Sunday, December 22, 2013

Movie Review of THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION

TITLE:  True Grit
AUTHOR: Charles Portis
PUBLICATION DATE: 1968
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

INTRODUCTION
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.

STRATEGY
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.


TOOLS
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.

CAUTIONS
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.

STEPS
(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.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The True story of the Three Educated Pigs

Once upon a time there were three little pigs. One day their wise mother called them to her and said, "My children, soon the time will come for you to leave. But the world is a hard place; you need to go to school before you can make your way in it."

So she gave them a pile of brochures, and each chose the school that seemed to suit him best. The first pig, who was an artistic sort, decided to go to the College of Make-Do, where he studied Art with Found Materials with minored in textiles. The second pig, who wasn’t interested in school and much more interested in saving enough money to buy a motorcycle, decided on a course of interdisciplinary studies at the "New School of Hard Knocks". He unwisely thought this sounded like the easiest choice. The third pig, who was ambitious, chose to pursue a degree in Management from Major Edifice University.

Four years later the three pigs returned from college, much heavier in the head and belly, and lighter in the wallet. It was a pleasant June day for a walk, and they strolled along happily. As they were admiring the sun on the grass, waving in the gentle summer breeze, the first pig suddenly stopped.

"Say," he said with alarm, "this grass is Nolina microcarpa!"

"So?" his brothers asked.

"It's an exotic species!" the first pig said. "If develops a seed head, it will spread on the wind and displace all the native grass species. Something must be done immediately!" he exclaimed. So he went to the land owner, and offered to mow all his land if the owner would let him cart away the all the Nolina grass. And quick as a wink, he set to it. Before long he had a huge pile of grass, which he decided to weave into an ecologically friendly straw house.

The two other brothers helped for a while, then decided to go on their way. "Did you know he could be so industrious?" the third pig asked, as the road wound through dense stand of bushes.

"Well, you know him when he gets an idea in his head," said the second one. "Speaking of which, how long do you intend to keep walking? My trotters are about to fall off."


"I'm looking for just the right spot," replied the third brother. "If I site my house wisely, its value will appreciate at greater than market rates."

"Well, I'm happy if I have a dry place to put my trotters up." replied the second pig. "This will do for me," he said, stopping at a place where there was a wide field next to the road. So the two brothers affectionately parted ways, and the second brother quickly built himself a house of sticks.

Now the first two brothers were had soon finished their houses, and since they lived close by they saw quite a bit of each other. But as the summer wore on they began to wonder how their brother was getting on. So one day they decided to go down the road a piece to see if they could find him. It turned out the third pig was not far away at all, at pleasant spot at the base of a hill where the road wound is way around the edge of a pond. They found him sitting on a tumble down pile of bricks and iron bars, sweating on the August sun.

Way up at the top of the hill was the beginnings of a brick wall, no more than a foot or two high, and if it were longer than it were high, it was not by much.

"I see you've found your perfect spot," said the second pig. "How has it been going?" It was obvious to the first two pigs that their brother had spent the summer sleeping on the ground with his briefcase as a pillow.

"Terrible!" exclaimed the first pig. "My order of bricks and tools didn't come for weeks and weeks. Finally I had to place an order with a different company, and both orders came in on the same day! Neither of the companies would take the things back, so here I am with two of everything!" he moaned.

"But brother," asked the first pig, "don't tell me they just dumped all the bricks in a pile like that? Half of them are cracked. Although," he added thoughtfully, "it does lend them a certain character."

"This," replied the third brother sadly, "is what's left of my house. I had planned to build the house at the top of the hill, but when the materials got here so late, there was no way I could get it done in time for the electrician. He's booked solid and only had a few days open. I'd only taken two wheelbarrows of bricks up there when it occurred to me that most of my time would be spent hauling bricks up the hill, and it would be much faster just to build it down here."

"Sounds like a good idea," said the second brother, "so what happened?"

"The ground was too soft," said the third brother. "I should have poured a foundation, but I was in a rush and I couldn't coordinate my schedule with the cement people. I'd just about finished my house when it started raining. The ground turned to mud and my house fell down. So now I'm back to building up on the top of the hill. The ground is granite ledge up there, so I don't need a foundation. But now I'll be lucky to have a roof over my head by winter, with no electricity."

