Saturday, June 09, 2007

300 Posts: An Arbitrary Time For Reflection

It looks like most of what I write has a natural audience of about 1. Which I find a little disappointing because I think that at least some of what I write should be interesting to more people. But if you look at the Sitemeter stats for this blog you notice that up until a few weeks ago a big chunk of the hits were people searching for pictures of Radwaniyah. I don't even have the pictures, I just linked to them. Then I wrote a post on CentOS which now seems to be my biggest draw, though it appears that just mentioning Obama's name is a good way to get eyeballs on your site as well.

So people don't seem to be drawn to the things in which I am interested about writing. And the ones who do visit aren't generally compelled to leave comments. I haven't had a really good discussion since I wrote about abortion and pre-implantation screening, and that was almost 10 months ago. Which makes me wonder why I bother... the original point of this blog was to give me a chance to interact with other people, but I seem to be doing precious little of that. I'm really not interested in hearing myself talk; I keep running things up the flag pole in the hopes that someone might salute.

It may be time for a break; I'm going to be moving/vacationing soon and won't feel particularly compelled to write. Maybe I'll continue when I come back if it seems reasonable.

Maybe There's Something To Obama After All

Hear hear:

In last Sunday night's debate, Wolf Blitzer asked the candidates to raise their hands if they supported making English the official language of the United States. Only Mike Gravel raised his hand. Then Barack Obama spoke up:
OBAMA: Can I just make a point, though?
BLITZER: All right.
OBAMA: I have to say that that kind of question...
BLITZER: All right, hold on.
OBAMA: ... this is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us. You know, you're right. Everybody is going to learn to speak English if they live in this country. The issue is not whether or not future generations of immigrants are going to learn English. The question is: How can we come up with both a legal, sensible immigration policy?
OBAMA: And when we get distracted by those kinds of questions, I think we do a disservice to the American people.
I think this might be the first thing I've heard from a Democratic candidate that's really caught my attention this campaign. That he notices the ploy, has an articulate response, and has the cojones to actually speak up, wins him a bucket of points in my book. It doesn't even matter whether or not I agree with him, I'm just awed that someone has finally demonstrated an inkling of self-awareness.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Beat Me To It

I picked up the WSJ opinion section this morning and nearly lost my breakfast. I was going to write something on the whole Scooter Libby/Fallen Soldier analogy, but Firedoglake beat me to it.

More Random Economic Bashing

God, its like people are just out to troll me these days. No sooner does Sadly, No! take a swipe at globalization than someone comes around and suggests that Socialism will fix all of our problems.

Look, that cartoon isn't particularly insightful; implicating Capitalism (especially the drive for short-term profits) as the root cause of the underlying issue is crude at best. I've been thinking about the sub-prime mortgage problem for awhile and now seems to be as good a time as any to address it. At the core you have a tension between two ideas:

  • Poor people are credit worthy.
  • Poor people are credit risks.
I say "credit worthy" both in a moral sense (they deserve fair access to credit) and in an economic sense (they can support credit lines). At the same time, however, the poor represent a comparative risk to lenders because they are less able to absorb adverse economic events. How, then, to resolve this dilemma? Capitalism provides a resolution in the form of risk-adjusted return. Borrowers pay interest to lenders in proportion to the risk that they represent, thus inducing lenders to extend them credit.

Now add to this mix several complicating factors. First, it appears that some lenders misrepresented the terms of sub-prime mortgages; the problem was not that "credit companies tempt[ed] people with mortgages that they can't afford", but rather than they just flat out lied to them. Consider also the social pressure on lending institutions to make risky loans; with class and race so intricately tied together it may very well be better for the institution to make some unwise loans rather than expose themselves to the charge of racism.

So my first gripe with the cartoon is that its far from clear that Capitalism is at all to blame. Some of the factors contributing to the "rash of foreclosures" are non-economic; racism and exploitation are not confined to Capitalist economies. More importantly, the cartoon seems to lay the blame not on any particular aspect of Capitalism itself, but rather seems to fault Capitalism for providing people with the opportunity to make dumb decisions ("when credit companies tempt poor people with mortgages they can't afford...").

