Thursday, December 29, 2005

Last three books I've read

While I'm catching up, here are the last three books I've read and enjoyed.

border=0Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near took me weeks to read, and not just because it is over 600 pages (including notes). What made it hard was its extraordinary ideas. Every page had an insight -- the nature of consciousness, blurring of human-computer boundaries, the nature of a "self" and the impact of computing power limited only by physics. My mind kept wandering over the implications -- I'd read a paragraph and then find myself dreaming up a Philip K. Dick novel.

Kurzweil starts with a simple premise: the rate of progress is accelerating exponentially, which he backs up with some convincing evidence that extends back at least as far as the discovery of fire and invention of stone tools. He then carries on logically and methodically to show why, if that's true, we're much closer than we realize to some extraordinary advances, when progress will essentially proceed at an infinite pace (the "Singularity"). I think he underestimates the complexity of many of these problems, but that would only delay some of dilemmas that we'll face. Just to take one example: Kurzweil compares individuals to the shape of a river, with the water representing the atoms that make up our physical bodies. Because every molecule in our bodies changes about once a month, Kurzweil argues, what we are is a pattern of information, like the shape of the river. Every neuron, and every other part of us, can theoretically be modeled in a computer. What happens when computers get powerful enough to host all of that information? Is it a person? Why not? If Kurzweil is right, we'll be confronting questions like that faster than we realize.

Alastair Reynolds's Pushing Ice was a bit of a mental break compared with Kurzweil's book, but it still had plenty of insights. This is the first book I've read by Reynolds, who has a Ph.D in astronomy and works for the European Space Agency. The story starts in the second half of this century and evolves around a comet-mining ship that is diverted to chase what appears to be an alien vessel racing away from the solar system. Like the last Ken MacLeod book I read, Reynolds takes minimal liberties with the laws of physics. That leads to a problem: Going anywhere interesting takes months or years in space, which leaves conflicts aboard ship to provide much of the action. There's plenty of that before anyone ever encounters an alien, assuming they'd recognize it as such. As time drags on and the chase turns involuntarily into a long-term, interstellar mission, the crew has to struggle to survive.

As always, the science in this fiction isn't strictly necessary. The same story could be told about a ship rounding the horn of Africa in the 16th century. But Reynolds obvious grasp of the science adds to the gripping read. Unlike Kurzweil's book, I devoured this in a couple of sittings.

I'm only about half-way through David Pogue's Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, but it's a skimmer anyway. I'll be popping in and out of this book for quite a while since, as I've mentioned in a previous post, we got an iMac for Christmas. Although I've used Macs once in a while while working for PC Week, I haven't used one in earnest since college, when Apple's computers ran a totally different operating system. I've been pleasantly surprised on how similar OS X is to Linux (since it has a free BSD operating system underneath) and Pogue's book does a good job of filling in some of the blanks. The author's focus, however, is aimed squarely at the non-nerd, home computer user. I'm still struggling to get my head around the way OS X manages daemons and schedules tasks, which isn't something that will keep the average home user awake at night. It's something I worry about, though. It took me a week to get a daily backup working, which I finally managed by just piggy-backing on tasks that the computer already does on a daily basis. Perhaps I should try some of the other O'Reilly books on the Mac, such as the ones geared toward people who area already familiar with Unix.



I've apparently offended someone enough to be listed, next to dodgy drug sellers and loan sharks, in Splogspot' s list of spam blogs. I've not heard of this site before, and my initial impression isn't good. I used its method of appeal (a little link next to each entry that says 'not spam?'), pointing out that I would think a spam blog would have to be trying to sell something, or at least carry ads. I've heard nothing back in a few days and there isn't any other contact information on the site.

I understand that spam blogs (or splogs for short) are a big problem, but a heavy-handed black list, with little or no accountability, is a poor answer.

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Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas presents

It must be a sign, but I'm not sure of what. Theresa and I ended up with the coolest gifts this year.

Theresa's main present was a fireplace -- our first in at about 16 years (Ailish was a baby the last time we had one). It puts out a lot of heat, easily heating most of the downstairs. And if I get carried away and stuff too much into it, we have to move upstairs or out in the sunroom for a while. (I'll eventually get my pyromania under control.)

New fireplace

What I especially like about it is that we don't watch the TV as much. It's more pleasant to just sit around the fire, listening to music or reading a book.

My main gift is a new 20-inch iMac. It's mostly for the kids, since I have a PC running Linux upstairs. But I get to play with it a lot, especially when I'm off a few days. (I'm writing this now on the iMac.)

My Christmas present

I've wanted a Macintosh since college, and a few days with the real thing has convinced me that Apple has the most advanced PC on the planet, by far. Windows can't touch this. (Nor can Linux, for that matter, but what do you expect for free?) Apple's decision to switch from the PowerPC processor to Intel has more recently given me pause. What tipped me over this time is that the kids' Windows PC is beginning to fall over and the thought of starting all over again with the battle to keep it upright against a determined kid attack was just too much. The Mac, like Linux, is far better equipped for life on the Internet, even (and especially) in the hands of children. Plus, the kids are now getting familiar with Windows, Linux and Mac OS X. They're able to sit down on any of them and be productive. That's got to be worth something. The Intel migration, I decided, wasn't much of a worry. A family PC has a 2-3 year life and, by then, Apple will have made the transition and it'll be time to start thinking of a new main computer.

I'm in the process of trying to get my head around Apple's version of Unix, which isn't very different from Linux. Still, it's the differences that are tripping me up. I've created a script to back up everyone's documents folder to Linux using rsync. This is native-speaking for Mac OS X, happily, except for telling it when to run (cron seems to be ignored). I've figured out that I need to use Apple's next-generation services interface via a program called launchd. It's still early days for that, however, and creating and managing services is a bit rough. You have to create an XML file and put it into a central place. I guess I thought "crontab -e" was difficult, when I first encountered it, so this will be no different. I found a good program called Lingon that made it easier to set up and schedule the tasks. I'll find out tomorrow morning if it works.


Another gift that will mostly be used by the whole family is a GPS (global positioning system) receiver. I wrote a post recently about our weekly outings to local parks and Dean Shareski added a comment suggesting we try geocaching. We're taking him up on it. The kids have already found a couple of caches nearby. The idea is that you use GPS to find containers (usually tupperware) hidden around the world. The boxes have little tidbits in them -- little momentos. You take one and add one. Sounds fun and it'll make walking Dude a little more interesting.

The kids? Well, they got the usual assortment: Nintendo DS, some Playstation 2 games (and the network adapter), and various loud toys. But I've barely noticed. I'm too busy playing.

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

This Year's Christmas Tree

Finished tree

We put up our Christmas tree a little early this year, since Theresa and I will be working most weekends this month. As usual, it's virtually impossible to take a good photo of a Christmas tree. You either see the tree or the lights (and the latter fuzzily). Ailish, our family photographer, gets the right idea, as usual, snapping a photo of just one ornament:


Now, why didn't I think of that?

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