Aug 2007

Windows Vista

So Windows Vista, eh? What’s that all about?

My computer died a few weeks ago and between being skint and being busy so as to be a bit less skint, I’ve only recently gotten round to buying and setting up a new one. For the past ten years or thereabouts, I’ve tended to buy my computer in kit form. And my PC evolved steadily rather than ever getting replaced wholesale. So I’d buy a new motherboard and processor when the old ones died or could no longer handle the increasing demands of modern software (Adobe, I’m looking at you here). Over the years I’ve seen hard-drives go from being measured in MB to being measured in the hundreds of GBs. CPUs have struggled from 286 to 386 to 486 and then — the big leap — to pentium and beyond. My new one is a Core 2 Quad. It’s approximately 68.4 gazillion times faster than the fastest chip available just fifteen seconds ago. In about 3 and a half minutes it’ll be superseded. It will be largely obsolete by the end of the week.

I’m enjoying being cutting edge while it lasts.

Anyways, I decided this time to go with a pre-built system. I can no longer be arsed with the faffing about when the bloody thing breaks down. I’ve got a three year warranty, so if something goes wrong, I just have to phone them and they’ll have it collected and repaired at no cost or hassle to me.

It arrived with Windows Vista preinstalled and I figured I’d give it a whirl, secure in the knowledge that I can always reinstall my old copy of XP. And the verdict after a couple of weeks use…? It’s a bit shit actually.

Don’t get me wrong. It has many many redeeming features and some bits and pieces that make it worth sticking with. In fact I shan’t be returning to XP. I’ve gotten used to the enhanced file system with its breadcrumb navigation and ubiquitous search, both of which I’d seriously miss if I went back to XP. The new Taskbar and Start Menu really work well, and the User Access Control isn’t nearly as annoying as I’d been led to believe. I’ve not even bothered turning it off (which is perfectly possible) as it isn’t all that intrusive once you’ve done your initial set-up and software install. The Last.fm plugin for Media Player requires authentication each and every time I start up the program. But I can live with that.

The ‘aero’ display is pretty, and the live thumbnails of minimised windows in the taskbar is a useful feature. The sidebar is lovely but has a serious lack of plugins and widgets. You’d think Microsoft would have concentrated on having a wide selection of excellent little applications to plug into the sidebar. Instead there’s absolutely sod-all. Even the ability to “minimise” Media Player onto the Sidebar doesn’t exist. I’m using it as a repository for RSS feeds, but in truth I’m turning it off more and more often because I already have netvibes.com for that. An opportunity wasted.

The Windows Update process (with which I’ve had difficulties in the past) is streamlined and far less intrusive. In fact Vista does a pretty good job of tucking most of the actual workings of the Operating System further out of sight than ever before. As a bit of a tinkerer, and someone who knows their way around Windows better than most, I can find this a bit patronising or frustrating at times. But there’s no question that it’s a good thing in general. And all the options and controls are still there, you just have to dig a bit farther than before.

All of which makes a nice selection of interface enhancements and a worthy overhaul of the file system (it’s not the all new WinFS of legend, but as far as the actual user experience goes, it may as well be). But at what cost?

Well, aside from the financial one (it’ll always be a lot cheaper with a new PC; hence my decision to avail of that discount and get it now) the big cost is stability. Vista has been out for quite a while now, but there are still issues with some of the drivers. Despite having the latest Creative Soundcard, the latest version of Windows and the latest Creative drivers, it still seems to be a flip of a coin as to whether I’ll have sound on any given start-up. Or else I’ll have sound, but the Windows Sound Console will tell me that I have 5.1 Speakers (true) while the Creative Sound Console will insist I have 2.1 stereo speakers. And any changes to the settings can result in the system crashing, or more often, two of my five speakers stop working altogether.

Vista also seems to crash occasionally when it goes into power-save mode (if I wander away for my PC for more than 10 minutes), which is a right pain in the arse. XP never did that.

Worst of all though, are the plain old “random crashes”. They’d almost become a thing of the past with XP SP2. In fact, I remember very few random crashes once I’d upgraded from Windows 98 to Windows 2000. But here they are again with Vista. I might have Photoshop or Dreamweaver open and I’ll fire up a browser. 49 times out of 50… no problem. But every now and then the PC will throw a complete fit and lock up on me. In just two weeks of Vista use I’ve probably lost an hour’s work due to the OS dying while I had files open. That’s a waaaay higher rate than with XP.

