Chuwi Hi10 Plus | Award BIOS

Chuwi Hi10 Plus – A Surface on the cheap?

This all started in autumn last year: I had mandatory courses to follow and I was sent there with our recently hired Digital Curator.  There we met a young IT guy from the CGIE (The IT department of Luxembourgish education), who owned a Surface.  I don’t particularly get enamoured with Microsoft products, especially those that cost 1000€ and more.  Our Digital Curator, however, saw something in the device.

He’s been talking ever since buying one, or at least a functionally equivalent machine.  Since we share an office, I told him what I knew about the hardware and if I didn’t I looked it up, interpreted the results and explained him what to know.  Different CPUs, USB-C, screen resolutions.  All the questions that are difficult because they go in the nitty gritty details.  It was all about the hardware, I may not like Microsoft but if he wants a Surface or Surface-like device, it’s going to be Microsoft whatever I do.  A very interesting device I discovered while researching alternatives, was the Acer Switch Alpha 12.  Still I wouldn’t buy it at that price, since I have four laptops.

As a sidenote, I’m pretty sure that properly justified, he’s simply be able to get a Surface from work.  After all that’s why he wants one: for work.  My question, however, is whether you really need so much power for the kind of work he does.  We IT people all know that our machines are extremely overpowered for most of the mundane tasks.

Gearbest Chuwi Hi10 Plus order

Gearbest Chuwi Hi10 Plus order

Any way, I’m pretty sure my research online got the attention of some advertisement algorithms and I started to get ads for Surface like devices.  I sometimes buy stuff directly in China and one day my GearBest newsletter offered me a Chuwi Hi10 Plus for just shy over 155€, and they’d throw in the keyboard for free.  That last one was important, because when you buy Chinese, you better read what you get and don’t rely on the pictures.  Keyboards are usually not included with Tablet.  I thought it was a decent deal enough in order to give it a try.  After all, that’s basically what you pay for a cheap Android tablet without a keyboard.  Oh, and if you never dealt with the Chinese: these things are basically always on sale.  (When I looked up the links, the Tablet could be had for 164,30€ and the keyboard for 24,24€.  A worse deal than what I got, but still relatively decent).

Of course, you do not get Surface hardware for that price.  You get:

– Cherry Trail Atom x5-Z8300, which truly is the lowest of the low end.  Don’t let the “Quad Core” impress you, this thing has a Passmark in the order of a Core-based Celeron 867 and that is a dual Core CPU.
– Intel Graphics (aka, whatever Intel thinks it can get away with)
– Full HD 10.2″ touch screen
– 4GB DDR3
– 64GB eMMC disk
– An American layout magnetic-attached keyboard
– Dual boot Android RemixOS and Windows 10 Home

I would never have recommended anything like this to anyone, given my relatively bad experiences with Atom chips.

As with all Chinese orders, you wait….
Surprisingly short wait… 11 days, which is really good.

What surprised me more is that these constructors have really looked at packaging from high end hardware manufacturers like that fruity company.  The packaging was excellent, well designed and well thought out.

Chuwi Hi10 Plus Keyboard Case

Chuwi Hi10 Plus Keyboard Case

Chuwi Hi10 | Front

Unboxing the Chuwi Hi10 Plus, front side

Chuwi Hi10 Plus | Backside

Unboxing Chuwi Hi10 Plus showing the metal backside

Chuwi Hi10 Plus | Award BIOS

Chuwi Hi10 Plus booted into Award BIOS, attached to its keyboard

As for the hardware?  Wow… If there wasn’t the Intel logo on the back and the mandatory “QA OK” small sticker on the back, I’d have guessed it was an iPad.  The back is metal, it has a nice heavy feel and the finish is really nice.  The keyboard, has a nice velvety feel (like the Surface keyboards) have and it clicks effortlessly in on the tablet while making a nice protective shell.  The triangular stand system is a bit awkward, but I’m using it right now to type this report.  It works.  One thing that I found a bit sad, is that I found no way to use the keyboard as a protective shell and still use the tablet in tablet mode.  For two reasons: you cannot fold the shell in such a way that you can use the tablet as a tablet and not be bothered by the shell.  Even if you could, the keyboard tells the tablet to behave as a laptop (you can switch that in Windows 10 though).  I don’t know if this flaw is shared with higher end devices.  Fine, when I don’t use it: fold it in its keyboard, and just detach when you want to use it as a tablet.

Initially, I thought to just image the disk of the device in order to be able to restore it to the original condition whenever I wanted.  I was pretty certain I could do that, if I found a way to boot to a Linux distro.  The ports are basically MicroUSB and USB-C and a MicroSD card reader.  Formats in which I have no bootable media.  Doesn’t matter, I thought…

On boot you can easily get into the EFI Firmware, which is bog standard Award Firmware.  I just hit Escape when the Chuwi logo popped up.  The firmware hinted already that the configuration might be a bit complicated.  As bootable devices, it listed three times Android and once Windows 10.  Weird.  If you let it go, you get a nice boot screen showing the Android and the Windows logo.  Just select with mouse or keyboard whatever you want.  Windows it is then.  In typical Chinese style you do not get an Out of the Box (OOBE) experience, which are actually mandatory for OEMs if I recall correctly.  You boot into a pre-created “admin” user and get presented with your Windows 10 Home desktop.  I expected some Chinese crapware, but in reality it does look pristine.  Windows activated without any problem.  The mind boggles.

The partition dedicated to Windows 10 is 45GB large.  Not stellar, but 25B is usable, Windows 10 taking approximately 20GB.  I was curious on how the partitioning on a Android/Windows 10 computer would be.  Well, if you must know: Highly complicated.  Two EFI partitions, many small partitions.   Apart from the EFI partitions, the only things I can identify is the 9GB partition probably being the Android “Internal storage” (Android reports: 8GB), and the two Windows partitions.  Originally I thought of trying Linux, or something, but given this partitions scheme, I will never be able to set it back to anything resembling the original state.

