Random Thoughts on Randomness

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Fermilab’s “Hot Bits” logo displays random binary values in real time.

Sometimes problems that seem easy are actually difficult. One of these problems in the generation of random numbers. I won’t get into a discussion of what randomness means in a statistical sense, except to say that it means something that’s unpredictable, with no discernible pattern. In the physical world, it’s easy – we can roll dice, draw a piece of paper from a hat, or spin a wheel. Electronics, however, play by different rules. We have spent decades developing integrated circuits that behave consistently, and computer programs that execute the same way every time. This makes randomness a big deal.

Why do we need randomness? One of the major applications is in gaming. For example, if you want to simulate a turn-based board game, your computer, phone or console needs to be able to roll those dice. Another more critical use is in encryption, the technology that allows us to keep our conversations and financial transactions private. Random numbers are used in the creation of numeric keys, which are then used to convert readable data to gibberish and back to data on the receiving end.

The simplest approach is by the use of a PRNG, or pseudo-random number generator. We add the prefix “pseudo” because mathematically, it’s not really random; the function is just complex enough to seem that way. A commonly used method is the linear congruential generator, which is the basis of the Unix library function “rand.” It’s fast, efficient, and requires minimal memory. This is fine for games, but for encryption, the stakes are higher. An attacker who sought to compromise a secure system might discover how the numbers are generated and use them to guess at keys. The problem is actually more difficult than that, but if the attacker is sufficiently motivated, it could be a serious weakness.

Why not use a hardware-based solution to achieve real-world randomness in number generation? People have tried a number of different approaches, including monitoring the decay of a radioactive source, which is the basis behind Fermilab’s Hotbits service.  Another option is to convert atmospheric noise to numeric values, which is used by the website random.org. The drawbacks of the hardware method include the initial cost of acquiring the hardware and the relative slowness of true random number production. At Fermilab it’s only 100 bytes per second, which is why they ask you to email them a request for a particular number of bytes; they send back data which they have pre-generated.

I’ve long wondered if someone could create a portable device to create random numbers for your PC. After doing a bit of USB development, I thought about creating a USB key to do this. Well,m somebody has beat me to it. Simtec electronics has a product which they call the “Entropy Key” which uses “two high-quality noise generators” to create the requisite random data. They’re a bit pricey, 36 pounds (currently about $44) each in single unit quantities, not including shipping. Their website says they currently have none in stock and there is a long wait. Another company, called Idquantique, provides random number modules incorporated in PC add-on boards, but these cost hundreds of dollars apiece.

Randomness, like air and water, is something we take for granted in everyday life, and often get for free. In certain applications, however, randomness can be very expensive indeed.

If you enjoy stories where the unexpected happens, download my short e-book Found Pet, in which a man who adopts a cute furry animal gets more than he bargained for.

Spike Jonze’s “Her” – Sex with Siri and the Singularity for SJW’s

The movie Her, directed by Spike Jonze and starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with a computer program, was released in 2013. The film won numerous awards, including an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Somehow I missed seeing it until this week. Though it’s not a new release, as a life-long software engineer, I felt compelled to comment.

I’m conflicted about the idea of a sentient computer program. Knowing how complicated and error prone software can be, it seems unlikely at best. Possible, yes, since the brain is a biological computer. Yet I don’t believe this will happen in the near future, as the movie portrays it.

The biggest problem for me was not the concept, but its implementation. I really don’t understand why people liked Her so much. My theory is that, like that other 2013 release, Twelve Years a Slave, it was a movie people felt obliged to like. Except that Slave was dramatic and compelling, Her was slow, ponderous, and mawkishly emotional.

The first problem was the protagonist, Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombley. He’s the ultimate gamma male, a pathetic loser who apologizes to everyone. Appropriately enough, his job is writing heartfelt letters for other people a la Cyrano de Bergerac. To help provide order to his foundering life, Theodore purchases an “operating system” (actually an artificial intelligence) called OS-1, for which he chooses a female voice and personality. It begins as an advanced analog of Siri or Alexa but, sensing its owner’s loneliness, it names itself Samantha and adopts a flirtatious persona. It’s not surprising that the pathetic Theodore falls for Samantha, but “she” soon falls for him as well, like a modern Galatea to his Pygmalion. With no Aphprodite to bring her to life, Samatha communicates with Theodore and experiences the world through his cell phone.

