Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The Migrating Cats

This website may be down for some time in the near future, as I’m migrating my domain name to a different DNS service and hoping to self-host the blog. With my history of I.T. projects, this will not be a simple matter.

I have done a dry run of setting up a server, on an old laptop inherited from my mother-in-law. I managed to create the server, install an SSL/TLS certificate and setup a Nextcloud server, which is running nicely. However, I have come unglued on a number of issues, including renewing the certificate and attaching adequate storage for it to be a really useful server.

I have now bought a second hand fanless computer running a quad-core Celeron chip and with 4 gig of RAM. I’m planning to install Virtualmin and have several servers running on it, but the storage issue still has to be worked out and I have a number of other ‘to-does’ to get round. Thus, it may take some time.

Since the domain renewal isn’t far off, I thought I would transfer it now, to get that sticking point out of the way. In the meantime, I’ve set up the fqdn for my server on another domain name and am waiting for that to verify before I go ahead with installing Virtualmin. Thus, at some point, my hosting company is going to get arsey with me, and I’ll be cancelling my hosting with them, at which point, this website will disappear until I can set it up again on my home server.

Adventures loom. I know there aren’t many readers of this blog, but if any of you do look in here occasionally, I’ll see you on the other side.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Under The Hammer

A hammer, under which I am.

I need to take stock.

I’m not sure I really have the time to maintain this blog anymore. The part of it that matters to me most, the book reviews, take a day to write, at least, and, lately, a spare day has not been available.

Work, like a noxious gas, expands to fill all space. My job is supposed to be part time – twenty-four hours per week – but it is not. I gave up the memory group work last month, so that I had more time to keep up with admin for my teaching job, but I seem to have even less time this year, with large classes and an enrolment and assessment system that demands huge amounts of repetitive paperwork.

Nevertheless, I am keeping up with that, and my learners seem, for the most part, happy. With the first half term over, my classes are making progress: we will be entering the English learners for reading exams for the end of term and I am optimistic that it will be a successful round of assessments. In maths, my classes are progressing well through the basic calculation material and we will be able to get on to application before Christmas.

Besides work, however, I have started an Open University course in Science, Technology and Maths. I am hoping to progress to a computing and IT degree next year. I wanted to improve my maths knowledge to underpin my teaching, but am also thinking ahead: I don’t want to be trapped in this job until I drop, as it is quite physically demanding. I have to cart large amounts of paperwork, books and a laptop around to different venues, put out tables, and am on my feet for two hours at a time as I teach. Even the act of crouching beside a desk as I guide a learner is something that I will not be able to do for many more years. I am fit enough, but my feet aren’t great and the aches and pains of middle age are beginning to catch up with me.

So, I thought that an IT degree, finished before I’m sixty, might offer me a few options. It is a sort of interest of mine: I am dubious about the mainstream methods of communication and would like to be able to set up my own channels. Not being on Facebook and Twitter is a major impediment to participation in some things, particularly politics and social events, but I sense that their high water marks may be about to pass. I would like to keep up with the tech, but not be dependent upon having to pay through the nose for new machines every time things change. For that, I need better skills in open source software, and for that, I need training.

So far, the OU course is only two weeks old and is, mostly, about study skills and a bit of environmental science. It’s an access course, so it’s about preparing learners for degree study. I’ve learnt a little bit, but not been seriously challenged yet. However, an upcoming task is to master a scientific calculator, which I am both dreading and looking forward to.

I intended to do that yesterday, but Ubuntu released its new version on Thursday and, like a fool, I set my desktop computer to upgrade on Friday. I should have remembered that every upgrade means I am dazzled into tinkering with my set-up.

Ubuntu with Unity and Buuf icon theme

That is particularly true of this upgrade, which is quite a fundamental change. Ubuntu has reverted to a Gnome Desktop, which is a shame in some ways. I have come to like the Unity desktop, but its rationale has been superseded by developments. The huge advantage of Gnome is its maturity and its integrated applications. Yesterday, I spent most of the day changing applications: I have, for instance, removed Evolution email and Calendar, because Gnome comes with a lovely calendar app and works beautifully with the simple but superb Geary email app.

I also set up back ups, for the first time. I have relied upon an external hard drive for keeping copies of things, but it is old and becoming more of a risk than a safeguard. Last year, in a fit of optimism, I bought a 1TB hard drive and a caddy in which to run it. It is now almost full with a full set of Deja-Dup files and, if my six-year-old desktop suffers a catastrophic failure, I should have some recourse. I’d like to set up a Nextcloud server to be a secondary backup, but that takes time, resources and knowledge: all in short supply. Without those qualities, it takes money, and I really can’t afford to rent a cloud service: I’m already paying nearly £200 per year to keep this site running.

