Category Archives: Software

Rail Rant

I recently purchased some rail tickets online and arranged to collect them at a station I was to be passing through. Of course I forgot as I passed through said station so the other day I tried to go and collect them.

It really shouldn’t have been hard, I’ve done it several times before, you just go to the station from which you’ve arranged pickup and insert your credit|debit card into the collection machine.

Only this time it wanted a reference number. I vaguely remember being given one of those and told I would need it to collect the tickets. Bother.

Today I headed back, inserted my card, tapped in the reference of the first ticket. Boom. Tickets printed.

Round two, insert card again. Boom. More tickets! Wait, what?!? No reference number this time? …

That’s right – you only need to enter the reference number when you have more than one set of tickets to collect. Rubbish!

Is this really the best they could do? I’m certain I’m not the first to encounter this flaw in the system design, and surely I won’t be the last.

I can understand the potential use case where users only want to collect a certain set of tickets, leaving others for collection at a later date, but when your input method is a touchscreen UI asking the user to enter a reference number seems like perhaps the worst way of choosing which tickets to print.

What a load of pants!

Ghostly

When I read about Nine Inch Nails’ latest project, Ghost, I was inspired to hear of a well known artist sticking it to the man and releasing their content without a label and distribution chain, much as JoCo does (although I’d imagine Trent Reznor has much more bankroll behind him than Jonathan Coulton).

As the first (of four) parts of Ghost was a free taster I went to the site and downloaded it, 3 days later I’d listened to it at least once daily and wanted to hear the rest of the collection. $10 is a paltry fee for two pressed CD’s so I ponied it up (plus another $13 for shipping, about £12 in total) and was offered a free one time download of the audio file, DRM free, in either high quality MP3, Apple Lossless Audio or FLAC.

Geek that I am I chose FLAC, for purest quality to later be encoded as I chose. The connection was mighty slow so in the mean time I researched methods for converting the FLAC files to 192kbs MP3s to go on my MP3 player. Here’s what I came up with:

Option 1: Using the command line gst-launch program with a pipeline deduced from the Brian Pepple’s blog and the gst-launch man page: gst-launch filesrc location=file.flac ! decodebin ! lame bitrate=256 ! filesink location=file.mp3

Option 2: Programatically, in Python, as explained at n3il wiki. Uses Python to call gst-launch with a similar pipeline as above but use Python to script passing all of the files in a directory.

Option 3: Using a tidy little Gtk+ application, SoundConverter, which uses uses Gstreamer to encode to one of a variety of formats (MP3, Ogg, Flac, Wav.).

Why I Loved Being a Mac OS X User and My High Hopes for Fedora 9

I’ve previously mentioned that I’m now running a Linux laptop as my primary (non-work) machine. I still miss aspects of using an iBook, but fortunately it looks like Fedora 9 is set to abolish the remaining issues – further cementing my use of Linux on a laptop.

First of all I should mention the things that I loved about using my iBook with OS X throughout my University career and beyond, it’s also probably useful to mention why I wanted to switch to Linux full time.

My use case for my primary machine has always been a little strange, unlike most geeks (who seem to have at least two machines in regular use) I like to have only one computer upon which I do all of my work and store all of my data. Because I move around quite a bit (and have done since I started university) a desktop is less than practical as it means only being able to use the machine when I am in one location, so about 3-4 days of the week on average.
However I also like to plug my laptop into an external keyboard, mouse and monitor and use my laptop like a desktop with dual screens and the more comfortable sitting position amongst other benefits.

The reason I ended up purchasing an iBook to fulfil these needs is that I had given myself enough Linux exposure that I had become accustomed to and preferred using certain pieces of software, including the solid development tool chain, and that I prefer the Unix/Linux way of doing things to the Windows way.

So why not stick with the Mac OS? Why buy a new machine and put Linux on it? Two related questions, one answer.

Most of the applications I care about using are open source and cross platform; Firefox, Vim, GCC. On top of that I really like the GNOME desktop, it’s a joy to use and does everything I want and more without getting in the way. Thirdly I love how rapidly Linux develops, 6-monthly distro updates! Neat! It’s really fun to get an updated OS packed with new features every 6 months, even if you don’t use all of the features. Finally I like the thought of being able to modify the software should I need, or want, to. I used mainly open source applications on Mac OS X so it makes sense to have those freedoms all the way down the stack.

There is of course the whole political side of Free and/or Open Source Software but my opinions on that are no way near well formed enough to even discuss that here.

So, why the new laptop? My iBook was starting to age showing both physical signs of wear and tear and more importantly beginning to feel slower as I updated to newer versions of software. I think slightly longer than 2 years is an OK lifetime for laptop and I was itching for some newer, faster, kit with a nicer display.

Why Fedora? It does everything I want and offers me the benefits mentioned above with regard to Gnome and an (almost entirely, I use proprietary drivers and Flash) Free software stack running on my computer. I chose Fedora over other distros as it feels solid and polished and I am a big fan of Red Hat.

What makes Fedora 9 so exciting? Mainly that it is set to increase the polish on areas that matter to me while adding features that will further enhance my computer usage. More specifically the following proposed features are highly anticipated:

  • Randr Support – At the moment if I want to switch between dual screens and a single screen I have to restart X. That really sucks as I lose all my running applications etc. It’s not a huge burden but it adds a login/logout cycle that I didn’t have on OS X and hopefully won’t have on Fedora 9! Randr support should mean when display is connected or disconnected X detects this and acts appropriately and, hopefully, that Gnome supports multiple display configurations better – it does OK at the minute but it’s not great.
  • Network Manager Improvements – Presently my laptop spends a good few minutes of its boot process trying to probe the network interfaces, which aren’t configured because I use Network Manager. It’s also pretty annoying that when I plug in a cable my WiFi is disconnected and the wired interface brought up. Disconnecting me, and more importantly any connected applications, from the internet momentarily.
    Starting NM earlier in the boot process and implementing support for multiple simultaneous connections should solve (or at least start to solve) these issues nicely.
  • One Second X – Get into your graphical desktop faster. Can’t be a bad thing, anything that improves time till usable is great by me! This will also help a little if the Randr support doesn’t quite make it.

There are also several planned enhancements/features which strongly appeal without directly affecting my current work flow. Some of these will be useful to me while others just appeal to the geek within:

  • DeltaRPM Support (Presto) – Why download a whole package when you can just download the differences. Should improve update speed as less data will need to be transferred over the network.
  • Fingerprint Readers – My new laptop has a fingerprint reader built in. Being able to use it for authenticating myself instead of a password will be novel, at least, if not useful. It reads like they will implement password/fingerprint side by side such that either will be usable so authentication won’t be fully dependant on a fingerprint.
  • Bluetooth enhancements – The current Bluetooth support in Gnome is usable if a little user-unfriendly. From what I’ve read on this the improved bluetooth support will make my very infrequent usage of it much smoother.
  • Encrypted Filesystem Support – I’m not sure if I will ever use this feature personally but it seems like a great feature to have and one I hope will drive more government departments to use Linux. Perhaps wishful thinking but every man must dream.

Fedora 9 is due to have a final release on the 29th April, I can’t wait. In fact I’ve been extremely tempted to install and run the developer snapshots but instead I think I’ll wait until the beginning of April for the preview release.

In short; the thing I loved about being an Apple laptop (with OS X) user was that it when I didn’t care to be a geek the software got out of the way and let me be a user. It looks like Fedora 9 will do the same!