Dumpster Diving for Old Computers

To paraphrase Forrest Gump’s mother, “Dumpster diving for computers is like a box of chocolates … you never know what you’re gonna get.”

Over the past at least twelve years, I have been salvaging computers I have found on the streets on garbage day, or found in other locations where my various personal travels have taken me, for use to reformat into usable computers. The various finds have served as main desktop computers, secondary computers, home servers, computation nodes for the World Community Grid, gifts to my brother or the occasional friend, and the like. It has variously allowed me to indulge in a bit of tinkering, trying out a new linux distro or version of BSD, build a home server, or just pass the time while engaging in a hobby.

In the process, I’ve watched the lower bar of what is acceptable “junk that isn’t junk, at least not yet” move upwards from about P4-533 MHz 32 bit processors to dual core 2.66 GHz 64 bit processors (although single core 64 bit P4 at 3.4 GHz to 3.8 GHz range is good if you don’t want to depend on a GUI, or if you have a lot of RAM and an SSD), 512 MB of RAM to 2GB of RAM, and 20GB hard drives to 80GB hard drives. Now it seems that the next big thing will be in moving from mechanical drives to SSD drives, which I expect — when SSD drives become common in the old computers I find being thrown out — will make a revolutionary change upwards in speed in low end hardware, the way I learned the same in 2017 when I swapped out the mechanical drive in my laptop and replaced it with an SSD. (To be fair, when I bought the computer new in 2015, the hard drive was curiously a 5400 RPM model, presumably either to make it less expensive, less power hungry vis-à-vis battery life, or both.)

As an aside: My favourite brands of castoffs have been, in order, IBM / Lenovo ThinkCentres, then Dells. After that, I’ve had an excellent experience with a single used HP desktop that has been doing computations for World Community Grid running at 100% capacity, since late summer 2016. I’ve dealt with other types of computers, but the ThinkCentres and the Dells have been the ones I’ve had the most success with, or at least the most personal experience. (Since initially writing this post, I have been developing a suspicion that based on the longevity of the HP cast-off I have, HP actually might be superior to the IBM / Lenovo when it comes to cast-offs; however, since it’s the only HP cast off that I can remember ever having, it’s hard to form a proper opinion.)

But to wit: Over the past two weeks, I have tried to revive three used computers that were cast-offs.

Two of them were IBM / Lenovo ThinkCentres, which I think were new in 2006 / 2007, 2.66MHz 64 bit dual cores, 80GB hard drives, and 2 GB memory. The third computer was a Dell case with only the motherboard (proving to have been — see below — a 64 bit dual CPU running at something like 2.66MHz) but no memory, no hard drive, no wires, no DVD player, and not even a power supply!

The two ThinkCentres were from a pile of old computers marked for disposal at a location where I happened to be in mid-2017, and I was granted permission to pick and choose what I wanted from the pile. I gave them to my brother, who at the time evaluated them and determined that neither worked, one just beeping four times and then hanging. After that, they just sat around in his apartment for whenever they might come in handy for spare parts. He had since determined that one actually worked, but he hadn’t done anything with it.

The third computer was found on the street near home a couple of months ago, and was covered with about an inch of snow by the time I’d recovered it. I brought it home, and let it sit around for several weeks just to make sure that it dried out properly. Based on the “Built for Windows XP” and “Vista Ready” stickers, I’d guess that it was new in about 2005 or 2006.

Having forgotten about the ThinkCentre computers I’d given to my brother in 2017, I casually asked him if he had the requisite spare parts to make the snow-covered computer work, since we normally share our piles of spare parts retrieved from old computers that die. To my surprise, he sent me the functional ThinkCentre. My knee-jerk reaction was “I don’t need a new-to-me computer; just the parts required to see if I can get the snow-covered computer to work.” Perversely, I didn’t actually want the results of my planned efforts to produce a functional computer; I just wanted the amusement of a small project, and more generally to see whether the Dell found on the street would work.

In parallel, my home server on which I hosted my backups and my website, another computer of the used several times over variety, worked perfectly except for mysteriously turning off on its own a couple of times recently, perhaps once a week. My brother and I decided that what was probably happening was the result of one or more thermal event(s) which shut down the computer, no doubt due to a combination of dust accumulation, the CPU fan ports in the case not having enough clearance from the computer next to it to allow for proper aspiration of ambient cooling air, and possibly high heat generation from occasional loads due to search engine bots crawling my website. Despite cleaning out the dust, removing the computer’s side panel from which the CPU fan drew air, and shifting both computers a bit in order to allow for adequate ventilation, the computer turned itself off again after about a week.

My brother and I made a swift decision to replace my server with a new installation on a “new” computer — the good ThinkCentre I initially didn’t want — because even though the existing machine was otherwise performing spectacularly well given the overall small load, we tacitly agreed that the shutdowns were a problem with a production server, though we hadn’t actually said the words. This incidentally dealt with another curious behaviour exhibited by the existing server which appeared to otherwise be completely benign, and hence perhaps beyond the scope of why we changed the physical computer.

