Thursday, December 31, 2009

No, plants do not like to live

I've heard the waffling, reactionary argument that eating plants is no more or less ethical than eating animal flesh because plants, too, are living entities capable of such cognitive feats previously thought only possible by animals.  I'm sure all vegetarians and vegans have heard the perennially stale quip, "so what do you have against plants, anyway?"

This is based on a ridiculous misunderstanding and misrepresentation of scientific parlance.  In order to facilitate ease of understanding, scientists often use metaphorical, active verbs to describe the functions of nature. Mercury "gallops" around the sun, we "hear echoes" of gamma radiation from the distant universe, plants "forage" for resources.

Yes, plants are alive in the strictest sense and they exhibit chemical responses to external stimuli, but they are not sentient, and sentience - not life - is the key.

Let me humour idiocy far more than it deserves and assume for a moment, hypothetically, that plants were both alive and sentient.  Even so, eating them would be unavoidable, and veganism would still be the best way to cause the least amount of harm because you're consuming the plants directly, instead of feeding them to a cow, which is then raised and killed for consumption as well.  Raising livestock to be used for food uses approximately ten times the amount of plants needed for a healthy vegan diet, which is one of the reasons why a vegetarian or vegan diet is espoused as more environmentally friendly.

In tomorrow's episode, we'll assume that rocks are sentient and ask what ethical dilemmas are introduced by driving on gravel roads.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On "evangelical" atheism

In response to a reddit post criticizing atheists as being "evangelical", I submitted the following in the form of a comment.

I'm definitely a passionate atheist, and may or may not be called "evangelical" or some such behind my back, but I really can sympathise with your sentiment.  Though, it does beg a deeper understanding of where the more vocal atheists are coming from.

A quotation from Kurt Wise may sum up the type of thinking that most atheists are fighting against:

...if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.  Here I must stand.

This is the kind of inflexible commitment to superstition that flies in the face of reason, intellect and, above all, evidence.  It's nothing short of an insult to the human intellect, yet sadly it is a very common stance among religious fundamentalists of all kinds.  If "tolerance" means sitting back and allowing this ignorance to be advanced, then perhaps this concept of tolerance should not be tolerated, for to be tolerant would be to tolerate the worst kind of ignorance... the willful kind.

To illustrate an atheist point of view, on the other hand, I'll quote Dawkins (who is quotable and oft quoted not because of some misguided personality cult, as some believe, but because he describes both atheism and its arguments honestly and succinctly):

If all the evidence in the universe turned in favour of creationism, I would be the first to admit it, and I would immediately change my mind.  As things stand, however, all available evidence (and there is a vast amount of it) favours evolution.  It is for this reason and this reason alone that I argue for evolution with a passion that matches the passion of those who argue against it.  My passion is based on evidence.  Theirs, flying in the face of evidence as it does, is truly fundamentalist.

Though the creation/evolution issue is but one of many talking points on the atheist roster, it is a quote which does put into perspective where the so-called "new atheists" tend to come from.  A passionate, but flexible and evidence based reaction to the inflexible ignorance which seems to be the requirement of religious thought, and which ultimately - invariably - leads to further injustices and social ills.

This comment probably seems like holier-than-thou soapboxing - and maybe it is - but it's as sincere a description of vocal atheist motivation as I can manage, and hopefully goes some way towards explaining why "evangelical atheist" is contradictory term.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

And you thought garlic left a bad taste in the mouth...

The recent death of former South African health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has surprised nobody, as there have been concerns about her health since 2006.  What I did personally find shocking, though, were the reactions of some to the news.

Msimang is of course infamous for her emphasis on treating AIDS with vegetables rather than ARVs, and garnered much well-deserved criticism.

I really hate to be "that guy" and get on my soapbox (no, really, I do!), but sometimes I feel like my hand is forced.  The news of Msimang's death prompted some comments on news sites, Facebook, and elsewhere, which are, at best, unfortunate and unpleasant.

Some choice quotes:

I danced around my house when I got the SMS. And to miss quote Elvis Costello, all I wanted to do is live long enough to dance on her grave.

Good riddance. Sorry her family has to loose [sic] the free ride.

Finally! At last a cadre is correctly deployed.

Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has died! oh happy day! They should of [sic] tried to revive her by rubbing garlic on her forehead!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that in death she should be free of the criticism that she very much deserved in life.  That would be illogical and absurd.  The truth is that she was and is responsible for the deaths of many, many people, and probably should have been tried for genocide.  Nonetheless, there is a point where untempered criticism can stray into the realm of viciousness and bad taste, and I think the above comments exemplify the wrong side of that line.

If your first reaction at the news of a person's death is delectation and glee, perhaps you should stop for a moment and realise that that says more about you than it does about them.

It's a pity that these comments - and the death that prompted it - occurred on what was supposed to be Reconciliation Day.  Sadly, though, most people with whom I spoke didn't even know what specific public holiday the 16th of December is; to them it's just another excuse to stay home, get fat, and get drunk.

Monday, December 14, 2009

How significant is the SACP?

The recent spat between ANC Youth League president Julius Malema and Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party Jeremy Cronin, or rather the ANC's reaction to it, has been telling.

The SACP's recent hostility towards Malema - one of the ANC's own - has been met with little more than an attempt to placate the Communists.  How is it, then, that a political party with fewer than 100,000 registered members finds itself in the position of being the proverbial mouse bullying the elephant of the ANC?

Despite being small in representation, the SACP has managed to get its members into many of the highest positions of public office.  Examples include Reserve Bank president Gill Marcus, former Minister for Intelligence Services Ronnie Kasrils, and, of course, President Jacob Zuma.

Despite this, the SACP directly represents a negligible voter contingent.  This fact, combined with the communist influence within parliament, has encouraged some to ask: why not boot the SACP out of the Tripartite Alliance?

The fact is that the recent ANC schism, and the resulting formation of the Congress of the People, was one of the best things that could have happened for the Communists.  Another significant internal struggle is likely to leave the ANC weak enough to stand a good chance of losing the next election, and a significant struggle is exactly what a hostile course of action against the Communists would lead to.

In such a hypothetical scenario, COSATU will find themselves realising that the ANC is not in search of "allies" so much as "lap dogs."  They will either have to make peace with playing by the ANC's rules, or the knowledge that they will likely also be expelled and the alliance dissolved as soon as they cease to represent a tactical advantage to the ruling party.  In the face of this dilemma, they will refuse to show weakness and an acrimonious split would result.  Communist sympathizers and COSATU elements within the ANC would revolt against the party, leaving the door open for another party - perhaps COPE or even a new party born out of the schism - to join in an advantageous alliance with the Trade Unions.

In any event, none of the remaining political factions would have a significant majority support, and the ANC would be dead.  For this reason, the ANC needs the Communist Party a great deal more than the Party needs them, and despite numbering comparatively few registered members - though SACP membership has doubled over the last four years due to Alliance supporters' frustration with the ANC's infighting, corruption and general impotence - the Communist Party is and will remain a strong influence and important player in the South African political landscape.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Critical Reasoning

During my first year at university I took a course in critical reasoning.  It taught me much about logical fallacies, effective argumentation, preconceived notions, and so forth.  It was my first real exposure to that type of thing and it felt like many doors had been opened in the way I thought about the world.

Many of my long-held beliefs up to that point came under real scrutiny for the first time, and since then I've been a great deal more careful in my convictions, and meticulous in deciding what those convictions are.
 
I'd say that that definitely changed my life for the better. I'd love to see a basic course in critical reasoning taught to all high-school seniors.  Why not teach it at an even younger age?  Because it's my belief that, up to a certain age, pupils should be unquestioning information sponges.  Education would slow down quite a bit if every student critically evaluated and questioned everything they were taught, wouldn't it?  This does mean that stricter regulations should be in place when it comes to what is taught, how it is taught, and who teaches it, and why it's so heinous when children are taught complete bullshit, taught incompetently, or both.

Friday, November 13, 2009

So what's the deal with Israel and Palestine, anyway?


