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Mailbag for October 30, 2006
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

October 30, 2006

We have long recommended Xandros Linux as extremely easy to install and work with and thus the Linux distribution of choice for those who simply want to get things done and aren't interested in spending time working with the operating system itself. Xandros has recently made a change in registration procedure that you need to be aware of.

Subject: Comments on Xandros and audible.com

I have been reading your columns since 1979; I learned Modula-2 on your recommendation. As I don't make my living in computers, I still happily use Modula-2. I just subscribed to your site.

In the past you recommended Xandros several times, and on that recommendation I bought it when it was version 2.5. I upgraded to version 3 and was very interested in upgrading to version 4 when it came out. But there was a big surprise when I installed it; Xandros Update requires activation in the MS sense. And Xandros does activation in a far more annoying way, largely because they do not have the resources for phone activation and 24/7 support. It took me 5 days to get my copy activated using their email support system. Whenever you discuss Xandros v4, you really should mention this activation scheme so your readers can decide for themselves whether this constitutes a deal breaker for a linux distro.

I don't know if you are familiar with audible.com, but it is a subscription service for downloadable books. There are quite a number of mp3 players that are compatible with it, including the iPod. I bring this up because if your earlier books were available in spoken form there may be a larger audience than you know.

I am very glad you decided to continue the column in its current form. I would have been very sorry to see it go.

Regards, Rob Solomon Great Neck, NY

Regarding Modula-2, I maintain to this day that had we gone to Modula-2 or its successor Oberon, or any other strongly typed language with range checking, we would not be in the security mess we are in now. Instead the programming community used C, which allows buffer overflows to be treated as program instructions, and will in general compile anything including utter nonsense. C compiled faster, but C programs require a lot of debugging compared to Pascal, Modula-2, and other strongly typed languages - most of our security patches are continued attempts to debug operating systems.

Bob Thompson, author with Barbara Fritchman Thompson of the O'Reilly books on building and repairing PC Computers, used Xandros Linux to change over from Microsoft to Linux for his household. He says:

With regard to Xandros 4 activation, it's a one-time registration rather than activation in the Windows sense. That is, once you register Xandros 4 and receive the key, that same key can be used forever. You can use the same key to install Xandros on an unlimited number of personal systems, and the key isn't invalidated if you swap a motherboard or hard drive.

Basically, all the registration process does is "brand" your serial number as belonging to you specifically.

I'm not sure what problem your correspondent encountered that required so long to resolve. Ordinarily, during installation you simply enter your serial number and click on the activate button. You receive the key immediately, type it in, and that's all there is to it.

Robert Bruce Thompson

Captain Ron Morse also uses Linux for most of his computer operations. He notes that

The first time I activated Xandros 4 the process worked like Bob Thompson described, but the second time (same machine) the auto-activation failed (my fault - nobody told me the little slip of paper with the original activation code was scrunched into the bottom of the CD envelope) and I had to contact customer support. As I recall they replied in less time than it takes the Border Collies to walk me around the neighborhood, but I have seen complaints on Xandros' user forum and other places that the process can take longer.

Still, I sympathize with correspondent Solomon. I think Xandros committed a bit of a PR blunder by calling the process activation. Had they used some phrase like "linking your copy to our support and extras database" or something like that they might have mitigated the revulsion some users experience when they see the "A" word.

Frankly, the very idea motivated me to take a serious look at Kubuntu/Ubuntu for the first time and I've been on Kubuntu pretty much full time since.

Ron Morse

The moral of this story should be obvious. Digital Rights Management schemes must be unobtrusive, and particularly so when the product is intended for users who pay attention to such things. Making life difficult for one's customers is never a good idea. We will see more on this in the column itself.


The new Core 2 Duo PowerBook Macs came out this week. We'll have more on that in the column over the next few weeks. Meanwhile:

Subject: Intel Macs with Parallels and Windows

I've been a long-term reader of your columns, first on paper in Byte, then at byte.com and now at your new site (I've just subscribed). Since you've mentioned the new Macs several times, I thought I'd send you a quick note on my experience. Please note that I'm not (yet) a Mac "fan boy", having been a PC developer since the late 80's and a user of Windows at work and at home.

When it came time to replace my aging home Windows 98 machine, I decided to make the move to the Mac. I've had my new 24" iMac for two weeks now and it's, so far, the most pleasant new computer experience I've had. The machine is powerful (2.33GHz Core Duo 2, 2GB RAM, 500GB HD) and visually attractive (*beautiful* bright screen) plus NO FAN. The last point about no fan was something I hadn't even thought about, but an absolutely silent desktop is something you rapidly get used to.

