Dell, Rhymes with Fail

Yes, I am a bit frustrated at the moment. This post is something of a plea that someone within the huge organization known as the Dell Computer company has a clue and can help me out. Before you think I’m just a big hater, here is a shot of one of our computer racks:

As you can tell, we do use a lot of Dell hardware (and yes, there is an HP box squeezed in the middle there).

I work hard. As a result of that, I feel I deserve nice things, and what I really want right now is a nice laptop. But I want a laptop that runs Linux well.

I’ve looked at the systems from System76, but I want a higher density screen than they offer. I would look at the new X1 Carbon from Lenovo, but I’m still angry at them for Stoopidfish, and while I plan to wipe any laptop I get from any vendor I still think it will be some time before I can give them money.

No, I like to support Linux-friendly vendors, so I recently ordered the Dell M3800 laptop, Ubuntu edition. I ordered it on February 2nd.

A couple of my three blog readers have contacted me eager for my review, but I wasn’t able to publish it because I have yet to receive the laptop. In fact, it appears my original order has been canceled. Here is the story.

I placed the order on the 2nd, and got an estimated delivery date of the 18th. That would have been perfect as I would have the new machine just before SCaLE. Unfortunately, it was not to be, and my estimated delivery date was pushed out until the 26th.

Well, the 26th came and went with no update from Dell. I finally decided to contact them and I was told they would expedite my case.

This week I was told that “I regret to inform you that we are not able to process the order 769577335 due to configuration mismatch.”

WTF?

You drag me along for a month and then tell me that there is a “configuration mismatch”? Now I have to reorder and go through the whole process again? Plus, there was no “mea culpa” and no offer of, heck, free shipping or an expedited order – just “so sorry, try again”.

Grrrr.

Like an idiot, I decided to try again.

I got to the order page, and that’s when I found out what the magical “configuration mismatch” was. It turns out that you can’t order a Dell M3800 laptop with Ubuntu and a second hard drive.

Seriously.

In the configuration I want, I want a 256GB SSD for the primary drive and a 1TB HDD for the secondary drive. That should make the operating system fast while giving me lots of room for files and git repos on the slower HDD.

But when I check it, I get this error:

Choosing Windows makes it go away.

I was dumbfounded. The issue that kept me from getting my laptop, and it appears the issue that will keep me from getting this laptop at all, it that Dell doesn’t know how to deal with a second hard drive on Ubuntu.

Just to make sure, I did one of those chat-thingies:

Time 	                Details
03/06/2015 10:24:51AM 	Session Started with Agent (Jayant K S)
03/06/2015 10:24:51AM 	Tarus Balog: "."
03/06/2015 10:24:59AM 	Agent (Jayant K S): "Welcome to Dell US Small Business Chat! My name is Jayant Kumar Singh and I will be your Dell.com Sales Chat Expert. I can be reached at jayant_k_singh@dell.com or via phone at 1-800-289-3355 ext. 4166817. How may I help you today?"
03/06/2015 10:25:07AM 	Agent (Jayant K S): "Hi Tarus :-)"
03/06/2015 10:25:26AM 	Tarus Balog: "I'm trying to order a Dell M3800 laptop with Ubuntu, but it tells me I can't get a secondary hard drive with Ubuntu, only Windows. Is this true?"
03/06/2015 10:25:52AM 	Agent (Jayant K S): "I am sorry about the inconveinence. Glad you chatted in today, I will try my best to help you"
03/06/2015 10:25:57AM 	Agent (Jayant K S): "Let me check"
03/06/2015 10:27:17AM 	Tarus Balog: "I get that error"
03/06/2015 10:27:26AM 	Tarus Balog: "and it goes away if I choose Windows"
03/06/2015 10:27:37AM 	Agent (Jayant K S): "ok"
03/06/2015 10:29:55AM 	Agent (Jayant K S): "I am working on it please stay connected"
03/06/2015 10:30:14AM 	Tarus Balog: "ok"
03/06/2015 10:32:12AM 	Agent (Jayant K S): "how much boot drive space do you need and how much for the second"
03/06/2015 10:33:24AM 	Tarus Balog: "I was going to order a 256GB SSD for primary and 1TD HDD for secondary"
03/06/2015 10:34:12AM 	Agent (Jayant K S): "Give me 1 Minute"
03/06/2015 10:36:53AM 	Agent (Jayant K S): "I am sorry the second hard drive is not allowed"
03/06/2015 10:37:44AM 	Tarus Balog: "Okay"

My guess is that the Dell provisioning process is so rigid that when it comes to Ubuntu they don’t know how to mount the second drive. This causes the whole thing to fall apart. I don’t know why just mounting it as /data isn’t acceptable, but just when I thought Dell was getting it together when it comes to Linux it appears it is just so much black magic to them.

My hope is that someone from the Dell Linux team will actually see this post and will reply. There is only one thing I really want to know and I have not been able to find out: are there any special PPA’s that ship with the Ubuntu version of the M3800 for drivers, etc. If not, then I’ll buy the Windows version, wipe it and at least have the hardware I want. Yes, it costs me over a $100 more for something I’ll just throw away, but at least I’ll have my laptop issue solved.

This whole process has really soured me on a brand I used to like. My current laptop is the Dell XPS 13 Ubuntu version I bought several years ago and I still like it – I just need more screen real estate. I see now why Apple is able to dominate this market. They always under-promised and over delivered (I never had an Apple order show up late and most showed up a day or more early). I never got some crazy “configuration mismatch” errors when trying to place an order.

And in the few times that Apple made a mistake, they went out of their way to make it better.

Review: 2015 Dell XPS 13 (9343) Running Linux

In short, it doesn’t run Linux very well. (sigh)

When and if Eric reads this he’s just going to shake his head. For two years in a row now I’ve been lured by the wonders of new laptops announced at CES, and in both years I’ve been disappointed. He tells me I’m stupid for ordering the “new shiny” and expecting it to work, but I refuse to give up my dream.

Luckily this isn’t a huge issue for me since my main machines are desktops, but my second generation Dell XPS 13 “sputnik” is getting a little old. I am really looking forward to a slightly larger screen. The pixel density isn’t great on my laptop, especially compared to what is out now, and I am finding myself a little cramped for screen real estate.