Chuwi Hi10 Plus | Partitions

Screenshot of the Chuwi Hi10 Plus partitioning scheme

So, I used it a few days running Windows 10.  Frankly, Windows 10 is annoying.  It does push all kind of Microsoft Services on you.  For example, in the action center, there is an icon called “Notes”.  I thought: “Cool, a post-it” application.  Nope, it launches OneNote.  OneNote for which you need a Microsoft account, and on top of that is uninstallable (Well, unless you find the magical powershell incantation)  This kind of stuff is everywhere, and I truly have no idea how Windows users stomach it.
Another really annoying this is how Windows 10 uses gestures.  Whether it’s on the touchpad or the touchscreen, sometimes I just move in such a way that suddenly Windows minimuze, or resize or, disappear and I have no idea what I did.  I tried to figure out what exactly I did, in order to understand the gesture I accidentally invoked, but I don’t seem to be able to find any consistency.  I also have found no way to disable gestures.
Another thing that irked me was that if you touch the screen, sometimes (but not always) you see some kind of trail following your finger.  At first, I thought it was just me touching too heavily on the screen and making the LCD misbehave.  Not so.  Windows 10 does that.  It doesn’t happen on Android.
When in tablet mode, the on screen keyboard is weird.  You don’t have directional keys, which makes it very annoying when doing shell work (how the hell do you navigate in the history), but there is one thing worse: the on-screen numeric keypad follows the phone layout!  Not the traditional computer numeric keypad layout.  I have no words.  This is not a phone!

Windows 10 has an immature beta feel to me.   There is a lot of work to make it usable, at least in my book.  The combobox bug is still there by the way (In modern apps, you cannot press a letter to jump to the items starting with that letter).

A little word on touch screens.  I am surprised that you don’t see finger smudges as much as you’d expect.  Yes, when the device is off you see how bad it is, but in use, pretty much not at all.  I did see them when I had direct sunlight shining on the screen.  That said, the touch functionality is basically not used when using it as a little laptop.

As for just light working on the machine?  I’m surprised myself, but having HTML5-playback music clips running in Firefox, with 11 tabs open, while typing this in Notepad++, it doesn’t use all that much resources, as you can see in the screenshot.  Sure, the Core i machines I have, don’t even use 5% when doing similar tasks, but if the intended use case is too take notes, shoot a picture of an object/document for documentation and stuff like that.  More than sufficient.

The battery seems to be ok.  When I started writing this about two hours ago, it told me 9h of battery remaining.  Now it says a bit over 4h remaining.  We all know these predictions are too optimistic.  I can just extrapolate: I guess another two hours should be possible with that prediction.  Giving me a total of 4h.  Acceptable, but I expected a tad more.  Definitely not a full day of work.  Perhaps if you really just have an editor open or so…

System usage Chuwi Hi10 Plus

System resource usage with light work

All in all: It’s not a Surface, but the hardware is damn impressive, well built, and high quality for the price I paid.  If you know your needs, and a tablet/laptop hybrid is what you want, plus you don’t want to break the bank and understand you won’t be running Crysis on it, this is a good choice for a Windowd 10 based device.  If you need more power, get yourself a refurbished Lenovo X220, which comes at a similar price point with a whole lot more power and expandability, but you won’t get touch or a tablet.  If you want everything and money is no object, get the real thing.

I should really try the Android part next.


Note: I did not have a spell checker on this machine, so this document wasn’t spell checked

Using a SLIC license in a VM

SLIC licenses are interesting.  In my last post, I covered how you can get the SLIC installation medium for select HP machines.  Now, obviously, I went back to Linux, but it did open some experimenting opportunities using virtual machines.

Now, let’s be clear, my Windows needs are tiny and most are covered by a VM I run on my infrastructure and I connect using RDP+SSH.  I really just like to mess around and see where the limits of these things are.

So, back in Linux, I installed VirtualBox and looked how I could use the SLIC enabled license within a virtual machine.  Obviously, I need the installation medium, which I have in WIM format (look up the package wimtools on Linux: Invaluable for working with WIM images).  So, ignoring anything else, I used that installation medium to install Windows 7 Pro.  That worked fine, albeit it was a hassle to try boot from USB (Solution: Don’t. Boot from a second SATA disk containing an image of the USB).  It obviously wasn’t activated, and I though “VirtualBox Guest Additions will take care of it, right?”.  Well, no…

Googling around gave me the solution.  You can make your information from your firmware available to the machines running1.  Theoretically, you could use the following:

VBoxManage setextradata "DummyVM" "VBoxInternal/Devices/acpi/0/Config/CustomTable" "/sys/firmware/acpi/tables/SLIC"

(Where “DummyVM” is the name of your virtual machine)
It would be the most honest form, as you directly use the license information from the host machine.  It won’t work, though, because the rights of that table are readonly for root only.  No problem!  Everything is a file, so do simply copy the SLIC table and give yourself the rights:

sudo cp /sys/firmware/acpi/tables/SLIC ${HOME}/VirtualBox\ VMs/DummyVM/SLIC.bin ; sudo chown ${USER}:${USER} ${HOME}/VirtualBox\ VMs/DummyVM/SLIC.bin

At this point, you can tell VirtualBox to use the SLIC file:

VBoxManage setextradata "DummyVM" "VBoxInternal/Devices/acpi/0/Config/CustomTable" "${HOME}/VirtualBox VMs/DummyVM/SLIC.bin"

The path to the SLIC.bin file must be fully qualified.  Dispite my best efforts, I couldn’t get it to use relative paths.  Doesn’t matter as the vbox configuration file is littered with absolute paths.

Anyway, launch the Windows 7 virtual machine and it will be instantly activated.  It gets better though: cloning a COA (Certificate Of Authority) based Virtual Machine, will almost always trigger an activation, because normally cloning changes system-ids and MAC addresses.  Cloning this won’t, because Windows 7 thinks it runs on a machine that’s licensed based on the SLIC table.  Theoretically, but I didn’t try, it should not even complain when moving to a totally different host machine.

Starting from a clone, I investigated what would happen upon Windows 10 upgrade.  So, I launched the “Assistive Technologies Upgrade” and got Windows 10 Pro, fully activated running inside the VM.  I was still curious what would happen if I removed the SLIC file from that VM.  After all, under Windows 7, removing it would make it unactivated.  To remove the SLIC file from the VM execute:

VBoxManage setextradata "Dummy10VM" "VBoxInternal/Devices/acpi/0/Config/CustomTable" ""

The activation remained!

