Clear and cool and minty

Those of us who used to watch the “other channel” in the early 80s will remember the above advertising slogan for Fox’s Glacier Mints. Younger readers may simply think that it’s an attempt to try to talk up my latest venture into Linux distro-swapping, which of course it is.

But to start at the beginning, the beginning of the week arrived with a slightly familiar failure to boot my Kubuntu main machine. I’d finally wrestled the last remaining error messages at boot time with some judicious re-working of my fstab a few days before, when suddenly nothing would start at all. It’s all a bit of a shame since the second bootable system on my main PC, Windows 10, had also stopped working a while back and I hadn’t got around to fixing it.

To make a long story shorter, it turned out that the SSD holding my Kubuntu image had died. Remarkably, and despite a 35 year career in IT, this was the first time I’d personally had a drive fail on me. First step was to work out which drive it was – I had two identical drives running off different ports. Then it was time to empty the other one, install Kubuntu again, get apps working, etc etc.

Except, well it made me re-evaluate my distro choice. I’ve enjoyed Kubuntu, and the amazing configurability of the KDE Plasma desktop environment. But it has begun to feel just too much like a beta test. Support for multiple screens is, for example, rudimentary. You can’t spread a single picture across both screens as a background without additional software, though to be fair Windows multiscreen support didn’t become sorted properly until Windows 10. Also I’d begun to get bored with the random screen losses after locking and sleeping, and on the new install it would just not remember my taskbar settings.

So I decided to trash the windows disk entirely – it was on an NVMe disk, and I had intended to put Linux on it at some point – and pick a new distro. I didn’t want to go too far off the beaten track, so I’ve alighted, for now at least, on Linux Mint. So far so good, and I’ll make some more comments later. I will say that I’m happy with my bacup strategy…

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It’s all imap to me

It was a historical thing really. When I first started using a personal email account tied to my first ISP (Demon Internet) they only offered POP (Post Office Protocol), so that was what I used. Wind on 40 years and I was still using it for my main email accounts. But I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable managing the knowledge of where my emails actually were as my use of the phone increased.

So, how hard could it be to switch to imap? As it turned out, quite straightforward, and I find myself wondering why I hadn’t done it years ago. Since my main client use is via Thunderbird, it meant I had to create a new account, but once done I could simply copy all the downloaded emails over and hey presto, they’re backed up on the server. Well of course it wasn’t QUITE that simple, there’s a little configuration to do to make the folders appear separately and not all as subfolders of the inbox (comment if you need to know how), but once that’s done, and I removed the old accounts, it’s super. Now I can REALLY deal with mail while on the move.

Oh, and kudos to the Manually sort folders add-on for Thunderbird to make it easy to put my favourite accounts at the top!

A few weeks in

Well I finally, finally got fed up with all the little things that were annoying me about Windows. I got fed up with waiting for a few seconds every time I wanted to open a file. I got fed up with not being able to create a folder from within Windows explorer. I got fed up with a lot of other little things.

So I alternate booted to my Kubuntu desktop and for the last few weeks I have resisted the temptation to even try booting back to Windows. So far so good. I haven’t been doing anything particularly unusual, and I’ve been a bit circumscribed by a bout of Covid. I’ve had a few tricky moments, but most of my normal uses work fine:

  • I’m using Thunderbird from the same physical profile as Windows
  • My website building program is working fine – once I figured that I need to use “regina” rather than “rexx” to initiate the program.
  • Performance is great. I’ve mounted the old Windows drives in my home directory and this is working well.
  • Musescore works absolutely without flaws (3.6.2)
  • I only use Wine for one program (so far).
  • I haven’t quite fixed backup yet. I’ve tried using the Synology Drive Client, but it’s not backing up the mounted drives. This may be a permanent restriction, so I’ll need an alternative. A little rsync education needed, I think.

I have to say I’m feeling cautiously optimistic.

(mis-) Diagnosis

One of the things that I really miss about working with mainframe (z/OS) software is that diagnosing common problems was often so much easier. A very high proportion of the operating system’s code is devoted to recovering from errors, and importantly logging those errors for subsequent diagnosis. Of course I was also trained to do this which meant I knew where to find this stuff. I was also trained to search a database of problems and fixes which had the great advantage of having DEFINED formats for error keywords. Since the only people who logged problems and fixes were similarly trained in this taxonomy, it meant that if the problem had been reported before there was a high chance of finding it.

