Tuesday Feb 10, 2009

Hacking 21st century technology with greatest generation craftsmanship

The times I spend diagnosing, testing, analyzing and documenting system problems are interesting from a scientific discovery/mystery viewpoint, but there is something especially enjoyable about creating new code (of course without any mysteries or bugs for someone else to analyze ;-) During these long winter nights, my wife knits or sews childrens things and patchwork quilts while I take apart a broken toy or patch together some gizmo which could easily replaced for a pittance. Not long ago, my wife bought a toy telescope for 1 euro at a car boot sale. Some toy telescopes have surprisingly good optics in the objective (front) lens and terribly bad eyepieces designed as marketing gimmicks to pretend that they can pull 625 power out of a 60mm objective (defying the laws of physics in this universe) This along with the flimsy mounts on toy telescopes makes them all but useless for learning to appreciate astronomy. I was about 12 when my parents gave me a Skillcraft 2" Newtonian telescope. 2" reflectors with 1" secondary mirrors are diffraction limited even if you use a shaving mirror for the primary! But shortly after Christmas 1976, the mount broke and I had a useless tube. My grandpa was a carpenter, toolmaker and metal worker so he fixed it and with rivets and brass he made the mount look like new. (as though repaired by the robots in Metropolis.) The optics of that telescope weren't great but I did manage to see the rings of saturn by using a paper Dixie[tm] cup as an adapter between this scope's eyepiece and one of my dad's good camera lenses. Because memory of a great depression lasted several generations, my grandpa spent time fixing this $20 toy and my parents hung onto that toy until 2008. I told them that the optics were never good and 20 years of corrosion of the tiny aluminized mirror wouldn't have improved anything so I recommended that they throw out the scope. But I asked if they could send me grandpa's mount. So 9 years after he died, grandpa gave his great grandkids a Christmas gift. I attached grandpa's sturdy mount to the telescope from the car boot sale. Added a 0.965 to T-Ring and T-Ring to Pentax K adapter to my Pentax \*ist DL Digital SLR and, it's almost a respectable 700mm lens: Kids telescope Moon with Kids telescope

Now I only need to wait a couple of years for Saturn to tilt at a nicer angle and my kids will have no problem seeing Saturn through this telescope.

Monday Oct 13, 2008

2 PCs/day stolen in Racine schools, why not try Sun Ray?

Sad, school has only been in session a month and already 68 computers (enough for two or three classrooms) are gone... Educational PCs tend to be underutilized for a couple of years and just when teachers begin to understand how to integrate them into their curriculum, some local politician will push an agenda "IF only we used PC instead of Mac, Windows 98 instead of Windows 95, Apple IIe, Apple instead of Atari... then Johnny would be able to read!" I've heard of brand new computers sit in boxes for two years, becoming completely obsolete before they are ever used. It's possible that the excellent Apple audio/video capabilities which made these computers so attractive to thieves hadn't been used in the classroom yet. Some of these computers were purchased under a grant for the purposes of exam administration. I happen to know that the deployment/upgrade system was really well designed (by my brother ;-) and similar to a system I helped put together for an Irish bank. But Sun Rays might have been better for some of these purpose and would free up the Apples for the multimedia functions they excel at. Sun Rays have a much longer "shelf-life" than a typical P.C. or Mac. The first ones made in the late 1990s would be able to administer exams and display XP, Vista, Linux, Solaris applications just as well as the brand new ones. Upgrades would be system-wide and nearly instantaneous. Bad or stolen hardware could be swapped out by the teacher and ready to use in less than 5 minutes. The fact that Sun Rays are useless without a server should make them less likely to be stolen... [Read More]

Wednesday Mar 19, 2008

Gobi Sun Ray client laptop and kids

At the moment, my daughter is quietly playing a playhouse Disney game on a (quiet, diskless and cool!) Accutech Gobi laptop.

