Dodo Birds Of Linux History

I was sorting out a pile of old CDs this morning and found my first linux install discs, in spiffy looking cardboard:

They were researched, greatly wished for, highly anticipated, and a huge letdown. Continue reading

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Rotary Encoders Are Mostly Awesome

Rotary encoders are awesome because they function like knobs – a staple of user interface which needs no explanation – but  electrically they generate discrete button presses, like pushing the Up or Down tuning button. They are reduced to mostly awesome by some designers who apparently don’t know how to use them correctly.

Case in point: the Kenwood VR405 surround receiver I recently picked up from the side of the road.

It’s a cheap and basic surround reciever, but it works (other than missing the volume knob), it was free, and it has a cool-looking rotary encoder on the front panel. Rotary encoders are like the bling of tactile input devices. Buttons are nice and all, but things that spin are just so much cooler. They also happen to work really well for linear controls like volume and tuning, for which they have been used for decades and still should be more than they are. (I’m looking at you, designers of 1980-s electronics-with-no-knobs and of infernal-car-stereos-with-button-densities-approaching-infinity.)

However, Kenwood got it completely wrong on this model: the input selector is rotary and the tuning/everything else “Multi Control” buttons are Up/Down buttons. Unlike rotary selector switches of yore this input selector wheel has no detent to tell your finger it has reached the next setting. This makes changing inputs quickly is very easy but stopping on the right one is very difficult. And tuning? Click, click, click, click, click, as fast as your finger can push the button you can change to the next frequency. Tiring. Why on earth didn’t they use the up/down buttons for the input selection and the rotary for tuning, like, you know, old-school tuners used to be? Some of the pricier models in the V/VR series were slightly better because they had a rotary encoder for both the Input and Multi controls, but Kenwood could have saved a couple pennies and given users a less frustrating UI at the same time by just using rotary for the Multi Control and buttons for the Input Selector across the whole line.

The Finer Points of Podcasts with RSSOwl

Since I’ve been using Google Reader for my feed-reading needs the last few months, I have been spoiled by Reader’s nonchalant handling of just about any feed I throw into it. It’s also available anywhere the internet is, which is very convenient for keeping breaks at work useful and non-boring. (The breaks that don’t involve food, anyway.) I also like the fact that “just about any feed” includes podcasts, so I have a convenient way to keep track of those at work as well.

Unfortunately, podcasts with Reader rely on frequent browser use – something I’m trying to limit – and a 6′ headphone tether to the computer. There is also no good way for Reader to sync with a portable device so podcasts can be heard sans computer with direct net connection.

My solution is to use RSSOwl with a couple custom filters and a custom batch script to sync to a removable USB device (my phone). Here’s how to do the magic and make your life easier.

Continue reading

Score! The Goodwill-For-The-Win-(Again) Networking Edition

Once again we bring you news of great bargains, this time from the newly-opened South Portland location. Exhibit A is a Belkin N150 wireless b/g router, sans wall wart.

Most reviews I’ve found so far question the usefulness of this router’s existence, but for $4 I can’t complain too much. I’ll just set it to access point mode and leave the heavy lifting to my Netgear brick.

I also picked up a(nother) cheap meter, one I don’t feel bad about gluing to my workbench to always have a voltmeter handy. I felt obliged to pay all $2.99 after I broke the knob clicker in the store. (Subsequently fixed, though I’m still missing a part somewhere.)

Dichotomy Of A Real-Life Maker Online

I love the maker movement. The wide spread community of people who love building and modifying things for fun & profit, practical and just-because, resonates with my natural inclinations. If it breaks, fix it. If you need something, build it. Modify stuff until it works for you and makes your life better in some way.

This is the great thing about the internet – we can now all share the myriad of things we’ve built, hacked, or dreamed of, and be inspired to create things of usefulness & beauty. The only bugger is that I get so busy being inspired that I don’t get anything done. I could (and have, may times) spent hours reading hackaday or Instructables or the Make: blog. It’s awesome. And colossally time-sucking. In which lies the rub; for in my quest of the cool and useful inspiration I find myself with increasingly little time to actually build the things already on my list.

The principle holds for most of the internet, really. It’s an incredible resource, a wealth of knowledge on almost any subject imaginable and then some that aren’t. The magnitude of information at the fingertips is both exciting and mind-boggling, because I love information. I love knowing and learning about things, I love being able to search the world for opinion, experience, and data at a moments notice.

At the same time, I have trouble managing large amounts information. If I’m not careful, the ever-branching search for whatever bit I was looking for (or just happened across) inflates exponentially. That is when I find myself, two hours later, with thirty more browser tabs and enough reading material for another week of evenings – and still with my list of projects I’d like to actually, physically do. Never mind the stack of books and last month’s Popular Mechanics waiting patiently on the end table.

