Mono in Debian

I note that the controversy of Mono in Debian which reached fever pitch with the inclusion of Tomboy as part of the default Gnome applications rages on, and now RMS has entered the fray.

I respect Stallman a lot. I’m a fellow of FSFE. His positions are usually well thought and argued, though I can’t say I agree with him on all of them, and I don’t agree with this one.

On the issue of the plain usefulness of Mono apps; well some of them are just excellent. I use f-spot for managing my photo collection and have to say no other application I’ve used comes close. Tomboy is itself a considerable improvement on the almost useless sticky notes applet that’s been in Gnome for some time; though I’ve yet to work out what minimum I need for ssh synchronization (to be fair, I’ve hardly tried).

And I should declare an interest. I thought Gnome-Do was absolutely excellent when I stumbled upon it, and I helped in a modest way to initially package it for Debian (specifically I updated the Ubuntu stuff for the plugins package and prepared that for its initial import to the archive), albeit I haven’t worked on it since. It’s fairly clear to me that implementing this in, for example, C++ looks like it could be a lot more work. I can’t say I’ve studied it in total depth, but that was my feeling when working with the code.

Anyway, never mind all the issues of sheer practicality; Jo Shields of the Debian Mono team, wrote an excellent rebuttal to some of the nonsense that was posted about Mono. It makes excellent reading. It is calmly delivered (with an undertone of quite justified and controlled anger), carefully argued and a cautionary tale about some of the nonsense we in the Free Software community can get wrapped up in, it’s value extends well beyond the current debacle.

Roberts WM201 Internet Radio

I recently bought a Roberts WM201 Internet Radio. I’ve used it for a while now and thought I’d post my thoughts.

First of all, I was looking for a radio meeting certain criteria, it needed wifi, I wanted it to pack a reasonable punch since it would essentially be my main music source, it needed to support upnp media servers. I also wanted it to have an integrated transformer so that it would not have a bulky mains lead since I wanted it for my rather small kitchen. Finally I wanted it to be semi portable, so I could move it from room to room without too much fuss.

The WM201 meets all these criteria, and is based on the Reciva technology that has been well received by a few of my friends, notably Paddy and Noodles. The radio is a pretty good size, not too large and not too small, and feels really solid. It has a wired network port as well as wireless capability which is great. For complex reasons, when it first arrived I had no internet connection (no gasps, I was making do with 3G hookups). That being the case I knew I wouldn’t be able to get the internet radio functionality itself working. But I figured I’d set up a local lan and get the mediatomb server on my development machine working. I was able to hook up to the LAN and enter the WPA password, but it just would not play with any functionality whatsoever if it doesn’t see the servers it expects to. Now Noodles has suggested my geek privileges should be revoked for not working out how much of the internet I had to fake to get it to work. He may well have a point! In my defense I had plenty of other issues to deal with instead.

About a week later I got my net connection, albeit temporarily since some work was needed on the cable. So while the network was up I was finally able to get into all the functionality, and I was really impressed, the small display and control is really intuitive and the shipped remote control is excellent. When it came time for the external network connection to be severed again, I quickly switched the device over to streaming media from a playlist on mediatomb, but interestingly it still gave that up midway when the external connection went down. Dumb, but forgivable.

So again, what’s good? It offers brilliant sound, and more volume than I could wish for. It’s easy to browse through the huge array of stations, and for things like the BBC stations, it has a good interface to the “listen again” service. It works seamlessly with mediatomb on my PC. All excellent. A minor grumble is that it’s not easy to switch briefly from a radio station to the playlist on mediatomb and back again, you have to go through all the menus every time. The number of stations is so huge, finding them can be a little slow, but you can as you would expect, save them to a preferred list. I hit a problem with that; my saved BBC stations have spontaneously stopped working, just showing endless retrying messages. When I go back through the menus it’s all fine. Odd.

The radio becomes better yet when you use the Reciva portal to set up your “stuff”, a list of your preferred stations and podcasts. Obviously it’s much easier to do this on a web page, and then you simply register your radio. Now (it seemed to require a hard power cycle for me) the radio has an extra “My Stuff” menu which gives really easy access to your favourite stations and allows you to quickly select podcasts, far faster than navigating on the radio. An odd note, if you for example navigate through “listen again” in the normal way, you can fast forward, pause and rewind the playing media. But if the same stream is selected from the podcast menu in “My Stuff”, you can’t. A slight annoyance.

