Shallow Thoughts

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Wed, 10 Dec 2014

Not exponential after all

We're saved! From the embarrassing slogan "Live exponentially", that is.

Last night the Los Alamos city council voted to bow to public opinion and reconsider the contract to spend $50,000 on a logo and brand strategy based around the slogan "Live Exponentially." Though nearly all the councilors (besides Pete Sheehey) said they still liked the slogan, and made it clear that the slogan isn't for residents but for people in distant states who might consider visiting as tourists, they now felt that basing a campaign around a theme nearly of the residents revile was not the best idea.

There were quite a few public comments (mine included); everyone was civil and sensible and stuck well under the recommended 3-minute time limit.

Instead, the plan is to go ahead with the contract, but ask the ad agency (Atlas Services) to choose two of the alternate straplines from the initial list of eight that North Star Research had originally provided.

Wait -- eight options? How come none of the previous press or the previous meeting mentioned that there were options? Even in the 364 page Agenda Packets PDF provided for this meeting, there was no hint of that report or of any alternate strap lines.

But when they displayed the list of eight on the board, it became a little clearer why they didn't want to make the report public: they were embarrassed to have paid for work of this quality. Check out the list:

I mean, really. Great Beyond? Are we're all dead? High Intelligence in the High Desert? That'll certainly help with people who think this might be a bunch of snobbish intellectuals.

It was also revealed that at no point during the plan was there ever any sort of focus group study or other tests to see how anyone reacted to any of these slogans.

Anyway, after a complex series of motions and amendments and counter-motions and amendments and amendments to the amendments, they finally decided to ask Atlas to take the above list, minus "Live Exponentially"; add the slogan currently displayed on the rocks as you drive into town, "Where Discoveries are Made" (which came out of a community contest years ago and is very popular among residents); and ask Atlas to choose two from the list to make logos, plus one logo that has no slogan at all attached to it.

If we're lucky, Atlas will pick Discoveries as one of the slogans, or maybe even come up with something decent of their own.

The chicken ordinance discussion went well, too. They amended the ordinance to allow ten chickens (instead of six) and to try to allow people in duplexes and quads to keep chickens if there's enough space between the chickens and their neighbors. One commenter asked for the "non-commercial' clause to be struck because his kids sell eggs from a stand, like lemonade, which sounded like a very reasonable request (nobody's going to run a large commercial egg ranch with ten chickens); but it turned out there's a state law requiring permits and inspections to sell eggs.

So, folks can have chickens, and we won't have to live exponentially. I'm sure everyone's breathing a little more easily now.

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[ 16:27 Dec 10, 2014    More politics | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 07 Dec 2014

My Letter to the Editor: Make Your Voice Heard On 'Live Exponentially'

More on the Los Alamos "Live Exponentially" slogan saga: There's been a flurry of letters, all opposed to the proposed slogan, in the Los Alamos Daily Post these last few weeks.

And now the issue is back on the council agenda; apparently they're willing to reconsider the October vote to spend another $50,000 on the slogan.

But considering that only two people showed up to that October meeting, I wrote a letter to the Post urging people to speak before the council: Letter to the Editor: Attend Tuesday's Council Meeting To Make Your Voice Heard On 'Live Exponentially'.

I'll be there. I've never actually spoken at a council meeting before, but hey, confidence in public speaking situations is what Toastmasters is all about, right?

(Even though it means I'll have to miss an interesting sounding talk on bats that conflicts with the council meeting. Darn it!)

A few followup details that I had no easy way to put into the Post letter:

The page with the links to Council meeting agendas and packets is here: Los Alamos County Calendar.

There, you can get the short Agenda for Tuesday's meeting, or the full 364 page Agenda Packets PDF.

[Breathtaking raised to the power of you] The branding section covers pages 93 - 287. But the graphics the council apparently found so compelling, which swayed several of them from initially not liking the slogan to deciding to spend a quarter million dollars on it, are in the final presentation from the marketing company, starting on page p. 221 of the PDF.

In particular, a series of images like this one, with the snappy slogan:

Breathtaking raised to the power of you

That's right: the advertising graphics that were so compelling they swayed most of the council are even dumber than the slogan by itself. Love the superscript on the you that makes it into an exponent. Get it ... exponentially? Oh, now it all makes sense!

