Archive for February, 2007

Calibrating equipment for altitude

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

One of the experiments I was a guinea-pig for on the space station was a study into the correlation of heart rate and metabolism (energy expenditure) in space.

I didn’t have to do much – drink some amazingly expensive water (isotopically distinctive so it would make a good marker) and keep track of everything I ate. And wear a heart monitor, which recorded every beat for much of the flight. Apart from the irritation associated with the wiring of the heart monitor it was straightforward, all the hard work was done on the ground at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, at UCT.

This was an extension of research they had been doing into the correlation of heart rate and metabolic activity in athletes, and they wanted to see if the same rules apply to astronauts in flight. Conclusions:

  1. Yes, they do.
  2. Astronauts don’t burn a lot of energy in space. Floating around is the ultimate couch potato profession, except for interesting events like EVA’s and decompression scenarios where every movement is against the pressurization of your suit.

I was reminded of all of this yesterday when I took a look at the readings of my heart rate monitor – just a low-end Polar heart strap and watch that I’ve been wearing out on the slopes for interest’s sake. The dear thing thinks I’ve been doing AMAZING amounts of exercise while snowboarding. In one day, apparently, I burned off 6,000 kcal, which is hardly likely given my very relaxed (“Sunday tripper”) approach to exercise in general.

I think the issue is that my heart rate is generally elevated when at altitude. The watch doesn’t know anything about altitude, though, so it thinks that I’m tearing up some imaginary track when really I’m enjoying a cup of vin chaud * at 3,000m.

So, does anybody know how to recalibrate one of these things, for a more realistic result? I’m guessing somebody has a data set which would allow one to normalize heart rate for altitude and body mass, and get better results. Or is there a monitor out there which senses altitude and takes it into account automatically?

* thanks to Pierre for pointing out that I’m not, in fact, drinking “lime wine”. What a limey I am.

Clarification on Feisty’s proprietary drivers

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

Jonathan, I’m afraid you’ve misread the announcement that proprietary video drivers will not be switched on by default in Feisty. This was the result of a long telephone call including the entire TB and CC. During the discussion, we re-affirmed the Ubuntu policy of including proprietary drivers where these are required to enable essential hardware functionality.

We define “essential hardware” as functionality which exists widely and for which there are free software applications that are broadly useful, that we wish to include in Ubuntu’s default install, and which require full use of that hardware. The canonical example has always been wifi drivers, some of which only come in proprietary blobs, but which of course enable huge parts of the free software stack to Just Work. We have always shipped those, and intend to continue to do so.

The big discussion has been about whether or not 3D video functionality would be considered essential for Feisty. I and others do believe that 3D is an essential part of the modern desktop experience. It is difficult to buy a PC or laptop that does not include such hardware, and in terms of transistor count it’s almost as much as your CPU these days. However, when we reviewed the status of the free software applications that depend on that hardware functionality we found that they were not ready for inclusion by default in Feisty. Neither Compiz nor Beryl have the requisite stability and compatibility to be a default option in Feisty.

It was this which blocked the decision to enable proprietary video drivers by default, not an aversion to their inclusion. For better or worse, we already crossed that line right at the beginning of the Ubuntu project, and reaffirmed that policy during this debate. It is highly likely that Feisty+1 will see the inclusion of Compiz or Beryl by default, looking at their maturity and ongoing community involvement, and that will catalyse the decision to enable this hardware functionality by default too, even if that means using these proprietary drivers.

Now, the discussion did highlight a couple of key issues and result in a number of additional decisions:

  1. We have not been forceful enough about our policy on software patents and other, similar threats to software freedom. As a result, we have joined FFII and other organisations that are fighting software patents (I am personally co-funding an EFF representative in Brussels to focus on this and other work related to software and content freedom). We will also shortly announce participation in another patent-related initiative aimed at preventing a hostile take-over of the free software space by those with entrenched software IP positions.
  2. We will actively support Nouveau and other efforts to develop free software drivers that enable the requisite functionality. I am happy for folks working on these efforts to contact me directly or to follow the community channels in Ubuntu. Either way, we will provide financial and development support for those groups and will integrate their work as soon as it does the necessary hardware magic. Proprietary drivers are not the preferred solution and will be eliminated once the community delivers a free alternative.
  3. We will work closely with the hardware vendors concerned, and part of that will be to continue to make the strong case in favour of free drivers.

