Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cheap shot

Quarry reports that Bono addressed the Presidential Breakfast.

Well, let's face it; he's more likely to get some sense out of the breakfast, than out of the President.

Blog on

Well, thankfully all my links are intact, and The View from Here is getting a link as a thankyou.

Don't you just hate vandals?

Blog off

Shelly @ The View from Here notes that blogs have been hijacked, and legitimate blogroll links have been redirected to porn sites. I'm going to check my blogroll right now, but before I do, may I first suggest you do the same, and extend thanks to TVFH on my own behalf and that of my readers.

Tervetuloa Minun Blogihinni...Or, "Are You Quite Finnished?"

Gee, I hope I have that Finnish bit right, there.

Apparently* I have some readers in Jyväskylä, Turku and Tombo (at least I think that's in Finland...). So I'd like to welcome y'all to the site and hope you're enjoyin' it. I also hope I don't butcher your beautiful language too much in the process of writing the blog!

Kiitos and thankyou,

Jeff.

*According to Google Analytics, that is.

UPDATE: Yes as you can see I've had to amend the title of this item.

Nothing quite like embarrassing yourself in public, is there?

New Comments Policy

You may now post comments anonymously and without verification.

This just in

FYI, Windows Vista is now officially out.

Rankin Revisited

So I finished the Ian Rankin book Set in Darkness. I wasn't exactly glowing about it the first time I wrote about it, and I'm afraid I can't be much more enthusiastic about it now.

As I wrote earlier, it's all a bit formulaic - not at all what one would expect from one of Britain's bestselling authors. Of course, maybe I'm out of touch and his public like what I would consider as "formulaic", (which is fine) but with all due respect: to be blunt - I don't. Or maybe the earlier novels are better (...and maybe Rankin feels it...the next Rebus novel is scheduled to be the last)?

I suppose I'd have to read another to find out.

Rebus, again as I said earlier, doesn't seem to have much to differentiate him from amongst all the other detective-novel sleuths, nor does he have a more prominent "sidekick" in the manner of Liebermann from the eponymous Liebermann Papers (of which the novel Vienna Blood, over which I eulogized earlier, is the second installment). Not even the fact that (as the book reveals) Rebus is, like myself, a prog rock fan can save him from being basically, rather dull - I mean, outside the music critic community, how uncommon is that, really? Especially among people Rebus' age.

So just about the only thing I can say to recommend this book over any other is that, in a nice twist, the prime villain of the story is actually likeable - not the sort of culprit you usually find in Dalziel and Pascoe novels, for instance, which tend to be a haven for the sort of down-and-out- or failure/social outcast-villain about whom you wonder how they ever got close enough to anyone to bump them off in the first place. Not that I'm knocking D&P, you understand: I like those.

So, for any Rankin fans, if you read this I'd be interested to know whether it matches up to his earlier stuff. For anyone else, honestly, don't bother.

Too Many Anniversaries!!!

I've just started reading the Kalevala (sometimes known as The Land of Heroes), the Finnish national epic based on ancient folk tales and collected and composed by Elias Lönnrot, a district health officer (!) in another life. (In English, I'm afraid - my Finnish simply isn't up to the task.) The translation I've selected is that of Keith Bosley, who has also translated works from French, Russian, and Portuguese, as well as collaborating to produce a book of poetry, in English with originals, of source material Lönnrot used to compose his epic, together with poems from other languages in the Uralic group. In short, the man has apparently done so much to bring Finnish literature to the wider world that he's gone and got himself a First Class Knighthood of the Order of the White Rose of Finland.

Good for him.

As fans of Tolkien will know, the Kalevala was one of the sources the latter took as inspiration for Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Bosley takes the apparently unusual step (for translations of the Kalevala) of inventing his own metre in translating the poem, whereas the more usual modus operandi is to imitate the metre of the original, which gives a sort of drumbeat rhythm. (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also took on this metre for his original composition The Song of Hiawatha.)

Bosley's translation is unusual in other respects, too. Where, for example, other translators into English use euphemisms, Bosley uses the direct (in content and as a translation) "Who did you get laid by" when the mother of the story's heroine asks her how she got pregnant. This fits in well with the source material; as Bosley says, whereas Western folk traditions - at least nowadays - tend to form as a result of taking elements of (formal) literature, known as "seepage", Finnish literature OTOH grows "from the ground up", which one wit known to Bosley described as "rising damp". (Wonder how Miss Jones would feel about that one.)

By odd coincidence, today also marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Winter War (Finnish Talvisota), as a result of which (by the Peace of Moscow), the country was forced to cede to Soviet Russia much of the area, called Karjala, or "Karelia" in English, in which Lönnrot studied the oral folk poetry of the ancient Finns, and which by that time was one of the country's most heavily industrialised areas, including the town of Vyborg, known also as Finnish Viipuri, Swedish Viborg and Russian Вы́борг, Viborg. The group Värttinä also take much of their material from the remaining portions (now known simply as North and South Karelia) of the region belonging to Finland - with the opening up of Russia to the West, it is also of course possible that some of their material comes from Russian Karelia, around Lake Ladoga and so on. The Karelian origin of both is shown in many features of the language used in the Kalevala, on the one hand, and Värttinä's songs, on the other, such as the use of the verb ending -evi, corresponding to the third person singular -s in English, and to -ee in Standard Finnish. As one would expect, this gives the work a "homely" feel, well suited to the subject matter of the material, whilst also (to this reader/listener, at least) managing to sound majestic and tuneful.

