PZ Myers' Calgary Talk

01/26/09 | by Nimble | Categories: Journal, Thoughts, Religion, Science

With the kind babysitting services of mom-in-law, we were able to make our way up to the university in pretty decent time, all the while forcing the TomTom to continually update its trajectory - we're not about to make some annoying merges to save a few putative minutes.

We found a glorious parking spot, but it cost the earth. Unlike City parking, no discount for Sunday here, so we shelled out the money and walked right into the doors of university's ICT building. We found the room in an instant. There were two lists to sign: a petition, and a "more information about the Centre For Inquiry". It would have been nice if the actual wording of the petition was boldly displayed somewhere.

Half an hour before the show, there were about 15 people in seats and a young guy working desperately on a patch to the speaker system. There was an endless loop going on a small TV which looked like it had some interesting snippets from Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson, but the volume was turned down, so it was difficult to tell what they were on about.

PZ was up on stage from time to time, looking not particularly menacing, getting the MacBook set up. My wife and I regarded amiably from the third row, whiling away the time whilst wondering what we could name our future other children using capital letters with only straight lines, as turned out to be the case with the first child. I noticed that PZ's e-mail seems to be set up to tell him when there is a comment on his blog... given his blog comment volume, is he crazy?

There was a steady influx of people. We did not suspect the audience would grow to nearly completely full, save the odd seat or two, by the time things got started.

Things started a bit after 2 o'clock.

The president of CFI (Centre for Inquiry) Calgary got up on stage. He was passionate, but just nervous enough that he ended up forgetting to introduce his own self, something he either figured out or was told after he finished speaking.

He's Cliff Erasmus, and he has a son in school in Cochrane, and with the population of literalist Christians in Cochrane, he is understandably worried. The Mitford Middle School, which I ran across in looking up whether there were public school/creationism issues in Alberta, gets 100% funding for their (by their faith statement) literalist Christian program, and that will drop to merely 70% after the pilot is finished.

At that 70% funding, they have to teach the Alberta curriculum, but they get 15% of the course time to teach whatever else they care to, which is where the creationism comes in. He did not mention that creationism is being taught at a grade level where evolution has not yet been encountered, much less taught, but was livid about the funding level of what should have been a private school private program.

One unconfirmed rumour floating around Cochrane is that the program was sponsored or started or somesuch by two Texans belonging to a Baptist Seminary.

Cliff talked about plans to turn CFI Calgary into CFI Alberta with the Calgary branch as merely a head office, and implored people to join.

After pleasantries and passing of the microphone to PZ Myers, we were treated to an interesting and stark yet humorous presentation...

Full story »


PZ Myers Coming To Calgary

01/19/09 | by Nimble | Categories: Announcements [A], Religion, Science

The indomitable and unapologetically controversial Paul (PZ) Myers of the Pharyngula blog is coming to the University of Calgary next Sunday afternoon, January 25th (date confirmed!) in the ICT building (see here for maps of the campus), room 102 as the guest of the Calgary branch of the Centre for Inquiry and the University of Calgary Freethought Association.

The topic for the talk is Evolution vs. Creationism in Public Schools.

Here is the poster for the event.

It might be easy to think that unlike south of the border, creationism is not much of a problem here in public schools. It is certainly easy to think that is the case in our larger cities. Yet just outside of town to either side of Calgary, we have some counterexamples, as in the case of the pilot program in Cochrane's Mitford Middle School. As per a CBC article:

Cochrane's Mitford Middle School will launch a Christian program this fall. Christian beliefs, including instruction on creationism in science class, will be taught to 50 or so elementary aged students as part of a two-year pilot project.

Bill Bell, Mitford's principal, said Christian beliefs will be woven through every subject in the new Christian program. Creationism will be taught in science class, he added. "The first teaching will be from a Christian point of view and then there will be an acknowledgement that there is another theory."

Utter garbage. That's not just Christian, that's literalist Christian. From their Statement of Faith:

The Bible is the inspired, only infallible, authoritative, inerrant Word of God

Whenever you see inerrant in this context, you will often find denial of any conflicting modern knowledge at all costs.

There are apparently similar programs in some schools in Chestermere and the Elk Island, Pembina Hills and Red Deer Public school districts, but how literalist these programs are is a topic for further research.

Provincial testing is marked only on the provincial science program, so no marks will be given for creationist answers, so far as we know, but that's of little comfort.