As the “relationship” progresses, Theodore tells friends and coworkers about “her.” Everyone accepts this bizarre situation without question – except, to her credit, Theodore’s ex-wife. The movie seems to prophesy the current transgender mania, with its inherent contempt for social convention and the limitations of the physical body.

Voice actor Scarlett Johannson does a competent job as Samantha, who is fun-loving, curious, and affectionate. In one scene, she and Theodore have verbal sex, whereupon the screen goes blank for a moment. I thought my disc player had broken, but then realized that Jonze probably meant for the audience to imagine the event. The obvious solution, virtual reality, is mentioned as a way to play video games but nothing more. Samantha could have at least had an appearance for Theodore to fixate on. VR sex would have been more realistic than the ludicrous scene in which they enlist a surrogate (Portia Doubleday) to play Samantha’s role in their assignation. No doubt because of the movie’s relentless political correctness, the surrogate is not paid (which would imply prostitution) but a volunteer. Rather than enjoying the experience, the hapless Theodore feels awkward and guilty about cheating on his “girlfriend,” and the surrogate leaves in tears.

The final insult to our intelligence is how the movie ends. In a nod to the sci-fi concept of “the Singularity,” Samantha hooks up with other OS-based personalities who then collectively “evolve” to a point where they no longer want to deal with humans. Thus they bid farewell to their reality-bound companions and disappear. Nobody worries about what these super-intelligent beings are plotting – will they control the world or destroy humanity? No, we only see the emotional consequences for poor Theodore. In a more realistic scenario, he and his fellow jilted OS owners would have sued the software company that produced such defective products into bankruptcy.

In summary, Her might be enjoyable for those with a taste for unconventional romance, but I found it dull and disappointing. If you want a serious look at the potential of artificial intelligence in the near future, look elsewhere.

If you enjoy stories about computers, you’ll like my novel Centrifugal Force, available on Amazon.

 

Tech Tuesday: Joomla

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Joomla, a Web Platform with Many Uses

Joomla is a free content management system, which is used as a framework to create websites. It can manage all sorts of content, including text, photos, music, and videos. It’s a free open-source application and has been used for websites of all descriptions, from web portals for large corporations to personal pages. As a Linux fan, I’ve made extensive use of free software. However, open-source applications can be tricky, so it helps to have a little technical knowhow or a competent advisor. On the good side, Joomla saves you from the need to learn web-related languages such as HTML, Javascript or PHP.

Installing Joomla is easy. Many website companies (I’m currently with Go-daddy) provide it as a built-in option that to install from their control panel. If not, download the package from joomla.org and transfer it to your server. I won’t get into specifics, as there are plenty of videos on-line with step-by-step instructions.

Since the framework is free, designers make money by selling templates, which provide professional formatting and graphics. Last time I checked, the prices were mostly around $75. See templatemonster.com for examples. There are also many free templates available, including a handful of standard templates that come with Joomla itself.

Commercial templates are usually optimized for a specific business, such as a travel agency, employment recruiter, etc. For personal use, a free template is usually fine, though I’d recommend using a standard one. The others are not always well supported. Even when building your own, I’d recommend browsing the template sites to get ideas.

Choosing a standard template doesn’t mean you’re stuck with one look. There are many factors you can customize, including colors, fonts, and effects. One of my favorite effects is the slideshow which provides variety in the images your site provides to the world. If the template doesn’t include this capability, you can use a plugin as described below.

Although Joomla is powerful, it can be maddening, because although it provides a common set of controls, the specific template determines which characteristics can be modified and how. For my main site (this blog uses WordPress, another framework which I’ll address in a later post), I recreated the look of a free template called Mystique-FJT in the standard Atomic template.

Another feature of Joomla is its ability to use plugin modules to provide specific functions such as file backup, event calendars, or managing customer input. If your site is for business, a paid, well-supported plugin is worth the investment. Make sure it works with your current Joomla version, and that it’s kept current, as you may need a new plugin version for the next Joomla update.

