Thursday, January 31, 2008

The presidential debates

I reject the moderator's questions and substitute my own canned, tested subset of my stump speech. Imagine all of the candidates doing that. There, I just saved you several hours of pretty boring television. That holds for when the nominees are decided too.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Telcom immunity

This is an easy story to tell and it is really easy to choose a side. In short: the Bush Administration asked some telecommunications companies to spy on their customers illegally. The ones that did it profited from it and now they want to be immune to the lawsuits filed against them by their spied-on customers. Glenn Greenwald probably said it best:
Telecom immunity entails virtually every corrupt, defining aspect of how our political system works: Telecoms have poured money into the coffers of key Senators, who then dutifully became their key advocates. Telecoms have sent a bipartisan cast of lobbyists (former government officials, of course, with incomparable access), to pressure key Senators, who swing their doors open wide for those lobbyists. And immunity is the most extremely illustration of what Sen. Obama calls "Lewis Libby Justice," as Congress passes a law with no purpose other than to protect retroactively the most well-connected private parties from the consequences of their lawbreaking.
If you feel that large corporations should be immune to criminal and civil prosecution because they donate enough money to Harry Reid and Jay Rockefeller's campaigns, then by all means don't get involved. If you feel otherwise, I suggest you call them and ask them why they are trying so hard to push though immunity. Even if you support fewer checks on wiretapping for some reason, this is a highly corrupt way of going about it. If the Telcoms were doing nothing wrong, why do they need Congress-granted immunity? If the law needed to be changed, then that should have been done prior to the spying.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Newer operating systems: Initial impressions

I've been using Windows XP for about half a decade or so, as have the vast majority of other computer users (at least in the United States). In response to a lot of press newer operating systems have getting, I've decided to take a look at them. Using a trial version of VMWare, I was able to review the following operating systems - trashing them as I saw fit - and then able to erase them without a care. These little reviews are merely initial impressions. I don't feel qualified to comment on operating systems from anything beyond a new user's perspective. The virtual machine in question is pretty standard, if not rather weak for newer computers. 16gb of disk space (more than enough for any of the operating systems) and 1gb of RAM (the minimum at least for Vista. Ubuntu 7.10: Yes, I am aware there are a variety of distro's and Ubuntu isn't necessarily the greatest and best at everything Linux has to offer. But this will be literally the first time for me using basically anything Linux. Originally I had problems with the installation of all things - lockups and such. I know that isn't common, but it happens that the iso from the Ubuntu website had some issues when I ran the image check utility it comes with. I redownloaded and reburned the disc a number of times following exactly the instructions on the site and had no more luck. This was a pity, as my wife's laptop was first on the list of actual hardware I was going to commit to Ubuntu (it needed a good reformat anyway). It was constantly freezing up during the installation - even directly mounted from the ISO - on the virtual machine. Apparently this problem isn't completely unheard of. Luckily you can still mess with Ubuntu because the Live disc starts up in basically a temporary Ubuntu install. Outside gaming, Ubuntu has all the functionality you would expect from a good operating system (mail, office software, internet browser, basic games including Sudoku) with some additional neat stuff to boot. Specifically, the Synaptic Package Manager lets you choose from programs you can search for, installs them, then adds them to the top applications menu. These are all community created software packages as far as I can tell, and include a lot of stuff I use already and general stuff like Ipod utilities. The only problem with these things is that there are too many potential options for a given task and they don't appear to be rated in some fashion (number of downloads, user rating). Most users will have little time to test each option individually. Windows Vista Ultimate: It is hard to come to the new Windows with a positive impression. XP still works just fine for everything I need to do on a computer for any reason, so why upgrade? Additionally, there are some security concerns - not from 3rd party malware, but from the kind of Trusted Computing content protection schemes available, ready at any notice from Microsoft, to disable software or media that isn't to their liking. I buy hardware because I feel I own it, to do with it what I will. Vista can, though it doesn't at the moment, take some of those classic property rights away from its users. With that in mind, I cut this Vista virtual machine off from the internet before I installed the OS. Why take chances? There are complaints online regarding the amazingly poor speed of Vista in loading up or such. I did not experience this, the install I used was somewhat stripped down using Vlite. This does stuff like disables Aero and (I believe) the indexing that tends to slow down navigation and booting. Everything was actually going swimmingly until I tried to get at the files in the host computer (to see what Vista could run and how fast). My efforts at setting up simple file sharing, like what is easy to accomplish between two XP machines or even XP and a lot of Linux stuff (including my modified Xbox) failed miserably. To get the files with Ubuntu was jokingly easy. Vista wanted to actually install something on the host machine to facilitate transferring files which could not defeat the purpose of using an encapsulated virtual machine more. So I couldn't really test anything out besides the stuff that came with the install. Which is a problem, there is a lot of software I use that is free and/or open source and may not necessarily function as well in Vista. Additionally, I don't want to have to contend with the possibility of DRM effecting the freedom I have with my media files, and now I can't test it. Synthesis Bottom line, these are the main concerns (in order of importance): 1. I don't have to worry about compatibility or DRM issues. 2. Performance. 3. New features compared to XP. What is going to make me switch? 4. The Pretty. It is my understanding Microsoft has really locked up much of the gaming market with DirectX and the result is Linux has to use WINE to effectively emulate (I know WINE folks hate that word, but from a user perspective I see no difference) major titles. This is fine if you, like me, enjoy older or less hardware intensive games (Red Orchestra, MMORPGs when I can get friends to play, HL2 and its derivatives). Truthfully, since starting to work full time, I've been using my computer more for general internet browsing, media storage, office tasks, and some GIS. Since that is the case, if I had to choose between the two OSs above based on my limited experience with them, I would probably go with Ubuntu. I'll never be able to afford ESRIs GIS offerings at home, so there I would stick to open source alternatives like QGIS and/or GRASS. For everything else they seem fairly similar, with Ubuntu beating Vista both in price and in the peace of mind knowing no one will be listening in, forcing updates which hijack the hardware I legitimately own, or viruses/malware (for which there are few things written for Linux). That is if I had to switch. XP still does all of the things above as well or, in the case of games, better. I also don't have to worry about some cool new thing I discover being incompatible or having to research every single piece of software on my computer before I can use or (or know it is worthwhile to use). Linux, or Ubuntu at least, is getting there is usability and addressing my computer needs, but it doesn't offer anything that I can't do in XP besides some malware/privacy stuff reassurance.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Siege

