Sunday, October 18, 2009

Android Phone Home

Getting Started

As some of you know, I've been playing with a new toy.

Android is a new operating system from Google. It's designed for cell phones and other small computers. I've been learning to program it.

For the first couple of months I was mostly working with the Android Software Development Kit (SDK) and the Android emulator. With the emulator you can write and test Android applications (Aps) from the comfort of your computer. As learning Android is like drinking from a fire hose, I wasn't going to invest any money on hardware until I knew I could get something done with it.

I'm at the stage now where I can generate simple programs and I have some definite ideas where to go, so I decided to bite the bullet and buy an Android developer phone.

I ordered my phone and a very few days it showed up. Good job Google!

I fired it up. It munches away for a few seconds, then it tells me "No SIM" and just sits there. Wha?

I know what a SIM is. It's a Subscriber Identity Module, which is a little piece of plastic that modern cell phones use to keep track of who you are. Take a SIM out of one phone and put it into another, and the new phone now has the old phone's number. Neat huh?

I'm using this as a development platform. I don't want to use it to make calls, so I don't need a SIM for it, right? I'm sure that Google has provided an easy work around for this. I'll just check the Internet tubes and find it. Oy! 2 days later I had real access to my phone.

The rest of this blog is designed to save the next poor swine the aggravation I went through in registering my phone.

After checking around I found out that Google not only wants you to have a SIM card, but you also need a data plan on that SIM card! I don't want a data plan, I don't need a data plan, And, at the rate the phone company rapes at, I can't afford a data plan!

Then it just gets silly. You only need the data plan for about 5 minutes, just long enough to connect to Google and register your phone. After that you can chuck it out the window. Oh, did I mention that the phone has WiFi?

You need a data plan to register a phone to get to the WiFi, which you could use, if you could get to it, to register your phone! You're killing me Google. Your just killing me.

Fortunately, if you have a regular SIM card (say from your current phone) and you're already running the Android SDK then it's not too hard to fire up WiFi on your phone and bypass the data plan requirement.

Away We Go!

First we'll get your Linux box to see the phone via the USB cable. I'm running CentOS 5, which is like Red Hat 5. There are other guides out there for Windows and Ubuntu. This guide is for CentOS.

First install the Android SDK on your system. Look around on the Internet for instructions. You don't need everything under the sun, but you do need the "adb" (Android Debug Bridge) command.

Plug your USB cable into your computer and your phone.

Open a root shell on your computer.

After a couple of seconds type "lsusb". You should see a list of the devices attached via USB to your computer. Somewhere in the list should be an entry for "High Tech Computer Corp." "High Tech Computer" is HTC. HTC makes your phone. If you see it then you know that USB is up and running and can see your phone.

The next question is does it see it as a phone or just a very expensive jump drive?

Type "adb devices". If you see an entry that begins with "HT" followed by a bunch of characters and the word "device", then skip to the next section. If adb can't see your phone, then we need to tweak the USB daemon so that it does.

This part took me a long time to get working. Apparently CentOS is using an older version of udevd, which is the program that scans the computer looking for new USB toys being plugged in.

Go in to /etc/udev/rules.d and look for a file named something like "90-android.rules". The leading number varies. It probably isn't there. No problem. You need to create/edit it until it looks like this. Make sure it has the same permissions as the other files in the directory.

# This file lets Linux recognise my Android Developer Phone in
# a way that the adb command can handle.
# Uncomment one of the lines below and run:
# udevcontrol reload_rules
# adb devices
# If it lists your phone, you're done. If not comment out the
# current line, uncomment the next line and run udevcontrol again.
# The 3rd line (usb_device) was the charm for me.
SUBSYSTEM=="usb", ATTR{idVendor}=="0bb4", MODE="0666"
# SUBSYSTEM=="usb", SYSFS{idVendor}=="0bb4", MODE="0666"
# SUBSYSTEM=="usb_device", SYSFS{idVendor}=="0bb4", MODE="0666"

Follow the instructions in "90-android.rules" and you should end up with a visible Android phone.

Connecting to the Phone

From the command line type: adb shell

After a moment or two you should get a "$" prompt. This means that you're in the phone talking as a regular user.

Type "su".

If the prompt changes from "$" to "#", then you're in as root.

Type "exit" to return to a regular user.

Bypassing the SIM check

There are two ways to do this:

The first, and easiest, is to plug in a SIM card. It doesn't matter that it doesn't have a data plan. This is just to get past the check.

The second, and I haven't tried this myself, is to fool the phone into thinking it passed the check. Check out for instructions.

Note, for the second technique, if you have a developer phone then you don't need to root break it. Just type "su" at the adb shell prompt and you're root.

Registering with out the Data Plan

At this point your phone should be at the registration screen.

From adb, as a regular user, type:

am start -a android.intent.action.MAIN -n

In a couple of seconds the "settings" screen should pop up on your phone.

Set up your WiFi and hit the back arrow. You're back at the registration, which you can now do via WiFi.

If for some reason the settings screen doesn't pop up, try

setprop persist.service.adb.enable 1

and then try the settings command again.

Once you're registered you may want to go to the Android market place and pull down an ap called "APNdroid". It screws with the data plan APN so that your phone can't connect no matter how hard it tries. Bite me AT&T.

Using your Phone as a Jump Drive

One last thing, did you notice that your computer can see your phone as a jump drive but can't access it? That's easy to fix.

When you plug in your phone via USB, you'll notice a little USB forky type icon shows up in the upper left hand of the phone screen. This is the notification area. Pull it down with your finger. Click on the USB notification and then click on "mount". You're good to go!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Spanking Dawkins's Weasel

One of the problems with learning a new programming language is coming up with interesting "beginner" programs. Most beginning programs do something exciting like printing out "Howdy, Howdy, Howdy, Joe". Heart stopping stuff ain't it?

To ease this a bit, whenever I come up with an interesting idea for a beginner program, I'll write it up and you can give it a shot.

My hands down favorite simple program is something called Dawkins's Weasel.

Richard Dawkins is a evolutionary biologist from Oxford. He wanted to come up with a program to show the difference between a random mutation and a random mutation with selection. The result is a simple, straight forward program called "Dawkins's Weasel".

Note: Whenever I say "letter" below, I mean letters and/or spaces. Saying letter and/or space all over the place makes for a tedious read.

First we start with a target sentence, which we'll call "Target". This is what all good little sentences want to be when they grow up. Dawkins used "methinks it is like a weasel" and so will we.

Next we create a parent sentence called "Parent". This is a gibberish sentence of random letters that is the same length as Target. "y ksqmjwepqtgtyylmfexstvktpa" will work, as will "aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa".

Our goal is going to be to evolve Parent into Target.

Parent will produce a litter of children. The fittest of the litter will then become the next parent. This continues until we produce a Parent that equals Target. It's survival of the fittest and all that jazz.

Unfortunately the sex life of a sentence is pretty dull. The way a sentence has a baby sentence is by copying itself and then changing a single letter at random. Not exactly the stuff of pornos. We'll call the baby sentence "Child".

As for who's the fittest? We'll use something simple. We'll count the number of letters in Child that match Target. For example, the sentence "aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa" would score a 2. "methinks it is like a measel" would score 27. If there is more than one pick of the litter, choose one. It doesn't matter how.

That's pretty much it. The only real variable you get to play with is the size of the litter. If you start with a litter of 50 then you tend to finish in less that 100 generations. Once you get the code working, starting dialing playing with the litter size to see how it effects the generation count.

I'll try to keep my eye out for other interesting algorithms worthy of posting. If you know of any that are fun, the add a comment.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Back to (Paranoia) High School

Whelp, I'm back from vacation and all in one piece. I'm a bit shell shocked, but all in all it was a good time.

I'm not one of those people who really gos on vacation. I more survive them. My home life is driven from project to project so when I hit a vacation that I can't spend in front of the computer I'm kind of at a loss.

However, my dearly beloved explained to me that my mother in-law put a lot of work into setting up this vacation, so my other option was to be in kind of a wheelchair, so vacate I did.

The big problem was, we vacated to a dead zone. No phones, no lights no motorcars, and no Internet. That means no real way to do any writing.

I hate writing with a pen. My hand writing is a scrawl and it's sooo slow! And once I'm back amongst the living, I have to transcribe it back into the computer.

With writing on mashed up trees as a failure, I tried using a small laptop. That kind of dominates the landscape and emphasized how much I'm ignoring my family. Not smart for this wheelchair phobic. I needed something sneaker.

How about my phone? It's got a 2 gig chip, supports text messaging and can hide in my hand. Could I use that?

Nope! My phone does allow memos, but they have to be less than 100 characters. Let me repeat that. My crappy phone, with 2 gig available, won't even let you save a memo as long as a Twitter "tweet"! Thrilling.