So, work and computers are my main time suckers. What else?

Well, Amanda, very skillfully, has organised the renovation of our kitchen. We went over to Ikea in Southampton on a couple of beautiful days this summer, and bought nearly two grands worth of boxes, which are currently piled up in our dining room. Last week, a very nice electrician did the wiring of the kitchen, although I think he’s done one fewer sockets than we asked for, which could mean I will be stuck with making a choice between the kettle and music when I’m cooking.

So, this half term break has a task hanging over it: assembling and installing kitchen units, getting it finished off by various trades people who know what they’re doing, and decorating the kitchen. I loathe DIY.

The other time killer is the bloody dog. She is a sweet enough animal, and I do have moments of adoration, but, Oh God! What a fucking palaver owning a dog is! As dogs go, she’s not that noisy, but there’s just that constant inquisitive presence, demanding attention, whenever I move around the house. The house smells of dog, and the carpets all need deep cleaning because she whines so much in the morning that we don’t know when she’s whining to go out for a piss and when she’s just whining because we’re not in the same room as her.

Amanda and Tia in Firestone Copse, September 2017

Having said that, the walks are nice. We went to Firestone Copse on Friday and had a really good wander. She can be let off the lead now, which means Amanda and I can talk, when Amanda’s not trying to turn the whole thing into a ‘training session’. On days when long walks aren’t possible, we are lucky to have two recreation grounds within five minutes’ walk. Also, I have got into the practice of taking Tia up to Osborne House if Amanda wants a sleep in the afternoon and I’ve finished work. Dogs have to be kept on leads there, but Tia’s happy enough sniffing around. The grounds are beautiful and I get an hour of daydreaming. We wander along the valley walk path, through Prince Albert’s landscaped park, down to the beach, and then back up through the woods, past the cottage and along the top field. We have had quite a lot of good autumn weather this year, although it has been punctuated by extreme bizarreness, and it has been lovely to have a reason to get out and enjoy it.

So, yes, I am busy. Having laid it all out here, though, it sounds less awful than it has seemed. I have a lot to be grateful for, really, even if it does include a bloody dog. The cat’s adapted; so shall I.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Debeaked.

This morning I deactivated my Twitter account.

I feel strange.

I have only been using it regularly for a couple of months. I set up my account in 2015, so that I could keep up with the rapid and exciting changes within the Labour Party. Then Facebook took over, and I largely ignored it. After deleting my Facebook account, I had a blessed period of no social media activity whatsoever. I think of this as a golden era. I might have been a little out of the loop about some things, but I was very productive. My work performance improved and I read more, and blogged with a little more depth.

Then, two months ago (just two months!) our supreme leader called a ‘snap’ general election. The ‘common sense’ view was that Labour would roll over and die. It didn’t work out that way. Like an awful lot of other people, I leapt into enthusiastic action, and my dormant Twitter account was a major tool of my involvement, although not the only tool. I set up a webpage within this site, and blogged about the election campaign on the Island, and I leafleted and marched and went to rallies, and I had a whale of a time, and we achieved a result that no one had predicted.

However, it was not a victory, or a clear-cut loss. My intention had been to shut my Twitter account on the day the election result was announced, but I was hooked and it felt -feels- as though the battle goes on.. I had gathered over sixty followers in under a month and I was enjoying the instant gratification of pontificating, congratulating and dismissing people on a public forum. I think, on the whole, I was in control of my tone. I certainly continued to gather followers and likes and retweets: all the psychic gratification of a system built around conditioned response, but I also was getting dragged in, in the way we love to see others dragged in, to the twitchy, snarly arse-sniffing of a social-media bubble.

Yesterday, I posted a comment about the odious, racist, right-wing ‘commentator’ Melanie Phillips and my sister took exception, suggesting that my use of the word ‘shrill’ was gendered. Now, I don’t regret lashing out at a privileged, fascist conspiracy-theorist. Indeed, I so dislike Phillips that I had trouble, for an hour or two, accepting that my sister had a point. Phillips uses a form of rich-people’s victimy hysteria as a cover for her selfish, spoilt vitriol, and I feel justified in despising her, but I was in danger of taking – indeed, I did take – the ugliness of my subject as an excuse for behaviour or, at least, language, that was as inconsiderate of decency as the poison spouted by the person I was attacking. As Phillips’ racist hatred has proved, words can have consequences. And, with social media, even the most inconsequential, trivial and apparently anonymous voice is only one careless tweet away from personal disaster.

