Saturday, November 22, 2008

DeLi Linux + Ancient Laptop

My brother picked up a couple laptops for $1 each at his company's computer sale. He doesn't know much about computers so he asked me if I could look at them. The papers taped to each of them indicated they didn't work. Both were the same make and model, here are the specs:

WinBook XP5 Pro FX (MQ6C)
133 MHz Pentium Processor
2 PCMCIA slots
Swappable CD-ROM & Floppy Drives (but not "hot" swappable)

Laptop One
32 MB of memory
2 GB Hard Drive
Sale note said "Only boots to BIOS"

Laptop Two
48 MB of memory
800 MB Hard Drive
Sale note said "Screen Dead"

It turned out that Laptop Two's screen wasn't exactly dead. The BIOS had been switched to "external CRT only" for video output. The drive had a factory install of Win98 on it. They had to factory install Win95 or Win98 because there is no way to install them yourself - unless you had the "docking station" that supported extra drives - because you otherwise can't have both the floppy drive and the CD-ROM connected at the same time. After being on all day trying to get a wireless network card to work the screen eventually did freeze up and then "bloom" until it was all white. After letting it cool off overnight it worked again, but fails a lot sooner each time.

Laptop One would only boot into the BIOS because someone had attempted to upgrade it from Win95 or 98 (whichever it originally had) to Windows 2000. The drive had been reformatted NTFS but whomever did it forgot to put a Master Boot Record on the drive. So the BIOS couldn't find a bootable drive and would just be stuck. I decided that laptop would be my guinea pig for a Linux installation.

After doing some research into Linux distributions which were small and targeted at low-power systems most were command line "rescue" versions or the like. I wanted something with a GUI which led me to DeLi Linux. I downloaded the 0.8 full install .iso and burned it to disc from my Windows XP system. Connected the CD-ROM drive to Laptop One, jumped into the BIOS setup to tell it to boot from the CD-ROM, and crossed my fingers.

The system found the CD-ROM and then kicked out some disc errors and kernel panic. Even though the downloaded file's checksum was correct and my disc burner successfully verified the CD it had errors. I burned another and tried again. The second time it fired up the DeLi Linux installer without problems.

Following the step-by-step guide on the Wiki with the screenshots of each step the base install went smoothly. I wiped the NTFS drive and created my two Primary Partitions (one for Linux one for Swap). It doesn't say so in the instructions (or show it in the screenshot) but cfdisk will prompt you to make the Linux partition bootable. Because of the low memory I had to activate the swap right away as instructed:

mkswap /dev/hda2
swapon /dev/hda2

When it came time to install the additional packages the installer repeatedly kicked out and gave IRQ errors, would "reset" itself, kick the errors again, reset - about a half-dozen times - until it continued without any input from me. It did this for each package.

At the end I was prompted to eject the disc and reboot. Voila! It booted into Linux right away. I logged into the "root" account and ran "delisetup" from the prompt. Most of that was pretty straight forward, except when I got to the X Server stuff.

It said that there was no config file for X and that Tiny X Server hadn't been installed. Since the computer has no built-in networking I knew I'd have to install from the install CD, so from the root prompt I mounted my CD-ROM:

mkdir /mnt/cdrom
mount -t auto /dev/hdb /mnt/cdrom

Then used the Package Manager to install (or "Add") from the CD:

pacman -A /mnt/cdrom/pkg/tinyx_server-20070515-2.pkg.tar.gz

Once that was done I was able to use the "delisetup" utility as described in the Wiki:

I only had one option for X server - "Xvesa" - available. I selected 800x600x15 TrueColor for the video mode. I also set the window manager for root in case I need it (IceWM was my only choice).

Then I logged in under my user account, ran "xwmconfig" from the prompt and again selected "IceWM" for my Window Manager (note: each user account has to set the window manager).

typed "startx" at the prompt and HOORAY! I saw the X startup and very quickly the IceWM desktop.

Most of the applications, however, don't launch. AbiWord gives me the splash screen and then disappears. FileManager, Graphics, and Web apps do nothing. I could view the active processes, the font utility, and the calculator - but that was pretty much it. The additional packages either didn't install at all, or only partially installed, during all those IRQ errors. I can use the Package Manager to manually install/reinstall from the CD but I think I'd need to manually reinstall almost everything beyond the base and there's still no guarantee the applications will actually launch.

For example, I installed the Skipstone browser and it's dependencies - xulrunner and nspr. Skipstone now appears in my IceWM "start" menu under "Internet" applications. When I launch it I can see it show up in the Process monitor (if I also have that open). But it immediately crashes before I ever see any of the application on screen. The other browser does the same thing. As mentioned AbiWord gets to the splash screen and then tanks.

