Category Archives: Software

Dead USB Drives Are Fine: Building a Reliable Sneakernet

“OK,” you’re probably thinking. “John, you talk a lot about things like Gopher and personal radios, and now you want to talk about building a reliable network out of… USB drives?”

Well, yes. In fact, I’ve already done it.

What is sneakernet?

Normally, “sneakernet” is a sort of tongue-in-cheek reference to using disconnected storage to transport data or messages. By “disconnect storage” I mean anything like CD-ROMs, hard drives, SD cards, USB drives, and so forth. There are times when loading up 12TB on a device and driving it across town is just faster and easier than using the Internet for the same. And, sometimes you need to get data to places that have no Internet at all.

Another reason for sneakernet is security. For instance, if your backup system is online, and your systems being backed up are online, then it could become possible for an attacker to destroy both your primary copy of data and your backups. Or, you might use a dedicated computer with no network connection to do GnuPG (GPG) signing.

What about “reliable” sneakernet, then?

TCP is often considered a “reliable” protocol. That means that the sending side is generally able to tell if its message was properly received. As with most reliable protocols, we have these components:

  1. After transmitting a piece of data, the sender retains it.
  2. After receiving a piece of data, the receiver sends an acknowledgment (ACK) back to the sender.
  3. Upon receiving the acknowledgment, the sender removes its buffered copy of the data.
  4. If no acknowledgment is received at the sender, it retransmits the data, in case it gets lost in transit.
  5. It reorders any packets that arrive out of order, so that the recipient’s data stream is ordered correctly.

Now, a lot of the things I just mentioned for sneakernet are legendarily unreliable. USB drives fail, CD-ROMs get scratched, hard drives get banged up. Think about putting these things in a bicycle bag or airline luggage. Some of them are going to fail.

You might think, “well, I’ll just copy files to a USB drive instead of move them, and once I get them onto the destination machine, I’ll delete them from the source.” Congratulations! You are a human retransmit algorithm! We should be able to automate this!

And we can.

Enter NNCP

NNCP is one of those things that almost defies explanation. It is a toolkit for building asynchronous networks. It can use as a carrier: a pipe, TCP network connection, a mounted filesystem (specifically intended for cases like this), and much more. It also supports multi-hop asynchronous routing and asynchronous meshing, but these are beyond the scope of this particular article.

NNCP’s transports that involve live communication between two hops already had all the hallmarks of being reliable; there was a positive ACK and retransmit. As of version 8.7.0, NNCP’s ACKs themselves can also be asynchronous – meaning that every NNCP transport can now be reliable.

Yes, that’s right. Your ACKs can flow over tapes and USB drives if you want them to.

I use this for archiving and backups.

If you aren’t already familiar with NNCP, you might take a look at my NNCP page. I also have a lot of blog posts about NNCP.

Those pages describe the basics of NNCP: the “packet” (the unit of transmission in NNCP, which can be tiny or many TB), the end-to-end encryption, and so forth. The new command we will now be interested in is nncp-ack.

The Basic Idea

Here are the basic steps to processing this stuff with NNCP:

  1. First, we use nncp-xfer -rx to process incoming packets from the USB (or other media) device. This moves them into the NNCP inbound queue, deleting them from the media device, and verifies the packet integrity.
  2. We use nncp-ack -node $NODE to create ACK packets responding to the packets we just loaded into the rx queue. It writes a list of generated ACKs onto fd 4, which we save off for later use.
  3. We run nncp-toss -seen to process the incoming queue. The use of -seen causes NNCP to remember the hashes of packets seen before, so a duplicate of an already-seen packet will not be processed twice. This command also processes incoming ACKs for packets we’ve sent out previously; if they pass verification, the relevant packets are removed from the local machine’s tx queue.
  4. Now, we use nncp-xfer -keep -tx -mkdir -node $NODE to send outgoing packets to a given node by writing them to a given directory on the media device. -keep causes them to remain in the outgoing queue.
  5. Finally, we use the list of generated ACK packets saved off in step 2 above. That list is passed to nncp-rm -node $NODE -pkt < $FILE to remove those specific packets from the outbound queue. The reason is that there will never be an ACK of ACK packet (that would create an infinite loop), so if we don’t delete them in this manner, they would hang around forever.

You can see these steps follow the same basic outline on upstream’s nncp-ack page.

One thing to keep in mind: if anything else is running nncp-toss, there is a chance of a race condition between steps 1 and 2 (if nncp-toss gets to it first, it might not get an ack generated). This would sort itself out eventually, presumably, as the sender would retransmit and it would be ACKed later.

Further ideas

NNCP guarantees the integrity of packets, but not ordering between packets; if you need that, you might look into my Filespooler program. It is designed to work with NNCP and can provide ordered processing.

An example script

Here is a script you might try for this sort of thing. It may have more logic than you need – really, you just need the steps above – but hopefully it is clear.

#!/bin/bash

set -eo pipefail

MEDIABASE="/media/$USER"

# The local node name
NODENAME="`hostname`"

# All nodes.  NODENAME should be in this list.
ALLNODES="node1 node2 node3"

RUNNNCP=""
# If you need to sudo, use something like RUNNNCP="sudo -Hu nncp"
NNCPPATH="/usr/local/nncp/bin"

ACKPATH="`mktemp -d`"

# Process incoming packets.
#
# Parameters: $1 - the path to scan.  Must contain a directory
# named "nncp".
procrxpath () {
    while [ -n "$1" ]; do
        BASEPATH="$1/nncp"
        shift
        if ! [ -d "$BASEPATH" ]; then
            echo "$BASEPATH doesn't exist; skipping"
            continue
        fi

        echo " *** Incoming: processing $BASEPATH"
        TMPDIR="`mktemp -d`"

        # This rsync and the one below can help with
        # certain permission issues from weird foreign
        # media.  You could just eliminate it and
        # always use $BASEPATH instead of $TMPDIR below.
        rsync -rt "$BASEPATH/" "$TMPDIR/"

        # You may need these next two lines if using sudo as above.
        # chgrp -R nncp "$TMPDIR"
        # chmod -R g+rwX "$TMPDIR"
        echo "     Running nncp-xfer -rx"
        $RUNNNCP $NNCPPATH/nncp-xfer -progress -rx "$TMPDIR"

        for NODE in $ALLNODES; do
                if [ "$NODE" != "$NODENAME" ]; then
                        echo "     Running nncp-ack for $NODE"

                        # Now, we generate ACK packets for each node we will
                        # process.  nncp-ack writes a list of the created
                        # ACK packets to fd 4.  We'll use them later.
                        # If using sudo, add -C 5 after $RUNNNCP.
                        $RUNNNCP $NNCPPATH/nncp-ack -progress -node "$NODE" \
                           4>> "$ACKPATH/$NODE"
                fi
        done

        rsync --delete -rt "$TMPDIR/" "$BASEPATH/"
        rm -fr "$TMPDIR"
    done
}


proctxpath () {
    while [ -n "$1" ]; do
        BASEPATH="$1/nncp"
        shift
        if ! [ -d "$BASEPATH" ]; then
            echo "$BASEPATH doesn't exist; skipping"
            continue
        fi

        echo " *** Outgoing: processing $BASEPATH"
        TMPDIR="`mktemp -d`"
        rsync -rt "$BASEPATH/" "$TMPDIR/"
        # You may need these two lines if using sudo:
        # chgrp -R nncp "$TMPDIR"
        # chmod -R g+rwX "$TMPDIR"

        for DESTHOST in $ALLNODES; do
            if [ "$DESTHOST" = "$NODENAME" ]; then
                continue
            fi

            # Copy outgoing packets to this node, but keep them in the outgoing
            # queue with -keep.
            $RUNNNCP $NNCPPATH/nncp-xfer -keep -tx -mkdir -node "$DESTHOST" -progress "$TMPDIR"

            # Here is the key: that list of ACK packets we made above - now we delete them.
            # There will never be an ACK for an ACK, so they'd keep sending forever
            # if we didn't do this.
            if [ -f "$ACKPATH/$DESTHOST" ]; then
                echo "nncp-rm for node $DESTHOST"
                $RUNNNCP $NNCPPATH/nncp-rm -debug -node "$DESTHOST" -pkt < "$ACKPATH/$DESTHOST"
            fi

        done

        rsync --delete -rt "$TMPDIR/" "$BASEPATH/"
        rm -rf "$TMPDIR"

        # We only want to write stuff once.
        return 0
    done
}

procrxpath "$MEDIABASE"/*

echo " *** Initial tossing..."

# We make sure to use -seen to rule out duplicates.
$RUNNNCP $NNCPPATH/nncp-toss -progress -seen

proctxpath "$MEDIABASE"/*

echo "You can unmount devices now."

echo "Done."

This post is also available on my webiste, where it may be periodically updated.

The PC & Internet Revolution in Rural America

Inspired by several others (such as Alex Schroeder’s post and Szcze┼╝uja’s prompt), as well as a desire to get this down for my kids, I figure it’s time to write a bit about living through the PC and Internet revolution where I did: outside a tiny town in rural Kansas. And, as I’ve been back in that same area for the past 15 years, I reflect some on the challenges that continue to play out.

Although the stories from the others were primarily about getting online, I want to start by setting some background. Those of you that didn’t grow up in the same era as I did probably never realized that a typical business PC setup might cost $10,000 in today’s dollars, for instance. So let me start with the background.

Nothing was easy

This story begins in the 1980s. Somewhere around my Kindergarten year of school, around 1985, my parents bought a TRS-80 Color Computer 2 (aka CoCo II). It had 64K of RAM and used a TV for display and sound.

This got you the computer. It didn’t get you any disk drive or anything, no joysticks (required by a number of games). So whenever the system powered down, or it hung and you had to power cycle it – a frequent event – you’d lose whatever you were doing and would have to re-enter the program, literally by typing it in.

The floppy drive for the CoCo II cost more than the computer, and it was quite common for people to buy the computer first and then the floppy drive later when they’d saved up the money for that.

I particularly want to mention that computers then didn’t come with a modem. What would be like buying a laptop or a tablet without wifi today. A modem, which I’ll talk about in a bit, was another expensive accessory. To cobble together a system in the 80s that was capable of talking to others – with persistent storage (floppy, or hard drive), screen, keyboard, and modem – would be quite expensive. Adjusted for inflation, if you’re talking a PC-style device (a clone of the IBM PC that ran DOS), this would easily be more expensive than the Macbook Pros of today.

