Friday, February 9, 2018

Bollywood Moments: A highly-selective memoir

Lately I've been falling under the spell of Bollywood to an extent that has caught me completely by surprise. Over the years I thought I knew Indian films, and despite an initial fascination in my early teens, I eventually kept them at arm's length while not dismissing them outright, for to me they were amusing but quaint oddities loaded down with unusual artistic conventions and exotic cultural baggage, particularly with the earlier stuff, prior to what appears to have been an influx of corporate cash and a push to drastically improve production values. Gone are the days when I'd snicker at the unintentional humor in the same way I would (and continue to) with chop socky flicks from Hong Kong.

(A word from my inner grown-up: All filmmaking nations have their share of low budget movies that are laughable for reasons not intended by their creators. When such films originate from outside of the viewer's own society, they can be easy targets for mockery due to whatever is lost or distorted in the cultural translation. Tsk!)

I thought I knew Indian films but I was wrong. Dead wrong! And it is all thanks to one Sanjay Bhansali. But before I get to him, however, let's thread the opening reel through my South Asian film projector...

First encounters

In the autumn of 1985 I became fast friends with Rahul, a boy in my Grade 8 class who had been born in New Delhi but immigrated to Canada at a young enough age that he didn't have any sort of accent my 13-year-old ears could detect despite Hindi being his mother tongue. His father was a real estate agent and his mother worked in a jewellry store. She once told me that she really enjoyed seeing Rahul hanging around me because I didn't teach him bad words or talk dirty about girls. (I simply didn't have the heart to set her straight.)

His dad liked me too, such that he often greeted me in their house with a jovial and heavily-accented "Hello Jim!", followed by an unabashed and fatherly kiss on the cheek. Although my western lizard brain didn't know what to make of it, I nevertheless understood it to be nothing more than a heartfelt sign of affection despite my culture's efforts to train me to find all male-to-male affection suspect. In those years I was too cool to hug and kiss my own dad goodnight.

I also fondly remember the one-sided games of Monopoly Rahul and I would play against his father. (Pro tip: Never play Monopoly against a real estate agent.)

Although I had always known brown kids at school (be it in the classroom or in the schoolyard), this was my first time seeing Indian family culture up close. Also, it was my first brush with exotic spirituality.

On my initial visit to his house, Rahul gave me "the tour", which along the way included explanations of the little details, such as why it is always important to point a carved elephant towards the door. On our way upstairs for the second leg of the tour, I was struck by a smokey but perfume-like aroma permeating the upper part of the house. Following my nose (like Toucan Sam), I veered away from my tour guide and into a small room containing only a white table, upon which a stick of incense burned in front of an upright framed picture of a brown-skinned man with a dark afro and sporting an orange robe. I watched the thin curl drifting upwards from the end of the stick, and then became aware of the light cloud of smoke accumulating just below ceiling. After a moment of mesmerization I gestured towards the picture and asked who it was. This made Rahul perplexed.

"Don't point at him!" he whispered with a tone and urgency that was both a scold and a plea. "It's disrespectful!"

He then proceded to tell me how important the man in the picture was, and added that if the man contacted his parents to request a personal audience, they'd be on the first plane to India, no questions asked.

Over the course of our friendship, I got to know Rahul's family and its sense of hospitality, and as such felt like an honorary family member whenever I stepped through their door. Usually at least once a week I found myself eating dinner with them and, if it fell on the weekend, his parents would settle in for some movies, which I presume were rented from an Indian specialty store.

I was transfixed by any glimpes I had of these films before Rahul would urge me away to somewhere else in the house. For one thing, I recall up to three or four sets of subtitles, none of which were in English or French. I remember the dancing and music, the latter featuring that unique-sounding reverb that was applied to the female singers' voices. As for storylines, anyone's guess was as good as mine, as I never saw enough of them to know what was truly going on. All I knew was that the characters were liable to break into a song and dance routine without any kind of segue. Often a tense moment of high melodrama would be inexplicably punctuated by a joyful and exuberant musical number.

Say what?

There was just a certain je ne sais quois about these films that had me bewildered but fascinated all the same. Perhaps there was something in the visual langauge of Indian filmmaking that was at odds with the cinema to which I had been conditioned. Or maybe it was the generally poor image quality of what was likely a third or fourth generation VHS copy. The snowy resolution and blotchy color balance made it seem to me like these films were desperate transmissions from some distant world, and that the image breakdown was evidence of their arduous and unlikely journey across the cosmos and into a family's TV set.

