Thursday, 16 December 2010

Classic Book Reviews episode 1

Hi all

Sorry for the delay, was otherwise preoccupied by the birth of my son, Thomas. Named for doubting Thomas, the first recorded empiricist, who had to touch to believe.

So, here's the first batch of classic book reviews. Merry Yuletide, all hail Odin!

The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle.
A cute story, probably the inspiration for Jurassic Park. A little bit better suited for young teenagers to read than adults, but nicely-written. My only criticisms are: the story line is a bit linear, the romance at the beginning of the novel is almost irrelevant - but I don't want to spoil the story. It also goes on a bit about the initial traipsing through the jungle thing. Obviously, like all old novels, there are some racist parts. Lastly, some factual details are wrong, in particular, the description of the iguanadon. But that's because Doyle was using the best information available to him at the time, and that information, even in the scientific circles, was wrong.
Recommendation: Read it. It's cute. But I am biased. Anything with dinosaurs is good. A bit like anything with Nazis. So obviously, the best story ever would involve dinosaurs AND Nazis. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Land that Time Forgot, attempts something of the sort. See below.

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe.
A bit boring. The first large portion of the book consists of him berating himself and having misadventures in random places over a period of years. When he eventually gets stranded on the island, it takes a few hundred pages before anything interesting happens; most of it is documentation on how he recreates the artefacts of western civilisation. Plus there are lots of innaccuracies about the native flora and fauna of the Caribbean. Then, once he finally leaves the island, there's a peculiar section, also quite extensive, of various adventures around Europe. Quite aimless, and not at all necessary for the story. It struck me as if the author had a bunch of ideas of what would count as good adventure material, and decided to cram it all into one book even if the stories had nothing to do with each other. The whole book could have been condensed to perhaps 100 pages. Apparently this is the first true novel written in English, so we have to forgive him.
Recommendation: See if you can find a movie version of it, or a condensed version. It's rather tedious going, though the part when the "savages" arrive is quite well-written and creates some suspense. Consider reading it.

The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe.
Boring. The first half consists of him going back to his island, which had been populated by mutineers etc., to see how it was prospering. The second half consists of him travelling around Asia and being mistaken for a pirate. The whole book could have been condensed to perhaps 100 pages.
Recommendation: Don't bother reading it.

A Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde.
Frightfully pretensious and Victorian, with a very linear storyline. I didn't see the point of any of the characters in the story over and above the artist Basil, Gray, Lord Wotton (Gray's corruptor), and Gray's first love. Especially the various aristocratic ladies. They played no role at all, apart from generating pretensious Victorian banter for Wotton to contradict. Also, Gray's descent into debauchery is depicted as a love for finery; tapestries, jewelry, etc etc. Nothing remotely close to what we'd think of as debauched. In that way, the novel was disappointing. No gratuitous orgies, nothing. Most of the story consists of nothing happening. The key events are glossed over or reported after the fact, and not gone into in any detail. The most detail consists of the boring Victorian exchanges between various ladies and the protagonists. The only vaguely interesting thing about the story is that the protagonist, Gray, is an antihero. I liked Wotton better. Gray is very dull and neurotic. The much-vaunted gay allusions didn't appear except right in the beginning of the novel, and they're all very coy. The best part about it is that it is written almost poetically; the use of English is sublime. I also quite enjoyed Wotton's philosophical hedonism.
Recommendation: Don't bother. It's short enough, if you want to bother, but I'd say the 2010 movie is vastly, vastly superior.

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Cute. Worth reading. The action is almost continuous, there's very little unnecessary preamble and postamble, justice is served, there's a clear protagonist and antagonist, there's suspense and intrigue, the story is told from different people's points of view and thus is not entirely linear, as most old novels are. The only complaints I have is that I don't think pine trees are native to the Caribbean, and I really don't see the point to Ben Gunn; he could have been removed from the story altogether with no effect on the storyline at all.
Recommendation: Read it.

The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann Wyss.
Disappointing and long-winded. The first two-thirds of the book are awfully boring. They consist of: The family is shipwrecked. They pray. They take lots of useful stuff from the ship, thereby saving them the hassle that Robinson Crusoe had of having to re-make it all by hand. They pray. They kill lots of animals, often for no reason at all. They pray. They discuss the scientific interest of various animals and plants that they'd killed and eaten, and how to use trigonometry to make a tree house, etc. They pray. They plant seeds and saplings from the ship. They pray. They make five or so different houses. They pray. They mooch around the island and find lots of animals that simply do not exist on South Sea islands. There are no Jackals, buffalo, bears, buck, onagers, etc., on South Sea islands. In fact, the only animal they may have got right was a crab. They shoot all of them anyway. They pray. They make references to Robinson Crusoe (yes, the title resemblance is not a coincidence), and to Captain Cook. Finally, at about 2/3 through, something happens, not much, but at least it's something. I guess this is the point at which Wyss's son took over the writing because his father had bored himself to death. (It was partly written by Wyss, and partly by his son).
Recommendation: Don't bother.

War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells.
If you've seen the 1950s movie, or Spielberg's remake, you'll be pleased to read this, because it's very similar to the movie interpretations. Except it's set in Victorian England, which makes it quite a bit more interesting. I think that considering how little people knew of other planets, space alien possibilities, etc., at the time, this is a pretty impressive piece of work. The storyline is not entirely linear, either; it's told from two different peoples' points of view. My criticisms are: the aliens are a little bit less plausible than say, Spielberg's interpretation, and the technology of the Martians does sound slightly like Victorian technology; one can see the extent and limitations of the imagination of the author - e.g. that the space ships are cylinders with screw-off tops, like a metal spaghetti jar. Then, although Wells does tell part of the story from the point of view of the protagonist's brother, he never meets his brother to talk to him. But all the other details, like the mad guy in the house, the red plants, the baskets carrying humans, etc., are there. Spielberg's version is actually closer to the original than the 1950s version.
Recommendation: Read it. It's passably modern, apart from a few language oddities.

The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells.
A bit odd. If you imagine Planet of the Apes combined with some weird kind of Smurfland, that will give you an idea. He goes forward into time, and the rest of the story is his narration of what he saw in the future. His peculiar view of a possible future is rather disappointingly uninteresting; just odd and substantially shorter than War of the Worlds. It seems to me as if this novel is merely an excuse to complain about Britain's class system; he envisages it as resulting in future speciation of the classes.
Recommendation: Don't bother. It's just odd. Rather go watch Planet of the Apes (the new one). It's more compelling, but otherwise pretty much the same story.

The Island of Dr Moreau, by H. G. Wells.
Pretty good - better than I expected. It's basically about an island inhabited by a mad scientist who tries to create humans with animal traits, (or vice versa). It actually borders on a horror story. If you like animals, you'll probably find it IS a horror story. At any rate, it seems as if it is partly a commentary on the inherent animal nature of man, and funnily enough, it compares a priest's sermon to the inane babbling of an ape. I think it would probably make quite a good movie.
Recommendation: Read it. But only if you can tolerate animal cruelty. If you're very worried, let it be known that justice is served.

20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne.
A submarine adventure with a little dig at the British Empire, written, of course, by a Frenchman. My criticisms: obviously, the Antarctic hadn't been explored at this time, so his description, whilst plausible at the time, is wrong on a number of counts, particularly that there's ocean near the pole. He also misclassifies seals as cetacea. He also goes into long lists of fish that they catch, etc., etc., which gets a bit dull. Other than that, an entertaining read. Verne could have trimmed a few of the random travels around the ocean, and I found the ending a bit baffling - why Aronnax's companions didn't tell him how they survived. But one of the best "classic" novels I've read so far.
Recommendation: Read it.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth, by Jules Verne.
A subterranean adventure in which the explorers try to get to the centre of the earth, on the belief that it is not unbearably hot there. My criticisms: Well, it's false. We know now that the centre is unbearably hot, and that the habitable part of the underground realm does not extend far below the surface of the earth. But the novel has some good parts and some suspense, with very little repetition or boring lists of types of rock, which I was expecting. The chief criticism is that it features a giant humanoid, which we have no evidence for, and some indications that fossilisation of ancient forms had not taken place, because they had survived. If you've seen the recent Brendan Fraser movie of the same title, it's very very similar to that, but obviously a bit slower, and the characters are all adult men. The movie is obviously a bit sillier though (with blue birds and so on).
Recommendation: Read it. If you're too lazy, watch the movie, it's close enough and faster-paced.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker.
Excellent. A bit long, and true to all the novels prior to the 20th century that I've read thus far, everything is told from the first-person perspective using the device of peoples' diary entries. Renfield is particularly disgusting; I giggled several times because of his antics. If you've seen the movie with Winona Ryder, it's pretty close to that; the main difference is there's nothing romantic about Stoker's Dracula; he is just a monster. There's a slight reference to a past love early on, but no dramatic retelling of a lost love. Another of the main differences is that there are multiple lairs and multiple crates of earth, and they're destroyed with a holy wafer only, not burning. Apart from that, the movie version is very close to the book version. So far, this is the best pre-20th-century novel I've read.
Recommendation: Read it. If you're too lazy, watch the movie, it's close enough and faster-paced.

