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August 2013
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Thursday, 1 August 2013 Dereel Images for 1 August 2013
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Bloody cormorants!
Topic: animals Link here

Out into the garden this morning to see the surface of the pond rippling, though there was no wind. Sure enough, a little cormorant was in the pond. I wonder how many fish, if any, it got. I didn't see any fish left in the pond, but under the circumstances that's not surprising. Maybe I should put some mesh under the water: the fish can swim through it, but the cormorant would have problems.


Long-haired dogs: the down side
Topic: animals, opinion Link here

I have a small wire brush beside my TV armchair, so that when Zhivago comes past I can comb him. Yvonne took this as a criticism of her own combing, so this morning she kept the hair that she combed out, like she does every morning:


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Hibiscus in winter
Topic: gardening, opinion Link here

The Wikipedia page about Hibiscus rosa-sinensis states:

... it does not tolerate temperatures below 10 °C (50 °F)

That's patently not the case. Like most plants, it doesn't like low temperatures, and it's definitely not frost-hardy. But the one I have in the greenhouse, where temperatures drop to 0°, is looking considerably happier than in previous winters, and today it even managed a (somewhat unhappy) flower:


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But what do I do about the statement in Wikipedia? I don't have any independent reference to support my claim. Maybe somebody else should update the page and give this diary as a reference.


Linear algebra: like pulling teeth
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

On with my linear algebra course today. It kept me going all day long. I really wish I understood why they chose these bizarre representations of matrices and vectors. I ended up writing my own functions to handle more reasonable representations, and now I find it easier to write more functions to convert to the bizarre representation than just to type in the values of the objects. So clearly the representation is one of the issues.

But there's more. Some of the homework problems require specific implementations of multiplication operations, so I went back to take a look at the lectures. They made no sense at all: the results of matrix-vector multiplication seemed to be completely wrong: multiply a 3×2 matrix by a column vector and you should get a single column result with two rows. But the lecture appeared to show 3 columns. Once again I was left wondering if this was a deliberate incorrect algorithm which would be resolved in the next lecture, but that wasn't the case. Another couple of hours before I could finally understand what the lecture is trying to say. I really want to finish this course, but it's taking far longer than it has any right to do. It's not really the concepts that are giving me trouble: it's the viewpoint.


Friday, 2 August 2013 Dereel
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Linear algebra: guesswork and frustration
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

A week ago I was days behind with my assignments in the linear algebra course, and I had hoped to catch up a bit. The current assignments were due in last Sunday, but I have two weeks grace period. It looks as if I will need it. This week there were three assignments, and despite spending several hours every day on the course, I'm only about half way through the first assignment.

Why? Am I stupid? Am I past it? No, I don't think so. The real thing is my perpetual rant: documentation. The course material is so vague that it's not clear what they want. Why have they chosen this amazingly complex and inefficient representation for vectors and matrices? What kind of answers do they want for the assignments? I spent most of today on four assignments: two different ways each of multiplying a vector by a matrix and a matrix by a vector. The latter requires the vector to be a column vector with the same number of rows as the number of columns in the matrix. But earlier they showed it as a row vector. And the routines I wrote earlier in the week, using conventional matrix representations, show that my answers are correct.

The assignments are submitted in a template (“stencil”) file that includes the framework necessary for the problems; you just need to fill in the answers. The instructions for this problem include the statements:

Your code should use procedures mat2rowdict, mat2coldict, rowdict2mat(rowdict), and/or coldict2mat(coldict) from the matutil module.

So I did that and submitted it. The feedback I get is:

Which parts do you want to submit? (Ex: 1, 4-7): 11
== Submitting "linear-combinations matrix-vector multiply": Sorry, incorrect.

Later I found that it is possible to get some less laconic feedback with the --verbose option:

>>> print(test_format([f(M, V) for M in matrices for V in vectors]))
NameError: global name 'mat2coldict' is not defined
...
== Submitting "dot-product matrix-vector multiply": Exception: Sorry, an application error occured and we're working on it.

I'm not sure what the second error message means. It seems to be more than transient, but it wasn't there earlier. But the first! That's the kind of diagnostic that you expect from computers. It shows that, though they import some modules, it's everything that you need. And then they don't even tell you. What kind of learning experience is that?

Unfortunately, that wasn't the only problem. Even after importing the function, it still doesn't work. Looking at the discussion on the forums, it seems that they're looking for some particular code, or at least that other confused students think so. Why do I have to guess what it is? How does this help me learn the subject?

This must be the most frustrating course I have ever done.


Priority shipping: 6 days
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

The pain with the linear algebra course might be less when I get the book that I ordered last week. But where is it? I checked the order page yesterday, and the status showed as “In production”, whatever that means. No tracking number, which you'd expect of shipping of this calibre. So I sent a query by their painful web interface, and today I got the reply:

Date: Thu, 1 Aug 2013 19:35:03 +0000
From: CreateSpace Account Services <no_reply@createspace.com>
Subject: CreateSpace Order #45014557 has Shipped

Your order 45014557 has been shipped.

WHAT? I pay nearly as much for shipping as I do for the book, and they wait 5½ days before they ship it (the order confirmation was dated Sat, 27 Jul 2013 07:06:11 +0000). Growl! And these people belong to Amazon. They'll need a good reason for me ever to buy from them again.


Saturday, 3 August 2013 Dereel Images for 3 August 2013
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Reprocessing old photos
Topic: photography, general, opinion Link here

House photo day again today. On the first of a month I do all the photos, so it kept me busy. But I had time to compare the last nearly 6 years of photos. In particular the east side of the house has changed almost beyond recognition. Here the view south and east from the north-east corner of the house, on 21 October 2007 and today:


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And here the view north-east from further south, on 30 September 2007 and today:


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Neither of these is helped by the considerable increase in angle of view: the old ones were taken with a single shot with focal lengths of 14 mm (horizontal field of view 63°) and 16 mm (57°) respectively. The new ones are panoramas with roughly 180° and 150°. But they're taken from the same viewpoint, and the view of the first image is at the right of the new version, and the view of the second is at the left.

While comparing things, though, I came across some of my early panoramas, converted with ufraw and processed suboptimally. Tried reprocessing them, with spectacular results:


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There are a number of differences here:


Chrome image updating
Topic: technology, photography Link here

I view images with Chrom* on my highest-resolution monitor, and today's reprocessing should have shown the results well. But the new images didn't display! I had renamed the old images and given the new images the previous name of the old images, and Chrom* continues to display the old images long after they're gone. At first I thought I had made a mistake, but no, firefox shows them correctly. Ctrl-Shift-R doesn't help. Not even stopping and restarting helps! What a pain.


Createspace shipping explained
Topic: technology, general, opinion Link here

I didn't just rant about slow shipping of my book yesterday: I also filled out feedback web forms. One reply was typical:

In order to preserve customer privacy, we only reply to account-specific questions from an e-mail address associated with this account. Please log in to your Member Account and choose "Contact Support" to resend your message.

Never mind that you don't need a Member Account to order a book. But there was a second reply too, written by a Real Person (Lauren, Senior Support Specialist):

Our shipping time lines also include the amount of time it takes to produce the books you ordered; as we are inventory free and operate a print on demand facility.

So that's the reason! It also explains this strange “in production” status: it was being printed. And the minimal tracking information that DHL supplies suggest that it might really be here as promised. Now why don't they tell you that from the start?


Sunday, 4 August 2013 Dereel
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Compose key revisited
Topic: technology Link here

For 2½ years now I've been using an .XCompose file supplied to me by “pmarin”, ostensibly from Plan 9 from User Space. It has worked well, and about the only issue I had is that the key description file didn't quite match the man page.

And then this evening I wanted to enter some Russian text into the web browser on teevee, the TV computer. Beep. Did I have those key bindings right? Compose-@-L should give Л. But as soon as I entered @ it beeped. How about Greek? Compose-*-L should give Λ. At least I could enter the entire sequence before it beeped. No go.

Went back and looked at my diary entry on the subject. I needed an .XCompose file, and I didn't have one on this machine. So I put one in and tried again. Still nothing.

Comparing the X configuration for teevee and eureka (my main machine), I noted that the keyboard driver is different. teevee has the kbd driver, while eureka has keyboard:

Section "InputDevice"
    Identifier     "Keyboard0"
    Driver         "keyboard"
EndSection

But where's keyboard? Looking at the man pages, kbd is standard, but keyboard isn't even mentioned. Looking at the server log file for eureka, I find:

(++) Using config file: "/etc/X11/xorg-0.conf"
...
(WW) AllowEmptyInput is on, devices using drivers 'kbd', 'mouse' or 'vmmouse' will be disabled.
(WW) Disabling Keyboard0
(WW) Disabling Mouse0
...
(II) LoadModule: "kbd"
(II) Loading /usr/local/lib/xorg/modules/input/kbd_drv.so

So that's the config file with keyboard. No mention of the driver name in the log file, just a clear indication that it seems to have been ignored once if not twice. X has become too inaccurate somehow. If I specify a driver name that doesn't exist, it should refuse to start, not fall back to a different driver.

In any case, not my problem. I'm using effectively the same driver on both systems. And further investigation shows that the key bindings do work with Emacs, so it appears to be something to do with the browsers (both firefox and Chrom*). But what? Environ? That could be, since I was able to enter standard Western European characters like é.

In passing, it seems that this setup has nothing very much to do with Plan 9. The compose sequence is part of X, and the discrepancies between the Plan 9 layout description and what I have are because Pmarin gave me an XCompose file that he had created himself (presumably with Plan 9). And it seems that it contains much more, including Arabic characters. Much more investigation needed.


Maps, projections and coordinates
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

More watching the video lectures of the linear algebra course today. I've complained about them in the past, but there are also some interesting trivia in the lectures. It seems that René Descartes had similar problems to me when getting up in the morning. The story goes that while he was lying in bed one morning (or afternoon, or evening) while he was bored (or maybe sick or insomniac), he saw a fly walking over the ceiling and contemplated how best to describe its position. He chose the distance from two walls: Cartesian coordinates were born.

How reliable is the story? I can't find any really good references, but who cares? The real question is: how could a man whose name means “Reborn of the Maps” stare at the ceiling without noticing its curvature? It's an ideal situation to consider projections of wide angles, and it hits me every time I study the ceiling. But that would have led to polar coordinates, not Cartesian.

And no, no flies on my ceiling. The spiders eat them.


Monday, 5 August 2013 Dereel
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Election campaign and bad publicity
Topic: general, opinion Link here

In the news this morning discovered by inference that Kevin Rudd called a federal election yesterday, to be held on 7 September 2013. And almost immediately there was a leaflet in my letterbox: “Kevin Rudd... <mumble> for jobs”. From the Australian Labor Party? No, I don't think so. “<mumble>” proved to be “bad”. No party admitted liability, but it smacks of the stupidity of the current leader of the Liberal Party of Australia. When will they learn that no publicity is bad publicity?


Premature optmztion is rt of all evl
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

Much of Linear algebra relates to things like image compression, and I'm currently learning some interesting facts. But then I was pointed at this page, showing some serious dangers of the techniques. In the case in point, it seems that two different Xerox photocopiers changed texts to other plausible, but incorrect texts. Here one example of a copy of a building plan where the area specification changed from 14,13 m² to 21,11 m²:

Image Image

How can that happen? This kind of detail occurs many times in the plan (it's a description of the room, along with its floor area), and the incorrect copy matches a correct detail elsewhere on the plan. As the author states:

Several mails I got suggest that the xerox machines use JBIG2 for compression. This algorithm creates a dictionary of image patches it finds “similar”. Those patches then get reused instead of the original image data, as long as the error generated by them is not “too high”.

