Get off my lawn.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Tedius Maximus

My car was acting up the other day. The "recirc" button on the HVAC panel didn't seem to be doing anything. Toggling it on or off didn't seem to make any difference. It was stuck in "recirc" mode, recirculating stale air, making extra noise, and not working right.

Being a cheapskate, and bored, I decided to check it out and see about fixing it.

Anyway, I started taking pieces out, and testing them. One of the pieces I took out and tested was the little servo that actuates the "fresh vs. recirc" door. Here's a picture of it with the cover off:

There are about 200 gears in there, allowing a tiny motor to turn a little arm on the outside exactly 90 degrees when it's turned "on", and another 90 degrees when you turn it "off". I tested it with a 9V battery, and found that it works fine. So did the wires that connect it.

Another thing I took apart was the HVAC panel itself, to test the switch.

I'm usually puzzled about why cars cost so much. Looking into things like this gives me an idea of where some of the cost comes from. This panel is an intricate piece of engineering, and it's just the little panel that runs the heater and A/C. It's the kind of thing that, when you look at how it works, makes you go "Cool!".

For example, the little buttons on the panel all light up when you turn the lights on. But instead of each of them having a separate light bulb, there's a 7-fingered clear plastic "hand" attached to the circuit board behind the buttons. It sits over two tiny light bulbs on the PCB and carries light from them up to the buttons on the panel. The ends of the "fingers" have a rough texture, which diffuses the light in that spot behind the little icons on the buttons. There's a whole assembly consisting of little springs, plates, hooks, and sliding wedges, that all exist to make one button pop out when a different one on the same panel is pushed. It looks like some kind of amusement park for fleas.

I think it's cool that these intricate little parts are made by the thousands, and every one of them is generally able to cope with the bumps and thumps of everyday life for many years. I don't know if they're made by robots, or people in lab coats, but whatever it is, there's a pretty impressive process in place somewhere that makes it possible.

Anyway, I tested the switch, the motor, the wiring connecting the two, and they all were fine. The culprit: There's a snap-in connector on the back of the HVAC panel that wasn't snapped into place. It basically "fell out" of its hole when I pulled the panel loose. Two of the pins on the end of that connector are the ones connected to the servo. The one that turns the motor "on" was fine, but the one that delivers the "off" signal to it was apparently disconnected. It's snapped in now, and it works. It's somewhat satisfying to push the "recirc" button and watch the little servo going "whirrrrr", opening and closing the door like it's supposed to.

Here's the bad part: I spent probably 3 hours jacking with this thing, and I probably wore out a few million brain cells. All for the ability to push a button and get fresh air! Talk about "high effort, low reward"... Oh well, it's still more fun than corporate IT.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Adventures of the loveable doofus

My dad stopped by this morning. While we were inside visiting, our dog Chief (who was outside) wandered over to the trellis by our deck and made a few changes.

He's normally a pretty good dog. If he picks something up and starts chewing on it, you have to tell him "no", and then he'll leave it alone from then on. I must have forgotten to tell him not to eat parts of the deck. Silly me.

Anyway, he posed for a picture, then I showed him the hole and said "No. Noooooo." He wagged his tail, laid his ears back, and licked his lips regretfully. I'd like to be able to read a dog's thoughts. I'm guessing Chief's were something like this at the time:


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Makes me wonder

Here's a Ferrari F430 Spyder sitting in the parking lot in front of Vince & Associates Clinical Research. I snapped a picture of it while driving by.

What I find interesting about this car is the fact that, with an MSRP of about $225K, it's only one of about 5 cars also driven by the guy that drives it. Let's call him "Vince". In this same parking space (a special carved-out "reserved for the boss"-type of space), I've seen the following over the past 2 months:

  • A red F430 Spyder (just like the yellow one, but not yellow): $225K
  • A black Maserati Quattroporte: $115K
  • A Bentley Continental: $178K
I'm sure the guy probably also has some kind of "beater" that he drives in the winter (probably a Land Rover or something), which brings the total to 5 vehicles. That's a lot of money tied up in cars.

About that parking space: It's off by itself, on the opposite side of the lot from all the others, and close to the door. It's nice and wide, surrounded by grass, and positioned close to the street, apparently to show off whatever's parked in it. One day, I even saw a Mexican kid out there washing the Maserati with a bucket and a sponge. There was a garden hose nearby, so I assume this parking space is also equipped with a spigot for rinsing. If ever there was a parking space that makes a statement, it's this one.

I'm not sure about the statement it makes though. If I were in this guy's position and had a cool car, I would want to be able to see it from my desk. Maybe this guy is the same way, and hadn't thought to put his office in the back and park behind the building. Maybe he doesn't care one way or the other. In any event, he must be cool to like cars like this. But 5 of them? A Mexican washboy? That almost sounds like someone's trying to get attention. "Look at me. I'm hella rich."

Cars like the one above catch my eye. I like 'em. I like the way they look, love the way they sound, and I've seen people driving them that look like they're having the time of their life. So, I want one. But if I ever get to the point where I can actually afford one, I don't think I'll do what "Vince" does. If I do, I hope my friends will tell me I'm being a tool. Otherwise, I'll have to hire a Mexican kid to do it.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


I just had my first taste of working with WebDAV. I'd heard about it several times before, but never had occasion to really use it until today.

WebDAV, for those of you who don't know, is a set of extensions to HTTP that allow collaborative editing and management of resources on the web. Essentially, a read/write web, or a "web file system".

