Christoph's last Weblog entries

Entries tagged "linux".

Looking for a mail program + desktop environment
3rd October 2017

Seems it is now almost a decade since I migrated from Thunderbird to GNUS. And GNUS is an awesome mail program that I still rather like. However GNUS is also heavily quirky. It's essentially single-threaded and synchronous which means you either have to wait for the "IMAP check for new mails" to finish or you have to C-g abort it if you want the user interface to work; You have to wait for the "Move mail" to complete (which can take a while -- especially with dovecot-antispam training the filter) before you can continue working. It has it's funny way around TLS and certificate validation. And it seems to hang from time to time until it is C-g interrupted.

So when I set up my new desktop machine I decided to try something else. My first try was claws-mail which seems OK but totally fails in the asynchronous area. While the GUI stays reactive, all actions that require IMAP interactions become incredibly slow when a background IMAP refresh is running. I do have quite some mailboxes and waiting the 5+ minutes after opening claws or whenever it decides to do a refresh is just to much.

Now my last try has been Kmail -- also driven by the idea of having a more integrated setup with CalDAV and CardDAV around and similar goodies. And Kmail really compares nicely to claws in many ways. After all, I can use it while it's doing its things in the background. However the KDE folks seem to have dropped all support for the \recent IMAP flag which I heavily rely on. I do -- after all -- keep a GNUS like workflow where all unread mail (ref \seen) needs to still be acted upon which means there can easily be quite a few unread messages when I'm busy at the moment and just having a quick look at the new (ref \recent) mail to see if there's something super-urgent is essential.

So I'm now looking for useful suggestions for a mail program (ideally with desktop integration) with the following essential features:

Tags: debian, linux, mail.
Running Debian on the ClearFog
22nd October 2016

Back in August, I was looking for a Homeserver replacement. During FrOSCon I was then reminded of the Turris Omnia project by The basic SoC (Marvel Armada 38x) seemed to be nice hand have decent mainline support (and, with the turris, users interested in keeping it working). Only I don't want any WIFI and I wasn't sure the standard case would be all that usefully. Fortunately, there's also a simple board available with the same SoC called ClearFog and so I got one of these (the Base version). With shipping and the SSD (the only 2242 M.2 SSD with 250 GiB I could find, a ADATA SP600) it slightly exceeds the budget but well.

ClearFog with SSD

When installing the machine, the obvious goal was to use mainline FOSS components only if possible. Fortunately there's mainline kernel support for the device as well as mainline U-Boot. First attempts to boot from a micro SD card did not work out at all, both with mainline U-Boot and the vendor version though. Turns out the eMMC version of the board does not support any micro SD cards at all, a fact that is documented but others failed to notice as well.


As the board does not come with any loader on eMMC and booting directly from M.2 requires removing some resistors from the board, the easiest way is using UART for booting. The vendor wiki has some shell script wrapping an included C fragment to feed U-Boot to the device but all that is really needed is U-Boot's kwboot utility. For some reason the SPL didn't properly detect UART booting on my device (wrong magic number) but patching the if (in arch-mvebu's spl.c) and always assume UART boot is an easy way around.

The plan then was to boot a Debian armhf rootfs with a defconfig kernel from USB stick. and install U-Boot and the rootfs to eMMC from within that system. Unfortunately U-Boot seems to be unable to talk to the USB3 port so no kernel loading from there. One could probably make UART loading work but switching between screen for serial console and xmodem seemed somewhat fragile and I never got it working. However ethernet can be made to work, though you need to set eth1addr to eth3addr (or just the right one of these) in U-Boot, saveenv and reboot. After that TFTP works (but is somewhat slow).


There's one last step required to allow U-Boot and Linux to access the eMMC. eMMC is wired to the same PINs as the SD card would be. However the SD card has an additional indicator pin showing whether a card is present. You might be lucky inserting a dummy card into the slot or go the clean route and remove the pin specification from the device tree.