I've purchased the Parallels VM software and installed XP Home on it (retail copy). Although as expected, DirectX games don't work, everything else works very well -- XP Home under Parallels on this machine is the fastest XP machine I've used (my office laptop is only a 1GHZ ThinkPad). I don't use Office on Windows at home (I have a copy of the Mac Office), but people have reported online that they are running Visual Studio 2005 and SQL Server with XP Pro under Parallels on hardware similar to mine with good performance, so I'd expect Office (even Outlook) to work well.

Since I work for a large Canadian bank in the area of Windows security and am only too aware of the many security "issues" with Windows, it is very comforting to have my XP image stored in a single file on my Mac, easy to back up (it's currently only around 2GB in size, 1GB zipped) and easy to trash and restore if Windows gets "owned". The fact that Windows can't touch the hardware is also good.

I can't comment on BootCamp, Apple's dual-boot solution as it is currently problematic on my hardware -- there are several reports online of Windows failing to work with the internal screen and even one of the machine no longer being bootable, so I'm waiting for Leopard or a BootCamp update before I try it.

I hope you can continue with your columns. Reading your column was the reason I used to pay for byte.com.

Sean Keeley Toronto, Canada

On BootCamp we have from Dublin:

Subject: Mac OS X and Parallels Desktop

Dear Jerry,

I am running Windows NT4 very nicely under Parallels Desktop on a MacBook (1.83 GHz, 2 GB RAM). The whole thing works beautifully (especially compared to VirtualPC on a G4!). Since PD doesn't support its own file sharing system for anything other than Windows 2000 or XP, I have OS X Windows File Sharing (i.e. Samba) turned on to share my OS X home directory with Windows. Works like a dream. And yes, NT is a dinosaur, but it serves my needs for running certain scientific software, and also Office XP (for those occasions when Mac and Windows versions of Office are not *quite* compatible) -- Windows is not my primary OS, so I don't need bells and whistles, and I *do* need a small RAM and disk footprint.

I look forward to the sequel to Inferno (which I read years ago; the Hell for advertising people has never left my mind :-) ). And I hope you get your neck sorted soon -- I suspect that you're tempted to add *that* to your vision of Hell.

Best regards,

Alun

Dr Alun J. Carr
School of Electrical, Electronic, and Mechanical Engineering
University College Dublin

Thanks for the kind words.

We'll have further reports on BootCamp and using the new Core 2 Duo PowerBooks in the column over the next few weeks.

The columns will continue so long as we continue to get subscribers, and that looks to be happening. We haven't had "hidden content" for subscribers only yet, but that will happen before the end of the year.


Last week we discussed net neutrality and the need (or not) for new legislation. Continuing:

Subj: Net neutrality

It seems to me that Mr. Heimlich, in Chaos Manor Reviews - Mailbag for October 23, 2006, has overstated the case somewhat:

Either you have the bandwidth you CLAIM to have or you don't. Which is it? Either you have enough nice shiny apples to go around or you don't.

There is a subtlety here: the broadband subscriber agreements I've seen and accepted have disclaimers about the available bandwidth perhaps being constrained by things like distance from the Telco Central Office and contention amongst subscribers on a shared channel. From what I understand of the technology, the distance problem tends to affect DSL more than Cable, but the contention problem tends to be more a problem for Cable than for DSL. But that's different from discriminating on the basis of content.

Personally, I don't see any problem with advertising "up to xxx", with fine print saying you might not actually get xxx because of yyy, and if you want a level-of-service guarantee, you need to pay extra. If Mr. Heimlich wants to make work for the lawyers, arguing over whether the print was so fine that it made the whole offer fraudulent, I suppose that's his right. Some customers find "interruptible" electrical utility service acceptable, though I doubt any residential customer would buy it, were some electric utility mad enough to offer an interruptible residential service. But again, that's different from level-of-service constraints based on content.

If you haven't already done so, you might look at Professor Felten's thoughts on the matter:

Nuts and Bolts of Network Neutrality (PDF)

with discussion in his blog here:

Freedom to Tinker >> Blog Archive >> New Net Neutrality Paper

Note especially the distinction (page 9) between Quality of Service and mere guarantees of bandwidth and priority.

Felten's conclusion:

The present situation, with the network neutrality issue on the table in Washington but no rules yet adopted, is in many ways ideal. ISPs, knowing that discriminating now would make regulation seem more necessary, are on their best behavior; and with no rules yet adopted we don't have to face the difficult issues of linedrawing and enforcement. Enacting strong regulation now would risk side-effects, and passing toothless regulation now would remove the threat of regulation. If it is possible to maintain the threat of regulation while leaving the issue unresolved, time will teach us more about what regulation, if any, is needed.

