Feisty fawn

I tried (again) to install ubuntu and ran into a critical bug that would have left my system unbootable if it weren’t for the fact that I know how to undo the damage the installer does. Since this will no doubt piss off the average linux fanboy, let me elaborate.

  • I ran into the “scanning the mirrors” bug. Google for “scanning the mirrors” + ubuntu and you will find plenty of material.
  • This means the installer hangs indefinitely trying to scan remote mirrors of apt repositories.
  • Predictably the servers are under quite a bit of load currently: this is extremely likely to not work for a lot of people right now. I recall running into the same issue a month ago with edgy when there was no such excuse.
  • The bug is that the installer should detect that things are not working and fail gracefully
  • Gracefully in the sense that it should
    • Allow the user to skip this step (I only had a close button, which was my only option to interrupt the scanning the mirrors procedure)
    • Never ever, ever, ever, let the user exit the installer AFTER removing the bootflag on the ntfs partition but before installing an alternative bootloader.
    • Recover from the fact that the network times out/servers are down. There’s no excuse for not handling something as common as network failure. Retry is generally a stupid strategy after the second or third attempt.
    • I actually ran ifdown to shut the network down (to force it into detecting there was no connection) and it still didn’t detect network failure!

The scanning the mirrors bug is a strange thing. Ubuntu actually configured my network correctly and I could for example browse to Google. However, for some reason crucial server side stuff was unreachable. Since ubuntu never gave an error, I can’t tell you what went wrong there. This in itself is a bug, since murphy’s law pretty damn much guarantees that potential network unreliability translates into users experiencing network problems during installation.

Could I have fixed things? Probably. Will I do so? Probably not, my main reason for trying out 7.04 was to verify that in fact not much has changed in terms of installer friendlyness since 6.10. All my suspicions were confirmed. In short, the thing still is a usability nightmare. The underlying problem is that the installer is based on the assumption that the underlying technology works properly. In light of my 10+ years experience with installing linux, this is extremely misguided. The installer merely pretends everything is ok. The problem is that it sometimes doesn’t in which case a usable system distinguishes itself from an unusable system by offering meaningful ways out. For example, display configuration failed (again, see my earlier post on edgy installation) which means I was looking at a nice 1024×768 blurry screen on a monitor with a different native resolution. I suspect the nvidia + samsung LCD screen combo is quite popular so that probably means lots of users end up with misconfigured ubuntu setups. The only way to fix it is after the installation using various commandline tools. Been there done that. The resolution change dialog is totally inadequate because it mistakenly assumes it was configured correctly and only offers resolutions that it properly detected (i.e. 640×80 -1024×768 @60Hz, no hardware has shipped this decade with that as the actual maximum specs).

I found the two main new features in the installer misguided and confusing. The installer offered to migrate my settings and create an account. The next screen then asks me who I am. Eh … didn’t I just provide a user/password combo. And BTW. what does it mean to migrate My Documents? Does it mean the installer will go ahead and actually copy everything (which I don’t want, it’s about 80GB) or will it merely mount the ntfs disk (would be useful). I need a little more info to make an informed decision here.

The other main new feature is to actually advertise the binary drivers that most end users would probably want installed by default. That’s good. The problem is that the dialog designed to offer it is very confusing (using such terms as unsupported) and also that the drivers are not actually on the cd. In other words I couldn’t actually install them for the same mysterious network problem outlined above. Similarly, the dialog doesn’t seem to have a good solution for network failure. The reality with the drivers is that they are the only thing that the hardware vendors support (i.e. they have better support for the hardware and from the actual vendor that provided it). The problem of course is that they are ideologically incompatible with some elements in the OSS community. Which probably lead to the probably highly debated blob of text explaining to the user that it is not recommended to install the unsupported software which happens to be the only way to get your 300$ video card working as advertised. The dialog does not do a good job of explaining this, which is it’s primary job.

And another theme

I liked sandbox so much, I looked up the guys homepage at plaintxt.org and found out he has much more goodies. Including the very nice Barthelme theme which has all the benefits of the sandbox theme + better looks. So here it goes ….

Antec SmartPower 2.0 500 Watt review

What happened yesterday was that I got home on monday and tried to restore the pc from standby (where it had been since friday morning). I then went into the kitchen to get some food and when I came back it was off. So I powered it again and it went through a weird on off cycle that kept repeating until I switched off the powersupply with its button. I then unplugged and replugged powercable and checked everything else and powered on. Same thing. By this point I was quite certain the powersupply was toast and removed it from the case. I spent the rest of the evening reading a book and watching some TV, things I normally don’t do that often.

