Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Solaris Puzzle

I wrote about issues installing an operating system on some new hardware a few days ago. Since then I've done more exploring. A subsequent attempt to install Ubuntu 10.10 on the same box was a success, right up to the part where you reboot from the newly-installed system. That was a total failure and required power cycling to escape.

Then, several restarts later (due to my lack of speed on the DEL key), I managed to get at the BIOS. I decided to start from scratch, and loaded the safe defaults. Then I went through and tweaked it carefully (and very conservatively). After that, it booted fine. To be sure of this, I rebooted it (both warm and cold) about 30 times. All good. Then I left it to its own devices with a bunch of stuff running for a couple of days. Still good.

Then I tried again to install my Solaris-11 system, hoping that it would work on the new setup. No joy at all. The installer crashed, several times, in exactly the same place as before (i.e., long before getting close to actually installing anything). I really wanted to be able to use ZFS, which I think is a wonderful file system, but it seems impossible for me to install Solaris on any reasonably up to date hardware that I have available. I think I'm over this now and will wait for some other operating system that I can bear to use offering native ZFS.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Computers Can Make You Mad

I've just put together a new computer. It starts up fine. It reads a CD with an operating system I want to install just fine. The installer runs fine until we get close to actually doing something. Then it crashes. This is repeatable. I re-burned the CD in the drive on the new machine and tried again. Same deal.

I'm now running memtest86 over the 24G of memory in case the problem is there. So far, it has made seven complete passes without detecting anything. I will let it go until it says it has completed a full test sequence, but I'll be surprised if it finds anything now. If it's not memory, it's a bit hard to guess where the problem is. Since we never get as far as writing on a disk, it's not going to be there. Nor do we use the network.

The machine is certainly almost OK. Maybe even quite OK. It certainly seems to run Linux as I'd expect, although I haven't attempted exhaustive tests yet. Testing is so slow and so boring and gets in the way of everything else I'd like to be doing. And it's Friday.

My spouse has decided that we need a weekend away in a luxurious place far from the normal world. This seems like an excellent plan. Maybe the computer will reveal something useful next week. I'll be running out of time to claim DOA status for the bits by then, so that might affect my sleep tonight. On the other hand, losing sleep over a box of bits is probably unwise. Consider this as a muted scream.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

There's Somebody at the Door

My spouse has had a hard start to the week and announced last night that she wanted a nice easy start today because she did not have any clients until 10:15. I was happy to go along with this plan and so the morning began peacefully.

At 7:30, just as I delivered the first cup of coffee to the bedroom, the doorbell rang. Spouse looked alarmed and asked questions that were hard to answer. However, I speculated that the caller might have been one of her 7:30 clients arriving on the wrong day. Much quiet cursing followed this thought and spouse dashed about the room grabbing the minimal clothing that she could wear to the door to face a client.

By the time she opened the door, the caller had backed away and was digging in her backpack. She found her diary, looked at it, turned to spouse and said, "Oops, I'm supposed to be here next week." And off she went.

Spouse returned looking like thunder, threw her clothes on the floor and flounced back into the bed. By then the coffee was cooling. That seemed like a good moment for me to go out to the kitchen to make fresh coffee.

I guess people who need psychotherapy because their life is in chaos can be expected to make this kind of mistake, but some days it really would be great if they could look in their diaries before ringing the bell.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sandfire Roadhouse

Armed with one hugely costly spare tyre, I headed north. The next leg was a wee bit daunting: 560 km of dirt road with nothing at all along it, according to my new map. I was a bit anxious about the tyres, but felt I had to press on. It was hot and getting hotter. About half way along this barren stretch, one of the front tyres exploded. It's tricky to deal with this on dirt at 200 km/h and the wheel itself and parts of the brake were junk by the time I stopped.

It was the middle of the day. The road was so hot, it hurt to kneel down to undo the wheel nuts. Eventually, I got the front right corner of the car jacked up enough to remove the wheel. By then I was exhausted and mildly panicky. I threw a towel under the car and slid underneath to get some shade. The heat from the road below and the hot exhaust above was grim, but the shade still seemed better than being out in the sun. I might have been slightly irrational at this point.