I know! I could use it as a voice recorder! Yea, I could do that. When I write I tend to talk out what I'm writing anyway. I'll just talk into my phone and record everything!

Unfortunately, with my current phone I have to shout to be heard. Every time inspiration hit, my in-laws would hear me shouting to my invisible friend who hides in my hand.

Now my in-laws think I'm nuts.

I can live with that, but I also got to play with writer's block. Such fun.

Actually, it a weird sort of way I don't mind writer's block. At least I don't mind having it once I've overcome it. It's kind of like the old saw about smacking yourself with a hammer because it feels so good once you stop. I sorta go through that.

As you may or may not know, I used to write for a comic strip called "Paranoia High" (Check it out.) It was a lot of fun and Dave (the artist) is a friend of mine.

After a while Dave took over the writing and I went on to fame as a geek blogger on them Internet tubes.

To make a long story short, we fade the mics and queue the organ and it's a year or so later and I'm back to writing the strip. Huzzah! The only problem is, can I still write the strip? Not May I, Can I?

Ya see, when Dave consolidated the strip, I gave him a list of the ideas I had at the time. No big deal, I have the list around somewhere and Dave has it too. But old ideas aren't enough. Can I come up with new ones?

I could feel the tightening grip of initial dread. What if my last creative idea was really my LAST CREATIVE IDEA!?!? You civilians don't savvy the pain we creative types go through when we birth forth art and stuff.

How can I explain it? It's like Paris Hilton waking up and finding out her butt has run off and joined the Peace Corps. No tush? No job! Writing is like that, except Paris's butt is our ideas.

Hopefully that image will help you develop an appreciation for the written word.

That analogy would have worked much better if it were a breast joke, but I couldn't think of any famous current women who are know for their big racks. Maybe Micheal Jackson, but he's dead.

Ms Proust is know for her rack, but she's a character in "Paranoia High". You really should check it out. (Note the reoccurring motif, that's the art baby!)

So I started running through ideas. Film strips? I think that's from the old list. Standardized tests? Nope, the old list. How about exploding frogs? Damn! School Principal Mike Ducacus? Whoa! Wrong decade!

It was looking pretty bleak for new strips, but I stayed with it. Football? Feral students? Sentient lunch meat? Damn! Damn! Damn! How about Hall Monitors?

Hall Monitors? Not on the old list. Hmm. Uniforms, Tazers, RoboCop, Juntas? Yea. Add "Hall Monitor" to the new list.

After that things started to roll. Walmart vs the school store? New! Texting NORAD? Brand spanking new! "Shakespeare: The Musical!" Oh yea baby. We're back in action!

Why are the in-laws looking at me?

Oh yea, I'm shouting at my fist.

They really think I'm nuts.

I gotta get a new phone.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Window In The Ghetto.

One of the more baffling elements of Linux distributions is their constant relegation of scripting languages to the command line ghetto.

On one side you have the all the wowwie zowie windowy programs, most of which are written, for no good technical reason, in C. On the other hand you have thousands of useful Perl/Python/Java programs that rarely get used because they have command line interfaces.

If we really want to harness the power of Gnome, then we need to make it easier to write Gnome programs in the most popular languages that Gnome supports. These languages are scripting languages.

Scripting exclusively for the command line almost made sense 10 years ago. Old versions of scripting languages didn't really interface well with the Graphic User Interface (GUI) and Text User Interface (TUI) libraries. You often had to have completely separate interpreters for GUI and non GUI interfaces. Anyone remember perlx?

Now days that's bunk. Perl, Python and Java all have officially supported interfaces to GTK, and, in case you don't know, they're *MUCH* easier to use than the C interface. I'm talking an order of magnitude!

As for the TUI, how many tasks do server administrators do that would be made much easier with a simple curses interface?

Python includes a Curses interface by default (it's why I learned Python). Perl isn't too far behind with a very stable Curses package on CPAN. This could be added to any distribution in a matter of minutes. I'm not sure about Java, but if it doesn't exist it wouldn't take long to make one.

The point being, that we have to start pushing distributions to include text and graphic interface libraries with the languages they support, and give them the same status as the language. If the language is included by default, so are the GUI and TUI libraries. Don't let your hot Molly Ringwald fantasies blind you. The '80s are over. We need better interfaces.

Once the user base can depend on the libraries being there, we're going to open up Gnome to a whole to set of ideas. These new programmers greatly out number the current set of Gnome C programmers. They'll be able to fix user level problems that we hardcore programmers don't even know exist.

If you're convinced at this point, then start pestering Ubuntu. I think they're the closest to having all the pieces. Then we can go after Debian and then we'll gang up on Red Hat.

If you're not convinced, then let me over make my point with sort of a preemptive FAQ.

* We didn't do it last time, why do it now?

OK, you lead with an Ace.

First of all, modern bindings to the major scripting languages are dependable and stable. This wasn't true before.

Also, we're in a much more graphical time. Most users consider dropping to the command line a failure of the interface.

We need a bridge between the two.

* What if the bindings disappear?

The odds of the supported bindings disappearing any time soon is negligible. As for other bindings, if more people start using them, the more dependable they become. Does anyone really expect "vim" or "sendmail" to disappear any time soon?

* What's wrong with C?

Nothing, in it's place. If I were to suggest dropping all the scripting languages and doing everything in C, I'd be laughed off the Internet. Somehow we're supposed to believe that the argument is less absurd when you pop up a window.

* Distribution X has the bindings in the "Extras" section. What's wrong with that?

In the business world getting managers to allow "extras" on a system is a hard sell. Damn few middle managers get fired for failing to innovate.

Besides, if it's in it's own section then there must be something wrong with it. Right? Can I get back to you on that?

* You can get all those bindings at site

If the "Extra" argument is a hard sell, then the 3rd party site is a no-sale. They're right on this one.

A company pays for Red Hat license instead of using the free CentOs because it gives them someone to yell at if things go boom. If you depend on 3rd party software then you get sent to finger pointing hell.

I currently have a problem with my CentOS box at home. I'm using CentOS repositories and a few other reliable sites. Two sites depend on different versions of the same library. I can't upgrade until I find and remove the conflicting programs.

Run that past a manager and you'll be a Microsoft shop by the end of the day.

Besides, if the software is trustworthy and useful then it would be include with the distribution. Feel free to repeat this until your head explodes. It's what they do in corporateland.

* If you want to use the OS, learn the commands!

If you want to make me learn a bunch of esoteric commands, I'm using another OS!

Let's use the "chage" command as an example. It's a pretty simple command which I use about once a year. Every time I use it I have to look up the command flags, because I only use it once a year.

Now wrap it in a curses interface. I no longer have to use the man page. "chage-curses" pops up the user's info, lets me change it. It even uses a calendar to help me change the dates. It then munches up the interface changes into a command line call which make the actual changes.

Take it one step farther. I am a hot shot l33t Hax0r. I shouldn't be doing this peasant crap at all. I create "chage-gtk" in 30 lines of Perl, and now my helper monkey does all the chaging while I hack the cosmos.

* Surly you don't mean every scripting language?

Yep I do. For server admins the command line will live on forever. It's the easiest way to make bulk or automated changes.

Your average user isn't a server admin. We need to stop dressing them up like one and making them dance for us.

Every general purpose language that has a stable GUI and/or TUI and is already included in a distribution needs to have those bindings included. We need to show non-Linux users, and other programmers that we're serious bout getting out of the 1980s. That means that any general purpose language that can help us out needs to be embraced.

* What about languages that don't have stable GUI/TUI bindings?

Most of the popular languages have had stable bindings for years. Perl, Python and Java all have officially supported GTK/Gnome bindings.

If a language only has a stable TUI, but not GUI binding, then just include the TUI. If it has no stable bindings at all, then it remains command line only until it gets it's act together.

* Some languages have GUI/TUI bindings that are a bitch to make into packages.

Let the developer of both the bindings and the language know that that's the reason the binding isn't being included. Most will gladly fix their code or provide the distributions with packages.

* Jeez, our distribution is getting awfully big.

One: The graphic libraries shouldn't really be that big, they're just interfaces to existing libraries.

Two: This move is important! If going from a command line interface to a graphic interface is only being held back by a pack of Luddites, then Linux doesn't deserve to play with the big boys.

Three: This is also an advantage that we seem to be afraid to exploit. Does any other OS come with, by default, an easy way to create useful window based programs just using a text editor? We shouldn't be hiding this feature, we should be shoving it down peoples throats!

* Why should we include fooscript when real programmers use barscript?

You're an idiot.

This isn't about the size of your digital penis, it's about removing completely artificial barriers from the users. Gnome doesn't really serve the clever user well. This problem is trivial to fix. We need to do so in the most inclusive way.

