24 December, 2009

They made them good, back in them days

Well, not that good really, but okay. I'm talking specifically about a little hand mixer with two beaters, I'm not sure if it was a little Kenwood or a Sunbeam. However, back in those days (I'm talking about the 1980s here) they didn't bother putting on stupid secure screws so Joe So Lame Lewser couldn't get in and try to fix it herself. They just put on two Phillips screws, and left it at that. The reason I mention this is: I've just saved myself what could have been a very costly repair bill by repairing the mixer myself. Thankfully the fix was simple. If the mixer had those "other" screws in, the ones with the heads that only professional repair places should be able to undo, then I probably wouldn't have been able to repair what ended up to be a dead simple fault.

The symptoms: one of the two mixer blades would lock in, but the other one would no longer lock in, and kept falling out. I got a little sick of trying to use it with just one working blade, so I undid the two screws, hoping like anything I could get it back together again even if I couldn't fix what was originally wrong. Luckily I found what was wrong. Inside the mixer, a clip-washer had come off one of the rotor-gears, stopping it from working properly. After a good ten minutes which included removing the entire motor from the housing just to replace the clip washer, I finally got the clip washer back on, put everything back together again, making sure I put both springs back where they belonged (one had fallen off) replaced the washer I'd forgotten to put back on the first time, and shrugged my shoulders at the other missing washer, as there wasn't much I could do about it. As far as I could tell, the old mixer still worked in every other regard, so I had no reason to spend any more money getting a new one, so needless to say, I'm pretty pleased with myself. The only problem being, I still haven't finished the job, the other beater still flaps around like anybody's business, but hey, I did it myself. Chalk that one up to home repairs everywhere.

As long as you're extremely careful, and don't do anything stupid, a lot of simple faults can actually be repaired without having to cart the item off to a professional service centre. In saying this, don't bother with the repair if the item's still under warranty. And if the dead/missing/broken/faulty part involves items with more legs than you've got eyes, then forget it too. You'll only break the warranty, and you may end up with an item you can't repair (because you lack the tools/expertise/parts) and have to pay the full cost of the repair instead.

20 December, 2009

It’s all shiny, captain!

To be fair, I haven’t seen this message in Google’s Wave interface very often, but this is the error message you get from the Wave interface when something’s gone pear-shaped. They generally provide a input box where you can type in what you were doing (“Looking at a wave”), and submit that to the technical people. You then have to refresh the page. This is much simpler than some other things I’ve seen happen, where browsers promptly die, very occasionally taking the operating system with them. Yes Sue, I’ve seen that happen.

It’s certainly in a “closed beta” stage, though “semi-open” would be a more correct term, as Google have been handing gobs of invites out to those who politely ask, or to those who get given one by a waver who is already on line. And you can tell the functionality’s not all there, though there are certainly things you can do. Who would have thought you could stream video and music twenty years ago? GoogleWave reminds me of a house that’s just being built, so random decisions about the wallpaper are getting made before some of the walls are even up. They’re sort of stringing cabling through the joists to bring power to the plasma television they have up on the wall behind me. And they’ve already changed what goes on the floors about seven times before they standardised on white concrete. Or was that wood panel? Nope, it was ceramic tiles, I think. But I think you get the point. We’re still finding out how to tie in everything else from twitter to blogs, music to live video, email, MSN chats, and lots of other stuff. But the remaining problem is: how do we use it without referring to whatever else we’ve all been doing before Google Wave came along?

That’s a little trickier.

At the moment at least, I’m using it as a glorified IRC client with fancy formatting, and “paste-where-you-like” functionality. As long as all parties are present on a wave, and nobody stomps on anyone else, it can be even more fun than IRC, purely because of the removal of the linear input structure mandated by IRC. The same applies to any Instant Message services, because they present information to the user in a continuous stream of lines. Google Wave does that bit better than any of the other messaging services I’ve used, including jabber. But I’m still trying to use it as a series of lines to communicate. And I’m not entirely sure that that’s what GoogleWave is good at. The fact that a conversation is just there, is great. Nobody has to worry about archiving it any more. Of course, if Google Wave goes teats-up, then we may need to restart using somewhere else as a server. It’s definitely a server-client architecture, and probably requires a good understanding of the infrastructure of the server before you let your users loose on it.

Other posited uses of it have been:

  • Live meeting notes
    While a meeting is happening, you can have a large number of meeting participants also taking notes, all on the same page. This requires some discipline, to make sure that you don’t have a catfight. Certain people need to take charge of specific areas and not step outside those boundaries, at least not without good reason. Other people probably could cruise through, correcting any obvious mistakes that don’t get picked up in the first five minutes or so.
  • Wiki, or live F.A.Q.
    GoogleWave doesn’t have quite the same formatting abilities as a matchbox, but you can at least use highlight, bold, italic, strikethrough, underline, and choose font, size and colour. Paragraphs come for free, so does paragraph formatting. Images come through as links, or occasionally pasted as inline images with a border to them. All other files seem to be relegated to attachment status. Most of the time, these are all the formatting items you need in a wiki, at least. F.A.Qs aren’t much better.
  • Document collaboration
    If a more complicated document is required, somebody can set up the structure of the document, somebody else can concentrate on the subject matter, and somebody else can get the formatting (yes, that’s separate from structure) of the content correct. Takes a bit of work, but nothing that others aren’t used to already.
  • Show Off Page
    Needless to say, there are those of us who just like to browse the gadgets. Gadgets are gobs of code that provide anything from simple functionality a step up from lists of sets to fullblown applications embedded into the middle of a wave. They provide anything from simple twitter feeds, to maps from GoogleMaps, to included youtube videos, to … well, you can pretty much come up with anything you like. But, you need to get your code correct. If you don’t, well, it’s recorded for all eternity afterwards. If this worries you, then stick to what others have written. As long as it’s well written, and doesn’t stomp all over other content, then it’s acceptable to put small amounts of gadgets into a wave. Some of them don’t play pretty with other wave content though.
  • And …
    Well, the sky’s the limit… or at least the coding quality of the Google Services upon which GoogleWave is based.

That’s a really short summary, and doesn’t provide anything like a full summary. At the time that GoogleWave was announced to the world, there was a video released (a long 82 minute video) that described many of the features present in GoogleWave at that time. Since that time, there have probably been advances in the stability of the underlying code, as well as other people making gadgets. On top of all this, of course, is the content in the very large number of waves present when you enter with:public  into the search box. People are obviously confident enough to take their content public, and not hide it away in a bunker somewhere. Of course, most of these are low-bandwidth, but there are probably a few examples of really good content. And with that I take my leave and wave goodbye.

See ya.

28 November, 2009

Trading on down

What? More books?

Oh yeah, but these are some classics. Not in the true sense of the word of course, I have enough Dickens and Dumas for the moment. But these will do. As you can see from the pic (yes, I know it's not a very good one), I got some Bond, James Bond. While I was at it, I also picked up the last James Clavell book I didn't already have in my collection. I've yet to gain what isn't in this list (Moonraker, Diamonds are forever, and a few others) but these are in okay condition, considering that they're all printed in the 1960s. I note that some of them aren't written by Ian Fleming, but rather by John Gardner. I haven't read any Bond books written by this author yet, so I'd like to know how the debonair spy is handled.

The Clavell is also in reasonable condition—it's also been looked after. They were all a pretty good price too, only $15.00, and that's including the cost of getting them here. Nine books, for that price, less than $1.67 per book. Should keep me happy, once I start (again) the Clavell series from the beginning with Shogun, and go all the way through to the last book, Whirlwind. Only this time, I'll finish each book before I go on to the next one.

Waving goodbye

Google Wave allows embedding of waves now. The only problem being that if a user that comes to the website to view this blogpost isn't logged into Google Wave, then they don't see any content within that box at the bottom of the post. Seems strange, but never mind. I've been having enough fun just trying to get my head around all that Google Wave can potentially be—watch this space for more details. I may even paste the static content from one of my waves here, that way everyone can at least view it, whether they're a 'waver or not. I just won't allow modifications from non-wavers.

