Monday, July 30, 2007

On Chess Variants

I have had a long-term interest in chess variants. Chess variants are various ways of changing the rules of chess to make a slightly, or, at times, very different game. My motivation in interest in Chess variants is summed up in an article in this zipfile:
One of the nice things about chess variant design is that it opens up new fields of opening study to explore. In FIDE (orthodox, western) Chess, any move on the first half-dozen turns that is not an outright blunder has already been throughly studied and explored. Many opening lines are 20 or 30 moves deep. There are little, if any, interesting new frontiers to explore.

Chess variants, however, make it possible for someone to be a trailblazer again, exploring openings that have never been studied before.
I have been studying a chess variant which I "invented" back in 2004 (and published in 2006) called "Schoolbook Chess".

There are a couple of things a chess variant inventor can do to help people play their chess variant. One thing they can do is make a game courier preset. This is a web service where one can easily add new chess variants. Most presets do not enforce the rules for the variant. The preset I made for Schoolbook chess, however, enforces the rules simply because I was able to easily modify another preset that is identical in all aspects except for the opening setup of the pieces.

Another thing someone can do to play chess variants is to make a Zillions of Games rules file. Zillions of Games is a proprietary program for Windows (runs well under Wine) that can play a large number of Chess variants and other abstract strategy games. My zipfile is an implementation of Schoolbook chess for Zillions of Games. However, it also has ChessV rules files for Schoolbook (not that they are needed; ChessV has had the ability to play Schoolbook since the 0.9.0 release a year ago). In addition, it has some documentation for Schoolbook, including opening analysis, annotated games, and a few mating positions.

What I was doing all weekend was updating this zipfile. First of all, ChessV has moved since I last released a Zillions zipfile. I also updated a couple of other links.

Second of all, I added four mating positions (maybe I should reword those last two words) to the zipfile. This was the lion's share of the work. I had to make sure the positions were indeed mating positions, make two screenshots for each position (we use a different black and white color scheme when printing the page), create and verify the solutions to the mating positions, and then integrate the positions in to the list of 12 mating positions we already had, double and triple checking to make sure I did not introduce any errors. This took hours.

During this process, I submitted some of these new mating positions that have not been submitted to the chess variants page before, which also took some work.

Once that was done, I had to modify the zipfile a little (removing some "no commercial use" graphics) in order to make the zipfile suitable for submission to Zillions of Games. I then submitted my submission via email.

This took all weekend to do. Far longer than I thought it would. All for a game that has only been played about two dozen times, mostly me-vs-some other chess variant inventor (the mating positions and opening analysis come mainly from computer-vs-computer or some of my computer-vs-human games). Needless to say, I don't think I will revise this game at all until 2008.

- Sam

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Blog layout updated

As people who visited this blog before can see, the blog layout has been updated to both be more readable and to more resemble the look of the MaraDNS website. I've tested it; it looks good in Firefox 2, Opera 9, IE7, and Dillo. The site is no where near validating, but I'm not going to lose any more sleep over that. Heck, if anyone knows of a blogspot blog that validates, I will be amazed.

- Sam

Thursday, July 26, 2007

1420 update: Suspend broken

    Well, it would seem that there is a key feature broken with my Inspiron 1420: Suspend is completely broken. Not just a little broken. Completely broken. Attempts to suspend the laptop do nothing more than crash the system.

    I, of course, tried various ways to suspend the system:
    • sudo pmi action suspend
    • sudo pmi action hibernate
    • sudo apt-get install uswsusp

      Followed by either:



    All of these have the same result: The system crashes, forcing a reboot.

    Another bug: Take a blank DVD-RW. Format it as a UDF filesystem in Windows Vista. Write data to the disk. Now, put it in the Linux system. Write some more files. The UDF filesystem is now perfectly fine in Linux---but Windows Vista can not read any of the data on the disk, and will not allow you to write to the disk unless you reformat the DVD-RW.

    Now, this could simply being a case of Microsoft playing their old vendor lockout games, where they refuse to read UDF-formatted disks written to by the competitor's product.

    Speaking of vendor lockout, I wonder how log it will take Microsoft before they punish Dell for selling non-Microsoft computers by charging more for Windows.

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007

    Review: Dell Inspiron 1420 with Linux

      I have finally received my Dell Inspiron 1420 that comes with Ubuntu 7.04 preinstalled today. The order took about a month to process; this is a brand new model, and I was one of the first people to order it. I would have gotten a Thinkpad, but chose Dell since they are going out on a limb and are making computers with Linux preinstalled. This means that I get a computer that works out of the box with Linux-compatible hardware; there is no need to use ndiswrapper to get the wireless card to work with Linux, and no strange winmodem without a Linux driver lurking in this laptop.

      This is one of the first systems; I ordered the system too early to get the free hard disk and memory upgrade. When I asked to upgrade the system, I was told I would have to cancel the order and reorder to do that. The systems have a two-week backlog and I want to get back to Mexico as soon as possible, so I decided to have just get the computer as quickly as possible.

