Echoes of popular culture and open source.

Oct 03 2019

(Note: This post is well beyond the seven year limit for spoilers.  If you haven't seen 2001 or 2010 by now, I can't help you.)

Many years ago, as a loomling, one of my very first memories was of seeing the movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact on cable.  That the first 'real' record I ever listened to was the soundtrack to that movie should come as no surprise, but that's not really relevant.  I was quite young so I didn't get most of it, but I remembered enough about it that it gave me some interesting questions (so I thought; I was six, okay?) to ask at the library later.  The thing that struck me the most about the movies was, unsurprisingly, the monolith.  The universal alien device, which manipulated proto-hominids on Earth by teaching them how to hunt, gather, and make war, as well as making unspecified changes to their evolutionary path; which served as a monitoring outpost; which implemented the endpoints of a vast interstellar (intergalactic? interdimensional?) wormhole network; which turned a gas giant into a miniature star.  If you like, the monolith was a universal key to unlock the mysteries of the universe and inspire growth and change.

Many, many years later I was a computer geek in my late teens, just dumb enough to think I knew the right questions to ask, just smart enough to know that I didn't know nearly as much as I should.  I knew that college was coming up one way or another and I'd have to get my ducks in a row to do work there and hopefully get some research done.  I also knew that it wasn't going to be easy.  I'd just graduated from a hotwired Atari microcomputer with a modem to a modest PC clone, a 386 cobbled together out of hand-me-down components, stuff I'd scavenged out of dumpsters, and the odd weekend trip to the computer show.  I knew that there was this thing called Ethernet, and the college I was going to had just started rolling out connections of same to dorm rooms, and it was a pre-req for a comp.sci major.  I also knew that I needed an OS that could connect to the Net somehow, but I didn't have the connections to get my hands on the new hotness back then, nor did Leandra have the specs to run it if I did.

Summer vacation is rapidly coming to an end.

Aug 31 2019

It seems as if another summer is rapidly coming to an end.  The neighbors' kids are now back in school, school buses are now picking their way down the streets, and due to Burning Man coming up it's now possible to eat in a real restaurant in the Bay Area for the next couple of days.  I've been pretty quiet lately, not because I've been spending any amount of time offline but because I've been spending more time doing stuff and just not writing it up.  I've been tinkering with Systembot lately, adding functionality that I really have a need for at home, namely, remotely monitoring a wireless access point running OpenWRT in the same way that I watch the rest of my stuff.  Due to the extreme system constraints on your average high-end wireless access point (2 CPUs, 128 megs of storage, 512 megs of RAM) it's not feasible to install Python and a Halo checkout, so I had to figure out how to get the system stats I need remotely.  What I wound up doing was standing up another copy of the standard OpenWRT web server daemon and writing a bunch of tiny CGI scripts which run local commands and return the information to Systembot for processing and analysis.  It wound up being a fun exercise in working with tight constraints, though I think there are still some bugs to be shaken out.

Accelerating a RAID-5 array with a solid-state hard drive.

May 19 2019

A couple of weeks ago, one of my co-workers mentioned in passing that he'd surprised himself by adding an SSD (solid state drive) to his file server at home.  To recap a bit, Leandra, my primary server at home has a sizable RAID-5 array storing all of my data.  However, one of the tradeoffs is that stuff recently written to the array is a little slow to be read back.  It's really not noticeable unless you're logged in and running commands, and even then the lag is something like one or two seconds.  Noticeable but not actually problematic.  At any rate, I'd been wanting to do some tinkering lately and had an Amazon order planned because I wanted to do some electronic work on my warwalking rig so I figured that, depending on the cost, I might add an SDD to my order.  Much to my surprise, a 120 gigabyte SSD is incredibly cheap, I paid a hair under $20us for a Kingston A400.  Emminently affordable.

Linux on the Dell XPS 15 Touch (9570)

Mar 03 2019

UPDATED: 18 March 2019 - External display adapters that actually work with this model (and Arch Linux) added.

For various reasons, I found that I had a need to upgrade Windbringer's hardware very recently.  This might be the first time that a catastrophic failure of some kind was not involved, so it's kind of a weird feeling to have two laptops side by side, one in process and one to do research as snags cropped up.  This time around I bought a Dell XPS 15 Touch (9570) - I was expecting things to be substantially the same, but this did not seem to be the case.  Some things that I found myself ignoring because I had no use for them aren't in this newer model, and some things have changed as technology has advanced rather a lot in the last five years.

As before, first I'll post the hardware specs, and then follow up with everything I had to tinker with to get working as well as how I went about it.  As usual, I went with 64-bit Arch Linux (2019.02 installation build).

