July 2011

32-bit or 64-bit?

To determine whether you’re running 32-bit or 64-bit Linux, run uname -m. i686 is 32-bit, x86_64 is 64-bit.

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USB Mouse Failure

My desktop machine is running Ubuntu 10.04 (per /etc/lsb-release). Every so often when it boots up, the mouse doesn’t work. The mouse cursor is there, but it won’t move. The most reliable way to fix it is to sudo /sbin/poweroff and restart. sudo /sbin/reboot doesn’t seem to help. This is annoying, as it takes a few restart cycles to come back.

I saw a fix that recommended adding boot options “acpi=force irqpoll” to grub to fix the problem. Ubuntu 10 has grub 2, so I followed the latter set of instructions.

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Internet Video with MythTV

There’s no capture card in the HTPC right now. Before adding that, I wanted to check out the state of Internet TV. MythTV has plugins for Hulu, YouTube and a few other internet video sites. The integration isn’t as tight as, say, cable on-demand. You can browse listings, but there’s not much information about the videos. I suspect video metadata will get better over time.

But one of the biggest problems is that some of the videos are a black hole. By this I mean, once you start playing them, there’s no way to get out. I was watching a CNet video that did this. The playback control bar would come up (sometimes), but it ignored attempts to move forward through the video. None of the keyboard commands worked either. When the video was over, it just sat there. No clicking of the mouse or use of the keyboard worked. Even the window manager’s application menu didn’t work. I had to Ctrl+Alt+F1 to a text terminal, log in and kill MythTV.

Playback wasn’t as smooth as I had expected either. I’ll need to do some more research to see if this is due to compression from the source, Flash or graphics driver settings. This machine is a Core i3 Sandy Bridge with integrated Intel graphics. It should be plenty fast to play even 1080p video if set up correctly.

There were some other problems, also. MythTV would crash frequently. I applied some updates from the MythTV repo and that seemed to help.

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MythTV Weather Shows Nothing

MythTV can display weather reports, but when I went to Information Center -> Weather, nothing showed up. Under Utilities/Setup -> Setup -> Info Center Settings -> Weather Settings -> Screen Settings is where you tell MythWeather what you want to see. By default, nothing is selected. I chose 18 Hour Forecast and it asked for a location. Entering my zip code yielded 0 results. So did City, ST for my town. Entering nothing and selecting Search finally worked. The problem is that the locations are by weather station, not zip code or city. If you don’t know where your nearest weather service is, try just entering your two character state code.

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The Ten Foot Interface

One of the big differences between an HTPC and a desktop or laptop computer is that the user is much further away from the screen. In Mythbuntu, when exiting MythTV, the text and icons on the screen are too small. The browser is no problem as you can use Ctrl-+ to make the page larger. But the desktop is a little tougher. Under Applications -> Settings -> Appearance is a tab called fonts. Check the Custom DPI setting box and change the dots per inch from the default (in my case 96) to something larger. I used 120 and that’s quite readable.

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Setting Up the HTPC

The HTPC is here. I ordered mostly the “Coding Horror” hardware with a 750 GB hard drive and IOGear wireless keyboard (model GKM561R). It’s connected to a Panasonic TC-P58S2 58″ plasma TV via HDMI. The wireless keyboard worked with no configuration at all. The HDMI connection did too.

On a USB drive, I loaded the Mythbuntu installation. It booted from the USB drive with no problem. Mythbuntu installed without a hitch and set up networking by itself. Does this sound boring? Don’t worry, there were problems.

The edges of the desktop were cut off and there was no sound from the TV. MythTV has options for setting the TV size. This was as simple as moving two “L” shaped cursors to define the upper-left and lower-right corners of the screen. The only hard part was figuring out what the “select” and “menu” keys were. Those were space or enter and “m”, respectively. But the Ubuntu desktop was tougher.

I searched the web and found a few pages that referred to fixing overscan through X settings. Another mentioned the preferred method is to set this in the TV. After hunting through the Panasonic menus, I found Picture -> Aspect adjustments. Under this is a setting for HD size. This was set to size 1, which is 95% of the HD signal. They say that’s to trim noise. My desktop is not noise. Size 2 is full image. Choosing this fixed the overscan problem. Woo-hoo!

Now off to figure out the missing audio.

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Offsite Backup

I’ve been using BackupPC to back up the computers in the house. This is a Linux backup program that connects to each client over SSH and transfers data to a backup pool. This protects each PC from hardware and human failures, but if there’s a site disaster, the data’s gone. To mitigate that risk, I was archiving the backups to DVD’s and storing them off site. Of course, copying a lot of data to DVD’s is inconvenient and takes a lot of time, so it didn’t always get done.

As part the the HTPC project, I knew I’d need a large amount of storage, so a NAS was in order. But to back up that much data to DVD’s wasn’t feasible. I needed a way to back up the NAS’s data to off site storage. Or so I thought. I heard about the ioSafe Solo, a waterproof and fireproof external hard drive with a USB interface. It holds 2 TB, which is plenty. And since it can survive a fire or flood, there’s no need to move it off site. Problem solved!

So, the first test was to connect it to the BackupPC server and run an archive to it. The archive was about 92 GB and started at 7 am. It was still running that night. And the next morning. It finished in just shy of 24 hours. That didn’t sound right. I ran a throughput test using sudo hdparm -t /dev/sdc and it came up at 1.2 MB/sec. The other drives in that machine have throughputs in the 20′s. I was concerned until I realized that old machine has USB 1.0 with a maximum throughput of 12 Mbit/sec, or 1.5 MB/sec.

Hooking the drive up to my desktop and running hdparm resulted in a little over 23 MB/sec. Much better. BTW, neither machine had trouble connecting to the drive, despite the manufacturer’s support of only Windows and Mac.

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Creating a USB Drive Install of Mythbuntu

To install Mythbuntu from a USB drive (a. k. a. thumb drive or flash drive), follow the Ubuntu directions using the Mythbuntu ISO:

  • Get a USB drive 2 GB or larger
  • Save anything you need from the USB drive. This procedure will wipe out the USB drive.
  • Install the package usb-creator
  • Run USB Creator (In Ubuntu 10.04 LTS, it’s in the menu under System -> Administration -> Startup Disk Creator).
  • Select the Mythbuntu ISO if it’s not already selected.
  • Select the USB drive and select “Erase the disk”
  • Select Make Startup Disk

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