Older blog entries for rupert (starting at number 29)

25 Oct 2001 (updated 25 Oct 2001 at 18:54 UTC) »
It seems that October is a particularly popular month for birthdays. Happy birthday to all of my fellow Advogatoers - -- criswell,TheCorruptor, deekayen,dto,ion who share the month with me :-) I turned 22 yesterday. Time really flies. It was only yesterday that I was in 7th grade! My folks had me over for an unofficial birthday dinner, and cooked up some barbequeued salmon, which was great. The big official dinner is Friday, and there should be a lot more friends and family showing up. I just wish Oliver (my brother) could make it, but he's stationed down with the Army in Texas, and won't be back until December. My dad gave me some ties for my birthday, and a free visit to a financial planner.

At a bit of a standstill right now. I'm still in the process of unpacking everything in my new place. I've been working more on the configuration manager (PrefMgr) on my alice car-computing application, however. And trying to work out how to make the Sphinx speech recognition module go through esound happily, rather than directly grabbing /dev/dsp as O_RDONLY. I also made some additions to mwsynth, my Python app that uses the pronounciation feature of the Merriam Webster dictionary to synthesize speech. It's now got an interactive shell interface, and includes the option to use either male or female speech (which mostly works, but it seems that MW hasn't gotten every word spoken by both a male and a female, so occasionally it deviates).

My neighbour up the street has a working 802.11 node. If I set up a second node, I think we can get fairly good coverage for the whole area, since both houses are on a hill, and have excellent LOS in all directions. Thinking about using an Orinco OR-1000 that a fellow on the BAWUG list is offering for sale.

My car is having coolant system problems. There's a leak somewhere, since both the radiator and coolant well seem to lose fluid over a 24 hour period. The temp gauge keeps on spiking, and the water in the coolant well seems to actually get hot and boil. Time to have it looked at professionally, I think. Possibly a gasket or a water pump, both which I'm told are expensive.

I went to Mountain View and saw fair and Zack this weekend. fair's house gets my vote as one of the finest places in the Bay Area to get quality hacking done. Fast DSL, comfortable couch, nice folks, and unlimited quantities of strong Earl Grey tea! I made lots of new additions to alice, the car computing software that I've been working on. The biggest addition is a new module called PrefMgr, that acts as the central source for retrieving and saving configuration data throughout the system. Right now there's a file called alice.config, which has UNIX style line separated name/value pairs in the form VARNAME=value. When the PrefMgr client starts, it reads the config data into a hash table in memory, then opens a socket connection back to the event distribution server (EDS), which is the central core of the application. When other clients connect to the EDS (like the speech i/o module, mp3 player, etc) they register with it by sending a service name. The EDS then passes this to the PrefMgr, which sends back a list of current configuration settings for the service. These are passed back to the client, which then continues loading, using the options given.

Ideally I'd like to hack up a little web-based interface that would allow the user to easily set and change available options, rather than having to manually edit the config file each time. I considered initially using the speech rec. system to do this, but rejected it as impractical, because most of the options are set-and-forget (IP addresses, log file locations..), and setting the options in this manner would be a bit tedious. 'Set the Ee Dee Ess Aye Pee to one two seven dot zero dot zero dot one..', and so on.

Every time I add to alice, it gets closer and closer to being an application server for voice controlled programs. I think I like that.

I found an interesting article on the social aspects of talking computer systems last week -- http: //www.tlc.utexas.edu/articles/barchas.html

It talks a little about the interesting stories of how some people came to be the very recognizable voice within automated systems. UTexas' Tex class scheduling system, AOL, and the Wildfire personal assistant are mentioned. This passage amused me:

...Now, the fan groups and fascination spawned by the Wildfire voice are an indication that Harnett and company have been successful in their task of making the computerized assistant seem real.

Some men have become preoccupied with Wildfire, calling the company to find out information about her, sending her Christmas cards and starting Web sites to speculate about what she looks like and how she acts in person. For this reason, Wildfire's identity is still a secret. She lives in the Boston area. She has a day job. She thinks the foofaraw over her voice is interesting but tries to keep it in perspective. "She's not the girlfriend of the lead engineer anymore," Harnett said, "but they're still on very good terms."...

