New personal gamestation!

Beside a new devbox that I talked about setting up, now that I no longer pay for the tinderbox I also decided to buy myself a new PC for playing games (so Windows-bound, unfortunately), replacing Yamato that has been serving me well for years at this point.

Given we’ve talked about this at the office as well, I’ll write down the specs over here, with the links to Amazon (where I bought the components), as I know a fair number of people are always interested to know specs. I will probably write down some reviews on Amazon itself as well as on the blog, for the components that can be discussed “standalone”.

  • CPU: Intel i7 5930K, hex-core Haswell-E; it was intended as a good compromise between high performance and price, not only for gaming but also for Adobe Lightroom.
  • Motherboard: Asus X99-S
  • Memory: Crucial Ballistix 32GB (8GBx4) actually this one I ordered from Crucial directly, because the one I originally ordered on Amazon UK was going to ship from Las Vegas, which meant I had to pay customs on it. I am still waiting for that one to be fully cancelled, but then Crucial was able to deliver an order placed on Wednesday at 10pm by Friday, which was pretty good (given that this is a long weekend in Ireland.)
  • Case: Fractal Design Define R5 upon suggestion of two colleagues, one who only saw it in reviews, the other actually having the previous version. It is eerily quiet and very well organized; it would also fit a huge amount of storage if I needed to build a new NAS rather than a desktop PC.
  • CPU cooler: NZXT Kraken X61 I went with water cooling for the CPU because I did not like the size of the copper fins in the other alternatives of suggested coolers for the chosen CPU. Since this is a completely sealed system it didn’t feel too bad. The only shaky part is that the only proper space for this to fit into the case is on the top-front side, and it does require forcing the last insulation panel in a little bit.

Now you probably notices some parts missing; the reason is that I have bought a bunch of components to upgrade Yamato over the past year and a half since being employed also means being able to just scratch your itch for power more easily, especially if you, like me, are single and not planning a future as a stock player. Some of the updates are still pretty good and others are a bit below average now, and barely average when I bought it, but I think it might be worth listing them still.

  • SSD: Samsung 850 EVO and Crucial M550, both 1TB. The reason for having two different ones is because the latter (which was the first of the two) was not available when I decided to get a second one, and the reason to get a second one was because I realized that while keeping pictures on the SSD helped a lot, the rest of the OS was still too slow…
  • GPU: Asus GeForce GTX660 because I needed something good that didn’t cost too much at the time.
  • PSU: be quiet! Dark Power Pro 1200W which I had to replace when I bought the graphics card, as the one I had before didn’t have the right PCI-E power connectors, or rather it had one too few. Given that Yamato is a Dual-Quad Opteron, with registered ECC memory, I needed something that would at least take 1kW; I’m not sure how much it’s consuming right now to be honest.

We’ll see how it fares once I have it fully installed and started playing games on it, I guess.

IPv6 in the workplace

I noted last week that for some reason I couldn’t understand, for some website the access time was quite lower on IPv6 than it was on IPv4. This seems to be consistent within the network as well, even though I’m still not sure if it’s a matter of a smaller overhead incurred in IPv6 itself, or if it’s mostly because the router in that case doesn’t have to do the same level of connection tracking for NAT and PAT.

But it’s not all clear this way: while NetworkManager is pretty happy with finding out both the address and the DNS server advertised with radvd, neither Mac OS X (10.5, 10.6 and 10.8) nor Windows (7) could get the DNS server. This is known and the only solution for this is to use a hybrid network with the stateless autoconfiguration (radvd) and DHCPv6 for extra information (NTP and DNS servers, among others).

So I first tried to set up ISC DHCP to serve out the v6 information, since that was the DHCP server I was using already. But this is extremely cumbersome. The first problem is that you can’t actually have one single dhcpd process running and serve both DHCP and DHCPv6, even though they use different ports, so you have to make use of dhcpd’s init script multiplexing support. Okay, not that big a deal is it? Strike two is that the configuration file can’t be shared either, even though the option names are different between the two implementations. What?

Okay so multiplexed init scripts, and separate configuration files. Is that all? It should, but honestly I’ve been unable to get it to work. I’m not sure if I just screwed up the configuration or what else, but it was trouble. Add to that that you have no way with the current init script to just reload the configuration, but you actually have to restart the service (and there is no configuration check on stop, which means you might take your DHCP down), and the fact that the man page for dhcpd.conf does not list most of the IPv6 options and I got tired.

