Alkahest my heroes have always died at the end

April 29, 2008

Book lover + nerd = ebook

Filed under: Personal,Technical — cec @ 9:45 am

Yesterday, I bought a Sony Reader – the electronic book reader that uses E Ink’s electronic paper.  The electronic paper display on the reader is very nice.  It uses encapsulated white and black pigments that can be brought to the surface of the page.  The only power consumption involved happens when you make a change.  Once the change is made, it requires no power to keep the image.  The upshot is that you’ve got a very long battery life, a decent contrast ration and a display that can be read in any light – in fact, the more the better since it’s reflective (like paper) rather than backlit (like a monitor).  Moreover, because it’s not backlit, it’s easier on the eyes when reading for a long time.  I read for a couple of hours last night and it was no different than reading a paper book.

The Sony Reader hasn’t gotten quite the notoriety of Amazon’s Kindle, even though they both have the same display and the Sony came out a month earlier.  I suspect that’s because Amazon hyped the Kindle and after all, it was tied to the largest (or is it second largest?) book seller in the world.

So, why did I go with the Sony and not the Kindle?  A handful of reasons:

  • Price – the Sony is $100 cheaper.  I’m hoping that this isn’t the last version of electronic paper to come out and that things will continue to improve.  That being the case, why should I spend the extra money.
  • Linux use – okay, technically, the Kindle doesn’t require any computer to use it, but I suspect that I would want to attach it to a computer anyway.  If for no other reason than to save the transfer cost for anything I send to the device that isn’t purchased from Amazon.  Beyond that, libprs500 is very nice software.  It handles file conversions, can download RSS feeds and convert them to the reader’s format, etc.
  • Books – I almost certainly won’t buy electronic books for the reader.  Not that it’s not a good device for reading, but I’ve got two concerns:  1) I don’t want the books I buy (or music for that matter) to be locked up by DRM software, things change quickly and I want my books to follow; and 2) the price point for electronic books isn’t right.  Why would I pay the paperback price for an electronic version that has essentially 0 duplication and distribution costs?  Instead, I’ll probably start piping the newspaper to the reader and will catch up on a lot of the content of Project Gutenberg that I’ve been meaning to read.

Last night, I added about 100 books and short stories to the reader.  I think that’ll be enough to keep me for a while.  🙂

Happy reading

April 25, 2008

Musical fortune telling

Filed under: Uncategorized — cec @ 8:59 am

From etselec and because it amused me, my fortune as told by a random selection of my music with interpretive accompaniment by yours truly:

1. How does the world see me?

Lightnin’ Hopkins – No Education

Ouch. Apparently the world sees me as an academic poseur. I guess I can live with that, but it’s a bit rough to see.

2. Will I have a happy life?

R.E.M. – Exhuming McCarthy

Hrm. I guess this means that I will be persecuted for my perceived communism by a raving lunatic. I’m not a big fan of persecution, but I suppose that being harassed by an idiot like McCarthy might be fun for a while. Of course, the downside is that I’ll be professionally ruined.

3. What do my friends really think of me?

Barenaked Ladies – Just a Toy

Is this fortune done yet? I’m guessing this suggests a clown. That’s very sad.

4. Do people secretly lust after me?

Steppenwolf – For Ladies Only

I think I’m going to take that as a “yes” and move on.

5. How can I make myself happy?

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes – All My Lovin

I guess that means to stay married, but with a punk beat. I can do that.

6. What should I do with my life?

John Lee Hooker – I Cover the Waterfront

Is this saying that I should go to sea? Maybe I can work with rdc at MOTE 🙂

7. Why must life be so full of pain?

The Pogues – Dirty Old Town

I think this says that life is full of pain because of the breakdown of community and the social safety net. We all have it in our capability to make other people happier and we choose not to.

8. How can I maximize my pleasure during sex?

They Might Be Giants – Which Describes How You’re Feeling All the Time

Bahahaaa! In Chasing Amy, there was a discussion of “constant information” during sex. I think we’ll go with that and move on.

9. Will I ever have children?

Men Without Hats – Intro: Eloise

Yes – and at least the first will be a girl named Eloise, poor girl.