I remember wishing that Rahul would simply let me hang out in the living room long enough to wrap my head around what his parents were watching. In those days, however, Beverly Hills Cop was more his style, and so perhaps he was either bored or a little embarrassed by these video artifacts of his homeland.

One other memory of Rahul and his family that has stayed with me for over 30 years is of that time his dad gave us a lift to the Bayshore Shopping Centre in his Cadillac Seville. As he waited at a stop sign in front of a ground level entrance, I heard an upset Rahul say something to his dad in Hindi from the front passenger seat, followed by his dad's quiet and reassuring response, telling him in English: "Just ignore it, son. Be the better man." I looked up from my spot in the back seat to see a headbanger standing in the middle of the crosswalk in front of the car, giving us the finger with both hands and very clearly saying "Fuck you!".

At first I felt personally insulted, wondering to myself what we did or what it was about us that made this guy so angry. And then I realized he hadn't even seen me, and that I simply did not factor into the rage being directed at Rahul and his dad.

Although I had been surrounded by white people since birth, this was my first time seeing my own culture through an outsider's pair of eyes.

TV duds and hard-to-get girls

Through the late nineties and early 2000s, the weekend broadcasts Bollywood films on a Toronto-based TV channel comprised my primary exposure to Indian cinema for that time period. There's not much to say here other than that although I tried my hardest to sit through the entirety of a film, sooner or later my attention would be drawn elsewhere, or perhaps because either the ones I saw on TV weren't very good or I simply wasn't acclimatized yet to that style of visual storytelling. Once I got the above-mentioned guilty snickers out of my system, there simply wasn't much there to hold me.

One particularly puzzling scene that has stuck in my mind was from a crime drama, and featured a tense standoff with several guns pointed in all directions, à la the climactic shootout in True Romance. Just when it seemed some jackass was about to break the tension with gunfire, the group of combatants broke into song and dance, with a pretty young girl who suddenly jumped into the frame from out of nowhere and led one of the male leads outside while singing about wanting to honor her grandparents' moral values (or some such) while playing hard-to-get and making her randy young suitor chase her around a tree. And then, once the musical number wrapped up, the girl disappeared and the suitor and the rest of the gunmen resumed their places in the standoff as if no time had passed.

For a brief moment it was intensely amusing, but I lacked the mental bandwith to sustain absorbing such conflicting narrative information for any length of time.


Faana - things are looking up for Bollywood

By 2005 I was living in Toronto, and had heard all about the Woodside Cinemas from a fellow film buff. A theater dedicated to Indian and Tamil films? I couldn't resist, as by this point I was much more open to (and patient about) immersing myself in non-mainstream cultural milieus. I passed on whatever Tamil film was playing due to a lack of subtitles (so perhaps I wasn't feeling that open), and opted instead for Faana.

The movie somewhat stirred a renewed interest in Indian films, but the gathering itself was something to behold. Being the early bird, I was the first one in the theater, and so I found a spot near the back so as not to feel like I was on display as the token white guy. (And as the seats filled up, I would indeed remain the token white guy.) Among the first to arrive after me was a gaggle of young women who appeared to be either in their late teens or early twenties. They passed by me and then turned around and positioned themselves directly in front of me despite the theater still being mostly empty. Being within almost point-blank spitting distance, the polite WASP in me pretended to be interested in the near featureless decor, or in what I could see of the little projector window at the back of the room.

Eventually one of them turned around, looked right at me, and said quietly to the friend beside her, "Like, omigod!", and with that they all got up and found seats on the other side of the room down near the front and I spent the next 15 minutes feeling awkward and small.

Thanks, ladies.

As the start time approached more and more people filed in and I noticed something about the room's demographics, and that is that all age groups were represented, from newborns in baby carriages to the elderly pushing walkers. This seemed truly like a community event. In a way I felt like a stowaway at some large family reunion.

While I found this a little puzzling, particularly given the atomization of western film audiences, it wouldn't be until after the film that it actually made sense.

