Backing up Thunderbird is a pain in the a@@

I’m a stickler for backups. I do them all the time. I make more than one copy.

The worst thing about my backups is Thunderbird mail. I POP the mail down to my local computer for various reasons, and if you use Thunderbird this way, you know that it uses the mbox format, which leads to some very large files.

And every time you get an e-mail, those large files change ever so slightly.

I’m using rsync as my backup utility, and backing up the Thunderbird mail always takes a very, very, very long time.

I don’t know for sure if I’m invoking the “copy only parts of the file that changed” switch in rsync (I use rsync -av –delete), but whether I am or not, it takes an awfully long time to complete the backup.

It takes so long that I have one script to back up all my user files except Thunderbird mail and another script that does Thunderbird mail only.

All in all, I’d rather have my POP mail saved in a format that creates thousands of small files, most of which never change, rather than a few dozen huge ones that are always changing.

Firefox is a hog

I’ll repeat the headline: Firefox is a hog. It eats tons of CPU. Just run top or htop in a terminal when you’re in Linux/Unix. You’ll see the toll FF takes.

In the GNOME world of Linux/Unix, I like to run the Epiphany or Galeon browsers when possible. Or Opera, which is lighter than just about everything else in Linux, Windows and Mac OS.

But there are more than a few things I need to do in the browser for which Firefox is either the “best” or only way … and that’s why I keep using it.

Why I’m running boring ol’ Debian Lenny, the short version

I do tend to go on. But here’s the short version of why I’m running Debian instead of Ubuntu:

If I’m going to spend time manually configuring, Googling for answers and continually fixing the broken bits of Ubuntu, why not just run Debian, where you expect to do such things but actually need to do them much less often?

Debian Lenny: Letting a network-time server manage your clock

The NTP service that uses network-time servers to keep your computer’s clock from drifting is another thing that Ubuntu includes by default but must be added to Debian if you want to use it.

I initially thought that adding the ntpdate package alone would set up the ntpd daemon and allow you to switch from manual clock setting to keeping the clock synchronized with Internet-based time servers. But you also have to add the ntp package to make it work.

You can do this in Synaptic, but as is usually the case, I find that Aptitude in a terminal does a better job, and is just as easy. I have sudo set up, just like in Ubuntu and OpenBSD, so this is how I do it (entering my password when prompted):

$ sudo aptitude install ntp ntpdate

Then I go in the GNOME menu to System — Administration — Time and Date and, under the Configuration toggle, switched to Keep synchronized with Internet servers, after that choosing a nearby server from the Time servers menu below.

Note: If for some reason you like the OpenNTPD program that ships by default with OpenBSD, that is also available as a package in Debian. I don’t know the ins and outs of either ntpdate or OpenNTPD, but I’ve found that ntpdate is more “aggressive” about resetting the PC’s clock, and OpenNTPD makes the changes more slowly. However they both work, it’s nice to have a choice, and it’s nice for Linux users to see yet another application coded by the OpenBSD team (much like OpenSSH) that can benefit the whole Unix-like universe.

Why I’m running boring ol’ Debian Lenny, Part 2: You can feel the extra speed over Ubuntu with 1.3 GHz/1 GB

I’ve been running Debian Lenny exclusively for more than a week now, and I can tell you that in an apples-to-apples comparison with Ubuntus 8.04 through 9.10, my immediate impression is that you do get a recognizable speed boost in just about all operations between the generic Lenny and generic Ubuntu on my 9-ish-year-old hardware, a Toshiba Satellite 1100-S101 laptop with 1.3 GHz Celeron processor and 1 GB of PC133 RAM.

By “generic,” I mean each distro’s default GNOME desktop and mostly default applications.

Things just happen a bit quicker the way Debian ships over Ubuntu’s stockish build.

I don’t know if such a difference can be detected on newer hardware since I’m pretty much not running any. But I’ve always noticed that Debian and Slackware offer a pretty good speed advantage over many other distributions on the older, underpowered and often under-memoried machines I happen to run.

I happened to run all the recent Ubuntu releases, as well as Debian Lenny, on the same hardware.

And did I forget to mention that I’m running Lenny with fully encrypted LVM?

I originally set up this laptop as a test for encryption, which I think is a must on a laptop — who wants to lose it and have all of your data potentially compromised? I chose fully encrypted LVM in the installer along with the standard GNOME desktop, and that’s pretty much what I’m running right now.