And that's a wrap from me.

14 November, 2009

On the other hand...

Books are one of those things I tend to like reading, though these days books have to compete with online attractions like blogs, music, online games and www.youtube.com, as well as other activities such as television, movies and boozing with your mates. Err, I mean drinking.

I've finally received the last book I'd ordered from fishpond.co.nz (Dan Brown's first book, Digital Fortress), and I thought I'd best make some comments. It's the first time I've actually bought second hand books from the Internet, though it's not the first time I've ever bought books second-hand. A good condition second-hand book has the advantage of lasting nearly as long as a new book does, with appropriate care. It can often cost a third of the cost of a new book, and provide just as much enjoyment. I normally buy new where I can, but these three books were too good to pass up. I'm glad I wasn't too disappointed.

For the price, the books pretty much meet the criteria specified on the website, and though they don't exactly meet their online description of condition, they're okay for the price I paid. I get a copy of the text, none of the pages are ripped/falling out/mutilated and the spine isn't "broken", a pet peeve of mine with some readers "splitting" the spine so the book will stay open at the page they want it to. It's a quick read for one of the books; you might think that 510 pages would take a while, but I've finished it in roughly six hours of on-and-off reading.

I suspect that Dan Brown will never become a favourite author, as there are simply too many inaccuracies in his books. I have to deliberately forget about that, and just treat them as stories. As such, Digital Fortress reads okay, but Angels and Demons is far better. I liked that book so much I ended up buying the illustrated version of it and The Da Vinci Code, both well worth the price (new, but discounted) that I paid for both at Paper Plus Books. I just hope that his latest shows the polish that Angels and Demons has, but I suspect not, as he takes pot shots at the Masons. It's also the third book to focus around a central character, Robert Langdon. Anyhow, 'nuff said from me. I think I'll dive into my other book tomorrow.

11 November, 2009

One mouse to rule them all

It's all a matter of style

How do you control multiple computers? Some of us do it with fancy little KVMs. That can work well, though they're not cheap when you start looking at more than two computers. Then there's easy free software that can shift the mouse pointer focus between two computers running XFree86/Xorg. This has the advantage of switching the keyboard focus too, though it doesn't do the monitor switching for you. Oh yes, and there's the two-computer limit, unless you happen to run the software in daisychain mode; start it up on the first computer, point that at the second computer. Start it again on the second computer, pointed at the third computer, etc etc. That tends to get ugly though, and still requires that you have authentication (at least as far as Xorg is concerned) for each client. I decided to combine what a KVM does with what x2x does, though I seem to have slightly mixed results.

On both my computers, I'm lucky enough to have a video card with two outputs, though with the KVM I'm using, I can only switch one monitor. So—I plug a monitor into each computer as the primary output (yes, I have multiple monitors), start up the x2x program on the first computer and point it at the second computer's X server, switch the keyboard focus over to the second computer, and work with the applications over on the second computer with the same keyboard and mouse. Except now I've struck a problem.

The newest version of Xorg in the latest version of Ubuntu (9.10 Karmic Koala) doesn't support the XTest extension that x2x uses to operate with. Because of that, I can't use x2x any more from the Mandriva to the Ubuntu machine. I could probably get it going in the other direction, but once Mandriva removes the XTest extension from the Xorg setup they have, I also lose that advantage. So. What do I do then?

I suspect I'll be left with options such as Synergy. That has the advantage of being somewhat platform-agnostic, where clients work on both Windows and on Xorg. I've never used it, but the people who have told me of it say good things of it. So, let's see what happens.

Tennis, anyone?

On its own, the mouse isn't a very good gaming device, not unless you get one of those fancy multiple-button laser mice that report at twice the normal rate of other mice. That's a bit academic to most of us, however. Put simply, at least for me, joysticks aren't much use either. The trend these days tends to be for gamers to use multiple inputs, often using the mouse to point, then using an ancillary keyboard to call up all the other functions. These extra little keyboards (sometimes users use the ordinary keyboard instead) are USB devices, and wired into the Windows input layer or the Xorg input layer where games can see their key events and act upon them. Think of a key for each specific function, so you're probably dealing with up to thirty extra keys on a keypad on the opposite side of the keyboard from where you have your mouse.

Looking back at input devices, one of the original ideas was a 5-fingered chorded device to provide up to 31 separate events. As I've mentioned before, you often had to be quick on your ... fingers to use one of these well, so it was eventually scrapped and replaced with the mouse that we love (or hate) today. But it seems that we've almost come back to the idea of extra keys, though at least we're not always chording any more.

Quake, anyone?

21 October, 2009

Now, where did I put that update?

See Emily Play

This one's brought over from my MySpace blog, with one or two modifications. I'm just trying out Scribefire at the moment. It seems a bit slow to respond when I initially type stuff into the window, but in all other respects, it seems perfectly fine. For those of you who don't know, ScribeFire is a blogging client, written in JavaScript, that is a Firefox plug in. And not a bad one, either. Yes, it has its small problems, but it seems to support more blogtypes than what I was last using: Windows Live Writer.  My only issue with Writer is that it (gee!) only runs on the Windows platform. In comparison, this plugin runs anywhere that Firefox will run.

Careful with that axe, Eugene

I spotted ScribeFire in the list of available packages after having updated my Mandriva install up to the latest version, 2009.1. I did have a bit of an adventure getting everything set up and working, but my first problem was to get all the packages for the new release onto the system. As it was (at the time) sitting on 2009.0, I first had to change the urpmi configuration so it got the new stuff, not the old stuff I'd already been using. Did that (with the help of easyurpmi.zarb.org), and started upgrading packages piecemeal. Up until last month, I'd grabbed a batch of packages to update, then urpmi'd them into place.

Started with KDE, got most of that installed, tried rebooting the X server, only to find out I could no longer get KDE started. Shrugged it off, chose xfce instead. Upgraded gnome, then upgraded E17, adding some X server packages too. Tried booting E17, X server didn't want to know. Gave up on the X server as I'd obviously broken Xorg, went back to console for the moment. Thought about it a bit more, then said to hell with it. Upgrade them all at once.

urpmi --auto-select

Urpmi churned a bit, then asked me what library I wanted to provide for graphviz, then told me I'd lose several packages in the process as newer versions weren't available. I dealt with the occasional conflicts, installed all the packages I could (forcefully in two cases), then rebooted.

I'll see you on the dark side of the moon.

I knew I was sort of in trouble when I looked at the screen after I hit <Enter> on the Mandriva line, as the poor old grub had come up with the following output:

kernel (hd0,0)/boot/vmlinuz BOOT_IMAGE=linux root=/dev nosplash video=radeonfb:1024x768-16@75 resume=/dev/sda2 vga=791 Cannot find file. Error 16 Hit Enter to return to the menu

Once I took my third dried green frog pill, I looked more carefully at the input and output to see what had broken... it was then that I realised that grub wasn't even looking in the right place, as my setup has all my information on hd3,1. So, I corrected this, and corrected the root= parameter, changed the same thing for the initrd as well, crossed my fingers, and hit "b" (to boot what I'd saved). Thankfully, it loaded the kernel, and the initrd, and started my system up. Then I hit the next snag. avahi-daemon wouldn't start. it uttered a mournful [FAILED] to the screen, and my startup continued...until I hit haldaemon. The computer then (effectively) stopped dead in its tracks, waiting for I didn't know what. After a couple of resets, I finally found out that both haldaemon and avahi-daemon were dependent upon another service I'd forgotten about—messagebus. The Messagebus service starts up the dbus daemon, which handles all of the gobbledygook that seems to go on underneath the surface in a typical modern Mandriva distro. If it isn't running, then neither will anything else that depends upon it to be there. Think of it as another udev, but for messages instead of devices, although haldaemon also uses it.

