A week in the life of Winston
During these interesting times, I figure it would be a good idea to describe how I’ve been keeping myself busy, bugs I’ve fixed, and some of the daily tasks/routines that keep my day structured.
For context: I moved house on the weekend of March 21st, which is a couple weeks before the Covid-19 fiasco became a front-and-center concern for my geographical region. I am finishing my undergrad in computer science — this is my last semester. The classes I am taking are Compilers, Compiler Implementation Laboratory, and Matrices and Applications. I am now currently living in a very rural area, so I have been very successful in maintaining a social distance in all aspects of my life.
Eat the exact same thing every day: Eggs, Bacon, Corn Tortillas. Take any dietary supplements/vitamins.
Make coffee — Aeropressed. Currently sourcing coffee from Ruby. I wish to see more Ethiopia/Kenya/Peru coffee but even a more earthy Colombia coffee is agreeable.
Spend 30–60 minutes checking email, news, IRC.
Spend about 2-3 hours on current tasks — schoolwork, bugfixing, packaging, or researching.
Eat a lunch, make some tea
Spend another 2-3 hours on same tasks.
Take a break, preferably away from computer
Spend another couple hours
Have a dinner
Spend some time with housemates, make sure we’re all on the same page
Spend another couple hours on tasks
Wash up, goto bed
In retrospect, I think I should replace one of those task blocks with off-task things such as gaming, reading books, and so on. That’s way too much time on task, and knowing myself I end up being less productive due to too much time on task.
§Package work for this week
For a long time now, I’ve aimed to keep all my system-wide software packaged in the OS package manager. This allows me to easily rebuild my systems, or deploy the OS on new computers. This also means updates become a lot easier, because the package manager can track things such as rebuilding all library dependencies, and ensuring dependencies are installed and are the correct versions. Depending on your OS it’s pretty easy. In my case Gentoo makes it extremely easy.
I reintroduced Alephone packages1 to play the classic Bungie first person shooters Marathon, Marathon 2: Durandal, and Marathon 3: Infinity. Thankfully I could base some of my work off my old Portage overlay combined with couple-year-old commits from the official Gentoo repository.
After getting a show-stopping bug addressed, I added a prerelease package that includes fixes that should address memory corruption, flickering sprites, and (some of the) popping audio. See details in the Bugs Addressed section.
§The toolchain used for my university course
An ongoing desire was to do all my university homeworks locally,
without logging into servers with less software choice, and an
abnormal amount of network jitter/latency spikes. I finally made it
happen with a combination of rsync invocations followed by a
tar -czvf and a Gentoo package.
I find this very exciting. I invest very heavily into my computer environment, and try my best to avoid doing complicated work in unfamiliar environments. I can also do work offline now.
It is worth noting that the distfiles for this package are not publicly available, and as such you will have be a student in the course to install it. This is intentional. I have zero interest in trying to make this toolchain public or open source, I merely want to use it locally.
§Deal with issue making Emacs unresponsive
I am pleased to discover and fix a longstanding bug that would
yield my Emacs unresponsive after visiting files, then deleting the
directories the visited files resided in. I wish I had documented
the first time I noticed this problem; it may have been as soon as
auto-virtualenvwrapper to my workflow. This package
tells Emacs to automatically search for Python virtualenvs for use
in ansi-term (terminal in emacs), running python code from emacs,
and getting accurate tab completion when writing python.
This was one of those sort of irksome issues that is difficult to
debug unless one invests effort to reconfigure emacs to report
error traces, which can’t be set after the bug occurs. As a result
every time I’ve encountered this bug, I have given up, and simply
restarted Emacs daemon, because messing up the minibuffer precludes
M-x toggle-debug-on-error RET.
I want to thank the maintainer of auto-pythonvirtualenv for being very responsive to pull request I made. Contributing to Emacs packages is a lot of hit-or-miss, because it seems some of the less commonly used Emacs packages are dead. Additionally there is a culture of disinterest in accepting PRs that don’t directly improve the maintainer’s quality of life.
§Strange Alephone memory corruption
I was very excited to get Alephone packaged and installed. I
started noting weirdness on my workstation setup. It started with
some graphics corruption, with sprites being rotated 90°, and
severe visual corruption when interacting with the in-game text
terminals. Invariably on every exit the game segfaults with
corrupted size vs. prev_size.
I reported the issue, and after a lot of testing, it become apparent the issue only occurs when playing at my native resolution, which is 1440p (2560×1440), but does not happen at 1080p (1920×1080). Thanks to my (over) comprehensive testing and a couple passionate project maintainers, someone was able to pinpoint the source of the bug was due to an out of bounds write. The writes was caused by a statically allocated buffer used to copy artifacts of the render trees onto the screen. Or something like that.
I wrote a quick and dirty patch, then later one of the maintainers helped write a more future-proof patch. After testing it appears the problem is fixed. This was a fantastic experience, the discussion was on topic, there was no bike shedding, and everybody treated each other with kindness.