My second complaint, following from the first, is that its not clear how Socialism would make things better. Is the author advocating "pure" socialism i.e. the abolition of private property etc.? That would certainly resolve the initial tension by eliminating the market for home loans. But ey goes on to say that liberals should not be "afraid of looking at Socialism when it makes sense", which indicates to me that ey may be aiming for some Capitalist/Socialist hybrid. But that leaves the door wide open to an almost infinite number of approaches to solving the problem without bothering to show that any of them are in any way preferable to risk/return solution.

Really, there doesn't appear to have been a lot of thought put into the analysis of the problem. Failing to hint at why Capitalism is at fault or why Socialism provides a better alternative makes me believe that the entire strip is just a reflexive reaction. It's just "Capitalism bad, Socialism good" in pictorial format.


The Wrong Way To Solve A Problem

The appropriate fix for bad legislation is not necessarily more legislation. Salty Femme (Saltyfemme?) claims that domestic workers have a uniquely hard time of things because of Federal legislation:

3. Why should domestic workers be legally entitled to specific benefits, such as sick days and severance, when a lot of low-wage workers aren’t?

No right to organize: Unlike other workers, domestic workers are not allowed to form labor unions and cannot organize with other workers to collectively bargain. As a result, domestic workers are often denied basic protections found in most workplaces.
This is an example of treating the symptoms but ignoring the cause. If domestic workers are banned from collectivizing without good reason then wouldn't it make more sense to try to get the ban lifted? The people pushing for the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights have been so kind as to list the relevant legislation in their citations: the National Labor Relations Act excludes domestic workers from the definition of employee. In order to fix this problem you'd just have to strike out the clause "or in the domestic service of any family or person at his home," from Section 2, paragraph 3 of the act.

Surely that's a much more elegant solution than enacting more legislation. And probably easier to pass as well; the proposed modification looks to me like the kind of thing that gets slipped into legislation all the time.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Pointless Stupidity, Brought To You By The War On Drugs

Can we all agree that bad things happen when we start declaring war on abstract ideas?

I had to pee in a cup today. It's not the first time I've had to submit to this particular indignity; I've more or less come to expect it as a condition of employment. But today, for some reason, I found myself getting unusually depressed by the entire process. It seemed to signify, in one tiny little experience, how life in America has become utterly permeated by stupidity.

Without showing too much of my hand, suffice it to say that the company I work for subcontracts for a well-known computer company. My company, I suspect, doesn't give a rat's ass about what I do in my free time. I've worked for them for almost 2 years and this is the first time they've asked me to submit to a drug screen. Not because they care, mind you, but because they've got to bring themselves into compliance with the policies of their corporate masters.

Which raises the question of why, pray tell, our mega-computer-conglomerate-overlords care about my drug status? Good question, I'm not quite sure I know the answer, though I suspect that somewhere along the line it became good business practice. Again, I suspect that CompuHyperGlobalMegaTech really has no issue with illicit drugs per se, but rather that the consequences of not screening employees outweighs any arguments to the contrary. Liability an all, ya'know.

Let's just dispatch with that argument right now, shall we? Recreational drug users aren't a threat to workplace health and safety any more than any other section of the population. The caricature of the stoner driving a forklift is just that, a caricature. The folks you really have to worry about are the ones who are high on codeine all the time because they've got chronic back problems. The drug screen may catch them, but you sure as hell can't fire them on account of chronic back pain being a disability and all that.

But back to my story. Word comes down from on high that I have to get tested. Which is dumb, and kind of insulting. I'm a professional; I should be judged on my performance. My recreational habits are nobody's business. Not that I'm recreating mind you; I've got a Top Secret clearance, which means that Uncle Sam has already crawled in and out of every orifice in my body to verify that I'm neither a communist nor a cabbage. My employer is well aware of that fact, but they made me go through with a pro forma test anyway.

So I drive my ass 64 miles to the lab. Yes, that's right, the closest facility where I could take my test was 64 miles away from Rochester in Auburn, NY. I go to the lab, pee in the cup, all that business. You know what really annoys me? The test is a joke; they don't observe you peeing, you get to close the door and everything. The only thing they test for is whether the specimen is between 90 and 100 degrees F. Can anybody in the room think of a way to beat the test? I know I can.

