Shallow Thoughts

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 18 Nov 2014

Unix "remind" file for US holidays

Am I the only one who's always confused about when holidays happen?

Partly it's software, I guess. In these days of everybody keeping their schedules on Google's or Apple's servers, maybe most people keep up on these things.

But being the dinosaur I am, I'm still resistant to keeping my schedule in the cloud on a public server. What if I need to check for upcoming events while I'm on a trip out in the remote desert somewhere? (Not to mention the obvious privacy considerations.) For years I used PalmOS PDAs, but when I switched to Android and discovered how poor the offline calendar options are, I decided that I should learn how to use the old Unix standby.

It's been pretty handy. I run remind ~/[remind-file-name] when I log in in the morning, and it gives me a nice summary of upcoming events:

DPU Solar surcharge meeting, 5:30-8:30 tomorrow
NMGLUG meeting in 2 days' time

Of course, I can also have it email me with reminders, or pop up a window, but so far I haven't felt the need.

I can also display a nice calendar showing upcoming events for this month or the next several months. I made a couple of aliases:

mycal () {
        if [[ x$months = x ]]
        remind -c$months ~/Docs/Lists/remind

mycalp () {
        if [[ x$months = x ]]
        remind -p$months ~/Docs/Lists/remind | rem2ps -e -l > /tmp/
        gv /tmp/ &

The first prints an ascii calendar; the second displays a nice postscript calendar complete with little icons for phases of the moon.

But what about those holidays?

Okay, that gives me a good way of storing reminders about appointments. But I still don't know when holidays are. (I had that problem with the PalmOS scheduling program, too -- it never knew about holidays either.)

Web searching didn't help much. Unfortunately, "remind" is a terrible name in this age of search engines. If someone has already solved this problem, I sure wasn't able to find any evidence of it. So instead, I went to Wikipedia's list of US holidays, with the remind man page in another tab, and wrote remind stanzas for each one -- except Easter, which is much more complicated.

But wait -- it turns out that remind already has code to calculate Easter! It just needs a slightly more complicated stanza: instead of the standard form of

REM  1 Apr +1 MSG April Fool's Day %b
I need to use this form:
REM  [trigger(easterdate(today()))] +1 MSG Easter %b

The %b in each case is what gives you the notice of when the event is in your reminders, e.g. "Easter tomorrow" or "Easter in two days' time". The +1 is how far beforehand you want to be reminded of each event.

So here's my remind file for US holidays. I make no guarantees that every one is right, though I did check them for the next 12 months and they all seem to be working.

# US Holidays
REM      1 Jan    +3 MSG New Year's Day %b
REM Mon 15 Jan    +2 MSG MLK Day %b
REM      2 Feb       MSG Groundhog Day %b
REM     14 Feb    +2 MSG Valentine's Day %b
REM Mon 15 Feb    +2 MSG President's Day %b
REM     17 Mar    +2 MSG St Patrick's Day %b
REM      1 Apr    +9 MSG April Fool's Day %b
REM  [trigger(easterdate(today()))] +1 MSG Easter %b
REM     22 Apr    +2 MSG Earth Day %b
REM Fri  1 May -7 +2 MSG Arbor Day %b
REM Sun  8 May    +2 MSG Mother's Day %b
REM Mon  1 Jun -7 +2 MSG Memorial Day %b
REM Sun 15 Jun       MSG Father's Day
REM      4 Jul    +2 MSG 4th of July %b
REM Mon  1 Sep    +2 MSG Labor Day %b
REM Mon  8 Oct    +2 MSG Columbus Day %b
REM     31 Oct    +2 MSG Halloween %b
REM Tue  2 Nov    +4 MSG Election Day %b
REM     11 Nov    +2 MSG Veteran's Day %b
REM Thu 22 Nov    +3 MSG Thanksgiving %b
REM     25 Dec    +3 MSG Christmas %b

[ 14:07 Nov 18, 2014    More linux | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 12 Nov 2014

Crockpot Green Chile Posole Stew

Posole is a traditional New Mexican dish made with pork, hominy and chile. Most often it's made with red chile, but Dave and I are both green chile fans so that's how I make it. I make no claims as to the resemblance between my posole and anything traditional; but it sure is good after a cold, windy day like we had today.

Dave is leery of anything called "posole" -- I think the hominy reminds him visually of garbanzo beans, which he dislikes -- but he admits that they taste fine in this stew. I call it "green chile stew" rather than "posole" when talking to him, and then he gets enthusiastic.

Ingredients (all quantities very approximate):

Start the crockpot heating: I start it on high then turn it down later. Add broth.