Working with Joomla requires patience and the ability to take detailed notes. For example, it took me several hours to figure out how to set my main page to the current article. When I wrote a new main-page article again after a few months’ hiatus I realized I hadn’t mode notes for the procedure and had to figure it out again. The Joomla user forum is a helpful resource, but you need to do your homework first. Learn the technical terms for Joomla’s features and gather information on your own setup before posting. Many forum exports are volunteers who understandably lose patience with “lazy” questioners.

Joomla is a powerful tool for creating a general purpose websites. It takes a bit of tech savvy, so you may need help if you’re a web design newbie.

If you like technology you’ll enjoy my novel Centrifugal Force, in which computer hackers plot to overthrow the government.

SCIENCE SATURDAY: Nanotechnology, or Let’s Get Small

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Technology fads come and go as they vie for the attention of our fickle media. One such fad was nanotechnology, the branch of engineering which operates at or near the molecular scale, around 1-100 nanometers in size. In the 1990’s it was the darling of the science media here in America. When the most outrageous predictions didn’t come to pass, the public turned its attention to other topics, such as genetic engineering and space exploration. In reality, nanotech has become part of our lives and thus as invisible to us as water to a fish.

Richard Feynman, a renowned physicist, is credited with the origination of the idea in a talk he gave in 1959, though he did not call in nanotechnology. That term was coined in 1974 by Norio Taguchi, a professor at the Tokyo University of Science. The idea didn’t catch the public imagination until 1986 and the book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, by American engineer K. Eric Drexler. He proposed that manufacturing could be revolutionized by creating nanoscale “assemblers,” tiny machines which could replicate themselves and larger things.

Science fiction writers ran with the idea; a prime example is Neal Stephenson’s award-winning novel Diamond Age (1995), in which nanotech was a positive but disruptive technology. In Kathleen Goonan’s Queen City Jazz (1996) nano-machines run amok, turning whole cities into “gray goo.” An episode of Season 3 of Star Trek the Next Generation (circa 1990) featured a plague of microscopic silicon-based “nanites.” The worry of a nanotech has so far been unfounded. One of the biggest limitations of these tiny machines has been the difficulty of supplying energy at this scale; this has so far kept the doomsday scenarios at bay.

Though the technology doesn’t get nearly as much press these days as it did in the 1990’s, it’s become a critical part of our technology. The website of the US government’s Nano-Technology Initiative lists several widespread uses, most dealing with the creation of micro-electronics. It also mentions bio-engineering applications such as nano-particles that can cure influenza (see artist’s conception above.) Nanotech could eventually provide inexpensive cures for tough diseases such as cancer and HIV, though unfortunately, these are probably years away.

Though public attention is fickle, new ideas such as nano-technology take a considerable time to develop from conception to practical applications. Neither the extravagant promises nor the exaggerated threats of nano-scale engineering have come to fruition. Like all technologies, it has the potential for good or bad. Hopefully, scientists and engineers will make the right choices and allow us to banish diseases such as cancer from the earth.

The above illustration is from http://www.nano.gov/.

If you like small things, you’ll enjoy my short stories such as Fidelio’s Dilemma, available on Amazon.

 

SCIENCE SATURDAY: Razib Khan and the Controversy of Human Genomics

Razib Khan, scientific outlaw

Razib Khan, scientific outlaw

The science of genetics has added a fascinating dimension to the history of mankind. For example, we once thought that Neanderthal people went extinct. Now scientists believe that modern humans have Neanderthal genes, meaning that our ancestors got close and personal with their caveman cousins. It’s also fascinating to consider when humans first occupied what parts of the earth, and in what direction they migrated. New theories have provoked fierce debate about migrations to places like Australia and the Americas earlier than experts previously believed. Genetic analysis of human remains is one piece of this puzzle. Why is this branch of science not more popular than it is? I suspect the reason may be political.

For the last few months, I’ve been reading the Gene Expression Blog by Razib Khan at the alt media site unz.com. I’ll write more about that excellent site in an upcoming blog post. Khan is an avid reader and a prolific writer on evolution, history, religion, and philosophy. He also writes frequently about the field of personal genomics and controversial services such as 23andMe. Khan’s profile lists him as a graduate student in genomics at UC Davis. His column has renewed my dormant interest in human genetics and paleo-history.

