Linux on the EeePC 901 a fortnight later…

'Penguin Powered!' stickersLife’s been a couple of weeks of hectic mess, but we’re still here. I’ve also now had “Bit” for about a fortnight. I still love it.

I did run into an odd problem, though. People occasionally report that they have trouble getting their Linux boxen to connect to encrypted networks. Even when “regular” encrypted networks work, sometimes people say they have trouble connecting to the hardcore “Enterprise”-grade networks running certain varieties of the WPA2 encyrption, as is in use for example on campus where I work.

I, however, had no trouble with these. I’ve got WICD installed, and I can just pick the network I want out of the list that pops up, enter the relevant password/”key” information for whatever encrypted network I want, and hit “connect”. No problems at all. It’s the plain, unencrypted “public” networks I had trouble with.

Apparently, the wireless network card in the EeePC 901 is based on the relatively new Ralink RT2860 chipset. Ralink provides native Linux drivers, which so far work impressively well. The one problem they have turns out to be that the drivers don’t respond to the old-school “iwconfig” program that everything expects to use to tell a wireless card to connect to a public wireless network. Since WICD expects to be able to do this, connections to unencrypted networks were failing silently. Hopefully this single irritating quirk in the drivers will be corrected – or perhaps a workaround implemented in WICD.

Meanwhile, there’s a workaround – you can use another tool that comes in the same package as iwconfig called “iwpriv” to set the network information. I whipped up a quick script that I can feed the name of the network and channel I want to connect to and it sets the card appropriately. THEN when I push the “connect” button in WICD, it works.

I was glad for the wireless networking performance today when some jerk set off the fire alarm in the building where I work (for about the 4th or 5th time in the last 6 months or so) and we all had to shuffle outside and sit around at a “safe” distance from the building while we waited for someone to decide there wasn’t really a fire and let us back in. I was able to stay on the wireless network from a fair distance outside the walls, and was thus spared the tragic fate of losing my connection to the InterTubes and having to interact with the real world…

If you have a use for it, the pathetically simple little script I use is:
#call with: (ssid) (channel)
iwpriv ra0 set EncrypType=NONE
iwpriv ra0 set AuthType=WEPAUTO
iwpriv ra0 set SSID=$1
iwpriv ra0 set Channel=$2

The way I use it is I pop up WICD and find the network I want to connect to. Let’s say it’s called “PublicNet” on channel 1. I tell the computer to run “ PublicNet 1”. Then I can push the connect button in WICD and it seems to work fine. (It may be that you can leave out the Channel line, I haven’t tried that yet.)

That’s really the only problem I’ve run into so far. Otherwise, everything just plain works that I’ve tested at this point. I even loaded, geotagged, cleaned up, and posted the most recent few photos I put on Panoramio entirely on this little machine. I was right, incidentally – fixing the “GigantoFonts” problem solved the problem of Google Earth popping up too big. The Linux version runs just fine now on my EeePC 901.

I should probably post something that isn’t me blathering about my cool new toytool, though. Anybody want to know anything?

First weekend with the new EeePC – some random observations

I expect to put up a real page detailing my setup here and how I get various things to work on it, but before I go to bed, here are some first impressions:

  • The keyboard is, as I said, TINY. However, it’s turning out not to be a problem for me. I end up going at a little less that full speed on it, but I can still type plenty fast enough on it to be comfortable rather than impatient with it.
  • Arch Linux seems to be quite nice for a distribution that uses precompiled binaries…(Yes, I’m still a Gentoo fan…). It’s a lot like Slackware, except with a “real”, full-featured package manager. There seems to be a nice selection of user-generated repositories for various purposes along with the official one, too (including ones for Eee PC 901-specific stuff.)
  • So far, the wireless (802.11a/b/g/n) on this thing seems amazing. I’m getting a much stronger signal with it than ever got with any of the three different bits of wireless network hardware I tried with Igor (built-in wireless, Prism-based 802.11b PCMCIA card, and most recently USB dongle).
  • GIGANTO-FONTS! GTK+ applications – including Firefox – seem to have their own special places to define font sizes, I think – I had to modify “userChrome.css” to force the browser to use normal sized fonts rather than gigantic “RUN SPOT RUN, SEE SPOT RUN” “Easy-Reader” fonts on this screen. I still run into a lot of sites that display in annoying giganto-fonts. Liferea seems to have the same problem. KDE (4.2.2) initially had the same problem, but so far I’ve only had to tell it once to use normal-sized (for this screen) fonts and all of the KDE-related applications are behaving so far. KDE seems to run nicely on this system.
  • Incidentally, the browser in question is the Firefox 3.1(/3.5) Beta 3, compiled from one of the user-provided Arch packages. So far it’s running great.
  • Battery life is probably not outright AMAZING for people who have previously paid attention to maximizing battery life, but I do get 4-6 hours or so out of it, which compared to my previous lazy habit of demanding maximum performance and just carrying the power cord with me is really impressive to me.
  • The built-in webcam works “out of the box” – without doing anything at all to configure it, I just installed mplayer and “mplayer tv://” immediately lets me use my computer as a $300 vanity mirror…more practical uses to follow later. I’d love to design a periscope-like gizmo to hang on the edge of the screen such that the webcam would be recording what’s happening in FRONT of me, rather than recording ME.
  • Sound configuration is confusingly simple. I know that sounds strange, but the last two laptops I had displayed a bewildering array of volume and mute controls for the sound. Bit just has an “out” volume control, a mute for the built-in speakers, volume settings for the two built-in microphones, and a central “capture” volume control. I haven’t played with recording yet, so I’m not sure how the input controls relate to either the external microphone port or the built-in pair of microphones (stereo!), but playback seems to work fine. I’ve already installed Audacity, so I should be equipped to play with it when I get time. It’s slightly confusing that the master volume control is called “lineOut”, but only slightly…
  • The 1024×600 resolution usually works just fine and gives me plenty of space, but a few programs still seem to assume the screen is taller. Part of this is really the Giganto-Fonts problem – most of the windows seem to fit on the screen just fine once the fonts are made to display at a normal size.
  • Google Earth whines about the screen being “only” 600 pixels high, and at the moment the bottom of the window ends up where I can’t see it, but other than that it seems to run fine. Given that this is the only application I use at the moment that actually needs real 3D acceleration, this is good news to me. Once I figure out how to set a default window size for Google Earth and cure ITS GigantoFonts problem it ought to be perfectly usable.

The verdict so far: “Bit” is a ridiculously concentrated piece of portable computing power. The ability to easily carry a device like this that gives me a full-powered computer and internet connection made want to dig out my DVD’s of “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex”. I also need to install some speech synthesis so I can make it say “Yes” and “No” in the proper voice-synthesizer tone…

More to follow…but now, bedtime.

Im Name des Nudelmonster – this thing is TINY!

TINY, I say! I mean, I knew it would be small, but, wow, talk about “ultraportable”.

The as-yet-unnamed EeePC 901 arrived today, and I’m going through some testing and updating before I try out Arch Linux on it. Checked the factory RAM, upgraded it to the current BIOS, now testing the upgraded 2GB RAM. Once done, the install begins…

This keyboard is even tinier than I expected, but I think I’ll be able to get used to it. It looks like replacing the factory 16GB SSD with a 32GB SSD currently costs about $100. If estimates on the longevity of modern SSD’s is correct, it looks like the factory drive should survive at least a year or three of serious use before starting to have trouble (some estimates go up to well over a decade – not sure I would trust that much optimism, though). Hypothetically, I ought to be able to pick up a larger replacement drive for $50 or less by the time I start having trouble with the old one. Hopefully. Though in the worst case, in a year or two a nice ARM-based replacement for about the same price…

Hooray! Memtest+ test passed! Time to install…

Happy “Cheap Peeps Day”, Everyone!

No, no, don’t panic, this isn’t another “all manner of strange things involving Marshmallow Peeps®” post, even though I can’t help thinking of the day after Easter as “Cheap Peeps Day”.