Now granted, the students would otherwise end up in private Christian schools, but creationism excludes large tracts of Christianity and programs like this send a "you're not a REAL Christian" message.

Additionally, given that creationist materials of various flavours (e.g. Icons of Evolution, Answers in Genesis) often lie about evolutionary theory and what scientists believe, the materials used in these classes should be checked to be free of such deceptions. Much as I dislike creationism, teaching caricatured lies about what science says on top of that is particularly immoral.

One particularly worrisome thing is that evolutionary theory is part of the Biology 20 curriculum here. That's typically grade 11, and it's optional - minimal requirements for a diploma are one of the sciences to a 20 level, and that can be Chemistry or Physics.

The Mitford Middle School is grades 5-8, and covering creationism at a period when there's not a lick of evolution in the normal curriculum. Words fail me.

(Now, the regular curriculum in grade 7 does have mention of plant breeding in Plants for Food and Fibre, and geological time and change in Planet Earth, but that's about it. Biological diversity is covered in grade 9, introducing many concepts like heritability and species that can be used later for evolutionary discussion, but that's grade 9, and it still does not cover evolutionary theory. All I can see that would mix it up for the 'Christian curriculum' is geological time, if they are Young-Earthers of the Earth-is-6,000-to-10,000-years-old variety, which seems likely.)

PZ has popped north of the border on a few occasions. I am not sure whether an Alberta-local perspective is going to be expounded anywhere in this talk, but it sure to be an interesting talk nevertheless.

There is an admission charge to this event: $10 for the general public, $5 for students and free for "Friends of the Centre (CFI)".


A man ahead of his time

01/15/09 | by Adam | Categories: Music, Copyright

Link: http://www.alchemysite.com/blog/2009/01/eula-end-user-license-agreement-edison.html

Thomas Edison, visionary, appears to have created the odious EULA well before anyone even had an acronym for it.

(Via BoingBoing)


iPhone ad hoc networking

01/14/09 | by Adam | Categories: Games, iPhone, PalmT3

Since migrating to an iPhone, I've been impressed by a lot about it. Naturally though, there are various shortcomings that periodically pull me out of that Jobs reality distortion field of bliss.

Today, it's that reduced Bluetooth stack. Whether due to design to reduce power consumption and complexity or legal and licensing constraints, the iPhone supports only mono headset connections via Bluetooth. From the perspective of being a phone, this is fine. From the perspective of being something better, it's most definitely not. On my old Palm Tungsten the decent Bluetooth implementation meant stereo audio, peer to peer connectivity (like swapping business cards or playing multi-person games), device connectivity (like keyboards) and wireless syncing. None of that is available on the iPhone if you're not currently on a WiFi network, and very little of it is even when you are.

This was brought blatantly clear to me one day while stuck on a bus in a snowstorm. Significant other and I wanted to play Scrabble on the iPhone while we waited (and waited) to reach our destination. The bus was extremely crowded and we weren't sitting near each other so decided to play a wireless game to pass the time. Except we couldn't: the multiplayer support in Scrabble is WiFi only. On my much lamented Tungsten I had a copy of the same game which worked beautifully over a Bluetooth connection between two devices; I rather expected the same to be true with the iPhone. Apple has been positioning the iPhone and particularly the iPod Touch as gaming machines against systems like the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP which do the ad hoc network so this limitation strikes me as a major shortcoming.


Ethics in Fallout 3

01/13/09 | by Adam | Categories: Games

Fallout 3 is a rather violent game which has the interesting addition of a karma system. This is a rough way of tracking how good or bad your character is. I say rough as it's really rather hard to say what's good and bad within the constraints of the game world. The discussion below involves a fair number of spoilers so don't read on unless you either have finished the game or don't mind finding things out.

Full story »


Embarrassingly Poor Local New Years' Coverage

01/01/09 | by Nimble | Categories: Journal

It's getting down to about ten minutes to midnight, so we stop our movie and go hunting for some local flavour of celebration on the television with which to count down to midnight.

We looked around, and we found...


Not a thing! City TV was broadcasting footage from Toronto, two hours earlier. CBC just gave us time-shifted The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos... also from Toronto. The stateside stations from the west coast were still quivering in anticipation of the midnight an hour and a tick yet hence.

Flicked all the way up the dial. Nothing.

Was there a reason for this? Were there no cameras pointing at Bright Night New Year's Eve downtown?

