Ephemerides

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A journal of sorts to record Jonathan Sturm's (and others') thoughts and observations on things worth thinking about. Feedback welcome, but be aware that unless you prominently say you want your communication kept private, I may publish it.

Monday 25 September

I am now old enough and wise enough to declare that most truth is provisional. There are incontrovertible facts: gravity and evolution for instance affect all of us whether we like it or not. On the other hand, our understanding of such things is incomplete. We have a necessarily incomplete set of facts and attempt to fit them together in a way that makes sense to us. We call this a theory. 

Usually, any given set of facts can be strung together in a consistent way by more than one theory. An important test of a theory is that it must make useful predictions and reveal new truths. When this happens consistently over a long period of time, the theory is promoted. Thus Sir Isaac Newton's theory of gravitation has been elevated to Newton's Law. Nobody has yet come up with a valid contradiction of the statement that f=ma. Before anyone writes about Einstein, his discovery of e=mc˛ is a refinement, not a contradiction.

This methodology, the scientific process, has been a powerful tool in improving the human condition. 

As human beings, we prefer Law to Theory. This is perfectly understandable. When a thing is Law, we don't have to think; when it's Theory, it's open to debate and we have to decide. Debate is dangerous because it may change our beliefs. And our beliefs are in large part how we perceive ourselves. 

Humans are by and large conservative, that is resistant to change. Likely this is a survival of the fittest thing. The radical experimenter with foodstuff in a hunter-gatherer society was far more likely to die from poisoning than one who only ate what everyone else ate. Sharing everyone else's habits was good for survival. Nevertheless, between that period of conservative hunter-gathering and now, there must have been experimenters who survived and their experience added to the collective understanding of the world.

Problems, of course, arose when tribes with differing understandings of the world came into contact. Both sides knew that their world view was the correct one. If it wasn't, they would not be there! The winners in any such conflict would have their beliefs reinforced. If their theories weren't correct, they would have lost.

What was essential for the survival of the hunter-gatherer may not necessarily be good survival tactics for today's conditions. The most important lesson from the geological record is to note that changing conditions led to the demise of some species and the divergence of others into multiple species. 

Neanderthals left Africa and dominated Europe for millennia during an ice age, only to be gradually displaced later by our own species when the ice age finished. The habits of the Neanderthals enabled their survival, but also contained the seeds of their destruction under changed conditions. They were unable to adapt sufficiently quickly to survive.

On a much smaller timescale, we see much the same occurring between social constructs. Capitalism defeated feudalism. Democracy outperformed slave states. The radical experiment of communism would appear to have been a failure. In any such complex system, we can seek and find the reasons for its success and the seeds of its demise under changed external circumstances.

And what is true for these larger systems is true also for smaller ones. The dominant microcomputer operating system when I first started to use computers was CP/M. It was displaced by MS DOS when it didn't adapt quickly enough to the rapidly proliferating IBM PC. It evolved into DR DOS and GEM, but by then MS DOS had cross-pollinated with the Mac and had become Windows. The Mac had everything going for it to become the dominant OS except affordable hardware. Unix diverged to fill a number of niches in the ecology of computer systems. 

We all know that MS produces the dominant OSs while we bicker and argue over the relative merits of them and their various rivals. This dominance is a provisional truth. Altered circumstances could change that truth as rapidly for MS as it did for CP/M. Apple could port MacOS to the X86 architecture. Some company we haven't heard of could write a Windows layer to run on OpenDOS (CP/M's descendant). AMD could trounce Intel and take PCs in a totally new direction. Somebody might start writing useful applications for Linux instead of nifty little command-line utilities.

While a politician can state categorically that MS Windows is the only OS because of skulduggery on the part of MS, only a politician can have such certainty. As a scientist, I can observe that there are many competing OSs and that as usual, the one best for for survival dominates. 

Unlike Natural Selection among species, survival of the fittest among OSs depends on the imagination and vision of those guiding their development. Instead of taking the politico/religious viewpoint of having absolute conviction that "my way is the only way", we have the option of thinking. Thinking about what it is that makes MS currently dominant in a very competitive market. (Hint: it's not the skulduggery). Thinking about the seeds within MS of MS's downfall. 

And no matter what we think of Bill Gates, there is no doubt that so far Bill Gates has outthought his rivals.

Thought for the day:

"And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."

