The limit to how far you can go should be how hard you try, not where you came from

We took the boys to Springfield, Ill., this past weekend, mostly to go to children’s museums, but we also wanted to take them to Abraham Lincoln’s home. Lincoln’s home, and most of the homes on the block, are preserved and look today much like they looked in 1860, when Lincoln moved out.

We toured the home, and the tour guide left us with some important words that I hope will sink in with the boys. But one person on the tour asked more questions than anyone else. That person would be my oldest son. Read more

The many troubles with e-books

A brief essay by free software pioneer Richard Stallman on the problems with e-books made the front page of Slashdot today. It’s everything I’ve come to expect from Stallman. I found myself vigorously agreeing with parts of it, and vigorously disagreeing with other parts of it.

But mainly I found myself disappointed that he didn’t really elaborate much. Maybe it’s because he covered similar ground once before in his 1997 dystopian 1984-ish short story, The Right to Read.

And, to me, that’s the problem. We’re on a slippery slope. Today it sounds ridiculous that it could be illegal to loan your laptop or your e-reader or your tablet to someone else. But prior to 2009, the idea that you could buy a book and then at some point the party that sold it to you could take it back from you without permission sounded ridiculous.
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Quoting famous people accurately

If you’re going to quote people on the Internet, you might as well quote them accurately. Here are some tips for quoting famous people accurately, based on my own detective work on one of my favorite quotes.

“The problem with quotes on the Internet is that you never can know if they are genuine.” –Abraham Lincoln

The death of bin Laden prompted a couple of quotes attributed to Mark Twain and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to be repeated endlessly on social networking sites. It turned out both quotes were false. Inaccurate quotes also tend to pop up in election years.

Here are some good tips to avoid spreading fake quotes the next time something really newsworthy happens. One nifty trick: A Google search, filtered by date, to see if the quote existed anywhere before the event.

“Abraham Lincoln” may be right, that you can never know for certain, but you can get a really good idea with a little bit of digging.
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Another take on Google’s digital library

CNN has an interesting analysis of Google’s attempts to digitize millions of books.

I still argue this project can only be a good thing.The article quotes Tim O’Reilly, and while anyone who knows me knows O’Reilly and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, he’s right when he says the biggest problem an author faces, by far, is obscurity.

I have a real-world example that I’ve seen firsthand. About 18 months ago, I was introduced to a pair of obscure books written by master modeler Wayne Wesolowski. Today, Wesolowski is best known for hand-building a huge model of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train, but an earlier generation knew him as someone who published articles in magazines like Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman on an almost monthly basis.

In the early 1980s, Wesolowski wrote a couple of books. Both were printed twice under different titles, but one dealt with building model railroad cars from scratch and the other dealt with buildings. At the time I was introduced to them, the books were believed to be rare, and it was impossible to find a copy of either of them for any less than $125.

Today, it’s still possible to buy used copies of the books for $125, but if you shop around, you can get them for a lot less. I found a copy of Wesolowski’s ABCs of Building Model Railroad Cars for less than $12 earlier this month. It sold before I could click on the link, but I found another copy for $18. I snapped it up immediately.

Wesolowski’s books may not always be possible to find for less than $30, but it’s pretty easy to find them at or around that price with just a little bit of patience. I believe what’s happening is that people who otherwise would have never known the book existed started looking for it, which in turn caused used booksellers to look for it. In the meantime, the sale of used books online has drummed up a lot of press, including in the New York Times, causing still more copies of the book to come off dusty shelves and into circulation, driving down prices and possibly driving up sales.

If snippets of text from this book were searchable online, as opposed to vague mentions on an obscure Yahoo discussion group, who knows what would happen to these books’ sales? Maybe it still wouldn’t be enough critical mass to ramp up publication again, but it’s possible. At the very least, it’d be a bonanza for used booksellers, whether it’s people who do it for a living or people who are thinning out their personal book collections.

In turn, that extra commerce can only help the economy.

Thoughts on backups

Backups have weighed heavily on my mind lately. When you have 125 servers to tend to at work, chances are one of them is going to fail eventually. Really what seems to happen is they fail in bunches.

