Shallow Thoughts : : Jan

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

Wed, 23 Jan 2013

Mahatma of Spain

[Mahatma authentic Spanish rice] The silly things you find ...

Found this in Mom's pantry. "Mahatma Authentic Spanish rice."

Maybe it's just my ignorance that when I hear the term "Mahatma", Spain is not the first country I think of. But it says Authentic! So it must have something to do with Spanish culture, right?

Maybe it's named after that famous palace in Spain, the Mahatma.

I haven't tried the rice yet. I'm not sure whether I should serve it with curry, or tacos. I know! I'll make some curry tacos!

It's been pointed out to me that tacos aren't associated with Spain either. Whoops! Blame my nortemericano upbringing -- "Spanish rice" is what's served with Mexican food here, and cuisine from Spain is rare.


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[ 16:10 Jan 23, 2013    More humor | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 19 Jan 2013

Converting C to Python with a vi regexp

I'm fiddling with a serial motor controller board, trying to get it working with a Raspberry Pi. (It works nicely with an Arduino, but one thing I'm learning is that everything hardware-related is far easier with Arduino than with RPi.)

The excellent Arduino library helpfully provided by Pololu has a list of all the commands the board understands. Since it's Arduino, they're in C++, and look something like this:

#define QIK_GET_FIRMWARE_VERSION         0x81
#define QIK_GET_ERROR_BYTE               0x82
#define QIK_GET_CONFIGURATION_PARAMETER  0x83
[ ... ]
#define QIK_CONFIG_DEVICE_ID                        0
#define QIK_CONFIG_PWM_PARAMETER                    1
and so on.

On the Arduino side, I'd prefer to use Python, so I need to get them to look more like:

    QIK_GET_FIRMWARE_VERSION = 0x81
    QIK_GET_ERROR_BYTE = 0x82
    QIK_GET_CONFIGURATION_PARAMETER = 0x83
[ ... ]
    QIK_CONFIG_DEVICE_ID = 0
    QIK_CONFIG_PWM_PARAMETER = 1
... and so on ... with an indent at the beginning of each line since I want this to be part of a class.

There are 32 #defines, so of course, I didn't want to make all those changes by hand. So I used vim. It took a little fiddling -- mostly because I'd forgotten that vim doesn't offer + to mean "one or more repetitions", so I had to use * instead. Here's the expression I ended up with:

.,$s/\#define *\([A-Z0-9_]*\) *\(.*\)/ \1 = \2/

In English, you can read this as:

From the current line to the end of the file (,.$/), look for a pattern consisting of only capital letters, digits and underscores ([A-Z0-9_]). Save that as expression #1 (\( \)). Skip over any spaces, then take the rest of the line (.*), and call it expression #2 (\( \)).

Then replace all that with a new line consisting of 4 spaces, expression 1, a spaced-out equals sign, and expression 2 ( \1 = \2).

Who knew that all you needed was a one-line regular expression to translate C into Python?

(Okay, so maybe it's not quite that simple. Too bad a regexp won't handle the logic inside the library as well, and the pin assignments.)

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[ 21:38 Jan 19, 2013    More linux/editors | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 16 Jan 2013

Bluebirds and phantom horses at Arastradero

[Western bluebird]

The weather was a bit warmer today than it has been, so I snuck off for an hour's hike at Arastradero, where I was amazed by all the western bluebirds out enjoying the sunny day. I counted three of them just on the path from the parking lot to the road crossing. Bold, too -- they let me get close enough to snap a shot with my pocket camera.

Farther up the trail, a white-shouldered kite was calling as it soared, and a large falcon flew by, too far away and too backlit for me to identify it for sure as a peregrine.

[Phantom stump horse] But then I spotted an even more unusual beast -- a phantom horse rearing out of the ground, ears pricked forward, eyes and mouth open and mane whipped by a wind we could not feel on this pleasant, windless day.

Dave always teases me about my arboronecrophotography inclinations (I like to take pictures of dead trees). But how could I resist trying to capture a creature like this?

