The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

Lenovo Thinkpad X120E (and Linux)

2012-04-04

I've been on the lookout for a Lenovo Thinkpad X120E ever since I read Engadget's glowing review in early 2011. It was not available in Nehru Place for several months, and I'd almost forgotten about it when I happened to find it on Flipkart some weeks ago. I ordered one, and have been reasonably happy with it. Here are a few observations.

The first thing I noticed was the weight. I've become so used to holding my 1.2kg Ideapad that the extra 300g of the X120E startled me. But I got used to it quickly. The six-cell battery and slightly higher resolution screen (1366x768 vs 1024x600) are both pleasant upgrades, as are the much faster processor and the extra 1Gb of RAM.

The chiclet keyboard is nice, but the spacebar refused to cooperate until I trained my thumbs to press down very deliberately. The trackpoint/touchpad combination does its best to make everyone happy, but it takes up space and the touchpad buttons on the outer edge of the chassis are very easy to press inadvertently if you use the machine on, say, a lap. Another annoyance is the lack of an LED to indicate that the machine is charging (there's only a power-on LED and a suspend LED).

The machine is listed on Flipkart as having FreeDOS installed. In fact, it ships with an empty hard disk. Ubuntu 11.10 installed easily, and all the hardware worked fine with no fuss (wireless card, audio, Bluetooth, etc.). I was prepared for some pain, but there wasn't any.

On the whole, this is a nice little machine, and I'm glad I got one.

Samsung SCX-3201G MFP and Linux

2012-04-01

I have lived without a printer or scanner for many years, but the number of things I need to print and scan has grown to the point where going to the market each time is painful. I am a firm believer in buying printers with PostScript and network support, but our needs are modest and do not justify spending enough to get a "real" printer. So I resigned myself to paying extra in terms of dealing with CUPS.

I found two or three MFPs that suited my budget on Flipkart, but was unable to find anything about Linux support for those models. Eventually, I chose the smallest one, the Samsung SCX-3201G, based on some positive reports about the SCX-3200 series.

Fortunately, it was easy to make it work. Thanks to tweedledee's Samsung Unified Linux Driver Repository and the odd forum post, I installed the PPD file and the SPL filter under Ubuntu 11.04. Printing with CUPS and scanning with SANE both work fine now.

The printer itself works all right. You can tell it's meant for low volumes. There's no output tray—it just spits paper out from the front, and there's a non-zero risk that it'll get sucked back into the input tray below. I would have been happier with a "real" printer, but this one works well enough that I'm glad to have it anyway.

Update: I'm glad I don't need to print photographs. Libreoffice and the GIMP print fine, but output is very dark and the quality is a bit disappointing even at 1200dpi. The fault may lie with the printer, the driver, or GIMP—or a combination thereof. The GNOME image viewer causes the printer to spit out several mostly-empty pages with a few control characters. I assume some CUPS incantation is needed, but I'm happy to ignore the problem entirely. Text and line-art print fine.

Update: Sometimes, printing a PDF will also print many pages of garbage. Most of the time, printing it a second time will work fine, but some files always result in garbage. Unfortunately, I have not found any way to predict when it might happen. I blame the interaction between CUPS and Samsung's SPL filter. I have set "LogLevel debug" in cupsd.conf, and will keep an eye on the logs.

<subliminal>Life is short. Get a printer with PostScript and Ethernet.</subliminal>

No longer as Swift

2011-08-16

I traded in my 2005 Maruti Swift VXi for a 2011 Swift ZXi a month ago. There are some things about the new car that are nicer—the rear wipers and alloy wheels are especially welcome, and the height-adjustable seat belts are a nice touch. Mostly, though, this car is just the same as the old one.

The only dramatic change is the new K-series engine, which is supposed to be lighter, and have better fuel efficiency and lower emissions. Its 1197cc capacity is slightly less than the old engine, but the peak power and torque figures (85PS@6000rpm and 113Nm@4500rpm) are quite similar. The engines perform very differently, however, as I have learned over nearly two thousand kilometres of driving in varied conditions. (It's too early to say anything about fuel efficiency, though.)

