Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Archive for the month “July, 2006”

On the tapestry of life

How diverse and interesting can a single life be? When looking back over the last two weeks I can see many things that would have warranted blog posts. How often is your week filled with meeting kind and good people who suffer from psychiatric disorders as varied as psychosis, paranoia, border line and suicidal tendencies (aside from it being your job)? How often is a good acquaintance killed at the age of 26, leaving a three year old son behind? Killed, apparently, by a former boyfriend just released out of prison. And how often does her file wind up on your desk because the insurance refuses to pay for the transport of the body back home?
And there were the good things of life. Like a grateful family when your work helped to release the needed funds. Like a three day visit with a dear old lady friend, a spiritual sister starting the eve of her life, meeting new challenges head on. Like the opportunity to expand serving my God and my brothers and sisters with new privileges and responsibilities in the congregation. Like spending an afternoon with another good friend, finishing another level in an RPG together.
Life is filled with unique experiences, some joyful, some painful, but all to be savored as moments that add a unique pattern in our personal tapestry.

Dan Brown's newest on conspiracy?

I am still puzzled by the succes of Dan Brown. Over the last few days I read both Digital Fortress and Angels and Demons. Together with the Da Vinci Code these books share some common elements. ln all three we find a powerful secretive organisation that turns out to be less powerful at the end of the book. The NSA, the Priory of Sion and the Illuminati capture the imagination. The Catholic Church comes forward as the centre of power hungry individuals (mis)guided by faith both in DVC and A&D. The hero of the day is always that stuffy, naieve professor in the humanoria that stands tall in the face of hard science as well as devoted and trained killers. And, of course, our stuffy hero always gets the girl, who invariably is a stunning looking brainy independent career woman.

All books seem to be rooted in conspiracy theories. The idea of the Illuminati and the New World Order is mighty popular in the file-sharing communities. The idea is as original as the Protocols of the wise men of Sion and the Jewish-Communist-Masonic-Capitalist conspiracy to dominate the world. ‘Angels and Demons’ alludes to the power of conspiracy theories to capture the public’s imagination. lf anything, the Da Vinci Code proves how far the people are willing to believe those theories.

‘Digital Fortress’ deals with a more interesting question: ‘who guards the guardians’. How to view powerful intelligence organisations that are capable and willing to monitoring traffic in the digital realm? The discussion about Echelon is almost ancient history. Then there was the Patriot Act and the listening in on domestic phone calls in the USA. In various other democratic countries intelligence gathering is continuously pushing against the fence of civil liberties, pulling it down in many cases. The argument ‘if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear’ doesn’t cut it. As a member of a religious organisation that has been persecuted throughout modern times by democratic and dictatorial governments alike, even to this n present day, and as someone who has nothing to hide, the argument is not comforting. Who guards the guardians?

At the recent HOPE conference a hacker was arrested before he could give a presentation about identity in the digital realm. The hacker showed that with some simple so cial engineering and use of public domain information tons of information about us are readily available. Future applicants are warned that their exploits in the digital realm might turn up someday in a job interview, courtesy of Google. Now, these two things should be more worrying then the NSA trying to read my 100+ daily email messages. I don’t mind them reading about some pastoral work, but I do mind some two bit H&R staffer discarding my application for a high-level position because 15 years ago I wrote something nasty about Windows in an obscure Linux newsgroup (where it would have been digital suicide to say something nice about Windows).

If this trend is to continue the future is determined by these self-appointed guardians, who pave the way for the Illiterati, a secret society of techno Luddites founded in the Middle Ages to protect a terrible secret: the source code for secure Windows. Microsoft will stop at nothing to halt the Illiterati in their slow advent to world rulership. Unknown to himself, Linus Torvalds is send out to unravel to mysteries of the Illiterati. He will find out that the Windows logo is an exact replica of the glass in lead window of an ancient church in the gobi dessert, where an african juju man is found dead with an ambigram saying Vista burned on his chest.
For sale in the fall of 2007. ;-).