This is an upgrade, so perhaps I want a fresh install?  No problem.  Keep the Virtual Machine configuration as is, but delete the associated hard disk.  Create a new empty one, and hand the Win10 iso to the optical drive.  Boot, go through installer, skip license key.  Wait… a… long… time… and: Activated Windows 10 Pro.

Conclusion: neither SLIC, nor the hard disk are in the hash submitted to Microsoft.  Well, if they are, they do not count towards activation.  Oh, and the difference between a fully patched Win7 vs Win10 regarding disk usage?  Seventeen fucking Gigabytes!  Windows 7 patching eats storage for breakfast:

find /home/${USER}/VirtualBox\ VMs/ -name Win*.vdi -exec ls -sh {} \; | sed s/\\/.*\\///g
29G Win7Pro.vdi
12G Win10Pro.vdi

Reminds me, that I should write up on how to get a Windows 7 machine up to patch-level in minimal time.  It’s a nightmare frankly.


1 Source https://forums.virtualbox.org/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=43678&p=227455

Recovering an SLP license for an “OS-less” machine.

Marketing stickers

Microsoft Windows and Intel marketing stickers

Windows 10 is actually awesome. Not for the reason you think, but you’ll understand soon. You see, I got myself a second hand HP ProBook 4340s. Sandy Bridge i3, 4GB RAM, 320GB HDD. Nothing fancy. It’s a business machine and it’s in an excellent state, it was worth the 200€ I paid for it.

It was sold without operating system, which really is quite odd for a HP machine. I checked the spot, under the battery, where the COA (Certificate of authenticity) sticker should be and it wasn’t there. Now, one thing you need to understand about Windows licenses, prior to Windows 8, was that for each computer you get two types of licenses. The SLP license, and the COA license (The “sticker with the key”). The SLP is tied to the manufacturer of your computer and is some kind of “mass pre-activation”, which is done by the installation medium provided by the manufacturer. So, if every manufacturer would provide you with an installation medium, you would never actually need the COA sticker/license.  We all know you rarely get installation media.  You also need to understand that you can’t actually both at the same time: if you use the COA, you can’t use the SLP and inversely.
The COA is something like a “backup” license. You could use any OEM installation medium and activate your Windows. So, if you have a COA sticker, I could give you a Dell installation DVD (and I have a few of those), and you could install it on your Lenovo and while it wouldn’t activate, you could use the sticker to get it activated.  Alas, COA stickers fade (my fathers old Alienware has a totally unreadable COA) or get accidentally ripped off.  Both happen very often on laptops.
All this explains why Microsoft wanted to get away from this system quickly and went for firmware-tied keys from Windows 8 on: every Windows 7 COA sticker was a potential “pirate” installation.

Now, what made me suspicious that this machine wasn’t actually originally OS-less, was that it had the “Windows” sticker next to the “Intel i3 Inside” sticker. You know, the marketing ones that actually have no value and I usually remove any way. I have seen quite a few “true” OS-less machines, and I can assure you, there won’t be a “marketing Windows” sticker on those. So, after I did my initial Linux install for my usage, I took out the disk and slammed in a 160GB HDD that I had lying around. Next I installed Windows 10 Pro, on it while skipping the activation. At this point, I have a fully functional Windows 10 that simply isn’t activated. (I downloaded and burned the Windows 10 installation ISO using Linux, on the machine itself)

After Googling, I found out about “HP Cloud Recovery Tool“. I downloaded it, and ran it. It detected which machine I had (including serial number) and told me that it originally came with “Windows 7 Pro” and I could download it, including drivers.

Now, I do not know why, but it failed… several times. I don’t really know why, perhaps my 16GB USB stick was bad (doesn’t look like it), perhaps something else. What I do know for certain is that it downloaded something big. Very big. Well, I found a file called “650434-DN6.WIM” in %USERPROFILE%\AppData\Local\Temp [This is equivalent to %TMP%. Corrected: Originally I wrote “C:\Windows\Temp”] and a WIM file is nothing else than a certain kind of Windows image file. I copied it over to the desktop, and used 7Zip to extract the contents and… indeed… it looks like a Windows 7 Pro installation DVD. At that point I just ran the setup.exe in the extracted folder and it started installing Windows 7. Half an hour later, it booted in a clean Windows 7 Pro installation which was activated. This due to the magic of SLP.

At this point, I could have stopped, because… well, there I have it: a running activated Windows 7 and that’s basically the best that Microsoft has to offer. However, the legality of this installation is debatable. Windows 10 is the way to make your installation “legal”, in the sense it doesn’t need a COA any more and gets a digital entitlement.  Well, that isn’t hard… Use the “Assistive Technologies” loophole. After installing a network driver, I downloaded the Windows 10 Assistive Technologies Upgrade and ran it.

In the morning1, I had a shiny activated Windows 10 Pro waiting for me. So, by using only Microsoft and HP approved tools, I went from a machine with a missing COA, to a digital entitled Windows 10 Pro. You know, the one that “never expires” and doesn’t require stickers, license keys or anything. Just a hash stored by Microsoft. The installation has become indistinguishable from a totally legit machine (with COA ripped off, which… well happens in reality)

If you wonder: At this point I put back the 320GB disk and it is running Linux again. The 160GB disk has been formatted. Even if it’s free, I don’t want their junk. I just like a challenge from time to time.


1 I’m simplifying. In reality it took several, attempts to get through the Windows 7 “update hell” before the upgrade tool actually did what it needed to do. Never mind the upgrade tool cannot be interrupted and when it hung on 99%, I aborted it and I had to do it all again. Disable Windows Update in services before you even try the upgrade tool.

Tuxedo Computers: How not to be a Linux OEM

Tuxedo Computers Logo

Tuxedo Computers Logo taken from their Facebook page. Logo belongs to TUXEDO Computers GmbH.

My Fathers Alienware laptop has been dying lately. He’s also been very unhappy with the latest Microsoft offerings, and since Mom has been using Ubuntu for years, he was willing to give it a shot. My father likes nice hardware and is willing to spend money on it, unlike his son who just buys the cheapest crap. So the decision was: Dad wants a laptop with Linux.

My eye has been on Tuxedo Computers for a while. I intended to buy there, once either my Acer Aspire S3-391 or Dell XPS L502x would give up the ghost. Not happening any time soon, but I did recommend my father to buy a laptop at Tuxedo Computers because, as far I could tell, they’d ship with Ubuntu pre-installed.

