Crucifact or Crucifiction?

While making the dog-sitting rounds today, I noticed a book at one of our patron’s homes, titled God is My CEO. Although I’m not an overtly religious or spiritual person, I find the analogy hollow, particularly on this Easter weekend..

Why is it hollow? Glad you asked.

Let’s start with a clarification: spirituality and religion are two distinct concepts. Spirituality is the belief in the metaphysical, something beyond our worldly existence. Spirituality is typical, perhaps even necessary, to human cultures throughout history. Spirituality is completely abstract, and varies as widely as can be imagined. Religion is the worldly manifestation of that spirituality, usually in form of doctrine and ritual. This is at a stroke religion’s strength, and it’s weakness: it attempts to parse spirituality into more tangible, worldly concepts. The oil which greases the wheels of religion is faith; in our hearts we know that religion is imperfect, but faith assuages fears about our imperfections and imparts a sense of piety, or strength, or righteousness, or whatever we’re in need of.

Religion (like spirituality) is a unique feature among the creatures of Earth, and it has served us sometimes to our benefit, sometimes to our detriment. Religion is neither good nor evil by nature; it is in principal only the means to grasp at our spirituality. The question of good and evil is answered in the practice of a religion, but that discussion will have to wait until another day. The issue at hand is religion’s specific role in daily life, and in the case of God is My CEO, the modern abuse of religion.

Abuse might be too strong a word.  Religion is being perverted (not for the first or last time, I suspect) by defying it’s intended purpose (spiritual fulfilment).   Instead of removing some part of us from our worldly existence through spiritual enlightenment, it throws the intangible mystery of spirituality into a mundane role, i.e., God as a CEO.  This is a tough line to walk- I’m not suggesting that spirituality and religion have no place in daily life.  Indeed, religion can be a great asset in surviving the daily grind.  It’s the attitude the title of this book that I take issue with; the analogy of God as a CEO.  Clearly, no analogy is perfect, or there’d be no need for it. But to bring something sacred and personal to the niveau of something so bourgeois and decidedly unspiritual seems, well, blasphemous.

The Christian Dilemma 

History is full of similar perversions, and our current days show there’s been little improvement of the situation.  All religions must face this issue, but I’m most familiar with Christianity, so I’ll pick on the Christians.  To be a Christian is to navigate a minefield of hypocrisy.  Will you follow Biblical scripture to the letter, will it be old or new testament?  Or do you take a more measured approach, and try to apply general Biblical concepts?

I don’t know which path I would follow if I were newly introduced to Christianity.  My personal experience is with the Roman-Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church is a fascinating example of the struggle between religion and spirituality.  For centuries, Catholics have been in a bit of an awkward situation.  The same hands that build beautiful cathedrals and compose hymnals for the exultation of God have spilled the blood of untold numbers of men, women and children.  Greedy, malicious Popes have worn the same funny hat as pious and benevolent Popes.  I won’t dwell on the checkered past; sufficed to say, one could just as easily argue there are two Catholic Churches: one good, one evil.  Today that legacy persists, though more subtly.  The rigid hierarchy of the Church remains intact, and that’s what interests me the most.

The Catholic Church is a prime example of a hierarchical religion, which I would argue is a bit of an oxymoron.  Since spirituality is a personal tenet, religion, one assumes, should be largely personal too.  For Catholics, however, religion is dictated from the top-down.  The Catholic Church maintains that the Pope is infallible, and is God’s messenger on Earth.  So if he released a Papal Bull requiring us to wear sombreros to mass, we’d have to do it.  No question.

This rigidity is an asset and a liability:  on one hand, it breeds uniformity.  The Catholic doctrine should be the same throughout the world, which reduces the likelihood that you’ll get radical, bigoted lunatic spewing venom every Sunday morning.

On the other hand, it takes religious freedom out of the hands of those who practice it.  This is, as I stated, is contrary to the very idea of religion and spirituality.

More on this to come….

Dogmatic Robot

That’s what I’ve become. I roll around in my car visiting the canines of Edwardsville thrice daily, cursorily feeding/walking/coercing the poop out of dogs. It’s draining, and I could use some oil.

Fortunately, this weekend marks the end of the dog-sitting bonanza. Normally I wouldn’t agree to be stretched so thin, but Ape & I were planning on using the money to refurbish the bathroom from the black lagoon. Not that the compensation for maintaining someone’s house/pets is enough to cover such an expense, but every little bit helps.

Then, the weather decided to turn against me. Anyone familiar with dogs has had the misfortune of inhaling the putrid scent of a wet canine (or two). Combine this with the natural sequitur of rain + dirt, and you have a stinky, muddy animal that needs to be vigorously cleaned before being allowed to enter the house. Thus, 3x a day for the last 5 days, I’ve been swimming in the scent of dirty wet dogs. This is not all that bad, and I remind myself that I’m doing it for a new bathroom.

