Category Archives: Rant

Ranting excessively about everything and nothing.

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!

What I think of Luxleaks

A picture of some Euro banknotes and various Euro coins.

A picture of some Euro banknotes and various Euro coins. by Avij
Creative commons license, found on Wikipedia

TL;DR: We had it coming.

Long version: Originally I wasn’t going to say much about it, but I keep getting tagged on social media regarding this. I can understand: How many Luxembourgers do you actually know except me? Unless you live here, probably not all that many. Believe me, if something happens in the Luxleaks affair, I’ll know: Our local press won’t shut up about it. So, this post presents my opinions and thoughts about the whole thing.

General observations:

  1. Nothing of this actually surprised any citizen of my country. Well, “nothing” isn’t entirely true, but I’ll get back to that. It is fact that Luxembourg has been providing means to multinationals and big and small corporations alike to alleviate their tax levels. That this was done using “mailbox companies” was also known.
  2. Officially, “mail box companies” are sternly frowned upon. The idea was that, attracting companies to Luxembourg, would create employment. Yes, a local a secretary and local manager is two jobs more than the zero jobs that mailbox company would provide. Apparently, this was only an official stance, and did not match the reality.
  3. The existence of the so called “tax rulings” was known, even though I doubt by the general public. I most certainly never heard of it in that form, but the accountants I talked to, said they knew. Anecdote, of course.

Taxes for citizens and small businesses:

  1. Let me make this clear: we citizens of Luxembourg do pay income taxes and a plethora of other taxes. Yes, is true that we have a rather low income tax compared to other countries. As someone who is rather well-off, I (actually we: income of spouses are cumulated) end up in the second-highest tax level. There is very little I can do about that, except a few minor incentives to save for retirement or a home. The latter being totally ridiculous, as the amounts required to buy any property are so high that those saving incentives are pretty much a drop on a hot plaque.
  2. Small businesses have a bit more leeway as businesses do have more options to do tax write-offs. Nevertheless, the small business like the one of my father in law, have to pay the official taxes. There is no special ruling for them. The bakery at the corner, the plumber, the florist, they all pay the 29% corporate tax.

With this out of the way, let me state this: I was convinced that having multinationals here in Luxembourg was a good thing. I naively assumed they would indeed create employment, and while Luxembourg isn’t cheap, the lesser tax rate -I repeat: 29%-, would be enough incentive to bring business here. I thought: this is good for the country, corporations help fund the rather nice living standard we have.

However, that is not what is happening. What is happening, is that multinationals don’t pay fair taxes. As a matter of fact, some multinational companies pay less tax than me and my spouse. Other multinationals pay taxes with which you can barely buy a mid-class family car.  That is what surprised me.  That is not good for my country. We stand here as the crooks that allowed a crime, with barely any rewards. Barely any employment creation, no significant taxes paid to our countries coffers and a huge scratch in our international image. With the best of will, I cannot see how any government official would call this “positive” for our country.

In all honesty, I can not fathom why nobody is on the streets and asking for the heads of the officials that let this go through.  I can’t understand why mobs aren’t storming the headquarters of big consulting companies and lynching the suits responsible for this.
Well, yes, I can: I wouldn’t do much in the first place.

As for Antoine Deltour, the person who is accused of leaking the documents.  I personally think we can thank him.  Thank him for making public with what abject methods consulting companies work, thank him for showing the lack of transparency the Luxembourgian tax system has and thank him for trying to make this world a bit more fair.
He’ll probably be the scapegoat for the whole thing.  He’ll pay a much larger price than the thinks, literally becoming unemployable.

We all are the losers in this game, except the big multinationals, consulting companies and their respective shareholders.

Of course, it’s all legal and our elected government allowed it. We dealt with the devil and lost. We had it coming.

iMess with your messages

iMessage chatI want to start off with the Hanlon’s razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

I’m going to talk about iMessage and about what I perceive as technologists making myopic decisions about how something should work. If you’re reading this you are most likely in IT, and perhaps even a programmer: we are trained to look for edge cases, trying to imagine the worst case and still having the damned thing work. Also, if you are in IT, you are aware about the hub-hub going around that Android switchers are penalised for the switch as text messages sent from iPhone users never arrive. I am, by now, convinced it is totally caused by the developers of iMessage living in a tech ivory tower. However, this is not what I’m going to talk about: I’m going to talk about iPhone users being unable to communicate in certain edge cases.

