Troubleshooting a thorny openSUSE problem

Every computer user has an excellent opportunity to become a professional in the field. Computers have so many problems, you can find yourself becoming an expert technician simply by finding solutions to the multitude of issues plaguing you on any given day.

Once you regularly figure out these issues, friends and family start asking you for help. Eventually, with some luck, you solve computer problems day in, day out as a support technician, system administrator, or software developer.

There’s a long story explaining how I got from office receptionist to technical writer, but I’ll spare you that for now. Here at Notes from the Metaverse, I’ve spent a lot of time lately trying to solve the much bigger problem of how to make the internet a safer and more democratic space. Today, I want to share how I solved a much smaller problem: What went wrong with KDE Plasma on my openSUSE Tumbleweed virtual machine. This isn’t exactly a common problem, but it certainly perplexed me for weeks. If it happens to you, I can save you much time and anguish.

Fixing Tumbleweed in a VirtualBox

openSUSE logo
Geeko, the openSUSE chameleon logo

I run openSUSE Tumbleweed in a VirtualBox virtual machine as a testing system. Tumbleweed is a “rolling release” version of openSUSE Linux. The system updates several times a week with the latest software updates that pass smoke tests in the distribution. A smoke test installs the software package; if it doesn’t blow up the system, it’s included.

Users get the advantage of running the newest version of a package with a small sacrifice of some stability. Many people love this tradeoff, in part because they get a brand new system every few days! Putting the rolling release in a virtual machine gives me the added security that if something goes wrong, I can isolate it without risking something else on the physical machine.

At the new year, I thought I’d start fresh with a new base system. I deleted the existing Tumbleweed VM and installed a fresh version from the latest update. Two weeks later, I updated the system and rebooted the VM as requested.

I logged in, but my KDE Plasma desktop environment wouldn’t come up. I got a black screen that never went away. I shut down the VM with a VirtualBox command (File > Close > Issue the Shutdown command).

Hmm, maybe there’s a memory issue somewhere. The reboot completed normally. I tried loading one of the more lightweight desktops, LXQt, and it displayed just fine. I didn’t have time to work on this problem, so I left it to the next session.

Here’s the dumbest troubleshooting idea I had. Good thing I tried it first. Somehow I thought because KDE Plasma and LXQt came from the same code framework (the Qt environment), perhaps uninstalling LXQt would free up whatever was holding Plasma back. That didn’t work. I should not have been surprised.

Fortunately, Tumbleweed offers a multitude of desktop environments, and I could regularly get work done on these other desktops without addressing the underlying issue. Variety is my favorite thing about Linux.

That availability of desktop environments led to my next theory: Is Plasma the only DE having a problem? How did any other problem manifest itself? I logged in with nine different DEs: three Plasma flavors, three GNOME flavors, Openbox, SLE Classic and XFCE.

Whether one loaded Plasma in its default configuration for the X.org windowing system or under the Wayland protocol intended to replace X (plain or “full”), I never got out of the black screen.

Interestingly, GNOME loaded normally in all its forms (plain ordinary GNOME, on Xorg and Classic) and restarted normally too. So it definitely wasn’t a memory issue, as GNOME is the other “heavyweight” in this field. Both lightweight entries (Openbox and XFCE) had no trouble either. The exception was SLE Classic, the default desktop of SUSE Linux Enterprise. Yeah, that’s KDE too.

I also tested the Plasma flavors using different VirtualBox Graphics Controllers, hoping that changing this vBox setting would resolve the issue. Nope.

Progress! Errors to track down!

I continued updating Tumbleweed regularly. I hoped that installing the brand new Plasma 5.21 desktop would solve the problem, but those hopes were dashed.

At the end of February, I noticed a bunch of error messages were appearing in the update log, claiming that many Plasma-related systemd services (plasma-*.service) were “missing from /usr/lib/systemd/system.” Aha! Something I could check on! Plasma broke because these services weren’t loading!

Perhaps those services were missing because that directory had either disappeared or the services were going to some other directory. Off to the File Manager, where nothing seemed out of the ordinary in /usr/lib/systemd/system. A search for plasma-*.service didn’t turn up those files anywhere else.

While I was waiting for that search to complete, I had one more hope of quickly resolving the issue: reverting my system back to a working state. Because openSUSE uses the btrfs filesystem, you can go back in time to where Plasma was working normally. Off I went to YaST > Filesystem Snapshots (aka Snapper). I should have thought of that sooner, because there wasn’t a snapshot available except the initial install. I wasn’t ready to start over just yet.