The Land that Time Forgot, by E. R. Burroughs.
I saw a movie version of the first one-third of this series of stories in the 1970s, and remembered fondly the scene of a submarine surfacing in a primeval river, to encounter dinosaurs. So when I started reading this and saw where it was going, I was pleased to read on, hoping that my memory would be jogged into a glorious recollection of a great adventure. However, though it started out very good, it gradually became sillier and sillier. The things I didn't like about it are its bizarre model of the theory of evolution, and all the various primitive tribes of men, of which the Wieroo were the daftest. If he'd stuck to the basic elements and not gone on an acid trip with a science textbook, it would have been better. The book I read is divided into three parts, each actually being a separate book in itself, each following the adventures of a different protagonist in the same land, and ultimately, all three protagonists coming together in the last book. There are some racist parts, so be warned.
Recommendation: Consider reading it. It gets daffier as it goes along but it's overall more good than bad. Above, regarding Conan Doyle's Lost World, I said that the best story would be one with dinosaurs and Nazis. Burroughs tried to do something like this, but messed it up with funny tribes and silly creatures. So as to not spoil it, I'll not say more.

The Lair of the White Worm, by Bram Stoker.
This is the most modern of the classic novels that I have thus far read. It is told in the third person, rather than in the traditional first-person diary-entry form. It is also told from the perspective of many different people. The pace is quite good and the story quite creepy. The horror only comes towards the end, however; for the most part, the events are just bizarre. It was written in the very early part of the 20th century - 1912 if I recall correctly - so it's still very Victorian in its attitudes. The most unpleasant aspect of it is that it is very racist; there's a black character who is constantly described and addressed in offensive terms. Nevertheless, it is a good story. My criticisms of it from a factual point of view: not many. Obviously, it has a mythical creature in it, but apart from that, the factual data is pretty correct. As for the literary style and the book structure, I found it hurried in odd parts that need not have been hurried, e.g. the wedding, which was covered in about a paragraph. There were many loose ends, however. For example, no explanation was offered for the flocks of birds, and their relevance to the snakes. Mesmer's chest seemed irrelevant, though large portions of the book were devoted to its mysteries. The heir to the castle estate is described in very evil terms, and engages in weird hypnosis battles with commoners, for no apparent reason. The two sisters that he victimises seem to have magic powers, but Stoker never explains this or why there are these ancillary hypnosis battles. He seems to be a red herring of a character; almost as if Stoker is trying to make us suspicious of him. There are other loose ends, but I'll leave it at that.
Recommendation: Read. It is very good, apart from the racism.

Nineteen Eighty Four, by George Orwell.
Horrific. The picture it paints of a socialist/fascist future is so unbelievably grey and bleak. I think what is so appalling about it is not the torture scenes, but the complete hopelessness that pervades it. I think we're accustomed to stories in which good triumphs over evil. Orwell does not give us even a hope of this. My feeling after reading it was an increased and utter loathing for governments.
Recommendation: Read it. But only if you can tolerate torture scenes.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving.
Disappointing. He wastes pages upon pages describing various dishes at the dinner table and the fancies of the protagonist, and then the story abruptly ends with the protagonist running away in terror. Nothing really happens. No deaths or anything. Yawn.
Recommendation: Don't bother. Tim Burton's 1999 movie is way better.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis.
Targeted at a 12-year-old audience, it's not a bad story, if a bit childish. I was surprised that it was as short as it was. My only complaint, and no doubt the typical one, is that it's a thinly-disguised masquerade of the Jesus story intended to make the latter seem heroic, getting sacrificed for the sins of man, etc., and rising from the dead.
Recommendation: If you've seen the recent movie, the book's basically identical, so don't bother, but if you've not seen the movie, read the book.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Caroll.
Urgh, a waste of time. I had to force myself to finish these two books, even more than I had to force myself to finish Swiss Family Robinson. And that's not because they're particularly long. Both books are a series of dream events/scenes with bizarre characters - mostly animals - who say nonsense things or get into quibbles with Alice over nonsense phrases and arguments, e.g. equivocation around the meaning of "fast" as "tight" and "rapid", etc. There are some vaguely cute references to formal logic as well. From a logician's or linguist's point of view, prior to formal studies of logic or linguistics, Caroll's work might be interesting as a showpiece of English weirdness, but apart from that it is unbearably dull. It goes on and on and on from one weird scene to the next, with very little to connect them and almost no storyline whatsoever; there is no antagonist, and no climax scene, and no denouement, etc. The resemblance of the recent Tim Burton movie to the "novel" (if you dare call it that), is passing at best. And the movie is vastly more interesting, even though it isn't full of pseudo-academic puns or points of oddity.
Recommendation: Go watch the movie and never read the book, it will disappoint you. On the other hand, if you're a very dull person who also enjoys bland wordplay, go read the book and NEVER watch the movie, because they're only passingly related and you'll be disappointed. E.g. in the book she's seven, whereas in the movie she's about to be married.

The Call of Cthulhu, by H. P. Lovecraft.
Cool, creepy. Told in the pre- or Victorian diary style, however. The gist of the story is an investigation into a cult. I won't spoil it by saying more.
Recommendation: Short enough to read quickly. I'd like to see it done as a movie.

Frankenstein, by Mary W. Shelley.
The usual diary or letter form of the 1800s and prior. This story didn't really capture my imagination until near the end when the monster goes on his revenge spree. I found it a bit tough going, partly because a lot of ancillary stories are narrated by the actors to each other, and they go on and on a bit. The part that bugged me the most: not only does it not explicitly say that he is animated by lightning, but the monster talks very eloquently - in French, in fact. Then there are the tremendous scientific problems with taking months to reanimate dead body parts to assemble the monster: Frankenstein - the scientist - didn't have a fridge, so it's just not plausible. I think I prefer the image of the green-skinned guy with the bolt through his neck who just moans and groans and lumbers along slowly, although Shelley's original interpretation of the monster is more horrifying. I say this because I feel more pity for a lumbering mute than a superhuman who just happens to be very ugly.
Recommendation: Worth reading, if a little tedious. Pity there's not a modern movie version of it.

Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, by R. L. Stevenson.
Quite well-written, it starts from the modern 3rd-person style, and only reverts to the old style of first-person letters at the end when the causes of the behaviour of Mr Hyde are explained. Quite a short story, reasonably well-paced. It could have been fleshed out a little more, with more suspense.
Recommendation: Short enough to read quickly. I'd like to see it done as a period-piece movie - i.e., I do not mean that dreadful version from a few years back which was set in modern USA. I mean the real thing set in the Victorian era. That's where it belongs. That's part of what makes the story creepy, is the gloomy London streets.

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.
A series of narratives in the form of a reporter interviewing one of the chief scientists at the robotics factory. The narratives are only vaguely connected, so there's no overall storyline. There are also some anachronisms and wrong guesses, like everyone having a flying car in 1998. A bit tedious, with some good parts. Nothing at all like the recent movie, however, except for the scene where the robot hides amongst a crowd of robots. I kept wondering if I had perhaps obtained the wrong book, and that someone, as a joke, had changed the cover. No antagonist, barely a storyline, completely linear, with the chapters almost unrelated to each other. It seems as if Asimov was writing purely to speculate on how he thought the future would be, rather than trying to write a story.
Recommendation: Don't bother. No matter how lousy the recent movie was in the eyes of the purists, at least it had a plot, a storyline, suspense, and a point.

All content © J M Ostrowick, 2010

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Classic Book Reviews

Over the period of the next few weeks, I will be reviewing classic novels and posting my comments here.

Before I start, I'll share some of my general observations thus far:

Classic novels in the period 1600-1900 seem to all have these features in common:
1. They are all told from the first-person perspective ("I did this, I did that")
2. They are written as diaries or letters ("Dear Sir, I just saw Dracula")
3. They have major sentence run-on (multiple clauses separated by commas instead of fullstops)
4. They tend to focus on descriptions of scenery or the environment or new discoveries of "Natural Philosophy", i.e. Science, rather than, say, the emotional states or internal monologues of the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s).
5. They seldom contain action or love scenes, typically describing such events after the fact, and in one sentence.
6. They are racist and sexist.
7. Spellings are varied (show/shew, burthen/burden, etc.)

