Thursday, August 30, 2007

How to dismantle a castle - brick by brick

Yesterday Earl Moore writes that he's ditching MS-Office for the Mac in favour of Neo-Office (a GPL'd Mac-tuned version of OpenOffice), then today it's announced that HP will join Dell and Lenovo in selling desktop PC's running pre-installed Linux.

I know that I don't run in the 'Redmond is great' circles, but there does seem to be a relative dearth of positivity coming via Redmond these days. Vista has no killer app or edge, Apple is going great guns, Linux is slowly eating into the mainstream and "non-proprietary", "open-ness" and "freedom" seem to be the popular themes in the tech world lately.

Perhaps the castle *is* coming down - even if it is a brick at a time.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Perspective Reflections - Inkscape Screencast

I've uploaded my latest Inkscape screencast (Episode 35). This one describes a neat method of creating reflections using a simple black to white mask. I discovered this neat trick at Nicu's great blog.

While I've made reflections using Inkscape in the past, I've always had two problems. First, if the group of objects to be reflected consisted of multiple colours, using a simple opacity gradient was quite a pain. Second, creating a realistic looking reflection for an object in perspective (particularly photos) was very difficult. The one that we use on the screencaster LCD monitor thumbnail (at the top of this post) is really faked with a white opacity gradient. The problem being that if I changed the background to anything but white, you'd suddenly see the retardedness of it all. ;)

So the mask method eliminates these two problems and makes creating reflections of more complex objects (including perspectives) much easier and more elegant.

Hope you enjoy it.

For those who care about the mechanics of screencasting, this was actually the first one that I created solely with recordmydesktop, mencoder, and Audacity - although I did use an ffmpeg one-liner to extract a screenshot for the thumbnail (anybody know how to do that with mencoder/mplayer?). I think the quality is better and the workflow is definitely easier and more logical. Big thanks to Heathenx for helping me out with this stuff.

But it wasn't completely without problem. You will notice some weird artifacting that occurs about 2 or 3 seconds into my sped-up intro. This wasn't in the original ogg capture, but occurred somewhere during the post-processing. I thought it might disappear by the end - but no such luck. ;) I've decided to leave it there for the time being and will correct it and replace the files when I can.. ie. not tonight. ;)

One other thing is that I haven't yet put this one up on YouTube. It's about 12min long, so I'm gonna have to split it up like I did with Episode 26. I'd like to do it with mencoder as well this time, so in the next couple of days I expect to have the two-parts finished and up on YouTube as well.

So post titles do matter...

Did you know that over the past month, precisely 12 people have arrived at this blog via a google search on the term 'peeing'.

The awesomely well thought out title on this post a while back is the reason.

Anyways, welcome to the site pee-ple. ;)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Slicing and Dicing mp3 files

As I've likely mentioned before, one of the things I like about my new
car is the USB port right in the front panel of the stereo. I bought a
wee little Lexar Jumpdrive Firefly recently which I keep filled with various
folders of music and podcast mp3 files. I just stick it into the
stereo and it works. It's a nice, simple, and open system - no
proprietary hardware or software interface, any usb stick and plain
mp3 file will do. Heck, it doesn't even wanna play wma files which is
a good thing too! :)

But if there is one nagging thing I don't like about it, it's that the
ffwd and rewind functions are designed for music and not podcasts. So
if I'm 45 minutes into an episode of TLLTS, and my daughter wants to listen
to the Irish Rovers, I know I'll have to ffwd through 45min of TLLTS
to get back to where I was later on. That means holding the ffwd
button for about 5 minutes - not ideal.

So naturally, what I do is make a mental note of the time elapsed
before switching to a different track and then (if I remember) I bring
the track into Audacity and cut off the first 45min of it (or whatever
the elapsed time was). Still kludgy at best.

But I've found a quicker if not less-kludgy way of doing it. If you
need to chop off the beginning, the end or some portion of a given
mpeg file (mpeg2, mp3, mpeg4), then mpgtx is your tool of choice.
Available for linux or windows, this nifty command line tool sounds
like a nice tool for quick mpeg slicing and dicing. In particular to
do what I wanted, I simply used:

mpgtx -s tllts_206.mp3 [45:00-] -b cut_tllts_206

This splits (-s) the input file (tllts_206.mp3) taking the portion
starting at 45min to the end of the file, and outputs it to
cut_tllts_206.mp3. The -b flag is for the basename.. haven't figured
out that one, but you need it there for it to work.

So in a matter of 2 or 3 seconds it chops the first 45min off of the
file and gives me a new mp3. Nice!

Doing this same thing in Audacity was a chore. It would take a minute
or so for Audacity to import the mp3, I'd chop off the front 45 min
and then have to export it back out which took another minute or so.
Then, depending on the default export bitrate, I might get a bigger
mp3 file than the original (!). So in one fell swoop I cut the process
from 3 minutes to 3 seconds. Not bad.