10. Will I die happy?

XTC – Miniature Sun

Interpreting this involves knowing a little family history or maybe it’s family legend – those things are hard to keep straight. Shortly after the Civil War, the Union wanted someone to retrieve a load of dynamite from Pennsylvania in the winter. Since dynamite is unstable at cold temperatures, it would take an idiot. Enter a some of my great-uncles (or maybe great-great-uncles) who managed to get themselves blown up in the attempt. I take this to mean that I too will die in a ball of fire. So, does that mean happy? Probably, after all, I am an engineer 🙂

11. What is some good advice for me?

Blues Traveler – Gotta Get Mean

Boo. Hiss. I demand a new fortune that’s less cynical.

12. What is happiness?

Blues Traveler – Lost me there

Ha – that sounds about right. I’m really better with contentment than happiness and after all, I’m entering that time in my life when people are supposed to be less happy. Check back in 15 years or so and I’m supposed to be on the upswing of that one.

13. What’s my favourite fetish?

Steppenwolf – Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam

Okay, so not a pot smoker. Never been a drug taker. If I had to guess, it’s a reference to the promotion of civil liberties which is something of a fetish for me.

14. How will I be remembered?

Squirrel Nut Zippers – Low Down Man

Ouch. And we end the fortune the same way we began it with – insults to my character. I think I need a better (or maybe worse) random song selector, or maybe better music.

April 24, 2008

Genetic discrimination

Filed under: Social — cec @ 10:11 pm

Oh, and an ironic follow-up to the republican filibuster of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act: apparently, the senate unanimously voted for a bill barring genetic discrimination in hiring and insurance. I wonder if anyone’s told them that your gender is based on your genes. Not that I would accuse senate republicans of being misogynistic in their concern over discrimination. Well, okay, yes I would.

Workplace discrimination

Filed under: Social — cec @ 10:06 pm

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate took up the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which the House had already passed.  The act was pretty reasonable.  It essentially clarified the 1964 civil rights act to say that if you are being discriminated in terms of salary equity, you have 180 days from the date of each paycheck to file a claim.  So, essentially it defines the act of discrimination as occurring with each short changed paycheck and not just with the initial salary setting.

The case stems from Lilly Ledbetter who was a manager at Goodyear.  She was paid significantly less than her male counterparts for the same job.  Everyone agrees that she was discriminated against on the basis of her gender.  She was awarded $3.5 million in back pay and punitive damages.  Goodyear appealed and the supreme court ruled that congress had written the law so that you had to file suit within 180 days from the first discriminatory paycheck not the most recent.  Ledbetter, who didn’t know her colleagues’ salaries until years later was SOL.

The bill seems pretty simple, clarify that the clock resets with each discriminatory paycheck.  But unfortunately, that didn’t work for the republicans who filibustered it on Wednesday.  It was pretty much a straight party line vote.  Both of the democratic candidates for president voted for the bill, most of the republicans voted to uphold the filibuster.  One exception, that mavericky maverick John McCain.  McCain believes that women should be paid equitably, but doesn’t want to encourage lawsuits, so rather than take a stand and vote for or against the bill… he dodged and didn’t vote at all.  Way to take a stand!

The republicans claim that they too want to see equal pay for equal work, but that they don’t want to encourage lawsuits.  Well, guess what – that’s just tough.  There are two ways to deal with corporate bad behavior: regulations (where the executive branch can fine a company) and the your-on-your-own approach of allowing lawsuits.  For as long as I can remember, republicans have been campaigning against both of these means to rein in bad business behavior.  They campaign against regulations (“they make our businesses less competitive”) and they campaign to limit your ability to sue when they break the law (“tort reform to keep money out of the hands of trial lawyers!”).  So apparently it’s the official position of the republican party that companies should be able to do what they want and if you don’t like it, you can go to Canada.

My hope is that the democrats use the republican’s opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to beat the snot out of the republicans in the general election.

April 21, 2008

Baby opossum pictures

Filed under: Gallery,Photography,Wildlife Rehab — cec @ 8:10 pm

When it rains it pours. A month into spring and K hadn’t received any calls about rehabilitating animals until today when she got two. The first was about baby bunnies. K doesn’t take baby rabbits because too many of the stories end with “and then they died.” For example, “I was rehabbing some bunnies in the spare room, the dogs barked, the rabbits got scared and then they died;” or “I successfully rehabbed the bunnies, but they got stressed out while I was releasing them, they stroked out and then they died.” You get the idea. The other call was for a litter of opossums whose mother had died. She took those.

Since the new version of WordPress has a gallery feature, I thought I would take some pictures at the most recent feeding and see how the gallery worked.

