Sunday, October 4, 2009

Deficit spending, short and simple

Mr. Keynes over there would like to splain something to you wild n crazy Obama-hatin' deficit hawks.

You just rented an apartment. You're told you can move in the day after the previous renter left, only to come and find out it's completely trashed. Now you know there's some good shit mixed in with the garbage, and you kinda want that good shit. So you (or, more likely, someone hired by the landlord) is going to spend some time moving shit around, stacking it, and generally taking up a lot of space -- in other words, making things worse to make them better. At the end of a couple of days, or maybe a week, you'll be able to get around your apartment just fine and have a pile of neat crap that the old tenant couldn't be bothered to take with him.

The mess? That's the Bush economy. That cleaning process? That's deficit spending. And having seen firsthand what a truly trashed apartment looks like, that shit ain't going to be over the moment someone starts cleaning. For you computer geeks out there who haven't had a clean room since elementary school (that would be me), think of the deficit as swap space. You've only got so much real memory/money to do things; you need lots more space to move shit around.

Deficit spending is not a difficult concept, people. Stop listening to what they tell you on Fox News or at Ron Paul circle jerks and learn some mainstream economics.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Some thoughts on a month with Ubuntu Linux

So after I brought home the computer mentioned in the previous post, I repartitioned it with a small Windows XP install (of minimal use -- I think I only used it for a couple of setup tasks) and 25GB of Ubuntu. I picked Ubuntu for a couple of reasons, primarily because the circle of people I can turn to for support are overwhelmingly Ubuntu users, but also because I don't really like the current direction that Knoppix (the distro I ran on the old PC) took in version 6 by being a complete rebuild with LXDE instead of KDE. (I do not actually mind LXDE; it's the fact that Klaus Knopper decided to turn Knoppix 6 into a testbed for a couple of of his pet projects without really acknowledging that he'd created an entirely new product in the process that bothers me. Well, that and the excessive use of special effects in the GUI.)

So where to start? I already had an older version of Edubuntu, but I definitely wanted newer software, so I grabbed the latest version (9.04/Jaunty Jackalope, x86-32) and installed it. The first thing I noticed about it is that it is very overwhelmingly orange; this comes largely from the default theme (the Human-Clearlooks theme), but it's still a drastic change from the grey of MacOS and the blues and greens of Windows XP and Vista. Installation is beyond trivial, which is good since it seems to be the largest issue for new Linux users to get hung up on. The standard desktop is GNOME, which is odd territory for me since I've mostly stuck to KDE on my system, but it's not actually bad. However, it's pretty much the whipping boy for this entire review since, as many people less than enamored of GNOME can tell you, there's a lot of stupid mistakes.

The issue essentially comes down to control vs usability. I've been a Mac fan for over fifteen years now (my first solid experience being System 6 in my old high school) and I've always liked the way the Mac culture enforces a consistent interface between applications. But GUIs do inevitably come in for criticism, since it's very hard to make a spatial/gestural command language Turing-complete; even a macro system like QuicKeys doesn't do more than record keystrokes and mouse events, which is why for many professional Mac developers back in the day, the Macintosh Programmer's Workshop package, despite its high price, was the system of choice for its high scriptability and flexibility in automating the build process, something Think C and Think Pascal (the hobbyist IDEs of choice in the early 90s, before CodeWarrior) had only to a very limited extent. When Apple shipped AppleScript, with an event model that made it remarkably easy to operate applications like marionettes and the ability to use OSAXen (plugins similar to Unix command-line tools), the MacOS finally hit the sweet spot of full graphical control along with powerful automation and access to virtually everything a properly-written application could do.

GNOME... well, the desktop wars are probably the latest flashpoint in a long, long history of religious wars in the Unix world. GNOME has a leg up in one regard, since it's the desktop of choice for Solaris and Fedora Linux, but there are many people (KDE fans in particular) that will tell you that GNOME is a toy interface that hides necessary functions from you. It certainly fails at its attempts to be Mac-like, with a menu bar at the top that does not actually hold application menus (those, like any other X environment, go in the app windows themselves).
And as is often the case in Linux distributions, Ubuntu gives you just a little too much without ever really giving you quite enough, and the Synaptic interface for apt-get is, while usable, rather nonstandard in design and even rather clunky. I suppose that's how it is in the open source world, but did they really have to leave out a device manager app (trust me, lspci is not even close to what is needed) and include a screensaver control panel that doesn't let you adjust anything?

