I’m truly a glutton for punishment…

Send to Kindle

OK, so here I am again, updating my progress on the old Dell Latitude L400 saga…

Before I begin, let me assure the millions of readers of this blog that I have no illusion that I will ever be able to use this laptop in anything other than as a “guest surfing” node in my apartment. It’s not the case that I think if I just “bull through this”, I will figure out how to make it reliable for the originally intended purposes…

So, why do I continue banging my head against this rock-solid wall? Because I like to understand things, even things I can’t make work. Since some of the failure modes of the machine are reproducible, I have an inclination (or perhaps fantasy is a better term) that I can at least figure out what is failing. Even if I do, there’s no way that it will be economically viable to “fix it”, but knowing will make all the difference (to me at least) 😉

Deciding that it was worth the minor effort to turn this into the equivalent of a “thin client” browsing machine, I wanted to pick a Linux distro that would require little tweaking for my purposes. While Ubuntu 6.06 was working reasonably well on the machine previously (fewer halts than Windows), I wasn’t crazy about putting it back on. This actually introduces a little side rant…

(Pardon the interruption of the real point of this thread…)

I get that Linux distros want to offer some sort of “stability” promise, and as such, are supposedly careful about upgrading apps too aggressively. There’s a general “goodness” associated with that concept. That said, it’s also annoying that there isn’t an easy way to over-ride that.

An obvious example is Firefox. Ubuntu 6.06 ships with 1.5.0.3. Assuming that it is correct not to upgrade to 2.0.x, is it therefore correct to not automically update (through their automated updating service) to 1.5.0.9? After all, the concept here is those are bug releases only (no new features).

It’s bad enough that I can’t just get that update automatically, but I’m not even given a choice to upgrade to it optionally, even with a warning that it hasn’t been fully tested. However, what really bugs me (again, remembering that I understand the concept of stability) is that within Firefox itself, logged in as root, I can’t hit the “Check for Updates” button, as it is greyed out. Obviously, I’m being saved from myself, and I don’t like it.

(OK, back to our regularly scheduled saga…)

So, I wanted a distro that had the latest versions of Firefox, Thunderbird and OpenOffice.org. Even Ubuntu 6.10 doesn’t qualify. The current “snapshot” does, but then I don’t get the easy-to-install-from CD, etc.

A little searching, and I found PCLinuxOS version 2007.1 test release. With a little trouble (all caused by me, not PCLinuxOS!), I got it installed. I’m done then right? Wrong! Why? Because, PCLinuxOS doesn’t start up the wireless networking correctly (it works fine with the wired port). Somewhere, deep in the bowels of the kernel, it recognizes my Lucent Wavelan (Orinoco) card, as “dmesg” shows that there is a card inserted in slot 0. All attempts to load the right things (including: “modprobe hermes”, “modprobe wavelan_cs”, “modprobe orinoco_cs”) fail to make the card work, but all succeed in loading the appropriate modules.

Anyway, I boot with Damn Small Linux 3.2 (DSL), and from the Live CD, it recognizes the card correctly, and can access the Net just fine. Damn (so to speak) 🙁

This is likely a general problem with this specific distro (PCLinuxOS), as they have deferred their final release due to the number of problems found in the test release…

So, I’ll let this one go for now (though my general complaint about distros upgrading to current app releases within a bug-fix range stands!) 🙂

So, back to the original intent of this post, which was to explain why I even bother to continue working on this machine, when I know it can’t fulfill my true need for it…

It turns out, that when I put PCLinuxOS on the machine, and found out that it didn’t work with my wireless card, I decided to “upgrade” from their repository, hoping to install additional wireless tools. That worked fine, with one notable exception.

No matter how little or how much I asked for the updater to download (the largest was 80 files with 38MB, the smallest was 12 files with 2+ MB), it downloaded them all just fine, but the instant it started to process the files, the machine halted! Sound familiar?

It then occured to me that every time the machine halted, it was doing something related to the network. This was across operating systems (Windows XP, Windows 2000, Ubuntu 6.06, PCLinuxOS, etc.). So, perhaps a bad NIC? I doubt it highly. Why? Because in the case of PCLinuxOS, it was the wired port, in the case of Windows 2000, it was operating 100% wirelessly, etc. Also, it was able to do hundreds of MBs and hundreds of individual updates for Windows XP and 2000. It was specific use cases of networking that caused it to crap out!

In the PCLinuxOS case, after rebooting and starting Synaptic again, and asking it to update again, it found the packages locally (intact!), and installed them all without problem. On the next set of updates, it failed in exactly the same way. Download them all cleanly, and upon attempting to install them, the machine halted.

So, I’m no closer to understanding the what is happening, but it seems to be related to some kind of networking issue, perhaps related to task-switching from networking to disk, etc. Who knows…

I’m hopeful that this is the last post on this specific laptop (as I’m sure the throngs of my readers will appreciate!) 😉