Luckily for me, net-dns/dnsmasq (which we’re already using to serve as local DNS — I used unbound before, but in this case it seemed much easier as we need local hostnames, whereas at my house I simply used public IPv6 addresses) supports both DHCP and DHCPv6, responds to both with the same process, and supports a reload command. More interestingly, it seems like it could take over the job that right now is handled by radvd for router advertisement, but I haven’t tried that yet.

With this change, finally, I was able to get Windows 7 and Mac OS X to make DNS requests to the router’s IPv6 address, in the hope that this improves the general network’s responsiveness (at a first glance it seems to be working). So I started checking over the various systems we have in the office what supports what, testing also with test-ipv6

  • Windows 7 now gets both IPv6 addresses (temporary and mac-based) and DNS servers; test results 1010;
  • Mac OS X Mountain Lion gets the stateless IPv6 address as well as the DNS server; test results 1010;
  • Mac OS X Snow Leopard gets the IPv6 address but doesn’t see the DNS server, in either way; test results 1010;
  • Linux gets the IPv6 address and the DNS server; test results 1010;
  • Windows XP (after adding the protocol manually, of course) does not let you see which IP addresses it has, so I don’t know if it gets the DNS right, but it seems to work; test results 1010;
  • Kindle Fire (first generation) does not show you the addresses it got, but tests pass 1010 so I assume it’s working;
  • iPhone, running iOS 5 (colleague of mine) doesn’t show the addresses but tests also pass 1010;
  • iPad, running iOS 6 (mine) shows the IPv6 DNS address, but tests don’t pass, 0/10;
  • Desire HD (CyanogenMod 7) doesn’t show any address, and tests don’t pass 0/10.

Something seems to be extremely wrong with these results honestly, but I’m not yet sure what.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to experiment with Flash and Red5 to see if there is any reason why we should work on supporting IPv6 in our products yet (if those two components don’t support it yet, there’s no real reason for us to look into it for now), but in the mean time, the advantages to start moving to IPv6 start to show themselves pretty clearly..

Having an use for UEFI: Windows 7 as a second OS

This is not your average Linux-focused post, I’ m sorry if you were expecting one.

As I said lately, I’m now in Los Angeles, and while my dayjob involves working with a Gentoo-based firmware (and a Flash-written interface), I also have to complete a few tasks for customers at home, one of which requires me to use Windows 7 and Visual Studio 2008, both of which I own a license of … but in Italy.

While my original plan was to use TeamViewer (of which I also have a license — no kidding I know the value of Free Software, given how much I must spend on proprietary software to perform the task that FLOSS is unable to), but unfortunately the same router crash that caused Yamato’s unavailability has caused me to lose access to the laptop I used for this task.

This became even more troublesome considering that while my Dell laptop came with a Windows 7 Professional license, I decided to not install it back last time I decided to repartition it, and even more importantly, when I came here to the US I replaced the 250GB SATA hard drive with a 64GB SSD which is entirely dedicated to my Gentoo installation.

How to solve this situation? Well, seems like I did set me up with the single component to handle this properly: an eSATAp-to-SATA cable, a passive adapter, which can be used in combined eSATA/USB ports, which my laptop has (incidentally, that works just fine if you boot the system with it connected; it also works fine if you resume with it connected… but Linux seems not to have a way to rescan the bus properly, making it unsuitable for hotplug), The other part to this task is of course having the product keys (the Windows 7 one is under my battery, the Visual Studio one is on my NAS, which means a friend of mine can access it), and the discs… luckily, Microsoft’s official ISO files are available, even though you have to hunt for the Windows 7 ones, as they are not public. Visual Studio 2008 and the SP1 are available as downloads, the first as a 90 days convertible trial, which is fine.

My idea was to hope for the best, install Windows on the secondary disk, and then re-install grub2, through SysRescue, to be able to boot from the external drive. Well, it turns out it was much more easy than that. For whatever reason, my laptop can keep booting UEFI and non-UEFI modes without having to reconfigure the firmware every time, just by using F12 to choose the different boot device. So I started the Windows installation in UEFI mode, and watched it progress (I already knew that the firmware can easily boot from the external harddrive, as the eSATA interface only shows it on a different AHCI host, but it’s initialized the same way as the internal one).

After the first installation step was completed, I was honestly surprised to find out that… Windows didn’t even touch grub2! Instead, what it did was create its own EFI boot partition on the secondary harddrive, leaving the main harddrive totally clean… I just have to select “Windows Boot Manager” from the F12 menu, and Windows 7 boots and doesn’t give anything about being on a physically external drive. Even their performance score system is not showing any difference from having it internal (although I’m sure it would show the difference if it was Windows on the SSD).

