Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.
Fri, 30 Nov 2007
I upgraded my system to the latest Ubuntu, "Gutsy Gibbon", recently.
Of course, it's always best
to make a backup before doing a major upgrade. In this case, the goal
was to back up my root partition to another partition on the same
disk and get it working as a bootable Ubuntu, which I could then
upgrade, saving the old partition as a working backup.
I'll describe here a couple of silly snags I hit,
to save you from making the same mistakes.
Linux offers lots of ways to copy filesystems.
I've used tar in the past, with a command like (starting in /gutsy):
tar --one-file-system -cf - / | tar xvf - > /tmp/backup.out
but cp seemed like an easier way, so I want to try it.
I mounted my freshly made backup partition as /gutsy and started a
cp -ax /* /gutsy (-a does the right thing for
permissions, owner and group, and file type; -x tells it to stay
on the original filesystem).
Count to ten, then check what's getting copied.
Whoops! It clearly wasn't staying on the original filesystem.
It turned out my mistake was that
Pretty obvious in hindsight what cp was doing: for each entry in /
it did a cp -ax, staying on the filesystem for that entry, not on
the filesystem for /. So /home, /boot, /proc, etc. all got copied.
The solution was to remove the *:
cp -ax / /gutsy.
But it wasn't quite that simple.
It looked like it was working -- a long wait, then cp finished
and I had what looked like a nice filesystem backup.
I adjusted /gutsy/etc/fstab so that it would point to the right root,
set up a grub entry, and rebooted. Disaster! The boot hung right after
Attached scsi generic sg0 type 0 with no indication of
what was wrong.
Rebooting into the old partition told me that what's supposed to
happen next is:
* Setting preliminary keymap...
But the crucial error message was actually
several lines earlier:
Warning: unable to open an initial
console. It hadn't been able to open /dev/console.
Now, in the newly copied filesystem,
there was no /dev/console: in fact, /dev was empty. Nothing had been
copied because /dev is a virtual file system, created by udev.
But it turns out that the boot process needs some static devices in
/dev, before udev has created anything. Of course, once udev's
virtual filesystem has been mounted on /dev, you can no longer read
whatever was in /dev on the root partition in order to copy it
somewhere else. But udev nicely gives you access to it,
in /dev/.static/dev. So what I needed to do to get my new partition
cp -ax /dev/.static/dev/ /gutsy/dev/
With that done, I was able to boot into my new filesystem and upgrade
[ 22:48 Nov 30, 2007
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Thu, 22 Nov 2007
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Today's holiday tip involves
how to type international characters.
For the online Spanish class I've been taking, so far I've been
able to manage without having to type characters like
ñ or á. Usually, if I need one I can find it in one of
the class examples, copy it, and paste it wherever I need it. But
obviously that would be tedious if I needed to type much.
I hacked up a quickie workaround:
script that shows a set of buttons, one for each accented
character I'm likely to need. Clicking a button copies that character
to the clipboard, so I can now paste via mouse middleclick or ctrl-V.
(I'm sure that sounds pathetic to those of you who type accented
characters every day, but it's not something most US English speakers
need to do. And besides, now I know how to access the X clipboard
from Python-GTK -- hooray for learning new things from procrastination
Anyway, Mikael Magnusson took pity on me and explained in simple
language how to use the X "Multi key" to type these characters the
right way (well, a right way, anyway). Since all the online
instructions I've seen have been rather complicated, here are the
simple instructions for any of my fellow US monolingists who'd
like to expand their horizons:
First, choose a key for the "Multi key" that you're not using for
anything else. A lot of people use one of the Alt or Windows keys,
but I use both of those already. What I don't use is the Menu key
(that little key down by the right Ctrl key, at least on my keyboard)
since not many Linux apps support it anyway.
Find the keycode for that key, by firing up
typing the key. For my Menu key, the keycode is 117.
xmodmap -e "keycode 117 = Multi_key"
Now you're ready to type a sequence like:
[Menu] ~ n
to type an n-tilde,
[Menu] ' a
for an accented a, or
[menu] ? ? for the upside-down question mark,
in any app that supports those characters.