I am, alas, a busy man, and the Tuxedobook arrived, and I won’t be having time to look at it the next weeks. I managed to clear up one measly hour to assist my father in doing the first setup. I, naively, assumed that would be all I need. Let’s see how I imagined this:

  • Unbox the laptop
  • Plug it in
  • Boot up
  • Get presented with the Ubuntu OEM installer
  • Set the hostname, set up his account
  • Copy his Thunderbird and Firefox settings from his Alienware Windows machine
  • Set up the samba share to our family server
  • Have a coffee, and have a chat with him and be on my merry way

I know this is possible.  I have done it myself, I sent my Zotac Nano ID61 to my friend John in Germany.  I did the OEM install, tested it (and reset it back to OEM install).  Approved it for good and I know it worked for him.  He told me he was suprised I did it for him, as he obviously could do i installs from scratch himself, but the gesture was appreciated.  Really, an OEM Ubuntu install is as easy as setting up a Windows OEM machine.  If not easier.  This is how OEMs, and Tuxedo Computers is one, should sent the hardware to their customers.

So, naively, I went to my parents without any of my gear.  No cables, no USB DVD Rom drives, not even a long network cable (my father uses wireless and while there is cabled infrastructure, there are no RJ45 in the living room).

I get there and my father hasn’t even unpacked it.  He let me do that.  Shiny!  We figure out how to plug in the battery, connect the power supply and then the magical moment of booting up comes.  It boots up, and the magnificent logo of Tuxedo Computers comes up.  Of course, I expect the Ubuntu logo next, but… nope… PXE booting starts.  Odd?  Is there no system on the SSD?  Perhaps on the HDD?  Let’s try booting from the HDD instead.  Nope.  Okay, fine.  First, I think: I’ll do a PXE boot and we’ll have this running in no time.  Oh. No network cable, right…

Let me think, ah, they added a Ubuntu DVD!  Great, let’s boot from… oh, yes, right.  Modern laptops don’t have optical drives.  Obviously my USB DVD drive is at home.

Well, Dads got 100Mbps fibre.  I’ll download Ubuntu 16.04 on my Moms computer.  That takes less than 5 minutes from releases.ubuntu.com, then I’ll drop it on a USB stick and we’re  running.  Look, I even have a brand new 8GB USB stick in my car.  As expected, the download takes no time.  Startup disk creator fails on it.  I try a direct dd of the ISO on it.  Nope, somehow hangs.  Weird.  I guess that USB stick was dead.  Dad gives me an old 2GB USB stick.  Startup disk creator fails, dd from iso succeeds.  Sweet.  We’re 40 minutes in my allocated time.  I may be lucky and get it running within the remaining time.

I boot from the stick and during the installation process, the Ubuntu installer tells me: “Hey, buddy… This thing already has Ubuntu on it.  Wanna overwrite it?”  What?!? How?  I notice it’s an EFI installation (hey, the “EFI” partition gives it away, right?”).  I abort the installation and  boot into the firmware of the computer.  I notice that EFI is disabled.  Keep in mind: it was delivered this way!  I turn EFI on and reboot!

It does boot into Ubuntu. Sweet!  I’ll get this done in… Wait?  What?  It boots to a German version of Ubuntu (fair enough) and the login screen and presents us with a user named after my fathers first name.  I ask my dad whether he got a password from Tuxedo Computers.  He says that he hasn’t.  Sure, he might have overseen it and perhaps we didn’t look enough in all the enclosed papers, but that’s not how you pre-install Linux.  I tried a few passwords, like his first name again, our last name, 1234.  Nothing let us in.

Obviously, I said “Fuck this shit, I’ll do it myself”.

Booting from the USB stick I created earlier, I tried installing Ubuntu.  Which then gives me crap about EFI and I notice that the Ubuntu installer doesn’t allow me to create GPT partition tables.  It also tells about SSD alignemnt problems (SSD tells sectors are 2048 based, Linux tells it’s 512 based.  Partitioning stupidly believes the Linux kernel) I tried the classic MBR setup.  That’s easy and usually works.  Grub fails to install.
I tried to install grub manually, I don’t manage.  Surely my fault, because I’m really angry by now.
At that point, I am through my time and I have to give up.  I was really, really, enraged.  As in “physically violently” enraged.  I wanted to smash something.  This was supposed to be easy, this was supposed to be working out of the box!

Yes, I do realize that the majority of Tuxedo Computers customers are people like me that nuke and install anyway, but that’s no excuse!  This was the most crappy out of the box experience I’ve ever had and I now have a ton of work, waiting for me and a father who cannot use his new toy.  Earliest I can take time would be begin August.

If I’d be a customer who just wanted a “Linux computer” that worked out of the box, I’d definitely return it.  Sure, I’ll fix it, I’ll get it running, but you shouldn’t actually need a guy like me to get a Linux machine up and running.

This is exactly the reason why people think that Linux is hard.  Exactly this!

Translation: Fear and Loathing about the Luxleaks process

Angsch a schrécken zu Lëtzebuerg” (Fear and Loathing in Luxembourg )is a Luxembourgian blog that publishes critical texts about current affairs in Luxembourg.  The downside is that usually most articles are in Luxembourgish  This makes it hard to share with the majority of my readers.  I thought that “Angscht a Schrecke mam Luxleaks-Prozess” would be a worthy read for more than just Luxembourgers.

Since the original article “Angscht a Schrecke mam Luxleaks-Prozess” licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, I realized I could translate it.  I tried to keep as close to the original article as possible, which probably causes quite some Germanisms.  I don’t claim it’s a perfect translation and some things really can only be understood by knowing local culture, but still the gist should be just fine.

Obviously, my own translation, is also licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Edit 2016-05-01@13h31CEST: Added the bold text “funny” about the fictional product “RulingCloud”.

 

Fear and Loathing about the Luxleaks process

30 April 2016 by Joël

A good friend of mine, told me once that people shouldn’t be using the expression “Kafkaesque” so often. In this style: “I was at the supermarket and there were no Kinder Maxi King, totally Kafkaesque!”. I think my good friend is right, but there are still situations where the expression is mandated. The Luxleaks process is one of these situations. The two whistle-blowers, Antione Deltour and Raphaël Halet and the journalist Édouard Perrin are on trial, as your probably already know.