And even with whatever overhead the encryption adds to the CPU load, I still feel a lot more quickness (and use a lot less memory) than in Ubuntu.

I know Ubuntu has more services running by default, and I expect that Ubuntu can be tuned and tweaked to run as fast as Debian, but in this case I didn’t have to do anything.

Of course I did make adjustments here and there to make Debian Lenny work the way I want:

  • In Nautilus, clicking on a folder doesn’t open a new window like in stock Debian GNOME. Instead it opens in the same window (like stock Ubuntu GNOME).
  • I configured Iceweasel to transmit its browser name as Firefox because I have an SAAS app that demands it.
  • I added Java from the Debian non-free repository and Flash from Adobe’s .deb package
  • I’m slowly adding fonts so I can see more foreign-language and other characters in applications. The main thing I need to figure out is which font will let me see Unicode “smart quotes,” which show up in Ubuntu but not in Debian; I know Debian is using Unicode, but I’m wondering why all those characters don’t display.
  • I use Thunderbird and not Evolution as my mail client, so I added Icedove and the Debian equivalent of Ubuntu’s Sunbird/Lightning calendar app, Iceowl.
  • Debian already doesn’t ship F-Spot but instead uses Gthumb by default; that’s exactly what I want.
  • I haven’t yet started using Debian Backports, but if I feel the need to use the Tomboy replacement Gnote (which is faster and Mono-free), I can get it there.

That’s about it.

I’m in the process once again of modifying my rsync scripts to back up the Debian installation’s /home files. This time I used Gparted via the PartedMagic live CD to label the partitions on my Toshiba backup drive, so the drives now mount with those names, making modifying the scripts extremely easy.

If I think about it too much, I might start “missing” the newer applications that Ubuntu’s six-month releases offer, and I could always upgrade this Debian installation from Lenny to Squeeze, the current Testing release, which includes Firefox/Iceweasel 3.5.x and OpenOffice 3.1.x (as opposed to 3.0.x and 2.4.x, respectively, in Lenny), but when it comes to my day-to-day work (which has a) limited my time for futzing around with software and b) made having a working computer more important than ever), Debian Lenny, old packages and all, is getting the job done just fine.

And speed is good …

Getting Mozilla’s Lightning/Iceowl to work in Thunderbird/Icedove

35889-snowy-owl.jpgWe all know that due to the copyright of the Mozilla Foundation/Corporation/whatever-it-is, that the Debian project decided awhile ago to drop the copyrighted logos and names from the very popular Mozilla products, hence:

Firefox = Iceweasel
Thunderbird = Icedove
Seamonkey = Iceape

And it turns out the Mozilla standalone calendar application Sunbird as well as the Lightning version of that app that works inside of Thunderbird/Icedove has its own Debian-dubbed name:


It took me long enough to figure that out.

I had been using Lightning in my Ubuntu Karmic installation … a newer version presumably because when I went into the Synaptic Package Manager to install the Iceowl extension for Icedove (see … I’ve dropped the Mozilla names entirely and am now speaking Debian), I added Iceowl, restarted Icedove and was told by a dialog that my data in Lightning (yep, back to Mozilla-speak) was created by a newer version of the extension and would be corrupted, hence Icedove/Thunderbird was turning Iceowl/Lightning off to avoid such corruption.

Now I only had a couple of things in Iceowl/Lightning — standing meetings that I’m always forgetting about — so losing any data didn’t concern me.

A big of Googling told me that files in my .mozilla-thunderbird profile folder ending with .sbd held the Lightning/Iceowl data. I pulled the following from my profile folder and parked them elsewhere, lest I need them again.

The two files I removed were:


Then I started Icedove again. I had Iceowl/Lightning working, but just as in Ubuntu, I couldn’t create an “event” on the calendar, rendering it useless, when I installed directly from Mozilla’s extension/add-on site. In the case of Ubuntu, Lightning only worked when I used Synaptic to install from the Ubuntu repositories.

But in Debian Lenny, I only used the repositories, no Mozilla-direct files at all.

Back to the Googling. I quickly learned from Mozilla’s Calendar Weblog that there’s a library package that must be installed before you install Lightning/Iceowl:

You need to install the libstdc++5 package from the repositories first. Reinstall Lightning afterwards. Posted by: ssitter | April 10, 2008 7:04 AM

I completely uninstalled Iceowl, then used Synaptic to install libstdc++5 and then installed iceowl-extension.

