Asus Eee

30.12.2007 0:34

A few days ago I bought myself an Asus Eee PC. It's a black 4 GB model with an integrated camera - the only model you can buy currently in Slovenia. I bought it mostly because I heard a lot about on various blogs and I was curious to try out Linux on such a little portable device. I also had a few occasions when I missed a little hackable Linux machine for some short term tasks. Since OLPC's Give one, get one program is only for people in U.S. and Nokia's tablets aren't much good for working in console Eee was the only way to go.

7
inches in front of 21

I only had the original software on it for one day, so I can't say much about it. What I saw of it was quite nice, especially the super-fast boot (Enrico Zini has a more detailed description).

I said I wanted a hackable machine and Eee is just that. All hardware works on Linux without problems. I had Debian installed on it in a few minutes and after a few hours of work every last bit of Eee worked, including Wifi in monitor mode, integrated camera, on-demand CPU frequency scaling and suspend-to-RAM. There are a few excellent sources of information available, like eeeuser.com, Debian for Eee and Eee PC support for Ubuntu.

Debian installation took a little more than half of the built-in storage. I didn't bother a lot with X11 software since I mostly intend use this computer from the console (Firefox and Thunderbird are the only two X11 applications I think I will need). Just out of curiosity I installed a basic GNOME desktop just to see how it works. I'll probably replace that with Blackbox or something like that soon since GNOME seems a bit of an overkill.

So, the general impression from these few days is very good. Keyboard really is very small, but I got used to it pretty fast. On a few occasions I actually held the computer at the sides with palms over the keyboard and typed with my thumbs. Handy for a few keystrokes when you don't have a surface to put the computer down.

Display is surprisingly bright and clear. It's also big enough to comfortably browse the web and text-mode console is approximately the size of a terminal window on my desktop computer. The trackpad is small but does it's job well enough for me. Wireless reception is just amazing. From my window I see something like 15 networks from around the neighborhood where my Powerbook only sees my own access point. 512 MB of RAM seems little small by today's standard but it turns out that even with GNOME desktop running it's more than enough. So far I never used more than some 300 MB. The lack of RAM for disk caching is mostly irrelevant because of the speed of the built-in solid-state drive.

The hardware does show its cheapness in a couple of spots. One is the battery monitoring (through ACPI) which is very rudimentary. It seems that there is no actual hardware in place to integrate battery current and provide accurate maximum/remaining mAh readings. Instead you only get a charge estimate in percent (which is probably merely deduced from battery voltage). The other is the microphone which gives a really bad recordings. I tried to record my voice a couple of times and I could barely understand what I was speaking (there could be something wrong with my ALSA settings though).

So in conclusion it's a great little machine for 299€ and the QUERTY keyboard makes it way more usable than a palmtop or an internet tablet of a similar price (have I mentioned that it's also the ultimate way to play Nethack on the go?). I just hope that more computers in the future will be designed with Linux in mind like Eee.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life | Comments »

Wireless A/V receiver

23.12.2007 0:13

Here's another cute board I could lay my hands on today:

Front

Back

This is a 2.4 GHz analog audio/video receiver that connects to a USB 2.0 port (model GP-722, manufacturer unknown). It receives a color video signal from up to four little battery-powered cameras (you know, the kind you see in spy movies or the kind you might put inside a model airplane).

Unfortunately it doesn't work yet under Linux. It uses a Trident TM5600 encoder/USB interface chip, which is a cheaper variant of TM6000. That one seems to have some support under Linux. Maybe I will actually be able to use it after some hacking.

Update: Since a lot of people are looking for it, I've dug out the original driver CD for this hardware and put its contents on-line.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Digital | Comments »

The big stuff

20.12.2007 1:31

I just got home from Zemanta coming home party when I noticed these things in the workshop:

They're huge, they're old and they have valves (and they probably need repair as electronic things usually do when they appear like that on the bench).

More as I investigate tomorrow (I'm too tired to do anything else right now).

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life | Comments »

gEDA application icons

17.12.2007 20:31

I just finished the new collection of Tango-style application icons for the gEDA suite. Who says that professional software can't also look nice?

