Distributed Mind

"I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."

Your hosts: J. Lowry, B. Martin.

August 19, 2009

Mediocre PCs and Windows

by ben

I recently purchased an Asus Eee PC 900 with Windows XP installed. This turned out to be a mistake. The underpowered device (which has what should be a fast enough processor and has 1 GB of RAM, but has only an 8 GB solid state drive which might be rather slow) combined with a resource hungry operating system makes this device often very unresponsive. Given that most of the time I am doing little more than typing or reading, this is ridiculous. Even given that rendering web pages takes more memory and processing than mere text (unfortunately - but that's another rant), these are operations I could perform on less powerful machines. The problem is the software and the operating system, presumably - they're getting in the way too often. I haven't ruled out a hardware problem yet, but on the whole, this a serious problem, and is putting me face to face with some known issues with modern desktop computing. I actually found myself wishing for a typewriter tonight - not good.

00:35:30 - Technology - ben - No comments

May 31, 2007


by ben

Why does Firefox not ask for confirmation when a text area contains lots of entered text and one hits a button (by accident...) that causes it to navigate away from the page? Why, oh why? Incidentally, this particular missing feature of Mozilla and Firefox has been being complained about for at least 6.5 years as a little searching will show. While we're at it, why are users stupid enough to enter text directly like this instead of using text editors and copy-and-paste? (Frankly though, despite my stupidity, this is mostly on Firefox.)

Why, oh why, is Firefox so slow, especially when downloading files (nearly freezing just over updating the little download window)?

And while we're at it, why do government agencies supply Excel files of their report data for all 50 states and D.C. and Puerto Rico and then organize the Excel file so that none of that data can be used directly without extensive manual rearrangement?

While computers may be fairly advanced, we're doing a really bad job with very basic design issues (of all sorts - not just software interfaces, as my complaint about the Excel file shows). Grr.

03:49:19 - Technology - ben - No comments

December 16, 2005

Nine years of Instant Messaging

by ben

I made the mistake of logging on to my ICQ account today, which meant that about 5 random people I had never heard of before were dying to talk to me. For all you young pip-squeaks, ICQ was the original instant messaging client, way before there was AIM. So, talking to some random Israeli teenager prompted my memory of the heady days back when instant messaging was young.

As I recall it, ICQ was originally positioned as Internet paging not "instant messaging." I suspect the idea was that you would use it to check if people were online and then tell them to go to some IRC channel or open up Pow-Wow (anybody remember that?) or check their e-mail or whatever. Anyways, that was how I figured I would use back when I first got an account in late 1996 - wow, nine years already - though in fact I always ended up just having a conversation in the ICQ client just like I use it now. Given the paging metaphor, ICQ would open a new window for every message sent originally, which was inconvenient, but my friends and I were too lazy to set up IRC or something like that, so we just talked in ICQ anyway. I actually didn't start using ICQ until fall of 1997, since no one I knew was using it before that, even though I had had an account for a year. But when I got to college, the technically savvy students were starting to use it by then. My account number is lower than 200,000; most of my friends had seven digit account numbers, so you can see how ICQ grew quickly.

ICQ always attracted random people looking to chat. A lot of internationals seem to hang on it still, as my experience today demonstrated. But I had forgotten what it was like to just start talking to some random person from across the world. Not very fun usually, in fact, though I have met some interesting people in the past. Pow-Wow - which was an actual chat client - was a lot like that too. I never did the IRC thing, but still, pretty similar. I just remember how exciting it was talking to people from all over the world. It wasn't really all that fun, but it was so novel. It's amazing how much we - or at least I - have come to take for granted in such a short period of time. Though "short period of time" - nine years of instant messaging, and I am only 26. That's the entire life span of my youngest sister, too! (Of course, IRC has been around almost as long as I have been, but I am thinking in terms of my own experiences.)

Sorry, just some random reminiscing.

06:45:13 - Technology - ben - No comments

September 19, 2005

A Major Usability Problem of Windowed Interfaces

by ben

Earlier today, in the space of 5 minutes, I experienced three times windows opening immediately over the mouse cursor as I was about to press the button. Once, I clicked on the wrong window, twice I came very close. This is a very danger problem. I have lost data before because of this same problem. This is in fact similar to the problem of new windows stealing keyboard focus. And that frequently results in passwords being entered in windows they should not be entered in.

