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Fontstuff at LibrePlanet 2018

I’m going to try and capture some thoughts from recent conferences, since otherwise I fear that so much information gets lost in the fog.

* (If you want to think of it this way, consider this post “What’s New in Open Fonts, № 002”)

I went to LibrePlanet a few weeks ago, for the first time. One of the best outcomes from that trip (apart from seeing friends) was the hallway track.

[FYI, I was happy to see that LWN had some contributors on hand to provide coverage; when I was an editor there we always wanted to go, but it was never quite feasible, between the cost and the frequent overlap with other events. Anyway, do read the LWN coverage to get up to speed on the event.]

RFNs

Dave Crossland and I talked about Reserved Font Names (RFNs), an optional feature of the SIL Open Font License (OFL) in which the font publisher claims a reservation on a portion of their font’s name. Anyone’s allowed to make a derivative of the OFL-licensed font (which is true regardless of the RFN-invocation status), but if they do so they cannot use *any* portion of the RFN in their derivative font’s name.

The intent of the clause is to protect the user-visible “mark” (so to speak; my paraphrase) of the font publisher, so that users do not confuse any derivatives with the original when they see it in menus, lists, etc.

A problem arises, however, for software distributors, because the RFN clause is triggered by making any change to the upstream font — a low bar that includes a lot of functions that happen automatically when serving a font over HTTP (like Google Fonts does) and when rebuilding fonts from source (like Debian does).

There’s not a lot of good information out there on the effects that RFN-invocation has on downstream software projects. SIL has a section in its FAQ document, but it doesn’t really address the downstream project’s needs. So Dave and I speculated that it might be good to write up such a document for publication … somewhere … and help ensure that font developers think through the impact of the decision on downstream users before they opt to invoke an RFN.

My own experience and my gut feeling from other discussions is that most open-font designers, especially when they are new, plonk an RFN statement in their license without having explored its impact. It’s too easy to do, you might say; it probably seems like it’s built into the license for a reason, and there’s not really anything educating you about the impact of the choice going forward. You fill in a little blank at the very top of the license template, cause it’s there, and there’s no guidance.  That’s what needs to change.

Packages

We also chatted a little about font packaging, which is something I’m keen to revisit. I’ve been giving a talk about “the unsolved problems in FOSS type” the past couple of months, a discussion that starts with the premise that we’ve had open-source web fonts for years now, but that hasn’t helped open fonts make inroads into any other areas of typography: print, EPUB, print-on-demand, any forms of marketing product, etc. The root cause is that Google Fonts and Open Font Library are focused on providing a web service (as they should), which leaves a
lot of ground to be covered elsewhere, from installation to document templates to what ships with self-contained application bundles (hint: essentially nothing does).

To me, the lowest-hanging fruit at present seems to be making font packages first-class objects in the distribution packaging systems. As it is, they’re generally completely bare-bones: no documentation, no system integration, sketchy or missing metadata, etc. I think a lot can be done to improve this, of course. One big takeaway from the conversation was that Lasse Fister from the Google Fonts crew is working on a specimen micro-site generator.

That would fill a substantial hole in current packages: fonts tend to ship with no document that shows the font in use — something all proprietary, commercial fonts include, and
that designers use to get a feel for how the font works in a real document setting.

Advanced font features in GTK+ and GNOME

Meanwhile Matthias Clasen has been forging ahead with his own work enhancing the GNOME font-selection experience. He’s added support for showing what variation axes a variable font contains and for exposing the OpenType / smart-font features that the font includes.

He did, however, bring up several pain points he’s encountered. The first is that many of the OpenType features are hard to preview/demonstrate because they’re sparsely documented. The only substantive docs out there are ancient Microsoft material definitely written by committee(s) — then revised, in piecemeal format, by multiple unrelated committees. For example, go to the link above, then try and tell me the difference between `salt` (stylistic alternates), `ccNN` (character variants) and `ssNN` (stylistic sets). I think there’s an answer, but it’s detective work.

