Getting a PS3 controller to work with Windows and Linux: compare/contrast

A bit of nerdery to lighten the mood. It’s been so heady around these parts lately.

Recently, I decided to connect my PS3 controller to my laptop so I could play The Binding of Isaac on Steam with a real controller. I know, I know, I could have gotten a PC controller and saved myself a ton of hassle. But I had that PS3 controller right there, and a geek like me is gonna make do.

[Read more...]

First impressions on the iPhone 4

Yes, that’s right ladies and gentlemen, I’ve gone over to the dark side. I now own a piece of Apple tech. Okay, it’s not my first, where I got donated an old eMac to play with a while back (the ones that blow capacitors out all the time — meaning it was a time bomb anyway). But don’t worry, I won’t be sucking Steve Jobs’ ween any time soon. My choice for hardware upgrade for work was between yet another shitty Blackberry, or an iPhone — and given that one can do VPN and one can’t, my choice was obvious. The fact that I had to pay for my hardware upgrade, making it technically *my* phone, just on work’s data plan, means I did directly contribute to Apple’s bottom line personally. But we’ll let that fact slide for the time being.

The Retina display is very nice, though it’s certainly not all it’s cracked up to be in one respect — giving the extra pixels to the phone’s display smooths edges and does in fact make “pixellation” completely disappear, but it does not in any way add to the amount of information you can see on the screen at a time. I’ve found myself very regularly holding the phone disquietingly close to my face, to the point where Jodi told me once not to arch my head so far forward lest I give myself some sort of neck injury. It’s certainly brighter than my old Blackberry Curve 8320. I can tell mostly because when heading to bed, I often use my phone as a flashlight after having turned out all the other lights in the house.

The big killer app is VPN access, as I said earlier. Apparently you can connect a Blackberry to a VPN, but as far as I can tell, only in situations where it’s associated with a Blackberry Enterprise Server. We don’t have one at our workplace, using BIS exclusively, so I’ve never had the option of connecting my older BBs to VPN. Besides, without some way to connect to a server either via SSH or RDP, it would be useless to connect it anyway. That said, the iPhone works splendidly with our VPN solution. I’ve already installed five or six free RDP and VNC apps and gotten connected to my work desktop over 3G, and it’s surprisingly responsive. I can already tell though that, as I expected prior to obtaining this piece of tech kit, the onscreen keyboard is going to take some getting used to. If I can’t find an SSH app to connect to some of my servers, I’ll have to use puTTY on my work Windows box, and I will likely go blind between trying to see what’s going on in the SSH window and getting used to the keyboard that’s simply laid out differently than my muscle memory expects. In landscape mode, the keyboard is way wider spaced than I am used to, and in portrait mode, very slightly smaller-spaced. But not by much. Just enough that sometimes when I try to hit L, I hit backspace instead. SSH will be a real bitch on this phone. I shouldn’t complain though — at least now I’m capable of doing it at all! Meaning no longer will I be expected to dash home to get to my laptop in order to put out a fire when I’m out somewhere. Now I just lose points with my friends and colleagues as I put out those same fires from my phone while ignoring them!

The mail app that comes stock with iOS 4 is absolute crap compared even to older Blackberry tech, e.g. the 7250 I had strapped to my hip for three years prior to my last upgrade. The only good thing it’s got going for it is the ability to connect to Exchange, meaning I can set up my personal Gmail with push capability. It can’t “mark all as read” though, nor can it be filtered as to what comes to the phone. And the worst part is, you can’t set the return address to something other than the default for the account, meaning I can’t set my work domain’s email address and check the external server I have my work forwarded to, without exposing to the people to whom I email that external mail server’s domain. I’ve downloaded a third-party app that appears to have those capabilities and more, by the name of ibisMail, though it cost $3.99. I’m not used to paying for software if it’s not a video game, honestly. Being a Linux guy, I’m used to being the beneficiary of other geeks’ largesse in releasing their software under the GPL. I don’t know that I’ll adjust to that particular paradigm.

