Bluff Wilderness Trail Hike, Summer 2014

Happy to be back from our yearly hike with my friend, Ryan Neily, on the Bluff Wilderness Trail. We’re proud of our achievement, hiking all four loops. Including the trip to and from the head of the trail, that was 30 km in all. Exhausting, but well worth it.

On the trip we bumped into one of the people from WRWEO who helps to maintain the trail, and stopped for a bit to talk to swap stories and tips about hiking the trail. Kudos to Nancy for helping keep this trail beautiful and accessible. We really appreciate the tireless work of this organization, and the thought they’ve put into it. It’s a treasure!

Invisible CSS animations on Iceweasel consuming CPU

Thanks to bernat on #debian @ irc.debian.org for helping me track down this bug and devise a workaround.

When working on my wife’s netbook, I noticed that when idling on Facebook in iceweasel 24.3.0esr-1, the process was taking far too much CPU. I then retested on a wheezy system with the release iceweasel from mozilla.d.n, which at that time was 26, and I later upgraded to 27. Same problem there, too, on both versions. In fact, it seems the slowdown was amplified by the fact that I was running iceweasel in vnc4server, not the worlds most efficient X implementation.

Even with all these versions tested, I have yet to file a Debian bug, as I will need some time on a system where the slowdown is noticeable and I’m using a current Debian version. But I wanted to post now to give props to bernat for his help. If you think you have this issue, go read his article linked above, which contains the workaround.

Wifi roaming on the move redux

It has been nearly six years with a netbook and five since I last wrote about wifi roaming from the bus to stay on irc without a costly celluar link during the daily commute.  Since then, some readers have asked me to share my refinements to the method in a followup post. So here it is.

The software

On the server:

  • openssh-server
  • screen
  • irssi

On the client:

  • screen
  • wpasupplicant
  • isc-dhcp-client
  • openssh-client
  • openbox
  • sudo & gksudo (optional)
  • urxvt
  • wavemon (optional)
  • three shell scripts (provided below)

Putting it together: on the client

Make sure if you have a wireless manager installed (such as NetworkManager) it is configured to skip your wireless interface, disabled entirely, or if possible, removed. Set up /etc/wpa_supplicant/wpa_supplicant.conf and /etc/network/interfaces for roaming, as per the instructions in /usr/share/doc/wpasupplicant/README.modes.gz. Don’t forget to add yourself to the netdev group if you are not in it already.

In /etc/wpa_supplicant/wpa_supplicant.conf, list common names of open networks. Normally the catch-all network that associates with any essid, i.e. the first stanza below, works well. However, occasionally the strongest signal is neither one of the common networks nor an easily accessible network (e.g. web portals), so having a list of common open networks helps to quickly select from among those instead. The more you travel, the more of these will discover and add. Just use reconfigure from wpa_cli to reload your edited list each time you add a new one.

ctrl_interface=DIR=/var/run/wpa_supplicant GROUP=netdev
network={
        key_mgmt=NONE
}
network={
        ssid="default"
        key_mgmt=NONE
}
network={
        ssid="linksys"
        key_mgmt=NONE
}
...

Since you’ll be using ssh repeatedly to connect and it has to be fast, make sure your server is set up to accept your key and use ssh-add so that you only have to enter your ssh key password once.

You can tweak isc-dhcp-client to make connections faster. In /etc/dhcp/dhclient.conf, use:

backoff-cutoff 1;
initial-interval 1;

Here are a few scripts I wrote to facilitate quick roaming from one open AP to another and reconnect to irssi running in screen, to break a connection and try the next one, and to recover from occasional lockups (more about that later).

~/bin/screen_reconnect

This is a script to reconnect continuously via ssh to a screen session:

#!/bin/sh
reset
while ! ssh -t 10.9.8.7 'screen -UDr' 2>/dev/null ; do echo -n "." ; sleep .1 ; done

Just substitute the IP of your own server here. Using an IP instead of domain name makes the connection faster because a DNS lookup is not required.

~/bin/wifi_reassociate

This script closes any open ssh sessions and informs wpa_supplicant to attempt to connect again.

