Good Riddance

I shan’t, I think, be sorry to see the back of 2011.

The year started well enough: a birthday viewing of The King’s Speech was thoroughly enjoyable. But my birthday meal took place in an appalling restaurant in Sydney that has acoustics only someone totally deaf could like. I couldn’t hear a bloody word being said by anyone, got very grumpy and refused to eat any of the food as a consequence.

An old friend of mine turned up to said birthday meal, looking -literally- white as a sheet. I’ve never actually seen someone who fitted that clichéd description before, but Rodger did, and I made a point of mentioning to him that he probably needed to see a doctor.

My birthday meal being on a Friday, Rodger finally made it to the doctor’s on the following Monday -at which point the staff there declared that he was actually in the process of having a heart attack and he was whisked off to the nearest coronary unit immediately. The Other Half spent a lot of the next four days visiting Rodger as he recovered from an emergency stenting procedure. The two of them walked out of the hospital on the Friday afternoon and made it to the nearest pub for a celebratory ginger ale. I turned up after work, just in time to see Rodger off in a taxi back to his home.

Which is where he died sometime that night.

We had to get the police to break into his apartment the next Tuesday, having not heard from him for a while. They found him in bed. At least he’d died in his sleep. He was 69.

He had no close family, but a sister of a 1970s friend was the closest thing he had to next-of-kin. She swooped down from Queensland as soon as we told her the bad news to “take charge of things”, announced that there’d be no funeral, and that was that. Within a fortnight, with house contents and body summarily disposed of, it was as if Rodger had never existed.

Things settled down a bit after that, until in March one of the cats had two strokes (of the cerebral variety). Since he didn’t end up walking around in circles, the vet declined to put him down, but Gracie’s never been quite the same since. He had a third ‘incident’ just three weeks ago. He’s slightly unsteady on his paws, but otherwise apparently fine. But we’ve spent most of this year expecting him to bow out, which doesn’t work wonders for one’s morale. The prognosis for this coming year isn’t much better, either.

Being made redundant is also not exactly a bundle of laughs, which was the next surprise to hit us, in May. My employer was bought out by their largest competitor, who is based in Seattle -and is a SQL Server shop. There was some requirement to keep our existing Oracle databases running for a transition period -and, indeed, to move them lock, stock and control files to the Seattle data center in November. As a result, I am (at the time of writing) still employed by them …but only until January 6th 2012. Meanwhile, I can reliably report that spending 7 months dismantling everything you’d built and managed for the previous 5 years is not exactly fun. I should probably be grateful for being kept on at full pay for not doing a great deal of original work, but I’ll be glad when the clock finally runs out next week.

The year picked up a bit after May (it was, to be honest, hard to imagine it being able to get much worse). We holidayed in Tasmania about then, and cruised the South Pacific at the beginning of December. I worked out how to propagate the Kangaroo Apple from cuttings. We saved a red-bellied black snake from doom and destruction. Two new wallaby joeys joined the resident mob.

On the other hand, two Shuttle PCs I bought turned out to be complete duds (though we did end up with 100% refunds, so no permanent harm done) and my old Internet passwords got hacked as a result of a screw-up on the part of Lastpass (who are, indeed, now the last people I’d ever entrust my passwords to!) So the year seemed to continue on its mostly gloomy way, despite the occasional sunny spell.

The year ended, however, with us winning three Trivia contests on board the Pacific Pearl. So hurrah for general knowledge and knowing that Jimmy Wales founded Wikipedia, not Facebook.

Well, anyway. I didn’t much like 2011 (can you tell?!), but here’s a virtual beer to the possibilities inherent in a new 2012. Happy New Year, everyone.

And vale, Rodger Hall (1941 – 2011).

Win NFS Fixed (at a cost)

Further to my last post, in which it was discovered that the NFS client tool included in some editions of Windows 7 can’t cope with accented characters (or anything not in the standard American view of the alphabet, really)…

The good news is that I have a fix. The bad news is that it comes in the form of a commercial NFS client, called ProNFS, which costs US$40. That’s at least $15 more than I feel entirely comfortable paying, but there’s a 30-day trialware edition that at least you can test stuff out with before you part with your hard-earned moolah.

Crucially, in the client settings tool that is provided as part of the ProNFS software stack, there’s this little dialog box:

Spot the reference to using UTF8 file names! Woot!

Once you then use the ‘map drive’ tool to find your NFS shares and mount them as a standard windows drive letter affair, everything works as advertised on the tin-lid:

Spot all those European names displaying correctly, replete with accents, umlauts and cedillas! Problem solved, I think.

