BTRFS and SE Linux

I’ve had problems with systems running SE Linux on BTRFS losing the XATTRs used for storing the SE Linux file labels after a power outage.

Here is the link to the patch that fixes this [1]. Thanks to Hans van Kranenburg and Holger Hoffstätte for the information about this patch which was already included in kernel 4.16.11. That was uploaded to Debian on the 27th of May and got into testing about the time that my message about this issue got to the SE Linux list (which was a couple of days before I sent it to the BTRFS developers).

The kernel from Debian/Stable still has the issue. So using a testing kernel might be a good option to deal with this problem at the moment.

Below is the information on reproducing this problem. It may be useful for people who want to reproduce similar problems. Also all sysadmins should know about “reboot -nffd”, if something really goes wrong with your kernel you may need to do that immediately to prevent corrupted data being written to your disks.

The command “reboot -nffd” (kernel reboot without flushing kernel buffers or writing status) when run on a BTRFS system with SE Linux will often result in /var/log/audit/audit.log being unlabeled. It also results in some systemd-journald files like /var/log/journal/c195779d29154ed8bcb4e8444c4a1728/system.journal being unlabeled but that is rarer. I think that the same
problem afflicts both systemd-journald and auditd but it’s a race condition that on my systems (both production and test) is more likely to affect auditd.

root@stretch:/# xattr -l /var/log/audit/audit.log 
security.selinux: 
0000   73 79 73 74 65 6D 5F 75 3A 6F 62 6A 65 63 74 5F    system_u:object_ 
0010   72 3A 61 75 64 69 74 64 5F 6C 6F 67 5F 74 3A 73    r:auditd_log_t:s 
0020   30 00                                              0.

SE Linux uses the xattr “security.selinux”, you can see what it’s doing with xattr(1) but generally using “ls -Z” is easiest.

If this issue just affected “reboot -nffd” then a solution might be to just not run that command. However this affects systems after a power outage.

I have reproduced this bug with kernel 4.9.0-6-amd64 (the latest security update for Debian/Stretch which is the latest supported release of Debian). I have also reproduced it in an identical manner with kernel 4.16.0-1-amd64 (the latest from Debian/Unstable). For testing I reproduced this with a 4G filesystem in a VM, but in production it has happened on BTRFS RAID-1 arrays, both SSD and HDD.

#!/bin/bash 
set -e 
COUNT=$(ps aux|grep [s]bin/auditd|wc -l) 
date 
if [ "$COUNT" = "1" ]; then 
 echo "all good" 
else 
 echo "failed" 
 exit 1 
fi

Firstly the above is the script /usr/local/sbin/testit, I test for auditd running because it aborts if the context on it’s log file is wrong. When SE Linux is in enforcing mode an incorrect/missing label on the audit.log file causes auditd to abort.

root@stretch:~# ls -liZ /var/log/audit/audit.log 
37952 -rw-------. 1 root root system_u:object_r:auditd_log_t:s0 4385230 Jun  1 
12:23 /var/log/audit/audit.log

Above is before I do the tests.

while ssh stretch /usr/local/sbin/testit ; do 
 ssh stretch "reboot -nffd" > /dev/null 2>&1 & 
 sleep 20 
done

Above is the shell code I run to do the tests. Note that the VM in question runs on SSD storage which is why it can consistently boot in less than 20 seconds.

Fri  1 Jun 12:26:13 UTC 2018 
all good 
Fri  1 Jun 12:26:33 UTC 2018 
failed

Above is the output from the shell code in question. After the first reboot it fails. The probability of failure on my test system is greater than 50%.

root@stretch:~# ls -liZ /var/log/audit/audit.log  
37952 -rw-------. 1 root root system_u:object_r:unlabeled_t:s0 4396803 Jun  1 12:26 /var/log/audit/audit.log

Now the result. Note that the Inode has not changed. I could understand a newly created file missing an xattr, but this is an existing file which shouldn’t have had it’s xattr changed. But somehow it gets corrupted.

The first possibility I considered was that SE Linux code might be at fault. I asked on the SE Linux mailing list (I haven’t been involved in SE Linux kernel code for about 15 years) and was informed that this isn’t likely at
all. There have been no problems like this reported with other filesystems.

Racism in the Office

Today I was at an office party and the conversation turned to race, specifically the incidence of unarmed Afro-American men and boys who are shot by police. Apparently the idea that white people (even in other countries) might treat non-white people badly offends some people, so we had a man try to explain that Afro-Americans commit more crime and therefore are more likely to get shot. This part of the discussion isn’t even noteworthy, it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time.

I and another man pointed out that crime is correlated with poverty and racism causes non-white people to be disproportionately poor. We also pointed out that US police seem capable of arresting proven violent white criminals without shooting them (he cited arrests of Mafia members I cited mass murderers like the one who shot up the cinema). This part of the discussion isn’t particularly noteworthy either. Usually when someone tries explaining some racist ideas and gets firm disagreement they back down. But not this time.

The next step was the issue of whether black people are inherently violent. He cited all of Africa as evidence. There’s a meme that you shouldn’t accuse someone of being racist, it’s apparently very offensive. I find racism very offensive and speak the truth about it. So all the following discussion was peppered with him complaining about how offended he was and me not caring (stop saying racist things if you don’t want me to call you racist).

