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January, 2008:

Booting Kubuntu from a Removable Drive

Pete and I discovered something interesting recently, almost by accident. Ok, it was almost entirely by accident. But it's useful nonetheless: We figured out how to install and boot Kubuntu on a removable hard drive after Kubuntu's installer failed to see the removable drive.

I've written about Dell's SX260/270 small form factor desktop here a number of times. It's a tiny little micro-tower made from laptop parts, especially Dell's Inspiron line. Its single most useful feature is its “media bay,” a front-panel slot that accepts several different kind of removable drives, including floppies, Zip 100s and 250s, CD and DVD drives of all stripes, and hard drives in appropriate cartridges. These cartridges are available empty, and Pete and I each bought such a cartridge plus an 80 GB notebook drive to install in it. The idea was to install Kubuntu on the cartridge drive, and then figure out how to dual-boot between Windows on the main hard drive and Kubuntu in the cartridge drive.

Except that I couldn't get Kubuntu's installer to see the cartridge drive, and thus couldn't do the install. Oh, well. We were interested enough in configuring Kubuntu and experimenting with some OSS titles accessible by KDE package manager Adept to pull the main Windows hard drive out of my SX270 lab machine and drop the new, empty hard drive into the main internal drive slot in its place. From there it was a typical and easy Kubuntu install, and we spent an afternoon trying things out. (Adept is a marvelous thing!) The next day I wanted to use my scanner downstairs, but the scanner software was installed under Windows, and HP infamously does not provide Linux drivers for its products. So I pulled the Kubuntu drive out of the SX270 and put the Windows drive back in. On a whim I installed the Kubuntu drive in my empty media bay cartridge and plugged the cartridge in to the machine's media bay to see what the boot process would do. I restarted the SX270, and wham! Kubuntu booted.

It's obvious in hindsight: The BIOS lists the CD drive ahead of the internal hard drive in boot order, and the CD drive lives in the media bay. In fact, anything with a master boot record plugged into the media bay will boot (or try to boot) before the internal hard drive.

There is a downside to using Kubuntu from the SX260/270 media bay: There's only one media bay, so with the Kubuntu hard drive cartridge plugged in, there's nowhere to put my media bay optical drives. (I could buy a USB optical drive, but that's yet another piece of hardware to keep track of.) The real solution is to figure out how to make grub dual-boot Windows and Kubuntu from separate partitions on the 120 GB internal hard drive. Remarkably, O'Reilly does not have a book on grub, even though they have whole books on numerous deep-geek software packages with user bases (barely) in double digits. (There are millions of grub installs. Maybe tens of millions.) So I've been reading the scraps posted here and there online and will figure it out eventually.

I guess I should have known that anything in the media bay would boot before the main hard drive. I freely admit that I didn't. Sometimes, well, you just get lucky.

Iowa Caucuses Footnote

Now that the New Hampshire primary is history, we have another data point and might be able to get a little perspective on how bizarre Iowa's dominance of the primary phenomenon is. (See my entry for January 3, 2008.) This is due to the way the Iowa caucuses are conducted, at least on the Democratic side. (The Republicans caucus a whole different way.)

The Democratic caucuses in Iowa are a little like the platypus, in that people hearing how they work for the first time don't always believe it. Let me give you the short summary: At 7 PM on caucus night, Iowa's 1,784 precincts open their doors and the most motivated citizens stream in. There are no ballot boxes as we understand them. Instead, people literally go to the corner of the room under a sign with the name of the candidate they support. If you support Obama, you go stand in the Obama corner. If you support Hilary, you go to Hilary's corner. You can switch corners at any time, keeping in mind that after about 45 minutes, candidates without sufficient numbers of people under their signs are declared nonviable and tossed out, releasing their corner-standers to go stand somewhere else. (How this “viability factor” is calculated is complex and I'm not entirely sure I understand it myself, but it runs from 15% to 25%.)

Electioneering is allowed in the room, meaning that people can cajole others to move into their corner. Eventually, the party bosses declare that the caucus is over, and count heads in each of the viable corners. That isn't quite the end of it: What the numbers in each corner actually select are delegates to a state (not the national) Democratic nominating convention, but it's possible to know with some certainty on caucus night which candidates get how many delegates at the national convention.

