Saturday, May 22, 2004

Silence (remix): first impressions of a switcher

Saturday, May 22, 2004 0

As the long-suffering regular readers amongst you will be all too aware, I'm a smidgeon preoccupied with computer generated noise, or rather the elimination of it. When you've tried all the tweaks, mods and specialist racket-hushing kit available and still aren't satisfied with the results, where is a neurotic silent PC enthusiast to turn? The fruity uncharted territory of Mactopia, that's where! You heard me correctly, I've made the switch - my only regret is that I didn't do it sooner.

My new G4 1Ghz iBook is absolutely silent, but for the subdued purr of the miniature hard drive. It does contain a single fan I'm led to believe though I've yet to hear it actually spinning, even after playing a DivX movie continuously for two hours! It's not that the thing is broken or stuck, the system simply doesn't seem to require active cooling - after extended use, the left palm wrest (presumably the area over which the hard drive lies) becomes only slightly warm to the touch. It looks like my days of ever-vigilant temperature monitoring are finally numbered. I think it would be safe to assume I'm just a wee bit smug about my defection to the light side of computing.

One motivation for switching you often hear bandied about in Mac circles is that Macs are so much easier to use than PCs (the distinction between PCs and Windows is rarely made since Microsoft's panoptic dominance leaves little scope for diversity). OS X may, at first, look like a dumbed-down operating system, yet appearances can be deceptive. OS X is designed to appeal to everyone - if you're daunted by the prospect of using a command shell, or manually editing configuration files, then don't - you won't be putting yourself at a disadvantage by navigating your way around the system using the charismatic Aqua GUI. Conversely, if you like to tinker and laboriously tweak every last detail of an operating system, you can really go to town learning all the intricacies and Unix-like commands of the Darwin core and XNU kernel.

Personally I think the same can be said of Windows XP - how anyone could be fearful of that idiot-proof Fisher Price interface is a complete mystery to me. It's not so much that OS X is easier to use, unless perhaps you're totally new to computers, it's just so much more refined and graceful. Take for instance OS X's effectuation of the anti-aliasing technique - it can be applied to text, widgets and window elements and is so much sleeker than Microsoft's implementation. One innovation I am particularly impressed with is the ability for applications to run within each other as services by default. For instance, my third party dictionary is able to latch onto Mozilla or Text Edit giving me the option to highlight any word and instantly obtain a definition of it. The possibilities for automatic integration are endless. I'm discovering additional simple, but beautifully executed elements like this each day. Many programs don't require a proper installation routine - you extract the single program file from a zip-like archive and poke it with your cursor to make it leap into action. Other applications do come with installers, though unlike Windows installers, they don't indiscriminately scatter unhelpfully named dependent files throughout the system. Preference files tend to be labelled logically and are sensibly stored in one place so that later manual un-installation is as effortless as dragging a preference file and application folder (or single file) into the trashcan.

10 minutes after pressing the power button I had dialled into my ISP account, checked my email and opened up Safari (the OS X equivalent of Internet Explorer) ready to visit some of my favourite web sites. Whereas I would typically spend at least an hour tweaking a new Windows XP installation, removing superfluous junk and MS sponsored spam tools and securing it against viruses, trojans, worms and hackers, with OS X there was practically no prep work for me to do. Furthermore, OS X doesn't make use of a horrendously messy Windows-like registry system and this contributes to its exceptional talent for effective self maintenance. This facet of the system is emphasized by the distinct lack of available third party repair and clean-up tools. The piddling number on offer are largely redundant since the functions they perform can easily be replicated manually with minimal technical expertise.

OS X was recently bestowed the shared accolade of being the most secure server available. Similarly, using OS X as a personal operating system is a safe bet as its out-of-the-box security is top notch. While it would be silly to declare Macs immune to viruses and worms, the threat at present is less than negligible. This is partly because virus writers and hackers aren't prepared to expend time and effort exploiting such a niche system - they want to cause maximum havoc or harvest, for example, as many credit card details as possible so they target the most widely used operating system, Windows. Another factor is that OS X is more difficult to meddle with in the first place as it requires hackers and virus writers to get to grips with bespoke Apple coding techniques.

While the iBook copes admirably with everything I throw at it, it's certainly not as responsive as my old Windows-based system. Applications take a few extra seconds to pop-up and I'm seeing the busy cursor more often than I'd like. I'm told that this is due to the fact that the system is only shipped with 256 megabytes of RAM, and that to get the best from OS X you should ideally 'max out', or at least boost the memory capacity (you can install up to 1.25 gigabytes of RAM if you so wish). It's all very well to have this option assuming you've got money to burn, but you shouldn't have to upgrade a brand new computer right off the bat. I'm sure an extra 256 megabytes of RAM would put a spring in its step and it wouldn't have killed Apple to make this the base configuration.