--- a/arch/arm/dts/armada-388-clearfog.dts
+++ b/arch/arm/dts/armada-388-clearfog.dts
@@ -306,7 +307,6 @@

                        sdhci@d8000 {
                                bus-width = <4>;
-                               cd-gpios = <&gpio0 20 GPIO_ACTIVE_LOW>;
                                pinctrl-0 = <&clearfog_sdhci_pins

Next Up is flashing the U-Boot to eMMC. This seems to work with the vendor U-Boot but proves to be tricky with mainline. The fun part boils down to the fact that the boot firmware reads the first block from eMMC, but the second from SD card. If you write the mainline U-Boot, which was written and tested for SD card, to eMMC the SPL will try to load the main U-Boot starting from it's second sector from flash -- obviously resulting in garbage. This one took me several tries to figure out and made me read most of the SPL code for the device. The fix however is trivial (apart from the question on how to support all different variants from one codebase, which I'll leave to the U-Boot developers):

--- a/include/configs/clearfog.h
+++ b/include/configs/clearfog.h
@@ -143,8 +143,7 @@
 #define CONFIG_SYS_MMC_U_BOOT_OFFS             (160 << 10)
-                                                + 1)
 #define CONFIG_SYS_U_BOOT_MAX_SIZE_SECTORS     ((512 << 10) / 512) /* 512KiB */
 #define CONFIG_FIXED_SDHCI_ALIGNED_BUFFER      0x00180000      /* in SDRAM */


Now we have a System booting from eMMC with mainline U-Boot (which is a most welcome speedup compared to the UART and TFTP combination from the beginning). Getting to fine-tune linux on the device -- we want to install the armmp Debian kernel and have it work. As all the drivers are build as modules for that kernel this also means initrd support. Funnily U-Boots bootz allows booting a plain vmlinux kernel but I couldn't get it to boot a plain initrd. Passing a uImage initrd and a normal kernel however works pretty well. Back when I first tried there were some modules missing and ethernet didn't work with the PHY driver built as a module. In the meantime the PHY problem was fixed in the Debian kernel and almost all modules already added. Ben then only added the USB3 module on my suggestion and as a result, unstable's armhf armmp kernel should work perfectly well on the device (you still need to patch the device tree similar to the patch above). Still missing is an updated flash-kernel to automatically generate the initrd uImage which is work in progress but got stalled until I fixed the U-Boot on eMMC problem and everything should be fine -- maybe get debian u-boot builds for that board.

Pro versus Base

The main difference so far between the Pro and the Base version of the ClearFog is the switch chip which is included on the Pro. The Base instead "just" has two gigabit ethernet ports and a SFP. Both, linux' and U-Boot's device tree are intended for the Pro version which makes on of the ethernet ports unusable (it tries to find the switch behind the ethernet port which isn't there). To get both ports working (or the one you settled on earlier) there's a second patch to the device tree (my version might be sub-optimal but works), U-Boot -- the linux-kernel version is a trivial adaption:

--- a/arch/arm/dts/armada-388-clearfog.dts
+++ b/arch/arm/dts/armada-388-clearfog.dts
@@ -89,13 +89,10 @@
                internal-regs {
                        ethernet@30000 {
                                mac-address = [00 50 43 02 02 02];
+                               managed = "in-band-status";
+                               phy = <&phy1>;
                                phy-mode = "sgmii";
                                status = "okay";
-                               fixed-link {
-                                       speed = <1000>;
-                                       full-duplex;
-                               };

                        ethernet@34000 {
@@ -227,6 +224,10 @@
                                pinctrl-0 = <&mdio_pins>;
                                pinctrl-names = "default";

+                               phy1: ethernet-phy@1 { /* Marvell 88E1512 */
+                                    reg = <1>;
+                               };
                                phy_dedicated: ethernet-phy@0 {
                                         * Annoyingly, the marvell phy driver
@@ -386,62 +386,6 @@
                tx-fault-gpio = <&expander0 13 GPIO_ACTIVE_HIGH>;