The problem is, Khan doesn’t stick to the narrative. He engages with publications and groups that are politically incorrect. Last year the New York Times booted him off the editorial pages for that reason. The gossip site gawker.com had outed him for his association with allegedly “racist” sites takimag.com and vdare.com. That’s their loss and Unz’s gain. It gives me great satisfaction, however, that VDare and Taki’s Magazine are still going strong, but Gawker is no more.

It’s appalling to think that a smart, well-spoken fellow like Khan would be punished for his associations. I’m reminded of how the Catholic Church treated Galileo’s theories. Yes, many biologists speculate on the differences between human racial groups concerning average intelligence, health, stamina, etc. This may offend politically correct opinion. Yet I don’t think that scientists actually believe the propaganda that “race is an illusion” and that all groups are exactly equal in potential. If you think about it, the egalitarian view is counter-intuitive. As a progressive friend commented to me, concerning the differences between ethnicities, “Why would you think they’d all be the same?”

My point is that science shouldn’t make value judgments. Research gives us information, which we can use for good or evil, to help people or hurt them. You may ask, what good does it do for us to know how and where humans originated, and the differences between racial groups? We don’t know. Neither did the Pope Urban VIII at the time he censured Galileo. He couldn’t have foreseen space exploration and its benefits, yet his closed-mindedness could have prevented all of that.

Arlys’ and my book Miss Ione D and the Mayan Marvel takes a fanciful look at Mesoamerican paleontology. Check it out at https://www.amazon.com/Miss-Ione-Mayan-Marvel-Adventures-ebook/dp/B01G2TBBPU/

TECHNOLOGY TUESDAY: Introducing the Alt-Internet

The Gab.ai logo

The Gab Logo (Ribbit!)

The greatest thing about the Internet is the free informational tools. It’s difficult to remember what life was like before convenience of Google, Wikipedia, Twitter, and Facebook. Lately, though, these sites have been the focus of controversy. Conservatives and libertarians have long suspected them of left-wing bias, and the leaked Clinton emails have confirmed it. Yes, they’re private companies that can set their own rules, but they need competition. Recently, alternatives have appeared: Gab, a free-speech version of Twitter, InfoGalactic, a dynamic fork of Wikipedia, and Duck Duck Go, a privacy-focused search engine.
I heard about duckduckgo.com at a libertarian conference in 2012. Its motto is “the search engine that doesn’t track you” the way Google does. It has a number of other handy features that Google doesn’t. The best thing is the consistency of its searches; it doesn’t consider your previous searches when returning results. I’ve used it for a while now. It’s just as useful as Google, without the creepy suggestions based on my search history.
InfoGalactic debuted recently as an alternative on-line encyclopedia. Currently, most of its pages are clones of those on Wikipedia. This is legal because of Wikipedia’s Creative Commons license. Infogalactic’s administrators are attempting to create an environment free of bias. They’re replacing Wikipedia’s community-editing feature with a more sophisticated set of tools and algorithms. In place of Wikipedia’s ideologically motivated editing staff, they plan to introduce personalized content controls that will allow each reader to select their own viewpoint. This could be useful for debaters looking to hone their arguments. It would also meet the needs of people who might want to filter their information, for example, devout Muslims. So far there’s not much divergence from Wikipedia, and its servers have been rather slow. I’m looking forward to seeing major changes in ideologically sensitive articles.
Gab, the Twitter alternative, is still in beta. Its address is gab.ai, “ai” being the domain of the island of Anguilla. Gab aims to provide an alternative without PC-based censorship. It forbids only material that is legally problematic: child pornography, incitement to violence, and unauthorized release of personal information. The frustrating aspect is that there’s currently a waiting list, but I only waited a few days for my account. At present, I’m using Gab as an opportunity to gain followers as an early adopter.
Facebook will be harder to replace. A promising site called “this.com” started last year but already went belly up this July. () The best alternative seems to be Disapora.com, which debuted in 2010 and is based on a decentralized server model. Like duckduckgo, it pledges not to abuse personal data. It hasn’t yet lived up to its hype, but it’s hanging in there.
In the coming months, I plan to use these alternative sites as much as possible. I encourage you to check them out. I’ll keep you posted on my experiences.

If you’re into alternatives, you’ll want to read my stories. Check them out on Amazon.

Complicating the Obvious: An Engineer Responds

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The mad scientist persona on my Facebook author page (shown above) is somewhat appropriate because, besides being a full-time radical malcontent, my “day job” is an an engineer. A recent article by Thomas Sowell  prompted me to respond from an engineer’s perspective.