Dice potato. At least half the potato should be in small pieces, say 1/4" cubes, or even shredded; the other half can be larger chunks. I leave the skin on.

Pre-cook diced potato in the microwave for 7 minutes or until nearly soft enough to eat, in a loosely covered bowl with maybe 1" of water in the bottom. (This will get messy and the water gets all over and you have to clean the microwave afterward. I haven't found a solution to that yet.) Dump cooked potato into crockpot.

Dice pork into stew-sized pieces, trimming fat as desired. Add to crockpot.

De-skin and de-seed the green chiles and cut into short strips. (Or use canned or frozen.) Add to crockpot.

Add spices: salt, chile powder, cumin, and hot sauce (if your chiles aren't hot enough -- we have a bulk order of mild chiles this year so I sprinkled liberally with Tapatio).

Cover, reduce heat to low.

Cook 6-7 hours, occasionally stirring, tasting and correcting the seasoning. (I always add more of everything after I taste it, but that's me.)

Serve with bread, tortillas, sopaipillas or similar. French bread baked from the refrigerated dough in the supermarket works well if you aren't brave enough to make sopaipillas (I'm not, yet).

[ 17:49 Nov 12, 2014    More recipes | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 06 Nov 2014

New GIMP Save/Export plug-in: Saver

The split between Save and Export that GIMP introduced in version 2.8 has been a matter of much controversy. It's been over two years now, and people are still complaining on the gimp-users list.

Early on, I wrote a simple Python plug-in called Save-Export Clean, which saved over an image's current save or export filename regardless of whether the filename was XCF (save) or a different format (export). The idea was that you could bind Ctrl-S to the plug-in and not be pestered by needing to remember whether it was XCF, JPG or what.

Save-Export Clean has been widely cited, and I hope it's helped some people who were bothered by the Save/Export split. But personally I didn't like it very much. It wasn't very flexible -- there was no way to change the filename, for one thing, and it was awfully easy to overwrite an original image without knowing that you'd done it. I went back to using GIMP's separate Save and Export, but in the back of my mind I was turning over ideas, trying to understand my workflow and what I really wanted out of a GIMP Save plug-in.

[Screenshot: GIMP Saver-as... plug-in] The result of that was a new Python plug-in called Saver. I first wrote it a year ago, but I've been tweaking it and using it since then, with Ctrl-S bound to Saverand Ctrl-Shift-S bound to Saver as...). I wanted to make sure that it was useful and working reliably ... and somehow I never got around to writing it up and announcing it formally ... until now.

Saver, like Save/Export Clean, will overwrite your chosen filename, whether XCF or another format, and will mark the image as saved so GIMP won't pester you when you exit.

What's different? Mainly, three things:

  1. A Saver as... option so you can change the filename or file type.
  2. Merges multiple layers so they'll show up properly in your JPG or PNG image.
  3. An option to save as .xcf or .xcf.gz and, at the same time, export a copy in another format, possibly scaled down. So you can maintain your multi-layer XCF image but also update the JPG copy that you're going to put on the web.

I've been using Saver for nearly all my saving for the past year. If I'm just making a quick edit of a JPEG camera image, Ctrl-S overwrites it without questioning me. If I'm editing an elaborate multi-layer GIMP project, Ctrl-S overwrites the .xcf.gz. If I'm planning to export that image for the web, I Ctrl-Shift-S to bring up the Saver As... dialog, make sure the main filename is .xcf.gz, set a name (ending in .jpg) for the exported copy; and from then on, Ctrl-S will save both the XCF and the JPG copy.

Saver is available on my github page, with installation instructions here: GIMP Saver and Save/Export Clean Plug-ins. I hope you find it useful.

[ 12:57 Nov 06, 2014    More gimp | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 30 Oct 2014

Simulating a web page timeout

Today dinner was a bit delayed because I got caught up dealing with an RSS feed that wasn't feeding. The website was down, and Python's urllib2, which I use in my "feedme" RSS fetcher, has an inordinately long timeout.

That certainly isn't the first time that's happened, but I'd like it to be the last. So I started to write code to set a shorter timeout, and realized: how does one test that? Of course, the offending site was working again by the time I finished eating dinner, went for a little walk then sat down to code.

I did a lot of web searching, hoping maybe someone had already set up a web service somewhere that times out for testing timeout code. No such luck. And discussions of how to set up such a site always seemed to center around installing elaborate heavyweight Java server-side packages. Surely there must be an easier way!

How about PHP? A web search for that wasn't helpful either. But I decided to try the simplest possible approach ... and it worked!

Just put something like this at the beginning of your HTML page (assuming, of course, your server has PHP enabled):

<?php sleep(500); ?>

Of course, you can adjust that 500 to be any delay you like.