(Aside: the official Maruti Swift web site—which should have been able to give me the specifications for engines both old and new—has been given over to a stupid "hold your breath" splash page for the new Swift to be introduced later this year.)

The new engine is louder and higher-pitched (annoyingly so) with the throttle open. The power curve has been shifted to the left, resulting in noticeably more low-end torque (which makes city and hill driving easier). The disappointing corollary is that highway performance is compromised by the loss of power at the high end.

Given a good road, my old car seemed eager to go up to 140kmph, and it accelerated nicely past 100kmph even in fifth gear. The new car begins to feel reluctant at 100kmph, and needs a lot of coaxing to move up to 120kmph. I had to keep shifting down to fourth or even third gear while overtaking cars on the highway. The old car also felt perfectly stable at 120kmph, while the new one feels a tiny bit flaky beyond that speed.

I know that conditions in India are rarely such that one can drive at 120kmph for any length of time, and one can take advantage of extra low-end torque more often, but I can't help feeling a bit disappointed.

I wanted a Swift, dammit, not a semi-laden swallow!

Update 2012: The problems went away when I switched from the stock JK Vectra 185/70 tires to Yokohama A-Drive tires of the same size. The car handled better, felt so much more stable at highway speeds, and were noticeably quieter. I guess the stock tires (which were all right for the LXi) just didn't suit the slightly heavier ZXi.

Virtual servers at E2E Networks

2011-04-28

For a recent project, I needed to find reliable server hosting with good connectivity inside India. After doing some research, I decided to use E2E Networks, which offers reasonably-configured virtual servers at good prices, and has well-connected hosting facilities in Delhi and Mumbai.

The server was commissioned within a few hours of paying for it, and E2E support has been consistently responsive and helpful. I had no trouble setting up the server the way I wanted (despite being their first 64-bit Debian squeeze VM), and it's been working nicely ever since (three weeks now), with no network or service outages that I've noticed.

Upon request, E2E hooked me into their Zabbix monitoring setup, so I get SMS alerts if anything breaks, and my client's IT people are entertained by nice graphs of CPU and RAM usage (which are mostly flatlined near the X-axis, so the sudden spikes when I compile something or a cron job kicks in are causes for much excitement).

One minor oddity is that their accounting process depends on ssh-ing to your server as root every five minutes. That, plus the five-minute connections from zabbix_agent to Postfix and nginx, make for quite a bit of noise in the logs.

E2E's carefully-chosen peering arrangements deliver on their promise of low latency in India. I'm used to 300–500ms latency while accessing servers in Europe and the US, and was pleasantly surprised at how much nicer it is to ssh to a server that's only 50–70ms away.

It's too early to say anything about long-term reliability, but all the signs so far have been promising. E2E is worth a good long look if you need hosting in India.

(Aside: Net4India were another option that my clients considered, but they did themselves no favours by quoting twice the price for much less hardware and a ridiculously inadequate 10GB monthly bandwidth usage allowance. But I will treasure the memory of their area manager's smug answer to my question about actual bandwidth: Infinite!)

Exide warranty nightmare

2010-07-26

Our UPS is hooked up to three Exide Powersafe EP65-12 SLA (Sealed Lead Acid) batteries. Normally, that gives us about six hours of backup time for my desktop, monitor, and a few assorted peripherals. It's not often that the mains power is off for so long (less than half a dozen times a year, I'd guess), but that capacity has proven invaluable in the past. For the last few months, however, the UPS has lasted for half an hour at most, even when the batteries were fully charged. Using a multimeter, I found that the voltage across one of the batteries fell rapidly to 10.5V just before the UPS died, while the other two remained above 12V. Since the batteries were still under warranty, I contacted the vendor to ask about having them replaced (which I have had to do in the past)

Unlike last time, the vendor told me to register a complaint with Exide, which I did after some delay due to external circumstances. An engineer was dispatched to visit me a couple of days later, and after testing the system, he agreed with my diagnosis: one battery was bad. He wrote up a report and went on his way after telling me that the replacement should arrive in a few days. Unfortunately, what did arrive the next day was email from his supervisor, saying they couldn't replace the battery because the charging current was "too low". (The mail also said that I didn't have the original invoice for the purchase of the batteries, but that was just the engineer trying to cover his ass after forgetting to ask me for it.)