"No electricity?" the second brother asked, "The electrician is busy until next year?"

"No, he's flying south," replied the first.

"You nitwit," said the first brother, "you should have asked us to help. We had our houses done ages ago!"

"Yes," said the second, who was uncommonly big and strong, "we'll all pitch in and we'll have those bricks up the hill in a jiffy."

The third little pig would have jumped and squealed for joy, but just then Mr. Rabbit thumped up, eyes wide with fear and excitement. "Run for your lives!" he cried breathlessly, "the big bad wolf is coming!"

"Big and bad you say?" asked the first pig, "How do we know he's not simply misunderstood?"

"I expect," said the second brother, "it's because he eats pigs."

They all shivered.

"Oh, he's dreadful!" agreed the rabbit. "It wouldn't be so bad if he just ate you. They say he read classics at university, but nearly flunked out because he spent all his time acting in plays. Before he gobbles you up he goes through this awful ..." the rabbit shuddered, "routine."

"Oh, one of THOSE," groaned the second pig. "I think I've overbuilt my house. I've got to run along and take some of the sticks out of it. Brother," he said to the third pig, "you had better come with me."

"Am I to understand," the third pig, his voice rising to a hysterical squeak, "that you're suggesting we await the arrival of a ravening, deadly, porcicidal wolf in a house made of STICKS?"

"Better there than here," replied his brother.

"No thank you," said the third pig,” I’ll see if I can't work something out here."

"And, you brother?" asked the second pig of the first pig.

"I think I will be all right," he replied, "if our brother here will give me some of the materials from his ruined house, and lend me his spare wheelbarrow." This the third pig readily consented to, and sooner than it can be said it was done. Then the three pigs wished each other good luck and there were hugs all around.

Each of the three brothers made his preparations as best he could, and in a day or two, who should come along but the wolf, walking along as sharp and clever as ever, and hungrier than usual. Catching the scent of pig, the big bad wolf saw it came from a little straw house. He couldn’t believe his luck! He walked up to the first pig's door, bold as brass, and in a loud baritone voice, he cried, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in!"

"No!" replied the first pig, "Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin!" for indeed he was very proud of his goatee, which took him four solid years to grow.

"Hem, hem hem!" the wolf cleared his throat, reminding himself that his motivation in this scene was that he was hungry and somebody was keeping him from his dinner. "Then I'll HUFF, then I'll PUFF, then I'll BLOW YOUR HOUSE IN!" he said in a very loud, deep voice that came from so far down in his throat it was roaring out of his belly.

Dear children, this is what stage actors "speaking from the diaphragm", and they use it so that even when they are whispering on stage, people in the back row can hear what they are saying. As proud as the first pig was of his goatee, the wolf for his part was positively vain about what he called his "classical training."

"Do you think you could just, you know, pick the house up and move it someplace else?" asked the first pig from inside, "it was rather tricky to get just right."

The wolf looked and saw that indeed the house, which was very lovely, could not have weighed more the twenty or thirty pounds, so rather than wasting his breath he just picked it up and tossed it to the side. To his surprise, there was what looked like a neat little box of bricks built into the side of a gleaming block of metal. There was a small but stout looking wooden door facing him.

"What's this?" asked the wolf.

"It's my wolf closet!" came the voice of the first pig from inside the strange little box. "Took me about two or three hours to put it together after I'd rounded up the materials. Much easier than building an entire house out of bricks, and it's very economical. What do you think?"

The wolf in all his days had never heard of anybody making a wolf closet. It did indeed look like effective and inexpensive wolf protection. The wolf decided that he'd better not let word of this get around, and as he was hungry he could, as they say, "kill two birds with one stone". He heaved a mighty kick at the door, then yowled in pain and jumped around on other foot.

"Sorry," the first pig, "the door's made of mountain ash. It's very durable -- ash I mean -- and it's practically a weed so it's easy to harvest sustainably. Plus it's reinforced with iron rebar. I mean the door is. The whole structure is in fact."

"This WHOLE THING is reinforced with iron bars?" asked the wolf incredulously.

"Well, they're RECYCLED," said the pig defensively.