A more pressing concern Matthias raised was the need to create “demo strings” that show what actually changes when you enable or disable one of the features. The proper string for some features is obvious (like `onum` (oldstyle numerals): the digits 0 to 9). For others, it’s anybody’s guess. And the font-selector widget, ideally, should not have to parse every font’s entire GSUB feature table, look for all affected codepoints, and create a custom demo string. That might be arbitrarily complex, since GSUB substitutions can chain together, and might still be incorrect (not to mention the simpler case, of that method finding you random letters that add up to unhelpful gibberish).

At lunch on Sunday, Matthias, Dave, Owen Taylor, Felipe Sanches, and a few others … who I’m definitely drawing a blank on this far after the fact (go for the comments) … hashed through several other topics. The discussion turned to Pango, which (like several other storied GNOME libraries), isn’t exactly unmaintained, but certainly doesn’t get attention anymore … see also Cairo….). There are evidently still some API mismatches between what a Pango font descriptor gives you and the lower-level handles you need to work with newer font internals like
variation axes.

A longer-term question was whether or not Pango can do more for applications — there are some features it could add, but major work like building in hyphenation or justification would entail serious effort. It’s not clear that anyone is available to take on that role.

Interfaces

Of course, that ties into another issue Matthias raised, which is that it’s hard to specify a feature set for a “smart” font selector widget/framework/whathaveyou for GTK+ when there are not many GTK-based applications that will bring their own demands. GIMP is still using GTK2, Inkscape basically does its own font selection, LibreOffice has a whole cross-platform layer of its own, etc. The upshot is that application developers aren’t bringing itches needing to be scratched. There is always Gedit, as Matthias said (which I think was at least somewhat satirical). But it complicates the work of designing a toolkit element, to be sure.

The discussion also touched on how design applications like Inkscape might want to provide a user interface for the variable-font settings that a user has used before. Should you “bookmark” those somehow (e.g., “weight=332,width=117,slant=10” or whatnot)? If so, where are they saved? Certainly you don’t want users to have to eyeball a bunch of sliders in order to hit the same combination of axes twice; not providing a UI for this inevitably leads to documents polluted with 600-odd variable-font-setting regions that are all only slightly off from each other. Consensus seemed to lean towards saving variable-axes-settings in sort of “recently used” palette, much as many applications already do with the color picker. Still waiting to see the first implementations of this, however.

As we were leaving, Matthias posed a question to me — in response to a comment I’d made about there needing to be a line between a “generic” font selector and a “full-featured” font selector. The question was what sort of UI was I envisioning in the “generic” case, particularly where variable fonts are concerned, as I had suggested that a full set of sliders for the fonts variation axes was too complex.

I’m not sure. On the one hand, the simple answer would be “none” or “list the variation axes in the font”, but that’s not something I have any evidence for: it’s just a easy place to draw a line.

Perhaps I’m just worried that exposing too many dials and controls will turn users off — or slow them down when they’re trying to make a quick choice. The consumer/pro division is a  common tactic, evidently, for trying to avert UI overload. And this seems like a place where it’s worth keeping a watchful eye, but I definitely don’t have answers.

It may be that “pro” versus “consumer” user is not the right plane on which to draw a line anyway: when I was working on font-packaging questions, I found it really helpful to be document-first in my thinking (i.e., let the needs of the document the user is working on reveal what information you want to get from the font package). It’s possible that the how-much-information-do-you-show-in-the-UI question could be addressed by letting the document, rather than some notion of the “professionalism” of the user, be the guide. More thinking is required.

You’re welcome, civilization

In other New Year’s Nonresolutions, I’m no longer going to be pretending that various software companies’ and FOSS projects’ ridiculous capitalization “policies” for their names are anything except the nonsense that they are.

If I’m starting a sentence with your project or product name, I’m capitalizing it. But I’m not capitalizing the whole word unless it’s an actual initialization or acronym, and I’m not CamelCasing it unless it’s an actual abbreviation.

Complain about this and I will slap you with a policy dictating that you can only write my name (or the names of any projects I’ve ever released or will release) in blackletter text rendered at 16pt (American points), in #3754A6, all caps, and that you have to stand up whenever you read it (silently or out loud) or think it. And I decide whether or not the font you’ve chosen is considered a genuine blackletter. No one other than the complainer will be required to follow this policy.

I feel better already, don’t you?

