First and last steps with Ubuntu

First, a note: I want to make it clear at the outset that my situation was unique, that if it wasn't, System76 would have gone out of business long ago, and the good people at System76, Tom in particular, were the soul of helpfulness. What follows should also not take away from the fact that I had direct assistance from one person who knew my computer, knew my situation, and actually gave a damn. Try that with Dell.

So, what happened next?

OK. Not to go into unnecessary detail, I started exploring. I set up Evolution to handle my Google Apps mail account in IMAP, tried to find out how the camera worked, set up a new theme for GNOME, and played with the fingerprint reader. I set the time and weather for my local area. In short, I did the usual things one might do with a new toy--er, computer. Ahem.

Then I decided to see how suspend worked. Bad move.

Networking problems began. Kernel panics. Freezes that would only respond to a forced shutdown. All the godawful horror stories you've heard about Linux started coming true, and it wasn't fun. Sometimes it remembered my WPA2 password, sometimes it didn't. Sometimes it got it wrong. Sometimes it didn't see any wireless networks at all.

I went on the System76 forum and asked for help. A few things were suggested, then Tom at System76 tech support suggested we take it private over email and get down to business. We did so.

Just about everything was tried. Things were uninstalled and reinstalled, at the command line. He had me take the back off the computer to reseat the hard drive and memory cards. I ran Memtest86 for fifteen bloody hours, overnight. I booted from an Ubuntu live CD to see if the wireless would work any better. Nothing helped. I reset the CMOS according to his instructions, after which the computer was completely dead--black screen, blinking cursor. Oh dear.

So, he emailed me a UPS mailing label to send it in for repair (this was Thanksgiving weekend). I mailed it on Monday, it arrived there on Tuesday, was mailed back Wednesday and I got it on Thursday. A new motherboard had been installed, and the BIOS updated.

I took it out of the box and fired it up. It connected to my network, so I opened Firefox to check my email. I logged onto my Google Apps account, and…Firefox froze. I closed the window, and opened a terminal to run top to see what processes were running. When I closed the terminal window, it (terminal) became a zombie process and I got a dialog box telling me I needed to quit the process or restart to get a new window. When I tried to restart, it hung at "shuttting down ALSA". Then it gave me this:

[773.587862] iwlagn: Microcode SW error detected. Restarting 0x2000000.

Then it froze completely. Another forced shutdown was necessary.

It was at this point that something snapped inside me. It had been thirteen days since I got the computer, and I had had maybe an hour of normal uptime, tops. Having installed (and used) Linux on an iBook several years ago, I was well aware that it wouldn't be a seamless Apple-type experience, but I did expect that certain basic things would work, like connecting to the Internet and using Gmail. I'm not doing video editing, and I'm not trying to network it to an antiquated Atari 800 or play World of Warcraft in emulation. I just want to get on the web. This is basic stuff, and it needs to work. Particularly when it's right out of the box after being repaired.

System76 tech support had me try one more thing, but at this point my patience had ended. To their credit, when I told them I just wanted to call it a day and get my money refunded, they agreed to do so, and they waived the normal 15% restocking fee. Tom emailed me another UPS label, and the very same afternoon I packed it up and shipped it to Colorado, where they would credit my credit card upon receipt of the machine.

But first, I went to the Apple Store online and ordered a nice refurbished 2.4-GHz MacBook Pro with a 200 GB hard drive, 2 GB of RAM, an LED-backlit screen and AppleCare, the only extended warranty on the planet that's worth the money. Prior to adding the AppleCare, it cost about the same as the one I just sent back. The specs aren't quite the same, but I'm sure it will do just fine. It arrived the very next day.

Next post: Final reflections

Unboxing the Pangolin Performance

Note: This was originally published on Posterous.

So, I hear you ask, what happened? Did the laptop arrive? Did it get unboxed? Did everything just work? Read on, bucko…

Yes, the laptop arrived, although I think it was the last thing off the UPS truck before the driver stopped at the supermarket to pick up milk and bread for the wife on his way home. (Note to self: next time, ask for Next Day Air instead of Next Day Air Saver.)

In any case, it arrived. Here's what it looked like before the unboxing:

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Pretty generic. But then, even Apple ships its stuff in plain brown cardboard.

