect partition, repartitioned and installed my own operating system. MediaDirect is installed in a protected part of the disk, called the Host-Protected Area (HPA), which can’t easily be wiped by you or I, but in any case, it’s too late, my partitions are fragged. When booted into Ubuntu, the MediaDirect button starts your media player of choice, that’s Rhythmbox for me, Banshee always falls over on importing my music collection. Sadly I assume the instant-on Linux feature won’t delete Windows partitions…

Thankfully, I rsynced my home directory to my new HP server about a week and a half ago and I haven’t really created/edited/downloaded any new files in that time, I’ve just done a lot of console work. My Firefox bookmarks are synced with Foxmarks, all of my personal mail is done over IMAP on my own remote mail server and all of my files, minus a few small edits, are on the home server.

This story has 2 morals:

  1. Make backups more often than you already do. If you do none, then just doing it once will be better than nothing. My having backups, despite being a sysadmin, is more to do with the good fortune of having just purchased a home server and rsyncing my files to it so I could sync my laptops against it, rather than against each other and then have various versions of the sames files; and so I could play my music files without having to carry the heavy laptop around the house, than it does about good planning and regular backups. Do a backup today or do it tomorrow if you can’t do it today.
  2. Don’t press the MediaDirect button when you want to power on your Dell laptop which has Linux installed. I believe the problem doesn’t exist when Linux is pre-installed, Dell thought of this at that point, but it doesn’t help you if you purchased a Windows laptop and installed Linux either in a dual-boot, or as the only OS.

I don’t yet know of a way to disable the MediaDirect button’s action, but I do have some good news. I managed to recover my partition layout while I was writing this post. I was searching Google for ‘Ubuntu Dell MediaDirect’, which seems to be so common that Google Suggest suggests it and I came across this Ubuntu Forums thread and used the second set of instructions in this post to recover my partition table. Essentially, you boot from an Ubuntu live CD, modify your apt-sources.list and install testdisk, tap Proceed a few times until it shows you your original partition layout and then you save it. Thank fuck for the guy that wrote teskdisk, the guy who wrote the forum post and the guy who told him how to do it. Major kudos to those guys, I now hand that knowledge over to you in case you should ever need it. I just have to find a way of turning off that insane MediaDirect power on function.

Thankfully, in my middle-of-the-night blind stupour, I had the presence of mind to power the machine off as soon as I realised that it was doing something bad that I didn’t understand, even though I was still too half-asleep to understand why I thought it might be bad. That bit of instinctive reaction stopped MediaDirect writing files over the top of my existing files, even though it ate the partition table. Had I left it much longer, I might not have so many files left.

More details about HPA here. Testdisk home page here for all your partition recovery needs. How much would you have to pay for the equivalent Windows tool? Free Software saves lives, for me at least.

Thoughts on the Nokia N96

…Or the Nokia N96 for Sony Ericsson owners.

I’ve had a Nokia N96 for about 4 or 5 weeks now and I thought I’d share some feelings on it. My last 3 phones have all been Sony Ericssons and I was very happy with them, but I wanted a phone that was a bit more capable, had more storage, good web connectivity and an established eco-system of 3rd party apps. The last Nokia I had was a monochrome screen 8310 back in 2003.

First of all the edited highlights:

  • Symbian S60 3rd Edition Operating System
  • 16 GB Flash storage.
  • 5 MP camera.
  • Native BBC iPlayer application.
  • Wireless LAN.
  • 7.2 Mb HSDPA 3G connectivity.
  • GPS maps
  • Built in FM and Internet radio receiver and DVB-H digital TV receiver.
  • USB Mass Storage device mode (ie it shows up as a USB disk on your computer which works on Linux).
  • The keypad slides out from under the display, there is a multimedia control keypad which slides out from the other end and puts the display in landscape mode.

