"In het verleden behaalde resultaten bieden geen garanties voor de toekomst"
About this blog

These are the ramblings of Matthijs Kooijman, concerning the software he hacks on, hobbies he has and occasionally his personal life.

Most content on this site is licensed under the WTFPL, version 2 (details).

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Changing the gdm3 (login screen) background in Gnome3


I upgraded to Gnome3 this week, and after half a day of debugging I got my (quite non-standard) setup working completely again. One of the things that got broken was my custom wallpaper on the gdm3 login screen. This used to be configured in /etc/gdm3/greeter.gconf.defaults, but apparently Gnome3 replaced gconf by this new "gsettings" thingy.

Anyway, to change the desktop background in gdm, add the following lines to /etc/gdm3/greeter.gsettings:


For reference, I also found some other method, which looks a lot more complicated. I suspect it also doesn't work in Debian, which runs gdm as root, not as a separate "gdm" user. Systems that do use such a user might need the more complicated method, I guess (which probably ends up storing the settings somewhere in the homedir of the gdm user...).

0 comments -:- permalink -:- 16:31
Thinkpad X201 mute button breaking speaker output


Recently, I was having some problems with the internal speakers on my Lenovo Thinkpad X201. Three times now, the internal speakers just stopped producing sound. The headphone jack worked, it's just the speakers which were silent. Nothing helped: fiddling with volume controls, reloading alsa modules, rebooting my laptop, nothing fixed the sound...

When trying to see if the speakers weren't physically broken, I discovered that booting into Windows actually fixed the problem and restored the sound from the speakers. It's of course a bit of a defeat to accept Windows a fix for my problem, but I was busy with other things, so it sufficed for a while.

When migrating my laptop to my new Intel SSD, I broke my Windows installation, so when the problem occured again, I had no choice but to actualy investigate it.

I'll skip right to the conclusion here: I had broken my sound by pressing the mute button on my keyboard... Now, before you think I'm stupid, I had of course checked my volume controls and the device really was unmuted! But it turns out the mute button in Thinkpads combined with Linux is a bit weird...

This is how you would expect a mute button to be implemented: You press the mute button, it sends a keypress to the operating system, which then tells the audio driver to mute.

X201 volume buttons

This is how it works on my Thinkpad: You press the mute button, causing the EC (embedded controller) in the thinkpad to directly mute the speakers. This is not visible from the normal volume controls in the software, since it happens on a very low level (though the thinkpad_acpi kernel module can be used to expose this special mute state through a /proc interface and special audio device).

In addition to muting the speakers, it also sends a MUTE acpi keypress to the operating system. This keypress then causes the audio driver to mute the audio stream (actually, it's pulseaudio that does that).

Now, here's the fun part: If you now unmute the audio stream through the software volume controls, everything looks like it should work, but the hardware is still muted! It never occured to me to press the mute button again, since the volume wasn't muted (or at least didn't look like it).

I originally thought that the mute button handling was even more complex, when I found some register polling code that faked keypresses, but it seems that's only for older Thinkpads (phew!).

In any case, the bottom line is: If you have a Thinkpad whose speakers suddely stop working, try pressing the mute button!

0 comments -:- permalink -:- 00:13
Debian Squeeze on an emulated MIPS machine

In my work as a Debian Maintainer for the OpenTTD and related packages, I occasionally come across platform-specific problems. That is, compiling and running OpenTTD works fine on my own x86 and amd64 systems, but when I my packages to Debian, it turns out there is some problem that only occurs on more obscure platforms like MIPS, S390 or GNU Hurd.

This morning, I saw that my new grfcodec package is not working on a bunch of architectures (it seems all of the failing architectures are big endian). To find out what's wrong, I'll need to have a machine running one of those architectures so I can debug.

In the past, I've requested access to Debian's "porter" machines, which are intended for these kinds of things. But that's always a hassle, which requires other people's time to set up, so I'm using QEMU to set up a virtual machine running the MIPS architecture now.

What follows is essentially an update for this excellent tutorial about running Debian Etch on QEMU/MIPS(EL) by Aurélien Jarno I found. It's probably best to read that tutorial as well, I'll only give the short version, updated for Squeeze. I've also looked at this tutorial on running Squeeze on QEMU/PowerPC by Uwe Hermann.