I suspect there are reasons for the above which can be explained in terms of the sociocultural milieu that we are looking at: the Enlightenment period. During this period, there was a substantial prudishness around sex, a fascination with the achievements of science and colonialism, and yet, traditional Christian values such as chastity, women's roles, etc., prevail. So these novels do not hesitate to go on and on for pages upon pages, about wonderful new creatures or plants, or how life occurs, etc. It's almost as if they're trying to serve some educational purpose. They also go on and on about white supremacy and the lack of cultivation of "savages".

When we get to the 20th Century, there is suddenly a shift: all the above 6 points change rapidly, and start to disappear. 20th-Century novels are typified by:

1. They are all told from the 3rd-person perspective ("Joe Soap did this, Joe Soap did that"); they are written as impartial 3rd-person observer perspective.
2. They have short sentences.
3. They have present-tense or recent past-tense speech exchanges in quote marks.
4. They tend to focus on descriptions of the emotional states or internal monologues of the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s).
5. They can or do contain action or love scenes, venturing into more detail on these.
6. They avoid racism and sexism, giving more active and intelligent roles to non-white-males.

This reflects the changes in the surrounding society: Women have been given the vote, slaves from non-white nations have been freed. There has been a discovery, since the invention of radio and TV, that people have short attention spans, so the writing has to be spiced up with sex and action, and sentences kept short to keep peoples' attention. The 3rd-person is a continuation, however, of the scientific perspective and purported neutrality of the novel's narrator. It serves to make the author invisible.

Some modern writers have reverted to the first-person style of writing, but, accustomed to the neutral 3rd-person, we find this first-person style naive or childish. It will be interesting to see what happens next. I suspect the next biggest impact on writing will be the Internet, which favours brevity, and the use of characters such as underscores, stars and brackets to make emphasis clearer. I've often joked that we should expect to see Shakespeare written thus:

        out damn spot! :-(

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Open Letter to Steve Jobs - 2

I thank you for listening to my and others' requests for the App Store for Mac OS X. It means a lot that Apple takes the requests of their users seriously. We are also all very delighted at your company's financial success, and that it has overtaken Microsoft.

I'd like to make the following suggestions, and I am grateful for your time in considering them. Apologies for the very long email, it has taken me a while to collate these ideas.

1. The Locations menu item on Mac OS X isn't very elegant. I noticed that my iPhone automatically figures out which WiFi network it is in the vicinity of, and automatically switches to that network. Surely this is easy to implement for Mac OS X? If the WiFi goes down, wait and search for a WiFi network. If it's one you've already been told about, automatically switch Location. But why, you may ask, should the computer not simply switch the WiFi LAN without switching Location? Well, some WiFi networks may require a passwording firewall proxy server to access the web, which is information stored in the Location data set. This is also a weakness on the iPhone...:

2. The iPhone seems to lack anywhere to place proxy firewall information (unless I'm blind). This is important. And if/when you add that ability, it must be able to automatically know that it must only use proxy/firewall information if the user specifies such information at the same time as the phone switches WiFi LAN. So when you leave a LAN that requires a proxy, it must automatically know to stop using the proxy.

3. Have an option in the System Preferences in Lion such that when you Command-Tab, it cycles through the minimised (Exposéd) windows, minimising each in turn and maximising each in turn, perhaps in a circle layout rather than a horizontal bar. Also have an option that when you click in another window, it automatically minimises the previous window to an iconified window of a specific predefined size, and automatically maximises the window that was clicked on, with suitable animations as it zooms from small to big. To see what I mean, take a look at WindowShade(tm)'s "minimise in place" feature, and imagine that combined with Command-Tab, and Exposé.

4. Will Lion be able to resize, move and rotate windows and images with multi-point finger gestures? I'd like to be able to twist my GUI windows at angles. Think Minority Report kind of thing.

5. Rename "Airport" to "WiFi". "Airport" just confuses people. We know Apple was the first to sell and deploy WiFi platform-wide, and that you guys first called it Airport, and therefore that you should have naming rights, but no-one else has followed your naming convention.

6. Allow iOS apps to share documents through a common documents folder, like on Mac OS X. I find it annoying that Dropbox can't give a file to, say, QuickOffice, and that Mail can't search through Dropbox or QuickOffice to get a document to attach. Or even worse, that every iOS productivity app has to have the ability to render PDF, Word, Excel, etc., because it has to be able to handle those files individually inside the program, rather than handing the rendering over to a suitable other program. Eg. if I get a JPEG email attachment, I want to be able to hand it to Adobe PhotoShop Express directly. Surely a system-wide viewer for standard file types - QuickLook - is preferable?

7. Oddities with iOS/Mac OS interaction:
a. Why do we use iSync to synchronise all phones except the iPhone, and use iTunes to synchronise the iPhone? It seems redundant. Maybe make a separate program to synchronise phones, incorporating Imagecapture, iSync, and friends. Then only do music syncing via iTunes.
b. It strikes me as very very strange logic that iBooks' epub files are stored in ~/Music/iTunes/iTunes Music/Books/, and that iPhone app backups are stored in ~/Music/. Surely ~/Library/Mobile Apps/ would make more sense? I mean, if you want to buy Apps and eBooks for the iPhone, why not make that ability part of a standalone iBooks and AppStore for Mac OS X, and reduce the complexity of iTunes, which is rapidly becoming a jack-of-all-trades application? (IE allow the OS X version of AppStore to buy apps for iOS and OSX, and make iTunes exclusively a media player and buyer program).
    Gran:     How do I get books on my iPhone again?
    Me:        You go into iTunes, the music player.
    Gran:     Huh??
Or rename iTunes to "Mobile Device Content Manager". ;-)

8. Why can iPhone 3G not record video? There are some hacks to do it but I'd rather not go that route.

9. Why can iPhone not receive FM radio? I heard that one of the chips in it can broadcast and receive radio. It would be very cool if the iPhone could transmit short-distance FM by default, too, out the box, so that we can play radio via FM to our car radio sets. IE - Griffin iTrip behaviour.

10. Please retain the Terminal and Finder in Lion. These are strong reasons why I still prefer Mac OS X to other platforms. I'm worried that the full-screen interface touted in Lion will make drag and drop between programs redundant or impossible, and land us up with the horrid full-screen behaviour of MS Windows. For me, being able to drag data from one program to another is a great superiority point of Mac OS. I'm thinking that maybe the tunnelling "spring loaded folders" behaviour could be applied to app windows: if a window in any app is iconified, and you drag an icon over it, it automatically spring-load opens to receive the icon being dragged, and then minimises again.

11. Before downloading an App from the App Store, it is very important that we know in advance how large the file is before downloading it. I accidentally downloaded some app and tried to change my mind. But iTunes was adamant that it was going to download that app. It kept telling me that there was "an app available" and it kept downloading it. The iOS app was 200 MB in size. It took almost a day to download (we have slow Internet here). That's really not cool. I tried to right-click the app and choose "stop download" and "delete", but that didn't work; iTunes persisted in finding it and downloading it each time I opened iTunes. If you cancel a download, unless it was paid-for, it should really cancel and stop downloading.

12. A radical suggestion. I really really like the way iOS handles select, copy, paste. In other words: you double-tap something, it offers "select, select all", and then immediately after that, it offers "cut, copy, paste". That makes so much sense. So here's my radical suggestion. Remove the Mac OS menu bar. Completely. Change all menus and menubars to be contextual menus that appear when you tap an object on the screen. Replace the Apple Menu with an Apple logo in the Dock. That will make Windows users happy! Make it possible to move the Dock to horizontally across the top of the screen to placate the System 7 die-hards. I'm suggesting this for Lion.

13. Drop the non-standard USB-ish iPod hardware cable interface and replace it with a standard flat USB 2 interface. This will make charging easier. Make iPhone able to read, mount and play or display contents of attached flash disks in that USB port. Make iPhone appear as a drive, just like iPods do, when you plug them into the Mac via USB cable. I can't access my iPhone via Apple File Sharing and upload my documents to it. iFiles and similar programs are just not elegant. Automatically mounting the iPhone as a drive via Bluetooth, USB or Appleshare over Wifi would be far preferable. Or even DAVFS.

14. It strikes me that Command-Tab, the Dock, and Exposé iconified windows, all are the same thing: small iconified versions of open windows and apps. So if they're the same - then merge them - in the App Launcher of Lion. Pressing Command-tab highlights in sequence through the App Launcher. Pressing the Exposé keystroke brings up the App Launcher. And then, make the App Launcher show not just App icons, but also tiled iconified windows of already-open documents.

