Another reason why I consider myself agnostic

A lot of thought regarding my own personal belief structures has been rattling around in my head for the last year or two. Perhaps a lot of it has to do with what I see as the ascendancy of the radical religious view, and how somehow the concept of ‘spirituality’ has been perverted into a political cause. To me spirituality is a deeply personal, internal, and individualistic thing. When attempts are made to codify, organize, and publish those thoughts as dogma, I believe it damages, if not destroys those paths that an individual is following.
Organized religion, or even just the term ‘religion’, in it’s many forms, I feel is anathema to this process of self-examination and growing. Why is it that organizations feel that they must structure a persons individual growth, and if you do it ‘wrong’, somehow you are ‘bad’.
Now before I get everyone in an uproar, the immediate reaction by those who practice religion in whatever form tends to be “Wait, _I_ dont’ practice religion that way!” or “My faith doesn’t believe that!” I say to them then “Then why are you practicing a religion?”
Seriously though, take a look at that. A religion is an attempt to explain things that may not be understandable or clear to a person existing in the world. In the Good Old Days, religion was all powerful because the world was not well understood. Modern day, however, the average layman can tell you what an Atom is, and that the earth goes around the sun. So why do we need to make up stories about old men up in the sky to explain the world around us?
What set me off on this was not only the ongoing idiocy by the Creationists in the US government, in particular the absurd drive by the radical right to tear down the concept of evolution as it’s being taught in the schools. There’s a wonderful commentary from the American Association of Physics Teachers:

Evolution and cosmology represent two of the unifying concepts of modern science. There are few scientific theories more firmly supported by observations than these: Biological evolution has occurred and new species have arisen over time, life on Earth originated more than a billion years ago, and most stars are at least several billion years old. Overwhelming evidence comes from diverse sources – the structure and function of DNA, geological analysis of rocks, paleontological studies of fossils, telescopic observations of distant stars and galaxies – and no serious scientist questions these claims. We do our children a grave disservice if we remove from their education an exposure to firm scientific evidence supporting principles that significantly shape our understanding of the world in which we live.

I do not say that folks should not have the right to organize to observe their beliefs. Observation is one thing, but brainwashing and political activism to expand the power of those religious organizations is obscene.
In doing some of my research, I came upon some commentary by one of the more powerful religious organizations, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons. This is a huge, wealthy, and powerful organization. The Mormons are noted for their high secrecy, but there are several very good sources for insight into the practices this organization condones. In particular, I refer to the Ex-Mormons Archiva. The articles that drove me to post here refer to the ‘Apache Tears’ episode (see down further on that page). This is an organization entrusted with small children, and they inflict this level of trauma on them. On top of that is the doctrine of “Death before Rape”, which seems to be norm. “You got raped? You must not have fought hard enough, you’re still alive.”
This is just one example of my total disdain for virtually all forms of organized religion. I feel that we as human beings are in no position to decide what is right or what is wrong (if there is such a thing), and even beyond that, we are in no position to define that viewpoint to others. Who are we to know? The old maxim “There is no truth” still holds. (For more entertaining reading, apparently even that statement is false. Another example of self delusional double-think.)
Agnosticism. “We just don’t know.”

Microsofts World View Validated Again

If you have a pulse and are connected to the net at anything faster than pigeon speed, you’ve heard that Sony has released the Playstation 3 at the E3 gaming expo. I don’t know about you, but the specs on this thing are pretty mindblowing. Checkit:

  • It will support Blu-ray (obviously), DVD±R/W, CD-R/RW
  • Backwards compatible with the PlayStation 2 and original Playstation
  • One 3.2GHz Cell processor – total system performance rated at 2.18 teraflops (uh, that’s actually about twice what Microsoft is claiming the Xbox 360 will do); it will have 256MB system RAM 3.2GHz, and 256MB GDDR VRAM at 700MHz
  • The nVidia graphics will be called the RSX (Reality Synthesizer), and will trump the Xbox 360 with 1080p (yes, that’s a p) graphics support.
  • There will be a 2.5-inch hard drive (i.e. laptop hard drive) attachment – a first for a Sony launch (no, we don’t count the PSX and/or the FF add-on)
  • Memory Stick Duo slot, and very surprisingly, an SD and CF slots
  • Bluetooth support with up to seven wireless controllers
  • Six USB system ports
  • 1080p HDTV direct support (!!)

