Kansas City and Google Fiber

I get a few questions about Google Fiber, because I have Kansas City connections, and I work in computers. People who’ve known me long enough know that I upgraded to first-generation DSL about 30 minutes after it became available at the apartment complex I lived in at the time. The question then was the same as the question in Kansas City now: What do you do with an Internet connection that fast?

Well, for starters, there’s this novel idea involving the public library… Read more

Another year, another manager

Buddy Bell resigned his job as Royals manager at the end of the season to spend more time with his family, then promptly took a minor-league job with the White Sox. Given their last-place finish, it’s not much of a loss.

They named a replacement today.His name is Trey Hillman. I know little about him, except that he managed in the Yankees system and he turned around a poor team in Japan. He’s won everywhere he’s been.

I see this as a good thing, since Buddy Bell hasn’t won anywhere he’s been. And Hillman has experience as a turnaround artist, which is what the Royals need.

The best Royals managers (Dick Howser, Whitey Herzog) had big-league experience, which is a knock on Hillman, but neither was what you could call distinguished. Herzog was nobody before coming to KC, but then the Royals went on to have several of their best seasons under him. Howser won a championship with the Yankees but didn’t bring home the World Series title that Steinbrenner wanted, so he axed him. The Royals hired him, and they never finished lower than second place with him at the helm.

In this ESPN piece about Tillman, he says all the right things: Work ethic, develop in-house talent, pay attention to the team atmosphere and adjust when you feel it drop.

If he does half those things, I know he’ll do better than Buddy Bell did with his all-veterans-all-the-time approach.

Well, I\’m a Christian and I don\’t crave violence

I saw a particularly ignorant comment on Digg today in regards to Christianity (blaming evangelical Christianity for G. W. Bush’s misguided tortue policies). I know I really shouldn’t dignify ignorant comments on Digg with a response, but this time I have to. I responded there, and I’ll respond with more detail here.Here’s the quote:

Evangelicals love torture, they are taught it in spectacular detail in the Bible, and they are taught from a young age to abhor nudity and sex, but crave blood and sacrifice, any form of violence really, as it signifies the “end times”. So, the logical extension is, a state where torture is encouraged. The real problem is, like a cult being lead by a twisted, violent leader, Evangelical christianity needs to be treated as a sickness in society.

I (somewhat reluctantly) fit the definition of an evangelical Christian and I take issue with this comment. I say reluctantly, because I don’t like being associated with this stereotype.

Bloody, old-testament-style sacrifices have no place in evangelical Christianity, or any Christianity. The ritual of sacrifice pointed toward Christ. It was replaced by Holy Communion (aka the Eucharist, if you come from a Roman Catholic background). The whole idea of Christianity is that GOD shed blood (HIS OWN blood) and suffered himself, so that we wouldn’t have to. Substitution. Period. Ritual sacrifice was just a ritual, because animal blood cannot attone for human sin, any more than cheap wine can. Both the animal blood and the cheap wine remind us of the blood of Christ. (If you’re Lutheran or Roman Catholic, it goes even further and you’re taught that the wine is the blood of Christ.)

A central point in the Bible is this: I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. It appears in the Old Testament in Hosea 6:6, and in Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7, Jesus quotes it when the scholars of his day lose sight of it. I would agree with the statement that many people today have also lost sight of these verses.

Few evangelicals I know look forward to the End Times, because if you actually read the Bible (and I have read it cover-to-cover), there’s nothing pleasant happening in the End Times. It’ll be nice when it’s over, but if we had a choice, most of us would choose for our lives to occur entirely before the End Times happen. Those who would like to live in the End Times generally crave it just because they believe there may be some position of honor in heaven for having lived through the End Times and survived it.

The Bible actually spends more time talking about money than it spends talking about what’s going to happen in the future. But that isn’t its main premise either. Most of what the Bible is talking about is the dual idea of “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The bad things that happen in the Bible are illustrations of what happens when people don’t do those two things.

The Old Testament started with Adam and Eve having paradise and losing it because they got greedy. And it goes on down the line, telling the stories of people who did good and bad things and what happened to them. Read the newspapers today, and you’ll see that human nature hasn’t changed much since the time these books were written.