Of course this is not to say that Microsoft’s software is not the usual stinking stuff… but at least they can leverage UEFI, with all its faults, to make for something… and luckily, they no longer want to be the sole owners of my laptop to just let me use their stuff for one job.

Dealing with arrogant software producers

I have said before that I work also as a system administrator, even though that usually means having to deal with Windows systems, to make sure I can pay the bills. One of my customers is a private security firm, and they have a centralised burglar alarm management software from an Italian producer called Micrologic — I’m not going to give them the benefit of the link.

I encountered this customer last year, when the computer they used for that management software went haywire and they needed someone quickly to fix it up. After battling with it a bit, the final solution was to reinstall it, so we spent a whole day on it and got it to work. Before formatting, though, I did look through the system, and I found two things that made me very upset: first they installed the free-non-commercial version of the antivirus Avast (obviously that’s a commercial usage, so they were in breach of license!), then the WinZip installation was … cracked! Yes not just used in demo mode (another breach of license) but outright cracked!

And you probably know already that I take these things personal: Free Software works because people respect software licenses, and not just those that they like. At any rate the solution was simple for me: get them a new antivirus, with a proper commercial license, and install 7zip instead of WinZip. Was my customer the one installing those two components earlier? Nope! It came that way from Micrologic, and when I asked them if they knew their WinZip was cracked, and the antivirus was free for non-commercial use only, they acknowledged it like there was nothing wrong with it. Congratulations.

Anyway, an year and a couple of weeks later I’m back talking with these idiots guys. They now provide (probably just recently) DVRs for video surveillance, integrated in their management software, and my customer decided to try them out starting with his own house, but he couldn’t get it to work, and here I come in the picture.

My customer uses Fastweb at home, a well-known Italian provider, who just in the past year started providing “normal” configurations for their own customers; earlier, they wrapped their customers around in private MANs which are then NATed to the Internet, making it very difficult to open ports for their customers. Their configuration is still not entirely standard though: instead of setting up the configuration from the router itself, you have to go through the ISP’s own website, and from there you can configure port mapping … to one of the devices connected via DHCP. There is no way to configure it to work with non-DHCP devices, as far as I can tell.

So first issue: the DVR itself comes configured as, static. This sounds like a decent option at first, but as I said above, Fastweb requires you to use DHCP to do port mapping; then you have also to keep in mind that the main ISP in Italy (Telecom Italia) for their business customers provides addresses, which makes it incompatible. The company who installed the DVR itself is also not very up to speed on how they should be configured, so they didn’t change it to DHCP. I did so, and remapped the two ports that it required (8000 and, as Micrologic told me, 554 — even though neither the configuration interface, nor their own documentation that came with the device, lists it), and went to configure it in their office.. to no avail.

I called their “tech support” (which is probably a poor guy my age, who barely knows how to install a computer I guess, seeing how he proceeded to do an upgrade following what is most likely a written “script” of actions), and even after the update they insisted that the problem is in the mapping done wrong.

I connect with TeamViewer to the box at my customer’s home, and I confirm the mapping is correct. I also check whether Chrome works with it, and the answer is a resounding “yes”, so the IP is correct. At this point I remind myself that while the default gateway they preset the machine with is, Fastweb uses as gateway, and I start to see a pattern there.

The customer suggests me to call the “boss”, who wrote the stuff in the first place, so I explain the situation to me… I get a dejà vû sense when he starts insisting that by using DHCP I can’t make port mappings because the IPs would change after rebooting the router (never heard of permanent leases and reservations I guess) just like his minion did, and then he insists that “if it works locally there cannot be any problem with the network setup” (I was telling him that I thought it might get the gateway wrong, which would make it impossible to reach the device from outside the LAN, but would let it work within).

After trying to find out whether they did actually install any of these DVRs on any other “domestic” Fastweb line (office lines are configured differently), which the minion insisted they did, with no results (the guy laughed at me when I suggested he might know anything about installation — hey he’s the boss, doesn’t have to do the dirty work does he?), since even the “customer who installed most” had made no “home Fastweb” install, I ask a simple question: “Do you develop the DVR’s firmware yourselves?”.