More unboxing photos:

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The inner container is equally exciting, and here's where you can see the difference between the System76 and a Mac laptop:

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Next, inside the package. The laptop was well-secured with polystyrene, and the two cardboard inserts held the polystyrene in place in the larger box. The one above held the manual, ethernet cable, spare battery, and some papers; the one to the right held the power cords:

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The manual is pretty generic, and was obviously written for the Clevo/Sager notebook that the Pangolin is based on, full of references to Windows functions.

Detail of one of the inserts:

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The lid is gorgeous--glossy black, with a silver System76 logo:

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Side views:

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Fired up, and applying the latest updates. Note the white "Powered by Ubuntu" sticker in place of the usual Windows sticker:

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Updated and ready to go:

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Next post: what happened next. Oh, boy…

New technology blog

I've decided to branch my tech posts off into a new blog. Religion and politics sort of go together; technology is kind of a different animal, and techies don't necessarily like to mix in religious and political content with their tech. It's a question of focus, really, and I can't say I disagree. (I'll also be writing under my real name, just for good measure.)

So head on over and look at my new tech blog: behold, Calibuntu!

The Adventure Begins

Note: This was originally published on Posterous.

This afternoon, UPS will be delivering my new laptop, and this time it's not a Mac. I've decided it's time to delve deeper into Linux, and how better to do that than with something Linux-only?

So, last week, after looking at Linux-based options from Dell and others, I ordered a Pangolin Performance laptop from System76 (actually, it's an early birthday present from my wife--thanks, honey!). They're a Colorado-based retailer of desktops, laptops and servers running Ubuntu Linux, and they've accumulated quite a reputation for service and for making stuff that Just Works. What more could an Apple user ask for?

The Pangolin Performance is based on the Sager NP7680, and is nicely customizable. Why buy from System76 when I could save a few bucks by buying from Sager directly? Because System76 takes the time to make sure that everything is working properly, whereas I'd have to do the usual debugging if installing Ubuntu directly on a freshly formatted drive. I'd like it to just work at the beginning. There'll be plenty of time for me to screw it up later. :-)

Anyway, here's how I configured it:
Operating System: Ubuntu 8.10 (Intrepid Ibex) 64 Bit Linux
Display Resolution: 15.4" WSXGA+ Super Clear Glossy LCD (1680 x 1050)
Processor: Core 2 Duo P8600 2.40 GHz 1066 MHz FSB 3 MB L2 (25 Watt)
Graphics: nVidia GeForce 9300M GS 256MB DDR2
Networking: Gigabit LAN (10/100/1000), WiFi
Memory: 4 GB - DDR2 800 MHz - 2 DIMMs
Hard Drive: 320 GB 5400 RPM SATA II
Optical Drive: CD-RW / DVD-RW
Wireless: 802.11 agn
Bluetooth
Extra 6 Cell Smart Li-ION Battery

The price out the door was at least $600 less than I would pay for a comparable Mac. I could have spent even less, but I wanted something with powerful enough specs that I wouldn't have to update or replace it for quite a while.

Next post: the unboxing!

Change is good

Now that the Presidential election is over, it's a pleasure to be able to get away from electoral politics and get back to some other subjects. Today's post is about technology and computers, so if you're techno-phobic you have been forewarned.

When it comes to operating systems, people have strong opinions, and the Mac-vs.-PC rivalry has been described, not entirely inaccurately, as a "religious war." What's often forgotten is that "under the hood," computers of all kinds are more alike than they are different, and an ecumenical approach has much to recommend it.

In that vein, I am now awaiting the delivery of a new laptop (an early birthday present from my wife), and with any luck I'll have it in hand before Thanksgiving. Those who know me know that I have very happily been running Apple hardware for the last seven years, and do not hesitate to recommend Macs to my family and friends should they ask. It will probably surprise some of you, therefore, to find out that my new laptop isn't a Mac.

It's over...

…and we did it. We elected the first black president of the United States. Historic times, indeed.

President-elect Barack Obama

In other news, it appears that Proposition 8 passed in California. Regardless of what you think of gay marriage, consider that the people of California just voted in favor of a proposition that eliminates a right. Think hard about that one. Frankly, I don't like the precedent. It scares the hell out of me.

