Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Tue, 17 May 2005

The Python Challenge

Over the last 25 years I have written lots of computer programs for fun. A lot of these have been graphics related. I spent a lot of time on the Mandelbrot set on the BBC Micro (Basic) and on PCs (Turbo Pascal). I also did a bit of ray tracing (3D graphics rendering). During my Amiga days I played with the E and Arexx languages, but didn't produce much. Programming for a GUI environment was starting to get complex.

In my working life I've used lots of programming languages (various Basics, Pascal, C++). In my current position I use Magic and Oracle PL/SQL. This is all database related. There has also been some Java and I have applied that knowledge to a few little fun projects such as encryption. One of these was the Ciphersaber project.

Java is a very versatile language and widely used, but then I came across Python. This seems to be as versatile as Java, but with a clearer style of programming. It's very open and available on just about any platform. There are some very good tutorials on-line, e.g. Dive Into Python , but I had been trying to think of a project to really get into it.

Then I found the Python Challenge. This is a series of cryptic puzzle that require writing some programs to solve them. Each leads to a further web page with the next puzzle. I think there are 22 of them so far. I am on number 5. I know what to do, but need to work out how to implement it. Some of the early puzzles could be easily done in any language, but later ones rely on Python libraries. I'm enjoying the experience so far, but I'm prepared for some frustration. There is a forum where you can get some hints if you get stuck. This can be useful if you don't know about the Python features you need to use. It's a bit like playing one of the old adventure games in some ways. I was never that good at those, but I like a mental challenge.

[08:43] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 12 May 2005

World's fastest BBC Micro?

My first computer was a BBC Micro Model A back in about 1980. It cost around 300 and came with a mighty 32K of memory and loaded software from audio cassettes. It was actually a very neat machine with a very good implementation of the BASIC language. Some very good games were produced for it including the classic Elite. I upgraded mine a little by adding another 16K to allow me to use the better graphics modes and run more games. I wrote various programs for it including my first Mandelbrot program.

I sold my BBC a few years back for 30 with a load of games and the cassette deck I used. It was still working fine. One thing it had over modern computers was that it started up instantly, but then you had to load some software to do anything practical. I never got around to getting a floppy drive.

Now someone has gutted an old BBC and installed a 600MHz PC with a 40GB hard drive as shown here. He runs Linux on it and can even run old BBC games via an emulator. It's a very neat job using the original keyboard and not making extra holes in the case.

I'm not into that sort of hardware hacking, but I may be building a new PC soon. The power supply in my big tower may be dying and it's very noisy. I've long lusted after something smaller and quieter. I've now discovered a couple of possibilities to remedy this. The Aspire X-QPACK is quite funky with it's transparent panels and carrying handle. There's also the Antec Aria is more restrained. Both will take my current components with space for extra hard drives. Both cost around 70, which is not cheap for a case these days, but worth paying for the benefits. For that Antec throw in a card reader as well. I'm mulling it over for now.

[14:21] | [] | Comments | G

Tue, 03 May 2005

Trying out Knoppix

Knoppix is a 'live' CD Linux distribution. This basically means you can boot your PC from the CD and hav a working Linux system without having to install anything. I tried an older version a while back, but it didn't like my hardware and seemed to mess up my Windows system. This time I tried version 3.8.1 and it worked fine. I'm intending to install it over the Windows, so it's irrelevant what it does to the hard disk for now.

I just have to work out how to install it to the drive. There's an install script, but that complains about a lack of available partitions and fires up QtParted, a user-friendly partition manager. I'm still working out if I can use that or if I should get geeky with some command-line tools as suggested by Simon. He is running an earlier version at home.

[13:16] | [] | Comments | G

Sun, 24 Apr 2005

Changing distributed project

My first experience of distributed computing was I have contributed a few years of processing to their RC5 (encryption challenges) and OGR (mathematical curiosities) projects. More recently I switched to, which is run by many of the same people. This seemed more worthy as it involves searching for cures for cancer and other diseases. is not available on Linux, but some people have made it run by devious means. For simplicity I was just running on my Linux box. I had heard about Folding at Home a while back, but never got around to trying it. This is another medical project with similar scope to, but wider support for non-Windows platforms. Well I've tried it and it works on this old PC. The question is whether it will complete a work unit before the preset deadline. There are ways around this that I may have to investigate. I don't really want a PC on all the time at the moment due to the noise and power consumption. For now I don't need that facility either, so the PC will be on when it is needed. The deadline is the middle of next month and I'm away for work in between, so I may miss it.

I've thought for a long time now that all those PCs around the world that just do nothing whilst waiting for the user to do something should be put to some use. There are lots of possible projects you can run that do not affect normal usage and may end up doing some good.