Few people back in the 80s had a computer at home. And the portion of those that had even the capability to get online in a meaningful way was even smaller.

Eventually my parents bought a PC clone with 640K RAM and dual floppy drives. This was primarily used for my mom’s work, but I did my best to take it over whenever possible. It ran DOS and, despite its monochrome screen, was generally a more capable machine than the CoCo II. For instance, it supported lowercase. (I’m not even kidding; the CoCo II pretty much didn’t.) A while later, they purchased a 32MB hard drive for it – what luxury!

Just getting a machine to work wasn’t easy. Say you’d bought a PC, and then bought a hard drive, and a modem. You didn’t just plug in the hard drive and it would work. You would have to fight it every step of the way. The BIOS and DOS partition tables of the day used a cylinder/head/sector method of addressing the drive, and various parts of that those addresses had too few bits to work with the “big” drives of the day above 20MB. So you would have to lie to the BIOS and fdisk in various ways, and sort of work out how to do it for each drive. For each peripheral – serial port, sound card (in later years), etc., you’d have to set jumpers for DMA and IRQs, hoping not to conflict with anything already in the system. Perhaps you can now start to see why USB and PCI were so welcomed.

Sharing and finding resources

Despite the two computers in our home, it wasn’t as if software written on one machine just ran on another. A lot of software for PC clones assumed a CGA color display. The monochrome HGC in our PC wasn’t particularly compatible. You could find a TSR program to emulate the CGA on the HGC, but it wasn’t particularly stable, and there’s only so much you can do when a program that assumes color displays on a monitor that can only show black, dark amber, or light amber.

So I’d periodically get to use other computers – most commonly at an office in the evening when it wasn’t being used.

There were some local computer clubs that my dad took me to periodically. Software was swapped back then; disks copied, shareware exchanged, and so forth. For me, at least, there was no “online” to download software from, and selling software over the Internet wasn’t a thing at all.

Three Different Worlds

There were sort of three different worlds of computing experience in the 80s:

  1. Home users. Initially using a wide variety of software from Apple, Commodore, Tandy/RadioShack, etc., but eventually coming to be mostly dominated by IBM PC clones
  2. Small and mid-sized business users. Some of them had larger minicomputers or small mainframes, but most that I had contact with by the early 90s were standardized on DOS-based PCs. More advanced ones had a network running Netware, most commonly. Networking hardware and software was generally too expensive for home users to use in the early days.
  3. Universities and large institutions. These are the places that had the mainframes, the earliest implementations of TCP/IP, the earliest users of UUCP, and so forth.

The difference between the home computing experience and the large institution experience were vast. Not only in terms of dollars – the large institution hardware could easily cost anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars – but also in terms of sheer resources required (large rooms, enormous power circuits, support staff, etc). Nothing was in common between them; not operating systems, not software, not experience. I was never much aware of the third category until the differences started to collapse in the mid-90s, and even then I only was exposed to it once the collapse was well underway.

You might say to me, “Well, Google certainly isn’t running what I’m running at home!” And, yes of course, it’s different. But fundamentally, most large datacenters are running on x86_64 hardware, with Linux as the operating system, and a TCP/IP network. It’s a different scale, obviously, but at a fundamental level, the hardware and operating system stack are pretty similar to what you can readily run at home. Back in the 80s and 90s, this wasn’t the case. TCP/IP wasn’t even available for DOS or Windows until much later, and when it was, it was a clunky beast that was difficult.

One of the things Kevin Driscoll highlights in his book called Modem World – see my short post about it – is that the history of the Internet we usually receive is focused on case 3: the large institutions. In reality, the Internet was and is literally a network of networks. Gateways to and from Internet existed from all three kinds of users for years, and while TCP/IP ultimately won the battle of the internetworking protocol, the other two streams of users also shaped the Internet as we now know it. Like many, I had no access to the large institution networks, but as I’ve been reflecting on my experiences, I’ve found a new appreciation for the way that those of us that grew up with primarily home PCs shaped the evolution of today’s online world also.

An Era of Scarcity

I should take a moment to comment about the cost of software back then. A newspaper article from 1985 comments that WordPerfect, then the most powerful word processing program, sold for $495 (or $219 if you could score a mail order discount). That’s $1360/$600 in 2022 money. Other popular software, such as Lotus 1-2-3, was up there as well. If you were to buy a new PC clone in the mid to late 80s, it would often cost $2000 in 1980s dollars. Now add a printer – a low-end dot matrix for $300 or a laser for $1500 or even more. A modem: another $300. So the basic system would be $3600, or $9900 in 2022 dollars. If you wanted a nice printer, you’re now pushing well over $10,000 in 2022 dollars.

You start to see one barrier here, and also why things like shareware and piracy – if it was indeed even recognized as such – were common in those days.

So you can see, from a home computer setup (TRS-80, Commodore C64, Apple ][, etc) to a business-class PC setup was an order of magnitude increase in cost. From there to the high-end minis/mainframes was another order of magnitude (at least!) increase. Eventually there was price pressure on the higher end and things all got better, which is probably why the non-DOS PCs lasted until the early 90s.

Increasing Capabilities

My first exposure to computers in school was in the 4th grade, when I would have been about 9. There was a single Apple ][ machine in that room. I primarily remember playing Oregon Trail on it. The next year, the school added a computer lab. Remember, this is a small rural area, so each graduating class might have about 25 people in it; this lab was shared by everyone in the K-8 building. It was full of some flavor of IBM PS/2 machines running DOS and Netware. There was a dedicated computer teacher too, though I think she was a regular teacher that was given somewhat minimal training on computers. We were going to learn typing that year, but I did so well on the very first typing program that we soon worked out that I could do programming instead. I started going to school early – these machines were far more powerful than the XT at home – and worked on programming projects there.

Eventually my parents bought me a Gateway 486SX/25 with a VGA monitor and hard drive. Wow! This was a whole different world. It may have come with Windows 3.0 or 3.1 on it, but I mainly remember running OS/2 on that machine. More on that below.

Programming

That CoCo II came with a BASIC interpreter in ROM. It came with a large manual, which served as a BASIC tutorial as well. The BASIC interpreter was also the shell, so literally you could not use the computer without at least a bit of BASIC.

Once I had access to a DOS machine, it also had a basic interpreter: GW-BASIC. There was a fair bit of software written in BASIC at the time, but most of the more advanced software wasn’t. I wondered how these .EXE and .COM programs were written. I could find vague references to DEBUG.EXE, assemblers, and such. But it wasn’t until I got a copy of Turbo Pascal that I was able to do that sort of thing myself. Eventually I got Borland C++ and taught myself C as well. A few years later, I wanted to try writing GUI programs for Windows, and bought Watcom C++ – much cheaper than the competition, and it could target Windows, DOS (and I think even OS/2).

Notice that, aside from BASIC, none of this was free, and none of it was bundled. You couldn’t just download a C compiler, or Python interpreter, or whatnot back then. You had to pay for the ability to write any kind of serious code on the computer you already owned.

The Microsoft Domination

Microsoft came to dominate the PC landscape, and then even the computing landscape as a whole. IBM very quickly lost control over the hardware side of PCs as Compaq and others made clones, but Microsoft has managed – in varying degrees even to this day – to keep a stranglehold on the software, and especially the operating system, side. Yes, there was occasional talk of things like DR-DOS, but by and large the dominant platform came to be the PC, and if you had a PC, you ran DOS (and later Windows) from Microsoft.

For awhile, it looked like IBM was going to challenge Microsoft on the operating system front; they had OS/2, and when I switched to it sometime around the version 2.1 era in 1993, it was unquestionably more advanced technically than the consumer-grade Windows from Microsoft at the time. It had Internet support baked in, could run most DOS and Windows programs, and had introduced a replacement for the by-then terrible FAT filesystem: HPFS, in 1988. Microsoft wouldn’t introduce a better filesystem for its consumer operating systems until Windows XP in 2001, 13 years later. But more on that story later.

Free Software, Shareware, and Commercial Software

I’ve covered the high cost of software already. Obviously $500 software wasn’t going to sell in the home market. So what did we have?

Mainly, these things:

  1. Public domain software. It was free to use, and if implemented in BASIC, probably had source code with it too.
  2. Shareware
  3. Commercial software (some of it from small publishers was a lot cheaper than $500)

Let’s talk about shareware. The idea with shareware was that a company would release a useful program, sometimes limited. You were encouraged to “register”, or pay for, it if you liked it and used it. And, regardless of whether you registered it or not, were told “please copy!” Sometimes shareware was fully functional, and registering it got you nothing more than printed manuals and an easy conscience (guilt trips for not registering weren’t necessarily very subtle). Sometimes unregistered shareware would have a “nag screen” – a delay of a few seconds while they told you to register. Sometimes they’d be limited in some way; you’d get more features if you registered. With games, it was popular to have a trilogy, and release the first episode – inevitably ending with a cliffhanger – as shareware, and the subsequent episodes would require registration. In any event, a lot of software people used in the 80s and 90s was shareware. Also pirated commercial software, though in the earlier days of computing, I think some people didn’t even know the difference.

Notice what’s missing: Free Software / FLOSS in the Richard Stallman sense of the word. Stallman lived in the big institution world – after all, he worked at MIT – and what he was doing with the Free Software Foundation and GNU project beginning in 1983 never really filtered into the DOS/Windows world at the time. I had no awareness of it even existing until into the 90s, when I first started getting some hints of it as a port of gcc became available for OS/2. The Internet was what really brought this home, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I want to say again: FLOSS never really entered the DOS and Windows 3.x ecosystems. You’d see it make a few inroads here and there in later versions of Windows, and moreso now that Microsoft has been sort of forced to accept it, but still, reflect on its legacy. What is the software market like in Windows compared to Linux, even today?

Now it is, finally, time to talk about connectivity!

Getting On-Line

What does it even mean to get on line? Certainly not connecting to a wifi access point. The answer is, unsurprisingly, complex. But for everyone except the large institutional users, it begins with a telephone.

The telephone system

By the 80s, there was one communication network that already reached into nearly every home in America: the phone system. Virtually every household (note I don’t say every person) was uniquely identified by a 10-digit phone number. You could, at least in theory, call up virtually any other phone in the country and be connected in less than a minute.