The new XPS 13 is an amazingly beautiful device. I spent over three days trying to get it to work just because it was gorgeous. It had become precious to me.

My precious.

But it was not to be. I first started out with my default desktop, Linux Mint. It installed easily and I was very happy to see that code had been added to deal with the insane size of the screen (3600×1800 pixels). While a few icons were still small (like the reload arrow at the end of the Firefox search bar) most adjusted well, including the icons in the settings window. Great job Cinnamon team.

No, the issue I fought long and hard to fix was the touchpad. Every minute or so it would just freeze:

Feb  1 13:15:48 sting kernel: [ 1746.787178] psmouse serio1: resync failed, issuing reconnect request
Feb  1 13:15:52 sting kernel: [ 1750.722621] psmouse serio1: TouchPad at isa0060/serio1/input0 lost sync at byte 1
Feb  1 13:15:52 sting kernel: [ 1750.723734] psmouse serio1: TouchPad at isa0060/serio1/input0 lost sync at byte 1
Feb  1 13:15:52 sting kernel: [ 1750.724642] psmouse serio1: TouchPad at isa0060/serio1/input0 lost sync at byte 1
Feb  1 13:15:52 sting kernel: [ 1750.725717] psmouse serio1: TouchPad at isa0060/serio1/input0 lost sync at byte 1
Feb  1 13:15:52 sting kernel: [ 1750.737756] psmouse serio1: TouchPad at isa0060/serio1/input0 - driver resynced.
Feb  1 13:15:55 sting kernel: [ 1753.855093] psmouse serio1: TouchPad at isa0060/serio1/input0 lost synchronization, throwing 2 bytes away.
Feb  1 13:15:55 sting kernel: [ 1754.361293] psmouse serio1: resync failed, issuing reconnect request

I found a post that discussed changing out the driver which seemed to help, some but I could never get the problem to go completely away. The amazingly helpful Arch Linux folks suggested some workarounds, but nothing helped. I found it ironic that the touch screen worked fine.

I then switched to Ubuntu, thinking that might help. It didn’t, and along the way I lost audio. It seemed the audio device would just disappear. I tried 14.04, 14.10 and the alpha of 15.04. Also, Ubuntu did not handle the resolution well. While I could adjust the settings, it wasn’t done automatically for me like with Cinnamon, and certain things like the settings window remained tiny and somewhat “clipped”.

I went back to Mint and discovered that now I had wonky audio issues there. Sometimes it would be there and other times not. I stayed on 17.1 but updated the kernel to the 3.19 release candidate, but that didn’t help.

The scariest issue was that on occasion the screen would just go blank. It didn’t kill the system, if I was playing a movie file you could still hear the audio (assuming that was working), but no combination of key strokes would bring it back. I did find that closing the screen (to suspend) and reopening it would fix it for awhile, but I don’t necessarily want to have to do that in the middle of an important presentation.

Note: while the system seemed to suspend and resume okay, the power light didn’t blink to let you know it was still on like on the older XPS 13 model.

Now I’m certain that most of this will be corrected in the next few months. The Broadwell chipset is still pretty new, and rumor has it that Dell plans to support Ubuntu 14.04 on this laptop, but they will have a lot of work to do since it seems to require the 3.18+ kernel for most of the new shiny.

In the meantime I returned it and bought an M3800 preloaded with Ubuntu. While it is a bigger laptop than I’m used to, I like supporting Linux-native products and I will at least have the ability to contact Dell with issues should they arise.

I should point out that, while not quite to Apple standards, Dell has been pretty amazing throughout the process of ordering and returning this laptop. While not ready for prime time, if you are in the market in a couple of months for a small, awesome Linux laptop, be sure to check out the XPS 13. But unless you are a masochist like me, you definitely should wait.

Oh, and if any Dell folks should join the ranks of my three readers, I’m more than happy to test any unit you might send my way (grin).

Review: The LG G Watch R

This past summer I was lucky enough to be gifted a Samsung Android Wear watch as I don’t always get to play with the new toys. As xkcd pointed out, a lot of people no longer wear watches, but I still do, so I was curious as to what a “smart” watch could do for me.

However, I preferred the look of the round Moto 360 which was going to be released soon versus the Samsung, which was square, so I ended up selling it on eBay. I felt a little bad selling a gift but I rationalized it by earmarking the funds for some sort of Android watch to replace it. I was all set to buy the 360 when LG announced its G Watch R. I loved the way it looked, so that’s what I decided to get. I disagree with the Wired reviewer who prefers the Moto 360 as compared to the G Watch R, as that watch just looks to me like a round slab of glass, but de gustibus non est disputandum.

Having had it for a month now, I find I really like having a watch tied to my phone. I can leave the phone in my pocket and interact with most notices through the watch. Despite my penchant for droning on and on to my three readers, even I would have trouble describing the features of the phone in a post, so I made a little video.

If you view it, the first thing you’ll notice is that I have no future as a hand model. I also did it in one unedited, continuous take, so forgive the pauses. It was really hard to light, since when the watch face switches from dark to light it tended to get washed out, so apologies for the quality.

One of the features I didn’t talk about is the integration with Google Maps. It would be difficult to demo, but when you are using Google Maps, each maneuver is alerted on the watch. It’s pretty cool. It also has a surprisingly good battery life, which seems to be a complaint among smart watch users.

All in all I like having the watch a lot more than I thought I would. It is perfect in social situations where constantly pulling out my phone would be awkward, and I can see the future imagined by Scott Adams where you combine a watch with a smart ring on your other hand to enable gestures and spacial recognition while your phone (or handy or whatever we decide to call it) sits in your pocket.

Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

I have yet to decide whether or not Patrick Rothfuss is an asshole.

I know that sounds like a mean thing to say, but I have my reasons which I’ll get to soon.

I was introduced to Rothfuss through his first novel, The Name of the Wind. Since that can get tedious to type, allow me to abbreviate it TNotW.

TNotW is the first book in a trilogy. It concerns a near mythical figure named Kvothe, and it is one of the best novels ever written in the fantasy genre, or any genre for that matter.