Whenever I've built a web page, website, or whatever in the past, I've always developed it and tested it on one machine, then moved it to the deployment machine, treating the site and its associated resources like the source code to an application. (Actually, if a website allows for manipulation of its content separately from its styling, then it's dynamic and /is/ an application.)

But WebDAV is pretty cool. I can set up a "development" site and let other people in on it for editing. Many people can get in and jack with things in the same area, since WebDAV supports locking, check-in, check-out and other stuff.

One of the best parts is that KDE, the desktop environment on my computer, sort of "natively" knows what to do with WebDAV resources. Point the web browser, for example, to "webdav://sitename/directory", and it opens it up like a folder window. You can treat the files in the folder just like they're sitting on your machine. Edit them, save them, delete them, create new ones, whatever, and then go back to the web browser, and the site is updated. Lots of the tools in the environment (HTML editor, text editor, image editor, etc.) all know about WebDAV.

WebDAV has been around for a long time, so my sitting here ranting about how cool it is surely is a bit lame. I think the thing that has me excited is that it's one of those things where I started this day out not knowing WebDAV from a hole in the ground, and I'm finishing it up as the owner of two machines running WebDAV-enabled Apache installations, a working Java WebDAV client that I wrote, and a desktop environment that natively works with WebDAV resources that I didn't even know I had. I learned a bunch of stuff, did a bunch of work, and got a bunch of free stuff. Kind of hard to beat that.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

iPods on Linux

I'm one of probably 8 people on this earth that uses an iPod, and doesn't use either Windows or a Mac to put music files on it with.

The reason is that Linux, for now, makes a computer do what I want it to do. I just don't like Windows very much, and I don't have a Mac... yet. I might get my wife one, but I'm not about to buy one just so I can get an iPod to work.

iTunes, the software Apple makes to talk to an iPod, comes in a version for Windows, and on the Mac. There is no Linux version.

Fortunately, there are a lot of Linux applications now that can manage iPod files, so I have choices. There's gtkpod, gnu-ipod, banshee, RhythmBox, and amarok. (All of them have really sexy names, as you can readily see.) All of them work on the idea that you have a collection of audio files on your computer that you want to manage, and occasionally copy them to the iPod.

Unfortunately, most of them totally SUCK. I can't stress that enough. They really suck hard.

The first choice, when hunting around for something like this, is gtkpod, because of the "pod" in its name.
It's a GUI application that looks reasonable enough. And conceptually, it sounds simple enough to use. You plug your iPod in, then start gtkpod. It appears on the screen, and you press the "read" button. This reads the iPod's information into gtkpod. The problem is that it doesn't read your iPod when it's empty. What it does is show you an error message saying "The iPod is empty", blah blah blah. Then you tell gtkpod where your music files are. It sits there for 20 minutes reading those from your hard disk, creating a "playlist". That seems to work, but I can't tell from the UI how I'm supposed to select a few of my music files to copy to the iPod. You can press the "sync" button, which will cause gtkpod to dump everything onto the iPod, which in my case is too much. When you click on something other than the "playlist" you just imported from your filesystem, it forgets you ever did anything, and you have to do it all over again. I've used it once before, and when I did, it managed to get files on to the iPod, but not exactly the files I was trying to put there. There seem to be some bugs in its handling of the iPods iTunes database. Gtkpod, like old versions of Rational Rose, MS Excel, and the Gimp, is seemingly designed to turn the nicest of people into serial killers.
Score: Pathetic.

RhythmBox looks nicer, seems to know what an iPod is, and does a pretty decent job of managing music files. But nowhere in the UI is there any indication of exactly how you're supposed to copy files to an iPod. You can drag files into the ipod icon, but it doesn't seem to do anything. Since the online help consists of an "about" box, I'm lost.
Score: Sucks.

Gnu-ipod is a bunch of perl programs you run from the command line. Hello, gnu-ipod? The 80's called. They want their UI back.

Banshee looked promising, until I started it up. It told me "You need to import your music library". Seems reasonable enough, but it only gave me 2 choices: Import from the filesystem, or my home folder. Huh? Talk about casting a wide net. I picked my home folder, and banshee toiled away for 30 minutes looking for music files. Then it disappeared off the screen. They should have called it "crapshee".
Score: Sucks.

Finally, I tried amaroK, a KDE application. Like all KDE applications, amaroK is the GUI equivalent of a pearl-white Escalade with 24" gold spinners and neon lights on the bottom. But the suprising thing about amaroK is that it actually works. It's hard to get used to, because it's filled with weird features that, in conjunction with the blinking lights, tend to be confusing. For example, you open the main window, and it puts up a giant sign that says "This is your playlist", but it's empty. Then you do something in different area of the UI, and suddenly there's a random list of songs in your playlist. AmaroK makes suggestions for stuff to listen to. And every once in awhile, it changes the list of suggestions. It's as if it's saying "Hey, I see you're trying to put a podcast on your iPod. Why don't you listen to some King Crimson instead? No? Well then, you might like Fall Out Boy."

The important thing is, it does a good job of managing the files on my PC, and it does a reliable job of putting them on an iPod. It also does internet radio, podcasts, and other stuff. You can download cover art for albums. You can click on the "Lyrics" tab while a song is playing and it will display the lyrics. You can click on the "Artist" tab and it will display info about the band. This works most of the time. I tried it while "Heat of the Moment" was playing, and got a map of Asia and some text related to agriculture.

Its icon is a blue wolf head. I'm not sure why, but I hope that wolf goes out and kills off the other iPod-related software available for Linux.
Score: Doesn't suck.