One of my clients has a problem. He’s out of capacity. And that’s gotten me thinking about backups in general.You see, my client’s golf buddies are telling him nobody backs up to tape anymore. Backing up to disk is the hot thing now. Here’s the theory. Your network is fast, right? Why make it wait on the tape drive? Back up all your servers to disk instead, and they can all back up at once, and hours-long backups take minutes instead, and restores take seconds. And no more paying $3,000 for tape drives and $6,000 for a rotation of tapes for it!

Now here’s the problem. A CIO hears "disk" and he thinks of that 400-gigabyte IDE drive he saw in the Sunday paper sales ad for $129 with a $60 mail-in rebate. (It wasn’t really quite that big, and it wasn’t really quite that cheap, but these things are always better on Monday morning than they were the day before.)

No enterprise bases something as important as backups on a single consumer-grade IDE disk. For one thing, it won’t be fast enough. For another, they’re not designed to be used that heavily, that frequently. An enterprise could get away with something like HP’s $1200 entry-level NAS boxes, which use cheap IDE drives but in a RAID configuration, so that when one of those cheap disks fails, it can limp along for the rest of the night until you swap out the failed drive. The chances of one drive failing are small but too large for comfort; the chances of two drives failing at once are only slightly better than Ronald Reagan winning the Republican primary this year. With Abraham Lincoln as his running mate.

One can set up some very nice backups on a Gigabit Ethernet setup. Since Gigabit’s theoretical bandwidth is about 3 time that of Ultra320 SCSI’s theoretical bandwidth, you can back up three servers at once at full speed. Drop in a second NIC, and you can back up six. In reality, the disks in the NAS box can’t come close to keeping up with that rate, but the disk can still back up everything much faster than tape will. Even a lightning-fast state of the art 200/400 GB LTO drive.

Frankly, with such a setup it becomes practical to back up your most important servers over the lunch hour, to avoid losing half a day’s work.

But you don’t get it for $129.

And in reality, no enterprise in its right mind is throwing out tapes either. If they back up to disk, they spool that backup to tapes the next day, so they can store the tapes offsite for archival and/or disaster recovery purposes.

How important is this? I remember about a year ago getting a request for a file that was changed in the middle of a week, and the person wanted that copy from the middle of the week, not from our Friday backups that are archived longer. Even with a tape rotation of 40 tapes, I couldn’t get the file. The tape had been overwritten in the rotation a day or two before.

While rare, these instances can happen. A 40-tape rotation might not be enough to avoid it. Let alone just a couple hundred gigs of disk space.

But what about home?

Consumer tape drives had a terrible reputation, and based on my experience it was largely deserved. The drives had a terrible tendency to break down, and the failure rate of the tapes themselves was high too. The lack of comfort with enterprise-grade tape that I see in my day-to-day work may stem from this.

The last time I was in a consumer electronics store, I don’t think I saw any tape drives.

I suspect most people back their stuff up onto optical disks of some sort, be it CD-R or RW, or some form of writable DVD. The disks are cheap, drives that can read them are plentiful, and if floppies are any indication, the formats ought to still be readable in 20 years. My main concern is that the discs themselves may not be. Cheap optical discs tend to deterriorate rapidly. Even name-brand discs sometimes do. We’ve had great luck with TDK discs ever since Kodak took theirs off the market, but all we can say is that over the course of three years, we haven’t had one fail.

The last time my church’s IT guy called asking about backups, we happened upon a solution: a rotation of USB hard drives. Plug it in, back it up, and take the drive home with you. It’s cheap and elegant. Worried about the reliability of the drives? That’s why you use several. Three’s the minimum; five drives would be better. Use a different drive every day.

It’ll work, and it’s pretty affordable. And since the drives can be opened up and replaced with internal drives, it has the potential for cheap future upgrades.

How about the reliability of hard drives? Well, I have a box full of perfectly readable 120-meg drives in my basement. They date from 1991-1993, for the most part. I bought them off eBay in the mid 1990s, intending to put them in computers I would donate to churches. The computers never materialized, so the drives sat. I fire one up every once in a while out of curiosity. The copies of DOS, Windows 3.1, and the DOS Netware client that were on them when I got them are still there.