As for the film itself, a four-hour opus about a blind girl who falls in love (and eventually conceives) with a terrorist, to me it was actually a two-in-one affair, given that it was bifurcated into a lighthearted boy-meets-girl romcom for the first half, and then afterwards a dark and tragic action film as the new bride learns of and comes to terms with just who she ended up marrying. (As if to underscore the difference, the first half, from what I remember, featured ample sunshine and bright colors, whereas the second half was colder, with the bluish tinge commonly associated with man cave fare. In short, it was as if a different diretor and cinematographer had been assigned to each half, such as Amy Heckerling and Tony Scott respectively.)

To be honest, as the first half was wrapping up I was expecting to be going home soon, as all of the plot lines were being neatly tied up and everyone seemed to be dancing into the South Asian sunset. Suddenly, while the male lead is out of town while his wife receives an operation to restore her vision, we learn he is a terrorist. "What kind of ending is this?", I muttered to myself, when suddenly the word "Intermission" appeared on the screen in multiple languages and the house lights came up.

An old Sikh gentleman sitting directly behind me must have noticed consternation beaming out of me like a distress signal, as he tapped me on the shoulder, leaned forward and informed me there was still another two hours to go. As my jaw dropped he laughed. "In India," he said, "audiences expect a movie to last at least four hours. If you showed them a two-hour movie they'd be tearing up the seats!"

The movie itself was fantastic, even if the stark dichotemy created by the first and second half was jarring to the point of distraction, and served to keep me from suspending my disbelief. Also, the production values were light years ahead of what I'd experienced at Rahul's house or on TV. The film would have played well with most any North American audience had its two halves been screen separately from one another, even given whatever other Bollywood idiosyncracies were contained therein.

In any case, upon reflecting on the film's dual romcom/action nature, the film's structure made total sense in light of the generation-spanning makeup of the audience. Perhaps I'm wrong, but the first half was intended to be particularly kid-friendly, while the second half was for the parents and grandparents once the younger set had dozed off or were ferried back home.

This approach to film structure was alien but illuminating and, particularly when it comes to ticket sales, a stroke of genius. In this manner, the film could be most things to most people, but without one extreme diluting nor compromising the other.

Padmaavat - a grand reawakening

While Faana certainly did stir up my interest in Bollywood, it was too wierdly structured for my liking. And given that the next film I saw at the Woodside was okay but forgettable (all I remember of it was a soldier firing a gatlin gun), I was interested in seeing more Indian films if not actively searching them out.

That all changed about two weeks ago when I went on a movie date to see Padmaavat, a large canvas opus by director Sanjay Bhansali. An historical romance and war film, unlike Faana this movie presents the romance/action extremes so that one extreme heightens (rather than compromises) the other despite co-existing simultaneously rather than being segregated into halves.

This isn't a review, and so I won't go into much detail about the plot other than to say it features a tragic love triangle between a Rajput king, his titular queen, and a Muslim sultan obsessed with seeing her beauty for himself. Also, the film was extremely controversial while it was still in production, entangled as the story is in domestic Indian politics, an area in which I don't even pretend to have a reliable working knowledge. Therefore, I'll leave it to you to read up on the fuss and draw your own conclusions.

I will say, however, that in my estimation the generally lukewarm reviews it has received seem to be unfairly colored by the above-mentioned politics. It would appear that Bhansali could have cured cancer by making this film and his critics on both sides of the Hindu/Rajput and Muslim divide would have said "What took him so long?".

Despite claims that the film drags on and on, at just under three hours I found it to be an engrossing thrill ride with top-notch production values that could easily go head-to-head with anything out of Hollywood. It had me in constant amazement and begging for the director to lay on the Bollywood as thick as possible. (In addition to the requisite dance numbers, the characters spend much of their time either speaking in parables or phrasing their thoughts almost as poetry.)

The ending, in which the maidens of the Rajput fortress march headlong into a gigantic flaming woodpile rather than risk being defiled by the sultan and his men, is devastating and difficult to watch, especially given the close-up shot a maiden holding her distended pregnant belly as she strides towards martyrdom. While this was extremely challenging to my Orthodox Christian sensibilities surrounding life and death issues, I think there's value in being confronted with (and thus being made to think about and process) cultural practices that are outside the norm. (The film begins with a series of disclaimers, one of which states that the filmmakers do not endorse the practice of jauhar, or group self-immolation. Nevertheless, by depicting the practice as the "heroic" last act by the film's titular character, by default the filmmakers are indeed glorifying it, disclaimers notwithstanding.)