I am not sure what the solution preferred by usability experts is, if there is one. The obvious approach would be to open new windows in the background, but usually users want new windows in front. Perhaps what is needed is some guess as to whether a window is being used (e.g. key press or mouse click within the last so many milliseconds); if it is, the system will open the new window behind it if it would block the old window. Also, it could be useful for programs who do not usually need to be on top to open in the background, though which is preferred can be hard to determine for some types of programs (e.g. IM clients).

13:19:57 - Technology - ben - No comments

July 09, 2005

Quick and Dirty Batch Image Resize in Python

by ben

Want to resize many images all at once? This is a quick way to do so in Python using the Python Imaging Library.

Assuming you have all files by themselves in a directory, either enter the following in IDLE (the Python GUI) or save it in a file (with the ".py" extension) and then run it:

import os
import Image

prefix = "[some text to add to beginning of filenames to distinguish them from the old ones]"
os.chdir("[path to images]")
files = os.listdir(".")
for file in files:
	im = Image.open(file);
	w = im.size[0]
	h = im.size[1]
	x = desired width/w
	new_w = int(w*x)
	new_h = int(h*x)
	im = im.resize((new_w, new_h))
	im.save(prefix+file, "JPEG")

Alternatively, set x to some proportion, such as 0.5.

Lest anyone overestimate my abilities, I got most of this out of the PIL tutorial and the Python Library Reference.

(The quality of the resize images leaves a little bit to be desired, but I did say this was the quick and dirty way...)

20:48:15 - Technology - ben - No comments

March 19, 2005

Of NASA, Pens, and Mythology

by ben

I had always wondered about (in terms of application to engineering, not veracity) the story about how NASA supposedly wasted a bunch of money developing pens that could write in low gravity, while the Soviets just used pencils, and I then read something today that pointed to the Snopes article about the story. Of course, you knew it wasn't true, right? Or I suppose we should have. Oh, well. It does make me feel much better about the competence of American scientists and engineers, though.

(I am pretty certain actually I read this story last year, but had forgotten it since then. Swiss cheese memory, what can I say.)

06:51:57 - Technology - ben - 1 comment

March 17, 2005

Old Playstation Games

by ben

So Mark Santos has made my, well, month. I was complaining to him last week that I needed to play some good racing games, so he sent me a Playstation and a bunch of games, which was very cool of him. So, since Monday, I have been playing a lot of games....

I was originally thinking primarily of Wipeout and POD. Well, no POD, but I do have Wipeout and Wipeout 3. Wipeout is still not quite the same as playing Wipeout on the PC, but Wipeout 3 is a lot of fun (it does throw me to be in a lower resolution though; among other things the displays are harder to read). Wipeout is a futurstic racer with these little hover vehicles - oh, and weapons. So far, my favorite mode in Wipeout 3 is "Elimination": laps on the track or kills count as points, so going fast and blowing other vehicles up are both worth points. There is also a mode where the ranking is determined by how many kills, so 3 eliminations is a gold. I hit 7 out of 11 once... I know, this is slightly violent, but only slightly (nobody dies, right? I think). I may never end up as a Mennonite at this rate though. Normally I would eschew violence, but (1) I realy like Wipeout from "back in the day," (2) it is not very severe violence, (3) it is a racing game, and (4) my judgment has been badly impaired recently. It does get worse though....

A new discovery was Driver 2. It involves carrying out various undercover missions (that look like they cameout of a '70s detective show) in, yes, a car. The first part of the game is set in Chicago, and a farirly convincing Chicago at that, so I was very enthusiastic. The missions are a kick too - so far my favorite was chasing an El train. I didn't get very far sicne I don't have any memory cards to save my game, but I will get some soon, and then... There is also a free driving mode where the player can drive around the city. The problem is it is almost impossible to not break the law (several times I had cops come after me for no apparent reason), and then the police chase you around. The "good" news is that if you can lose the police, you can get out of your car, and pull someone out of another car (or school bus or firetruck...), and steal it, and drive around some more. Yes, I know, somewhat questionable. The graphics are not excellent, but they are mostly convincing, and the gameplay (while not extremely realistic) is a lot of fun. Plus, it has Chicago. This is, I think, my new favorite game. The dubious thematic material is somewhat unfortunate, but, just as with Wipeout, I am having trouble resisting. I also have Driver, and in that game one of the cities is San Francisco. Since Chicago and San Francisco are basically the only two cities I think it would be interesting to drive in (sorry, Indianapolis), I was pretty much set there. If they had thrown in Amman, Jordan, I would have been really psyched. I do get Havana and Rio in Driver 2, though. [By the way, if Driver 2 had a more realistic physics model and more detailed cars, it would be pretty much exactly what I would have hoped for from the Test Drive 2 sequels. Alas, neither Driver 2 nor Test Drive (at least 4 anyway) quite make it.]

