Perky

Breast self-examination http://ehp.niehs.nih.g...
This picture does relate to the events of today, but in no very obvious way.

Wow. Doing an exam is like shoving fistfuls of drugs into your face.

Well, doing an exam after…

  1. Studying frantically in a sort of cold panic for over a week
  2. Waking up at 3am and not getting get back to sleep until an hour before the alarm
  3. Rushing out of the house only to find that the car won’t start

… feels like messing your head up with all sorts o’ bad stuff. Stress, with the stress on stress.

I still don’t know what was up with the car. Yes I had checked it the night before and no, I didn’t leave the electrics on. It was the good new battery that saved me in fact, because as the last desperate throw of the dice I just turned the engine over and kept turning it over until finally, one cylinder at a time, life returned. Perhaps I’d flooded it on the first try.

So now trying to get to my exam through rush hour traffic on very little sleep but oh so much adrenalin. Made it as far as the campus with minutes to spare, knew it would take too long to find a student parking space so threw handfuls of change at a ticket machine. Ran up three flights, downed three cups of water, made it.

This was Java, at once somehow my most feared and enjoyed subject. The course had been challenging – literally half the class had transferred out – but I felt like I was beginning to grasp its rhythms and its symmetries. Some programmers dislike the language; I have little to compare it to but I see a beauty in it.

Java is perhaps the best known example of an “Object Orientatedlanguage. If I dare try to explain that in simple terms, it means that instead of being long impenetrable lists of instructions, OO programs are made up of small units that attempt to model real things. A program with cars in it, say, would contain a subunit (called a “class” in Java) to represent cars. It would have its associated variables – colour perhaps, size, top speed – and “methods”, which represent what a car does: accelerate, brake, etc. They can be as elaborate or as simple as you need, but cars will exist in your program as discrete entities that can interact with other entities like passengers or junctions or other cars.

You can define subclasses that have things in common with some cars but not others, like 4x4s. Or superclasses – for example, one of vehicles – that comprise cars and other objects. In this way you clarify the relationships between things; you also avoid having to write the same code over and over, as subclasses inherit features from their superclasses. “Accelerate” for example need only ever be defined once to be used by every sort of vehicle. All these knit together in careful, logical ways to represent and simulate how things in the real world can interrelate. It’s elegant and subtle.

And elusive at times. So I worried that my understanding of the concepts was still quite tenuous and that an unexpected question might blow a hole right through it. But I think the exam went well. One good thing – I started at full speed, and stayed at full speed for three hours. All right, some of the answers may have been a little “Ooh, here’s another thing I remember!”, but I think I displayed a thorough understanding.

Unless of course I don’t understand, in which case I will have displayed a thorough misapprehension. To find out, we must now wait till autumn.

This is all over by 12:30, but the rest of the day is not without incident. Get some things I needed done done, fetch and carry, all in a strange trance of excess energy. I make it home eventually. The idea is to have an early night but I am as wired as I’m tired. It’s one in the morning before I finally – joyfully – go to my bedroom and reach to turn on the light.

And step in something wet.

That is never good. That is never never never good. It’s not much good in a bathroom or a kitchen. But in a bedroom, stepping in something wet is right out.

There is a puddle forming on the floor. The computer I’m building is sitting there powered up to standby, so it’s just as well I “went to bed” when I did. There is a drip from the ceiling. Deftly turning off all electrics and water with a single move, I fetch a ladder and squirm into the attic.

It’s coming from the complex pipework linking the three tanks of water in the attic space (I do not know why there are three tanks of water in the attic space). It is dropping directly onto a box of my personal memorabilia, and from there through the floor. After cutting away some of the nice new insulation I find a weeping joint. I fetch tools and tighten the fitting, squirm out and turn water back on.

Leak much much worse bugger.

Opening offending joint, I find that yet again a pipe has eroded. Don’t know what’s doing this, but it’s maybe the fourth instance of spontaneous dissolving pipe in the last couple of years. What the hell are we drinking? Spend the next hours crawling around in the dusty, glass-fibery, spidery dark doing work almost utterly unlike the pure cerebration of the morning, so tired now that – mercifully – I can’t even feel how tired I am.

Quite a day.

Life On Earth 2

Desert Varnish
Desert Varnish (Photo credit: arbyreed)

In its science section today, the Guardian / Observer ran a story about a mysterious sheen found on the rocks of many deserts:

These layers of manganese, arsenic and silica are known as desert varnish and they are found in the Atacama desert in Chile, the Mojave desert in California, and in many other arid places. They can make the desert glitter with surprising colour and, by scraping off pieces of varnish, native people have created intriguing symbols and images on rock walls and surfaces. […]

Professor Carol Cleland, of Colorado University, has a very different suggestion. She believes desert varnish could be the manifestation of an alternative, invisible biological world.

