Thursday, 25 October 2007

Rant: eBay and stupidity

I've only recently started playing with eBay. I'd known all about it, but never used, knowing my proclivity for spending. But I have started using it. I thought it would be nice to get my girl a new mobile phone. I thought one of those Nokia N93's would be cool so I tracked one down. And then the stupidity commenced.

Picture on item: matches phone.
Description: mostly matches phone.
Actual item: a CD with crap on it for this type of phone.
Bid: $8.33

Shit. Wrong item. The images on the page, the general thread of the description mention in an obtuse way that this is for a CD not a phone. I didn't read it carefully enough and *bang* bid on a piece of crap I'll probably never use.

I congratulate the seller - the ad was well crafted and hit the right notes to make it seem like it was a phone I was bidding on. I especially like that in the eBay categories the CD is in the "Mobile Phone" section. Very nice. I'll remember this for the future. I'm just glad it wasn't a more expensive bungle and at the end of the day, I have to take responsibility for my poor decision. Ah well, c'est la vie.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Experiences with Ubuntu 7.10 Gusty Gibbon

I've spent a fair bit of time around Linux and I was very interested to see what this new distribution had to offer. I went the cheater's path for my work PC (a Dell GX260) and upgraded first to the RC and then patched to the full version. I like it a lot on this machine, it detected my wide screen LCD properly, looks nice and feels like it runs faster than 7.04. So, all good.

At home however, the story varies significantly. I have a whitebox with an AMD processor in it, a 250GB SATA disk and standard everything else. It currently runs Windows Vista Ultimate (ugh!) and I had approximately 80GB free that I thought would be handy for Ubuntu. I will note that this particular machine, when I attempted to install OpenSuSE 10.3 on it, appears to have some obscure SATA controller and SuSE was unable to detect it. I was prepared for the eventuality that Ubuntu wouldn't see it either, but to my pleasant surprise it did.

I ran the install, popped GRUB on the system and rebooted. Everything had seemed to go well, the partitioning etc was a breeze and Ubuntu have done a very nice job of making the installation process as painless and thought free as possible (good for the newbz out there that say Linux is too hard to install). After the reboot I was greeted with the unhappy result from GRUB: Error 17. Subsequent reboots and I got Error 18 and even Error 15. The SATA controller problem (I suspect) had struck again. What *really* ticked me off was that Vista was unable to repair the boot partition and I lost the lot. Now fortunately I have backups (let that be a lesson to all of you who don't) and I didn't lose any data. I did, however, lose several hours of time and my temper at least twice.

The SATA controller in this particular machine is not a fancy one. The board is a fairly standard one and it ran Ubuntu 7.04 without any issue. And yet neither OpenSuSE 10.3 or Ubuntu 7.10 worked with it properly. Very annoying. Vista (sadly) did work with it properly and is once again working with it properly. *sigh* I want to get away from the Microsoft world (it's expensive!) and I am restrained once again due to hardware issues.

So a win and a loss with Ubuntu 7.10 and one complete recovery failure with Vista. Life goes on.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Musings on System Administration

I was reading an article discussing forensic preparation for computer systems. Some of the
stuff in there I knew the general theory of, but not the specifics of how to perform. As I
thought about it, it occurred to me that Systems Administration is such a vast field. There
is no way I can know all of this stuff. I made a list of the software and operating systems

I currently manage. They include:
- Windows Server 2003, Standard and Enterprise
- Exchange 2003
- Windows XP
- Windows Vista
- Windows 2000
- Ubuntu Linux
- OpenSuSE Linux
- Mac OSX (10.3 and 10.4)
- Solaris 8
- SQL 2005
- Various specialised software for the transport industry

I have specific knowledge on some of this, broad knowledge on all of it, and always think "There's so much I *don't* know". It gets a bit down heartening sometimes. For one thing - I
have no clue about SQL 2005 and I need to make it work with another bit of software. All
complicated and nothing straightforward. Irritating doesn't begin to explain it. As to the
Microsoft Software - because of it's prevalence throughout the world, there is a lot of
online information available. Likewise with Linux - it's incredibly rare to encounter a problem someone else hasn't already come up against.

So how to function within such an environment? Understanding I think is the key. The more
you understand about the process, the easier it is to figure things out. To my reckoning, understanding the "why" of how things work makes the job of learning new things fast to fix
problems much easier. For beginning sysadmins it's probably the most important thing. That
and curiosity. I'm always interested in learning about new things and trying new stuff out. Having sufficient hardware to indulge in this obsession doesn't hurt either. If you can't have all new stuff - second hand stuff is a good way to play.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Thoughts - Means of Problem Solving

I'm not sure how other people really think - I have a degree in Psychology but I'm still not entirely convinced by the ideas on theory of mind. I have a few observations that I'd like to share. For one thing, and this is kind of strange, when there is a problem I need to solve I can't "think" through it. If I try to reason my way through it, my conscious mind wanders off to God knows where and I get nowhere. But if I relax, clear my mind and just allow some internal process to work, all of a sudden the answer appears. This is the gap in the internal monologue to which I refer. This does *not* work with mathematical problems. I have always struggled with those sorts of problems. I refer more to the interpersonal problems or even IT problems of which I encounter on a daily basis. Even the lead up to writing this was only a vaguely conceived idea until I started typing and the right words appear on the screen.