Obviously no, why should they? Too bad I say, if they did I would have asked to take a look so I could find why it didn’t work. And then all shit broke loose. Who do I think I am? Well, I’m a firmware engineer. Oh sure anybody could say he’s something, but they are a nation-wide distributor, how could I even think I could teach them how to do their job… I tried to get him to stop feeling patronised to explain that, since I happen to know the Fastweb setup very well, and they clearly have no idea at all on how it works, it would take me a fraction of the time to find the issue, but at that point he insisted that the conversation went overboard already and that they would refer to my customer directly.

Who do I think I am? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure I understand networking better than them.

I so much hate brand computers

You might probably know already that I actually get a good deal of my funds as a computer technician, cleaning up and supporting Windows computers for homes and small offices. Sometimes, this also has the good side effect of having people introduced to the new (for them) world of Free Software. On the other hand, the money comes handy especially given that tinderboxing costs and I’m definitely not paid for most of the work I do there.

Beside actually supporting boxes that are already there, from time to time I also build new boxes for friends who ask for my help to choose a new box, cheap and powerful enough for their needs (and I have to say that between AMD and Intel, prices lately really dropped on desktops).

What actually is my personal bane is with brand computers: HP, Acer, Toshiba, you name it, I most likely detest it. I have already ranted about the stupid way that HP has to allow you create the so-called recovery media; but this is nothing compared to the stupidity I encountered with a 2005 Toshiba laptop of a family friend.

Incidentally, my Dell Latitude came with a standard Windows 7 install DVD, and a separate one with software and drivers… thanks Dell!

First of all, the (valid) XP Home license it’s provided with only works with the Toshiba media, as it’s a System-Locked Preinstallation — basically one huge lock-in that forces you to use the original CD (or DVD) the computer comes with to restore, even though you could easily install from a standard (vanilla) CD or a slipstreamed one. Unfortunately, the Toshiba media in this case wasn’t a complex set of CDs that need to be installed in a given order or anything like that; rather it is a single, huge DVD with a Norton Ghost image of the already-installed system. Oh well.

The problem is that the “preinstall” does not come with simply Windows and a few installed Toshiba-branded components, but rather with a truckload of content of all sorts: Norton Internet Security, Adobe Reader 7, Macromedia Flash (yes, Macromedia, and it’s not even uninstallable because the MSI that you’d have to use to run the uninstall is not present in the system)… just what you need to get a headache that you won’t forget for a month or so. About an hour after completing the imaging of the “preinstalled” system, I was able to get the system in a clean enough state so that I could actually start installing the real stuff that is needed.

I got to say, this actually makes me think something good of Microsoft as, for what I know, they stopped using multiple media on the 6.x series (which, I remind you includes Windows 7), and instead use the product code itself to decide what to install on the system.

What actually depresses me quite a while, though, is what one of my most recent customers told me that they only buy brand-name PCs because that way they “risk less incompatibilities between hardware”… considering that I had an HP computer refused to work at all with its recovery media and worked fine when installed manually, a couple of Dell boxes that that, while having the same model number required half-different installs, one with a Radeon card that doesn’t work with the official ATI drivers and require instead the Dell-provided ones, and requires the monitor to be installed with its own drivers otherwise it fails to reach the correct resolution…

Well, in the past three years I built around ten computes that eventually went to run Windows all the time; beside some idiotic hardware manufacturers with captcha-counter-captcha and interminable license agreements, I really didn’t have much trouble; okay so once or twice things didn’t work just smoothly until I updated the BIOS, but that’s not something that brand-name computers are absolutely exempt from. For instance – and I hope it was just a mistake in lshw – on an Acer laptop I had to replace the harddrive on, only after updating the BIOS lshw shown me the data regarding the Level 2 cache; before it was only showing me the level 1 cache; both time I was booting from the same SysRescueCD USB key.

And then people tell me that Linux has bad hardware support… I’d say not; sure it’s picky… but what it’s picky about is mostly the stuff that brand name computers try to shove on you!

On Windows and hardware support

I have blogged before about my part-time job as an external support technician for small businesses and people with near to no computer skills to be able to deal with their systems. Actually, this encompasses almost all of my posts related to Windows since, while I have used it for development and test a few times, I definitely don’t enjoy using it, or even keeping it around at all.

While, as I said, I don’t enjoy using Windows at all, it is true that I have my own licenses of it; yes plural. One I bought for various kind of work, and was a pre-ordered Windows 7 Ultimate license (which I paid less than half what the running price in Italy was, thanks Amazon); the other was given to me with the infamous Dell laptop — getting Ubuntu instead of Windows on that laptop wasn’t a choice from the website, and the call-centre would have given me a sloppier laptop for a 20% extra of price, the “cost” of the license was negative then; not nice, but a fact of life.