The medium, social media, had shaped my behaviour. It was too easy to publish, albeit to under a hundred people, directly, language of which, in the cold light of day, I was ashamed. Twitter didn’t even have Facebook’s one redeeming virtue, that it facilitates discussion. On Twitter, you are constantly striving for the punchline: the killing blow, without going through the intermediate and potentially enriching process of an exchange of views. It had to end, and so I clicked deactivate, and am now back to being an isolated blogger, publishing my thoughts to the void, and to Diaspora, which, while it doesn’t share all Twitter and Facebook’s failings, cannot, in its restraint, provide quite the same interconnectedness.

However, if you are reading this and would like to keep up with my posts or even engage with me without signing up to this site, you might want to look at Diaspora. It uses a distributed model, and a hub can be set up on any server, which I would like to do some time. For now, I have joined a hub run by the developers, and have come across quite a few interesting people. It is not so compulsive, and it is a little quiet, but it is there.

You can join by clicking this symbol:

I hope to see you there.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Recent Reading

I bought a Tolino ereader a month or so back and it has proved a success. Actually, it turned out to be an unnecessary purchase: my Android ereader, which had frozen, responded to a flash drive reset and having its developer options turned on and is now in rugged good health. I’ve set it up for Amanda for when we go away.

My father’s old laptop, with Windows 7 installed to replace the Windows 10 OS that was far too demanding for it, now serves as an epub purchasing machine. I’ve never had any luck running Adobe Digital Editions on Linux: it’s supposed to be possible in WINE emulation layer, but is only ever stable for a week or so, before Adobe change some setting. The curse of Linux, that to keep up you must be able to converse with IT graduates in their autistic language, frustrates me in this situation, as in so many others.

So, Windows it is, with the unlocking of purchased books done by the hated Adobe DE, and then the DRM stripped from the books by Calibre, before installing on our readers. I favour a website called Indieebooks.co.uk, but am also using Kobo a fair bit, although there is little real price competition in the ebook market, which is fine, as I am happy to pay a price that secures writers some chance of making a living from the books I want to read.

I have also bought a few books from Baen. My longest standing reading quest is to find readable literary junk food, preferably SF, that will absorb me without completely insulting my intelligence. My ideal in this search is to match the pleasure I got from Elizabeth Moon‘s Serrano series, which I first read when I was working at The Rat and Parrot in Southampton. I used to take an hour off after the lunch rush, do the banking in town and then have a coffee somewhere close enough to the pub to not require a long walk back to work, but far enough away that I would not meet any of our regulars or staff. The books are military SF with female heroes, and a bizarre aristocratic social system under threat from its own decadence. They don’t bear close examination, but are sufficiently consistent within themselves to support the breathless adventures undertaken by a huge cast of likeable and superficially believable characters, and the settings are distinct, closely written and often quite vivid. Moon also managed to make the conflicts in which her characters were embroiled meaningful: one volume of the series involves the capture of several women and girls by a breakaway human culture rooted in fundamentalist Christian patriarchy, and the sense of injustice and horror of that heretical but convincing society brought to mind (in a vastly starker way) some of the attitudes I encountered when I lived in Arkansas.

Alas, they are a unique oddity. They are part of a huge publishing sector, American military space opera, that is otherwise despicably monotone and ugly. Perhaps the low point in my search was The Lost Fleet series, by Stephen Baxter. The entire dismal product was in the Camp Hill library, and I waded through the first two before giving up. They are circular, hateful, paranoid and describe a conflict without any cause or justification. If one of the points of SF is that it allows for stories that are not limited by mundanity, it seems almost a heresy to write science fiction that is dedicated to reducing real human suffering – the agonies of war – to mundane tropes. The Lost Fleet is suffused with war for war’s sake; a mere plot device, in which ‘warriors’ are misunderstood and betrayed by the ‘softness’ of people who would live their lives without conflict. Comically, in American war-worship fiction, these tropes combine into a form of campness unrivalled by any genre other than the classic Western: the high point of this tendency is The Seafort Saga, by David Feintuch, which almost redeems itself by being so bad it’s good.

