JBother – A Java Jabber client

I’m always on the lookout for new Jabber clients to work with. I’ve been using Psi for the most part over hte last year or two, but the ETERNAL wait for an upgrade is driving me bonkers. Not that I just want more features, but there’s a bug in 0.9.3 that screws up adding new people to your roster. So I have to switch to Gnome-Jabber to add / modify my roster list. Yuck.
I came across JBother about 8 months ago, and gave it a quick try. It was good – a full Swing-based client that seemed to have a lot going for it, but it wasn’t quite stable yet.
Now JBother is up to v0.8.9b, and so far, it looks like a winner. The configuration screens are clean and easy to figure out, the client is snappy and complete, and the addition of a ‘plugins’ function, where I found a workable ‘systray’ tool pretty much nailed it for me. I now have a working systray-docked client that lets me do everything Psi and gnome-jabber did, plus MUCH more.
JBother supports freefloating or docked windows with tabs, similar to Exodus. Conferencing, transport management, debugging windows, logging, adjustable themes – they’re all in there.
If you use Jabber, give this one a try.

Adobe Acrobat Reader for Linux

Occasionally I find myself on the rougher side of situations while sticking to my guns regarding not using Microsoft products. Anyone who has had to interract with offices running only Redmondware are all too painfully reminded that Outlook users love sending PDF and Word and Excel attachments, frequently as the entire message, with the Word doc containing something like “Busy for lunch?”
Many of the issues facing “LINUX OR DIE” users like myself have been addressed by the fantastic work going on with OpenOffice, which lets a user open and view and manipulate Microsoft-based documents pretty handily. Couple that with a good GUI mail client like Evolution, and you’ve pretty much got what any Redmondware user has.
One thing has been missing, though… a decent PDF viewer. There are several opensource viewers that use various incarnations of GhostView to render the documents, but these tools are prone to twitches in the format that cause failed renderings, or just won’t run at all.
I recently received a PDF that KPDF and GPDF simply would not open. It was generated by an architect, and contained a diagram I absolutely had to view. Ready to post a scathing commentary to the blog about how Adobe was not supporting Linux, I went to their site, and tried to download Acrobat 7.0 PDF viewer for Linux.
And succeeded.
It was right there on the download page. A single RPM or .tar.gz file, that installed via an simple shell script. I was able to specify a subdir in my home dir (no root requirement), and it is now running happily on my desktop.
This is not a skimmed down ‘bone’ thrown to the Linux community. This is the full fledged Adobe Acrobat 7 reader, complete with tweaks specific to the Linux environment (like a configuration screen that asks what mailer do you want to use – and lists various well-known Linux clients, including Evolution).
The tool allowed me to navigate, browse, zoom in and out, and fiddle with the PDF I needed to view without any problems. I was somewhat amused to note that the viewer was running some sort of ad display engine in the upper right corner of the window, but it was easy to ignore.
The reader was not specific to any particular Linux version. I’m personally running Debian Sarge, which is generally not supported by the ‘big business’ folks, but as I said it installed and ran perfectly.
Glad to see some companies are getting the hint.

The beautiful side of free software.

Or, another title… “If you BitTorrent, please try Azureus”
I’ve recently been tinkering with BitTorrent to pick up some old TV show episodes, handy for when I’m on the road travelling. My first forays into the world weren’t so promising, as the clients and tools were pretty primitive.
Then I came upon Azureus.
This is as full featured, complete, and beautiful an application as I’ve seen anywhere. It’s written in Java, obviously with the SWT toolkit, and is simply striking in its detail and complexity. It even includes a live animated display showing the ‘swarm’ of machines you’re connecting with to do uploads and downloads.
I’ve been using it off and on for the last day or so, and I’m staggeringly impressed with how well it works, and how complete and detailed it is.
If you’re interested in BitTorrent, check out this system.

XM Radio – One Week In – a quick review

My current work has me heading down to New Jersey every few weeks to work with my client on our various projects. After the first 2 drives (4 1/2 hours or so), I decided that I needed some way to keep myself sane on the drive. The first trip involved cabling up my laptop to the stereo so I could listen to the MP3 collection on it while driving. This proved… less than optimal, and I began considering XM Satellite Radio. Last week I marched into Best Buy and picked up a SkyFi2 receiver.

