I’ve decided to go “old school” with some of my free time this year.  For some time, I’ve had (in storage) an Amiga A4000T computer – the top spec with Cyberstorm PPC card, CyberVision graphics card, some SCSI disks, 128MB (remember when you could run an O/S in that??) and so on.

Although the Amiga was always designed to work with analogue video standards (NTSC / PAL), the prevalence of VGA monitors in the 1990s meant that the old “miggy” had to adapt.  One of the great features of the CyberVision card was that it could redirect video from the integral AGA graphics chipset and display Workbench (or anything, it would seem) through the video card instead.  This was no small feat of engineering and, in my opinion, is partly what made computing in the 1990s so interesting; ingenuity, innovation, invention.

Above, AmigaForever© screenshot showcasing OS 3.1.

Left: The Amiga’s Kickstart, prompting for a boot disk.  

My 4000T has seen better days, granted.  Certainly as far as the operating system install and configuration is concerned – the video above shows that I can look forward to the pleasure of installing OS 3.9.  Or perhaps I might investigate OS4 which will harness my PowerPC chip, thanks to the hard work at Hyperion Entertainment.
Whichever, I am still surprised that for a 15 year old machine everything seems so, well, reliable!  The fact that the phase5/DCE CyberStorm/Vision hardware is operational, and the system starts up acceptably, is really testimony of the longevity of ancient hardware.
I’m really looking forward to exploring this machine again, and seeing what has recently been uploaded to Aminet.
Old habits die hard.  Happy New Year 🙂

ThinkPad T420.  Shiny and new.

It is with incredible reserve that I discuss my new Lenovo ThinkPad T420, such is my excitement.  As a natural born geek, software developer and sysadmin, there is something about a ThinkPad which is “just right”.

The lure of a ThinkPad is unquestionable.  It’s the promise of your best bit of code ever.  It’s the idea that it’ll be with you for years; your faithful companion.  It’s the reassurance of industry-leading build quality and top-spec engineering, using high quality components.  But it’s more than that too.  It’s an identity, a bit like that of Apple users – but thankfully in more self-respecting way.  You have a ThinkPad, you join an elite.  It’s everything you want.

You want this so badly that it comes as a bit of a surprise when all is not quite what it seems.

Branded accessories – one of those indulgences.

Better the devil?

As Lenovo only offer such spiffing hardware bundled with a throwaway operating system, you must suffer the wasted hours and ridiculous horseplay that ensues from such choices being made for you.  We are all too familiar with this scenario… so, I’ll continue!

Here is my experience, abridged:

  • Unbox, connect battery, plug in power, switch on.  It switches itself off.  And then back on – phew! 
  • Windows 7 starts up and completes its install process.  You are prompted to answer a few questions along the way:

  • Do you wish to use Norton to protect your PC?  I choose No.  
  • It prompts again: “Are you really, really sure you don’t want to use Norton???”.  I really, really confirm that yes, I don’t want to use Norton, thanks all the same.  
  • Further into the installer, you are prompted to accept the Windows EULA (end user licence agreement).  At the same point, you are also prompted to accept the Lenovo warranty terms.  You cannot proceed if you choose only one.  I imagine that this is another Microsoft “initiative”, a bit like Restricted Boot, which attempts to force people (through fear, usually) into sticking with Windows.
  • Finally, it finishes setting up Win7 and loads up the desktop.  On the offchance that there is a warranty issue, I decide to make a backup using Windows Backup.  Unbelievably, the Windows partition (C drive) contains 26.39GB of data.  WHAT??!!  This is a freshly installed operating system.  How on earth can it consist of so much… bloat?!  There is also a system partition (1.6GB, of which 900MB or so is used) and a Lenovo recovery partition (17GB, of which 9GB is used).  So, I have 36GB of disk space used up for a fresh install of Win7, plus some Lenovo utilities and Google Chrome (installed by default – the only good software choice made by Lenovo so far).   Hesitantly, I begin the backup process to Verbatim DVD+R discs.
  • 3 hours later, now on the 4th disc, the back-up process fails.  The error given is unspecific.  I now have a collection of 4 shiny new drinks coasters.
  • I dig into the Lenovo software and find that I can install “Rescue and Recovery” software, presumably from the Lenovo recovery partition into Win7.  I install it, which takes about 4-5 mins on this core i7 2640 machine.
  • Oh, wait a sec, what’s that?  Some pop-up just appeared above the clock in the right hand corner.  Something about Norton doing something, was that?  Oh, it’s gone.  So, despite being really, really clear that I did NOT want Norton installed on my machine, er, there it is.  Installed on my machine.  Poor Lenovo, poor.  And it gets better.
  • Creating recovery media fails.  Classic.
  • I fire up R and R and find the option: Create Recovery Media.  This looks more promising.  I fire it up, stick in a DVD+R (still have 6 left, hopefully that’s enough..).  It starts off, “extracting files”.  And then stops, and fails.  Apparently, in this instance, I may be able to expect Lenovo to ship me out some recovery CDs.






