Archive for ‘News & Information’

October 7th, 2010

Are You Ubuntu Experienced?

Ever used Linux? Well, I have. Thanks to Ubuntu, I have rescued two old laptops from the clutches of Windows. Of the two machines, one is a virtual miracle, the other a solid improvement.

A few years ago, my brother bought a small (10″) Sony Vaio to use for travel and keep around the house for easy internet access. It was a popular model machine for many years, in the ultralight laptop category before the full-on arrival of the “netbook.” Except that it also came with one built-in deficit: Windows Vista. This brand new machine took several minutes to boot-up each time it was used, to say nothing of the other hassles with that now-discontinued operating system. Less than a year after buying it, he gave it to my mother. Because of it size, my mother found it great for traveling, except if she actually had to use it. It wound up with me.

My initial thought was: perhaps I can find a way to make this work. In short order, I discovered that the answer was no. Despite different system tweaks, stripping the machine of unnecessary programs, and the installation of newer, faster firewall and anti-virus software, it only got slower and slower: it took close to 10 minutes to boot up, only 18 months after purchase. The Vaio sat in the corner for a while, until one day I had an idea.

A little research (thanks, Lifehacker!) directed me to Ubuntu as an easy-to-install, easy-to-use version of Linux. The installation process was simple, and once it was up and running the Ubuntu interface felt very familiar, like an inverted, slightly more organized version of Windows. I discovered that Ubuntu has, by default, many of the same tools that Apple includes on their Macs, and of which I have become quite fond—such as the ability to use multiple desktops. I copied over a number of word processing templates, and that all worked fine: Ubuntu comes loaded with, the same office suite I have been using for years. I moved a selection of music over, and the built-in Rhythmbox music player lined them up and played them back perfectly. Firefox browser? Pre-installed. DropBox, for file syncing? Available and easy to load. XMind, for mind- and process-mapping? Available and easy to load. In fact, the only things I haven’t been able to do are install Evernote (because there’s no Linux version) and figure out how to get the VPN to work, for a better connection to my office’s server—and that is hardly a deal breaker.

Best of all: it’s fast, light, and trouble-free. The Vaio now takes under 30 seconds to boot-up fully, including login time. Ubuntu runs very efficiently in terms of memory demands, which means it not only loads fast but continues to run fast when I’m using it—and makes efficient use of the machine’s power systems, with the battery running for for more than 6 hours. And it has never crashed on me, not once.

Given the stellar example of the Vaio, I decided to apply the same approach to my old Fujitsu P5020 “Lifebook.” This computer, running Windows XP, had served me very well for more than 6 years—but with each new Windows service pack release, and the bulking-up of Norton’s antivirus and firewall programs, began to run ever more slowly. Something about one of the updates also affected the wireless card, so the computer would periodically crash whenever the WiFi was on. It is too old to run Ubuntu’s current release, but I installed Ubuntu’s 9.10 release—and now this computer also works like new.

I am still a Mac person; I love my MacBook Pro and have no plans to leave it behind. No do I have any intention of going back to PC land. But these ultra-small, ultra-light machines are useful in a number of situations where I don’t need to bring the MacBook with me. And there is definitely value in having recycled and saved two old computers. If you have an old machine lying around, dead as a result of impenetrable operating system failures, let Linux save the day: try Ubuntu.

July 23rd, 2010

“Inside Out” is Right Side Up

I do not identify much with the Kristols, either father or son; their blowhard brand of elitist neocon bullshit has never sat well, and their cheerleading for the war-mongering, anti-Constitutional presidency of George W. Bush only sealed their fate. (See my piece “Kristolize That Thought” as one sample.) In that context, it was particularly apropos (and amusing) to find this quote from Irving Kristol kicking off part three of Barry Eisler’s new book, “Inside Out”:

“‘There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people,’ he [Kristol] says in an interview. ‘There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.’”