Some background:
An iPhone can send SMS, the “speech bubbles” in such a conversation are green. The way they are sent are through your cellular network: it works even if you have no data connection at all, not even GPRS. SMS is part of the GSM specification and is considered “best effort”. Despite that, it is incredibly reliable.
Contrast to iMessage, the blue “speech bubbles”, where a data connection is needed to send and receive messages. It doesn’t matter how you connect to the Internet, GRPS, 3G, Wifi Avian Carriers, as long as there is Internet. At first, you do think this is a rather reasonable condition, after all iPhone users are tech-savvy always-connected people who can’t live without their precious Internet. Right? Right?
How do I compose that sarcasm sign again?

The trouble is that iMessage, presents itself as a SMS (“Text Message”) replacement, without a way to revert back. Now first, I’ll tell you why it works so well in most settings. We, even the non-tech users, are pretty much connected 24/7 to the Internet in our daily lives. At home you have your wireless setup, at your workplace probably too, the Wireless of your preferred junk-food and junk-beverage places are configured and working. Even if that’s not the case, at least where I live, iPhones are sold with a reasonable data plan. You simply don’t care, anywhere in the country you are connected, which makes the difference between iMessage and SMS totally oblivious to the end-user and this is the typical “It just works” mentality that Apple is famous for. For iPhone users iMessage and SMS are the same thing.

First, to iMessages defence, I don’t know how it gets activated. Perhaps I did that myself, perhaps I clicked away an annoying dialog and accepted it one day. I don’t remember. Fact is, my wife, my mother in law and myself all use iMessage and I sure as hell didn’t “install” or “configure” it in the traditional sense. It was there, one day, and it worked. It might be my fault it has been activated.

So, here is how I found that iMessage has an unfixable problem, at least one I can’t fix, or I haven’t found the appropriate fix. The story involves three iPhone users, two of which are non-tech and yours truly.

My wife has been in Switzerland for surgery the last four weeks, and I made sure she could go on the hospitals wireless (Those Swiss sure know how to do wireless: the whole campus is flawlessly covered!). I even made sure she has my Ultrabook so she could waste all her time, trying to ignore pain. Well, that was of no use, as it seems that she basically uses her phone exclusively and she seems to use text messages all the time. I’m not big brother, but I know that at least her mother and me are those whom she communicates most with using SMS, of course, in reality that’s iMessage.

This works as, I’m always online and my mother in law has the “fuck-yeah-all-the-data-you-want” plan. Messages always arrive, life is sweet, the Internet is a blessing. Last weekend (I visit her every weekend), my wife tells me that her Mom can send her “texts”, but the texts she makes to her Mom never arrive.
This makes me look into the issue, and I realise: Mother in law is not in Luxembourg. She’s on vacation somewhere in Austria. That means roaming, and the default setting on iPhones is to disallow data roaming, which is a good thing. This means that my mother in law, does not have Internet connectivity. Knowing her, she will be unable to connect to public wireless hotspots.

To mother in law, everything looks normal. She is doing the same as always: sending “SMS” to her daugher and they arrive. The phone probably has the “Send as SMS” option activated, which falls back to SMS when no Internet connectivity is present. That is good. On my wifes side, however, her iPhone decides: “This is an iPhone, it can receive iMessage, so let’s send iMessage”. This is, I stress, not configurable. Not per number, not any where. So, my wifes messages to her mother disappear somewhere in a message queue somewhere on an Apple server to be delivered to her mother when her mother gets on the Internet, which will be in a week or two. Brilliant, just brilliant!

I have tried everything, deleting all Mother/Daughter threads on my wifes iPhone, deleting her moms contact entry in order to make it forget that it’s an iPhone and tell it that it’s a “mobile”. Nothing helped. There was no way to convince her iPhone to send SMS instead of iMessage to my mother in law. None.
I gave up in frustration and explained it to my wife, who was very patient and understanding, that we would have to disable iMessage and revert to SMS pure. It would be more expensive, as she is roaming too, but it at least she would be able to communicate with her mother and the problem would be gone. I did so, and indeed it worked.

