19 December, 2008

Of mice and batteries, and calculating.

Charge it!

No, that's not the plastic fantastic, which is probably just as well in the current financial situation. Instead, this is just a wee update to my post from April 6th, 2008 about batteries in my mouse, when I posted that Alkaline batteries seem to average in my mouse about seven months. Well, when I bought some NiMH rechargeable batteries a little while ago, I decided to give them a try, after previously having disappointing results with a couple of sets of NiCad rechargeable batteries (500 mA/h). I was charging the older ones up, and was lucky to get a week out of each pair. Anyhow, when I charged up the new batteries, I put them into the mouse on about the 14th of November. They ran for more than four weeks of use before changing them, and it's the 27th of December before I had to put another pair into the mouse. Frankly, I'm somewhat surprised, even though the batteries are only the "cheaper" 2000 mA/h capacity, and not the 2450/2700 mA/h batteries I really wanted. I also heard that someone wasn't too impressed with Eveready batteries, which were exactly the brand I'd bought. Never mind, I'll see how the batteries behave.

The batteries were a steal—at only $20 for four batteries, and with a normal 18 hour charger effectively thrown in for free, it was a better price than paying out $32.50 for one 18 hour charger and two batteries that I'd seen by Energizer; that wasn't including the $13.45 cost of two more batteries to make up the foursome. Other "cheap" batteries I'd seen were only $19.85 for four batteries, not including a charger. Again, that was for 2000 mA/h capacity, just a store brand for K-Mart. I'd hate to think what it would have cost for a fast charger—either a one hour charger or an eight minute one, apparently neither of which are any good for the batteries.

Hack it!

With regard to the previous sets of batteries, I at least was able to save the cost of the power for charging them by using two solar panel garden lights I'd found at the side of the road. The first one took one rechargeable AA battery, and could happily be left in the sun, to give me a charge over two days after having removed the LED. The second solar cell garden light was a bit interesting, as I had to hack it a bit to get a pair of AA batteries added beside the space for a single AAA battery. In essence, I hacked the battery cradle out of a dead TV remote, got out my soldering iron, and set to work melting plastic and rewiring the cradle, then mounting the cradle onto the back of the cell, opposite from the solar panel. In the end I did all this without having to strip the single AAA carrier out. Once that was done, I had charging for free, for three NiCad AA batteries and one AAA battery, all in the sun.

Unfortunately, given the restrictions for NiMH batteries, I can't use this same method for charging them, and instead have to use the provided charger, to make sure I don't overcharge the batteries by accident.

Hack it again!

While I was at it, I thought I'd convert a Casio FX-82TL (cheap scientific calculator used for secondary school) over to a FX-85TL/FX-300TL (effectively), though with a slight twist... instead of using the normal LR44 the FX-85 has inside, I'd retain the AA battery from the FX-82 (so I didn't have to wreck the case any more than necessary), and make it rechargeable via the solar panel instead. The wiring was rather simple, as all I needed was wire to the solar cell (which I'd already "filched" from another solar four-function calculator), and a diode to prevent the battery discharging through the solar cell again. So, first off, I soldered wire on to the contacts of the cell very carefully—copper pads on glass takes no time to heat up, even with a little soldering iron like I use. Then, I connected the solar cell in place of the battery, turned on the calculator, checked it works—yup, no trouble. Added in the diode (the right way around), checked that the calculator still works, which it does, though it now needs a bit more light due to the voltage drop across the diode. Finally, place the rechargeable battery in place, cover the solar cell so there's no light, and test the calculator one last time. Yup, all working.

So for a little bit of solder, a solar cell from a four-function calculator and a diode, I have a scientific calculator with what is effectively a new ID and a battery that'll last just about uhm, forever? I vaguely thought about the same trick on my FX-82MS too, but there isn't the same space for the solar cell, as the battery space takes up 90% of the space above the display. At least on the TL, I'd be able to cut out a slot and have space to spare, if I wished to do a tidy job, and not just a sellotape job over the top of the case.

I also wanted to try this trick with one of my other calculators, but I don't know enough people with calculators with solar cells on for sacrificing (I'd need at least three cells)... what a shame. Not only that, but two other aspects of this calculator lean me away from solarising it—first off, it uses alkaline batteries, though this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It affects the voltage I have to provide the calculator, of course. Secondly, the reason for the alkaline batteries: this calculator draws more current than the FX-82 I converted over. I'd also have to fit a special plug so I could detach the solar circuit from the calculator, which would remove its usefulness somewhat.