Unless you've been in a vegetative state for the last century or so, you'll know about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

If you're like most people, you've probably picked a side already, and if you're really like most people, you'll have done so despite the fact that you don't know very much - if anything - about the situation.  Most people choose a side for personal reasons ("I'm of Arabic descent, so I support Palestine"), or political reasons ("I'm an American and the USA has good relations with Israel, so I support them.").  Being a fence-sitter is bad, but picking sides with no knowledge of the issues involved is even worse.

The big question is usually, "why all the violence over a piece of land?"  It's a hot-button topic, but here is one take:

The story so far.

In 1916 the British, who controlled the area, promised the land to the Arabs in return for their help in World War I.  Think Lawrence of Arabia.

With the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the British promised the same land to the Jews.  After being kicked out of Israel by the Romans in the first century, the Jews had no state of their own, and the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine - called Zionism - had gained a lot of currency from the mid-19th century onwards.



Following World War II, the United Nations decided that, because of the Holocaust, an attempt should be made to create Israel.  However, this required the agreement of the Arabs, who were not too keen on giving up the land where they had lived for generations, and in any case hadn't the British promised it to them?  The plan was to carve up what was called the British Mandate of Palestine into Jordan, Israel, and Arab Palestine.

Despite the lack of an agreement regarding the break up of Palestine into Arab and Jewish territories, Israel unilaterally declared its independence in 1948.  There was bloodshed on both sides: Jewish attacks such as the Deir Yassin massacre caused many Arabs to flee.  The Arabs states retaliated, invading Palestine and attacking Israel.

Israel beat the Arabs in 1948, with Egypt crossing over into the Gaza strip which they occupied.  Jordan took control of the West Bank. The UN passed a resolution guaranteeing a Right of Return for the Arabs who had been forced to flee their homes.

In 1967, the Arabs attacked again.  Again Israel beat them back, but this time their military remained outside their borders, occupying the Gaza strip and the Sinai; the Golan Heights, which is a part of Syria; and the West Bank.  The UN passed a resolution stating that the borders of Israel were those that were present before the invasion.

Israel ceded the Sinai when they made peace with Egypt, but the Gaza strip remained under Israeli occupation.

Israel withdrew from Gaza a few years ago, but the military occupation of the West Bank continues to this day.  It is this military occupation which is the cause of the problem between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  There is also the issue of Israel building settlements in the West Bank, as transplanting of your people to occupied territory is forbidden by the Fourth Geneva Convention.



While there are inevitably some extremists who would like to see Israel wiped off of the map completely, the view of the world as expressed by the UN, and by the Arabs through the Saudi Peace initiative, is for Israel to return to its 1967 borders, according to what is called Resolution 242, and for the Palestinians, freed from occupation, to create their own state.  However, there are also extremists on the Israeli side who want all of Palestine for Israel, with the settlements in places such as Hebron - the second holiest site in Judaism after Jerusalem, but in the occupied West Bank - being "facts on the ground".

Then why is there US support for Israel?

The best way to understand why a US-Israeli relationship exists is to study how the relationship was formed.

The United States and Israel were intimately tied together since Israel's previously mentioned declaration of Independence - the future Israelis notified Truman of the declaration prior to its publication.  However, the issue found no consensus in the higher levels of the US government.  George Marshall famously stormed out of a meeting in protest of the recognition of Israel, and most of the State Department thought that a prompt recognition of Israel by the US would damage relationships with the Arab states.  The bigger point was that the USA's prompt recognition of Israel would do little for the US-Israeli relationship, seeing as the Soviets did the same.

In 1953 when Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, came into office, they intended to be impartial in the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Initially, this was not too difficult.  The US even aided in the successful Suez Base negotiations with Britain and Egypt.


However, things changed between 1955 and 1958.  For one, Gamal Abdel Nasser's rise to power posed a political threat to Israel, and his 1955 purchase of arms from the Soviet bloc also made him a military threat to Israel.  The US press were very unhappy about this, and wasted no time comparing him to Hitler.  Eisenhower ultimately resisted public pressure to intervene in the Suez war, and was publicly opposed to Israeli actions.  Neutrality prevailed.

But in 1958 everything changed.  Eisenhower intervened in Lebanon partly because he feared that another Munich crisis was on the table.  Moreover, the Eisenhower administration began to view Israel as a strategic asset in the Middle East, and the US became closer to Israel while the Soviets got in bed with the Arab states.  During the second Eisenhower administration, they forged closer ties with Israel for strategic reasons.

However, this is not to say that culture had no influence: Even before the Eisenhower administration decided to forge close ties to Israel, the memory of World War II allowed the press to compare Israel's enemy, Nasser, to Adolf Hitler.  Jewish people were being publicly assimilated into American life, and many Americans praised Israel as a democracy.

This relationship endures because these cultural factors remained after Israel became a strategic liability during the cold war.  The cultural attachment to Israel, which aided the strategic relationship, persisted despite the death of the strategic rationale for supporting Israel.

Where do I stand on the issue?

The US needs to put pressure on Israel.  Without significant nudging from their strongest ally, Israel will remain perfectly happy with the status quo.  Considering Russia's history with Chechnya, Israel is probably paranoid about seeing a long-time enemy end up with even more land and, like Russia, adopt the hardest possible line for fear of losing their grip on other areas. Withdrawal to the 1967 borders will obviously not end violence in the Middle East, but it's the only viable first step.

Oh, and despite what the propogandists will tell you, anti-Zionism is not the same thing as anti-Semitism.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Through a Glass Darkly

"Let's get one thing straight," announced the seventeen-year-old, chubby redhead Karin Visagie pugnaciously, "I'm not hurting anyone."

Father David Raskolnik, a handsome priest no older than thirty-five who often made the other girls blush during Mass, stared at Karin's file on his desk before giving her a look of mild contempt. "Is that so, my child? What about your parents, this school? What about God?"

"They can mind their own business," Karin said, sitting across from Father David with arms crossed, staring at her shoes.

"Sister Agnes saw you last weekend," David confirmed, "kissing a girl from your neighbourhood in a manner she described as 'burning with lust'. That's why you've been sent to me."

Karin sat in silence, her eyes still cast downwards.

"The Saint Genevieve School for Girls has been one of the top schools in Johannesburg since 1957. We've never lost a single girl to this... Affliction."

"Affliction," Karin retorted, "you're saying I'm sick? I'm not sick. I'm in love with Lily, and even if I could change how I feel I wouldn't want to."

"I know exactly how you think you feel, child. You see, before becoming a priest I lived in sin with another man. I thought I was fulfilled, but I only brought shame upon my family. My father even told me that I was dead to him. It's so horrible to see your own confusion and understand it. One day I tried to drive off of a cliff outside Cape Town, but a faulty transmission prevented me. This was divine intervention. I gave up my sinful ways and devoted myself to God, and He cured me. I finished my degree and entered the seminary so that I may help others like me. Like you. So that you may one day enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

Karin shuffled uncomfortably in the cushioned chair. "Father David, how do you even know there is a place like that? And if there is, maybe it's not all that great. What if there are only spiders there, or something like that?"

"Faith, my child."

The next day after school Karin made her way to Father David's office, as ordered. She found him standing outside the door smoking a cigarette and wearing jeans and a polo shirt instead of his cassock.

"Hi, Father David. Didn't know you smoked."

"Karin," he greeted with a forced smile, "there's something we need to discuss. Come, I'll walk you to the bus stop." After walking in thought along the gravelly pavement for a minute, he continued, "I'll get right to it; yesterday evening I learned that I've been excommunicated and, pending an investigation by the archdiocese, I'll probably be defrocked."

"What does that mean?"

"It means," David paused momentarily, "it means I'm not a priest anymore, Karin."

"Maybe God cured you," Karin cruelly replied, unable to resist.

David clenched his teeth for a moment before sighing, "Maybe He did."

"What happened? Did you do something bad?" Karin asked, the concern now returned to her face.

"It's a personal matter," he conceded, "but you have a right to know. The Church found out about a relationship I've been having with another man."

Karin's reply surprised David, "Do you love him?"

"I do," he admitted as they reached the bus stop, "Love is, after all, what brings us closest to God."

"Father David... I don't think I believe in God."

