Trashing Chromebooks

At Linaro, we do lots of toolchain tests: GCC, LLVM, binutils, libraries and so on. Normally, you’d find a fast machine where you could build toolchains and run all the tests, integrated with some dispatch mechanism (like Jenkins). Normally, you’d have a vast choice of hardware to chose from, for each different form-factor (workstation, server, rack mount) and you’d pick the fastest CPUs and a fast SSD disk with space enough for the huge temporary files that toolchain testing produces.

tcwg-rack

The only problem is, there aren’t any ARM rack-servers or workstations. In the ARM world, you either have many cheap development boards, or one very expensive (100x more) professional development board. Servers, workstations and desktops are still non-existent. Some have tried (Calxeda, for ex.) but they have failed. Others are trying with ARMv8 (the new 32/64-bit architecture), but all of them are under heavy development, so not even Alpha quality.

Meanwhile, we need to test the toolchain, and we have been doing it for years, so waiting for a stable ARM server was not an option and still isn’t. A year ago I took the task of finding the most stable development board that is fast enough for toolchain testing and fill a rack with it. Easier said than done.

Choices

Amongst the choices I had, Panda, Beagle, Arndale and Odroid boards were the obvious candidates. After initial testing, it was clear that Beagles, with only 500MB or RAM, were not able to compile anything natively without some major refactoring of the build systems involved. So, while they’re fine for running remote tests (SSH execution), they have very little use for anything else related to toolchain testing.

panda

Pandas, on the other hand, have 1GB or RAM and can compile any toolchain product, but the timing is a bit on the wrong side. Taking 5+ hours to compile a full LLVM+Clang build, a full bootstrap with testing would take a whole day. For background testing on the architecture, it’s fine, but for regression tracking and investigative work, they’re useless.

With the Arndales, we haven’t had such luck. They’re either unstable or deprecated months after release, which makes it really hard to acquire them in any meaningful volumes for contingency and scalability plans. We were left then, with the Odroids.

arndale

HardKernel makes very decent boards, with fast quad-A9 and octa-A15 chips, 2GB of RAM and a big heat sink. Compilation times were in the right ball park (40~80 min) so they’re good for both regression catching and bootstrapping toolchains. But they had the same problem as every other board we tried: instability under heavy load.

Development boards are built for hobby projects and prototyping. They normally can get at very high frequencies (1~2 GHz) and are normally designed for low-power, stand-by usage most of the time. But toolchain testing involves building the whole compiler and running the full test-suite on every commit, and that puts it on 100% CPU usage, 24/7. Since the build times are around an hour or more, by the time that the build finishes, other commits have gone through and need to be tested, making it a non-stop job.

CPUs are designed to scale down the frequency when they get too hot, so throughout the normal testing, they stay stable at their operating temperatures (~60C), and adding a heat sink only makes it go further on frequency and keeping the same temperature, so it won’t solve the temperature problem.

The issue is that, after running for a while (a few hours, days, weeks), the compilation jobs start to fail randomly (the infamous “internal compiler error”) in different places of different files every time. This is clearly not a software problem, but if it were the CPU’s fault, it’d have happened a lot earlier, since it reaches the operating temperature seconds after the test starts, and only fails hours or days after they’re running full time. Also, that same argument rules out any trouble in the power supply, since it should have failed in the beginning, not days later.

The problem that the heat sink doesn’t solve, however, is the board’s overall temperature, which gets quite hot (40C~50C), and has negative effects on other components, like the SD reader and the card itself, or the USB port and the stick itself. Those boards can’t boot from USB, so we must use SD cards for the system, and even using a USB external hard drive with a powered USB hub, we still see the failures, which hints that the SD card is failing under high load and high temperatures.

According to SanDisk, their SD cards should be ok on that temperature range, but other parties might be at play, like the kernel drivers (which aren’t build for that kind of load). What pointed me to the SD card is the first place was that when running solely on the SD card (for system and build directories), the failures appear sooner and more often than when running the builds on a USB stick or drive.

Finally, with the best failure rate at 1/week, none of those boards are able to be build slaves.