I found the article in a serendipitous fashion. I was searching for "You've got Leprosy!" in Google (recent Simpsons quote that I wanted the sound-byte for), and it was the third result returned.

My birthday is on Wednesday. I'll be 22. Ack! I feel really old, now. On my wishlist --- Lego Mindstorms, flat panels, a Dremel tool, one of those little blue Photon Lights from ThinkGeek, and some grab bags of toggle switches, LEDs, DC motors. And maybe a Cisco AiroNet 802.11b card too :-). And a BGSystems CerealBox (multi chan A/D converter w/RS-232 interface).

--- Rupert (rupe@arrow.yak.net)

11 Oct 2001 (updated 17 Oct 2001 at 01:10 UTC) »

I got on a plane for my Australia vacation 5 hours before the WTC attacks. Consequently, it was an strange, although still enjoyable vacation. Shortly after getting back to SF, I moved house.

Aaargh! Does anyone know how to configure multiple soundcards under Linux? I have two Creative AWE32 (ISAPnP) cards that I want to use simultaneously, each with a different /dev/dsp (/dev/dsp0, /dev/dsp1, perhaps?) I've looked high and low for this information, and can't find out how to do it. I'm currently running 2.2.14-6.1.1.


--- Rupert

A very sad day for me. A favourite great uncle of mine, Bill Scammell (obituary), died on September 5th in Adelaide, Australia. He was a great guy, a fine businessman and educator (former Chancellor of Adelaide University), and loved car racing. I have fond memories of driving around Adelaide in his Porsche, and managing to accidentally lock him out of the car radio. He'll be very much missed, and I'm sad that he passed on a mere two weeks before I was going to be in Adelaide to visit him and other relatives.

Many condolences to Pat Scammell, his wife, and my Dad, who was close to him also (though they don't read Advogato).

Rest in peace, Bill.

--- Rupert

I'm hoping that the readers of this entry can provide me with an opinion, regarding a design choice that I have to make before the first release of my car computer software (see previous entries).

I'm torn between providing (1) a limited range of high quality synthesized static voices, or (2) Using a much lower quality (on par with Macintalk) dynamically synthesized voice that will permit a far wider range of responses to be made. This isn't a rhetorical question, and I'd really appreciate hearing opinions (even a couple of sentences), if you could send them to rupe@metro.yak.net.

So close to a first release of this software... it's very exciting, and I'm happy that my Blade Runner car draws closer :-)


--- Rupert

mikeszcz was kind enough to make some comments on my last diary entry, concerning my car computer software, which I'll attempt to address here. I think it'll be at least a week, if not two before I do the first release of the software. It's at the point where it's relatively stable, but has quite a few performance issues. I also want to clean up the code a bit before releasing it into the wild, as it were. The app has its share of unused functions, inscrutable comments, and blocks of commented out code which should die a quick and peaceful death so as to not cause the potential user to lose all confidence in the app or its author... I also want to write up some decent documentation and installation instructions, since getting everything loaded is a bit hairy.

A little background on the project, and in the process, myself. I think that I was born about 150 years too early. I spent quite a bit of time jealously watching the Star Trek crew seamlessly interact with their highly intelligent ship computer. I've also always dreamed of having a vehicle with even a fraction of the capabilities of those seen in movies and TV shows like Blade Runner, Knightrider, Batman, The Fifth Element, and so on. I think every geek has at some point. I also work as a military aircraft restorer for the March Field Air Museum, and have spent quite a bit of time working on the SR-71A Blackbird (#975) there. The desire to incorporate elements of this futuristic technology (yes, I know that the SR-71 was created in the 50's) into a working vehicle seemed like a fun project, so I started working on this voice controlled computer system. I'm happy to see that other folks are pursuing the hardware side of things. Mark's Custom Kits makes beautiful functional Knightrider instrumentation and dash panels.

Having said this, you'll find the first version of software released to be disappointingly sparse. The design is highly modular, however, so adding new functionality should be surprisingly simple to do, and I expect new releases regularly.

If the software is successful (and stable!) enough, I'd like to investigate the possibility of starting a small business, writing custom modules and adding additional AI and personalization functionality for people who want to use and enjoy the system without spending months having to dig through the codebase themselves. The core system would always stay free and open, however.

Comments? Questions? Let me know...