"But you believe in love, my dear," he replied, walking away, "and love is proof of God's existence."

She frowned. "Maybe love and God are the same thing?"

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivatives 3.0 License.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

To be stamped on the side of all paper bags

Side 1: Blow into this paper bag, go home and stop grinning at everyone.


Side 2: If the boss sits there and accuses you of stealing, or not having the right motivation, don't just sit there and take it. Hit the fucker in the face.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Child's Play

As you may or may not know, Child's Play is a charity founded by Mike and Jerry of the popular web-comic Penny Arcade.  The aim of Child's Play is to improve the lives and raise the spirits of sick kids by donating toys and games to children's hospitals worldwide, hopefully combating the stereotype of gamers as violent, antisocial leeches upon society.

Though the charity accepts donations year round, the annual drive runs from November until the end of December, and Child's Play 2009 is officially a go.

In this spirit, I've decided to replace some of my ads with banners linking to the official Child's Play site.  Even if you don't usually click on ads, please do follow these links and follow through by making a donation or two.  In addition to this, one hundred percent of all ad revenue my blog makes (not that it's ever much) from today until the last day of the year will be donated to Child's Play.  This isn't an incentive to click on my ads; if you feel tempted to do so purely to help out the charity, then rather go to the charity's site and make a donation directly.

If you're on Twitter, you can also keep up to speed on things by following @CPCharity.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Ownership, happyship

It is my personal philosophy - well, one of them anyway - that every person should own something (and I mean something physical, like an object of some kind, an heirloom, a collection, or a sentimental knick-knack.  Not a person, a pet or an abstraction like a business) that they treasure and value so much that they would rather die with it than live without it.

Buddhists teach that attachment to things blocks the path to enlightenment and is the cause of suffering.  Well, those misty-eyed fucks believe a lot of things that may or may not amount to a damned thing.  Karma, Nirvana, reincarnation?  No less stupid than anything I can hope to come up with.  Besides, suffering is a part of life; you need to take the bad with the good.  If you remove yourself from everything that could possibly lead to suffering (in a Buddhist sense), well then, quite frankly, your life fucking sucks.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Joining the faculty of frag

The obviously cool people over at the gaming blog Couch Campus have kindly invited me to write a few articles for them.  Feel free to study my first post, Cinema's 5 Most Incompetent Computers.

Have a look around and be sure to bookmark; some more of my work will be forthcoming.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Predator: A conspiracy theory

Well, I have no idea where that last post came from.  Sometimes I like to think out loud... with my hands... on the Internet.

Anyway, a very strange thing happened to me today.  I was watching Predator for the umpteenth time, fascinated with how it seems to get better with each viewing.  Afterwards I went to check out the trivia and goofs on the IMDB page and came across this little nugget:

After Hawkins is killed, Anna is found, terrified. Poncho asks her repeatedly, "Que paso, mujer?" which does in fact mean, "What happened, lady?" Her answer is "No se, no estoy seguro, no se!" Poncho states, "She says the jungle, it came alive and took him." "No se" is Spanish for "I don't know," and "No estoy seguro" means "I'm not sure."

Now, this is the unit's first encounter with the Predator.  Up until that point - aside from Billy being spooked by something - they had no idea that there was anything out there other than rebels or enemy soldiers.  If Anna gave no indication of what she saw, how could Poncho have known that, in a sense, the jungle really did come alive and take Hawkins?  What the IMDB trivia doesn't mention is that, after Poncho tells the rest of the unit what Anna supposedly said, Dillon interjects with "Bullshit! That's not what she said."  It's safe to assume that Dillon was not just freaked out, but understood enough Spanish to know that "No estoy seguro" sure as shit doesn't mean "the jungle came to life."


Sure, it could just be a goof.  This seems unlikely, however, as it would be baffling how the writers - who understood enough Spanish to write Anna and Poncho's dialogue - would simply leave a glaring mistranslation in there.  Furthermore, Dillon's reaction to what Poncho said seems like there was a genuine intent in the way the scene played out.

I imagine two possible scenarios:
  • Poncho was a government agent planted in Dutch's (Schwarzenegger's) team in order to draw out and investigate the Predator, and the entire rescue mission was just a snow job; an excuse to put Poncho and the rest of the unit on the creature's path.  Exactly which government he really worked for and how much they knew about the Predator(s) at that stage remains a mystery.
  • Poncho was working with the Predators.  Either he was some kind of clone or automaton, or a bona fide human ally of the Predators.  In either case, his job was to lead the unit towards the creature's predetermined hunting area within the jungle in order to set up the hunt.  Take note of the fact that Poncho is the only member of the unit who, arguably, was not directly hunted by the Predator; he was injured by one of the team's traps, and finally killed by a plasma blast from the creature's shoulder cannon clearly meant for Dutch, who was carrying Poncho at the time.

One last thought that only just hit me: At the end of the film as the credits appear, we see shots of the principal cast along with their names.  Richard Chaves, who plays Poncho, is officially the first name we see.  The names are obviously not in alphabetical order, nor in order of appearance, so why would Poncho be at the top of the credits, even before Schwarzenegger?  Could it perhaps be a hint that there's more to the character than meets the eye, or that he could even be the film's true protagonist?  We may never know.


Enterprising Redditor guinunez tracked down the subtitles, and according to them, before Anna says the above line, she says "Ya te he dicho todo lo que se, la selva se lo llevó. qué más quieres que te diga?" which translates to "I've told you everything I know, the jungle took him. What else do you want me to say to you?"  So perhaps Poncho's honour remains intact!


Overcoming fear: A pointless rumination

You get two kinds of fear:  I guess you could call them "trivial fear" and "existential fear".  Trivial fear is the kind of anxiety you suffer from a direct external source; only occasionally, but to a great intensity when you do.  A fear of spiders or snakes, for instance.  A man with acrophobia who finds himself atop the Sears Tower suffers intensely while he's there, but as soon as he reaches the ground floor, that fear leaves him entirely.  This is the kind of fear that is a remnant of our primal instinct.  The urge to escape from perceived immediate danger.

Existential fear, on the other hand, is the kind of fear that rarely reaches great intensity, but it's always there in the back of your mind, affecting everything you say, everything you do, and every decision you make.  The fear of confrontation, the fear of disappointing your kids, the fear of not living up to your parents' expectations, the fear of being a bad wife, etc.  This is the form of fear that is truly limiting and imprisoning.  If the decisions that you make in life are in some way affected by the presence of that fear, then they are not truly your decisions. It's not truly your life.

When the self-help gurus talk about overcoming your fear, it is existential fear on which must be focused.  It pisses me off no end when someone describes themselves using words like "overcome," "reinvent," and "conquer," but then proceed to jump out of an airplane or play with a fucking tarantula.  This amounts to nothing more than masturbatory attempts at self-congratulations and it defeats the entire point.

Overcoming trivial fear is, well, trivial.  This is because the fear you may or may not be conquering has no effect on the quality of your life.  If some corporate executive could live his life over without his crushing fear of snakes, it's unlikely that he would've been an artist.  A single man without his fear of heights would probably not have been married with kids.  A grad student without his fear of dogs wouldn't have been a high-school drop-out.

However, a depressed middle manager without his fear of confrontation may well have been a wealthy entrepreneur.  A lawyer without the fear of taking risks might have been a travelling writer.  In any case, someone without the baggage of existential fear would be happier, even if only potentially.  At the very least, they'll be making decisions - even bad ones - for the right reasons.

Letting go of fear in general is pointless, because some fears are good, and some fears have so little impact on our lives that eradicating them is wasted effort.  The trick is first figuring out which fears are ruining your life.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Feel your boobies


As you may or may not know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Even though it's good to be aware of the disease during the other eleven months too, it's easier to get attention for the cause - and assistance from selfish bloggers - when campaigning during only one.

This brings me to one of my favourite charities, Feel Your Boobies.  A non-profit organization that runs a campaign to remind women to, well, feel their boobies.  They claim that simply feeling yourself up is just as effective at identifying changes or lumps as a formal self-examination would be.

The informal tone of the campaign is meant to get the attention of younger women, who are also very much at risk (Feel Your Boobies founder Leigh Hurst was diagnosed at the age of 33.  Her cancer was initially identified through this form of informal auto-grope).

Check out the campaign's website, feel your boobies and remind your girlfriends to do the same (feel theirs, not yours... unless I'm invited and there's dip).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The end of homeopathy

I don't normally like to link to older content (read that in a sarcastic or sincere tone as you deem appropriate), but I'll make an exception here.

Dr. Ben Goldacre, columnist for The Guardian, has written a pretty devastating article on the scam called Homeopathy.  As I - and most rational people - have always believed, homeopathy is to medicine what sacrificing goats on an altar to Baal is to veterinary science.  Unfortunately most people still buy into the whole thing, not so much because they're gullible (though they usually are), but because they are not really aware of the flawed methodology and flat-out dishonesty that pervades the homeopathic "field".

Dr. Goldacre's paper is short, lucid and an engaging read that effectively decimates any argument in favour of homeopathy like an intellectual hammer to a pseudo-scientific ballsack.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

5 laughably unscary movie monsters

There haven't been any new posts recently, I know.  I've been a little busy (and more than a little lazy), but today's your lucky day... assuming you're an intellectual masochist.

With the month of October celebrating Halloween, the birth of Kirk Cameron, SIDS awareness, and horror in general, it seems apt to have at least one post dedicated to things which scare the shit out of us, or at least attempt to.


Movie monsters are a true staple of modern pop culture; from the Creature from the Black Lagoon, to Ridley Scott's Alien, they have fuelled some of our worst nightmares and some of our most fun memories.  These monsters all have something in common: they tap into our subconscious, find out what scares us most, and force us to confront these fears to the sounds of our own gasps and the odour of stale popcorn, all while giving us a good time.

Some monsters, though, are truly scraped off the bottom of the barrel.  So utterly banal and uninspiring that they would have done us all a big favour by just staying on the cutting-room floor.  It is from this morbid gallery that I offer you my personal selection of five laughably unscary movie monsters!

5: Flying Monkeys

Movie: The Wizard of Oz


The perfect way to make an otherwise ostensibly harmless critter like a monkey seem terrifying and monstrous is to strap a pair of wings to its back.  At least that's what was floating around in Frank L. Baum’s head as he smoked some more Peyote before carrying on writing.

The only time I have ever been truly frightened and disturbed while watching a monkey was when one was playing the straight-man role opposite Clint Eastwood.  Unless that faeces they're throwing happens to be highly acidic, monkeys with wings strapped to their backs are about as scary as Treat Williams in Everwood.

4: Killer hermaphrodite hobbits

Movie: Bleeders (aka, Hemoglobin)

I watched this movie on VHS back in high school with some friends and a case of Carling, and the morning after we avoided eye-contact and pretended like nothing had happened.  I can assure you we would've felt less awkward and ashamed if we merely remembered flashes of mutual fellatio.  Who ever thought that a movie about incestuous hermaphrodites could be so boring as to induce a coma?

As for the monsters, they are hobbits.  Who kill people.  And are hermaphrodites.  All in all, about as scary as the "back room" of your local porno shop.



Surely a low-point in Rutger Hauer's career; considering Blind Fury, that’s saying a lot.

3: Mothra

Movie: A shitload of Godzilla movies


Generally accepted as being female, Mothra is occasionally portrayed as a type of benevolent protector and loyal opposition to Godzilla, despite destroying Tokyo.  In her larval form she embarked on a lucrative career as body-double for Barbara Streisand before trying her hand at being a movie monster; only one problem, though:

IT’S A FUCKING MOTH!

Moths are the third most unthreatening insect in the animal kingdom, right behind butterflies and Joan Rivers.  Who was the genius at Toho who approved a monster so scary that it spirals into the nearest light-source?  The only possible way you can have a nightmare about something as dull as a moth is if you take NyQuil and Prozac together at bedtime.




2: Cranky woman

Movie: Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman


A woman finds out that her husband is cheating on her and is only after her inheritance.  She then encounters an alien who is on Earth looking for diamonds, which are his spaceship's only source of power.  How the fuck he got to Earth in the first place is one of those metaphysical questions which is left up to the viewer - how Kubrick.  Continuity aside, after mugging the woman for her diamond necklace, the alien then causes her to grow fifty feet tall, whereupon she decides to seek vengeance on her philandering husband…

I know what you're thinking, "What the hell are you talking about, man?  There's nothing scarier than a girl who's on the rag!"  Call me old fashioned, but while I find an angry woman unpleasant, she's still a hell of a lot less terrifying than some demon from Hell who'll eat your face off.  You may not be able to reason with a woman scorned, but at least you can defuse her fury by slapping Fried Green Tomatoes into the DVD player and watching it with her; that shit is like morphine to a cranky woman.

1: Leprechaun

Movie: Leprechaun 1 through 6


Unlike, say, Islamic militants, the Irish - even the three sober ones - are laughably unscary.  So are midgets. Combine the two, and you get the veritable antichrist of movie monsters; a poster-boy for the whole laughably unscary movie monster demographic.  I speak, of course, of The Leprechaun.

You've got to hand it to Warwick Davis for having carved a career out of playing offensive stereotypes.  Oh what, dwarf actors only get offered roles that are offensive and stereotyped?  Tell that to my friend Danny DeVito, who, despite being only three feet tall, has never played a leprechaun, Ewok or George Shapiro.


Monday, October 05, 2009

Dear Hollywood, you're dumber than you think I think you are

I've refrained from commenting about the Roman Polanski controversy for a few reasons.  Firstly, every other asshole with an opinion has already done so, so there isn't much left to say.  Secondly, I didn't care all that much; so some director (a talented one, I admit) finally got arrested for a thirty-year-old indiscretion.  Big deal.



Unfortunately, the shocking response of the so-called Hollywood elite has forced my hand.  As Paulo Freire (allegedly) said, "Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."

I won't rehash any of the details, but to recap: in 1977 Roman Polanski gave a 13-year-old girl champagne and quaalude (known as Mandrax in South Africa), then proceeded to anally rape her despite her begging him to stop.  Fearing arrest, Polanski fled authorities and has been on the run ever since, but was finally arrested recently in Switzerland.  Let me explain something to you, Polanski.  This business requires a certain amount of finesse.

This seems in order, right?  A child rapist is arrested and it appears justice is finally served.  Sadly, most of Hollywood doesn't see it that way.  Following Polanski's arrest, many of the big hitters have come out in support of Polanski.  What the fuck?  People like Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, David Lynch, Ethan Coen, Harvey Weinstein and Jonathan Demme have signed a petition demanding his release, and other big names have vocally supported him.  Whoopi Goldberg has sparked a shitstorm by publicly claiming that it wasn't "rape-rape".  I see you like publicity, Ms. Goldberg.  Well, you're going to get it.

So how is it that otherwise intelligent and talented people (and Whoopi Goldberg) suddenly become psychotic?  Granted, Polanski is a respectable filmmaker.  'Course he's respectable.  He's old.  Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.


First of all there's the very valid point that the victim, Samantha Gailey (now Geimer, left) wants to avoid reliving those events to the point where she even stated that she doesn't want Polanski to be arrested.  I can understand her sentiment, and the controversy will doubtlessly stir up old wounds, but unfortunately it doesn't work that way.  If rapists were spared punishment to protect the dignity of the victim, the prisons would be empty and rape would be the world's number one pastime.  The Hollywood crusaders, however, don't seem to give two shits about the victim.

Some sympathetic folks say that, being a Holocaust survivor and having suffered his pregnant wife Sharon Tate being slaughtered by Charles Manson's followers, he's endured enough hardship in his life.  What can I tell you, kid? You're right. When you're right, you're right, and you're right.  I agree that his life has been filled with tragedy, which is something he should've thought about carefully before he raped a child.

The best arguments in defence of Polanski centre around alleged judicial abuse of the case.  Polanski claims that he had no idea she was thirteen at the time, and to have pleaded guilty as part of a deal that was then reneged upon, which was why he fled in the first place.  You may think you know what you're dealing with, but, believe me, you don't.  You see, these arguments are bullshit.  As the actual plea bargain transcript points out, he swore before a judge, under oath, that he knew she was only thirteen, and it was made clear to him that he may be sentenced to anything up to twenty years and that the plea bargain guarantees nothing.