 --Jonathan Swift, "Voyage to Brobdingnag"


Tuesday 26 September

Found this while wandering the web this morning. I was looking for something about John and Mary Gribben as I am currently reading their book "Being Human". The search engine took me to The Reciprocality Project because there's a reference to the Gribbens' biography of Richard Feynman. I'm not given to hero worship, but if I had to choose a hero, I would definitely choose Feynman. Not because he was a great physicist, but because he thought the finest thing one could do in life was to think for oneself. 

Much of today spent gardening. And thinking.

Thought for the day:

"I dedicate this lecture to showing what ridiculous conclusions and rare statements such a man as myself can make. I wish, therefore, to destroy any image of authority that has been previously generated." 

Feynman's introduction to his third lecture in the series The Meaning of it All.


Wednesday 27 September

I am continuing to work on the Franklin and Friends website. My friend Garry (Matchfist) Paige came by this morning to have me burn a copy of two of his songs. They are both instrumentals recalling the feel of 1960s surf music. I'll be including samples of both on the website. He recently had a song recorded in the UK by Jimmy Little, "In a Field in France". The lyric is about the death of his grandfather in the First World War and is very moving. It's slated for release early next year and I suspect will be a huge success.

The Grand Ball to mark the reopening of the Franklin Palais was a resounding success. We have now half the money needed to bring the toilets up to the required health standards.

The picture was taken by holding the camera steady on the balcony rail and guessing the exposure time.

The House of Steel page has some new pictures.

New medical disorder strikes American children.

The garden is calling for my attention.

Thought for the day:

"I have often thought that if heaven had given me the choice of my position and calling, it should have been a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth."

Thomas Jefferson


Thursday 28 September

I recently upgraded my HP LaserJet 5P with a Postscript SIMM. Hewlett Packard wanted nearly $A2,000 for one and I managed to score one 2nd hand for less than $A250. It seems a local computer supplier had installed LaserJet 5MPs at a site where Postscript was never going to be used.

Postscript, while an easy printer language to use (it's as "plain English" as any computer language is likely to get) it does require lots of printer memory compared to HP's printer languages. So I tried installing a spare 72 pin SIMM from an idle computer here. It didn't work. Thanks to my friend Barry Bron in Melbourne, I now know why and how to overcome the problem.

Some time ago, some friends and I got together and shared a 2 channel ISDN connection (128k) to the Internet. The ISDN was connected to a machine running MS Small Business Server 4.0 in an office some of us were sharing. We installed our own individual telephone lines and modems to dial in from home and proxy out to the Internet. It was lovely and fast and I had a 2nd phone line put in at home to remain connected 24 hrs a day.

Sadly, we found the whole thing uneconomic. We were found to be an open SMTP relay by a spammer about 2 weeks before SBS 4.5 arrived to fix the problem. This led to being blocked from several sites and after your ip is listed, the blackballing organisations are none too keen to unlist your ip. The economics were screwed by two factors: we spent an awful lot of time maintaining the system with security fixes and local ISPs offer increasingly wonderful deals. Overall, I must say the experience was a lot of fun as there was so much to learn.

The first ISP I tried that offered 24/7 access (I was addicted to 24/7 now) was One.Net. The deal was a flat fee for up to 300 MB DL and you had to give them your local call billing. The service was pretty atrocious with email going astray and it was awful slow. My connect speed was higher, but throughput was terrible. As well, the calls were dropping out several times a day and that was having a significant impact on my phone bill. Cheaper calls, but lots more of them increases the cost.

So, I wrote to One.Net and asked for my telephone service to revert back to Telstra and to cancel my Internet account. I was trying Telstra's BigPond 150. This was a flat fee for 150 MB DL and a maximum of 5 hrs connect time in a single session. The speed was dramatically better, but email was a nightmare with the mail server down for long periods and email bouncing hither and yon as well as just plain disappearing. Time to try another.

In April, I was signed up to a relatively new ISP called DingoBlue. This cost the same as One.Net for 24/7, but there's no DL limit. In return for getting to bill my long distance calls, there's a 40% discount, bringing the cost down to the same as One.Net. As well, the DingoBlue Breeding Program gives a $40 finders fee for finding new clients. The new client also gets a $40 fee. Anybody else have an ISP that sends credit notes instead of bills? If you are in Australia, just quote customer number 100380535 and we both get $40 a month after you sign up.

