Search Results: "flimsy"

14 January 2022

Norbert Preining: Future of my packages in Debian

After having been (again) demoted (timed perfectly to my round birthday!) based on flimsy arguments, I have been forced to rethink the level of contribution I want to do for Debian. Considering in particular that I have switched my main desktop to dual-boot into Arch Linux (all on the same btrfs fs with subvolumes, great!) and have run Arch now for several days exclusively, I think it is time to review the packages I am somehow responsible for (full list of packages). After about 20 years in Debian, time to send off quite some stuff that has accumulated over time. KDE/Plasma, frameworks, Gears, and related packages All these packages are group maintained, so there is not much to worry about. Furthermore, a few new faces have joined the team and are actively working on the packages, although mostly on Qt6. I guess that with me not taking action, frameworks, gears, and plasma will fall back over time (frameworks: Debian 5.88 versus current 5.90, gears: Debian 21.08 versus current 21.12, plasma uptodate at the moment). With respect to my packages on OBS, they will probably also go stale over time. Using Arch nowadays I lack the development tools necessary to build Debian packages, and above all, the motivation. I am sorry for all those who have learned to rely on my OBS packages over the last years, bringing modern and uptodate KDE/Plasma to Debian/stable, please direct your complaints at the responsible entities in Debian. Cinnamon As I have written already here, I have reduced my involvement quite a lot, and nowadays Fabio and Joshua are doing the work. But both are not even DM (AFAIR) and I am the only one doing uploads (I got DM upload permissions for it). But I am not sure how long I will continue doing this. This also means that in the near future, Cinnamon will also go stale. TeX related packages Hilmar has DM upload permissions and is very actively caring for the packages, so I don t see any source of concern here. New packages will need to find a new uploader, though. With myself also being part of upstream, I can surely help out in the future with difficult problems. Calibre and related packages Yokota-san (another DM I have sponsored) has DM upload permissions and is very actively caring for the packages, so also here there is not much of concern. Onedrive This is already badly outdated, and I recommend using the OBS builds which are current and provide binaries for Ubuntu and Debian for various versions. ROCm Here fortunately a new generation of developers has taken over maintenance and everything is going smoothly, much better than I could have done, yeah to that! Qalculate related packages These are group maintained, but unfortunately nobody else but me has touched the repos for quite some time. I fear that the packages will go stale rather soon. isync/mbsync I have recently salvaged this package, and use it daily, but I guess it needs to be orphaned sooner or later. CafeOBJ While I am also part of upstream here, I guess it will be orphaned. Julia Julia is group maintained, but unfortunately nobody else but me has touched the repo for quite some time, and we are already far behind the normal releases (and julia got removed from testing). While go stale/orphaned. I recommend installing upstream binaries. python-mechanize Another package that is group maintained in the Python team, but with only me as uploader I guess it will go stale and effectively be orphaned soon. xxhash Has already by orphaned. qpdfview No upstream development, so not much to do, but will be orphaned, too.

7 February 2021

Chris Lamb: Favourite books of 2020

I won't reveal precisely how many books I read in 2020, but it was definitely an improvement on 74 in 2019, 53 in 2018 and 50 in 2017. But not only did I read more in a quantitative sense, the quality seemed higher as well. There were certainly fewer disappointments: given its cultural resonance, I was nonplussed by Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch and whilst Ian Fleming's The Man with the Golden Gun was a little thin (again, given the obvious influence of the Bond franchise) the booked lacked 'thinness' in a way that made it interesting to critique. The weakest novel I read this year was probably J. M. Berger's Optimal, but even this hybrid of Ready Player One late-period Black Mirror wasn't that cringeworthy, all things considered. Alas, graphic novels continue to not quite be my thing, I'm afraid. I perhaps experienced more disappointments in the non-fiction section. Paul Bloom's Against Empathy was frustrating, particularly in that it expended unnecessary energy battling its misleading title and accepted terminology, and it could so easily have been an 20-minute video essay instead). (Elsewhere in the social sciences, David and Goliath will likely be the last Malcolm Gladwell book I voluntarily read.) After so many positive citations, I was also more than a little underwhelmed by Shoshana Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and after Ryan Holiday's many engaging reboots of Stoic philosophy, his Conspiracy (on Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan taking on Gawker) was slightly wide of the mark for me. Anyway, here follows a selection of my favourites from 2020, in no particular order:

Fiction Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies & The Mirror and the Light Hilary Mantel During the early weeks of 2020, I re-read the first two parts of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy in time for the March release of The Mirror and the Light. I had actually spent the last few years eagerly following any news of the final instalment, feigning outrage whenever Mantel appeared to be spending time on other projects. Wolf Hall turned out to be an even better book than I remembered, and when The Mirror and the Light finally landed at midnight on 5th March, I began in earnest the next morning. Note that date carefully; this was early 2020, and the book swiftly became something of a heavy-handed allegory about the world at the time. That is to say and without claiming that I am Monsieur Cromuel in any meaningful sense it was an uneasy experience to be reading about a man whose confident grasp on his world, friends and life was slipping beyond his control, and at least in Cromwell's case, was heading inexorably towards its denouement. The final instalment in Mantel's trilogy is not perfect, and despite my love of her writing I would concur with the judges who decided against awarding her a third Booker Prize. For instance, there is something of the longueur that readers dislike in the second novel, although this might not be entirely Mantel's fault after all, the rise of the "ugly" Anne of Cleves and laborious trade negotiations for an uninspiring mineral (this is no Herbertian 'spice') will never match the court intrigues of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and that man for all seasons, Thomas More. Still, I am already looking forward to returning to the verbal sparring between King Henry and Cromwell when I read the entire trilogy once again, tentatively planned for 2022.

The Fault in Our Stars John Green I came across John Green's The Fault in Our Stars via a fantastic video by Lindsay Ellis discussing Roland Barthes famous 1967 essay on authorial intent. However, I might have eventually come across The Fault in Our Stars regardless, not because of Green's status as an internet celebrity of sorts but because I'm a complete sucker for this kind of emotionally-manipulative bildungsroman, likely due to reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials a few too many times in my teens. Although its title is taken from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, The Fault in Our Stars is actually more Romeo & Juliet. Hazel, a 16-year-old cancer patient falls in love with Gus, an equally ill teen from her cancer support group. Hazel and Gus share the same acerbic (and distinctly unteenage) wit and a love of books, centred around Hazel's obsession of An Imperial Affliction, a novel by the meta-fictional author Peter Van Houten. Through a kind of American version of Jim'll Fix It, Gus and Hazel go and visit Van Houten in Amsterdam. I'm afraid it's even cheesier than I'm describing it. Yet just as there is a time and a place for Michelin stars and Haribo Starmix, there's surely a place for this kind of well-constructed but altogether maudlin literature. One test for emotionally manipulative works like this is how well it can mask its internal contradictions while Green's story focuses on the universalities of love, fate and the shortness of life (as do almost all of his works, it seems), The Fault in Our Stars manages to hide, for example, that this is an exceedingly favourable treatment of terminal illness that is only possible for the better off. The 2014 film adaptation does somewhat worse in peddling this fantasy (and has a much weaker treatment of the relationship between the teens' parents too, an underappreciated subtlety of the book). The novel, however, is pretty slick stuff, and it is difficult to fault it for what it is. For some comparison, I later read Green's Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns which, as I mention, tug at many of the same strings, but they don't come together nearly as well as The Fault in Our Stars. James Joyce claimed that "sentimentality is unearned emotion", and in this respect, The Fault in Our Stars really does earn it.

