A Quartet of Workarounds (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Thu, 28 Jun 2007

A Quartet of Workarounds

I upgraded my laptop's Ubuntu partition from Edgy to Feisty. Debian Etch works well, but it's just too old and I can't build software like GIMP that insists on depending on cutting-edge libraries.

But Feisty is cutting edge in other ways, so it's been a week of workarounds, in two areas: Firefox and the kernel. I'll start with Firefox.

Firefox crashes playing flash

First, the way Ubuntu's Firefox crashes when running Flash. I run flashblock, fortunately, so I've been able to browse the web just fine as long as I don't click on a flashblock button. But I like being able to view the occasional youtube video, and flash 7 has worked fine for me on every distro except Ubuntu. I first saw the problem on Edgy, and upgrading to Feisty didn't cure the problem.

But it wasn't their Firefox build; my own "kitfox" firefox build crashed as well. And it wasn't their flash installation; I've never had any luck with either their adobe flash installer nor their opensource libswfdec, so I'm running the same old flash 7 plug-in that I've used all along for other distros.

To find out what was really happening, I ran Firefox from the commandline, then went to a flash page. It turned out it was triggering an X error:

The error was: 'BadMatch (invalid parameter attributes)'.
(Details: serial 104 error_code 8 request_code 145 minor_code 3)

That gave me something to search for. It turns out there's a longstanding Ubuntu bug, 14911 filed on this issue, with several workarounds. Setting the environment variable XLIB_SKIP_ARGB_VISUALS to 1 fixed the problem, but, reading farther in the bug, I saw that the real problem was that Ubuntu's installer had, for some strange reason, configured my X to use 16 bit color instead of 24. Apparently this is pretty common, and due to some bug involving X's and Mozilla's or Flash's handling of transparency, this causes flash to crash Mozilla.

So the solution is very simple. Edit /etc/X11/xorg.conf, look for the DefaultDepth line, and if it's 16, that's your problem. Change it to 24, restart X and see if flash works. It worked for me!

Eliminating Firefox's saved session pester dialog

While I was fiddling with Firefox, Dave started swearing. "Why does Firefox always make me go through this dialog about restoring the last session? Is there a way to turn that off?"

Sure enough, there's no exposed preference for this, so I poked around about:config, searched for browser and found browser.sessionstore.resume_from_crash. Doubleclick that line to change it to false and you'll have no more pesky dialog.

For more options related to session store, check the Mozillazine Session Restore page.

Kernel: runaway kacpid

Alas, having upgraded to Feisty expressly so that I could build cutting-edge programs like GIMP, I discovered that I couldn't build anything at all. Anything that uses heavy CPU for more than a minute or two triggers a kernel daemon, kacpid, to grab most of the CPU for itself. Being part of the kernel (even though it has a process ID), kacpi is unkillable, and prevents the machine from shutting down, so once this happens the only solution is to pull the power plug.

This has actually been a longstanding Ubuntu problem (bug 75174) but it used to be that disabling acpid would stop kacpid from running away, and with feisty, that no longer helps. The bug is also kernel.org bug 8274.

The Ubuntu bug suggested that disabling cpufreq solved it for one person. Apparently the only way to do that is to build a new kernel. There followed a long session of attempted kernel building. It was tricky because of course I couldn't build on the target machine (inability to build being the problem I was trying to solve), and even if I built on my desktop machine, a large rsync of the modules directory would trigger a runaway kacpi. In the end, building a standalone kernel with no modules was the only option.

But turning off cpufreq didn't help, nor did any of the other obvious acpi options. The only option which stops kacpid is to disable acpi altogether, and use apm. I'm sorry to lose hibernate, and temperature monitoring, but that appears to be my only option with modern kernels. Sigh.

Kernel: Hangs for 2 minutes at boot time initializing sound card

While Dave and I were madly trying to find a set of config options to build a 2.6.21 that would boot on a Vaio (he was helping out with his SR33 laptop, starting from a different set of config options) we both hit, at about the same time, an odd bug: partway through boot, the kernel would initialize the USB memory stick reader:

sd 0:0:0:0: Attached scsi removable disk sda
sd 0:0:0:0: Attached scsi generic sg0 type 0
and then it would hang, for a long time. Two minutes, as it turned out. And the messages after that were pretty random: sometimes related to the sound card, sometimes to the network, sometimes ... GConf?! (What on earth is GConf doing in a kernel boot sequence?) We tried disabling various options to try to pin down the culprit: what was causing that two minute hang?

We eventually narrowed the blame to the sound card (which is a Yamaha, using the ymfpci driver). And that was enough information for google to find this Linux Kernel Mailing List thread. Apparently the sound maintainer decided, for some reason, to make the ymfpci driver depend on an external firmware file ... and then didn't include the firmware file, nor is it included in the alsa-firmware package he references in that message. Lovely. I'm still a little puzzled about the timeout: the post does not explain why, if a firmware file isn't found on the disk, waiting for two minutes is likely to make one magically appear.

Apparently it will be fixed in 2.6.22, which isn't much help for anyone who's trying to run a kernel on any of the 2.6.21.* series in the meantime. (Isn't it a serious enough regression to fix in 2.6.21.*?) And he didn't suggest a workaround, except that alsa-firmware package which doesn't actually contain the firmware for that card. Looks like it's left to the user to make things work.

So here's what to do: it turns out that if you take a 2.6.21 kernel, and substitute the whole sound/pci/ymfpci directory from a 2.6.20 kernel source tree, it builds and boots just fine. And I'm off and running with a standalone apm kernel with no acpi; sound works, and I can finally build GIMP again.

So it's been quite a week of workarounds. You know, I used to argue with all those annoying "Linux is not ready for the desktop" people. But sometimes I feel like Linux usability is moving in the wrong direction. I try to imagine explaining to my mac-using friends why they should have to edit /etc/X11/xorg.conf because their distro set up a configuration that makes Firefox crash, or why they need to build a new kernel because the distributed ones all crash or hang ... I love Linux and don't regret using it, but I seem to need workarounds like this more often now than I did a few years ago. Sometimes it really does seem like the open source world is moving backward, not forward.

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[ 22:24 Jun 28, 2007    More linux | permalink to this entry ]