I tried Descent Maximum, but the controls are very hard to use - really need a keyboard for Descent. I need to try the Colony Wars games (space combat simulators), they looked good. Also need to try Ridge Racer.

My other great discovery here has been Colin Macrae Rally. This is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. Straight racing (no weapons...), but interesting tracks, none of this NASCAR stuff. Among other things, it has tracks on snow in Monaco and it has tracks in Greece, which looked a lot like Jordan (both Meditteranean, so not surprising) except with more grass and rocks, which was cool. I was happy when I raced that.

I also have been playing some PC games that are even mroe dubious, I finally tried Descent 3. Not as exciting as Descent 2, but it is ok. I probably won't play very much of it though; it didn't really hold my interest. I tried Ultima Underworld, very old but very cool, but my video is way too dark to see anything, unfortunately. I also finally played Age of Wonders; somewhat disappointingly boring. I wanted to play POD, but it hates my computer. I also considered playing Alpha Centauri, Civilization 2, or Colonization, but, I decided not yet. Most of all, I wanted to play the Baldur's Gate 2 expansion Throne of Bhaal. Okay, so a violent RPG in a fantasy world influenced by all kinds of pagan ideas - we have really strayed frmo the kind of games I have played in the last couple years. I wanted to sit down and play an RPG for a while though, just to refresh my memory of the experience (and the rule hacking - I will have the ultimate party of six!). I don't really intend to play very far in, though. I got bored with this game before, as I recall.

So, there is a record of my unproductivity. I suspect in a couple weeks, I may feel guilty about all these violent video games. I will let you all know...

02:11:42 - Technology - ben - No comments

February 05, 2005

Solaris 10 Out - And Soon To Be Open

by ben

Solaris 10 is out, and available for free download. Even bigger news is that while Sun still hasn't released the source code, they have already created a web site for releasing code and released a small part of the code, a component called DTrace. They claim they are planning on getting the rest of the source out by the second quarter of this year.

The license DTrace is released under is called the Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL) 1.0. Groklaw did an analysis of a propsed version of the license in December. More recently, they expressed some doubts about the patent-licensing in the license. The license seems to be okay, with some problems. It requries source release, so it is more GPL-like than BSD-like. Most notably, it is still - as are many open-source licenses - not GPL-compatible, which will limit the amount of code feedback between the soon-to-be Solaris community and the Linux and GNU community. This is unfortunate, but, I suppose, to be expected.

So in the near future, we will have Linux (or GNU/Linux, whatever), FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, and Solaris, plus Darwin - which is also a significant part of OS X. That leaves part of OS X and Windows as the only major proprietary OSes. The world is changing. (Of course, Sun can by with this since the are primarily a hardware company, unlike Microsoft, which will probably resist to the end since if Windows becomes free they lose a significant portion of their value. Would that I could convinve them they should shift from a software company to something more generally useful...)

(And, by the way, after having done some reading about it, that DTrace thing sounds kind of cool on its own, though I am not a systems administrator, so what do I know. One sample use of it is a neat little thing called psio that uses DTrace to break down I/O by process so you can see what process is abusing the disks - sort of like top for I/O. Wish I had that on the Mac... I am sure there must be some sort of way to do this without having to use Sun-only tricks, but I don't know what it is.)

23:19:10 - Technology - ben - No comments

December 21, 2004

Blizzard is Evil

by ben

I was just reading the license agreement for the OS X Starcraft Installer, and... It turns out the license prohibits tunneling! In other words, you want to play, you have to play on Blizzard.NET.

This is, I think, one of the top three most ridiculous things I have seen in a license agreement (I have forgotten the other two... except I think I remember a license for an early spyware program that was supposed to give them the right to collect just about any data and reuse it - yeah, let me just click okay here...). I think it is repressive, and downright silly. In other words, twenty years from now, when Blizzard is shut down, none of us will be reminiscing about how great Starcraft was and pulling it out to play (like we do with, say, Combat, which is actually slightly older than 20 right now) because we won't be able to play it properly. Well, we will, but only if sitting on the same local network, which is much more restrictive than playing it wherever we want, as we do with every other networked game now. Not that there would be any technical restriction, that is the whole point of using the tunneling - we can get around even old dumb games networking code, like, say, our beloved Warcraft.