The Plague Albert Camus P. D. James' The Children of Men, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon ... dystopian fiction was already a theme of my reading in 2020, so given world events it was an inevitability that I would end up with Camus's novel about a plague that swept through the Algerian city of Oran. Is The Plague an allegory about the Nazi occupation of France during World War Two? Where are all the female characters? Where are the Arab ones? Since its original publication in 1947, there's been so much written about The Plague that it's hard to say anything new today. Nevertheless, I was taken aback by how well it captured so much of the nuance of 2020. Whilst we were saying just how 'unprecedented' these times were, it was eerie how a novel written in the 1940s could accurately how many of us were feeling well over seventy years on later: the attitudes of the people; the confident declarations from the institutions; the misaligned conversations that led to accidental misunderstandings. The disconnected lovers. The only thing that perhaps did not work for me in The Plague was the 'character' of the church. Although I could appreciate most of the allusion and metaphor, it was difficult for me to relate to the significance of Father Paneloux, particularly regarding his change of view on the doctrinal implications of the virus, and spoiler alert that he finally died of a "doubtful case" of the disease, beyond the idea that Paneloux's beliefs are in themselves "doubtful". Answers on a postcard, perhaps. The Plague even seemed to predict how we, at least speaking of the UK, would react when the waves of the virus waxed and waned as well:
The disease stiffened and carried off three or four patients who were expected to recover. These were the unfortunates of the plague, those whom it killed when hope was high
It somehow captured the nostalgic yearning for high-definition videos of cities and public transport; one character even visits the completely deserted railway station in Oman simply to read the timetables on the wall.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy John le Carr There's absolutely none of the Mad Men glamour of James Bond in John le Carr 's icy world of Cold War spies:
Small, podgy, and at best middle-aged, Smiley was by appearance one of London's meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting, and extremely wet.
Almost a direct rebuttal to Ian Fleming's 007, Tinker, Tailor has broken-down cars, bad clothes, women with their own internal and external lives (!), pathetically primitive gadgets, and (contra Mad Men) hangovers that significantly longer than ten minutes. In fact, the main aspect that the mostly excellent 2011 film adaption doesn't really capture is the smoggy and run-down nature of 1970s London this is not your proto-Cool Britannia of Austin Powers or GTA:1969, the city is truly 'gritty' in the sense there is a thin film of dirt and grime on every surface imaginable. Another angle that the film cannot capture well is just how purposefully the novel does not mention the United States. Despite the US obviously being the dominant power, the British vacillate between pretending it doesn't exist or implying its irrelevance to the matter at hand. This is no mistake on Le Carr 's part, as careful readers are rewarded by finding this denial of US hegemony in metaphor throughout --pace Ian Fleming, there is no obvious Felix Leiter to loudly throw money at the problem or a Sheriff Pepper to serve as cartoon racist for the Brits to feel superior about. By contrast, I recall that a clever allusion to "dusty teabags" is subtly mirrored a few paragraphs later with a reference to the installation of a coffee machine in the office, likely symbolic of the omnipresent and unavoidable influence of America. (The officer class convince themselves that coffee is a European import.) Indeed, Le Carr communicates a feeling of being surrounded on all sides by the peeling wallpaper of Empire. Oftentimes, the writing style matches the graceless and inelegance of the world it depicts. The sentences are dense and you find your brain performing a fair amount of mid-flight sentence reconstruction, reparsing clauses, commas and conjunctions to interpret Le Carr 's intended meaning. In fact, in his eulogy-cum-analysis of Le Carr 's writing style, William Boyd, himself a ventrioquilist of Ian Fleming, named this intentional technique 'staccato'. Like the musical term, I suspect the effect of this literary staccato is as much about the impact it makes on a sentence as the imperceptible space it generates after it. Lastly, the large cast in this sprawling novel is completely believable, all the way from the Russian spymaster Karla to minor schoolboy Roach the latter possibly a stand-in for Le Carr himself. I got through the 500-odd pages in just a few days, somehow managing to hold the almost-absurdly complicated plot in my head. This is one of those classic books of the genre that made me wonder why I had not got around to it before.

The Nickel Boys Colson Whitehead According to the judges who awarded it the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Nickel Boys is "a devastating exploration of abuse at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida" that serves as a "powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption". But whilst there is plenty of this perseverance and dignity on display, I found little redemption in this deeply cynical novel. It could almost be read as a follow-up book to Whitehead's popular The Underground Railroad, which itself won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. Indeed, each book focuses on a young protagonist who might be euphemistically referred to as 'downtrodden'. But The Nickel Boys is not only far darker in tone, it feels much closer and more connected to us today. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that it is based on the story of the Dozier School in northern Florida which operated for over a century before its long history of institutional abuse and racism was exposed a 2012 investigation. Nevertheless, if you liked the social commentary in The Underground Railroad, then there is much more of that in The Nickel Boys:
Perhaps his life might have veered elsewhere if the US government had opened the country to colored advancement like they opened the army. But it was one thing to allow someone to kill for you and another to let him live next door.
Sardonic aper us of this kind are pretty relentless throughout the book, but it never tips its hand too far into on nihilism, especially when some of the visual metaphors are often first-rate: "An American flag sighed on a pole" is one I can easily recall from memory. In general though, The Nickel Boys is not only more world-weary in tenor than his previous novel, the United States it describes seems almost too beaten down to have the energy conjure up the Swiftian magical realism that prevented The Underground Railroad from being overly lachrymose. Indeed, even we Whitehead transports us a present-day New York City, we can't indulge in another kind of fantasy, the one where America has solved its problems:
The Daily News review described the [Manhattan restaurant] as nouveau Southern, "down-home plates with a twist." What was the twist that it was soul food made by white people?
It might be overly reductionist to connect Whitehead's tonal downshift with the racial justice movements of the past few years, but whatever the reason, we've ended up with a hard-hitting, crushing and frankly excellent book.

True Grit & No Country for Old Men Charles Portis & Cormac McCarthy It's one of the most tedious cliches to claim the book is better than the film, but these two books are of such high quality that even the Coen Brothers at their best cannot transcend them. I'm grouping these books together here though, not because their respective adaptations will exemplify some of the best cinema of the 21st century, but because of their superb treatment of language. Take the use of dialogue. Cormac McCarthy famously does not use any punctuation "I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that's it" but the conversations in No Country for Old Men together feel familiar and commonplace, despite being relayed through this unconventional technique. In lesser hands, McCarthy's written-out Texan drawl would be the novelistic equivalent of white rap or Jar Jar Binks, but not only is the effect entirely gripping, it helps you to believe you are physically present in the many intimate and domestic conversations that hold this book together. Perhaps the cinematic familiarity helps, as you can almost hear Tommy Lee Jones' voice as Sheriff Bell from the opening page to the last. Charles Portis' True Grit excels in its dialogue too, but in this book it is not so much in how it flows (although that is delightful in its own way) but in how forthright and sardonic Maddie Ross is:
"Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt." "One would be as unpleasant as the other."
Perhaps this should be unsurprising. Maddie, a fourteen-year-old girl from Yell County, Arkansas, can barely fire her father's heavy pistol, so she can only has words to wield as her weapon. Anyway, it's not just me who treasures this book. In her encomium that presages most modern editions, Donna Tartt of The Secret History fame traces the novels origins through Huckleberry Finn, praising its elegance and economy: "The plot of True Grit is uncomplicated and as pure in its way as one of the Canterbury Tales". I've read any Chaucer, but I am inclined to agree. Tartt also recalls that True Grit vanished almost entirely from the public eye after the release of John Wayne's flimsy cinematic vehicle in 1969 this earlier film was, Tartt believes, "good enough, but doesn't do the book justice". As it happens, reading a book with its big screen adaptation as a chaser has been a minor theme of my 2020, including P. D. James' The Children of Men, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train, James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, John le Carr 's Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy and even a staged production of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol streamed from The Old Vic. For an autodidact with no academic background in literature or cinema, I've been finding this an effective and enjoyable means of getting closer to these fine books and films it is precisely where they deviate (or perhaps where they are deficient) that offers a means by which one can see how they were constructed. I've also found that adaptations can also tell you a lot about the culture in which they were made: take the 'straightwashing' in the film version of Strangers on a Train (1951) compared to the original novel, for example. It is certainly true that adaptions rarely (as Tartt put it) "do the book justice", but she might be also right to alight on a legal metaphor, for as the saying goes, to judge a movie in comparison to the book is to do both a disservice.