Next was an appeal to “statistics” and “facts”. He said that he was only citing statistics and facts, clearly not understanding that saying “Africans are violent” is not a statistic. I told him to get his phone and Google for some statistics as he hadn’t cited any. I thought that might make him just go away, it was clear that we were long past the possibility of agreeing on these issues. I don’t go to parties seeking out such arguments, in fact I’d rather avoid such people altogether if possible.

So he found an article about recent immigrants from Somalia in Melbourne (not about the US or Africa, the previous topics of discussion). We are having ongoing discussions in Australia about violent crime, mainly due to conservatives who want to break international agreements regarding the treatment of refugees. For the record I support stronger jail sentences for violent crime, but this is an idea that is not well accepted by conservatives presumably because the vast majority of violent criminals are white (due to the vast majority of the Australian population being white).

His next claim was that Africans are genetically violent due to DNA changes from violence in the past. He specifically said that if someone was a witness to violence it would change their DNA to make them and their children more violent. He also specifically said that this was due to thousands of years of violence in Africa (he mentioned two thousand and three thousand years on different occasions). I pointed out that European history has plenty of violence that is well documented and also that DNA just doesn’t work the way he thinks it does.

Of course he tried to shout me down about the issue of DNA, telling me that he studied Psychology at a university in London and knows how DNA works, demanding to know my qualifications, and asserting that any scientist would support him. I don’t have a medical degree, but I have spent quite a lot of time attending lectures on medical research including from researchers who deliberately change DNA to study how this changes the biological processes of the organism in question.

I offered him the opportunity to star in a Youtube video about this, I’d record everything he wants to say about DNA. But he regarded that offer as an attempt to “shame” him because of his “controversial” views. It was a strange and sudden change from “any scientist will support me” to “it’s controversial”. Unfortunately he didn’t give up on his attempts to convince me that he wasn’t racist and that black people are lesser.

The next odd thing was when he asked me “what do you call them” (black people), “do you call them Afro-Americans when they are here”. I explained that if an American of African ancestry visits Australia then you would call them Afro-American, otherwise not. It’s strange that someone goes from being so certain of so many things to not knowing the basics. In retrospect I should have asked whether he was aware that there are black people who aren’t African.

Then I sought opinions from other people at the party regarding DNA modifications. While I didn’t expect to immediately convince him of the error of his ways it should at least demonstrate that I’m not the one who’s in a minority regarding this issue. As expected there was no support for the ideas of DNA modifying. During that discussion I mentioned radiation as a cause of DNA changes. He then came up with the idea that radiation from someone’s mouth when they shout at you could change your DNA. This was the subject of some jokes, one man said something like “my parents shouted at me a lot but didn’t make me a mutant”.

The other people had some sensible things to say, pointing out that psychological trauma changes the way people raise children and can have multi-generational effects. But the idea of events 3000 years ago having such effects was ridiculed.

By this time people were starting to leave. A heated discussion of racism tends to kill the party atmosphere. There might be some people who think I should have just avoided the discussion to keep the party going (really I didn’t want it and tried to end it). But I’m not going to allow a racist to think that I agree with them, and if having a party requires any form of agreement to racism then it’s not a party I care about.

As I was getting ready to leave the man said that he thought he didn’t explain things well because he was tipsy. I disagree, I think he explained some things very well. When someone goes to such extraordinary lengths to criticise all black people after a discussion of white cops killing unarmed black people I think it shows their character. But I did offer some friendly advice, “don’t drink with people you work with or for or any other people you want to impress”, I suggested that maybe quitting alcohol altogether is the right thing to do if this is what it causes. But he still thought it was wrong of me to call him racist, and I still don’t care. Alcohol doesn’t make anyone suddenly think that black people are inherently dangerous (even when unarmed) and therefore deserving of being shot by police (disregarding the fact that police can take members of the Mafia alive). But it does make people less inhibited about sharing such views even when it’s clear that they don’t have an accepting audience.

Some Final Notes

I was not looking for an argument or trying to entrap him in any way. I refrained from asking him about other races who have experienced violence in the past, maybe he would have made similar claims about other non-white races and maybe he wouldn’t, I didn’t try to broaden the scope of the dispute.

I am not going to do anything that might be taken as agreement or support of racism unless faced with the threat of violence. He did not threaten me so I wasn’t going to back down from the debate.

I gave him multiple opportunities to leave the debate. When I insisted that he find statistics to support his cause I hoped and expected that he would depart. Instead he came back with a page about the latest racist dog-whistle in Australian politics which had no correlation with anything we had previously discussed.

I think the fact that this debate happened says something about Australian and British culture. This man apparently hadn’t had people push back on such ideas before.

WordPress Multisite on Debian

WordPress (a common CMS for blogs) is designed to be copied to a directory that Apache can serve and run by a user with no particular privileges while managing installation of it’s own updates and plugins. Debian is designed around the idea of the package management system controlling everything on behalf of a sysadmin.

When I first started using WordPress there was a version called “WordPress MU” (Multi User) which supported multiple blogs. It was a separate archive to the main WordPress and didn’t support all the plugins and themes. As a main selling point of WordPress is the ability to select from the significant library of plugins and themes this was a serious problem.

Debian WordPress

The people who maintain the Debian package of WordPress have always supported multiple blogs on one system and made it very easy to run in that manner. There’s a /etc/wordpress directory for configuration files for each blog with names such as config-etbe.coker.com.au.php. This allows having multiple separate blogs running from the same tree of PHP source which means only one thing to update when there’s a new version of WordPress (often fixing security issues).