After using it for 5 weeks my opinions in quick bullet point form are:

  • Horrible keypad, feels nasty and either I can type faster with 2 thumbs than it can detect or the keypad design makes it easy to miss keys (the alphanumeric keys are in rows of 3, with a single piece of plastic per row of keys).
  • Battery life is 2 to 3 days without making any calls and with bluetooth and wireless off. My Sony Ericssons lasted around 6 to 7 days, though this is a smart phone and they weren’t.
  • If you make around 45 mins to an hour of calls after a full charge, your battery life is almost gone.
  • The phone bleeps only once when your battery is going, it doesn’t vibrate even in silent mode, which means most of the time you won’t realise before your phone switches off.
  • It’s a bit large but not overly so, it’s not uncomfortable to carry.
  • The keypad lock is unlocked when you slide the keypad out, which happens quite easily in your pocket, that said, I’ve not made any accidental calls I don’t think.
  • If your battery goes, it seems to reset your alarms to how they were set the last time your phone switched off. I overslept for work by an hour yesterday as a result.
  • Silent mode doesn’t vibrate by default.
  • Meeting mode beeps when you get a call or message and doesn’t vibrate. There isn’t a quiet mode which vibrates and rings and sounds your message alert quieter than in normal mode.
  • When viewing the main screen, the right hand control key, usually back or exit, is dedicated to the iPlayer which means if you press it once too often when navigating back from the sub-menus you start iPlayer and it goes away for a few seconds before asking you to select a connection to the Internet, you have to exit that and then exit the iPlayer. I would much prefer to dedicate this button to some other tool as the iPlayer already has an icon on the main screen and an entry in the applications list.
  • Viewing your call log, then calling somebody from the list and ending the call dumps you back at the main screen but leaves the call log open in the background, seems an unnecessary waste of memory. I don’t need it after making my call or sending a message.
  • The interface or applications aren’t particularly fast, it feels pretty sluggish at times.
  • The web browser freezes the phone for around 30 seconds or so when rendering some pages.
  • The handset crashes occasionally, about once every week on average. About 4 or 5 times in the first 2 weeks, but none in the last 3 weeks.
  • Email seems to work well from my own mail server, which never did on my last Sony Ericsson.
  • The network selection tool seems a little clunky and the iPlayer doesn’t always seem to use the one you selected.
  • You need to use a wireless LAN connection to stream programmes using iPlayer, though you can use the 3G connection to browse programmes using iPlayer, it will just tell you to use wireless LAN when you want to watch or listen to something.
  • Clicking the red ‘end-call’ button in any application take you back to the main screen without closing the application you were using. This is a double-edged sword I’m not used to after 3 Sony Ericssons. It’s an unnecessary memory hog and quite often, if you check the open applications by going into the menu screen, choose options and then show the open applications, you will find a few open unnecessarily, on the other hand, it means you can flip around between applications without starting them each time you want to go back to one.
  • The space button and predictive text’s ‘change word’ button are switched compared to Sony Ericssons. I’m almost used to this already.
  • You can’t lock the phone with Menu * like you can on most phones.
  • The wireless network scanning tool, once running, is constantly scanning unless you turn it off again. Not sure if this is a good thing or a waste of battery. It’s visually irritating. Turning off scanning doesn’t seem to disconnect your WLAN connection as that’s another option. That seems to be a good idea.
  • The wireless LAN supports WEP, WPA, WPA2 and will see your hidden network if you punch in your SSID manually, though it seemed to forget it later on and I had to put it in again. I ended up making my WLAN visible instead of entering the SSID every time.
  • The backlight behind the buttons below the screen ‘breathes’ periodically to let you know the handset is still on, in the same way an Apple notebook does when it’s suspended. I quite like this and while I wonder if it’s a waste of precious battery, you can turn it off though it’s the only way of knowing the battery hasn’t gone without pressing buttons every few minutes.
  • Haven’t really used the camera much, it seems ok.
  • Haven’t used the maps. I should look at whether it contains a route planner or not and whether it would be of any use in assisting the Open Street Map project.
  • You don’t have to record your own voice commands for voice activated dialling. I just connected my bluetooth earpiece, pressed the button on the earpiece, waited for the beep and said the name or the person I wanted to call. Don’t know how it decides which number to call if you have more than one number for a contact.