The Glass Hotel Emily St. John Mandel In The Glass Hotel, Mandel somehow pulls off the impossible; writing a loose roman- -clef on Bernie Madoff, a Ponzi scheme and the ephemeral nature of finance capital that is tranquil and shimmeringly beautiful. Indeed, don't get the wrong idea about the subject matter; this is no over over-caffeinated The Big Short, as The Glass Hotel is less about a Madoff or coked-up financebros but the fragile unreality of the late 2010s, a time which was, as we indeed discovered in 2020, one event away from almost shattering completely. Mandel's prose has that translucent, phantom quality to it where the chapters slip through your fingers when you try to grasp at them, and the plot is like a ghost ship that that slips silently, like the Mary Celeste, onto the Canadian water next to which the eponymous 'Glass Hotel' resides. Indeed, not unlike The Overlook Hotel, the novel so overflows with symbolism so that even the title needs to evoke the idea of impermanence permanently living in a hotel might serve as a house, but it won't provide a home. It's risky to generalise about such things post-2016, but the whole story sits in that the infinitesimally small distance between perception and reality, a self-constructed culture that is not so much 'post truth' but between them. There's something to consider in almost every character too. Take the stand-in for Bernie Madoff: no caricature of Wall Street out of a 1920s political cartoon or Brechtian satire, Jonathan Alkaitis has none of the oleaginous sleaze of a Dominic Strauss-Kahn, the cold sociopathy of a Marcus Halberstam nor the well-exercised sinuses of, say, Jordan Belford. Alkaitis is dare I say it? eminently likeable, and the book is all the better for it. Even the C-level characters have something to say: Enrico, trivially escaping from the regulators (who are pathetically late to the fraud without Mandel ever telling us explicitly), is daydreaming about the girlfriend he abandoned in New York: "He wished he'd realised he loved her before he left". What was in his previous life that prevented him from doing so? Perhaps he was never in love at all, or is love itself just as transient as the imaginary money in all those bank accounts? Maybe he fell in love just as he crossed safely into Mexico? When, precisely, do we fall in love anyway? I went on to read Mandel's Last Night in Montreal, an early work where you can feel her reaching for that other-worldly quality that she so masterfully achieves in The Glass Hotel. Her f ted Station Eleven is on my must-read list for 2021. "What is truth?" asked Pontius Pilate. Not even Mandel cannot give us the answer, but this will certainly do for now.

Running the Light Sam Tallent Although it trades in all of the clich s and stereotypes of the stand-up comedian (the triumvirate of drink, drugs and divorce), Sam Tallent's debut novel depicts an extremely convincing fictional account of a touring road comic. The comedian Doug Stanhope (who himself released a fairly decent No Encore for the Donkey memoir in 2020) hyped Sam's book relentlessly on his podcast during lockdown... and justifiably so. I ripped through Running the Light in a few short hours, the only disappointment being that I can't seem to find videos online of Sam that come anywhere close to match up to his writing style. If you liked the rollercoaster energy of Paul Beatty's The Sellout, the cynicism of George Carlin and the car-crash invertibility of final season Breaking Bad, check this great book out.

Non-fiction Inside Story Martin Amis This was my first introduction to Martin Amis's work after hearing that his "novelised autobiography" contained a fair amount about Christopher Hitchens, an author with whom I had a one of those rather clich d parasocial relationship with in the early days of YouTube. (Hey, it could have been much worse.) Amis calls his book a "novelised autobiography", and just as much has been made of its quasi-fictional nature as the many diversions into didactic writing advice that betwixt each chapter: "Not content with being a novel, this book also wants to tell you how to write novels", complained Tim Adams in The Guardian. I suspect that reviewers who grew up with Martin since his debut book in 1973 rolled their eyes at yet another demonstration of his manifest cleverness, but as my first exposure to Amis's gift of observation, I confess that I was thought it was actually kinda clever. Try, for example, "it remains a maddening truth that both sexual success and sexual failure are steeply self-perpetuating" or "a hospital gym is a contradiction like a young Conservative", etc. Then again, perhaps I was experiencing a form of nostalgia for a pre-Gamergate YouTube, when everything in the world was a lot simpler... or at least things could be solved by articulate gentlemen who honed their art of rhetoric at the Oxford Union. I went on to read Martin's first novel, The Rachel Papers (is it 'arrogance' if you are, indeed, that confident?), as well as his 1997 Night Train. I plan to read more of him in the future.

The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters: Volume 1 & Volume 2 & Volume 3 & Volume 4 George Orwell These deceptively bulky four volumes contain all of George Orwell's essays, reviews and correspondence, from his teenage letters sent to local newspapers to notes to his literary executor on his deathbed in 1950. Reading this was part of a larger, multi-year project of mine to cover the entirety of his output. By including this here, however, I'm not recommending that you read everything that came out of Orwell's typewriter. The letters to friends and publishers will only be interesting to biographers or hardcore fans (although I would recommend Dorian Lynskey's The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell's 1984 first). Furthermore, many of his book reviews will be of little interest today. Still, some insights can be gleaned; if there is any inconsistency in this huge corpus is that his best work is almost 'too' good and too impactful, making his merely-average writing appear like hackwork. There are some gems that don't make the usual essay collections too, and some of Orwell's most astute social commentary came out of series of articles he wrote for the left-leaning newspaper Tribune, related in many ways to the US Jacobin. You can also see some of his most famous ideas start to take shape years if not decades before they appear in his novels in these prototype blog posts. I also read Dennis Glover's novelised account of the writing of Nineteen-Eighty Four called The Last Man in Europe, and I plan to re-read some of Orwell's earlier novels during 2021 too, including A Clergyman's Daughter and his 'antebellum' Coming Up for Air that he wrote just before the Second World War; his most under-rated novel in my estimation. As it happens, and with the exception of the US and Spain, copyright in the works published in his lifetime ends on 1st January 2021. Make of that what you will.

Capitalist Realism & Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class Mark Fisher & Owen Jones These two books are not natural companions to one another and there is likely much that Jones and Fisher would vehemently disagree on, but I am pairing these books together here because they represent the best of the 'political' books I read in 2020. Mark Fisher was a dedicated leftist whose first book, Capitalist Realism, marked an important contribution to political philosophy in the UK. However, since his suicide in early 2017, the currency of his writing has markedly risen, and Fisher is now frequently referenced due to his belief that the prevalence of mental health conditions in modern life is a side-effect of various material conditions, rather than a natural or unalterable fact "like weather". (Of course, our 'weather' is being increasingly determined by a combination of politics, economics and petrochemistry than pure randomness.) Still, Fisher wrote on all manner of topics, from the 2012 London Olympics and "weird and eerie" electronic music that yearns for a lost future that will never arrive, possibly prefiguring or influencing the Fallout video game series. Saying that, I suspect Fisher will resonate better with a UK audience more than one across the Atlantic, not necessarily because he was minded to write about the parochial politics and culture of Britain, but because his writing often carries some exasperation at the suppression of class in favour of identity-oriented politics, a viewpoint not entirely prevalent in the United States outside of, say, Tour F. Reed or the late Michael Brooks. (Indeed, Fisher is likely best known in the US as the author of his controversial 2013 essay, Exiting the Vampire Castle, but that does not figure greatly in this book). Regardless, Capitalist Realism is an insightful, damning and deeply unoptimistic book, best enjoyed in the warm sunshine I found it an ironic compliment that I had quoted so many paragraphs that my Kindle's copy protection routines prevented me from clipping any further. Owen Jones needs no introduction to anyone who regularly reads a British newspaper, especially since 2015 where he unofficially served as a proxy and punching bag for expressing frustrations with the then-Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. However, as the subtitle of Jones' 2012 book suggests, Chavs attempts to reveal the "demonisation of the working class" in post-financial crisis Britain. Indeed, the timing of the book is central to Jones' analysis, specifically that the stereotype of the "chav" is used by government and the media as a convenient figleaf to avoid meaningful engagement with economic and social problems on an austerity ridden island. (I'm not quite sure what the US equivalent to 'chav' might be. Perhaps Florida Man without the implications of mental health.) Anyway, Jones certainly has a point. From Vicky Pollard to the attacks on Jade Goody, there is an ignorance and prejudice at the heart of the 'chav' backlash, and that would be bad enough even if it was not being co-opted or criminalised for ideological ends. Elsewhere in political science, I also caught Michael Brooks' Against the Web and David Graeber's Bullshit Jobs, although they are not quite methodical enough to recommend here. However, Graeber's award-winning Debt: The First 5000 Years will be read in 2021. Matt Taibbi's Hate Inc: Why Today's Media Makes Us Despise One Another is worth a brief mention here though, but its sprawling nature felt very much like I was reading a set of Substack articles loosely edited together. And, indeed, I was.