Some technology writers have observed that modern IDE hard drives seem to have a use-by date; they just seem to have a tendency to drop dead if they sit unused for too long. I see this tendency in a lot of devices that use inexpensive electric motors. Starting them up every once in a while and giving them a workout to keep the lubricants flowing and keep them from turning glue-like seems to be the best way to keep them working.

At this stage, I’m less worried about the long-term viability of hard drives than I am about optical discs. Ask me again in 20 years which one was the better choice, and I’ll be able to answer the question a lot better.

If you’re stuck using optical discs, the best advice I can give is to use a brand of media with a good reputation, such as TDK, make multiple copies, and store them in a cool, dark, dry place. The multiple copies should preferably be stored in different cool, dark, dry places. Light seems to break down optical discs, and cooler temperatures as a general rule slow down chemical reactions. Dryness prevents chemical reactions with water and whatever the water might manage to pick up.

An irreverent look at this day in history, April 3

In 1882, my fellow Missourian Jesse James was shot in the back of the head and killed by a man he’d recruited to help him rob a bank in Platte City. Rumors persist to this day that James faked his death, even though 1995 DNA analysis of the body buried in Kearney, Missouri under a headstone reading “Jesse James” proved 99.7% conclusive. A man named Frank Dalton died in Granbury, Texas at the age of 104 in 1951 and he claimed to his dying day that he was Jesse James. Dalton’s body was to be exhumed in 2000 for DNA analysis and the story was a media sensation that you might remember. You probably don’t remember the results, because a mismarked gravestone caused the body of a one-armed man who died in 1927 to be exhumed instead, and the body buried as “Jesse James, supposedly killed in 1882” has yet to be tested. Despite the 1995 tests, citizens of Gransbury and citizens of Kearney still argue over which of them has the real Jesse James.
In other news, Adolf Hitler, FDR, Abraham Lincoln and Elvis were last spotted playing cards together in Argentina.

In 1826, Boss Tweed was born. Tweed was the political boss of the Tammany Hall machine in New York City. Their motto: Vote early and often. Tweed’s downfall came when one of his own men felt he got shortchanged when the embezzled money was split up, so he ratted to the New York Times. Tweed was imprisoned twice, on criminal and then on civil charges. He escaped and fled to Spain in December 1875, only to be recognized (supposedly a series of famous political cartoons gave him away) and he was returned to New York, where he died in prison in 1878.

In 1783, Washington Irving was born. I’m sure you’ve read his Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow or seen at least one of the many movies or Scooby Doo episodes based on it.

In 1942 and 1944, singers Wayne Newton and Tony Orlando, respectively, were born. Branson, Missouri would never be the same.

Telephones and World Series

Cable guy. My phone rang Friday night.
“Hi, this is [I didn’t catch the name] from Charter, the cable company. How are you doing tonight?”

I knew I should have forked over the extra bucks for privacy guard. “I’d be a whole lot better if you’d take me off your calling list,” I said.

“You don’t even want to hear about our special offers?” he asked.

“Nope. I don’t watch TV,” I said.

He sounded disbelieving. “You don’t watch TV?”

“Nope.”

“You mean to tell me you haven’t watched one second of TV today?”

“Right.” I hadn’t. Actually I hadn’t watched one second of TV since I fell asleep during the playoffs and was rudely awakened by Frank Sinatra singing “New York” at high volume after the Yankees steamrolled the Mariners. Disgusted, I turned off the boob tube (that’s all it shows during the commercials) and went to bed.

“What are you doing now?” he asked.

“Getting ready to go out.”

“Oh, you’re going to a party or something?”

Close enough. “Yep.”

“Oh. Sorry to bother you, sir.” And he hung up.

This is the one time of year I do watch TV. That’s World Series time. Unless it’s Yankees-Braves, in which case I have more important things to do, like clean my toenails. My phone rang last night right after Curt Schilling plunked Derek Jeter. “That’s my phone,” I muttered to no one. “Don’t they know better than to bother me during the World Series?” No one answered. I picked up the phone. “Hello?”