      The system booted in to Linux without problem. Since Ubuntu uses all 80 gigs of hard disk space, I tried to reinstall Ubuntu from the supplied CD in order to have more free space. Strangely enough, while Ubuntu runs fine on the system, the Ubuntu Live CD can not successfully boot. I had to download and burn the Ubuntu "alternate install" CD in order to get a Ubuntu system I could repartition from.

      The good news is that the partition manager included with Ubuntu's "alternate install" CD has partition resize support. I was able to resize the partition Dell's Ubuntu install is on without having to reinstall the OS. While it was a slow process, it saved me the bother of reinstalling all of the restricted drivers and configuring the computer yet again.

      As a Linux system, it is a great system. If you are a Linux hobbyist or experienced Linux user, this is a system worth having. All of the hardware works with a minimum of restricted drivers (for the winmodem and wireless network card) used. Even the SD card reader works. If you are an average Windows or Mac OS X user, however, I would not recommend this system.

      Here are some issues which I have seen with this system:
      • The wireless configuration GUI tool only supports the very insecure WEP encryption. Setting up WPA encryption is non-trivial. For the record, the cookbook linked to does work and I am using it to be on our secure wireless network at home.
      • Firefox's inline spelling dictionary is really nice. Unfortunately, Ubuntu comes with a really long list of languages that makes it difficult for me to switch between English and Spanish; something I do quite frequently. Even after uninstalling all of the languages besides English and Spanish, Firefox still has this huge list of languages I can spell-check against, only two of which I will actually use.
      Linux has a made a lot of progress since the mid-1990s in terms of being an end-user desktop machine (the resize partition feature is a very nice addition); however I must conclude that Linux, as a desktop machine, is more geared towards the kind of people who had a computer in the late 1970s (see my last blog posting).

      I think one day Linux will become a viable desktop system for the masses. Until then, Dell is a pioneer in making Ubuntu desktops and laptops for the small niche who would rather have Linux on their computer. I just hope Microsoft does not illegally punish Dell for making this bold move.

      Monday, July 23, 2007

      Home computers: today's 'frill' or tomorrow's fact?

      Home computers: today's 'frill' or tomorrow's fact?

      Sunday, January 21, 1979
      20 cents


      Recalling the herculean efforts needed to straighten out billing errors and those futile attempts to convince magazine subscription departments of an address change, many San Ramon Valley residents might shudder at the thought of inviting a computer into their home.

      Computers are cold and calculating, insensitive to verbal abuse and --- from the consumer's viewpoint --- respond to nothing less than an act of God.

      Whether it is appreciated or not, computer are playing an ever-increasing role in the lives of most people and manufacturers are now trying to convince the public that these electronic gadgets can be useful and, in fact, harmless home tools.

      This softening-up process has already begun. Special purpose computers --- in the forms of programmable microwave ovens, sewing machines, video games, and hand-held electronic teaching aids --- have invaded many homes. And, following this vanguard of "humanized" applications, computers are now becoming designed for personal or home use.

      While microcomputers may one day become standard home appliances, the majority of manufacturers are gearing their product to appeal to the small businessman. Regarded as "super toys" and "frills" by many people, the home computer is essentially a hobby for the individual.

      One of these hobbyists, John Trenholme of Danville, invited a computer into his house three years ago and hasn't tired of its use.

      "I have a hell of a lot of fun with this," said Trenholme, pointing to the electrical guts of an 8080 Processor Technology Sol package with floppy disc drive, printer and 12-inch Hitachi black and white portable television set.

      Pieced together over a period of years, Trenholme's system cost him more than $3,000. But that was before the prices of electronic hardware began to drop. With increased demand for home computers and more manufacturers entering the market, Trenholme predicts that prices will drop even more dramatically --- similar to that experienced in the field of hand calculators.

      What can a home computer do? If you want, it can balance a checkbook, keep tabs on tax records, chart family spending habits, regulate temperatures in the home, turn on lights and sprinkler systems, play games and teach children math and spelling.

      Some computers --- much like word processors --- will provide perfectly typed letters with justified lines and even margins. It will even remember what it typed, in the event a copy is wanted later.

      If a person looks at any one individual use of the home computer, it can certainly be argued that the $600 to $6,000 cost is not justified. By looking at the total number of jobs and bookkeeping duties it can do around the house, you might be justified in buying one.

      Before embarking on any expensive outlay for equipment, "you should get some exposure to computers," warns Trenholme. There is a lot more involved than just plugging it in and beginning to work miracles.

      Trenholme, who works in laser research at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, maintains contact with other computer hobbyists through the lab's recreation association, whose computer club boasts the largest collection of computer hobbyists in the Tri-Valley area.

      Members range from those who dream that it might be nice to have a home computer to those who are up on all the latest computer technology. There are "hardware" types who like to build the equipment and watch it work and "software" people who enjoy the programming aspects of computers.

      Members meet once a month to exchange information and new programs, watch demonstrations, and listen to factory representatives explain their latest designs and systems.

      The club also offers introductory level courses in basic programming and classes teaching high level computer language.