But I’ve got to talk about cost. The way things worked in the USA, you paid a monthly fee for a phone line. Included in that monthly fee was unlimited “local” calling. What is a local call? That was an extremely complex question. Generally it meant, roughly, calling within your city. But of course, as you deal with things like suburbs and cities growing into each other (eg, the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex), things got complicated fast. But let’s just say for simplicity you could call others in your city.

What about calling people not in your city? That was “long distance”, and you paid – often hugely – by the minute for it. Long distance rates were difficult to figure out, but were generally most expensive during business hours and cheapest at night or on weekends. Prices eventually started to come down when competition was introduced for long distance carriers, but even then you often were stuck with a single carrier for long distance calls outside your city but within your state. Anyhow, let’s just leave it at this: local calls were virtually free, and long distance calls were extremely expensive.

Getting a modem

I remember getting a modem that ran at either 1200bps or 2400bps. Either way, quite slow; you could often read even plain text faster than the modem could display it. But what was a modem?

A modem hooked up to a computer with a serial cable, and to the phone system. By the time I got one, modems could automatically dial and answer. You would send a command like ATDT5551212 and it would dial 555-1212. Modems had speakers, because often things wouldn’t work right, and the telephone system was oriented around speech, so you could hear what was happening. You’d hear it wait for dial tone, then dial, then – hopefully – the remote end would ring, a modem there would answer, you’d hear the screeching of a handshake, and eventually your terminal would say CONNECT 2400. Now your computer was bridged to the other; anything going out your serial port was encoded as sound by your modem and decoded at the other end, and vice-versa.

But what, exactly, was “the other end?”

It might have been another person at their computer. Turn on local echo, and you can see what they did. Maybe you’d send files to each other. But in my case, the answer was different: PC Magazine.

PC Magazine and CompuServe

Starting around 1986 (so I would have been about 6 years old), I got to read PC Magazine. My dad would bring copies that were being discarded at his office home for me to read, and I think eventually bought me a subscription directly. This was not just a standard magazine; it ran something like 350-400 pages an issue, and came out every other week. This thing was a monster. It had reviews of hardware and software, descriptions of upcoming technologies, pages and pages of ads (that often had some degree of being informative to them). And they had sections on programming. Many issues would talk about BASIC or Pascal programming, and there’d be a utility in most issues. What do I mean by a “utility in most issues”? Did they include a floppy disk with software?

No, of course not. There was a literal program listing printed in the magazine. If you wanted the utility, you had to type it in. And a lot of them were written in assembler, so you had to have an assembler. An assembler, of course, was not free and I didn’t have one. Or maybe they wrote it in Microsoft C, and I had Borland C, and (of course) they weren’t compatible. Sometimes they would list the program sort of in binary: line after line of a BASIC program, with lines like “64, 193, 253, 0, 53, 0, 87” that you would type in for hours, hopefully correctly. Running the BASIC program would, if you got it correct, emit a .COM file that you could then run. They did have a rudimentary checksum system built in, but it wasn’t even a CRC, so something like swapping two numbers you’d never notice except when the program would mysteriously hang.

Eventually they teamed up with CompuServe to offer a limited slice of CompuServe for the purpose of downloading PC Magazine utilities. This was called PC MagNet. I am foggy on the details, but I believe that for a time you could connect to the limited PC MagNet part of CompuServe “for free” (after the cost of the long-distance call, that is) rather than paying for CompuServe itself (because, OF COURSE, that also charged you per the minute.) So in the early days, I would get special permission from my parents to place a long distance call, and after some nerve-wracking minutes in which we were aware every minute was racking up charges, I could navigate the menus, download what I wanted, and log off immediately.

I still, incidentally, mourn what PC Magazine became. As with computing generally, it followed the mass market. It lost its deep technical chops, cut its programming columns, stopped talking about things like how SCSI worked, and so forth. By the time it stopped printing in 2009, it was no longer a square-bound 400-page beheamoth, but rather looked more like a copy of Newsweek, but with less depth.

Continuing with CompuServe

CompuServe was a much larger service than just PC MagNet. Eventually, our family got a subscription. It was still an expensive and scarce resource; I’d call it only after hours when the long-distance rates were cheapest. Everyone had a numerical username separated by commas; mine was 71510,1421. CompuServe had forums, and files. Eventually I would use TapCIS to queue up things I wanted to do offline, to minimize phone usage online.

CompuServe eventually added a gateway to the Internet. For the sum of somewhere around $1 a message, you could send or receive an email from someone with an Internet email address! I remember the thrill of one time, as a kid of probably 11 years, sending a message to one of the editors of PC Magazine and getting a kind, if brief, reply back!

But inevitably I had…

The Godzilla Phone Bill

Yes, one month I became lax in tracking my time online. I ran up my parents’ phone bill. I don’t remember how high, but I remember it was hundreds of dollars, a hefty sum at the time. As I watched Jason Scott’s BBS Documentary, I realized how common an experience this was. I think this was the end of CompuServe for me for awhile.

Toll-Free Numbers

I lived near a town with a population of 500. Not even IN town, but near town. The calling area included another town with a population of maybe 1500, so all told, there were maybe 2000 people total I could talk to with a local call – though far fewer numbers, because remember, telephones were allocated by the household. There was, as far as I know, zero modems that were a local call (aside from one that belonged to a friend I met in around 1992). So basically everything was long-distance.

But there was a special feature of the telephone network: toll-free numbers. Normally when calling long-distance, you, the caller, paid the bill. But with a toll-free number, beginning with 1-800, the recipient paid the bill. These numbers almost inevitably belonged to corporations that wanted to make it easy for people to call. Sales and ordering lines, for instance. Some of these companies started to set up modems on toll-free numbers. There were few of these, but they existed, so of course I had to try them!

One of them was a company called PennyWise that sold office supplies. They had a toll-free line you could call with a modem to order stuff. Yes, online ordering before the web! I loved office supplies. And, because I lived far from a big city, if the local K-Mart didn’t have it, I probably couldn’t get it. Of course, the interface was entirely text, but you could search for products and place orders with the modem. I had loads of fun exploring the system, and actually ordered things from them – and probably actually saved money doing so. With the first order they shipped a monster full-color catalog. That thing must have been 500 pages, like the Sears catalogs of the day. Every item had a part number, which streamlined ordering through the modem.

Inbound FAXes

By the 90s, a number of modems became able to send and receive FAXes as well. For those that don’t know, a FAX machine was essentially a special modem. It would scan a page and digitally transmit it over the phone system, where it would – at least in the early days – be printed out in real time (because the machines didn’t have the memory to store an entire page as an image). Eventually, PC modems integrated FAX capabilities.

There still wasn’t anything useful I could do locally, but there were ways I could get other companies to FAX something to me. I remember two of them.

One was for US Robotics. They had an “on demand” FAX system. You’d call up a toll-free number, which was an automated IVR system. You could navigate through it and select various documents of interest to you: spec sheets and the like. You’d key in your FAX number, hang up, and US Robotics would call YOU and FAX you the documents you wanted. Yes! I was talking to a computer (of a sorts) at no cost to me!

The New York Times also ran a service for awhile called TimesFax. Every day, they would FAX out a page or two of summaries of the day’s top stories. This was pretty cool in an era in which I had no other way to access anything from the New York Times. I managed to sign up for TimesFax – I have no idea how, anymore – and for awhile I would get a daily FAX of their top stories. When my family got its first laser printer, I could them even print these FAXes complete with the gothic New York Times masthead. Wow! (OK, so technically I could print it on a dot-matrix printer also, but graphics on a 9-pin dot matrix is a kind of pain that is a whole other article.)

My own phone line

Remember how I discussed that phone lines were allocated per household? This was a problem for a lot of reasons:

  1. Anybody that tried to call my family while I was using my modem would get a busy signal (unable to complete the call)
  2. If anybody in the house picked up the phone while I was using it, that would degrade the quality of the ongoing call and either mess up or disconnect the call in progress. In many cases, that could cancel a file transfer (which wasn’t necessarily easy or possible to resume), prompting howls of annoyance from me.
  3. Generally we all had to work around each other

So eventually I found various small jobs and used the money I made to pay for my own phone line and my own long distance costs. Eventually I upgraded to a 28.8Kbps US Robotics Courier modem even! Yes, you heard it right: I got a job and a bank account so I could have a phone line and a faster modem. Uh, isn’t that why every teenager gets a job?

Now my local friend and I could call each other freely – at least on my end (I can’t remember if he had his own phone line too). We could exchange files using HS/Link, which had the added benefit of allowing split-screen chat even while a file transfer is in progress. I’m sure we spent hours chatting to each other keyboard-to-keyboard while sharing files with each other.

Technology in Schools

By this point in the story, we’re in the late 80s and early 90s. I’m still using PC-style OSs at home; OS/2 in the later years of this period, DOS or maybe a bit of Windows in the earlier years. I mentioned that they let me work on programming at school starting in 5th grade. It was soon apparent that I knew more about computers than anybody on staff, and I started getting pulled out of class to help teachers or administrators with vexing school problems. This continued until I graduated from high school, incidentally – often to my enjoyment, and the annoyance of one particular teacher who, I must say, I was fine with annoying in this way.

That’s not to say that there was institutional support for what I was doing. It was, after all, a small school. Larger schools might have introduced BASIC or maybe Logo in high school. But I had already taught myself BASIC, Pascal, and C by the time I was somewhere around 12 years old. So I wouldn’t have had any use for that anyhow.

There were programming contests occasionally held in the area. Schools would send teams. My school didn’t really “send” anybody, but I went as an individual. One of them was run by a local college (but for jr. high or high school students. Years later, I met one of the professors that ran it. He remembered me, and that day, better than I did. The programming contest had problems one could solve in BASIC or Logo. I knew nothing about what to expect going into it, but I had lugged my computer and screen along, and asked him, “Can I write my solutions in C?” He was, apparently, stunned, but said sure, go for it. I took first place that day, leading to some rather confused teams from much larger schools.

