What Does Murder Solve?

All around North America the news of the day is the horrific campus shootings at a Virginia college.  After all was said and done, 33 people died and thousands were panic-striken after a gunman opened fire early Monday in Norris Hall.  At the very end of the shooting spree, the gunner turned the weapon on himself, ending his short life and preventing any sort of "criminal justice" from taking place.

I'm sure that whatever diety he may or may not have believed in will take care of him, though.

The police and people who have access to this person's belongings will likely find the cause, but is there any justification for this kind of action?  I doubt it.  Often times when we hear about these kinds of shootings it's because someone was bullied for most of their life and just snapped, taking out anyone that had ever crossed or ignored them.  Other times shooters can go on killing sprees after losing someone they love, perhaps seeing them with someone else.  Sometimes just the thought of our loved one with someone else can drive a person insane.  How many billions of us have lost sleep over this very thought at some point in our lives?

Lord knows this is painful for everyone, but it doesn't justify mass murder.

This type of event seems to happen annually in the US either at the start or the end of school years.  At the end of the day, the shooter took 32 lives too many.  If they were that distraught, they need only use one bullet on themselves.  I only hope that the families of the victims can recover from this devastation.

Being Comfortable With Ourselves

It's been said many times before on this site but, I love documentaries.

PBS recently aired a show called "Fat, What No One Is Telling You", and it was incredibly well done.  I've struggled with my weight most of my life.  While I'm not obese, I have seldom ever been happy with the size of my body.  Growing up I was always heavier than other people, then my metabolism went into overdrive at puberty and I became quite fit for about five years.  Unfortunately this didn't last long as my work life was hardly as active as school ... so in the span of four years I had gained 80 pounds and looked the part.

After moving from Ontario I had the opporunity to lose quite a bit of that weight, and managed to keep myself at 183 lbs steady until the start of 2005.  Since that time, I've slowly gained 30-odd pounds and find myself at 212 lbs.  Suffice to say, I'm not happy about it.

There have been many things that I've tried time and again to reduce my weight.  From cutting back the latte's to giving up cheese to evicting meat from my diet (fish was exempt, of course).  None of these things really worked, though.  I enjoy quite a number of dairy products in my daily diet, and food just doesn't seem as enjoyable without some great Canadian cheeses or a glass of milk.  Eating cereal without milk is also an impossibility, so what is a guy to do?

After watching this show, I've come to learn some interesting things.  It seems that very few people are able to lose weight and keep it off.  The ones that do lose a great deal of weight tend to gain as time goes on.  This is in part because our metabolism slows down with age, but also because of who we are fundamentally.  While our conscious mind tries to control our animal instincts to eat, our subconscious tells us to find food and eat it should there be a shortage in the future.  It seems that our instincts don't quite move at the same speed as society.

I have been working hard on losing weight in the next few months as I'm really tired of seeing my flabby body every time I look in the mirror.  Four years ago I had the body I wanted, but lost it due to (I think) inactivity and eating too much dairy.  While I'm not quite as big as some of the people around me, I'm big enough to know it's time for change.

The PBS documentary talked about some of the struggles that people face, and what some are doing about it.  Some have resorted to medical science to shed 140 pounds, others are being active and enjoying their lives regardless of their size.  One of the doctors explained that some can exercise daily and rigourously and never lose weight, while others can do a simple workout every few days and look "normal".  It's not only a matter of metabolism and genetics, but also psychological constructs that help forge our bodies.  Hopefully by keeping a positive attitude and working harder to drop the winter weight, I can regain the slim figure from a few years ago.

[email protected] Tracks Humans, Too

Computer theft is an unfortunate part of living in the world today.  People see a vulnerable notebook at Starbucks or some other location, and decide to enrich themselves by obtaining what is not rightfully theirs.  Considering how important these machines are in our lives, the loss of a computer can be a devastating blow.  This can be doubly troubling when you have quite a bit of personal work on the machine that's not properly backed up elsewhere.

There are ways to help recover our equipment when this type of theft occurs, such as LowJack and other paid services.  However, one resourceful guy managed to use a program designed to scan extra-terrestrial radio signals to track down his wife's stolen notebook.  I have been a part of the [email protected] community for almost eight years, but I've never considered using their unobtrusive service for something like this.