What I was thinking of initially would be: three little cells (or maybe even four) wired together in series to provide either six volts, or eight volts to allow for halfway usable voltage at low light conditions, connected via diode to charge the batteries. Again, being NiMH batteries, I'd have trouble making sure the batteries weren't overcharged, and I'd have to build the same sort of circuit into the charging as a normal charger has. I.E. a bit more sophisticated than two wires, one diode and a solar cell. So for the moment at least, that project will either never get off the ground (usual for me) or I'll actually have to put some cash into the project to ensure it doesn't look like an ugly hack. If I were to do justice to the job of course, I'd put the whole calculator onto a "charging" cradle like the Palm Pilots used to have, and simply solarise that instead, my only problem would be sourcing (or making) suitable cradle to take one FX-9750G+ on its end, with plug. Interesting, but probably will never be done. So, what other mean hacks have been done to the humble calculator?

15 September, 2008

Poor brother to the big king

The Beginning

Gawd, the fifth edit... mainly to stick back in all the pictures that disappeared from other places. Anyhow, on with the show. Whoops, make that the sixth edit to finally show a proper screen from the grocery program, more below. I have just added to my small collection of calculators, and thought I'd describe something about them in this post. Casio make a line of programmable graphical calculators: the FX-9750G, the CFX-9850G, the Plus versions of these, and so on. My latest acquisition is the FX-9750G+. It's just about the bottom end of their range of this sort of calculator, and doesn't have a three colour screen (orangey-red, green, and blue) like the big brother. But it'll do. Yes, there is a difference between this and the previous FX-9750G: this one has had some finance functions added, which I've already taken advantage of. This programmable graphical calculator might be the little brother of the family, but there's enough in here to keep me reasonably happy.

Anyhow, I thought I'd compare it to two other calculators that I have here - the Casio FX-82MS, and the Canon F-804P. Neither calculator is programmable, though the Canon can accept a small number of user-provided functions and store them for later recall. I'm deliberately not comparing it to the HP 50g, because there frankly isn't any real comparison that can be made. The Casio's not RPN, doesn't advertise 2,500 functions nor widespread usage among professionals. However, for what it is made for, it does seem to be a good performer.

First off, I'll introduce the FX-82MS, and here's a huge version, so you can count the pixels on the display (image originally copyrighted by unknown author, and shown on a website that no longer exists). Look at how crisp they look.

Umm, why did you buy them then?

Well, I bought the FX82MS as an upgrade to the FX-82TL (which I then gave away to a friend for his course work - who needs TWO FX-82 calculators?) because I loved the idea of the navigation keys on the MS, which the TL never had, and neither had any FX82 model previous to that. The extra 14 functions helped out too. Literally the only thing this calculator wouldn't do was base-N calculations, you had to buy at least the FX-100 for that. Which is where the Canon comes in. Just as an aside, I now have the FX-82TL back, as the previous owner hasn't used it since the coursework I gave it to him for.

Image of F-804P, from ec2.images-amazon.com

I saw the Canon F-804P on a table in a store that was selling off all their little consumer electronics range, and changing the range of products they sold; as a result, I picked it up for only $20. The only reason I picked it up is because it appeared to do base-N calculations. It does, but more on that later. I most recently bought the FX-9750G+ because I wanted a programmable calculator; the fact that it is graphical is also a bonus. The calculator was also discounted by 25% - purely because it didn't have the outside box which I probably would have discarded anyhow. I wasn't going to complain at the price, or the discount, though I did try for more of a discount.

Do I have to have a degree to understand the Manual?

Studying the rather large 454-page manual of the FX-9750G+, I find a lot in here. We start off with a page informing us of the difference between the FX-9750G+ and the CFX-9850G+/9850GC+/9950G+ variants (the CFX has sort-of three colour screen, the FX doesn't). Then we follow with an insert describing how to put the batteries in, and what happens directly afterward. Directly following that, there's an additional 20 page Quick Start section. This covers just about everything the "I want to use it now" users probably ought to read, even if they don't read the rest of the manual. The rest of the subject matter is distributed among 22 chapters in the main bulk of the book, and is followed by Appendices and a not-very-complete index. My main complaint is that I find the depth of information provided in here tantalisingly superficial. All the examples they provide work as stated, though I'm having a little trouble understanding the financial section or repeating the same output for the same input; that could simply be Operator Error. When I say superficial, I mean superficial in a "Name-Your-Subject Unleashed" kind of way, as if they've covered everything they think the average user ought to know, but I don't find that it's detailed enough for me, especially in the programming area. I looked online for a manual describing the BASIC-like language that the calculator uses, but the only language I could find it in is French. Bleah.

