Sunday, January 27, 2008

Keep Austin woo-woo

It's tempting to say it's a "keep Austin weird" thing, but I believe in every place there are people with these kinds of beliefs. But perhaps Austin is a more likely place than some others for a waiter to feel free to come to a customer and ask "excuse me, are you an indigo?"

Yes, a waiter -- a young guy, barely over 20 -- asked me this question as I was sitting at a table in a cafe, typing on a laptop, minding my own business. "Huh, I'm sorry?" I said. He repeated: "Are you an indigo?"

Now, I've heard about the so-called "indigo children", but assumed (and still do) that it's just a type of ammunition in the never-ending battle of competitive parenting, my favorite spectator sport. I guess for some parents it's not enough to have their child enrolled in several different sports teams, musical and dance activities; they also need to claim that their child is an "indigo". In fact it's an easier way to one-up other parents: first, it requires no proof (unlike excellence at sports and arts); and second, once you declare your child to be an indigo, any other parent in your circle would feel very silly parroting the same; so whoever says it first, wins. :-)

However, I never heard adults calling themselves indigo; in fact since I gravitate towards rationalists, I would be rather unlikely to encounter such a person. So, when the waiter put this question to me, I was unsure if he meant it in that sense. So I asked "what does it mean?" He said, "it's an... uh, a different person. It's a person with a very strong aura." I mumbled about not believing things like that. He smiled, apologized and walked away. I suppose I could have told him what I thought of auras, which I posted in one of my recent posts. But he was on the job, it would have been not right to keep him away from work.

But damn it, if someone implying that you are "special" doesn't make you want to be on your best behavior, even if for a short while! However, he wasn't my waiter, so if I left a bigger than usual tip, he didn't directly benefit. :-)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Philip Pullman "The Golden Compass": CFI book club discussion

4 people attended the CFI Science and Religion in Fiction reading group discussion of Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass". Overall the impressions were positive. These were some of the main points discussed.

World building

World building may be one of the most interesting aspect of the book. A significant component of the intrigue was to try to figure out what time period it was set in. Several readers at first assumed it was set in the Middle Ages. There's a big school made of stone, they light lamps. But then they mention things like Aerodock, and a center for Atom craft, and they talk about photons, and there is even some vague quantum physics-babble. So it's obviously not Middle Ages. But just when you may begin to think the story is set in the modern times, the world still feels subtly wrong. A lot of kids in it seem to live in Dickensian circumstances, working menial jobs (like Roger, the kitchen boy) or simply running around in the streets, instead of going to school. Apparently in this world there are no laws concerning child labor or mandating universal education.

Adherence to, and departure from, fantasy archetypes

This book played up some fantasy cliches (or shall I say archetypes), while parting with others, and it was interesting to see how the readers reacted to the presence or absence of their favorite archetypes. I vaguely felt that this novel neglected to follow a couple of essential plot requirements for a SF/F book.

-- The stakes against which the character is fighting must be high. Of course, for a young girl to go to the North to rescue children from the hands of an evil organization does sound like pretty tall order, but the stakes are not global: it's just a handful of children under threat, not the world in itself (though there is some talk that shady entities experimenting with Dust are trying to change the world forever, it is very vague). So this does not quite qualify as an archetypal hero's quest story.

-- Unlike in the best stories of this kind, things don't get worse before they get better. Lyra's progress goes rather smoothly, although she has some disconcerting experiences. Still, we don't get a feeling of thickening doom, of dark consequences that would befall the world if she fails.

However, another reader said he liked the way "Golden Compass" wasn't based on the familiar "a hero saves the world" fantasy formula. Other cliches were more palatable to him. For example, most characters Lyra meets are exceptional in some way. It's not just an ordinary bear, it's the king of bears. The witch is not an ordinary witch, she's the queen of the clan. But the reader who did not like formulaic plots had no problem with larger-than-life characters. He said it must be "easier to write about extraordinary characters like kings and leaders of clans. For me it's boring to read about ordinary people leaving ordinary lives, because I live one."