In addition to all of this, we have restarted the effort to produce a flavour of Ubuntu that includes no proprietary drivers or firmware at all. In fact, this flavour will take an ultra-conservative approach to all forms of content on the .iso, whether that be artistic or code. More on that initiative later.

So, I’m sorry if this is not the resounding rejection of the drivers that you were looking for, but I hope that the discussion has proven open, comprehensive and ultimately reasonable.

Snowboard heaven & hell

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

I’m working out of Verbier, Switzerland, during February and March this year. No sympathy expected. Hopefully, the miracle of broadband will make it possible for me to work a full day and enjoy the slopes too!

Last week was my first here, and a bit of a holiday – I had 12 boisterous guys sharing the chalet and things got a little rowdy. Photos are, alas, NSFW. Not safe for pretty much anything, actually, other than sending us all tumbling from our respective slender grasps on respectability. ‘Nuff said.

Anyhow, the week finished with the most amazing day snowboarding I’ve ever been lucky enough to enjoy. Four of us and a guide went exploring off the back of Mont Fort, which is the highest peak you can get to without hiking, and did some back country touring. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Fields of virgin powder, steep climbs up snow staircases that seem to spell instant terminal velocity for anyone who places a foot wrong, nerve-wracking traverses.

We survived, it was glorious, and of course the more we retold the stories to the rest of the group, the better it all seemed. There’s a sign in one of the pubs here that says, very wisely, “The older I get the better I was”.

Today of course all of that cock-sure confidence went out the window after a huge overnight dump and wind that concentrated the snow into nice deep drifts. I couldn’t tell my arse from my elbow, could barely keep the nose of the board on top of the powder, crashed into walls of snow that were totally not there a second before (they jumped out at me, I swear) and ended up falling into a tree-well and landing on a series of strategically placed rocks.

I’m sure the rocks are not regretting the encounter, but I am this evening!

Anyhow, tomorrow morning am lined up for another lesson and am hoping that a little more caution, along with my trusty old ass-guards (“does this make my bum look fat?”) will make for a better day.
More to come.

Accessibility building momentum

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

I was really pleased to read about an accessibility review of ORCA in a KDE blog post. It’s a pointer to a bit of study on the integration of ORCA in Gnome (you can jump straight to the report here) and the good news is, it’s really very positive. Thanks to super work on AT-SPI, a11y is starting to shape up on the Linux desktop, and the source of the blog post suggests that BOTH the desktop heavyweights care about it.

Even better was the news that the German federal government is funding several full-time developers to work on accessibility in Orca and Ubuntu and by extension other free software distributions too. There seems to be a growing consensus that the needs of key constituencies, such as those with special accessibility needs, or those who need independent access to public sector documents and data, are best served through collaboration around content and code that is licensed in a truly open fashion.

At the last Ubuntu Developer Summit, in Mountain View in November ’06, we had a first mini-summit of a11y-focused developers. It would be great to gather together the relevant researchers and app developers in Seville in May to continue that work? Michael Zacherle sets a nice clear goal in a recent email:

“At the end we want to have at least the ICDL Core Modules accessible, together with instructions and documentation.”

For those who haven’t encountered it, the ICDL (“International Computer Drivers Licence”) is a basic course which covers everything you need to know to be office-capable with a computer. In other words, the basics you need to call yourself computer literate, and in many cases, one of the key requirements for a job.

Recently, I’ve seen encouraging signs that the ICDL will be fully supportive of people who want to be “computer literate” with free software. Wouldn’t it be something if that privilege were extended to EVERY user, regardless of financial circumstance, language, or disability?

Closing days of the MOTU Council voting

Monday, February 12th, 2007

Calling all Ubuntu developers! There are 5 very good nominees for the MOTU council up for confirmation, please do take the time to vote.

The UI on those pages is a mess so please check carefully that you’ve voted in all 5 ballots, it takes just a few minutes. I opened up each of the ballots in a separate tab rather than trying to navigate between them. In each case you need to indicate that you approve or disapprove of the nomination. Voting is open to all ubuntu-dev and ubuntu-core-dev members.

Two of the nominations are for a one-year term, the others are for two year terms, so we can start getting some rotation of the council in a year’s time. If there are other worthy candidates please send your nominations to the tech board. Cheers!