Oh, but wait! Maybe I can uninstall/reinstall Plasma from YaST! When trying to uninstall the Plasma pattern in YaST, I noticed that it installed many more patterns that I wasn’t expecting to see.

Among them was the MicroOS pattern, another new spin on openSUSE. I tried uninstalling that and whatever other pattern that I didn’t think I wanted. Surely that was the problem, right? After upgrading 5372 packages while removing those patterns, no fixes for displaying Plasma.

Finally, a solution!

This week, I was going to try a complete reinstall again. I downloaded the latest snapshot, blew away the old setup, and created a new system one more time.

Went through the process, took screenshots of every page to include in the Tumbleweed documentation (did I mention that was one reason I keep this VM around? That’s another story.). Tried to save myself some time by importing my user account from the previous installation. Waited for the install to complete.

Same old problem. No error messages about systemd services. No interference from another desktop’s files. Back to the beginning.

Hmm. It’s a longshot, I’m thinking, but could there be a problem with the user account? Back to YaST. Yes, I know I can easily create a user from the command line, but I’m lazy. Off to YaST > User and Group Management. Click Add, add a name, username and password. Click OK. Reboot. Change the desktop environment to Plasma on the Login page and choose the new User. Type the password and click Login.

A minute later, the Plasma desktop loads as it should and always did. Hmm, wonder what was wrong with the old user? Clearly something. I write myself a note for the next login: “Will delete OldUser, possibly after checking for any useful files.”

The next day, I log in as the new user and check the Home directory of the old/bad user — and there’s the answer!

VirtualBox allows you to share directories between the Host OS and the Guest OS. I like to make sure I can access documents from any environment I’m in, so I share the Documents directory from the Windows 10 host to the Home directory of all my VMs.

When the Tumbleweed installer imported the user account from the previous installation, it tried to include all the files in Windows! But something went wrong in the sharing mechanism, and everything just hung. Not sure yet what Plasma did differently from the other desktops, but I’m going to look into that.

So after all this effort, I think I found a bug somewhere. Candidates include:

  • The Tumbleweed installer/user importer
  • Plasma’s file manager in VirtualBox
  • VirtualBox’s Shared Folders mechanism

Will report further if I find out more. But I’m sleeping better now that I’ve solved this nagging problem. Now maybe I can decide once and for all if Tumbleweed is indeed my favorite openSUSE flavor!

Brave Browser adds IPFS support: Do you care?

Diagram of a decentralized web developed by Paul Baran in 1964

Have you ever tried the Brave web browser? Since its founding in 2015, Brave Software has quite a record of innovation with its browser, but hasn’t made much of a dent in the browser usage competition.

A long suspension footbridge across a river in a forest.
Photo by Sven Huls on Pexels.com

Over the years, Brave has implemented:

  • A built-in ad blocker that’s On by default
  • Allowing Brave users to contribute (in cryptocurrency) to registered web publishers
  • Allowing users to browse via the anonymous Tor network

Just last week, Brave added support for the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), a pathway to the distributed web. Jon Porter’s story on The Verge has the details. IPFS seeks to replace the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) as the way to access sites on the web. Instead of pointing to an address on a single web server, you point your browser to an IPFS node address. The content would exist on other IPFS users’ computers.

Costs of Innovation

You would think with its focus on privacy, Brave would be more popular than its claimed 24 million users. Implementation issues have plagued the browser, though.

  • To placate sites (and advertisers) whose ads were blocked, Brave offered a scheme where users could agree to view “Brave Ads” sold by Brave Software. Users get crypto tokens as a Reward.
  • The revenue from “Brave Ads” would fund the publisher payment program. Is it an accident that the Rewards support board averages 84 posts per week? Many of those posts are variations on the theme of “Where’s my money?”

Brendan Eich and Conservative Politics

Some of us will not forget that Brave’s CEO, Brendan Eich, was forced out of the CEO’s chair at the Mozilla Corporation in 2014. He contributed to an anti-gay-marriage campaign in California two years earlier.

Eich, who created the JavaScript programming language while at Netscape, has long associated with conservative and libertarian causes. In the 1992 presidential campaign, he contributed to Pat Buchanan’s rightist primary challenge to George H. W. Bush, and also helped fund Ron Paul’s campaigns.

More recently, he apparently joined in the disinformation campaign around COVID-19. He doesn’t like masks.

