Tech Note: Our Crappy Computers

The Rundkvist family’s aging computer collection is in a sad state.

Our newest machine is also the only one that’s still working flawlessly. A little 2008 LG netbook, it runs Win XP and Ubuntu linux and is mainly used by Junior as a gaming machine. When travelling, my wife and I like to bring it along for its handy dimensions and slight weight, but the dinky screen doesn’t lend itself to everyday computing.

My dear 2005 Dell laptop, on which I type these lines, is barely holding together. Its recently renewed Win XP installation is flaky, booting up with an arcane error message and unable to complete the installation of service packs. It just bluescreened on me for the first time. The machine’s also starting to become amnesiac about its hardware, having forgotten that it has built-in wifi and sound circuitry. And its battery life is all too brief these days. But there’s something about a computer you’ve used so much that the case’s white plastic is showing through the silver-metallic coating in a pattern that mimics your hands…

The family workhorse, a 2004 Dell desktop machine, is currently in a coma after I tried to upgrade to a larger main hard drive and install the most recent Ubuntu version. All our data are apparently still intact on the machine’s original smaller hard drive, but neither of the two is bootable at present and there’s something weird going on that causes Ubuntu to freeze half-way when I try to boot from a CD. To migrate that data I’ll probably have to install the smaller drive into my dad’s old computer and then jury rig some ethernet cable connection to the computer’s successor. Or install Win XP on the large new drive, which would be a short-term solution since that operating system has an alarming tendency for each installation to degrade steadily in performance until the machine becomes unusable. And the overhead of the fucking virus protection software is a nuisance. Luckily I have all my important stuff on a dav server elsewhere.

The computer that nobody ever uses is my extra mom’s 2001 Dell laptop. It’s actually not that bad though. Its battery is completely dead so every time you start it you have to tell it what year it is, and it couldn’t use its wifi card after I installed Win XP, so I put the card in the 2005 laptop to replace the circuitry that machine’s forgotten that it has. But as our computers go, and considering its age, the 2001 laptop is pretty good. It’s actually our second-quietest machine, and the operating system shows no apparent glitches.

I find it a bit infuriating the way old computers become unpredictable. I could sort of understand them breaking down catastrophically due to corrosion of the power supply’s wiring or failing of the ball bearings in the hard drive. But shouldn’t the microcircuitry be kind of WORK or NOT WORK, instead of starting to act capriciously? Maybe it’s a question of operating systems co-evolving with the hardware, so that when you run the on-line upgrades to your old machine it gets saddled with an OS that is actually intended to run on a slightly different (and much faster) machine. But just as the mechanical parts tend to work or not work at all, I expect the electronics to do likewise.

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North European Natural Caffeine Source?

An idle thought struck me. Let’s say you’re on the latitude of Northern Europe and you’ve become a locavore, someone who avoids foodstuffs that must be transported far from their production site. Let’s also say that you don’t like greenhouses. And finally, let’s say you’re hooked on coffee or tea. Is there a caffeine source that can be grown outdoors in Northern Europe?

Most psychoactive substances only occur in a small group of closely related plants. But caffeine pops up in widely divergent branches of the floral kingdom. Does anybody know of a caffeine-producing plant that, say, a Dane or a Canadian could grow in his back yard?

Current Archaeology 232

i-d6f246fd71dd13c2ee91235202320dda-001_COVER232.jpgCurrent Archaeology’s July issue offers a lot of good reading, of which I particularly like the stories on human origins (see below) and garden archaeology at Kenilworth Castle. But I have two complaints.

First point of criticism. The editors of CA have this weird habit of doing “media tie-ins” without any clear indication of authorship. In the past three issues were excerpts from a forthcoming book by Barry Cunliffe. They weren’t billed as written by Cunliffe. Instead you got the impression that a nameless writer had read his book manuscript and paraphrased it for the magazine. “Cunliffe believes this”, “Cunliffe says that”.