#/bin/sh
/sbin/wpa_cli rea
killall ssh >/dev/null 2>&1

~/bin/wifi_killall

This optional, somewhat ugly script addresses an issue I hope you never have. On my ASUS Eee PC 1001PX, occasionally scanning stops. When this happens, and I have never figured out why, apparently ACPI events are blocked. At this point wifi becomes unusable and ACPI sleep is inhibited. By trial and error I found that if you bring down the interface, kill all network-related processes, and bring it up again, ACPI events are unblocked and wifi is usable once more (and any pending request to sleep will finally happen). The script requires sudo, and to use the openbox key binding, gksudo.

#/bin/sh
sudo ifdown wlan0
# in case any of these are hung
sudo killall dhclient3
sudo killall wpa_cli
sudo killall wpa_action
sudo killall wpa_supplicant
# in case any of these are *really* hung
sleep 1
sudo killall -9 dhclient3
sudo killall -9 wpa_cli
sudo killall -9 wpa_action
sudo killall -9 wpa_supplicant
sudo dhclient -r
sudo ifup wlan0

Openbox

Since certain actions need to be performed repeatedly and quickly, it is useful to have hotkeys bound in your window manager to the scripts. In ~/.config/openbox/rc.xml, key bindings for <alt>-r to reassociate and <alt>-d to disconnect a hung connection would look like:

  
<keyboard>
  <!-- My keybindings -->
  <keybind key="A-R">
    <action name="Execute">
        <execute>/home/synrg/bin/wifi_reassociate</execute>
    </action>
  </keybind>
  <keybind key="A-D">
    <action name="Execute">
        <execute>gksudo /home/synrg/bin/wifi_killall</execute>
    </action>
  </keybind>
</keyboard>

Putting it together: on the server

There is very little to do here. Just start screen, and start irssi in screen. Running screen on the client as well as the server means you should either bind the screen meta keys to a different key sequence on each system, or else learn to press meta twice to pass through meta to the server screen as needed. I use the latter approach. Alternatively, you could use a tabbed terminal on the client, or separate terminals per client process instead of screen. This is a matter of personal taste.

Ready to roam

Here is a typical setup for roaming on the bus:

In a terminal (I use urxvt), first ssh-add, then start screen with these three processes running in separate virtual terminals:

  • /sbin/wpa_cli
  • screen_reconnect
  • wavemon (optional)

March of the dots

Most of the commute, just enjoy watching the dots march by, waiting for a new connection. If you estimate a connection is unusable, press <alt>-r to reassociate immediately, giving the next network a chance. If the connection is already firmly established, this might not work on the first try. If the dots don’t resume immediately, wait a bit and press it again. This might take a few tries.

Changing selected networks on the fly

Use wpa_cli when you need to do some fine-tuning of network selections on the fly. While normally you can just watch the march of the dots until a connection is acquired, sometimes you can improve your chances of connecting to a good network by manually controlling the selected candidate networks here.

For example, by watching the speed of the bus relative to known “good” APs, you can predict which networks are more likely to succeed. Rather than connect to any arbitrary network, you might select a specific one by id, and then later when it goes out of range, revert to the original configuration, e.g.

> select_network 5
...
> reconfigure

You can use tab-completion in wpa_cli to type these commands quickly or else just abbreviate the commands.

Another common scenario is when you pass through a business area with many captive portal hotspots. These rarely make good choices because they either require a password not known to you or else you can’t click through “I agree” in time before the bus moves on. In this case, you might just disable the catch-all stanza and let the common open network stanzas you listed (“default”, “linksys”, etc.) do the work:

> disable_network 1

Become a type ahead wizard

While running, a continuous stream of periods fills the screen, which provides you with a highly visible cue that no available APs are in range. When the movement stops, you know a connection is being attempted.

While waiting to connect, you can type ahead any comments you want to make in the current irssi window (taking care to remember which one you are in!) While having periods interspersed in what you type may be disorienting at first, you get used to it.

There is a point when a connection is first established and ssh is accepting input, but anything you type can no longer be seen while you’re typing. Depending on whether the connection was completely successful or not, what you type now may or may not finally be sent. For best results, only type ahead before the dots stop moving.

Eventually you can become skilled enough at this to type ahead a comment in one channel, switch channels with /win # and continue typing ahead in the new channel, all buffered until the next few seconds (or even fraction of a second) of connection time.

Fine-tune antenna direction with wavemon

When the bus has come to a standstill, you may find wavemon useful to pull in a weak signal. Because wavemon has continuously updated signal level and link quality bars, you can use it to fine-tune the antenna position. Just turn your laptop until the bars are at their maximum.

