Monthly Archives: August 2010

2 GB Should Be Enough For Me

My new EeePC 1201PN netbook has 2 GB of RAM. Call me shortsighted but I feel like “that ought to be enough for me”. I’m not trying to claim that it ought to be enough for everyone. I am, however, questioning the utility of swap space for those skilled in the art of computing.

Technology marches on: This ancient 128 MB RAM module is larger than my digital camera’s battery charger… and I just realized that comparison doesn’t make any sense

Does anyone else have this issue? It has gotten to the point where I deliberately disable swap partitions on Linux desktops I’m using ('swapoff -a'), and try not to allocate a swap partition during install time. I’m encountering Linux installers that seem to be making it tougher to do this, essentially pleading with you to create a swap partition– “Seriously, you might need 8 total gigabytes of virtual memory one day.” I’m of the opinion that if 2 GB of physical memory isn’t enough for my normal operation, I might need to re-examine my processes.

In the course of my normal computer usage (which is definitely not normal by the standard of a normal computer user), swap space is just another way for the software to screw things up behind the scenes. In this case, the mistake is performance-related as the software makes poor decisions about what needs to be kept in RAM.

And then there are the netbook-oriented Linux distributions that insisted upon setting aside as swap 1/2 gigabyte of the already constrained 4 gigabytes of my Eee PC 701’s on-board flash memory, never offering the choice to opt out of swap space during installation. Earmarking flash memory for swap space is generally regarded as exceptionally poor form. To be fair, I don’t know that SSD has been all that prevalent in netbooks since the very earliest units in the netbook epoch.

Am I alone in this? Does anyone else prefer to keep all of their memory physical in this day and age?

I Really Like My New EeePC

Fair warning: I’m just going to use this post to blather disconnectedly about a new-ish toy.

I really like my new EeePC. I was rather enamored with the original EeePC 701 from late 2007, a little box with a tiny 7″ screen that is credited with kicking off the netbook revolution. Since then, Asus has created about a hundred new EeePC models.

Since I’m spending so much time on a train these days, I finally took the plunge to get a better netbook. I decided to stay loyal to Asus and their Eee lineage and got the highest end EeePC they presently offer (which was still under US$500)– the EeePC 1201PN. The ’12’ in the model number represents a 12″ screen size and the rest of the specs are commensurately as large. Indeed, it sort of blurs the line between netbook and full-blown laptop.

Incidentally, after I placed the order for the 1201PN nearly 2 months ago, and I mean the very literal next moment, this Engadget headline came across announcing the EeePC 1215N. My new high-end (such as it is) computer purchase was immediately obsoleted; I thought that only happened in parody. (As of this writing, the 1215N still doesn’t appear to be shipping, though.)

It’s a sore point among Linux aficionados that Linux was used to help kickstart the netbook trend but that now it’s pretty much impossible to find Linux pre-installed on a netbook. Continue reading

Optical Drive Value Proposition

I have the absolute worst luck in the optical drive department. Ever since I started building my own computers in 1995 — close to the beginning of the CD-ROM epoch — I have burned through a staggering number of optical drives. Seriously, especially in the time period between about 1995-1998, I was going through a new drive every 4-6 months or so. This was also during that CD-ROM speed race where the the drive packages kept advertising loftier ‘X’ speed ratings. I didn’t play a lot of CD-ROM games during that timeframe, though I did listen to quite a few audio CDs through the computer.

I use “optical drive” as a general term to describe CD-ROM drives, CD-R/RW drives, DVD-ROM drives, DVD-R/RW drives, and drives capable of doing any combination of reading and writing CDs and DVDs. In my observation, optical media seems to be falling out of favor somewhat, giving way to online digital distribution for things like games and software, as well as flash drives and external hard drives vs. recordable or rewritable media for backup and sneakernet duty. Somewhere along the line, I started to buy computers that didn’t even have optical drives. That’s why I have purchased at least 2 external USB drives (seen in the picture above). I don’t have much confidence that either works correctly. My main desktop until recently, a Mac Mini, has an internal optical drive that grew flaky and unreliable a few months after the unit was purchased.