Clearly Xerox' definition of “too high” is more restrictive than that of the users. It'll be interesting to see how Xerox addresses the problem.


Tuesday, 6 August 2013 Dereel Images for 6 August 2013
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Print on demand
Topic: technology, opinion, general Link here

Exactly on time, my freshly printed Linear Algebra book arrived today. It doesn't look at all bad from a production point of view. No flyleaf, and clearly formatted with TeX, but the production quality appears at least as good as many conventional books, and significantly better than some. That's quite impressive.

So I went looking at how createspace, the printer, do business from the author's point of view. I couldn't make much sense of it:

 
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The tabs at the top are almost illegible, and the link at the bottom to highest royalties isn't a link at all, just an underlined text—or so I thought until I looked at the HTML source:

        <dt>Competitive Royalties</dt><dd>Some of the <a onclick="javascript:setContent(5);">highest royalties</a><!-- link breaks if no JS --> in the industry. View <a href="javascript:setContent(6);">Earning Royalties</a> video.</dd>
        <dt>Affordable Copies</dt><dd>Low author book <a onclick="javascript:setContent(6);">prices</a><!-- link breaks if no JS -->, regardless of order quantity.</dd>

That comment is wrong: JavaScript is enabled, and otherwise the other links would break too. Clearly something is confusing the web programmer. So all that's left is a video! What I want was a document explaining their method and how to use it. Is that so difficult?

No, once you find your way through the mess. The video link includes a royalty calculator, which confirms their claims that the royalties are good—as long as you print black and white. For a normal sized book with 480 pages (their limit for colour), you could get good royalties selling it for $20 in black and white, but you'd need to ask over $65 to get the same royalties for a colour edition. That's particularly concerning for a couple of projects I have on the “round tuit” queue: photography and cooking. But then, with this model you could leave the choice up to the buyer.

The tab “Interior”, which appears to be short for “Interior options”, includes a link to the PDF submission specification, all 67 pages of surprisingly fuzzy content:


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Apart from that, though, the document makes sense, and it confirms that I could practically send in the PDF of “The Complete FreeBSD” and have it printed on demand.

There's no point in doing that, of course: the book is completely out of date. But it offers a number of interesting alternatives. I produced that book almost entirely by myself, including all the layout: only the cover would need attention. The advantages of print-on-demand? No reliance on “editions” any more: I can update the image at any time, and new prints would automatically be up to date. O'Reilly's suggested retail price for this book (yes, after 10 years it's still in print) is $54.99. With createspace I could sell it for $30 and still get more royalties.

No, I don't have any concrete plans right now to write any more books, nor to update “The Complete FreeBSD”. But it's nice to know that there's a practical service available if I do decide to do something.


Wednesday, 7 August 2013 Dereel
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XCompose: new insights
Topic: technology Link here

Mail from pmarin today about my Compose key problems. He reminded me of one point that I noted when I first mentioned it:

For GTK and QT, set the environment variables:

export GTK_IM_MODULE=xim
export QT_IM_MODULE=xim

I don't use anything like that, so I didn't set it. But wait, doesn't the browser build pull in all sorts of libraries? Quite probably either GTK or Qt. But my browsers on eureka work without these settings. Just to be sure, I checked. Yes, no problem entering symbols like éßþðü. And what about Ульянов? No! That didn't work on eureka either! It seems that I had never tried to enter Russian texts into a browser before.

So I tried setting the environment variables and starting again. And, indeed, it made a difference: things were worse. Without them, entering (say) Compose-@-L gave me a beep before I got as far as the L. Afterwards, it inserted a Ð. Huh?

Could it be that the browser is using the locale specified in the environment, and using it to override its default UTF-8 environment? That seems possible. I have the setting:

LC_ALL=en_AU.ISO8859-1

So how about overriding that?

=== grog@eureka (/dev/pts/20) ~ 9 -> LC_ALL=en_AU.UTF-8 chrome
(process:41322): Gtk-WARNING **: Locale not supported by C library.
        Using the fallback 'C' locale.

Despite the error message, it worked! So it seems that the locale is important. But the warning, the kind that normally falls into /dev/null on a Real Man's GUI, suggests that it's also not the one it wanted. So I tried again with the C locale:

=== grog@eureka (/dev/pts/20) ~ 14 -> LC_ALL=C chrome
[79543:209744896:4038478186499:ERROR:browser_main_loop.cc(157)] <unknown>: Error converting text from IM to UTF-8: Invalid byte sequence in conversion input

And, as the message suggests, that doesn't work! So much for warnings.

In any case, the solution is relatively simple. In my .fvwm2rc I now have the invocation:

+       "firefox"       Exec    GTK_IM_MODULE=xim QT_IM_MODULE=xim LC_ALL=en_AU.UTF-8 firefox
+       "opera"         Exec    GTK_IM_MODULE=xim QT_IM_MODULE=xim LC_ALL=en_AU.UTF-8 opera
+       "chrome"        Exec    GTK_IM_MODULE=xim QT_IM_MODULE=xim LC_ALL=en_AU.UTF-8 chrome

And why the confusion? xim stands for X input method, which, as the name suggests, comes with X. But that's too simple for the toolkits, so they choose their own, as this page suggests, and they interpret the Compose key differently. The first two environment variables select xim explicitly. And the locale issue is simply to annoy you.


Thursday, 8 August 2013 Dereel Images for 8 August 2013
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Why do I hate Tony Abbott?
Topic: general, opinion Link here

We're in the middle of an election campaign again, and the result could go either way. I really don't understand why. I don't associate with either major political party, but at least the current Prime Minister makes a professional, educated impression. Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition, appears to be a gibbering idiot completely devoid of any of the qualities that mark a statesman. It's not just me: all the people I talk to about him seem to think so. Somehow this image of him, on the right, trying to kiss a baby (why do candidates do that?) sums it up:

Kissing babes

Why? Is he really that stupid? How does he expect to become Prime Minister when he behaves like that? Why does his party accept him? One obvious suspicion might be that he has them all in his pocket, possibly with little secrets about them that make it inadvisable for them to cross him. But that's just a conjecture.

The other thing is: despite behaving like a 10-year-old, the polls show that he seems to be relatively popular, occasionally becoming the “preferred Prime Minister”. So maybe this is what a large proportion of the Australian electorate want from a Prime Minister. What a condemnation of democracy!

This says nothing about Kevin Rudd, of course. Some people can't tell the difference between the two candidates:

Kony Rubout


Still more linear algebra pain
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

I'm making progress with this linear algebra course, but it's slow. The week's assignments of 2½ weeks ago have kept me going two weeks. Today I spent most of the day on only two questions. The first: “Write a procedure find_error that takes an error syndrome and returns the corresponding error vector”.

That's straightforward enough: this is part of an implementation of the Hamming Code, and the error syndrome is simply a number between 1 and 7, and the error vector is basically a 7 bit number with the corresponding number set. In C:

int find_error (int syndrome)
{
  return 1 << (syndrome - 1)
}

But this isn't C. It's not even really Python. It uses a really bizarre representation of vectors, chosen to highlight some aspects of vectors. Up to now I have thought that that's probably a good idea, but using it for anything remotely resembling programming just encourages bad programming practices. My input vector is really not an integer at all, not even vaguely:

Vec({0, 1, 2},{0: one, 1: one, 2: one})

That corresponds to 7 (all 3 bits set). The expected output vector is

Vec({0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6},{6: one})

How do you calculate that efficiently? I spent a lot of time trying, and after a couple of hours I gave up and wrote some code which is so horrible that I wouldn't even publish it if I were allowed to. If somebody working for me insisted on writing implementations like that, I'd fire him and publish the code on The Daily WTF. Is that the way to teach programming linear algebra?


More sound problems
Topic: technology Link here

I've had a sporadic problem with teevee, my TV computer: from time to time the sound hardware wedges. I get this message:

Aug  8 20:24:49 teevee kernel: pcm0: chn_write(): pcm0:play:dsp0.p1: play interrupt timeout, channel dead

I've done some investigation, but so far I can't find a way to recover from the problem: I have to reboot. The fact that a reboot (without power cycling) fixes the problem suggests that there's a programmatic way to do it, but I haven't found it yet. So far it's been pretty sporadic, but this is the second time now in a couple of days.


Unstoppable fsck
Topic: technology Link here

While rebooting teevee, saw a message fly past:

Aug  8 20:29:03 teevee kernel: WARNING: /home was not properly dismounted

Huh? I hadn't crashed the system: it was an orderly reboot. But further examination showed that I had an error in /etc/fstab and wasn't fscking the /home file system. With soft updates that isn't as big a problem as it might seem, and who knows how long this has been going on for? Looking at my old log files, it goes back at least a couple of weeks. So I started a background fsck while we continued watching TV.

Bad idea. The disk was so saturated that we couldn't watch TV. So I tried to stop the fsck. No go, not even with SIGKILL. So, rather rashly, I tried shutdown -r. Bad idea:


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It carried on for 15 minutes before finally giving up:

Aug  8 20:32:15 teevee syslogd: exiting on signal 15
Aug  8 20:47:11 teevee kernel: Syncing disks, vnodes remaining...2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 1 2 1 0 2 0 2 2 2 0 1 2 2 2 2 2 0 2 2 2 0 0 2 2 2 2 0 2 0 0 0 2 2 0 2 2 2 2 0 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 0 timed out
...
Aug  8 20:47:11 teevee kernel: 15 11 11 0 1 1 1 10 16 19 16 26 22 22 22 1 5 5 2 2 2 4 20 21 18 15 12 11 11 8 8 8 0 1 1 1 18 14 14 14 4 4 1 1 4 14 16 1 8 8 2 2 5 15 18 16 26 26 2 27 20 30 31 27 27 23 23 19 19 15 13 13 11 11 9 8 8 1 1 1 2 0 2 2 2 2 0 2 2 0 2 2 3 3 2 2 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 2 3 2 2 3 2 2 3 2 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 1 1 2 3 2 2 2 3 3 3 3 1 2 3 2 2 3 2 2 3 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 3 3 3 3 2 2 3 3 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 2 3 3 2 2 2 3 3 3 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 3 3 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 2 1 1 2 2 3 2 2 2 3 2 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 2 3 3 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 3 2 2 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 4 2 2 3 2 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 3 2 2 1 1 2 2 2 3 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 3 3 3 3 1 1 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 3
Aug  8 20:47:11 teevee kernel: Giving up on 3 buffers

The time of the second message is clearly incorrect; it happened 30 seconds after the first, but clearly didn't get through syslogd until 15 minutes later. So I came back up again and /home was still dirty—and so was the root file system.

Why couldn't I stop fsck? I'm sure I've done that before.


Friday, 9 August 2013 Dereel Images for 9 August 2013
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AEC professionalism, revisited
Topic: general, opinion Link here

I've already commented on the lamentable quality of various aspects of the Australian Electoral Commission. Today I heard another from Jashank Jeremy: he sent them a message with a specific question (“what am I currently allowed to publish in the student newspaper?”) and got a completely unrelated reply (“no advertising allowed after 3 days before the election”). Is there no accountability? This seems to happen in far too many official organizations, and I've already established that Victoria Police has no department supervising the efficiency or accuracy of police work. WhenIf the police make a mistake, the only avenue that the normal citizen has is to go to court. Yes, there's an Ethical Standards Department, but they're looking for corruption, not incompetence. Now wouldn't that be a problem for the warring election candidates to address?