One thing that appears to be lacking with the Debian system is separate directories for “media”. WordPress supports uploading images (which are scaled to several different sizes) as well as sound and apparently video. By default under Debian they are stored in /var/lib/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/YYYY/MM/filename. If you have several blogs on one system they all get to share the same directory tree, that may be OK for one person running multiple blogs but is obviously bad when several bloggers have independent blogs on the same server.

Multisite

If you enable the “multisite” support in WordPress then you have WordPress support for multiple blogs. The administrator of the multisite configuration has the ability to specify media paths etc for all the child blogs.

The first problem with this is that one person has to be the multisite administrator. As I’m the sysadmin of the WordPress servers in question that’s an obvious task for me. But the problem is that the multisite administrator doesn’t just do sysadmin tasks such as specifying storage directories. They also do fairly routine tasks like enabling plugins. Preventing bloggers from installing new plugins is reasonable and is the default Debian configuration. Preventing them from selecting which of the installed plugins are activated is unreasonable in most situations.

The next issue is that some core parts of WordPress functionality on the sub-blogs refer to the administrator blog, recovering a forgotten password is one example. I don’t want users of other blogs on the system to be referred to my blog when they forget their password.

A final problem with multisite is that it makes things more difficult if you want to move a blog to another system. Instead of just sending a dump of the MySQL database and a copy of the Apache configuration for the site you have to configure it for which blog will be it’s master. If going between multisite and non-multisite you have to change some of the data about accounts, this will be annoying on both adding new sites to a server and moving sites from the server to a non-multisite server somewhere else.

I now believe that WordPress multisite has little value for people who use Debian. The Debian way is the better way.

So I had to back out the multisite changes. Fortunately I had a cron job to make snapshots of the BTRFS subvolume that has the database so it was easy to revert to an older version of the MySQL configuration.

Upload Location

update etbe_options set option_value='/var/lib/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/etbe.coker.com.au' where option_name='upload_path';

It turns out that if you don’t have a multisite blog then there’s no way of changing the upload directory without using SQL. The above SQL code is an example of how to do this. Note that it seems that there is special case handling of a value of ‘wp-content/uploads‘ and any other path needs to be fully qualified.

For my own blog however I choose to avoid the WordPress media management and use the following shell script to create suitable HTML code for an image that links to a high resolution version. I use GIMP to create the smaller version of the image which gives me a lot of control over how to crop and compress the image to ensure that enough detail is visible while still being small enough for fast download.

#!/bin/bash
set -e

if [ "$BASE" = "" ]; then
  BASE="http://www.coker.com.au/blogpics/2018"
fi

while [ "$1" != "" ]; do
  BIG=$1
  SMALL=$(echo $1 | sed -s s/-big//)
  RES=$(identify $SMALL|cut -f3 -d\ )
  WIDTH=$(($(echo $RES|cut -f1 -dx)/2))px
  HEIGHT=$(($(echo $RES|cut -f2 -dx)/2))px
  echo "<a href=\"$BASE/$BIG\"><img src=\"$BASE/$SMALL\" width=\"$WIDTH\" height=\"$HEIGHT\" alt=\"\" /></a>"
  shift
done

Compromised Guest Account

Some of the workstations I run are sometimes used by multiple people. Having multiple people share an account is bad for security so having a guest account for guest access is convenient.

If a system doesn’t allow logins over the Internet then a strong password is not needed for the guest account.

If such a system later allows logins over the Internet then hostile parties can try to guess the password. This happens even if you don’t use the default port for ssh.

This recently happened to a system I run. The attacker logged in as guest, changed the password, and installed a cron job to run every minute and restart their blockchain mining program if it had been stopped.

In 2007 a bug was filed against the Debian package openssh-server requesting that the AllowUsers be added to the default /etc/ssh/sshd_config file [1]. If that bug hadn’t been marked as “wishlist” and left alone for 11 years then I would probably have set it to only allow ssh connections to the one account that I desired which always had a strong password.

I’ve been a sysadmin for about 25 years (since before ssh was invented). I have been a Debian Developer for almost 20 years, including working on security related code. The fact that I stuffed up in regard to this issue suggests that there are probably many other people making similar mistakes, and probably most of them aren’t monitoring things like system load average and temperature which can lead to the discovery of such attacks.

Dell PowerEdge T30

I just did a Debian install on a Dell PowerEdge T30 for a client. The Dell web site is a bit broken at the moment, it didn’t list the price of that server or give useful specs when I was ordering it. I was under the impression that the server was limited to 8G of RAM, that’s unusually small but it wouldn’t be the first time a vendor crippled a low end model to drive sales of more expensive systems. It turned out that the T30 model I got has 4*DDR4 sockets with only one used for an 8G DIMM. It apparently can handle up to 64G of RAM.

It has space for 4*3.5″ SATA disks but only has 4*SATA connectors on the motherboard. As I never use the DVD in a server this isn’t a problem for me, but if you want 4 disks and a DVD then you need to buy a PCI or PCIe SATA card.

Compared to the PowerEdge T130 I’m using at home the new T30 is slightly shorter and thinner while seeming to have more space inside. This is partly due to better design and partly due to having 2 hard drives in the top near the DVD drive which are a little inconvenient to get to. The T130 I have (which isn’t the latest model) has 4*3.5″ SATA drive bays at the bottom which are very convenient for swapping disks.

