Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Mon, 09 Nov 2009

Karmic Koala

The title refers to the code-name of the latest version of Ubuntu Linux that was released late last month, also known as 9.10. I ran an upgrade on my system, after backing up, and it ran very smoothly. The 1.5GB of packages took about 20 minutes to download (bit faster than my old modem) and the install was all done in under an hour. The system restarted cleanly and all looked well.

The KDE apps look a little different and there are some new options for decorating the desktop. I don't bother as I'm always running full-screen apps. Amarok has been updated with improved podcast support. It's still not up to where the old V1.4 was before the re-write, but getting better. Kmail seems a bit more stable and less likely to stall when reading my inbox.

Gwibber seemed messed up, so I installed Choqok micro-blogger. It lacks there combined timeline, but is otherwise nice. I had to re-install MythTV, but it picked up the old settings and is working.

I still have problems with losing sound when multiple users are logged in. I seems to come back eventually, sometimes. The more serious, new, problems is random X Server crashes. I've seen this most when a third user logs in. Their session crashes with minimal messages in the log. I don't know if it's related, but I now see two sessions for each user when I run w, one for startkde and another for kwrited. I've not found any other references to this.

Overall I would rate this as a reasonable successful upgrade. The PC was not un-usable at any point, but the crashing sessions are a concern. I'll try and work out what might be causing it, but I'm not great at this sort of diagnosis.

[21:45] | [] | Comments | G

Tue, 22 Sep 2009

Programming languages I have known

During my long drive to work I was pondering on how many different programming language I have used. There have been many over the last thirty years.

My first experience of using a computer was at upper school. Our maths teacher, Mrs Jaworski started a lunchtime BASIC programming course before we started computing as a subject. She showed us flowcharts and how they related to the various commands. To actually try anything we had to take turns on a Teletype connected to the local college via an acoustic coupler. I immediately took to it. After some time there were just two of us using the terminal most lunchtimes playing around with trying to write simple text games and generating long strips of paper output. When we started on O Levels we would go to the college once a week so we could get a terminal each. They even had VDUs, i.e. screens instead of paper!

A couple of years after that first encounter I saved up enough to at least contribute to my first computer, a BBC Micro. The BASIC on that was pretty powerful with the ability to declare procedures and embed assembly language. I wrote lots of programs on that, many to generate graphics, including my first Mandelbrot set. That would become my standard test program to write with a new language. I played a little with the 6502 assembly too.

At Coventry Poly I did electrical engineering, but we had some programming lectures, first on BASIC and later on Pascal. We used their Harris mini computers for that, but I did my project on a Beeb when I built an interface to turn it into a simple oscilloscope. I think we also did a course of writing machine code with the hex pad on a 6809 board. I also had a look at Forth on the mini after reading books about it.

During my first few jobs I wrote applications in dBase, Turbo Pascal (including OOPS), Turbo Basic and C++. I'm not sure I ever wrote anything significant in C.

A later job was for a company, Intuitive Systems, that produced their own programming language called I/S2. I was doing IT support there, but got to play with and test the language. I think it was similar to Visual Basic, which I haven't actually used.

My second home computer came a long time after the Beeb when I bought a second-hand Amiga 500. I didn't do much programming on that, but did play a little with ARexx and E (not sure if it's that one).

Another job used Microsoft's Quick BASIC for a car rental system, which was later converted to Magic, a table-based programming system that is good for building applications with lots of screens accessing databases. The skills I learnt on that led to my current employer who were major Magic users. The huge application they produced for the TV industry has now been converted to C#/.net. Both versions run on Oracle, so I do lots of PL/SQL programming too, along with a little Java.

Despite programming for a living I haven't done much for fun since the Beeb. I've looked several times at Python as it seems an elegant and powerful language. I've written a few small programs with it, the most useful of which generates playlist files for my music collection. My choice of PyBlosxom as a blog platform was influenced by the possibility of coding for it, but I've not done more than play with that. Recently I have started looking at Python again after finding libraries that could form the basis of a couple of applications I wanted to implement, a Jabber/XMMP bot and a FOAF parser. The latter is by Luke Maurits who I have started corresponding with. He's a bit younger than me and so had many more options when he started programming. The tools have come a long way since I was entering BASIC line by line into a Teletype and hoping it would run. I need to do some serious reading to get into what something like Python can offer me. There are several on-line courses I will be looking at.

