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Alan At Large - Musings Of A Grasshopper Mind

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January 7th, 2011

02:27 pm: update on the car
The forensics man said it will take about a week and a half to get the DNA results back, which I thought was astonishingly fast. He said that New Zealand has one of the best turnarounds for this kind of thing in the world, and he seemed quietly proud of that, as indeed he deserves to be.

Also he told me that the cell phone left in the car had lots of photos of people doing "gangsta" attitudes and text messages to his mum etc. He should be easy to track down...

But even if and when they find and charge the bastard(s) I'll still be heaps of money out of pocket because the insurance will only cough up about $3000.

So it goes...

12:52 pm: Stolen Car
Last night, while we were asleep, someone broke into my garage and stole my car. I reported it to the police and about 9.00am I got a phone call from them -- they'd found it about half a mile away and could I come down and check it out?

I wandered down the road. The car was a mess. All the windows were smashed, there were dents in the passenger side, and the roof light was dangling.  The ignition was smashed and so was the lock on the driver side door. They'd used a screwdriver to break in and break the igition to start the car. The thief had cut himself and there was blood on both the doors on the driver's side. Also lots of blood on the seats and carpet. The thief (or probably one of his buddies, actually) had also left a cell phone on the back seat. There was a screwdriver (presumably the one they used to break in with) left on the floor. And, for some odd reason, a small stick. 

The engine was still running, but the tank was still almost full, just as it had been when it was taken. Obviously  the car was just taken, driven down the road and dumped. Why? It makes no sense.

The car was towed away to be examined by  police forensics for fingerprints and to swab the blood for DNA analysis. The policeman who found the car drove me back home and took photos of the garage. He found some glass and blood on the garage floor and forensics have come and taken swabs of this as well.

Great start to the New Year!

May 31st, 2010

11:04 am: Kobo EBook reader
Well, I have a new toy. Whitcoulls are selling what I suspect is probably the first dedicated EBook reader to arrive in New Zealand (there are rumours that Borders were selling some piece of junk, but I never saw any sign of it).

Overall I am quite pleased with the Kobo (if you are wondering about the name, it's an anagram of the word "book"), but it does have some frustrating limitations.

Let's begin at the beginning. The quick start instruction leaflet, which is the only printed documentation supplied with the device, is a very badly written document which explains nothing. However it does tell you to plug your new Kobo into your PC and strongly implies that when you do so for the first time a registration program will start to run. So I plugged it in and waited for the program but nothing happened. The Kobo did show up as an extra disk device and when I browsed around the files on it I eventually found the registration program and ran it.

The program logs me on to the Whitcoulls web site where I  can spend lots of money on EBooks, something I have no intention of doing (more on this later). It also records information about me on the Kobo itself and, presumably, on a database at Whitcoulls. This information is used to generate the key that allows me to read DRM protected books on my device. Giving the book to other people won't work because their keys are different from mine and so they won't be able to decode and read the book. There are ways around this, but frankly it's a hassle.

The Kobo comes with 100 free books pre-installed. That means that they chose 100 "classics" from Project Gutenberg. The list contains all the usual culprits plus one or two surprises -- how did Jack London get on there? Annoyingly, the books cannot be deleted from the Kobo, so if there are things on the list that you have absolutely no intention of reading, tough luck!

The only formats the Kobo supports are PDF and EPUB. There is no support for plain text or RTF files which, I gather, other readers such as the Kindle do support. On the other hand, it's quite easy to convert text files and RTF files into EPUB format; but it's an annoying extra step.

Books that you are reading are put into the Kobo's "I'm Reading" list. This list quickly fills up (and so becomes slow to navigate) as you glance through some book or other to see if you want to read it. Once a book appears on the list there is absolutely no way to remove it again without reading the whole book (or, more accurately, going to the last chapter and slowly paging through to the end). This is a pain.

The User Guide says that you can cull the list by using the desktop software that you originally registered the device with, but that's a bare faced lie; you can't. If the book is one you loaded onto the Kobo youself, you can remove it from the list by deleting the book completely, but that strikes me as a bit draconian.

The reading software on the Kobo is quite primitive -- the only way to jump around in a book is to choose a chapter from the table of contents. It would be nice to be able to jump to a given page number, but you can't. And if you happen to have an EBook that doesn't have a table of contents (yes, they do exist) you are screwed.

