31 January 2010

My favourite Linux flavour at the moment...

...is Linux Mint.

I've been running dual boot Windows XP/Linux systems on a couple of the computers at home for several years now and have tended to flit from distro to distro as the mood took me. Five years or so ago, SuSE seemed best to me - after a brief flirtation with MEPIS, I then got into Ubuntu only to be rather turned off by certain aspects of the user interface.

On some of the lower powered PCs at home I've been using Xubuntu for quite a while - basically Ubuntu running the lightweight xfce desktop. Fast and slim, but perhaps a bit skeletal for some users.

I read an article in Linux Format magazine about Mint that made it sound pretty good so I gave it a shot as a dual boot on my ageing Dell Latitude laptop. 2006 vintage, Intel Core Solo CPU, and running Win XP at an increasingly slow crawl. I'd uninstalled non-essential software, changed the anti-virus, checked for malware... all in vain. It takes about 5 minutes to go from power-on to a usable Windows desktop. On a good day.

So, on went Mint. Basically it's similar to Ubuntu but just slightly more user friendly. It looks a bit nicer too - not that that's in any way really important but it just tips the balance. A very well-designed green colour scheme. It recognised the wireless chip in the laptop immediately and configured it correctly, which has been a real bugbear of previous Linux laptop installations for me. Total time from boot-up to a functioning desktop? Less than a minute. No obvious bugs, package update and installation very smooth (as is Ubuntu's, to be fair)... everything in its right place.

I was so impressed with Mint I'm now using it as my Linux distribution of choice across my network. Great work, guys.

29 January 2010

The best thing to do with Tony Blair

I have about 12 good posts lined up for the blog but have just had no time to do them. Hopefully over the next couple of days... in the meantime, keep your eye on the infamous war criminal, Tony Blair.

It would be great if Blair were arrested at his Chilcott enquiry appearance - as George Monbiot recommended a few days ago. The only way in which George W Bush is a superior criminal to Tony Blair is that Bush managed to steal at least one election (and probably two) as well, whereas Blair didn't need to... the British electoral system as it stands is perfectly capable of delivering majority government on 35% of the vote.

Don't you just love it kids?

21 January 2010

From FDR to Jimmy Carter in 12 short months

This is a post I really didn't want to write, but: Barack Obama appears to be grasping defeat from the jaws of victory.

Healthcare reform in the US, which was already heavily compromised as a result of having to make so many concessions to right-wing Democrats in the Senate to secure the 60 votes necessary for a filibuster-proof majority, now seems set to sink without trace because of the shock Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate by-election.

However, the current healthcare reform bill has already passed the Senate - so if the House of Representatives were to pass it as is, it wouldn't need to go back to the Senate. The Massachusetts result would be irrelevant.

At this stage, surely you would think that the great hope of progressive US politics - Barack Obama - would push hard to get the bill through. After all, it's pretty much all he's focused on for 12 months in office and its failure would make that first year look completely pointless.

Instead, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, what progressive America got from Obama was this:

I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on. We know that we need insurance reform, that the health insurance companies are taking advantage of people. We know that we have to have some form of cost containment because if we don’t, then our budgets are going to blow up and we know that small businesses are going to need help so that they can provide health insurance to their families. Those are the core, some of the core elements of, to this bill. Now I think there’s some things in there that people don’t like and legitimately don’t like.

Where's Barack been for the past twelve months? Why does he not seem to realise what he's up against here?

As I've said before on this blog, the whole "bipartisanship" thing is a pile of crap. The Republicans are, pretty much to a person, right-wing extremists. Like the Terminator, they can't be bargained with, they can't be reasoned with, they don't feel pain or pity and they absolutely will not stop - EVER - until they have turned America into a fascist state. (Ironically, the original Terminator, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is considerably more moderate than almost anybody on the Republican side in the Senate.)

It seems to me that Barack Obama expects the Republicans to play nice party politics, and simply doesn't realise the ferocity of the opposition he's dealing with. It was the same with Jimmy Carter in 1980. He underestimated just how insane the Republican base was and what Ronald Reagan was stirring up, played the nice guy who was worried about the environment - and got his ass kicked.

