Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Writer's Book Report: John Scalzi's FUZZY NATION

ONE LINE SUMMARY REVIEW: *Fuzzy Nation* is a "reboot" of a classic 1962 sci-fi novel which competently re-engineers the story to modern standards of technology, storytelling, and political correctness but which falls short of the original's charm and emotional impact.

I've never read anything before by John Scalzi, but given that he is the object of the Rabid Puppies hatred and Sad Puppies deep ambivalence, I thought I'd check out *Fuzzy Nation*, his "reboot" of H. Beam Piper's classic *Little Fuzzy*.

Why reboot a classic sci-fi novel? Well there's the commonplace problem of technology outstripping sci-fi for starters, particularly the original's lack of personal digital information and communication gadgets. In the original Jack Holloway consults books on microfilm, develops movies in a darkroom, and can't reach characters by videophone because they're away from their houses. This is all very anachronistic to a generation that grew up with databases, cell phones and personal computers.

There's also the issue of contemporary tastes in politics. The planet Zarathustra in the original was clearly based on South Africa of the early 20th Century. The names of some of the animals even sound slightly Dutch-ish (e.g. "Veldbeest"). The outcome of the original novel's dispute over the "sapience" of the Fuzzy species seems incomprehensible to modern political sensibilities. If the Fuzzies turn out to be people who were living on Zarathustra before humans came, most modern readers would assume that this means humans need to clear off the planet. But in the implicit politics of H. Beam Piper's universe humans can still run things and exploit the mineral and biological wealth of the planet, they just have to work *around* the natives, while they *run the natives' affairs for them*.

This is the politics of paternalism; of "white man's burden". That might not seem strange at all to a reader in the early 60s who had grown up on Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, but to a modern reader that attitude is almost inexplicable. So while "politics" may be a dirty word, it's not unreasonable to tweak the unexamined imperialist and paternalistic assumptions of the original in order to reach modern audiences.

So far so good, but the place where this re-imagining falls short is re-tooling the story for modern tastes in storytelling. The original novel's Jack Holloway was a larger-than-life archetype of frontier self-sufficiency, an upright and elderly but still-sharp prospector and sometime gun-slinger. The new Jack Holloway is a young and crooked lawyer eking out a living prospecting after being disbarred and alienating just about everyone he meets. Why re-imagine Holloway this way? Because conventional wisdom is that flawed and somewhat unlikable characters are more interesting. While this is fine as well as it goes, it's a bit simplistic because what really matters is what you do with the character.

Scalzi hits another writing-workshop bullet point by giving his picaresque Holloway greater agency in the plot outcome than Piper's Holloway has. In the original Jack Holloway plays a key role in initiating the events of the novel, but by the story's third act he is largely sidelined and the main action is resolved by deus ex machina -- a major no-no according to polite canons of literary taste.

So in outline form Scalzi's story looks like a major upgrade to the H. Beam Piper version. But fleshed out, it doesn't quite measure up to the classic. Why? Because while Scalzi is a fine writer, he's just not as good here as H. Beam Piper is. A story like this takes a tremendous amount of exposition; in Piper's version this imbues the setting with a kind of Golden Age wonder but in Scalzi's version it simply weighs down the narration and dialog.

What's more while Scalzi's version is unquestionably more competently plotted, there's a lot more to care about in Piper's version. Piper stocks his story with memorable and vivid characters where Scalzi's supporting cast is sufficient to move the story forward but forgettable. Piper's version is, underneath the charm, a serious sci-fi attempt to address the question of where "human" rights come from. In Scalzi's version this is merely a plot point.

And H. Beam Piper's version scores over the Scalzi version in this one respect: character arc. The classic H. Beam Piper protagonist is a self-sufficient, rugged individualist, but in many ways *Little Fuzzy* subverts this archetype. *Little Fuzzy* was conceived at a time Piper had moved to Paris, where he missed his friends and his marriage began to fall apart. *Little Fuzzy* is really about the the tension between self-sufficiency and loneliness.

So it misses the point the reconstruct *Little Fuzzy* to give Jack Holloway more agency in the fate of the Fuzzies, because it's not really about the Fuzzies. It's about a lonely old man who adopts a family and through them develops new friendships. That arc is what gives the *Little Fuzzy* its powerful emotional impact. Scalzi's Holloway starts out the story as as secretive, manipulative schemer and ends as a successful, secret, manipulative schemer. It's sufficiently entertaining, but not particularly moving.

*Fuzzy Nation* is a cute and entertaining book that is utterly inoffensive to standards of literary taste or politics -- standards that I generally endorse. There's nothing wrong with a book being adequate and inoffensive, but that's not what greatness is about. A great story is timeless. It's been over fifty years since the publication of *Little Fuzzy*, and despite being dated in several respects it still stands up. Will people still be reading *Fuzzy Nation* in 2070? I doubt it. They'll be reading *Little Fuzzy*.

Monday, June 30, 2014

A Fish Story

I finished a hot and strenuous garden project for my wife today, so I decided to reward myself by taking a late afternoon fishing trip.

I've recently noticed a pond on the map a few miles from my house. It's not well known because it is almost completely surrounded by private property; but there is small bit of water frontage on a busy road with a few parking spots. So I put the canoe on the cartop and when I arrive I'm in luck; it's a sunny Sunday afternoon, but there's only one other car there. I launch the canoe.