The effect is no doubt intensified for the native reader, since although (mercifully, and unlike English) written Finnish is almost totally phonetic - with no "exceptions" or ridiculous sets of words, like "tough/cough/bough/thought/through/borough/hiccough/turlough" and the words "hough" (also spelt "hock") and the Irish and Scots-Gaelic words "lough" (or loch) and "sough", in which one combination of four letters "ough" is pronounced a total of 9 different ways - the gap between the "styles" in written and spoken Finnish is rather wide: Rather as if, for example, we always wrote "verdure" but always said "grass". The reason for the somewhat artificial standard is that, like English, (and despite, or perhaps because of, the small and scattered population of the vast country) the range of dialects in Finnish very wide. If we were to come up with a regular spelling system for English, for example, we would find ourselves having to decide which of various national standards to adhere to in doing it - and these days that standard would probably be American. English, in the end, still represents reasonably well and unambigously in writing the standard speech of the British "Establishment" - the "educated, formal" English of politics and trade in the South East of England proper.

The Kalevala is available from Project Gutenberg in an edition translated by John Martin Crawford (unfortunately from the German translation, not the Finnish original), or from Amazon and Abebooks in translations by the aforementioned Keith Bosley; and an older edition, formerly considered authoritative, by William Forsell Kirby. Other editions also exist. For those who can read Finnish, there are plenty of Finnish works available at PG, and several Finnish bookshops online, some with websites in English as well. The companion volume (supposedly more representative of the folk originals) the Kanteletar (The kantele maiden) is also available from Project Gutenberg (in Finnish) and Amazon (in English). (The kantele is also a favoured instrument of Värttinä!) For those who can read German, in his bibliography, Bosley also states that the authoritative German edition has the most comprehensive introduction and commentary of the Kalevala not written in Finnish. Finally, for fans of the even more exotic, Amazon also has limited-availability copies of the Kalevala-inspired Estonian Kalevipoeg (Son of Kalev), by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald and Christa Kaetsch (trans.).

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

From Spam to Ham

I haven't had a repeat of the Erroneous Incident of Kosher Mail in the Spam Folder, so I think somewhere along the line I must have accidentally sent a kosher mail to Spam myself.

Bloody Butterfingers.

Monday, November 27, 2006

No sleep

I haven't been sleeping well lately. I woke up at 0400 this morning. Fortunately it gave me a chance to get through a bit more of Set in Darkness, Ian Rankin's Y2K novel about a murder on the soon-to-be-Scottish-Parliamentary grounds.

"SiD" is the first Rankin novel I've read, and it's quite enjoyable, though a bit predictable to be honest. His "Holmes", Rebus, is standard detective-novel fare (inasmuch as I know what "standard detective novel fare" is, as I've only just started picking up on the genre after reading Frank Tallis's excellent Vienna Blood (oddly, his website does not yet - November 2006 - seem to refer to the book, though it was published on 4 May of this year according to Amazon.co.uk); I've read several Sherlock Holmes books, and do quite enjoy several "television versions" of detectives-in-novels, though, such as Dalziel and Pascoe and the immortal Morse). Rebus is a divorced cop with a drink problem, maybe a little bit of a loner, fond of going his own merry way on an investigation: picture Supt. Dalziel with a Scottish accent and without (so far) a trusted assistant in the manner of Peter Pascoe. Apparently John Hannah played him (Rebus) in a few television-movie type adaptations; I have to say that from how I've pictured him in the books, the "new" TV-Rebus, Ken Stott, would seem to be a much better fit - Hannah seems just a little bit young for the part, among other things. Of course SiD is fairly new and the series is already fairly extensive, so maybe he's a better fit for a younger Rebus. (After all, after nearly 50 years, by all rights we should be giving people like Sir Ian McKellen the role of the new Bond! Not sure that would work, really. Double-oh-Gandalf?!)

I'll let you know how it turns out.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

C sells sanctuary

Further to my previous post, take a look at these links:

Wikipedia article on Obfuscated code (including information on the infamous Obfuscated C contest)

The C shell is a Berkeley extension* to Unix aimed at making shell (command line interface) programming more intuitive to C programmers. But it has its problems:

Csh Programming Considered Harmful

People who agree with the above statement/article usually program in the Bourne shell or one of its derivatives, such as bash (the Bourne Again Shell) or ksh (the Korn Shell).

I use Zsh.

I like cake--Ed.

*Note that the article is technically inaccurate - the Berkeley extensions were added not just to System V but starting way back in 7th Edition (yes, that's right; Unix version names are a little crazy; maybe that's why it survived†); they were also added to various vendors' Unix versions.

†With apologies to Seal

Don't Read This...

...If You're Not a Linguistic Biatch

As far as I can make out, "Osuuspankin verkkomaksu" means something like "Mutual Bank Network Payment;" anyone whose command of Finnish is any better than mine (read: "...who knows more than about 4 1/2 words") is welcome to correct me on that. Finnish positively loves suffixes (like the -s in loves and the -es in suffixes), and uses them in a lot of expressions where we would use a preposition (like to or for) - for example the name of the popular Finnish daily Helsingin sanomat, usually translated as Helsinki Times but more literally meaning Messages of Helsinki; or the message on many university websites, Tervetuloa yliopistoon, where tervetuloa means "welcome", yliopisto means "university" and the suffix -on means "to". (There is no word for "the" at all!). You'll have to read the Wikipedia article, referenced below, for why Helsinki- suddenly turns into Helsingi-.

