The July 25, 2006
A Pacific Vacation
The Almanack has been on hiatus. First, a vacation in the Pacific Northwest
offered lots of good notes on lifestyle and geography. That was quickly
sidetracked by a foray into operating systems, which threatened the Almanack's
very relationship with the Internet. There were fitful emissions of code, and
you can play with the result in the Kuller
link. And there was a family loss.
Vacation, in a nutshell:
Seattle is a beautiful city. What it lacks in aged splendor, when compared to
the Northeast, it more than compensates in varied topography and spectacular
scenery. The architecture is energetic even when it's undistinguished, maybe
because it hasn't succumbed to New York's false choice between Inevitability or
Shock and Awe. Seattle offers a sense of livability that the Second City (never
mind the First or Third) can't quite comprehend. For its size, it offers a lot
to do and see, but it is a small-ish, provincial urb, so seasons are short and
timed to attract the same demographic to each art form in turn.
Portland seemed a little smaller and a bit less vigorous than Seattle. Both
towns are so laid back they desperately need the abundant coffeehouses, but
Portland offsets all the caffeine with 28 local breweries. The Northwest loves
a fine draught. The great draw for Portland is the neighborhoods: each
quadrant of the city is a town in its own right, very individualized, with many
self-contained neighborhoods, walkable, sociable places with shopping and
schools and parks that people actually use, and seem to enjoy.
And then there's the Peninsula. Olympic National Park is for Serious Hikers,
but there's lots of rain forest and awesome mountains to be experienced around
edges of the Park and Lake Crescent. Recommended as an antidote to
Kuller speaks for itself, try it if you like.
The OS experience:
For no better reason than because-I-can, there's a reformatted disk on my
laptop. It started with Microsoft's Friends-and-Family program for beta-testing
Vista. This seems like a very cool thing to do: get the nifty new
look-and-feel eight months before the masses, and if we find any obscure bugs,
we have 15 seconds of reflected glory, and we can brag to the guys in pc support
about testing all their packages on the new system. So we're in, but we have to
stand in line until the Friends-and-Family Beta Ship Date, which is delayed
about as many times as the Production Ship Date.
The long-awaited dvd arrives, and haughtily proclaims that a brand-new Presario
with half-a-gig of RAM is an unfit abode for its august splendor. There's a
sensible response to this proclamation, and there's the actual response, which
involves 20 minutes of online searching, a credit card, and a 3-day wait for
(Vista requires lots of memory, 512 megs, minimum. If you have 'shared video
ram', some megs are reserved from the system to handle your screen, and Vista
doesn't fit in what's left. Fair warning.)
Installation is a breeze. There are subtle hints that a 'clean install' is
perhaps a wiser choice than an 'upgrade', but the former requires placing all of
one's trust in a backup of one's data, and there is the prospect of spending
hours downloading and re-installing Cygwin and Firebird and Picasa and all the
other cool stuff one can't live without. So, 'upgrade' it is, and smartly, too.
We have an Almanack to update. That was late May.
The screen looks nice, but the jaw is not dropping. Further, the Palm is not
talking to its desktop, and Kermit is not talking to the Alpha at the office.
And TurboTax won't start. Oh, yes, we know about those, and we will probably
address the Palm and TurboTax issues before Production Release. But VPN, and
the gorgeous new look-and-feel you opted in for, are in the Professional or
Ultimate editions, and we can't give out any more of those.
But those are the things I do with my computer, how can I test this beautiful
new system if it doesn't do them? And how can I do what I do, now that my
computer doesn't do them? Well, that's why most folks do a clean install, after
partitioning their disks and re-installing the old OS in the first partition.
(You'd think that a professional programmer would have considered those issues.)
Plan A required resuscitating the old Inspiron that retired to the cabinet under
the dsl modem when the Presario came along. Not a tragic turn, since the
Presario was purchased specifically for the beta, but a disappointment.
If the Presario running only Vista was crippled, then there was no choice but to
salvage some data, trash the disk, and re-install XP. Which offers an
opportunity: if we're reformatting anyway, let's make 3 partitions, so we can
run XP for real work, Linux for fun, and we'll figure out what to do with the
(It took a little while to adjust to the idea of putting Vista in its own
partition, and treating it as project in its own right; a rather daunting one.)
One of the considerations behind the Presario was its 64-bit AMD Turion
processor. Unix and VMS are real 64-bit systems, and Windows will get there
eventually, but Linux is the only practical way to get 64 bits on your laptop.
So the plan evolved: partition the disk; put XP in p1; put Vista in p2; get XP
running right so the Inspiron can go back to sleep; fiddle with Vista to make
sure it's useless; download 64-bit Linux, Fedora Core 5; find a burner and
install it to burn the Fedora iso to a dvd; install Fedora; download some cool
64-bit packages; discover that wireless ethernet chip isn't working on Fedora;
search the Web for why; download wireless tools that don't work; download
bcm43xx-fwcutter; boot XP to get the driver for the wireless chip; email the
driver; reboot Fedora, fetch the driver, and run it through bcm43xx-fwcutter;
start wireless; crash Fedora.
(The plan was to discover that the 64-bit Linux kernel doesn't handle the 32-bit
bcm43xx driver very well.)
Since then, bcm43xx has been crammed through every possible keyhole in the
filesystem, Gentoo and Ubuntu made it onto fresh-burned cds, Ubuntu replaced
Fedora (briefly), and at last 32-bit Fedora has taken over as the OS of choice.
Wireless still isn't working, but the diagnostics are getting less hostile, and
the OS doesn't crash.
Let's look at first principles, the very lowest common denominator: loss of
information is bad, if 'bad' is narrowly defined as 'extremely undesirable',
not 'morally reprehensible'.
Testifying to the badness of information loss is history itself; the human
inventions of heralds, bards, writing, printing, photography, databases, and
funerals. Humans just do not like to lose data. It might be safe to assume
that other species don't like it either, but we can be sure of humans' attitude
because of their strenuous efforts at preservation. And it seems to be a
guiding principle of the universe itself, assuming the timeline proposed by
astrophysics, with particles organizing themselves into atoms, atoms into
molecules, molecules into gaseous bodies, thence to stars, star systems and
galaxies. And Earth's self-organization is the ultimate in complex, redundant
data storage, culminating (so far) in the DNA of mammalian life forms. And
that's not a moral measurement of the worth of species, just an observation of
relative complexity and time to delivery.
Even discounting complexity, not all information is created qualitatively equal.
The provenance and usefulness of information is important, and a lot of
information is only marginally useful. At the bottom end, the state of a single
subatomic particle is not often very useful to humans, although in aggregate a
lot of such states comprise information useful to the universe. At the other
extreme, the burning of a unique library, or loss of a human life, is always
tragic, even if only measured by the loss of information to humans, if not to
The quantity and quality of the information in a library can be measured by
trivial means, even if it may require non-trivial effort. But the measure of a
human life is qualitatively different, and cannot be so easily compassed. A
prolific diarist and artist might leave a significant body of information to
posterity, and still the sum of life's experience, worldview, emotional palette
and intuition are lost when she dies.
This is the loss we're trying to avert when we gather for a funeral. The
emotional stuff is the greatest loss, because we don't have a good way to record
it, even now. How the deceased touched you is important to me, whether it
reinforces or differs from my own experience. Putting it all into words is
critical, because the memories are less volatile once they're encoded and
shared. Reciting the words triggers the memories, almost as vividly as seeing a
Gloria Monge, Dec 19, 1921 - Jun 21, 2006. R.I.P.
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