[21:01] | [] | Comments | G

Sat, 18 Apr 2009

Travelling and stuff

I've been semi-offline for the last couple of weeks. We were up in Edinburgh for most of it visiting family. Apart from helping them get their new (old) house habitable we took in some of the activities at the Science Festival, which the kids enjoyed. We also did a little bit of walking with the most adventurous being a trek across the causeway to Cramond Island. There's some fascinating WWII history there that includes a spectacular line of anti-boat pillars

Pillars in the mist

Whilst away I did not have daily access to a PC, but didn't want to be totally off-line. The house had wifi, so I used by new BenQ E72 phone to access that. Using the internet on a small phone screen is a different experience to using a nice, big monitor, but you can do quite a lot, especially on sites that cater for mobile users. Sites I used included iGoogle, Gmail, Google Reader, Facebook and BBC News. So I was able to keep up with email and my RSS feeds, apart from items that needed Flash or things my phone can't do. I also used pocketwit for microblogging. I don't think I could get by without a PC, but it was better than nothing. I could access the net via GPRS for a small fee, but that would have been a much slower experience.

Just before I went away I had an issue on my Kubuntu system. An upgrade went wrong due to two packages trying to use the same file. The effect was to stop me using KDE. The system fell back to using Xfce. This was actually quite usable. I could still use most of the apps I am used to and it may have been more responsive than KDE. I still wanted to fix the issue and eventually found a blog entry from someone with a similar problem. So as of yesterday I have KDE back and everything is more or less wonderful.

Today I got in a hour of skiing at the Milton Keynes Xscape indoor slope. It's been a year since I skied, but it went pretty well. No falls and it felt good. I did find it tiring, but that may have been having to push myself back to the lift after each short run.

My friend Wulf is running some items about being eco-friendly on his blog. I'm doing similar things to help the planet and save myself a few pennies. A tip I picked up from ooffoo is that you can cook pasta by turning off the heat after putting it into boiling water. Leave the lid on and it will be done in about the usual time. We're all wasting vast amounts of energy by keeping the water at a 'rolling boil'. I plan to install some more low energy bulbs at home soon, but that involves a little re-wiring due to our use of X10 control units. Their dim-able lighting units don't like non-incandescent bulbs.

[20:57] | [] | Comments | G

Wed, 25 Mar 2009

Ada Lovelace Day

I'm a day late for this event, but I'll post something anyway. I first learnt programming from Barbara Jaworski when I started upper school at 13. Although computers were not a subject in our first year she started a lunchtime computer group where I took my first steps with BASIC. We had a Teletype that connected to the local college via acoustic coupler. We could take it in turns to enter our programs and print the results.

Mrs Jaworski coached me through my O and A level computer studies as well as teaching me maths. I think she may be at Loughborough now. I thank her for starting me on the path to my career.

[13:05] | [] | Comments | G

Sat, 14 Feb 2009

More Intrepid

I've had a week with Kubuntu 8.10 now. Most stuff is working, but there are still a few issues.

I've not investigated the memory card issue too much, but did find that I had to manually mount a CD, so perhaps the auto-mount is not working. Previously in Konqueror I had a view of storage devices via the Services tab, but that now says Protocol not supported. The Home tab doesn't work either. Could this be due to old settings?

I can use the binary nvidia driver it insists on starting up in 1920x1440, which is too high for my old 19" CRT. The strange thing is that I only have to open the Display settings screen for it to flip to 1280x1024. I don't even know where the resolution settings are stored. xorg.conf used to have all this, but these days there is very little in the file. I'm also getting a few graphical glitches where icons to not appear or windows are temporarily corrupted. This is annoying, but I can sort of live with it.

I've been trying to get my printer working. It's an old Canon i455 that has never had a free driver. I can print using a driver for a different Canon, but the quality is limited. Years ago I bought Turboprint (which I bought years earlier for my Amiga). That was working fine before the upgrade, but now I can't get it to output anything. I've tried various settings with no success.

I found this week that I could not stream from in Amarok. I was using the old 1.4 version and apparently turned off the protocol that used. So I managed to install version 2. That looks very different and didn't use the old settings, so I had to set things like my podcasts up again, but streaming is working again. There are a few things I don't like about the new Amarok, but it's still the best music listening application I've used. I'm reviewing what podcasts I will subscribe to. I like geeky stuff. There's so much choice out there. The new SpokenWord site looks like a good resource.

I'd heard good things of the game World of Goo and today found out that this is a demo for Linux. I grabbed the deb file, installed and it ran fine. It's a puzzle game that involves building structures of 'goo' to reach goals. I think the kids will like it and I may have a play too. The graphics are nicely organic.

[21:23] | [] | Comments | G

Sat, 07 Feb 2009

Intrepid explorer

After must procratination I finally got my main PC running the latest release of Kubuntu Linux, 8.10, AKA Intrepid Ibex. I could have attempted an upgrade, but my system seems to have built up a few issues over the last couple of years and I hoped that a fresh install might resolve these by undoing anything I might have messed up in the configuration.