I think this is as far as I'm going to bother taking this, I'll probably take the best parts from both laptops to make one fully functional Win98 system. I was mostly curious to see if I could actually get some Linux with a GUI running on it, which I did. Sort of. Well, Linux runs. It's the add-ons that are hit and miss.

Wow, it's scary to think people actually used to USE these laptops for daily business. Guess that was back before time was money.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

MarsCon Masquerade Ball 2008

Wow, it's been a while since I've done a post hasn't it?

I went to the 2nd Annual MarsCon Masquerade Ball last night. Lots of great costumes again this year. I went in basically the same costume I did last year, with some minor updates.

What didn't work:

The Holiday Inn where the Ball is held (same hotel as the Con) moved the event into a smaller space on the first floor with little advance warning. There were two other events going on in the hotel - a wedding in the Main Ballroom and some Northwest Airlines seminar - which I heard got the 2nd floor space MarsCon had originally booked. I didn't see any signs pointing to the event, so I ended up walking through the whole second floor looking for it before I thought "hey, maybe it's in that room down of the first floor" which it was. But no signage sent me in that direction, so if I was unfamiliar with the hotel I wouldn't have known where it was being held. The area for "formal portraits" also took up a lot of the space in the room - it would have been nice if that could have been relocated to somewhere else. So anyway it was a little cramped in that smaller room, but the organizers can't be blamed for that. Makes me wonder, though, if they shouldn't look at alternate venues for next year's dance.

As was the case last year the actual snacks were up on another floor in the hotel. I don't know if the original plan had been to have that in the actual dance room or not, but in future years I really hope they move the food into the same room - or at the very least immediately outside the door or something. Since the hotel bar was just outside the room getting a drink was easy enough, though.

The weather was about what you'd expect for early November in Minnesota. Actually it reminded me a lot of Halloweens when I was a kid - snowing, blowing, and wearing a jacket over your costume. I think the cold and snow may have adversely affected attendance, which was noticeably down this year as compared to the inaugural ball last year. The dance was also likely competing for people with OmegaCon, an annual relax-a-con held in Siren, Wisconsin which is less than 100 miles away. Obviously the organizers can't be blamed for the weather, but it might have been more prudent to have scheduled the dance for the previous Saturday - immediately after Halloween - than on November 8th. For that matter, why not just schedule it AS a Halloween dance in the first place? I'm sure there are some people who wouldn't go because they'd feel like an idiot walking around in costume AFTER Halloween but who'd happily wear a costume to an actual Halloween dance. Even the weekend BEFORE Halloween would be preferable in my opinion. Think about it - if you are obviously celebrating a holiday AFTER it's over (and the holiday didn't fall in the middle of the week) you basically do look like an idiot who is calendar-impaired. But "getting in the mood" before the holiday is totally understandable.

People not dancing. Ok, I get it. Some people came to dress up, drink, and socialize - the dancing was just incidental to their evening. I'm as shy as anyone about being the first one out on the dance floor, or the ONLY one out there. The music was good dance music, but it seemed to me that the dance floor was empty (or nearly so) more often than not. Maybe someone can come up with some added incentive to get people out there?

What worked:

It's a very affordable night out. $10 at the door, snacks included (if you're willing to walk for them), and the option of a cash bar if you've got a few more dollars in your pocketbook.

It's fun to dress up in costume, especially when you're in a room full of other people who are in costume. I'd say I've seen a much wider variety of costumes at the two Masquerade Balls than I do at the actual convention - probably because it's not so limited to sci-fi/fantasy. The winners of the costume contest were dressed as Scarlet O'Hara and Rett Butler from "Gone with the Wind." I can't say I've seen THAT at a sci-fi convention. They also moved the costume contest up so voting finished earlier, which was nice for the people who either had to leave early or just can't party all the way to midnight.

I thought the variety of actually dance-able music was better this year.

People dancing! When people did "bust a move" on the dance floor it was a lot more fun, even for those watching. When the "Addams Family" theme came up everyone was singing along and snapping their fingers on cue. There was the obligatory "Time Warp" dance from Rocky Horror, of course, and at one point a conga line to the "Star Wars Cantina/Copacabana" song. There were also a couple of selections that had couples doing a waltz and others that had people doing the "robot."

My Final Verdict?
I'll definitely be going to it again next year if at all possible!

This is a relatively new event (being that this is only the "2nd Annual") so it will hopefully continue to be improved and refined as long as they keep holding it. In some ways I actually enjoy it more than a full convention - it's less of an investment in time and money, but you still get to party and geek out with a lot of the same folks you see at the Cons.