It has two PCIe*16 slots (one of which is apparently quad speed), one shorter PCIe slot, and a PCI slot. For a cheap server a PCI slot is a nice feature, it means I can use an old PCI Ethernet card instead of buying a PCIe Ethernet card. The T30 cost $1002 so using an old Ethernet card saved 1% of the overall cost.

The T30 seems designed to be more of a workstation or personal server than a straight server. The previous iterations of the low end tower servers from Dell didn’t have built in sound and had PCIe slots that were adequate for a RAID controller but vastly inadequate for video. This one has built in line in and out for audio and has two DisplayPort connectors on the motherboard (presumably for dual-head support). Apart from the CPU (an E3-1225 which is slower than some systems people are throwing out nowadays) the system would be a decent gaming system.

It has lots of USB ports which is handy for a file server, I can attach lots of backup devices. Also most of the ports support “super speed”, I haven’t yet tested out USB devices that support such speeds but I’m looking forward to it. It’s a pity that there are no USB-C ports.

One deficiency of the T30 is the lack of a VGA port. It has one HDMI and two DisplayPort sockets on the motherboard, this is really great for a system on or under your desk, any monitor you would want on your desk will support at least one of those interfaces. But in a server room you tend to have an old VGA monitor that’s there because no-one wants it on their desk. Not supporting VGA may force people to buy a $200 monitor for their server room. That increases the effective cost of the system by 20%. It has a PC serial port on the motherboard which is a nice server feature, but that doesn’t make up for the lack of VGA.

The BIOS configuration has an option displayed for enabling charging devices from USB sockets when a laptop is in sleep mode. It’s disappointing that they didn’t either make a BIOS build for a non-laptop or have the BIOS detect at run-time that it’s not on laptop hardware and hide that.

Conclusion

The PowerEdge T30 is a nice low-end workstation. If you want a system with ECC RAM because you need it to be reliable and you don’t need the greatest performance then it will do very well. It has Intel video on the motherboard with HDMI and DisplayPort connectors, this won’t be the fastest video but should do for most workstation tasks. It has a PCIe*16 quad speed slot in case you want to install a really fast video card. The CPU is slow by today’s standards, but Dell sells plenty of tower systems that support faster CPUs.

It’s nice that it has a serial port on the motherboard. That could be used for a serial console or could be used to talk to a UPS or other server-room equipment. But that doesn’t make up for the lack of VGA support IMHO.

One could say that a tower system is designed to be a desktop or desk-side system not run in any sort of server room. However it is cheaper than any rack mounted systems from Dell so it will be deployed in lots of small businesses that have one server for everything – I will probably install them in several other small businesses this year. Also tower servers do end up being deployed in server rooms, all it takes is a small business moving to a serviced office that has a proper server room and the old tower servers end up in a rack.

Rack vs Tower

One reason for small businesses to use tower servers when rack servers are more appropriate is the issue of noise. If your “server room” is the room that has your printer and fax then it typically won’t have a door and you just can’t have the noise of a rack mounted server in there. 1RU systems are inherently noisy because the small diameter of the fans means that they have to spin fast. 2RU systems can be made relatively quiet if you don’t have high-end CPUs but no-one seems to be trying to do that.

I think it would be nice if a company like Dell sold low-end servers in a rack mount form-factor (19 inches wide and 2RU high) that were designed to be relatively quiet. Then instead of starting with a tower server and ending up with tower systems in racks a small business could start with a 19 inch wide system on a shelf that gets bolted into a rack if they move into a better office. Any laptop CPU from the last 10 years is capable of running a file server with 8 disks in a ZFS array. Any modern laptop CPU is capable of running a file server with 8 SSDs in a ZFS array. This wouldn’t be difficult to design.

Thinkpad X1 Carbon

I just bought a Thinkpad X1 Carbon to replace my Thinkpad X301 [1]. It cost me $289 with free shipping from an eBay merchant which is a great deal, a new battery for the Thinkpad X301 would have cost about $100.

It seems that laptops aren’t depreciating in value as much as they used to. Grays Online used to reliably have refurbished Thinkpads with manufacturer’s warranty selling for about $300. Now they only have IdeaPads (a cheaper low-end line from Lenovo) at good prices, admittedly $100 to $200 for an IdeaPad is a very nice deal if you want a cheap laptop and don’t need something too powerful. But if you want something for doing software development on the go then you are looking at well in excess of $400. So I ended up buying a second-hand system from an eBay merchant.

CPU

I was quite excited to read the specs that it has an i7 CPU, but now I have it I discovered that the i7-3667U CPU scores 3990 according to passmark (cpubenchmark.net) [2]. While that is much better than the U9400 in the Thinkpad X301 that scored 968, it’s only slightly better than the i5-2520M in my Thinkpad T420 that scored 3582 [3]. I bought the Thinkpad T420 in August 2013 [4], I had hoped that Moore’s Law would result in me getting a system at least twice as fast as my last one. But buying second-hand meant I got a slower CPU. Also the small form factor of the X series limits the heat dissipation and therefore limits the CPU performance.

Keyboard

Thinkpads have traditionally had the best keyboards, but they are losing that advantage. This system has a keyboard that feels like an Apple laptop keyboard not like a traditional Thinkpad. It still has the Trackpoint which is a major feature if you like it (I do). The biggest downside is that they rearranged the keys. The PgUp/PgDn keys are now by the arrow keys, this could end up being useful if you like the SHIFT-PgUp/SHIFT-PgDn combinations used in the Linux VC and some Xterms like Konsole. But I like to keep my keys by the home keys and I can’t do that unless I use the little finger of my right hand for PgUp/PgDn. They also moved the Home, End, and Delete keys which is really annoying. It’s not just that the positions are different to previous Thinkpads (including X series like the X301), they are different to desktop keyboards. So every time I move between my Thinkpad and a desktop system I need to change key usage.

