Happy “Cheap Peeps Day”, Everyone!

No, no, don’t panic, this isn’t another “all manner of strange things involving Marshmallow Peeps®” post, even though I can’t help thinking of the day after Easter as “Cheap Peeps Day”.

Today’s not a bad day. I got new glasses again – the replacements for the defective lenses finally showed up today. Sadly, the new right-side lens has the same kind of “fine stress-cracks” defect as the previous lenses, but at least it’s only one lens, and this time is much less severe. They’re still a big improvement on my old glasses, and I can wear them while they order a replacement lens again.

picture of an Asus EEE PC 901 Linux netbookPlus, I may have located my new netbook. Commenters here (thanks defcronyke and TomJoe!) had praise for the original Linux Netbook manufacturer, Asus. I’m currently drooling at the EEE PC 901. It’s $10 more than the Sylania G Meso that I wanted but couldn’t find actually in stock anywhere (they were supposedly available a few days ago, so I’m guessing they’re just very popular, and sold out very quickly. [YOU HEAR THAT, RETAILERS?!?!?]). However, along with that extra $10 it comes with built-in bluetooth (Hooray – bluetooth tethering, chan_mobile, and the Bluetooth GPS units I have will be useful!), RAM that can be upgraded without the warranty-voiding case-cracking required to upgrade the Sylvania G Meso, and a bigger, longer-lasting battery pack. Plus, it’s actually in stock at least at Amazon.com. They even have it in the less-likely-to-warp-if-I-accidentally-leave-it-in-front-of-a-sunny-window plain white color I wanted.

I’ve still got a little bit of reluctance to switch to a “solid-state” flash-memory drive rather than an old-school mechanical one – they have less capacity, and more importantly each individual sector on a Solid-State Drive wears out and stops working after it’s written to for a certain number of times. Internally, the solid-state drives are supposed to do some behind-the-scenes tricks to spread disk writes around so that the same sectors aren’t constantly being re-written (“wear leveling”), so supposedly the modern drives should last at least around 5 years of “typical use”. Still, that means I probably wouldn’t want to run Gentoo on it – compiling involves lots of temporary file write-and-delete cycles. Oh, well – I’ve been wanting an excuse to try out Arch Linux anyway. It appears to have the same “rolling release” methodology that Gentoo does, with a decent package manager and yet the same kind of ability to custom-compile packages elsewhere to install that Slackware’s “SlackBuild” system enables, so I could still do the “compile just the features I want, optimized for the Atom processor and for minimum size” sort of trick that I could do with Gentoo.

Application of what I like to call “Intentional Computing” philosophy ought to be able to turn a machine like this into a potent portable premium performance powerhouse of…um…something beginning with “p”.

Anyway, I think the only other route I’d consider for getting a Linux netbook would be a Dell Mini 9, which is on sale right now ($50 off). However, it’d still take what appears to be one to three weeks to actually get the machine into my impatient nerd-hands from Dell, and features equivalent to the EEE PC 901 look like they’d still cost about $100 more (at least) from Dell, even with the sale going on.

Any thoughts before I commit myself*?

*– Yes, I know that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Most of them probably apply anyway, though, so I don’t care…

SHENANIGANS! It’s a freakin’ anti-Linux conspiracy…

My last post mentioned that I’m actually in the market for a much-needed Linux netbook. My problem is that the combination of FUD and bribery (“we’ll give you a huge discount AND continue paying you to put up the ‘[company] recommends Microsoft’ advertisements on your website!”) seems to have killed off my choices at the retail level (all Microsoft), and perhaps has made it difficult to even order online.

Dell and HP take almost two weeks (“estimated”) to get me a Linux netbook, and I’d rather not wait that long. I thought perhaps the stock Sylvania G Meso, which seems to be getting very good reviews for the price, might be something I could at least order and get within a few days. However…nobody online seems to stock them either, unless they charge an extra $100 for them.

Here’s the query I just sent to Sylvania Computers (now known as “Digital Gadgets”):

I’m having a great deal of trouble actually finding what I want: your Sylvania G Meso with Ubuntu.