There's also a sadly funny "Written Concept" section just before the graphics (pages 242- in the PDF) where they bend over backward to work in scientific-sounding words, in bold each time.

But there you go. Hopefully some of those Post letter writers will come to the meeting and let the council know what they think.

The council will also be discussing the much debated proposed chicken ordinance; that discussion runs from page 57 to 92 of the PDF. It's a non-issue for Dave and me since we're in a rural zone that already allows chickens, but I hope they vote to allow them everywhere.

Tags: , , ,
[ 18:05 Dec 07, 2014    More politics | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Tue, 02 Dec 2014

Ripping a whole CD on Linux

I recently discovered that my ancient stereo turntable didn't survive our move. So all those LPs I brought along, intending to rip to mp3 when I had more time, will never see bits.

So I need to buy new versions of some of that old music. In particular, I'd lately been wanting to listen to my old Flanders and Swann albums. Flanders and Swann were a terrific comedy music duo (think Tom Lehrer only less scientifically oriented) from the 1960s.

So I ordered a CD of The Complete Flanders & Swann, which contains all three of the albums I inherited from my parents. Woohoo! I ran a little script I have that rips a whole CD to a directory of separate MP3 songs, and I was all set.

Until I listened to it. It turns out that when the LP album was turned into a CD, they put the track breaks in the wrong place. These albums are recordings of live performances. Each song has a spoken intro, giving a little context for the song that follows. On the CD, each track starts with a song, and ends with the spoken intro for the next song. That's no problem if you always listen to whole albums in order. But I like to play individual tracks, or listen to music on random play. So this wasn't going to work at all.

I tried using audacity to copy the intro from the end of one track and paste it onto the beginning of another. That worked, but it was tedious and fiddly. A little research showed me a much better way.

First: Rip the whole CD

First I needed to rip the whole CD as one gigantic track. My script had been running cdparanoia tracknumber filename.wav. But it took some study of the cdparanoia manual before I finally found the way to rip a whole CD to one track: you can specify a range of tracks, starting at 0 and omitting the end track.

cdparanoia 0- outfile.wav

Use Audacity to split and save the tracks

Now what's the best way to split a recording into separate tracks? Fortunately the Audacity manual has a nice page on that very subject: Splitting a recording into separate tracks.

Mostly, the issue is setting labels -- with Tracks->Add Label at Selection or Tracks->Add Label at Playback Position. Use Ctrl-1 to zoom as much as you need to see where the short pauses are. Then listen to the audio, pausing or clicking and setting labels appropriately.

It's a bit fiddly. For instance, if you pause your listening to set a label, you might want to save the audacity project so you don't lose the label positions you've set so far. But you can't save unless you Stop the playback; and that loses the current playback position which you may not yet have set a label for. Even if you have set a label for it, you'll need to click to set the selection to the label you just made if you want to continue playing from where you left off. It all seems a little silly and unintuitive ... but after a few tries you'll find a routine that works for you.

When all your labels are set, then File->Export Multiple.... You will have to go through a bunch of dialogs involving metadata for each track; just hit return, since audacity ignores any metadata you type in and won't actually write it to the MP3 file. I have no idea why it always prompts for metadata then doesn't use it, but you can use a program like id3tool later to add proper metadata to the tracks.

So, no, the tools aren't perfect. On the other hand, I now have a nice set of Flanders and Swann tracks, and can listen to Misalliance, Ill Wind and The GNU Song complete with their proper introductions.

Tags: ,
[ 13:35 Dec 02, 2014    More linux | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Tue, 25 Nov 2014

Yam-Apple Casserole

Yams. I love 'em. (Actually, technically I mean sweet potatoes, since what we call "yams" here in the US aren't actual yams, but the root from a South American plant, Ipomoea batatas, related to the morning glory. I'm not sure I've ever had an actual yam, a tuber from an African plant of the genus Dioscorea).

But what's up with the way people cook them? You take something that's inherently sweet and yummy -- and then you cover them with brown sugar and marshmallows and maple syrup and who knows what else. Do you sprinkle sugar on apples before you eat them?