A more fundamental gripe on first booting OS X was the terrible mouse cursor control. Moving it from one side of the screen to the other required me to push the mouse across the length of its pad, pick it up, move it back to the starting point and repeat the motion - it was so frustratingly sluggish it was disorientating. I immediately headed for the section of the preferences panel which allows you to customize the cursor speed and budged the slider along as far as it would go. This speeded it up somewhat, but nowhere near enough, plus there was no acceleration as can be found in Windows XP. I was still missing the mark each time I tried to prod an icon, minimize, maximize or close a window - anyone watching me would have sworn I was blind drunk. Oddly there appears to be no readily available solution to this annoyance built into the operating system itself. Luckily, however, a third party utility by the name of USB Overdrive can be implemented to remedy the situation. Installing the drivers for your particular rodent can also help to speed up cursor movement, though most don't support acceleration. I'm not making a mountain out of a mole hill, honestly - you'd be amazed by how little you get done when you're not completely in control of your pointer (*ahem* damn, you've got to be so careful with these Freudian slips!).

As I already have a decent LCD monitor and five button optical mouse I decided to use it to convert the iBook into a desktop system (I completed the transformation by purchasing an official Apple Pro keyboard). The monitor's VGA cable connects to the included video adapter and this subsequently plugs into the iBook itself, while the keyboard and mouse are connected via standard USB ports. The keyboard actually has two USB ports built-in so even with a USB mouse and keyboard attached, you retain two spare sockets to connect a digital camera, printer, portable hard drive or any other USB device you care to mention. When Apple claims, "it just works", they really mean it. OS X supports the Mac equivalent of 'plug and play' so it's not necessary to install device drivers in order to breathe life into your accessories.

Why buy a laptop in the first place if I planned to use it as a desktop? Well laptops are generally designed to operate more quietly, and this was, after all, my top priority. Full sized, quiet hard drives, despite manufacturer's claims to the contrary, require a case fan, or at least good airflow, to keep them cool (they employ suffocating ‘sandwiching' material to curb drive noise and this leads to an increase in temperature). This isn't an issue for laptop hard drives as they are much slower and hence operate at far lower temperatures. Laptop components such as hard drives and CD/DVD writers do not guzzle power to the same extent as their full sized brethren, and this makes it possible to supply laptops with low wattage, passively cooled PSUs (AKA power bricks). Somehow Apple have managed to design an extremely cool-running processor that runs fast enough to cope with the everyday demands of the average computer user. Accordingly it is viable for their engineers to reduce the speed the system fan spins at, or even halt it altogether to eliminate noise. This thermal regulation procedure is all taken care of automatically in alignment with Apple's carefully researched safe temperature limits. It may be possible to control the system fan using third party software as you would with Speedfan in a Windows environment; nevertheless, I fail to see how you could make the iBook any quieter by doing so.

As modifying Mac hardware to quell the din would be out of the question I decided to sacrifice speed in pursuit of silence by plumping for the silent-by-design iBook over a faster iMac or PowerMac. The lowest spec iMac is also designed to be quiet, but even so, I'm not disappointed with my purchase - the iBook is obviously portable, allowing me to move it into the lounge where I can connect it to a large, wide-screen TV and play movies via the s-video and audio out ports, or work on it anywhere in the house.

It is a myth that the Mac suffers from inferior software support. Nearly all the must-have Windows applications you can name are also available for the Mac. If you're clinically insane you can even pollute your new, pristine, Microsoft-free environment with spawn-of-Satan offerings such as Internet Explorer or MS Office. Why you'd want to when OS X comes complete with a superb alternative office suite and browser is another matter entirely, but the option is always there if you find yourself experiencing withdrawal symptoms. For a long time I have been a diehard fan of the Firefox web browser and Thunderbird email client. Fortunately, both are available for the Mac (the Mac version of Firefox is known as Camino) so I won't be forced to trade in my Mozilla spin-offs slippers and toothbrush set. VLC, my favourite multimedia player, also has a Mac counterpart so once again there's no need to compromise by using second-rate impostors. Any other software you might need can be quickly identified and downloaded through Mac Update or Version Tracker. Both are staggeringly exhaustive software repositories much like Download.com, only specifically for the Mac.