The Service
XM Radio is a satellite-based radio service that provides about 250 channels of ‘digital radio’ to a special receiver. It is a subscription service, requiring a monthly charge and activation. There are no ‘levels’ of subscription, such as in cable television – once you’re subscribed, you have access to everything. The channels vary widely in content, from Major League Baseball through classical music. The service is activated based on your receiver ID. Receivers can be moved from vehicle to vehicle (or in the case of the ‘MyFi’ receiver, carried around with you like an iPod). You can activate multiple receivers, but there’s a (smaller) charge per additional unit. Many of the units are mobile, and can simply ‘undock’ from one car, and ‘dock’ in another (or into an at-home unit).

The Equipment
As mentioned, I have the SkyFi2 receiver, which is sort of middle of the road as far as receivers go. It has has a ‘dock’ arrangement that lets you remove the receiver or hide it when parking, which is a win. The receiver has a clear easy to read display (both in daylight and at night), and is easy go use to navigate stations and presets. Mine has a very stiff ‘wheel’ on it, which I may bring in to get serviced (it should turn smoothly), but other than that it works fine. The unit comes with an external ‘magnetic mount’ antenna, a ‘cassette-style’ hookup for stereos (it also can transmit on several FM bands, but I found as I was driving I’d drift in and out of range of various FM stations, which would conflict with the FM transmitter), so I opted for the slightly more cluttery arrangement with the cable, but didn’t have problems with interference. This will definately require a more permanent installation though, since the receiver now has 3 wires coming out of it (power, antenna, and audio).

The receiver does provide some excellent functions over traditional radios. The biggest is having a realtime display of the current channel, track and artist. You can add other things to the display (stock tickers, etc), though I can’t imagine that would be safe for a driver :). Another big win is the ability to ‘pause’ music or shows – for instance to go through a toll booth, or get food from a drivein, or whatever. The receiver ‘spools’ the show up (and shows how far behind realtime you are), and lets you play and catch up when you’re ready. Up to half an hour of paused music can be stored.

Last but not least is the ability to ‘tag’ certain music or artists, so that if another station starts playing an artist you want to hear (or a show, or whatever), the unit will alert you that something is starting elsewhere. I haven’t done this yet, but if there were certain shows I didn’t want to miss, that would be handy.

The Stations

What is a radio service without content? XM provides 250 or so channels of programming with a wide variety of content. After scanning through the listing several times, and listening a bit to each one, I’m slowly settling down into a dozen or so I enjoy. Many of the stations have live DJ’s that introduce and comment on the pieces being played (though the receiver includes the feature of showing the channel, artist, and track being played – and it’s updated in realtime), but it’s nice to hear a real person on occasion. My only beef with the station programming is they have commercials. This is a pay-for service, the last thing I want to do is listen to an add for Viagra in the middle of a Blues concert. I find this incredibly annoying, and would even consider paying a slightly higher premium to avoid the commercials

As far as generic programming, the stations are good. Some are excellent (in my opinion), and some are just boring. I would have liked to see less channel space used up by specialty or limited audience bits that are repeated elsewhere. (For instance, there are 40 some odd ‘local’ stations. If I’m in Boston, chances are I don’t need to hear traffic conditions in Chicago, but I have both a Chicago and a Boston channel on my receiver). Also, there are 5-6 major league baseball channels, and 4 Nascar channels. If there is a limited number of channels in the XM system, they should work on a subscription mechanism that lets you tune what channels you receive. I’m never going to be listening to MLB or Nascar programming, why is a third of my channel selection used up by them?

The good, the bad, and the ugly
So now I’ve been using the system for a week, and have some pretty detailed impressions of it. So here’s the basic rundown as I see it. I spend anywhere from an hour and a half a day to several hours (for the road trips), so I’m probably a fairly typical user:

    The Good

  • Very good selection of stations and programming.
  • A lack of DJ chatter or other annoyances
  • Very capable technical offering on the receiver
  • Activation and maintenance painless (took about 15 minutes from my car)
  • Availability of all programming over the net via their website
  • Ubiquitous access to stations, no matter what your location. The same channels are available in Boston that are available in NJ.
  • Simple installation and easy to use.

    The Bad

  • Many channels used up by narrow-focus audiences, but still occupy many channels at once.
  • Reception can be sketchy. Audio cuts out as the signal drops down reasonably often. Not enough to be a real problem, but far more often than I expected.
  • Audio quality is less than ideal. It sounds similar to a 64k MP3 streaming audio feed. It is NOT as high quality as CD or even broadcast radio, but is acceptable.

    The Ugly

  • No way to skip or avoid commercials
  • No Radio Paradise!

