brain for a smart sculpture
Saturday, May 8 2004
I've had a plan for the past couple months and I've been groping towards its implementation using a variety of parallel, redundant approaches. The plan is to build some sort of sculpture, perhaps a rather flat one that can be hung on a wall, and to have this sculpture change depending on various information available on the internet. One plan was to make a rather dumb device and control it remotely by sending X10 signals over the household wiring to alter various physical attributes. Another plan was to have a reasonably dumb computer receive instructions for what to do, either via X10 signals or (my favorite idea) FM-band modem transmissions. But if the sculpture contained a reasonably-intelligent computer with a wireless card, it could handle all its dynamic calculations on its own. With this in mind, today I outfitted an ancient IBM Thinkpad 560 with a hard drive containing an installation of Slackware Linux (which I'd had to install using another laptop, since the Thinkpad has no removable drives). The last time I had much luck with a Slackware installation was back in 1998, when I managed to get a Slackware box to successfully dial into Comet.net (God rest its soul). It's advanced a lot since then, particularly with regard to device recognition. It had no difficulty connecting to the internet using a random PCMCIA ethernet card. So then I did the daring thing and tried out a couple of WiFi cards. The first one was a Gigafast card and it didn't work, but the slightly older ZoomAir card connected without difficulty. If I can somehow put this tiny (but primitive) laptop inside a dynamic sculpture, I can control its physically using signals from the parallel port. I can also control it remotely and easily upload new versions of the control software after developing it in the comfort of my laboratory. When it's completed, I'll be able to use the sculpture as a low-power development web server, among many other things. The mind boggles at the possibilities. These are the sorts of laptop applications that come out of having a much better laptop for real laptop uses.
By the way, the reason I'm not using larger, cheaper desktop hardware for this application is my desire to keep power use to a minimum. In applications like this, the fact that I'm running a slow (133 MHz) processor is an advantage. A 133 Mhz Pentium uses 11 watts, whereas a modern Pentium IV uses 70 watts. As a text-only Linux box, it's plenty fast, though it gets stuck in the mud when I launch the Gnome desktop. (I've decided I prefer Gnome to KDE.)
While I was playing with my nifty new Slackware installation, I was also doing what it took to nurse a client's sick Windows computer back to health. It was running incredibly slowly, with an unkillable Svchost process eating up 60 percent of the CPU's power. I tried lots of things before giving up and installing a fresh copy of Windows 2000. The client had told me he'd been infected with the Sasser Worm, but there was no evidence of it. The Sasser Worm is relatively easy to kill off - New Paltz Kristen, for example, had no difficulty using a CD with a burned copy of the patch to dispatch an infection she got from the Kingston Public School System heavily-impacted network. Others weren't so lucky; she said one of her colleagues paid a tech support service $170 to evict Sasser.
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