Overall though, Vista has sucked me in. The file system alone is worth the cost of entry. And XP would seem very limiting in that sense were I to return to it. Aside from that though…? It’s all a bit underwhelming. A bit, “is that it?” So if you’re thinking about upgrading, can I suggest you hold off until Microsoft release a Service Pack? You’ll like the enhancements, but it’s probably worth waiting until the OS is more stable before you get them.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Aug 2007

A Knew Start

He’d seen the signs and portents. So he went to The Fat Lady for interpretation. Feeling faintly sceptical — despite her exemplary track record — he watched as she swirled the last of his tea around the cup before a practiced flick of her wrist expelled the remaining liquid onto the stained wooden floor leaving a kaleidoscope of dark tea-leaf at the bottom.

Her eyes narrowed. She glanced at him briefly then went back to studying the pattern. She glanced up again after a good three minutes of almost subaudible hmms, tuts and gasps. This was the only problem with The Fat Lady… her day-job as a forture-teller for pay. All that silly melodrama to impress the punters tended to leak into her real work, so you were never quite sure how many of the hmms, tuts or gasps to take seriously and how many were there to add atmosphere.

She was staring into his eyes with an intensity that only she could muster. “Your hand”. It was an order, and it was in her business, not her theatre, voice. He held out his right hand and she grasped it. Another couple of minutes passed and still she stared into his eyes, syphoning information through them directly from his brain. Finally she looked down at the palm of his hand and studied it.

This time there were no hmms, tuts or gasps. She was all business now, and that worried him a little. As frustrating as it was, the fake-gypsy act gave the whole affair a slightly unreal edge. Without it… well, without it, it was just him and The Fat Lady.

Finally she pulled a pin from somewhere in her burgundy housecoat. With a single deft movement she stabbed it into his thumb and squeezed a tiny droplet of blood into her own cup before draining the tea and releasing his hand. She sat back with a sigh and fished a half-smoked joint from one of the many pockets in that housecoat of hers. She lit it from the candle on the table and took a deep draw. Her eyes closed and she entered whatever trance it was that let her do her thing.

After about ten minutes of silence, her eyes opened. She relit the now cold joint. “So you’ve been dreaming of him?”

He nodded.

“And you found his initials carved on the tree outside your house?”

Again he nodded.

“Of course, they are pretty common initials…”

He shook his head. ‘They were in Cyrillic. And it’s not like I live in Little-Moscow.’

“True. But what with all the recent Eastern European immigrants…”

Again he shook his head. ‘Beneath the initials was the number 209’.

The Fat Lady nodded. “That was the number of his unit when he was in The Service of course. And when you add that to the black dog, the telephone call and the DVDs… well, you have more than just a few omens and portents. You’ve got a full blown prophecy.”

It was his turn to sigh. ‘That’s why I’m here. I need to know what it means… what did you see in the tea-leaves? In my palm? In my eyes?’

The Fat Lady offered him the joint. He thought about it, but realised he wanted to be completely straight when he heard what she had to say. Her eyes widened slightly at his refusal.

“Never thought I’d see the day when you turned down a toke. Right, let me put you out of your misery, ‘though I suspect you already know what I’m about to say…” There was a pause. Not for melodrama, for a toke. The Fat Lady exhaled and went on. “Here’s the thing… he’s coming back. He’ll be here within the month. He’ll arrive on a Saturday evening. He’ll be dressed as he always was. And he’s looking to finish what he started.”

His objection sounded hollow to his own ears. ‘But he’s dead. I know that better than anyone… it was me who had to identify his body for the police. And when the embassy staff questioned me, they had photographs of the autopsy with them.’

“Be that as it may. He’s coming back. I suggest you prepare a welcome. And maybe dig out the old notebooks, he’ll want to go through them.”

He looked faintly dazed. ‘You’re right, I knew you were going to say that. I just didn’t think I’d believe you. You’d better give me a hit on that thing after all’. She passed him the joint.

He smiled. ‘So Potemkin Smith is coming back… that should be fun.’