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[ 20:26 Jan 16, 2013    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 12 Jan 2013

Integrating graphics with text in Emacs

I discussed Emacs's artist-mode a few days ago as a simple, but incomplete, solution to the problem of sketching graphs while taking notes during a math class. But I've found a much better way, one that allows for including any images -- drawings, photos, or screenshots. It took a little work and some custom .emacs code, but I love the result.

Iimage mode

[iimage-mode: images displayed inline in Emacs] The key is iimage-mode, which displays inline images. In this mode, you put a line in your buffer with a reference to your image file, something like this:

file://myimage.jpg
and Emacs will replace it with the contents of that image. Marvellous!

You can use other patterns for filenames as well, but I'm fine with using URLs. Note there are only two slashes in file:// -- it's a local file in the same directory as the text file being edited.

It's a little tricky to enable it. The docs are not entirely clear on the differences between iimage-mode, turn-on-iimage-mode and iimage-mode-buffer. I found I could get a file that already had existing images to display them with:

  (turn-on-iimage-mode)
  (iimage-mode-buffer t)

Very cool! But too much to type every time. And to use it for note-taking, I needed a way to say, "Create a new image here, let me edit it, then display the image I just edited inline."

Enabling iimage-mode automatically

First, I wanted iimage mode displayed automatically on files in my note-taking directories. I normally use text-mode for these files, with spell checking and line wrapping turned on (auto-fill mode). So I defined a new minor mode based on text-mode:

(define-derived-mode text-img-mode text-mode "Image display mode"
  (auto-fill-mode)
  (turn-on-iimage-mode)
  (iimage-mode-buffer t)
  )

Then I wanted this mode to be called whenever I'm editing a file in my classes directory. So I added it to my auto-mode-alist:

(setq auto-mode-alist
   ...
      (cons '("Docs/classes/" . text-img-mode)
   ...
      auto-mode-alist) )

Inserting a new image

Next, I needed a way to insert an image URL into the buffer and call up an image editor on it. I shouldn't have to type the filename twice and keep track of it; that's what computers are for.

And I needed a drawing program. As a longtime GIMP geek, most of my computer drawing has been in GIMP. But GIMP is overkill for calling up a quick sketch window. I was tempted to use TuxPaint; it's a good sketching app even if you're not five years old, and it's fun and easy to use. But by default, TuxPaint has some features that get in the way of note-taking, like distracting sound effects. I'm sure it's possible to turn those off, and I do plan to investigate that.

I saw a reference to pinta as a lightweight drawing app, but it required a boatload of Mono libraries that I don't otherwise need, and Krita has the same problem with KDE services. So I opted for MyPaint. It works okay, though it's rather slow to start up and has some other issues, so I'm still hoping to find a more lightweight sketching app.

In any case, I fiddled around with start-process until I figured out how to use it to start a program. Then I wrote a little function that lets the user pick a filename, inserts a URL to that filename into the buffer, then calls up mypaint on the file.

(defun img ()
  "Prompt for a filename, then call up mypaint to create an image"
  (interactive)
  (let ((imgfile (read-string "Filename? " "xxx.jpg" 'my-history)))
    (insert "\nfile://" imgfile "\n" )
    (start-process "mypaint" nil "/usr/bin/mypaint" imgfile)
  ))

Worked fine! I can run M-x img, be prompted for a filename, and get a mypaint window where I can make my sketch.

Noticing that a new image has been added

But wait. I finish sketching, write the file and quit mypaint ... and the buffer still shows something like file://xxx.jpg, even if it's showing other images inline. I needed a way to tell it to refresh and load any new images. (I considered having emacs wait for mypaint to exit, but decided I might sometimes want to keep editing while mypaint was still up.)

M-x eval-expression (iimage-mode-buffer t) will do that, but that's a lot of typing to do. Obviously, I needed a key binding.

Strangely enough, C-c i wasn't taken for text buffers, so that seemed like a natural. So I added a key binding to the end of the text-img-mode. iimage-mode-buffer requires that t argument -- it gives an error without it -- so the key binding looks a little more complicated than one that just calls a simple function. I added it to the end of my text-img-mode function.

