Older blog entries for steve (starting at number 208)

Time to get this blog rolling again

2010 got off to a good start, then I was hit by some unexpected family losses followed by some annoying family weirdness. Between that and a larger than usual assortment of extra-curricular activities, my blog got derailed. It’s time to fix that.

For those who haven’t kept up with my twitter feed or photo stream, here’s the short version of what you missed the last few months: 1) The DPRG is working on starting a Dallas Hackerspace. We’ve decided to call it a Makerspace because Dallas people seem to be easily spooked by the word “hacker”. 2) I’m still playing with vintage cameras and have more in the queue to try out. 3) Still playing with my DSLR too. Got some recent photos into an exhibit Germany. My photos of the Traveling Man Sculpture made into the May/June issue of Robot magazine 4) Still working on the Noise Boundary robotic music project. We did a demo for a class at UNT and I got the opportunity to chat with Pay Metheny about the topic 5) DPRG did some major stuff at All-Con this year and also at Tech-Fest and the FIRST LEGO League regional championship. 6) Lots of other fun stuff, events, people, and places. More to come.

Syndicated 2010-04-21 20:24:41 from Steevithak of the Internet

17 Jan 2010 (updated 17 Jan 2010 at 19:47 UTC) »

My father died Saturday, 9 January at the VA center in Bonham, TX after the long decline typical of Alzheimer's Disease. Over the last few days, I've been contemplating some of my best early memories of my father, most of which are from a two or three year span of time just before I entered first grade.

During those years, I remember my Dad constantly out in the garage building things out of wood. For the most part, I have no idea now what he was building. What I do remember is being impressed by the noisy circular saw and by how easily he could put things together with a hammer and a few nails. There's an image in my mind of sparks flying off the nails as he hit them with the hammer. Whether that's a real memory or just an artifact of a child's imagination, I'm not sure.

He taught me to use a hammer, gave me some scraps of wood, and I built a crude box that I thought was a bird house. It was no thing of beauty and had a rough rectangular entrance since I didn't know how to use a drill. My dad got out the ladder and somehow attached my birdhouse to a wooden utility pole in our backyard. I used to stare up at it during that long summer and wonder if any birds had built a nest there.

My Dad gave me my first bicycle that year and taught me how to ride it. I remember getting up one morning and looking out my bedroom window to see my Dad putting a bicycle together on the front lawn. He saw me in the window, waved, and shouted to come to down and see my new bicycle. He'd put training wheels on it but by the end of the day had convinced me to take them off. Without the training wheels, he ran along behind me helping me to balance until, as some point, I realized he was just watching and I was doing it all myself.

My Dad worked for the Boy Scouts in those days and made frequent trips to scout camps as part of his job. During one of those summers before first grade, he took me with him to a scout camp. That trip was one of the coolest things I'd experienced up to that point in my life. On the way there, we stopped at a grocery store in a small town and picked up some things we needed for our stay at the camp, including the very first Pop Tarts I'd ever seen. They were strawberry with binky-covered white frosting (incidentally, that suggests this particular memory is from 1967 or 1968 based on the release date of Kellog's frosted Pop Tarts).

Once at the scout camp, my Dad took me along to see everything and meet people. He also did something no one had ever done for me before - he gave me complete freedom to do what I wanted most of the day. He had to spend a lot of time in meetings. So he laid down some minimal rules on where I could and couldn't go; I could wander anywhere along several dirt roads between the mess hall and a couple of other camp buildings; I couldn't go swimming or even near the lake by myself and couldn't go off the trails. That was really the first time I'd been free of adult control for any significant amount of time and it gave me a taste for freedom that I never forgot and never fully experienced again until I was old enough move out and live on my own.

I remember being allowed to drink an unusually large number of grape sodas and Mountain Dews; glass bottles of course. Those were the old Mountain Dew bottles with artwork that consisted of a hillbilly drinking from a jug and the slogan "it'll tickle your innards!" For several days, I wandered dirt roads, drank sodas, ate Pop Tarts, and did whatever I wanted. I spent a large portion of my time out behind the camp mess hall. There I discovered empty wire milk crates left by mess hall workers. The milk crates became my LEGO blocks. I stacked them up into spaceship cockpits and climbed inside. One of men who worked in the mess hall warned me to be careful because "getting hit on the noggin by a metal milk crate is no fun". It seemed a risk well worth taking to me.

In the evenings, my Dad took me to camp events in the outdoor amphitheater. The seating was made from cut logs. Nothing in those night time meetings made much sense to me at that age, it was all mysterious adult stuff with lots of old scout leaders saying meaningless scout things. But I was fascinated by the big fire.

At one of those evening meetings, as I sat beside my dad, I felt strange tickle and looked down to see a daddy long legs spider crawling up my chest. For a young kiddo who'd never seen a spider like that and happened to be arachnophobic anyway, this was an apocalyptic-level emergency. I was so scared I couldn't even speak. All I could do was grab my Dad's hand and look terrified. He laughed and reached down with his other hand, grabbing the spider and putting it down on the grass where it could walk away. I don't think I ever thanked him but it burned into my memory the fact that I had a father who could laugh in the face of unimaginable danger and protect me from certain death. It was hard to worry about things much after that, knowing Dad was around to take care of me.

Rebooting my blog

I'm bringing in the new year at home, sleeping off a bad cold. Really, it's a 2009 cold and with it will go the last remnants of that year and the last decade. It's 2010 and time for some major changes around here. I've been compiling a lengthy list of New Year's resolutions, life goals, and To Do lists. I won't bore you with them but, if you're reading this, one resolution is well on the way to being met.

My blog was neglected for the last half of 2009. I haven't been totally offline. I've continued posting regularly to my photo blog and twitter (which feeds my Facebook, Myspace, and LinkedIn accounts) as well as making daily posts to robots.net. But my personal website has fallen into disrepair. It's time to reboot things. First off, you may notice I've moved my blog to its own domain, steevithak.com, from its old home on my business website.

Over the last few years, I've consolidated my online presence from lots of different user names to just one: steevithak. It's hard to spell, nobody knows how to pronounce it, but it's uniquely me and gives me a user name that's always available. Don't worry, only machines refer to me as steevithak. If you're human, keep on calling me Steve in person.

Back to my blog; I started blogging 1999 before it was commonly called blogging. I wrote my own set of PERL scripts to manage the process. So in rebooting my blog, I was faced with a 10 year blog archive in a one-of-a-kind format. The earliest blogs lacked titles and none of them were tagged with keywords, so I decided to manually convert them one at a time, adding the missing elements. Over a period of time, I reconstructed my entire blog archive using Pivot.

As the end of 2009 neared, Pivot 2.x was released, so I converted everything to that format. In December of 2009, I made a last minute decision to switch again to Word Press, which offered several features Pivot lacked. Pivot 2.x also proved to be mind-bogglingly slow, perhaps because it couldn't deal with a 10 year archive stored in a flat file database! The conversion from Pivot to Word Press initially looked difficult but I found a script that was able to move the entries and titles. I modified it to also preserve the keywords I'd spent so much time adding.

So the new website integrates my blog, my photostream, and my twitter feed in one location. The blog will continue to be syndicated to my robots.net and Advogato.org profiles, manually for the moment but I think a Word Press plugin supporting the mod_virgule XML-RPC protocol may be forthcoming.

Now all I have to do is make life in 2010 interesting enough to blog about! I'm not worried. Something tells me we're in for a good year.

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.

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