Shallow Thoughts : : Oct

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

Sat, 31 Oct 2009

Crossing Soda Lake on the Mojave Rd


Mojave Rd from Basin to Zzyzyx: Deep sand, confusing navigation.

Mojave Rd from Zzyzyx to 17-Mile Point: Easy and fun (in dry fall weather). Don't count on getting from Mojave to Zzyzyx.

Basin to Zzyzyx

The goal for the first day of this trip involved a slight detour on the way to our hotel: a section of the Mojave Road entering Mojave National Preserve from the south.

[Sign marking Mojave Rd] On most maps, the Mojave Road enters the preserve at Soda Lake, a bit east of Zzyzyx (pronounced Zye-zix, we're told, not Zizzix.) We'd been warned in the past that any hint of rain turns Soda Lake into a slippery, muddy truck-eating quagmire, so it's important to inquire first about conditions before attempting it.

But some study of Google Earth had convinced Dave that there's a road not shown on the maps going from Mojave Rd. across to Zzyzyx. All we had to do was take the Basin Rd. exit off I-15, turn onto Mojave Rd at the big metal signpost, and head north until we hit Soda Lake. If the lake surface looked bad, Zzyzyx would be an easy out.

This section of Mojave Road, it turns out, is a complex braid of dry washes of sand so deep that turning the steering wheel is more a suggestion than a control. That's great fun, as long as you're getting enough traction and not bottoming out. Occasional rock cairns tell you you're on the right track.

... Until you stop seeing cairns. At some point I took the road less braided and ended up driving across sand dunes before the route finally rejoined the Mojave Rd. Fortunately the Rav4 handled the sand very competently, without ever needing its magic center-differential-lock button.

(The GPS with its OpenStreetMap-derived file was no help here -- it didn't show the Mojave Road at all. It is in the OSM database, I found out later, rendered as a red dotted line -- apparently not major enough to make it into the Garmin maps. The nice thing about OSM is that I can fix it!)

Eventually we got back on something resembling a main road, which had turned into whoop-de-doos -- endless irritating hummocks that took patience but no great driving skill as the road skirts along the southern edge of a Wilderness area: no vehicular access. Rasor Rd comes in from I-15 somewhere around here, and the area is popular with ATVers: we saw quite a few groups camping.

Zzyzyx to 17-Mile Point

[Mojave Rd crossing Soda Lake]

Finally we got to Soda Lake. The sandy road turned to smooth hardpack as it entered the lake bed -- by far the best road we'd seen since leaving I-15, and we drove out with no hesitation. We could see deep tracks off to either side of the road -- obviously lots of people experiment, and just as obviously the surface isn't quite as good if you get off the road, but we had no trouble on this dry October day. Before long we saw Zzyzyx off in the distance on our left -- and no road going there. But if the road across the dry lake was this good, why would we want to turn off to Zzyzyx at all?

(Good thing we didn't want to, since we couldn't!)

At the far side of the lake are a couple of steep rises in deep sand -- but nothing too tricky, and much easier than the sandy sections south of the lakebed.

The rest of the trip was just normal dirt-road driving, between the more-scenic-than-their-names-suggest Cowhole and Little Cowhole Mountains, through a small basalt flow (evidence of some nice big bubbles visible in the walls), and finally back onto pavement at Kelbaker Road and north to Primm.

GPS log: Track log, Waypoints

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[ 12:56 Oct 31, 2009    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 22 Oct 2009

Article: Building Your Own Linux Kernel, Part III

Part III of building your own kernel, Tricky kernel options, covers some of the more confusing options you'll encounter when configuring your kernel.

Meanwhile, I'm still jazzed about the great howto that Nathan Willis of wrote a few days ago for my Gimp labels scripts: Fast labels and Card layout with Gimplabels.

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[ 15:03 Oct 22, 2009    More writing | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 21 Oct 2009

Un-unicode: translating web pages to plain ASCII

It's not that I'm a dumb provincial American, really!

I mean, okay, I am a dumb provincial American. But not completely. I know about Unicode, I know what UTF-8 and ISO-8859-1 and -15 are, I even know how to type Spanish characters like ñ and á in email (at least in Ubuntu; I can't seem to make it work in Gentoo).