  • Not to be

    So far, any reasonable, sane person would not feel very confident using Win7 on this machine.  The dream probably wouldn’t be shattered, but clearly the software configuration is dysfunctional, ignoring user preferences and showing some worrying reliability issues out of the box.

    Luckily, being part of an elite means that you don’t follow the masses.  The throwaway software, bundled with the machine, is designed for people who don’t, won’t or can’t think.  It’s also designed for those who blythely accept it, probably “because it’s safer”.  Well, luckily for Windows users it must be a lot safer now that Norton is installed, regardless of your wishes!  Phew!

    To be

    Fedora 16 live CD, running on this T420.

    The alternative, as always, is to not accept what you are given.  Instead, seek a better solution that you can feel confident in.  For this ThinkPad T420, the better solution is GNU/Linux, Fedora 16 flavour.

    Here is how easy Fedora is:

    • You download a live CD, burn it to disc and restart the computer.
    • The CD boots up into a “live desktop” (this doesn’t affect any data on the hard drive).
    • From the live desktop, you run software (e.g. Firefox) as if it were installed on your computer.  On the ThinkPad, all hardware is automatically recognised and usable immediately.
    • From the live desktop, you have the option to install this software to your hard disc.  How refreshing: choice.

    But don’t take my word for it, try it yourself.

    If, that is, you have the mind to.

    Boy, I am always amazed at the breadth of stuff that goes on weekly, surrounding people’s preferred operating systems, new hardware press releases and so on.  For me, it’s one of the best things about the internet: constant information from all corners of the globe, seeking an audience and advocate elsewhere.

    Intel, AMD and the new kid in town

    Image via CrunchBase

    So, this week there has been loads of stuff which caught my attention, only a short list of which I have time to share.  First things first, Ars Technica : a constantly vibrant source of interesting news out there in the technosphere.  Featured in its hallowed pages was the title ARM’s Eagle has landed: meet the A15“.  Indeedy, ARM is developing more processor chips which are beginning to compete with the likes of Intel’s Atom and AMD’s lesser-known Geode.

    AMD Geode™ LX 800@0.9W Processor

    The exciting thing here is that a third player is entering the midst of a traditionally two-horse race: GPU/CPU design and manufacture (AKA AMD vs Intel).  Similarly to the console race of 2007-ish, a third player getting involved (in the console war, this being Microsoft‘s XBox 360) does great things for the market and the larger picture.  Who would have thought, against the mighty 360 or PS3, that the Wii would have competed so well?

     

    We’ll see how this plays out in a different way with chip manufacturers though but, as with most of these things, the early adopters of SmartBooks (Netbooks with phone capabilities, typically powered by ARM processors) will likely be Business types and Linux users who aren’t just taken in by the big names.

    The Apple is finally ripening
    Finally. Sense at Apple.  Well, some at least. Developers are creative, resourceful individuals.  So throwing down the gauntlet by restricting their development languages was kind of a draconian, hard-line gesture by a company pimping itself as cool and trendy.  Sorry Fanbois, but it was a bit Microsofty, actually.  Which is actually unfair to Microsoft, as they are generally far less restrictive about this (as this list of programming languages illustrates..).  Then again, 99.4% of malware is aimed at Windows users.


    But back to Apple, this Ars story describes the change in stance at Cappuccino.


    How nice of them to open up their policy as well as opening up their iOS 4.1 BootROM in the same week!  In case anyone thinks I have a grudge against Apple, far from it.  This vulnerability intended feature clearly demonstrates that Apple are committed to opening up their systems and allowing users to fully use what they have purchased.  Brilliant!

