Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Magic SysRq Key

My netbook hangs about once a day. I can now reboot it more easily, thanks to the magic SysRq key.

I'm not sure why it hangs, and I'm not very worried about it. Netbook releases are new, and I remember the same kinds of problems when Linux notebooks were new. I had one laptop that worked perfectly except for sound, the mouse, and networking. :-) The next release fixed all those. (Even now, I have a pair of old notebooks running Jaunty Jackalope because Karmic Koala won't run their fans. They overheat and shut themselves off within minutes.)
I even remember the problems when Unix PCs were new. I was in Dave Barach's living room, in 1983, when he got a call from our Maryland office, which had just received the editor Dave had sent them for our as-yet-unreleased PC/IX product, done under contract to IBM, which was to run on stock IBM PC/XTs.
I could only hear Dave's side of the conversation.
What do you mean, "The color's wrong"? What do you mean, "color"?
We'd never seen a PC with a color monitor. Weren't all displays monochromatic? Once we found out how they worked, Dave fixed the problem.
I am, however, discomfitted by having to power-cycle a box -- I worry about unsynced disks and stuff. Luckily, some neuron fired and I remembered the magic SysRq key. I have had to use it so little, over the years, that I didn't remember any details, but Wikipedia came to my rescue. It does the trick, and lets me do a soft re-boot from my keyboard.

(My keyboard doesn't actually have a key labelled "SysRq," but Alt-"Print Scrn"-k works just as well.)

No muss, no fuss, no bad blocks. Magic.

Thrupence and sixpence every day.

Space, The Final Frontier

Last night, I gave my Dell netbook a terabyte drive.

A few weeks ago, Scott Mann talked me into buying a Pogoplug, an embedded-Linux device, about the size of my palm, with an ethernet port and four USB ports to hang external disks off of. Plug it in, plug in a drive (or four), and you're done: no muss, no fuss. Kristina gave me a terabyte drive for Christmas, so they're now up and running in one corner of a bookshelf.

Unfortunately, it's built to serve disks up through a web interface, so each byte goes out the door, off to their servers in San Jose or Boca Raton or Minneapolis or wherever they are, and back down to whereever it's wanted.

But wait! It's a Linux box.

The OpenPogo community has a repository of downloadable packages that you can use to customize it in a variety of ways. (It's a Debian-based distro, and the package manager is ipkg.) I turned it into an NFS server by installing unfs3, exported the disk, and it was instantly visible locally.

On my netbook, I then installed an automounter, autofs, and -- ta-daa! -- now the disk's there whenever I look at it.

Space. The final frontier. [ Cue Star Trek theme. ]

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Where's My Jet Pack?

At some point, I'll outgrow the wonder of new technology, but I hadn't by this weekend.

My bedside computer is a Dell mini-10 netbook. I've had it a week. Two gig of memory, 160 gig of hard disk, three pounds. The 6-cell battery lasts for hours. Whoof.

I bought it, on-line, from Wal-Mart, who delivered it in three days. Same week. I installed three different OS's on it, and settled on Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala).

Ubuntu is a lineal descendent of Unix, which I first installed on an IBM PC/XT, of which this Dell is, itself, a lineal descendent. The XT had an Intel 8088 processor, 256Kb of memory, and a 10Mb hard disk with another 10Mb expansion chassis to give it enough space to host multiple users. Those, and its cathode-ray-tube screen, took up a big chunk of a desk.

A megabyte, for those who don't rememeber them, is a milli-gig. A kilobyte is a milli-meg. "You had ones *and* zeroes?"

Kristina doubled the netbook's memory with a kit, also from Wal-Mart, helped by a call to a friendly Dell tech support guy, in Chennai, India.

Let me just pause to say that again: a phone call to Chennai, India. My mother's childhood phone number was 1. They had the first phone in Haynesville, Louisiana. To call my grandmother, we talked to operators. "I think Stella's down 't the beauty parlor. I'll ring down there."

This weekend, on my computer, I watched Spartacus, in bed. I downloaded and read a Kindle book, bought on-line from Amazon.com, with "Kindle for PC." I made a Skype video call to my sister, Jo, in Oregon. I did a software release at work from my living room while I was arranging for a barbershop quartet, from the Boulder Timberliners, to come seranade Kristina for Valentine's Day, at a restaurant I took her to.

I arranged it on my cell phone -- you know, the phone I carry in my pocket? The one running Linux? With the videocamera in it? That I get email on? That could give me turn-by-turn, voice directions to get to the restaurant? Which it could do by knowing where I was from the signals it was getting from the GPS satellite, in outer space?

My father helped open Vandenberg A.F.B., America's first operational missle base. He had computers with big cabinets that held tape drives with 7" reels. The computers and drives and disks took up big rooms and had their own air conditioning. They had bugs, too. We watched the first Atlas ICBMs launch, go astray, and then blow up. Made for cool sunsets.

Of course, we drove to the Valentine's Day dinner in a car. When he was a kid, my father's little sister was run over and killed, in Brooklyn, by a horse cart.

Time to get up and shower, so I can find out what new things I'll see today.

I feel like Duck Dodgers.