It seems that someone broke into his wife's home on January 1st this year and took the notebook.  Upset that someone would take the machine and worried that his wife's screenplays and novels would have been deleted, he went about tracking down the perpetrators by collecting the IP address of the machine the next time it connected to the Berkeley project's servers.  He didn't have to wait long, and after collecting the data he passed it on to the police who then followed up and eventually recovered the stolen equipment.  Luckily, no files were deleted.

This was a pretty lucky turn of events for these people as it's clear that a non-power user had taken the notebook.  Anyone who would want to try and steal a notebook or PC should at the very least format the hard drives to (potentially) eliminate all the data from the computer and start with a clean slate.  Ideally they would want to replace the hard drives and discard the old ones to prevent any tracing software installed in the root from identifying their location.

I don't suggest stealing, though.  Being the geek that I am, most of the notebooks that I see at Starbucks, libraries and schools aren't worth the trouble.  The three year old notebook that I use now is still superior to most of the units one might walk off with.

I congratulate this man for tracking down the stolen computer and being a hero to his wife.  For anyone that does not want to pay for a tracking service, I will readily suggest installing the BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) software and contributing to one of the many worthy distributed computing projects.  Not only will you be helping the scientific community at large, but you can potentially have a means of tracking down a stolen computer.

My Take on Sponsored Themes ... They're Not All Evil

There's been quite a bit of discussion about sponsored themes throughout the online community, and I feel it's time that I make my position known.  Naturally, most people wouldn't care whether I approved of the addons to various open-source projects like WordPress or Joomla, but I'm starting to get quite upset regarding the direction a particular group is going.

On April 12th, one of the creators of WordPress issued his take on this subject, and advocates a complete ban of sponsored themes (and plugins) from WordPress.com; a free blog hosting community.  His concern is that theme developers are embedding links to a sponsor's site and not necessarily disclosing this to the end users that download and install said theme.  In some cases, the link to the sponsor is a small thing down in the footer, and sometimes these things are about as attractive as a site made up of 50% advertisements.

To this end, he would like to have all sponsored themes eliminated from the site and other WordPress-related download sites.  He's not really against all sponsored themes, though ... his biggest beef seems to be with sponsored themes that are not disclosed as such.  The worry is that bloggers without any sort of intelligence or self-awareness will download these and use them on his open community, which I'm sure attracts a good deal of attention from quite a few web crawlers.

Continuing his assertion, he says that Google penalizes sites that promote things that they consider to be spam, users may not know or be aware of the links or how to eliminate them, and that some of these theme developers try to legally disallow a person from removing the links (which he claims is against GPL).  This is where I started getting a little uncomfortable.

So Google might penalize a site for promoting spam ... boo hoo.  Google tends to make up more than 60% of the traffic for many of the bloggers that I talk to, and the hits we get from the search engine are often hit and miss ... being pushed down in the rankings a bit isn't going to kill us.

The second point really grinds my gears because I'm a firm believer that humans are pretty intelligent.  Why ban something because someone doesn't know how to remove a link from a PHP source file?  If a user doesn't want to promote something on their site, but likes the particuar theme, then they can ask the developer to remove the link and pay them $2.  Heck, most quality theme developers out there pour countless hours into their craft only to get sweet nothing from the thousands of people downloading their files.  If 100 people who had no inclination to even look at a freakin' .php file in Notepad paid $2 to get a link taken off their particular site, then I'm sure there would be quite a few more highly skilled creative gurus out there making their wares available for all.

And of course this really bugs me ... one of the biggest factors for this person's rant against sponsored themes is for the people that don't know how to remove links from theme source files.  Humans are not stupid.  We're not a bunch of brain-dead in-duh-viduals who walk around slack-jawed like some yokel in a cartoon.  Before getting into this whole blog thing last October I hadn't written a single line of PHP.  Now I'm writing my own plugins, assisting people around the world with their PHP problems and applying this knowledge for my various clients around the world.  Of course it helps that I've had 10 years of programming experience, but it doesn't mean a normal person couldn't figure out how to remove the offending link.  Heck, how many of us learn just enough to keep our cars maintained?  Code is no different.

