Thursday, November 27, 2014

Better living through TERRIFYING EYE SURGERY

So, for a long time, now, I've been suffering from strabismus. This causes double vision, makes stereoscopic vision largely impossible, and causes me a fair bit of discomfort when looking at things at a certain distance; lately this has particularly been a problem for computer monitors. It also makes me look a bit odd.

For a good while I didn't realise this was what the problem was; however, when I finally went to Specsavers for an updated prescription, they saw something was wrong and referred me to an ophthalmologist. In due course (about a year; I was lazy about driving the process along, because it was scary) this lead to, well, this (WARNING, unusually graphic images for a Wikipedia surgery article).

Before (note eye orientation):

After (note improved eye orientation, blood.

And here I'm appearing as a rather low-budget Borg with the eye-protection thingy that I must wear when sleeping.

End result; a bit of pain, a fair bit of discomfort (feels like there's something in my eye; this will persist until the sutures in my eyeball dissolve in a week)... and more-or-less working stereoscopic vision! Much though I was dreading it, it really didn't work out badly at all (so far; there's always the possibility that my eyes might just drop out or something, I suppose).

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Water, water, everywhere

I was just signing up for Irish Water, our exciting new paying-for-water thing.

From the application form:

Now, you might think that that means that if your phone number is, say, 087 123 4567, you should fill in '087 123 4567'. Let's try.

Okay, then. So, it's like this, then, is it?

Yes, it is.

Also, you have to click on the buttons twice.

Your water fees at work! I suppose on the plus side it's very shiny and Web 2.0; it just doesn't work properly.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Waters Under the Bridge

One odd thing about the coverage of the recent Iona/John Waters controversy is that it has been, pretty much entirely, Internet-led. Each new development has made the rounds of the blogs, Twitter, Broadsheet and maybe The Journal, before being grudgingly, if at all, picked up by the major media outlets.

Witness the horrifying John Waters tape released by Broadsheet. As far as I can see, none of the traditional media outlets have gone near it, but it's all over the Internet; there's a lot of public interest. Of course, a certain amount of this is "haw, haw, John Waters is even more terrible than we thought", but it really is quite important. This is a man who has a tremendous platform to talk about society, who is referred to as a 'public intellectual', who has a column in the Irish Times, who is a go-to whenever a right-wing opinion on a social issue is required. Until very recently, he was a government appointee to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. His views on gay people, and on women, as revealed on the tape, are absolutely relevant to these roles. The question of what words it is proper to use when discussing these opinions is also, it seems to me, fairly important.

He also, really, is entitled to a reply on this. It's so awful that if there's any extenuating circumstance, that needs to be made plain. Has anyone even asked him about it, at this point? It's really very strange.

Of course, there are conflicts of interest. The RTE is engaged in a dispute with their former regulator over the question of which apologies and settlements were and weren't offered, and Waters writes for the Irish Times (though, he has at time of writing vanished from their columnists page; Iona's Breda O'Brien also briefly disappeared, before returning triumphant with a lovely piece on stifling of dissent through unkind descriptions, finishing with a bit about "commissioned" children, presumably to emphasise that the stifling isn't working very well). I'm not sure what the Independent's excuse is, though.

Perhaps, the media hopes that this will all blow over, and that they can have him back writing his reactionary columns and ruminating pretentiously on other peoples' rights. I can see why they might want this. It is convenient to have someone to take on unpopular positions; we used to have great trouble getting prominent speakers to argue against gay rights in college debates, back in the day. I can't really see it working out for them, though, if that's what they want.

I may be being too optimistic, though. It's not like Waters' prior dubious opinions have torpedoed his public role; this is a man who has used the term 'feminazis', in the paper. Note the date, by the way; in 2002, Dermot Ahern appointed someone who uses the term 'feminazis' to the BCI, the predecessor of the BAI. Perhaps there's just something badly broken in how we handle our media in this country...

The Wisdom of the Waters

So, this has come to light, some important new information on the Gay Menace from John Waters, patron saint of not paying parking fines (seen here in his natural habitat). Have a read, it's utterly horrifying.

Yeah, that's totally a thing that will happen.

If there's anything which really makes a reasoned argument about gay marriage complete, it's implied incest. Thanks for that, Mr Waters.

Yeah, the Irish Times, the newspaper where John Waters is a columnist, is pretty much no-go for opinions like John Waters'. Important opinions like the fantasy child-stealing scenario outlined here, and arrangements to be made.

I'm... not actually sure what this bit is supposed to be about. Is he implying that us gays have a poor sense of fashion, or something?

