Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Sun, 29 Apr 2007

Fawning Around

I decided yesterday that it was time to upgrade my Kubuntu system to the latest version 7.04, codenamed Feisty Fawn. This was slightly easier to do than in previous upgrades. Instead of having to use the command line I was prompted by the update system to upgrade. I went through a few screens and then the upgrade kicked off. It ran for a couple of hours, but then I got what I had dreaded, an error screen. Something had gone wrong late in the process. I was prompted to run dpkg at the command line. This prompted another long series of processes that installed all the packages. Eventually it completed, but there still seems to be one package that's broken. Generally the system seems to work, but a couple of things are not right. I've lost sound in Firefox again, but I do have Flash 9 now, so more things should run. KDE has a slightly different look to it. Amarok has gained access to the Magnatune library. There's also a new version of Frozen Bubble!

So not perfect, but could have been worse. I will probably do a fresh install some time, but will probably wait until I build a new PC.

I will be able to afford a new PC if I sell my motorbike. With help from my friend Dave I have finally got it in decent running order. I took it for a brief ride today and it's running very nicely. I shall be placing an ad soon.

Shock news on the distributed computing front today. have ended their public project. I'm amazed that they have done this without giving plenty of notice. Many people have invested in systems to run this project and are going to feel a bit put out. I have never run a dedicated system for it, but have still racked up well over 5 years of processing on various PCs. Recently I have moved away from it to things like Folding@home. The aims are similar, to find ways to fight disease, but they support more platforms such as Linux. I would encourage others to run these projects to help them find the answers sooner.

[20:47] | [] | Comments | G

Wed, 25 Apr 2007


Lots of people work with more than one PC on their desk. It can be a pain to keep swapping keyboard and mouse, especially if one of them is a laptop. Last Year I started using Synergy, which lets you use one keyboard and mouse to control them all. You tell it how the screens are arranged and then moving the mouse off the side of one screen transfers control to the adjacent PC. They can even share a clipboard, although I have occaisional problems with that feature. I've used it frequently with my Linux PC and a Windows laptop.

A slight niggle was the lack of a GUI on Linux, but now I read that such a thing does exist and is called QuickSynergy. I shall have to give it a go.

It's been pointed out in the article above, and elsewhere, that you should be aware than all keystrokes are being sent unencrypted over the network. Not an issue on my home system, but could be on larger networks. Apparently SSH can be used to avoid this.

I'm off to a gig tonight. Seeing Porcupine Tree in Cambridge. I don't know their music that well, but a friend of a friend is best mates with their main man, so I'm on the guest list! That's a first for me. I was checking out some of their work on Youtube. Sounds good. From what I've heard I would file them near Muse and Dream Theater, i.e. very technically competent rock, perhaps even verging on Prog! That's fine by me as long as it's done with feeling.

[08:18] | [] | Comments | G

Mon, 23 Apr 2007

Got to have some spares

Someone on The Inquirer has been clearing out his computer junk. I've go a fair bit myself. Under my desk are a couple of PCs, one an ancient AMD K6, the other a more useful Athlon 800 that I put together from spares. I also have a few boxes of assorted parts that I might find a use for. There's one box of stuff I definitely don't need, but can't bear to throw away. I have most of it listed on my Multiply site for people to browse. Some went to people via Freecycle. There just comes a point where nobody wants some of it because it's just not generally usable. Some will use an ancient PC as a firewall, but that's a power-hungry way to do it. I certainly couldn't justify leaving a PC on all the time. I rely on my router to protect me and that is only on when the PC is on.

I know others with even more antique kit. Maybe they hope it will become collectable. I did see that someone sold an old Apple II for over $1000 recently, but you have to have the really rare stuff with all the original manuals etc to get that sort of money.

So what's the oldest bit of computer kit you have? Mine is probably a Logitech digital camera that does around 100 kilopixels in shades of grey. I even have the box for that.

