Excellent documentary – The boy who harnessed the wind

Just finished watching a documentary film – The boy who harnessed the wind. An amazing documentary I must say.

It is based on a real story of William Kamkwamba who builds a wind mill and pumps water from a well to irrigate the farms.

The village in Malawi (Africa) where the boy lives has inconsistent rains. Villagers were farming Tobacco previously, but the trees were sold for the wood at throwaway prices because of irregular supply of Tobacco.

He got a chance to go to school where, one day he observes that the headlight on his science teacher’s bicycle glows when he pedals. There he discovers about dynamo that is attached to the bike. He then studies about harnessing Wind energy in the library and this happens when he was expelled from school for non payment of fees.

When famine comes by, he uses this idea to build a windmill using scrap materials, like the radiator fan, a dead battery of an old car and a pump. The windmill so built, charges the battery which in turn powers the pump to pump water from the well.

A key takeaway in this is – there is gold in scrap, provided you know what to do with it! An important lesson in this age of use-and-throw.

The book on exercise you must read

I came across this book titled “Spark: How exercise will improve the performance of your brain” which seemed interesting, so I picked it up on Kindle app and started reading it. It’s a well known fact that exercise is good for the body – it builds up strength in the bones, muscles and keeps the body in condition so that one can function properly.

But exercise boosting brain performance? That sounded very interesting to me, because while I had experienced the clarity of thought, and in general calm feeling after doing exercise, I never knew the exact science behind that.

The author, Dr John, describes in detail how exercise works for the brain – how brain is similar to other muscles in the body, wherein exercise can actually promote brain growth and improve intelligence and learning ability. This is backed by research studies conducted on rodents by various scientists over the years.

Over bodies have evolved over the millions of years to move around and hunt food, it is only animals that move around need a brain. The book cites an example of an underwater animal – Sea Squirt, which has a brain when it is born, but once it attaches itself to a rock or something else, it eats it’s own brain and lives like a plant for rest of it’s lifetime. It eats away it’s own brain because it doesn’t have to move!

An often heard saying about habit formation – one needs to consistently do something for 28 days, then it becomes a habit. The scientific reason behind this is – new neuron cells that are born (neurogenesis) in the brain must be recruited to some learning activity within 28 days, or else they die. Once they are recruited for activity they become part of the brain’s circuity.

The book also in quite detail, describes about stress – and how mild stress is actually good. But high levels of stress actually kill brain cells. One interesting fact that has been mentioned in the book is about how eating fruits and vegetables improves immunity. Over the years, plants evolved so that they cannot be eaten away by animals. So they started producing toxins in the fruits. By eating fruits and vegetables we are subjecting our body to mild stress, so due to body’s defence mechanism, our immunity strengthens, which then helps fight against infections and diseases.

Exercising is extremely good for people who’re stressed out due to various reasons – because stress is essentially a fight or flight response of the body. The wild parallel for this – our body was basically designed to fight wild animals or run away from them, should they be hungry and overpower the man when out for hunting for food. Aerobic exercise does just that. If one doesn’t exercise when stressed out – it causes fat deposits and due to higher levels of cortisol starts killing brain cells.

There are even more interesting studies in the book on how exercise can help against Depression, ADHD, etc. I will highly recommend reading this book for everyone – because it teaches the importance of exercise, and if you’re not exercising, then gives strong motivation to exercise! After all, why one wouldn’t like being more faster and have more focus at things they usually do?

Everybody is a trader and money is a storage device of time

In this world, everybody is a trader. The thing that is traded changes depending on person. A stock market investor trades money in lieu of asset (stock).

Similarly people trade their time to acquire money. Think a bit more and you realize money is a storage device of time in some sense.

The stone age man had to spend time to hunt for food. Modern day person spends time on other economic activities which earns money, so the money can be spent to acquire food, which is one of the basic necessities of life.

There is a saying Time is Money. Considering these facts, it makes a lot of sense.

Money can perhaps buy something other than time – quality of life, not exactly quantifiable. For example you move to a lavish house which gives you happiness.

Headphones and fatigue due to online meetings

I have been doing online meetings long before we had the pandemic and lockdown. Over the years the duration of the calls started increasing since I was working for a startup. Once the call durations increased I started feeling a weird kind of exhaustion at the end of every call, and I couldn’t exactly point out the reason behind that.

I was previously using a JBL E65BTNC headset for calls & music, which got damaged due to rough use and got crushed in some bag or something (don’t recall exactly). After that I purchased Razer Tiamat 7.1 V2, a surround headset.

Sometime during the use of the JBL I discovered the Active Noise Cancellation in the JBL headset was causing a kind of ear pressure leading to headache. Perhaps my ears don’t tolerate ANC. This was one of the reasons for buying a headset without ANC. The Razer headsets have good noise isolation.

Once I switched to the Razer headset, it significantly reduced the headache and fatigue problem, but still a little bit of discomfort was there especially after long duration calls. Eventually I discovered that it was because of the audio volume. While listening to music, or say playing a game, you get to listen to studio quality music which doesn’t have any kind of noise and so it is comfortable at higher volumes.

I think the meeting software, Google Meet/Zoom/Teams/etc strip down the audio quality for faster, real-time transmission and/or the quality of audio equipment that others on the call are using are usually not studio quality ones, so that causes more fatigue because the encoding/decoding process adds a bit of noise in it. When you are wearing a headphones with noise isolation or noise cancellation, you tend to notice minor variations in the sound.

Came across this post by Shantanu Goel about why he stopped using headphones for health reasons. I could instantly relate to it, I recently switched jobs and the new company gave me a Macbook which doesn’t support the surround headset I have.

So I was forced to use the Macbook’s speaker & built-in microphone. The M1 Macbook Pro’s speakers are quite good – the volume can fall short a bit if you are in a noisy environment though. I tried recording my Tabla on it and was stunned by the audio quality that got recorded, it doesn’t pick up any background noise in it. I live near a construction site and none of that noise got captured, which is truly amazing. Apple advertises it as a studio quality microphone, quite true to the statement.

Not all seem to agree on the studio quality part though. I guess it all depends on the reference scale, which is often defined by one’s past experience.

So the key learning here is, for long duration meetings use speakers. If not possible use headphones without ANC (or turn off ANC) to reduce fatigue.

Owning the networking equipment in your network

rectangular gray corded device on black rack
Networking equipment

It seems there’s a new trend in India amongst Internet Service Providers to supply their own router.

The primary reason ISPs do this is to reduce the amount of on-site support required, which is a very much valid reason.

When an ISP has to deal with multiple user supplied equipment – it increases their work as they have to train their staff to understand the configuration semantics of different devices the users may bring.

While ISP supplying their own equipment is in itself harmless and in fact, for the consumer it is a good option as it is least of their concern that a device they might have procured will work with the said ISP. All the consumer is interested in is a working internet connection.

But as it stands for pretty much everything in this world, there are always two sides to a thing, the darker side being privacy and security concerns, as pointed out in this IndiaToday article.

These devices often run customized software which usually have long update cycles, so there may be zero day / security bugs which are not fixed for a long duration which can possibly compromise your network. That definitely sounds scary.

In addition to that, there is a privacy concerns, these routers can be used for analysing browsing patterns – data mining, creating a user profile out of what you do with your internet connection. In last few years, initiatives like LetsEncrypt have done a lot of benefit to the internet since it gave free SSL certificates for everyone.

There have been technological advancements to help with user privacy such as DNS Over TLS and DNS Over HTTPS in the last few years. With these, the ISP cannot read your DNS queries, which is a good/bad thing, depending on how you look at it – access to illegal sites cannot be blocked at a DNS level which was trivial earlier, all you had to do is redirect the traffic on port 53 to your own DNS server which will return some fake IP address for a blocked website. At the same time, it gave the power to the operators of networks and such devices to block access to legitimate websites as well.

Even with DoH/DoT it is still possible for an ISP/router to know which website one is browsing (over HTTPS), by inspecting TLS negotiation packets. The SSL infrastructure previously allowed only one single SSL website for a given IP address. If one were to host multiple SSL websites on a single server – it required the clients connecting to the server to support TLS which has an extension Server Name Indication (SNI). The older SSL protocols have been deprecated now, so all HTTPS connections happen over TLS. So for every HTTPS connection in the initial negotiation the hostname you are connecting to is exposed. There is a detailed article, with packet dumps on how ISPs exploit this SNI feature of TLS packets to block websites.

The most recent security standard – that is TLS 1.3 has a new extension to circumvent the above limitation, which is Encrypted Client Hello (previously Encrypted SNI). In this the SNI payload is itself encrypted, so no router or ISP can read what site is being requested from a given IP address.

Unsurprisingly, TLS 1.3 / ECH / ESNI has been blocked in certain countries which wield control over it’s people by way of controlling what content they can browse on the Internet. Until TLS 1.3 is widely deployed – both at the server and client end (browsers), the privacy concerns will remain. One can’t exactly say when that will happen.

Furthermore, it is very much possible to correlate the connection tracking logs provided by conntrack in Linux (most of these routers run some form of embedded Linux) with the DNS logs to get a even more detailed picture. There are some devices in the higher price segment which report how much % of traffic is consumed by different categories – such as Social Media, etc using Deep Packet Inspection (fishing for SNI is one example of DPI).

Such data mining becomes computationally very expensive when the processing has to be done at the NOC/data centre level, relatively easier on individual devices like routers because the amount of traffic to be handled is less (packets per second). The computational power available at such embedded devices has been ever increasing – for example how quickly Raspberry Pi evolved to quite a powerful single board computer since it’s original launch in 2012.

That said, the reason to have your own networking equipment instead of ISPs – there is a wide range of choice available in the free market and often with better performance/security. Granted, there is nothing top secret level going on in a home, or say a home office network, but at the end it’s a matter of choice. Why should someone force you to use certain equipment?

Always-on PPPoE but 30 seconds disconnection

So I have a FTTH internet connection and my ISP uses PPPoE – a rather common configuration. But the ISP resets my connection every 12 hours, possibly for accounting purposes.

Now whenever the connection reset was taking place my internet used to vanish for 30 seconds – a very bad situation to be in when you’re in an online meeting, or making a payment. I couldn’t quite figure out why this was happening only on connection resets (terminations initiated by the ISP), when I terminate the connection from my end and reconnect, it was connecting without any lag.

I don’t use a router available off the shelf – it’s a Celeron mini PC with four Gigabit NICs running Ubuntu and I have hand configured all the network related services (firewall, dns, dhcp) on it – including pppd for my PPPoE connection.

Since this is an unlimited connection it doesn’t matter how many hours I am connected or how much data I’ve used, I pay a fixed fee to my ISP. So my pppd was configured with the persist and maxfail 0 options (basically keep trying to connect endlessly if there was any failure). The pppd manual page also lists SIGHUP as a signal which causes it to terminate the current session and restart it if it is configured with the persist option.

Since my issue was only with connection resets I tried to simulate one, using SIGHUP. And there I found the 30 second delay in connecting. After reading the pppd manpage once again I found an option called holdoff which tells pppd to wait for such time before trying to reconnect and the default value of holdoff isn’t documented in example configuration files nor in pppd manpage as of Ubuntu 18.04 which runs on my router. The default value of holdoff is apparently 30 seconds as mentioned in this TLDP guide.

I repeated the same test after setting holdoff 0 and it works fine now – without the 30 second delay.

Linux rename network interface using udev rules

Sometimes it is convenient to have user assigned names to network interfaces – particularly when the MAC address of the interface remains constant but the bus on which it is attached may change because it’s a virtual machine.

All that is required to be done is create a file /etc/udev/rules.d/persistent-net.rules : This file used to exist earlier but has been phased out by most mainstream Linux distributions in favor of the consistent naming scheme or other methods like systemd-networkd.

The udev rules required in that file:

SUBSYSTEM=="net", ACTION=="add", ATTR{address}=="aa:bb:cc:dd:ee:ff", NAME="wan"
SUBSYSTEM=="net", ACTION=="add", ATTR{address}=="bb:cc:dd:ee:ff:aa", NAME="lan"
SUBSYSTEM=="net", ACTION=="add", ATTR{address}=="cc:dd:ee:ff:aa:bb", NAME="lan2"

Save the file and reboot, the network interfaces should be assigned the new names as per the rules in this file.

Hibernate support on Ubuntu 20.04 with encrypted swap and encrypted root filesystem

So I installed Ubuntu 20.04 on my laptop with encrypted root filesystem with bcache support since I have a NVME SSD along with the usual hard disk in it. While setting up encrypted root filesystem the installer will not allow you to have unencrypted swap – and the default encrypted swap setup is to use a random encryption key that is changed at every boot – so that makes hibernation impossible. After a few shenanigans with the rescue system and systemd I managed to hibernate working with a fixed encryption key swap.

