Archive for June, 2008

Taking amateur radio to the next level

Monday, June 30th, 2008

This weekend was pretty awesome. Saturday was jam-packed with ham radio activities, from morning until midnight (and beyond). That’s right, an entire day of ham radio! I started off by installing the 17-foot antenna I bought awhile back on top of our house. That took a good four to five hours, many of them spent on top of a burning-hot roof forty feet in the air. But it was worth it! Here’s a close-up look at the antenna.

Don’t be fooled by the upwards-looking perspective; this antenna is a full 17′ tall. The mount also adds about two feet to the overall height. Altogether, the antenna is about 30′ in the air. That’s not bad considering we didn’t have to put up a tower or anything. The three spokes sticking out of the bottom of the antenna are the radials, which create the ground plane for the radio signals. And I should point out that this antenna is a marked improvement over my previous antenna, which was a 44-incher at ground level.

The two flanges of the mount are located off-center on the pressure-treated wood blocks. This was not intentional, but rather, a consequence of bad measurement and trying to get the darn thing straight up in the air. But don’t let its looks fool you: the mount itself is rock-solid. You could throw a grappling hook through the mount and ascend to the roof from the ground. Each wooden block is secured with four 4.5″ bolts to blocks of wood on the interior of the house that are screwed directly into the house’s frame.

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Wherein my computer joins a Stand Alone Complex

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

A year ago, Drinian was in Akihabara, Japan and he happened to pick up some Laughing Man stickers. He didn’t end up using most of them though, and he figured I would get more enjoyment of them than he would, so he gave them to me. I highly suspect that he was correct, because I’m having a blast with them. Unfortunately I only have three left, so I have to start rationing them carefully, but here’s what I did with one of them.

I bought a new computer recently that has been serving as my primary GNU/Linux desktop for the past few weeks. I initially wanted to build a computer from parts, because there’s a huge hackerish appeal to it (and because it’s usually cheaper), but then I came upon a fantastic deal on a Dell small business computer that I couldn’t turn down. But it just left the hardware nerd in me a little bit unsatisfied. It’s just another Dell box; it’s totally blah. Hell, it even came with Windows Vista stickers on it (which I have since removed); yecch! Laughing Man sticker to the rescue!

Luckily, the Laughing Man sticker was just the perfect size to fit directly on top of the Dell logo. My computer has gone from corporate to geeky. It’s gone from slaving away on mundane tasks to joining a Stand Alone Complex and fighting in the guerrilla Free Software movement against Big Proprietary Software. Err, something like that. So thank you Drinian for the stickers!

Now if only I could replenish my supply of Laughing Man stickers without having to cross over eleven time zones.

Death in the digital age?

Saturday, June 28th, 2008

My great-aunt died over three months ago, yet a week hasn’t gone by yet where we haven’t gotten some piece of mail addressed to her. How does death work in the digital age, anyway? Are you not truly gone until you are expunged from that one last database, after that final robotically-processed letter has been sent out?

Death has become quite the lingering affair.

What, a techie worry about inflation? Never!

Friday, June 27th, 2008

I’ve been thinking about my expenses over time, and not only am I now spending less in real terms (adjusted for inflation), I am now spending less in absolute terms (raw dollar amounts at the time of purchase). Here are some examples. I bought a 20″ flat-screen display for my computer three and a half years ago for $700. I could get the same thing nowadays for $200. I spent around ~$1400 total on a new computer back in January 2007
, versus the ~$500 total I spent on a new computer this month that is better than the previous one in almost every way. And I haven’t bought a flat-panel television, a digital camera, or a mobile phone recently, but I may soon, each of which is now cheaper than ever before. Technology expenditures make up a substantial portion of my budget, so when the price of technology continues dropping year over year, I notice a big difference in how much money I’m saving up.

In the developing world, or amongst those living below the poverty line in developed nations, inflation has not been kind. Cost of living increases have been especially vicious, doubling the price of many basic food staples in the past year alone. Gasoline price increases have also dealt a cruel blow. Yet few increases have hit me very hard: my food expenditures are still a comparatively tiny part of my income, health care increases don’t affect me much because I’m young and I get free insurance through my employer, etc. The one increase that hasn’t been kind to me has been the price of gasoline, as I do commute to work regularly. But the price in gasoline has still been offset by all of the money I’m saving on gadgets.

Take an average 5% cost of living increase year-over-year (if ones income is also increasing at 5% a year, then ones real wage remains constant). Then look at Moore’s Law, which specifically addresses the increase of transistor density on microprocessors over time, but which can also be applied to the cost of technology of equivalent performance over time. Moore’s Law gives us a doubling in performance every two years, or equivalently, a halving in price for the same performance every two years. That’s a 30% annual cost of technology decrease for equivalent performance.

If you’re trying to stay on top of the latest and greatest in computer technology, then yes, costs haven’t decreased over time; a top of the line graphics card or processor will always be expensive. This is because the performance of computer components is increasing with Moore’s Law (thus canceling out the exponential price decreases), so the tiers remain roughly equivalently priced over time. But what was the high-end tier two years ago is now the low-end tier today. Most consumers’ technology needs do not grow exponentially like the technology itself does.

