Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Sat, 21 Jun 2008

CU See Me?

I had been thinking for a while of getting a new webcam. I have owned a couple, but none of them seemed to work on Linux. One may have died altogether. I mainly wanted it to use with Skype, so consulted the list on the Ubuntu wiki. Various Logitech units seemed to do well so I checked them out in PC World. I don't buy much there, but I was passing and had a voucher. I found a Quickcam Communicate STX Plus (what a mouthfull) for 20 quid. It even came with a headset, but that is less useful given my non-working soundcard input.

On plugging it into my PC I expected to have to do some configuration, but it worked straight away in Skype, including the microphone. I was also able to stream it through VLC. It gives a nice picture even in low-light conditions. I'm very happy with it so far. The base of the camera is designed to sit on top of an LCD, so I thought it might not work so well on my CRT, but then discovered that it is flexable and so can be bent to the required shape.

My other 'hardware' upgrade this week was to get a new computer chair. My old one was found in a skip at work and was never that great. I was finding that the lack of proper back support was causing me pain. So I picked up a Nominell in Ikea. I got a green one just because it was in the sale and saved me a bit. Mind you, we bought a load of other stuff in there as we generally do. This one is totally adjustable for tilt so that I can make myself sit upright or slouch.

With reference to my previous post on carbon footprints there is a great article on the Register about what would be required to actually make this country independent of oil. It would require major changes to how we get and use our energy. Taking the TV off standby and getting a little wind generator on your roof is not going to make a real difference.

[21:44] | [] | Comments | G

Sun, 18 May 2008

KDE 4

I generally like to play with new versions of software, but had not got around to looking at the latest version of KDE. Version 3 has been slowly evolving for a while, but this is quite different. It adds some new features such as 'widgets' that you can rotate, but I'm not sure why you would. I installed it and was given the choice when logging in as to which version I wanted to use. KDE4 seemed to ignore my settings for what applications run at startup. I also had to configure the new Kopete. The K menu is different. You have to click through different levels to get to most applications. It certainly looks like it could offer some nice visual tricks, but I'm not sure how they would benefit me. I generally run things like my browser in full screen mode and so rarely see the desktop. or any widgets that may lurk there. V4.1 is due fairly soon. Maybe that will make it more usable and I can try it again then.

One feature I like to use on KDE/Linux and on Windows is to have applications that minimise to the tool tray. This is especially useful for things like email and instant messaging clients as I will generally only look at them when something happens, like receiving a message. I may sometimes open an IM window just to see who is on-line. Then it is very useful if I can click the same icon in the tray again to make the window close. None of the Windows seem to do that, but the Linux ones generally do. Unfortunately they are a little inconsistent in their behaviour.

If I click the tray icon when the window is either closed or hidden then I expect it to come to the front. Kmail closes if the window is open and hidden, but other KDE apps behave as above e.g. Amarok and Konversation. I think that consistency is very important and hope that the KDE teams are looking at this sort of thing.

The other new thing I've been playing with is Firefox version 3. This was included in Ubuntu 8.04, even though it is still a beta. The main obvious new feature is that the address bar is more intelligent. I often used the history to start typing a URL to go to a page I often visit, but now you can type any part of the page title to get it back. If you click to show recent history it does not show as many pages as it used to. I miss that as I would often use that list to look check back at recent pages I had visited. Unfortunately this version is less stable than version 2. It frequently crashes when I am entering text on pages. This happens most often on Twitter. I'm still having fun with Twitter. It is more intimate than blogging and I have had a few exchanges with strangers that would not have happened otherwise. So if you are not already Twittering, why not?

[13:58] | [] | Comments | G

Wed, 30 Apr 2008

Hardly Heron

I may have mentioned that I was thinking of doing a fresh install of Kubuntu Linux when the latest version, 8.04 (codename Hardy Heron), was released last week. That's okay in principle, but it makes for a bigger job as I would have to do some fiddling to get all the applications I use installed and working again. I thought I may as well try out the upgrade.

