Posted by Jarsto in Category 42, Technology
August 15th, 2008 | No Comments »

Or: A Tale Of Limited Bandwidth

I’m not sure whether I’ve blogged about this before or not, but I do some volunteering for a local chapter of the political party I belong to. One of the things I do there is system administration, which currently involves a switch from Windows to Linux. Which is why I am, right now, downloading hundreds of megabytes of uploads over a 512 kbit DSL line.

Now there’s nothing wrong with 512 kbit lines as such, I remember dialup well enough for even this to feel pretty snappy in some respects. But when you’re pulling several hundred megabytes over a line like this you do notice that the rest of the internet starts to feel slow. So as I’m on a Linux system, with Lynx installed, I decided to do a bit of browsing that way.

For those who don’t know it (though I think I’ve mentioned it before), Lynx is a console (text) based browser which, as it is text based, omits images as a matter of course. And on a somewhat stressed line getting rid of the images (90% or more of the data for most pages) speeds up browsing quite a bit. Even so it makes writing this blog entry a rather different from usual experience.

And it’s not just different, it’s also slightly nostalgic. I have no real memories of text only internet, but I do remember text only (DOS) computing, albeit without anything like the internet around at the time. Working with a black background and (mainly) light grey text does bring back memories. For that matter some elements in the interface, especially a bar with yellow text on a blue background at the bottom of the screen, make me nostalgic for Word Perfect 5.1.

I’ll end this entry here. I mainly started it to kill time while waiting for the downloads to complete, and from the look of it they’re nearly ready. Still it’s been a fun exercise in retro computing, and one I may well repeat at home.

Posted by Jarsto in Category 42, Reading
August 3rd, 2008 | 7 Comments »

I intend to order some books today. There’s just one problem. I ended up taking a rather dangerous approach to shopping online. When I found out that my favourite online bookstore had added a “bargain basement” section of books between €2.99 and €5.99 I started clicking through them like a kid clicking through a candy store.

As a result I now have close to twenty books sitting in my checkout list. Amazingly even at that the bill would still be just under €100 but that’s rather more than I’m looking to spend right now. So I’m having to do something I rarely do, I’m taking books I like the look of and kicking them out of the list. I’m not sure yet what the total order will be, but it’s going to be less than it is now.

Posted by Jarsto in Category 42
August 1st, 2008 | 3 Comments »

I’m in a rather unusual position right now: I’m hoping to get a fever. My health hasn’t been great for the past couple of weeks and the last few days my temperature has been slightly elevated, without ever breaking through into proper fever territory.

I can speculate with a fair amount of certainty on the origin of the problems. The hot weather certainly isn’t helping, and I haven’t been eating right. I’ve been eating less, as I’m trying to lose weight, but the last couple of weeks I haven’t really been paying enough attention to what I’ve been eating when I’ve been eating.

Add to that the fact that, aside from its effects during the day, the heat has kept me from sleeping really well for about a week now, and you get an ideal scenario for the immune system to be a bit less effective than usual. And so I’m hoping for a fever to basically burn out whatever is causing this.

Especially as today saw a new development, a major headache. I’ve had some minor ones recently, but this was a true “walk slowly, or you won’t be able to keep coordinated” headache. It was also capable of burning through 2 grams of paracetamol, taken as 2 doses of 1 gram each less than three hours apart. Granted I could take even more, but at that sort of dosage level I’d probably just end up feeling spaced out.

So hoping for a fever is all I’m left with. Well that and just lying down with my eyes closed for a while as soon as I finish posting this.

Posted by Jarsto in Category 42
July 29th, 2008 | 5 Comments »

I’m writing this on my PDA to be blogged later, because the title of this post is pretty much literally true: there’s heavy weather coming this way, just about here, judging by the amount of thunder I’m hearing, so I’ve unplugged just about everything as a precaution. Chances of a hit causing damage are actually quite small, but I figured that while I was home I might as well be cautious for a change.

Some 5 minutes later now and the sounds of rain and thunder are the only things I’m hearing. This is almost certainly no more than the leading edge of the storm, but I’ve already seen some flashes pretty nearby. I’ve also found that, even with rain, wind, and thunder around my room somehow feels unnaturally quiet without the computers or the fridge running. It’s not a bad thing, but it does feel weird.

I’ve been doing some reading, also on my PDA so it’s now probably half an hour since I started this post. The rain has slackened a little in the last ten minutes or so, but every time I start to think the whole thing might be over the thunder rolls again. In fact there was just a particularly bright flash, followed by a truly deafening roll of thunder instantly. There’s definitely been a hit nearby, but where exactly and what the consequences might be only time will tell.

One hour in, just about, and the lightning seems to have pretty much stopped. I’ll give it another 10 or 15 minutes, but we’re probably approaching the point where we can plug everything in again… And of course there was a lightning strike just as I finished that last sentence.

