Archive for October, 2007

Happy Halloween!

pumpkins

I did the pumpkin on the left. Sori, our Korean homestay student did the pumpkin of Sky (our cat) in the centre. Maki, our Japanese homestay student, did the ghost pumpkin on the right. Unfortunately, Maki’s already returned to Japan, so she doesn’t get to experience Halloween. πŸ™

There’s some houses that go crazy with decorations on Halloween. My mom likes to take students around to look at these houses.

haunted house

This haunted house is in Lynne Valley, North Vancouver. They’ve been doing it for years. It’s so elaborate, with animatronics and lights, you’d think you walked on to a movie set. You can go walk through by (food) donation (very long lines) or you can just drive by, get out and stand and gawk. That’s what we do. Sorry for the poor quality of the photo… it was dusk, and raining, and my hand is not a tripod. πŸ˜›

Oh, almost forgot my annual reminder: Do not go to Fright Night at the PNE. It’s terrible (unless you find plywood and fences scary). Save $20 and go to the Kyllo Manor mentioned above (1920 Casano Drive). It’s at least 100 times better and the donation is for a good cause. Probably need to drive, though.

Microsoft says, “Why can’t Europe be more like South Korea?”

(…In the palm of our hand.)

We often have homestay students from Korea and Japan. I have set up the family computer (Windows XP) with both a Korean and a Japanese account, in case the students need to use a computer and do not have their own. It’s amazing the degree to which Korean content on the Internet completely depends on Microsoft. Every time Korean students are using the computer, their favourite webpage is almost always broken because they require some ActiveX plugin, and their accounts don’t have permission to install such nonsense. I’m reluctant to, as well, after seeing either (some Korean text I do not understand) or some gibberish to the same effect.

Anyway, I’ve always been really curious why Korea seemed so Microsoft centric. Gen Kanai has a couple posts on the topic and they’re incredibly fascinating. Well, I think so.

This nation is a place where Apple Macintosh users cannot bank online, make any purchases online, or interact with any of the nation’s e-government sites online. In fact, Linux users, Mozilla Firefox users and Opera users are also banned from any of these types of transactions because all encrypted communications online in this nation must be done with Active X controls.

Where is this nation?

South Korea.

Due to an early (pre-US-export approval and pre-standardization) adoption of the 128bit SSL encryption protocol, and the death of Netscape, Koreans were left with the single option of Internet Explorer and Active X plugins to do any sensitive transactions on the Internet. This has left Korean Internet content largely inaccessible to other browsers (leading one group to sue the government), and in a funny twist of fate, also prevents (or strongly discourages) the upgrade to Vista (by sheer amounts of work required).

If you’re interested, I recommend reading the posts (1, 2) for more details.

I’ve always been impressed by South Korea’s very accessible high bandwidth, but I certainly don’t envy this.

GNOME Panel / Ubuntu UI Musings

Reading Ubuntu 7.10 Pragmatic Visual Presentation Critique got me thinking about a better way to position applets and launchers on the panels in GNOME.

Imagine if you have locked all your applets and you’re trying to move a new applet to a specific location, you have to first unlock every applet which involves a right click, left click check-box, and repeating this for all locked applets. Once the applets have been unlocked and you have placed your new applet at the desired location, guess what? Time to lock them all again! Right click, left click check-box, right click, left click check-box, you get the idea. A method of locking/unlocking all the applets at the same time seems like a much welcomed option at this time.

I totally agree here. The panel should have a mode, (“layout mode”?) that darkens the rest of the screen so it’s obvious that you’re operating on the panels. Clicking off the Panel will exit this mode. I’m not sure what the best method would be for entering this mode. (An option on the context menu of every item on the panel?) Once in this mode, applets and launchers can be dragged around with the left mouse button. Moving the mouse cursor over an applet or launcher will highlight it with a red outline or something, so it’s obvious what will be moved. There should be a small lock icon below each. Clicking this will toggle the position lock. Speaking from experience, you usually want to do multiple unlock/move/lock actions at once, and with the current interface, it’s rather painful, as the author points out.