All day learning
Topic: general, opinion, technology Link here

So I've finally finished as much of my week 3 assignments for the Linear algebra course as I can stand. I didn't do a couple of the assignments simply because I didn't understand what they wanted: my answers to others gave the correct results, but were rejected for some unspecified reason. Time to move on: I'm nearly 2 weeks late.

Spent the afternoon watching lectures on TV. Finally I'm getting somewhere.


Wedged sound hardware: a clue?
Topic: technology Link here

While watching TV this afternoon, did some reading, and played some music from the Naxos Music Library on teevee. When I returned to playing video lectures, the sound hung again. That's the third time in as many days, after I had had no trouble for months. And then it dawned on me: I think that every time it hung was after playing something from Naxos. That's played with some flash player and firefox. Is there some issue with that? How else can I play the stuff? But at least it's a lead.


Web browser font sizes
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

Most web browsers offer to set a minimum font size so that you can read things even if some leet web programmer has decided to write his pages with fonts that would not be too big on a 640×480 screen. On a 2560×1440 display, they render like flyspeck.

The web programmers don't like that. Neither do their pages. A case in point is the Naxos Music Library, which I like to run on teevee, my TV computer. The screen is 1.27 m wide and 3.5 m from my armchair, so each of the 1,920 pixels subtends an angle of only 0.01°. Compare that with a more conventional 24" monitor at 60 cm distance, where the angle is 0.25°, or the low-resolution 1366×768 monitors that web programmers still seem to target, where the pixels subtend an angle of 0.035°. Clearly this kind of text is illegible on teevee.

So I set a minimum text size of 18 “point” (really pixels). But the result is less than useful:


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Most of the screen is blank. The left is intentionally left blank so that I don't have to worry about too wide an angle of view, the middle has been moved to the right for some reason, so that it overflows beyond the right of the screen. And it's still only marginally legible. I've become so used to this kind of breakage that I no longer worry too much about it. But in this case I wanted to do a keyword search. Where is it?


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The input field has completely disappeared. Yes, I can find it again if I remove the minimum font specification


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But now the text is so small that I can't read it from the armchair.

Fortunately, now that higher resolution displays are on the way, browsers allow you to scale the content, coincidentally filling the screen and making the keyword search much larger:


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The detail image of the keyword search is the same size in each of these examples. I suppose the almost total lack of white bars left and right is a sign: this is the way the web programmer wanted it to look. Isn't it good that we can help them now?


Saturday, 10 August 2013 Dereel Images for 10 August 2013
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Refining the panoramas
Topic: photography, opinion Link here

I've been taking my exterior photos every week for nearly 6 years now, and I'm gradually reducing the frequency of some of them. Today I took only three. But it's clear that I can do more to improve the image quality beyond this, for example:


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The problem in this case was that it was taken at 8:55, the sun was in the image, and it's very difficult to retouch it out completely. In this case I was left wondering whether I should take this kind of image at all, or whether I should take it at a different time of the day. As a result, tried the same panorama a number of times during the day. In the end I tried at 6 different times, some of them looking much the same. The most significant seem to be these, taken at 12:27, 15:14 and 17:39:


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Which is best? Hard to say, but I went for the first of them.

The other issue is purple fringing, particularly noticeable in this view:


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That's at least partially an artefact of DxO Optics “Pro” with the “Artistic HDR” profile. I can improve things without it, but then the shadow detail suffers:


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It looks as if I'll need to try using a combination of both.


Sunday, 11 August 2013 Dereel Images for 11 August 2013
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More Linear Algebra pain
Topic: technology, photography, opinion Link here

Moving on to the next lesson of the linear algebra course—the assignments are now only a week overdue. It's getting more interesting: it now relates to image manipulation. But the pain continues. They provide a couple of routines to load an image and display it on a web browser. It uses the inefficient matrix implementation that I've already complained about, so I didn't even think of trying on a normal image. Instead I took one of yesterday's examples:

 
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That's 699×625 pixels, rather less than 0.5 MP, and the JPEG file is about 130 kB in size. After conversion to PNG, it grew to 767 kB. Reading in to python took 32 seconds of CPU time and blew the process image up by nearly 500 MB. Here before and after:

USER         PID  %CPU %MEM     VSZ     RSS TT  STAT STARTED         TIME COMMAND
grog       31701   0.0  0.2   70816   13868 12  S+    9:44am      0:00.14 python3.2
grog       31701  17.3  5.7  545952  472440 12  S+    9:44am      0:32.21 python3.2

Rendering it on a freshly-started firefox took another 18 seconds for python, mainly, it seems, to write a 42 MB HTML file, and a whopping 3 minutes of CPU time to actually render it on the screen, in the process blowing the firefox process image by 800 MB. Again before and after:

-rw-------  1 grog  wheel  42,138,975 12 Aug 09:49 /tmp/tmpuw54xn.html

USER         PID  %CPU %MEM     VSZ     RSS TT  STAT STARTED         TIME COMMAND
grog       32392  20.0  1.6  409480  132896 v0  I     9:48am      0:06.15 /usr/local/lib/firefox/firefox-bin
grog       32392   9.0 11.0 1239756  920408 v0  I     9:48am      3:12.34 /usr/local/lib/firefox/firefox-bin
grog       31701   0.0  5.6  545952  464584 12  I+    9:44am      0:50.24 python3.2

The rendering was so slow that I thought it had failed. I got an image like this:

 
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But after a long time it finally came good. The browser remained catatonic and had to be shot down.

What's wrong with this approach? This is supposed to be teaching you practical linear algebra programming. But the implementation is so inefficient that it's completely useless. Yes, maybe it makes sense to highlight some properties of vectors and matrices, but people might actually go out and program with these representations. What a pain!

For the fun of it, I tried loading a full-sized image from my camera. I don't know how far I got: after half an hour the process image had grown to well over 5 GB, and I ran out of swap:

USER         PID  %CPU %MEM     VSZ     RSS TT  STAT STARTED         TIME COMMAND
grog       35366  97.8 53.7 5481632 4487836 12  R+   10:09am     13:22.28 python3.2

The same image with xv rendered in less than a second:

USER         PID  %CPU %MEM     VSZ     RSS TT  STAT STARTED         TIME COMMAND
grog       40940   5.0  0.6   95100   52484 13  S    11:01am      0:00.93 xv Zhivago.png

By contrast, the assignments themselves seem straightforward enough:

Task 3: Write a procedure scale(alpha, beta) that takes x-and y -scaling parameters and returns the corresponding 3 × 3 scaling matrix that multiplies a vector [x, y, 1].

So I did that and got the dreaded “Sorry, incorrect” when I submitted it. Why? It doesn't say. After some guessing, decided to change the row and column labels from the default [0, 1, 2] to the more obvious ['x', 'y', 'u']. Success! But somehow that's the problem with all this work. It's not understanding the concepts, it's understanding this horrible implementation and the implicit requirements of the assignments. This is really the most frustrating course I've ever done.


Brief History of Humankind
Topic: general, opinion Link here

Another Coursera course started today: A Brief History of Humankind, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It's only lectures, about 2½ hours of them for this week, so I sat down and watched them. This week was about the evolution of Homo sapiens, something that I've known about, of course. But it did bring new insights, in particular the discovery of more species of Homo such as the Denisova hominin. Clearly our understanding of evolution is still growing. On the other hand, some of the conclusions seemed unlikely. But that's what discussions are for. Once again I'm amazed by the comparatively easy syllabus compared with the linear algebra course

There's also a discussion forum, like most of the courses have. I've always found the signal-to-noise ratio too low on these things, but one thing is interesting: there's a map of the locations of the participants. It's not completely bug-free: when I tried to add myself, it placed me in Shiraz (Iran, not the wine), and when I filled out the correct information, it put me in the right place, but with labels, physical and email address of somebody in Argentina. When I returned later, it was gone, but I had another interface to contend with. I wonder if this one will stay.


Lost photos
Topic: photography, technology Link here

A couple of days ago I discovered that some old photos were no longer on my web site, notably those taken on 2 December 2000 and 3 December 2000 Today it seemed to be a good idea to see if any more were missing. Indeed, there were—no less than 390 of them! Most of them proved not to be missing: only the entry in the date index was gone. How did that happen? Fortunately, it's relatively trivial to recreate it, so spent some time doing that, in the process discovering that a large number required further attention. That'll keep me going for a while.


One Nation: Making Tony Abbott look intelligent
Topic: general, opinion Link here

A couple of days ago I characterized Tony Abbott's behaviour as that of a gibbering idiot. But that's just an impression, and I also expressed my doubts.

But there are others. One of the smaller political parties in Australia is One Nation, a party which could be considered to be extreme right-wing if they understood the concept. Today I discovered that one of their candidates for the upcoming election, gave a TV interview in which she claimed that Islam was a country, that the Jews believed in Jesus Christ, and that the holy book of the Muslims was called Haram. Wikipedia has more details, of course. About the best thing about the matter, at least from the Liberal Party of Australia's point of view, is that by comparison Tony Abbott looks like a genius.

Other interesting details: as a result, she has retracted her candidature, apparently because of misrepresentation by the press, and the SMH article states:

Ms Banister was recently arrested and charged after she plastered stickers on Nestle products in a Brisbane shopping centre saying “halal food funds terrorism”, Channel Seven said.

This is just another indication of how little she understands. She's happy with kosher food (because the Jews worship Christ?), but not with halal, though kashrut is much stricter. And clearly that doesn't fund Israel's continued invasion of its neighbours.

Somehow, though, I can't see “One Nation” as a really right-wing party. The Nazis, for example, were well-organized and well-disciplined. “One Nation” is really just a group of parochial, prejudiced idiots. I didn't need Stephanie Bannister to form that opinion.


Monday, 12 August 2013 Dereel
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Reunion with Cynthia
Topic: general, photography, opinion Link here

Over 50 years ago I met a girl called Cynthia Beatt, and at the time (I was 14 years old, after all), rather inaccurately claimed that she was “pursuing” me. As I later clarified, we remained friends for about 4 years, and on leaving school I lost track of her.

Later I found that she had moved to Berlin and become an actress and film director. I thought of contacting her, but there wasn't much information about her on the web.

And then today she tracked me down, after nearly half a century! And what a nice message she sent!

I see you have posted quite a few photos of me on the web - without my permission....I think it would be only fair that you apply to yourself what you stipulate in your copyright information:

You contact me and we negotiate conditions, which may or may not require payment.

You do not contact me and choose to owe me the sum of Australian dollars (AUD) 10,000 per page or image.

What a nice way of saying “Good to find you again”! On a purely practical point of view, of course, it's nonsense. I have the copyright of all those photos, as confirmed here. And of course she doesn't want royalties:

I find it rather strange that you would even imagine that photographs taken of other people without their signing a release could be sold by you or given to others to use. There are several photos there that I do not wish to have the world view when they are looking up my work. There are a couple I don't mind, but the rest should be deleted. I can let you know which ones they are.

OK, that's fair enough, though she's the first person I've known who objects to being identified in what are basically holiday snaps. The page I mentioned above mentions that too:

Model release forms

An individual has certain rights to control the use of their image. The specific details will vary from one country to another depending on national legislation, although the general rule seems to be to protect a person against defamatory or offensive use of their image.

If you intend to sell or distribute images that include people, then it is worth getting your subjects to sign a model release form as this will protect you against any comeback.

That's actually less than I would have thought: there's no implication that the photos are defamatory or offensive, just that she doesn't want her clients to see them.

