Hello Chromebook (Again!)

Having already dipped my toe in the water of Chromebooks with my wife’s HP Chromebook 11, I knew that I liked Chrome OS. The very fast boot time, stable and full featured browser together with a real physical keyboard make these great devices for people who like to create content, rather than just consume it.

I managed to get a few Chromebooks to use with students at work too, and they’ve found the same thing. Switch on, log in, work. Simple. No hassle about updates, apps, or who was using the device before you and left it all messed up. Sadly, I’ve been told that we can’t roll out more Chromebooks for students to use because our government don’t want to support another platform. Yes. Really. Support. For a Chromebook(!)

It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.

Anyway, I digress. The whole point of this article was to tell you about my new toy! My wife hasn’t been able to get near her Chromebook, so I decided to get my own. I’ve gone for the Acer C720, which at £179 was cheaper. There are some compromises compared to the HP Chromebook 11 – most notably the screen, which while being perfectly adequate on the Acer is poor when compared to the screen on the HP. The keyboard isn’t quite so roomy either. Also the Acer C720 looks like a ‘functional’ laptop, and lacks the refined design touches of the HP. It’s not all doom and gloom though – the device runs a touch faster, and has a built in SD card reader and an standard sized HDMI output, which the HP doesn’t have.

One of my main reasons for choosing the Acer other than the price, was that it has an Intel processor. I knew that this would mean that I could find Linux kernels that would be more likely to run on it, without too much hassle. In fact, it has been very easy to tweak. It seems that Acer knew that ‘geeks’ would be drawn to a lower cost device with a screen and keyboard, so they’ve made it quite easy to work with. In developer mode, you can boot from USB devices, and the Acer also has a cut down ‘BIOS’ called SeaBIOS which can be booted from the Coreboot bootloader, effectively meaning anything written for a ‘standard’ x86 PC can be booted.

After just a few minutes of tweaking, I’ve now got my Acer C720 to be a Chromebook OR a fully-fledged Ubuntu laptop. I can choose the OS at boot time depending on what tasks I want to get done. It’s definitely the best of both worlds. Ubuntu runs well, and the battery life is pretty good.

If you’re in the market for a Chromebook, or a cheap Linux laptop, then I’d recommend the C720 at this price point. Very portable, and great for people who like to get things done when out and about.

The Beast of Ballasalla

The GB3IM-S amateur radio repeater on the summit of Snaefell was brought back into service on 17th March. This led me to discover that the output frequency of 433.125 MHz becomes unusable when driving through Ballasalla, due to some strong interference on that frequency.

Now, in these modern days where everything has a computer inside generating radio noise, a little interference on the 70cm band is to be expected. The difference with this one is its strength. I could hear it mixing with the repeater’s output right from the top of Fisher’s Hill, Castletown and again at the top of Brown Cow Hill, Santon. It was clear that the peak was somewhere around the level crossing as you drove through the village.

Relaying my findings to the regular members of the morning net on GB3IM, other amateurs confirmed that they’d heard it too. Over the next few days, people drove around, walked around, took bearings and we all seemed to agree on a rough location:

widemap

 

This evening (on my way back from Code Club) I parked up in this area, and took a walk around with my Yaesu VX-2 handheld radio. With the receiver switched to AM mode, and the built in attenuator switched on, I was able to tune to the edge of the interference at about 433.200 Mhz so that only very strong signals could be heard. This allowed me to walk up and down and see if the signal got stronger or weaker. After about 15 minutes, I’m fairly confident that the signal is originating from somewhere inside one of these buildings:

closeup

So, what is it? The signal seems to sweep rapidly across the RF spectrum, and appears to operate 24 hours a day, including weekends. It did seem to go off air on Tuesday 25th March but came back again. It sounds like it pulses at about 5 Hz, so maybe these are data frames for some networked device. Or maybe it’s a switched-mode power supply that has some kind of parasitic oscillation going on. Whatever it is, it probably shouldn’t be there.

The slight fly in the ointment is that the signal could be perfectly legitimate. In the Isle of Man (and the UK), the 70cm amateur band is a ‘secondary’ allocation. This means that the band belongs to another ‘primary’ user who has first claim on any frequencies. Given who the primary user of 70cm is (*cough cough*), I don’t think we’d ever find out if this signal is theirs.

Although I did notice that one of my suspect buildings was unmarked, with no hint of who owns it, or what is going on inside…

 

The Weirdest Bug – Lenovo Ideapad S205

Today I offered to help a friend with their new Lenovo S205 which they’d bought a year or so previously, but not got around to using. It had come pre-installed with both Ubuntu 12.04 and Ubuntu 12.10 but wasn’t quite behaving properly.

I thought the easiest option would be to start again, with a nice clean install of Ubuntu 12.04.04 LTS. I attached my trusty USB flash drive, and…

….corrupted display, and no boot.

It turns out you can’t press F12 at boot time, and choose to boot from the USB media in the list that appears. No. You have to go into the boot settings proper, and put the USB media at the top of the list. That was Bug number 1.

So, off goes the install of Ubuntu. All looks good, WiFi working, hotkeys etc… time to reboot and…

….nope. PXE boot ROM kicks in instead. Check the boot settings. Yep, hard drive set to boot before other things, but doesn’t.

Back to booting from USB…. Fiddle with grub settings. No go. OK, re-install with manual choice of partitions…. still no go…. fiddle fiddle…. hours pass…

Finally I notice the drive has an MS-DOS type partition table, despite it booting EFI-style to the previous Ubuntu installs, so I decide to delete it and create a GPT one instead. Still nada…. Add an *empty* EFI partition… re-install… nope…. delete all partitions again…re-install… Voila!
(I’ve no idea which step was the magic one either. Bug number 2.)

So, now Ubuntu booted quite happily, but no WiFi. No worries. Attach an Ethernet cable and let it pull down latest drivers…

…but hang on, it has them all.

Poke about in the terminal for a while and realise the wireless is ‘hard’ blocked. But the wireless switch on the side is in the on position. Moving it disables Bluetooth. Moving it back enables Bluetooth. Still no WiFi, but at least the switch works! Everything driver wise seems to check out. The laptop is adamant that WiFi is disabled by hardware switch. Google. More Google.

What? Seriously?

Yup. On the Lenovo S205, WiFi will not function properly unless….

…the hard disk is the first entry in the boot menu!

Bug number 3, and I hit it because of Bug number 1…

Still, all’s well that ends well, but I never want to see another Lenovo S205 again!

Hello Chromebook

I bought my wife an HP Chromebook 11 for her birthday this week. I’ll admit that part of the reason for my choice of gift was my own curiosity. I wanted to see how good a Chromebook was, and whether it would be a better choice to use in schools than the current (expensive) tablet craze that seems to be going on…

First impressions are that the device is the perfect size and weight. The keyboard is great to type on (I’m using it now), with well spaced keys that have a responsive travel and good tactile feedback. Error-free typing without looking is definitely easy on these things, so anyone who needs to write a lot would find an HP Chromebook 11 very nice. The screen is much better than I expected at this price point, with a very bright and crisps display with excellent viewing angles. ChromeOS is easy to use without training, and of course it plays very nicely with the Google Apps stuff. If you’re a heavy user of Google Apps, I’d highly recommend carrying a Chromebook around with you!

The only snag was the inability to print. Sure, you can collect your docs from Google Drive on another machine with a printer, but that’s a bit clunky. Also, given that we have a networked printer at home I wanted to be able to use that. This is another of those Linux-to-the-rescue stories, so with a bit of tinkering all is well. Here’s my solution:

  • Install CUPS onto my HP Proliant Microserver and add our network printer to it
  • Connect CUPS to Google CloudPrint with some python magic from Jason: https://github.com/armooo/cloudprint
  • Set up an application specific-password to use in my Google Account (just in case…)
  • Give cloudprint the account details
  • In my Google account, share the new Google Cloud Print printer with my wife, so she can use it too.

I still need to tweak things so that the cloudprint connector will start automatically, but I very rarely reboot the server, so not sure when I’ll be bothered to get around to that!

Food Security

The Isle of Man has arable land. It has farmers. It has crops. It has livestock. It has a slaughterhouse. It has a dairy. It has the potential to feed itself.

However, because of the crazy world we find ourselves in, economies of scale mean that Isle of Man milk and cheese can cost more than imported products. The same is true of meat. This means that many people choose to buy the cheapest food products, which don’t help to sustain our farming industry.

A few weeks ago, I had cause to visit that well known large (UK owned) supermarket in Douglas. At the time, the weather had been very stormy and several boat sailings had been cancelled. So what was the result?

Empty shelves. Scarcity of food.

This got me thinking. If people continue to buy the cheapest possible food rather than locally sourced food, we could be in a situation where we are entirely dependent on imported food for our survival.

What if the boats and planes were cancelled for a week or two? What would happen? This could be due to a freak weather event, but it could equally be caused by the global economy faltering to such an extent that the companies that run the transport links collapse. International disputes could cut off the supply of fuel for the boats and planes. The IT infrastructure of the air-traffic control system could fail. Godzilla could rise from the Irish Sea… (OK, maybe that *is* a bit far fetched!)

You get the picture though. We either live on an island that could cope without imported food, or we starve. Which would you prefer?

The simple answer is to maintain our farming industry. If you are able, please consider always buying local produce. A few pence more at the checkout is a small price to pay for an insurance policy that maintains our supply of food in a crisis.