The quote comes from a 1997 Reason Magazine story about the renewed rejection of Darwin and various justifications (excuses, really) for the “intelligent design” movement, for which the senior Kristol is also an apologist. But it is just as appropriate in this spot in Eisler’s novel—a book about the intellectual corruption of our government, its terrifying commitment to torture, the degree to which most of the American citizenry are complicit, and the importance (implicitly) of independent journalism—as it was in its original context. (It’s on page 237.)

I have been reading Eisler’s novels for a few years, and writing about them periodically (here and there) as well. Like many authors in the thriller / espionage genre, he brings a particular political and worldview to his stories, though this aspect of his fiction has grown stronger since he branched out from writing about the assassin John Rain to the covert operative Ben Treven. Treven was introduced in the novel “Fault Line,” which was entertaining and useful for establishing a new set of characters, but less sharp and well-defined than the Rain series. “Inside Out” has Eisler coming back strongly, and picks up where “Fault Line” left off: exploring the political undercurrent and motivations, not to mention the pervasive distrust, that is so sadly central to our country’s failings over the last decade. The premise of the new book (about a hunt for secret torture tapes) only serves to underscore the point.

It is also why the Kristol quote fits in so perfectly and disturbingly well: because in order for our government and our political parties to sustain such levels of dishonesty, there must be an internal rational—and Kristol has clearly framed it. Whether we are talking about George W. Bush, or Barack Obama, or Bill Clinton, or George H.W. Bush, or Nancy Pelosi, or John Boehner, or Henry Waxman, or Jeff Sessions, or Arlen Specter, or Sarah Palin, or…whoever you can think of in positions of power and “leadership,” this seems rather clear. Our country increasingly survives by drawing different levels of distinctions around the truths that citizens are allowed to know and understand. Even among the conservative (faux-)anti-elites, it functions as a clear form of elitism.

This is also why there is little significant discussion about the meaninglessness of healthcare reform (aside from misleading partisan talking points) or Social Security (ditto). It’s why we channel people through low-level state college systems that pretend to educate in ways that matter, but ultimately create false expectations for intellectual quality and credibility—instead of training people for jobs that serve our society and our lives. It is why President Obama can campaign on the idea of closing down the illegal prison at Guantanamo Bay, and claim in his December 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to have ordered the prison closed, and yet the prison remains open and the issues surrounding it largely unresolved. (If anything, the issues are now more fraught, as the Obama administration has picked up the mantle of executive supremacy and pushed back on what had been a growing sense that the prisoners there have rights under the U.S. Constitution and international law.)

“Inside Out” is a good, brisk, engaging read, with the usual bits that make such thrillers compelling. It surpasses many of its peers because of Eisler’s insights, and his ability to interweave these different issues—realtime issues, not just fictions—into the story. That he credits so many different journalists and critics at the end, has dedicated some appearances as fundraisers for independent journalism outlets, and includes a list of actual sources and stories, makes it even stronger. If you like these kinds of thrillers, you will certainly enjoy this book. If you are politically engaged, you can’t help but enjoy it and find it very disturbing, too.

June 22nd, 2010


I’m waiting as patiently as possible for Thursday—when I can pick up my new iPhone 4. But if one reads the news, about the pre-sale problems, the AT&T service problems, the planning for various lines and access issues to actually pick up reserved phones on Thursday, June 24th … well, discouraged is a polite word. I know, it’s all part of the buzz, the sense of being part of a big-small crowd of true believers.