-       dsa@0 {
-               compatible = "marvell,dsa";
-               dsa,ethernet = <&eth1>;
-               dsa,mii-bus = <&mdio>;
-               pinctrl-0 = <&clearfog_dsa0_clk_pins &clearfog_dsa0_pins>;
-               pinctrl-names = "default";
-               #address-cells = <2>;
-               #size-cells = <0>;
-               switch@0 {
-                       #address-cells = <1>;
-                       #size-cells = <0>;
-                       reg = <4 0>;
-                       port@0 {
-                               reg = <0>;
-                               label = "lan1";
-                       };
-                       port@1 {
-                               reg = <1>;
-                               label = "lan2";
-                       };
-                       port@2 {
-                               reg = <2>;
-                               label = "lan3";
-                       };
-                       port@3 {
-                               reg = <3>;
-                               label = "lan4";
-                       };
-                       port@4 {
-                               reg = <4>;
-                               label = "lan5";
-                       };
-                       port@5 {
-                               reg = <5>;
-                               label = "cpu";
-                       };
-                       port@6 {
-                               /* 88E1512 external phy */
-                               reg = <6>;
-                               label = "lan6";
-                               fixed-link {
-                                       speed = <1000>;
-                                       full-duplex;
-                               };
-                       };
-               };
-       };
        gpio-keys {
                compatible = "gpio-keys";
                pinctrl-0 = <&rear_button_pins>;


Apart from the mess with eMMC this seems to be a pretty nice device. It's now happily running with a M.2 SSD providing enough storage for now and still has a mSATA/mPCIe plug left for future journeys. It seems to be drawing around 5.5 Watts with SSD and one Ethernet connected while mostly idle and can feed around 500 Mb/s from disk over an encrypted ethernet connection which is, I guess, not too bad. My plans now include helping to finish flash-kernel support, creating a nice case and probably get it deployed. I might bring it to FOSDEM first though.

Working on it was really quite some fun (apart from the frustrating parts finding the one-block-offset ..) and people were really helpful. Big thanks here to Debian's arm folks, Ben Hutchings the kernel maintainer and U-Boot upstream (especially Tom Rini and Stefan Roese)

Tags: arm, debian, linux.
DANE and DNSSEC Monitoring
30th August 2016

At this year's FrOSCon I repeted my presentation on DNSSEC. In the audience, there was the suggestion of a lack of proper monitoring plugins for a DANE and DNSSEC infrastructure that was easily available. As I already had some personal tools around and some spare time to burn I've just started a repository with some useful tools. It's available on my website and has mirrors on Gitlab and Github. I intent to keep this repository up-to-date with my personal requirements (which also means adding a xmpp check soon) and am happy to take any contributions (either by mail or as "pull requests" on one of the two mirrors). It currently has smtp (both ssmtp and starttls) and https support as well as support for checking valid DNSSEC configuration of a zone.

While working on it it turned out some things can be complicated. My language of choice was python3 (if only because the ssl library has improved since 2.7 a lot), however ldns and unbound in Debian lack python3 support in their bindings. This seems fixable as the source in Debian is buildable and useable with python3 so it just needs packaging adjustments. Funnily the ldns module, which is only needed for check_dnssec, in debian is currently buggy for python2 and python3 and ldns' python3 support is somewhat lacking so I spent several hours hunting SWIG problems.

Tags: dnssec, foss, linux, monitoring.
Looking for a replacement Homeserver
11th August 2016

Almost exactly six years ago I bought one of these Fuloong 6064 mini PCs. The machine has been working great ever since both collecting my mail and acting as an IMAP server as well as providing public services -- it's also However jessie is supposed to be the last Debian release supporting the hardware and the system's rather slow and lacks memory. This is especially noticeable with IMAP spam filter training and mail indexing. Therefore I'm looking for some nice replacement -- preferably non-x86 again (no technical reasons). My requirements are pretty simple:

Now I'd consider one of these ARM boards and get it a nice case but they seem all to either fail in terms of SATA or not being faster at all (and one needs to go for outdated hardware to stand a chance of mainline kernel support). If anyone knows something nice and non-x86 I'll happily take suggestions.