But that's all theoretical. I offered to rename them so that they wouldn't show up (as some of the very few recognizable images) in Google images. There are so few of her and so many false positives that I don't have any idea what she looks like now. I suppose this one, from this article, comes closest:

Alas, both the article and the image have disappeared.

Somehow I prefer this one:


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But that's her choice. Maybe she likes that one too. So I replied and asked which ones she wanted “deleted”. The reply was typical Microsoft space: addressed other issues, but didn't answer the question. I suppose I'll hear from her again when she realizes her mistake. But what a disappointment: you wouldn't expect that kind of tone from an old friend who reestablishes contact after 50 years. It saddens me somehow.

On a more technical plane, what is the legal situation? If I were to refuse and she were to sue me, by what legislation, what jurisdiction, and based on what event?


Tuesday, 13 August 2013 Dereel Images for 13 August 2013
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Stupidity: Abbott strikes back
Topic: general, opinion Link here

Only a couple of days ago I wrote an article claiming that there were more stupid political candidates than Tony Abbott. Them's fighting words, it would seem. Tony struck back with the claim that he wasn't the suppository of all wisdom. I suppose that's reassuring, though of course the photoshoppers had a field day:

Suppository

The original URLs dried up. This one seems the most appropriate of what Google Images can still find.

Score one for Tony. How could we doubt him? Somehow this is a particularly entertaining election campaign.


Presedential campaign: Opening Christmas Island
Topic: general, opinion Link here

A rather surprising story on Al Jazeera News today: for the first time, the Australian Government have allowed a news team inside the concentration camp detention centre on Christmas Island. Why Al Jazeera? My guess is to get the message to potential asylum seekers in the Middle East. But once again I'm amused by the accuracy of the press:


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In a recent SBS programme on the topic, screened in Australia, they were allowed to take video from outside the boundaries of the camp. Those views showed a well-organized, clean and humane facility. What I saw today looked very different. Clearly they've tailored the footage to the target audience.


More Courseras
Topic: general, opinion Link here

Yet another Coursera course started today, this time Climate Change from the University of Melbourne. With the exception of Linear algebra, all these courses are relatively straightforward, but there are lots of lectures. For this week I have 138 minutes of Introduction to Mathematical philosophy, 108 minutes of A Brief History of Humankind, and about 190 minutes of Climate Change. The linear algebra lectures are shorter, but they don't specify the lengths, so they're not easy to count. But that's a total of about 9 hours just of lectures—more than I was expecting.

Took a look at the first few lecture installments of Climate Change (depending on the course, they're split up into chunks of between 5 and 25 minutes). Not quite what I was expecting: the first three weeks are delivered by Professor Jon Barnett, who really needs more training in presentation, in particular articulation. He's Australian, but I had difficulty understanding some of what he was saying. I wonder what our American friends think. The topic was vulnerability to climate change in the Pacific Islands, a rather oblique way to introduce the subject. I'll reserve my judgement.


Finally the perfect pizza base
Topic: food and drink, opinion Link here

Flàmmeküeche for dinner this evening. How do you make it? More details in the recipe, but today we made it with normal pizza dough.

And that's been a problem for some time. The dough isn't a problem, but baking it is. I've tried different methods, but today I think we got it right: bake from the underside for 10 minutes with the base mounted on baking paper. Then it will be firm enough from below that it can be put directly on the oven plate without sticking. Add the topping (in this case onion mixture) and bake for 15 minutes from both sides. Finally!


Wednesday, 14 August 2013 Dereel Images for 14 August 2013
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Hating Facebook, reasons 4717 to 4720
Topic: general, gardening, opinion Link here

I stopped using Facebook a couple of months ago because their continual spamming annoyed me so much. I haven't regretted it. But today I found a reason to revisit: a few months ago Ben Brooks came along to look at the garden, and finally I've decided to ask him to do the work.

Problem: he contacted me by Facebook, and that's the only contact information I had. So back into Facebook to check my messages. Gone! Well, not gone—as everybody knows, nothing gets deleted in Facebook—but inaccessible to me. After less than 3 months! He's not a “friend”—I never ask people to be Facebook “friends”, because it would give the impression that I actually use it. So how do I find him? I had even forgotten his name, but of course I have that in my diary.

But even searching for him was a problem. I was using Chrom*, which has a search window at top right. And for reasons that I don't understand, a pane popped up at random to the left of the search window:


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Apart from the fact that I hate popups at the best of times, this one wouldn't go away. Or sometimes it didn't.

Finally I found him and a way to send a message to him. Only Chrom* didn't want to know:

 
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OK, I have other browsers. Wrote it with firefox and pressed Send. Nothing happened. Several repeats. Finally I cut and pasted the text into Chrom*, and sent that. What a pain. And when Ben replied, I didn't get an email notification, unlike when they want me to do something. I had to go back and find it.

Facebook. Who needs it?


More liberal denigration
Topic: general, opinion Link here

Two more election-related things in the post today: a leaflet explaining that Darren Cheeseman was a loyal member of the Australian Labor Party, and that we shouldn't vote for him as a result. There's nothing specific about Cheeseman in the flyer; the Liberals put out a similar flyer in the Division of La Trobe. The one side is the same for both:


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  Laura Smyth

Clearly this isn't targeting the person they say it is. One of the problems facing (even) Australia nowadays is the tolerance of minorities. Say “$name is despicable because he's a $ethnic” is considered improper, and in many cases I suppose it's prohibited. What's the difference here? Just because they're politicians? In any case, I still consider it improper, and spent some time looking up her web site, which didn't give me any email address; the “Email Sarah” link just takes you to a web form. But I found this out three years ago. After sending an “I'm disgusted” mail message to her, I discovered that it was pretty much the same as what I sent her three years ago.

Not that I like Labor particularly, but at least so far they have refrained from this kind of mud-slinging. Would you like somebody like Henderson to represent you?


Thursday, 15 August 2013 Dereel Images for 15 August 2013
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Gareden flowers in late winter
Topic: gardening Link here

Winter's drawing to a close, though you couldn't tell it from the weather. Somehow this year seems to have been particularly cool, though my weather statistics don't really bear that out:

+------------+-------------+-------------------+-------------------+-------------------+
| year(date) | month(date) | min(outside_temp) | avg(outside_temp) | max(outside_temp) |
+------------+-------------+-------------------+-------------------+-------------------+
|       2010 |           8 |               1.9 |  8.22233677272356 |              19.3 |
|       2011 |           8 |               0.5 |  10.5047176483693 |              23.2 |
|       2012 |           8 |               0.4 |  8.75477337510758 |              22.4 |
|       2013 |           8 |               1.1 |  8.54898038119748 |              18.3 |
+------------+-------------+-------------------+-------------------+-------------------+

But the garden is showing the signs of approaching spring, particularly the wattles, of course:


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Things look much the same as they did this time last year. Last year we had the first Sparaxis, but I haven't seen any yet this year. On the other hand, the lemon tree and Hibiscus rosa-sinensis in the greenhouse are doing well:


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In general, though, things are settling in to a routine.


Can I determine the outcome of the election?
Topic: general, opinion Link here

I've never been very interested in participating in actions where I can't directly influence the outcome. Government elections are a good example: at a guess (I can't find accurate statistics) there are over 15,000,000 eligible voters in Australia. What difference does my vote make?

More than it would seem, it seems. It's not individual votes that count, it's the number of seats in parliament. That means that your vote in a safe seat is pretty meaningless, while in a marginal seat like Corangamite it could be very important. In the last election Darren Cheeseman won by a difference of 771 votes. That's the most marginal seat in Australia. If it goes to the “Coalition”, there's a good chance that they will win the election. And this year they're expecting a swing in that direction. So potentially my vote could be the decider. And if this seat is the decider between Labor and the “Coalition”, then yes, my vote could decide who comes to power.

Isn't democracy fair?

On the satirical side, Tony Abbott's rhetoric is fuelling lots of articles, like this one.


Tying up the shrubs
Topic: gardening Link here

It's been very windy lately, and a couple of shrubs have suffered. Spent not much time with Yvonne's help tying up the Alyogyne huegelii and the Pandorea, both of which had been blown over.


Friday, 16 August 2013 Dereel Images for 16 August 2013
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Weather: off the scale
Topic: general, opinion, technology Link here

Horribly windy day today—I later discovered that they had had gusts of up to 140 km/h in some parts of Victoria. It wasn't that bad here, but it kept up all day long, so I spent much of the day watching TV, like the Climate Change course, which is still rather off-topic.

Also kept an eye on my weather readings. I'm sure that the wind speed gauge shows too little; the maximum gust measured today was 35.8 km/h, but I suspect we had over 60 km/h in reality. But the real thing that got me was the drop in barometric pressure:

Click to see larger image

And in the evening the readings, which should be one per minute, became more infrequent, and round 18:00 they stopped altogether:


SELECT date, time, outside_temp, outside_dewpoint, outside_humidity, pressure_abs,
       pressure_msl, wind_direction, wind_speed, wind_gust
FROM   observations
WHERE  date = "2013-08-16";

+------------+----------+--------------+------------------+------------------+--------------+--------------+----------------+------------+-----------+
| date       | time     | outside_temp | outside_dewpoint | outside_humidity | pressure_abs | pressure_msl | wind_direction | wind_speed | wind_gust |
+------------+----------+--------------+------------------+------------------+--------------+--------------+----------------+------------+-----------+
...
| 2013-08-16 | 17:38:51 |         12.4 |              1.7 |               48 |        920.1 |        957.2 |              0 |        5.6 |      14.2 |
| 2013-08-16 | 17:43:49 |         12.4 |                2 |               49 |          920 |        957.1 |              0 |        8.6 |      16.1 |
| 2013-08-16 | 17:46:12 |         12.4 |              1.7 |               48 |          920 |        957.1 |             45 |        9.4 |      18.9 |
| 2013-08-16 | 17:47:13 |         12.4 |                2 |               49 |          920 |        957.1 |              0 |        7.5 |      14.2 |
| 2013-08-16 | 17:48:14 |         12.4 |              1.7 |               48 |          920 |        957.1 |          292.5 |        7.5 |      16.1 |
| 2013-08-16 | 17:56:37 |         12.3 |              2.2 |               50 |          920 |        957.1 |            315 |        6.7 |      13.3 |

And then nothing. I later discovered two causes that had ganged up on me: I had set a minimum plausible absolute pressure of 920 mbar, and there seems to be a bug in my retry logic, which should try for a couple of minutes and then return a null value if it's out of range. Clearly I had never expected such a low pressure.

And of course the wind blew over the Pandorea jasminoides again: it tore the wire apart. Surely that's got to be more than 36 km/h.


Your account has been compromised
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

For some obscure reason I accessed Facebook again today—probably by accident. But I wasn't expecting what I saw:

 
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Clearly that's not me. But how did they break my password? How did they break my password? Did they break my password? In any case, I reset it.

And then a little later I got a message from my Microsoft box telling me that I needed to upgrade my “Internet Explorer”. I get so used to that sort of thing that I barely think about it. But there's something funny. First of all, the upgrade program doesn't seem to come from Microsoft, and it offers to install all sorts of other software as well. Today it came with a not-obviously-removable popup, in German, and when it finally downloaded the file, it failed:

 
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And then it occurred to me: I had just updated my Microsoft box a couple of days ago. Why is there a new “Internet Explorer”? After some discussion on IRC, Andrew Perry pointed me at the free Sophos Virus Removal Tool. OK, that's worth trying. It ran for quite a while and came back with the convincing claim “Your computer is clean”. Score 0 for “a test can only prove the presence of a bug, not its absence”. But probably it's not malware. I have a suspicion that this installer might have come from Adobe when I was updating flash or some such. Time to hunt it down and kill it.