I wonder how other people "think" their way through problems? Do they have a specific process they go through to find the answers? In a movie I saw once, one of the characters is telling another about finding the B's and C's. His boss was able to skip from A to D, but a normal person needed to find those B's and C's. I certainly do not subscribe to the idea my thought methods are unique or special, but I merely wonder at the other types of thoughts. Is it possible to learn how to think in the opposite way. I wonder at the efficacy of intuitive problem solving against a more step-wise approach.

I think that these are innate means of thinking and we are born that way. As hard as I've tried to learn a more structured means of thinking it escapes me. Trying to be organised and have everything planned out doesn't work. I can maintain it over the short term, but I get tired of the effort and go back to a more messy/non-linear style of thinking. I wonder how many others experience this?

Hmm I want a MacBook Pro too while I'm rambling. They are very sexy.

Oh and in case you're wondering at the nature of this post - remember the name of the blog is "somewhat" thoughtful thoughts. Sometimes I haven't worked them all the way through :)

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Update to: Resurrection of a G4 and other observations

I had intended to publish the previous post last night, but didn't get around to it. I've hit a bit of a snag with the OpenSuSE 10.3 installation and ran out of time last night to fix it. Two things are failing.

No.1 the PowerEdge server I have has a dodgy DVD reader in it and won't read the 10.3 DVD properly. I checked the DVD for its integrity and all is well with it. I'll need to put another DVD reader into the machine to get it to install I think. While I'm there I think I'll also replace the noisy fan it has at the rear. I can't hear the disks over it and there is no outward indication of any activity which bothers me.

No.2 I tried to install 10.3 on my AMD clone PC last night too. It has a 200GB SATA disk in it (can't remember the exact size) and OpenSuSE failed to detect it. WTF? It's not like I have a unique mainboard - it's a fairly standard ASUS board with nothing special about it. This machine ran Ubuntu there for a while and had no problems with the detection - but OpenSuSE has no idea about the disk. For a new OS version I was extremely unimpressed. I'll issue one caveat though - I have Vista installed on this disk and I'm not sure if that will screw things up or not. I'll investigate at my leisure (read: who knows when).

Happily my G4 is still running although seems unhappy to boot from the OSX partition unless I hold down the Option key on boot. I changed the boot drive (again) and forced a restart to see if it fixed anything. It booted properly (which was good) and also quite quickly (also a good thing). Currently the machine is in a suspended state but I'll test it again tonight and see what the results are.

Tomorrow (hopefully) a post about something non-technical.

Resurrection of a G4 and other observations

My G4 mac has been sitting idle for some time now complaining of no working hard drive. I of course knew this to be a lie as the disk I put in the system was a good one and I thoroughly scanned and tested it before putting it in my beloved G4. After a fair bit of swearing I booted it holding the Option key down. I probably should note that despite my fairly extensive experience with windows and linux I have preciously little with OSX and with Apples in general. I'm amazed for example how good the BIOS seems to be. I can just plug any old USB DVD into this machine and wee! It detects it and off we go. Very cool. On a similar age PC you'd be lucky to have that kind of functionality available.

So at any rate I'm currently typing this on my G4 - it's quite responsive, now it has 868MB of RAM (I know - its a weird number). The reason I'm using this machine and not my equally beloved L400 is just for variety sakes. I have a number of machines available at home. They include a GX270 (currently at my dear girl's home), two GX260 slimline Dell PCs (one is my gateway, the other my linux box at work), a Dell PowerEdge 1400SC Server that houses all my... uh.. content and runs SuSE 10.2 (hopefully upgrading to 10.3 in a matter of hours), my L400 notebook running an amazingly quick Windows XP install, two generic PCs, one with an AMD processor, the other (my games machine) running a dual core Intel setup and finally my two Apples - my G4 and my G3 iMac, both running OSX. My generic PCs run Vista and XP respectively, although I hope to do a dual boot of Vista and SuSE 10.3 set up tonight (and then blog about it later).

