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February 28, 2006

Linux on the desktop

Geeks are still banging on about Linux on the desktop.

Linux, in case you didn't know, is an operating system just like Windows, or MAC OSX. You can install it it on your PC instead of Windows. Why would you want to do that? Well the main answer is a simple "To annoy Microsoft". But also Linux is free. Linux is infintely modifiable. Linux makes you look much cleverer than your Windows using loser buddies.

I'm a big fan of Linux, don't get me wrong. I rent a couple of servers and Linux is where I host this blog for example. But it's not, and will probably never be ready for everyday use on normal people's desktops. The reason is drivers. I've got a modern desktop PC at home. I am of course a geek myself, and installed Linux on it. 4 hours later and I still couldn't get the sound card to work. The Dell monitor I have is also a USB hub, but Linux doesn't see it. My wireless USB network adaptor didn't even light up. I didn't even know where to start with my printer. And I'm supposed to be good at this stuff! Pity the poor housewife or plumber, with no computer training or time to tinker.

I reinstalled Windows, and it was playing me music before it had even finished the install. My monitor and printer came with driver CDs, and installed and were working properly in minutes. For most people, and this includes me, PCs are now a commodity tool. We just want them to work. We want to write documents and print them. We want to wirelessly browse the web. We want to, heaven forbid, buy a game or educational software for our kids. Linux makes this all very hard, and even impossible in some cases.

No, I'm happy for Linux to exist, but it's best on the server where security and reliability are king. When I talk to relatives who have managed to completely destroy their windows installations, the simple answer is a reinstall. They generally aren't that worried surprisingly about losing their data. They just want their web access back, and their games, and to be able to type new emails and letters. They do not want or need the pain of Linux - what's in it for them?
Their PCs come with Windows pre-installed with all the peripherals working or with simple CD install programs. They might not be getting the bleeding edge multi-threading nightly kernel patches Linux users crave, but they do actually get some work done instead of tinkering and fighting with the operating system.

Posted by se71 at 09:23 AM | Comments (5)

Dan Brown and copyright

Dan Brown is being sued for using ideas from a non-fiction book in his work of fiction novel - "The Da Vinci Code".

This is so weird; I really hope it gets thrown out of court quickly for the idiot money-grabbing ploy it is. Anything else will really destroy the speculative fiction genre.

The authors of a book called "Holy Blood - Holy Grail" say that Brown used their idea as a basis for his novel. Well, Doh! He actually mentions their work in the text, so that's a bit of a given. What we need to understand about this case is not that Brown was trying to deceive the public into thinking it was his own idea - he was taking a well established theory, and turning it into a novel. This is something science fiction authors do all the time. Isaac Asimov and other authors read about research into tachyons, sub-atomic particles that appear to travel backwards in time. They have been used as the basis of many time travel stories - should those scientists have been allowed to sue everyone for an idea?
Science is always coming up with outlandish theories, space elevators, life under the oceans of Jupiter's moons, asteroids hitting the earth. The climate change theories recently gave us the movie "The Day After Tomorrow" and the novel from Michael Crichton "State of Fear" - should royalties be due to these scientists? And in science, as with most other areas of study, was only one person responsible for the theories. Not likely.

Dan Brown didn't try to pass off the theories as his own, and the "Holy Blood - Holy Grail" authors got a healthy dose of publicity for their own outlandish book when "The Da Vinci Code" took off. They should be paying Dan Brown, not the other way round. Ideas cannot be allowed to be protected in this way. If anything comes of this case, expect a slew of further cases from the science realm, and the death of speculative fiction.

So the courts actually made the correct decision and threw this case out. The more I think about it though, the more I believe that the whole thing was a publicity stunt for the authors and publishers of both books. And the film of the book comes out in a few months too...

Posted by se71 at 08:47 AM | Comments (0)

February 15, 2006

Blog Self Promotion

I'm in the process of trying to promote my blog a bit more around the internet. Some of my friends read the things I write, but why should they be the only ones to suffer!

I'm already a member of Technorati and registered my other more specialised blogs there too. But this was done ages ago and doesn't appear to be helping much.

I guess I need to get listed on more directories, and become a hit with google, so I've just setup a page on wikablog, here as a start.

A wiki is interesting, it's a website where anyone can edit the pages, or even create brand new pages. It's quite easy once you understand it, but is not for the fainthearted. This might be a barrier to the site becoming really well populated.

You might have heard of Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia. This is a wiki, with millions of pages I expect, but apart from this wikis really haven't made it very far into the general web consciousness.

