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Name: Jason Hildebrand
Member since: 2002-04-15 03:18:20
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Homepage: http://www.opensky.ca/~jdhildeb

Notes:

I'm a graduate of the Computer Science program at University of Waterloo.

In addition to doing software consulting and programming for several non-profit organizations through PeaceWorks Computer Consulting, I also do consulting for several of my own clients. In my work I use and contribute to free software as much as possible; one of the results is Phormation.

My OS of choice is Debian (the Univeral Operation System) which I've been using for over four years.

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Recent blog entries by jdhildeb

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Why I eschew Hollywood

Watched Pirates of the Caribbean last night -- the first "mainstream" movie I've seen in a year or two. Every now and then it's nice to watch a mainstream Hollywood movie just to reconfirm why I generally choose to watch independent or foreign films:

1. I prefer films with substance. A movie which, at its essence, consists largely of elaborately choreographed battle scenes is very impressive visually, but ultimately unsatisfying.

2. It's nice when a movie has a female character, not just a female plot device. There's a difference.

3. It's nice to watch something creative, and not just a rehash of a tried-and-true provably-profitable recipe. It seems to me like every Disney movie can be reduced to the same old story, told over and over by different characters set in different venues.

As a Canadian expecting to have to buy a newer car this year, I've been doing some research as to what kind of car to look for. Of course both gas/electric hybrids and vehicles using alternative fuels (compressed natural gas) are very clean, but for the amount we use the car (very little), I decided it's not worth it for us to spend that much money on a car.

Instead, I've been trying to find out whether or not I should favour a diesel vehicle. Sure diesel engines use less fuel, but do they produce less emissions? Are the emissions overall more or less harmful than those from gasoline engines?

First, I found out that both the Canadian and US governments are aiming to clean up diesel emissions, which would be done by installing particulate filters on diesel vehicles. However, these filters will only be introduced once ultra-low sulphur diesel fuel becomes widespread, because this is a prerequisite for the filters to work effectively. Government legislation comes into effect (in Canada) in 2006 which requires refiners and importers to reduce sulphur content to ultra-low levels, and the first vehicles with "advanced emission control technologies" (particulate filters) will not be available until at least 2007.

Second, I was curious to know how current diesel emissions compare to gasoline emissions. The EPA produces a listing of vehicles rated by emissions on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the "cleanest"). I noted that there are only gasoline vehicles in the 7-10 range; the cleanest diesel (the New Volkswagen Beetle) is rated only 6 out of 10.

My conclusion is that at least in the short term (the next 3-5 years), gasoline is favourable over diesel in terms of emissions. Even after 2006, when ultra-low sulphur becomes the norm, an existing diesel vehicle would need to be retrofitted with a particulate filter in order to reduce emissions. And as this will be very new technology, it will likely be expensive to have this done.

12 Dec 2003 (updated 12 Dec 2003 at 21:05 UTC) »

Never really got into blogging, but after learning of Ettore's passing today I was moved to read some of his friends' memories about him. I like the way people use blogs to connect with each other, and get to know each other (I also find it cool the way Planet Gnome aggregates lots of different blogs into one using RSS).

I never met Ettore myself, but I did trade a few emails with him when working on gnome-vim. I remember reading his blog back a couple of years ago when I was getting to know the names of people in the gnome community, and feeling like I got to know him a little bit.

18 May 2002 (updated 18 May 2002 at 20:51 UTC) »

Gnome-vim

I got replies from Michael Meeks and Maciej Stachowiak on the gnome-components list. Maciej pointed out the existence of a "private" flag that can be passed by the client when instantiating a bonobo object, which will ensure that a new object is created. The drawback is that the client would have to know to pass this parameter, and so would be somewhat gnome-vim specific.

A more reasonable solution, he continued, would be to write a "proxy" factory which uses the "private" flag to instantiate gnome-vim instances. This means that each client would get a unique instance, but wouldn't have to do anything special.

Michael encouraged me to submit a bug report about this, so that a new feature can be added to bonobo-activation after Gnome 2.0 is out, which will handle my case more cleanly.