Not having stayed in my own house more than few hours this last week, I failed to consider the implications of the ceaseless rain for my basement. I came home one night to feed the cats, took three steps in the basement, and saw torrents of clear, refreshing water rolling across the basement floor. I went back upstairs straightaway, and elected to have a beer to strenthen my resolve. In hindsight, the basement didn’t really end up too badly. We drug nearly all the furniture upstairs (which leaves my humble abode feeling even more cramped) and employed twin de-humidifiers, a shop vac, and whatever else seemed like it would move water.

Suddenly, the money earned from taking care of dogs was earmarked for basement improvement. While certainly not the end of the world, it was a blow to morale (and the bathroom). Then, Ape contrives to convince me that we can’t afford to stay a few extra days in Minneapolis, in light of the unforeseen house-expenses. While I don’t agree, I can’t force her to stay any longer than the conference lasts. We were planning to take the train, but there are no trains going back to Chicago the day the conference ends. So we have to cancel our tickets and try to get a refund from Amtrak.

At first, Amtrak couldn’t even confirm that we had a reservation. After giving them our reservation number, name, credit card number, etc., it took the CSR a while to locate our reservation. We were then informed that we’d have to return the tickets they mailed us to obtain a refund. The hitch is that we were never mailed any tickets; I’d selected the “pickup at station” option when I booked the reservation. The CSR was quite insistent that the tickets had been mailed on Jan. 12, and that we should wait a few more days to see if they came. I don’t need to point out the many fallacies of her statement; we’ll let them stand on their own.

Amtrak woudln’t budge, and then things got ugly.

We called MasterCard to dispute the charge. They indicated that we needed to fill out a form and they would deal with Amtrak (rough em’ up a bit, perhaps), but only the Library Director could fill out the dispute form. Having involved my boss in this embrolio (who seemed slightly annoyed), I then had to explain to her that Ape wanted to come home early (for reasons I disagree with) and the we were now planning on driving (which I sorely wanted to avoid).

Now, instead of a relaxing train ride and 3 days of much-needed vacation after the conference, we’re driving straight there and driving straight back immediately after the conference ends.

Plus, Hrothgar is now passing in and out of the realm of the living. After it seemed to be working normally, the next day Hrothgar wouldn’t boot. I unplugged it, cleared the BIOS, and it booted normally. This struck me as odd, and some heavy googling revealed that San-Diego core processors don’t work properly with the Shuttle SN95G5 BIOS. Now I have to find a task for Hrothgar that will require infrequent restarts (webserver, perhaps), and I have to pony up the dough for a new system after all.

They say that some days, you’re the pigeon, and other days, you’re the statue, but I’ve been getting shit on all week.

The worst part of all strikes me as I write this. At it’s inception, I meant for my blog to host my ideas; that committing my thoughts (and not my emotions) to writing would help me think more clearly. Now, as I read my posts, it’s mostly bitching and not much thinking.

Brought back to life

Hrothgar is back on the air!  Not the long-dead hero of yore, but my recently-dead computer.  Here’s how the drama unfurled:

Hrothgar has been slow lately.  Not for interweb-browsing or tetris, naturally, but photo-editing is nearly impossible.  In this spirit, I began to consider my options for a speed increase.  I could buy a new computer.  New computers are cheaper than ever, right?  Wrong!  At a time when hardware is cheaper than ever, the hardware I want is wildly expensive.  I can’t justify the cost of a new computer (particularly when my humble dwelling needs so many repairs).  So I started thinking along the lines of upgrade.  Hrothgar’s loyal AMD Socket 939 has fallen out of favor these days, so replacement processors are hard to come by.  Fortunately, Newegg had a very cheap AMD 4000+ socket 939 which was still faster than my 4-year old AMD 3800, for only $39.99.  Good deal.

I order said processor, and begin to think about more ram.  My current 1gb of DDR ram is ok, not great.  Here’s a mind-fuck for you: DDR2 is twice as fast and costs a third as much as regular DDR.  So 2gb DDR ram from OCZ (to whom I’m quite loyal)  costs about $140, which seems outrageous.  So I decided to wait.

A few sunrises later, my new processor arrived at the liberry.  I rushed home to swap it as fast as I could, brimming with anticipation over the dizzying speeds Hrothgar would soon achieve.   I started to dismantle Hrothgar and soon was separated by only the heatsink.  I cautiously wrapped my fingers around the base and gently pulled upward…..Nothing.  I pulled slightly harder….Nothing.  I wiggled and waxed…..Nothing.  Flushed with frustration, I gave one ginger tug, then another, and then yanked the whole heatsink as forcefully as I dare.  I reeled back contentedly and set the heatsink on the desk, only to realize that the processor was still quite firmly attached to the heatsink.  Whoops.