[12:57] | [] | Comments | G

Fri, 20 Apr 2007

Feeling Feisty?

The latest Ubuntu was released yesterday. Version 7.04, codenamed Feisty Fawn. I fully intend to upgrade, although I have been pondering a fresh install. Maybe I should wait and see what is still broken. Something that broke a while ago was sound in Firefox. There was always a problem with Firefox either taking full control of system sound or not getting it at all. I was just taking a look at The Ubuntu Guide on Feisty and spotted a bit about Firefox sound under installing Flash. You install alsa-oss and tweak the firefoxrc file. It worked! Not only is sound working, but I can even have that and Amarok playing at the same time. Linux just became more usable.

Something that's not working, but has in the past are the video news items on BBC News. A window pops up, and I briefly see the Realplayer controls, but then that area goes blank. I know some people don't like having things like Realplayer and Flash on their systems due to the lack of openness, but I have to keep the family happy.

[19:48] | [] | Comments | G

Mon, 16 Apr 2007

Converting TV to Divx

I'm happily recording TV on my Freeview card, but the files are a little big at around 2GB/hour. I've done some playing around with converting to Divx and now have a little script that converts to a reasonable looking Divx of around a quarter of the original size. The only problem is that the resulting files always play back in full screen (4:3) rather than the original widescreen (16:9) as the big versions (in MPEG) do. I've been reading various sites, but the mencoder manual says that it is possible to get the right aspect ration as long as you play back in mplayer. I've tried the example options at the bottom of this page, but got a 'FATAL: Cannot initialize video driver' error.

For reference my script is:

mencoder "$1" -ovc lavc -lavcopts vpass=1 -oac copy -ffourcc DX50 turbo -o "$2"
mencoder "$1" -ovc lavc -lavcopts vpass=2 -oac copy -ffourcc DX50 -o "$2"

It uses two passes to improve the quality a little. So any ideas on what I should add to fix the aspect ratio? For now I am concentrating on generating files to play on the PC, but I will keep in mind that they may also get played on a Divz-capable DVD player through the TV.

I've had more contact with the author of ZapDVB. When we changed to summer time it started recording an hour later than I wanted it to. He pointed out that I had to run tzconfig to set my system's timezone. That fixed it.

Of course I also need a new TV one day. This one looks about right if someone wants to buy it for me. Apparently it burns about 1500W, so it will keep us warm too.

[22:21] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 12 Apr 2007

Herts LUG 20070411

Rob gave a good talk on Blender. Very good of him to still do this after being seriously ill recently. I've not played with 3d rendering since my Amiga days. Things have moved on since then with real-time previews and lots of other stuff, but it's still a specialist field that requires lots of work to get good results. Not sure I should get into that when there are so many other things I want to do. I've not been well myself. Got one of my heavy colds this week, so staying at home to rest.

Rob's talk ended with a viewing of Elephants Dream, a short film showing what Blender can do. I played a part by managing to install VLC on Nicolas's laptop so we could play the AVI.

Just finished reading Brian Eno's Diary. This was a great fun read. Gives lots of insight into the life of this artist, including his family life. I need to update my book list, but I need to decide what I'm reading next first.

I was tidying the garden at the weekend. That's a neverending job and I can never control all of it. At least I can enjoy watchinhg the wildlife out there from my desk in the study. We're having fun watching our tadpoles in the pond. Someone gave us a whole bucket of them to start us off. We did have a frog, but there was no spawn this year.

[12:15] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 05 Apr 2007

Upgrade Dilemas

The internals of my main PC are getting on a bit. My Duron 1200 is way behind today's dual core chips. It can run most things I throw at it, but is very slow when it comes to things like converting video files. I've been thinking of building a new PC, but there are savings to be made by upgrading this box as the drives are more up to date. I've just seen a couple of bundles that seem possible candidates. Both use mATX boards that would fit my Antec Aria and have on-board graphics that may be adequate for my non-gaming needs:

Both are around UKP200, which seems reasonable for an upgrade. Both chips use about the same power (65W), but these benchmarks show the Intel chip being considerably quicker in all fields. The Intel set has half the memory. It looks like another UKP45 to bring it level. There are question marks over the supplied heatsinks. Would they fit in my case and are they quiet? I'd pay a little extra for near silence. Intel have some new chips coming this month, which implies either that I could get that set for less or get something quicker for the same.

