Friday, December 29, 2006

Christmas Cheer

Wow. It's been way too long since I've updated. I'll probably start lots of posts this way.

It was a good Christmas. Looking at the gifts I got this year, I'm beginning to suspect that some of my friends and family think I'm a bit of a geek.

My girlfriend got me a new keyboard, as the cord on my old one was frayed and I had to splice it together. It worked, just looked really ugly with a big wad of electrical tape wrapped around the cord.

She also got me this:

It's a Spudtrooper: Mr. Potatohead working for the Dark Side! She was a little puzzled as to why he was holding a masher, but what else would rebel potatoes fear more?

And like any good minion, he stores his extra equipment in his ass:

Oh, and I got a digital camera and a photo printer from my mother. After fighting for a couple of hours trying to transfer pictures to my computer in KDE, I gave up and tried Gnome. Worked like a charm the first time. I haven't tried the photo printer yet, but I will.

I don't know if this was a KDE thing or an Ubuntu thing this time, but although I love KDE's customization I find it to be a little flaky in a lot of things. It won't detect all my multimedia keys properly while Gnome does, power saving works, sort of, sometimes, and it doesn't always remember what default programs I want it to use.

Looks like I'll be trying Gnome again for a while.

My sister got me an LCD monitor, which is beautiful. I felt really bad, because all I got her was a half tube of used lipstick and a pack of Tic Tacs.

And I swear I won't do this regularly, but I had to take this picture of my stupid cat stuffing himself in a box:

No, he's not jumping into a fishbowl, but I'm sure he would if I had one. Even if it was full of water and fish.

I will be back with other compelling, fascinating posts, so keep tuned.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Free Movies

Lots of free stuff in this post. Free software, free movies, free DVDs. Well almost. You have to supply the DVDs.

The software used in these steps will work for both Windows and Linux users, since most of it is cross-platform. Except where it isn't. But I'll let you know.

First we want to get a movie that we can burn to a DVD. A great source of free, public domain movies is Public Domain Torrents. You will need a bittorrent client to download the movies. For Windows I use uTorrent, in Linux I've started using KTorrent which has a lot of great features. For this example I've chosen to download Night of the Living Dead. It will take a few hours, perhaps overnight or longer, to download a movie depending on your connection speed and the size of the movie.

Once the movie is downloaded we have to convert it to an MPEG2 format that is readable by DVD players. We're going to use Avidemux. In Linux it's probably available in your package manager (it's in the Ubuntu repositories), and there is a Windows version.

Open the movie, select Auto -> DVD, hit Save, and relax for a couple of hours while it converts the movie.

Now the DVD has to be authored, which means we have to add menus and have the file system set up so a DVD player can read the disc.

I had a lot of trouble deciding between different applications for authoring a DVD because there are so many good ones. I decided to focus on DVDStyler because it's easy to use, can create good looking menus, and is cross-platform, so it can work on both Windows and Linux. Oh yeah, and it's free. [Edit: The wxsvg library is now required for Linux users. You can download it from the DVDStyler website.]

Installation is easy. Windows users just download and run the Win32 binary on the download page. Linux users may have it in their package manager. It's not in the Ubuntu repositories, so I downloaded the Debian package and installed it.

For Ubuntu Linux users: Dapper users shouldn't need to change anything, but because I'm running Edgy Eft I did have to change an option in the settings because it kept throwing me an error about "jpegtopnm" [Update: These settings shouldn't have to be changed under Feisty Fawn]. To fix this you have to go to Configuration -> Settings, and in the Core tab change the first line to:

jpegtopnm "$FILE_IN" | ppmtoy4m -n 1 -I t -L $FRAME_RATE -S 420mpeg2 | mpeg2enc -f 8 -b $BITRATE -o "$FILE_OUT" $VIDEO_NORM

Don't worry, it's not as scary as it looks. Just copy and paste it in, you don't have to know what it means.

There are some excellent manuals and a forum to help you get started, but I'll go over the basics.

First thing we are going to do is choose a background for the menu. It comes with a bunch of backgrounds, but you can import your own if you like. Click the Backgrounds tab on the left and select the one you want.

Now select the Directories button on the left and navigate to the directory you saved the converted movie to. Only valid MPEG2 files will be available to select. Select your movie.

Now let's click the Buttons tab. Drag the "button1" image to the right, right click it, and select Properties. Since there is only one video on this disc the only thing we have to change is the button label, and the font if you wish.

Now you can select File -> Burn DVD from the main menu. Select Burn if you want to burn a disc right away, or you can Just Generate the file system or Create ISO Image if you want to burn the DVD with another program such as K3B.

