Unsolvable and annoying VirtualBox slowdown

Since end of December 2016, I was using my personal computer to work from home. All my development environment was living in a VirtualBox CentOS virtual machine. That was working very nicely until March 13th. All of a sudden, the virtual machine became annoying slow. Starting the virtual machine took twice the time as before and everything was taking several seconds to start. It became impossible to start Thunderbird and connect to my corporate email through IMAP.

I tried to restart the virtual machine, reinstall VirtualBox, fiddle with the parameters of the virtual machine, nothing worked! The only workaround that helped a bit and at least allowed me to work was to increase the number of virtual CPUs from 2 to 4. However, even with that, when I was switching windows with Alt-Tab, it was taking several seconds for the window selector to pop up. Typing on the terminal was sluggish, sometimes as if I was connected through SSH on a slow server! But my machine was running locally! Running the unit tests of the main component I was developing used to take 4 minutes and a half on that machine. This bumped to more than 5 minutes, and even 6 minutes last week.

None of the suggestions on forums and nothing I thought about could solve this. I set the power plan to maximum performance so the CPU wasn’t throttled down. I fiddled with virtualization and paravirtualization options, disabled 3D acceleration, enabled it again, absolutely no change. Even the GRUB menu was taking a few seconds to display rather than appearing instantly as before. Maybe this is a CPU issue? I checked the CPU temperature using Speccy: everything seemed normal. VirtualBox was the mainly affected program, the rest was working fine.

This really seemed like a nasty Windows 10 update that screwed everything up. I could attempt a system restore or I could recover the last CloneZilla image I had, but if that was a Windows 10 update, the update would reinstall and thinks would screw up again. I would thus need to downgrade to Windows 7.

The issue persisted more than a month. Sometimes, I tried stuff without success: recreating the virtual machine, copying the VDI files somewhere and putting them back on my SSD (in case of filesystem corruption), checking my NVIDIA settings because the slowdown was mainly affected GUI rendering, etc.

The day before the first slowdown, two things happened: I ran CCleaner and Avast got updated. I tried to restore the registry backup CCleaner made before it cleaned registry: that failed once again. Windows couldn’t restore the registry backup. I tried to disable Avast temporarily: no effect. The hypothesis of a flaky Windows update was the main one, but no update were coming to fix it. Maybe they won’t fix it, because they offer Hyper-V, and they would love people switching from VirtualBox to Hyper-V. But that would involve reinstalling CentOS on a new virtual machine and recreating all my development environment. I could try VMWare Player instead, I think it can migrate a VirtualBox machine, but nothing told me it wouldn’t be affected as well by this issue.

Monday morning, April 17th, I tried all what I could to fix this. I was ready to attempt the system restore if needed. However, it was too late for a simple restore through Windows: I would need to use my CloneZilla image and take the risk Dropbox wouldn’t be smart enough to detect there is an old directory to update and not replace the contents in the cloud with the restored old directory. In case Dropbox screwed up, I backed up my Dropbox folder. I also backed up my virtual machines that I would need to restore after the Clonezilla recovery.

Before doing that, I tried to uninstall CCleaner: no success. I tried to remove NVIDIA Experience: no success. Two days ago, I removed the 3D vision drivers without effect. Then I removed Avast. At this point, I had little hope. I was ready to plug in the external hard drive with the Windows 10 image on it. But before, I rebooted, tried the virtual machine one more time and then, finally, it worked! It wasn’t slow anymore!

I pushed as far as starting my Ubuntu virtual machine and upgrading it from 16.10 to 17.04. This went well, without any issue. I’m writing this post from Ubuntu 17.04, running inside my VirtualBox environment which is finally fixed.

It is not the first time VirtualBox is hindered by an anti-virus program. It happened at work with Symantec Endpoint Connection. I had to downgrade to an old VirtualBox for a few releases until that finally got fixed. VirtualBox or Avast will have to fix something for this system to work again. For now, I am using the anti-virus built into Windows 10. I don’t know if I will retry Avast, reinstall AVG or finally give up and pay for Symantec’s Anti-virus or Kaspersky.

Spurious mail delivery errors

A few weeks ago, I started to receive email containing error messages about the delivery of some mails I didn’t send. The contents of such emails looked like spam, but why weren’t they detected by the anti-spam functionality of GMail? Maybe spammers found a new way to send their junk that circumvents current filters. But few weeks later, the annoyance persisted. I was receiving at least one of these emails per day, sometimes several per day. I started to suspect some people hacked into my GMail account and were using it to send spam, but I couldn’t find any trace of these in my “Sent” folder. Maybe they can circumvent it as well. Will I have to change my password just in case? And what would  tell me they wouldn’t hack again?

Friday, April 14th, I got fed up of this. First, do these come from the same sender or group of senders? If it does, I could block these addresses. Otherwise, there is a problem with GMail that would need to be solved eventually, otherwise I would have to switch from GMail to some other email service. Looking at the sender’s address, I found out the message was coming from something @ericbuist.com. Could it be because my mail account from my Web host was misconfigured?

I logged onto my HostPapa cPanel and reached the mail options. I found out that anything @ericbuist.com not corresponding to a valid email account is sent to a default email address. As a result, spammers in need of a fake origin email address can take anything @ericbuist.com in the hope this won’t correspond to a valid address. I thus reconfigured the default route to return an error email instead of redirecting the message. I also found out that besides redirecting traffic to my GMail account, the HostPapa mail service is keeping a copy of the messages. I thus had 250Mb of junk emails there that I deleted to free space. Although the disk space is unlimited on my HostPapa, if every customer abuses it by leaving junk on their account, HostPapa will have to impose quotas at some point.

I didn’t receive other emails about mail delivery failures after that. Unfortunately, this is not the only cause of such problems. Other people had issues with that because they forwarded all their GMail emails to a service sending SMS, and the service went down. They had to disable that forwarding from their GMail accounts. Things get worse when other email addresses are redirected to a central email account. All these can be the cause of spurious emails and thus need to be checked in case of issues.

Why do we still need password while we have biometry?

It now happens more and more often that I try to login somewhere and my password doesn’t work. Many sites require an account, with different rules for user names and passwords. Using the same password everywhere only partly alleviates the issue, and can increase security risks. Password reset procedures differ from one site to the other: most of the times an email with a link is sent. Sometimes, a new temporary password is sent by email. More rarely, it is required to make a phone call to complete the reset.

Another more and more annoying (for me at least) trend is to ask for security questions picked among a finite list. These questions are often too subjective and the right answer for me may change over time. I don’t really have a favorite color, my nicknames can be spelled different ways, I’m not totally sure of the spelling of my childhood’s best friend, etc. Some questions are just really stupid and don’t apply to me. Being visually impaired, I cannot and will never be able to drive (unless autonomous vehicles are available in the future), so asking for the brand make of my first car is just silly. Instead of spending five minutes and more looking at the list, I got fed up yesterday and picked a random question, noted it down somewhere, and stuck a silly response, noted down as well. This is pointless loss of time and energy.

Password storage systems such as KeePass or LastPass can help alleviate this. However, they either introduce extra steps to login (start KeePass, enter master password, find site entry, copy, paste), or are not available for all platforms. The commonly excluded platform is Linux, which is quite a shame. Mobile devices are also left alone with no solution, at least nothing free. Moreover, these solutions don’t free the user from entering, creating or regenerating passwords at registration time.

Instead, we should just get rid of passwords altogether. The initial idea for doing so comes from how SSH private key authentication works. SSH is used to establish connections on servers, allowing to open a terminal commands can be entered on. Instead of setting a password to login somewhere, SSH can generate a pair of keys: a private part remaining secret, a public part that is sent to any number of servers on which one would like to connect. SSH manages to authenticate the user without having to transfer the private key. This is done using a cryptographic algorithm called RSA. Any message encrypted with the public key is easy to decrypt using the corresponding secret key but extremely computationally expensive without. The SSH server leverages RSA by using the public key of the user to encrypt a challenge message, that only the corresponding private key can decrypt, then the client sends back the response, possibly encrypted using server’s public key.

Problem with this is that this private key can be lost or compromised. When this happens, it needs to be regenerated. It is possible to protect the key using a password, which decreases the risk of it being compromising if stolen. If the public key is reused several places, at least there is just one master password. But that password can be forgotten of course.

But what if that private key is part of the user’s biology: fingerprints, voice print, eye scan or, even further fetched, a subsequence of DNA? The key cannot be lost, unless the user is harmed or killed. But there is a small problem with that: the key cannot be replaced if it is compromised. Well, I thought about the possibility to encode the key in an unused portion of DNA, but the only idea of having some piece of hardware screwing up the DNA is kind of freaking. It is better to observe some biometric aspects, without altering them.

