The Wisdom of Crowds

According to James Surowiecki, author of “The Wisdom of Crowds”, group decisions are often better than those that could have been made by any single member of the group. One interesting anecdote Surowiecki offers comes via Francis Galton, who observed that the crowd at a country fair accurately guessed the weight of an ox when all their individual guesses were averaged, far better than any individual in the crowd.

On the other hand, this only goes so far.

Last week one of my machines asked if it could update the core Operating System kernel from 4.15.0.43.45 to 4.15.0.44.46. The upgrade worked flawlessly, but immediately thereafter I was unable to use my USB-connected keyboard or mouse. I took my question to the community forum that supports the Linux Distro that I use, posting a detailed breakdown of what had happened, an extract from my system log and waited… Then I got a response, which read (typos and all):-

Tnis isn’t as unusual as many newer Linux users think. Not at all. No one can say what may have happened with very few system details posted and then it’d be iffy whether you get a response.”

Hang on, were the “very few system details” down to me? Did I fail to provide enough detail? OK, I’ll ask. I did – a polite request for clarification, backed up by an offer to detail any additional detail that the responder would like to see. They soon replied (again with typos intact):-

Post the text output of

inxi -Fxz

(Was going to put this in but got interrupted.) And you should try rebooting while holding down the left shift key to bring up the grub menu, then boot from the previous kernel. If it works fine then, remove the newest kernel and reboot.”

Except… that by the time that this helper was asking me to reboot to an older kernel, retest and, if I discovered that the issue went away… I had already done all these things and posted the results in to the thread above where I was given these instructions.

I did as asked, however, and posted the inxi results. The next post?

Well, according to this …” {a link was provided}, “… you should try installing the 4.15.0-15 kernel.”

So once more I went back and politely pointed out that my very first post had already clearly stated that I was running 4.15.0-43.45 – a significantly more recent kernel than 4.15.0-15. So: why would I go back 28 patch levels?

Funny old thing, the person who had stepped in to help, who has been a member of our community forum since December 2012 and who has made over 4,700 posts in that time, did not bother to reply again. Curious, I went back and looked through their post history. I discovered in this process that the person concerned is blunt to the point of being rude, obtuse and cryptic when giving advice (for example telling an inexperienced user to do a complex task with no hint as to how to do so) and, when left facing a situation in which their knowledge or advice was found to be wrong, would either argue, drop from the thread, or do both.

The irony here is that there is a good chance that my “helper” is a super-nice person in real life and just didn’t come across well in a discussion thread. But somehow, I don’t think they’re quite as expert as they might be making out.

It’s an interesting challenge for those of us who seek help on forums. There will be times when the person “helping” actually knows less than you do. Which can be a bit scary if you have to rely on resources like this to get help when something breaks!

The Kraken Stirs (Kraken, Part 1)

Back in May, 2013, I enlisted the help of local PC specialists, Rapid PCs, in the building of what became my current gaming system. Based on a quad core i7 Processor, 16Gb of RAM and an nVidia GTX 680 graphics card. In the interval since then, the system has been upgraded twice. Firstly I replaced the original GTX680 with a GTX 980.

Then, a couple of years later, I added a third monitor to this machine, and that took me through an upgrade that included replacing the original Gigabyte motherboard with an MSI alternative, the original 4-Core Core i7 with an Extreme Edition 6-Core i7 and the GTX980 with a 1080.

Good as this is, I’ve reached the point where the latest crop of AAA game titles can stress even this platform. Driving the 5760×1200 resolution of this triple-screen setup is pretty demanding… So: upgrade…

My original plan was to replace the Xigmatek Elysium with a CaseLabs Magnum STH10,  a remarkable, US-built case with a huge range of configuration options. Then the US decided to impose trade tariffs on aluminium imports and, surprise surprise, CaseLabs went bust.

Enter Thermaltake, and their WP-200 case. This is nothing short of a monster. For a start, it’s huge. Try: 878 x 475 x 678mm – nearly 3 feet tall, 18 inches wide and about 26 inches deep. It’s also *solid* – it ways more than 39 kilos or 86lb, empty.

Not quite as light as the CaseLabs model, this is, nonetheless, absolutely fantastic – even more flexible. It’s too early to commit to a final configuration at this early stage, but the general idea will be a top-of-the -line processor, a pair of the latest 2080 generation GPUs in SLI, and enough water cooling so that this won’t be too stressed.

The first part of the process has been to construct the plinth. Current thinking is that this will be used to contain the power supply and also a couple of radiators and the pipework necessary to connect them to one of the two GPUs. It’s possible – some experimentation will be required – that this can be assembled with relatively quick-release connectors [drip-free in the case of the radiators] so that the upper and lower parts of the case can be separated, for easier transportation… That’s going to need some experimentation, which is always a good idea – and quite often fun, too…

The Kraken stirs.

Well, That Was Close! (Part 2)

Having just about recovered from nearly trashing my email setup, I was left with a problem. The machine I use 90% of the time [using it to type this] was running the older Mint 18.3, with a version of Claws-Mail I could not use any more… What to do? Well, the obvious answer was upgrade Mint to 19.0…

And to do this, the Mint Team have produced a helpful and very short, slick automated upgrade utility. So I downloaded and launched it, but the first thing it wanted me to do was to perform a local backup, using “TimeShift”, the integrated system backup utility. I tried. Unfortunately, my system was demanding 19.4Gb of space for a single backup – and the largest ext4 partition on my system is 16Gb. Ain’t gonna happen.