Wow. For me, the kicker on this is once again they’ve made backwards compatability a big priority. This means this PS3 can play all the games released for the PS2 (somewhere around a bazillion) as well as all the games for the PS1 (another few bazillion). Cool.
Now lets take a look at the Other Side. Microsoft released their Xbox 360. Microsoft has been trying to take over the home market from Sony for quite a while, and while they have a good solid hold on sports games, they’re not making much progress elsewhere. They had hoped that coming out with a new console around the time the PS3 came out would win them points.
The word on the street is that the Xbox 360 is backwards compatable. Sorta. The comments I’ve heard are that it will “run the major titles”.
Does this sound familiar? Microsoft went to the biggest game manufacturers, and asked htem what their top selling games were, and tweaked and modded the 360 to make sure it would run those games. Screw the rest of them, they didn’t make any money.
This approach is SOOO like every upgrade that Microsoft has ever done – Win95, Win98, Win2k, WinXP, etc. The ‘big stuff’ ran, but the little stuff had a tendency to break.
I’ll point out that Sony is maintaining compatability with a machine that hasn’t been manufactured in something like 7 years. And no ‘some titles’ or ‘the big ones should work’ schpiel here. They all do. Why? Because they know their specs, they know their platform, they know what a game can and can’t do, and they built the environments accordingly.
Not that I would have gone out and bought an Xbox 360. I wouldn’t. But the PS3 just seems to blow the socks off anything the 360 is offering, including backwards compatability so I can play those old dusty PS1 games I have.
Now, all I have to do is be able to afford it. Hmm.

Ever wonder how a Lightsaber works?

You see them at the stores, on TV, and occasionally during police activities, but how do they really work?
Check out the nice full detailed article at for an inside look at these fascinating and flexible devices. They go into detail not only on the theory and construction, but also into examples of both self defense (keeping an attacker at bay) as well as domestic (re-warming your coffee) uses.
Interested in one for yourself? Make sure you mosey over to Park Sabers and check out their full line of custom built lightsabers.

Don LaFontaine on Wait Wait Don’t Tell me

My voiceover hero, Don LaFontaine was the guest on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. The show is available on the NPR website. The show is from 05-14-2005, so the ‘current’ link might not work. You can try this link. Don’s part in the show starts around the 18 minute mark.
Don LaFontaine is also known as the ‘Voice of God’ – or ‘The King of the Movie Trailer’. His is the voice most folks associate with modern trailers in the theater. Some refer to him as the “In a world…” guy – a phrase he actually ad-libbed at several years ago, and is now a mainstay.

‘Downing Street’ War Memo

During the runup to the british election, a memo was referenced repeatedly referring to documents detailing a series of high intelligence meetings between british intelligence (MI6) and the Administration in 2002:

the documents help prove that the leaders made a secret decision to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein nearly a year before launching their attack, shaped intelligence to that aim and never seriously intended to avert the war through diplomacy.

In the non-bushy circles, such a cry is frequently dismissed with a “Yes yes, we’ve heard this over and over again, but there’s no proof, go away. Who cares.” These sort of documents do in fact document how much Bush has lied to the world and the American public about his motivations and his planning.
What’s been most appalling is the lack of attention this document has gotten. House democrats wrote to Bush on May 6th:

In a letter to President Bush on May 6, 89 House Democrats expressed shock over the documents. They asked whether they proved that the White House had agreed to invade Iraq months before seeking Congress’ approval

Both Bush and Blair have denied that a decision on war was made in 2002, and maintain that they were preparing for military operations only as an option. A Blair spokesman said the report added nothing significant to the record of the run-up to the war.

