Saturday, December 28, 2013

Linux Rant IV

These posts are starting to need better names. Maybe something like:

Linux Rant IV - Revenge of Gnome-Shell

So that went well. Not.

Debian 7.3.0 installed cleanly and booted. It looked great. But when I logged into Gnome, it was just as slow as anything Ubuntu did. Crawling. Awful. Unusable.

Diligent digging - aka, bringing up the system monitor and looking at what processes were eating CPU time - showed the culprit is named gnome-shell.

Some googling leads me to wonder if I didn't trip over a known problem in Gnome. Perhaps something in this thread about an llvmpipe being a problem is related. I have no clue.

In any case, Debian 7.3.0 running Gnome is just as useless on my laptop as Ubuntu running Gnome. And that makes me worry about (eventually) installing anything running Gnome on my desktop machine.

I am starting to wonder if I will ever get something to run on these laptops without significant pain. And it turns out that my wife's laptop has an ATI graphics chip in it, not an nvidia, so all this work on my laptop might not lead to a solution for hers.

I am just thrilled with all of this. Thrilled I say.

Going to have to discuss options with the wife. It may be time to throw in the towel and get new laptops.  These were purchased in Feb of 2004. Yes, really. They are almost 10 years old. We could probably spend $400 each and get something much faster. Ben was telling me to do this the other day, and while I hate to admit it, he might have a point. Gotta think it through.

Such fun. Hopefully this is the last Linux Rant for a while. At least until George Lucas and/or Disney get their grubby hands on the rights to them. The sequels will probably be really painful.

Linux Rant III

The story so far:

Desperate to find a linux distribution that runs well on ancient Pentium M chips, our hero has done some awful things with Ubuntu, installing 10.04, then upgrading to 12.04, but at that point the display driver stopped working, and he got sick of it. We pick up with the action there...

With the help of my friend Ben, I was lead to the magic of Ctrl-Alt-F2, which brings up a text login screen (aka a tty) so I could login to the running Ubuntu system, even as the GUI was running and completely unusable.

Some poking around - again aided by Ben - revealed that the laptop has an nvidia graphics chip, and that it was running an open source driver. That driver - I know from past experience - is bad news and doesn't support at least some older nvidia chips, including mine. So I googled around and figured out how to install the proprietary driver from nvidia, which does know how to work with my machine. Installed it. Rebooted.

Change 1: now the system comes up with a little tiny graphics window as it boots, instead of using the full screen. Odd, but I don't care because... I can login and the graphics work again. Well, sort of...

As with the boot side of things, I wound up operating in a little, tiny screen - 1024x768 out of a much larger monitor capable of supporting much higher resolutions. Odd, but at least I can login and work within Linux now without going over to a tty.

Dig into system settings and found the proprietary driver tool, in which I learn that the nvidia driver, while apparently installed, hasn't been activated yet. OK. Activate it. And wait while it downloads and installs the driver again. Huh? But never mind that because once it completes it tells me that the driver is now activated. All I have to do is reboot, which I do, and...

Success. Amazing. The login screen is still really tiny for unknown reasons, but after logging in I get a full sized, max resolution screen. Ubuntu 12.04 is actually running on my laptop.

But that isn't all I wanted to do, sadly. I want to get rid of Unity, a user interface that I continue to dislike. Back to Google and there are some simple steps I find to install Gnome. It will be a choice at login time, apparently, which UI runs. So off to the software center to get and install Gnome. Done. Reboot.
Aside: has anyone else noted that I am rebooting an awful lot? It's like working on bloody Windows. But I digress...
The system comes back up and I select Gnome. Actually, Gnome 3, I think, as it isn't obvious. The choices are "Gnome", "Gnome Classic", and "Gnome Classic (no effects)". You tell me.

And the screen clears... and there is a looooong pause. Minutes. Then a menu bar appears at the top of the screen. Is it done loading? I don't know. I have never used Gnome 3, and don't know how it is used. Move the mouse to one of the icons in the upper right and click. Nothing happens. Try right click. Nothing happens. Hmmm. Odd. Maybe this menu looking thing on the left? Again, nothing. Maybe it's stuck?

Force a reboot.

Login again, but this time to "Gnome Classic". And wait a loooooong time again. When it finally appears at least it looks something like the UI that Ubuntu was using before Unity. Good. But it's also unresponsive.