Systembot: Adventures in system monitoring.

Dec 28 2018

If you've been following the development activity of Systembot, the bot I wrote to monitor my machines (physical as well as virtual) you've probably noticed that I changed a number of things around pretty suddenly.  This is because the version of Systembot in question had some pretty incorrect assumptions about how things should work.  For starters, I thought I was being clever when I wrote the temperature monitoring code when I decided to use what the drivers thought were high or critical values for sending "something is wrong" alerts.  No math (aside from a Centigrade-to-Fahrenheit conversion), just a couple of values helpfully supplied by the drivers by way of psutil (which is a fantastic module, by the way; I don't play with it enough).  This was hunky-dory until Leandra started running a backup job and her CPU temperature spiked to 125 degrees Fahrenheit while encrypting the data.  125 degrees isn't terribly hot as servers go, but the lm_sensors drivers seem to disagree.  Additionally, my assumptions of how often to send the "high temperature" alerts (after every four cycles through the "do stuff" loop) were... naive? Optimistic?

Let's go with optimistic.

What it boiled down to was that I was getting hammered with "temperature is too high!" warning messages roughly six times a second.  Some experiments with changing the delay were equally optimistic and futile.  I bit the bullet and made the delay-between-alerts configurable.  What I have yet to do is make the frequency of different kinds of warning events configurable, because right now they all use the same delay (defined in time_between_alerts).  Setting this value to 0 disables sending warnings entirely.  This is less suboptimal at best but it's not waking me up every few seconds so I think it'll hold for a couple of days until I can break this logic out a little.

The second assumption that came back to bite me (hardcoding values until something like this happened aside) was that alerting on 80% of a disk being in use without any context isn't necessarily a good idea.  My media server at home was also chirping several times a second because one of the hard drives is currently at 85% of capacity.  This seems reasonable at first scratch but when you dig a little deeper it's not.  85% of capacity in this case means that there are "only" 411 gigabytes of space left on a 4 terabyte hard drive.  Stuff doesn't get added to that drive very often, so that 400+ gigs will last me another couple of months, at least.  There's no reason to alert on this, so making this value a parameter in the config file buys me some time before I have to buy another hard drive.

Ansible: Reboot the server and pick up where it left off.

Nov 26 2018

Here's the situation: You're using Ansible to configure a machine on your network, like a new Raspberry Pi.  Ansible has done a bunch of things to the machine and needs to reboot it - for example, when you grow a Raspbian disk image so that it takes up the entire device, it has to be rebooted to notice the change.  The question is, how do you reboot the machine, have Ansible pick up where it left off, and do it in one playbook only (instead of two or more)?

I spent the last couple of days searching for specifics and found a number of techniques that just don't work. After some experimentation, however, I pieced together a small snippet of Ansible playbook that does what I need.  Because it was such a pain to figure out I wanted to save other folks the same trouble.  Here's the code, suitable for copying and pasting into your playbook:

...the first part of your playbook goes here.
    - name: Reboot the system.
      shell: sleep 2 && shutdown -r now
      async: 1
      poll: 0
      ignore_errors: true
    - name: Reconnect and resume.
      local_action: wait_for
      args:
        host: bob-newhart
        port: 22
        state: started
        delay: 10
        timeout: 30
...the rest of your playbook goes here.

Specifics of proof of concept for later reference:

  • Ansible v2.7.0
  • Raspberry Pi 3
  • Raspbian 2018-06-27

Build your own time server with a GPS receiver.

Nov 24 2018

If you've had your ear to the ground lately, you might have heard that the NIST timekeeping radio station used by devices all over the world as a time reference for Coordinated Universal Time as well as some experiments in signal propagation and geophysical event notices might be on the chopping block in 2019, leaving the HF bands quieter and, let's face it, we can't have nice things.  Clocks that rely on this time source signal won't have any way to stay in sync and the inevitable drift due to the imperfections in everything will cause fractions of second to be lost and a fresh outbreak of kinetic pattern baldness.  The ultimate effects of this latest bit of clueless petulance on the part of Donald Trump remain to be seen, but it seems likely that this isn't a sexy enough problem to catch brainshare like Y2k did.  If you work extensively with computers chances are you're not that worried because your machines use NTP - the Network Time Protocol - to synch their internal clocks with a known time reference server on the Net someplace.  Something to consider, however, is whether or not your upstream tier-one and tier-two time sources are actually using the NIST WWV time singnals as their reference signals.  There is, however, a nifty way around this: Build your own NTP server that uses a reference time source that can't be shut off as a source, the Global Positioning System.