The operational ThinkCentre was plugged in, formatted with Fedora 31, and my brother helped me install the requisite services and transfer settings to the new server in order to replicate my website. Newer practices in installation were implemented, and newer choices of packages were made. For instance, the “old” machine is still being kept active for a bit as a backup as well as to maintain some VPN services — provided by openVPN — for the purposes of setting up the new server and installing WireGuard for VPN on the new server, and generally allow for a smooth transition period. Other things that we had to remember as well as learn, perhaps for another time, were to install No-IP as a service, and that drive mounts should be unmounted and re-mounted through rc.local.

One of the unexpected bonuses to the upgrade is that it appears to be serving web pages and my blog a wee bit faster, for reasons unknown.

In a few weeks, I’ll reformat the old webserver and make it another computation node for the World Community Gridin fact, this particular machine’s “original” vocation when I first got it in late 2017.

In the meantime, on the next project, I got the non-functional ThinkCentre for its spare parts. The first idea I had was that maybe this second ThinkCentre might still be good, and we looked at a YouTube video that suggested cleaning out the seats for the memory sticks with a can of clean compressed air. I was suspicious of this but let it go for a while, and I proceeded to harvest parts from the computer after deciding that the machine wouldn’t work regardless.

A power supply, cables, a hard drive, and memory sticks were placed in the Dell found on the street. It powered up, and after changing some settings in the BIOS, I was able to boot up a Fedora 31 LiveUSB. Using the settings option from the Gnome desktop, I was able to determine that there was a 64 bit dualcore CPU running at about 2.66GHz, that the 2GBs of memory I’d inserted worked, and that the 80GB hard drive was recognized. I looked around on the hard drive a bit with a file manager (Nautilus) and determined that the place from which I’d retrieved the ThinkCentre appeared to have done at least a basic reformatting of the drive with NTFS. I didn’t try to use or install any forensic tools to further determine whether the drive had been properly cleaned, or had merely received a quick reformat.

Suppertime came around, and the machine was left idle to wait for my instructions for about an hour or so. When I returned to the computer, I saw an interesting screen:

“Oh no! Something has gone wrong.” error screen

(If you can’t see the picture above, it’s an error screen, vaguely akin to a Windows Blue Screen of Death.) After a few reboots, all with the same “Oh no!” error screen, my brother suggested that the machine may have been thrown out for good reason, intimating that it was good luck that I’d even managed to boot it up in the first place and look around a little bit. I, on the other hand, was relieved: I’d had my evening’s entertainment, I’d gotten what I wanted in the form of working on the machine to determine whether or not the machine could be used, and I’d learned that it indeed couldn’t be used. Parts were stripped back out of the Dell, and the box was relegated to the part of the garage where I store toxic waste and old electronics for the times I have enough collected to make it worthwhile to go to an authorized disposal centre.

At this point, something was still bugging me about the second ThinkCentre. I hadn’t yet placed my finger on it, but I was suspicious of the “use compressed air to get rid of the dust in the memory bays” solution. So I placed the salvaged parts back into the ThinkCentre — having fun with which wires go where in order to make it work again — and got the four beeps again. I looked up what four beeps at start up means (here’s my archive of the table, which I had to recreate since a direct printing of the webpage only printed one of the tables,) and found that at least on a Lenovo ThinkCentre, it means “Clock error, timer on the system board does not work.” While I assumed that changing the BIOS battery may well fix the problem, I decided not to investigate any further.

I salvaged the parts again and placed them in my parts pile, ready for the next time I find a junker on the street or from elsewhere. The second ThinkCentre’s case was also placed beside the Dell, awaiting my next trip to an authorized disposal centre.

This means that out of the last three computers, I have one functioning computer replacing an existing computer (that I hope will continue with an industrious afterlife doing something else), one computer scavenged for spare parts and the case relegated to the disposal centre pile, and the Dell computer which was found on the street also relegated to the disposal centre pile.

Or, to paraphrase Meat Loaf, “One out of three ain’t bad …”

Linux Meetup Montreal — Présentation

Cette page est principalement une place à exposer le lien pour ma présentation de ce soir au Linux Meetup Montréal au sujet d’utiliser le SSH et le SSHfs pour l’accès aux fichiers sur des autres systèmes depuis votre ordinateur linux (Fedora avec Gnome, dans mon cas).

https://www.malak.ca/linux/20200303présentation.pdf

Essentiellement, je discute le fait que SSH et SSHfs peuvent être utilisés pour les transferts des fichiers, et comment, à la base, les invoquer.

*****

This is a page to expose the link for my presentation this evening at the Linux Meetup Montreal discussing SSH and SSHfs for file transfers on other systems (Fedora with Gnome, in my case).

https://www.malak.ca/linux/20200303présentation.pdf

Essentially, in the presentation I say that SSH and SSHfs can be used for file transfers, and in a basic way, how to invoke them.

And yes, it’s in French. Deal with it. 🙂

New World Community Grid Node

I started volunteering some of my extra computers’ idle time for the World Community Grid in December, 2013.  Unfortunately, the machine in question, a used computer I’d bought about five years earlier and, after having been used as a desktop for a few years, had been converted to being a server under CentOS, died from a “thermal event” nine months later.  It had completed 713 results and earned 419,591 points.

