Friday, October 7, 2016
BIOS Problems and Solutions
When Lenovo released the Yoga 900-13ISK2 it became apparent that Linux and BSD users could not rely on closed source BIOSes. Of course while it is rather naive to think that a Microsoft Signature Edition PC would be Linux friendly, one could hope that at least it would not be Linux or BSD hostile. On further analysis one can see that this is not the case, and any would-be Linux user is in for a very difficult time trying to load any operating system other than Windows 10.
The exact reasons for this problem boil down to the inability of the BIOS to set Advanced Host Controller Interface (AHCI) mode for the SSD. Now I knew long ago that closed source BIOSes could become a problem back in the mid-1990s. I've spent considerable time researching the ways one can obtain a computer with FOSS firmware.
Before I go into the specifics of which computers actually have a BIOS with freely available source code allow me to recap some computer history. When we look at the original IBM PC BIOS we can see that it's been well analyzed and that no other operating systems have been locked out. In addition to this there was no way to alter the BIOS save for swapping out the BIOS chip and putting in a different one. So for several years people didn't give much thought to the BIOS, as long as their computer booted they could load whatever operating system they wanted, be it Unix, Minix, MS-DOS, CP/M, etc.
As the years went by we could see computer users have less and less control over their own machines. In the later part of 2011 users started to see "Secure Boot" appear in the BIOS. In January 2012, Microsoft confirmed it would require hardware manufacturers to enable secure boot on Windows 8 devices, and that x86/64 devices must provide the option to turn it off while ARM-based devices must not provide the option to turn it off. Thus Linux and BSD users had to be extra careful when selecting which computer to buy.
There are three BIOS alternatives known to me at this time, all three are available with source code although in the case of Openboot the source is in the forth language:
- Lemote computers have PMON
- Sun Microsystem computers have Openboot, available via "svn co svn://openbios.org/openboot"
- Google Chromebooks currently use Coreboot, available via "git clone http://review.coreboot.org/p/coreboot"
I would caution any Linux or BSD user to at least do an online search to see if other people have had problems of this type. Even if you don't buy a chromebook one should make certain that the BIOS will not prevent them from loading the operating system of their choice. To my mind the ideal solution is to have a computer with FOSS firmware.
Sunday, August 28, 2016
The Importance of BSD
The Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) is a Unix operating system developed by the Computer Systems Research Group (CSRG) of the University of California, Berkeley.
The BSD operating system started as an add-on package for Unix v6 released in March 1978. There was a 2nd version which was used as an add-on package for Unix v7 which was released in May 1979. Version 2 or 2BSD as it is usually called included the ex/vi text editor created by Bill Joy. The sendmail program appears in 2BSD for the first time.
In 1979 3BSD was released which was an improvement over the Unix 32V port to Vax 11/780. This was the first stand-alone version of BSD. The kernel was named vmunix (virtual memory Unix) and was 132016 bytes in size. Utilties such as whereis, uptime, and berknet appeared for the first time. Surviving disk images of 3BSD also included an APL interpreter and Lisp.
In 1983 we saw 4.2BSD appear with TCP/IP utilties and the new Berkeley Fast File System.
Unfortunately it wasn't until the Intel 80386 CPU arrived that a port of BSD to inexpensive PCs became possible. In 1992 William and Lynn Jolitz released 386BSD. Before this we had proprietary Unixes which could run on IBM PCs and Intel 80286 CPUs such as Venix and Xenix, but the user had no access to the source code.
By 1993 Walnut Creek was offering ftp access and CDROMs with FreeBSD on them. In 1995 FreeBSD 2.0 was released which included many GNU utilties, XFree86 3.1 and many TCP/IP networking services. Best of all, everything came with the source code.
The importance of BSD is undeniable: It vastly improved Unix with the addition of ex/vi, internet capabilities and many other enhancements. Nowadays we are fortunate to have three main branches of BSD: NetBSD, FreeBSD and OpenBSD. These certainly are the first choices for the Unix traditionalist. My own preference is to use OpenBSD.