The truth is that the Hollywood folks are rallying around Roman Polanski for no other reason than that he is "one of them."  He's rich! Do you understand? He thinks he can get away with anything.  Do you think that if a nobody like me raped a child, Harvey Weinstein would put my poster up on his wall?  Or that Whoopi Goldberg would march the streets in my defence, claiming the kid was asking for it?

Forget it, Jake.  It's Hollywood.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

My dream guitar

As you may know, I am an avid electric guitar player.  My current axe is an older model from the Ibanez GIO series.  Though it gets the job done, it is by no means perfect.  The perfect guitar, however, is exactly what this post is all about.

I set about designing my dream guitar with one simple, guiding philosophy in mind: as much control over the produced sound as possible without sacrificing quality of tone.  A working title for the design is the Transmitter (a really bad pun on Broadcaster).  Unlike many mutton-as-lamb "signature" models, The Transmitter has quite a few customizations.

Body

There have been a couple of times in my life where I had the privilege of playing a Fender Telecaster.  Though I'm not as big a fan as some of the twangy tone produced by the Tele's slanted bridge pickup, I do believe that it is the most comfortable instrument I have ever played.  Its comfortable and attractive body, enduring design and rich history have made the Fender Telecaster my favourite guitar.

It is a touch on the heavy side, though, so I'd go with a lighter wood such as Ash, or maybe even an f-hole as found in the Telecaster Thinline as seen below:


Neck

In keeping with the philosophy of maximum control over sound, I should prefer a 24-fret neck.  Modern Telecasters have 22 frets, an increment to the 21-fret neck of classic Teles, but 24-fret variants do exist, such as the Bajo Sexto Baritone Tele.  However, taking into account the preference for a lighter body, this could result in an instrument which is unbalanced and neck-heavy, especially considering the longer 25.5" scale length Fender tends to use - and which I prefer for its tonal qualities and comfort for my larger hands.  With this in mind, I'm happy to compromise with 22 frets, seeing as that's what I'm playing right now anyway.  Fret size should be jumbo.

The neck radius should be 12" (stock Les Paul).  For additional control, all frets from the 17th upwards should be scalloped, similar to the Ibanez shown below (I believe it's a JEM series [As kindly pointed out by Matt08642 on Reddit, this is probably an RG1570]), which features scalloping from the 21st to the 24th fret:



As far as fretboard wood is concerned, you generally get two types of people: those who believe the choice of wood affects tone, and those who believe this to be an urban legend.  I fall in the former category, and would prefer a neck and fingerboard of maple for its (perceived) clarity, definition and control.

Electronics

And thus we get to the real meat-and-potatoes of the design.  It should come as no surprise that the Transmitter will be electronics heavy, seeing as I am a techie, and recalling my mission with the guitar: total sonic control.

A major part of the setup will be the transplanted electronics from a Line 6 Variax guitar: a saddle-mounted piezoelectric pickup feeding a per-string signal to active electronics.  These electronics model the tone of 25 classic guitars, from a 1928 "Tricone" resonator, to a selection of classic and modern Stratocasters, Les Pauls, Dreadnoughts, and more.  Yes, that's right, it also models acoustic guitars.

Before you ask; yes, I do know of the Fender VG Stratocaster, but I'm a fan of Line 6 products and trust their impressive modelling capabilities.

The tone and volume pots from a Variax respond - I believe - appropriately to the guitar model being used, and so their presence in the Transmitter is crucial.  This means that the Transmitter will have two sets of pots: tone and volume for the Variax electronics, and tone and volume for the "proper" pickups.


The Transmitter will have a variation on the Fat Tele (or Tele HS) pickup configuration featuring a bridge humbucker and neck single-coil.  These will be used by the humbucker and "driver" pickups of a Fernandes Sustainer FSK401 kit.  The pickup configuration I have in mind is shown on the right (this Tele also features a Bigsby tremolo unit - classy!).


Originally I considered a Floyd Rose tremolo system - which wouldn't be impossible to use with the Variax electronics, as Ibanez have at least two models using a Floyd Rose with a piezo - but the amount of wood that will have to be removed from the body to fit the unit is just blasphemous.  Keep in mind that some space will already have to be made to fit all of the active electronics, and removing so much wood from the body will have a disastrous effect on tone.  In any event, even though a locking tremolo unit will give me more control over the sound, I'm not a whammy bar user in the least and will be more comfortable getting similar effects from a Digitech Whammy pedal.  A better option in almost every regard.

In total, the Transmitter will have six pots: the Variax tone and volume, the "normal" tone and volume (from the Fernandes kit), the Variax guitar model selector, and the Fernandes sustainer intensity pot.  In addition, two toggle switches:  one for the Fernandes pickups and a "modelling" one for the Variax piezo.  Throw in a killswitch, and I'm in woodshed heaven!  Sure, this is a very complicated interface, and it sure as hell ain't gonna be pretty, but I'm willing to live with that for the level of control it'll give me.

Aesthetics

Finally, what some may consider to be the most important element of a guitar: its appearance.

I'm not a huge fan of the more outlandish guitar designs; the shape of your average BC Rich axe or the chrome finish on Satch's signature Ibanez are just too much for me.  Forgive the elitism, but I want my instrument to look like an actual musical instrument.  My first instinct was to go with a classy tobacco sunburst finish, but such a finish - evocative of a Stradivarius - suffers a jarring incongruity with the cutting edge technology on board the Transmitter.

Instead, being an admirer of Dave Gilmour's famous "Black Strat", I've opted for a modern but not obnoxious black finish featuring a black pickguard with white detail.  Identical to the Telecaster Custom below:


Well, that pretty much covers it, my dream guitar.  If any luthiers are reading this and want to build me a prototype, you'll get no complaints from me!


Saturday, October 03, 2009

A Miscarriage of Taste

This is easily the most fucked up thing I've read today:

I worked in a five star hotel once and a lady in the middle of the night had a miscarriage. She kept extending her stay saying she liked the room and didn't wish to swap. When she did check out the housekeepers found the fetus in the bed which was covered in blood. It appeared the poor lady was so distressed at losing the baby she was cuddling it for days on end.

And in the end, the hotel sold the mattress at an employee sale.

Found on this thread on Reddit.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Muse: The Resistance



Being a Muse fan, I have been looking forward to their new album, The Resistance, for a while.  It was finally released on September 14th, and, although a very strong effort, is a bit of a mixed bag.

Muse have long shown a penchant for flirting with excess; from the title track off 1999's Showbiz, to Origin of Symmetry's Rachmaninoff-esque Space Dementia, to the pseudo-epic Knights of Cydonia from their last outing.  Well, The Resistance is quite literally excess of symphonic dimensions.

The loud and funky Uprising opens the fare on a note which is rather, well, loud and funky.  It seems to pick up where Supermassive Black Hole left off and does little beyond proving that Muse haven't forgotten how to kick out a good din.  The opening bars feature a theremin-esque Phrygian melody which, lest my ears deceive me, reference the original Doctor Who theme music.  How prog!

The next two tracks, Resistance and Undisclosed Desires, left me a bit cold.  The former's preachy lyrics alienates and the latter can't seem to decide if it wants to be R&B or eighties' New Wave.  Desires' dubbed vocals and slap bass make me wonder if Bellamy's been shooting up with Dave Gahan.

The first major highlight of the album is the colossal United States of Eurasia.  Bellamy clearly wants to be both Brian May and Freddie Mercury on this track, with lushly multi-tracked vocal harmonies and a proper guitar solo that sounds like it was actually played through a VOX AC-30 amplifier.  Eurasia segues into the melancholic piano piece Collateral Damage - which is actually just a loose interpretation of Chopin's Nocturne in E flat major.

Guiding Light is another stand-out track.  Another eighties throwback, this tender power ballad enters the fray with reverbed snare drums and eventually delivers possibly my favourite guitar solo on Muse's entire discography.