If Perl gets the job done for you, great! If you like Python, no problem. Someone at the Guile compound must have got laid because it's perked right up in the last few months. Guess what? It has both a curses and Gnome interface. Welcome to the club Guile! (Assuming your bindings don't suck.)

* Real programmer program in C.

Actually they don't. Most casual programmers start by looking at a program that almost does what they want, and then pick at it. If the program is a script, it's much easier to play with.

For the inquisitive user, in real terms, modern computers are less powerful then they were in the days of Dos and Unix. Back then a curious user who had an itch, could scratch it with a batch file or shell script. This new command was on par with anything else on the system. If it was generally useful they could email it to anyone else and they could use the new command too. Now days a clever user has to either waste monkey cycles writing in C or they have to have other users download the script-gui library package.

Pithy Summary

This is a stupid pointless wall, and it needs to come down!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Emacs: P3 Separate But Equal.

In the first post, we went over some basic theory. In the second post we calibrated Emacs's concept of terminal color with the reality of our terminal program. We also created a file called "color_test.el" which is useful for showing the common "faces" used in programming.

I this part we'll explain what a "face" is and show to get terminal faces and display faces to play nice.


A "face", in Emacs parlance, is all the characteristics of a piece of text. This includes it's font, size, whether it's bold or italics and it's color.

In the olden days, faces were created by hand. They're not too bad once you get a hold of them and they're surprisingly flexible.

Emacs faces can do all sorts of snazzy things like auto-detect whether they're on a terminal, change their color if the background color changes and invert themselves if they're on a black and white screen. Here's an example taken from the Emacs Elisp manual, section "Elisp/Display/Faces/Defining Faces".

(defface region
`((((type tty) (class color))
(:background "blue" :foreground "white"))
(((type tty) (class mono))
(:inverse-video t))
(((class color) (background dark))
(:background "blue"))
(((class color) (background light))
(:background "lightblue"))
(t (:background "gray")))
"Basic face for highlighting the region."
:group 'basic-faces)

Alas, you young punks don't wanna do it by hand. You'd rather use Emacs's built in customizer. Fair enough.

The Customizer.

I'm not going into a lot of detail here as there are other web resources dedicated to customizing Emacs.

For the sake of this article we need to know:

  • "M-x list-faces-display" shows you all the faces Emacs knows about.
  • Pressing when your cursor is on the face name will let you edit it.
  • In programming mode, all the fonts we care about begin with the wildly intuitive name "font-lock-".
  • When you're customizing in terminal mode don't forget about "Weight Bold" and "Weight Light". In most terminal emulators they give you extra colors to play with.

Multiple Customs.

If you're using a new version of Emacs, you can go into the customizer, click on the "state" button and select "Show All Display Specs". Then click on "Display" and choose "Check List". This lets you select the modes that you want the changes for. If this gets the job done, then you're done. I've had trouble with edits in TTY mode stomping on my edits in display mode, so I like to keep the variables separate.

After much (and I do mean multiple days) experimenting, I've chosen a more robust solution that is easier to maintain and is a lot harder to stomp on.

Whenever you customize a face and save it, Emacs replaces the function "custom-set-faces" with a new version that has your changes in it. The change is written into your custom file. This file could be the end of your ~/.emacs file or the file named in the "custom-file" variable. I'll use the generic "custom file" because I don't care where it actually is.

The way I handle multiple customizations is to customize them via the customizer. Then load the custom file back into Emacs and rename the custom-set-faces function so it only fires when you're in either terminal or display mode, but not both.

It's very easy to do and it's mostly cut and paste.

Load your Emacs custom file. Before any "custom-set-faces" commands, add these 2 functions:

(defun my-custom-set-faces-display (&rest faces)
"Load these faces if Emacs is in windows mode."
(when window-system
(apply 'custom-set-faces faces)))
(defun my-custom-set-faces-terminal (&rest faces)
"Load these faces if Emacs is in terminal mode."
(when (not window-system)
(apply 'custom-set-faces faces)))

Now look at your current "custom-set-faces" command. Is it set up for display mode? Then rename it to "custom-set-faces-display". If it's for the terminal then rename it "custom-set-faces-terminal". Now add an empty function call for the "other" function. If you set custom-set-faces-display, then add "(custom-set-faces-terminal)". If you set custom-set-faces-terminal, then add "(custom-set-faces-display)".

Mine looks like this:

((t :foreground "LightlyDepressed" :weight bold)))
'(font-lock-comment-face ((t :foreground "cyan"))))


Now fire up Emacs in terminal mode (emacs -nw) and edit a face. I'll make the font-lock-comment-face "Naval" colored for this example. Then save the change. Take a look at your custom file and you should see the color change in the function "custom-set-faces". Here's my example:

((t :foreground "LightlyDepressed" :weight bold)))
`(font-lock-comment-face ((t :foreground "cyan"))))
;; custom-set-faces was added by Custom -- don't edit or cut/paste it!
;; Your init file should contain only one such instance.
'(font-lock-comment-face ((t (:foreground "naval"))))
((t :foreground "LightlyDepressed" :weight bold))))

Delete the old custom-set-faces-terminal. Rename custom-set-faces to custom-set-faces-terminal, save your work and you're done.

If you wish to edit your display faces, just fire Emacs up in display mode and run through the same process.

There's no limit to the number of face sets you can add. You can have a different face set for every day of the week if you want. Just create a "my-custom-set-faces-" for any discriminator you want and rename custom-set-faces to match it.

Hopefully my absurd 10 day journey into Emacs's faces has been rendered down into something useful for you. Let me know if you found this helpful.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Emacs: P2 Color Me LightlyDepressed.

Now that we have some color theory under our belt, let's calibrate Emacs's concept of color with the reality of the terminal's.

First we have to get the real colors being displayed. I'm using gnome-terminal which has a built in color picker. If you're using a terminal that doesn't have it's own color picker, fire up "emacs -nw", do "M-X list-colors-display", then use something like "xmag" or gimp to get the color values.

My Color List.

From a gnome-terminal, select "Edit/Current Profile" from the menu. From the "Default" screen, click on the "Colors" tab. At the bottom of the screen you should see 2 rows of 8 colors. The first row is the 8 colors that make up the terminal's pallet. Left most is entry 0, right most is 7. The second row are the colors you get when you print the first row using "bold". Gnome-terminal has a 3rd row of colors that are the first row in "dark" mode, but you can't edit them.

If Emacs was smarter about terminal colors you could tell it about all 3 rows of colors and it could use "bold" and "dark" version to increase the chance of it's making a good color choice. Alas, were stuck with our one row of 8 colors.

Click on each color in order, and write down their Red, Green and Blue (RGB) values. For example, the 4th color in my pallet is kind of brown, with yellow below it. It's RGB value is 170/85/0, so pallet entry 3 is 170/85/0.

This is my list:

0 0 0 0
1 170 0 0
2 0 170 0
3 170 85 0
4 0 0 170
5 170 0 170
6 0 170 170
7 170 170 170

Once you have all 8 values, ask Emacs (in a terminal) for help on the variable "color-name-rgb-alist" (C-hv color-name-rgb-alist). The help should list all the color names that Emacs knows and their RGB values.

Scan the list for colors that match the gnome-terminal colors. If you find a *perfect* match, put the color's name besides it's color in your list. Only use the name if it's a perfect match. 0/0/0 was the only match for me. I labeled color 0 "Black".

For the rest of the colors, give them descriptive names that are not in color-name-rgb-list. The last thing we need is 1 name for 2 colors.

Here's my final list.

Black 0 0 0 0
Brick 1 170 0 0
Greeny 2 0 170 0
Brownish 3 170 85 0
Naval 4 0 0 170
DarkishMagenta 5 170 0 170
NeonPee 6 0 170 170
LightlyDepressed 7 170 170 170

Now we have to get the colors into Emacs. It turns out that that's pretty easy.


First, make a backup of your ~/.emacs, just to be safe. As an aside, because this series isn't nearly long enough, consider using RCS to backup any config files that you hand edit. Under Emacs RCS is trivial to set up and use. It's saved my monkey boy butt more times than I care to remember.

To set up RCS for your ~/.emacs, make a directory called ~/RCS. Then load your ~/.emacs file into Emacs. Hit C-xvv. That's it. You're done. Your ~/.emacs is now write protected and checked into ~/RCS. To check out your file so you can edit it, load it into Emacs and hit C-xvv.

Back to work.

Edit your ~/.emacs, and add the following code. If your ~/.emacs has a custom-set-variables or custom-set-faces function, place this code before either. Obviously you should use your own colors and names for the my-tty-color-define-8 commands.