Since this is a just a few miles outside of Boston, I've brought my "urban fishing" tackle box, which is stocked with small "panfish" lures. City fishing isn't about catching trophy fish, it's about catching anything at all. So I tie on a tiny 1/16 oz "rooster tail" -- it basically looks like an allergy pill with a hula skirt. It also features an oval brass tag that spins around as you retrieve it. In my experience this is practically the only thing besides earthworms that catches anything in urban ponds.

I make my first cast about twenty-five feet downwind and along the shoreline, retrieving past the edge of a bank of weeds visible from the surface. I immediately get a strike. At first I don't believe it; having a fish strike on your very first cast of the day is  a once-in-a-blue moon event. But sure enough I reel in a pumpkinseed -- a kind of sunfish. That's no surprise; practically the only thing you get in these urban ponds is sunfish (bluegills and pumpkinseeds), yellow perch, and very rarely a smallmouth bass. The surprise is this is the biggest pumpkinseed I've ever caught. It's longer than my hand (why would I bring a tape measure here?), so it's over eight inches long. That makes it close to trophy weight. but it's late Sunday and I'd have to find an official weigh station that was open. Anyway I'm doing catch and release so I throw him back.

By the time I finish dealing with the pumpkinseed the wind has blown me to the north shore of the lake. I make my second cast and immediately get another strike, and this guy puts up one heck of a fight. I'm fishing with 4 lb test monofilament, so I have to set the reel's drag very, very low. It takes me a long time to land him. He's a juvenile largemouth, only eight or nine inches long, but spunky. Now I'm starting to think I should have brought the big lures -- this little guy is exactly the size the tiny rooster tail lure is meant to attract.

Now obviously I don't continue to get a strike on every cast, but every place I go in the 100 acre lake I catch fish. Mostly tons of black crappie. Some of them are quite big for crappies; a pound to a pound and a quarter I'd say. And all over the place I'm pulling one yellow perch out of the water after another. They're all on the small side, about 4-5", I think because they all get eaten while they're still minnows.

Before coming here I'd picked out a very fishy looking spot on the map. It was a place where a brook emptied into a bay which in turn opened by a narrow neck onto the main body of the pond. A spot like that is perfect for a predator to hang out and wait for dinner to pass by. But I don't even bother going there, and when I tell you why you'll think I'm crazy.

You see I love fishing, but I hate catching fish.

I like the setting -- out on the water where it's quiet. I like the time, usually in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is low, the sky bright and the breeze light. But most of all I like the process. I rig up my line, study the terrain, decide on a spot where I imagine a hungry fish may be lurking. Then I pick a target beyond that. I become the target. Plop! The satisfaction of a perfect cast.

Now I am the lure pretending to be something else. Help! I am a wounded minnow. Please don't dart out of the weeds and swallow me. Help! I'm a cicada who has dropped out of the tree onto the water. Please don't come to the surface and gobble me up.

And it's not that a perfect day fishing doesn't at some point involve catching something. Ideally I catch just enough to maintain the pretense that I'm not out here wasting my time. One fish is a good day. Two fish is a great day. But three fish is just another good day. Four fish and it's time to go home and cut my losses.

I just don't like the killing part. So I catch and release, killing only the fish I can't unhook cleanly. When I catch a fish that won't survive I immediately kill it and bleed it. But that's my least favorite part of fishing. Even catch and release can get fiddly when it doesn't go well. None of this catching business is as simple and satisfying as the fishing is.

So I find myself in the canoe becoming increasingly apathetic. Oh, something's nibbling on the lure. I'll just keep reeling in. If it wants the bloody thing let it do the work. Then I find myself casting and thinking, "God I hope nothing strikes." When I hear myself thinking that, I decide it's time to head home. I won't say this was a bad day; like they say a bad day fishing beats a good day working. But there was too much catching for my taste.

And now this pond has now ruined all the other ones around my house. Next time I spend a day not catching anything, it won't be because catching fish is hard, it'll be because I deliberately went somewhere I wouldn't catch anything. The pretense of purpose will be gone.

So I'll come back to this pond, but rigged for big fish. Very big fish. That will be perfect. I'll know the fish are there, but I'm just not catching them today. But someday I might.  In fact I think I'll go to the bait and tackle store tomorrow and see if they have a lure that looks like a puppy who's fallen into the water. I imagine working the lure: Help! I am a golden retriever pup who has fallen out of the boat.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


I saw the second HOBBIT movie last night and on the way out I heard a man tell his companion, "That's got to be the worst movie I've ever seen!" Now I think he must be reacting to the fact that this movie is only one third of the story, and ends abruptly on a somewhat awkward cliffhanger. THE HOBBIT 2 is certainly is well-made movie with an excellent cast (Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch AND Stephen Fry), and absolutely top-drawer production values. It is brisk paced and unencumbered by exposition, the bane of many fantasy stories.

The place where it falls down is in the writing.

There's a reason that writers struggle with exposition. Exposition does so many important things in a novel. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but occasionally a caption helps you understand what you're looking at.

One of the advantages of film is that if actors are good we see many things intuitively without the need for elaborate exposition. As with the LotR movie THE HOBBIT 2 takes advantage of an excellent cast to bring minor characters to life. Unfortunately the one character the movie fails is Bilbo, and this is entirely the fault of the writers. They've reduced him to almost a secondary character.

THE HOBBIT is a deceptively simple book. Despite its literarily disreputable fantasy genre, THE HOBBIT is a finely crafted novel about Bilbo's personal journey from being a parochial prig to becoming a wise hero. Tolkien plays him off the secondary characters with considerable dexterity, but this sophistication is lost in a movie that's all about impressive but silly action set pieces.