Or you can even make the timeout adjustable, with a few more lines of code:

 if (isset($_GET['timeout']))

Then surf to yourpage.php?timeout=6 and watch the page load after six seconds.

Simple once I thought of it, but it's still surprising no one had written it up as a cookbook formula. It certainly is handy. Now I just need to get some Python timeout-handling code working.

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[ 19:38 Oct 30, 2014    More tech/web | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 24 Oct 2014

Partial solar eclipse, with amazing sunspots

[Partial solar eclipse, with sunspots] We had perfect weather for the partial solar eclipse yesterday. I invited some friends over for an eclipse party -- we set up a couple of scopes with solar filters, put out food and drink and had an enjoyable afternoon.

And what views! The sunspot group right on the center of the sun's disk was the most large and complex I'd ever seen, and there were some much smaller, more subtle spots in the path of the eclipse. Meanwhile, the moon's limb gave us a nice show of mountains and crater rims silhouetted against the sun.

I didn't do much photography, but I did hold the point-and-shoot up to the eyepiece for a few shots about twenty minutes before maximum eclipse, and was quite pleased with the result.

An excellent afternoon. And I made too much blueberry bread and far too many oatmeal cookies ... so I'll have sweet eclipse memories for quite some time.

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[ 09:15 Oct 24, 2014    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Tue, 21 Oct 2014

A surprise in the mousetrap

I went out this morning to check the traps, and found the mousetrap full ... of something large and not at all mouse-like.

[young bullsnake] It was a young bullsnake. Now slender and maybe a bit over two feet long, it will eventually grow into a larger relative of the gopher snakes that I used to see back in California. (I had a gopher snake as a pet when I was in high school -- they're harmless, non-poisonous and quite docile.)

The snake watched me alertly as I peered in, but it didn't seem especially perturbed to be trapped. In fact, it was so non-perturbed that when I opened the trap, the snake stayed right where it was. It had found a nice comfortable resting place, and it wasn't very interested in moving on a cold morning.

I had to poke it gently through the bars, hold the trap vertically and shake for a while before the snake grudgingly let go and slithered out onto the ground.

I wondered if it had found its way into the trap by chasing a mouse, but I didn't see any swellings that looked like it had eaten recently. I'm fairly sure it wasn't interested in the peanut butter bait.

I released the snake in a spot near the shed where the mousetrap is set up. There are certainly plenty of mice there for it to eat, and gophers when it gets a little larger, and there are lots of nice black basalt boulders to use for warming up in the morning, and gopher holes to hide in. I hope it sticks around -- gopher/bullsnakes are good neighbors.

[young bullsnake caught in mousetrap]

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[ 19:37 Oct 21, 2014    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 16 Oct 2014

Aspens are turning the mountains gold

Last week both of the local mountain ranges turned gold simultaneously as the aspens turned. Here are the Sangre de Cristos on a stormy day:

[Sangre de Cristos gold with aspens]

And then over the weekend, a windstorm blew a lot of those leaves away, and a lot of the gold is gone now. But the aspen groves are still beautiful up close ... here's one from Pajarito Mountain yesterday.

[Sangre de Cristos gold with aspens]

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[ 13:37 Oct 16, 2014    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 11 Oct 2014

Railroading exponentially

or: Smart communities can still be stupid

I attended my first Los Alamos County Council meeting yesterday. What a railroad job!

The controversial issue of the day was the town's "branding". Currently, as you drive into Los Alamos on highway 502, you pass a tasteful rock sign proclaiming "LOS ALAMOS: WHERE DISCOVERIES ARE MADE". But back in May, the county council announced the unanimous approval of a new slogan, for which they'd paid an ad agency some $55,000: "LIVE EXPONENTIALLY".

As you might expect in a town full of scientists, the announcement was greeted with much dismay. What is it supposed to mean, anyway? Is it a reference to exponential population growth? Malignant tumor growth? Gaining lots of weight as we age?

The local online daily, tired of printing the flood of letters protesting the stupid new slogan, ran a survey about the "Live Exponentially" slogan. The results were that 8.24% liked it, 72.61% didn't, and 19.16% didn't like it and offered alternatives or comments. My favorites were Dave's suggestion of "It's Da Bomb!", and a suggestion from another reader, "Discover Our Secrets"; but many of the alternate suggestions were excellent, or hilarious, or both -- follow the link to read them all.

For further giggles, try a web search on the term. If you search without quotes, Ebola tops the list. With quotes, you get mostly religious tracts and motivational speakers.

The Council Meeting

(The rest of this is probably only of interest to Los Alamos folk.)