Incidentally, what I likely *should* do, is split up longish podcast
files into 10 minute mp3 files. So if I need to find my place I can
just click through 10minutes at a time. I figured out how to do this
back in the comments of this post. Sheesh.. if only I was half as organized and prepared as I'd like to be. :)

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Vacation Return Quick Post

Today we arrived back from a week's vacation up in Fort Irwin, Ontario. We rented a 4-bedroom cottage on a nice quiet lake and recharged the proverbial batteries.

We had family up for a few days to join the three of us, which added a little hullabaloo, but all in all it was a nice relaxing week off.

A little fishing, a lot of eating (too much as usual) and some early nights - fresh air will do that to you - felt quite good actually. And while we had satellite internet connectivity, I never really felt like browsing. Just a little email checking and the odd wistful cottage real-estate searching was all it amounted to.

And it was surprisingly easy to just delete the hundreds of unread feeds in my reader tonight. Not to worry for the chosen few (actually it's in the tens) in my close-knit feed group.. those got scanned, starred and read tonight.

A few things learned this week:

1. My daughter can cast a fishing rod! - and has no fear of slimy, squirming worms!

2. Even though neither my 5 year old daughter nor her 14 month old cousin need glasses, they both love to wear them!

3. Satellite internet and it's associated lag times pretty much sucks compared to full-on DSL.

4. My wife had never been to a county dump/landfill before. I think she was expecting some semblance of cleanliness. The big pile of rotting garbage bags and it's associated seagull party-place environment came unexpected to her.;)

5. A chipmunk can squeeze 10 unshelled peanuts into it's cheeks without so much as a sideways glance. Now if only I could do that with pizza...

6. The call of loons on the lake in the morning is indeed one of life's greatest sounds.

The relative quiet and inactivity did give me some time to both unload the claptrap I call my mind, and do a little more photography than usual. I think the biggest pressure I feel at the moment is to sort through the 250 odd photos, pick out the better ones and update my Flickr gallery. But that will sit for another few days. In the meantime, I thought I'd upload a few of them directly here:

Friday, August 17, 2007

Morning Commute Hack - Advanced Green Light Anyone?

Here's my contribution for the 'lifehacking' culture out there. And it's a little bit selfish:

It's typically heavy morning traffic and you have to make a left turn at a set of traffic lights, as you approach the intersection the lights are red for you. If you're the only one in the left hand turn lane, chances are good that little old you is NOT going to get the advanced (flashing/arrow) green light to let you go first when the light changes.

So don't pull all the way up to the intersection and wait. Instead, hang back a full car-length from the light. At many intersections, if you hang back a car length it can fool the sensors buried in the road and makes them think there is more than one car waiting to make the left. The result? It gives you the advanced green light.

I'm not going to say it works for me every time at every intersection, but it has worked on this one turn I make each workday morning for the last 4 years.


- Check for the asphalt cutlines indicating the sensors buried in the road. You can sometimes spot where the sensor is and stop on top of it to better your chances.
- Sometimes you will spot two sensors (one close to the line and one further back) - stop on the one further back.
- If you spot a car approaching behind you, move ahead when it gets there. I hate it when people ahead of me don't pull up. Don't be annoying in the name of self-promotion.


- No idea if this contravenes any traffic laws.
- No idea if this works in countries other than Canada.
- Of course there are probably countless different traffic signaling systems - this works for me, you mileage (hehe) may vary.
- Don't kid yourself. You *are* being selfish. I try to convince myself that I deserve some 'reasonably small reward' for being such a courteous driver (I'm not given to fits of road rage, don't cut people off, flip people the bird, talk on the phone etc..). But alas, I'm being selfish. Maybe spreading the word about it will make me feel less guilty. ;)

One thing that Windows does better than Gnome... Heresy??

Here's my heretical post for the week:

There is one bit of functionality that I use and value while working in Windows that I miss when I'm using Gnome:

In XP, the standard File->Open or File->Save dialog box opens and I can rename, delete, copy or paste files that appear in the dialog. So for instance, if I'm saving a file and I want to rename one of the other files in that folder before I do the save, I can do it with a simple right-click to bring up the context menu.

As far as I'm aware, the standard GTK file open dialog doesn't let me do this. Of course I'm very very good at being wrong, so please let me know if I am.

Do the standard KDE open/save dialogs provide this functionality?

And is there any way to achieve similar functionality in Gnome or KDE if indeed it's not there?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Feasibility Lingo of Engineers

Via this Usable Help blog post, comes a great article lucidly describing how to understand Engineers when it comes to feasibility.

If you want a clear and simple discussion of the terms impossible, trivial, unfeasible, non-trivial, hard, and very hard from an engineer's perspective, then you should definitely check it out.

