Archive for August, 2007

West African superstition, in contrast with our own

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

Here in the “civilized world” of America, we don’t take seriously any of those superstitious religious beliefs we read in text books about other countries (and I am, of course, not referring to mainline American religion superstitious beliefs). But I experienced a healthy dose of culture shock this past year while living in a house with an international student from West Africa. I never quite managed to catch the exact name of the country that he’s from, but French is his first language. What I learned was that all of these superstitious beliefs that we basically consider punchlines are as real as terra firma to someone coming from within the culture.

I remember an awkward conversation in the kitchen one stormy night where my housemate turned to me and explained how, back in his country, there are powerful people who can control the weather. I looked into his face for a trace of humor, but found none. He was saying it matter-of-factly. Of course, I asked for details. I pieced together what he was saying in his broken English along with the African myths I had learned about in school. He was describing tribal shamans, who are believed to be able to control the weather by magic. The myth includes traditional rain magicks that bring slaking water to parched farmlands. It also has lightning magicks, which a shaman presumably would use when he is angry with a person or town and wishes to try to destroy them (I imagine this helps with extortion too).

So I asked him if he believed if there was anyone in Maryland who was creating this stormy weather, and he responded just as matter-of-factly, “Of course not!” As if it should be incredibly obvious to me that shamans are able to control the weather in Africa, but not in America (imagine how powerful one who could control the weather here would be). He looked at me like I was silly, asking if there were people in America who can control the weather; have you ever heard of such a thing? This all struck me as a bit conflicting. After all, my former housemate is studying for a degree in aerospace engineering. Surely that requires somewhat of an empirical outlook on the world? How can someone who wishes to design airplanes and rockets not believe in the universal laws of physics? All of the same rules apply in Africa just the same as they do here. If anyone could do magic in Africa, there’d be no reason it couldn’t be done here in America, and imagine how incredibly powerful such a thing would be. If there were any merit to these folk claims we’d already be exploiting the hell out of magic, just like we do with anything else.

Many months later, not long before I moved out, he described a very strange incident to me. If an American had told it to me, I would have assumed he was insane, or maybe on drugs. But coming from my housemate, with his cultural background, it at least made sense to me. It’s the same as listening to a Christian describing resurrection: equally impossible, but once you’ve heard nonsense enough times, you don’t bat an eye at it. He told me about how sometimes he hears the voices of people he knows back in Africa. On his cellphone.

I thought to myself, Oh, okay, there’s definitely a logical explanation for this one. I bet your friend just had a cell phone in his pocket and the speed dial keys were accidentally pressed. This has happened to me in the past; I’ll get a call from a friend, but all I hear is muted conversation that has nothing to do with me. But then he explained that the people he knows back in Africa don’t have a cell phone. And he thought they were playing a joke on him by somehow telepathically projecting their voices to him from a continent away. Through his cell phone. Because, you know, voices just appearing out of thin air is nonsensical, but appearing out of thin air through a cell phone is perfectly fine. I didn’t have a good answer to this one, so I used the tried and true strategy of discreetly backing out of the room.

So that was my exposure to a set of worldviews that simply doesn’t jibe with what I was brought up with here in America. When you look at this kind of stuff objectively, it really doesn’t make any less sense than Judeo-Christian mythos. If anything, it is much less sweeping in its violations of physical laws, so it is more likely (to use a twenty-sigma distorted meaning of likely). Even as an American atheist, I’ve been brought up surrounded by all of these familiar myths that I simply don’t peg on as outlandish anymore. The Earth was created only 6,000 years ago? That’s old hat; I hear it all the time. But telepathic communications possible through cell phones? Now that’s absurd, huh?

But try looking at it from his perspective.