Dave read somewhere -- it wasn't widely announced -- that Friday's council meeting included an agenda item to approve spending $225,000 -- yes, nearly a quarter of a million dollars -- on "brand implementation". Of course, we had to go.

In the council discussion leading up to the call for public comment, everyone spoke vaguely of "branding" without mentioning the slogan. Maybe they hoped no one would realize what they were really voting for. But in the call for public comment, Dave raised the issue and urged them to reconsider the slogan.

Kristin Henderson seemed to have quite a speech prepared. She acknowledged that "people who work with math" universally thought the slogan was stupid, but she said that people from a liberal arts background, like herself, use the term to mean hiking, living close to nature, listening to great music, having smart friends and all the other things that make this such a great place to live. (I confess to being skeptical -- I can't say I've ever heard "exponential" used in that way.)

Henderson also stressed the research and effort that had already gone into choosing the current slogan, and dismissed the idea that spending another $50,000 on top of the $55k already spent would be "throwing money after bad." She added that showing the community some images to go with the slogan might change people's minds.

David Izraelevitz admitted that being an engineer, he initially didn't like "Live Exponentially". But he compared it to Apple's "Think Different": though some might think it ungrammatical, it turned out to be a highly successful brand because it was coupled with pictures of Gandhi and Einstein. (Hmm, maybe that slogan should be "Live Exponential".)

Izraelevitz described how he convinced a local business owner by showing him the ad agency's full presentation, with pictures as well as the slogan, and said that we wouldn't know how effective the slogan was until we'd spent the $50k for logo design and an implementation plan. If the council didn't like the results they could choose not to go forward with the remaining $175,000 for "brand implementation". (Councilor Fran Berting had previously gotten clarification that those two parts of the proposal were separate.)

Rick Reiss said that what really mattered was getting business owners to approve the new branding -- "the people who would have to use it." It wasn't so important what people in the community thought, since they didn't have logos or ads that might incorporate the new branding.

Pete Sheehey spoke up as the sole dissenter. He pointed out that most of the community input on the slogan has been negative, and that should be taken into account. The proposed slogan might have a positive impact on some people but it would have a negative impact on others, and he couldn't support the proposal.

Fran Berting said she was "not all that taken" with the slogan, but agreed with Izraelevitz that we wouldn't know if it was any good without spending the $50k. She echoed the "so much work has already gone into it" argument. Reiss also echoed "so much work", and that he liked the slogan because he saw it in print with a picture.

But further discussion was cut off. It was 1:30, the fixed end time for the meeting, and chairman Geoff Rodgers (who had pretty much stayed out of the discussion to this point) called for a vote. When the roll call got to Sheehey, he objected to the forced vote while they were still in the middle of a discussion. But after a brief consultation on Robert's Rules of Order, chairman Rogers declared the discussion over and said the vote would continue. The motion was approved 5-1.

The Exponential Railroad

Quite a railroading. One could almost think it had been planned that way.

First, the item was listed as one of two in the "Consent Agenda" -- items which were expected to be approved all together in one vote with no discussion or public comment. It was moved at the last minute into "Business"; but that put it last on the agenda.

Normally that wouldn't have mattered. But although the council more often meets in the evenings and goes as long as it needs to, Friday's meeting had a fixed time of noon to 1:30. Even I could see that wasn't much time for all the items on the agenda.

And that mid-day timing meant that working folk weren't likely to be able to listen or comment. Further, the branding issue didn't come up until 1 pm, after some of the audience had already left to go back to work. As a result, there were only two public comments.

Logic deficit

I heard three main arguments repeated by every council member who spoke in favor:

  1. the slogan makes much more sense when viewed with pictures -- they all voted for it because they'd seen it presented with visuals;
  2. a lot of time, effort and money has already gone into this slogan, so it didn't make sense to drop it now; and
  3. if they didn't like the logo after spending the first $50k, they didn't have to approve the other $175k.

The first argument doesn't make any sense. If the pictures the council saw were so convincing, why weren't they showing those images to the public? Why spend an additional $50,000 for different pictures? I guess $50k is just pocket change, and anyone who thinks it's a lot of money is just being silly.

As for the second and third, they contradict each other. If most of the board thinks now that the initial $50k contract was so much work that we have to go forward with the next $50k, what are the chances that they'll decide not to continue after they've already invested $100k?

Exponentially low, I'd say.

I was glad of one thing, though. As a newcomer to the area faced with a ballot next month, it was good to see the council members in action, seeing their attitudes toward spending and how much they care about community input. That will be helpful come ballot time.

If you're in the same boat but couldn't make the meeting, catch the October 10, 2014 County Council Meeting video.

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[ 12:54 Oct 11, 2014    More politics | permalink to this entry | comments ]

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