Archives for the month of: March, 2013

More BIOS stuff, but this was a lot easier than the previous update because the Acer D270, for it’s many warts, boots easily from USB. I used unetbootin to create a FreeDOS install. I copied Acer’s BIOS update (DOS version) to the usb, and booted the D270. The notes on this page told me to look in “drives” B: and C: , and indeed, the driver turned up on “drive” C: . I ran it, and the BIOS updated smoothly. 

Now if only I could get a linux distro running on the machine. The backlight has an ocean of troubles with the current kernel. In short, every time the machine boots or comes back from suspend, the backlight resets to a level too low to read. In essence, the screen goes dead. If you can feel your way to a terminal, you can get it back with this command (as root): 

setpci -s 00:02.0 F4.B=00

That’s irritating. As I fiddled with GRUB boot options (acpi_osi=Linux, acpi_backlight=vendor), xorg framebuffer settings, and drivers for various additional video bits, I broke the install and had to start over. How many times in my linux-life has this happened? Dozens? 

I finally got it working by downgrading Ubuntu to 12.04, and it Just Worked. That’s very unhelpful. But even then, I wasn’t all that close to a solution for a really working portable. The problem, as has often been true in my linux-life, was wifi.

The chip is a Broadcomm 4313, which should be well-supported under linux. And out of the box (with Ubuntu 12.04), the machine connected happily to the wifi at my house (with WPA2 at 2.4GHz) and my office (ditto). 

However, this machine was destined for a less-techie colleague. She needs to move around and have the machine connect to networks all over the place. And it didn’t: it wouldn’t connect to wifi at her hotel, at Moe’s house, or at cafes that require a web-based authentication to their router after DHCP. 

I tried any number of solutions: compiled the driver from Broadcomm’s published code; tweaked and twiddled the network interface; poked and prodded at iwconfig, iwlist, and their kin; spent a few hours watching the syslog as the chip tried to make DCHP connections; downgraded from the default driver to the b43 legacy drivers. And so forth.

Several of the tweaks changed the error pattern. We were able to connect to some networks with some combinations of drivers, and not with others. We got it going for a while on nearly all networks, then it stopped and wouldn’t work with any, with nothing helpful in the logs. 

Time is money, and I’d spent a hell of a lot on this little machine. It’s going back on the shelf, destined to be used only at Burning Man (where I make network connections using a cable at Cheddar’s camp). Moe took our colleague to the Apple Store and bought her an Air. Expensive, but enough with the fiddling already. We had her configured for LaTeX, R, RStudio, SublimeText, ssh, svn, make, and python (and all relevant packages for those tools) in ❤ hours. Count this as a linux fail. 

Media storage

I managed to get all my media collated onto a single set of disks. There are two 3TB RAID-1 disks, and I have a backup on a couple of other disks. Still, this all feels pretty fragile. I’m going to need to figure out a richer backup strategy.

It totals 2.2TB of heavily duplicated data (still, this is a lot less than the 6TB I thought it was). However, there are a couple of disappointing holes. The combination of bad interaction between Symantec’s PGP WholeDiskEncryption and Apple’s TimeMachine, and Apple MigrationAssistant’s occasional loss of local mail storage, has led to a couple of big holes in my archiving. In particular, I’m missing nearly all of 2009’s mail; various recovery strategies are underway. My archives from the DOS years 1985-1999, and the gnu/linux years 2000-2008 are a lot better than the OSX years 2009-present. All my actual work files (and their history) 2004-present are safe in our SVN repository, but still, I hate to lose even a single byte.

The failure rates are interesting as well. One of the 18 hard disks, one (a 2.5″ drive pulled from a laptop c. 2005) had a serious hardware problem. Of the 53 zip disks, all but 4 had I/O errors; but the 67 CDs had only 2 I/O probs. The 157 1.44MB 3.5″ floppies were in between with 22 damaged ones. ddrescue is of course the right answer, but if you lose even a few bytes of a pgp-encrypted file, or a bzip2, gzip, or zip compressed file, that data is lost.

Total so far: 7.5M files in 900K directories. However, this includes zillions of zip and tar files which I need to unpack before indexing. More to come.