The wolf looked around the little box, to see if he could find a weak point. "What's this big silvery metal thing in back?" he asked.

"That's my espresso machine. It's from Italy; it was kind of a stretch, but I sold a lot of my paintings at the art fair, so I thought, why not?" said the pig.

"You have a COFFEE machine in that thing?" asked the wolf

"Oh, yes," replied the pig. "While I loathe the environmental and labor practices of the coffee industry, " he continued sadly, "I find I really can’t do without it. "

"Does it actually work?" asked the wolf curiously.

"See for yourself," relied the pig, and he opened a tiny slit in the door, just big enough for the wolf to peep into.

When the wolf peeped in, out came a burst of steam which burned him on the nose and sent him running away yelping in pain. When he finally calmed down, he had resolved to go back and outwait the first pig. "He has to come out some time," the wolf thought angrily.

But just then he caught the scent of pig wafting in the breeze. Turning around he was surprised to see the second pig, reading a book and sitting up in a comfortable chair in the middle of something that he supposed might be a house, although it was more like a loose framework of sticks with a thatched roof. The wolf couldn't believe his luck! It was almost too good to be true. So he walked up, bold as brass to the little house and took a deep breath.

"Can I help you," asked the second pig, who of course could see the wolf coming plain as day.

"Er, I was just about to ask you if I could come in," sputtered the wolf, who was caught bit off guard. He wasn't used to people (or pigs) changing the script in the middle of performance!

"I don't think so," said the pig.

"Well, then I'll HUFF and I'll PUFF and I'll... Say, what is this thing you're sitting in?" asked the wolf, suddenly overcome with curiosity.

"Well, if you must ask," replied the pig, "this is my house. I rather like it."

"This thing is a HOUSE?" asked the wolf, in disbelief.

"Oh, it's a bit drafty with the drapes open," said the pig calmly, "but it's quite pleasant on a summer afternoon."

The wolf gazed at the odd contraption with bewilderment.

"Do you think you might be done now?" asked the pig impatiently, "As you can see I am otherwise engaged." He held up his book and waggled it.

"No, no!" replied the wolf, "I was, uh, I was, er..."

"Huff and puff," prompted the pig helpfully.

"Oh, yes, I was going to blow your house in!" cried the wolf.

"Must you?" asked the pig.

"Yes I must!" cried the wolf.

"Very well," replied the pig with a sigh, and he set his book down on the table next to him and popped open an umbrella.

The wolf huffed and puffed as he had never huffed and puffed before, and he blew a mighty blow that swept in one side of the house and out the other, with no effect whatsoever other than turning the pig's umbrella inside out. While the wolf had from time to time of course encountered a brick or stone houses that would have taken a bulldozer to knock down, he’d never had failed to blow in a house of sticks . He reckoned that he couldn’t blow the house down because, practically speaking, it had no actual walls to blow on. So he decided he would bite his way through the slender sticks of the house.

"I wouldn't try that if I were you," warned the pig, "the sticks come from thorn bushes."

The wolf stopped, and saw that this was true. "Say," he said suspiciously, "it was uncommonly kind of you to tell me that, what with my trying to eat you and all."

"Think nothing of it," replied the pig with a magnanimous wave.

"Um," said the wolf, casting about for a topic of conversation while he studied the peculiar little house for weaknesses, "whatever gave you the idea of building a stick house?"

"My school motto," said the pig, indicating a diploma hanging on the far wall. "New School of Hard Knocks" was written in big fancy letters, and below that was the motto, but it was too small for even the wolf's sharp eyes to make out.

"I'm sorry," said the wolf, "but I can't read that far away."

"Let me help you," said the pig, who took the diploma, and walked to a certain corner of the house, holding it face out for the wolf to read. The wolf weighed the possibility of making a snatch for the pig's trotter through the sticks, but the pig carefully was holding the diploma just out of range of the wolf’s sharp teeth. So the wolf read.

"It says, 'sticks and stones will break your bones'," the wolf read. "I see the sticks, but where are the stones?"