Well, how about a part of the biometric element? The exact part of the finger print, the exact aspects of the voice print, the exact subsequence of DNA, can be encoded in the public key, and used by to calibrate the scanner in a way reconstructing the private key. Replacing the key is just a matter of picking a new part.

This is just a case of multi-factor authentication. Models for this exist and are implemented by some providers. The problem is nothing is standard, wide-spread.

Unfortunately, this thrilling idea won’t apply easily, and won’t standardize overnight. First, there needs to be a standard piece of hardware each and every device would need to be equipped with in order to acquire the biometric signature. That hardware must not be available just for new computers, it would have to be possible to install it on an existing machine, without complications, without forcing the user to upgrade, even worse change OS. A USB-driven scanner is probably the key here, but that would have to work on any OS: Windows, Linux, Mac. But the device maker will make it work just on Windows, maybe Mac, because there is no such thing as a universal device driver except for very simple device like keyboards and mice. But well, if it is possible for these devices, why not a footprint scanner? Phones would also need to be covered as well, since it is more and more common to authenticate from such a device.

Next issue is integration. Each and every service provider would have to agree on a standard and comply to it. That would probably start with the biggest players like Google, Microsoft, etc., but if small businesses do not enter in, we will be stuck with yet another authentication method.

Ideally, a solution based on a service should be put in place. Anybody would be able to subscribe to this authentication service and use it in his own application, whether he is an individual developer, small or large business. This is similar to popular platforms such as AWS, Heroku, etc.

That thus seems perfectly possible. Will this happen? I don’t know, but if we don’t think about it, it won’t.

Bumpy Ableton Live session

Yesterday, I tried upgrading to latest Ableton’s Live, the 9.7.1 version. Everything went well, but I got other issues, not related to Live, that made my work session quite bad and frustrating.

S/PDIF not working great

A month ago, I got a new audio interface: the Focusrite’s Scarlett 18i20. This amazing device provides eight analog audio inputs and 10 outputs. This is far from the advertised 18 inputs and 20 outputs, but these include S/PDIF and an add-on card that plugs into the optical ports of the interface. Anyway, 8 inputs is more than enough for my needs. I have difficulty playing one instrument reliably, so I won’t start playing multiple instruments at the same time, at least not now!

I didn’t have enough long audio jack cables to plug my Novation’s Ultranova (two channels), my Korg’s EMX (two channels) and my Nord’s Drum (1 one channel), so I decided to try hooking my Ultranova through S/PDIF instead. For this, I used a RCA cable I had got somewhere I don’t remember. I plugged the S/PDIF coaxial output of the synthesizer to the appropriate input of the audio interface, then fiddled with MixControl to figure out HOW to enable S/PDIF. Easy, I thought: just set up one entry in the Mix 1 to route S/PDIF L to left channel and S/PDIF R to right channel. The Mix 1 mix was already routed to the two monitor outputs of the interface. With that, I should have obtained sound from my Ultranova into my audio monitors. No, nothing! I verified that the S/PDIF output was enabled from my Ultranova: it was.

I tried, checked many times, searched on the Web, ok, set the sync source to S/PDIF instead of Internal, from MixControl. Did it, no result. I spent at least half an hour trying, checking, trying again, to find that the volume of my Ultranova was turned all the way to minimum. Turning up the volume solved it!

BUT I started to hear cracking sounds from time to time. This happens especially when playing long notes with pad-style sounds. That means S/PDIF doesn’t work well out of my Ultranova, in my audio interface, or that requires a special cable I don’t have. But then WHY is the S/PDIF the exact same shape as an RCA connector?

There is no solution for the moment, except using the analog jacks and not being able to plug my EMX, Ultranova and Drum at the same time.

Jumpy mouse

While trying to work with Ableton’s Live and the MixControl, I had to cope with too small fonts all the times. I ended up using Windows zoom (Windows key plus +). But regularly, the zoom was jumping all around. I figured out that this was the mouse pointer that was regularly moving around without obvious reason. Ah, this is why I am now literally constantly loosing the pointer, forced to bring it back at upper left corner of the screen almost each time I want to click on something! The pointer is really jumping around, I’m not getting crazy! This made working with the mouse a real pain, similar to what I experienced with the old Mac my brother’s wife gave me a year ago. I thought about running Live on that Mac, because many people pretend that Mac’s are more stable for music production, but the machine is way way way too slow for that, I just forgot and never tried!

I ended up trying with another mouse, that seemed to be a bit better, but I realized that the right button was completely non-working!!! Why the hell did I keep this stupid mouse then? I threw it in the thrash can and put back the first one. Then I figured out that putting the mouse on a piece of white paper helped, making it a lot less jumpy.

Windows update restarting computer while I’m using it

Windows 10 sometimes automatically restarts the computer to apply some updates. Up to now, this only happened while the machine was idle. Well yesterday, it happened right in my face, while I was working with Live! I got so pissed off by this that I tried to disable this really bad functionality. I fortunately figured out a way to disable these forced updates. It was relatively easy, although it caused me trouble because my Windows is in French and the procedure was in English. If this procedure doesn’t work and spurious reboots happen too often, this may force me to downgrade to Windows 8 or Windows 7, or switch to Mac and have constant trouble with too small fonts. This could be a dead end case leading me to stop using my computer, at least stop trying to make music with this.

Slower and slower machine

My main computer is on a desk while my music gears are on a table on the opposite wall. I tried to link them together using a long USB cable and a hub, but that failed with crashes from Ableton’s Live. However, my attempts were with the audio interface built into my Ultranova. Maybe I’ll have more luck with my Focusrite, if the cable and hub are stable enough. Why an hub? Well, this is to get a keyboard and mouse next to my music table. I will also transport video through an HDMI cable and get a screen nearby as well.

But for now, I ended up having to use my Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yoga 13 ultrabook for attempts at music production. This worked relatively well, but the machine is starting to be slow since I updated it to Windows 10. Searching on forums gives no result, except other people are experiencing performance problems, sometimes on Windows 10, sometimes on Windows 8.1. Starting Live is now taking almost 45 seconds on this machine. Fortunately, the program is responding correctly for now, until of course I add enough tracks and effects to my Live set to make it choke up like crazy. I guess this will happen if I go far enough in music production.

Difficulties with music production itself

Creating the track I had in mind caused me great trouble. While not super complex, it is not a trivial repeat drum beat. I managed to play it a couple of times, started the recording on my EMX and messed it up completely. I tried again, messed it up again. I cannot play it reliably unless I try 25 times and more. The workaround is to correct notes, but this is quite tedious on the EMX. Tired of this, I tried to record MIDI using my Ultranova as a source and Live as a sequencer. But even from Live, fixing the incorrect notes was a real pain. I experimented with the quantization which also didn’t work correctly.

There is no well-defined workflows and no comprehensive tutorials about music production. All I can find is case-specific pro tips, sometimes involving plugins I don’t want to install yet. I’m just overwhelmed with Live itself, having to constantly check and redo what I am doing, this is not a great time to complicate stuff with plugins.

Conclusion

Although I am having less and less fun with all this for the moment, I feel I can manage to get something good out of it. If I gave up because of difficulties, I would not have been able to get a Ph.D, to keep my job for more than seven years and to create a modded Minecraft map.

Shocking problem with audio channels

A couple of months ago, I bought myself a condenser microphone to improve the quality of my recordings in my Minecraft videos. However, such microphones require a XLR connection sending phantom power. An audio interface or mixer is required to power such microphones and get captured audio out of them. My first setup was a bit convoluted and required two cables going from my computer desk to the table on which I installed my music production gears:

  1. My microphone is on my computer desk and linked to my mixer with a cable running on the floor.
  2. My mixer is sending phantom power and getting the microphone’s audio. It gets a mono signal and spreads it to its two output channels. From the mixer, it is possible to adjust the microphone’s volume as well as its position in the stereo image.
  3. My mixer is sending output, including microphone and other sound devices, to my Novation’s Ultranova.
  4. My Ultranova is linked to my computer through a USB cable which also has to run on the floor.
  5. The audio interface built into my Ultranova is used to turn analog sound coming from my mixer into digital audio.

After some changes in my home office, I had to move the table with music gears further from my computer desk, which prevented me from using this setup until I get longer cables. I may instead end up with a second computer dedicated to music production, which will make controlling Ableton’s Live easier than having to go back and forth between my music table and computer desk. I then needed a new solution for my microphone setup.

Luckily, I have a M-Audio FastTrack Pro interface I decided to give a new shot. The interface had issues with Ableton’s Live, making the software crash and misbehave intermittently. The issue can come from the interface itself, the ASIO driver, Windows 10, Ableton’s Live or something else. There is no way to track it down, this is why I switched to using my Ultranova as the audio interface. But maybe, I thought, the M-Audio FastTrack Pro would just work for that simpler application.