Do I believe that God punishes people, or uses other people as agents of his wrath? Yes, sometimes. But I believe usually there’s no need. The natural consequences of our actions are usually enough. If anything, I think God in his mercy often intervenes and lessens the blow of those consequences. You see it in the Old Testament, and I certainly see it happening today.

I believe the Left Behind books are partially responsible for the stereotype of evangelical Christians as blood-craving, eschatologically obsessed fanatics. But “Left Behind” is based on questionable theology, and the concept of a Rapture originiated in the United States and started to take hold roughly in 1837. It makes for much better sci-fi than traditional interpretations of scripture.

The ads for those books promote co-author Tim LaHaye as a Bible scholar, but he is not universally regarded as such. Sales of his books should not be interpreted as an endorsement for his belief system. From what I understand, Roman Catholics won’t buy them, period. Some Lutherans will buy them, but regard them strictly as fiction, as they would a Tom Clancy novel. Lutheran scholars vigorously oppose the theology.

I won’t get into the details here, because I’m not qualified, but I’ll sum up the problem. Most “End Times”-obsessed theology is based on overemphasizing the books of Revelation and Daniel. Revelation and Daniel are probably the two most difficult books of the Bible to understand. When Jesus was trying to make a point, he generally tried to make it very easy to understand. And when he didn’t, he took the inner circle aside and explained it to them, and the Gospels include that explanation.

The Bible isn’t the only book that’s fuzzy on some details. And what you do when, say, Shakespeare, is unclear is you read the unclear parts in light of the things that are clear.

And this is the reason I left evangelical Christianity for an evangelical-minded Lutheran church. I got tired of having a pastor whose college degree was in math, who had no formal training in theology and who would have difficulty picking out the finer points of Romeo and Juliet, telling me how to read the Bible. I hate to say this, but many evangelical preachers are in over their head, teaching on subjects that they have limited understanding of themselves.

It’s interesting to me that the most evangelical-minded denominations have too many pastors, so their ordained pastors have to have another full-time job. Meanwhile, the Lutherans and Catholics don’t have enough. One reason for this is that it’s really hard to get through Lutheran and Catholic seminary. While I’m painfully aware that the ability to pass all the tests doesn’t mean you have any people skills (and I’ll risk enraging some people by saying many people who make it through Lutheran seminary have no business whatsoever running churches), the fact is that if you manage to make it through a Lutheran or Catholic seminary, in the end you really do have a thorough understanding of the Bible.

I believe some of the backlash against Christianity is due to the unpopular wars that this country is waging. Most Christians I know oppose this war too. We don’t necessarily talk about it a lot. But it’s about as easy to find a Christian who thinks this war is illegal as it is a non-Christian. I know some evangelical Christians who were bailing on Bush in 2004, voting for third-party candidates who had some of the same ideas as Ron Paul. My pastor certainly distanced himself from Bush, and any presidential candidate who ran on Christianity. He said that when things go wrong (and it will, because something goes wrong with every presidency), people will blame it on Christianity. And for that reason alone, it’s not a good idea to vote for a presidential candidate based solely on the faith he or she professes.

That’s obviously what’s happening here–noting that an unpopular president professes to be an evangelical Christian, and blaming the failings of his administration on his religious beliefs.

I’ll buy the argument that there are people in Arab states who dislike the United States because the majority religion in the United States is Christianity. Maybe they’re fighting an Islam-vs.-Christianity war. But we’re not. If it weren’t for the oil equation, we wouldn’t be in these wars.

Bush is more than happy to trade with China and Japan. They have things we want, and they’re happy to take our money. Neither of them are Christian nations.

Most South American countries don’t think too highly of the United States either. The majority religion in those countries happens to be Roman Catholicism, a form of Christianity. But they also happen to be willing to sell us the coffee and metals that we want at prices that we’re willing to pay. We aren’t actively waging war with them, but that has nothing to do with religion. It has everything to do with trade.

