Planning for spring

As the temps have dropped, and outdoor activities have come to a halt, I am finding that I am thinking more and more about the spring activities. For the first time, I have requested seed catalogs. I poked around on the Internet, looking for companies that sell organic and/or heirloom, heritage, non-hybrid varieties. So, I have catalogs from Johnny’s, Seed Savers Exchange , and Park Seed on their way, and I downloaded the catalog from Fedco. I also started thinking about how we would lay out the garden(s) and how I should go about making a “master plan”. I started looking around for software for laying out a garden (freeware/open source, of course). For OS X I found GardenSketch, which I have used before. It is still in beta, but includes a extensive database of plants, and grabs updates an photos from the MSU (Michigan State University) plant database. I found it worked well, and had great features for planning and logging a garden, but for planning out a 1.6 acre lot, it was a little clunky. It would work very well for individual garden plots within the master plan, but not for the master plan itself. On the Windows side, there were not any good finds that were specific to gardening. I resorted to looking for CAD software, and downloaded several. I must say, some CAD software is infernally frustrating to try to use if you never have before. It is also difficult to find a simple 2D CAD program; most seem to be geared toward 3D drafting. So I did finally find free2Design and found that will a little time, I was able to do what I wanted.

So what exactly did I want to do? I want a accurate aerial view drawing of our property, including buildings and trees. So I went to our county GIS site, found our plat, took a screenshot, cropped it down to an approximate likeness to the actual property lines (209′ x 335′ 6″), imported it into free2Design, and began tracing out the features. When I was done, the image can be hidden, and I have myself a nice drawing to work with. Once I have all the “permanent features”, I can divide the lot into areas, and label them. For instance, we will have a garden area around our carport that will have herbs. That particular section of the yard is area 7 and can have more detailed plans. Same with the shed, the “orchard”, and so on. Now I can develop a master plan, and maybe use GardenSketch for individual areas. Exciting!

So here it is, the map of the piano lot, with trees and buildings, divided into areas:

The areas are really only intended to break up the space into manageable chunks, so there are a few places that the break-up seems illogical. I will still do some tweaking to get it to look more thought out… There are also overlapping areas and areas that consist entirely of other areas in order to provide a unified plan for a certain feature.

Anyway, I am on the road to a master plan, which will also include list and lists of specific plants, which ones don’t get along, and which ones attract bees, repel pests, or attract natural enemies of pests. It is a long term project (years and years), and it feels nice to be able to think that far ahead.

Ubiquitous IM

I an playing with IMified.com, a tool that allows you to interact with various tools via IM. I can use it to manage my RTM items, Google calendar, and even post this entry to my blog. All through the IM client of my choice, which happens to be another online tool: Meebo.

Note: Posting did not quite work like I thought it would. The title was posted with a body of a single period. I will try again sometime…

Fiddling again

I have added a little chat feature to the menu. It uses meebome to send me messages, directly from my blog. Interesting, no? If you want to let me know who you are before you start chatting, use the “edit nick” field and put in your own name.

Go ahead, give it a spin!

Testing note:

If you move your cursor off the little chat window, it will go away and the contents will be lost. You will also not get a response from me. I don’t have a multi-column layout, so I don’t have a good place to stick it. I may have to break out some css-fu and add a pin feature.

ity-bity feature

Recently B and I have been getting almost all our blog fixes via google reader. I stumbled on it a few weeks ago when I was playing around with searches on Google, looking through robot.txt files to see what some websites don’t want indexed. I looked at Google’s own robot.txt file, and noticed a bunch of sub directories that I had never seen before, one being “/reader”. I had a look and thought it was rather nice! Up till then I had been using my.yahoo.com for watching blogs and feeds, and was not that impressed. It was clunky, and sometimes it took hours to be updated. It seems that Google reader was released back in October, and did not get such great reviews. I am glad I found it later, now that it seems to have settled down into a nice little service. What does it do? You pump in the URL of each of the blogs (or other sites that offer rss or atom feeds) that you read regularly, and it tries to autodiscover the feed. If it does, it gives you a chance to subscribe, and shows you all the recent posts. Once you subscribe, any new entries will show up on your reader home page. This means you don’t have to visit every blog/site in order to find out if they have updated. Now, some sites can be tricky to find the feed for. Here are a few hints:

  • Try appending ‘/atom.xml’ to the end. This works best with blogger sites
  • Try appending ‘/feed’ or ‘/?feed=rss2’ to the end. This works with WordPress sites
  • Try adding ‘index.rdf’ to the end. This works with sites that might use older rss implementations
  • If none of those work, you can try ‘/rss.xml’, or ‘/?feed=rss’

You can also subscribe to the comments, so that they also show up in your reader. This is a little trickier. Some sites have a link that says ‘Subscribe to comments’, others don’t even offer that feature. Blogger sites only offer comment feeds if the site author (or a friend) is geeky enough to figure out how to set it up. If you want to know, email me. To get WordPress comment feeds, try appending either ‘/?feed=comments-rss2’ or ‘/comments/feed’. So there you go, a web-based feed reader.

