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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Software Arrogances

I have four computers, two each in two buildings, that I use actively -- or rather three, because my wife uses the fourth, but I am the one maintaining it. None are networked -- one of my forms of virus protection, under my impression that as yet no one has devised a computer virus that can walk, run, or fly, especially between buildings that are 200 feet apart. However, as I only use one at a time, and then for just a small part of the day, they are essentially just one computer, in which, however, I take a special pride, as I put all four of them together.

So I consider it a gross imposition by the millionaires and billionaires at Microsoft that, unlike the case with all their previous operating systems, I am "allowed" to put Windows XP on only one machine. That means that I've been forced for some time to stick with Windows 98SE on two of my computers, and to reinstall XP anew every month on a third, while the fourth machine, the one used by my wife, contains the activated XP.

This article explains the situation, and, after describing how XP has a way of checking your equipment to see that it remains the same as when XP was installed, the article contains the following statement:

At subsequent boots, Windows checks to see that it is still running on hardware that it can recognise as being the same. If it does not match well enough, you will be unable to do more than backup files until you call Microsoft to explain — for example, that the old machine broke down and had to be rebuilt — and get a new release code.

I am sorry, but that galls me no end. I'm not usually the stubborn sort, but I would absolutely refuse to call Microsoft and tell them anything, any more than I would buy four copies of XP. I'm not a company. I'm just one weirdo who likes to buy unusual computer cases and then can't help filling them up with components.

I understand that piracy is a problem and that this is Microsoft's idea of an anti-piracy measure, but in a company overrun with thousands of millionaires, I would doubt that they've ever been that seriously threatened by software piracy. In addition, I've bought a lot of software in my time, and XP and its upcoming successor, Vista, are the only programs that I've seen or heard of that impose on the users this much. And I'm certain the only reason they're able to get away with it is that, with the exception of Linux, which still has its drawbacks, Microsoft has a monopoly on PC's with its Windows.

This is arrogance in action, and it can be seen often in other forms in the computer world, especially in software whose makers don't trust the users who have paid their good money for it, not only in the field of piracy but also with regard to the users' common sense, so that these makers become like people with an excessive hormone count who feel that they have the right to make your decisions for you. You know the type. I had a friend once who, if he thought you were too slow in honking at other drivers, would reach out and hit your automobile horn for you. That kind.

Friday, December 22, 2006


Hi, all of you out there who are so unfortunate as to have no firewood to cut! Happy Winter Solstice Day!

This post is an enlargement of a comment that earlier this morning I posted on Andante's Collective Sigh. And in doing so, I'm following the advice of a guy named Badtux, the Snarky Penguin guy, whom I discovered through Rook's recently spiffed-up Rant site. (How's that for saluting three weblogs in one sentence!) Badtux is always interesting, though I don't feel much on the same beam with him, partly because he spends a lot of time mucking about in western deserts on various kinds of wheels -= which doesn't seem appropriate for a penguin to me -- whereas I spend my daylight hours trudging about in eastern woods and on my feet, as penguins very pointedly do, when they're not acting like they're fish or spelling their treks across the ice by toboganning across it on their bellies.

Andante and her commenters were speaking of how all the preparations needed for celebrating Christmas Day had gotten to be too much for them.

In my comment I spoke of how I long ago left all that behind, save for the stuff I had to do when my son was a child, which is now also a long time ago. I reached this decision after some years of exhausting myself hunting for gifts for relatives, when I had no idea whether the gifts were things that they would really want or need, and therefore most certainly weren't, anymore than were the things I received in turn -- and long gone were those once highly exciting but now embarrassing days when I lusted far too much for things that in the long run didn't matter much, like electric trains and chemistry sets.

Now the main day in the year to which I look forward is the Winter's Solstice, which is now upon us. This is because I'm outside so much, and therefore I'm very conscious of the lengths of the days, when I can do things, and of the nights, when I have to stay inside and eventually waste time sleeping so I can get through them.

And anyway, it seems clear that Jesus' birth wasn't really on the 25th, though no one knows what day it really was, and the New Year also seems to be based on his career, which means that in large parts of the world where he isn't worshipped, the counting of the years is based on other, equally uncertain things.