  • The phone came with episodes of Top Gear, Dr Who and The Mighty Boosh, in formats optimised for playback on the phone and on a TV using the TV out cable. That’s pretty cool. I deleted Dr Who straight away 😉
  • I haven’t tried the TV out.
  • It came with a car charger. Which is pretty cool. Probably because you need to charge it up every 2 days.
  • I installed an Ogg player called OggPlay and an SSH client called midpssh. OggPlay has crashed the phone a few times and you can’t run things like top in midpssh because the machine I’m SSHed into says my terminal isn’t wide enough. I haven’t tried it with the screen in portrait mode.
  • I didn’t know until 30 seconds ago that there is as version of PuTTY, the popular Windows SSH client for Symbian phones. I’ll have to try that.
  • The bundled ear phones work with OggPlay as you would expect, but none of the integrated multimedia controls, either on the handset or on the earphone cables work with it. You are restricted to using alphanumeric keypad buttons to control the application.
  • The built in media player doesn’t support Ogg and all of my music is in Ogg Vorbis format. I knew this in advance, so it was no surprise.
  • Of course, decoding Ogg files on a device that doesn’t support Ogg canes your battery life as it has to be done in software on your device’s processor, but I think I did get 3 hours playback from a fresh charge which is similar to my sadly defunct Cowon iAudio X5 MP3 player, which did support Ogg.
  • There is a tool to autoconfigure your phone’s network settings. Don’t know whether this is specific to my network provider.
  • Configuring the phone’s settings seems a bit convoluted. I spend a lot of time searching for certain settings and then can’t find them again later.
  • There are some decent games on the phone, but most of them seem to be time limited demos.
  • General navigation is ok but navigating any kind of menu requires far more clicks than seems to be necessary, either that or I’m too used to the Sony Ericsson way. When constructing a new SMS messages for example, choosing the recipient is unnecessarily arduous and it doesn’t give you a list of recent recipients.
  • There is a built in PDF viewer, word processor, spreadsheet and presentation creator. I haven’t used them but I guess they’re good for document viewing and I assume they are Microsoft Office format compatible to a certain level. The built in notes application is a lot better than on my Sony Ericssons. There is also a zip file manager, currency converter, sound recorder and a version of Real Player, none of which I have used.
  • I haven’t really used the built in radio much and there is no DVB-H broadcasting in the UK.
  • The filesystem layout seems confusing when you get down to it. There is an identical file system layout per storage medium (ie flash, built in memory and memory card if you have one) and on each file system there are a number of directories with similar names, suggesting similar function, but I don’t understand the logic which determines that my videos go in ‘Video clips’ rather than ‘My Videos’ or which puts one picture taken on the phone in ‘Pictures’ and another in ‘Pictures/200812/2008A0/’. In ‘My Videos’, there are a whole bunch of preinstalled video files and an empty directory call ‘Preinstalled’. The logic eludes me.
  • Turning on the phone from a cold start seems to wake the phone up, but doesn’t always turn it on fully most of the time. It seems to go to a white screen and then fades out to preserve battery. You have to press the power button again to make it prompt you for a PIN. After entering the PIN, it turns on fully. It has only turned on fully from a cold start once without requiring a second press of the power button and that was about 15 seconds ago. Every other time, it took 2 presses.
  • The phone forgets time and date if the battery runs out. This is probably a good thing since it could be several hours or days between the battery running out and it being recharged and turned back on but as the battery life is short, it happens a lot which is pretty irritating. It would have been nice to switch off and retain enough battery to maintain the internal clock unless the battery entirely exhausted before being recharged. Perhaps they didn’t do this as it would shorten the already short battery life.
  • The web browser is ok, nothing more. That may be more to do with the screen size, memory footprint restrictions and input method restrictions compared to a regular PC or laptop than the browser itself.
  • I believe you are charged a on a more expensive tariff if you use the phone’s 3G connection with a PC or a laptop. I think you can do this using the bundled Windows software, but I don’t run Windows. I haven’t yet checked whether you can do this under Linux. I could with my Sony Ericsson, I think I used the USB cable, but I only discovered this as I was backing it up in preparation for migration to the N96.
  • Nokia do a music download site. I’ve not used it, but browsing there, the website tells me my device (Firefox under Ubuntu Linux) is not compatible, though the N96 is so I guess it doesn’t work unless you’re using a Nokia device. I believe the music is in Windows Media Audio (WMA) format using Windows Media DRM, so I won’t be buying any of that shit.