So, it was back to the single-user boot. While I was there, I corrected /boot/grub/menu.lst at the same time so I wouldn't have to keep typing hd3, and pondered about dbus. I checked in /etc/rc.d/rc3.d again for a startup script with dbus in the name, but couldn't see one. Looked a bit further, and realised I was supposed to be looking for messagebus. Found THAT, as S99messagebus. Mandriva had got stuck on haldaemon, which was also at S99. As Mandriva runs through these alphabetically, I figured I needed to get messagebus to an earlier number. I checked the header of the file, and found that what was in there, didn't match the S99 level it had been set to initially. Then, I decided to check out the chkconfig man page. Thankfully there was a parameter I hadn't seen there before... resetpriorities.

What this does is: take a valid start (S level) and finish (K level) number, and change the symlinks filenames to match these numbers. For messagebus, I now had S53messagebus, and both avahi-daemon and haldaemon were one digit higher (S54). Time for the final test. Reboot - yet again, this time the kernel was booted, the scripting ran clean, and I was finally at a login: prompt. Whew. What a procedure.

Now, I just had to get X up and running, and hope that the massive package upgrade hadn't broken something else in the process. Thankfully, it hadn't, though E17 still doesn't want to start, and neither does nautilus. Those are things I can live without, or I can fix. But it goes without saying that I shouldn't have had to go to all of this trouble just to upgrade a system. Hell, Ubuntu handles upgrades better than this. Anyhow, that's my first (now my second) post made with this blogging client, I hope it ends up being a stayer.

27 September, 2009

Intro to a strange thing

And so, with great trepidation, I enter into MySpace

(Snipped, with modifications, from my first post on MySpace blog)

So now, I've got presences on live.com, blogger.com, and quite a few other places too. I've got nearly everything under the sun except for MySpace, until now. I'm an "old fart". Yup. I'm probably 75% older than the average age on there, but I'm probably not the oldest person there. Just old enough to know better.

Brand recognition

So, how come some things are so well known they've become new terms in the world at large: “I’ll just Google it”, and some have faded into obscurity—who remembers gopher? If you do, you're older than I thought. If you also know what veronica was for, you’re one of less than every thousand. It's called brand recognition, and is the reason why some companies have survived (some for centuries, even) and some have died within a year of release. Category killers (usually), they've either become the best (and in some cases, the ONLY) entry in their chosen field, or they're pretty high up there. For Google, at least, they took over (or so it seems to me) from the all-powerful altavista.com, doing the job better than them. Now, who hears of altavista? Only old farts like me. Yes, it's still around. Yes, it still provides search results. Have I had a look at it in the past decade? Only once or twice, the last time to check that it was still up before I blogged about it. Google killed it off, or might as well have. Altavista list who they are on their website:

AltaVista, a business of Overture Services, Inc., is a leading provider of search services and technology.
and so on.

Okay, granted—there are literally hundreds of thousands of leading companies that I haven't heard of, but there certainly was a mass exodus to Google from Altavista. Something is said that the results from Google were way more relevant, and way more up to date. I'm not too sure, just that I jumped the bandwagon along with most of the Internet population of the time.

The funny thing is: their initial page is so dead simple! It's only when you start digging beneath the surface that you realise just how deeply embedded that the Google company has become. There have even been comments about how Google could be seen as another Microsoft. I can't verify that, nor deny it. But they're certainly big.

Of pages and spaces

I’m all spaced out.

Well, I’m not really. Come to think of it, I just joined MySpace, so I should be anything but. Or does everyone think that an old fart like me joining MySpace means I’m spaced out? I don’t know, to be honest.

I’m on three other publically accessible blog sites, blogger.com, spaces.live.com and bebo.com, but I’ve found that of the four blogs I write semi-regularly for, only two of those can be directly posted to by using Writer. The other two blogs require that I use the browser and go directly to the website to use their web-based editor, or use a third-party plugin from ping.fm. One thing I’ve got quickly used to using in Writer is the three tabs where a post can be edited, or previewed as it may look on the site itself. Works well for spaces.live.com (of course, Microsoft do both Windows Live Writer and live.com) and blogger.com (which has a publically available API), but doesn’t seem to work at all for whatever Bebo and MySpace use as their non-publically-available API.

So. Apart from the evil chickens that say that “Facebook and MySpace are alien conspiracies to steal your soul”, a recent quote from IRC, no less… How do I get my blogging goodness all in one window? Simply put, at the moment, I don’t. I have to duck and dive amongst Writer and web pages, hopefully being able to cut-and-paste from the main two blogs that Writer does support, into the two that Writer doesn’t know how to write to. To add to this, bebo has no significant ability to format text; there’s no html encoding (that I know of), so no headers, emphasis, or italics. Thankfully, MySpace is a bit better in that regard.

Those were the days, my friend

Being online as long as I have been, I’ve seen a few changes. I started hearing about MySpace quite a while ago, but saw no real need to join it. I felt the same about Bebo—it was a thing that young people were a part of. Then I started getting involved, and taking a look at what you could do with Facebook, Bebo, MySpaces and Live.com. I’d already got to grips with blogger.com, due to it being a simple (at the time) blog-hosting site. The other three are anything but. In fact, to this date, Facebook users don’t even have their own blogspaces, even though MySpace (a comparable service) provides blogs to its users. I can’t say I’m one of the most “connected” people I know, even though I have a twitter feed, MySpace/Facebook/Live.com/Yahoo.com/Bebo pages, and others in addition. I don’t tweet from my cellphone, and in fact the only reason I had to use my cellphone recently in correlation to a social networking website was to get verified. Yes, Facebook uses SMS to make sure its users are real people. I’ve no idea who actually paid for the service, though it possibly turned up on my bill.

Your circuit’s dead, can you hear me, Major Tom?

Even with being available on multiple sites, like many other people I get the impression that very few people (aside from those I tell, of course) are even going to know I’m now a Live Blogger FaceSpacer BeBopper Tweeter unless they stumble across me in a “Oh, I’ll just see whose page I can randomly scan for” frame of mind. Frankly, who of us wants to do that? Surely we have better things to do than that? Well, apparently not—as it would appear, in a recent study, university (and college in America) students were apparently more wrapped up in their social networking lives than they were in their real-life courses, so much so that in some cases their grades were adversely affected, and in some even more extreme cases, their attendance at those courses. It makes me wonder why they didn’t just sit on a Pak’n’Save (a local supermarket) checkout for six months just so they could afford enough money for their computer instead of wasting tens of thousands in government student loans for courses they had trouble completing.

So. What do people most want from these social networking sites? I believe it’s to feel as if they belong. It’s not necessarily the geeks and geekettes that have the highest attendance either, as social networking sites play to normal people more than the average geek. After all, the geeks are possibly too busy retrofitting Linux to Granny’s 12 year old computer. And the largest base appears to be the 18-30 age group, as they’ve been the ones most exposed to it from a young age.

What ever happened to the time when late teens were seen sucking down sodas and bragging about their hot wheels? And actually spending face time with their peers?

11 September, 2009

Grand Angus, or King Pin?

So, what’s this Big Burger Bang-Up about, anyhow?

Well, I decided I’d had enough of not getting any junk food in my life. So, I held a small competition. McDonalds and Burger King are both advertising new products in their range. Since when is that new? Since my wife and I decided we’d each like to try one. Only…to make it fair, we decided to try one of each—needless to say we well and truly went over our recommended daily intake yesterday. I got some money out of the bank (it’s an expensive process testing out fast food. You lose your money nearly as fast as they can steal it from you) and went to McDonalds first to try out their Grand Angus.

Aye, so what’s a Grand Angus?

Roughly speaking, it’s a burger made with Angus beef, salad greens, tomato, two slices of cheese, salad greens, mustard and mayonnaise (that I noticed), all presented on a oblong sour dough bun. Apparently the North American market has had that for years, but it’s only recently made an appearance here in New Zealand. It features New Zealand Angus beef too:

“…or occasionally Australian beef. But only if we can’t get any New Zealand beef…”

I like it, because it’s, well—beefy. Can’t say a lot about the salad greens that it came with, so I just shut up and ate them with the burger. They were fine. Really…just not on their own—I noticed they got a little bitter if I tried eating the greens on their own, and the situation wasn’t exactly resolved with the included mayonnaise. Anyhow, we had that, then we headed off to the Burger King (across the road) for the second part of our “Mighty Burger Bang—Up”.