Finally, note that Aurélien also has pre-built images available for download, for a whole bunch of platforms, including Squeeze on MIPS. I only noticed this after writing this tutorial, might have saved me a bunch of work ;-p


You'll need qemu. The version in Debian Squeeze is sufficient, so just install the qemu package:

$ aptitude install qemu

You'll need a virtual disk to install Debian Squeeze on:

$ qemu-img create -f qcow2 debian_mips.qcow2 2G

You'll need a debian-installer kernel and initrd to boot from:

$ wget
$ wget

Note that in Aurélien's tutorial, he used a "qemu" flavoured installer. It seems this is not longer available in Squeeze, just a few others (malta, r4k-ip22, r5k-ip32, sb1-bcm91250a). I just picked the first one and apparently that one works on QEMU.

Also, note that Uwe's PowerPC tutorial suggests downloading a iso cd image and booting from that. I tried that, but QEMU has no BIOS available for MIPS, so this approach didn't work. Instead, you should tell QEMU about the kernel and initrd and let it load them directly.

Booting the installer

You just run QEMU, pointing it at the installer kernel and initrd and passing some extra kernel options to keep it in text mode:

$ qemu-system-mips -hda debian_mips.qcow2 -kernel vmlinux-2.6.32-5-4kc-malta -initrd initrd.gz -append "root=/dev/ram console=ttyS0" -nographic

Now, you get a Debian installer, which you should complete normally.

As Aurélien also noted, you can ignore the error about a missing boot loader, since QEMU will be directly loading the kernel anyway.

After installation is completed and the virtual system is rebooting, terminate QEMU:

$  killall qemu-system-mips

(I haven't found another way of terminating a -nographic QEMU...)

Booting the system

Booting the system is very similar to booting the installer, but we leave out the initrd and point the kernel to the real root filesystem instead.

Note that this boots using the installer kernel. If you later upgrade the kernel inside the system, you'll need to copy the kernel out from /boot in the virtual system into the host system and use that to boot. QEMU will not look inside the virtual disk for a kernel to boot automagically.

$ qemu-system-mips -hda debian_mips.qcow2 -kernel vmlinux-2.6.32-5-4kc-malta -append "root=/dev/sda1 console=ttyS0" -nographic

More features

Be sure to check Aurélien's tutorial for some more features, options and details.

0 comments -:- permalink -:- 11:25
Debian Squeeze, Gnome, Pulseaudio and volume hotkeys


I've been configuring my new laptop (more on that later) and this time I've tried to get the volume hotkeys working properly with Pulseaudio. On a default Debian Squeeze installation, the volume hotkeys are processed by (the media-keys plugin of) gnome-settings-daemon (1). The good news is that Gnome has switched over to using pulseaudio by default (and even removed support for plain ALSA). However, Debian does not want to force users to use pulseaudio. So the bad news is that Debian has disabled this pulseaudio support in gnome-settings-daemon and has a patch to use the ALSA mixer (via GStreamer).

Normally, it shouldn't matter much which mixer you use, as long as they work. However, I'm using two different sound cards on my laptop: The builtin one for on the road and an external USB sound card when I'm at home (to get a S/PDIF output). So I need pulseaudio to route my audio to the right place, and I want my volume controls to control the same card as well. Note that gnome-volume-control, the GUI to control your volums is installed in two flavours by Debian (Pulseaudio and GStreamer), and the right one is started by a wrapper script depending on whether Pulse is running.

Fortunately, the Debian patch is somewhat configurable: You can select a different mixer device through gconf. To get at that configuration, use gconf-editor and browse to /desktop/gnome/sound/default_mixer_device. Set this value in the form of "element:device", where element selects the gstreamer plugin to use, and device sets its "device" property. I initially tried using the "pulsemixer" element (in the form "pulsemixer:alsa_output.usb-0ccd_USB_Audio-00-Aureon51MkII.analog-stereo"), but that only allowed me to specify a specific Pulseaudio sink, not "whatever-is-default").

