Posted by: jdieter | February 28, 2015

Scratching an itch



Last year I started teaching programming to my grade 10 classes. I started with Python, which is easy to understand, forces good programming practices, and is one of my favorite languages. It was a complete disaster. I had four or five in each class who understood what I was doing, and the rest were completely lost, which says a whole lot about my teaching. At 2014, I chatted with Matthew Miller about my Python problem, and he suggested teaching my students Scratch.

For those (like me) that don’t know about it, Scratch is a graphical programming language that’s designed to be easy to use while still allowing the full power of a proper programming language. The benefit of teaching programming using Scratch is that the students get quick graphical feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and syntax errors are pretty much impossible. Once they understand the basic concepts of programming, it’s then easier to switch to something like Python.

I switched to Scratch, and the students loved it. (Or, at the very least, liked it better than Python.) I ended the school year with a group assignment that was partially graded based on votes by the rest of the classes. I had great ideas for making the group assignments available online, but never went anywhere with it. Fast-forward to this year where we’ve started with Scratch and are now almost done with it and ready to move on to Python. And, since I now have a deadline, I’ve put together a simple site so they can vote on each others’ group projects.

At the moment, it has last year’s projects and is open for anyone to rate, so if you want to try out their projects, go to, give them a shot, and rate them. This was a first attempt for both students and myself, so please be gentle on the ratings.

Sometime in the next few weeks I’ll post this year’s projects. They will be available to play, but initially only students or teachers in the school will be able to rate them. Once I’ve scored them, I’ll open up the ratings to everybody.

If you have any comments or suggestions for the site itself, please leave them below.

Posted by: jdieter | January 31, 2015

Multiseat and anaconda bugs

Clouds over a mountain

Those look like storm clouds…

A year ago, I put together a post about the multiseat Fedora systems we’re using in our school. Over the past month, I’ve been putting together an upgrade from our Fedora 19 image to Fedora 21.

While doing the upgrade, I ran into a few bugs, and the first one was a doozy! Roughly half the time our multiseat systems started, the login screen would only show on two or three of the four seats. The only way to fix it was to restart the display manager, and even that only had a 50% chance of success.

At first I tried bodging around the bug by staggering the timing of Xorg’s startup, but that only made things worse. So I started looking at the logs and then looking at the Xorg code. It became obvious that the problem was that the first seat (seat0) would try to claim all the GPUs on the system. If it beat the other seats to their GPUs, they would, oddly enough, refuse to start. I put together a patch, filed a bug, and watched as those who know a lot more about Xorg’s internals take my ugly patch and make it beautiful. This patch has been merged into Xorg 1.17 and I’m hoping we’ll get it backported for F20 and F21 as I really don’t want to have to maintain internal Xorg packages until we switch to F22.

There do seem to be a couple of other bugs related to lightdm/xorg, but they’re far rarer and I haven’t spent much time on tracking them down, much less filing bugs. Occasionally lightdm starts the X server, but never gets a signal back saying that it’s ready, so they both sit there waiting for the other process. And far more rarely, the greeter crashes, which causes lightdm to shut down the seat. I think lightdm should retry a few times, but either it doesn’t or I haven’t found the right config option yet.

We did run into one interesting race condition in anaconda when we started mass-installing F21 on our systems. We use iPXE and Fedora’s PXE network install images with a custom kickstart to do the install (in graphical mode, because pretty installs make it less likely that a student will press the reset button while the install is progressing). On some systems, I’d get an error message that basically said that a repository that was supposed to be enabled had disappeared, which would crash anaconda.

Thanks to anaconda’s wonderful debugging tools, I was able to work out what list was being emptied and finally tracked it down to a race between the backend filling the frontend with its list of repositories and the frontend telling the backend to remove any repositories that aren’t in its list of repositories. Another ugly patch attached to the bug report, and we’ll see what happens with this one. At least I’m able to rebuild the squashfs installer image so the bug is fixed for us internally.

So most of our computers have now been upgraded to Fedora 21 and the reaction from our students has been positive. Now to get some Fedora 22 test systems built…

Posted by: jdieter | December 31, 2014

Us Versus Them

LEGO fire being put out by team


I was reading the backlog of the Fedora development mailing list and came across a post in which Richard Hughes made a very interesting comment:

I know lots of Red Hat developers worn down by the low-level harassment
on this mailing list, so much so, that they just stop pushing the boundaries and go work on something else cool, e.g. ChromeOS.

I’ve been following this particular mailing list for many years, and the sad thing is, I think he’s right. There’s this underlying current of “us versus them” that can pop up, especially in longer-running threads, and “them” is someone with a email address.

On some levels this makes sense. Red Hat is the single largest entity in Fedora and many (if not most) of the movers and shakers in Fedora are Red Hat employees. A quick glance at the Fedora 21 System Wide Changes shows many more Red Hat employees than not. Is it any wonder that individual contributors can feel a bit like a sailboat in the way of an aircraft carrier?

So, is this some conspiracy to keep Fedora under Red Hat control? Is it something we should fight against? Or is there a reasonable explanation for Red Hat’s influence?

First off, there’s the question of whether people are hired at Red Hat to work on Fedora or whether they’re hired because of their work on Fedora. I had the opportunity at Devconf earlier this year to sit down with Patrick Uiterwijk, who did most of the work on Fedora’s OpenID provider, and was then hired by Red Hat because of that work. Patrick’s is not the only story like that. While not all competent Fedora contributors are Red Hat employees, Red Hat employees who contribute to Fedora are generally pretty darn competent, and competency in Fedora is rewarded with influence.

There’s also the fact that Red Hat pays people to work on Fedora. Many individual contributors are working on Fedora in their spare time. While this doesn’t necessarily affect the quality of their work, it does tend to affect the quantity. To give an example, at DevConf, I also talked with Stephen Gallagher about joining the Fedora Server working group. After DevConf, I signed up for the mailing list and then did… nothing. I’m the sysadmin and a teacher at my school, and at home I’m a husband and father of four children under six. While I have great intentions of helping out with the Server working group, it’s just not high enough on my list of priorities for me to have the time… and I suspect I’m not the only individual contributor in that boat.

Finally, there’s the fact that Red Hat’s employees actually get to know each other, at least to some extent. One of the big things I’ve learned in my years working here in Lebanon is the importance of relationship. It’s a lot easier to work with someone after you’ve sat down with them, had a coffee (or, in my case, a Coke) and chatted. This was the main reason I enjoyed DevConf and one reason I really wish I could make one of the Flock conferences.

So where does this leave us? Red Hat does have a large influence on Fedora. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s life, and attacking Red Hat employees because of its influence is counterproductive.

So, going back to Richard’s original message, we need to stop tearing each other down. When people speak, let’s assume good faith, and not assume that any ideas we disagree with will spell the end of Fedora, Linux or the world as we know it. Most of all, we need to make a conscious choice to value each other, even when we disagree.

Have a great 2015!

Posted by: jdieter | November 1, 2014

Autobackup to Linux from the Samsung NX300M

Camera on floor

Samsung NX300M

While we were on vacation back in the States during the summer, our camera started doing strange things with the flash, so we decided it was time to get a new one. After much reading and debating, we settled on the Samsung NX300M. It’s been a major step up from our old point and click, and we’ve enjoyed the quality of the shots a lot.

Being the nerd that I am, I started wondering what OS powered the camera and whether it was hackable. After doing some in-depth research (typing “hack NX300M” in Google), I came across these two fascinating articles about the NX300. Basically, any code that you put in in the root directory of your SD card will be run as root during camera bootup. I immediately tried to make my own on my NX300M, but, unfortunately, it didn’t work. After some experimentation, I found that the initial firmware for the camera (1.10) does run, so I downgraded my firmware and got to work.

I decided to make the killer app for a Wifi-enabled camera (at least, I think it’s a killer app). The NX300M can do some pretty cool things with its built-in Wifi like acting as a hotspot so it can send pictures to your phone. It can also do some form of automatic backup to your Windows desktop, but, as we don’t have any Windows systems in our house, I was unable to try it. The annoying thing about the Windows automatic backup feature, though, is that you have to manually switch to the Wifi setting and choose “Auto Backup” to run it. If I’m going to be doing automatic backups from my camera, I want it to be truly automatic, oddly enough. And I want it to backup to my wife’s laptop, which is running Fedora, preferrably using a secure copy method like rsync over ssh or scp.

I spent several days trying to work out how to make this all work, and here are some notes from my attempt:

  • There is one root filesystem and two support filesystems, all running ubifs.
  • The root filesystem is read-only, and, though I can remount it as rw, any writes seem to go to /dev/null. I don’t understand ubifs enough to know whether this is expected behavior.
  • The NX300M seems to be running the same ancient version of Tizen that the NX300 is, with a couple of proprietary binaries that do all the heavy lifting. Pretty much everything that Georg wrote about the NX300 in the above pages applied to the NX300M.
  • Working out how to start Wifi from was very difficult. The NX300M uses a very old version of connman plus a funky daemon called net-config to actually power up and down the Wifi card. Neither has a cli tool available on the NX300M to control it, and each can only be controlled via dbus. Running dbus introspection on net-config causes the camera to reboot. Who knew?
  • /dev/log_main has a log of pretty much everything, including dbus commands. This is what I used to figure out what commands I needed to use to get the Wifi up.
  • The NX300M comes bundled with an SSH client (though no SSH server), which makes the backup method pretty simple.
  • Tizen has a power manager that’s run by the NX300M, but I’m not sure whether it’s actually being used. It appeared to me from the logs that the proprietary UI app was turning off the display and then the camera. To keep the camera from shutting off during the automatic backup, I ended up using xdotool to send keypresses to the UI. Yes, that’s ugly.
  • The UI understands the concept of time zones, but everything at the OS level is in UTC, and, at least as far as I can tell, the camera treats the UTC time as if it’s the current time zone.
  • There is a rtc on the camera, but it doesn’t seem to support wakeup events. :(

So, in the end I was able to put together a script that runs on boot that checks for any new pictures and, if there are any, connects to our Wifi and scp’s them to my wife’s laptop. It then appends the filename to a hidden file in the DCIM directory on the SD card that keeps track of which files have been copied across. If my wife decides to rename the file or the folder it’s in, I don’t really want to send the picture across again.

I’m releasing my code under the GPLv2+, and it’s available on GitHub. I hope somebody finds it useful.

Posted by: jdieter | October 22, 2014

Using FreeIPA as a backend for DHCP


Yeah, this…

Disclaimer: This is not an official guide and in no way represents best practices for FreeIPA. It is ugly and involves the digital equivalent of bashing on screws with a hammer. Having said that, when nobody has invented the right screwdriver yet, sometimes you just have to hammer away.

First, some history. We’ve been running separate DHCP, DNS and LDAP servers since we switched from static IP addresses and a Windows NT domain somewhere around ten years ago. The DHCP server was loosely connected with the DNS server, and I had written this beautifully complex (read: messily unreadable) script that would allow you to quickly add a system to both DHCP and DNS. A few months ago, we migrated all of our users over to FreeIPA, and I started the process of migrating our DNS database over. Unfortunately, this meant that our DHCP fixed addresses were being configured separately from our DNS entries.

Last week I investigated what it would take to integrate our DHCP leases into FreeIPA. First I checked on the web to see if something like this had already been written, but the closest thing I could find was a link to a design page for a feature that’s due to appear in FreeIPA 4.x.

So here’s my (admittedly hacky) contribution:

  1. sync_dhcp – A bash script (put in /srv, chmod +x)that constantly checks whether the DNS zone’s serial number has changed, and, if it has, runs…
  2. – A python script (put in /srv, chmod +x) that regenerates a list of fixed-addresses in /etc/dhcp/hosts.conf
  3. dhcpd.conf – A sample dhcpd.conf (put in /etc/dhcp) that uses the list generated by
  4. sync-dhcp.service – A systemd service (put in /etc/systemd/system) to run sync_dhcp on bootup
  5. make_dns – A script (chmod +x) that allows the sysadmin to easily add new dns entries with a mac address

sync_dhcp does need to know your domain so it knows which DNS zone serial to check, but other than that, the first four files should work with little or no modification. You will need to create a dnsserver user in FreeIPA, give the user read access to DNS entries, and put its password in /etc/dhcp/dnspasswd (readable only by root).

make_dns makes a number of assumptions that are true of our network, but may not be true of yours. It first assumes that you’re using a network (yes, I know that’s not right; it’s long story) and that 10.10.9.x and 10.10.10.x IPs are for unrecognized systems. It also requires that you’ve installed freeipa-admintools and run kinit for a user with permissions to change DNS entries, as it’s just basically a fancy wrapper around the IPA cli tools.

Bent Screw Hole Backyard Metal Macros by Steven Depolo used under a CC BY 2.0 license

Posted by: jdieter | July 1, 2014

On Vacation

Longview, Washington

The rain in Washington

On Thursday, my family and I departed beautiful Lebanon and started the long trek (at least as far as sitting in an airplane can be considered trekking) back home to Washington State. We were greeted with some rain when we arrived, which was definitely proof that we were home.

We’ll be here until the beginning of September, and then it’s back to sunny Beirut. I’m looking forward to the kids getting to celebrate the 4th of July for the first time.

I’m also hoping to get some time to look into making applydeltarpm more efficient. If you’ve been following the conversation on the fedora-devel list, you’ll have noticed that, oddly enough, some people don’t like deltarpms, and the reasons given are definitely valid.

At the moment, recreating an rpm from a deltarpm includes recompressing it so that signatures match, and that recompression is *very* expensive in terms of CPU time. If you’re on a slow computer with decent storage, it might make more sense to rebuild uncompressed rpms, but if we did this, then signatures would no longer match. I’d like to see if there’s some way that we can reasonably store the signature of the uncompressed payload as well as the compressed payload in the rpm. Ideally, this will be done in such a way so as to require minimal (if any) changes to the buildsystem.

If I can manage a proof-of-concept that works without too much trouble for the infrastructure guys, then we might just be able to pull off much faster deltarpm rebuilds.

Posted by: jdieter | May 31, 2014

Canon copier/printer on Fedora

Canon Copy Machine


<tl;dr>There is a decent cups print driver for Canon copiers if you don’t mind using proprietary software and making some manual changes</tl;dr>

Recently, our school got a couple of Canon copy machines that can be configured as network printers, but up until a month ago we only used them as copy machines. Last month, I started the process of getting them configured to print using CUPS, and, in the process, learned a bit about the printers and a lot about how CUPS works.

The first problem I ran into is that Canon’s printer drivers aren’t open source, which led to some crazy problems finding the correct drivers. It turns out that Canon produces two cups print drivers, the first which prints using Canon’s proprietary UFR-II, and the second which prints using PCL or PXL. Both drivers are a pain to find, but once found, install in a halfway-reasonable way.

I was interested to find that the UFR-II driver left some odd shading any time I printed a graphic. The cups test page had a weird gradient in the middle where I’ve never seen a gradient before, and PDFs would print with the same strange gradient. The PCL/PXL driver also had the gradient, but, after mixing a few options (Image Refinement – On, Line Refinement – On, Halftones – High HighResolution), it almost completely disappeared.

The other nice thing about the PCL/PXL driver is that it’s actually mostly using the built-in (open source) tools already available in cups, and the only proprietary parts (at least as far as I can see) are the PPD itself and a small program that adds the extra print options (like double-sided printing, stapling, etc) to the PCL print job. Given all that, I figured there wasn’t much point in sticking with the UFR-II driver, and started working with the PCL/PXL driver.

However, on using the driver, I ran into some other strange problems. The first was that the cups page log didn’t actually show any information on some of the print jobs. After poking at the PPD, I discovered that if an incoming job is PDF, the print driver can’t count the pages, while if it’s PostScript the driver can. That was an easy fix. To force cups to convert incoming PDF jobs into PostScript before passing them to the driver, in the PPD delete the following lines:
*cupsFilter: "application/vnd.cups-pdf 0 foomatic-rip"
*cupsFilter: "application/ 25 foomatic-rip"

The second problem was a bit more subtle. Let’s imagine that I want to print a four-page test… 30 times, because I have 30 students in my class. I go to the print dialog, select the staple option, ask for 30 copies, and send it to print. Out of the copier come 120 pages… and one staple. The Canon driver will only staple it once because it’s one job. Because, obviously, if you’re printing 30 copies of the same job, you must want them to be stapled together.

Fortunately, the Canon driver does support an extra “Repeat job” count that you can use in place of the copy count. If you set the “Repeat job” count to 30 and leave the copy count at 1, it will print 30 four-page tests, with each test stapled separately. Unfortunately, this feature is in the advanced settings, while the copy count is sitting right there in the print dialog.

So I wrote a wrapper script for the Canon driver that automatically sets the “Repeat job” count to the copy count, and then sets the copy count to 1. Now the teachers can turn on stapling and set the copy count to whatever they want, and it will print as expected. You do have to change the *FoomaticRIPCommandLine line to say:
*FoomaticRIPCommandLine: "sicgsfilter-autonumpages &user; &quot;&title;&quot; &quot;%A&quot; &quot;%B&quot; &quot;%C&quot; &quot;%D&quot; &quot;%E&quot; &quot;%F&quot; &quot;%G&quot; &quot;%H&quot; &quot;%I&quot;"

I also went to the trouble of stripping out a bunch of unused options from the PPD, to make sure that they don’t appear when the teachers are going through the print options.

So now we have Canon copiers that are functioning great as printers, and our teachers love it!

Posted by: jdieter | April 27, 2014

Cillian James Dieter

Cillian James Dieter

Cillian James Dieter

At 7:45AM on April 14, 2014, Cillian (KILL-ee-an) James Dieter was born. He was 9 lbs, 4 oz (4.2 kg).

This was a very quick delivery, and I was still able to be at a class trip that started two hours after he was born. Easter break started two days after he was born, and Naomi’s parents are here now to spend some time with us all, so life has been pretty relaxed for the last week and a half.

Saoirse, Ailíse and Eoin are very excited that they have a little brother, but I think it will take Eoin a little while to grasp that he’s no longer the baby in the family.

The Dieter Family

Saoirse, Ailíse, Eoin, Jonathan, Naomi and Cillian

Posted by: jdieter | March 31, 2014

Locks in the classroom – 2014

For the second consecutive year, our grade nine students have been doing 3D modeling using Blender. A couple of weeks ago, our students finished up their first assignments, and I gave the top modelers the option of showing off their work. So, without further ado, here are the top three models in each of the three grade nine classes.

Lock by Ali Ab

Lock by Ali Ab – CC BY-SA 4.0Source

Lock by Abi Baadarani

Lock by Abi Baadarani – CC BY 4.0Source

Lock by J Mona

Lock by J Mona – CC BY-SA 4.0Source

Lock by Wael

Lock by Wael – CC BY-SA 4.0Source

Lock by Majd

Lock by Majd – CC BY-SA 4.0Source

Lock by Abo Ror

Lock by Abo Ror – CC BY-SA 4.0Source

Lock by Anonymous

Lock by Anonymous – CC BY 4.0Source

Lock by CN

Lock by CN – CC BY-SA 4.0Source

Lock by KR

Lock by KR – CC BY-SA 4.0Source

Posted by: jdieter | January 28, 2014

DevConf 2014

Brno cityscape


Thanks to some help from the school, Tro Chakerian (one of my assistants) and I will be going to Brno, Czech Republic for DevConf 2014. I’m really looking forward to getting to meet some other Fedora developers, and I’m hoping to learn a few things that will advance our school’s system over the next year or so.

I’m particularly looking forward to Why use a SAT solver for package management?, DNF API and Future of Fedora Big Picture. The last one is probably the most important for us as a school as we plan to continue to use Fedora on the desktop for the foreseeable future.

View of Brno from Spilberk Castle by Norbert Aepli used under a CC BY 2.5 license

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