In comparison, the FX-82MS manual is actually a fold-up booklet which covers the essential aspects of the calculator, but doesn't break a sweat doing it. If you know what you're looking for, you'll either find it or you won't - it's at least clear and the English is well written. Again, the examples work, but they don't spend much time on explaining them as it's reasonably obvious.

The Canon F-804P manual came from Japan, and it looks like it. Instead of being a large book, it's a small booklet that's been glued along the edge like a paperback. The language used in the English is certainly not the best used, featuring such phrases (apologies to the Canon people here, but this is meant as a criticism) as (for the ON key):
Turn on power, cleaning up / cleaning independent memory / cleaning statistic memory

  • Push it down to open power source if the electric source is closed.
  • Push it down to clean up the input characters and wrong identifiers.
  • Push down [SHIFT] first and then this key to clean up the contents in the independent memory.
  • Push down [ALPHA] first and then this key to clean up the statistic computational registers (statistic comprtional mode).

Eeeek. And yes, that spelling mistake is really in the manual. In the other half of the book we have the Japanese instructions - and they look far better written than the English. It's a pity I don't read Japanese, as they might explain some of the English instructions better.

The Interface

One of the more confusing aspects to the FX-9750G+ at least for me (being used to the FX-82MS, this threw me for a couple of seconds) is the menu that shows when the AC/On button is pressed. However, I simply hit the [EXE] button, and go straight into what looks like a knock-off of the HP-48G/GX/S/SX, except it isn't. Simple four-function calculations work the same as they always do, with x,+,/, and - all having their own keys. Instead of a = key (which is on another key) you use the [EXE] key, which makes sense from a programming sense, but not so much for a new-to-calculators user. At least it's in the same place as the = key on the FX-82 and many other models, at the bottom right. The two other calculators are dead simple: turn them on, start entering numbers. Aspects such as choosing Radians or fixing the number of digits of result displayed are easy if you read the manuals.

Command recall
One niggle I have about the FX-9750G+ and the Canon is the fact that the command history doesn't work quite the same as the FX-82MS; on that, you simply hit the up-arrow, and are presented with the previous command, and as you keep hitting the up arrow, you scroll through the last ten calculations issued. With the FX-9750G+ however, if you want anything but the previous command (reached by the left or right keys), first you have to hit [AC], then you can scroll through the remainder of the command history. That's described in the manual too, but isn't intuitive to me when compared to the FX-82MS. For the Canon, you can only recall the last command you typed by using the left or right keys. Deletions on the FX-9750G+ are handled differently too, more like a PC's Delete key, rather than the behaviour of the Backspace key that you find on both the FX-82 series and the Canon F804P. Basically, back up the cursor to the point you want to start deleting from, then hit the [DEL] key to delete characters.

The display

The screen size for the FX-9750G+ is a nice 128 pixels wide and 64 pixels high; the font size for the text character set is 7x5, giving a 7-line text display and leaving some extra room down the bottom for drawing labels. The text size for graphical-mode text is a little smaller, at 7x4 pixels. The size of the screen is readable, but not exactly large. My wife has a hard time reading something that small, but most people should at least be able to read it.

The FX-82MS has a two-line display, the top line is 12 characters, each of 6x5 pixels. The numbers are clear and easy to understand, and the bottom line holds the usual ten digits plus sign and 2 digits of exponent (plus sign) display of seven-segment, with the nice addition of comma separation for larger values. As a side note, this toggles between the usual American/English system of 123,456,321.45 and the Spanish system of 123.456.321,45 - useful, though not for me. There are several additional annunciators for Shift/Alpha/Hyp and lots of other symbols, though three of them aren't used on the FX-82MS. I think they used a display module from the more powerful calculators that support complex numbers, matrix calculations and vector mathematics. I note that the new FX-82ES (where do they think up these designators, anyhow?) has gone to a fully pixel-addressable screen too, though it's still not large when compared to the FX-9750G+, but it's large enough to display "proper" equations like you'd see in a textbook, which is exactly what they're marketing this function as. It's an expansion on the S-V.P.A.M. theory.

The Canon's screen has a two-line display that is similar to the FX-82MS though the top line is made up of 5x5 blocks instead, and the quality of the letter shapes suffer as a result. The bottom line shows the same ten digits and sign, plus 2 digits of exponent, and these numbers all use a seven-segment display, though I find the "shapes" not as nice as the Casio. It also has annunciators, but they're down the bottom of the display, and there aren't as many as are present on the FX-82MS.