Normally, I bake a yam for about an hour in the oven, or, if time is short (which it usually is), microwave it for about four and a half minutes, then finish up with 20-40 minutes in a toaster oven at 350°. The oven part seems to be necessary: it brings out the sweetness and the nice crumbly texture in a way that the microwave doesn't. You can read about some of the science behind this at this Serious Eats discussion of cooking sweet potatoes: it's because sweet potatoes have an odd enzyme, beta amylase, that breaks down carbohydrates into sugars, thus bringing out the vegetable's sweetness, but that enzyme only works in a limited temperature range, so if you heat up a sweet potato too fast the enzyme doesn't have time to work.

But Thanksgiving is coming up, and for a friend's dinner party, I wanted to make something a little more festive (and more easily parceled out) than whole baked yams.

A web search wasn't much help: nearly everything I found involved either brown sugar or syrup. The most interesting casserole recipes I saw fell into two categories: sweet and spicy yams with chile powder and cayenne pepper (and brown sugar), and for yam-apple casserole (with brown sugar and lemon juice). As far as I can tell it has never occurred to anyone, before me, to try either of these without added sugar. So I bravely volunteered myself as test subject.

I was very pleased with the results. The combination of the tart apples, the sweet yams and the various spices made a lovely combination. And it's a lot healthier than the casseroles with all the sugary stuff piled on top.

Yam-Apple Casserole without added sugar


(Your choice whether to use all of these spices, just some, or different ones.)

Peel and dice yams and apples into bite-sized pieces, inch or half-inch cubes. (Peeling the yams is optional.)

Drizzle a little olive oil over the yam and apple pieces, then sprinkle spices. Your call as to which spices and how much. Toss it all together until the pieces are all evenly coated with oil and the spices look evenly distributed.

Lay out in a casserole dish or cake pan and bake at 350°F until the yam pieces are soft. This takes at least an hour, two if you made big pieces or layered the pieces thickly in the pan. The apples will mostly disintegrate into little mushy bits between the pieces of yam, but that's fine -- they're there for flavor, not consistency.

Note: After reading about beta-amylase and its temperature range, I had the bright idea that it would be even better to do this in a crockpot. Long cooking at low temps, right? Wrong! The result was terrible, almost completely tasteless. Stick to using the oven.

I'm going to try adding some parsnips, too, though parsnips seem to need to cook longer than sweet potatoes, so it might help to pre-cooked the parsnips a few minutes in the microwave before tossing them in with the yams and apples.

[ 19:07 Nov 25, 2014    More recipes | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Tue, 18 Nov 2014

Unix "remind" file for US holidays

Am I the only one who's always confused about when holidays happen?

Partly it's software, I guess. In these days of everybody keeping their schedules on Google's or Apple's servers, maybe most people keep up on these things.

But being the dinosaur I am, I'm still resistant to keeping my schedule in the cloud on a public server. What if I need to check for upcoming events while I'm on a trip out in the remote desert somewhere? (Not to mention the obvious privacy considerations.) For years I used PalmOS PDAs, but when I switched to Android and discovered how poor the offline calendar options are, I decided that I should learn how to use the old Unix standby.

It's been pretty handy. I run remind ~/[remind-file-name] when I log in in the morning, and it gives me a nice summary of upcoming events:

DPU Solar surcharge meeting, 5:30-8:30 tomorrow
NMGLUG meeting in 2 days' time

Of course, I can also have it email me with reminders, or pop up a window, but so far I haven't felt the need.

I can also display a nice calendar showing upcoming events for this month or the next several months. I made a couple of aliases:

mycal () {
        if [[ x$months = x ]]
        remind -c$months ~/Docs/Lists/remind

mycalp () {
        if [[ x$months = x ]]
        remind -p$months ~/Docs/Lists/remind | rem2ps -e -l > /tmp/
        gv /tmp/ &

The first prints an ascii calendar; the second displays a nice postscript calendar complete with little icons for phases of the moon.

But what about those holidays?