Twitter is full of cries that Waters should give back the money, and even people assuming that he will have to do so. And, yet, there likely is no legal reason that he must. It's not like there was a trial where it was declared that John Waters is not homophobic, and this new evidence will re-open the matter. RTE chose to settle. It's not even as if they didn't have access to parts of this interview; while the most spectacularly awful stuff is absent, well, you'd think that this would be quite damning enough.

Please note that John Waters really likes the word 'satire'

If Waters has any decency, he will give the money to a neutral charity, or return it, and apologise to RTE, to O'Neill, and to the general public. Of course, if he had any decency, he wouldn't have taken the money in the first place. It's highly unlikely that he has to, though.

We really should be considering, in the aftermath of this, if our defamation laws are actually doing the job that they're supposed to do.

Bonus important insight from Waters:

Oh, no, that UKIP guy was right! Gays cause floods!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Homophobia Question

If you live in Ireland and haven't been actively avoiding all forms of media over the last couple of weeks,  you'll be aware of the current fuss over homophobia. Or, at least, not over homophobia itself, but over the word 'homophobia'. Of course, I could go over the whole question of the appropriateness of RTE's actions, and so forth, but that has more or less been done to death. I'm more interested in the calls, not just from the anti-gay-rights crowd, but from neutral parties and even some on the pro-gay-rights side, to eliminate the word from discussion of gay rights issues. This seems to me to be a grave mistake, and a dangerous concession to those opposed to equal rights.

Homophobia. It's a harsh, unpleasant word. It looks like a medical/psychological term, and indeed had its origins as one. And yet, in common usage, 'homophobia' is essentially to persons of non-majority sexuality and/or gender identity as 'sexism' is to women, and 'racism' is to ethnic minorities. 'Islamophobia' sounds nastier than 'anti-Semitism', with the word 'phobia' and the vague clinical feel, but it is, in general, just as offensive to call a person anti-Semitic as it is to call them Islamophobic. Xenophobia is sometimes actually used as a euphemism for racism, when talking about rabidly anti-immigrant far-right politicians, for instance. There's nothing special about the use of the 'phobia' postfix in describing certain bigotries; it's an accident of history.

Perhaps it would be better if a softer-sounding word had come to mean prejudice against gays, and a desire to deny them the rights enjoyed by the majority. Would the anti-civil-rights crowd prefer, for instance, to be called cis-hetero chauvinists, or gayists? However, it's about 50 years too late for that, now; 'homophobia' is well understood to be colloquially used in this way.

And yet, there is an apparent drive to define 'homophobia' to a stricter standard. If you propose, for instance, that black people should not be allowed to marry white people, then you will be called a racist, and few would have an issue with that, even if your reasoning is based on religion (as was the reasoning of some American proponents of the interracial marriage bans in the 60s) or on misunderstanding academic research (again, common in anti-racial-equality arguments), or on nebulous fears of the effects on society (again, not uncommon). Racism, here, extends to opposition to equal rights, even when the opposition is ostensibly based on something other than fear or hatred.

And this is about the narrowest definition of racism in common use. Even those people who argue that sexism and racism no longer exist in society because women and non-whites have legal equality (and there are people who will argue this) would typically have difficulty as seeing a proposed ban on inter-racial marriage, or a law removing the right of women to retain property in marriage, as anything other than racist and sexist respectively, regardless of the justifications.

I can see why some people, who oppose equality for gay people, would want to see the word 'homophobia' removed from discourse. It would lend a respectability to their wish to deny gay people civil rights over and above, say, the old attempts to deny women and racial minorities equal rights; it would make opposition to gay rights different and more credible in the eyes of the public.

It's hard to see the justification for doing so, though. What, after all, are their arguments? There's the religious argument, of course, but then that was used to oppose inter-racial marriage in America, too, and we don't treat that opposition as special and non-bigoted. There's the argument that marriage is for the production of children, but given that we allow infertile people to marry this one is lacking in credibility. There's the argument that gay marriage will somehow harm society, generally in a rather vague way, but this surely falls into the fear bracket. And there's the argument that homosexuals want to destroy marriage, for some reason, but this falls clearly into the fear bracket, and very paranoid at that.

I think part of the reason for this drive to avoid the h-word is that gay marriage is currently not legal, and thus opposition to it seems a little less obviously mean-spirited than, say, opposition to interracial marriage, or to married women being allowed to own property. You'll have significant difficulty today finding many people who claim to have opposed civil partnerships, and even fewer who'll admit to having opposed the legalisation of homosexuality, and yet both passed to considerable opposition. It is to the great advantage of opponents of gay marriage to be seen to be opposing it for principled reasons, and words which highlight that they're against civil rights damage this perception.