My cat, and my legs. Combining the two traditional first picture paradigms into one shot thats the picture equivalent of Hello World.

The camera functions are exceptional for a phone — easily better than any legitimate phone I’ve ever bought. Now, granted, I’m no Ben Zvan, but still. The cost for the hardware upgrade is probably slightly less than the last camera I bought, and you can’t exactly connect to an RDP server with a camera. The front-facing camera is slightly grainy in house lights at night, but I haven’t tried out Skype with it yet to see how it works. If Skype can even do it — I suspect Apple’s keeping the camera functions locked down for Facetime users only. Oh well. We’ll see how it works. This IS just a first impression post after all, right?

Compared to the Blackberry 8320, the iPhone 4 is leaps and bounds ahead in terms of usability. But that’s like saying a sandwich is leaps and bounds ahead in nutritional value to a slightly slimy rock. It’s simply not a fair comparison to make.

Wherein my subconscious brain invents a religion

I had a very strange dream last night. It was strange enough that I remembered it, which is one thing, but also enough so that I felt the need to run to my computer and write it all down.

Because humans have a tendency when describing dreams to attempt to force them to conform with reality, or to force them to make better narrative sense, I am abstaining from actually editing what I wrote at 4 am after roughly five hours of sleep. That it is as coherent as it is, is uncanny.

On visit to NB, on walk, father takes sister and I to a church he just joined. Glass first floor, windows all around, swipe card access. Stairs upward of cement, include several missing steps near the stairwell (intentionally) — you have to somehow pull yourself up using the guardrail. Guard posted at first floor at a desk, only he’s just this big pleasant guy in a light blue robe. Once at the third floor, we realize it’s Torvuism — “first church of sentient beings”, worshipping gods. (I know such a thing doesn’t exist. My dream was weird. There’s Tarvuism, which I assume is where the dream came from, coz of a video posted a few weeks ago to Skepchick.)

They worship the prophet Helen Keller, who appears to them (each of them) as a “hive” — never got the details on that. Preacher starts out with “praise be to gods”, and on some alien tangent. Sister and I look at each other and kinda boggle a bit. Sister breaks the silence first, asking father, “wait, you’ve seen Helen Keller?” Dad nods. I add, “not just a movie about her?” and consider asking what he knows about her. People around us start getting suspicious. Sis says “You realize she doesn’t exist, right?” I add quickly, “no, she existed, but definitely not as a prophet for aliens. Really, Dad? Torvuism?” Jen says “Frickin Torvuism! Wow!” We start to get up to leave. Preacher realizes something’s up.

Two people start nattering to each other very near where we’re leaving — pews in front of us — about how they knew some atheists once, and how they absolutely had to scurry out of the building because they were too unholy to stay for long, and how they’re tools of Satan (guess it borrowed from Christianity) — complete with throwing up devil horns with one hand (this woman was dressed in shades of red and black and I couldn’t see her face, but she had thick glasses and a black beehive hairdo). I deliberately make sure my pace is exactly measured as though I was at my ease, but still want to get gone.

Sister pauses at stairwell door while I say, “in fact, name me an atheist that doesn’t believe in God, but believes in Satan?” The women say “None of them do, but that doesn’t stop them from having no morals and being corrupted by Satan.” I stride toward the exit a bit quicker now, realizing the priest’s on his way down (this is a big place of worship — for some reason, pews are aligned perpendicular to where preacher was, maybe whole building wrapped around with pews like that, with preacher in middle — not sure, details starting to fade). As I’m on my way to the door, I say, “My morals are superior to those of any religion, because they are dependent on my empathy for humans, and they can change in different situations — they are not dependent on a foundational text that was written once and can never change even when the morals they prescribe are totally immoral, like those of yours against homosexuals. I hope you all have a pleasant evening, it’s been fun seeing this.”