Now think about this twice: at that point I did a major thinking error. Let me explain. That night I go to the hotel and about around midnight I get a text message from my wife whether I’m still awake. I was and I replied. To my surprise, I didn’t get a reply to my text. My logic error manifested itself, but I didn’t realise it yet. I only understood the next day: We shifted the problem. My phone was now insisting on sending iMessages to my wifes iPhone, but I totally disabled iMessage on her phone. Yup, my messages were now the ones being held somewhere on an Apple server. Of course, I could disable iMessage on my phone, but I have people at work using iPhones who write me iMessages, which I then would then not be able to get. I can’t do that, it is my work phone after all.

So, in the end, I had to put my wife before a choice: Be able to communicate instantly with me or with her mother. She chose me, which is flattering of course. I reactivated iMessage on her phone, which then caused a re-authentication and an SMS to a UK phone number, which will cost us money. Okay, not much, but I know it will.

This all boils down to the developers of iMessage being totally confident that people will have Internet connectivity on their iPhones at all times and not providing a fall-back method. This is provably not the case, especially to people who go to foreign countries. Apple employees do seem to know about this, after all the default setting for roaming is reasonable.
What should happen is that after a timeout period, the iMessage should be sent per SMS. This can be done, by relaying the “not able to send” information back to the phone and perhaps even asking for permission (or just do the damned thing transparently, you’re Apple for crying out loud). This would also fix the issue that Android switchers have. Alternatively, they could use a SMS gateway of their own. This does shift the cost to Apple, so it is understandable that they don’t want this.
Sure, it would delay the message a bit, but that seems totally acceptable. Delayed transmission is preferable over undelivery.
Also, let the user choose per contact whether to send SMS or iMessage. The information is there in the “contact” entry. If the number is specified as “mobile”, send SMS, if it is specified as “iPhone” it is send as iMessage and then use the fall-back mechanism to avoid situations like the one I described. At least, with such a system, I could have fixed it.

Now, I may have overseen something, or have misunderstood an option or setting somewhere. I am confident enough to tell you: If I did something wrong, this rant is totally irrelevant. If it is, I sincerely apologise to the iMessage developers. If not: please, get your act together, you are developing for non-tech users. Keep that in mind.

Tomorrow Windows XP dies, long live Windows XP!

designed for windows xpTomorrow is Tuesday 8 April 2014.  The date that Microsoft kills XP support forever.  I know there are many people who want to see it die.  I don’t because it kills off mature software.  Software that has been tried and trusted, where the bugs are known and can be worked around with a well known graphical user interface.

I know, I hear you: Security!  Boooo!  Hisss.  Scare, scare, scare!  I know, as a matter of fact that it is totally possible to run XP safely.  The rules are rather simple: don’t use any other Microsoft software, use a reasonable anti-virus, don’t install stuff you don’t actually need, and…. apply the Unix principles.  You run as standard user, and do administrative tasks as the Administrative user.  That works, and illustrates that a XP machine can be safe.  Sure, the way XP does it is a bit more cumbersome than more modern systems but that does have its advantages (Oh, I’ll click “Allow”, how bad can it be… Aaargh!).  On the other hand, with “Run As” you could get a long way.

The only other reason, I see, is support for more than 4GB RAM.  Ok, fine, I’ll grant you that.  At the risk of sounding like the 640kB is enough for everyone quote, I can assure you that a normal office desktop for the typical worker bee can live with “just” 4GB RAM.  Heck, I write this on an Ultrabook with a mere 4GB RAM.  Ubuntu tells me that I only have 1GB in use right now.

Regardless.  XP dying is a shame.  The normal worker bee gets nothing out of Vista/7/8, neither does the normal home user.  At best they hobble along and cope with the unneeded changes, at worst they get very frustrated (at which point I send the people I want to help to Linux, and those I don’t want to help to Mac OS  X).