That, more than anything else, was what put me in a foul mood. The test itself is totally meaningless; its only going to screen out the incredibly stoopid. You have this huge, bureaucratic apparatus in place ostensibly to screen out all the dope fiends, but the entire edifice rests on the insubstantial foundation of an easy-to-beat urine screen. The powers-that-be are, I'm sure, well aware of this. The entire process, from start to finish, is all about appearances. It looks like companies are taking proactive steps to increase workplace safety, but all they're really doing is making employees jump through hoops in an elaborate game of CYA.


Monday, June 04, 2007

Gentoo 2007.0 On A Dell Latitude D610 Laptop

Tonight I must sing the praises of Gentoo.

Earlier I wrote about my experience trying to build a useful laptop system using CentOS 5 and came to the conclusion that its like trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole. CentOS 5 (and, by extension, RedHat) is a server-oriented distribution; it doesn't have very good (or any, in some cases) support for random ass software like Xine that has no business being on an enterprise server. I tried RPMS, SRPMS, tarballs, and any combination thereof, but I couldn't manage to get Xine working under CentOS 5. That's saying a lot, considering that I've been working with Linux since 1994 (yeah, I used to order Slackware CDs from Walnut Creek). That might not seem like a big deal, but I travel a lot and I'd really like to be able to watch DVDs when I'm stuck in an airport somewhere. I had some downtime so I decided to try my luck with Gentoo.

Switching to Gentoo was well worth the effort. It has built-in support for Xine via their portage system. Not only that, but it has support for a huge number of other applications as well, even obscure ones like the tipa and Ion. It didn't take very long to get Gentoo installed on my laptop following the Gentoo Handbook and I'm pretty happy with the result. Now onto the details:

00:00.0 Host bridge: Intel Corporation Mobile 915GM/PM/GMS/910GML Express Processor to DRAM Controller (rev 03)
00:01.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation Mobile 915GM/PM Express PCI Express Root Port (rev 03)
00:1c.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) PCI Express Port 1 (rev 03)
00:1d.0 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #1 (rev 03)
00:1d.1 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #2 (rev 03)
00:1d.2 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #3 (rev 03)
00:1d.3 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #4 (rev 03)
00:1d.7 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB2 EHCI Controller (rev 03)
00:1e.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801 Mobile PCI Bridge (rev d3)
00:1e.2 Multimedia audio controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) AC'97 Audio Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.0 ISA bridge: Intel Corporation 82801FBM (ICH6M) LPC Interface Bridge (rev 03)
00:1f.2 IDE interface: Intel Corporation 82801FBM (ICH6M) SATA Controller (rev 03)
01:00.0 VGA compatible controller: ATI Technologies Inc M22 [Radeon Mobility M300]
02:00.0 Ethernet controller: Broadcom Corporation NetXtreme BCM5751 Gigabit Ethernet PCI Express (rev 01)
03:01.0 CardBus bridge: Texas Instruments PCI6515 Cardbus Controller
03:01.5 Communication controller: Texas Instruments PCI6515 SmartCard Controller
03:03.0 Network controller: Broadcom Corporation BCM4318 [AirForce One 54g] 802.11g Wireless LAN Controller (rev 02)


So, first thing first, let's get wireless working. As noted previously, the stock drivers for the BCM4318 don't work so well; I've had much better luck with Ndiswrapper. To blacklist the module create /etc/modprobe.d, create /etc/modprobe.d/blacklist and include the line

blacklist bcm43xx

Copy /etc/modprobe.d/blacklist to /etc/modules.d and then run modules-update to regenerate all the module configuration files in /etc. This will prevent udev from automatically loading the module.