I thus put it on my computer desk, plugged it through USB, plugged my microphone in the first input and turned it on. I made sure the first input was configured in Instrument mode, turned on phantom power and then performed a test. I had a voice over to record at the end of an in-progress Minecraft video. For this, I usually use Corel’s VideoStudio X8.

However, when I listened at the recording, sound was correct, but it was coming from the left channel only. It didn’t take me long to realize Corel’s VideoStudio was accessing my audio interface as a stereo device. The interface was then simply and predictably providing stereo information: the left channel coming from the first input, right channel coming from the second input. Nothing is plugged in the second input? No problem, the interface just provided silence. This is simple, logical, but today’s software expect more chaotic behavior: VideoStudio was assuming the interface would magically duplicate the two inputs! Apparently, some low-end USB microphone just do that! I also realized that my recording software would react the same way; my voice would play just on the left side.

Searches on Google only gave me unacceptably complicated solutions.

  • Post-process audio in another software tool like CoolEdit Pro, Audacity, Sound Forge, to turn the stereo file into a mono one. That would have forced me to figure out the name VideoStudio gave to my voice over, maybe even exporting the clip manually from VideoStudio to a WAVE file, find the file in the audio editor of my choice, search forever to figure out how to make the file mono, save the file back somewhere, return to VideoStudio, find the file there, import. If I had to do this one time, I would do it and that’s it. But I would have to repeat all that for any voice over I make with that new setup!
  • Encode the video with mono audio. Besides requiring a lot of tedious manipulations in VideoStudio (click there, find that option, click there, there, there, there, etc.), this is unacceptable as my game sound is stereo and I want to keep this.
  • Insert a Y splitter cable linking my microphone to both inputs of my audio interface. That could work in a RCA or jack world, but I’m not sure at all about the results with XLR plugs delivering phantom power! Of course, nobody will have accurate information about that. According to my very far memory of electricity I learned in physics, both XLR inputs would deliver a 48V signal, resulting into a circuit with two parallel paths delivering 48V, so the output of the Y would get 48V, not 96V, but maybe I was wrong, and that would just blow up my microphone. I would also have to order this Y splitter cable on eBay or Addison Électronique and wait for it several days, or go at Addison store, which involves a never-ending bus trip for me.
  • Some forum posts were suggesting that the software tool is responsible for correctly configuring the audio interface. If it doesn’t, I have to switch to something else. That would mean I would have to use one tool to capture video, a second tool to capture audio and manage to sync up the tools in some way or another. That means having the two tools side by side and rapidly clicking on the record buttons, hoping they start simultaneously. That’s stupid, crazy, inefficient, and I really hate that people propose, adopt and accept such solutions, because that’s not so bad for them. This is bad, because computer is all about automation, and should not force human beings to repeat stupid and brain-killing tasks!
  • According to my research, some USB microphones will deliver a stereo signal to Windows, which will just avoid this issue. I could thus switch to such a microphone, forgetting about my actual device. I really disliked that, because I didn’t want to replace an already-working microphone with a potentially inferior one. And what would happen with my actual microphone? Well, maybe my brother would make a use of it in his jamming room. Quite little consolation…
  • Maybe another audio interface would provide a better treatment of this issue. I could for example try with the FastTrack Solo interface which has a single input, so no obvious reason to deliver stereo data. However, I  had no certainty about if and how that would work, I would have had to try my luck. Maybe my brother could help me out if he has the Solo M-Audio interface, maybe not, I didn’t remember which one he had.
  • My friend suggested me to use my mixer as before. That would require me to unplug all wires from my mixer, moving it on my computer desk for recording stuff, then moving and plugging my mixer back on my music table to play some music. Quite annoying.
  • My friend suggested me to use the inserts on the M-Audio interface. This quickly appeared to be an hard task, as making use of this requires custom cables designed for inserts. In particular, I would need a Y splitter starting from a TRS balanced jack into two separate mono jacks! Most jack Y splitters just duplicate a stereo signal. The only TRS Y splitters I could find were on eBay.

I was quite desperate and about to give up on recording or switch back to my H2N, which works but gives recording with a lot of background noise. My last hope was Virtual Audio Cable. Tailoring it to my needs required a bit of trickery, but that ended up working, so I purchased a license for it.

From stereo to mono with Virtual Audio Cable

First piece of this intricate puzzle can be found by right-clicking on the Windows mixer in the task bar and selecting recording devices.

Capture d'écran 2016-08-20 21.27.42Double-clicking on the M-Audio’s line device and accessing the last tab results into the following.

Capture d'écran 2016-08-20 21.27.47The default input setting is on two channels, thus stereo. Interesting. What if I switch this to mono? Wouldn’t this be enough to indicate both VideoStudio and Bandicam to record a mono track? If they simply use default settings, that could work, no? Well, no, because the M-Audio driver doesn’t accept other settings than 2 channels! I tried with both Windows builtin driver and the M-Audio one: same result. I probably need a better audio interface. But that is enough for DAWs such as Ableton’s Live, who are able to pick and choose which channels to record on.

I thus had to implement a patch using a virtual cable. For this, I accessed the second tab of the M-Audio line device which allows to listen to the captured audio. However, instead of feeding the captured audio to the default device as most people would do, I routed it to a virtual device provided by Virtual Audio Cable.

Capture d'écran 2016-08-20 21.32.55That Line 1 entry appears in both playback and recording devices. This is a virtual cable that can be used to transfer audio from one process to another. Based on this reasoning, I found the Line 1 entry in my recording devices and made it the default recording device. In my case, it is called Mic 1 because I messed in the control panel of Virtual Audio Cable, but that’s not necessary.

Capture d'écran 2016-08-20 21.33.13Hoping for a miracle, I double-clicked the virtual recording device, accessed the last tab and clicked on the drop-down menu for channel selection. I was then able to select a 1-channel input!

Capture d'écran 2016-08-20 21.33.19I then tested and that finally worked! Windows “plays” the captured audio into the virtual cable, which coerces it into mono, which can be “recorded” by software programs. After a lot of frustrating research with less and less hope for a solution, I ended up with stereo recording again. I had to purchase the full version of Virtual Audio Cable for this to work without the annoying “Trial” message in my recorded sound, but at least, I didn’t have to wait for a Y splitter cable ordered from eBay or try my luck with USB microphones or new audio interfaces, without being sure it would solve my issue.

Ubuntu 16.04 almost killed my current HTPC setup

Yesterday, I tried to upgrade my HTPC running Ubuntu 14.04 to the new LTS 16.04. That almost went smooth, but some glitches happened at the end and some changes prevented my Minecraft FTB server to start again. The problems are now solved, but I was wondering if I would be able to get this working again.

I had two hopes with this upgrade: get an intermittent awful audio glitch fixed and have the ProjectM visualization work again. From time to time, when I start the playback of a video file, I’m hearing an awful super loud distortion instead of the soundtrack. I then have to restart playback. Usually, that’s enough, sometimes, I have to restart it twice. Fortunately, audio doesn’t go crazy during playback. ProjectM visualization started to fail, I think since Kodi 1.16. It just doesn’t kick in, leaving me a blank screen. At least Kodi doesn’t crash or freeze as some versions of XBMC were doing when ProjectM was unable to access Internet reliably.

CloneZilla failing to start

The week before the upgrade, I wanted to backup the SSD of my HTPC using CloneZilla in case some problems happened. I used an old version I had burned on a CD because I thought this 2009 HTPC wouldn’t boot USB sticks. Well, that old version, although working on my main PC, failed to start on my HTPC. It was simply freezing without any clue of what was happening. Before trying to download the new version and burn it on a CD, I noticed that my external USB hard drive was showing up in the boot up options when pressing F8 at computer startup. I thus tried to boot my CloneZilla USB stick running a more recent version and that worked. I don’t know if my HTPC was always able to boot off USB, maybe this capability got added by a BIOS upgrade. That was a good thing, and allowed me to perform my backup.

Dist-upgrade or clean install?

Several people on forums recommend to perform a clean install, claiming that too much things changed from one version to the other. That may be true in some cases, and that’s probably the safest route, but unfortunately, the clean install doesn’t always detect the drives to mount, requiring time-consuming modifications to /etc/fstab (with copy/pasting of drive UUIDs) and then I would have to figure out what packages were previously installed and reinstall them. I also have a couple of Cron jobs performing automatic backups of my Minecraft worlds that I would need to recreate.

Instead of doing that, I tried to use the Update Manager to perform a dist-upgrade. Unfortunately, by default, the tool won’t go from one LTS to the other. You have to go all the way through 14.10, 15.04, 15.10, then 16.04! Each dist-upgrade would have taken at two hours, making this process a really painful non-sense. Instead, I tried calling update-manager -d and got the option to go from 14.04 to 16.04!

