The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for August, 2005

New Orleans – Modern Atlantis

Posted by Deliverator on 31st August 2005

I have been predicting the doom of New Orleans,like some sort of modern Cassandra, for years now. The Army Corp. of Engineers wrote the place off years ago and more or less spelled out how the scenario would play out. So, while my heart truly breaks for the untold dead and millions left homeless, I can’t help feeling that it was utter hubris to make a life in such a place. Of course, I type this in the shadow of 2 active volcanos, one of which errupted within my lifetime. Seattle itself is built on an ancient outflow for Mt. Rainier. While Seattle hasn’t been burried in volcanic mud in recent history, the small town of Orting and several other population centers in Pierce County get buried by a Lahar once every 500 years or so. We live on a rock hurtling through space at unspeakable speeds, so maybe all human endevours are utter folly, but it seems that some people plant themselves in harms way, for no other reason than to curse god when the inevitable occurs. This end has been predicted for many years now, yet we all sit around like stunned fish when the inevitable occurs. The immensity of what has occured is still sinking in and I know many feel that they can’t do anything to help in the face of such an event, so they just go about their daily lives. Here are some things you can do now:

* Donate money to relief organizations such as the read cross. This money is sorely needed now for relief and ongoing search and rescue operations.

* Donate Blood. There are many people that have suffered traumatic injuries or have infected wounds that will require amputations in the near future. You blood can be the difference between life and death. Especially consider donating if you are a universal donor (type O-) or have a rare blood type.

* If you have the space in your home and so much as a cup of ramen in your kitchen, consider hosting a family or individual that has been left homeless by this disaster. By even the most optimistic accounts, it will be many, many months before any permanent housing in the area can be arranged.

Posted in General | 2 Comments »

Nano-ITX, itsy bitsy size – BIG PRICE

Posted by Deliverator on 30th August 2005

Well, Nano-ITX motherboards are vaporware no longer – at least temporarily. Although these boards haven’t made it to retail channels in any volume to speak of, Mp3car.com recently got their hands on a batch and are selling em for…wait for it… $450. I have been wanting one of these boards for quite some time, as its miniscule size of 12 cm x 12 cm would finally allow me to embed the whole carputer in a single din slot in my dash. I am almost willing to bite the $450 bullet, but I would need to buy some expensive SO-DIMM memory and would have to scratch my plans for cellular internet access, as the Nano-ITX boards lack the Cardbus and CF slots of their doubly large bretheren (and current carputer motherboard). the Via Epia MII-12000. In compensation, the Nano-ITX boards do have a single mini-pci slot, which opens up a number of interesting expansion possibilities.

Posted in CarPuter, General, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Hacknight – 08/30/05

Posted by Deliverator on 30th August 2005

I have been in pain all day due to some oral surgery performed yesterday. I have been clenching virtually every part of my body that can be clenched, punching walls and swearing (not so much) under my breath. I have found it difficult to concentrate on anything and articulate myself in meaningful way, in part due to the pain and near constant taste of blood in my mouth, but also because I didn’t sleep much last night – due to the pain and blood in my mouth. After a few handfuls of over-the-counter pain killers, I shuffled off to hacknight. I arrived almost an hour and a half after hacknight’s usual start time, and half expected the meeting to be over. Casey and Matt were both there with new projects brewing in their evil minds. The evening’s conversation was brief but productive.

