Older blog entries for steve (starting at number 166)

We just completed a software upgrade at robots.net that introduces several changes you may have noticed. First, all user profiles now include FOAF files. A FOAF file is basically an alternate version of your profile page that's easy for machines to read. This is similar to the RSS file, which is an alternate version of your blog that's easier for machines to read. Second, speaking of RSS, all robots.net RSS feeds are now compliant with the RSS 2.0 standard and include guid and pubDate fields. This will make like easier for the blog aggregators that syndicate your blogs. And, last, all timestamps are now in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) rather than the US Central timezone. Most of our readers aren't in the US Central timezone, so it made sense to switch to something that will be more convenient.

Advogato blog topics

Zaitcev brings up the issue of blog posts that aren't directly related to free software development in Advogato's recentlog. I seem to remember this issue coming up sometime in the past. Zaitcev occasionally posts about topics other than free software such as Anime. This annoys ekashp, who would prefer that free software developers limit their interests (or at least their blogs) to posts about free software. For my own part, I don't find it strange at all that free software developers have varied interests beyond software itself and I enjoy reading about them.

Perhaps I'm biased, becase I too write about whatever random things I find interesting. Sometimes I write about software but just as often it's music, art, books, or robotics. My case is interesting because my blog is syndicated to both Advogato and to robots.net. I think to meet ekashp's ideal, I'd have to limit my blog to software development related to robots. Otherwise, I'd risk being off-topic on one of the two sites with any given post. Instead, I throw caution to the wind and assume that if a topic is interesting to me, it might be interesting to someone else too.

In any case, Raph created Advogato's blog ranking system so that each user could define their own ideal recentlog. If you consistently find someone's blog uninteresting or annoying, go to their profile page and give their blog a low interest ranking. Blogs ranked below 3 will not show up in your view of the recentlog.

2007 Bloggies

Only a few days left to vote in the 2007 Weblog Awards, aka the bloggies. Voting ends on January 10. Might be nice to nominate Wordpress, Pivot, or some other FOSS program for best web application for weblogs. And, I dunno, maybe a vote for Advogato's recentlog for best community weblog or best group weblog? And don't forget to throw in a vote for robots.net under a few categories too. Winners will be announced by March 14.

The new year is off to a good start for Free Software

Everywhere I look lately, I'm seeing good news about 3D graphics acceleration support for free software users.

Since I started collecting numbers last year, the highest glxgears results we'd seen for any free software driver was a little over 3,000 FPS. Now we're begining to see number for the R300 code that has been added to the X.Org radeon driver and we have two reports in the 5,000 - 6,000 FPS range on ATI X800/X850 hardware. These may be the highest glxgears number attained on free software to date (if there are higher ones, hopefully somebody will send us a report). With numbers like that, I think the Ubuntu folks won't be able to use performance as a reason for switching to proprietary drivers (at least for ATI).

A growing number of reports are showing improvments in the performance of the X.Org Intel graphics driver too.

Meanwhile, the nouveau project, which is busy reverse engineering nVidia's proprietary hardware, has hit a milestone. They posted a screen shot of their driver successfully running glxgears in late December.

Nouveau also came up in a recent debate on the linux kernel mailing list over proprietary binary drivers. Alan Cox suggested getting nouveau's DRM module (that's Direct Rendering Manager, not Digital Restrictions Management) into the kernel ASAP. The DRM module is the kernel side of the X.Org DRI driver. The nouveau folks don't think the code is quite ready but it's good to know nVidia 3D acceleration is getting closer.

Not enough good news? The Open Graphics Project took delivery of their first OGD1 development boards and are now in a testing cycle. The development board, which includes two FPGA chips, will have a GPU clock rate of 150MHz. Performance is expected to clock in faster than an ATI Radeon 7000 and a little below the nVidia Ge Force2 GTS. The hardware design is completely open and licensed under the GNU GPL. When the development is completed the design will be moved to custom ASICs, allowing a cheaper (and possibly faster) final board for end users.

29 Dec 2006 (updated 29 Dec 2006 at 14:11 UTC) »

Recursive blogging

I have in front of me an Emily Bezar CD called Angel's Abacus. How I came to have this CD is a twisted story of recursive dreams, blogging, and synchronicity.