Nevertheless, for a few days last month, I thought I had discovered a decent replacement for The Serrano Legacy. Baen Books publish David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which follows the career of a female naval officer who is the self-doubting but dutiful hero of the Confederate navy. The Confederacy is a monarchy, but a nice, American one, that spans a huge sector of the galaxy but is succumbing to decadence, which, in American Military SF terms, means reduced military spending. Its arch enemy, the People’s Republic of Haven, is evil, because it is a welfare state, and thus, inevitably, expansionist and tyrannical as well as technically backward, bureaucratic and hopelessly democratic (‘democracy’, here, meaning two-faced and futile). In the first novel, On Basilisk Station, borders are violated, command abdicated and our plucky hero has to step in to beat overwhelming odds with only good ‘ol American know how and lots of guns. It’s a romp, and a well-plotted one, that achieves the internal coherence and impetuous excitement of the Elizabeth Moon series. I overlooked the undercurrent of soldierly self-pity and contempt for peace because it was so readable, and it has other virtues: the first two novels of the series are free on Baen, the characters are distinct and memorable, and the author is amazingly prolific. Here is a vast source of mental chewing gum for when I don’t want to be challenged by my reading.

However, by the third novel, the repetitiveness and obviousness of the genre was asserting itself. To be fair, Weber is honest about his inspiration: he is trying to recreate his enjoyment of the Hornblower novels in science fiction form, an ambition that is not unique, or even particularly elevated: I’ve read the first Hornblower and that was quite enough. Other Napoleonic naval writers have done much better. Weber is, without doubt, a competent and engaging writer. His adventures are well-plotted and full of excitement. They were just failing to overcome my better instincts. I came to the conclusion that, in the years since I first read Elizabeth Moon, I have changed too much to enjoy war porn, however professional the product. I suppose I should be proud of the fact that I have outgrown such an adolescent genre, but I can’t help feeling a sense of loss.

The Better

Born A Crime, by Trevor Noah

So much for the crap. The book that has impressed me most over the last month is non-fiction, which, given my dislike of the real world, is unusual. It is the autobiography of the comedian, Trevor Noah, Born A Crime. I bought it because I’d seen a video of him talking about it and he seemed a nice guy with plenty to say. Having read it, he is now my greatest man-crush ever. I am stupidly jealous of his intelligence, his energy, his understanding and his beauty. He is ambivalent, but never slighting, about religion, but what shines from the book is a sense of goodness, despite having lived a fairly destructive and dispiriting childhood. His understanding of the absurdity of racial definitions has a clarity that cuts through all the crap surrounding the current American situation: South African history is so absurd that it counterpoints the viciousness of current American divisions vividly. Despite the seriousness of all his topics (racism, an abusive stepfather, economic repression) he is incredibly generous in his ability to identify with those people who have done him harm, and he identifies his good nature as coming from the fact that, despite everything he endured growing up, he has never been without love: of family, friends and the wider communities with which, as a mixed-race South African, he had to consciously decide to identify.

Noah has now reached a position of fame and influence that is awe-inspiring and, although he does not go this far in the book, one has to wonder whether there is some divine influence in the idea that, in times of trouble, humans have a way of finding the spokespeople we need. As the Trump government gets bogged down in its own success, Noah is a real voice of rational, pacific dissent and opposition. I cannot think of anyone whose critique of politics I would rather hear.

Undead Boredom

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

A free edition is available from Feedbooks.

There is a Radio 4 series called ‘I’ve Never Seen Star Wars’, on which people who pass as interesting undertake common experiences which have passed them by. It’s quite boring; the sort of self-congratulating in-crowd stuff at which Radio 4 excels, but it’s a good idea. In the same spirit, I have a list of books which I feel I should read: most of Hardy, having been forced to read Tess of the D’Urbevilles at school, all of Henry James, Gibbon, etc. I’ve made inroads into it over the last decade and it has provided some real pleasures. Dickens, for example, had never excited me, beyond A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, but I’ve read a fair chunk of his writing now and he has actually got onto the list of authors whose books I ration, so that I don’t run out, rather than the list of foggy challenges in which James and Hardy still languish.

Dracula had defeated me once, in my teens, after I first fell in love with Frankenstein and was looking for something similarly compelling. While Frankenstein is a progressive novel that took Gothic fiction forward towards the creation of science fiction, Dracula is everything that frustrates me about the Gothic: where SF reaches for the sublime through the expansion of human experience, the Gothic attempts to create it through what became surrealism: a mythos of self-examination; a narrowing of experience; a miserly raking over of old stories smeared over contemporary values and uncertainties.

I read Dracula last week, and it was still a chore, but I made it. It is an exercise in praise of late-Victorian efficiency and planning, interspersed with a few passages of vaguely evocative but pallid pastiche of high romance. I found myself comparing it with other early twentieth century novels whose values make me uneasy: it is not as openly racist as the Richard Hannay novels of John Buchan, but it is rooted in an assumption of the virtue of English and American civilization and in a feeling that that assumption is under threat. As I dragged myself, dutifully, to its underwhelming climax, I was surprised to realise that the modern pop-culture ubiquity of vampires-as-ideological plot devices is not a watering down of past glories but a continuation of a dreary tradition whose high point was just as awful as its Murdoch funded modern lows.