What the hell?


The joy of upgrading a MacBook harddrive

12/26/08 | by Adam | Categories: Macintosh

For the last few months, my MacBook has been running with a grand total of about two to four gigagbytes of harddrive space. As that number also has to accomodate the OSX swap file which grows over time, it simply wasn't sufficient. Besides, I was getting fed up of constantly deleting my MP3s to make space and that "Wrath Of The Lich King" expansion for World Of Warcraft required six gigabytes (!!) of space to install.

I broke down and bought myself a nice shiny new Seagate 500 GB 2.5" SATA drive for about $150. Much roomier than the rather smaller disk I'd had in there originally. Of course, buying the harddrive is only half the battle. There's rather more to it than that: installation and migration. They're not really two independent items as the process is sigificantly intertwined.

Step #1 was to create a copy of the data from the old drive onto the new. I used Drive Genius 2 to clone the OSX drive onto the new one and then opted to use its partitioning tools to create space for the Boot Camp section. I guess I didn't mention Boot Camp before. Cool concept, running Windows on a Mac. Works well. Seriously sucks when you try to do this migrate disks.

Last time I changed the hard drive in my Mac, I didn't realise that a specific disk formatting was required for Boot Camp to work. I therefore didn't make that change and then had to redo all of the work when I did. It added about a day on to the time. So, gentle reader, when prompted as to the formatting of your drive on an Intel Mac, always choose "GUID Partition Scheme". But I didn't make it this time, oh no, not me. I learn from my mistakes.

Not that this matters and the clone includes the correct setting from the previous drive. I let Drive Genius do its thing and it completed successfully.

Yay. Onto Step #2. I took apart the MacBook, removed the old drive and put in the new one. It booted fine -- after I'd spent several hours or so trying to get the new drive to fit into the bay where the little rubber slides had detached and were blocking the connection. There was also the issue with stripped screws on the battery bay edging, the Torx screws used nowhere else on the case and the drive sled that happily fit in upside down. Ah, the language.

Step #3: Ensure OSX works on the new drive. I then went to repartition only to find that the clone had a corrupted filesystem. Something do to with reuse of extents, whatever they are, and it wasn't going to fix it. No big deal. I'd just use SuperDuper instead. And this is where I started going significantly wrong. I booted off the Drive Genius CD again, recreated the partitions on the new drive, and told the Mac to now boot off the old drive, now in an external USB drive case.

It didn't boot. I don't know why, as it should have.

Back to Drive Genius to run the same tests as before, but this time on the old drive. Not surprisingly the same errors that had appeared on the new drive appeared in the old. I don't know what that says about OSX -- I never encountered any problems actually using the drive so it's either very robust or very stupid. And apparently it won't let me boot when mounted externally. A minor side note here: Drive Genius will not even try to touch a drive with an NTFS or DOS partition so it's rendered almost useless for me from this point on. The sensible thing would have been to put it back into the Mac, swapping the drives around, and go with the SuperDuper plan but I really didn't want to deal with stripped screws and the drive sled again.

So I took option #2: I found an old Firewire drive in the basement and installed Tiger on it. I would have put Leopard there but apparently I've mislaid my disks. I then made that the boot drive, installed SuperDuper on it, wiped the internal drive again using the proper Disk Utility tool that Apple supplies with OSX, and then started the copy process. Again.

Overnight it finished. I rebooted the computer so it was now using the internal drive and disconnected the other two. And it worked. And it was good. For the first time in two days, I could now read mail and browse the internet without worrying about losing data.

However, the battle wasn't over yet. Step #4 is that Boot Camp partition. I used the Boot Camp assistant to create the appropriate partition and then used WinClone to copy the original Boot Camp partition off the external disk onto the new one via an image file. It all went swimmingly well. Booting into Boot Camp went smoothly and everything there seemed to be working fine too.


This meant that just two more things needed to be tested. Parallels 4 and Fusion 2. Parallels uses the Boot Camp partition for a work build environment as I ran out of space on the Mac partition to grow its virtual disk large enough to hold a full Visual Studio install. Fusion uses it as it could run using just the Boot Camp partition without messing up the ability of Boot Camp to use it too, something I would have preferred to have done with Parallels too but that's the price of being an early adopter.

Naturally, neither worked. Parallels at first refused to run on the grounds that the drive where Boot Camp resides at had changed. When I removed and readded it, the complaint changed to being:

"Failed to configure the Boot Camp partition's hard disk. A disk configuration error has occurred. Make sure that you have read/write permissions for the disk".