Under Construction

This Gobi 7 is an early evaluation model and is not without its kinks. I've been trying to configure as an alternate Sun Ray client for work. After reading Dan Lacher's blog some documents and a few helpful emails, I still didn't have any luck getting the Gobi go connect via VPN through my router to Sun's servers. So I thought I'd try connecting to a Sun Ray server on a local network. As this is a holiday weekend and I didn't plan to go into work, I needed to configure a Sun Ray server at home.

Don't try this at home

O.K. do try this at home, but try to find a better computer. Alternative hobbies, the cost of everything in Ireland, kids and other priorities turned me into a late adopter of home technology. Our best home computer is still an 8-year old Apple G3 Powerbook which was a hand-me-down from my brother who is a video and 3D animation artist. Our only desktop PC is an EOL'd Dell GX110 with 512Mb of RAM. I had previously installed Solaris Nevada Build 50 on this in order to play with ZFS and provide temporary storage for some iMovies and photos. Also if anyone breaks into the house, the last thing they'll want to haul out is this heavy piece of scrap. I hadn't upgraded because the installer for S10U4 and many of the newer Nevada builds gave up at the pitiful amount of memory. Fortunately, SXDE 09/07 was slightly more compassionate, and I was able to run a text install. After the fresh install (being careful to preserve my video and photo slices), it was simply a matter of:

 zpool import bigdrive
 zpool import exporthome 

This imported and created permanent mounts for my iMovies and photos on /export/home and /bigdrive. Cool!

O.K. SXDE 09/07 installed, but can I put SRSS on this? I won't know if I don't try. I downloaded SRSS 4.0 for Solaris and ran

. I had chosen the end user install cluster so it turned out I had to manually install some dhcp packages. Then:

/opt/SUNWut/sbin/utconfig  {answer a bunch of questions}  I defaulted everything except enabling a dhcp server and web admin.
/opt/SUNWut/sbin/utadm -c
/opt/SUNWut/sbin/utadm -A   (My LAN network address)
/opt/SUNWut/sbin/utadm -L on
/opt/SUNWut/sbin/utadm -n

Next I enter my wifi parameters into the Gobi laptop, tell it to use DHCP and for some reason I don't understand, don't tell it the IP address of the Sun Ray server (it figures it out). There it is, the dtlogin prompt! I login, browse to Playhouse Disney to test the ability to run flash games. Hmm, it looks a bit jumpy as I would expect. A 600Mhz 512MB PC running SRSS 4 on an unsupported Nevada build delivered via a 54MBps Wifi connection to a thin-client laptop. Do you see what I mean by "don't try this at home?"

I go back to the Wired VPN Sun Ray terminal to try to read email suggestions about my Gobi VPN problem. When turn around my 4-year-old is playing flash games on the Gobi. She has no idea this isn't a real laptop nor does she care that the PC it is displaying is hopelessly underpowered. In case you haven't guessed, Nintendo/Playstation and other hot and powerful video game boxes haven't yet entered our humble home. That might have set her expectations a bit high. We do give her toys though. And not just sock puppets and cattail dolls. Now that we've proven there is nothing wrong with Gobi's local connectivity, I'll have to pry it away from her so I can figure out how to connect the Gobi via VPN. But that's a story for another day.

Tuesday Jul 03, 2007

Java baby name wizard

Speaking of baby names, the babyname wizard website is a clever use of Java and an interesting way to explore the popularity of baby names over the years. And the Nymbler tool helps select a name, when given other names as inspirations.

21st century baby names i18n, g10n, google unique...?

I've often complained about Sun's confusing and Silicon-Valley centric product marketing names. Most other tech companies aren't any better. But naming a technical product is much easier than naming a child. After all, if you name your GNOME-based open source desktop "Java Desktop System", it isn't going to be beat up on the playground... at least not too often.

A friend recently wrote about a coworker who named her baby Messiah. This is actually fairly tame when you consider some of the odd names coming out of the U.S. where apparently anything goes (e.g. Moon Unit, Dweezel, Moxie Crimefighter, Pilot Inspekter, Mustang Sally?... ;-) Contrast this with Germany where all baby names must clearly identify gender and be approved by the Standesamt which carefully considers whether the name is weird or confusing. My great-great Grandmother from Pollnow, Pomerania was named August, which doesn't sound obviously female to me. Many names from American literature would probably fail the Standesamt standard; (Scout, Atticus, Harper, Huckleberry, Langhorne...) Based on popular media coverage, I wonder how many of our children's generation will remember that Paris is also the name of a Greek man and a French city?

