Older blog entries for steve (starting at number 172)

27 May 2007 (updated 28 May 2007 at 16:23 UTC) »

Austin Art Car Parade

Time to get caught up again. A couple of weekends ago, Susan and I drove down to Houston for the annual Orange Show Center for Visionary Art's 20th annual Art Car Parade. This is one largest and oldest art car events in the world. About the only place you're likely to see bigger and stranger moving art would be Burning Man. There were over 200 art cars and an estimated 200,000 people in town to see them. I shot a lot of photos but only managed to shoot a fraction of what was there. Time to upgrade from a 2GB to 4GB XD card, I think! If you want to get an idea of what went on, check out my 2007 Houston Art Car Parade photos. You can also find pics of most of the cars in the official photo gallery on the Orange Show website. A local Houston friend of mine put together a little art car video of the event.

Random software and robot news

I've been doing a little more C programming lately. On the embedded level, I'm porting some odometery and waypoint navigation code written by David P. Anderson for use on my own robot. This is part of a larger project to put together a GPL'd library of mobile robot code. Don't expect to see it anytime soon but we are making progress.

I'm also trying to squeeze in time to keep up the work on mod_virgule. I've made a lot of progress over the last few months, benefiting both robots.net and Advogato. The ToDo list seems endless but next up is some code refactoring and work on the data schemas used for the XML database and HTML entry forms. This work will hopefully allow me to fix a long standing bug in the HTML forms and make the field layouts a little more flexible.

International Space Development Conference

As I write this, I'm sitting at the DPRG's booth at the International Space Development Conference. The ISDC asked us to be an affiliate and demo some robots. In the next booth is a group of high-powered rocketry people who have some rockets about 15 feet tall. John Carmack's Pixel lauch vehicle, built by his Armadillo Aerospace group, is sitting on the floor about 20 feet in front of me. Carmack and his engineers were here yestereday. I've also spotted a few other interesting people wandering around; Ben Bova and Buzz Aldrin. Larry Niven was supposed to be here somewhere but I haven't seen him yet.

There are also loads of non-profit space colonization groups here. I remember 20 years ago at science fiction conventions seeing groups like the L-5 society asking for donations so they could colonize space. I optimisitcally became a member of several groups. Eventually I realized they weren't really doing anything. After all these years, they still haven't gotten any further than sitting at tables and telling people about how great it would be to colonize space. The names have changed. Apparently, the L-5 Society is defunct now. In it's place we have groups like the Mars Foundation and some Moon Society. I talked to the people at a few of these and they seem to have the same strategy of achieving their goal by talking about it endlessly. It's kind of depressing. They all seem to ignore the basic problem that it's expensive to get into space to do all this colonizing. If they spent a little time working on that, they might get somewhere.

Kronos Quartet played at McFarlin Auditorium in Dallas last week. I managed to get some pretty good seats for the performance and took Susan along. We'd previously seen Kronos play live in Austin with the Philip Glass ensemble a few years ago. This time they were accompanied by the Women's Chorus of Dallas and the Turtle Creek Chorale. They performed a 2002 piece called Sun Rings which was composed for them by Terry Riley. The work included a visual component designed by Willie Williams. The piece was commissioned by an unusual patron - NASA.

I had no idea NASA had an art program. Apparently their goal is to create works of art that will inspire future genreations of engineers and scientists. In this case, Terry Riley composed the music around sounds recorded by the plasma wave sensors on Voyager, Cassini, and other NASA space probes. Scientist Don Gurnett who has been working with plasma wave sensors for over 40 years, selected his favorite sounds and provided them to Riley.

The work combined the live music of the string quartet and vocals with a synthetic soundtrack composed by Riley from the the plasma wave sounds. On top of this, each performer had a control stalk with a proximity sensor at the tip attached to their music stand. By waving their hand over it, they could trigger additional plasma wave samples randomly from preselected batches that matched the movement of the piece. This causes each performance to have a unique sound while still retaining a conventional musical structure.

During the performance, there are also background visuals that alternate between color washes and a series of graphics based on the Voyager probe's golden record operating instructions which explain to aliens how to decode and play the record carried on the probe. The instructions start with a diagram illustrating the states of a hydrogen atom, and proceed from there to the construction of a record player, reproducing the sound, decoding the embedded video waveforms, and reconstructing the video images. (no doubt an achievement that would land some lucky alien a story in their equivalent of Make magazine). The performers are also surrounded by a large number of light tipped rods which vary in color and intensity during the performance, at times giving the impression that the performers are floating in the void of space and at other times are reminiscent of candles.

We both enjoyed the music and found the performance as a whole more than interesting enough to fill the hour and half length. As an added bonus, the member of Kronos hung around for a little Q and A event after the show. Surprisingly only about a dozen members of the audience stayed to ask questions and listen to stories.