In 2016, I found a P4 3.4GHz machine, installed CentOS 7 on it, and then the BOINC infrastructure.  I assigned it to the World Community Grid and 100% of its capacity to the project.  From when it began in September, 2016 to today, it has completed 4,540 results, and earned 2,568,590 points.

In 2017, I finally converted my old netbook (32 bit atom processor) to CentOS 6 and did the same thing.  From when it began in April until today, it has completed 261 results, and earned 133,073 points.  (What a difference in capacity that 3.4GHz 64 bit has as compared to 1.6GHz 32 bit!)

Over the past few months, I have been collecting up a number of old machines which have come my way, including some IBM ThinkCentres from the Windows Vista era.  So far, my brother and I haven’t been able to get them running properly, and we will probably end up using them for spare parts.

In the meantime, we acquired two more computers.  My brother wanted / needed a replacement computer for his aging media server, an old reclaimed IBM ThinkCentre I’d gotten for him a few years ago.  I, in the meantime, wanted to add another node to the World Community Grid (of course, working at 100% of capacity.)

I chose CentOS 7 for this build, like I did for my other nodes, for what I consider to be the obvious reason that I want to pretty much forget about the computers and just relish in the numbers on the World Community Grid website — I don’t want to be re-installing every year!

The install went well enough, although it was long enough process for the base install, as compared to my laptop and desktop.  I will rule out the comparison to my laptop since the SSD and physical drive don’t compare at all.  As for the desktop and node, I’ll chalk up the difference mainly to processor speed and general architectures:  A 2015-era four core i5 running at 3.4GHZ vs a 2010 era Pentium dual-core E6500 running at 2.93GHz (no HyperThreading).

What was really long after that was the yum update after the initial install — about 650 packages!  In the process of the updates, I tried a few things like web surfing, and the gnome desktop became unstable; I ended up with a flashing text screen.  I finally rebooted, and tried to downgrade to an older kernel in GRUB, to no avail.  I tried the rescue kernel, no avail.  Under both situations, I couldn’t pull up a terminal with Alt-Ctrl-F2.  A quick check under a Fedora live environment was a waste of time, since I didn’t really know how to diagnose things; however, I was able to mount the CentOS drive.

There was some flirting with the idea of installing Fedora 27, but I don’t want the re-installation mill on this machine (or any of my other volunteer computing nodes) every year — although, seeing my brother upgrade from Fedora 25 to 27 through the GUI go as smoothly as a routine DNF upgrade is making me wonder if the point is moot.  (Note that CentOS 7, based on Fedora 19, is still using YUM, while Fedora has been using DNF since version 22.)

Finally, I restarted the install of CentOS, this time doing a minimal text install.  Things were a touch faster.  Then I did a yum update, with only about half as many packages to update.  After that, I installed the Gnome Desktop on the machine. (Here’s my archive.)

I continued with the installation of the Fedora EPEL repository (as root “wget http://dl.fedoraproject.org/pub/epel/epel-release-latest-7.noarch.rpm”, then “rpm -ivh epel-release-latest-7.noarch.rpm”).  Installing the BOINC infrastructure was easy:  As root “yum install boinc*”.

I launched the BOINC manager from one of the pull down menus, and, to my surprise, it actually worked out of the box, unlike previous installations.  Someone must have updated the packages. 🙂  I added the World Community Grid website information, and my account and password.

Voilà!  At 12:00 UTC the next morning, my machine had already submitted FIVE results, and earned 2,429 points!  And, at 00:00 UTC as I’m completing this post, a total of EIGHT results, and 4,638 points!

malak.ca updated

Since about lat 2016, my website had problems with uptime:  It was mostly down.  In the spring of 2017, it was finally up and I did a bit of restoration work.  And then … it was down again for a few months.  (And, due to the circumstances of this downtime, my restoration work was lost.)

Finally, I transferred my website to an existing home server, and it is now living out of a computer which I believe may be as old as 2003, living under CentOS 7.x series, in my bedroom.  Having fixed a faulty telephone line (squirrels!) the line is now “not noisy” and the internet is back properly.

Main work has been:

I’ve finally got a convert, sort of, to whom I’m giving a linux desktop!

In 2011 a new hire at work was assigned to join me on a few field jobs in order to expose them to the kinds of things we do at the office.

At the time, I enthusiastically told him about my use of linux. Suffice it to say his reaction was “What is this communist stuff anyway?!?!” Harrrummmpphh. “Red Hat is in line to have $1 billion with a big fat capital B in revenues this year alone. Doesn’t sound very communist to me at all.”

Back in mid-December of 2015 — after countless times of telling him about linux in the meantime, hopefully a bit more toned down — he sent me a message: “Here’s a modest budget; set me up, I’d be interested in trying it out.” I was practically beside myself in my pleasure.

I came back from the Christmas holidays and announced that I’d tracked down a used computer for free, and just needed to get it into my hot little hands. I explained that I wanted to give him a relatively risk free introduction. In the meantime, the computer in question, I’m told, proved to be dead and not usable. I’m promised another computer, and this week, when it looks like I’ll indeed be getting it in time for an install day this weekend, I further explained to my colleague: “The computer is probably about four or five years old but it’s supposed to be a dual core with 4 gigs of memory. It won’t be the best performing computer in the world, and some things it just won’t be able to do, at least not spectacularly, not because of linux, but because of the computer itself; however, it should still be good enough for videos, games, and day to day stuff, and you’ll be able to explore all the software available for it and see what can be done with linux, and you can add a few things like a bluetooth dongle if you like.”