Captive portals

I have not figured out how to do any automation for this, so it really is a crapshoot, as it is likely the bus has moved on by the time you’ve managed to manually navigate the login through a captive portal. But in rush hour, you may have the luxury of time to connect to these as you pass them. I have recently learned about the CoovaFX Firefox plugin which automates logins to captive portals. I’m going to give it a try to see if it helps. Update: I can’t recommend this plugin, as it is not compatible with Iceweasel >= 23.0. Also, the standard it is based on, WISPr, appears to have an uncertain future. That, coupled with the fact that the plugin appears to not be open source means I’m still looking for alternatives.

Summary

If all of this sounds a bit nuts to you, well, it probably is. But after half a decade enjoying free access to irc from the bus, it all seems perfectly natural to me! If you try this method and like it, please let me know in the comments. Likewise, if you have any improvements to the process or scripts, please share them!

Taskwarrior new blog, getting involved

The Taskwarrior Team has just started a blog, kicking it off with a series of articles about development of Taskwarrior itself. Go, team!

Almost from the moment I started using Taskwarrior (thanks to Jakub WIlk for an excellent job maintaining this) I knew I had finally found the todo system that I could love. Right away, I started hanging out with the Taskwarrior community at #taskwarrior @ irc.freenode.net and found out what an awesome bunch of people they are, both developers and users alike. I have plunged in with bug reports and feature requests, and am helping get more Taskwarrior-related things into Debian. In NEW right now I have uploaded several of the dependencies needed by my ITP of taskwarrior-web. It’s looking like I’ll have that finished later this month or early next month. Also, I have uploaded a wheezy backport of Taskwarrior itself (aka ‘task’) which, if all goes well, enters the archive next week.

Tutorial: wheezy live iso-hybrid with persistence on USB

As of wheezy, Debian no longer offers for download any prebuilt hdd (formerly known as usb-hdd) live images, which, in squeeze, were necessary if you wanted to use persistence. The good news is, since the new wheezy iso-hybrid images use xorisso, you can copy an image to a USB key and repartition it to add a persistence partition. Unfortunately, the filesystem itself is read-only, so you have to manually append the persistence boot parameter each time you boot the image. If that doesn’t bother you, you can skip this whole tutorial and just follow the instructions in live-manual for adding a persistence partition and you’re all set.

This tutorial explains how to extract the contents of a wheezy iso-hybrid live image to a USB key and modify it to boot with this parameter permanently enabled. I am writing it solely as a workaround and do not endorse this as a means to customize Debian Live images in general. I would love to help make a more convenient, supported way to accomplish the same thing for a future release. Meanwhile, the supported and recommended way to make any change to a Debian Live image is to build it from scratch using live-build, as described in live-manual. A simplified Debian Live Images Autobuilder web service is available that works well for many common customizations, if you prefer. Please use one of these methods if you want to do this, or other customizations in the supported way. Otherwise, read on.

Prerequisites

  • You need to download a Debian iso-hybrid live image. For this tutorial, I will use the Debian live wheezy amd64 LXDE image:
  • Note the size of the image. With ls -lh debian-live-7.0.0-amd64-lxde-desktop.iso you can see the image size for this example is 854M. Later, you will use this size plus 5% for the size of the partition to receive its contents.
  • You need a USB key large enough for both the image itself and your persistence partition. For this image, you could even use a 1G key, although that would leave very little space for persistence. In this tutorial, the test key is 8G, leaving lots of room on the key for growth.
  • I assume for this example you are preparing the key on a Debian or other Linux system that automounts media when they are plugged in, a fairly normal configuration.
  • This tutorial also uses the following tools, which you will need to install if you don’t have them already:
    • parted
    • mbr
    • dosfstools
    • p7zip
    • syslinux

Identify the USB key device

Caution: Always double-check the device you are writing to is the correct one to avoid losing precious data. There are two things to do to protect yourself. The first is, don’t write the USB key as root. The second is, first use ls -l /dev/disk/by-id to identify which device is the target USB key.

lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root  9 Jun 22 11:58 
usb-SanDisk_Cruzer_Contour_0000184CA87406BC-0:0 -> ../../sdb

As you can see, my SanDisk Cruzer Countour is /dev/sdb. For the rest of the tutorial, I’ll be referring to this device as /dev/sdX to avoid unfortunate cut-and-paste disasters. When you follow along, make sure you substitute the correct device for your USB key on your system.