I do have a few “issues” with this approach to solving the problem, though. I suppose the first one is simply this: “if they can do it, why can’t you, Microsoft?!”. The second is that the installer for this program looks like it was written in 1994 and hasn’t been updated since! There are lots of little touches on the company’s website, for example, that make me nervous -constant references to the software being compatible with Vista, for example, with never a mention of Windows 7. If you check out their promotional screenshot, too, it will seem as if the software hasn’t been updated since 2003! They’re shooting themselves in the foot there, because if you actually run the NFS server component today, it will report version 1.6 with a compile date of June 23rd 2011, which is much more reassuring! Finally, there’s the not-so-minor matter of the Blue Screen of Death I got when I removed the evaluation version and performed post-removal reboot. I haven’t seen one of those for years, so getting one as the software is removed didn’t fill me with warm glows and kindly feelings!

In the end, though, such things are probably not major issues. I should say in fairness that once the software was installed and running, it behaved itself perfectly -and I can live with slightly out-of-date documentation and promotional wares so long as the software behaves itself. Yes, I could wish it were a tad cheaper, but even at US$40, if it means I don’t have to configure Samba, it’s probably just about worth it! Colour me happy, ish.

NFS, Windows and Foreign Characters

The house now only has one Windows PC left (running 64-bit Windows 7). Everything else is running Linux -though one netbook still retains dual boot capability, just in case. (In case of what exactly I’m not quite sure, but it always pays to be prepared, I guess). The question now arises, then: how best to get that one Windows PC accessing files from the file server (which is busy running Scientific Linux 6.1)?

The obvious answer is ‘Samba’: a quick fiddle on the file server to install the requisite Samba server packages, a modest amount of editing smb.conf and (usually) all is set and ready to run.

This time, however, I thought I’d be a bit more adventurous. Every other Server, PC, laptop or netbook is running Linux, so why impose the overhead of Samba if it’s not needed for most of the machines on my network? Why not get Linux’s “native” file sharing system (NFS, or Network File System) running instead and get the Windows PC hooking into that?

Well, the NFS bit is indeed incredibly easy to set up. It’s already installed on the server: all I had to do was make sure the firewall allowed traffic through (on ports 111 and 2049), configure an export file and start the relevant service. All done in about 5 minutes, to be honest -which is a lot faster than Samba usually is for me! The export file (<b>/etc/exports</b>) couldn’t be much simpler, either, for it contains just one line:

/safedata 192.168.0.0/24(rw,sync)

The safedata directory is the mount point for my RAID 5 array, so has all the important data on it. I’m just saying here that anyone on my home network is allowed to get read-write access to it (in principle, anyway… normal file permissions still apply, so unless I’ve chmodded everything 777, not everything will be writeable).

The Linux clients are a doddle to configure, too: it’s simply a matter of typing this sort of thing (as root):

mount 192.168.0.100:/safedata /nfsmounts

That just says ‘find the “safedata” export on the file server and mount it at the /nfsmounts mount point’. And, just as I had hoped, I found large files could be copied across to the server from my desktop at a rate of about 48MB/sec. That’s 384 megabits per second, which isn’t bad for my rather humdrum gigabit Ethernet link -and a lot faster than the consistent 25MB/sec I used to get on exactly the same hardware when using Samba to do Linux-to-Linux transfers.

So NFS it is, then!

Not so fast! There’s the not-so-minor matter of configuring The Other Half’s Windows PC to partake in this feast of NFS-ness. As I mentioned, that’s running Windows 7… and it’s the Ultimate edition, which means an NFS client is readily available. All you have to do is go to Start > Control Panel > Programs and then select the Turn Windows features on or off option:

You simply find the Services for NFS item, expand it and select the two sub-options for activation. Once you’ve done that, you can then issue ‘mount’ commands on Windows that resemble their Linux cousins very closely:

The basic format of the command is simply mount server:/share/name drive_letter: …and in my case, it means my Music folder stored on the server’s RAID array is now accessible from the Windows PC by navigating to the M: drive in Explorer:

And this is the point where the good news abruptly ends. Sure, getting the NFS export seen and mounted by the Windows PC is a piece of cake… but as any fule kno, André Mathieu’s name is spelled with an ‘e-acute’ at the end of his first name, not a capital-A-plus-Copyright-symbol as Windows Explorer seems to think is appropriate. Arnold Schönberg will also be missing his O-umlaut and wouldn’t be impressed with his newly-acquired A-with-tilde-plus-paragraph-mark.

Of course, what we have here is ye olde and ancient trouble with extended Western European ‘foreign’ characters. It’s bugged me for years when doing Samba mounts (but is easily fixed there by specifying a utf-8 mount option when issuing the mount command). Now it’s back with a vengeance… and there’s nothing I can do (apparently) to fix it!