Support for PDF files is pathetic. You can't adjust the font other than by choosing to magnify the whole document and when you do that, it no longer fits on the screen properly. So if you happen to have a PDF with an unreadably small font, you are screwed again. Furthermore you cannot jump around a PDF document at all. The only choice is to go page by slow page. Software does exist to convert PDF files into EPUB files, but the results are variable. So mostly you are just screwed again.

The Kobo has a hidden reset switch that you press with the traditional paperclip. This is supposed to set the Kobo back to its virgin state (all your books are deleted and only the 100 classics remain). Unfortunately that doesn't work either; it simply acts as a power switch.

I spent the first few days after I got the Kobo learning everything I could about the EPUB format. Then I converted the two volumes of Trimmings From The Triffid's Beard into EPUB and loaded them on to the Kobo. Oddly, I couldn't read them -- the Kobo claimed that the content was locked and it refused to display the books. A lot of googling later, I discovered that the Kobo assumes that any book with an apostrophe in the title is locked. All I had to do was remove the apostrophe and I could read the book in all its glory! That is just plain dumb.

So what will I use the Kobo for? I certainly won't be buying EBooks -- they are far too expensive and I have philosophical objections to the DRM that they come encumbered with. So the only books on my Kobo will be EPUB documents I have made myself from my own computer files and free books that I have found on the internet. There are heaps of those available. I've already got a lot of Henry Rider Haggard novels from Project Gutenberg, for example. So the Kobo will get a lot of use, but I'll still be reading a lot of proper books as well. The Kobo is strictly for public domain / creative commons material.

April 2nd, 2010

10:19 pm: OK -- this is rather geeky. Please feel free to ignore it...

Now that I have broadband and I am connected 24/7 it seemed like a good idea to exploit it. So I opened up port 22 on one of my boxes (well, to be strictly accurate, I forwarded port 22 on my router to one of my boxes) and then I allowed myself to connect to it from wherever I happened to be (mostly work, but free wifi hot spots will work as well). I'm using key authentication (none of this username/password dialogue nonsense).

What this means in practice is that I can VNC into my home network from anywhere and I can also set up a SOCKS proxy so that I can email via home and visit dubious web sites via home from work (or wherever)  without anyone being able to tell I'm doing naughty stuff. And I can do internet banking without anybody eavesdropping. Great fun.!

Of course, having opened up port 22 I now have lots of Evil Little Sods (ELS) trying to log in and do naughties. It won't do them any good -- I know how to secure things so that they can't get in -- but it is amusing to watch them knocking on the door.

Just for fun, I've been collecting statistics about their failed login attempts and I've really rather enjoyed looking at the login names they use to try and break in. Probably the most popular is "admin", but there have been lots of 'kamathingumijigs' from Japan and serious stuff like 'oracle' and 'webmaster' from China (the far east is full of ELS). Surprisingly, Canada, Switzerland, France and Mexico also seem to have a thriving community of hackers.

Good luck to them!

February 14th, 2010

08:17 pm: Kage Baker, one of my favourite authors of recent years, died this month. William Tenn, one of my favorite authors of my younger years, died this month.

It hasn't been a good month.

January 3rd, 2010

06:33 pm: Geek Stuff
I've attached my old Asus Eee 701 PC to my stereo system and television and I'm using it as a media control centre. The computer acts as a console that allows me to play my mp3 files through the stereo system and my video files through the TV (the TV itself is also hooked up to the stereo system). The mp3 and video files are all stored on an external USB drive.

As an added bonus, I can attach to the 701 from any computer in any room in the house and control the media playback from that machine rather than from the 701 itself. I can also do the reverse -- I can make the media files on the 701 available to any machine in the house and play them on that local machine rather than on the 701 itself.

Cool, eh?

For the technically minded:

The Asus Eee 701 is running linux (of course). The playback of media files is controlled with VLC. I can also run VLC as a remote X client on my other linux boxes, which allows me to control the media playback from any machine with X installed on it. The 701 is configured as an NFS server and it is sharing the media files across the network so, once they are mounted, I just run a local media player (usually VLC again).