The things happening in that court, are really to be ashamed of. Of course, you can say that this is a case for justice, because private or secret documents have been stolen and then been published. However, it is hard to say that these documents don’t have a public interest. Well, for the rest of the world. Luxembourg itself doesn’t really have an interest in having the tax-rulings to be exposed to a broad public. That’s probably the reason why, in the year and a half between the accusation and the process, there hasn’t been a change in laws to protect whistle-blowers like Antoine Deltour and Raphaël Halet.

If you think that it’s only the defence who politicizes the process, you’d be wrong. At first glance it seems to be only about the misappropriation of documents, but: Deltour is being accused of having political motives. It seems as if the Luxembourgian police and the internal investigators from PCW agree, that Antoine Deltours actions are motivated by an anti-capitalistic conviction. The evidence for this are not a library filled with Marx, Engels and Lenin, but two newsletter subscriptions. One from Mediapart and another one from the Green Party. We all know that the last time the Green Party has been anti-capitalistic, nobody even knew where Chernobyl was.

This means we approach one of my currently favourite subjects: freedom of expression. It seems as if in Luxembourg is is now somehow criminal, to have an anti-capitalistic stance. So please think twice: When was is the last time that you had the idea that a system that makes the rich, richer and the poor, poorer may perhaps not be the best one.

So, only perhaps? Totally theoretically?

Yes?

Don’t say that too loud.

Think back three years ago. At that moment in time, we had a scandal regarding the secret service. That’s the reason we have a government that’s different than usual, isn’t it? Those with excellent memory, will remember that a whole bunch of organizations in the opposition were under surveillance. Since the scandal haven’t been resolved – why not, after all the government is in the government – we have no idea whether such organisations aren’t still under surveillance.

But back to the Luxleaks process: A few exciting facts have surfaced. Obviously not from official sources. Luxembourg has a very strong secrecy regarding state affairs, which allowed Guy Heintz, the director of the tax bureau, to say nothing. Because, guess what: we don’t only make deals with multinationals, who then only pay 0,5% tax, but those deals are also secret.

Raphaël Halet, the second whistle-blower, who worked at PWC in a department that prepared documents, could give us insight in how things work in Luxembourg. Every month, on a Wednesday, there was a fixed appointment between PWC and the tax bureau number six, where tax rulings would be signed. PWC printed the documents on the official stationary from the tax bureau, in order to process them more quickly. “More quickly” means in this context: About three minute per document.

From time to time a USB-Stick got lost, or a state servant forgot the password of such a stick, which caused PWC and the tax bureau to set up a Cloud in order to exchange documents. Something like a tax ruling Dropbox.

If you don’t think this is bad enough: PWC isn’t the only member of the “big four”. Next to PWC, there is Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG. Every month has four Wednesdays, you can fill in the rest for yourselves.

It is sickening.

Let’s also consider: the politicians -both the opposition party CSV, and the three current ruling parties some of which were one day against such rulings- insist that nothing illegal was being done. The supposed anti-capitalism of Antoine Deltour is just a motive for our justice. The Grand Duchy is basically a failed state, where the economy has hijacked the power. A bit like in those dystopian Cyperpunk Movies, just without Punk and much less Cyber.

It totally sickening. You couldn’t even eat that much if there would be “all you can eat” roasted piglet.

There is a silver lining, though: We don’t have to worry about our “Nationbranding” any more. After the Luxleaks process, the whole world will know that Luxembourg is a deceitful piece of crap.

This episode of Fear and Loathing in Luxembourg is presented to you by RulingCloud!  RulingCloud is a start-up from “Silicon Luxembourg”.  You are a fiduciary and write tax documents that the Luxembourgian tax bureau needs to sign?  You want to enact laws that make Luxembourg an even more attractive tax haven?  RulingCloud offers you all functionality that you need for this.  Of course, using state of the art security measures with built-in leak-protection!  RulingCloud is a product made in Luxembourg.
Luxembourg: open, dynamic, trustworthy.

Daddy needs a new laptop

In pretty much all my conscious life, people have come to me for advice about buying new computers.  Often, they just ignored whatever I said and bought whatever they wanted and then asked whether it was any good.  To which I usually said: “Meh… Will do, you still should have listened to me”.

In the last few years, I have seen a certain trend though: People come to me and tell me “I’d like a new laptop, but it shouldn’t cost more than 400€”.  Fine, I get it.  Many people I know have children now, and they have other priorities.  This blog entry here is based upon a late night Facebook-Chat conversation, where I realized how very confusing and hard buying new hardware has become if you aren’t highly informed.  You know what? Even in this context, I’m not “highly” informed, just a bit better informed.

First of all, you need to realize that a computer is a complex machine, and it’s the combination of all parts that makes or breaks the performance.  In the low-end, there is actually only one part that you can vary and that is the CPU.  CPU stands for Central Processing Unit and you can basically call that “the thing that makes calculations”.  You might wonder how moving a window on screen is maths, but I assure you: it is.  Your computer can only do two things: calculate data and store data.  Everything you see and do on your machine is reducible to those two basic actions.  The “How” is irrelevant for this discussion.

So, back to my acquaintance.  I asked him what type of machine he now has.  It’s a Windows Vista-era machine (Still running Vista, I might add), sporting a Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, 2GB RAM and a 320GB Hard disk.  Given the information I have, I guessed, it was approximately bought in 2007 as a high-end laptop.  I can also tell you immediately that the main bottleneck here will be the 2GB of RAM, but that can easily be fixed with a 40€ upgrade and replacing the hard disk with an 85€ SSD will also give it a boost.  Add in a new battery and you might have infused it a bit more life, if it wasn’t for Windows Vista that is only supported until 2017.  However, is it actually “worth” upgrading this machine?  No.  Not if you can buy a decent new machine.  Can we buy a decent machine would be the next question…

That’s where a thought process of most people kicks in, that has been indoctrinated by our consumer oriented society:  This machine is eight to nine years old, a new one, even a cheaper one must undoubtedly be better.  In certain ways, that new machine is going to be better.  It will most likely use less electricity and have better battery life, but that’s not why you are replacing your machine, is it?  It’s because it’s not doing what you want it to do: it’s too slow for certain tasks.  So, given normal peoples workloads, you will want a faster CPU.  Let’s take a look at budget PCs.  The column called Prozessor means CPU and the one called Speicher means RAM.  Ignore the laptops ones tagged “Generalüberholt”, which means “Refurbished”.