So, I declare the 8th April “Install Windows XP day”.  Dust off that old XP machine you have lying around and don’t use.  Write down the OEM key, then grab the ISO and install it in a Virtual Machine (For easy to start VM software: VirtualBox).  Let it update as fully as it allows you to.  Then pink away a tear, in reminiscence of all the hours you wasted reinstalling XP in the first place, but also a tear for the death of mature software.

That’s what I’ll do tomorrow.  Of course, discard the VM afterwards, after all, installing an OEM license on non-original-equipment is filthy piracy.

On shared computer accounts.

“I read your email” used to be a popular system administrators t-shirt. It probably still is.  Ever since I started playing system administrator, for home systems, it was one of the things I didn’t do.  It’s user data, you don’t touch user data and it’s the way it should be.

Way back in those days, the typical home computers did not have significant user accounts.  Stuff was shared, and I do remember one occasion of one of my family member going through our Eudora account and being angry at something I wrote.  I don’t even remember what it was, it must have been quite petty.  It is then that we separated everything for everyone: everyone got his/hers account,  password protected, preferably with the screen saver locking out access.  All this even got better when we switched to Windows NT 4.0 and later (the best operating system coming from Redmond, ever) Windows 2000.

It brought fun stuff like, having your own colour scheme, your own wallpaper and you could organize your data as you wanted.  The downside was having to log out and the log in when another user wanted to use the machine.  I mean, I am talking pre-Windows XP, here.  When we did switch over to XP (rather late, SP2 was just released), the “Fast User Switching” feature was one of the biggest arguments.  That, and the superior wireless handling.

Why, do I write this?  It’s 2014, and I just found out, by reading into the context, that a certain branch of my family uses a shared computer account.  Today, around 20 years after we started separating our accounts.  They don’t even have the technological hurdles, we used to have!  When I pointed them out that this was not a good idea, I got the typical “we have nothing to hide to each other”.  Well, neither do I… Not really, at least, but you might need the occasional brain bleach if you do go meddling in my data.  For me this is about respect:  I respect your part of the computer and you respect mine.  Just as I respect your sock drawer and you respect mine.  I can look in it, but I won’t.  Because I respect you.  It’s the same reason, my wife won’t ever take my phone without asking me, and I won’t do that with hers either.

In that sense, it’s about trust: I trust you enough to give you your privacy.  I expect the same from you.  Let’s say it a bit differently: You may have nothing to hide, but you should still value your privacy.  Even from loved ones.

As you see, I don’t even touch on global spying, where the NSA and other governments try to track your every move and violate your privacy continuously.  That’s the big picture, but really, you won’t get the big picture if you fail to see the issues within your own four walls with your loved ones.

Presents – Bah Humbug

You shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth — Traditional saying

This saying has some truth in it.  What it doesn’t explore, is whether the person actually wanted a horse.  I’m thirty seven years old, and not a child, I don’t get all starry eyed by gifts.  In all honesty, they tend to make me feel awkward.  I should be thankful, shouldn’t I?  I have a hard time doing exactly that and I am not a good actor.

It isn’t even a secret! I openly say: “Please no presents”, and I mean it.  At my age you should be giving presents to your own children, not receiving any from whoever.  Yet, people don’t listen.  This year a particularly clever one wrote on the present “not a present”.  Inventive, I admit.

Each element in the set of “objects” (and thus its subset “presents”) can be pretty much sorted  according to the properties “need” and “afford”.  The “need” factor is pretty self-explanatory: it defines whether I need something or not.  Logic says that if I don’t need it, it doesn’t make a good present.  You can thus eliminate all objects which I don’t need.
At first glance, the “afford” property doesn’t seem have any importance.  It does, because affordability determines whether an object is obtainable to me.  Since we already eliminated the objects I don’t need, only objects that I need are eligible.  I can either afford those, or I can’t.  If I can afford them and need them, I’ll buy them myself.  So, a good present can only be something I need and can’t afford.

There’s the rub: There is a property we haven’t talked about which applies to the subset “presents”, and it’s “appropriateness”.  Well, expensive presents are, by definition, not appropriate.  This leaves us with an empty set as potential gifts, which means it is logically impossible to get me anything.

Please, save your money, spare me embarrassment, and don’t get me anything.  In our family, we decided decades ago that presents were a no-go.  Best … decision … ever…