Game Review: Armagetron

In the ongoing quest to keep myself entertained, I try to rummage around looking for good distractions to while away the hours between the time I declare “I can’t work anymore” and the time I can safely say “It’s time to go to bed.”
My earlier solution to fill these hours was Kobo Deluxe, which, while still an outstanding game, gets wearing after a while. Not to mention crampy on the hands.
I recently discovered ArmageTron, the most accurate reproduction of the infamous Lightcycle ‘game’ in the 1982 movie ‘Tron I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of ’em.
Now, I, like other geeks, had daydreams about that lightcycle game for the longest time. I even wrote a version of it for the TRS-80 called ‘Gridrunner’ that was a load of fun, but hardly as visual as the movie.
ArmageTron reproduces the exact look and feel of the movie game. The scrolling green grid, the whine of the motors on the cycles, the exact left! right! left left! action of steerig the bikes and everything. The game designers have also brought in things that puzzled me in the original movie, but make the gameplay perfect.
For instance, your lightcycle runs faster if it’s close to the jetwall of another cycle. If you’re brushing up against it, it’s the fastest. This doesnt’ work for the arena walls (so you can’t go tearing around the outside of the arena), but it does make chasing someone else interesting. The person behind doing the chasing has the advantage of picking up speed, the person being chased has the advantage of being able to make a right angle turn directly in front of the chaser.
In keeping with the original premise in ‘Tron’ (that the programs were actually small autonomous creatures living inside the computer – and they could think live and die on their own), the AI opponents in the game are named after well known applications that are known to be somewhat tempermental. This is presumably to give you satisfaction ramming them into a wall. It works. There’s nothing like tearing off in pursuit of ‘Outlook’ and slamming it into a wall.
I installed ArmageTron via the Debian Sarge packages, so installation took only took a few seconds. The game is rock solid and very playable, though does require a fully functional GL installation. I haven’t tested the networked version yet, but variable-level AI is quite a challenge in its own right.
This is a fast paced, well designed, and extremely well executed game, taking a simple concept, with a baseline for presentation, and making it an eminently playable game. Kudos!

Aliens sighted over Florida! Or not…

This is sort of interesting. If you go to a few specific spots in Google Maps, you can see what appears to be huge spheres over parts of Florida.
A bunch of folks have been chatting about this, and several theories (“It’s a Mentos ad!”) have been suggested (“Swamp gas from a weather balloon got trapped in a thermal pocket and refracted the light from venus.”).
Curiously, there appears to be several of these ‘Florida Spheres’ aligned in a loose grid pattern. I’m sure the tin-foil hat crowd will leap on this as either proof that the invasion has started, or to explain the sporadic voting record in Florida. Hmm.
What seems the most likely answer is this is a bit of condensation within the camera body itself (if it were on the lens it would be invisible). These pictures were taken via an airplane flyover, so it could very well be water. In fact, on the Flickr site above, you can see the ‘drop’ has evaporated or moved around a bit.
Not to say this’ll stop the UFO-ites, but it should be interesting to see what spin(s) folk take on this.

KDE Handy tool tip – Easy screen resizing – krandrtray

Since I set up my T40 laptop with a dock and an external monitor, I have to frequently change the resolution from the laptops native 1400×1050 (yes, that high) to 1280×1024 (what my monitor can handle). Up til now I’ve been using the Desktop config tool to do this (right click on desktop, Configure Desktop->Display->Screen size. Whaddapain.
Folks on #kde pointed me to a handy little tool called ‘krandrtray’, which puts a small icon in your systray. Clicking on it brings up a pulldown menu (see above) where you can change many of your screen settings, such as resolution and frequency. Very handy!
I noted that krandrtray was not showing up in any of the menus, so it was a little tricky to find. I suggest using Alt-F2 to launch it, or just launch it from a Konsole.

New camera! Bike ride! Warm weather!

Goodness, what a day. With Cat out of town this week, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Zach, and today we got to go out and bikeride for the first time in probably 2 weeks.

Not only was that cool, but today I received my new Olympus D770UZ camera. Astute readers will remember that about a year and a bit ago, my old camera was stolen at an event. I’ve been without a decent digital camera since then, and with work picking up now, I finally bit the bullet and bought a new one. It arrived today, and so while Zach and I were out biking, I naturally gave it a go.

The camera generates stupid-high resolution pictures (2277×1712) which would make very little sense sharing on the web, so I’ve thumbnailed and rescaled these to avoid 800k downloads beating the bejeezus out of our server.

Down the road from us is Berlin Orchards, an apple orchard we sometimes go to to pick apples. They have some fantastic trees around the fields, and I loved how this one stood out. By the way, this is less than 2 miles from our site for Mosaic, so it gives you an idea what the area is like.