There was not a single moment of unintentional yuks nor any sense of quaintness - my date and I were so completely swept up into this world that the experience left us stunned and speechless as the end credits rolled. Our brains were lit up in ways that would take hours of conversation to unpack. I'm not sure if a North American or European film has ever done that to me, which is a polite way of saying that no such film ever has, period.

And now, in the wake of Padmaavat, I am left craving more! In the past few weeks I have been checking out more Bollywood flicks from the library, starting with Bhansali's previous film, Bajirao Mastani, which may blur your recollection of Padmaavat if viewed too soon afterward, as they are very much the same type of movie and feature some of the same cast. (It is as good as or even better than its successor, but with a less morally-challenging ending.)

For now I have three films in the "on deck" circle for this weekend, including an historical epic (Chaar Sahibzaade: Rise of Banda Singh Bahudur), an underworld crime flick (Once Upon a Time in Mumbai: Dobaara!), and Bangistan, a comedy I chose due to the irresistably dangerous tag line ("Two aspiring terrorists. One identical plan. No damn clue!") as my own way of laughing in the face of "war on terror" paranoia.


After getting the idea for this piece I hunkered down and followed the rough outline as jotted down in my notebook. With the section describing a friendship from more than 30 years ago, I found myself unexpectedly touched by certain memories and the process of reliving the emotions associated with them, even if there was a bittersweet element.

And even though my original intent was to hew as close as possible to talking about the films themselves, I soon realized that I was tapping into so much more, as by chronicling very selective stops on this cinephile's journey, at least a few points along the way were inseperable from my personal life.

As an addendum to the experience in the car with Rahul and his dad, I should say that even though I quickly realized that the racism on display was not being directed at me, and despite the racist in question not even knowing I existed, the gnawing in my gut and the redness in my face while writing about it was evidence enough that those profane and unwarranted taunts still sting like a personal insult all these decades later, as a sin against one is a sin against all, regardless of whether the one in question is a stranger or a close personal friend.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

OpenBSD 6.2 + CDE: Solaris 10 color scheme and a high five for HP

Numbers don't lie

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that a post about an "antiquated" desktopenvironment would go viral (by this blog's modest standards). Less than two months later, it has attracted almost 24,000 pairs of eyeballs, followed by the next most popular post, which comes in a distant second at just over 2,000 hits after twenty months. The lesson here, I believe, is that if you target a drastically underserved readership (in this case, those of us enthralled with museum pieces like CDE), you may be pleasantly surprised by what the resulting analytics have to say.

Regardless of how "ugly" or "outdated" (and therefore not "newsworthy") you may think CDE is, it is now just a few years into its new life as an open source project, and may see tweaks and improvements that never would have occurred had it remained strictly a commercial product on life support.

Setting all that aside, the sudden readership spike noted above speaks for itself, with no justification required for CDE as a "current" software news topic in 2018.

SUN Also Rises (on OpenBSD)

As you may recall from that last post, one of my first orders of business was to create a custom color theme to reproduce the UnixWare 7.x default theme (minus that system's unique desktop switcher). In retrospect, making an OpenBSD system resemble a product once owned by the patent-trolling SCO is akin to making Black Lives Matter activists go to a demonstration dressed in Archie Bunker costumes.

Before long, however, I was creating yet another custom color theme, this time based on Solaris 10, an operating system that is much, much closer to my heart than UnixWare will ever be. (My fondness for UnixWare's default CDE color theme notwithstanding, don't ever let anything with SCO DNA close to your heart. In fact, change your phone number and take out a restraining order.)

In this case, the shortest distance between Point A and Point B was to start with selecting "Crimson" from CDE's out-of-the-box color schemes, which as you'll see gets you 90 percent of the way to a faux Solaris 10 box:

Standard "Crimson" color theme

The offending portions of the Crimson color scheme (from a Solaris 10 point of view) is the light green on the front panel and Style Manager background, and the light blue Style Manager - Color window and the Terminal menu bar. This is easily rectified by selecting one of the inaccurate colors from the color palette within Style Manager - Color, clicking on Modify, and then Grab Color in the resulting Modify dialog box - doing so will give you a crosshairs cursor with which to click on the desired color (if its visible anywhere on your screen). This was the process I followed to create my UnixWare-styled color theme, for which I simply used some screenshots of that system to get the desired shades of blue and orange. In the case of getting your Solaris 10 theme up to snuff, the light green and blue in the palette should be changed to light grey, as shown here:

Custom "Solaris 10"  color theme

Besides getting the colors right, the one remaining order of business (assuming you want to go all in on the Solaris 10 aesthetic) is to select Solaris10 from the Style Manager - Backdrop dialog box, which in this particular case was my starting point.