Of your “Where to buy” links:

  • MicroCenter” only carries the “Magni Elite” rather than the G Meso, and only with Microsoft Windows.
  • DataVision” wants $100 extra for the one color (yellow) that is actually in stock (the others, including those at the correct $269 price, are “pre-order”).
  • RCSNet only has the “XP” version in stock for the extra $30 – the others are “pre-order” (correction – I missed that they claim to have one color – “pink” – actually in stock).
  • Amazon.com lists the model that I want, but says “Usually ships in 1-2 MONTHS

Does anyone actually stock the $269 Ubuntu Sylvania G Meso?

A second question, less urgent: I would have preferred to be able to upgrade to 2GB of RAM (without voiding the warranty) – will this be possible in the near future?

P.S. you might want to put a redirect on “sylvaniacomputers.com” to “digitalgadgets.com” – a lot of the laudatory articles about the Ubuntu Sylvania G Meso still link to “sylvaniacomputers.com”.


At this point, I’m seriously considering offering to drive to Dell’s corporate headquarters (about 3-4 hours drive from here) next weekend to pick up a Mini 9 even if I have to assemble the freakin’ thing myself in their waiting room rather than wait for their factory to get around to it, if it’ll get me a functional netbook within a week.

Otherwise, perhaps being sufficiently secure in my masculinity to order a pink netbook (and a can of spray-paint? A coating of “magnetic”, “chalkboard”, or “dry-erase marker” enamel might be fun) may be my only chance of getting a Linux netbook in a decent time-frame.

The alternative is to pay the Microsoft tax and get a retail unit, then upgrade it to Linux and try to get a tax refund (while Microsoft continues bragging that in “brick and mortar” stores where there seem to be absolutely no Linux boxes, Linux only sells 1 out of 20 netbooks*…). No waiting, and I can just take it back and exchange it if the hardware’s defective. Somebody please talk me out of this last option…

* What impresses me is that we’re talking about a study Microsoft bought, that looks at a market that seems to actually stock near 0% Linux netbooks, and even there Linux still makes up one in twenty sales…

I ♥ the Minister of Domestic Affairs

The Minister of Domestic Affairs has given the go-ahead to find myself a netbook to take the place of my gigantic beast of an aging laptop. Now I just have to figure out which one to go for.

A white 'Sylvania G Meso' netbookI’ve got the selection narrowed down to four possibilities. Irritatingly, I cannot seem to find Linux-based netbooks in retail outlets thus far. I tend to prefer to get things like this retail, so that if I start them up and find they’re defective (or if they die in the first few days), I can just take it back and exchange it, rather than calling some call-center halfway around the globe, sitting on hold for an hour, dealing with some schmuck going through the “did you plug it in? Did you turn it on?” script, finally getting an RMA#, and then paying to ship the thing back and being without a computer for 2-4 weeks until the replacement arrives.

Currently, my first choice is the Sylvania G Meso Linux version, which seems to be a very good value and is well-supported by Linux – plus for a computer that I have to order, I should be able to get it shipped quickly. My second and third choices would be either a Dell Mini 9 or HP Mini 1110NR. Those give me more customization options (and the HP keyboard is perhaps one of the most usable “small netbook” ones), but Dell and HP would take almost 2 weeks after taking my money to finally get the thing assembled and sent to me.

The last option would be to go to Wal-Mart® or similar cheap-electronics place and get an Acer Aspire One crippled with a “Windows XP Home” OS, and take it home in a lead-lined box until it can be overwritten with a real OS (and then perhaps argue with Acer about getting a refund for the unused and unwanted Windows license.).

Some people probably think I’m insane for wanting a tiny little netbook (and I do specifically want the smallest netbook I can reasonably use – I’ll actually take the 8.9″ version over the 10″ version) to replace a laptop. Thing is, Intel Atom 270N-based netbooks should be somewhat better-performing than my old full-size laptop with its old “Turion 64 ML-30” processor (same clock speed as the Atom, with less than half the bus speed and an order of magnitude higher power consumption…) and will have a much better-supported graphics chipset. My view of Google Earth might be a bit more constrained than on my big 1280×768 giganto-laptop screen, but it ought to be smoother…

Anybody have any suggestions? The actual distribution of Linux that it comes with is essentially irrelevant, as I’ll almost certainly replace it with either Gentoo (if it has a large, standard hard drive) or Arch (if it has a solid-state drive).