The Netware network that the school had was, as these generally were, itself isolated. There was no link to the Internet or anything like it. Several schools across three local counties eventually invested in a fiber-optic network linking them together. This built a larger, but still closed, network. Its primary purpose was to allow students to be exposed to a wider variety of classes at high schools. Participating schools had an “ITV room”, outfitted with cameras and mics. So students at any school could take classes offered over ITV at other schools. For instance, only my school taught German classes, so people at any of those participating schools could take German. It was an early “Zoom room.” But alongside the TV signal, there was enough bandwidth to run some Netware frames. By about 1995 or so, this let one of the schools purchase some CD-ROM software that was made available on a file server and could be accessed by any participating school. Nice! But Netware was mainly about file and printer sharing; there wasn’t even a facility like email, at least not on our deployment.

BBSs

My last hop before the Internet was the BBS. A BBS was a computer program, usually ran by a hobbyist like me, on a computer with a modem connected. Callers would call it up, and they’d interact with the BBS. Most BBSs had discussion groups like forums and file areas. Some also had games. I, of course, continued to have that most vexing of problems: they were all long-distance.

There were some ways to help with that, chiefly QWK and BlueWave. These, somewhat like TapCIS in the CompuServe days, let me download new message posts for reading offline, and queue up my own messages to send later. QWK and BlueWave didn’t help with file downloading, though.

BBSs get networked

BBSs were an interesting thing. You’d call up one, and inevitably somewhere in the file area would be a BBS list. Download the BBS list and you’ve suddenly got a list of phone numbers to try calling. All of them were long distance, of course. You’d try calling them at random and have a success rate of maybe 20%. The other 80% would be defunct; you might get the dreaded “this number is no longer in service” or the even more dreaded angry human answering the phone (and of course a modem can’t talk to a human, so they’d just get silence for probably the nth time that week). The phone company cared nothing about BBSs and recycled their numbers just as fast as any others.

To talk to various people, or participate in certain discussion groups, you’d have to call specific BBSs. That’s annoying enough in the general case, but even more so for someone paying long distance for it all, because it takes a few minutes to establish a connection to a BBS: handshaking, logging in, menu navigation, etc.

But BBSs started talking to each other. The earliest successful such effort was FidoNet, and for the duration of the BBS era, it remained by far the largest. FidoNet was analogous to the UUCP that the institutional users had, but ran on the much cheaper PC hardware. Basically, BBSs that participated in FidoNet would relay email, forum posts, and files between themselves overnight. Eventually, as with UUCP, by hopping through this network, messages could reach around the globe, and forums could have worldwide participation – asynchronously, long before they could link to each other directly via the Internet. It was almost entirely volunteer-run.

Running my own BBS

At age 13, I eventually chose to set up my own BBS. It ran on my single phone line, so of course when I was dialing up something else, nobody could dial up me. Not that this was a huge problem; in my town of 500, I probably had a good 1 or 2 regular callers in the beginning.

In the PC era, there was a big difference between a server and a client. Server-class software was expensive and rare. Maybe in later years you had an email client, but an email server would be completely unavailable to you as a home user. But with a BBS, I could effectively run a server. I even ran serial lines in our house so that the BBS could be connected from other rooms! Since I was running OS/2, the BBS didn’t tie up the computer; I could continue using it for other things.

FidoNet had an Internet email gateway. This one, unlike CompuServe’s, was free. Once I had a BBS on FidoNet, you could reach me from the Internet using the FidoNet address. This didn’t support attachments, but then email of the day didn’t really, either.

Various others outside Kansas ran FidoNet distribution points. I believe one of them was mgmtsys; my memory is quite vague, but I think they offered a direct gateway and I would call them to pick up Internet mail via FidoNet protocols, but I’m not at all certain of this.

Pros and Cons of the Non-Microsoft World

As mentioned, Microsoft was and is the dominant operating system vendor for PCs. But I left that world in 1993, and here, nearly 30 years later, have never really returned. I got an operating system with more technical capabilities than the DOS and Windows of the day, but the tradeoff was a much smaller software ecosystem. OS/2 could run DOS programs, but it ran OS/2 programs a lot better. So if I were to run a BBS, I wanted one that had a native OS/2 version – limiting me to a small fraction of available BBS server software. On the other hand, as a fully 32-bit operating system, there started to be OS/2 ports of certain software with a Unix heritage; most notably for me at the time, gcc. At some point, I eventually came across the RMS essays and started to be hooked.

Internet: The Hunt Begins

I certainly was aware that the Internet was out there and interesting. But the first problem was: how the heck do I get connected to the Internet?

ISPs weren’t really a thing; the first one in my area (though still a long-distance call) started in, I think, 1994. One service that one of my teachers got me hooked up with was Learning Link. Learning Link was a nationwide collaboration of PBS stations and schools, designed to build on the educational mission of PBS. The nearest Learning Link station was more than a 3-hour drive away… but critically, they had a toll-free access number, and my teacher convinced them to let me use it. I connected via a terminal program and a modem, like with most other things. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember a very important thing it had: Gopher. That was my first experience with Gopher.

Learning Link was hosted by a Unix derivative (Xenix), but it didn’t exactly give everyone a shell. I seem to recall it didn’t have open FTP access either. The Gopher client had FTP access at some point; I don’t recall for sure if it did then. If it did, then when a Gopher server referred to an FTP server, I could get to it. (I am unclear at this point if I could key in an arbitrary FTP location, or knew how, at that time.) I also had email access there, but I don’t recall exactly how; probably Pine. If that’s correct, that would have dated my Learning Link access as no earlier than 1992.

I think my access time to Learning Link was limited. And, since the only way to get out on the Internet from there was Gopher and Pine, I was somewhat limited in terms of technology as well. I believe that telnet services, for instance, weren’t available to me.

Computer labs

There was one place that tended to have Internet access: colleges and universities. In 7th grade, I participated in a program that resulted in me being invited to visit Duke University, and in 8th grade, I participated in National History Day, resulting in a trip to visit the University of Maryland. I probably sought out computer labs at both of those. My most distinct memory was finding my way into a computer lab at one of those universities, and it was full of NeXT workstations. I had never seen or used NeXT before, and had no idea how to operate it. I had brought a box of floppy disks, unaware that the DOS disks probably weren’t compatible with NeXT.

Closer to home, a small college had a computer lab that I could also visit. I would go there in summer or when it wasn’t used with my stack of floppies. I remember downloading disk images of FLOSS operating systems: FreeBSD, Slackware, or Debian, at the time. The hash marks from the DOS-based FTP client would creep across the screen as the 1.44MB disk images would slowly download. telnet was also available on those machines, so I could telnet to things like public-access Archie servers and libraries – though not Gopher. Still, FTP and telnet access opened up a lot, and I learned quite a bit in those years.

Continuing the Journey

At some point, I got a copy of the Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog, published in 1994. I still have it. If it hadn’t already figured it out by then, I certainly became aware from it that Unix was the dominant operating system on the Internet. The examples in Whole Internet covered FTP, telnet, gopher – all assuming the user somehow got to a Unix prompt. The web was introduced about 300 pages in; clearly viewed as something that wasn’t page 1 material. And it covered the command-line www client before introducing the graphical Mosaic. Even then, though, the book highlighted Mosaic’s utility as a front-end for Gopher and FTP, and even the ability to launch telnet sessions by clicking on links. But having a copy of the book didn’t equate to having any way to run Mosaic. The machines in the computer lab I mentioned above all ran DOS and were incapable of running a graphical browser. I had no SLIP or PPP (both ways to run Internet traffic over a modem) connectivity at home. In short, the Web was something for the large institutional users at the time.

CD-ROMs

As CD-ROMs came out, with their huge (for the day) 650MB capacity, various companies started collecting software that could be downloaded on the Internet and selling it on CD-ROM. The two most popular ones were Walnut Creek CD-ROM and Infomagic. One could buy extensive Shareware and gaming collections, and then even entire Linux and BSD distributions. Although not exactly an Internet service per se, it was a way of bringing what may ordinarily only be accessible to institutional users into the home computer realm.

Free Software Jumps In

As I mentioned, by the mid 90s, I had come across RMS’s writings about free software – most probably his 1992 essay Why Software Should Be Free. (Please note, this is not a commentary on the more recently-revealed issues surrounding RMS, but rather his writings and work as I encountered them in the 90s.) The notion of a Free operating system – not just in cost but in openness – was incredibly appealing. Not only could I tinker with it to a much greater extent due to having source for everything, but it included so much software that I’d otherwise have to pay for. Compilers! Interpreters! Editors! Terminal emulators! And, especially, server software of all sorts. There’d be no way I could afford or run Netware, but with a Free Unixy operating system, I could do all that. My interest was obviously piqued. Add to that the fact that I could actually participate and contribute – I was about to become hooked on something that I’ve stayed hooked on for decades.

But then the question was: which Free operating system? Eventually I chose FreeBSD to begin with; that would have been sometime in 1995. I don’t recall the exact reasons for that. I remember downloading Slackware install floppies, and probably the fact that Debian wasn’t yet at 1.0 scared me off for a time. FreeBSD’s fantastic Handbook – far better than anything I could find for Linux at the time – was no doubt also a factor.

The de Raadt Factor

Why not NetBSD or OpenBSD? The short answer is Theo de Raadt. Somewhere in this time, when I was somewhere between 14 and 16 years old, I asked some questions comparing NetBSD to the other two free BSDs. This was on a NetBSD mailing list, but for some reason Theo saw it and got a flame war going, which CC’d me. Now keep in mind that even if NetBSD had a web presence at the time, it would have been minimal, and I would have – not all that unusually for the time – had no way to access it. I was certainly not aware of the, shall we say, acrimony between Theo and NetBSD. While I had certainly seen an online flamewar before, this took on a different and more disturbing tone; months later, Theo randomly emailed me under the subject “SLIME” saying that I was, well, “SLIME”. I seem to recall periodic emails from him thereafter reminding me that he hates me and that he had blocked me. (Disclaimer: I have poor email archives from this period, so the full details are lost to me, but I believe I am accurately conveying these events from over 25 years ago)

This was a surprise, and an unpleasant one. I was trying to learn, and while it is possible I didn’t understand some aspect or other of netiquette (or Theo’s personal hatred of NetBSD) at the time, still that is not a reason to flame a 16-year-old (though he would have had no way to know my age). This didn’t leave any kind of scar, but did leave a lasting impression; to this day, I am particularly concerned with how FLOSS projects handle poisonous people. Debian, for instance, has come a long way in this over the years, and even Linus Torvalds has turned over a new leaf. I don’t know if Theo has.