Giving HP VUE its due

As a reader correctly pointed out in the comments under the original post, many people are accustomed to thinking of Solaris (pre-11.x) as having been the de facto CDE implementation, forgetting that CDE itself began life as a fork (or continuation) of HP's Visual User Environment (VUE), which was subsequently rechristened the "Common Desktop Environment" (or CDE) once Sun, IBM and others joined in. In fact, looking at screenshots of VUE, it is apparent that HP had already done the heavy lifting prior to bringing on collaborators. Unfortunately, I've never used VUE nor even seen a video of it running, so I personally have no idea what changes (beyond visual teaks to the Front Panel) went into CDE.

HP Visual User Environment (VUE). (Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, as I said in my reply to that reader, "...I'm guessing that most people associate CDE with Sun because Sun CDE was much more available to the average person during its "strictly proprietary" years via Solaris due to it being available for x86 machines. Unless I'm mistaken, HP-UX has always been dependent on HP architecture. Add to that the fact that Sun may have had more of a "cool" factor due to many of its innovations (Java, zones, ZFS, etc.) that served to boost its own profile and in turn that of its CDE implementation.

"As for me, I know I have been guilty at times of thinking of Sun as being the de facto CDE vendor, that may also be because I've been a Sun fanboy for quite some time."

Bug alert!

I started writing this particular post as an html file in vi, and for reasons unbeknownst to me that terminal window kept crashing. Therefore (and at the risk of contributing to the usual UNIX text editor religious war), my finishing laps were done in Emacs, which gave me no stability problems whatsoever.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

OpenBSD 6.2 + CDE

If you've noticed a disruption in the time-space continuum recently, it is likely because I have finally been able to compile and install the Common Desktop Environment (CDE) in a current and actively-developed operating system (OpenBSD 6.2 in this case).

This comes after so many attempts (across multiple platforms) that ended up with the build process prematurely stopping itself in its own tracks for a variety of infinitesimal reasons that were beyond my comprehension as a non-programmer, or when there was success it was not without some broken parts. As for the latter, I've been able to build CDE on OpenIndiana Hipster, but with an end product where I'm unable to change the color scheme in dtstyle (because "useColorObj" is set to "False"), with a default color scheme that is low-res and unpleasant. As for changing "useColorObj" to "True", I tried every recommended trick I could find online, but nothing worked.

My recent attempts at installing CDE on OpenBSD (version 6.1) saw the process stop due to a number of errors that are pure gibberish to these naive eyes. While disappointing, it was par for the course within my miserable experience with trying to build this particular desktop environment. As I wrote in this space in November 2015, in the course of explaining part of my imperitive for installing Solaris 10:

And so I have come to think of building the recently open-sourced CDE as being akin to a coffee mug I saw many years ago. One side of the mug read "Turn the mug to see how to keep an idiot busy." On the other side, it read "Turn the mug to see how to keep an idiot busy." I'm through feeling like an idiot, which is partially why I'm on this one-week journey with Solaris 10.

While I thoroughly enjoyed running Solaris 10 on my ThinkPad T61p, and felt a devilish thrill at using it out in the open at my local MacBook- and iPhone-infested Starbucks and causing general befuddlement and consternation among the occasional prying yoga mom, I never felt like I could do much with it beyond explore the SunOS 5.10 command line and watch YouTube videos. While still supported by its current corporate owner (whose name I don't even want to type), it is no longer actively developed and is thus little more than a retro toy. I hated the idea of installing anything else over it, but productivity beckoned and it was time to tearfully and reluctantly drag myself off the dance floor.

In any case, just last week I noticed that the Sourceforge page for the OpenBSD build had some 6.2-specific notes by way of a series of four patches, and so I decided 'what the heck, let's give this puppy another whirl'. After an initial abortive attempt at a build, I surmised that I hadn't applied the four patches correctly. A day or two later, I took a deep breath and tried again, this time resolving to not proceed with the time make World build command until I could see some sign of a successful patch process. (This time around, I downloaded the patches and moved them into the directory containing the CDE makefiles, and issued each patch command as patch <filename.patch and then reading the output carefully to determine which file in the source code was to be patched, and entering the filename when asked.)