The scary pipe organ opening Unnatural Selection promises much, but the song quickly devolves into a rather standard and pointless modern rock song.  MK Ultra left me equally bored.

I Belong to You/Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix made me feel as though I were listening to a tarantella in 4/4.  European folksy with a funk beat, it's fresh and interesting compared to the preceding couple of tracks.  It then develops into a montage of the popular aria from the French opera Samson et Dalila.  It also features a solo by what, I think, is a bass clarinet.  So good, so pretentious, so prog!

Finally we get to the album's big sell: the three-movement rock symphony Exogenesis.  An ambitious and long (close to fifteen minutes) piece featuring, I am told, over 40 musicians.  It evokes a calmer and more hopeful tone than the rest of the album.  If the prior eight tracks describe a world collapsing, then Exogenesis represents leaving it behind.  Traveling into the terrifying but promising unknown of deep space.  Entirely composed by Bellamy, it's his magnum opus and features more Chopin and Liszt inspired moments.  Stirring, clever, captivating and haunting.

The first half of the album is largely hit-and-miss featuring nothing we haven't heard before, while Exogenesis is so good that it could be boxed and sold on its own merits.  The Resistance is not a bad album by any means, but an album whose musical scope doesn't quite match the lofty heights of its concept.  Oh, and those pompous and preachy lyrics don't help.  Fantastic stuff, but progressive rock is all about doing something which is both good and inventive, and you won't find much of the latter here.

While I'm pleased with The Resistance, I'm hoping that for their next studio outing Muse return to playing to their strength, which is despondent, symphonic space-rock.

3.5 / 5


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Eat your heart out, Alex Lifeson

So while I'm supposed to be recovening from serious illness, I find myself bored shitless and running out of ways to amuse myself.  Finally, I plummet to the level of submitting to YouTube a video of myself playing YYZ by Rush.  At least I had fun.

That's a negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full

A keen eye will spot some changes around here.  The blog's layout is still nice and minimal (well, the colour scheme is; the layout is still a fuckin' mess), but things are just a little bit sleeker, a little bit cooler, a little bit more... dangerous.  It's the Iceman to the previous layout's Maverick.

I'm hoping things aren't too broken and, if possible, I'll be able to write some actual content.  Jesus, if I actually spent as much time writing posts as I do changing the layout, I'd have a Bloggie by now.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Proposal for a new source code measurement unit

Preface.

With the pace and scale of modern software development being what it is, it is very rare to find any application beyond university projects and weekend hack-jobs that amount to fewer than hundreds of thousands of lines of code in source form.  The truth is that the measurement Source Lines Of Code has become about as efficient and logical as measuring the distance between stars, not in parsecs, but in kilometers.

Proposal.

What, then, could we use as the programming equivalent of the astronomical parsec?  I propose the unit torvalds, uncapitalised to differentiate it from the name, to represent 200,000 lines of code.  Shortened to Tr with an initial capital to differentiate it from the Unix tr command.

Rationale:

Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel, and an outspoken man in his own right, has many critics.  Recently, there's been a trend among those wishing to criticize the quality - or worse, the magnitude - of his contributions of pointing out the fact that only 2% of the kernel source code was actually written by him.  This may be true by certain estimates, but invariably they leave out the context:  that the kernel currently (as of version 2.6.30) comprises 11,637,173 lines of source.  That's almost twelve million lines of source code.  Since the first mention I could find of this fact references an unspecified minor revision of the 2.6 kernel, I'd say a safe estimate places the then-current kernel size at 10 million lines.

By this measurement, Linus' contribution of 2% amounts to roughly 200,000 lines of code which, by any individual standard, is substantial.

Examples.

  • The Debian 4.0 distribution, at 283 million lines of code, amounts to 1415 torvalds (Tr).
  • Mac OS X version 10.4, at 86 million SLOC, equals 430 Tr.
  • The FreeBSD operating system which totals 8.8 million lines, comes to 44 Tr.

So, let's imagine...

"So, let’s imagine how [the September 11th attacks] could have been worse for example. Suppose that on September 11, Al-Qaeda had bombed the White House and killed the President, instituted a murderous, brutal regime which killed maybe 50,000 to 100,000 people and tortured about 700,000, set up a major international terrorist center in Washington, which was overthrowing governments all over the world, and installing brutal vicious neo-Nazi dictatorships, assassinating people. Suppose he called in a bunch of economists, let’s call them the 'Kandahar Boys' to run the American economy, who within a couple of years had driven the economy into one of the worst collapses of its history. Suppose this had happened. That would have been worse than 9/11, right? But it did happen. And it happened on 9/11. That happened on September 11, 1973 in Chile. The only thing you have to change is this per capita equivalence, which is the right way to look at it. Well, did that change the world? Yeah, it did but not from our point of view, in fact, who even knows about it? Incidentally, just to finish, because we [the U.S.] were responsible for that one."

-- Noam Chomsky

1973 Chilean coup d'état

Tip of the tinfoil hat to Mark_Logan on Reddit.

Twitter: How to exploit a million monkeys

I got a nice little mail informing me of an update to Twitter's Terms of Service.

For a long time, Twitter has claimed the following:

"Twitter has many appealing opportunities for generating revenue but we are holding off on implementation for now because we don't want to distract ourselves from the more important work at hand which is to create a compelling service and great user experience for millions of people around the world. While our business model is in a research phase, we spend more money than we make."

Well, the updated TOS seem to indicate that the time has come to cash in those chips.  The updated terms seem mainly centered around screwing you and me over for a buck.

Firstly, they're "leaving the door open" for advertising, which seems like no big deal, but the one that's going to piss everyone off is the following:

"By submitting [...] you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license [...] to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).

You agree that this license includes the right for Twitter to make such Content available to other companies [...]

Such additional uses by Twitter, or other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter, may be made with no compensation paid to you with respect to the Content that you submit, post, transmit or otherwise make available through the Services."
[emphasis mine]

Ouch.

As I point out in my copyright page, all of my Tweets are public domain anyway, so I don't really give a hoot that Biz Stone will be driving a new Ferrari thanks to my rapier wit.  But I can see how this is going to cause a real shitstorm among people who actually believed Twitter's old Terms of Service which promised never to infringe on your ownership of your tweets, and among privacy advocates (read: smelly hippies) who sincerely believed the accounts they marked "private" actually were private.

Ultimately, none of us have a right to complain.  It's a free service (free as in "beer", at least), and Twitter doesn't owe any of its users jack shit.

If you've ever considered moving over to Identi.ca, now's the time.  And to everyone who ripped on Identi.ca, I can only say "HAHA!".

Webdesign circlejerk

Earlier, I ran into this little nugget from a "web design" site.  I'm convinced it's some kind of parody, because not only is the advice fucking stupid, but the site itself looks like it was put together by Tim Berners-Lee himself...  When he was a freshman.

The main gist of the article is that a site's logo should not link to the homepage.  Now, as we all know, yes it bloody well should!  But the counterargument by Jesper Tverskov (the brainiac behind the site) essentially amounts to "Just because everyone else does it, doesn't mean I should."

Funny enough, Jester - uh, sorry, Jesper - pretty much refutes his own argument in the first paragraph.  He cites another article written by some other moron saying that only one third of users ever click on the logo.  Firstly, the cited article was written in 2001 and we all know that nothing ever really changes on the Web, right?  Furthermore, is adding a link in your logo really that much of an effort that you're willing to risk scaring off one third of your userbase because your site doesn't navigate the way they expect it to?

I refuse to believe the argument from design.  This is not a goddamn design issue, it's a navigation issue.

Another point he raises is that redundant links to the homepage can be a nightmare for blind people using screen readers.  If by "nightmare" he means "minor annoyance," I agree.  However, and don't get me wrong here, I respect the disabled (or differently-abled, whatever), but I'm not going to cripple my site (sorry) for the vast majority of my users just to shave one second off of the browsing time of the 0.003% of visitors who use screen reading software.

After being wowed by the spectacular design of my blog, you may be truly shocked to learn that I'm not a designer.  No, I'm not kidding; I'm just a regular user like you.  Though, wouldn't that make me a good authority on web design, seeing as I know exactly what most people would want from a website, since I am one of those people?

