Older blog entries for steve (starting at number 202)

4 Mar 2009 (updated 4 Mar 2009 at 23:05 UTC) »

Advogato and Syndicated Blogs

Over on Advogato, cdfrey asked whether syndicated blogs were good or bad for the recentlog. He asked whether the authors who allow their blogs to be syndicated into Advogato's recentlog stream actually stop by to read the recentlog anymore. I'm sure some of them don't but I'm equally sure some of them do. In any case, I can verify at least one person who syndicates to Advogato reads the recent log - me! :)

ta0kira followed up with some further comments on the topic including the question of whether other sites interleave syndicated posts with content that originates locally. There are a few such as Facebook (see below) but Advogato has always done things that were a little, ummm, experimental in nature. He has a good point that it would be nice to be able to select whether or not to see the syndicated posts. It has also be suggested in the past that an ideal solution is to give each user the ability to create their own personalize recentlog view.

One aspect to consider is that there are several ways of syndicating your blog to Advogato that may go unnoticed. Posts syndicated by RSS or ATOM are explicitly marked as such in the recentlog but syndication by XML-RPC or the older HTTP POST method go unnoted. My blog posts, for example, originate on my personal blog and are then syndicated to Advogato and robots.net using the HTTP POST method; and to Facebook by RSS. Facebook's blog syndication services are horrendously bad incidently, turning each blog post into a nondescript thing called a "note" with no clear indication of what it is or why it exists.

Another recentlog issue that's been mentioned several times lately is that some people are piping their twitter feeds into the recentlog via RSS. I agree this can be annoying but rather than block twitter feeds, I'd like to see them rerouted into a user status field, much like Facebook or Myspace. For example, I use twitter and my tweets update my user status field on Facebook. Maybe it's time to add a user status field to mod_virgule sites like Advogato?

Adventures in Retro Photography

Susan and I frequent estate sales these days. For my part, I'm usually looking for interesting metal objects and potential robot parts. Occasionally, I see something I'm not looking for that's weird or interesting enough that I have to buy it. That was the case recently when I spotted a Bencini Comet S 127 film camera. I'd never heard of Bencini and the camera was in pretty bad shape but, hey, for $2, why not?

An initial inspection revealed a spare film takeup reel inside. The camera still included a metal screw-on lens cap. The shutter appeared to work. On the downside, the focus ring wouldn't turn, the lens and viewfinder had years worth of dirt on them, and the black leathery covering had partially peeled off the front of the camera.

A little Googling turned up quite a bit of information on the camera from Camerapedia, the Vintage Camera Museum and other sites. The Comet is a 127 film camera made by CMF Bencini in Milano, Italy in 1950. The Comet is a half-frame camera, meaning it takes 16 portrait aspect ratio photos on an 8 exposure roll of 127 film instead of the usual 8 square images.

I took the camera to the weekly DPRG meeting. That might seem odd, but we do a lot more than build robots. Basically anything geeky is on topic there. Another DPRG member, Ed Paradis, helped me disassemble and examine the camera. The focus ring problem was due to solidified lubricant. With careful application of solvent we were able to remove the old lubricant. Then we added some new, non-oil-based lubricant. The focus ring worked like new when we were done. I cleaned up the rest of the camera as best I could.

I discovered there's actually a growing community of 127 users on flickr. Surprisingly, flickr is apparently exposing (no pun intended!) a lot of people to film for the first time and helping bring back interest in a number of dying film formats. I found helpful information there on how to load and use my camera.

There is one type of 127 Black and White film still manufactured, Efke, made by Fotokemika in Samobor, Croatia. Efke R100 film is manufacured using a "classic emulsion" formulation, meaning the photos look very much like they would have when the first 127 films were in use. Efke R100 is inexpensive through B&H photo at $5 a roll, so I ordered a few rolls. Coincidentally, Susan received a replica plastic Diana F 120 film camera from her sister as a gift around thsi same time, so we picked up some color 120 film for her and we went out to shoot a couple of test rolls with our new arsenal of cheesy cameras.

As it turns out, the real problem isn't buying 127 film, it's finding a lab willing to process it. While it's technically possible for any professional photo lab to process the film, most don't offer the service. Most 127 film users rely on mail-order processing through either Blue Moon Camera and Machine in Portland, OR or Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, KS. With all the film labs in the Dallas area, however, I was happy to discover The Color Lab, Inc very close to my office. They process 127, 120, and most other film formats. They're inexpensive, offer prints or scanning to CD and I've gotten same-day service so far. I highly recommend them if you're looking for a photo lab in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area.

After getting my negatives back from the Color Lab, I scanned them on an Epson V500, cropped the images in Gimp, and parked them on flickr where you can check them out if you want to see what sort of photos a Bencini Comet S can produce.