Once I had the thing up and running, and with a mind bursting with fruit flavor, I started messing about. The first order of business was to create a custom color scheme modelled after the default color scheme in UnixWare. (Despite any baggage that system carries from its previous ownership under SCO, I adored the aesthetics of UnixWare 7.1.4 two years ago when I installed the free one month trial version on my ThinkPad. For reasons that escape me now, I named my newly-created color scheme in honor of UnixWare 7.1.3.)

Like a proud papa, I immediately tweeted the above screenshot and risked irritating a Linux kid or two in the process, given SCO's anti-climatic anti-Linux patent trolling from way back when. (I'm not out to irritate penguinistas, I just sure like this color scheme.)

Final Thoughts

It may look a little clunky at first, and may be a little bling-challenged, but the more I use CDE and adapt to it, the more it feels like an extension of my brain. Perhaps this is because it has a lot zip and behaves in a consistent and coherent manner. (I don't want to go too much further down that road here, as OSnews's Thom Holwerda already gave a good rundown about ten years ago.)

Now that I have succesfully paired my absolute favorite operating system with a desktop environment that has exerted an intense gravitational hold on me for many, many years, I don't anticipate distrohopping any time soon. And as I attain a more advanced knowledge of CDE, I'll be chronicling any new discoveries here for the sake of anyone following me from behind as I feel my way around this darkened room.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

OpenIndiana Hipster: Console workaround, revised audioctl script, and an extended middle finger to Oracle

This year has turned out to be one in which I've been happily knee deep in OpenBSD (6.0, 6.1 and -current), only venturing into illumos territory on the rarest occasions, either as a quick sensory fix via the OpenIndiana 2016.10 snapshot live DVD or a two- or three-day fling with Tribblix. Otherwise, I've been using OpenBSD on this machine (a Dell Inspiron 1525) on a steady basis for productivity and creativity with no sense of missing apps or features. (So there, Linux!)

This all changed recently with initial unconfirmed reports of Oracle having gutted its Solaris team down to a skeleton crew for maintenance purposes, which had been interpreted in some quarters to mean that this awesome operating system - and the de facto "official" UNIX for those on x86 hardware - is being left to wither on life support just long enough for current support contracts to run out, rather than being actively developed and improved. After almost two weeks of keeping mum on the issue, Oracle has finally confirmed the layoffs via a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) filing in California. As The Register also reports, Oracle has revised its product roadmap to show that (which will mean further Solaris upgrades occurring in a rolling fashion along the 11.x stream) will not be unleashed until 2018, rather than 2017 as originally planned. El Reg further speculates that this future vision of Solaris may entail it being relegated to an emulated cloud offering, or some such.

Um, okay.

I'm somewhat allergic to all that corporate "cloud" blither-blather, as well as the notion of surrendering as many computer services as possible to a remote host, so Oracle's latest cloud rah-rah session doesn't make me feel confident about Solaris' future as a freestanding operating system.

And so, as my way of extending a middle finger to what I initially felt was (and may still prove to be) Oracle's further mishandling of Solaris, I decided to spend some quality time with illumos, the community-driven successor fork of Sun's OpenSolaris, whose throat was slit by the meanies at Oracle, post-acquisition. Over the past week or two, therefore, I've been vacillating between OI Hipster and Tribblix, both as a way of commemorating the venerable Solaris while also showing contempt for its neglectful foster parent. I don't have anything substantively new to say about Tribblix other than it's a total gas to work with, and so for now I'll limit my comments to OI Hipster.

Workaround for system crash when exiting X11 to console

I have no complaints whatsoever about the OI Hipster implementation of the MATE desktop, though if I had my druthers it would default to the Nimbus theme out-of-the-box in honor of its OpenSolaris lineage, but that's a microscopic complaint. (Being a grown-up, and given that changing the theme is beyond effortless, I'm okay with my current state of drutherlessness.)

On the other hand, I start to twitch and then break out in hives if I can't exit to the console every now and then to experience the spartan beauty of UNIX sans all that GUI goop. Unfortunately, when you enter the appropriate command in OI Hipster (pfexec svcadm disable lightdm) on my particular machine, the system exits MATE and simply hangs before getting to the console command line. This also happens when exiting twm, so the issue is with how my particular graphics driver and adaptor handle an X11 shutdown, rather than being specifically a MATE issue. (See my bug report for more details.)

