the corner office

a blog, by Colin Pretorius

Lab meat

Years ago an urban legend email was doing the rounds about KFC no longer using real chickens, and instead using genetically modified, boneless quasi-chicken organisms to up their profits. That might have been a hoax, but this Slate article (via Andrew Sullivan) makes the case for a humane way to generate the dead animals we demand as part of our diet:

How? By growing meat in labs, the way we grow tissue from stem cells. That's the great thing about cells: They're programmed to multiply. You just have to figure out what chemical and structural environment they need to do their thing. Researchers in Holland and the United States are working on the problem. They've grown and sautéed fish that smelled like dinner, though FDA rules didn't allow them to taste it. Now they're working on pork. The short-term goal is sausage, ground beef, and chicken nuggets. Steaks will be more difficult.

I predict some market resistance.

{2006.05.29 - 15:12} : Comments (0)

Vim

Russ Olsen has a post Seven Skeleton Keys For the New Unix User. I quite enjoy his comment about Unix's de facto text editor, vi:

The problem with vi is not, as many people think, that it is hard to use. No, vi is easy to use. What it is is hard to learn.

I've always been a bit of a ham-fisted vi user, knowing enough to not hurt myself when tweaking config files and the like, but not much more. A little while ago I started a bit of a 'skool me unix' thing as a sub-hobby, and decided to use vi as my 'IDE' for any C system-level programming I did. Living the Unix dream and all that.

It's quite a change from a normal GUI-based IDE, but the truth is that vi (or more correctly, vim) can do just about everything you'd normally do with a GUI. The one thing I learned is that you really have to take the time, and keep making the time, to learn new features. If you do that, you find that you can do certain things incredibly efficiently, but at the same time, it's all too easy to flub around, getting frustrated while battling to accomplish simple editing tasks, and end up believing that the program is backwards.

Having said that, I still spend a lot of time using Eclipse's CDT plug-in as well, and I think that on balance, my brain still prefers the GUI way. Being able to use vi properly is not a bad skill to have, though.

{2006.05.25 - 17:19} : Comments (0)

Leg-press for Jesus

On a brighter note, my favourite right-wing loon, the PT Barnum of modern-day Christendom, puttin' the fun back into fundamentalism, is at it again: the inimitable Pat Robertson flogs an Age-Defying Shake (what, no ™?), and it sounds like potent stuff:

Did you know that Pat Robertson, through rigorous training, leg-pressed 2,000 pounds! How did he do it?

Where does Pat find the time and energy to host a daily, national TV show, head a world-wide ministry, develop visionary scholars, while traveling the globe as a statesman?

One of Pat's secrets to keeping his energy high and his vitality soaring is his age-defying protein shake. Pat developed a delicious, refreshing shake, filled with energy-producing nutrients.

As this article points out, though, the Florida State University record is only 1335 pounds, and the record-holder had to have the leg press machine specially kitted to hold the weight, and the record-holder got burst capillaries in his eyes from the effort.

Although that would explain Pat's handsome squint.

(via The Agitator)

{2006.05.24 - 20:12} : Comments (0)

Libraries

The dearest and I are bookish kinds of people, and the one precious commodity in our home is real estate for all our bookshelves, and I'm the proud owner of heaps of old and shabby books, some of which I've owned for 15+ years or more, but still not gotten around to reading.

(Though I mean to, eventually, promise.)

All of this didn't keep my first ever visit to UNISA's library today from turning into something of a depressing affair. (And no, I don't mean depressing because it's only as a final year Honours student that I finally set foot in the library, having relied on my own purchased textbooks for all these years, although that is tangentially part of the depressing bit).

Libraries are meant to be a celebration of books, a huge store of amassed knowledge, waiting for people to partake, to learn. Problem is, what are they if they're just lifeless warehouses of books, sitting on shelves, that nobody really cares about?

I'm doing a project this year on Linear Programming, and I was blown away by how many books UNISA had on the subject. I checked out a small mountain of books, but my books were a fraction of the number of LP books sitting on the shelves. Many of those books, though, have been sitting there for decades, and I was blown away to see that some of them haven't been checked out for 20 years or more.

It's just the nature of things, I guess, but it strikes me as kind of sad. You pour years of your life and experience into a book, and perhaps a few academics soak it up, and then copies of your book just sit and gather dust in libraries for decades, until long after you're dead. It just seems a little pointless.