Still… the process looked pretty easy. What could possibly go wrong???

Um: everything? At first the update went very smoothly… All files downloaded and checked out. I ran all the “test” scenarios and saw no issues being flagged. All looked good. But when it came to the “point of no return”: disaster. The upgrade process got itself into a loop because of unfulfilled dependencies and eventually crapped out on me.

Bother.

This particular machine happens to be a system that dual boots with Windows 10… I needed to have this working properly. Nothing to it, then, except to upgrade the old fashioned way, by using installation media and over-writing the 18.3 system from scratch.

A process which blew up on me just as it was attempting to write the boot-loader [the system startup file] to disk. And, just to make me happy, it did this in a way which trashed not just the Mint system, but Windows 10, too.

Dead system. Deceased. Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch. You get the idea.

Oh crap: now what? Well, it turns out that I wasn’t the first to have this issue with grub. Mint spotted the problem and updated their ISO file… I was trying to use v1, not the later v2. So: boot to another machine; download the v2 image file; attempt another installation using v2 and…. I have a fully recovered, fully working machine.

In fairness, if that had failed, I could have recovered with a complete wipe of the entire SSD, a re-install of Windows 10 and then a clean install of Mint 19.0. But, with much of the licensed software on the Windows image having number-of-installation restrictions, I really didn’t want to have to do that if I could avoid it.

Thanks, Mint Team, that was close.

And: I know trouble comes in threes… but I think two scares is entirely enough for me to be getting along with for now. Thanks.

FootNote:
I dropped a brief email to Tony George, the author of the Timeshift archive utility, to ask him if there was something I was doing wrong that prevented the utility from “seeing” the NTFS partition contained on this particular machine.

It turns out that Timeshift needs and uses meta-data that it obtains from the ext4 file system. NTFS literally doesn’t store the attributes that Timeshift needs, hence Timeshift can’t work with NTFS volumes.

Good to know, although I now need to decide if I’m going to replace the single large NTFS volume in this machine with a pair at half that size, one still NTFS and one as ext4. It kinda makes sense.

Well, That Was Close! (Part 1)

As a user of Mint Linux for many years now, I’ve become somewhat familiar with the upgrade process needed to switch between successive versions.

So when Mint 19.0 was released, the first thing I did was drop a spare SSD in to my PC and install a copy. Effortlessly easy process [done in under 15 minutes] and with a very slick, polished result. Except. One of the applications I tested happened to be my email client of choice, Claws-Mail.

Obscure, old-fashioned in the extreme, this client can’t even handle proportionately-space fonts, never mind HTML or any embedded content. It won’t even launch helper programs to handle attachments without being specifically told what to do. So why use it? Simples: it’s absolutely bullet-proof secure. There isn’t a lot of damage you can do with simple text files – and anything that isn’t simple text is just ignored by Claws.

So I tested Claws under Mint 19 and it worked like a charm. But when I went back to my regular desktop and tried Claws under Mint 18.3, I got an issue whereby any time I tried to do anything, I had to re-enter account passwords. Ulp.

Knowing that I’d allowed the upgrade to 19.0 to make some kind of unknown change to my shared config files, I found my way to the #claws IRC channel and asked politely for help.

Step up the awesome Ticho, who wasn’t just incredibly patient with me, but also had extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the workings of this mail program. The fix required me to back up my key mail folders, make some manual changes to a critical configuration file, then switch permanently to the newer version of Claws that ships with Mint 19.

All told it took an hour or so to fix, but the process was never especially “dangerous” and was completed without so much as a hiccup.

Eternally grateful to Ticho for their wonderful assistance – and, best of all, I am free to carry on using Claws Mail.

Incompetence Comes As Standard

Back in March of this year, Windows 10 updates caused massive disruption to all three of my Windows 10 builds. (All are Pro/64-bit). All are paid-for licenses.

The two with major impact are used for gaming and office tasks on my more powerful, water-cooled “gaming” system.

You can read about the sundry disasters here. They key point to note being that:-

  • The “Office” machine suddenly stopped recognising one of my 3 Dell Monitors. The unit that “vanished” was connected to my nVidia 1080GTX via a “DisplayPort” connector
  • The “Gaming” machine just, well, stopped, with all 3 monitors remaining dark, despite the fact that “windows sounds” indicated that the machine had booted successfully.

But wait! Isn’t that exactly the same ####ing thing that has just happened with the latest update? Why yes, I do believe it is.

So… having completely ####ed up two of my builds in March, causing me extensive down-time and a nightmare of an issue with getting my Omnipage OCR software re-activated [it somehow thought I had installed it twice already, which I hadn’t], it looks as though I could well be left with a repeat of that experience just 4 months later.

It isn’t as though I’m able to telepathically know in advance that the update is going to be applied [and stop it]. With Microsoft’s new updating mechanism, I have no ability to determine what gets updated, or when.

All I’m left with is [literally] a box of bits. With no Operating System, the hardware doesn’t exactly do much. This is entirely, completely and utterly unacceptable. In my case, Microsoft can’t resort to, “Well, it was free…” because I had to pay for both licenses. £200 each, thank you very much.

They don’t even provide direct support – oh no – if you go to their support forums [ “http://support.microsoft.com/”] you are left dealing with volunteer MCPs. Don’t get me wrong – the people I’ve dealt with have been excellent – patient, friendly and helpful. But that doesn’t excuse Microsoft from shipping sh1te product.

Microsoft: Incompetence Comes As Standard.