Force a reboot. Try "Gnome Classic" again. This time be more patient. Mouse to menu, click, and wait. Oh... look! Eventually the menu appears. Well... that indicates there is a real performance problem. Start the system monitor and wait for it to come up.
Aside: yes, I am an idiot. Should have done ctrl-alt-F2 again and used top. Instead I waited forever for the system monitor to come up.
In the end I learned the CUP was 100% busy, and eventually learned that something called compiz was the culprit.

Over to the other computer. Google something like "compiz using too much cpu". Lots of complaints, various proposed solutions. Try a couple of them, including installing magic software to muck with compiz internals and speed it up. (From the tty, of course, where things run reasonably quickly.)

Reboot, again. Login to Unity this time. The usual UI, quick and fine. OK. Logout, login to one of the Gnome choices. Still slow. Worse than molasses in January. Not good.

Give up. This sucks. Apparently Ubuntu has decided that my hardware isn't worth supporting, that Gnome is an afterthought on 12.04, that Unity rules all, and that anyone who feels differently deserves nothing.

Back to the other computer, back to Download the network installer CD ISO image for 7.3.0. Burn it to a CD.

Take the rest of the night off. This has been crazy, and I am far better off doing something fun than making my forehead bleed - more! - on this project.

Saturday morning. Try again. Insert Debian CD into laptop and boot. Select graphical install. Answer the questions. All but one is simple. (I have no clue what answer to give it for my domain name, so I left it blank. Life goes on.)

As I type this the system has already repartitioned and reformatted the disk, and has just finished downloading over 1300 package files to install them.

What happens next? I have no clue, but I do know that Debian booted on my ancient system just fine, so that seems good. Once the install finishes I will poke around and see where things are at. While that goes on, I think I will go have some lunch.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Linux Rant II

As per a comment I left in G+ to my previous post, I started the ugly update process to try and get my laptop running something usable.

First, I installed Ubuntu 10.04. It seemed to work. Rebooted fine, and let me log in. All seemed good.

Then I brought up the update tool and it told me there was a new LTS release - 12.04 - available to upgrade to. Perfect. So I told it to do that. And I waited.

An hour or two later I found it waiting for input to go ahead and replace certain libraries (I think) that it needed to do before it could actually process the update. Fine. I allowed that.

Came back a couple of hours after that to find 2 dialog boxes on the screen. The one in the back was fine, and just told me that the machine needed to be rebooted, which I expected would be the case. The one in front, though, was completely illegible. There were things that were obviously supposed to be characters in it, but they were rectangular boxes instead. A row of them that was obviously supposed to be some sort of status or error message, but it was completely unreadable. There was, however, an obvious button with just 2 such boxes in it, which probably meant "OK", so I clicked on that and the dialog disappeared. Odd, but whatever.

Then I clicked on the reboot dialog. And it rebooted. Success, right?

Well, no. Not quite. First it tried to shut down and hung during the process. Fine. Power off, then power back up.

It booted, and got me to the login screen. That's good. Entered my password and...

Gibberish. A screen full of junk that look mostly like random memory instead of whatever it is supposed to display. No ability to read anything, execute any commands, nothing.

Power off, power on. Try again. Same result.

Theory: Ubuntu has switched to some half baked open source driver for the graphics chip maker in my laptop, and that driver doesn't know how to fully support the ancient chip in my ancient machine. If I want to make this work I may have to figure out how to install the proper proprietary driver on the silly thing, but that may well require getting it to bloody work in the first place. Maybe I can boot into some safe mode and poke around. I don't even remember which graphics card is used in that laptop. Gah!

But it was late, so I gave up and went to bed. I may fiddle with this again this afternoon. It'll be about as much fun as getting a root canal, I'm sure, but I'll see what I can do.

Such fun. I might even post a video of my Ubuntu boot experience, but that would mean figuring out YouTube, and that would probably be just as fraught with errors and issues.

Ben says I should check out Debian. Maybe I will do that. And maybe Arch. All I want is something that bloody works.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Linux Rant

So... I am suffering some Linux frustrations. Yeah... I know... what about Linux isn't frustrating, right?

But I am going to get this off my chest. If you don't care, the internet is full of alternatives. Go find one now. If you're a geek and think you can help, read on.