Now, the ity-bity feature? There is now a ‘Favorites’ link on the menu bar that lets you take a peek at my favorite posts from my favorite blogs. It only goes back a few days, so there is not much there yet. It is easy for me to look through and remove things that are no longer appealing. Enjoy!

RadioShack

Over the years of travel and moving, our stereo equipment is consistently on the list of things-to-get-rid-of-before-we-move. This has left us with a nice music collection that can only be played through computer speakers or headphones. Until now. B bequeathed me with a RocketFM transmitter for Christmas, and it has allowed us to expand our listing to anything that will tune in FM radio. That expansion included walkmen, and a single shop radio that belonged to B’s grandpa that still has the saw dust filtering out where ever it is placed. This was not really a big upgrade, but recently a friend passed on a stereo that has 2 speakers, and some bass! So, now we can actually listen to some rumblings on the other side of the house, and tune in from any room (almost). I did have to hack the RocketFM to extend the range, but that was why B bought me that one, she knew that I would have (get) to hack it to make it work well. It worked!

So, if you happen to be driving in down Round Lake Drive, and hear Cake, Jem, KT Tunstall, U2, or B-tribe while tuned into 88.1, that is Shackelford Radio.

Frugal Photo

Let’s see, I was browsing WordPress sites and found myself at PhotoMatt, where I read a post about USF.edu using wordpress. In the comments some one mentions that Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism also uses wordpress, and I happed to notice on that site a link to Pinoy Top Blogs. A casual perusal of the list found Litratista, a Pinoy photo hobbyist site. This site had quite a few links to frugal-style photography. It is the Filipino way to make do with what you have, so these are a few of the sites that I found, in that round about way, from Litratista:

Home studio on the cheap – This really is cheap, coming at around $75. I am not sure I have the space for this kind of setup, but I think i could swing the light box below.

Small budget photography – How to use what you have to look like a professional. A few basic skills and available software is all you need. Personally I would recommend getting familiar with The Gimp. It will do most of what you need, and maybe more for hundreds less (free, actually).

Build you own light box/tent – This would be perfect for small studio shots and macros. It would also come in handy for all those pictures of B’s projects.

Portable Gimp – This may only apply to Windows users, but it could be very handy for touch ups on the road, or for those of you who travel the world with a camera… You know who you are.

Using old SLR lenses with a digital SLR – Very handy if you already have some of these lenses, or have easy access to them. I think you could find them cheap on eBay well, so maybe it really is a good way to fill out your collection of lenses if you do not mind the drawbacks of more manual fiddling.

Unusual photography tips – These are just good tips that you may not have seen/heard before.

I had a lot of fun looking through these sites, and thought I would pass them along. Strange how one hobby (web design/Wordpress) led me to another, in a culture that I understand (Pinoy photography)

Ruby glue

I have stepped back into ruby recently with a project to tie our portal to our network provisioning scripts. The portal is WebSphere running on RedHat, and the provisioning scripts are in VBScript, on Windows. It is the perfect opportunity to actually learn how to really program (maybe). I do some SQL magic (ok, not really magic), and send off some system calls in separate threads to check or setup Exchange accounts, web space, or home folders. The goal is to make it modular so that new services can easily be added, and to daemonize a part of it so that it does not need to be run by Windows Task Scheduler.

I have finished most of it, and it seems to do what it should. What is strange is that I am not even sure I programmed well. I do not have the experience to know if there are easier ways of doing things, or if I have written 30 lines of code that could have taken 5. I am sure I _could_ enjoy programming, but right now it takes quite a bit of effort and research to figure out how to do things (kind of like Linux for the first few months) and it is very absorbing. I have trouble leaving work at work when I am programming because all the troubleshooting is abstract and in my head. Since I can’t leave my brain at work, it keeps hammering away at the problems. I also get irritable when I am interrupted, and that is not so good at work, or home. So I am in a hurry to get this little app finished so I can return to normal life.