The keypad

For the keys, I'd have to say that Casio did their job really well for both models of calculators I have. The legends are clear, and the alternative functions that show above some keys are also clear, with good contrast and visibility. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the Canon. Why am I not using the Canon F-804P instead of the Casio FX82MS? Frankly, though the features of the Canon are nice, they're put into a case that's frankly not very well designed. The keyboard is cluttered, the legends above the keys require the user to have good lighting conditions merely to see the legends, and the keys just don't feel right, having a short travel. They're also small and close together, which doesn't exactly help. The fascia (the bit surrounding the keys) is shiny, which makes the act of reading the legends harder, and though the white text on each key is quite readable, the orange and pale blue colours are anything but readable against the reflection of the fascia if the average user has light behind him shining on the calculator.

That doesn't register

The FX-9750 family (including CFX models) gives the user 28 registers—the 26 letters, rho (r) and theta, for polar coordinates. If you know Greek or mathematics, you'll know these symbols. In addition to this, they support lists, matrices and collections of lists called files. Storage of up to twenty formulae, six pictures, six "lists" of numbers, multiplied by six "files" of lists, twenty six matrices and six graphs is also provided, making quite a collection even for a programmable graphics calculator.

The 82MS has nine registers (A-F, X, Y, and M) that can be used to store numbers in, these registers are also supported as sources for numbers in formulae that are typed in; i.e. AX^2+BX+C. The FX-82ES only has seven, though the FX-82ES Plus has the full 9.

The Canon has 26 letter registers, an angle register and a memory register that is separate from these, and the same support for using the registers in functions.

Functionality
The FX82MS has (according to its manual) 240 functions, including support for advanced statistics, regression formulas and combinatorial functions. Quite a lot for a cheap student calculator. The Canon has 145 functions, has the ability to store multiple user-provided formulas, and also has ten constants from the engineering/science field. In addition, the Canon has the ability to do base-N calculations for the binary, octal and hexadecimal bases. No floating point support, but then even the FX-9750G+ doesn't have support for base-N floating point, though it can convert integers between bases. I haven't counted the number of functions that the 9750 has, but purely because of its programmability, you can quite often synthesise what you need from what you already have. I've managed to code a rather accurate "natural log of Gamma" function from someone else's description on a web page.

One other thing that really surprised me about the HP-34C (one of the first programmable calculators I owned) was what I later found out to be called the Gamma function. At the time, I called it factorials on non-integers, but the function that Hewlett chose to implement is actually Gamma(n+1). This gives the same value for normal factorials as the factorial equation, but takes a little longer to generate. None of the other calculators I've come across will do it, but that old calc will. It seems that some other calculators in the HP stable will also do it, but not all of them. I still rather wish I had that, but it's gone, long gone. I did manage to get a cheap HP-50G far later, but that's another tale.

Accuracy

Both the Casio calculators are accurate to ten decimal places on display; the FX-9750G+ is accurate to fifteen digits internally, in comparison to the FX82MS and Canons' 12 digits internally. However, I've found to my surprise, that the Canon is the most accurate calculator I currently own, bar none. I suspect that unlike most calculators I've used, which use a certain number of digits of precision, the Canon says it uses 12 digits of precision, but actually uses floating point at its core, and rounds down to 12/10 digits of precision when displaying the final result of a calculation. Take this as an example, which shows what I mean (use the symbol for PI, not the letters P and I): (PI-3.141592653)*10000000000 That's 1E10 for you engineer types. On the FX-82MS, I get a result of 5.9, on the FX-9750G Plus, I get 5.898, showing a greater degree of precision of 15 digits as opposed to 12. However, the Canon comes up with an answer of 5.897932385 so where'd those extra digits of precision come from? We've got rid of ten of them when we took away the original 3.141592653 (ten digits worth) but we're still left with ten digits, at least for simple single-stage calculations involving the constant PI. Extending the concept does eventually run into a barrier, at least for Pi, as I end up with: 3.14159265358979323846_198694562nnn... as compared with the real value of 3.14159 26535 89793 23846 26433 83279 50288 41971 69399 37510 (five digit spacing, fifty decimal digits.)

Other calculations appear to indicate that the Canon does indeed work with floating point internally, although I've found that I can't simply enter in as many digits of precision as I can, just to ramp up. The calculator will only take the first ten digits of input and discards the rest, though numbers generated internally retain their precision until display. So for a crappy-looking calculator, it's impressed me for precision. Another common test that can be done with any calculator that's scientific is called the "forensics" test. Here's the formula, and here are the results for my four little machines and the Palm SciCalc 2 program, with the extra internal digits added. Make sure you set each calculator to Degrees mode first, or else the results will look really naff.