Chromebook

That’s when I found the Samsung Chromebook. I had one for personal testing and it was really stable, so amidst all that trouble with the development boards, I decided to give it a go as a buildbot slave, and after weeks running smoothly, I had found what I was looking for.

The main difference between development boards and the Chromebook is that the latter is a product. It was tested not just for its CPU, or memory, but as a whole. Its design evolved with the results of the tests, and it became more stable as it progressed. Also, Linux drivers and the kernel were made to match, fine tuned and crash tested, so that it could be used by the worst kind of users. As a result, after one and a half years running Chromebooks as buildbots, I haven’t been able to make them fail yet.

But that doesn’t mean I have stopped looking for an alternative. Chromebooks are laptops, and as such, they’re build with a completely different mindset to a rack machine, and the number of modifications to make it fit the environment wasn’t short. Rack machines need to boot when powered up, give 100% of its power to the job and distribute heat efficiently under 100% load for very long periods of time. Precisely the opposite of a laptop design.

Even though they don’t fail the jobs, they did give me a lot of trouble, like having to boot manually, overheating the batteries and not having an easy way to set up a Linux image easily deployable via network boot. The steps to fix those issues are listed below.

WARNING: Anything below will void your warranty. You have been warned.

System settings

To get your Chromebook to boot anything other than ChromeOS, you need to enter developer mode. With that, you’ll be able not only to boot from SD or USB, but also change your partition and have sudo access on ChromeOS.

With that, you go to the console (CTRL+ALT+->), login with user chronos (no password) and set the boot process as described on the link above. You’ll also need to set sudo crossystem dev_boot_signed_only=0 to be able to boot anything you want.

The last step is to make your Linux image boot by default, so when you power up your machine it boots Linux, not ChromeOS. Otherwise, you’ll have to press CTRL+U every boot, and remote booting via PDUs will be pointless. You do that via cgpt.

You need to find the partition that boots on your ChromeOS by listing all of them and seeing which one booted successfully:

$ sudo cgpt show /dev/mmcblk0

The right partition will have the information below appended to the output:

Attr: priority=0 tries=5 successful=1

If it had tries, and was successful, this is probably your main partition. Move it back down the priority order (6-th place) by running:

$ sudo cgpt add -i [part] -P 6 -S 1 /dev/mmcblk0

And you can also set the SD card’s part to priority 0 by doing the same thing over mmcblk1

With this, installing a Linux on an SD card might get you booting Linux by default on next boot.

Linux installation

You can chose a few distributions to run on the Chromebooks, but I have tested both Ubuntu and Arch Linux, which work just fine.

Follow those steps and insert the SD card in the slot and boot. You should get the Developer Mode screen and waiting for long enough, it should beep and boot directly on Linux. If it doesn’t, means your cgpt meddling was unsuccessful (been there, done that) and will need a bit more fiddling. You can press CTRL+U for now to boot from the SD card.

After that, you should have complete control of the Chromebook, and I recommend adding your daemons and settings during the boot process (inid.d, systemd, etc). Turn on the network, start the SSD daemon and other services you require (like buildbots). It’s also a good idea to change the governor to performance, but only if you’re going to use it for full time heavy load, and especially if you’re going to run benchmarks. But for the latter, you can do that on demand, and don’t need to leave it on during boot time.

To change the governor:
$ echo [scale] | sudo tee /sys/bus/cpu/devices/cpu[N]/cpufreq/scaling_governor

scale above can be one of performance, conservative, ondemand (default), or any other governor that your kernel supports. If you’re doing before benchmarks, switch to performance and then back to ondemand. Use cpuN as the CPU number (starts on 0) and do it for all CPUs, not just one.