The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing Ewan Clayton A recommendation from a dear friend, Ewan Clayton's The Golden Thread is a journey through the long history of the writing from the Dawn of Man to present day. Whether you are a linguist, a graphic designer, a visual artist, a typographer, an archaeologist or 'just' a reader, there is probably something in here for you. I was already dipping my quill into calligraphy this year so I suspect I would have liked this book in any case, but highlights would definitely include the changing role of writing due to the influence of textual forms in the workplace as well as digression on ergonomic desks employed by monks and scribes in the Middle Ages. A lot of books by otherwise-sensible authors overstretch themselves when they write about computers or other technology from the Information Age, at best resulting in bizarre non-sequiturs and dangerously Panglossian viewpoints at worst. But Clayton surprised me by writing extremely cogently and accurate on the role of text in this new and unpredictable era. After finishing it I realised why for a number of years, Clayton was a consultant for the legendary Xerox PARC where he worked in a group focusing on documents and contemporary communications whilst his colleagues were busy inventing the graphical user interface, laser printing, text editors and the computer mouse.

New Dark Age & Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life James Bridle & Adam Greenfield I struggled to describe these two books to friends, so I doubt I will suddenly do a better job here. Allow me to quote from Will Self's review of James Bridle's New Dark Age in the Guardian:
We're accustomed to worrying about AI systems being built that will either "go rogue" and attack us, or succeed us in a bizarre evolution of, um, evolution what we didn't reckon on is the sheer inscrutability of these manufactured minds. And minds is not a misnomer. How else should we think about the neural network Google has built so its translator can model the interrelation of all words in all languages, in a kind of three-dimensional "semantic space"?
New Dark Age also turns its attention to the weird, algorithmically-derived products offered for sale on Amazon as well as the disturbing and abusive videos that are automatically uploaded by bots to YouTube. It should, by rights, be a mess of disparate ideas and concerns, but Bridle has a flair for introducing topics which reveals he comes to computer science from another discipline altogether; indeed, on a four-part series he made for Radio 4, he's primarily referred to as "an artist". Whilst New Dark Age has rather abstract section topics, Adam Greenfield's Radical Technologies is a rather different book altogether. Each chapter dissects one of the so-called 'radical' technologies that condition the choices available to us, asking how do they work, what challenges do they present to us and who ultimately benefits from their adoption. Greenfield takes his scalpel to smartphones, machine learning, cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence, etc., and I don't think it would be unfair to say that starts and ends with a cynical point of view. He is no reactionary Luddite, though, and this is both informed and extremely well-explained, and it also lacks the lazy, affected and Private Eye-like cynicism of, say, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain. The books aren't a natural pair, for Bridle's writing contains quite a bit of air in places, ironically mimics the very 'clouds' he inveighs against. Greenfield's book, by contrast, as little air and much lower pH value. Still, it was more than refreshing to read two technology books that do not limit themselves to platitudinal booleans, be those dangerously naive (e.g. Kevin Kelly's The Inevitable) or relentlessly nihilistic (Shoshana Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism). Sure, they are both anti-technology screeds, but they tend to make arguments about systems of power rather than specific companies and avoid being too anti-'Big Tech' through a narrower, Silicon Valley obsessed lens for that (dipping into some other 2020 reading of mine) I might suggest Wendy Liu's Abolish Silicon Valley or Scott Galloway's The Four. Still, both books are superlatively written. In fact, Adam Greenfield has some of the best non-fiction writing around, both in terms of how he can explain complicated concepts (particularly the smart contract mechanism of the Ethereum cryptocurrency) as well as in the extremely finely-crafted sentences I often felt that the writing style almost had no need to be that poetic, and I particularly enjoyed his fictional scenarios at the end of the book.

The Algebra of Happiness & Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life Scott Galloway & Nir Eyal A cocktail of insight, informality and abrasiveness makes NYU Professor Scott Galloway uncannily appealing to guys around my age. Although Galloway definitely has his own wisdom and experience, similar to Joe Rogan I suspect that a crucial part of Galloway's appeal is that you feel you are learning right alongside him. Thankfully, 'Prof G' is far less err problematic than Rogan (Galloway is more of a well-meaning, spirited centrist), although he, too, has some pretty awful takes at time. This is a shame, because removed from the whirlwind of social media he can be really quite considered, such as in this long-form interview with Stephanie Ruhle. In fact, it is this kind of sentiment that he captured in his 2019 Algebra of Happiness. When I look over my highlighted sections, it's clear that it's rather schmaltzy out of context ("Things you hate become just inconveniences in the presence of people you love..."), but his one-two punch of cynicism and saccharine ("Ask somebody who purchased a home in 2007 if their 'American Dream' came true...") is weirdly effective, especially when he uses his own family experiences as part of his story:
A better proxy for your life isn't your first home, but your last. Where you draw your last breath is more meaningful, as it's a reflection of your success and, more important, the number of people who care about your well-being. Your first house signals the meaningful your future and possibility. Your last home signals the profound the people who love you. Where you die, and who is around you at the end, is a strong signal of your success or failure in life.
Nir Eyal's Indistractable, however, is a totally different kind of 'self-help' book. The important background story is that Eyal was the author of the widely-read Hooked which turned into a secular Bible of so-called 'addictive design'. (If you've ever been cornered by a techbro wielding a Wikipedia-thin knowledge of B. F. Skinner's behaviourist psychology and how it can get you to click 'Like' more often, it ultimately came from Hooked.) However, Eyal's latest effort is actually an extended mea culpa for his previous sin and he offers both high and low-level palliative advice on how to avoid falling for the tricks he so studiously espoused before. I suppose we should be thankful to capitalism for selling both cause and cure. Speaking of markets, there appears to be a growing appetite for books in this 'anti-distraction' category, and whilst I cannot claim to have done an exhausting study of this nascent field, Indistractable argues its points well without relying on accurate-but-dry "studies show..." or, worse, Gladwellian gotchas. My main criticism, however, would be that Eyal doesn't acknowledge the limits of a self-help approach to this problem; it seems that many of the issues he outlines are an inescapable part of the alienation in modern Western society, and the only way one can really avoid distraction is to move up the income ladder or move out to a 500-acre ranch.

7 November 2010

Jonathan McDowell: New laptop: Acer Aspire TimelineX 1830T

I blogged back in August about my frustration in finding a new laptop that had everything I was looking for. I'd figured I would eventually end up with the Toshiba R700, given my positive experiences with the R200. The lack of stock proved a problem, and the differing specs between the US and UK models also annoying. I started trying to source the Sony and finally found the HD model in stock from Vizik, but the helpful people there talked themselves out of a sale by saying the Full HD was too much for 13" (they also failed to have a 3G Full HD model).