For the uninitiated, it should be said that the processor is anchored into the socket, and should be removed only after lifting a small release-lever, which prevents damage.  Clearly, it doesn’t prevent damage when bluntly yanked from its secure position.  My joy turned to chagrin as the implications of my brash action became clear.  I hastily set the ravaged processor aside and turned my attention to the new AMD 4000+.  I carefully placed the proc into the socket, applied a little grease, and reset the heatsink.  I sewed Hrothgar back up, feeling as if I’d narrowly avoided disaster.  But disaster came anyway: Hrothgar wouldn’t boot.  At all.  No fans, no disks.  Shit.

I’ll abbreviate the intervening action; needless to say, there was alot of swearing and thermal-paste stains, and after a prolonged struggle, I’d given up hope.

Flash forward to today.  I realized I hadn’t closely examined the processor; only a cursory glance seemed necessary to make sure the pins were undamaged.  I took Hrothgar apart one last time, and to my surprise, 2 pins were bent nearly 90 degrees on one side of the chip.  Of course pins can be straightened without dire consequences, but it takes a light touch (Which has never been my strength; my piano teacher never missed an opportunity to tell me I was playing too heavy).  To make a long story short, I bent about 5 pins trying to straighten the two I’d first seen, and probably coated a number of pins with my skin-oils.  One of the pins was so loose, I was certain it would break off if I breathed too deeply.  However, I was eventually satisfied with my handiwork, and decided to give Hrothgar one last chance.

There was a moment’s hesitation after connecting the power, and I saw the familiar Shuttle logo appear on the screen.  I’d done it.

Now Hrothgar is living once more, and a mite faster than I remember.

It’s cool being green

Don’t worry, this isn’t some worn-out anecdote about being eco-friendly. It’s about being small, sturdy, and adorable. I have the great pleasure of writing these words with an XO, courtesy of the assistant librarian and OLPC program. Here’s the shakedown:

The good

The XO

*edit*- This is exactly how far I made it before being interrupted by a phonecall from an elderly Chinese woman wanting to complain about the billing practices of her dial-up provider.  Le sigh.

So anyway, the good:

  • The XO is cute, extremely cute.  You can’t help but love it.
  • It’s also quite rugged and easy to carry around thanks to the molded plastic handle (take note, other laptop manufacturers).
  • The novel interface makes you use your brain
  • Converts into tablet-pc
  • Battery life around 4 hours
  • Small wall charger!
  • The screen is crisp and easy to read

The Bad

  • I can type about 11 words per minute with the keyboard, probably for two reasons:
  1. It’s essentially little squares of rubber with contacts embedded within, so there’s no tactile response.  I know this is for durability sake, but it needs to be improved.
  2. It’s small, as in child-size.  Not really it’s fault, I feel
  • The interface can be challenging, mostly because of the wrap-around menu options that pops up every time you approach the edge of the screen.
  • No touch screen.  The tablet-ness is wasted!
  • It can be sloooooooow.  I’m not sure why this should be, since the XO uses the Amd Geode chipset, which I know from experience can perform very well at low-speeds.  Perhaps the flash storage is the slow car in the fast-lane?
  • Webcam looks sharp when you’re chatting, terrible when you record video.

All things considered, I really liked it.  Will it drastically improve the lives of children in developing nations?  Probably not.  Here’ the rub:

The XO is the brainchild of idealism and tech-savvy, whose intent was to make laptops affordable to people everywhere.  A very noble sentiment, but the execution of such a plan is fraught with difficulty.  On the production side, there are constant delays (this XO was supposed to arrive in 2007, and only arrived 4 days ago).  Orchestrating such grand operation can’t be easy, and the give-one/get-one program may have made things worse.  But there are bigger fish to fry- certain corporate entities (*cough* Wintel *cough*) are not about to let the sub-prime laptop market go to a non-profit competitor, and have sprung into action to furnish Wintel-based laptops for the same purpose as OLPC.  On the other side of the equation, it seems that getting developing nations to sign up (and pay) for the OLPC program is becoming difficult.  I sympathize with their leaders, since at it’s inception, the OLPC was going to cost only $100, instead of the $200 it currently fetches.  Double the cost?  That can’t sit well with a nation struggling to feed and vaccinate its populous.

It continues to be a noble effort, but the OLPC program’s greatest triumph is being witnessed on the shelves of retail outlets everywhere.  I’m referring to the race to the bottom, as one myopic suit put it.  The race to produce the smallest, cheapest portable devices has scores of new competitors, each with a pint-sized product that does everything its owner needs at half the cost (and heft) of a laptop.