I experimented with using sshfs rather than nfs, but that proved to be a bit slow. It wasn't too bad for music files, but video was just hopeless. NFS gave much better performance.

Current Mood: accomplished

April 27th, 2009

09:06 pm: Harpo The Bastard Cat
Harpo The Bastard Cat, looking ever so cute, sat on the floor and stared at me appealingly.

"Can I get on your lap?" he asked. "Please, please, pretty please with knobs on?"

His big, soulful eyes looked up at me in desperate hope.

"Of course you can," I said and patted my lap encouragingly.

He jumped up, turned round a couple of times to get comfortable, twitched his bottom, raised his tail and peed all over me. Then he jumped down and ran away sniggering 

March 19th, 2009

02:42 pm: What is this thing called science fiction?
Some friends of mine are currently embroiled in a debate about whether or not a particular work belongs to the SF/Fantasy genre. Indeed, some of them are trying to define just how much of it is SF or Fantasy -- 50%, 60% or only 30%?

It's all utter nonsense. People have been trying to define the genre for 83 years and the debate is just as sterile now as it was back then.

Consider this:

There's an advert on TV for a kitchen cleaner. The advert shows an immaculately dressed young woman casually wiping a cloth over grease and yucky bits supposedly baked on to an oven surface. The cloth skims lightly over the crud, leaving the areas where it has wiped fresh and gleaming. The young lady never breaks into a sweat and gets not an atom of muck on her. As anybody who has ever tried to clean an oven knows, this never happens in real life. Lots of scrubbing is required; it's a filthy, horrible job. The advert is obviously fantasy of the highest order. I think I'll nominate it for an award.

Oh -- and what about that very famous, multi-award winning SF film and book "Dune" by Frank Herbert?

Well, it's clear to me that "Dune" is not even tangentially SF and it should never have been considered for an award. The Fremen are obviously only thinly disguised Arabs and the desert world of Dune is itself simply a metaphor for the Middle East. Indeed, Paul Muad D'Ib himself is quite obviously a symbol for the house of Ib'n Saud (the similarity of the spelling gives it all away). Given his position as the leader of a revolutionary movement (some might call him a terrorist, others a freedom fighter) it is obvious that Paul is being equated with Osama bin Laden, himself a member of the house of Saud. "Dune" therefore, is nothing but a commentary on the politics and religions of the Middle East as they intersect with their Western equivalents. All the so-called science fictional trappings are merely allegorical and metaphorical literary devices designed to shore up this structure.

So there's absolutely nothing science fictional about "Dune". Let's start a movement to have its awards stripped from it...

See how easy the game is, and how futile the arguments of definition are?

Margaret Atwood has written several novels that many people consider to be science fiction. She herself denies that vehemently. She knows exactly what science fiction is. According to her, it's stories about talking squids in outer space and since there are no talking squids in her novels then her novels cannot possibly be science fiction. Actually, I really like her definition. Since I don't recall ever reading anything with talking squids from outer space in it, it becomes clear to me that there are actually no proper science fiction stories anywhere! We are still waiting for the first one to be written.

Or look at it another way. Science fiction stories can take place before the universe even existed or after it has been destroyed and at any time and place in the middle. That thing we call mainstream literature takes place inside a very narrow band within this spectrum. Therefore ALL literature can be considered to be science fiction and the so-called main stream is just a special (and not very important) case of it.

Given that these kinds of arguments are so easy to construct and so hard to refute it seems to me that the discussion curently going on among my friends is doomed to failure.

How many SF stories can dance on the head of a pin?

December 5th, 2008

02:30 pm: There's a bar I drink at which has a "guest beer" every month. Anyone ordering the guest beer has to fill in a form which goes into a draw. If you win the draw, your prize is that you get to choose the next guest beer.

So I ordered some, and the man behind the bar plucked a form off a pile of several hundred and asked me to fill in my name and mobile phone number so that I could go into the draw. I took the form and studied it closely.

"Name?" it asked me.

Aha! The hard questions first! I filled in my name.

"Moblie number?" asked the form, somewhat smugly I thought.

Moblie number? I haven't got one of those.

Methinks the staff must have been drinking the guest beer when they proof read the form...

November 9th, 2008

12:20 am: Election Results

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