I am NOT trained in Windows debugging, and the people that report Windows problems do not, in general, have taxonomy on their minds. Consequently I’m often at sea when trying to pin down problems particularly when the operating system itself doesn’t provide any useful clues. Hangs/waits/stalls and slow performance are a case in point. And boy did I have some hangs/waits/stalls this week. It turned out that diagnosing these via Google was very difficult, and of course Windows was just hanging, not showing me any messages at all. You would have thought that on a CPU with 6 cores and 12 threads that it might have been able to shuffle the running process to the background to enable me to do other things, but no, it just couldn’t do it.

As luck would have it I did finally diagnose ONE of the hangs, which turned out to be MuseScore waiting for a response from my default printer to decide on the paper size at startup. Since my default printer is a network printer that is often turned off, it was going to wait forever (well, actually 300 seconds, but it SEEMED like forever). Changing my default to the Microsoft PDF writer solved that one. But then I couldn’t fix the LibreOffice Calc doing the same thing. FINALLY I came across an article that recommended Resource Monitor (why had I not known this before in all my years of Windows usage?). Providing I could bring it up I could use it to show all the processes that were “waiting” (I’ve forgotten the exact term, but it turns up as red in the status column for the process). I could then right click and select “Analyse Wait Chain”, which shows what’s causing the problem. It was that old friend “splwow64.exe”, which itself was queuing with “spoolsv.exe”. Yep, the printer spooler. Probably the cause of more problems in Windows over the last year that anything else. A quick restart of the spooler (from the “Services” panel – why can’t you do it directly from the Resource Monitor panel?) and everything burst into life again. After a lot of frustration and some name-calling.

Publishing!

One of the side benefits of having some time away from group music-making has been a little extra time for me to do some arrangements for our local quintet. I’ve already mentioned my earlier experiences with Musescore, and the current version is working well for me. Finding a way to expand and squeeze bars to make page turns feasible (shift-{ or -}) has made a HUGE improvement.

I’m well into the fourth Ramsöe quartet, turning it from a brass quartet to woodwind quartet – for when our horn player can’t make it. The quartets aren’t profound music, but they’re well crafted and appear to work well without too much octave-switching. We’ve played the first two and had fun doing so.

I also thought it was time to properly make them available to other players. The debate about whether to be fee or free is one that I’ll continue to ponder, but for now I’m putting the pdfs up on IMSLP with a CC4 attribution so these first ones will always be free.

Pi Time!

Having missed last week’s blog time I have the excitement of a new computing device at home to talk about. Yes, I’ve finally become the owner of a Raspberry Pi. I think I’ve been putting it off until I had time to really explore it, but that was never going to be the case, so I’m now the proud owner of a Pi 400. I thought about getting the bare bones Pi4 but the convenience of another keyboard and the fanless form factor won me over.

So what have I been doing with it? Well first I powered it up and was curious to see whether it would drive my 4k screen. No problems there. Wireless connectivity, no problem either. Got the VNC server up as well (RealVNC is shipped installed with the default Raspbian OS image), and connected easily with a RealVNC client on both Windows and Linux. No need for the screen to be plugged in any more! The first challenge was making sure the wireless card didn’t power off. By default it’s set to allow power management, so a bit of iwconfig and and config file editing (thanks, to the pi hut for this) later I have an always-on wifi connection.

Next I wanted to see whether it would be happy with my old-ish Kyocera laser printer. Again installed fine, using a slightly older driver but worked OK. This is important since one of the tasks I want this Pi to fulfill is a print server. I’ve been using an old TP-Link PS310U to connect the USB-only printer and to allow it to be shared, but it’s been having some problems with my ongoing Linux experiments. Following the recipe I found here: https://pimylifeup.com/raspberry-pi-print-server/ I was up and running in now time with the CUPS-managed printer working fine from Windows and Linux anywhere. Just a few challenges getting the admin panels working from any machine, but all working fine.