And the King Pin? How come it “gets what it wants, when it wants it”?

Marketing. Frankly. It’s a longish bun (the same length as the sourdough bun) but a little narrower and a bit squashed-looking, onion rings (crumbed), the usual chicken pattie, cheese and some sauce. They even semi-divided it, though that ended up being a bit messy to separate, which spoiled the effect rather. To me, nothing too distinguished, nice but …. yeah. Personally I think the Grand Angus (even though it costs twenty cents more) has more … beef. That would kind of figure, seeing as it’s made of Angus beef. But never mind. The love of my life prefers the King Pin.

Opinion’s still divided?

Yup. I like one—she likes the other. Don’t get me wrong, she likes the Angus, but the King Pin was more of a hit with her. It’s got the chicken and bacon flavour as well as the onion rings, cheese and some sort of sauce. She found it nicer, with an overall better taste than the Angus. In her opinion, pretty darn nice and she’d do it again.

Will you ever be reconciled?

Don’t know, don’t care. I tend to have McDonalds once every two years if I’m lucky, and we have Burger King even less regularly. So, nice experiment (though an expensive one), but not one I feel like repeating more than once in a while.

07 September, 2009

The modern browser, and other worlds.

Goin’ on a Safari diet

Earlier this year, I posted about Google Chrome and how good a score it got on my Windows XP Home system. Since then, I found the Safari browser from Apple, also based off the same WebKit code. I also got a copy of Windows XP Professional, then patched it to the max. Safari got a better score than Google Chrome too, as it didn’t fail the linktest that seems to plague Google Chrome every time I try the ACID3 test. Literally the only thing that Safari failed on was speed, and that’s totally unsurprising, given that I’ve got a Duron 1GHz, with a whole 1,256Mb of memory. Still, the machine does me okay for what I’ve been doing up until now.

Safari hasn’t exactly supplanted Google Chrome for sheer skinniness of browser interface yet, nor has it impressed me as much as Opera did when I first ran that way back when I first spotted it. I’ve literally only found two things missing from Chrome – the ability to turn off flash (a la FlashBlock for FireFox) and the ability to add arbitrary other plugins. Still, it’s pretty okay. I like things in Safari but don’t know if I’ll use it as my main browser; given that it comes from Apple, and they don’t exactly give out the source code to all their crown jewels, I may step back to Firefox.

New Jools for Mozilla Corporation

Incidentally, I understand there’s been a new release of Firefox (3.5) which supports the HTML 5.0 release of the HTML specification, which seems to include lots of goodies that don’t need browser plug-ins such as Flash, Shockwave, or SilverLight. While that’s nice, what does the HTML 5.0 standard mandate that earlier revisions didn’t? I haven’t any idea at the moment, which is why I’ll head off to the W3C.org site for the HTML 5.0 preliminary  standard to see what it says. Dry reading, but it’s the last word in the standard. I may have to go somewhere else to actually find out what it all means, mind you – but hey, that’s life.

Same old same old for Microsoft?

In comparison to IE8, I think I still prefer Firefox/Chrome. I don’t know why, it could be the fact that I can’t block adverts in quite the same way with IE. It could be the fact that I get a bar and a VERY loud noise that pops up every time the page has a flash applet that IE could run, but first it needs to check with me first. I can’t reduce the volume of the noise, and it’s one of the things that really puts me off. It could also be the fact that IE8 still only gets 23/100 on my machine when I do the ACID3 test. Hey, that’s better than the rank score of 3/100 that I got with IE7, or 12/100 in IE8 non-compatibility mode! It could even be the fact of the fallibility of Microsoft’s programmers when they made previous versions of the browser so exploitable, and so much a core part of the operating system. Hopefully IE8 isn’t exploitable in quite the same ways, nor to the same degree. Frankly, I don’t know.

Personally, for blocking/choosing flash, I prefer to use Firefox with the FlashBlocker plugin; add AdBlocker Pro and NoScript, and nothing is getting through those three without your say so. In my eyes, that’s a better way of doing the job. NoScript has the advantage of treating each site separately, no matter if it happens to display content on the same page or not, each website gets its own blockable entry. It’s the same for AdBlocker Pro.

So now what?

What’s next in the browser wars? I honestly have no idea. Not as a desktop user, anyhow. I could say I had a wish-list, but I’d be incorrect in saying so. And as I’m no programmer (really) I have no idea of the scale of the job that modern browser programmers have… do they make it lean-n-mean (a la Chrome) and risk leaving out features that users want, or do they make it sing and dance (a la Firefox 3.5) and take plenty of a user’s machine memory on load-up? That’s a hard act to balance, because while some people want to get the job done (display me the page, please, and don’t put any stupid dressing on it), some others want to be immersed in a multimedia environment hosted (funnily enough) by a browser-like interface.

So, what? Host the whole OS in the browser?

That’s a possibility being mooted by some – create the browser as a thin shim around a internet-based operating system, with most of the applications hosted at remote servers, along with most of the user’s data files. Great for redundancy, it almost approaches what thin clients are built for. A bit useless for those of us with slow old modems and gobs of hard disk space just crying out for tunes to be stored locally. And in New Zealand at least, shuffling all that data over our slow links that we have here isn’t all that practical unless you’re only editing a few documents a month and doing a little bit of surfing, a little bit of email, and some (small amount of) music listening. Otherwise you end up paying gobs of money because you’ve gone over your data cap for the month.

Local, or Server?

Personally, I prefer local. Nobody else has to deal with it then. As long as I’ve got a copy on my hard drive, nobody snoops my network traffic to see my artwork, music, or letters (or blog posts, for that matter). I’m not entirely in favour of server storage, except for one thing—access for other people. As soon as you throw in multiple access to the mix, then server storage makes more sense. With local storage, you have to shove a document up to some other place (via ftp/http/torrent) or let someone have a reccy at your personal machine to see the document, or use some sort of peer-to-peer software like Skype/Messenger. Hey, people are still emailing stuff, but that assumes the other person has an email account they have access to. And who remembers that grand old collection of software: uucp? Granted, all these solutions work (except for uucp now, of course), but they always feel like a bolt-on to me. Even server storage feels like a bolt-on to me, but it’s how shared environments work. “Team” members put documents into a store, and everyone has access to it, to work on as they need, sometimes in pairs—in which case, the document will probably be locked so that only certain things can be done by other people.

These sorts of team environments are only really used by businesses at the moment, but there’s no real reason to restrict it to them. I can imagine that Grannie might just want her son’s help in writing up a letter, but the son’s in another city. In which case, a shared environment may just do the job. I’m not talking about the type of thing whereby Grannie offers son a Remote Desktop invitation, as that’s not really what that’s for—and that’s rather limited to whatever software happens to be on Granny’s machine at the time, the speed of the network (sometimes abysmal), and the speed of understanding between the two of them. VNC offers a similar experience to Remote Desktop, but can operate across differing operating systems. An ad-hoc arrangement whereby son pastes paragraphs into Messenger and then Granny pulls that out of Messenger into her editor would of course also work, but there’s nothing like working from the same page, so to speak.

Linux (and indeed Unix of old, BSDs etc) had this concept of kibitz – a program that provided a shared shell where two (or more) people could interact, though for xkibitz at least, it’s text only. I can do the same thing with a OpenSSH session, the screen program  and an editor, but this requires either that I give the other party/parties access to my account, or provide a common login account for everyone to play in that’s a bit more locked down security-wise, so if anyone goes NATO on you, you’ve at least got some protection. Again, a screen session is text-only. Examples of fully graphical, fully interactive by all parties systems aren’t too prevalent, and VNC (in its various forms) is the only 2D example outside of RFB that I know of currently.

Why not a 3D environment?