Initialize the USB key

Start by plugging in the key and unmounting any automounted partitions to ensure nothing is accessing the device, e.g.

$ umount /dev/sdX1

Now make changes to the partition table. Use parted because it may be run as an ordinary user and has some advanced capabilities beyond more basic tools like fdisk.

$ /sbin/parted
WARNING: You are not superuser.  Watch out for permissions.
GNU Parted 2.3
Using /dev/sdX
Welcome to GNU Parted! Type 'help' to view a list of commands.
(parted) print devices
/dev/sdX (8221MB)
(parted) select                                                           
New device?  [/dev/sdX]?                                                  
Using /dev/sdX
(parted)

Note that when run as an ordinary user, if you only have one removable drive (which may include mp3 players, cameras, e-readers) plugged in, parted immediately selects that device. But just to be sure, use print devices to list the devices and select to if you need to select a different one, as shown above.

Repartition the USB key

Once you’ve verified you have the correct device, start repartitioning. Write a new partition table with mklabel msdos to wipe out all of the old partitions on it. You may skip this step and adapt the remaining instructions if there are partitions you need to keep. This is your last chance to bail if the device is wrong, so make sure it is the correct one before proceeding.

(parted) mklabel msdos
Warning: The existing disk label on /dev/sdX will be destroyed and all data
on this disk will be lost. Do you want to continue?
Yes/No? y
Error: Partition(s) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 on
/dev/sdX have been written, but we have been unable to inform the kernel of
the change, probably because it/they are in use.  As a result, the old
partition(s) will remain in use.  You should reboot now before making further
changes.
Ignore/Cancel? i
(parted)

The error is normal, and appears when you run parted as an ordinary user, so it is OK each time it appears to press “i” to ignore it. For the rest of this tutorial I will omit these errors from the output for brevity.

Make three partitions, a fat32 partition for the image itself that is 5% larger than the size of the ISO, a 1G ext4 partition for persistence, and an extra fat32 partition for the rest of the space. Put the extra partition first so that other OSes you might use the key with will be able to use it. Use relative positioning from the end of the device to make it easy to put all of the rest of the space in the first partition. Finally, flag the live image partition bootable.

(parted) mkpart primary fat32 1 -1897M
(parted) mkpart primary ext4 -1897M -897M
(parted) mkpart primary fat32 -897M -0
(parted) set 3 boot on
(parted) quit
Information: You may need to update /etc/fstab.

Unplug the USB key and plug it in again so that the kernel will re-read the updated partition table. If there were old filesystems on the key that were automounted, unmount them again. Now we’re ready to make the new filesystems.

$ umount /dev/sdX1
$ /sbin/mkdosfs -nEXTRA /dev/sdX1
mkdosfs 3.0.16 (01 Mar 2013)
$ /sbin/mkfs.ext4 -q -Lpersistence /dev/sdX2
$ /sbin/mkdosfs -nLXDE /dev/sdX3
mkdosfs 3.0.16 (01 Mar 2013)

Make the USB key bootable

Use install-mbr to install an MBR on the key and syslinux to install the bootloader to boot into your live image partition.

$ /sbin/install-mbr /dev/sdX
$ syslinux -i /dev/sdX3

Mount the partitions

Unplug the key and plug it in again so the new partitions will be automounted.

Observe where the partitions are mounted with df.

$ df
...
/dev/sdX1        6204568         4   6204564   1% /media/EXTRA
/dev/sdX3         831888         4    831884   1% /media/LXDE
/dev/sdX2         944120      1204    894124   1% /media/persistence

Extract the ISO contents to the key

To continue preparing this key as an unprivileged user, use p7zip to extract the ISO. You may alternatively mount the ISO loopback and extract it that way, but you must be root to do that.

$ cd /media/LXDE
$ 7z x ~/debian-live-7.0.0-amd64-lxde-desktop.iso
...
Extracting  live/filesystem.packages-remove
...

When live/filesystem.squashfs is extracted (right after live/filesystem.packages-remove) it will take the longest time of all of the files to extract, as it contains the whole live filesystem. Be patient and eventually it and all other files on the image will finish extracting.

...
Everything is Ok

Folders: 245
Files: 370
Size:       892183367
Compressed: 895483904

Modify the bootloader configuration files

The syslinux bootloader configuration directory and files within it are named isolinux when installed on an ISO. You need to rename the directory and two files changing isolinux to syslinux so the bootloader will find them on your fat32 live image partition.