Tags: debian, linux.
Systemd pitfalls
7th August 2015

logind hangs

If you just updated systemd and ssh to that host seems to hang, that's just a known Bug (Debian Bug #770135). Don't panic. Wait for the logind timeout and restart logind.

restart and stop;start

One thing that confused me several times and still confuses people is systemctl restart doing more than systemctl stop ; systemctl start. You will notice the difference once you have a failed service. A restart will try to start the service again. Both stop and start however will just ignore it. Rumors have it this has changed post jessie however.

sysvinit-wrapped services and stop

While there are certainly bugs with sysvinit services in general (I found myself several times without a local resolver as unbound failed to be started, haven't managed to debug further), the stop behavior of wrapped services is just broken. systemctl stop will block until the sysv initscript finished. It will even note the result of the action in its state. However systemctl will return with exitcode 0 and not output anything on stdout/stderr. This has been reported as Debian Bug #792045.

zsh helper

I found the following zshrc snipped quite helpful in dealing with non-reported systemctl failures. On root shells it will display a list of failed services as part of the prompt. This will give proper feedback whether your systemctl stop failed, it will give feedback if you still have type=simple services and if the sysv-init script or wrapper is broken.

precmd () {
    if [[ $UID == 0 && $+commands[systemctl] != 0 ]]
      systemd_failed="`systemctl --state=failed | grep failed | cut -d \  -f 2 | tr '\n' ' '`"

if [[ $UID == 0 && $+commands[systemctl] != 0 ]]
  PROMPT=$'%{$fg[red]>>  $systemd_failed$reset_color%}\n'


zsh completion

Speaking of zsh, there's one problem that bothers me a lot and I don't have any solution for. Tab-completing the service name for service is blazing fast. Tab-completing the service name for systemctl restart takes ages. People traced down to truckloads of dbus communication for the completion but no further fix is known (to me).

type=simple services

As described in length by Lucas Nussbaum type=simple services are actively harmful. Proper type=forking daemons are strictly superior (they provide feedback of finished initialization and success thereof) and type=notify services are so simple there's no excuse for not using them even for private one-off hacks. Even if you're language doesn't provide libsystemd-daemon bindings:

(defun sd-notify (event-string)
  (let ((socket (make-instance 'sb-bsd-sockets:local-socket :type :datagram))
        (name (posix-getenv "NOTIFY_SOCKET"))
        (bufferlen (length event-string)))
    (when name
      (sb-bsd-sockets:socket-connect socket name)
      (sb-bsd-sockets:socket-send socket event-string bufferlen))))

This is a stable API guaranteed to not break in the future and implemented in less than ten lines of code with just basic socket functions. And if your language has support it becomes actually trivial:

        import systemd
    except ImportError:

Note that in both cases there is no drawback at all on systemd-free setups. It has the overhead of checking the process' environment for NOTIFY_SOCKET or for the systemd package and behaves like a simple service otherwise.

Actually the idea of separating the technical aspect (daemonizing) from the semantic aspect of signalizing "initialization finished, everything's fine" is a pretty good idea and hopefully has the potential to reduce the number of services signalizing the "everything's fine" too early. It could even be ported to non-systemd init systems easily given the API.

Tags: debian, foss, linux.
29th June 2011

debconf banner I'm coming as well! Really looking forward to meet the people from Debconf9 again. Also people from the Games Team and the buildd and kfreebsd folks. And ideally there will be some more people interested in (Common) Lisp as well, we'll see

Tags: debian, foss, kfreebsd, linux.
Unknown Horizons
27th June 2011

What is Unknown Horizons?

Unknown Horizons is a Free Strategy game I have written about from time to time about and do from time to time contribute. I also build Packages for Debianoids. Unknown Horizons is not a new thing, it has been there for some years now. It currently gets boosted by 3 very active GSoC Students and evolving steadily.

Preparing for 2011.2

Unknown Horizons is Preparing for another Release, 2011.2. As part of the effort I have updated the official Unknown Horizons Debian and Ubuntu weekly archives with new rc builds to get some more testing before the release happens. Please test!

Why isn't it in Debian main yet?

Unknown Horizons hasn't been uploaded to Debian yet. This is mostly due to 2 factors: The game engine Unknown Horizons build upon, FIFE isn't in Debian, evolving fast and not providing much of a stable interface and therefor Unknown Horizons has traditionally had a strict dependency to some VCS state of approximately the same age. Not good for a Debian package obviously. And second, Unknown Horizons got rid of some content that was not free (as in "main") just recently.