More watch adjustments
Topic: general Link here

By today my new watch was 4 seconds fast. That's a gain of 8 seconds since I last set it 26 days ago, or 0.3 seconds a day. That's significantly different from the previous period, where it was more like 0.43 seconds a day. I wonder what makes the difference, but clearly I'm in an area where adjustments aren't far from the intrinsic fluctuations in the timekeeping accuracy.


Saturday, 17 August 2013 Dereel Images for 17 August 2013
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Who read my facebook password?
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

Rethinking yesterday's surprise Facebook password change, it occurred to me that one of the most likely scenarios was that this was a man-in-the-middle attack. Not the reported exploit, but the report itself: somebody could thus get hold of my new password. Clearly it would make sense to change it again.

But how? Going through the Facebook “personal details” pages, I can tell people where I was born (Almaty) or where I live (Ulaanbaatar), but I couldn't find anywhere to change my password. In the end I turned to Google, who proved that I wasn't alone. This page looked good, so I tried to follow it:

To change your facebook account password:

And there the problem started. Where's “Settings”? It's hidden behind a tiny sun emblem:

 
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I suppose that's modern, but the combination of text symbols and icons doesn't help, nor does the implicit assumption in the description page. And is there help somewhere? Hard to say, especially since the icons don't have tooltips.

I wonder what user interfaces will be like in 50 years' time.


Random errors
Topic: technology Link here

Sometimes things go wrong for no obvious reason, and today I had two completely unrelated issues. cvr2 hung and was completely unresponsive until I pressed the Big Red Button. It then did a POST, started booting, spontaneously reset, did POST again and then started up normally. Why? No further problems, but I suppose it could be on its way out.

Then teevee started up and didn't recognize any USB hardware:

Aug 17 13:20:11 teevee kernel: uhub1: 10 ports with 10 removable, self powered
Aug 17 13:20:11 teevee kernel: usb_alloc_device: set address 2 failed (USB_ERR_IOERROR, ignored)
Aug 17 13:20:11 teevee kernel: usbd_setup_device_desc: getting device descriptor at addr 2 failed, USB_ERR_IOERROR
Aug 17 13:20:11 teevee kernel: usbd_req_re_enumerate: addr=2, set address failed! (USB_ERR_IOERROR, ignored)
Aug 17 13:20:11 teevee kernel: usbd_setup_device_desc: getting device descriptor at addr 2 failed, USB_ERR_IOERROR
Aug 17 13:20:11 teevee kernel: usbd_req_re_enumerate: addr=2, set address failed! (USB_ERR_IOERROR, ignored)
Aug 17 13:20:11 teevee kernel: usbd_setup_device_desc: getting device descriptor at addr 2 failed, USB_ERR_IOERROR
Aug 17 13:20:11 teevee kernel: ugen0.2: <Unknown> at usbus0 (disconnected)
Aug 17 13:20:11 teevee kernel: uhub_reattach_port: could not allocate new device

Rebooting didn't help, power cycling didn't help. When I connected the hub to a different connector on the motherboard, it worked normally. Is this motherboard giving up too, or is this just random USB flakiness, or maybe a phase-of-moon issue?


Time for a new flash unit?
Topic: photography, opinion Link here

I've had the devil's own job putting my Mecablitz 58 AF-1 back together again, and sometimes I wonder if it's worth it. I have an on-camera flash, but that doesn't do very well, and in cases like tonight, where Chris Bahlo decided to give a rather personal interpretation of a belly dance, it was almost completely useless. In the end I had to turn auto-focus off, which caused more unsharpness than I had expected:


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Time for a new flash? I've been without one for 7 months now. But what should I get? I'm not very impressed with Mecablitz, but there's not much choice. Maybe I should get an Olympus after all. But why are there no high-power generic “auto-exposure” units on the market?

And no, I didn't get a model release form from Chris.


Beef roasting times: the exception
Topic: food and drink, opinion Link here

Roast beef for dinner today. I've been keeping notes on the cooking times, but somehow they're out of date. They're only important for timing purposes, since I measure the temperature, but today I miscalculated badly: I thought the 1.35 kg roast would take 75 minutes (1.35 × 55), but in fact it was done in 65 minutes, pointing to a cooking time of 48 minutes per kg. So I should be saying 45 to 50 minutes per kg.

One of the issues with this roast was that we had frozen it and then thawed it out again. In itself that doesn't make any difference, but it meant that the joint was at room temperature when I started. Given the end temperature of 53°, a difference in start temperature of, say, 5° makes a big difference. I should note the start temperatures too.


Sunday, 18 August 2013 Dereel Images for 18 August 2013
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More winter Hibiscus
Topic: gardening Link here

The weather's still pretty terrible, and my Hibiscus rosa-sinensis bush isn't looking overly happy: it has lost leaves, and those left are somewhat yellowed. But it's producing more flowers:


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Hopefully that's a good sign for the spring.


Continued linear algebra agony
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

On with the linear algebra course today. Understanding the lectures is getting better, but the assignments are terrible. I don't know why I bother, except that I want to be able to say I completed the course. But what point is there in spending hours wondering what part of an assignment is implicit, what kind of answer the grader wants, and why it rejects a solution that produces the correct answers, when the result is based on such a flawed implementation of vector and matrix classes that you could never use the results in practice? Grrr.


Monday, 19 August 2013 Dereel → Ballarat → Dereel Images for 19 August 2013
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Into town—for what?
Topic: general Link here

Into Ballarat this morning for my semi-annual blood test. Almost everything went smoothly: I barely had time to sit down and open my magazine before my number was called. And then the nurse said “You've been fasting, have you?”.

No, I hadn't noticed that that was necessary. So I'll have to do it another day. A 60 km journey for nothing.


Finally a use for a tablet?
Topic: photography, technology, opinion Link here

I've had my Olympus E-30 camera for over 4 years now, and I've taken over 60,000 photos with it. It's time to upgrade before the shutter decides to give in. I've been waiting for some time for Olympus to bring out its new high-end camera, and lately rumours have been increasing. And then somebody leaked a video of a new camera. In the meantime it has been removed again, but not before I saw it. Steve Huff has also written a detailed article on the subject, including several clips from the video. It's a mirrorless camera, looks pretty much like the existing OM-D E-M5 (where do they get these names from?), and will apparently be called the OM-D E-M1. That suggests a cheaper camera, but that doesn't seem to be the case. It'll have lots of features, only some of which were described in the video.

The really interesting details are:

In any case, what they did with the tablet is impressive. I might finally have found a use for one.

There are many more hits on the video, of course. This one summarizes things, and this page suggests that it's only one of a number of new cameras, including names like E-M6, while this page shows some diagrams and specifications.


Kissing babies explained
Topic: general, opinion Link here

Probably the best of the Coursera courses I'm doing at the moment is the A Brief History of Humankind. Second week started today, about what he calls the “Cognitive revolution” that happened between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. That doesn't seem to be the mainstream use: Cognitive revolution seems to relate to a recent intellectual movement. Part was a discussion of how the alpha male chimpanzee gets his position. Not via muscular strength, but by being nice to as many monkeys as possible. Give them food, kiss their babies, etc.

In fact, it's amazing how the whole thing resembles an election campaign. So kissing babies isn't just a silly election idea, it's a deep-rooted instinct. And anybody who says Tony Abbott looks like a monkey is being completely unfair.


Tuesday, 20 August 2013 Dereel
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Weeding the garden: the professionals come
Topic: gardening, opinion Link here

Ben and Rowan Brooks along this morning as planned to rid the garden of weeds. They did a good job—at a fraction of the speed they had estimated. When they left in mid-afternoon, they had done maybe a quarter of the minimum of what we had hoped. The bill was as promised—nearly $500. Maybe that's a good price, but it's more than I can afford for the whole garden.

One thing of interest, though: Ben identified my mystery plant that I had discovered a couple of months ago:


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It's a Schinus molle (pepper tree), an offshoot of the one we have about 8 m away. Clearly it can't stay there, but I should be able to pot it and give it away.


What happened 50,000 years ago?
Topic: general, opinion Link here

The Brief History of Humankind course is probably the most interesting of the Coursera courses I'm doing at the moment. But as in so many cases, I'm left wondering whether people invent terminology as they go along. I've noticed this in the case of the linear algebra course, where it has significantly complicated my attempts to fill in the gaps from other online sources. And the subject of the current week of Humanity is the “Cognitive revolution”—not this one, but one that happened round 50,000 years ago. But Wikipedia doesn't know any such use.

Today went looking and found the term behavioral modernity. It seems to mean the same thing. On the whole, I think the explanation behind “cognitive revolution” makes more sense. But why don't the people who make these courses clarify the terminology? I'm sure it's a big part of my problems with the linear algebra course.


Online streaming video
Topic: multimedia, technology, opinion Link here

The signs are increasing that they'll finally start building the radiation tower soon—Scott Weston has claimed that work will start this week. So once again I'm looking at tariffs“plans”. Exetel has one one that looks interesting: 50 GB “Peak” and unmetered off peak. Off peak proves to be from 01:00 to 09:00, not exactly prime surfing time. But it's ideal to run cron jobs and pull down lots of pre-recorded TV programmes.

But how? Yvonne asked me to find out about German TV, and Jürgen Lock was able to point me at Online TV recorder and Zattoo. The latter seems to be restricted to IP address ranges, and my current (Internode) address isn't part of it, but Exetel also offers a static IP address, so I could route my /24 to it. And that comes from Germany, so it might work.

Took a look round Online TV recorder and started a recording. It's all very confusing. At one point I got a display saying that my recording had failed—no attempt to say why—but later, in the evening, I got a message telling me that my recording was waiting. Unfortunately too late: today was a good day because it's the last day of the tariff month, and I had about 2.5 GB allowance left. Tomorrow is a new month.


Wednesday, 21 August 2013 Dereel → Ballarat → Dereel Images for 21 August 2013
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Blood test, finally
Topic: general Link here

Into town this morning to have my blood test done. This time I was fasting, so I had to wait, of course, but it's done.


Android, try 2
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

Last year I had my first experience with Android tablets, and I was greatly impressed—negatively. Since then a number of things have happened: I've discovered a use for them controlling Olympus cameras, and the current issue of c't magazine had numerous articles on hacking old tablets. As a result I took a look on eBay and discovered I could get a usable second-hand tablet for about $120 to $130.

Then this week ALDI had a tablet on special:

Image

Apart from the normal functions, it has full telephony functions (though I wonder how to hold it) and GPS. And it costs $169, considerably cheaper than the $249 that the last one cost, and barely more than a second-hand one. So it seemed reasonable to give it another try.