I don't think Obama will go down after one term like Carter did, unless things get a lot worse. His newly announced banking reforms (if he can get the legislation through without being terribly watered down) should help. But he really does need to learn something about the dirty tricks school of politics - and fast. George W Bush was in his element with this stuff - as was Bill Clinton. I'm not always positive about Clinton, but if he was in office at the moment, in these circumstances, health reform would probably be on its way through. Obama needs to sit down with Clinton - who knows what the Republicans are capable of more than anyone - and get some advice over a couple of beers.

Why are the Democrats so weedy? It's a mystery to me (and, it seems, to Paul Krugman), so any enlightenment from US-based readers would be very welcome. Certainly, British politics doesn't seem to work like this. Labour politicians may have many faults, but an inbuilt assumption that the Tories are nice people who will always play by the rules is not one of them.

Come on Barack - you can do better than this. Or did you never want to in the first place? If so, America, like the UK, is f***ed.

16 January 2010

Most amusing typo of 2010 so far

Just received Battlestar Galactica series 4.5 on Region 1 DVD courtesy of amazon.com where the price had gone down to $17.99 just after Xmas - which meant it was possible to import without incurring additional duty and admin charges (which is what buggered me on the Twin Peaks Season 2 box set a while back.

The Region 1 box sets of BSG have a lot more extras than the rather threadbare Region 2 efforts on Playback, which sometimes don't even have Ron Moore's podcast commentaries. (They can be downloaded from the ludicrously renamed "SyFy" channel website or iTunes but then they are running at NTSC rather than PAL video speeds, so by the end you will be a couple of minutes out of sync with what's happening on screen - unless you import into Audacity or something and slow the podcast down - but who can be bothered?) It's criminal that probably the best sci-fi TV series ever had such a slipshod release on DVD here.

Anyway there is an amusing typo on the back cover of the DVD: "Extended, unaired versions of A Disquiet Follows My Soul, Islanded In A Stream Of Sars [sic] and Daybreak."

I can't remember the episode about Galactica being under attack from SARS, but I'm sure it's a good one.

12 January 2010

Want to join an Islamic terrorist group? Don't worry, there'll be another one along in a minute

The Government just seems to get stupider and stupider on terrorism.
Islam4UK - aka al-Muhajiroun - has just been banned. These were the guys who were planning to march through Wootton Bassett to protest about the number of Muslims being killed in the war. I, too, am extremely worried about mounting casualties - but I don't want an Islamic state, which is what these guys are about.

But if they're banned under one name, they just reappear under another name - they've already been called al-Ghurabaa and The Saved Sect in the past. There are probably a lot more possible names than there are possible banning orders, so I think these guys will be able to carry on for a while yet.

So the law is procedurally daft - and it's also morally objectionable. Check David Mitchell on why free speech is important.

Next time the Government comes knocking on the door, it could be your organisation that's proscribed. Hey, what about banning the Labour Party? They supported a leader who went on to become a war criminal - Tony Blair. But don't worry - they could always change their name.

"Nu Labor" sounds good.

06 January 2010

Replace Brown? Six months ago, maybe. Now, it would be insane

Happy New Fear [sic] kids, courtesy of Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon. Can't we sell off ex-Labour cabinet ministers as scrap metal or something?

Now I know that I was a big supporter of the coup attempt in June last year - see here, for example - but six months is an aeon in politics, particularly when the election is now about 4 months away. And getting rid of Brown now would be ludicrous.

The idea of changing the leader back in summer 2009 made some sense. With almost a year to go to the election there would have been an opportunity to make a start on electoral reform and also to rework policy and give the new leader - Johnson, maybe - a chance to establish himself.

But now? Even if a 'coronation' of a new PM could be arranged - unlikely, given that one of the leading Brownites would fight it even if Brown agreed to stand down (also unlikely to start with) - the new leader would have no time to build a new policy, no time for electoral reform, no time indeed for anything except to career headlong into a landslide defeat and the obliteration of the Labour party.

Which is, in fact, what Pat Hewitt and Geoff Hoon want. Hoon has always been a Tory, and Hewitt started out as Labour but moved progressively further to the right until she is now pretty much indistinguishable from Rupert Murdoch. These two have just decided to attempt to kick the party into the ground. They may indeed have made some deal with the Tories for peerages or something like that. Someone should tell them the silly season is over.