A bit of remodeling

Observant readers will notice that the design of this blog is changing periodically as I try out new designs. I'm mulling over a few more changes, which may include changing the name of the blog. Stay tuned…

Pseudo-religious Schadenfreude

From a message posted to a Baha'i email list that has not yet removed me from its roster:

The world seems to be reaching a most perfect state of disintegration for us to be able to teach the cause of Baha'u'llah. Let's be ready.

I wonder if they realize what vultures that makes them seem. Or, as the Duc de la Rochefoucauld saidin 1665:

Dans l'adversité de nos meilleurs amis, nous trouvons toujours quelque chose qui ne nous déplaît pas.

(See link above for translation)

Just one more reason why I'm no longer there, I suppose.

A Prairie Home controversy

Rod Dreher isn't happy with Garrison Keillor:

Well, this weekend he went to Abilene, a small city in west Texas, and has written a column marveling over how even though they're all a bunch of Republicans, they actually were nice to him. He did end his piece on a grace note, though:

"But it's good to be among the opposition and know them as fine upstanding people. At the dinner where I was forced to eat the prime rib, we all sat around afterward and sang "I'll Fly Away" and "God Bless America" and "How Great Thou Art" and "Home on the Range" and a dozen other songs we all knew, and it was a lovely evening a couple weeks before a big election. We still do know some of the same songs, we Americans. Deep down, we are loyal to each other. And the truth is marching on."

Nice, that. I just wish it didn't come out of him as so grudging and condescending. It's like he was pleasantly surprised that the folks in Abilene weren't mouth-breathing troglodytes ready to lynch Meskins and nigras.

Whoa.

Here's my response, which I posted as a comment on his blog:

Semi-jerk?

I just don't know.

Maybe it's because I'm not from the South, and so don't identify with Southern culture and norms. Maybe it's because I'm a Californian, and therefore view things through a different lens. Maybe it's because my family is largely from midwestern Scandinavian stock, and Keillor's rhythms and cadences are those of my extended family, like hearing the voice of a beloved uncle telling stories after dinner. Maybe it's because I travel to southern Oklahoma every couple of years for a family reunion on my wife's family's farm, something I look forward to eagerly despite an awareness of the differences between her cousins' outlook on life and our own. Could be any of those things, but I read his column and I'm just not seeing the sneering condescension that others seem to be reading into it.

First, you have to remember who Keillor is. He's a Minnesotan, a Democrat, whose career is largely based on a show he started in the 1970s on public radio, and the books that have flowed from it. Given that background, I'd be mightily surprised if he liked George W. Bush (the "Current Occupant," as he puts it), and of course he doesn't.

Second, you have to remember who he's writing for--Salon, whose subscribers likely tilt substantially to the left. To some extent, he's explaining Red America to Blue America, and Red America may be uncomfortable with its depiction, which is actually somewhat affectionate.

Affectionate? Yes. Go back and read it again. He talks of the civic virtues of the citizens of Abilene, "fine upstanding people," their pride in their community and the admirable qualities they evince, things like their firmness in their beliefs, their self-reliance, and their steadfastness of character. He writes of it being a lovely evening overall, with an implied recognition that we are all Americans, all part of the same tribe in the end despite the divisions in our culture and society.

What he's saying is really no different than how I feel about my wife's family in Oklahoma. I love them, although we come from different places and don't agree on everything, and I am baffled by some of their politics. I'd love to argue about it with them, but like Keillor I was raised by midwesterners and there's something inside that says, "Don't be rude." So I'm not. Instead, I enjoy the barbecue and lavish praise on the rhubarb pie. But in the end, we're all family, and that's what really matters--and that's what I heard Keillor saying between the lines in his column.

With a couple weeks to go in this election campaign, and things getting somewhat hysterical as we race towards the finish line, I wish more people would realize that.

Read Keillor's original column here.

Single-issue voters

With the last of the presidential debates now safely behind us, we have entered the home stretch of the race for the presidency. At this point, I think most people have formed some kind of opinion, and the candidates are now trying to nudge the undecided voters in one direction or the other. It does boggle the mind that there can still be people who look at McCain, Obama, Biden, and Palin and say to themselves, "I just don't know…", but there you have it. Some people are indecisive.