After a few minutes you should be able to watch your shiny new DVD movie.

There are some other great resources for making video DVDs. The Internet Archive is another great source for public domain movies. Files are downloaded directly from their servers, so you don't need a bittorrent client, but sometimes can be slow. The video quality of the movies is also less, but there are a lot of them.

For authoring DVDs there is also DeVeDe which converts and authors the DVD, eliminating the need for a program like Avidemux. It is simple to use and can automatically divide a movie into chapters. It doesn't create menus though, and is only for Linux.

Tovid is another Linux only program that also converts movies and authors DVDs and allows you to create simple menus. I've had occasional weird issues with the sound not syncing. I can correct this by fast forwarding through part of the movie. It may be an issue with my DVD player. Well worth a try.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

New DVD Burner

I was debating on what software to ramble on about for my next post. I'd like to do something that's cross-platform and useful for many people. Firefox is the obvious choice, which is why I'm not going to do it. I may do something on image manipulation.

All that is academic though, because I'm not going to talk about free software my next post. After years of being limited to 700 MB cds and watching video on VCDs I finally got a DVD burner. I'm still experimenting with the best combination of transcoding and authoring software and want to get some screenshots of a video being prepared, so it won't be for another day or two. Or three.

Of course the software I'm using is all free, so I guess I will be talking about free software. I wish it was possible to write about free hardware. Actually, I knew a guy who could get free hardware, but he's doing time right now.

For the record the DVD burner is an LG GSA-H10N 16x Super Multi DVD/CD Rewriter, an inexpensive drive that reads and writes DVD +/- R/RW discs as well as DVD RAM discs. It installed just like any other optical drive, and Ubuntu found it and was able to use it without any hiccups.

I haven't installed or used the Windows software that came with it, but I'll give it a try and let you know how that worked as well.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Free Stuff

I like free stuff. If a task can be completed without dishing out money for an expensive piece of software, I'm all for it. Why spend money on bytes that could be better spent on more important things, like beer?

There is a lot of software available for free. Just like anything else, a lot of it is crap. A lot of free software actually comes with strings attached, like your personal information, ads, or important features that can only be used if you send the author money.

There are some real gems available if you know where to look. Software that is professional quality with no strings attached. Real alternatives to commercial applications.

I will be showcasing some of my favourite free applications, letting you know what I like and don't like about them, and where to get them. Hope you enjoy.

One of the most important apps for any user is the office suite. The most popular suite is, of course, Microsoft Office. It's an excellent application, with lots of wizards and templates to make tasks easier, and more features than any one person could ever need. It also costs a few hundred dollars, and they keep changing their file format every few releases just to remind everyone they have to upgrade to the newest version or risk not being able to read others' documents.

Another excellent office suite is OpenOffice. It is also has lots of wizards and templates, and more features than any one person could ever need. It is available for free, however. And while it has it's own file format, it can also read and save Microsoft Office documents, which means you will still be able to share documents with people who are broke because they've spent all their money on Microsoft Office. It's also multiplatform: it will run on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and FreeBSD.

OpenOffice comes with a word processor called Write, a spread sheet called Calc to replace Excel, presentation software (you know, like Powerpoint) called Impress, and a database application they call Base that replaces Access. There is also a drawing program called Draw.

The wordprocessor does what you would expect a word processor to do: process words. You can also do some neat things, like save your document in Adobe's .pdf format or in Aportisdoc format so you can transfer the file to your Palm device. It has lots of wizards to help with some of the more complex tasks, like mail merge.

The presentation software (called Impress) comes with templates, backgrounds, etc. and starts out with a wizard to help you create your slideshow. It can export your presentation as a Flash file, if you wish, allowing you to post it on the web. It does not come with as much artwork and backgrounds as PowerPoint, but you can download more from the web.

I use the spreadsheet only occasionally, for very basic tasks, but it's served my needs. I've been able to import Microsoft Excel files with no problems, but I understand that some people have had issues with complex Excel files with scripts.

I've never had need for the database, so I won't comment on it.

There are lots of extra templates and artwork available here and at the OpenOffice Extras website as well.

Don't let the fact that it's free fool you. OpenOffice is feature-rich enough for almost any personal or small business use. By not buying Microsoft Office this piece of software will free up money to buy enough beer to keep you drunk at work for a week.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Hot Wax

As sort of a present for my girlfriend I got my chest and stomach waxed last week. I'm not going to get into what would possess me to do such a thing.

I didn't take any pictures, but if you want an idea of how it went watch The 40 Year Old Virgin. I'm not saying it's a great movie, but the depiction of the pain I went through is accurate. I am proud to say I was a little more stoic (I didn't call the woman waxing me nasty names), and I actually finished getting the hair removed.