15. Surely by now you have enough leverage with the record companies to pressurise them into letting you sell any mp3/AAC files anywhere in the world? This old-fashioned idea that certain music and videos must only be sold in certain geographic locations, is bizarre.

Friday, 1 October 2010

English is an odd language

I've just finished reading a Robin Hobb trilogy at the behest of my wife. Not bad. Interestingly, Hobb uses a number of words I either was not familiar with and/or would not think to use. Here's a list:

ichor - pronounced eye-ker. Ooze from a wound.

lave - wash. Latin: lavare. Apparently it was present in Old English as lafian. Compare: lavatory.

chantey - a naval song. Compare: chant.

prate - to chatter. Compare Afrikaans praat.

salal - a kind of American plant.

hummock - a hump or hill.

cicatrix - a scab or scar.

ensorcel - to hypnotise or enchant. Compare: sorcery.

gelid - freezing. Compare: gelatine and cold.

carom - to rebound. A billiards term.

forefend - delay, inhibit, prevent, forestall.

immure - incarcerate. Latin: in murus, in a wall.

vail - to remove a hat. Compare: veil.

Monday, 13 September 2010

iPhone/Cellular Phone won't sync with Mac Address Book

If your phone (iPhone or otherwise) stops syncing, but you know that you have definitely got changes on either the phone or addressbook that should go from one device to the other, do this to force it to sync:

Open iSync in Applications > Preferences > click Reset Sync History > then sync the phone. (Even if this is an iPhone and you have to sync using iTunes, it still works).

Saturday, 4 September 2010

iPhone Help Unknown Error 13019

If you get error 13019 when trying to sync your iPod, it means that you made changes on your iTunes, e.g., to file attributes or names, and it can no longer sync back to the iPod.

The cure is to un-sync whatever section you were editing, and use something like iPhone_Explorer or PhoneView to delete the data out of that section on the phone, then re-sync.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Just some fun stuff from the archive. I found my rune files.

Here are the runes. I created these documents about 15 years ago when I discovered this nice drawing program. I also have fonts of the English/Saxon set that I made.

The first document is all sets - Gothic, English, Scandinavian, Danish pointed, Helsinge/Haelsinga, etc., showing variations. So, for example, Danish Pointed has a B for the sound B, and a B with two dots in it for the sound P, whereas Saxon/English has something like the letter Pi on its side (looks a bit like C). The central row is Gothic/Standard, all else are variations.

The second document is the standard Viking set (16 characters). Because it was shorter, they used the same letters for voiced and unvoiced sounds, so V/F, D/T/TH, P/B, S/Z, etc. So for example siklt in Old Norse Runes = seglode in Old English ("sailed", pronounced something like "sayloada").

The character -R is NOT the same as r. -R is the ending -uR seen in Old Norse and Icelandic, signifying a noun. I suspect the Gothic (east Germanic) pronunciation was closer to Z, or modern Swedish sj, since modern Icelandic has an R and Latin has an S (which by Grimm's law is related to Z, hence the R/Z confusion. Interestingly, the same confusion occurs in Arabic: the letter for R and Z in Arabic are both a kind of j, but one has a dot and one doesn't.).

Obviously, many of the letters derive from Latin, hence R, T, B, S, F, U, C, A, H, I, M. But some derive from Greek, Hence OE (looks like Omega), L looks like Lambda, and NG, which is a double-G (runic G is an X, so runic NG is a double X), just like in Greek where they use a double-gamma for "ng", ie Angelos = aggelos in the Greek alphabet.

My understanding is that they have this angular appearance to make it easier to carve into wood, which is what the Germanic people preferred for their monuments etc., since they hung round in pine forests and liked log cabins. Obviously the majority of the surviving examples are on stone memorials.

The Helsinge set appears, as I understand it, in one particular place in Scandinavia, and it represents a shorthand or simplified version of the scandinavian set. Probably the first shorthand script ever, other than Demotic Egyptian.

Interestingly, the modern-day Asatru cult still uses the runes, and many adherents of Wicca do as well, however, they consider them to have magical properties. Presumably, in ancient times, writing would have seemed magical because it would convey thoughts over distances. It's not a coincidence that in English, a "spell" is magic, and "spelling" is writing.

Apparently the word "rune" comes from an old Germanic word meaning whisper or magic. "Raunen" is German for "murmur".

I hope you enjoyed this little essay. Here are the tables:

Monday, 16 August 2010

Free-will is like an appendix

If the appendix has no function, why do we have it?

The same goes for conscious "choice". It's a side-effect, not a causal agent. Libet (1982) found that there's a certain time threshold for sensations to be perceived. If a contact/touch/whatever sensation does not endure for longer than, if I recall correctly, 80-200 milliseconds, we don't register it at all. The longer it persists, the more we become aware of it. So, when the brain is busy deciding to do something, once the decision state has existed for longer than the threshold of consciousness' minimum, then we become aware of it. It's a question of persistence of a state.

Are we automated machines influenced by outside factors? Yes. Think about it. You only respond to outer stimuli. Inner stimuli are, generally, memories. And memories are simplified reduced versions of previous outer stimuli, so they're still outer stimuli. The only inner stimuli we're aware of are neurological, e.g. When you have a headache. But we still have no control over those things; they 'happen to us'.

Why do we internalise outer factors? This is because our brains do process information even if it is non-conscious. I'm not saying they don't. What I'm saying is something like this: consciousness, as we know it, is a bit like a child in a trolley (shopping cart, for my American readers) - with a fake steering wheel. He's being pushed around in the trolley but he can still see where he's going, and his mom tells him as she pushes him round the shop, what she's doing. So she turns into the breakfast cereal aisle and says "now we're looking at breakfast cereals". He gets notified about what is going on after the decision has been taken. He has a fake steering wheel which he frantically turns, but it doesn't actually do anything. It just gives him the illusion of control. Sometimes his trolley goes the direction he turns it, sometimes it doesn't. He doesn't understand why, but when it does go the way he turns it, he thinks he's the one that did it, and gets a thrill of being in control.

Monday, 26 July 2010

My favourite Bible quotes

This is the King James version. Newer versions may have been toned down.

Does evil come from God? Yes!
1 Samuel 18:10
Isaiah 19:14
Isaiah 45:7
Jeremiah 11:11, 18:11, 32:42, 40:2, 44:2, 45:5, 49:37
Lamentations 2:5
Amos 3:6
Micah 1:12
Malachai 2:3

Environmentalism - the earth is yours to abuse
Genesis 1:28, 9:2-3

Slavery is OK says the Bible
Exodus 21:7
Leviticus 25:44-6

Homosexuality is not OK unless you’re King David, says the Bible
Leviticus 18:22, 20:13
Samuel 20:40-41
2 Samuel 1:26

Adultery = death, says the Bible
Leviticus 19:20, 20:10

Incest is OK, says the Bible
Genesis 19:30-36

An inspiring story about gender equality and proper mourning: Judges 19:22-30

Weird arbitrary laws
 Leviticus 19:19, 19:28

Some examples of coprophagia, scatology, etc:
Isaiah 36:12
Ezekiel 4:12
Malachai 2:3

God likes killing children to punish parents, says the Bible
Leviticus 26:27-29
Isaiah 9:19-20, 13:15-18
Jeremiah 19:9,
Ezekiel 5:10, 6:5
Lamentations 2:20, 4:10
Micah 3:2-4
Zechariah 11:9
Hosea 13:16
Psalms 137:9

Disciplining Children, with death if necessary
Proverbs 22:15, 23:13
Deuteronomy 21:18-21

Unbelievers must die or at the very least be hated:
Deuteronomy 13:6-15, 17:3-5.
Psalm 139: 21-22
Jeremiah 9:4-6
Isaiah 29:14
Leviticus 24:16

Witches must die:
Exodus 22:18
Micah 5:12.

Working on the sabbath? Die!
Exodus 35:2

Is Jesus about peace? No.
Matthew 10:34, 12:30
Mark 6:11
Luke 12:51

How do you know whether a religion is bad?
Matthew 7:15
I wonder if the Inquisition and the Crusades would count as examples of evil fruit?