Personally I'm hoping we can have some packages soon as the freeness stuff is sorted out now and I haven't seen any troubling breakages with regard to the engine recently.

Tags: fife, foss, linux, unknown-horizons.
Thouhts on secure software archives
12th May 2011

From the java point of view

Recently I had to get some Scala Tool working correctly. Unfortunately there are basically no packages in the Debian Archive at all so I had to use maven to install these (or download + install manually). Being a highly paranoid person downloading and executing code from the internet without any cryptographic verification at all one after the other practically drove me nuts. Looking a bit deeper I noticed that some of the software in maven's repository have some signatures next to them -- signed by the author or release manager of this specific project.

Why secure sources matters

With my experience in mind I got some Input from other people. One of the things I was told is that some scala tools just aren't security critical -- they're only installed and used as the current user. In my opinion this is, for my desktop system, totally wrong. The important things on my private Computers are my GPG and SSH keys as well as my private data. For messing with these no super user access is needed at all.

Comparing to the Common Lisp situation

Being a Common Lisp fan of course I noticed basically the same problem for installing Common Lisp libraries. Here the situation in Debian is quite a bit better -- and I'm working in the pkg-common-lisp Team to improve this even more. Common Lisp has some maven-alike tool for downloading and installing dependency trees called quicklisp -- without any cryptographic verification as well. However there's light at the end of this tunnel: There are plans to add GPG verification of the package lists really soon.

Comparing the maven and the quicklisp model

So there are basically two different approaches to be seen here. In maven the software author confirms with his signature the integrity of his software while in quicklisp the distributor confirms all users get the same software that he downloaded. Now the quicklisp author can't and won't check all the software that is downloadable using quicklisp. This won't be doable anyway as there's way to much software or a single person to check.

Now in some kind of perfect World the maven way would be vastly superior as there's a End-To-End verification and verification of the full way the software takes. However there's a big problem: I don't know any of these Authors personally and there's no reason I should just trust any of them.

Now comparing this to the Distribution / quicklisp model. Here I would just have to trust one person or group -- here the quicklisp team -- to benefit from the crypto which might be possible based on karma inside the using community. However here I don't gain the possibility that the software is integer.

However idealized if some of these pieces of software was forged between upstream and the quicklisp team and attacker would also intercept me downloading the software from the same address so I get the source from upstream matching the checksum from quicklisp -- assuming the quicklisp team does indeed know the correct website. Additionally I get the confirmation that all other quicklisp users get the same source (if the quicklisp guys are fine of course) so no-one inside the community complaining is a good indication the software is fine. For this to work there's of course a relevant user-base of the distributor (quicklisp) necessary.

Relevance for Debian

So how do conventional Linux Distributions like Debian fit in here. Ideally we would have maintainers understanding and checking the software and confirming the integrity using their private key or at least know their upstreams and having at least a secured way getting the software from upstream and a trust relationship with them. Of course that's just illusionary thinking of complex and important software (think libreoffice, gcc or firefox for example). Maintainers won't fully understand a lot simpler pieces of software. And loads of upstream projects don't provide a verified way of getting the correct source code though that's a bit better on the real high-impact projects where checksums signed by the Release Manager are more common than in small projects.

A misguided thought at the end

As I'm a heavy emacs user I like to have snapshots from current emacs development available. Fortunately binary packages with this are available from a Debian guy I tend to trust who is also involved upstream so adding the key from his repository to the keyring apt trusts. Now my first thoughts were along the lines "It would be really nice if I could pin that key to only the emacs snapshot packages" so this guy can't just put libc packages in his repository and my apt would trust them. Now thinking of it again a bogus upload of the emacs snapshot package could just as well put some binary or library on the system at some place in front of the real on in the system path which would be rather similar bad.

Tags: debian, foss, linux, security, web.
CSSH but without X
20th February 2011

There are many ways to run some commands simultaneously on multiple hosts like cssh or dsh. They come handy for example when you are installing software updates on a set of hosts.

dsh is a rather simple comandline tool allowing to execute a command over ssh on multiple hosts. However it doesn't allow any interactive input -- so you can't look at the potentially upgrading packages and press y to accept and you can't go through debconf promts or similar.