Ubuntu crashing down on me

Day 2 of the Ubuntu experience. One of the first things to do after the default install would be to make sure you have all the available security updates. Ubuntu immediately warns about that as well. ln my case 130 updates were waiting. It took only 15 minutes to download the lot. 30 minutes later the system stalled because it froze on installing capplets-data. The hard reboot left me with a Gnome desktop that wouldn’t load.
I took the non-linux nerd road of reinstalling Ubuntu and running the update again. It could have been an error on my part and I need to replicate the error from the perspective of the average Windows user. Well, it was not my error but a problem with the updater. For the book I need to start looking for a fix.
Another reinstall followed and I decided to forego the update option. I wanted to expand Ubuntu with kde and xfce. And some extra software to go with that. Again I took the lazy route. The applications menu has the entry add/remove software.  Being a software glutton I immediately ticked the two boxes for universe/multiverse and commercial applications, both repositories with the disclaimer about being unsupported.
I spend the next twenty minutes to select all kinds of applications. This to some irritating on the fly updates. when I dicked an application from universe, and later multiverse, only then did the system decide to refresh the available applications list.  An earlier refresh affo ticking both boxes seems more logical. A nuisance, nothing  else. Then “okay”. ‘You need to fix the broken packages first’. Broken? Which ones? And the add/remove software  application closed town on me. I fired it up again and pressed the Advanced button, which brought me to Synaptic.
With Synaptic it was easy to select KDE to install since it had it’s own entry. XfcE did not have that, but a search was easy enough. Only then did I realise that the add/remove option excluded both desktops.  You can install software packages but no new window managers. Synaptic is a great advanced solution. The choice for a    simplified add/remove is understandable and acceptable. Relatively new users are not swamped with options. Who would want three window managers when you are used to one anyway?
After installing the two window managers, I chose a plethora of applications. Synaptic did a marvelous job and all packages were downloaded and installed. Marvelous, but not perfect because some packages broke during install (like gstreamer) without so much as a warning.
At the end of the day Old Faithful had a  fat Ubuntu install with three window  managers, three office suites, and a load of smaller utilities. And all that in only 4 Gb.
Judging this proces from the perspective of the windows migrant, it is unacceptable that two key functions, the update and add/remove software, run into snags. Especially who it leaves you with a non-functioning desktop. No doubt it can be fixed simply using the console. But this might prove a bit too daunting for new migrant.

Why is the Da Vinci Code so terribly popular and succesful?

The book itself is not overly well written. The plot has been compared to slices of Emmenthaler cheese: thin and full of holes. The movie is not much better. It isn’t even very popular on the P2P networks, which should be seen as an indicator of true lameness. Not even when it’s free.
Yet, the book was sold by the millions and the movie is a box office hit. Why?

First, a brief overview of the key theme. Jesus of Nazareth was never executed but got married to Mary Magdalene, who originally played a key role in the christian congregation. The couple had kids and the descendants, protected by the knights Templar married into the french royal line. Of course, this wasn’t to the liking of the catholic church. ln the 20th century the last descendants were hidden by the Priory of Sion, a secret society dedicated to preserving and protecting theseerct of the true worship and the role of the feminine divine. Leonardo da Vinci was one of the Grand Masters of the Priory and left tons of clues in his works.
Feminine Divine? Yep, we are all misled by those evil masculine women-hating bible writers. They preferred a dead Jesus over the husband Jesus under the tight reign of Mary Magdalene. Something like John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Beatles.
This might be an interesting theme for a novel, but it is actually more surprising that people are considering the theme seriously. As if it is a novel idea in the history of Christianity. And it isn’t. It’s as old as Christianity itself and even predates it. Already in the time of the apostles the so-called ‘gnosis’ movement made headway. Documents were compiled to support the gnostic case. The gospels of Thomas, Barnabas and Mary Magdalene portrayed a different picture of Jesus. More like a person from the pre-lithium age with a bipolar disorder. The gnosis went for secret hidden knowledge. Sex-based rituals were normal practice for the ‘enlightened’ ones. Augustine used to be so into the gnosis. In later time the Cathar movement made serious inroads in medieval France.
The gnosis and Christianity were/are incompatible, though not because of sex and the role of women. The God of Israel and thus of Christianity, Jehovah, is considered the root of all evil in the gnosis. Now, whether you believe any of it or not, the incompatibility of he two should be clear.
The hebrew and greek writings of the bible do deal with sex worship and the femine divine. But never in a positive context. Sex worship was practiced by Baal worshippers who also had no problems with sacrificing children on the altars. Within biblical law women were protected from sexual abuse and such. Paul’s declaration that a husband should love his wife as his own body was nothing short of revolutionary in an era where women were considered property instead of persons.
There is one other fundamental issue, but that should only bother christians who wonder if the Da Vinci Code has any merit. Christian faith is rooted in the belief that men is born in sin, and that salvation is possible by believing in the shed blood of christ. If Jesus never was executed, then his blood was never shed. Meaning no salvation. Meaning you can’t call yourself a Christian any more.
This still doesn’t explain the popularity of the book. Maybe people are attracted to the concept of sex worship. Quite understandable when the catholic church still holds on to celibacy and abstinence, when protestant churches struggle with the issues of gay and lesbian ministers and when Muslim martyrs blow themselves up to get their reward of 70 virgins. Not much fun for the average straight person. Now we just have to wait for the first Da Vinci Church to be opened.