Who is to blame for Jesus’ death?
Matthew 27:25
1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

The Christian theory of health: Sin causes disease, not dirt
Matthew 15:20
John 5:8-14

What is the Christian attitude to sex (straight and gay)?
Matthew 5:28-30
Matthew 19:10-12
1 Corinthians 7:1-8, 6:9-11
Luke 20:34-35
1 Timothy 1:10
Romans 1:26-27

What is the Christian attitude to women? They must keep quiet and cover themselves.
 1 Corinthians 11:3
1 Timothy 2:9-14
1 Peter 3:1-7

Is it acceptable to get a divorce? No.
Matthew 19:9, 5:31-2
Mark 10:11
Luke 16:18

How important is family? Less important than Jesus.
Matthew 19:27-29, 10:29-30, 23:9, 10:21, 10:34-37, 12:47-49
Luke 18:29-30, 9:59-62, 14:33, 12:52-53, 8:20-21
Mark 13:12, 13:17, 7:9-13, 3:31-34
John 2:3-4
In Cults and New Faiths, the Christian author, John Butterworth, says: “[Cults] frequently have a very strong, charismatic leader. Absolute obedience to the leader and his teaching is often called for. This obedience can include giving up home, job, family, and possessions” (1981, pp2-3).

Is it acceptable to be rich? No, but He doesn’t have much time for the poor either.

Matthew 19:24, 25:29
Mark 10:25, 4:25,
Luke 16:19-31, 18:24-25, 19:26, 8:18.
James 5:1
John 12:3-8
How valuable is knowledge, learning, and wisdom? Not at all.

Matthew 13:10-11, 15:22-26
Mark 7:25-29, 4:11-12
Luke 8:10, 10:21, 16:15, 18:17
1 Corinthians 1:20-21, 2:2-5, 13:7, 14:38
1 Timothy 6:4-5, 6:20
Colossians 2:8
Romans 1:29-32

What's the point?

I realise, of course, that many of my readers might give some excuses for these rather lousy verses, such as:

1. They are interpolations by the devil
2. They are interpolations by mischievous atheists
3. They are mistranslations of the original
4. They are allegorical
5. They are symbolic
6. They no longer apply since Jesus' overall message is about love and therefore we can overlook some minor aberrations

My response to all of the above is: Bollocks. You can't pick and choose your Bible verses.

Unchangeable“You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32
Isaiah 40:8: “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.”
I Peter 1:25: “But the word of the Lord endureth for ever...”
I guess this means you can’t just pick and choose which Bible verses to obey.

It's all or nothing. Either it's the Word of God and it is perfect, or it is human-written and false. If you go for the theory that it is the Word of God, then you must accept all the above laws and verses as true. Including the ones about killing your badly-behaved children, committing incest with your daughters, abandoning your family, etc. If however you want to cherry-pick, then please tell me by what higher moral authority are you deciding which verses to cherry-pick?

I'll wager it's the Bill of Human Rights.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Censorship on the Internet

I've recently been asked about my opinion on censorship on the Internet. The case given to me was of Google's withdrawal from China.

There are many who say that the Internet should not be censored. And there are many who say it should be. Let me see if I understand both cases.

In favour of censorship: The Internet contains many things that are of questionable moral value. For example, there are sites which exhibit snuff porn, child porn, anti-christian rants, anti-islam rants, and so on. There is, which really ought to be taken offline. There are anarchist cookbooks and satanic sites. In short, the Internet is full of filth and immoral stuff that can corrupt people, especially young, impressionable people. There are many sites which promote political views which are not politically correct, e.g., pro-Nazi sites.

Against censorship: How do you decide on what to censor? By whose moral standards? Surely if you allow some points of view to be aired, you should allow all points of view to be shared? What about freedom of speech? The US constitution AND the South African constitution (which, by the way, is far more progressive than the US one) both guarantee freedom of speech. When you censor the Internet you're denying someone freedom of speech.

The pro-censorship response: firstly, there may be common moral grounds that we can all agree on, which we can use to decide whether or not a particular item should be placed online for public consumption or not. Secondly, what is so great about freedom of speech? I mean, if freedom of speech allows Nazis to post their views, Satanists to post their views, Anti-Islamists to post cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH), paedophiles to post pictures of child porn, etc., surely freedom of speech can be harmful?

The pro-freedom-of-speech response: Freedom of speech is what makes sociopolitical change possible. The darkest eras of humanity's existence were those in which freedom of speech was not permitted - the dark ages, for example. It was only with the enlightenment and the arrival of free speech that societies started to change. Without free speech, the USA would not exist, modern France would not exist, etc., because it was freedom of speech, to speak against their kings, that led them to revolution. The same applies to womens' suffrage, etc.

The pro-censorship response: some societal changes are indeed for the best, but some are not. So, for example, allowing Hitler freedom of speech caused World War II. If he had been censored, millions of people would not have died.

The pro-free-speech response: But who is to say what societal changes are for the best and which are not? For example, many right-wing Christians think that gay marriage, a societal change which is now upon us, is not for the best. Many such persons think that gay marriage is an abomination in the sight of the Lord. (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13). This kind of point of view raises so many further questions. But the chief question is this: By what standard do you pro-censorship people plan to decide on where the limits are? The Christian standard? What is that? Which interpretation? Catholic? Protestant? Baptist? The Muslim standard? What is that? Which interpretation? Sunni? Shiite? Sufi? Are we to use literalist standards and take everything in scripture literally? I am sure many of my readers will say "yes". But how many of you practice child slavery (Exodus 21:7) or slavery (Leviticus 25:44-6)? How many of you stone your children to death for disobedience? (Prov. 23:13, Deuteronomy 21:18-21). There are hundreds of such examples of fierce punishments that we no longer carry out today.

The bottom line is this: We no longer, in the Western world at any rate, use the Bible as the yardstick of our morals. We have a new yardstick: the Bill of Human Rights. So the question of Internet censorship must come down to this:

a) Does the represented item infringe upon the rights of the person viewing it?
b) Is there adequate protection for people who accidentally stray upon something that may infringe upon their rights?
c) Does the item represented depict the infringement of rights, of children, women, or others?
d) Does the item represented encourage, advocate, or promote the violation of human rights?

I think the answer to Internet censorship can be satisfactorily dealt with by the above points. So, for example, paedophilia sites will be disallowed, because they represent the infringement on the rights of children. Snuff porn/ will be disallowed because it depicts violence (infringement on the right to bodily integrity) and does not adequately protect a stray person from reaching its offensive content. Nazi, racist, misogynist, etc., sites will be disallowed because they advocate violence or the infringement of human rights.

This leaves but one question. What about sites that insult religion? My answer, if I am to be consistent, is to ask: do people have the right to not be exposed to information which may threaten their point of view of how the world is? IE do people have the right to be ignorant of others' points of view? I think the answer is no. There is no human right to not be offended. And there is no human right to be ignorant. There is, however, a fine line to be trod between making a case against something, and deliberately setting out to insult or belittle it. But even so, we have no respect of the right to not be insulted. If we worried about people being insulted or offended, we'd not allow anything at all, because everything insults someone. Islam insults Christians (Surah 5:116, 5:73-75). Christians offend Jews. Atheists offend the lot of them. Communists offend Capitalists. Anarchists offend Monarchists. Meat-eaters offend vegans. SUV drivers offend Prius drivers. The list is endless.

The question must be one of physical threat and impingement. Does the represented item on Internet threaten a person physically? Well, let's look at things that are purportedly offensive. Paedophilia does threaten someone physically. Physically (ignoring psychologically for the moment), paedophilia threatens the bodily integrity of a child because the children do have to be actually abused in order to produce it. Snuff/rape/ sites: they also threaten or depict the violation of bodily integrity, or required the violation of bodily integrity in order for their web content to be manufactured. This is especially true of sites that contain actual depictions. So they are also things that should probably be disallowed.

What about adult porn? My answer is: are the performers there voluntarily or are they slaves? Did they volunteer to participate? Are they adults? If they volunteered to participate and they're adults, then they themselves surrendered their right to bodily integrity and dignity, and the fault is only their own. What about the person who profits from their self-sacrifice? Well, the actors themselves profit because they're paid to do it, as are the pimps who sell the imagery on Internet. So frankly, apart from the possibility of a child straying on to such a site, I see adult porn as a case of voluntary abandonment of one's rights. Furthermore, the same kind of abandonment occurs when one has private intercourse with another person: one's dignity and bodily integrity are infringed upon. Are we then to prosecute all married couples? No, that would be ridiculous. So, in conclusion, I can't see a problem with porn sites. As Larry Flynt says in "The People vs Larry Flynt" - Which is worse? Depictions of death, mutilation and horror (e.g. news reports on war), or depictions of pleasure and life?