Finnish displays vowel harmony: vowels are divided into two groups depending on some criterion, and vowels of each group can only co-occur with vowels of the same group. In Finnish, the two groups are back vowels a, o, u (pronounced roughly as in Italian), and front vowels ä, ö, y (spelt ü in Estonian, the closest national language to Finnish) - roughly the same as in German. Some exceptions are made in Finnish for compounds - with which the Finns have another love affair - (words like "blackbird" in English, which is composed of two independent words); a Finnish compound in which all the vowels are in the same group would be armolintu "bird of mercy" - a Värttinä-inspired example; an example of a "mixed-vowel" word would be jääkiekko "ice-hockey" and foreign loans (pleikkari - go on, guess - it's "Playstation (!) :-) ). So in the word yliopistoon the suffix -on "agrees" with the back vowel of opisto ("school," "college" itself forming a compound with the word yli ("above"), thus "above-school" or, more idiomatically, "high school"), whereas in the word kirkkotiellä "on the path to the church"*, the suffix -llä is used instead of the -lla of yliopistolla "at the university".

More fascinating details at http://en.wikipedia.com/wiki/Finnish_language - Nauttikaa!

*Not, as previously translated, "on the stony path".

Värttinä

I couldn't help myself; I just had to listen to Värttinä again. This time it was their latest offering, Miero. I can't find a review that doesn't praise this album, and I can see why; it has its weaker moments, (9 Lukkoa, Mataleena, Maaria), but overall this disc just shines. It's certainly weird, but some of us reserve that word to be used as a compliment. You can find news, reviews, and merchandise on the band's website: but if I were you I'd just go out and buy one (or more!) of their albums - also available on varttina.com. I recommend either of Ilmatar (once described as "the album Värttinä were created to make" or words to that effect); or Miero. Oi Dai, Seleniko and Aitara are also popular choices, apparently (I can't comment as I haven't heard them yet). You can pay by Paypal or, in the unlikely event that you're coming to this website from Suomi (that's the lovely word for the country in its own language, btw) just to find out about my favourite Finnish band, you can purchase via several other methods, including the exotic and beautifully named "Osuuspankin verkkomaksu".

Nauttikaa - Enjoy!!!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Comments on the MS deal

Further to my (the editorial "we" seems too presumptuous for a blog) coverage on how Ballmer of Microsoft is attempting to slander Linux, here's a pointer to an article on the subject from techdirt; I'd like to draw your attention particularly to this interesting comment:
First of all, Microsoft isn't imitating SCO. It did eventually come out that there was a big venture capital infusion into SCO at the time of their Linux patent trolling, and this venture capital infusion was traceable back to Microsoft. So clearly, all that's happening is that they're now doing openly what they were previously doing through proxies. Secondly, while this is something of a threat to linux, it is far more a declaration of defeat by Microsoft. Face it, they're sitting on a bloated, expensive software project that is hardly offering radical new functionality to motivate upgrades. XP, and Server 2003 are far from great, but they're functional enough for most people to keep using, especially when more and more of the computer's functionality is coming in through the web browser, and hence is pretty much OS independant. The traditional forced upgrade trick of not supporting the old OS on snazzy new hardware won't work, because people can just run Linux on their snazzy new hardware for free. Finally, Linux is starting to get very user friendly( without talking paper clips!), and with Compiz/Beryl, is probably the coolest looking GUI out there. Microsoft has made a great deal of money, and I doubt they'll be going out of business anytime soon, but their days as the scuzzy kings of corporate computing are numbered. Amen.
Not to mention this one:
The thing is, if MS tips their hand to early, it will be a fairly simple matter for the offending code to be removed from Linux, and then we'd have, say, a 2.8 Linux kernel against which MS has no patent claims. Of course, they can drag this fight out for years, and whether or not their patent claims are legitimate won't really matter. Besides, the fact that you can patent virtually anything imaginable will allow MS to patent (after the fact if necessary) some feature used by Linux, OSX or anything else, and simply bleed its victims dry regardless of the existence of prior art or anything else that would prevent their winning in a fair world.

I see this as the gauntless being thrown down. I see this as an admission that MS isn't going to even pretend they can or are going to compete. I see this as the true test of whether or not the United States, and the rest of the world, has become a corporatocracy, or whether the Rule of Law still has any power left.
Clearly, fellow FOSS advocates, now is NOT the time to give up. Educate people; keep coding; explain where and why and how MS is full of bull; stand up to them. Build a Chinese wall around Novell/SUSE and openSUSE, if necessary (it probably is :-( ). Keep doing what we've always been doing: Fight for your rights!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Technoblogical: Weakly Debian Nudes #4

In the interest of fair play, here is a link to a succinctly put difference of opinion on the deal:
Technoblogical: Weakly Debian Nudes #4

Open Letter to Novell: Register your Protest

Bruce Perens has created an Open Letter to Novell in which he protests strongly the Linux company's actions in cozying up to Microsoft, who quite clearly still consider the FOSS operating system to be their nemesis. The title of this post contains a link to the petition. As you will see if you scroll down the page, FWIW I have added my own name to the list of engineers, CEO's and CTO's who are miffed with this deal.