(define-derived-mode text-img-mode text-mode "Image display mode"
 ...
  (local-set-key "\C-ci" 
    (lambda () (interactive) (iimage-mode-buffer t)))
  )

But after using it a bit, I discovered that this didn't reload images if I edited them a second time. Fortunately, vwood had the answer:

(defun refresh-iimages ()
  "Only way I've found to refresh iimages (without also recentering)"
  (interactive)
  (clear-image-cache nil)
  (iimage-mode nil)
  (iimage-mode t)
  (message "Refreshed images")
 )

I added the message at the end, since otherwise the function left a distracting "Toggling iimage-mode off; better pass an explicit argument" error.

Then the key binding in my text-img-mode became

(local-set-key "\C-ci" 'refresh-iimages)

Inserting a screenshot

Wait -- one more thing. As I actually used text-img-mode to take notes, I discovered that taking screenshots would actually be much more useful than making my own drawings. Then I could copy small sections of the slides and graphs into my notes at the appropriate place, without needing to copy equations at all.

Why not write a function to allow that? The unpleasantly named scrot program fills the bill nicely, and gives me a choice of clicking in a window or dragging out an area of the screen.

(defun screenshot ()
 "Prompt for a filename, then call up scrot to create an interactive screenshot"
  (interactive)
  (let ((imgfile (read-string "Filename? " "scr.jpg" 'my-history)))
    (insert "\nfile://" imgfile "\n" )
    (start-process "scrot" nil "/usr/bin/scrot" "-s" imgfile)
  ))

This turned out to be so useful that I added a key for it in text-img-mode:

(local-set-key "\C-cs" 'screenshot)

I'm so happy with the result! Iimage mode is working great, and having text and images together is turning out to be perfect for note-taking.

My only problem now -- okay, I admit it -- is a tendency to get so excited over inserting screenshots that I get distracted and forget to actually listen to the lecture. I'm sure I'll get over that, but for now, Thank goodness vlc is good at skipping back!

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[ 13:42 Jan 12, 2013    More linux/editors | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 10 Jan 2013

ASCII graphics in Emacs with Artist Mode

I found a cool package in Emacs the other day: Artist Mode. It lets you draw ASCII graphics in your text file.

I was actually looking for the solution to a different problem: taking notes in a math-intensive Coursera class. I've been taking notes in Emacs, but a text editor is awkward for equations and even more awkward for graphs.

What I really wanted was something like the old Claris Works (or so I'm told; I never used it myself) -- something that's primarily a text editor but lets you drawings, equations, and tables when you need to. In theory, word processors like LibreOffice could do that, but in practice they're not very good at switching modes, nor at integrating several types of media into one document. Texmacs is great for the equations and apparently it can do tables too, but it can't do freehand drawing.

And none of these programs is very configurable -- I can't use my fast, comfortable Emacs bindings while typing, and that's a deal-breaker for me, because being able to make corrections quickly makes a huge difference in my typing speed. LibreOffice's key bindings are only partially configurable, and after you've spent half a day chasing down all the action names you need (the ones that are actually available), you upgrade to a newer version and discover you have to do it all over again because there's no way to migrate configuration files. Even Texmacs, ironically, is no better: the documentation claims it's possible to configure key bindings, but it doesn't appear anyone has ever succeeded in figuring out how.

Anyway, ASCII graphics aren't the ultimate solution to note-taking. And I've found a better solution for that, while I'll write about separately. But for now, Artist Mode is just so cool I had to share it.

Enable it by running M-x artist-mode. You can immediately start drawing in your buffer with the mouse. Whatever you draw gets turned into ASCII graphics.

For note-taking, it's fine for scribbling the rough shape of a curve. It takes no time to mouse in a little sketch like

       |                               .. 20
       |                              ..
       |                            ...
    10 |.                          ..
       |..                       ...
       | ...                   ...
       |   ..              ....
       |    .....      .....
       |    ............
       |.....        .............
       +-------------------------------------

It even has primitives (middleclick to get a.menu) for things like lines, rectangles and circles, and for filling regions. When you're done drawing, M-x artist-mode goes back to whatever mode you were using before.