During the installation, I thought that if the power supply of this relatively old system died during the process, the system would probably be unrecoverable, requiring a backup restore or clean install. Aouch! Luckily, no such thing happened.

TeXLive broken

During the dist-upgrade, I got some error messages because the updated TeXLive-related packages couldn’t be configured properly. Why is TeXLive installed on this HTPC? I don’t remember exactly. I don’t need to compile any LaTeX document on this machine so this didn’t seem an issue at all for me. I just asked the installer to ignore the errors and noted down to myself to delete the TeXLive packages after the upgrade to be sure not to run into issues if, for some obscure reasons, I wanted to compile a LaTeX document later on.

Failed dist-upgrade

Unfortunately, the dist-upgrade aborted with an error, no accurate information, just a message telling that the dist-upgrade failed. Argh! The system couldn’t shutdown or reboot anymore, even when running sudo reboot from the command line. I was so frustrated that I considered shutting down this machine, which caused me issues after issues since more than seven years, and never turn it back on again. If I weren’t able to recover from this failure, I could however have restored my CloneZilla image after taking a break from this catastrophic upgrade. In other words, everything wasn’t lost.

I tried pressing the power button a couple of times, the screen became blank and remained blank for a few seconds, then the stupid machine rebooted. At least, the broken Ubuntu installation started up to the GUI. Assuming the main issue was this TeXLive glitch, I opened a Terminal and tried to remove the TeXLive package: sudo apt-get remove texlive. This failed. Apt-get was reporting errors about the TeXLive-related packages that weren’t configured. I tried to remove the package using dpkg, which complained that texlive wasn’t an installed package. I then tried searching for the packages using apt-cache pkgnames tex, and ended up removing tex-commons. That got rid of the incorrectly configured packages and unblocked apt-get.

After this, I ran apt-get update, then apt-get dist-upgrade. That installed a couple of additional packages. Then I ran apt-get autoremove to remove the obsolete packages. This, hopefully, completed the dist-upgrade. I also rebooted to make sure the system could still boot after that.

OpenJDK 8 causing issues

This HTPC is running a Minecraft world my friend and I are sharing. We log less and less often onto that map because my friend plays rarely and I am currently focusing on Agrarian Skies 2 rather than this old FTB Monster pack the map runs on. But I I am considering the possibility of starting a map on FTB Infinity Expert Skyblock pack after I’m done (or completely blocked) with Agrarian Skies 2 and would like to run it on a server with an auto-backup strategy in place and the possibility for friends to join in if they want. I thus wanted to keep the possibility of running Minecraft servers on my HTPC.

Now, when I started the FTB Monster server, I was greeted with a meaningless ConcurrentModificationException. I may be able to retrieve the stack trace, but this is a bit pointless, referring repeatedly to non-sense internal class names. Ok, this is probably broken because of Java 8 and won’t get fixed unless I upgrade the mod pack, which will either force me to start from scratch on a new map, or require hours and hours of work to convert the map, and the map would be quite damaged after the upgrade. In particular, switch to Applied Energistics 2 mod will destroy my logistic network so much that it will require a complete redesign and rebuild. This will be even worse than the switch of Thermal Expansion and IC2 that occurred when I migrated (painfully) from Unleashed to Monster.

Simple solution: run this under OpenJDK 7. That’s simple under Windows, unfortunately… Yep, no available OpenJDK 7 package on apt-get for Ubuntu 16.04! Maybe I could have fiddled something with PPAs or install Oracle’s JDK outside of the apt-get packaging system, but what’s the point of having a packaging system if it requires so many workarounds? I also thought about running the server into a Docker container constructed from an image proposing Java 7, but that’s a bit convoluted and could cause other issues. Who knows if the server will behave well when running in a Docker container? It will probably, but that remains to be tested.

Fortunately, I figured out a way to patch the installation by adding a new JAR to the mods folder. The JAR comes from http://ftb.cursecdn.com/FTB2/maven/net/minecraftforge/lex/legacyjavafixer/1.0/legacyjavafixer-1.0.jar and was recommended by a forum post on http://support.feed-the-beast.com/t/cant-start-crashlanding-server-unable-to-launch-forgemodloader/6028. Installing the JAR fixed the issue and allowed me to start the server!

Totally unexpected, very frustrating

In order to test my Minecraft server, I started the FTB Launcher on my Ubuntu 16.04 main computer. From the launcher, I started the FTB Monster pack: crash. OpenJDK 8, again. I had to apply the JAR patch on my client as well. I did it (instead of fiddling to manually install JDK 7) and that worked. I was able to log on my server and enter my world. However, as soon as I pressed F12 to go full screen, screen went blank and everything was blocked. No way to go out of the game by switching desktop, no way to kill the game window with ALT-F4. I would once again have to go to another machine, SSH into my main computer, kill the JVM, fail, try with kill -9. Instead, I just rebooted the machine, tried with Windows, and that worked. My Minecraft setup was correct. Just the client now requires a different video card or driver to work reliably on Ubuntu, but I changed from onboard Intel HD to a NVIDIA GeForce addon card in 2013 just for that reason. Having to switch back and forth graphic cards from Ubuntu versions to versions is a total non-sense for me.

Kodi is gone

I don’t know exactly how that happened, but Kodi, the new name of XBMC, got removed during the upgrade. Just reinstalling it was simple and enough to fix this. Kodi still works fine, for music and video playback. ProjectM visualization is still broken, though, but that’s not a big deal. I didn’t hear the audio distortion since the upgrade, but it’s too recent to tell if it’s gone for good or not.

Conclusion

For now, I’m not sure it was worth it but at least it didn’t break things. Main functionalities of my HTPC are still there: Minecraft server runs, I was able to listen to YouTube videos, Kodi works for music and videos, SSH is  working properly. I’ll have to see if other surprises are awaiting me.

Taking control of his own machine

Not being administrator on his own Windows-based PC or laptop is a real shame. It prevents the installation of most software programs and some settings are not accessible. This issue is most commonly caused by system administrators in a need for a power trip, but it could also happen on a home computer configured for multiple users. One could run on user accounts and sometimes, less and less often, switch to an administrator account to install software programs. The inevitable then happens: forgotten administrator password.

The simplest solution in this case is to wipe the computer and reinstall Windows, but I needed to do better than this two years ago. This post describes what happened and what I did to get around the issue. Anyone trying this should be careful and be aware that this could cause trouble, especially if the gained privileges are misused afterwards. I only gained administrative privileges on a testing ultrabook. That couldn’t and didn’t grant me any permission on other systems.

A new but limited ultrabook

Friday, April 26 2013, I got a new Windows 8 ultrabook at my workplace. It was officially to test a Windows-based virtual assistant we were developing at that time, but that machine could do more: temporarily replace my official work laptop which was becoming too sluggish. Replacement of the old laptop was delayed for procedural reasons. I knew I could install my stuff on the ultrabook without disturbing the virtual assistant application, so the ultrabook could perform both functions.

The Monday after, I was heading to the Burlington office of my company to provide technical support for people there. I wanted to bring that new ultrabook with me so I needed to install a couple of programs on it before leaving. Unfortunately, I quickly noticed, Friday at the end of the day or during the weekend, I don’t remember, that I couldn’t install JDK on the machine because I was not administrator. I wasn’t sure I would be able to get IT from granting me the administrative privileges by Monday just before leaving and wanted to get some stuff installed before Monday.

Feeling a bit cow boy, I wanted to hack my way around this issue. Not being administrator on my corporate laptop is a concern for me. At my current workplace, this is not an issue, but I heard this is a problem in other companies. Having a last resort way out seemed useful to me. I just found out this way, and that leaves almost no traces if everything goes well. Keep in mind this impacts just the hacked computer, nothing else on the network.

Shutting down Windows 8 properly

The main idea of my strategy was to boot the ultrabook into Linux, mount the Windows partition and hack the registry to do something about the unknown administrator password. For this, Windows 8 has to be shutdown properly. There is a new feature called hybrid startup causing the shutdown to be unclean and preventing Linux to mount the Windows partition read-write. Fortunately, this can be worked around by cleanly shutting down the PC. The simplest way is to start a command prompt (Windows key + R, then cmd), and type shutdown /s /t 0. Two years ago, I also found out I could hold Shift key while clicking on the Shutdown button, but I’m not sure this works anymore.

Booting Linux

Then I needed to boot into Linux. The simplest solution is to use Offline NT Password Recovery & Registry editor, but it was not compatible with UEFI at that time and I wasn’t sure I would be able to perform a non-UEFI boot on this Dell’s XPS13 ultrabook.  Moreover, I cannot find the download anymore for the tool. It seems that we now have to email the author to get the hidden link. I find this quite bad practice and when that happens, have a tendency to look elsewhere.