But for me the solstices and the equinoxes are on definitely solid ground, because they are based on planetary laws whose effects can be seen by everyone. For that very reason, however, they are universally taken for granted and almost never observed by most people.

So this, or yesterday, whenever the Big Moment was, is my favorite day of all. I like the daylight too much, and I love the moment when the nights finally stop lengthening at its expense.

A Virginia Good Ol' Boy

Congressman Virgil Goode, Republican, of Virginia, has finally done it. Formerly laboring in obscurity, he has become noticed on the national radar, by drawing bitter attacks, on the grounds that he has shown clear bigotry toward Muslims. It’s hard to say, however, whether he accomplished this breakthrough on purpose. Maybe he would have preferred to make his mark in a more salutary way, though in some minds what he did was entirely to be congratulated.

He did this, or it was done for him, by means of a letter that he wrote to certain of his constituents, in which he advocated tightening the country’s current immigration laws specifically to throw up barriers against Muslims. If that “Virgil Goode position," as he called it, is not adopted he warned, many more Muslims will arrive on our shores and will be elected to public office in the U.S., and they will choose to be sworn in on the Koran instead of on the Holy Bible.

He was referring to a Representative-Elect in Minnesota named Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. And Ellison threw up the red flag right quick by announcing, apparently, that he will use the Koran during his swearing in ceremony.

On hearing of this a bunch of Goode’s more pious constituents wrote to him, protesting this proposed action. Would-be Christianity is strong in Goode's district, and if that district doesn't include Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg kingdom, it is right next door. Goode, acting in the role of the responsive Congressman that he would like to be, sent his outraged constituents letters outlining the measures he would like to see his fellow Congressmen taking to prevent any future actions like Ellison’s.

Ironically, Ellison’s name does not make him sound like a recent immigrant from the Middle East, and he only converted to Islam during his college days. This is not a surprise, when we are told that, in spite of all the terror stuff, Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the U.S. And later Ellison said that he was speaking of a small, private swearing-in ceremony, instead of the big one performed in the House, where the left hand isn’t required to rest on or hold anything.

This is yet another case of anger driving people to lead with their behinds instead of with their heads.. Goode and his furious constituents seem to be overlooking the fact that America’s values have always rested on freedom of religion, and even in the recently and unjustifiably modified (by my standards) flag salute, it just says “one nation under God,” and not “under the Christian God.” So you would think that religious people would just be glad to see swearings-in to be conducted under some god, period, of whatever persuasion.

I had heard of Virgil Goode. He happens to represent the district in which I’ve been a transplant from D.C. for the last 30 years. This district is located in the beautiful and peaceful Piedmont area in the western half of Virginia. Once I even attended a Democratic event at which Goode spoke. I thought he was okay then, purely because at that time he was a Democrat. I may even have applauded, though I recall being puzzled at the thickness of his Southern good ol’ boy drawl, which seemed to me to greatly exceed what I’d heard coming out of the mouths of his fellow born and bred Virginia cavaliers.

Shortly after I dropped out of being active in supporting local politics, 10 or 15 years ago, Virgil Goode switched to being a Republican instead,.and a hardcore one at that.

It would be easy to condemn him therefore as being a turncoat, especially considering the small number of successful Democrats in Virginia, but the times and tendencies have a way of overtaking politicians here and there, and it’s good that the system has enough flexibility to allow people to switch parties with a minimum of fuss and muss. After all, Senator Jeffords of Vermont, formerly a Republican, left that party, to the great benefit of the Democrats, and so did Jim Webb, who in the most recent elections became a Democratic Senator from Virginia.

Still, I can’t help thinking that one switches to the Democrats purely out of high principle, whereas they switch to being Republicans mainly out of opportunism, because that’s where the big bucks are. They can’t possibly do it because of the company they find there.

A small note of comedy to add here. Goode’s letter only became public when it was revealed by a Sierra Club official.