{2006.05.24 - 18:56} : Comments (2)

Good clean fun

'I hope what we have done here will prove that we don't eat babies,' the fire-spewing group's gargantuan-sized frontman, 'Mr Lordi', told The Observer. 'We've always been 110 per cent serious about our act even though in my country so many people have said such terrible things about us because we've got horns protruding from our heads.'

A Finnish heavy metal band named Lordi have won the Eurovision Song Contest, which seems to have come a loooong, very freakin' loooooong way since Abba.

{2006.05.21 - 21:59} : Comments (0)

The Da Vinci Code

It sounds like The Da Vinci Code is quite a crap movie, but the godless masses are lapping it all up, which is fun to see, because it's doing a great job of getting lots of knickers to snapping point, and the reaction is rather telling. It also cheers me up because the build-up to the movie has really just gotten irritating.

What gets me riled, for example, is arrogant, monopoly-on-truth crap like this:

The African Christian Democratic Party appealed to churchgoers not to watch the movie. Party leader Kenneth Meshoe said: "We want to discourage ACDP constituents, the larger church body and its followers from watching the movie that is essentially filled with blasphemy and lies.

... and slightly more disingenuous crap like this:

Dr Jennifer Slater, of the Roman Catholic Church in Groenkloof, said she hoped people would not take the book as truth. "I haven't seen the movie, but I read the book. The author had a good imagination, but I wouldn't take it as truth."

Well you know, lady, that's pretty much how large swathes of society feel about the bible, which is pretty much the WHOLE DAMNED POINT.

People are welcome to believe whatever they want, but I cannot get over the blatant disconnect that comes from some religious people about this. The Da Vinci Code might just be fiction, but it's still a helluva lot more plausible to a rational non-Christian mind than invisible dieties and pregnant virgins and walking on water and feeding thousands of people from a handful of fish and people rising up from the dead and ascending to the heavens in blazing chariots.

That's all I'm saying.

{2006.05.21 - 00:09} : Comments (4)

Sickness and VMware

I've spent this week laid low with the dreaded lurgy. The sounds emanating from my chest at night could be used as the soundtrack for a horror movie, and images of me coughing and sniffing would work quite well as the promo poster.

In between sleeping and trying to sleep (koffity koff), I've finally had some time to sit down and play with VMware. Part of my plans for world domination involve me needing a fairly bare-bones Linux installation, and of course VMware is an absolutely brilliant way to set up a working system, and after backing up the base image, fiddle, break and restore and repeat to your heart's content.

Along the way, I got to answer a question I've been wondering for a while: what's the difference between VMware workstation (which is still a commercial, pay-for product) and VMware server (which is free as in with every box of Rice Krispies)? The answer is that there doesn't seem to be much difference at all, at least not for straightforward, normal use. I'm sure there are features that differ, but the server product has allowed me to create and run VMs, and that's all I really need.

One warning I stumbled across though, is that VMware server (which is still in beta), is apparently compiled in 'DEBUG' mode and is therefore a little slower. I haven't noticed it, but I'd infer that if you went with something like VMware player (which is also free), you might get better performance.

{2006.05.19 - 10:18} : Comments (0)

The great kernel debate

The Linus Torvalds - Andrew Tanenbaum dust-up from 1992 about how stupid an idea a monolithic kernel was for a 'modern' operation system is legend in Linux circles. It's 14 years later and the back-and-forth still flares up every now and again. This page discusses Linus Torvalds' latest response to a pro-microkernel article by Tanenbaum in the IEEE Computer magazine.

I've used a number of Tanenbaum's textbooks for university subjects over the past few years, and the 'microkernels are where it's at' sections always provoke a bit of a 'yeah right, that's not what kernel hackers say' reaction from me.

The debate interests me, not because I'm qualified to have opinions about how best to build kernels, but because the debate highlights a tension between theory and practice. Support for microkernels seems quite logical if you consider all the stuff you've learned about software development - modularity, simplicity, defensive design, etc etc. The only problem is that mainstream kernels like Linux are monolithic, and there seems to be no significant impetus for smaller-and-better microkernels to replace them.

Perhaps it's just an issue of barriers to entry, because a large part of the success of a kernel is dependent on driver support, which isn't easy to come by without a huge developer community willing to write the drivers needed, but still: if monolithic kernels were so bad, surely the people who spend the most time writing production-use kernels would come to the same conclusion academics do?

{2006.05.14 - 18:57} : Comments (2)

Things to do when you're bored

A colleague was telling me about a school friend who used to irritate his teachers by repeating the last few words of each sentence a few times, a few times, a few times.

The next time you're speaking to someone, and want to drive them dilly, give it a try, a try, a try.