April 12, 2008

tracks 1.5

Filed under: Personal,Technical — cec @ 9:46 pm

Thanks to Luis, I find out last week that Tracks 1.5 has been released.  Tracks is the implementation of the  “getting things done” methodology which I prefer.  1.5 is pretty nice.  In particular, I look forward to hiding actions until a particular date.  In the past, I’ve wanted to track a todo some six months in the future.  I put it on the list and had to watch it for 180+ days.

The only trouble I had with the upgrade is that there’s some new SQL instructions in the code of the form “SELECT COUNT(DISTINCT foo)…”  That syntax was bombing on my ISP which was causing the AJAX updates to not happen properly.  It turned out that the sqlite3 driver uses this syntax and the sqlite2 driver has a fallback syntax since count-distinct isn’t supported.  Unfortunately, Dreamhost’s sqlite3 is about three years old and also doesn’t support count-distinct.  The solution was easy enough – copy the sqlite2 driver’s syntax into the sqlite3 driver.  Once that was done, everything worked great.

I suppose a better solution would be to get Dreamhost to upgrade sqlite, but somehow that seems like more effort.

The problem of evil

Filed under: Personal,Religion — cec @ 9:18 pm

One advantage of being in IT is that you often at least hear of cool things before other people do. You may or may not choose to adopt them, but at least you’ve got a choice. Thanks to Mr. Icon, I got an early gmail account, Great, unfortunately, I don’t have an uncommon name. Starting about a year ago, I began receiving email for a moderately important newsman. Last week, for a pastor in Michigan. In both cases, people apparently know the person has a gmail account, but they can’t remember the permutation of the person’s name. I always let the sender know that they’ve got the wrong person, but now I’m starting to think that either: a) I need to create a disambiguation auto-response that goes out if I’ve never seen your email address before; or b) we should just give up and form our own knockoff of the Village People. We’ve got an engineer, a newsman and a minister. Now we just need a fireman and a cowboy. Any volunteers?

So far, the email to the pastor is from just one person. A woman, about my age who seems to work at the church. Even though I’ve let her know that she’s got the wrong person, I’m still getting emails from her. They aren’t personal, they seem to be generic inspirational messages, perhaps sent out one email at a time to a distribution list. The one I received Friday took me back to junior high church youth groups with it’s pop religious sentiment and included the following story:

A man went to a barbershop to have his hair cut and his beard trimmed.

As the barber began to work, they began to have a good conversation.

They talked about so many things and various subjects.

When they eventually touched on the subject of God, the barber said:

“I don’t believe that God exists.”

“Why do you say that?” asked the customer.

“Well, you just have to go out in the street to realize that God doesn’t exist. Well me, if God exists, would there be so many sick people? Would there be abandoned children?

If God existed, there would be neither suffering nor pain. I can’t imagine a loving God who would allow all of these things.”

The customer thought for a moment, but didn’t respond because he didn’t want to start an argument.

The barber finished his job and the customer left the shop.

Just after he left the barbershop, he saw a man in the street with long, stringy, dirty hair and an untrimmed beard.

He looked dirty and unkept. The customer turned back and entered the barber shop again and he said to the barber:

“You know what? Barbers do not exist.”

“How can you say that?” asked the surprised barber. “I am here, and I am a barber. And I just worked on you!”

“No!” the customer exclaimed. “Barbers don’t exist because if they did, there would be no people with dirty long hair and untrimmed beards, like that man outside.”

“Ah, but barbers DO exist! That’s what happens when people do not come to me.”

“Exactly!” affirmed the customer. “That’s the point! God, too, DOES exist! That’s what happens when people do not go to Him and don’t look to Him for help.

That’s why there’s so much pain and suffering in the world.”

Now, I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush, but this is just silly. It’s the kind of argument that you would fool a 5 year old with. Normally, I would just ignore it, but it hits a bit of a nerve for me. The first part is the problem of evil, inelegantly expressed.

The problem of evil has interested me for about 20 years now. In fact, it has interested me since before I even knew what it was called. The typical formulation is how can an all knowing, all powerful and all good god allow evil to exist in the world (or more harshly, how could evil exist without having been created by god)? The fact that there is evil is proof that either god does not exist or that he is not all knowing, all powerful and all good – which essentially amounts to non-existence. There are several standard answers to the problem of evil, none of which are particularly convincing.