That said, it's not at all the clunky mess older versions like early Slackware or Red Hat were. There is a decent selection of application software included, including OpenOffice and The GIMP, and it's no harder to get up and running than Windows or MacOS. Nautilus is as good a file manager as you're going to find, mostly similar to the MacOS X Finder though it lacks the column view, and accessing network facilities is, if anything, even less annoying than it is on the Mac. Synaptic is nonstandard, but if you've got a sufficient internet connection largely painless.

Ubuntu is doing a valuable service for Linux users by making a concerted effort to create a system that anyone can manage. But it does irk me that after all this time, there are still so many rough edges and roadblocks. Considering the time it's been out there, shouldn't it be a little closer than almost there?

Monday, August 10, 2009

ATX: Why it must die, why it never will

About three weeks ago I picked up a used Dell Dimension of indeterminate model. (Long story, but the motherboard (as far as I can tell, a Pentium 4/Northwood board with an Intel chipset) is substantially older than the case. Why and how, I don't know, as long as it contains what the guy who sold it to me says.) It's nothing to get excited about -- I had to cannibalize my old PC for a sound card, and the video card is a complete joke -- but it's sufficient to run Ubuntu and will probably hold me at least until I can afford a MacBook. I actually like the design -- it's designed in the same vein as the fliptop/drop-down cases that Apple used to be famous for until the G5/Mac Pro case. It's completely screwless, and the inside also replaces some inside screws (for example, for the PCI slot brackets) with latches -- you just lay it down, flip it open from the back, and have at it. I'm not a huge fan of Dell and likely would never buy one new (they tend to play fast and loose with standards and Michael Dell is basically a dullard who had a good idea once), but this is a pretty awesome case, and it rather sucks that their current cases are pretty much the same crappy single-ply ATX cases that everyone else uses on their budget systems.

There really aren't enough easy-access cases like this out there; I imagine they're rather expensive, and, well, you get right down to it, there's this slight problem with cable length and a few generally ignored issues about heat transfer and cable routing and the fact that working in the average ATX case is like building a model train in a goddamned BATHTUB and the few times I've ever seen a workable drop-side ATX case it was a complete cheezy disaster and WHAT THE BLOODY HELL WERE THESE PEOPLE THINKING anyway. The Dell case (which I have dubbed the "butterfly" case) seems to solve the cabling problem pretty effectively, since you lay it down and open it from the back, meaning you don't have to worry about yanking out a drive cable or something like that because the drive cages are right on top of the headers.

So every few years someone, usually Intel, comes out with the latest specification meant to supplant ATX, which is now closing on fifteen years old and exists in several vaguely compatible revisions to compensate for increasing demand for cooling and board neatness. There was NLX, which was supposed to replace the poorly-specced LPX for small form factor systems; there are a few NLX boxes out there, but it wasn't that popular. There was WTX which was supposed to replace ATX for higher-end boxes and had sophisticated thermal management; it went nowhere. There was BTX, which got some traction with some of the larger system builders like Gateway and Dell, but went nowhere on the DIY front and is apparently now a zombie standard. ATX, however, continues.

It was good for its time, don't get me wrong; it was relatively friendly for full-size desktop cases, but no one uses those anymore. And it might have been pretty easy to ignore the lessons of Apple's industrial design; this was during the Spindler/Amelio days, when the Macintosh was still a joke among informed techies and they blew most of their ad budget on product placement rather than actual effective advertising. But the first PCI PowerMacs should have served as a lesson to someone out there -- they were very nice to work with, as were the 630/6x00 series cases with the slide-out motherboards, and Apple went one better with the blue and white G3 models, which could actually open up while the system was still live. (If there had ever been any real market in internal USB or FireWire devices, this would have come in very handy indeed.) But Intel missed that lesson when designing WTX and BTX -- wouldn't it have made sense to put the drive headers on the left or right side of the board so the cables don't stretch in a drop-side or fliptop configuration or have to be, you know, YANKED OUT to get at anything in a regular case? Dell's butterfly case is the only workable solution to the problem of front-mounted headers I've ever seen, and nobody seems to have bothered to copy it.