The Ultimate license is tied to an installation within a virtual machine (alas, also paid for), while the other is on the laptop itself, mostly because I need(ed) it to update the system’s BIOS and the smartcard reader’s firmware. From time to time I feel enough energy to half-waste my time with it and look if Dell released some new update — I still hope in something that can make the fingerprint reader speak a standardish protocol that some Linux software can make use of. Last time I did that, a number of drivers were updated and I wanted to get them all at once; Dell allows you to use some software of theirs to do so, but it only works with Internet Explorer or Firefox, not Chrome (which is my browser of choice nowadays). Oh well.

As usual for BTO computers, the Dell page provides a few options for drivers that aren’t really present on the unit itself; contrarily with my experience with other vendors (more on that in a moment), Dell only provided a few, and all that they provided was a “not there” option, rather than a “one out of many” option. All in all, it wasn’t as painful as other rebuilds I ran.

On the other hand, yesterday I picked up an HP laptop, not for a job but for a friend of mine, or rather for my friend’s mother. It’s a pretty recent laptop, it’s as powerful as my own Dell (same CPU, much bigger hard disk, ATI graphics card — this is the only thing I envy of that laptop), and came with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit preinstalled. Unfortunately, since it was bought, a number of problems came up.

The one reason why I was asked to look at it was that they were unable to install Windows Live Messenger on that system. I wouldn’t have minded suggesting use of Pidgin – I did convert a number of friends to that, and thanks to GTalk & Facebook a few have totally abandoned the Microsoft messenger network – the problem came down to be quite more complex: Windows Update just didn’t want to work. At a first glance the system seemed to be infected by some virus of sorts.

Interestingly enough, they didn’t call me first; I was actually the third choice; the HP tech support was called first, and they insisted that a recovery (nicer word for “format and reinstall”) was needed; a local shop tech was called as well, he insisted on installing a number of other software on the box, including Nero and the Kaspersky antivirus, but didn’t solve the problem, suggesting instead a downgrade to XP (which is silly nowadays, as much as you might find yourself more comfortable with that, running XP in 2010 on a 64-bit capable multicore machine is asking for trouble).

Anyway, I agreed with the HP techs that a recovery was needed, and took the laptop home for backing it up before install, but not before asking whether they or the techs created the recovery media.

While Dell provided me with old school DVDs with the operating system and the drivers, HP ships their laptop with a recovery partition on the disk, and some tools to eventually create recovery media. When I first tried to get a Linux-running laptop rather than the MacBook Pro I was using since 2005 or so, I got a Compaq cheap-o laptop with Vista, so I knew the drill: the recovery media was either in a silly number of CDs or in two DVDs, it could be created once only, as afterwards the software stopped providing the option. Of course nothing stopped me at the time from making a copy of the two DVDs in form of ISOs and burning another pair of them — still wondering who in which department of HP came up with such a backwards idea.

Funnily enough, the techs didn’t create a recovery media set because “there’s the partition, that’s better”, which is a lame excuse for “couldn’t be arsed” — not only the partition can be infected because it’s accessible by the standard operating system, but also you cannot rely on it if your harddrive melts and you have it replaced. As you might have guessed already, HP sells the recovery media themselves. Okay, I doublecheck that the software still allows me to proceed and yep; that means that the techs are really being incompetent and not malicious.

I bring the laptop home, and first thing first I start up a SysRescueCD USB key to check for viruses — I’m not sure, maybe SysRescueCD upstream is reading what I write, or my mind, since they added the iSCSI Enterprise Target package in their latest releases, which allows me to export the partitions as a whole to read with the virtual machine (much faster and more reliable than using ntfs-3g and Samba). In a situation that I really don’t like, the scan leads to no virus identified, at all, with an up-to-date definitions database. Oh well, it’s backup time by now.

After this is also done, I try to build the recovery media; HP gotta be kidding me because this time the options are an unknown (to me) number of CDs or six DVDs. Yes, 6, 4.7GB disks, over 25GB of recovery, sheesh! They sure bundle a lot of software in their recovery. I struggle to find as many empty DVDs at home (I haven’t bought any in years, and no, you cannot use a DVD-RW, copy the ISO and blank it again, they disallow DVD-RW media, as well as dual-layer DVDs), and try using those. To my surprise, it refused to write to them, at all. Okay, I supposed that whatever messed with the system enough to disable Windows Update could have disabled the DVD writer as well, so I decide to try again after the recovery; I ran the recovery from the partition.