    Oh, but then there are still situations which make you wonder.  Like the stealthy Apple OS-X update that kept “fanbois strangely silent“…   I’m not sure I would have described Apple’d products as a “mutant virus“, but their loyal customers’ thinking probably is.  But then, Apple build fashion statements, not computers.


    Open systems continue to gather pace


    There’s an interesting article at O’Reilly on debunking the 1% myth.  The 1% myth is the idea, forever purported by some in the industry, that Linux only has 1% of desktop market share.  Succinctly put, as there is no way of actually measuring this accurately, it’s a false claim (as the article details).


    Talking of open software, media player Amarok is looking more and more beautiful.  What’s not to like about this, especially when it’s free?

    Enhanced by Zemanta

    Short one today – I was looking for a way of converting all my ripped CDs to an alternative format for portable audio use.

    Here’s a useful link for doing scripted, recursive audio format conversion.

    Now you can rip all those CDs to FLAC format (which is lossless, unlike lossy mp3CBR or VBR) and then convert the lot to mp3 for the iPod, car, etc.

    Oh, and a copy of Fedora or Ubuntu would probably be handy too 😉

    Of course, you could pay for a commercial alternative or even – heaven forbid – “upgrade” your iTunes for DRM-de-restricted AAC files (which are still lossy-format files anyway).

    So, why bother, when a CD costs the same and has better sound quality?

    Forget digital downloads, until they respect your freedom.  Buy CDs!!

    Or, if you are 100% sure your data will always be safe and/or don’t have a hi-fi CD player (in addition to CD/DVD-ROM drive) to justify getting physical media, investigate these forward-looking alternatives:

     Enjoy!

    My eyes have been opened to yet another case of foul play by a megacorp.

    As if their package management isn’t disgusting enough
    (www.theregister.co.uk/2008/07/23/enormouse/), /their BIOS
    configuration on laptops of the recent few years leaves MUCH to be desired.

    On the bottom of my HP Compaq 6715b laptop is a removable panel which
    covers a memory slot and a Mini-PCI-E connector. “Great”, I thought,
    having a non-functioning Broadcom card in there, “I’m going to install
    an Intel 4925 AGN wireless card here because it’s supported by the
    firmware/kernel I use (CentOS 5.3) – and I’m loath to building a new
    kernel when I can just plug in a new card ;-)”.

    My card, £15 off Ebay, arrived this morning and I carefully fitted it.
    Booted the machine, went into the BIOS settings to ensure it was
    enabled, and…. wait a minute, it isn’t listed. Perhaps it’s broken…
    or …perhaps HP have imposed a blacklist of vendors/subsystems which
    THEY don’t allow to be recognised in MY computer. Not listed in lspci,
    nor dmesg… basically nowhere.

    Is this legal? Did I ever see any restriction declared ANYWHERE before
    buying this machine that stated “HP retains sole right to how this
    machine is used and with what”..?

    What point is there putting this restriction in?! Someone buying a
    budget laptop isn’t going to source their over-priced parts from the
    OEM! Why, darn it, why?!

    If you have – or rather, are thinking of buying an HP, Dell or IBM
    laptop, I’d suggest reading these first:
    http://www.engadget.com/2005/02/22/the-hp-bios-that-locks-non-whitelisted-mini-pci-cards-out/

    http://www.aigarius.com/blog/2008/02/07/sneaky-blacklisting-of-wifi-in-hp-laptops/


    http://www.richud.com/HP-Pavilion-104-Bios-Fix/

    http://www.paul.sladen.org/thinkpad-r31/wifi-card-pci-ids.html

    I’ve thought about actually re-flashing my BIOS with modified code,
    partly out of sheer bloody-mindedness towards HP (oh, and I would
    publish, intricately, the solution), and partly just out of the
    practical need for wireless networking. But now, I’m just baffled by
    the whole thing.

    Hilariously, as a final insult, the latest BIOS update from HP for my
    machine, “updates the Computrace OPTION ROM to version 866”. So…
    you’re telling me I have this “Computrace OPTION ROM” installed, huh?

