Archive for category Fun

Amsterdam trip report

I recently spent a week in Amsterdam, attending the Novell BrainShare conference there.  This visit to Amsterdam was unlike any I’ve made before: certainly unlike the last one, where I barely made it halfway from the airport to the city and was there for less than 40 hours.

Firstly my arrival was disrupted by the Iceland volcano.  About 45 minutes away from Amsterdam I noticed that the little diamond that represented our destination on the flight-map display had jumped somewhere into western Germany, and the plane’s direction had changed — we were now flying almost due south instead of following the gentle arc that traced almost all the way back to Hong Kong.  About 5 minutes later, the captain announced that due to volcanic ash we had been diverted to Frankfurt: “we’re 40 minutes away from Amsterdam, but they’re closing the airport in 20”.  To the credit of Cathay Pacific, however, they had arrangements for our “connection” to Amsterdam underway before we had landed.  Cathay’s airport manager at FRA boarded the plane almost as soon as the door opened, and made an announcement that we would be bussed to Amsterdam and what the process would be.  Once we made it into the Frankfurt terminal we only had a couple of hours wait before we got to shuffle ourselves to some waiting coaches for our unexpected bus tour of north-west Germany and north Holland.

The bus ride was uneventful — except that I don’t ever tire of seeing fine German automobiles at-speed in their natural habitat: the autobahn.  As it turned out, the whole event actually solved a problem for me: how to fill in the nine hours between arrival at Schiphol and being allowed to check in to the hotel (S thought I was being way too positive when I told her that).  It actually was not an unpleasant way to spend a day post-long-haul-flight.

After catching a train from Schiphol to Centraal, finding my hotel, checking in, and cleaning up from the trip, it was time to get a bit of rest before meeting the rest of the Australian contingent to BrainShare for dinner.  We dined at Restaurant d’Vijff Vlieghen, a fine restaurant that (unbeknown to me beforehand) is one of the best in Amsterdam for traditional Dutch cuisine.  I’m amazed I stayed awake through the five courses, but luckily my travel didn’t catch up with me until I made it back to the hotel.

I had Tuesday pretty-much to myself.  I did quite a bit of walking around, trying to push through the jet-lag.  Early afternoon I walked with a couple of colleagues from Novell to the conference venue to register, and had a late lunch afterward. By late afternoon I realised that I wasn’t over the jet-lag and decided to rest up for the start of the conference.

The next couple of days are a bit of a blur.  Keynotes, demos, technical sessions, product launch parties, beer, food, sunsets after 10pm…  It was an incredible week.  As far as the BrainShare content goes, even though Linux is just a part of the Novell “story” I was never really starved for something interesting.  I enjoyed the demos of SUSE Studio, and learned some things about the High Availability extension for SLES and the Subscription Management Tool.

I had a great time.  The crew from Novell that hosted me were fantastic, and every time I go there I fall a little bit more in love with Amsterdam.

Classic Mac sounds on my mobile phone

We watched WALL-E the other day. A bit of trivia for Apple Mac fans (if you didn’t already know) is that WALL-E’s startup sound — heard when he’s finished his solar recharge — is that of a post-1997 Mac computer (with Steve Jobs on the board of Pixar and Disney, WALL-E was never going to make The Microsoft Sound (: ). Coincidentally, at around the same time as I saw WALL-E I was going through that modern malaise of mobile-phone-alert-tone-taedium… So, inspired by this bit of cinematic crossover coolness, I decided to get some Mac-chime action for my handset.

The first thing was obviously to get hold of the audio file. This turned out to be surprisingly easy, thanks to Google pointing me to a piece of software called MacTracker. MacTracker is actually a reference guide for Apple products (computers all the way back to the Macintosh XL, the MessagePads, printers, displays, even iPods and mice), but part of the information it holds about the computers is their startup and death chimes.

There’s no option in MacTracker to export the audio files, but by opening the app package (“Show Package Contents” in Finder) it’s possible to navigate to where the chime sound files are stored. Then from Finder, all I had to do was zap the file to the phone via Bluetooth. On the phone, opening the Bluetooth message gave me an option to save the “music” file, which I did — this adds the file to the Music Player, but importantly makes it easily selectable in the configuration of the alert tones.