First, I'll show you how to build your own GPS time server, and then I'll explain why it works.

Setting random backgrounds in LXDE.

Jun 28 2018

So, here's the situation:

On Windbringer, I habitually run LXDE as my desktop environment because it's lightweight and does what I need: It manages windows, gives me a menu, and stays out of my way so I can do interesting things.  For years I've been using a utility called GKrellm to implement not only system monitoring on my desktop (because I like to know what's going on), but to set and change my desktop background every 24 hours.  However, GKrellm has gotten somewhat long in the tooth and I've started using something different for realtime monitoring (but that's not the point of this post).  So, the question is, how do I set my background now?  Conky doesn't have that capability.

I tried a few of the old standbys like feh and nitrogen, but they didn't seem to work.  The reason for this appears to be that PCmanFM, which is both the file manager and the desktop... stuff... of LXDE.  By this, I refer to the desktop icons as well as the background image.  As it turns out, nothing I tried to change the background worked, and that is due to the fact that PCmanFM is a jealous desktop module and doesn't let other tools frob the settings it's in charge of.  After some tinkering, here's how I did it:

Short form: pcmanfm -w `ls -d -1 /home/drwho/backgrounds/* | shuf -n 1`

Long form (from inside to outside):

  • ls -d -1 /home/drwho/backgrounds/* - List all of the files in /home/drwho/backgrounds.  Show the full path to each file.  List everything in a single column.
  • | - Feed the output of the last command to the input of the next command.
  • shuf -n 1 - shuf is a little-known GNU Coreutils tool which randomly shuffles whatever things you give it.  It only returns one line of output, a randomly chosen image file.
  • The output of the previous two commands (captured between back-ticks) is passed to...
  • pcmanfm -w - Set the current desktop background to whatever filename is passed on the command line as a free action.

To set an initial background when I log in, I added the following command to my ~/.config/lxsession/LXDE/autostart file: @pcmanfm -w `ls -d -1 /home/drwho/backgrounds/* | shuf -n 1`

This means that the command will run every time my desktop starts up.  The @ symbol tells lxsession to re-run the command if it ever crashes.  However, how do I change my background periodically?

The easiest way to set that up was to set a cron job that runs every day.  Every user gets their own set of cron jobs (called a crontab) so you don't need any particular privileges to do this (unless your machine's really locked down).  If you've never set a cronjob before, the command I used was this: crontab -e

My cronjob looks like this: 00 10 * * * pcmanfm -w `ls -d -1 /home/drwho/backgrounds/* | shuf -n 1`

"At 10:00 hours every day, run the following command..."

And there you have it.  One randomly set desktop background in LXDE.

Incidentally, if you're curious about all the nifty things you can do with cron, I recommend playing around at crontab.guru, it's an online editor for crontab settings.  It's good for experimenting in such a way that you don't have to worry about messing up your system, and it's also handy for figuring out particularly arcane cronjobs.

Neologism: GSCA

Mar 31 2018

GSCA - acronym, verb - Using grep, sed, cut, and awk on a Linux or UNIX box to chop up, mangle, or otherwise process data on the command line prior to doing anything serious with it.  This is not to preclude the use of additional tools (such as sort).

Making offline backups of a Linux machine using Backblaze.

Jan 14 2018

As frequent readers may or may not remember, I rebuilt my primary server last year, and in the process set up a fairly hefty RAID-5 array (24 terabytes) to store data.  As one might reasonably expect, backing all of that stuff up is fairly difficult.  I'd need to buy enough external hard drives to fit a copy of everything on there, plus extra space to store incremental backups for some length of time.  Another problem is that both Leandra and the backup drives would be in the same place at the same time, so if anything happened at the house I'd not only not have access to Leandra anymore, but there's an excellent chance that the backups would be wrecked, leaving me doubly screwed.

Here are the requirements I had for making offsite backups:

  • Backups of Leandra had to be offsite, i.e., not in the same state, ideally not on the same coast.
  • Reasonably low cost.  I ran the numbers on a couple of providers and paying a couple of hundred dollars a month to back up one server was just too expensive.
  • Linux friendly.
  • My data gets encrypted with a key only I know before it gets sent to the backup provider.
  • A number of different backup applications had to support the provider, in case one was no longer supported.
  • Easy to restore data from backup.

After a week or two of research and experimentation, as well as pinging various people to get their informed opinions, I decided to go with Backblaze as my offsite backup provider, and Duplicity as my backup software.  Here's how I went about it, as well as a few gotchas I ran into along the way.