"Here," said the pig, and quick as a wink he pulled a cord. This cord released a stone from under the eaves of his little house, and it dropped right down on the wicked wolf's head. Had the stone been a bit larger, that would have been the end of the story. But it wasn't quite big enough to do him serious harm; instead he saw stars, and ran about howling and cursing and demanding that the pig come out and meet him face to face instead of sitting in there like a coward.

To the wolf's surprise, the pig said, "OK", and removing a padlock from the door, he ducked through the doorway and unfolded himself to his full height.

Now the wolf, who was city bred, didn't have much experience with live pigs that you caught yourself. He thought of pigs as something you get from the butcher and which made an attractive presentation on a silver platter with a shiny apple in its mouth. He expected when he retired to the life of a country gentleman, that he would find cute little piglets just free for the taking, skipping around and playing games and all that sort of rubbish. But of course sensible country people know that full grown pigs are very big, and very strong, and can be big trouble when they're angry. And the second pig was very, very big and very, very strong, even for a pig. And he looked so angry that it made the wolf’s hackles stand up in alarm.

"Great Scott!" thought the wolf, "he must weigh twenty-five stone or I'm a pup!" He gulped. "Umm," he said in a cracking voice (one which I'm sorry to say the wolf had neglected to introduce to Mr. Diaphragm), "what big muscles you have Mr. Pig!"

"Not so big for somebody who knows what an honest day's work is," replied the pig.

"And, um, what a big, red, bushy beard you have!" said the wolf.

"Really?" replied the pig. "I shaved it clean off this morning and it's back already. I don't know why I bother."

The wolf's eyes dropped to what looked like a section of a maple sapling trunk that the pig was holding in one trotter and smacking into the palm of the other, as if he was testing its weight. It was making an ominous "thwack, thwack" sound.

"And, umm," said on the wolf nervously,” what a big stick you have there! Might I inquire what you intend to do with it?"

"Remember the school motto?" asked the pig.

"Yes," replied the wolf.

"Think about it."

The wolf thought about it, and in twinkling he was running off down the road, as quick as his legs could take him.

"Phew!" said the pig, who was in truth the gentlest creature you can imagine. He'd really had a miserable time at that terrible school, where people got picked on for being polite and kind. Although it had cost him endless boring hours lifting weights and practicing angry faces in front the mirror, he eventually managed to make himself so big, and SO scary, that even the rhino (who was a foreign student) used to cross to the other side of the street when he saw him coming.

"I'd better check up on my brothers," he thought. "That old wolf is up to no good."

And indeed he was. The big bad wolf had run down the road until he fell to the ground, gasping for breath. But suddenly, he perked up as he caught the scent of pig in the air. It was coming from a pile of bricks. He couldn't believe his luck! So the wolf hopped up and started walking up toward the pile of bricks, bold as brass.

Then he stopped. His eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"Er…" he began, "is anybody in there?"

"No!" came the frightened squeak of the third pig, whose preparations had not gone as well as his brothers. In fact he had barely enough time to burrow into a pile of bricks when the wolf had come running up.

"Well, in that case," began the wolf, eyeing the third pig's curly tail and fat rump sticking out of the top of the bricks, "in that case perhaps I should call again another day."

"Oh, drat!" cried the third brother, "I'm so pathetic! You might as well put me out of my misery!" The pig sat up, bricks falling from his shoulders. "Here I am, come gobble me up!"

"Um, no thanks." replied the wolf.

"You're toying with me!" cried the pig, "I've heard all about you, you old sinner. I demand you come up here this instant and gobble me up!"

"Pray calm yourself sir," replied the wolf. "I have, uh, just had luncheon. I really couldn't swallow another morsel." And as if to punctuate this speech, the wolf's empty stomach gave a loud rumble.

The third pig was just about to march down off his brick pile and demand that the wolf stop playing this ridiculous game, when his two brothers came running up. The second pig had his maple club and looked like he meant business. And, dear children, the look on his face was so angry that if you saw it you'd never have another nightmare again, because it wouldn't want to live in a head with such a frightful memory for a neighbor. The first pig also had a club, but he regarded it doubtfully, as if he was unsure which end he was supposed to be holding.

"I see I am intruding," said the wolf hastily, "so I will take my leave." Which he did, running away as fast as his legs could take him.