Tin litho buildings for a traditional pre-war train layout

Tin litho buildings for a traditional pre-war train layout

In 2004, after being back in the hobby a few months, I decided I didn’t want a train layout like the ones I saw in the magazines, which all take a hi-rail approach. The layouts looked nice, but they all had the same buildings and figures on them. I wanted to do something different. That got me looking for tin litho buildings for a traditional pre-war train layout. And it started a quest that continues to this day.

Don’t get me wrong. Today I have more than enough tin buildings to populate an 8×8 layout. Had I known what I was looking for from the start, it would have taken a lot less time. I might as well share my experience.

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A few short tips on buying laptops

A client came into my cube today seeking advice on laptops. He asked lots of good questions, so I thought I’d share the answers with you.National chains versus local: If you’re staying local, you might get better service from a local shop. In his case, he’s sending a daughter off to college out of state. Better to buy from someone who has a store close to the college.

Recommended brands: Buy what the college recommends, if possible. Why? The college’s technicians are used to working on that equipment and know its quirks and how to get around them. When I was working at Mizzou, we were used to IBMs. When people brought us Dells, sometimes we had problems getting them working. And yes, all laptops have quirks. They’re crankier than desktops.

Extended warranties: As a rule I don’t buy them on electronics equipment. My philosophy is that since I fix computers for a living, I am an extended warranty. Laptops are different. You probably do want the extended warranty because I can almost guarantee something’s going to break a short time after the manufacturer’s warranty goes out.

But here’s a secret. Don’t buy the extended warranty from the salesperson. March up to customer service and ask them about the terms. Get them to go over the fine print with you. Wait in line if you have to. The reason is simple. At least one national chain, whose name I won’t name, has a tendency to tell the salespeople one thing and the customer service people another. Maybe the salesperson says the no-lemon clause kicks in after it breaks three times and the customer service rep says four. Guess who’s word counts? Customer service.

You might also get the name and employee number of the person who tells you the terms of the agreement. It’s a lot of extra work, but it’s probably worth it to protect a $1,500 laptop. When I had a piece of equipment die for the third time a day before the extended warranty expired, I had to fight to get it replaced. In the end, I had to go to a different store with a more agreeable manager.

Cheap laptops: As a general rule I don’t think I trust sub-$1,000 laptops. Too many compromises. Sotec of Japan tried to sell a dirt-cheap laptop a few years ago. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who come here looking for advice on it. For the most part it was a good laptop, but it seems it had a few annoying issues.

Really, the sweet spot tends to be $1,500-$3,000. If you’re paying for it, aim for $1,500. If your employer is paying for it, aim for $3,000 since most companies have a 3-year replacement cycle no matter what the machine originally cost, and in three years the $3,000 laptop will annoy you less.

Used laptops: Don’t do it. People who buy laptops almost always use them until the wheels fall off and won’t go back on again. You might get lucky and get an off-lease laptop from an executive who used it as a status symbol and only powered the thing on twice, but more likely than not, when you buy a used laptop, you’re buying someone else’s problem.

Another ordinary Monday…

Seen on a sign. God calls us to play the game, not to keep the score.
I like that.

Seen at a book sale. The Coming War with Japan. The book was written in 1992 and asserted that the conditions that pre-dated World War II exist today and that war is inevitable. Then I spotted another book: The Japanese Conspiracy. I didn’t bother picking that one up. I could have bought them for entertainment value, but I picked up a couple of books by Dave Barry and P.J. O’Rourke for that.

The idea seems ridiculous to me.

I was glad I went over to the section on war though. In addition to those, I also found A Practical Guide to the Unix System, Third Edition, by Mark G. Sobell. Had it been in the computer section where it belonged, it would have been snapped up long before I got there. It comes from a BSD perspective, but I have to work with a BSD derivative at work sometimes, so it’s good to have. At the very least, it can serve as a status book (books you keep on your shelf in your office to make it look like you know something, even if you never read them).

Speaking of humor value… I picked up a book on typography, written in 1980. Some of my classmates had a knack for making type look really good–they could literally turn a headline into art. I never got that knack. This book tries to teach it. It also talks about computerized typography. Needless to say, the couple of pages that illustrate that are just a wee bit out of date.

