Monthly Archives: April 2008

Dilbert Goes Inaccessible

It’s been nearly a month since I last looked at any online cartoons. Much to my horror, the Dilbert site has had an alleged ‘upgrade’; whilst some of the new features (user comments, enhanced searches) are a step in the right direction, the main comic is now displayed in some ghastly piece of Flash. Going back to a certain cartoon and then trying to read through up to date is not easy – I can find no link or Flash control for ‘next’ or ‘previous’ so I have had to change the URI of the current cartoon in the location bar to the next one I want to view (thanfully it uses a consistent URI scheme).

Whilst it is very hard for a cartoon to be fully accessible without a text transcript that actually reflects the humour, this latest change to the Dilbert site is now less accessible even to those who could use it before. (There is one comment on one of the cartoons complaining that Flash content is blocked on the poster’s work network so they can no longer read the cartoon at work.)

Hopefully Scott Adams will heed the comments and get something more accessible and standards-compliant implemented. Until that time, the dilbert.com has been awarded a place in my Accessibility Rogues’ Gallery.

Update: Slashdot has this to say on the matter.

Foxy Add-Ons: Tab Mix Plus

I have looked at a lot of Firefox extensions over time. One of the most useful that I have come across of late is Tab Mix Plus.  This extension gives the user vastly more control over tabbed browsing than un-extended Firefox. 

Whilst I have had the standard Firefox settings configured to open all new windows in new tabs, my online banking (ANZ) has persistently opened its logged-in session in a separate Window.  Due to some problems that I have been experiencing with the Fluxbox window manager and xinerama, the banking window inevitably opened very small on my smallest screen.  Not any more!  Now when I log into banking, I get a nice, new tab in my existing window.  That single feature makes Tab Mix Plus worthwhile for me. 

Enter the eyeProd

Preamble

Even though I hail from the Walkman era, until recently, I had never owned a personal/portable music player. I toyed briefly with the MP3 player facility on my mobile phone but found it a shocking piece of software and an absolute pain to use. Back last November, for some reason I cannot recall, my wife decided that she needed a personal MP3 player. After a quick read of some Choice (the Aussie version of ‘Which?’) reviews, it appeared that the most appropriate unit would be the Apple iPod Nano.

We quickly decided that such a device would also take care of my Christmas present, so a his’n’hers pair was ordered. And no, we did not wait until Christmas to open them; our Christmas was actually over by the end of November.

The big worry – are forty-somethings too old for such things?

Small, But Not Fiddly

I was not quite prepared for how small the iPod – or eyeProd as I decided to call them – was. With my less-than-nimble fingers, I was a little concerned as to whether I would be able to operate such a dinky device. However, my fears were ungrounded; the ergonomics of the controls are better than they look although I would have preferred a more tactile interface.

The screen, whilst a tiny 2 inches in diagonal, is clear and bright.

The only aspect that I do find a little fiddly is plugging in the USB cable – I think that the body of my eyeProd may be slightly distorted so there is something of a knack getting it plugged in.

Ear Cruds

Ear bud type phones have never appealed to me; I have fairly small ears and every type I have tried have a tendency to fall out unless I hold my hands over my ears. The Apple ear bud phones were no different in this respect from others of previous experience. Whilst in the right position, the sound quality was suprisingly good. However, having to sit or lie still without breathing was about the only way that I could prevent them from shifting and thus changing the sound.

In my mind, these ‘ear cruds’ detracted somewhat from the overall product so I was little disturbed when fate struck them a fatal blow.

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I was sitting down listening to my eyeProd through my ear cruds when one of the dogs wanted to go out. I stood up and somehow the cord got caught around the dog and eyeProd and all got dragged across the room. Luckily, I keep the eyeProd in a plastic safety-case so no damage was sustained there. However, that was the end of the left channel of the phones. A quick poke around proved them to be anything but maintainer-friendly, so no repair was possible.