At least one of my three readers is asking themselves why I would write about fantasy literature on an open source blog. One reason is that open source tends to be a geeky thing and so is reading fantasy, but the other thing is that it helps me think about the future. As the third law of Arthur C. Clarke states “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” in my mind anyone who wants to create advanced technology must first start with “I want to do magic. How should I begin?” Reading fantasy allows me to think in different ways that I find both enjoyable and useful.

Anyway, in TNotW Rothfuss introduces his magic system. In the best fantasy there are rules that both empower and limit the characters, and I really like his. Called “sympathy”, magic in his world requires three things: a link, a source of energy and strength of will.

For example, suppose you wanted to move an iron skillet off of a fire through magic. First you would need some way to link what you wanted to move with something you could easily manipulate. In this case the best thing would be a small piece of the skillet itself. That would form a very strong link. Barring that, you could use any piece of iron, but that link would be weaker. Weaker still would be a non-ferrous metal, etc.

So let’s assume you have a small chip of the skillet in your hand. You would then need a source of energy. The bigger the magic, the more energy you need (i.e. rules). In this case you could probably use the heat from the fire itself.

Finally, you would need strength of will to connect your piece of the skillet to the whole thing. This is the hard part, as you basically have to imagine, with the full weight of reality, that the small part of the skillet you hold is the skillet itself, so when you move your piece, the skillet will move.

I’m oversimplifying but you get the gist. In TNotW Kovthe starts to learn about sympathy and is admitted to The University, a place where its principals are studied and taught. Out of them comes a form of engineering, a form of medicine, a form of chemistry, etc.

However, in addition to this sympathetic magic, there is a more primal, raw form of magic based on names. It is a common theme in fantasy that by knowing a thing’s “true name” one can control it. Names are powerful, which is why I obsess over them more than most people. In the world that Rothfuss creates, the pursuit of “Naming” is magic in its truest sense, but it is also the most dangerous. One of my favorite characters in his stories is Master Elodin, the Master Namer, who is quite bent.

In any case, Rothfuss is the rare author who inspires a certain type of rabid fandom. Anything he posts on his blog is almost always met by a chorus of fawning comments. It’s not that he isn’t talented, quite the contrary, but this type of fandom ends up rubber stamping everything he does as “great”.

For example, the second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, did not resonate with me like the first. I came close to actually disliking it upon a first reading.

Now, granted, once I set it on the shelf for awhile and then took it down and re-read it, I liked it more, but still, it didn’t affect me like the first book. I look on it like Tolkien’s The Two Towers where “things happen that must happen” but it acts like a bridge between the first and last books of a trilogy. I eagerly await the third book, tentatively titled Doors of Stone to see if he can pull off the magic of TNotW.

And this is where the asshole part comes in. I have some friends who have met Rothfuss and spent some time with him and some of their comments tip the meter toward “asshole”. Some of the stuff that he writes on his blog rub me the wrong way, thus re-enforcing the thought. But I guess I am mainly upset because I just want him to work on that third book instead of all the other stuff he does. This is very selfish of me, because some of the stuff he does is very worthwhile and makes the world a better place, but at this point I am emotionally invested in the story of Kvothe and I want to know how it ends.

Which brings me to a sobering point: I know almost nothing about Patrick Rothfuss. One of the fallacies of the Internet is this illusion of intimacy. The thought that I can read a blog or a twitter feed or an interview and think that really gives me insight into who the person is is ludicrous. To paraphrase Silent Bob, what I don’t know about Patrick Rothfuss could just about squeeze into the Grand Canyon.

But I do know one thing without a doubt: he loves words.

I like words. I like my ten cent words and my five dollar words. But to me they are a means to an end. I like how a certain word can convey just the right feeling or evoke a particular response. But I don’t love words.

Rothfuss loves words almost as much as his family (which, if you read his blog, he loves a lot). He dotes on them. He caresses them. And I’m almost certain that he stays up nights obsessing over finding the right word.

Which brings me to his latest book, The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

This is a tiny book, around 150 pages. It’s even shorter than Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He warns on both his blog and in the forward that many people won’t like this book. Heck, it only has one character in it, Auri, the mysterious girl befriended by Kvothe in TNotW.

I loved it.

This is a love song to words. He uses them to paint pictures and to compose symphonies. It is a three ringed circus of adjectives and adverbs, nouns and verbs all coalescing to create an experience if not exactly a narrative.

Auri is a woman of unknown age. She is very small, about the size of a child. She lives in a complex of tunnels and forgotten rooms called “The Underthing” that exists beneath the grounds of The University. While Rothfuss has never told us straight up her history, I’ve always imagined that she was a great student at The University who studied Naming and went crazy. She decided to “make herself small” and hid herself away. It is one of the characteristics of Kvothe that he was able to befriend her. He even gave her the name “Auri” which inspired Master Elodin to instruct Kvothe in Naming. But don’t expect to see those characters in The Slow Regard of Silent Things. It is all about Auri and can stand alone from the rest of the series.

If you haven’t read any of his books, then you won’t know what I’m talking about. Heck, I’m not even sure I know what I’m talking about. All I know is that I feel like a better person from having read it.

It covers several days in the life of Auri. And that’s about it. Pretty easy not to spoil. She has good days and bad days but to her they are just “days”. The narrative focuses a lot on her drive to put things in their proper places and in some cases, give them names.

One of the world philosophies that I strongly identify with is Taoism. Now I’m certain that a true scholar of the Tao will be horrified, if that is possible, over how I’m about to describe it, so my apologies in advance.

The Tao is all things and how they are connected. There is no “good” or “evil”, there is just the natural cycle of things. When one lives in tune with the Tao, this we call happiness. When one struggles against the Tao, sadness ensues. It stresses a very low impact existence and an acceptance of the way things are, but still manages to get a lot of stuff done, which sounds a little like an oxymoron.

One of the best books on the subject is The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. In it he demonstrates the principals of Taoism through the stories about Winnie the Pooh. It works, and it is one of my favorite books. It sits next to me at my desk in case I’m having a rough day and I need a reminder.