First of all, you’ll notice that none of these machines have more than the 4GB RAM, albeit of a higher speed (which is mostly irrelevant, even though one can discuss endlessly about that).

The second thing you notice that many of them have a Celeron N3150 processor.  Of course, that doesn’t tell you anything.  It might be the best thing since sliced bread.  Also, never mind that CPU model numbers are horribly, horribly confusing.

So, how do we compare these CPUs?  Well, in honesty, you can’t!  Not really.  Mostly we use so called “Benchmarks”, which try to evaluate how quick a certain processor does a certain task.  Alas, some processor do well on task A, but badly on task B.  All benchmarks are pretty much artificial.  From my experience the “Passmark CPU benchmark” gives a quite decent indication on what to expect, but it’s no panacea since you need to be able to interpret results.  Still, I’m going by this.  Let’s look up the scores for the Core 2 Duo T7500 and put them side by side:  There you go: gut feeling correct 1522 > 1274, the T7500 is 84% of the speed of the Celeron N3150.  It’s faster!  Case closed!

Not so fast.  First of all, consider this: a low-end budget CPU, just barely beats the old high-end one (The N3150 is a year old, to be fair), which means you’re going to spend 400€ to get just a minimal speed increase?  Are you serious?  Furthermore, there is a detail that needs to be pointed out.  The T7500 has two cores, meaning two independent calculators.  The N3150 has four of them.  Four is better than two, so, case closed, the N3150 is better!
The thing is: more cores work best in cases where tasks can be split up, and that isn’t true for most tasks.  It’s worse: most user-oriented tasks aren’t like that at all.  So, the speed of a single core does matter and it matters quite a lot.  That’s the line marked “Single Thread Rating”, where you can see for the T7500 that it has a score of 764 versus 418 for the N3150.  For so called “single thread tasks” the T7500 is actually better, much better.

My biggest point is: You’re going to spend money for something that is not significantly better.  A midrange modern day Core i5 with 8GB RAM (example: Asus ZenBook UX303UA-FN121T ) will set you back the double of your budget, but will triple the performance compared to your old machine and you’ll have double RAM, which also has a positive impact.

Finally, there is one last thing I need to stress.  Many people think that computers get slower when they age.  I can think of a few scenarios where that is true (defective or dusty fan and a disk slowly getting bad clusters), but as a general rule: Your machine today is as fast as it was when you bought it.  What may have changed is the software you are running requires more power.  The solution to this is to do an analysis of your needs: What do I need?  List it.  Identify the software to do that and stick to that software and only that software.  It called “having a fixed feature set”, and it generally makes your computing experience more smooth.
If you’re running Windows, and haven’t done that, your machine might be loaded up with all kind of crap over time that you’re actually not using, but still is loaded.  The only solution is then to reinstall the machine, which usually requires specialist intervention. (So does the suggested SSD upgrade, by the way.)  If you feel adventurous, you might even try using Linux.  Talk to your local nerd about it, who might be closer than you think.

If there is one thing you should take away from all of this: Don’t just buy a new computer, because if you do without being properly informed, you might end up with something that isn’t as great as you’d thought it would be.  Or as the Romans already said: Caveat Emptor.

Steam, Linux and Intel Graphics

Jorg… are you using Steam on Linux?
No motivation to pay close to 1000 for a steam box, but an i3/i5 with Intel graphics would be ok price wise… question is, would it be worth it?

Short answer: Yno.
Long answer:

This is a question in multiple parts, namely:

  1. Do you use Steam on Linux?
  2. Does Steam on Linux work well?
  3. Are integrated graphics sufficient these days for games?
  4. What about graphics drivers?

Now, let start with the easy part: Yes, I use Steam on Linux.  I basically only use it on Linux and one of the main criteria for buying games on Steam, or from Humble Bundle, is Linux support.  Steam, the application, works very well on Linux and it comes down to installing a package and that’s it.  That said, Steam is just Steam, being a kind of game library with a useful “Big Screen” (aka, “use it on TV”) mode.  On no configuration, did Steam refuse to run, but nobody runs Steam to run Steam.  What you want are the games.

That’s where question #3 comes in, and sorry, no… Linux won’t compensate your underpowered hardware.  Just as in Windows, you might end up buying a game and figuring out that “hell, fuck no, this won’t work“.  If it’s not because the game doesn’t start up at all, it will be because it is so horribly slow, that it’s unplayable even when turning down all the settings.  Now, in all fairness, my experience with Steam on Intel, limits itself to:

  • Zotac Nano ID61 – Celeron 867 / 8GB RAM / “Intel HD Graphics” (I have given this machine away, I can’t do tests any more)
  • Dell XPS 15 – Core i7-2630QM / 16GB RAM / “Intel HD 3000″ (Paired with an NVidia GT 525M)
  • Acer Aspire S3 – Core i5-3317U / 4GB RAM / “Intel HD 4000″

All run Ubuntu 14.04LTS with Steam installed from the Valve repos.  These are all older chips based on Sandy Bridge (Celeron 867 and Core i7-2630QM) and Ivy Bridge (Core i5-3317U) architectures, so obviously it’s not very representative for modern Intel hardware.  Take everything I say with a huge grain of salt.  Haswell, Broadwell and Skylake based processors might be so much better, especially with the Iris Pro graphics.  Intel graphics are so very diverse and the labels stuck on them make it next to impossible to find accurate benchmarks.  So basically, what it means is that I must go on feeling which really, is very subjective.

However, it’s not the only thing you can go on.  You can simply see what the minimum requirements for some games say.  A very well known AAA type game working on Linux is Sid Meiers Civilisation V.  Go and visit it, and you’ll notice that in the PC world, you damn better do your homework about your hardware and what this hardware means in relation to recommended and minimum settings.  Also, keep in mind this is a strategy game, and really shouldn’t tax your graphics card all that much.  Well, go and look:

  • Windows: Core i3 or better integrated graphics
  • Mac OS X: “Intel GMA (950/X3100), HD 3000″ not supported
  • SteamOS/Linux: Intel Integrated video chipsets (GMA 9XX, HD 3XXX) will not run Civilization V for SteamOS and Linux, and are unsupported.