  • Matt and I discussed cobling together some recent freecycling finds into a web controlled wireless camera sniffer. The basic idea is to use some stepper motors to precisely (and reproduceably) point a high gain parabolic dish that overlooks a good deal of Seattle. This antenna will feed the video receiver unit of a 2.4 GHZ video sender/receiver device that Matt has had sitting in his closet for quite some time. This unit has a bad reputation for causing interference with nearby unlicensed 2.4 GHZ gear, so has sat unused for quite some time. The video receiver will be wired to one of the spare analog LCDs that are in my closet for local viewing, and a video capture card that will stream any video this contraption picks up to a web page. The idea is to have the whole thing controllabe from a web page and allow web users to create a database of found cameras (i.e. baby monitor at x=134.2 degrees y=-25.82 degrees). In some strange way, this reminds me a bit of google maps sightseeing and some of the internet “hunting” sites. It should be a fun project and will let us do something constructive (in the artistic sense) with all the weird gadgets we have filling our respective closets.
  • Casey is researching WiFi VOIP phones for possible use in an entrepreneurial venture to bring cheaper phone service into remote, small communities in Alaska. I am going to loan him some older PC boxen to set up a prototyping environment. Broadcom seems to have a wifi phone reference platform that may be just the ticket. Matt had a Zyxel WiFi phone that I got to play around with.
  • Some random pedestrian’s came up to our table towards the end of the evening and asked us if we knew how they could get online through nocharge. Nocharge is a free (as in beer) dial-up isp that has come in handy in a pinch in the past. They have an interesting business model, whereby they give away free dial-up access and offer pay as you go phone support for $10/call. They get their revenue in a few other ways as well, but for the most part, it is free to the user.
  • I have resolved to byte the bullet and sign up for cellular internet access from either Sprint or Verizon within a couple weeks. I am still mulling over some of my options for what to use for an access card, but will order something off eBay shortly.

Posted in General, SWN Hacknight | No Comments »

Intersticial Entry

Posted by Deliverator on 29th August 2005

Today I:

* Helped my father build hinged doors for a woodshed.

* Created a sizeable addition to my home in Second Life. This new room will be used to house my entertainment center and an arcade. While the additional land I purchased allows me to simulate more complex objects, some of the games I have acquired for use in the arcade are quite complex. A chess set that I acquired uses up 270+ prims (out of around 1000 than I am allowed) when all pieces are deployed on the board. A Mahjong table programmed by the same person is significantly more complex from a programatic standpoint, but the tiles for Mahjong are very simple models using up only a single prim each. I wish Linden Labs granted a higher prim allocation per owned sq meter and instead limited the number/complexity of scripts. Most of the things that I have seen lag a server are related to complex scripted objects, rather than mere prims. The prim limits may be due to a desire to try and create a positive user experience for people that have slower graphics cards/processors.

* Checked out Carolyn’s progress running/swimming/biking at Iroman Canada throughout the day. She finished this, her second Ironman with a time of 13 hours 33 minutes. She finished her first Ironman, last year in Idaho, with a time of 11 hours 37 minutes. I haven’t had a chance to talk with her yet, but it looks like her biking time was significantly slower. Perhaps she had mechanical problems? Regardless, finishing an Ironman event is very impressive to me.

* Went to see “The Princess Bride”at Seattle Center’s outdoor movie night with Alex and Malora. We ended up getting rained on in a big way (summer had been very dry this year), so we packed things up and watched the movie on DVD at Alex’s place.

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Life’s Addenda

Posted by Deliverator on 26th August 2005

My entries here have become a little less frequent than I would like. I haven’t fallen off the map entirely, but have simply been dealing with too many mundane things right now that haven’t felt worthy of a dedicated entry. So, I will try and address them all in one fell swoop.