Ah, dichotomy. A Maker doesn’t just consume, a maker creates, taking ideas and raw stuff and turning it into something better, something useful. How can I create when my I leave no space for it? All the thinking, reading and book-larnin’ doesn’t cause completed things to magically appear. I have to actually get out and do something. So if you see less of me around the internet, it’s because I’m living more in real life. And building stuff, too.

I Finally Beat GStreamer

I’ve been haggling with the somewhat common "Could not initialize GStreamer: Error re-scanning registry , child terminated by signal" errors after upgrading Ubuntu to 9.10 (Karmic) a couple months ago. A lot of things broke, notably xfce4-mixer, the XFCE volume control panel applet, and Brasero.

The solution that finally worked was to purge most all of the core GStreamer packages and reinstall them and the software that depends upon them. You can do this with apt-get purge <packages>, but I found it easier to use Synaptic –  search for “gstreamer” and select “Mark for complete removal” everything that has gstreamer in the actual package name and doesn’t also remove things that look system-critical. (Very scientific, I know.)

I had tried reinstalling packages a while ago, but that was either ineffective or I didn’t get the right one. So far XFCE’s mixer-related issues are resolved and Brasero is running again, so I’m happy.

Now onward to Google, thou post, and be useful to others!

Edit: Narrowed it down to something in gstreamer0.10-plugins-bad. Still not sure exactly what or why…

Of Windchimes, Foghorns, And The Wonders Of Science

It’s been a bit windy around here the last few days, which led us, over supper last night, to ponder the age-old question: could the wind be harnessed not just for the pleasant tinklings of windchimes, but also to produce the mellifluous hoot of the glass bottle? Blowing across the bottle undoubtedly works for mere humans, so it seems it could also be possible to use nature’s breath to do the same thing, there being a lot more of it.

However, there still remain a few questions to be answered by prototyping:

  • What airspeed is required to produce sound?
  • Is it necessary to funnel/control the airflow in order to produce sound?
  • Can we sound up to a three-note chord, with each note denoting a higher windspeed?
  • What will the neighbors think?
  • And, most importantly, will it keep Mom awake at night?

We may or may not have too much time on our hands this summer… so the prototype may or may not get built.

How Not To Design Stuff: Dellusions Of Power


The University of Southern Maine employs the use of a large number of Dell Optiplex GX280 computers in labs and classrooms. They are modern computers, pretty fast, quiet, not real pretty, and the power button of these computers looks pretty much like any other typical power button on the planet: it’s round, it has that funky little circle-with-a-line-symbol-of-power-thingy, and it glows green. However, one unfortunate design flaw has caused lost time and headaches.

How, you ask, can the design of a power button result in confusion and lost work? Visual feedback.

Fact: The button glows green when the computer is on.
Fact: People expect something on the computer to glow green when the computer is on.
However: In order to tell that the button is glowing, one must look almost straight at it from the front. If you are a little to the side – which is the normal arrangement for the Labs – you can’t see the light.

Result: If the computer is positioned anywhere but in front of the user, the little green glow is invisible unless one leans over and peers at the button.

One would not think this to be a terrible problem, a dinky little light doesn’t make that much difference. After all, you can also tell if the computer is on by looking at the monitor.

That logic is conveniently defeated by two different circumstances.

1) Some classroom computers are attached solely to a projector – if the projector isn’t on (or is blanked), there is no feedback from the screen.
2) In the John Mitchell Center CAD lab, all the monitors are on a separate power circuit and can be turned off at the professor’s whim.

We are back to using the power button glow as the sole indicator of computer status. This is a dangerous prospect to entertain if the glow cannot be easily seen – and did I mention that pushing the power button when the computer is on immediately shuts it down?

(Cue scary theme music.)

You push the button. Nothing seems to happen for a couple seconds. You push the power button again. The computer you just turned on shuts off again. You wait longer this time, and are confused. You push the power button again, firmly, and wait longer and something finally shows up on the screen. You can now do useful work before class starts.

Then, the monitors are shut off during lecture and you forget the computer is on – and there are no visible glowy lights to tell you either way. The lecture is over and you push the power button to start the machine up. It shuts off. And, since the computers have DeepFreeze (or equivalent) installed, anything that you saved to the internal drive is wiped clean at boot.

It sounds ridiculous, but I’ve seen people lose valuable work because of that. Extra frustration, problems, and lost work – all because the power button doesn’t provide a good (i.e., visible!) visual cue.

The Modern Wonders of Letter-Folders

Have you ever gotten a ridiculous sense of excitement and/or satisfaction from watching some mechanical gadget work? Do you know the exquisite feeling of childish glee when exploring some technological wonder?

It’s absurd, really. Why should I be so fascinated with the operation of an automatic letter folder? What is so riveting that I could sit, feeding paper into it, for hours? But there is so much satisfaction in the snatching “ka-chunk” and sudden exit of a magically folded piece of paper! The perfect creases! Ah, it is so beautiful! *sigh*

Why do I feel like a total geek right now?