$ mv isolinux syslinux
$ mv syslinux/isolinux.cfg syslinux/syslinux.cfg
$ mv syslinux/isolinux.bin syslinux/syslinux.bin

Enable full persistence

Next, append “ persistence” to the live boot parameters and turn on full persistence by putting “/ union” in a persistence.conf file in the persistence partition.

$ sed -i 's/\(append boot=.*\)$/\1 persistence/' syslinux/live.cfg
$ cd /media/persistence
$ echo / union > persistence.conf

Reboot into the live system

Now your USB key is ready to boot with full persistence enabled. Have fun!

Debugging the installer on Debian Live

I’ve been using this process for debugging the installer while launched from a Debian Live desktop. Having a full live environment at your disposal during install is a boon to debugging because you don’t have to work within the constraints normally imposed upon you by the limited debian-installer environment. Caveat: running debian-installer from the debian-installer-launcher still has one or two unresolved issues, so unless you’re specifically working on live integration issues like I am, compare with a conventional d-i image install to gain the added confidence the install is the same in both environments.

There are no longer active maintainers working on debian-installer-launcher and live-installer, and I think it’s really important for wheezy to release with solid support for live installs, so I’ve been using this setup to try to solve #702335. So far, progress is slow because I’m new to this. If anyone is interested in collaborating in this work, give me a shout. I am SynrG @ irc.oftc.net and can be found on #debian-live and #debian-boot if you would like to drop in.

Overview:

  1. Use images/lxde-desktop config from live-images.git and build your own image with live-build >=3.0.1-1. Just add “-b hdd” in auto/config before starting your build, as having a read/writable image is handy for this exercise.
  2. Boot the live medium. You may prefer to do this in a VM for convenience, having prepared a blank virtual disk image as your target in advance.
  3. Make any small changes you want to the installer before launching it.  A quick hack I’ve used is to “sudo vi /usr/sbin/debian-installer-launcher” and near the end on the line after “prepare” right before “run”, open a new line and add “bash” so an interactive shell will be opened after the installer is extracted but before it is launched. For larger changes (e.g. inclusion of updated udebs, etc.) add them to your live image configuration before building as described in live-manual.
  4. Open two root terminals and do “debian-installer-launcher -t debug” in one and “tail -f /lib/live/installer/var/log/syslog” in the other. If you’ve added the hack from step 3, don’t forget to “exit” the interactive shell after making changes. Now you can watch debug output as you go through the steps of the installer. If you like, you may append additional boot prompt parameters (e.g. preseeds) to the debian-installer-launcher command.
  5. During the install, you may modify other parts of the unpacked installer under /lib/live/installer (e.g. to add ‘set -x’ to some scripts) prior to executing steps that would call them.

Collaborative editing, the missing Vim feature (pentadactyl + etherpad?)

Do you wish, like I do, you could edit collaboratively in Vim? This feature is number 10 on the Vim voting page, so it seems I’m not alone. How about Pentadactyl coupled with any of the existing web-based collaborative editors, such as Etherpad? OK, so it’s not quite Vim, and there are some rough edges to this particular pairing, but I’m finding it’s good enough for my needs. It even gives me a Vim-like editing experience while other participants use the default Etherpad editor.

Yes, I know about whiteboard.debian.net, but for the past three years I have been using a single instance of Etherpad with my family to maintain a shopping list to which we all make contributions. First of all, that’s not a Debian activity, so to make the switch, I’d need to make a personal clone of the service for our personal use. But more importantly, we find Etherpad features such as colours for different participants and the timeline are just too useful to give up on. On the other hand, the less the web editor interferes with your web browser’s default textarea behaviour, the easier time Pentadactyl is going to have. Indeed, I asked on #pentadactyl @ irc.oftc.net about some problems I was having and I was told flat out that Pentadactyl does not work with graphical web editors. So, you may wish to use another web-based collaborative editor for this reason. That being said, I did learn a few things about helping Pentadactyl get along better with Etherpad, so if you would like to try it yourself, read on.

The key to getting started was to enter ‘text edit mode’ within the textarea with <C-t>. For the most part, this behaves like Vim ‘normal mode’. I am still learning, but many basic motion and editing keys behave just as they would in Vim. Fantastic!