The first thing was to unpack it. The screen came covered in a protective foil, of course. But when I removed it, it left the adhesive layer behind, and it took me half an hour to remove it with the help of methylated spirits:


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After that, I needed a network connection. Dragged out my ten-year-old access points, one of which seems to be defective, finally found a power supply, and connected. Connection was immediate, but I couldn't access the net. Checking with tcpdump showed:

11:15:17.503714 IP 192.109.197.230.51235 > dereel.lemis.com.domain: 14430+ AAAA? android.clients.google.com. (44)
11:15:17.503981 IP dereel.lemis.com > 192.109.197.230: ICMP dereel.lemis.com udp port domain unreachable, length 36

My first thought was “why is this device asking for an IPv6 address on an IPv4 network? And that's a good question. But the real cause wasn't immediately apparent: I had my DHCP configured to use dereel as the name server, and it hasn't done that for months. Fix DHCP to point to eureka and almost all was well. But while looking, I discovered:

? (192.109.197.229) at 00:90:96:67:aa:a3 on re0 expires in 592 seconds [ethernet]
? (192.109.197.230) at 00:08:22:78:20:4e on re0 expires in 1190 seconds [ethernet]
? (192.109.197.231) at 00:08:22:c2:f6:fb on re0 expires in 692 seconds [ethernet]
? (192.109.197.232) at 00:08:22:b8:f6:fb on re0 expires in 1184 seconds [ethernet]

With the possible exception of the first address, this is all the tablet. It seems that every time it starts it picks a new MAC address out of the ether. Why? Makes address collisions easier, and it makes firewall and DHCP configuration much more difficult.

Next problem: the “instruction manual”, which was superficial and incomplete as ever, but in this case it showed menus that differed significantly from the device. How do you turn on the GPS receiver? According to the “instruction manual”, you select “GPS satellites” from the “Location access” tab in “Settings”. But it was greyed out. What to do? I called the help line, which offered to call me back when I got to the head of the queue, so I chose that. I never heard from them.

In the meantime I tried the modern approach: clicktap on every available icon and see what happens. And sure enough, one of them enabled GPS. There was a picture of this area of the screen in the “instruction manual”, but it was off, and there was no explanation of what the icons mean (the others are 802.11, Bluetooth, brightness and something that I haven't yet identified).

So what can I do with GPS? Out of the box nothing, it seems. How about a GPS status display to see it it's really installed and working? Peter Jeremy came up with GPS Status 2, an app from the toy shop. So I tried loading that—getting apps was one of the big problems I had last year—and it Just Worked, at least once I left it out in the garden to find its bearings. And the display looks considerably better than on my dedicated GPS navigator, which is smaller, clunkier and didn't cost much less. But I still don't have a navigation app—I can see that this thing will be a can of worms, but at least this time round I can find useful functionality.

But when I brought the device inside, it could no longer communicate with the network. Yes, I had an 802.11 connection, but nothing went through. Further investigation showed that I had been given a completely different address: 192.168.1.103. Where did that come from? Neighbours running an unprotected wireless LAN? I had to shut down the box and restart it before I got another address.

So where did the other address come from? After a while I decided it must be the access point. And sure enough, nmap showed that it had the address 192.168.1.1. But how to access it? I have long forgotten the passwords, and my recollection was that the device had a problem saving configurations, so it might not work anyway. The alternative would be to turn off DHCP in the tablet, which would also fix the IP address wandering. That's described on page 31 of the “instruction manual”, but it lies: I can't find any submenu that allows me to set a static IP. It seems that disabling automatic network discovery fixes things, at least for the time being. But if I keep the tablet, it looks as if a new (and faster!) access point is on the cards.

Also downloaded a number of other apps, including a shell. And how about that, there's a ping command on the box. But how do you stop it? Normally you'd do a Ctrl-C, but this thing doesn't have a Ctrl key. Found a Hacker's keyboard that solved that problem. It's still not a real keyboard, and that remains the biggest problem with the thing, but it looks a whole lot better than last time. Now to check all the things which gave me trouble last year.

Still, there's one thing that I'll have to get used to:


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I hate smears, maybe because of deep-rooted teaching in the darkroom half a century ago. But clearly I'll have to come to terms with that.


Chicken wings again
Topic: food and drink, opinion Link here

Yvonne came back from shopping with 4 kg of chicken wings, for which we have a relatively simple recipe. But the problem is separating the wings:


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Each chop takes time and quite a bit of effort. Today I just chopped off the tips (which Zhivago appreciated), and cooked the rest in one piece. The intention is to separate them tomorrow after cooking. We'll see how that works.


When is mv not a mv?
Topic: technology, multimedia, opinion Link here

Watched All Creatures Great and Small on TV this evening. I don't want to delete the recordings when I'm done, so I move the recording to a subdirectory called Already:

=== grog@teevee (/dev/pts/0) /spool/DVDs/All-Creatures-Great-and-Small 15 -> mv Series-3-1-3 Already/
=== grog@teevee (/dev/pts/0) /spool/DVDs/All-Creatures-Great-and-Small 16 -> rm Series-3-1-3<tab>
Series-3-1-3       Series-3-1-3.fpos  Series-3-1-3.time

Huh? I just removed Series-3-1-3. Why is it still there?

=== grog@teevee (/dev/pts/0) /spool/DVDs/All-Creatures-Great-and-Small 17 -> ls -li Series-3-1-3 Already/Series-3-1-3
534949 -rw-r--r--  2 grog  lemis  2,006,484,992 19 Oct  2011 Already/Series-3-1-3
534949 -rw-r--r--  2 grog  lemis  2,006,484,992 19 Oct  2011 Series-3-1-3

In other words, it was already there. And under those circumstances, it seems, mv does nothing. I wonder if a warning message wouldn't be a good idea (“Series-3-1-3 and Already/Series-3-1-3 are the same file”, for example).


Thursday, 22 August 2013 Dereel Images for 22 August 2013
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Android tablet: it goes back
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

More playing with my Android tablet today. Turned it on and discovered that it claimed only 36% battery charge, which was strange considering that it had been on charge overnight. Took it into the office and checked again: 100%. There's clearly something wrong with the reporting.

Apart from that, didn't get very far. I was able to load a ssh server for the device, which meant that I could at least access it from outside. Here partial output from top, which is too stupid to clear the screen between iterations:

User 7%, System 6%, IOW 0%, IRQ 0%
User 37 + Nice 9 + Sys 42 + Idle 527 + IOW 2 + IRQ 0 + SIRQ 3 = 620

  PID PR CPU% S  #THR     VSS     RSS PCY UID      Name
10374  1   3% S    22 339500K  59808K  fg u0_a64   com.icecoldapps.sshserver
11088  0   2% S    14 333576K  62928K  fg u0_a59   com.sygic.aura
 7976  0   1% S     1      0K      0K     root     tx_thread
  428  0   1% S    24 335676K  54796K  fg u0_a55   com.android.systemui
11148  0   0% R     1   1292K    556K  fg u0_a64   top
  102  0   0% S    12  69404K  40908K  fg system   /system/bin/surfaceflinger

It runs an amazing number of processes: at this point there were 130 of them. And that VSS column looks very suspicious. 333 MB address space?

But what interested me more was a navigation application, so I went looking for them, and found so many that I didn't know where to start. Started installing a likely looking candidate, not without difficulty with the “keyboard”: on one occasion I pressed s and got a § instead. Before I could start loading, the device (which was on mains power) powered down and couldn't be persuaded to power up again. As far as I can see, it's dead. That's rather surprising nowadays—I can't recall anything like that for a long time.

Tried calling support, ostensibly provided by Tempo (Aust) Pty Ltd, phone 1 300 886 649. They're the same people who didn't call me back yesterday, so I held on in the interminable wait queue—until it reset and put me back at the beginning again. That happened twice, and the third time I selected the correct menu item, I was transferred to a “please leave a message”, which I did in no uncertain manner.

But what do I do now? Get it repaired? Get it replaced? The latter sounds a more reliable option, but it would involve another ½ hour's work removing the screen protection. At least it has shown that a tablet can be useful. Time to look at the alternatives.


In-camera image processing
Topic: photography, opinion Link here

In a recent discussion on the German Olympus forum somebody claimed that the camera applies geometry conversions to images when converting them to JPEG. I wasn't aware of that, so I tried it out. As far as I can tell, no such correction takes place. Here the comparison of a single image, taken with raw and camera-internal JPEG (something I don't normally do). The first image is the raw image processed by DxO Optics “Pro” with no corrections, then the camera-internal JPEG, and finally the image corrected by DxO. Running the cursor over the image shows the next one in sequence. There's no evidence whatsoever of geometry correction in the in-camera JPEG image. The only difference appears to be that the JPEG crops differently from DxO's crop of the raw image:


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So I posted my results on the forum. “Ah, yes, you picked a poor example because that lens is known to have variations from one example to the next”. That doesn't explain why DxO can recover and the camera doesn't even seem to try. And despite further discussion, nobody answered my question as to what other lens I should try.


Friday, 23 August 2013 Dereel
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More Android investigations
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

So what do I do with my defective Android tablet? No call back from the “service” department, of course, so I called up ALDI and complained. No, they couldn't do much, though they took note of my complaint, but they were able to put me in contact with Tempo, where I was first asked if I had charged the thing overnight. Stupid questions, but as it happened I had—although it's not clear what difference that makes considering the battery was showing 100% charged and it was on the charger anyway. I was offered the opportunity of going and getting another one from ALDI—that's not a support, that's just normal business practice. But it seems that it's up to them whether to repair the device, replace it (which they can't) or refund the money. None of that exactly seems like “support” to me.

I went looking on Whingerlpool and found a lot of interesting stuff: here and here two other dead tablets, and of course everybody complained about the glue on the display. Others complained about the GPS receiver and problems installing apps,

So: what to do? Try to find another one, or choose a different model? Spent some time investigating the latter possibility, but didn't come up with anything comparable. Discussion on IRC was interesting: usually people are telling me that I'm an old fuddy-duddy who doesn't understand modern technology. Why buy a tablet with 3G connectivity when I can buy a separate cheap smart phone for $80? There are clear answers to that: it's considerably more expensive in total, and it means I can't use the tablet as an online GPS navigator. Sometimes I'm puzzled by people's opinions.

While discussing these things, the phone rang. Harris, from Tempo Australia, returning the call I made on Wednesday morning! Do you call that support?

But the real issue is: with ALDI, despite all their shortcomings, I can return the device within 2 months if I don't like it for any reason. That's really worth a lot. In the end, I asked Chris Bahlo to look for another one when she went into town this evening. She found one and deposited it on the kitchen table without telling us some time later. So: overnight charge to make the “support” scripts happy.


Another sound hang
Topic: technology, multimedia, opinion Link here

While watching TV this afternoon, I ended up with another hang in the sound system:

Aug 23 13:45:44 teevee kernel: pcm0: chn_write(): pcm0:play:dsp0.p1: play interrupt timeout, channel dead

Previously I had thought that this was related to running a flash player, but I hadn't done anything like that today. More discussion on IRC (doesn't it help to have IRC on your TV?), and Callum Gibson pointed me at this problem report, which describes what appears to be exactly the same problem, and which claims to have a solution:

# /boot/device.hints
hint.hdac.0.msi="0"

# /etc/sysctl.conf
dev.hdac.0.polling=1

Callum also suggested the script he used to use:

sudo sysctl -w hw.snd.maxautovchans=0
sudo sysctl -w hw.snd.pcm0.vchans=0
sleep 2
sudo sysctl -w hw.snd.pcm0.vchans=4
sudo sysctl -w hw.snd.maxautovchans=4

The problem there is that hw.snd.pcm0 no longer exists. But there's another, hw.snd.verbose, that might help shed light on the issue. For the time being, I'm taking one of the suggestions from the PR:

dev.hdac.0.polling=1

We'll see how that works out.


Saturday, 24 August 2013 Dereel Images for 24 August 2013
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Android navigation apps
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

More fun with the new Android tablet today. The first fun was getting the glue off the display:


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Fortunately it was much easier than the previous tablet, and I had it off in only 5 minutes without any solvents. But how do I keep track of apps? Yes, it stores information in the tablet. But what if the tablet dies? Ended up writing a page which is currently just a list of URLs (and how do you extract them on the tablet? No idea).