But I’m not worried about the key points of the book being out of date. The basic elements of good design were old news when Gutenberg built his first printing press.

Retro computing. I was inventorying my old stuff and I ended up building a computer. I have an original IBM PC/AT case, but the last of the AT motherboards don’t fit in it well. The screws line up, I’m in trouble if I need any memory, because the drive cage blocks the memory slots on a lot of boards, including my supercheap closeout Soyo Socket 370 boards I picked up a year or so ago. I used the motherboard that had been in that case for something else long ago, and it’s been sitting ever since.

In my stash, I found a Socket 7 board that fits and lets me put the memory in it. It even has 2 DIMM and 4 SIMM sockets in it. Unfortunately it has the Intel 430VX chipset in it, which didn’t cache any memory above 64 MB, limited the density of SDRAM it would recognize, and its SDRAM performance was so lousy you didn’t really see much difference between SDRAM and EDO. But if I run across a 32-meg DIMM or two it’ll fit, and a relatively slow CPU with adequate memory still makes a good Linux server, especially if you give it a decent SCSI card.

I did some investigation using the tools at www.motherboards.org, and found out the board was a Spacewalker Shuttle. So I went to www.spacewalker.com, where I found out there were only three Shuttle boards ever made with the 430VX chipset. There were pictures of each board, so I quickly figured out which one I had–a HOT-557/2 v1.32. It tops out at a Pentium 200 or a Pentium MMX 166, so I’ve got some options if I decide the AMD K5-100 in there isn’t enough horsepower. And, most importantly to me at least, it looks like a computer. A machine from a time when computers were computers, not boomboxes and fax machines and toaster ovens and television sets. A machine that looks rugged enough to survive a tumble down a flight of stairs. A hot-rodded classic. A man’s machine, ar ar ar!

Back to the grind. The weekend’s over, and it’s time to think about work. Have a wonderful week, check the news sources I cited Saturday if you want, and check back in here a few times while you’re at it, won’t you?

Odds and ends to start the week

Let’s talk about this site. So far, the forums are pretty much a flop. There’s a little activity over there, but not much, and the forums didn’t cut down on the amount of mail I receive by much. I’m not going to take them down because I like them, and a few other people like them, but since they’re not solving the problem they were designed to solve, I have to look at other methods.
So I’m going to put mail on a separate page. I’m using MHonArc to generate the pages. Mail messages end up on their own pages, which is a disadvantage to the traditional Daynotes method of handling mail, but they’re threaded, which is a big advantage. Discussions can continue indefinitely, you can follow them easily, and if the subject matter isn’t something that interests you, if you don’t click the link it won’t bother you. And I don’t spend long amounts of time reformatting mail–sometimes it takes longer to reformat mail than it does to write the day’s content–which is a huge advantage that I think outweighs not having all the mail on a single page. I used to solve that problem by forwarding all my mail to my sister for her to format and post, but she has less free time than I have these days.

I haven’t figured out how I’ll handle archiving just yet, but I know that’s a problem many have faced and many have conquered. (MHonArc’s been around since 1994.) I’m just happy to have it live and looking good.

One option in MHonArc totally mangles the e-mail addresses in headers, but not in message replies. I wised up to this and started nuking the addresses there manually. Some people want the privacy; nobody wants spam, so I figure this is the best way to handle it. I know spambots are harvesting addresses from this site so I don’t want to give them another bonanza.

Please continue using the discussion facilities here though. If you’re posting a response to a day’s entry, it makes a whole lot more sense to have them here than over in Mail.

My Royals make a smart move… And a dumb one! Smart move: My Royals re-acquired the catcher they never should have traded away. Brent Mayne was never going to be the next Johnny Bench; he looked more like he’d be the next John Wathan. But seeing as the Royals haven’t had a better catcher than John Wathan for the past, oh, six years since they gave Mayne away to the Mets… Mayne’s .251 average in 1995 didn’t tear up the league, but he handled pitchers decently, didn’t ground into a lot of double plays, in an emergency he could play a couple of different positions, and he could even steal a base. And he played cheap. That’s hard to find in a catcher. And in the years since the Royals dealt him away, he learned how to hit better.