This is solved by cssh which opens a XTerm for every host and a input area that is broadcastet to all of them. this is working really well -- you can execute your update on all hosts and still do individual adjustments just as needed: switch focus from the broadcasted input to one of the terminal windows and anything you type just goes there.

Now cssh has a big disadvantage: it requires a running X server (and doesn't do too well with a fullscreen windowmanager). Requiring X is quite a blocker if you need to run that ssh multiplexer on a remote host, for example if the firewalling doesn't allow direct connections. Fortunately you can make tmux behave as we want -- in a simple terminal:

First you need a script spawning the ssh sessions in separate tmux panes and direct input to all of them -- here called (you could also write a tmux config I guess):

for i in $HOSTS
  tmux splitw "ssh $i"
  tmux select-layout tiled
tmux set-window-option synchronize-panes on

Now start the whole thing:

tmux new 'exec sh'

And be done.


If you want to type in just one pane (on one host) you can do that as well: C-b : set-window-option synchronize-panes off and moving to the right pane (C-b + Arrow keys)

Tags: debian, foss, howto, linux.
The erlang experience
5th December 2010

This week I had to write a little tool that would collect input on different channels, via socket / netcat, via a http server, .... Calls for a parralel Design -- Maybe a good place to write something real in Erlang. While erlang itself was really nice to write -- I do like Prolog as well as the bunch of functional languages -- doing networking in erlang seems a bit special, the interfaces just aren't thin wrappers around the libc stuff.

Getting a Socket Text interface

What sounds like a easy challenge to accomplish was actually harder than expected. All I found was some way to pass binaries representing erlang code over a socket and evaluating it remotle. While it's nice that such things are as easy to do as they are it doesn't help me with my task of moving simple strings.

start() ->
    {ok, Listen} = gen_tcp:listen(51622, [binary, {packet, 0},
                                         {reuseaddr, true},
                                         {active, true}]),
    spawn(fun () -> accept_loop(Listen) end).

accept_loop(Listen) ->
    {ok, Socket} = gen_tcp:accept(Listen),

handle(Socket) ->
        {tcp, Socket, Bin} ->
            io:format("~p~n", binary_to_list(Bin));
        {tcp_closed, Socket} ->

So the socket is now up and receives text as wanted. However, as we are already runnign a parralel program it would be nice to be hable to handle multiple socket connections in parralel right? For that we just need to add a spawn() at the right place. The right place is not the handle(Socket) but the accept_loop(Listen) because the process that called accept will receive all the tcp messages.

This last part was quite obvious after finding the documentation of the {active, _} properties for the socket. always here means that you'll receive all data from the socket as erlang Messages, once delivers one package and waits until it is activated again and false requires calling a method -- this would have been possible as well when forking handle(Socket).

The web server

Ok we also want a webserver. We do not want to run some webapplication inside appache or so, just do some post/get and simple pages. Erlang here provides a built-in httpd with some mod_esi that calls some function depending on the URL used. It doesn't do anything fancy like templating or DB backends or stuff, just taking strings and building the http answers.

Unfortunately there are no examples around and basically noone seems to be using this combination (apart from some hacks like mine probably). So as I needed to get some additional information into the handler function (a Pid to connect to some service), I, as a novice, just couldn't find a way. Asking on IRC the solution was rather simple: Just using erlang's process registry. For more complex stuf gproc might prove usefull here.


I guess I've got a huge step farther in programming erlang now. The manpages are easily found by your search engine -- for python I have to either walk through the (well structured) online documentation or search for the right link in the search results, for erlang they're typically first. Also Joe Armstrong's Books as proven usefull. The most dificult part probably is getting around all the nice extras you can do (transfering functions over sockets et al) and find out how to do the thing you need.

Tags: erlang, foss, functional, howto, linux, programmieren.
[FAIL] Security
2nd June 2010

I'm all for security and really like encryption (my Notebook's harddrive is encrypted, I've recently got a GPG Smartcard, ...) but sometimes you see big failes where security is atemted but doesn't actually secure anything but only hinders the legitimate user.