The problem with the co-opting of speculative themes by conservative authors is that the undermining of reality that is at the heart of the speculative imagination is, inherently, radical. Once a writer, or film maker, or comic-book artist, ties himself to a radical theme, he denies himself the right to conclude the story in a way that safely restores order. Thinking about it now, this may be why Hollywood, with its addiction to uplifting conclusions, has such trouble with Science Fiction: in speculative fiction there has to be change, and conservative storytelling is all about the preservation of established order. Dracula, in the end, is defeated, and the protagonists return to their lives, victorious and vindicated, with reality restored. The token American, it’s true, is killed, but he is such a non-character that he is hardly missed. It doesn’t make sense. The existence of vampires is an offence against what the protagonists are supposed to represent: rational, scientific civilization. The fact that Van Helsing is supposed to be one of the great characters of fiction seems absurd to me: he’s a mashup; a pseudo-scientist who accepts with little more than a frown the existence of supernatural villains. He hums and hahs in his cod ‘Johnny Foreigner’ accent, the cover for his ‘openness to things we can barely give creedence’, hops off to Amsterdam to collect the garlic and from then on he is basically a mystic, dragging out the thinnest of plots with inconclusive ‘clues’. It’s all very frustrating.

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

In my irritation with Dracula, I remembered that I had bought ‘I Am Legend‘, by Richard Matheson, as part of a collection of SF Masterworks, when I first started buying ebooks. I loaded it on to the Tolino and read it and it proved to be an effective palate cleanser. A vampire story it may be, but it follows the logic of its use of the plot device. The vampire plague in Matheson’s book is triggered by nuclear war (he wrote the novel in the fifities) and spread by the dust storms of a minor nuclear winter, and the hero, an engineer rather than a scientist, gets only so far as the plot requires in understanding the ‘science’ of his plight. The important thrust of the book is that the idea of surviving a nuclear war is not a triumph: the survival of the human race is at the cost of our essential humanity. In my dissertation, I called nuclear conflict the Satan of post war culture, and I think it is very clever of Matheson to have addressed the topic through a familiar cultural metaphor, giving it the role of nuclear war’s Beelzebub.

Apart from its rather dodgy nineteen-fifties sexual politics, I Am Legend is a surprisingly good book, that handles grief and isolation with painful clarity. I recommend it. I can’t say the same for Dracula.

What Next?

I’ve got two weeks’ holiday from work, although I will have to do some work early next week, as I didn’t get everything finished yesterday. Nevertheless, I’ve been stocking up on reading for the forthnight’s rest. I’ve bought the three book series by Cixin Liu, The Three Body Problem, that has garnered wide praise. I started the first novel this morning, and it is looking very promising. As backup, I’ve also got the first three books in a historical thriller series by S J Parris, the Giordano Bruno books. Set in Elizabethan London, they’re marketed at fans of C J Samson’s wonderful Shardlake series of mysteries.  Shardlake is a lawyer in Henry VIII’s London, and one of my favourite characters; a wise, honest investigator of mysteries who is marked as an outsider by his physical deformity and his moderation in a time of religious and political intolerance. Samson is a careful and beautiful writer whose craft transcends his genre, but he is not prolific, and both Amanda and I lament the gaps between his publications. I am wary about reading what, I assume, will be a lesser example of the genre, but will give it a try. I loathe Henry VIII, and am not much more positive about Elizabeth, but the cultural darkness of her father’s reign gave way to the flowering of English culture in hers, and so I have some hopes that, even if Parris is a lesser writer, her novels are set in a more fruitful period, and will provide something to enjoy.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

A Roundup of My Most Recent Computing Frustrations.

I have wanted a file server for some time. Ideally, I’d like a virtual server running alongside a media server, with a cloud server alongside that, but that has just become too difficult. Anyway, a good Samba setup, with VLC media player on connected devices, can act as a media server, apparently, and would kill two of those birds with one stone. Moreover, after a bit of reading, I realise how stupid it it would be having  cloud storage backup on the same machine as the files you’re backing up. Obvious really, but it hadn’t occurred to me.

So, the new(est) plan is to hire dedicated Nextcloud storage, which will give me both the backup function and my own carddav and caldav server, as I’ve wanted to have my own calendar and contacts server ever since my last Owncloud arrangement came to an end. I can get it for about sixty quid a year, hosted in Iceland, outside the EU and the general unpleasantness of American Imperial hegemony, and I believe I shall do that, after next payday.