1) Ubuntu's Unity UI sucks.  No, really. It stinks.

I use Ubuntu 12.04 LTS because I want a Long Term Support version. I don't want to upgrade my OS twice a year... I do not need that level of sys-admin pain. And I know Ubuntu 12.04 is over 18 months old, so maybe there are improvements to the Unity UI that I haven't seen. But, frankly, what I have now sucks.

I run a dual headed system with monitors of different sizes. You have no idea how often things get wonky when I simply move a window from one monitor to the other. Sometimes it disappears off to some other workspace and I have to go hunting for it. Sometimes the mouse winds up many inches from the window I am moving, making additional manipulation and positioning "interesting. And sometimes the window winds up with the title bar and menus completely invisible. None of these things are crippling, but they are all irritating. Very irritating.

And then there's Dash, a mystery thing that pops up whenever I accidentally hit the "Windows" key to let me search (I guess) for things on my system. It's not exactly intuitive, and - apparently - in later versions of Unity it winds up sending ostensibly private search terms to places like Yay! (That was sarcasm... in case it wasn't obvious. I do not want my desktop search terms sent to Amazon, and I have no clue why anyone at Canonical thinks that is a good idea.) I have yet to figure out why Dash is a good thing. So far it's just an irritant.

Another problem with Unity is the loss of focus-follows-mouse and the corresponding ability to leave a window that has the focus in the background. I love focus-follows-mouse. Just move the mouse over a different window and it gets whatever you type. Easy. And that window doesn't have to come to the front and obscure everything else. Nice and simple. But Unity doesn't give me that, so it sucks. By definition.

I guess Ubuntu wanted to create Unity so they could unify the world: desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones could all run the same user interface. Screw that! I don't want my smartphone to have the same UI as my desktop computer. Know why? Because I don't do the same things on those devices. Any idiot can see that is the case. Sure, sometimes I do similar things, but I don't make phone calls on my desktop (I don't even Skype) and I don't watch YouTube on my phone. (Who wants to pay for the bandwidth for that? Are they nuts, or just happy to shovel buckets of money to a smarmy telco?) To me, the idea of a unified, cross device UI was dead before it was ever implemented.

I limp along with Unity because, frankly, I am afraid to change it. I have seen some things about how I could get Gnome to run instead, and maybe I will try it, but only when I have a backup system running that I can use in case my main system dies in the process. I have an ancient laptop that I should be able to live - or test - on, but therein lies another story...

2) Ubuntu is phasing out support for older CPUs.  I cannot install Ubuntu 12.04 on my Dell Inspiron 8600. It's got a Pentium M chip in it that lacks something called the "PAE flag", and later Ubuntu distributions have stopped booting on those older chips.

Let's stop and ponder that for a moment: the OS that claims to run well on older hardware (as compared with Windows) is going away from supporting, um, older hardware. No, honestly. Wait... what?

This laptop is perfectly good for 99.99% of what I need to do on a computer, but Ubuntu's last 3 or 4 releases won't install on it.  Oddly, I think you can upgrade an older version of Ubuntu to a newer one and it will still boot, but you cannot get their base distribution to install from scratch. I am not making this up.

What sort of idiot at Canonical makes these decisions? Honestly? How do you get an OS to take off and get people to use it if they cannot try it on an older machine first?

3) As an alternative I am looking at Linux Mint. In fact, I have version 13 of Mint installed on that laptop, and it boots, despite being Ubuntu based. But it's not that simple. (It's never that simple.) What UI should I chose with Linux Mint? I installed one running something called "xfce", but I could also have chosen "Cinnamon" or "Mate". None of those is Gnome. None is KDE either. And all their user experiences are a bit different. Gah! Xfce is OK, I guess, but I liked Gnome and it isn't Gnome. Maybe I should have tried Mate, but at the time I was poking at this there wasn't good information about what Mate was, nor why I would want it. The same is true of Cinnamon now. Why on earth would I want that? No clue.

I just need something that works. How hard can it be?

Well, as if to answer that question, today I pulled out the laptop and updated Mint. I am trying to figure out what to install on my wife's similarly ancient laptop, and we know it cannot be Ubuntu 12.04, so I figured I would update Mint and refresh my memory about it. And it does (happily) turn out that Mint 13 is an LTS version, supported for another 2 or 3 years, which is good. But when I ran the update tool I got errors about it being unable to resolve certain domain names... domains that it needs to get certain package lists. Huh?