Did Lenovo not consider that touch typists might use their products?

The keyboard moved the PrtSc key, and lacks ScrLk and Pause keys, but I hardly ever use the PrtSc key, and never use the other 2. The lack of those keys would only be of interest to people who have mapped them to useful functions and people who actually use PrtSc. It’s impractical to have a key as annoying to accidentally press as PrtSc between the Ctrl and Alt keys.

One significant benefit of the keyboard in this Thinkpad is that it has a backlight instead of having a light on the top of the screen that shines on the keyboard. It might work better than the light above the keyboard and looks much cooler! As an aside I discovered that my Thinkpad X301 has a light above the keyboard, but the key combination to activate it sometimes needs to be pressed several times.

Display

X1 Carbon 1600*900
T420 1600*900
T61 1680*1050
X301 1440*900

Above are the screen resolutions for all my Thinkpads of the last 8 years. The X301 is an anomaly as I got it from a rubbish pile and it was significantly older than Thinkpads usually are when I get them. It’s a bit disappointing that laptop screen resolution isn’t increasing much over the years. I know some people have laptops with resolutions as high as 2560*1600 (as high as a high end phone) it seems that most laptops are below phone resolution.

Kogan is currently selling the Agora 8+ phone new for $239, including postage that would still be cheaper than the $289 I paid for this Thinkpad. There’s no reason why new phones should have lower prices and higher screen resolutions than second-hand laptops. The Thinkpad is designed to be a high-end brand, other brands like IdeaPad are for low end devices. Really 1600*900 is a low-end resolution by today’s standards, 1920*1080 should be the minimum for high-end systems. Now I could have bought one of the X series models with a higher screen resolution, but most of them have the lower resolution and hunting for a second hand system with the rare high resolution screen would mean missing the best prices.

I wonder if there’s an Android app to make a phone run as a second monitor for a Linux laptop, that way you could use a high resolution phone screen to display data from a laptop.

This display is unreasonably bright by default. So bright it hurt my eyes. The xbacklight program doesn’t support my display but the command “xrandr –output LVDS-1 –brightness 0.4” sets the brightness to 40%. The Fn key combination to set brightness doesn’t work. Below a brightness of about 70% the screen looks grainy.

General

This Thinkpad has a 180G SSD that supports contiguous reads at 500MB/s. It has 8G of RAM which is the minimum for a usable desktop system nowadays and while not really fast the CPU is fast enough. Generally this is a nice system.

It doesn’t have an Ethernet port which is really annoying. Now I have to pack a USB Ethernet device whenever I go anywhere. It also has mini-DisplayPort as the only video connector, as that is almost never available at a conference venue (VGA and HDMI are the common ones) I’ll have to pack an adaptor when I give a lecture. It also only has 2 USB ports, the X301 has 3. I know that not having HDMI, VGA, and Ethernet ports allows designing a thinner laptop. But I would be happier with a slightly thicker laptop that has more connectivity options. The Thinkpad X301 has about the same mass and is only slightly thicker and has all those ports. I blame Apple for starting this trend of laptops lacking IO options.

This might be the last laptop I own that doesn’t have USB-C. Currently not having USB-C is not a big deal, but devices other than phones supporting it will probably be released soon and fast phone charging from a laptop would be a good feature to have.

This laptop has no removable battery. I don’t know if it will be practical to replace the battery if the old one wears out. But given that replacing the battery may be more than the laptop is worth this isn’t a serious issue. One significant issue is that there’s no option to buy a second battery if I need to have it run without mains power for a significant amount of time. When I was travelling between Australia and Europe often I used to pack a second battery so I could spend twice as much time coding on the plane. I know it’s an engineering trade-off, but they did it with the X301 and could have done it again with this model.

Conclusion

This isn’t a great laptop. The X1 Carbon is described as a flagship for the Thinkpad brand and the display is letting down the image of the brand. The CPU is a little disappointing, but it’s a trade-off that I can deal with.

The keyboard is really annoying and will continue to annoy me for as long as I own it. The X301 managed to fit a better keyboard layout into the same space, there’s no reason that they couldn’t have done the same with the X1 Carbon.

But it’s great value for money and works well.

More About the Thinkpad X301

Last month I blogged about the Thinkpad X301 I got from a rubbish pile [1]. One thing I didn’t realise when writing that post is that the X301 doesn’t have the keyboard light that the T420 has. With the T420 I could press the bottom left (FN) and top right (PgUp from memory) keys on the keyboard to turn a light on the keyboard. This is really good for typing at night. While I can touch type the small keyboard on a laptop makes it a little difficult so the light is a feature I found useful. I wrote my review of the X301 before having to use it at night.

Another problem I noticed is that it crashes after running Memtest86+ for between 30 minutes and 4 hours. Memtest86+ doesn’t report any memory errors, the system just entirely locks up. I have 2 DIMMs for it (2G and 4G), I tried installing them in both orders, and I tried with each of them in the first slot (the system won’t boot if only the second slot is filled). Nothing changed. Now it is possible that this is something that might not happen in real use. For example it might only happen due to heat when the system is under sustained load which isn’t something I planned for that laptop. I would discard a desktop system that had such a problem because I get lots of free desktop PCs, but I’m prepared to live with a laptop that has such a problem to avoid paying for another laptop.

