I Did It Again

07/09/2013 § Leave a comment

IMG_8444The Retina 13″ is on top, the previous MackBook Pro I have is in the middle, I think

I’m so ashamed. I swore off Apple products for ever and here I am again with a new McBook Pro Retina 13″.

I love my Acer S3, but it has problems. Its got 4 Gigs ram, total. The keyboard is prone to spurious typing anomalies (broken words, typing errors, lots of them). The resolution is really low, even for an ultrabook in 2013. The battery lasts 2 hours on a full charge, 2 1/2 if you really pack it. In 2013 those stats are rediculous. Plus I’ve had a banner year so far so I had some spare bux burning a hole in my pocket.

First I went to the nearby Fry’s Electronics and took a look. What I look for in an ultrabook is light-weight and power. I look for the lighest book with the most Ghz I can get. Then I look for RAM, expandability would be nice but that’s REALLY hard to find in an ultra. So, given that the RAM will be static in size I try for the most I can get. That’s also hard. It was impossible to find an ultra with more than 4 Gigs two years ago, ALL the manufacterers were worried about price plus meeting the minimum specs for running Windows 7, so 4 Gigs was the most they were willing to fit the new, hot-selling ultrabook phenomenom with. Now that things are a little more relaxed its easier to find ultras with 6, and even 8 gigs. Another thing I crave is low weight. I know I ask a lot but as a consultant I travel a lot and weight is serious consideration. One thing I really don’t need is a book with a light drive (you know, a CD/DVD drive.) I needed to use one last year to install Windows XP on an old but tiny pc I wanted to use as a media server, but before and after, rarely. If you feel like you need to use plastic light media for anything you need to get aquainted with modern SD Multi Media memory devices. Ever breath on a CD and all of a sudden not be able to read it? I have) yet they were difficult to find, being larlgely relagated to the Japanese market. Lately however that hasn’t been as much of an issue and light-driveless books are easy to come by here in the states.

At the Fry’s nearest to my house I wandered about the notebook aisles until I spied a really great number that met all my criteria. It in fact looked a bit smaller than typical ultrabooks, but at 8 Gigs RAM it would have worked quite well, and I wanted it.

Is there anything worse than a retail store that won’t sell you something? I don’t think so. I found a sales droid and showed her the ultra I wanted to purchase. She spent the usual 10 minutes fumbling about doing who knows what and finally came back and told me should coudn’t sell it to me. I asked her for the display model. She said she couldn’t sell me that one either. Seeing red I left the store. I should have looked on-line for the model and probably would have gotten it cheaper but I was really pissed off. I was on a mission now.

If you’re familure with Fry’s you know its the one retail brick store that, like Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” has aisles full of notebooks, there’s really no other place like it. The help is utterly worthless but the sheer number of models on display can’t be beat. The only other place better WAS CompUSA, may that establishment rest in peace. So my only other shot, though I was loathe to take it, was another Fry’s. So I decided to haul my butt to the next nearest one, which happens to be the Fry’s in Palo Alto. THE Fry’s. A Fry’s in San jose is certainly near the pulse of Silicon Valley, but the Fry’s in PA would be in the Valley’s heart beat. This is near Stanford University and Page Mill Road, the valley’s trail of venture capital repositories. THE Fry’s did indeed have a number of models available on display, but not the make/model of the one in San Jose that I wanted. But what it did have was a full selection of MacBook Pros with the Retina display. I took a look at the Retinas. Damn the display was pretty. They had both MacBook Airs and the “classic look” Pro models, the new ones. The smallest one caught my eye; it was just like my older MacBook Pro but considerably smaller, and with that increadible Retina display. I also knew that my keyboard issues with the Asus would be completely gone. The crisp MackBook Pro kb design is probably the best in the business. I also knew that I would have problems running the software that *I* wanted to run on it. The latest MacBooks use the new Intel boot process known as Unified Extensible Firmware Interface, or UEFI, and like anything unknown the human reaction is to fear it. Which I did, but its the replacement for BIOS, and not going away. It also complicates Linux installation. Thankfully it doesn’t prevent it, which I first feared, it simply complicates it.