I probably won't use it very much for note taking. But there are times when I've wanted to draw ASCII graphics -- a laborious process in ordinary text modes -- and other times when it would just be fun to play around with my buffer. I'm happy to know about Artist Mode. I may not need it often, but it sure is fun to use now and then.

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[ 20:02 Jan 10, 2013    More linux/editors | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 06 Jan 2013

Rescuing a wrongly soldered box header connector

For a recent Raspberry Pi project, I decided to use the Adafruit Pi Cobbler to give me easy access to the RPi's GPIO pins.

My Cobbler arrived shortly before I had to leave for a short trip. I was planning to take my RPi with me -- but not my soldering iron. So the night before I left, I hastily soldered together the Cobbler along with a few other parts I wanted to play with. No problem -- it's an easy solder project, lots of pins but no delicate parts or complicated circuitry.

Later, far from home, I opened up my hardware hack box, set up a breadboard and started plugging in wires, following one of the tutorials mentioned below. Except -- wait, the pins didn't seem to be in the place I expected them. I quickly realized I'd soldered the ribbon cable connector on backward. Argh!

There's no way I could unsolder 26 pins all at once, even at home; but away from home, without even a soldering iron, how could I possibly recover?

[ribbon cable connector] (image courtesy of PANAMATIK of Wikipedia)

The ribbon cable connector is basically symmetrical, two rows of 13 pins. The connector on the cable is keyed -- it has a dingus sticking out of it that's supposed to fit into the slot in the connector's plastic box. If I could, say, cut another slot on the opposite side of the plastic box, something big enough for the ribbon cable's sticky-out dingus (sorry for the highly technical language!), I could salvage this project and play with my RPi.

I was just about to dig in with the diagonal cutter when someone on IRC suggested that I try to slide the plastic box (it turns out this is called a "box header") up off the pins, turn it around and slide it back on. They suggested that using a heat gun to soften the plastic might help.

I didn't have a heat gun where I was staying, but I did have a hairdryer. I slipped a jeweler's screwdriver under the bottom of one side of the box, levered against the circuit board to apply pressure upward, and hit it with the hairdryer. It slid a few millimeters immediately.

I switched to the other side of the box and repeated; that side obligingly slid too. About ten minutes of alternating sides and occasional blasts from the hairdryer, and the box was off! Sliding it back on was even easier. Project rescued!

(Incidentally, you may be thinking that the Cobbler is really just a way to connect the Pi's header pins to a breadboard. I could have used the backwards-soldered Cobbler and just kept track of which pins should map to which other pins. True! But all the pin numbers would have been mislabeled, and I know myself well enough to know that eventually, I would have gotten the pin mapping wrong and plugged something in to the wrong place. Having destroyed an Adafruit Wave Shield earlier that day by doing just that, connecting 5V to an I/O pin that it turned out wasn't expecting it (who knew the SD reader chip was so sensitive?), I didn't want to take the same risk with my only Raspberry Pi.)

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[ 16:29 Jan 06, 2013    More hardware | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 02 Jan 2013

Customize the Emacs modeline color

[Emacs with colored mode lines]

I wrote last week about how to customize syntax highlighting colors in Emacs. And as part of that, I ditched the color theme I'd been using and let Emacs go back to its default colors.

Which mostly was fine, except that when I split the window into two windows, to look at two files at once or two different parts of the same file, the separator between the two windows -- the mode line -- was the same grey as Emacs's normal background, so it wasn't very obvious where the window split was.

A web search turned out lots of different ways to set the mode line color. Many of them involve color themes and are fairly complicated. Here's the simplest method I found:

(set-face-foreground 'modeline "white")
(set-face-background 'modeline "purple")
(set-face-background 'modeline-inactive "light blue")

You can set your active mode line to a pretty color, so it stands out a bit and makes it easy to tell which of the visible windows is the one you're actually typing in, and set the inactive mode lines -- windows that are visible but you arne't actually typing in -- to a less striking color.

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[ 13:50 Jan 02, 2013    More linux/editors | permalink to this entry | comments ]