Whoever it was must have wised up. There was no one there. Good thing. If it’d been the cable guy again, I’d have had to tell him it’s not worth $35 a month just to be able to watch seven baseball games with a clearer picture.

A few random World Series observations:

Yeah, I know Curt Schilling beat the Cards, and I wanted a Cardinals-Mariners series. Even still, he’s one cool guy. He doesn’t care who sees him praying just before each start, and he bought a ticket for his dad, who died in 1988 and never saw him pitch in the big leagues, for this game. Having lost my dad at a similar age, I empathize. And he’s just a class act. At the end of the game, as his teammates were coming off the field, he ran out to give them handshakes and hugs. Starting pitchers almost never do that. I have to root for him. Baseball needs more good men like Curt Schilling.

Baseball also desperately needs another commissioner like Bart Giamati. Is it just me, or is baseball commissioner Bud Selig the worst public speaker in the history of public speaking? It really bothered me that he had to refer to a script to present Barry Bonds with his worthless Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award or whatever it’s called. Selig’s speech could be summed up as, “Barry, you had a fantastic season, taking a record that once belonged to Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, and Mark McGwire, joining the ranks of three of the greatest sluggers of all time, while also having one of the greatest all-around offensive seasons of all time. It’s my pleasure to present you with this award, previously awarded to McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn. Congratulations.” But it took him what seemed like several torturous hours to say that. What I just wrote isn’t particularly eloquent, but compared to Selig’s speech, it’s practically Shakespearean.

At any rate, I was happy to see Arizona win. I can’t root for the Yankees. Used to be the only team I disliked more than the Yankees was the Mets. But if the Mets were playing the Yankees, I’d have to root for the Mets just because they aren’t the Yankees. Yeah, I know, that sounds un-American this year. But two people I respect–one of whom I respect so much, his picture hangs in a frame in my living room, across from a picture of Abraham Lincoln–feel exactly the same way.

So here’s to Arizona. And to the American League, who next season will hopefully put the Yankees in their proper place.

Fifth.

Now.. Generations.

Generations. Today I relate better to 40-year-olds than I do to 19-year-olds. I have friends in their 30s who relate really well to me, and to everyone else I know who’s close to my age, but I can’t step down the same number of years that they can.
One possible explanation is intelligence and/or maturity level, but I know some 19-year-olds who are more mature than I was at that age, and I know our 18-year-old intern at work is one of the most brilliant people I’ve met. So that explanation, though it may have had some merit when I was a lot younger, doesn’t have much now.

I’ve found a possible explanation.

The theory of generations goes like this. There are four basic generation “personality types,” if you will. They’re cyclical. We hiccuped once after the Civil War and skipped one type, but that’s the only time we’ve done so in the roughly 500 years that people of European descent have lived in the Americas.

Quick disclaimer: All of the examples I’m about to cite are male. My source doesn’t include a lot of female examples. Knowing the birth dates, obviously, you can fit female examples into these.

The first type is the Civics. The book says this is the most basic type, but it’s the one I understand least. They’re very rationalist and value social harmony. The two Civic generations of recent memory were born in 1901-1924 and 1982-2003. Historical figures from Civic generations include Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. Two recent examples of Civics are Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. (This was the generation we skipped immediately after the Civil War. That makes sense–that time period wasn’t very compatible with rationalism and social harmony.)

The Adaptive generations understand the others better than any other type does. They’re compromisers, above all else. Recent adaptive generations were born in the years 1925-1942 and 1843-1859. Interestingly, the current adaptive generation, known as the Silent Generation, has yet to produce a U.S. president and looks ever less likely to do so. Historical Adaptives include Teddy Roosevelt and The Great Compromiser Henry Clay. Contemporary examples of Adaptives include Ralph Nader and Walter Mondale.

Does the Idealist generation need any further explanation? OK. Think hippies. Recent Idealist generations were born 1860-1882 and 1943-1960. Historical examples of Idealists include Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Winston Churchill. Contemporary examples of Idealists include George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Hmm. We was robbed. Or maybe we just gave our Idealists too much power too soon this time around. Churchill was 66 when he became Prime Minister. (It also would have helped if we’d picked an Idealist who could keep it in his pants, but hey. We make these stupid mistakes so future generations don’t have to, if they’re paying attention.)