Today’s not a bad day. I got new glasses again – the replacements for the defective lenses finally showed up today. Sadly, the new right-side lens has the same kind of “fine stress-cracks” defect as the previous lenses, but at least it’s only one lens, and this time is much less severe. They’re still a big improvement on my old glasses, and I can wear them while they order a replacement lens again.

picture of an Asus EEE PC 901 Linux netbookPlus, I may have located my new netbook. Commenters here (thanks defcronyke and TomJoe!) had praise for the original Linux Netbook manufacturer, Asus. I’m currently drooling at the EEE PC 901. It’s $10 more than the Sylania G Meso that I wanted but couldn’t find actually in stock anywhere (they were supposedly available a few days ago, so I’m guessing they’re just very popular, and sold out very quickly. [YOU HEAR THAT, RETAILERS?!?!?]). However, along with that extra $10 it comes with built-in bluetooth (Hooray – bluetooth tethering, chan_mobile, and the Bluetooth GPS units I have will be useful!), RAM that can be upgraded without the warranty-voiding case-cracking required to upgrade the Sylvania G Meso, and a bigger, longer-lasting battery pack. Plus, it’s actually in stock at least at They even have it in the less-likely-to-warp-if-I-accidentally-leave-it-in-front-of-a-sunny-window plain white color I wanted.

I’ve still got a little bit of reluctance to switch to a “solid-state” flash-memory drive rather than an old-school mechanical one – they have less capacity, and more importantly each individual sector on a Solid-State Drive wears out and stops working after it’s written to for a certain number of times. Internally, the solid-state drives are supposed to do some behind-the-scenes tricks to spread disk writes around so that the same sectors aren’t constantly being re-written (“wear leveling”), so supposedly the modern drives should last at least around 5 years of “typical use”. Still, that means I probably wouldn’t want to run Gentoo on it – compiling involves lots of temporary file write-and-delete cycles. Oh, well – I’ve been wanting an excuse to try out Arch Linux anyway. It appears to have the same “rolling release” methodology that Gentoo does, with a decent package manager and yet the same kind of ability to custom-compile packages elsewhere to install that Slackware’s “SlackBuild” system enables, so I could still do the “compile just the features I want, optimized for the Atom processor and for minimum size” sort of trick that I could do with Gentoo.

Application of what I like to call “Intentional Computing” philosophy ought to be able to turn a machine like this into a potent portable premium performance powerhouse of…um…something beginning with “p”.

Anyway, I think the only other route I’d consider for getting a Linux netbook would be a Dell Mini 9, which is on sale right now ($50 off). However, it’d still take what appears to be one to three weeks to actually get the machine into my impatient nerd-hands from Dell, and features equivalent to the EEE PC 901 look like they’d still cost about $100 more (at least) from Dell, even with the sale going on.

Any thoughts before I commit myself*?

*– Yes, I know that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Most of them probably apply anyway, though, so I don’t care…

SHENANIGANS! It’s a freakin’ anti-Linux conspiracy…

My last post mentioned that I’m actually in the market for a much-needed Linux netbook. My problem is that the combination of FUD and bribery (“we’ll give you a huge discount AND continue paying you to put up the ‘[company] recommends Microsoft’ advertisements on your website!”) seems to have killed off my choices at the retail level (all Microsoft), and perhaps has made it difficult to even order online.

Dell and HP take almost two weeks (“estimated”) to get me a Linux netbook, and I’d rather not wait that long. I thought perhaps the stock Sylvania G Meso, which seems to be getting very good reviews for the price, might be something I could at least order and get within a few days. However…nobody online seems to stock them either, unless they charge an extra $100 for them.

Here’s the query I just sent to Sylvania Computers (now known as “Digital Gadgets”):

I’m having a great deal of trouble actually finding what I want: your Sylvania G Meso with Ubuntu.

Of your “Where to buy” links:

  • MicroCenter” only carries the “Magni Elite” rather than the G Meso, and only with Microsoft Windows.
  • DataVision” wants $100 extra for the one color (yellow) that is actually in stock (the others, including those at the correct $269 price, are “pre-order”).
  • RCSNet only has the “XP” version in stock for the extra $30 – the others are “pre-order” (correction – I missed that they claim to have one color – “pink” – actually in stock).
  • lists the model that I want, but says “Usually ships in 1-2 MONTHS

Does anyone actually stock the $269 Ubuntu Sylvania G Meso?

A second question, less urgent: I would have preferred to be able to upgrade to 2GB of RAM (without voiding the warranty) – will this be possible in the near future?

P.S. you might want to put a redirect on “” to “” – a lot of the laudatory articles about the Ubuntu Sylvania G Meso still link to “”.


At this point, I’m seriously considering offering to drive to Dell’s corporate headquarters (about 3-4 hours drive from here) next weekend to pick up a Mini 9 even if I have to assemble the freakin’ thing myself in their waiting room rather than wait for their factory to get around to it, if it’ll get me a functional netbook within a week.

Otherwise, perhaps being sufficiently secure in my masculinity to order a pink netbook (and a can of spray-paint? A coating of “magnetic”, “chalkboard”, or “dry-erase marker” enamel might be fun) may be my only chance of getting a Linux netbook in a decent time-frame.

The alternative is to pay the Microsoft tax and get a retail unit, then upgrade it to Linux and try to get a tax refund (while Microsoft continues bragging that in “brick and mortar” stores where there seem to be absolutely no Linux boxes, Linux only sells 1 out of 20 netbooks*…). No waiting, and I can just take it back and exchange it if the hardware’s defective. Somebody please talk me out of this last option…

* What impresses me is that we’re talking about a study Microsoft bought, that looks at a market that seems to actually stock near 0% Linux netbooks, and even there Linux still makes up one in twenty sales…

I ♥ the Minister of Domestic Affairs

The Minister of Domestic Affairs has given the go-ahead to find myself a netbook to take the place of my gigantic beast of an aging laptop. Now I just have to figure out which one to go for.

A white 'Sylvania G Meso' netbookI’ve got the selection narrowed down to four possibilities. Irritatingly, I cannot seem to find Linux-based netbooks in retail outlets thus far. I tend to prefer to get things like this retail, so that if I start them up and find they’re defective (or if they die in the first few days), I can just take it back and exchange it, rather than calling some call-center halfway around the globe, sitting on hold for an hour, dealing with some schmuck going through the “did you plug it in? Did you turn it on?” script, finally getting an RMA#, and then paying to ship the thing back and being without a computer for 2-4 weeks until the replacement arrives.

Currently, my first choice is the Sylvania G Meso Linux version, which seems to be a very good value and is well-supported by Linux – plus for a computer that I have to order, I should be able to get it shipped quickly. My second and third choices would be either a Dell Mini 9 or HP Mini 1110NR. Those give me more customization options (and the HP keyboard is perhaps one of the most usable “small netbook” ones), but Dell and HP would take almost 2 weeks after taking my money to finally get the thing assembled and sent to me.

The last option would be to go to Wal-Mart® or similar cheap-electronics place and get an Acer Aspire One crippled with a “Windows XP Home” OS, and take it home in a lead-lined box until it can be overwritten with a real OS (and then perhaps argue with Acer about getting a refund for the unused and unwanted Windows license.).

Some people probably think I’m insane for wanting a tiny little netbook (and I do specifically want the smallest netbook I can reasonably use – I’ll actually take the 8.9″ version over the 10″ version) to replace a laptop. Thing is, Intel Atom 270N-based netbooks should be somewhat better-performing than my old full-size laptop with its old “Turion 64 ML-30” processor (same clock speed as the Atom, with less than half the bus speed and an order of magnitude higher power consumption…) and will have a much better-supported graphics chipset. My view of Google Earth might be a bit more constrained than on my big 1280×768 giganto-laptop screen, but it ought to be smoother…

Anybody have any suggestions? The actual distribution of Linux that it comes with is essentially irrelevant, as I’ll almost certainly replace it with either Gentoo (if it has a large, standard hard drive) or Arch (if it has a solid-state drive).