I think that’s all of my thoughts so far. I may sound pretty unhappy with it but I’m not. Bits of it I find really uncomfortable to use. Bits of it I found really uncomfortable but am now used to. Other things will always get on my nerves I think but your brain tends to work around the problem until you automatically do so without thinking about it. It only bothers you when you move to another platform, which is probably my problem in some cases.

Some of the main features I bought the phone for, I’ve not used yet, like the maps. I’ve already filled the storage with my music collection and I’ve used the wireless LAN and 3G connections satisfactorily. It will use full 3.5G at 7.2 Mb if you can get a signal for it. I can’t that where I live, but I can elsewhere.

In general I would say it’s a very good phone if you want all the features and you’re willing to either  pay the high monthly line rental fee, take a long contract or pay hundreds up front for the handset to get one and you’re comfortable with the Nokia way of doing things. I’m not so familiar with Samsung, LG or Motorola phones so I’d like to see what theirs and Sony Ericsson’s equivalent models were like before I’d say this is the smart phone you want. I didn’t like the Sony Ericsson I was offered at all, though it wasn’t a smart phone of this kind and I certainly didn’t want an iPhone.

The major nags for me are the fiddly navigation around the menus, the unnecessary amount of questions to answer when trying send an SMS or make a call, the annoying dedicated iPlayer button which keeps getting pressed by mistake, the file sytem layout which makes no sense and dreadful battery life. The battery life really is a problem.

On the plus side, having an Ogg player, an SSH client, 16 GB of storage, wireless LAN and a 7.2 MB 3G connection are great. It’s a shame that OggPlay doesn’t support the handset’s multimedia keys or the headset’s controls. I just have to see what the maps application is like before I decide whether I’d buy this hand set again given the chance.

IPMI on HP Proliant ML115 G5

I bought an HP Proliant ML115 G5 server recently, it was a bargain for a good amount of processing power, albeit in an entry level tower server. It will live at my house and I’ve already supplemented it with 4 GB RAM and will dropping in a pair of 1 TB disks on a 3Ware RAID controller, so I’m not troubled by the form-factor and otherwise low specs.

At the time of purchase though, I didn’t realise you could buy HP’s Lights Out remote management card and have HP refund you the cost. They won’t do this if you retrospectively buy the card though, they have to be on the same invoice, so I will have to make do with the onboard IPMI controller, which would have been fine as I’m pretty familiar with IPMI, if only I could get it to work on this machine.

As far as I’m aware, the HP LO card is similar in principle to IPMI, but a bit more intelligent. On every other IPMI controller I’ve used, there are a number of ‘channels’ with which you can communicate, one of which is a LAN channel to which you can assign an IP address. That way you can send IPMI commands over the network and remotely power on, power off, reboot and get hardware information whether the operating system is running or not. With some versions of IPMI, you can configure the BIOS, the bootloader and the Linux kernel to give you a serial console over the network so you can see remotely what you would see if you were standing in front of the machine in all cases.

However, with this IPMI controller there doesn’t seem to be a LAN channel which means I can’t do any of those things, at least in the range of channels I tried which was between 0 and 10, only channels 1 and 2 existed. Normally, channel 1 would have been the LAN channel.