Finally for now, I wanted to try out pi-hole for some advert blocking goodness at the network level. I followed their instructions and it installed and worked fine. At the moment I’ve only trying it on one of my systems – I’ve manually updated the DNS for that machine – but I expect to add the function to all of my network via the router once I’m comfortable that it works without surprises. Speaking of which, the first surprise was when I plugged in an ethernet cable and everything got a bit confused. At first eth0 didn’t appear at all then a bit of config file wrangling made it appear but then pi-hole got a bit confused, so for now I’m staying wireless. It’s probably more convenient anyway. It’s blocking away:

Hoppy New Year

Hops
Hop-hop-hooray

It’s that time of year when the hops have reached their aromatic peak, and a couple of dry days have meant it’s a good time to harvest our bines. We only have a couple of roots of First Gold, “dwarf” hops, but they’ve proliferated and this years crop seems to be the best since they were planted 4 or 5 years ago.

We tried to grow another hop variety in the garden, but it was exclusively male and produced no flowers at all. Just buy rootstock next time!

Because home grown hops can have variable bittering and aroma properties, it can be a bit hit and miss in specific beer recipes. I’ve been using them in my generic “light bitter” recipe with some success, where the exact quantities aren’t so vital. In fact I quite like the variability of using non-manufactured ingredients anyway.

Tomorrow will be drying, vacuum packing and freezing the cones – they remain viable for years.

Bootstrapping across the universe

I’ve been using the Bootstrap CSS framework for my active websites for some time, since about V3 I believe. It’s proved robust and works well with a variety of devices seamlessly (yes, it’s responsive). Like a lot of modern software tools under active development it does, however, change fairly frequently.

I decided early on not to host the CSS myself but use the unmodified source distributed via their CDN. This means that I’m mostly confined to the standard colour schemes, fonts and so on unless I do manual tweaks. It should also mean that keeping up with the package updates ought to be straightforward.

It hasn’t turned out quite that way since the version releases often involve breaking something. The authors seem not to be too worried about upwards compatibility. So in the current move to V5, I’ve had to do quite a bit of html wrangling. Which has made me think about whether it’s time to look for a content management system (CMS) to help out.

Now I don’t need an all-singing, all-dancing CMS, like Joomla for example. In fact I’m positively averse to a dynamic system that resides on the hosting platform. I really only have 2 sites to maintain, both of which are almost completely static content. I also don’t want to be writing more code either to customise it. I’d prefer an open source solution too; many of the proprietary solutions end up tying you into a hosting solution too, and I’m happy with mine, thank you.

So the search starts here…

And 10 points if you recognise the old song referenced above😁

The “Just Look At It” school of computer fixing

You probably know about this already, but it’s a common occurrence in our house, and one I’ve experienced most of my working life. It particularly infuriates people who ask for help when something isn’t working properly on their computer, only to find it works immediately when someone else is watching.

Of course it isn’t really a magical non-tactile uber power for machine fixing, though it is tempting to think so. I think that most of the time it is the presence of an onlooker which causes the person concerned to go just a little more slowly, or concentrate just a tiny amount more. This prevents the mistake they’ve been making, and hey presto it works!

But if you want to think it’s my magic influence, go right ahead.

It’s a brewing month

When I restarted brewing a few years ago, I simply started using kits based on the “standard” home brewing batch size of somewhere between 19 and 23 litres. The exact size depends on factors such as how strong you want the beer to be, accuracy of measurement (!), size of containers you have etc. I bought a Brewie machine which had a maximum wort output of 21 litres, but at that volume I’d usually get a boil over unless I hovered over the machine spraying cold water on the foam. I also found that 40 bottles of the same beer could become, well, a bit boring.

I talked about this before, but even with 10 litre batches my fridge filled fast. We haven’t stopped sampling beer from commercial breweries, and shipping offers tend to mean we order “decent” quantities at a time. So it’s been a while since I last brewed, and I’m two brews into my next sequence:

  • “A Lighter Shade of Blonde” – a variation on my favourite light beer fermented with saison-style yeast.
  • “Smoke on the Porter” – now fermenting, a dark roasty beer calculated to use up some left over rauchmalt
  • “Dark Side of the Mild” – probably self-explanatory
  • A clone of Leffe Blonde – but I haven’t come up with a punny name yet

I’m not planning a special Christmas beer, I still have a surprising number of bottles of barley wine from 2018 (still great) and honey imperial stout (April last year, now a bit lively). Even one of smaller batches generates over 30 bottles of the smaller size I use for stronger beers.