So, the Zotac is out as is the i7 (using Intel graphics).  The i5 might run it, I don’t think I tried.

Another one?  Let’s take Victor Vran.  I bought this game because the gameplay reminded me of the PlayStation 2 version of Baldurs Gate.  I didn’t check specifications and I tried on the i5-3317U, connected using HDMI to my TV.  The game loads, but it is unplayable at any detail level.  Specs, here you go:

  • Windows: GeForce 8800 or higher, AMD Radeon HD 4000 or higher, Intel HD 4000 or higher (min. 512 MB VRAM)
  •  Mac OS X: OpenGL 4.1 (GeForce 600 or higher, AMD Radeon 5000 or higher, Intel HD 4000 or higher)
  • SteamOS/Linux: OpenGL 4.1 (GeForce 600 or higher, AMD Radeon 5000 or higher)

Hey!  Intel isn’t even supported on SteamOS/Linux.  I should try it on Windows to see how playable the game is, but I doubt it will be a very agreeable experience.

… you’ll notice that neither of these games is even a first person shooter-puzzler.
Indie games will work, right?  Right?

Yeah, kinda… Again better check what the specs are.  Rochard works fine, for example, and is a fun game.  Less graphically intensive games like World Of Goo or Thomas was alone work perfectly.  Rochard and Thomas was alone and are a joy to be played with an XBox controller, which works out of the box on Linux.  Are these your kind of games?  You’ll be happy with Integrated graphics and Steam.

However, not all is perfect. Which brings us to the drivers and question #4.

How are the drivers?  Intel has a good reputation on Linux for drivers, but, and that’s really a but… that’s because AMDs drivers are quite horrible and NVidias drivers are closed.

Are Intels drivers good?  Generally, yes, and it might just be because I use whatever comes stock with Ubuntu 14.04LTS that I have problems in some games.  Most of the issues here are in my i5-3317U (which is what I use for most casual gaming).  First time I noticed that something was wrong was that in certain scenes of Book of the unwritten tales – Critter Chronicles, the characters were very dark.  That’s a point ‘n click adventure, nothing graphically too fancy.  My guess, is that they used a badly implemented shader.  The game was playable, but when it happened, it looked ugly.
Recently I’ve been playing Never Alone, which is very playable on the i5 from a performance perspective.  However, the game uses some shader that is broken.  Probably the same issue as mentioned before, but it’s so much more annoying because the shaders move and look so very much out of place.  Is it playable?  Yes.  Is it pretty?  No.

There is also something strange going on with the i5.  Due to a flash of genius, I had the idea to just connect the laptop to my TV and play on the TV.  I set the TV as primary display and disabled the internal panel.  The surprise came when I tried playing something like Stanley Parable or Talos Principle.  They were unplayable, at any resolution.  Why is this remarkable?  Because I played these games on the Zotac ID61, which is immensely lower spec than that laptop.  Something is going, on, but I have no idea what.  Given these games play fine on the internal panel, my guess is it has something to do with the drivers and how a dual screen configuration is handled.

Back on topic: if you’re using Intel Integrated for gaming (within the range of chips I talked about), you get what you pay for.  I could recommend looking into AMD offerings, as their integrated graphics solutions are better, but you’ll still end up with disappointment.  I was rather happy with my A8-3850 (Radeon HD 6550D), but as a matter of fact, you’ll end up running most games on low settings any way.  I have given up and just got myself an low-range NVidia gaming card.  (Which I haven’t tested properly to tell whether it was a good idea.)

What does this mean?
Linux gaming will work, if you have the hardware to match.  If you don’t the experience will be as crappy or crappier than on Windows.  That 1100€ SteamBox suddenly does look more attractive, doesn’t it?   No, I don’t have that kind of money for toys either, but my fans can of course send me one as a present ;-).  Whether such a SteamBox will actually play games well enough, that, I cannot say.  Maybe consider a Steam Link to your real game box?

Language tests at the INAP

Exam

Hand completing a multiple choice exam.

Today, I had to go to the INAP to certify my language skills in the three mandatory languages, being French, Luxembourgish and German.  While I’m not all that happy to have to prove this (given I passed a language test, but not this one, when I tried becoming a teacher, and can prove it), let’s just play by the rules.
I wasn’t all that worried when I went there, since orally I’m quite capable of bullshitting myself through anything.  I’m pretty sure I bullshitted fine for that part of the test: “Oral expression”.  Basically, talk a bit about a given topic.

I wasn’t really prepared for the second part of the test, and it feels as if I thoroughly failed it.  That part was called “Oral comprehension”.  The test basically amounted to this:  get a bunch of multiple choice questions, of the type where more than one answer may be chosen.  Then you have to listen to a recording about a certain topic, you check when you think is correct, and that was is.  (On some recording you could listen a second time, but that’s semantics).  Sounds simple, right?
Well, not to me.  The questions felt as if they were designed to confuse you.  I’ll give an example from the German test, being the chosen lowest tier for me.  (If you need to know, I chose French: hardest, Luxembourgish: intermediate, German: simple).  The first question already put me in “fuck, what the hell do they want me to reply mode?”, and I kept in that mode pretty much all the way.  Basically, it was a recording of a lady buying prescription medicine for high blood pressure.

Q: The lady was in a ?
[ ] Shop
[ ] Pharmacy
[ ] Football stadium

Points: 1

So, you see, it can give you one point, so perhaps it means only one answer is correct.  I know she’s in a pharmacy, so I checked that… However, a pharmacy is also a shop, so I checked that too.  It’s only logical.

However, is that what they wanted to see? I have no idea.  Why wife disagrees: I should only have checked “Pharmacy”, because “I think too far”.  Fine, but in my eyes that would be incorrect.

Second question:

Q: The lady bought non-prescription drugs?
[ ] False
[ ] True
[ ] This was not addressed in the recording

Points: 1

Since she bought explicitly prescription drugs, the logical answer was “False”, but then eventual drugs she could also have bought were not addressed in the recording.  Technically, she could also have bought non-prescription drugs while buying prescription drugs, right?  That it wasn’t addressed in the recording, does not mean it didn’t happen, right?  Even if it didn’t happen, it wasn’t addressed specifically in the recording, So it might be “false” + not addressed”.  I chose “False” in this case, but frankly, I could make an argument for it not being addressed in the recording, because no word was said about non-prescription drugs.

