Winter 2008

Pending Enhancements

Site News / March 24th

Work has been ongoing on Spark, the backend to XeoMage. Most of my focus recently has been on the image system, which will let me upload and crop photos directly through the browser. Unfortunately because I've been working on this and I'll have to go back and import all of my existing photos when it's ready, I've been reluctant to add any new Photos to the site until it's done.

The reason for this post is let you know that I'm finally close to finishing, and that my hope is to bring the new version live in the next week or so. Once that's done I hope to add a whole bunch of new photos, and possibly a new project as well.

Chronicles of Automotive Entropy

Personal / March 19th

Those that have been reading my Journal have been subjected to my ongoing litany of woes when it comes to my car (and Sarah's). Just this week I've been treated to a bad headlight and today the driver information system added a brake pad warning to the list. Now, brake pads wear out. I understand this, having replaced them on this car before (in October of 2006, actually). It's mostly just the frequency of problems that is getting to me. Allow me to go over the recent past of my car, a 2004 Audi A4 Quattro 1.8T that now has about 85,000 miles on it. If you're already sick of this (believe me, I am) feel free not to read on.

Back in September of last year I bought four new tires. The tires weren't that old, but a combination of two bent rims and the resulting uneven tread wear, as well as a slow leak and a previous flat that both had bulging sidewalls went along with some 75,000 mile maintenance to make a very expensive trip to the dealer. I didn't replace the rims, but put the really bad one on the spare because they wanted to charge me $575 each.

That trip to the dealer came after replacing my windshield because I had cracked it replacing the wiper assembly that had seized up one day. It did not resolve the two power windows that don't work properly due to broken window regulators. Incidentally, the windshield wipers have seized up since replacing the assembly once or twice.

In January I bought the car out of lease because I owed less than it was worth, I was over my miles, and I didn't want to pay for the broken window regulators or the bent rims. I didn't want a car payment so I paid it off with money I had saved. The theory goes that it is a bad idea to finance a depreciating asset. The lack of a car payment was also very appealing after paying so much in repairs on top of four years of fairly high payments. The day after I sent off the check, the car broke down on the way to work not far from home, which wound up being the ignition coils which I replaced along with the spark plugs for good measure.

Not long after this the check engine light returned with a catalytic converter code. I suspect the ignition coil problem may have caused this, given that the manifold was glowing because fuel wasn't burning in the cylinder, but I don't know for certain. The government requires manufacturers to warranty the catalytic converter to 80,000 miles, which I am of course over.

Within a week or so I hit a pot hole and get a flat tire. Of course it can't be patched (bulging sidewall) so I get a new tire and then find that my alignment is out. Before I get the alignment done I have to replace two tail lights that have gone out (a chronic problem). About a week later the aforementioned headlight goes which took me two hours to replace because the screwdriver bit fell into the engine bay, and two days later I get the brake pad warning.

Tonight I ordered two window regulators. The check engine light hasn't come on since I reset it a couple days ago, but I have a healthy degree of skepticism that it's just biding its time. In addition to the brake pads, its due for an oil change. The timing belt and the ribbed belt are also due and the center console armrest lid has a broken latch. I did find the rims online for $180, so I'll probably get those in a couple of months. I may also get some led tail lights to prevent the bulb failure problem.

My frustration through all of this is that I keep expecting it to pass. I keep thinking that I will reach some level of stability, where I don't turn the car on with a sense of apprehension. I really want to work through the problems one by one and think of the car as a collection of parts rather than a whole being with a penchant for failure or a desire to cause me misery. I am trying to regard the situation with patience and evaluate it logically. Unfortunately, while overall the problems I've had are mostly not that expensive so long as I avoid Glenview Audi, cars are very much an emotional experience. Despite my best efforts I am developing hate of the machine; an expectation of frustration and disappointment. That isn't the experience I want to have when I drive, and I don't know if I can get past it, particularly when things keep breaking.

Video Game Head Tracking

Computing / January 23rd

I don't know what to say other than this is the goddamn future. Tycho on Penny Arcade linked to the following video:

If you play video games, particularly first person games, you'll immediately understand what I'm talking about. The best part is that it will be really cheap to add this functionality to any system. Step 1: add IR LEDs to the headset everyone is already wearing. Step 2: make an IR sensor akin to the one in Wiimote and then build it into a webcam (ideally one with a servo, but you could also pull it off with a wide angle lens and software), because you don't have to be a genius to start realizing some of the other functionality this can deliver.

Now, to the guy's point, supporting multiple people on a single screen is currently impossible, but you could still do a split screen on a tv if the sensor were able to track multiple people (say by using different wavelengths of IR). I can see that being a development down the road. Moving past games and telepresence video conferencing, you could use this to make text more readable when off to the side or to do better 3D prototyping. I'm really hoping this gets picked up by someone. It's got too much potential to be just someone's research project.