Bereft of the Apple phones, I tried my ancient, beloved and much-repaired Yamaha YHD-3’s. Much to my horror, the sound was absolutely ghastly. Fiddling around with the equalisation settings (sadly all presets) on the eyeProd just yielded various different forms of ghastliness – nothing that I would want to listen to. The next test was a pair of recently-acquired Jabra C820s noise-cancelling phones. (I got these for when I really need to concentrate on my work.) The sound from these was consistently boomy, irrespective of EQ setting, but I think that is a characteristic of these phones.

This left me with only one solution – to buy a new set of phones.

Sennheiser – We Make Speakers, Not Computers

A couple of hours Googling and reading reviews persuaded me that the Sennheiser PX200’s were the phones to go for. Whilst I did need to make an EQ tweak (I am using the ‘Acoustic’ setting) on the eyeProd, these phones proved to be a good match.

I suppose that it is inevitable that headphones made by a manufacturer of loudspeakers should sound better than those from a strangely cult-ish computer company. The PX200’s are everything that the Apple ear cruds weren’t: they are the most comfortable over-ear phones I have ever worn (better even than my trusty Yamahas), sound excellent (even when moving), have a property called ‘build-quality’ and look like they are the result of some fairly serious design work.

The PX200’s fold up very cleverly and can be stored in a plastic case which even keeps the cord tidy. The case is very similar in size and appearance to a spectacles case – see the photograph for comparison. Initially, I thought this was just a gimmick but this storage system is very practical and, once again, shows that some fairly serious design went into this product. Insert obligatory comment about German engineering if you will.

eyePrunes – Filling Up the eyeProd

The part of the whole eyeProd thing that makes me unhappy is having to use Apple’s iTunes (or eyePrunes, as I call it) software to get media on and off the device. This software is available only for Windows and (of course) Macintosh, which leaves those of us who use other operating systems rather out in the cold. I think that the main reason for this is DRM – Digital Rights Management. This is the means by which Apple can sell you encrypted music that can’t be shared illegally (unless you decrypt it – also illegally). DRM upsets some people terribly to the point of foaming at the mouth. I don’t really care about DRM myself – I just object to Apple’s monopolistic attitude. I’m surprised that they even condescended to provide a Windows version of eyePrunes.

Having got that minor rant out of the way, I will go on to say that there is software available that will supposedly let you use your eyeProd with Linux, but the one I tried (can’t recall what it was) trashed the database on the eyeProd causing me to have to do a factory reset and then load everything on again.

Until a couple of weeks ago, I was having to reboot my laptop into Windows XP every time that I wanted to add or change anything on my eyeProd. Unfortunately, as the laptop normally runs Linux, which keeps time as UTC rather than local time, the clock on Windows is always incorrect for my timezone as it assumes that the system time (in UTC) is the local time. This means that in a dual-boot situation, the clock on the eyeProd always shows UTC. Having recently deleted the Windows partition from my laptop and installed Windows XP under VMware instead, these issues are things of the past. I can now fire up eyePrunes in the Windows virtual machine – no reboots required and no issues with the clock being out-of-whack.

With the eyePrunes software, one can ‘rip’ CDs (even my modest collection took a fair while to transfer – a friend with a large collection has been at it for a couple of months) or purchase music downloads from Apple.

Buying Music From Apple – the iTunes Store

Through the eyePrunes software, one can search and purchase music directly from Apple. It really is a quick and simple process, given a decent Internet connection. I have started to try to rebuild much of my old music collection that got left in England due to it being on vinyl or cassette (well, the bits I still like, anyway). Purchasing from Apple is not only quicker, but also marginally cheaper than buying CDs. I still have to buy some CDs through Amazon, as some of the more obscure stuff (like early Kraftwerk) simply isn’t available from Apple. Say what you like about the DRM issue, but the eyePrunes Store works for me.