Today I bought a Antec SmartPower 2.0 500 Watt unit. It seems my first ever attempt at connecting it to various components was successful. At least, it’s been running for fifteen minutes now (while writing this) and everything seems OK. Quite a relief that everything is working again. I’ve so far shied away from constructing my own PCs since I prefer to get the thing pre-assembled, tested and with warranty. The latter had expired and the company that did the assembling no longer exists despite doing a fine job (PC has been stable for over a year until the hardware failed). So, I had no choice but to get off my ass and fix things myself.

Connecting things is not that hard as long as you know what is connected to what in the first place. This is reasonably fool proof since connectors come in various shapes that line up nicely in only one way. To make sure I wouldn’t miss anything, I shot a few pictures of the internals of my PC before disconnecting everything. I consulted these pictures a few times to ensure everything was connected correctly during the whole procedure. So, I guess that counts as useful advice for people in a similar situation. Disconnecting things was a bit cumbersome since the case is full of sharp bits and pieces that tend to get in the way when you try to unplug stuff. My right hand has a few scratches but otherwise, I’m fine.

The package the new unit came in was quite nice, for a power supply. It has two useful features: modular cables and a two fans for improved cooling of the unit and the rest of the machine. The modular cables connect to four sockets on the unit. Several cables are provided with the package for all the usual stuff. The nice thing about this is that it allows you to minimize the amount of cable and it also provides some flexibility with respect to how you route the cables. I used three of the four sockets. One for the video card (dedicated PCI Extreme cable provided), one for the sata drive and one with three connectors which I used for the dvd burner, the frontside of the casing (power button and some other stuff) and the floppy drive, which I’ve never actually used. Having a dedicated cable for the video card seems useful since it is a nvidia 7800 card. These are notorious for sucking a lot of power (hence the 500 watt) and having a dedicated cable ensures it doesn’t have to share the cable with other devices (which presumably helps keeping things stable).

Despite the two fans, noise is quite ok (about the same as before) since only the internal fan is active most of the time. Besides, my cpu fan and video card fan can be quite noisy too. I haven’t heard the second one yet but I’m sure I will once I do some gaming. If you are looking for noise free, buy another unit but otherwise things are quite alright. The reason I chose this one was because it had a nice package, more or less the same specs and the above mentioned nice features. There’s not much more to it. Without access to a PC I sort of omitted my usual routine of doing elaborate comparison of various alternatives and trusted the nice people at Verkkokauppa to put the good stuff on the top shelf. Besides, this was one of the few 500 watt units they had.

Broken pc

The easterbunny killed my power supply. So, I’m posting this with my phone. I’ll be back once it is fixed.

WordPress sandbox theme

If you are one of the handful of people not visiting this site for the first time (i.e. less than 10% of visitors), you’ll notice that for the first time since I installed wordpress, I’m not running the default theme anymore. Basically one of my reasons for installing wordpress was that despite enjoying the fiddling with html and css I got a bit tired of working around IE and mozilla incompatibilities, the many limitations of CSS and all the weird issues you run into when trying to achieve perfectly simple things like three column layouts. If you are interested in this stuff, there are several nice sites where you can read a lot of stuff about these issues.

Now, instead of getting my hands dirty, I decided to install the sandbox theme for wordpress available at plaintxt.org. This is somewhat of an experiment for me, basically my requirement is that the thing shouldn’t break down if I roll out upgrades for wordpress in the future. I simply want to keep that process as simple as possible: upload new wordpress php files and run the upgrade php script.

Basically, developing a wordpress theme means that these things become non trivial since with every update the theme needs to be tested again.

The sandbox theme has a few nice characteristics:

  • It is skinnable using ordinary CSS (i.e. like the good people at W3C have intended all web sites to be skinnable).
  • It generates particularly nice HTML. This always annoyed me in default wordpress and sort of took away my motivation to do something about making it look nicer in the browser.
  • Including nice little microformat class names for html elements where that makes a lot of sense.
  • It’s quite popular which means lots of people use it (so it is well tested) and which also means that it is likely to be updated as wordpress evolves.

Rather than develop my own CSS file for wordpress, I’ve decided to just pick one of the defaults that come with sandbox. I like the spartan skin since it is minimalistic and also tries to improve readability of the actual text. Overall it is quite nice to work with. Adding alternative sandbox css skins is particularly easy and I might actually do that since the spartan look is not quite minimalistic enough for my taste and also has a handful of issues with too small margins and paddings. On the other hand, I said the same about the wordpress theme when I migrated my blog to wordpress over a year ago (i.e. never happened). We’ll see what happens.