What Breaking Bad would look like if it was on broadcast television

[editor’s note: proceed with caution; this page contains ideas that may prove upsetting to decent-thinking persons. but they’re not my ideas; they’re the ideas of network executives, and I simply amassed them based on years of observation and reflection. so I’m fine with printing em.]

Breaking Bad.

We all love Breaking Bad.  But let’s face it: the fact that the series was snatched up by AMC is a two-sided coin. What I mean is: Yes, it means fewer commercials—but it also means a lower budget and a lot fewer viewers than it would have if it were produced by one of Hollywood’s top-tier broadcast networks, like ABC, NBC, CBS, or even Fox.

It’s too late now, but it’s still interesting to think about how the minds at the top of these time-tested entertainment empires would have moved the same source material.  Let’s take a look at this alternate universe that we’ll never get the chance to experience, side by side with what we’ve actually seen.

 

Walter White

Age: 50. Occupation: High school teacher / kingpin.

walt

The actor playing Walt needs to be 50 years old; that’s part of the storyline.  But he does need to be “TV 50″—we want audiences to actually tune in to watch the show, after all.  Which is to say: the camera needs to like him.  Paul Bettany is tailor made for this part: he’s thin, like a science nerd would be, but he can still believably deliver in the action sequences.  And people gravitate towards him, which is critical to establishing a hit show.  Plus, years of experience shows that there’s nothing US audiences love more than a British actor portraying an American protagonist.

Jesse Pinkman

Age: 25. Occupation: drug cook / chump.

jesse

Jesse is the secondary protagonist, a former student of Walt’s.  Since he’s a young guy, it’s your chance to add some star power that will attract a younger audience.  He needs to believably get caught up in the criminal underworld and hold his own against a wide variety of thugs and ne’er-do-wells, while still being someone the producers can send out on the talk show circuit.  Actor:  Scott Speedman.  OR WHOEVER.

Skyler

Age: mid-Forties. Occupation: mom.

skyler

Walt’s wife Skyler is there to be a dramatic foil to Walt, so she too needs a commanding screen presence. But there do need to be changes.  In the original series, Sklyer is an accountant, but she spends the majority of her time taking care of the kids.  That’s pretty dull (and that’s dull on both counts), and doesn’t give her much of a story arc to work with. So she needs her own angle. Bryce Dallas Howard gets the part, but the character needs updating so that she’s a corporate “fixer,” negotiating high-priced mergers and acquisitions, frequently by jetting off to exotic locations.  Unless the series is on Fox, in which case she’ll be a police psychologist, instead (which really ups the tension when the fuzz starts hunting down Heisenberg).

Hank Schrader

Age: 45. Occupation: DEA agent.

hank

Hollywood is committed to equality and to making shows that look like America looks.  And that means there needs to be a black character.  Secondary character.  Law enforcement is the perfect fit—it flips all of the stereotypes on their heads: Hank is the good guy, see?  Out to get the drug dealers.  On the other hand, the DEA is kind of an abstract agency that doesn’t really do much.  It would work if Hank is an undercover DEA agent, but for just regular detective stuff, the FBI would be far better territory from the audience’s perspective.  Second choice: the CIA, which opens up all kinds of counter-terrorism story possibilities.  After all, terrorists use drug trafficking to finance their sleeper cells.  How awesome does that sound, just in that one sentence? Actor: rising star Dayo Okeniyi.

Marie

Age: late thirties? Occupation: nurse or orderly or something.

marie2

Skyler’s sister, married to Hank. First off, since it’s impossible to get actual siblings, you can’t get too caught up in figuring out whether Skyler and Marie look similar enough to be relatives.  Establishing that they are sisters is a simple matter of dialogue: in the first two episodes, have them address each other “Hey, sister” and answer the phone “Hi sis!” a few times and reference “mom” to each other in conversation; people will pick up on it subconsciously, and you can drop it after the first month.

On the other hand, Marie’s boring job of medical technician or something is irrelevant and weird.  Good that she’s in the profession, yes, but it’s far more dramatic if she’s closer to the action. So she’s a neurosurgeon or maybe the head of oncology for the hospital.  She can even be the one that operates on Walt! In fact, that has to be what happens. And on Jesse and Hank, too; possibly several other characters, in emergencies. Actress: Anybody.