It’s now a little over two hours since the great unplugging started. The weather’s passed and everything is back up and running as usual. It was an interesting experiment especially as, while I didn’t actually unscrew any lightbulbs, I didn’t switch the lights on either. Aside from the PDA I was pretty much living without electricity while the storm lasted, and as a result I found myself dozing off at one point; I didn’t feel like reading or writing, and there just wasn’t anything else to do.

Posted by Jarsto in Category 42, Rants
July 27th, 2008 | 10 Comments »

I hate warm weather. I know the socially acceptable position is that hot, sunny weather is fun, but I personally hate it. Although actually I don’t think I’d mind just hot and sunny much. Here in the Netherlands it’s always (or at least always seems to be) hot, sunny, and humid. To me, that’s not a good combination.

I could take it if it were just the discomfort of the heat. Mind you, I wouldn’t enjoy it. But what really bugs me is what it does to me. It somehow manages to drain all my energy. Leaving me without as much vigour and drive as a damp cloth. The only thing I did manage to get done today was to set up my portable airco, which at least kept things somewhat bearable.

Since the prediction is for the next few days to be as warm, or warmer, I’m not looking forward to them. But at least now that I have the airco set up I should be able to start it earlier and (with luck) keep things a bit cooler.

And it’s not like I really did nothing today, I did a respectable amount of reading and even some editing. It just felt like I did nothing, and I guess I had to get that off my chest.

Posted by Jarsto in Rants, Technology
July 22nd, 2008 | 7 Comments »

Or: How Monitors Can Ruin Your Designs

Yes, the long awaited monitor rant is here. Reinforced by the fact that I checked my two recent attempt while at work. And on my monitor there I could sort of see why someone might not like them. They looked… different from the way they look on my own monitor at home. I could probably change that monitor to match what I have at home, but that would merely solve my frustration not the basic problem.

And the basic problem is this: no matter how you tweak a design, you can’t make it look the same for everyone everywhere. Another good example: my Samsung SyncMaster 940BW can actually cycle through a number of pre-set configurations as well as my own custom setting. I can use this to test what a design might look like on different monitors (probably should do that more often) though none of them happen to match the way my designs looked at work.

When I go over to Starstuff’s and cycle through my screen settings at least one of them makes the blue borders and sidebar background fade into the white background for the rest of the page.1 That of course can be headed off by using something with a bigger contrast, but even then it would look radically different on each setting, and there are people using most (probably all) off these out there.

Which more or less forces you back to Black on White or White on Black if you want to have any real influence over the appearance of your site. Black and White still do fall prey to these settings (especially some of the more ludicrous ones), but the two of them – and to a lesser extend shades of grey – are the closest thing to consistent rendering available. In fact, no matter how wacky the monitor configuration people are likely to know at least what Black and White look like on their own monitor.

Now I’m a control freak when it comes to this sort of thing anyway, but I suspect this would be enough to drive me into ranting territory even if I weren’t. Trying to get things to look the same across browsers is a nightmare already, but at least it can (to an extend) by managed by testing and then coding around the problems. Trying to get things to look the same on different monitors is an exercise in futility.

One would almost wish someone would come up with a standard configuration to be enforced across monitors. Unfortunately that would almost certainly be fucked up, so I guess I’ll have to learn to live with it. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
1 The same thing goes for some of Wikipedia’s background colours.

Posted by Jarsto in Musings, NaNoWriMo 2008
July 14th, 2008 | 9 Comments »

As my last blog post more or less announced I’ve been doing some worldbuilding. To be precise I’ve been writing a history of the 23rd century. I’ll go in later to do the twenty second century and parts of the twenty first.

Some of this I had actually worked out in very broad terms before, but because I’m fitting this years NaNoWriMo story into the same universe as 2006’s – albeit at a much earlier point in history – getting the history of that universe locked down has suddenly become quite important. So I’m going through and doing year by year lists of major events to start with. Important event will later get the their own, bigger, stories, and some years may well get separate detailed outlines (possibly even day by day accounts) of event.

Which brings me to the title of this post, because as I was doing the work, I started thinking about seers. Or rather I started thinking that there must at least be a chance, however hypothetical, of some of what I was writing down coming true once the twenty third century actually comes around.

Which makes you wonder, were all the seers scattered throughout history really just sci-fi novelists who, frustrated by the fact that sci-fi novels hadn’t been invented yet, had to stick to worldbuilding and sell it as prophecy… Probably not all of them, but I suppose it might be true for some.1
1 I used Nostradamus in the title because he’s the first seer that came to mind. I don’t know enough about him for this post to be any sort of comment on him specifically.

Posted by Jarsto in Musings, NaNoWriMo 2008
July 14th, 2008 | No Comments »

…the universe conspires to make it untrue.

That’s the way I’m feeling about my “well I only really have a setting” NaNoWriMo 2008 blog entry right now. It’s only a couple of hours old, but already an idea of the wider setting is starting to take shape. I suddenly know what sort of space station it is, and which universe it’s located in (it’s in the same universe as my 2006 NaNo, but before rather than after interstellar contact) and I’m even sure about at least one of the conflicts that will drive the story.