As I was reading The Slow Regard of Silent Things I couldn’t help but think that Auri was a Taoist master. Here is a quote from toward the end of the book:

That meant you could move smoothly through the world without upsetting every applecart you came across. And if you were careful, if you were the proper part of things, then you could help. You mended what was cracked. You tended to the things you found askew. And you trusted that the world in turn would brush you up against the chance to eat. It was the only graceful way to move. All else was vanity and pride.

Seems very Taoist to me.

I once saw Kurt Vonnegut give a lecture. He was talking about “the shape of stories” and the normal Western narrative and how it has these huge swings in mood. The example he used was Cinderella. It starts off pretty bad. Her parents have died and she’s living with her evil stepmother. Then it gets really good. She gets to go to the ball and she meets the Prince. Then the clock hits midnight and things are bad again. Then the Prince finds her and all is well. He drew this on a white board in the form of a big sine wave that swung from bad to good.

He compared that to Native American stories. Usually the mood is very flat. We walked in the woods. We saw a deer. We caught some fish. We ate. We went to sleep. That sort of thing. There really isn’t this whole process that we expect from our stories. On his white board he drew a straight line, pretty much neutral between good and bad.

Then he examined Hamlet. Hamlet is not a happy story. Things start of bad and remain that way. As Vonnegut talked through the plot he drew another straight line. Granted, this was firmly on the “bad” side of the chart but it had a lot more in common with a Native American narrative than a traditional one, and Hamlet is one of the greatest stories ever told.

Heh – I just decided to take a stab at the premise that “everything is on the Internet” and I found a page talking about this very thing.

I don’t think that The Slow Regard of Silent Things is one of the greatest stories ever told, but it is a very good one. It, too, has a flat narrative arc. I will reread it a number of times. While I think a lot of his fans will be put off by it, and he knows this, but the fact that he created it and felt strong enough to see it through to publication moves the needle, at least for me, back firmly into the “not asshole” side of the meter.

Review: OnePlus One Android Phone

I agonize over my technology decisions, often to a point that other people, including free software people, tease me about it. Is my distribution of choice free enough? Is it secure? Is my privacy protected so that I choose exactly what I want to share?

My current Android ROM of choice is OmniROM, and I’ve been quite happy with it. I do have issues with the limited number of phones that are officially supported, but it was my choice of ROM that drove me to buy an HTC One (m7).

I like the HTC. My main complaint is with the horrible battery life, and the phone is somewhat old having been replaced by the m8 which I don’t believe is supported by OmniROM. I’ve been frustrated in that it seems I have to choose between freedom and cool gear.

But maybe that isn’t the case anymore.

My friend Ronny first brought the OnePlus One (OPO) to my attention, and recently, through one of my Ingress friends Audrey, I was able to get an invite to purchase the new OnePlus One handset. While not supported officially by OmniROM as of yet, it is one of the new phones to ship with Cyanogenmod, and since OmniROM is a fork it should be compatible. Plus, it is very similar to the phones from Oppo which are supported by OmniROM, so perhaps support will come when the OPO becomes more widely available.

The first thing I realized when I opened the box is that this handset is a monster. It boasts a 5.5 inch screen at 1920×1080 pixels (full HD) which makes it the same as the new iPhone 6 Plus (401 ppi). It has a 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of DD3 RAM at 1866MHz which makes it fast. I bought the 64GB version (quite a jump from my HTC One’s 16GB) and the 3100mAh battery lasts all day and then some. I thought the size would worry me, but I quickly got use to it. I can even read magazines on it which may cause me to travel less with my Nexus 7, and as my eyes age I’m finding the OPO’s screen to be much to my liking.

The phone arrived two days after I ordered it via USPS in two separate boxes. There was a thin square one holding the phone

and underneath it a USB cable and a SIM tray removal tool. To remove the OPO SIM you need a longer tool than the standard Apple one, so I’ll have to be sure to carry it with me. In a separate small box was a wall charger.

There was zero paper and no earbuds of any sort, but I would rate the packaging equal to that of other premium products like those from Apple.

Even though it has pretty much the same size screen as the iPhone 6 Plus, the phone itself is slightly smaller and lighter, although thicker (the iPhone is wicked thin – you are almost worried you’ll bend it). The back of the “Sandstone Black” model is coated with a rough textured finish that makes the phone feel solid in your hand and I haven’t come close to dropping it.

Another improvement over the HTC is the camera. The OPO comes with a 13MB Sony Exmor IMX 214 with six physical lenses. It can shoot 4K video (including slow motion) or 720p video at 120fps. It takes nice pictures.

But you could have read that on the website. How does it fare in real life?

I was concerned with the fact it ran Cyanogenmod. When they announced they were going to take on investment to license their code to handset makers, they handled their community poorly (which resulted in the OmniROM fork) and I was worried that the OPO would be “less free”. I was happy to find out that it was very open. Unlocking the phone was the same as with Nexus devices, simple hook it up to your computer and run “fastboot oem unlock”. While I despised the “flat” icon theme that shipped with the device, it took about two taps to change it back. If I wanted a theme that looked like Windows 8 I would have bought an iPhone.

All my usual options were there. I disabled the Google search bar, increased the icon layout grid size and otherwise customized the phone exactly how I wanted it. I rooted the device and used Helium to restore my application settings and the whole conversion took less than an hour.

I did have to make a change to allow the phone to work with my Linux Mint Desktop. The system wouldn’t recognize it when I plugged it in, and I had to edit “/lib/udev/rules.d/69-libmtp.rules” to include the following two lines:

# Added for OPO
ATTR{idVendor}=="05c6", ATTR{idProduct}=="6764", SYMLINK+="libmtp-%k", MODE="660", GROUP="audio", ENV{ID_MTP_DEVICE}="1", ENV{ID_MEDIA_PLAYER}="1", TAG+="uaccess"
ATTR{idVendor}=="05c6", ATTR{idProduct}=="6765", SYMLINK+="libmtp-%k", MODE="660", GROUP="audio", ENV{ID_MTP_DEVICE}="1", ENV{ID_MEDIA_PLAYER}="1", TAG+="uaccess"

After that it was a breeze. Note: that on one system I had to reboot to get it to recognize the phone, but I don’t think I did on the first one. Strange.