;; Code for handling term based Emacs.
(defun my-tty-color-define-8 (name index rgb8)
"Set the tty pallet using 8 bit rgb values."
(tty-color-define name index
(mapcar (lambda (x) (+ x (* x 256))) rgb8)))

(if (and (not window-system) (= 8 (length (tty-color-alist))))
(my-tty-color-define-8 "Black" 0 '(0 0 0))
(my-tty-color-define-8 "Brick" 1 '(170 0 0))
(my-tty-color-define-8 "Greeny" 2 '(0 170 0))
(my-tty-color-define-8 "Brownish" 3 '(170 85 0))
(my-tty-color-define-8 "Naval" 4 '(0 0 170))
(my-tty-color-define-8 "DarkishMagenta" 5 '(170 0 170))
(my-tty-color-define-8 "NeonPee" 6 '(0 170 170))
(my-tty-color-define-8 "LightlyDepressed" 7 '(170 170 170))))

Save your ~/.emacs file and exit. Restart with "emacs -nw" Type "M-x list-colors-display". You should see your color names listed with the colors.

This might not seem like much of an achievement, but you've actually taken a pretty big step.

To check our your results, create a file called color_test.el in Emacs (-nw). It should put you into "Emacs Lisp" mode automatically. Now type in this program:

;; Comments are in 'comment-face'.
;; defun and defvar are in keyword-face.
(defun function-name-face (&optional is-in-type-face)
"string-face `constant-face' string-face"
(error "warning-face"))
(defvar variable-name-face)

;; To see the "doc-face" go into "perl-mode".
This should be in doc-face.

The program itself doesn't work. It's not even syntactically valid. All it exists for is you show all various "faces" that Emacs uses when coloring code.

To see doc-face, use "M-x perl-mode".

How do you like them colors? If you're happy happy, then you can skip post 3 of this series. If, however, you're like me and think that Red is a horrible color for comment text, then await with baited breath the last installment of the Emacs color saga.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Emacs: P1: What Color Is My Painbow?

Last week I had a classic "Monkey Boy" moment. I decided to adjust the colors in my text editor. 10 days later I'm finishing a 3 post blog on it.

I worry myself some days.

This first post is going to be mostly theory work. Post 2 and 3 are more hands on.

Laying the Ground Work.

I use an editor called Emacs for most of my programming. It's an old editor, but its one of the most powerful editors out there. It also lets you edit files in display (windows) mode and from the shell ( for you Windows folks).

Now days most of the editing is done in display mode. No real surprise there. However, there are times when working from the shell makes more sense.

I routinely log into distant machines across slow connections. I could pop up a virtual session and wait for the window in the virtual session and then wait for the editor in the window in the virtual session and then wait for the file in the editor in the window in the virtual session, or I can use text mode, where are complete screen refresh is around 2000 bytes.

I hate waiting. Its a no brainer.

The down side of terminal mode is that you can only use characters to draw and you have a limited number of colors. Both of these could be overcome with modern technology, but it ain't going to happen so we have to get used to it.

Why do you have limited colors? Well, the underling technology differences between a terminal from 20 years ago and a modern graphic display is pretty significant.


Colors are made by mixing various amounts of Red, Green and Blue (RGB) together. If you crank up the RGB, you get bright colors, dial it down and you get dark. Wikipedia has a nice write up on color depth so I won't go into it here. The only thing you need to know is that by adjusting the RGB values you can change colors.

On modern display you have absolute control of every dot on the screen. Each one has it's own RGB setting which is independent of it's neighbor.

Old school color terminals were more like "paint by numbers" projects. You were given a pallet of colors (usually 8) that were hard wired into slots. If you set the color to pallet slot 0 and then printed, you got black text. If you printed in color 4 you might get blue. Unfortunately for us, these are the terminals that most terminal emulators emulate.

We have two problems when we want use Emacs in both terminal and display mode: First is that Emacs's support of terminal colors is functional, but not much more. The second is that the friendly Emacs customizers don't like it when you're a switch hitter. In fact they gets down right medieval on your monkey butt. Well, this ain't monkey butt, this is monkey boy butt. Accept no substitutions.

Terminal Colors

As I said before, most terminal emulators model the old style, 8 color pallets. There are ways for a program to ask the emulator for the number of colors available, but there isn't any way to get the actual RGB of each color.

What does Emacs do? It guesses! If you don't tell it otherwise Emacs assumes that you have an 8 color pallet with the following colors:

Slot Name Red Green Blue
---- ------- --- ----- ----
0 black 0 0 0
1 red 255 0 0
2 green 0 255 0
3 yellow 255 255 0
4 blue 0 0 255
5 magenta 255 0 255
6 cyan 0 255 255
7 white 255 255 255

The numbers after the colors are how much Red Green and Blue that each color is supposed to have. 255 is the largest number you can express in 8 bits (1 byte) of data. There are places internally where Emacs uses 16 bit (2 byte) RGB values which go from 0 to 65535. I got bit by this more than a few times so I'll try to point them out, or gloss over them when I can.

Emacs cares about the RGB values because you (the user) set colors by name not slot values. If you set the color of something to "CadetBlue1" 152/245/255, then run in terminal mode, Emacs needs to figure out which of the eight colors CadetBlue1 is closest to. It uses the RGB values to figure it out.

Oh, by the way, the name "CadetBlue1" comes from a variable called "color-name-rgb-alist". To see it's contents, fire up Emacs in display mode and type "M-x list-colors-display". You'll see the colors and their names.

Let's do some hands on. From a terminal, type "emacs -nw". It should start an Emacs session in the terminal. In Emacs type "M-x list-colors-display". You'll get a listing of the 8 colors that Emacs knows about. Note: On some systems you get more than eight. Lucky you. The theory is still the same.

If you're like me, you notice one thing first off. These colors look nothing like their names! The Red might be brick colored. Yellow may look brown. And my white has tattle tale gray! What happened?

Easy. Emacs has no idea what colors your terminal's pallet is set to and it's guess stinks. How do we handle the miss-match?

One option is to change our terminal to Emacs's pallet. Then we can vomit and claw our eyes out. Basic colors tend to be rather harsh on the psyche.

The second option is to tell Emacs what our terminal is really packing. That's the subject of the next post.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Going Deaf at Duffs

Whenever anyone from the company has to come up to Buffalo on work, we have to feed them.

This being Buffalo, and we being cliches, we inevitably drag them off to Duffs.

The thinking goes like this: Person A comes to Buffalo. Person A must want to try our local cuisine. Our local cuisine consists of Chicken Wings and Beef on Weck. Monday is Chicken Wings, Tuesday Weck. Today is Monday. Real men like hot Chicken Wings. Duffs' wing are really hot! We go to Duffs.

Never mind the fact that there is more to Buffalo than Chicken Wings. Ignore that fact that Person A may be here for is 10th time this year. Obfuscate the fact that hot wings and good wings independent variables. Me Buffalo, Me Wings, Me Hot, Me Duffs. *Sigh*

OK. I don't have anything against Duffs. Alright, it does remind me of a low rent vomitorium and the video games run on diesel, but besides that it's a nice enough place. I'd just like to see a little more depth in our chow.

But that's not why I'm writing today's blog.

The last time we were in Duffs, a person came up to me and handed myself and a couple of other people at the table "deaf cards".

For those of you who don't know, a deaf card is a card that allegedly deaf people hand out at airports as a way to beg for money.

The card usually follows a certain formula: First the introduction "I am a deaf person.", then the pitch "10 bucks would make me feel better about being deaf.", then a blessing "May god bless you for giving me 10 dollars." and then a graphic. Usually the graphic is something like a cartoon angle or a peace sign. I got a smiley face.

The first thing that bothered me is, I'm no where near an airport. We got rules! You street beg on streets, airport beg in airports and PBS beg on the radio. It's all part of the begging ecosystem. What's next, Hare Krishna telethons?

Also, I don't know that the person's deaf. I have no problem giving help to the needy. I'm well aware that with a disconcertingly small number of bad breaks, I could be out on the street. This guy is Alpha/Omega. Either I do good by helping someone out, or I'm encouraging a rodent to make a dishonest living by pretending to be deaf.

Then I notice that everyone at my table is whispering. Whispering? Why would you whisper around a deaf person? We're surrounded by the hearing? If he's stone deaf, like he's professing, then he can't hear us. If he can hear us, then he belongs in the slammer.

And if we're afraid of people hearing us, then why aren't we whispering around the people at the tables all around us? We've been blabbing for an hour. They've heard every word!

Then I had the big epiphany. Why would I give someone $10 for being deaf? This isn't like the 1820s where deaf people starved on street corners. In modern societies there are very few jobs that aren't accessible to the deaf. We have the technology and, I'd like to think, are more enlightened about deafness. Rare is the person who thinks it's a punishment from god.