At first I wondered why Goode would write that or any other kind of letter to somebody from the Sierra Club. It turned out that, as so often happens, the official received the letter by mistake. Such are the vagaries of the paths chosen by fame and infamy.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Sunnis vs. Shi'ites: Differing Historical Views

Today in his absolutely essential weblog on all matters having to do with Iraq and the Middle East, Informed Comment, Juan Cole makes this interesting statement:

I see a lot of pundits and politicians saying that Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq have been fighting for a millennium. We need better history than that. The Shiite tribes of the south probably only converted to Shiism in the past 200 years. And, Sunni-Shiite riots per se were rare in 20th century Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites cooperated in the 1920 rebellion against the British. If you read the newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s, you don't see anything about Sunni-Shiite riots. There were peasant/landlord struggles or communists versus Baathists. The kind of sectarian fighting we're seeing now in Iraq is new in its scale and ferocity, and it was the Americans who unleashed it.

This hits directly on something that I've been "laying off" to post here for several weeks.

Lately I've been reading books on the Crusades. This ought to be required reading for every American these days, in light of the crimes being committed daily overseas in their name. And of course, as if unconsciously sensing this, the Crusades are the last subject that any of them want to hear discussed. Not one sensible movie has even been made of that 200-year-deep pit of misery and history, now or, as far as I know, at any other time.

Before Cole jumped in there, I wanted to post a quote from one of those books, The Crusades, by Antony Bridge, published in 1982. On page 141 he said>

But perhaps the worst cause of disunity in the Moslem camp was the religious dissension betweeen the Sunni Moslems and the Shi'ites. There is no need to describe their doctrinal differences, but they tore the Moslem world apart in much the same way as doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants were later to ravage western Christendom; and as in the West, so in Islam, the religious disagreement between the two embattled sects was used by those who played at power politics to further their own ends.

Sound familiar? Every bit of this is right on for today, yet Bridge wrote this 24 years ago, about the situation in the Middle East in the 12th century, 900 years ago!

The distinction should be made that Cole is speaking of modern Iraq, while Bridge was referring to events that occurred mainly in what is now Syria, but the sameness of the principle is what matters, and Syria is plenty close enough, as is the difference between nine centuries and a millennium.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Mystical Convocation

The various spots on our property where over the years I have done some sustained firewood-cutting all end up becoming special places that carry for me certain spiritual meanings, to which, however, I can't give any names. The latest such spot is the one across the creek and far up the slope where I've been working on the downed 88 feet of a giant dead White Pine whose 20-foot snag still stands. The trees there are taller than they generally are elsewhere on the property.

Yesterday, while I was up there taking advantage of the last moments of daylight to split and carry away another big round of the fallen trunk, I saw something unusual and beautiful and awe-inspiring overhead. I heard them first though just barely, because only their wings were making sounds and that was subdued -- twenty or more large birds floating in from the north. I thought they would keep going, but instead most of them alighted in the tops of some of the trees that stood only 15 or 20 yards farther up the hill, and they didn't stir from there.

Only two or three stayed in the air a little longer, circling once or twice, as if to verify my harmlessness, before joining their friends.

There was too little light and my eyes are too poor for me to identify the kind of these birds or even to see exactly where they were sitting, but I could feel their eyes on me. They didn't look like buzzards, and I tried to think that they were hawks, though I don't think of hawks as being that communal.

Today a friend said he thought they were most likely turkeys.

I wondered how that could be true, because I've had a lifetime of being conditioned to think of turkeys, even wild ones, as being clumsy creatures and not capable of such elegance or those powers of flight. And I would've expected them to have something to say.

Nevertheless I had the strongest feeling that the silent and incredibly graceful arrival and settling in of these birds marked that as not only a special but even a sacred spot, and I had no business being there, at least at that time of the dying day. So I wasted no time in finishing loading my cart and trundling down the slope back toward my own roosting place.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Iraq: A Domestic Call

On every cop show you see, it is stated that the calls that police most hate to answer are for domestic disturbances, mainly fights between husbands and wives.

In college I met a man and a woman who, after graduation, married each other. For a while I kept in contact with them, mainly because of the interest we shared in writing. But it wasn't long before those two were at each other's throats, and with that visiting them lost any point that it may once have had. As a staunch believer in avoiding personal confrontations at almost any cost, I was amazed and baffled at how they had lost all interest in talking about anything or doing anything except taking verbal and sometimes physical chops at each other.