Okay, that gives me a good way of storing reminders about appointments. But I still don't know when holidays are. (I had that problem with the PalmOS scheduling program, too -- it never knew about holidays either.)

Web searching didn't help much. Unfortunately, "remind" is a terrible name in this age of search engines. If someone has already solved this problem, I sure wasn't able to find any evidence of it. So instead, I went to Wikipedia's list of US holidays, with the remind man page in another tab, and wrote remind stanzas for each one -- except Easter, which is much more complicated.

But wait -- it turns out that remind already has code to calculate Easter! It just needs a slightly more complicated stanza: instead of the standard form of

REM  1 Apr +1 MSG April Fool's Day %b
I need to use this form:
REM  [trigger(easterdate(today()))] +1 MSG Easter %b

The %b in each case is what gives you the notice of when the event is in your reminders, e.g. "Easter tomorrow" or "Easter in two days' time". The +1 is how far beforehand you want to be reminded of each event.

So here's my remind file for US holidays. I make no guarantees that every one is right, though I did check them for the next 12 months and they all seem to be working.

# US Holidays
REM      1 Jan    +3 MSG New Year's Day %b
REM Mon 15 Jan    +2 MSG MLK Day %b
REM      2 Feb       MSG Groundhog Day %b
REM     14 Feb    +2 MSG Valentine's Day %b
REM Mon 15 Feb    +2 MSG President's Day %b
REM     17 Mar    +2 MSG St Patrick's Day %b
REM      1 Apr    +9 MSG April Fool's Day %b
REM  [trigger(easterdate(today()))] +1 MSG Easter %b
REM     22 Apr    +2 MSG Earth Day %b
REM Fri  1 May -7 +2 MSG Arbor Day %b
REM Sun  8 May    +2 MSG Mother's Day %b
REM Mon  1 Jun -7 +2 MSG Memorial Day %b
REM Sun 15 Jun       MSG Father's Day
REM      4 Jul    +2 MSG 4th of July %b
REM Mon  1 Sep    +2 MSG Labor Day %b
REM Mon  8 Oct    +2 MSG Columbus Day %b
REM     31 Oct    +2 MSG Halloween %b
REM Tue  2 Nov    +4 MSG Election Day %b
REM     11 Nov    +2 MSG Veteran's Day %b
REM Thu 22 Nov    +3 MSG Thanksgiving %b
REM     25 Dec    +3 MSG Christmas %b

[ 14:07 Nov 18, 2014    More linux | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 12 Nov 2014

Crockpot Green Chile Posole Stew

Posole is a traditional New Mexican dish made with pork, hominy and chile. Most often it's made with red chile, but Dave and I are both green chile fans so that's how I make it. I make no claims as to the resemblance between my posole and anything traditional; but it sure is good after a cold, windy day like we had today.

Dave is leery of anything called "posole" -- I think the hominy reminds him visually of garbanzo beans, which he dislikes -- but he admits that they taste fine in this stew. I call it "green chile stew" rather than "posole" when talking to him, and then he gets enthusiastic.

Ingredients (all quantities very approximate):

Start the crockpot heating: I start it on high then turn it down later. Add broth.

Dice potato. At least half the potato should be in small pieces, say 1/4" cubes, or even shredded; the other half can be larger chunks. I leave the skin on.

Pre-cook diced potato in the microwave for 7 minutes or until nearly soft enough to eat, in a loosely covered bowl with maybe 1" of water in the bottom. (This will get messy and the water gets all over and you have to clean the microwave afterward. I haven't found a solution to that yet.) Dump cooked potato into crockpot.

Dice pork into stew-sized pieces, trimming fat as desired. Add to crockpot.

De-skin and de-seed the green chiles and cut into short strips. (Or use canned or frozen.) Add to crockpot.

Add spices: salt, chile powder, cumin, and hot sauce (if your chiles aren't hot enough -- we have a bulk order of mild chiles this year so I sprinkled liberally with Tapatio).

Cover, reduce heat to low.

Cook 6-7 hours, occasionally stirring, tasting and correcting the seasoning. (I always add more of everything after I taste it, but that's me.)