However, I want my Samba server to be in the house and under my control, although, since a pre-requisite of controlling computers is understanding how they work, I am at a disadvantage. I am like the eighteenth century comic trope character, who is in love with the idea of enlightenment thought and sits down each night, determined to master another of the primary texts – L’Encyclopedie or The Pricnipia – but is defeated by the first paragraph and goes to bed every night resentful and even more mystified. I appreciate the value of open source software and the self-managed systems, but I struggle to learn even the basics of networking, and am confounded even when I follow the most excellent of instructions.

Last weekend was a typical example; the next installment in a year long stuggle to make something work for myself and learn a little in the process.

I bought a little mini PC with a mobile phone processor early last summer from a Chinese trading site, closing my conscience to the ethics of Chinese commerce. It is a remarkable machine, more powerful than my four year old desktop, except in the graphics department, and I connected a one gigabite solid state drive to it: a real modern miracle that can hold as much information as a university library, and access it in milliseconds, silently and with the use of almost no power. I am stunned by it all. I have had several abortive attempts to put it to good use, including diving in and getting Kodi running successfully, but then realising that it would hog the entire machine, by demanding control of various elements of our home network. It’s easy to setup, but it’s a bugger to maintain, and it doesn’t play nicely with other software.

My next try was to install Virtualbox headless and control it from my desktop. This is graduate-level stuff. I cannot learn code. The installation of Virtual box on an Ubuntu server with no GUI is really, really complicated. I also tried to install a web panel, called Sentora, but that does NOT like sharing at all: virtually useless to me and very, very bombastic instructions.

Despair set in and I didn’t try anything for a while. I gave up trying to make sense of it all, and paid for web space with a commercial host, and set up this web site. That has kept me happy for some time, at least giving me the incentive to dump social media. The Mini PC just stares at me, though, tutting, whenever I sit at my desk, muttering about its cost and the inevitability of obsolescence.

Just before Christmas I came across this video. Besides having the unusual virtue, for a Youtube computing video, of being a masterpiece of clear, engaging communication, it seemed to only involve processes that I am all too familiar with: reinstalling a copy of Ubuntu onto the PC. I’ve done this so often over the past half year that I can predict what window is going to come up after each progress bar. However, what it also told me was how to set up the two craven mysteries of networking: local IP address and the network gateway.

I have done it and it appeared to be good. For a glorious quarter of an hour or so, I thought I had finally had an unqualified (in both senses) computing success…

Except…

…the miniPC is not now connecting to the internet. I have done something wrong in the assignment of the static IP address or setting it up in the router as a reserved client address. I don’t want to start all over again, not least because I have a fairly large number of folders set up and I don’t want to have to do all that typiing over again.

The most frustrating thing is that I really have to wait until next weekend to try to sort it out. I can’t sit down and just do an hour here or there, because, when you are trying to learn as you go with computers, EVERYTHING TAKES SO LONG!!!

So, if anyone can direct me to the commands that will help me work out what I need to change, I will be eternally grateful. ifconfig gives me nothing useable.I am faced, once again, with my own limitations.

On another front, my father, whose sight is failing, gave me his laptop: a giant, anaemic Dell, with a seventeen inch screen, that was struggling to run Windows 10 on a Pentium dual core processor. I bought a Windows 7 licence from Ebay and it is behaving quite happily.

I feel a little dirty using a Windows machine, but I’ve wanted one for a while, so that I can buy epub books legitimately. I have a lovely android ebook reader with an e paper screen that makes reading ebooks a pleasure, but I haven’t been able to but any that have Adobe DRM, because Adobe don’t support Linux. In a few cases, I have bought a copy, then bit torrented another copy so that I can read it, but I haven’t felt right about that: even if I’ve paid for it, I’m still supporting the undermining of the author’s income, and writing is a tenuous living.

Now, I’ve got Adobe setup, linked to Calibre so that I can convert the DRM’d files to a useable copy and am loading them onto my ereader with happy abandon. If I ever sort out my Samba server, I’ll move my Calibre library to that, and then I will be able to sync my ereader over my home wifi. Oh what bliss in that sweet dawn it will be to be alive!

I can’t help wondering sometimes, whether it’s all worth it, but, like a neglected lover, I keep coming back to all this stuff. If I ever get the time, I want to start an online course that seems to have improved on Codeacademy: Free Code Camp seems to cover things in a sensible order and starts with stuff that I half know: basic HTML and CSS, which I can tinker with, if I have a reference sheet to hand. I would say that I’ll start it this weekend but, unfortunately, I’ll be busy, trying to tidy up last weekend’s project.

Frustration, frustration, frustration.