In any case, I didn’t use NetBSD then. I did try it periodically in the years since, but never found it compelling enough to justify a large switch from Debian. I never tried OpenBSD for various reasons, but one of them was that I didn’t want to join a community that tolerates behavior such as Theo’s from its leader.

Moving to FreeBSD

Moving from OS/2 to FreeBSD was final. That is, I didn’t have enough hard drive space to keep both. I also didn’t have the backup capacity to back up OS/2 completely. My BBS, which ran Virtual BBS (and at some point also AdeptXBBS) was deleted and reincarnated in a different form. My BBS was a member of both FidoNet and VirtualNet; the latter was specific to VBBS, and had to be dropped. I believe I may have also had to drop the FidoNet link for a time. This was the biggest change of computing in my life to that point. The earlier experiences hadn’t literally destroyed what came before. OS/2 could still run my DOS programs. Its command shell was quite DOS-like. It ran Windows programs. I was going to throw all that away and leap into the unknown.

I wish I had saved a copy of my BBS; I would love to see the messages I exchanged back then, or see its menu screens again. I have little memory of what it looked like. But other than that, I have no regrets. Pursuing Free, Unixy operating systems brought me a lot of enjoyment and a good career.

That’s not to say it was easy. All the problems of not being in the Microsoft ecosystem were magnified under FreeBSD and Linux. In a day before EDID, monitor timings had to be calculated manually – and you risked destroying your monitor if you got them wrong. Word processing and spreadsheet software was pretty much not there for FreeBSD or Linux at the time; I was therefore forced to learn LaTeX and actually appreciated that. Software like PageMaker or CorelDraw was certainly nowhere to be found for those free operating systems either. But I got a ton of new capabilities.

I mentioned the BBS didn’t shut down, and indeed it didn’t. I ran what was surely a supremely unique oddity: a free, dialin Unix shell server in the middle of a small town in Kansas. I’m sure I provided things such as pine for email and some help text and maybe even printouts for how to use it. The set of callers slowly grew over the time period, in fact.

And then I got UUCP.

Enter UUCP

Even throughout all this, there was no local Internet provider and things were still long distance. I had Internet Email access via assorted strange routes, but they were all… strange. And, I wanted access to Usenet. In 1995, it happened.

The local ISP I mentioned offered UUCP access. Though I couldn’t afford the dialup shell (or later, SLIP/PPP) that they offered due to long-distance costs, UUCP’s very efficient batched processes looked doable. I believe I established that link when I was 15, so in 1995.

I worked to register my domain, complete.org, as well. At the time, the process was a bit lengthy and involved downloading a text file form, filling it out in a precise way, sending it to InterNIC, and probably mailing them a check. Well I did that, and in September of 1995, complete.org became mine. I set up sendmail on my local system, as well as INN to handle the limited Usenet newsfeed I requested from the ISP. I even ran Majordomo to host some mailing lists, including some that were surprisingly high-traffic for a few-times-a-day long-distance modem UUCP link!

The modem client programs for FreeBSD were somewhat less advanced than for OS/2, but I believe I wound up using Minicom or Seyon to continue to dial out to BBSs and, I believe, continue to use Learning Link. So all the while I was setting up my local BBS, I continued to have access to the text Internet, consisting of chiefly Gopher for me.

Switching to Debian

I switched to Debian sometime in 1995 or 1996, and have been using Debian as my primary OS ever since. I continued to offer shell access, but added the WorldVU Atlantis menuing BBS system. This provided a return of a more BBS-like interface (by default; shell was still an uption) as well as some BBS door games such as LoRD and TradeWars 2002, running under DOS emulation.

I also continued to run INN, and ran ifgate to allow FidoNet echomail to be presented into INN Usenet-like newsgroups, and netmail to be gated to Unix email. This worked pretty well. The BBS continued to grow in these days, peaking at about two dozen total user accounts, and maybe a dozen regular users.

Dial-up access availability

I believe it was in 1996 that dial up PPP access finally became available in my small town. What a thrill! FINALLY! I could now FTP, use Gopher, telnet, and the web all from home. Of course, it was at modem speeds, but still.

(Strangely, I have a memory of accessing the Web using WebExplorer from OS/2. I don’t know exactly why; it’s possible that by this time, I had upgraded to a 486 DX2/66 and was able to reinstall OS/2 on the old 25MHz 486, or maybe something was wrong with the timeline from my memories from 25 years ago above. Or perhaps I made the occasional long-distance call somewhere before I ditched OS/2.)

Gopher sites still existed at this point, and I could access them using Netscape Navigator – which likely became my standard Gopher client at that point. I don’t recall using UMN text-mode gopher client locally at that time, though it’s certainly possible I did.

The city

Starting when I was 15, I took computer science classes at Wichita State University. The first one was a class in the summer of 1995 on C++. I remember being worried about being good enough for it – I was, after all, just after my HS freshman year and had never taken the prerequisite C class. I loved it and got an A! By 1996, I was taking more classes.

In 1996 or 1997 I stayed in Wichita during the day due to having more than one class. So, what would I do then but… enjoy the computer lab? The CS dept. had two of them: one that had NCD X terminals connected to a pair of SunOS servers, and another one running Windows. I spent most of the time in the Unix lab with the NCDs; I’d use Netscape or pine, write code, enjoy the University’s fast Internet connection, and so forth.

In 1997 I had graduated high school and that summer I moved to Wichita to attend college. As was so often the case, I shut down the BBS at that time. It would be 5 years until I again dealt with Internet at home in a rural community.

By the time I moved to my apartment in Wichita, I had stopped using OS/2 entirely. I have no memory of ever having OS/2 there. Along the way, I had bought a Pentium 166, and then the most expensive piece of computing equipment I have ever owned: a DEC Alpha, which, of course, ran Linux.

ISDN

I must have used dialup PPP for a time, but I eventually got a job working for the ISP I had used for UUCP, and then PPP. While there, I got a 128Kbps ISDN line installed in my apartment, and they gave me a discount on the service for it. That was around 3x the speed of a modem, and crucially was always on and gave me a public IP. No longer did I have to use UUCP; now I got to host my own things! By at least 1998, I was running a web server on www.complete.org, and I had an FTP server going as well.

Even Bigger Cities

In 1999 I moved to Dallas, and there got my first broadband connection: an ADSL link at, I think, 1.5Mbps! Now that was something! But it had some reliability problems. I eventually put together a server and had it hosted at an acquantaince’s place who had SDSL in his apartment. Within a couple of years, I had switched to various kinds of proper hosting for it, but that is a whole other article.

In Indianapolis, I got a cable modem for the first time, with even tighter speeds but prohibitions on running “servers” on it. Yuck.

Challenges

Being non-Microsoft continued to have challenges. Until the advent of Firefox, a web browser was one of the biggest. While Netscape supported Linux on i386, it didn’t support Linux on Alpha. I hobbled along with various attempts at emulators, old versions of Mosaic, and so forth. And, until StarOffice was open-sourced as Open Office, reading Microsoft file formats was also a challenge, though WordPerfect was briefly available for Linux.

Over the years, I have become used to the Linux ecosystem. Perhaps I use Gimp instead of Photoshop and digikam instead of – well, whatever somebody would use on Windows. But I get ZFS, and containers, and so much that isn’t available there.

Yes, I know Apple never went away and is a thing, but for most of the time period I discuss in this article, at least after the rise of DOS, it was niche compared to the PC market.

Back to Kansas

In 2002, I moved back to Kansas, to a rural home near a different small town in the county next to where I grew up. Over there, it was back to dialup at home, but I had faster access at work. I didn’t much care for this, and thus began a 20+-year effort to get broadband in the country. At first, I got a wireless link, which worked well enough in the winter, but had serious problems in the summer when the trees leafed out. Eventually DSL became available locally – highly unreliable, but still, it was something. Then I moved back to the community I grew up in, a few miles from where I grew up. Again I got DSL – a bit better. But after some years, being at the end of the run of DSL meant I had poor speeds and reliability problems. I eventually switched to various wireless ISPs, which continues to the present day; while people in cities can get Gbps service, I can get, at best, about 50Mbps. Long-distance fees are gone, but the speed disparity remains.

Concluding Reflections

I am glad I grew up where I did; the strong community has a lot of advantages I don’t have room to discuss here. In a number of very real senses, having no local services made things a lot more difficult than they otherwise would have been. However, perhaps I could say that I also learned a lot through the need to come up with inventive solutions to those challenges. To this day, I think a lot about computing in remote environments: partially because I live in one, and partially because I enjoy visiting places that are remote enough that they have no Internet, phone, or cell service whatsoever. I have written articles like Tools for Communicating Offline and in Difficult Circumstances based on my own personal experience. I instinctively think about making protocols robust in the face of various kinds of connectivity failures because I experience various kinds of connectivity failures myself.

(Almost) Everything Lives On

In 2002, Gopher turned 10 years old. It had probably been about 9 or 10 years since I had first used Gopher, which was the first way I got on live Internet from my house. It was hard to believe. By that point, I had an always-on Internet link at home and at work. I had my Alpha, and probably also at least PCMCIA Ethernet for a laptop (many laptops had modems by the 90s also). Despite its popularity in the early 90s, less than 10 years after it came on the scene and started to unify the Internet, it was mostly forgotten.

And it was at that moment that I decided to try to resurrect it. The University of Minnesota finally released it under an Open Source license. I wrote the first new gopher server in years, pygopherd, and introduced gopher to Debian. Gopher lives on; there are now quite a few Gopher clients and servers out there, newly started post-2002. The Gemini protocol can be thought of as something akin to Gopher 2.0, and it too has a small but blossoming ecosystem.

Archie, the old FTP search tool, is dead though. Same for WAIS and a number of the other pre-web search tools. But still, even FTP lives on today.

And BBSs? Well, they didn’t go away either. Jason Scott’s fabulous BBS documentary looks back at the history of the BBS, while Back to the BBS from last year talks about the modern BBS scene. FidoNet somehow is still alive and kicking. UUCP still has its place and has inspired a whole string of successors. Some, like NNCP, are clearly direct descendents of UUCP. Filespooler lives in that ecosystem, and you can even see UUCP concepts in projects as far afield as Syncthing and Meshtastic. Usenet still exists, and you can now run Usenet over NNCP just as I ran Usenet over UUCP back in the day (which you can still do as well). Telnet, of course, has been largely supplanted by ssh, but the concept is more popular now than ever, as Linux has made ssh be available on everything from Raspberry Pi to Android.