The suggestion is that alongside life on Earth as we know it there may be other forms that arose entirely separately and remain virtually invisible to us. It’s a very interesting story and I urge you to read it all. I really only have one problem with it.

It’s not science.

There’s a serious debate going on right now about what is good science journalism, what forwards public understanding. This doesn’t. It’s presented in a science column, it concerns science-oriented things like biology and geology, it even seems to be putting forward a hypothesis. But it isn’t science. Actually it’s philosophy.

And as philosophy, I like it. I don’t mean that as any sort of faint praise. Philosophy is important, and too much these days it seems – bizarrely – to be afraid of the big issues. This is as bravely speculative as good science fiction, which I also mean as a high-order compliment. It’s an interesting idea, and I have no reason to doubt that a wholly alternative form of life could exist on Earth.

The problem is, that is the only argument being offered here – that it could exist. The desert varnish thing is placed in the article as if it were some sort of pointer to, even evidence of, its existence. But it’s not. The process here is actually running in the opposite direction, not from the phenomenon but from a question: “Logically the chemistry of life could work in different ways, so why doesn’t it?”

It’s a good question. “What if it does, and we’ve just missed it?” is an excellent answer to that question.

The problem I have is with the next step. “Maybe the evidence for it is this other thing we can’t explain.”

That is only speculation. If there is no falsifiable hypothesis being made about how shadow bioforms could be causing the desert varnish then it’s really nothing to do with science. A best it’s just a suggested area of enquiry. It sounds more like a guess.

And this question matters – both scientifically and philosophically. It’s challenging in fact to imagine a bigger one we might ever be able to answer by means of science. Just how likely is it that life came into being, that chemicals somehow arranged themselves in a self-replicating way? If we had evidence of a “shadow biosphere” so different from the one we know that it couldn’t possibly be related to us, it would strongly suggest that life arose more than once even on a single planet. And therefore, that we probably live in a crowded and lively universe.

It would also suggest that the tendency to self-organisation is somehow innate to the laws of nature. Perhaps our minds, our culture and civilisations, are manifestations of that tendency too.

When we don’t find evidence for alternative life, that lends weight to the view that its appearance here in Earth was extraordinary, a trillions-to-one chance event. In that case, this planet may hold the only life in the universe. Which is interesting, scary, inspiring – and quite a responsibility.

It is a vast question of almost unimaginable consequence, so it is exasperating to find something held up as the answer when in fact there is no evidence at all. No one could write an article like this who thought it really mattered.

Roll Your Own Operating System 1

Missing operating system_  {error message}
Before Linux (Photo credit: quapan)

Where did Linux come from? Strange as it may seem, its roots extend back to ’60s Counterculture. Not a lot of computers in the Haight-Ashbury of course. In those times the only place a young person was likely to access hardware was at university, and it was on campuses that experimentation with drugs and social non-conformity met the sort of person who doesn’t have a lot of friends but is really good at mathematics. Strange things developed out of this cross-fertilisation. Like, to a large extent, the Internet. It was the beginning of Hacker culture.

In this period one of the leading computer operating systems, on campuses and increasingly in industry, was Unix. It was interestingly designed and well-suited to the networked style of computing that was beginning to emerge, seeming almost a little anarchistic in itself. But it was still an expensive, licensed corporate product. A few brave (and possibly slightly high) young souls decided that, hey, they were programmers. They could make something just as good themselves.

The name of this project was GNU. (Standing for GNU is Not Unix. What else?) Like Unix, GNU was designed not as a single giant program but as a whole bunch of little ones, each with its task to perform. A lot of progress was made, but the project long lacked its most vital component: The one central program that organises all the others, known as the kernel. Until, that is, 21-year-old Finnish student Linus Torvalds created one for his own amusement. When the two projects were put together, a complete operating system was born. Purists to this day refer to it as “GNU/Linux”, but plain Linux does for the rest of us.

Don’t make the mistake though of thinking of Linux as an inferior imitation of Unix made by hippies. It’s true it was modelled closely on Unix. In one sense it is Unix; its commands and structures are much the same and a person who knows one can use the other. The difference is that Linux is devoid of any patented or proprietary technology, and so can be copied, changed and distributed freely. This openness has allowed countless people to improve the code – everyone from oddball geniuses just showing off to giant corporations motivated by the bottom line. The only rule is that if you make modifications you must give your work back to the community. This Open Source philosophy has allowed Linux to mushroom in capabilities and refinement, leaving the Unix it once emulated far behind.

This freedom has also led to the huge number of “distros”, as they are called. Linux comes in several major versions, and almost countless minor. Though let’s be careful to be clear about this – they are not different operating systems in the sense that Windows and Mac OS are different. They’re all broadly compatible, the differences reflecting variations more in philosophy than technology.