Read more…

Carr Stephen: “The Archaeology and Monumental Remains of Delhi”

2010-06-08

The Archaeology and Monumental Remains of Delhi
Carr Stephen

Aryan Books International
ISBN 81-7305-222-0

I bought this book many years ago, when I first started photographing the monuments of mediaeval Delhi. I was familiar with the history of the period, but knew very little about its buildings, or about the way they were built, fell into ruins, and were later excavated. Much of what I know now, I learned from this book.

Read more…

Heat and the LG intelloair air conditioner

2010-06-02

We have a 1.5 ton LG "intelloair" window air conditioner in the study. It's been so hot so early this summer that it can't cool effectively at midday, when I want it the most.

The AC displays a number that represents the current indoor temperature (I don't know how accurate it is) and the desired temperature. When the former is higher than the latter, the compressor comes on, and cold air is blown into the room. When one temperature is sufficiently close to the other, the compressor is switched off to maintain equilibrium.

When the estimated indoor temperature is above 30, however, I've noticed that the compressor is switched off long before the desired temperature is reached, and comes on only much later. The result is that the indoor temperature stays consistently high (aside: if it's higher than 39, the display just shows "Hi").

The LG technicians said there was no cure. When it's so hot outside, the compressor overheats and shuts down very quickly if it has to work hard (i.e., when the difference between the current and desired temperatures is high), and is switched on again only after it has cooled down enough, by which time the temperature difference is so high that it has to work very hard, and…

It makes a strange sort of sense, but that is cold comfort when the computers and AC all blow hot air at me. Blocking the drainage outlet and pouring cold water into the chassis (which the technicians did to help the compressor cool down more quickly) is only a partial solution. Setting the desired temperature higher only postpones the inevitable on a hot day: it overheats on the second cycle instead of the first.

Since none of the other ACs I've used in similar temperatures (Carrier, Electrolux, unbranded) has had problems to this extent, I am forced to conclude that the LG intelloair is a lousy air conditioner.

Now I understand why there is a huge hoarding near Pragati Maidan advertising an AC that cools even at 54°C.

Timberland “Chochorua Trail Hiker” Boots

2010-03-12

I've always gone hiking in sneakers before, but my mother was kind enough to bring a pair of Timberland Chochorua Trail Hiker Boots (ordered from Amazon for US$90) home with her from New York, just in time for my solo trek to Dayara Bugyal last December.

A quick summary: full-grain leather uppers with sealed, waterproof seams and a Gore-Tex membrane. Rubber outsole with "strategically placed" lugs and heel protection. High ankle with padded collar and tongue. Removable EVA insole. The pair weighs 1kg. (I picked this model after doing a lot of reading; it offered the best balance between my budget what I needed, and it was significantly less horrendous-looking than many other boots.)

In the last three months, I have worn my boots on one non-trivial trek in the Himalayas, on day-hikes, while driving, on a long-distance bus ride (or three), in swamps, on sand, on scree, and once or twice, even as formal wear. They have kept my feet comfortable and dry throughout. I have escaped the twisted ankles and knees that used to accompany me everywhere on hikes, and while that is mostly because I've been more careful, the boots also deserve some credit.

I've never worn hiking boots before, so I have nothing to compare this pair to. They do fit better than I had any right to expect for having ordered them without trying them on first. With socks on, I can tell that regular size 14 would have been too narrow for me. They're light enough that I don't notice the weight, but sturdy enough to provide a stable footing even when I'm carrying a load. Remarkably, despite my wearing them for several hours at a time in hot weather, they kept my feet from sweating and smelling bad, for which I was truly grateful at the end of a long day.