Another Asterisk post to follow, later, too. Keep watching…

Woe is me (some more)

We’re back from our all too short stress-management vacate-shun. I’m chronically underslept (indeed, I ought to be in bed right now) and now I think I’m coming down with a generic Obnoxious Respiratory Ailment for the third time in as many months, which is extremely unusual for me, and which I definitely Do Not Want. Also, it turns out that as usual, Motorola cellphones are crippled. My Razr V3 apparently doesn’t allow applications to access the camera, so there’s no way for me to cram a functional datamatrix barcode decoder onto it. And the built-in wireless networking in Igor (my venerable 3½-year-old laptop) appears to have died…

I need a new cellphone. And a microscope. And a “netbook”. And a digital camera that handles low-light conditions and close-ups better. (And a pony?…) Still, things aren’t all bad, for all my whining.

A DataMatrix barcode painted in watercolors...I did manage to get some interesting pictures on the trip, at least, along with GPS tracks for geolocation purposes. Also, wine jelly and interesting spices from generous family members we were visiting, and even some avocado honey from a little roadside produce stand on the way back to the train station for the trip back.

I’m going to bed now. Hopefully after work tomorrow or this weekend I’ll be putting up another post (and start posting more often again). Anybody want to see pictures of oil and rocks from JelloLlamaJalama Beach, or the majestic Los Angeles River?

A cheap techno-toy concept to distract me from my woes…

A DataMatrix barcode with a 'secret' message...It’s been a relatively awful month here, to tell the truth, but we’re still hanging on so far. Hopefully things will improve soon. In the meantime, I’m having as much fun as I can get away with without spending any real money. Mining old patents for interesting gadgets and ideas, for example…did you know that Google has a US Patent search? And unlike the USPTO, you can actually get a PDF of old patents, not just try to view them as “TIFF” images in a plugin that you may or may not have for your browser and may or may not even work if you do…However, my quest for old designs for industrial brewing equipment and ozone generators is not the subject of this particular post.

One thing I find I like to do for fun with my computer is sort of the opposite of what most people seem to do for fun with their computers. Most people seem to treat their computers as grossly overpriced video-game devices, whose main purpose is to connect people to fake worlds to interact with. “Computer games”. Bah. Humbug. The computer is the game, boys and girls. I like to instead find ways to connect my computer to the real world. I suppose that’s where I get my interest in neogeography, and Asterisk, and home automation (which I’ve only dabbled with but still fascinates me), and so forth.

My latest discovery of a cheap real-world/computer interface is barcodes.

More specifically, I’ve discovered that there’s finally a working project that lets me read and write Data Matrix barcodes. I ran into the project when it was mentioned in the
“New Projects” section of the March 2009 “Linux Journal”
(you won’t be able to actually read the article at the link unless you’re either a subscriber, or you wait until they finally open it to the public, though you might also find a copy of the magazine at the bookstore). The actual project in question is libdmtx, and they provide some basic software for generating and, more importantly, decoding these barcodes, which means I can finally actually play with them myself.

There’s an irritating “functional fixedness” issue with these barcodes. There’s an implicit assumption that they are only for one of two things – either they are for inventory tracking (i.e. they encode serial numbers or some proprietary equivalent), which renders them essentially meaningless for anyone but the entity doing the tracking, or they may be used like the QRCode barcodes popular in Japan, which are usually assumed to be used specifically to encode a company’s website URL for “consumers” to decode with their cellphone cameras. Again: Humbug! “Consumers” can go conjugate themselves. “Consumers” are the screwups who made it possible to destroy the world economy, pollute the planet, and make vampire crap a popular “mainstream” genre. No, it’s time we paid a little less attention to catering to “consumers” and gave some love to “participants” instead.

See, both Data Matrix and QRCode barcodes can encode up to a kilobyte or so worth of any kind of data, which might then be stuck in just about any kind of place where someone might see it and take a picture of it (either for immediate decoding or for later).