Unusual names aren't just a recent fad. For example, in the 1600s an English baby boy was named If-Jesus-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned which is probably just weird enough to zap this blog from "naughty bit" filters of most public library web kiosks in Utah. It would be inconvenient to have a name that is a profanity in another language or one that triggers SPAM filters because it is used in popular email fraud schemes.

Then there is the issue of names which don't translate well in this increasingly globalized world. Some names are unfortunate homonyms in other languages, others can't be pronounced or spelled at all outside of the home country. A few years ago, the citizens of my home town thought they had a wonderful Indian name for the zoo's new tiger. The translation dictionary they used said the word meant love, but it actually meant something closer to prostitute love or lust. A fairly common Irish-American name, Colleen, is almost never used in Ireland because in Irish it simply means girl, which sounds like the kind of name Tarzan would come up with for his baby.

When a resume or CV comes across a corporate office desk, the name is usually prominently displayed in bold-faced type at the very top. A person's name often reveals or suggests their gender, race, ethnicity and religion (e.g. Mohammad, Elijah, Messiah...) This obviously should have no bearing on the person's qualifications for the position, but the opportunity for name-based prejudice certainly exists. [Read More]

Friday Jul 14, 2006

Fun on Portmarnock beach

After your kid is done playing on the beach, you have to get the sand off... Portmarnock beach

Sunday Jun 04, 2006

Toddler photo and kayaking

Daughter's shadow My three year old daughter took this photo. She took another one aiming slightly more to the left so you can see me tieing a string to the kite.

Kayak Races

You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to, you say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to... One of the odd differences between U.S. english and Irish english is that what I call canoeing, they Irish call kayaking and vice-versa. I've never seen this kind of "roller derby" style kayak racing before.

Paddling in Estuary.

This rubber inflatable Sevylor thing doesn't fit my definition of a canoe or kayak. It uses double-ended kayak paddles, but it's totally open and nearly impossible to capsize unless you puncture a pontoon. The upper Broadmeadows estuary is so shallow that if we were to sink it, we'd just walk home. After 12 years of Florida sunshine and Wisconsin winters, one of the seat pillows developed its first air leak. I read the patch kit instructions and warnings about the kayak. You're supposed to wear a PFD (we always do), and you're not to burn or eat the kayak. Eat it?

Friday Jan 06, 2006

A Christmas concert and ballet for children

Dublin can be a great place for young children. In December we took our daughter on the Santa train and to Santa's polar palace. Santa made an appearance at her swimming class and during her Irish dancing performance. But one of the most memorable experiences this Christmas season was last night's "Snowman Christmas special" at the National Concert Hall. I was a little nervous about taking a 2-year-old to a symphony and ballet but the people selling tickets didn't raise an eyebrow when we said she was two. Apparently the concert was designed for children. Approximately 1/4 of the audience was under 7 years old. The NCH orchestra, Dex McGloughlin School of Ballet and Stagefright School put on a beautiful performance of Christmas music including Howard Blake's composition for Raymond Brigg's story "The Snowman." The music and dancers held the attention of our daughter and other youngsters. She only cried when the concert ended. I wish there were more events so well designed for children and adults. It was a wonderful way of spending twelfth night.