In an effort to be both entertaining, relevant, AND useful let me breifly summerize the process of installing Linux on a Retina. And let me preface the process by explaining that I have absolutely NO use for MacOS, sorry mac fan boys. And I have a larger MacBook that runs Windows 7 when I need that, I also stuffed 16 Gigs of RAM in the thing so I use it for running virtual machines (usually other versions of Ubuntu, the embedded & thin client world is going nuts for Ubuntu for some reason). What I wanted was a small, light, powerful book for traveling with MORE RAM. Since most of my work is on Linux, that’s what I wanted to run.**

First thing you’ll want to do is install rEFInd, and use the “binary zip file”. Don’t get too caught up in the wordy web page that is the rEFInd home page; the author spends WAY too much time explaining the story of rEFInd in tangents. After resizing your disk execute the install.sh script as root using the “–esp” and “–drivers” options. I’m not sure that the drivers option is absolutely nessessary, but the esp one is. If you don’t specify it refind won’t get installed on the disk and when you reboot the machine Linux won’t boot. I went ’round and ’round on that one. Then reboot with your Linux distribution ISO of choice written on a plugged-in USB dongle. There are some instructions on the net saying you need to write the ISO in a special way for MacOS, I didn’t find that to be true. You should see a new boot manager menu with an Apple logo and a generic USB symbol as button selections. This is the rEFInd boot manager. Select the USB option. Your choice of Linux should be a fairly recent so as to take advantage of the EFI boot process, if you insist on using an older distribution you’re on your own, I have no idea what BIOS-based distributions work on the EFI system of the MacBook Pro Retina. After the dry run system (if your distro has a test drive desktop, I think most do now) boots up go ahead and double click the install icon. Installation is the same as always, but be very aware of what you are doing during the disk editing part of the install; you’ll be presented with a gparted (or whatever they do with KDE based distros) dialog. Go ahead and partition the main slices however you want; BUT DO NOT DELETE THE EFI PARTITION. If you want to use the Linux as your sole OS on the Retina thats fine as long as you do not touch the ~200 Meg boot partition at sda1, or whatever device node your boot disk is (usually sda1 on Debian systems). This is the partiton that should clearly be labeled “EFI” in the gparted partition list. I wanted to use this book soley for linux, so when I got to this step I blithely deleted all partitions and created a main slice and a swap area, which normally would work fine. I installed Linux (Mint in my case) and when I re-booted: NOTHING. The machine wouldn’t load Mint.

After doing some research I learned about the newer EFI boot process, that rEFInd was needed to install a new boot loader, and that you don’t want to re-construct an EFI boot partition from scratch. After messing around with re-creating EFI boot partition structures for 3 days (They have to be a certain size, have a certain directory structure, have certain files…) I finally re-installed MacOS Mountain Goat* or whatever and re-tried my Linux installation, this time without messing with the EFI partition. It worked like a charm, my new Retina was running Mint 15.

Here’s some after install pointers, points; I had to install and open up the curses-based alsamixer app and unmute all the sound devices, simply uping the volume controls or messing with them in any way using the usual gnome controls didn’t give me my sound. I also edited /etc/modprobe.d/alsa-base.conf and added “options snd-hda-intel model=mbp101″ as the last line in that file. The HDMI port on the right side doesn’t appear to work unfortunately, and neither does a minidisplay port to HDMI adapter. I was really looking forward to having HDMI out. I don’t know if a miniport to VGA or DVI dapter will. Also this book appears to have two display adapters, one from Intel and one from nVidia; don’t install any of the many nVidia driver options available in the repositories, they don’t appear to work, while the Intel driver works great. Its kind of wierd getting a full 2560×1600 resolution on a 13” notebook LCD. That resolution is so high that I had to step on it a bit to make everything readable. I re-compiled a mandelbrot generating X app I wrote that also prints the execution time in the shell if its launched from that and running it on the Asus took about 9 seconds; on the Retina it takes 5. I get the sense also that this thing has four full core i5 @2.5 GHz processors, not just two real and two virtual ones. I’ve also read reports of the Retina running very hot on Linux, but I’ve not noticed this.

The 13″ Retina is a very powerful ultrabook, a true “Ultra”. I love it. Its really the perfect size with the perfect power and RAM. It’ll run at least twice as long on a full battery charge as my trusty-but-slower Acer S3. I’m looking forward to doing a lot of work on it. I hope linux developers down the road get the ports working, but that’s not going to hold me back.

UPDATE: I spent the latter half of my yesterday building and installing the 3.9 kernel and some Intel support libraries and viola! The HDMI port works!!! I’m staring into the warm glow of my Vizio 26″ HDTV as I type this. Its funny, the Retina’s LCD is STILL higher rez than the Vizio, but its nice to have a “console” sized display. The MicroSD slot on the right works too! I LOVE THE RETINA!! Pricey, and locked down as far as RAM & SSD go, but I’ve come to live with that from Ultras. If you’re looking to run Linux on the 13″ Retina, follow the above directions and then grab the 3.9 kernel and install it. Also grab the intel graphics stack components here. After installing everything (yes, I went ahead and compiled everything from source, getting missing libraries from the baseline repositories when they popped up) I had control over my HDMI and SD ports.