The philosophical premises of the book received praise from CFI

CFI being a club of rationally-minded people, philosophical premises of the book got some attention. A reader noted that while this book has several fantasy tropes -- witches that fly on a piece of pine wood, or talking bears -- it really doesn't have magic. There is no mind-reading or spell casting in it, that's not how this world operates. Readers praised Pullman for making the science-fictional elements in this book part of the natural world. This is where the worldview of this novel differs from "conventional" fantasy, in which the ability to see paranormal, or magical, phenomena is often depends on being "pure of heart"; people who are unable to see / experience magic, are often shown as deniers or simply stupid; in other words, in traditional fantasy and magical realism, ability to experience the supernatural element is subjective. Pullman does the opposite. In his world, fantastic elements exist objectively. Another appealing quality of the novel is that the author plays fair with his world. He sets boundaries and rules in his world, and he doesn't violate them on a whim. That's a problem in certain fantasy, where certain characters get to do what they want and violate what they want, but Pullmann stuck with the rules.

The science-fictional elements are rich with meaning

Science-fictional elements in Pullman's world are rich with meaning. None of them are tacked on arbitrarily or as plot MacGuffins. For example, daemons. It is a testimony to Pullman's great job exploring implications of daemons, that the readers in this group found various daemon-moments the most memorable parts of this book. One reader's favorite scene was where the evildoers try to separate Lyra form her daemon, as this scene demonstrates that a daemon is an intimate aspect of a person, and losing it is a horrible catastrophe. It's not like losing your pet dog. It's like having their arms and legs cut off, or losing part of your personality. Another reader admitted finding that scene traumatic, which attests to its power. The role of daemons was so central to the book, it caused one reader to speculate that the plot of the book will be based on Lyra getting separated from her daemon and trying to get it back. Pullmann is good at exploring many nuances of human/daemon interdependence. For example, children's daemons change shape up until adolescence, when a daemon settles into a shape that best represents the person. As a result, some daemons may acquire a guise undesirable to their human -- for example, a poodle, though the owner might have wanted to have a tiger or a lion instead. And now his daemon will trumpet to the whole world that this person, in his essence, is a poodle.

Daemons are also an expressive instrument to convey the characters' emotions and the deeper undercurrents of their psyches, because a daemon outwardly expresses what goes on inside a character. For example, a reader pointed out, the scene where Mrs. Coulter's monkey daemon attacks Lyra's daemon shows that Mrs. Coulter's true intent towards Lyra is very different from her outward sweetness.

The tropes are rich, but confusing

The presence of daemons doesn't explain as many things as the questions it raises. For example, a reader asked, when a baby is born, where does the daemon come from? We also agreed it was a bit simplistic to to think that a demon represented a soul.

Other fantasy elements in the novel are even more puzzling. For example, what to make of experimental theology? "It's weird that in this world theology involves machinery, and you can do experiments with it! It's very tantalizing, and then he doesn't go anywhere with it," said a reader.

Or the notion that Dust may be a leftover from the original sin. "Huh? What's that about?" a reader asked. "How can particles coming from space have anything to do with a religious concept?"

The aletheiometer was seen by a reader as presenting a paradox; on one hand, it was a cop-out because it told you everything you want to know; on the other hand, it made the reader wonder why didn't Lyra spend all of her time reading it, to find out as much as possible about who the bad and the good guys were?

So, the conclusions. Plusses: a convincing, richly detailed fantasy world that whets the reader's appetite by hinting at deeper links between seemingly unrelated magical elements; likeable characters; the fantastical elements exist objectively in this world. Minuses: some fantasy archetypes in the book are too cliche; some science-fictional elements don't seem to be internally consistent.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Genuflection aerobics

Once in a while I post quotes from articles I read with a sole purpose of goofing off, and not out of genuine interest. I have no stance on the issues described -- I post these quotes simply because I find them hilarious.

This is an article on partner yoga, the grossness of. ("Is having my face in a stranger's crotch really helpful for my meditative state?"). The only thing I can say about yoga is I tried it once and found it singularly boring. But the second of the two following paragraphs almost made me squirt coffee out of my nose.