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Fiction

Aug 2007

Feral Teens: A result of godlessness?

There’s a discussion over at The Sharpener regarding the Feral Teen Menace (TM) which has apparently sprung up in recent years. It seems that the youth of today is uniquely troublesome and all manner of measures are being considered (even if only by authoritarian right-wingers) to deal with them. The tabloids have decided that cheap booze is largely responsible for the problem, and banning the consumption of alcohol in public along with raising the legal drinking age to 21 are just two of the ideas being proposed.

As an aside, I’m mildly amused by the fact that people from the Norman Tebbit end of the political spectrum can propose increasingly heavy restrictions on alcohol consumption in order to deal with modern teens without causing too much of a furore. Yet woe-betide an Islamic scholar who suggests anything of the sort. White right-wingers are simply proposing sensible solutions to a rising tide of lawlessness. Brown moslems, on the other hand, are trying to impose a global caliphate on us all. Go figure.

Anyways, I’m not a fan of alcohol as it happens and haven’t had more than a couple of drinks in the past few years. But that’s purely a biochemical thing (it makes me feel shit these days, where once I found it pleasant) and certainly isn’t an indication of a prohibitionist mindset. Drop round with some pot and see how long it lasts if you don’t believe me. So while a public drinking ban wouldn’t personally impact on me, it’s clearly a ridiculous idea. Criminalising someone for having a cold beer in the park on a warm day just because the tabloids claim the kids are all out of their skulls on alcopops and vandalising bus-shelters is an over-reaction (to put it mildly) and any claims that raising the drinking age to 21 will have a significant impact on crime conveniently ignores the evidence provided to us by the USA.

Incidentally, I have a dare for anyone who genuinely believes that raising the drinking age to 21 is a good idea. Find yourself a twenty-year-old squaddie just returned from a tour in Iraq and tell him he can’t have a pint down his local. If he refuses to listen, then attempt to restrain him. Go on! Do your civic duty!

All the same, I do believe that we are witnessing a major social problem right now and it is manifesting itself most clearly in the youth. The social fabric is indeed beginnning to fray somewhat, and today’s kids do seem less respectful of their own communities than was once the case. Youth crime rates have increased somewhat faster than population and youth suicide is off the scale (that last fact can partly be attributed to a lessening of the social stigma surrounding suicide and a consequent increase in suicides being recorded as such, rather than as “death by misadventure” as was often the case previously, but that’s clearly only part of the explanation).

My own view is that youth crime has little to do with the fact that we allow people to get pissed when they’re eighteen. We’ve been permitting them to do that since Tebbit was a nipper and while the man has clearly spent his life being a menace, even I must concede that he probably wasn’t guzzling white cider and mugging old ladies when he was a teenager.

No, my own view is that our social problems are simply the inevitable consequence of a late-capitalist civilisation that is itself clearly committing suicide. Socialism — for all its many faults — has at its core an attempt to give each individual a stake in a wider society. This is in direct opposition to the individual materialism required by consumer capitalism and instilled in us by a constant barrage of psychologically manipulative media imagery. If people find genuine fulfillment and contentment in the simple things in life… family, friends and a sense of social worth, then any attempt to convince them that fulfillment can only be found via the purchase of a new car or an expensive watch or a holiday in the Seychelles is doomed to failure. Therefore we’ve created a generation who feel utterly detached from society and the comfort, security and contentment it offers. Self-obsessed, self-serving, isolated and unhappy individuals make by far the best consumers. This is just common sense. Why therefore, are we surprised that our civilisation has created them? Or that a widespread sense of social alienation should lead to a lack of respect for that society?

Add to that an awareness of impending environmental catastophe (which, whether you believe it will happen or not, is clearly a significant part of the belief system of modern youth) and you have a recipe for nihilism. We’ve annihilated the future. And people with no future either get angry or they get depressed. The crime / suicide thing.

Now, personally I don’t think there’s much we can do about this. Without a wholescale restructuring of our society, removing the emphasis on personal consumption and attempting to knit back together that social fabric, there’s just no option beyond ever-more authoritarian policies. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have an alcohol-related social problem for instance.