As a final note. I recently discovered a Canadian manufacturer is now making 127 color film in small quantities. The film is called Bluefire Murano 160. It can be developed using standard C-41 color processing. It's available in the US through the Frugal Photographer website for $7 a roll. I haven't decided if I want to do any color with the Comet. For now I'll probably stick to the Efke R100.

Merry Christmas

Another Christmas has come and gone. On Christmas Eve Susan cooked a pot roast in the traditional style I grew up with. The meat came from a small order we placed with Dominion Farms, a local organic farming operation. All their animals are fed natural diets, no hormones or antibiotics. The meat was really tasty, so we'll probably get more from them in the future. My brother Randy joined us for dinner and we played several games of Scrabble afterwards while eating Apple Pie.

Susan and I spent Christmas morning at home opening a few presents for each other and then we drove up to McKinney to spend the rest of the day with family and friends. There was more opening of presents, large quantities of food, and lots of catching up on family news. We played a couple of games include Mexican Train dominoes and something new called Catch Phrase that our niece and nephew talked us into.

I spent some time helping my nephew rip audio tracks from a CD to use as ringtones on a his new phone. I'd forgotten how difficult it can be on Windows boxes to do simple things like converting from one audio file format to another. His phone needed MMA or MP3 audio but Windows would only rip CDs in WMA format. I Googled for downloadable sound utilities but could only find crappy shareware and freeware stuff that mostly didn't work. Then it occurred to me to see if any free software audio tools had been ported to Windows. I was pleasantly surprised to find Audacity for Windows. It's really amazing how much better most free software apps are compared to your average Windows programs these days! Audacity really saved the day for us. We were able to edit the track down to size, convert it to MP3 and get it onto his phone's SD card. And all in time to grab a piece of home made fudge before it vanished.

Thanksgiving weekend

On Thursday we had a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at our house. In addition to Susan and myself, my brother Randy and a friend of his attended. After eating turkey and dressing, we played a dominoes game called Mexican Train that's perfect for holidays since it can takes hours to complete. In the evening Susan and I drove to my sister Vicki's house where we visited other relatives including my parents and my sister Kelly's family.

Susan and I spent the rest of the weekend on our own. We've been playing more games in our spare time lately. We've read a lot of articles lately suggesting they're helpful in keeping our brains going. It also seems to be a good way to de-stress after work. Let's see, we're playing Scrabble, Mancala, and a variety of card games. One game I'd really like to start playing is Go.

We ventured out to a few Black Friday sales but tried to avoid any places that looked too busy. We picked up a pre-lit Christmas tree for the office that we set up and decorated Saturday night.

I also squeezed in some time to work on mod_virgule for the first time in nearly a year. I picked up where I left off in early 2008 with the rewrite of the HTML parser. I now have the libxml2-based parser working quite well. It needs a little more work to purge some remaining XSS holes. It already looks a lot safer than mod_virgule's built-in parser.

11 Nov 2008 (updated 11 Jan 2009 at 22:38 UTC) »

National Novel Writing Month

It seems like everyone I know is writing novels this month as part of the National Novel Writing Month event. The idea is that you write a 50,000 word first draft during November. You have to start from scratch on or after the first and you have to upload the finished work by Nov 30. Last year they had over 100,000 participants and more than 15,000 finished their novel on time. According to their FAQ, quite a few of these novels make it through further drafts, get published, and at least one made the number one spot on the NY Times best seller list.

4 Nov 2008 (updated 5 Nov 2008 at 16:19 UTC) »

REMEMBER TO VOTE TODAY!

If you're in the US, this is the last day to vote. I voted last week during the early voting period. We've got two good choices this year and either one is so much better than what we've had for the last eight years, that there will be cause to celebrate tomorrow. This is the end of an administration that has overseen the curtailment or destruction of many of our civil rights, they started an unnecessary war that's killed hundreds of thousands of people, they're imprisoning and torturing people without due process, they've pushed the economies of the US and much of the rest of the world into a major recession. It will probably take decades for the US and the world to repair the damage done by the Bush administration but the first step toward recovery is today's vote. So be happy. If you're in the Dallas, TX area and want to celebrate, I'd suggest the NO-MO-BUSH! Post-Election Party and Hoedown at the AllGood Cafe in Deep Ellum from 8pm to 11pm on Wednesday, Nov 5.

The Austin Maker Faire was last weekend and I was there, of course. I got a different view of it than last year because I spent part of the time as a maker. I helped out at the Dallas Personal Robotics Group table, where we showed off a variety of a small robots. We had several autonomous mobile robots, a robot arm that Martin interfaced with a game controller, a variety of robot components, and a couple of robot-like art pieces that were the result of my recent obsession with welding.