Traditionally, yoga is taught one-on-one, takes years to master and has nothing to do with improving the definition of your shoulder muscles. It also emphasizes emotional detachment, which is difficult to achieve if your head is in someone's junk. But Dharmanidhi's [an Indian yoga master's] biggest point was this: Yoga is an integral part of Hinduism, and Americanized yoga -- whether it's called Ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram, Vinyasa or anything in between -- is a bastardization of a spiritual practice.

"Imagine you go into a Catholic Church and there's something called genuflection, where you go down on one knee," he said. "What if a person comes out of the ceremony -- which is supposed to be about their relationship with God -- and they say, wow, my legs feel a little sore! And they go home and open up a shop and have people do genuflection for an hour to disco music. And partner genuflection, at that! It's completely taking it out of context."

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A natural explanation for a woo-woo phenomenon

A recent article in made me think that some people's claim of ability to see auras may be neither a lie nor wishful thinking, but simply a case of synesthesia.

To quote the article,

Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which activation of one sensory processing system (e.g., numbers or written language) leads to the automatic engagement of a second, distinct sensory processing system (e.g., color) to create a "crossed" sensory perception. For example, as in my case, numbers appear to have their own colors. Or, in other forms of synesthesia, sensory processing is "crossed" with emotion processing, imbuing letters, words, days of the week or months with their own personalities.

The author further says:

[...] people had colors, too. Not everyone. But many people did, whether I liked them or not, whether I knew them well or not. I didn't have to think about it; it was just so. As apparent to me as their eye color.


For much of my childhood, I enjoyed my synesthesia. [...] I'd turn my eyes to a teacher halfway through class to bask in her lavender glow. [...] I'd heard about auras -- radiant light surrounding a person, somehow revealing or reflecting his or her soul -- and I figured the color I saw from certain people, or numbers, was an aura. Had I somehow gained access to a spiritual dimension?

So the so-called "aura" (or, rather, the ability of some people to see it) may actually be a natural phenomenon. Of course, it is useless for any practical purpose -- you can't extract any real information from it -- because it is purely subjective. Any two synesthetes will see the same person's auras in different colors and attribute different emotional qualities to it.

Friday, January 18, 2008

When a laptop crush burns you

I have not yet admitted it in this journal, but for the last 2 weeks I've been conducting a torrid love affair with another laptop, a Fujitsu Lifebook Q2010. In this post I identified it as my newest laptop crush. Well, our romance was tumultuous and crashed spectacularly. Such a seducer, it was! Spectacularly thin (though not anorexic like the new MacBook Air ;-)), light as a feather; small, but with a comfortably sized keyboard. I thought it would make a great companion for me everywhere I go.

Long on beauty, short on capacity

I knew this extreme portability came with some sacrifices. For example, it lacks a CD / DVD drive. This didn't matter, because I use CDs and DVDs very rarely; I keep all my data on external hard drives or flash drives. What did give me a pause was that this laptop had only 512 MB memory. That's the same amount of memory I have in my old Fujitsu laptop (the one that had mouse-ectomy performed on it), and I bought it 3.5 years ago! It gets bogged down easily when I run the minimal number of applications I need every day: Firefox, emacs, Open Office and Photoshop. So it wouldn't make much sense to buy another lappy with just as little computing power.

I blame the wingmen

Why did I buy it, then? It's not that infatuation made me blind: I blame the wingmen -- sales guys at Fry's Electronics -- for my bad decision. :-) (Let's see how far can I stretch the analogy!) They assured me I can upgrade the memory to 2GB, and that it's very easy to do it at home. At home, Steve and I opened the memory compartment and peeked inside. Not only it didn't have the promised levers that let you lift the memory out and replace it with a new one, it didn't seem to have the same kind of connectors as the memory chip I bought. So I took the laptop to Fry's service department to see if they can upgrade it for me (for a price, of course). They kept it for a day, then called me and said the memory was not upgradeable: it was soldered on the motherboard!

I still didn't want to return the lappy at this point. I had already made 4 trips to Fry's within a week (the 4th one was to pick up the laptop's power supply, which I forgot the previous time) and I simply felt I have invested too much time in this laptop to write it off. So I tried to pretend I could work around this. Only I didn't get very far.