But that's the disappointments of the PC world -- in a commodity business, even when someone gets something utterly and completely right, it's still based on some obnoxious compromise somewhere, and often isn't cost effective because no one else will cut into their profit margins. So Dell went back to the ATX bathtub like everyone else, because it's what everyone else knows and works with. And that comes back to the title of this post: ATX must die because it's half-baked and barely adequate, but it never will because it's so strongly standardized that it will probably be a standard for at least another decade. That's inertia for you.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

There's something the matter with that Heath girl (and other observations)

Sarah Palin is resigning her job as governor of Alaska, and picked the sketchiest possible day of the year -- the day before the Fourth of July -- to do it. Why? No one knows. The smart money is on a scandal about to hit, but in absence of that, it just looks like sheer spineless brittleness -- her inept public persona, her mafious political tactics, and her intolerance of dissent have combined to make her a laughing stock of her among all but the 25 percenters. The rightbloggers are trying to spin it as a strategic move to get into conservative activism or to save her energy for a run at the White House in 2012; everyone else sees it as symptomatic of being a quitter. I certainly don't think I can take her seriously as a political force anymore; while it's obvious she's never really been able to make a niche for herself on the national stage, I guess this shouldn't be that surprising.

Comcast for several weeks has been doing commercials knocking off Verizon's FiOS commercials. While I don't have a terribly high opinion of either company, I have to tell Comcast this: go get your own ad campaign. Are you trying to out-smarm Microsoft's pathetic "I'm a PC" campaign? You do realize ads like that make you look like a second-stringer, right? (Also, note to Verizon: when you do get FiOS to Cape Cod, can you please make sure there's some copper to carry current? The whole point of hanging onto a land line is to make sure you can still call out during an extended power outage; an 8-hour battery will not do the trick, especially in an area with a dodgy grid like ours.)

I need a new camcorder, and I'm a little ticked that MiniDV gear is getting increasingly hard to find. Maybe that makes me a deadender, but I still like the DV codec. Hell, I'd even be willing to do without tape if someone could make a DV camcorder that could record onto a high-capacity flash drive or SDHC card.

On a final note, I got a chance to try out the Dr. Dre Beats headphones today. Allowing for the fact that the demo station was unbelievably loud, the sound quality was pretty much everything promised. However, the price... well, I have a pretty firm policy of avoiding any Monster Cable product unless it's absolutely my only option, and I feel safe in saying that the $300 tab is probably about twice what the phones are actually worth; poking around on B&H's website, where finding a pair of studio headphones over $200 is something of a chore unless you're looking for some in-ear dealie only Paul Oakenfold can afford, would seem to back me up on this. And, hell, I checked out some reviews, only to remind myself that audiophiles would give rave reviews to a party hat scraping on vinyl siding if it cost $500 and had "reference" scrawled on the hat in crayon. So yeah.

Friday, June 12, 2009

From here on in, analog goes to the wall

(Extra credit to anyone who spots an extremely obscure reference.)

Well, the analog TV era is over. I would have rather seen DVB-T than ATSC, but we get what we get. Rescan your tuners and get some higher-gain antennas if you're still getting broadcast.

Now if only some of these stations could see fit to using the extra channel space for, you know, original programming and the like...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Janet Napolitano and her permanent headache

I had planned on posting some choice snark about the comedy troupe "The Whitest Kids U Know", but the murder of Dr. George Tiller intervened. The irony of the right wing's temper tantrum over the Department of Homeland Security's report on right-wing domestic terror threats is so obvious it's painful. I don't envy Janet Napolitano her job right now -- her office is probably the busiest place in Washington right now.

Call it what it is: a terror attack. The murderer (currently suspected to be anti-government extremist and likely Operation Rescue member Scott Roeder, currently in custody) shot the man down in his church and seems to have been obsessed with Tiller for years. Tiller performed the thankless and harrowing job of terminating wanted pregnancies in situations where the fetus couldn't be carried to term, a tiny specialty for which he knew he took his life in his hands every day he got out of bed in the morning. For this he lies dead, and I can only hope the man who shot him is the man in custody.

Maybe it's a character flaw on my part, but I like Dantean punishments. I want his murderer to be shivved up the ass in prison with a sharpened coathanger. And I hope that there is a doctor somewhere in this country brave enough to take Tiller's place.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Wingnut flameout

Sonia Sotomayor maybe isn't the best of all possible choices when the Supreme Court is heavily slanted towards the Scalia wing, but she's pretty good in absolute terms. I've heard reservations about her attitude towards church-state issues, and that could be an issue, but overall she seems like a very solid choice. (In fact, it does seem Obama went out of his way to pick someone with a long track record -- what he said in his introduction speech seems to bear out on examination.)

Of course, as Amanda on Pandagon pointed out, the wingnut world is reacting predictably, calling Sotomayor an affirmative action appointee. Now here's a question -- is there anyone n0n-white that Obama could have appointed that wouldn't get that label? Of course not.