Of course, you don't want to type that xmodmap command every time you
log in, so to make it permanent, put this in your .Xmodmap (you're on
your own for figuring out whether your X environment reads .Xmodmap
automatically or whether you need to tell it to run
xmodmap .Xmodmap when X starts up):
keycode 117 = Multi_key
I have one final useful international input tidbit to offer:
how to type Unicode characters by number.
Hold ctrl+shift+U, then release U but keep holding the
other two while you type a numeric sequence. (This may only work in
gtk apps.) For instance, try this: hold down ctrl and shift, then
type: u 2 6 6 c. Cool, huh?
You can use the "gucharmap" program to find other
neat sequences (hint: View->By Unicode Block otherwise
you'll never find anything).
Now it's time to check the turkey. Have a good day, everyone!
[ 16:03 Nov 22, 2007
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Sat, 17 Nov 2007
We found a tiny baby newt struggling its way across the Zinfandel
trail at Stevens Creek.
Really across the trail -- I didn't see it and might have stepped
on it, but luck was with both of us. Dave spotted it after I passed.
We stopped to admire, handle and photograph it, then set it gently
off the trail so it could continue to struggle its way up the hill.
(Then rinsed our hands thoroughly -- rough-skinned newts and their
cousins the California newts secrete a strong neurotoxin through
their skin. It's only dangerous if you eat it.
They have an interesting defensive posture -- which I've only seen
in books and
on the web
-- showing bright colors to let an attacker know they're poisonous.
Garter snakes are the only predator resistant to the toxin.)
I don't know what's at the top of the hill that's so attractive for
a young newt, but evidently it's worth some effort. I hope this
little one makes it there.
[ 15:03 Nov 17, 2007
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Fri, 16 Nov 2007
I can't stop thinking about the woman in the Chinese restaurant the
It was one of those conversations you try not to overhear, but they're
so loud and distracting that you just can't avoid it.
In the middle of a long declamation on conspiracy theories and
politics, the man made a comment about how we're in the middle
east shooting Iraqis who never hurt anyone. (I didn't say his politics
were all wrong, just loud).
The woman, who had been relatively quiet up to now, interrupted,
"But they hurt us in 9/11!"
In the next booth, facing away from them, my mouth dropped open.
The man quickly countered that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11,
but then was off onto other topics, sharing with the room his
theories on war in the middle east in general, Israel, and people
trying to wipe out the Jews. This caught the woman's interest --
"They already tried that, Hitler." After a pause, she added
thoughtfully, "You know, the strangest thing about that is how
people there just went along with it."
That came barely a minute after the 9/11 comment.
She clearly had no idea of the irony of juxtaposing the two.
I wanted to turn around and say, "Perhaps they went along for the same
reason that you're going along with killing hundreds of thousands of
Iraqi civilians, when even the president who started the war admits
that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11?"
[ 21:24 Nov 16, 2007
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Wed, 14 Nov 2007
I spent a couple of fruitless hours today trying to install PCLinuxOS,
a well-reviewed new Linux distro, on my Vaio. I got lots of help
from the nice folks on the IRC channel, and tried lots of different
approaches, but no dice -- their Live CD won't boot because it doesn't
grok PCMCIA CDROM drives, and they have no other installation method
besides using the live CD.
Which brings me to today's question:
Why do Linux distros have installers at all?
That probably sounds like a silly question. Of course you need an
installer to get the system onto your disk ... don't you?
Well, yes and no. You could make it a lot simpler than anyone
What if you distributed a Linux distro as a filesystem image?
Make it tar, zip, CD iso or whatever format you like -- but
provide the user with a tree of files that, when copied onto a
hard drive, can boot as a running Linux.
Set up this minimal installation filesystem so that when you boot
into it, you get a commandline (X hasn't been configured yet)
and a set of scripts that make it easy to go the rest of the way.
From your running minimal system, you can configure X, set up
networking, install more programs from the distro repositories (or
even from a CD image), and do all the rest of the machine-specific
configuration that an installer does.
The key is that this is all happening from a running system,
not from some cobbled-together installer kernel or live CD.