Serve with bread, tortillas, sopaipillas or similar. French bread baked from the refrigerated dough in the supermarket works well if you aren't brave enough to make sopaipillas (I'm not, yet).

[ 17:49 Nov 12, 2014    More recipes | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 06 Nov 2014

New GIMP Save/Export plug-in: Saver

The split between Save and Export that GIMP introduced in version 2.8 has been a matter of much controversy. It's been over two years now, and people are still complaining on the gimp-users list.

Early on, I wrote a simple Python plug-in called Save-Export Clean, which saved over an image's current save or export filename regardless of whether the filename was XCF (save) or a different format (export). The idea was that you could bind Ctrl-S to the plug-in and not be pestered by needing to remember whether it was XCF, JPG or what.

Save-Export Clean has been widely cited, and I hope it's helped some people who were bothered by the Save/Export split. But personally I didn't like it very much. It wasn't very flexible -- there was no way to change the filename, for one thing, and it was awfully easy to overwrite an original image without knowing that you'd done it. I went back to using GIMP's separate Save and Export, but in the back of my mind I was turning over ideas, trying to understand my workflow and what I really wanted out of a GIMP Save plug-in.

[Screenshot: GIMP Saver-as... plug-in] The result of that was a new Python plug-in called Saver. I first wrote it a year ago, but I've been tweaking it and using it since then, with Ctrl-S bound to Saverand Ctrl-Shift-S bound to Saver as...). I wanted to make sure that it was useful and working reliably ... and somehow I never got around to writing it up and announcing it formally ... until now.

Saver, like Save/Export Clean, will overwrite your chosen filename, whether XCF or another format, and will mark the image as saved so GIMP won't pester you when you exit.

What's different? Mainly, three things:

  1. A Saver as... option so you can change the filename or file type.
  2. Merges multiple layers so they'll show up properly in your JPG or PNG image.
  3. An option to save as .xcf or .xcf.gz and, at the same time, export a copy in another format, possibly scaled down. So you can maintain your multi-layer XCF image but also update the JPG copy that you're going to put on the web.

I've been using Saver for nearly all my saving for the past year. If I'm just making a quick edit of a JPEG camera image, Ctrl-S overwrites it without questioning me. If I'm editing an elaborate multi-layer GIMP project, Ctrl-S overwrites the .xcf.gz. If I'm planning to export that image for the web, I Ctrl-Shift-S to bring up the Saver As... dialog, make sure the main filename is .xcf.gz, set a name (ending in .jpg) for the exported copy; and from then on, Ctrl-S will save both the XCF and the JPG copy.

Saver is available on my github page, with installation instructions here: GIMP Saver and Save/Export Clean Plug-ins. I hope you find it useful.

[ 12:57 Nov 06, 2014    More gimp | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 30 Oct 2014

Simulating a web page timeout

Today dinner was a bit delayed because I got caught up dealing with an RSS feed that wasn't feeding. The website was down, and Python's urllib2, which I use in my "feedme" RSS fetcher, has an inordinately long timeout.

That certainly isn't the first time that's happened, but I'd like it to be the last. So I started to write code to set a shorter timeout, and realized: how does one test that? Of course, the offending site was working again by the time I finished eating dinner, went for a little walk then sat down to code.

I did a lot of web searching, hoping maybe someone had already set up a web service somewhere that times out for testing timeout code. No such luck. And discussions of how to set up such a site always seemed to center around installing elaborate heavyweight Java server-side packages. Surely there must be an easier way!

How about PHP? A web search for that wasn't helpful either. But I decided to try the simplest possible approach ... and it worked!

Just put something like this at the beginning of your HTML page (assuming, of course, your server has PHP enabled):

<?php sleep(500); ?>

Of course, you can adjust that 500 to be any delay you like.

Or you can even make the timeout adjustable, with a few more lines of code:

 if (isset($_GET['timeout']))

Then surf to yourpage.php?timeout=6 and watch the page load after six seconds.

Simple once I thought of it, but it's still surprising no one had written it up as a cookbook formula. It certainly is handy. Now I just need to get some Python timeout-handling code working.

Tags: , , ,
[ 19:38 Oct 30, 2014    More tech/web | permalink to this entry | comments ]

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