Last night the laptop battery suddenly stopped working entirely. I had it unplugged for about 5 minutes when it abruptly went off (no flashing light to warn that the battery was low or anything). Now when I plug it in the battery light flashes orange. A quick Google search indicates that this might mean that a fuse inside the battery pack has blown or that there might be a problem with the system board. Replacing the system board is much more than the laptop is worth and even replacing the battery will probably cost more than it’s worth. Previously bought a Thinkpad T420 at auction because it didn’t cost much more than getting a new battery and PSU for a T61 [2] and I expect I can find a similar deal if I poll the auction sites for a while.

Using an X series Thinkpad has been a good experience and I’ll definitely consider an X series for my next laptop. My previous history of laptops involved going from ones with a small screen that were heavy and clunky (what was available with 90’s technology and cost less than a car) to ones that had a large screen and were less clunky but still heavy. I hadn’t tried small and light with technology from the last decade, it’s something I could really get used to!

By today’s standards the X301 is deficient in a number of ways. It has 64G of storage (the same as my most recent phones) which isn’t much for software development, 6G of RAM which isn’t too bad but is small by today’s standards (16G is a common factory option nowadays), a 1440*900 screen which looks bad in any comparison (less than the last 3 phones I’ve owned), and a slow CPU. No two of these limits would be enough to make me consider replacing that laptop. Even with the possibility of crashing under load it was still a useful system. But the lack of a usable battery in combination with all the other issues makes the entire system unsuitable for my needs. I would be very happy to use a fast laptop with a high resolution screen even without a battery, but not with this list of issues.

Next week I’m going to a conference and there’s no possibility of buying a new laptop before then. So for a week when I need to use a laptop a lot I will have a sub-standard laptop.

It really sucks to have a laptop develop a problem that makes me want to replace it so soon after I got it.

Designing Shared Cars

Almost 10 years ago I blogged about car sharing companies in Melbourne [1]. Since that time the use of such services appears to have slowly grown (judging by the slow growth in the reserved parking spots for such cars). This isn’t the sudden growth that public transport advocates and the operators of those companies hoped for, but it is still positive. I have just watched the documentary The Human Scale [2] (which I highly recommend) about the way that cities are designed for cars rather than for people.

I think that it is necessary to make cities more suited to the needs of people and that car share and car hire companies are an important part of converting from a car based city to a human based city. As this sort of change happens the share cars will be an increasing portion of the new car sales and car companies will have to design cars to better suit shared use.

Personalising Cars

Luxury car brands like Mercedes support storing the preferred seat position for each driver, once the basic step of maintaining separate driver profiles is done it’s an easy second step to have them accessed over the Internet and also store settings like preferred radio stations, Bluetooth connection profiles, etc. For a car share company it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to extrapolate settings based on previous use, EG knowing that I’m tall and using the default settings for a tall person every time I get in a shared car that I haven’t driven before. Having Bluetooth connections follow the user would mean having one slave address per customer instead of the current practice of one per car, the addressing is 48bit so this shouldn’t be a problem.

Most people accumulate many items in their car, some they don’t need, but many are needed. Some of the things in my car are change for parking meters, sunscreen, tools, and tissues. Car share companies have deals with councils for reserved parking spaces so it wouldn’t be difficult for them to have a deal for paying for parking and billing the driver thus removing the need for change (and the risk of a car window being smashed by some desperate person who wants to steal a few dollars). Sunscreen is a common enough item in Australia that a car share company might just provide it as a perk of using a shared car.

Most people have items like tools, a water bottle, and spare clothes that can’t be shared which tend to end up distributed in various storage locations. The solution to this might be to have a fixed size storage area, maybe based on some common storage item like a milk crate. Then everyone who is a frequent user of shared cars could buy a container designed to fit that space which is divided in a similar manner to a Bento box to contain whatever they need to carry.

There is a lot of research into having computers observing the operation of a car and warning the driver or even automatically applying the brakes to avoid a crash. For shared cars this is more important as drivers won’t necessarily have a feel for the car and can’t be expected to drive as well.

Car Sizes

Generally cars are designed to have 2 people (sports car, Smart car, van/ute/light-truck), 4/5 people (most cars), or 6-8 people (people movers). These configurations are based on what most people are able to use all the time. Most car travel involves only one adult. Most journeys appear to have no passengers or only children being driven around by a single adult.

Cars are designed for what people can drive all the time rather than what would best suit their needs most of the time. Almost no-one is going to buy a personal car that can only take one person even though most people who drive will be on their own for most journeys. Most people will occasionally need to take passengers and that occasional need will outweigh the additional costs in buying and fueling a car with the extra passenger space.

I expect that when car share companies get a larger market they will have several vehicles in the same location to allow users to choose which to drive. If such a choice is available then I think that many people would sometimes choose a vehicle with no space for passengers but extra space for cargo and/or being smaller and easier to park.

For the common case of one adult driving small children the front passenger seat can’t be used due to the risk of airbags killing small kids. A car with storage space instead of a front passenger seat would be more useful in that situation.