In the meantime, a reasonable workaround is to enter the above command for exiting MATE and let the system crash, and then do a hard shutdown (in my case by holding down the power button until the machine stops writhing and goes limp), and then once you've rebooted add mate-session to your .xinitrc file, which means you start MATE at the command line with startx rather than the graphical login screen. This also means exiting MATE (or any X11 window manager or desktop environment) simply by becoming root and then issuing the reboot command. (From MATE you can either issue the poweroff command or select Shutdown from the System dropdown menu in order to turn off your computer. In a barebones X11 window manager like twm, you're stuck with the former option.

Revised crank script

Some time ago I wrote about the lack of (or otherwise lukewarm) mouse-driven audio control in OI's MATE implementation. My solution then was a workaround via two shell scripts, which I christened crank (for increasing the volume to 100%) and ucrank (for returning the volume to 50%). This time around, I decided to streamline the workaround by condensing it to a single shell script (still called crank) with the following lines:

read a
audioctl set-control -d /dev/sound/audiohd:0mixer volume $a
audioctl set-control -d /dev/sound/audiohd:0mixer headphones $a:$a
audioctl set-control -d /dev/sound/audiohd:0mixer speaker $a:$a

So rather than the bludgeon-like all-or-nothing of crank and ucrank, the user can fine tune the volume with a single command and enter the precise volume level. (I've got an unhealthy lust for tinnitus, so I never settle for less than 100.)

Parting thoughts

I have used OI enough over the past three years (151_a8 and Hipster) that I have developed a deep affection for it, and thus even though OpenBSD remains my natural habitat I can't resist brief or extended sojourns with the operating system (along with its illumos brethren) that carries on the innovative spirit of Sun Microsystems far more than Oracle ever could (or should I say would ever want to).

While projects like OI may suffer from having far fewer developers than the various operating systems based around the Linux kernel (because, after all, there is no "Linux operating system", contrary to what the lazy and careless penguinistas in the media would have you believe), I believe the future is bright for illumos if those overseeing it continue to improve and innovate on the OpenSolaris code and continue to show what's possible with business-led open source projects.

Another factor that may pay dividends for illumos in general is Joyent's acquisition last year by Samsung. Given that one of Joyent's high-profile offerings is SmartOS, a specialized illumos distro, it's hard not to see how the support of a behemoth like Samsung wouldn't trickle down to the overall illumos project.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Tribblix m20: Getting started and performing a minor upgrade

I've been taking Tribblix (version m.20) for a spin for the first time since writing about it in this space last year, when it was version m.16. I was very impressed by the speed and simplicity of installation and use, particularly for a SunOS 5.11-derived system. My only real complaint at the time was that some of the packages were a little unfinished, particularly that ugly duckling of a desktop environment known as CDE, with whom I am inexplicably smitten. (It's kind of like that odd-looking girl you fell for in grade 9 but were too nervous to approach. All these years later you search out her yearbook picture from that year, mall bangs and all, and wonder to yourself, "What was I thinking?", only to find yourself tossing and turning in bed at 3:46 a.m., obsessing over what could have been. That approximates how I feel about the Common Desktop Environment.)

Four upgrades later, some of the packages are a little more finished (or else are imported directly upstream from illumos or sideways from OpenIndiana). In my previous Tribblix fling I didn't use it (on the technical level) as extensively as I could have, opting merely to poke and prod around the perimeter and simply get a general feel for it. This time around, however, I decided to wade a little deeper in.


Nothing substantively different to report here from what I've written about previously, other than to say that rather than entering ./ -B c1t0d0 kitchen-sink to commence installation, I instead did ./ -B c2t0d0 x11 x11-extras retrodesktop. (The difference is due to the "kitchen-sink" option now automatically installing a graphical login that takes you straight to Xfce4, which is fine if that's what you're into. I'd rather have just a plain ol' text login. Also, c2t0d0 is the label Tribblix gives to my Dell Inspiron 1525's hard drive, as opposed to the ThinkPad T60p I was using the previous time.)