A writer's rant (2)

“Jonathan Metzbloke is an internationally acclaimed power consultant. Scores of Fortune 500 top managers have benefited from Jonathan’s personal coaching.” Bin opened the book to check the price on the last page. ‘$ 12,50… way to expensive’, he muttered. He looked past isle 15 to the desk at the end. No, that wouldn’t work this time. It was Jackie’s day off. There was this new kid here at Delaney’s Book Emporium, Mahmood, and no way he would give Bin a $ 5 discount. He checked his watch. Time to go back to the office. With a sigh the book went back on the shelf. As he walked to the exit Selena turned around and said: “See you tomorrow, mr. Smith”, which would have been a nice gesture if she could leave that scowl of her face. Bin waved back anyway.

Without haste Selena continued with the new collection of exotic cook books. From $ 59,95 to $ 7,99. ‘What a waste’, Selena thought, ‘some bozo spend months of his life to write THE Book, only to see the unsold copies channeled to Delaney’s after six months.’ I am one of those bozo’s. I wrote a good novel. The children would have loved it. Selena was beyond herself when the manuscript was accepted. And went ballistic when she was working on the new delivery and saw her baby, her novel in the stack. 369 copies, to be sold for $ 1,99. She went home crying that night. And she cried again that november, when Delaney threw away the remaining 341. Buying the lot herself was no option. She barely made enough money to live. That day her artist’s soul died.

There goes life

I hate hardware problems. Especially when it contains information that can always be restored but is just tedious to do. My external 2.5″ harddrive decided today to impersonate a cricket, a dying cricket. And, while saving as much data as possible, the drive wasn’t recognized any longer by Windows. Aarrgh… Time for another rescue attempt. I put the disk in another casing and this solved part of the problem. The original casing was fried, but not without corrupting the harddrive. In the end I could salvage all my portable Thunderbird mailboxes, about 99% of my documents (the rest can be restored from the company server) and the whole collection of portable applications. Time to get a new harddrive and casing. Thus leaked away a couple of precious hours.

Taking Ubuntu back to the past

I spend most of my day to install Ubuntu on my old Toshiba Satellite 4030 CDT with 128 Mb RAM. Normally speaking Ubuntu requires 192 Mb RAM, but there is the so-called ‘alternative’ version. That one is a back to geek heaven trip. No flashy installer, but back to the good old and powerful Debian installer.
Why did it take all day? My own mistakes, not Ubuntu’s. At the end of the first install I had actually forgotten my own password. I simply couldn’t get in. Then I turned lazy and decided that a simple reinstall on top of the old one should be okay (despite Ubuntu’s warning). And that install failed at about 97%. The third attempt resulted in the solid brown Ubuntu desktop.
The laptop is old. With a Pentium ll processor running at 233 Mhz and 128 Mb we are talking ancient. And yet, it runs great with Windows 2003, couldn’t handle XP and ran Suse 9 sluggishly. How does Ubuntu measure up?
One thing can not escape notice: it won’t use the entire screen. Ubuntu maxes at 800×600 at 60 Hz. No 1024×768, but that makes sense in terms of performance. The menu is fast in this way.
Firing up is always slow, but it didn’t do bad on Old Faithful. Once it was up and running, opening one of the other Openoffice parts was a matter of seconds. The screen resolution doesn’t work well with the three panel default setup of Impress, but this can be tweaked.
The on-board sound card is recognised, but doesn’t work out of the box. The screen is bright and easily readable.
Ubuntu comes with an attractive and well-organised desktop based on Gnome. There is a default set of applications with which you can get working. Openoffice for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and databases. Evolution to do your calendaring and contact management. The whole world is accessible through Ekiga (VoIP), Firefox and GAIM, a multiprotocol chat cliënt. With GIMP you enter the realm of photo-editing. Totem and Rythmbox can satisfy you multimedia needs. Choosing Nautilus as desktop explorer was a great decision. It is a pleasure for the eyes, especially when it showed the contents of the newly plugged in external USB drive.
Installing new software is so easy. I have a soft spot for yast with Suse 7.2 being my first Linux distribution. And yet, the default tool with Ubuntu and the possibility to use Synaptic is a refreshingly simple alternative. You can choose to add the Ubuntu Universe packages and commercial packages with the caveat that these packages are not supported by Canonical.
I decided to add the so-called Gnome office packages while not connected to the internet. Well, that didn’t work. The tool wants to download the packages from the internet. In Synaptic I could solve the problem by deselecting the online options and press reload. Only to realise that what you see is what you get with the CD install, apart from the server packages.
So, at the end of the day I have a lean and mean Linux distribution running on the laptop desktop.