If all you’re doing is word processing, web browsing, and email, you don’t need to keep up with the latest and greatest hardware like gamers do, so a computer with basic functionality is much cheaper now than it was before. Many other consumer electronics items follow this basic curve as well: quality digital cameras are far cheaper than they’ve ever been; the same for big screen flat-panel televisions. You can get a 50″ flat-panel television for $1,500 now; two years ago, it was around $5,000. All hail rapidly decreasing costs of technology!

So if you’re a techie like I am, and you do spend a significant portion of your income on technological gadgets, do not fear the passage of time: relish it! Even though our economy is really tanking at the moment, I can’t be too sad about it. The march of technological progress continues ever onwards, bringing us ever more amazing things at ever-decreasing prices. The effects of time are hitting lots of people really hard as the prices of most basic needs grow much more quickly than real wages, but not everyone is suffering.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

So, Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition has been out for a little while now. Has anyone here gotten a chance to play it yet? If so, what’d you think about it?

I’ve never actually played D&D in person. It makes me feel like I’m missing out on an essential part of my geek heritage. Even worse, most people I know have played D&D, even the ones who are now considerably less geeky than me.

How to fix images not displaying in Microsoft Word 2007

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

Recently I’ve been hit by a bug (or what I thought was a bug) in Microsoft Word 2007: images embedded in the document did not display in any mode other than “Full Screen Reading”. And since the editing ribbons are not available in that mode, it’s hard to get work done. This all started when Word crashed on me one time; ever since then, images simply haven’t been displaying correctly. I get a border where the image should be and white space inside. But when I send the file to other people and they open it, they can view the images just fine. I can even add images to documents; I just can’t see them.

So I performed a Google search on this issue, but the only relevant “solution” was behind a paywall over at ExpertSexchange. After a few minutes of trying to figure it out on my own, I stumbled upon the solution, and to save everyone from the hell that is ExpertSexchange, here it is:

Click the Office Button (it’s in the upper left corner of Word), select “Word Options”, select “Advanced” in the left pane, scroll down to the “Show document content” subsection, and uncheck the “Show picture placeholders” option. Yes, it’s that simple. Somehow, when Word crashes, this option can get turned on all by itself. It’s really annoying because there’s no clue that Word is intentionally hiding images from you; it just feels like a bug. And the reason for this insane option?

Word 2007 Options dialog

That’s right, it’s for performance. And it improves performance only at the expense of severely crippling usability. You’d think this option should never be able to get turned on accidentally, yet there it is. At least you know the solution now.

In search of stream-based desktop metaphors

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

I just ran across an excellent article comparing two competing desktop worldviews, documents and streams. The author argues that everything in our desktop environments is set up to support a document-based metaphor, when actually what is more relevant to the majority of our work these days is streams. He makes a very persuasive argument:

The prevailing UI paradigm today is built around the notion of document authoring. It expects that the main thing you do is create spreadsheets, word documents, presentations, and so on. There is a task bar to remind you of what documents you’re editing, there is cross-application cut and paste so you can put pieces of one document into another. You can place documents on your desktop surface itself, so you can organize your work. You can define which applications to use for which types of docs. You can set up a default printer to put your documents to hard copy. You can set up system-wide fonts to use in documents. You can put icons to apps and even documents onto your panel. And on and on. [...]

Really, what I mostly do today is stream management. And I suspect this is true for the vast majority of people. I don’t deal with writing documents, but with changes to documents. I put comments onto things. I slap patches onto things. I tweak the states of things. Once in a rare while I may author a completely new thingee, but even there I usually end up working with it as a stream of changes that I build up over time (and usually in collaboration with a few other people who stream changes to me).

I’m sold.

The problem is, our virtual desktops (and pretty much all OSes fail equally at this) do not support stream-centric interfaces to data. I can create discrete files just fine, even organize them into nice little directories, but what about my precious streams? I’m talking about my constantly updating server logs, the weather, stocks quotes, news, emails, instant messages, IRC messages, downloads, and more. Everything is handled separately and discordantly.

I can use an ugly hackish little program that outputs system log tails directly to my desktop. I have a Firefox plugin that tells me the current weather and a couple days’ forecasts. My investing service offers a streaming stock quote desktop application, but it only runs on Windows. Mozilla Thunderbird and Azureus pop up email notices and download completion notices, respectively. Instant messages are handled by Pidgin while incoming IRC messages are handled by X-Chat, both of which blink in my taskbar. As for the news — I can use a KDE plugin called Knewsticker that snarfs up RSS feeds. And I haven’t yet found a good way to track, say, SVN commits to the pyWikipediaBot project, so I’m stuck with getting a new email on every commit. Brilliant.

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The most embarrassing moment of my life

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

It is with a surprisingly still-visceral sense of utter shame and vermilion embarrassment that I report one particularly memorable occurrence from childhood: the most embarrassing moment of my life.