One answer is to suggest that the evil we perceive is not really evil at all, but is in fact a good that we can not perceive. This strikes me as a giant cop-out. It asks us to deny the evidence of our own minds as to the evil of some acts. Moreover, a plain reading of the Book of Job suggests that god did allow the devil to torment Job as a test. Job’s family and children were killed for no other reason than to see if Job would be true to god. That sounds more like some sort of bad, co-dependent relationship than a good deed in disguise.

The second answer is to suggest that a world without evil is impossible, even for an omnipotent god. This is also a cop-out in that it sets limits on the power of a being defined by his omnipotence.

Another answer was put forth by the Jesuits: evil is exists because of a) original sin; and b) free will. This is clever and at least has the advantage of not trying to suggest that there is no evil. There are some problems. Original sin is the sin committed by the first man and woman and pass on to all of their descendants. This bothers me in part because Adam and Eve are clearly allegorical and were not actual people. So in essence, eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and falling from grace is a metaphor for giving up the innocence of being an unthinking animal and becoming consciously aware of the world, our place in it and how we have a choice over our behaviors. As an allegory, it’s a good one. But it also means that original sin was not the sin of Adam and Eve as passed on to their descendants, but that original sin is a term given to the basic nature of mankind. As such, you can easily ask why did god create mankind with a sinful nature. The answer to that is typically free will. But that’s really no answer at all. Leave aside that I don’t think that free will can be proved to exist (another topic for another time), giving free will to a creature with a sinful nature ensures evil. Free will to a creature without a sinful nature would not guarantee evil.

I could go on a lot more here, but suffice to say that the problem of evil is a rather interesting theological and philosophical question, so seeing it expressed in the first half of the email above interested me. And then I read the second half which is flat out demeaning to the brain god (or evolution) gave people. In particular:

First, christians should be offended by the statement that there is pain and suffering in the world because people don’t go to god and look to him for help. There is an implication, but not a direct statement, that christians do not have pain and suffering and that if you went to god, nothing evil would happen to you. This is dangerously close to the doctrine of prosperity, which would be considered a heresy if christians concerned themselves with such things any more. Nowhere in the bible does it say that god materially helps people who believe in him. He may help them with acceptance, but then I suspect that belief in anything helps with acceptance so that’s not proof of god’s existance.

Second, the problem of evil is a theological problem because the postulated god is: a) all knowing, b) all powerful, c) all good, and d) the creator of everything. That evil exists is a direct challenge to the union of these attributes. In contrast, the author does not postulate the same attributes in her barber. I suppose you could do that. I suppose you could say that barbers are: a) all knowing, b) all powerful, c) entirely anal retentive when it comes to hair, and d) response for the grooming of creation. That being the case, an unkempt hippy (like myself?) would be a challenge to the existence of our super barber. So the author’s analogies are inexact and when corrected to allow for an omnipotent, anal-retentive barber, really don’t seem to help the god argument that much.

Finally, the author of our story is making an argument by analogy which is bad logic. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some analogies. I tend to think in analogy. But it’s a bad practice to argue from analogy. In essence, the argument boils down to: you say that object A with attributes A1..An does not exist because of the evidence of X. But what if we said that object B with attributes B1..Bn does not exist because of the evidence of Y. We can see that object B exists. We can’t see object A, but because B exists, then A must exist. Nope. Logic doesn’t work that way.

It’s this kind of fuzzy thinking that used to drive me crazy when I was in those junior high church groups. I guess it still drives me a bit crazy or I wouldn’t have just spilled so many electrons over it. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone involved in religion is a muddled thinker. In fact, I know that is not the case. My one small request is that churches limit the sending of emails to those that can think logically. Probably too much to ask. Maybe I’ll just adjust my spam filters.

April 11, 2008

Web 2.0 and trusting the users

Filed under: Social,Technical,University Life — cec @ 8:31 am

The CTO Project makes an interesting observation that faculty are a bit like some corporations. They feel obligated to use Web 2.0 technologies in order to engage student interest and actually make some token effort to be up to date. But that they only want these technologies if they can exert complete control.

Trust me, I can relate. We’re currently contracting with a part of the government that wants to do something similar. They want to make use of the knowledge of a number of experts to produce an encyclopedia of a given technology. Of course, this has been dubbed the FOOpedia (where FOO is the technology).