Take Bilbo's interaction with Cumberbatch's motion-captured Smaug. The writers get Smaug's character right, and the movements and presence of the dragon are awe-inspiring. Yet somehow this scene falls short. In the book the threat of the dragon isn't merely physical. Smaug *tempts* Bilbo. That gives the book scene a whiff of horror which is missing from the movie, and this is entirely the fault of the writers, who don't seem to care much about what's going through Bilbo's mind.

The most controversial element in this film is the addition of the non-canonical chracter Tauriel. She is in the movie to provide a corner for a love triangle with Legolas and Kili, of all people. This didn't bother me. Tolkien had a deeply romantic streak in him that didn't make it into print in his lifetime. He was a man with his own personal mythology, and central to that mythology is the love story of the mortal Beren and the elf-maid Luthien. The love of a mortal for elven-kind is one of those crypto-catholic motifs that lurk in the background of Tolkien's works; it's all about the love between the flesh and spirit. The non-canonical scenes between Tauriel and Kili might well be the most Tolkienian aspect of this movie.

The weak leg of the triangle is Legolas, who as conceived of by the writers is little more than a pretty killing machine. There is at once too much of Legolas in this movie, and at the same time not enough. A movie *about* the adventures of Legolas is an intriguing idea. A movie *almost* about Legolas is not.

I think Christopher Orr from The Atlantic nailed this movie in his review when he called it a work of fan-fiction. But I don't take the position that fan fiction is somehow contemptible. Tolkien created a new mythology. For a mythology to live other people must embroider it, even add to it. Orr has it precisely backward. The problem with the movie's addition to Tolkien's canon isn't that this they are fan-fiction, but that they are commerical fan fiction. Tolkien's cultural promise won't be fulfilled until his work is in the public domain, if that ever happens.

THE HOBBIT 2 is not a bad movie, but the writers don't have enough confidence in Bilbo to let him carry the story. THE HOBBIT doesn't get much respect from LORD OF THE RINGS fans, and it is evident in their treatment of the source material that the writers don't love THE HOBBIT the way they adore LORD OF THE RINGS. They're less interested in telling the story of THE HOBBIT than they are extending LORD OF THE RINGS.

That's too bad, because THE HOBBIT is a very good novel in its own right and deserves the same loving treatment.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Writer's Book Report: TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis

Anyone who has seen either the 1969 John Wayne or the 2010 Coen Brothers' movie adaptation knows the essentials of TRUE GRIT's plot. 14 year-old Mattie Ross's father visits Fort Smith Arkansas for some horse trading, and is shot there by Tom Chaney, one of his hired men. Mattie herself goes to Fort Smith to collect the body and settle her father's accounts. For Mattie, this involves hiring Rooster Cogburn, a drunken, trigger-happy US Marshall as a bounty hunter. She wants him to cross over into Indian Territory, track Chaney down and bring him to justice. And to Cogburn's surprise and irritation, headstrong Mattie follows him into Indian Territory "to see the deed done" herself.

Here are the first thirteen or so lines of the novel:

PEOPLE DO not give it credence that a fourteen year-old girl could leave home and go off in wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces he carried in his trouser band.

Here is what happened. We had clear title to 480 acres of good bottom land on the south bank of the Arkansas river not far from Dardanelle in Yell County, Arkansas. Tom Chaney was a tenant but working for hire, not shares. He turned up one day hungry and riding a gray horse that had a filthy blanket on its back and a rope halter instead of a bridle.

Right away we see one of the defining strengths of this book: its observant, eccentric, forceful narrator. Many have noted that the book is narrated by a fourteen year-old girl, but I believe this is incorrect. The narrator is over forty years old and referring back to events in her youth. She has a lot in common with her younger self though.

Portis gets right to work on establishing the narrator's voice. Notice "do not" and "did not". One of the remarkable things about this book is the near total lack of contractions. This is one of Mattie's quirks, and it even bleeds over into her recollection of dialog -- a subtle touch I thought. Mattie is judgmental. Right in the first sentence she is telling us her low opinion of the public's ability to see the truth.

Mattie's also a sharp observer, but in a particular sort of way. She tells a story like she's testifying in a civil trial, obstinately slipping her opinions into the hard narrative facts. Yet Mattie doesn't tell us how she felt about her father being murdered -- her actions will make that clear enough. She does tell us her father was "robbed" and goes on to inventory the items stolen: his life, his horse, $150 "cash money" and two California gold pieces. This after he had been kind to Chaney, given him a home which, admittedly, was an old cotton house but "had a good roof". Note also the inflated way she lists the items in the inventory, using conjunctions rather than commas.

This is quite a skillful approach to characterization. Portis doesn't milk the situation for bathos; we're already inclined to sympathize with a 14 year-old girl whose father has been murdered. Instead, he takes the cover of our sympathy to paint a girl who is not entirely likable. Mattie is a bloodthirsty, bible-thumping pill -- a pious girl, yes, but one whose Christianity makes up for what it lacks in forgiveness and cheek-turning with a double-helping of retribution and sharp dealing.

One of the best ways to paint a character is to present him early on with a choice. Portis does this by having the sheriff offer Mattie a choice of who the "best" US Marshall would be. William Waters is the best tracker, a half-Comanche with an uncanny ability to "cut for sign". Rooster Cogburn is the meanest, a pitiless, fearless man who drinks too much. But the best in the sheriff's opinion is L.T. Quinn, a fair-minded man who never plants evidence, and is a lay preacher to boot. "Where can I find this Rooster?" is Mattie's deadpan response.