There are a few shortcomings. It took me several tries to get it to pair with my Motorola T505 bluetooth speaker, but once paired it seems to connect reliably. The voice recognition sucks like most Android phones. I don’t use Google Now but I shouldn’t have to send information off to a remote server to voice dial a call. I do miss that from my iPhone days when the original (non-Siri) voice dialer rarely made a mistake. Voice dialing on the OPO is usable, though, and there is a rumour that there will be an “OK OnePlus” voice activation feature like on the Moto X but it isn’t there now. No microSD slot, but with 64GB of internal flash memory that is less of an issue and fewer and fewer phones offer that. I also just tested this little dongle I have for accessing microSD cards via the USB port and it worked just fine.

I’m sticking with the stock ROM for now to see what Cyanogenmod will do in the future, but I know that I have the ability to put on my own Recovery and ROM should I so choose. At the moment they are in the “not evil” column, but I was a little worried about their Gallery app. I noticed a new Galley app account on my phone that looked like it was going to sync my pictures somewhere. Some research suggests that it is disabled when autobackup is off, but it would still like a little more transparency about random, non-removable accounts on my phone.

All in all I’ve been very happy with the OnePlus One and I’m eager to see where they take it. I am especially enamored of the the price. At US$349, the black 64GB version is the same price as a 16GB Nexus 5 and half the price of the iPhone 6 Plus. Probably the best bang for the buck in the Android world at the moment, if not phones in general.

UPDATE: After using this device for several months, I can say it is the best smartphone I’ve ever owned, and that list includes two iPhones (the 3GS and 4), three Nexus phones (4, 5 and 6) and the HTC One (m7).

While not perfect, the phone is very feature rich and the software is stable. Occasionally it will become unresponsive and I’ll need to reboot, but there is a soft reboot option that performs this action in about 20 seconds.

It is also rugged. I had been playing Ingress in Chicago and we stopped to eat. Because I’d been using the phone heavily all day, I had it tethered to an external battery. When I got up from the table to get some napkins, I forgot that the phone was connected by a USB cable to the charger in my pocket and it flew off the table to land on the tile floor of the restaurant. Since it was loud I didn’t realize what I’d done until I’d dragged the thing over ten feet.

Not a scratch.

Review: Question Bedtime by MC Frontalot

The best perk of my job is that I get to meet some truly amazing people. From the people I work with, to others in the open source world, to people like Damian Hess, my life has definitely been enriched by the people in it.

I was able to sponsor Damian, aka MC Frontalot, to perform at the Southeast Linuxfest (SELF) last year in Charlotte, and it was a great weekend. One evening ended up with a group of us in a hotel room, and Damian played some of the raw tracks from what would become his sixth studio album, Question Bedtime.

When he told me that he was doing an album based on bedtime stories, I was like “Wha?”. It didn’t seem to fit in with his “nerd” focus, but now that the album is out I can see why it works. First, while classics like “Goldilocks” and “Little Red Riding Hood are represented, most of the songs reference more obscure tales. Fairy tales are, by definition, fantastical, in much the same way as comic books or other geek friendly literature, so it isn’t as much of a stretch as I originally thought.

One of the tracks I heard that night at SELF was called “Devil in the Attic”. It is based on an obscure Japanese fairy tale called “The Ugly Son“. Such was their vanity, the parents of a very beautiful girl send out notice that she should only be wed to the fairest youth in all the land. Some grifters with a deformed (but intelligent) son think up a plan to wed him to her. They claim he is the fairest in the land and a courtship ensues, but based on tradition they do not see each other at first. On the night of the wedding, the boy’s father goes up into the attic of this grand house and starts claiming to be a demon who will visit a curse on the boy for daring to wed the girl, which the demon claims for himself. The curse turns out to be to deform the features of the boy – thus explaining his looks once they are revealed.

Front puts his own spin on the tale, turning it into a story of the oppression when women were considered property, as well as a lesson on conceit. In the chorus the father of the girl brags “Anything you could have, we have it. Even got a devil in the attic.”

Well, more than a year later, the CD Question Bedtime is now available for pre-order and immediate download. I’ve been listening to it for several weeks now and just got the final copy when it released this week.

The “his own spin” theme flows throughout the album. In “Gold Locks” the classic “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” story is retold from the bear’s point of view, portraying Goldilocks as the boogie man, creeping into your house to chop you up and eat you. The opening track “Start Over” is the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” as told by Front to a group of children who, in the chorus, exclaim “That ain’t how it happened”.

Just like in Solved, the album is laid out with tracks separated by little interstitial skits, this time with the theme that Front is a babysitter talking to his charges. Only they are all adults. In the opening one Front is trying to get “Li’l Kyle” (comedian Kyle Kinane) to go to sleep, and Kyle questions the arbitrary nature of a “bed time” – hence the name. It’s funny just to hear the arguments presented by the “children” in the skits – I wish I could have thought up some of those when I was younger.

I like every track on the album, but as can be expected I like some more than others. Almost all of them have a hook that will give you more earworms than the victims in The Strain. This morning I was walking around getting ready for work with “Gold Locks, gets in through your open door” on repeat in my brain.

My favorite track is “Two Dreamers” which is based on a tale from 1001 Arabian Nights. What has always attracted me to Front’s work has been the quality of the music. Too much of nerdcore rap tends to focus on the lyrics. While the lyrics are important, and Front excels at them, it is the music that takes it past novelty act and into valid art. In “Two Dreamers” there is even a bit of auto-tune, which I usually shun, but in this case it works. Quite frequently while listening to the album I switch over to Banshee and put that track on repeat.

Of course the track that is bound to be talked about the most is Wakjąkága. It is based on a tale from the native American Ho-chunk (Winnebago) tribe. Let’s just say that when I was learning how classical mythology explains things like why the sun rises and sets and why we have winter and summer, my instructors skipped over this little origin story.

If you are an MC Frontalot fan, you’ll like this album, and if you haven’t been exposed to him before, this album is his most accessible CD for non-geeks. It showcases his progression as a musician, and while my favorite tracks from Solved (“Critical Hit”, “Stoop Sale”, “Victorian Space Prostitute”) resonate with me more than the tracks on this album, they are offset by a couple of tracks I either don’t care for or actively dislike, such as “Invasion of the Not Quite Dead”. Overall, I like the album Question Bedtime the most, and tend to listen to it straight through.