Today one of these candidates ate way to much of my time again. I'm currently getting more and more used to GNU Emacs and currently experimenting with emacs-jabber. Therefore copying my jabber accounts over from psi. As with these passwords you never type in I couldn't remember some of my jabber passwords -- no problem psi has to store them so it should be easy to get them, right?

Well actually not. The configuration file (XML) had a password entry but all that was in it was just obviously hex-encoded numbers. These numbers turned out to be be 16bit packages of characters that are XOR-ed against the JID So now you have to read them in in junks of 16bit, XOR them against the JID and get the password.

Time to recapitulate what this security helped. I've written a hacky 10 lines C Program that can reliably retrieve passwords from any config file I might come across. Seems you can do the same in 2 lines of perl. Ergo no security at all was added.

Next question: What did it cost? Needed an hour or so of researching the encryption and trial&error out the right program fragment. For nothing gained at all. Fail.

Tags: fail, foss, linux, programmieren, rant.
[Review] AI Touchbook
26th April 2010

Having my primary working Computer, a Lenovo Thinkpad, going into repair at the end of December I finally got up to ordering on of those TouchBook ARM based netbooks I was looking at for some time. After some processing time it finally got shipped in April and arrived here last Monday, time to write up my first impressions.

Some words about the Hardware. The TouchBook ships with a so called "Beagle Board" featuring a OMAP3 Processor, ARM Cortex A8 running at 600MHz, 512MiB of RAM and a 8GiB SD Card for storage. It has a 8.9" touch screen and comes with USB and Bluetooth Sticks for wireless connectivity. The Display part contains all the needed Hardware and is detachable from the bottom that is just a keyboard sitting on the secondary Battery. You can open the Top to get at 4 intern USBs (3 USB-A and one Mini-USB) where 2 of these spots are occupied already for wireless networking and Bluetooth.

First experience

The TouchBook comes with an US Power Adaptor only so when I got the device I was running for some tiny Adaptor to get the plug into a normal EU Power Outlet (it's incredibly hard to get one for this Direction while it's easy to get some travelling stuff to plug EU Hardware into various different Outlets!).

When I finally booted it the first thing you'll notice is the touch interface for the bootloader. That's quite a difference to all-text-based old grub! The shipped SD Card offers 3 Operating Systems, one custom Linux that might well be interesting to the average User, a Ubuntu Karmic that really OK for a Debianoid Hacker- both running a XFCE Desktop - and a Android that is really slow and doesn't seem to be good at anything. Needless to say I sticked with the Ubuntu for now.

What to not expect

Well this is a 600MHz CPU with half a Gig of RAM running of a SD Card. So don't expect it to be good at anything that can profit from today's High-End Hardware.

The good Points

First of all, I have to admit that the touch screen is a neat interface, way superior to the Touchpad Area you'll normally find on a Notebook - at least if you use the stylus. It's quite different from the inside-the-keyboard trackball the thinkpads have of course.

The Website claims 10h of Battery life and while I've emptied the battery much faster under certain workloads (e.g. Playing cards) it does hold that promise with emacs fired up in org-mode, IRCing on a server over SSH and the mandatory wireless working. Same for a always-on on campus day which just works.

Again putting the screen on the keyboard the wrong way 'round will give you a touchscreen tablet with the keyboard out of your way, an ideal configuration for playing. And I have to admit playing games like gtkballs or aisle riot real fun. So much fun actually I'm currently thinking on whether it would be feasible to get openpandora working on it.

What I'm really missing

There are two Properties that are really lacking from the device which would make it (in my personal opinion at least) a whole lot better: A simple Ethernet controller I could use to go online when sitting in the server room doing some maintenance without taking my WRT with me and some slot to store the stylus when not using it where it's easy to get out (currently I'm having it in my wallet).

Then there's something (maybe a Kernel Bug): The Wireless is unable to find any new Access Point after disconnecting from some and walking out of reach from that. Force-unloading the kernel module and waiting 30 minutes worked for me multiple times but that's purely inacceptable.