Priest hot on our heels, Jen and I enter stairwell, jen jumps down flight of stairs through the gap in the floor, catching the guardrail in a really slick bit of acrobatics. I have to follow her. People at first landing of three wonder what’s going on, Jen makes it down to second floor really quickly where guard is, priest hits stairwell and yells down to the guard to stop us (who for some reason say “Damn college freshmen!” and starts to get up to grab Jen. She slips past him. I realize I’m on second floor still, he’s below me, exit’s on the other side. Only way past him would be to go over the guardrail, land all the way on the first floor and tuck and roll toward the glass walls, do a 180, and make it to the swipe card doors. If they even stay unlocked now that the alert was raised. As I was at the very last second before I’d have to jump if I ever hoped to make it past the guard, without getting caught by the priest behind me, I woke up.

Seriously. Wow.

Yes, the sidebar about Tarvuism on Skepchick was actually written in the original note. All I did, for presentation here, was added two paragraph breaks. I swear on my honor, every detail in this note was in the dream in as much fidelity as I could manage. I returned to bed roughly 20 mins after typing this up, and promptly fell back asleep.

Whaddaya think? Funny farm material?

Old Agriculture is Dying

I’m typing this on my recently new Aspire One netbook. It’s booted to Ubuntu 10.10 because I dislike the way Windows operates. Between my husband and I we have 4 computers, we used to have 5. I’m also watching him play Little Big Planet 2 on our PS3 and 40″ Sony LCD which I helped choose. Video games are one of our favourite past times. My iPhone 3Gs buzzes in my pocket and it’s a text from a friend in MN. It buzzes again and it’s a twitter mention from another friend in FL. The wonderful little gadget is practically surgically attached to me. I’m young enough that by the time I started doing projects in elementary school that required any research at all computers were necessary. Tech is my life, I am a geek and I love this modern world I live in.

There’s a point to this, it’s meant as a contrast. I also work at a local vineyard/winery which is really just a fancy way to say I do farm labour for a living; I farm grapes. I’m also damn good at what I do. I work hard, I use complicated heavy machinery and I help to produce good crops.

I recently read this 56 page 2010 report on the state of agriculture in Atlantic Canada. Twice. It’s sad, and scary, and heartbreaking for all the reasons it ought to be as local farms are disappearing. It’s also frustrating however in a unique way for people like me. I’m a 25 year old woman who enjoys video games and travel, who is interested in the world’s politics and cultures, who eats sushi and cares about scientific progress. I also care about farming.

I hate to say it but this report frames it all wrong. It wants consumers to care about farming, and about the state in which farmers are currently living. It wants people to know where their food comes from and to buy local. It wants young people like me to give a damn. Why then did it feel like they were sneering at me the whole time? Read it if you can as I get the feeling that it’s not just Atlantic Canada who is having problems in the agricultural sector, but I’m going to try to go through it here and address a few concerns I have. Grab a seat and a drink. (Do you know where it came from?) [Read more...]

Is cancer just cells “rebooted into safe mode”?

An interesting theory about cancer’s prominence in mammals (save naked mole rats of course):

The new theory, published in the journal Physical Biology, has been put forward by two leading figures in the world of cosmology and astrobiology: Paul Davies, director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, Arizona State University; and Charles Lineweaver, from the Australian National University.

In the paper, they suggest that a close look at cancer shows similarities with early forms of multicellular life.

“‘Advanced’ metazoan life of the form we now know, i.e. organisms with cell specialization and organ differentiation, was preceded by colonies of eukaryotic cells in which cellular cooperation was fairly rudimentary, consisting of networks of adhering cells exchanging information chemically, and forming self-organized assemblages with only a moderate division of labor,” they write.

According to Lineweaver, this suggests that cancer is an atavism, or an evolutionary throwback.

