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Archive for December 2005


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Christmas Day, a notebook computer, and internet access: a dangerous combination? I’ve been on holiday for over two weeks now, and have found it surprisingly easy to forget about work, even when I went out for dinner and drinks with colleagues from work. I’ve had more time to think about various things, as you can see by the increased number of posts on this blog, and the internet access means I’m able to check my speculations against other sources.

Last week someone asked me if I was autistic. No, Stewart, I’m not. Nevertheless; even an oddly tactless question such as that gets me thinking. I note that I may have some of the personality traits associated with Asperger Syndrome or High-Functioning Autism (HFA). There’s another description of Asperger, along with the current USA official (DSM IV) criteria for diagnosis, here.

If I go by that, it’s not a clear-cut case: for example, while I do not like excessively loud noises, it has to be really loud before I feel a negative reaction. I don’t have the same sensitivity with tastes and other sensations – quite the contrary e.g. I like good curry and chili, and have no problem with loud movies with explosions and psychedelia. If I do have Asperger, it’s a mild case. Section B of the DSM description is rather woolly and open to subjective interpretations, in my opinion.

I remember, at a young age, having difficulty with some fine motor skills, wondering “how could that other kid tie his shoelaces so quickly?” and “why is handwriting so hard?” I’m not generally clumsy, however, just never much good at sports. On the other hand, I’m not hyperlexic (knowing many words without understanding them), definitely not hung up on routines and order, nor do I have interests that I follow to the exclusion of others – quite the opposite, in fact.

One particular criterion jumped out at me when I read about it: an inability to hold someone’s gaze. No-one has commented on this, but I have noticed it myself, and wondered what’s up with that. I soon found myself asking why looking at someone, while talking to them, is supposed to be a good thing. I find it distracting, especially when a change in someone’s facial expression indicates a response to what I am saying. Am I supposed to stop, change gear, and say something else in response? Should whatever it is I am saying be “held ransom” to the listener’s reaction, or do I have the right to say it all? I think I do, and I wouldn’t ask someone to freeze their expression unnaturally for my sake, while I’m speaking – it’s not their problem, is it? Rather let me look away and finish saying what I’m saying, before your reaction is brought in to play.

Self-diagnosis is risky, of course, but I find the most convincing evidence in the descriptions of how other people can help; there is specific advice to family and friends to be supportive, think about what they are saying, and avoid vague ambiguity when imparting specific information. HFA, as described here, describes children with communicative disorders, something I did not experience, so I can stop using the word Autism straight away.

I do find it annoying when other people can’t explain what they mean, and constantly wish they could be more precise. I would call that a distinct advantage in my line of work, where the nature of a technical problem can hinge on a small discrepancy in the problem description we get from the customer. This may also serve to explain why being asked if I’m autistic was annoying; since the term autism carries an unjustified social stigma, and covers such a broad spectrum of disorders, it was little better than asking “is there something wrong with you?” It would have been better to make specific references to Asperger and/or HFA. with details of how they might be relevant to me, and links to sources to back up your observations.

So, what now? Am I bothered? Do I need my head examined? I am getting it examined, literally, in about 3 weeks time. (I am scheduled for a second MRI scan, this time on my brain, which I will say more about later.) From a psychological viewpoint, however, the syndromes I’m writing about today are based on modern theories, with diagnoses and treatments that are still experimental and speculative – or so it looks to me. For now, I’ll start with the knowledge I have, and knowledge (as opposed to mere information) is always a good thing.

Time to shut down the computer: the BBC is about to show Darcey Bussell in Sylvia (review), which deserves my full attention.

Written by brian t

December 25, 2005 at 5:34 pm

Posted in medical, philosophy

death and the media

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Following on from what I wrote yesterday, about capital punishment, Wil Wheaton had a similar discussion with his dad a few days ago, though in a much more direct fashion, to put it politely. I’m basically with Wil’s dad on this, though I was a little more thoughtful about it. I can’t accept the current implementation of the death penalty in the USA as an argument against it – it’s totally mishandled, in my opinion, starting with extended stays on “death row”. Both Wil’s essay, and the comments he has received, make for interesting reading. Commenter “bountifulpots” is (or claims to be) a family member of one of the people killed by Tookie Williams, who was executed last week.