On Prop 8: it sucks. It was probably a legally correct decision, and at least the California Supreme Court refused to void the marriages already performed. But good lord does it suck. Best of luck to the CA LGBT community on the 2010 election.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Crap commercial

The "I Married My Dream Girl" commercial from is nothing more than "bitch set me up" set to music, and I'd prefer never to see or hear it again. I'm inclined to think any guy who wishes he hadn't gotten married because of his wife's credit score deserves to be shitcanned.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It's Wingnut Boilover Day

How do we stop the extremists in this country from thinking their opinion is the only one that matters?

Can we prevent the Eric Rudolphs and Timothy McVeighs of this country from bringing back the bad old days of lynchings and Red Scares?

When will the wingnuts stop shitting all over our shared national symbols? First the Minutemen and Michael Savage's laughable Paul Revere Society, now the reduction of one of the great symbols of humanity's right to consent to its government to a juvenile sex joke supporting greedy, ignorant cheapskates' right to be greedy, ignorant cheapskates.

I wore a flag sticker on my backpack for about a year after 9/11. When it became clear that things were returning to business as usual and that the right-wing hawks and lunatics had every intention of appropriating the flag and the symbols of our history for their own purposes, the sticker came off. We of the American Left need to take our symbols back and remind the people who are abusing them that back in the day, they'd probably have been Crown loyalists. Update: Teabaggers at the Hyannis Airport Rotary. I drove by screaming they were a disgrace to the flag and flipping them all the bird. They booed me. Heh. Not concerned. (Well, except for the part where they were causing a traffic jam worthy of August.)

AmazonFail update: I would categorize their response as barely adequate -- they have more or less admitted fault and mostly repaired the problem, but haven't explicitly apologized, nor have they been really clear about what happened. They will be watched, and have already lost a lot of customers to places like Powell's or AbeBooks. At this point, I think it's a judgement call as to whether to boycott or not. I have already made one of the purchases I was planning on making at Amazon at another location and though I will resume doing Vine reviews soon, there's a very good possibility I may do my self-bought reviews here or at Off Season for a while. Which is just as well, as many of my upcoming review choices probably should be at Off Season anyway, if only to get more traffic. Update: see Clay Shirky's analysis of the response to AmazonFail, which I thought was somewhat justified myself but bordered on a witch hunt.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Amazon, WTF?

Well, if it hasn't reached you yet, it will soon -- hundreds of books on GLBT, teen sexuality, and women's issues vanished from's sales ranking lists over the course of Easter Sunday. The blogosphere has, quite predictably and understandably, shit a brick over this, especially as the problem seems to have been outstanding since February.

Now I do not personally think this was a corporate decision, but Amazon customer reps have been sending out form letters calling it a "glitch" (after an initial round of form letters that would seem to indicate that they had no idea what was going on). They have yet to post anything on the front page, though at least a few people (including me) believe that the system was intentionally trolled during a time when most of Amazon's US staff was probably home for the Easter weekend, and at least one person is claiming responsibility (though his credibility is in grave doubt, based largely on his lack of programming mojo). (There is an ongoing Twitter discussion at #amazonfail.)

Amazon knows this has been a disaster for them; many people have canceled orders, and I myself sent a note saying that I would not only postpone any purchases I'm considering (I had a couple in mind, including the new Michael Ruhlman book and a deck of Spanish playing cards) but that as a Vine reviewer, I won't be submitting any content until it's resolved. I'm willing to grant them a presumption of innocence, but even if they are innocent, they're handling it poorly and deserve to lose massive amounts of money over it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What I was doing with a deck of cards at a bar last night

The basic idea: solitaire hold 'em poker. I've been on a bit of a playing card kick lately and the idea of a newish sort of solitaire poker flitted through my head a while back. I'm not too sure of the value of this particular game, but here goes the basic rules I came up with:

-1 deck of standard cards, jokers removed
-a handful of counters (I used 5, but 21 might be better)

1. Shuffle deck.
2. Deal out nine cards face down -- two for the player, two for the "house", five common cards.
3. Flip over player cards, then first three common cards. Decide whether to stay in; if not, pass a counter to the "house".
4. Flip over last two cards; stay in or pass counter.
5. Flip over house; winner gets a counter.
6. Player wins best-of-five.