I thus tried to boot Ubuntu, and I had to do it from a USB key because there is no CD/DVD drive in the XPS13. I don’t remember exactly how I got the Live USB key. I probably used the Live CD/DVD/USB Creator tool built into Ubuntu, but other pages such as this one give clues about how to create it from Windows.

I then had to modify the BIOS/UEFI settings of the ultrabook to alter boot priority. If I remember well, I had to hit F2 while the XPS13 boots, before Windows starts of course. I managed to get the ultrabook from UEFI boot the USB stick, but that crashed after the boot. I thus had to enable legacy boot and then boot the USB key in MBR, non-UEFI mode.

chntpw

After I successfully booted into Ubuntu Live USB, I started a terminal and entered sudo apt-get install chntpw. This installed the Offline NT Password Recovery tool. I just tested while writing this post on a Ubuntu 15.04 box and that still works!

After the tool was installed, I of course started it: sudo chntpw. I followed the instructions. I was offered the opportunity to reset the administrator password, but I didn’t like this, because I would not be able to restore the ultrabook in its original state: my hack would leave a trace. I found a better option: active the hidden Administrator account! After this was done, I rebooted into Windows and was able to log in as Administrator.

I don’t remember if I absolutely had to restore UEFI settings to disable legacy boot in order for Windows 8 to boot again, but I did it for my intervention to be as clean and traceless as possible. At worst, I would have obtained an error message when attempting to boot without the USB key and would have had to alter boot priority and/or disable legacy boot: no harm done to Windows.

One step further

The problem was solved, but I wanted to step even further: transfer the gained administrative privileges to my regular user account! For this, while logged in as the local Administrator, I had to access Control Panel, then Administrative settings, then Local users and groups. Unfortunately and very shockingly, this option has been completely hidden away in Windows 10: you once again have to search on Google and figure out you need to press the Windows + R keys to open the Run dialog, type lusrmgr.msc, and click/tap on OK. I hope one day Microsoft will understand this is very bad and frustrating practice that will make many power users, including me if I could, migrate to Mac OS X.

I then selected Groups, double-clicked on Administrators and clicked Add to add a member. The system offered me a dialog box to type the user name to add, but Windows was unable to find my user name of the form <company name>\<user name>.

I don’t know how I thought about it, but I figured out that Windows would need to access my company’s active directory service to resolve user names to IDs. Since I was at home, I needed to establish a VPN connection. I thus installed the Cisco VPN client on the ultrabook (I would need it anyway afterwards), then was able to add my user account to the local Administrators group. I don’t know exactly how I got the VPN client: maybe I had one copy lying around on my main computer for obscure reasons, maybe I turned on my main corporate laptop to download it, don’t remember. I was also able to hook up to the VPN from Ubuntu without a tool downloadable only from my company’s Intranet. But I got VPN and that worked.

After I did that, I logged back as my regular user, was able to install JDK without any issue, then I went back into Local Users and Groups, selected Users, double-clicked on Administrator and disabled the account. That closed the back door I used to gain administrative privileges, without taking away my new rights.

Will this always work?

No. Unfortunately, I can imagine ways to prevent this trick from working. The easiest way is to set up a password preventing access to the BIOS settings. Not being able to modify BIOS settings means impossibility to alter boot priority. With that enforced, the only workaround would be to remove the SSD from the machine, install it in another computer running Ubuntu and run chntpw, making sure it would work on the SSD, not on a potential main Windows install in dual boot on the Ubuntu box! Removing a SSD from a laptop or ultrabook is sometimes a risky operation, sometimes requires disassembly of the keyboard, memory modules, casing, etc. Not sure I would have attempted it.

Of course, the latter workaround miserably fails if the disk is encrypted, e.g., with Symantec’s PGP Whole Drive Encryption. One possible workaround may be to get the SSD out again, install it on a Ubuntu box itself running Symantec’s PGP and, if the encrypted drive’s password is known, maybe it is enough to decrypt the drive and mount it, allowing chntpw to work on it. It could also happen that the encryption key is made of the user’s password and a hash derived from computer’s information. In that case, it could be quite hard to work around the protection. One possibility, if the BIOS is not password-protected, may be to boot into a Live USB Ubuntu, install the encryption tool and try to decrypt the drive on the local computer itself.

Windows 10: a new hope or not?

Since I moved to Windows 8 two years ago, I experienced several issues with my system. There was nothing major, and only suspicions that the cause was Windows 8 itself, so I was worried about finding the same issue after downgrading to Windows 7. I thus kept that Windows 8 installation and lived with the hurdles.

In particular, Windows 8 broke NTFS support in Ubuntu, periodically preventing my hard drive to show up. I had to disable the new hybrid startup to get rid of this problem. However, a few months later, the issue showed up again until I completely disable hibernate using an obscure impossible to remember command. That had a strange side effect of shutting the computer down after the computer was in standby for too long, so I had to disable automatic standby as well.

One day, all of a sudden, system completely stopped working, I had to refresh the PC, which completely destroyed all my configuration. Instead of reinstalling all drivers and applications, I just restored a CloneZilla image.

Sometimes, login becomes slow. The computer starts at normal speed, I reach the login screen, then I have to wait 30 seconds between the time I type my password and reach the desktop. Usually, I’m not experiencing this ridiculous delay, but it happens often enough to bother me. I have a Core i7 with a SSD, so I find this quite bad that Windows compensate the hardware efficiency without software delays!

There is also that intricate audio issue making computer-assisted music a pain: computer refuses to shut down after a session in Ableton’s Live, Live suddenly refuses to start and requires reinstallation of Visual C++ libraries, sound starts to be choppy when using ASIO for playback or recording, S/PDIF distortion with my M-Audio Fast Track Pro when hooked to my UltraNova synthesizer, etc.

The only “solution” I was getting was to downgrade to Windows 7, because Microsoft is releasing one good version of Windows out of two. But I was worried that downgrading would cause me activation issues and didn’t want to come back with my old Windows 7 problem of low contrast between selected and unselected menu items. I have this issue at work and the only fully working patch is to completely disable Aero theme, falling back to classic theme.

The upgrade

Rather than letting Microsoft decide for me when I would get this upgrade to Windows 10, I downloaded the Windows 10 setup tool and ran that in order to download the new system and transfer it on a USB key. I put this USB key aside for the day I would be ready to attempt this upgrade.

I tried the upgrade on Saturday, August 22 2015, a few weeks after the official release. Before my attempt, I checked that all my main applications and device drivers would be available. I also backed up all my data and created a new CloneZilla image of my SSD containing Windows 8.1 and Ubuntu 15.04 in dual boot.

My first idea was to completely wipe Windows 8.1’s partition and install Windows 10 fresh, eliminating all quirks and issues that could arise from this old and possibly altered Windows 8.1 setup. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as straight as I expected. I was certainly able to boot from my Windows 10 USB stick, reached an installer, but I was blocked at the step requesting a product key. None of my Windows 8 and Windows 7 keys worked. There was a button to ignore the step, I thought about trying that and attempting the activation later, maybe an update would allow my old product key to work, or maybe the validation of the product key required Internet connection which was not available because my network interface wasn’t supported or initialized at this time.

Instead of running the risk of not being able to activate my freshly installed Windows 10, I turned on my ultrabook and searched on the Internet. I first got a forum post suggesting to call Microsoft, maybe they would be able to perform the activation by phone even though it doesn’t work by Internet. No way! I didn’t want to spend frustrating minutes trying to enter a validation key that the operator would dictate me, one hand on the keyboard, one hand to hold the phone, just because Microsoft cannot evolve. Fortunately, I searched a bit more and found out that the upgrade process allowed to wipe out pretty much everything: installed application and user’s configuration.

I thus decided to try this instead of fiddling with activation issues I tried to avoid since two years by refraining from downgrading to Windows 7! I thus restarted into Windows 8.1 and executed the setup program on my Windows 10 USB key.

I had the choice between preserving all my applications and data, only the data or nothing at all. I first thought about the third option, to start as fresh as possible, but I was worried that Windows could destroy all my partition layout, including my data drive. I didn’t want to reinstall Ubuntu and uselessly restore all my data from backups so I chose the second option: preserve data but remove applications.

After the setup program restarted my computer, I got stuck with a boot error message. I first thought Windows installation messed up and I would have to attempt the clean install and then work around activation hurdles, but I quickly found out that the error was related to GRUB. A bit annoyed by the fact once again, Windows broke GRUB which is needed to boot Ubuntu, I restarted my machine and changed the boot option to start Windows instead of Ubuntu. I was then able to resume Windows installation, which went well after this small hick up.

Cannot login!

After upgrade completed, I got the new welcome screen, very similar to Windows 8.1’s. I entered my usual user name and password and got an error message: invalid password. I tried many times, same issue. I first thought about this stupid annoying insane caps lock: no, caps lock was off. I then thought there was a networking issue. Since I am using a Microsoft account to login, my password is stored both on my local machine and on Microsoft’s server. The format of the password cache may have changed between Windows 8 and 10, so a first login in Windows 10 could require network access. Maybe, I thought, the network interface is not detected or requires a driver that I would have to install in safe mode. Quite bad, definitely Windows installation is harder and harder and we will soon have to forget about any upgrade, unless we get a new computer with preinstalled OS.

Fortunately, the problem was simpler, far simpler, almost shockingly simpler: Windows 10 reset keyboard to France French AZERTY! I found an icon that allowed me to set the keyboard at login time back to Canadian French, then my password worked!

Good news

After these initial issues (cannot clean install, killed GRUB and login problems), I was able to reach the desktop and things went quite smoothly. Windows 10 desktop is quite similar to Windows 7.

Capture d'écran 2015-08-29 13.55.45

The start menu, which was removed from Windows 8, is back again and works pretty well.

Capture d'écran 2015-08-29 13.56.02

The contrast issue between selected and unselected menu items didn’t come back. The new start menu is a bit easier to use than Windows 7 one.

I didn’t care about the personal assistant Cortana and the new Web browser Edge, but I really liked the fact that the Alt-Tab finally works correctly. Since Windows 7, when I was pressing Alt-Tab and holding Alt, pressing Tab to toggle between opened windows, I always had to be careful not to select the desktop which was listed in the proposed targets. I did this mistake again and again, especially when struggling with problems, and that makes things annoying. The only workarounds was to stop using Alt-Tab and fiddle with the mouse instead, or alleviate with solutions such as Virtuawin. Windows 10 helped with that by removing this fake desktop window from the targets proposed by Alt-tab switcher.

Capture d'écran 2015-08-29 13.56.21

Even with that small improvement, there is still a need to group windows into virtual workspaces for efficient navigation. Windows 10 finally addressed this through builtin virtual desktops. This feature is activated by pressing Winows-Tab, then it is possible to pick another desktop or create a new one.

Capture d'écran 2015-08-29 13.57.08

I was worried that Microsft would, like Apple, implement this in a poor way, making it totally useless. On some implementations of virtual desktops, namely the Apple one, but also on some versions of GNOME 3, Alt-Tab shows opened windows from all desktops, making the grouping totally useless for me. Virtual desktops is then useful only for people able to have multiple windows opened side by side on the screen. In my case, I almost all the times have a maximized window because with the larger fonts I need to use, I cannot stuff as much information in windows than with most other users. I was happy that Windows 10 correctly honored the grouping of windows when pressing Alt-Tab.

However, I’m still unsure this will be efficient for me to use. For now, I didn’t find any effective way to go from one desktop to another. I had to press Windows-Tab, then Tab, then arrow keys, then Enter. I will probably always mess up in the sequence, e.g., press arrow keys before Tab. However, the ackward user interface may be compensated by better reliability since the feature is builtin rather than hacked using windows hiding like Virtuawin does. I hope I will get less random issues like keyboard not working after switching to a new desktop, Virtuawin offering to close itself when pressing Alt-F4, instead of closing the current window, etc.

Another improvement is the possibility of disabling DPI scaling for 64 bits application without fiddling into the registry. Up to Windows 8.1, this was possible only for 32 bits applications, so for Ableton Live, which causes issues with DPI scaling, I had to use a registry tweak. This is annoying, hard to remember and prone to disasters. What if by mistake I remove a registry key?

I also liked that the Explorer now groups the favorites and libraries in the same list rather than having two separate lists. Since Windows 8.1, i have to spend almost 20 seconds each time I want to reach my Dropbox folder. When I start Explorer with Windows-E, the Dropbox shortcut isn’t shown so I have to scroll up. Mouse wheel doesn’t work so I have to locate the too small scroll bars and use that, or try with my touch screen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it moves stuff around!

Capture d'écran 2015-08-29 13.56.12

Software compatibility

I read quite a bit of concerning forum posts about broken programs in Windows 10. In particular, several people had issues with Ableton’s Live 9.1, the program I use for computer-assisted music. I’m underusing it quite a bit for now, but I would like to continue exploring it. My hope is to make better use of it at some point in my personal progression in musical creation. Some people were saying Ableton’s Live 9.2 Beta version worked better. Fortunately, that Beta became final before I upgraded to Windows 10 and Ableton didn’t charge upgrade fees, so I got the new version without any hesitation. For now, it works correctly, but I didn’t try to push it hard yet: no ASIO, no multitrack recording, etc. It will come, and hopefully it will have less issues than with Windows 8.1.

I didn’t install the driver for my M-Audio interface yet. I’m still using the interface built into my UltraNova, for which Windows 10 compatibility is official as opposed to M-Audio’s Fast Track Pro. My concern is that the installation may mess things up and cause issues that will be entangled with other problems. I will thus make sure everything is stable before dropping this driver in, and probably even be as paranoid as creating a new CloneZilla image before installing that piece of software. If the M-Audio interface is flawed with Windows 10 as with Windows 8.1, I will have to consider purchasing a new one: minimum four inputs, maybe eight if that’s not over-expensive, I’ll see. If Live is also unstable, I may have to try my luck on a brand new Mac and probably end up setting a lower resolution than my LCD native one because fonts are too small on Mac OS X and cannot be enlarged in a consistent way.

Ninite installed most of my main applications: LibreOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, etc. GNU Emacs still works, same for Minecraft, both FTB Monster and Agrarian Skies 2 packs. I also installed the latest version of Bandicam, which seems to work, but I didn’t perform any gameplay recording since my upgrade.

I don’t know about Corel’s VideoStudio yet. I am using this sometimes flaky tool to perform basic editing on my Minecraft gameplay videos. I am planning to upgrade this thing to the latest version, which hopefully will address potential Windows 10 issues. I didn’t read any positive or negative reports about this software program on the new Windows.

I’m a bit concerned with VirtualBox, whose version 5 has issues with Windows 10. They don’t tell anything about version 4.3, which I chose conservatively because I was putting up a virtual machine at my work place shared with colleagues. Fortunately, I don’t absolutely need VirtualBox for my personal use now. It may just be useful as a backup solution if I work from home one day and my work laptop fails, but I still have to check that Cisco’s AnyConnect VPN correctly works wih Windows 10. Anyway, i still have the option to boot into Ubuntu, where Cisco’s VPN and VirtualBox work!

Ubuntu threatened once again

The day after my Windows 10 upgrade, I tried to repair my Ubuntu boot. First, I booted back into GRUB, hoping it would work. Windows 10 should have only changed its stuff in the ESP, leaving GRUB intact. No, no luck. I was sent to a rescue prompt. I tried to enter commands without success. I tried “help”: still no luck. I would thus have had to check on the Internet to figure out what basic rudimentary commands this tool accepts. Why didn’t it offer online help?

Tired of fiddling with Ubuntu, I rebooted into Windows 10, now ready to delete its partition, enlarge Windows 10 partition and install a fresh new Ubuntu in a VirtualBox virtual machine. I was a bit sad to downgrade Ubuntu from being a first class operating system to a Microsoft’s slave, but I felt it was better for my mental health to do it sooner than later.

However, I got blocked by multiple unknown partitions preventing me from just enlarging Windows 10 space. I would have to remove my Linux partitions and then move these unknown partitions, unless I knew for sure I could delete them as well. To figure this out, I had to reboot into a Ubuntu Live DVD. I then found out that I never downloaded any Ubuntu 15.04 ISO! I ended up trying with 14.10 and got confirmation that the unknown partitions contained Windows recovery data: better to preserve them.

While booted into Ubuntu Live DVD, I decided to restore GRUB. This went well, but I had to use the contorted method consisting of making a chroot environment with my Ubuntu installation and reinstalling GRUB from there

Surprise: the nasty pig once again wasn’t finding out my Windows partition! I had to search on my blog posts to figure out how I addressed this in the past. Last time, my ESP wasn’t set up with the Boot flag. But this time, my ESP was correct. Oh no, don’t tell me Windows 10 messed up with things so this time I will have to manually add it to the GRUB menu, and redo it each time something upgrades the kernel! Before resorting to do and redo that, I rebooted into Ubuntu, which worked, tried to rerun update-grub, and this time, Windows loader got detected! Phew!

Why does standby and hibernate work only on laptops?

The day after the upgrade, I left my machine unattended for some time. When I came back, it was in standby mode. I turned the computer back on, things seemed to work right, then poof, blue screen. According to the error message, there was a corrupted driver. System had to reboot once again. This is not the first time I have to reboot the whole system to get out of standby or hibernate, and that happens only on desktop computers. On laptops, standby and hibernate wok correctly. I got more issues on Linux with this than on Windows, but it also happens on Windows, without any clear solution other than trying random things and reinstalling pretty much all drivers, without any chance of success. Maybe standby and hibernate should just be disabled by default on desktops, this is just too annoying to have to reboot to get out of this state! After that issue, I just disabled the automatic standby, so it won’t happen again until I decide to give it a new shot later on. I didn’t get other blue screens after this.