Other interesting scripts are to get the temperatures and frequencies of the CPUs:

$ cat thermal
#!/usr/bin/env bash
ROOT=/sys/devices/virtual/thermal
for dir in $ROOT/*/temp; do
temp=`cat $dir`
temp=`echo $temp/1000 | bc -l | sed 's/0\+$/0/'`
device=`dirname $dir`
device=`basename $device`
echo "$device: $temp C"
done

$ cat freq
#!/usr/bin/env bash
ROOT=/sys/bus/cpu/devices
for dir in $ROOT/*; do
if [ -e $dir/cpufreq/cpuinfo_cur_freq ]; then
freq=`sudo cat $dir/cpufreq/cpuinfo_cur_freq`
freq=`echo $freq/1000000 | bc -l | sed 's/0\+$/0/'`
echo "`basename $dir`: $freq GHz"
fi
done

Hardware changes

batteries

As expected, the hardware was also not ready to behave like a rack server, so some modifications are needed.

The most important thing you have to do is to remove the battery. First, because you won’t be able to boot it remotely with a PDU if you don’t, but more importantly, because the head from constant usage will destroy the battery. Not just as in make it stop working, which we don’t care, but it’ll slowly release gases and bloat the battery, which can be a fire hazard.

To remove the battery, follow the iFixit instructions here.

Another important change is to remove the lid magnet that tells the Chromebook to not boot on power. The iFixit post above doesn’t mention it, bit it’s as simple as prying the monitor bezel open with a sharp knife (no screws), locating the small magnet on the left side and removing it.

Stability

With all these changes, the Chromebook should be stable for years. It’ll be possible to power cycle it remotely (if you have such a unit), boot directly into Linux and start all your services with no human intervention.

The only think you won’t have is serial access to re-flash it remotely if all else fails, as you can with most (all?) rack servers.

Contrary to common sense, the Chromebooks are a lot better as build slaves are any development board I ever tested, and in my view, that’s mainly due to the amount of testing that it has gone through, given that it’s a consumer product. Now I need to test the new Samsung Chromebook 2, since it’s got the new Exynos Octa.

Conclusion

While I’d love to have more options, different CPUs and architectures to test, it seems that the Chromebooks will be the go to machine for the time being. And with all the glory going to ARMv8 servers, we may never see an ARMv7 board to run stably on a rack.

Humble Bundle

I’m not the one to normally do reviews or ads, but this is one well worth doing. Humble bundle is an initiative hosted by Wolfire studio, in which five other studios (2D Boy, Bit Blot, Cryptic Sea, Frictional Games and the recently joined Amanita Design) joined their award-winning indie games into a bundle with two charities (EFF and Child’s Play) that you can pay whatever you want, to be shared amongst them.

All games work on Linux and Mac (as well as Windows), are of excellent quality (I loved them) and separately would cost around 80 bucks. The average buy price for the bundle is around $8.50, but some people have paid $1000 already. Funny, though, that now they’re separating the average per platform, and Linux users pay, on average, $14 while Windows users pay $7, with Mac in between. A clear message to professional game studios out there, isn’t it?

About the games, they’re the type that are always fun to play and don’t try to be more than they should. There are no state-of-the-art 3D graphics, blood, bullets and zillions of details, but they’re solid, consistent and plain fun. I already had World of Goo (from 2D Boy) and loved it. All the rest I discovered with the bundle and I have to say that I was not expecting them to be that good. The only bad news is that you have only one more day to buy them, so hurry, get your bundle now while it’s still available.

The games

World of Goo: Maybe the most famous of all, it’s even available for Wii. It’s addictive and family friendly, has many tricks and very clever levels to play. It’s a very simple concept, balls stick to other balls and you have to reach the pipe to save them. But what they’ve done with that simple concept was a powerful and very clever combination of physical properties that give the game an extra challenge. What most impressed me was the way physics was embedded in the game. Things have weight and momentum, sticks break if the momentum is too great, some balls weight less than air and float, while others burn in contact with fire. A masterpiece.