I don’t think the Reactionist type needs much explanation either. GenX (born 1961-1981) is reactionist. So was the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900) that so influenced the Roaring Twenties. Reactionist Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and aptly described his generation and mine. We’re all or nothing. We produce crooks like Al Capone, we produce traitors like Benedict Arnold, pirates like Captain Kidd. We also produce scathingly perceptive artists like Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and wildly successful tycoons like Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. We also produce great generals like Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and can even claim the Father of our Country, George Washington, as one of our own.

Now, here’s the idea. Knowing the cycle and the general characteristics, it’s easier to watch history repeat itself. And while you can’t predict the future, you can predict future trends on this model. You can’t predict who the great leaders of a generation will be, but you can in broad, general terms describe the heroes and goats of a future generation based on the best and worst characteristics of that generation. And since generations define events as much as events define generations, it’s sometimes even possible to describe future events in broad, sweeping terms.

But I think I like it best as a tool for understanding people. I’m not going to understand today’s 14-year-olds by looking at how I was at 14. Sure, there’ll be some similarities but just as many differences. Since today’s 14-year-olds are a Civic generation, in order to understand it, I really have to go back to the next-most-recent Civic generation. In my case, I have to go to my grandparents. If you want to know what GenX is going to be like when it starts hitting the big 50, your best bet is to look at the Lost Generation (those who survived that long–which should, in itself, tell you something) at a similar age.

Based on past history, GenX will have its day, crisis will come–and GenX will prove to be very adept at being both part of the problem and part of the solution–then struggle with and eventually give way to an Eisenhower-like generation, which will either comfort you or scare you.

[added later] Well, duh… I forgot the best example of what GenX coulda shoulda woulda been (and still could be). Unfortunately, not many of us remember the story of Samantha Smith, the 10-year-old from Maine who wrote to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov in 1982 and asked why the Soviets wanted to conquer the world.

What was remarkable about her? Mostly she was in the right place at the right time. At the peak of the Cold War, here was a child who stepped forward and asked a tough, innocent question no other generation was willing to ask. She asked her question, unafraid of whether she’d be ignored. And her question just happened to be heard.

She’d be 28 now. Who knows whether she would have faded away back into a normal life, or if she would have become a voice of the generation. Unfortunately, she died in a 1985 plane crash.

But we’ve still got time. GenX’s spokesperson doesn’t necessarily have to be Kurt Cobain.

Where did we come from?


Today’s the Fourth of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town
I just think
What a waste of gunpowder and sky…
–Aimee Mann

Cynical? Who, me? Murel, my next-door cubicle neighbor, asked me a question today that made me wonder, is what this country is today worth our founding fathers risking their lives for?

That’s assuming anyone knows anything about them these days. Which leads me to the question my coworker asked.

“Dave, you’re the resident history buff. What political party did Thomas Jefferson found?”

Why, the Democratic-Republicans. I thought everyone knew that.

“And what party does that correspond to today?”

Most directly, the Democrats.

Murel asked that question because he’d just read an editorial talking about “The Evil Republican Slave-Owning Thomas Jefferson.” I rolled my eyes at that.

“Abraham Lincoln was a Republican!” Murel said.

He’s right. Though that plays into another misconception. The Civil War wasn’t about slavery. That’s what the Politically Correct crowd wants to say, but that’s not true. Fundamentally, the Civil War was about a number of things. One big, forgotten issue is that of tariffs. The industrial north wanted protective tarriffs. This made American goods cheaper than foreign goods, encouraging people to buy American. Plus, in those days, there was no income tax, so tariffs were a major source of revenue.

The rural South didn’t want tariffs. Tarriffs increased the prices they paid for goods. Plus tarriffs made it more difficult to sell cotton and tobacco abroad. In short, what was good for the North’s economy was bad for the South’s economy.

You can see the other big issue by looking at the forms of government each side chose during the Civil War. The North maintained its centralized government, while the South chose a loose confederacy. The South valued states’ rights much more than the north did.