The upgrade process went very smoothly. It prompted me about whether I wanted to overwrite some setup files. That was a bit confusing as I am not used to the way it displayed the differences. I didn't think I had applied any special settings and so accepted their versions. After an hour or so I was prompted to reboot. As I feared I ended up at a console prompt rather than the graphical log in screen. This has happened previously. I managed to get KDE working via startx by reverting to the free nvidia driver. Eventually I worked out that I could use an older version of the X config file and got the log in screen back. The second issue was a lack of sound. This was not a bug, but there seems to be an extra fader in KMix that does not appear in my session and it was turned down.

So everything that was working before is more or less back. Improvements include being able to set decent screen refresh rates for all users and having them stick next time. I have yet to test sound recording.

[21:04] | [] | Comments | G

Tue, 25 Mar 2008

Keeping the family happy

I run Linux on my home computers for a few reasons. One was that I was getting tired of the restriction that Microsoft inflict when you run Windows and another was to support the principles of the free software movement. It has generally gone pretty well. I can do just about anything I want, usually without having to buy any software, but there are a few specific pieces of software that will probably never be converted to Linux. I can generally get by without these, but sometimes I get pressure from other members of the family. We have a few Windows 'edutainment' titles that I haven't tried to get running. Then my daughter decides she wants to have another go at the Bamzooki designer that she used when we still had a Windows PC.

I said I would see what I could do. I managed to install it using Wine, but it gets an error when you try to open a file. I used Wine-doors to install DirectX 9 that it needs, but that didn't help. I've Googled the error I got, but didn't find anything that looked useful. It's hard to know how to proceed.

There are other options. I could to up a Virtual Machine of some sort so that we could actually run Windows within Linux. I'm assuming that could handle the 3d graphics. I don't really want to get into dual-boot as that means rebooting the PC just to run one application. So I am after suggestions on ways to proceed.

In other news we just acquired a bigger TV when my dad got himself a 40" LCD. So we have moved from a 28" to a 32" CRT. It's a very nice Toshiba Picture Frame that was state of the art about six years ago. It even has built-in Dolby Digital that I am using with my Freeview box. The old TV has moved upstairs. I would quite like a nice flat screen, but can't justify the up-front cost, even though it would save us a bit on the electricity bill.

The TV got a good workout over the easter weekend as we have various friends and family over who all had a play on the Wii. That was good fun. We even had some four-player tennis action. We have a couple of new games that I will report on when I've checked them out properly. One friend was playing some Pink Floyd tunes on my acoustic guitar. I tried accompanying on my bass, but could only really manage some root notes as I followed the chords he was playing. I need to find some people to play with more often to build my skills.

[21:00] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 14 Feb 2008

HertsLUG 20080213

Malc gave myself and Rob a lift down to Stevenage through the fog. Lots of folk there. Interesting stuff was Mike's EPOS that James helped to get Ubuntu running on and David demonstrated some apps that he's been writing. One was a sort of remote-controlled presentation system that looks promising, but played up on the demo. I keep meaning to post my little Python scripts that I've written on this site in case they are of use to anyone.

I'll just include a few links to things that I brought up:

You can find my bookmarks at del.icio.us. If you join then feel free to subscribe to my feed and I may well do likewise with yours. I find it a great way to discover interesting stuff. I'm into social sites that are actually useful and not too invasive. I did get a few people to join the Herts LUG Mugshot Group, but there's not much happening there are only a couple of us have active feeds. I may have another go at the Wordpress site that Dave set up. I may try and replicate the exiting site so we can see if it's worth migrating. Let me know if you want to play with it.

[21:28] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 13 Dec 2007

Herts LUG 20071212

Another second Wednesday at the LUG and it's Xmas party time. That meant a huge amount of finger food and another great quiz from Rob. This was enormous fun, but would have been bewildering to non-geeks as we answered obscure Linux questions and tried to match up O'Reilly book covers with their titles. We were a bit down on numbers, but still enjoyed ourselves. What's more, my team won again. I am now the proud(!) owner of a USB-powered clock that also tells me the temperature. It's a USB hubb too, so does have a real use.