Some of these possible design choices can also be after-market modifications. I know someone who removed the rear row of seats from a people-mover to store the equipment for his work. That gave a vehicle with plenty of space for his equipment while also having a row of seats for his kids. If he was using shared vehicles he might have chosen to use either a vehicle well suited to cargo (a small van or ute) or a regular car for transporting his kids. It could be that there’s an untapped demand for ~4 people in a car along with cargo so a car share company could remove the back row of seats from people movers to cater to that.

Huawei Mate9

Warranty Etc

I recently got a Huawei Mate 9 phone. My previous phone was a Nexus 6P that died shortly before it’s one year warranty ran out. As there have apparently been many Nexus 6P phones dying there are no stocks of replacements so Kogan (the company I bought the phone from) offered me a choice of 4 phones in the same price range as a replacement.

Previously I had chosen to avoid the extended warranty offerings based on the idea that after more than a year the phone won’t be worth much and therefore getting it replaced under warranty isn’t as much of a benefit. But now that it seems that getting a phone replaced with a newer and more powerful model is a likely outcome it seems that there are benefits in a longer warranty. I chose not to pay for an “extended warranty” on my Nexus 6P because getting a new Nexus 6P now isn’t such a desirable outcome, but when getting a new Mate 9 is a possibility it seems more of a benefit to get the “extended warranty”. OTOH Kogan wasn’t offering more than 2 years of “warranty” recently when buying a phone for a relative, so maybe they lost a lot of money on replacements for the Nexus 6P.

Comparison

I chose the Mate 9 primarily because it has a large screen. It’s 5.9″ display is only slightly larger than the 5.7″ displays in the Nexus 6P and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (my previous phone). But it is large enough to force me to change my phone use habits.

I previously wrote about matching phone size to the user’s hand size [1]. When writing that I had the theory that a Note 2 might be too large for me to use one-handed. But when I owned those phones I found that the Note 2 and Note 3 were both quite usable in one-handed mode. But the Mate 9 is just too big for that. To deal with this I now use the top corners of my phone screen for icons that I don’t tend to use one-handed, such as Facebook. I chose this phone knowing that this would be an issue because I’ve been spending more time reading web pages on my phone and I need to see more text on screen.

Adjusting my phone usage to the unusually large screen hasn’t been a problem for me. But I expect that many people will find this phone too large. I don’t think there are many people who buy jeans to fit a large phone in the pocket [2].

A widely touted feature of the Mate 9 is the Leica lens which apparently gives it really good quality photos. I haven’t noticed problems with my photos on my previous two phones and it seems likely that phone cameras have in most situations exceeded my requirements for photos (I’m not a very demanding user). One thing that I miss is the slow-motion video that the Nexus 6P supports. I guess I’ll have to make sure my wife is around when I need to make slow motion video.

My wife’s Nexus 6P is well out of warranty. Her phone was the original Nexus 6P I had. When her previous phone died I had a problem with my phone that needed a factory reset. It’s easier to duplicate the configuration to a new phone than restore it after a factory reset (as an aside I believe Apple does this better) I copied my configuration to the new phone and then wiped it for my wife to use.

One noteworthy but mostly insignificant feature of the Mate 9 is that it comes with a phone case. The case is hard plastic and cracked when I unsuccessfully tried to remove it, so it seems to effectively be a single-use item. But it is good to have that in the box so that you don’t have to use the phone without a case on the first day, this is something almost every other phone manufacturer misses. But there is the option of ordering a case at the same time as a phone and the case isn’t very good.

I regard my Mate 9 as fairly unattractive. Maybe if I had a choice of color I would have been happier, but it still wouldn’t have looked like EVE from Wall-E (unlike the Nexus 6P).

The Mate 9 has a resolution of 1920*1080, while the Nexus 6P (and many other modern phones) has a resolution of 2560*1440 I don’t think that’s a big deal, the pixels are small enough that I can’t see them. I don’t really need my phone to have the same resolution as the 27″ monitor on my desktop.

The Mate 9 has 4G of RAM and apps seem significantly less likely to be killed than on the Nexus 6P with 3G. I can now switch between memory hungry apps like Pokemon Go and Facebook without having one of them killed by the OS.

Security

The OS support from Huawei isn’t nearly as good as a Nexus device. Mine is running Android 7.0 and has a security patch level of the 5th of June 2017. My wife’s Nexus 6P today got an update from Android 8.0 to 8.1 which I believe has the fixes for KRACK and Blueborne among others.

Kogan is currently selling the Pixel XL with 128G of storage for $829, if I was buying a phone now that’s probably what I would buy. It’s a pity that none of the companies that have manufactured Nexus devices seem to have learned how to support devices sold under their own name as well.

Conclusion

Generally this is a decent phone. As a replacement for a failed Nexus 6P it’s pretty good. But at this time I tend to recommend not buying it as the first generation of Pixel phones are now cheap enough to compete. If the Pixel XL is out of your price range then instead of saving $130 for a less secure phone it would be better to save $400 and choose one of the many cheaper phones on offer.

Remember when Linux users used to mock Windows for poor security? Now it seems that most Android devices are facing the security problems that Windows used to face and the iPhone and Pixel are going to take the role of the secure phone.

Thinkpad X301

Another Broken Thinkpad

A few months ago I wrote a post about “Observing Reliability” [1] regarding my Thinkpad T420. I noted that the T420 had been running for almost 4 years which was a good run, and therefore the failed DVD drive didn’t convince me that Thinkpads have quality problems.