      Technological advances in the field of microelectronics have allowed man to build computers that rest on a table top and calculators that fit the hand. But all the integrated circuits in the world won't help the aspiring computer hobbyist if he can't program.

      The computer is nothing more than a logic machine which can do no more than its programmer programs it to do. It cannot make independent decisions and --- removing the element of speed --- a computer cannot do anything that a person couldn't do. The computer's speed in solving problems of logic, however, has made the "impractical" practical and the "impossible" possible.

      Programming a computer means establishing an algorithm, which is nothing more than a combination of logical steps that represent a solution to a particular problem. This generally means putting those steps into one of the computer languages, such as FORTRAN, COBOL or Microsoft BASIC.

      These languages are a combination of bowdlerized English, numeric figures and signs which the computer will interpret as commands.

      A lot of home computer advertising has led people to believe that they can program a computer. The ability to program, however, may be a big "if."

      "Claims in this field are rampant," said Trenholme, explaining that the uninitiated will find it difficult to separate fact from fiction. In addition, there is a lack of practical programs and problems currently on the market for computers to tackle. This makes the ability to program a must.

      One of the great virtues of belonging to a computer club, said Trenholme, is that a person can exchange programs and learn from others. With more than 50 members in the LLLRA computer club and all of them working on their own programs, it is possible to accumulate quite a library.

      Do you need a computer?

      Probably not. But, then again, who become a ham radio operator when you can accomplish the same communication by phone?

      For the computer hobbyist or person with a keen interest, enjoyment is the only prerequisite.

      "It's more the creative end than the user end that interests me," said Trenholme.

      Going through various phases, he will concentrate on putting the equipment together, then play with the games that he has programmed or modified.

      While it is more difficult to access the value of home computers as educational aids, Trenholme's eight-year-old son, Sam, is learning sophisticated math and programming concepts.

      "A computer is a very patient teach and doesn't lost its cool," noted Trenholme.

      To maintain their cool, consumers are advised to gain considerable exposure to these electronic gadgets before diving head first into the unknown. Diablo Valley College offers a number of computer science classes and currently has several PET computers on loan from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

      In cooperation with the LLLRA, Dee G--------, owner of Computerland in Dublin, hosts various computer club meetings and classes in his store.

      Persons interested in further information about membership requirements, class offerings, and meeting dates should contact computer club president Michael M-------- at 555-XXXX or Computerland's G-------- at 555-XXXX.

      Note: I removed the last names and changed the phone numbers in the last two paragraphs. This article is otherwise as printed in 1979. I, of course, am Trenholme's son Sam as referenced near the end of the article.

      Thursday, July 19, 2007

      OK, Firefox 1.5 is being updated by RedHat

      I'm pleased to see that RedHat has already backported security fixes to the 1.5 branch of FireFox. Of course, since the update is a RPM, to port this to DeLi, one needs to extract the patches from the RPM file and apply the patches to the codebase.

      Wednesday, July 18, 2007

      Firefox released

      Now that the first post- release of Firefox is out,, we will see if RedHat/Novell/Ubuntu/whoever backport the various security fixes to the 1.5 branch of Firefox, the way they mentioned doing last December.

      Monday, July 16, 2007

      I like Microsoft's clear type technology

      Just a quick note that I'm quite impressed with Microsoft's clear type technology. I once posted a list of three fonts that I could do all of my computation with. Well, I can make the list now only have two fonts: Chortle, my modification to Claris SIL, which is, in turn, a modified Bitstream Charter. This font is remarkably readable on the screen using Clear Type, and has an elegance that Verdana (far more readable if one does not have a clear type rendering) do not have. I also need a fixed-width font to add to this list; maybe the monospace liberation font from RedHat.

      The only problem with the Clear Type rendering is that the upper case letters sometimes jump up or down one pixel, probably because of the lack of hinting information in the font.

      I will post a sample of how Chortle looks with Clear type rendering soon.

      - Sam

      Sunday, July 15, 2007

      Why it is good you can not copyright fonts

        You know, I sometimes see postings talking about how it would be a really great idea to copyright typeface designs. This idea seems to be a meme amoung typeface designers. However, copyrighting fonts in the litigation-friendly environment of America, is a really bad idea.

        Why? Because, if it were possible to copyright bitmap fonts, there will suddenly pop up a large number of "intelectual property" companies that will come with with every way of rendering a circle at low bitmap resolutions, with various levels of roundness, and then put a copyright on each and every one of those circles as being "the letter O". These trolls will then threaten to sue anyone with a bitmap font that has an "o" that looks like one of their circles. It will very quickly become impossible to design a typeface without using a letter owned by some font-copyright troll. There are only so many ways you can represent an "o", "c", or even an "s" at low screen resolutions.

        This is why most countries do not allow the shapes of letters to be copyrighted. There is just too much room for abuse otherwise, especially in an over-abused legal system like the US' legal system. And, yes, for vector fonts, Adobe Systems, Inc. v. Southern Software, Inc. makes it so that you can't just rip off somone's vector font and sell it as your own. This is more than enough copyright protection for fonts.