Here’s the real problem, from the Windows perspective:

The mount command on its own lists network drives which have been mounted and the options/attributes that apply to those mounts. The killer line here is lang=ANSI, indicating that Windows has mounted the network drive assuming that it will find only ANSI characters at the other end. When it then actually finds UTF-8 characters instead, it gets itself very confused, as we’ve seen.

Knowing this, it’s easy to speculate that there must be a way of specifying something like lang=utf8 when performing the original mount command and that this would fix the problem:

That’s me first unmounting the M: drive I’d created before and then attempting to re-mount it but with a utf8 language specified instead of the default ansi one. As you can see, however, “utf8″ is not an option that’s actually available for this parameter. You can certainly choose a variety of Chinese, Korean and Japanese character sets -and, of course, “ansi” is valid, but not “utf-8″ or anything like it.

As far as I could tell from reading the documentation that comes with the Windows 7 NFS client (go to Control Panel > System and Security > Administrative Tools then open the Services for Network File System (NFS) program and hit [F1]), there are no other mount options that can be specified which would have anything to do with getting the character set right. So, as best as I can tell, there is no fix for this problem… which is truly dumb!

Just to emphasize how silly this is, here’s the exact same Windows PC browsing through the exact same folders on the exact same server …only this time, using Samba:

The two Andrés have their acute accents, and Arnold gets his umlaut back… no problems at all.

For me, unless someone else points me in the direction of a fix, this simply means it’s back to Samba and boo-hiss to NFS, which is a shame as I would much prefer things the other way round.

There are, apparently, commercial NFS clients for Windows. I may have to try to evaluate one of those to see if the character set issues are surmountable, but I am not holding my breath. In the meantime, the freebie stuff from Microsoft on this score is functionally useless to me :-(

Merry Christmas

It now being just 1 sleep away from the big day itself, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank both my readers for their continued interest over the past year -and to wish them well for this present Christmas season.

Additionally, I probably won’t be posting much here before the New Year, so I’d like to throw in my best wishes for the New Year now, too.

May your halls be decked, and your holly boughs be always prickly.

Peace, prosperity and modprobes to all.

Is this thing on??

Silly, trivial little thing, I realise, but how do you know if your network interface on a Linux box is running at its intended 1000Mbps or at something a lot slower (like 100Mbps)? You can always look at the network switch you’ve connected to, of course, and see whether it’s glowing green (1000) or yellow (100)… but different connection speeds resulting in different connection colours might not be a feature of the particular switch you use. And even if it is, how do you know that Linux is convinced it’s able to run at the Gigabit speed?

On Scientific Linux 6.1 (or a lot of other distros, of course), just type this command as root:

ethtool eth0

The “eth0″ bit is your network interface identifier -if you’ve multiple network interfaces, it may well need to be changed to ‘eth1′ or something else entirely. Here’s an example:

ethtool enp3s0
Settings for enp3s0:
 Supported ports: [ TP MII ]
 Supported link modes: 10baseT/Half 10baseT/Full 
 100baseT/Half 100baseT/Full 
 1000baseT/Half 1000baseT/Full 
 Supported pause frame use: No
 Supports auto-negotiation: Yes
 Advertised link modes: 10baseT/Half 10baseT/Full 
 100baseT/Half 100baseT/Full 
 1000baseT/Half 1000baseT/Full 
 Advertised pause frame use: Symmetric Receive-only
 Advertised auto-negotiation: Yes
 Link partner advertised link modes: 10baseT/Half 10baseT/Full 
 100baseT/Half 100baseT/Full 
 1000baseT/Half 1000baseT/Full 
 Link partner advertised pause frame use: Symmetric Receive-only
 Link partner advertised auto-negotiation: Yes
 Speed: 1000Mb/s
 Duplex: Full
 Port: MII
 PHYAD: 0
 Transceiver: internal
 Auto-negotiation: on
Cannot get wake-on-lan settings: Operation not permitted
 Current message level: 0x00000033 (51)
 drv probe ifdown ifup
 Link detected: yes

So that’s quite a lot of information about the inner workings of that interface …including a line like the one I’ve bolded above that reads, if you’re lucky, Speed: 1000Mb/s

Of course, it may read just 100Mb/s, or something even worse. But at least you now know!

The ethtool utility is a standard part of most distros (Fedora, CentOS, Scientific Linux, Red Hat, anyway): I certainly didn’t have to install any additional packages to get it. It can be used to set fairly esoteric networking attributes, not just check what they’re already set to. It’s quite a handy little utility, in short, and is fully documented here, amongst other places.