I have a long-held belief that you can only really judge the quality of a vendor or service provider after something has gone wrong. It just so happened that I had purchased the album ‘Foxtrot’ by Genesis from Apple and found a digital ‘blip’ a little way into the first track. (For those who still use vinyl, that’s like a bad scratch.) Using the appropriate mechanism on eyePrunes (another reboot!), I reported this and the very next morning received a very snotty e-mail from Apple along the lines of ‘tough luck, no refunds, read the terms and conditions.’ I wrote back pointing out that I didn’t want a refund, just an uncorrupted copy of my music and that, by the way, we do have such things as consumer laws in Australia. The next mail from Apple was of an altogether different tone, apologising profusely for the first e-mail (I have a mental image of someone at the other end being given a whack round the back of the head a la Basil Fawlty and Manual), refunding the purchase price and giving me some extra credits to use as I wished.

To conclude on this issue, Apple appears to have some excellent customer service staff – I just happened to stike a complete pillock first time round who is now probably cleaning the staff loos rather than being allowed anywhere near the helpdesk again.

Whilst I am more than happy to buy music from Apple, I am delighted to learn that Amazon will be extending its MP3 download service to countries outside the USA later this year (or so they tell me). Competition is a wonderful thing.

Back It Up!

The only option in eyePrunes for backing up ones music is to do so onto CD. No, I can’t find any way to make it work with a writeable DVD and there is no way that I want to be backing up several gigabytes of data onto CDs. My usual way of backing things up – in the Unix world – is using rsync. After some thought, I installed Cygwin on my Windows partition and set up a little shell script that could be invoked through a Windows batch file that would rsync my entire eyePrunes directory onto my file server. It works like a dream, all done over the network, no fiddling with blank media. My article on VMware describes this further, including how I was able to reverse the process to get my old eyePrunes directory onto my new Windows virtual machine. I’m sure that there are other ways to do this, but this works best for me. (Works best when plugged into my Gigabit Ethernet backbone rather than trying to do it over a wireless connection – that’s just a bit slow.)

Conclusion

Whilst I was able to get the bulk of my CD collection into the eyeProd’s 8Gb memory, music purchased from Apple means that I now have somewhat more than will fit on so a certain amount of juggling is required. It was quite impressive when I had all my Wagner operas – including the entire Ring Cycle – on there, but I now have to be a little more selective and only keep stuff on that I am likely to want to listen to before I next plan to plug into the computer. Not that plugging into the computer is the big issue it once was.

Now that I have a decent set of headphones to go with it, I have to say that I am very pleased with my little eyeProd. There are a few issues that I would like to talk to the software interface designers about, but these are things that I have got used to. It sure beats having to lug a laptop everywhere, which was how I listened to music before.

I give the iPod Nano 3rd Generation experience, including iTunes Store but excluding the Apple headphones a Smiffy Score of 8.5 out of 10.

And no, I’m not to old for one of these things.

A Year of Weights

Preamble

Today is just under 3 weeks away from the 27th of April, which will mark one year since I started my Weight Training programme. As the longest that I had ever managed to stick to a programme before was about two months, this is something of a major achievement for me, all the more so when my Chronic Fatigue is factored in. (See my previous articles on Weight Training and Chronic Fatigue.)

Setting Goals, Boring Numbers

My goals have changed in the last year; initially, I just wanted to be able to exercise as I had just spent a couple of months highly incapacitated. Back last August, when I was starting to get into the swing of things, I decided that some specific goal would help keep me motivated. The goal was this: in 1 year, I should be able to perform 8 repetitions of 2 major compound exercises with in excess of my own bodyweight on the bar. The exercises in question were the bench press and the deadlift. At the time, I did not have equipment that would allow me to perform squats with any degree of safety; when I finally acquired my power rack, I added the squat to the list.

Perhaps being a little over-ambitious I then thought that it would be nice if I could reach my goal not by August 2008, but by the end of this month, or a year since I started the programme. If it were not for my bench press, where my set of 8 is currently performed at 85kg, some 20kg short of my bodyweight, I would be there as I have reached the target weight for the deadlift and am well past it with the squat. In a way, I am being helped by the fact that a change of medication has accelerated my decrease in fat mass. However, working against a diminishing bodyweight is probably cheating somewhat, so I have reset my bench press goal to the magic figure of 100kg. Can I get that extra 15kg in 4 months? I’m certainly going to try.

