Stefano Rivera (tumbleweed)'s Website, Blog, collected bits of code, cruft and other stuff.

An update on Laptop Hard Drives & Linux

Launchpad bug 59695 has been gathering a huge amount of activity since I wrote about this issue. The issue seems to be that the hardware manufacturers (BIOS and HDD firmware) set very aggressive values for power management. And every other OS (Windows & Mac OSX) override these values to something more sane. The manufacturers only test their equipment in Windows, so they don’t see any problems :-)

This kind of thing seems to happen to Linux quite regularly - we all remember the ACPI debacle caused by manufacturers using Microsoft’s broken ASL compiler, which worked in Microsoft’s broken ACPI environment (or was overridden with driver updates).

So in my opinion, Ubuntu (and every other distributor) has to step in and override these aggressive settings. And, by the look of the bug report, Gnome Power Manager should provide the user with a slider to set the balance between power savings and hardware lifetime.

There is already the obligatory ubuntu is killing your Hard Drive blog, and a closed for cooling off Ubuntu forums thread, if you want get involved and start swinging your battle-axe.

Oh, and the workaround I posted last week obviously doesn’t cover the case of the machine resuming from suspend. You have to use an ACPI event script for that.

A serious warning to Linux Laptop users

I’ve just come across a rather scary, and worryingly old launchpad bug, which talks about real hardware damage. There is more on the problem here. But basically, by default, Linux is far too optimistic with spinning laptop hard drives down, and you can reach number of spin-up/downs that your drive is rated for over it’s entire life-time, in a few months.

My laptop (3 months old), is already at 160000 Load/Unloads: Around half it’s rated life.

The easy solution is

# hdparm -B 180 /dev/sda

Or, the following in /etc/hdparm.conf

/dev/sda {
    apm = 180

Lets hope that this gets resolved soon, or the problem isn’t as bad as it appears.

I see that Matthew Garrett (the Ubuntu Laptop Tzar) is subscribed to this bug, but doesn’t seem to have commented on it. I find that a little odd, considering its seriousness.

N800 (overdue) review

I was lucky enough to win a Nokia N800 at LugRadio Live 2007, because I’d come from South Africa. I’ve had it for 3 months now, and the successor was announced last week, so I think it’s time to blog about it, properly.



The hardware is pretty decent. The screen is very bright and vivid (great for photos), and just big enough to read websites comfortably. There are enough buttons to fulfil the basic tasks without reaching for the stylus, but you generally work it with the stylus (or a finger). It has quite a few hardware features:

  • A periscope webcam (640x480) that pops out the left side, and can swivel 200°
  • 2 SD sockets (one in battery compartment, for more permanent storage, and one external)
    • It ships with a 128MiB µSD card and SD adaptor. I wish manufacturers would ship with decent sized (say 2GiB) cards…
  • A built-in FM radio (requires headphone lead for antenna)
  • WiFi (802.11g)
  • Bluetooth
  • Stereo Speakers (very tinny)
  • Microphone
  • Headset socket (ships with a wired stereo hands-free set)
  • Standard Nokia charger (I wish it charged by USB)
  • mini-USB-B port. It has the hardware to be used in USB OTG mode, but this requires a custom kernel and custom cables
  • A (slightly flimsy) fold-out standing-arm
  • A spare stylus

The battery life is comperable to my cellphone (about a week of non-use, or a day or two of use), and I’m happy with most of the hardware, but I do have a few issues:

The power button isn’t sufficiently recessed for it’s soft carrying case. This means that I can’t carry it off in my bag, it’ll turn itself on eventually, and run it’s battery flat from spurious touch-screen clicks. The solution is to always leave it on, and screen-locked (it supports an auto-lock). For a cellphone manufacturer, I’d have thought they’d get this right.

The webcam’s position at the far left means it gets a good view of the left side of your face. This can be a little disconcerting.

The USB port is (without some serious hackery) only in peripheral mode. I’d really like to be able to plug a USB keyboard into this device (bluetooth keyboards are way too expensive).

There’s a bottleneck in the system (processor presumably), that stops it playing youtube videos at full framerate. Mplayer seems to just be able to handle QVGA video at 24fps, but nothing more.