Six years ago on a summer evening, I wrote in my blog about a recursive dream I'd had. That's a dream in which you dream that you fall asleep and are having a dream. My dream had three levels of recursion. I dreamed that I was having a dream in which I was having a dream. It made for a nice, geeky joke in my blog about mental stack overflows.

Ealier this month, independent recording artist Emily Bezar had a recursive dream and wrote about it in her myspace blog. Curious about whether anyone else had written about recursive dreams, she googled for "recursive dream" and found my blog entry. She quoted my blog in her blog (which I'm now mentioning in my blog, possibly proving that dream recursion eventually leads to blog recursion).

A few hours after Emily's blog post, I happened to do a search on my name at Technorati, prompted by the chance discovery that there's a baseball player who shares my rather unusual name. What I found was not a reference to baseball but Emily's dream post. I left a comment on her blog and, perhaps impressed by my Kibo-like omnipresence when my name was mentioned, she visited my myspace page where my rather eccentric musical tastes are revealed. This prompted an email exchange regarding the improbability of two people who listen to both DEVO and John Adams, both PIL and Kronos Quartet, running into each because of the chance discovery that we've both had recursive dreams.

Meanwhile, I checked out her website, listening to a few MP3s of her compositions. I ordered the Angel's Abacus CD, which showed up in the mail a few days later, unexpectedly autographed. Wow. Why doesn't Mark Mothersbaugh ever send me autographed DEVO CDs?

She creates unusual and interesting music that's been compared to Kate Bush. It's an understandable comparison but Emily's music defies such a simple classification. It's not Jazz, not classical, not rock, not minimalism, not - well, you get the idea. It's the sort of music you can't find in brick-and-mortar record stores because they don't have a pre-printed plastic divider to delineate it's nature.

Emily has a musical background as diverse as my musical tastes; from classical piano at Oberlin Conservatory to Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. Anyway, check it out. Promote Indie music. Buy one of her CDs.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I've learned from all this is that someone might actually read my blog once in a while.

30 Nov 2006 (updated 30 Nov 2006 at 22:49 UTC) »


One of my longer term ToDo items made it to the top of the list this week. I've been setting up a Subversion repository for the Dallas Personal Robotics Group. The DPRG has a number of programming projects in various stages of completion ranging from working code to idle talk. Having a repository like Subversion will make project development easier, particularly for projects with multiple programmers. All projects hosted in the new Subversion repository will be Free Software and/or Open Source.

I used Subversion v1.3.2 for the initial setup. ViewVC v1.0.3 was added to provide a web-based interface to the repository. Last, I added Highlight v2.4 to provide some nice code highlighting for the ViewVC code browser. Everything is running on a CentOS Enterprise Linux box that also hosts the DPRG website.

At this point, everything seems to be working but I still need to customize the ViewVC templates to tie the look-and-feel in with the main DPRG site.

In addition to DPRG projects, I'm going to keep the mod_virgule codebase there too. Mod_virgule is the code used on robots.net and Advogato. Getting mod_virgule into Subversion was a good learning experience. I used the trunk, branches, tags layout recommended by the GPL'd O'Reilly Book, Version Control with Subversion. I used the last 2004 release of Raph's codebase, version 1.41 as the initial commit. I created a separate branch for Raph's code and also tagged it as release 1.41. Then for each of my releases since 2004, I committed them and tagged them as a release.

Ubuntu and Proprietary Drivers

Seems like everyone has been talking about Ubuntu's decision to start including proprietary graphics drivers in the Distro to support flashier eye candy on the desktop. There's been a lot of discussion and some flame wars over the issue. Rather than joining in flame wars, how about an an alternative? Why not put that energy into making sure there are free drivers for ATI and nVidia?

There are currently free ATI drivers with DRI support for 3D acceleration. Maybe someone could find out why the free driver is not suitable for the Ubuntu folks? Not fast enough? Missing a critical feature? Maybe it can be improved enough that the Ubuntu developers would reconsider their decision.