This bloody-mindedness is the secret of her appeal. She knows what she wants and how she intends to get it. Mattie steps into the story and takes charge, and from the moment she gets on the train to Fort Smith she is a force to be reckoned with. I wish more authors would learn that lesson. Too many manuscripts try to gain our sympathy for the protagonist by having bad things happen to him in the first chapter. Then they follow with the obvious, logical reaction: the protagonist feels bad, sometimes for pages on end. I don't like to overgeneralize, so if you can make that work, more power to you, but don't ignore the other possibility, of having the protagonist take forceful action. The combination of misfortune and competent reaction more readily produces sympathy than misfortune with passive suffering.

One more thing to take note of here is subtle dialect that slips into Mattie's highly "correct" narration. Her father is "shot down" and robbed of "cash money". Later we'll see lots of use of regional dialect both in dialog's grammar (excepting contractions) and in words (skim milk is "bluejohn").

Another interesting thing Portis does is with backstory. There's almost no backstory in the opening -- unless you count Mattie's recounting of her father's death, which she did not witness and therefore tells us about rather than shows. Portis presents the characters to us and puts them to work fully made. Then, when Rooster and Mattie are deep in Indian territory, we get a surprising detour into Rooster's backstory.

Rooster's background is unsavory. During the Civil War he was one of Quantrill's Raiders , a vigilante group which perpetrated atrocities against Union-sympathizing civilians. After the war he robbed a US army payroll. Later he robs a high interest bank in Nevada, which ironically leads to him being hired as a US Marshall. Rooster sees distinctions in his behavior which justify it. The high interest bank is practically a criminal itself -- it should be a criminal, therefore robbing it isn't robbing an honest citizen. The army payroll? Well, that's Yankee money.

One thing that must be said is that it's a lot easier to get through backstory introduced late. We're already committed to the story, and presumably interested in where the characters came from. But still, it slows down the story, and we don't need it to follow the action, so why put it in? I think this is a case of Portis spending attention span to achieve something else. Tom Chaney is a depraved man who kills for no good reason. Ned Pepper, the outlaw Chaney throws in with, kills when it is to his advantage. Rooster Cogburn kills when it is to his advantage and he doesn't consider the victim respectable. Mattie is out to kill for revenge, although she calls it "justice".

Portis places each of these characters along a continuum, and each is marked by violence -- literally so. Chaney has a powder burn on his face. Ned has a mutilated lip from being shot in the face. Rooster has a dead eye. Mattie will, by and by, receive her own mark of violence. After he climactic confrontation, she is attacked by a snake (note the allusion in a Bible reference-laced novel) in a pit (entrance to the underworld?). It's sly and deft bit of symbolism that you're free to ignore if you want to take the story as a simple adventure. It manages this is a relatively short manuscript length, I estimate about 70K words.

I think what makes this story such a favorite of writers is how it works on more than one level; as a straightforward adventure, as a ironic, even cynical satire, and as a mythic story of retribution and loss of innocence (which the hard-headed young Mattie shows flashes of). That's how two movies can be made from such a short book that are so different from each other, yet both are unusually true to the book.  The '69 preserves more of the book's scenes but gives the story a more upbeat ending.  The Coen brothers version adds some macabre scenes, streamlines others, but restores Portis' ironic and bittersweet ending.


TITLE:  True Grit
AUTHOR: Charles Portis
EDITION REVIEWED: Kindle Ebook, ISBN:1408814005, Aug 28, 2007 Overlook Press

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

OpenSUSE 11.1/Vista/Ubuntu Part 1: Choosing and Installing OpenSUSE

I've decided to write about my usage of OpenSUSE and Vista on my new machine. In this post I'll discuss choosing and installing OpenSUSE.

Introduction: I Want 64 Bits

When I got my new dual core, 2.53 GHz laptop with 4GB of RAM, it came with a 32 bit operating system: Vista Home Premium 32 bit.

Now nearly nobody really needs a 64 bit operating system these days, not yet. But since I need simultaneous access to multiple operating systems, short of carrying more than one notebook around, the simplest answer is to use virtual machines. Modern operating systems are RAM hungry, so to run these multiple virtual machines, I plan on bringing the RAM up to 8GB as soon as it becomes less than insanely expensive. For now 4GB of RAM will be enough.

Now I should note here that the copy of Vista as installed on this machine dutifully reports all 4GB of RAM, which normally 32 bit Vista does not. 32 bit Vista normally can't use all 4GB of RAM because it is using some of that address space for other things. I was surprised to see all 4GB available, and double checking I confirmed that it was, indeed 32 bit Vista. It must be the case that Vista has been configured with PAE (Processor Address Extension) enabled. This extends the virtual address space, leaving room in the address space for all the physical RAM and Vista's other memory address uses. So I have plenty of RAM to run three or four copies of Windows XP on virtual machines if I want to, and performance isn't bad.

Still, I expect that virtual machine performance would be better under a 64 bit operating system rather than a 32 bit one and I expect to upgrade to more RAM later so I can allocate enough memory to run larger virtual machines. Unfortunately Microsoft doesn't provide an 32 to 64 bit upgrades for users with 32 bit Vista that comes with the machine. To find out whether 64 bit makes a difference, I'd have to shell out for a brand new license. Rather than do that, I decided to install 64 bit Linux. But which one?