I just have really rotten luck with optical drives. The most reliable drive in my house is the one on the headless machine that, until recently, was the main workhorse on the FATE farm. The eject switch didn’t work correctly so I have to log in remotely, 'sudo eject', walk to the other room, pop in the disc, walk back to the other room, and work with the disc.

Maybe optical media is on its way out, but I still have many hundreds of CD-ROMs. Perhaps I should move forward on this brainstorm to archive all of my optical discs on hard drives (and then think of some data mining experiments, just for the academic appeal), before it’s too late; optical discs don’t last forever.

So if I needed a good optical drive, what should I consider? I’ve always been the type to go cheap, I admit. Many of my optical drives were on the lower end of the cost spectrum, which might have played some role in their rapid replacement. However, I’m not sold on the idea that I’m getting quality just because I’m paying a higher price. That LG unit at the top of the pile up there was relatively pricey and still didn’t fare well in the long (or even medium) term.

Come to think of it, I used to have a ridiculous stockpile of castoff (but somehow still functional) optical drives. So many, in fact, that in 2004 I had a full size PC tower that I filled with 4 working drives, just because I could. Okay, I admit that there was a period where I had some reliable drives.

That might be an idea, actually– throw together such a computer for heavy duty archival purposes. I visited Weird Stuff Warehouse today (needed some PC100 RAM for an old machine and they came through) and I think I could put together such a box rather cheaply.

It’s a dirty job, but… well, you know the rest.

Revisiting the Belco Alpha-400

Relieved of the primary FATE maintenance duties, I decided to dust off my MIPS-based Belco Alpha-400 and try to get it doing FATE cycles. And just as I was about to get FATE running, I saw that Mans already got his MIPS-based Popcorn Hour device to run FATE. But here are my notes anyway.

Getting A Prompt
For my own benefit, I made a PDF to remind me precisely how to get a root prompt on the Alpha-400. The ‘jailbreak’ expression seems a little juvenile to me, but it seems to be in vogue right now.


When I last tinkered with the Alpha-400, I was trying to build a toolchain that could build binaries to run on the unit’s MIPS chip, to no avail. Sometime last year, MichaelK put together x86_32-hosted toolchains that are able to build mipsel 32-bit binaries for Linux 2.4 and 2.6. The Alpha-400 uses a 2.4 kernel and the corresponding toolchain works famously for building current FFmpeg (--disable-devices is necessary for building).

FATE Samples
Next problem: Making the FATE suite available to the Alpha-400. I copied all of the FATE suite samples onto a VFAT-formatted SD card. The filename case is not preserved for all files which confounds me since it is preserved in other cases. I tried formatting the card for ext3 but the Alpha-400 would not mount it, even though /proc/filesystems lists ext3 (supporting an older version of ext3?).

Alternative: Copy all of the FATE samples to the device’s rootfs. Space will be a little tight, though. Then again, there is over 600 MB of space free; I misread earlier and thought there were only 300 MB free.

Remote Execution
To perform FATE cycles on a remote device, it helps to be able to SSH into that remote device. I don’t even want to know how complicated it would be to build OpenSSH for the device. However, the last time I brought up this topic, I learned about a lighter weight SSH replacement called Dropbear. It turns out that Dropbear runs great on this MIPS computer.

Running FATE Remotely
I thought all the pieces would be in place to run FATE at this point. However, there is one more issue: Running FATE on a remote system requires that the host and the target are sharing a filesystem somehow. My personal favorite remote filesystem method is sshfs which is supposed to work wherever there is an SSH server. That’s not entirely true, though– sshfs also requires sftp-server to be installed on the server side, a program that Dropbear does not currently provide.

I’m not even going to think about getting Samba or NFS server software installed on the Alpha-400. According to the unit’s /proc/filesystems file, nfs is a supported filesystem. I hate setting up NFS but may see if I can get that working anyway.

Residual Weirdness
The unit comes with the venerable Busybox program (BusyBox v1.4.1 (2007-06-01 20:37:18 CST) multi-call binary) for most of its standard command line utilities. I noticed a quirk where BusyBox’s md5sum gives weird hex characters. This might be a known/fixed issue.

Another item is that the Alpha-400’s /dev/null file only has rwxr-xr-x per default. This caused trouble when I first tried to scp using Dropbear using a newly-created, unprivileged user.