Everyone you sign up with obviously wants you to put a link back to their site. I hope to try and avoid filling my blog realestate with too many adverts though, as this page from Tim Worstall (where I found the Wikablog site, so thanks for that) is looking a bit on the busy side.

As I think of more ways to publicise myself, I'll try and add them in here.

Posted by se71 at 01:26 PM | Comments (0)

February 12, 2006

Holes - Louis Sachar

I think a lot of adults are finally coming round to realising that they like reading books that are primarily aimed at children. The "Harry Potter Effect" as I'll call it, was kick-started with the publication of J.K. Rowling's books about the boy wizard. Phillip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" luckily came out at around the same time and tapped into this vein. And now that we have a whole series of Narnia films on the way adults are going back to the source and reading CS Lewis again. JRR Tolkien has never really gone away of course, and I'm not sure if you'd really put his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy in the childrens section anyway.

Recently another childrens book also did a crossover to the adult world; "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime" by Mark Haddon went for both markets with different : covers for each. Terry Pratchett has been writing child friendly fiction for years, but only recently pitched some of his Discworld novels deliberately to younger readers, and won awards for "The Wee Free Men", a book that is really of no less complexity than recent adult titles like "Going Postal"

Some of my favourite reads of recent years have been kids books. The geek world embraced "The Princess Bride", a novel and also of course a fantastic film. It's about giants, and princesses, and magic, but somehow, the whole package of characters and situations transcends the fantasy genre to become a story that anyone can enjoy. Of course, it has dialogue that only William Goldman could write which helps a lot. Who can forget the immortal "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father: prepare to die!" Inconceivable!

Living in a house of girls, I am surrounded of course by Barbie and now Bratz, by Disney and Pixar. But probably the most watched and read fiction is that produced by Jacqueline Wilson. Today the BBC is reporting that her books are the most borrowed from British libraries for the third year running. She beats any author of adult fiction. Kids love these books, and there are no princesses or fairies to be found. There are children in foster homes (Tracey Beaker is her most popular end enduring creation, with a long running TV series), children with abusive parents, disabled children. The book I read recently "Vicky Angel" about a girl whose best friend dies in a car crash. It's a heart-wrenching story, as the girl's mental state degenerates, and her parent's don't even know what is wrong. Children lap these stories up, and are being prepared for the world, and the emotional rollercoaster of life, much better than we ever were.

So, I finally come to Holes. This is another children's story that I think adults should also read. It tackles themes like racism, crime and punishment, homelessness and mental problem. It has really evil adults, malajusted kids, and takes place in a dried out lakebed in a desert. Perhaps this doesn't sound very promising, or even suitable kids fare, but it's also got hope, redemption and friendship. It's a fantastic story where all the strands gradually tie together into one perfect knot.

A brief glance at the amazon entry will tell you it's the story of Stanley Yelnats, a boy who is wrongly accused of stealing a pair of sneakers. He gets sent to Camp Greenlake juvenile detention center out in the desert. The psychotic guards there force each boy to dig a hole five feet deep and five feet wide every day, in the hot sun. They are told it will give them character, but it's fairly obvious that some kind of buried treasure is being sought.

Stanley is a likeable loser, from a long line of luckless Yelnats. Throughout the book, his family history is related, and gradually, we see that things are coming to a conclusion, where if Stanley can do the right thing, his family curse will be lifted.

This is a fairy tale with no fairies, a morality tale with no preaching. It's heart-warming and laugh-out-loud funny, sad and frightening, but mostly it's fiendishly clever. When you get to the end you'll be smacking your head that you didn't work out all the plot loose-ends Sachar builds up.

Read it, make your children read it, then get the recent DVD release of the film of the book. It's not as good, but it's still pretty fun.

Posted by se71 at 10:31 AM | Comments (0)

February 09, 2006

Dilbert vs Real Life

Today's Dilbert cartoon popped into my RSS reader at exactly the same time as a meeting invitation popped up in my Outlook calendar.

The meeting was "Daily Go-Live Status Meeting with Transition Team"

The fictitious 'joke' Dilbert meeting is worded a little differently, but believe me it is exactly the same meeting.

The synchronicity is frightening :-)

Posted by se71 at 02:19 PM | Comments (0)

February 06, 2006

Saturday - Ian McEwan

Any new novel from Ian McEwan is eagerly awaited. Following on from the complex and satisfying "Atonement", surely his best novel yet, there were obviously high expectations for this. The previous work was an ambitious decade spanning family saga, set before, during and after the Second World War. This book is no less ambitious, but the challenge McEwan has set himself here is to contain the action within a single, contemporary, Saturday.