So, instead, I settled for using the "alsamixer" gstreamer plugin, together with the Pulseaudio ALSA plugin (the same one you use to redirect ALSA applications to Pulseaudio). For this to work, it's important that you redirect ALSA applications to pulse using the following in your /etc/asound.conf or your ~/.asoundrc:

pcm.!default.type pulse
ctl.!default.type pulse

This makes sure that not just audio streams (pcm) but also mixer controls (ctl) are redirected to Pulseaudio. Now, set the /desktop/gnome/sound/default_mixer_device gconf value to the following:


This should make sure that your volume keys work with the device selected as default in Pulseaudio (through pavucontrol or gnome-volume-control for example). It seems this behaviour relies on the fact that gnome-settings-daemon only keeps the mixer controls open for a few seconds, allowing the Pulseaudio ALSA plugin to select the right pulseaudio sink to control everytime the mixer is reopened (so it needs a few seconds of not pressing the volume hotkeys after changing the default device).

By the way, it seems that in the next version of Gnome (and/or Debian) this problem wil probably be fixed out of the box, since the 2.93 packages in Debian experimental have Pulseaudio support enabled (haven't tested them, though).

Hopefully this helps someone else out there struggling with the same problem...

(1): You might have noticed that I'm talking about Gnome here. I case you wondered, I've actually started to use parts of Gnome for daily use on my laptop. I'm still using Awesome as my primary window manager and I'm not using gnome-panel, so I haven't suddenly become a GUI addict all of the sudden ;-)

3 comments -:- permalink -:- 01:17
Getting Screen and X (and dbus and ssh-agent and ...) to play well

When you use Screen together with Xorg, you'll recognize this: You log in to an X session, start screen and use the terminals within screen to start programs every now and then. Everything works fine so far. Then, you logout and log in again (or X crashes, or whatever). You happily re-attach the still running screen, which allows you to continue whatever you were doing.

But now, whenever you want to start a GUI program, things get wonky. You'll get errors about not being able to find configuration data, connect to gconf or DBUS, or your programs will not start at all, with the ever-informative error message "No protocol specified". You'll also recognize your ssh-agent and gpg-agent to stop working within the screen session...

What is happening here, is that all those programs are using "environment variables" to communicate. In particular, when you log in, various daemons get started (like the DBUS daemon and your ssh-agent). To allow other programs to connect to these daemons, they put their contact info in an environment variable in the login process. Whenever a process starts another process, these environment variables get transfered from the parent process to the child process. Sine these environment variables are set in the X sesssion startup process, which starts everything else, all programs should have access to them.

However, you'll notice that, after logging in a second time, the screen you re-attach to was not started by the current X session. So that means its environment variables still point to the old (no longer runnig) daemons from the previous X session. This includes any shells already running in the screen as well as new shells started within the screen (since the latter inherit the environment variables from the screen process itself).

To fix this, we would like to somehow update the environment of all processes that are already running when we login, to update them with the addresses of the new daemons. Unfortunately, we can't change the environment of other processes (unless we resort to scary stuff like using gdb or poking around in /dev/mem...). So, we'll have to convice those shells to actually update their own environments.

So, this solution has two parts: First, after login, saving the relevant variables from the environment into a file. Then, we'll need to get our shell to load those variables.

The first part is fairly easy: Just run a script after login that writes out the values to a file. I have a script called ~/bin/save-env to do exactly that. It looks like this (full version here):


# Save a bunch of environment variables. This script should be run just
# after login. The saved variables can then be sourced by every bash
# shell, so long running shells (e.g., in screen) or incoming SSH shells
# can also use these services.

# Save the DBUS sessions address on each login
if [ -n "$DBUS_SESSION_BUS_ADDRESS" ]; then

if [ -n "$SSH_AUTH_SOCK" ]; then
echo export SSH_AGENT_PID="$SSH_AGENT_PID" > ~/.env.d/ssh
echo export SSH_AUTH_SOCK="$SSH_AUTH_SOCK" >> ~/.env.d/ssh

# Save other variables here

This script fills the directory ~/.env.d with files containg environment variables, separated by application. I could probably have thrown them all into a single file, but it seemed like a good idea to separate them. Anyway, these files are created in such a way that they can be sourced by a running shell to get the new files.