Monday, August 8, 2016
The Importance of Bell Labs Unix
Unix was first developed by Ken Thompson in the summer of 1969 on the DEC PDP-7 minicomputer. By 1979 Unix version 7 was making the rounds at universities all over the world. Bell Labs Unix has enormous importance: It was the basis for many operating systems that followed including BSD, and the template for Minix and Linux.
In 1987 Andrew S. Tanenbaum created Minix version 1 which was system call compatible with Unix v7.
Richard Stallman made note of the importance of the C compiler (it's importance can not be exaggerated): an efficient way to compile programs. That was the reason why he wrote gcc, perhaps one of the most vital parts of GNU. We must remember though that the template for gcc is the original cc created by Dennis Ritchie.
On Jauary 23rd 2002 Caldera released a license for people to use Unix versions 1 through 7 and also the early 32-bit 32V Unix. Nowadays folks can use the computer emulator simh and run early Unix on modern computers.
Thursday, June 16, 2016
Mygica Media Streamer First Impressions
As many of my computers are too old to play 720P or 1080P video I decided to buy a media streamer: The Mygica ATV520E.
First I'll talk about the manual which is very poor. The black and white pictures inside the manual are mostly unreadable due to the lack of contrast in the images (they look like rectangular blobs of black). The text is very tiny and you'll probably need a magnifying glass to read it. Basically the manual lacks important information one should know about operating this device. For one thing you can reboot the box by holding down the red power button. I found this to be necessary as certain button sequences may leave you with a blank screen. The manual shows an older version of the software and will probably not match what you see on the screen.
I found the device to be easy enough to operate after a bit of experimentation. The (9) or exit button allows one to exit the current program. It would have been a good idea if Mygica put VCR style buttons on the remote but there are buttons for controlling the sound volume, muting, and the usual left/right and up/down functions. Linux users will probably want to install some sort of terminal from the Google Play store which is a digital distribution service operated by Google.
The 4GB hard drive included with the device will fill up quickly so it's recommended to buy a micro SD card. The manual says sizes up to 32GB will work but I think it's possible that larger sizes will also work with a suitable software upgrade.
On the positive side I was able to watch quite a lot of media. Some of it was streamed from my other Linux computers, some was streamed from CBC (shows like Murdoch Mysteries and The Nature of Things were readily available). Russia Today also streamed without any problems. Some of the media from outside Canada like ESPN3 was not available probably due to my Canadian IP address. I did have some trouble with the Wifi reception when the microwave was operating, evidently they operate at similar frequencies.
Since the device is Android based one can play many Android games on it, although you'll find that some games are optimized for smartphones and tablets. I was able to play Pinball Arcade and Zen Pinball without any problems. There are numerous other "Apps" and one can read ebooks or pdf files once one becomes familiarized with the user interface which I found to be very different from using a GUI under Linux. I would recommend the Kr-301 Air mouse with keyboard as using the remote to do certain things is very sub-optimal or even impossible, although it should be possible to just use a USB mouse and keyboard assuming one's cables will reach from the couch.
All in all the Mygica ATV520E seems an adequate device for my purposes. The poor manual aside, I was basically happy with it. Some power users will probably not be happy with the Intel Duo Core CPU and the device can't do 4K video but most people don't yet own a 4K TV. I see this device as a supplement to my existing computers. Users probably won't want to use this device to do actual work, but it's fun streaming Youtube videos while relaxing on the couch and for $99 it's inexpensive entertainment. The device measures 100x100x15 mm and weights only 160g so moving it to a different room is very easy.
Tuesday, February 9, 2016
Vector Linux 7.1 Light
Ok, I took Vector Linux 7.1 Light for a spin and I mostly liked what I saw. One can download the 32-bit ISO here: Vector Linux 7.1 Light.
Vector Linux 7.1 light comes with:
- the icewm window manager
- a light web browser xombrero
- leafpad text editor
- mtPaint 3.40 paint program
- geany a lightweight IDE
- evince document viewer
- parcellite a lightweight GTK+ clipboard manager
- firefox 43
As for the parts I didn't like as much... firefox 43 runs more slowly than firefox 16 on the earlier version of vector linux classic, and parcellite seems to need a faster click than most other programs. A slower single click seemed to open the clipboard manager and then close it again. Older users will no doubt wish to make the fonts a larger size in firefox and icewm.