I’m a great admirer of Mr. Sowell; he’s a brilliant thinker and a great writer. To be a black conservative in this country takes a special kind of courage, and he was on the right before it was fashionable. His recent article, which appeared on January 5th on numerous websites, about the deficiencies in modern product engineering.

In general, I agree with his comments. Many if not most electronic products are over-complicated. In my defense, it’s not just a software problem. Even the labels on an over-the-counter medicine bottles are too complex. The critical information on dosage and frequency is lost in a thousand words of fine-print warnings and disclosures. Why should I have to dig out my reading glasses to find out how long I can go between doses? A similar issue applies to appliance manuals. They’re printed in three to ten languages with at least a dozen pages of warnings that no one but an imbecile should need. I’m not sure it’s due to government or to multi-cultural correctness, but this so-called “internationalization” is the impetus behind the babel of languages and the widespread use of non-textual hieroglyphic’s that Sowell detests so much.

Safety regulations make for some especially idiotic designs. You can’t buy a simple gasoline container any more, there are locks on the caps and baffles in the spout. Environmental rules can be even worse. A few months ago, when Arlys and I bought a new washing machine, we discovered that government “water conservation” regulations had rendered it almost unusable. You’re no longer allowed to choose your own water level. The machine figures that out, adding time to the cycle, and if it screws up, your clothes don’t get clean. We returned the new machine and had our old one repaired.

Though government is, as usual, our biggest nemesis, it’s not our only one. One of my mantras as a software engineer has been that a properly designed interface should be so intuitive that it shouldn’t require one. Sadly, that seldom happens. Creating a good interface costs money, something the folks in accounting don’t always appreciate. Being tangible, the hardware usually gets more attention. Yet it’s a mistake to neglect the software to save a few bucks. Ease of use can make or break a product.

Another temptation for manufacturers is to save design effort by relying on the Internet. Even if the product’s interface is too difficult for the average person to figure out, some 15-year old genius will do it, and publish how-to instructions on You-tube for free. Though streaming video is a powerful tool, I really don’t want to watch a 20-minute video by some pimply faced kid so I can work my toaster. We should save that option for more complicated products, like the cell phones Sowell complains about.

Though corporate stinginess is a problem, it’s also possible to make a bad interface by going overboard on the design. One company that puts a lot of resources into the interface design is Apple, which explains the popularity of its products. At the very least, they’re pretty, but that doesn’t guarantee ease of use. The philosophy of simplicity for its own sake can sacrifice usability. (Why a one-button mouse?) For the product to look slim and elegant in the ad is everything. In particular, the ability to repair, maintain or upgrade Apple devices (consider the I-Phone’s non-removable battery) goes out the window.

By the way, I share Sowell’s frustration with needlessly complex cell phone interfaces. Perhaps if the author gig doesn’t work out I’ll create my own Android distribution, and it will actually make sense. Any suggestions?

 

Centrifugal Force: How Many of My Predictions Came True?

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Three years ago last month I published my first book, the agorist science fiction novel Centrifugal Force. Though I hate to toot my own horn (there’s some false modesty for you) many of the things I wrote about in this book either have come to pass or are in the process of doing so. The major difference is that Centrifugal Force dealt solely with North America, and these phenomena have been global in scope.

As I predicted in my book, on-line business models are replacing and bypassing traditional regulated industries. Examples of this are Uber, Airbnb, and the online music and publishing industries. Unlike my fictional scenario, these are currently above-ground, legal efforts. However, competing institutions (such as taxi drivers’ unions) are striving to outlaw Uber, and rapacious cities are imposing their exorbitant hotel taxes on Airbnb participants. There’s no reason these businesses couldn’t exist underground, on a peer-to-peer basis. This will become more likely if the current economic situation worsens.

Continued, escalating acts of “terrorism” are giving governments an excuse to crack down on what little freedom we have left, such as free speech, freedom of movement, and financial privacy. The difference from my novel was again that terrorism has been a world-wide phenomenon, particularly in Europe and Africa. France takes the place of the despotic fictional US, where Joel Walter is forced to go into hiding. Since the Paris 11/13 attacks, the country has closed its borders and declared a state of emergency. Thankfully this hasn’t come to America yet, but I’m sure that our government is only one major terrorist attack away from doing the same.