* I have to say that Apple really saved my ass in this regard; the 13″ Retina (and I assume all the latest Pros) don’t come with much in the way of paperwork or media, almost none at all in fact. Just the usual worthless warranty “square”. There is no Mac OSX install disk, nothing. Just the MacBook and that funky, little white power supply. Scary, but in some ways refreshing for a faux minimalist such as myself. Re-installing Moutain Lion was a simple matter of hitting an option-R key combo during the boot process, using the disk utility to re-partition the drive the right way, and then selecting the Mac OS re-install option. Apparently, since I had already configured the book to use my wifi it simply retrived that configuration from *wherever* and went to town. After a warning that the re-install process would be slowed by my use of wifi (a hard ethernet connection would obviously be faster, but who cares?) it automagically just connected to an Apple server (I assume) and re-installed Mountain Lion. The whole thing was really kind of amazing from a geekly perspective and very easy.

** The Apple droids will say that MacOS is a version of Linux. No, its not. It resembles it in better then superficial ways, but its not.


Two Recipes

01/22/2013 § Leave a comment


I want to impart two procedures today; the first is the right way to configure the HP Linux Imaging and Printing Suite on Linux. The second is my take on the classic Taiwanese Oyster Omlette.

I purchased a new HP Photosmart 5520 so I could scan some forms to send an employer and decided I needed to get a network server printer since I’ve not had a console, or tower, pc in years. This way I can walk all around the house and not need to worry about connecting a USB port to a printer during the odd printing job. I also knew I wanted an HP printer since their Linux support, like Intel’s, is pretty generous.

So I get the thing home, unpack it, and set it up. It was pretty painless with my MacBook Pro Windows 7 Machine, as I assumed. Locating and installing the HP Driver suite for linux (HPLIP) was also pretty painless on my underpowered Gateway E1440u netbook as well. The thing about the book however is the installation was painless I’m sure due in no small fact that the OS install was mature and over time I have installed many (or all) of the dependencies the driver suite needed. Installing HPLIP on a new machine was painful though; the usual dependancy chain issues. APT is a great system, but why can’t it report the actual NAME of any dependancies it finds lacking for any particular application you want to install? This one feature would increase the usefulness of APT immeasurably.

There are several names for packages, there is the name that is useful, then there are usually one or more quite useless names for every package in every repository for every distro. Searching for the package that APT refers to and presents the user is usually not very useful. APT should report the ACTUAL NAME and minimum version of the missing dependancy its looking for, like this: “missing libgooblat-dev-”; NOT “missing gooblat-devel”. It drives me crazy when it complains about missing a lib yet refers to the binary package name. YES, I know there are tools and commands that will tell you what the missing package(s) are but they aren’t widely published, even now I dread the effort that will be needed to locate them. And YES, I know Synaptic will resolve depandancies issues but this completely defeats the need. I have little love for fireing up Synaptic when I’m in the heat of installing stuff in bash. Oh, and I love searching through apt-cache; it can present up to 100 packages with variations on the name I’m searching for. Useless. The actual package name & version should be displayed by APT, and you know its possible, if APT didn’t deal with this information internally then it wouldn’t work; so all that needs to happen is the Debian dev team just needs to expose this info to the user.

I recently decided to invest in an Acer Aspire S3¬†for Linux duties. Its a pretty cool machine execpt for a few issues; the Linux distros I’ve tried (Mint and Bodhi) do not recognize the on-board bluetooth chip. There are a few remedies on the net and I’ll try them when I get a second. For one the battery life doesn’t last the specified 6 hours (more like 2 1/2), and I hate that I can’t upgrade the RAM from the onboard 4 Gigs, but otherwise I like the extra umph of the 4 i5 2467M processors a lot. With the later distros (3.x+ kernel) I don’t even have to recompile the kernel for SMP, at least as far as I can tell.

For whatever reason HP has seen fit not to enable network scanning in a NETWORK SCANNING APPLIANCE in their pre-compiled HPLIP package, so to get this going you need to follow the procedure below. As mentioned earlier I had some issues getting the HP LIP compiled and installed, twice, (installed multiple distros on the new machine to try some stuff), so I present here now how to do this to save you the hassle;

  1. First make sure you have the following installed; net-snmp-dev libcupsimage2-dev libsane-dev python-dev libusb-1.0-0-dev libusb-1.0-0
  2. Go to: http://sourceforge.net/projects/hplip/files/hplip and select the tarball appropriate, usually the latest. DO NOT download the precompiled package (like the .deb package for Debian platforms), you need to compile this to get scanning working.
  3. Extract the files and cd into the directory you extracted them to.
  4. Run the following command:
    ./configure –with-hpppddir=/usr/share/ppd/HP –prefix=/usr –enable-udev-acl-rules –enable-qt4 –disable-libusb01_build –enable-doc-build –disable-cups-ppd-install –disable-foomatic-drv-install –disable-foomatic-ppd-install –disable-hpijs-install –disable-udev_sysfs_rules –disable-policykit –enable-cups-drv-install –enable-hpcups-install –enable-network-build –enable-dbus-build –enable-scan-build –enable-fax-build

  5. Run make
  6. Run sudo make install
  7. Run hp-setup (as your user, no need to run as root) and configure your printer set up (make sure the printer is on and on line)
  8. Log out and log back in.

