Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Thu, 19 May 2005

Still Challenging

I'm onto level 8 of the Python Challenge. Still enjoying it. The last level required installing an extra library that I read somewhere was required. One of the problems is not knowing what facilities are available.

I'm coming to the conclusion that Python has the power of Java with the simplicity of Basic. Mind you, complicated list manipulation is still a little complicated.

[13:35] | [/Computer] | Comments | G

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] | [/Computer] | 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] | [/Computer] | Comments | G

Wed, 04 May 2005

May the 4th Be With You

One again George Lucas has missed the perfect release date for a Star Wars film. Let's hope this one is better than the last two. I grew up with the original films and these prequels have been too full of talk and mumbo jumbo.

Meanwhile, I'm off sick today after major sniffles and sore throat struck yesterday. I hope it's not the flu that I had recently returning. That was horrible.

For those in the UK, don't forget to vote tomorrow.

[11:12] | [/News] | 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] | [/Computer] | Comments | G

Sun, 24 Apr 2005

Changing distributed project

My first experience of distributed computing was distributed.net. I have contributed a few years of processing to their RC5 (encryption challenges) and OGR (mathematical curiosities) projects. More recently I switched to Grid.org, which is run by many of the same people. This seemed more worthy as it involves searching for cures for cancer and other diseases.

Grid.org is not available on Linux, but some people have made it run by devious means. For simplicity I was just running distributed.net 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 Grid.org, 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] | [/Computer] | 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] | [/Computer] | Comments | G

Thu, 21 Apr 2005

Our wasteful civilisation

This article links to a couple of interesting things.

One is a programme (The Energy Gap) on Radio 4 that I missed at the time, but was able to listen to on-line. A UK family tried living on the same amount of energy as one in India. This meant cutting electricity use by 2/3 and sourcing food from local sources. They may have gone to extremes by having a solar panel fitted, using camping lamps and using less heating. They pointed out the wastage from all the low voltage adaptors that are left switched on all the time. I gather they reverted to some of their old ways when the experiment was over, but I hope they learnt something. The programme should be there for a couple more days.

The other is a list of statistics about how much more of everything the average home in the USA has. More TVs, baths, cars and bigger houses. I'm not sure if the UK is going quite to the same extremes. A lot of new houses are not very big, but we still have more gadgets. They point out that some devices that get left on standby can use more electricty overall in that state than when they are switched on.

Of course there's lots of things everyone can do to make a difference. Turn off lights and other devices when not required, don't boil more water than you need, re-use carrier bags. It all adds up. Oh, and try driving a bit slower. That seems to be a hard one for a lot of people. I've been taking it a bit easier lately and getting a few more mpg. Makes for a more relaxed journey too for the sake on taking a couple of minutes longer.

[18:06] | [/News] | Comments | G

Tue, 19 Apr 2005

Google maps the UK

I've been playing with Google's map feature when it just did the USA, but today I found out they are covering the UK too. You can see where I live here.

The coolness factor over other sites like Multimap is the way you can just drag the map around to see other areas. They also have local search, but that seems limited for now. Maybe they will start using GeoURL tags. Locations are indicated by '3D' labels. Multimap still wins on photo coverage of the UK, for now.

I like Google, but I also like Multimap because of their semantic web features and other cool features. I hope there's room for them both. My first experience of on-line maps was Streetmap, but they seem to have fallen behind.

[20:56] | [/Internet] | Comments | G

Fri, 08 Apr 2005

Building a semantic website

You may have noticed from a few things about my site that I'm interested in the so-called Semantic Web. This is basically about embedding computer-readable information in web pages. Normal web pages using html are really just formatted text. Computers are not great at understanding text, which is why search results can be so wrong e.g. 'bass' can be a fish or a musical instrument or a fat singer or that thing that makes your windows rattle when you turn the stereo up.

I've added a few things to this site that give it more 'meaning':

Location - my geographical location is embedded in the site header as a latitude/longitude. This allows sites such as GeoURL to show where I am relative to other sites with that information. Maybe, one day, search engines will use this to allow searches for local services. Just using names, e.g. Bedford, is not so reliable as there can be multiple places with that name.

FOAF - the FOAF Project proposes a standard file format to give others information about yourself. The actual file is in a form of XML called RDF and is not that readable, but it can be extracted to nicer formats as you can see by clicking on my name at the top of the page. My file has information about who I know, what I do, where I've been and more. I intend to add more information. The 'who I know' bit has more potential if those people also have FOAF files so that our social network can be extracted.

XFN - this is a way to add meaning to links. By adding some extra parameters to the html you can indicate if the owner of a page is a friend, colleague, relative etc. This has similar implications to FOAF for building social networks.

There are more potential options including those that add more categorisation to articles. See my semantic links. There's a few reasons why this has not really taken off. Ignorance (many have never heard of it), apathy (why should I need that?) etc. Some have written about why they think it is not going to work. There are the usual internet risks of fraud to get visitors to sites. But there are many sites using semantic data. Simon has built a wiki that includes the locations.

One of these days I will get around to writing some applications to make use of this data. Python has tools for the job. I have some ideas for practical applications. Instead of using Multiply to link to friends I could use the information in my FOAF file. Users in there could request a password to allow them access to certain parts of the site. This could include thing like my DVD library that is hosted at DVD Lender. The idea is that I could take back control of my own data instead of relying on other sites to look after it and having the risk of losing it if they disappear. The other thing I want to do is to generate the details that appear on the right hand side of this page from my FOAF, so the FOAF would act as my information store. Other people seem to be working towards the opposite effect and generating FOAF from web pages, but I'm not so sure about that. I still have a lot to learn about this and the subject is still in flux generally.

[16:31] | [/Internet] | Comments | G

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