Whole disk encryption, HP laptops, and other shenanigans

I use an HP tm2-1070ca convertible tablet laptop as my primary machine, and have one hell of a love-hate relationship with it.

I adore the convertible tablet format; being able to annotate PDFs in Xournal /Acrobat / Windows Journal, “think on paper” by sketching out a design or a circuit, or flip the screen around to show something on it to the person across the table from you are all at this point part of how I use computers and I find I hate having to go back to using machines I can’t poke.

But as I’ll detail below, it’s got some downright weird stuff going on when it comes to hardware compatibilities.

Given all the ridiculosity around HP’s hardware business at the moment, my next machine is virtually certain to be another brand.  I’m currently eyeing some Fujitsus, but would love to hear about other convertibles folks have had good experiences with, particularly with running multiple OSs on them.

Ubuntu lessons

For 11.04, I needed acpi=off to get the installer to work. It turned out that disabling VT in the BIOS made it work alright with acpi on, but things were otherwise just sort of flaky – the touchscreen in particular would just sometimes work, and sometimes not.  I made a bunch of changes at the same time which lead to confusion about what was actually going on here; it turns out my shiny new SSD was not the problem, but it was a 11.04 regression against this particular BIOS, which I worked around by disabling VT.  Many thanks to Matthew Garrett for spending a bunch of time helping me troubleshoot this.

I used the Ubuntu alternate installer and the built-in whole disk encryption, and it performed very nicely on the SSD, benchmarking at nearly the same speed as the drive running in plaintest.  Sorry I don’t have the numbers handy :/

This isn’t specific to this laptop, but took me some time to figure out so I’m recording it for the convenience of those searching for this error:  if you try to mount your old luks/lvm encrypted system drive on another luks/lvm encrypted machine which happens to have the same hostname, you’ll get an error saying that it’s “not a valid file system,” which is obviously not at all what’s going on.  lvm simply can’t deal with volumes with the same name, and your volumes are named after the hostname you set on install.  lvs and lvrename are the relevant commands here.

Also, if you try to mount a luks/lvm encrypted drive on a machine which has not had luks/lvm applied on install, you’ll need to install the libraries which it uses – cryptsetup and lvm2.  This seems obvious in retrospect but non-specific error messages lead to me stressing out that I’d hosed my drive, which hadn’t been backed up in a few days.

HP laptops + MBR-based whole disk encryption = 😦

The above VT issue ended up being the dealbreaker for me running Ubuntu as the host OS on this machine – I need VMs to do a bunch of things, so now I’m running Win7, with Ubuntu in a VM (along with various other things).

Search for “hp laptop truecrypt” and you will see that I am not the first to venture into this particular valley of fail.  I’ve seen threads where people report that PGP’s WDE also doesn’t work.  Given that Ubuntu’s WDE worked just fine, I suspect that it’s something with MBR-based WDE rather than the way it’s done with luks/lvm; the other thing that makes me suspect this is that the way you know it’s failing is that the laptop will blink the capslock key, in my case 5 times indicating a “general system board failure”.  There’s no blink code for “hard drive problem” and it’s different from the error you get when you boot without a hard drive installed, so my guess is that the 5-blink code covers hard drive errors too.

I don’t have any workaround for this one.  I’ve tried truecrypt WDE on a couple of different drives, to no avail.  I’ve even bugged HP on the twitters but they haven’t gotten back to me.  Oh well.  I’ll eventually put Win7 Ultimate on it and try Bitlocker… after making a whole disk backup because I am really, really tired of reinstalling, heh.

Hopefully someone will find the above useful.  It’s been an adventure.

It's the little things…

sticker insurance

My beloved tablet died, so I sent it back to the manufacturer, just under the wire before the warranty expired.

A friend had just returned my old netbook, so I moved my data over to that before sending out the sad tablet.  After blowing a few large dust bunnies out of that machine it was only freezing up about once a day.

