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Archive for February 2006

wreck of a day

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Saturday will be over by the time I post this, and I will be asleep soon after. This was a day marked by violence and collisions, none of them involving me, thankfully, but still jarring.

Riot AftermathIn the afternoon I went shopping, and carried my camera, because I heard there was going to be a parade of Unionists through Dublin. I thought there might be an photogenic angry scene or two, but the reality was far far worse, and I’m not annoyed that I missed most of it. The mere presence of Unionists in Dublin was enough to attract Republican thugs from across the 26 counties, and they didn’t even need to see the Unionists to go on the rampage, attacking police and wrecking half of O’Connell Street.

Unlike London in 1999, I didn’t get to see the fighting for myself, only some running people, and a long view of a Garda (police) baton charge. A view of the aftermath was quite enough.

Next: a bruising Rugby clash between Scotland and England, the “Auld Enemy”, at Murrayfield near Edinburgh. After 80 minutes of scrums and rucks, plenty of kicks but no tries, Scotland came out 18-12 winners to pick up the Calcutta Cup for the first time since 2000.

Cra-a-a-ashFinally, late this evening, a car punched a hole in the wall opposite my apartment. It sounded like a blowout, and no-one appeared to be hurt, though an ambulance was soon on the scene.

At least I got a leather jacket at a good price. Can I go to sleep now?

Written by brian t

February 26, 2006 at 1:17 am

divides

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I take the previous post back: after playing around with DIVs for a bit longer, I found that the problem wasn’t so much in the use of DIVs in general, but in the way they had been implemented in the WordPress Theme I use. I didn’t create that one from scratch, but modified the “Original WordPress” theme. It had a lot of unnecessary tweaks, such as squeezing the text together, which might have given it a different look but had a negative impact on readability.

I’ve also changed the primary font to Palatino Linotype, but that may not last.The logo over the picture is achieved by using another DIV with the picture as its background, and you can expect the picture to change over time. I’ve also resurrected one of my favourite little PHP tricks: the script to calculate a new light colour on each page load, this time applied to the Sidebar background.

Apart from the known compatibility issues with using tables for layout, I also found it had a negative effect on the way the pages were being displayed. The reader would be stuck with a blank page until all the table content had loaded; because I did not fix the width of the left-hand column ,the browser had to do some calculations on the content before displaying it. I definitely do not want to fix the widths, since I have seen how badly that works on other sites, especially when viewing them on small screens.

The DIV method is a pain to manage if you’re not used to it, but the way it works is fairly straightforward in practice. The main body of the text on the page is in a DIV without “absolute” parameters, just some tweaks to the margins, so the browser does not have to work too hard to lay it out as normal.The right-hand margin is much larger, to allow space for the sidebar, which is given an absolute position at the top right, and a fixed width. If the browser does not understand this, it displays the Sidebar at the bottom.

I can see this happening on limited Internet Explorer browser on my old iPaq (which has survived its near-death experience). It’s not all good news, though, since the margin is recognized and takes up half the tiny screen. More experimentation to follow, possibly involving a script that leaves out some formatting user agent parameters. It’s all go here…

Written by brian t

February 18, 2006 at 1:12 pm

theme scheme

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Expect the look of this page to vary a bit in the next few weeks. I’ve finally gathered up the willpower to strip this site’s WordPress theme down to its very basics, with the aim of rebuilding it in my own way.

To start with, I’ve re-engineered the main page template to look similar to the old one, but without the “absolute div” positioning of the sidebar that had me worried about compatibility with older or limited browsers; it’s a recent development of style sheet support that I’m not terribly keen on.

To get the similar look, however, I’ve had to use an older method that I don’t like, either: the use of Tables for page layout. It also has problems with older browsers, though careful use can reduce the impact of this. Switching themes is easy, so I can return to the previous theme if I feel like it.

In the long term, I think I’ll have to find a better way, but I can take as long as I like. What I will definitely avoid, however, is any kind of “Web 2.0” bull, especially the kind that relies on client-side scripting to work. There are JavaScript components on my site, such as the Flickr Zeitgeist pictures, but they’re optional. It’s going to take a lot of research, I think.

