02 September 2010

Luna culpa

Well, I thought maybe perhaps my letter would get published, but I wasn't expecting the Voice to stick it in the Editorial! Well, good on 'em. I am happy that the exchange remained light hearted, too. While issues of fact-checking, information literacy, and responsible journalism are very serious ones when you view the intellectual landscape today (which is sadly starting to look a little barren... too many little scrubby factoids and not enough solid big thinking), it also doesn't do to bludgeon someone to death with the message. Though, apparently I am suspected to be one who may indeed bludgeon ;)

You can read my letter and accompanying editorial here:

Or, go right to the Voice: http://ezread.ca/countyvoice/voice/cv-sept210/index.html

27 August 2010

Mars v. moon

I don't usually write letters to the editor. I can't actually remember the last time I did... might have been about bus passes when I was at University of Waterloo. This week, I was compelled to write a letter to the County Voice in Haliburton, Ontario in response to a small innocuous looking blurb in the bottom right corner of page 10 of the 26 August 2010 issue:

(Captured from http://ezread.ca/countyvoice/voice/voice-aug2610/index.html)

I have received this hoax many times in my inbox over the last 7 years or so. I remember "Mars fever" in 2003 when it was actually closer than usual, and even went to the observatory at University of Western Ontario to see the red planet through their telescope. Unfortunately the line was much too long, and I wound up using a friendly amateur star-gazer's telescope in the soccer field where I was also shown some nifty star clusters and nebulae.

It frustrates me that what has become a hoax, and such a well-known one, would wind up in a proper newspaper with seemingly nary a checked-fact found. The science-geek in me even cried a little... until I told her to man-up.

I'm going to reproduce my letter here in full. It may not even get published, or could be edited for space. So I thought it would be nice to satisfactorily air my grievances on the subject via blog as well.

To the Editor,

I hope that your readers weren’t too disappointed to find out that Mars was nowhere near the size of the moon on the night of August 27th, as “reported” in your paper on August 26th. I’d wager that most of them were not, as the email forward that has been circulating about this alleged view of Mars has probably hit their inboxes several times since it began in 2003.

I really hoped that the small innocuous blurb on page 10 was a joke when I read it. I checked my calendar… it wasn’t April 1st. I also didn’t see any fine print saying “tee hee hee!” though I’ll admit my eyesight isn’t very good (though still good enough to NOT miss a giant moon-sized Mars in the night sky). But when no one jumped out of the bushes laughing “Bwah ha ha ha ha! Fooled you!” the sad realization dawned on me that you may have been serious.

Do email forwards really pass as solid journalism today? Did anyone even think to do a quick search on the internet for “mars AND moon” to see if this may be a hoax? Perhaps take a few minutes to poke around NASA’s website? What about phoning up Trent University in Peterborough? They have a Physics and Astronomy program. I’m sure a professor would have been happy to set the Mars v. Moon record straight.

In our sound-byte culture where so much real information gets lost in the noise of punditry and ‘truthiness’, having a hoax published as fact in one of our local newspapers is just sad. Fact checking appears to have become something only done if it doesn’t get in the way of a good story. Add to this a lack of scientific literacy which allows for modern-day snake-oil salesmen to sell skinny-pills and nether-region-girthers, and the intellectual landscape looks very grim.

As a local paper that is distributed to every mailbox in Haliburton County that will take it, you wield a great deal of power in educating the public about what is going on in the world around them. I’d hate to know how many people really did believe that Mars would be as big as the moon on Friday night, and then wound up feeling kind of dumb when it wasn’t. A quick fact check is the least you can do to make sure you aren’t misleading your trusting public.

Please, use your powers for good and not evil. Now, if you’ll excuse me I have some email forwards to attend to. I hear Bill Gates is giving away some money…


Erin Kernohan

PS – Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City does an excellent blog entry about the “Mars virus”, and is worth having a look at. http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/resources/starstruck/marsvirus

Stay sharp, folks.

18 April 2010

Wish you were here.

My dreams are always vivid and strange, last night being no exception. So I thought I would put my sleep deprivation to good use and try writing a little one shot story about one.

I still wasn't quite sure why I was there. It had been suggested to me that I just show up and have a poke around. See if there was anything worth pilfering, I supposed. And by pilfering I mean offering the elderly and grieving parents a sum far below what the items were worth so that they could be sold at a price just above what they were worth. The idea never fails to make my skin crawl just a little, which is what I've used to justify myself as still being a good person. As long as I understand that this part of my job is wrong, my soul is still clean... if just carrying a bit of a patina.

He was an astronaut. An occupation that was once so life-consuming - sometimes terminally so - that it was considered a calling. But gone were the days of breaking through the atmosphere riding on a barely controlled explosion. Rather now with advances in quantum propulsion, carriers ranging from luxury to steerage sent their automated crafts floating up on clouds of paradoxes and singularities. However the old glory still remained even though they held no more status than commercial airline pilots of olde.