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Free at Last, Free at Last, Great Day in the Morning, Free at last!

I just deleted my Facebook page. I am no longer feeding the beast. Woohoo!

(Yeah, I know that link recommends not deleting your account but being a ‘positive influence’ within it. Seems a bit of a sell out to me, but he is a tech blogger, so…)

Facebook is parasitic bullshit, and its customers are its victims.

I sent contact details to those people who I don’t see in real life, but if I missed you, sorry. Send me a message via the contact page in the menu above.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Ryland Sanders: My Blogging Hero

At the end of 2003, as America revelled in the fresh ecstasy of its brutalisation of Iraq, and we in Britain were still blinking dazedly, and coming to terms with the fact that our Labour Prime Minister had just sold us out for a bomber jacket and a round of applause in congress, I found myself out of work and in a city where I knew very few people, thanks to having worked long hours for an employer who never got the hang of paying wages. The one asset I took from the job, which barely touched the debts I had amassed trying to keep the business going, was a laptop computer.

I don’t know when I first came across Ryland Sander’s blog, but it must have been around then. I had only really cautiously explored the internet up until then, and had found it a little disappointing and bewildering. A Boy and his Computer, Ryland’s site, was the first web site that I regarded as home.

Blogs were all the rage then, and the first clearing out of the internet was beginning: geocities was losing ground, MySpace was an astounding new success, and Facebook was a couple of years away. Blogger had started, and WordPress and Live Journal were making an appearance if one Googled a serious topic.

Ryland’s blog was different, because he built it from scratch. He was a software developer, stuck in the post ’90s tech crash position of chasing increasingly rare and unrewarding contracts on ever-more degrading terms. He didn’t complain about it too directly-he had that particular liberal American (although he would caval at the term ‘liberal’) dignity about work that prevented him being too specific, even when he was quite publicly open about ideas, opinions and feelings that were related to broader, less personal topics. However, in the ‘IM Hijinks’ section of his site, where he posted his instant message conversations with his friend Matt Sturges, the topic of the under-use of his talents and training were a constant source of dark humour.

So, I think the site was, indirectly, a way of advertising his skills, but also a way of keeping them fresh. In one of his hijinks posts, he joked about how ‘woot’ he was, claiming that he forewent all packaged software, becoming increasingly basic in his technological tools, from programming languages to binary, until, he claimed, “I’m so woot I code in cuneiform on stone tablets”. I didn’t understand it at the time. That’s how unwoot I was, and am.

However, Ryland was a man of his (and my) generation, and interested in using this new technology, less as a tool for self-promotion than as a means of making sense of a world he clearly found fascinating, but absurd and, possibly, disappointing. He had a gift for amiable satire: he hated the unreflective, brutalist religious right and the vulgarity of their homophobia and was a co-creator of the GodHatesShrimp site. This became a not-inconsiderable force in defining the opposition to the primitivist retrenching blasphemy of the ‘moral majority’ embodied in the Westboro Baptist Church and the antics of their demented leader, Fred Phelps.

He also created the Dancing Jesus page, as a response to the dancing Hamster page that was a brief internet thing, and as an exercise in the right to free speech which was a cornerstone of his philosophy. It was typical of Ryland’s nature that all his parodies, while cutting, were not grotesque, or cruel beyond their subjects. Dancing Jesus amused me, and mainly angered people for whom Christianity was far from Jesus’ message of peace, faith and humility. He delighted in reporting on his blog the outraged messages that he received from knee-jerk responders but, when he was engaged by people for whom the site was a sincere problem, which they expressed in a thoughtful manner, he took their ideas seriously, and, eventually, took Dancing Jesus down.

And, most famously, he was the inventor of the Church Sign Generator: the tribute to and parody of the plastic advertising signs on which churches in the U.S. berate passersby with a form of religion little indistinguishable from the techniques used to sell hamburgers, except that they tend to be a little more amateurish. His original seems to have gone now, but there are imitators all over the internet, and this one, although it doesn’t have a church sign, at least acknowledges Ryland.

I began to comment on A Boy and His Computer sometime in 2004. There was a healthy community long established (by internet standards), and most of his posts led to some exchange of comments: some ran to a hundred, or a hundred and fifty comments. It was the year of George W Bush’s re-election, when the American electorate was conned into voting against its own economic and national interest in an almost forensic manner and it was the second year of the illegal, racist genocide by American forces and their British auxiliary legions in Iraq. There was a lot to discuss and a lot to be angry about and, at some point, my anger and disgust with the direction in which America was leading us caused me to post some comments of which I was ashamed. I stopped posting, and then I stopped visiting, and I got on with my life, leaving the internet alone.