It’s certainly possible that this is the case, but my understanding was that the part that gets switched off in a cancerous cell is the part that tells it that it’s supposed to undergo apoptosis (e.g., die) under certain conditions — such as age, or cellular crowding. My layman’s understanding is that outside the genes that tell cells to die, it’s well possible that the mutated cell could have just about every other function still operating — and that that’s what makes HeLa cell lines (the undying and ever-growing cancerous cells taken from Henrietta Lacks) such a good analog for humans in biological testing. This could of course be wrong. And if it turns out cancer is really just your cell, running on older fallback code because some “off codon” didn’t get processed and so the code didn’t skip ahead to the next chunk, that means quite a bit evolutionarily, especially since so many mammals share that code line. In theory, with better technology, it may well be possible to eliminate the old code from our codebase, ridding humanity of cancer for good.

Of course, certain coders might be best told to stay out of the code base on that particular project. Gods forbid the people behind Windows ME touch our source.

How Thunderbird’s Lightning color scheme under Ubuntu pissed me off (and how to fix it)

This is a bit of a UI complaint, moreso than a coding one. Fair cop. Most programmers aren’t designers, and most programmers have a mistaken idea that all programmers can do design.

Mozilla Thunderbird is an excellent e-mail client, though with the advent of very good webmail clients, the e-mail client is slowly moving into the cloud and becoming a thing of the past. In the business world, though, e-mail clients are still a virtual necessity — not the least reason being that people have press-ganged the venerable e-mail technology to do just about every business function, from meeting invitations to calendar management to file transfer and even instant messaging. The e-mail client has become your personal information manager, with notes, to-do lists, address books that go well beyond the simple “name and e-mail address” functionality they began with. They have become the central repository for shared business contacts with remote address directories like LDAP and Active Directory (a Microsoft LDAP extension). And the ability to synchronize your handheld personal information manager (née: cellular phone) has become a virtual necessity for businesses today.

I have been using Thunderbird in defiance of the corporate de facto standard of Microsoft Outlook for the five years I’ve been with this company. With the addition of the Lightning calendar extension, which can do meeting requests and accept invitations in a manner compatible with Microsoft Outlook, nobody’s known the difference. So I get to keep my Linux desktop, and I won’t even get forced into installing MS Office under WINE. Win-win for all involved — company doesn’t have to shell out the extra $500 for MS Office Pro, and I don’t have to subject myself to that inferior proprietary software. (What auto junkie wants to buy a car with the hood welded shut?)

However, there was one minor issue after I changed my laptop’s desktop theme. I made the sin of daring to change something unrelated, and suddenly Thunderbird’s to-do list became completely unusable — it was displaying all my tasks in light-gray-on-white. After playing around with some of the other themes available under Ubuntu 10.10′s stock set, I realized what was going on — the to-do tasks were being displayed using the application menu’s font color, rather than the window’s font color. You know, that application menu that says “File, Edit, View” — that one. Not exactly the most intuitive color choice in the world, given that the window background is not usually the background a menu item is rendered against — the menus have their own background color, so themes won’t make menus unreadable accidentally.

Under Windows, those colors probably can’t ever be different. In Linux, under Gnome at least, they most assuredly can. My system menus were configured under the Shiki-Human color theme to match the title bar, so that the application proper starts below where the menus were. It is quite aesthetically pleasing — all the OS bits are dark, and the main application is light, meaning you can focus on one or the other but not both at the same time all that easily.

So, despite tasks being very obviously not menus, Lightning decided to set the rendering for them to something that, in most of the dark-based themes in my collection, would be completely unreadable — nearly invisible in fact — on a white background. This is not a choice the UI designers had to make, in any respect. The fact that the menu color is usually only rendered against the menu background color in themes, means it may never have been tested for contrast against the window background color, or it could intentionally be very close to the window background color. It is not a set of colors that were ever supposed to render against themselves.

Granted, I’m happy that Lightning has switched to using system colors at all — in its earliest versions, all the colors were hard-coded, so no matter what Thunderbird theme or system theme you configured, you’d end up with the same unskinnable (and rather ugly) user interface. So kudos for picking system-based colors at all. However, guys, you definitely picked the wrong ones in this case.

So how to fix it? Luckily, that’s pretty simple, actually!

[Read more...]

IE8, the enter key, and forms

Today, working on my work mail server’s admin interface, I discovered that IE8 treats submitted forms differently from all other browsers on the market. Including previous versions of Internet Explorer, at that.