23 Apr 2007 (updated 25 Apr 2007 at 23:44 UTC) »

Stories of Coincidental Electricity

The annual Tanner Electronics Robot Show was on Saturday, April 14. The DPRG held their annual robot talent contest concurrently. So, not suprisingly, I was planning on working late the preceding Friday to get my new little robot, Robozoa, into shape. This mostly involved finishing some hardware-related things like wiring from the H-Bridges to the motors and from the motor encoders to the microcontroller. This sort of work is better done at the DPRG Lab where there are plenty of tools and test equipment to make it easy.

The weather prediction was for rain in the evening, so my plan was to head up to the DPRG immediately after work. Not suprisingly, a last-minute work-related emergency held me up for a couple of hours. By the time I was finally able to leave, a torrential rain had started. When a break in the rain materialized, I ran out to my car; only to get a phone call before I was out of the parking lot. The call was from Susan, who was holed up at home in a bathroom with the three cats because the TV had just announced a tornado was headed her way. She said the tornado watch area extended to the downtown area where I was, so I decided I'd be better off inside the office than in my car until things calmed down.

I ran back through the now heavy rain into the office. As I dried off, I clicked up a few weather radar sites. Sure enough, there were some nasty looking thunderstorms headed my way. They passed over Irving, where Susan was, without any serious damage resulting (it's now unclear whether the reported tornado really touched down or not). The worst of storms were now north of Dallas in the Garland area, where the DPRG Lab is located. I decided to settle in and do what work I could on the robot at the office. I finally left about 1am by which time the rain had stopped. I was a little annoyed that this series of events had kept me from making it to the DPRG where I could have worked more efficiently.

The next morning, I showed up at the Tanner's event. The previous night's storm had brought with it a freak, one-day cold front. Despite the cold, a fair number of humans and robots showed up to participate. But, more interestingly, several people said they'd seen the DPRG's building in Garland on the news. There were firetrucks in the parking lot. Apparently it was hit by lightning. Eric Sumner, Ed Paradis, and I decided to drive up to Garland and check out the damage.

From what we could tell, the lightning hit the transformer immediately behind the DPRG building. It largely destroyed the power line between the transformer and the building, reducing it to a series of short fragments. The power meter was completely destroyed. The charred metal casing of the meter was still on the wall, surrounded by blackened bricks. The transparent housing and meter electronics, or the remains of them, were found on the ground. The meter had contained several boards with surface mount components. The lightning blast had desoldered all the components and completely vaporized many of them. Inside the building, the main breaker box was also a charred mess but it appears the breakers vaporized so quickly that it limited the damage to the downstream breaker boxes.

By Tuesday power had been restored and we were able to evaluate the damage. Remarkably, the only losses discovered were a single surge protector and one very old dot matrix printer. Aside from those two casualties, test equipment, networking gear, computers, all seemed to have survived no worse for the wear. All thing considered, I'm glad I wasn't around Friday night when it hit.

ODP, hierarchical organization, and other thoughts

I went to a google@work seminar in Dallas last week. It was mostly a sales pitch for Google's enterprise services, but there were a few interesting bits such as getting a glimpse of Google's intranet. Another thing stood out that prompted this post. Part of Google's pitch is that hierarchical organization is dead. More than that, all hierarchical models of organization are bad. Whether it's directories on your hard disk, folders on your desktop, folders in your email program, categorical tagging of rss feeds, or topical organization of website contents, it's all bad, bad, bad. The one true way, they claim, is to dump all your data into a single chaotic mess and "embrace the chaos". By which they mean, of course, purchase Google Enterprise products and services to search for what you need. After all, how else will you ever find what you're looking for - your data is now lost in the chaotic mess. Asking a company the specializes in searching unorganized data how to organize your data strikes me as being very like asking the barber if you need a haircut. The answer will profit someone but probably not you.

Somewhere, during the powerpoint presentation, was a frame actually titled "Heirarchical organization is dead" and it was illustrated by a full frame image of the Open Directory Project's index page. The sad thing is not so much that they used this example, but that it was such a powerful example. It generated a fair amount of laughter from the audience as the Google guy talked about how sites like ODP used to think they could manually categorize the Internet. He asked how many of the 100+ people present used (or were even aware of) ODP or similar directories for finding things on the web; no hands were raised. Then he asked how many people used search engines like Google to find things on the web: all hands raised. More laughter.