Such a joyous reunion they had. They hugged and wept and danced, and finally when they grew tired of that, they all sat down and told their stories. When the third pig heard how it had gone at the first pig's house, he became very excited, and insisted that they should all go into the business of selling wolf closets. The other pigs thought this was a ridiculous idea. But the first pig wheedled them and wheedled them until they agreed to start a business selling beautiful, affordable and energy efficient straw houses, equipped with highly secure brick wolf closets.

And what would you know, but the third pig was right, and they were VERY glad of his management expertise, or they could never have kept up with the business! People simply adored their snug, attractive little straw houses. They loved the fact they could just pick their house up and move it any place they wanted, although this meant buying a new wolf closet, which kept the third pig very happy. The first pig designed all kinds of neat and clever houses and closets; the second pig, who liked to meet people, rode his new motorcycle all over the place and told them about the wonderful houses his family made. And the third pig made sure they always had just the things they needed so nobody had to wait to long for their lovely new houses.

And the wolf? Well, by and by the third pig, who was very thorough, began to wonder whether it was mistake to leave the wolf out of his calculations. So he made a few inquiries, and learned the wolf was, as they say "down at the heel". The poor old wolf just didn't have the old panache he once had, and most days he had nothing to eat at all. It would be hard to say which he missed more, the panache or the regular meals. And while it is mystery where panache goes when it deserts its owners, there was no mystery why the wolf was finding a good meal harder to come by: more and more people these days had wolf closets! The second pig would not hear of leaving the fellow in such straits, seeing as he was, unintentionally of course, the source of all their current prosperity. He insisted that the firm hire the old wolf to work in their factory at once, and the first pig added that under no circumstances could they even consider hiring the wolf for anything less than a decent living wage. The third pig for his part was all in favor of letting the old sinner starve. But the first two wheedled him and they wheedled him, until at last he gave in and gave the wolf a job.

The first brother volunteered to make sure that the wolf was employed under porcine conditions, and that he was in no wise suffered from anti-lupine discrimination. I am sorry to say that while this was kindly meant, he frankly made a pest of himself to the poor old wolf, who was in no position to rebuff his generosity. But it was a relief to his brothers, for while business was brisk, there was not really enough design work to keep the first pig busy all the time. "Better the wolf than us", they thought.

But eventually, the kind second pig relented and was about to suggest they find something else for the first pig to do, when the third pig called him on his cell phone.

"I've just had a wonderful idea," said the third pig. "I think we should advertise on the radio."

"Ok," said the second brother, "if you think it's a good idea."

"Yes, and we'll need a voice to represent the company," the third pig said.

"If you say so," said the second pig. Then, as they say, "the penny dropped". "Oh," he said.

And that is how the wolf became the voice of the Three Pig House Company (although the first pig always insisted it was the Three Pig House Cooperative), and they all became fabulously rich and famous. One good thing came of the first pig pestering the wolf for so long though. He convinced the wolf to try being a vegetarian. To everyone's open surprise (and secret relief), the wolf took to it. He always claimed after that eating vegetables and fruit made him twenty years younger, and kept his extremely valuable voice in tip top shape. And indeed he must be right, since anybody can plainly see he has extra panache simply "coming out of his ears". And as he positively has more panache than even a wolf knows what to do with, he gives the extra to his friends the pigs, who use it to sell more houses.

And the moral of the story? Dear children, you must not ask me that. Only false stories made up by fibbers with an “axe to grind” finish by rudely beating you over the head with a moral. This is the TRUE story of the educated three pigs, so if you absolutely must have a moral I'm afraid you'll have to make one up yourself.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The time, the near future

the place, a city in the US.

You sit at a cluttered bench in a darkened back room, a single reading lamp illuminating a riot of circuits and gleaming mechanical assemblies. Old stuff. Valuable. Practically priceless, since they cut off the Malaysian pipeline. A wisp of smoke caresses your face, carrying the scent of vaporized resin, molten tin, and lead. A bead of sweat rises on your forehead. This work is delicate: this piece is old, and if the traces lift that would be just too bad.

The sharp clang of a brass bell and the slam of the door break your concentration. "Damn," you mutter, "who the hell can that be."