Rod Montgomery==monty AT sprintmail DOT com

Which is pretty well the conclusion we reached here. There is always the "threat" of legislation. When the legislature is in session, no one's property is safe...

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

I can't begin to count the number of times I have seen the phrase "We don't need new laws, we need to enforce the ones we have". The phrase has been applied to everything from gun control, to Net Neutrality, to Affirmative Action and the list goes one.

For the most part it's true. We usually have sufficient laws on the books to cover everything from firearms in schools (or airplane cockpits) to who can and cannot vote. The real problem in my mind is perception.

I have an acquaintance that was an elected official at the state level. He was the Attorney General in fact. And he gave me a rather unique perspective on the issue, especially on why the state and federal congress's keep passing new laws in response to old problems. And it is indeed perception.

He pointed out that when an issue garners significant amounts of attention, there is a groundswell of requests and demands from the public to their representatives to "do something". And if it is an election year, it is far more newsworthy to be seen calling for a new law in response, rather than admitting that we already have laws covering the particular issue, but don't have the budget dollars to enable enforcement. Or don't have the man power, or resources, etc. But it all boils down to money and allocation.

So, stand up and stridently call for a "new law", then get the photo op when it is passed and signed. Then when the press all goes away and you are perceived to have "done something" you just as quietly "forget" to fund this new law much less the existing ones. But the fact that the law, new or existing is not funded often gets overlooked, instead you will be remembered at the polls as having "done something" and hopefully you receive votes from the same public that now does not realize (or care for the most part) that the new law and existing ones are under or non-funded.

In the long run all of these new laws add to the mess already clogging our justice system. Often they are contradictory to statutes already on the books, poorly thought out and worded, and end up causing much more confusion, or worse, creating new loopholes for sharp defense lawyers to jump through and in effect actually weaken the laws that were already on the books.

New laws have to be tested in the courts, a process than can take years and cost the government significant dollars that would or could have otherwise gone to enforcing the existing laws on the books.

We certainly do need new laws on occasion but I wish there was a way to "vet" these laws that was required before a new law could be enacted for which an existing law already existed. Ahhhh, that's the ticket, we need a new law about passing new laws!!!

Yours,

Robert Porter

If they would repeal a law every time they passed a new one it would help. But legislatures in part exist to make work for lawyers. A major purpose of government is to collect taxes to hire and pay government workers.


What comes next is mostly of interest to Linux users. It began when Ron Morse asked the Chaos Manor advisors for some help. The result was some detailed instructions followed by Captain Morse's comments. If you don't care for Linux you will not find this interesting.

Ron asked:

Sorry to bother the collective with this, but I need help with something that my search technique has been unable to divine a useful answer.

I have the Kubuntu Edgy Beta, updated and configured to the point where it is about like I want it, on /dev/hda2.

I would like to move it to /dev/sdb1.

Can I simply copy or move the fileset and rejigger GRUB (which is installed to hda) or does Linux need to be "installed" into a partition ala Windows?

Brian answered:

Somewhere between those two extremes.

You may read all this and just decide to do a clean install. Take these directions with a grain of salt, because I'm not EXECUTING them, but I am using lightly modified current files on my Dapper system here to give reasonable answers.

If the filesystem for your root partition is ext3, then you can always use Ghost to migrate it from drive to drive. There would still be editing steps, though, and you've the swap partition to consider... So, here are the few, simple steps:

Assumption:

/dev/hda1  Windows
/dev/hda2 / # edgy root filesystem
/dev/hda3 swap # edgy swap partition

This work is all most easily done by booting the Edgy live cd, and working from a root terminal (type "sudo su -")

Check to make sure you have your /dev/sdb1 partition comfortably larger than you like, and that it is of type 83 (Linux). If you also want to migrate your swap partition to the other drive, you should make sure that partition exists, let's assume /dev/sdb2) You can do both of those things with cfdisk

cfdisk /dev/sdb

Once the partition tables are right, reboot, and get back to the root terminal, then

mke2fs -j /dev/sdb1   # to create the ext3 filesystem (ext2 + journalling)
mkswap /dev/sdb2      # to write the swap partition

Let's mount the new and old filesystems, and copy the data:

mkdir /mnt/old
mount -t auto -o ro /dev/hda2 /mnt/old 
  # mounted readonly so we can't screw up your old data with these steps.

mkdir /mnt/new
mount -t auto /dev/sdb1 /mnt/new

cd /mnt/old && rsync -av * /mnt/new/.