Choosing OpenSUSE over Ubuntu

I've been using Ubuntu as my main operating system for the past several years. Before that I'd used Debian (which I'd downloaded over a modem in 1996), than SUSE, and after that Mandrake (now Mandriva). I'd been a happy KDE user before switching to Ubuntu; there are still some KDE features I missed, but after a couple of years I'm pretty satisfied with Gnome.

Given this, it was logical for me to go for Ubuntu 8.10 64 bit, however I ran into a problem with the installer: it showed only a white screen after booting. Using the Alt-F2 keystroke, I brought up a shell window and saw that Ubiquity, the Ubuntu installer, was running. A little Googling showed that others trying to install 8.10 on recent hardware had the same issue. One of the answers was to give the installer boot argument "vga=771", which is hexadecimal 0x303. To make a long story short, this is supposed to tell the kernel that the display is 800x600 with 256 colors. Unfortunately, this didn't work.

Now I am generally happy with Ubuntu, but there are certain things about it that have been thorns in my side over the years. One is that every time there is a kernel update, it seems to break some hardware I use. Oddly enough, the stock Debian kernels seem to be OK most of the time. So I wasn't looking forward to solving this one. Perhaps there was a problem in Ubuntu's 64 bit kernel.

So I decided to research who had successfully used Linux on my laptop model, the Asus F8VA-C1. It turns out that OpenSUSE is reported to work completely with this hardware. I'd been happy with SUSE before it became part of one of the Evil Empire's satellites, so I decided to give OpenSUSE 11.1 a whirl; in the meantime I'd get a chance to look at developments in KDE.

Installing OpenSUSE

I personally hate distro reviews that focus on installation, which is the least important aspect of an operating system... provided it works. However there were some noteworthy occurances in installing OpenSUSE 11.1.

I opted for the net install of OpenSUSE, rather than downloading the full DVD, figuring I wanted to install a minimal system. SUSE's install screen is a beautiful, emerald green, not that it matters. The installation process, while tarted up in all kinds of GUI makeup, is in function and spirit not far removed from the ancient Red Hat text based installers of the late early 2000s.

The net install is probably a mistake, unless you have your own repository to install from. On the plus side, the display on the laptop was being driving correctly, and the wifi card was dectected and configured flawlessly. The download speed was extremely erratic. Sometimes a seven megabyte package would download in under a minute, then a 100K package would take two or three minutes. Then the downloads stopped entirely, and (using the Alt-F1 key) I got a shell console and figured out that the wireless card had somehow become unconfigured. Bizarre. I manually restarted wpa_supplicant and things resumed at their snail's pace. So netinstall is not for beginners.

Finally, the installation process simply halted. The net install runs like this: download a package, install the package; download another package, install that package; repeat for 2000+ packages in a basic installation. For some reason, after it downloaded grub (the boot loader that starts the operating system at power up), it installed it, hanging at "100%".

Bugger this. It'd taken about four hours to reach this point, and I wasn't going to spend another four hours to get to the same impasse. Instead I downloaded the DVD installation. After going through the same preliminaries, I was surprised to find that the DVD install took just as long; it was downloading the packages over the network. Apparently I'd missed an option about whether to use the local copies or to download, and it chose to download by default.

In any case, it was late at night, after spending hours on the net install, so I decided to let the net install run all night. If the wifi didn't turn off mysteriously, it should be done in the morning. In the morning, I discovered that the installation process was hung.... once again on grub, the boot loader. Switching to a command console and running "top", the process that was using the most CPU was, indeed "grub". Odd, that the installer would run grub at this point. Every Linux installer I'd ever used set up booting at the very end. It makes sense, especially if you're dual booting. Why screw up booting over a half installed OS? So I simply killed the grub process, and the installation continued.

WHen it finally finished, I rebooted with trepidation. Would interrupting the grub installation make the system unbootable? Nope. Everything starts up fine. After all the time it took, I'd have been seriously peeved if it didn't.

I now had a (more or less) functional copy of OpenSUSE 11.1.

Conclusions, Part 1

Linux reviews usually overemphasize the installation process. First of all, it's a very small part of the user experience. Also, getting Linux onto the hard disk and booted was never all that difficult, even in back in 1996. What was hard was getting the X window GUI to work, and getting the sound card working with a kernel. Those were real headaches, but fortunately these things have been painless for many years now. You might not get 3D acceleration working on every video card, but most people don't need it.

Still, when an installer simply doesn't work, that's an important detail.

Hardware support is both the great strength and weakness of Linux. If you have an old piece of hardware lying around, say an old USB wifi adapter, chances are you can plug it into a Linux box and it will work. If it was designed to work on a PC, you can usually use it on Mac hardware running Linux. Device manufacturers don't support Linux, so Linux developers build drivers that last.

On the other hand new hardware presents a problem to the Linux user. Manufacturers don't bother creating Linux drivers, so often you'll have to wait until somebody with the skills figures out how to get it working. Still most of the time, even on newly purchased systems, Linux installation is straightforward. This particular laptop, however, is the exception.

My laptop's hard ware, while relatively new, is far from exotic. It has the Intel PM45 chipset, which is fairly standard on high end notebooks these days. The PM45 chipset is pretty much what you want to have if you really want to run Vista reasonably well (more on this in upcoming installments). The F8VA has an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3650 graphics adapter. Basic 2D operation should work (actually 3D seems to work fine under OpenSUSE).