He was batting .331 in hitter-friendly Coors Park when the Royals re-acquired him. I doubt he hits better than .270 in Royals Stadium, but when your catching platoon is the legendary A.J. Hinch, who’s batting about a hundred points below that, and future Hall of Famer Hector Ortiz, who’s batting about 50 points below that, Mayne looks awfully good.

Dumb move: To get Mayne, the Royals traded away Mac Suzuki. Last year, Suzuki was the Royals’ best pitcher. This year he’s struggled, but when you have no job security and no niche, it’s hard to do your best. It seems Tony Muser will banish his starters to the bullpen if he doesn’t like the way they tied their shoes that morning. Sometimes young pitchers have problems with that.

And not only that, Suzuki was a revenue pot. Suzuki was born in Japan. All of Suzuki’s starts were televised in Japan, because the Japanese are crazy about Japanese players playing in the States. (It was small-time compared to Mariners mania, who sport outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and closer Kachiro Sasaki, both bona-fide superstars, but when you’re the small-budget Kansas City Royals, you take what you can get.) With Suzuki on the mound, the Royals got television royalties in Japan. In all likelihood, more people watched those games in Japan than in Kansas City. Suzuki in all likelihood brought in more money than the Royals had to pay him, due to television and merchandising revenue, and the Royals are constantly moaning about how they have no money.

The Japanese couldn’t care less about Brent Mayne. Or any other player on the Royals’ roster, for that matter.

So now my Royals have a decent catcher, but at the expense of a pitcher who’s about 9 years younger and has a tremendous upside. But no one ever said Royals management had any common sense.

Why Linus Torvalds is more popular than RMS

Quote of the day. This one made me laugh out loud–probably because I have a journalism degree, I’ve seen journalism professors show up for class sloshed, a good number of my friends are journalists, and, technically, I’m a journalist myself.
“I know how journalists work. They drink too much and they search for interesting stories.” –Linus Torvalds, in the Spring 1999 issue of Linux Magazine.

As for Torvalds, his mom, dad, grandfather, sister, and uncle are all journalists. Yikes!

Stallman on the warpath. My chance to be divisive, I guess. As a journalist, I mustn’t shy away from it. Hey, we’re supposed to look for these opportunities. So…

GNU/Linux is a horrible name. Stallman’s efforts should be commended, yes. I believe they have been. Stallman’s not exactly a household name yet, but certainly more people know who he is now than a year ago. If he wants GNU and his Free Software Foundation to be known, he needs to borrow more pages from Eric Raymond, or even better yet, Torvalds.

As an aside, I had a conversation with a friend and one of his friends the other night over coffee, and the whole Linux/Open Source/Free Software/whatever topic came up (probably because he introduced me as, “Dave, my friend who wrote a book about Windows and now he’s writing a book about Linux.”). I was trying to explain Stallman, and finally I just said, “He’s so libertarian he doesn’t believe in capitalism.” She stopped for a minute. “Libertarians don’t believe in capitalism?” Sure they do, usually fanatically so. But capitalism puts certain limits on your liberties, and if those liberties mean more to you than capitalism, you can start to disdain capitalism. It’s strange, but remember, in the 1930s the leaders of Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain took conservatism to such an extreme that it led to a form of socialism. The boundaries blur at the edges.

End aside. Raymond and Torvalds are better known than Stallman partly because they’re nicer and more reasonable people. Want proof? OK. Here’s an interview with Stallman, here’s one with Torvalds, and here’s one with Raymond.

It’s pretty clear from reading these interviews why Torvalds is the most popular of these guys, and why he’s become a bit of a media darling. Yes, he looks more like the anti-Gates than RMS or Raymond, but there’s more to it than just that: He’s more charismatic, he’s less intellectual (though he’s obviously a brilliant guy, he’s much more apt to laugh or crack a joke than try to convince you he knows more than you do), and he’s considerably more humble. He’s a likable guy. More likeable than Stallman or Raymond, and more likable than Gates.