The ramifications of a light red signature

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

When discussing on talk pages on Wikipedia, comments are customarily tagged with signatures that link back to the user page of the person who wrote them, as well a time stamp indicating when the comment was made. Wikipedia allows users to customize the look of their signature. I first became really active on Wikipedia in December 2005 and ended up playing around with different signatures for awhile, until I settled on one that I haven’t changed since April 2006. Here’s what my signature looks like:

Cyde Weys 02:02, 23 August 2007 (UTC)

I called the color “light red” at the time that I picked it, but realistically, everyone thinks it’s pink. I chose the color on a lark (and then proceeded to not change it many times on a lark), intending to convey a sense of “don’t-give-a-fuckism” about the usual connotations of the color. It only succeeds in conveying that impression once others get past the initial confusion. The name “Cyde Weys” doesn’t exactly have a lot of gender cues in it, and with nothing else to go on, people usually associate the color with femininity, so they tend to think “female” rather “male who doesn’t care” when they see the signature. Also, because some homosexual Wikipedians use pink inverted triangles in their signature, I have gotten the occasional confusion over sexual orientation, but for the most part, people don’t associate light red with male homosexuality.

The color is also disarming and harmless, which is in pretty stark contrast to my comments. They can get pretty abrasive and argumentative during heated debates It’s like the color is used ironically. One nice advantage of having a signature of that color is that almost no one else uses it. Blue signatures are a dime and dozen, and very hard to distinguish from one another without actually reading the link text. But my signature stands out from the sea of typical comments. I can skim over whole pages at a time, instantly seeing where all of my comments are (and where they are not). This helps to avoid replying multiple times to the same comment as well as helping to identify areas of discussion that I may be interested in commenting in, but haven’t yet.

I’ve long since grown numb to the confusing nature of my signature, so I’m always taken by surprise when another person raises questions. I just forget that, even though my gender is incredibly obvious to me, the signature itself isn’t nearly so unambiguous, and at any given time, multiple people may be harboring various suspicions or mistaken beliefs about me. I don’t mind though. I always get a laugh out of someone mistaking me for a female, so the signature provides a continual source of amusement. And, in some small way, I suppose it is helping to challenge traditional color-based gender identification. Wikipedia isn’t exactly small fry, and I’ve left my signature across thousands of talk pages. The people I’ve had interactions with on there have been forced to come to the realization that heterosexual men can choose to be identified by a light red color for no other reason than the fact that most do not.

Fixing clock skew problems in GNU/Linux

Monday, August 27th, 2007

I ran into a bit of trouble recently on my new Gentoo GNU/Linux laptop because I accidentally set the date a whole month in the future, and then proceeded to install lots of packages before realizing my mistake. I corrected the date, but then I was left with a slew of clock skew problems. The problems occur during boot init scripts, which complain that configuration files were created or modified in the future. This is little more than an annoyance, but the clock skew most definitely did mess up my attempted installation of VMware. Make uses files’ modified times to determine if they should be recompiled; obviously, any file seeming to date from the future won’t be recompiled. This will affect package managers like portage or apt-get.

The simplest solution would be to wait out the extra time of the skew so that it doesn’t appear that files were created in the future. This is okay when you’re dealing with broken timezone settings, which can’t make the files appear to be from more than a day in the future, but it’s not good for dealing with skews of a month. I simply can’t wait that long to install new software. So I came up with a better solution. This fix should work for any GNU/Linux system:

(as root)

$ cd /
$ touch currtime
$ find . -cnewer /currtime -exec touch {} \;

The first two steps involve going to the root of the filesystem and creating a dummy file called currtime. This file is used solely for its timestamp, which will effectively represent the present. Any file with a modified time after currtime appears to be modified in the future, which the third line then corrects. The program find has a bunch of parameters that can be used to specify how recent a file is (e.g. “modified within last X hours”), but they can’t seem to take a negative number as a parameter (which would indicate modification in the future) because the negative sign is interpreted as a parameter signal. Hence why I’m bothering with the dummy file currtime; it’s simply easiest to do the time calculations by comparing modified times between files.

One last thing to explain: the program touch has two separate functionalities. If called with a filename that doesn’t yet exist, it will create that file will null contents, which is what we use to create currtime. And if the file does exist, it will “touch” the file, meaning that the modified time is updated to the present but no changes are made to the actual contents of the file. So the full script works like this: make a dummy file, search the entire filesystem for anything that appears to have been modified more recently than the dummy file, and touch all these files to make them appear to have been modified in the present.