I don't click links that say "Click me!"

Steve set it up to access our home wireless network, but the laptop was unable to connect. I took it to a few coffeeshops with public, unencrypted access points, and it could not connect to any of them. Finally I called Fujitsu tech support from one of those coffeeshops. The tech support guy told me there's an icon on the desktop entitled "Click Me" and that I needed to click it before I could do anything else with the laptop. Clicking it will unpack a bunch of drivers and programs that are necessary for the laptop to work, he said. When I idly wondered why weren't those programs installed on the laptop to begin with, the guy replied only that Fujitsu has always done it this way. A compelling explanation if there ever was one.

I did not even see the tricky little icon at first, because I guess my brain has wired itself to tune out spammy word combinations such as "click [here|me]". Links that beg me to click them without making a compelling case why I should, are usually the kind I would never click if I knew what was behind them. :-)

But now I had to, so I did. I got a bunch of errors. After making me repeat the operation twice, the tech support guy concluded that the operating system (Windows XP) on the laptop was corrupted, because I had not clicked the icon before doing anything else on this laptop. I asked, "so you are telling me that the operating system got corrupted because I tried to access internet without unpacking those programs?" He said yes. I said it was beyond ridiculous.

Sometimes it's best to let that one get away

But then he asked me if by any chance, the laptop I bought was a a store loaner / demo unit. Why, yes, I replied. Indeed it was a demo unit. Part of what fueled my romantic fervor towards this laptop was that it was the last unit in store! In fact, they've been discontinued, and this was my last chance to buy a laptop of this kind. Nothing can inflate an item's desirability like knowing that this is your last chance to nab it! The tech support guy said, ah-ha! You never know what its previous users did to it, that might have corrupted the OS. Well, uh, maybe, but Fry's told me they wipe the lappy clean and reinstall the OS from scratch! Still, the guy said, my only recourse at this point was to reinstall Windows myself from recovery discs.

Thank you, I said. And I went back to Fry's and returned it.

So now I'm back to the laptop meat market. :-) I'll be more careful next time -- with my time and money, if not my heart. :-)

Friday, January 11, 2008

XO networking at an Austin Linux Group meeting

After grumbling in solitude for the last few weeks, I got to try XO out the way $deities intended it to be used: networked with other XOs at an Austin Linux Users Group meeting. These capabilities are supposed to make it the coolest laptop known to humankind.

In theory, at least.

Beside me, 2 people brought their XO laptops to the meeting: Mr. The Joe Barr (who gave a presentation), and a guy I shall call Mr. Emily, because that was the name of his wife's computer, and by extension, his wife. :-) . A few more people came to play with these 3 lappies.

A ghost laptop

We tried to see if the three computers could see each other. They did, to various degrees of success and with various permutations. I could see Joe's computer in my neighborhood view, but not Emily. Joe's computer could see Emily, and occasionally me. My icon popped on and off on its screen unpredictably, regardless of what I was doing. Emily could see both of us, plus a fourth XO -- a ghost computer! It was named Clatrissa. None of us had any idea who she or he was, except that she must have been somewhere in the building, or nearby. Spooky! How many other XO users does any XO user run into on an average day? And how likely are you to run into one randomly when there's already an XO meeting going on in the building? But maybe there was a more mundane explanation for the ghost XO. Could it be possible that the real Emily had networked her XO with a "Clatrissa" in the recent past, and the laptop had not been rebooted since then, so Clatrissa's icon hung around? I've experienced something similar with wireless access point icons. I may move from one location to another miles apart, but the icons of some of the wireless access points in the previous location (all of them, not just the one I had connected to) still hang around. Only rebooting the computer makes them disappear.