We did pretty well. There was a good-sized crowd of people at our booth throughout the faire, handling our robots and playing with the robot arm. Our table won an editor's choice award from Make magazine. And we're already talking about how we can do something bigger and more interactive next year.

All the usual crazy stuff was there too; cyclecide with their human powered carnival rides, including one they didn't have last year called the Melody Maker, in which the rider propels spinning guitars to make music. The Austin Bike Zoo brought a 50 foot human powered rattlesnake that could be seen slithering in and out of the show barn and surrounding areas during the faire.

The Austin Robot Group had the giant ponginator robot, which is probably the biggest, loudest robot to be found in the State of Texas. They had about a dozen tables of smaller projects too. There were also fire-spewing machines, strange vehicles, medieval siege weapons, the Swap-O-Rama, DIY metal forging, liquid nitrogen ice cream, wind generators, linux clusters, pretty girls, (with mohawks), pirates, (and a pirate ship), tesla coil music, and a nice sunset on Saturday night.

Goodbye Acura RSX

In my last post I told you about the theft of my Acura RSX. It was stolen from our driveway in the early morning hours of Sunday, Sep 27. The police didn't come out and collect any evidence, they just took a report over the phone. We did a little evidence collection on our own, finding a clipped wire, a plastic pop-rivet, and a pair of black latex gloves. If real life was like the CSI TV show, they'd just turn the gloves inside out and grabs some prints.

A few days later, my Acura RSX reappeared on the shoulder of 75 near Mockingbird Lane. It was stripped. The police had it towed to their impound lot but were otherwise uninterested in it. They didn't check for finger prints or any other type of evidence. Their only concern was letting me know that I owed them a hefty storage fee that would increase by $20/day.

For now, I'm driving a Nissan Versa rental car paid for by State Farm insurance. State Farm picked up the car from the impound lot and move it to a State Farm location yesterday. Before they picked it up, I made a trip over to the impound lot myself to check for any personal belongings the crooks might have left in the car. Oddly, I'm less annoyed by the loss of my car than by the loss of several hard to replace CDs, my prescription sunglasses, a Mega-Donkey t-shirt and an assortment of robot parts.

The Dallas Police impound lot is huge. It's like a shopping mall parking lot but without the shopping mall. There are vans that transport people from the main office to the section of the lot where their car resides. Tow trucks are coming and going like cabs at the airport. It was an interesting experience. I brought my camera along and shot a few photos.

The woman who drove the van I was in described how to break into each of our cars. "Oh, on this model you pop off a panel and cross two wires to disable the alarm. On that one you use a jiggler key." One of the other guys in the van had a club on his car. His car was stolen and the thieves left the club lying in his driveway. Our driver said, "Clubs are worthless. Just spray freon into the lock, tap it with a hammer and it opens right up". She went on to describe how to overcome alarms, immobilers, and all sorts of other things.

My RSX had an alarm plus an RFID-based immobilizer which is supposed to shut down the engine if it's started without the encrypted key present. Yet, the thieves drove it away in seconds without even breaking the glass. Turns out you can buy a Honda/Acura jiggler key online for $30 that will open any Acura RSX easily. Once inside, it's apparently trivial to disable the alarm and override the immobilizer. There are several methods of doing it that can be found online with a little googling. Brad Stone wrote a piece for Wired on the ease with which you can steal cars. Some methods are so easy they're stupid - write down a vehicle's VIN, visit the dealer and tell them you lost your key, use your new key to steal the car.

Yesterday, I spoke with the Irving Police detective about my case one last time. She was friendly and sorry about the theft. But at no point did the police send anyone out to the crime scene or the recovered car to look for evidence. When I described the black latex goves, she said they hadn't heard of them being used but weren't interested in investigating further. At the impound lot, I noticed my car was coated in a sticky substance similar to Cosmoline. I hypothesized this was to prevent or obscure finger prints. The detective said they'd never heard of this being done. I suggested it might be helpful to analyze the chemical and find out what it was. Perhaps it would offer a clue to where the chop shop was. She didn't think it would be worthwhile. If my casual observation turned up two things the cops have never noticed, you have to wonder what a trained crime scene investigator might find.

I also noted that my car was found on a major freeway monitored by 24/7 traffic cams. I suggested it should be possible to check the traffic cam recordings to find the make and model of the vehicle which dumped my car there and perhaps even track it backwards to the point it entered the freeway, offering a clue to the chop shop location. She didn't think it would be worthwhile to do all that work. I asked if anyone had thought of correlating the locations of theft vs the location where cars are dumped. With dozens of cars stolen every day, you'd think that might be useful. She thought there was a "task force" somewhere that did stuff like that but it wasn't something she could do. As far as the Irving and Dallas police are concerned, the case is closed.