  • Been very busy the last few weeks with work. Much of the work has been due to fallout from the recent worms that have been making the rounds. These worms have been bad enough as to make mainstream media outlets take notice (mainly because all their computers start crashing). Helping people deal with viruses is amongst the work that I dislike the most, usually because I am dealing with people who don’t head my advice as to how to secure themselves and are too stingey to do any level of preventative maintenance. In general, these are the sort of people that drive their cars until they break..and then bitch..rather than changing the oil once in a while… About the only thing that interests me about this sort of work is that I often encounter previously undocumented viruses/spyware. The sheer volume of predatory software coming out every month is astounding. The antivirus/antispy companies are most definitely not keeping up with the onslaught.
  • My cousin Carolyn is running, swimming and biking in her second Ironman race this weekend up in Canada. That someone can bike a hundred miles, run a marathon and swim several miles in one day is astounding enough. Carolyn finished with a very low time for her age/experience level at last year’s Ironman Idaho. I don’t know what her goals are for this one (never having understood the motivation), but I assume she is pushing for an even better time this race, as she has subjected herself to a particularly brutal training schedule these last months. I wish her luck! There will be coverage of the event online, including video (for those with good broadband connections).
  • The mini-itx media center is having difficulties with some of the more processor-intense codecs. The motherboard is only a 600 mhz VIA Epia, which with the Epia’s weak floating point unit makes it perform more like a PII-300 when used for media intensive applications. I might take a stab at adding some fans and overclocking the processor a bit. I don’t think I will need to overclock the processor much, as the problem mainly manifests itself in dropped frames and audio/video desynch. I could transcode the video server side and feed it to the media center box in a less processor intensive format using Videolan, but part of the problem with the high CPU load during playback is due to the use of a USB Wifi card. It might be a good time to invest in a 802.11g bridging mode AP and a PCI Wifi card. This would offer improved transfer speeds and lower cpu utilization. I feel this will be a better long-term solution than simply swapping out the motherboard for a faster one.
  • Went to a surplus sale held by the school district at International’s old site. I was hoping to acquire a mill that I noticed on the item list for the TRC. Teachers are supposed to be able to freely recquisition items for their use, but I guess Brad (TRC’s faculty advisor) wasn’t able to get to it. When I arrived (and I was there from the moment the doors opened to the public), it already had a sold sticker on it with a name of Jeff Somebody. A pity, as it looked to be very serviceable and had a port for computer control. Other than the mill, there wasn’t much the peaked my interest. There was quite a lot of computer equipment on the list, but it all turned out to be total rubbish.
  • Increased my land holdings in Second Life to 4608 square meters from 2560 square meters. I can now model complex items to my heart’s content with the extra server resources that the additional land grants me. I started by adding some much improved scripted (locking) doors and one-way, tint-adjustable windows to my virtual house, added “ice fishing” to my frozen over Koi pond and played around with xytext, a high prim (uses up a lot of server resources) notecard reader system. I will probably model the ROV that the TRC is building and maybe last year’s FRC entry, Tyr, as modelling challenges. Now that I have resources far in excess of my actual needs, I will have to be mindful of the urge to go “prim happy.”
  • Stopped by Fry’s and picked up number of little goodies, including a glidepoint touchpad for use with my auxilary desktop. Now that I have my auxilary system on my desk, instead of under it, I have much less desk space. A touchpad is really optimum for the way I use this system, as I don’t play games on it, and a touchpad takes up much less space and requires less space for hand travel. I also picked up a two-port micro KVM (with integral cables) from Belkin. I haven’t liked the reliability or clutter of most consumer KVM units, but I have heard good things about the chipsets used in these, so will give this one a shot.
  • One of the Konfabulator widget that I have found myself glancing at most often is CScrape, which shows you a more or less live feed of posting made to Craigslist. I got lucky the other day when a nice guy named Thomas Hargrove decided to partake in a little geek recycling (Matt W. has coined this “freecycling”). Tom gave me a number of parts from an old car-computer system that he tore out of a car he was selling. The parts included a Lilliput 7″ SVGA touch-screen like that used in my carputer and an Ampie case. This is a neat little mini-itx case designed to look like (and mount like) a car amplifier. It came with a nice DC-DC power supply, as well. I will have to rummage through my discarded gadget bins in the next few days and see what I can offer up freely to pass the spirit along.

Posted in General | 2 Comments »

Will wonders never cease, a *desktop* case

Posted by Deliverator on 23rd August 2005

Desktop (horizontal) cases have more or less disappeared from the PC marketplace in favor of tower (vertical) cases. There desktop case has seen a brief return to popularity, due largely to huge numbers of people building home theater PCs. While most people seem to build their home theater PCs off mini-itx and small form factor boxes, the more serious users are using full ATX systems that accommodate faster cpus, faster graphics cards, higher hdd capacity and multiple video capture cards. Many of these full atx cases are designed to mimic the look of audio/video rack gear. One nice exception is the Lian-Li PC V800 desktop case. This case screams “there is a high-end pc inside me” rather than “I am some non-descript piece of audio/video gear.”