If you have a problem with any step, you still have a basic
running system, and tools to fix the problem. You avoid the
- Run installer
- Spend 20 minutes answering questions
- Spend 45 minutes waiting for installer
- Discover it failed
- Start over with slightly different parameters
If your X configuration fails, try running X configuration again --
no need to do another install from the beginning. If it doesn't
see your network card -- ditto. Since this debugging all happens
from a normal running Linux, you can use the normal Linux tools you're
used to, not some busybox-based installer.
This model would be much more hardware agnostic than current installers:
- You can install on systems with weirdo graphics cards;
- You can install on systems that need special drivers for the
network card or other hardware;
- You can install on systems with no CDROM or an external CDROM;
- You can install even if you don't have access to a CD burner.
Another advantage is that it makes it very easy to
make a customized version of your distro: just take the basic
system image, change the part that needs changing and tar it up again.
Some distros have gone a little way with this, with an installer
that gives you a starter system, then scripts to download the
rest -- but I've never seen one that made the minimal system
available as a filesystem image, with easy instructions on going
to the next step.
What about the people who aren't already running Linux or aren't
comfortable writing a filesystem image to a partition?
No problem. They get a CD image with a very simple installer --
it handles the partitioning, copies the minimal install to the
partition, and updates grub. It's as prone to hardware compatibility
issues as any installer (though far less so than a live CD is)
but it's still better than the current model, because it won't be
trying to configure hardware until the user reboots into a working
Of course, Live CDs are still cool -- on machines where they
actually work -- for showing Linux to people not ready to commit
to an install. But don't tie your installer to that. Give people
a simpler way to install, one that's fast and straightforward and
hardware agnostic and easy to understand or customize.
The tarball installer. An idea whose time has come.
Now if I could just persuade the distros to offer it.
Update: a couple of people told me about
Dynebolic, a distro that
apparently does just that -- you install by copying a directory
on the CD onto your partition, or rsyncing from their site. Nice!
[ 22:59 Nov 14, 2007
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Mon, 12 Nov 2007
Something rustled madly in the star jasmine when I walked past.
Probably just a sparrow, I thought. Ever since the sparrows discovered
the squirrel nuts, there's been a gang camped out in the guava tree
just outside the office door at all times.
I put it out of my mind until an hour later, when Dave reported,
"There's an orphan squirrel in the star jasmine. It looks too small to
be out on its own. Where is its mother?"
We put a few pieces of walnut out by the bush and watched.
After a little while the youngster came out to
investigate, moving very slowly and awkwardly,
and sat next to the walnut pieces. It didn't sit normally:
its weight was back on its tail, with hind legs stuck out in
front and crossed, like a tiny squirrel Buddha.
The tiny youngster took a piece of walnut in its front paws and stared
at it blankly as if wondering what to do with it. But ten minutes later
we saw that it was nibbling, slowly and tentatively. It took a long
time, but the orphan eventually made it through three pieces of walnut.
We provided more walnut (the fearful youngster scurried back under the
jasmine) and a little dish of water and waited, but the orphan didn't
reappear. An hour later, we saw a small young squirrel climbing a tree
in the front yard. Could it be the same one? The baby we'd seen didn't
look capable of climbing anything. Could it have been merely weak from
hunger and fear, and a few nuts revived it?
The next morning, a new squirrel appeared at our feeding area in
the backyard. A young female, small but confident. She was able to
move both up and down fenceposts and leap from the fence to the
oak tree, usually difficult maneuvers for a squirrel trainee.
Surely this couldn't be the same tiny, shivering orphan we'd seen
the day before?
But after finding a nut I'd left on the fence, this youngster sat in
the same odd Buddha fashion to eat it.
Little orphan Annie turned out to be smart as well as agile.
She caught on to the nut shelf early -- she was hanging out in the
guava (whose springy branches make a great playground for a light
little squirreling) when a mouse made a rare appearance, darting
out from under the deck to the nut shelf to grab a nut and run back
to its hole. I could see Annie's head move as she watched the mouse;
I could almost imagine her eyes widening. No need to tell her twice!
She was down the guava and over to the nut shelf like a flash
to pick up a piece for herself.