A decentralized alternative: Beaker

What all the news stories on Brave’s IPFS support miss is that there’s another peer-to-peer protocol that does very similar things. It’s called Hyperdrive (originally DAT), and is supported by the Beaker Browser, which I’ve written about before (here too).

The Beaker developers explain Hyperdrives like this in their documentation.

“Hyperdrives” are like websites. They store webpages, pictures, media, user data, and so on. Hyperdrives power a lot of Beaker’s best features.

“Hyperdrives” are folders you host from your computer. They contain web pages which you can browse and edit. You can create and share hyperdrives using Beaker.

Beaker Browser Documentation

Works in Progress

I’ve played with IPFS a little, and suspect I might give it another whirl soon. Same with Hyperdrive and Beaker, which I’m a little more excited about. Go follow Paul Frazee on Twitter (@pfrazee) or YouTube (Paul Frazee) to see what’s he’s innovating on the peer-to-peer front.

The big problem with IPFS isn’t the technology per se, it’s that ordinary folks can’t access files stored on the system, even if the (Brave) browser supports it. There’s no effective search engine, or directory of the IPFS world.

Beaker/Hyperdrive/DAT has an index page to the sites they know about, but of course you have to open those sites with Beaker, the only browser to handle dat: or hyper: pages.

Looking forward to the next round of innovation for all these projects. May the best project win!

(Yes, the post is late this week. I’m the victim of two traditional Wisconsin catastrophes: The Packers lost on Sunday, and a nasty snowstorm hit last night. Aiming to do better in February…)

Related posts

Inrupt, the NYTimes and agenda-setting

In the 30-something years since Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, waves of change have swept through the mass media. In the last week, I’ve discovered one thing that hasn’t: The New York Times still sets the agenda for what the world knows about at any given moment.

Perhaps you’re thinking about Donald Trump, the electoral college and the riot/insurrection or whatever else you want to call what happened in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021. That story would likely dominate the front page in any country with a free press. Where the Times really makes its mark is in the less spotlighted areas.

Witness last Sunday (January 10, 2021), when the paper ran a story by Steve Lohr on a relatively new project from the very same Tim Berners-Lee (paywall) I mentioned in the lead paragraph. Google News flagged this story for my attention. I didn’t get it read right away. The next day, when I posted here, I noticed that traffic here at Notes had bumped up considerably, and the people were coming to read this story I’d written at Inrupt’s launch two years ago! (Thanks to all of you, BTW.)

If you want to know more about Inrupt, Lohr’s piece is a good place to start, but here’s a rough timeline.

The story spreads

Google News not only showed me the Times story, but had one of those lovely “full coverage” links, indicating that multiple media outlets were covering Sir Tim and his startup. The curious thing is that most of the stories predate the Times piece.

Oh, but within a few days, we also see stories covering Inrupt in places like the India Times, a reprint in the Charlotte Business Journal, TelecomTV, the youth citizen-journalism site Unilad in the UK, EMTV in Papua New Guinea

Two days after the Times runs its story (hmm…coincidence?), Berners-Lee speaks at the Reuters Next conference sponsored by the Thomson Reuters news service and covers many of the same points.

Then comes the commentary

As for me, I’m optimistic but realistic. Reviewing my original thoughts on Berners-Lee and Inrupt, I regret suggesting that Sir Tim was trying to cash in. Inrupt has so far succeeded in building up the Solid Project, at least to the point where The New York Times and Reuters are bringing the message to a broad audience. I’m looking forward to hearing more about Inrupt’s pilot projects at the British National Health Service, Flemish government and the BBC.

The idea behind Solid is important. Using both old and new web standards to share what we want — and only what we want — with giant corporations and governments is something we have a right to expect. I look forward to getting some practice using my Solid pod.

What do you think?

15 Years on WordPress

Word cloud of terms related to net neutrality

Happy New Year! It’s got to be better than 2020, doesn’t it?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

In making plans for 2021, relaunching Notes from the Metaverse was definitely on my list. Then I got a reminder from a past self (aka my to-do list) that I started blogging on WordPress.com on January 4, 2006, and I should write about that. That first post wasn’t much, evidenced by the title, “Hello World (again).”

In late February, the Internet Archive first found this version of the home page, with enough posts to make me look busy, but still had “Hello World (again)” at the bottom.

Internet Archive image of Notes from the Metaverse in February 2006
Part of the home page, February 2006

Over the years, the topics covered here have varied, as have the frequency of the posts. Overall, the focus here has been on technology, both how I’ve become more proficient at using it (aiming to help all of you get better at it too) and how tech has affected our lives.