Henry Perowne is a successful neurosurgeon, living in central London, during the time in February 2003 just before the Iraq war. Weapons of mass destruction are still being hunted in Iraq, and protestors in England are crowding in Trafalgar Square for a mass demonstration against the war.

He wakes early, and walks to the window to survey the city from the window of his stately home. His wife Rosalind, another intelligent and professional person, sleeps on. He witnesses a strange incident with a plane in the sky, and his thoughts turn to the terrorist activities of 11th September 2001, 9/11. Going downstairs he meets up with his son Theo, just in from playing at a late night blues gig, and they listen for news of the plane. Perowne's other child, daughter Daisy, is also an artist, a poet, and she is due back from France for a family reunion that evening. The other main family member coming for dinner will be Rosalind's father Grammaticus, a famous poet, and gifted musician.

Perowne has a few plans for that Saturday, what he expects will be a normal domestic day. He has a squash game with someone from work, he needs to visit his mother who lives in an old people's home, and he has to get some food to cook for dinner. As this is a McEwan book, you know that something strange or sinister is bound to happen. It begins with a violent confrontation in the street, where Perowne narrowly escapes a severe beating from a lowlife called Baxter. Far from relieving any tension, this builds it up to bursting point, and later something really bad involving Baxter does happen.

The plot is merely backdrop though to what this novel is really about. It's about two things. Firstly it's about middle-aged man noticing his body getting older, and coping with the changing stages of the lives of both his children, and his wife's and his own parents. Secondly it's about war and violence, on a global and a local level. McEwan doesn't overuse the book as a soapbox for his own opinions, but he comes very close. The character Perowne argues about the Iraq war with his son and daughter, and makes a few barbed attacks on organised religion. McEwan is of course one of Englands most famous atheists.

The whole story is told through Perowne's thoughts and actions. He is very introspectful, he analyses every single emotion he has. Even when faced with real danger, panic is never an option, he thinks through each action, and the consequences. It's a bit superhuman and unbelievable at times. And at other times, like in detailed descriptions of surgical procedures, and squash games, it's all a bit too detailed to be interesting. But it keeps the story moving forward with a slow inevitability to the end of Saturday, when we know the book will also finish.

There is one scene of Pinterish seediness, frightening and disgusting. The whole pivots around this, and yet is diminished by it. It is unnecessarily unpleasant, though interestingly, echoes a central event in 'Atonement' which has none of these nasty connotations. It's an odd and incongruous episode in the story and should probably have been toned down a little, but then, McEwan devotees would probably be disappointed.

The conclusion leaves the reader not particularly much wiser than when they began. The plot loose ends are neatly tied up in a depressingly bleak midlife-crisis like view of the future, but if you like your politics one-sided and decisive, then this isn't the place to come.

'Atonement' remains a much more fulfilling novel. 'Saturday' will be talked about briefly, and in years to come might be cited as a good cultural reference to the way some people live in the early 21st century, but it's unlikely that people will buy it for their friends and force them to read it. If the dust jacket didn't say Ian McEwan, would the book be on quite so many awards shortlists?

(This is an attempt at a proper review, one that doesn't give away the ending or many of the main plot points. It's much more difficult and time consuming to write like that.)

Posted by se71 at 09:55 AM | Comments (2)

February 01, 2006

Google Adsense

I've set up Google's Adsense on this site, and my other blogs too. In case you don't know what that means, it's a way of placing advertisements on my website to generate income for me. Everytime someone clicks on an advert, I think I get a small amount of money.

Currently there is a small ad in the top banner, but that's just because I don't know how to change my site's HTML and CSS well enough to put it down the side yet. Watch that space.

It's great fun watching the ads that Google generates for me. Google look at my page content, and try to match the adverts to the subject matter. I'm even tempted to try and write things here to deliberately try and force particular types of ads :-)

Another interesting feature about having adverts that you haven't chosen yourself on your website, is the possibility that something dodgy will show up. Maybe I'll write about politics, and a link to join the BNP will appear. Friend and fellow blogger Dave Cross pointed out to me that I can remove these from my list - but that makes the assumption that I actually see them.

Anyway, I've started planning my retirement, now that the money has started to roll in - I'm half way to my first dollar already !

Posted by se71 at 10:24 AM | Comments (0)