The camera is small enough that I’m comfortable letting Zach handle it. I handed it to him and rode away from him and back, asking him to just keep taking pictures. This is the one that came out the best. By the way, that’s the Assabet River Rail Trail we’re on. It’s a beautiful trail as you can see, and Zach and I ride it a lot. Check out the AART inc site for pictures of the ongoing construction on it.

Quiz time. Can you figure out what this image is? I didn’t do much more than hold the camera and take the picture, but it’s a nifty keano pattern. My pattern/artist/nutso mom couldn’t figure out what it is. I’m pleased 🙂

This is an example of why I like the Olympus larger-scale lenses over the small-aperture standard digital camera lens. Because the 770UZ has a 10x zoom on it, it has a larger lens, and therefore handles long distance pictures in an elegant way, but shortening up the depth of field. This picture was actually taken from about 30′ away, with the zoom at about 80%.

These are selected from about 2 dozen pictures I took, including an MPG of Z bikeriding. The camera is fast, handy to work with, and I’m screamingly pleased with the results. The image quality is what I’ve come to expect from Olympus digcams.

Oh, and the bikeride was nice too. We rode about 6 miles in (according to happy bike computer) about 34 minutes. We stopped and fiddled with the camera a bunch, hence the slow pace, but even still, with me on a trail bike and Zach on a kids 5 speed, we move along okay.

Blogs and Quotes and Stuff

Yay, it looks like Derek has started blogging again, another person to add to my Sage feed. I have to thank Derek for finding this quote, which I had seen many years ago, but couldn’t actually find:

The geographical center of Boston is in Roxbury. Due north of the center we find the South End. This is not to be confused with South Boston which lies directly east from the South End. North of the South End is East Boston and southwest of East Boston is the North End. –(unknown)

Last, but not least, everyone must check out Darth Vaders Blog.

The Ongoing Golf TDi Diesel debate

This past week I drove my nifty Golf TDI down to NJ for a quick visit to a client. It was a great drive, but it gave me time to think about the moral arguments in my head about my car.
On the one hand, it can’t be denied that getting 42-43mpg nowadays is a good thing. Diesel prices in Boston run about $2.49 a gallon (though down in NJ it was down to $2.15. What’s up with that?). I can run almost 600 miles on a single tank of gas, and the car is _FUN_ to drive. This was one of rare long distance drives where I could really wind it out and have fun with it (go go gadget Merritt Parkway, a road that is high on my list of East Coast Speedways.
On the other hand, there are questions about the cleanliness of the Turbo Diesel Injected, or ‘TDI’ engine.
It goes without saying that the TDI engine in the current model Golf is vastly superior to the old Diesel engines that went into the VW Rabbits in the 70’s. They’re far cleaner and more efficient. You don’t see current generation TDI’s with black soot all over the back of the car. But California, New York, and Massachusetts have forced VW to withdraw the TDI because of questions about the emissions.
I did a little digging trying to find out the reason behind this. If I’m driving a car that is dirtier than a standard gasoline engine, I’m really not gaining much…
The folks over a TDI Club have one of the most detailed and complete FAQ’s about these engines (heck, about ANY topic) that I’ve ever seen.
The relevant section is in the part about emissions…

TDI vs. gasoline – The TDi emissions levels are among the lowest ever for Diesel powered engines. All TDi powered Volkswagens sold in the US meet so-called “Tier 1” emission limits. The TDi is often “cleaner” overall than gasoline powered cars. CO2 emissions are 25% less than a conventional gasoline powered engine. CO, HC and NOx emissions are less than previous Volkswagen Diesels. Diesel fuel has lower evaporative emissions than gasoline. Diesel fuel also requires less energy intensive refining than gasoline.

Diesel engines generally emit higher amounts of NOx and particles than equivalent gasoline powered cars, even though CO and HC emissions may be lower, and total emissions are lower due to much better fuel consumption. The current TDI Volkswagens typically emit slightly somewhat lower than the Tier 1 limits for NOx and particles (around 0.052 g/mi of particulate matter [PM] and 0.82 g/mi of NOx per EPA data), but the CO and HC emissions are far below the Tier 1 limits and well below the emissions of the equivalent gasoline engine.