Went looking for some GPS navigation apps, not helped by a lack of overlap between the reviews and what I could find in the toy shop. This page describes 5 of them, without links of course. Of those, I only found two. And the toy shop itself doesn't seem to want to let you know banal things like URLs. After reading what little they had to say about the individual apps, I decided to install Navfree. That uses OpenStreetMap, something that in principle I support. But round here, coverage is very flaky. It doesn't know any towns between Ballarat and Rokewood. Round where I live it knows the roads and many driveways (but not the phantom roads on Google Maps), but not their names. It doesn't even know the town of Dereel. That makes it pretty much useless.

So how do you find out what maps an app uses? Guesswork, it seems. I had started loading Sygic, but gave up because it claimed to want payment. Today I tried again and found that it's just a problem with the user interface. Clearly it doesn't use OpenStreetMap: it spent the rest of the afternoon loading 350 MB of map data, so I didn't have time to continue to play with it today.


Kambing lemak
Topic: food and drink Link here

I usually eat nasi lemak with chicken (ayam lemak). But that's not the only meat you can use, and I thought that lamb might be an alternative. In Malay/Indonesian that should be kambing lemak, but I haven't seen any recipes by that name. Still, no reason not to fake it.

In passing, it's interesting to note that the meat was a leg of lamb. Yvonne had bought it with bone and skin, and then prepared it for me (to the delight of Zhivago). She got a surprising amount of meat out of it: 888 g from a 1.197 kg leg, a yield of 74%. In the past I have had about 1 kg from a 1.8 kg leg, a yield of only 56%.


Grilled broccoli
Topic: food and drink, opinion Link here

Yvonne found a recipe for grilled broccoli on Facebook, of all places. We had it tonight. It wasn't bad, but not good enough to repeat.

Where do new recipes come from? Either they're adaptations of older ones, or they build on modern technology, or on the availability of ingredients from far-away places. The last, with the trade in spices, significantly influenced British cooking in the last few hundred years.a I've been experimenting with things like curry leaves and Kaffir lime leaves in various dishes; 100 years ago neither would have been available in Western countries. But things like grilled broccoli would have been easy to make 100 years ago. The fact that the dish is not well-known is presumably a reflection on what people thought of it.


Sunday, 25 August 2013 Dereel
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Another dead tablet!
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

I had left the Android tablet on charge overnight, but when I came in this morning it had powered off. And I couldn't get it to start again. After some investigation I discovered that the battery was completely discharged, and that a normal USB connector didn't deliver enough power to charge it. Put it on the supplied charger (again!) and it started charging, and after a few hours the battery was fully charged.

But how did that happen? I had left the thing in standby mode with the charger connected. How could the battery have discharged? Is this a bad batch of batteries, or is there some problem with the charging circuitry?

Didn't do much else with the tablet. Played around with Sygic a bit. The maps are acceptable, but learning the navigation isn't easy. Something for another time.


Garden: what difference?
Topic: gardening, opinion Link here

I'm seeing the first signs of the approach of spring, and it's clearly time to do some work in the garden. Started pruning the roses, but it's really too late, so I'll let them flower first and progressively prune them back after flowering though the summer. But then I went to put the trimmings on the compost heap, and what did I see?


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I had asked the gardeners to put the weeds on the right-hand bay. And that's the only place they didn't put them. This photo shows the situation after I had started to move them over there. You'd expect professionals to know something about composting, especially at the price they're charging.

Looking round suggests that my estimate of a quarter of the garden was also wildly optimistic. 10% might be more like it. Here “before” and “after” images of the few areas they did address:


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It's really difficult to see any difference there; the right hand side of the second picture is the only easily identifiable part. And these are exactly the areas they weeded. What a waste of money!


Another new house?
Topic: general Link here

It seems that Jenny Bartlett is selling her house. Once again Yvonne is dead set on moving there. I wonder why it is that every house seems to please her better than ours. Yes, ours is poorly insulated and badly laid out. But Jenny's house is much smaller, and there's no evidence that it's any better insulated. By the time we had it in the condition that we have here, it would also probably be more expensive.


Monday, 26 August 2013 Dereel Images for 26 August 2013
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Another cvr2 hang
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

cvr2 hung itself up again this morning. I wonder why. Hardware problems? The motherboard is relatively new.


Microsoft to the rescue
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

I don't really like Microsoft software messing around in my computer, and today I wasn't too happy to see that “Security essentials” had found a “potential threat”. But this time it proved to be useful:

 
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That's almost certainly the thing that I was looking for two weeks ago. Found and removed, in the process pondering the abuse of the term “quarantine”.


Darah sick?
Topic: animals, opinion Link here

A month ago we had concerns that Darah had colic or laminitis. Investigations were inconclusive, but we've seen her lying around a lot, and today we got the vet in to take a look at her. She couldn't find anything either, though she ruled out colic and didn't seem to be concerned about laminitis. One of the strange things is how she stretches out her legs. And she's so quiet that the vet was able to take a blood sample while she was lying down:


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How time flies...
Topic: general, opinion Link here

In today's “lifelines”, a cron job that sends mail every day:

80% life:               Friday,  1 September 2000
Sep  1  Greg restarts online diary, 2000

A fifth of a lifetime ago!


More stretched-out animals
Topic: animals, opinion Link here

Today appears to be the day of the stretched-out legs:


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Tuesday, 27 August 2013 Dereel → Bannockburn → Dereel Images for 27 August 2013
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Darah's problems
Topic: animals Link here

Call from Wendy, the vet, today with the results of Darah's blood tests. It's interesting to note how fast the results come through for horses. I'm still waiting for my own ones from last week.

But the results aren't encouraging: liver degeneration, and she suspects there's not much we can do about it. And she (Darah) is only 21. But Wendy thinks that there's a chance that some antibiotics might help, so off to Bannockburn to pick them up. 100 km just for that!

While there, somebody walked past with Lilac on her arm:


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Using Sygic
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

The trip to Bannockburn gave me a good opportunity to try out the Sygic navigation software on my Android tablet. It was a little more understandable than last time I tried. As I discovered when I got my first navigator, it takes a lot to understand navigation software, and initially you see the problems, not the advantages. But there were some good aspects too. Here some observations:

So: on the whole it doesn't look bad. But there's considerable doubt about whether it is free or not; there's talk about 7 days' free trial, 30% off, but no mention of prices that I can find. For the time being I'll wait until I'm sure what tablet I want.


Grammar checking: why?
Topic: general, language, opinion Link here

I received a message from Jenny Frost a while back referring to my grammar exercises and pointing at her free grammar checker.

Grammar exercises? I can't recall any grammar exercises, and I don't find any on that page either. The best I can guess is a bad language rant, the forerunner of my separate bad language page. Anyway, she asked me to look at the checker, so I did, using the source of my “recent entries” diary.

It looks for three things: spelling, style and “grammar”. It's not clear why it needs to check spelling—everybody has his own by now, and they can be extended. This one didn't recognize HTML markup and came up with multiple false positives there. But there were others: “way”, for example, which it wanted to replace with “weigh”. Why? The explanation said:

Did you mean way?

You may have used one word when you meant another. A common cause of these errors are homophones. A homophone is two words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings. Review the definition of the word you used and the word suggested.

Buglet? Anyway, I was looking for grammar and style. It found a grammar error in the sentence “But this time it proved to be useful”, which it claims was passive. Apart from the fact that it's wrong, use of passive is perfectly grammatical, though potentially a style issue. It explains:

Examples (subject, object)

Before: Our results will be discussed.
After: We will discuss our results.

Before: Wolverine was made to be a weapon.
After: The government made Wolverine. Wolverine is a weapon.

Arguably the first example is an improvement. I'm not at all sure about the second, especially as it changes the meaning (I wouldn't have guessed government).

Then it picked on the phrase “to try out the Sygic navigation software”. “Try out”, it seems, is a complex expression, and I should replace it with “try”. I suppose it depends on your understanding of complexity, but that changes the meaning. OED agrees with me:

5 d. to try out: to test the advantages, possibilities, or qualities of (a material or immaterial thing)...

And that's exactly what I meant to say. “Try” wouldn't do it. Another “complex” expression is “accurate” (replace with “correct”, “exact” or “right”, all of which are neither correct, exact nor right)

Then there's a double negative: “not understand” (replace with “understand”). But the best one was an objection to the word “availability” in this sentence

Either they're adaptations of older ones, or they build on modern technology, or on the availability of ingredients from far-away places.

It seems that “availability” is a hidden verb, a term I hadn't heard before. And here's me (and OED) thinking it's a noun. But it seems it's a well-known term, at least in the USA, as this official site demonstrates. The replacement suggestion was interesting: use a strong verb. Why? Who cares whether the verb is weak or strong? And why are the suggested replacements are “obtain”, a weak verb, and “available”, an adjective.

The answer appears clear: just as I didn't know the term “hidden verb”, the term “strong verb” seems to be unknown in literary circles in the USA. Even the description page is misleading: strong verbs are those that have Ablaut, where the vowel changes between tenses. The ending of the past participle is less important, and both strong and weak verbs can be regular or irregular. For example, the English word “think” is irregular and strong, as is its German counterpart “denken”. In each case, the past participle ends in t, which would suggest that it's weak. But in each case there's Ablaut between infinitive and past participle (think/thought or denken/gedacht), which indicates that it's strong.

But that has nothing to do with the grammar checker. It uses the term “strong” to mean “expressive”. But of course there's no way to change that sentence to use a verb instead of a noun. And it's definitely not the “grammar suggestion” that it claims to be: at best it's a “style suggestion”.

So: in summary I don't know what use this service is to me. I have a spelling checker, and I have to feed it with all sorts of things to keep it happy. I seldom make grammatical errors (this checker didn't find any), and style is, well, a matter of style. But potentially it's useful to some people.


Wednesday, 28 August 2013 Dereel
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Spring, finally
Topic: general, gardening, opinion Link here

The weather this winter seems to have been particularly unpleasant, though it's not obvious in my weather records. But today, finally, we got a suggestion of spring, with a top temperature of 23.8°:

Click to see larger image

For the first time in months we were able to have lunch on the verandah. There was also relatively little wind, so I finally got round to spraying the weeds that the gardeners left behind. Yvonne also got into the act and cut down the various cannas and hedychium that have been waiting all winter. Hopefully the better weather will motivate me enough to continue with the work.


Tempo: not in the German sense
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

Tempo Australia is the company that provides “support” for ALDI electronics. I've had occasion to call them twice last week, each time leaving a message to call back, and I have already commented that it took them 2 days to call me back the first time. Today the other shoe dropped: a call back for the message I was forced to leave, after only 6 days. What a company! As Jürgen Lock commented, not the German use of the word „Tempo“, which means speed.


What's wrong with my DNS?
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

Network connectivity has gone to hell again, and there's still no sign of the radiation tower, though on various occasions we've been told commencement dates round late June, late July and then 19 August, the latter two immediately before the non-event. I wish I knew why they tell us these things.

And once again I was faced with DNS lookup failures, including NXDOMAIN for domains like ebay.com and google.com. Where's this coming from? I've been tracing for some time now, but I still haven't finished analysing it. One thing I have established is that the problem isn't just with Internode's name servers: I've seen requests go to the root name servers as well. I can understand (if not accept) timeouts, but why NXDOMAIN?


Thursday, 29 August 2013 Dereel → Ballarat → Dereel Images for 29 August 2013
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Back to Ballarat
Topic: general Link here

Off to Ballarat again today to hear the not very interesting results of my last blood test. Also did a little shopping.