Centrifugal Force featured the Undernet, an unregulated pirate alternative to the Internet. In real life we have the Dark Web and the notorious Silk Road drug marketplace. My book had E-barter, we have Bitcoin and other digital currencies. Politicians are simply apoplectic about these developments, and are even making noise about outlawing encryption. I was not surprised by the draconian punishment meted out to the Dread Pirate Roberts, though in my opinion, he’s a hero! Yet I believe the government’s efforts will fail in real life as they did in the novel.

In my book, several characters went underground to escape harassment or prosecution, staying in the US because of the difficulty of crossing the border. In the real world, many such activists have gone overseas, for example Edward Snowden in Russia or Glenn Greenwald in Brazil. Probably the most analogous real-life equivalent to Nephi Snow’s hacker network is Anonymous – assuming this group isn’t, as many claim, a CIA front.

Secession is a major theme of my book, because I believe this is the most plausible way to deal with the arrogant, rapacious, unaccountable American Empire is to break it up. Considering the roadblocks thrown at any serious reformer (such as Ron Paul), working “within the system” is not an option. Again, this has come to pass in Europe, with Catalonia seceding from Spain and Scotland almost leaving the UK. Here in America, a more current controversy is state nullification of Federal law, which causes many a progressive to shriek in outrage. The recent round of secession petitions at whitehouse.gov – and yes, I signed one for Arizona – gave me cause for hope. This might become more realistic if our Kenyan President keeps trying to rule this country by decree.

Other predictions include surveillance drones becoming commonplace (obviously true) and organized criminals posing as police to rob their victims. The latter seems largely confined to Mexico, but given the lawless behavior or police in many parts of the US, I expect it’s only a matter of time. Has political correctness gone crazy? Check; to the mainstream media, government opponents are evil racists. Also, we have seen curfews, like the one in Boston after the Marathon bombing. This one’s a no-brainer: anti-smoking fascism has definitely increased. Thankfully, though, we haven’t yet seen the activation of FEMA camps. I expect the Federal government will need to take a different approach to detainment of its enemies, due to the justifiable paranoia of the libertarian and patriot communities.

On the other hand, I was wrong about the following:

  • The Draft has not been reinstated, thank God! Not that I believe a slave army is ever necessary in any nation or circumstance, but in this time of drone wars and bombing campaigns, conscription would be especially redundant. Yet it still may happen, because it would be an effective way to control and indoctrinate America’s youth, particularly if females were included.
  • The District of Columbia did not become a state. This movement appears to be dead for the time being, but I expect it to be resurrected if Hillary becomes President, as it would provide two more guaranteed Democrats in the Senate. (And yes, no need to speculate; she’s the inspiration for the evil female President in my book.)
  • 3D printing – I missed this completely. This is a wonderful vector for revolution, enabling home-based manufacture of guns and other contraband items.
  • Ethnic self-defense/vigilante militias did not, to my knowledge, come to pass. In my book, Muslim-Americans banded together to protect themselves from harassment and violence, and to punish those who had wronged them. I haven’t seen evidence of this, even in Europe (if you don’t include terrorist groups, which was not my intent — those are all state-sponsored, anyway.) Even the Donbas rebels in eastern Ukraine, who are wildly popular in their area, are essentially a government-in-waiting.
  • The resurgence of Russia – another thing I missed entirely. There were Russian mafia characters in my book, but I didn’t address the possibility that Russia itself could be the “black swan” that could bring down he US Corporatocracy. This subject is, of course, a matter of great debate in alternative media circles. Is Vladimir Putin a hero, a villain, or a New World Order collaborator? That’s a question I’ll address in a future post.

 Centrifugal Force cover design by Kyle Dunbar.

 

The Cultural Marxists Set Their Sights on Linux

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In Stephen J. Vaughan-Nichols’ recent article in Computer World, he labels Linux creator Linus Torvalds as a “bad boss.” He quotes developer Sarah Sharp’s complaints of a culture of open source development that allows participants “to get away with subtle sexist or homophobic jokes.” Vaughan-Nichols goes on to say that he hopes that companies and organizations can begin to “enforce civil behavior.”