First thing is you have to set up fixed key encryption for the swap – so when using the installer to create an encrypted root filesystem – do not create a partition for swap, the installer will automatically create a swap in /swapfile after installation. But when partitioning your disks leave out space equivalent to the size of your RAM in your SSD for creating our fixed key encrypted swap post installation.

After installation, disable existing swap using sudo swapoff -a. Delete the entry of /swapfile in /etc/fstab. Using your favorite partitioning tool – fdisk, gdisk, parted, or gparted, create a partition in your disk to hold the encrypted swap partition. In my case, the partition is /dev/nvme0n1p3. Be careful in this step as you risk screwing up the installation itself.

Now we create a random key for encrypting the swap partition using dd(1) and then use cryptsetup(8) to create a luks header on the disk partition with the key:

dd if=/dev/urandom of=/.swap-key bs=1 count=512
cryptsetup luksFormat -d /.swap-key /dev/nvme0n1p3

It is a good idea to add a passphrase to the swap partition in case it has to be entered on console at any time – this is not exactly required but this helped me when I was playing around with the system – how would I enter a 512 byte random string on the console? 😀

cryptsetup luksAddKey -d /.swap-key /dev/nvme0n1p3

Open the encrypted partition and format it:

cryptsetup open -d /.swap-key /dev/nvme0n1p3 cryptswap
mkswap /dev/mapper/cryptswap

If you note above the mapped name for the encrypted swap is named as cryptswap – this name will be used later – you can change the name if you wish to. Add the /etc/fstab entry so that the swap gets mounted at boot, also enable the swap at present:

echo /dev/mapper/cryptswap swap swap defaults 0 0 >> /etc/fstab
swapon /dev/mapper/cryptswap

Next we have to populate /etc/crypttab so that the initramfs can set up the swap partition and resume from hibernate. But before that, find the name of the device that is mounted as / (root filesystem) from /etc/fstab. In my case that is /dev/mapper/bcache0p1_crypt. Now we can create the crypttab entry:

echo cryptswap UUID=$(blkid -s UUID -o value /dev/nvme0n1p3) /dev/disk/by-uuid/$(blkid -s UUID -o value /dev/mapper/bcache0p1_crypt):/.swap-key luks,discard,keyscript=/lib/cryptsetup/scripts/passdev,noauto >> /etc/crypttab

The first field in the crypttab entry is mapped name of the device, second field is the UUID of the device which has this encrypted filesystem, the third field is path to the key file – here I have specified the path /dev/disk/by-uuid/<UUID of ROOT FILESYSTEM>:/.swap-key. This syntax is documented in the crypttab(5) man page for providing unlock keys – if you used a different path for the key then you have to change the path here as well. Important point to be noted here – we have put the encryption key of the swap inside encrypted root filesystem – so without unlocking the root filesystem it is not possible to access the key to the swap. Fourth field specifies the options for the encrypted device – you can omit discard in it if your swap partition is on a hard disk drive.

The keyscript=/lib/cryptsetup/scripts/passdev script is documented at Debian Cryptsetup docs and /usr/share/doc/cryptsetup-initramfs/README.initramfs.gz. It basically lets us use a key file stored on some device. The noauto option is required to prevent systemd to try to mount the partition as systemd does not seem to support keyscript / fixed keys so when you boot the system normally you will end up without a swap partition because the systemd target fails – but with the noauto option it gets mounted because initramfs unlocks the swap partition and then devices to be mounted are read from fstab.

Edit /etc/default/grub to disable the systemd crypto generator since we do not need it:

GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX_DEFAULT="quiet splash luks=no"

Now update grub and initramfs, then test with a reboot that the swap is getting mounted during normal boot process:

update-grub
update-initramfs -u -k all
reboot

If successful, you can try hibernate – open some text editor window for example and type the following command – as there is no way to get the hibernate button in GNOME menu yet:

systemctl hibernate

Once your machine turns off start it again and you should have the text editor back on the screen in the same state you had shut it down. Hibernate working! You can make this command as a keyboard shortcut in GNOME control center so you can hibernate with a key sequence.

Cloning a UEFI/GPT Windows 10 installation from HDD to SSD using SystemRescueCD

So, I had an interesting problem at hand – to transfer a completely working Windows 10 installation from a 1 TB HDD to a 1 TB NVME SSD (Samsung 970 EVO Plus). As someone who has done something of that sort many times, but with Linux based OSes my first thought was if I could do some sort of stuff with a SystemRescueCD running from a USB pen drive – as I wasn’t willing to use any Windows based backup solution since I had no idea how they work, or whether they work at all. To those who don’t know, SystemRescueCD is a kind of Swiss knife Linux distribution you can use to do all kinds of disk and OS recovery tasks. You usually don’t need to install any extra packages, etc.

If you are following this post, read it completely before attempting anything. This is not a step-by-step guide. Also you may need to adjust the commands to suit your system to select the correct drive and/or partition when copying partitions.

So the first try was using a block to block copy, using ddrescue. But copying 1 TB from a HDD which reads at max 100 MB/s to a SSD which can write at almost 1500 MB/s is surely an extremely slow job. That too when the total data in the HDD is around 200 GB combined – OS (C drive) and Data (D drive). ddrescue was showing estimated time as 17 hours!!!

Then I started looking for NTFS cloning tools – turns out ntfs-3g has a utility called ntfsclone which does exactly that – it copies just the data, not complete blocks. That’s exactly what I needed. But before doing ntfsclone it is necessary to have a duplicate partition table of the HDD on the SSD. Since this is was a GPT/UEFI based installation, I used sgdisk to do this:

sgdisk -R /dev/nvme0n1 /dev/sda

This will copy the partition table from /dev/sda to /dev/nvme0n1 without changing the GPT UUID. It is possible to generate a new GPT UUID using sgdisk but that might break something in the boot process when booting from SSD, so I decided not to that. This also means that the HDD must be disabled from BIOS/UEFI settings before booting from SSD, otherwise the operating system (Windows) and BIOS itself will see two disks with exactly same GPT UUID, possibly leading to errors.

Now that the partition table has been cloned, it’s time to copy the data using ntfsclone and ddrescue. There were 5 partitions on the HDD, as seen in fdisk -l /dev/sda:

  • /dev/sda1 – Recovery
  • /dev/sda2 – EFI System Partition
  • /dev/sda3 – Some other Recovery
  • /dev/sda4 – C drive (NTFS)
  • /dev/sda5 – D drive (NTFS)

I used ddrescue to copy the partitions /dev/sda1 => /dev/nvme0n1p1, /dev/sda2 => /dev/nvme0n1p2, /dev/sda3 => /dev/nvme0n1p3.

ddrescue -v -f /dev/sda1 /dev/nvme0n1p1
ddrescue -v -f /dev/sda2 /dev/nvme0n1p2
ddrescue -v -f /dev/sda3 /dev/nvme0n1p3

Then to copy the NTFS partitions:

ntfsclone -O /dev/nvme0n1p4 /dev/sda4
ntfsclone -O /dev/nvme0n1p5 /dev/sda5

Note: it may be necessary to you turn off fast startup option in Windows 10 power options before rebooting into SystemRescueCD – because ntfs-3g often complains about that, I did that before doing it. I have no idea if this process would have been successful with that option enabled.

Control Panel Power Options

Now reboot to UEFI/BIOS and disable the HDD, then reboot. Now there are two possibilities that will happen: either you will be able to boot into your Windows 10 installation from SSD, or it will give you a BSOD with an error code 0xc00000e. If you get the error code, you need a Windows 10 recovery disk or the installation media to fix this. I did not know this beforehand but I had my Windows machine, using which I prepared a Windows recovery disk.

Boot using the Windows 10 recovery disk or installation media and head to the command prompt. In the command prompt:

DISKPART
LIST DISK
LIST PARTITION

Note the disk which is your SSD – usually it is disk number 0.

SELECT DISK 0
SELECT PARTITION 2
ASSIGN LETTER=M
EXIT

Note – in the above commands, you have to assign the drive letter M to the EFI system partition. In my case it was the second partition, so I did SELECT VOLUME 2. Then format the EFI system partition using FAT32:

FORMAT M: /FS:FAT32

Now run BCDBOOT:

BCDBOOT C:WINDOWS /s M: /f UEFI

That’s it, now reboot the system and you should be able to boot into Windows from the SSD. Optionally, if you are going to retain the HDD (because why not, extra storage is always good), enable to HDD and boot to SystemRescueCD once again and clear the partition tables using sgdisk:

sgdisk -Z /dev/sda

Reboot into Windows 10 then you can partition the HDD using Disk Management to your heart’s content.

How I repaired my dishwasher using fundamental principles for troubleshooting

I have a Samsung DW-FN320T dishwasher, which is about 5+ years old. It was not used very often because of maid at home. But now due to COVID lockdown the dishwasher started getting used heavily – almost twice a day because authorities banned maids to contain the spread of the disease.

One day though, it stopped working – the symptom, it showed heater error which as per the manual means either of temperature sensor, heating coil or some low sensing device is dead. So I called up my usual home repair technician, he came and found some plastic part of a mixer-grinder blade in the drain basin of dishwasher. Meanwhile we also discovered that the drain pipe is broken so he replaced that, but that still didn’t solve heater error.

He was not very positive about this because it seems Samsung has phased out this model in India (and they don’t sell dishwashers anymore) and availability of spare parts is a problem. He left saying he’ll try to procure the heater sensor.

But I wasn’t convinced that there is a heater related problem, because the dishwasher was completing cycles partially – for a cycle of say 2h 30m it would complete about 20-30 minutes then stop with heater error and I also observed it wasn’t pumping water to the spray arms in some cycles occasionally. The problem of pump not working was completely random and there was no pattern irrespective of wash program selected.

In addition to this, before the machine stopped working completely there were days when dishes wouldn’t come clean or the soap won’t dissolve but dishwasher used to show END (wash cycle complete).

So I opened up the dishwasher (a hell of a job that is) and then checked all the wiring for any loose connection etc. The problem here was – motor not running sometimes, so I was suspecting some kind of loose connection or faulty component such as a relay (which drives the motor) on the controller board.

To check what is happening I used a simple multimeter – put it in AC mode and inserted the probes in the connector of the motor. Then I started the dishwasher in the smallest cycle (pre-wash) – when I discovered the motor was getting power but it wasn’t spinning. This was weird, because if it isn’t spinning that means motor is dead, but a dead motor does not spin occasionally!

The shaft the motor was accessible from outside, so to check if the shaft is jammed I tried to turn it manually using a screwdriver (with the dishwasher being off) – it was moving freely without any resistance to motion. Then turned on the dishwasher again and started pre-wash – the motor started.

This made me suspect the capacitor of motor, because in single phase motors a capacitor is used to phase-shift the current in second winding which gives the starting torque. Also whenever the motor was turned on by the controller and it didn’t spin there was a sound coming from it. In one such instance, when power was being applied to motor (confirmed using multimeter), turned the shaft manually and it did start spinning.

The dead capacitor

This confirmed the doubt on capacitor. When capacitor loses it’s capacitance due to age/other factors, it is not able to provide the current required to produce the starting torque to spin the motor. Once a motor starts though it continues to spin due to inertia.

New capacitor

Now the next challenge was to finding a compatible capacitor (3 uF) to replace this – since it has a bolt thread, it was fixed using a nut on the motor itself. Considering the urgency I had planned to wire up two ceiling fan capacitors in parallel (which are typically 2.25 uF) in case I don’t get a new one. Luckily a friend of mine helped in procuring a 3 uF capacitor but it didn’t have the bolt thread.

Mounting

So in order to fit the new capacitor I did a simple jugaad / hack – put a simple nut-bolt on the mounting hole and tied it on the bolt using cable ties.

After fitting the capacitor and making the machine upright, I ran some test cycles in short long ones to check if the problem is fixed – it was fixed. The motor started spinning immediately without getting stuck / jammed at any time.

The lesson from this exercise is that one should always think from basics when approaching a problem to be solved, this applies to any field – whether it is electronics, electrical or computer science.

Also often people say – what is the use of subjects taught in school in real life. AC motor working was a part of 11th grade when I was in school. Yes, the subjects taught in school do have some use in real life. That’s how I was able to fix my dishwasher and saved a lot of money in that process in spite of not being an electrical or electronics engineer.