I urge my readers to read the text of the open letter and, if you have any interest at all in the future of free and open source software, please consider signing the petition. The FOSS community will be grateful for your efforts.

Thankyou.

Snakes and adders

I posted earlier that one of the things I disliked about Python was the way that it forces you to indent code to create code blocks. I said that I preferred (for example) Pascal's method, which puts begin...end markers around them. However, it seems it only takes a little bit of practice to get used to typing "Tab" before you write code, and in fact, begin...end tags or no, makes code a lot more readable.

Some languages, by contrast, are so "flexible" with regard to syntax and code layout that they are infamous as "write-only languages", i.e. you can write them, but heaven help the poor sod who has to go in and debug your program months later - even if it's you! C, which falls into this category, can often look to the non-programmer (or, perhaps, even to the presumably-nowadays-rare non-C-programmer) as if one has taken a bag of punctuation marks and sprinkled them around like confetti!

Or then again, maybe it's just me ;-).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

SPECIAL EDITION: ARPANET: Missing links and debunking myths

Some of you may have noticed that the link to BLOGTOPSITES.COM, which attempts to track the popularity of blogs, was down for quite a while today. This gives me - in tandem with my earlier moan - an excuse/opportunity to debunk a myth that's often quoted about the military use of the {ARPA,Inter}net.

It is frequently stated that the ARPANET was developed in order to provide an iron-clad, bullet-proof, nuclear-holocaust-resistant computer communications network for the US Armed Forces in the event of a Soviet attack.

According to the book Where Wizards Stay up Late..., this is not true. Appropriately for open-source software, the ARPANET was developed to scratch an itch: J. C. R. Licklider, formerly of Bolt, Beranek and Newman and now the head of Behavioral Sciences and Command and Control programs at ARPA[1], found it frustrating to have three different terminals on his desk, connected to three different computer systems, with three different login procedures. The ARPANET was developed in part, then, as a way of getting around the inconvenience of having to maintain separate access protocols to the computers of the time, which, as I explained in my earlier post, were tremendously (one might even say "ridiculously") varied and incompatible.

The possibility of making the Internet "self-healing" by increasing the number of point-to-point links, and thereby creating a network where there would always be a working path between any two sites, was discussed, but ultimately rejected as being too demanding on resources:

The question remained: How much redundancy in the interconnections between neighboring nodes would be needed for survivability? "Redundancy level" was [RAND researcher Paul] Baran's term for the degree of interconnectivity between nodes in the network. A distributed network with the absolute minimum number of links necessary to connect each node weas said to have a redundancy level of 1, and was considered extremely vulnerable. Baran ran numeous simulations to determine the probability of distributed network survival under a variety of attack scenarios. He concluded that a redundancy level as low as 3 or 4 - each node connecting to three or four other nodes - would provide an exceptionally high level of ruggedness and reliability.... Even after a nuclear attack it should be possible to find and use some pathway through the remaining network.[2]

...

As the IMP Guys [a nickname for the people at BBN responsible for writing the software that would control the Interface Message Processors, the ARPANET's equivalent of Internet routers] laid out their plans in Washington, it became appparent that the ARPA network would be a hybrid of the original ideas of Baran and Davies. The ARPA network would use an adaptive routing scheme that the IMP Guys had developed on their own, but which was similar to the basic idea that Baran had sketched. However, unlike Baran's theoretical network, the ARPA network would not have nearly the same redundancy level or number of links to each node. Nodes in the BBN scheme were normally linked to two neighboring nodes occasionally to one or three. As it was now conceived, just two failed links could divide, or partition, the network into isolated segments. Paul Baran had said that a network with a multitude of redundant links could be built of inexpensive parts; if a part malfunctioned, there would be others to back it up. The low level of redundancy in the ARPA network was closer to Davies' plan. [Frank] Heart's approach was to make every part of the network as robust and reliable as possible.[3]


Overall, I think the concept of the Internet works quite well even without the extra reliability built into the Baran plan - most of the time; it's also a lot cheaper, too. I suspect that the Internet would have been much more difficult to sell to consumers - if not everyone else, also - if every dialup or ADSL line required not one, but four phone lines!

[1]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARPANET
[2]
Where Wizards Stay up Late: The Origins of the Internet, Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon. Touchstone, 1998. p59
[3]
ibid, pg 113.

NB: The previous article on this subject incorrectly attributed the authorship of the book Where Wizards Stay up Late... to Larry Roberts, Frank Heart and Bob Kahn. This was incorrect; the aforementioned persons were not the authors of the book, but were mentioned in the book as being instrumental in the development of the ARPANET. Apologies to the real authors of the book, Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, who have been correctly attributed in references to the book included in this article.

Excluding quoted portions copyrighted by third parties, all text in this post is copyright (c) 2006 Jeff Rollin. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.

MS-Novell deal in trouble already?

It looks like Novell may be in for the big shock we warned them about all along. The company has distanced itself from comments made by Microsoft's Steve Ballmer in which he claimed that Linux violates Microsoft's intellectual property. In an open letter to the community, they have reiterated that their deal with MS in no way (at least in their view) is an admission that Linux violates any Microsoft patents. At this stage they are not backing away from the deal, however, claiming that they "are not distancing themselves" from Ballmer himself.