As a bonus if you are an audio nerd, the download includes an 88.2kHz FLAC version which is as close as you can get to the music exactly as he mixed it. Be sure to read the README that comes with it though – if your audio card doesn’t support it he also ships a mastered 44.1kHz FLAC version that will sound better than if your media player is forced to downsample the 88.2kHz one.

Upgrades? Upgrades? We don't need no stinkin' …

I am incredibly behind on blog posts, for which I apologize. Three weeks ago (sheesh) I was in the UK for the OUCE, and I owe a post on that. The week after that was filled up with meetings, mainly exciting meetings that I hope to be able to talk about in the near future, and this week I am supposed to be on vacation.

Unfortunately, I caught a nasty cold while in Southampton that I haven’t been able to completely shake and this week I hurt my back, which makes it even hard to type. As George Bernard Shaw said, youth is wasted on the young.

Anyway, apologies once again for disappointing my three readers (one of whom I met on the plane ride back from the conference, hi Greg!) and I hope to do better.

This quick, vacation week post concerns upgrades. I’ve been a bit of an upgrade fool and I thought I’d share some of my stories, most of them actually pretty positive.

The first concerns OpenNMS 1.12.6, which was released this week. That upgrade was the smoothest of the three I did. Upgrading from 1.12.5 only involved two configuration files changing: datacollection-config, which added Cisco Nexus metrics, and magic-users.properties, which added a new permission “role” for accessing the Asset Editor UI without being an admin user.

This release also addresses a security bug where an unprivileged user could get a list of user names via ReST. While not a huge issue for most OpenNMS users (How many of you still have admin/admin as the username and password? Be honest) it is still a recommended upgrade if just for all of the other fixes included.

The second upgrade I did was to the latest Ubuntu LTS, Tasty Trollop. It, too, went pretty smoothly.

Many years ago I got frustrated with my laptop and laptops in general. First off, they seemed to be expensive for the performance you received. Second, I would often have to make the “laptop drive of shame” when I forgot it on my way to the office. Finally, I just hated to have to lug it around when I wasn’t traveling.

So I saw a deal on woot for an HP desktop with pretty nice specs, and I bought two of them: one for home and one for the office. While I do have a small laptop for travel, for the most part I use these desktops, and with modern network speeds I can usually access any information I need from either machine.

Now the office machine, which is the one I use most of the time, gets a lot more attention than the one at home. While they both started out running Ubuntu 12.04 (Pastel Pederast), I upgraded the office machine to the newer, non-LTS Ubuntu releases and wasn’t as happy with them. I ended up switching to Linux Mint on both that machine and my laptop, but I left the home machine running Ubuntu.

My initial thought was to wait until Mint 17 came out and then switch to it, but I figured there could be little harm in upgrading to the new 14.04 LTS release in the meantime. The first challenge was actually getting the operating system to realize there was a release out there. I ended up running “sudo do-release-upgrade -d” with the “-d” option finally finding it and getting it started. I run a pretty vanilla setup at home, so there were only a couple of configuration files requiring attention and otherwise the whole thing went smoothly. Took about two hours to download and complete.

So far I’m pretty happy with the new release. No huge new changes, and everything seems to work well together. I did have to re-enable workspaces, and I took advantage of the new option to move application menu bars back to the window versus being in the title bar (I use a 27 inch monitor and it can get a bit tedious swiping the mouse up to the top) but other than that, I don’t see too many changes. Empathy has gotten worse, at least for me, but it was easy to switch to Pidgin. The only bug so far is that if I let the lock screen kick on automatically, a good portion of the time I can never get it to come back up: the screen just remains blank. I usually have to ssh in from another machine and reboot. Other people are reporting the problem (search on “lock screen freeze”) and I have yet to try and restart lightdm (suggested as a way to bring the desktop back), but as a workaround I just manually lock the screen whenever I leave, which is a good habit to be in in any case. I figure they’ll fix this soon.

I still prefer Cinnamon to Unity, but I’m happy using either, and due to the ease of upgrading I’ll probably stick around to using Ubuntu at home for the foreseeable future.

The final upgrade I did this week concerns OS X. I still have three Macintosh computers at home. There is an older Mac Mini that solo boots into Debian that I use for a web and file server. There is an older 24-inch iMac that tri-boots OS X, Ubuntu and Windows 7 that is usually booted to Windows since that is what my wife uses, and there is a newer Mac Mini that runs Snow Leopard and acts as my DVR using the EyeTV product. It also gathers and publishes my weather station data via wview.

I was cleaning up the DVR when an “Upgrade to Mavericks” window popped up. Now I really hated Lion and never used Mountain Lion, so there was no real reason to upgrade, except that I’ve been having an issue where I can’t add any bluetooth devices to the Mini. I really wanted to add a mouse, since some times stupid windows pop up that ruin the DVR aspect of the setup and they can be a pain to close if I have to VNC in. I figured, what could go wrong?

Of course, the first thing I did is make sure I had a full Time Machine backup. I really wish I could find a “bare iron” restore app for Linux that was as easy to use. I do like the Ubuntu backup integration with Déjà Dup, which seems to be missing in Mint so I use BackInTime, but neither offer the ease of Time Machine.

The upgrade to Mavericks didn’t go as smoothly as the others. At some point close to the end, the monitor went blank and wouldn’t come back, so I had to power cycle the system. This caused the install to start over, but the second time it finally completed. I then had to go through and turn off all of the “spyware” that seems to be on by default now. It automatically signed me up for “iCloud” which I turned off (good thing I didn’t have any contacts, etc., on this system or Apple would own them) and I also disabled Facetime, which required deleting a plist file out of the Library directory. My weather station software didn’t start because of a missing USB to Serial driver, but once that got installed things seem to work. I was even able to add a bluetooth mouse with no problem.

Then I found out that Front Row was missing.

Now when I had a Macbook, I hated Front Row. I was always turning it on by accident. But for my DVR, it made a great interface to EyeTV. Apparently Apple has dropped it since Lion, so I spent a couple of hours trying to find a replacement. When nothing I found was acceptable, and with my growing distrust of Apple with respect to the information it was going to capture on my computer, I decided to go back to Snow Leopard. Should be easy, right?