Friday Dec 30, 2005

Toddler's night before Christmas

I wish I had a tape recorder with me tonight when my daughter tried to rewrite Clement Clark Moore's famous Christmas poem:

Me: Twas the night before Christmas when...
Her: When can I say dash away dash away?
Me: Yes you can say that when we come to it.
Me: ...all through the
Me and her (unison): house, not a creature was stirring not even a mouse!
Me: The stockings were hung by the chimmney with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.
Her: Who is Saint Nicholas?
Me: Another name for Santa Claus.
Her: But I don't like Saint Nicholas. I like Santa Claus.
Me: O.K. In hopes that Santa Claus soon would be there. The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
Her: But, but I don't like sugar-plums!
Me: O.K. Uhhh, hmmm, what do you like?
Her: That, what did we had at the Indian restaurant?
Me: Papadams? O.K. The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of papadams danced in their heads.
Her: No, no, no, nooooo! Sugar plumbs!
Me: {continued reading as written until...} Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
Her: And... and... and Rudolf the red nosed Reindeer.
Me: Yes, yes, and rudolf too. Anyway, To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall! Now dash away! Dash..."
Her: But I wanted to say dash away?
Me: O.K.
Her: Now dash away, dash away dash away all.
Me: {continue until...} He had a broad face and a little round belly, That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly!
Her I, I, I had a bowl of jelly yesterday.
Me: Yes you did. {continue as writen until she was asleep...}

Sunday Oct 09, 2005

Music and Children

My daughter and I have been having fun with a RadioShack MIDI music keyboard we bought at a rummage sale. Like most toddlers, she really belts out the notes of her favorite song "twinkle twinkle..." When I try to play along with her on the keyboard I noticed she was already in the key of C. The tin whistle she previously sang along with was in the key of D, and her record player music box isn't in any particular key so she must've remembered a CD or playgroup song. It surprised me that kids have a memory for pitch. The only pitches I've ever remembered are the 60Hz frequency American electronic devices hum loudly just before producing smoke1 and that 17500Hz squeal TVs emit even when you aren't watching "American Idol." Our daughter still hasn't expressed a clear preference for major or minor chords and she'll dance to almost any rhythm. I wonder how much music taste and talent is learned? When and where the pythagorean or pentatonic scales were more common, did the kids holler "twinkle" in those scales?

Does anyone else notice the poor sound quality and tuning in some electronic "music" toys? Wow! I wonder if that's the reason why we hear so many extremely confident but completely tone-deaf singers on "American Idol?" Yes I know there are limits to the sound quality of the speakers you can pack into a toy teddy bear, but that doesn't mean kids don't appreciate real music. Even the popular "Baby Mozart" videos remove too many notes from Mozart's compositions and play them on a synthesized music box. Fisher-Price Nature Baby and Music Baby videos have the right idea, find talented kids who know how to play music well and let other kids hear it. I'd also like to see a toy musical instrument which played pleasing but toddler controllable music, maybe a nice string or flute tone in a pentatonic scale. Imagine toddler music that you could record into new-age tapes, playable in elevators and in the parking lots of 7-11s to ward off loitering teenagers.

O.K. I'm not a audiophile or musicologist, I'll even admit to once having an A.M. stereo in my Chrysler, but I've never been impressed with the sound quality of midi files played through a PC. Are they any better than .MOD files were on a 7Mhz Amiga more than a decade ago? But when played through the ConcertMate-990 keyboard, Mozart's "Ah vous dirai-je maman" on this website isn't bad. Mozart adds some notes to a traditional French children's song. It is still recognizable to our little "twinkle" fan. It helps her go to sleep.

1The 'magic smoke' theory of electronics says that all electronic devices are full of magic smoke which makes the device work. If the magic smoke ever gets out, the device stops working.

Wednesday May 18, 2005

Toddler Dictionary (page 2)

In honor of our daughter's second birthday, here are a couple of more toddler word definitions:

Howboutagain: v Please repeat. Usage "Howboutagain story. Howboutagain twinkle twinkle how I twinkle."
Birthday Sandals: n Sandals you blow out on your birthday.

Friday May 13, 2005

Toddler Movie Review

Paul's Blog entry on negative behaviour in very young children reminded me of a hateful "stupid..." dialog sequence in Monster's Inc that convinced us that this Disney movie isn't appropriate for young ones. The debate goes on about what effect television has on children (and adults.) We decided that it is a good idea to limit our daughter's T.V. viewing and not allow her to watch programs that are either too hyperactive (Ren and Stimpy, Veggie Tales), designed for adults (The Simpsons, Sharks Tale) or just a thinly-veiled advertisement for a toy. (Where do I start???)