And I still run a Gopher server, looking pretty much like it did in 2002.

This post also has a permanent home on my website, where it may be periodically updated.

I Finally Found a Solid Debian Tablet: The Surface Go 2

I have been looking for a good tablet for Debian for… well, years. I want thin, light, portable, excellent battery life, and a servicable keyboard.

For a while, I tried a Lenovo Chromebook Duet. It meets the hardware requirements, well sort of. The problem is with performance and the OS. I can run Debian inside the ChromeOS Linux environment. That works, actually pretty well. But it is slow. Terribly, terribly, terribly slow. Emacs takes minutes to launch. apt-gets also do. It has barely enough RAM to keep its Chrome foundation happy, let alone a Linux environment also. But basically it is too slow to be servicable. Not just that, but I ran into assorted issues with having it tied to a Google account – particularly being unable to login unless I had Internet access after an update. That and my growing concern over Google’s privacy practices led me sort of write it off.

I have a wonderful System76 Lemur Pro that I’m very happy with. Plenty of RAM, a good compromise size between portability and screen size at 14.1″, and so forth. But a 10″ goes-anywhere it’s not.

I spent quite a lot of time looking at thin-and-light convertible laptops of various configurations. Many of them were quite expensive, not as small as I wanted, or had dubious Linux support. To my surprise, I wound up buying a Surface Go 2 from the Microsoft store, along with the Type Cover. They had a pretty good deal on it since the Surface Go 3 is out; the highest-processor model of the Go 2 is roughly similar to the Go 3 in terms of performance.

There is an excellent linux-surface project out there that provides very good support for most Surface devices, including the Go 2 and 3.

I put Debian on it. I had a fair bit of hassle with EFI, and wound up putting rEFInd on it, which mostly solved those problems. (I did keep a Windows partition, and if it comes up for some reason, the easiest way to get it back to Debian is to use the Windows settings tool to reboot into advanced mode, and then select the appropriate EFI entry to boot from there.)

Researching on-screen keyboards, it seemed like Gnome had the most mature. So I wound up with Gnome (my other systems are using KDE with tiling, but I figured I’d try Gnome on it.) Almost everything worked without additional tweaking, the one exception being the cameras. The cameras on the Surfaces are a known point of trouble and I didn’t bother to go to all the effort to get them working.

With 8GB of RAM, I didn’t put ZFS on it like I do on other systems. Performance is quite satisfactory, including for Rust development. Battery life runs about 10 hours with light use; less when running a lot of cargo builds, of course.

The 1920×1280 screen is nice at 10.5″. Gnome with Wayland does a decent job of adjusting to this hi-res configuration.

I took this as my only computer for a trip from the USA to Germany. It was a little small at times; though that was to be expected. It let me take a nicely small bag as a carryon, and being light, it was pleasant to carry around in airports. It served its purpose quite well.

One downside is that it can’t be powered by a phone charger like my Chromebook Duet can. However, I found a nice slim 65W Anker charger that could charge it and phones simultaneously that did the job well enough (I left the Microsoft charger with the proprietary connector at home).

The Surface Go 2 maxes out at a 128GB SSD. That feels a bit constraining, especially since I kept Windows around. However, it also has a micro SD slot, so you can put LUKS and ext4 on that and use it as another filesystem. I popped a micro SD I had lying around into there and that felt a lot better storage-wise. I could also completely zap Windows, but that would leave no way to get firmware updates and I didn’t really want to do that. Still, I don’t use Windows and that could be an option also.

All in all, I’m pretty pleased with it. Around $600 for a fully-functional Debian tablet, with a keyboard is pretty nice.

I had been hoping for months that the Pinetab would come back into stock, because I’d much rather support a Linux hardware vendor, but for now I think the Surface Go series is the most solid option for a Linux tablet.

Pipe Issue Likely a Kernel Bug

Saturday, I wrote in Pipes, deadlocks, and strace annoyingly fixing them about an issue where a certain pipeline seems to have a deadlock. I described tracing it into kernel code. Indeed, it appears to be kernel bug 212295, which has had a patch for over a year that has never been merged.

After continuing to dig into the issue, I eventually reported it as a bug in ZFS. One of the ZFS people connected this to an older issue my searching hadn’t uncovered.

rincebrain summarized:

I believe, if I understand the bug correctly, it only triggers if you F_SETPIPE_SZ when the writer has put nonzero but not a full unit’s worth in yet, which is why the world isn’t on fire screaming about this – you need to either have a very slow but nonzero or otherwise very strange write pattern to hit it, which is why it doesn’t come up in, say, the CI or most of my testbeds, but my poor little SPARC (440 MHz, 1c1t) and Raspberry Pis were not so fortunate.

You might recall in Saturday’s post that I explained that Filespooler reads a few bytes from the gpg/zstdcat pipeline before spawning and connecting it to zfs receive. I think this is the critical piece of the puzzle; it makes it much more likely to encounter the kernel bug. zfs receive is calls F_SETPIPE_SZ when it starts. Let’s look at how this could be triggered:

In the pre-Filespooler days, the gpg|zstdcat|zfs pipeline was all being set up at once. There would be no data sent to zfs receive until gpg had initialized and begun to decrypt the data, and then zstdcat had begun to decompress it. Those things almost certainly took longer than zfs receive’s initialization, meaning that usually F_SETPIPE_SZ would have been invoked before any data entered the pipe.

After switching to Filespooler, the particular situation here has Filespooler reading somewhere around 100 bytes from the gpg|zstdcat part of the pipeline before ever invoking zfs receive. zstdcat generally emits more than 100 bytes at a time. Therefore, when Filespooler invokes zfs receive and hooks the pipeline up to it, it has a very high chance of there already being data in the pipeline when zfs receive uses F_SETPIPE_SZ. This means that the chances of encountering the conditions that trigger the particular kernel bug are also elevated.

ZFS is integrating a patch to no longer use F_SETPIPE_SZ in zfs receive. I have applied that on my local end to see what happens, and hopefully in a day or two will know for sure if it resolves things.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this little exploration. It resulted in a new bug report to Rust as well as digging up an existing kernel bug. And, interestingly, no bugs in filespooler. Sometimes the thing that changed isn’t the source of the bug!

Pipes, deadlocks, and strace annoyingly fixing them

This is a complex tale I will attempt to make simple(ish). I’ve (re)learned more than I cared to about the details of pipes, signals, and certain system calls – and the solution is still elusive.

For some time now, I have been using NNCP to back up my files. These backups are sent to my backup system, which effectively does this to process them (each ZFS send is piped to a shell script that winds up running this):

gpg -q -d | zstdcat -T0 | zfs receive -u -o readonly=on "$STORE/$DEST"

This processes tens of thousands of zfs sends per week. Recently, having written Filespooler, I switched to sending the backups using Filespooler over NNCP. Now fspl (the Filespooler executable) opens the file for each stream and then connects it to what amounts to this pipeline:

bash -c 'gpg -q -d 2>/dev/null | zstdcat -T0' | zfs receive -u -o readonly=on "$STORE/$DEST"

Actually, to be more precise, it spins up the bash part of it, reads a few bytes from it, and then connects it to the zfs receive.

And this works well — almost always. In something like 1/1000 of the cases, it deadlocks, and I still don’t know why. But I can talk about the journey of trying to figure it out (and maybe some of you will have some ideas).

Filespooler is written in Rust, and uses Rust’s Command system. Effectively what happens is this:

  1. The fspl process has a File handle, which after forking but before invoking bash, it dup2’s to stdin.
  2. The connection between bash and zfs receive is a standard Unix pipe.

I cannot get the problem to duplicate when I run the entire thing under strace -f. So I am left trying to peek at it from the outside. What happens if I try to attach to each component with strace -p?

  • bash is blocking in wait4(), which is expected.
  • gpg is blocking in write().
  • If I attach to zstdcat with strace -p, then all of a sudden the deadlock is cleared and everything resumes and completes normally.
  • Attaching to zfs receive with strace -p causes no output at all from strace for a few seconds, then zfs just writes “cannot receive incremental stream: incomplete stream” and exits with error code 1.

So the plot thickens! Why would connecting to zstdcat and zfs receive cause them to actually change behavior? strace works by using the ptrace system call, and ptrace in a number of cases requires sending SIGSTOP to a process. In a complicated set of circumstances, a system call may return EINTR when a SIGSTOP is received, with the idea that the system call should be retried. I can’t see, from either zstdcat or zfs, if this is happening, though.

So I thought, “how about having Filespooler manually copy data from bash to zfs receive in a read/write loop instead of having them connected directly via a pipe?” That is, there would be two pipes going there: one where Filespooler reads from the bash command, and one where it writes to zfs. If nothing else, I could instrument it with debugging.

And so I did, and I found that when it deadlocked, it was deadlocking on write — but with no discernible pattern as to where or when. So I went back to directly connected.

In analyzing straces, I found a Rust bug which I reported in which it is failing to close the read end of a pipe in the parent post-fork. However, having implemented a workaround for this, it doesn’t prevent the deadlock so this is orthogonal to the issue at hand.

Among the two strange things here are things returning to normal when I attach strace to zstdcat, and things crashing when I attach strace to zfs. I decided to investigate the latter.

It turns out that the ZFS code that is reading from stdin during zfs receive is in the kernel module, not userland. Here is the part that is triggering the “imcomplete stream” error:

                int err = zfs_file_read(fp, (char *)buf + done,
                    len - done, &resid);
                if (resid == len - done) {
                        /*
                         * Note: ECKSUM or ZFS_ERR_STREAM_TRUNCATED indicates
                         * that the receive was interrupted and can
                         * potentially be resumed.
                         */
                        err = SET_ERROR(ZFS_ERR_STREAM_TRUNCATED);
                }

resid is an output parameter with the number of bytes remaining from a short read, so in this case, if the read produced zero bytes, then it sets that error. What’s zfs_file_read then?

It boils down to a thin wrapper around kernel_read(). This winds up calling __kernel_read(), which calls read_iter on the pipe, which is pipe_read(). That’s where I don’t have the knowledge to get into the weeds right now.

So it seems likely to me that the problem has something to do with zfs receive. But, what, and why does it only not work in this one very specific situation, and only so rarely? And why does attaching strace to zstdcat make it all work again? I’m indeed puzzled!