This is one of two events that recently brought home to me just how dead ODP is. The other was when I tried to log in to my ODP editor account and discovered ODP was down. A little research revealed it had been down for quite a while. Apparently there was a hardware failure back in October of 2006. AOL techs managed to bungle the restore process somehow, resulting in the unrecoverable destruction of large amounts of ODP. Then they discovered they'd forgotten to make backups for the last few years. Oops. Since then, they've been slowly reconstructing things. The content itself was salvaged from one of the weekly data dumps but all or most of the editor metadata was lost. Information is scarce as AOL has mostly forgotten about ODP and ODP staff continue to be very secretive about everything that goes on. While a lot of public portions of ODP are back online, a lot of the editor functionality is still down six months later. At least one of the important servers used by the editors is still offline. The really suprising thing is not just that I hadn't noticed ODP being down but the web as a whole hadn't noticed. There was a time when ODP being down for weeks would have been front page news on sites like Slashdot. Other than ODP editors and a few obscure SEO blogs, no one noticed it was gone.

While I don't agree with Google's conclusion that all heirarchical organization is bad, I think they are right in the case of web directories. It's simply not a useful or reasonable method of organizing web sites compared to more modern social bookmarking systems like del.icio.us or reddit. It's an adapt or die world and, sadly, ODP doesn't seem to be the sort of organization that can adapt to the changes taking place.

I expect ODP will limp along if AOL continues to allow it but I don't hold out any hope that ODP is ever going to fully return from the dead, I'm still an editor and I will continue to assist them with data integrity checking on the weekly XML data dumps (which have finally resumed again, by the way). However, I'm in the process of working with another editor to migrate the data dump checking process to an ODP server, so it won't take up my time or energy anymore. I'm also spending far less time on my other ODP-related projects.

Speaking of social information processing, there was an interesting paper published by Kristina Lerman of USC this month on the subject, Social Information Processing in Social News Aggregation (PDF format). The paper looks at the way Digg exploits the power of social information processing to solve the problem of rating aggregated news stories.

Unexploded Laptop Battery

With the increasing number of stories about exploding Li-Ion batteries in laptops and other devices, I got a little spooked when I noticed my Dell Inspiron 8600 getting unusually hot last week. I shut down Fedora, unplugged the power adapter, and removed the battery. It was really, really hot. But it wasn't hot enough to deform the plastic casing and there was no sign of smoke. Just to be on the safe side, I called Dell's tech support line. And here's where the story gets weird. I got a quick, helpful response. From Dell. Granted this used to be the norm years ago when Dell was a rapidly growing company but not since they outsourced all their tech support to random groups of non-English speaking people who'd never even seen Dell computers.

Anyway, after I got over the astonishment of reaching an actual English-speaking human on the phone, I presented the symptoms exhibited by my battery. They quickly confirmed that my battery was NOT one of the recalled defective batteries. They also determined that my laptop was just over one year old. It has a two year warranty on everything but, you guessed it, the battery, which has only a one year warranty. So the battery wasn't covered anymore. However, they then asked me a curious question, "was the battery too hot to touch when you removed it?"

Obviously, there could be only one correct answer to this. "Yes", I said, "it was too hot to touch". (technically I did touch it but I'm sure they really meant was the battery very, very hot). "Okay", the tech support person said, "if the battery was too hot to touch, then I'll have to classify this as a safety issue and not a warranty issue, so your expired warranty doesn't matter. We'll have a replacement shipped immediately." This was last Friday afternoon. On Tuesday a DHL box arrived with a new battery and a return postage sticker for sending back the old one. I popped in the new one and everything is as good as new. Since I've posted numerous complaints in my blog about how awful Dell's tech support has become, I thought it was only fair that I should post some good news for a change. I hope this is indicative of overall improvements and not just a happy aberration.

Pycon

I've fallen a little behind in my blogging so I better post this before too much time slips by! Since the Pycon conference was held in Dallas this year, I stopped by a couple of times in the hopes of meeting fellow Advogato users. I also wanted to hear Guido van Rossum speak. I did get to hear Guido's keynote but was somewhat underwhelmed. That's probably because I come from the Perl camp and was expecting something on the level of a Larry Wall talk. Rossum's keynote was more of a boring, corporate powerpoint type thing where he listed off random features that might turn up in the next version of Python. At least he made a good entrance. He walked across the conference room to podium followed by a hunched over guy who was banging two halves of coconuts together in Monty Python and the Holy Grail style. In Guido's defense, he did start his talk by saying his entrace would be the most entertaining moment.

Later, I got a chance to meet titus. Susan and I took him to nearby Kampai Sushi & Grill and we talked about Python, Perl, programming, the problems with the education system in the US, bioinformatics, Advogato, and a dozen other things. He mentioned several much more interesting sounding Pycon talks and panels that I wish I'd managed to hear.

In any case, I enjoyed the chance to hear some talks and meet some new people.

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.

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