Next it's time to install Ndiswrapper, but first before you do that you should fix your /etc/make.profile/make.defaults. Here's what mine looks like:

# Copyright 1999-2007 Gentoo Foundation
# Distributed under the terms of the GNU General Public License v2
# $Header: /var/cvsroot/gentoo-x86/profiles/default-linux/x86/2007.0/desktop/make.defaults,v 1.1 2007/04/13 22:02:31 wolf31o2 Exp $

USE="3dnow a52 aac acpi alsa -arts -berkdb cairo cddb cdr -cups dbus dga dvd \
     dvdr dvdread -eds -esd -emboss -encode esd evo fam fbcon firefox flac \
     -fortran gif gnome gpm gstreamer gtk hal imagemagick -ipv6 java jpeg -kde \
     -kerberos -ldap mad -mikmod mmap mmx mp3 mpeg musepack -nls nsplugin ogg \
     opengl oss pdf png -qt3 -qt3support -qt4 quicktime real sdl speex -spell \
     sse svg svga -tcpd theora threads tiff truetype vcd vidix vorbis wavpack \
     wifi win32codecs unicode wmf X xcb xinerama xml xv xvid xvmc"


INPUT_DEVICES="keyboard synaptics"
Note that as you are emerging packages the system may try to install gcc-3.3.6 in order to fill dependencies. This is a problem as that particular package may fail to compile. The workaround is to emerge libstdc++-v3 instead.


Once you've tweaked your make.defaults to your liking do an emerge ndiswrapper. Then download the latest drivers from Dell; the .exe file is a self-extracting archive that can be expanded via unzip. After expanding cd to the DRIVERS subdirectory and do a ndiswrapper -i bcmwl5.inf to install the driver. modprobe ndiswrapper to load the module (loading it will create eth1) and then configure via iwconfig per usual.

Next, fix the kernel. First I created a fallback/default kernel using the genkernel package, and then went on to compile a custom kernel. The stock Gentoo kernel is pretty lightweight (which is a good thing, IMHO, since its quick to compile), which means that it doesn't have built in support for some of the features of the D610.

As the time of this writing the current gentoo-sources installs kernel v2.6.20-r8; your mileage may vary. You'll probably want to do the following:

  • Include support for the Intel AC97 sound card. You should build the drivers as modules; including them in the kernel seems to confuse the ALSA configuration utility.
  • Include support for the Intel PIIX SATA controller.
  • Remove ATA/ATAPI support; this will allow the built-in DVD to be serviced by the Intel PIIX driver as a PATA device.


Following the compilation of the kernel the next thing you probably want to do it get sound working. Once you've booted into the new kernel with the AC97 sound drivers the sound is technically working, but the ALSA volume/mute defaults means that you won't be able to hear anything if you try to play an MP3 out of the box. Do an emerge alsa-utils to build the ALSA configuration utilities followed by an alsaconf. The alsaconf utility should automatically detect the sound card and configure the ALSA subsystem. Make sure you set up ALSA to run at boot time via rc-update add alsasound default otherwise the sound levels won't be restored at reboot.


There are two choices for video: use the open source Radeon driver or use ATI's closed-source driver. Specifying VIDEO_CARDS="radeon" uses the open source driver while VIDEO_CARDS="fglrx" uses the ATI driver. I'm using the open source driver right now because ATI's driver kept dying with signal 11; googling around makes it look like there's some issues with the new ATI drivers. Also note the INPUT_DEVICES="keyboard synaptics" line; this will install the Synaptics touchpad driver instead of a regular mouse. Then emerge xorg-x11 to build X11 and Xorg -configure to create a basic xorg.conf. I had to edit the configuration file by hand to include Synaptics support; see /usr/share/doc/synaptics-*/INSTALL.bz2 for modification directions.


As a general observation Gentoo is much more oriented towards the desktop/laptop than is CentOS. I've been able to get almost every application I need working without too much hassle. Xine, which drove me to switch in the first place, is mostly working. The only problem I'm having is that video seems to play back at 1.5x normal speed; I'm hoping that an update will fix that. Anyone who has any insights on that particular issue should leave a comment. CentOS has a little bit better support when it comes to configuring X11, and its easier to make an init image, but those are minor issues.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

This Just Pisses Me Off

Look, I don't expect Sadly, No! to be a bastion of scholarly discourse, that's not their job. Their job is to make fun of people for our entertainment, something at which they really excel. However, this is just stoopid:

Good lord:

Consumers were advised yesterday to discard all toothpaste made in China after federal health officials said they found Chinese-made toothpaste containing a poison used in some antifreeze in three locations: Miami, the Port of Los Angeles and Puerto Rico.