I'm not seeking to stop people voicing their opposition to gay marriage, and very few other people are, either. I'm just cautious of the attempt to set opposition to gay rights fundamentally apart from opposition to womens' and racial minorities' rights. If you wish to say, in public, that gay people want to destroy marriage, then more power to you, but you shouldn't expect this opinion to be held as somehow more reasonable and respectable than any other conspiracy theory about a minority group.

I don't think very many people in the anti-civil-rights camp really hate gays; for that matter, most racists don't hate black people. There is, clearly, however, a lot of fear, irrational fear of what granting equal rights would mean. I see no reason that this shouldn't be described as homophobia. It is, for some reason, terribly important to these people to deny me the rights that they (mostly; there are gay people opposed to gay marriage) have; I see no reason to sugar-coat their denial of my rights or the fear that drives them to it.

And the idea that the opponents of gay rights are being somehow silenced by the use of the word, or the allegations of 'heterophobia' (a word which should be treated with the same contempt as 'misandry' and 'anti-white bigotry') is absurd. Opponents of gay rights have a substantial platform in this country. If they choose to use it to say things which people criticise, this is not silencing.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The government's IT credibility problem

Today, Fine Gael’s website published this this (they changed the URL), a piece by Patrick O’Donovan, a Fine Gael TD on the Communications Committee.

Go read it; it’s really quite an amazing piece. I believe it’s supposed to be about the Silk Road, a seller of illegal materials, largely drugs, on the Tor network, and possibly also about Freedom Hosting, also on the Tor network and formerly one of the world’s larger distributors of child porn. It could even be about Tor itself.

The reason for my uncertainty is that it is utterly incoherent. It talks about open-source browsers, and “replacement” open-source browsers quickly appearing to continue the illegal trade. But this is nonsensical. The only non-open-source browser in common use today is the much-in-decline Internet Explorer; while Chrome and Safari are technically closed source, they are substantially open source. Firefox is entirely open source. And there’s nothing illegal about open source browsers. I can only imagine that by “open source browsers” he means “Tor network sites”.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for the recent shutdown of the Silk Road and Freedom Hosting. Freedom Hosting was indeed a big child porn distributor, and Silk Road’s operator was a very nasty piece of work.

I’m not even worried that the government will make bad legislation off the back of this. When it comes to it, the government will not be banning Google’s browser on the say-so of an obscure TD.

My issue is more the amazing carelessness. It would have taken O’Donovan five minutes of reading Wikipedia to, if not have a clear picture of what was going on, at least know better than to write what he did. The computer-machines seem to be a strange focal point of governmental cluelessness; while TDs writing on other subjects are hardly perfect, you’re not going to get James Reilly writing a piece advocating the use of radium to cure The Humours, or something, nor will you find Alan Shatter extolling the virtues of the Freeman on the Land philosophy. This isn’t the first time, though, that a TD has spouted complete nonsense about computers.

It makes it all the worse that O’Donovan is on the Communications Committee. You’d expect he could at least put in a little effort on what his job is supposed to be. I don’t really expect him to know this stuff, though it’d be a nice bonus, but you’d think he could look up what the words mean. I mean, what are we paying him for? Is this all a backbencher does, write nonsensical letters about something they half-remember from a tabloid?

It’s also, of course, embarrassing; you can’t really go on about the Knowledge Economy on the one hand and do this sort of thing on the other. Not really good enough, Fine Gael.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fun with Firewire - SSD on an older iMac

A couple of years ago, I bought an SSD for my work machine. If you’ve never used an SSD before, it’s a bit of a revelation; everything more or less just happens instantly. It really makes all sorts of tasks enormously less painful; for the stuff I do, largely due to the very high IO transactions per second.

Of course; there’s one downside to buying an SSD; it will make you hate using just about any non-SSD computer under the sun. Pauses before accepted as just the way computers are will start to drive you mad, and you’ll come to hate the sound of the drive as it seeks, ever-so-slowly, for a thousand tiny files.

In due time, the upgrade cycle rolled around and I got a shiny new computer in work with its own SSD, giving me the SSD I bought back.

And increasingly on my home machine I was really feeling the afore-mentioned pain; so many horrible little pauses. My home machine is a decently fast computer; it’s an early 2010 21.5” iMac with a 3.2GHz dual-core hyper-threaded processor, 8GB of RAM, and an acceptable GPU, which I got second-hand at some point. For completeness sake I may as well mention that I use an Apple Magic Trackpad and this IBM Model M clone with it. It would not make a hard-core gamer or someone doing heavy video editing happy, but for my needs it’s largely fine.