By 2005, my circumstances had improved somewhat. As well as having secure housing and an income, I had a circle of friends and the means to once again maintain a broadband connection. At some point, I searched for A Boy And His Computer and was commenting again within the first session, now as ‘Bert’ (I’ve really no idea why). This time, I stayed with the community for about two years, and their friendship and challenging discourse was a buttress of my identity. I had a community outside the community in which I lived, where I could discuss real issues in a lively, contentious but amiable way. They were forgiving, they were friendly, but they were not push overs. These people knew what they cared about and were prepared to argue for it. Moreover, it all took place on a website that was unique, beautiful, satisfyingly busy, but always coherent.

The major characters in my memory of ABAHC were Ryland, of course; Comrade Otto Yamamoto, who brought a blend of American socialist thought of which I had previously had only the vaguest suspicions; Mermaid, a middle school science teacher and football (‘soccer’) enthusiast and a convinced atheist; Redraven, who I remember as a pagan, but that may be wrong. Also, there was Rick, a Republican Christian whose slow journey towards a more moderate outlook was fascinating, Sir Craig, Matt and several others.

There were a couple of podcasts, one of which I took part in, dominating the discussion in an unforgivable manner. I have linked to them here. As the counter to the end of George Bush’s reign crept too slowly forward, we shared our views of the Abu Ghraib revelations, the dismantling of civil liberties in the U.S. and the U.K. and the perplexing hegemony of the right.

My life moved on, and I withdrew from the site, busy with a new home and a new partner and then a new career. At some point, I googled ABAHC and found that the site was down, and that Ryland was seriously ill. A few months later, he set up a Tumblr blog and Mermaid started a Facebook group. A few months later, I read this. And this. And then this.

In his Tumblr blog, Ryland reflected upon how he felt about different decades he had lived through. His idealism, tempered by his ironic realism seemed to embody this man I had never known in the true sense, but who had become an admired friend and intellectual leader in this new age of electronic communication. I doubt he even knew my real name.

Note: I have not sought permission to use Ryland’s words here, as I do not know how to contact his heirs. If you have a claim to his copyright, and would like me to remove the following quote, please contact me.

…The 90s were more eclectic, with no specific color palette. Everything was recycled, including fashion and music, but everything was also dressed down and distressed, including fashion and music. Greed was back in the closet again, but still being practiced assiduously. Although cynicism was highly fashionable, it was a very uplifting decade for me; the internet changed everything for me personally and professionally, and I thought it was going to save the world.

The 2000s were red and blue on white backgrounds and black outlines. There was mainly a lot of arguing. Arguing, and smaller gadgets. The 2000s were almost as depressing for me as the 90s were uplifting. The internet as profession let me down in a big way early on, but later came back in a big way. Greed was back, and bigger than ever, along with war and corruption. People were having more sex than ever, and it was all on camera and posted on the internet. Drugs were finally starting to become less demonized. Gay marriage also became less demonized. Idealism became less demonized, after 2001.

I may not always have agreed with Ryland about ideals, but I liked his voice and I really admired what he created. When A Boy And His Computer came to an end, the internet, as a thing of wonder, came to an end for me.

 

Saturday, 5 November 2016

About This Site

disaronno-on-the-rocks

As you’ll see, I’ve succumbed to the lure of WordPress.

It’s not terribly trendy just now, as static site generation is what the hipsters all love, but I’ve been frustrated in my attempts to install a reliable Jekyll setup, and I only really have weekends to play with computers.

The pleasure of Jekyll is Markdown, which is really nice to use. I learnt it in an hour, from this online tutorial. I recommend it to everyone. On my Ubuntu machine, writing in ReText means that the page appears as I type, and adding links and emphases don’t intrude in the composition process.

Some very nice people have answered posts I’ve put up on the Jekyl forum, and I think that, after a cooling off period, I may give it another go. WordPress really is very complicated. Its genius is that it’s easy to get up and running, but taking control in any meaningful way is the work of an entire day. For instance, I really want to work out how to embed feeds in static pages so that, rather than having side bar widgets for my posts feed, I have a posts feed box centrally on the page, and the introductory text remains the same. I’m sure it can be done, but the documentation is VAST, and it doesn’t seem to keep up with the new releases of the software, so that you find yourself unsure whether you’re reading a currently relevant article.

 

A Note About Icons

I’ve scattered various icons around the site. They are from the BUUF theme, by Mattahan, who is a genius. I’ve been using them on Ubuntu for almost a decade and, via a commercial launcher, on my Android mobiles for two or three years. The man’s a genius.