The free nVidia driver doesn't support DRI so there is no free alternative yet for nVidia cards. The nouveau project is working on the problem. They're making fast progress but they could use your help. They've developed a tool called called REnouveau to assist with reverse engineering the nVidia hardware without violating the license on the proprietary driver. If you have an nVidia card, you can help by downloading the proprietary driver and using this tool to generate dumps of test data for your card.

For a few more ideas on how you can improve Free Software support for 3D accelerated graphic cards in general, visit the Free 3D wiki.

Things to be thankful for

Holidays are handy things because they give you a chance to get caught up on everything you've fallen behind on. Part of my holiday todo list includes posting an update to my blog, of course!

Books and other piles of words I've been reading Neil Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (a three volume prequel to Cryptonomicon) aloud to Susan in the evenings. We're about half way through the second volume and loving it. I finished reading R. A. Lafferty's Past Master recently as well. My quest to obtain and read the entire series of Neil R. Jones Professor Jameson stories is proceeding slowly. All of the stories are out of print, many since they originally appeared in the pulps in the 1930s. I've managed to obtain copies of about 20 of them so far. The sad news that Jack Williamson has died means I'll probably be tracking down and reading a few of his out of print books soon.

C Programming Between the recent burst of mod_virgule work and the DPRG group robot project, I've been doing a lot more C programming lately. It's nice to work on things that are fun for a change. And even fun things result in an occasional patch for something more important. Both projects need to get moved into a Subversion archive. I've only been on the user end of Subversion until now, so this will be another interesting learning experience. I've completed the basic installation and started playing around with the configuration and web interface.

Jihad Jerry and the Evil Doers

Gerald V. Casale has a new CD out. He's calling the band Jihad Jerry and the Evil Doers and the CD is titled Mine is not a Holy War. Who else is on the CD? Let's see, there's Bob Mothersbaugh, Josh Freese, and, yes, Mark Mothersbaugh. If that seems suspiciously familiar, it should. This is essentially a new Devo CD. Mark Mothersbaugh co-wrote a few tracks but doesn't provide any vocals. The sound and the subject matter is very Devo-like. They're not happy about Bush, SUVs, and other forms of stupidity. The lyrics are full of Devo-like mixed metaphors and devolved wisdom like, "remember, you look through your glasses but the rest of the world looks at them." Recommended.

30 Oct 2006 (updated 22 Nov 2006 at 21:38 UTC) »

Moon Festivals, Moon Pies, Moon Cakes, and other Lunar events

It turned out that the preservation of Advogato by moving it to our hosting facility and migrating to newer software made a lot of folks very happy. This was nice because not everything I do makes a lot of people very happy. Advogato user Sye, sent her thanks in the form of a box of traditional Chinese Moon Cakes. The Advogato transition happened on 1 Oct and the Chinese Moon Festival was on Friday, 6 Oct. It was actually a little later before the Moon Cakes arrived and even later before I found the time to try them. But after reading about Moon Cakes and the Moon Festival, I decided it might be fun to go ahead and celebrate it.

Here in the Southern United States, we have our own delicacy named after the moon. It's called a Moon Pie. It's composed of white gooey stuff squished between layers of brown crunchy stuff and the entire thing is coated in something that's "chocolaty flavored". So, when Friday evening rolled around, I set out to purchase a Moon Pie while Susan prepared some green tea. RC Cola is the traditional beverage of choice to accompany a Moon Pie but we thought green tea a better fit with a Chinese holiday.

It turned out to be surpisingly hard to find a Moon Pie. The higher end grocery stores didn't seem to carry them. Wal-mart had a cheap immitation but not the real thing. By an odd coincidence, while I was driving all over town hunting for Moon Pies, my brother Randy called me to tell I should check out the Moon. He had read that the full Moon tonight was supposed be look larger than usual because it's the "Full Harvest Moon" which occurs nearest the Autumnal Equinox once every three years in October. I explained my Moon Pie search and he had a few suggestions of places to try. Finally I found a couple of authentic Moon Pies at a 7-11 convenience store.