Finally there are some minor glitches. The shiny red cover just gets dirty every time you touch the thing and the Keyboard is really small (what a surprise on a 9" device) and has some of the special Keys (like the Home key) located at unusual spots (Page-Up/Down only available through the FN modifier). Shift and End at the right side are also labeled opposite from their actual function (at least on Ubuntu).

The last ugliness is the top part battery only charging when the device is running, which means you"ll have the TouchBook running all night to get the battery charged and the Battery Monitor not working at all (at least in the current version of the operating systems).

Where to go now

I've not yet come around to really play with the operating system (apart from installing wicd, urxvt-unicode and awesome getting the most needed of my working environment). As I'm a Debian Developer I'll definitely need a Debian running on it (although I was told it'll be slow with software compiled for armv4te) and, as it needs to be running all night anyway, I'll try out gentoo pending another SD Card for experiments.

Secondly there's currently no useable conforming Common Lisp Implementation in Debian for armel as far as I can tell. As arm was already working it shouldn't be that hard, let's see if I can change that but feel free to join me!

Final Notes

I was thinking of some mobile-ish note-taking device and remote ssh terminal for University which the device clearly can do even for 10h away from any power plug while being some non-standard non-x86 device to toy on (It's actually my second armel next to the sheeva plug mounted on my window board.

As a final Remark: This blogpost was written on the TouchBook hacking some markdown into emacs while traveling by train to Erlangen where I study on Sunday Night after having read some chapters of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother on my E-Slick E-Book reader and finished later in my Room.

Maybe I'll find some time to write a review for this device as well one day!

Tags: debian, foss, linux, uni.
Unknown Horizons 2009.0
8th March 2009
Unknown Horizons Logo

Unbestätigten Insiderinformationen (/me ist Teil des Teams) zufolge steht die Veröffentlichung von Unknown Horizons 2009.0 in wenigen Minuten an.

Nach über 5 Monaten Entwicklung hat das Unknown Horizons Projekt jetzt ein neues Snapshot Release in der Version 2009.0 herausgebracht. Nachdem wir heute Nachmittag Pakete gebaut und den letzten Feinschliff vollendet haben, durfte ich das neue Release im SVN tree des Projekts taggen.

Neben der Namensänderung sind jetzt auch erstmals Graphiken in einer ordentlichen Auflösung dabei, sowie eine deutlich ansprechendere Spielwelt -- keine quadratischen Inseln mehr! -- so dass die Hoffnung bleibt, dass möglichst viele Nutzer Gefallen an dem Spiel finden werden.

Eine weitere, wichtige Neuerung ist der Free Trader. Somit ist es jetzt möglich im Singleplayer Modus (Multiplayer müsste irgendwann implementiert werden) Waren zu kaufen/verkaufen.

Was hat es dann nicht in die neue Version geschafft? Leider eine ganze Menge -- das Release ist nunmal nicht zu Unrecht als Alpha gekennzeichnet. Meine Ziele für die nächste Zeit sind allerdings dann i18n/l10n, was leider von PyChans Fähigkeit abhängt Unicode Zeichen darzustellen, und saubere Installierbarkeit, sodass ich offizielle Debian Pakete bauen kann.

Wer sich für Details interessiert, der sei auf das Changelog verwiesen.

Tags: foss, linux, programmieren, unknown-horizons.
Versteckte Dateien
19th January 2009

Möchte ich eine Datei unter unix/Linux verstecken, so verwende ich den Punkt '.' als Prefix. Gewohnheit für den Anwender, einfach zu merken. Das geht mittlerweile ganz automatisch.

Aber irgendwann stellt man sich die Frage «Warum?». Jedenfalls habe ich mir diese Frage gestellt. Der Dateityp wird aus dem Inhalt ermittelt (jedenfalls meistens). Zugriffsrechte funktionieren über Filesystem Flags. Der Dateiname scheint ein frei zu vergebender Name zu sein. Bis es eben zum Verstecken geht.

Logisch? Intuitiv? Nicht wirklich. Eigentlich erweckt es eher den Eindruck eines Hacks. Irgendwann hinzugefügt, als das Filesystem bereits fertig und nicht mehr zu ändern war.

Tags: kurios, linux.

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