The woman who did the waxing was actually very sweet. She told me she liked hairy men, and kept apologizing during the process. I think it will be easier for me if next time instead of getting waxed I find a girlfriend that likes hair.


I've been using Ubuntu for a little over a year now, and I haven't been happier with a Linux distribution. I started using Linux with Red Hat 7.2 in about 2002. I moved to Mandrake (now Mandriva) which I used for quite a while, but there always seemed to be something flaky that just didn't work on each release for me. I spent an entire weekend installing just a base system of Gentoo, then another day and a half compiling KDE, then more time compiling... After about a week of that I decided I didn't have the kind of time Gentoo demanded, even though my geek cred would suffer. I'm also administering a Fedora Core 4 server, which I'll have to upgrade soon. I'll probably replace it with Ubuntu 6.06 because of the long (6 years!) support cycle.

Ubuntu has a reputation of being a newbie distro, which is fine with me. It means it's easy to install, maintain, and use. I'm not quite sure why that's a bad thing. There is a huge list of software that can be easily installed, and there is nothing that can't be done with Ubuntu that can be done with any other distribution.

Decided to upgrade my system to Edgy Eft today. Normally I don't wait until the final release of software, installing betas and release candidates. For some reason I've been taking my time though. I hadn't even updated to Firefox 2.0 yet, mostly because I've being Opera lately because of some issues I've been having with Firefox.

I started the install expecting a lot of problems. I opened up a terminal, typed in gksu "update-manager -c" and let 'er rip. After about 2 hours of downloading and installing, I rebooted the system.

After the boot process was finished the nVidia splash screen surprised me by actually appearing, letting me know that my 3D drivers were actually installed and running. After logging in, KDE started up with no problems. KDE 3.5 is looking very pretty too, with lots of neat effects including true transparency of windows. I'm going to install Beryl and see how it looks.

So far everything has gone flawlessly. I'm still expecting trouble, but I'm pretty impressed so far.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Random Nonsense

Been a while since my last post.

Turns out I may not be competent to own a cell phone. My last cell I had put through the laundry after I had it for about three weeks. I dropped my current cell phone in a rain puddle after about a week. It dried out and is working fine, but I definitely need to be more careful.

Had Thanksgiving dinner with my mother and a couple of her friends today. Her one friend has been to England a couple of times and is a self appointed expert on all things English. It doesn't matter what we're talking about, she turns the conversation to England. We talked about KFC, she mentioned KFC in England is terrible, we talked about traffic, she starts talking about the roundabouts in England, we were speaking English, she tells us English is from England. Okay, I made up the last one, but I wouldn't have been surprised. She's a lot like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Without the Windex fetish, though.

Been watching Max Headroom lately. Shame it isn't out on DVD, I'd buy it in a second. Not sure if it's available at the iTunes store as iTunes doesn't work (easily) with Linux. Found it at AOL Television, but you have to have Windows and allow them to install some DRM program to control what you can do with the content.

What I want to do is watch it on my TV. I don't mind paying for it, but don't make it hard to get and limited with what I can do. It's already available for free without any restrictions, why make a crappier version that is difficult for me to get, costs money, and allows you to do less. "Hey buddy, want to buy some air? It's across town, to enter the store you have to wear a Hugo Boss suit, and you can only breath it at home. Three times."

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Cheap Grumpy Bastard

Actually got my cell phone last Tuesday. UPS was reluctant to leave it with a neighbor, so I stayed home from work until it was delivered. I was late by a half hour.

It does what I demand from a phone: sends and receives phone calls. It also has a web browser. The last time I used a cell phone with a web browser a few years ago it was slow, clunky, and damn near useless. It's nice to see that with a few years technical progress the browsers in today's cell phones are still slow, clunky, and damn near useless. Unless you buy a monthly bundle they also charge per page view and per email or IM message sent.

One thing that has improved is the voice dialing. The last phone I had with voice dialing had to be trained. This one needs no training, which is kind of neat. However, it's still a feature I'll never use. It's quicker to use speed dial.

Of course, the phone gives me lots of opportunities to spend more money. They make it easy to download ring tones, which are tremendously overpriced. Why do people pay $2.00 or more for a 15 second snippet of a song, when an entire song costs $0.99 on iTunes? Are the record companies charging a boatload for licensing, or are the wireless companies making a boatload of profit? Both, I would guess.

The phone doesn't come with any games, which is fine with me because cell phone games always suck, but they do offer downloadable games... for a price. They have a weird pricing system. You can buy a game for $4.00, or rent one for 30 days for $3.00. A person who doesn't want to buy a game probably won't be tempted to rent one for a discount of $1.00.