If this sounds familiar to you, it may be that you remember hearing about a “Hobo Code“, which wandering homeless folks might use to encode visual messages for others with small pictograms. The catch is that since in that context you have to be able to keep the entire “dictionary” of what each symbol means in your head, you’re kind of limited to a small number of specific messages. On the other hand, one ought to be able to hypothetically cram a couple of SMS/”Twitter”-sized messages into a pattern of dots not much bigger than a postage stamp…or conversely stomped out on a giant scale in a wheat field like an especially nerdy “crop circle” just in time for Google Maps’ latest satellite imagery update.

I happened to be at an office-supply store today and was kind of surprised at the variety of things are now available to be shoved through a laser printer. Not only greeting cards and mailing labels, but a variety of self-adhesive and even refrigerator-magnet sheets. I saw they even had blank bumper stickers. Never mind serial numbers and “consumers” websites – you could stick all kinds of messages in all kinds of places with this.

A tip or warning for future diners at a restaurant (“Ask for ‘Chef Special #3’, it’s not on the menu but it’s great!” or “be nice to the waitress or the chef will spit in your food” for example) might be encoded on a small sticker or card and hidden underneath the table. You might encode your personal website URL or just a friendly greeting to be stuck to the inside cover of a Bookscrossing book along with it’s ID number. You might encode a time and place for a meeting as a geostring on printed on little magnetic squares to for members of the Secret Society (or Linux Users’ Group?) that you belong to, or to be included as an “album art” image in the metadata of a geolocated sound or video recording. You might compose original short poems or haiku and leave them in random business-card racks for the bemusement of technically-inclined strangers…

I think the stress must be getting to me, because it’s usually about this point in my thought processes that in a corner of my brain a voice pipes up, saying “What the hell’s wrong with you? This doesn’t sound like you at all! You’re starting to sound like one of those artsy-fartsy techno neo-hippies that gather at things like Burning Man or guest-post at BoingBoing, babbling about nerdy art projects and ‘culture’!”. Then another corner pipes up with “Hey, it might be kind of fun to go to Burning Man one of these years”, and then another pops up with “I like pie!” and everything erupts in chaos. Next thing I know, some indeterminate amount of time has gone by without me noticing and I suddenly realize I’m dangling from a rope over a highway wearing nothing but a pair of SpiderMan™ underpants and a thick coating of cocoa butter, still clutching a handful of LED “Throwies” and looking down at the nice folks offering me a nice warm jacket with extra-long wraparound sleeves…

But I feel MUCH better now…

Am I insane, or can any of you think of other uses for this? Or is that not an “or” question?…

Perhaps a cute picture will distract everyone…

Banshee the Catlet, in a bent/twisted pose

The Apprenticing Lab Rat went and tagged me with a meme…I’m almost done with it, but I’m being alerted by my Minister of Domestic Affairs that it’s bedtime. Also, I still have to get more audio recorded to assemble a worthwhile next episode of Stir-Fried Random for the two or so people who listen to it (if you’d like to help, I’m taking questions and/or suggestions for topics in the comments…). I’m planning to do a segment on my “Giant’s Shoulder’s” submission for this month regarding Lactic Fermentation, and some bits about what I want for christmas (surely at least 75% of The Internet wants to hear about that…), but obviously that’s insufficient…

Hopefully the picture of the Bendycat will keep everyone making “Awww, how cute” noises and distract you all until I have time to post tomorrow…

(Why is “mnemonic” such a hard word to remember, anyway?…)

Stir-Fried Random Ep 02:Sex, Violence, and Cinnamon Bears, y’all!

Only about five more days until the next “Giant’s Shoulders” blog carnival. I still need to pick a paper. ARGH!
(UPDATE 20081126: I’ve removed the embedded flash player – it seems to ignore me when I explicitly tell it NOT to automatically start playing rather than waiting until you intentionally hit “play”. Sorry for anyone annoyed by the autoplay. The embedded player will not return until I solve this.)

Meanwhile, here’s this week’s episode of “Stir-Fried Random”, weighing in at a MASSIVE 12 WHOLE MINUTES or so. As before, there’s an “<audio>” tag pointing directly at the Ogg Vorbis audio for those of you running a beta of the Firefox 3.1 series, a recent version of Opera, or (I believe) the current Safari on a system with the Ogg Vorbis Quicktime component installed. There is also the usual embedded Flash®-based mp3 player and direct download links for both versions.