Just Cruisin’

When I go on holiday, it’s usually a matter of 10 days walking everywhere, doing everything and catching up on 500 years of history or so in as short a time as is reasonable. Which made this holiday somewhat unusual:

We were up on the eleventh deck, just above the second of the forward lifeboats. The cabin had drawers that would open and close themselves as the ship pitched in the swell. And a carpet that was mysteriously but constantly wet. And then, on the final night, the electric light fittings started pouring water in all directions… a little alarming, but only a little, because by then we didn’t care much! Shoddy, I’d call it, but maybe I’m just being picky.

Don’t get me wrong: bits of the cruise were wonderful:

That’s the Île des Pins (or Isle of Pines) in New Caledonia -a small island in the South Pacific, sitting practically on top of the Tropic of Capricorn. And I took that photo myself (of two complete strangers, I have to say), so if that looks like a tropical paradise to you, that’s really the way it was. Loved it!

But it’s really very difficult to plan to do nothing at all for eight days, and I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone, particularly. You’ve really got to be a ‘doing nothing’ person by nature, or someone who has truly mastered the art of switching off. Being neither fish nor fowl in that respect, I found the experience a tad tricky.

There are lots of bonuses, though:

Oh, and we had a full lunar eclipse the night we sailed into Noumea -a generous touch on the part of the Heavens, I think!

Anyway, I’m now back in time to consider things like turkeys, cranberry sauce and Christmas pud. And, having truly done sod-all for over a week, I’m re-energised enough to be able to do that and smile for a change!

Stellarium on Scientific Linux 6.1

I have updated my recent article on how to configure Scientific Linux 6.1 to be your desktop operating system in one crucial respect: the original instructions on how to install Stellarium (the world’s best astronomy program bar none) didn’t work properly.

The original instructions were to add the repoforge repository to the list of available respositories and then simply do a yum install stellarium.

This technique is very convenient and appears to work -but, unfortunately, it installs version 10.2 of Stellarium …which has a known bug whereby its display is garbled when using recent NVidia graphics drivers (I have no idea if ATI or Intel drivers are similarly a problem, but from my reading it appears they might be). You end up with this nonsense when you run the program:

Note the garbled text menus, the complete lack of stars in the main part of the window and the ‘fuzzy’ display of the various toolbars. The solution is, I’m afraid, to uninstall the version of Stellarium that comes from the repositories and, instead, to download source code and compile it. Normally, I’d run a mile from self-compilation, but in this case it is (a) necessary and (b) simple. It also, not incidentally, (c) results in a fully working version of Stellarium.

The details are as follows (do all the following as root):

yum remove stellarium

(which cleans out any existing Stellarium installation).

Then: Download the source code from http://sourceforge.net/projects/stellarium/files/Stellarium-sources/0.11.1/stellarium-0.11.1.tar.gz/download, saving it to (say) your Desktop directory. Next, right-click the downloaded tarball and select the Extract Here menu option. That will create a directory called something like /home/hjr/Desktop/stellarium-11.1. Change to that directory and create a couple of new sub-directories, as follows:

cd stellarium-11.1
mkdir -p builds/unix
cd builds/unix

Again as root, and at a command prompt, type the following commands:

yum install gcc gcc-c++ libstdc++ cmake cmake-gui gettext gettext-devel mesa-libGL-devel mesa-libGLU-devel zlib-devel libpng-devel freetype-devel boost-devel libjpeg-devel qt-devel doxygen graphviz subversion make

That gets the software dependencies installed. Then you can (again as root) issue three simple commands:

cmake ../..
make
make install

Note that the cmake command is issued whilst you’re sitting in your stellarium-11.1/builds/unix directory. Hence the use of ‘..’ to reference other directories, relative to that.

Now you have the latest version of Stellarium installed and can (as yourself) simply type the command stellarium to launch the thing. This time, it should all work as expected:

You’ll probably want to create a new launcher for the program on your top panel because the self-compile route doesn’t create nice menu options to launch the program. If you’d like to edit the Applications menu and add an item that points to your freshly-installed application, you’ll need to install alacarte (easily done with a simple yum install alacarte). In either case, you’ll end up configuring an application launcher to simply run the command stellarium.

A scientific desktop

Following my recent decision to chuck over Fedora 16 in favour of Scientific Linux, I’ve put together a short(ish) article detailing how I knocked Scientific Linux 6.1 x86_64 into usable shape as a desktop environment. It’s tailored very much to the way I want my desktop to be, I guess, but there may be stuff in there that someone else will find of use at some point.