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(Not) Trashing a config April 7, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Ramblings, Xandros.

I found it ridiculously easy to clean up an EeePC of all signs and vestiges of use. Of my use, anyway. Virginizing it is a snap.

Of course the main reason for this is also ridiculously easy to figure out: the SSD is so small there isn’t much to clean up. You don’t have the room and the luxury to be disorganized and messy.

And as an adjunct, to take it even further, the built-in storage area is so small that it would be a crime to be disorganized and messy as you usually are. In fact, it becomes incumbent upon you to make your mess elsewhere so it doesn’t inadvertently fill up. (God, you should see my 8gb SD card.) If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know the consequences of not monitoring the available space.

I’ve been fastidious with my file keeping, saving everything in the ‘My Documents’ folder, which I’ve populated with subfolders in the various flavors of my work. Everything is there. Doc files, stories-in-progress, nascent blog posts, pictures, downloads, screencaps, web page archives, the occasional short AVI file. (Yeah, yeah, I hear you; it didn’t prevent me from borking up the computer, but hey I tried!)

I was keeping it together because it was easy to backup everything to the SD card since it was a matter of dragging the My Docs folder to the card. So it follows that just deleting the thing would unload my personal stuff off the EeePC.

What kept me up was cleaning up the pref files for most of the apps I use, and cleaning up the bookmarks from both Firefox and Opera. Man, that was a chore. Apparently I’m not as organized saving bookmarks, which I discovered were all over the place. 

So why, you ask, don’t I just wipe it clean and reinstall the OS, do the F9 thing?

Because, as most of you veteran users know, it takes time and effort to get a laptop working just so. It’s a shame to trash a config. Getting the apps to keep the docs they produce in the proper folders automatically, saving preferences for looks and themes and backgrounds and keeping the look just right, adding the little apps that make life easy, taking out the ones that don’t – it’s like making a work of art, or creating and decorating an apartment, filling it with appliances and furniture and paintings on the wall so you can live in it comfortably.

Reinstalling the OS is like bulldozing down your house and leaving an empty lot in its place. I just wanted to peacefully vacate the house and let someone else live in it furnished to discover all the little conveniences I built in. Later, they can peel off the wallpaper and put something else in, or decide they didn’t like the living room furniture so they can put it in the trash bin and install something else. Later, if they want to bulldoze it after all, then they could, and that would be ok too.

But leaving it be is heaven-sent if the new occupants aren’t as into home decorating and design as I am, and would embrace the furnishings as if they were theirs. They would appreciate the modern conveniences I so painstakingly put in, all the little stuff I’ve collected, all the security features I set up. Or not. But it’s still a nice, happy, homey, comfortable, lived-in house with good memories.

So I cleaned out my junk and left the good stuff in, emptied the cabinets and the cupboards, replaced the sheets and all, and then cleaned, washed and mopped up. Now it’s ready for the new occupant.

Why am I doing this? Ah, that’s for another blog post. The next one. An important one too, I might add, since it involves eating crow and has implications for the future of this blog.

Got you wondering, haven’t I? Come back soon if you want to find out.



F911 March 28, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Hardware, Xandros.

Had a bit of a scare with my Eeep yesterday. I’d somehow rendered it unusable, and had to figure out how to fix the thing.

I fixed it after an hour of twiddling with it at home, not to worry, but at one point I thought I’d have to use the Xandros F9 reinstallation option. Or maybe, finally, make that Xubuntu-on-a-stick dalliance a bit more of a permanent committment. Of course my data was backed up and safe (I’d learned that lesson eons ago). It’s just the hassle of reinstalling everything I already had again, and losing my settings and preferences and bookmarks and all the little things that make up my digital life on the Eeep.

So what happened? How did I bork the Asus? Torrenting did it, my friends.

I was at the office. Since the office network is blocked and firewalled (and it wasn’t fair to use it), I got the Eeep to leech off an open signal in our building and got BitTornado running to get something off the net while I worked. Everything went fine.

Except I didn’t bother to double-check the settings of the client. I didn’t see that the destination folder wasn’t the one on the external WD Passport it’s normally set to. Unbeknowst to me, the 350mb file was going straight to the SSD! It was 10mb short of finishing when it tanked.