So, if I wanted an SSD, there were two things I could do; get a new computer, or upgrade the current one. I really didn’t see the need to get a new computer, and it’s not a good time to be buying a Mac (or any computer, really); desktop HiDPI displays are around the corner, but even on the super-high-end are not really there quite yet.

That left upgrading. There are a few ways to get an SSD into an iMac. The first is, of course, to just open it up and put one in. There’s a problem, though; while replacing the RAM is pretty easy, replacing the hard drive is… not. Call me a coward, but when suction cups (not to mention 16 intricate steps with dozens of tiny screws) come into the picture, that is exceeding the limits of what I want to do with a computer. Apparently, there are also potential issues where the computer may not be happy with the fan control stuff after an upgrade.

The next obvious approach would be Thunderbolt. All that Thunderbolt really is, at a high level, is a couple of external PCIe lanes. There were, as it turns out, two issues with Thunderbolt. One; Thunderbolt disk enclosures are terrifyingly expensive. Really, really expensive. This seems to be about the cheapest option, and it’s not even a real enclosure. It seems to actually be cheaper, though still very expensive, to get a pre-built Thunderbolt SSD. No doubt this will be resolved in time, but for now it’s terrible. The second problem; this iMac is too old to have a Thunderbolt port anyway.

That leaves USB 2.0 (no 3.0 here!) and Firewire 800. USB 2.0 is really too slow, and tends to involve the processor more in talking to the disk than one might like (it’s not bus mastering). Firewire, however, (at least in its 800 guise) might be okay. A quick look around the Internet confirmed that people had done this and found it acceptable, though there was an unfortunate lack of performance metrics.

So, I got one of these, an iTec Advance MySafe External (there’s a name for you). I should clarify that, when I got it, it was about 35 euro; it seems to have gotten a lot more expensive since, for some reason. At its current price, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it; there are better things out there for less money. Even at the original price… well, I’d have trouble recommending it, as we shall see. There is, unfortunately, a bit of a paucity of Firewire 800 enclosures; 400 seems to be more common.

The quality of the unit is… lacking. To get the drive in at all, I had to bend a misplaced capacitor out of the way, and the Firewire connection is inclined to drop if the cable is touched. It also has the blindingly-bright blue LED that all cheap electronics is now required to bear; I’ve had to turn it to face the wall so as not to be annoyed by it. It does come with Firewire and USB 3.0 cables (complete with absurd Micro USB 3.0 connector), which is a nice touch.

The device also doesn’t sit entirely evenly, and doesn’t have rubber feet. This is actually more or less okay with an SSD, but I assume it would cause it to vibrate all over the desk with a spinning disk.

There’s something strange about this device, though. Does this look familiar? It’s the same box, with the same port placement, but it’s definitely a different device; note that it uses an Oxford 944 chipset, while the one I’ve got uses a JMicron JMB35x. Its reviews also indicate that it’s of higher quality. Hrm. I wonder what’s going on here. Is there some company who makes aluminium boxes with a MicroUSB 3.0 hole, two Firewire holes, a power switch hole, and an annoying blue LED hole, and then sells them to other people who put the guts in? Bizarre.

Anyway, how does it perform? Well, very nicely, really. Obviously, peak transfer speed is limited by the 800Mbit/sec FireWire interface, but for small-block random access, this is less of an issue than you’d think.

This is the SSD in my old work machine:

Screen Shot 2013 11 28 at 16 29 13

And this is it in the iTec enclosure:

Screen Shot 2013 12 04 at 23 23 32


And just for fun, here’s the fancy PCIe SSD in a Retina Macbook Pro:



We can see that while speeds suffer a fair bit running over Firewire, small block random reads are still very healthy. I haven’t done proper tests on IOPs, but I’ve seen it go into the thousands happily, and subjective speed is very good, though noticeably worse than, say, the Retina Macbook Pro.

One more caveat; there’s no TRIM support for FireWire attached SSDs.

So, would I recommend this? Well, only in the specific situation I was in (adding hard drive internally is a serious pain, no Thunderbolt), and only if you’re not too worried about sequential speed; the spinning disk will actually beat the SSD in the enclosure at this. I also wouldn’t recommend the enclosure I ended up using. However, the procedure in general put a new lease of life in the iMac, and, assuming the constraints mentioned are acceptable, it’s a very nice upgrade.