I prepared by backing up the whole system to my USB drive and making notes of things like the drive partitions and the user names. I booted off the install CD and used that to get a desktop to check that everything looked okay. From there it was a matter of running the install which asked a few questions about language, location and partitioning, then a matter of minutes later I was rebooting into the new version. I kept my data and home partitions, so most of my settings have been preserved. Email and other apps required no set-up.

I hadn't been able to use the proprietary nvidia driver for a while, but now my hardware was detected and I was prompted to install it. My kids will be happy that they can play 3D games again. I've got some cool 3D desktop effects to play with.

This upgrade moves me from KDE3 to V4. This is a radical reworking that will take some getting used to. The system menu works differently, with a scroll bar! I've not found all software where I expected it to be, but there is a search. The main panel needs some tweaking to fit my needs and the fonts seem larger than they should be. I need to read up on what has changed.

I've been installing the various software I use. Adding the Medibuntu repository gave me Skype and Google Earth. I've also installed the non-free Flash, but I need these to operate with the family. I need to set up MythTV again if I want to record TV.

Mostly it is doing what I need, but I have encountered a couple of issues. I can't seem to read SD cards with my reader and the Bluetooth adaptor I was using before with my phone is not working either. I've seen a few people mentioning the latter on the forums.

My webcam still works with Skype and Cheese. I also tested my Zoom H4 audio recorder/interface that had issues before and it worked fine with Audacity. Perhaps this will encourage me to do some multi-tracking at last.

Overall I'm glad that the install went so smoothly and happy that it fixed a few of my issues. I just hope that I can resolve the couple of issues above. I'll be trawling the excellent Ubuntu Forums for answers. A Stack Overflow style site might make it easier to find solutions to specific issues as the forms can get clogged with long threads and duplicate questions.

[21:54] | [] | Comments | G

Sun, 30 Nov 2008

Games I've played

On the BBC World Service Digital Planet pocast I heard about a project to create an archive of video games. That got me thinking about games I have played over the years. This means thinking back around 30 years and so I'm sure I've forgotten a few details.

I think that the first video games I encountered were the original arcade games starting with Pong and Space Invaders. Back then the graphics were black and white, but with some use of coloured films on the screen to make them look better. I spent a lot of time in the local arcades playing various games such as Pacman, Defender, Donkey Kong and others without ever becoming that good at them. I think they cost 10p a game back then and that soon gobbled up the pocket money. The one that I remember playing a lot when slightly older was the sit-in Star Wars with its great vector graphics and great sound as you attemted to blow up the Death Star. Since then I've played various arcade games. I quite like car and motorbike racing games, or a bit of mindless shooting.

At home we had some basic console with variants of Pong. I wonder what that cost back then. I probably lusted after wonders such as the Atari 2600. When I started upper school I got access to the local college mini via a terminal and acoustic coupler. There were some simple text-based games on there such as Lunar Lander and Artillery. A friend and I joined a local computer club and got to see all sorts of games on early home computers like the Commodore Pet, Tandy TRS80 and Atari 400/800.

When I was around 15 I saved up the £300 for a BBC Micro (Model A). I played many games on that, included some pirated at the computer club. I bought quite a few too such as the painfully slow, but graphically impressive Frak! and the wonderfully engrossing Elite. That consumed many hours of my youth trying to get to the higher ranks. Other games I remember are Chuckie Egg, Arcadians and some text adventures. I typed in various BASIC games from the magazines of the day, most of them disappointing. All this was using audio tape storage as a floppy drive was beyond my budget.

I didn't buy another computer for a long time after that, but had access to some PCs at work. At one job a colleage and I played a lot of Wing Commander. I think I encountered Lemmings there too. At a later job there were extensive Duke Nukem 3D death matches in the lunch hour.

Eventually I bought a second hand Amiga 500. On that and a later 1200 I played lots of games. Pinball Fantasies was fun. Alien Breed 3D was supposed to give you something like Doom, but had very basic graphics. Eventually I was able to play Doom when it became open source and clones were produced. By then my Amiga had a mighty 68040 chip with 128MB of memory and a 1.7GB hard drive.

Eventually I had to accept that the Amiga was a dying platform and bought a PC (350MHz PIII). The game I most played on that was Half Life under Windows 98.

Since I switched to Linux I have found less time for games. I have the odd burst of Frozen Bubble, Planet Penguin Racer or some form of Tetris. I've even had Doom clones running for some nostalgia and once got Half Life running on Wine, but didn't play very far. My play the non-violent games above and lots of on-line Flash games.

Last Xmas we got our Wii. That's something we can all play together and has given hours of fun, but tailed off recently. Perhaps some fresh games this Xmas will revive our playing.

I've never been the most active of gamers. I play for a bit of fun when I have nothing else to do. I'm way behind on the latest PC, arcade and console games. Most require too much commitment for me to even consider. No doubt my kids will demand better games as they get older and maybe I'll get to have a go with those.