Wrong.

Both the version of Snow Leopard I have on a USB stick and the install disk that shipped with the computer would now gray screen when trying to boot. I know that Mavericks futzes around with the disk partitions, so I figure that is to blame. I was just about to boot to an Ubuntu disk just to repartition the disk when I decided to try and boot into the new “recovery” partition that Mavericks installed. While I didn’t have much hope that it would be able to access a Time Machine backup made with Snow Leopard, I was pleasantly surprised when it worked.

Another surprise came when I found out that my bluetooth mouse was still associated with the computer. I’ve always thought of the term “backup and restore” to mean one puts a set of bits into storage and then puts those same bits back. Apple has a weird interpretation of this, especially when it comes to the iPhone, where “backup and restore” can mean “perform a complete operating system upgrade in the process of putting back user data”. Apparently Time Machine is similar, and my new device settings were remembered.

So in summary, I guess the time I spent playing with Mavericks was worth it. I know now that I don’t ever want to upgrade from Snow Leopard, and I got my bluetooth issue addressed, if not fixed. Ubuntu 14.04 LTS is worth checking out, especially if you are looking to get rid of Lion/Mountain Lion/Mavericks, and do upgrade to OpenNMS 1.12.6.

You’ll be glad you did.

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

[NOTE: While I try to avoid out and out spoilers, purist may want to skip this post].

The easiest way to describe The Circle by Dave Eggers is as some sort of 1984 prequel for the digital age.

It is not a happy book.

The story follows Mae Holland, a relatively recent college graduate who is working a dead-end, soul sucking job at a local utility in a small town in California near Fresno that no one has heard of.

Through her college roommate Annie, she manages to land a job at The Circle, sort of an über Google/Facebook/Twitter company in The Valley. Annie quickly rose through the ranks at The Circle and is now part of the Gang of 40 – the 40 most influential people in the company. Through her, Mae is introduced to the culture of the company, including learning about its three founders, called the “Three Wise Men”.

Ty Gospodinov is the boy genius who created TruYou, a now ubiquitous single sign-on technology that made sure that people on the Internet were who they said they were. His goal was to remove some of the hate and vitriol that anonymity on in Internet permitted, and TruYou soon became the standard for most web-based commerce. Socially awkward and a bit of a recluse, Ty hired the other two wise men: Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton. Eamon was the ebullient visionary and Tom the corporate man who found a way to commercialize Ty’s product which resulted in a huge IPO. They later subsumed their competitors and became the main social, search and e-commerce company in the world.

Mae was extremely happy to be at The Circle, on its gorgeous campus with all the perks one could hope for and working among all the amazing people employed there. The Circle even allowed her to put her parents on her health plan, which was important because her father suffered from MS and was having issues with his current insurance company. It was like a dream come true.

Mae’s initial role in the company was in the Customer Experience department, basically customer service. While she gets off to a great start, things start to sour in wonderland when she is reprimanded, in the nicest way possible, for not being “social” enough – not sharing enough of her life, her likes and dislikes, and getting involved with the rest of the Circle community. At times it comes across as a little sinister, and much of the story follows her fumbling steps to become fully integrated at The Circle and her efforts to excel there. She does attend more company events which eventually creates a love triangle between her, a shy fellow employee named Francis with whom she feels empowered, and a mysterious stranger named Kalden who randomly appears and disappears at the oddest times, but for whom she has a strong attraction.

My favorite aspect of the book is the technology that Eggers introduces. I’m not sure if he came up with it all on his own or, Malcolm Gladwell-like, just assembled it into a narrative. My guess is a little of both. One such innovation is called SeaChange – an inexpensive, tiny camera that can be deployed anywhere and introduced with the slogan ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN. As the book progresses we learn about the impending “closing of the Circle” which is identified as the completion of some grand plan that would make Big Brother blush.

Not everyone is as thrilled as Mae with The Circle. On a visit home she sees an ex-boyfriend named Mercer. He delivered one of my favorite quotes of the book:

Listen, twenty years ago, it wasn’t so cool to have a calculator watch, right? And spending all day inside playing with your calculator watch sent a clear message that you weren’t doing so well socially. And judgments like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, ‘Do you like unicorns and stickers?’ and you’d say, ‘Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!’ That kind of thing. But now it’s not just junior high kids who do it, it’s everyone, and it seems to me sometimes I’ve entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest sh*t in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself.

I learned that Eggers was the founder of McSweeneys, which is really cool, and although this isn’t “Literature” with a capital “L”, his prose is well written and easy to read. I only had one issue with the book, concerning a subplot where CEO Stenton has The Circle create a submersible so that he can go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a lá James Cameron, and return with specimens. These animals are kept in a normal aquarium, exposed to atmosphere, which really bothered me since any life that could live at those depths would simply explode when the pressure was removed. He also talks about coral and other things that simply wouldn’t exist at those depths. I’m willing to forgive him since the whole thing is required for an metaphor at the end of the book, but it still bothered me. Plus, The eventual denouement is a little predictable, but overall I really enjoyed the book.

My reference to 1984 is not casual. While Orwell was working with post World War II technology, The Circle is what he would have imagined had he written the book today. Even the iconic “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” is mimicked as “SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT”.

There is much more to the book, many more little jewels of social interaction that I loved, but I am trying hard not to spoil anything. It is worth checking out, and I’ll end with another of my favorite quotes, this one from Mae when she is distressed about some “frowns” she receives:

Why was there so much animosity in the world? And then it occurred to her, in a brief and blasphemous flash: she didn’t want to know how they felt. The flash opened up to something larger, an even more blasphemous notion that her brain contained too much. That the volume of information, of data, of judgments, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too many opinions of too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable – it was too much.

Review: The Snowden Files

As someone with very strong opinions of the illegal surveillance being performed by the NSA, I was eager to read the account of how they became exposed in The Snowden Files by Luke Harding. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially those people who believe the government exists at the will of the people and not the other way around.