I was in a “Gifted and Talented” program at Cold Spring Elementary School in Potomac, Maryland. For one of our fourth grade field trips, we Magnet students piled into a school bus and headed over to beautiful Sandy Point State Park along the Chesapeake Bay. I vaguely recall that we were supposed to be learning about ecology. In particular, and I remember this vividly because it would soon become an integral part of my most embarrassing moment ever, we had all worn swimsuits earlier in the day while mucking about on the beach and in the Bay. When the day came to a close, we were all supposed to change out of our still-wet swimsuits, board the bus, and go back to the school.

However, I was not paying attention at all when the teacher was giving the finer instructions on this point. I was, and I still remember this clearly because the whole incident is seared into my memory, fantasizing about rocket ships. Had I not been occupied with daydreams of fantastic voyages to alien worlds, I would have heard the teacher’s instructions that all of the girls were to go change behind the school bus (which was parked alongside the road) and that all of the boys were to go change somewhere else. To this day I do not know exactly where we boys were supposed to change, but that I know exactly where the girls were supposed to change may foreshadow how this story will draw to a close.

After my teacher Ms. Sesler (who later married and became Mrs. Unger, though this is not strictly relevant) finished with the changing instructions and everyone started to disperse, I, having not heard any of it, ended up where I thought was the most logical place to change: in the restroom. It still haunts me to this day that I didn’t just follow the rest of the boys. By the time I finished changing and exited the restroom, I didn’t see anyone else. Thinking that everyone had probably already finished changing (as I had also, uh, “used the facilities”, and thus taken awhile), I headed in the only logical direction: to the bus. As I drew closer I saw several pairs of feet underneath the corner of the bus. Thus, relieved that I had located the rest of my peers, I cheerily asked “Hey guys, what’s up?” as I rounded the corner.

What followed next was the sound of roughly thirty nine-year-old girls in various stages of undress shrieking at the tops of their lungs — including the girl nearest me as I turned the corner who was one of my two best friends and who I had had a vicious crush on. I was instantly horrified at the thought that they would all think I was some kind of perverted Peeping Tom. This was followed shortly by one of the parent chaperones chasing me down across the road, screaming at me as I fled in horror. She was the hot mom of the class too, and was always involved in PTA events. I will admit to having a schoolboy crush on her as well, so this made it all the more traumatic.

Then, after things calmed down somewhat, Ms. Sesler came out and started yelling at me. Much to her credit, she quickly realized how shocked and disoriented I was, and that I hadn’t done it on purpose. She said she would “figure out my punishment later”.

But the worst was far from over, because, as you see, we had arrived by bus, and we had to leave by bus. What I really wanted to do was to go crawl into a hole somewhere and die, but instead, I had to get back on the bus with every student in our class — including all of the girls who I had just seen naked (in their minds anyway; in reality it all happened so quickly and there was so much going on that I didn’t even see a damned thing for all my troubles). The bus ride was an hour long.

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How to learn Morse code in GNU/Linux

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

I know what you’re thinking — as if GNU/Linux and ham radio couldn’t possibly be nerdy enough when separate, let’s put them together! But let’s take a step back …

I started getting involved with ham radio just three months ago with VHF/UHF voice FM, and already I’m hungering for more. I don’t have an HF rig yet, and might actually not have one for awhile, but since I know it’s something I’ll want to do eventually, I figure I should just start learning Morse code now. As for why I want to learn Morse code, I couldn’t exactly tell you — there’s just a certain romance to it, and pounding away on a key is such a delightfully different method of communicating than just speaking into a microphone. But ignoring why I want to learn it, here’s how I’m going about doing it, in GNU/Linux no less.

Learning Morse code on the computer is actually harder than it should be. I couldn’t find any Flash or Java applets that do something as simple as generate Morse code. Seriously. I found some really old Java applets that no longer function in current JDKs, but they don’t count. I found lots of DOS programs, many of which are pushing two decades old, but I wasn’t having much luck with them even under Windows. And since I’m running GNU/Linux as my primary desktop now, these programs weren’t helpful at all. Luckily, there’s a simple up-to-date command-line utility for GNU/Linux that does all the basics with a minimum of fuss.

First, you’ll want the morse program. In Ubuntu or Debian GNU/Linux, you can do the following:

sudo apt-get install morse

If you’re not using Ubuntu or Debian, you should be able to find it using the package manager in your distro of choice.

Now, learning Morse is as simple as passing in the right command-line parameters to morse. Here’s what I’ve started with:

morse -rC 'ETAOINSHRDLU' -w 5 -Ts

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Obama opens up 15 point lead over McCain

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

Hell yeah! Obama has opened up a 15 point lead over McCain. And hopefully, the lead will only grow larger over time. After eight disastrous years under George W. Bush, and now one candidate who represents a continuation of those policies versus one who does not, it’s pretty obvious what the American people prefer. We don’t want war against Iraq, we don’t want war against Iran, we don’t want continued violation of our civil liberties — we want change. Change that John McCain couldn’t possibly deliver.