[21:18] | [] | Comments | G

Tue, 04 Nov 2008

BOINC (can't think of a pun)

I seem to have missed out on reporting the completion of the OGR-25 project a few days back. I ran it at various times from when it started until the end. In the last few days it was hard to get any work units, so I started running Folding@home again. Anyway, OGR-25 finished, having confirmed that the known result was the optimal one. They are now moving on to the next few levels with the hope of taking less time due to better algorithms. From the stats it looks like a lot of people have dropped out, probably due to not having upgraded their clients. I bet there are thousands of PCs in offices out there that had it installed at some time, but then the person moved on.

Now that's over I would prefer to donate my processor cycles to projects with more benefit to mankind, mainly in the medical field, but I will consider other sciences. Folding@home is worthy, but it's a bit of a hack to get it running optimally, using all processor cores. You have to run two instances on my dual-core. There are scripts to do this, but then you are still limited in how you can monitor progress. There is also the fact that those with suitable graphics cards can process much more efficiently. I've got an older ATI card that I ought to install to try and get 3D working again, but it's not suitable for such GPU processing.

A response to a comment I posted on /. about OGR suggested that BOINC may be more suitable. It's from the people who did SETI@home many years ago. I ran that for a while too, but had doubts about the chances of finding aliens. They developed a later client that could run many types of project. The choice is somewhat overwhelming and it's hard to work out which might be worthiest, but I am concentrating on another protein project called Rosetta. You have the option to specify what percentage of time goes on each project. It would be useful to know how much processing a typical unit of each requires to work out what is suitable for older computers like my Duron that are not on so much.

BOINC is available in the Ubuntu repositories along with BOINC Manager that gives you a nice front end showing current progress and allowing full control of what, when and how much you process. I like to keep track of what I have done via my statistics and so have signed up to BOINCstats that links in with the manager and combines points from all my computers and projects. It took me a while to get it all running properly, but it's looking good now. I now have plenty of stats. I'm unlikely to climb very high in the charts compared to those running faster computers and dedicated 'farms', but I'm making a contribution.

[22:09] | [] | Comments | G

Sun, 03 Aug 2008

Another OGR milestone for me

Back in November I clocked up one million giganodes on the OGR-25 project at That took me about 7 years. As predicted (roughly) I have doubled that in just over 8 months thanks to a speedy dual-core processor in my main PC. It would have happened sooner if I had realised that my PC was not running at full speed and had implemented a proper shut-down script so that I did not lose work units each day. I was a little optimistic in how long the project had to run. Current projections give it almost another year, but I think that does not take faster computers into account. I wonder how many people will upgrade in that time. I certainly do not intend to do so unless I suddenly find myself with enough spare cash for a faster CPU. I could get something 25% faster for well under £100, but I doubt I would notice the difference for normal usage. If I were building another PC I would probably look for something that used less power rather than ultimate clock speed. I've not bothered keeping up with what's new in the processor world for a while, so I don't even know what the state of the art is. These days software is more interesting than hardware.

For reference, the earlier slowdown may only have affected apps like dnet with a high nice value as the PowerNow daemon would ignore them and assume that nothing important was running. By setting the '-n' flag in its defaults file I got back to full speed. I used a script from here to make sure the client shuts down cleanly. I could have been losing several hours of work in the past. I've at least learnt some more about the workings of Linux through all this.

[21:23] | [] | Comments | G

Fri, 27 Jun 2008


I'm not sure I should admit to this, but my PC has been running a much less than full speed for some time. I noticed that my dnet client was running a lot slower than it used to. I hadn't noticed other stuff being particularly slow, so didn't give much thought to it.

I did some investigation today and found, via /proc/cpuinfo, that my CPU cores were running at 1GHz instead of 2.4GHz. I did some searching around and posted to a thread on < a href=>Ubuntu Forums that seemed to relate to it. Within minutes I had a response suggesting I add an applet that let you control CPU frequency scaling. That particular applet was for Gnome, but I found KPowersave for KDE. This lets me select various modes, but I just set it to Performance and all is well again.

I guess that I may have been using a little less electricity whilst the CPU was throttled down, but I don't think it's a large part of my usage.

What I wonder is how this came about. My PC was running Ubuntu for some time at full speed, but someting changed to switch it to low speed. I don't have the logs to prove exactly when this happened, so can't relate it to anything I did.

I was thinking of writing a post titled 'Are RSS feeds killing commenting on blogs?'. If you only read sites via their feeds then you probably won't even see the comment part of each page. I've had comments on my site for some time, but get very few. I know that a few friends read the site via the feed. I don't know how many strangers visit. I think that comments are valuable as they make the whole thing interactive. I often click through to posts on feeds to see the comments. So if you want to say something to me about a post please add a comment. It may be useful to others.

[22:02] | [] | Comments | G

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