If you download and install this script, don't forget to make it executable and create the ~/.env.d directory. You'll need to make sure it gets run as late as possible after login. I'm running a (stripped down) Gnome session, so I used gnome-session-properties to add it to my list of startup applications. You might call this script from your .xession, KDE's startup program list, or whatever.

For the second part, we need to set our saved variables in all of our shells. This sounds easy, just run for f in ~/.env.d/*; do source "$f"; done in every shell (Don't be tempted to do source ~/.env.d/*, since that sources just the first file with the other files as arguments!). But, of course we don't want to do this manually, but let every shell do it automatically.

For this, we'll use a tool completely unintended, but suitable enough for this job: $PROMPT_COMMAND. Whenever Bash is about to display a prompt, it evals whatever is in the variable $PROMPT_COMMAND. So it ends up evaluating that command all the time, which makes it a prefect place to load the saved variables. By setting the $PROMPT_COMMAND variable in your ~/.bashrc variable, it will become enabled in every shell you start (except for login shells, so you might want to source ~/.bashrc from your ~/.bash_profile):

# Source some variables at every prompt. This is to make stuff like
# ssh agent, dbus, etc. working in long-running shells (e.g., inside
# screen).
PROMPT_COMMAND='for f in ~/.env.d/*; do source "$f"; done'

You might need to be careful where to place this line, in case PROMPT_COMMAND already has some other value, like is default on Debian for example. Here's my full .bashrc file, note the += and starting ; in the second assignment of $PROMPT_COMMAND.

The astute reader will have noticed that this will only work for existing shells when a prompt is displayed, meaning you might need to just press enter at an existing prompt (to force a new one) after logging in the second time to get the values loaded. But that's a small enough burden, right?

So, with these two components, you'll be able to optimally use your long-running screen sessions, even when your X sessions are not so stable ;-)

Additionally, this stuff also allows you to use your faithful daemons when you SSH into the machine. I use this so I can start GUI programs from another machine (in particular, to open up attachments from my email client which runs on a server somewhere). See my recent blogpost about setting that up. However, since running a command through SSH non-interactively never shows a prompt and thus never evaluates $PROMPT_COMMAND, you'll need to manually source the variables at once in your .bashrc directly. I do this at the top of my ~/.bashrc.

Man, I need to learn how to writer shorter posts...

0 comments -:- permalink -:- 22:30
/ Blog / Uni
ENIAC Thesis Award 2010

Matthijs and Christiaan showing their award

Last week, my Master's thesis was awarded with the ENIAC Thesis Award 2010. This is is an award for the best-written and most scientific Master's thesis for Computer Science (and related masters). The prize is awarded by ENIAC, the alumni club for computer science.

This award came quite unexpected to me. Apparently my thesis (together with Christiaan's thesis, which discussed the same subject) was nominated by our graduation comittee. I had also not actually expected to win, so that was quite cool.

The award consisted of a nice certificate and a cool sculpture by Lei Hannen. As an extra surprise, it turned out there is also a €500 money prize associated wit this award.

According to the jury rapport, our thesis were awarded because of the novelty and the new research area they open up. Additionally, my thesis was commended for the excellent use of English. Cool :-D

2 comments -:- permalink -:- 21:46
Replacing Xanthe

S270 notebook

After nearly five years of intensive use, the time has finally come to replace my trusty S270 laptop, Xanthe. Overall, I'm surprised that she held out as long as she did. There has been some defects along the way, but in the end I've managed to keep things pretty much working (where the most recent and most serious fix was to remove the laptop speakers and soldering the inverter cable, which got partly severed in the screen hinge).

However, since a few months, there is one issue that I can't seem to fix: The AC adapter plug doesn't seem to properly connect to the socket, making the battery switch between charging and not charging all the time (once per second or so). This had a great number of side effects, like keys on my keyboard getting stuck or making the keyboard stop working completely, making my network connection break, making my screen brightness change eratically and other stuff that makes me utterly and completely annoyed. I've made a detailed post on the s270-linux mailing list about that, if you're interested.

So, after a few months of on-and-off annoyance, I've finally decided to get a new laptop. It's sucky, since apart from this issue, Xanthe is still serving me well. On the other hand, it's utterly cool, since I just ordered myself a Thinkpad X201. It's a very durable and efficient 12" notebook (over 10 hours of battery life, according to Lenovo!). More details when I get the package (should be somewhere this week!).