When that's done, all of your data from the old partition is on the new one.

Now to tweak some configurations. Use your favorite editor (mine's Vim):

cd /mnt/new/etc
vim fstab
   # any references to hda2 need to be changed to sdb1.
   # make similar changes if you migrate your swap partition.
   # for example, after editing, the specific lines might read:

/dev/sdb1    /            ext3   defaults      0    1
/dev/sdb3    none         swap   sw            0    0

Almost done...

I'm going to "assume" that your drive ordering is hda, sda, sdb, ... This is significant for Grub, which numbers the drives accordingly. So Grub drive 0 is hda, grub drive 2 is sdb, in the following commands. Type these commands (you needn't echo the comments, eh):


grub
root (hd2,0)
  # should detect as ext3, if we've been following along...
  # that says the root partition is 3rd drive, first partition
setup (hd0)
  # still boot from hda, but your boot menu is now in your new linux
  # partition, in /boot/grub/menu.lst
quit

Finally, you'll need to edit that menu.lst file, so:

cd /mnt/new/boot/grub
vim menu.lst
  # page down past all the comments, and you'll have stanzas
  # like this:

title     Ubuntu, kernel 2.6.15-27-686
root      (hd0,1)
kernel    /vmlinuz-2.6.15-27-686 root=/dev/hda2 ro quiet splash
initrd    /initrd.img-2.6.15-27-686
savedefault
boot

For each Linux stanza, you'll want to change the "root (hd0,1)" line to "root (hd2,0)". Note that you'll have to interpret this to the drive ordering, as I've discussed above.

Then, in each "kernel..." line, change the "root=/dev/hda2" bit to "root=/dev/sdb1".

That *should* do it. Please note that if something goes wrong and you want to revert, you should be able to just "rescue" your prior install to get booting again, do a clean install on sdb1 + swap, then migrate data and settings (like your whole home directory, settings and all).

HTH,

.brian

A couple of weeks went past, then Captain Morse said:

It almost worked. I used Acronis True Image to move the files because it understands the way the ext3 file system uses permissions and links and at the same time create a fresh backup set.

The first attempt to boot Kubuntu from the new location resulted in a GRUB (Grand Unified Boot Loader) error 15, which is GRUBspeak for "file not found." You don't get any clues to go along with that error message, like which file can't be found, just "GRUB error 15."

The system has three hard drives. The first is a PATA 300Gb that used to be shared but now just holds XP. GRUB's tools enumerate it as (hd0). The system BIOS is configured to go to the MBR on this drive for the bootloader.

The second, or (hd1), is a SATA 160Gb unit I use for working backups. It does not have an operating system installed.

The third (hd2 according to GRUB) is a new SATA 300Gb. The first partition on this drive (hd2,0) is the new home to Kubuntu.

I verified that the setups Brian had given me were correctly entered and then used a rescue CD and GRUB's internal tools to verify (hd2,0) was still the correct setting for the boot partition. It was, but the error 15 persisted. All weekend.

I discovered the fix quite by accident. GRUB has the ability to change configuration on the fly once you get to a GRUB menu and any of a number of rescue CDs will get you there. Acting out of frustration I told GRUB to boot from (hd1,0) instead of (hd2,0) mostly just to see if it returned a different error message. Instead, the system booted nominally(!)

Originally, I told GRUB to boot (hd2,0) because that is where GRUB's own tools and documentation suggested the boot partition was located, but the GRUB tools run in an environment where an operating system is already loaded. GRUB apparently uses the system BIOS instead of its own tools when starting a cold machine. My BIOS is set with the 300GB SATA as the second drive, or (hd1), and that was what GRUB needed to find the boot partition.

Things have worked flawlessly since.

In the end, I think I would have been better off following Brian's first piece of advice and just done a new installation to the SATA 300 and reconfigured. It would have taken a lot less time than it took to solve the problem.

Good backups are simply indispensable when you're fooling around, especially if you don't know what you're doing (a frequent condition here). In this case I managed to create an unbootable system, but returning the machine to a useful state was simply a matter of restoring the MBR on (hd0)...as many time as required to solve the other problem. Takes about 30 seconds with True Image, but more important knowing I have reliable and well-tested backups gives me a little confidence to press on rather than surrender in frustration to what turned out to be a trivial problem, once I understood what it was.

Typical, eh?

Regards

Ron Morse

I include this here since I have had similar questions from readers.