Do note that the book is entitled The Snowden Files and not The Ed Snowden Story. While Edward Snowden does figure prominently, the book is much more about the Orwellian domestic spying machine his revelations describe than the man himself. It has a lot of detail on the NSA as well as organizations such as Britain’s GCHQ, massively funded by the NSA to spy on people both domestically and abroad.

Among my social circles, Snowden is a bit polarizing. There are those who think that he broke an oath when he used his position as a contractor at the NSA to obtain these documents and that the end didn’t justify the means. Other more public figures describe him as “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison“. However, most of my friends tend to believe, and this book demonstrates, that Snowden is a patriot in the truest sense of the word.

The Snowden portrayed by Harding is a rather humble and shy man. Nothing in this story indicates he is a narcissist. Perhaps his brief association with Wikileaks and Julian Assange (a narcissist of the first order) is where the idea comes from, but I think that NSA apologists feel more comfortable portraying him as a man acting in extreme self interest. If that were the case, he would have sold the information secretly and be living out his life in some warm paradise instead of remaining as a “guest” of the Russian government.

The only inflation of his position I found in this story was in the beginning when he describes himself as a “senior” member of the intelligence community. He was, in fact, a rather junior member, and the mere fact that he was able to acquire all of this extremely secret information just goes to demonstrate that the government can’t be trusted with it. I’m pretty much willing to forgive him for that, since had he prefaced his initial press contact with “yo, I’m a contracted sysadmin for the US government and happen to have a treasure trove of sensitive documents” he wouldn’t have been believed.

Critics will often cry that he should have used formal channels to express his unease. This book shows several examples of people who tried to do just that and found their lives ruined and their careers over. It is hard to trust in the system when people like James R. Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, lies directly to Congress and not only still has his job but is not in prison.

While the book is written in a very “matter of fact” manner, parts of it read like a spy novel. One of the more surreal chapters deals with the forced destruction of computers at the London offices of The Guardian. Great Britain doesn’t have a written Constitution nor does it guarantee freedom of the press. So to avoid possible incarceration of Guardian staff, Two GCHQ agents named “Ian” and “Chris” arrive to oversee the physical demolition of the computers used to break the story (of course, The Guardian simply moved the operation to their US offices and while there were similar threats nothing at this level occurred).

Personally, I think Snowden’s greatest “crime” was embarrassing the powers that be. President Obama won his first term on a campaign to overturn the Constitutional abuses of his predecessor and Snowden demonstrated that he not only continued those policies but strengthened them. The British government in this affair comes across as not only petty but pretty much lap dogs to the US intelligence service, with US tax money going to fund the GCHQ. Congress is currently full of self-interested sheep who take being lied to in stride as long as they don’t look weak on “terrorism”. Basically, forget popular opinion, just don’t end up on Jon Stewart.

While I try very hard to avoid Godwin’s Law, perhaps I should mint Balog’s Law, a corollary where all discussions of national security abuses end up referencing Al-Qaida.

Often, power is referred to as a “structure”. In my experience it is much more fluid, and right now it is flowing into the hands of a small minority of people. I know from first hand experience that these people are way more concerned with their own wellbeing versus mine, regardless of the rhetoric they spout to the contrary, and the end result will be disastrous.

There are things you can do to make power flow in the other direction. In general these are things like shopping locally (the more self-sustaining a community is the less they can be influenced by central government) but concerning privacy in particular there are a number of steps you can take to make the NSA’s job more difficult.

Use encryption. It is easier than you think. There are a number of tools that can plug right into your e-mail client. I use Enigmail for Thunderbird. OS X Mail.app users should check out GPGMail. There is even GPG4Win for you Outlook users. Once installed and configured it can be pretty seamless to use. The biggest thing you lose is the ability to search your encrypted mail.

Use as much open source software as you can. The Snowden documents reveal that the NSA has been actively trying to both subvert encryption standards (making all of us less safe from foreign prying eyes) as well as to install backdoors into commercial software. This is much more difficult with open source. Even if, say, Canonical put in a backdoor to openssh-server into Ubuntu, someone would notice that the package they compiled had a different hash than the binary on the server, and an investigation would ensue. Even if you can’t make the jump to an open source desktop operating system, a lot of open source applications (think Firefox and Thunderbird) are available on proprietary platforms such as Windows and OS X.

Also, limit what you share. Remember that if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product, so think twice about your Facebook habits. You can also learn about tools such as Tor that allow your Internet traffic to be somewhat anonymous. I also “sandbox” all of my Google activity within the Chrome browser but do most of my work in Firefox using Firefox Sync to coordinate with all of my devices.

To bring this somewhat “more rambling than usual” post to an end, I just want to point out that totalitarian societies do not happen overnight. Instead, there is a gradual erosion of personal freedoms until one day there is nothing left. Some people I’ve talked to about Snowden reply with “of course the government is spying on me”, in much they same way that getting groped at the airport is now “normal”.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and sometimes it takes brave people to point that out.

Review: Dell "Sputnik 3" Ubuntu Edition

I’m in the market for a new laptop, or at least I was. My first generation Dell XPS 13 is getting a little long in the tooth and I really could use a little more screen real estate. I decided to order the latest third generation XPS 13 after trying out the second generation Lenovo X1 Carbon. After all, it has a nicer screen, Haswell, and since it still ships with Ubuntu 12.04 the hardware ought to be supported, at least with Linux Mint, my current desktop distro of choice.

When talking about laptops, it is hard to not make comparisons to Apple. While I think Macbooks are overpriced and too proprietary, they are nice machines and for the most part “just work”. I just wish I could buy something as good that runs Linux well.

The Sputnik 3 could have been that laptop but I had to send it back due to pretty severe LCD backlight “bleeding”, especially along the bottom edge. It was very apparent when I was booting up to install Mint, but my pictures don’t really do it justice. Here you can see a sort of “half moon” bleed on the left side:

and here is a similar area on the right:

Since I knew I couldn’t live with it, I decided to send it back and just stick with my older laptop awhile longer. While we have a small Macbook available to me that would probably run Mint just fine, I just can’t bring myself to use Apple products when they are so determined to use their marketing clout to prevent competition. I can’t go a day without reading about another example, such as the one I just read about Apple pulling a bitcoin app from their store.

I’d rather deal with “old shiny” than to give up my freedom like that.