You will get some errors from non-touchable parts of your system, like devices, pseudo files in /proc, etc. Don’t worry about them. Their modified times can’t be set, so you won’t do any harm, and they don’t need any fixing. The last thing to do is to cleanup your root directory by removing the dummy file currtime. And that’s it — the clock skew is totally corrected.

Dell laptop hwclock incompatibilities in Gentoo GNU/Linux

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

I’m installing Gentoo GNU/Linux on my Dell Inspiron 9400 laptop right now, and as usual, things never are as easy as they would seem. I finally found out about and installed the 915resolution package, which allows me to use the laptop’s display in its native widescreen resolution. Then I ran into a problem with the hardware clock. I couldn’t set it. I would get an error message at shutdown saying it could not set the hardware clock to the system clock. And since the hardware clock was set in localtime rather than UTC (because the previous installation was Windows), I would keep getting all of these timestamp errors about files being modified in the future. I had to reset the system clock manually after each boot.

So I looked into what was going on and it turns out the hwclock command wasn’t functioning. This is what is used to read and set the hwclock. Here is the error message I was getting:

$ hwclock
select() to /dev/rtc to wait for clock tick timed out

A preliminary Google search didn’t turn up anything useful. So I relaxed the search terms and came upon a thread in the ArchLinux users forum. One of the users mentions incompatibility with Dell laptop motherboards, and suggests using the parameter --directisa to hwclock. Testing it out from the command line, I confirm that it works instantly, rather than freezing up for a few seconds and then timing out. So this allowed me to set the hardware clock manually by using the parameter.

But wait, I wasn’t finished yet. I was still going to get the same errors during shutdown that I got earlier, because the init.d script for hwclock wasn’t using that parameter. In addition to an annoying error message during shutdown, that means my hardware clock would slowly drift over time, and I would have to periodically reset it manually. That’s unacceptable. So I modified the /etc/init.d/clock init script as follows.

I changed the line

myopts="${myopts} ${CLOCK_OPTS}"

to

myopts="${myopts} ${CLOCK_OPTS} --directisa"

This line is located inside of the setupopts() function, which is called near the beginnings of both the start() and stop() functions. This is the simplest fix you can make to the clock init script so that hwclock is always called with the --directisa parameter, and thus, it always works.

And that’s it! The clock on my Dell Inspiron 9400 laptop is working perfectly now.

Videogame franchising run amuck: The Office videogame?!

Friday, August 24th, 2007

Words nearly fail me on this one. The game development company MumboJumbo is coming out with a videogame based on the popular television comedy show The Office. It will be released for Windows, the Nintendo DS, and the Sony PSP. The only question I can think to ask is, why?!

The Office is a funny television show. I’ve seen every episode at least once, of both the British and American series. I do think it’s one of the funniest shows currently airing and I would describe myself as a fan. I should be in the target demographic for a videogame based on it. If not me, then who? But I am not at all interested, as I suspect is the norm. What exactly would a videogame based on The Office be like? The humor of the show derives from contrasting the utterly boring business of a paper supply company with the ridiculous antics that take place. The setting is as uninteresting is possible, allowing the characters to shine through. The main two sets used on the show are a cubicle-filled office and a box-filled warehouse.

So how do they make a game based on this? How can it possibly be fun while staying true to the show? What I fear most is that they’ll true to turn it into an action game, with mini-games along the lines of “See how many pallets of paper you can shelve in 60 seconds”, which is of course completely antithetical to the show (the warehouse workers are stereotypically lethargic).

It’s an established correlation in the videogame industry that nearly every game based on a movie sucks. The same is true of television shows. I really want to meet that person who watched The Office and then turned around and said, “You know what? This could be an awesome game. Let’s do it.” I bet he would have similar “inventive” takes on other matters. At the very least, I’d need to ascertain if he was indeed capable of competently conducting his side of a coherent conversation.

This would be my dating site profile

Friday, August 24th, 2007

Here’s a little something about me. I like cats, but I also don’t mind dogs. I wear glasses only because putting on glasses is easier than putting in contact lenses, and way easier than performing laser eye surgery on myself. Top ten lists are my #1 most hated thing. Not following jokes through to their logical conclusion is my #11th. Movies are fun and all, but I’d rather drive past a really good accident. Learning something new makes the day just the tiniest bit worth it. I find spur-of-the-moment experiences are the most fun, especially when they gloriously devolve from the best of well-made plans. If I make a joke that no one gets, I play it off as a profound statement, even if it’s really just a bad pun. Firefighters get lots of axtion.