Another Asterisk post to follow, later, too. Keep watching…

Interactive Photo-Map: Oil and Rocks and Squiggly Things

No audio narration, but there is a spiffy map that you can scroll around in, complete with icons you can click on to see the photos and some text to go with them. Who could ask for anything more? Besides audio narration in my mellifluous voice, that is.

Since the embedded “Google Maps” image doesn’t seem to appear in the RSS feeds, I’m adding it after the “Continue Reading” link below – please do so and let me know how it works. As usual, suggestions are welcome – I’d like to do more of this kind of thing when I have time to travel. (Suggestions for future locations or themes are welcome as well).

Continue reading Interactive Photo-Map: Oil and Rocks and Squiggly Things

JelloLlamaJalama Beach Teaser Post

Okay, I finally worked out what was screwing up my geolocation (the new dates for Daylight Losings Time) and had a chance to sit down for a while today to work on cleaning up my photos for upload. I really need to get a new digital camera that handles low-light conditions much better. I did manage to get a photo of the Majestic Natural Glory of the Los Angeles river from the train, though, despite the tinted windows. Take a look:

Ain’t it pretty? They say the waters of the Los Angeles river are so pristine that they taste like (Miller|Coors|Bud|Insert-Your-Least-Favorite-Beer-Here) Lite®!

Here’s a question for everyone who reads this: I’m planning to turn the Jalama Beach photos and track into an interactive map post (Hopefully tomorrow [Sunday, April 5th]). Anybody want audio narration to go with it? Also, is anyone but me playing with the Mozilla Firefox 3.1(/3.5) beta, or the latest experimental Opera or Safari browsers, i.e. browsers that support the HTML5 <audio> tag?

And, since I titled this post “Jalama Beach teaser”, and while I’m talking about Pristine Natural Beauty, here’s a sample:

A natural Tar Seep on Jalama Beach

Woe is me (some more)

We’re back from our all too short stress-management vacate-shun. I’m chronically underslept (indeed, I ought to be in bed right now) and now I think I’m coming down with a generic Obnoxious Respiratory Ailment for the third time in as many months, which is extremely unusual for me, and which I definitely Do Not Want. Also, it turns out that as usual, Motorola cellphones are crippled. My Razr V3 apparently doesn’t allow applications to access the camera, so there’s no way for me to cram a functional datamatrix barcode decoder onto it. And the built-in wireless networking in Igor (my venerable 3½-year-old laptop) appears to have died…

I need a new cellphone. And a microscope. And a “netbook”. And a digital camera that handles low-light conditions and close-ups better. (And a pony?…) Still, things aren’t all bad, for all my whining.

A DataMatrix barcode painted in watercolors...I did manage to get some interesting pictures on the trip, at least, along with GPS tracks for geolocation purposes. Also, wine jelly and interesting spices from generous family members we were visiting, and even some avocado honey from a little roadside produce stand on the way back to the train station for the trip back.

I’m going to bed now. Hopefully after work tomorrow or this weekend I’ll be putting up another post (and start posting more often again). Anybody want to see pictures of oil and rocks from JelloLlamaJalama Beach, or the majestic Los Angeles River?

A cheap techno-toy concept to distract me from my woes…

A DataMatrix barcode with a 'secret' message...It’s been a relatively awful month here, to tell the truth, but we’re still hanging on so far. Hopefully things will improve soon. In the meantime, I’m having as much fun as I can get away with without spending any real money. Mining old patents for interesting gadgets and ideas, for example…did you know that Google has a US Patent search? And unlike the USPTO, you can actually get a PDF of old patents, not just try to view them as “TIFF” images in a plugin that you may or may not have for your browser and may or may not even work if you do…However, my quest for old designs for industrial brewing equipment and ozone generators is not the subject of this particular post.

One thing I find I like to do for fun with my computer is sort of the opposite of what most people seem to do for fun with their computers. Most people seem to treat their computers as grossly overpriced video-game devices, whose main purpose is to connect people to fake worlds to interact with. “Computer games”. Bah. Humbug. The computer is the game, boys and girls. I like to instead find ways to connect my computer to the real world. I suppose that’s where I get my interest in neogeography, and Asterisk, and home automation (which I’ve only dabbled with but still fascinates me), and so forth.