One thing I find particularly difficult to understand is the single-issue voter. With the economy a shambles, banks failing, the government stepping in, a Republican administration throwing billions of dollars in taxpayer money at anything that promises to stabilize the situation, a costly and divisive war in Iraq, and Iran this close to nuclear capability (and the Israelis doubtless making plans to attack Tehran before Tel Aviv becomes a smoking cinder), making your decision based on one issue seems, oh, I don't know, just a tad simplistic. The term idiotic also comes to mind.

I am especially perplexed by those who make their voting decision based on the abortion issue. This is not because I do not understand their position. I'm a Christian, of the Orthodox (AKA Eastern/Greek/Russian Orthodox) variety, and my church teaches that abortion means the death of a child. I am not unsympathetic to the pro-life position. But before we all jump on the GOP bandwagon and decide that Republican=good and Democrat=bad, because McCain/Palin claim to be pro-life and Obama/Biden want to keep it legal, let's look at what it means to be pro-life.

Ideally, being pro-life should mean that one is opposed not only to abortion, but also to torture. For the past eight years, we have had an allegedly pro-life president whose administration has repeatedly looked for ways to justify torture. Being pro-life should also mean that one is opposed to unnecessary wars and the needless taking of innocent civilian life. How many Iraqi civilians have been killed and maimed in this war that our "pro-life" President started? And before anyone starts in with "they attacked us first," it is worth remembering that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

Quite apart from the matter of what it means to be pro-life is the question of practicality. As a practical matter, the President of the United States has no say in whether or not abortion is legal, or whether Roe v. Wade is upheld. The sole action that the president can take is to appoint Supreme Court justices whom he thinks will uphold his position. History teaches us that this is essentially a crapshoot. The court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was appointed by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, turned out to be one of the most activist courts this nation has ever seen. Justice David Souter, nominated by Bush the Elder, has consistently voted with the liberal wing of the court. Justice Anthony Kennedy, appointed by Reagan, has proved to be a swing vote. John Paul Stevens, appointed by Gerald Ford, is among the most liberal. You just can't tell.

Even if the court were to overturn Roe v. Wade, this would merely return the matter to the states, where the pro-life movement would have to battle it out in fifty different state battlegrounds. Some places, Oklahoma for instance, would likely ban abortion; others, like my home state of California, would probably not only keep it legal but find some way to provide public funding for it. If you want to get rid of abortion, you'll have to push through a constitutional amendment, and that is something that has never been attempted, even under a Republican administration with Republican majorities in Congress. The reason is simple: it won't fly.

It won't fly because the votes just aren't there. Abortion is one issue where the American people are seriously divided, and the lines aren't shifting. If anything, they're hardening. You might oppose abortion, and your church might teach that it's wrong, but the guy next door might have very different opinions, and this is still supposedly a free and democratic country, the so-called Patriot Act notwithstanding.

You might argue that it's never been tried because we haven't consistently had a conservative in the White House. Probably true, but so what? For the last fifty-odd years, it's been rare to have one party in the White House for more than 8 years. Look at the history: the Democrats controlled the White House from 1933 to 1953, but then Eisenhower had eight years, JFK/LBJ eight, Nixon/Ford eight, Carter four, Reagan/Bush twelve, Clinton eight, and Bush II eight. Americans may not always want to change horses in midstream, but they do seem to like to alternate parties. Reagan never seriously tried to outlaw abortion, and neither has Bush the Younger. Both had eight years, and Bush even had a Republican majority in Congress for a while. For heaven's sake, what more do you need?

So if you want to end abortion, realize that you won't achieve anything through an election, either by voting or by withholding your vote. You're going to have to do the hard work of convincing your family, friends, and neighbors that abortion is wrong, and being a witness to the truth by the example you set. You'll end abortion by changing people's hearts, not by putting a particular party in power. The politicians are no more likely to end abortion than they are to end poverty and give everybody a new car. Cast your vote, by all means; just don't base it on one issue alone. You might even vote for a person, not a party.

In other words, if you like McCain, by all means vote for McCain. If you can't stand Obama but can tolerate McCain, vote for McCain. If you're undecided, look at the whole range of issues affecting the country. If you don't like McCain, and like Obama but are disappointed by his stand on abortion, think hard before pulling the lever for the GOP. You may just end up getting exactly nothing that you want. And that vote would be the most wasted vote of all.