So now when I receive an SMS I hear the death chime of a Macintosh LC, and the startup sound of the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh alerts me to incoming e-mail. I’m going to apply similar configuration to my desktops: on-and-off for the last ten years I’ve been using a Homer Simpson soundbite to advise incoming mail, and it’s a bit tired now…

Next task will be to replace the startup sound on my N810 with something a bit retro-Mac! 🙂

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BOM Radar for Cisco 7970

I’ve written an XML app to display rain radar images from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology on the screen of a graphics-capable Cisco IP phone. It seemed like it would be simple to do, and I couldn’t work out really why no-one had done it. Well it wasn’t hard to do, but I can see now why it hadn’t been done…

While the screen of the 7970 looks nice on it’s own, and is certainly a drastic improvement over the 7940/7960, it doesn’t have the resolution to be able to display anything useful other than text and simple images. The BOM images are 524×564, while the largest image the Cisco can show is 298×168.

Here’s an example of my app in action:


Because the phone’s image viewer can’t scroll a large image I’ve had to scale and crop it, losing a fair amount of detail in the process (I did try just scaling it to fit the entire image, but it was totally useless to view). Plus, one of the key attractions of the BOM radar site is the animated images, and the phone has no way to display animations.

So what do you think, lazyweb? I’ve learned a bit more about coding Cisco XML apps, but other than that have I wasted my time? I will put it up on my Projects site eventually (once I’ve put in some more error handling etc), but let me know with a comment here…

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So I was catching up on the RSS feeds I subscribe to, and came across an article on the latest issue of Full Circle (a magazine about goings-on around Ubuntu Linux). In it I found an article on OpenTTD, an open-source clone of the old 90’s game Transport Tycoon Deluxe. As one who spent many an hour in front of games like Railroad Tycoon in my youth, I had to try it. Unfortunately, I’m hooked…

I’ve been playing the game all night since I found it on Monday afternoon. Sleep seems a distant priority compared to making sure I snag the subsidy for a passenger service from Podlondlington to Nunmubhattan…

It’s easy to install on the Ubuntus, but you do need to obtain the data files from the original CD — the Full Circle article contains instructions on how to do that (or I’m sure the website tells you).

Sure, the graphics don’t measure up to today’s insane system-melting specifications and the isometric view, while state-of-the-art in its day, is at times frustrating (I’m sure there was a control you could use to hide the buildings so you could see behind things… maybe I’m thinking of Lincity). Still, it’s both a great bit of entertainment and a trip down memory lane at the same time. If you’re like me and played with the Tycoon games as a kid, or if you’re a bit of a retrogamer, I encourage you to check it out. Don’t expect to see much of your family for a while though… 🙂


Another big bang

I was using a fitness ball (swiss ball, exercise ball, gym ball, etc) to sit on in the study in lieu of a normal chair.  I have to be honest and say that the experiment wasn’t working for me (it was supposed to get me disciplined to keep straight posture while seated) and I was considering giving up and going back to a chair.  The decision was made for me yesterday when it burst while I was sitting on it.

I’ll admit, it was helped (but not deliberately).  I had bits of PC case lying all over the floor, and I was rolling around to reach something to one side of me[1]…  The ball pushed onto the corner of a CD-ROM drive bracket, hard enough to pierce the rubber.

Before I talk about what inevitably happened next, I need to mention that the manufacturer of the ball labelled it “anti-burst”.  I actually gave this a bit of thought — not to the point of buying an anti-burst type over one that made no such claim, but more that I was intrigued by the thought of what a large rubber sphere filled with air to a sufficient pressure to keep 100+kg of human off the floor was supposed to do when breached if not burst.

Also, just prior to my deciding to start using a gym ball as an office chair I had listened to This Week In Tech Episode 98, “The Big Bang”, in which the show’s host famously, during the episode, experienced a “catastrophic decompression” of his own swiss ball.  In fact, ironically, that event was my inspiration or motivation to use a gym ball (and if you can figure that out for me, I’d appreciate it).

If you listen to that episode (as one poster to the TWiT forums said, “the magic happens at 47:30”) you hear quite a loud explosion as Leo’s ball gives way, followed by impacts of various objects (including Leo himself).  He described it as “my swiss ball exploded”.