Aquaria: I thought this would be the least interesting of all, but I was wrong. Very wrong. The graphics and music are very nice and the physics of the game is well built, but the way the game builds up is the best. It’s a mix of Ecco with Loom, where you’re a sea creature (mermaid?) and have to sing songs to get powers or to interact with the game. The more you play, the more you discover new things and the more powerful you become. Really clever and a bit more addictive than I was waiting for… 😉

Gish: You are a tar ball (not the Unix tar, though) and have to go through tunnels with dangers to find your tar girl (?). The story is stupid, but the game is fun. You can be slippery or sticky to interact with the maze and some elements that have simple physics, which add some fun. There are also some enemies to make it more difficult. Sometimes it’s a bit annoying, when it depends more on luck (if you get the timing of many things right in a row) than actually logic or skill. The save style is also not the best, I was on the fourth level and asked for a reset (to restart the fourth level again), but it reset the whole thing and sent me to the first level, which I’m not playing again. The music is great, though.

Lugaru HD: A 3D Lara Croft bloody kung-fu bunny style. The background story is more for necessity of having one than actually relevant. The idea is to go on skirmishing, cutting jugulars, sneaking and knocking down characters in the game as you go along. The 3D graphics are not particularly impressive and the camera is not innovative, but the game has some charm for those that like a fight for the sake of fights. Funny.

Penumbra: If you like being scared, this is your game. It’s rated 16+ and you can see very little while playing. But you can hear things growling, your own heart beating and the best part is when you see something that scares the hell out of you and you despair and give away your hide out. The graphics are good, simple but well cared for. The effects (blurs, fades, night vision, fear) are very well done and in sync with the game and story. The interface is pretty simple and impressively easy, making the game much more fun than the traditional FPS I’ve played so far. The best part is, you don’t fight, you hide and run. It remembers me Thief, where fighting is the last thing you want to do, but with the difference is that in Thief, you could, in this one, you’re a puss. If you fight, you’ll most likely die.

Samorost 2: It’s a flash game, that’s all I know. Flash is not particularly stable on any platform and Linux is especially unstable, so I couldn’t make it run in the first attempt. For me, and most gamers I know, a game has to work. This is why it’s so hard to play early open source games, because you’re looking for a few minutes of fun and not actually fiddling with your system. I have spent more time writing this paragraph than trying to play Samorost and I will only try it again if I upgrade my Linux (in hoping the Flash problem will go away by itself). Pity.

Well, that’s it. Go and get your humble bundle that it’s well worth, plus you help some other people in the process. Helping indie studios is very important for me. First, it levels the play-field and help them grow. Second, they tend to be much more platform independent, and decent games for Linux are scarce. Last, they tend to have the best ideas. Most game studios license one or two game engines and create dozens of similar games with that, in hope to get more value for their money. Also, they tend to stick with the current ideas that sell, instead of innovating.

By buying the bundle you are, at the very least, helping to have better games in the future.

Linux is whatever you want it to be

Normally the Linux Magazine has great articles. Impartial, informative and highly technical. Unfortunately, not always. In a recent article, some perfectionist zealot stated that Ubuntu makes Linux looks bad. I couldn’t disagree more.

Ubuntu is a fast-paced, fast-adapted Linux. I was one of the early adopters and I have to say that most of the problems I had with the previous release were fixed. Some bugs went through, of course, but they were reported and quickly fixed. Moreover, Ubuntu has the support from hardware manufacturers, such as Dell, and that makes a big difference.

Linux is everything

Linux is excellent for embedded systems, great for network appliances, wonderful for desktops, irreplaceable as a development platform, marvellous on servers and the only choice for real clusters. It also sucks when you have to find the configuration manually, it’s horrible to newbies, it breaks whenever a new release is out, it takes longer to get new software (such as Firefox) but also helps a lot with package dependencies. Something that neiter Mac nor Windows managed to do properly over the past decades.

Linux is great as any piece of software could be but horrible as every operating system that was release since the beginning of times. Some Linux distributions are stable, others not so. Debian takes 10 years to release and when it does, the software it contains is already 10 years old. Ubuntu tries to be a bit faster but that obviously breaks a few things. If you’re fast enough fixing, the early adopters will be pleased that they helped the community.

“Unfortunately what most often comes is a system full of bugs, pain, anguish, wailing and gnashing of teeth – as many “early” adopters of Karmic Koala have discovered.”