{2006.05.13 - 11:59} : Comments (1)

My advice for Ronnie Kasrils

Ronnie Kasrils is facing the wrath of the ANC Youth League who want to investigate his involvement in the whole Zuma affair. Kasrils is hedging his bets a little, and released a statement, saying inter alia:

"This is clearly stated in my affidavit. It is clear from my affidavit, which was requested by the prosecution and made available to the defence, that I did nothing to aggravate the situation, I did nothing that was prejudicial to Jacob Zuma and I was not in any way part of any conspiracy. I am not a significant part of the sequence of events."

He continued: "I wish to quote the salient statement from my affidavit which is as follows: 'I explained to her that I was not in a position to take up this issue since I was concerned that to do so would politicise the matter.

"I informed her further that I was not in a position to give her any advice and that she should do what she felt was correct in the circumstances.'"

Not wanting to politicise the issue is a noble goal, and maybe I just have outdated notions of right and wrong, but my advice for Ronnie Kasrils is this: the next time a woman phones you and says she was raped, you're entitled to give her one piece of advice: 'Rape trials are traumatic experiences, and you should be prepared for what will happen. Having said that, if he raped you, the bastard should be behind bars. Call the cops'.

{2006.05.11 - 20:24} : Comments (0)

Mad Bob strikes again

From the M&G:

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has signed into law the Education Act Amendment Bill giving the state powers to fix fees at private schools, in a development education experts say could see standards falling at the schools that are the only sources of a reliable education for young Zimbabweans.

One of the mad boblings:

"The Education [Act Amendment] Bill is now law. The president assented to it on Monday," said Chigwedere. "We are going to deal heavily with all those schools that are charging exorbitant fees. We are aware that there are some schools already charging Z$300-million a term, some Z$250-million, others Z$200-million a term. This is outrageous and unacceptable."

What the article fails to point out is that these days, 250 million Zimbabwean dollars is probably worth about 1 US dollar. With their hyperinflation, it'll be around 50 cents by next week Wednesday.

The really crazy thing is that bit about experts worrying about school standards falling. Isn't this worrying about messy deck chairs on the Hindenberg, to appropriate a recently turned turn of phrase? Surely at some point one recognises that Zimbabwe is so deep into la-la land that focusing on any single deviation from sanity is plain missing the point? 'Oh my, what future will our poor children have to look forward to?'

Let's get real. The whole planet is just patiently waiting for Mad Bob to bite the big one and hoping things will get better after that. Until then, newspapers can save themselves a lot of ink by just running a daily boilerplate 'yet another fsckup in Zimbabwe, we won't even waste your time telling you what it is.'

{2006.05.11 - 19:13} : Comments (0)

On a related grammatical note...

... is it proper to say 'rhetoric and scaremongering is back' or 'rhetoric and scaremongering are back'? The latter seems grammatically correct being a plural but it sounds just as wrong and I've spent too much time joking in a fake Afrikaans accent today to trust my judgement, and my copy of Strunk & White are at the cleaners.

(Update: 'are' were correk. What it is! Thanks guys! (and lest posterity condemn me, the S&W thing was tongue in cheek ;-)

{2006.05.10 - 21:32} : Comments (2)

Iran

I am inclined to believe that the US will not go to war with Iran simply because the bad guy's surname is too hard to pronounce and the news networks will revolt.

In a nutshell though, Ahmadinejad sent a letter to Dubya, saying something between 'yo momma' and 'can't we all jus' get along?' and 'what's in it for me, cowboy?'. Unsurprisingly, the US administration told the handsomely bearded Mr A to get stuffed.

I make a note of this because about 2 years ago I'm sure I commented somewhere that Iran or Syria were sure to follow in Iraq's footsteps, and then a year later it seemed like Iraq was a such an unholy mess that the US wouldn't be able to look at another tin-pot dictatorship without developing that queasy feeling you get when you've puked your guts out on a bottle of Cinzano White and get a whiff of the stuff again.

Now, over the past few weeks, the rhetoric and scare-mongering are back, and the letter seems to be another punctuation mark in what is increasingly looking like a really bad story. Where will the story be in another year's time?

Jim Henley has an analysis (part 1, part 2)of what all the letter stuff means, and the comments are delightfully cynical too.

{2006.05.10 - 21:09} : Comments (0)

Zuma

Quick note... Zuma's rape trial ended yesterday, and while our ex-deputy-prez is a brain-dead no-good worthless excuse for a human being, he's not a rapist.