However, the moment I tried to :undo I hit my first problem. Using the latest release version of Pentadactyl (1.0rc1 at time of writing), pressing "u" to :undo produced no visible result. I tried the latest daily build as well, and only saw a marginally more helpful "Node not found" error message displayed in the status area. But it turns out you can use ‘passthrough mode’ to use the textarea’s own undo. Just :tmap u <C-v><C-z> and we’re back in business again.

I’m still experimenting with this setup, so the jury’s still out on whether I’ll stick with it, or whether the remaining incompatibilities between Pentadactyl and Etherpad will drive me nuts. But it looks promising. Clearly, judicious use of :autocmd to always start in ‘text edit mode’ and bind that undo key whenever I enter the site will help make the experience even better. If you try it out yourself, I’d love to hear how things went for you. Or if you have found an even better solution that works for you, do share.

Eee PC care at 2 years

In November 2007, we bought two of the first Eee PC netbooks available in North America: the model 4G in pearl white, one for me, and one for my wife. My plan was to start the Debian Eee PC project and get Debian working on them both which, thanks to the work of everyone on the team, has been a great success. Fast forward to February 2010, and they are still serving us well. Here is a list of hardware enhancements and issues over the past two years of continuous use:

Battery life

Asus claims 3.5hrs for the model 4G, though I don’t think we ever experienced anything better than 2.5 hrs with wifi in operation. Today, I’m down to something short of 2 hrs. If you consider the Lithium ion battery article on Wikipedia to be accurate, it is typical to permanently lose 20% capacity per year, so this sounds about right for the age of the battery.

Touchpad

The touchpad itself is fine. The buttons are not. They are hard to push and prone to become less responsive after a while, or to fail entirely. I now really have to bear down hard on my left button to make it work. Because the buttons are soldered to the motherboard, they would be hard to replace. Configuring the synaptics driver for tap-to-click is an acceptable workaround. Also, one of the first purchases we made was the Logitech VX Nano, one for each Eee, so most of the time now, we use our mice, falling back to the touchpad only when using a mouse is inconvenient due to space constraints (e.g. on the bus).

Keyboard

After two years of continuous use, both of our keyboards needed replacing. Some of the keys had been pounded flat and needed surgery (rubber springs sliced out of a scavenged Acer netbook keyboard and grafted on) to make them usable again. And aesthetically, the keyboards have really suffered, with a good percentage of the markings on the keycaps partially or completely eroded off.

Fortunately, for $3 plus $10 shipping each, new keyboards can be ordered from a Chinese e-Bay seller. But with the new keyboards, there is still the problem with excessive flex in the keyboard making some keys less responsive than others. I’m considering trying this hack to solve the problem.

Display

I have no complaints about the matte finish displays of either Eee. Both have stood up well. People tell me they don’t care for a 7″ display, but I find it bright, crisp and easy to get along with, so long as you maximize windows and increase font size as needed (e.g. for reading PDF books and magazines). When I really need the extra real estate, I just hook up an external monitor.

Fan

Some people complain about the noise of the fan, from the otherwise silent 4G (due to the lack of a hard drive) and seek ways to limit the amount of time the fan runs. We’ve never had that problem. However, if any plastic bits break off inside the Eee, they will eventually find their way to your fan and get wedged. This has happened twice: once in my wife’s Eee, and once in mine. Disassembly of the Eee to clear the blockage and get the fan running again was relatively painless both times.

Plastic bits

About those plastic bits: In my wife’s case, I think the bit was some extruded plastic from the molding that had broken off. In my case, it was a deteriorating plastic post which was holding the hinge in place. More about this later.

Sound

Unfortunately, the integrated sound seems to be particularly sensitive to heat. During both fan failures, sound cut out. On my wife’s system, it never fully recovered, and now only works on alternate Tuesdays, whereas on mine, after I unwedged the fan and brought the heat down, sound has functioned properly ever since. (Update: see my comments below on power adapters for an alternate theory about what killed sound.) We are waiting now for the delivery of a cheap ($1.42 including shipping, again from China) 3D Sound USB device which is reported to work on Linux. While some users complain about hum with this device, we’re cautiously optimistic that on the Eee it won’t be an issue. If it is, oh well, a buck and a half is a small gamble.

Update: It works! My wife is very happy. Money well spent.