The thing is: there must be a math problem here. Not with the sales of the phones, but the degree of discouragement for anyone just waiting for Thursday. (If you did not or were not able to pre-order, that’s a different subject.) Here’s a quick spin around the numbers, from a few directions:

  • If Apple, together with AT&T, pre-sold 600,000 iPhones in the United States, on an averaged basis that’s 12,000 phones per state. While the phones are sold at Apple’s retail locations, and at AT&T’s retail locations, they’re also being shipped delivery directly to buyers (even early, apparently). Everyone nationally had access to the ordering systems (before they crashed), and anywhere there’s an Apple store there are likely Apple customers. Although Apple will likely never release the stats, it would be interesting to know how sales are clustered, state by state.
  • Even if we assume heavier weighting towards several tech- or population-heavy states (e.g., California, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas), that will still only skew the numbers so much. Not all 12,000+ people in one state will be waiting at one place for their phone—as may have been the case when the first and second generation phones were released, an era when Apple also had fewer stores, and when they weren’t.
  • Speaking of those Apple stores, there are more than 200 of them across the U.S. Even if all 600,000 iPhones were being delivered only through the stores, that still works out to just 3,000 phones per store—a very manageable number of people to serve in a well-run retail environment. If 50% of the phones were sold through delivery, that would reduce this to 1,500 phones per store. And again, even if sales are weighted more heavily towards certain areas of the country, that likely won’t tip the balance wildly. Some stores may see a 7am rush, but I bet others will have merely steady traffic throughout the day, as they usually do.
  • Of course, AT&T also has retail stores: 2,200 of them. Apparently, not all of them will be stocking the new iPhone, at least immediately. If only 10% of stores stock the phone, that’s 220 stores. Add that to the 200 Apple stores, and the number of phones-per-store drops again. If it’s 20% of AT&T stores, that’s 600 retail outlets serving a maximum of 600,000 phones in one day: 1,000 phones per store.

So if, like me, you are waiting for Thursday, waiting with anticipation and a sense of expectation, and you’ve been reading the reviews of the phone, not to mention reviews of the new software and its various functions, and finding yourself more excited and more anxious, and are contemplating camping out on the steps by your local Apple store, well maybe, just maybe, there isn’t all that much to worry about.

Except how long your new battery will last on its first charge out of the box.

May 7th, 2010

Weather Man

Back in the 1960s, New York City introduced a “heat law,” a requirement that (residential) landlords provide heat for apartments between October 1st and May 31st in any given year if the outside temperature falls below 55 degrees during the day or 40 degrees at night. (Actually, the law seems to date to the 1940s, the era when rent control was also introduced in New York, but to have been updated in 1966.) If this seems like an odd legal requirement—why wouldn’t landlords heat their buildings?—then it’s possible you, dear reader, have never rented an apartment in New York or elsewhere. The struggle between landlord and tenant is often made of such complaints, with some landlords seeking every financial advantage out of even the smallest or most mean-spirited withholding of services. New York City’s law is well-intentioned.

NYC average temperatures, 1950-2010, courtesy Wolfram|Alpha

This law is also out-of-date. Temperatures in New York have been rising. By one measure, the winters in New York State are an average of 4 degrees warmer in the period 1990-1999 versus 1900-1909. Data from Wolfram|Alpha shows a fairly clear trend of rising temperatures in New York City from 1950 to now (and see charts here). This is not to say that New York is lacking in winter—indeed, this past winter was one of the most “wintry” ever, with record-setting snowfalls not just in New York but across much of the country. Copious snow, however, is no proof that our weather and our temperatures haven’t changed. Observationally, I can say that winters in New York have (since 1995) started increasingly late, and that the warmth of summer (skipping over much of the moderate temperatures of spring) have arrived increasingly early.

Why does this matter? Because my colleagues and I have been sweating it out in our office for the last week, in a modern glass office building without air conditioning. Well, not without air conditioning—the building has AC. The landlord simply refuses to turn it on before the contractually required date of May 15th, even if the temperatures both inside and out would (according to common sense) demand it. And demand it they do: it has been well into the 70s and sometimes the 80s for more than the last 5 business days.

I don’t know that New York needs another law, about this or anything else, but I would propose it as a serious contender, an important counter-balance to the existing heat law. Perhaps our heating and air conditioning systems should become more energy efficient, and less damaging to the environment; that is a worthy goal, and could well be part of the legislation. For now, though, the situation seems to demand simple fairness: if New York can require landlords to heat us up, shouldn’t it also require them to cool us down, too?