As any piece of software, open or closed, free or paid, free or non-free. It takes time to mature. A real software engineer should know better, that a system is only fully tested when it reaches the community, the user base. Google uses their own users (your granny too!) as beta testers for years and everyone seem to understand it.

Debian zealots hate Red Hat zealots and both hate Ubuntu zealots that probably hate other zealots anywhere else. It’s funny to see how opinions vary greatly from a zealot clan to the other about what Linux really is. All of them have a great knowledge on what Linux is comprised of, but few seems to understand what Linux really is. Linux, or better, GNU/Linux is a big bunch of software tied together with so many different points of view that it’s impossible to state in less than a thousand words what it really is.

“Linux is meant to be stable, secure, reliable.”

NO, IT’S NOT! Linux is meant to be whatever you make of it, that’s the real beauty. If Canonical thought it was ready to launch is because they thought that, whatever bug pased the safety net was safe enough for the users to grab and report, which we did! If you’re not an expert, wait for the system to cool down. A non-expert will not be an “early adopter” anyway, that’s for sure.

Idiosyncrasies

Each Linux has its own idiosyncrasies, that’s what makes it powerful, and painful. The way Ubuntu updates/upgrades itself is particular to Ubuntu. Debian, Red Hat, Suse, all of them do it differently, and that’s life. Get over it.

“As usual, some things which were broken in the previous release are now fixed, but things which were working are now broken.”

One pleonasm after another. There is no new software without new bugs. There is no software without bugs. What was broken was known, what is new is unknown. How can someone fix something they don’t know? When eventually the user tested it, found it broken, reported, they fixed! Isn’t it simple?

“There’s gotta be a better way to do this.”

No, there isn’t. Ubuntu is like any other Linux: Like it? Use it. Don’t like it? Get another one. If you don’t like the way Ubuntu works, get over it, use another Linux and stop ranting.

Red Hat charges money, Debian has ubber-stable-decade-old releases, Gentoo is for those that have a lot of time in their hands, etc. Each has its own particularities, each is good for a different set of people.

Why Ubuntu?

I use Ubuntu because it’s easy to install, use and update. The rate of bugs is lower than on most other distros I’ve used and the rate of updates is much faster and stable than some other distros. It’s a good balance for me. Is it perfect? Of course not! There are lots of things I don’t like about Ubuntu, but that won’t make me use Windows 7, that’s for sure!

I have friends that use Suse, Debian, Fedora, Gentoo and they’re all as happy as I am, not too much, but not too few. Each has problems and solutions, you just have to choose the ones that are best for you.

Gtk example

Gtk, the graphical interface behind Gnome, is very simple to use. It doesn’t have an all-in-one IDE such as KDevelop, which is very powerful and complete, but it features a simple and functional interface designer called Glade. Once you have the widgets and signals done, filling the blanks is easy.

As an example, I wrote a simple dice throwing application, which took me about an hour from install Glade to publish it on the website. Basically, my route was to apt-get install glade, open it and create a few widgets, assign some callbacks (signals) and generate the C source code.

After that, the file src/callbacks.c contain all the signal handlers to which you have to implement. Adding just a bit of code and browsing this tutorial to get the function names was enough to get it running.

Glade generates all autoconf/automake files, so it was extremely easy to compile and run the mock window right at the beginning. The rest of the code I’ve added was even less code than I would add if doing a console based application to do just the same. Also, because of the code generation, I was afraid it’d replace my already changed callbacks.c when I changed the layout. Luckily, I was really pleased to see that Glade was smart enough not to mess up with my changes.

My example is not particularly good looking (I’m terrible with design), but that wasn’t the intention anyway. It’s been 7 years since the last time I’ve built graphical interfaces myself and I’ve never did anything with Gtk before, so it shows how easy it is to use the library.

Just bear in mind a few concepts of GUI design and you’ll have very little problems:

  1. Widget arrangement is not normally fixed by default (to allow window resize). So workout how tables, frames, boxes and panes work (which is a pain) or use fixed position and disallow window resize (as I did),
  2. Widgets don’t do anything by themselves, you need to assign them callbacks. Most signals have meaningful names (resize, toggle, set focus, etc), so it’s not difficult to find them and create callbacks for them,
  3. Side effects (numbers appearing at the press of a button, for instance) are not easily done without global variables, so don’t be picky on that from start. Work your way towards a global context later on when the interface is stable and working (I didn’t even bother)

If you’re looking for a much better dice rolling program for Linux, consider using rolldice, probably available via your package manager.