Invitation confusion

Mr. Emily issued an "invitation" to Clatrissa, but s/he didn't respond. Probably because s/he didn't exist, but perhaps because invitations are a bit of a tricky business an XO, as we discovered. Well, at least for novices. When you move a mouse over another XO user's icon, two options pop up: Make a friend, or Issue an invitation to browse. Apparently, all Make a friend does is add the other user's icon to your Group view. It does not seem to inform your "friend" that you have friended them. Inviting someone to browse had seemingly just as little effect. I issued an invitation to browse to Joe's laptop and then went over to see if the invitation was received. No sign of that. But perhaps Joe didn't get my invitation because his laptop couldn't see mine at all? It's anybody's guess. And I did not try to orchestrate invitations between two laptops that were definitely seeing one another (such as Joe and Emily), because they were at that time both swarmed by other people who seemed to be more interested in dissecting the operating system rather than putting Sugar through its paces.

Apparently there is also a misconception that you can't see other XO users nearby if you are connected to a wireless access point, but that's not true. You can. But then I guess the ultimate test for XO networking would be for one of us to start a mesh network and for others to connect to it and get on the internet via the first person's computer. We didn't even try, since there were problems to even try to see other users. Besides, Joe wasn't sure if you don't need a school server for that. Maybe only the school server can serve as an access point for all the laptops to connect to.

I also was very -- how shall I put it -- vocal about the XO deficiencies I've experienced so far. I was semi-expecting to be called a Microsoft shill for that :-) but actually Mr. The Joe Barr was sympathetic and said I should report my troubles to the OLPC developers -- I would be helping them out. So maybe I will, once I get around to it. While Joe said he had not experienced the same problems, I felt somehow validated that some people agreed the limitations of this laptop were real. There was some discussion as to whether the laptop's intended audience, third world schoolchildren, will perceive them as limitations. For example, inability to back up large batches of files to a USB drive is not a limitation if you, umm, don't own a USB drive. :-) Joe thinks backups are intended to be stored on school servers. Perhaps that's a correct assumption on the designers' part, who knows. But even Joe agreed that this laptop (or at least the Sugar interface) is not intended for power users. As the schoolchildren ramp up to become power users, they may have to switch to more powerful systems. But that may come sooner than such systems become affordable in the developing countries.

Austin Linux Group secretary Paul Elliot did us all a service by asking questions on an OLPC IRC channel on our behalf. Thanks to him I found out how to import images into Paint application, and got a few other questions answered.

More pictures from the event can be found in my photo gallery.

Monday, January 07, 2008

XO: conclusions

Update on backups. It really is possible to back up an "activity" by dragging and dropping it from the Journal to a USB drive icon at the bottom of the Journal. I did this to an activity named test1.txt, and a file by that name actually appeared on the USB drive. But, as I expected, it appeared in the top-level folder. I could not have placed it in any of the folders on the USB drive, because the XO operating system does not recognize folders. For the sake of accuracy I must say the underlying Linux system does recognize folders / directories, it's just the Journal (which is essentially a dumbed-down file manager) doesn't. But you can't copy files to the appropriate folders using command line, because you don't know the "real" file names (they are encrypted, I heard). The user-friendly file names are only visible in the Journal, but the Journal doesn't recognize folders. So whatever files you back up will only be backed up to the top level folder of an external drive. Not very useful in real life situations.

No easy way to organize your data

Absence of folders me wonder whether this laptop can be adequate for any kind of real life use, even in the lives of third world kids. Here's why I doubt it:

-- if you can't organize your files into folders, the external hard drive you store them on will be nearly useless if transferred to a non-XO computer. If you store hundreds or thousands of files in a top-level directory, the information in them becomes practically unfindable. (Yes, you can search, but only the files that have text in them. Search won't help you tell if a file named DCF2519.jpg is a vacation picture or a birthday picture, or something else, unless you store it in a folder "Vacation" or "Birthday".)

-- to back files up, you have to drag-and-drop them to an external drive icon one by one. There is no ability to select multiple files, at least not that I see. It would quickly make any kind of real-life file backup tasks very tedious; and tedious tasks usually get neglected until oops, your hard drive has crashed.

Speaking about findability of files, I realize XO interface is built around a different paradigm of data organization than the one we are used to (hierarchical system of folders). The XO Journal stores everything in a chronological stream. The "activities" in it are sorted by date. You can also search them -- there is a search bar at the top of the Journal. You can filter the view by a file type, or by "recentness", though it has very limited options for that: today, since yesterday, last week, last month, last year. You can't enter an exact date range. The "search, don't file" philosophy has a serious limitation of being applicable only to text, not binary files.