The package manager is slapt-get or gslapt (slapt-get with a GUI) as is usual for slackware based distros.
One program I really liked was the YouTube Browser for SMPlayer. I required some fine tuning but after this my older computer was able to watch youtube videos with ease. It certainly worked better than the flash plugin for firefox or html5 (which was just far too slow).
Ctrl-Alt-D gets one to the desktop as expected. Icewm is my preferred window manager so all was well there. The KDE4 desktop is available in the repo for KDE fans, although I avoided that as the KDE4 desktop will be noticeably slower.
If you find yourself needing a new firefox but your computer and glibc is too old, Vector Linux 7.1 light will fit the bill. People who are more comfortable with a SysV style init over systemd will breathe a sign of relief. All in all VL 7.1 is a viable choice for users who wish to continue using their older computers with a modern web browser.
Tuesday, January 12, 2016
A Brief Guide to Alternatives to Windows: 2016 Edition
First of all, I have a lot to say about avoiding Microsoft Technologies here:
The following info should be useful for the folks that don't like Windows 10. Does Microsoft control your computer? Are you tired of Windows? Read on....
Now the easiest and simplest route for people who are ready for a change is to buy the Google computer also known as a Chromebook. For folks that want a full Linux there is Crouton, which enables one to run ChromeOS and Linux at the same time.
The other choices I would recommend are the following:
Debian Linux and it's Wheezy based derivatives such as AntiX and Q4OS.
Slackware Linux and derivatives such as Vector Linux.
The three BSDs: OpenBSD, FreeBSD and NetBSD.
For the more adventurous there is OpenSXCE.
For the more adventurous (who use old hardware) there is Plan 9 :)
And finally there is HaikuOS and Minix. I don't really like those two but it would be remiss of me to not mention them.
There are many other distros and DistroWatch does a good job at keeping track of them. To put things simply the Linux and BSD distros do a much better job at protecting your privacy (on Windows 10 you have none) and are also more efficient in the use of your computers resources, e.g. OpenBSD can run quite nicely on a P3 with 256 megs of ram.
Sunday, November 8, 2015
Fedora Core 1 Computer Reaches 1 Year Uptime
Well it finally happened, my old Fedora Core 1 server has reached 1 year of uptime and counting.
The server was built in 1998 and Fedora Core 1 was installed on May 12th 2004. I wish I could say that I always ran Linux or BSD on this box but the truth is it was originally a Windows 95 box and later on a Win2K box. One of the reasons why the uptimes weren't longer was due to utility power failures. Currently the server has a decent APC ES 725 UPS connected via USB cable, but this will be upgraded in the near future.
This computer has turned into somewhat of an experiment in longevity. The question is how long can I keep it going? Certainly 20 years does not seem out of reach. The ATX power supply has been replaced twice. I can't remember exactly how many hard drives there have been but it was replaced at least once. I have placed an insulating mat under the tower and I think this has helped improved the computer's reliability.
This particular install of FC1 has seen many an upgrade, including a KDE upgrade to version 3.4.2. It has been without a doubt the longest lasting work computer (17 years) and longest continuously used distro (11 years). Also I can say that there have been no problems at all using the old SysV Init.
The specifications of the computer are now quite old but still useful: it has a Tyan Tiger 100 S1832DL Motherboard with dual P3 550 Mhz CPUs. On the other hand every P4 computer I've owned has developed some problem, I suspect due to excess heat.
I'm sure Vance Packard and Ralph Nader would approve of this computer. I wrote previously about my old Dell reaching 1 year uptime running OpenBSD back in 2013.
Saturday, October 24, 2015
The Web is Gummed Up
This is a sad story to write, but it's been percolating in the back of my mind for months if not years: The World Wide Web is gummed up with crap. This realization came into sharp focus today when I visited some media sites like cbc.ca and my CPU utilization when up to 100% and stayed there. Exactly why firefox was using so much CPU was a bit of a mystery. I had autoplay in firefox turned off, and there didn't appear to be any reason why the CPU should be maxed out.