    HP – http://h20000.www2.hp.com/bizsupport/TechSupport/SoftwareDescription.jsp?lang=en&cc=us&prodTypeId=321957&prodSeriesId=3368540&swItem=ob-67085-1&prodNameId=3356624&swEnvOID=2094&swLang=8&taskId=135&mode=4&idx=3

    BlackHat (deactivate the rootkit) – http://www.blackhat.com/presentations/bh-usa-09/ORTEGA/BHUSA09-Ortega-DeactivateRootkit-PAPER.pdf

    Is there no goodness left in the world? Can old ladies not be helped
    across the road any more? MUST we buy battery hen eggs instead of free
    range?! Like, where’s the love, man..?

    It’s worry-time on the server:

    # tail -20 /var/log/messages
    Feb 25 10:09:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 3 Offline uncorrectable sectors
    Feb 25 10:39:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 9 Currently unreadable (pending) sectors
    Feb 25 10:39:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 3 Offline uncorrectable sectors
    Feb 25 11:09:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 9 Currently unreadable (pending) sectors
    Feb 25 11:09:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 3 Offline uncorrectable sectors
    Feb 25 11:39:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 9 Currently unreadable (pending) sectors
    Feb 25 11:39:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 3 Offline uncorrectable sectors
    Feb 25 12:09:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 9 Currently unreadable (pending) sectors
    Feb 25 12:09:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 3 Offline uncorrectable sectors
    Feb 25 12:39:31 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 9 Currently unreadable (pending) sectors
    Feb 25 12:39:31 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 3 Offline uncorrectable sectors
    Feb 25 13:09:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 9 Currently unreadable (pending) sectors
    Feb 25 13:09:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 3 Offline uncorrectable sectors
    Feb 25 13:39:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 9 Currently unreadable (pending) sectors
    Feb 25 13:39:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 3 Offline uncorrectable sectors
    Feb 25 14:09:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 9 Currently unreadable (pending) sectors
    Feb 25 14:09:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 3 Offline uncorrectable sectors
    Feb 25 14:39:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 9 Currently unreadable (pending) sectors
    Feb 25 14:39:32 myserver smartd[2785]: Device: /dev/sdc, 3 Offline uncorrectable sectors

    .. and so it goes on. So, I’ll check it out by performing a SMART self-test on the drive:

    # smartctl -a -d ata /dev/sdc
    smartctl version 5.36 [x86_64-redhat-linux-gnu] Copyright (C) 2002-6 Bruce Allen
    Home page is http://smartmontools.sourceforge.net/

    === START OF INFORMATION SECTION ===
    Device Model: Hitachi HDP725040GLA360
    Serial Number: GEB430RE15UEVF
    Firmware Version: GMDOA52A
    User Capacity: 400,088,457,216 bytes
    Device is: Not in smartctl database [for details use: -P showall]
    ATA Version is: 8
    ATA Standard is: Not recognized. Minor revision code: 0x29
    Local Time is: Wed Feb 25 14:55:30 2009 GMT
    SMART support is: Available – device has SMART capability.
    SMART support is: Enabled

    === START OF READ SMART DATA SECTION ===
    SMART overall-health self-assessment test result: PASSED

    General SMART Values:
    Offline data collection status: (0x82) Offline data collection activity
    was completed without error.
    Auto Offline Data Collection: Enabled.
    Self-test execution status: ( 0) The previous self-test routine completed
    without error or no self-test has ever
    been run.
    Total time to complete Offline
    data collection: (7840) seconds.
    Offline data collection
    capabilities: (0x5b) SMART execute Offline immediate.
    Auto Offline data collection on/off support.
    Suspend Offline collection upon new
    command.
    Offline surface scan supported.
    Self-test supported.
    No Conveyance Self-test supported.
    Selective Self-test supported.
    SMART capabilities: (0x0003) Saves SMART data before entering
    power-saving mode.
    Supports SMART auto save timer.
    Error logging capability: (0x01) Error logging supported.
    General Purpose Logging supported.
    Short self-test routine
    recommended polling time: ( 1) minutes.
    Extended self-test routine
    recommended polling time: ( 130) minutes.

    [snip]

    I’m not sure what to make of a disk that reports it’s broken to the kernel but reports its “PASSED” to a userspace tool.

    One thing’s for certain – it’s being replaced!