Annie hung around for about a week after that (getting chased by
Ringtail a few times) but then she stopped visiting. Life is tough
for young squirrels. I hope Annie's all right, and just moved on to
find a nuttier place to live.
[ 11:39 Nov 12, 2007
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Wed, 07 Nov 2007
I've been a tcsh user for many years. Back in the day, there were lots
of reasons for preferring csh to sh, mostly having to do with command
history. Most of those reasons are long gone -- modern bash and
tcsh are vastly improved from those early shells, and borrow from each
other, so the differences are fairly minor.
Back in July, I solved
the last blocker that had been keeping me off bash,
so I put some effort into migrating all my .cshrc settings into
a .bashrc so I could give bash a fair shot. It almost won; but
after four months, I've switched back to tcsh, due mostly to a single
niggling bash bug that I just can't seem to solve.
After all these years, the crucial difference is still history.
Specifically, history amnesia: bash has an annoying habit of
forgetting history commands just when I most want them back.
Say I type some longish command.
After it runs, I hit return a couple of times, wait a while, do
a couple of other things, then decide I want to call that command
back from history so I can run something similar, maybe with the
filename changed or a different flag. I ctrl-P or up-arrow ... and
the command isn't there!
If I type
history at this point, I'll see most of my
command history ... with an empty line in place of the line I was
hoping to repeat. The command is gone. My only option is to remember
what I typed, and type it all again.
Nobody seems to know why this happens, and it's sporadic, doesn't
happen every time. Friends have been able to reproduce it, so it's
not just me or my weird settings. It drives me batty.
It wouldn't be so bad except it always seems to happen on the
tricky commands that I really didn't want to retype.
It's too bad, because otherwise I had bash nicely whipped into shape,
and it does have some advantages over tcsh. Some of the tradeoffs:
- Totally reliable history: commands never disappear.
- History tab completion: typing
expands to the last command that started with a. In bash, I have
!a:p to see the command, then
!! to execute it.
- When I tab-complete a file and there are multiple matches, tcsh shows
them, or at least beeps (depending on configuration). In bash I have
to hit a second tab just in case there might be matches.
- When I tab-complete a directory, tcsh adds the / automatically.
(Arguable. I find I want the / roughly 3/4 of the time.)
- tcsh doesn't drop remote connections if I suspend (with ~^Z).
bash drops me within a minute or two, regardless of settings like
$TMOUT. Bash users tell me I could solve this by using screen,
but that seems like a heavyweight workaround when tcsh "just works".
- tcsh sees $REMOTEHOST and $DISPLAY automatically when I ssh.
bash doesn't: ssh -X helps, but I still need some tricky
code in .bash_profile.
- aliases can have arguments, e.g.
alias llth 'ls -laFt \!* | head'
In bash these have to be functions, which means they don't show
up typing "which" or "alias".
- Prompt settings are more flexible -- there are options like %B for
bold. In bash you have to get the terminal type and use the
ansi color escape sequances, which don't include bold.
- Easier command editing setup -- behaviors like
word-erase to stop at punctuation
don't involve chasing through multiple semi-documented programs,
and the answer doesn't vary with version.
- Documentation -- tcsh's is mostly in man tcsh, bash's is
scattered all over man pages for various helper programs.
And it's hard to google for bash help because "bash" as a keyword
gets you lots of stuff not related to shells.
Of course, you bash users, set me straight if I missed out
on some bash options that would have solved some of these problems.
And especially if you have a clue about the evil disappearing
- You don't have to
rehash every time you add a program
or change your path. That's a real annoyance of tcsh, and I could
understand a person used to bash rejecting tcsh on this alone.
Update: Holger Weiß has written
a tcsh patch to fix this, and it has been accepted as of
November 2009. Looking forward to the next version!
- History remembers entire multi-line commands, and shows them
with semicolons when you arrow back through history. Very nice.
tcsh only remembers the first line and you have to retype the rest.
- Functions: although I don't like having to use them instead of
aliases, they're certainly powerful and nice to have.
Of course, bash and tcsh aren't the only shells around.
From what I hear, zsh blends the good features of bash and tcsh.
One of these days I'll try it and see.
[ 21:58 Nov 07, 2007
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