I’m my own worst nightmare, but only when I’m asleep. Otherwise I’m my own worst daydream. As an atheist, I’m constantly paranoid that God is out to get me. I play videogames not because I find them fun, but because there are so many noobs out there, and someone has to own them all. It’s my solemn responsibility. I hate clich├ęs. I love long walks on the beach. I enjoy writing, regardless of whether anyone ends up reading it. Self-replicating machines fascinate me, but the closest I’ve ever come was a Lego spaceship that “replicated” into many smaller components after I accidentally dropped it.

Unfortunately, I’m funny only when I try not to be.

Write your own alarm clock

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

I finally got fed up with my store bought alarm clock. It just wasn’t smart enough. It didn’t understand the difference between weekdays and week nights, and every time I forgot to turn it off before going to bed on a Friday yielded a most unpleasant experience when it started blaring on Saturday morning. Likewise, there were bad ramifications for forgetting to turn it back on on Sunday night. And the sound it made when it went off was terribly annoying and not at all a good way to start the day. So I realized I could do better, and did.

One of my servers is within earshot of where I sleep. It has an internal PC speaker. So I made a simple shell script to output beeps in an aesthetically pleasing (for an alarm clock, anyway) manner and set up a cronjob so that it would run every weekday at 9:00am. No more having to worry about setting my alarm!

The entry in crontab is easy enough to understand. Let’s have a look at it:

0 9 * * Mon-Fri cyde sh /home/cyde/scripts/alarm.sh

As you can see, this runs on the zeroth minute of the ninth hour of every weekday. I’m running Ubuntu 7.04 on this server, and the way to make crontab entries in Ubuntu is to put the line in a text file inside of /etc/cron.d/. I named the file /etc/cron.d/alarm, naturally. The version of crond I’m running supports a field (set to cyde) to specify which user account to run the command under; if your cron daemon doesn’t support this field, simply take it out. And of course, /home/cyde/scripts/alarm.sh is the location of the following script:

Read the rest of this entry »

On the merits of couches

Monday, August 20th, 2007

Upon asked why I prefer to sleep on the couch even when alternative resting apparatuses are available, my response was thus:

It’s not that I don’t have a bed, it’s that I do have a couch.

The failure of schools to teach typing

Monday, August 20th, 2007

We had a family get-together this weekend at my parents’ house. My youngest relative is eleven years old. He and his family live in Virginia. I ended up watching him for a bit while they were over. He was looking at me typing away at my computer and was awed by how fast I could type; he said it seems like it should come out as little more than gibberish, but there on the monitor perfectly meaningful sentences were appearing (I can type at over 100 words per minute when I really get going).

Later, he was showing me something on YouTube, and I noticed with horror that he doesn’t know how to type! He was hunting-and-pecking at the keys with two fingers. He couldn’t type one-tenth as fast as I can. No wonder he was amazed earlier when he saw me typing. It got me to thinking — in this day and age, how does it get to the point that an eleven year old doesn’t know how to touch type? What exactly are they learning in school? Computers are pervasive in today’s society. Learning to type isn’t exactly hard, yet it offers immediate and lifelong rewards. You don’t need an expensive program or anything, you just need a program, and many are free. What’s more important than learning how to properly use computers, knowing that America’s youth use them several hours per day?

I learned to type at the age of ten back in fifth grade. The school had one computer lab that was full of Apple IIs. Those computers had monochrome green monitors and lacked hard drives. We had to insert a bootable “learn to type” floppy diskette into the computer before turning it on. And the computer lab was busy enough that we could only go there once a week, but still, that’s how we learned to type. Later, in sixth grade, I took my first proper computer science course, and that’s when I became a really good typist.