A writer's rant

One of the things I really want to be able to master is creative writing. When it comes to non-fiction I know what I am able to achieve. Therea is still plenty of room for improvement, But there is no lack of ideas, or structure or inspiration.To try my hands on fiction seems to run into a huge snag again and again. I did some poems, tried a few short stories and have a general idea for a novel. The poems were written in intense emotional periods, periods in which my HSP was hypertuned to the people close to me. Story writing is more complicated. I seem to have more skills as a story teller. John Hurt in his role as the stoy teller continues to fascinate me. But writing it down in a way that won’t result in something boring is a skill and an art I don’t master yet. This blog is one way of developing some of that skill, to write down ideas, observations and descriptions of life, people and events. Notes that are allowed to be random, to have no coherent meaning or even a relation to the real world. This could be fun.

Anyway. the first idea for a novel is as follows. The main character is a man in his mid 30s, who experiences an identity crisis. He has a strange name, Bin, and his appearance bears little or no resemblance to his parents or siblings. Bin finds himself in the midst of a stagnant career, a worn out marriage and the sad realisation that none of his ideals ever materialised or has a chance of ever getting close to that. Bin’s only refuge is a large second-hand bookstore annex ‘ramsj’ store with tons of unsold editions of all kinds of books. In this micro cosmos of failure Bin seeks inspiration to get his life and his identity back on track.

I want to develop the plot along psychological, absurdic lines. It should be fun to read, but a critique against all the self help gurus at the same time.

Oh yeah, I am a proud husband

Agnes is wrapping up her studies. For the last two and a half years she has been retraining from a secretary into a school teacher. She wants to teach dutch to foreigners. She really loved digging into ins and outs  of the language. She did research, went through various trainee ships and is now finishing her last paper.
I still remember when she started. She was so nervous. Stacks of books, tons of assignments.  She thought she would not be able to organise it all.  Being in her early 40s she wondered if she had the flexibility for this career change.
I knew she was a born teacher. The only thing  I really did was to express that confidence. And now I feel a sense of pride when I see her grades and her joy and confidence. She loves teaching. She loves interacting with people from all kinds of cultures.
This fall she waits to start up a business in teaching. Again we are going into uncharted territory, but I have full confidence that we will succeed. Yep, I am proud of my wife. 😉

Open sourcing the world of publishing

What is one of the greater challenges of aspiring authors? You give the best you have and put together a synopsis or even a manuscript and send it to a publisher. Then you wait. And you wait. And you wait some more. After a while you might get a letter stating “Sorry, but we are not going to use this.” Now, considering the tons of suggestions the average publisher receives in the mailbox, no one is going to expect a detailed explanation on the why of the rejection. But… how many prospective great novelists stopped because of this simple rejection? We don’t know.

Today I was interviewed by Barbara, an editorial assistant with a dutch publisher. She is doing research on how to improve communication between the publisher and writers. She created a post in a writers’ forum and I expressed my interest in participating in the research. It turned out that I was one of the few non-fiction writers. Most of the others were busy with fiction.

She was well-prepared and we could cover a lot of ground in the space of a little more than over an hour. During the interview a new idea developed in my mind. The editors with the publisher must have an enormous wealth of knowledge build up over years and years of experience and in-house training. For them it has become second nature to recognize the wheat from the chaff. Wouldn’t it be a great idea to periodically bring together the best of the rejected and train them with the institutional knowledge? The idea enthused Barbara. Why not bring together the 100 best rejected aspiring authors for a day? Not to discuss their manuscripts or synopsis, but to discuss the main fallacies based on real life, day to day examples. Let an editor explain how he or she judges a new synopsis. Ask a literary critic on how he/she determines the value of a debut work. Explain the market forces.

But, perhaps more importantly, you can create a new community of people, writers who are on their way up and mold them, maybe only a few, into succesful writers that have something to be grateful for. Let’s say the publisher does this once every three months. You can reach 400 people in this way and it only cost four days a year. The benefits would far outweigh the costs. As a publisher you will have put yourself into a unique position. One unknown in the world of publishing. You are open sourcing the vast storehouse of knowledge that you posses in order to help create more works of great art.

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