I wanted to dump Brown back in June, I'll freely admit it. He seemed to be incapable of stringing a sentence together, he was trailing DaveCam by 25 points in the polls, and it felt like a mercy killing.

But now? The poll deficit has closed to 10 points - still a lot, but the momentum is with Labour. Brown sounds like he is up for it again - at least most of the time. And while he is unlikely to win the election, the best option is to let him try rather than attempting to stick the knife in now.

I think this coup will fail because the plotters do not have the guts to see it through. Nothing's really changed since June - in fact Brown is actually doing better than in June. So why the hell now? No reason at all.

OK so Dave Miliband has been 'lukewarm' in support. But is he really popular enough in the party to be installed with a coronation? I just can't see it. Plus he's too Blairite for my liking anyway. Brown is too Blairite as well, by the way; this isn't the old Blair/Brown crap. Now Ed Miliband, maybe. But not until AFTER the election.

This coup won't outlast the big freeze. Believe me.

02 January 2010

High noon for freedom of speech in Ireland

The Irish people (a group which includes several members of my family and my wife's family) have had a rough old time of it lately. Following the implosion of their economy with an even bigger bang than the UK's a couple of years back, they have got locked into an ever-decreasing circle of emergency budget cuts, falls in investment, falls in output, another hole in the budget and hence more budget cuts. The "Celtic tiger" seems more like a lemming falling off the cliff these days.

Now they're being threatened with a €25,000 fine for blasphemy - defined as "publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted".

This is lunacy, just plain lunacy. Why do religious people need legal protection from a verbal or written challenge to their beliefs? In fact, why does anybody with a strongly held belief need protection from verbal or written attack? If your belief is well-founded enough then you should be able to stand up to insults. And if it isn't... maybe you need to get yourself another belief.

Fortunately Atheist Ireland (who I think are the Irish equivalent of the British Humanist Association) are making a direct challenge to the law by posting 25 anti-religious quotations on their website. They are going to challenge the law through the courts (maybe at the European Court of Human Rights? I'm no expert so I'm not sure what the challenge would be).

This is a brave and important action on behalf of anyone who wants the freedom to voice an opinion without being prosecuted - whether they be religious, atheist or whatever. Best of luck to AI on this one.

One last thought on this topic (for now): the current Irish government is a coalition of Fianna Fail and the Green Party. I can well believe that FF are a bunch of reactionary religious nutters but what the hell were the Green Party thinking? Where's the environmental benefit in making criminals out of people for voicing their opinion? Utterly contemptible and a slur on the reputation of the environmentalist movement.

Bringing in the new year with some sci-fi (2)

The other sci-fi that I watched on New Year's Day (via iPlayer) was the last 5 episodes of series 1 of Defying Gravity, which were excellent - making it all the more frustrating that the show has been cancelled. I'll elaborate on this a bit as it's an object lesson - both about the way the US TV industry works and in how NOT to write a long-running TV series.

Most readers will not be familiar with Defying Gravity as it has received bugger all publicity either in the UK (where it aired on BBC2) or in the US (where the final five episodes weren't even shown AFAIK). So some explanation of the genesis of the series is in order. A few years ago there was a documentary called Voyage to the Planets which presented a dramatisation of a tour of the planets Venus, Mars, (the moons of) Jupiter, (the rings of Saturn) and Pluto. [Before someone pulls me up on this I'll say that the series would now have to have been called "Voyage to the planets and a dwarf planet", but we'll let that slide.]

The idea for Defying Gravity came about when series creator James Parriott realised that Voyage to the Planets would be an excellent concept to base a sci-fi drama around. He duly sketched out the first three seasons for a planned six-season story arc and secured funding from an international consortium of TV production companies including the BBC. ABC picked up the series for transmission in the US.

Defying Gravity premiered on the BBC in October with less than a bang - if I hadn't stumbled across the second episode while flicking through channels I wouldn't have known about it. The lack of publicity for the series seems baffling given the amount it presumably cost - hardware-based sci-fi is not cheap, so why the hell spend all that money and let the show slip under the radar? Viewing figures were crap, and so, like so many promising shows, DG was cancelled at the first opportunity.