Fred Rogers has passed on to a better neighborhood, but there are still people around the world making videos which aren't just hyperactive advertisements for toys. Here are some of our daughter's favorites:

Nature Baby and Music Baby: (English): These fisher-price videos were our daughter's early favorites and she never grew tired of them. I like the simple idea, take high quality video of children playing music or nature's seasons and add a symphonic soundtrack. The only dialog is laughter and some short puppet skits between segments.

The Snowman: Raymond Brigg's wonderfully illustrated and animated Christmas story, with a quiet soundtrack. She asks for it long after Christmas.

Give up yer Aul Sins (English): A Dublin teacher recorded her school children's versions biblical stories. Years later the tapes were recovered from the rubbish and animations were added to the soundtrack. Delightful and fun. Our daughter has only seen this once but one day we will all need the Dublin language lesson. This was produced in Ireland but is the only region 0 DVD's we own. This means we can play it anywhere, so we were able to show it to my family in the U.S.

Teletubbies: Very strange for adults, but I haven't met a baby who didn't like them. If you heard strange rumors about these characters, you've been listening to too much late-night talk radio.


Finding Nemo(English, Spanish, French): This one is towards the "active" end of our spectrum and some toddlers might want to skip some scary parts. (I do wish DVD fastforward worked as well as it did on old laserdisc players.) Dad doesn't mind watching Nemo. It reminds me of dive trips in the Gulf of Mexico, through layers of baraccuda and jellyfish, drifting silently over sleeping sea turtles at night. The artists must've been there! Other than the fact that fish don't talk, the artists captured the cartoon colors and beauty of different areas of the ocean. Just don't let your toddler flush your fish.

The Lion King (English): I think this might have been one of the last animated Disney movies which wasn't nearly all computer generated 3D animation. The opening sequence is especially beautiful.

Hi 5: The Austrailian children's singing and dancing group. Our daughter saw them live here in Dublin and since she has always liked music, she enjoys this.

Dora The Explorer(English, Spanish): I'll bet a child psychologist was involved in developing this. Adults will hate the repetition but it seems to have child development in mind. Dora teaches cause-effect and planning, "First we go here, then there, then fiesta!" She pauses for a second after asking the audience a question. One character will say something in english (or Irish--TG4), the other repeats it in spanish. The gardi would appreciate Dora's villains. To stop crime, just say "Swiper, no swiping!", to sneak past the bad guys, sing the Lechuza song.


I hope it's just the fact that we live in Ireland that I haven't seen many recent cartoons from the U.S. that aren't sardonic, hyperactive or downright hostile. Here are a few polite videos where the characters generally learn to treat one another with kind respect:
Postman Pat (English)
Bob the Builder (English): Why not have videos showing the positive aspects of working? And what mechanic/hacker wouldn't like a character who sings, "Can we fix it? Yes we can!"
Sali Mali (Welsh): Our Daughter doesn't understand any more of the Welsh language than we do, but Sali and Jack Daw are far more gentle than the sumo wrestler cartoon RTE shows on weekends. Sali Mali
Kipper (English): Sometimes Kipper's friends have to learn to be polite, but Kipper seems to be a good chap.
Winnie the Pooh: We have the movie from the 1970s. Even though the Hefalumps are a bit strange, she seems to like this movie when she is feeling sad or sick.

She has watched most of these more than once. For variety we sometimes play them in another language. I listed the languages of the U.S. versions above. If you get a DVD from a different region, beware of region codes. Region codes are supposedly designed to discourage piracy but sometimes I think they have been more effective at insulating the U.S. from external language and culture.

I'd be interested in hearing recommendations of gentle children's videos from other parts of the world. We've found children's books from other cultures to be very interesting.

Thursday May 12, 2005

Toddler Dictionary (page 1)

This is the dialect of one particular English-speaking toddler (she's 2 next week!) This won't apply exactly to every toddler out there but maybe it will give someone a head start.