My main concern in something like this is that it actually be sufficiently interesting as to be worth repeat plays. I've already come up with one refinement -- the "21 counters" game, where you start with 21 counters and push one into a pot for each stage of the deal (initial deal, flop, fourth street, river) if you wish to stay in, and pass the pot to the "house" if you don't. In this set, you win if you have over half your original chips after five hands. (Why five hands? 54 cards/9 cards per hand = 6 hands, but since there's no jokers there will be seven cards left at the bottom of the deck before reshuffling.) This particular ruleset can also be trivially converted into a blackjack-like banking game, but I'd bet someone somewhere has already come up with it.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Consider the type-in

When I was a kid, as most geeks over about the age of 25 will remember, computer magazines often included many, many type-in programs. I never had enough patience to type them in, but the installed base of many of these old programs, many in BASIC, with many games and productivity programs, had to have been huge back in the day. I've been looking (without a whole lot of success) for some of these old programs, but the magazines are hard to find and the books that collected them were usually cheaply-printed paperbacks. Some are floating around on the net (the Wikipedia article links to a few archives), but for the most part, except for the random shell scripts and the like that appear in magazines like MacLife and Linux Journal, the form is dead. (In fact, I do have one such program typed in somewhere, a WarioWare-style minigame from a series of kid's adventure books called Micro Adventures. It is a painfully difficult game under the best of circumstances, and porting it to Chipmunk Basic proved pointless, since there's no way to throttle down the execution speed.)

Now I'm not going to lie -- to a certain extent the form isn't necessary. Certainly the many tedious pages of machine code that marked such programs as SpeedScript (a favorite program of mine when the buffer lag on geoWrite started driving me batty) aren't welcomed anymore. But I still think there's value in the form -- for one thing, programming has passed back into the realm of the Priesthood (aka Eric Raymond's "cathedral"). Most people don't even realize that almost every computer OS comes with at least two programming languages already available by default (usually some sort of shell scripting as well as JavaScript), and almost every high school and college student has had to purchase a TI or HP graphing calculator at some point. And robotics, especially in the form of things like Lego Mindstorms and the iRobot Roomba, has become quite popular as a hobby since NASA's Mars explorations proved that a robot doesn't have to sing and dance to be interesting. (Sadly, kiddie computers like those made by VTech no longer include even basic programming functionality, and out of the major gaming consoles, only Sony even gives lip service towards supporting homebrew development, by allowing Linux on the PS3. Nintendo grudgingly allows it but does not support it, and Microsoft has a history of open hostility.)

All that being as it may, we're actually in pretty good shape as far as facilities are concerned if anyone wishes to bring this sort of magazine or book back on the market. As I said, JavaScript is probably a logical place to begin, as it's standard on all three major web browser engines. shows the amount of work that's done on graphing calculator platforms despite the unabashedly weird syntaxes of RPL and TI-BASIC. And we can't forget the ready availability of languages such as Perl, Python, and Lua (all of which can be readily interfaced to graphic toolkits like Tk), as well as special-purpose languages such as Inform; all of these products are open source software and readily obtained and installed on whatever platform you choose.

So will anyone do this? Although the format would have to change a little (less condensed listings, more comments), it would certainly help to train a new generation of hackers, and for those that don't wish to do the typing it would be trivial to get the pretyped versions. What say you sirs?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Tabloids in the culture wars: What's wrong with AMI?

You know, I think American Media Inc. has gone too far this time. They've always angled towards a distinctly right-wing audience (although the Weekly World News alone among all their papers discovered the value of not taking itself seriously), but they've gone over the deep end lately.

The Sun and the Enquirer don't seem to have had much to say so far, but the Globe for the last two weeks has been running with the long-discredited meme about Obama not being a native-born American, while the Examiner ran a breathless piece about "gay terrorists" being responsible for torching Sarah Palin's church in Alaska. I'm of two minds about this -- on the one hand, people are conditioned not to take AMI rags all that seriously (the Enquirer, sketchy as it is, is the only one worth a damn journalistically, and that isn't saying much), but on the other hand they have a huge and frequently gullible readership. Asking AMI to practice responsible journalism is perhaps a bit extreme, but at the same time it seems hard to justify printing outright fearmongering and hatred.

I'd suggest boycotting, but unlike my grandmother (who was a regular Enquirer reader, much to the bemusement of my mother), I don't think I've ever actually spent money on one. So I don't know...

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The banished words list. Woo-hoo, let's start the year with some language snobbery.

Lake Superior State's Banished Words List

Oh boy. Yet another opportunity to grouse about words we're kind of tired of hearing and neologisms that we somehow don't think are necessary. Hell, I bet they think they're a bunch of mavericks, like William Safire. Eh, not so much.