Tuesday, October 28, 2008

iPod Touch: A Major Mystery Solved, and New Toys

The Great Crashing Mystery and the new toy are intertwined, so I'll start with the new toy first and then show how it led to Solving the Great Crashing Mystery.

The latest free new toy to be installed on my Touch is Google Earth. I installed it via App Store; it's currently #1 in the top 25 free apps.

After installation I tried to run it and it crashed almost immediately. And it crashed every time I tried to start it. I was already having to deal with a crashing web browser (Safari) and the New York Times news browser, but a crashing Google Earth was just too much. So I went looking at the Google Earth reviews in the App Store and it wasn't long before one commenter remarked that he stopped the Google Earth crashes by resetting his Touch; that is, by turning it off. So I did that, and lo and behold Google Earth no longer crashed.

Not only that, but Safari and the New York Times news browser stopped crashing as well. I have no idea why they were crashing before, or why 'rebooting' the device solved the problem, but I'm certainly a lot happier. I have a half-baked theory based on my some past experiences and a few facts I know about what runs the Touch. My theory is based on the fact that an embedded version of Mac OS X is running on the touch. I believe that being a Unix derivative it still needs swap. And I believe that the swap is fixed in size. As I've loaded new applications, music, and video on the Touch that swap area become constrained, unable to grow contiguously when 'heavy' applications, such as Safari, the New York Times news browser and Google Earth demanded more swap space than could be provided. So when those applications hit the swap limit they crashed. Rebooting (hard off then on) the Touch allowed the OS to re-init the swap space in a new area. And now those applications can run with more swap without crashing. Again, this is just my personal theory.

One application I really enjoy is Stanza, and with its last update to version 1.5 it acquired a cover-flow capability for showing the books in its library. You can see my collection of Doctorow books below.

Oh, and one other good effect of rebooting. Battery life is better, especially while surfing the web. Again, I have no clear idea why, but perhaps it was thrashing and the reboot allowed the system to sort itself out with regards to memory usage. I really need to get the SDK and start digging into the Touch.

Minor Touch Tip

I stumbled upon this by accident, but screen captures can be had by pressing the power button and the home key simultaneously and then quickly releasing them. The screen will go briefly white, then the original screen contents will return. If the volume is turned up you'll also hear what sounds like an old 35mm SLR going off. The screen captures can be found under Photos | Saved Photos. They can be pulled from the Touch by plugging the Touch into your system and allowing Windows to 'Download pictures from a camera or scanner.' Or at least it can under Windows XP SP3.

Monday, October 27, 2008

My Tax Dollars at Work - The Florida State Capitol

I know it's been documented before. I mean, it even has an entry describing its 'somewhat' phallic symbolism in Wikipedia. But for the first time in the twenty-four-plus years I've lived in Florida, I finally noticed the grand phallic symbol that is Florida's State Capitol.

It was a perfect late autumn Florida day, with low humidity, in the mid 70's, and not a cloud in the sky. I crested a hill while driving and there it stood in all its radiant glory before me. You can see it quite clearly driving west on Apalachee Parkway, right as you crest the hill between Marriott Drive and Broward Street. I stopped just long enough to step out of the car and take this shot with my Olympus E-300 and a 40-150mm zoom at 150mm. And to think, outside of F.S.U., I labored under the delusion all these years that there wasn't anything worth seeing in Tallahassee.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Memory issues: Firefox 3.0.2 and Mandriva 2008.1

I've still got Mandriva 2008.1 installed on europa, the aging 32-bit Athlon XP system, and I'm running Firefox 3.0.2 I had downloaded from Mozilla and installed (untarred) into my home directory. Up to this point I've not had any memory issues, but today I happened to look up at the system monitor running in my upper panel and saw that a good chunk of the 2GB of system memory was consumed along with 1GB of swap. So I opened system monitor, then exited Firefox and watched memory consumption. Sure enough nearly all swap was recovered as was nearly 1.75GB of system memory.

Normally my Mandriva box stays up all the time along with a single instance of Firefox with multiple tabs, and I don't usually have any problems. Firefox this time had 21 tabs open, which is not a lot for me.

The image to the right shows memory usage right before I exited Firefox. I let the system sit 'idle' for a few moments before I restarted Firefox again. You can see the corresponding network activity on the lower right, with a very modest increase in system memory consumption. Then it settles down. I have no real idea what caused it, but it would seem that there are still a few corner cases with regards to memory leaks within Firefox 3. I wonder if the developers have killed a few more memory leaks for 3.1 without introducing any new ones. I guess we'll see.

Monday, October 20, 2008

iPod Touch: One Month On

I purchased the latest generation iPod Touch 2G (32Gb storage) a week after it was released. I've had a chance to work with it, loading applications, surfing the web, playing audio and video as well as working with the iTunes store.

What I've enjoyed the most has been the Touch's video playback. It's been clear and beautiful on my device. The playback has been silky smooth, with no jumps or stutters. I've downloaded a few TV shows from iTunes, both free and for-pay, and I've enjoyed watching them all. I've taken a few screen shots of some of the video playback and stitched the frames together to avoid chewing up too much screen real-estate as well as providing multiple frame comparisons. The first four frames were from the Battlestar Galactica episode "He That Believeth In Me", an iTunes freebee. Note the clarity of the frames, especially around detail in highly complex scenes such as the first and third. Note also, as in the second, the smooth transition of shadowing and color. And finally note the detail in the shading of the last scene.

The second set of frames are from the Star Trek Remastered series. The first two frames are from "Man Trap", the third is from "Space Seed", and the fourth of two dudes and a space babe are a scene from "Balance of Terror". Again note the good color, contrast, and detail all throughout.