All together now: “people, who don’t like people, are the luckiest people in the world…”

Written by brian t

December 23, 2005 at 4:25 pm

Posted in philosophy

life full stop

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Today I got involved in an online discussion about a proposal to change sentencing rules in the UK for capital crimes, and the discussion inevitably turned to capital punishment. It is no longer in force in the UK, having last been used in 1964 and formally abolished in 1998. It is still in effect in some states of the USA, with no overriding Federal guidelines, with an execution in California just last week.

What is capital punishment designed to achieve? Objections to it fall into three main categories, if I understand the situation correctly:

  1. inhumane – can the death penalty, or life on death row, be classed as “cruel and unusual punishment”?
  2. immoral – it can be perceived as revenge, and do we have the right to exact vengeance?
  3. ineffective – is it a real deterrent to crime?

Today’s discussion focused on the third of these, and I have a problem with the this argument. In my view, the death penalty is so rarely used, and so badly implemented when it is handed down in the USA, that I would not trust any statistics based on the way it is currently used. These are the statistics used to justify the “ineffectiveness” objection.

There was an interesting book a few years ago called Freakonomics, which used economic tools to analyse the statistics of real-world situations, which made interesting reading. One section was on the economics of the drug industry, as an alternative economic and social model with its own risks and rewards. It is a very pyramidal model, with a lot of people making just a little money, and a few at the top raking it in, which leads to some violence as people attempt to move up the ladder – yet not as much as you might think.

But the most discussed section of the book was an attempt to explain an unexpected drop in crime levels in the USA in the 1990s, against the expected trend. After accounting for all kinds of social factors, the authors concluded that there were fewer criminals around, and linked this to the legalization of abortion in 1973. This is obviously controversial, and has been attacked several times, but the authors are sticking to their guns e.g. here.

My interpretation of this is: the USA has a huge prison population, increasing all the time, and it’s not deterring anyone from committing a crime, while the “death penalty” in the drug trade’s social model is at least partly working. A simple change in socio-economic circumstances, of the poorest segment of the population, leads to a reduction in crime. That’s a long-term view we can work on – but what do we do now?

I generally accept the Bell Curve model of society – which doesn’t mean that there is nothing that can be done, since other factors clearly play a role. I just mention this here to highlight that intelligence plays a factor in the numbers of criminals in society. The media skews our perception of crime, focusing on glamorous crimes, not reporting the majority of stupid crimes committed by stupid people (unless you watch Cops, which we don’t get over here any more. These are the people languishing in prison, less likely to grasp subtle concepts like the idea of “prison as rehabilitation”.

What is it going to take to get the “murder is wrong” message to shine through the fog of low intelligence, passion, or substances (drugs & alcohol)? Where’s the “big stick” to beat the message into their skulls that will prevent these crimes? I don’t see any government even looking in this direction, so I expect nothing to change.

Written by brian t

December 21, 2005 at 7:04 pm

Posted in philosophy

podcheck people

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Thanks to Scott Fletcher of PodCheck Review for the “shout out” yesterday, though I should warn folks that this site may not be quite what he led you to expect. Recently it’s primarily been my Blog site, where I get to spout off about anything that gets my limited attention. I’m on holiday (a.k.a. vacation) from my day job at the moment, which explains the recent flurry of activity.

I have a stereography page that documents my initial experiments, but I haven’t done much photography of that type recently. I migrated to a “real” camera a year ago, a Pentax *ist DS digital SLR, and though I have a Loreo 3D lens for it, I’m not happy with the quality of the results so far. I need to spend more time with it, and that means setting up lighting etc. indoors, since here in Ireland the outdoor light is poor in winter, what little of it there is. (You don’t realize how poor it gets until you see how a camera’s metering struggles to find a usable exposure!)

PodCheck Review is well worth listening to, for an alternative viewpoint on the world of Podcasting, from someone who has not (yet?) “drunk the Kool-Aid”, as it were. By that I mean the pursuit of the goal of doing Podcasting for a living, as many would like to do. In my view the numbers don’t stack up: I think there is a serious misapprehension of the size of the market. You can’t really compare it to radio, not unless you want it to be radio – that is, full of commercials, yet not a good investment for advertisers… who really listens to commercials on radio any more?

