Older blog entries for steve (starting at number 205)

June is gone already!?

Yes, it's June already and feel like I haven't gotten anything done. Work has been taking up most of my time. Since I last posted I've been to A-Kon 2009. I shot few A-Kon cosplay photos plus a few time exposures of the A-Kon Friday night rave. I also shot a few photos at Jerry Chevalier's 2009 Texas Build Off, a cool event where movie robot replica builders from all over the world gather to show off their robots and, more importantly, share building techniques and help each work on robots.

I've never managed to blog much more than a couple of times a month, so if anyone reading this actually cares what I'm up to, you might want to follow me on twitter or check my canonical home page where you can see the relatively frequent photo stream updates from my crappy mobile phone camera. By the way, if you're looking for other robot builders to follow on twitter, check out Wired's list of 52 Robot Geeks on Twitter.

Speaking of twitter, I really need to find a good way to get that integrated into mod_virgule. And speaking of mod_virgule, I once again completely failed to find time to work on it. But I've exchanged some email with another programmer who might be brave enough to start doing some hacking on the code, so maybe that will get me motivated in July!

May Miscellany

Time for a quick update. May started off with the VEX Robotics World Championship here in Dallas. I was one of the judges evaluating the 270 teams and their robots. I'll probably write a little more about it in an upcoming issue of Robot Magazine for those who are interested.

I created a robots.net twitter feed and robots.net facebook page for robots.net this month. So far the facebook page is ahead with over 160 fans while the twitter feed only has about 38 followers so far. To be fair the facebook page went online a couple of weeks earlier so we'll see if it hangs on to the lead over time.

I'm still struggling to find time to devote to mod_virgule but squeezed in a few more hours of C coding on the new HTML parser. It's now running on a test server with a subset of Advogato's database. So far, so good. Blog aggregation and parsing seems to be working, as do local blog posting, article posting, and article comments. The magnitude of the changes makes this update a bit of scarier than usual for robots.net and Advogato. If nothing breaks in the next week or so of testing, though, I'll cross my fingers and make it live.

I continue to drag my Canon 40D around with me everywhere and since my last blog post, I've shot photos of the Funky Finds Spring Fling craft show in Ft. Worth, the Aveda Walk for Water event in Dallas, the aforementioned VEX Robotics World Championship, the Cottonwood Arts Festival in Richardson, the 2009 DFW Dragon Boat Festival in Las Colinas, oh, and a few pics of my friends at Vivanti Group in Deep Ellum. In the retro-photo department, I posted some BW 127 photos shot with a Kodak Brownie Reflex Synchro. Yesterday, a package arrived containing that rarest of things, color 127 film, from a small manufacturer in Canada. I'll probably run a roll through the Bencini Comet S sometime soon.

Retro-Photography Update

I posted a while back about my experiences repairing and using a Bencini Comet S 127 film camera. Since then I've acquired a few more interesting old cameras. One is an Argus C, an American 35mm camera made in 1938. I bought it at an estate sale for $10. The Argus C series cameras were also know as "bricks" because they have the same form factor, aesthetics, (and seemingly the same weight) as a brick. The Argus was in very bad shape and required a lot of work to get it operational. I shot a roll of film and got some interesting results despite a chronic focus error.

The next camera I got my hands on was a German Bilora Bella 3b, made between 1955 and 1957. I got the Bella on eBay for $8. It was in remarkably good condition, requiring only some minor repairs to the case to solve a light leak problem. The first roll of film produced some interesting photos but also revealed a strange optical artifact, possibly produced by light reflection in the lens.

So far the most interesting images were produced by the Bencini Comet S and I've continued to shoot with it. I'm still looking for old film cameras at estate sales and will post more results to my flickr photostream as I can.

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) »


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.

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