Everything considered, I'm a very happy bunny. The only thing which held me back from switching until now was the relatively high price of Apple hardware. In fact, when you compare the resale value of even prehistoric Apple kit with the rapid depreciation of PC hardware, it doesn't seem like such a colossal stretch after all, especially seeing as people tend to keep hold of their Macs for longer. I must confess that breaking away from Microsoft's stranglehold and becoming a member of a creative niche community is also a significant dynamic of Apple's magnetic charm.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Hash off the menu for Share Reactor refugees

Friday, May 21, 2004 0

Being hauled over the coals for donkey taming hasn't deterred Simon Moon from starting afresh. In the midst of the investigation by Swiss anti-piracy authorities into his possibly-maybe-probably illegal activities, his new forum-focused tribute to file swapping went live earlier this month.

Simon is eager to reunite his dispersed legion of followers, however, has prudently insisted that people refrain from posting file hash links. He did state in a previous interview that if judges deemed Share Reactor to be operating within the boundaries of the law, the site would be restored to its former glory, though the chances of corporate media movers and shakers giving the green light to piracy are slim at best.

Indubitably the honey in Share Reactor's pot was its vast database of links to all manner of forbidden digital delights. When a web site's principal allure is stripped away it's not easy to maintain its popularity. We'll soon see if Simon is able to overcome this hurdle and transform Respect P2P into the kind of bustling community that Share Reactor once was.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Wake up and smell the corruption!

Sunday, May 16, 2004 0

Hit a raw nerve, did I? I must be doing something right because I've received an inbox-full of colourful hate mail from over the pond in the last few days. I find it amusing that I'm accused of being anti-American for criticising the insidious foreign policy of the United States and the duplicitous nature of its unelected leader. What exactly is it you're trying say here, that American values are so inexplicably linked with hypocrisy, imperialism and dishonesty that castigating these 'virtues' is tantamount to attacking the American populous as a whole? You do the average American a grave disservice by reflexively leaping to the defence of the Bush administration as though they are one and the same thing. Is it really so difficult to separate the actions of one incompetent buffoon and his cronies from everything else which incorporates the United States of America? Nowhere else in the world would you be accused of being anti a whole country, their culture and way of life for so much as daring to criticise a single component of it. Bush appears to have done such a thorough job of brainwashing you, you are convinced that questioning his Machiavellian actions is somehow antithetical to being a good American. I wonder, if it was Hitler I was bashing, would I be accused of being anti-Nazi as though that were a bad thing?

It is precisely this kind of subversive manipulation that is the driving force behind the introduction of the Patriot Act. Hey, the country is under attack so I'm afraid we're going to have to revoke your right to freedom and civil liberties, OK? We don't want to of course, but needs must, you know. What, you don't agree? Where's your loyalty to America you heretic? This is no time to be sponsoring the terrorists - that's just what you're doing whenever you choose not to toe the line like a pliable, flag-waving patriot. The newspeak choice of words is so transparent its patronising.

Truth be known, Bush planned to invade Iraq long before 9/11; the terrorist attacks merely provided a convenient justification for furthering the geopolitical agenda of a bunch of slavering megalomaniacs. That Bush should exploit the deaths of 3000 people to rally the troops and public into backing his illegal war is so abysmally sickening that words don't do it justice. Worse than callously profiting from the massacre of thousands of innocent people is being forewarned of their impending demise and doing absolutely nothing to prevent it. There are even precedents to suggest that there would be advantages to be gained from masterminding homeland attacks from within the White House and blaming them on enemies of convenience.

Even if this isn't true of 9/11, the Bush administration has a hell of a lot of explaining to do. For instance, why was military defence strategy protocol not followed in order to quell the arial attacks? Normally whenever a plane or helicopter enters within a 15 mile radius of the vicinity of the World Trade Centre and is reported to be flying off course, air force jets are scrambled so as to be ready to forcefully remove the threat. If the warnings to steer clear are unheeded and the aircraft proceeds to encroach on the three mile radius of the WTC, it is to be unceremoniously obliterated. Why then were no jets mobilised before one of the hijacked passenger planes struck the first tower of the WTC? The WTC is equipped with hi-tech surveillance equipment specifically designed to detect the presence of arial threats. Were these systems deliberately disabled, or ignored? Maybe computer error played a part in the first instance, but what of the second collision? The second passenger plane didn't strike until a further fifteen minutes had expired. Again, where were the air force?

Why, when Bin Laden was riding high on the CIA's most wanted list, did they meet with him in Dubai seven weeks before 9/11 and not detain him? Did Bush's 25 year long business relationship with the Bin Laden family have any bearing on the matter? Why, when 15 of the 19 terrorists identified as being responsible for the WTC attacks originated from Saudi Arabia, did we instead declare war on Afghanistan? Why were Bin Laden's family lavished with VIP treatment, flown out of the US and out of harm's way right after the WTC attacks when every other flight had been grounded? How is it the Israeli businesses located inside the WTC had the foresight to break their tenancy contracts and move premises a week before the planes struck?