I'm not saying there still isn't ignorance, I'm just saying it isn't the albatross it once was.

Thinking about it, where I work, every jobs in the building save phone receptionist and security guard could be handled by someone stone deaf. And even that, the security guard who monitors the cameras would have no problems.

Knee jerk simpletons may pretend that I'm picking on deaf people here. They're seeing what they want to see. I freely concede that someone who has a sense, and looses it, suffers. If they have an ability, they use an ability, they loose an ability, they have to adjust their life around the loss. I just don't see where deafness would make an otherwise healthy person into a beggar.

In some cases the loss is tragic. Beethoven never heard is final symphonies. In other cases, not so much. A Sumo wrestling rarely depends on the sense of smell. Neither would require you handing out cards.

On the other hand, what about people who are born deaf? They'll never hear music, but I'll never see magnetism. Am I missing out? No idea. And maybe the born deaf experience a clarity of though and tranquility of mind that I'll never know in my noise filled head. Again, no idea. Either way it ain't worth $10.

Because I pointed out that the deaf shouldn't be pitied, everyone at work now thinks that I'm a kitten burning poltroon of the worst stripe. Far from feeling like a wag, I think that I'm being more enlightened than most.

I also noticed that none of them gave the beggar any money. Ya' hear what I'm saying?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Aw C'mon, be a Minion!

Come my minions! Gather 'round me and do my bidding!!!

Nuts! That never works.

I'm starting a minion list. It's not a list of minions, it's a list of projects for my minions.

I'm going Internet because minions are sparse on the ground around these parts. I believe it's because my readership is made up of selfish swine who won't surrender their sense of personal identity for the betterment of me. But I press on! I'm brave that way.

My minion list is a list of projects, usually computer projects, that strike me as a good idea, but I don't have time to do them. It would be nice if a minion would do them (hint, hint).

I've talked about the minion list in the abstract many times, but now I've decided to codify it. That way, when someone else commercializes one of my ideas, say "Feels on Wheels" (I'll explain later), I can sue them for plenty cash.

Wanna Taste?

My first entry for the minion list is "Voice Messaging". Voice Messaging is like Instant Messaging, augmented with sound.

The concept is simple. A person wants to send you a message. Instead of typing, they have the option to record a message. The message is sent to you, along with any typing they wish to do. On your side your VM program converts the sound file to text and displays it like a normal IM. If the speech conversion garbles it too badly, you just highlight the part you can't read and it plays that part of the sound file.

This would rid the world of emoticons. If you want to know how someone is feeling, play the sound file.

I Object!

* Speech recognition sucks.

You're right as far as you take it. However, in this case we're not producing a finished document. It doesn't have to be perfect, just readable. The recognition only has to be gud enuf 2 undrsAnd. If you're unsure what was said, play the sound file.

* What's to stop someone from saying one thing, but typing another?

The conversion is done on the receiver's end. The sender can send text along with the sound, but the final arbiter of the text is the receiver.

* What's to stop someone from screaming obscenities or pulling other "funny" jokes.

Before playing a sound file, the program would normalize the sound levels. It could even warn you if the original has loud points in it.

* Couldn't someone just use the phone?

Yea, but VM is closer to IM than a phone call. The sender can send a VM, but you can ignore it until you're ready, just like IM.

* What about people who don't stop yakking?

Put a size limit on how big you'll receive. Make it settable per person. Even if someone does get carried away, it's still better than voice mail.

Almost any sound player lets you replay selected parts of a file so you can deal with the witlings who leave 5 minute messages and wait till the end to mumble their contact information.

* What file format should we use?

This is getting a bit low level, but something open format is an obvious requirement. It turns out that there is an open format called Speex that gets the job done.

A 14 second PCM, 16 bit, mono 48000 Hz .wav file is 1.4 meg. Convert it to an .mp3 shrinks it to 123K. Speex mauls it down to 66k. All with no real loss of sound quality for what we're doing.

* What about security?

As long as an open audio format is used, and you trust your audio player, then you're all set. If you use an audio player that does odious stuff like pop up web browsers (oy!) then you're asking for trouble. Playback should be based solely on the contents of the file, not it's extension.

* What technology should the be built on?

I'd bet that most IM protocols allow file transfer. It would simply be a case of the client programs handling audio file differently.

I Submit Like the Schweinhund I Am!

You have convinced me oh minion master. I supplicate at your feet. What is the first step?

For a start, someone could write a standalone application that reads Speex files and transcribes the contents. Some college out there has to have information on phonetic translation. Lets see what the state of the art is.

After that, add playback of selected sections. Once we have that settled then the rest would be cake, and how many masters let their minions have cake?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sound Bite Me!

One of the true pleasures of programming is finding some niggling little problem and solving it with a simple bit of code. If you can solve it in a couple of hours, even better.

When I blog I tend to speak what I'm typing. If it doesn't sound right when I say it, it probably wont sound right when you read it.

One of the problems I have when I blog is that I talk faster than I type. I talk faster than I think. I start typing, and then I get a flash of inspiration. I run the idea through my head, and then, half a virtual page later, I realize that I haven't written anything down.

Then I have to try to recreate the idea from memory, but the flash is gone. By the time I've rebuilt it, or accept that I've forgotten it, my original thought is out playing in the yard and won't come back.

It frustrates the hell out of me.

I started playing around with ideas to making blogging easier.

At first I tried to check out the state of computer speech recognition. I figured I'd just blab on in my blog, and then I'd go through and clean it up by hand.

Computer speech recognition is still slow, expensive and it still sucks. Trying to run a editing session without using a keyboard is slower than typing with 2 fingers. I also wanted to blog via Linux, so firing up a Windows product ain't getting the job done.

Next it tried to do some sort of integration of speech and text together.

I envisioned loading a sound file into a sound editor, where I could chop it up and move it around. While editing the sound, I'd join text to it. When I moved a blob of sound, text that went with it would move to. Eventually I'd piece a blog out of all my rattlings on.

I still think that this is an interesting solution, but man, it would be some work! I also I think I'd end up with a crappy sound editor linked to a crappy text editor. No dice.

I also had a minor epiphany. I'm not going to keep these sound files around forever. I'm just brain dumping to a file for a few minutes until I've finished typing my original though. After that I can replay the recording and transcribe anything I think is useful.

I already know how to record from a mic on my Linux box. Adding that to my new insight I wrote a shell script that turns on the sound recorder, dumps the contents of the microphone into a file and, when I stop recording, plays it back (that way I can tell if I forgot to turn on the mic or something).

It worked like a charm! Every time I needed to make a note, I just fired up the script, decided on a name for the sound file and away I went. It was a little awkward, but a big step forward.

I called the script "sound_bite".

After than I needed to come up with a way to play back my sound bites, so I started adding flags to play the last sound bite or the first sound bite or list the sound bites and let me pick. Then, another epiphany! They're just frigging .wav files! Maybe I could just double click on them in my file manager. Oooo. Me one smart monkey!

Actually, once I got the file manager into the game, it cleaned up a lot of code. I didn't have to tell the recorder where to put the sound files, I would always put them into the same directory and give them a time stamp for a name. If I wanted to organize them better, I'd use the file manager to rename them or move them elsewhere.

The only thing left was making it easier to use. Typing in the command every time is a minor pain. I needed a quicker way to access it. That was easy too.

I hooked up sound_bite to a shortcut which put all the .wave files into the directory "sound_bites". I made another shortcut to bring up the file manager in "sound_bites" directory. I'm sure I could come up with a few dozen little tweaks, I know enough to stop typing when I'm done.

I'm now an official audio driven blogging fool!

Here is the entire source code for sound_bite. You may have to play with it a bit because the blogger code likes to play with it.


#!/bin/sh -

# Sound_bite: Written by Dale Wiles 6/2/09.

# Exit if an error occurs.
set -o errexit

if [ $# -eq 0 ]; then
  cat <<EOM
Usage: $0 directory

Move to DIRECTORY and start recording a wave file from the microphone.
The name of the wave file is yymmdd_hhmmss.wav.
  cd "$sound_dir" || exit 1

  # Make the output name based on the time, down to the second.
  # That way I can't overwrite existing files.
  # Alright, in theory during daylights savings time it could
  # overwrite.  I've added code for that almost impossable situation.
  while :; do
    out=`date +%y%m%d_%H%M%S`.wav
    if [ ! -e $out ]; then
    echo "Waiting...."
    sleep 1

  echo "Recording $sound_dir/$out"
  sox -t alsa default -v 7 $out
  echo "Playing $sound_dir/$out"
  aplay $out

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Spock's Two Fingered Monkey Freak

I went to see the new Star Trek movie, which is called, cleverly enough, "Star Trek". Review in a sentence: Kinda fun in a Saturday morning cartoon sort of way, but it has some of the dumbest writing in the history of the world.