Of course, we know the feminist argument: porn sites encourage and depict the violation of bodily integrity of women, and thus represent a violation of women's rights. I'm not so sure. Firstly, if we put aside Playboy for now (which only depicts women), porn sites that depict intercourse also depict naked men. Does this mean that such porn sites infringe on the rights of men, and encourage seeing men as sexual objects? If the feminists are to be consistent, they have to say yes, that porn sites featuring men (even if engaged in activities with a woman), do infringe on men's rights too. What about gay porn sites that do not depict women at all? Surely that infringes on men's rights? So the argument about vicarious rights infringements doesn't work. Let's return to the case of Playboy (and its ilk). These sites only depict women. Granted. But I must keep emphasising, the participants are voluntary. They are not sex slaves. So how are they being abused? Abuse and slavery only occurs when the person is involved by coercion. You could argue that porn stars are coerced by the allure of filthy lucre, but then CEOs of companies are also coerced by the allure of filthy lucre. So in as much as a porn star is a slave to the mighty dollar, and therefore a victim of capitalism, so are the executives at BP mere victims of coercion, mere slaves. Clearly that argument won't work either.

Again, this leaves us with sites about religion - those which depict it and all its archaic points of view, and those which criticise it. Granted, criticism of religious sites does cause religious believers some distress. But on the other hand, religious sites cause non-believers some distress, too, and even distress to believers. Why else would religion survive if it did not create distress? Does the Bible not harp on and on about sin? If this is not a mechanism for creating distress, and creating a need for the distress to be alleviated, what is it? The Bible creates distress in gay people when it calls them "abominations". The Bible creates distress in women when it says that it's OK for them to be used incestually, or turned into pillars of salt (Genesis 19:30-36), or murdered without justice (Judges 19:22-30: 22), or burnt as witches (Exodus 22:18), or told to keep quiet and keep the thoughts of their husbands foremost and accept submission (1 Peter 3:1-7). The Bible abounds with such vileness. Yet the religious are free to express their points of view online. So my view is this: if you want to censor people from offending the religious, please stop offending the irreligious first. (Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you).

The final question of censorship on the Internet is not so much a question of "harm to society", which is what the right-wing use as their rallying cry against anything that offends them, but whether humans have a right to not be offended or to be ignorant. I can't see that anyone has that right. It's impossible to police what may or may not be offensive. Everything, as I argued above, is offensive to someone. So everything should be banned. As for the right to be ignorant, I have argued elsewhere (below) that ignorance is how slavery is perpetuated, and that the only true liberation is education. Therefore there cannot be a right to ignorance, unless there is a right to be a slave, or for people to own slaves. That right was abolished over 100 years ago. This is not the 19th century, even if some people wish it were.

Things that all governments can do right now for the environment

There are a number of simple laws that the government could pass to help the environment, which, I believe, could be simply enacted.

1. Require that all plastic wrapping, disposable containers and packaging be replaced with waxed recycled paper/cardboard. E.g., cellophane/PVC-wrapped products could now go into an old-style waxed paper/newsprint wrap, and liquid cartons could be replaced by waxed cardboard (a bit like the cups one gets at takeaway places, but with a waxed surface, not with a plasticised surface).

The advantages: better for the environment in terms of biodegradability of waste, encourages planting more trees, encourages paper recycling, increases wax manufacturing and possibly beekeeping industries and further investment in apian disease control. This will create jobs.

The disadvantages: harms the petrochemical and moulded plastic industries. This will cost jobs.

2. Require that all buildings that do not have national monument status (i.e. buildings younger than 60 years), should be retrofitted with energy-saving devices:

a) black pipes on the roof to heat water, or solar heating panels
b) double glazing to keep out heat in summer and keep in warmth in winter
c) mandatory in-ceiling insulation using organic matter such as cotton, wool etc., rather than non-environment-friendly fibreglass
d) mandatory energy-saving bulbs. I mean LED, not fluorescent bulbs, because fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, a serious pollutant
e) mandatory motion/heat-sensing lights which turn on and off according to activity or the presence of a person only, so that when you leave a room it automatically turns off its lights
f) septic tank systems with natural gas piped into the building for cooking and heating purposes
g) require that waste be separated into organic, plastics, paper/cardboard, glass

Advantages: massive electrical savings and reduced carbon pollution, increase in energy-efficient technology industry creation, job creation

Disadvantages: retrofitting these devices will be costly for building owners and will meet resistance. Eskom - South Africa’s electricity supplier - has the right idea with their subsidising of solar panels.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The true equaliser of all persons is not our liberation movements

Over a century ago, a chap called Karl Marx dreamt of a world in which all persons would be equal and have a share in the prosperity afforded by capitalism. He noticed not so much that workers were 'exploited' in the sense of necessarily being underpaid; rather, he was concerned with their lack of access to the products of their creativity. Man, Marx decided, was inherently a creative animal, and the true exploitation of the worker lay not in, for example, their being overworked and underpaid, but rather in that the capitalist owned the means of production, and used the worker to produce goods which the capitalist would then sell. As such, the workers never had any ownership of the items they created, and did not benefit from their sale. It was as if the capitalist's role was to sell off little parts of his workers. It is in this that the worker was truly exploited.

I think, nowadays, Marx would be dancing a jig with glee, and I think I would join him. Because computers and the Internet are going to destroy capitalist elitism for good (well, unless we revert to the stone age somehow). Why do I think this?

Consider this. Prior to the Gutenberg printing press, the owners of the means of production (of books) were priests. Priests controlled the flow of information. As such, the era humanity lived in was known as the "dark ages", because the light of knowledge could not shine; the only data available to the masses was the waffling and lies of priests. Gutenberg changed all that. In fact, Gutenberg was the beginning of the enlightenment. Granted, the book he printed was a Bible, which was one of the implements of theocratic oppression, but people rapidly realised that you didn't only have to print copies of the Bible. With the printing press, knowledge was seized from the priests and passed on into the hands of anyone who could afford a printing press or anyone who could afford to pay someone who owned one. Shortly after, the Protestant revolution took place; people could now disseminate their anti-catholic ideas to a wide audience.

We are now entering a similar phase. Up until now, only the extremely wealthy could afford:
  • A movie studio and actors
  • An orchestra
  • Art college
  • A printing press and book binder, or a publishing house.
 With products like Apple's iMovie, Pixar's Renderman, YouTube, Apple's Garageband, Digital Cameras, and (respectively), these things are now in the hands of the masses. Within ten years, I believe, movie studios and actors will be redundant, because we will be able to simply make 3D-rendered puppets on a computer to act out the movies we want. Then we will tell the computer to render the movie on Renderman, say, and then edit it in FinalCut or iMovie. We will then place the movie on YouTube and hear Hollywood's screams of anguish as its profits go down the drain. Furthermore, with peer-to-peer filesharing, the file will be copied off YouTube with something like, and shared amongst friends. So dissemination of the movie will be free. Profitability will have to come in with product placement advertising inside the movie (think of I,Robot with Will Smith — ("Are those Converse All-stars you're wearing?").

The same applies to music. We can now make our own music, orchestral or rock band, or whatever, on Garageband, and place that music, perhaps as a music video, on YouTube, or just upload it as an MP3 to any site and let people download it. Or we can sell it via Apple iTunes and avoid the recording companies altogether. Or let people share it via P2P networks. How can we make money though? Well, we can still give live performances and concerts! So the recording studios are facing their doom. They will only be able to hunt down music pirates for a few more years before they're bankrupt. But they cling ever so desperately to their monopoly, using legal threats. The masses will not be deterred. The record companies are finished. Like Marie Antoinette, they're saying "Let them eat DRM", but they must adapt or die.

With digital cameras and Adobe Photoshop, we no longer are beholden to artists and/or patrons of the arts for funding to exhibit our work. With companies like, anyone can be an artist and exhibit his or her work for free on Internet.

Ditto publishing. Companies like have completely put the control of the publishing and dissemination of information in the hands of the masses. At first, the gatekeepers of knowledge were the priests. Then they were the printing press owners. Then they were publishing houses and universities. Now, Wikipedia owns knowledge, and Wikipedia is written by the masses. A layman has as much authority on Wikipedia as a professor. It's knowledge by consensus. Of course, this is not perfect, and this means that popular misconceptions can be disseminated; but what's new about that? The priests have been disseminating misconceptions for thousands of years. They still make the most outlandish statements as if they were matters of fact, without so much as a hint of shame on their faces. No longer will people have to jump through hoops of fire to get past arrogant editors and their ideas about what will constitute a good book or a good piece of writing. Just as blogging will destroy journalism, so will companies like Lulu bring Penguin and others down. The revolution is upon us!