This is starting to look (even more) like the SCO case all over again. Not long before Linux company Caldera Systems, and the company everyone thought held the rights to the Unix operating system - the Santa Cruz Operation - merged to form The SCO Group, Caldera and the then German-owned SuSE GmbH (along with a gtroup of smaller companies) signed an agreement to promote United Linux, which was supposed to be an industry alliance based on SuSE's Linux technology, aimed at chipping away at the dominance enjoyed by Red Hat in the commercial Linux market. Of course, when the new SCO started making claims that they pwned Linux, the UnitedLinux deal quickly fell flat.

SPECIAL EDITION: Happy ARPAversary

Hooray! Today is the 36th anniversary of the invention of the ARPANET, which grew into the worldwide Information Superhighway we all know and love. It's difficult to overestimate the value of the Internet - I wouldn't be typing this here and now, of course, if the project had failed. Almost every advert you see on telly is accompanied by a WWW address; email addresses are now as standard on business letters as telephone numbers were in the eighties, the decade before the genesis of the World Wide Web. But the Internet is much more than the Web page you see before you when you open up Mozilla Firefox or Opera - email, file transfer, newsgroups, all came into being or were integrated into the Internet years before the advent of Englishman Tim Berners-Lee's incredible achievement.

Newsgroups, of course, were once the poor cousin of the Internet, maintained by a network of UNIX machines communicating over slow telephone lines, sending email messages explicitly from machine to machine before they reached their final destination - the old europe!america!asia!africa!ben format showing the path from your machine to ben on africa. And their popularity has since declined - but not their purpose. Most of the messages in my Gmail inbox are from mailing lists, where users of particular operating systems, fans of Lord of the Rings and connoisseurs of needlework (!) congregate to share ideas, news, problems and solutions.

At one time, Europe was engaged in the first stages of constructing its own continental network, based on the International Standards Organisation's Open Systems Interconnection framework (yes, that's ISO/OSI). The US government was even preparing to switch over to the protocols - I have a computer science textbook from the US that goes into the ISO/OSI in some considerable detail; (it also hails OS/2 as the operating system of the future - we see through a glass darkly).

The ARPANET, of course, was a US Department of Defense product - proving the old age about most progress being made in wars (in this case, of course, a Cold War, thank God - the concept of global thermonuclear war was the genesis of several great films (here and here), but in reality is just too horrible to contemplate).

Where was Microsoft in all this? Surely the Great William H Gates III saw this coming? (I have even heard people try to tell me he invented the whole thing). Well, no, actually - after the WWW rose to prominence, he set about setting up the Microsoft Network as a rival to the Internet; after an abrupt realization (and about turn) he bought the rights to the Spyglass company's Internet browser, morphed it into the much-beloved Internet Exploiter, and passed the royalties onto Spyglass. Of course, since IE was bundled with every copy of Windows, Spyglass in fact got a big fat wad of nothing.

It's tempting to weigh in once again against All-Knowing Bill (the man who once said "640K should be enough for anybody" now brings you Windows Vista, at a cool 15 gigabytes), but it's not as if he was the first to miss the boat. The Unix vendors (I use the mixed-case spelling, rather than the trademarked all-uppercase-UNIX, in deference to inventor Ken Thompson's wishes) spent years arguing and competing amongst themselves, with the result that Bill Gates was able to amaze the world in 1995 with "innovative" technologies that were, it's true, a vast improvement over DOS, but which had mostly been invented 10 years or more before. Though, I do seem to remember DOS crashing less.

IBM, of course, were so late in coming to the PC market that they didn't have time to come up with their own design, and so left the way open for cloned machines to take them over. IBM is now a global services company and recently sold their comparatively small Personal Computing division to Lenovo, who make desktop computers and laptops licensed under the IBM name. And long before that, IBM founder Thomas J Watson, whose name now graces one of the great islands of Hackerdom, the eponymous Labs at IBM, remarked that there would only ever be a market for FOUR computers!

It's notable that the Internet was one of the first computing-related "open source" technologies and arguably gave rise to whatever popularity the Unix vendors did enjoy despite themselves. In a world where just about every computing manufacturer came up with its own designs - often several incompatible ones like the DEC PDP-10 and PDP-11, which were based on entirely different architectures - and even multiple operating systems for one machine, the ARPANET community selected Unix because it was the only one that was available for more than one machine, and could be extended by third parties to provide capabilities not even dreamed of by the manufacturer. In the computing world this is still rare, but FOSS technologies, despite all the mud-slinging by the proprietary software dinosaurs, are starting to win. The game's not over, but I think in the end we will win it. It's up to the proprietary dinosaurs to decide whether to join the party or get stuck in the closed-source tarpit. They are welcome to join us, but if they don't they better hope they don't get lost in the mire of the hundreds of other companies that bet the farm on their own company-specific architecture, and lost.

I've blathered on quite enough about this, now, I think, but if you're interested in knowing more I highly recommend the book Where Wizards Stay up Late: The Origins of the Internet by Larry Roberts, Frank Heart and Bob Kahn.

Later!


All text in this post is copyright (c) 2006 Jeff Rollin. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.

Funny Finnish Things

I've been annoying everybody in da house by playing Värttinä. I'm obsessed by this Finnish folk-rock ensemble, I'll listen to nowt else fer days.