Where does slavery fit into all this? Well, it was an issue of states’ rights. But, truth be told, only a small number of southerners actually owned slaves. Everyone today seems to think the typical Southern family had a slave as a sort of live-in butler or something, because that’s how Hollywood portrays slavery. You had to be wealthy to afford slaves, so the majority of slaveowners were plantation owners. The majority of southern farmers weren’t large plantation owners. They may or may not have been pro-slavery. The issue certainly didn’t directly affect them all that much.

And the North was hardly a haven for escaped slaves. The North had experimented with it and found it cost too much to literally own your workers. So they abandoned it. The majority of northerners probably didn’t care one way or the other. Slavery wasn’t an issue that affected them. There were militant, outspoken anti-slavery activists, and they were loud, just like today’s activists are. That’s why they’re remembered. Slavery gets more people worked up than tarriffs. There are probably a lot of people who don’t even know what a tarriff is.

So why was there a war? Simple. The North was more populous than the South, so the only way the South was going to get what they wanted was by walking out the door.

And Lincoln’s goal wasn’t to abolish slavery. Lincoln’s goal was to preserve the union at any cost, with or without slavery, and he is widely quoted as having said so.

The irony here is that Lincoln was willing to consider abolishing slavery. And he was in favor of high taxes. Sounds pretty liberal. The only resemblance to the Republicans of today is the protection of big business.

The Republican party as we know it today didn’t come into being until after the Civil War, and its history as the party of big business and lower taxes is hardly consistent. Although Teddy Roosevelt was more conservative than his cousin FDR, he was running around busting up businesses at the turn of the century.

But I’ve digressed a lot. Murel talked about the failings of some of the Founding Fathers that have come to light in recent years and cast a shadow on their credibility. We’re horrified to find they had flaws. (Though somehow it doesn’t bother us that Bill Clinton and Jack Kennedy had flaws.) I disagree. The Founding Fathers were human. They were very forward-thinking and insightful and wise, but human.

But worthy of respect. Remember why they were here. European aristocrats were old money. When you couldn’t get land, you moved. So these were men whose ancestry had come across the Atlantic and started over. Yes, some of them were spoiled brats. John Hancock and Samuel Adams come to mind. But Alexander Hamilton was the epitome of the self-made man. Benjamin Franklin’s beginnings weren’t as humble, but he arrived in Philadelphia with little more than his pocket change and his training as a printer and became a tycoon.

These were men who knew what they wanted and knew how to go get it. They knew their interests and England’s interests weren’t the same and they weren’t going to get what they wanted from England, so they headed for the door.

The country we have today doesn’t bear a whole lot of resemblance to the country they fought to create. Political correctness is the rule of the day. You can’t let the facts get in the way of what’s politically correct. Nor can you let your constitutional rights. Freedom of speech, the free press, and freedom of religion are all in danger. (And you thought I was going to say something about guns, didn’t you?)

I won’t go to the extreme of calling Independence Day a waste of gunpowder and sky, because it makes sense to celebrate what we do have. We’re still a whole lot more free, than, say, Red China.

But most of us don’t know why. And as a result, most of us really take it for granted.

02/20/2001

Windows Me Too? I’ve read the allegations that Microsoft aped Mac OS X with the upcoming Windows XP. Maybe I’m dense, but I don’t see much resemblance beyond the resemblance between two cars made by different manufacturers. The Start menu has a new neon look, which is probably Apple-inspired to some degree. The Windows taskbar has had Dock-like functionality for several years now–it was added with IE4. The biggest change seems to be the Start menu–they’ve taken the Windows 2000 initiative, where only commonly used stuff is shown, to an extreme, and now the Start menu, at least in some screenshots, looks bigger. I don’t know if it really is or not–I saw another 1024×768 screenshot in which the Start menu actually takes a little less real estate than my current box at the same resolution. And they’ve re-drawn some icons.

As a whole there’s a more textured look now, but some of the Unixish Window managers have been doing that stuff since 1997. The login screen bears a definite resemblance to some of the Unixish login screens I’ve seen of late.