Plus, the search takes forever (or hangs) if your external drive has a realistic number of files. In my previous post I said I have thousands of files on my USB drive. To see how far I need to scale things down before XO stops choking on them, I tried another drive with only a couple hundred files, most of them text. The search still hanged.

One might point out that the Journal allows you to add tags and description to each activity. Tagging image, video and audio files would make them searchable (the search mechanism does look inside tags, I'm glad to say). But how many people are going to do that? What is easier: to mass-select a bunch of images and drag-and-drop them to a folder named "Birthday" or to paste a tag "Birthday" a 100 times next to each and every picture you took on your birthday?

A toy, not a tool

To reiterate,

1. XO does not let you organize the files in a way that's (a) scalable, and (b) preserved if transferred to a non-XO computer.

2. To whatever extent it lets you organize your files, it can only handle ridiculously small amounts of data. I suppose if I only had 10 files on my external drive, the search might work. But do you know any person who has only so few files on their drives?

So if you do no more than 3-4 activities at a time, and if you don't want to keep most of the files you generate, then I guess this laptop may be adequate. In other words, you have to be using it as a toy, not a tool, to avoid running into its limitations. But this can't be how school students are supposed to use a laptop (any laptop, not just this). Aren't students supposed to save their class notes to use them in the future, as the class material each year builds upon the previous year? If so, you would expect students to generate tons of files, most of which should be easily searchable and accessible. Also, if the laptop chokes upon large chunks of data, what's the point of giving it an ability to generate large binary files, such as video and audio? Especially if you keep in mind that a handy video camera might tempt a child to go on a wild creative spree, recording everything in sight (heck, it even makes me, an adult, do that! :-)) What's the point of creating hundreds of binary files, if a mere attempt to view their names in the Journal crashes the Journal?

Note that I haven't even talked about the video and audio recording functionality of this laptop; I was discouraged from trying to manipulate huge binary files by seeing how XO's memory chokes on ~ 2K of text data. I'm sure the recording capabilities are neat, but to me, they are icing on the cake; the cake itself -- or rather the daily bread -- is ability to organize and access your data. If this laptop can't do that, in any real-life situation, then I'm not sure what's the point to try to do anything with it.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

XO: forget about folders. Where are my FILES?

No, dear reader, I'm not done complaining. I saved the best for last.

XO has some even more fundamental problems... sorry, weirdnesses. Sorry, design features.

If you are computer-literate person, wouldn't you feel a bit embarrassed to ask where your files are? XO makes you stoop to new lows of embarrassment. Let's say you save a file, and then open a terminal and try to find it from the command line. Well, not only I wasn't able to find them using the UNIX find command, but several Linux experts at a meeting of the Austin Linux Group were unable to find those files using find with all sorts of advanced options. Then after some googling one of them found an indication the file names on XO may be encrypted. So no matter what you call your file, you won't be able to find it.

By the way, what exactly is a file name on OLPC is not entirely clear. Nor is a mechanism by which one saves a file in the text editor. The editor has no "Save" menu option. The only thing that resembles saving a file is clicking on "Activity" tab in the text editor (or, to use XO terminology, in the Write Activity) and then you'll see a little bar in the upper left corner; by default, this bar says "Write Activity". You can change this text to anything you want, which is akin to giving file a name. Then if you switch to Journal, you'll see this activity referred to by the name you just gave it. So it is indeed like a file name. Like is the keyword here. Because nowhere on the machine you'll find a file by that name.

Can you back up your files without knowing where they are?

Well, perhaps the XO computing paradigm does not require you to know file names in order to find them again? At a first glance, yes. You can see all your "activities" in the Journal, so you don't really have to search for them by their file names. Which leads to a question: is Journal capacity infinite? Will every activity you've ever done be listed there? Or do the oldest activities "expire" after a while? Because if they do, and you can't find them by the file name, you're screwed if you ever want to access them again.

But of course Journal can't be infinite, because XO hard drive (sorry, flash drive) isn't infinite. Which brings us to the next, critical question. How do you back up your files?