Written by brian t

February 16, 2006 at 12:22 am

on TV, we trust

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A Sunday indulging in one of my favourite television shows: The West Wing. We’re currently a few episodes into Series 7 here in Ireland, ahead of the UK for once, and this will be the last series, ending with the election of the new President.

Over the last few months I have been slowly catching up with the previous series on DVD, and am coming to the end of Series 6. The second half of this series has covered the fight between three contenders for the Democratic nomination, with occasional detours following the single credible Republican candidate, Senator Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda.

In the episode I just finished, In God We Trust (6-20), Vinick visits the White House to broker a deal on an economic bill headed for Congress. That doesn’t take long, but Vinick is in no hurry to leave, in case it looks as if he gave in too easily, so the next question is: “where do you keep the ice cream?” This is an excuse for Vinick and President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) to head down to the kitchen, raid the freezer, and have a less formal chat.

Vinick is frustrated and unsure how to proceed in the face of media questions about religion, a core issue for Republicans. Viinck hasn’t been to church in years, since his wife died, and has to decide whether to accept an invitation from a prominent preacher and Republican – a fictional Pat Robertson, if you will – to attend his church that Sunday.

The question of whether to hide his “lapse” from the voters quickly leads to a discussion on health, and President Bartlet’s battle with Multiple Sclerosis, which he did hide. “A speeded-up version of ageing” is what he calls it, before noting that previous US Presidents had concealed their medical issues – Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and others. Vinick concedes the point, then goes on to describes his position on religion;

“One Christmas my wife gave me a very old edition of the King James Bible. 17th Century. It was a real find, for a book collector. It was a thrill, just to hold. Then I read it.”
“You can’t take it literally.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what my priest friends kept telling me. The more I read it, the less I could believe it. I could not believe there was a God who said that the penalty for working on the Sabbath was death. I couldn’t believe there was a God who said that the penalty for adultery was death.”
“I’m more of a New Testament man, myself.”
“I couldn’t believe there was a God who had no penalty for Slavery. The Bible has no problem with Slavery at all. Lincoln could’ve used a little help from the Bible.”
“You think Lincoln was an atheist?”
“I hope not. That would mean all those reference to God were purely political.”
“He didn’t make any until he started running for office.”
“He certainly was a doubter.”
“What about you?”
“Are you going to try to save my soul?”
“Sorry.”
“Let’s just say that I struggled for a long time, with that book, and finally just gave up the struggle.”

Bartlet goes on to offer Vinick advice which appears to suggest that he did not need religion to do the job of President:

“The only thing you can pray for in this job is for the strength to get through the day. You can try coffee if you want. Prayer works better for me. Try the Pistachio.”

The result? Vinick walks out to face the press, and excoriates them for focusing on religion:

“I don’t see how you can have separation of Church and State in this Government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this Government… if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicans, you are just begging to be lied to. They will all lie to you, or a lot of them will, and it will be the easiest lie they ever had to tell to get your votes.
“So, every day until the end of this campaign, I’ll answer any question anyone has on Government. But if you have a question on religion, please, go to church. Thank you.”

If anyone still has any questions on why I hold The West Wing in such esteem, even well after the departure of creator Aaron Sorkin, I could explain in great detail, but one need look no further than this. A crucial point about separation of Church and State, made in a dramatic and creative fashion – I can’t ask for much more from modern popular culture.

Written by brian t

February 12, 2006 at 5:40 pm

Posted in culture, television, travel

brain on the table

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No further news on the MS front. I’ve read that I do have to be careful about heat, which could make me more tired than normal. The thing is: I’ve had it for at least a year, and the Dubai heat didn’t bother me much when I last visited, in July 2004. Though we weren’t outside very much, I remember I was less bothered about it than my host was. It didn’t feel as bad as e.g. London in summer, or Toronto when I visited it in May 2001. It seemed to be an “honest heat” – it suited the time and place, and I was prepared for it.

I have a growing suspicion that I’ve had MS in a slowly progressive form for a very long time – like, 20+ years! I had a couple of strange things happen in my teens, which makes me wonder – such as the stuttering, and I had bouts of “restless leg syndrome” (as I know it’s called now).