A quick mockup (I found an anchor before I found a lock, but an anchor makes sense):

Layout mode mockup

The author also touches on many other things that I don’t really see as big issues. Blurry icons? And he complains about icons not scaling properly with a resized panel. (See here.) For individual launchers, and the volume applet, the icons will scale fine. I’m not convinced scaling the Notification Area icons up would be desirable, as they would take up a lot of extra space and they can appear and disappear frequently, but that might be the user’s desired effect. Maybe an option for the user to say if they want them to scale, wrap, or neither… but all the icons in the notification area should definitely be consistent in behaviour, just as the launcher icons are on the panel.

notification area

Desktop Effects. He says they feel like a hack. I would agree that the defaults are truly terrible (wobbly windows? seriously?) and they certainly aren’t without their problems. As one would expect, they even introduce new defects. But after installing CCSM, and playing around with what’s available, I must confess I like them and I think they add a valuable layer of communication to the user: windows that aren’t responding fading to dark (see pic), new windows sizing and fading into existence, minimized windows flying to their position on the Window List applet (taskbar), desktop panning, zooming anywhere, live thumbnails for every application, etc. I do wish I could enable the one feature of wobbly windows to act as the system bell, and have the window wobble as a visible bell. I really liked that. But I can’t enable that single wobbly windows option without disabling something else I’m currently using. Also, the workspace switcher seems to be broken. I can’t drag windows from workspace to workspace within it.

not responding

Certainly, I agree the preferences menu could be more sensibly organized, but I think the Appearance capplet is great. A reference to the Appearance capplet within the mouse capplet is all that’s needed to improve the discoverability of the mouse cursor icons.

Two About menu items under the main System menu (one for GNOME and one for Ubuntu): they don’t bother me. There’s only four other items on that menu, and these are both important when users are reporting bugs for checking which versions of software they are running. The “Help” launchers are something I never use, and the first things I remove. But for novice users, maybe they’re helpful. I really wonder how often people read the included documentation, though….

Certain types of behavior should be unacceptable where user experience is concerned. It is unacceptable in my opinion for a Linux Distribution to knowingly ship broken Artwork with the distribution.

He’s clearly never used windows. πŸ™‚ In all seriousness, if usable features had to wait on perfect aesthetics before mass deployment, Apple might be the only company releasing anything. In the Open Source world, users are depended upon for everything, including the aesthetics. If the software never gets out, it doesn’t get the attention it needs, bug reports aren’t filed as soon, and relatively stable (and usable) software is dis-serviced by not being allowed to gather the feedback it should. The article itself is a case in point. It’s also worth mentioning that Ubuntu Gutsy is not an LTS release. The Hardy Heron release will be, and that makes it especially important for Gutsy to get as many new features into users’ hands as possible. Linux distributions depend on the community and can’t evolve as effectively behind closed doors.

Hmmm… I suppose this post turned into more of a response to the post on Architect Fantasy (not my original intention), which I found interesting but didn’t agree with everything (which is totally fine).

Wasn’t in my plans, but…

So I haven’t been working too much on PhotoFile, like wanted to, but I haven’t really been unproductive, either. Giving in to my friend’s incessant nagging to play (and thus, set up) UFO2000 on my computer, I updated the Ubuntu set-up guide I wrote on the forums after doing it again with the latest version on both my laptop (Gutsy beta) and my desktop (Feisty). I’ve played a couple games, so far, and they’ve been fun. But it still doesn’t work flawlessly. On my laptop, with default Gutsy settings, ALSA is used to access the audio. UFO2K uses the Allegro game programming library, and it accurately detects and plays sound on my laptop. However, there is a huge memory leak somewhere when running on my laptop (known issue, I think). Luckily, the game is saved on the server, so if you crash, you can log back in and you have the option of resuming the game. Cool.

On the Desktop side of things, there’s no memory leak, but it doesn’t work with the PulseAudio sound server. This irritated me last time I was looking at UFO2K and put me off of it, but this time, I was determined to figure out what the problem was, exactly. First of all, the problem can be resolved by killing the pulseaudio (pulseaudio -k) daemon before launching the game. But that may mess with your existing applications a little and it’s annoying. Good news: I think I found what the problem was. Bad news: I’m not sure when or if it will be fixed, but the developers are at least aware of it and started talking about it.