There are multiple flaws in a system like this, including the fact that people who are not free at 7 PM on caucus night get no vote, nor do people like military personnel who are required by law to be elsewhere and cannot attend. (There is no absentee participation.) However, the worst of it is that everybody in your precinct gets to see whom you support—and that, in my view, is pure evil. I have tangled with party tribalists on occasion, and they are nasty, vituperative Right Men and Right Women who nourish grudges and hold them basically forever. If your neighborhood tribalists support one candidate and you support another, you'd better hope that they have nothing on you. (Zoning board members? Homeowners' association weasels? Such people are everywhere, and they have the power to make your life very difficult if they choose.) Even if there are no such tribalists in your precinct (and there are almost always a couple) people may feel pressured to vote with the rest of their families, or at least pressured against supporting an oddball dark horse candidate who appeals to them. Whatever cloud may hang over your personal decision as an Iowa Democrat, it is not a free election.

I'm amazed that this gets as little attention as it does. My readings and conversations indicate that the most committed Democrats supported Obama, and Big Media has all but handed him the nomination already. I can well imagine Obama's tribalists giving the “just you wait!” eyeball to people they know standing under Hilary's sign last Thursday night. (Yes, I'm sure there are Hilary tribalists as well, but Democratic tribalists tend to lean left.) It's impossible to know how different the results would have been had Iowa's Democrats allowed their people a true secret ballot. But would it have been different? Count on it.

Odd Lots

  • Pete Albrecht sent me a link to a collection of free fonts with a German flavor.
  • Pertinent to the above, Pete sent a link to a nice free font viewer from AMPSoft.
  • Alas, font rendering is one of the areas where Ubuntu (and Linux generally) is way behind Windows.
  • An almost unbelievable piece of spyware is being installed by Sears, Roebuck on the machines of people who join “My SHC Community.” Good God: The software installs a proxy that causes all of your Web activity—whether associated with My SHC or not—to be intercepted. Disclosure of the spyware is buried in the small print way down in the thick of a 54-page “privacy policy.”
  • Here's yet another reason not to use Vista: It's all about protecting Microsoft and the Big Media outfits that Microsoft is trying to impress. What they did to this guy is criminal, but predictable. DRM technologies like this are the reason I do not buy downloads of music or video.
  • I inadvertently validated a lot of people's objections to ebooks recently: I lost the wall-wart charger for my Sony Reader. I simply don't know where it is, and the Reader is dead as a doornail for lack of juice. I'm sure it's here in the house somewhere, but until I find it, well, paper is looking mighty good.
  • Pertinent to the above: I recently purchased a 109-year-old copy of a theology journal containing an article on the Old Catholic movement. The journal is as readable as it was in 1898—and the several ebooks stored on my Sony Reader might as well be on Mars. We have to work on this. DRM and deprecated media formats aren't our only problems. Could an ebook reader be made with solar panels on the back side so you could charge it by flipping it over and laying it on a sunny windowsill for an hour?
  • Also in the ebook field is a report from Crave pointing to Igor Skochinsky's blog entries reverse-engineering the Kindle. There's some interesting stuff in there that hasn't been turned on yet, further cementing my conviction (now having actually seen Jim Strickland's unit) that as ugly as it is, the Kindle is the most innovative thing the ebook world has yet seen. That doesn't make it perfect, but I'm less dismissive than I was.
  • Every now and I then I spot something that makes me say, “Damn, that's clever.” The Make Blog highlighted earrings that can become earplugs when ambient noise gets too high. Carol and I don't go to many live concerts for precisely that reason: Everything's too loud and gives her headaches. Yes, the plug portion should be designed so that it looks less like a shuttlecock, but the inventor gets credit for thinking outside the box.
  • My Kodak EasyShare V530 digital camera (which died at warranty expiration plus three weeks) may be replaced by this model. 12 megapixels! Are we getting to the point of diminishing returns on camera resolution? (I actually like it for other features, like taking the picture when you press the button and not three seconds later.)

Why Is Iowa Special?

And so the whole wretched business begins again, as the anointed tribal elite in Iowa gather tonight to caucus (which comes from an obscure Kickapoo Indian word meaning “to put tribal defectives in a dark room and order them to run around in circles acting like idiots”) six months early or possibly four years late, depending on your perspective.

It's well known that I hate politics, and so don't talk much about it. I don't talk much about dark green leafy vegetables either, but that doesn't keep some knuckleheads from holding that they are the keys to eternal life. But I bring up questions now and then that no one else seems to be asking, like this one: Why does Iowa get to be first, and winnow the slate of candidates before anybody else gets a shot at them?

Here and there you may possibly see the question posed, just before the anointed elite and Big Media tut-tut and say that that's the way it's always been. (Which, by the way, was a major argument in favor of retaining racial segregation.) They then change the subject. More rarely, someone with more guts than sense dares to answer the question, generally by declaring that Iowa is somehow special in a demographic sense. Special? Hey, we're all special today, right? (Ask any third-grade teacher.) You hear the term “microcosm” a lot, generally from people who don't know what it means. As the Wall Street Journal reminded us this morning, the only Iowa caucus winner in recent memory who went all the way to the White House was Jimmy Carter.