The PowerEdge is a noisy machine and sometimes I wonder the amount of power it's pulling. I have no doubt it's a fair bit so I tend not to run it all that often . It was incredibly noisy with the two 9GB SCSI disks that came with it. Needless to say I replaced them with IDE Disks and an IDE RAID controller fairly quickly. I should probably get some bigger disks into it, but really it holds a back up of various documents and the like so nothing too big. SuSE 10.2 was a breeze to install on the machine as well. It correctly identified the IDE RAID card, found my pre-created RAID arrays (unlike Ubuntu) and then proceeded to install in quite an impressive fashion. I love Yast2. What can I say? It's a highly polished interface into much of the system and I think it's excellent. I found it very easy to change the system to boot into multi-user without X and set up firewalling and various other bits and pieces. Quite handy really.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Installing Linux on a Dell L400.

To continue my previous piece (sorry for the delay) about the installation of Ubuntu 7.04 on a Dell L400. To quickly restate the machine's statistics: P3-700MHz processor, 256MB of RAM and a 20GB HDD.

The installation of Ubuntu from the normal disk is a non-happening event. It simply requires too much RAM to boot the graphical interface. So instead, I downloaded the alternate install CD and performed the installation in text mode. Here is a big thing to remember: Boot the kernel with acpi=no. Otherwise you might find the machine getting a lot of "Sleep" messages during the boot and also during the installation. Very *very* frustrating to say the least. It wasn't the fastest installation in the world, but I didn't expect to be the fastest either. It went smoothly and everything was happily detected. Great I thought. It booted OK, it ran the Gnome desktop quite well - although somewhat slowly. I started going through and tidying up the boot stuff and working to minimise RAM usage where possible. (Note to self: next time use Fluxbuntu or something lighter on the desktop!).

The trouble all started during the software update. I have never had a problem with the Ubuntu updates before and I have 2 PCs running Ubuntu all the time. With this one though, various chunks of the install seemed to get hosed as it ran. OpenOffice caused all sorts of hassles, other things simply failed to work. It was very annoying. At the end of it and following a restart, the Gnome desktop wouldn't get going properly. The sound controller software failed to start properly, killing the desktop. I worked at trying to fix it but gave up because of time constraints. I attempted to restore my MBR and just single boot to windows but wouldn't you know it - it didn't work. I ended up re-installing *everything*.

I'm not discouraged though. When I have more time I'll have another crack at it. I'm even considering putting the new OpenSuSE 10.3 on this laptop. Previously I was running 10.2 on it and although the Radeon driver didn't play nicely with this machine, the rest of it was very impressive. I was especially pleased with the speed of OpenSuSE - not something I would not associate with it. So stay tuned for further updates.

Oh and I never did get my WGA111v2 to work with Ubuntu either :(

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Windows XP on Dell L400

It's been a while since I posted anything - I'll plead the pressures of work and social life as my excuse. In the meantime I have picked up a little old Dell L400. This machine is about 1.6KG in weight and has a Pentium III processor running at 700MHz. I've had to put in a 20GB hard disk (that I had lying around) and it came with 256MB of RAM and two batteries. Not bad at all.

Initially I installed Win2k on it and was unimpressed by it's performance. I had also tried to get varies different versions of Linux running on it (more on this to follow). I eventually got SuSE 10.2 running happily on it and all was good. Somehow though... I got it into my head to install Windows XP on this machine. I checked the minimum specifications for XP and found them to be well under the spec of this laptop - something like a 300MHz processor and 128MB of RAM or something similar.

The initial install went very smoothly. It was also pleasingly fast. I was very happy. I continued to be very happy as the install stayed smooth and the system ran well. After a fair bit of time (after all it is only a 700MHz processor) the install completed. The only thing that wasn't working was the sound card. It had correctly detected it but the driver wasn't working. I had already downloaded the drivers from Dell on another machine, copied them across and away I went.

Patching this little machine took a long time. Probably longer than I'd hoped. There were 100 or so patches to be installed so I wasn't too unhappy with the time it took.

My biggest concern with this machine was RAM availability. With only 256MB I was worried I'd be swapping all the time and this would make the machine unusable. By killing all the themes, disabling many services and pruning where possible, the machine runs with a RAM footprint of 89MB! And it runs really well. I've installed the Portable Applications package from www.portableapps.com in both the lite and full forms. This gives me a stack of great software to use and I recommend you check it out. Great for a USB install or just for those lower end PCs you might have floating around. The L400 runs the portable version of OpenOffice Writer well and its very usable. I've also installed NetGear software for my WG111v2 USB wireless device. It works well and means this cheap little notebook is very versatile.

The screen is bright and clear and I find I can use it without problem for some time. The keyboard likewise, has a lovely tactile feel to it. If you're looking for a cheap, lightweight notebook for running around with the L400 is a good choice. The batteries only last about 2 hours, which is what Dell indicate it will last for. For about $200 this laptop was a great buy. I actually carry it in the same bag as my D620 and don't notice the extra weight!

I'm currently installing Ubuntu Linux on it - I'll write more about this adventure tomorrow.