The Curious Case of HID Malfunction

2010/08/21 § Leave a comment

A quick tidbit for any interested hardware wizards out there (I know no one is likely to care, this is really more of an excuse for why the next Python’s Innards post is progressing slowly). As some of you know, I’m currently on a long trip with my wife (a trip which is already nearing its end…). This means I’m rather poor in hardware, and that sometimes the environment is harsh – hot, cold, humid, occasionally vibrating (flights, boats), rich with small particles (sand, dust), etc. As I expected for a long time, the elements finally had their toll on my small but until now trusty Asus EeePC 1005HA. The thing is, the toll was taken in a rather odd way.

For about three days now the builtin trackpad stopped working – most of the time. Usually I get no cursor movement nor clicks, and there are no particular messages in dmesg//var/log/messages. On rare occasions the trackpad resumes working for a bit, I wasn’t able to find a pattern in what makes it work for these short periods of time (heating, cooling, sleeping, booting… nothing seems to make the short ‘work-periods’ predictable). On one occasion the trackpad worked but behaved erratically (jumping around, random clicks, etc), on others it works fine, but for a few seconds and up to a few minutes. I’m running Ubuntu 10.04, kernel 2.6.32-24, keeping it reasonably apt-get updated. I didn’t change anything significant in the software configuration of the computer before this happened, and booting a vanilla 10.04 from a USB stick I have around doesn’t help, so I’m pretty sure it’s not a vanilla software issue (despite the oddity listed below).

This is patently unpleasent but not entirely odd, and I would chalk it down to some undefined hardware damage and let it be. I could buy an external mouse for the remaining few weeks of the trip and otherwise ignore the issue, lest the builtin keyboard started showing similar behaviour. It works far more often than the mouse, but has spells of brokeness. An external USB keyboard works fine when plugged in. I don’t even know if my internal keyboard interfaces via some kind of internal USB controller or not; seems not, as even when it’s working it’s not listed in lsusb -v. /proc/bus/input/devices lists an “AT Translated Set 2 keyboard”, but I have no idea if this is really my keyboard or not. Anyway, the really weird thing is that the keyboard’s broken behaviour has a few extra odd quirks:

  • It works perfectly prior to loading the kernel: in the BIOS configuration screen, or GRUB’s menu, or the USB stick’s boot menu. It seems that as soon as the kernel is loaded, no more keyboard (X11 or console).
  • The “special” EeePC keys, like toggling wifi or changing screen brightness, work perfectly. They aren’t special keys, but rather a key combination, and the keys used in the combination don’t reach the OS discreetly.
  • When I open the laptop’s lid in sleep, I need to hit a key to bring it out of sleep. Any key works well enough for the computer to wakeup, and the very same key (or any other key) will promptly stop working when the OS is awake enough to ask for a password.

So what gives? My keyboard isn’t broken, but some kind of interface between the keyboard and the system which is circumvented by the BIOS but is used by the kernel is broken? Huh, WTF?

The bit of Googling I did yielded nothing, Internet here isn’t really scarce but it isn’t abundant and sure is not fast or pleasent (I’m on a beach in Thailand at the moment). I’m left with a big WTF and apt-get install keynav. Any tips will be greatly appreciated (and speed up the next post in the Python’s Innards series, too!).

Update: I’ve decided to disassemble and reassemble the keyboard, following these instructions, using a swiss-army knife, my wife’s fingernail file and a camping torch. Following the work both keyboard and touchpad are working for about 10 minutes now, one of the longer durations in the past few days. I can only hope I fixed the problem. Either way, I’m curious why the keyboard consistently didn’t work with a loaded kernel yet seemed to work fine using the BIOS (in the BIOS’ setup, GRUB’s boot menu, etc). Any explanations?

Hacker irked by reincarnation

2010/08/16 § 20 Comments

Today I chose a rather peculiar topic for a technology blog: the history of reincarnation research and its implications on science. This might seem a bit awkward or even off-topic, I think it’s neither (and I make up the rules here). Before we begin, I gather I should say that I’m a sceptic, I’ve always been a sceptic and I never saw myself much as a very spiritual or new-age kind of person. When my wife and I entered a 10-day course about Buddhism about a month ago, you can imagine I arrived with hefty sacks full of various grains of salt to take everything with.

I didn’t know much about Buddhism before the course, and I’m not any kind of an expert about it now, either. This post isn’t about Buddhism at all, actually – just about a small thing I ran into during the course. As it happened the course material mentioned a certain research by a Dr. Ian Stevenson from the University of Virginia, who dedicated much of his career to research of reincarnation. I don’t recall precisely how the wording went, but as best as I can recall the course material took his research to show that reincarnation is scientifically proven. Naturally, that was my queue for the Grand Entrance of the Grains of Salt.

So as soon as we left the course I spent a while Googling the late Dr. Stevenson, his work, and the work of others in the field. What I found was very disturbing: Dr. Stevenson seems, to the best of my ability to assess, as a reasonable researcher with reasonable methods who was never properly refuted. And he found some ‘disturbing’ (i.e., unexplainable, ‘supernatural’) results in his research. However, hardly anyone seems to have noticed or cared and hardly anyone continues his research today (I know Jim Tucker continues his work directly and that other researchers in the past and present also looked at the topic, but overall it seems to me like awfully too little).

OK, fine, so we have established evidence of reincarnation and we’re ignoring them. Uhm, what?! Hello? Am I missing something? Did a respectable member of the scientific community say (for several decades) that he found thousands of cases that are impossible to explain by modern science, cases that should shake our understanding of physics and/or biology and/or psychology and/or whatnot, and the collective response is to ignore this guy? How can the relevant scientific community look itself in the eye? Isn’t this an interesting and important subject? You think proof that actually P=NP would be big? How about friggin’ reincarnation!

I’ve read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything lately; it has been rather sad to realize so many amazing discoveries and theories in history have been ignored for several decades (sometimes centuries) before anyone caught on to the fact that they’re actually true and significant, often yielding further discoveries and further results. I’m not at all saying the fact that many true discoveries were ignored means that reincarnation is true only on the basis of it being ignored. But whatever evidence Dr. Stevenson (and others) have found should be refuted seriously, not merely shrugged off.

To some extent, things like this undermine my (otherwise very strong) belief in science as a whole. What other grand truths are already known to a few, and we just didn’t hear of them because we are all collectively waiting for a bunch of old Professors to die or for someone to pick up where a deceased researcher left off? What kind of price might humanity be paying because this avenue of research is ‘weird’ or ‘unsexy’? What if rebirthing is possible, and the obvious logical reservations1 are somehow solvable, and we’re just ignoring it?

Call me naive, but I don’t get why people like you and me don’t demand from our governments and universities that this issue be cleared sooner rather than later (and the issues of other, similarly odd scientific observations, while we’re at it; the hairs on the back of my neck still stand when I recall a lecture from Prof. Shulamith Kreitler of TAU’s department of Psychology about long-range sub-awareness and super-awareness phenomena, which to a layman like me it sounded a lot like bloody Telepathy and I think were never thoroughly researched by a Neurologist/Physicist combo, as I think it should have). I can list a ton of reasons why understanding of reincarnation may be important, but above all else – we’re humans, aren’t we? Isn’t curiosity reason enough?


1 Where do new souls come from as the population is expanding? What would happen if we nuke every living being on Earth, where would all these souls go? Do we share souls with aliens? How do the physics of rebirthing work, that is, what kind of particles pass from the dead being to the newborn one? Why is rebirthing evidence so much more common in the East, where it is far more commonly believed to be true?

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