Way to step back in time, Blizzard. It's a shame Blizzard has turned out to be such an obnoxious company (this isn't the first time they've done something stupid and mean), because they are certainly excellent game designers. But eventually, bad business practice will catch up with you. Gamers won't put up with idiocy forever.

(I have to wonder how enforceable this clause is, but I assume completely. I mean, you know what you are getting into, right? I have to say though, I probably wouldn't have bought yet another copy of Starcraft if I had known playing it on Mac OS X would have involved seeling my gaming soul. Which makes me annoyed about licensing agreements in general. I havce always been against them, but the as they become even more idiotic, I am beginning to hate them even more, if that is even possible. You have no idea how much I appreciate open source software with a sane license at this very moment [er, I wasn't thinking of GPL-licensed software when I said "sane," though I admit it has its advantages].)

04:44:03 - Technology - ben - No comments

December 09, 2004

Fun with Emacs

by ben

Okay, my day has been made... I just found out two really useful things you can do in Emacs:

Having smooth scrolling has just made my life so much easier.

[Update: Why on earth does that article suggest a value of 2? Two works, but set it to 1 for much better effect. I noted at the time that was an odd value, but I assumed there was some reason for it - though apparently there isn't.]

[Okay, so I have been having trouble at least on Mac OS X with it set to 1. Beats me. Anyway, you may experiment, I guess. Or look it up. I will eventually....]

13:11:33 - Technology - ben - No comments

December 07, 2004

The New Christian Challenge Blog

by ben

Well, I finally got the new blog for Jon at Christian Challenge up. In the end I did end up using Wordpress. It was a close call, as both provide pretty much identical functionality. I have the feel for Nucleus down much better, I admit. Wordpress had three advantages, though: (1) out of the box it was (narrowly) closer in functionality and compatibility to what we needed (e.g. XHTML without chaning one thing), (2) it (as far as I can tell right now) cooperates with our established PHP includes, and (3) it has a much simpler intial setup, which meant I was able to get it working with our site much faster. As it is I actually don't have either one integrated right now, but it will be much simpler to get the Wordpress one fixed (I am pretty close). Mostly it was chance I had Wordpress up first. By the way, Nucleus does have a few things going for it: It has a much simpler page layout that lends itself to better integration with an existing design, and its functions return strings instead of printing out text - much easier to combine with an existing page, except for the whole lack of PHP integration. It is a shame that the initial design is so complicated - it isn't necessary. But I had to change a lot of HTML to get it to where I needed, and I had to change both "skins" and "templates." The split functionality of the two has some advantages, but it has a high cost for intial setup if you don't accept a default skin and template. Next step is to make the blog fit in with the rest of the site, instead of having a completely different appearance.

23:06:29 - Technology - ben - No comments

November 14, 2004

Technology Gone Bad

by ben

One thing our culture frequently loses sight of is the fact that technology applied unthinkingly is... well, useless. The whole idea of technology is to facilitate, not to be a slave to it for its own sake (that's what art is for). Many have seen this already, but my favorite example of technology gone bad (or rather human use of technology gone bad), is Peter Norvig's PowerPoint version of the Gettysburg address. Many more things could be said, have been said, and probably will be said (by me that is) about PowerPoint, but I think this is the most biting critique of all misuses of technology, PowerPoint or otherwise. (I am currently discussing the content of the Gettysburg address with Justin. It is kind of scary in and of itself, but that is another story. War stinks, folks; no avoiding that fact, and all motivational speeches aside.)

23:48:55 - Technology - ben - No comments

October 26, 2004

The Ultimate Laptop

by ben

I want a Panasonic Toughbook. Note the 6.5 hour battery life. (By the way, surely a Powerbook is the next best thing to a specially outfitted laptop. But it definitely won't operate in the rain.)

05:44:54 - Technology - ben - No comments

October 24, 2004

More Problems With Browsers

by ben

I was reminded today about this, and, for the sake of completeness, I thought I should report this. Slashdot had a post about the instabilities of browsers given badly formed HTML. Basically, most browsers tested had problems, but Internet Explorer didn't crash on the test. For the record, I think Michal Zalewski may be overstating the case regarding the quality of the "core code" as he calls it. And my bet would be on bugs getting fixed faster in the "alternative browsers" (especially Mozilla - though, as they only release milestone builds so often, it's true most people would not get the fix right away). This is not per se a security problem, either, so in terms of exploitability this doesn't say too much against the other browsers. But it does point to the fact that there probably needs to be better and more methodological testing.