I tried various things like setting the permissions, installing MacFUSE to enable the NTFS-3g driver to give full read/write permissions on NTFS drives, rebooting Boot Camp a few times, removing all of the drives in Parallels and re-adding them but all in vain.

Google came to the rescue again. The solution turned up in the Parallels support forums and was easy although completely non-intuitive:

mv "/Library/Parallels/Parallels Service.app/Contents/MacOS/BootcampConfigurator" "/Library/Parallels/Parallels Service.app/Contents/MacOS/BootcampConfigurator.old"

Do that and magically everything works again.

Over to Fusion. The error here was that it wouldn't recognise the Boot Camp partition and after I removed it, wouldn't let me add it back in again. The solution this time was to delete the entire Fusion directory in "\users\me\Library\Application Support\VMware Fusion". This forces Fusion to go through the whole process of reinitializing when it starts which allows it to re-create the Boot Camp default settings. When it does that, you have to sit through a somewhat time consuming process where it prepares the Boot Camp partition to run as a virtual machine. Alas for me, that then resulted in an ongoing complaint about Windows not having shutdown correctly. I repeatedly tried rebooting Boot Camp directly and even upgraded to a newer version of Fusion. Eventually one time the error just went away of its own accord. I'm not sure what I did (or didn't) do but I wasn't complaining.

So there you have it. It took me two days to change a hard drive in a MacBook. I somehow think that this will be the last time I change that; if the drive fails, I'll probably just go and buy another computer. It's getting on for three years old now which makes it pretty much obsolete in computer years...


The Guild

12/23/08 | by Adam | Categories: Technology, Games

Link: http://www.watchtheguild.com/

I'm probably the last person with any Warcraft interest to have found this, but "The Guild" is a pretty funny web-based sitcom about a group of WoW players. Professionally shot and acted, it's actually entertaining. As a bonus for the geekier, it's also accurate in terms of game mechanics.

Give it a whirl: www.watchtheguild.com


Automatically regenerating iTunes random playlists

12/17/08 | by Adam | Categories: Music, Macintosh

As I'm slowly trying to replace the Creative Soundblaster Wireless with the Apple Airport Express, one feature that the Creative software did well was random playlist generation. iTunes has that feature too but it works in a sufficiently different way as to be frustrating.

Let me explain: on the Creative, I created a randomized playlist of 50 songs. Every time I chose the playlist, that 50 song lineup changed. On iTunes however (limit to 50 items, selected by "random") that list was static. No matter how often you selected the list, it always came up with exactly the same 50 "randomly" chosen songs. This didn't seem terribly random to me so I was annoyed and went looking for a solution.

As you can imagine, the answer was straight forward and irritatingly logical. From the solution as recommended by user snowdog99 at iLounge:

You have to include a condition that changes, something like "Last played is not in the last n days" - where n is a number of your choice. Without that, once the random songs have been selected there is no reason to change them.

And that was the sole modification. I added a further condition that the music couldn't have been played in the last day and now the list is fresh each time I use it.

"Think Different" indeed...


Stephen Butterfield Takes the Alpha Course

12/02/08 | by Nimble | Categories: Thoughts, Religion

You may have seen the ads for the Alpha Course floating around your town, perhaps saying "Is There More to Life Than This?", though you might wonder that if the person who climbed the mountain in that picture has that question, you might not need to ask the question for a while.

The ads typically make no mention of this, but it's an "introductory course" in Christianity, with an eye towards evangelizing it more so than, say, historical critical analysis.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if an atheist took the course?

Stephen Butterfield took the Alpha Course in the UK, and blogged the entire experience.

Full story »


Contested Ballots in the Minnesota Senate election

11/24/08 | by Adam | Categories: American

Link: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2008/11/19_challenged_ballots/

One of the interesting things to come out of the remarkably close election in Minnesota is how many ways it's possible to screw up a simple fill-in-the-circle ballot. Given that these ballots are pretty close to the ones used by Elections Canada (or Elections Alberta for that matter) I wouldn't mind knowing if the same issues over voter intent or spoilage occur up here -- not that Alberta elections ever tend to be close enough to require this kind of scrutiny.