I'd only brought the EEE 901 to the US with me, so after a month of that as my only machine at home I was starting to get a bit fed up; the keyboard is too small for constant use and it crawls when subjected to my normal usage patterns rather than just used as a lightweight network terminal. So it became obvious I was going to have to compromise on what I wanted. And if I was doing that I wanted something a lot cheaper, as I thought I may potentially want to upgrade sooner than usual.

In the end I've gone with an Acer Aspire TimelineX 1830T. It cost about a third of what the more fully featured laptops I was looking at were going for, which was a considerable bonus. The 2 things I ended up compromising on were the SSD and 3G support. And the name; I wasn't entire sure about what the build quality would be like.

As it turned out I needn't have worried; it appears to be perfectly well constructed - no noticeable flex while typing, solid enough, yet still fairly light. The keyboard is pleasant to use (admittedly I'm coming from the EEE, but it's a good size and responsive enough for me). I'm a bit uncertain about the touchpad, which has no physical separation from the rest of the case, but it's been ok so far. I miss the multitouch of the EEE, but it looks like there are some patches for Synaptics multitouch flying around that might eventually lead to useful support. I've ended up with a Core i5 470UM at 1.33GHz - what I ordered was the i5-430UM at 1.2GHz (and that's what the box/label on the laptop said), but I'm not complaining at the slight speed bump. It's fine for my needs. The 1366x768 screen is lovely, even in 11.6". Bright, if sometimes a little too shiny..

Installing was of course fun; it reminded me of when I got the R200 - neither the wifi nor wired interfaces were supported by the Debian installer, even from testing. I found a patch to get the (Atheros) LAN working (and have filed #599771 about potentially getting the support into squeeze's kernel) and that got me up and going. The wifi is a Broadcom BCM43225; too new for the old Free driver and the recently released Broadcom Free code causes the machine to instantly crash (I understand it has some SMP issues). So I'm stuck with the binary blob wl driver from broadcom-sta for now. I have hopes the Broadcom driver will improve though; it seems to be getting active love in the staging tree. The graphics are Intel, so well supported. And I'm getting at least 4 hours of battery life out of it, which I think could be improved with some tweaking.

So, er, yeah. Not what I set out looking for, but considerably cheaper and actually seems to meet my needs pretty well - it had its first weekend away trip this weekend and performed admirably; not too heavy in my hand luggage, decent battery life and no worries about it being too flimsy to survive. I'm still surprised it's an Acer...

27 September 2008

Christine Spang: finally found a decent DAP

I recently bought a 4GB Sansa Clip to solve the problem where once-a-week or so I want portable music or podcasts and don’t have any: namely, at the gym, occasionally when walking somewhere, and on trains and buses. I’ve been looking for something exactly like this for ages—small, attachable for use during exercise, enough space for a few hours of music/audio, OGG support, and not necessarily much more than that. Basically, an iPod Shuffle that plays OGG and doesn’t involve dealing with Apple. For the longest of time, this was pie-in-the-sky nonexistant. After a few weeks of using the Clip, I’m extremely pleased so far. The battery life is much longer than I’d ever want to listen to music for continuously (they claim 15 hours, and I haven’t gotten it down to less than half charge yet). It’s light in the hand but not too flimsy in feel, the clip makes it easy to attach to e.g. shorts, the interface is easy to use, and the sound quality is good. After upgrading to the latest firmware, it plays OGG as well as MP3. Both Rhymthbox and Banshee work for transferring files to it. I think my biggest complaint so far would be that the audio jack doesn’t fit in as securely as it could, which sometimes manifests as sound skipping and can be fixed by making sure the headphones are completely plugged in. Seriously, it was funny when my Walkman skipped during runs in 2003, but I hope I’m past that phase of life at this point. At any rate, it doesn’t happen all that often, so it’s more of a minor annoyance than anything. And well, the firmware isn’t free—but hey, can’t have everything.

4 July 2008

Russell Coker: New Dell Server

My Dell PowerEdge T105 server (as referenced in my previous post [1]) is now working. It has new memory (why replace just the broken DIMM when you can replace both) and a new BIOS (Dell released an “Urgent” update yesterday that fixes a problem with memory timing and Opteron CPUs). The BIOS update can be installed from a DOS executable (traditionally done from a floppy disk) or an i386 Linux executable. As I didn’t have a floppy drive in my new server I had to use Linux (not that I object to using Linux, but I’d rather have had the technician do it all for me). I used rescue mode from a Fedora 9 CD that was convenient, mounted a USB stick that I had used to store the BIOS update, and then ran it. The Dell service was quite good, on-site service and the problem was fixed approximately 27 hours after I called them. Replacing a couple of DIMMs is hardly a test of skill for the repair-man (unlike the time in Amsterdam when a Dell repair-man swapped a motherboard in a server with only 20 minutes of down-time). So I haven’t seen evidence of them doing anything really great, but getting someone on-site close to 24 hours after the report is quite decent, especially considering that I paid for the cheapest support that they offer. When I got it working I was a little surprised by the memory speed, I had hoped that a new 2GHz Opteron would perform similarly to an Intel E2160 and better than an old Pentium-D (see the results here [2]). Also the memtest86+ run took ages on the step of writing random numbers (I don’t recall ever seeing that step on previous runs, let alone having a system spend half an hour doing it). It seems that the CPU (Opteron 1212) doesn’t perform well for random number generation. In terms of actual operation all I’ve done so far is to install Debian. The process of installing Debian packages was quite fast (even with a RAID-1 reconstruction occurring at the same time) and the boot time is also very quick. The hard drive “rails” seemed a little flimsy. The way they attach to the drive is that they have screws that end in pins, so you screw them into plastic and the pins just sit in the holes in the drive where screws normally attach. I think that it would make more sense to have them not screw onto the plastic and instead screw onto the disk. Then if the plastic part that connects the two sides was to break it would still be usable. In fact they could just make the “rails” be separate rails as most other manufacturers do. One thing that surprised me was the lack of PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports. I had expected that such ports would last longer than serial ports and floppy drives. However my Dell has a power connector for a floppy drive and has a built-in serial port (with some BIOS support for management via a serial port - I have not investigated this because I always plan to use a keyboard and monitor). Of course I expect that most other machines will start shipping without PS/2 ports now and I will have to dispose of my stockpile of PS/2 keyboards and mouses. I generally like to keep a few on hand so that I can give friends and relatives a chance to try a selection and discover which type suits them the best. But I probably don’t need a dozen of them for that purpose. While a comment on my previous post noted that the floppy drive bay can be used for another disk, it seems that a disk is not going to fit in there easily. It looks like I might be able to install a disk there from the front if I unscrew the face-plate - but that’s more effort than I’m prepared to exert for testing the system (for production I will only have two disks). In terms of noise, the Dell seems considerably better than a NEC machine which was designed for desktop use. Of course it’s difficult to be certain as part of the noise is from hard disks and one of the disks I’ve installed in the Dell is a WD “Green” disk and the other may have newer technology to minimise noise. Also the mounting brackets for disks in a server may be better at damping vibrations than screwing a disk to the chassis of a desktop machine. Finally the NEC machine does seem to make more noise now than it used to, so maybe it would be best to compare after a few months use to allow for minor wear on the moving parts. I was initially going to run Debian/Etch on the machine. But as Debian didn’t recognise the built-in Ethernet card and the Xen kernel crashed when doing intensive disk IO I was forced to use CentOS. CentOS 5.1 didn’t start my DomU’s for some reason (which I never diagnosed) but CentOS 5.2 worked perfectly. Finally I was shocked when I realised that the Dell has no sound hardware! When the CentOS post-install program said that it couldn’t find a sound device I thought that meant that it didn’t support the hardware (it’s the sort of thing that sometimes happens when you get a new machine). But it actually has no sound support! It seems really strange that Dell design a desk-side server (which is quiet) and don’t include sound support. If nothing else then using something like randomsound to take input from the microphone line as a source of entropy is going to be useful on servers. While the seven USB ports initially seemed like a lot, being forced to use them for keyboard, mouse, and sound (if I end up using it on a desktop) means that there would only be four left.