If you're a fan, you've already seen it. It's the second time for one of the guys I went with. If you sorta like Star Trek then you can have fun between the winces. If you're not a Star Trek fan... Hard to say. A lot of people went to see the Transformers movie and it sucked.

I'm not going to pick the film apart piece by piece. It's not a terrible film. But on the other hand, it ain't a great film either. Besides, some people find my smartypants type reviews funny.

In To The Breach! A' Spoiling I Shall Go!

This is supposed to be a reboot of the franchise. OK. I can live with that. I'm not a big fan of movies like this. The ones that show that one scene that defined everyone's character. In real life there usually isn't one scene. People grow over time and relationships grow with them.

Oh well, this is mostly like real life actors running around like pissed off Muppet Babies, so we have to let that slide.

My first kibitz is that it didn't feel like a Start Trek movie. It has all the names and a few of the places, but the rest was generic shaky camera CGI. The original Star Wars had it's feel. The Star Trek movies, even the ones that sucked (and boy did some suck), still felt like Star Trek. This one really didn't.

It has the obligatory Kobayashi Maru (bite me, I looked up the spelling) simulator scene. In the original universe Captain Kirk is the only person to beat the simulator. W00t! The universe is in awe. He later confesses, in one of the most painfully stupid scenes in all of the Star Trek universe, the he cheated. That's right, Captain James T. Kirk is not a great star ship captain, he's a cheating weasel. Anyway, his defense? He doesn't like to loose. I hate blue balls but that doesn't give me the right to date rape.

I wonder if a more qualified recruit was screwed out of his own ship because Kirk blew a professor to get to the top. I'm sure that Diane Duane's written book about him. "Lieutenant Pango: Boned by Kirk!"

In this movie they change it up a bit. In this version, Kirk cheats, but does so in such a psychotically obvious way that everyone knows he cheats. There can be no other option. He played "Duke Nukem" in god mode. It's like he went to the final and yelling "I sure hope the second answer isn't 'Your mother and a horta!'. Oh golly gee whiz, it is! The guys in Animal House could cheat with more elan then he.

In fact, it's not even cheating. It's a psychopathic desire to fail. I wouldn't want this clown running a space fairing warship with guns in the front. I wouldn't want him driving a bus! The last words I want to hear as I wing into a yawning chasm with a bus load of other victims isn't the driver saying "I sure hope this isn't a yawning chasm below us!". It is Jimmy, but gravity is going to fix that in a couple of seconds. Splat!

Also, everything in this movie was dirty. I know that we can use CGI to make things look like crap, but that doesn't mean we have to. One of the things that I liked about the old Enterprise is they kept it clean. Even the bad guys understood hygiene. They may have had only had 3 sets, but they kept them swept and they brushed their teeth.

Here, everything was filthy, everyone needed a shave and everyone needed a spanking! Needing a shave isn't a special effect!

I know it's supposed to make it more "adult", but it doesn't. I've been (in the legal sense) an adult most of my life. I've never worked in a place as dark and dank as the Romulan super-CGI-future-miner-ship. I can see dark coal bins, but why wasn't there proper lighting on the bridge? I have florescent lights in my cubical, and it doesn't have warp drive.

And there were pipes everywhere! I mean everywhere! Remember, these ships are huge. They don't hang with gravity. The have all the room they need, but man they have a lot of pipes. It's like the all of galactic space is run by Thomas the Tank Engine. Enough with the steam punk. In the future they have wallboard!

And the people! Yeek! I've also worked with some pretty wretched people, but even in the worst of places, most people walk around with their asses blissfully board free.

How about that high tech computer talk? And when they start talking about computers, they made it sound like the Enterprise is written in AppleSoft BASIC. Instead of saying plebeian stuff like "Captain, the subroutines are interfering with our, um, SoundBlaster 16, um, thousand.", they should use hip psychological terms like "Captain, someones' boned the computer's universe of discourse and it's gestalt is full of paradoxes." It's bullshit, but it's future bullshit.

Did I mention the space chicks? Can we please have a movie with more than one female lead? And could we not make them poon targets?

In this film the nookie target was, of course, Uhura. Spock gets his freak on with her in this flick. And it isn't some Vulcan two finger smoochie. Spock does it monkey style! The thing is, it contributed nothing to the plot, it was gratuitous, and Spock looked too much like Kevin Nealon, Yea, I bet "The Kev" has to beat the chicks off with a stick.

Don't think I'm against hot SciFi bitches. Wally Wood is my spirit animal. Hell, lets do a full frontal nudity version of Star Trek where the Romulians perfect the lezbo ray and the Federation sets it's love guns on "lube". I'm there with extra popcorn.

But either do it or don't. Lets see 'um naked, or give them roles that don't involve them playing kissy face all the time.

How about weapons? I know it's kewl and all, but why would you carry a sword that folds up into a tiny sword? Wouldn't you use that space to carry a second gun? Knives have their place. I carry a geek army knife with me wherever I go. But not for battle. Any Marine worth their salt will tell you, if you carry a knife for combat, replace it with another clip of bullets.

Ze Plot!

I'm going to egress talking about the plot, such that it is.

Do you remember the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie? If the zombie pirates had just asked Will Turner to come with them and drop one drop of blood so they could be freed from the curse, and in exchange they would give him a bag of gold, he probably would have. No muss, no fuss, just ask nicely. The whole movie would have been about 10 minutes, including credits.

Star Trek has one of those plots.

An angry Romulan (who's really just a guy who needs a shave) comes back in time to oowie the Federation because Romulus's sun unexpectedly went nova (if you just heard a popping noise, it's the head of any physics major younger than Lord Kelvin). He blames the Federation.

Fair enough.

He's a miner, so he comes back in his mining ship (a ship for digging dirt). OK. Most mining ships are kind of like lunch boxes with engines, they just move dirt. Not Romulan mining ships. These bastards are bigger than most planets and are covered with super death weapons. Kind of like the Dodge Wrangler. Most Dodge Wranglers are encrusted in torpedoes right? That's why the get such rotten gas mileage.

Any way. Planet go boom. Ships go boom. Plot goes ARRRRRRG boom. Spock gets jungle fever. Roll credits.

Um, why couldn't the Romulan guy come back through time, take his super-CGI-future-miner-ship back to Romulus and just tell everyone "Hey, I'm from the future, look at the date on my drivers license and how much I need a shave! On stardate a hundred years from now, at around 3:15PM, the sun is going to go nova and melt our planet (pop pop pop!). Write that date down. No! Use the red felt tip marker and underline it! Now that that's settled, I happen to have this super-CGI-future-miner-ship that is chock full of 100 years in the future type technology. What am I bid?"

The whole movie would be about how this poor swine died from too many ticker tape parades while getting Romulan nookie while playing the stock market.

I'm just saying.

I Conclude!

Anyone who says this movie is more than a CGI pretty-bang is either a Trek fiend or they're going to grope you in the theater. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Last word? Meh. But a fun Meh.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Schleprock says: Lets Open that Id.

Through out my digital travels I tend to trip over more than my share of quirks, bugs and "obvious" ideas for improvements. I'm gifted in a Schleprock sorta way.

Unlike Schleprock (probably a pinko!) I also try to be a good netitizen and report what I find.

The problem is there are too many barriers to being a good Samaritan. The biggest one I run into is having to set up an account just to make a bug report. I have 71 separate accounts to date, of which I really use 2 or 3. I'm reticent to add more accounts just for the privilege of helping someone fix their code.

I understand the reasoning for the accounts. It's to cut down on Spam. On the surface it looks like a good solution, but in reality it's almost as bad as the problem. It cuts down on Spam, but it also cuts down on user participation. No participation is killer for open source projects.

One solution that I've seen it to allow anonymous posting, but have each posting validated before being passed through. This is a great solution. It allows anonymous posting, but puts a minor impediment in the way. If you want fast turnaround, set up an account, if you can wait, then post anonymously.

The only reasons validation isn't more popular are self important administrators, who don't make the time to deal with the human component of their project, or huge projects that legitimately generate a large number of anonymous emails. These huge, anonymous, projects are fairly rare, and Spam filtering is easier for them than for normal mail. The size of my penis is not a bug.

But how do you deal with a site, that for some obsessive reason, wants you to set up an account. If only you could create one Id and have an *OPEN* way to hand it around? Open, Id? Hmmmm. OpenId? It's got a nice ring to it.

The OpenId project exists to solve the problem of having too damn many Ids. It's really clever on how it solves it too.