Update 2022-06-20: See the followup post which identifies this as likely a kernel bug and explains why this particular use of Filespooler made it easier to trigger.

Fast, Ordered Unixy Queues over NNCP and Syncthing with Filespooler

It seems that lately I’ve written several shell implementations of a simple queue that enforces ordered execution of jobs that may arrive out of order. After writing this for the nth time in bash, I decided it was time to do it properly. But first, a word on the why of it all.

Why did I bother?

My needs arose primarily from handling Backups over Asynchronous Communication methods – in this case, NNCP. When backups contain incrementals that are unpacked on the destination, they must be applied in the correct order.

In some cases, like ZFS, the receiving side will detect an out-of-order backup file and exit with an error. In those cases, processing in random order is acceptable but can be slow if, say, hundreds or thousands of hourly backups have stacked up over a period of time. The same goes for using gitsync-nncp to synchronize git repositories. In both cases, a best effort based on creation date is sufficient to produce a significant performance improvement.

With other cases, such as tar or dar backups, the receiving cannot detect out of order incrementals. In those situations, the incrementals absolutely must be applied with strict ordering. There are many other situations that arise with these needs also. Filespooler is the answer to these.

Existing Work

Before writing my own program, I of course looked at what was out there already. I looked at celeary, gearman, nq, rq, cctools work queue, ts/tsp (task spooler), filequeue, dramatiq, GNU parallel, and so forth.

Unfortunately, none of these met my needs at all. They all tended to have properties like:

  • An extremely complicated client/server system that was incompatible with piping data over existing asynchronous tools
  • A large bias to processing of small web requests, resulting in terrible inefficiency or outright incompatibility with jobs in the TB range
  • An inability to enforce strict ordering of jobs, especially if they arrive in a different order from how they were queued

Many also lacked some nice-to-haves that I implemented for Filespooler:

  • Support for the encryption and cryptographic authentication of jobs, including metadata
  • First-class support for arbitrary compressors
  • Ability to use both stream transports (pipes) and filesystem-like transports (eg, rclone mount, S3, Syncthing, or Dropbox)

Introducing Filespooler

Filespooler is a tool in the Unix tradition: that is, do one thing well, and integrate nicely with other tools using the fundamental Unix building blocks of files and pipes. Filespooler itself doesn’t provide transport for jobs, but instead is designed to cooperate extremely easily with transports that can be written to as a filesystem or piped to – which is to say, almost anything of interest.

Filespooler is written in Rust and has an extensive Filespooler Reference as well as many tutorials on its homepage. To give you a few examples, here are some links:

Basics of How it Works

Filespooler is intentionally simple:

  • The sender maintains a sequence file that includes a number for the next job packet to be created.
  • The receiver also maintains a sequence file that includes a number for the next job to be processed.
  • fspl prepare creates a Filespooler job packet and emits it to stdout. It includes a small header (<100 bytes in most cases) that includes the sequence number, creation timestamp, and some other useful metadata.
  • You get to transport this job packet to the receiver in any of many simple ways, which may or may not involve Filespooler’s assistance.
  • On the receiver, Filespooler (when running in the default strict ordering mode) will simply look at the sequence file and process jobs in incremental order until it runs out of jobs to process.

The name of job files on-disk matches a pattern for identification, but the content of them is not significant; only the header matters.

You can send job data in three ways:

  1. By piping it to fspl prepare
  2. By setting certain environment variables when calling fspl prepare
  3. By passing additional command-line arguments to fspl prepare, which can optionally be passed to the processing command at the receiver.

Data piped in is added to the job “payload”, while environment variables and command-line parameters are encoded in the header.

Basic usage

Here I will excerpt part of the Using Filespooler over Syncthing tutorial; consult it for further detail. As a bit of background, Syncthing is a FLOSS decentralized directory synchronization tool akin to Dropbox (but with a much richer feature set in many ways).

Preparation

First, on the receiver, you create the queue (passing the directory name to -q):

sender$ fspl queue-init -q ~/sync/b64queue

Now, we can send a job like this:

sender$ echo Hi | fspl prepare -s ~/b64seq -i - | fspl queue-write -q ~/sync/b64queue

Let’s break that down:

  • First, we pipe “Hi” to fspl prepare.
  • fspl prepare takes two parameters:
    • -s seqfile gives the path to a sequence file used on the sender side. This file has a simple number in it that increments a unique counter for every generated job file. It is matched with the nextseq file within the queue to make sure that the receiver processes jobs in the correct order. It MUST be separate from the file that is in the queue and should NOT be placed within the queue. There is no need to sync this file, and it would be ideal to not sync it.
    • The -i option tells fspl prepare to read a file for the packet payload. -i - tells it to read stdin for this purpose. So, the payload will consist of three bytes: “Hi\n” (that is, including the terminating newline that echo wrote)
  • Now, fspl prepare writes the packet to its stdout. We pipe that into fspl queue-write:
    • fspl queue-write reads stdin and writes it to a file in the queue directory in a safe manner. The file will ultimately match the fspl-*.fspl pattern and have a random string in the middle.

At this point, wait a few seconds (or however long it takes) for the queue files to be synced over to the recipient.

On the receiver, we can see if any jobs have arrived yet:

receiver$ fspl queue-ls -q ~/sync/b64queue
ID                   creation timestamp          filename
1                    2022-05-16T20:29:32-05:00   fspl-7b85df4e-4df9-448d-9437-5a24b92904a4.fspl

Let’s say we’d like some information about the job. Try this:

receiver$ $ fspl queue-info -q ~/sync/b64queue -j 1
FSPL_SEQ=1
FSPL_CTIME_SECS=1652940172
FSPL_CTIME_NANOS=94106744
FSPL_CTIME_RFC3339_UTC=2022-05-17T01:29:32Z
FSPL_CTIME_RFC3339_LOCAL=2022-05-16T20:29:32-05:00
FSPL_JOB_FILENAME=fspl-7b85df4e-4df9-448d-9437-5a24b92904a4.fspl
FSPL_JOB_QUEUEDIR=/home/jgoerzen/sync/b64queue
FSPL_JOB_FULLPATH=/home/jgoerzen/sync/b64queue/jobs/fspl-7b85df4e-4df9-448d-9437-5a24b92904a4.fspl

This information is intentionally emitted in a format convenient for parsing.

Now let’s run the job!

receiver$ fspl queue-process -q ~/sync/b64queue --allow-job-params base64
SGkK

There are two new parameters here:

  • --allow-job-params says that the sender is trusted to supply additional parameters for the command we will be running.
  • base64 is the name of the command that we will run for every job. It will:
    • Have environment variables set as we just saw in queue-info
    • Have the text we previously prepared – “Hi\n” – piped to it

By default, fspl queue-process doesn’t do anything special with the output; see Handling Filespooler Command Output for details on other options. So, the base64-encoded version of our string is “SGkK”. We successfully sent a packet using Syncthing as a transport mechanism!

At this point, if you do a fspl queue-ls again, you’ll see the queue is empty. By default, fspl queue-process deletes jobs that have been successfully processed.

For more

See the Filespooler homepage.


This blog post is also available as a permanent, periodically-updated page.

KDE: A Nice Tiling Envieonment and a Surprisingly Awesome DE

I recently wrote that managing an external display on Linux shouldn’t be this hard. I went down a path of trying out some different options before finally landing at an unexpected place: KDE. I say “unexpected” because I find tiling window managers are just about a necessity.

Background: xmonad

Until a few months ago, I’d been using xmonad for well over a decade. Configurable, minimal, and very nice; it suited me well.

However, xmonad is getting somewhat long in the tooth. xmobar, which is commonly used with it, barely supports many modern desktop environments. I prefer DEs for the useful integrations they bring: everything from handling mount of USB sticks to display auto-switching and sound switching. xmonad itself can’t run with modern Gnome (whether or not it runs well under KDE 5 seems to be a complicated question, according to wikis, but in any case, there is no log applet for KDE 5). So I was left with XFCE and such, but the isues I identified in the “shouldn’t be this hard” article were bad enough that I just could not keep going that way.

An attempt: Gnome and PaperWM

So I tried Gnome under Wayland, reasoning that Wayland might stand a chance of doing things well where X couldn’t. There are several tiling window extensions available for the Gnome 3 shell. Most seemed to be rather low-quality, but an exception was PaperWM and I eventually decided on it. I never quite decided if I liked its horizontal tape of windows or not; it certainly is unique in any case.

I was willing to tolerate my usual list of Gnome problems for the sake of things working. For instance:

  • The Windows-like “settings are spread out in three different programs and some of them require editing the registry[dconf]”. Finding all the options for keybindings and power settings was a real chore, but done.
  • Some file dialog boxes (such as with the screenshot-taking tool) just do not let me type in a path to save a file, insisting that I first navigate to a directory and then type in a name.
  • General lack of available settings or hiding settings from people.
  • True focus-follows-mouse was incompatible with keyboard window switching (PaperWM or no); with any focus-follows-mouse enabled, using Alt-Tab or any other method to switch to other windows would instantly have focus returned to whatever the mouse was over.

Under Wayland, I found a disturbing lack of logs. There was nothing like /var/log/Xorg.0.log, nothing like ~/.xsession-errors, just nothing. Searching for answers on this revealed a lot of Wayland people saying “it’s a Gnome issue” and the trail going cold at that point.

And there was a weird problem that I just could not solve. After the laptop was suspended and we-awakened, I would be at a lock screen. I could type in my password, but when hitting Enter, the thing would then tend to freeze. Why, I don’t know. It seemed related to Gnome shell; when I switched Gnome from Wayland to X11, it would freeze but eventually return to the unlock screen, at which point I’d type in my password and it would freeze again. I spent a long time tracking down logs to see what was happening, but I couldn’t figure it out. All those hard resets were getting annoying.

Enter KDE

So I tried KDE. I had seen mentions of kwin-tiling, a KDE extension for tiling windows. I thought I’d try this setup.

I was really impressed by KDE’s quality. Not only did it handle absolutely every display-related interaction correctly by default, with no hangs ever, all relevant settings were clearly presented in one place. The KDE settings screens were a breath of fresh air – lots of settings available, all at one place, and tons of features I hadn’t seen elsewhere.