He cautiously tells me all along that I’m building up anticipation; the caution suggests to me that he is mildly tongue-in-cheek meaning “of the disappointing variety”.

I then start asking him very specific questions, like what he wants as the computer name (I give him examples of current and past computer names I’ve used, and advise him to choose carefully since using the name of a pet or relative could backfire in case something goes wrong, and in the process of relating the experience to family or friends they may be confused or even become upset), the user name and password to use, the root password he wants, and things like which email client he uses at home. Pleased that he’ll be able to use a GMail interface, he begins to apparently genuinely say “Oh now you’re *really* building anticipation!” instead of the cautious insinuations from before.

Therefore in anticipation of the build this coming weekend, I put together this list of the main things I’ll need to install on his computer, especially since I’ll be helping my brother-in-the-know again with another desktop install, and try to get in some of his under the hood expertise at getting my server to be a bit more useful than a rarely used ftp server, a backup server for my data which depends on my remembering to back up my data on it, and consuming electricity.

So enjoy my list of things to do to loading a Fedora desktop very similar to how I use mine. And yes I know that there are plenty of things I *don’t* say, like “take this icon and place it third or fifth or last in the dock on the left on the activities screen” or, how to do “that”. 🙂

Installing Fedora 21 (Part II), 32 bits at a time

In Part I, I talked about installing Fedora 21 on a new Dell desktop, and promised a Part II, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But wait folks, I was serious. 🙂

I have an Acer Aspire One which I received new out of the factory sealed box as a birthday present in 2009, and immediately converted it to linux after receiving it – Fedora 11, to be exact. It has used, as I recall, Fedora 11, 12, 14, 15, possibly 16, 17, and 19, all without any trouble. Well, ok, none that can’t be attributed to “whaddya expect out of a notebook vs. a full horsepower machine” and errors stemming from somewhere between the keyboard and the chair. ?

However, time is starting to march on with this machine, and while it was great under roughly 18 months of Fedora 19, it was clearly starting to slow down a bit, but … well, Fedora keeps releasing new versions, and, well, while CentOS 7, which is based on Fedora 19 and which I’d be happy to install on my netbook, unfortunately is only available under 64bit while my netbook is only 32bit. So my options were to either keep Fedora 19 unpatched, upgrade to Fedora 21 workstation, which I wanted to do, upgrade to Fedora 21 with XFCE, which would probably make it peppier, or explore other distros, which I don’t wish to do.

When Fedora 21 Workstation came out in December 2014, I downloaded the 32 bit version, and the fun began. Within a couple of minutes of booting up the live DVD and before the desktop loaded up, the machine went into hibernation. This didn’t feel right, but I hit a key and things came back to life. Then, within about a minute, the machine went into hibernation again. I hit a key again, got a minute of performance, and it hibernated again, ad nauseum, and ad infinitum, literally.

Despite this, I decided to continue with the F21 Workstation installation anyway, and I ended up babysitting the install, hitting a key to wake up the system every minute or so during the installation. On a single core atom processor running at 1.5 GHz, this took a good long while and a lot of keyboard wakeups. Finally, the system was installed, but it kept on hibernating after roughly a minute.

As a reference, I proceeded to install Fedora 21 XFCE Spin, and, except for hibernating once during the initial booting up of the liveDVD, it worked like a charm.

One solution I tried was to do a “yum install fedora-release-workstation” or somesuch from an installed XFCE spin, hoping to then do a “yum groupremove XFCE” and repeat “yum install fedora-release-workstation” just to reinstall any packages which may have gotten removed, but it bricked the install and I had to reinstall XFCE yet again.

For a variety of reasons which are now lost in the winds but which probably included having gone through the following suggestions from ask.fedoraproject.org, I managed to install and re-install the XFCE spin several times again after probably having reinstalled the Workstation a few times in between.

I went to ask.fedoraproject.org to ask for help (here’s my archive), and I got a few interesting responses.

The first response I got was:

“You can do tests and get logs without interference with systemd-inhibit – ie sudo systemd-inhibit bash. The system won’t suspend or hibernate until you end the process invoked with systemd-inhibit.” This didn’t work; hibernation continued as before.

The next response was “I’m just guessing, but it feels like the system thinks that the battery is almost empty and because of that does the right thing in that situation. I’m not sure which software component is handling this situation but anyway, there seems to be a bug that happens to manifest on your particular environment.” This could have been ruled out immediately – mostly – because at the time the battery was physically out of the machine when I tested, and I was running on mains electricity out of the wall. Nonetheless, I did check, with a fully charged battery in, to be sure I wasn’t being a fool; no such luck, under both cases, the machine kept on hibernating every minute or so.

All through this, I learned that at least one user with a Toshiba Satellite Pro without a CD player had this same problem, and worked just fine up till Fedora 20.