I had installed an Intel iStation router/modem/hub/firewall to share the Internet connection with the various machines around the electronic cottage. The connect speed was much lower than through either the 3Com/USR 56K Faxmodem, or the Banksia Wave SP 56. Intel sent me beta software to try but to no avail, so they suggested I talk to my ISP. Angela at DingoBlue was a huge help. She monitored throughput on several connects with the various combinations to announce that they were to all intents and purposes identical. Win2k Pro's announcement of a 33.6 Kbps for the iStation and the 40 Kbps for the 3Com/USR or Banksia Wave SP56 meant nothing. It's nice talking to a tech support person who knows what they are talking about. It's nice having tech support.

DingoBlue remains fast and reliable. They have minor glitches from time to time, but WTF, they're using computers to do this stuff.

The core part of this story is that One.Net wrote back to tell me that I couldn't change my account with them in writing. It had to be by telephone. The number they gave me to dial placed me in a queue waiting for a person to answer. After a while, the call dropped out. This happened 2 or 3 times, so I wrote another letter affirming my desire to have nothing whatsoever to do with them.

The other day, four months after joining DingoBlue, I receive a demand from One.Net's solicitors to pay a $500 Internet access/telephone bill. I phone them to explain and they say I  must  have given my username and password to someone else. In a pig's eye! I demand they send me proper bill so I can identify the phone calls and line rental that I owe and suggest that any company that wants such payments are better off sending an account rather than threatening letters from solicitors. Their response is to cut the phone off. 

I have asked DingoBlue to take over the billing for the phone line rental/calls, but they tell me they cannot do that if One.Net refuses. It appears that while any of the independent service providers can take a client from Telstra on the authority of a phone call, once one of the independents has you they can keep you as long as they like. A pox on privatisation! It's cheaper for me to get a 3rd phone line than to pay the extortion request from One.Net! Of course it makes more economic sense to wait until the new house is finished.

I hate not being able to use the voice phone and be online at the same time.

Thought for the day:

"Sometimes I get the feeling that the whole world is against me, but deep down I know that's not true. Some of the smaller countries are neutral."

Robert Orben


Friday 29 September

Today we had a thunderstorm. Even though I have lightning protection for the computers, that is for when I leave the office unattended. Today I was home and disconnected them while the storm passed through. This gave me some time to indulge in my favourite pastime: thinking. Fortunately, we have very few electrical storms here, but I can always find an excuse to think. One of the things I like about gardening is that I can think while I pull the weeds should I so choose.

Today's thoughts were about thinking itself. Many apparently intelligent people believe that most people are stupid without stopping to think why. As a trainer of adults, I have found few who are truly unwilling to think for themselves and I would not regard them as stupid so much as stubborn. The problem I think lies in early childhood.

Have you ever watched a two year old having a temper tantrum? If you observe closely you will see the child taking occasional furtive glances around at any adults in the vicinity to see if the tantrum is having the desired effect. We are conditioned by our genetic inheritance to respond to the cries of a child in distress, so we need to interrupt that to make the observation. If we do not respond, the child realises the tantrum strategy (itself a genetic predisposition) hasn't worked. The other possible responses to a tantrum are more common: to either hit the child or hug it. Only the first and second lead to a reduction in the frequency of tantrums.

The first strategy works because there is no reward. The second strategy works because it inculcates fear. Children are rapid learners as any thinking parent can tell you. Sadly, few parents spend much time in conversation with their children after they have learnt the rudiments of language. The child learns that attempting discourse is unrewarding. Since discourse is the primary way to test the quality of our thoughts, quality thinking takes a back seat to conformist activities that are rewarded.

When school starts, things go from bad to worse. The only acceptable behaviour for a group of children in a class is to work in lock-step. There is no scope for listening to each individual child's randomly selected thoughts. 

I have a friend who was teaching the remedial mathematics class in a high school. After a few months, the students went from being "dummies" to actually passing their mathematics tests. My friend took them to play with computer programs on a computer terminal at a nearby college. This was in the days of minis and mainframes. He had written a program to allow placing bets on horses and the algorithm determined the winning horse, the respective wins or losses and final account balance. One of these kids bet -$10,000 on horse number 0, showing a tidy profit of $10,000 when the non-existent horse lost his -$10,000. 