Somebody please let me know if I’m making a fool of myself here… Anyway, here are the show notes:
Continue reading Stir-Fried Random Ep 02:Sex, Violence, and Cinnamon Bears, y’all!

Aqua-pedestrianism and Ice Cream Yeast

A teaser image from the interactive map below...Today’s batch of blog-based Stir-Fried Random includes another interactive map of a lake-spanking expedition, a very brief musing on search engines, and a return to “intentional food microbiology” discussion. To preview: you can get pizza without ever getting out of the water on Lake Conroe, “spanking” is amusingly popular for search engines, and no, there is not normally any yeast in ice cream, but perhaps there could be. Read on, please…

Continue reading Aqua-pedestrianism and Ice Cream Yeast

SHENANIGANS! Caffeine is our FRIEND!

Our new Asylum has real internet finally now and we’re getting settled in. The Houston area here is one of the most hot and humid areas of the US. All hot and sweaty. So of course I’ve been advised that my favorite psychotropic substance – 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine [“caffeine” for party-poopers who aren’t into the fancier names] – is no longer my friend, because it’s a diuretic that’ll dehydrate me, right?

NO! Shenanigans! Caffeine is our FRIEND! And that stuff about it being a diuretic? CRAP! LIES AND SLANDER!

But don’t just take my word for it. After all, humans are a bunch of freakish multicellular soft-celled eukaryotes, and I normally focus on normal organisms like bacteria, archaea, and yeasts. So, let’s ask some real human-physiology type scientists and check out their official peer-reviewed findings:

Armstrong LE, Pumerantz AC, Roti MW, Judelson DA, Watson G, Dias JC, Sokmen B, Casa DJ, Maresh CM, Lieberman H, Kellogg M: “Fluid, electrolyte, and renal indices of hydration during 11 days of controlled caffeine consumption.”; Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2005 Jun;15(3):252-65.

“[…]The following variables were unaffected (P > 0.05) by different caffeine doses on days 1, 3, 6, 9, and 11 and were within normal clinical ranges: body mass, urine osmolality, urine specific gravity, urine color, 24-h urine volume, 24-h Na+ and K+ excretion, 24-h creatinine, blood urea nitrogen, serum Na+ and K+, serum osmolality, hematocrit, and total plasma protein. Therefore, C0, C3, and C6 exhibited no evidence of hypohydration.[…]”

Abstract on Pubmed

Armstrong LE, Casa DJ, Maresh CM, Ganio MS: “Caffeine, fluid-electrolyte balance, temperature regulation, and exercise-heat tolerance.” Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2007 Jul;35(3):135-40.

“[…]This review, contrary to popular beliefs, proposes that caffeine consumption does not result in the following: (a) water-electrolyte imbalances or hyperthermia and (b) reduced exercise-heat tolerance.”

(Review article, apparently – Abstract on Pubmed)

Del Coso J, Estevez E, Mora-Rodriguez R: “Caffeine effects on short-term performance during prolonged exercise in the heat.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Apr;40(4):744-51.

“[…]RESULTS: Without fluid replacement (NF and NF + CAFF), subjects were dehydrated by 3.8 +/- 0.3%[…]CONCLUSION: During prolonged exercise in the heat, caffeine ingestion (6 mg.kg body weight) maintains MVC and increases PMAX despite dehydration and hyperthermia. When combined with water and carbohydrate, caffeine ingestion increases maximal leg force by increasing VA (i.e., reducing central fatigue).”

(“NF” = “No Fluid replacement” – the “dehydration” mentioned here is due to exercising in the heat, and doesn’t appear to be related to whether the test subjects consumed caffeine or not)

Abstract on Pubmed

Scott D, Rycroft JA, Aspen J, Chapman C, Brown B:”The effect of drinking tea at high altitude on hydration status and mood.” Eur J Appl Physiol. 2004 Apr;91(4):493-8. Epub 2004 Feb 11.