Missing: Blue 2002 Acura RSX Type-S

If anyone notices my Blue 2002 Acura RSX Type-S license plate GSK-950 around the Dallas/Ft.Worth area, please contact me or call the police. It was stolen between 11pm Saturday, Sep 27 and 10am Sunday, Sep 28.

I slept late Sunday morning. Around 10am I went out in the garage to prep the lawnmower for the weekly mowing of our yard. I opened up the garage door and pushed the mower outside. Usually I push the mower down the driveway, between our two cars, and start mowing down by the front sidewalk. Today, however, I didn't. There was something missing in the driveway. It took me a moment to put my finger on it. There was Susan's red Acura but beside it, where my blue Acura RSX is usually parked, there was just empty driveway. This was such an unexpected, out of the ordinary thing, I walked back in the house and asked Susan if we had left my car somewhere. Surely we'd dropped it off at the dealer for service or something like that and I'd just forgotten. As I thought about it though, I knew that wasn't the case. It was gone. Stolen; right out of our driveway while we slept.

We did all the things you're supposed to do. I called the police. They took a report over the phone and gave me a report number. As with most crimes these days, that's about all the police do. They're really just heavily-armed data entry clerks as far as I can tell. They don't really come out and investigate crime scenes like you see on TV, they don't put out an APB like in old movies ("calling all cars, be on the look out for a stolen blue Acura"), they don't look for clues and solve crimes like Sherlock Holmes. They just enter a description of the crime into a database and generate a report for insurance purposes. And they aren't really open on Sunday anyway for minor things like auto theft.

They said they'd pass the report along to a "detective" on Monday but it didn't sound like any actual detecting was likely to happen. However, they said if someone happened to pull over a blue Acura RSX for a traffic violation, they'd probably run the plates, might even notice it was stolen and perhaps would detain it. And they also noted that many stolen cars are found within a month or two, just not in one piece. They said mostly like it would turn up in a few weeks as a burned out hulk on back road somewhere. Nice.

Next I called State Farm insurance. Like the police, they don't do much on a Sunday other than take reports on the phone. Apparently Saturday night/Sunday morning is a great time to steal cars since it gives you a 24 lead over the police and insurance companies. State Farm said someone would get in touch with me anywhere from a day to a week later. The weekend report-taking crew wasn't able to give me much information about what happens next.

Last, I called our neighborhood association and let them know about the theft. They provide weekly news to the neighborhood residents about things like that, so maybe we can at least prevent another theft from occurring.

Since nobody else showed any interest in the crime scene, I decided to investigate it myself. The first thing I noticed was a half-inch long piece of wire. It was stranded copper wire with a black plastic sheath. It had clearly been cut with diagonal cutters on both ends. Nearby was what looked like a small plastic pop-rivet. My guess is they cut the wire to the car's alarm system, opened the door, popped one of the plastic panels off the steering column, and hot-wired the ignition. I saved the "evidence" in a plastic bag in the unlikely event that anyone official got interested. Next, I examined Susan's car. The crooks had unlocked it and there were marks in the dust on the passenger side window. Nothing was missing inside. I guess they didn't want her car or could only take one at a time.

On Monday I called State Farm again. They told me there was a 14 day waiting period before they could process the claim. It seems most stolen cars are either discovered within this time period or never. Fortunately, they'll cover a rental car in the interim and they offered to help me set up the paperwork at a nearby Enterprise car rental office.

I also called the police again and spoke to the detective assigned to my case. As best I can tell, the procedure used by the modern, high-tech police detective to solve auto theft consists of - doing nothing at all for 30 days. If doing nothing hasn't solved the case in that time period, they figure it's probably impossible to solve and file it away. But, if you're lucky, the car thief will be stopped for a traffic violation or use the car in a crime and maybe end up in one of those high speed chases that ends with the suspect wrapping the car around a tree. In that case, the detective will examine the remains of the car for clues that might solve the crime. Yippee.

18 Sep 2008 (updated 18 Sep 2008 at 17:14 UTC) »

Software Freedom Day 2008

It's that time of year again. Software Freedom Day is coming up this Saturday, September 20th. There are more than 500 events planned in over 90 countries this year and that includes Dallas, TX of course. The Dallas Ubuntu Team is organizing the Dallas SFD event again this year (why don't we have a Dallas Fedora team?) The best place to get in touch with them if you need more info is the Ubuntu-Dallas IRC channel.

If you're a free software user or developer, join us for the celebration. If you think free software is a communist plot, you're welcome to join us too. We can have a friendly debate over beer and you'll go home with a GNU/Linux CD to try out. Sadly, we don't expect to have any SFD cheerleaders at the Dallas event.

Location: Dave and Busters, Stonebriar Centre, 2601 Preston Road, Suite 1200, Frisco, TX

Time: Sat, Sep 30, from 3pm until we feel like leaving

If there any other Advogato or robots.net users in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area, I hope to see you there!

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