One misunderstanding by some non-engineers is how the word 'trivial' is used. In our discussions, trivial just means that we know the solution to a specific problem. It doesn't mean that the implementation of that solution is necessarily easy. So for example, the design of a specific portion of a structure might be trivial but actually building it might be a nightmare.

It's definitely an interesting read for anyone involved with solving problems - isn't that all of us? ;)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What is it with light-duty office suites? Does anyone use them?

Earl Moore writes that the Appleworks suite has reached 'End of Life' status, and it got me to thinking. I've never owned or used a Mac or Appleworks. I wonder if it's anything like Microsoft's eternally retarded and resoundingly ignored MS-Works application suite.

MS-Works  had most if not all of the functionality that I needed in an office suite, but I always found it to be significantly incompatible with their proper 'MS-Office' suite. Now, I'm talking about when it came with my Win95 equipped system back in the day. I have neither heard nor seen mention of it to this day - although it seems via Wikipedia that it's alive and still breathing at version 9.0.

I never used it simply because I always wanted the 'pro' apps and not the crippled ones. And if you were working in MS-Office at work, then you wanted full and unmistakable compatibility at home. I always wondered who actually used it.

Mind you, I've always been against feature bloat, and everyone knows that 95% of people use 10% of the features in Word and Excel. I'm sure MS-Works would have been perfectly satisfactory for my use. I always scratched my head at why they didn't just make proper 'lite' versions of Word and Excel. I'm sure they would have sold many copies at $39.99 a pop. Instead, people pirated the entire Office Suite.

The Mac world is largely alien to me. Did (and do) Mac users actually use the Appleworks suite? Or did they flock to high-priced 'pro-level' apps instead?

Build 'em up and Knock 'em down

One sure sign that you're successful is when people are eager to start tearing you down. Witness the comments on this digg thread about some unpatched, unsecured, locally hosted - but Canonical sponsored servers that were taken off line today.  While I'm not a sysadmin, I would think that *any* operating system that is unsecured and unpatched is an incident waiting to happen.

But it's a testament to the popularity that so many people are so eager to see Ubuntu fail in any way possible. While not unexpected from Windows and Mac fanboys, it's disappointing when you see it coming from other linux users. A rising tide floats all boats does it not?

Gnome Turns 10 - as does the Gnome/KDE war

So the Gnome desktop environment turns 10 today. Of course I took a look at Miguel de Icaza's announcement post. But I found the single follow-up post to be interesting too! ;)

On Fri, 15 Aug 1997, Miguel de Icaza wrote:
> We want to develop a free and complete set of user friendly
> applications and desktop tools, similar to CDE and KDE but based
> entirely on free software:

IMHO this is a knee-jerk reaction to a nonexistent problem.

Best of luck doing this with GTK... it has a long ways to catch up
with Qt.


Clearly not only the start of Gnome, but the start of the Gnome/KDE wars too! :)

Personally, I have always ran Ubuntu with Gnome, but I run KDE and GTK apps interchangably. Besides, my new found love is OpenBox anyway!!

Here are a couple of screenshots of my current desktop setup:

Photo Printing in Linux

A recent article in LXer points out that printing photos in Linux is a nightmare. And while I can't comment on most of the apps that she's tried, I can say that I've been quite satisfied printing in the Gimp.

I recently bought a new Epson R380 printer. So new in fact that Feisty didn't have support for it. It turns out that the Gutenprint project added support for this printer as of version 5.0.1. Installing these drivers was a bit of a quagmire, but I got it done. And luckily, the next release of Ubuntu (Gutsy) will support this printer out of the box.

So contrary to the LXer author's findings, I can print photos quite happily in the Gimp. Yes, even high quality borderless ones (I've printed borderless 8x10's and 4x6's so far). Colour profiling and correction for the printer is not easy, but I have to say that with a little tweaking to lower the greens and increase the magenta levels, I've managed to get very nice colour prints. And besides, my dad has an older model Epson R300 that he uses with XP (and the Epson drivers) and his prints always end up magenta-heavy, so colour profiling is not something that's really easy on any platform - it's a feature that requires simplification everywhere - and no, getting your printed output to match your screen in Photoshop is not that easy either - definitely not easy enough.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Shattered Photo - Inkscape Screencast

I've finished another Inkscape screencast, Episode 032 to be specific. This one shows one way of creating a shattered glass effect with a photo image using Inkscape. I've uploaded a lower quality version to YouTube and of course you can find it in significantly higher quality, along with all of our other screencasts at:

Hope you enjoy it and find it useful. :)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Gaming nostalgia and a possible time sinkhole...

Back in the day, I used to enjoy me the odd pc-based videogame. I was heavy into the racing sim games which varied from the high quality (Indy500 from Papyrus, Geoff Crammond's GP1,GP2 and GP3) to the very low (Bill Elliot's Nascar Challenge, and the old Road&Track Grand Prix Unlimited game - eeewww, what's that smell??).