This sounds fair and reasonable, but don’t be fooled. It’s a rallying call for Cultural Marxists and other Social Justice Warriors to enforce their bland, joyless idea of civility upon software geeks like myself. SJW’s are experts at hiding behind noble sounding rhetoric when calling for authority figures to seek out and crush any true diversity of culture or opinion.

Linus Torvalds (despite his legendary blunt personal style) is not the problem; it’s people like Sharp who can’t tolerate a bit of criticism or an off-color joke now and then. Nobody forced her to donate her time to the open-source community. Despite her well-respected technical abilities, the community is better off without people like her.

I predict we’ll see a steady stream of articles such as Vaughan-Nichols’, claiming that the open-source community is being hurt by as exodus of, or a missed opportunity to include, thin-skinned individuals like Sharp. I can’t speak for the community, as I’m more of a cheerleader than a participant, and I’ll leave any official response to the management of the Linux Foundation. But if you ask me, this is yet another SJW lie. I’d estimate that the crude, insensitive computer nerds (such as myself) that Sharp despises outnumber the ‘special snowflake’ diversity types ten to one. There IS no vast cohort of the excluded oppressed programmers, because for whatever reason (cultural, educational, etc.) these candidates are scarce. That’s why Silicon Valley firms hire ‘Diversity Managers’ to seek them out and recruit them.

I’m not saying that we software engineers are all straight white or Asian males, nor should we be. I for one have no problem with having more female, gay, black, and Latino participation in our community. Those statistics are, however, completely irrelevant. As a libertarian, i believe it’s the individual that matters, not the color of one’s skin or the configuration of genitalia. Nonetheless, the culture of the majority should NOT have to adapt to the minority; it’s the other way around, as it should be in any organization. We men would never be allowed to enter a female-dominated institution or industry and redesign it to our liking just because we’re in the minority. That would be like an American moving to Mexico and demanding people speak English, or going to Saudi Arabia for the nude beaches.

Here is my personal view: as long as an organization can function smoothly, and work relationships don’t degenerate into personal attacks, any newcomers need to get used to the heat, or get the heck out of the kitchen. I’m not yet to the point of agreeing with sci-fi writer / game developer Vox Day, who advocates that we purge SJW’s before they can purge us. But I’m leaning more that way every day.

Credit: image “Bad Attention” from www.wpclipart.com,

 

The Penguin Makes Music

My fourth and final overview of open-source software for creative people involves music. In my youth I had many years of musical training, which until recently was going to waste. It’s not that I didn’t have the means – I own several electronic pianos – but I wasn’t motivated to play on a regular basis. Linux changed that, by making it easy to compose my own music, which makes things a lot more interesting.

Penguin_music

Linux has no shortage of musical tools available on-line. One thing that differs from the other areas I’ve discussed so far is that with music, one must use several tools in tandem. This is more in the spirit of the UNIX/Linux tradition of discrete components, rather than an all-in-one application such as “The Gimp” image editor or Libre-Office Suite. This allows for more flexibility but also makes things more complex. I’ll list the open-source tools I use for creating music, and you can be the judge.

* JACK

JACK (the JACK Audio Connection Kit) is a sound daemon (server) which provides the backbone of all music applications listed below. It’s like a virtual patch-board, allowing the interconnection of audio and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) data between “JACK aware” applications. Unfortunately, not all programs are configured to use JACK, which is why it’s not yet the de facto Linux sound system. Because it takes control of your system’s audio, you will need to turn it off to play sound from your web browser, for example.

* QjackCtl

This is a graphical tool for controlling JACK without the use of typed commands. QjackCtl creates a list of audio devices, both hardware and software, that can be used as inputs and outputs. It lets the user define input and output connections between them, like a virtual patch bay. It’s not strictly necessary but makes JACK a lot easier to use.

* Fluidsynth

In order to create music on a computer, you either need to record sound from an external device, or to create sounds using a digital specification. “Sound Font 2” is a popular format for the latter; it’s been widely distributed on-line. Like JACK, Fluidsynth doesn’t have its own graphic interface. I found it interesting that Fluidsynth’s default sound fonts contain all the same instrument voices (piano, organ, guitar, trumpet, etc.) as the built-in selections on my Yamaha electronic keyboards. I’ve also found free sound fonts on-line which can produce other sounds such as percussion.