Interesting fact: HP allows you to execute either a full manufacturer recovery or a minimal recovery; the latter should be pretty much vanilla, so I chose that. After the install, hell itself came to me. First of all, “minimal” doesn’t really mean vanilla; HP still install their recovery manager (of course), all the drivers and some Windows updates. But that’s bearable.

The bad part started to show itself when Windows Update still wasn’t working; and the same went for the recovery manager, it failed to write to the DVDs. Trying to debug the issue, I noticed two even more upsetting problems: the first was trying to change the network location classification from Public to Work, which threw up a UAC window claiming that “an unknown program” tried to change the system configuration (the Control Panel is an unknown program now?); the second was the Event Viewer applet being totally f♥♥ked up: UAC complained that mmc.exe wasn’t signed (what?), and it didn’t show any message of any kind at all.

Cursing HP loudly, plan B was the only choice. I got a Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit DVD and decided to install a clean, vanilla copy of Windows, and deal with the drivers’ mess later. This actually worked pretty well up to now. The only inconvenience is that Windows refused to active itself online, with the original HP product key, requiring me to call the automatic phone service (which is no longer toll-free calling from cellphones; but it was still better than typing 54 – fifty-four – numbers by hand).

It was definitely funny, though, to note the difference between Dell and HP: the former has the product’s labels visible underneath the laptop, and the Windows license sticker hidden underneath the battery; the latter has it swapped, with the license visible, and all the product’s information requiring the removal of the battery to be read.

Anyway, while the system was installing first and updating afterwards (I don’t think I’d ever expected myself to rejoice so much seeing Windows Update working!) I got the model number and went to look for the drivers on HP’s support page. And then I remembered why I hated working with HP laptops this much.

The page for the exact product name is showing me drivers for the Intel Turbo Boost technology (not supported by this laptop), both ATI and Intel graphics card (it only has the ATI), a driver for Realtek card reader (which doesn’t seem to be present?), two Bluetooth drivers (of which at least one doesn’t work!) and three wireless adapter drivers (Broadcom, Atheros and Intel). Interestingly enough, Windows 7 already detects both the wired and wireless network cards upon install; their drivers, as well as the Synaptic touchpad drivers, all of which are present in the product’s driver page (after you have already chosen Windows 7 as operating system) are downloaded through Windows Update and need not to be installed through the HP packages at all.

At the end of the day I downloaded 117MB of bad (unused) drivers, and 288MB of unneeded or obsolete drivers (including a 200MB worth of ATI drivers, where the original Catalyst is 70MB in size).

I have to say that even though not everything work as it is, my Dell has shown a much friendlier approach both in terms of user experience with Windows, and friendliness in configuration, so in this, I really can’t blame them. I’m just afraid this won’t be the last HP laptop I’ll have to work on.

Dell was a definite mistake, and an expensive one

This week, my newly-bought laptop arrived; as I noted I was looking for a computer that had a Trackpoint device, to avoid touching the touchpad while I’m writing. This brought me to exactly two viable alternatives:

  • Lenovo, with their Thinkpad, had a good track record with Linux; they also have usually a decent price (doesn’t mean they are cheap but that they are worth their pricetag) and in general they were my first choice;
  • Dell and the Latitude E65xx series was the second choice; they didn’t have such a good track record, but most people didn’t complain much about them, beside for minor annoyances.

Again, as I said above, Lenovo doesn’t sell directly in Italy, who knows why; unfortunately this is also the cause for their price to be quite higher in Italy in general. Also, I don’t have many options for Lenovo resellers in my area; the nearest one (50Km from here) sent me the price for “the model I asked for” after a week I asked for it: after VAT it was €300 more than the same from Lenovo UK. I also quoted this being the model I asked for because it really wasn’t!

Not only they still forced me to pick up a Windows license (okay, not too nice but I can live with it), but they also forgot to upgrade the RAM to 4GiB as I asked and, quite a bad one, they didn’t provide me with an integrated smartcard reader. Indeed, the first time around the guy at the sales department of the reseller asked me if I was sure to ask for a BTO about that, given that all T510 already had (translated, but literal) “reader of smartcards of SD type, those for photo cameras”. When the price came, they actually were proposing me to buy a T510 and a smartcard reader, from GemAlto and Lenovo branded. Not a ExpressCard reader though, an USB reader. I guess you can tell what the problem is with that; if not, the problem was that I already have an USB card reader, it’s just difficult to use on, say, a train.