Still, the Ubuntu installer issues are pretty much what you expect for hardware that has been out for less than a year; it's to OpenSUSE's credit that it handles the hardware more or less perfectly. What is a real concern is that OpenSUSE's installer hangs.

Most people, even those accustomed to installing Linux, would not have got OpenSUSE installed, and as it was it took an unconscionable amount of time. I don't ask that an installer be beautiful; it just has to work. It has never been that difficult to get Linux running, so long as the installation program does what it is supposed to, and OpenSUSE's does not.

It makes me wonder about the priorities and overall quality of the distribution, that the installer should look good, but not do the job. It turns out that this is not entirely limited to OpenSUSE's installer. OpenSUSE 11.1 is quite admirable in certain respects, especially it's visual polish which is on par with any other modern operating system. It has a number of serious shortcomings that lead me to think that it wasn't very well tested before release.

Next: OpenSUSE 11.1 and KDE 4

Unbricking an ASUS F8VA after Changing BIOS Settings

Recently I acquired an ASUS F8VA Laptop with Vista Home Premium on it. I'll be reviewing Linux and Vista on this device, but first I'm going to note it is possible to brick the thing with BIOS settings, which I promptly did. I'll post directions for getting out of that mess first, in case any other people encounter similar problems.

My plan was to set aside the Vista disk and buy a new disk to run 64 bit Ubuntu. For some reason this laptop comes with only 32 bit Vista, and I plan to run very large virtual machines on it. As soon as 8GB of RAM becomes less the $200, I'm installing it. In the meantime I started to poke around in the BIOS as is my usual custom. I came across this innocent sounding entry: "Intel TXT(LT) [Disabled]". The help text in this machine's BIOS are really utterly useless; typically the text will be something like "Choose enable to use Intel TXT(LT) feature." No explanation of what this might be or whether it's a good or bad idea. Googling brought up this explanation:

Intel Trusted Execution Technology for safer computing, formerly code named LaGrande Technology, is a versatile set of hardware extensions to Intel® processors and chipsets that enhance the digital office platform with security capabilities such as measured launch and protected execution. Intel Trusted Execution Technology provides hardware-based mechanisms that help protect against software-based attacks and protects the confidentiality and integrity of data stored or created on the client PC. It does this by enabling an environment where applications can run within their own space, protected from all other software on the system. These capabilities provide the protection mechanisms, rooted in hardware, that are necessary to provide trust in the application's execution environment. In turn, this can help to protect vital data and processes from being compromised by malicious software running on the platform.

OK, that sounds interesting. It sounds like a kind of hardware based choot jail. This laptop has a recent processor and the new Intel PM45 chipset. Actually, the hardware on this system is so new it's a bit of chore getting Linux running. What would Vista make of this being enabled? If Vista wouldn't boot, I could just F2 back to BIOS setup, right?

Wrong. This feature requires a TPM (Trusted Platform Module) chip to work properly, and if it's not there then the system will not only not boot, it won't let you get back to the BIOS settings to turn that pesky feature off. That wouldn't be exactly secure, would it? Curiously, you can boot ASUS's Splashtop environment, even though you aren't allowed into BIOS settings and can't boot the OS. I'll get back to that at the moment, but for now I'll get right to the unbricking process.

The aim of this procedure is to clear the BIOS settings by removing the motherboard battery for a few minutes. This battery provides the tiny amount of power needed to maintain the BIOS settings and to run the motherboard clock while the system is turned off. It is a large button or watch style battery, typically a CR2032, and usually lasts for many years before it needs replacing. It's also usually fairly easy to access. Usually. Not here. The battery lies between the DVD drive and the video card. You're going to have to disassemble the laptop to get at it.

You will need a small phillips head screwdriver. You might be able to use a jeweler's screwdriver but a precision screwdriver slightly larger would be ideal. You will need something like a small common or flathead screwdriver to release the keyboard. Then you'll need something to act like a pair of tweezers (tweezers are ideal, but the swiss army type are too short) or alternatively a very thin, sharp thing to pry with, like an old fashioned razorblade or (if you work on Macs) a really thin putty knife.

This procedure will void your warranty. It will also almost certainly cause a small amount of cosmetic damage to your laptop, unless you are experienced, careful, and have the appropriate tools and workspace. I chose to do this because I don't care how the laptop looks and can't be bothered waiting weeks for an RMA replacement.

(0) Prepare a work area. A large towel on the table will protect your laptop case, and provide a contrasting color to make finding those tiny screws easier.

(1) Remove the power sources from the machine. Unplug the power adapter, then turn the machine over and remove the battery. If you have trouble figuring out how to remove your battery, you should stop here!

(2) Remove the DVD drive. It is secured with two screws, one located on the bottom of the machine roughly an inch behind the DVD eject button. The other is further towards the centerline of the machine near some vent holes. I find laying out the screws on the table in the same physical relationship they have on the laptop makes reassembly faster. Pull the drive out and set it aside.

(3) Remove the hard disk. The cover is secured by three screws. Set aside the cover in your screw layout with the screws in the holes. Once the cover has been removed, the hard disk can be extracted by pulling it away from the connector, then up.

At this point let me note that I didn't completely disasemble my laptop, because doing so would require removing the strip that contains the buttons abovethe keyboard. This would probably be neater and easier, but I didn't have anything handy that woudl do it without leaving some really nasty dings in the plastic. So I opted to get the laptop apart enough that I could reach the battery with a pair of tweezers from the video card side. For that reason we'll remove the video card cover.

