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.

When It Ain’t Broke – systemd and Unavailable Drives

I’ve been using Mint Linux since some time in late 2013, early 2014, when I saw what a complete and utter disaster ubuntu were making of their distro with the 12.10 and later releases.

I’d been using ubuntu since some time in mid-2005, experimenting with 5.04 Hoary Hedgehog before getting serious with 5.10 Breezy Badger.

Prior to that I had used Mandrake Linux [a Red-Hat based distro] which eventually merged with the Brazilian Connectiva to form Mandriva, but which ultimately whithered and died.

And before that I’d actually bought one of the first packaged versions of Red Hat (2.1 Bluesky, which shipped in 1995 and ran kernel 1.2.13…

So: a while…

I’m a fan of Mint; they have worked hard to take all that is good about ubuntu, but drop the horrible succession of ubuntu desktops [starting with Unity] and made a clean, simple, solution.

All has been well in Mint world. At least, mostly. I first downloaded [and still have the ISO for] “Maya” (Mint 13, released May23rd, 2012) and got terrific stability from all versions up to Mint 17.3, Rosa, released on December 4th, 2016. Then things got weird.

The next major release of Mint (18.0/Sarah, 18.1/Serena and 18.2/Sonya) were all desperately unreliable and buggy [for me, at least]. It turns out that chief among the problems with this latest edition were changes brought by the introduction of systemd, a component of the system which manages the boot process.

Rather than follow the traditional unix philosophy of writing “small, sharp tools”, which “do one thing, but do it well”, the designers of systemd have produced a godawful mess of bloatware that makes a mess of lots of things. It writes binary logs [so if you’re system won’t boot, you need special tools to parse log files]; it over-rides audio settings [because it knows better than you do where your speakers are connected]; and it has unilaterally changed the way that a booting system interprets the contents of the “fstab” file system table file…

In simple terms, if you have a machine which expects to mount a remote nfs partition, systemd will deem that to be “mandatory” unless you tell it otherwise, in complete contradiction to the way that sysvinit [ the old boot manager] works. Which means that migration from sysvinit to systemd requires you to figure out and then edit a bunch of changes in to various configuration files.

Because, of course, the authors of systemd refused to interpret configuration file parameters “as they had been written” and instead unilaterally decided that earlier interpretations of parameters “were wrong” and that they would just fix everything. OK, a tidy-up is understandable. IF said tidy-up comes with a warning, a migration tool, or useful hints. Nope. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Nothing.

You go figure it out. Your computer, meanwhile, won’t boot if any of your declared file systems are missing. Rather than “boot with error message”, the new model is “don’t boot”. Rather than warn you that your file system config needs to be amended, the new model is “go screw yourself.”

for anyone struggling with this issue, the answer is to insert the following text into the parameters of the fstab mount string:-

nofail,x-systemd.device-timeout=5

such that,

192.168.1.41:Public /media/459 nfs rw,hard,intr 0 2

changes to look like this…

192.168.1.41:Public /media/459 nfs rw,hard,intr,nofail,      x-systemd.device-timeout=5 0 2

 

GNUcash and CIFS Protocol Error

In a bit of a break from the usually dull and boring posts of photographs, I thought I’d produce a dull and boring post about a fix for an odd technical problem. Precisely because this is a bit odd, this page might be found by someone looking for a fix…

If you run GNUcash, the Free and Open Source Financial Management package, then well done you – great choice. However, if you ever see a weird error from it, specifically:

“No suitable backend was found for file { my GNUcash data file }”

– then one possible explanation could exist if the file you are trying to access is placed on a network drive, and if you are attempting to access it via the CIFS (Server Message Block, or SMBFS/SAMBA) network file system protocol.

Despite the fact that it should not be the case, it transpires that GNUcash is somewhat sensitive to differences between the two protocols. The gurus at GNUcash tell me that CIFS does not properly implement certain aspects of the file locking part of the protocol, as a result of which the actual program may fail to open the data file. Because the error message is ever-so-slightly confusing, it seemed to be a good idea to post up a short explanation in the hope that search engines will spider it and it will be of useful to someone else…

Their recommended solution [if it is available to you] is to replace the CIFS network file system protocol with NFS, which, unlike CIFS, does respect and support the relevant file locking required by GNUcash.

Here’s hoping!

Minted

In 2005, having long been disillusioned with a succession of nasty products from Microsoft’s OS Team, I was running Mandriva Linux, the odd-ball child formed after the merger of Mandrake Linux (a French distribution) and the Brazilian Connectiva Linux. Well, Mandriva was struggling; though they tried hard to put polish on their desktop, they were coding with interpreted languages [primarily perl-GTK] and with the hardware of the day it was pretty sluggish. Then a friend introduced me to ubuntu Linux 5.10, “Breezy Badger”, and I haven’t really looked back since. Until recently, that is.

Mark Shuttleworth, the backer of ubuntu and Canonical, it’s commercial support company, has done amazing, incredible things: not just for ubuntu, but for Linux as a whole. It was Shuttleworth who took the concept of the 6-monthly release cycle for OS versions and made it mainstream, Shuttleworth who brought us the concept of “LTS – Long Term Support” releases; Shuttleworth who took the functional but ill-fitting individual parts of the Linux ecosphere and made them play nice, in a sweetly polished distribution: ubuntu.

So what happened? Well, weird stuff, really. A couple of years ago Mark decided that he didn’t like existing graphical desktops, and announced that ubuntu would drop the GNOME desktop in favour of a Canonical/ubuntu-developed alternative called Unity. If he’d done it when Unity was properly ready, I don’t think there would have been any push-back, but the first few releases were primitive and broke often. It’s getting better, but this was the first sign that Mark wanted to “go his own way”. Recently, there have been two more significant developments. Firstly, back in September last year, Mark announced that searches that user put to the “Dash” [a super-powerful command line] would now be sent to Canonical’s servers and then shared with initially Amazon, but possibly others. Second, he announced that Canonical are giving up on the Wayland graphical toolkit that underpins Unity [which as recently as 2010 was the best thing…] and is replacing it with something to be called Mir, which will be developed by Canonical.

In one sense, I applaud Mark for his courage and his vision and his willingness to put a vast amount of his own cash on the line to further his technical aspirations for the ubuntu distribution. On the other hand, I was deeply concerned by these recent choices: the “Dash” escapade because he does not seem to understand that no matter how harmless “Amazon” might be [and they’re not] Governments the world over will demand access to his aggregating infrastructure, and through it have a form of “remote access” to whatever any ubuntu user types into their Dash command line. Big Brother can definitely watch you, on your own machine… But perhaps more relevant to me: there was already Wayland, and there are others. Did we really need to iterate the N+1 problem and spin up yet another Linux desktop/GUI system, or would it have been better to work with Wayland and sort out the issues that Shuttleworth perceived? [ I suspect that the answer is tied to Mark’s desire to get ubuntu deployed on both Tablets and Mobile phones.]

Anyway, what to do? Stick with ubuntu and hope for the best, or go do something else? Enter Mint. Mint Linux is a relatively new but rapidly growing new distribution which is based upon … ubuntu. The key thing is, it doesn’t have Unity, the Dash… and it doesn’t spy on it’s users. Put another way, it contains all the best bits of ubuntu [which are, frankly, awesome], without any of the scary bits.

I had a couple of challenges getting Linux Mint to work on my main machine [a couple of partitioning issues, sound on web videos took a little tweaking] but it’s sweet, stable and very snappy. I’ve tried 2 variants, one with KDE and one with the lightweight xfce desktop. Both are slick, clean and very easy to use.

What’s not to like?