In that way I got a good glimpse into the virulence and the all-consuming nature of domestic differences.

The situation in Iraq is just such a disturbance. There the battling pair consists of the Shi'ites and the Sunnis, with cousins -- the Iranians, the Kurds, the Turks, the Israelis, the Bin Laden bunch, and others -- standing by to lend a hand or looking for some advantage for themselves to be gained from all the turmoil and bloodshed.

In the days when Democrats ran the U.S. Government, Republicans were quick to condemn U.S. involvement overseas of various kinds as attempts to be the "world's policemen," but now the Republicans themselves are neck deep in an exceptionally violent domestic call made worse by a large number of factors, such as that they have too much of a superiority complex to even pretend to be good police, and they don't speak the language or share the culture of the quarrelers, and they weren't called.

Now, those who were in control in Iraq, the minority Sunnis, have had their hand weakened, but, like formerly controllers everywhere, they aren't about to concede quickly to their former underlings, anymore than the Shi'ites, better able now to contest the situation, are about to bow down again to the Sunnis.

The laughable but also very sad thing about all this is that the "cops" not only think that they have something useful to say but also that there is a chance that things will quiet down enough to allow them to get back into their cars and drive back to the doughnut shop with the satisfaction of a job well done. They don't realize that this is a fight that has been going on for several times longer than their country, the U.S., has even existed, and that means that, because it is a quasi-religious matter and therefore not rooted in any kind of reality, it is fated to continue for an eon or two longer. These sorts of matters have enormous half-lives in the Middle East. The Israelis should be able to attest to that.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Survival Mode

A couple of days ago, rescuers found, too late, James Kim, a CNET editor who, 11 days earlier, with his wife and two small daughters, made a wrong turn in the wilds of Oregon and became bogged down in snow and cold. They weren't prepared to do a life-and-death survival bit, and after a week of fighting the cold by running their car heater, and then, when the gas ran out, burning their tires, Mr. Kim decided to strike out alone to find help. Not long after he left the car, searchers in a helicopter found the car with his wife and daughters, but he didn't make it. His body was found in a creek not far from the car, though he had wandered around for several times that distance before hypothermia got him.

I don't know know whether it was by chance, but in this same period the Discovery Channel ran a story called "We Shouldn't Be Alive" about an eerily similar incident in California. A couple with a 6-month-old baby tried to drive across the mountains to attend a family funeral in Idaho. They, too, took a wrong turn and ended up in deep survival mode in the snow, with little in the way of helpful gear or know-how. After a number of days of struggling to stay warm with no sign of rescuers, they reached a different answer to that burning question of whether tis best to stay or not to stay. They left their car and tried to fight their way out.

But the snow was too deep on the mountain plains and after flailing for a long distance day and night, they decided to return to the car. Along the way the wife's feet got too frostbitten for her to continue, and they found a piece of shelter in a crack in the forest while this husband, too, decided to strike out on his own for help. He was luckier and found a road with a passing truck on it.

Of the three of them, the one you would worry about most, the newborn baby, despite having had nothing in real food for a long time, just kept bopping along and came out none the worse for the wear. It seems that babies are adapted to live off their fat cells for a while when times get tough.

It's always great to hear how things are arranged in such ways.

I have become a fan of the "Survivorman" series on the Discovery Channel. Les Stroud, a Canadian, has developed a thing where he is dropped into a wide variety of extreme climes with just the clothes on his back, a knife, a harmonica, and 30 or 40 pounds of camera gear but with no food and hardly anything else to help him tough it out for seven days while photographing himself doing that.

I think he generally advises that the best thing to do is to stay with the vehicle, but I've noticed that he himself will leave the (fake) crashed plane or whatever and take a long hike out of there -- hindered by having to carry all the camera gear and occasionally to stop and set up things so he can take pictures of himself from far off on the move. This must be for the sake of drama, variety, and covering all the possible strategies of survival.

There is a whole genre of movies on surviving in the wild. Usually it's the result of a plane crash, and almost always the people stay with the plane, sometimes, as in "Flight of the Phoenix," even devising wild ways to get the wrecked plane airborne again and out of there in the nick of time before evil-doers can get them.

In a more realistic film that I especially liked, "The Snow Walkers," a Canadian Anglo bush pilot and an Inuit woman crash-land on the tundra. The pilot eventually decides to leave, and he escapes death days later only because the young woman follows and rescues him and they return to the plane.

I like to watch these things because I believe in being up on survival strategies, though whether or not I actually am is another question. I have practically no chance of ever finding out, because those sorts of messes never seem to happen where I am.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Opposing Notions.

It's amazing how two people playing a chess game can have totally different views of the situation.

Here is the current position of my game against Rook of Rooks Rant.

And here is his comment thereto: Well, we have entered uncharted territory. Carl has moved R-K1. He has taken us out of opening book.

When I read that I had two sharply contrasting reactions. The first was: Wow! I've been out of chess too long. Am I about to be hit by a bolt from the blue? Uncharted territory? How can that be? How could I have overlooked whatever it is?

The second reaction, which has lasted much longer, is: I don't know what opening book Rook is using, but that's not what mine says.

From what I've seen, the Ruy Lopez is one of the most popular of the openings, for playing and for that equal pleasure of the game, analyzing. It's been that way for at least a couple of hundred years, yet it is still so rich in interesting possibilities that it still hasn't been exhausted. Unless they deny themselves the delight of playing this opening by avoiding it as White and as Black, which is possible, people can't be true masters unless they've "booked" themselves up with dozens and even hundreds of Ruy variations, along with a good idea of the principles involved. And these variations can run up to 20 or more moves long. In fact, masters sometimes go into games with such variarions, rattling them off in a minute or less, in order to save precious time on their clocks for the true battle that lies ahead after the opening. In a long, grueling tournament they might even give each other a break through the courtesy of a "grandmaster draw" by playing such a variation, trying to give the impression of exerting themselves in a short but hard struggle, though all the moves are well known ahead of time to both parties. They can do this tacitly, without ever having breathed a word of such an agreement to each other beforehand.

So it's just about impossible to go into uncharted waters this early in the Ruy, unless one player goes totally bonkers, and as far as I can see, that hasn't happened yet. Instead what we've been doing -- or I should say what Rook has been doing -- is merely engaging in transposition, aka changing the order of the moves. And actually we are still so much in known waters that, depending on what Rook does with his B's, we seem to be drifting into none other than the hoary Classical Variation of the Closed Defense to the Ruy.

If I were playing the Black side in this game, I would indeed be thinking about getting crazy by this time, but I never feel called upon to do that as White. I feel that the onus is on Black to do that in this opening.

Monday, December 04, 2006

John Bolton has Bolted. Beautiful!

Today, as a result of the recent Congressional elections, there was the best news yet since those elections. John Bolton, the Bush Administration's ambassador to the United Nations, seeing the handwriting on the wall with the Democrats' success, has resigned!

I had even less respect for Bolton than I had for Donald Rumsfeld, who similarly said goodbye though when the elections were barely over. At least as a character Rumsfeld was somewhat interesting, with his unapologetic saltiness, and once in a great while he would even say something of value, though now I can only remember one, and that was when he said that there was no way in Hell that the American people would stand for a draft (or words to that effect). Having always thought that a draft was unworkable in today's world, I hoped that he was right.

But I've never read anything that John Bolton said or did that made sense, though we're told that that he worked with France in brokering the recent ceasefire between Israel and the Hezbollahs in Lebanon.

It was in an act of high hypocrisy and cynicism that Bush appointed Bolton. It was an openly blatant case of putting the fox inside the chickenhouse (or the hawk or the opposum or the neighbor's dog -- they're all just as bad). Bolton had been highly contemptuous of the U.N. long before, so why appoint a guy like that? Just to make the rest of the world uncomfortable?

The U.N., because it is the chief body trying to promote world peace and because its members include almost all the countries of the world, is the most important assembly in the world, and as such it is not instead the handmaiden of the U.S. or any other single country, as so many U.S. conservatives seem to believe. And, instead of an out and out saboteur to the organization like Bolton, only representatives of real stature and with a feeling for the rest of the planet should be sent there.

Bolton was so bad that he was a problem even for some Republicans, and he was never confirmed for the U.N. post even by a Republican-controlled Senate. Instead Bush sneaked him into the spot by making a recess appointment during one of those frequent recent periods when Congress was at home taking it easy and taking money.

Actually, however, the choice of Bolton went right along with it being such a bad idea to let Republicans take over the U.S. Government in the first place. They had been bitterly critical of that Government, and so, ever since they gained control, they've gone a long way toward damaging that Government's institutions and its standing at home and abroad, along with looting the U.S. Treasury.

My Fallen White Pine

It has been exactly 30 years since we bought our 20 acres of woods here in the rural Piedmont of Virginia. I am certain that, despite all my wood-cutting, there could be nearly twice as much timber here as there was in 1976. I mean in the sheer volume of wood, not the number of trees, since that number should be close to the same, considering the ones that I've also planted.

While cutting a big hickory that had gotten a good whack from Hurricane Fran about 10 years ago and was about to fall over soon (and misidentifying it as an oak), way up the hill across the creek, I finally noticed part of an even larger Eastern White Pine lying on the ground not a hundred feet from where I had been working for days. This was roughly equivalent to plucking a chicken while never noticing a dead cow just a few yards away.

It looks as if lightning hit the pine at its tip and raced down its whole length to the ground. The tree's flesh along the path that the lightning took died, and that led some time later to the whole tree dying, and eventually the top 88 feet of it snapped off and fell with what must've been a memorable splash, while leaving a gigantic snag still standing, which is at least 20 feet high, and that means that the tree was originally over 100 feet tall, with the trunk having an average diameter of close to two feet.

The part that fell, with all its branches, made up an enormous amount of easily cut and essentially dry wood for me to come along and cut up and haul away, and though it's some distance from my house and that does a number of my back, since I have only my garden cart, I've really been enjoying doing that, and I've been wondering why it interests me so much and why I feel that I absolutely have to do it.

I guess it comes from the human instinct to "bring order" to things. I'm thinking of myself as "cleaning up" my woods, though nobody else can see it and I know quite well that Nature is perfectly happy with things as they are. In fact I am probably even taking away "food" that Nature intended to give to future generations of white pines and other trees.

I guess this desire that people almost universally have to bring "order" to their environment is one of the main things that distinguishes us as a species, and it may even lie at the heart of the strong desire that the Creationists and the Intelligent Design people have to see some hand as being responsible for all the incredible structure and workings of things, though the ID'ers are trying to disguise the fact that they think that that hand belongs to a deity called "God."

Friday, December 01, 2006

Wind Advisories

It is now the first day of December. This means it won't be long before my favorite day of this month, the Winter Solstice, after which for the next six months this tough business of the nights steadily lengthening at the expense of the days will be reversed by the ways in which, to our incredible good fortune, this unbelievable planet of ours turns and travels.

December 1st also means that finally I can breathe easy about my firewood supply. I think I have enough now for the rest of the winter. Most of it is already hauled to the house, and the rest is cut and waiting in the woods.

I've been helped a lot this year by two unexpected factors. One was a younger friend who cut down a huge problem tree that was leaning across my creek and had hung up in another giant tree. That removed some risk to my life and limb, as that situation was too much in plain sight. He also hauled half of the wood to my house with a trailer hooked to his tractor, saving me from carrying it by numerous trips with my garden cart, largely uphill.

Also it's been unseasonably warm for several weeks, and that's been keeping me from having to use too much wood before the really cold months set in. Right now, though it's still in the pre-dawn hours, the temp is still well up into the 60's F, though that is supposed to end soon, maybe in just a few hours. Today and for some days to come it is supposed to be much cooler, with a 90% chance of rain today and also there's an advisory for strong winds.

Actually there are two wind advisories in effect. The other has been issued by the Homeland Security Agency. Taking an Al Qaida website at its word, the agency has warned U.S. financial institutions to be on the lookout for computer attacks, mainly through email overload.

As Al-Qaida seems to greatly prefer operating by surprise, the Mother Nature advisory is the more reliable of the two, because it involves the natural life processes of the planet. That advisory is also welcome, because strong winds should lower the temps, which have been unnaturally high for this time of the year, and that has been helping to keep the alarm bells of global warming busy.