Half an hour later, a truck going south stopped to see if I was dead. When the driver understood what I was doing, he said, "Come on, let's get your spare on the car and then you can stop about five miles back there for cool shade and cold drinks and people to chat with."

I found that hard to believe, but he was insistent that there was a new place for travellers to rest at. He did most of the work getting the wheel on and the tools packed away and headed off on his way south, and I drove gingerly north. And it was true, there was a place to stop. My memory says it was called Sandfire Lodge, but either my memory is wrong or they changed its name later. There is a place called Sandfire Roadhouse marked on current maps of Australia in the right place, so it's still there.

I was one of their first customers and they asked me to sign their visitors' book and their petition to be granted an alcohol licence, which I cheerfully did. I doubt if they still have those records from 1970 and my name has been changed many times since then, so tracking that down would be tricky now.

They had a spinifex shelter with water running down the walls to cool the wind blowing through. It was better than heaven for me that day. And they had cold soft drinks on ice which made the whole experience seem magical. A lot of my angst over the Dunlop Tyre Service at my previous stop evaporated at Sandfire Whatever. Although I was still aware that I once again had no spare tyres and a long way to go before stumbling on civilisation again, so I took things easy when I finished my rest with the kind people in the middle of nowhere.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Easy Does It

Back in the present today, for a look at some software that I was wrestling with yesterday. I often whine about issues with free software that is hard to use or configure or that crashes messily. But it's rare for me to complain about commercial software. I'd hate people to think that was because commercial software is better when the real reason is simply that I avoid using commercial software as far as possible. But yesterday I spent some time with three of Atlassian's products (for which I have the cheap Starter Licenses).

Why? There are times when friends tell me I should use the Atlassian software rather than wasting my time with less-capable or otherwise deficient free software and I finally thought I'd combine two things by contributing a few dollars to the charity that Atlassian supports and trying out their software.

I downloaded Confluence, Jira and GreenHopper and installed Confluence first on a bare Ubuntu box. Along the way, I carefully followed every step of the instructions, including installation of additional software packages that were required. I configured a brand new MySQL installation as instructed. Then I started Confluence and began to step through its config screens per the instructions. Somewhere along the way, I encountered an error with an insane diagnostic.

Always willing to assign blame to myself in the first instance, I blew away the entire installation and began again. Again, I was meticulous about following the instructions. Again I got the same error.

I mention my following the instructions because this is a big deal for me. I'm one of those sad people who reads the owner's manual for a new car or a new mouse from cover to cover before using it, even though there is virtually no chance that I'll learn anything from my reading. But I am confident in my ability to follow written instructions perfectly. When I can't get a piece of software to work after carefully following the instructions, the problem is with the software. The instructions are part of the software, which is why I say the problem is with the software.

I'm sure I could probably get somebody at Atlassian to step me through the setup for Confluence, but I'm not interested in doing that. I've learnt all I need to know. That means that I won't use any of the Atlassian products, nor will I suggest that other people try them. I'm really documenting this here so I can point to it any time somebody suggests Confluence or Jira to me in the future.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Service With a Smile

As I drove into Port Hedland on my way north, I spotted a Dunlop Tyre Service and thought about the four blown-out tyres I was carrying. Perhaps it would be smart to stop for some tyre service. The place was quiet, the workers all wearing nice clean white overalls, and I was pleased to see that I could expect swift service and a chance to be on my way with little delay.

My illusions were shattered when I finally got one of the men to acknowledge me. "Sure, mate, toss them there. Come back on Thursday." I don't really remember which day he said, but it was about three days in the future and I could spare an hour or two at most. So I pleaded with him. No dice. I grovelled. Eventually, he told me they'd sell me tyres and tubes but I'd have to fit them myself if I was in such a hurry. With my tools, not theirs.

This didn't suit me at all. I hate tyre irons and car wheels. And it was hot, seriously hot. So I sat on the ground, lit a smoke, and fantasised about nasty things that could happen to the fine folk at the Dunlop place. Before I gave in and submitted to my fate, a shiny new ute arrived with a flat truck tyre in the back. The driver was wearing a suit, which was something I didn't ever expect to see in that part of the world.

He went through the same routine with the helpful men in white. But his grovelling was more intense than mine because he had a team of men waiting out in the sticks for him to get back with the wheel. He had no more luck than me and was on the point of tears.

Seeing a possible win-win situation, I approached him and asked him if he knew how to fix a car tyre. He said yes. So I offered to fix the truck tyre if he'd do mine. This wasn't completely altruistic, as the only hard part with truck wheels is knowing what to do. But it's much easier than a car tyre. He was ecstatic and offered to pay my bill as well as do the work on my tyre. I said OK, because I expected to be paying a couple of dollars for a new tube.

I put a new tyre and tube on his wheel. He put a new tube inside my old tyre and mounted it. Then he went to pay. Luckily he had a business cheque book, because my tube cost over $100 (in 1970). I don't recall how much they gouged him for his truck tyre and tube, but I do remember being shocked.

I'd actually got to be 23 years old and driven almost all the way around Australia before I saw my first real proof that the rumours I'd gown up on telling of the kindness and generosity of the people in the bush were not to be relied upon. Although I was soon to learn that not everybody was like that Dunlop place.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The End of Civilisation

Life, some awful lurgy, and a couple of family crises got in the way of my plan to write stuff every day this week. But eventually most of that settled down and now I can look back at the week.

For the past few years, my wife has worked on Monday mornings at Southport on about a three-weekly schedule. I drive her down, then go for a walk for an hour or so along the seafront before finding a cafe in the shade where I read. That walk from the Sheraton Mirage towards Surfers has always pleased me. It has a nice wide path, there is plenty of shade from trees, the sea is just there with its endless music, and a nice cooling breeze makes for comfortable walking.

When she finishes her work, I collect her, and sometimes we find a restaurant for lunch or drive back to Brisbane and go out for lunch there. Overall, it works out nicely for us both.

But the last few times I've been for my walk, I've noticed disturbing signs that things are not as peaceful and pleasant as my picture would have it. There are increasing numbers of nasty racist slogans painted on various structures along the path. "Destroy Evil Islam," "Gooks Out", "Muslims Out" are probably the most popular.

The council does regular maintenance of the path, collecting litter (which is a big job), mowing the grass, and so on. But they appear to have no interest in the signs.

I find myself less and less able to enjoy my walk in this normally peaceful place when it is the new place for this hate speech. It makes me sick. It must make the targets pretty upset too.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dusty Roads

Before setting off on my drive from Perth to Darwin, I got a few words of advice from my truckie mates who went up and down the west coast. After loading all my possessions, including tools, several jerry cans of fuel and four spare wheels in my ute, I set off full of confidence.

The first day, I got to Carnarvon comfortably. Stopped at a pub to have a beer with some truckies going south. Probably had a couple of beers, because I was still there three days later and now had only three days to cover the remaining 2,300 km (of which only the last 270 km was sealed). It was mid summer and long before the days of air-conditioning in cars.

But I was not really concerned. Not until I came to a fork in the road that was not marked on my map. Nor was there a signpost. At least there was a Volvo stopped at the fork, so I pulled in to ask for directions. He'd been sitting there for 12 hours waiting for somebody to come by and tell him which way to go. According to my maps and my knowledge of my fuel consumption, I could afford to go not more than 50 km down the wrong road. The guy in the Volvo couldn't even go that far.

We tossed a coin and took what turned out to be the correct road. After a while we drifted apart because the infinite supplies of fine dust made close following impossible. That night, after a brief stop for food, I headed out of whatever ghost town I was in to continue my journey but discovered that both my headlights had fallen out of the car while pounding over the corrugations during the day. All that was left were sad little wires dangling from where the lights should have been.

I waited for a road train going north and flagged him down. He eventually agreed, after sighting my road train licence, that I could drive in front of him and use his lights. He didn't need to tell me, but he did, that I shouldn't even consider slowing down once we were up to 110 km/h, as he would not be stopping. And off we went. The night drive was cooler and once my mirrors had all fallen off his lights didn't bother me too much. But I did start getting tired by the morning and I started to worry about him falling asleep behind me. Fortunately, we both survived until daybreak and I was able to accelerate away from him and get back into my 200 km/h rhythm.

Every two to three hours, I would catch up with another road train's dust cloud. At least the daytime wind was constant from the west, so they could see my approaching dust in their left-hand mirrors. As I got close, they'd swerve across to the wrong side of the road to allow a pass in the dust-free zone on the left. I knew what to do: keep going flat out past the truck. They wouldn't stay out there forever, so timid or law-abiding drivers never passed them. I hear that road is sealed now, so those ancient courtesies have no doubt been forgotten.

It's strange looking back on that trip 40 years later. Despite the great emptiness of the west, so many interesting things happened on that brief journey that it would take fifty thousand words to tell the story. Luckily for everybody, I don't have what it takes to write that much today.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Mistakes Were Made

During my student days in Melbourne, I got a job as a barman in a Carlton pub. I was too young to work there legally, but got around that by pointing out to the publican that I'd been drinking there for years when I was even younger. He took me on.

There were some tough guys amongst the regulars. One of them was a good middle weight boxer with a volatile temper. One evening, I did something wrong, maybe put three atoms too much air in his beer, and he lost it. Threw the glass at me. I ducked just in time, but then the boss also lost it because my lack of balls meant a lot of breakage when the glass of beer hit the wall of glass objects behind me. For a brief moment, I thought my customer was going to start throwing more stuff, but he took a deep breath, leaned over the bar and shared a thought with me. "You'll keep, you little shit. I'm gonna punch your lights out when you go home."

The rest of the night went slowly while my mind conjured up thousands of scenarios of the after work horror that awaited me. There were brief moments when I thought he might be falling down drunk by the time I left, but since nobody had ever seen him in that state and since everybody who knew him called him a mean drunk, I mainly thought about being too young to die.

When the pub closed for the night, there were the usual chores to do cleaning up the bars, washing the last glasses, cleaning out the beer lines, counting the cash, drinking free beer, mindlessly chatting. But the time came when the boss had had more than enough of my company. He sent me home and no doubt went up to bed.

I tip-toed to the side door, waited for some minutes, very carefully turned the handle. I pulled the door back slowly, ready to slam it shut in a flash. Nothing happened. I stuck my head out slowly and looked around. By a nice miracle, there was nobody in the street at all. I managed a breath, stepped outside, and closed the door behind me. And headed off home feeling quite relieved. As I stepped around the corner of the pub onto Lygon Street, Gavin stood up from a doorstep and stepped in front of me. I died.

Then he laughed and said, "Jesus mate, you look like you shit your pants!" I didn't know the right answer and managed to say nothing. He stuck out his hand to shake and said, "Sorry I was a prick before, let's be friends again. OK?" I reached out for the handshake and said, "Sure, friends is good." The handshake felt as though it broke all the bones in my hand, but it seemed like a fair escape.

So we stayed friends for a few weeks and then he died in a drunken car crash in the city.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Gambling Lesson

A few years after my fiasco with Galilee in 1966, I was living in Perth and playing pub pool in just about every waking moment. I got hooked when I teamed up with Keith, a workmate who claimed to have been Scottish snooker champion. I can find no evidence of that, but he was an outstanding player. When he was thirsty, he was capable of breaking and clearing the table without giving the other three players a single shot. Once he had his eye in, he enjoyed performing trick shots and entertaining the crowd. In those days in Perth pubs, you always played for the cost of the table and a beer. We drank for free for about a year.

Despite his ability to drink free beer as long as he wanted, Keith had a taste for expensive spirits and for backing losers at the races and those two failings had him almost constantly in debt. We were paid fortnightly and Keith always ran out in about three days. He would borrow from me until the next payday. On payday, I'd collect what he owed me before he had a chance to pay anybody else or to put a bet on any new sure thing. And I was careful never to lend him more than his usual pay packet in any fortnight.