--- Rupert

Today concludes three weeks of intensive late night hacking with the computer that I've installed in my car. When I removed it from the trunk a month ago, its control interface was a minature VT100 terminal. When it's installed next week, control will be solely via speech recognition. In three weeks, I've spent days at a time pounding my head against the monitor, working through tough design problems. I've also learnt a ton about multi-threaded server / client design, data routing, sockets, lock objects, TCP, and the horrors of termios :-)

It's a great stage to be at, and I'm really glad that for the first time, I didn't just come up with losing hacks to get everything working. Having a solid core architecture to build this set of computing services on is going to make expanding it further so much easier!

I've named the project since I wrote last. The system is named Alice (and recognizes her name when spoken). The name was chosen partly because it's short, easily pronounced, and continues the long standing tradition of 'Alice Bots', a popular set of AI chatbots. Finally, Alice as in Alice in Wonderland, since I've been chasing down rabbit holes lately, and finding new worlds within :-)

The architecture I've built has an EDS (event distribution server) at its core, to which clients (speech processing module, MP3 module, LCD control module) connect, and send and recieve data, which is routed appropriately between the connected modules, which then process the data and perform the appropriate I/O.

Arguably the coolest piece of the system is the little speech processor that I've written. The system relies on an external application (CMU's Sphinx) to convert the speech waveform to a text string. The speech processor takes in the text string, and using a simple weighted network algorithm, causes the output of the module (which is passed to the EDS) to become progressively more accurate over time.

Everything's been written in Python so far, apart from the speech synthesizer and recognition systems, which are external (GPLed) applications. I've been programming in Python for about two years, but it took a big project like this to really drive home what an amazingly versatile and capable language it is. The structure of the language really made it easy to experiment, make rapid changes, and keep the code easy to read.

Now to put the system into the car, and drive with it for a few weeks. It'll be exciting to see how well it works, and I look forward to posting more regular diary entries with progress reports.

--- Rupert

26 Jun 2001 (updated 26 Jun 2001 at 08:10 UTC) »

Today was a slow day at work, so I started working on a couple of single frame comic strips, using the Windows paint tool. Slowly, Vinnie the Vulture, and his trusty pet, Dun, a TCP packet, emerged from the chaos, and set out on the first of their adventures. All of the strips are available on the embryonic Vinnie the Vulture page. Just pretend to laugh... the term "comic" is used loosely here, and most of the comic aspects consist of obscure inside jokes, and bad rhyming schemes. Fortunately, the quality of the art makes up for all of that.

Apart from this, I spent the day hunting down bugs, and trying to triage a departing coworker's bug queue into something slightly more manageable. Nothing very exciting, however I did have a nice Indian dinner with my friends Greg and Tague.

In hacking news, the speech recognition component of my car project is almost ready for installation. Most of the Python glue code to interface Sphinx with the LCD server and MP3 player applications is done, so I'm getting excited about the project again. What I really need to be doing is fixing bugs in the current installation (and there are many), but adding new features is much more fun!

First diary entry in a while... I've spent the last two weekends on the road, which has been pretty fun. On June 8, I went to Reno, Nevada for the 14th Blackbird Reunion, and this weekend, ventured down to San Diego to visit an old friend from school. Standing in the line to get my boarding pass for the flight back, I heard my name called, and looked up to see someone who I momentarily didn't recognize. It was my old geometry teacher from high school! We ended up sitting in the same row on the flight home, and had a nice time swapping stories and reminiscing about 'the old days'. He retired in 1997 after 32 years of teaching at the school, and seemed to be enjoying his retirement.

San Diego was great fun. I took Monday off work to spend an additional day down there, which turned out to be a good strategy (taking time off from work is never bad). Mike took me to see the downtown area, and we walked around by Horton Plaza and the El Cortez, before taking a Red Line tram back into the Old Town area. Stopped for a very welcome margarita and snack at a local TGI Friday's, then headed back to his home.

Monday, we drove around some more, and visited the San Diego Aerospace Museum, the Mission, La Jolla, and UCSD. It was fun seeing my brother's alma mater, and we wandered around above Black's Beach for a while, watching the gliders take off over the cliffs.

I don't have any new hacking news to report, apart from the fact that I finally got my 40 GB disk working, but I don't believe that that really counts :-P

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