[Actually, I take some of that back. Some of this may be exploitable. I need to avoid commenting about things I read a couple days ago... Not to mention on topics I am not expert it...]

[And an update in which IE does finally crash. So... They all crash on bad HTML. Kind of sad, but typical. Well, at least it's universal. You may now choose the lesser of x evils.]

[Yet another update: It occurred to me that with Windows update, IE can get patched faster. In my experience the code doesn't get fixed as fast though, but it will probably get released sooner to the average user.]

[Yet one final update, I hope: One of the Mozilla developers had a blog entry about this. He has a good, no great point regarding the overyly-enthusiastic, under-informed opinions some of us users have occasionally been known to indulge in. (In substance, by the way, IE is "less secure" as far as we know at the moment, at least as far as I understand the situation, but that could change at any time.) He also displays some frustration, in my interpretaiton regarding the security issue. Hopefully this will lead to some changes.]

03:09:02 - Technology - ben - No comments

October 15, 2004

Some Neat Unix Command Line Tricks

by ben

These should be relatively easy to modify to your own purposes. Confused? Remember, man is your friend (e.g. try man wc). Note however that the man page on xargs is fairly incomplete on most systems I have checked on. That's ok though, because Google is your friend too.

07:33:11 - Technology - ben - No comments

October 13, 2004


by ben
1. [noun] (computer science) the result of using an object oriented paradigm
11:35:03 - Technology - ben - No comments

September 20, 2004

Low Powered Computing

by ben

I would like to put together a network of some really old technology. Good technology (286s are icky compared to 386s, even though they are weaker) but weak technology. I am thinking nothing more powerful than a 386. I would like to put some old 16 bits on it, like an Amiga 500 or 600, or maybe a 2000. I would definitely like some 8 bit systems: e.g. an updated Commodore 64, or maybe on of the newer 8 bit systems. Maybe make an old PDA a server or something - that one would be really twisted. It has to be actually networked, so the C64, for example, would have to be running an "advanced OS," not the 64 ROM, but such things do exist. Maybe throw some really old Unix-type systems on there, like an old Sun, or something. Something on it has to have NetBSD. I think it would be fun, and it would be an interesting experiment. Most of all, I would like to see how useful it could actually be for end users. What do you really need to be productive? (Of course, we could answer that question by putting together a bunch of NetBSD machines in concole mode, but that is too mainstream.)

15:30:25 - Technology - ben - No comments

August 22, 2004

Twentieth Century Web Technology

by ben

Users need to understand that Internet Explorer is dead and obsolete software. Disclaimer: Microsoft is making security updates for it. But, for everything else, Microsoft has said repeatedly, no updates until the release of Longhorn, which is still months or years out. Meanwhile, Internet Explorer is using years-old (dating to the late nineties in some cases, I believe) technology for the most part. There are many things the average user is unaware of, such as transparency for PNGs (don't worry about it, except to know it drastically holds back web designers, and is technology that is here today). There are workarounds, but, still, it is unnecessary extra work that only works in some cases (e.g. I wanted to use transparent PNG as a background; as far as I know, that cannot be done in IE). And there are so many other things broken in IE in it CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) support, it isn't even funny. I don't mean just outdated, though it definitely is, i mean broken.

Just to make it clear: If you are using IE, you may be missing out, except for some silly pages that insist of cutting off their own right arms to look better on IE. Even more important, IE is holding back the web. Let IE die! There are better (free!) alternatives anyone can download and use. There is no reason to be using outdated IE in any but special situations. My apologies to anyone at MS who does care, but you know it is true, too, I hope. Hopefully, MS will wake up and fix this. In the meantime, users, do the world a favor and enter the twenty-first century.

09:54:55 - Technology - ben - No comments

July 09, 2004

Even Mozilla has Problems! Noooo!

by ben

Mozilla turns out to have a fairly serious bug for the Windows version... eWeek has an article on the problem. (News from, dare I say it, Slashdot.)

00:25:52 - Technology - ben - No comments

July 03, 2004

NetBSD Ported to Analytical Engine

by ben

Today, it was announced that a NetBSD volunteer had successfully ported NetBSD to an Analytical Engine emulator...

(And, no, I am not serious. Somebody should try this, though...)

12:24:53 - Technology - ben - 1 comment

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