One concept has a fully three-D model environment that everyone logs into, and everyone can create objects and interact with each other’s objects, all be it with some restrictions. Currently, I know of two models in this case: Second Life is one well-known example, OpenCobalt and EduSIM are two other examples that aren’t so well known, partly because people are still working on the underlying software. Frankly I’m still getting my head around things in Second Life, and I’ve volunteered to be a tester for the OpenCobalt project to bring them up to speed. There are some limitations to all of these environments though, in that you have to have a recent machine, and a reasonably fast Internet connection (DSL at 2MBit should do). Good quality graphics cards are a must for these applications, as I’ve found out to my detriment. Neither of my machines have a really recent video subsystem, and as a result, their performance suffers when subjecting them to the requirements of a 3D multi-user environment.

Why are there two models? What’s the difference?

The main difference between the two models lies in this. Second Life focuses on a server-driven hosting model, where everyone who downloads an official Second Life client and executes it automatically (with suitable username/password) gets logged into the Second Life server cluster, and can only interact with the activities hosted there. If you wish to have a slice of your own land, then that is paid for on a subscription basis, because that’s actually how they make their income to afford the running of the servers. I believe they’ve accepted the fact that most people won’t actually buy their own land, just as long as they can get those people to interact with people who will buy land, build projects, and items to interact with.

In the other model, there’s the “everyone gets their own island” model, where each person starts off with an environment (called an island, in Cobalt parlance) they can tool up as they need. The trick to getting people to each other’s environments is in a tool called the teleport. Much like Second Life, it allows an avatar to transport to somewhere else. Unlike Second Life, the teleports are not mandated by a server farm or by a company. And currently at least, spaces are only visible to other people on a voluntary basis. If I start up a Cobalt island, it’s completely autonomous. If I wish others to come to that island, then I can hand out a “postcard” telling somebody “this is where I am on the network, so come and join me”. I can take the island down whenever I like, without having to report to anybody other than whom I’ve invited to my island. People that receive a postcard can then use the teleport mechanism to come to my space.

So far, in my testing, I haven’t nailed down exactly how many people we can have on an island before performance starts suffering. I have heard that there have been twelve people (wow!) on an island, and performance wasn’t impacted, but they were all on a local area network. I’ve noticed that things happen at a slower frame rate for me, but that’s because I’m on an older machine. I’ve no idea how performance degrades for hundreds or even thousands of people in an island, because we’ve never done that scale yet.

OpenCobalt is built on the Squeak platform, a popular form of Smalltalk that’s freely downloadable and usable by anybody, so it was a good fit for a project of this type. There have been extensions to the Squeak platform to allow it to do the 3Dish thing, previous work was put into a client called Croquet, and further work was done on Croquet to produce what has become OpenCobalt. It’s got a wee way to go, but I think with the right work, we can get the performance of Second Life, without the necessity of depending upon a centralised server farm to run it on.

Anyhow, that’s my little wander through the subjects rattling around in my mind.

03 September, 2009

Unix, but not as we know it.

Last night, I finally managed to install the last piece of a group of packages from the SUA Community, a site sponsored by Microsoft to provide further tools for the Services For UNIX (3.5) subsystem. The SFU (now known as Services for Unix Applications or simply SUA) is a Unix-like environment to lure other non-Windows developers over to the Windows platform without scrapping their existing skill-base altogether. It provides an execution environment running within Windows, including “more than 350 commonly used” utilities (grep, sed, awk, telnet, find being a few examples) seen on many Unix-like platforms, shells (ksh, tcsh, perl and rsh-based tools), a compiler (gcc-3.3) and binutils, full NFS server and client, ftpd server, POSIX threads and other things too. They omitted the X server, funnily enough, even though they added quite a few X utilities. Microsoft’s rationale behind this was that there were already enough publically available X servers for download without them reinventing the wheel. Personally, I think that if they had provided a kernel-level X-like server, it would have removed the requirement for other options. Only problem being, we wouldn’t see the source code. But then I’m used to that. Plenty of tools to use in the SFU.

However, the number of tools provided aren’t anywhere near the number provided on a modern (read: released in the past five years) FreeBSD or Linux (or for that matter, the granddaddy of OSes, Solaris) distribution of software. So, the SUA community (previously known simply as “/Tools”) set about remedying the perceived lack of tools by supplying additional ones. Bash—being my favourite, is in there, as is the not so well-known zsh. Then, there’s ncftp, the Xming X server (the last publically-available Xming-6-9-0-31 server), and even several updates to the SUA/SFU tools, most importantly a later version of gcc. Of course, there are a lot of other tools as well (too many for me to mention here) that make the SUA environment a much more useful and friendly place to non-Windows administrators.

Anyhow, to finish off, I finally managed to get Xming installed, merely by downloading the current version from the maintainer (funnily enough, the same version as supplied in the SUA community package collections), and clicking the executable from a normal Explorer. Given that trying to run Xming-setup from a ksh as administrator wasn’t working, I ought to be grateful it works now.

08 June, 2009

BSD - Reliability, Fast Speed, No Cost, Open Source. Yup.

Oh dear. It blew a gasket

Yeah. So much for FreeBSD 7.2 being super-robust, or so I thought. It seems that FreeBSD doesn’t like holes (bad blocks) in file systems any more than other operating systems do, and there’s no way of telling FreeBSD's UFS2 filesystem to include a list of bad blocks that it finds when it builds the filesystem, though in way earlier releases, there used to be just such a utility, called bad144.

I had put FreeBSD on to the 20 Gb drive after I had moved Linux data off it to another drive. After I installed FreeBSD, it worked really well. Right up until I had to turn off the power on it one day, as it had locked up fairly solid. When I brought it back up, the inevitable fsck happened, as most operating systems do when a partition hasn’t been cleanly unmounted. It got stuck when it couldn’t read a particular block, and wouldn’t go any further, even when I ran fsck manually. Needless to say, I then backed up the data to another drive, and will figure out what else I need to do—perhaps I can migrate the DOS drive to the end of the hard disk so that I can restore FreeBSD into a space without any “holes” in it.

So where to from here? Any other issues?

I have to say that that has been the only issue I’ve struck with FreeBSD 7.2 so far. Yes, the issue’s a biggie, but no real reason to pan the whole OS just because of hardware fallibility. And frankly I like the idea of the whole of the source of the OS (that’s not just the kernel, but also the base applications) being available in one place, as opposed to the normal Linux behaviour of the kernel being downloaded from kernel.org, and the applications (whichever applications the distribution decides upon) being provided from other sources, such as the Free Software Foundation’s GNU suite of applications

FreeBSD shares this model of supplying a complete operating environment with the other variants of BSD (Dragonfly, NetBSD, OpenBSD and others), and has offered models for other operating systems to do the same—FreeDOS is one example, Plan 9 is another.

Oh yeah, another thing—FreeBSD doesn’t seem to much like my SATA controller (a SiI 3112 with added USB/Firewire interfaces) and won’t actually read any data from the drive connected to it. Strange, but again, not a reason to pan the OS. It just seems strange that Linux has no appreciable problems both booting off the drive, and running off the drive, yet FreeBSD has issues. Driver code, perhaps?

And now, a bit of history

The origins to the free versions of the BSD operating system reach all the way back into the late seventies when UCB and others were providing patches to the then king of operating systems - AT&T UNIX. All an institution needed was a valid UNIX licence, and to be able to pay the (relatively for software) minimal cost for the tapes and postage, and they could have the BSD additions to UNIX for a song.

Of course, this still didn’t bring BSD into the realm of the average C64/Amiga 500 computer user of the day, but it came close. Generally if you were earning enough money, you could buy it yourself (along with the expensive AT&T UNIX) and install it on your own hardware—probably also very expensive at the time. It wasn’t until the mid eighties that an attempt was made to reduce the cost to practically zero, and remove the requirement of having an AT&T licence. It wasn’t until the late eighties that Bill Jolitz and others decided to port BSD to the then-popular Intel i386 processor to produce the 386BSD OS, that people at home finally had a UNIX-like system they could afford the cost of. The story of the initial release of 386BSD was published in Dr Dobb’s journal over several issues starting in early 1991. While 386BSD was not a success, eventually foundering for technical and community reasons, others took up the charge and furthered some of the concepts at least, if not the core of 386BSD - and merged it with some work done to produce 4.4BSD-lite, and then produced FreeBSD from that merger. Further history is mentioned in the BSD wiki entry and is probably more accurate than I have just been. Other exceptionally informative articles live at Lynne's Blog. And yes, that's Lynne Jolitz, wife of William Jolitz, one of the architects of 2.8BSD and 2.9BSD, among other things.