So I thus find it inexcusable that, eleven years later, with much better computer hardware and a much greater penetration of personal computers across all of society, students aren’t learning how to type. Admittedly we were on the vanguard of computer education in learning how to type that early, but eleven years later, everyone should be learning it. My cousin also remarked to me that they no longer teach cursive in schools, which I kind of feel saddened over but I do understand it (even though I still use cursive exclusively on those rare occasions that I need to write down anything of sizable length). But there is no excuse whatsoever for this saddening lack of proper computer instruction. Learning how to write in cursive should have been replaced with learning how to type, not removed altogether.

So I’m wondering when my cousin is ever going to learn how to type. Each day that he goes through life without that essential skill marks another day of missed opportunities. I certainly wouldn’t be writing blog posts like these, or anything recreational of real length, if my typing speed was ten times slower than what it currently is. Not knowing how to type is a huge barrier to the intelligent use of computers, leaving those afflicted with patience for little more than typing in keywords to search on YouTube. Not knowing how to type is a huge barrier towards becoming a good writer, a skill I’ve found incredibly useful. After all, learning how to write well simply takes practice. If practice takes frustratingly long just to write out a single paragraph, with so many thoughts going through one’s head that can never make it onto the monitor, learning suffers.

Saving money through shadetree automobile maintenance

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

I read the blog The Simple Dollar semi-regularly. It’s written by a frugal, penny-pinching miser who blogs all of his tips to save as much money as possible. And I don’t say that in a bad way. I don’t read it for the advice, as I’m already doing well enough on my own in saving money without having to resort to some of the extreme tips he talks about. No, I read it for the amusement factor. I’m constantly amazed by the depths he’ll go to to save money.

The best example of what I am talking about is his description of manufacturing his own laundry detergent. A couple times a year he makes a huge batch of detergent on his kitchen stove by combining the raw cleansing ingredients with water. He later calculated how much he was saving versus bulk powdered laundry detergent and it came out to a few cents per load in savings. The extreme lengths that he goes to save every last penny are what make reading his blog so much fun.

So, in the spirit of The Simple Dollar, I think I’ll give my own (reasonable!) tip for saving money. While getting my brake pads replaced recently (something I didn’t want to do on my own), the mechanic informed me that my radiator coolant was dirty and that I needed a full coolant back flush. He wasn’t just saying this to make extra money; it really had been a long time since my last one (if ever?). The only problem was, it was “only” $129. I told him I didn’t want him to do it, that I could do it much cheaper on my own. I can and did, and so can you, even if you don’t have any prior experience with automobile maintenance. That’s right, you too can be a shadetree mechanic in the pursuit of saving money.

I went to my local auto parts store and bought everything I needed, including two gallons of antifreeze, a bottle of radiator cleaner fluid, and the kit. I also went to the grocery store and picked up two gallons of distilled water, because it’s a good deal cheaper to buy antifreeze and mix it yourself in a 50/50 ratio with water than buying the 50/50 blend at the auto parts store. Until recently, auto parts stores didn’t even sell the 50/50 blend anyway. Now it’s a nice moneymaker for them. The total cost of all of the necessary parts? $29. I saved $100 simply by doing doing the coolant flush myself. Hopefully you can appreciate that, unlike making your own laundry detergent, this is worth it.

The whole process of flushing the coolant only took about an hour and a half. I emptied the coolant into a tray by unscrewing the drain valve. Then I added water from a garden hose, ran the engine for ten minutes, drained it, refilled it with water and the radiator cleaner fluid, and drove normally for three hours per the instructions (this ended up being about four days’ worth of commuting). Then I emptied that out using the tray, unscrewed a single hose clamp on a coolant pipe entering the top of the engine (all you need is a screwdriver), inserted the T-junction from the cleaner kit into that, fixed it in place using hose clamps, and attached the garden hose. Then I just ran the engine for five minutes with the hose on and the radiator cap off (the actual flushing), unscrewed the hose, removed the T-junction, drained the water, and refilled it with a 50/50 mix of antifreeze and distilled water.

Altogether I found the process more fun and less messy than doing an oil change, and you even save far less money on an oil change than a coolant flush. If you’re adventurous and looking for some easy money to save, I would recommend not paying a mechanic to do a coolant flush. I saved $100 at a cost of an hour and a half of my time, and I actually found it interesting because I had never done it before. So there’s a money-saving tip you can bank on.