You should see a blue “hp” icon on your task bar now, and you should be able to print, scan, whatever.

Second thing I want to publish is a food recipe I’ve developed in my capacity as an amateur chef; Oyster Omlette. This is a classic chinese dish found mostly in Taiwan but also in Hong Kong and other Chinese parts of Asia but with a Japanese spin.

Japanese Oyster Omlette

Omelette Sauce:

  1. 4 Tblspn Shoyu (Soy Sauce)
  2. 3 Tblspn Zeisner curry ketchup, or plain ketchup + 1/2 teaspn curry powder
  3. Dash of cooking sake


  1. 5-6 raw Oysters
  2. 3 Eggs
  3. Bok choy, chopped
  4. Teaspn corn starch
  5. Clove garlic
  6. 1 Oz. Chopped mushrooms
  7. Make an Omlette with the above ingrediants

If you like curry and ketchup get a bottle of Zeisner’s. I get mine from my local Cost Plus food section, but you can order it from Amazon as well, but for more than the $4.99 I pay at the Cost Plus. Amazon has other curry ketchups but I’ve tried them and Zeisner’s is the best. I hope the above steps help you in your IT and culinary endevours.

Let’s Hack XFC

04/10/2012 § Leave a comment

I was delighted to find an OSS solution to address Xfce delopment with C++ in XFC, it uses GTKMM as its model and development with it is very similar. I was also delighted when Bo Lorentsen. XFC’s current chief maintainer, agreed to take me on to assist. I’ve been wanting to participate in an OSS effort and had a hard time finding one until now. I wanted two things out of an OSS project; one that really needed help, and one that I really believed in. There’s no shortage of the first condition, but the second, that was a little tough. Web 2.0 is still raging hard, web technologies are popping up faster than the problems they are desgined to remedy, and systems and native programming solutions are taking a back seat to these technologies. Where UI/UX once referred generically to any GUI technology now almost exlusively describes web presentation. Its only natural and certainly makes sense in a web 2.0 world. But there’s still a need for native code, at least until the perfect web os comes along (everyone hold your breath…)

Jeff Franks, the original XFC code master, has been MIA since 2005, and Bo has been stepping up to the plate since then. He’s had help here and there, but I think he’s been going it alone for the most part since then. This is a perfect fit for me, I’m really excited to help out, and I hope he feels the same. I’ve set up a repository on github and made some updates to the web site, eventually I hope to get access to update the site directly, releiving Bo from that responsiblity.

The same google scanning that informed me of Jeff Frank’s current status also revealed some very positive reviews of the initial releases of the kit. Some commentors even went so far as to say it was superior to Gtkmm in a lot of ways.

Due in no small part to Linus Torvalds’ recent comment that Gnome 3 had become an ‘unholy mess’, it seems to me that more Linux users are going to seek out desktop alternatives, and with Xfce especially, we should see much more support. Xfce is a natural alternative for users who want a sleeker, more responsive alternative to Gnome. With that we need toolkits to enable devlopers to write native API it. XFC is one answer that problem. I hope you can support it.

Goodbye Gnome!

04/07/2012 § Leave a comment

Well, its not really good bye, but I will be saying good bye to GTKMM, and to Gnome as my main desktop. I’m switching to Xcfe as my desktop and as my Linux GUI development platform. Its not much of a switch, Xcfe depends on GTK+ and DBus and whatnot, hardly a complete 180.

My little experiment of attempting to pull out the current GTKMM 3.0 infrastructure and replace it with the stable 3.3 stuff didn’t work. It wasn’t a complete disaster, but as I wrote to fellow GTKMM mail list member ‘Phil’, replacing gdm-pixmap (a dependency of Gtk+) current with stable resulted in a broken DBus area, specifically whatever deals with updating the status of the trash. After I recompiled ALL the stuff leading up this pixmap library, and after I compiled and installed IT, I re-booted and logged back into my desktop, the familiar trash icon was replaced with a ‘red x’, meaning it was broken. Not only was the status icon busted, I couldn’t access the trash directory from the desktop.

I thought about carrying on, but not having access to the trash directory was a problem, it meant I had to shell out every time I wanted to recover something, and I wasn’t even exactly sure where it was in the file system. Forget that. Experiment over. It was a failure.

Out of the ashes of failure raises a new bird; not all is lost. Seems that Xfce has its own version of Gtkmm, XFC. Looks like a winner. The only thing I need to do is install it, and perhaps write a project wizard for Anjuta. That will be easy, and I’ll look forward to it. That will give me an easy and useful project I can contribute to the community lickity split. I still need to re-install Mint/Xcfe on that machine. Might as well get to it.

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