And now? Anything else to report?

Oh yes. You want to know where to from here? Well, now that I've installed FreeBSD, I've found that I'm having slight issues in GUI mode, as things only seem to kick off when I move the mouse. Hm. Not terribly useful to me, but it’s something I can handle. I’ll have to deal with all that once I actually get the FreeBSD data reinstalled into a slightly safer place - somehow, I suspect a hole in a DOS drive isn’t going to have quite the same problems as a hole in a BSD filesystem.

That will at least mean I can keep playing with FreeBSD.

28 April, 2009

Stuff, or fluff?

Is it stuff, or is it fluff?

Yup. What's it really worth? That stuff you've collected over the years? People will debate this topic like, forever. Compare, a 1946 Austin 7 against a 2008 Ford Falcon. Just doesn't compare. One goes faster than the other. One uses less petrol than the other. One is a darn sight easier to repair - guess which one. Yet will you find the ardent Austin owner willing to give his precious vehicle up for a modern vehicle instead?

Uh, no.

Then there's just uh, fluff.

A 1995 Pentium I 90Mhz machine with four 72-pin memory slots. It's got four PCI slots, two VESA slot and two ISA slots. It's just been consigned to the tip because it only supports a maximum of 128MB memory, and that's only Fast Page or EDO. No SDRAM support here. Its keyboard controller is shot, though fixable with another chip from a similar machine, it's just an 8042. The internal inbuilt CMOS battery is shot, resulting in the CMOS clock being reset to 01/01/1980 every time it's powered on. Even if the CMOS were to retain the time between power ups, it fails the Y2K test. The hard drive controller doesn't support a hard drive faster than 8.4GB from the BIOS - yep, that's that 1024 cylinder limit kicking in. The CDROM drive is double speed. The floppy drive stopped working about seven years ago and hasn't been cleaned of dust bunnies in nearly that long. The IDE cable only works if it's twisted in a figure eight around the power cable to the hard drive, and even then requires the occasional kick to make sure it stays in place for longer than 15 minutes. Hence the rubber band holding the connector onto the drive. Oh, hang on, that's perished.

At least Linux boots on it. But really, it's for thin client use only. Oh, hang on - NetBSD boots on it too. Remember? NetBSD runs on everything. But definitely time for the recycling plant. Oh, wait a minute, this doesn't conform to ROHO guidelines for minimum levels of exotic chemicals used in the manufacture. So we can't even recycle the components.


Another piece of fluff: a hand scanner with a proprietary 8-bit ISA card that plugs in and only has drivers for Windows 3.1. God, that is SO fluff.

Then, there's my own piece of fluff that I actually still own, because it hasn't canned over yet. It's an XT. Not a true blue, not even close. It has a Hercules card AND a CGA card. It has TWO XT drive controllers, I'm not sure which one works and which one doesn't. I have two 20MB drives. Yes, that's Mega bytes. Not Gigabytes. And they're both MFM. I think the CGA card has a serial port on it too, which leads to a bit of confusion when plugging in the sickly green monitor I still have. It's destined to become a classic, though not a very good example of the class of XTs available. It even provides a 10MHz Turbo!

I'm sure I don't have to provide any more examples.

Are we on to the good stuff yet?

Then, there's stuff. Like the current batch of netbooks coming out. The previous generation of these didn't have much memory, and only had a 2GB SSD drive to store the whole OS onto. Not a lot of room, I think you'd agree. And probably destined to become the year before's fluff. Or hand me downs. Or something like that.

The more modern incarnations however, feature the later Atom processors and a decent amount of drive space. Smaller than a laptop, they also take less power than a typical laptop, yet they have features that most good laptops have, like a crystal clear screen that's literally gorgeous to look at. It's only 1024x600 on an 8.9" screen, but that's still large enough to display documents on and not get eyestrain. It's eminently portable, folding down to not much larger than my FX9750 calculator, but a darn sight more powerful. I'd be happy enough to receive one of these in about four years time, as I've been looking for a machine that I can read ebooks on, type up the odd source code file, or perhaps even listen to some MP3 tunes. Trouble is, I probably won't end up with one, as they'll probably be retained by their owners.

So—what items of fluff or stuff can you provide? How low can you go to provide a horror story of a machine touted as the best thing since sliced bread, yet ten years later (or less) has ended up simply being the biggest lemon of its class? What would be your current dream machine or geek item? Nothing too weird, it might end up being next decade's lemon.

I'd love to hear your comments.

12 April, 2009

A fast bit of chrome.

Wow - I've got my cake and I can eat it too!

I've been taking the latest Google Chrome browser for a spin recently, and I'm frankly pleasantly surprised. There's only one thing I've found that I can't do in it, but more on that later. It's fast, there's minimal "fat" with it (no superfluous stuff) and it renders content accurately—or seems to, anyhow.

Let's apply the ACID test

Google Chrome's ACID3 test picture

I ran Chrome through the ACID tests, and it seemed to pass all but the ACID3 link test with flying colours. Chrome passed every element of the ACID3 test but took too long, which is about standard for my machine (Duron 1GHz, 1256MB, VIA motherboard, ATI Radeon 7000 AGP card). For some reason the linktest seems to show up as failed too. However, I can probably forgive these few failings. This is definitely a plus for the toolkit that Chrome is based on (WebKit, otherwise known as KHTML, used inside KDE's Konqueror.) Firefox 3.0.10 managed 71 out of 100 tests, and was quite slow in the process even on a Celeron 2.8GHz machine, though I'm not going to screenie it here, as this article's already too bulky.

Picture of IE7's ACID3 test picture - oh dearIn a not surprising comparison, Internet Explorer 7 looks like a dogs breakfast, I can't even tell how many tests it uh, passed, neither can I click on the letter A to find out. I really really hope for Microsoft's sake that IE 8 fixes some of the bugs with the renderer, because frankly in the mode I had IE7 in (fairly much untweaked, how you're supposed to have it), this response to the ACID3 test is totally useless. Incidentally, from what I've read on the current-at-the-time Wiki page on ACID3, apparently Microsoft don't actually intend on making their browser achieve a perfect score.

Microsoft, developers of the Internet Explorer browser, said that Acid3 does not map to the goal of Internet Explorer 8 and that IE8 will improve only some of the standards being tested by Acid3.[17]

Aww, I found a bug(let)

As I said before, I've only found one thing I can't do - and that's to delete entries off the list of downloaded files. In comparison, Firefox shows a list of downloaded files, and if this list becomes overly large, it affects how fast Firefox loads and displays documents. However, I'm able to delete entries from that list, unlike Chrome. Will Chrome fall foul of that same problem? I rather hope not.

There's not really much more I can say on the subject, but well done, Google. I'm impressed enough to have made it my default Windows web browser, supplanting poor old Firefox 3 in the process. The only questions I have left are:

  1. when is it going to appear on Linux, and
  2. when is it being open-sourced?

Apparently, as WebKit is open-source, we already have the basic codebase of Google Chrome now... just not the source code to the Google tweaks they made to make it so screaming. I imagine that Safari may well have similar results to Chrome, due to its use of the Webkit codebase.

June 8th 2009

Further to the article, I finally got a copy of Internet Explorer 8, and fired it up on ACID3. It has improved on its godawful previous score of 12/100, and now the picture at least looks a bit like the reference page. Now there are boxes of about the right shape, though they don't appear to have any colour in whatsoever. *sigh*. Never mind. We can take hope that eventually, Microsoft will come up to par. IEX, maybe?