Display hinge

The plastic posts that hold the anchors for the machine screws for the hinge are fragile. Three out of four of these posts in my Eee have shattered, leaving the left hinge to float freely. For the past two days I was distressed about how I could fix this. Based on some helpful suggestions from #eeepc @ irc.freenode.net, I had worked out a plan to rebuild one of the posts with two-part epoxy, sand it and the fractured stub of the post, and use cyanoacrylate glue to affix it to the case. It sounded like fiddly work for which I didn’t hold much hope of success. But this morning, I realized that the plastic in the bottom of the case was still sound, and that I could drop a screw into that hole, and with pliers, line up the anchor on the other side. This appears to work! I’ll handle that hinge with care, but it should do me until I eventually repurpose the machine to some daily use that is less stressful on the hinge than daily travel on the bus.

Update: Sadly, this broke on the weekend. The thin bit of plastic at the bottom of the hole just couldn’t take the stress. I’m planning a second attempt to fix it soon, using sturdier materials.

SSD and SDHC

Some people were initially worried that the limited write life an SSD meant that you needed to take special measures to avoid its premature death, which I have always regarded as a myth. Our 4G SSDs each have no swap space, and ext3 filesystems. At the two year point, there are no problems. I expect our SSDs to outlast the other components.

We did, however, eventually find the 4G to be a bit on the small side. We now each have Kingston 4G micro-SDHC cards for a bit of extra capacity for large media files and for some extra space for the apt cache. I recently priced the Lexan version of this card at $19 for a two-pack at Wal-mart, and these seem to work in the model 4G just as well (which seems to be an issue with this model — not all SDHC cards work).

Memory

We found the 512M that came with the 4G somewhat constraining. Without any swap space (so we could maximize the space available on the small SSD) we decided our systems really needed a memory upgrade. At the time, 2G didn’t seem overly expensive (though I no longer remember the exact price) so we splurged on 2G for each system, even though that was probably more than we needed.

Power adapter

When I first wrote this article, I forgot to mention the power adapter. The model 4G uses an unusual 9.5V power adapter for which it is hard to find a generic replacement. This unit is prone to fail in two places: in rare cases, (one out of 6 units that I have in some way assisted with: 3 of them mine, 3 belonging to others,) it will break at the wall plug end. The plug swivels into the unit for easy storage, but this adds a point of failure. More commonly, (in 3 out of six of the units,) the wires at the netbook plug end will fray due to stress on the non-angled cord, leading either to no connect, or to a short. In fact, since in the case of my wife’s adapter, the netbook end of the cable shorted, making the cable heat up and the system spontaneously shut down after a little while, we can’t say for sure whether the overheating of the Eee took out integrated sound, or whether this short did. On the one hand, I know for certain my own system, which never suffered a short, has responded to overheating by making the sound flaky, but it has never taken out sound completely. On the other hand, shorting the power cable can’t be very good for the Eee, so who knows, maybe that’s what ultimately killed my wife’s Eee’s sound.

This is where it helps to have soldering skills, or a friend who can do the repair for you. In my case, it was the latter. While I was waiting for a replacement adapter I had ordered, we also found on eeeuser.com part#s for replacement plugs and sleeves from Digikey, total cost $20 including shipping, 10 pieces each. Cutting off the bad plugs on three units and attaching the new was a quick, straightforward operation, and succeeded in two out of three cases. Having carefully checked the failed repair, we deduced that the failure in that unit was at the wall end, and we judged there was nothing further we could do to try to save it. Even the unit that had previously shorted was returned to perfect health and has been in operation trouble-free ever since.

Conclusion

After over two years of continuous use, the model 4G has held up well for a $400 system. We definitely feel we have received our money’s worth of value over that time. All of the problems we’ve experienced so far have been fixable at very little expense, and we expect them to last at least another year before we seriously consider replacing them. In the next several months, I plan to order a high capacity 8-cell 10400mAh battery for my own system so that I can enjoy a 5-6 hr run time. The purchase will be roughly $55 including shipping, the most expensive purchase for my system to date, but still well worth it to extend the 4G’s lifespan for another year or more.

Bits from the Eee PC team, Spring 2009

Lenny well supported

We’re pleased that Lenny released with good support for the Eee PC and are now turning our efforts to make Squeeze even better, while continuing to provide support for our Lenny user base.  The standard Lenny installer can install Debian on all models of Eee and our custom installer provides the ability to install over wireless for almost every model (more about this later) from a very small image.  The latter continues to be our recommended install method, since in addition to being wireless-ready, the custom installer also handles a few other small eee-specific configuration chores to make as much as possible “just work” right after the install.