(4) Locate and remove the video card cover. It's a large cover located adjacent to the power adapter plug, and has your Vista sticker on it. It's held on by three or so small screws. Remove the cover, put the screws into the holes for safekeepign, and set it aside in your screw layout area.

(5) Remove the screws that would have been visible before you started removing covers and set them aside, including one that secures a little right angle cover along the rear next to the modem port. Set them and the right angle cover aside in your layout area.

(6) Remove the screw next to the wireless card, which was underneath the hard disk cover. The wireless card has black and white antenna wires attached to it. You can see that the screw next to it secures the plastic back to something below. It's been a few days, but I don't think it's necessary to remove the wireless card itself. If you do, you'll have to remember to put it back and the antenna wires; the gold connectors on the end just push on and pull off.

(7) Remove the two screws in the rear of the machine.

(8) Turn the machine over.

(9) Free the keyboard. If you look at the space above the top row of keys, you'll see four black plastic clips. They work just like the bolt attached to a doorknob; they are spring backed with a trianglular cross section, which means the pop put of the way when the keyboard is pressed down on them, but won't allow the keyboard to be pried up. Using your small flat screwdriver, push the rightmost clip back, and insert a swiss army knifeblade or similar to the right of the clip. Use the blade to gently pry up the keyboard so the top edge clears the rightmost clip.

Keeping the knife in place, push back the second clip from the right and pry up so the keyboard clears that. Repeat until the keyboard clears all four clips.

(10) Remove the keyboard. The keyboard is now attached to the computer by a thin ribbon cable. On the computer side, the cable is locked into the connector by a white strip of plastic on the connector. That strip moves a fraction of a mm in (towards the rear of the computer) to lock and out (towards the front) to unlock. Unlock the cable and gently pull it out. The keyboard is now free. Set it aside.

(11) Remove all the screws under the keybaord and set them aside.

(12) (optional) Remove any screws under panel above the keyboard that has the LEDS and buttons. I didn't opt for a complete disasembly, which would make the next steps easier. Presumably, the remaining screws are under this panel. The thin silver plastic strips to the left and right of the buttons are held in by friction (I believe). You could pry out these strips with a knife or a sharpened metal putty knife (if you work on Macs you have such a thing). The thing is that unless you have the putty knife prying tool, you're going to gouge the soft plastic. After removing this, you'd fiddle around, and presumably discover the remaining screws holding things together. Someday you'll want to do this, when the backlight of your notebook starts acting flaky. This is normally where the inverter board that powers the backlight lives.

(13) Locate the battery. If you sight down the DVD bay, you'll see the battery, which is about the size of a US quarter, in its black pastic holder, at the right of the far end of the bay. It's actually closer to the video card, but it's easier to spot this way.

(14) Gently pry apart the black bottom plastic half of the chassis from the top, from the DVD side. If you opted for complete disassembly, I guess it should just come apart at this point. If not, you're aim here is to bend the plastic enough so you can reach in to the battery from the video card side. IMPORTANT: you don't need to force this enough to break the plastic. If it doesn' t easily pry open an inch or so near the battery, look for a screw you missed. Put someting in the gap like a paperback book to keep it pried open.

(15) Remove the battery. You don't pry the battery out; it has a spring clip. If the computer is upside down, just reach in with a screwdriver and fiddle the clip and the battery will drop out.

(16) Wait for a few minutes.

(17) Replace the battery. This step takes the most dexterity. However, you aren't going to be able to send the computer back in this state, are you? So you're just going to have to fumble at it. Turn the computer right side up (otherwise you'll be fishing the battery out as it falls). Tear of a small piece of paper to insulate the battery where you'll be grasping it with your tweezers (unless you have plastic tweezers), then carefully grasp the battery by as little edge as you can manage. From the video card side, place the battery in its holder, the minus (slightly smaller side) should face toward the motherboard. It will probably drop in a bit crooked, but a little is OK. Then push the battery down with a small screwdriver until it snaps audibly into place. Fish out the piece of paper.

(18) Reassemble the computer in reverse order. The trickiest bit is getting the keyboard ribbon cable plugged back in. These connectors are zero force; you don't have to jam anything. On the minus side, there's no friction to hold the cable in place when you let go of it, until you've pushed in the locking bar, and the stiff plastic cable will want to hop out. If you have a third set of hands hold the keyboard, you can hold the cable in place while you push in the locking bar with a small screwdriver. If you removed your wifi card, remember to put it back in and plug the antenna in.

(19) Put the battery and AC power back in, and reboot, holding down the F2 key to return to BIOS setup. You'll need to set the date.

You have now undone what five seconds of curiosity did to your computer.

Remarks and Conclusion.

If you mess around with BIOS settings, you have to be prepared for some trouble. However, the BIOS writers who put it there also decided to (a) make BIOS settings inaccessible once you changed that setting and (b) not to bother including any help text to that effect. I think it's pretty bad that users can set a BIOS settings that requires a significant hardware fix.

The whole thing is pointless from a security standpoint. This exercise proves it is not difficult for a motivated person to remove the TPM hardware and circumvent the BIOS settings. In fact there is are even simpler ways to get around this, if the point is protecting the data on the hard drive. The drive can be removed and popped into an identical computer with TPM turned off in the BIOS.