I'm getting a very strong Orwellian vibe from certain prominent members in the WordPress community and it's starting to push lots of users away.  What this person fails to recognize is that anyone who installs their blogging software already has a link to WordPress.com and to several of the key developer sites.  Nobody is permitted to advertize on their free blog at WordPress.com, but Google's ugly-ass AdNonSense can appear at the discretion of the site maintainers.  I won't even get into this persons advertising scandal that occurred some time back ....

"Do as I say, not as I do" just doesn't cut it on the internet.  You can't protect the populace from everything, and you shouldn't be so totalitarian about certain design practices.  If users really don't like seeing links to someone else's site on their pages, perhaps they should choose a different theme.  If you don't want to have excess links on your blogging community servers, then perhaps you should just take the MSN Spaces route and have a limited number of standard themes installed and locked down.  If a user wants different themes, they can buy a deluxe package to your site and you'll get your cut.

That is, after all, what you want, right?

Water on Osiris!

Artist's view of the evaporating planet HD209458b, also known as Osiris.An astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona has determined that a massive Jupiter-sized planet 150 light-years away contains water in its atmosphere.  Tomas Barman says he's confirmed the presense of water by analyzing the light from a nearby star as the planet orbits ... every 3.5 days.

This is an amazing find as it's the first time scientists have confirmed the presence of water on worlds outside our own solar system.  What I find really amazing, though, is the incredibly varied solar system structures that are found throughout the local region.  Osiris (technically called HD209458b, but nick-named after the Egyptian god), orbits its star every three and a half days.  It's the size of Jupiter, and lays a distance of about 1/8th that of Mercury from our sun.

This blows my mind.  Jupiter plays a roll in the elliptic pattern of our sun considering it's mass, and it's 994 million km from the star.  A planet of roughly the same size and mass being around 8 million km from its own sun would create massive tidal patterns as it sped around the star.  What is really surprising is that this particular planet has an atmosphere.  How old is this planet?  Considering the excessive amounts of solar wind that it has experienced over the last few billion years, why hasn't the gaseous and liquid components of this planet evaporated away?  Is the magnetic field of Osiris truly strong enough to protect it from much of this alien sun's rays?

I have an incredible appreciation for how little we actually know about the universe around us.  Seeing things like this that defy our understanding of planet building makes the search all the more interesting.  If we had found that other star systems had planets in roughly the same arrangement as we find locally, with the same chances of water and/or life, it would still be exciting ... but not half as fascinating.

The End of the PDA?

Dell has stopped selling their Axim PDAs, HP has no immediate plans on new models, and Palm ... well ... nothing new there.

In a move that's been seen for months, Dell today stopped selling their Axim PDAs online.  For the last few months they've been selling off existing inventory and when they finally reached minimal numbers, the site would read "currently on order".  I guess this comes as no surprise considering Personal Digital Assistants have been mostly replaced with cell phones, though it does make me wonder about the future of PDAs.

I'm not a big fan of using a cell phone as a PDA.  This is mainly because of battery limitations, screen size limitations, memory limitations, mobile software limitations ... I think you can see the pattern here.  There are PDAs with cell phone functionality built in, of course.  Palm's Treo, HP's hw-series PDAs and even RIM's ever popular CrackBerry have all made huge inroads for the corporate end-user.  But I feel that all of these have a major fatal flaw ... the keyboard.

I really don't like those little thumb keyboards.  They're ugly, collect insane amounts of dirt, and are way too small for the average male's fingers.  I wish these companies would put out at least one current model where there is no keyboard.  Give me Grafitti 1.1 (Block Recognizer on Windows-mobile devices) and I'll out-write anyone with a thumb keyboard.  The added screen space would also be a welcome addition as I love to use my PDA for eBooks as well as jotting long and detailed notes.

Many don't feel that Dell will be out of the super-mobile picture for long, and some are even wondering about Dell offering a cell-phone/PDA combination like the Samsung BlackJack or Palm Treo.  If this rumor does turn out to be true, I'll hope against hope that one model will appeal to me.  The last few years there have been very few PDAs that really strike me as useful.  The units released three years ago still seem more functional than the everything-for-everybody models that have been released as of late.  Heck, if I had the resources and the technical expertise to construct my own PDA from sourced parts, I'd probably make my own unit with a 7" SVGA transflective screen.  At 7", it would be the size of a paperback book, and would have enough screen real-estate to handle everything I could ever need to do on a mobile device before taking out a notebook PC.

Naturally, there are devices that kind of fit into this category ... the Origami and Vistagami machines, for example.  But I find these to be too thick and bulky for what I'm looking for.  I don't want a replacement notebook.  I don't need Windows XP.  A slim (1 cm or less) unit with Windows Mobile or even a PalmOS variant would be sufficient for everything that most people would need.  This would be a great little unit for taking notes, and could even have a handy little app that would sync with Microsoft's OneNote software.

Perhaps I'm the only one that wants something like this, but I feel that PDAs will only lose more ground to cell phones unless manufacturers can give users something that really matters ... visual real-estate.

Blogging Code of Conduct

Last month, Tim O'Reilly (the man often said to have coined the phrase "Web 2.0") proposed a Blogger's Code of Conduct.  Seven simple rules that sites could follow in order to maintain a healthy culture for online communities.

I've given this a bit of thought and, while this is an interesting idea, I am neither for or against it.

I agree with some of the comments on the site that this can be viewed as an attack on everybody's inalienable right to free speech.  However I really dislike the term "free speech".  Nothing in this world is truly free, and there should be limits.  Is it okay to go online, post a picture of someone you might have a grudge against, state some of their personal info and talk about how you wish they were hit by a bus or worse?  I don't think so.  What I usually find is that the people who complain the loudest about free speech would be the first to scream if someone invaded their privacy and posted nude pictures or discussed some of their most embarassing moments in life.

I get the solid impression that people are saying:  "I believe in freedom of speech, so long as that speech doesn't involve me".

I'll openly admit that I moderate all comments on this site.  If someone says something that is too negative towards someone (be they a person or a corporation), I'll either edit the comment or reject it outright.  If I feel that a comment has no value online or offline, then it's gone.  I've even moderated many of my own posts to ensure that what I say doesn't break certain personal taboos and moral grounds (there have been a few posts written in the heat of the momentwhich were later deleted or severely edited in order to better communicate my points).  I don't have a page dedicated to what things I consider acceptable on my site, but after reading Tim O'Reilly's page, I might just add one.

Of course, that said, one of the great benefits of the internet is that people can be very open about their ideas and opinions without needing to worry about the personal fallout that might accompany a particular slander or attack on someone.  Arguments that would typically never be said in public can be hashed out in the relative privacy of binary digits and (hopefully) new understandings and political/religious/social positions can be explored.  This open form of communication also provides a huge benefit to people who may not know about certain injustices in the world.

What better way to see racism in action than by going to a given site and reading very heated arguments full of inaccurate historical accounts, ethnic slurs, explicit language and wholly inappropriate biases?  I'm not saying that these things are to be promoted, but for people who grow up and live in communities where everybody is the same it's hard to understand what tensions lay under such trivial things as genetic background.  Lord knows that I had no idea how much tension there is between certain races until I moved to larger cities.  Observing these tensions helped me define a clearer understanding of people, and a better appreciation for everyone in general.

It's true that this kind of open dialogue can be beneficial as a means of open communication, as well as bastardised as a form of personal attack.  But this can be said about almost any form of media.  For centuries there have been countless books that promote intolerance and hatred.  Radio and television have been used for the same purposes almost since inception.  Propaganda machines all over the planet churn out lots of things certain groups of people would consider immoral.

So where's the compass, and who controls it?

I don't think that an open Code of Conduct work work for blogs, or any site in general.  What's moral to one is immoral to another.  Sure, there are the basic tenets of civility, but even these change when you get into groups of people who are angry at everything and everyone.  What might work, however, is if people clearly state what is and is not acceptable on their site.  A "Terms of Use", so to speak.  Anything that falls outside of those terms is ripe for deletion or modification as the administrators see fit.  If the site is a free-for-all, then let it be.  So long as people realise it and take the attacks carried out within with a grain of salt.

Stressful Numbers

As with many medical things, I pay very little attention to certain things my body tells me.  Over time we can learn to ignore even the most intense pains and discomforts and, with my ever-present distrust of doctors, this has been my modus operandi.

Today I paid a visit to yet another doctor in order to seek some relief from constant headaches.  For at least the last ten years these have been a part of my life, but have only been uncontrollable in the last few.  I've seen five doctors previously regarding this and each gave me a different reason.  Suffice it to say, it came as no surprise when I was given a sixth today.

Apparently, my blood pressure today was 160 over 90 (whatever that means).  According to the doctor that examined me, this is pretty high and should be reduced to normal levels.  When I explained to her that I only had a mild headache this afternoon and it was nothing compared to Saturday and Sundays' ordeal, she went on to say that during those two days the pressure may have been much higher, causing blah blah blah blah blah.  I kinda tuned out once I started hearing a quasi-latin lexicon of over-specific words to describe stuff that I can only assume resides in our bodies.  Suffice to say, when the big number gets too big, my blood vessels swell and put extreme pressure on the brain.

Specific talk regarding computers and mathematics I understand.  The body is really just one of those things that I expect to work without fail.

So, as per doctors orders I'm being asked to relax some.  Naturally, out came the pen and prescription sheet, but I shot that down.  I don't do drugs.  Advil is where I draw the line.  It seems that every time I see a doctor they want me to go out and spend another $100 on pills that either make my urine turn blood red, or make me 1000x times more irritable.  I know what you're thinking ... how is it possible for me to be more irritable?

Just for the heck of it, after getting home I did a little research on this stuff and came across a site that explains what stress is, some common signs, and a few ways we can go about managing it without the use of drugs.  I'll consider a few of these options ... other's are just not possible for me at the moment.  Considering how this is explained as a strain caused by our response to pressure from the outside world, I'm surprised that the human body hasn't developed some reflex to control it better.  We seem almost too well designed to be bogged down by something so intangible.

Advil, Onegaishimasu~

I wonder if it's something in my home ...

For the last few years I've been battling some pretty strong headaches.  These typically start before I wake up and gradually get stronger as the day progresses.  Usually, come evening time, these turn into migranes and the act of standing becomes a conscious chore with dizziness a standard side-effect.

I can't remember when this first started happening, but it would have been before 2000.  Typically I have a small headache at the end of each day, and I can ignore it without the use of any pills or Jedi mind tricks.  As the years have gone by, these headaches have morphed into something else where they can start during mid-day and make their presence all-too-known.  Advil helps, Tylenol and Aspirin do not.

I've been to doctors several times about this, and each time I go it's something else.  Each time I'm prescribed yet another formulation of pills that I take for an average of 4 days before deciding they were a waste of money.  And each time I go back to see the doctors I'm told "the brain is still mostly an unknown to us".

No duh.

So it makes me wonder if it's something in my house.

I can tolerate an excessive amount of noise.  I work in well-lit rooms when using computers.  I have reduced my caffiene intake by 50% in the last two months and I've ensured that I'm getting the proper amount of sleep.  So what the heck gives?

Is it my diet?  Should I eat less rice and more meat?  Should I get a softer bed?  Should I start spending more time in direct sunlight?

Tomorrow I see yet another doctor.  This time I'll make the trek to a different city.  I hope they find a tumor and remove it.  It would give me great relief to know that it was something in my head, rather than something intangible like "stress".

How Much Is Your Data Worth?

It's a question that most people don't ask unless they're at work, but it's been growing more and more important as everything we do and buy has gone digital.  We purchase and download music, books, photos, and much more to our computing devices.  We have gigabytes of photos which may only exist in binary format.  We have our entire personal finances stored on our computer, with the convenient backups in a secondary directory on the same machine.  Should something happen to our data, it could cost us a good deal to recover it.

So how much would you be willing to pay someone to extract your precious data from a dead hard drive?  $50?  $100?  $500?

Depending on how much you need to get back, you could be asked to pay quite a bit more.

