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With the drive plugged in, run the following command and post the output.
/dev/sda2 on / type ext3 (rw,errors=remount-ro)
tmpfs on /lib/init/rw type tmpfs (rw,nosuid,mode=0755)
proc on /proc type proc (rw,noexec,nosuid,nodev)
sysfs on /sys type sysfs (rw,noexec,nosuid,nodev)
procbususb on /proc/bus/usb type usbfs (rw)
udev on /dev type tmpfs (rw,mode=0755)
tmpfs on /dev/shm type tmpfs (rw,nosuid,nodev)
devpts on /dev/pts type devpts (rw,noexec,nosuid,gid=5,mode=620)
/dev/md0 on /home type ext3 (rw)
Looks like I spoke too soon. The USB devices (plus my Windows partition, which is written into fstab) are recognized by the system (confirmed by dmesg) and appear in "Computer", but are not mounted until I open System>Preferences>Removable Drives and Media. I don't have to adjust anything in the applet, just open it. Every session. Isn't that strange? I'm going to start a new thread to try to find the answer to this.
Distribution: Debian Jessie, Mageia 5 & Funtoo Linux
I don't have nothing but /, swap & dvd drive listed in my fstab and everytime I load my usb external hard drive, I see it using a filemanager. If I click on it, it opens a window to display the contents.
I'm using openbox wm, so I guess that is why no icon pops up on the desktop, there aren't any icons on desktop.
I believe gnome-volume-manager is giving it access.