Solid mainstream support

We’ve made good on our promise to make Debian work on the Eee PC, not a derivative, many of which use a custom kernel instead of the stock kernel as we do and use a special desktop instead of our users’ favourites.  While we agree that some intriguing things can be done in these areas, it is no substitute for mainstream support.  Our users are better served by a solid foundation than specialised modifications that limit their choices.  We want them to be able to enjoy the freedom to mold Debian, the universal OS, into whatever suits them best.

Squeeze support started

Work is well underway on supporting all Eee models in Squeeze.  For months, several team members have been experimenting with new kernels, producing support for them in eeepc-acpi-scripts.  The current release of this key package (version 1.1.0) supports Linux 2.6.29 and contains enhancements for wifi, sound hotkeys, bluetooth, external displays and OSD.

Squeeze will support wired & wifi on all current models

With the appearance of 2.6.29 in Sid, all ethernet and wifi cards used in all models of Eee today are supportable without the need for out-of-kernel or non-free drivers.  Madwifi is replaced by the free ath5k driver, the non-free rt2860 package is replaced by mainstream kernel support, (though it still requires non-free firmware provided separately by firmware-linux — for now in 2.6.29, the firmware is included in the kernel, but that is a bug fixed in 2.6.30,) rtl8187se is included, making it possible now for us to support the model 701SD, and ath9k is included, making full support for newer models such as the 1000HE possible.

Lenny backports and live demo

All of these changes can be enjoyed today by Lenny users.  Just add Daniel Baumann’s Lenny kernel backport repository and then install the 2.6.29 kernel and an updated acpid.  See our upgrade howto for details.  You can try a small (less than 256M) demo of this configuration by downloading beta 2 of our Live USB image.

Accessibility

Late last year, we discussed how to make it easier for the blind to install Debian unassisted on their Eee PCs.  As it was a simple change, we now include brltty in the custom installer, but we understand that some users also need software synthesized text-to-speech, something for which there is no support yet in the standard Debian-installer.  We understand this isn’t an easy thing to fix, but hope someone will rise to the challenge.

Growing team of developers

We welcome Darren Salt and Raphael Geissert to the team this year.  Both have been actively making contributions to the eeepc-acpi-scripts package over the past months, fixing some outstanding bugs and readying it to handle changes in more recent kernel releases.

Moved eeepc.debian.net to new hosting

Nico Golde, who hosted eeepc.debian.net for the first year development, has turned his focus to other areas of Debian.  Glenn Saberton has stepped in to provide a new home for it.  We thank them both for their efforts and for a smooth, uneventful transition from one host to the other.

Size of user community

Speaking of the move, earlier this year, Glenn shared with us some interesting archive traffic statistics that give us a rough idea how many users we have.  For the months of December and January, after factoring out bot hits, we were seeing about 300,000 hits from 15,000 unique users per month.  The site handles roughly 60G of traffic per month, most of that from thousands of downloads of our custom installer image.  It’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about the size of our user base from these stats, as many users may be on dynamic IP numbers, inflating the numbers, but we can conservatively say we have at least 5000 users.  Other interesting statistics are that we have anywhere up to 80 users at any given time on our irc channel and over 250 users on the mailing list.

Help wanted

The Asus Eee PC line continues to expand, with 24 models listed so far.  It is a challenge to keep up support for all of them.  We’re encouraged to see Asus choose a new b/g/n wifi chipset for their 1002HA that is supported by a DFSG free driver — ath9k in this case.  It appears that the new Atom N280-based 1000HE uses the same chipset as well (though be careful: I know of at least one user who bought a 1000HE in Argentina expecting it to have this chipset and was disappointed to find it had the Ralink chipset instead, we guess because of availability).  If this trend continues, we’ll be that much closer to our goal of full support for Squeeze main.  As it stands, we’re already as close as we can get given the state of rt2860 and no prospect on the horizon for replacing the non-free firmware.

If you would like to help us out in any way, whether by testing, debugging, patching, or improving our documentation, get in touch with our team.  We rely on your feedback to keep Lenny in good shape and work towards making Squeeze even better for all users of Debian on the Eee PC.

debian, eeepc, kids & f/oss software