In truth, there's nothing special about Iowa that isn't special about Nebraska, Wyoming, or South Carolina. The current primary system gives people in early states power over the choices of people in later states, and that is not a good thing. This leaves us two other alternatives: 1) Have a single national primary in all states on the same day to select November's candidates, or 2) try something else.

Alternative #1 would be better than what we have now (which is simply idiotic) but there's a strong argument against it: Without that early “momentum” obtainable in small states like New Hampshire and Iowa, the big states would select the candidates. This is a reasonable objection, and basically the same one that sustains the Electoral College, which is neither as good nor as bad a mechanism as many people think. (It could use improvement, but let's forego that discussion until November.)

What else can we try? Well, one mechanism seems obvious to me: Assign each of the 50 states a random number from 1 to 50, and then run primaries on 25 consecutive weeks, in which the states that pulled 1 and 2 hold primaries the first week, those that pulled 3 and 4 the second week, and so on, with the states that pulled 49 and 50 primarying (is that a verb? Hey, everything else is!) last. If by some fluke larger states pull small numbers in 2008, it's likely that smaller states will get the same fluke in 2012. But for the most part, it'll be a good mix, and most important of all, not a predictable one. No candidate would be able to snatch momentum by spending months studying the idiosyncratic specialness of Iowans or New Hampshirians and then pandering to that specialness. They'd have to be able to pander to the specialness of any state at all, or (better yet) give up pandering completely and stand on their records.

Such a Randomly Ordered Sequential Primary (ROSP) could make the Giant Pander an endangered species. Now that would be special!

The Power of Dust

In the past week or so, I've gotten unpredictable overheating warnings from my Intel motherboard monitoring utility. The CPU zone was getting up to 165 degrees while I was typing continuously into Dreamweaver. That Dreamweaver should be the culprit was not a total surprise; when I type continuously into the Dreamweaver editor, Task Manager shows CPU usage pegged at 50% until I stop. I don't know how they handle their data internally, but I intuit that every time I press a key while the editor has the focus, Dreamweaver does some kind of tree traversal of the entire document. (This comes from watching Task Manager's graphs while editing a short and fairly simple HTML document and then a large a complex one.) The mystery was why my CPU zone temperatures were gradually increasing from about 130 under load to 165.

Crack the case (which I admit I haven't done in almost a year) and there's no mystery: My CPU heatsink was caked with dust, and across much of the heatsink the dust had completely closed over the voids between the heatsink fins. My digital camera's lens jammed just after Christmas or I would have taken a picture, but it was impressive, and what was even more impressive was the cloud that rose from the opened case out in the garage when I switched the shopvac hose to “blowing” and directed a stream of cold air into the works. Whoa—back up and don't inhale!

I ordinarily do periodic degunking of my system, but we were gone so much during 2007 that I just stopped. The lesson here is that “degunking” is not just a software metaphor. Dust matters, sometimes as much as disk fragmentation and register clutter. The easiest and safest way to remove dust from a PC case is to blow it out. Don't vacuum—the snout of a vacuum hose accumulates significant static charge over a few seconds and can damage the electronics if the snout touches the mobo (or other hardware) in the wrong spots. Take the box out onto the driveway or the deck and blow air into it without touching the case. Pay particular attention to the CPU area, especially if you have a CPU fan pulling air through a heatsink. Blow air into the power supply through any vents it has, and make sure any vents in the case are clear.

Dust is a little like fiberglass fuzz in that it traps air and acts as insulating material once it gets thick enough. If you don't get the dust off your CPU, it will heat up, and if your CPU usage gets aggressive, it may heat up enough to damage the die. My CPU zone now drops to as low as 108 when the machine is idle, and hasn't gone up past 135 even during furious Dreamweaver input sessions. 30 degrees saved at the cost of two minutes with a shopvac hose—that's the power of dust.

My Antec case custom box is fairly quiet, but Antec has an even quieter case now, with larger, slower fans and a little more room inside. I've been having trouble with the audio connectors on the front case panel, and it occurs to me that if I'm going to do a case transplant, I might as well buy a new dual-core mobo—or perhaps a quad—and play around with multiprocessing. Changing out the case is pretty much the same as building a new machine, so perhaps it's time to do the research and get a hatful of new cores in the bargain. I'll let you know what I decide.