When I plugged in a USB drive, I opened it in the Journal (by clicking the USB icon at the bottom of the Journal), then switched back to the Journal, and tried to drag-and-drop an item from the Journal onto the USB icon. The icon seemed to move, so I thought I'd switch back to the USB drive view and see if the file will appear there. I could not switch back to Journal (by clicking its icon at the bottom). Then I tried to unmount the USB drive (by clicking Unmount), and then unplugged it. This action crashed my Journal! It disappeared.

So now I'll have to reboot to see if the Journal is restored, and if my test file actually appears on the USB drive. What fun!

Friday, January 04, 2008

XO: where are my folders?

I shall not stop until I've vented all I have to vent about XO. Hey, for those $400 if I did not buy a functional computing device, I at least bought a right to complain, no? :-)

When you plug in an USB drive, it's supposed to show up at the bottom of Journal as a USB drive icon. Of all times I plugged it in, the icon showed up perhaps half the time.

Actually, it was like this: I plugged it in, it showed up. I unplugged it, then plugged it back in. It did not show up again. I rebooted the computer, it showed up.

Then I was for in for another disappointing surprise. I have several thousands of images and hundreds of videos on my USB drive, all filed in folders according to my own system (when you have that many files, it's not trivial to find a filing system that would quickly let you find what you want). Guess what -- this laptop does not recognize folders. It displays all thousands of files in a flat list, sorted by date/time. I could not believe my eyes. But perhaps I could have guessed that a system that did away with a window manager would go one step further and get rid of the folder paradigm altogether.

You can open a Linux terminal on this laptop (thank goodness for small graces) and cd through directories from a command prompt. So in that sense you can see folders on your disk. But you shouldn't have to be a geek to use folders, no? At least the children this laptop is designed for can't be assumed to be Linux geeks.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Laptop surgery

Yesterday was another first. I observed surgery performed on a laptop. On mine, that is. On my dearest old laptop (not the XO), the one that mistakenly swallowed a gulp of my coffee. :-) Fry's could not fix it. The liquid has leaked into the system board, they said. It's not possible to fix. But to work around the problem of a mouse that thinks its button is permanently pressed, they recommended that I get an external mouse. So I did. Plugging in an external mouse is supposed to disable the built-in one... only it doesn't. So I asked a local IT expert how to disable it. It was supposed to be a quick question, but we all know how quick those questions actually are. This one lead to an-hour-and-a-half long troubleshooting session (you can't disable the built-in mouse from the BIOS, and you can't uninstall its driver, because every time you
reboot, Windows re-detects it and reinstalls the darn driver!) that culminated in opening up my laptop and exposing its guts. Oh, what a white-knuckled feeling it was to see my dear laptop laid open and helpless! And how weird it is that to get to the internal mouse (or "trackpad", I should say) you have to go in from the bottom, by opening the hard drive compartment! Well, the IT expert cleaned off the trackpad parts and put the laptop back together, but no cigar. The mouse still thinks its button is "on", and it overrides the signalsfrom the external mouse. More surgery, then. The guy disconnected the trackpad cable, finally disabling the trackpad. So, thanks to this good person, I have a working system for now, but I'll start to look for a
new laptop soon.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

I'm no better critiquer than I am a writer

I try to do one new thing on the first day of the new year. I went to a meeting of a science fiction writers' critique group. One of my SF writer friends had said that the critique delivered by this group is so mild as to be useless: they'll never tell you if your story sucks. But I wanted to see for myself. Well, they didn't trash anyone's story, but they pointed out a lot of things in it that I thought were very helpful to the author. I felt a bit useless without having to offer any helpful critique to the authors, as I'm really not that perceptive. I'm blind to literary style, and I'm not bothered by stuff like frequent shifts of POV, and such. The only critique I can offer is "can you make it a little bit more interesting?", which of course is not helpful. :-) (I didn't bring any of my stuff to be critiqued -- maybe I will someday, but this was my exploratory meeting.)

And I am totally not equipped to critique vampire erotica. I have no idea what distinguishes a good story in this genre from a bad one. :-)