Walt Junior

Age: 15. Occupation: student driver.

junior2

Junior is Walt and Skyler’s son, who goes to the high school where Walt works. His main purpose in the story is to elicit sympathy and have medical bills.  In the AMC version of the show, he has CP, which is certainly great, and we want to support that community as much as possible, but sheesh: talk about a downer.  Junior definitely needs to have a chronic medical condition, cause that needs to drive Walt to his illegal activities, but it needs to be one people can relate to.  So, blind or deaf.  Everyone can understand those (and pretend to have those conditions, momentarily, so they can relate to Junior).  Blind is clearly the better choice: not only does he get to wear shades, but his blindness is symbolic, of how he’s blind to his father’s criminal secrets.  Get it?  The writing Emmys are going to stack up.

Although if the show is on Fox, Junior’s struggle will be not-quite-as medical, in that he really wants to be a dancer and the town is pressuring him to play quarterback instead. Actor: Who just had a CW series canceled?

Holly White

Age: 0. Occupation: dependent.

holly

Holly is Walt and Skyler’s infant daughter in the AMC series. Which is okay, I guess, but it’s far more interesting for everyone if she’s a spunky middle-schooler instead. She can have all kinds of great subplots, like being embarrassed by her parents, sneaking out of the house, her friends pressuring her to try drugs (IRONY); you name it. The point is, you need a young female character in order to get young female viewers.  Her storylines can get bigger every year as the audience grows and she becomes a fan favorite. Actress: Jessy Schram.

Saul Goodman

Age: late Forties. Occupation: lawyer.

saul

Saul is everybody’s attorney; you need an actor with gravitas to play that role: somebody who knows how to wear a suit; somebody who can be “slick” and charm a courtroom full of jurors. Somebody people want to emulate: the audience needs to be drawn to Saul’s success. He knows how to work the system.  Actor: That guy from Lost.

Tuco

Age: Thirties. Occupation: drug dealer.

tuco

Tuco is the first drug dealer Walt and Jesse tangle with. He needs to look like a drug dealer.  I.E., gangsta. All-black clothes, nickel-plated .45’s, the whole deal.  He does need to be Latino, so that it’s clear he comes from a cartel. Note that this does not affect the racial-balance quota; Tuco is not a main cast member, but as long as we have Hank we’re covered. Actor: Who’s played a drug lord before?

Gus Fring

Age: Fifties. Occupation: Big bad.

gus

Gus is the biggest drug trafficker in the region before Walt gets into the game. But c’mon: he needs to look like a drug kingin, not look like a dork. There can be only one choice for this part: the man himself, Jimmy Smits. Gus has to fill out a suit, rock the mirrored shades, and look like he deserves to be behind the wheel of that Bugatti he drives.

Mike

Age: Sixty-ish. Occupation: P.I..

mike2

Mike is the private investigator who “works” for Saul and also for Gus. He’s tough-as-nails and not afraid to get his hands dirty. Thus, he should look like a P.I. looks: fit enough to win in a bar fight, but with stubble so you know he’s street-smart. P.I.s are magnetic characters by nature, so you need a magnetic actor. He has just as much story potential as everyone else; just imagine what could happen if he rescues Holly from danger at Walt’s insistence?  Again, the drama writes itself.  He will also need a signature vehicle, like a brand new red Ford Mustang convertible, to take to stakeouts and make rescues with. Actor: Whatever that guy’s name is.

Gale

Age: 40. Occupation: second-string drugmaker.

gale

Gale is a genius scientist like Walt, hired on to kick the operation into high gear, and later turning into a competitor whose skill level threatens Walt and Jesse’s dominance. But you can’t just have a character that important be a bland blob or a lighter-weight nerd-clone of Walt himself.  To really create drama, he needs to be Walt’s total opposite: streetwise and dangerous.  Someone that drives the action; someone who makes things happen—someone who’s active, not passive.  Actor: Michael Trucco. Also, seriously: better name.  At the very least, “Dale.”  Preferably something more rugged, but also one syllable, like “Tagg” or “Kane.”