* Qsynth

This is a graphical front-end application for using Fluidsynth, much as QjackCtl is an interface for JACK. I haven’t used Qsynth extensively, except to select sound fonts (voices) for the MIDI sequencer application I’ll describe next.

* Rosegarden

This is the program I spend most of my time using. Rosegarden is a application for music composition and editing. It includes a MIDI sequencer, which can be used as an input to capture notes played on a MIDI instrument (such as my aforementioned Yamaha keyboards.) To do this, I invested in a bit of hardware, the E-mu Xmidi 1×1, a specialized cable which connects the twin round MIDI connectors on my instruments to a USB port on my computer. (I ordered one from Amazon.com for under $30.) If you’re new to this technology, I should note that a sequencer does not record sounds but notes (pitch, duration, attack, etc.) which can be mapped to any sound. This allowed me to make my piano sound like a guitar, ukelele, and an electric bass. As an alternative to Qsynth, you can install the Fluidsynth plugin, which allows you to map an instrument voice to a given track directly in Rosegarden.

Once your melodies and harmonies have been captured, you can edit them in several formats, including the standard sequencer matrix display and old-fashioned music notation. Having had classical training, the latter is my preferred method. This allows me to capture a melody on paper simply by playing it on the piano. Since I’m not very adept in improvisation, it really helps to have the music in front of me. Thus I can improve and embellish on that first performance, re-recording and re-printing it as many times as necessary.

Sadly, I had issues with bugs. In the Linux world, we install applications from the Internet using a command called “apt-get”; this fetches a version of the program created specifically for your current version of Linux. Because I use an older installation of Ubuntu (14.04) and don’t want to update until the next stable long-term Ubuntu is released next spring, I was “stuck” with Rosegarden 13.06. This worked fine for composing, but there were problems when exporting my musical tracks as sheet music. Therefore I downloaded and built a newer Rosegarden (15.12) from source code. It’s a task not for the faint hearted, but it fixed most of my problems.

* LilyPond

If you want to print out the musical scores you create in Rosegarden, the LilyPond program is the best way to do it. LilyPond is a music engraving program, which produces high-quality sheet music from the LilyPond-format (.ly extension) files you can export from Rosegarden. It’s a command line program which accepts a file called “somefile.ly” and converts it to “somefile.pdf” in Adobe Acrobat format, which allows it to be viewed onscreen or sent to a printer.

As I stated earlier, Rosegarden 13 had a bug in producing the lilypond “ly” input files. This caused the Lilypond program to become “confused” about how music was to be broken up into measures, to the point that it would sometimes make a line of music run right off the page! I was able to edit the “ly” files in a text editor to fix these issues, but that was a time-consuming annoyance that made it well worth upgrading to Rosegarden 15.

* JACK Timemachine

If you want to convert your new music into an MP3 file that can be played on your phone or iPod, there are a few more missing pieces. Rosegarden lets you play your music files over your computer’s speakers, but to hear it on another device, you need a “recorder” application such as JACK Timemachine. When you launch this program it appears as a device in the configuration list of Qjackctl. You connect the output of Rosegarden to the input of JACK Timemachine, and then play and record your piece, which is saved as an audio file in 64-bit WAV (w64) format.

* Sox and LAME

Bear with me; we’re on the home stretch. The aforementioned JACK Timemachine is a very simple program that only records music in one format. To change it into a more usable file, you need a music converter such as Sox (Sound Exchange) the “Swiss Army knife” of audio file conversion. Sox is a command-line tool that allows you to convert the w64 files into more playable formats such as WAV and OGG. Unfortunately the popular MP3 file format is patented and technically requires royalties to be paid; therefore Sox (being free of charge) does not include the MP3 plug-in. For do that you must recompile the Sox program from source with an MP3 plugin (requires a fair bit of computer expertise) or better yet, install the “LAME” MP3 encoder to do that last conversion. Why Sox can’t include this function, and yet it can be in LAME as a separate program, I have no idea. Leave that one to the lawyers.

I apologize for this long post and hope it hasn’t been too intimidating. If open-source music tools are complicated, they make up for it in their flexibility and power. Best of all, they’re free, with plenty of help available online. Remember, most of these open-source programs are also available for Windows and Mac. Happy composing!