Holiday Cheer, Holiday Uncheer - Part 2

Continuing my holiday machine maintenance saga I move on to some notable trials and tribulations with Ubuntu, but not before I report on a little more holiday cheer.

Update Love

I'm losing my wits. In my last article I forgot to mention that Jean-Pierre Lemoine has updated his AVSynthesis to version 25_05_09. This release includes new features for realtime control of audio and video parameters (Figure 1), opening a new way to explore this amazing program. I also failed to mention that discoDSP has updated the native Linux version of the Discovery synthesizer to release number 3.1 (Figure 2).

Figure 1: AVSynthesis with realtime controls

Figure 2: Discovery 3.1 for Linux

Un-Fun With Ubuntu 8.10

In a previous article I wrote that I'd report on my ongoing work with my new HP G60-125NR laptop and its brand new Ubuntu 8.10 distro. As I said in that article, there are many things to like about the Intrepid Ibex, but there are also some major annoyances that rival the experiences I had with Ivy's XP system.

The first annoyance was the Synaptics touchpad control. The machine includes a hardware switch to disable the touchpad, but it doesn't work. Fortunately I can turn off the touchpad with the GNOME Control Center's mouse control dialog. Unfortunately the process also switches my Fluxbox theme background to the Ubuntu default image. That image is nice, but I didn't ask for it and I don't like the system switching to it without my approval. I searched Google for an alternative and found the synclient utility. Alas, that software requires a configured SHMConfig, so I went back to Google to find out how to enable SHMConfig. My first attempts were made by adding appropriate lines to the meager /etc/X11/xorg.conf, to no avail. I then discovered that xorg.conf is no longer where the appropriate changes should go. X11 input devices are now defined and registered in the HAL .fdi configuration files located at /etc/hal/fdi/policy/. I created an shmconfig.fdi according to this design :

    <?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?>
    <deviceinfo version="0.2">
          <match key="input.x11_driver" string="synaptics">
    	    <merge key="input.x11_options.SHMConfig" type="string">True

With that file in place I added this command to my custom start-up script :

    synclient TouchpadOff=1

I run the script after logging in, and I have no more trouble with the touchpad.

Update 28 December 2008: I reinstalled the system and decided to stay with GNOME, even though I do not like it. My touchpad settings in the GNOME Control Center are now persistent between sessions, though little else about the system has changed.

My start-up script also disables another HAL feature. I noticed that the hard-drive light flashed excessively during normal operation. Eventually X performance would slow to a crawl, so I checked with the good Doctor Google and learned that this problem and its solution are also well-known. The endless disk reading halted after I added these commands to my start-up script :

    hal-disable-polling --device /dev/sdb
    hal-disable-polling --device /dev/scd0

Highly aggravating endless looping seems to be a design characteristic of Ubuntu 8.10. I recently learned that clicking on the Help button in a GNOME application will launch an infinite series of borked help pages, stoppable only by power cycling the machine.

Finally I come to the last and most annoying problems I've encountered with the Intrepid Ibex. Its shutdown, restart, and logout processes do not work properly, and I've yet to resolve them to my satisfaction (and yes, I keep this system updated).

Shutdown and restart just don't. The system hangs after the "Will now halt" or "Will now restart" messages, but I did find a workaround at that point to avoid pressing the machine's power switch. If I issue a ctrl-alt-del reboot command the system restarts cleanly. Then I can shut down the machine cleanly by booting into recovery mode, selecting the root prompt from the recovery menu, and issuing a shutdown -h now command.

The logout problem is more serious and I've found no solution for it yet. If I issue a logout command (e.g. Ctrl-D) in an terminal window the cursor simply skips to the next line and stays there, the xterm doesn't close, and the entire system is unstable and requires a manual power cycling. All because of a logout bug.

The real un-fun begins when you start Googling for answers and find dozens of them, none of which work for you. I assume the best intentions on the part of the Ubuntu developers, but these problems remain after the most recent updates. Meanwhile I'll continue to scour the many (too many?) Ubuntu user forums and wikis, hoping to find a fix that will work for my machine. I also welcome any and all polite suggestions that my readers may have, so please feel free to share your own insights and/or advice in the Comments section below.

At this point I rate the un-fun factor for Ubuntu 8.10 at a solid unrespectable 9. Its instabilities obviate its use as an audio production workstation, and only some of its notable virtues keep me on it. At one point I wiped Ubuntu from the drive and reinstalled OpenSUSE 11, only to discover that there are fates worse than Ubuntu 8.10. For the moment I've returned to the Intrepid Ibex, but I will say that I'm not at all happy about its egregious bugginess. I'm not the only user pleading for relief on the Ubuntu forums, but alas, there are only so many developers available, and the bugs remain. For more opinions, check out this poll of users' experiences after the install/upgrade to 8.10. The results of that poll are not encouraging, with by far the greater number of users reporting unresolved problems with Intrepid. On the more hopeful side, if the Ubuntu developers can resolve the shutdown, restart, and logout issues then the Intrepid Ibex would lose most of its un-fun factors. We await the day.

Comparison Fun

Despite its blemishes and shortfalls I'd still choose Ubuntu over XP any day. I'm not sure I could have repaired Ivy's system without it, and I must shout out great thanks to the Ubuntu team for such thoughtful amenities as Ubuntu Live and the creator for a bootable USB drive. One thing is certain: I could never have repaired a Linux system with Windows tools. Maybe it's possible, but it's obvious which system truly believes in openness and transparency, and I simply find it too difficult to work with a system so opaque as XP. Yes, I'll admit it, I've been spoiled by Linux. Alas, I'm not so thrilled with Ubuntu 8.10 as I'd like, but for various reasons I need to use it.

Happy Holidays !

I'll be back soon with a 2-part series on the Buzztard project, including an interview with team leader Stefan Kost. Until then, may your days be merry & bright, and I hope everyone has enjoyed an excellent holiday season.

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