You start out by going to an OpenId provider and signing up for an Id. Arg! I know, you have to sign up for another account! But this is the wish for more wishes. Once you get an OpenId account, then you can use it on any OpenId enabled site that's out there.

Let's say I'm trying to log on to Newsite is OpenId aware.

I type in my OpenId ( in my case). Newsite then decodes my Id and redirects me to I log into using the password I set up there. Once I'm logged in, I'm redirected back to and I'm in. If the password is good enough for it's good enough for

In fact, I don't believe ever sees my password. They're probably pinkos!

How do you get an OpenId. One of the nice things about OpenId is, you may already have one. If you have a gmail account, they're an OpenId provider (It's your email address and password.) Yahoo is another. If you don't have one of those, then web search for "OpenId Provider". They're plentiful. Hell, OpenIds are cheap. You can make one for work and one for home and one for the kids and dog.

The only real problems I've run into with OpenId are:

1) They're not robust enough for super secure sites. I don't use OpenId for banking.

2) Not enough sites use it. This one is easy to fix. Whenever you have a site that is OpenId aware, use it. If you have a site that's not OpenId aware, complain to the admins. The code to implement your own OpenId log on is freely available on the net. The more sites that have it, the more users that use it. The more users that use it, the more sites that will get it.

Seriously, if you have a ton of user IDs and passwords, then it behooves you to pester all the sites you know to set up OpenId. If not, you'll end up like me, stooped over from the pain of dragging around all my BugZilla accounts.

Wowzie wowzie woo woo.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Clones Ate My Files: A Sci-Fi Geek Thriller.

OK, so I'm banging out code for the betterment of my corporate overlords. It's a conceptually simple program: You give it a command and a list of servers and it runs the command against each server.

Not impressed? Well Monkey Boy doesn't get the corporate shekels without doing major mojo. This program runs in parallel. It juggles 64 instances of the command at a time. It can ping all the severs on a netmare in less than a minute, keep track of the results and print them out in the order that they were input. I get wet just thinking about it!

All praise Monkey Boy right? We'll I did run into a problem. A sneaky problem that involved failed clones, suicidal files and a forgotten inheritance. It's good stuff. The problem is, if you don't program in Perl, you're not going to give a crap. Oh well, I've never let my complete lack of an audience slow me down before. Why start now?

Like I said before, the beast is written in Perl. Perl's not an elegant language, but if you need to leap out of the bushes, rape and strange a problem and get on with your life, then Perl's your language of choice.

The basic layout is: Start a sub-process for the first 64 severs and have each one write to it's own temp file. When one sub-process finishes, read it's results from the temp file and let the temp file disappear. Then add a new sub-process for the next server. Once all the servers are done, print out the results in order and accept smoochies from hot code groupies/naked underwear models. Simple.

The Boy of Monkey knew that he'd need lots of temporary files to hold command results. He'd also like the files to go away by themselves when he's done with them. Perl lept to his aid with File::Temp. File::Temp is kind of the anonymous underage prostitute of programming. When you say "Gimmie" it gives you access to the goodies and provides an assumed name. When you're done using it, it disappears into the aether. It all works great, until someone, or something, starts killing the temps prematurely. Then you get a mystery to solve. Foreshadowing!

I got the code working and was getting ready to document (Yes, Monkey Boy is a pro, not documenting makes you a douche bag), when I though, what happens if the sever command can't run? If the user misspells "ping" as "pong" will they get a reasonable message?

Couldn't open file '/tmp/': No such file or directory
strike you as reasonable? Me neither. Nuts!

The actual error message made sense to Monkey Boy. He spawned the beast. '/tmp/' is one of the randomly generated temp file names. When a sub-process finished, the program asked the temp handle for it's file name. It tried to opened the file, but for some reason the file was gone! Somehow the files were being killed before Monkus Boyus could get to them. No one should know about these files. They have specially constructed names, known only to the monkey... or the monkey's clone.

The way you run a sub-process in Linux is using the fork() command. You're running along happy as a clam, as if a mucus coated bivalve is your apotheoses of happiness, and then you hit fork(). At that point your program is cloned. You have 2 running copies of the code. The only difference is that fork() will tell the parent the ID of it's child. The child is handed the ID of 0, which tells it that it's the clone.

This is kind of Star Trekie at this point ain't it? We've got parents making 64 clones (top that Octomom!) and we've got children that are one bit away from being perfect copies of their parent. It gets better. The clone's next job is to call exec() which completely obliterates it and replaces it with another program. It's this second program, the sever command, which does the real work I want done.

A clone has one job. It's job is to die and be forgotten. Programming ain't for wussies!

When all goes well, the program runs like a well oiled roach motel. The clones check in, but never checkout. They disappear on the spot and are never heard from again.

That's when all goes well. What happens when the exec() command fails?

It's simple really, the clone lives on! It also keeps it's copy of the temp files, which it believes it owns. When it dies, it takes the temp files with it. Clones can be selfish little pricks.

Eventually the grieving parent checks on the child. It notices that it's died and then tries to check the temp file for the reason. The temp file is gone baby gone, it died at the hands of junior. You can only die once in temp file land.

As for the reason the exec() failed? It was written into the temp file. You know, the temp file that's in temp file heaven? Hmm. What to do? What to do?

Suddenly Monkey Boy (you remember Monkey Boy, he's the hero of this epic) has an insight. When you delete a file it doesn't really disappear until the last program that has a hold of it lets go. It's removed from the directory, so it can't be seen, but it's still out there, in limbo, awaiting for the sweet kiss of digital death.

Who else is holding on to the file? The parent of course! The question was, could Monkey Boy get to the parent to cough up the handle and could it be used for reading?

Detective Monkey Boy began investigating. He checked the usual suspects. "perdoc File::Temp" didn't provide much. It was higher level than a kite. The Internet tubes were blocked by flame wars and almost naked pictures of some platinum blond from California. No go. Detective Monkey Boy knew what he had to do. He had to go (non-prequil) Jedi. "Use the Source Luke!" is the rallying call of the Open Source movement. But Monkey Boy's name ain't Luke.

Into the source goes the hero. Past lines of documentation. Past obscure code references. Further he goes, until he finds, what he knows in is heard must be, "use IO::Handle". Rocken!

For those that don't know, deep in the belly of the beast, a file comes down to little more than a number. When you open up a file, voodoo happens, and an entry is put in a table called the File Descriptor Table. What you deal with, either directly or through some Perl interface, is an entry in this table. If you can figure out the index number to this table, you can find your file. File::Temp was a cold fish, but what about it's ancestors? File::Temp inherits from IO::Handle. To get to the real power, you got to seduce grandma.

"Hey there Granny!"

Once I go my hands on Granny's nodes (yech!) she gave up IO::Handle. IO::Handle has the fileno() function. You got the number, you get the data.

After that it was just a hop, skip and a file dupe to get to the data so ingloriously killed off by the wayward clone. It takes more than the death of a temp file to stop a motivated Monkey Boy!

All praise Monkey Boy.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

What's your favorite color? Wrong!

Some stories you have to type quickly or they'll be forgotten before you get them out on the Internet tubes. This is one such story.

First lets talk about beauty contests.

Beauty contests are weird. It's kind of like sex through a fish bowl. You herd up some tall thin Aryans, shave everything below the eyebrows, tart them up to the nines and then pretend they've never had sex.

Don't get me wrong. I have no problem with hot babes parading around for the ogling. If they had the "Top 50 Hottest Babes of any Medium Size Mall Take Off Their Tops and Wave at Dale" show, I'd probably watch. Breasts are god's way of saying mammals are cool.

Beauty contest are different. The women don't look like women, really. They're kind of like sexualise marshmallow peeps. Ya know?

They walk funny, they talk funny, they wave funny and they're all kind of, what's the best word? Shiny! They're all kind of shiny.

It's like you just bought a new "Stepford Wife" and she's fresh out of the crate and still smells like a new car. That's what beauty queens remind me of.

Unfortunately, promoters of such shows can't stick to the crux of the show: pulchritude. Instead, they try to bluff us by having things like a talent show and an IQ test.

A leggy blond shooting skeet while playing a saxophone may be Americana, but the IQ tests make my brainstem hurt.

The is current tempest in a tea pot is brewing over something that a Miss USA contestant said. Carrie Prejean is Miss California. Well, sorta. She's only Miss California according to the Miss USA Pageant. Jackie Geist is the Miss America Miss California. Maybe someday we'll step through all of this and Miss Corleone will unite all the Miss Californias on the day of her son's christening, but until then, we have Carrie Prejean to kick around.

Carrie was picked by the handicappers as the most likely to win this year. How they did that I don't know. Maybe they checked her teeth and rode her around the room a bit. I'm sure it was something scientific.