The real problem is PalmOS -- I've never found any way to create Plucker files for my Palm that display anything beyond the standard ASCII character set. (I'm not clear whether to blame that on Palm or Plucker. Doesn't matter.)

So when I use a program like Sitescooper or my new FeedMe RSS reader to read daily news on my Palm, I'm forever seeing lines like this:

the weather phenomenon known as ÅoEl Ni€oÅq is

It's tiresome to try to read stuff like that.

Strangely, I've found no libraries to do this, in any language. There are lots of ways to translate from one character encoding into another -- but no way to degrade from nonASCII characters to the nearest ASCII equivalent. Googling finds lots of people asking for them -- I'm far from the only one who wants this. There are various partial hacks, but nothing ready-to-go.

Oh, well, welcome to the programming world. Time to roll my own. I started from some nice tricks I picked up in the web discussions I found, and ended up with something reasonably compact. Of course, the table of fallback characters will grow.

But my ace in the hole, this time, is that my little function has a way of logging errors. When it sees a character it doesn't recognize, it can log the character code to a file, making it easy to add a translation for that character. That was always the problem with similar hacks I'd attempted to add to mutt or plucker or sitescooper in the past: figuring out each new character and what its intended meaning was, so I could add it to the translation table.

Here it is: ununicode.

Call it like this:

import ununicode

ununicode.toascii(str, errfilename=os.path.join("/path/to/errfile"))

There's also a minimal test script provided (which will also grow with time as I accumulate good samples).

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[ 20:48 Oct 21, 2009    More programming | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 20 Oct 2009

Gathering RSS files for a Palm PDA: FeedMe

For years I've been reading daily news feeds on a series of PalmOS PDAs, using a program called Sitescooper that finds new pages on my list of sites, downloads them, then runs Plucker to translate them into Plucker's open Palm-compatible ebook format.

Sitescooper has an elaborate series of rules for trying to get around the complicated formatting in modern HTML web pages. It has an elaborate cache system to figure out what it's seen before. When sites change their design (which most news sites seem to do roughly monthly), it means going in and figuring out the new format and writing a new Sitescooper site file. And it doesn't understand RSS, so you can't use the simplified RSS that most sites offer. Finally, it's no longer maintained; in fact, I was the last maintainer, after the original author lost interest.

Several weeks ago, bma tweeted about a Python RSS reader he'd hacked up using the feedparser package. His reader targeted email, not Palm, but finding out about feedparser was enough to get me started. So I wrote FeedMe (Carla Schroder came up with the all-important name).

I've been using it for a couple of weeks now and I'm very happy with the results. It's still quite rough, of course, but it's already producing better files than Sitescooper did, and it seems more maintainable. Time will tell.

Of course it needs to be made more flexible, adjusted so that it can produce formats besides Plucker, and so on. I'll get to it.

And the only site I miss now, because it doesn't offer an RSS feed, is Linux Planet. Maybe I'll find a solution for that eventually.

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[ 21:08 Oct 20, 2009    More programming | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 17 Oct 2009

Fossil Hunter -- Real Tools!

(I meant to blog this last month and never got around to it, but it was so fun and silly that I want a public link to it.) [Dinosaur fossil kit! With real tools!]

For my birthday, Dave got me this Dinosaur Fossil Kit. With REAL TOOLS! proclaimed the package.

(A few weeks later I was at the dollar store looking for something else, and found out where he'd bought it.)

It's an egg-shaped clod of mud. The REAL TOOLS are a little plastic pick and a paintbrush. You pick away the mud to reveal little plastic dinosaur bones, which you can assemble to form a dinosaur.

Okay, it's stupid. But it was also kind of fun. I have the little dinosaur sitting on the stand beside my terminal.

One of the foot-tabs is missing on mine, so it doesn't always stay in the stand. But that's just one of those hassles that we paleontologists put up with. Not every skeleton will be 100% complete. We scientists also know how important it is to document every step of the process.

