Older blog entries for steve (starting at number 177)

Perl Survey 2007

If you use Perl at all, how about taking the Perl Survey 2007? They're collecting results until September 30th. After that the results of the survey will be freely available. They're trying to answer some basic question about the Perl Community like how many people use Perl as a primary language; how many Perl users participate in mailing lists, user groups, conferences; and what other languages are used by programmers who use Perl.

Mushroom Cloud over Dallas

On the way in to work this morning, we saw a big mushroom cloud south of downtown Dallas. The radio said there were a series of explosions going on at an industrial gas supply company. Propane and acetylene cylinders were said to be flying through the air like fireworks. The major highways nearby were shut down, including 35, which we were on at the time. We managed to get across the grass onto the access road so we weren't trapped in the traffic for too long. We didn't see any of the flaming shrapnel described on the radio but grey ash was drifting down all over the road and our car. In a few places the ash was blowing around like snow in gusts of wind. I got a few photos of the scene with my cell phone as we detoured around the disaster area.

Time for some movie reviews.

Spider Man 3. Very bad. Worst of the series. The first Spider Man was mildly entertaining, though it suffered from an embarrassingly stupid villain. Spider Man 2 was entertaining primarily by way of being so bad it was unintentionally funny. The third one was just bad. You'll find yourself checking your watch every half hour, wondering how much longer it can go on. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Pretty bad but better than Spider Man 3. The best actor by far was the Silver Surfer, generated by computer and voiced by Laurence Fishburne. In a bizarre casting anomaly, Jessica Alba was cast as Sue Storm. She was both unconvincing in the role and unattractive as a blonde. Might be worthwhile to see if you're a comic book fan but wait for it to turn up on TV (shouldn't take long).

Live Free or Die Hard. Best Die Hard movie since the first one. Much better than the third one. Also, the co-star is Justin Long aka the Hi, I'm a Mac guy. I was surprised the Hi, I'm Windows guy didn't get a cameo somewhere in the movie. Speaking of cameos, Kevin Smith turned up as a "hacker" (in the Hollywood sense). Like most movies, the computer-related aspects of the movie were pretty silly but not as bad as many movies. Oh yeah, Tim Russ (Tuvok from Star Trek: Voyager) has a brief cameo too. There was a lot of violence but it was much less graphic than previous Die Hard movies. Probably worth seeing at the theater. At least you won't be looking at your watch during this one.

Transformers. About like you'd expect. On the upside it's slightly better than most of the comic book movies like Spider Man and Fantastic Four. It was reasonably entertaining. On the downside, parts of it were like watching a string of toy commercials interspersed with car commercials. It's riddled with plot holes, bad directing, confusing editing, inconsistent pacing, and hokey writing.

The action sequences in Transformers are mostly incomprehensible because all you can see are close-ups of flashing metal flying by at high speed while the camera shakes uncontrollably. Presumably they thought this style added realism or minimized the need for high quality CG. Imagine the fight sequences from The Matrix if all you could see were close-up blurred shots of arms and legs with no indication of what was happening, who was winning, or even who was fighting who. Pretty soon, you just lose interest because you have no idea what's going on.

The special effects guys also seemed to misunderstand the whole point of shape-shifting robots. Rather than robots that were able to disguise themselves externally as Earth vehicles, they rendered the transformers as alien robots constructed from old car parts. So, Optimus Prime in robot form looks like a welded together kinetic art piece made from hubcaps, drive shafts, and chrome wheel rims. Many of the fight scenes between the robots look pretty much like a tornado in a junk yard with random car parts flying all over the place.

Despite all the above complaints, Transformers is intended to sell toys to a 10 year old audience and probably does a pretty good job of it. Besides, it's a movie full of giant space robots, so have some fun and go see it already!

The Quiet Earth. Okay, this actually came out in 1985. I saw it at the theater back then. It's a very low budget movie from New Zealand. I was thinking about it a while back and after much searching I managed to rediscover the title and track down a DVD. I've been meaning to mention it and what better time than now. The story concerns a man who wakes up one morning to find he's apparently the last living human on Earth. Nearly everyone else has vanished completely and those who haven't are dead. He eventually meets two other people and together they discover what happened to the rest of the world, why they survived, and that they have to stop it from happening again or they'll vanish too. There are no super heroes, computer generated special effects, giant robots, or evil alien entities. It doesn't move nearly as fast as any of the new movies, so it's not suitable for the modern movie viewer with a 5 second attention span. But I enjoyed it and recommend to anyone who might happen across the DVD.

29 Jun 2007 (updated 29 Jun 2007 at 23:34 UTC) »

First Post^M^M^M^M GPLv3 Relicense

To celebrate today's release of the GPLv3, I've released updates of my two ODP-related programs, dumpcheck and odp2db under the GPLv3 license.

GPLv2 - Where the future begins tomorrow

My one complaint about the new license is the changed wording in the How-To section. The GPLv2 How-To section had a neat Thomas Pynchon / Buckaroo Banzai reference to Yoyodyne in the example copyright disclaimer. The GPLv3 How-To section drops the example disclaimer altogether. They also removed the reference to version 69 of the Gnomovision program in the example interactive mode copyright. Whatever happened to Gnomovision anyway?

19 Jun 2007 (updated 19 Jun 2007 at 19:48 UTC) »

Fedora 7 on my Dell Laptop

I updated my Dell Inspiron 8600 to Fedora 7. I debated about switching to Ubuntu this time around but a number of developments made me stick with Fedora. One particular issue for me is my laptop's nVidia card. Ubuntu appears to be using proprietary nVidia drivers while Fedora is strongly supporting free drivers like nv and nouveau. Unfortunately nv was rather buggy and very slow on Fedora Core 5. It frequently crashed. It didn't support any 3D acceleration. The best glxgears rate I ever got with it was 130 fps. The good news is that with the new version of nv and X.Org on Fedora 7, nv is completely stable so far. Even though there is still no 3D acceleration support, performance is twice what it was on Fedora Core 5. Glxgears reports over 300 fps and everything seems significantly faster. I don't know if this is due to nv or X.Org improvements. Better still, the Fedora folks are working to get the nouveau driver in as soon as possible, which will bring free, 3D acceleration for nVidia hardware.

The install went smoothly and everything worked right out of the box; even things that required a lot of custom setup in the previous version like sound, 1920x1200 LCD resolution, and WiFi. Even suspend works. The only customization I needed was to turn on NetworkManager.

Which leads me to my one gripe so far. With both WiFi and Ethernet, odds are good that only one will be able to connect at startup. For some reason Fedora considers this a startup error and switches out of the nice GUI startup mode into the old-timey text-mode startup about half through the bootup. If it's plugged into Ethernet, the WiFi usually isn't needed and doesn't connect. Fedora thinks this is an error. If I'm using WiFi, the Ethernet cable usually isn't plugged in. Fedora sees this as an error too. Why not just assume that neither is an error condtion, stay in GUI mode, and let NetworkManager sort out which network connection to use after everything is loaded?

Anyway, I'm very happy with Fedora 7 on my laptop overall.

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.

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