(arcsin (arccos (arctan (tan (cos (sin (9) ))))))
Occasionally arcsin will show up as sin-1

  Displayed result Internal result
FX-82MS 8.999998637 8.99999863704
HP 50G8.999998642678.99999864267
FX-9750G+ 9.000000007 9.00000000733343
FX-9750GII 8.999999998 8.99999999759468
Canon F-804P 9.000000000 9.0000000000000000000...
Palm SciCalc 2
8.9999999999999999
8.99999999999999999999999998482

It was this result, and the description in the Forensics table of the only calculators to pass the test, that showed what was happening. Calculators such as the HP-30S, Kinpo SG1, SR19S1 and SG2 were described as having the same floating-point chipset, the Sunplus SPLB30A.

To achieve the extra digits shown in the "Internal Result" column, I simply took off the Displayed Result from the Internal Result, multiplying by 1E10 to get the scale to fit, which is why you see far more digits displayed for the Canon. The same also appears to be true for this calculation: (sin 60 - 0.866025403) * 1E10

  Displayed result Internal result
FX-82MS 7.85 7.85
FX-9750G+ 7.84439 7.84439
HP 50G7.844357.84435
Canon F-804P 7.844386467 7.8443864671232000709...
Palm SciCalc 27.8443864676372317(see next column)7.84438646763723170752931984524

For the Canon (assuming I'm correct in my assumption) I have found I can simply keep on peeling off ten-digit slices of the result, and I've gone out to thirty digits of result so far.

In total contrast to the form factor and shoddy case of the Canon, we have the FX-9750G Plus, which comes in a fetching white and green plastic case. Say what you like about the colours, but at least the legends above the keys can be read, as they contrast with the white nicely—I suppose they could have used blue instead of gold, but I'm not complaining. I understand that other models come in slightly different colours and form factors. It's still heavier than the FX-82MS though, small wonder, as it takes four AAA cells in addition to the back up 3V lithium battery.

The Program

Previously to this, I was using the FX-82MS to motor around the supermarket, adding up what we'd bought, in about seven different categories. I came across a nice way of doing this: [ALPHA] A + ([ALPHA] X x 1.175) [SHIFT] [STO] A which looks like this, once it's in the top line of the 82MS: A+(Xx1.175)->A

Basically, that takes whatever's in register A, adds (X multiplied by 1.175) to it, and sticks the result back into register A. A variant on this removes the multiplication, and simply acts as an addition, storing the result back into the register:
[ALPHA] A + 2.25 [SHIFT][STO] A which, again, looks like this: A+2.25->A

I simply used the six letter registers for different categories of goods, used the X and Y registers for price-per-kilo costs, and combined with the previous program, substituting register letter as I went. Once I'd finished I could get a grand total simply by adding together the entries in the six registers, thus: A+B+C+D+E+F= Try doing that with the original FX-82 from years gone by. However, I didn't buy the FX-9750G+ just for the ability to do the same as the $20 FX-82MS. Instead I chose to do something else and actually write a program. Just as a note, Casio put out a number of different versions (upgrades) of the FX-82 since 1981 or so, including the FX-82A, FX-82B, FX-82C, 82D (which used fractions), 82L/LB, 82SX, 82MS and the FX-82TL. The Solar version of the 82 is the same as the FX-82D, or at least similar enough (i.e. it can also do calculations using fractions.)

The History

What inspired this program was the very ability to program that I'd first come across with a HP-34C I'd come across: one with a Red LED display, and nice chunky buttons with a good solid "click" to them I've not found on any other calculator since. This calculator had the ability to store a key sequence, and also had multiple registers I could stuff numbers into and retrieve from, in addition to a prompt for number, so it had nearly everything I needed, except for reliability. The calculator was getting long in the tooth when I got it, and it was showing it - with occasional times where I couldn't see the display, the Run/Stop switch wouldn't always make the calculator change modes, and the battery hatch was falling off. In the end, the calculator was retired into the bin, though I wish now I'd kept it. I'd managed to make a really simple version of the program that simply asked me for a number, then added it to the internal register I'd set aside, displayed the total, then asked me for a number again. Simple.

When I tried to do the same thing with the FX-82MS, I was missing the programmability, which means I couldn't get the calculator to ask me for a number, then add that number to the internal totals, then display the total, then go around the loop again; I had to compromise, which is where the above scriptlet came from. The saving grace, at least for the scriptlet, is that because of the command history recall, I didn't have to keep typing in the scriptlet from the beginning, I could simply recall it with the up-arrow or left-arrow, complete with assign to register, only changing the variable amount (for example, 2.25) each time.