My “brother in the know” helped me with some research, and we found something: In the Arch Linux forums, the problem is described, and the user “Scimmia” comes up with the following workaround (here’s my archive):

“Try setting ‘HandleSuspendKey’ and ‘HandleLidSwitch’ to ignore in /etc/systemd/logind.conf” “Scimmia” further claims that this problem appears to be caused by systemd/logind. This all means that somewhere, signals are being sent out, rightly or wrongly or otherwise, that are being interpreted as “the clamshell lid is being closed, so it’s time to hibernate.”

To wit, my brother and I, after I’d installed Fedora 21 Workstation for the probably at least third time, then boot up an XFCE liveDVD (but do not install it), and through some of my brother’s linux kung-foo, he mounts the hard drive, using Thunar in the XFCE spin as a facilitator, and we edited the appropriate file.

… And Bingo was his name-OH. (Translation: Yup, that worked and the machine now works.)

Here are the instructions to correct the problem, at least for an Acer Aspire One, and which are also findable through ask.fedoraproject.org:

1) install F21 32bit workstation, by babysitting the system throughout the whole install to keep waking it up every minute or so (literally!)
2) reboot using a live-dvd that works on the system, such as the F21 XFCE live-DVD
3) mount the hard drive (not really sure specifically how my brother did it but using Thunar seemed to help out a lot)
4)open a terminal session and make sure the hard drive is mounted
5) edit the file /etc/systemd/logind.conf (such as using nano)
6) uncomment the settings for “HandleSuspendKey” and “HandleLidSwitch”
7) set the “HandleSuspendKey” and “HandleLidSwitch” options to “ignore”
8) save the file
9) reboot
10) enjoy

… and, it seems, my instructions, posted on ask.fedoraproject.org, helped at least one other user with an Acer Aspire one. I’m pleased. ?

Now, as for what I think of it … well I like F21 Workstation. On my laptop, it’s a slightly sluggish, but still working well.

Having to find multiple levels of internet access — oh, fun!

Disclaimer: I am musing on the challenges I faced while trying to secure reliable internet I required during a recent set of business trips, and the process of developing various solutions to these challenges. These challenges are, in a general fashion, typical of the routine logistical challenges I face when in-the-field, and no doubt of other field technicians. In no way am I trying to reflect negatively on my employer, who for the purposes of this entry shall remain nameless.

I was recently on a couple of business trips, depending on an iPad as a critical part of the execution of the contract. This trip was to a small city of 25,656 (according to Wikipedia), big enough to have plenty of internet access points, cell phones, and cell phone data. As far as I was concerned, in fact, I was in a mini-mini version of Montreal, home for me, to those who haven’t figured it out yet.

The way the iPad is set up, wifi internet access is required to transfer building plans needed to do the work to the iPad, and transfer back files and data collected from my field work. I have made no bones mentioning to some key people heading the overall project that this is a potential Achilles’ Heel to the execution of the project, since, at least in the overall project’s fringe locations sufficiently beyond population centres, internet access would be a spotty luxury at best. My trips were at least symbolically close enough to the edges, underlining the potential problem.

One of the first challenges I found was that the iPad didn’t seem to play well with the internet supplied in the motel (DataValet); although I did manage to get it to work once, it proved a bit too frustrating to get working reliably. A colleague confirmed that he’d had similar problems getting Apple products to connect to DataValet. I had no trouble getting my personal computer running Fedora 21 Workstation to work with DataValet: In fact, besides not recalling having trouble over the years connecting to wifi that wasn’t specific to Linux or Fedora, I would actually say that the experience was even easier than in the past, since the daily leases seemed to automatically renew, although it seemed to insinuate itself by a “convenient” automatic popup window. In parallel, my work Windows-based machine also worked flawlessly throughout with DataValet, although if I remember correctly, I may have had to occasionally open up a browser in order to renew the leases.

Add to this challenge, my employer’s local office didn’t seem to have wifi, or at least, assuming that it *was* there as a hidden network, my work computer didn’t automatically connect to the corporate wifi when not plugged in to the corporate network, which it normally does at my home office.

My first solution was to fulfill a purpose of my having asked for a company smart phone in 2014: Create a hot spot using the data plan on my work phone to do data transfers when not in a wifi zone that works well for the iPad. However, it seemed, between the picture-heavy data and the fact that the iPad seems to do automatic background backups when hooked up to internet — a feature to which I initially had a (negative) knee-jerk reaction that nonetheless actually was useful at one point and since — my phone appeared to run out of my data plan for the month, as evidenced by the sudden stop of internet connection through the phone while still operating just fine as a phone. Having quickly checked the phone’s data usage logs and determining that I’d certainly gotten to the neighbourhood of the limit I believed I had (2 gigs), I assumed that the phone’s contract had a limit set by my employer to turn off the data plans until the month rolls over in order to avoid overage charges. I later learned, upon my return home and standing in front of the IT tech responsible for the corporate cell phones, that the problem was presumed to be an unusual set of settings probably set by some esoteric app (of which I have have very few, esoteric or otherwise, on my work phone), or possibly a SIM card problem, which turned on off the phone’s data capabilities, and that in any case the company has no such policy to ask the cell service provider to turn off a phone’s data access when it reaches the limit of “included data” in the plan, until the rollover date. The lack of internet on the phone is “solved” by resetting the phone to factory settings; I should get instructions on how to do it in the future should I be faced with the problem again. 🙂

This led to a second solution: I used my personal phone to create a hotspot and consumed a bit of my personal data plan, which didn’t bother me too much, at least until it were to involve overage charges. Not that I checked, but based on the little amount of time I used it, I’m sure I never got into that area.