[22:03] | [] | Comments | G

Trying and failing to install Linux

I used to run Windows 2000 on my main PC (Duron 1200) until it started playing up and crashing most times I tried to boot it. That was when I decided it was time to move to Linux and installed Madrake 10 on the slightly slower Duron 800 PC. That's been running nicely for a while, but that PC had a weedy 8GB hard drive that originated in my first PC. I've been meaning to 'upgrade' the Win2K PC to some form of Linux for a while. I had heard a lot about the various Debian distributions, especially Ubuntu. I got hold of the previus version to try it out.

The first problem was the at the Ricoh combo drive in that PC has been playing up for a while and does not always read CDs. This is a drive that cost about 150 a few years back when mere mortals were not able to write DVDs. So I swapped in an old CD drive. That was refusing to boot too until I worked out that the jumper was set wrong on the back. After that I got my first sight of the Ubuntu start-up screen. The excitement was short-lived as it was followed by a blank screen and a dead keyboard.

There may be an issue with the motherboard (Asus A7N266-VM) that uses an nVidia chipset. I'll investigate that angle. Meanwhile I'm downloading the latest version of Ubuntu to try out. If that doesn't work then I may investigate Knoppix and Mepis, both of which I have seen at the LUG. It may just take me a while to download them. I'm still waiting for ntl to upgrade my broadband to 2Mb.

[21:51] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 10 Mar 2005

Herts LUG Meeting

My third time at the LUG and 7 or 8 or us there. This month's features included a new homebuilt PC that won't start up, a hardware prototype of a radical new keyboard and a demo of a DIY media PC running GeexBox.

The latter was interesting as I intend to build something like that one day. The control system looked good as it was more like a DVD player than a PC to use. It was running on a humble 800MHz C3, which is not much by modern standards, but allows it to run cool and quiet. When I get around to it I'll be looking for the ability to play DVD, CD, various video file formats, MP3/OGG etc as well as recording TV from digital terrestrial. Another option in this field is MythTV.

Apart from my digital video success my other Linux find this week was that you can use a URL like fish://user@server in some browsers to get secure file transfer. It works in Konqueror, but I've not been able to find much documentation on it apart from some forum/mailing list comments. It seemes to be related to the command line scp, but allows you to drag and drop. I know I'm losing geek points by now using the command line, but I sometimes like a GUI. This goes back to my early days of using the wonderful Norton Commander on DOS. I ought to try out the Linux clones.

[13:39] | [] | Comments | G

Mon, 07 Mar 2005

Digital Video on Linux

One of the computing jobs that I mean to get around to is transferring our limited home videos to DVD. It's mostly stuff of the kids. I did some on Windows using Pinnacle Studio DV. This did pretty good job, but at the time I only had a CD writer so ended up creating a S-VCD. Good enough quality for home movies.

Now I'm moving to Linux I want to do some more editing/DVD creation. Actually I need to put together a better PC first with lots of disk space and a DVD burner. Both are relatively cheap these days. Meanwhile I wanted to get some footage off the camera of a bird in our garden.

I installed Kino and gave it a go. Didn't work at first, but after some false starts and some help via Google, I got it to work! Only runs as root for now, but I'm still impressed.

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

Thu, 10 Feb 2005

Second LUG Meeting

Last night I went along to the Herts LUG again. Not so many there this time. Actually there were far more computers than people as someone had brought along several very old PCs to see what could be done with them. We actually managed to get enough bits to almost build a Smoothwall firewall. It was only a P200 with 32MB, but it seems that is enough. The biggest problem was finding a CD drive that would read a CDR. I'm not sure I need a dedicated PC as a firewall. I have a router that can do what I need and it's cheaper to have that on all the time than a PC. It's also silent. It just means I always have lots of flashing lights in the study with that and the cable modem.
[20:59] | [] | Comments | G

Wed, 12 Jan 2005

Who wants a Mac Mini?

To be honest I could go for one, if I had some money to throw around. It is cute, but there are alternatives. I just saw this at Cheeplinux. I don't know anything about the company, but for the approximate price of the Mini you can get something with a DVD re-writer, wireless keyboard and mouse, a much bigger disk and a card reader. It's not as fast, but it's probably fast enough for non-gaming use. I'd be interested to know how quiet it is. That's becoming one of my priorities for any future computers. My old PC is making a real racket here.
[21:46] | [] | Comments | G

Keeping a diary

When I was living in Germany I kept a diary that I can go back to and cringe over. I keep thinking I should start it again, but of course I can't be satisfied with writing in a book these days.

I tried a diary application on the Palm, but it was awkward to use and the Palm is not great for entering lots of text.

Recently I thought that I could do something in email. I spend most of my waking hours in front of a computer and email is convenient. My thought is that I would mail myself, possibly using a dedicated account. Entries would be automatically date sorted. I could even encrypt to prevent anyone else getting at my secret thoughts.

An extension of this would be to then extract the emails and convert them to some easily searchable format.

This is a diary for private thoughts. Anything public can go on here or Multiply.

[13:10] | [] | Comments | G

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