My friend also wrote a guess the number between 1 and 100 routine. The program told you if your guess was too high or too low. If you guessed the correct number in the minimum number of turns, it told you you were a "genius". A few more than that "bright" on down to "dummy" if you had no strategy for guessing. The school principal was observing this and was chagrined to be labelled "dummy" for taking 20 guesses to arrive at the correct number. Future trips to the computer centre were forbidden.

The principal also had the vice principal stand outside the class to discover what was turning these morons into geniuses. These kids were all from what you might call an under-privileged background. Their parents were mostly unemployed and living on welfare benefits. My friend started each class with an open forum discussion of whatever the kids wanted to discuss. The only rule was that if you disrupted the discussion, you were not allowed to participate for a week.

The principal was incensed and demanded that this practise be discontinued immediately on pain of dismissal. My friend was there to teach them mathematics, not allow them to discuss their problems. He didn't wait for the inevitable conflict and dismissal. He resigned.

As Jim Wilson says in Changing Agriculture: an Introduction to Systems Thinking, "It's as if we spend all our time rescuing people from the river without going upstream to see who, or what, is pushing them in."

Thought for the day:

"When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it."

A. A. Milne (The House at Pooh Corner)


Saturday 30 September

The Lunix Shop

(With apologies to Monty Python)

(A customer walks in the door.)

CUSTOMER:  Good Morning.

OWNER:  Good morning, sir. Welcome to the National Lunix Emporium!

CUSTOMER:  Ah, thank you, my good man.

OWNER:  What can I do for you, sir?

CUSTOMER:  Well, I was, uh, sitting at my WindBlows computer on Torvalds Street just now, skimming through "The Cathedral and the Bizarre" by Erik the Redmond, and I suddenly came over all Unix.

OWNER:  Unix, sir?

CUSTOMER:  O'Reillyish.

OWNER:  Eh?

CUSTOMER:  Ee, Ah wor 'OSS!

OWNER:  Ah, Open Source Software!

CUSTOMER:  In a Nutshell. And I thought to myself, "a little Lunix will do the trick," so, I curtailed my Redmonding activites, sallied forth, and infiltrated your place of purveyance to negotiate the vending of some Torvaldian software!

OWNER:  Come again?

CUSTOMER:  I want to buy some Lunix.

OWNER:  Oh, I thought you were complaining about the MP3 player!

CUSTOMER:  Oh, heaven forbid: I am one who delights in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean Muse!

OWNER:  Sorry?

CUSTOMER:  'Ooo, Ah lahk a nice tuune, 'yer forced too!

OWNER:  So it can go on playing, can it?

CUSTOMER:  Most certainly! Now then, some Lunix please, my good man.

OWNER:  (lustily) Certainly, sir. What would you like?

CUSTOMER:  Well, how about a little RedHate Lunix?

OWNER:  I'm, afraid we're fresh out of RedHate, sir.

CUSTOMER:  Oh, never mind, how are you on Mandreck?

OWNER:  I'm afraid we never have that at the end of the week, sir, we get it fresh on Monday.

CUSTOMER:  Tish tish. No matter. Well, stout yeoman, four copies of Corblimey Lunix, if you please.

OWNER:  Ah! It's beeeen on order, sir, for two weeks. I was expecting it in this morning.

CUSTOMER:  It's not my lucky day, is it? Aah, Bastille Lunix?

OWNER:  Sorry, sir.

CUSTOMER:  BlueSturm Lunix?

OWNER:  Normally, sir, yes. Today the delivery truck broke down.

CUSTOMER:  Ah! Pygmalion Lunix?

OWNER:  Sorry.

CUSTOMER:  EnochPowell Lunix? NotMad Lunix?

OWNER:  No.

CUSTOMER:  Any Norwegian Mad Penguin Lunix, perchance?

OWNER:  No.

CUSTOMER:  Dubious?

OWNER:  No.

CUSTOMER:  Slack-my-girdleware?

OWNER:  No.

CUSTOMER:  Skygrate?

OWNER:  No.

CUSTOMER:  Troubleware?

OWNER:  No.

CUSTOMER:  BendOver, Yelling Dog, Phart Lunix, RotLunix, BlueCrap, Black Crap, DefNot, SODLunix?

OWNER:  No.

CUSTOMER:  ScaldRear Open, perhaps?

OWNER:  Ah! We have ScaldRear Open, yessir.

CUSTOMER:  (Surprised) You do! Excellent.

OWNER:  Yessir. It's… ah... it's a bit runny...

CUSTOMER:  Oh, I like it runny.