Some comfort. He's not guilty of this crime (and if justice has been done, then that is a good thing), but there will be no justice for the victims of rapists emboldened by his ridiculous opinions about women 'asking for it', and there will be no justice for the many people who will contract and eventually die of AIDS because the ex-deputy-president says that if you're a man, and take a shower afterwards, you're less likely to get infected after sleeping with an HIV+ woman.

Laurence Caromba says it far more eloquently over here. It will be a sad day for this country if Zuma returns to politics. Roll on the corruption trial.

{2006.05.09 - 21:48} : Comments (0)

Phew

Academic season back in full swing, and the first round of assignments almost done. I just have one project bulls^Wwaffle^Wproposal left to write, and then I can breathe freely for a bit.

The project I'm doing is maths-related, which might come back to bite me in the butt, but it involves lots of programming, which is why I chose it. The only problem is that I don't know too much about what I'm 'sposed to be doing yet... after a looong stretch of radio silence and a series of unanswered emails I finally got hold of my project leader on the phone, to find out what was going on. "Hey! Wassup!" says I (diplomatically, of course). "Oh," says the lecturer, "I've been away at workshops, I'm sorry. I'm a bit behind, I have 1,200 unread emails in my Inbox."

I don't know what the appropriate response is to that. I'm not renowned for staying on top of my correspondence, but someone who's let 1,200 emails pile up and just blithely admits to it... that's a bit untidy. Kinda shakes the foundations of modern society, if you know what I mean.

{2006.05.09 - 21:30} : Comments (0)

Axis2

I see that Apache Axis2 has hit 1.0 status. Axis2 is a new SOAP implementation, meant to replace the venerable Axis, (which was the old Apache SOAP, which was (I think) the prehistoric SOAP4J before that). When I was doing some homework on SOAP APIs a while back, the Axis2 stuff still looked a bit flaky and under-documented. Axis2 does sound more promising, though, particularly the fact that they seem to have done away with the infernal JAX specs and are going for a simpler, saner XML-over-the-wire API.

Having spent some time in the Axis 1.3 code trying to figure how certain things work (or more to the point, why certain things weren't working), I can understand why the Apache folks decided to wipe the slate clean and start over with Axis2. Apart from buckling under the weight of its own API, the old Axis had a more-than-mild case of bitrot. It's a known entity, at least, and widely documented, but it sounds like Axis2 is catching up fast. I think I'll be giving it another look.

(Update: the BileBlog says don't bother)

{2006.05.06 - 23:37} : Comments (0)

Quote of the day

... Nor do I think it is a newer and better or brighter or has less calories; everything we build is turds, we just move them around or shine them or have a different view on which way they should be rolled.

OpenBSD creator Theo De Raadt on Linux, but applicable to much $PRODUCT_A versus $PRODUCT_B zealotry.

{2006.05.02 - 17:58} : Comments (2)

Wild West

Sometimes, late at night, I like to do a tail -f on my server's log file and watch as the hits to my site scroll ((very) slowly) by. It relaxes me.

I'm not sure if it's because my blog runs on Tomcat, but thecorneroffice.org's logs are clean. Traffic is legit. Every now and then I look at the logs for my 'home page', colinpretorius.org, which runs on Apache (httpd), and it's a different story altogether. It's like the Wild West with Herpes, crazy-ass outlaws and unsavoury types throwing stuff at the server, and they keep coming back. I get hits trying to exploit nearly ever perl, php and cgi-based site vulnerability known to man, and then some. It doesn't seem worthwhile trying to ban IP addresses, so I guess the best is to be glad that it's just a dumb http server with the bells and whistles turned off, and stay on top of security updates.

I do think it would be cool if Apache had a mod_fyou extension that linked in to a subscription service. For a small monthly fee, the extension forwards details of the untoward 'prod' to a tracking service, who'll indentify who's scanning you, get their home address, then send someone round to the perp's house, and bash their knees in with a baseball bat. For an additional fee (and indemnity waiver), they'll forego the baseball bat and just rip out the skiddie's entrails with a rusty fish knife. If you go for the deluxe service, Skiddies Removals, Inc will even give you access to their operatives in far-flung places like Korea and China.

Of course, people will say that many of the scan attempts are coming from home Windows users who don't even know that their PCs have been trojanned. I think most people will agree though, that in the great battle against people who have the nerve to scan decent god-fearing web servers, sacrifices will need to be made. Besides, I don't think anything that Microsoft can do would encourage people to keep their XP boxes patched and trojan-free as much as a few well-publicised stories about entrails and rusty fish knives.

{2006.05.01 - 11:17} : Comments (0)

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