Who knows, maybe I'm wrong and Jesper's right.  Even so, the most obvious difference between us seems to be that I actually want people to come to my site.

Jesper makes a couple of pretty good points here and there, but I'm not going to cover them because that won't be snarky, and that's the entire point of this post.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

OpenBSD needs money

OpenBSD CD pre-sales are an order of magnitude lower than expected.  Since the OpenBSD project is funded completely by donations and sales of merchandise, this is a worry.

With the scheduled release of version 4.6 being right around the corner, now is the perfect time to order a CD set and help out the project that has given us not only the world's most secure operating system, but highly successful related projects like OpenSSH, OpenCVS and OpenNTPD among others.  Regardless of your opinion on Theo personally, I'm sure you'll agree that the project deserves respect for its achievements and refusal to compromise.

I'll be ordering my CD set and maybe a nice T-shirt, too.  And a poster.  And, who knows, maybe a mug...

Recently, while playing a game of bridge at the Memorable Order of Tin Hats, I overheard an elderly woman comment that she thinks OpenBSD is becoming progressively redundant.  That its comparatively slow speed will cause it to fall by the wayside as it becomes easier to properly secure systems like Linux or FreeBSD.

This argument superficially holds water, seeing as an OpenBSD install does run slightly slower than Linux, FreeBSD, or most other good OSes.  But what it comes down to is that it depends on your needs.

If you need an OS that can squeeze every last ounce of performance out of your system, and you don't mind getting this optimization at the expense of (at least theoretical) security vulnerability, then there's no real reason to use OpenBSD.  If security is priority, then the choice is obvious.

Even if it were possible to get a hardened Linux to match OpenBSD's level of security (and it isn't, due to the Linux kernel's dependence on binary blob drivers), I don't believe this would be possible without a significant performance hit unless, as I hinted, compromises were made elsewhere by, for example, not utilizing the ProPolice GCC extension, Systrace sandboxing of untrusted applications, or implementation of W^X, mmap, or the strlcpy() family of string functions.

On the other hand, OpenBSD is already secure by default.  Let's face it, the weakest link in any system is its administrator, and the less security optimization work that is left up to him, the more robust the system would be in the long run.

There's no "best" operating system, only a best for your particular needs.  If you need security, go OpenBSD.  If you need performance, go FreeBSD.  If you need to SSH to your toaster, go NetBSD.  If you need application support, go Linux.  If you embrace gay pride, go Mac OS X.  And if you like the challenge of running a buggy, insecure, unstable, legal gauntlet of an OS, go Windows.

If you read this far without suffering an aneurysm, don't forget to visit the OpenBSD ordering page to buy some great swag if you so please.

Linux 2.6.31


Linux 2.6.31 has been released.  Read Linus' announcement on the Kernel Mailing List.

Important updates include:
  • USB 3.0 support.
  • FUSE extension that can be used to, for example, "proxy" OSS audio through the ALSA userspace layer allowing it to be used as a replacement for the in-kernel ALSA OSS emulation layer.
  • ATI Radeon Kernel Mode Setting support.
  • Improved desktop performance under memory strain.
  • 802.15.4 support
  • Fsnotify.  A backend for filesystem notification.
  • Preliminary NFS 4.1 client support
  • Context Readahead algorithm and mmap readahead improvements.  Benchmarks show cooperative IO performance gains of up to 40%.
  • Much more!
Personally I'm happy to see some updates to the aes-ni crypto module, and improvements to Radeon and Intel graphics support.  Soon we'll see open source drivers with great performance for all graphics hardware.  If only Nvidia would stick its binary blob up its ass, and follow Intel's example of releasing an open source driver.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Thinkgeek ads

Unless I really suck at advertising, you may have noticed one or two ThinkGeek ads on the blog.  Well, being a happy customer of theirs (I'm eating soup out of my "/dev/mug" latte mug as I type this), and believing that their catalogue of cool items complements the nerdy tone of my blog, I've signed up for their affiliate program.

This raises the obvious question: does this mean that, in the forceful grip of greed, I'm holding Convergence hostage to ads?  I shall attempt to settle this unfortunate query by saying yes... yes, absolutely.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

District 9: A Christian allegory?

Spoiler warning!

While I was busy not doing anything better, I found myself wondering how far (if at all) District 9 took the Christ allegory.  As I mentioned in my little review of the film, District 9 does stick pretty closely to the Monomyth pattern with regards to the main character Wikus, and where would you find a more famous application of the Monomyth than the story of Jesus of Nazareth?

At this point I came to an interesting realization: Wikus isn't an allegory for Christ... The alien Christopher Johnson is.

Let's start with the most obvious point: his name.  Christopher Johnson's initials backwards form JC.  Okay, so maybe that's a bit of a stretch, but bear with me.  Further, the name Christopher (a rather unusual name for an insect-like alien, don't you think?) is of Greek origin and literally means "bearing Christ inside."  Another allegory could be the connection to saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers who, according to legend, carried a small child across a great river.  Recall in the film Christopher, having confiscated the mothership, taking his young son across the galaxy to their home planet.

Now, let's look at a few parallels between the lives of Christopher Johnson and Jesus.  Christopher is descended from a race who are being persecuted; he is on a quest to save his people; while on this quest, he is betrayed by someone he trusts (Wikus, who knocks him out and steals his shuttle); and finally, he "ascends to Heaven" with the promise of his return, and with it the salvation of his people.

Maybe I'm reading a bit too much into it, but I think it's an interesting perspective.

Emacs and redo

Emacs has a superb undo system with practically infinite undo levels.  However, I've always assumed that Emacs lacks a proper redo system.  It turns out that I was wrong, but redoing in Emacs is not immediately obvious; when redoing a command, you're essentially "undoing" an undo.

After an undo, do a C-g followed by a C-x u (or whichever undo command you prefer, be it C-_ or C-/ ).  Just like with a standard undo, you can use the repeat command of C-x z to save those carpals (because redoing literally is the same thing as undoing).

Great!

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Bash prompt fun

Like your sexual preference, your taste in wine, or your favourite Backstreet Boy, your shell prompt is a very personal thing and can say a lot about you.

Some old-school hackers prefer the minimal '$' you get by default with, for example, pdksh, and whine that any information displayed by the shell prompt is better gleaned from running a relevant command when needed.  For example, instead of having the current working directory on your screen at all times, just type pwd when the need arises.  This is perfectly fine if it suits your needs and circumstances, but these differ from user to user.

Unix users can generally be divided into two groups when it comes to their taste in shell prompts: the putter-inners and the taker-outers.  The taker-outers go minimal; removing what they see as cruft from their shell prompt.  They feel that maximum screen real estate should be given to the output of commands, and anything that diminishes this or distracts from the output - such as escape sequences and colours - should be removed.  When taken to the extreme, this results in a user who needlessly types commands from time to time when he could have comfortably fit the relevant information into his shell prompt.

The putter-inners, however, are in danger of adding so much needless crap into their shell prompts that they're in danger of melting their CPU everytime they hit Enter.  I am a putter-inner.

My shell of choice is Bash, and due to my personal requirements there are some elements I insist on having in my prompt.  Before we get to that, though, an obligatory screenshot of my prompt in action:



Okay, it's not pretty but I like it and it gets the job done.

Firstly, I like having a colour prompt.  Some people find it distracting, but to me the colour neatly separates the prompt itself from the output of a command.  I use a multi-line prompt because, even on the rare occasion I'm not in X, I'm using framebuffer console so my terminal window is always large, thus there's no shortage of screen space.  This allows me to have a lot of information in my shell prompt without constantly having to flick my eyes from right to left on the screen.

As for the contents of the prompt, I'm always on the network so I like having my user@host visible.  I use history commands so I want the history number visible, too.  The next number is the number of jobs the shell is currently running.  Since I use Emacs and Ctrl-z a lot, this is quite important to me.  Similarly, I am often using GNU Screen, so I have the current TTY echoed as well.  The red exclamation mark only shows if the previous command exited with a non-zero status.  Since I'm often debugging code, this is crucial.  The last element on the next line is, obviously, the current working directory.  I need this as I am always moving around in my directory tree.