The reason I ask this not because I plan on recovering data as a side job, but because last week my primary hard drive failed.  On that drive I keep thousands of personal photos, financial files, customer source code, government forms, historical documents, 10 years worth of email (not the spam, though) ... the list goes on.  This hard drive also had on it the applications that I use on a daily basis to write software, work with databases and everything else I expect my computer to do on a regular basis.  When my drive seized, there was no warning ... nothing out of the ordinary.  I use this computer for more than half a day, every day ... almost all 365 days in the year.  The only time my computers don't receive this kind of attention is when I'm with Reiko.

So why am I just writing something about this tragic event now, when currently half my income is derived from the work I do on these very machines?  Well ... probably because it wasn't all that tragic.

I keep an active spare of my notebook's hard drive.  Should something happen to the drive on this machine, I can swap it out with an almost exact duplicate in the space of five minutes.  The main difference is that my spare runs slower than the primary, and is only half the capacity.  The same operating system is installed, and the same applications are installed.  That's what I did last week.

As for all the irreplacable files ... well, I have so many levels of backups that I seldom lose more than 6 hours of work.  Even if my entire computer system was stolen (notebook, servers, external hard drives, stacks of CDs and DVDs), I wouldn't be out of more than a day's work.  I am a backup freak.

My system does incremental backups every 2 hours.  When connected to the network, these backups are stored on my storage server.  When on the road, the backups are held in queue until I'm either online to transfer the incremental file (rarely ever more than 10 meg, considering the rate at which it's done), or until I get home to do a mass upload.  The 1.2 terabytes (stored RAID5) on my NAS is completely backed up once a month, with incrementals done daily and burned to DVD.  My important data is further protected by being encrypted and stored on a server in Finland.

Unfortunately, I can't realistically keep everything on my server backed up in Finland ... but there's really only about 16 Gig worth of files that are truly irreplacable to me.  The mp3s and other files can be completely lost, and it would only be a matter of a year or so to recover 80% of them from some online source.

But this does make me wonder about how realistic the hard drive's MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure) value is.  The hard drive that died last week was a Seagate.  I've had three Western Digitals and another Seagate die on me since 2000.  When I look at the failure rate on the drive, I could have expected roughly 1,000,000 hours of operation.  Not bad considering how there are only 8,760 hours in a year.  So why did it seize after about 15,000?

Naturally things break down, but I've had six drives die on me in seven years.  In seven years I have owned 28 hard drives ... that's almost 25% failure.  Where is this 114 year lifespan, and where did these manufacturers come up with these numbers?  How could they have possibly tested a drive to know that it could last 1,000,000 hours when the hard drive was only invented (approximately) 450,000 hours ago?  (Anyone remember IBM's massive 350 disk storage unit used by RAMAC?)

Apparently, I'm not the only one asking these questions.  Three engineers from Google (I really need to find things to discuss that doesn't involve that company ... I swear it was coincidence, this time) recently presented some findings at FAST '07 to show some failure trending in their environment.  This was done through the use of SMART (self-monitoring, analysis and reporting technology) on the hard drives and collected over a period of several months.

What I find really interesting is that some of the most commonly held beliefs regarding hard drive usage didn't matter when looking at the big picture.  Heat wasn't much of a factor unless the temperature was below 20 degrees C, usage wasn't much of a factor, manufacturing defects only made up a small portion of the issues ... so why would a large company like Google have so many issues considering they're working now with enterprise-grade equipment that costs quite a bit more than the standard ATA and SATA drives commonly used by consumers and small business?

Well, I guess this is one of the reasons the people at FAST have been all up in arms requesting that manufacturers review their MTBF rates.  I agree that manufacturers shouldn't over-inflate their hardware's operational hours, and perhaps some other measurement of reliability needs to be introduced.  Warranty doesn't really offer much unless data recovery is part of it, or you have lots of fail-safes in place.

To anyone that doesn't have a backup plan, I would urge you to make a copy of your "My Documents" folder at the very least.  Put it on DVD and toss it in the back of the closet.  Do this once a month.  If the time ever comes for your equipment to fail, you don't want to shell out the $50 / gig that many professional data recovery places ask.

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