In 2015 I purchased a Nvidia GTX 760 used for $50. It was a great investment. At the time AMD driver quality is pretty poor. This is the post-fglrx horror years, but the drivers were still subpar compared to Nvidia’s proprietary drivers. You could not expect to get Windows-par graphics performance on an AMD card in 2015. On the other hand one could expect Windows-par graphics performance on a Nvidia card.
§Why AMD and not Nvidia
The landscape has completely changed in the last 5 years. AMD has open sourced their graphics drivers, and is actively helping out in maintaining them. Nvidia on the other hand has inherit issues such as
upgrading the driver breaks currently running Xorg sessions' 3d acceleration, and requires a reboot;
Out of tree kernel drivers are usually a bad idea, though I appreciate how easy Gentoo makes it to deal with them — simply run
emerge @module-rebuild, this still a mild annoyance because it adds extra steps when upgrading kernels or rebuilding kernels
No native resolution modesetting is available on Nvidia, so your linux consoles (tt1-tty6 on most installs) are stuck at a very low resolution, and look very chunky;
you have to either use Nvidia libGL or use Mesa, not both(libglvnd fixes this apparently);
it’s yet another non-free software to install on my computer — if bugs occur I cannot contribute fixes, or solicit fixes from other users
OBS acts up with Nvidia binary drivers, GZdoom skyboxes are not captured, and certain 3d applications are somewhat difficult to capture correctly with the binary drivers;
Nvidia’s composition pipeline feature for reducing video tearing is pretty awful. It simply makes most animations look choppy/stuttery, and ruins the experience of most video playback;
Nvidia is liable to drop support for my card in another year or so, forcing me to upgrade anyways, this is planned obsolescence at the driver level. With AMD on the other hand the driver probably will stay in tree and supported for a couple decades;
There is no way to track resource usage of my GPU — it’s too old to support tracking resource usage in
radeontophas been able to do this on all AMD cards for a very long time;
and there is a bug with Nvidia’s HDMI alsa drivers that prevents pulseaudio from redetecting most of my sound interfaces on s3 resume from suspend. The usual work around is to either unplug my HDMI output or keep killing pulseaudio until it magically works.
With AMD on the other hand I don’t foresee most of these issues. Presently I found s3 suspend-resume cycles take up to a minute, so I need to address that. Video tearing on the other hand is very minimal; I have been able to watch this YouTube tearing test and experience no video tearing. I did notice tearing in certain parts of Firewatch though. That is likely because Firewatch is not particularly well optimized.
§Gotchas switching cards
The GPU arrived Thursday, and I got super excited, and neglected to
emerge -uDU --changed-deps -av @word after an
emerge --sync. The card installed fine, but X would segfault. I noticed
in the Xorg logs it couldn’t open the
radeonsi driver. I thought
I could simply add
VIDEO_CARDS, but as the logs
suggest, I need
amdgpu. The Gentoo Wiki also
suggests this. Because I was both trying to update and reconfigure
my installation, this yielded to problems with blockers. It seemed
nvidia was the problem, as it was masking Xorg versions I needed. I
nvidia from my
VIDEO_CARDS and was successful in updating
and reconfiguring my graphics stack.
Additionally, it appears the
vulkan USE flag must be enabled on
media-libs/mesa for some Steam games to work, such as The Talos
Principle. I think the Nvidia binary drivers support vulkan out of
the box, hence I never had to set a USE flag on the previous GPU
Finally, I had to configure mpv to not use vdpau (I had forced mpv to use vdpau, for my Nvidia card). Otherwise mpv would give me a black screen.
I found using a graphics tablet to be valuable to my math class. I can take notes in xournal, and write problems step by step. You might wonder what’s wrong with paper, but it seems when in front of a computer watching lectures and interacting with online learning management systems, it is difficult to split attention between the computer and the notebook. As such I simply decided to digitize the notebook.
To make the experience more tolerable, I have been using
youtube-dl to grab all the videos I can, and play them locally in
MPV. This ensures I have global multimedia shortcuts to control
video playback, have better control over frame advance, do not
require internet access 24/7, and have better control over playback
As I finally packaged the software used for one of my classes I can do all that class’s work locally except for submission. This is fantastic because I can use my Emacs 26 setup and do not require a 24/7 Internet connection.
My office is located in a room that can get down to the low 60°'s at night, and I found many times I’d want to do work, I could barely focus because I was so unevenly cold. The floor would be 60-65 but the room would be 70. I feel like an old man complaining about this, but really getting a space heater did wonders for my productivity and focus. This is a schoolwork problem, because it’s the most tedious sort of productivity.
This has been a rather long post. I really wanted to describe some of the things I’ve been up to, and some of the challenges I’ve been facing. I am very happy to have removed my workstation Nvidia dependency. I am very excited about graduating soon, and adjusting in this time, and keeping that in mind, has been a challenge. As usual packaging software and fixing keeps my computers usable and maintainable.
I hope to write more in the near future. I had started some posts on debugging a GTK bug, and some other topics, but the amount of material to cover kept growing, much like this post keeps growing. Stay tuned to read about seccomp madness.
See my overlay on GitHub. ↩︎