Ima: (AYE-MAH) v.
1.I want. Usage:"Ima sausages, Ima yoghurt juice, I'm a spicy bit."
2.I'm going to, or I already did X. (Similar to Hiberno English "I'm after.") Usage:"Ima outside. Ima work." Beware of phrases such as "Ima wee", there is no verb tense specified in this usage. The action could be some time in the near future, but is more likely to be sometime in the recent past.

Some words follow patterns which may be common across toddler dialects:
Aminal: n Animal.
Efalant: n Elephant.
Pliget: n Piglet.
BleadWoll: n Bread roll.

Others make sense if you think like a toddler:
Stepschool: n A platform which can be placed next to the window to view the boys and girls in the schoolyard across the street.
Castle: n. Any large building.
Bee: n. Any insect or insect-like particle.
Spot: n. Any particle that isn't a bee. Everything from fluff on a carpet to bits of paper or crayon fragments on the floor.
Slide: (prounounced pleadingly, often weepingly emphasizing very very long vowels -- Slaaiiiyeeeeeeed.) One of her first words, it referred specifically to a slide in the castle playground.
Biz: Place where business takes place. When mommy or daddy are working, she says "Ima work", when mommy or daddy are buzy, she says "Ima biz."
Spilding: In her words, this is the purpose of a cup of milk. Me: "It's for drinking." Her: "No it's for spilding." (Wry smile)

But other words of the Toddler's language seem to follow no obvious pattern.
Oshkosh: n. mustard.
Wie gehts: n. Fence around schoolyard.
Queue: n. Bouncy castle.

And often she'll surprise us with words we didn't know until we moved here.
Estuary: Brackish tidal body of water. She also knows "Beside the estuary", in the national language of her birthplace.

Thursday Apr 21, 2005

Discovering sunsets

A couple of weeks ago I took my daughter down to the estuary and bird sanctuary across from our home to see the skyglow after sunset. Ever since then she has been anxious to see the sunset. There are two problems with that. The first is that 4 out of 5 sunsets are clouded out at this time of year The second is that in midsummer at 53 degrees latitude, the sun will set long after her bedtime. There is some light in the sky even at 11:00 p.m. in mid June. But we'll enjoy the ones we can see, and splash in every puddle we find.

Sunset at Malahide estuary

Tuesday Mar 22, 2005

International Children's Digital library.

I found The International Children's Digital library while looking for a German language bedtime story for my daughter. She's at the age (almost 2) where she can repeat nearly everything after hearing it only once. This can be an awkward time for her to watch television or pass a Dublin pub, but it is a fun time for her to pick up bits of other languages. She even seems to understand the concept of different languages, last night after watching "Finding Nemo" DVD she was trying to speak whale. This brings me to an interesting observation. Most U.S. children's DVDs have only one or two languages, Nemo is in English and Spanish and yet the Spanish speaking Nemo, Marlin, Dorie... don't sound like the characters. Some language dubbing makes almost no attempt to sound like the character. Yet on Ireland's TG4, the Irish dubbed Daffy, Dora and Spongebob sound just like Daffy, Dora and Spongebob1. How many people do you know who can do the voice of a specific cartoon character in Irish? That's what I call job security! It's probably a fun job too. So it wouldn't hurt to introduce our daughter to other languages. Ideally she would hear bedtime stories from someone fluent in the book's language but she has already corrected my German pronounciation, so I'm learning too. I'm not sure how she does that.

Until digital paper is perfected, we still prefer printed books but ICDL's comic and spiral book reading interface is fun. It's written in Java[tm], so it works2 as well on OSX and Microsoft Windows XP as it does on Sun's Java Desktop System for Linux or Solaris.
1If you think Spongebob is a bit too surreal, try watching it in Irish.

2O.K., nothing works quite as well in Windows XP, with all that "waiting for virus 
scan" and "Drive letter component has failed, do you want to inform Microsoft?" nonsense, 
but ICDL's Java bookreader works in any Java capable operating environment.



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