Todd

Age: 22. Occupation: bug zapper.

todd

Todd is one of Mike’s connections with criminal ties. He starts out working with a shady front business, then gets involved in other operations, then helps tackle the drug trafficking, too.  He’s essentially competition to Jesse, much like Gale Kane is to Walt. So they have to match wits, match fighting skills, match each other at gunplay, etc, etc. “Team Jesse” vs “Team Todd”! Although Todd would be a lot more interesting if he had more dimensions, like he works as a criminal informant sometimes, too, and is searching for his brother’s killer on the side. He can also rescue Holly from imminent danger a few times, which opens up all kinds of new Mike/Todd storylines for the audience to soak up.

Skinny Pete

Age: 25. Occupation: addict.

skinny

Skinny Pete is one of several friends of Jesse’s from the drug underworld. As someone on the low side of the drug empire business, they walk the line between dramatic tension and comic relief.  But with a name like Skinny Pete, there can be only one choice for the actor: Jorge Garcia. It’s irony again! That’s the fuel that makes dark comedy burn.  Although you would also want to combine him with Badger and Combo; too many friends makes for convoluted plotting.

Hector

Age: 200. Occupation: invalid.

hector

Hector is a former crime boss that tangles with Gus, Walt, and Hank.  Like all of the other drug dealers, he needs to be Hispanic, but he also needs to be old, which leaves Miguel Ferrer as the only choice. Good thing he’s a Tinseltown legend, and can be intimidating even though he’s elderly.

Agent Gomez

Age: 45. Occupation: DEA agent.

gomez

Gomez is Hank’s partner. Or coworker or whatever.  Do DEA agents have partners?  Presumably so, since they’re buddy cops.  In any case, the AMC version makes a pointless casting mishap with a generic person in the role.  Fortunately, that can be corrected by making Gomez a far more interesting strong, female character (the show needs that, and it’s the right thing to do).  The new Gomez should also be Hank’s boss, not his partner, to show that she’s empowered, and she needs to be a butt-kicking supercop on her own, to be a good role model.  Which means she gets to use her sniper skills and her hand-to-hand combat skills at least once per season, and means she does the rescuing, not Hank.  All while adopting a child.  Actress: Moon Bloodgood.

The Cousins

Trouble

cousins2

Okay; sometimes you just gotta admit that they nailed this one the first time through. Do I smell spin-off?

Crystal Meth

Plot device

meth

Walt sells drugs.  That’s vital to the show.  But seriously: crystal meth is the wrong choice on a number of levels.  First, it’s only used by rednecks, and that’s not good TV.  Second, it’s not really clear how you make crystal meth, and rather than spend time explaining that, you gain a lot of story time by working with something that has more action built right into it.

So, coke.  People understand coke, it’s worth a lot more money, and it has far more potential for drawing in other circles of characters and cartels.  For instance, Gus can be Colombian, which is where the cocaine comes from (without that, it’s a bit murky how the drugs move across the border anyway). Walt can use his science skills to chemically treat the cocaine so that it’s undetectable, so he still has to be a genius, and you can move the drugs in nightclubs and fancy bars, which is a way better backdrop than street intersections.

Although if the show was on Fox, it could also be replaced by an exotic synthesized hallucinogen that creates wild visual effects.

Albuquerque

Location

city

Forget it.  The new setting is Los Angeles.  First of all, nobody can spell the name of the dang place.  Second, in case you haven’t noticed, nobody lives in Arizona; it’s a desert wasteland.  You wouldn’t believably have high-powered government offices, hospitals, lawyers with fancy cars, private eyes, kingpins, and scientists in the middle of nowhere.  That part of the country would have maybe a medical clinic and a part-time country lawyer.  Third, it’s a big empty spot that looks drab no matter which direction you turn—there’d be no cinematography. Television is a visual medium.

LA is a far better environment on every level: you have nightlife, you have ghettos, you have classic locations and rich, colorful streets and buildings to shoot in. You have gangs and FBI offices and expensive medical facilities for Walt and Marie.  You have sophisticated people. And, best of all, all of it looks great. No question here.