I went to his home once, but his wife clearly held me responsible for his financial failings and threw me out on the spot. And after a while, I started to get itchy feet as I became increasingly aware that I had only put 3,400 km between me and my parents in Melbourne. I moved on to Darwin and I lost touch with Keith. But at least I was by then confirmed in my attitude to betting on horses.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Horse to Remember

A weedy little bloke from some runt of a town in western NSW walked into a pub on a Carlton street corner one spring day. The regulars at the bar gave him the stare, but he went ahead and ordered a beer. His name was Kenny and he became a regular and some of the men started to recognize him. He bought beers for me and some mates and we got to ask him why he was in Melbourne.

This was not something he wanted to share with everybody, so he almost whispered it. "I'm here to back Galilee in the Cups," he said. This theme was constant for a week or two. He was an odd punter, always in the pub rather than at the racecourses or even the TAB. This was 1966, and this pub had never had a TV in the bar. But he kept having enough money to buy his share.

He disappeared on Caulfield Cup day, but was back with a major hangover and a lopsided grin the following Monday. Galilee had won and Kenny had won with the bookies. Over the next few days, my mates decided that Kenny knew something and decided they had to back Galilee in the Melbourne Cup. I was a student then, so the other guys elected me their representative to back the horse on Cup Day. I'd never been in a TAB or bet on anything, so this was a shock.

I did some reading and found that only five horses had won the cup double in the past 90 years. It seemed unlikely that it would happen this year. So I kept the money, avoided the TAB, drank as much as I could hold and discovered too late how treacherous horses and gambling can be when Galilee came home first. We never saw Kenny again, and I was lucky to see anything at all when my excited mates came to collect their winnings. I vowed to avoid horses and betting for the rest of my life. And I had to find a new pub.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fine Day for a Holiday

Days off work are good for everybody, whether they are workers or employers. In my family, we're mostly self-employed, but we still take days off on public holidays. We have our little rituals of parties and fun. Unfortunately, most of the public holidays in Australia are either religious holidays or celebrations of nationalistic ideas or wars.

Melbourne Cup Day just celebrates the crooks in the racing industry, who can easily be ignored by those of us who don't actually care about horse racing, leaving us with a fun day off at a good time of the year. I'd like to see more silly holidays, scattered through the year, as a sign of good will towards the mental health of the entire community.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Last year, I saw people talking about NaNoWriMo and was smart enough to take no notice. This year, I'm going to play. But I'm making up my own rules. It's certainly not the year to add to my collection of unpublishable novels and it's almost certainly folly to imagine that I'd write something every day.

But, having had a small victory with the project I've been working on today, and having found myself with a few minutes to spare before I head out for my last Italian lesson of the year, and having noticed that it's the first day of NaNoWriMo, here is my initial contribution.

Faced with a splendid piece of written homework that I had crafted around 1962, my English teacher, Brother Monagle (who must be dead by now), told me that I would never be a writer. This encouraged me to try to prove him wrong over the intervening decades, but the record of my writing achievements seems to show that he was right. I still think he was a bit of a bastard for saying that and I'm not quite ready to forgive him for it, although I will always take some solace from the revenge I took not long afterwards involving unauthorised use of the large car that his brother had loaned him.

The prime fault with that homework was the length of the opening sentence which meandered well on to the second page before bumping into a full stop. I was made to read just that first sentence aloud to the class for their amusement. They were duly amused. I was happy that it turned out to be readable, although the humiliation of that day remains fresh.

My mother was inclined to say that I never learned. This was in relation to my failure to comply with all of her rules, something I never attempted to learn. But it's probably true to say that I have had trouble learning to reign in my long-winded story telling. I'd like to blame Brother Monagle for that too. Or my genes.

Since this post is almost content-free, I'll do the right thing and stop here. But I may be back tomorrow, or some other day.