The de facto standard is, if you have multiple forms that post to a single script, and you want that script to check to see what form was submitted, you’d check to see if the name of the submit button was set as a variable in the POST variables. To wit:

<form action="index.php" method="post">
    Search: <input name="searchterms">
    <input type="submit" name="search" value="Go">

This would post whatever you typed into the box as the value for “searchterms”, and would set “Go” as the value of the variable “search”. You could then check if $_POST['search'] was set, then do your search.

IE8, however, does something interesting. It is the only browser I’ve seen to do this, and I’ve tested older versions of IE, Chrome, Chromium, Opera, Firefox, and Safari against this bug. If you search for something then hit Enter instead of clicking the Go button, it will not post anything for “search” at all. The variable will simply not get set.

The only workaround I could find, short of hacking in a Javascript check for Enter keys, was to do as follows:

<form action="index.php" method="post">
    Search: <input name="searchterms">
    <input type="hidden" name="search" value="true">
    <input type="submit" value="Go">

This is not a terrible or onerous workaround, but why in the hell am I developing against a browser that, despite Microsoft’s reams and reams of money and scores and scores of programmers, has idiosyncrasies that should be easy to spot and patch and yet go unpatched even while IE9 is in beta?

Well, it’s because IE is the standard browser in the company. Only myself and a handful of oddballs use Firefox, though the Mac users tend toward Safari.

To make matters only slightly more annoying, none of my nice shiny rounded CSS renders properly in IE8. I’ve added three versions of the same CSS for maximum cross-browser compatibility, but IE is the only browser on the market that refuses to even look cross-eyed at the code. And it makes a mess of placement, too. These are simple Divs with width and height set, and inline display. Look:

Login -- Firefox 3.6 on Ubuntu

Login -- Internet Explorer 8 on Windows XP

Tab bar -- Firefox 3.6 on Ubuntu

Tab bar -- Internet Explorer 8 on Windows XP

I’ve pretty much decided I can’t be bothered with making this user interface look the same across all browsers. There would be too much unique CSS, and/or the necessity for images (which I’ve thus far completely avoided — clean, simple, all text, and still looks relatively attractive). I get the feeling when IE9 comes out, if (heavens forefend!) they decide to start supporting CSS properly, someone will congratulate me on how pretty my new admin interface upgrades look. And I’ll be forced to punch that someone.

If it smells like Funk, it must be astrology

Yeah, I made a Black Eyed Peas reference and a non-ad-hominem attack in the title. Whatcha gonna do about it? I’ll be cross-posting everything below the fold at his site and will add the link here momentarily. I’ve cross-posted it here, though it’s apparently still in moderation due to the copious amount of links. Update: Jamie has pulled it out of the spam queue, right here. He edited it down to a link back here. Color me underwhelmed.

As I’m cross-posting, I plan on adding images and other kitsch to my post here to break up the wall-of-text effect, after the fact. I’ll save my most sarcastic commentary for their captions, naturally.

Brace yourselves. This is gonna be another long one.
[Read more...]

How many terrorists will benefit from health care reform?

It’s amazing to me that everyone’s getting all bent out of shape about America finally being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the present-day reality that health care works better when the vultures standing between you and your doctors (e.g. the insurance companies) are put into some measure of check. I mean, really. You don’t have a single-payer “socialist” program like Canada (or your own Medicare) now (no, seriously — you really don’t). Instead, you just have the same old setup with some SMALL limitations on the money-gouging that the insurance companies can do. If you don’t believe me, look at this Wikipedia article on the ad. The entire thing is about regulating those corporations that are abusing you and your freedoms daily. What’s more, this reform will actually reduce your budget deficit by 1.3 TRILLION DOLLARS over the next 20 years. And yet, if anything, this reform falls far short of the mark by propping up the current health insurance industry, rather than overshooting the mark and landing in socialist totalitarian nightmare area like some of you loons seem to believe.

[Read more...]