But my pc-gaming experience extended past the racing sim genre to include a few other favourites. Two of which I've recently re-experienced using a neat utility called DosBox. DosBox is an open-source DOS emulator. Indeed, I have been using DosBox at work for some time, since it's the only way I can get a favourite old DOS-based design program running within XP. From their website:

DOSBox is a DOS-emulator that uses the SDL-library which makes DOSBox very easy to port to different platforms. DOSBox has already been ported to many different platforms, such as Windows, BeOS, Linux, MacOS X...

DOSBox also emulates CPU:286/386 realmode/protected mode, Directory FileSystem/XMS/EMS, Tandy/Hercules/CGA/EGA/VGA/VESA graphics, a SoundBlaster/Gravis Ultra Sound card for excellent sound compatibility with older games...

So locating the files for two of my absolute all-time favourites, 4D Sports Boxing and Out of this World (which was called 'Another World' in the UK), I immediately fired up DosBox, mounted the C:\ drive to a specified folder on my system and it ran them both flawlessly, sound included - just like they ran on my old 386 and P75 machines.

Out of this World is still a marvel of interesting gameplay. The theatrical intro, ultra cool background music and polygon based graphics made this one a cult hit then. It's still a great challenge to play. Think of it as Prince of Persia but much more elegant and involving. I remember spending countless hours trying to figure out solutions to the problems I faced in the game, without the benefit of Google or it's associated cheat and hint code environment.

So indeed, if you've got a hankerin' for that pc game from long ago, check out DosBox and let the retro roll!!

And if arcade gaming was also your thing (think Zaxxon, Galaga, Q-bert, Omega Race and Joust) then you could always check out the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator or Mame for short. You can find the mame site here, or if you're a linux user, check your repos, you might be a quick 'sudo apt-get install xmame-common' away from retro gaming nirvana like I was. ;)

Caution: This post holds the potential for a massive time sinkhole. You have been warned!! :)

Were you a gamer in years past? Share some of your faves in the comments.

The graphic app that will change the world!!

via Digg,

Finally! Something windows users can be proud of, and Mac users can just sit and drool over:


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Excuses Excuses

Too much work + not enough time = very little blogging

But in the meantime, I did find this hilarious:

Saturday, August 04, 2007

A source for free comic fonts...

Among the 1001 other things I've wanted to learn more about is comic design and creation. A nice find this week was the Comic Tools Blog. Via that blog, I found a homey 90's looking website of the very experienced comic letterer Todd Klein. Lots of interesting information there.

Of course, being into Inkscape I was keen on the computerized end of things. Long story short, I ended up at the Blambot Comic Fonts and Lettering site. They sell a wide range of comic fonts, but wouldn't you know - they also offer several high quality free fonts for non-commercial use.

I'm sure experienced comic artists already know all this stuff, so for any of you aspiring web comic artists out there, you might want to check it out.

Incidentally, one of the free fonts there was called Evil Genious. Dave Slusher would be proud. ;)

ps - Come to think of it, I miss Earl's comic-captioned photos too. Where'd they go Earl?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

Watching the horrible news of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. CNN is currently listing 3 fatalities. Watching the footage, I'm thinking the news will get significantly worse. :(

As a structural engineer, things like this scare the hell out of me. I'm not sure if it's naive to take the safety of our buildings and bridges for granted, or a testament to our engineering and construction know-how when we realize how few and far between failures like this are.

There are many variables that can lead to a structural failure: errors in design, errors in construction, and errors in maintenance. And make no mistake, engineers, designers and constructors are only human. And humans make errors. Let's just hope they find out what those errors were, and what we can learn from them.

Check out The GUIdebook

If you're interested in screenshots, icons and splash screens of various GUI's over the years from GeoWorks, Amiga Workbench, CDE, NextStep, BeOS, OS/2, Windows, Mac and others, check out While the front page notes a last update of Oct/06, I still found plenty of good images, and info on the development of various GUI systems.

The navigation on the site tells me that they were planning (or maybe are still planning) to provide a very wide breadth of information on GUI's and OS's from timelines to graphics and news. There are a quite a few areas to explore, but naturally some areas are thin on information as you might expect. A nice find anyway though.

One GUI I couldn't find on the site was the old OpenWindows desktop (a piece of which is shown above). I used this desktop during graduate school for my thesis which dumped me into the deep end of C programming, make files and gcc. Nevertheless the OpenWindows desktop (and unix in general) seemed like a revelation to me at the time (just previous to the launch of Win95). Very high resolution - for that time - and a desktop capable of really multitasking made me frown when I went back to my apartment where I was running Windows 3.11 at 800x600 and bombing around the Compuserve forums using OzWin.. ;)