Upon my return home, Susan and I sampled the Moon Pie, drank some green tea, and looked at the full moon. Zippy the cat managed to nab a small sample of the Moon Pie. Supposedly cats aren't supposed to eat chocolate because of the theobromine it contains. However, the Moon Pie doesn't appear to contain any real chocolate. It's just some sort of "chocolaty flavored" industrial sludge, so it's probably not any more toxic to cats than to us humans. As if we needed any more moon events at this point, friday is Doctor Who night in the US, so we flipped on the TV. Tonight's episode was "Tooth and Claw", about full moons and aliens that are taken for werewolves in 1879 Scotland.

Later in the month Sye's package of Moon Cakes arrived. They were contained in a beautifully decorated metal box. The label indicated these Moon Cakes were imported from Shanghai, which sounds pretty authentic to me. I was relieved to discover they were the variety filled with sweetened bean paste rather than the somewhat more adventurous sounding ones filled with salted duck eggs. Cut in half, the bean paste filling looked like chocolate. The nearest taste analogy I can think of would be the refried beans common in Tex-Mex dishes combined with sugar.

Thanks for the Moon Cakes, Sye! The whole event seemed strange enough to warrant some photos, so have a look at my Moon Cake and Moon Pie photo gallery to see how it all went down.

Robots and Linux

What free time this month wasn't sucked up by the Advogato migration was spent working on Tankbot GTR, the current DPRG group robot project. We now have the Mini-ITX mother board that Via donated mounted on the robot. We were doing our initial testing with an old 800MB laptop hard drive but it really sucked the batteries dry quickly. So I picked up an IDE to CF adapter and Martin donated a 1GB CF card. For the moment, I just used dd to move the entire hard disk content to the CF card. This is working surpisingly well considering we were running an old Redhat 9 distro intended for the desktop.

While most distros offer bootable CD images of one sort or another, almost none offer bootable CF card images. Many provide overly complex instruction on how to get their distro to boot from a CF card but few provide something as easy to use as a simple image file that you can copy and boot. Once exception is Flash Puppy, so I'll probably be experimenting with that later this week. I'm begining to think there might be a real need for an embedded linux distro targeted at robot applications. And one that's as easy to install as copying an image to CF card, sticking it in a motherboard, and booting.

mod_virgule and Advogato

I've spent the last week making a lot of mod_virgule tweaks to get my version of the codebase to the point it can run both Advogato and robots.net. My goal is to make the upcoming change-over to the new server and codebase as unnoticeable as possible to Advogato users. Keep you fingers crossed. Next up is trying to get mod_virgule to compile cleanly with gcc 4.x on a 64bit machine.

My mobile phone saga

I've used ATT for mobile service since 1995. In 2004, Cingular acquired the ATT wireless network and it's been downhill ever since. My office is in downtown Dallas, where you'd think even the worst wireless company would have cell towers. At times over the last week my phone said "no service" while at best it might show two bars and "extended area" or "roaming" on the display.

A call to Cingular's customer support revealed the reason. To encourage ATT users to pay for new Cingular phones and contracts, Cingluar has been progressively turning off and dismantling the network of ATT cell towers. I was also told I needed to "upgrade" right away or face an additional $4.99/month fee for continued use of the ATT network. They also insisted that I couldn't go to another carrier without paying a $175 early termination fee. This was odd since my last ATT contract expired in 2004, prior to the Cingular takeover. I'd been on month-to-month since then. The Cingular customer support rep insisted I had a current, unexpired contract. After double-checking my files, I called back and asked for details about the contract. Strangely, they said they couldn't tell me when the contract was signed. I finally asked them fax me a copy of the alleged contract. After putting me on hold for a long time, they finally admitted there was no contract.

Turns out I'm not the only one with these problems. The Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights (FTRC) has filed a class action lawsuit against Cingular (PDF format) for false advertising, breached contracts, and assorted other things. They have a summary of the lawsuit on their website.