Android as eBook reader
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

The linear algebra course course has now completed, but I haven't finished all the lectures quite yet. There's a deadline in about 10 days to submit the final assignments, but I suspect I won't bother. Mohamed Ifadir pointed me to a book on the subject, which I downloaded to my Android tablet and read while waiting—far too long—at the doctor's.

It was enlightening for a number of reasons. Firstly, the book is completely different from the course I've been doing. Pretty much the first thing it discusses is Gaussian elimination, which in the course is only handled in the second-last week. In addition, while the presentation in the course wasn't difficult to understand, the book proved another thing that I had been suspecting about the course: it presents the concepts so abstractly that it's difficult to understand the derivation. The book made it so obvious. At least I now feel better: my problems with the course weren't my own stupidity.

The other thing was the tablet as an eBook (really PDF) reader. I used acroread because I know it from other platforms, but it doesn't seem ideal: where have the “page up” and “page down” buttons gone? Who knows? When I downloaded it, it offered an introduction, which I declined. But where's the help? No idea.

Apart from that, though, it proved quite practicable to read the book on the tablet. Now I suppose I should compare it with the books I used last time.


Flowering countryside
Topic: gardening, opinion Link here

On the way to Ballarat I noticed something that I haven't seen before: numerous groups of bulbs, mainly Narcissus, growing in agricultural land:


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How did they get there? None is within several hundred metres of what could be considered a garden.


Where have all the strong verbs gone?
Topic: language, opinion Link here

People on IRC were interested in my article about grammar checkers on IRC. There's still a lot of confusion about what a strong verb is, to the point that people are now putting the word “Germanic” in front of the term. I had already noted that the Oxford Reference Grammar mentions them only once, and in historical context while discussing irregular verbs. But I have other objections to the approach that book takes—it seems to get by without such basic terms as transitive and intransitive.

So I went to Duden volume 4, Grammar. And to my astonishment they, too, consider strong verbs to be irregular, with the amazing statement:

Als Ablaut wird der regelmäßige Wechel des Stammvokals bezeichnet. Er ist bei den „starken“ Verben wesentlich für den Unterschied zwischen Präsens, Präteritum und 2. Partizip verantwortlich.

(ich) singe — (ich) sang — (ich habe) gesungen

Damit ist der Ablaut das wichtigste Unterscheidungsmerkmal zwischen unregelmäßiger und regelmäßiger Konjugaktion, wo Präteritum und 2. Partizip nicht durch den Ablaut, sondern mit Hilfe eines t gebildet werden.

In English, the important part of that statement is that Ablaut is a regular change of the root vowel in present, past and “2nd participle” (past participle), and that it makes such verbs irregular. What sense does that make? It's about as clever as numbering the participles.

But it makes no sense to call strong verbs “irregular”. The difference between strong and weak verbs is clear in absence of any grammatical rules; regular and irregular only relate to whatever grammatical rules are currently in place. To confuse the two is broken (past participle of the regular strong verb break), particularly since it seems that the rules have changed even since I learnt grammar. Here are some examples of regular and irregular weak and strong verbs:

Type       Present       Past       Past participle
regular weak       love       loved       loved
irregular weak       have       had       had
regular strong       break       broke       broken
irregular strong       think       thought       thought

In passing, it's also interesting to look at the word Ablaut. The Wikipedia link redirects to Apophony, which doesn't mean the same thing: apophony is much broader. Looking at the OED, it seems that their chosen word is Ablaut, of which they write:

Occurring esp. in Germanic strong verbs, as English sing, sang, song, and distinguished from variation arising from assimilation to a succeeding vowel sound.

It's amusing that they chose the same verb as Duden for their example, though they confuse the issue by adding a noun (song, German Gesang).

They also mention Apophony:

Compare later apophony n., which originally arose in French as a calque on the German term.


Friday, 30 August 2013 Dereel Images for 30 August 2013
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Election fever mounts
Topic: general, opinion Link here

It's only a little over a week until the Federal election, and it's clear that our electorate (Corangamite) is on the front line: electionleaflets.org.au shows that more leaflets have been delivered in this electorate than anywhere else. Today I got two:


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So it seems that no matter who we vote for, we're in trouble. Time to vote for Julian Assange?


Android charge problems cornered
Topic: technology Link here

I'm still having issues with charging the Android tablet. I can leave it on charge overnight, and it will still be only partially charged. Then I charge it in the day, and it goes up to 100% charge within an hour or so. How can that be?

Then it occurred to me: in all cases where it didn't charge properly, I was charging in the lounge room. The power point is some distance from my armchair, but the charger simply connects to the USB data cable, so I put a 5 m extension USB cable in between. The tablet recognizes the power and produces the rather silly status message “Charging (AC)”, but it seems that there's something in the connection that makes it actually not charge. But what? This is just a simple pair of wires. I'll need to experiment with other cables.


More eBooks with Android
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

I made one of the biggest decisions of my life in September 1962, over 50 years ago, when I started school at King's College, Taunton. We had a choice of one of four optional subjects to study: Biology, History, Geography and German. I really, really wanted to study both Biology and German. In the end, I chose German, and that decision determined the course of my life—I ended up living in Germany for a total of 25 years. If I had chosen Biology, it, too, could have changed the course of my life. I almost certainly would never have lived in Germany, and there's a good chance that I would have ended up in some biological career instead of computers. And I still regret not having been able to do both.

So when Coursera offered a Preparation for introductory Biology course, I signed up. So far a it's strange mixture of really basic high school chemistry and things like Aquaporins that have only recently been discovered.

They recommend a free book titled simply Biology, so I downloaded it in both PDF and eBook form before discovering that it is 1,482 pages long and nearly 300 MB in size. And, of course, the tablet didn't recognize it. I first had to go to the toy shop to get an eBook reader. Ended up installing Aldiko Book Reader, which seems to do the job, though it's amazingly slow—perhaps because of the size of the eBook. The rendering is also not overly encouraging:

 
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I subsequently tried looking at the book with acroread. The difference is amazing:

 
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You might say “yes, but the eBook is compressed to save space”. But that's not the case: the eBook is 17% larger than the PDF. A clear case for PDF, especially as I've now found the instructions for acroread. The important part is that if you tap in the middle of the page, you get a menu bar at the top, and it allows you to set various ways of paging by tapping the left or right side of the screen, or maybe top and bottom.


Saturday, 31 August 2013 Dereel Images for 31 August 2013
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USB charging problems understood
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

Why did my Android tablet not charge when connected to the charger via the USB extension cable? On IRC, Jürgen Lock suggested that the resistance might be too high. Nonsense, I thought, and did a quick calculation: the charger is rated at 2 A, and I've already established that the tablet needs more than 1 A to run. So what would we need to get a voltage drop of, say, 0.5 V? R = E / I, so the surprising result is: 0.25 Ω. That's not much.

Clearly what I should do is to measure the voltage at the device when connected in this way. But how do you do that? It would be nice to have some kind of breakout box, but I don't. So I tried measuring the resistance of the extension cable. The trouble there is that cheap multimeters aren't overly accurate in the sub-Ohm range.

It turned out I didn't need to worry: the resistance of each conductor was in the order of 13 Ω, a total of 26 Ω. Clearly there's no way of getting 2 A through that with a 5 V power supply. It would be interesting to see what the voltage really was: the device said it was charging. Probably it was only slightly lower, maybe 4 V, but with that voltage drop the current would only have been about 40 mA. The things you learn.


A better nadir
Topic: photography, opinion Link here

I've been stitching panoramas regularly for a few years now, but one of the things that I haven't really succeeded in was to get a full 360° × 180° panorama: the tripod gets in the way when taking a nadir, the view directly downwards. It's a complicated business, and the suggestions I've found on the web don't exactly fill me with confidence. Typically they fake it, either by taking a handheld photo or even one from a different perspective and then correcting for it. That only works for the same subjects for which handheld panoramas work in general. There are even people who sell nadir equipment that doesn't fulfil the requirements, like this one, which admits “These will usually be taken from a position that is offset from the ideal NPP (no-parallax point), which requires a more complex workflow during post editing”. Others move the tripod and try to reposition the lens where the other shots were taken. This one looks to be one of the better ones, but it's horrendously complicated.

My previous attempts with the “move the tripod” approach haven't been particularly successful. The real problem is to keep the lens in the same position as the other photos, and that's difficult with those methods I've seen that even bother.

I've been thinking about this for some time, and I've gradually come to the conclusion that the solution is to have a separate stand just for the nadir. I already have a couple of other tripods, so all I needed was a bar to suspend between them, and an Arca Swiss clamp to hold the camera:


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With that I can position the bar opposite the tripod with the rotator, so that when the camera is mounted on the bar, the lens is in the same place as when it's on the panorama bracket. I've established that, for my camera, the lens is 6.8 cm from the mounting plate, so the clamp needs to be 13.6 cm from the other one. I cut a piece of wood of that length to help set it up:


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Using it is quite clumsy. I deliberately made the bar as short as practical, but even so it's 1.45 m long, and there are a number of things to pay attention to:

But finally I took my photos. The surprises weren't over. Clearly there's an issue with keeping extraneous subjects out of the picture:


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Apart from the two tripods, there's also part of the third (rotator) tripod, my feet and part of the camera strap. None of that is a problem, and I could have got rid of all of them if I had chosen a longer focal length. As it was, I had to mask them out.

With that, I was able to build a full spherical panorama. That's fine for the flash animation, but the result on the page looks Just Plain Funny. To make matters worse, I could no longer stitch it, so I'll have to investigate further.


Other Android insights
Topic: technology, opinion Link here

Writing yesterday's article on eBooks required screen shots from the Android tablet. How do you do that? Went looking in the toy shop, but the things I found didn't look very good, and most were either for a specific tablet, or they required rooting, something that I don't want to attempt yet. So I went off looking on Google. It's simple (and intuitive!): the system has a built-in screen shot facility. Just hold down Vol-- and the power button for a second or two, and it makes a clicking noise and saves the screen contents.

Where? With a bit of finger-sliding (starting at the Gallery icon), it gives you a useful information page:


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OK, how do I get that to a real computer? Normally I'd use scp, but that's not present. Spent some time looking at the toy shop, and once again there were all sorts of programs that would almost, but not quite, do the job.

But this is ridiculous. Moving files around is one of the most basic things you can do. Why is it always so complicated in the GUI space? Asked on IRC, and Andy Farkas gave me the obvious answer; plug it into a Microsoft box via USB.

Why should that work? I've already established that the thing doesn't present itself as mass storage:

Aug 31 11:39:59 eureka kernel: ugen6.14: <MediaTek> at usbus6
Aug 31 11:40:00 eureka root: Unknown USB device : vendor 0x0bb4 product 0x2008 bus uhub8

But it doesn't under Microsoft either:


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It's a “portable device” with a completely different means of access. Amongst other things, this means that even most Microsoft programs can't access it. The only way I've found to move things around is to first climb down four levels of directories, then start another instance of “Explorer” and drag it across. Now isn't that easy?


Still more USB strangenesses
Topic: photography, technology Link here

I took a number of photos of the nadir setup with my old Nikon “Coolpix” L1, and then transferred them to computer via USB. And then I forgot to disconnect for a couple of hours.

When I did, the camera was warm, the batteries (freshly charged NiZn) were also hot and discharged. Why? The camera can't charge the batteries via USB, so when it's on USB, it shouldn't have any connection to the batteries at all.


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