A little over three years ago, I wrote a series of posts on the progress toward a decentralized web, a movement aimed at taking power away from Big Tech corporations and giving it back to you and me. The underwhelming response to those posts discouraged me from blogging altogether.

It’s time to get back in the saddle.

What’s Coming?

The more observant around you might notice a bit less content in the sidebar on the right. I think it’s better stuff, though. I’ve cleared some stuff that simply no longer applies. My Twitter Timeline works again (or at least it should), do have a look, and follow me if you’re so inclined.

More importantly, I’ve pruned the list of links. I fear that widget hasn’t been touched in a decade or so. Even finding where the Admin page stored those links was a challenge! While still a little repetitive in terms of categories, all the links work now. Soon I will point you to more how-to resources for WordPress and openSUSE Linux, I also hope to give you links to energize you toward using the Open Web to build a more democratic world.

I may give Notes a new paint job (theme) as well, but that’s probably down the road a bit.

But you never came here just for the sidebar, you probably want to know if there’s going to be interesting reading too. Once again, topics may vary from week to week, but will still generally focus on technology topics — it is what I know. I’ve gotten more involved in the openSUSE community in the last few months, so I’ll have something to say about that.

I’m aiming to throw myself back into the WordPress world too. I’m learning more about web coding these days and trying to get better at using the no-longer-new WordPress editor.

Right now, I’m working on a book review of a really useful book by Ramesh Srinavasan, Beyond the Valley: How Innovators around the world Are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow. That’s what’s coming next.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen my work before. So if there’s something about any of the above topics you want to know more about, leave a comment. Let me know if there’s a technology-related issue that has you puzzled, perhaps I can explain what’s going on. Leave a comment!

Thanks for your attention!

Book Review: Guy Kawasaki’s “Wiseguy”

Disclaimer: This week marks the publication of Guy Kawasaki’s 15th book, Wiseguy: Lessons from a Life. Having read a few of his previous books, including The Art of Social Media and What’s The Plus? (his guide to the soon-to-be-disappeared Google Plus social network), I jumped at the chance to read an advance copy of this part-memoir, part-advice book.

Cover of "Wiseguy: Lessons from a Life" by Guy Kawasaki
Book cover, Wiseguy by Guy Kawasaki

tldr; Wiseguy is entertaining, but the wisdom isn’t very deep.

Stories

Chances are you’ve heard of Kawasaki through his long association with Apple or from his extensive participation on Twitter and other social media (see the book I mentioned in the disclaimer). Both of these facets of Kawasaki’s life are on display in Wiseguy, but this isn’t really about either. In the very first paragraph of the preface, he describes his intent: “it is a compilation of the most enlightening stories of my life.”

Yes, Steve Jobs makes multiple appearances, but the hardest hitting comment Kawasaki makes is that “it wasn’t easy to work for him; it was sometimes unpleasant and always scary, but it drove many of us to do the finest work of our careers.”

The most interesting bits of this book are the personal ones: growing up in Hawaii as the son of a politician. How he quit law school during orientation week. His various sporting pursuits: Playing football in high school. Falling in love with hockey (as a fan and player) in his 40s, and then taking up surfing in his 60s after his daughter went crazy for the sport.

Guy Kawasaki in the penalty box with Hockey Hall of Famer Eric Lindros.
Kawasaki with Hockey Hall of Famer Eric Lindros

The surfing stories also highlight another theme of the book: the amazing luck Kawasaki has had in meeting the right people at the right time. His surfing teachers include some of the most famous surfers ever (not that I would know, but he doesn’t hesitate to tell us).

Among the stories he tells is his accidental ride in a military fighter jet, arranged after a presentation to the Pentagon Mac Users Group. How he got to be a “brand ambassador” for Mercedes-Benz. How he tweeted his way to an evangelist job at Canva.

Wisdom

After each story, Kawasaki offers us the “wisdom” he gained from the story he’s just told. All these stories are meant to explain how he got to be a “wiseguy.”

Now there’s nothing wrong with the advice he shares. There’s some important ideas in here. For me, the problem is that it’s just not unique. If you’ve read even one self-help book in your life, you’ve probably encountered most of these. After reading the stories, Kawasaki doesn’t offer something he learned that seems counter-intuitive. or different.

Wiseguy: Lessons from a Life is a quick, entertaining read. It might inspire you to do great things. I am going to put one more book on my to-read list after Kawasaki recommends it three times in this 236-page book: If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. See how that goes.