I was to find out that in a case like this, an Eeep will promptly hang, then will go on an endless reboot loop since the was no room on the SSD to properly set up the reboot. Argh. At least an error message screen told me the problem right off. So it should be a matter of deleting some files (or that pesky torrent download), and everything should be back to normal.

After a half-hour of fruitlessly trying to get it to run, I hit upon the idea of getting it to boot off a Xubuntu live USB stick – and give me access to the full-to-bursting SSD. And it did boot up properly – but then I couldn’t find the damned SSD directory off the File Manager so I could delete the offending fiile.

Was the SSD even mounted? I called some EeePH friends who didn’t really know how to help me – one of my gurus said I could boot off a dual-boot SD into Windows and fix it from there. Fine, but I didn’t have a bootable Windows SD card. Besides, I was already trying that approach from the Xubuntu angle.

So I went to a neighboring iMac and researched how to mount SSDs. Armed with the info, I went into the Xubuntu console and did some hacking into the structure, carefully because I was a babe in those woods. (It would later turn out that the SSD was mounted after all, and in my fluster I didn’t see the proper /home/user/ folder.)

So I did find my stuff, but when I got to my files, discovered I didn’t have the proper permissions to trash them. Godalmighty. Another couple of calls netted me the advice that I’d need to log on as the proper user so I’d get access to the files to delete them. So I tried it, and discovered that I wasn’t quite sure what name I had used. Whatever I SU’ed only got me an Unknown ID error message.

Throwing in the towel, I went home – but still tried to figure it out on the long drive home, with the Eeep on my lap, running off a Xubuntu stick, with a USB gooseneck light plugged in so I could see the keyboard.

In the house after dinner, I went at it again, determined to fix it before finally surrendering to F9. Or as I like to call it, F-911.

With Terminal open in front of me, the cursor blinking, I figured – why not just SUDO the damn thing? Get the right path and just RM the damned file. Surely it would bypass permissions. Which is what it did, and it worked. The file disappeared. The SSD loosened up. After that my EeePC booted up in Xandros as usually does, and it was as if nothing had happened.


Must’ve been the food that kicked my brain into gear. In hindsight it was the obvious, simple solution, and you veteran Linux users are probably thinking what a bozo I was not to have thought of it in the first place. True. Noobs move in mysterious ways.

At least I figured it out before I took the F9 plunge. Moral of the story, gang? Don’t fill up the SSD if you can help it. That’s bork city, especially under Xandros.

Camera obscure March 14, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Hardware, Video, Xandros.

The EeePC’s webcam seems to be a big deal with a lot of folk. It certainly gives the Eeep more pogi points with the general computing populace and adds a bit more value for the money. Now the fact that the EeePC 900 will have a 1.3 megapixel camera as opposed to the 300k one the 701s and below are outfitted with seems like a big selling point for the newer model.

I’ve never been a big fan of the webcam. Oh, sure, in the old days I thought it was the bomb. I even bought a separate, expensive Kodak USB camera back in the day so I could videochat and live the Dick Tracy life I’ve been looking forward to since I was a kid. The hype never lived up to the promise though: a dark, jerky little postage stamp with major lag, if it worked at all. Lots of wishful thinking. Better these days for sure; given the right conditions the vid hardly stutters, but it’s still not quite what I’ve imagined. Dick Tracy’s video wristwatch is still scfi vaporware as far as I can tell.

When the portable Macs started coming out with built-in iSights, I wasn’t too excited. It was a hoot to vid-chat, and if I was living abroad and wanted to see my family back here every day, I guess I’d be more enthusiastic about them. But I’m of the school that prefers to communicate face-to-face if I have to, but not force the issue if the person isn’t really there. Call me anti-social, but even old-fashioned chatting is a chore for me too. All that typing, when as a writer typing is all I do the whole damn day. Same goes for texting. I get so impatient I prefer to just call.

That said, here are my two cents about the EeePC’s 0.3 megapixel webcam. It’s not great, but it’s not too terrible either. About par for the course, the kind of webcam you’d expect to get with a bare and basic lappie like the Eeep – dark and pixellated, but workable. While it does 30 fps with proper lighting, it drops to 7.5 frames per second in a dim room. Then again, what can one reasonably expect from a 300k webcam, anyway?