Looking back at the first half of the season I can understand, frankly, why most people who did manage to find the show couldn't be bothered tuning in again. Until about episode seven, almost nothing of consequence happens. There are occasional references to a thing called "Beta" which appears to be altering crew-members' physiology and giving them hallucinations, but the pace of the show is glacial at this point. Huge portions of each episode's 45 minute running time are devoted to flashbacks of the astronauts' training programme, which are often enlightening but take a LOOONNGG time and break up the narrative. And the main character is named after a kebab. I was really marginal about watching further episodes after about episode three - and I like sci-fi. Your average punter would have just given up, believe me.

Which is a pity, because after episode seven the series takes a huge upward turn in quality. The episode eight (just after mid-season?) cliffhanger is superb, and episodes nine to thirteen (transmitted by the BBC in the space of about a week, in a desperate attempt to get them out of the way before Xmas) are much, much better than the earlier stuff. But by then it was all too late.

I think the production team shot themselves in the foot hugely by making the first half of season one so boring. Clearly the long-term game plan was for six seasons, visiting one planet per season. But they would have been much better to make the Venus landing the mid-season cliffhanger and then go off to Mars (or wherever the next destination was) in the second half of season one. This would have made the whole thing much more pacey and they could have planned for three or four seasons in total. I think there's a chance they'd still be a going concern if they'd done that.

So that's that for Defying Gravity: gravity maybe, but not cancellation. Ho ho ho. One last thing though: guys, if you are ever making a sci-fi series set in the not too distant future again, unless someone has managed to change the speed of light there should be a communications gap of a few minutes between Earth and Venus. Which means that instantaneous telephone-style conversations between mission control and the ship are a no-no. Stanley Kubrick realised this in 2001 but it seems to have been forgotten either by the DG production team, or by TV executives who insisted on disregarding the laws of physics for the sake of drama. Which is a real shame. By messing up such a basic scientific point you almost feel that the show deserved to go down the plughole.

Bringing in the new year with some sci-fi (1)

Happy New Year everybody.

New Years' Day is always a good day for watching a lot of TV - provided you're in a fit state to get out of bed. These days my new year's eves are considerably less crazy than back in the 20th century, so I was able to spend most of the day glued to BBC iPlayer or indeed to live transmissions.

David Tennant's final appearance in Doctor Who in "The End of Time Parts 1 & 2" proved to be pretty much as overblown as Battlestar Galactica's finale "Daybreak Parts 1 & 2" from last year, but was nonetheless excellent. Without giving plot spoilers away to those of you who haven't got this one on iPlayer yet, overseas readers(?) or merely those who don't give a monkeys, one thing I liked was that not all loose ends were tied up. For example, we still have very little idea who "the woman" (Claire Bloom's character) is. One for down the line, hopefully.

Anyway it was a good send-off for a Doctor who I'd rank as one of the best ever: for me it's hard to see how anyone could do better than Tom Baker in the role, but Tennant and Chris Ecclestone both had a damn good try, and the strength of the lead actor (along with the co-stars - Bernard Cribbins and John Simm were both superb in "The End of Time", for instance") is one reason the show has done so well. Although the quality of the writing - which has been mostly excellent - counts for a hell of a lot as well.

There seems to be a section of the fanbase out there who hate Russell T Davies and think he has destroyed the show. To whom my response is: who else could have done this well with the show over 5 years? OK, so Russell does have a weakness for overblown storylines, romantic subplots, and reality TV shows. But while these elements can occasionally tip the show into ludicrousness, they do make it fun to watch - which after all was supposed to be the point in the first place? Personally I think RTD is a genius and good luck to him in whatever he does next.

If you want a great laugh, do a search on Twitter for #doctorwho - some of the comments had me falling off my chair with laughter. One person said, for instance, "I wasn't impressed with Matt Smith's performance". What, based on 60 seconds of screen time? Jeez there are some lunatics out there. I've no idea if Smith will be any good at all - never seen him in any previous stuff he's done - but the production team have got it right twice before so for the moment, I'll be giving them the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, roll on spring 2010 for the new series. In the event of a Tory election victory, it could be one of the only reasons for staying in the country...