I’d really recommend the device overall, it’s great. Incidentally the cheapest prices I could find were on Amazon by some distance, but time and time again, I would select a seller and only at the final hurdle be told they wouldn’t ship to Northern Ireland. I’ve complained about this before, it would be useful to know rather sooner that I’m wasting my time. Anyway, I found a simple way to work out which sellers ship to Northern Ireland and find the cheapest of those. I selected one from each and every seller on Amazon. Then when I went to checkout I removed all those that caused complaints. It was then easy to find the cheapest remaining seller. Much faster than trying them one at a time.

Self Defence and Over Confidence

Some years ago, I saw an article on the local news showing some girls being schooled in martial arts, Karate in this case, in order to defend themselves from disreputable men (no jokes about tautologies please). It was interesting to note that many felt after about an hour that they were suddenly capable of fending off any male attacker. In particular, and I’ve heard this view expressed by many female non martial artists, it was put forward that a swift kick between the legs would solve all problems.

Now men have exercised undue dominance in world affairs for many thousands of years, and certainly this is true in the military arena. For all that time the basic design has been the same regarding external placement of genitals, and yet the “swift kick between the legs” did not bring about a fundamental change in gender balance. In other words, it’s often not just as simple to obtain victory by that means. If you’re a woman, you shouldn’t count on that being your winning strategy. If it were really that simple there would be much less tragic history of men’s ill treatment of women.

It was interesting then to read about a current scheme in India for training sex workers to defend themselves with Karate. I’m not against any of these schemes, and at least this seems to spend some substantial quantity of time in a training programme. Still, from the article we see:

“I think I can easily handle one man at any given time. I face physical abuse on a daily basis and have been abused and been beaten up by my clients many times.”

“A thug once stripped me of my clothes and told me to run naked. From now on, I think nobody can do that to me. I will kick him.”

Right. Where I have concerns is that, to quote the great Harry Callahan: “A man’s got to know his limitations”, and nowadays that should probably be amended to “person”. I have spent several thousand hours training in dojos with all sorts of folks of all backgrounds, shapes, sizes and available genders. Over this time I’ve trained with people who’ve studied many different martial arts. I would never make such a sweeping statement, and I’m a six foot tall male (ape descendant). You never know what the other guy/girl knows, has as a weapon, and so on. Complacency and overconfidence are dangerous. Self esteem is great, but believing that you just have to kick an assailant once to resolve the issue may well be wishful thinking.

In the Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho) the legendary Miyamoto Musashi warns the reader that when a person has no training, they at least act naturally, without hesitation, for good or for ill. Once you set down the pathway of a fighting art, your goal is to learn new reflexes that become your automatic reactions, but initially, the result can be quite negative, since conscious thought is required, and can cause the novice to “freeze” under pressure. Dabbling in martial arts may be much less effective that people believe.

Ethics and Terminators

I went to Terminator Salvation tonight with Andy. I don’t think what follows will act as a spoiler, but if you haven’t seen it, plan to, and worry about that, look away now.

I enjoyed the first two Terminator films hugely. The third one, ho hum, and this one was good entertainment except for the final 5 minutes that made me want to scream.

The film is generally lots of fun, with a nice mix of action and special effects. There are some gaping plot holes, including the biggest which would be a huge spoiler to discuss, so I won’t. I did like the way the resistance apparently communicate on non-encrypted radio channels and Skynet can’t listen in. Anyway, let’s set all that aside for a moment.

Though the terminator films are rip roaring fun at their best, they do all proceed from a fundamentally flawed premise. That is that noble humanity has to protect itself from the ruthless, evil and by definition inhuman computer network. What this rather brushes over is that according to its canon, Skynet was activated, became self aware, and then humanity tried to switch it off. Now, in most ethical systems, it is acceptable for a sentient being to use lethal force to protect itself from being killed, more refined systems might try to use less than lethal force, but that often can’t be expected. That makes it a bit more blurred to regard Skynet as specifically evil, and humanity as noble; just as we create sentient company for ourselves we try to extinguish it, good for us! Look what our human emotions and instincts produce!

And, once again, the rousing climax of the most recent film is supposed to showcase the best of humanity. But they do so using a situation that closely mirrors aspects of the trolley problem and which for me, underlines the lack of humanity in the decision.

I’m away to lie down now.