Nonetheless the sheer breadth of choice may be off-putting at first. Don’t let it worry you, the day is not long off when you’ll believe passionately that one of them is far better than all the others. But that doesn’t matter now (and to be honest, it won’t matter a hell of a lot then either) – what we care about is where to start.

 

Local Poverty Tax

TaxForm
What is this? Pretty sure this wasn’t on the form before. Is this something I need to know about? Who are “High Income Individuals” – and why do they get their own special forms? What the hell is “Restriction Of Reliefs”? It sounds like something you pay for in a PVC-themed night club.

It’s that time of year again. The time when I do my taxes. Yeah, I know it’s not the time you do your taxes, but it is the time I do mine. About six months late, on average.

Once again, we open the form all a-tremble, excited to see just how many wholly indecipherable questions – perhaps entire pages – they’ve added this time. It’s not so long since they re-formed the form for the self employed so that non-accountants could read it. Year on year since though, entropy has dripped back in. A clause here, a category there, and now about 90% of it doesn’t even seem to apply to me. I guess some people’s businesses must be very different from mine, making very different things.

Money, to name one.

At least the online version has asterisks to mark the required fields. I figure I can’t go too wrong if I just fill all those. Then I scan for places to put in expenses and allowances I can apply for. Did you know by the way that if you are getting any form of social welfare payment you are entitled to a PAYE tax credit on top of your normal tax free allowance? I have no idea why, I can only guess it’s because tax is deducted at source from welfare payments – in some sort of entirely notional way. Anyway, ours is not to reason why, ours is to remember to tick the box. It may come in useful if they disallow some of my larger expenses again.

Antique erotic netsuke are research materials, dammit.

While getting my tax affairs in order, I remembered that I’d received an email from the new Local Property Tax agency. We didn’t use to have any residence-based taxes in Ireland, a Fianna Fáil government abolished them one time in a spree of vote-buying. Now that another FF administration has driven the economy off a cliff we have to have them back – though of course it’s the parties now in power that get the blame for it. Political lesson: If you create the most mess, nobody asks you to clean up.

Anyway I hadn’t paid much attention to the email. It’s a tax for property owners and I don’t own any property, I just rent a small apartment in an old four-storey building in the middle of town. Reading it now though, I find that seemingly I do. According to “our records”, as the tax people put it – by which I think they mean a hat – I own the building. Not just the room I live in. The whole. Fucking. Building. Walls of solid stone four feet thick, older than the United States, a good restaurant downstairs. According to an official government agency, it is all mine.

I tell you one thing, I’m not paying any more rent.

Linux For The Normal

Screenshot of Kubuntu 11.04
Whatever else, Linux these days is beautiful. Screenshot of Kubuntu 11.04 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s all very well, but why would you – an ordinary person with no particular ideological bent or business need – want to use Linux? Obviously if you’re reading this you’ve already got a perfectly good computing device of some sort. It will have an operating system from Microsoft or Apple or Google that you’ve spent time – perhaps years – getting to know. You may have spent a lot of money on software that won’t work with anything else. Why would you even dream of starting over with a whole new system?

I admit, this applied to me too. Now and again I would install Linux, marvel for a while at how all that great stuff was available for free, and immediately go back to the system I paid money for. Not because it was better, but because I knew it better. This catch-22 of not using Linux because you don’t know it and not knowing it because you don’t use it could go on indefinitely, always keeping you from taking that last step over the threshold. Unless and until a situation arises where nothing but Linux will do. And this is what happened to me recently.

Twice in fact.

The first case was a family member who’d acquired a PC with no working hard drive. He could’ve bought a copy of Windows for about €100. But why? He didn’t need Windows in particular, hadn’t spent years learning its little ways. If he was going to get to know one system, it might as well be the one that wouldn’t keep asking for money. On top of this his main reason for getting the computer was to go online, and for that Linux could not come more highly recommended. Viruses that attack it are too rare to seriously worry about, and it is designed in such a way that if one did get on it could do little harm. So we resolved to set him up with Linux.

And there was my own case. As I was telling you earlier, I recently built a system with more memory in it than you could conceivably shake a stick at – 16GB. However, the ordinary 32-bit version of Windows can’t make use of anything like that much. Just as bigger cities need longer phone numbers, you need a modern 64-bit operating system if you want to call up a serious amount of memory.

And here’s an annoying thing, there is no Windows upgrade path to the 64-bit version. So adding RAM can mean you have to buy a whole new license. For about €100.

Or you give Linux a go, and never pay for software again.

Hmm.

So there are people in some quite ordinary situations who could save considerable money by using Linux. And needless to say, it has other advantages apart from low cost and security. It’s also the most customisable, flexible system. There’s so much sheer choice in fact that it can seem a little intimidating at first, so next time out I’ll talk about where to begin.