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[ 19:38 Oct 17, 2009    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 11 Oct 2009

Silencing speaker hum

Ah, silence is golden!

For my birthday last month, Dave gave me a nice pair of Bose powered speakers to replace the crappy broken set I'd been using. Your basic computer speakers, except I actually use them primarily for a little portable radio I listen to while hacking.

Only one problem: they had a major hum as soon as I turned them on. Even when I turned on the radio, I could hear the hum in the background. It got better if I turned the speakers way down and the radio up -- it wasn't coming from the radio.

After about a month it was starting to irritate me. I mentioned it on #linuxchix to see if anyone had any insights.

Maria and Wolf did, and narrowed it down pretty quickly to some sort of ground problem. The speakers need to get a real ground from somewhere. They don't get it through their AC power plug (a two-prong wall wart). They also don't get it from the radio, which is plugged in to AC via its own 2-prong wall wart, so it doesn't have a ground either.

How could I test this? Wolf suggested an alligator clip going from one of the RCA plugs on the back of the speaker to my computer's case. But it turned out there was an easier way. These speakers have dual inputs: a second set of RCA plugs so I can have another cable going to an MP3 player, radio or whatever, without needing to unplug from the radio first. I ran a spare cable from these second RCA plugs to the sound card output of my spare computer -- bingo! The hum entirely went away.

I suppose most people buy this type of speaker for use with computers, so it isn't a problem. But I was surprised that they'd adapt so poorly to a portable device like a radio or MP3 player. Is that so uncommon?

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[ 21:49 Oct 11, 2009    More tech | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 10 Oct 2009

Article: Building Your Own Linux Kernel, Part II

Part II of building your own kernel, Configuring a New Linux Kernel, covers how to run menuconfig, how to disable modules and slim down the kernel to only the parts you need, and a few important options to look for.

Part III, in two weeks, will tour some specific kernel options and what they do.

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[ 10:19 Oct 10, 2009    More writing | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 03 Oct 2009

Toastmasters manuals I'd like to see: Speaking at Conferences

Now and then I idly exchange ideas with some Toastmasters friends about manuals we wish Toastmasters would offer. Sometimes we come up with "meta-manuals", projects which can be done by collecting projects from existing manuals.

Here's a manual I'd like to see. The projects are arranged in approximate order of difficulty and cover most of the skills needed by speakers at technical conferences. Each project includes suggestions for which existing Toastmasters manual could be used.

Speaking at Conferences


  1. Give a technical speech (15-20 min, longer if club schedule allows)
    Give a detailed talk on some technical aspect of your field, for specialists in the field. Use demos, slides and other visual aids effectively. Handle questions (and perhaps heckling) from the audience.
    (Speaking to Inform: any, or Technically Speaking: 1 or 4.)
  2. Give a Lightning Talk (2-3 min)
    Give a short talk for the whole conference audience. Any topic related to the field: describe a project, teach a technique, generate enthusiasm, air a gripe.
    (Use the basic manual or Speaking to Inform, depending on subject.)
  3. Give a beginner talk (15-20 min, longer if club schedule allows)
    Introduce your subject to beginners in the field, or outsiders who may not know much about it. Use visual aids and demos to create interest and explain the topic without using jargon.
    (Speaking to Inform: any, or Technically Speaking: 3.)
  4. Give an Ignite talk (5 min)
    Give a five minute talk on any topic, using 20 slides that advance automatically every 15 seconds, as described at
    Pecha Kucha also counts.
    (Many choices, depending on subject.)
  5. Give a keynote address (15-20 min, longer if club schedule allows)
    Give a speech suitable to be the keynote for a conference.
    (The Professional Speaker: 1, or basic manual: 9.)
  6. Bonus project: Speak about speaking
    Explain to your audience how to give a good conference speech.
    (Speaking to Inform: 1-3, or Better Speaker: any.)
  7. Update bonus project: Dealing with heckers
    Give a speech and have people in the audience try to disrupt your talk, interrupt, contradict or sidetrack you.
    (Public Relations has "Speaking under fire" but that's not really the same thing.)

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[ 11:09 Oct 03, 2009    More speaking | permalink to this entry | ]