I don’t normally do much low-level stuff, so I actually learned quite a bit from the debugging. Unfortunately, I don’t have massive amounts of code to show for my efforts, but I’ve learned a lot and a potentially important bug has been well-documented. So it was well worth it. These are some of the things I did when debugging this problem:

  • Communicated with both PulseAudio and Allegro developers on bug trackers, mailing lists, and IRC.
  • Built the Allegro source and used my own custom (debug-enabled) version without disrupting the installed stable version.
  • Attempted to debug using ‘gdb’ mode in emacs, but I was never able to jump into the ALSA specific functions. I think the debugger wasn’t able to trace the threads as they were mapped with pre-processor statements according to the sound driver. I was able to switch to the thread, but the debugger couldn’t find the associated source, which made stepping rather pointless.
  • Eventually giving up on the fancy way, (but content I had learned something) I resorted to good ‘ol printf statements, and was eventually able to find the values (I think) are causing the problems. (Allegro uses unsigned sample formats, and PulseAudio doesn’t support those.)

I must say, using gdb in emacs is much easier than on the command line (but then, maybe ddd or another graphical debugger is nicer still, depending on how often you debug things). Okay, directing my attention back over to PhotoFile…. Or maybe upgrading WordPress…. or maybe…. πŸ™‚

My First Computer was an Amiga

My family’s first real computer was an Amiga 500. I was 6 or 7 years old, and already had a healthy interest (or unhealthy obsession) in computers, at this time. I’m sure I was a big reason why my dad chose to get this device for the family, that Christmas. I remember my brother and I opening two gifts at the same time, and they were computer games… maybe Barbarian and The Faery Tale Adventure… but we didn’t have a computer! Anxious, we were led downstairs to a newly set up computer. I was a very happy boy. We later upgraded to an Amiga 2000 HD. That’s HD for Hard Drive. You know, something you can store stuff on, and leave it on the computer? No need for those troublesome floppy disks! Anyone else remember games coming with 12 disks? Online manuals were unheard of, so a meaty manual was usually included. Computer game (and application) boxes were heavy!

This was some parallax scrolling, baby! (image from lemonamiga.com)

I’ve put countless hours into playing games like The Faery Tale Adventure, Barbarian, Shadow of the Beast, Sinbad, Archon, Deluxe Galaga, R3, Turrican II, and Warlords. I purchased super expensive European Amiga magazines and wondered why the Amiga didn’t catch on in North America. And I was endlessly doodling and creating simple animations in Deluxe Paint (2 and 4)…. So it’s understandable that I have a bit of a soft spot for all things Amiga. πŸ™‚ There’s a very interesting article on the History of Amiga at Ars Technica. If you don’t want to read a lot, go to the last page of the third (and final) part: which I found the most interesting. Here’s an interesting quote describing the engineers bringing their prized prototype to a Consumer Electronics Show in 1984:

Amiga, Inc. didn’t have a lot of money left over for shipping its prototype to the show, and the engineers were understandably nervous about putting such a delicate device through the rigors of commercial package transport. Instead, RJ Mical and Dale Luck purchased an extra airline seat between the two of them and wrapped the fledgling Amiga in pillows for extra security. According to airline regulations, the extra “passenger” required a name on the ticket, so the Lorraine became “Joe Pillow,” and the engineers drew a happy face on the front pillowcase and added a tie! They even tried to get an extra meal for Joe, but the flight attendants refused to feed the already-stuffed passenger.

Also:

  • One of my favourite pieces of Amiga shareware, R3, is now available for full download! Dual screen deathmatch with ships called The Fart! Good times.
  • Apparently, UAE is a very good emulator and many things can be played on it. Even legally! I tried it on windows a while back, but I should give it a go on Linux.
  • Lemon Amiga (links for most games above)
  • Amiga Music (I LOVE Shadow of the Beast and Turrican II music!!)