Gerbv 48x48 Gerbv 22x22 Gerbv 16x16

gschem 48x48 gschem 22x22 gschem 16x16

PCB 48x48 PCB 22x22 PCB 16x16

xgsch2pcb 48x48 xgsch2pcb 22x22 xgsch2pcb 16x16

Actually a lot of credit for these icons could go to Wikipedia contributors. If they wouldn't make the English Wikipedia so large, I wouldn't have time to play with such things.

On a more serious note, these icons go nicely with MIME-type icons I made previously. They are available under the GPL license - from what I gathered content under Creative Commons can't be included with gEDA source distribution for some reason. You can download scalable versions here.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Code | Comments »

The art of TeX

16.12.2007 22:54

Last week I visited the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a physics paper displayed on the wall along other pieces of modern art. It has the characteristic look of a document typeset with TeX:

The art of Tex

It's nice to know that even the curators of such a gallery acknowledge the beauty of a properly typeset document.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life | Comments »

Le Web 3.0

15.12.2007 17:42

This post is a few days late due to combined effects of broken internet connection at our hotel in Paris and an Unicode bug in JSON.pm version 1.00 (don't ask...). Anyway, here are a few words about Le Web 3.0, fourth edition which took place in Paris between 11 and 12 December.

Plenary dock

In one sentence it was the most professionally organized conference I've ever been to. All talks and panels I've seen were flawlessly executed with the help of some really great moderators. Video support was also impressive - there was a dedicated team of cameramen that continuously followed speakers on the stage from several angles and a producer mixed their live video streams with slides on three big projector screens. Together with lighting and music backgrounds the result was like no conference I've ever seen. Really, on some of the more spectacular talks I had a feeling I was watching a studio recording of a TV show (which isn't that weird considering that the conference was held in three large TV studios).

Wireless support worked perfectly, which is also impressive (for me at least - Andraž had some problems demonstrating Zemanta's demo on his laptop). Actually this is one of the few conferences where I was able to randomly open my laptop and check the mail.

I've listened to so many interesting talks that it's hard to point out any specific one. There were a lot of well-known speakers (like Doc Searls, June Cohen from TED, professor Karlheinz Brandenburg from Fraunhofer Society). There were only a few strictly technical talks. A lot were business oriented, with investors giving advices for new startups or explaining their views on new technologies. There was a lot of panels, with guests discussing their opinions on this or that part of the internet culture.

June Cohen at Le Web 3.0

June Cohen from TED

All in all I have a feeling I learned a lot of things here. Not so much in the technical sense, but how internet businesses work, how they manage to attract people with their services, what is interesting to the public and what not, etc. Social networks, various internet and mobile services and all those things which I obviously barely knew before I started working for Zemanta.

Zemanta's presentation at Le Web 3.0

Andraž doing a presentation for Zemanta

It was also inspiring - everyone I talked to at the end had a couple of ideas about what internet service they could make. There were moments when I couldn't stop myself thinking about the video Here comes the bubble and how well it describes some things.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life | Comments »

Eurostar

12.12.2007 11:19

Yesterday I left Zemanta's London headquarters with the rest of the team and went to Paris to attend Le Web 3 conference.

We traveled by Eurostar and I was surprised just how trivial the travel seemed. The Channel Tunnel is one of the largest engineering achievements of the last century, however when traveling by train from London to Paris you barely notice it. Even when flying on a commercial jet you usually hear the captain tell some trivial information, like how high or how fast you are traveling or what is the temperature outside. This at least gives you a remote sense of just how much work and knowledge must have gone into making that multi-ton piece of aluminum fly.

The experience of the Tunnel has none of that. The train disappears for some 20 minutes into the ground and then you are on the other side. If you are used to trains traveling at 80 km/h even time spent underground doesn't seem different than any other ride. None of the brochures you can get on the train mentions any technical data and all announcements over PA were about safety and baggage handling.

Oh and since I'm comparing this train with an airplane: in contrast with other trains where you can hop on in the last minute, Eurostar requires you to check-in at least an hour early (including the new-age airport-style over-paranoid personal and baggage checks) and then wait at a gate until the train is ready for boarding.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life | Comments »

Zemanta NanoBlogger plug-in

02.12.2007 16:26

I'm a big fan of NanoBlogger. I used it to make a number of web sites - from tablix.org and the blog you're currently reading to OpenOffice.org conference site and Society of cultural studies.