For $11 a month for the service, I think it’s worth it, particularly for people who do regular road trips or even longer commutes. The inclusion of not necessarily ‘mainstream’ content makes all the difference (things such as NPR, Folk radio, etc). Some more flexibility would be nice, and higher quality audio would be a huge win, but for now, I think I’ll stick with it.

Game Review: Armagetron

In the ongoing quest to keep myself entertained, I try to rummage around looking for good distractions to while away the hours between the time I declare “I can’t work anymore” and the time I can safely say “It’s time to go to bed.”
My earlier solution to fill these hours was Kobo Deluxe, which, while still an outstanding game, gets wearing after a while. Not to mention crampy on the hands.
I recently discovered ArmageTron, the most accurate reproduction of the infamous Lightcycle ‘game’ in the 1982 movie ‘Tron I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of ’em.
Now, I, like other geeks, had daydreams about that lightcycle game for the longest time. I even wrote a version of it for the TRS-80 called ‘Gridrunner’ that was a load of fun, but hardly as visual as the movie.
ArmageTron reproduces the exact look and feel of the movie game. The scrolling green grid, the whine of the motors on the cycles, the exact left! right! left left! action of steerig the bikes and everything. The game designers have also brought in things that puzzled me in the original movie, but make the gameplay perfect.
For instance, your lightcycle runs faster if it’s close to the jetwall of another cycle. If you’re brushing up against it, it’s the fastest. This doesnt’ work for the arena walls (so you can’t go tearing around the outside of the arena), but it does make chasing someone else interesting. The person behind doing the chasing has the advantage of picking up speed, the person being chased has the advantage of being able to make a right angle turn directly in front of the chaser.
In keeping with the original premise in ‘Tron’ (that the programs were actually small autonomous creatures living inside the computer – and they could think live and die on their own), the AI opponents in the game are named after well known applications that are known to be somewhat tempermental. This is presumably to give you satisfaction ramming them into a wall. It works. There’s nothing like tearing off in pursuit of ‘Outlook’ and slamming it into a wall.
I installed ArmageTron via the Debian Sarge packages, so installation took only took a few seconds. The game is rock solid and very playable, though does require a fully functional GL installation. I haven’t tested the networked version yet, but variable-level AI is quite a challenge in its own right.
This is a fast paced, well designed, and extremely well executed game, taking a simple concept, with a baseline for presentation, and making it an eminently playable game. Kudos!

Web Developer Firefox Plugin

I do a fair amount of ‘web development’, meaning I tend to write things that are viewable via a web browser. Whether they’re posted on my blog, or on other sites I sometimes maintain, generally my preferred ‘user interface’ is a web browser.
I’ve been using a plugin for quite a while called “Web Developer Extension“. It’s a set of tools that integrates tightly with Firefox and lets you do all the things a web developer needs to do to make sure his or her application is displaying properly.
The most useful feature I’ve found is ‘Outline block elements’ and ‘Display ID and Class Detail’ – these functions change your displayed page and draw lines around all your block level elements (such as ‘div’ and ‘table’ and ‘span’), and can also label them with what class and ID they are.
When dealing with multiple nested CSS elements, this sort of display can save HOURS trying to track down what element belongs to what container, particularly when working with content management systems like Movable Type.
The plugin is non-intrusive, and is only triggered when you select it off the menu. I can’t imagine doing web development without it.

Review: Mozilla Bookmark Synchronizer

For a long time now, I’ve been searching about for a mechanism to synchronize my bookmarks from one machine to another. There are times when I run Firefox on more than one machine at a time, and the bookmarks have become one of the more valuable resources in my desktop setup.

Lo, along comes Bookmark Synchronizer, a Mozilla extension that adds the capability of publishing or retrieving your bookmarks from a server at any time, including whenever you start or shut down your browser.

The installation and configuration was trivial using Firefox’s excellent Extensions manager, and I made a copy of my bookmarks onto my main server inside 10 seconds. Now I can import that file (in the documented XBEL – XML Bookmarks Extension Language format), anytime I need to, as well as publish changes into it

I do have one or two little nitpicks. I would like to be able to ‘sync’ without going into the Extensions window, selecting bookmarks synchronizer, clicking Options, then clicking Upload now. A hot button somewhere in the browser would be a lot easier. The other way the sync happens is automatically when starting up or shutting down Firefox, which also makes me a bit nervous. Usually the only reason I shut down Firefox is due to a crash or instability – throwing another function in during that situation may not help the situation.

But other than these comments, the tool works perfectly. A very easy way to move bookmarks from one machine to another. Bravo!