Desktop Linux: A Long Way to Go

Computing / January 13th

I have installed Linux more times than I can recall. I've tried many versions of many distros and always eventually given up and gone back to Windows. Each time, though, I start thinking that there's something better out there. A done-right variant that combines the freedom to decide how my desktop should look and work with a well thought out design. Little things that irk me to this day about Windows, like windows stealing focus or usb drive letters conflicting with a network drive or reboot prompts for updates to the media player or any number of other constant irritations.

So a few months back I tried Ubuntu because I had heard good things. I put it in a VM and it worked quite well, but one of the things I wanted to try out was the 3D effects and 3D Windows games, which don't work in a VM. So I tried booting the Live CD and got an endless stream of errors and then a shell. Not so polished. I tracked the issue down to my drive controller, but there wasn't an easy way to fix it. A few months went by and I upgraded the computer. I tried installing on the new computer and got nearly the same result. Oh well.

Not to be dissauded, I downloaded Fedora, and sure enough it installed just fine! Well, except for the video driver. I was stuck at 800x600. I download the video driver (the fact it is even available shows that progress with Linux is being made) and go to install it, but it craps out because I'm out of disk space, due to the small partition I used. No worries, I'll just uninstall some stuff, right? Well, the Add/Remove throws an error, and when I run it a second time it uninstalls most of the OS including the Add/Remove Programs applet -despite me not selecting any of that- and I'm left without so much as a terminal to try and fix the problem.

This might have been the end of it if I hadn't been forced to reinstall after deleting the Linux partition only to realize I could no longer boot to Windows because the boot loader had been on the Linux partition. So, with it reinstalled and enough hard drive space, I tried to install the video driver once again. This time it extracted and told me it wouldn't install while X was running. So I tried to find another way to install it, and then when I got X to stop by selecting an Nvidia video driver from the built in list, it wouldn't let me log in at the console because it kept giving me X errors. Eventually I rebooted into Windows, fairly sure that it was once again mostly unusable.

The point in relating this is mostly to underscore my ongoing disappointment with the state of Linux. Even now, years after the "easy to use" distros started coming out and the quality of the environment improved to the point where the fonts don't look shitty and the applications got nice, it's still showing me a text logon while X loads until the gui one is displayed, still has dumb usability flaws and little to no safeguard against a user trashing the system within ten minutes of logging in. I understand that the point is to give the user control over the system, but installing a video driver should be point and click, not a command line, and it shouldn't require you to shut down your whole desktop environment. If these options are in Fedora, and I missed them, then the problem is complexity. The display drivers screen gave me no way to point it at a different driver that I could see. The instructions on Nvidia's site said to run it from a command line.

I'm not giving up yet, since I still hold out hope that the thing can work once I overcome the sizeable barriers at the gate, but it isn't a very welcoming system, and it's really no wonder adoption is so low.

More Than Survival

Personal / January 7th

In one of those hypothetical scenarios where you're a survivor in a post-apocalyptic world (the more likely scenarios where you don't survive are a lot less interesting) and presumably others have survived as well, I started wondering what life would be like. An alternate version involves being thrown back in time or stranded on a deserted island, but we'll go with post-apocalyptic here. The basic premise is that you're in a natural environment, with no supplies, tools, or man-made stuff with some number of other people, say twenty to fifty. I'm fairly sure that we could survive, build shelter, find food and water, etc. The question gets more interesting when you consider what skills you truly possess that would be useful.

For example, in a future without electricity, web programming becomes less important. Even fixing a car is kind of out of the realm. I'm thinking about how to make cloth, work metal, maybe fire pottery. The basic supplies that civilization requires quickly outstrip the utility of rocks and carved wood. Do you know anyone that can smelt ore? I mean, to move past hunting and gathering you're going to want to farm. Stone plows are great and all, but metal would be really handy for a lot of things. With metal you can even start thinking about motors, gears, and electricity again.

Do you know how to make thread from cotton, wool, or hemp? Once you have thread, do you know how to make a loom? Could you find clay, mold it into a bowl, build a kiln and fire it? I think a lot of people possess the basic fire-making, hunting, camping, even boiling water skills, but once you get past that there's a whole level of technologies that in the modern world have been supplanted, industrialized, and in general moved beyond the scope of the average person to recreate. What about recognizing various species of plants for food and medicine? If you're with a completely random set of 20-50 people, how likely is it that you're going to have among you the knowledge necessary to progress beyond the most primitive state of man?

I'm not the sort of person that actually believes that an asteroid is going to wipe out most of the planet and leave me to fend for myself, but it does interest me to think about the skills that our civilization lets slip away. I know that there are people out there that know and understand everything I've mentioned, but how common are they? What are the odds that your little camp of survivors will have a Professor that can make a radio from coconuts? What critical knowledge could you gain right now that would benefit you and your group immensely if you just bothered to look it up? With the scenario being so improbable, is it even worth it to know these things? I don't know that there is any practical use unless you're going to a historical reenactment. I don't really have a point in all of this. It's just one of those random thoughts that this page exists to express.