# cat /proc/cpuinfo
Processor   : Some Random V6 Processor rev 2 (v6l)
BogoMIPS    : 320.37
Features    : swp half thumb fastmult vfp edsp java
CPU implementer     : 0x41
CPU architecture: 6TEJ
CPU variant : 0x0
CPU part    : 0xb36
CPU revision        : 2
Cache type  : write-back
Cache clean : cp15 c7 ops
Cache lockdown      : format C
Cache format        : Harvard
I size              : 32768
I assoc             : 4
I line length       : 32
I sets              : 256
D size              : 32768
D assoc             : 4
D line length       : 32
D sets              : 256

Hardware    : Nokia N800
Revision    : 24202524
Serial              : 0000000000000000


The software stack of the N800 is everything I could desire. It runs a Debian derivative of Linux, Maemo. Maemo uses proper Debian package management, the GTK widget set (with addons), Telepathy for IM, and Gstreamer for media. This makes it a doddle to port existing X applications to the N800.

When you first turn on the N800, after unboxing (or reflashing), you go through an install wizard. It sets the hostname, timezone, and pairs with your bluetooth cellphone. The bluetooth phone pairing is well thought out, and beats anything I’ve ever come across on any platform. Unfortunately it suffers from the same problem as Windows - it doesn’t set your Home Town, etc. based on the time-zone.

The default web browser is Opera-based, but a Gecko engine is available, and a WebKit one remoured to be on the way. It has a (proprietary) flash plugin, so you can watch YouTube, and the root certificate is pre-installed :-)

The device has 4 input modes:

  • Bluetooth keyboard (or something like Russ Nelson’s chording bluetooth keyboard, which I came across at OSCON, and is truly a sight to behold)
  • Stylus on-screen keyboard. I find this frustrating, but at least it has predictive-text.
  • Full screen, thumb on-screen keyboard. This is better, but switching between pages (case, numerals, symbols) gets tiring. It’s launched by pressing on a text field with a finger, this only works about 60% of the time.
    • A user has prototyped an iPhone-like keyboard for the N800 (in python), which works very nicely. But clearly the Maemo input system doesn’t allow plugins, so it remains a prototype.
  • Handwriting recognition. I’m a P910i user, so this fits well with me, but I took a while to get used to writing inside the input area, rather than all over the screen. The handwriting recognition is good, and trainable, which is very nice. But I find the input area too small to reliably input in the correct case. It can’t decipher cursive (but then nobody can decipher my cursive), and some symbols don’t input easily. All this is forgiven by the ability to correct the handwriting recognition, by writing over the incorrect letter.

I find the input fine, although slow, for everything except passwords. Multi-case, symbol-laden passwords really bring out the worst of all the input systems.

The default software selection is passable, but not great. The device really ships with “internet tablet” software, with a few decent games thrown in. The major problems are the media player doesn’t play oggs or video, and the e-Mail program’s IMAP support, which is a joke, at best (It uses IMAP as if it was POP).

But I enabled a few extra repositories and soon my N800 became a really cool device:

  • Camera (by default, the web-cam is only used by the “Internet Call” software)
  • There is a port of Claws, which is a real IMAP client
  • Fmradio (yes it isn’t usable by default)
  • ipython (the maemo Hildon GUI library has python bindings)
  • maemo-mapper. It’s hard to tell the functionality of this without a GPS, but it supports all the popular online maps (for imagery), and uses OpenStreetmap by default, which turns many geeks’ eyes.
  • maemo-recorder - A sound recorder.
  • maemo-wordpy - A WordPress client.
  • Mediastreamer - A UPNP media client. I’ve tried this with MediaTomb and GMediaServer, but in both cases, connections seemed to die prematurely. I think this is a known bug with libupnp.
  • Mplayer - I used my N800 to watch movies on cheap transatlantic flights. It’s battery life is much better than a laptop, although the screen is small.
  • OpenSSH (client and server) - naturally :-)
  • rdesktop and vncviewer - These impress geeks, while also being useful
  • An X terminal is a must. The maemo-hackers edition is the one to get, it has a Ctrl-key…
  • Skype is installable with one click. The N800 makes a great skype phone (assuming you have WiFi, which is rare to find in this country, but in Portland OR it was the perfect device to have in my back pocket)

My repositories: bora user bora user bora free non-free bora free non-free bora user bora main

What’s the point

It’s a cool device for a geek to own, no doubt, but what’s the actual point of it?