Seems NTFS-3G requires a patch that doesn’t come up

As I wrote above, since Windows 8, I am having issues with mounting my NTFS partitions under Ubuntu. The partitions just don’t mount, until I reboot into Windows, then reboot back into Ubuntu. NTFS-3G, the driver used by Linux to read/write NTFS, would definitely need to be patched to deal with incorrectly unmounted partitions. This is far from great, but this is needed because Microsoft is doing messy stuff with NTFS. Before we get this patch, all we can do is disable hybrid startup.

This time, the issue was more severe. Rather than just not mounting NTFS drives, Ubuntu refused to boot completely. I don’t know exactly why, and wasn’t able to perform any diagnostic, because the rescue prompt that came up was shown with too small fonts. I ended up rebooting, which just froze things up, no way to start up Ubuntu, even in single-user rescue prompt!

When this happened, next Tuesday after my upgrade, I rebooted into Windows to make sure at least my SSD wasn’t dead, then rebooted back into Ubuntu… with success!

Later on, I disabled this hybrid startup once again, and that seemed to have fixed things. I didn’t get other Ubuntu issues since then.

How about my ultrabook?

The situation on my Lenova IdeaPad ultrabook was a bit complicated. First, the machine had Windows 8.1 home edition, so unless I upgraded it to professional edition first, I had to download another installation medium instead of reusing the USB key I created for my main PC. Moreover, I got no prompt offering me to upgrade to Windows 10 like the ones that showed up on my main PC, so it was possible the machine runs a special Lenovo version of Windows 8. If I upgrade to Windows 10 in such a case, it may either just fail, either I will get flaky behaviors.

In particular, when I flip my ultrabook into tablet mode, the mechanism disabling the keyboard is software-based. Some people who tried Ubuntu on this model reported that the keyboard was still working when the machine was flipped into tablet mode. Without Lenovo’s customizations and drivers, I may get this incorrect behavior in Windows 10. Even worse, the touch screen may just not work. I thus had to be careful when upgrading this machine, and make all possible backups before, and be mentally ready to fight against this machine and then downgrade back to Windows 8.1.

On September 19, 2015, things changed slightly: I got the notification about upgrade being available for my ultrabook. I proceeded with the upgrade on Saturday, October 3, ater I backed up the machine using CloneZilla. The upgrade happened without issue, except the machine seemed slower after. However, things settled after a few days and the system is responding correctly.

An intricate audio puzzle

Since I moved to Windows 8, I am having multiple and increasingly annoying issues with my audio setup for computer-assisted music creation. I am slowly reaching a dead end that will force me to give up on creating music. At best, I will only be able to play some beats for fun with hardware synthesizers: no way to record, mix, apply effects etc., no way to ever come up with a full end-to-end song, just repeated audio patterns.

Initial setup

Here is my configuration:

  • Intel Core i7
  • 16Gb of RAM
  • 240Gb SSD
  • 1Tb HDD
  • M-Audio’s Fast Track Pro
  • (About to become infamous) Ableton’s Live 9.1
  • Infamous Windows 8.1

The M-Audio interface is accepting input from two TRS jacks. I was usually plugging the output of my Korg’s EMX+Kaoss Pad during session recording. The interface also has S/PDIF input that I was using to feed in audio from my Novation’s UltraNova hardware synthesizer. This trick allowed me to record four separate tracks with that otherwise stereo-only interface. Sound is output to two KRK audio monitors.

During a few months, this configuration worked correctly. However, from October 2014, things started to misbehave in multiple random ways. I initially thought this was because of my UltraNova, but problems persist even if I uninstall UltraNova’s drivers and unplug it from USB.

Here are the issues I am facing with the setup:

  • Some recording sessions go well, but after I close Ableton’s Live, turn off my devices and shut down my computer, Windows is stuck in a loop, incapable of completely turning off the machine. Screen remains black, computer fan continues spinning. Problem can happen if I leave the audio interface plugged and turned on, or if I turn it off.
  • Sometimes, sound has an incorrect pitch. There seems to be a mismatch between audio frequencies: Ableton’s Live sends 44.1kHz while audio interface plays at 48kHz. There is no solution, except repeatedly unplugging and plugging the audio interface from a USB port, try in another port, until it works.
  • Sometimes the M-Audio driver goes corrupt and cannot play sound anymore except through ASIO using Live. When this happens, I have to completely uninstall and reinstall the driver.
  • A few weeks ago, my UltraNova started to sound awfully distorted when sound was going through S/PDIF. Worried, I tried hooking up the synthesizer to my home theater AV receiver, through S/PDIF of course, and sound was super clean. Problem is thus caused by the M-Audio interface.
  • The behavior is different but incorrect on Linux: S/PDIF sound goes out distorted unless I lower my UltraNova’s volume to more than the half. Under Windows+Live, distortion happens at that volume level as well. As a result, it seems that some software component is involved in S/PDIF handling, and that component now misbehaves differently on Windows and Linux.

After I started getting distortion through S/PDIF, I felt it was too much for me and tried to change my configuration.

Second setup: another audio interface

My UltraNova offers an onboard audio interface. In order to isolate the M-Audio interface from the overwhelmingly complex equation, I decided to give it a shot. That resulted in the second setup described below.

  • Audio input is now plugged to my UltraNova’s jacks. I ended up plugging a mixer in order to get signals from my EMX+Kaoss Pad as well as a Nord Drum module I recently acquired.
  • My UltraNova sends audio to my computer through USB. As a result, sound from the synthesizer is transferred digitally while sound from my EMX and Nord is sampled by the UltraNova’s onboard chip.

I don’t like this configuration very much because my mixer has an annoying tendency to clip and I end up with a stereo mix of my recording, making it impossible to separate the tracks. I will thus be unable to experiment with mixing using this setup, unless I manually sample each track separately.

But this is not the main issue. Here are the problems:

  • I was able to record a couple of sessions of improvisation using the above configuration. However, a week ago, recorded sound started to be distorted. Even Live’s test tone, played through ASIO, then passing into UltraNova, started to sound distorted!
  • Not only playback is distorted but also recordings are not clean anymore, dirty of distortion. A promising session that could almost have been used as is for a sound track in a future Minecraft video got screwed up by this and is good for throwaway!
  • I got fed up and tried to disable ASIO, using DirectSound instead. That worked, no distortion, but more latency. I can even hear the latency when playing through Live with a MIDI keyboard.
  • Thinking it could be UltraNova’s ASIO driver, I tested with ASIO4ALL instead and got similar issues.
  • Yesterday, Live suddenly died and could not start anymore. For no obvious reasons, I had to reinstall it completely. After that, sound with ASIO worked without distortion, but playback and recording were frequently cutting.

Contradictions, no gos, no solutions!

  • My best friend thinks the issue is caused by Windows 8 and that I should downgrade to Windows 7. However, my machine takes forever, at least one hour, to install Windows, excluding drivers and applications, installation destroys Linux boot loader and it takes me at least half an hour to find out how to restore it because there is no builtin ways in Ubuntu to do so simply. Activation of Windows 7 is likely to fail because I upgraded my license to Windows 8, and I will be left with no solution if that happens, other than trying one crack after the other or installing some piece of crap that would make sure my system’s date is set to something that won’t go past the activation grace period. I just cannot accept to have all messed up file date/times because of a single piece of software.
  • I thought about purchasing a new computer, that would have only Windows 7 and be dedicated to music creation. However, there is no Windows 7 machine anymore; every new system comes with Windows 8. I could try, maybe I would be lucky and the new Windows 8 configuration would work better, but that is a hit or miss without any way to increase chances of success! Probably my best guess would be a custom-made machine with a Windows 7 license for it, if this can at all still be purchased.
  • Some forum posts pretend that Ableton’s Live will work fine on Windows 8 and 8.1, others not, others pretend it worked on Windows 8 and not well on Windows 8.1. Downgrading to Windows 8 is just a non-sense for me, better downgrade to Windows 7 instead. I’m likely to experiment the same activation issues and will loose the same amount of time reinstalling everything and repairing my Ubuntu configuration.
  • Some forum posts suggest that it will never work well on a PC and that I should try with a Mac. Well, I tried on a Mac, and that was the most awful, most frustrating experience through my whole life. The machine was awfully slow and keyboard was not responding in a deterministic way. From this experience, I had to conclude with concerns that the Mac will work well only when used with the mouse, keyboard is just for typing text in fields and emails!!! My visual impairment makes using the mouse a pain for me. Does that mean I am excluded from computer-assisted music creation, unless somebody helps me out all the time? I am slowly but surely reaching that very frustrating conclusion.