In comparison, not only does the 9750 support asking me for a number, it also has the ability to display arbitrary text and graphics simultaneously anywhere (mostly) on the 128x64 pixel screen. This very feature is used by the calculator itself to present functions for the top row of keys, and shows what I'd call keylabels on the bottom of the screen. These keylabels are used as a menu with up to six choices, which can be completely tailored. I decided on this means, as the program should be intuitive to use for my wife - a set of abbreviations makes more sense than simply remembering that register A is used for fruit and veges, register B for meat, register C for cleaning stuff, etc. What I've ended up with looks a bit like this: First screen of GROCERY program

The World?

The programmability of this calculator is quite impressive, even with only 28,000 bytes available (or so). The frustrating bit of that impressive programmability is the fact that you have to press heaps of keys to get work done, purely because the alphabetical keys aren't separate from the main keyboard, they're integrated and reached with the use of the [ALPHA] prefix key. Casio must have thought about that, because they provided this calculator with what amounts to a serial port, although it's a non-standard one. It runs at 9,600 baud, so it's not fast, and it expects different stop bits for each side of the transmission—two for transmitting, three for receiving (I think). So, I could (theoretically) type up the average program on my PC, plug the cable (not a cheap purchase, it'd cost me more than the calculator itself cost) into the calculator and the PC, and pipe the data over in less time than it'd take to laboriously hammer keys to get the program entered in manually, correct the inevitable errors, and fine-tune the results. I personally would have loved a slot where I could add memory, but for the cost, Casio won't provide that. I already have one extra cost to outlay—a 3V lithium battery used for memory backup while the main batteries are being changed. I'm simply not flush enough to afford the $139 RRP (2008) for that cable in addition (not the SB-62, which is simply two stereo 2.5mm plugs wired crossover fashion, but rather the FA-123 serial interface or its big USB brother the FA-124.) If possible, I'm going to attempt to make my own, using the rather well-known MAX232, otherwise known at Dick Smiths as a IS232 (I think); some wire, and two plugs. I hope to make the cost all up to be only about $25. I can solder the project together myself, I just need the bits. Once the cable is assembled correctly, I'll be able to put nearly anything on the calculator that I can uhm, fit, and that the calculator understands. We shall see.

22 June, 2008

What the young can teach us.

Mirrored from The Flying Brick Commentary over on Microsoft's Spaces. Hey. It's a blog.

It seems strange, but even given the length of time I've been banging around computers, I still have plenty to learn. This fact got brought home to me when my sister in law rang me with a problem her (nearly) 3 year old son had instigated. The phone conversation began with:

My delightful son has hit a couple of keys on the keyboard, and managed to turn my screen upside down. How do I get it back the right way up?

I hadn't heard of this particular little wrinkle of Windows, though it made an insane sort of sense once I thought about it for more than two seconds. Of course, her son couldn't tell her which keys he'd managed to toggle, given he's barely saying "buhss" for bottle, and "pahpah" for brother (you have to think a bit for that one). So it was up to me, the resident techmonkey, and Google Search for Microsoft problem. Thankfully, the problem came up in the first couple of hits I looked at. You see, given the key combination Ctl-Alt-Up or Ctl-Alt-Down (I'm not sure which), Windows will then go and flip the screen that way up. I vaguely wonder if Ctl-Alt-Left and Ctl-Alt-Right rotate the screen? I ought to try it, just to see if my poor old Win XP Home System with a CRT can actually do such a thing. Last time I tried it under Linux, the system locked up and I had to reboot. Yeesh.

One of the hits states

This doesn't work with all displays—only with certain drivers that have this provision for rotation.

Obviously her display supported it. To the best of my sketchy knowledge, I had thought that only certain LCD screens and laptop screens actually supported such an idea, though it turns out that it's a function of the display driver, not really of what's connected to the video output connector. Her screen is most certainly a CRT, and wouldn't have supported it unless the driver was able to do the job.

So, I learned something new today, from a three year old!

06 April, 2008

Firefox, Vim, and (almost) no mice.

Someone tried to marry the vim editor's uhm, ubiquitous keystrokes up with Firefox's web interface. Now we have one big happy family. Vim. Firefox. Yeah, right. Still, the vimperator plugin seems to work (mostly) okay, aside from one or two issues with fonts for hints. I can't seem to get my statusbar back, as this particular version (0.5.3) took it away and isn't giving it back, much like a bully that's got Johnny's medical erm, notes on female anatomy. Poor analogy, but I can't seem to get it back. It's either vimperator's statusbar, or mine. I choose.

That choice is better than IE7 gave me, I guess. I get to "choose" IE7's crappy renderer, which doesn't always do the right thing. I don't get to choose from an alternative renderer, oh no. Frankly I can put up with Firefox's slowness any day, but at least it mostly puts stuff on a page in about the right place. Why it's so slow on my machine, I don't honestly know, but hey. It works. And with vim keybindings "at hand", so to speak, I find Firefox even "handier" than before. Very few things remain that require the mouse, and I can probably tolerate those, as I've been a bit mouse happy in the past few years.