Ten days, one trip to California, two hackerspaces, and one keynote later, I had the tablet back.  I was in a bit of a crunch at school so I didn’t have time to re-do the factory Win7 image exactly to my liking.  So I popped the hard drive out of the netbook, replaced the tablet hard drive with the netbook drive, and got back to work.  Everything* worked, everything was copacetic, and I was a happy camper with a full keyboard and pressure-sensitive pen tablet once again.

It turns out being able to swap hard drives and have the machine just work is a pretty important feature for me.  <3, Ubuntu**.

*except for the BIOS only allowing certain PCI-IDs for WiFi cards… but that’s a story for another time.  Manufacturers, please don’t do this.  I’m looking at you, HP, Lenovo, Asus….

**yes, I do know this works just fine in other Linux distros.  And probably the BSDs, too 🙂

Soft Circuit Gift Guide

Friends have asked me for a wish-list / getting started type post on soft circuits and the LilyPad Arduino.  I’ve been a slacker about getting this posted (folks asked before the holiday season last year), but hopefully it’s not too late for this year – Sparkfun has speedy shipping, and Toronto-local friends can check out Creatron, who will also do phone orders.  Tell them you’re a friend of HackLab 🙂

This isn’t exactly a shopping list, but I’ve tried to lay out the supplies that one needs to get going.  To save me a bit of time, when there are multiple options I’m only going to link the one I recommend.  The others can be found by poking around Sparkfun.

  • Either of:
    • LilyPad Arduino and one power supply – coin cell, AAA, or the LilyPad LiPower.  If you’re just getting started, I’d recommend the AAA one.
    • LilyPad Mini and Li-Poly battery. (better for simple projects, the Mini has fewer pin-pads.)
  • Alligator clips for prototyping – the ones Sparkfun has are very expensive; your local hardware store should have cheaper ones, as does Creatron.  Conductive thread for the final sewn circuit – I linked to the 4-ply thread which I prefer, but there is 2-ply as well.  Medium-sized sewing needles, and plan on breaking a few.
  • Clear nail polish for sealing off ends of thread.
  • Programming cable.
  • A bit of folded-over duct tape or felt to make a LilyPad coaster.
  • one or more inputs: there are a wide variety of sensors available. Accelerometers are pretty nifty for controlling your project through movement; light and temperature sensors can be used to make clothing react to the ambient environment.  Switches and buttons let you turn features on and off or cycle through programs.
  • one or more outputs: buzzers make sounds; LEDs, in either single colours or RGB, light up your project; vibe boards give you haptic (physical) output.

If you’re feeling ambitious, the LilyPad XBee allows for cool wireless hijinx, and the Bluetooth Mate when combined with the open source Amarino Toolkit allows your wearable creation to talk to your Android phone or device. Another fun thing to play around with is conductive fabric, which can be used for all sorts of neat things such as capacitive-screen-compatible glove and mitten fingers, and soft buttons.  For the latter, you just make a felt gasket/O-ring and sew a piece of conductive fabric to each side.  The connection is made when you touch the two pieces of fabric together through the gasket.

Leah Buechley’s LilyPad intro is a good place to start.  If you get stuck, google for the error message; if you’re still stuck after that, feel free to ping me for help.

Living in the Future, or, HackLab Buys a Cupcake

On September 1st, I sent an email to the HackLab discussion list asking for folks to commit. Less than 24 hours later, members and non-members alike stepped up and pledged $700 in addition to my initial commitment of $200. Our MakerBot Batch 7 CupCake CNC will ship in early October, hopefully in time for MiniSoOnCon!

3D printing is so amazing. This is the MITS Altair of a DIY revolution whose shape I’m not at all certain of. I couldn’t be more exited to see what the hacklabbers make and how we improve the machine, too.

In alphabetical order, the donors were:

3ric Johanson
Alex Leitch
Byron Sonne
Chad Mounteny
Cheryl Mok
Chris Pilkington
Dale Babiy
Dan Kaminsky
Eric from NYC Resistor
Kate Raynes-Goldie
Sergio Martns
Seth Hardy

Welcome to the future, folks.