They also offer images starting at $1.50. Why do people buy these things?

I won't have to pay for these extras anyway as I won't use them for the most part. I may try a game or two to test out, but I suspect they'll suck. I find custom ringtones annoying and don't need them. If browsing the web and receiving email wasn't so slow and clunky I might have been tempted to get a package for that. And I don't need to pay for pretty pictures on my phone.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Tribes are in Great Danger

I read the Perry Bible Fellowship every week. Some weeks it's funnier than others (like any comic), but when it's funny, it's really funny.

This week's comic cracked me up.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Ebooks in Linux and Windows

I've owned a Palm OS device in one form or another for a few years now. My first Palm was a Palm m500 that I bought on sale on a whim, without really considering whether or not I had a use for one.

I was a little worried about my girlfriend's reaction, and was sure she was going to give me shit for wasting money. Turns out she loved it. She is very organized and keeps a notebook full of lists of things she needs to accomplish, and thought this would be a good replacement.

When I told her I was worried she would think it was a waste of money she said, "It is for you!" I ended up giving her the Palm and bought a Sony Clie PEG-SJ20 for myself. My girlfriend found she still preferred keeping lists in her notebook, but used it as an address book and for playing games like Bejeweled.

The SJ20 turned out to be perfect for what I eventually ended up using it for: ebooks. The screen, although black and white, was high resolution and very readable even with the backlight on. The m500 screen turned into horrible green-on-black letters with the backlight on, good enough for casual use but not for sustained reading.

I am able to store literally dozens of books on my Palm in a package small enough that I can always have reading material available to me whether I am waiting in line, on the bus, or in bed. My Palm was invaluable when I would go out of town for work.

I found lots of sources for ebooks, but it took me awhile to find ways to be able to read them on my Palm. If an ebook is available in a Palm format it is very easy, but sometimes an ebook has to be converted into a Palm-readable format.

There are lots of different readers for the Palm but I have two that seem to cover everything. I use eReader for books already formatted for that reader. It's a free program, but there's a pro version available with a couple of more bells and whistles. I find the free version does everything I need.

I also use Plucker, which contains a reader that installs on the Palm and desktop software that will convert text or HTML files to Plucker-readable files. It will also allow you to download webpages for later viewing on your Palm. It available for both Linux and Windows.

OpenOffice can read RTF, text, HTML, .doc (Word) and many other formats and save them in Aportisdoc format, which can be read by eReader. Of course, it is also a full featured office suite. Also available for both Linux and Windows.

.lit files are a proprietary Microsoft format that is mostly used with PocketPCs. To be able to read them on my Palm I first run them through the unfortunately acronymed Convert LIT. For Windows I use the freeware ABC Amber LIT Converter. Each of these programs "explodes" the .lit file into HTML and jpg files, which can then be converted with Plucker.

Of course, once the files are ready they have to be transferred to the Palm. I use KPilot, which is a Palm Desktop replacement for Linux. There are others available, but KPilot has been the most reliable and easiest to use for me.

If you have any questions about converting, transferring, or using ebooks with a Palm feel free to contact me through email or the comments. I'll try to help you as best I can.

Work Weirdness

I started a new job almost 6 months ago, and there are still things I find strange that I am going to have to get used to.

For the most part the people are friendly. Really friendly. Almost too friendly. When I go on a coffee break or lunch I usually prefer to sit by myself and read a book, unless I happen to get my break at the same time as someone I know and like.

Point is, I'll be sitting by myself reading, and very often someone I barely know will sit down across from me and start a conversation. I don't think most people who know me would consider me to be unfriendly, but I would really rather read than try to keep up my end of a conversation with a stranger.

I've never really been good with small talk. I can do the basics like talk about the weather or complain about work, but I don't really enjoy it. I couldn't care less about sports, and that leaves a big gaping hole in my small-talk reportoire, but it doesn't seem to really matter. Sports fans are like religious nuts, they don't care if you care, they just want to keep talking about their favourite team, or favourite god, or something. I'm sure I could get the simile to work if I tried a little harder. Could probably offend less people too.

I got a promotion recently, and everyone seemed to know about it. My promotion wasn't posted anywhere, it just got around by word of mouth for some reason. People I didn't know were congratulating me and asking how I liked my new position. Although I was flattered, I found it a little creepy at the same time.

It sounds like I'm whining: "Boo hoo! All the people here are too nice!" I like the people I work with, and need to stop being such a curmudgeon.