Some common prompt elements I don't use are the time and/or date (if you need to be reminded of the time - or even worse, the date - each time you hit enter, your shell prompt is the least of your problems), and the familiar UID character ('$' or '#') as I am very much a sudo advocate.

The code in my .bashrc for the above prompt follows:

# Multi-line prompt to display: 1. user@host; 2. history number
# of the current command; 3. number of jobs; 4. tty;
# 5. exit status of previous command; 6. working directory
#
# "\033(0" drops term into line-drawing mode. "\033(B" takes it out.

function sweet_prompt {
local cur_tty=$(temp=$(tty) ; echo ${temp:5});
local LIGHT_RED="\[\033[1;31m\]"
local LIGHT_GREEN="\[\033[1;32m\]"
local LIGHT_BLUE="\[\033[1;34m\]"
local NO_COLOUR="\[\033[0m\]"
PS1="$LIGHT_GREEN\033(0\154\161\033(B$LIGHT_BLUE($LIGHT_GREEN\u$LIGHT_BLUE@$LIGHT_GREEN\h$LIGHT_BLUE)$LIGHT_GREEN-$LIGHT_BLUE($LIGHT_GREEN\!$LIGHT_BLUE-$LIGHT_GREEN\j$LIGHT_BLUE-$LIGHT_GREEN$cur_tty$LIGHT_BLUE)$LIGHT_GREEN\033(0\161\161\033(B\`if [ \$? = 0 ]; then echo \[\e[34m\]]\[\e[0m\]; else echo \[\e[31m\]!\[\e[0m\]; fi\`$LIGHT_BLUE\033(0\176$LIGHT_GREEN\161\176\176\033(B\n\033(0\155\033(B$LIGHT_BLUE($LIGHT_GREEN\W$LIGHT_BLUE($LIGHT_GREEN\033(0\161\176$LIGHT_BLUE\176\033(B$NO_COLOUR "

PS2="> "
}

Ugly, I know, but I don't have the inclination to de-spaghettify it.

I use rxvt-unicode as my terminal emulator with the Terminus font (the best monospaced font ever.  Perfect for those who stare at the screen for 8+ hours a day).  I can't guarantee that the above code works under different circumstances.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Federation vs Empire

Star Trek vs Star Wars nonsense.  Possibly the nerdiest comment I've made on Facebook thus far:


I stand my ground on the issue, though.

Update: This discussion prompted a lively (and predictable) debate on Reddit.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Just another Perl hacker

I was lucky enough to stumble onto the first JAPH I ever wrote - a whole two days after I first started learning Perl back in 2004.

It turns out to be something of a word game:

perl -e '$c="ePreh";$k="tonat";$h="ckeJ";$a="ahlr";
$h=reverse($h);$e=$h.$a.$c.$k."sur";
(substr($e,0,1),substr($e,-1))=(substr($e,-1),substr($e,0,1));
$e=reverse($e);$e=~s/stan/st an/;$e=~s/rP/r P/;$e=~s/rlh/rl h/;
$e.="\n";print($e);'

And an analysis with strict, warnings, and mys added (spoiler warning):

/usr/local/bin/perl -w
use strict;
my $c="ePreh";
my $k="tonat";
my $h="ckeJ";
my $a="ahlr";
$h=reverse($h); # $h = "Jekc"
my $e=$h.$a.$c.$k."sur"; #$e = "JekcahlrePrehtonatsur"

# This next part makes my eyes cross when I look at it for too long.
# It switches the first and last character of $e.
(substr($e,0,1),substr($e,-1))=(substr($e,-1),substr($e,0,1));

$e=reverse($e); # $e = "JustanotherPerlhacker"
$e=~s/stan/st an/; # $e = "Just anotherPerlhacker"
$e=~s/rP/r P/; #$e = "Just another Perlhacker"
$e=~s/rlh/rl h/; #$e = "Just another Perl hacker"
$e.="\n";print($e); #append a newline to $e and print it out.

Good times!

Why I hate Eric Raymond

Eric Steven Raymond (who likes it when people call him "esr" for pretty much the same reason I'd like it if people called me Optimus Cal) is a self-professed hacker.  I use the term "self-professed" with more than a dash of snark here, because anyone who consciously and unironically refers to themselves as a hacker in today's world is on par with those who publicly label themselves geniuses - presumably because nobody else can do so with a straight face.  In short, something of a sexually unappealing Kanye West.

Eric has been active in hacking circles since the seventies, and has been actively promoting the open source movement since it started, well, moving.  He is also the current maintainer of the legendary Jargon File.  I have a lot of respect for Eric for these - and other - positive contributions.  Unfortunately, this respect is outweighed by the simple fact that Eric is a giant douchebag.

This dislike is born from a number of reasons, mainly Eric's...

1. Overinflated sense of self-importance.

Eric describes himself as one of the most significant figures in the history of free software.  In his own words, "Today I'm one of the half-dozen or so most influential people in that movement; in fact, a lot of people would put me among the top three, with Linus Torvalds and Richard M. Stallman."

That's a very bold statement, and you would expect the person who makes it to be (in addition to an asshole) a talented coder who has authored software that can be listed alongside a kernel estimated to be worth $1.14 billion USD, or one of the most popular compilers on Earth.  However, probably Eric's primary contribution in the form of actual code is originally authoring the fetchmail utility: a mail client whose poor design and security holes have been criticized by, among others, one of my personal heroes, Daniel J. Bernstein.

More hubris: "I either founded or re-invented [...] the open source movement.  If that term means nothing to you, think Linux... "  I just love the subtle implication that Eric's actually had a direct and significant role in Linux development.  That's logic from the Steve Smith school of reasoning: "I've met Linus, Linus created Linux.  By the transitive property, I created Linux.  Algebra's awesome!"

In reality, though, Eric's main attempt at a contribution to the Linux kernel was in the form of CML2, a code configuration system, which was rejected by the kernel development team and the original CML was eventually replaced with LinuxKernelConf.  The possibility that it simply wasn't good enough being incomprehensible to him, Eric blamed the rejection on "politics."

2. Political views.

Eric calls himself an anarcho-capitalist (one of those terms freshman political science students call themselves until the second semester when they actually learn what the fuck they're talking about) and a libertarian.  This is especially rich considering his support for the war on Iraq.  He also called for an "imperialist" campaign to "civilize" the Muslim world.  A rather significant personal stance that is conspicuously absent from the later revisions to his Wikipedia article.

He is also a bit of a gun nut, which I have little problem with, but it does become more than a little creepy when you consider that he privately threatened Bruce Perens to the point where Perens feared for his safety.  Again, suspiciously absent from Wikipedia.

3. Social views.

Eric believes that IQ distribution among women does a better job than cultural sexism of explaining why the high achievers in most fields are male ("get back in the kitchen!"), and - possibly more explosively - that African Americans are responsible for a disproportionate percentage of crimes because they have lower IQs:

"In the U.S., blacks are 12% of the population but commit 50% of violent crimes; can anyone honestly think this is unconnected to the fact that they average 15 points of IQ lower than the general population? That stupid people are more violent is a fact independent of skin color."

His views on homosexuality are equally repulsive, equating homosexuality with pederasty and pedophilia.

I can see why Eric decided to develop fetchmail in the first place: he probably didn't want any mail he sent or received to be touched by a piece of software written by a gay man, so he attempted to author a sendmail replacement, couldn't wrap his head around UUCP, and just gave up and wrote a mail retrieval agent instead.

4. Fucking up the Jargon File.

Many hackers feel that after taking over maintenance of the Jargon File, Eric began to change it to reflect his own warped political views and personal agendas.  He has shifted the tome's focus away from early, pre-Unix hacker culture, added words to the glossary that nobody except he has ever used, and - among other controversial edits - changed the description of hacker politics from being "vaguely liberal-moderate" to the more Eric-centric "moderate-to-neoconservative."  The Holy Bible of hackish culture has been reduced to being Eric's personal vanity document.

In conclusion, I can't say it any better than one of Eric's many fans once did on Wikipedia.  Eric, you are an asshole.