Using the XO in a room filled with laptop users made me feel like I was driving an MG on a road filled with Buicks.  Of course, some people need the Buicks.  The XO clearly has limitations, and genuine power-users would be appalled by it’s spartan feature-set.  Conversely, people who don’t need all the trappings of a regular laptop have traditionally been forced to purchase them anyway, since there were few alternatives.  Truthfully, most everyone would be perfectly happy using an eeepc or XO, and I’m one of ’em.

Custard’s best stand

Today was Ape’s first trip to Annie’s. It’s been open for a few days now, but a combination of rising temperatures (freezing point here we come!) and a gimpy leg cinched the decision.

*This is a long post, so you may want to stretch/ get a drink/ go pee before you start.

I’m glad to return to my humble ablog after a short hiatus. Fortunately, the interruption was time well spent, and I wrapped up a few projects which have been drug on too long. First, there’s the liberry website.

The website claims the title of greatest duration, having been started nearly a year ago. After settling on Silverstripe, the task at hand was design. The current site is a nightmare, with buckets of broken links, impossible-to-find items, and no search capability. I rested on the efforts of the default Silverstripe layout, but heavily edited the css and graphics to be as clean and simple as possible.

After that came content creation. So much of the current website is outdated material (and was at its naissance difficult to comprehend), so heavy editing was needed. There was also some hassle with Question Point, our online reference service. The form provided to us by OCLC was about 96% javascript, which is difficult to implement on a single page within Silverstripe. Fortunately, the stars aligned so that OCLC upgraded Questionpoint on March 2, which allows us to host our Question Point form on the Question point website, and they saw that it was good.

Finally, the Liberry needed a new host. I chose Linode, since it was highly praised by most of its users (plus, it uses FOSS). The prices are fair (not especially cheap, though there are perks for buying long-term hosting), and setup was extremely simple. The SSH console is a little slow, but download speeds on our server are phenomenal.

This is the finished product:

Then what happened?

I spent nearly every morning-afternoon of this week at LCLS, working on the Youtube video (followed by an evening working at the Liberry). Working at the system is nice for a number of reasons. The greatest of these is probably the distraction-free environment. When given the chance to work unhindered, I’m amazed at the progress made in short time. Of course, I was just working in the building, not for LCLS per se. If I were employed there, it probably wouldn’t be so simple. I picked up some new tricks with Adobe Premiere, which makes video composition about 83x faster than how I was doing it previously. All told, I finished the project a few days ahead of schedule, and the results (which will soon be available) were, in my opinion, quite convincing.

Anything else?

My greatest accomplishment was nothing less than a coup de bibliotheque, involving the ever-popular My plan to drop M$ Office from the staff computers was not without controversy. Some (but certainly not all) of the liberry matriarchs were extremely resistant to the notion of switching office suites. For reasons they couldn’t articulate, OpenOffice was inferior to M$ Office. Unfortunately, they reckoned that their puerile attachment to M$ was weightier than logic and reason, and insisted that M$ Office would remain on their computers. Such an arrangement being the worst imaginable for myself and the Library, decisive action would have to be taken.

All hope for OpenOffice rested in the hands of the Library board, a panel of citizens responsible for the well-being of the liberry. Every month I write a report of my machinations and accomplishments in the Liberry, which is then submitted to the Board. This was really the only vehicle suitable for explaining my reasons for choosing OpenOffice, so I grabbed my driving gloves and strapped in. The result was a gleaming page of technical explication, accompanied by some shocking numbers (the cost of upgrading to M$ Office 2007), and a rationale that any sensible person could not refute. It seems the board agreed, and with their full support, resistance crumbled.

Although I paint it as some kind of great accomplishment, the whole affair was really sad. I like and respect the people I work with, and railroading opponents into submission is not something I enjoy. I would feel worse, had the opponents of OpenOffice shown an ounce of professionalism and given it a fair shake. Blind opposition to change is regrettable in life, but inexcusable in business.

I’ve also learned that it isn’t manifested through age; I’ve met much older people who embrace even crazier things than switching from M$ Office to OpenOffice. It’s really not even a personality tenet, since my opponents have embraced other disruptive technologies without a peep. I’ll leave it to psychologists to discuss (and synthesize a drug that suppresses it with mild side-effects).

Overall, a very good couple of weeks.  I’ve been rich with the feeling you get when you finally finish off that thing you’ve been working on for so long (there’s got to be a better name for it; euphoria, maybe?).

Of course, OpenOffice is only the linchpin of much greater plans for the Liberry : )

Tant qu’il y a de la vie, il y a de l’espoir

Today was a beautiful day, which led me to think of one of my favorite gaulish expressions. It might sound more familiar in english :

As long as there is life, there is hope.

Seeing daffodil shoots along the library wall puts this wretched season in perspective. We’re on the brink of Spring, and with February behind us, there’s no stopping the coming heat-wave. First one to break a sweat while sitting down wins!