Oh, sorry. You wanted to see what it looks like on my computer? Doesn't this article already have enough heartbreak in it?

08 April, 2009

Finally, SQL Server Express 2008 is installed

It was a bit of a struggle

... but I did it. After a couple of false starts, that is. I initially selected SQL Express 2008 for download and installation, (that's Microsoft's server for those not in the know) and then found that I probably should be installing the SQL Express 2008 with Advanced Tools. Well, I tried. I really did. The problem was, the file wasn't playing ball. Either I'd download it and attempt to install it and find that it was broken when it was decompressing, or I'd not even manage to get it to download. So I gave up and went ahead and installed just the plain server from media I already had. Then there was the little debacle I had just getting the Management Tools working. I also wanted to install some sample databases I'd seen on a Microsoft website in relation to the SQL Server, but every time I kept trying to install it, it kept failing stating I needed to enable Full Text search. That particular facet is only supplied (at least in the Express versions of SQL Server) with the Advanced version.

I had a feeling that Full Text Search was an option that I could tweak by installing the Management Tools, so I gave that a go again. That eventually got installed today, after I downloaded the standalone executable for the tools to add to the standalone SQL server. I did have a struggle when I tried to execute the management tools executable the first seven times, but all I kept getting was the SQL Server Installation window. What I hadn't realised is that because I hadn't (apparently) completed the install of the SQL server the first time, I had to complete that step first. Once I actually did that, then things started working. I ticked off the box for Management tools, then waited while it spun the drive platters, and installed. Whew. Finally I had them installed. I tried the tools out, but found out that I did really have to install the Advanced version, just to get the sample databases installed.

So, I decided I was going to give the Advanced install a try, given that I'd had success with the installation of the Management tools. So, I clicked the executable that I needed to run, chose "Advanced", and waited. Finally, it actually installed properly. So then all I had to do was choose the facets I needed. I ticked off the Report module, and the Full Text Search boxes, completed the process, and sighed after I saw the two "Success" boxes.

Another struggle

... I'm going to end up with (now I have the AdventureWorks databases) is simply getting my head around how to use Microsoft's variant of SQL; either as a simple SQL server (which is normally how I'd use it) or in any other aspects of how to get it running better. I'm used to that, though I'm pretty new to the whole SQL scene. My only previous experience has been creation and maintenance of databases and tables in a PostGreSQL environment, as well as issuing queries against that database. I've also tried out two GUI front ends to browse databases.

Other issues include how I can make full use of the whole Visual Studio environment (at least the Express portion), and how I can compare it with the equivalents under Linux/FreeBSD/Solaris. Namely, that's gcc for Linux and FreeBSD, and Solaris' compiler suite in addition to gcc running on Solaris. Once I get enough programming experience under my belt, I eventually want to get to the stage where it really doesn't matter what environment I'm using or what compiler, I should be comfortable with the tools in use.

I'll let you all know what luck I have.

01 March, 2009

In, out and round about.

In for a penny.

Okay, so I've got this tape deck and radio combo I have to occasionally repair, because it tends to uhm, not go right. Anybody would think I'd just go out there and get a new one, junk the old one, you know. Well, One - I don't have any money, so two, I like to repair my own things where I can. Saves ME money, saves other people's time telling me they can't fix it because they no longer have the repair manual, yada yade yada, gives me the satisfaction of repairing it, and so on. Only ... somewhere in the back of my mind is the nagging thought of "what happens if I can't repair it this time?", and then I get a little worried.

I thought "Right, I've had enough"—I feel like I can't be bothered with having it in the state it was in; namely, not working. Now "not working" to me, means not performing as it was originally built to - in this case, the tape mechanism wasn't playing... something was jammed. I wasn't sure whether it was the transport mechanism or not, though I'd almost ruled out any of the circuitry beyond the playback/record head, and settled on the problem being almost purely mechanical. Those sorts of problems, I can fix. I'm no electronics whiz, can't measure a transistor's hFE without hauling it out of circuit to do so, and besides which, mechanical problems are a bit more amenable. At least, that's what I was hoping the first time I headed inside the case.

Okay. Speakers unplugged, unconnected and hauled off. Then, it's on to the screws. First five screws unscrewed, off comes the back.. hang on, no it doesn't, there's something else holding it on. Damn, where is that fifth scre... ah, there it is, on the base, along with the other six screws I have to probably undo, just to get the sides off. Off comes that screw, the other six screws, all neatly laid out in order so I can put them back on when I've fixed the problem in seven minutes, or so. Then off comes the back, gently, while I figure out which of the three leads have to come off... in this case, I decide, all three can come off. Gently does it, that's AC Flex I'm unbending there. Right. That's the back done. Now, how does... ahh, that's right - once the back comes off, the sides will come off in one assembly. Ease that dial thingymagig off, I'll need that later for the pot on the fine tune control. The buttons will stay in place - they're nice like that. One was missing long before I got the tape deck, so I don't worry about stereo/mono switching any more, though I do toggle the switch back to stereo while I notice it.

I reach inwards to see if I can twirl the motor around, the usual fix for this particular problem - oh, I can't get to it. Now, how the heck did I do this last time, twenty two months ago? (Or was it longer? I can't remember) Ahh, that's right—there's a central screw tying the front to the circuit boards, just in behind the transformer cables from the diode bridge. I reach for that screw, have it out in a matter of seconds. I'm doing well now, I can take the front off, and finally look at the little flippy thing that turns the head around for playing the tape in the right direction. I figure it's sort of up, but not really, and reach for the wheel in the back to twirl it around again, only I still can't get to it. I'd need fingers like spiders legs with the strength of cabling to deal with that... right. Time to take the whole tape transport system out - luckily it's all on one lump of metal, secured by four easy-to-reach screws. I have them off, also in a matter of seconds, also laid out neatly so I can put them all back in the order I took them out in. You can't be too careful when you're doing this job - no sense in having three more screws left over when you've finished than when you've started. It's off with the rubber band for the digits capstan, that always comes off anyhow, so it might as well come off properly now.

I finally get my fingers on to the wheel concerned, spin it around some until I hear a satisfying click from the mechanism, don't bother to check the head's flipped around, as that's what usually happens anyhow, right? Everything looks good, so I put mechanism back, screw the four screws back into place, and even remember to put the capstan band back on. I'm hot to trot as I put the front back on, uhm, wait a minute, something's not fitting. Oh, that's right. The spike for the direction-switch mechanism popped out from underneath the screw that was holding it down so the tape mechanism would go around to begin with. This is beginning to be a little unfunny. Undo the teeny tiny little screw (I've had to find a third screwdriver to take this one off; as it's so tiny, none of the other screwdrivers have heads that little), and set it aside, with the teeny tiny screwdriver head pointing at it so I can find it again. Put the front on again, good, it all fits.

Put in the little screw, then the sides, then put the back on... oh, hang on, I've got to connect those three leads back so they don't short to anything inconvenient, like the hot side of an AC cord, for example. This puppy's not earthed, so being careful of that fact will save someone's life. That's Batt+, Batt -, and ... hang on, this white wire doesn't go anywhere. Oh, that's right, it's the aerial plug. Right. Pull it over to the obvious contact. I can stick the actual telescopic aerial back on it when I get it back into the bedroom. But for now, I'll stretch.... hm. Won't come that far.. Weird. Hang on, pull the back a bit further into the case so the wire will stretch to the contact. Right. That's come far enough now, let's plug it on and have out of.... wait a minute, it doesn't fit. Am I sure, or am I only imagining it? After another couple of minutes of fruitless poking and prodding, I give into the realisation that no, the aerial contact isn't that one. Where the heck is the aerial connector? It surely can't go onto the tuning capacitor, those are NEVER used as aerial inputs except for DC (direct conversion) sets and crystal sets and the like.