Our creative endeavours will now be judged not on the whims or likes or dislikes of an elite of priests, publishers, art patrons, banks, movie studios, record companies, etc., but rather purely by market forces. If your work is good it will sell. If it is arbitrary, it won't sell. The Internet truly shows what people want and what they will buy. The difficulty or obstacle to a creative person of the future will not be arrogant publishers and distributors, but a 'needle in a haystack' or 'wood for the trees' problem: how will you, as an individual, be seen amongst all the millions of other people who are doing the same thing that you are? And therein will lie the future value of publishers, record companies, movie studios, etc. Their only hope for survival is to make a point of actively seeking good public content on Internet and using their financial resources to actively promote a specific content item.

Technology and information, as I said in a previous post, is the true key to liberation and equality. In the future there will be no more hero-worship of Hollywood movie stars or JK Rowlings; we will all be able to digitise ourselves and become famous. Technology is the true leveller of all people. We will all only have one Facebook page.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Why Greylisting is WAY better than Spamassassin

Having run my own ISP/hosting company for a while now, it has struck me yet again how much more effective greylisting is than Spamassassin. I get a system log every night, and I check the results of the accuracy of the spam filters, so I can say this with confidence.

The reason I say greylisting is more effective is:

a) It gets fewer false-positives (i.e. it doesn't often discard an email from a legitimate person) - typically around 0.3% - 1.0% false-positives, or an accuracy of about 99-99.7%
b) It uses less CPU time - one process, generally, is present, and the contents of the email don't have to be downloaded, uploaded or accepted for inspection at all, before the filter makes its decision.

By contrast, at any time on my server, there can be as many as 20 copies of spamassassin processing incoming messages. Furthermore, its accuracy is dreadful; it typically has two or more false-positives every day, especially since many of my subscribers run small companies and send out mail that may look like spam. I had to explicitly tell spamassassin to not score my local users' mail! Surely that should be a given? Surely, by default, spamassassin should do that, or at least have a clearly signposted option? It was rejecting my own users' mail and letting 419 scams through! I had to add a whole bagful of extra filters to it, to catch images with spams written in the image, 419s which had different from and replyto addresses, and dialup-relayed mails. Furthermore, Spamasssassin got a LOT of false-positives from MS Outlook. It seems that because Outlook does not (surprise surprise!!) adhere to SMTP standards, Spamassassin scores any mail from Outlook, by default, very high: as spam. I had to explicitly lower the scores of all the Outlook-related tests because my legitimate users were experiencing mail rejections as a mere result of using Outlook. Of course, this is Microsoft's fault, but the guys who wrote Spamassassin should just accept that Microsoft and Outlook are not going away anytime soon, so they'd best not presume that a Microsoft email is by default, a spam.

Another thing that baffles me is that there seems to be no way to recognise spammy-looking email addresses, by default. You have to tinker with from-address-contains-numbers rules to get this to even work. Fortunately, milter-greylist catches most of them before they even get to Spamassassin!

Spamassassin, as you're probably aware, is a content filter. That means that the mail has to actually arrive on the server before it is scanned for spam-like features. This not only uses up your bandwidth, but your CPU time. On the other hand, greylisting just looks at who the mail is from, who it is to, and what its source IP address is. If the source IP has been blacklisted, the mail is rejected. If the from and to addresses have not been involved in a previous exchange, the mail is temporarily rejected. If the source IP address is not a known server, the mail is also temporarily rejected. If the server sending the mail re-sends it a second time, the mail is accepted. If the server sending the mail does not re-send the mail, then the mail has effectively been dropped. As I mentioned above, this simple test is about 99.7% effective and accurate. Most days I have maybe one or fewer false positives, out of thousands of emails. Greylisting is also particularly effective at deleting spams from botnets - automated spam delivery networks - because they don't use legitimate SMTP servers.

The trouble with greylisting is that many well-known ISPs or email sources do not understand the RETRY request that greylisting sends. A suprisingly many large companies use subcontracted ISPs to relay their email for them. Facebook, Hotmail, Gmail, Apple, are all guilty. Which means that you have to explicitly whitelist these relay servers to allow mail through. This is obviously a problem, because then anyone in those companies, or anyone on the network that those companies relay through, can then send spam that gets through greylisting. I'd like to appeal to all companies to refrain from doing this. Please do not outsource your mail sending/relaying. Please keep it in-house and deploy SMTP-compliant servers, because currently your ISPs and downstream relays are NOT SMTP-compliant. Yes, Gmail, Apple, Facebook - I'm talking to you. You ought to know better. I expect it of Hotmail, after all, Hotmail is a chief source of spam. But the rest of you?? What gives?

Greylisting is the future of spam eradication. Please will EVERYONE use a proper email server program - i.e. Sendmail - so we can get rid of spam for once and for all?

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Business in SA

I've often commented on business in SA but it seems to me that it is probably worthwhile enumerating the problems I've noticed, especially in the light of my recent unpleasant experience in dealing with Musica, our local music monopoly.

South African businesspersons basically do not "get" the following points:

1. The customer is always right. This is not some kind of deep philosophical point. It's a very basic point, a cliché which exists to remind you that you depend on the customer for money. The customer approached you to offer you business, so don't start telling the customer that he or she is wrong.

Well, in what ways do SA businesses tell customers that they're wrong? I'll tell you! SA businesses literally tell customers that they're wrong. They actually will argue with a customer who is complaining about something and tell the customer that "it's meant to be like that". SA businesses basically do not want to make changes to suit the customer's needs; they have a one-size-fits-all, take-it-or-leave-it attitude. If you don't like the way they do things, you can just go somewhere else. The trouble is that SA is plagued by monopolies.

2. SA companies don't understand that service is more important than quality. They don't understand that if they are friendly, helpful, and answer your communiqués in appropriately short timescales, you will go back to them, even if their workmanship is a bit lousy. Because it's easier to deal with someone who is friendly and helpful and tell them to try again, than deal with someone who is arrogant and is busy telling you that he did it right the first time, and the fact that you're not satisfied is irrelevant.

3. SA companies are very old fashioned with communication. They generally only understand direct phone calls or faxes. They generally require phone calls or faxes. It's very rare to find an SA company that actually responds to email (much rarer is the company that responds the same day!), and it's also rare to find an SA company that doesn't give you the pillar-to-post treatment when you call. ("Oh, no that's not our division, you have to call 0800 xxx xxxx for that problem. Click!) In fact, I've only found one company - Hetzner - that answers email on the same day, and often with a helpful answer. Every other company either does not answer or takes a few months to answer. I'm not kidding. Fax is also a waste of time. Unless they ASK you for the fax and tell you to send it to them, they ignore faxes just as much as they ignore emails. I've discovered that the solution to this problem is to either accompany the fax with a lawyer's letter or send the fax 10 times a day for two weeks solid. That sometimes gets a response, but not always. The same with email. Unless you send a threatening email, or put them on, they basically ignore your emails. Musica is a prime example of this. I sent three emails to, and got ZERO reply. It's been a month now. Nothing. But they did respond to the HelloPeter thing. It took them two weeks to react to it, though. And of course, they phoned me. Why? Because SA companies don't understand email. They think it's a time sink that secretaries use to email each other jokes. They don't understand that email is the future business tool that will make or break their companies. Telephone, the Yellow Pages, and fax are dead. Email and websites are their successors.

4. SA companies are presumptious and intrusive with their "quality" attempts. So for example, they will call you at 9am when you're stuck in traffic, or 7pm when you're having dinner with your family, to find out if you want to buy insurance, timeshare, or whether you're happy with their service. It's a bit like waiters who come and ask you if the meal is OK - but only when your mouth is full and you can't answer! Even worse are telesales people who call you up unsolicited, or the spam we're starting to get now on our cell phones. Outrageous! I didn't opt-in to any SMS marketing campaign, as far as I recall!

5. You have to beg SA companies to take your business. You literally have to call, phone, email, and fax about 5-10 times before they respond and deign to quote you. To get them to come out and take a look is an even bigger task! And then to get them to finish the job is almost impossible! The key thing to understand with SA companies is the concept of retaining a small amount of the money due. Do not hand it over till the job is finished, otherwise they will disappear and never come back to finish. I'm thinking mainly of builders here, but any other SA companies are just as bad. Don't give them the money till the job is finished!