Another curious aspect of this is that while it is impossible to boot to the OS or access BIOS settings, it is possible to access Splashtop, as fast booting Linux environment that ASUS has rebranded "ExpressGate". So presumably, ExpressGate is trusted by the BIOS whereas the operating system is not. Now I've noticed a number of interesting things about ExpressGate/Splashtop. One is that my USB keyboard doesn't work. I presume the idea is that ExpressGate is an isolated, self-contained environment, and so can be trusted in ways the main operating system cannot. One of the things that is possible, I believe, is to reflash the BIOS from ExpressGate, although I expect that function is probably disabled in this kind of situation.

Still, while ExpressGate/Splashtop is supposed to be isolated, and can be run from motherboard flash memory, on this machine it is not. It is in a "hidden" partition on the same disk as the operating system. "Hidden" is a misnomer; the partition isn't in any way hidden from the operating system, it's just a notation that the operating system isn't supposed to mount the filesystem in it. The partition is perfectly visible in a disk utility.

It seems to me that the kind of paranoia that locks owners out of BIOS settings is strongly undermined by trusting an operating system on the same hard disk as the user's data and OS, especially when anyone can take the hard disk out and alter the Splashtop system. Since it is Linux, it could even be modified to do something like boot the main operating system in a virtual environment, logging all the user's keystrokes.

Monday, June 18, 2007

What is Privacy?

Scott McNealy once famously said, "You have no privacy. Get over it."

I doubt that even Mr. McNealy believes this. Mr. McNealy would not like it if somebody continually accosted him while he tried to go about his business (what lawyers would call the tort of intrusion). He wouldn't like it if people tapped his phone. He wouldn't like it if somebody tried subvert his relationships by spreading falsehoods (or worse, cunningly chosen truths).

We all cherish our privacy. Unfortunately we're often asked to trade off privacy for some other thing, say money or national security, without really considering what it is we're giving away. The philosophical definitions of privacy I have seen tend to be too complex, miss important elements of the privacy, or both. On the other hand, the simplest definitions don't give much real guidance. Justice Brandeis defined privacy as "the right to be left alone." While this is on the right track, it doesn't really capture the full spectrum of rights.

Privacy is not just about being left alone, but about the right to control our engagements with other people. Who you choose as your friends is clearly a personal matter and interference with this choice is clearly a privacy intrusion.

After considering this for a while, I believe that every privacy concern boils down in some way to the issue of autonomy or self-direction. This is most easily seen when it comes to issues of intrusion. If you are in a public place, you must expect to be seen and observed by others. But if somebody begins to follow you around as you go about your business, they cross the line. They're interfering with your freedom of choice of places to go and things to do.

Autonomy is also behind other privacy concerns, but in less obvious ways. The neighbor who makes loud noises interferes with your autonomy of attention. The person who spreads misleading facts about you interferes with your ability to control your reputation through your own choices. The person who goes through your trash in order to find out about your private habits places curbs upon those habits.

Privacy is not autonomy in the sense of absolute freedom; it is about freedom to make choices in light of reasonable consequences of those choices. Therefore, I would offer this as a definition of privacy:

Privacy is the right of an individual or group to be free from unreasonable interference in the conduct of their affairs or in their thoughts.

I believe this covers every form of privacy concern there is, as well as the normal excpetions and trade offs to privacy. In every case, issues of privacy turn out to be issues of freedom, and exceptions to privacy turn out to be reasonable consequences of our freely chosen actions -- or at least they should be.

I started to think about privacy again after reading some posts by people who were struggling with the question of whether privacy was really needed in a free society. I believe that privacy in fact defines a free society, both in the way it limits intrusions of others in our affairs, and in how it limits our expectations to be free from the consequences of our actions.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Lloyd Alexander 1924-2007 An Appreciation

Sometimes prospective writers consider writing juvenile literature as a way of breaking into the business. Writing for children well is a lot harder than it sounds.

Young readers do not have patience with long, rambling setups where the author clumsily expounds everything he thinks the reader might need to know, before letting his characters do anything. It's important to get things moving fairly quickly.

On the other hand, this advice can be taken too much to heart, with frenetic but ultimately dull results. It is possible that some authors, after the layers of exposition have been stripped away, don't have anything interesting or important to say.

But a few, a very few, have the gift to produce true children's literature. John Bellairs. C.S. Lewis. Katherine Patterson. And Lloyd Alexander.

What puts Alexander among the greats of this field is not easy to put your finger on. Craft and economy, certainly these are requirements to create passable works. But this doesn't capture what makes a children's author great. I've heard some say that Alexander's works are founded in a profound and humane philosophy. But while I think such a philosophy might be created from the raw material of Alexander's writing, it is only a by-product of Alexander's true gift.

Lloyd Alexander's gift is that he writes as somebody who still experiences things like love, anger, pride, and loss in the vivid springtime colors of youth. Even so, he understands them with the gravity of experience. He is Taran and Dallben at the same time.

My feelings on Lloyd Alexander's death are not entirely ones of unmixed sadness. Wonder is what predominates. That he could continue to write over so many decades without the well running dry. That he could have run such a long race and died within two weeks of his wife of many decades.

It pleases some people to think that age gives them an automatic claim to wisdom, or at least authority. They are fond of saying things like "if I only knew then what I know now." Lloyd Alexander teaches us by his example and through his writing, to turn that dull and absurd notion on its head. What we should be saying is, "if we only knew now what we knew then." Only then can we unlock the secret of seeing the world and the people in it as new, and abounding in possibility.

I cannot feel very sad in a world so full of hope.