Alas, a well turned fetlock isn't enough. Part of the absurdity that is the Miss USA contest is "Current Events". I'm sure that they have a better name for it, but it's really just current events. It's supposed to show us that Miss USA has brains as well as brawn. We'll ignore the fact that double her IQ and add 10 lbs to her butt and any contestant is out on their tucus. Brains don't fill a swimsuit.

Anyway, Ms. Prejean was asked about current conservative bugaboo, gay marriage. She blew it. I mean comedicly. I mean, not a pretty sight comedicly. Post '60s Jerry Lewis is what we're talking here.

In the end, she lost the contest.

She blames, not the bad answering of the questions, not the fact that Kristen Dalton is a fine side of beef in her own right, but the fact that she wasn't wildly pro gay marriage.

She might be right. She's a bigot, but she might be right.

Does anyone really think that if she had given a brilliantly argued defense of hetero only marriage, with the oratory skills of, say, Frederick Douglas, that she would have come out of that unscathed?

It's academic because she answered like a gooney bird on Teflon, but the question is still there.
Is it OK to ask a contestant a pure opinion question and then nail them because it's not your opinion?
Obviously I believe the answer is "no". If you ask me my favorite color, and don't like the one I choose, then piss off.

If you ask me whether humans and dinosaurs lived together, and I say "yes", then you can gig me. Not because you disagree with me, but because my evidence is crap.

But if I say I'm against gay marriage because I'm a closet case and waking up at 3am with a junior chubby is scaring the dog, then I've answered your question. I haven't lied. I haven't selected part of a religious text to bash you with. I've done my job and should get a cookie. If some Z-level blogger (a blogger for god's sake!) doesn't like it, then maybe a better question is, "Who the hell cares about the opinion of a blogger?" Just ask a blogger, we're meaningless. (Did ya dig the irony there?)

Please don't think that I care about Miss USA. I think the entire contest could be done in a news break: Ladies, line up please. Thank you. Pop your tops. Very nice. Great rack Miss Vermont, here's your crown.

It's the farce I don't like.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ten-four Mr. Heston

Every once in a while someone decides to hang up the Ten Commandments in a court house to let us know who's really in charge.

This obviously violates the separation of church and state which is a no-no. To get around this, they often invoke the canard that the Ten Commandments are the basis of western law and therefore it's OK to post away.

Are they? The Ten Commandments I mean. I never gave it much though, and they never give specific examples. I think it's because they don't know what the Ten Commandments actually say. It's easier to thump a book than to read it.

No problem, I gots the Internet tubes and half an hour. How hard can it be? I decided to check it out myself.

First of all, it took me a few minutes to find the "real" Ten. By real I mean the stuff of Charlton Heston. I want "Thou shalt"s, not "You wills"!

Once I got them, I decided to check them out. Remember, I'm not talking whether the Ten Commandments are the word of god, or holy or even a good idea. I just want to see if they're the basis of our law. The law that you and I run into every day. That's what's being professed.

The Ten Commandments

1. I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Not a good start. The United States Constitution is pretty hostile to the one true god bit. You can worship as many gods as you can carry and make up a few of your own for emergencies.

Also, god didn't bring the people of Japan out of Egypt. Just saying.

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
Whew! This one goes all over the place.

First, does it mean that you can't draw pictures of birds or fish? I know that in the next paragraph you're told not to worship the images, but the first paragraph clearly tells you not to draw them in the first place.

What happens if my Dad draws a fish? Does it mean I'm screwed for 3 more generations? No matter what I do I'm hosed? For poppa's fish picture?

Anyway, strike two. We can engrave our butts off and sell them on late night TV. Not part of the law of this land.

3. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
Nope. You may get fined by the FCC if you do it on TV. If you do it in certain mid-east countries you may get your monkey ass stabbed, but it ain't the law 'round these parts.

4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:

But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:

For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
Submitted for your approval: Football.

Let's see a major politician come out against that.

5. Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
If you're a kid, then you have to listen to your folks, but you don't have to honour them. Once you're street legal then they can rot for all the state cares.

Damn few laws about parent honouring.

6. Thou shalt not kill.
We may have a winner here!

We do have lots of laws about killing. The problem is, so does everyone else. "Don't kill the locals." is probably the first rule that every culture comes up. Well, maybe second to "Do what the big guy with the stick says." Commandments are nice, but sticks hurt.

So, this commandment doesn't set law, it simply reflects a common law. No putting the cart before the horse. Sorry.

7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

I'm giving half a point for this. It's hardly the basis of western law, it's more to do with blood lines, but we do get a holier-than-thou boner over adultery.

Does anyone remember the Clinton impeachment? I need to correct you all about that some day.

8. Thou shalt not steal.
Same argument as "Thou shalt not kill." Sorry horse, back to the front of the cart.

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
Nope! We have this thing called a talk show. People make bags of cash bearing false witness and none of them go to the slammer!

If you do it in court you might get bit, but not on the streets.

You know where you really hear false witness being borne? Church! Church and politics. Misrepresenting an opponent's position? That's false witness, kids. Pretending to not remember something that we all know you do? More false witness. Pretending gay marriage will raise my taxes? Can you guess what that's called?

Is pretending that the Ten Commandments are the bases of western law a violation of the Ten Commandments? Whoo, irony!

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.
At this point we hit "Epic Fail." My god, is there anything more American than coveting? Our entire economy is built on the covet. If I could sell covets I'd make a fortune! Oops!

How do we compare successful religion? Weirdness? Meanness? Miracles per square pew? Nope, size! It's mega-church penis envy covet.

Why do we care about Bill Gate's opinion on anything? Is he wise? Nope. Clever? Nah. Filthy stinking rich! Bingo!

Thou shalt not covet? Then death penalty for SUVs! Sheesh!


Adding it up, it doesn't look good for the Ten Commandments being the basis of our law. Oh, lets face it. It ain't!

What's kind of interesting, is that very few proponents of Commandment posting have gone through the list like I have. Do you think they know that they're bearing false witness? Can't be. My neighbor would never do that. It's not Christian.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Phoning it Home.

I have a Samsung SGH-A707 cell phone. It's nothing amazing, but it has a few features that I like.

One of them is voice memo. I can hit a button and record a quick message on my phone. Later, using Samsung's crappy PC Studio, I can pull the sound files off my phone and onto my Windows box. From there it's a hop, skip and a Samba on to my beloved Linux box.

The problem I have is that the files are in a format called ".amr". Oy! God forbid they use something standard.

Fortunately it's not too hard to convert them to a format that the "sox" command can understand. From there you can go to .wav, .mp3 or .ogg.

First, get the sound file from your phone to your Linux box. I can't get the bitpim program to work on my Red Hat box so I go via Windows.

Once you have the file, I'll call it "foo.amr", on to your Linux box, use the program "amrnb-decoder" to convert it to raw format.

amrnb-decoder was already on my Red Hat box. You may have to hunt around for it.

Decode the file with:

amrnb-decoder foo.amr foo.raw

This produces a raw, signed, 2 byte word, audio file at 8000 hertz.

Convert it to an ogg file with:

sox -r 8000 -s -w foo.raw foo.ogg

You should be good to go. If you change foo.ogg to foo.wav you'll get a wave file. Creating an mp3 is left as an exorcise for the reader.

You can simplify this a little bit by naming the raw file "foo.sw". Sox sees files that end with ".sw" as being short hand for "raw, signed word" files so you don't have to include that info on the command line.

You could do the above as:

amrnb-decoder foo.amr foo.sw
sox -r 8000 foo.sw foo.ogg

If the volume of the final .ogg file is too low, use sox to increase it:

amrnb-decoder foo.amr foo.sw
sox -v 7 -r 8000 foo.sw foo.ogg

For some reason all the other instructions sets I've seen have had dumb little typos in them. Let me know if you find any here.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

How to Die a Virgin.

I've run into a lot of people are afraid to commit anything to the Internet tubes until they have it perfect. These people are idiots.

Nothing is ever going to be perfect. You just have to let it go. If you hold on too tight you'll never get any better.

It's like never dating until you get to be a great lay. The only thing that happens is you end up with blue balls and a right arm that looks like Popeye's.

Then you die a virgin.

In keeping with the tradition of leaping before looking, I'm going start publishing some of my short stories.

I'm not saying that they're good, but I'm having fun writing them.

Here's an example:

Why I Am an Atheist, by Dale Wiles

One day, while sitting in the park, I was bathed in a heavenly light.

"He who transcends time" himself descended on a beam of pure light and glory and spoke unto me.

"Dale", he said in all voices at once, "guess what."

"What?" I said.

"That's what!" he replied, and disappeared.

I've been a atheist ever since.
C'mon, it's not like I didn't warn you.