They're great.

Check it out!

www.varttina.com

Monday, November 20, 2006

I'm Currently Listening to...

The Greatest Hits of the Eurythmics.

Low-rank Computer Geek; Old-fart Supremo.

Kremlinnocent

The Russian government has denied that it was involved in the poisoning of London-based ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. Mr Litvinenko, a critic of the Russian government, had been investigating the death of Russian journalist Anna Politovskaya.

He has been moved into intensive care, and doctors say he has a 50/50 chance of survival.

More details as they come in.

Keep it (Pork) Sausage, Stupid

You know the old saying "Keep it Simple, Stupid", also known as "the KISS principle" (and rebadged by the politically correct as "Keep it Short and Simple", apparently)? Well it turns out that the concept of Welsh Dragon sausages not actually being made of dragon is too complicated for the officers of Welsh Trading Standards, because they have forced the manufacturer to rebadge their product as Welsh Dragon Pork Sausages.

Now we all know that the Welsh are associated with certain, ahem, unfortunate stereotypes. But I never heard of one who didn't know that dragons are mythical.

Oh well, at least it gave everyone another opportunity to drag out an old pun.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a rather important appointment with the Head Elf.

Free as in Expensive?

ZDNet is reporting that Birmingham City Council is drawing fire for dropping its plans to roll out a Linux + OpenOffice solution on 200 workers' desktops, for cost reasons.

And well they might. Let me state clearly (and be the umpteen millionth person to do so, for the gazillionth time) that "free software" is not about price. It is about freedom. And as fans of this film will know, Freedom isn't Free.

Free software prohibits you from charging extra for the source code to the program, from keeping that source code secret, and from entering into licence agreements (did you hear me, Novell?) which pass the cost of those agreements on to your customers. But it does not prohibit you from charging money for your software.

More to the point, because Linux is based on UNIX, it was designed to be reparable by other, more sophisticated means than just "reboot or reinstall". (If you have to reinstall a Windows computer because you got a virus, you can bet your bottom dollar (pound, euro, ringgit, whatever) it is going to happen again.)

This in turn requires people with nous, which costs money. Nevertheless, surely it is better to pay someone to fix something once, than to pay them to skirt round the problem every time it happens?

I don't mean to suggest that all Windows administrators are custards, because that definitely isn't the case. After all, if the Microsoft-Novell deal has the opposite effect to the one MS clearly want it to, then demand for experience in bringing together Windows and Linux solutions is clearly going to be on the rise.

But no matter how advanced a technology Linux is, don't expect it to sink your IT costs to zero, because it's not magic.

Excluding quoted portions copyrighted by third parties, all text in this post is copyright (c) 2006 Jeff Rollin. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.

I H8 Customer Disservice

Many of you will have been coming to this site from http://latedeveloper.org.uk. Unfortunately, twice in one day it has gone down, and I have neither the money, time, nor inclination to keep notifying the company who "provide" it (who will remain nameless in case I get sued) that they're bleeping useless.

But please, please ask around before you get stuck with a complete turkey.

And please update your bookmarks to http://latedeveloperbasketcase.blogspot.com/
TheOneRing.net is reporting that, due to time constraints, New Line Cinema have decided they can't work with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh's company Wingnut Films to make the film version of The Hobbit. Apparently this is because (a) Wingnut and New Line are engaged in a lawsuit over monies from The Fellowship of the Ring; (b) Wingnut have decided they aren't going to work with New Line again until the lawsuit is resolved; (c) New Line's agreement with the Saul Zaentz company to make The Hobbit puts a time limit on making the film.

This is a bummer. Lots of people have unpleasant things to say about "PJ" but I've always appreciated the work he did on LOTR. I think the best thing about the work done on the films is that they worked so hard to keep both fanatics^H^H^H^H^Hs and newcomers happy. Some people have voiced doubts on some of the casting (Sean Astin*cough* Elijah Wood*cough*) but overall I think they did a really. good. job. The films aren't perfect by any means, but if you're looking for perfection you're going to be disappointed a lot - and despite what some will say, you won't even find it in the books.

PJ and Fran: So long and thanks for all the fish^H^Hlms!

P-P-P-Pick up another P - Penguin Pete's blog

I've fixed the link to Penguin Pete's blog. Sorry Pete!

Punishable Puns

I'm not the only writer on the 'Net who makes terrible puns, you know: The creator of C++, an object-oriented version of the C programming language beloved of UNIX hackers* and system programmers everywhere is a certain Bjarne Stroustrup; so of course a DevSource report on the scheduled 2009 update to the language is titled "Bjarne Again".


Yikes.

*That's not the definition of "hacker" you're looking for. This is. Now you can go about your business; move along.

Python - Programming for the informationally-challenged*

One of the things I like about the Python tutorial I'm working with is that it uses the approach of taking "baby steps" towards the goal. Some books I've worked with before in computing expect you to know intuitively what things like "dictionaries" are off pat. This includes books which promise to be useful to "complete beginners" when, frankly, they often turn out to be nothing of the sort.

Of course we've all used an English dictionary - or at least those of us whose native tongue is English have! - but how does that relate to programming?!