I've never been on the cutting edge of PC hardware. I've always bought chips near the low end of the range for a better price/performance ratio. I've also not bothered overclocking as reliability is more important than getting a little more speed. If I can find the spare money then I think I will be making the change soon. I'll probably take the opportunity to do a fresh install of Kubuntu after the next version is released.

If anyone wants to make any recommendations I am open to suggestions.

[13:48] | [] | Comments | G

Sat, 31 Mar 2007

A Good Evening at the Keyboard

I had a productive evening yesterday. I had a reply from the author of the ZapDVB digital TV recording software. He welcomed my offer of help in improving the English language text displayed by the software, so I did some editing of the language file and sent it back to him. He says that a new version is being worked on.

I've made a few recordings with ZapDVB, but they take up a lot of space at around 2GB/hour. I had thought about converting to DVDs, but as my new DVD player can do DIVX I thought I could use that instead. As mentioned earlier I was playing with mencoder to do this. My first attempt produced a file that played on the PC, but was rejected by the DVD player. I managed to find some options that worked. Playback on the TV is a bit blocky, but may be acceptable. It's mostly going to be stuff for the kids and they are not as picky as me about picture quality.

I've been having some thoughts about using some sort of Jabber bot to do some remote administration tasks, e.g. notifying me of comments on this site. I've had a look before to find an example that I could use as a basis. My latest find was gozerbot. It's written in Python and already has a comprehensive set of plug-ins. With a little help from their IRC channel I got it working on my PC. I need to investigate further into how to write my own plug-ins.

It's amazing what you can achieve if you don't spend all evening reading slashdot ;)

[21:46] | [] | Comments | G

Wed, 28 Mar 2007

Firefox History Tip

These days I keep very few bookmarks in Firefox. There are a few there for sites I visit every day. The rest are in so I can access them wherever I am. Even for sites I do have in bookmarks I quite often access them by just pressing F6 and start typing the URL. One problem with this is that my history has quite a few URLs that I have mistyped. I used to think you could only get rid of them by clearing the whole history, but I recently read that pressing Shift-Del would clear one. Not only that, but it works on web forms too for text that Firefox remembers for you.

I've had some issues with my right hand due to using the mouse so much, so I prefer to use the keyboard when I can. Lots more shortcuts for Firefox here. I should try and learn a few more, taking account of the differences on Windows and Linux. If I am using the mouse I like to use mouse gestures as this reduces the number of clicks required. There's a few gestures I use, but again I ought to learn some more.

The general problem with all these shortcuts is that you don't always realise that they are there unless you read the documentation, and who does that? Another recent revelation was KDE's Katapult. I now use that a lot for launching certain applications.

[08:45] | [] | Comments | G

Fri, 23 Mar 2007

PS3 Out-Folds the Rest

I should have checked the stats before pondering how the PS3 would do on F@H. 15,000 PS3s are managing more TeraFLOPS than around 200,000 PCs of various types. Impressive. We shall see if the enthusiasm lasts. There's discussion in various places about how energy efficient the PS3 is compared to some PC platforms and it seems it's not as good as far as gaining F@H points. There are people out there who have large numbers of dedicates machines running this sort of project. I just saw an example of one whose electricity bill is nearly triple mine. I can't afford that and would find it hard to justify unless I knew the electricity was from a renewable source. Maybe when I build my own wind farm I'll set up some PCs to use the excess power. Meanwhile, my puny box will be turned off each night.

[21:40] | [] | Comments | G

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