I can answer that in a few ways:

  • Firstly, it’s screen’s bigger than my cellphone, but smaller than a laptop, so it’s good for goofing off during university lectures, and surfing the web.
  • It plays YouTube. All my machines are AMD64, and don’t run proprietary flash, so they don’t. I can’t say I use this much, but when I’m forced at gunpoint to watch a YouTube video, I can do it.
  • It’s nice for looking at photos. Bigger than a camera / phone, and supporting bluetooth and SD.
  • I don’t own a portable video player, so this is my portable video player.
  • When you can’t get to sleep at night, and suddenly something comes to you that you meant to find out about on Wikipedia or the web, you can grab it from the bedside table and do so. (Yes, I’m an unashamed geek)
  • My cellphone is notoriously unreliable, and this doesn’t make for a good alarm clock. So the N800 got pressed into this service. However, it’s alarm system seems to have a bad bug, that can semi-brick it for a week. I haven’t got to the bottom of it. But sometimes (and only when you have alarms set), it won’t boot for a week. You either have to re-flash it, or wait for it to suddenly wake up and make alarm noises.
  • If I want to see if there’s WiFi somewhere, it’s a lot quicker to check on the N800, then to take out a laptop.

But in the end, all that matters is that it runs Linux , and has Python dammit, so it’s a piece of cake to write any software for it that I want to. I think that reason on it’s own makes it a device worth owning.

And I thought our Ubuntu mirroring was a success

Due to’s saturated links atm, I switched to using as our upstream, but forgot to take their different URL scheme into account. We don’t use rsync’s —max-delete option on debian mirrors, so voom, our entire ubuntu archive mirror vanished. I’m resyncing it UWC, who we have a 10Mbps wireless link to…

Disk Usage Graph

Congratulations on Ubuntu 7.10

Congratulations to the Ubuntu team, on a successful gutsy release. While gutsy is currently a little buggy for me, the millions of eyes will hopefully find all the bugs responsible… (and I must get around to filing the relevant launchpad bugs)

I run a teeny weeny little mirror (by International standards, for South Africa, it’s OK), so I’ve followed the release process, and been hanging out on #ubuntu-mirrors since last night. Preparing an Ubuntu release is quite an undertaking. In total, each mirror needs to carry around 20-30 CD images, and 4 DVD images. That’s reasonable chunk of data, and it takes a lot of coordination for everybody to get it.

I see many distros release, we normally pick them up automatically, and notice their presence the next day. But there’s definitely something special about Ubuntu releases. They have the feel of a release. The tension builds up the night before, and the #ubuntu-release-party channel fills up (when I popped in, around 500 people). Then, a few hours before the release is announced, people start noticing that it’s on the mirrors. Pointing this out on the release-party channel is not allowed (it would disturb the otherwise rowdy party of 500 users pressing F5 every 10 seconds), but pretty quickly, before the release is even announced, all the mirrors that carry Ubuntu CDs get flat-lined. If they don’t, then it’s a sign that their hardware isn’t up to scratch, and they have to find & fix their bottlenecks. On the #ubuntu-mirrors channel, you can see sysadmins from around the world showing off graphs of flat-lined, multi-gigabit links and sharing server tuning tips. If you want any experience in widely-distributing large files, run an ubuntu mirror at release-time, you’ll gain the experience fast.

I don’t know if this massive assault means Ubuntu is the most popular distribution out there. Most Ubuntu users don’t need the new ISO. They rather need click the big “upgrade” button, and hammer their local mirror to the tune of about a gigabyte. Ubuntu is based on Debian’s awesome package management system, that (if used correctly) should never require a re-install. There are Debian systems out there that were installed once, back in the 90s, and have been upgraded (both distro versions and hardware) continuously since then. Do people not know that, or do they want the thrill of booting up with the new Gutsy CD? Debian is widely considered to be the most popular distribution, and a Debian release hardly raises eyebrows (other than somebody saying “Debian released? Has hell frozen over?”, and scheduling an upgrade for some time in the next 6 months). If nothing else, this shows how different distributions’ user-base can be, while being technically very similar.

I’ve done my bit to help out the Ubuntu release:

  • I’ve been running Gutsy since it’s fork, and filed god only knows how many bugs on launchpad.
  • I’ve created my unofficial package DVDs, for people without Internet connections.
  • My mirror & toaster had the CD images in advance, and we’ll have the DVDs by tomorrow morning.
  • I’ve got a UK server with a 100Mbps link seeding Ubuntu DVD torrents. I was the sole seed for many hours, and have uploaded over 200GB, so at least I did some good ;-)

Now, as the release traffic dies down again (i.e. heavy but not quite flat-lining), I hope the sysadmins and release-party-goers sleep well, you all deserve it.

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