You might also have heard about Zemanta's Suggest system. Among other things it makes blogging easier by automatically adding explanatory in-text links, stock photographs, keywords and links to related articles to your blog posts. It's currently being tested and will be available soon for popular blogging platforms like Wordpress and Blogger.

Since I'm one of the developers of Zemanta Suggest and I want to use the system on my blog (eat your own dog food and all that), I made a NanoBlogger plug-in for it. It's written in Bash and Perl and communicates with the system via JSON. It supports all features of the system and is fully configurable. For example I'm only currently using it for in-text links because I think other additions don't fit on my type of blog.

Here's how an ordinary blog post looks on a vanilla installation of NanoBlogger:

Plain NanoBlogger

And here is the same blog post with the plug-in installed and with all features turned on:

Full glory of Zemanta NanoBlogger

This is how it looks behind the curtains (i.e. the user interface when you are writing a new blog post). Note the perfect integration into NanoBlogger user experience:

It makes our usability expert cry

Anyway, if you want to try it out, drop me a mail (I can't just put it up for download because you need an API key). Installation is easy - you just drop two files into NanoBlogger's plugin directory.

Update: coworker unfamiliar with NanoBlogger said I should give a before-after comparison.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Code | Comments »

My next Mac will be a PC

01.12.2007 14:55

One simple reason: it got really hard to do anything useful on my PowerBook after I upgraded to OS X 10.5 Leopard.

My office suite of choice is OpenOffice. Granted it wasn't very responsive even before the upgrade, but at least it responded fast enough to be usable. Now, it either doesn't start at all (version 2.2) or randomly crashes (version 2.3) after a couple of minutes of work. Now I'm using NeoOffice. That works, but has other quirks (like every once in a while it doesn't let me change the font). Did I mention how slow it is? It uses up practically all of computer's 1.25 GB of RAM and still takes around 5 seconds to show up a font selection dialog.

Other applications like Firefox and Thunderbird also got less stable. I often get first the spinning beach ball cursor and then after some minutes of unresponsiveness a crash dialog.

X11 applications are another pain with Leopard. GIMP and Inkscape will crash X11 or X11 will crash them once every 15 minutes. And they are also slow - much slower in my opinion than on OS X 10.3.

I also had to disable practically all of Leopard's fancy new features (at least those I could turn off). Spaces for example. After a couple of weeks of using it I found out that Spaces is a terribly broken implementation of virtual desktops. For example if I have several terminal windows scattered across desktops, and I switch with alt - tab to the Terminal application, Spaces will take me to a random desktop that has a Terminal window on it. Unusable and nerve breaking since most of the windows I used are terminals. It also plays terribly with X11.

There's also a problem with reboots - for some reason the system won't shutdown properly. It closes all applications but then hangs, showing just the desktop (something that painfully reminds me of similar problems I once had with Windows 95). Only a long press of the power button will help. The worst thing about that is that it does the same thing when restarting after installing software updates. I'm just waiting for some broken update to do some more serious damage.

Finally there are also some minor things that make the entire system feel unpolished. Like clipping errors on icon titles in Finder and some weird cases where I get random noise instead of transparent background in terminal windows.

Oh, and did you know that Finder now represents all non-Apple computers on the network with icons showing monitors that are displaying Blue Screen of Death? Now that's just childish. No Linux desktop I've ever seen did this and the average Linux user probably hates Windows more than an average Apple user.

Two years ago when I bought this PowerBook I bought it because it was a computer that really just worked. It seamlessly synchronized with my mobile phone and my other hardware, all applications worked out of the box and most free software I used on Linux also ran on OS X. I could really concentrate on my work instead of having to continuously tweak the operating system - something I don't want to do when I'm traveling with my laptop. Looking back this computer gave me the least problems and best experience of all systems I used.

With Leopard, all these benefits are gone... And if I can't have a system that works, then I rather have a PC with Linux where at least I can fix things myself when they aren't working.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Code | Comments »