Further down, there’s the section specifically about why California and NY (and now Massachusetts) have withdrawn these engines:

California and New York issues – The state of California places limits on the “fleet average” emissions of auto manufacturers. Currently, a manufacturer can only sell a certain proportion of “Tier 1” vehicles in relation to the number of “LEV” or low-emission vehicles. Certain other states have copied the California legislation. Volkswagen has stated that the withdrawal from sale of 2000-model TDI vehicles from certain states is due to these reasons. Furthermore, California has declared diesel exhaust to be a toxic air contaminant, although other studies dispute this conclusion. The situation in New York is the same.

My interpretation of this document (and it’s long, and quite detailed), is that the TDI engine is in fact more efficient on all fronts than a gasoline engine. MPG for MPG, it is dirtier in particulates, but because of it’s uncommonly high mileage, it is still cleaner than a standard-mileage car.
Compared to ultra-efficient gas-hybrid engines (such as those in the Toyota Prius) it appears that the TDI still puts out less of the more gruesome chemicals (Formaldehyde and Benzine – in Benzine’s case, by an order of magnitude), but can be considered ‘dirtier’ due to particulate emissions.
I’m also intrigued by this comment:

The emission levels from diesel engines tend to remain more-or-less constant throughout the useful life of the engine, whereas gasoline engines have many more emission-related components which deteriorate and lead to higher and higher emissions as the engine gets older.

So for me, I think I can keep driving my TDI with a clear conscience. It is a high performing, very clean engine that gets great mileage. It is not the ultra-clean engine that a pure electric or Hydrogen based vehicle may be, but it is available now, the price is good on it, it has 4 doors and is very zippy to drive. I think I’ll keep it.

Multitasking in the aughts.

A post in Tom’s livejournal made me think a bit about how people use computers in the modern day.
Back in the Dark Ages (the 80’s and early 90’s), most PC’s ran single tasking operating systems that let you run (with only slight variation) one program at a time. You ran one program, when you were done with it, you closed it, and ran something else. This mindset set the stage for many people’s home-computer use.
By way of digression, I use the term ‘PC’ in the generic defintion, not in the context of an “IBM Compatible Computer”, after IBM co-opted the name in 1983.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Because of this “One screen, one application” approach, folks who continued working on Microsoft-based systems tended to stick with that model, while those who ‘branched out’ into alternate systems, such as the Amiga or the MacIntosh, or spent time with the early Unix X windows environments, tend to work on their machines in ‘multitasking’ modes. Running many applications at once, and flipping between them rapidly.
More recently, Windows systems have progressed to the point where it is feasible to actually run more than one application at once efficiently. But even with that improvement, compare how a Unix desktop user operates with the way a Windows user operates.
Unix (and by extension Linux, and even Mac folks) tend to run their desktops as a series of floating or tiled windows – each application running in its own window, but with the windows overlapping or tiling. On Unix, I personally set up multiple desktops – one having my ‘communications’ stuff (email, irc, etc), and another having my ‘work’ desktop (editor, compiler, reference materials). My experience watching Windows users tends to show them running the 2 or 3 applications they have available all in full screen mode – and generally it is in fact only 1-2 apps.
At the moment, in a ‘quick off the cuff’ setup on my laptop, I have 3 windows on a single desktop (shell, browser, and irc), with 1-2 small things in the dock (Jabber, etc). But even within my browser, I have 5-6 tabs open. To me, this is a minimalist setup. To a windows user, this would be ‘busy’.
I’m not making any value judgements here, just an observance. Much of this came to light watching people use Internet Explorer – a browser I find supremely inferior to Firefox, if only for Firefox’ ability to use Tabs. This (IMHO) quantum leap in browser useability is not as strong a draw to Windows users because, I believe, this mindset of ‘one app at a time’ softens the attraction to a tabbed interface. There’s just nothing for a Windows user to latch onto and say “Oh, I could see how that could help!” Whereas Unix and Mac users are all over it. (I’ll note that Safari, under OSX, has a tabbed interface).
I’m not going in for bashing Windows users here – to each user his or her own. But to me this does go to explain why Windows users haven’t flocked en masse to Firefox (though the adoption rate by Windows user is quite high all things considered – this mostly driven by the incredible insecurity of IE).