My latest discovery of a cheap real-world/computer interface is barcodes.

More specifically, I’ve discovered that there’s finally a working project that lets me read and write Data Matrix barcodes. I ran into the project when it was mentioned in the
“New Projects” section of the March 2009 “Linux Journal”
(you won’t be able to actually read the article at the link unless you’re either a subscriber, or you wait until they finally open it to the public, though you might also find a copy of the magazine at the bookstore). The actual project in question is libdmtx, and they provide some basic software for generating and, more importantly, decoding these barcodes, which means I can finally actually play with them myself.

There’s an irritating “functional fixedness” issue with these barcodes. There’s an implicit assumption that they are only for one of two things – either they are for inventory tracking (i.e. they encode serial numbers or some proprietary equivalent), which renders them essentially meaningless for anyone but the entity doing the tracking, or they may be used like the QRCode barcodes popular in Japan, which are usually assumed to be used specifically to encode a company’s website URL for “consumers” to decode with their cellphone cameras. Again: Humbug! “Consumers” can go conjugate themselves. “Consumers” are the screwups who made it possible to destroy the world economy, pollute the planet, and make vampire crap a popular “mainstream” genre. No, it’s time we paid a little less attention to catering to “consumers” and gave some love to “participants” instead.

See, both Data Matrix and QRCode barcodes can encode up to a kilobyte or so worth of any kind of data, which might then be stuck in just about any kind of place where someone might see it and take a picture of it (either for immediate decoding or for later).

If this sounds familiar to you, it may be that you remember hearing about a “Hobo Code“, which wandering homeless folks might use to encode visual messages for others with small pictograms. The catch is that since in that context you have to be able to keep the entire “dictionary” of what each symbol means in your head, you’re kind of limited to a small number of specific messages. On the other hand, one ought to be able to hypothetically cram a couple of SMS/”Twitter”-sized messages into a pattern of dots not much bigger than a postage stamp…or conversely stomped out on a giant scale in a wheat field like an especially nerdy “crop circle” just in time for Google Maps’ latest satellite imagery update.

I happened to be at an office-supply store today and was kind of surprised at the variety of things are now available to be shoved through a laser printer. Not only greeting cards and mailing labels, but a variety of self-adhesive and even refrigerator-magnet sheets. I saw they even had blank bumper stickers. Never mind serial numbers and “consumers” websites – you could stick all kinds of messages in all kinds of places with this.

A tip or warning for future diners at a restaurant (“Ask for ‘Chef Special #3’, it’s not on the menu but it’s great!” or “be nice to the waitress or the chef will spit in your food” for example) might be encoded on a small sticker or card and hidden underneath the table. You might encode your personal website URL or just a friendly greeting to be stuck to the inside cover of a Bookscrossing book along with it’s ID number. You might encode a time and place for a meeting as a geostring on printed on little magnetic squares to for members of the Secret Society (or Linux Users’ Group?) that you belong to, or to be included as an “album art” image in the metadata of a geolocated sound or video recording. You might compose original short poems or haiku and leave them in random business-card racks for the bemusement of technically-inclined strangers…

I think the stress must be getting to me, because it’s usually about this point in my thought processes that in a corner of my brain a voice pipes up, saying “What the hell’s wrong with you? This doesn’t sound like you at all! You’re starting to sound like one of those artsy-fartsy techno neo-hippies that gather at things like Burning Man or guest-post at BoingBoing, babbling about nerdy art projects and ‘culture’!”. Then another corner pipes up with “Hey, it might be kind of fun to go to Burning Man one of these years”, and then another pops up with “I like pie!” and everything erupts in chaos. Next thing I know, some indeterminate amount of time has gone by without me noticing and I suddenly realize I’m dangling from a rope over a highway wearing nothing but a pair of SpiderMan™ underpants and a thick coating of cocoa butter, still clutching a handful of LED “Throwies” and looking down at the nice folks offering me a nice warm jacket with extra-long wraparound sleeves…

But I feel MUCH better now…

Am I insane, or can any of you think of other uses for this? Or is that not an “or” question?…