Akin to Solaris 10, the Tribblix install process doesn't give you the opportunity to create a new user until after you boot into your new system. In this case, your initial post-installation login credentials are the same as for the live DVD, which means logging in as "jack" with an eponymous password, and switching to root with "tribblix" as the password. Therefore, my first order of business was fourfold:
  1. add myself as a user
  2. assign root privileges to myself,
  3. create a password for my own account, and 
  4. change the root password.
This was accomplished the old-fashioned way at the command prompt, using my own credentials for the sake of demonstration:
$ su
Password: tribblix
# useradd -d /export/home/jed -m -s /usr/bin/ksh -c "James Deagle" jed
# usermod -P "Primary Administrator" jed
# passwd jed
New Password: __
Re-enter new Password: __
# passwd passwd
New Password: __
Re-enter new Password: __
(That last step, "passwd passwd", is the command for changing the root password.)

The only other housekeeping matter that I would normally take care of so soon after first booting into a new system is to create my own /bin directory for storing any scripts or programs written by Yours Truly: 
$ pwd 
$ mkdir bin 
$ cd bin
$ pwd 


I'm not going to rewrite my instructions on using this system's handy-dandy package manager (called zap), because then I'd have no reason to force you to read my previous post on the topic. I will say, however, that I highly recommend you install the pkgsrc overlay (courtesy of Joyent), as it will give you an additional boatload of packages (albeit some duplicates of native binaries from Tribblix/illumos). Just how many? That's a great question...let's ask UNIX:
$ pkgin avail | wc -l
Onwards and up(grade)wards...

I don't know if this counts as a proper segue, but the zap package management utility is also used to carry out binary upgrades of the system itself. As explained on the Tribblix home page and paraphrased here, the steps are as follows:
# zap refresh,
# zap update TRIBzap-upgrade
# zap upgrade list (to see if an upgrade is available)
# zap upgrade m20.1

And to boot into your newly-upgraded system:
# beadm activate m20.1
# init 6

Final Thoughts

Especially considering that this illumos distro is the work of just one man, Tribblix is a beauty to behold, and also serves as Solaris in a Hurry for someone who isn't into putting their entire life on hold in order to get an OS installed. (The older I get, the more I fall into that category.) The fact that some of the packages still have some rough edges is entirely a moot point - Tribblix provides a framework and proof-of-concept for the idea of an OpenSolaris derivative that is small and fast, and makes an excellent starting point for those wishing to spin their own distros, whether along the same lines as Tribblix or off in some new and unforeseen direction.

Formal complaint to Toronto Sun: Khadr editorial amounts to unlawful accusation

The following is a formal complaint submitted to the Toronto Sun on July 12, 2017.


I am writing to submit a formal complaint regarding your July 9, 2017 editorial, Khadr payoff a slap in the face to all who serve, and will escalate the matter to the National NewsMedia Council should the results of the current complaint submission process prove unsatisfying.

In the editorial in question, you refer to Canadian citizen Omar Khadr as "(an) expert bombmaker and the killer of U.S. Army Sgt. Christopher Speer." Nowhere does this piece mention that there were no eyewitnesses to the alleged crime, that the process by which Mr. Khadr "confessed" to the killing of Sgt. Speer involved intense physical and psychological torture (including threats of anal rape), nor that the tribunal in front of which he was tried without legal representation has since been discredited. Furthermore, the editorial neglects to mention that Mr. Khadr, who was 15 at the time of Sgt. Speer’s killing, was indeed a child soldier according to internationally-recognized guidelines, for which the threshold is 18. Also, the editorial omits the fact that Mr. Khadr was raised by a family with direct jihadist involvement, and thus grew up subject to what can only be called brainwashing, which itself is psychological abuse of a different sort, and the key ingredient to the making of any child soldier. (Although he was 15 at the time of his alleged crime, one can only assume that his inculcation began much earlier, and that even if he wanted to leave such circumstances he likely didn’t feel like he had a lot of say in the matter.)

For the reasons stated above, and given that the way in which Mr. Khadr’s detention and tribunal were managed would have had the case thrown out in any other circumstances, I believe Postmedia is engaging in unlawful allegation by labelling Mr. Khadr a “killer” without any attempt at providing a reasonable context, and thus also misleading readers to unwittingly assume that Mr. Khadr was convicted in a process that would satisfy the threshold in our own domestic legal system.

I consider this conduct unlawful on Postmedia’s part, not to mention an abuse of its power as a nationwide media conglomerate, and as such I would like to see your organization issue a retraction of the above quoted passage, as well as a formal apology to Mr. Khadr and to readers who deserve more responsible behavior from their news media.