Cancer

Premise

cancer

Last, but certainly not least, there’s the issue of Walt’s health.  On the original version of the show, Walt has lung cancer, which talk about a downer even compared to the other downers.  It doesn’t even make sense to start, since you get lung cancer by smoking (and we can’t have him do that). But worse yet, it’s slow and depressing, and it’s not interesting to see in diagnosis or in treatment.  And it doesn’t even tie in to the plotline of the show??  How confusing is that?

Far better is to have Walt’s dramatic medical condition be something that relates to who he is.  Like, instead of being a teacher his whole life, maybe he used to be in the army using his chemical skills some way in the field, like as an explosives expert.  And when he was in Iraq, he got that Gulf War Syndrome or got an accidental dose of poison gas from one of Saddam’s biological weapons stockpiles. But he doesn’t know it until later.  Or it’s classified operation, like maybe it was really people in his unit going rogue who had the chemical weapon, because they were stealing it, and he fought back and destroyed it, but he got sick in the process, and the commanding officer doesn’t kill him but says “I’m going to leave you to die slowly, just like they did to my wife” or something like that, so Walt has a grudge but he can’t prove anything. That makes the sickness relevant to the story. That makes it part of who he is.  That makes it drama.

Although if the show is on Fox, we can still go one better; rather than Walt destroying the stolen chemical weapon, the rogue CO injects him with a dose of it and forces him to keep quiet about the heist or he’ll detonate the capsule remotely, but then it starts to leak so Walt knows he only has so much time left so he heads down a dark path of drug dealing in order to make contacts that will lead him to the members of his old unit and he uses the money he raises to track them down so he can exact vengeance one by one.  And also Hank was a paratrooper in the same unit but he doesn’t believe Walt’s story and also Walt’s name is changed to “Walter Badd” and the show is called “Breaking Badd.”

It’s perfect.

[editor’s other note: I originally intended to end with a photocollage mock-up of the alternative cast and the revised show name, but when I started making it it just made me depressed because of how realistic it is that that’s how it’d actually go down. so use your imagination instead.]

What it’s like to use Linux sometimes

A radio play in one act. For two performers.