Microsoft is claiming this is the most significant user interface change since Windows 95. That’s true, but it’s not the big step that Windows 95 was from Windows 3.x. It’s an evolutionary step, and one that should have been expected, given that the Windows 9x Explorer interface is now older than the Program Manager interface was when it was replaced. Had 24-bit displays been common in 1995, Microsoft probably would have gone with a textured look then–they’ve always liked such superficialities.

Stress tests. New hardware, or suspect hardware, should always be stress-tested to make sure it’s up to snuff. Methods are difficult to find, however, especially under Windows. Running a benchmark repeatedly can be a good way to test a system–overclockers frequently complain that their newly overclocked systems can’t finish benchmark suites–but is it enough? And when the system can’t finish, the problem can be an OS or driver issue as well.

Stress testing with Linux would seem to be a good solution. Linux is pretty demanding anyway; run it hard and it’ll generally expose a system’s weaknesses. So I did some looking around. I found a stress test employed by VA-Linux at http://sourceforge.net/projects/va-ctcs/ that looked OK. And I found another approach at http://www.eskimo.com/~pygmy/stress.txt that just speaks of experience stress testing by repeatedly compiling the Linux kernel, which gives the entire system (except for the video card) a really good workout.

And the unbelievable… Someone at work mentioned an online President’s Day poll, asking who was the best president? Several obvious candidates are up on Mt. Rushmore: Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt. Most people would add FDR and possibly Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson to that list. I was talking with a good friend the other day about just this issue, and I argued in favor of Lincoln. Washington had a tough job of setting a standard, and he was great, but Lincoln had an even tougher job of holding a bitterly divided country together. So if I had to rank them, I’d probably say Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and then we have a mess. I don’t agree with their politics, but FDR and Woodrow Wilson probably belong in there. James Madison and James Monroe belong in there, the question is where. Then it starts to get really tough. Was Harry Truman in those guys’ league? Not really, but he’s worlds better than Warren G. Harding and Bill Clinton. Fine, pencil him in at 9. Now who gets #10? Some would give it to Ronald Reagan. It seems to me that Reagan is at once overappreciated and underappreciated. A lot of people put him at the very bottom, which I think is unfair. But then there was this poll  that put him at the very top, by a very wide margin. When I looked, Reagan had 44% of the vote, followed by George Washington at 29% and Abraham Lincoln a distant third at 14%.

When I speak of the hard right in the media, that’s what I’m referring to: blind allegiance to an icon, however flawed. Don’t get me wrong, Reagan was no Warren G. Harding–he did win the Cold War after all. Conservatives say his economic policies saved the country, while liberals say it very nearly wrecked it. All I can tell you is my college economics professor taught that Reagan at the very least had the right idea–the big problem with the theory behind Reagan’s policies is the impossibility of knowing whether you’d gone too far or not far enough. Fine. FDR played a similar game. Both are revered by their parties and hated by the other party. But as president, neither Ronald Reagan nor FDR are in the Washington and Lincoln league. As a man, FDR probably was in that league, and if he was not the last, he was very close to it. But with the truly great presidents, there is very little doubt about them–and in the cases of Lincoln and Jefferson, their greatest critics were the voices inside their own heads.

Great people just don’t run for president anymore, and they rarely run for political office, period. It’s easy to see why. Anyone truly qualified to be President of the United States is also qualified to be en executive at a large multinational corporation, and that’s a far more profitable and less frustrating job. And the truly great generally aren’t willing to compromise as much as a politician must in order to get the job.

Early on, we had no shortage whatsoever of great minds in politics: Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe certainly. Plus men who never were president, like Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. We had, in effect, from Washington to Monroe, a string of men who met Socrates’ qualifications to be Philosopher-King. (Yes, John Adams was single-term, but he was a cut above most of those who were to follow.)

But as our country developed, so many better things for a great mind to do sprung up. Today you can be an executive at a large company, or you can be a researcher, or a pundit, or the president of a large and prestigious university. In 1789, there weren’t as many things to aspire to.

If we’ve got any Benjamin Franklins and Thomas Jeffersons and George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns out there today (and I believe we do), they’ve got better things to do than waste time in Washington, D.C.

No, our greatest president wasn’t Ronald Reagan, just as it wasn’t Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy. That’s nostalgia talking.

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