It has to be said that HP don’t list this system as supported by Debian or Ubuntu, however it works fine under Debian Etch and Ubuntu 8.10 in every other way and I’ve yet to come across a hardware vendor which actually says it supports Linux across its hardware range, even when it works fine. They normally support a subset of hardware, which they have certified, created a knowledge base for and have provided support training for. My Dell XPS 1710 laptop for example works perfectly, but Dell don’t support Linux on it.

In fact, despite saying they do not support Debian on the ML115 G5, this page appears to show they do support Red Hat and SUSE. If they support Red Hat and SUSE, I  hope this may change once Debian Lenny is released and has been through their QA process. However the Debian Proliant Wiki is confident that the Debian will install successfully on this machine, as I can of course confirm, though no mention is made of the IPMI controller, as you would expect for a wiki about installer compatibility. I may try CentOS to see if it can see a LAN channel on the IPMI controller, just to set the address and then replace it with Debian afterwards. I’m not a fan of Red Hat/CentOS servers, I prefer that it’s reasonably easy to upgrade between Debian release. I don’t see that it’s that easy between Red Hat and CentOS releases. (UPDATE: CentOS can’t see a LAN channel on the IPMI controller either.)

HP do supply a bunch of Debian packages for Proliant hardware management, such as the HP Proliant Value Add Software which contains an HP version of ipmitool, the tool used to manage an IPMI controller from inside the OS. On Dell hardware there is a BIOS level tool to set the IP address on an IPMI controller, on Supermicro servers there was a bootable FreeDOS CD for uploading the firmware and then setting the IP address. In either case, you can also set the IP address of the LAN channel using ipmitool. Sadly, as I said the stock version if ipmitool in Debian Etch and Ubuntu 8.10 doesn’t seem to be able to see a LAN channel. The HP version of ipmitool shipped in the HP Proliant Value Add Software has to be compiled at installation time by debconf and it bails out with a bunch of compiler errors about missing files even though I have the kernel sources and headers installed for my kernel version.

I called HP’s Unix/Linux Proliant support line and explained the problem to the guy, asking if he either knows what the LAN channel is supposed to be, whether the IPMI controller some how relies on the LO card for remote access or whether there are known issues. Unfortunately, he didn’t really seem to know what I was on about and after putting me on hold for several minutes, offered me a Windows Server 2003 null management controller driver. When I reminded him that I had called the Unix/Linux Proliant support line because I use Linux, not Windows, he told me that Linux isn’t supported on this server even though Red Hat and SUSE are as noted above. At this point I explained that the controller is independant of the operating system, it is used for out of band management, ie whether the system is powered on or not, you communicate with the IPMI controller over the network. I forger what my man said to that but it implied that he couldn’t help me and feeling my irritation rise I decided to tell him not to worry about it and ended the call.

It strikes me sometimes that vendor support use their list of supported hardware/operating system/web browser/whatever as a get out clause when they don’t understand your problem. It’s an easy cut off when they encounter something they don’t know how to answer, even though the problem is not related to their hardware/operating system/web browser/whatever support list. That said, I appreciate that this was a quite a specific technical issue and the problem is not necessarily to do with the support guy I called, but in his training and the resources available to him. If he could search for the specs of the IPMI controller in my server or cross-reference my server model, operating system and the IPMI controller, I’m sure he would have been able to be more helpful. I feel bad for call centre support people, they get a shit deal from management and customers alike.

Anyway, if you couldn’t tell, this post is me purely taking the opportunity to complain bitterly about unhelpful support and lack of vendor documentation, to create a central list of all the links I came across navigating the HP’s seemingly spaghetti linked website and to ask you if you have any ideas. Do you have any ideas where I’m going wrong? Will the IPMI controller ever work? Do you know how I can set an IP address on it under Linux?

Other Links:

HP for Proliant

HP Proliant Debian home page

Debian on HP Proliant PDF

Debian Linux on HP website and forum