I already have a mini-itx based home theater PC, but was interested in this case to house my secondary workstation, which has been looking rather fugly in its $40 “computer beige” case. This case isn’t all that bad (although there are some aspects to its design that I strongly dislike), but looks very homely when standing smack next to the supermodel beautiful V1000 tower case that houses my primary workstation. One of the things that I really like about the V800 is that its styling is virtually identical to the V1000, but in a desktop case format. All in all, this is a VERY nice case. The build quality is similar to the V1000, with not a sharp edge anywhere. My only (minor) complaints about the case is that there is one slightly noisy fan (easily replaced) and that the external floppy/cd-rom cage (which has a beautiful metal bezel) is secured with six screws (of two different head types), several of which require removal with a very long bladed screwdriver. To quote Ferris, “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up!”

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The Bane of the HDD?

Posted by Deliverator on 22nd August 2005

Hard disk technology is one of the last weak links in computer performance. Despite faster spindle speeds (maxing out at 10K rpm for desktop, 15K on high end server), higher density platters (133 GB on a single platter), new bus technologies (SATA) and intelligent cache controllers (NCQs), hard disk technology still reaches transfer speeds of only 60-70MB/sec read and 25-30MB/sec write, with random access times above 5ms. That may sound pretty fast, but consider that the (volatile) DDR ram found in most desktop systems these days can transfer on the order of 1500 MB/sec with near instantaneous access times. In short, it takes a long time to move data from bulk storage to working memory, but once there, your cpu can fiddle with bits in memory at incredible speeds.

Hard disk technology is improving, but only incrementally, and at a far slower pace than other computer subsystems. Perpendicular recording technology, now shipping on some 1.8″ hard disks designed for MP3 players, shows some promise of increasing data storage densities to 2-3 times that of current. While this does mean you will be able to store more porn/volume, it is only a marginal improvement at best. Hard drives remain an unreliable mechanical disaster waiting to happen.

What is direly needed is commercial R&D and actual product development from major storage manufacturers. We continually hear about some researcher achieving 1 TB holographic storage densities on blocks of crystal the size of a quarter, but we never see any attempts to productize this research. I think there is as much reluctace to rock the boat in the storage industry as there has been in the US car (lets be frank, SUV) industry. Detroit is now paying the price for being defenders of the status que, as superior engineered cars from Asia and Europe (that get vastly better gas mileage as well) flood the US car market.

Samsung recently introduced a 16 GB solid state notebook hard disk based on NAND flash technology. Early specs claim performance similar to top of the line 7200 RPM hard drives. Considering that the technology is marketed at notebook users, where 4200 & 5200 RPM drives are the norm, this technology likely performs well above the norm. Such solid state drives have some great advantages over mechanical hard drives:

  • low power consumption means much greater battery life.
  • no moving parts means greater resistance to shock/drop damage
  • much wider operational temperature range (and lower heat production) means these drives can be used in far harsher environments than convential hard drives, and won’t fry parts of one’s anatomy that most people treasure when used in laptop systems

This technology is far from perfect. It doesn’t offer near the storage capacities of conventional hard disk technology, and likely suffers from the same limited, write wear induced life cycle to which all flash based technologies are susceptible. In brief, each flash memory “cell” can only be written to a limited number of times. While most of your data doesn’t change that often (necessitating a write), some areas of the disk are written to near constantly (paging/swap file). One approach is to use an operating system, such as Debian Linux, which can be set up to be mounted “read only” and to store logs and other, largely useless, frequently written files in ram. This technique has been used for years in the Pebble Linux Distribution, which is a specialized Linux distro for use in embedded wireless applications (which frequently boot from compact flash cards). Another approach is a technique called “wear leveling,”which attempts to stave off the inevitable by distributing writes across the disk. A final approach, which I feel holds the most promise, are hybrid disks. Such disks would combine flash based and conventional platter based technologies into a single device. Samsung is currently developing this idea along with Microsoft and it is slated to be included in Longhorn/Vista. Then again,
Microsoft has already dropped a lot of major “campaign promise” features from Longhorn, so I find it a little odd that this is where they are placing their focus.