Looking at my processes I could see that firefox was using about 65% of the cpu, and X was using the other 35%. There was a banner ad at the top of the screen, and a few other ads were also present. All the images appeared static so there was no apparent reason why the CPU needed to be running at 100%. Once I exited firefox my CPU use went down to 1.5% to 3%, so there was no doubt that firefox was to blame.
It's not unusual for firefox to hit 100% CPU usage for brief periods of time even on web pages I've designed myself but the CPU use always goes back down to around 3% after a brief period of time. This seems normal to me. Using the CBC web site made the CPU hit 100% and stay there indefinitely, or at least for as long as I felt like waiting. As an experiment I tried the dillo web browser on CBC's site, and the CPU level was about 3% although things were not rendered as nicely (it is very doubtful there are many web designers who test their sites using dillo).
Media web sites seem to be the most problematic when it comes to firefox's use of one's CPU. In fact I've seen web sites that not only use 100% of the CPU, but also become completely unresponsive. Clearly there are design practises which are making the situation worse. When I view a web page's source sometimes it looks like an indecipherable snarl of code. To say that the code is overly elaborate would be a huge understatement. One might even say there's an amount of deliberate obfuscation going on.
On the other hand some sites don't use a lot of CPU, blogger sites and gmail are two examples. Fortunately Google has offered a "Basic HTML" mode for older computers. It would certainly be nice if media sites also had a Basic HTML mode to fall back on. No doubt SSL is partly to blame for the increasing slowness of the web, but what can one do about these other sites? Surely using 100% of the CPU on certain computers for long periods of time will make them over-heat or damage themselves in a worst case scenario.
Possible solutions include using Dillo or a text based browser. While this is not ideal it seems more palatable to me now that certain media sites are so slow. It doesn't seem to be a problem on my chromebook, so that is another possible solution. Tumblr and Facebook seem ridiculously slow, although I am probably aggravating things by using older P3 systems. I have a kill script at the ready to clobber any sites which paralyze firefox.
In any case my suggestion to web site designers is to have a Basic HTML mode for your sites. It's only fair to your users with older computers. For the rest of us we can at least turn off auto-play for videos and consider using alternative web browsers. The problem doesn't seem limited to older computers as I've seen firefox hit 100% CPU on faster systems as well. Videos should not be auto-played. One can imagine how frustrated an older computer user would be if an HD video automatically started up (paypal I am looking at you!).
Saturday, October 17, 2015
Internet Biase Against Older Computers
In the march towards greater security there is a downside that affects older computers and older software. Older web browsers that support older versions of SSL are often locked out of certain web sites. Naturally web browsers that don't support SSL at all won't work either.
Recently I tried to access forums.freebsd.org and osdisc.com and always got the message "The connection was interrupted" in firefox 16.0.2, the newest version which would run on an older version of Vector Linux. At first I tried to disable IPV6 within firefox but that made no difference. Then I wondered 'could the version of SSL supported in firefox be too old?' so I tried again using Q4OS with iceweasel 38.2.0 and it worked.
To my thinking the extra security for web sites is rather nullified by the result of locking out many systems. Even my online banking worked on firefox 16.0.2 and surely the freebsd forums are not more important than that. Web site developers need to be aware that by locking out older computers they are reducing the utility of their sites.
Older computer users face another more serious problem which can't be fixed by newer versions of software: As encryption becomes more elaborate it requires more and more computing power to make use of it. To put it another way an older computer like a MicroVAX or an Amiga running NetBSD would run the security layer so slowly as to make it unuseable.
Informational web sites or forums should not lock out older computers. I don't see the necessity for using new versions of SSL on such sites. With online banking obviously there is no argument, the strongest security should be implemented, but for sites like wikipedia or forums I see no need for https.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
CBC Changes Radio Streaming Link Yet Again
I still like to listen to CBC radio on the internet on occasion and once again I see they have changed the link for CBC Toronto Radio.
Currently I am using this script for CBC Toronto Radio:
One wonders why CBC changes their links so often.
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