Another thing I like about the text is that it gives you a project to work on, and you can start right away. As you progress, you learn how to go from (say) providing static data "in" the program, to inputting the data at run time, to putting the data in a list, etc. Practice makes perfect, as they say, and whilst it can be confusing to learn all the different datatypes and loops and what-not, I suspect that by the time I'm finished with the course - or perhaps after just a little bit of review and more practice - I should have a decent grasp of Python. This is something which, I have to admit, I haven't yet achieved with any language. I keep giving the credit to Alan Gauld, but I'm sure he would give at least some of it to Python itself. After all, that's the language he chose to teach "programming".

*I'm sure lots of geniuses find it useful, too!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Hypocrisy, thy name is Blair

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's pal President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is back in the good books again, due to his "moderate" policies and his aid on the war against terror.

Funny how, when people we don't agree with blow stuff up, it's criminal, but when our "Allies in the War on Terror" do it, even right before a visit by our future Head of State, it's "moderate".

It's Cold in here

Earlier I noted that the BBC was reporting a suspicious poisoning in London. At the time, I speculated that the poisoning was a terrorist attack. But now, it seems that, in a worrying return to Cold War tactics, ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was given a "potentially lethal" dose of thallium.

Now that's hardly the tactic of an ally in the war on terror. But it is, unfortunately, exactly the kind of tactic one has come to expect from Vladimir Putin. More later.

I have a cunning plan...

The BBC reports that an Iraqi government minister has now been kidnapped from his home. Clearly, whether the British and the American stay in Iraq or not, the violence is showing no signs of abating.

Elsewhere (video footage), in Buenos Aires, Argentina, thousands of the city's inhabitants stage a pillow fight.

It seems to me that Porteños have the right idea about this: If you want to take your aggression out on someone, do it in a way that's harmless and fun. Maybe we should be urging the Iraqis to stage fights in which bed linen is the only permitted weapon, in mosques if necessary.

That may sound flippant, but there is a serious point. In the early 1900's Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world - with a per capita income comparable to that of France and Germany at the time. The arrival of immigrants to the then sparsely-inhabited country (simultaneously the eighth-largest in the world by area) contributed to its economic boom.

But then it all went wrong. Dictatorship after dictatorship following one economic disaster after another. Sounds a little like Iraq (or what Iraq could have been).

But there is a crucial difference: Since the return of democracy in 1983, and despite (a) a 22-year long amnesty against the perpetrators of the last dictatorship, and (b) an economic crash in the early 2000's, Argentina has been a peaceful country.

Now, I'm not one of those people who is going to tell you that it's because Arabs or Muslims are violent and can't get on well with others (strange source for that accusation, there). I'm also not one of those who is going to tell you that it's all our - the West's - or worse, Israel's fault. After all, it isn't so very long ago that it seemed that violence in Ulster would never end. But there is cause for hope. Many people were worried that after the introduction of multi-party democracy in South Africa, the ANC's commanding lead in the polls would lead to the kind of dictatorship now imposed by the one-time destroyer of white-minority rule in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); a few were even worried that SA's spiralling crime rate would destroy the ability of Pretoria to administer law and order.

And let's not forget that Christian (not to mention Jewish) history has not been entirely blameless. In the Middle Ages, some of the conquerors of the New World threatened the native inhabitants of the continent with death if they refused to convert to Christianity - and made their threats in their (the conquerors') native language. How stupid is that? In the good ol' US of A, so-called "pro-lifers" threaten and commit violence against those who have abortions or those who aid them. Finally, in one episode all the more disgusting for its rarity, during the contested kingship of John Hyrcanus, the Idumeans were forcibly converted to Judaism and assimilated into the general Jewish population.

There's a lot of mud to sling on all sides. Maybe it's time to concentrate on what we have in common more than on what separates us. Blair and Bush's belated initiative to involve Syria and Iran in the future of their Iraqi co-religionists might just be the best chance we've seen to do that in ages.

But don't expect the jihadists - who, like all criminals, spoil it for the law-abiding majority - to turn their swords into pillows any time soon.

Fun with Big Brother, er Blue

I'm reading the Wikipedia article on the IBM System/36, a "mid-range" small business minicomputer and forerunner to the AS/400. It contains such gems as this:

The smallest S/36 had 128K of RAM and a 30 MB hard drive. (That's 128 kilobytes... less than some modern calculators. And the mammoth 12-inch hard drive spindle could be replaced by the storage capacity of a JumpDrive.)

The article is clearly written by someone who remembers the S/36 fondly - perhaps he still uses them; I don't know. When discussing the printing of paycheques, he goes on to say:

The expensive check forms must be perfectly aligned or all of the numbers won't fit in the little boxes, which is tragic.

I had better stop now or I'll end up quoting the whole article or being accused of plagiarism, or both. But for your reading pleasure:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/System/36

Enjoy!

Indented Servitude

Only two days into my reinvention of myself as a programmer, and I've already hit on one feature that I remember hating about Python the last time I tried learning it: It insists on using indentation to mark code blocks. For example, when constructing a class:

>>>class Address:
... def __init__(self, Hs, St, Town, Zip):
... self.HsNumber = Hs
... self.Street = St
... self.Town = Town
... self.ZipCode = Zip
...
(The ellipses [...] mean that Python is waiting for you to type something to continue or end the definition of something, in this case the class 'Address')

Now, understand, I'm not against indentation or neat code; in fact it's good programming practice. But requiring indents when you're constructing a code block, instead of, say, enclosing it in {} like C or begin...end like Pascal...That's just bogus.