Harping the GNU/Linux thing isn’t going to accomplish much. People have a hard enough time figuring out what Linux is supposed to be. And where do we draw the line? Sure, Linux isn’t very useful without some set of utilities (and the GNU utilities are the most commonly used). But what about XFree86? That didn’t come from GNU. But if it weren’t for XFree86, very few people would be interested in either GNU or Linux. And what about KDE? Stallman hates KDE because it dares to use the Qt library, which wasn’t always GPL. But it’s largely thanks to KDE that we’re not stuck using the often-convoluted interfaces that shipped with early Linux distributions. Without KDE, there probably wouldn’t have been a GNOME in response. OK, so now we’re up to GNU/Linux/XFree86/KDE. Oh yeah. A lot of the daemons people use with Linux (minor details like Sendmail and BIND–just the building blocks of the Internet, nothing to get worked up about) came not from GNU but from the BSD project. GNU/BSD/Linux/XFree86/KDE, anyone?

This becomes a convoluted mess. Maybe “Linux” isn’t the best name (if we named all OSs after the kernel, Windows 9x would still be called DOS), but it’s the name people recognize. My goal in writing is to communicate as clearly as possible. That means using the popular name.

A makeover for Stallman. I’m already in trouble, so I might as well get in a lot of trouble. We find out early in that interview that Stallman lived in is office for 13 years or something. He had a bed in his office! What, did he sleep there, wake up, code for 16 hours a day, except for breaks for meals and a break for a shower whenever he felt like it? As Torvalds says, journalists look for interesting stories. Here’s an eccentric guy. Let’s find out more about his eccentricism. Find out about the eccentricism, you learn about the dedication. It sounds like this guy just might be more dedicated and fanatic about software than Martin Luther was about Jesus. How can that be?

In fact, Stallman may have logged 16-hour days at the keyboard. He alludes to it in the interview, when he says he suffered carpal tunnel syndrome from too much coding. But he didn’t talk about it.

Stallman has this ridiculous folk song he plays about how hackers need to follow him, and they’ll be free. He alludes to folk music in the interview, how one person can take a song someone took from someone else, and it becomes a rich thing. What if Stallman brought his acoustic guitar to this interview, said, “Like this!” and played his ridiculous song, then said, “Hmm. Maybe not.” A little self-depracating humor works sometimes. Especially when you have a reputation for being pompous and arrogant. Just ask Linus.

People have to have a compelling reason to listen to you. Giving them a bunch of free stuff is a good start, I’ll admit. Though he speaks about word processors in a demeaning manner, which may make some programmers born and bred on text editors stand up and cheer, but I’m not sure I like the tool of my trade looked down upon in that way. I’m sure my mom doesn’t. The tools we need are different from the tools rms needs, and he needs to recognize that.

So, the difference between my mom and me. I have to listen to Stallman, I have to at least feign interest in who he is and what he’s doing (and to be honest, I don’t have to try all that hard) because I’m being paid to write a book that’s almost as much about him and his work as it is about Torvalds and Gates. But why should my mom give a rip about this guy? And therein lies the problem. With years of retraining, my mom could get her job done with a Linux (or better yet, Hurd, so Stallman and GNU can get all the credit) box running GNU Emacs. Hey, it’s a text editor, it’s a Web browser, it’s a programming environment, it’s a dessert topping, it’s a floor wax! And at the end of this retraining, I could then look her in the eye and say, “You’re free.” And you know what she’d tell me? She’d give me a dirty look and tell me it wasn’t worth it.

Stallman’s attitude is, “I’ll sacrifice a little (or a lot of) convenience in order to be free.” Torvalds? He freely admits his mom uses a Mac, his dad uses Windows, and his sister uses Windows. Then he corrects himself. “No, she [his sister] uses Microsoft Works. Windows is nothing more than a program loader to her. She doesn’t care how these computers work.”

I think the contrasting attitudes have a lot to do with why Torvalds feels he has too much attention and Stallman not enough. People more readily identify with Torvalds.

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