Now if you’ll excuse me I need to cut this blog entry short and start expanding the world building for that universe.

Posted by Jarsto in Musings, Technology
July 8th, 2008 | 2 Comments »

Random Reflections On: Reassuringly Expensive

I think it was around the time when I installed RedHat 7.3 (the first Linux I really used, albeit rather briefly) that I first ran across the comparison between Linux Distributions and Tomato Ketchup. The reasoning ran, roughly, as follows:

  1. everyone can make Tomato Ketchup, there are a number of recipes available, and they use ingredients that are easy enough to get hold off
  2. most people still buy ready made Tomato Ketchup
  3. this is not because they couldn’t make it themselves, but because they can’t be bothered to make it themselves (it takes a lot of time, and the shop bought ones are more than adequate
  4. similarly everyone could make their own Linux based system from scratch (this is indeed what Linux From Scratch exists for), but few people want to maintain such a system
  5. hence distributions are a perfect way to get Linux to people, and money can be made from making something people could get for free

This line of reasoning is not in fact what this post is set to explore, but I thought it worth dragging up because there are going to be some close parallels in here, unless I’m much mistaken. In fact I’m going to look at this from pretty much the opposite point of view. The above was to explain why it’s possible to make money with free software. What I intend to look at is why costing money is sometimes at advantage.

This is what brings me to Tomato Purée and the phrase “reassuringly expensive”. (If one were to run “reassuringly expensive” through Google it would probably turn up more beer than Tomato Purée, but we’ll get to that in due course.) Like many musings that involve puréed tomatoes this one started with a tin of the stuff in a supermarket. In fact it started with two tins, the one I bought, and the one I decided not to buy.

The tin I didn’t buy was the smaller of the two. It only held 40% (50% at the very most) as much purée as the other tin. It was also, however, over 4 times cheaper, costing exactly 7 cents as opposed to 29 cents for the tin I bought. Mathematically the most obvious thing to do would be to buy two of the smaller tins. But that’s when reassuringly expensive struck.

Because, bizarre though it may seem at first glance, expense can indeed be reassuring. On tends to reason, in essence, that something wouldn’t be more expensive if it weren’t worth more. Or, coming at it from the other side, if it’s too cheap there must be something wrong with it.

To get back to the tomato purée, taking into account the cost of putting it in little tins and transporting it one can’t help but wonder how, at 7 cents for even a small tin, they found the budget to buy any tomatoes.

This “if it’s expensive it must be worth more” line of thought was perhaps most famously exploited by Stella Artois, a Belgian beer, in its UK advertising. While the slogan was dropped amid image problems in 2007 it managed for some time to give Stella Artois an image of quality in the UK, even though the beer was seen as perfectly ordinary in its native Belgium.

Another (tongue in cheek) illustration of the principle can be found in the British sitcom Yes, Prime Minister. In one episode Sir Humphrey Appleby (the cabinet secretary) tries to convince prime minister James Hacker to buy new nuclear weapons by pointing out “This is the nuclear missile that Harrods would sell you.” When Hacker counters that “We don’t need it and it costs billions.” Humprey argues that “You can say that about anything you buy at Harrods.”1

All of which brings me back to the point of software which, several lifetimes ago or so it seems, was what sparked this whole thing. I’ve often though the idea of people picking software because it is expensive silly in the past, but the tomato purée has got me thinking. I pick my software based on:

  1. how good it is at what it does
  2. the philosophy behind it (I do prefer open source where possible) and
  3. the cost (lower is better)

But when someone has no idea how to go about judging the performance quality of software – much the same way I don’t have a clue how to judge the quality of tomato purée (other than in a limited way by tasting it) – I’m beginning to see where they might think “reassuringly expensive” is just the ticket. All of which of course only serves to point out the real problem: the people who are ultimately responsible for buying software often don’t have a clue about judging software.2
1 Some of this dialogue is paraphrased, I couldn’t be bothered to look up the exact quotes.
2 IT departments usually know this, but more often than not they can only advice and financial/management people have the last word.

Posted by Jarsto in Category 42
June 15th, 2008 | No Comments »

My relationship with my body has remained somewhat rocky since the last post — and that very sentence seems to me to be the perfect example of how mind-centric the way I experience the world is, but I digress. To get right down to it, the situation appears to be that my body has contracted gastritis.

Fortunately this is a mild case, at least that’s what it looks like according to my doctor, but it’s still nothing to be sneezed at – which is one of the things that differentiates gastritis from the common cold. But even if it is a mild case, it may well account for several weeks of my stomach being generally uneasy.

The good news is that the meds my doctor prescribed seem (knock on wood) to be working. I certainly no longer feel like I’m about to throw up 24/7. And what’s more the dizziness I had as a side-effect from the meds also seems to be pretty much gone. I no longer have to hold on to furniture while walking around in order to feel steady on my feet.

I’m seriously hoping I won’t develop some of the other side-effects though, as these include impotence and breast growth in men. Which makes me wonder whether they’re just trying to scare you into getting better when they write those lists of potential side-effects.