CDBackup

PeaceWorks has some contracts to supply public access workstations in Kitchener/Waterloo and Cambridge. The platform was (unfortunately) chosen to be Win 2000, which was beyond our control -- I think Linux would have been well-suited for this task. I have been working on a useful Linux-based backup solution for these workstations, which will likely be released as free software within the next few months.

The idea is to be able to back up the complete state of each workstation at any point, and to be able to use these backups to restore a machine to a known state. This way, a backup can be made after the machine is installed and configured, and the machine can always easily be restored to this clean, working state. If more "standard" software is installed, another backup can be made.

There is at least one hardware solution which offers similar functionality by mirroring partitions, at a cost of about CDN $110-115 per machine. However, this doesn't allow for backups to be taken off-site.

The key to our (cheaper) solution is that the contract calls for each workstation to be equipped with a CD burner. Using Mindi, Python, dialog and cdrtools (mkisofs and cdrecord), I've created a bootable CDROM which will backup or restore a raw partition using one or more CD-R or CD-RWs. The system can be used in "normal" or "expert" mode. In "normal" mode the program holds the user's hand. All settings (i.e. the partition to back up, CD burner speed, etc.) are read from a config file; we wouldn't want to scare anyone off by presenting them with a list of /dev/hda1, /dev/hda2, etc.

There have been some interesting technical challenges to get this system working. The first problem was where to get the temporary space for creating the CD images. Mkisofs won't from read a raw device, and won't accept a file on stdin. One solution is to copy a chunk of the partition into temporary file, which mkisofs can then use to produce the filesystem. However, this would require a special 700 MB partition for temporary space on the disk, which wastes space and means the backup solution would only work on pre-prepared systems.

Instead, I took a look at the mkisofs source. For each file to be added to the ISO filesystem, mkisofs first needs to determine its size (normally via stat()) and later reads the entire file. I hacked mkisofs so that, under certain "magic" circumstances, it instead invokes a script to obtain the file size and the file data. The script can use "dd" to read a chunk of the partition. With this piece of the puzzle in place, it's possible to burn the CD on-the-fly with no temporary space whatsoever.

The next challenge is to compress the data on-the-fly as well. The first difficulty lies in the fact that you can't predict how large the compressed output will be unless you compress it twice. The second difficulty is figuring out how to compress only part of a file, and knowing how much input was processed, so that it's possible to later start at that point to compress the next chunk.

The first difficulty is solved by always assuming the compressed output will be the size of a full CD. If it turns out to be less, the output can be padded to this size. To solve the second problem, I wrote a small C program which uses zlib to compress a data stream. Zlib has an interface with which you can "feed" it buffers full of data, which it will then compress into your output buffer. When the size of the output gets close to a full CD, I pretend that the end of input has been reached. Then I pad the output to the full size.

In summary, this project has presented some surprisingly interesting problems. Without the enormous base of free software with which to build this solution, including the creation of a bootable CD, CD-burner drivers, on-the-fly generation of ISO filesystems, streaming compression and a rich enough environment from which to execute all this code, development costs would surely have been in the tens of thousands, if not more. I cobbled this together in 30-35 hours.

Standing on the shoulders of giants, indeed. :)

13 May 2002 (updated 13 May 2002 at 09:37 UTC) »
Water

walters: One thing that can be done to improve access to clean water is to support (financially or otherwise) organizations which are working at this problem.

The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is an effective organization which is working at this (and many other) issues in developing countries. One particular aspect of how MCC works that I appreciate is that they don't go into a country and set up their own program. Rather, they coordinate and cooperate with people and groups in a country to help achieve common goals. Also, MCC carries out development programs in North America, too (it's not like so-called "first world" countries don't have development problems, too). Search google for mcc water.

I work for PeaceWorks Computer Consulting, which supports several non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including MCC. In supporting these organizations we make use of and contribute to free software as much as we can, which makes this job doubly-satisfying.

Bash

Bash programmable completion is very cool, and it's included in the bash from debian/unstable. I'm addicted.

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