3 July 2008

Russell Coker: New Dell Server

My Dell PowerEdge T105 server (as referenced in my previous post [1]) is now working. It has new memory (why replace just the broken DIMM when you can replace both) and a new BIOS (Dell released an “Urgent” update yesterday that fixes a problem with memory timing and Opteron CPUs). The BIOS update can be installed from a DOS executable (traditionally done from a floppy disk) or an i386 Linux executable. As I didn’t have a floppy drive in my new server I had to use Linux (not that I object to using Linux, but I’d rather have had the technician do it all for me). I used rescue mode from a Fedora 9 CD that was convenient, mounted a USB stick that I had used to store the BIOS update, and then ran it. The Dell service was quite good, on-site service and the problem was fixed approximately 27 hours after I called them. Replacing a couple of DIMMs is hardly a test of skill for the repair-man (unlike the time in Amsterdam when a Dell repair-man swapped a motherboard in a server with only 20 minutes of down-time). So I haven’t seen evidence of them doing anything really great, but getting someone on-site close to 24 hours after the report is quite decent, especially considering that I paid for the cheapest support that they offer. When I got it working I was a little surprised by the memory speed, I had hoped that a new 2GHz Opteron would perform similarly to an Intel E2160 and better than an old Pentium-D (see the results here [2]). Also the memtest86+ run took ages on the step of writing random numbers (I don’t recall ever seeing that step on previous runs, let alone having a system spend half an hour doing it). It seems that the CPU (Opteron 1212) doesn’t perform well for random number generation. In terms of actual operation all I’ve done so far is to install Debian. The process of installing Debian packages was quite fast (even with a RAID-1 reconstruction occurring at the same time) and the boot time is also very quick. The hard drive “rails” seemed a little flimsy. The way they attach to the drive is that they have screws that end in pins, so you screw them into plastic and the pins just sit in the holes in the drive where screws normally attach. I think that it would make more sense to have them not screw onto the plastic and instead screw onto the disk. Then if the plastic part that connects the two sides was to break it would still be usable. In fact they could just make the “rails” be separate rails as most other manufacturers do. One thing that surprised me was the lack of PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports. I had expected that such ports would last longer than serial ports and floppy drives. However my Dell has a power connector for a floppy drive and has a built-in serial port (with some BIOS support for management via a serial port - I have not investigated this because I always plan to use a keyboard and monitor). Of course I expect that most other machines will start shipping without PS/2 ports now and I will have to dispose of my stockpile of PS/2 keyboards and mouses. I generally like to keep a few on hand so that I can give friends and relatives a chance to try a selection and discover which type suits them the best. But I probably don’t need a dozen of them for that purpose. While a comment on my previous post noted that the floppy drive bay can be used for another disk, it seems that a disk is not going to fit in there easily. It looks like I might be able to install a disk there from the front if I unscrew the face-plate - but that’s more effort than I’m prepared to exert for testing the system (for production I will only have two disks). In terms of noise, the Dell seems considerably better than a NEC machine which was designed for desktop use. Of course it’s difficult to be certain as part of the noise is from hard disks and one of the disks I’ve installed in the Dell is a WD “Green” disk and the other may have newer technology to minimise noise. Also the mounting brackets for disks in a server may be better at damping vibrations than screwing a disk to the chassis of a desktop machine. Finally the NEC machine does seem to make more noise now than it used to, so maybe it would be best to compare after a few months use to allow for minor wear on the moving parts. One interesting feature is the Broadcom Gig-E port on the motherboard, it supports iSCSI as a boot protocol which is an interesting alternative to PXE, so if you have a server attached to a SAN via iSCSI you can use the same protocol for booting. There is a USB port inside the case (for permanently attached USB devices), however the USB boot option states that it is offering the option to boot from front USB ports - and it claims that no operating system is found on the USB stick that I use to boot my Thinkpad. The down-side is that the bnx2 module in the Debian/Etch kernel doesn’t seem to work with it. I want the machine to have three Ethernet ports, I have a two-port PCI card and if I can get the port on the motherboard to work then I’ll have enough. Otherwise I need to buy a PCIe Ethernet card (the machine only has one PCI slot). I ended up installing CentOS on the machine after the Debian/Etch Xen kernel started falling over on disk IO load (a problem I had seen on another Debian/Etch 64bit Xen machine). CentOS 5.1 supports the built-in Ethernet device, but didn’t work correctly with Xen (my DomU’s would just hang or abort). CentOS 5.2 is now working correctly.