6. They're unscrupulous about what they pay their staff. Senior management get R 50 000 plus per month. Yes, that is about £ 4000 per month. Floor cleaners get R 2000 per month if they're lucky. Yes, that is about £ 150. Per month. Yet you will find that it is invariably the poor labourers who do the work. Especially the "bakkie brigade", aka labour brokers. A common feature of the SA working environment. Basically, a guy, usually white, will go find a bunch of labourers, usually black, and pay them a measly R 100 a day or so, to labour away in the hot sun, usually building or wrecking or somesuch. He will charge R 100 000 for a job and pay the labourers 1/10th of that. I saw this with my own eyes. I had a builder who quoted me that for a second storey on my house. He paid his workers, if I recall correctly, R 15000 or so. The materials were about 20-30k. What happened to the other 20 or 30k? Well, if he actually supervised them and he was actually on-site all day, maybe I'd have thought he deserved it. But he was nowhere to be seen! He dropped them, drove away, and left ME to supervise a bunch of guys who barely understood English, much less architect's plans. The government here recently tried to outlaw labour broking. I don't think that's the solution; it provides the labourers with some credibility if they show up in a bakkie (small pickup truck). It does get the labourers work, and it puts food on their tables. What is needed is legislation to cover the minimum wage they ought to be paid per hour.

7. Arrogant monopolies. The big companies in SA generally monopolise the market and are generally believed to be colluding on prices. Why else would the cellphone companies, for example, charge the same for a call or an SMS? It's going to hit you for R 2.75 (Call) or R 0.75 (SMS) when you first connect, regardless of which company you're with. (Yes, they talk about R 1.50 per minute calls but there's always an interconnect fee or a connection fee or a "drop down rate" or some other lie to cover the actual charge). The reason is that there are only two cell networks (the others just piggyback), so the "competitors" all have to pay the big two for use of their networks anyway, at the price-fixed prices, anyway. So there's no point to deciding which company to use; they charge the same and they're in bed together anyway. Even the land-line operator now charges cellular rates to connect to their "competitor". Try it out. Try call someone who's taken up a "Neotel" line. Telkom will charge you the same as a cell call, even though it's landline to landline. To make matters worse, Telkom and Neotel both use the 011 and similar dialing codes, so you can't even TELL in advance if you're calling Neotel or not. So you may as well use your cellphone exclusively; at least you know you're going to be ripped off, you don't have to guess.

The same applies to any of the other major companies. SA has a big tendency to monopoly capitalism. As soon as a really good company comes out - like CD Warehouse/Wherehouse (sic), they get bought out by inferior companies that just happen to be bigger. CDW was awesome. They had really really obscure stuff on their shelves. Now that Musica, the monopolists, run all the music stores in the country, virtually, we have nowhere decent to go buy obscure music; you basically can get the top-10 stuff at Musica and that's it. You've got no chance if you want something obscure (like I do).

Ditto the insurance companies, ditto the medical aids (health insurance) etc etc. You pay and you pay. If you find a small company, they're amateurish or go out of business. If you go with the big guys, they don't care at all about you and just bounce you around inside their call centres when you phone to complain, until you give up, because you're calling from a cellphone and they put you on hold at R2.75 per minute, and then make you hold for 45 minutes before someone bothers to answer you. No, I am not exaggerating.

8. They're slow. Americans will probably be horrified to hear this but at the local branches of MacDonalds, they actually have special parking bays outside the drive thru, so that when you order at the drive-thru, you can go park and wait for them to make your food. No, I am not kidding. I've actually waited about 5 minutes at a McD's before. Not that McD's is the greatest stuff, but what is the point of a "Drive thru" if you have to park and wait anyway? You may as well just park, get out your car, and go to the counter like any other take-away joint. Ridiculous. SA businesses just don't get it. There's no hurry. A "fast food" joint is where you get food within 10-15 minutes. A restaurant is where you get food within an hour. That's how it is. When McD's first came here, and we saw a drive thru for the first time (I'm talking 1995-6, really!) - we were amazed at the concept of getting your food in under a minute. Since then, McD's have completely slacked off and you now get stale chips (because they've been sitting waiting, pre-prepared, because it's too slow to not pre-prepare them) and you wait 5 minutes, especially if there's a queue of cars that's more than 2 cars long.

Pity there's no oil here.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Open Source, DRM, and why closed-anything is dying

I have often thought about DRM (digital rights management) and similar issues, but I try not to. It annoys me. See, it depends on your basic view of humanity. If you think that people are basically thieves, then you will support DRM. If, however, like me, you think that people are basically willing to pay for what they think something is worth, then you will find DRM offensive.

Let me give you an example. I know of many people who have found illegal music on internet, and have, as a result, purchased it legally, because they liked it so much. They are not a minority. The success of the Apple iTunes store is proof of this. If people weren't fundamentally honest, and willing to pay for stuff legally, why would anyone bother to use the iTunes store? Why is it such a success? I'll tell you why: it is because people WANT to pay. Placing DRM (software to prevent piracy) into music, or ebooks, or whatever, is actually just a way of saying to your customers that you believe that they are criminals. In so doing you prejudge their intentions. It's a bit like selling a car with a bonnet ("hood", for my American readers) - that is welded shut, just in case your customers want to pirate your engine design. And then requiring that they go to a special branded dealer only to get the bonnet opened when a service is required. It really is as outrageous as that. Look at what happened to Apple. They tried putting DRM in their files - they sold .m4p files - mpeg-four protected. People complained so much that they had to stop. It was ridiculous. If you got a new computer or a new iPod, it would refuse to copy the files onto it. Even though you paid for it. It really annoys me. Think about LPs. Remember those? Were you paying for the music or were you paying for the vinyl? The record companies seem to think that you were paying for the vinyl. Because when cassettes came out and you wanted them for your original tape-based Walkman(TM) in the early 80s, you had to buy the cassettes separately. Likewise, in the late 80s, when CDs became popular, you had to buy the CD again. And then, with the advent of the iTunes store, AGAIN you had to buy the song. This time it had no medium - no physical substrate which the record companies could argue was the "thing" you were buying. So if I buy an mp3 from the iTunes store, am I finally, finally, after all these years, buying the thing I THOUGHT I was buying all those years ago? Am I finally buying the music? NO. According to the various licenses you have to agree to, it seems you're just renting it on a permanent basis. This sucks. I've paid for certain tracks at least four times (LP, CD, cassette, MP3). I can tell you exactly which tracks, too.

The same applies to open vs closed-source software. By not allowing your customers to see your code, you are assuming that they're thieves. But look at how Linux has proliferated, and now dominates the server market. Furthermore, under the Ubuntu brand (, Linux is starting to make inroads into the desktop market. Granted, few people - especially non-computer-nerds - would bother, because of the proliferation of Windows(TM) in the desktop market. But that doesn't mean it's not good, or not adequate for the same purposes. I can understand the reluctance to move though; it is fear of the unknown. I see the wide-eyed terror in the eyes of everyone over 50 years of age whenever I tell them that they really ought to ditch their slow PC running Windows(TM) and get a Mac. They are overwhelmed with fear, and mumble incoherently about how it works. And then shortly after, ask me to remove the viruses, and get rid of the trojans, and explain why their money has disappeared out of their bank account - and why there's a keylogger on their machine. I just shrug and say, "Get a Mac".

But that's not my main point. Here it is. What is even worse than closed-source software is closed document formats, like WMA/WMV, DOC, etc. Microsoft(TM) documents, in other words. I find this assumption that everyone can or wants to read and write these documents highly offensive. For example, what is the point of storing music in WMA format? It just prevents 10% of the world from using it. It's a kind of negligence or indifference. It's as annoying as if, for example, you were to land in Paris and they refused to speak English. What is the point? Is this not harming business? Why create something that you can't share? I'll tell you the point: greed. It forces everyone on the planet to buy your closed-source software. It forces everyone to buy your product. Imagine, for example, that you had to buy Texaco petrol if you bought a Chevrolet. Imagine the outcry! But people do this every day when they boot up Windows(TM) on their computer.

It has to stop. All documents should be open-content XML. Fortunately, Microsoft has seen the light on this matter with the .docx format. But what about WMA, WMV, AVI, and all that other PC-only junk? Why are the APIs not open? And even more baffling: Why would anyone in their right mind create and try to sell a product based on a closed format? It's reducing the number of buyers you could have. It's as stupid as making a website that only works in MSIE. Just because 90% of the market can view or use your website, doesn't mean that you're not deliberately cutting off 10%. Why would anyone do this? Why would, for example, some recording artists distribute their music on their websites only as WMV/WMA/AVI? What are they trying to say? That you MUST buy Windows(TM)? Is that the message they want to put out? Because it's the message that I'm getting. Are you really that well-off that you can afford to ignore 10% of the potential market? Why not simply use an open format, like W3C-compliant sites, ODF/XML, mp3, mp4, etc.? What is so hard about this? Just use "save-as mp3" instead of "save-as wma"! It's just a different format, and takes no effort to create one or the other! Why use closed formats at all? I cannot understand it. My policy, when people send me .DOC files, is to reply with an AppleWorks file. Just so they see how annoying it is. It's not that I can't read it. It's the arrogant assumption that I want to.

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