I paid $1.99 for each of the STR episodes, and consider it money well spent. I can play it on my Touch or move it around and play it on some of my other systems. I doubt I'll get very many of the TOS episodes. In spite of my fondness for the show, and the great treatment they've received during the remastering process, the shows need to stand on their plot and story, and for that reason I doubt I'll purchase very many first season shows, and certainly none from season two or three.

What's next are two scenes from the movie "Ice Age." What's special about this movie is I first ripped it from DVD using K3b when I was running openSUSE 10.2. I then used ffmpeg on Mandriva 2008.1 to down sample the movie for my wife's iPod Nano. She watched it while she was recuperating during her last knee operation. It looked well enough on the smaller Nano screen, but when it played on my Touch a lot of quality robbing artifacts showed up.

The colors seem muddy and the edges seem blurry. Note, in particular, the artifacts around the daffodil in the second image. I wanted to grab this still because it's even more noticable on the Touch's screen. This isn't a criticism of any tools or distributions. It is, instead, a lesson on what can happen when you run video one time too many through a lossy encoding process. In this case it looks like something off of YouTube. I'm deciding now if I want to try to rip it again, or just buy the movie for $2 off of iTunes. There's something to be said for low prices and convenience.

Mobile Safari

As pleased as I am with content playback, I'm less than satisfied with using the Touch as a web surfing device. Mobile Safari crashes when it hits complex sites such as Webmonkey, Apple's on site, and Ars Technica. Sites that are light weight to start with (Engadget) or present a mobile site (Gizmodo and OSNews) do not cause the browser to crash. The only mitigating circumstance is that only the browser crashes, and it starts back up and remembers the last page it was browsing. I can usually finish reading the page and then move on until the next crash. The current release of the Touch's software is 2.1.1. I'm curious to see if Mobile Safari is more robust in 2.2. If Apple is still insistent on using Mobile Safari as a key platform for mobile applications then it's certainly going to need to be a lot more robust and stable than it currently is.

Installed Applications

My selection of installed apps is a bit hodge-podge. They are, except for Koi Pond, free. My most used application seems to be Stanza, and I've got 87 books on its "shelves" so far. It's been trouble free from the start and a great enjoyment. The second-most used application is the NY Times application. It, in contrast to Stanza, has been troublesome from the start. It crashes even more often than Mobile Safari does, and does so when you're trying to read an article while it's off updating itself via WiFi and the web. Again, it remembers the last article being read, so it's no problem re-starting it and picking up where it "left off." It would, however, be nice if it didn't crash at all. Besides, it's hard to knock free.

The crashing of applications underscores an important feature of the Touch and it's embedded OS X. And that is, while the app crashes, the device does not. This stands in stark contrast to the Nokia 770; when the browser crashes it takes down the entire device, forcing it to reboot. And when that happens it takes minutes for the 770 to restart and return back to its opening screen. And what does the 770 run? Essentially the same as the 800 and 810; Maemo, Nokia's tuned version of Linux running Hildon, their special GUI. No, this is not a kick as Linux in general. Yes, I do believe Apple does a much better job than Nokia.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Learning to like KDE again

Back in July I made the rather silly proposal to 'fork' KDE 3 to using Qt4. I made that proposal based on my negative experiences with KDE 4.0, before actually checking out the KDE 3 code and performing even a cursory review of the code base. I eventually performed those actions and came to really understand how complex and convoluted the KDE 3 codebase had grown over the years. And I came to appreciate, as others had warned, how difficult a task it would be.

It was only a short matter of time after making that announcement before KDE 4.1 was released. And with that release have come new releases of distributions that use it. An excellent example of a KDE 4.1 DE/distribution release is, in my opinion, Mandriva 2009. The more I work with the latest version of Mandriva and KDE 4.1.2 the more comfortable I am with the entire distribution. I honestly haven't felt this good about a Linux distribution using KDE since openSUSE 10.2 and KDE 3.

I believe the best course of action now is to work within the KDE 4 environment using Qt 4.4 and later, and add back in those features that are missing or adding new features that would have been difficult to add to KDE 3. Yes, I like the direction that Mandriva and KDE 4.1 is taking. I like it a lot.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Mandriva 2009

Madriva released 2009.0 today, and I downloaded and tested the Mandriva One KDE 4.1 live version. The system booted up without any issues. Once up and running I was able to quickly tweak the look-and-feel to something I liked, as can be seen below.

With one interesting issue, everything Just Works with Mandriva One 2009. The one notable exception is Compiz. Mandriva One comes bundled with the AMD/ATI video drivers, and Mandriva One uses the commercial driver as you can see below.

Outside of the Compiz issue, everything seems to be working just fine, although it seems to be shipping with pre-release versions of Open Office (OOO300m7) and the kernel (2.6.27.rc8). Overall I'm quite pleased that this version of Mandriva is working on europa, which is approaching its fifth birthday. It's performance is quite good, even for a live CD version. I've been thinking of rebuilding europa with a low-cost, low-power quad-core Phenom processor with 4GB of DRAM and 1TB of disk space. I've priced parts for a complete system on Newegg for around USD$800, which is 1/3 what I paid for europa. And to top it off it will consume less power.

I have downloaded and booted beta versions of Ubuntu 8.10 and Fedora 10, and I suppose I could compare and contrast, but really, why bother. I purchased a one-year Mandriva subscription back in May, and I hope to be able to download and install/upgrade the Power Pack in October or November. My negative experiences over the last 12-18 months (since spring 2007) with openSUSE, Ubuntu, and Fedora have pretty much cured me of distro-hopping. Mandriva may not suit everyone, but it's more than fine for me.