(Via Kottke)


Ongoing "Fallout 3" Commentary

11/20/08 | by Adam | Categories: Whining, Games

Great game so far but there are two significant issues I have with it:

  • When laden down, you move slowly. In and of itself, no big deal, but it also disables the quick move between two locations on a map. This means you need to control your nice 3D character through the entire route, footstep by footstep. It takes ages.
  • Shopkeepers follow working hours. If you turn up at, say, 6:30 pm they're closed and won't serve you. This means you now have to kill an entire night waiting for them to open up again or spend lots of money in Megaton on a bed for the night. Just buy my stuff and be done already.

These design decisions may be more "realistic" but it's incredibly annoying to spend more time running and waiting than actually playing...


"Meh" gains dictionary recognition

11/17/08 | by Adam | Categories: Potpourri

Link: http://www.cbc.ca/arts/books/story/2008/11/17/meh-dictionary.html

Sometimes new word need to be created to express a particular concept and the source is generally unimportant, so like "DOH!" the Simpsons get another credit. "Meh" fits into the same space as "Whatever" but it's shorter and -- for me at least -- lacks the Valleygirl connotation.

Good work, HarperCollins! OED, we're now looking at you.


Fallout 3 has landed!

10/29/08 | by Adam | Categories: Games

This means no blog updates coming for the next few weeks, unless Ritchie or Dena get bored...


Review: Apple Airport Express's AirTunes

10/27/08 | by Adam | Categories: Technology, Music, Reviews, Macintosh, iPhone

Link: http://www.apple.com/ca/airportexpress/

Recently I picked up an Apple Airport Express which is their little doodad that acts as a 802.11n extender, USB printer host and -- most importantly to me -- an AirTunes source. One of the problems I've been chewing on for a while is how to get my home theatre to spool music from my MP3 collection without needing to turn on the projector to see what I'm doing. As the speakers there are by far the best in the house, it's the most appropriate place to listen.

Elsewhere in the house I'm using the Creative Soundblaster Wireless which sticks the display onto the remote but it's always been a little disappointing in practice; besides, it's been out of production for years so I couldn't buy another one even if I wanted to.

For a while I used WinAMP on the HTPC and just learned my way around the keyboard, but when I moved to the Microsoft BlueTooth Wireless Entertainment Desktop 7000 keyboard I lost the priority settings for WinAMP; this meant that when I pressed "play" on the keyboard, the PC wouldn't start WinAMP and therefore no music. There's also some issue I've been unable to troubleshoot where if there are no active tasks on the PC, it'll go into a hibernate mode and require a power cycle to reactivate. Basically, it's no longer a workable solution.

The second option was to use a PS3 with its media streaming. In practice, it's terrible. The support for remote filesystems on the PS3 when dealing with large music collections is unusable as there's a two to three minute delay when trying to choose songs or just navigate the hierarchy. This is as true on a gigabit connection as it is on a wifi one. Beyond that, the interface is sufficiently complicated that it's impractical to do without being able to see what you're doing. Natch.

In the end, I settled on the AirPort Express. This uses an iTunes installation as its data source. I already have one up 24/7 to drive Radio Adam which means I have full access to my music collection without having to install any further server software. Check 1. The arrival of the iPhone/iTouch with the Remote application gives me the ability to pick and select what I want to listen to without firing up the projector. Check 2.

The setup was pretty simple. I plugged in the AirPort to the power socket, connected up the optical wire between it and the amp, and then plugged the gigabit network into its port. The MacBook automatically detected the AirPort when it was added to the network and brought up the configuration tool. The default settings were basically correct and the only thing that was required was to disable its wireless support. I told iTunes on the server to look for external speakers at which point it added a new menu option to the GUI. This permitted audio redirection to both the regular USB RocketFM (which is what broadcasts RadioAdam) and to the AirPort. That was it: music now played cleanly through the amp. A quick change to the display on the amp so that the MD selector now reads "iTunes" and I was done.

I used a borrowed iPhone to fiddle around with changing playlists and jumping around between songs. It worked well with the exception that sometimes there was a bit of a delay selecting playlists. I figure that's due to the old G4 Mac Mini just creaking a bit at the seams. Eventually I'll replace it with a newer Intel one but for the moment it's doing fine.

The AirPort Express isn't that cheap at $100 and it is an audio-only solution, but for my purposes it's perfect. It's small, discrete and does exactly what I needed. It has added a new item to my technology budget though: an iTouch to act as the remote control so I don't need to borrow the iPhone all the time.


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