The mouse was a bargain, relatively speaking, if you can call half price a bargain (original cost NZ $99). It's a Microsoft Wireless Optical Mouse, and runs on a pair of AA batteries. There's a story about those too, if I could be bothered digging it up, suffice it to say that I got 17 months out of a pair of Lithium batteries, when the manual suggested I'd get a more normal 3 to 5 months. That figure, ironically, has been borne out by the times the other batteries have lasted. On average, about 7 months. And these aren't cheap batteries I'm putting in - they're alkaline each time, I replace them in pairs (because you're supposed to), and note down how long the last pair lasted... I ought to save up for a new pair (or four) pretty soon. Wish I could go back to those Lithium batteries, they were good! Incidentally, further investigations show that I bought the mouse back on 23rd of June 2004, so it's lasting okay so far.

Now, back to vimperator. I was having a little trouble reading the tiny (12px on 1024x768) white text on red background labels that come up in QuickHints. Could I do it? Erm, not initially. But I did it eventually. Basically I ended up creating the .vimperatorrc file, stuffing somebody else's values for hintstyle into my file, then re-reading that file with vimperator. It turns out that 12px is fine, it's just the font I was trying to use that made it look really really tiny. I managed to change the font, and even managed to reduce the font size. Now I have nice readable (even at 10 px!) sans-serif letters. Okay, so they obliterate a fraction of the link I'm trying to see what the letters actually point to, but I can work with that. Now I can't actually use vimperator to submit a file into a text field, as I still have to use the mouse to do that.

04 April, 2008

OhOh No? Yeah to OOXML.

The Microsoft OOXML submission to the ISO for standardisation acceptance has apparently got through the ISO voting process. Roughly speaking, enough votes were cast as "Yes" to sway the vote, even though it was clear that some countries changed their votes from No to either Abstain or Yes, possibly under pressure or incompetence. Thankfully, not that it's much consolation, New Zealand continued to vote no. There are further details at Groklaw.net, with a succinct summary at tideway.com. Appeals will of course be lodged, and there are suggestions that the passing of the OOXML as a standard (subject to appeals) will actually not help Microsoft's case with regard to anti-trust accusations.

As I don't know anything else about this particular standard, aside from Microsoft pushing it, I'll leave that commenting to the excellent team at Groklaw.net. Suffice it to say that what I have heard of OOXML, that it can include a "binary blob" that is necessary for the operation of the document standard, is of note. Others have commented better in other arenas.

11 January, 2008

We mark the passing of a Good Keen Bloke.

The first man to ascend to the top of Mt. Everest, along with Tensing Norgay, Sir Edmund Hillary finally managed to climb the mountain no other man had succeeded in climbing until then. Not only that, but four years later, he was to chalk up another history-making moment when he arrived at the South Pole in 1958 as a member of the first team to achieve a land passage ahead of the British explorer Fuchs. Sir Edmund did many other things too, probably too many to mention here. A New Zealander through-and-through, he was self-effacing. I wish I had met him, and I think a lot of others did too. Now we won't get the chance, as he has died, at 9:00 this morning.

The family have agreed to the New Zealand Government's offer of a state funeral, stating that they would be honoured by the gesture. I believe that the Nepalese Government is also marking the death with a memorial service of their own. Somehow I suspect that Sir Edmund will not actually get another of his wishes, that of not being marked by any statues or markings of honour. Surely someone will want to erect a statue to him, just to mark the fact that the man did the many things that he did. However, I imagine that his main wish, that of the continuance of the Himalaya Trust, will be eagerly continued.

It is a sad day, but tinged with the sadness—at least for me—is a sense of what he has achieved, and what he refused to say about it says more to me than what he has said. He did not shout it from the mountains, aside from one comment of "Well George, we knocked the bastard off". He simply got on with it, like the quintessential Kiwi Good Keen Bloke.

I've said enough, and will let this tribute stand - one of few words, like the man himself.

Sir Edmund, we salute you.

08 January, 2008

A cube, I profess.


