Saturday, April 05, 2008

A hard time with Ubuntu 8.04

It's still officially a beta at this point and I've been religiously applying the updates when they show up. Fortunately, this time around, none of the updates have forced me to reinstall Ubuntu like I had to the last time. But that still doesn't mean the adventuring is over. No, not by a long shot.

Where do I start? Let's begin with the missing menu link to displayconfig-gtk, otherwise known as "Screen and Graphics Preferences." The application, which was first noticed with Ubuntu 7.10, can be found under 7.10's System | Administrative | Screens and Graphics. But not, it would appear, on Ubuntu 8.04. It had migrated to Applications | Other for a while, then in the last update, it simply disappeared from any of the menus. Even looking in Gnome's very week menu management tool "Main Menu" (under System | Preferences) doesn't turn it up. There are times when applications, such as Gnome's Control Center (which is also under System | Preferences) are just turned off.

The tool is still available from the commend line, but it's gone from the Gnome menu system. In any event, neither Screen and Graphics Preferences nor Screen Resolution (under System | Preferences) are capable of properly setting up screen resolution, at least not on rhea. I'm still using the quite capable nVidia X Server Settings tool (installed via Synaptic and located under System | Administration). I'm curious to see if the two Gnome tools will be cleaned up in time for the final release. I sure hope so.

My adventuring didn't end there. No, it continued on with trying to find an alternative to the stock GDM login screen. And I guess the Gnomes took that moment to punish me for my blasphemous complaining.

The latest variant of that eternally butt-ugly login screen has now crossed the line into hideous, as in an absolutely hideous pink. For a while it was decorated with little pastel swirls echoing the same design motif seen on the heron wallpaper (and which I assume were meant to be stylised feathers), but they were (thankfully!) removed in the last update. Now we're left with that hideous shade of pink. Butt-ugly I can ignore (I've had lots of desensitization under Windows), but with hideous I draw the line. The hideous login screen had to go.

And so, suitable motivated, I went into my old selection of GDM screens and started to load them one by one. Now the way to change this graphically is via the Login Windows Preferences applet under System | Administration. It just so happened that this applet was also 'turned off' in the last update, and I had to use the Main Menu applet to turn it back on. You can run it from the command line (gdmsetup), but the whole idea of a GUI is that your tools have graphical front ends. In fact when you run these tools from a shell you get the pretty graphical front end. Why not have them in the menus?

So, with nautilus looking in my GDM collection and the Local tab on Login Window Preferences selected, I proceeded to drag and drop about a half-dozen packages that I felt sure would work and look tons better than what was the default. As it turned out, two of the packages would not work, and one of them would so hose GDM that I couldn't log into the graphical system. Which was an opportunity to learn about the peculiarities of Ubuntu and how it differs from other distributions.

Of the two GDM themes that caused me grief, the one that completely hosed GDM was RedmondLogin. We will pause for a moment to contemplate the irony in the theme name ... In any event, it is to me quite disconcerting that an older (and I assume out-of-date) GDM theme would so hose the GDM login that you couldn't reach the graphic desktop. I guess it's too much to ask for robust error recovery in an application that is as important as GDM. I've seen instances where GDM would throw up a default Debian login, but this is the first time that GDM was so hosed that after issuing an "I'm crashing and I can't get up" little dialog, that the only thing it could do was sit there staring out with a blank screen and the arrow mouse cursor.

Well, I'm an old experienced hand at Unix and other Linux distributions, especially X, and I've crashed X desktops in the past and lived to tell the tale. So it should be simple for me to fix, right? Wrong.

First of all, I quickly discovered that using init to bring down the X server won't work with Ubuntu. Some nameless genius decided that every run level from 2 to 5 will bring up the X desktop. In other distributions, such as Redhat and openSUSE for example, the X desktop is started at runlevel 5. Runlevel 3 is for multi-user command line, while runlevel 2 is reserved for single-user mode. The start of any X desktop recovery is therefore to drop down to runlevel 3 and start looking at the configuration files. But not this time. What's more, the same nameless genius decided to remove inittab. Perfect. In fact I discovered that Ubuntu comes up in runlevel 2, and it was at one point of this meandering I renamed /etc/rc2.d/S30gdm to /etc/rc2.d/disableS30gdm. There was no real need to do this, but I felt an irrational sense of superiority in being able to make the damn machine boot up without the graphical desktop.

It was at this point in my smug sense of superiority that I manually started X (startx) and attempted to remove the Redmond GDM theme with Login Window Preferences. Except it refused to start because ... the GDM daemon process wasn't running. That's right. The configuration applet needed the GDM login daemon process running in order execute and to read and write the GDM configuration file, the same configuration that was pointing to a bad GDM login theme, that was in turn stopping GDM from properly executing in the first place. Must of been the same genius behind the runlevel changes who came up with this little architectural design.

In the end, my back against the proverbial wall, I finally broke down and used man (man gdm) at the command line to get a clue. How utterly gauche. I discovered under /etc/gdm a file named gdm.conf-custom. You won't find this in the man entry. The man entry points you to /etc/gdm/gdm.conf. But once I got into the GDM configuration directory and opened gdm.conf-custom, I was able to find the entry (under section [greeter]) and to remove all lines pointing to my custom selection. I then re-enabled gdm in rc2.d, rebooted rhea, and was greeted with the original but working and still hideous stock GDM login screen.