40 years and full of steam

Unix is turning 40 and BBC folks wrote a small article about it. What a joy to remember when I started using Unix (AIX on an IBM machine) around 1994 and was overwhelmed by it.

By that time, the only Unix that ran well on a PC was SCO and that was a fortune, but there were some others, not as mature, that would have the same concepts. FreeBSD and Linux were the two that came into my sight, but I have chosen Linux for it was a bit more popular (therefore could get more help).

The first versions I’ve installed didn’t even had a X server and I have to say that I was happier than using Windows. Partially because of all the open-source-free-software-good-for-mankind thing, but mostly because Unix has a power that is utterly ignored by other operating systems. It’s so, that Microsoft used good bits from FreeBSD (that allows it via their license) and Apple re-wrote its graphical environment to FreeBSD and made the OS X. The GNU folks certainly helped my mood, as I could find all power tools on Linux that I had on AIX, most of the time even more powerful.

The graphical interface was lame, I have to say. But in a way it was good, it reminded me of the same interface I used on the Irix (SGI’s Unix) and that was ok. With time, it got better and better and in 1999 I was working with and using it at home full time.

The funny thing is that now, I can’t use other operating systems for too long, as I start missing some functionalities and will eventually get locked, or at least, extremely limited. The Mac OS is said to be nice and tidy, and with a full FreeBSD inside, but I still lacked agility on it, mainly due to search and installation of packages and configuration of the system.

I suppose each OS is for a different type of person… Unix is for the ones that like to fine-tune their machines or those that need the power of it (servers as well) and Mac OS is for those that need something simple, with the biggest change as the background colour. As for the rest, I fail to see a point, really.

FSF Settles Suit Against Cisco

The long dispute with Cisco has finally come to an agreement. For me, that means two things: first, they’re not trolls sucking money from the big corps for stupid patent infringement, as some might fear. Second, they’re very patient, understanding and sometimes a bit too naive.

Why the fear?

When building embedded systems or when you’re too close to the hardware (such as Cisco) you may take a wise decision to use open source software, as it’s quite likely to be stable and taken care by a good bunch of good people. Even though there are several ways of doing it independently, so your software is not virally infected by the GPL, it’s not always possible and you may have to re-invent the wheel because of that.

It’s not only GPL, patents can also cause a whole lot of damage, and it seems that TomTom has decided to go head first with the Linux community.

So, although the fear is understandable, it’s more of a hysteria than based on actual facts. The FSF hasn’t had much to show on court, and that adds up to the uncertainty of the lawyers, but it’s in cases like the Cisco that they show a much higher maturity that most companies have shown recently, even mature companies like Microsoft.

Richard Stallman

The FSF is not only Stallman. Even though he’s the boss, the organization is a large list of people, sponsors, advisers (and now interns). One thing is to fear what RMS will do when he finds you using GPL in your kitchen scale, but a completely different matter is what the FSF (as an organization) does.

The Cisco case has been going for several years. They offered help, they’ve asked politely, they’ve warned about the potential dangers and so on. A lot has been made before they have actually filled the suit, and they’ve settled it nicely. This shows that they’re not just waiting the next infringement to get you down, they actually care about their (and your) freedom.

The day the FSF starts acting stupid is the day people will drive away. It’s not like Microsoft that you have no option, there’s plenty of options out there, software, licences, partners, advisers, programmers, etc. GNU/Linux is not the decent open source operating system, the BSDs are as good, sometimes better, especially in the embedded case.

The year of Linux

Every year since 1995 is the year of Linux. For me it always was, but I can’t say the same for the rest of the world. Recently, Linux (and other open source software) has played an important role in defining the future of mankind and more and more the Linux community feels that it’s their sweat and blood.