25 June 2008

Clint Adams: Relaxation

I was misled. That much is probably true. I certainly had no idea what I was getting myself into. Enough of that though; there's narrative fading away. The part I should take responsibility for is the decision I made to stray off the map. Perhaps it was not so much a decision as a compulsion. I looked at the map. I saw the suspicious unmarked area at the edge, and concluded immediately that there was something good there, something the people wanted to keep hidden from me. I was correct, but I presumed far too much about the terrain. I thought I would make a quick exploration of the secret place, then backtrack to the more mapped area and get back with the program. Enough of that though; I've nearly forgotten the story. First I should point out that, had the map been to scale, it should have taken me an leisurely fifteen minutes to get to my first destination. It should have, assuming the land would be as flat as the map that represented it. Instead, it turned out to be something one could cover in fifteen minutes if one had, say, a jetpack and spring boots. I'm probably wrong; I'd probably injure myself in the process and take longer. Anyway, the average incline was close to 45 , and luckily was mostly uphill. Luckily. When I got to a resting place, I was able to conclude that my supply of fluids was almost certainly insufficient for me to continue. On the other hand, there was probably no way I would return if I went back for more drink. I told myself that there would likely be a beverage-selling shack out in the middle of nowhere around the next bend or so. Having solved this probability problem, I pressed on into the blazing sun. I came to a path leading down to the sea. It was unclear what was down there, but it was clear that it seemed to be a million miles down, and that that path might be the only way back. Given my current state of exhaustion and hydration, I decided to pass on this opportunity. After continuing for a while, the features at the bottom of that path became visible. A very pretty cove was down there, and almost certainly no shack o' drinks. I then came upon a fork. A wide path led downward: to what, I could not see. To its left, a narrow and rough path led straight. Knowing that a descent probably meant climbing four to eight times the altitude back somehow, and assuming the less pleasant-looking path led somewhere better, I went left. After a while, the land began to slope down, ever so slightly. Little clusters of bottles and newspapers were left on the rocks here and there. Then came a sofa under a tent. I began to wonder what hippies were traveling this path. The slope grew greater, and I passed a bench in a tent. Then I came to a giant staircase, almost straight down. It was covered in weeds and insects. Some were vegan, some wanted my flesh. As I got toward the bottom I thought about how glad I was that I had come that way from the top and not the other way around. Oh, I was very glad. At the bottom was something resembling a plastic bottle graveyard and barrels among barrels filled with water. Rubber hoses seemed to run randomly between certain barrels. A kitchen stood at the edge of some barrels. I suddenly got the feeling that I was not supposed to be here. After discovering that a couple of escape routes were actually dead ends, I proceeded to descend a small staircase to a terraced garden. Hoses lay about the rows, presumably for watering the plants. A cot under a tent lay empty, and I hurried past hoping I would not encounter the owner. Then I was at the ocean. The coast was lined with huge boulders, and a wooden bridge led me to the first one, and another wooden bridge took me to the second. Then the bridges stopped. In the distance, I could see that pretty little cove from before. I took stock. I could either return whence I came, up that horrifying staircase, or I could try to traverse the rocky coast over to the cove, then maybe do a faceplant on the beach and let the tide drown me rather than climbing back up. It seemed like a no-brainer, so I began making my way toward the cove. It got harder. Several times I became very afraid, either of falling and smashing my head against a rock or falling into the water below, or some sequential combination thereof. In the end I turned out to be more afraid of going back, at least until I got to what I judged the point of no return. I was reasonably close to where I imagined the sandy beach started, but there was a huge and impassable boulder in the way. Also, if I went further there was no way I would be able to climb back up in case I needed to retreat. I was thinking I would need to retreat, because unless there was some magical hidden toehold, I would be forced to jump into the water and swim around. I did not want to jump into the water. I wanted my phone to stay unfried in the event that I would need to use it to get rescued. I also did not want to call anyone to get rescued, especially since I didn't really know how to explain where I was. With a heavy sigh, I gave up, turned, and went back. This time I moved more quickly, though incurring more damage to my hands and feet. No humans were visible at the crazy farm/garden and makeshift reservoir, but plenty of bugs were visible on the staircase. I made the mistake of trying to lean against the railing to catch my breath. When I finally got to the bench in the tent, I understood exactly what it was for. I sat down, took a sip of my remaining water, ate an apple, and kept going up. When I got to the couch, I sat again. This time I sat and tried to figure out a plan. I still clung to the belief that once I got back to somewhere less wild I'd be able to buy a drink. I noted that I only had a little bit of water left, that I was dehydrated, that I was sunburned, that my pulse was about 180, and that there were no dogs or Russian people wandering past me. I ate a pear and drank my last few drops of water. I kept sitting until my pulse was down to around 150, then I figured I needed to keep moving. I was experiencing most of the effects of caffeine, and for free. Oddly, I passed a dog a few steps later. It was just standing by a rock, looking at me. I decided not to converse. When I had nearly reached the fork again, a couple came my way. I thought about begging them for water. I decided not to be rude. I have no idea what happened to them. I'm betting they wisely decided not to go down the steps. Resolving that the only sane option was to go back all the way to where I absolutely knew I could buy something potable, I headed in that direction. Still, I took two risks. Instead of going up the exact way I had come, or taking a well-travelled path down, I took a narrow and flat dirt path. It was actually a bit of a dilemma. I started down the latter two more than once each. Finally I saw that the down path was rather V shaped, and I concluded correctly that the straight path would bypass that angular-half-pipe-like construct. When I finally got to a point I recognized, it was smooth sailing the rest of the way down. I bought water and a snack, since I had had almost nothing to eat that day. At this point it would have been prudent to call it quits and go off and gorge myself on seafood or something, but no, I was now in the mapped area and surely it would all be roses and manna. Finishing one bottle, I bought two more. Five minutes later I bought another. I had now overcompensated, but I was playing it safe. I continued my explorations. Bicyclists kept nearly running into me, and, aside from the obvious, I viewed this as a good sign. Bicyclists, especially those that can't seem to steer straight for some reason, avoid difficult terrain. This is why they take their bikes on subways, trains, and buses. I don't like bike-riding, but if I had my druthers, I would always go downhill. No up, no flat, just down. Like downhill skiing, just down. It is a good thing I don't ride a bike. Once I got to the point where the bicycles thinned out to nonexistence, I was at an intersection. The way I wanted to go was up. The way I didn't want to go, but was a reasonable option, was only very slightly up. Additional factors complicated this decision point. [elision] This passage has been marked friends-only and you will not be able to view it without logging in. Moving hurriedly away from there, I headed upward. After a couple of turns, I ran into Catholics. First there were dead Catholics. Then there were Catholics pre-occupied with dead Catholics. Then there were Catholics waiting to die. Then there were seminarians. Then there were teens with prayer books. When I reached the next pinnacle, there were more teens with prayer books. There were benches, and there were no teens on them, for the teens were standing or sitting on the ground, quietly contemplating the Word. Unfortunately, they had decided that the benches were more suitable for holding all their bags, so there was nowhere for me to sit. I considered interrupting their reverie, but decided it wouldn't be very Christian of me to disturb them, so I just placed an ancient Drasnian curse on them and plodded down the hill toward a small beach. I really didn't need any more sun, but at least there probably wouldn't be anyone praying there. The water was tempting, but I'm always paranoid about my belongings when swimming alone, and if my phone were taken I wouldn't be able to call anybody to come rescue me at the next crisis point, sure to come. So I skirted the coastline and arrived at a much larger beach, one with facilities and services. Opting to save money but complicate things by using the public changing rooms and showers, I made a discovery. [elision] This passage has been marked friends-only and you will not be able to view it without logging in. Nonetheless, I changed into my swimming trunks, stuffed everything else but my towel, sunglasses, and a disgusting sugary drink I never should have bought into my bag, and went barefoot a few buildings down to rent a locker. The locker was ridiculously large for a single person, which is good to know should I ever want to kidnap a family and torture them at this place. The proprietor informed me that they were closing at some specific time, about an hour from then. I had no timekeeping device outside of the locker, so I had to wing it, and erring heavily on the side of caution, I had a short beach diversion. Given that large swathes of my epidermis were turning bright red, it's probably for the best. Handling the shower, locker, and changing in the other direction was slightly more complicated, but I did it and then I headed inland, figuring I should have a substantial meal for once that day. On my way to find dinner is when things got really crazy. [elision] This passage has been marked friends-only and you will not be able to view it without logging in. I wandered over to a bench to eat my newly-acquired snack, and did not exercise enough caution, because the flimsy paper bag ripped and I got sauce all over my pants and a little on my shirt. Unfortunately I had used my napkin in that earlier episode, and I'm not sure how much it would have helped anyway. Thus I continued on, looking like a slobby retard. Then I made an obviously-poor decision and ended up having a subpar dinner. What happened after that is a story for another time.

11 October 2007

Russell Coker: Cheap Laptops for Children

I was recently browsing an electronics store and noticed some laptops designed for children advertised at $50AU. These machines were vastly different from what most of us think of when the term laptop is used, they had tiny screens, flimsy keyboards, no IO devices, and a small set of proprietary programs. It was more of a toy that pretends to be a laptop than a real laptop (although I’m sure that it had more compute power than a desktop machine from 1998). After seeing that I started wondering what we can do to provide cheap serious laptops for children running free software. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) [1] program aims at producing laptops for $100US to give to children in developing countries. It’s a great project, the hardware and software are innovative in every way and designed specifically for the needs of children. However they won’t have any serious production capacity for the near future, and even $100US is a little more expensive than desired. Laptops have significant benefits for teaching children in that they can be used at any time and in any place - including long car journeys (inverters that can be used to power laptops from a car power socket are cheap). A quick scan of a couple of auction sites suggests that laptops get cheap when they have less than 256M of RAM. A machine with 128M of RAM seems likely to cost just over $200 and a machine with less than 128M is likely to be really cheap if you can find someone selling it. So I’m wondering, what can you do to set up a machine with 64M of RAM to run an educational environment for a child? KDE and GNOME are moderately user-friendly (nothing like the OLPC system, and even Windows 3.0 was easier in some ways) but too big to run on such a machine (particularly when GIMP is part of a computer education system). This should be a solvable problem, Windows 3.0 ran nicely in 4M of RAM, one of the lighter X window managers ran well in 8M of RAM for me in Linux 0.99 days, and the OS/2 2.0 Workplace Shell (which in many ways beats current KDE and GNOME systems) ran nicely in 12M). I think that a GUI that vaguely resembles Windows 3.0 should run well on a machine with 64M of RAM - is there such a GUI? I have briefly scanned the Debian-Edu [2] site but the only reference to hardware requirements is for running LTSP.