So I surveyed the Dell options; they didn’t allow me to forgo on Windows 7 from the website, so I called the hotline and asked for a sales person to help me out; they refused right away to switch my keyboard for an US one, which was unfortunate but bearable, then they told me that they’d let me know if it was possible to avoid Windows; in two days they came back with an offer… for the E6510 with Ubuntu Linux rather than Windows 7, base options (no 4GiB memory, which I asked for, and no webcam, fingerprint reader, RFID reader, which I didn’t ask for and I didn’t/don’t need)… but at a €500 premium over the same laptop from the website with Windows 7. For the same price, I could get the highest-level option, with Core i7, all the extras and so on.

So the Dell arrived, and I started installing Gentoo on it; beside a series of quirks, which I googled up, such as the smartcard reader needing patching of OpenSC/OpenCT to work, or the fact that the RFID and fingerprint readers not working under Linux (with Daniel confirming that there is realistically no hope of getting the new ones to work on Linux any time soon), everything seemed to go fine. The network card is definitely stable and fast; the wireless card required me to create a new firmware ebuild because of the many ucode ebuilds we have in portage, mine was missing, but it was a matter of minutes.

The problem started when it came down to run Xorg. The nVidia card works quite fine with the drivers, so that’s not a problem, but the touchpad, oh the touchpad. For apparently no reason first, the touchpad was being recognised as a simple mouse; and contrarily to what most people told me about the Thinkpad laptops, the touchpad and the trackpoint in Dell’s hardware are not separate (hardware) devices; they appear as separate devices in Linux because the ALPS driver in the kernel splits them after parsing their different protocols. Unfortunately, both the E6400 and the E6500 Latitude models have a new Alps Electric combined GlidePoint device with a protocol that is, as of now, unsupported by the Linux kernel; Ubuntu submitted some patches for it to the kernel but none that works yet. Right now the device is seen as a standard PS/2 mouse and entirely handled in BIOS, without special features or settings.

The second problem came when it was time to turn off the laptop: halting the system causes it to reboot instead; I thought the problem was related to ACPI, so I looked up if there were BIOS updates, and lo and behold, two were around. Unfortunately, applying them is not the usual matter of running flashrom, on a laptop. Dell used to develop Linux tools for their laptops, including firmware update software; as far as I know they were the first vendor doing so. Unfortunately, they either stopped, or this model is not covered, and the only BIOS updates are provided bundled within the Windows-based flasher (which most likely is not the real flasher at all, given that the system reboots itself before flashing both BIOS and the firmware of the Embedded Controller.

Now, not everything goes bad, luckily for me. I mailed Matthew Garrett, to ask him for pointers on what I could try to get it at least to halt properly, and he’s suggested me a git tree to try which I’m now building. He also pointed out that there is at least some work going on to solve the Alps touchpad problem (which makes me hopeful that this will be properly solved before end of the year). And of course he didn’t have to tell me why the external monitor button prints a ‘p’ since I knew the unfortunate reasons already.

On the bright side, the hardware looks, by itself, tremendously nice: the keyboard, while not as good as the Apple Aluminiums is quite solid and nice to write on, the touchpad is not as invasive as on the MacBook Pro, the monitor is gorgeous and it has all kind of expansion ports including eSATA. The battery lasts a lot even on Linux and even without setting up the governors properly, and so on so forth. I just hope the few problems will smooth themselves out soon.

Can we be not ready for a technology?

İsmail is definitely finding me some topics to write about lately… this time it was in relation to a tweet of mine ranting on about Wave’s futility, I think I should elaborate a bit about this topic.

Regarding the Wave rant, which adds to my first impression posted a few weeks ago, I think things are starting to go downhill. From one side, more and more people started having Google Wave so you can find people to talk with, from the other, of the Waves I received, only one was actually interesting (but still nothing that makes me feel like Wave was useful), the rest falls into two categories: from one side, you get the ping tests, which I admit I also caused – because obviously the first thing you do in something like Wave is pinging somebody you feel comfortable to talk with – and on the other hand I had three different waves of people… discussing Wave itself.

And you know that there is a problem when the medium is mostly used to discuss itself.