Ah, it's up over in the corner, right next to the AM rod. Figures. Right. Let's get my fat little fingers in there—no, they're not actually fat, but they certainly feel like it in this job. Can't quite reach down into the case to get the connector onto the spike. Rats. I know this came off, so it can jolly well go back on! I need more room to work in. Ah, that's right, I just put the sides on, let's see if moving those aside does give me any more room. Reach over to the sides, pull them off in one piece, set them aside. Yup, now there's plenty of room to put everything back. Cool! Put the recalcitrant aerial connector back on, fit the Batt + and the Batt -, and get ready to put the sides back on. Grab the sides, slide them back into place, put back the six screws I pulled out from the base earlier, and eventually reach for the back to put that back into place. I'm almost done now. Reach for the five screws, put them back into place, and tighten them down. We'll test it now.

Out for a pound?

Plug into wall, find tape (Jean Michel Jarre's "Concerts Lyon/Houston") and close door. Press power. Nothing. Flick power switch—handy, that. No lights. Oh, hang on - I can't hear anything without earphones. It's time to grab those from beside the mouse hub, uncoil them and insert relevant plug into relevant hole. Ah, that's right. This tape deck needs that lever depressed so it can play tapes. Depress lever some and screw the tiny little screw back into place. Press power again... hm. No satisfying "Clunk" as I hit power. I flick the switch, only to realise I've flicked it already. I toggle the power switch—nothing. Darn. Here I was thinking this job was going to be simple. Turns out it just got a bit more complicated, and I have to dive back inside to figure out what else is wrong. I've never had this problem with this tape deck before, guess there's a first for everything.

Back into the case, undo the five screws—hang on, gotta power off and unplug. No point in frying myself—this is an unearthed case, remember. Undo five screws; can I do this job without having to remove the sides? I seem to remember that if I don't have to remove the sides, that saves me about six screws, and a bit of work. Take off the back, remove the Batt and aerial lead, set aside screws in the usual order. Reach for the bottom of the circuit board; darn, gotta take off the base anyhow. Guess the sides are coming off after all. Take the screws out, take the bottom and sides off, have a quiet look around to see what I can see on the bottom (copperised tracks, but still somewhat conducting) or the top. Nothing's obviously wrong, so I figure I must have jarred something loose. I put back the sides, the back, plug back into the wall, just to check out. Hm. Nada. Obviously not connected yet. Time to remove the back and the sides again, and have more of a nosey around inside. Hm, better check the fuse while I'm here, I guess. It looks a bit coppered up too, come to think of it. Pull it out, looks good to me, put it back in. Plug into the wall, flick switch, nope. No juice. Unplug, scratch my head and wonder what the heck happened. Pull meter down from bench, set to AC, 1000V, put neg probe on the case of the transformer, the pos probe on somewhere else hopeful. 4V. Nothing really useful. Try DC volts instead ... 4V. Well, at least it's consistently f00kd. Scratch my head some more, flick the power switch off again, look at the back, flick the voltage change switch a couple of times, figuring anything'll work. Plug back in, and flick the power switch. Hey! There's lights this time! Wahey!!! I think my job's almost done.

Now I've sorted that out, I can put the case back together, so I do that, remembering this time to put the back on first so I can connect the aerial lead, then I can put the sides on, then put the back on properly. Plug back into wall, and I decide I'd better run one final test to make sure everything's all right. Maybe it was just the power glitch that caused this. Flick switch, satisfying lights glow. Reach over for the earphones, get them plugged in—radio goes. That's at least good. Flick the switch back over to tape, press play. Uh oh, nothing happens. Oh, that's right - this wants its lever depress... hang on, it's already depressed from when I screwed in that little screw again. Oh, great. so the original problem is still not fixed.


Undo the first five screws (again), remove back (again), remove only the four screws that actually hold the sides on, because now the base can stay on as I don't need underneath it. Remove the central screw inside, as I need back into the tape mechanism again. Pop off the front, taking that little screw out too... yup. gotta point a little screwdriver at it so I don't lose it. Off with the capstan band, off with the four screws that hold the tape mechanism in place, and I ease it out to have a further look at it. I ease out the tape from the place where it's sitting, press the play head, and it doesn't move. So I press play - the play button depresses and locks satisfyingly. But the head doesn't actuate. Weird. I jiggle it a little, and it flicks, and pops back down into place. Ah, I see. Now it should actuate. Press play, nope. Doesn't actuate. Strange. Jiggle around some more, then realise I have to flip the head around manually anyhow. Do that, then press play. Clunk. The head actuates, finally. Good. Press stop, the head drops back down. I think I'm done here, so I'll wrap up. Put the mechanism back into place, not quite as easily this time, as I have to contend with the base being in place instead of neatly out of the way. Still, I manage it, and put the front back on, remembering to put the little screw back into place to lock that lever down. Put the central screw in to hold the front on, then put the sides on, put the back on, oh, hang on - have to put the aerial back on, so it's off with the sides, on with the aerial connector, then on with the sides, then on with the back. Put a tape into the mechanism, plug in the earphones, plug in the plug into the wall, flick switch, flick power on. Press play, ahh. NOW it works. I even hear sound, though it's .... hang on, it's backwards. Whoops.

Press stop, off with the power, unplug, five screws, four screws, central screw, one tiny screw, front. Remove tape, fiddle with head, flip it around. Tiny front screw back in, central screw, etc etc... only this time I don't put the back on. Just put the tape back in, press play. Yay, now I get sound; though it's a bit muffled, it is recognisable and playing in the right direction. Cool! While the music's playing, I put the sides on, aerial contact didn't come off this time, so it's the back on after the battery contacts go back into place. Plug the power in - yup, still goes, still plays the tape. Good. I'm done.

And then I realise the capstan band is still out on the floor.

Expletive deleted by request of owner

Suffice it to say, that after the job was finished (and after a suitable couple of deliberate drops onto the floor)—yes, that did fix the audio, not muffled now), I'd spent nearly three hours on this simple little tape deck. It now works, thankfully, which means I can plug my MP3 player into it and hear music through the speakers. But boy, was this an adventure I don't wish to repeat.

17 February, 2009

All at sixes and sevens

Oh no! Not more cubes!

"What? More cubes?" I hear you say. Yes, though I'm behind the times in telling you this, further advancements have been made in developing larger Rubik's Cubes than just The Professor. When I last wrote about the Professor, I was aware that working models of the 6x6x6 and 7x7x7 cubes had already been demonstrated, they were only waiting for the manufacturing process. The developer of this style of cube has said that methods to produce cubes up to 11x11x11 currently exist, they merely have to bring them to market. The general assumption is given that this method could actually be extended further, but I don't think I'll be paying for a 13x13x13 any time soon, as the price points for the 6x6x6 and 7x7x7 cubes are between US$46 and US$55.

So what? I couldn't even solve the original!

Don't worry, all is not lost - there are solution pages for these new cubes already, provided by the company, as well as other pages by www.bigcubes.com; other solution pages already exist for even the little 2x2x2 version, though if you know how to solve the corners of any cube, you already know how to solve the little cube. All is not lost. However, in solving the big 7x7x7 cube, there's one important difference between it and the 3x3x3 and Professor. The centres can move in relation to each other, meaning you have to make sure you put the centres into the correct orientation first, as shown by the eight corner cubies.

Why's the big one curved?

That's right, it's not quite a cube any more, as the picture in the Wikipedia article shows. Because of the size of the respective pieces, and indirectly the method of manufacturing, when a face is turned around 45 degrees, the possibility exists that a piece will simply fall out, as it is no longer securely held by adjacent pieces. The curve combats this effect, by overlapping the area occupied by the piece, and will probably be a "feature" of all the larger models. Even the 6x6x6 cube has been modified somewhat so that pieces don't fall out - the summary is that the corner rows are actually 2mm wider than the inner four rows, allowing things to actually work.

Mirror mirror

Of course, other twists exist on the cube, many of them playing on other aspects. This cube differs from others in that all faces have a mirror-like finish of a shiny reflective sticker on each cubie; in addition, each cubie is a unique size instead of the same size as their opposite face equivalents. This makes the cube look really weird when it's mixed up. Hey, at least you'll puzzle the heck out of everyone else when they try it out.