I launched Icedove, and right away the calendar display a) looked a whole lot better (it was looking a little funky previously) and b) actually worked, allowing me to create new “events” and trigger alarms for said events.

I’m puzzled. I checked the dependencies of iceowl-extension, and it lists the following:

Depends: libstdc++6 (>=4.1.1)

A quick check of Synaptic shows that I have both libstdc++6 and libstdc++5 installed.

I’m not quite sure what’s going on.

There is a Debian bug report on this very issue, #547616 iceowl-extension: Can’t open, add or use calendar and tasks.

I replied to the bug with my “findings.”

Is this Ubuntu’s mission?

Some might say that the mission of Ubuntu is to cleanse the upstream projects of the “sins” that make them hard to deal with from the vantage point of the average user.

Put more plainly: Whether it’s true or not, I think many users out there (myself included) somehow expect Ubuntu to fix every damn thing that’s broken in the Linux user experience.

The problem is that Ubuntu is not Linux. And while there’s a lot the Ubuntu project can do in terms of package choice, installation mechanics and cosmetics, the more Ubuntu’s packages deviate from the ways those packages are released upstream, the more potential we have for problems.

Naturally, those in Ubuntu who are making changes to packages think that upstream is going to agree with and subsequently utilize in the upstream application itself.

In some cases this might be true, but not in all or maybe even most.

Does Ubuntu know best?

As a longtime Ubuntu user, I can agree that the distribution, heavily based on Debian as it is, is for the most part an excellent thing.

But Ubuntu’s popularity isn’t solely based on technical excellence. To some extent the charismatic personality and large fortune of project creator Mark Shuttleworth is part of the draw.

I’m not ready to draw any conclusions. I’m just writing what I’m thinking.

The “benevolent dictator” model of software project leader isn’t unique to Ubuntu. OpenBSD, Slackware and Mepis are among the distros/projects that have a somewhat similar governance in which the buck stops with one person. Microsoft and Apple pretty much operate that way, too.

And in many ways that leader’s personality is intertwined with the product itself.

This kind of thing can be both good and bad (and is often, or perhaps even always, both at the very same time).

I’ll continue to ponder.

Why I’m running boring ol’ Debian Lenny, Part 1

I bet many of us have been trying to pound square pegs into round holes at one time or another.

It’s the same for me with operating systems. I made the semi-conscious decision to run Ubuntu at least in part because so many others run it, the articles I wrote about it would theoretically have a larger audience, and didn’t Ubuntu’s commitment to the desktop mean that things would work better than in (fill in the blank)?

Lately, however, I had so many problems with Ubuntu, problems that I had to Google and try various things in order to fix. And with every release, more problems. Had I stuck with Ubuntu 8.04 LTS (Hardy), I might still be using it. Maybe a kernel update would’ve solved my problem with intermittent crashes while using my USB WiFi stick. Maybe Flash as supplied by Ubuntu would play better with PulseAudio.

Sure I gained functionality as I moved my laptop from Ubuntu 8.04 through 8.10 and 9.04 to 9.10, but especially in 9.10 on my particular hardware (Toshiba Satellite 1100-S101 made about 2001, I think), problems just keep happening.

I was already thinking of bailing from Ubuntu. When the laptop’s screen developed a crack that slowly and then quickly spread across the entire LCD, making it unusable, I rsynced everything twice onto separate backup drives and pulled out my second Toshiba Satellite 1100-S101, which has been running Debian Lenny for awhile with fully encrypted LVM (which I installed as a way of testing the performance of just that — fully encrypted LVM, and I can tell you now that I don’t notice any lack of performance due to the encryption).

Lenny is pretty much where Ubuntu Hardy is in terms of apps and their relative ages.

And just as with Hardy, only more so (no networking issues), Debian Lenny is running great and doing everything I need it to do thus far.

Even with encrypted LVM, the Lenny laptop seems a great deal quicker than the Hardy/Intrepid/Jaunty/Karmic laptop with identical hardware.

Sure, Debian Stable is boring. There’s no fanfare every six months about the next release (and if I wanted newer everything, I could upgrade to Testing, currently Debian Squeeze).

You’d think that the whole idea of Debian Stable is obsolete in the age of Ubuntu and its mix of LTS and six-month releases, along with the six-month cycles of Fedora and OpenSuse.

Not true. Debian Stable exists for a reason. And for my particular collection of needs and hardware (I’m running Lenny on three machines now, with Etch on my Apple G4), Debian is what, in my mind anyway, works best.