Shallow Thoughts : : Jun

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

Sun, 28 Jun 2009

A Beginner's Guide to Free Software Programming Languages

Linux Planet asked me for an intro article for prospective programmers, explaining the pros and cons of various programming languages. Here it is: A Beginner's Guide to Free Software Programming Languages

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[ 13:00 Jun 28, 2009    More writing | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 24 Jun 2009

Keeping external kernel modules from being deleted

I've been enjoying my random system beeps, different every day. At least up until yesterday, when I didn't seem to have one. Today I didn't have one either, and discovered that was because the beep module was no longer loaded.

Why not? Well, I updated my kernel to tweak some ACPI parameters (fruitlessly, as it turns out; I'm trying to get powertop to give me more information but I haven't found the magic combination of kernel parameters it wants on this machine) and so I did a make modules_install. And it seems that make modules_install starts out by doing rm -rf /lib/modules/VERSION/kernel which removed my externally built beep module along with everything else.

I couldn't find documentation on this, but I did find Intel Wireless bug 556 which talks about the issue. Apparently somewhere along the way 2.6 started doing this rm -rf, but you can get around it by installing outside the kernel directory.

In other words, instead of

cp beep.ko /lib/modules/
cp beep.ko /lib/modules/
Then your external module won't get wiped out at the next modules_install.

I've let the maintainer of Fancy Beeper know about this, so it won't be a problem for that module, but it's a good tip to know about in general -- I'm sure there are lots of modules that hit this problem.

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[ 10:30 Jun 24, 2009    More linux/kernel | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 20 Jun 2009

Pytopo 0.8 released

On my last Mojave trip, I spent a lot of the evenings hacking on PyTopo.

I was going to try to stick to OpenStreetMap and other existing mapping applications like TangoGPS, a neat little smartphone app for downloading OpenStreetMap tiles that also runs on the desktop -- but really, there still isn't any mapping app that works well enough for exploring maps when you have no net connection.

In particular, uploading my GPS track logs after a day of mapping, I discovered that Tango really wasn't a good way of exploring them, and I already know Merkaartor, nice as it is for entering new OSM data, isn't very good at working offline. There I was, with PyTopo and a boring hotel room; I couldn't stop myself from tweaking a bit.

Adding tracklogs was gratifyingly easy. But other aspects of the code bother me, and when I started looking at what I might need to do to display those Tango/OSM tiles ... well, I've known for a while that some day I'd need to refactor PyTopo's code, and now was the time.

Surprisingly, I completed most of the refactoring on the trip. But even after the refactoring, displaying those OSM tiles turned out to be a lot harder than I'd hoped, because I couldn't find any reliable way of mapping a tile name to the coordinates of that tile. I haven't found any documentation on that anywhere, and Tango and several other programs all do it differently and get slightly different coordinates. That one problem was to occupy my spare time for weeks after I got home, and I still don't have it solved.

But meanwhile, the rest of the refactoring was done, nice features like track logs were working, and I've had to move on to other projects. I am going to finish the OSM tile MapCollection class, but why hold up a release with a lot of useful changes just for that?

So here's PyTopo 0.8, and the couple of known problems with the new features will have to wait for 0.9.

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[ 20:49 Jun 20, 2009    More programming | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 19 Jun 2009

Python: show all methods in a given object or module

A silly little thing, but something that Python books mostly don't mention and I can never find via Google:

How do you find all the methods in a given class, object or module?

Ideally the documentation would tell you. Wouldn't that be nice? But in the real world, you can't count on that, and examining all of an object's available methods can often give you a good guess at how to do whatever you're trying to do.

Python objects keep their symbol table in a dictionary called __dict__ (that's two underscores on either end of the word). So just look at object.__dict__. If you just want the names of the functions, use object.__dict__.keys().

Thanks to JanC for suggesting dir(object) and help(object), which can be more helpful -- not all objects have a __dict__.

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[ 12:44 Jun 19, 2009    More programming | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 17 Jun 2009

Random beeps

A couple of year ago I figured out how to make custom system beep sounds on Linux, like MacOS has done forever. But then I changed machines and somehow never got around to setting it up on any other machine.

But the Intel dual-Atom board doesn't seem to support a system beep -- there's no obvious place on the motherboard to plug in the connector going to the case speaker. How odd!

With the alternative being no beep at all, I dusted off my old blog post and went to see if Fancy Beeper Daemon kernel module still existed. Happily, it does, and it's up-to-date for current kernels, so all I had to do was download the latest and build it. Easy! Then I added "beep" to the list of automatically loaded modules in /etc/modules, blacklisted the pcspkr module using the /etc/modprobe.d/00local technique, and I was all set.

Except for the really important question: what sound to choose? I did a little web searching for free sounds and downloaded some samples to try out. Then I added a few bird calls from my Stokes Field Guide to Western Bird Songs CD, editing them in audacity to make them shorter and more appropriate for system beeps.

But I still couldn't decide on just one ... and why should I? I've really been enjoying my random wallpaper: every time I log in, I get a different desktop background. It's fun to see a new picture every day. Why not do the same for my system beep?

That's no problem, using the same randomline script I use for wallpaper. I just put this in my .xinitrc:

$HOME/bin/mybeepd `find $HOME/Music/beeps -name "*.wav" | randomline` &
and now I get a different beep sound each day.

Yesterday it was a loon. Today it's a cow mooing.

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[ 21:11 Jun 17, 2009    More linux | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 14 Jun 2009

Programming With PyGTK, part 3: Key events and object oriented Python

Part 3 of "Graphical Python Programming With PyGTK" uses object-oriented Python to clean up the code from Part 2, and also adds handling of key events to get rid of that silly Quit button. PythonGTK Programming part 3: Screensaver, Objects, and User Input

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[ 12:18 Jun 14, 2009    More writing | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 12 Jun 2009

A Table of Closed versus Open Formats

My last Toastmasters speech was on open formats: why you should use open formats rather than closed/proprietary ones and the risks of closed formats.

To make it clearer, I wanted to print out handouts people could take home summarizing some of the most common closed formats, along with open alternatives.

Surely there are lots of such tables on the web, I thought. I'll just find one and customize it a little for this specific audience.

To my surprise, I couldn't find a single one. Even didn't have very much.

So I started one: Open vs. Closed Formats. It's far from complete, so I hope I'll continue to get contributions to flesh it out more.

And the talk? It went over very well, and people appreciated the handout. There's a limit to how much information you can get across in under ten minutes, but I think I got the point across. The talk itself, such as it is, is here: Open up!

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[ 11:37 Jun 12, 2009    More tech | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 10 Jun 2009

Bing thinks we're WHERE?

Lots has been written about Bing, Microsoft's new search engine. It's better than Google, it's worse than Google, it'll never catch up to Google. Farhad Manjoo of Slate had perhaps the best reason to use Bing: "If you switch, Google's going to do some awesome things to try to win you back."

[Bing in Omniweb thinks we're in Portugal] But what I want to know about Bing is this: Why does it think we're in Portugal when Dave runs it under Omniweb on Mac?

In every other browser it gives the screen you've probably seen, with side menus (and a horizontal scrollbar if your window isn't wide enough, ugh) and some sort of pretty picture as a background. In Omniweb, you get a cleaner layout with no sidebars or horizontal scrollbars, a different pretty picture -- often prettier than the one you get on all the other browsers, though both images change daily -- and a set of togglebuttons that don't show up in any of the other browsers, letting you restrict results to only English or only results from Portugal.

Why does it think we're in Portugal when Dave uses Omniweb?

Equally puzzling, why do only people in Portugal have the option of restricting the results to English only?

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[ 10:37 Jun 10, 2009    More tech | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 07 Jun 2009

No X acceleration (DRI) in Jaunty: solved

I upgraded to Ubuntu's current 9.04 release, "Jaunty Jackalope", quite a while ago, but I haven't been able to use it because its X server crashes or hangs regularly. (Fortunately I only upgraded a copy of my working 8.10 "Intrepid" install, on a separate partition.)

The really puzzling thing, though, wasn't the crashes, but the fact that X acceleration didn't work at all. Programs like tuxracer (etracer) and Google earth would display at something like one frame update every two seconds, and glxinfo | grep renderer said

OpenGL renderer string: Software Rasterizer

But that was all on my old desktop machine, with an ATI Radeon 9000 card that I know no one cares about much. I have a new machine now! An Intel dual Atom D945GCLF2D board with 945 graphics. Finally, a graphics chip that's supported! Now everything would work!

Well, not quite -- there were major teething pains, including returning the first nonworking motherboard, but that's a separate article. Eventually I got it running nicely with Intrepid. DRI worked! Tuxracer worked! Even Google Earth worked! Unbelievable!

I copied the Jaunty install from my old machine to a partition on the new machine. Booted into it and -- no DRI. Just like on the Radeon.

Now, there's a huge pile of bugs in Ubuntu's bug system on problems with video on Jaunty, all grouped by graphics card manufacturer even though everybody seems to be seeing pretty much the same problems on every chipset. But hardly any of the bugs talk about not getting any DRI at all -- they're all about whether EXA acceleration works better or worse than XAA and whether it's worth trying UXA. I tried them all: EXA and UXA both gave me no DRI, while XAA crashed/rebooted the machine every time. Clearly, there was something about my install that was disabling DRI, regardless of graphics card. But I poked and prodded and couldn't figure out what it was.

The breakthrough came when, purely by accident, I ran that same glxinfo | grep renderer from a root shell. Guess what?

OpenGL renderer string: Mesa DRI Intel(R) 945G GEM 20090326 2009Q1 RC2 x86/MMX/SSE2

As me (non-root), it still said "Software Rasterizer." It was a simple permissions problem! But wait ... doesn't X run as root?

Well, it does, but the DRI part doesn't, as it turns out. (This is actually a good thing, sort of, in the long term: eventually the hope is to get X not to need root permissions either.)

Armed with the keyword "permissions" I went back to the web, and the Troubleshooting Intel Performance page on the Ubuntu wiki, and found the solution right away. (I'd looked at that page before but never got past the part right at the beginning that says it's for problems involving EXA vs. UXA vs. XAA, which mine clearly wasn't).

The Solution

In Jaunty, the user has to be in group video to use DRI in X. But if you've upgraded from an Ubuntu version prior to Jaunty, where this wasn't required, you're probably not in that group. The upgrader (I used do-release-upgrade) doesn't check for this or warn you that you have desktop users who aren't in the video group, so you're on your own to find out about the problem. Fixing it is easy, though: edit /etc/group as root and add your user(s) to the group.

You might think this would have been an error worth reporting, say, at X startup, or in glxinfo, or even in /var/log/Xorg.0.log. You'd think wrong. Xorg.0.log blithely claims that DRI is enabled and everything is fine, and there's no indication of an error anywhere else.

I hope this article makes it easier for other people with this problem to find the solution.

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[ 20:23 Jun 07, 2009    More linux/install | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 03 Jun 2009

Bullfrogs in stereo

bullfrog The Walden West pond is hopping -- literally! This afternoon around 3pm the pond's resident bullfrogs, who normally just float quietly in the scum on the surface, would suddenly hop out of the water for no obvious reason, then settle back down a few feet away. One pair was apparently mating like that, the larger frog hopping onto the back of the smaller frog, then immediately off again. And the pond was full of sound, sometimes with two or more frogs booming at once. Bullfrogs in stereo!

I didn't have the SLR along, but some of the frogs were close enough (and calm enough not to submerge when we got near them) that I was able to get a few decent shots.

But I really wanted to capture that sound. So I put the camera in video mode and shot a series of videos hoping to catch some of the music ... and did. They sound like this: bullfrog (mp3, 24kb).

Despite the title of this entry, the recording doesn't have any interesting stereo effects; the only microphone was the one built in to my Canon A540. It did okay, though! You'll just have to use your imagination to place two frogs as you listen, one 20 feet to the left and the other 15 feet to the right.

How to extract the audio from a camera video

(Non open source people can quit reading here.)

Extracting the audio was a little tricky. I found lots of pages ostensibly telling me how to do it with mencoder, but none of them seemed to work. This did:

mplayer -vc null -af volume=15 -vo null -ao pcm -benchmark mvi_8992.avi

I added that -af volume=15 argument to make the sound louder, since it was a bit quiet as it came from the camera.

That produced a file named audiodump.wav, which I turned into an mp3 like this:

lame audiodump.wav bullfrogs.mp3

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[ 21:42 Jun 03, 2009    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 01 Jun 2009

A GPX file manager

Someone on the OSM newbies list asked how he could strip waypoints out of a GPX track file. Seems he has track logs of an interesting and mostly-unmapped place that he wants to add to openstreetmap, but there are some waypoints that shouldn't be included, and he wanted a good way of separating them out before uploading.

Most of the replies involved "just edit the XML." Sure, GPX files are pretty simple and readable XML -- but a user shouldn't ever have to do that! Gpsman and gpsbabel were also mentioned, but they're not terribly easy to use either.

That reminded me that I had another XML-parsing task I'd been wanting to write in Python: a way to split track files from my Garmin GPS.

Sometimes, after a day of mapping, I end up with several track segments in the same track log file. Maybe I mapped several different trails; maybe I didn't get a chance to upload one day's mapping before going out the next day. Invariably some of the segments are of zero length (I don't know why the Garmin does that, but it always does). Applications like merkaartor don't like this one bit, so I usually end up editing the XML file and splitting it into segments by hand. I'm comfortable with XML -- but it's still silly.

I already have some basic XML parsing as part of PyTopo and Ellie, so I know the parsing very easy to do. So, spurred on by the posting on OSM-newbies, I wrote a little GPX parser/splitter called gpxmgr. gpxmgr -l file.gpx can show you how many track logs are in the file; gpxmgr -w file.gpx can write new files for each non-zero track log. Add -p if you want to be prompted for each filename (otherwise it'll use the name of the track log, which might be something like "ACTIVE\ LOG\ #2").

How, you may wonder, does that help the original poster's need to separate out waypoints from track files? It doesn't. See, my GPS won't save tracklogs and waypoints in the same file, even if you want them that way; you have to use two separate gpsbabel commands to upload a track file and a waypoint file. So I don't actually know what a tracklog-plus-waypoint file looks like. If anyone wants to use gpxmgr to manage waypoints as well as tracks, send me a sample GPX file that combines them both.

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[ 20:43 Jun 01, 2009    More mapping | permalink to this entry | ]