You will find more explicit details of each of these unanswered questions and more besides at the home page of the From the Wilderness Timeline. Alternatively you could stick your fingers in your ears, close your browser and declare me an insane conspiracy theorist. It's entirely up to you.

Whatever the explanation for this highly suspicious chain of events, Bush duped a number of world leaders into joining his 'war on terrorism', subsequently condemning many thousands of servicemen to death for no apparent reason. After all this time no weapons of mass destruction have been found, no link between Al Qaeda and Iraq has been established and the inhabitants of this war ravaged hellhole are no safer than they were under the rule of Saddam Hussein. The ruse that we are over there to liberate the Iraqi people was blown clear out of the water when it emerged that coalition soldiers, under the command of their superiors, have been systematically abusing prisoners at Hussein's former den of torture, Abu Ghraib - it has since been confirmed by the Red Cross that between 70% and 90% of these prisoners have committed no crime whatsoever, I should add.

As long as the public can so easily be riled and manipulated by the incessant drumming of the ever-impending terrorist threat, 9/11 will continue to be used to justify escalating violations of human rights. Bush can maim, slaughter and plunder until the cows come home - all he has to do to win the support of the public is interject with the weary phrase, may I remind you of 9/11?

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The war on wallabies

Wednesday, May 12, 2004 0

Every so often a human interest story emerges that seizes you by the throat and leaves you feeling stupefied and full of revulsion. One such story is the callous attack of a defenceless wallaby, which took place at Dudley Zoo in the West Midlands last week. Three youths aged between 8 and 11 gained entry to the animal's enclosure by scaling a 6 foot high fence and proceeded to kick the five month old, placid marsupial to death. When the fun and games were over, the lifeless, battered body was casually flung into a nearby pond.

Being the inquisitive type, I journeyed the extra mile to get the inside scoop. I spoke to one eye witness who claimed she saw the boys hastily plundering the valuable four leaf clovers, which grew in abundance within the wallaby's pen. This allegation was emphatically denounced by Mr E. Spin, the boy's attorney, who went on to claim that their intentions were entirely honourable. The boys are expected to plead not guilty on the grounds that their mission was to depose the despotic leader of the wallabies who they accuse of committing human rights atrocities against his oppressed minions. Police have since confirmed that the boys belong to the western democratic group, 'Good Guys Global Freedom Initiative'. GGGFI president, Mr Yeehaw Yankee-Doodle, defiantly insisted that these crusaders should be commended for doing the world a public service as the wallabies are dangerous, unpredictable creatures with a penchant for violent, unprovoked assaults. Nevertheless, a spokesperson from the Truth Defence League has suggested that the attack is likely to have been executed in retaliation of a prior incident involving the name-calling of Mr Yankee-Doodle's father.

A staunch supporter of the rebel group commented, "pre-emptive action was crucial in immobilizing the development of grass, herbs, leaves and fruit of mass destruction. It was a case of kill or be killed - no-one should be allowed to jeopardize the stability of the free world. These evildoers, who operate from deep within burrows, caves, holes, in bushes and in the dirt under trees, must be rooted out and obliterated at any cost, as must those who harbour them."

This week the GGGFI have incurred heavy criticism for their treatment of POWs detained in prisons belonging to the former dictator of Dudley Zoo. It has been alleged that wallabies, monkeys, parrots, pandas and zebras believed to be protagonists of the former despot's tyrannical rule are systematically being subjected to physical, psychological and sexual torture in an effort to 'soften them up' prior to interrogation. Innocent inhabitants of the zoo who haven't yet been accidentally slaughtered during the course of the military action are said to be in a state of 'shock and awe'. One extremely perturbed llama sobbed, "I thought the boys were here to end the torture and abuse. They told us that the western world respects civil liberties and human rights, but they're no better than the Evil Ones (TM) they've overthrown. This is utter, deplorable hypocrisy!".

In fear of reprisals, Mr Yanky-Doodle has apologised to the zoo and vowed to ascertain who is responsible for this vile behaviour. GGGFI Defence Chief, Mr Twasntme, under oath stated, "Under no circumstances were the boys instructed to engage in the mistreatment of prisoners. This is clearly a case of a few rogue individuals operating on their own initiative. These people will be hung, drawn and quartered allowing us to resume the wholly virtuous pursuit of freedom and peace for all". Kids, eh. Don't you just love 'em! *rolls eyes*

 
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