My experience was nothing like that!  As I said I was sitting on the ball and rolled toward what I was working on.  I heard the sound of the ball being pierced, and a slight hiss of air — but I was still sitting.  I realised instantly what had happened, but before I could actually move the ball gave way and dropped me to the floor.  About a third to a half a second elapsed between the sound of the puncture and my assumption of a new lower seating position.

Picking myself up, I inspected the carcass of the ball and found a single tear in the rubber that was nearly half the ball’s circumference — the initial hole travelled as the pressurised air was forced through.

So was the ball “anti-burst”?  I’d have to say yes.  It still failed, but not in the way that Leo’s ball went BANG.  There was virtually no sound (other than me hitting the deck of course) and even though I didn’t have enough time to jump off the ball or otherwise avoid the fall, that might just be because I’m on the heavier end of the scale.  Someone lighter may well have put the hole under less stress and caused it to rip later or slower (or maybe not at all).

So if you’re a gym-equipment-for-office-furniture type of person, having lived through the event I’d say definitely get the “anti-burst”.  Sure, it won’t keep you off the floor if it gives way, but it’ll be a smoother ride down.  You’ve probably got more to worry about from possibly hitting your head on the desk as you go down (I reckon I was perilously close to that this time, as I had my back to the desk), or from landing on the tacks your “friends” put out to find out if your gym ball is the anti-burst kind.

Oh and I’m fine, by the way…  😉

[1] Anyone who’s used one of these things as fitness equipment or as office furniture will understand the movements you just pick up like second-nature.  Office-chair users: when you need to talk to your buddy at the next desk, you don’t think twice about turning around and pushing yourself backwards across the floor to reach her do you?  Same kind of thing.


We returned from holiday a little while ago — we spent a week in Melbourne to visit family and friends.  While it wasn’t Nicholas’ first time on a plane, it was the first he was able to get involved in (being a couple of years older than his previous plane rides).

He took to the plane amazingly well.  On the trip down we were ahead of the wings on a 767, and the engines didn’t bother him at all (even at landing).  The trip back we were at the back of a 737, and the noise was a bit louder and he was a little worried but quickly got over it.  He also had no trouble with pressurisation, something that couldn’t be said for me on this trip (a bit of sinus blockage from a cold gave me some trouble coming home).

I’d have to say that the highlight of Nicholas’ trip was TRAMS!  At one stage we were near the corner of Bourke and Swanston Streets in the city, where I’d guess the tram frequency during the day is probably 2-3 per minute in every direction.  Every tram he saw on the whole trip was greeted with a yell of “there’s a tram!”, but in the city it was bordering on delirium — “There’s a tram, and there’s another tram, and ANOTHER tram, and ANOTHER TRAM!!! There’s a brown one!  And there’s a green one!  And there’s ANOTHER brown one!  And there’s a blue one!!!  SO MANY TRAMS!!!”

We also rode on Puffing Billy, and had a couple of train trips on the suburban network, so I think he’s definitely had a good helping of Melbourne rail travel!

While it was good to get away, there were some logistical aspects to what was essentially our first ever proper “family holiday” that we’ll need to work on before we tackle the holiday thing again.  I can’t wait to get back to work and have a rest!  🙂

Holiday time

LIVE from Dicky Beach, Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia, it’s the Crossed Wires Holiday Show!

Jokes aside (particularly at the name of the venue, which is actually named after a shipwreck… oh dear, not getting much better is it) we’re on our “summer” holiday.  Caravanning on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.  Beautiful…  well, after the heat in the van’s canvas annexe… and trying to sleep at night amongst the insects in said annexe, since I’m too tall to fit the beds in the van…

Maybe I’m too used to travelling, especially given the places I visited on holiday twelve months ago.  I’m sure that it’ll do me good to rough-it a little for a while.  Caravanning is something I can generally take only in small doses, so we’ll have to see how I go with ten days straight!  We’re about four days down now, so if you see any headlines about psychopathic laptop-wielding Linux admins going postal north of Brisbane, check back here to see if it was me…

Connectivity for this blog posting comes courtesy of Optus 3G data via my Nokia N70 phone.  Didn’t get the Bluetooth link to the phone quite sorted yet so it’s via USB right now, but having got the PPP config right I can now take it into the Bluetooth mode with a little confidence.