“[…]Several markers of hydration status were also taken immediately pre and post each condition, including measures of urine specific gravity, urine electrolyte balance (K+, Na+), and urine colour. None of these measures indicated a difference in hydration status as a result of the dietary intervention in either the control or tea condition.[…]”

(In this study, the tea was the only caffeine-containing substance involved. The study group’s caffeine came solely from the tea. The control group got no caffeine at all.)

Abstract on pubmed

Paluska SA: “Caffeine and exercise.” Curr Sports Med Rep. 2003 Aug;2(4):213-9.

“[…]It[caffeine] is relatively safe and has no known negative performance effects, nor does it cause significant dehydration or electrolyte imbalance during exercise.[…]”

Abstract on Pubmed

Grandjean AC, Reimers KJ, Bannick KE, Haven MC.: “The effect of caffeinated, non-caffeinated, caloric and non-caloric beverages on hydration.” J Am Coll Nutr. 2000 Oct;19(5):591-600.

“[…]This preliminary study found no significant differences in the effect of various combinations of beverages on hydration status of healthy adult males.[…]”

Pubmed entry – full text available

See? Oh, I know what you’re going to say next – “But, like, dude! When I drink my Venti Mocha Crappucino [note: Link goes to “Foamy the Squirrel”, who is a bit of a pottymouth, ranting about the “Tall/Grande/Venti” nonsense.  It amused me.] or a can of Jolt Ultra I have to take a major whiz a little while later! Isn’t that ‘cuz of the caffeine?” Well, no, it isn’t. It’s because you just drank a bunch of liquid. Duh.

So, you see, caffeine really is our friend. Be nice to caffeine. But don’t feed it to your yeast in the presence of benzoic acid because it’ll kill them. See? I managed to turn this into a segue back to the stuff I was talking about before the whole “buy a house in Texas” thing started interfering. Stay tuned…

Was it a mistake to buy Magellan GPS? Stay tuned…

A dead Magellan eXplorist 600 GPS unitWell, the good news is that after calling their support line and trying the three-button-reset ritual that I hadn’t known about, my Magellan eXplorist 600 is still completely dead. They did not give me any hassle about replacing the unit, they just gave me an RMA number. My dead eXplorist was sent to their “Repair” center in Fort Worth, TX this afternoon. A replacement should arrive in about a week to a week-and-a-half.

The bad news is that Magellan has discontinued the $350 eXplorist 600 (and the rest of the eXplorist line) and insists that they can only offer their newer $250 Triton 500 as a replacement. I’ll withhold judgement on whether to be ticked off at the $100 of retail value that is being lost here until I see the specifications. It looks at first glance that the basic capabilities really are pretty much the same, so it may turn out okay…except for the most important feature by far, which I originally chose the eXplorist for in the first place: documented data formats.

The Triton series GPS’s appear to use a bizarre, undocumented file format, completely different from the documented format of the Meridian and eXplorist models. This means that as of right now, a Magellan Triton owner is not permitted to work with their OWN DATA without going through a proprietary, Microsoft-Windows-only GUI package, which ironically apparently uses GPSBabel to do file conversion. GPSBabel doesn’t support the Triton formats since there is no information available on how to read and write them yet. Since I have no Microsoft Windows machines anywhere, this means the shiny new Triton 500 (which I – seriously – can’t stop thinking of now as the “Magellan Vista”) will be nothing more than a highway map that requires batteries unless their proprietary “VantagePoint” software will run under WINE.

I’m hoping that they’ve merely been busy and will soon get around to adding this units specifications to their “Interface Solutions” information. This is where the openly-published file format (and communication protocol) specifications which were highly (and rightfully) praised by the GPSBabel project are made available for the now-abandoned Meridian and eXplorist units. If the GPS data I work so hard to obtain remains locked inside the proprietary format, only accessible at the whims of Magellan and Microsoft, I’m going to be extremely peeved. If, on the other hand, GPSBabel soon gets the information necessary to add support for the Magellan Triton line, the only serious complaint I have with all this will go away. Honestly, if I can at least get enough documentation to write my own simple waypoint, track, and route reader for their Triton files I’ll be happy.

I think a real, old-fashioned letter, printed on dead tree and everything, mailed to their corporate HQ is called for…

Anybody out there have any experience dealing with Magellan corporation? I’d like to think they want to do the right thing…