0 comments -:- permalink -:- 22:00
Opening attachments on another machine from within mutt

For a fair amount of years now, I've been using Mutt as my primary email client. It's a very nice text-based email client that is permanently running on my server (named drsnuggles). This allows me to connect to my server from anywhere, connect to the running Screen and always get exactly the same, highly customized, mail interface (some people will say that their webmail interfaces will allow for exactly the same, but in my experience webmail is always clumsy and slow compared to a decent, well-customized text-based client when processing a couple of hundreds of emails per day).

Attachment troubles

So I like my mutt / screen setup. However, there has been one particular issue that didn't work quite as efficient: attachments. Whenever I wanted to open an email attachment, I needed to save the attachment within mutt to some place that was shared through HTTP, make the file world-readable (mutt insists on not making your saved attachments world-readable), browse to some url on the local machine and open the attachment. Not quite efficient at all.

Yesterday evening I was finally fed up with all this stuff and decided to hack up a fix. It took a bit of fiddling to get it right (and I had nearly started to spend the day coding a patch for mutt when the folks in #mutt pointed out an easier, albeit less elegant "solution"), but it works now: I can select an attachment in mutt, press "x" and it gets opened on my laptop. Coolness.

How does it work?

Just in case anyone else is interested in this solution, I'll document how it works. The big picture is as follows: When I press "x", a mutt macro is invoked that copies the attachment to my laptop and opens the attachment there. There's a bunch of different steps involved here, which I'll detail below.

See more ...

0 comments -:- permalink -:- 20:10
Adobe dropped 64 bit Linux support in Flash again

Only recently, Adobe has started to (finally) support 64 bit Linux with its Flash plugin. I could finally watch Youtube movies (and more importantly, do some Flash development work for Brevidius).

However, this month Adobe has announced that it drops support for 64 bit Linux again. Apparently they "are making significant architectural changes to the 64-bit Linux Flash Player and additional security enhancements" and they can't do that while keeping the old architecture around for stable releases, apparently.

This is particularly nasty, because the latest 10.0 version (which still has amd64 support) has a couple of dozens (!) of security vulnerabilities which are fixed in a 10.1 version only (which does not have Linux amd64 support anymore).

So Adobe is effectively encouraging people on amd64 Linux to either not use their product, or use a version with critical security flaws. Right.

0 comments -:- permalink -:- 09:37
Fixing laptop adapter and inverter cables

S270 notebook

Recently I've been fixing up some critical defects in my MSI S270 notebook: My display stopped working due to a broken inverter cable and my power adapter switched on and off all the time due to a broken cable as well.

The inverter cable goes from the laptop mainboard to the inverter, which is below the display. On its way it passes the left hinge, which is exactly where it was broken. Apparently I'm not the only one having these kinds of problems with the S270. Some people suggest that the hinges are badly made causing these problems.

I've looked closely at the inverter cable and it even seems the cable breaks are caused by a tiny thread that is wrapped around the inverter cable to keep it together. Three of the six (IIRC) wires has broken and a few more had cuts in the insulation. The breaks were very clean and seemed to be exactly at the spot where the wrapping thread had cut into the insulation...

Anyway, I managed to solder the tiny wires back together again (using some extra wire to fill the gap). The cable did become bigger from this, so I had to remove the speakers and their cable to make a bit room in the hinge to fit the soldered cable in.

Adapter cable

It has been working for a few weeks now, but I'm afraid the solder connection will break eventually again. In the meanwhile I've been trying to get a new cable, but it's pretty impossible to get at and MSI Netherlands refuses to sell me a cable. They say the want to use all cables they have for repairs, meaning I have to send my entire laptop to them and pay €80 - €150 for a repair I could have done myself (the part alone is usually €20 - €30...).

I'm still happy with the laptop, while it is working, but I won't be buying another MSI when this one finally breaks down for good...

My power adapter cable had also broken, switching on and off when I wiggled with the cable. The cable used to have two round "blocks" at the start and the end (ferrite rings to prevent interference). Over a year ago the cable broke near one, now it broke near the other one. I've removed both of them now and soldered the stuff back together, making it work again.

0 comments -:- permalink -:- 23:14
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