Although there are no reports of anyone being harmed by the toothpaste, the Food and Drug Administration warned that the Chinese products had a “low but meaningful risk of toxicity and injury” to children and people with kidney or liver disease.

The United States is the seventh country to find tainted Chinese toothpaste within its borders in recent weeks.

But hey, I’m sure the people paid to manufacture the toothpaste are working under slave labor conditions, so I guess it all evens out.

Uh, wait a minute…

The whole toothpaste debacle has nothing to do with globalization, unless by "globalization" you mean "letting other countries sell shit to us". Especially in light of the following:

Chinese regulators said Thursday that their investigation of toothpaste manufacturers there had found they had done nothing wrong. Chinese officials also said that while small amounts of diethylene glycol could be safely used in toothpaste, new controls would be imposed on its use in toothpaste.
Last month, after publicity over the poisoning deaths from the cold medicine, a consumer in Panama noticed that toothpaste in a store listed diethylene glycol as an ingredient and notified the authorities. Eventually it was traced to China, and since then countries around the world have been on the lookout for the product.
So there's a disagreement between China and the US over the use of the compound, and the toothpaste probably shouldn't have made it past customs. How, pray tell, does this in any way implicate globalization as a whole? Does the fact that some foreign products might not meet FDA standards mean that we should close our borders to all foreign imports? To borrow a phrase... "Sadly, No!".

This problem isn't limited to foreign imports; US companies have been having similar issues. Implying that this incident is somehow uniquely tied to the process of globalization is just a cheap swipe, nothing more. What's the alternative, closing our borders to imports 'cause they might taint our precious bodily fluids. Hello, xenophobic much? You really have to wonder, what with that comment about slave labor and all. Its pretty ignorant (in the least) to accuse a company of using slave labor just because it's Chinese.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Why Brownback's Views On Evolution Matter

Eugene Volokh asks, with reference to Sam Brownback's recent rejection of evolution:

How should this affect a person's judgment about whether he supports Sen. Brownback? I'm not sure I know the answer, but I thought I'd raise the question, and mention a few thoughts of my own. (Note that I am by no means a supporter of Brownback's, though I have no implacable hostility to him, either.)
He then goes on to list some potential complaints with the Senator's position:
1. We might argue that this shows Brownback believes things that are provably false, and that this reflects badly on his judgment.
2. We might argue that this shows Brownback believes things about the physical world that are not based chiefly on reason and evidence, and that this reflects badly on his judgment.
3. We might argue that this shows Brownback, if elected President, will have a lousy science policy.
4. We might argue that electing Brownback would make America look foolish to world elites that accept the theory of evolution.

If that were the end of it I'd be inclined to agree with Eugene's take on the matter, but I think that Eugene's list of thoughts fails to address one important point. There's one particular portion of Sen. Brownback's statement which is an absolute deal-killer (h/t to PZ Meyers):

The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.
Sam Brownback seems to be rejecting macroevolution, not due to any criticism (or misunderstanding) of the science, but because he doesn't like the outcome. He's an ostrich sticking his head in the sand and pretending that it doesn't exist because he's uncomfortable with the logical implications thereof.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is no way to run a country, and its certainly not a trait I want to see in a POTUS. I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to come up with recent examples of how ideological blindness can lead to bad results...

Friday Random Ten

Because it's Friday, and I'm kill time waiting for a plane to take me home.

  1. Highway 61 Revisited - Bob Dylan
  2. Perversion - Rob Zombie
  3. Fitter Happier - Radiohead
  4. Sad But True - Metallica
  5. Dead Man's Party - Oingo Boingo
  6. Mellowship Slinky In B Major - Red Hot Chili Peppers
  7. Losing My Religion - REM
  8. An Ode To No One - Smashing Pumpkins
  9. Super Bon Bon - Soul Coughing
  10. Sober - Tool

I used to have all of my CDs in a big changer, back in the days before iTunes etc. A friend once remarked that it was disconcerting to listen to my collection at random because you ended up with some pretty dischordant transitions. I think ey were on to something; going from Bob Dylan to Rob Zombie to Radiohead is a little bit of a gear change.

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