In the first phase, they laid out an outline of the field. There were to be top level items that only they could edit, secondary items which would be owned by specific individuals and third level items which would be links to support documentation like powerpoint slides and papers. Control of the site was to be pretty restricted, but they did know that they wanted to use a wiki.

Kill me now.

So, in working with them for a bit, I think we’ve talked them out of the rigidly structured, top-down, hierarchical encyclopedia and have gotten them to embrace something a bit more organic.  They’re still not comfortable with a completely open system.  We’re looking at a model comparable to Scholarpedia or Citizendium where there’s a person responsible for each article and he or she will have the final editorial say over that topic.  But at least we’re no longer trying to define all of the pages in advance.  I’ll call it a win.

April 10, 2008

The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.

Filed under: Personal — cec @ 10:37 am

For as long as I can remember, any time I spent more than an hour or so walking (or hiking), my legs and feet have felt sore and tired.  Never having been very athletic, I assumed that I was out of shape or needed to exercise more.  But even with as much exercise as I’ve been getting recently, I’ve still have still had the same problem.  I’ve tried various inserts and shoes for people who over pronate, but not much seemed to help.  So finally, I went to see the podiatrist.

I’m not certain whether or not I should be relieved.  It seems that it’s not all in my head, these aren’t normal pains, I don’t need to lose weight (well, at least not because of my feet), and I’m not just out of shape.  My feet really are screwed up.

At first the doctor wasn’t quite certain if the root cause was developmental or genetic, but essentially, I’ve got weak feet (arches, foot muscles, etc.) and an exceptionally strong calf muscles.  The weak feet cause me to walk in a way that builds up the strength of my calves and the strong calves pull the foot in such a way as to keep it from building up it’s own strength.   He asked if I’m a fast runner.  Not that I run much any more, but when I did, I was more of a sprinter.  Even as a non-athlete, I was still the second fastest person in junior high.

After looking at the x-rays, the doctor found that apparently the bones in my ankle are part of the original problem.  They don’t let the foot tilt up enough at the ankle and so the foot has to splay out.  Before he saw that, he was thinking that surgery might solve the problem – essentially cut the tendons in the ankle so that they lengthened and were weakened.  But seeing the x-ray made him realize that this would not work unless he also reshaped the bone.  I’m just as happy not to be a good surgical candidate.  A year to completely heal was a bit much.

The best solution may be to have some orthotics made that will hold the foot in the proper position and to buy shoes with an extra half to a whole inch of heel.  The extra heel allows the calf to rest in its shorter position even while walking so that it won’t get tired so quickly.  The doctor suggested cowboy boots.  I’m not certain if I’m up for that, but we’ll find something that’ll work.  Hey, now I have an excuse to wear lifts in my shoes and look taller! 🙂

An interesting conclusion to the day was when I spoke to my mother who said that my father seems to have the exact same problems.  His feet splay out.  Moreover, he used to run track in school.  Not long distance – his feet/calves got too tired for that.  Instead he ran sprints.  Finally, my father has been wearing cowboy boots pretty exclusively for the past few years.  My mother says that this is because he finds them more comfortable than other shoes, including what people traditionally think of as comfort shoes: sandals.  I guess the morale is that if you already have your father’s physical build, don’t be surprised if you inherited his feet too.

Now hopefully, I’ll be able to get some proper orthotics made before our next hiking trip!

April 8, 2008

New roof

Filed under: Personal — cec @ 8:30 am

The roofers finally finished our new roof last week.  They started on February 28th and finished on April 2nd – five weeks.  I’m pretty certain they only expected it to take about three weeks, but between the rain and the level of detail on the roof, it didn’t quite work out that way.  Everything seemed to take longer than expected.  On the bright side, all of you in central North Carolina owe us for the rain.  I’m convinced that March would not have been so rainy except for our roof.  For example, the first major rains came right after they pulled off the old shingles; and the rains last Monday and Tuesday postponed the completion.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.  You might say I’m falling victim to the logical fallacy, post hoc, ergo propter hoc.  I say, screw that, I’m still taking credit for the rain.

The roof itself looks great.  They did a wonderful job.  The hardest thing to adjust to is the color.  We wanted something green.  Dark green would have been better.  But as we started looking at the options in metal roofing, we realized that the lighter colors were more energy efficient.  The only color (as opposed to shades of white) that was both energy star and NC-LEED rated was the “aged copper.”  It’s a bit brighter than I would have preferred, but that extra reflectance should make the upstairs more comfortable and easier to cool.


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