Off to the beach in a minute, hopefully to get some photos of Nicholas going absolutely hog-wild in the surf — he’s loving the beach…  Watching him enjoying the beach so much is well-and-truly making up for the insects at night. 🙂

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More on XBMC — ‘Lets go to the movies!’

My experiences with XBMC are still happy ones.  I’m learning to live with its lockups (usually caused by me making vicious, unprovoked attacks on it by doing things like pressing buttons on the remote)…  No, that’s too harsh 🙂  In seriousness, I’m very impressed — almost as impressed with it as I am with how much disk space I’m going to have to buy if I want to rip my DVD collection to play on it!  (I’m beginning to wonder why I’m entering this in the Fun topic…)

I was explaining to a friend just the other day about how DVD was different to CD.  “Audio CDs,” I said, “are a completely different format to data CDs, which meant that the first CD drives for computrs could not even read music CDs.  With DVDs it’s easier because all DVDs are basically data discs — the ones with movies on just have a special directory layout, and the movie is just simple computer files on the disc.”

What an idiot.  How I regret ever saying anything so stupid!

Over the last week I have tried more than a dozen combinations of software on Mac OS X, Linux and Windows to do the job of getting thosse “simple conputer files” off the DVD and onto my server so that we can view them on XBMC.  First complication is the fact that XBMC currently does not understand DVD menus, and only understands how to read a VIDEO_TS directory if it’s on a physical DVD.  So my first grand plan of simply copying VIDEO_TS to my server was a failure.

Here started my journey into ripping and transcoding.  A journey that has taken me from Mac the Ripper and Handbrake, through drip and quickrip, past countless forum pages and mailing list archives and a side-trip into Forty-Two, to arrive at ffmpegX (Mac) and dvd::rip (Linux).

I almost gave up on dvd::rip when I first set it up.  It has a cluster mode, and I naturally assumed that my Pentium-4 2.4GHz-HT clustered with my dual-Opteron server would make mincemeat of my DVDs (figuratively of course).  Unfortunately the Opteron is not strong on this sort of work (or perhaps the Gentoo ebuilds for the transcode package are not well optimised for AMD64), and the Pentium-4 was held back because it accessed the files over NFS.  That, combined with the fact that I had repeated errors and failed transcodes, drove me back to the Mac.

Not that that’s a bad thing.  Most of the software around is optimised for and benefits greatly from the Altivec engine.  Having a w00ty dual-G5 Power Mac is also a help 😉  Mac the Ripper takes no time at all (well, okay, about 5 minutes) to rip a DVD — maybe a bit longer for a hefty DVD9 — although I do only rip the main feature to save a little time.  Then, using either Handbrake (for simple jobs) or ffmpegX (for better access to tweaking knobs) I make an AVI or MPG out of it.

There are two costs to all of this: 1) time, and 2) storage.

Time: this is actually a double-edged sword.  Not only does it take a sodding-long time to actually do the transcode (luckily you don’t have to sit by it) but I then have to transfer the file to the server, then light up XBMC and give it a test.  Not necessary to watch the whole thing (usually the first minute or so is enough to tell you how far out of sync the audio is).

Storage: I thought that editing Mini-DV and mastering that to DVD takes storage…  There is no way I will rip my whole DVD collection.  Apart from the fact that there are some movies that you just have to watch in original quality (oh, didn’t I mention that?  Yes, transcoding does require you to sacrifice some picture quality, although you do have a little control over just how much you do lose), I can’t justify putting more storage in the server just to watch the occasional movie.

So what will I use this for?  Some things are ideal — I can see the kids videos that get played on endless repeat being done this way.  Nicholas will be able to do it himself without us worrying about DVD drawers and smudges on discs (just have to make sure I can lock out the “educational videos” from his set 😉  And, some things like the Bottom stage shows and episodes that we put on just for a laugh sometimes.  But not Matrix — not in MPEG4, anyways 😉

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New home for Crossed Wires

Having paid for the domain some time ago (got a fully sic deal as well, 5 years for the price of two, or something) I decided to finally do something about it.  So, it’s now the new (official) home of Crossed Wires.

I’m hardly going to submit it to Google or anything like that, but it’s something newsworthy in the life of the site anyway.

From a Linux perspective, I’m using Apache VirtualHost directives so that access to the other stuff I host is not changed (at least that’s the plan).  Over time, I’ll upgrade things and integrate the photo gallery, but one step at a time!