Over-all I have enjoyed ruby, and it is fun to create. I like the object oriented aspect of the language and find it pretty easy to understand when I read through it. I start to think in ruby sometimes when I think of attributes and methods… I mean adjectives and actions.

daniel = Programmer.new
if daniel.focused
     print 'Do not disturb'
else
     unless daniel.mood = 'bad'
          print 'Daniel is feeling kindly toward you.'
     else
          print 'Daniel does not exactly want to talk to you.'
     end
end

Java rig

Java rig

Well, I have been roasting coffee for some time now (since Brother Nathan and family came up in March), but not until recenlty did I decide to eliminate or reduce the number of cramped muscles that are produced each 20-30 minute sessions per batch. First I set up the blocks on a military issue typing table and used c-clamps to hold them in place. That held the bowl, so that I am not as likely to lose the entire batch into the grass or gravel. Next I took a magnetic guage holder and rigid armature (can be found at McMaster-Carr), and used some bolts to cradle the heat gun. The armature has adjustment knobs, so I can aim the gun exactly where I want it. All that is left to hack together a stirring mechanism so I can just stand back and listen for evidence of a good roast…

Exg2Cal first release (v0.0.1 alpha)

I have just recently created my first useful ruby app (it is a class really). We run Exchange at work, and I felt some concern that those who use FOSS apps to get mail and calendar info would be out of luck if they wanted to do calendaring (not a word) within our organization. Currently that is only me. So I installed Ruby (v1.8) and Mondrian and started looking at Net::IMAP to pull messages from calendar folders. Exchange uses the vCal/iCal format for events and they are either attached to a message, or the content of a message. It works. It is not refined, and I know it could use some error handling, threads, and maybe just a good look-over, but here it is:

exg2cal.rb

It can be called like so:

require 'exg2cal'
jack=Exg2Cal.new("imap.server.com","folder","user","pass")
#this is a range
jack.extract(1..-1)
#this is the name of the ical file. Right now '.ics' is auto-appended
jack.write_cal("filename")
jack.finish

What it does:

  1. Connects to an imap server of your choice
  2. Selects the imap folder of your choice
  3. Looks at the messages (usually all of them)
  4. If there are messages that are not flagged
  5. It grabs the calendar part and adds it to a ical file
  6. And then flags the message

Possible problems:

  • It does not check to make sure the content is a calendar! This means that you have to make sure that the folder you aim it at is a calendar folder. I will be looking at this part next.
  • It can be slow. I will also make it threaded so that it can make some connections concurrently.
  • It is my VERY FIRST program written in any language, and therefore may just be a mess. I am not even sure it qualifies as a program.
  • No documentation. No too much to document yet, I guess, but it is still a problem, especially if I ever turn it into a huge bloated tangle someday.
  • The file that is created/used is in the same folder as the app. I would like to be able to put it up on a WebDav server so that other calendar clients can subscribe, etc. I think that before that I will make it so that you can choose where to put the file.
  • No interface, not even cli, yet. I will look at making one, but I do not want to create too many dependencies. Maybe I will make a rails interface…

I use it to update my Sunbird calendar for our department. I use Thunderbird for email, so I miss out on the outlook features, but I can now access both the email and calendar info on any platform. Admittedly this is a little silly because we do have OWA running…

Switch story

As alluded to in previous posts, I am primarily using Linux now as my OS of choice. Actually, that is not quite fair, as it is not really completely by choice. I do have a hard drive with Windows 2000 on it (and Baldur’s Gate II) that used to be in a borrowed computer, but when I put it into this one, it choked on the network card. The result is that I have a desktop (without BG II) that I am using for my daily use, and it happens to be Linux. I am enjoying the new environment, as I try to figure out how to do all the things I am used to doing in a new way (or at least evaluate if I am going to continue doing them if it really is this hard to figure out). My main tools are all the ones that I used under windows and OS X, so everything is fine there, but the file sharing part is a bit of a problem. I will save that for later. I started off using SimplyMEPIS, and I liked it. Soon, though, I grew bored and decided to see if I could install something new while leaving /home in place. I knew that it should be possible, I just was not sure that -I- could do it. I did not have a whole lot stored there, so I went ahead and installed Ubuntu on top. I found both easy to use, but the default window managers (KDE for SimplyMEPIS and Gnome for Ubuntu) were a bit bulky for my hardware and I installed XFCE on both. XFCE runs nicely, and I can get just about any package I need via the apt-get command. Sounds nice, but the only drawback was that under MEPIS my 15″ monitor would only do a max of 800×600. I can tolerate those large icons, but when it comes to remotely managing servers via VNC or RDP, it is insane. I found myself scrolling back and forth constantly, just to see what was in the log files. A recently acquired friend named Jeff told me that the local power company had a warehouse that is open to the public on Wednesdays, and they have 17″ monitors for $25. That was a good price for me, and so off I went. I picked up a nice black Dell monitor, and it does a nice 1024×768 although I am still working on a higher refresh rate. They also have Dell desktops that are around 900 MHz with 256 RAM, for $125. Not too shabby for a few extras around the house to do things like stream music and that sort of thing. Maybe after I get a job….