I always dread shopping for phones. While there are lots of choices, they all suck. I'd like to get a Linux-based phone. Most are only available in Asia and of the ones available in the US, none of the major carriers offer them yet. The most obtainable ones are Motorola's but they use some kind of hardware Digital Restrictions Management to defeat the GPL protected right to modify the software. You can modify the software all you want but the phone won't run the modified software (RMS hopes to fix this sort of thing with the GPLv3 but Linus hopes to avoid fixing it by retaining the GPLv2 on the Linux kernel). There's a lot of hype about Trolltech's mobile phone called the Green Phone but a) they're not easy to get b) no major carrier is going to offer them and c) if you check Trolltech's site, they say the Green Phone isn't really intended for use as phone. They are strictly intended as development hardware. The FAQ says "inserting a SIM card obtained from a GSM network operator should safely enable basic phone functionality." "Should" and "basic" being the operative words. Aside from those problems, I'm going to be really tempted to get one of the Green Phones if they turn into something real. A fully hackable Linux phone would über cool.

So no Linux phone. I'd prefer to avoid a Windows based phone, so that lets out most of the Smart Phones. LG has some phones that look good on paper but every one that I've tried so far has horrible voice quality. The non-Linux Motorola phones look cool but I keep reading user complaints about them.

I want bluetooth, Linux support, and reasonable battery life. I want a time / caller ID display on the outside of the phone that's visible at all times without having to press buttons (this turns out to be suprisingly rare on the lastest generation of phones). A camera is nice but not a requirement. Initially I thought it would be nice to have iPod-like music capabilities. But...

It turns out the term "MP3" no longer refers to a file format. An "MP3 phone", is simply any phone that can play a music file of some unspecified file format. Almost every alleged "MP3 phone" I looked at was not able to play MP3 files. In most cases they can only play DRM'd WMA files. The Nokia N91 is supposed to but, suprise, it's not available from any major carrier. If the N91 were available, I expect it would be my first choice right now. I looked at the LG Chocolate but it has the same crappy voice quality as the other LG phones (and doesn't play MP3s, only WMAs). I found a few Nokia and Samsung phones that could play actual MP3 files but most were only available through Verizon, who deactivates features like that in order force customers to purchase DRM'd music and ringtones through their VCAST service. In the end, I decided to just ignore the MP3 feature since it was evident none of the phones provide anything useful here (yet). So, what did I end up with? I narrowed it down to the Samsung SCH-A930. The voice quality is better than most of the phones I tried. It has a very bright, high contrast blue OLED panel on the outside of the phone with the time on it (always on). It has bluetooth, a reasonably good 1.3MP camera, decent battery life. It can play the usual WMA audio files (I've heard there's a hack out there to turn MP3 support back on). It has GPS support (which Verizon has deactivated of course, except to deliver your coords on 911 calls). It also looks different and better, I think, than most of the other of phones I saw. I picked up a USB cable on eBay and Bitpim (GPL) works great for shuffling data to and from my Linux box. I also stuffed a 1GB Micro-SD in it.

Websites come and websites go

O'Reilly shut down the wonderful Meerkat aggregator website a while back and now I see that Raph may be shutting down Advogato.

Yet another website I frequent, on the subject of Free/Open hardware, almost shut down in June. FreeIO.org has been run by Diehl Martin for years, providing GPL'd hardware designs. Unfortunately, Marty has pancreatic cancer and decided he didn't have time to run the site anymore. After seeing his shutdown announcement, I offered to take over hosting and maintenance of FreeIO.org. We completed the transition in August. We're still pondering the longer-term plans for the site.

I'll miss advogato if it shuts down. Thanks for the effort you put into Advogato and mod_virgule, Raph! I'm still running robots.net on my own version of mod_virgule but I'm guessing mod_virgule is not likely to survive long without Advogato, so it may be time to rename my version and go off in my own direction with the code. There are lots of enhancements I've wanted to make like dropping the specialized XML templates in favor of standard XHTML templates, replacing the template processing code with the XPATH support available in libxml2, maybe replacing the flat-file db with SQL support. There's still a lot of potential in the codebase; it's just a few years behind the times at this point.

I still haven't found a good replacement for Meerkat. I'm trying to use Technorati. It looks pretty but it's riddled with technical problems and there are apparently no humans at the other end to talk to, just faceless form emails promising replies that never arrive. Technorati only manages to update from robots.net maybe one out of every ten times I ping them. Complaints about the Technorati ping problems and their non-existent technical support are common. I've tried several of the recommended work-arounds for the ping problem but none have worked for me so far.

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