For all the workable software they included where the cam is anywhere useful (almost nothing), it seems that Asus added it to the mix because they felt they had to; aside from that I guess they felt it added value for next to nothing. In a purely PR, way they were right.

What gets me when using it with Xandros is that it takes some amount of prep just to get it running in the first place – and then the default Skype included with the distro doesn’t even work with the webcam – you’ll have to downgrade to an older beta, and then manually turn on the webcam by performing some patented sudo moves in Console mode (or you could automate the thing if you know the spells) everytime you needed it for Skyping. (Although I haven’t tested the official Linux Skype 2.0 – just out of beta today, incidentally – for Xandros yet.) And let’s not get started on Yahoo Messenger.

When the EeePC 900 comes out with the additional megapixel, I guess most of the objections as far as clarity and resolution become moot and academic; let’s just hope it’s really more useful and usable. Apart from the bigger screen, trackpad and SSD, it’s a nice frill …but still just a frill. I hope they didn’t abandon plans of an even bigger screen just so they could keep the cam in.

Modem Blues February 2, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Accessories, Hardware, Xandros.
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I don’t really, absolutely, need a modem.

But being a card-carrying geek, I still want one.

It’s just one of those things you don’t need and would never use but would like to have access to if that rare opportunity ever presented itself. Like when you’re stuck in a wifi-cold area and you just need to get that email out to your boss. Or (God forbid) fax something to the office.

That rubber cover on the faux modem port on the left side of the Eeep always bugs me whenever I notice it. I wish Asus had put a modem in, or else ponied up the extra cash to make a case mold that took that hole out of there, instead of glueing a rubber plug over it first until they decide to actually add a modem to the production line. I’ve always hated these vestigial kinds of things. It like …taunts me.

Which brings me to the question I wanted to ask readers of this blog.

I own an Apple USB Modem. It’s fifty bucks off the Apple site. (I’m actually surprised that the creature still exists, frankly.) It’s compact and handy and looks cool; if it came in black it’d be perfect.

Seeing as Xandros and Mac OS X have the same birth mother, I thought there would be a good chance the modem would be plug-and-play on the EeePC.

Alas, no. The Eeep recognizes the device, and you can create a specific connection setting for it, but when you jack into a phone and try, it can’t initialize the device. Urm.

I’ve looked into it through Google eyes, and apparently no one’s yet tried an Apple USB Modem with an EeePC (else I just couldn’t find someone who did). There are of course the usual solutions based on similar situations, but I’m not about to recompile the kernel just to get a modem working. I’m not that OC about it. But still.

Just wondering if anyone knows how to crack this particular egg, or if not yet, if someone with stronger Linux mojo would try.


Inscrutable January 12, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Asus, Macs, Ramblings, Windows, Xandros.

One of the things I’ve been spoiled with using Macs is the simple, logical, almost street-language, gut-feel interface of Mac OS X which you can intuitively wing. That’s why Macs don’t come with much documentation. You try to intuit how to do something, and usually you end up being right.

Being spoon-fed for years with this sort of personal computing, you’re in for a major shock when you have to get your hands dirty with the command line interface in Linux.

Not that you have to really get your hands dirty when you buy an EeePC. You can always just live in the child-like universe of Easy Mode, or if ever you break into Advanced Mode go no further than its faux-Windows GUI interface, which is vaguely comforting in a guilty sort of way.

But to squeeze more out of an EeePC and Xandros, to go beyond what is safe and easy, you’ll have to crack open a console window at some point and deal with commands like “sudo” (which I’ve previously said sounds like a martial art where you use your intuition’s own weight against itself).

One of the more bracing things is the inscrutability of the commands and the syntax. It’s shockingly counter-intuitive especially if you’re coming from a cold start in Linux, like a dash of ice-water in your crotch. Even if you’d used DOS commands before, stuff like “home/user> sudo dpkg -i opera_9.25-20071214.6-shared-qt_en_i386.deb” looks downright terrifying. Not a single friendly phrase in the crowd. More so if your idea of installing an app is just clicking the mouse button on a pretty little icon.

There is no real peg in the example to even tenuously hang your geek gut instinct on. Which to some people is an interesting challenge, but for most, a clear signal to put their EeePC on EeeBay while it can still go for a reasonable amount. Either that or fall sway once more to the oily lure of Windows XP, which is at least a devil you know (as a couple of my friends have done).