COMPUTER: Hello, user! Your wireless card isn’t going to work today.
USER: What?? Why not? It worked yesterday. In fact, it worked all last week.
COMPUTER: Tough. Today it won’t.
USER: Well, you can’t trick me. I haven’t touched the configuration since the last time I logged in; everything will be fine.
COMPUTER: No, it won’t. I’ll connect to your AP, but all of your DNS lookups will time out.
USER: Ha! I’ve got you! I’ll change the DNS settings so that the queries are directed to my other box.
COMPUTER: No you won’t. The network settings are hidden.
USER: They aren’t hidden; I’ve done this before, when I set up a DNS server on my other box and my router to handle local hostnames.
COMPUTER: That doesn’t matter. Every six months, all of the system admin tools are changed and replaced by your distribution. Whatever you learned last time is of no value.
USER: Pfft. I’ll still find it.
COMPUTER: You can try, but the names of the applications have changed too. Plus, the desktop environment you use has been revised twice, so none of the system admin apps are available in any menus.
USER: So? I’ll search for them. I guess that’s what I’m supposed to do.
COMPUTER: You can try, but you won’t guess the names. And the descriptions of the apps are not indexed by the search tool back-end.
USER: Now you’re just lying; I’ve read in blog post after blog post that the search framework indexes the descriptions of the applications.  I think I even heard it in a talk.
COMPUTER: Knock yourself out, then.
USER: Dammit! What the hell did they describe this thing as?? I’ve tried “network,” “connection,” and “settings” — all it finds is a VPN setup tool and something to configure Twitter accounts! I’m running out of synonyms.
COMPUTER: Don’t feel bad; the app you’re thinking of probably isn’t installed by default anyway.
USER: That’s absurd; of course the system admin apps are installed…. Right? And if it’s not, I’ll install it.
COMPUTER: From where?
USER: Gar.  Wait a second; I don’t need to mess with that anyway — I’ll edit /etc/resolv.conf
COMPUTER: Won’t help; you’re using DHCP.
USER: Well, I’ll just edit the DHCP settings…
COMPUTER: In what, the network admin tool?
USER: Dammit! No, no; can’t get out of control — I’ll edit the DHCP configuration files by hand. Let’s see … there appear to be two of them, in /etc/dhcp/ and /etc/dhcp3/ … I wonder which one is the right one?
COMPUTER: You should probably look that up.
USER: Ah; good idea. Let’s open Googl — Dammit!! Not funny!!
COMPUTER: Okay, that was a low blow. But you were getting ahead of yourself.
USER: Well, it backfired anyway. I just realized I don’t *need* DNS at all; I can look up all of the IP addresses I want to visit on one of my other PCs, then enter them by number in the location bar.
COMPUTER: Actually, you can’t. All this time, you assumed we were having a DNS problem, but in fact all of your traffic is going to time out, even if you enter the addresses by number.
USER: That’s ludicrous. Clearly that indicates a connectivity problem; I’ll log in to the router.
COMPUTER: Heh heh; good luck.
USER: Who needs luck? It’s six feet away, and I’m already connected to it. I can type in 192.168.1.1 and bring up the admin interface … any moment now … oh come on, hurry up … Dammit!!! What the hell is going on here?
COMPUTER: I can’t divulge that.
USER: Well it must be a hardware problem. Everything has been working fine for weeks, I haven’t touched the software or altered the configuration, and it isn’t on the router’s side.
COMPUTER: That’s a possibility; you should check to see if there are known issues related to this.
USER: Okay; I will, from by other box…. Well, my distribution has nothing similar sounding in the issue tracker, and everyone on the forum says it’s probably the DE at fault…. Although everyone on the DE mailing list says my distro changes some of the defaults, so they don’t support it. Unless it’s the browser…. But the browser forum says I’m eleven versions out of date, since they now issue “mandatory” updates every three days; what I’m running through my distro is “unsupported.” And I could download an update and install it manually over the distribution’s repository package, but then they wouldn’t support me if it turned out not to be the browser’s fault … plus I can’t download it anyway, since I have no connectivity. But I’m not sure that helps anyway. Clearly something was working fine yesterday and isn’t today. If it’s not hardware there’s very little else it could be. Apparently everybody in the kernel driver community hates this WiFi chip because of some dust-up in 2007, but I can’t really apply what they say about it on the mailing lists, because they’re all running a development kernel on some distribution that I think they seem to have written from scratch. But it doesn’t matter: it’s hardware; I can verify that by booting into OS X on the other partition.
[ -REBOOT- ]
COMPUTER: Welcome to OS X; everything is running normally.
USER: Dammit. Maybe if I just use OS X for a few days, the problem will go away again all on it’s own.

Wish List: FMtransmit-o-navigator

I love the built-in FM transmitter that came in the N900 Maemo phone; it’s a thousand times easier to take you music (or audiobooks) with you on the go, especially in the car.  No cables necessary whatsoever. The only weak point is that there are so many FM stations that if you’re on a road trip, you have to adjust a lot to find a free frequency.  [Note: changing the FM transmitter frequency is a colossal pain; impossible to do while driving, which is its own bug.  Activating/deactivating the transmitter is also inconvenient, but at least there is a community-developed widget to fix that.]

Based on my personal motto “never do for yourself what a computer can do for you”, what I’d really like to see is a way to automatically find an unused frequency.  For starters, can you even find that information, even offline?

Supposedly, you can.  The site radio-locator.com has US coverage data, and individual maps.  But it’s not very usable (ie, you can’t see multiple coverage maps and where they overlap_, and they ask for fees for reuse.  The FAQ page at http://www.radio-locator.com/cgi-bin/page?p=maps says they harvested the data from the FCC, but not precisely where.  But if they can do it, an open project could, too.

If you had the info for each station, it wouldn’t be hard to plot it together on a free map (if you can’t tell, I’m a total GIS novice). Then plotting the “best frequency” choice for a given road-trip itinerary would be a shortest-path search.  In 3-d. The 2-d map, plus the “used” frequencies in the third dimension.  You might could find one frequency usable for the entire trip, or if not, a list of frequencies with the fewest possible numbers of switches.

It would be superdoubleplus awesome if your FM transmitter could change *for* you as you passed (via GPS location) from one frequency coverage area to another, but that’s extra credit.

So who’s with me?

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