OWNER:  Well... It's very runny, actually, sir.

CUSTOMER:  No matter. Fetch hither the Lunix de la Orem, Utah! Mmmwah!

OWNER:  I... think it's a bit runnier than you'll like it, sir.

CUSTOMER:  I don't care how fucking runny it is. Hand it over with all speed.

OWNER:  Oooooooooohhh...

CUSTOMER:  What now?

OWNER:  The cat's eaten it.

CUSTOMER:  Has he?

OWNER:  She, sir.

(Pause)

CUSTOMER:  E-DeathTrap?

OWNER:  No.

CUSTOMER:  Norwegian Blue?

OWNER:  Oh, yes sir. And you get a free penguin with it.

(Later)

CUSTOMER:  'Ello, Miss?

OWNER:  What do you mean, "Miss"?

CUSTOMER:  I'm sorry; I've got a virus. I wish to make a complaint!

OWNER:  We're closin' for lunch.

CUSTOMER:  Never mind that, my lad. I wish to complain about this Lunix what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.

OWNER:  Oh yes, the, uh, the Norwegian Blue... What's, er... What's wrong with it?

CUSTOMER:  I'll tell you what's wrong with it, my lad. It won't work after I install it, that's what's wrong with it!

OWNER:  Oh no sir. It's just waiting.

CUSTOMER:  Waiting? Waiting for what, pray tell?

OWNER:  Useful applications, sir.

CUSTOMER:  Not much of an operating system then is it?

OWNER:  Oh yes it is sir. It's very popular around here. It's so stable sir. Nobody uses WindBlows much any more. It crashes all the time.

CUSTOMER:  Well what bloody use is it if I can't get any work done?

OWNER:  You could try writing a Knit one Perl one script to download ScarOrifice from the Inter-knit. That's what we all do sir.

CUSTOMER:  Oh, all right then.

(Later)

CUSTOMER:  Well that was totally bloody useless! It munged every Weird and Expel file I opened with it. And it stopped my Wanky Tokay from booting!

OWNER:  I'm so sorry sir. My brother in Cairo has a copy of Whirred PurrFect Orifice he can sell you.

CUSTOMER:  Cairo, eh? Oh very well.

(The customer leaves. Pause. The customer enters the same shop. The owner is putting on a fake moustache.)

CUSTOMER:  This is Cairo is it?

OWNER:  No, it's Chicago.

CUSTOMER:  That's intercity train travel for you.

(The customer goes to the train station. He addresses a man standing behind a desk marked "Complaints".)

CUSTOMER:  I wish to complain, railway-type person.

ATTENDANT:  I DON'T HAVE TO DO THIS JOB YOU KNOW!

CUSTOMER:  I beg your pardon…

ATTENDANT:  I'm a MicroSerf Certified Systems Engineer! I only do this job because I like being my own boss.

CUSTOMER:  Excuse me. Is this relevant?

ATTENDANT:  Yeah, well it's not easy to pad these Python scripts out to 200 lines, you know.

CUSTOMER:  Well, I wish to complain. I got on the Cairo train and found myself deposited here in Chicago.

ATTENDANT:  No, this is Boston.

CUSTOMER:  The Lunix shop man's brother was lying!!

ATTENDANT:  Can't blame Amtrak for that.

CUSTOMER:  In that case, I shall return to the Lunix shop!

(He does.)

CUSTOMER:  I understand this is Boston.

OWNER:  (still with the fake moustache) Yes?

CUSTOMER:  You told me it was Chicago!

OWNER:  It was a pun.

CUSTOMER:  (pause) A PUN?!?

OWNER:  No, no... not a pun... What's that thing that spells the same backwards as forwards?

CUSTOMER:  (Long pause) A palindrome?

OWNER:  Yeah, that's it!

CUSTOMER:  It's not a palindrome! The palindrome of "Boston" would be "Notsob"!! It don't work!!

OWNER:  Well! What do you want?

CUSTOMER:  I'm not prepared to pursue Lunix any longer as I think this is getting too silly! I'm going back to wearing a Macintosh. Or a dark brown overcoat.

Thought for the day:

Linux is only free if your time's worth nothing.


Sunday 1 October

Relaxing...

Thought for the day:

"First we thought the PC was a calculator. Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII--and we thought it was a typewriter. Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television. With the World Wide Web, we've realized it's a brochure."

Douglas Adams


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