As a Mac user I see where Apple has done a good job. The underpinnings of Mac OS X is this exact same unknown bedrock. To harness the efficiency, economy and reliability of Unix yet make things as simple as clicking the mouse button on a pretty little icon and marry it to their own hardware, Apple’s done things right. As opposed to the original Wintel hegemony, where everything was all over the place, and nobody got along.

The EeePC under Xandros is essentially what Apple is doing, minus Jonathan Ives, orchestrated keynotes and done on a shoestring budget. Which is why despite the inscrutability I’m still willing to try and learn the martial art of sudo. At least I’m buying into a world where people know what they’re doing.

I just hope this old dog can still learn some new tricks.

Arranged marriages January 3, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Macs, Windows, Xandros.
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My friend Art happily texted me the other day to say that he had finally XP-fied his Eeepc.

Hm. Not quite sure how I feel about that. I’m not qustioning Art’s judgment – he was Editor-in-Chief of PC Magazine Philippines after all. He knows what he’s doing.

But for me, one of the most interesting and most appealing things about this UMPC is the idea that it runs off Linux. A leaner, meaner, more reliable, more flexible OS – and it’s free to boot, even in the literal sense of the expression.

As a Mac user, I’m aware that the underpinnings of my favorite operating system, Mac OS X, is Unix – we’re only shielded from the arcana by the GUI. Which is why the real thing has always been a sort of grail for me to follow. I’ve just been a bit intimidated by the seeming volume of stuff I need to learn – at my age – but now that I’ve started learning it, it doesn’t seem too bad.

Most folk who have lived all their computer life on Windows PCs or Macs get the chills when faced with a CLI – the command line interface. The serious stuff.

The stark, dark, empty screen of a console or terminal window with the blinking cursor is terrifying to someone weaned on menus and icons and buttons. The blank screen demands you know what you’re doing, that you know the commands and terminologies and syntax and directory structures. Linux is the German language of OSes. It’s not intuitive, it’s a precise science; no guesswork, no winging it. A mouse is totally useless; the keyboard is the only thing you use. And it’s unforgiving and merciless. One mistake and you could conceivably hose the system.

Scary, isn’t it?

I’m somewhat affected, but not as much. I don’t have as much dread of CLIs since I started on CP/M and MS-DOS back in the day. The taunting, challenging blink-blink-blink of a cursor doesn’t really scare me. And the commands are basically the same, only with different names. Just a matter of learning what’s changed.

Granted, Linux has been overtaken by the gooeyness of modern GUIs – witness the UNIX eye candy that is Mac OS X. Visually, Xandros on an EEEPC is closer to Windows on the OS scale of things, but it requires some amount of familiarity with Linux, if you want to venture past Easy Mode or do more than just what comes in the box.

The learning is the nice thing, at least for me. Which is why I won’t load up Windows XP.

For one thing, Windows is a demanding bugger, which, with its shortcomings, it doesn’t deserve to be. Hardware-wise an EEEPC is at best barely enough to handle the OS. So why would one throw away a well designed hardware-software symbiosis that is already there and insist on an arranged marriage between this tiny, simple little thing and a big, clumsy and demanding ogre of an OS? Even more formidable, capable, expensive hardware choke on XP already. How would it be for an EEEPC?

Why break up a nice relationship where everything works and works well and force another which would demand more time, patience and resources to just get along, let alone get along well? More RAM, more storage space, more tweaking and looking for drivers and all that crap? All to have a Windows machine with the portability of an EEEPC? Methinks it isn’t worth it.

But that’s the reality, I guess. People will do what people will do. It just has to have Windows. It’s something that even Asus accepts, so that it put a great deal of effort in including instructions for replacing Xandros with Windows in their manual.

When Asus finally releases a Windows version of the EEEPC the rules might change, but because of the very nature of the hardware and software, the price will go up, which misses the whole point of the exercise.

I’m willing to invest a bit of time with the elegant, open-source Xandros. Besides, for work, I have my Macs and Windows PCs.

Those of you who want to go back to prison willfully without knowing why you’re doing it can go right ahead. Me, I’ll stay outside and enjoy the sun for a bit.