Even Adam Curry, the main driver of podcast commercialization today, gets this – he is fond of saying that without passion about a subject of interest, podcasts just don’t catch the ear. My question then is: how can you commercialize something that depends on the way someone feels? Could you sign a contract that specifies what you will deliver and when you will deliver it, if there will be times when you don’t have passion for your subject?

I used to write for a living, a decade ago: I took a computer testing job, initially writing comparative test reports to be handed off to a “real” writer, but then doing the actual writing, once people noticed I had a knack for it. This was the job I referred to yesterday, the one that nearly drove me mad, and made me resign for my health’s sake. I don’t have access to any of the work I did back then, and while I think I did wonders under pressure, I would not want to put my name to work that I was not enthusiastic about.

If you’ve tried listening to Podcasts and found yourself doing a Queen Victoria impression -“We Are Not Amused” – I can recommend PodCheck Review. Not only is it entertaining, it gets additional credit for avoiding all the things that threatened to turn me off: a) Scott has a great voice, well-recorded and produced, b) it doesn’t go on too long and outstay its welcome, c): it has a good mix of fact and opinion. Most important is d): – that is, it’s clear that Scott is Passionate about Podcasting!

Written by brian t

December 14, 2005 at 6:49 pm

Posted in photography, podcasting

hardening of the attitudes

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A thread on one of the forums I read has given me pause for thought: a major outpouring of empathy and care for a member who has just undergone surgery and needed to talk about other issues. Being on holiday myself has given me more time to think about how all this relates to me, and this entry is adapted from my reply.

I do understand some of what our friend is going through, thanks to a job I had 10 years ago with stupid hours and deadline pressure that was totally unsustainable. It made me physically ill and (in retrospect) mentally too – I was lucky that the physical symptoms made me resign and get out before the mental stress made me do something I might regret.

So I hardened my attitude, yet it started happening again at the next job (contract work), so I became even more careful in choosing what I did. That has limited my prospects, because the pressure on businesses means they want “self-starters” with a “go anywhere, do anything, at any time” attitude, who will take whatever they throw at you without complaint. In short, I’ve found that the only way to keep my sanity is to say No to such demands. I can’t do it all, but I can do some things well on an ongoing basis. My current employer thinks I have an uncooperative attitude, and this is why.

The thing is… the hardening of attitudes towards employers can extend into other areas of your life too, if you are not careful. Most of the time, people only ever talk to me if they want something from me. I do technical support for a living, with constant demands for me to analyze things and answer questions, and I live in a country (Ireland) where the common greeting is “how are you”. You are supposed to answer “grand”: don’t try giving an honest answer to that question, because you soon find that it’s just a stock phrase, and they actually don’t want to know.

In short, I suspect that pulling myself through came at the expense of empathy. Since it was confirmed that others don’t care about me, why should I care about them? I’ve had to work at keeping an open mind towards other people and their feelings – not always successfully. All I mean by this is: you can stop yourself getting hurt if you stop caring, but there’s a cost attached to that. There’s nowhere to draw a straight line between an “open” and “closed” attitude – it’s a constant balancing act on a crooked beam with cracks in it. It keeps you on your toes, but it’s well worth the effort in the long run. In My Humble Opinion, of course.

Written by brian t

December 13, 2005 at 12:12 pm

Posted in philosophy


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I was asked, today, what I thought of the first Narnia film, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I read the book many years ago, and remember finding it bizarre and clumsy. What was the problem? Isn’t it a classic? I only figured it out recently, in the publicity haze surrounding the film release. I haven’t seen the film, and have no intention of doing so now – the book was enough.

The book is based on some fairly explicit Christian imagery, and was written by a devout Christian. CS Lewis, the author, found Christianity after talks with his friend JRR Tolkien, who went on to write The Lord Of The Rings. Yet Tolkien disapproved of what Lewis was doing in his books: why? The problem as I understand it, was that Tolkien objected to the clumsily explicit Christian references and that Lewis targeted his books at children. I’m fully in agreement with this, and strongly believe that children should not be exposed to religion until they are old enough to understand what they are getting in to. I’ve seen no indication that the film reverses this – quite the contrary.

