The man behind the mess.

While working for General Motors in 1921, Tomas Midgley Jr (then 32) discovered that adding tetra-ethyl lead to gasoline would stop “engine knock”, and leaded gasoline was born. On February 1, 1923, Dupont, Standard Oil and GM started selling tetra-ethyl lead (TEL) through a Corporation called the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation. It still exists today under the name “Ethyl Corporation“.

Of course lead is highly toxic and working with it is very dangerous. Ethyl Gasoline Corporation employees suffered a rash of deaths and dementia which the company, and Midgley himself (in spite of having a lead poisoning incident of his own), tried their darnedest to cover up. Thanks to the atmospheric lead produced by burning Midgley’s leaded gasoline, you and I have 625 times more lead in our blood than people before 1923[1].

Tomas Midgley Jr.

In 1930 Midgley then turned is unique talents to finding a safer gas that could be used in cooling systems such as refrigerators. What he came up with was Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which were promptly added to everything from hairspray to air conditioners. We now know that a single kilogram of CFC’s can destroy 70,000 kilograms of ozone[1].

In 1940 Tomas Midgley was stricken with polio and, bedridden, invented a system of ropes and pulleys to help him move around. In a karmic twist Midgley became entangled in the ropes and was found strangled to death in 1944, long before he could learn that his second invention was doing to the world what his third invention did to him.

[1] Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. (2003) Broadway Books, USA. ISBN 0385660049

Rockbox lives up to its name!

As cool looking as it is, the iPod is just a screen and a thumb wheel mounted on a laptop hard drive. With that in mind why can’t I use it as a hard drive? I could just drag and drop my music on my iPod without ever needing to install iTunes. If my computer died I could copy the music from my iPod back to my new computer without batting an eye.

While we are at it how about the ability to play music formats I want (Ogg Vorbis, Flac etc) to use rather than the 4 Apple approves of and the restrictions that come with them? Don’t get me wrong, Apple is a first rate industrial design company, but it feels a little like the RIAA has been talking to their development team.

The real problem is that in spite of all that, the iPod hardware is so much nicer than anything else and I still want one. Fortunately there is a resolution to this cognitive dissonance: Rockbox. Installing it on your iPod instantly gives you gapless playback, UMS (Making your device operate like a USB harddrive), support for replaygain and lossless audio formats as well as Ogg Vorbis and just about every other format I can think of.


I stumbled upon the Rockbox project about a year ago and have been watching with interest as it steadily added support for more players. When it finally added support for the iPod, I began seriously looking at getting one. Finally, Last time we were at Costco, Jenn suggested that since the price was good and there was a nice return policy in case the Rockbox thing did not work out, that I might want to take my birthday present a little early. As it happens she and my Mum and Dad had decided to split on one for me! YAY!

The first part of the installation involves finding the iPod backing up the Apple firmware and installing a boot loader that will allow you load rockbox instead of the Apple firmware. Once the bootloader is in you just need to drop the files from the appropriate build into the root directory of your iPod and then reboot it.

I have been playing with Rockbox for a few days now and am thrilled with it. It still has some rough edges in the interface and the video playback is not there yet but when the speakers are shoved directly into your ear as they are with headphones you really appreciate the quality of the Ogg Vorbis and lossless Flac files. It can even play Doom! Needless to say, it does not appear that I will be needing that return policy. To all the developers working on the Rockbox project, great job, rock on!


Thanks to Jenn and Mum and Dad for the awesome, and somewhat early, gift!

X11 forwarding over SSH

I recently got my old computer up and running with Gentoo Linux with extensive help from one of my coworkers, who is an avid Gentoo fan. Now that it is back in my basement I am starting to play with it remotely.

One of the cool things about the windowing system on Linux (called X11 or just X) is that it is a server and considers the program windows you have opened as clients. There is nothing saying that the server your client program window is getting its information from has to be the local computer you are sitting in front of.

Of course, no proper Linux aficionado would send this kind of thing across the internet without encryption, so the X windows are sent through an SSH tunnel. The settings (on Gentoo at least) were pretty simple. In the /etc/ssh/ssh_config file change this:

# Host *

# ForwardAgent no

# ForwardX11 no

To this:

Host *

# ForwardAgent no

ForwardX11 yes

And then in the /etc/ssh/sshd_config file change:

# X11Forwarding no


X11Forwarding yes

Once you have done that restart the sshd service with the command:

sleepycat ~ # /etc/init.d/sshd restart

* Stopping sshd … [ ok ]

* Starting sshd … [ ok ]

Now you are ready to ssh to the box. Use the –X flag to enable X11 forwarding and the –l option to specify the username you are connecting with:

sleepycat ~ # ssh –X –l mike

When you are connected you can issue a command like “firefox &” and marvel as firefox opens with your search history and bookmarks from the remote computer.

When I showed this off at work I was asked “cool, but what are you going to use it for?”

I guess if I ever wanted an undetectable way to surf porn at the office I could use it for that…