All joking aside, the parties responsible for this version of Ubuntu, labeled LTS for Long Term Support, really need to think long and hard about this release. When I compare my recent experiences with those of 7.04 and 7.10, the earlier releases were far more satisfying to me than this current release. I started using Ubuntu with 7.04 alpha 3, and I've been using it since. This is the first release where I've had to re-install (an actual downgrade from 8.04 alpha back to 7.10). This is the first release where I've experienced continuous crashes, primarily in nautilus and compiz.real. This is the first release where older features are either broken or missing from the graphic menus (the notable exception being Control Center, which disappeared from the menus in 7.10). It's the first release where something as innocent as installing a package caused the system to not boot into the graphic menu. In short, Ubuntu 8.04 has some serious quality issues that need to be addressed, and I don't see them being addressed before official release in late April. I would certainly like to be proven wrong, but I'm not going to bet on it.

Update 6 April

I had forgotten this comment from Thom Holwerda's review of 8.04 beta on OSNews:
For an LTS release, [they] better start fixing these random crashes - this is the buggiest Ubuntu beta I have ever used. And I used them all.
There was a comment about Firefox 3's address bar, which I totally agree with and has been echoed by just about everyone who has reviewed Firefox:
The beta comes with the latest test version of Firefox 3.0, and for the life of me, I hate its new address bar. When you enter an url, it will, as usual, give you a drop-down list of possibilities, taken from your browsing history. This works just fine on any browser, but for Firefox 3.0, they went a little overboard. Each entry in this menu is now two rows of text, with one showing the name of the webpage, and the other showing the url. This gives for a very crowded menu, which shows fewer possible urls in the same space than the previous menu. I really find it obnoxious to use.
I couldn't agree with him more.

Update #2: 6 April

After reading a long forum thread on mozillaZine about the pros and cons of the new location URL bar, I found the location of yet another Firefox add-on (oldbar 1.2) that re-creates the Firefox 2 "old bar". After installing the add-on the "new bar" is at least looking (mostly) like the "old bar". There is this interesting caveat in the add-on's description:
Note that the underlying autocomplete algorithm is the Firefox 3 algorithm, not the Firefox 2 algorithm. oldbar only affects the presentation of the results.
So we're back to the old look, but not the old behavior. You know, the last time somebody made a unilateral UI decision like this that you couldn't remove was back when Microsoft gave us ribbons on Office 2007. Granted the changes were considerably more extensive, but Microsoft was crucified for making the change in the first place and not giving long-time users the ability to go back to the old menu system. I guess dictatorial aspirations among coders isn't limited to just Microsoft. No, go look at the kernel devs...


Thought for the Day

Those who do not understand Unix are condemned to reinvent it, poorly.
Henry Spencer (Usenet signature, November 1987)


  1. I'm loosing faith in hardy beta too,
    I'm surpised to know that run level from 2 to 5 will bring up the X. yes, it is so true that that there many issues/bugs that aren't addressed. And to think its releasing this 24th?

    one of my gripe, is the "genius" feature offering the user to autorun a detected media when there's autorun.inf on it. what the crap is that? now security compromise is one click "yes" away!!!

  2. Don't hesitate to try others distributions like Mandriva 2008.1 Spring :'s_New

    Last time I check with mandriva when a theme was incorrect, GDM was falling back to the default theme. And you can start it in runlevel 3.

    I'm going also to give a screenshots tours of Mandriva 2008.1, so don't hesitate to monitor my blog :

  3. I've been a huge, huge fan of Ubuntu for the past couple of years. I've installed it on multiple laptops, desktops, and servers but this latest beta release has been nothing but disappointing. Granted, it's still a beta but isn't is supposed to be releases soon? The last release worked great on my Thinkpad T41. It recognized all of the hardware and even recognized a Wireless G card that no other distribution would recognize. This latest beta release missed some of the hardware on the T41 and won't recongnize the Wireless G card. It recognizes the integrated Wireless B card (well, kind of) but I'm really wanting the G card to work. I'm going to give them a little more time to get it right but if they don't, I'll probably give Mandriva a try.

  4. Don't let us lose sight of what our personal needs are here. Bill you are a developer and a senior analyst. You want every ounce of performance and competency out of your tools. You see the potential of Linux as all unblinkered computer nerds do. For some though a good standard distro is enough. I am trying to get more out of mine. (I won't mention it here otherwise you will consider me an evangelist! lol) But I am looking forward to 8.04 and SuSE 11.0 too. Even PClinuxOS 2008 is imminent. There are a few things I dislike about about my chosen Linux distro So we will see. Oh BTW Bill Excellent analytical and thoughtful post as usual. Some of the Ubuntu dev's should post an entry on your blog. You do a great job.

  5. I understand in general what you're trying to say. But I have strong concerns for what I consider to be regressions in common tools and poor error handling in important fundamental tasks, like login-in. There's the old mantra "Make it work, make it right, then make it fast." Well, they need to make it right and keep it right between releases before they can even consider making it fast.

  6. Yeah, I guess I'm just confused as to why things that worked in previous versions seem to not work in newer ones. The wireless connectivity was great in the past two releases but is lacking, a bit, in this one. What changed? Again, it's a beta so I don't want to be too harsh. These folks do things that I can only dream of doing, so.....

  7. You're right about it being a beta, and right again about holding back a bit until the final release. But a lot of problems that showed up in 7.04 and 7.10 alphas and beta were ironed out, especially by the time the betas hit.

  8. It's easy to know what have changed : wireless stack.

    latest kernels have migrated to a new wireless stack ( mac80211, formerly d80211). However not all drivers have been ported yet and many are buggier or less stable than the old ones. So people shouldn't switch blindly to the new drivers. That's why Mandriva carefully select the drivers depending on the chipset revision and users reports.


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