There is a great chance it’ll become the platform of all things in a very short time-frame. Cars, mobile phones, PDAs, netbooks, laptops, desktops, servers, clusters, spaceships. One platform to rule them all and in the darkness bind them, but if they play dumb, their glory might never see daylight.

Lots of people disagree with the new revisions of the GPL license, they feel it bites the hand that feeds it. Many companies feed back open source regularly and that kinda broke the synergy. I personally think that it’s excellent for some cases, but not for all. For instance, development tools should not be restricted, especially when it comes to platforms they can’t reach. Opening the platform is an obvious way around it, but not everything can be exposed and they can’t figure out every implementation detail.

Drivers might also have trouble with GPLv3 for the same reason. Again, there are ways around it, the FSF recently opened a backdoor to develop proprietary plug-ins if they’re blessed, but that might not be suitable for every case.

Solution?

Sorry, not today. Stick to FreeBSD if you can’t cope with GPLv3, find a way to co-exist with the GCC exception and provide the source code of what you have to. If it’s not your core business, you could donate your code to the community and make it GPL too and treat your program as enabling technology, of course, providing your code doesn’t expose any patent or trade secret.

So, well, yeah. Each case is a different case, that’s the problem of being in the long tail.

Who needs Microsoft’s FAT?

Hydrogenated, unsaturated fat and cholesterol are long enemies of the public, but recently a new type of fat has been added: FAT.

Microsoft has filed a patent suit against TomTom about its FAT implementation on their Linux satnavs. This is a bit of a long story and Microsoft is not tired yet. Probably because of the recent losses with patents, they’re trying to get some profit for themselves.

Luckily, there is hope. The guys at End Software Patents can see some light at the end of the tunnel. Looks like the Bilski case can give precedence for rejecting the lawsuit of that (and many other stupid patents they’re claiming) based on the tangibility of mathematical algorithms (software) when they’re not particularly tied to any concrete implementation (hardware).

This was how it was done before in the US until the first case passed through that wasn’t attached to any particular hardware and then with the final revision in 1998 that they could patent even cake recipes.

Why not ditch it for good?

So, FAT is rubbish, 30 years old and close to zero evolution since then, why keep it? It’s true that there are many other filesystems around, much faster, safer, optimized and well designed, but FAT still has its market: on embedded devices. Because it’s simple and stupid, it’s quite easy to support it on very small machines with reduced RAM and CPU power. It’s also light-weight and fits well for small flash cards and USB storage. But the biggest reason to keep it is another: Microsoft supports it since its birth.

Would you buy an SD card that needs to install a driver to make it work? What’d be the point?

Yet again, because of the market domination (and not technical merits), Microsoft forced rubbish down everyone’s throats live for longer that it was expected. And now, they’re trying to get the profits by suing everyone that followed them for decades. What a nice way to say thank you!

Speaking of which, not only they’re happy by suing companies by using Linux (TomTom in this case and many others during the FAT fight), they’re also asking for the open-source community’s help to make Visual Studio 2010 a better product, isn’t that nice? How lovely is the American way of life, I guess the world will never be able to thank them enough.

Happy 1234567890!!

It has just passed the Unix time 1234567890! (or, if you prefer, 0x499602D2, which is not funny at all).

Friday, February 13, 2009 at exactly 23:31:30 (UTC, which I happen to be), is a nice Friday 13th (already spooky).


$ perl -e 'print scalar localtime(1234567890),"\n";'
Fri Feb 13 23:31:30 2009

I suppose you have a Unix at home, of course. Well, you probably do anyway…

Other fancy Unix dates to come:


$ perl -e 'print scalar localtime(2000000000),"\n";'
Wed May 18 04:33:20 2033
Next billionth second…


$ perl -e 'print scalar localtime(0x7FFFFFFF),"\n";'
Tue Jan 19 03:14:07 2038
As far as it can go, with 32bit signed integers…

And some other that passed already:


$ perl -e 'print scalar localtime(1000000000),"\n";'
Sun Sep 9 02:46:40 2001
The first billionth second:

And finally some before the Unix era:


$ perl -e 'print scalar localtime(0xDEADBEEF),"\n";'
Mon Apr 14 15:27:43 1952
Well, 0xD has the sign bit set, doesn’t it? It’s in the past too…


$ perl -e 'print scalar localtime(0x80000000),"\n";'
Fri Dec 13 20:45:52 1901
As far as it can go in the past…

But don’t worry, 64-bit systems can already (and do already) manage times up to 9223372036854775807 seconds back and forth 1st January, 1970. It’s plus and minus 292 million years. It’ll be good to tag even dinosaurs with Unix-time, as well as the Enterprise next-generation.

The only problem is that the two final catastrophes we can’t get rid of: sun becoming a red giant (thus engulfing all planets, or the Milky Way colliding with Andromeda, will happen in no less than 5 billion years from now, which means that we’ll need to change to 128-bit time-stamp eventually.

Happy unix-time 1234567890!!

Vista is no more

It still hasn’t gone to meet it’s maker, but it was also not as bad as it could’ve been.

After Windows Vista was launched with more PR and DRM than any other, Microsoft hoped to continue its domination of the market. Maybe afraid of the steep Linux increase in desktops (Ubuntu has a great role in that) and other market pressures, they’ve rushed out Vista with so many bugs and security flaws, so slow and with such a big memory and CPU footprint that not many companies really wanted to change their whole infrastructure to see it drawn a little later.

China government ditched it for XP because it was not stable enough to run the Olympics, only to find out that the alternative didn’t help at all.

All that crap helped a lot Linux (especially Ubuntu) jump on the desktop world. Big companies shipping Linux on lots of desktops and laptops, all netbooks with Linux as primary option, lay people now using Linux as they would use any other desktop OS. So, is it just because Vista is so bad? No. Not at all. Linux got really user friendly over the last five to ten years and it’s now as easy as any other.

Vista is so bad that Microsoft had to keep supporting Windows XP, they’re rushing again with Windows 7 and probably (hopefully) they’ll make the same mistakes again. It’s got so bad that the Free Software Foundation’s BadVista campaign is officially is closing down for good. For good as in: Victory!

Yes, victory because in one year they could show the world how bad Vista really is and how good the other opportunities are. Of course, they were talking about Linux and all the free software around, including the new gNewSense platform they’re building, but the victory is greater than that. The biggest message is that Windows is not the only solution to desktops, and most of the time, it’s the worst.

In conjunction with the DefectiveByDesign guys, they also showed how Vista (together with Sony, Apple, Warner et al) can completely destroy your freedom, privacy and entertainment. They were so successful in their quest that they’re closing doors to spend time (and donors’ money) in more important (and pressing) issues.

Now, they’re closing down but that doesn’t mean that the problem is over. The idea is to stabilise the market. Converting all Windows and Mac users to Linux wouldn’t be right, after all, each person is different. But the big challenge is to have users that need (or want) a Mac, to use a Mac. Who needs Windows and can afford to pay all extra software to protect your computer (but not your privacy), can use it. For developers the real environment is Unix, they should be able to get a good desktop and good development tools as well. It’s, at least, fair.

But for the majority of users, what they really want is a computer to browse the web, print some documents, send emails and for that, any of the three is good enough. All three are easy to install (or come pre-installed), all three have all the software you need and most operations and configurations are easy or automatic. It’s becoming more a choice of style and design than anything else.

Now that Apple got rid of all DRM crap, Spore was a fiasco so EA is selling games without DRM, the word is getting out. It’s a matter of time it’ll be a minor problem, too. Would DefectiveByDesign retire too? I truly hope so.

As an exercise to the reader, go to Google home page and search for the terms: “windows vista“. You’ll see the BadVista website in the first page. If you search for “DRM” you’ll also see the DefectiveByDesign web page as well. This is big, it means that lots and lots of websites are pointing to those websites when they’re talking about those subjects!

If you care enough and you have a Google user and is using the personalised Google search, you could search for those terms and press the up arrow symbol on those sites to make them go even higher in the rank. Can we make both be the first? I did my part already.