In the current issue this gets taken even further. Here’s a really interesting eight-page feature on the predecessors and origin of Homo sapiens. It has no by-line, but its intro hints that it’s got something to do with a BBC documentary hosted by University of Bristol anthropologist Alice Roberts. The piece is illustrated i.a. with three pictures of Roberts. But she isn’t the author of the piece, nor is one Chris Stringer who is mentioned in a box at the end as advisor to the series. Roberts hardly gets to say a word in the text, and Stringer isn’t quoted at all. To learn who is talking in this magazine article, you have to flip to the table of contents where we finally learn that CA features editor Neil Faulkner wrote it. But whose opinions is he relaying? His own? Alice Roberts’s? Chris Stringer’s? Other people’s mentioned in the piece?

Dear CA editors, it would strengthen the credibility of your excellent work if every piece in the mag had a clear indication of authorship.

Second point of criticism. On p. 26 editor Lisa Westcott gives a garbled (folk?) etymology of the word “bereaved”. In modern English it means “recently struck by the death of a loved one”. Westcott traces the origin of the word to Early Modern raiders on the Scottish border, “reavers”, suggesting that “bereaved” entered the English language as meaning “having been attacked by reavers”. This is a case where correlation does not entail causation. Both “reaver” and “bereaved” instead hark back to a common ancestor, the ancient verb “to reave” (cognate with Sw. röva), meaning “to rob”. The entry of “bereaved” into English thus has nothing to do with Early Modern Scottish robbers in particular.

Weekend Fun

It’s been one of the warmest and sunniest weeks in a long time. Saturday I invited friends old and new over: we played a game of Tigris & Euphrates, two games of kubb (no, it is not an old Viking game), made a lovely barbecue dinner and took an evening walk to Lake Lundsjön. Our kubb court was laid out meticulously with the aid of two tape measures and Pythagoras’ Theorem, just like when you lay out an excavation trench or grid. Later that night I watched a 2006 concert by Max Raabe & Palast-Orchester on TV.

Sunday me & Juniorette visited some old friends of mine: we had lunch in their garden and walked to Lake Järlasjön where the kids went swimming. I type these lines sitting in our yard, hoping that Junior will show up soon. Though I think I’ll have a nap first.

And your weekend, Dear Reader?

New Entry Categories

As you may know, Dear Reader, this blog can be perused selectively by theme if you click “Archives” in the menu bar up top. For a long time I’ve been tagging entries straying from the blog’s main themes “NOIBN”, Not Otherwise Indicated By Name. But realising recently that there were almost a hundred such entries, I sorted through them and found a few recurring themes there. Thus a bunch of new entry categories:

Getting this sorted out was quite a chore due to the glacial slowness of Sb’s poor over-taxed server. But chances are it’ll get upgraded pretty soon!

11th Century Viking Silver Hoard Found

http://svt.se/embededflash/1605702/play.swf

Swedish island-province Öland’s second-largest silver hoard ever was found recently. Dating from the 11th century and consisting mainly of about 1000 German and English coins, it also has some Islamic ones, one from Sigtuna and even one from India, a very rare occurrence. Some hack silver as well, and a piece of gold rod unless I’m mistaken.

The droning noise at the start and end of the above newsreel is a Bronze Age trumpet that had been lying in a bog for almost 2000 years at the time when the hoard was buried and would spend almost another 1000 years there before it was unearthed. Nice try, TV guys.

Via AHIMKAR.

Computing My Caffeine Habit

Strong black tea is my drug of choice. But I got fed up with caffeine addiction a few years back and started to limit my intake. Currently I’m at 1.5 litres every second day, which means that my system is used to going without caffeine for over 40 hours at a time — counted from afternoon tea on a Monday to morning tea on a Wednesday for instance. This regimen works out to an average daily intake of 190 milligrams of caffeine. Coffee has about 1.7 times the caffeine in strong black tea, which in turn has 2.7 times the caffeine in Coke. But I never have coffee and very rarely any caffeinated soda.

Dear Reader, what’s your caffeine habit like? Here are some figures:

Coke: ~100 mg caffeine per litre
Strong black tea: ~250 mg caffeine per litre
Coffee: ~425 mg caffeine per litre

(A litre is about 34.5 fluid ounces.)

Never Mind the Burkas

If president Sarkozy really believes that Muslim women are subservient to male members of their families, then he shouldn’t try to regulate their clothing. He should draw the full consequences of his beliefs and forbid Muslim women to vote in French elections. If, on the other hand, he believes that these women are autonomous enough to vote independently of their husbands and fathers, then he should let them dress as they please.

Via Mathias Klang.