My workplace is also unionized. I've never belonged to a union before. Each position has a set wage, which means I'm working next to people who have been there for years and yet I'm making exactly as much money as they are. It doesn't feel quite right to me, and yet I still accept my paycheque every two weeks.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Playlist Cheese

I had set up Kopete, the instant message program I use for, well, instant messaging, to display the music I was listening to.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, until it became apparent that my playlist is way too cheesy to announce publicly. Having it revealed that I have Technotronic on my computer is just way too embarrassing. So far nobody has found out about my secret collection of Roger Whittaker, but I'm not going to take any chances.

Disabling that feature hasn't saved me from embarrassment, though. I had my iPod on when I came in to work today, and somebody asked me what I was listening to. I'm about 6' 4" tall, and just shy of 300 pounds. I couldn't tell her I was listening to Frou Frou. I told her I was listening to Satan's Hate Squad. She looked at me oddly and walked away nervously. No, that didn't really happen. I told her I was listening to Frou Frou. She looked at me oddly and walked away nervously.

Exceeded Expectations... So Far

Telus has really surprised me. When I signed up for a cell phone plan I was told I would get an email confirming delivery of the phone within 3-5 days. "Right," I thought, "I'll believe that when I see it." The reason for that thought was a terrible experience I had with them when trying to get internet access, a story I may share another time.

I received an email on Thursday letting me know that it was being shipped. I was mildly surprised, as that was only 4 days after I ordered it. I expected to actually receive it next week. Early next week was the hope, but I wasn't holding my breath.

Got home from work today to find that UPS had attempted delivery of the phone, and that they'll try again on Monday. Well, colour me surprised. And on Monday I don't start work until 4:00 PM, so I should even be home when they try.

I'm spending a lot of time writing about a stupid cell phone I don't even have yet, but right now that's the big event in my life. Sort of sad.
Finally decided to get a cell phone with a monthly plan. Up until now, I've mostly had pay-as-you-go phones for personal use. It has actually worked out cheaper for me because I don't do a lot of talking on the phone; I give out my cell number to only a few people and don't do a lot of chatting.

I used to be required to have a cell phone for work, and I think that explains why I have sort of an aversion to them. At one point it was possible that I would have my work cell, the on-call cell, a pager in case they couldn't get a hold of me on either cell, and a personal cell. That's 3 cells and a pager, for one person. I still cringe whenever I hear the ringtone of my old work cell.

I've been cell phoneless for about a month now, ever since I ran my last one through the laundry. And I only had it for about 3 weeks. I should really buy big, brick-like, Soviet era military surplus cell phones so they are more noticeable in pants pockets.

Frankly, the real reason I've decided I need to get a cell again is that I'm playing around with Asterisk (an extremely powerful PBX telephony package, which doesn't begin to describe what it can really do) and I've found it a little difficult to tell if what I'm doing is working if I can't call it. I can't call from my home phone because the Asterisk system is connected to it.

I decided I wanted a camera phone this time. Don't need one, just think it would be handy to have a device that could take a really bad picture of some random boring event while I'm talking. Then I could send it to everyone I know.

I didn't like my options for a camera phone in pay-as-you-go world. Virgin Mobile had a decently priced camera phone, but if you want to transfer the pictures to your computer you have to upload them to a website for 50 cents a picture. I'm not interested in having the pictures that are stored on my phone held for ransom.

Bell Mobility had a decently priced PAYG plan and a good selection of phones, but the phones were all more expensive than I wanted to pay. It looks like they aren't willing to subsidize the price of phones for PAYG plans in the hopes of recovering the cost later.

I finally went with a basic monthly package from Telus. With a one year contract I was able to get a free camera phone. I got an email from them today letting me know that it is being shipped, so I'll find out exactly how good a free camera phone is early next week, I guess.

Monday, September 18, 2006

This is not a geek's blog. Not entirely. While I do, perhaps, have some geekish tendencies like running Linux, a fondness for gadgets (but not a budget for them), an interest in science fiction literature and movies, and a deep like for science and technology, I have a lot of non-geek interests and characteristics.

For instance: My job is not in any way related to anything tech-related, I have a girlfriend, and I play Dungeons and Dragons. Just kidding. I haven't played that for a couple of years.

I don't watch a lot of TV. I only watch two shows regularly: House MD, which I got hooked on through my sister, and Battlestar Galactica. I will also catch My Name is Earl, Family Guy, and Dr. Who on occasion. I watched The IT Crowd when it was on, and would love to see more.

Point is that there probably won't be many TV reviews, although I've sort of been roped into discussions on certain episodes.

There will be philosophical discussions, manifestos, rants, and gratuitous use of words like "concordantly" and "ipso facto".

That's about enough for a post with no actual content. It's 4 AM, and time I went to bed. Thanks for reading.