However, one thing struck me about the debate currently taking place at The Sharpener, and I want to focus on it. That’s the idea that the root cause of the Feral Teen Menace is our increasing godlessness. As our culture becomes more secular and religion plays a diminishing role in the lives of individuals, so crime increases.

Perhaps surprisingly, I do think there’s something in this. No, I’ve not recently found Jesus or anything… I actually found him years ago as it happens. He was down the back of the sofa along with a handful of loose change, a broken comb and a silver ring that no bugger could recall having seen before. I lost him soon afterwards though… told him to wait in the car when I went in to buy some cigarette papers and matches and when I came out he’d wandered off. But he’s a grown man so I figured he could take care of himself.

Aaanyways, while pretty much all religious beliefs are obviously irrational, it’s a very blinkered atheist indeed who would insist that religion plays no part in creating a sense of social inclusion. I’m not suggesting that’s a justification for the various evils that god-botherers have unleashed upon the world. It isn’t. And dispelling the superstition and nonsense of religion is clearly a good thing. But there’s a whole baby / bathwater nexus going on that needs to be examined.

See, most of my readers will acknowledge that, on balance, the influence of religion on society is negative. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say “very negative”. Any Christians who are offended by this can take their religion and… forgive me with it. However, it’s not 100% negative. It has certain positive roles to fill, one of which is to offer that sense of social inclusion I mentioned. So while the secularisation of society is, on balance, a good thing; the fact that it has happened without putting alternative systems in place to take over the positive roles once played by religion has led to a number of social problems.

A local example… there’s a hospital in Cork City that I’ve been in more times than I’d like. It used to be run by a religious order but has now been transferred to the state. There’s not a doctor in the place who won’t admit that the levels of hygiene and administrative efficiency have dropped dramatically since the changeover. It seems that a cleaner who believes they are doing God’s work is better at their job than one who is doing it for a paycheque. This is not an argument in favour of religion. It’s an argument in favour of ensuring that people have something other than the minimum wage to inspire them in their work. I’ve no idea what that should be (I doubt it’s “a bit more money” though).

So yeah, religion played a role in providing social inclusion. Now that it no longer functions that way, and we’ve failed to replace it with anything, it simply stands to reason that social inclusion has been negatively affected. To expect otherwise is unrealistic.

However, I decided to put this theory to the test, and the United States is ripe for analysis. Tracking down a state-by-state breakdown of crime statistics is pretty simple (US States Crime 2004 -2005). However, tracking down a state-by-state breakdown of religiosity isn’t quite so simple. In the end I decided that — given we were taking a look at ‘godlessness’ — I’d use the American Religious Identification Survey (PDF file) carried out by the City University of New York in 2001 which provides a State by State Distribution of Selected Religious Groups (Table 15), including those who identify with “No Religion”. It is this group I compared against the crime stats. I’m assuming that both the crime stats and the religious stats are roughly typical, so the slight disparity in the years they were gathered shouldn’t prove too important.

The results were illuminating. Clearly there will be numerous factors influencing the crime statistics on a state-by-state basis, from quality of policing to economic conditions. I have focussed on violent crime in the hope of ruling out at least some of the economic influence on the statistics. Despite these other factors, however, I assume that those who link ‘godlessness’ with crime would argue that less violent crime should occur in those states with a low percentage of people who describe themselves as having “no religion”, while a high proportion of non-religious people in a state would correlate with a higher crime rate.

In fact, there’s absolutely no clear statistical correlation whatsoever. There’s some interesting blips, certainly. North Dakota has the highest proportion of religious people, and also has the lowest violent crime rate. Which is a pretty good start for the “godlessness equals crime” folks. But the state with the third highest proportion of religious people (South Carolina) has the highest violent crime rate of any state, with only the almost entirely urban District of Columbia beating it. And DC — whose violent crime rate is almost double that of South Carolina — is in the top quarter of the religious stats, while Washington state — the most godless of them all — is in the bottom third of the violent crime stats.

So while I accept that an increasing secularism could logically lead to greater social exclusion and a consequent rise in crime rates, the actual data from the United States shows little or no evidence for this.

NOTE: I’ll format the full stats for publication here if anyone wants them. Alternatively I can email the Excel spreadsheet to anyone who wants it… or make it available for download should someone request it.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion