22 April 2007

Storm clouds

Have had some thunderstorms in the last few days. A few nights ago, I heard thunder, and was surprised to see clear skies when I looked out the window. When I stepped outside for another look, I found that the storm was sneaking up over my roof. Took a couple of pictures, which don't quite do it justice.

storm clouds

storm clouds

08 April 2007

grip, gtkpod, id3lib, grisbi

This is a post about some useful GNU/Linux programs I've recently discovered. I use CentOS, and RPMs for these packages are available from karan and/or DAG.

I bought a Sandisk Sansa MP3 player in late 2005. I don't know how I got through the workday before I did that. I've bought two more since then (a larger storage capacity each time). Sansas basically work like external USB hard drives, making them Linux-friendly: you can just drag-and-drop MP3 files onto them. The Sansa's firmware then reads the files' ID3 tags to display a list of available music (ID3 tags are bits of data in an MP3 file which give the artist name, album name, track title, etc.).

Sansas are not compatible with iTunes, and I haven't tried any of the other online music services--I just rip my own CDs to MP3 files. I use grip to rip the CDs. grip is basically a nice, feature-rich graphical interface to cdparanoia and LAME. It'll connect to a CDDB site (like freedb.org) to download album and artist names and track titles, rip the CD tracks to WAV files, then encode the WAV files as MP3s.

Although I can then just plug in my Sansa and start moving files around, it's nicer to have something to keep my music more organized. I use gtkpod for this. I keep all my music files on my PC, and then periodically change what I've got on the Sansa (the Sansa is 4GB, not large enough to hold my entire library). gtkpod is a nice program for displaying what's on my PC, what's on my Sansa, and changing out files on the MP3 player.

Although grip is pretty good about setting the ID3 tags on the MP3 files, it's not foolproof. The ID3 tags will occasionally have errors or be missing altogether. gtkpod has a feature for changing ID3 tags, but I haven't had much luck with this--it sometimes even causes gtkpod to crash. So I usually just use the command-line utilities in the id3lib package. id3info lists a file's ID3 tags, and id3tag and id3cp can be used to change them.

The last software package I want to mention has nothing to do with music. It's called grisbi, and it's a pretty good personal finance program. Although I've never tried Quicken or Microsoft Money, grisbi is probably pretty comparable. I use it to track my checking account. grisbi lets me define a list of transaction categories, and I can tag a transaction when I enter it. grisbi keeps up with my account balance and has features for bank statement reconciliation. It can also run reports, handle scheduled transactions (for things like automated drafts and deposits), and track multiple accounts. I've found it to be a convenient way of balancing my checkbook (much less error-prone than scribbling in the check register).

e-Voting Update, DST Lameness

This is mostly an update to last week's e-voting rant. The Diebold suit against Massachusetts is still in litigation, but it was dealt three significant setbacks this week:
  1. execution of Massachusetts' contract with Diebold's competitor will not be blocked
  2. Diebold will not be granted an accelerated discovery process
  3. and Massachusetts will be able to view Diebold internal documents
An enlightened judge. How refreshing.

Also, HR 811 is making its way through US Congress. HR 811 is an e-voting reform bill which, among other things, requires a paper trail to be an integral part of any e-voting solution. It also forbids e-voting machines to have wired or wireless Internet connections, and it requires that e-voting software source code be made publicly available. Signs of enlightenment in Congress--also refreshing.

And, to no one's surprise, it looks like the change in Daylight Savings Time accomplished very little other than to annoy computer system administrators. Like me. So much for Congressional enlightenment.

07 April 2007

Alternative Energy Sources

In the past few weeks, I've started reading about the environment and alternative energy sources. I'm starting to see that this is a very complicated issue with potentially far-reaching consequences.

An article came out yesterday which gives a very interesting summary of the current state biofuel production. It's a pretty long article, but I would recommend it to anyone who is interested. It paints a rather grim picture.

According to the article, a significant portion of US government funding into alternative energy is directed at the production of ethanol from corn. Although I'm pleased to see the US government taking an interest in alternative energy, corn-based ethanol is arguably not the best solution. There's probably not enough cropland on Earth to grow enough corn to rival the energy produced by burning fossil fuels. More importantly, using so much corn to generate ethanol takes away (and drives up the price of) an important source of food: this may begin to deprive many people in poor nations of a staple of their diet. I was especially appalled to read this in the article: "...filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV
with pure ethanol requires over 450 pounds of corn -- which contains enough calories to feed one person for a year."

There is also evidence that using corn-based ethanol has only a small benefit over fossil fuels in the creation of greenhouse gases: "The full cycle of the production and use of corn-based ethanol releases less greenhouse gases than does that of gasoline, but only by 12 to 26 percent."

But the US government seems somewhat fixated on corn-based ethanol, due in part to the lobbying efforts of companies like the Archer Daniels Midland Company (adm). I don't like criticizing adm, because they're a big supporter of public television. But they make a lot of money turning corn into ethanol, and they carry a lot of clout in Washington.

The environment has gotten a lot of press lately, and I'm glad that awareness of these issues is increasing. But I'm starting to think that it's just not happening fast enough. I think we should all try to find ways to conserve resources and to help our governments find ways to better prepare for the future. I think the US and Chinese governments should start pouring money into researching and developing solar power, wind energy, and cellulosic biofuels (which is made from wood chips, trash, and other stuff no one wants).

This has turned into more of a rant than I intended, so I'll end with the addresses of a few interesting Web sites I've recently discovered (they all have RSS feeds):

Hopeless RSS Addiction

I have become hopelessly addicted to RSS.

RSS (really simple syndication) is a special data format (called XML) used to provide an alternate way of reading Web site content. Most blogs have RSS feeds, and the blog you're reading now is no exception:


RSS feeds aren't really readable on their own, but they're very powerful if used in an RSS reader. You 'subscribe' to a Web site's feed in your RSS reader, and whenever new content appears on that Web site, it shows up in your RSS reader. The advantage of this is that if you follow a large number of sites with feeds, you can see the updated content of all of them in your RSS reader, rather than having to visit all the sites individually: it's one-stop shopping for all your Web-reading needs.

This is a huge help to me, as I need to monitor lots of Web sites which post information about software updates. Without RSS I'd need to spend a significant portion of each day checking all those Web sites individually for updates. But if I subscribe to their feeds, the announcements just show up in my RSS reader.

This is also useful for keeping track of news Web sites (most of which have RSS feeds).

There are lots of different RSS readers, but they all work more-or-less the same way. You subscribe to a list of feeds in the reader, and the reader periodically checks each feed for new content. When a new item shows up in a feed, the reader displays the new item. If it's a new item on a news Web site, for example, you'll typically see the story's title and an excerpt from the story. The title is likely a link, and clicking the title takes you to the full version of that story on the original Web site. Once you're done looking at the new item, you tell the reader to discard it, and the reader doesn't show you that item any more (just new items). However, many readers allow you to somehow save interesting items, so that you can look at them later.

I've tried several RSS readers over the last year or two. First I tried the Sage Firefox extension. It's pretty cool, but because it's part of your browser configuration, it's only effective on your computer. If you're at a friend's house, even if your friend has Firefox with the Sage extension installed on her computer, her Firefox won't know about your feeds. And even if you subscribe to your feeds on your friend's computer (which may or may not thrill your friend), her computer will display a bunch of items which you've already seen (because her computer doesn't know which ones you've previously read).

The RSS reader in Thunderbird is OK, but it has the same set of problems as Sage: it's configuration and history are stored locally on your computer. So Sage and Thunderbird are fine, as long as you only read RSS feeds on one computer.

In an effort to learn more about RSS (and AJAX), I even wrote my own Web-based RSS reader (I wrote it in Perl w/ CGI::Application, and I used script.aculo.us for the AJAX), and I used that for several months. It ran on my home computer, to which I have a VPN connection from work. So I was able to read my feeds from work or home. While that was a big improvement, it didn't work if I was somewhere other than home or work.

So I recently started using Google Reader, and I think it's a great solution. It's full-featured, in that it lets you categorize your feeds and save items for later (you can 'star' an item), and it's accessible from any computer with an Internet connection. You just point a browser (Firefox, MSIE, whatever) at http://www.google.com/reader/view/, log in, and start reading.

If you need or want to keep track of a large number of Web sites (as long as they have RSS feeds, which unfortunately not all do), I highly recommend using Google Reader. As of this writing, I am using it to keep tabs on 58 Web sites.

01 April 2007


Took some pictures at work the other day. Trees are in bloom, and the colors were pretty impressive. My favorite picture in the set has purple-, brown-, and green-leaf trees in front of a deep blue sky:

trees in bloom

1 April Mayhem

I really hate April Fool's day. Until I remembered the date, I briefly believed a Slastdot post asserting that Mozilla is suing Microsoft for $1.4 billion over tabbed browsing, and I honestly can't decide whether or not to believe a post on The Energy Blog about cars that run on air.

*sigh* It'll be like this all day. Christmas for geeks.