For those exercises where I have passed the target weight, I am now working to the next target of one and a half bodyweights. Once again, with the bodyweight changing, I’ve decided to fix a figure of 150kg, but with no time limit. I know that my beginner’s rapid progress is slowing down, so I don’t want to disappoint myself by setting any unrealistic targets. I am almost certain that – barring accidents – my squat workout weight will be at or past 150kg by August; no further weight targets will be set beyond that as my power rack is only rated to 160kg.

Lifting Weight, Gaining Weight, Losing Weight

Whilst some of the benefits of this year of exercise cannot be measured, changes in body mass can. A quick look back over my records shows that between August last year and March this year, I lost approximately 6.5kg of fat mass and gained 10kg of lean body mass. Much of the fat loss was in the last month or so, due the change in medication that I mentioned earlier. So, a nett gain in body mass, but of the desirable sort. Prior to the changed medication, there was little change in diet other than an increase in protein consumption – lifting weight gained good weight but lost bad weight too.

Subjective Stuff

Benefits of my Year of Weights that cannot be measured include the disappearance of the all-over myalgia (muscle pain) that I used to experience when I became particularly tired. (That’s more tired than normal as opposed to the 24/7 Chronic Fatigue tired.) Heat tolerance does not appear to have improved any; I had a vague hope that it might have done, but am not surprised that it has not. My diabetes has not become any worse; I do not know whether Weight Training has helped this or not, although exercise is certainly indicated in diabetes control through lifestyle.

Motivated? Bored?

Yes, I am still motivated – and enjoying – Weight Training. Boredom is not an issue because as soon as I start to think “oh no, not this routine again”, I change it. Being able to perform some very similar exercises both with free weights and cable makes it even easier to maintain variety. Tomorrow, for about the first time since I started doing squats and deadlifts on the same day, I will be doing deadlifts first, rather than second and I am quite excited at the prospect – but then it doesn’t take much!

Just Do It!

For anyone contemplating taking up Weight Training, I will plagiarise the marketing slogan of a certain sports goods manufacturer (link warning: horrible Flash content): Just Do It! Chronic Fatigue has not prevented me from lifting weights and I am fairly certain that doing so has benefited my condition, too.

Here’s looking forward to another Year of Weights!

The Solstice Clock – Part 1

Preamble

My daily routines tend to be vague, imprecise and are subject to the fragilities of my heath, I am no slave to the clock. (The notable exception to this is when it is time to make the dinner; you can set your watch by it.) Over the last year, however, my fascination with the measurement of time, and the history of the same, has been on the increase.

For several years, I have been disenchanted by some of the artificial, arbitrary and often (to me) pointless aspects of modern, 'Western' timekeeping. Take daylight saving, for instance; I have read the various arguments for it, but have yet to see one which does not have a pertinent counter-argument or that justifies upsetting timekeeping around the globe. The changes in various countries and states are not even synchronous. (The USA and Europe are a couple of weeks apart in their change-over dates. In Australia, the state of Queensland does not even have daylight saving – and good for them, I say.)

A more recent annoyance that has come with my entering the age-group that might be termed 'grumpy old man' is the Gregorian calendar. Follow the link if you want to know more about this – I am not going to repeat at length what is recorded in innumerable places. I concede that the Julian calendar had a year that was a little too long and was getting further and further out of whack with the Tropical year. However, what really makes me grit my teeth is the totally arbitrary (in terms of the Tropical year) start point. The Vernal Equinox (Autumnal Equinox for those of us living in the Southern Hemisphere) tends to be the reference point for the Tropical year, but I can see that this would not fit in with the whole 'Rebirth of the Sun' thing, which would make the Winter (or Summer in the Southern Hemisphere) Solstice the reference point. But no, a point some 10 to 11 days after the Winter Solstice is what we've got to put up with.

Calendars

Let's turn our attention now to calendars in the physical sense. Without any further ranting about the artificial and arbitrary length of the weeks and months of the Gregorian calendar, what does this calendar mean to most of us? Generally, a set of 12 printed pages, broken down into grids so that we can see a correspondence between days of the week and days of the month. This grid may have pre-printed information telling us useful-to-know things like "Moon waxing gibbous" or "Sow mangold-wurzels now!". There may even be space to write our own information like "Wedding anniversary next week", "Wedding anniversary tomorrow", "Wedding anniversary", "Doh, missed it again! In dog house."

If we look at a clock, it tells us what time it is. If we look at the calendar described above, does it tell us what date it is? The answer is no. Despite the fact that calendars that tell you what the date is have been around for quite some time (e.g.: Stonehenge), the ubiquitous paper (or other medium) calendar gives us absolutely no idea of what date it is.

The Importance of Calendars: Food

What events of real importance are indicated by calendars? Irrespective of the calendar system used, the most important thing that I can think of that might be indicated by a calendar is the timings involved in agriculture – the sowing and harvesting of crops, the gestation of livestock, etc. Without these, we have no food. (I suspect that the world population is a little too large for a total reversion to a hunter-gatherer system.)

So, calendars can be of importance, in more widespread terms than the occasional murder due to forgetting one anniversary too many. Our graphic calendars, diaries and almanacs still do not help us know where we are in annual cycle. There are many seasonal indicators that can tell the farmer that it is time to start ploughing (like the snow may have melted so that there is actually ground visible to plough) and – of course – there are always the stars for those who know how to read them, and don't live somewhere that has a permanent overcast. The moon is always a good time-reckoner and many calendars are based on it – you still need a clear sky to watch it though and some way of keeping track of how many moons have passed since event X.

A Clock is a Fast Calendar

As I mentioned earlier, a clock can tell us what time it is. If we take a mechanical clock and add a few more gears (a divide-by-24 from the hour hand shaft), we can make it count days. If months were of a regular length, we could reduce further and have a months dial. Months of irregular lenght may also be dealt with, even for leap years – far more complex mechanics would be involved though.

If we were not concerned about displaying hours and minutes (and possibly seconds) on our mechanical clock, we could turn it into a calendar simply by making it tick slower – much slower.

The Slow Tick

If we take the Tropical year as being 365.24219 to 8 significant figures, we can calculate:

ns = 365.242 x 24 x 60 x 60 = 31556925 = seconds in a tropical year, to 8 significant figures.

If we decided that 12 hours on our clock was to represent a tropical year, we can divide the above number of seconds by the number of 1-second ticks of the clock (assuming that it has a 1-second tick) required to rotate the hands by 12 hours:

nt = number of ticks required to rotate hands by 12 hours = 60 x 60 x 12 = 43200

So, to work out the length of the tick that we would need to rotate the hands once in a Tropical year:

t = ns/nt = 730.48438 seconds, to 8 significant figures.

That means that our Slow Tick would occur roughly ever 12 minutes, 10.5 seconds.

A Tricky Escapement

I will leave it to some clever-clogs to work out how to make a mechanical clock escapement that only ticks every 12-and-a-bit minutes (no down-gearing allowed!)

As I am not particularly interested in modifying a traditional, purely mechanical clock for these purposes, I will look at how an electro-mechanical clock may be used instead.

Quartz clock movements may be obtained cheaply from hobby suppliers. However, entire clocks can be obtained even more cheaply from 'cheap' shops. With the latter, you get a face and a case thrown into the bargain, so have little to do in the way of mechanical construction.

My practical research for this article has so far extended to obtaining and dissecting a quartz clock obtained from a local supermarket for $12 AUD. Once the movement is removed, it looks very much like every other cheap quartz movement that I have seen over the last few years. The drive, contrary to what I suspected, does not consist of a solenoid that is simply pulsed every second with some kind of pawl and ratchet mechanism, but of a cylindrical magnet between the poles of a solenoid that would require a reversing field every second. (If a simple pulse train of fixed polarity were applied, the magnet would move possibly once, then just twitch slightly every time a pulse came along.)

Part 2 details some thoughts on the pulse generator which will drive the Solstice Clock and how it can become more than just a Solstice Clock.