Since that time the plastic on the lid by the left hinge broke, every time I open or close the lid it breaks a bit more. That prevents use of that Thinkpad by anyone who wants to use it as a serious laptop as it can’t be expected to last long if opened and closed several times a day. It probably wouldn’t be difficult to fix the lid but for an old laptop it doesn’t seem worth the effort and/or money. So my plan now is to give the Thinkpad to someone who wants a compact desktop system with a built-in UPS, a friend in Vietnam can probably find a worthy recipient.

My Thinkpad History

I bought the Thinkpad T420 in October 2013 [2], it lasted about 4 years and 2 months. It cost $306.

I bought my Thinkpad T61 in February 2010 [3], it lasted about 3 years and 8 months. It cost $796 [4].

Prior to the T61 I had a T41p that I received well before 2006 (maybe 2003) [5]. So the T41p lasted close to 7 years, as it was originally bought for me by a multinational corporation I’m sure it cost a lot of money. By the time I bought the T61 it had display problems, cooling problems, and compatibility issues with recent Linux distributions.

Before the T41p I had 3 Thinkpads in 5 years, all of which had the type of price that only made sense in the dot-com boom.

In terms of absolute lifetime the Thinkpad T420 did ok. In terms of cost per year it did very well, only $6 per month. The T61 was $18 per month, and while the T41p lasted a long time it probably cost over $2000 giving it a cost of over $20 per month. $20 per month is still good value, I definitely get a lot more than $20 per month benefit from having a laptop. While it’s nice that my most recent laptop could be said to have saved me $12 per month over the previous one, it doesn’t make much difference to my financial situation.

Thinkpad X301

My latest Thinkpad is an X301 that I found on an e-waste pile, it had a broken DVD drive which is presumably the reason why someone decided to throw it out. It has the same power connector as my previous 2 Thinkpads which was convenient as I didn’t find a PSU with it. I saw a review of the T301 dated 2008 which probably means it was new in 2009, but it has no obvious signs of wear so probably hasn’t been used much.

My X301 has a 1440*900 screen which isn’t as good as the T420 resolution of 1600*900. But a lower resolution is an expected trade-off for a smaller laptop. The T310 comes with a 64G SSD which is a significant limitation.

I previously wrote about a “cloud lifestyle” [6]. I hadn’t implemented all the ideas from that post due to distractions and a lack of time. But now that I’ll have a primary PC with only 64G of storage I have more incentive to do that. The 100G disk in the T61 was a minor limitation at the time I got it but since then everything got bigger and 64G is going to be a big problem and the fact that it’s an unusual 1.8″ form factor means that I can’t cheaply upgrade it or use the SSD that I’ve used in the Thinkpad T420.

My current Desktop PC is an i7-2600 system which builds the SE Linux policy packages for Debian (the thing I compile most frequently) in about 2 minutes with about 5 minutes of CPU time used. the same compilation on the X301 takes just over 6.5 minutes with almost 9 minutes of CPU time used. The i5 CPU in the Thinkpad T420 was somewhere between those times. While I can wait 6.5 minutes for a compile to test something it is an annoyance. So I’ll probably use one of the i7 or i5 class servers I run to do builds.

On the T420 I had chroot environments running with systemd-nspawn for the last few releases of Debian in both AMD64 and i386 variants. Now I have to use a server somewhere for that.

I stored many TV shows, TED talks, and movies on the T420. Probably part of the problem with the hinge was due to adjusting the screen while watching TV in bed. Now I have a phone with 64G of storage and a tablet with 32G so I will use those for playing videos.

I’ve started to increase my use of Git recently. There’s many programs I maintain that I really should have had version control for years ago. Now the desire to develop them on multiple systems gives me an incentive to do this.

Comparing to a Phone

My latest phone is a Huawei Mate 9 (I’ll blog about that shortly) which has a 1920*1080 screen and 64G of storage. So it has a higher resolution screen than my latest Thinkpad as well as equal storage. My phone has 4G of RAM while the Thinkpad only has 2G (I plan to add RAM soon).

I don’t know of a good way of comparing CPU power of phones and laptops (please comment if you have suggestions about this). The issues of GPU integration etc will make this complex. But I’m sure that the octa-core CPU in my phone doesn’t look too bad when compared to the dual-core CPU in my Thinkpad.

Conclusion

The X301 isn’t a laptop I would choose to buy today. Since using it I’ve appreciated how small and light it is, so I would definitely consider a recent X series. But being free the value for money is NaN which makes it more attractive. Maybe I won’t try to get 4+ years of use out of it, in 2 years time I might buy something newer and better in a similar form factor.

I can just occasionally poll an auction site and bid if there’s anything particularly tempting. If I was going to buy a new laptop now before the old one becomes totally unusable I would be rushed and wouldn’t get the best deal (particularly given that it’s almost Christmas).

Who knows, I might even find something newer and better on an e-waste pile. It’s amazing the type of stuff that gets thrown out nowadays.

Related posts:

  1. Observing Reliability Last year I wrote about how great my latest Thinkpad...
  2. I Just Bought a new Thinkpad and the Lenovo Web Site Sucks I’ve just bought a Thinkpad T61 at auction for $AU796....
  3. Thinkpad T420 I’ve owned a Thinkpad T61 since February 2010 [1]. In...
  4. Is a Thinkpad Still Like a Rolls-Royce For a long time the Thinkpad has been widely regarded...
  5. Thinkpad T61 I’ve now had my new Thinkpad T61 [1] for almost...