I want to ask people: have you ever found yourself wondering “what’s wrong with him?” or “why does he do things so differently?” I have, and I don’t get insulted by such questions as long as they’re the start of a discussion, not an opportunity for an insult. I’m a music geek and a computer geek, and am starting to become a MS geek, and I’m learning that MS can have subtle effects that can be misread, even by the person with MS, never mind other people. So if it sheds some light about what’s happening in my head, it’s on the table for discussion. (I’m not a “vitalist”, I don’t believe there’s anything supernatural about me, anything taboo, ineffable, or inviolate.) On the other hand, I can understand that that might make people uncomfortable.

I’ve been wondering whether my brain’s been rewiring itself, slowly, with some subtle effects on my personality. I know some people find it difficult to deal with me, some things I say or do are beyond what they would think of. Like, my attitude towards women, and how it only takes a few minutes around me before they start looking for the door – I come across as too intense, sometimes. I don’t do enough of the bowing and scraping; it’s as if they are used to guys who are aggressive and hormonally-driven, and can’t handle someone who thinks before he speaks, and challenges their most basic assumptions about what they expect, what they do and why they do it. It’s hard to “go with the flow” when you’re grounded on the rocks of reality. (Pretentious? Moi?)

Written by brian t

February 9, 2006 at 4:51 pm

Posted in multiple sclerosis

muslim cartoon protests – a wider view

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NPR’s On The Media radio show made an interesting point that sheds a little more light on the reaction to these cartoons in Muslim countries, which goes something like this:

Since the Press in Muslim countries is generally not a free press, and the government controls or approves the content of anything released by the media, the people in these countries assumed that the cartoons were approved by the Danish, Norwegian and French governments – the countries in which they were published. Hence the attacks on government institutions such as embassies, and the protests in front of government institutions such as the Parliament buildings in London.

Looking at it another way, these protests could be seen, indirectly, as demands for government control of the media in countries where it is not controlled. I’m sure you can see why this interpretation did not occur to me originally – a free press is a fundamental pillar of a free society, and the idea that the government could or should approve its output is not a viable one. We’ve been there and done that, centuries ago, and learned the lessons from other attempts at government control.

Religion is not the primary reason, it’s mostly about politics. You can draw a graph, by country, showing a direct correlation between press freedom and the political freedoms of the society – freedom to criticise the government, freedom to change the government (democratically, not violently), freedom to live your life the way you choose.

I may not be 100% happy with the links between government and religion in Ireland, but they seem to me to reflect the attitude of the people in general – and the links are eroding, as global and secular considerations play a more prominent role in Irish life. In other words, the people are driving the government – not the church – and that is what democracy is, in its basic form. (That’s not the whole story of course, with big business and corruption still much in evidence.)

Written by brian t

February 7, 2006 at 2:03 pm

Posted in culture, philosophy

it’s just a picture

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Denmark is under virtual siege over some Islamophobic cartoons published in a newspaper. We expect Religion to have no sense of proportion, but what about boundaries? Ask a Muslim cleric, and he (never she) will say that Islam is destined to rule the world, that it can not tolerate differing opinions on matters of religion. It is a monoculture, and does not understand pluralism or multi-culturalism, the idea that a different viewpoint can be as valid and correct as their own.

The Islamic taboo against images of Prophets (Mohammed, Jesus, Abraham etc.) is one of those cultural things that I don’t get at a basic level, but have little trouble working around. I went to Dubai a couple of years ago, quite prepared to do without pork or alcohol, but with so many Westerners there there were no real restrictions. I think freedom of speech is fundamental, and central to democracy, but that doesn’t mean you ought to rub peoples’ faces in it for the sake of selling newspapers (i.e. to make money). I walk this same tightrope every day, since some of my views would offend each person I meet in a different way. Religion is only one facet.

Neither is it acceptable to threaten people based on what they say alone – that is an attack on the freedom of speech of non-Muslims, people that Islam has no jurisdiction over. Tolerance works both ways – Muslims must respect the freedom of the press, as it exists in Denmark (a non-Islamic state).

Or to put it another way: the Prophet Mohammed is revered as a historical figure, with little direct relevance to the modern world I live in. To offend his memory, or not, is meaningless to me – but I’m a meritocrat, and judge people by their actions, what they do. Talk is cheap, whether it’s my blog, a politician’s promise, or a cartoon in a newspaper.

Written by brian t

February 4, 2006 at 7:07 pm

Posted in culture, philosophy