You slip through the curtain, careful not to reveal any of the very incriminating goods back there, and let out a low whistle. It's a dame, and what a dame.

"Can you help me?" she asks.

"If you're looking for baseball cards," you reply, indicating the dusty glass cases. "Can I interest you in a Roger Clemens, he's real meat."

"Meat?"

"Yeah, you, know, pre-virtual." You watch her closely. She's hard to read, but one thing is certain, no broad ever strolled through this neighborhood at a eleven at night shopping for a goddamned baseball card.

"A friend sent me," she says, in a high tense, slightly quavering voice.

"Oh, yeah, what's his name." Your eyes narrow suspiciously. You don't like where this is going and you're too corrupt to buy the doe-eyed innocent routine from anyone who walks in off the street. Quavers can be affected, and you're practically a connoisseur.

"Maybe you'll recognize him," she says more briskly, reaching into her purse.

You suck your breath involuntarily through your teeth. "iPod," you whisper, "old by the looks of it."

"Original firmware" she purrs.

Original firmware. Easier to penetrate than a bus station whore. But this whole situation stinks bad. You're practically the only one left; better guys than you didn't last because they couldn't smell a setup. This lady may not know about the syndicate takeover of baseball in '10, but she's very au courant about stuff she has no business being.

"Lady, you must have me confused with somebody else. Monkeying with one of those things is very illegal. I don't know where you found it, but I suggest you turn it into the Department of Free Expression right away."

"Oh, I think I have the right man," she says with a laugh like breaking glass. There's a glint of steely amusement in her eyes as they flick down to your right hand.

Suddenly you become aware of the smell of hot lead. Idiot! You never put down the damned soldering iron. If she had be DFE you'd be iced by now. You'd be lucky to be iced, instead of declared "illegal information operative" and put on a plane to one of their offshore IIO interrogation facilities.

You flick off the lights. Stepping around the counter, you squeeze past her to turn the sign on the door to "Closed". Looking through the door window and up the stairs, you see a car idling at the curb with its lights off. Dark tinted windows, but there's at least a driver and who knows what they've got pointed towards you. You flick a concealed switch, and the car door opens suddenly, and vomits out an obvious goon with murder in his eyes. His headphones are still on, and he fumbles with his IR window rig as he reaches into his waistband for something more lethal. Looking past you he stops short, and apparently changes his mind, getting back into the car. You turn to see her covering up her look of disapproval.

So the lady is boss. And the goon too nicely tailored and poorly barbered to be government issue. And if they're not official, there's only one other kind of people interested in what you do: unprincipled. It's nice to deal with people who have predictable priorities. Carriage trade too, by the looks of it. While you've seen more professional goons in your time, good help is notoriously hard to come by.

"What was that about?" she asks.

"Here, let me show you." You take her hand and put it on the window. Her dainty hand is warm and soft, but dead feeling, like a fresh corpse. The window, on the other hand, is ice cold and hard, but thrumming and vibrating. She raises one of her perfectly sculpted eyebrows in surprise. "He doesn't like my 'cast" you say, with a wicked grin. "Strictly for my private customers, you understand?"

You pull the shades. The only light is filtering in over the transom. "It's very dark in here," the lady says.

"Oh, I like it dark," you reply. And you do. You're like a mushroom, and your little shop is a close to a cave under a rock as you can manage. It doesn't even have a back entrance: the kind of people you worry about don't overlook details like back entrances. Any visitors have to come in the front way, from under the bright street lamp and through your cramped coffin of a shop. Dark and cramped suits you very well. "We don't need light for what we need to do."

"Oh, and what is that?" she sneers, but her voice is a bit high pitched and tense. You've seen enough nervousness to know the real thing. All bravado and broken razor blades.

"Talk. You wanted to talk didn't you?" you reply. "We can talk, but it's gonna cost ya." Retirement is looking like a higher priority right now: that stunt with the soldering iron probably took ten years off your life. Mentally you tote up how much you need to kiss the business goodbye. Not much. At this rate, three years you'll have enough to change your name, move some place sunny and to kill yourelf with cheap booze, cigarettes and women. Maybe two years if you're not too greedy.

And you're too smart to get too greedy. Or so you've always told yourself. But you're about to be tempted like you've never been before.