Here are some of the things I was pleasantly surprised by with KDE:

  • Applications can declare classes of notifications. These can be managed Android-style in settings. Moreover, you can associate a shell command to run with a notification in any class. People use this to do things like run commands when a display locks and so forth.
  • KDE Connect is a seriously impressive piece of software. It integrates desktops with Android devices in a way that’s reminiscent of non-free operating systems – and with 100% Free Software (the phone app is even in F-Droid!). Notifications from the phone can appear on the desktop, and their state is synchronized; dismiss it on the desktop and it dismisses on the phone, too. Get a SMS or Signal message on the phone? You can reply directly from the desktop. Share files in both directions, mount a directory tree from the phone on the desktop, “find my phone”, use the phone as a presentation remote for the desktop, shared clipboard, sending links between devices, control the phone media player from the desktop… Really, really impressive.
  • The shortcut settings in KDE really work and are impressive. Unlike Gnome, if you try to assign the same shortcut to multiple things, you are warned and prevented from doing this. As with Gnome, you can also bind shorcuts to arbitrary actions.
  • This shouldn’t be exciting, but I was just using Gnome, so… The panel! I can put things wherever I want them! I can put it at the top of the screen, the bottom, or even the sides! It lets all my regular programs (eg, Nextcloud) put their icons up there without having to install two different extensions, each of which handles a different set of apps! I shouldn’t be excited about all this, because Gnome actually used to have these features years ago… [gripe gripe]
  • Initially I was annoyed that Firefox notifications weren’t showing up in the notification history as they did in Gnome… but that was, of course, a setting, easily fixed!
  • There is a Plasma Integration plugin for Firefox (and other browsers including Chrome). It integrates audio and video playback, download status, etc. with the rest of KDE and KDE Connect. Result: if you like, when a call comes in to your phone, Youtube is paused. Or, you can right-click to share a link to your phone via KDE Connect, and so forth. You can right click on a link, and share via Bluetooth, Nextcloud (it must have somehow registered with KDE), KDE Connect, email, etc.

Tiling

So how about the tiling system, kwin-tiling? The out of the box experience is pretty nice. There are fewer built-in layouts than with xmonad, but the ones that are there are doing a decent job for me, and in some cases are more configurable (those that have a large window pane are configurable on its location, not forcing it to be on the left as with many systems.) What’s more, thanks to the flexibility in the KDE shortcut settings, I can configure it to be nearly keystroke-identical to xmonad!

Issues Encountered

I encountered a few minor issues:

  • There appears to be no way to tell it to “power down the display immediately after it is locked, every time” instead of waiting for some timeout to elapse. This is useful when I want to switch monitor inputs to something else.
  • Firefox ESR seems to have some rendering issues under KDE for some reason, but switching to the latest stable release direct from Mozilla seems to fix that.

In short, I’m very impressed.

Managing an External Display on Linux Shouldn’t Be This Hard

I first started using Linux and FreeBSD on laptops in the late 1990s. Back then, there were all sorts of hassles and problems, from hangs on suspend to pure failure to boot. I still worry a bit about suspend on unknown hardware, but by and large, the picture of Linux on laptops has dramatically improved over the last years. So much so that now I can complain about what would once have been a minor nit: dealing with external monitors.

I have a USB-C dock that provides both power and a Thunderbolt display output over the single cable to the laptop. I think I am similar to most people in wanting the following behavior from the laptop:

  • When the lid is closed, suspend if no external monitor is connected. If an external monitor is connected, shut off the built-in display and use the external one exclusively, but do not suspend.
  • Lock the screen automatically after a period of inactivity.
  • While locked, all connected displays should be powered down.
  • When an external display is connected, begin using it automatically.
  • When an external display is disconnected, stop using it. If the lid is closed when the external display is disconnected, go into suspend mode.

This sounds so simple. But somehow on Linux we’ve split up these things into a dozen tiny bits:

  • In /etc/systemd/logind.conf, there are settings about what to do when the lid is opened or closed.
  • Various desktop environments have overlapping settings covering the same things.
  • Then there are the display managers (gdm3, lightdm, etc) that also get in on the act, and frequently have DIFFERENT settings, set in different places, from the desktop environments. And, what’s more, they tend to be involved with locking these days.
  • Then there are screensavers (gnome-screensaver, xscreensaver, etc.) that also enter the picture, and also have settings in these areas.

Problems I’ve Seen

My problems don’t even begin with laptops, but with my desktop, running XFCE with xmonad and lightdm. My desktop is hooked to a display that has multiple inputs. This scenario (reproducible in both buster and bullseye) causes the display to be unusable until a reboot on the desktop:

  1. Be logged in and using the desktop
  2. Without locking the desktop screen, switch the display input to another device
  3. Keep the display input on another device long enough for the desktop screen to auto-lock
  4. At this point, it is impossible to re-awaken the desktop screen.

I should not here that the problems aren’t limited to Debian, but also extend to Ubuntu and various hardware.

Lightdm: which greeter?

At some point while troubleshooting things after upgrading my laptop to bullseye, I noticed that while both were running lightdm, I had different settings and a different appearance between the two. Upon further investigation, I realized that one hat slick-greeter and lightdm-settings installed, while the other had lightdm-gtk-greeter and lightdm-gtk-greeter-settings installed. Very strange.

XFCE: giving up

I eventually gave up on making lightdm work. No combination of settings or greeters would make things work reliably when changing screen configurations. I installed xscreensaver. It doesn’t hang, but it does sometimes take a few tries before it figures out what device to display on.

Worse, since updating from buster to bullseye, XFCE no longer automatically switches audio output when the docking station is plugged in, and there seems to be no easy way to convince Pulseaudio to do this.

X-Based Gnome and derivatives… sigh.

I also tried Gnome, Mate, and Cinnamon, and all of them had various inabilities to configure things to act the way I laid out above.

I’ve long not been a fan of Gnome’s way of hiding things from the user. It now has a Windows-like situation of three distinct settings programs (settings, tweaks, and dconf editor), which overlap in strange ways and interact with systemd in even stranger ways. Gnome 3 make it quite non-intuitive to make app icons from various programs work, and so forth.

Trying Wayland

I recently decided to set up an older laptop that I hadn’t used in awhile. After reading up on Wayland, I decided to try Gnome 3 under Wayland. Both the Debian and Arch wikis note that KDE is buggy on Wayland. Gnome is the only desktop environment that supports it then, unless I want to go with Sway. There’s some appeal to Sway to this xmonad user, but I’ve read of incompatibilities of Wayland software when Gnome’s not available, so I opted to try Gnome.

Well, it’s better. Not perfect, but better. After finding settings buried in a ton of different Settings and Tweaks boxes, I had it mostly working, except gdm3 would never shut off power to the external display. Eventually I found /etc/gdm3/greeter.dconf-defaults, and aadded:

sleep-inactive-ac-timeout=60
sleep-inactive-ac-type='blank'
sleep-inactive-battery-timeout=120
sleep-inactive-battery-type='suspend'

Of course, these overlap with but are distinct from the same kinds of things in Gnome settings.

Sway?

Running without Gnome seems like a challenge; Gnome is switching audio output appropriately, for instance. I am looking at some of the Gnome Shell tiling window manager extensions and hope that some of them may work for me.

Excellent Experience with Debian Bullseye

I’ve appreciated the bullseye upgrade, like most Debian upgrades. I’m not quite sure how, since I was already running a backports kernel, but somehow the entire system is snappier. Maybe newer X or something? I’m really pleased with it. Hardware integration is even nicer now, particularly the automatic driverless support for scanners in addition to the existing support for printers.

All in all, a very nice upgrade, and pretty painless.

I experienced a few odd situations.

For one, I had been using Gnome Flashback. Since xmonad-log-applet didn’t compile there (due to bitrot in the log applet, not flashback), and I had been finding Gnome Flashback to be a rather dusty and forgotten corner of Gnome for a long time, I decided to try Mate.

Mate just seemed utterly unable to handle a situation with a laptop and an external monitor very well. I want to use only the external monitor with the laptop lid is closed, and it just couldn’t remember how to do the right thing – external monitor on, laptop monitor off, laptop not put into suspend. gdm3 also didn’t seem to be able to put the external monitor to sleep, either, causing a few nights of wasted power.

So off I went to XFCE, which I had been using for years on my workstation anyhow. Lots more settings available in XFCE, plus things Just Worked there. Odd that XFCE, the thin and light DE, is now the one that has the most relevant settings. It seems the Gnome “let’s remove a bunch of features” approach has extended to MATE as well.

When I switched to XFCE, I also removed gdm3 from my system, leaving lightdm as the only DM on it. That matched what my desktop machine was using, and also what task-xfce-desktop called for. But strangely, the XFCE settings for lightdm were completely different between the laptop and the desktop. It turns out that with lightdm, you can have the lightdm-gtk-greeter and the accompanying lightdm-gtk-greeter-settings, or slick-greeter and the accompanying lightdm-settings. One machine had one greeter and settings, and the other had the other. Why, I don’t know. But lightdm-gtk-greeter-settings had the necessary options for putting monitors to sleep on the login screen, so I went with it.

This does highlight a bit of a weakness in Debian upgrades. There is SO MUCH choice in Debian, which I highly value. At some point, almost certainly without my conscious choice, one machine got one greeter and another got the other. Despite both having task-xfce-desktop installed, they got different desktop experiences. There isn’t a great way to say “OK, I know I had a bunch of things installed before, but NOW I want the default bullseye experience”.

But overall, it is an absolutely fantastic distribution. It is great to see this nonprofit community distribution continue to have such quality on such an immense scale. And hard to believe I’ve been a Debian developer for 25 years. That seems almost impossible!

Distributed, Asynchronous Git Syncing with NNCP

I have a problem.

I have a directory that I use with org-mode and org-roam. I want it to be synced across multiple machines. I also want to keep the history with git. And, I want to use end-to-end encryption (no storing a plain git repo on a remote server), have a serverless setup, not require any two machines to be up simultaneously, and be resilient in the face of races and conflicts.

Whew.

I’ve tried a number of setups – git-remote-gcrypt on a remote server (fragile), some complicated scripts around a separate repo in syncthing (requires one machine to be “in charge”), etc. They all were subpar.

Then NNCP introdoced asynchronous multicast and I was intrigued.

So, I wrote gitsync-nncp, which uses NNCP to distribute git bundles to all the participating machines. The comprehensive documentation for gitsync-nncp goes into a lot more detail about how it works and what problems it solves. It’s working quite well for me!