It took me weeks to hunt down the movie The Siege. I watch it now for the ridiculously prescient dialog (see below). It should have a warning label now: "Although this film involves muslim terrorism suspects being mercilessly tortured by the US Military, it isn't in fact a documentary." That is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole section about a protest march - against the occupying military presence in New York - invoking the chant "no fear". While there is no military presence in New York (though the police are getting pretty close to a military presence), such a protest would warm my heart. Our fear of terrorism is going to end up far more dangerous to this country than actual terrorism. We always say we are willing to bleed and die for our freedoms, this is basically the test. If the Military Commissions Act and Patriot Act are any indication, we fail that test handedly.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Favorite nerd stuff of 2007

Yes, everyone seems to be doing something like this. And probably got it finished a week ago. So sue me.
  • StumbleUpon: I first heard about it as an up-and-coming search-like engine in Wired. Effectively, it is a psuedo search engine that relies on user generated interests - not passively as Google does with link backs, but with actual intentional voting. There is something similar on the open source front (Wikia). Link
  • xkcd: How did I miss this gem before? Link.
  • DS R4: Play movies, listen to music, emulate classic games, and back up your whole DS game library for a little more than the cost of a single DS game. No mincing words, you want one of these if you own a DS. If you plan on buying one you'd be a fool not to get an R4 (or an M3, which I've been told does basically the same thing). Link.
  • Mozilla Firefox 3 beta - It is still beta but amazingly stable. Automatically restarts with the tabs you had open when you closed it, prettier search bar, and way better multi tab support (no slowdowns or crashes with the 987,345 tabs I tend to have open). Bad news: perhaps it is just me, but the bookmarking isn't as good and more difficult to manage. Still really nice for beta.
  • A finished Methods section draft: It is a good feeling having this thing 1/2 to 2/3rds done. Lets see how viciously my thesis chair, Bob Hickey, tears it apart. I think I might post it and have the 0 people that visit the site mock it.
  • Ubuntu/QGIS: Though not ready to take over the huge ESRI-house I work for or actually threatening Windows desktop domination, the speed and good looks of the new open source GIS platforms that can be created for zero cost (and without having to reformat your computer - use use VMWare Player to create a virtual machine).
  • Death of DRM music: For those that don't know, DRM is the reason you can't move around music you buy off iTunes to whatever you want as many times as you like. All of the major music content holders have realized what people on the internet have been telling them for years - only legitimate customers are hurt by DRM. Pirates - a term with already includes probably everyone younger than 20 - simply hack it or rip CDs their friends get during parties. Video will be next as it is easily as trivial to defeat.
  • @GoogleTalks: It will be a supreme challenge for Google to keep its relatively good public image even as it grows more massive and run by more suits than engineers. They have given the internet many, many good things. One that is less commonly mentioned is this series of talks which include all of the major candidates, many famous/influential authors, and some other folks. Link.
  • Portal: Game of the year out of nowhere. Witty dialog, excellent ending, and interesting mechanics.