We also had an account from James of his participation in a budget car rally to Italy. His team had pictures of several LUG members plastered on the car.

After a long wait I finally received my copy of the latest Radiohead album. I've had the download for a couple of months, but today I got the Discbox. This represents my first new vinyl in over 20 years. There's the standard CD plus another of extra tracks, then the album on two 45 rpm records. It is very lavishly packaged in a heavy gatefold with a slipcase. There's booklets full of the usual 'art'. It's a nice thing to have, but maybe a bit decadent. Annoyingly it's too tall to fit on the shelf with our small vinyl collection. This occupies a mere 30cm as opposed to Malc's impressive collection (link removed due to it messing with my stats). This is currently dwarfed by a collection of around 3000 discs that he is minding for a DJ friend. I wish I had time to listen to that much music.

[13:00] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 15 Nov 2007

Herts LUG 20071114

Down to Stevenage for the monthly chat. I was interested to see a Panasonic Toughbook (very rugged looking laptop) and a neat Palm emulator on Tony's Nokia N770. If I could get one for my PocketPC then I wouldn't need to carry two PDAs around. I still haven't migrated some of my data or found substitutes for some of the apps I use. Malc showed up later to talk about his attempts to recover a dying hard drive. One suggestion was to bang it on a table if the heads were stuck.

Several people were interested in the new Asus Eee PC. It's a mini laptop with a flash drive for not too much money. I don't really need a powerful laptop and probably wouldn't want to take one on holiday, but this is much more convenient and powerful enough for internet, photo editing or watching videos. A big plus is that it runs Linux. I can't justify one just now, but perhaps it will encourage a new wave of budget devices. Or they will just bring out a better one for the same money in six months.

My software revelation of the week is that Skype released a Linux client that does video! It's a beta, but that's never stopped me before. I have it installed, but have yet to try the video feature. Otherwise it looks the same as the previous one, i.e. a bit lacking in features, like showing contacts by group, that I liked before. I don't have a working webcam myself. Recommendations for something cheapish that works on Ubuntu are welcome. Other interesting new software this week was Miro. It's a sort of RSS reader for video. You can subscribe to various feeds and get the latest editions. Some of it is even in HD, but the examples I tried were not that impressive on my 19" CRT. One day I'll move to a nice 22" widescreen LCD.

[22:00] | [] | Comments | G

Sun, 11 Nov 2007

One Million Gnodes

This is geeky, but I don't care. I've been contributing processing power to Distributed.net for many years on a variety of computers. My current dual-core Athlon is probably equivalent to a dozen of the old machines I started with, plus the software has been optimised to get more out of the hardware. I had switched to Folding@home as it seemed to be of more practical use, but I was having problems with it crashing out and losing many hours of work, so I switched back to the Dnet OGR project. There's also the RC5-72 code-cracking project, but that seems to have already proved that it's not currently viable to brute-force the code. After a few years they haven't even managed 0.5% of the keyspace.

Anyway, today I finally reached the milestone of one million Gnodes on OGR-25. I can see there that I've been running it for over seven years, but at the rate I'm running now I could do the same work in about eight months.

I'm not sure how long this project has to run. There are a lot less contributors these days, but I estimate it could be done within the next six months. There has been a hint that a new project is coming along soon. I feel a certain loyalty to this group, so I will be looking out for that.

There's an argument that we shouldn't be leaving computers on and running them at full capacity to run projects like this due to the increased energy usage. I have my own dilema about this, but I think I compromise well by not leaving my computer on all the time and by saving energy in other areas. The Windows F@H client has the option to not use all the available CPU. That's a good way to compromise and also keep the computer cooler. I understand that this is trickier to do on Linux. Dnet does have the option to only use one CPU core, which should keep the power usage down a bit, but I'll keep my PC on full steam for now. It helps keep the house warm in the winter, but probably not by much.