I’m aware that Lewis said that that was not the intention when he started writing – see Wikipedia – but he did not fight his impulse to evangelise as he went on, in my opinion. Today, fundamentalist Christians, especially in the USA, see the film as an opportunity to “spread the word”. References: here, here, here, here. That didn’t really happen with other films that used bits of Christian mythology – for example, the “One” references in The Matrix were never taken as seriously as this is being taken, and The Lord Of The Rings has few clear references evangelists to hang their hats on, despite Book 3 being named The Return Of The King. I could mention Star Wars too – Anakin Skywalker was a “virgin birth” for all the good that did him in the end.

But I’m not alone in being annoyed at all this: see here, here, here. I know several religious people, and I don’t mind using words like “God”, “Christian” and “Christmas” in the relevant context – but I’m saddened when they drag kids to church/mosque/temple before they are old enough to decide for themselves what is believable, and what is fantasy.

I could not let this “backdoor evangelism” happen without remarking on it. I consider Narnia backdoor evangelism in sugar-coated form, just like the Turkish Delight that was the price paid for Aslan’s life in the book.

In case there was any doubt about CS Lewis’ intentions, here’s a quote from his authorised biographer George Sayer , from the following CBN article:

But the author almost certainly did not want his readers to notice the resemblance of the Narnian theology to the Christian story. His idea, as he once explained to me, was to make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life. He hoped that they would be vaguely reminded of the somewhat similar stories that they had read and enjoyed years before. “I am aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination.”

Written by brian t

December 12, 2005 at 9:34 pm

“It should all just work”…

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Why are PCs so problematic? Can’t it all just work? No. Why not? Because PCs and software are as complicated as they are because that’s what we, the users want. When it comes to games, we’re not happy to stay back in the days of Donkey Kong and Tetris, are we?

Microsoft is the target of most complaints about system instability, crashes etc. But: they can’t do it all, so Intel make the chips, ATI / NVidia etc make the graphics and motherboard chipsets, and there are thousands of makers of accessories. Apple claimed that they were more stable because they did it all, but all they were actually doing was forcing you to buy stuff with their brand on it, and even then it isn’t that reliable. And now we have the same situation with the XBox, which is specified and controlled by MS, but not made by them at all.

When Windows XP came out a few years ago, Microsoft publicly talked about one specific change they made to the architecture to get better graphics performance. The graphics driver would operate at a higher “runlevel” that gave it direct access to the Hardware Abstraction Layer, but if there was a driver problem, it would be much more likely to crash the PC. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the time, and a general expectation that graphics driver crashes would be more widespread, but MS made their driver testing and signing more stringent. Or, you install a video driver that MS has not tested and signed, and it warns you. So the expected crisis never happened, and we get decent graphics performance today.

The problem that inspired today’s rant was an attempt to play online games with a friend who lives in the United Arab Emirates. On his side, the ISP uses Network Address Translation (NAT) for all customers, meaning that I can not make a direct inbound connection, because he is not actually on the Internet, as such.

But NAT is common and widely used, and I even use a little wireless router that offers that facility, and this is why we have an intermediary service such as GameSpy. It’s even built in to the game we’re trying to play (Civilization IV), so what’s the problem there?

“It should all just work”… but “it” is 2 different PCs and ISPs in different countries, with a public Internet in between, where anything goes. Nevertheless, it did all just work last weekend, and rather well too. Between last weekend and this something changed. After a lot of troubleshooting and experimentation, I came to the conclusion that my ISP must be filtering ports. I expect they will have an excuse like “it’s for security”. I’ve only had this service for two weeks.

Meanwhile, back in the UAE, there is only one public ISP, Etisalat, which enjoys an almost complete monopoly, which seems to be the natural state of affairs in a monarchy. They filter the websites available to all their customers, and have blocked the ability to log on to Skype, the free Voice-over-IP (VoIP) service, to preserve their lucrative communications monopoly.

“It should all just work”… and it could, if people could just leave well enough alone! To be continued…

Written by brian t

December 10, 2005 at 6:10 pm

Posted in technology, work