The next solution also created another challenge due to a flub on my part: My client finally gave wifi access to the iPad at her various locations; however, I should have requested that she also enable my work computer, since I had a secondary need for internet given that I developed a need to produce or modify extra plans several times once arriving at some sites, and as such a need to transfer the plans off the computer and onto the iPad.

Finally, I realized that when I have wired access, I had yet another solution available to me: I could set up my linux laptop to create a wifi hotspot. This was rather easy, at least under the current gnome version in Fedora 21 and I believe has been for quite a while under the gnome 3.0 series, and probably before too. Unfortunately, this was wasn’t a solution at the motel since it only had wifi and no wired access, and I didn’t have an external wifi receiver with a cord to provide the wired internet and free up the wifi card.

Here are some screenshots of how easy it is to setup a wifi hotspot under Gnome 3:

step 1

step 2

step 3

step 4

step 5

Feeling a bit curious along the lines of “shouldn’t this be relatively easy under Windows, too?”, I checked on my work computer, and while it seemed possible, and indeed my brother once did it for me with his Windows computer, it was not obvious at all; in fact, I gave up after about four or five click-throughs with little end in sight.

Hence, at the local office and having set up my laptop to create a local wifi hotspot, I’d created a mildly-amusing-to-me setup on my temporary desk, plugging in my personal laptop to the corporate network, running a hotspot using its wifi card, and using my work computer normally over wifi as well as doing data transfers from the iPad.

Back at home and at my home office, I mention my difficulties in getting internet access to my supervisor (who isn’t a computer techie type), who thought that creating a hotspot under Windows couldn’t be done, or at least he didn’t realize it could be.

Further discussing this with him, I explained the situation saying “I don’t mind trying to find other solutions — that *is* my job — but after not having two A Plans (the motel internet not working for the iPad, nor having wifi at the office), then suddenly not having a plan B (the company cell phone internet not working), having to depend on my personal phone’s data plan, then having to depend on the client’s internet access but not having enough access for all devices, and finally coming up with a part-time solution to replace one of the A-plans — using a second of my personal resources in the form of my personal laptop — there’s a problem here,” to which he agreed.

Jovially, he did however suggest that “in the next leg of your travels, I happen to know that if you can go to the local library, they have free wifi”. This made me realize that if necessary and if possible, I could also try the free wifi at the local Tim Hortons (a popular Canadian chain of coffee and doughnut shops), assuming that there is one in the remote town where I’ll be visiting next.

Which has me really thinking about the problem:

– not all the field techs in the company have smart phones with data plans, and as such not able to create a needed hotspot in order to enable the execution of a project;
– not all the field techs have personal smart phones with a data plan, nor should field techs in general be required to use their personal data plans, let alone go into overage charges, in order to enable the execution of a project;
– at least at first glance, it doesn’t seem to be a quick and easy thing to turn a windows machine into a hotspot in order to enable such work — and I don’t want to hear from the peanut gallery on this one, since I *know* that it *can* be done; my point is that at first glance, even a moderately savvy user such as myself shouldn’t have to say “It’s easy under Gnome 3, why isn’t it about as easy under Windows? Boy it’s a good thing that I had my personal laptop with me!” (On a side note, usually the stereotype is that “Windows is easy, and Mac easier, but isn’t Linux hard?” 🙂 )
– and, only a limited number of computer users are using Gnome 3, where it is easy to set up a hotspot if you either have a wired connection to the internet, or two wifi cards on your computer. (I’ll have to check with my brother, who uses XFCE on one of his laptops, which is on a technical level identical to mine, to see how easy it is under that desktop; obviously, it’s technically possible; I imagine it’s just a question of how easily different desktops enable the functionality.)

Which leads me back to the above-mentioned problem of “what do you do in remote, small villages where you don’t have a corporate office with wifi, motel / B&B internet access is spotty at best, there’s no cell phone coverage, and there are few if any public wifi spots like a restaurant or a public library?”

I just hope that the library’s free wifi isn’t provided by DataValet. 🙂

I’d say that Fedora has arrived!

Almost five years ago in March 2010, I stated “Ubuntu and Fedora LiveCDs — Ubuntu a clear winner!”

I’d burned two live CD’s — one of the current Fedora of the day, and one of the current Ubuntu of the day. I had wanted a group I belonged to to use one to reformat a virus-infected computer to use it again. Incidentally, they declined the honour, however that’s beyond my point: I didn’t want to give them (or anyone) the Fedora CD, while I thought that the Ubuntu CD was great out of the box, specifically including OpenOffice.org (now LibreOffice) and a cute little directory including a short video, a sample mortgage calculator, and two or three other little gems which really put the CD over the top for its immediate usefulness.

Well, I haven’t really used Live CD’s much since I’m not all that worried about having linux on the run, but at this point Fedora 21 seems to only be available by Live CD’s. But to wit, the experience with Fedora 21 seems to be quite the improvement in experience, according to at least two of my somewhere between the stated and implicit standards of comparison: The inclusion of (now) LibreOffice, what I considered a killer omission, and the ability to quickly and easily install many “productive” pieces of software through the new software installer. To be fair, at the time Fedora limited itself to CD’s and in its efforts to include as wide a base as possible for supposed widest mass appeal, Fedora was unable to include OpenOffice.org (or, as possible, any usable subset thereof) due to space restrictions, although it was able to include AbiWord.

Now, Fedora Workstation includes LibreOffice, and by typing into the search box in the “Activities Overview” (click on “Activities” on the upper left hand corner of the screen, or invoke it using the “hot corner” by bringing your cursor up there), the installed software that may help you, as well as a number of other pieces of software in the repositories which may help you, as indicated by a little shopping bag to the left of the proposed piece of software.

screenshot of proposed software

Well, I guess now I just need to find someone who needs to have their computer saved from viruses and spyware. 🙂

Tux seems to be moonlighting for the CIBC

It seems that Tux, the Linux mascot, is now moonlighting for the CIBC, a Canadian bank.

The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, also known as “CIBC”, is currently running a campaign surrounding its travel rewards programme, with a tagline of “So good even penguins can fly(tm)”. There have been some TV commercials with penguin families humorously “talking” about their not always succesful trip planning experiences. All of the penguins in the live TV commercials appear to be close approximations of some variety of real penguins, and of course, the digital renderings / puppets / whatever are digitally or otherwise manipulated in an anthropomorphic fashion with human voice-overs in order to appear to be like regular people.

On the CIBC website, the cartoonish penguins look sufficiently different from the “live penguins” on TV and look like they’re straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. While I suppose that the “live” penguins and the cartoons may look vaguely similar, it’s in the fashion that the Flinstones or the Jetsons look like you and me.

CIBC website

But wait, folks, as the screenshot above shows, the cartoon penguins don’t resemble our hero.

So, while I was passing through the Vancouver, BC (Canada) airport, one of the kiosks trying to get people to sign up for a credit card (obviously, the CIBC) was giving out little penguin keychains as part of the promotion. Even from a bit of a distance, I could clearly tell that they were Tux the Linux mascot, albeit with a CIBC logo and the travel rewards programme logo on its belly. I got up the nerve to go to the counter and say that I wasn’t interested in the sales pitch, but that I just wished to look at the keychains since they’d attracted my attention. Immediately the lady gave me one and let me go on my merry way, hoping that the keychain would garner some of the marketing attention it was designed for. How little the nice lady knew. 🙂

Tux is moonlighting advertising for CIBC!

Once at home, I of course checked Larry Ewing’s website. I figured that there must be some kind of copyright or license infringement. However, according to Larry Ewing’s page titled Linux 2.0 Penguins at http://www.isc.tamu.edu/~lewing/linux/ , it says “Permission to use and/or modify this image is granted provided you acknowledge me lewing@isc.tamu.edu and The GIMP if someone asks.”

Larry Ewing's Tux Page

So: At first glance it seems that, depending on how you interpret Mr. Ewing’s licensing condition(s), anyone can use the image for any purpose, and unless someone asks, you don’t need to credit anyone or anything or put a copyright notice or “used with permission” or whatever. Unless he’s saying “acknowledge me always, but only bother acknowledging The GIMP if someone asks.”

So, as I said, it seems that Tux is moonlighting.

My problems / Gripes with Gnome 3

Background: Regular readers of my blog — the few of you that are out there 🙂 — know I use Fedora and CentOS. Once again, Fedora is an interesting case: As a pretty strict rule, packages appearing in Fedora are as close to the upstream product — the software as it appears on the original project’s website — as is practical; generally, the only changes are those necessary to make them work under Fedora. So generally, if you were to download the sources from www.thisismyawsomelinuxapp.com and compile them yourself, without tweaking them — while making them work, of course — then that’s what the software probably looks like and how it works under Fedora.

Generally, Gnome 3 has been a mixed bag. Some things are interesting — I won’t say improvements; but I think that there are interesting additions (G2 and mobile device devotees will call retrogrades) that I’m willing to welcome, or at least I find acceptable given a paradigm change. I particularly like the hot corner that brings up all of the open windows. Other things are six of one / half dozen of the other, such as the panel/dock on the left of the activities screen.

Here are some specific gripes I have about Gnome 3 at least as installed in Fedora 15 and 16:

This is based on my experiences with Gnome 3.0-whatever and 3.2-whatever with F15 and F16 out-of-the-box installs:

– switching between windows — the default ctrl-tab is between applications, not windows. To do so requires that I hold down the ctrl key, use the mouse to choose the application, wait for it to open another window with all of the instances of that application, then choose with the mouse which one, which sometimes may be difficult unless I were to have a 50′ screen. So it’s not important that I switch, let alone easily, between two spreadsheets, or two pdf’s, or two documents in LO writer, right?
– solved on my F16 machine by “yum install gnome-shell-extensions-alternate-tab”. Needs to be activated by “gnome-tweak-tool”, listed as “Advanced settings” under the Applications menu — see below, date and time gripe
– the above solution kept on crashing my f15 machine, so I removed it.

– Opening up a new instance of an application. Linus’ well-publicized bug: You go to the activities screen, choose one and click on it — say, in Linus’ case, the terminal — and the existing instance is reopened. So in order to open up a new instance, you have to choose file/new window. Valid in and of itself, but not more efficient by removing the possibility of having many ways to do the same thing. Also, partly addressed by the fact that you can right-click on a launch icon and choose to go to the existing instance or launch a new instance; but, this works out to being the same gripe.
– the both over and under sensitive upper-left hand corner: When you move the mouse to the upper left hand corner over, you’re apparently supposed to be able to open up the Activities screen. In Fedora, it’s too sensitve when I don’t want to open it up and my mouse just happens to be in the area, such as when I am going to the File menu of a given application, and then when I want to take advantage of that cool function, boy is it slow in figuring out that it’s supposed to move to the Activities screen.
– Activities screen — closing windows. When you hover the mouse over a window, a little x in a circle appears in the upper right hand corner of that window icon, allowing you to close it. When you have enough windows, it’s real easy to accidentally click on it instead of on the icon itself (to open the window) unless I were to have a 50′ screen.
– Nautilus — when you have a file highlighted, on the bottom there is an “announcement” window stating that you have the chosen file selected — barring the easy selection of the last visible file via mouse if nautilus is maximized. Obviously you can select it by moving the highlighter down with the down key, but the only way to know what the filename is, is to read the annoying “announcement” window, and you often can’t see the the other file information (last saved, time, file size, etc.).
– notifications — lots of things get a notification, like “you just printed a file” or “the file you just opened is ready”, and they stay in the notification bar available from the lower right hand corner until you manually remove them all, individually.
– adding the date to the time at the top (Correctable by “yum install gnome-tweak-tool” F16)

really minor gripe:

– in order to turn off of the computer or reboot, you have to highlight the “suspend” option in the stats menu off the upper right hand corner, and hold down the alt key. Something I can live with, but there anyway.
– solved by “yum install gnome-shell-extensions-alternative-status-menu”. Needs to be activated by “gnome-tweak-tool”, listed as “Advanced settings under the Applications menu — see date and time gripe

Generally, at least specifically to F15:

– When I unplug my laptop to move it to a different location, using the battery, the system goes into hibernate, and doesn’t even ask if that’s what I really want to do. (Correctable by yum install gnome-tweak-tool, F16, which allows you to decide what the computer will do when AC power is lost.)

And here’s a gripe about Evolution, going back a few years, and which has absolutely nothing to do with Gnome 3, or Gnome 2, or even Gnome at all, presumably):

– when you open up a daughter window, the basic evolution program engine is still needed. It effectively makes the main window barely “first amongst equals” instead of being “the program”, from the user perspective. As such, close the main window but not a daughter window, the program engine module is still operating. That means that in my case — because, when I use my email client, I want it to pop my email, then erase it from the server so that when I go to webmail, I don’t have, what, 100 pages of old email to wade throug — email still gets popped and removed from the server, and no longer available by web mail. This is a human-interface bug, since at the very least when closing the main window, it should ask “do you want to shut down all evolution functions, or just this window”?

Bugzilla — again, not specifically a Gnome problem:

Traditionnaly when ABRT is activated because of a crash, when I get to the point of selecting to report via Bugzilla, I get messages about the wrong settings being in place and that the reporting will likely fail. I found out a few years ago that this is generally due to the lack of the relevant backtrace program for the crashed program, hence there being a lack of sufficient “useful” information. While conceptually I understand the need for a proper backtrace so that as much detailed information is available as possible, this presents a real conundrum: I have occasionally in the past gone to the trouble of installing one or two relevant backtraces — after a crash and realizing this conundrum — and noted that it slows down the system significantly, and having all the existing backtrace programs is impractical. Hence without the appropriate backtrace, a bugzilla report will fail. Yet due to current circumstances, the average (at least desktop user) is unlikely to know which they are likely to need to install, and Fedora loses out on valuable crash information that would help solve a bunch of problems.

What do I like about G3:

Most of these are indifferences (ie. I don’t much care whether they’re along the lines of G2 or G3), but I’m willing to give them a thumbs up at least on that basis:

– nautilus does two panes, although I think that it probably did it before. A certain other system doesn’t; you can only either move things on the directory tree on the left (which you can do, sort of, in nautilus) or between two windows.
– Somehow the automounter for things like memory sticks seems a bit smoother and polished under Gnome 3 than under Gnome 2.
– I have actually always found the dock, and that it’s on the left hand column, intuitive — funny, I find the dock on the bottom in XFCE, which I have on my CentOS server (from the days a few months ago when the machine itself was a celeron 1.0 with 256megs of RAM and it found that hard to handle; G2 ran it into the ground within minutes) not anywhere near as intuitive (although I suppose it can easily be moved were I to want it to). The only drawback: more intuitive and useful than Gnome 2, but, in Gnome 2, I had already been putting launchers on the upper panel for years, as have other people. It still gets the thumbs up, though.