My contribution to these projects may actually be almost insignificant next to that of the many Playstations that now run them. Their multi-core processors seem capable of very high speeds. I'm not planning on buying one, but we have been considering a Nintendo Wii purely for family entertainment. The problem may be in actually finding one. They seem to be in very short supply in the UK. Ideally I'd like to use vouchers from my credit card to buy it, but that limits the options futher. For example I couldn't find any Argos stores with them in stock. Any suggestions?

[11:59] | [] | Comments | G

Sat, 27 Oct 2007

Funky Gibbon

Today I bit the bullet and upgraded my main PC to the latest Kubuntu version 7.10, aka Gutsy Gibbon. I've had some bad experiences in the past with upgrades, so I was wary. My wariness was justified. I had taken the precaution of backing up my data. I ran the upgrade from Adept, which downloaded the appropriate utility. It downloaded about 1000 packages, but locked up whilst installing them. After asking around on the IRC channels I killed it. I was then left with some process that kept trying to install packages int he background until I killed that too. Then I ran the upgrade from the console and it seemed to run fine.

One reboot later, with new log-in screen, I had my system back, but without sound. I had to install some more modules to get that back. Then I noticed that I was only using one core of my AMD X2 CPU. That was due to having some 386 modules installed. Now I seem to be fine apart from it saying that a package needs updating even after I did it.

I've been getting through a few books this year. See the latest comments on my book list.

I've mentioned changing my blog over to Wordpress, but I'm having some second thoughts. If I could fix a few things I could be tempted to stay with Pyblosxom. Those things would be:

[22:26] | [] | Comments | G

Mon, 15 Oct 2007

Mythical TV

I've been using ZapDVB as a simple TV and radio recorder via my DVB/Freeview card. It's generally worked well, but has let me down a couple of times lately for no obvious reason. It has some nice features, like being very unobtrusive and converting radio recordings to Ogg Vorbis, but it's a bit limited if you want more of a 'Media PC' where you can watch TV and choose to record at any time or select what you want to record from an EPG.

I've heard a lot about MythTV. It can be a full media PC if you want or can be used on a normal desktop. I followed the Ubuntu guide to make it do everything on my PC and let me use it as normal. You can get clever and have one or more dedicated 'backend' machines doing to recording and processing, but that's more than I need. Much as I'd love to have a dedicated media PC, and another for music making, I can't really justify the expense, space requirements and power consumption just now.

I had a couple of issues with the install and set-up. Firstly I couldn't configure my TV card. This turned out to be incorrect tables in the database it uses. I forced the re-install of those and it worked. Then it took me a while to get the right set of channels with appropriate EPG, but now it's working.

The GUI is very oriented towards a set-top box using a remote control with everything running full screen and simple menus. You can use it via the keyboard, but you have to learn what all the keys are. I'm still finding some. There's a list in the documentation. I also need to work out how to do things like converting recorded files to other formats and getting access to stuff I've recorded in the past. I need to read up on plug-ins and themes that might help.

I did a bit of music performance at the weekend. My kids have been attending the Bedfordshire Music Saturday Music Centre at Biggleswade for a few weeks. They can do various activities for a few pounds a week each. They both show encouraging signs of musical ability that I want to foster. The last session was a special one where adults were encouraged to bring instruments. About ten did and an orchestra was formed from the kids and adults to play a piece written by one of the music staff. I took my electric guitar to have any chance of being heard and ended up playing some chords on the middle east flavoured tune. It was good fun. I hope there might be some more opportunities for me to play.

Ages ago a friend gave me an ancient Alesis Microverb that he had lying around. It lay around my shelves for a few more years until I passed it on. Last week it bounced back to me. It's not worth much on ebay, but I thought I should at least check that it worked. I linked it into the effects look of my Peavey and fired it up. It's actually quite fun with reverbs from a small room to an 'infinite space'. I expect it could be even more impressive in stereo. I may as well hang on to it and see if it can find a place in my 'studio'. Not that I will come anywhere near the scale of Malc's racks. I expect I could do most of what I need with software effects, but some hardware may add an extra flavour.

[21:53] | [] | Comments | G

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