Posted in General, Tech Stuff | 3 Comments »

Information Overload

Posted by Deliverator on 18th August 2005

I am writing this in response to the torrent of im and email traffic my prior post elicited.

People have been trying to do “this” right for ages. Microsoft took a great stab at it with a MS Research application called Sideshow that was only supposed to be used internally, but got leaked. Prior to this, MS’s only real foray into push technology has been Active Desktop and Channels. Apple flirted with the concept early on in its history with Desk Accessories and has jumped headfirst into the fray with Dashboard. Along the way, “this” concept has been attempted by a number of smaller players. “This” concept is somewhat amorphic. The way I like to frame the concept in my mind is a lightweight framework for creating tiny, highly personalized applications, whose purpose is to display rapidly changing data culled primarily from outside data sources. A lot of the data sources used by the widgets that I have played with are publicly available, but are inconveniently presented/formatted and/or require an interactive “pull” from the user. Widgets flip this process upside down and pushes the desired content (and only the content) directly to the user’s desktop in a compact form.

We live in an age where there is a glut of information available and where we are being continually bombarded by information that we don’t want to see (ads). The problem then becomes how to aggregate all this information, filter it and present just the information you want without making your head hurt. Widgets are one piece of the puzzle. RSS and Atom are two other significant pieces. I just wish someone would give us the box, so we knew what this whole damn puzzle is supposed to look like…

Posted in General, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | 2 Comments »

Konfabulated, but not discombobulated

Posted by Deliverator on 18th August 2005

I have been hearing good things about a neat little thingamajig called Konfabulator for quite some time, but never checked it out, as it was a bit costly for what it does. A few days ago, I heard that it had been made free as in beer, after being bought by Yahoo!, so I decided to try it out.

Konfabulator is a “runtime engine” that lets you easily create little desktop widgets in Javascript. You can create your own, but there is a large library of user created widgets that run the gamut from highly useful to utterly whimsical. So far, I have installed widgets that do the following:

  • A 5 Day Weather Forecast
  • Doppler Radar
  • Monthly Calendar
  • To Do List
  • Washington State DOT Traffic Cams
  • Network Latency Grapher
  • CPU Monitor
  • Memory Monitor
  • IP Address Geographic Localizer
  • Craigslist Scraper (displays all new postings to seattle.craigslist.com in specified categories)
  • Movie Times

My Konfabulated Desktop

Posted in General | 3 Comments »

Ubuntu, now fortified with silicon

Posted by Deliverator on 16th August 2005

I have been liking Ubuntu enough that I decided to devote some actual hardware to it and not simply run in a virtual machine. Running it in the VM was fine, but I was unable to get VMware tools to install, using the older version of VMware that I own (the new version supports it just fine). Without the VMware tools, the client OS is running without much in the way of graphics acceleration. I saw that VMware was releasing a toolkit, to allow OS makers to build in support for VMware’s “virtual hardware,” so that the tools install becomes unnecessary. in other VMware news, the x86 version of OS X has apparently been hacked to run within VMware. I will definitely have to check this out further. I have been running the PPC version of OS X in PearPC for some time now, but due to all the cross-instruction set translation needed to run PPC code on a x86 machine, running OSX on x86 hardware is currently very slow. Now, with OSX tunning natively on x86, emulation should be much faster. There is some DRM built into the developers release right now that tries to restrict OSX from running on anything but the official developer boxes, so a virtual machine may actually be the ideal environment for those wishing to run OSX on generic, non-apple x86 boxes.

Anyways, back to the original point. I now have a Ubuntu install on a Celeron 500 w 256MB of ram. Despite the relatively modest hardware, Ubuntu runs just great. Certainly much faster than XP on similar hardware. I am a little disappointed by how many things have been left out of the OS for “political” reasons. They can all be added back with a little effort, but it would be nice if they had been included on the install disks by default (even if not installed in the default installation configurations). I have found that I have needed to download far more packages with Ubuntu than with Fedora to get a nicely rounded system.

Posted in Emulation and Virtualization, General, Tech Stuff | 1 Comment »