And here is where me and İsmail diverge: for him the problem is that “we’re not ready” for the Wave technology; myself, I think that the phrase “we’re not ready” only can come out of a sci-fi book, and that there is something wrong with the technology if people don’t seem to find a reason to use it at all. But I agree with him when he says that some technologies, like Twitter, would have looked definitely silly and out of place a few years ago. I agree because we have had a perfect example that is not hypothetical at all.

You obviously all do know Apple’s Dashboard, from which even the idea of Plasma for KDE seems to have come from, and from which Microsoft seemingly borrowed heavily for the Vista and Win7 desktop. Do you think Apple was the first to think about that stuff? Think again.

It was 1997, and Microsoft released Internet Explorer 4, showing off the Active Desktop … probably one of the biggest failures in their long-running career. The underlying idea is not far at all from that of Apple’s “revolutionary” Dashboard: pieces of web pages to put on your desktop. At the same time. Microsoft released one of their first free development kits: Visual Basic 5 Control Creation Edition (VB5CCE) that allowed you to learn their VB language, and while you couldn’t compile applications to redistribute, you could compile ActiveX controls, which could in turn be used by the Active Desktop page fragments. Yes, I did use VB5CCE; it was what let me make the jump from the good old QBasic to Windows “programming”.

So, if the whole concept of Dashboard (and Plasma, and so on) makes people so happy now, why did it fail at the time? Well, to use İsmail’s words “we weren’t ready for it”; or to use mine, the infrastructure wasn’t ready. At the time, lots of users were still not connected to any network, especially outside of the US; staying connected costed, a lot, and bandwidth was limited, as were the resources of the computers. Those of us (me included) who at the time had no Internet connection at all, were feeling deprived of resources for something totally useless for them; those who had dial-up Internet connections would feel their bandwidth be eaten up by something they probably didn’t care enough about.

Who was at fault here? Us for not wanting such nonsense running on our already underpowered computers, or Microsoft for wanting to push out a technology without proper infrastructure support? Given the way Apple was acclaimed when they brought Dashboard to their computers, I’d say the latter, and they actually paid the price of pushing something out a few years too early. Timing might not be everything, but it’s definitely something.

Windows 7: attention to details?

So I had to buy a copy of Windows 7 for a job, so I actually pre-ordered it some time ago at Amazon UK to have an extra discount (not a bad thing, at the end I paid the Ultimate version less than half than it’s sold here; full version, not upgrade). I’m not going to comment for now about the experience with it; this is just a funny post if you want to take a laugh:

Windows 7 versioning... FAIL!

I’ll leave to you the comments.

Hardware, Windows, Pain

So after the previous post I had another computer to set up; yes seems like I spend all the Saturdays this way lately. This time it’s a Fujitsu-Siemens branded computer; unfortunately, it had quite a few issues:

  • no PS/2 ports, and the BIOS does not seem to initialise USB HID keyboards soon enough; my recovery station used a Microsoft PS/2 keyboard, and my only USB keyboard is Apple’s… Apple’s keyboards are HID and with a hub in the middle, which that BIOS didn’t like; got a new USB keyboard to work around this;
  • while the computer was shipped with a valid Windows XP license, the label was tore apart; result: I had to recover the product key from the running system;
  • of course, I didn’t have the administrator password; one very quick ophcrack later, I have it (too bad sysrescuecd doesn’t ship with ophcrack by default);
  • the system has a SiS-based motherboard (which incidentally comes with a Via Firewire chip, but that doesn’t really matter); SiS website, as I commented on the other post, have both two click-through license agreements and captcha to download the drivers;
  • of course I had to make a backup; partimaged refuses to receive the image from the client, both the client and the server gets stuck on the same socket, the former receiving and the latter accepting;
  • the SiS on-board Gigabit Ethernet card… fails with the Linux driver, that’s both with 2.6.27 and 2.6.31 (different versions of SysRescueCD); neither kernels enabled Gigabit transfer (and the cable is good); the first froze in 10 minutes, the latter in an hour and something;
  • the firewire-net module does not work at all; after updating SysRescue CD 1.2.0 → 1.3.0, where the module is at least present, and setting up the two firewire0 interfaces… nothing happens, I cannot ping the two sides…

And I don’t even want to wonder what will happen when I’ll finally be able to install Windows on it. I guess if I start doing this kind of support as a job, I’ll have to fetch some extra hardware, like Linux-compatible USB network adapters, fast external drive bays (I have seen one model that allows you to just plug in a 3.5” or 2.5” drive without having to screw it on something), and a dedicated external hard drive for backups. Not that I’d like to do this as a job, but it generally adds up.