These kind of convulsing questions, continued and believe me, it only became worse in the higher difficulty levels.  To the point, whether I think these questions were not conceived correctly.  The French one was especially hard: for most questions, I had no idea what was expected of me, because that was what I was thinking “what do they expect from me?”, not “what does the recording say?”.  Bad situation to be in, I know.

It’s not that I didn’t understand what the audio snippets were about, it just is that the questions seemed to make an extra point of wanting to screw you over.
I know the goal is to check “comprehension”, so perhaps linguists can make an argument for this approach to be correct.  The computer scientist in me just screams “too vague”, “not well-defined”, “specification is missing”, of course, people in languages don’t think in such ways, I fear.

I, for one, would not be surprised I completely blew that part of the test.

Acer Aspire S3 – Battery swap

In September 2013, I bought an Acer Aspire S3. Why? Because it was on sale for a really good price. When I can avoid it, I won’t ever pay laptops full price. The downsides were a 1366×768 resolution screen, soldered-on RAM and a built-in battery. Manufacturing date says November 2012, so at that point the battery was already about a year old.  Yes, even unused batteries degrade.

Fast forward to December 2015.  The battery really is getting low on capacity.  It barely holds an hour for light surfing.  So, the time has come to try to replace the battery.  Here are the statistics of the original battery:

Battery statistics of the Acer Aspire S3, before battery replacement

Battery statistics of the Acer Aspire S3, before battery replacement

My favourite battery supplier is duracelldirect.eu, as the prices are reasonable, the delivery is very quick and they regularly send newsletters giving you codes for 10% off (or more, but mostly 10%).  So basically, when I need a new battery, I just wait until I get such a code.  Why pay full price, right?  With coupon, I got the battery for 66,14€, including VAT, including delivery. Here is what a new battery looks like for the S3.  Exotic, I admit.

While the S3 didn’t look all hard to open up, and was pretty much akin to the infamous ThaiBook with regards to screws, I did do some research.  I found a youtube video by Sunderland Computer Repairs with detailed instructions, giving me confidence I could do it on my own. It really was as easy as described. For an Ultrabook, the repair-ability is great.  Obviously, just having a user-replaceable battery would be better.  Actually, in some sense the repair-ability is better than my Dell XPS L502x, because if you want access to the hard disk in that one, you have to be prepared for quite some pain.  The battery is user replaceable on the Dell, though.

The battery statistics after the swap:

Battery statistics of the Acer Aspire S3, after battery replacement

Battery statistics of the Acer Aspire S3, after battery replacement

Good for another two years, I say…

I also was happy to see that the SSD is exchangeable.  The reports on the Internet were mixed regarding this.  For some it’s soldered-on, for some not.  I’m apparently one of the lucky ones.  That said, the 20GB SSD is more than sufficient to hold my operating system.

The end of an era

DNX to CNL

The end of an era


Today, I officially handed in my notice at DNX Network sàrl. My notice period extends until 29th of February 2016, which makes my time at DNX Network my longest held job in my career, with a full seven years. The decision to take the other job offer wasn’t easy, because I like my job, the atmosphere at the office was generally great, and I have great colleagues. It’s mainly because of them that I hesitated and had a though few nights. As I have said in other departures: I don’t work for companies, I work with people. So, yes, I worked with great people like Jeroen (the worst company website in history) and Pieter, both extraordinary system and network engineers which I couldn’t match ever, if I wanted to. I feel bad leaving them with an added workload and on-call duty.

Now, if you’re happy at your job, you don’t look actively for a job, right? Well, kinda, but kinda not. I have checked my archives, and it turns out that in the last year I sent out exactly three applications and have responded to no head-hunter inquiries. I’d say, that’s not exactly the behaviour of someone itching to leave.
Interestingly, the first two of those three where shortly after performance reviews that basically said: “You’re doing your job fine, but, nah, no extra money”. That would be five years in a row, it kinda gets old. Oh, I’m not the only one, from what I heard: it’s the same for everyone at the peon level.

The three applications have something in common, namely the institution I sent them to: The Luxembourgian State. I hear you say: the state? Job security, good pensions, but bad pay! Well, not really. If you’re a Luxembourgian national, that’s basically where you want to end up, because they do pay well.

Now state jobs are hard to get by. There basically are two types: the type where you do a state exam, pass that and then you’re are on the track to become a sworn-in state servant. Alas, for me, that way is next to unachievable, because it involves written tests in several languages. One is German, and I’m totally self-taught. I couldn’t write a sentence without a spell checker and then it will be full of grammar mistakes.
The other way is the “state employee”. For all intents and purposes, this is used to fill positions where they can’t find anyone who has passed above mentioned exam. Basically, anyone can apply if you fit certain criteria that make you fit for the position. The downside is, that it’s often used to “internalize” external consultants, making the job postings a formality. You’ll get called for an interview, but you won’t get the job regardless. At least, that’s what the rumors say…

Apparently, the rumors aren’t entirely true, because I applied to an A2 career for an IT guy at the Centre National de Littérature. The A2 “only” requires a bachelors degree. A1 requires a masters degree. I went for an interview the 17th of November, I had a job offer on the table the 2nd December.

So, I’m leaving the glamorous world of porn, for the quite less glamorous world of digital archiving. Literature, no less. I’m not all that certain what exactly my role will be, but I know it won’t be much system and network engineering any more. It’s back to programming and from what I understood, mainly database design. Fine, I can do that. Open source seems to be desired, but I doubt I’ll be able to use Linux on the desktop. I’ll be quite dependent on the CTIE, from what I understood.

If all goes well, I’ll be getting pretty much a 20% pay increase. I might not, because it depends on the state acknowledging my 15+ years of work experience. It’s obviously a gamble. There is something else that that’s talking for this job. It’s in Mersch and not in Luxembourg city. Mersch happens to be about 10km from where I live… Not walking distance, but I doubt the engine of the TT will become warm.

I do realize that working for a porn company probably fit my personality better, but is there any nerd out there that could say no to books?