The sky was an unbroken blue, bordered by high, treed valley walls. A damp breeze set the surroundings a flutter ever so slightly as the gravel of the driveway crunched under my shoes. The house was white stucco with rounded walls and arches. Hanging plants, small rock gardens, and wall-hugging shrubbery were nestled into every spare gap. The smell of fresh cut grass hung in the air, but not a single clipping tarnished the velvety green blanket of lawn. A tall lithe flowering crab shone white in the sun, a black ribbon tied 'round its trunk rustling in the wind.

The funeral had been yesterday. Most of the denizens of the small town had come out on to Main Street to see the procession go through. Black confetti created moving shadows over the crowds, settling to litter the gutters. Shopkeepers wandered in and out of their shops, waiting for the telltale belch of black smoke to emerge from the stack at the crematorium. Today was clearing house for his elderly parents. He had been their sole support, and with him gone they had little choice but to follow. They could only hope to get enough income from their worldly possessions to make it a dignified termination.

As I suspected, entering the house, the place had been well picked over. Vultures - forgetting for a moment I was one of them. There were just a couple of people browsing the nearly empty shelves - a squirrely looking man in a threadbare jacket, and a greasy looking fellow trying to be dapper in a suit taken from his last acquisition. Thin lines of dust betrayed where couches and chairs had once been, and unbleached shadows outlined the shapes of keepsakes and forget-me-nots that had lined the shelves.

An elderly lady, the mother, wrung her hands worriedly as she felt her pocketed apron for what cash she'd made so far. I looked out the window and the old man, haggard and stooped, hair slicked back with pomade, stood with a leashed pug in the backyard. I walked over to one of the few shelves with anything left on it. A few framed pictures dotted the space. It was his portraits from completing his training - matted and sun-bleached in their creamy white frames. One close up of him, square cut hair and serious with his helmet in hand and the World flag behind him. Another standing in a tight blue space-suit, helmet under arm, eyes wide and turned upward to the sky. Finally, a group photo of his graduating class, with an old and obsolete rocket behind them.

'They say he burned up in the atmosphere.' A withered voice came from behind me. I started a little, and turned realizing it was the old lady. I looked at her, her eyes wide and worried and in shock. 'The ship broke up and he fell through the atmosphere with just his suit.' Tears gathered into the corners of her eyes.

Despite myself I felt my heart raise into my throat a little. I'd done enough of these that it shouldn't have bothered me. Perhaps it was something about the day. I was supposed to have the day off really, which had started out well enough. But after bad coffee, burned toast, and a heated argument, I was not only on the job but with a thin skin as well.

She fingered the cash in her pocket. I heard myself ask the question - the question that someone in my line of work should never ask - before I could stop myself. 'So, where are you at?' Dammit.

She glanced out at her husband in the yard. 'Enough.' She said. 'Enough to get it done quickly and plainly.' I swallowed the lump in my throat. I knew the way of the world, but rarely had to look it straight in the eye. The rising waters made this place too small for them. There was no one to take care of them anymore, no pensions or welfare for them to live off of, so it was time for them to go. The rest of us had a difficult enough time as it was making ends meet. Even still, I was having a tough time raising my eyes to hers.

'What do you want for the pictures?' I asked. Maybe quickly and plainly wasn't good enough. 'I'll give you $1,000 for them.' The old lady's jaw dropped ever so slightly before she regained composure. She nodded stiffly, tears spilling onto her cheeks. I pulled the money from my allowance, and placed it in her cold, bony withered hand, curling her fingers around it. She placed it in her apron, and handed me each portrait one by one, taking a moment with each one to say goodbye. I slipped them into my bag, and made my way to the door, stopping short of the threshold.

'How much do you want for the dog?'

As I left the house, bag laden with the final - but financially worthless - legacy of a largely unknown and unremarkable astronaut, and a wheezing pug, I looked back. The white stucco seemed dark, the flowering crab seemed withered, the black ribbon around it's trunk tattered. The sky was still blue from horizon to horizon, but the sun seemed to shine less brightly. All life had left that place, and it was now just a husk. I felt like I needed to go home.

A week later, unemployed, wheezing pug on my lap, bad coffee in hand, and burned toast nearly half finished, my husband brought the paper in. 'Do you know anything about this?' I scratched the pug behind the ears as I leaned over to read the headline.

The elderly parents of a deceased astronaut have failed to file their termination papers, and have disappeared. Their house was found empty save for dozens of copies of faded portraits of their son, and a postcard which read only 'Wish you were here.' This is the latest in a string of...

I smiled up at my husband, and took a sip of the inky black brew. 'Nope. Not a thing.'