OK, maybe, some machine is down. And maybe no one has fixed it because it is the day after Christmas. And maybe I can try again in a day or two and it will work. Maybe. But I don't know. Lots of stuff did update, but not everything, and I don't have a clue how badly off things are. If there is a problem with Mint 13 that is more than a sick server, though, I certainly don't want to install it on my wife's laptop.

And don't get me started on printing and scanning. My wife tried to print to our color laser printer the other day and it came out monochrome. I had to get a copy of the file from her and print it from my machine to get it to print in color. Her laptop thinks our Xerox color laser printer isn't color.

I suppose we could buy new laptop computers and install a more recent version of Linux on them, but which one? And do I really want to do that if I then have to upgrade the OS when it goes out of support in less than a year? Or should I install Ubuntu 12.04 and risk getting Gnome to work on it? And just how good will that experience be? I was hoping to test that on my ancient laptop, but I cannot get there easily.

Maybe if I install Ubuntu 10.x which will run on the laptop, then upgrade to Ubuntu 12.04, and then install the Gnome system... simple! (Sarcasm again. But maybe my only real choice.)

I hear some of you... Why not just go with Windows? Or a Mac?

Suffice it to say I have my reasons.

I wouldn't trust a Windows machine with anything where security matters, and I gave Steve Jobs money a few times and he only let me down. Windows machines are great if you want to suffer with virus attacks every 15 seconds. And Macs are fine if you're doing exactly what the geeks at Apple thought you would be doing, but if you ever try to do anything else, you're screwed. (And yes, I have examples. You don't want to know.)

So for the moment I guess it's Linux. Unless I want to install Plan 9... now there's an idea!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Trying to deal with Twitter... differently...

So... some time back in this very blog I indicated that I didn't get twitter, and that I didn't use it.  That changed as I found myself trying to update people in my neighborhood about local fire related items and events. I found a place for twitter.

I used it purely to send data out about fires and the like. Email isn't always a good vehicle for real time information distribution. It can suffer delays, and people don't always get email quickly. But twitter lets people get things via their phone, and (with luck, anyway) the number of delayed transmissions for the SMS messages twitter sends out will be lower than the email delays I've seen.

So, fine. I started using twitter for that.

Then it turns out I have some friends that use twitter. Of course. So - much like Facebook - if you want to see what is going on, you need to follow them on their platform of choice. Fine. And of course they follow some interesting people, and there are a bunch of emergency information sources on twitter as well, so I wound up following about 40 people.

Next I discovered that my web host makes use of twitter too, and they respond to questions there. Interesting. But if I send questions to them using my existing twitter account, those tweets will show up in the feeds of people following me for emergency information, which is not something I wanted to do.

And someone I wanted to contact in real life doesn't give out an email address, but she's on twitter. Not a huge deal, but again I don't want to cause cruft to show up in the twitter streams of those who follow me for emergency purposes only. Gah.

So guess what... the one who said he doesn't tweet now has two twitter accounts, and is struggling to find a good Linux client that supports that situation. So far, I have tried three:

  • Gwibber is OK, at best, but it doesn't make use of the colors you assign to each account. That means arriving tweets are intermixed and you need to know which ones come from where if you care. Also, when I send a tweet, I can find no way to choose which account the new tweet will come from. That's bad. But so far it's the best I've found.
  • Birdie claims to support multiple accounts, but I couldn't figure out how to make it actually do that. One account was OK, but if I tried to add another one it seemed to just add the first one a second time. Odd and pointless.
  • Hotot wouldn't work at all. I could not get it to let me login. No clue why.

I may look into Poly, but it's in pre-alpha status still, and I don't know how stable it is. But it may be better than Gwibber, so I will ponder.

This is craziness, I know. But here I am, trying to be part of the modern age. Again.

If you're silly enough to want to follow me on twitter, I am:

  • @jrpstonecarver - my emergency info account, mostly for Santa Cruz Mountain residents who want to know about fires and other events in our area
  • @jeffpstonecarver - my new account, for everything else

If I was following you before, I still am, but possibly on the new account if you're not one of those I track for emergency information.

What on earth am I doing?