Back in the eighties

They were the times. Shoulder pads. Electronic music. The Death of Punk music. The Rubik's® Cube, snake puzzle, links puzzle, and others. Children got so good at the Cube that competitions were held, and are still held on a semi-regular basis today. In addition, several hundred books were written showing how you could solve the cube. One book that I read was written by a 12 year old, and is still the clearest explanation I've seen to date. I've also seen some good websites that describe cube solving methods, including this website.
Then, they came out with other cubes. Cubes with pictures on instead of just simply colouring each side. Of course, this made the cube just that bit harder, as now you had to get the middle piece of each face oriented correctly with respect to the rest of the face. That was harder than simply putting a coloured face into place, in any one of four different directions. Then there were the little cubes that became keyrings. Too small to really do justice to the job of being a cube, they were a talking point for about 5 minutes, and were then discarded for serious 'cubing. I think mine fell apart about six months after.
It\u2019s tiny! Only three million combinations
Modern "twists" on the cube include Sudoku cubes, where not only do you have to get all nine numbers facing the right way, you've also got to make sure there's only one of each number on each face, just like a Sudoku puzzle, only there's six sides, you see. So it's more difficult. Then, there are cubes that got shrunk—such as the 2x2x2 Rubik's Mini shown on the left. And some cubes just got some grow juice—the 4x4x4 Rubik's Revenge, and biggest of all at 5x5x5, The Professor.

The biggest of all


I wrote about the other cubes I'd bought previously in my previous article all about Rubik's cubes back in June 2007. And I have an update. I've FINALLY managed to purchase The Professor. The Largest. The Meanest. The Ugliest. The Hardest Cube To Master. If you can master all the others, you'll probably do okay at this one. But if you gave up on the normal 3x3x3 Rubik's Cube when it came out in the eighties, then this one will send you running screaming for the hills. All ninety eight pieces to get right. Still only six sides, but might as well be twelve. Luckily, it was bought at the same store that I bought most of the other cubes from. And it wasn't much more expensive than the others, at only $34.95. So I now have the complete collection of cubes, with no more to buy.
I heard that someone actually came up with working prototypes of both a 6x6x6 cube and a 7x7x7 cube, but I seriously doubt that anyone will bring them to market any time soon. And don't even think of trying to speed-cube with this monster. It's simply too fragile, and even the manufacturer doesn't guarantee the product against improper usage, stating on the base this disclaimer:
NOTICE: The 5x5 Rubik's Cube by its very nature has more moveable parts than the 3x3 Rubik's® Cube and is not recommended for “speed cubing.”. Be sure to align all rows before moving them and do not force pieces to twist or turn. Winning Moves Games can not be held responsible for damage due to improper use.
And so we have it.

Gone to pieces

I'd hate to drop it and have it fall apart, as I have no idea how it's put together. Nor is there a reassembly diagram available from the Rubiks.com website, even though there are reassembly diagrams for every other size available. I also don't know how to solve this cube. Thankfully, there is a "booklet" that describes some ways of solving sides of the cube. I'll let you know how I go, if I can do it at all. For those that are interested, I found them mentioned for sale via Winning Games, at Amazon.com; for those of us in Christchurch (New Zealand), they're on sale at the Natures Discoveries shops, so they may also be in other places in the country.

Count them. Count them all, and despair

Again, thanks go to the providers of the related images from Wikipedia.org. It's probably the last time I'll waffle about cubes in this blog, though I imagine I'll have fun trying to do each of the cubes in turn. I've got the 2x2x2 down pat, just about. I can do the 3x3x3 with help from the webpage I pointed to above, as well as the 4x4x4. But frankly the Professor is going to be difficult.
Mathematically, the number of unique combinations is somewhat more than the number of combinations of pieces that we can actually tell apart, at least for the 3x3x3 and 5x5x5. This is because the middle piece of the 3x3x3 face has four indistinguishable directions; the same applies for the 5x5x5 cube. Additionally, for the eight pieces surrounding the middle piece, the corners are all interchangable, and the sides are all interchangable as well, without us actually knowing the difference. One way of telling them all is to actually print a pattern up on sticky sheet in six colours, then stick those to the cube faces. But then that makes your cube even harder to do. And it's already hard enough to do now, isn't it?

Update to post

Incidentally, paragraphs I forgot to add when writing this article before, about how to reassemble and solve the Cubes. Firstly, there are reassembly diagrams for all the Rubik's Cubes except for the Professor, up at the Rubiks.com website, though you may have to dig a little if these links no longer work.
For the Professor, the diagrams are a bit more instructive, so I lead off with how to Disassemble the Professor and then Reassemble the Professor. This particular website also offers parts for sale for the Rubik's Revenge and the Professor, though these parts are not always in supply.
Solution guides also exist for each of the cubes, try this link to find the free downloads or hunt around if it doesn't work. These are in PDF format, so that you can even print them off if you need. In addition, one good site I have found is here (www.waldsfe.org) and covers all four cube models I've mentioned here, though he mentions the Mini-cube in passing as being "all corners".