Thursday, September 10, 2009

KludgeLab '09: The Cruft Report

I found that there is a name for something that I do. It's called retrocomputing. I am not really a maniac in that respect, and I think I have the number of computers down to the high single digits (two hands) now. After losing my main Tea-Ching gig in March, I brought a lot of things home, which have helped to congest the third floor. Recently I managed to re-arrange the kibble into a more open structure which allowed human access and movement. Actually, what I did was create The Apple Lounge and Museum of the PowerPC Mac. The 2003.11 iLamp 20" joined a 2002(?) eMac and 2 candy slot-loading DVD iMacs (Tangerine and Lime) from around y2k. Boy, that PowerPC sure helps keep the room warm. It will be nice and toasty up there in the winter. Come to think of it, it could probably be modified to heat up a kotatsu table--I have one up there! Not sure how many kilowatts it is drawing. You also won't leave the iLamp on, because you can hear the fan roaring incessantly from adjacent floors through the night.

In accordance with the principle that every computer have a free open-source operating system onboard (sometimes in addition to Windows or Mac OS), I updated the iLamp's 10.5 (Leper) OS (the eMac's "AirPort" card shares ethernet with the rest) to the latest revision. Apparently you should NOT attempt to resize any icons on the desktop while it is installing the updates. Or maybe it would have froze anyway. I had shrunk the desktop icons down to 16 pixels to accommodate a large number of files which were once kept there. Now that they are gone, I thought I would enlarge the icons, so I took a look at them at 128 pixels. That was a bit too crazy, so I scaled it back to 64. At that point the Installing Updates progress bar froze and remained froze until I returned about 24 hours later and gave it a hard reboot. Unfortunately, the hard drive was unrecognizable and unrepairable by the Mac OS or any other live disk that I tried with the exception of an Ubuntu (8.10?) live disk, which was able to see and copy many of the files on the Mac. That restored some of my faith in Ubuntu after that buggy netbook remix stuff back in April. One problem was that most of the files in my home (user) file were not read because I didn't have permission; Linux, Unix, and MacOSX are similar in that way and won't let you read other users files. Maybe MacOSX encrypts them? And even a Music folder I created at the top level of the hard drive was not permissible for me to read, since the folder was managed by the autocratic iTunes app. I think I was probably 20 minutes of googling, reading, and a chown command away from getting it, but it could have taken a day or two as well. It's mostly been backed up, but I made a note to use Mac OS X less and also back up all files on simple USB drives formatted FAT32 so they have no journaling or permissions and so on until I figure out the details of that.

I reformatted the 80GB iLamp HD into two equal partitions for MacOSX10.5 (the last Mac OS for ppc) and Linux. I gave Yellow Dog Linux the first crack at it. The Enlightenment (E17? or E16??) desktop looked stunning in 20-inches. However, after spending most of the day unsuccessfully trying to enable Japanese input, mp3, flash, and encountering a cumbersome package management system (just choose "office and productivity" with no granularity???) I deleted that OS. I think I tried Fedora, Berry, and openSuSE, but either they didn't boot up or weren't live disks. Xubuntu was my eventual choice for a few reasons. It was the only Ubuntu-family release for ppc that I had from 2009, and its requirements are so low that it could work on the older iMacs if it worked on the iLamp. I love it. Xubuntu looks great and it works great. I think installing the OS, updating the packages, enabling Japanese input, installing mp3 and Flash codecs all took under an hour or close to it. If you are looking for a free open souce OS to replace the soon-to-be-discontinued support from Apple, I'd recommend Xubuntu. The other machines in the Apple Lounge (& PPC Museum) will probably get Xubuntu or any smaller distro with a build for the ppc, which is multilingual with Japanese language support, a pre-built desktop and a live disk to try it out.

Another problem was that my Eee PC 4G (AKA 701? the one with the webcam) suddenly lost its ability to connect to my wireless network. Mandriva had just worked on the Eee but now it didn't. Well, it was a boring OS anyway, so I thought it was time for a change. However, wireless failed on other OSes, too. Either it showed a connection which was very very slow so that even the Google search page would fail to load completely, or it showed many local wireless networks but not mine, or it didn't show any wireless networks. Had some change I had made to the network caused this? Probably not, since Windows, Mac, and Linux (Ubuntu) machines all connected. Had the kernel been updated and broken the connectivity? Probably, but oddly, live install disks that had worked earlier no longer were able to connect: Mandriva no viva. OpenSUSE no use. Jaunty jaundiced. Fedora que hora? Vine? Rotted thereupon. Firmware or the BIOS or something? I never did figure it out after 2 days working mostly with an partially successful but s-l-o-w wireless (but fast ethernet) EEEBUNTU 3.0 install. Somewhere on a forum I read "the issue has been resolved with Karmic" and decided to download the Ubuntu 9.10 "Karmic Koala" NetBookReMix Alpha 5 release (candidate?) as it turned out. What did I have to lose? So far, that has been working! I'm glad because the 9.04 U.N.R. didn't run smoothly on the 4G and had some other bugs which made it unusable. If you are experiencing the same broken wireless bug on the Eee PC 4G, which I suppose is a kernel incompatibility with the Atheros wireless thing, try Karmic! I am not so confident that it will keep working, though. My DSL speed has been around 300kbps, but at times as slow as 60.

All this troubleshooting makes me think a couple of things. First, Ubuntu and Linux in general is not going to get beyond the 2%-5% of the population who are tinkerers or computer hobbyists. If it is push-button easy, you have a chance that the user might push it or click it at the right time. A self-healing, self-diagnosing OS would be better. It's harder, but that's the point when it could take off. Command line, forget it. It's nice to have it there, but the OS has to develop to the point where users can go years without resorting to command line.

Second, Ubuntu seems to update stuff too much and break the functionality. Once I have the system tuned and working as I like, I had better turn all but security updates --and even then it could break it. An OS that is a little more stable and conservative might be better.

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