For now it somewhat works with non-ASIO configuration and stereo recording, but I know a lot more can be done. Does the problem come from Live, Windows, my motherboard’s USB ports? I just cannot figure out.

I started to investigate about ASIO itself, to try understand how and why it could misbehave. I may have to dig straight into ASIO SDK for that. I investigated about using ASIO with Audacity, because that could help me test without Ableton’s Live and eliminate it from the equation. Even that promises to be major hassle, forcing me to install Visual Studio, SDKs and compile the whole planet to get ASIO support into Audacity!

Each new issue is decreasing my motivation to persist. I have less and less fun playing with that music creation setup and I am often thinking about putting it aside. I’m not to the point of selling the components yet, but if I cannot find out something to unblock the computer part of it, I may come to that. I will at least wait for Windows 10 to come out and give it a shot before selling anything.

I hope some people will read that post and start thinking about concrete solutions, not just “it works for me, so no problem”, “buy a Mac”, “reinstall”, “try on your friend’s computer”. Maybe a Linux-based music creation platform could help, maybe a Linux distribution dedicated to music and providing just the needed components, nothing that can interfere, or something that would make Mac platform faster and more usable.

I am a software developer so I could help in developing the platform, but because Live is closed source, I cannot take what exists and improve over it, I would have to start from something inferior such as Ardour or Audacity, and rebuild/reinvent/rewrite on top of it. This would be a very time consuming experience, and without Ableton’s expertise, I would certainly do it wrong. If all Mac OS X was open source, if it could be compiled from streamlined autoconf-based build processes rather than XCode where small-sized fonts are king, I would be able to open the hood, examine the code and improve the GUI. No, I would have to start from scratch, using just the BSD kernel, and reinvent the WHOLE GUI. Without Apple’s experience, I would certainly do it wrong and messy!

KeePass and user interface problems

This morning, I tried to install Ableton‘s Live on my Mac and got an endless sequence of issues. First, I needed to log in to my Ableton Live account in order to get the Mac OS X binaries. Unfortunately, the machine-generated password for that account is stored in a KeePass keyring, so I had to install KeePass 2 on my Mac to get access to the keyring and find the password. In order to install KeePass 2, I needed to install Mono.

After I installed Mono, I was able to unpack the KeePass ZIP and got an executable that I copied in my Applications folder. However, KeePass never showed up in the Launchpad; I had to open up the Finder, browse to Applications, then double-click on the KeePass icon there. Startup of KeePass took from thirty seconds to five minutes. After that, the menus were unresponsive, taking from five to ten seconds to open up the File menu, from five to ten seconds to find and expand the Open item, then was able to open my password file. The upper KeePass menu was unresponsive; I had to use menus from within the KeePass window, which not the Mac way. Keyboard shortcuts like Command-Q were failing. But at least I got the GUI working.

However, no matter how many times I tried, my master password started to suddenly fail. I ended up making the password visible and found out that everything was typed in upper case. CAPS LOCK AGAIN! This is so frustrating, so annoying, that this Razer keyboard is causing me to make repeat mistakes, inserting all sorts of junk through anything I write, then the CAPS LOCK that triggers all the times.  I had less issues with my Logitech non-mechanical keyboard, which is by itself an incredible non-sense for me. A mechanical keyboard should work better, be more reliable, but it is almost ending up to be the opposite for me! I just cannot give up and put back the old Logitech keyboard.

However, sorting out the CAPS LOCK issue wasn’t sufficient. Master password was failing AGAIN! I then noticed that EVERYTHING I was typing was upper-cased! I tried to repeatedly press caps lock, I tried with the Mac’s internal keyboard rather than external one, it was even WORSE! The internal keyboard is now spitting out numbers when I press letters and most keys do nothing! This is a total non-sense for me. I tried to switch keyboard layout with Windows+Space, without success. I ended up trying to log off, but I couldn’t log back in: the system was entering upper-case letters even for password input. I thus had to reboot, then that came back to normal.

After all these hurdles, I was able to connect to my KeePass keystore. However, when I right-click on the entry for Ableton’s Live, NOTHING happens. I tried right-clicking multiple times without any success. If I try enough times, KeePass shuts itself down at me.

I then tried with a command-line KeePass tool, KPCLI. However, it was totally impossible to install it. The tool requires an endless number of Perl dependencies. The KPCLI website indicates nothing about how to get these dependencies. Following another web site, I tried to install them using CPAN, but despite the effort, I am still getting error messages about missing Clone.pm. Moveover, the above blog post refers to a broken Gettext that needs to be manually fixed, again! Moreover, KeePass home page refers to a bug in Mono that needs to be worked around.

Bottom line, most open-source libraries are bugged and needs manual recompilation/patching! I also experienced this issue when trying to build Extempore a few days before. This is becoming a quite concerning trend. I cannot believe the libraries are all low-quality pieces of software. I rather think developers keep patching the libraries rather than trying to use them as they are and library owners cannot keep up pulling and integrating the patches. Even if the library owners integrate patches, the integration sometimes isn’t what the patcher exactly intended, so the code relying on the original patch needs to be adapted for the revised patch. This trend is concerning, because if it continues like that, we will end up to need a virtual machine for each and every open-source application we install. Docker can be of some help there, but it doesn’t work so well for applications with graphical user interfaces. Docker is nevertheless a good tool for running services in isolation, with each service having its own funky dependencies.

For my Perl/KPCLI issue, I probably need to recompile/reinstall Perl itself, because I am using a too old Mac OS X version! Homebrew can be used to perform such tasks, but often, it starts failing, because the installation recipes are not correct and requires tweaking for the local Mac OS X! This is non-sense, all Mac’s should be equal, but this is not the case as far as I can see. Only newer 2015 Mac’s will work, so this is pointless!

For example, I tried to use Homebrew to install Extempore. The program ran for almost one hour just to compile pcre, then it tried to install a patched LLVM package. Download happened, but install failed, because the SHA1 key mismatched. The download TAR archive can be checked with tar -ztf without issues, so it doesn’t seem corrupt, but SHA1 mismatches, so I would need to copy/paste blobs of text from a web site just to tweak the Homebrew recipes, which are non-senselessly named “formulas”. Why use a non-standard terminology at first? This is not a “formula”, we are not dealing with chemistry, mathematics, even less with magic! This should be called a “package”. Anyway, it doesn’t work, so it doesn’t really matter.

Maybe I would have more luck with a Mac-friendlier password manager such as 1Password (don’t know, never tried), but that would require me to copy/paste all my KeePass passwords into the new tool, one entry at a time, and more than that, again, 1Password is just a trial! I don’t want a temporary solution that works just for 15 or 30 days, unless I toss my full name and address with credit card to somebody that can as well sell it to non-profit organizations that will then start calling me weekly for donations. I am already starting to have this issue, so just don’t want to make things worse. I want something that will solve password management once and for all! In addition, 1Password works just for Windows and Mac, so again, Linux is left out.

The only thing I could do is to download the binaries from my main computer and copy them over to my Mac, or reset my Ableton account’s password to something I can remember and just type it, as before I discovered KeePass. I just gave up because this is too much work and just too slow. Live is likely just to fail starting on this old MacCrapPro.

These are not the only issues I ran into this morning. Firefox now takes thirty seconds to one minute to start. Scrolling with the mouse wheel is unreliable. I have to give the mouse wheel a big swing for the scrolling just to start, then it is not smooth, rather choppy. Even scrolling with the arrow keys is choppy.

I just cannot get used to the funky Mac keyboard shortcuts. For me, switching applications is done with Alt-Tab, not Windows-Tab, but the Mac way is Windows-Tab. Yes, technically, it is Command-Tab, but that’s not what I have on my keyboard, and the internal keyboard just doesn’t work, missing critical keys such as Option and Fn. I always end up pressing Alt-Tab, then Windows-Tab. I always end up pressing Ctrl-K to put the search area in focus, then have to press Windows-K because Ctrl-K fails. Sometimes Windows-W will not close Firefox tab while Ctrl-W does. Sometimes, Ctrl-W won’t close the tab while Windows-W does. Sometimes, Windows-Q will close currently running applications, sometimes not, then I have to switch to the mouse, trying to find out the really small Red circle and click, oups the mouse just slipped while clicking because the screen elements are too small, try again, works. Even the builtin terminal suffers from this issue: Ctrl-+ to zoom in, oups, Windows-+! Ok, home to move at the beginning of current line, oups that moves at beginning of the whole command line history and nothing can go back except the mouse again! Moving at beginning of the line is done with Ctrl-A, not Windows-A. All is about inconsistency, making the keyboard almost useless.

Bottom line, each and every operation requires multiple attempts, making me nervous and mad each time I am using the Mac.