Followup: Puzzle Pirates

About a month ago, I posted a review of Puzzle Pirates. I said at the time the game looked interesting and was fun to play. A month later, I thought it might be a good idea to post an update.
I’m still playing. 🙂 And not only am I playing, I’m addicted. This is really the first MMPORG I’ve gotten into, and while it isn’t quite as immersive as, say, Everquest or World of Warcraft, it’s still mindbogglingly addictive.
Since I wrote that article, I’ve teamed up with great crew, and have recently been promoted to an officer (though a junior one. I have a lot of practice ahead of me before I can consider myself a decent officer 🙂
The puzzles are still fascinating, but with the added bonus that the crew has to work together to make the ship run well (and this is done not only by performing the puzzles well, but also working together during swordfights and trade), it really does suck you in. I’ve gotten more involved in how the commerce works in the system as well, buying and trading goods, how the individual stores, islands, and the like work.
If you like puzzles, like interracting with other folks, and like gaming where you’re working together to reach a common goal, I heartily recommend you take a serious look a look at Puzzle Pirates.

Review: Sage RSS feed aggregator for Firefox

In the world of blogging, and increasingly on other sites with dynamic content, a mechanism has been developed to allow a person to review all or part of a site without actually logging into it. Article headlines and content is delivered via a ‘Syndicated Feed‘ to a news aggregator which, as the name implies, collects the feeds and displays them in an easy to review fashion. I’ve been looking for a good aggregator for a while, but haven’t found anything I liked… until now.

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Review: Spout

I like finding cutesy little games that are fun to noodle around with. It’s particularly nice to find something you can play in a few minutes that doesn’t require a half hour of loading CD’s and selecting playing options.
I keep an eye on Happy Penguin to see what’s new in the Linux gaming world, and saw a few references to Spout, so decided to give it a go.
It’s a hyper-simplistic game. You fly an abstract little ‘ship’ that has a vicious exhaust. You’re trying to gain a maximum altitude by navigating up through simple obstacles. At any time, you can spin your ship around and use the exhaust to blast through things in your way.
The game was originally written for a small LCD display, so the resolution is gritty at best, not to mention black and white. Nonetheless, I find myself playing it a bunch. The animation of the exhaust is outstanding, and watching all the little particles flying around is just a load of fun.
For something to noodle with while on the phone or just to kill some time, give it a whirl.
Spout was originally written by Kuni. It was ported to Linux and is now hosted on mizzencode.

Kingdom of Loathing: An interview with Jick

It began innocently enough. Somewhere in the vast communications jungle
that is my interaction with the net, someone pointed me to this swords and
sorcery-ish game that ran on a website. “Fine”, sez I, “I’ll take a look”. I
didn’t think much of it, other than the odd name, ‘Kingdom of
Loathing’. To me, web-based gaming, in particular RPG games, never really seemed
to be worth getting into. I’d rather play something local.

A month later, I’m still playing the game daily. I work through my daily
alottment of moves usually before noon, and I’m learning all the little tricks to
get more Adventures so I can advance my character faster.

These guys definitely have something.

Continue reading “Kingdom of Loathing: An interview with Jick”

Review : Kobo Deluxe

It’s rare that I get totally addicted to a game under Linux. I mean, the
environment isn’t really conducive to totally immersive gaming. Back in my
Windows days I’d have a serious game every week or two I’d play pretty
constantly until I either beat it or got tired of it. Since I’ve gone totally
Linux, that just hasn’t happened. Now, many would consider this a -good- thing,
since games can in fact be total time sucking life suckers, but gosh darn it,
sometimes ya just have to take a break from the full time job and just blow things up
for a while.

I’m not a cutting edge sort of gamer. If I like something, I’ll play it for
a while. And I mean a while. I’m still playing Quake 3 Arena just because
durnit, it’s a fun game, and lets me, well, you guessed it, BLOW THINGS UP!
When I shifted over to Linux, Q3A wasn’t really an option anymore (yes, I know
it’s possible, but I just wasn’t up for the hassle.

Continue reading “Review : Kobo Deluxe”

Review : Mozex plugin for Mozilla / Firefox

I’ve been having hassles doing some of the major editing on
the blog, due to the
fact that it’s difficult to do serious editing in HTML Textarea
windows. There’s a couple ways around it, such as having an an intelligent client
to edit in
. I’m still searching for a good client, but it’s sort
of weird when we already -have- one, that being a web browser. Gotta be
a better way!

Continue reading “Review : Mozex plugin for Mozilla / Firefox”