My toes felt a little crushed while carrying a 20kg rucksack down a steep trail, but then the boots are rated for day-hikes, and I had no problem walking downhill without a load. (Even with a load, I didn't develop any blisters or hot spots, which is just sheer luck in terms of fitting.) I do wish the laces were more durable, though. I have to adjust them for tightness every now and then, and although I use a suitable lacing method, the laces are fraying near the top-most lugs.

I'm a little puzzled by the name. Timberland calls it Chochorua, Amazon calls it the Chocurua, and as far as I can tell, it's named after Mount Chocorua in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

I like my new boots, never mind what they're named.

At last, a nicer keyboard

2010-03-01

Ever since the up-arrow key on my beloved Cherry G80-5000 keyboard (no longer manufactured, alas) died a few years ago, I have suffered through a series of lousy, lightweight membrane keyboards. My hands got used to Samsung keyboards after a while, but I was never very happy with them, and they needed to be replaced every year or so.

I did try out some "better" keyboards, but their higher price owed more to bells and whistles ("multimedia keys!") than to better keys; and so I always ended up buying the cheapest keyboard I could find. Last year, I couldn't find a Samsung keyboard to replace my dying one, and I had to buy a slightly more expensive entry-level Logitech model instead. It looked nice enough, but it was too flimsy to use. Two or three days of typing broke off both its legs and cracked the casing.

A little over six months ago, after much searching, I found a black TVS Gold keyboard in Nehru Place. At INR1200, it was six times the price of the Logitech, but it had mechanical keys and was sturdy enough to not flex or slide around when I used it in the shop. I bought one, and I'm much happier now than I've been for a long time.

Typing on this keyboard is such a pleasure that I'm willing to overlook its all-plastic construction; but it is nevertheless very disappointing that, at this price, it isn't nearly as rugged as my first TVS keyboard, fifteen years ago (that one had a heavy metal backing plate and no flex whatsoever). The keys deserve a better chassis. Still, it's stood up to a few months of use with no ill effects. And typing on this keyboard is such a pleasure that I'm willing to… type some sentences twice.

The TVS Gold is not a great keyboard, but it's good enough to make me swear off sticky membrane keyboards.

Update (2012-11-24): Three years later, this keyboard is showing signs of reaching the end of its road. The first symptom was some keys becoming unresponsive or "stuck" (not physically) until I mashed them around a little. Later, I noticed that the machine wouldn't boot until I pressed a few keys. Now I have to contend with the occasional random escape sequences being generated (and the lettering has faded too).

Nokia 7210 as a GPRS modem under Linux

2010-02-21

I needed a GPRS-capable phone to use as a modem with our Lenovo S10 on a trip out of town, and after some research, Hassath and I bought the Nokia 7210 Supernova, which does GPRS and Bluetooth well enough (and has a host of features that we didn't care about). Here's a very brief report.

Our S10 runs Ubuntu 9.10, which detected a new "mobile broadband" connection when I plugged in the phone using the (absurdly short) included USB cable. To my surprise, it let me select my country and provider (Vodafone), and I was online in a few seconds with no fuss. Disappointed at the lack of an opportunity for heroic action, I tried Bluetooth next. Following some advice on the Ubuntu forum, I installed blueman, and… that just worked, too. I could detect the phone, pair with it, browse its filesystem; and if I activated dialup access, I could use the same mobile broadband connection as above. All of this took barely more than a minute.

While travelling, I noticed that the connection via Bluetooth sometimes had trouble with flaky GSM connectivity. If the phone lost coverage, the connection would die, and both devices would need to be rebooted to make them talk to each other again. But that happened only when we were on a train, hopping between towers. Other than that, things worked very well (at least, if I tried not to think about the INR5/MB usage charges).

One little quirk: when I activate dialup access in blueman, it pops up a window that says "The device Nokia 7210 Supernova does not appear to support GSM/CDMA. This connection will not work". But it does.