Just finished reading Marvellous Hairy by Mark A. Rayner

Marvellous Hairy Marvellous Hairy by Mark A. Rayner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a delightfully bizarre romp. Mark's writing is not unnecessarily embellished, he gets to the point while still being descriptive, and his dialogue sounds like something I'd overhear at the Grad Club over at Hated University. The story is something that any sci-fi loving reader will enjoy, but in some ways it feels like a MacGuffin - which is just fine because the characters are so endearing that you are happy to get to know them.

On the surface the story is about evil corporate science and cartoonish supervillainy. Underneath that it is about a group of friends breaking through that limbo which occurs after university and on to the next stage of their lives.

The book itself is an odd shape. A bit more substantial than a pocket book. Can't be afraid to crack the spine on this one. There are also some typos... though given some of the mind bending that goes on, I feel alright explaining them away as being typed by monkey-fingers.

View all my reviews >>

10 January 2010

Adventures in Linux

Back in the summer (oh so long ago, and oh so much warmer than winter in Petawawa), I took an Open Source course with Gord Nickerson at UWO. It was really a neat course, and I was able to get hands on with many things that I had only really known about in a peripheral sense, Linux among them. After a lot of tweakage, I managed to get Ubuntu fully running on Virtual Box on my desktop, so I got to mess around a great deal with it.

Since then, I have wanted to put Linux on my laptop (an aging Compaq Presario V2000... which is actually a V2-somethingelse because it has a different graphics card... or something), which I got before I went to Scotland. So it's too old to put W7 on (which is on my desktop, and I love), and I really have no need of a now very sluggish XP machine. However, I was a bit put off by the prospect of stuff not working - particularly my wifi, which I had read may be a problem. Since to a certain extent I was still relying on my laptop to work in the comfort of the gherk (pet name for the GRC - Graduate Resource Centre) at school, I didn't want it to be out of commission for any length of time. Especially being 5 hours removed from my usual tech support.

Over the summer, I started running the release candidate of W7 on my desktop, after Vista started to rapidly implode on itself. By fall I was running W7 full version on my desktop, the soon-to-be bf had wrangled me an 8G iPod touch, and being on co-op my laptop began to collect dust. The long-suffering machine has served me well, so my mind still churned on the idea of repurposing it as an open source box.

The holidays came and went, and I have spent a rare weekend in the Pet, with not a whole helluva lot to do. So, boredom, and bravery (given my W7 box is running like a dream), I decided to take the plunge. The no-longer-soon-to-be-and-now-now bf suggested Mint to me... which reviewers point to as a nice easy beginner's version of Linux. Very Windows like, and an easy setup. Another plus, is it is built on Ubuntu, which is built on Debian, so there is a nice big base of software and support out there for it. Unfortunately, it also comes with the same Ubuntu prob I was worried about, no driver support for my somewhat retro Broadcom 4318 rev02 wifi card, and a somewhat smaller support base.

Burned the iso with no prob. Had to reboot twice to get the live cd to work. Once that was all up and going, I installed Mint. Again, took two reboots to get going. Sound, graphics, and everything worked. That is, everything except my pesky wifi.

Now, there is a ton of stuff out there addressing this problem. So it is easy to get lead astray. So, I'm going to post links to the resources that helped me the most, and if anyone out there in the same boat stumbles on this, maybe this will help.

1. Do not try and download the drivers that Mint prompts you to. If you already have, try out #3, and then go back to 2a.

2a. Follow the five steps in this post by Arron. http://forums.linuxmint.com/viewtopic.php?f=53&t=14349&hilit=broadcom+4318&start=30#p212621

2b. But how do you pull the inf out of the exe?

Save the exe to your desktop, and in terminal enter:
cd ~/Desktop
cabextract yourfilename.exe
Your desktop will be filled with all the files in the exe, including the inf file you need to install.

2c. But where the dickens to I get my drivers?

Go over to the hp site and get them there.

3. So, now your wifi light should be able to toggle on and off. Can you get online? If not, or if you (like me) had already stumbled on a few different but not working solutions, you may need to blacklist the previous broadcom 43xx driver. You can do that by following this post by Raven http://ubuntuforums.org/showpost.php?p=1189681&postcount=105

There, that's everything I did to get my Broadcom 4318 rev02 card to work with Linux Mint on my Compaq Presario V2000 (or not V2000). I don't guarantee the above will work for you, but it did for me.

So, geek credentials recertified, I now have a Linux box to call my very own.

**Update: I was getting all these liney artifacts when I'd close windows or reveal the desktop. Probably because I have an ATI Radeon XPRESS 200M 5955 card... if you are having the same prob, check out this: http://sidrit.wordpress.com/2008/08/10/enabling-desktop-effects-for-ati-radeon-xpress-200m-on-ubuntu-hardy-heron/

Now, I couldn't get it to verify that I had installed the fglrx drivers... but upon reboot the problem seems to have been solved. And things are much snappier.