Ugh.

Oh well, back to coding...

Web2.0? I think not

There's been a lot of hoopla lately about Web2.0, which supposedly will do away with operating system-specific programming, and bring in cross-platform programming environments such as Java and (shudder) .Net/Mono instead. In these environments you will access information not on your own machine with a program such as MS Word or OpenOffice.org, but through a Web-accessible Web browser, using a cross-platform program such as Google Docs to edit information stored on a 3rd-party server.

One reason why I don't think this will fly, at least not in non-corporate environments, where accountability of the "IT department" (which in a domestic situation is often either a relative, friend or your ISP) is low: At the moment, I don't have a net connexion to my Linux machine and I try to keep my Windows machines as free of cruft as possible, so I've been using Windows Telnet to access a remote UNIX system called Grex, to run Python whilst I follow the online tutorial I mentioned before. But Grex just went down, so I'm using its sister-site M-Net in the meantime. And M-Net's Python is only version 2.1.3, which means that (like all Python implementations before version 2.4) the language doesn't fully implement sets . If my Linux box were* up (or indeed, if I wanted to bother installing Python on my Windows machine for the few days I'm going to be without Linux) I could just install the right version, but as I don't have administrator access on M-Net (or indeed Grex) I'm stuck with what they've got.

I'll be as candid about this as I am about anything else (!): I can see its value for corporate environments (although it has to be said that, given the ability of the X Window System to run programs over the network - on both UNIX, Windows, and the little-known VMS, at least - to some extent it reinvents the wheel); but for home use I just don't want Web2.0 to succeed, if it means that fat clients will become rare, pricey items or just plain extinct.

*I freely admit, I'm a language fascist.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Terrorists again?

Latest: Scotland Yard are investigating a possible poisoning in London. More details when the BBC post them (or fix the link so that it actually, um, works).

UPDATE: More details here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6162562.stm

Obsessive-Compulsive

I've never thought of myself as an obsessive-compulsive, but I realised today that out of only 7 posts (not counting this one), I already have 35 categories, most with only one entry.

A bit OTT, methinks.

Nevertheless, I'm going to catalogue this one, too!

Wireless Headphones

I have a pair of wireless headphones. They're great...until you forget to recharge them.

Damn.

Did you know...?

Stargate Atlantis actor Paul McGillion, who plays Dr. Carson Beckett in the show, was born in Scotland, but raised in Canada, and does not normally speak with a Scottish accent?

Well, I did tell you I was a geek...

Friday, November 17, 2006

Comical B-Ali

So Steve Ballmer thinks Linux infringes on his company's intellectual property? Really, Steve? I thought Linux was communism; or was it cancer? Or maybe all your pronouncements on the subject are just FUD.

Notwithstanding my views on the value of the concept itself, we've heard it before. Anyone remember the SCO case? No? Well maybe that's because the case has no merit. But due to the complexities (ahem) of the US legal system, the case hasn't even gone to trial yet.

I see Ballmer is also making no promises that he won't sue Linux users who don't use Novell Linux. And maybe he'll sue some (but no longer all) of those who use Red Hat Linux. Or maybe we will wake up tomorrow and he'll have promised not to sue any of 'em.

So as a Gentoo user, his threats to sue threaten me, and do you know what I say, Mr. Microsoft? Bring it on, Steve.

Bring it on.

Gmail Redux

By putting your cursor at the top of the reply window and defaulting to HTML formatting in replies, Gmail encourages you to put replies before the text you're replying to (called "top-posting") and annoy users who don't have html-capable mail programs.

Ugh.

A word about my environment

I use Gentoo Linux on my desktop. I find once it's set up, (which admittedly is an absolute pig*), it's a joy to administer and if you take the time to learn how to use it properly, it teaches you a lot about problem solving.

My desktop is a customised KDE with Window Maker as the window manager. KDE uses its own window manager, Kwin, by default; to set it up to use another, you need to set up a variable KDEWM in your shell environment. KDE looks for a Bash shell profile by default, so if, like me, you use a shell other than GNU Bash (I use the Z Shell), you may find it easiest to create an otherwise empty .profile or .bash_profile with the line:

export KDEWM=/path/to/window/manager

For example, if your Window Maker is at /usr/bin/wmaker, replace /path/to/window/manager with that.

Of course if you already have a .profile or .bash_profile file, you can add the above line to the end. You can find the location of your window manager (or any other program) with the command:

$ whereis command

*
A lot of the things which give Linux a reputation for being difficult (compiling a program from source, editing text files, compiling your kernel) aren't actually difficult at all. But they can be tedious and time-consuming.

Excluding quoted portions copyrighted by third parties, all text in this post is copyright (c) 2006 Jeff Rollin. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.

Gmail

I used to think Gmail's spam filter was really good, but now I'm having my doubts. The other day I found a message from my local Linux user group in the Spam folder. So I take it out, and now I find another LUG message in the spam folder and spam in my Inbox!

Gmail deletes spam that's over 30 days old, so there's no telling how many emails I've missed through negligently failing to monitor the Spam folder :-(

Intro

So I've started learning programming. It's something I've always wanted to do: the problem has been motivation. A friend suggested I should learn Python, so I started on that today. I'm using Alan Gauld's guide Learning to Program which is nice as it also includes guides to JavaScript and VBScript for you Windows weenies ;-)