15 July 2007

Russell Coker: Tevion MP4 Player Model M6 - a Review

On Thursday I bought a $99 (discounted from $199) MP4 player from Aldi (a German supermarket chain that has recently opened up here). The player is a Tevion model M6. By a long way it’s the cheapest and nastiest piece of consumer electronics that I have ever owned. It has very flimsy construction (feels like it will crumple in my pocket - not like a solid iRiver) and poor design all around. The viewing angle of the LCD screen is very small, so if I hold it close to my face then the viewing angle will be wrong for at least one eye. There are two power switches, an electronic one on the top (which is also sometimes used as an escape key for menus that don’t recognise the key labelled as ESC) and a slide switch at the side. When I use the electronic switch to turn the power off the back-light will usually flicker - I guess that they wanted to have an electronic switch and then put a mechanical switch in the design when they couldn’t get it working. The menus are strange, they have a game menu that only has Tetris - why not have a Tetris menu instead? The FM radio function doesn’t seem to work and the option to select a European frequency range is lost when the power is cut, along with all saved station frequencies. I never got around to testing the voice-recording function (one of the reasons for purchasing the device) as it failed in too many other ways. The device has an AVI of Barbie Girl by Aqua and also a MP3 with a text file that has the lyrics for Karaoke, this is probably the only good feature of the device. Unfortunately it appears to have some sort of DRM as it gave a padlock icon and stopped working after I played it a few times (fortunately it’s unable to store settings so a power cycle solved that problem). When I connected it to my PC via USB it showed two devices, /dev/sda and /dev/sdb. /dev/sdb gave an IO error (apparently due to not having an SD memory card installed) and and /dev/sda was not in any format recognised by file -s /dev/sda. I’m going to have to return this, even $99 is too much for a device of such quality. Maybe I’ll buy an iRiver to do this if they sell one without DRM.

8 June 2006

Matthew Palmer: [Ruby] Blocks as Resource Management

One of the really neat things about Ruby is the extensive use of blocks (closures, I think the rest of the world calls them) in the standard library to control the allocation and deallocation of resources. Take the following snippet:
 File.open('something.txt') do  fd 
   # Manipulate the file through 'fd'
 end
 # File handle is now closed
There's no way that you can escape from that block without the file being closed (well, in theory, you could lose the file handle if there was an exception thrown in the block, but the File::open method can take care of that internally by catching, closing, then rethrowing). I've loved this feature since I first saw it -- "holy crap!" I thought to myself, "I never have to call close again!". And I was pretty well right -- I think I can count (in unary, not binary!) on one hand (well, I'd use grep wc) the number of times I've used IO#close in my Ruby code. The funny thing is, though, that I don't think I've used this pattern in my own code enough. But I just had an epiphany whilst waiting for a train home -- and I think I'm cured. Take this hideous piece of test code I had laying around in an app I'm working on at the moment:
 def test_something_funny
   faux_path_on
   d = Domain.new('127.0.0.1', 'somethingfunny.com')
   faux_path_off
   
   # assert writ large
 end
Domain::new calls out to a shell command (dig(1) to be precise -- take a guess at what I'm writing <grin>, and yes, it will be released shortly) but for test purposes I can't run dig (because I'm not guaranteed to have all the infrastructure available for a real dig to succeed). So I have a flimsy mock of dig in a directory in my test suite, which is where faux_path_on sets ENV['PATH'] to look at. This is, of course, pretty untidy, because when (not if!) I forget to call faux_path_off, everything goes to complete poop, and my children will have two heads or something. The much cleaner version is like this:
 def test_something_funny
   d = faux_path   Domain.new  
 
   # Assert ahoy!
 end
And my faux_path method (I've even saved a method!) is as simple as simple can be:
 def faux_path
   realpath = ENV['PATH']
   ENV['PATH'] = my_fake_path
   rv = yield
   ENV['PATH'] = realpath
   return rv
 end
I also have a trickier faux_* method, which sets a couple of environment variables which tell my mock nsupdate(8) where to write the data it gets sent from my application -- again, it's a block-taking method that sets the environment, yields, reads in the data from the temporary file, cleans it up, and returns the contents of the aforementioned file. The power of the Ruby is growing within me, I can feel it. And I like it.

19 January 2006

Clint Adams: Not adjusted for inflation

Twice upon a time, there was a corporation called Company B. Ironically, their bugle player quit two days before the beginning of this story. Two days after the bugle player quit, something sinister was happening at Company B. To better understand it, we need to go back in time a bit. So this next part happens well before the beginning of the story. Once upon a time, Company B was run by a middle-management team known as Team Alfalfa. These guys were young and na ve and inexperienced, but idealistic and somewhat morally pure. They certainly didn't expect the bugle player to quit. They were surprised by almost every one of the things to come. When they hired a Belarussian, they were surprised when he quit shortly thereafter and moved to Hampshire County in Massachusetts. They were surprised when the owners of Company B hired Team Buckwheat. Team Buckwheat was a group of power-hungry jerks, who were hired because they had Experience and Vision. Company B needed to grow, because Progress is important, and anyway, how else would the owners be able to bilk the company of millions of dollars through fraud and mismanagement if the company didn't grow big enough to amass millions of dollars in the first place? The thirst for power was great within each member of Team Buckwheat, and they collectively vowed to take over the company. Through trickery and deceit, they sabotaged Team Alfalfa. Team Alfalfa mistakenly believed that its power hold was strong and that it could threaten to hold the company's business hostage, but it was very much mistaken. Slowly but surely, Team Buckwheat started to drive Team Alfalfa out of the company until only two members remained. In fact, their lust was so great that they began vying for power amongst themselves before they had succeeded completely in their purge of the ranks of Team Alfalfa. They employed evil and complicated manipulations and machinations, until only two of them remained as well. As only two, they were much less powerful, and as they saw the danger and became afraid, they clung to one another and allied. Losing faith in Team Buckwheat, the owners of Company B hired the Grey Knight to continue the work of rapidly growing the company in order to make enormous profits. The Grey Knight came in and exuded Calmness and Rationalness, and provided a stark contrast to the meanness and cruelty that Team Buckwheat inflicted upon its subordinates. So some unlikely bedfellows among the grunts and peons formed an alliance, and with the reluctant aid of the Grey Knight, they had the remnants of Team Buckwheat fired based on flimsy pretexts, while the remnants of Team Alfalfa watched from the sidelines. The peons and grunts were na ve and overly hopeful in the Grey Knight, who was not as noble as he seemed. After a few months of everything functioning better than it had ever done before, he brought in his friends, Team Corn. Team Corn was power-hungry as well, but more patient. Unlike Team Buckwheat, which had been cobbled together from strangers, Team Corn stuck together and moved from company to company, leaving waves of disgust and resentment in its wake. These people immediately took steps to secure their power base. Where things had been transparent and group-oriented before, they were made obscure and individualized. Each project was assigned to a single person. All communication regarding each project was required to go directly and privately to the responsible person. Discussing a project with anyone else was a breach of protocol. If the responsible person fell sick or left the country for mysterious reasons, all activity on that project would cease. Accomplishments were discouraged, and simulating the appearance of much effort and progress was encouraged. The members of Team Corn were stunted in their moral development. They believed that one was either with them or against them. Those who chose to be sycophants were given rewards and promotions, no matter how incompetent and unqualified they were. Those who did not were oppressed and punished. Objections and questions to ill-advised policies were met with hostility, and if anyone ever took a principled stand, Team Corn became fraught with confusion; they could not conceive of a reason one might act for the greater good or based on conscience rather than to do what would advance one's own interests. After a very long time, this fundamental lack of comprehension of their own evil led to their downfall, but that small bit of justice was tempered when Team Durum came in to replace them. Team Durum wasn't as bad as Team Corn, but boy did it suck.