Archive for November, 2007

Weekly groceries around the world

November 22nd, 2007 by Reinder

Update: The original photo-essay this was from is here
(Hat tip Sara Robinson via Amanda Marcotte).
Families from around the world, posing in or around their homes, surrounded by their weekly groceries. Prices of the weekly food intakes mentions under the pictures.

Quite a contrast. Perhaps surprisingly, the German family spends the most, though a lot of what they spend their budget on is beer, which is perhaps not so surprising.

This seems to have been going around in an email, but I missed it. I recall there having been a book of family homes around the world, that I kind of regret not buying at the time. In any case, these pics are likely to be part of a much larger series.

On a semi-related note, this year I'm thankful I don't have to celebrate Thanksgiving, which frankly sounds like a bit of a drag for me, not to mention a stressfest if you're the one stuck with having to prepare that dinner everyone's going to be stuffing themselves with.

Use your host file to protect yourself against malware ads

November 21st, 2007 by Reinder

AdBlock Plus had been spectacularly ineffective at blocking a browser-hijacking ad that showed up each time I browsed the Webcomic List forums, but someone responding to the thread I used to complain about it provided me with some heavier artillery: a gigantic list of malicious sites to add to your host file and a page containing an explanation of why it works and instructions for adding the list. I'd been vaguely aware of this possibility, but hadn't been motivated to give it a try. The instructions on the site are very much geared towards Windows user, but Mac OS X and Linux users can just edit their hosts file in a text editor. The linux hosts file is usually in /etc - you need the one that simply says 'hosts', not 'hosts.deny' or 'hosts.allow'. The poster said OS X users can find it in /private/etc — I haven't checked.

Two comments:
One, normally when I edit config files I use 'sudo pico [file]' and enter my password. That doesn't quite work because pico, a lightweight command-line editor, doesn't like it when you try to paste in long bits of text. So I used 'sudo kate /etc/hosts' instead.
Two, the list, while awe-inspiring in its comprehensiveness, is perhaps a bit too thorough. I actually rather like advertising as a source of income for sites that provide content or services, so I want to allow ad servers that I think are well-behaved. I have that problem with the preset blacklists in AdBlock Plus as well. I want to allow, at a minimum, Google adsense and Project Wonderful, because I use them on my own sites. The malicious hosts list provided by msvp.com blocks several Google ad servers; one AdBlock subscription list blocks both, which is why at home I use AdBlock without any pre-configured list. I'm in no position to tell you to allow these sites as I have a vested interest in people allowing them, but I would encourage you not to use block lists indiscriminately as your own criteria may be different from those of the people making the lists, or the information may be out of date.

I guess it depends on perspective

November 21st, 2007 by Reinder

PZ Myers on the recent breakthrough in stem cell research that allows for the transformation of adult human cells into something approaching the capacities of stem cells:

This discovery is probably going to become a political football in short order, with the far right politicians who have restricted American research into embryonic stem cells claiming vindication. However, let's point out some realities here. Americans did not make this discovery; Japanese researchers did. It required understanding of gene expression in embryonic stem cells, an understanding that was hampered in our country. It's going to require much more confirmation and comparison between the induced pluripotent stem cells and embryonic stem cells as part of the process of making this technique useful — science doesn't take just one result from a few labs and accept it as gospel truth. And we definitely need to figure out better ways of switching the four genes on. Figuring that out will require more research into how organisms switch cells into the ES state in situ — we can't figure that out from these cells with inserted, artificial gene constructs.

Another essential point is that scientists are excited about this work because it opens up avenues for basic research into development and differentiation. These cells are NOT useable for therapies…the immediate, practical applications that the electorate wants from stem cell research. They also cannot be used for reproductive cloning, although that won't trouble most people. These are cells with retroviral infections, potential unknown mutations, and that have genetic modifications that make them prone to collapse into cancers. We are not going to be able to grow new organs and tissues for human beings from a few skin cells using this particular technique. It's going to take more work on embryonic stem cells to figure out how to take any cell from your body, and cleanly and elegantly switch it to a stem cell state that can be molded into any organ you need. What this work says is that yes, we'll be able to do that, it isn't going to be that difficult, and that we ought to be supporting more stem cell research right now so we can work out the details.

Or we can just sit back and let the Japanese and Europeans and Koreans do it for us, which is OK, I suppose. Just keep in mind that ceding the research to others means giving them a head start on the development of all the subsequent breakthroughs, too, and that what we're doing is willingly consigning US research in one of the most promising biomedical research fields ever to an also-ran, secondary status.

Actually, that sounds perfectly fine to me.

Good news and bad news about Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan

November 12th, 2007 by Reinder

Invasion will resume on November 21, on my Chronicles of the Witch Queen site, after a four-month hiatus.

Feral will go on hiatus again for a while. The front page at rocr.net will run substitute content.

The reason for these changes is that I'm still trying to find my way around how to combine cartooning with a full-time day job. For the past two months, I've been drawing Invasion pages at home during the working week, while working on Feral in my studio over the weekend. That way, pages and projects wouldn't get too badly mixed up or have to be transported too often, but the upshot of this is that I've done mostly digital work on Feral, with the buffer of pen-and-ink art running out, while a pile of pen-and-ink originals for Invasion slowly grew on my desk. I am now doing digital work on those, with help from Drooling Fan Girl who does the colour flats, and they will be finished just in time for a three-updates-a-week schedule starting on Wednesday, November 21 and continuing until that buffer also runs out.

Note how the links above all point to the Chronicles of the Witch Queen site? That's also an adaptation to the new situation. While the CMS on rocr.net is a lot more flexible than that on Webcomicsnation in many ways, it doesn't readily allow me to treat storylines as standalone graphic novels running more or less concurrently (it can, but I'd have to put in time to make new templates). So to keep the two storylines a little more separated for everyone, I'm focusing more on posting and promoting my comics over there. I have moved most of my Project Wonderful-based promotion over to the new storylines at COTWQ, which has the additional benefit of pushing Feral into the Webcomicsnation popularity charts (and occasionally some of the other stories as well). I'll knock that Templar, Arizona off the number one spot yet!

A warning about Opera in Ubuntu 7.10

November 12th, 2007 by Reinder

If you use (K)Ubuntu linux 7.10, Gutsy Gibbon, avoid using the new release of Opera web browser made especially for it. Based on my experiences, the combination poses a risk to your data and hardware.

One of the first things I did after installing Kubuntu on my system was to install Opera 9.24 - the version built for the previous release of Ubuntu, Feisty Fawn, because no Gutsy-specific version had been released yet. It turned out that this was one of the bigger disappointments in my use of Ubuntu, because it was terribly crash-prone. I left it out of my previous reports because it was an inappropriate release. But now that there is a Gutsy build, I'm afraid that it's much, much worse. Running that release of Opera, my entire system would freeze up after about 15 minutes of use, necessitating a hardware reset with the Reset button. At first I blamed the hardware until I realised that every time this happened, Opera had window focus. I avoided it for a while and the system stopped freezing up.

This isn't exacly a scientific way to determine the cause of a problem, and I'm trying very hard not to lay all of the blame at Opera Software's feet. But my experiences over a number of years have been that Opera has had widely varying stability on linux, ranging from very bad (Opera 6 on SuSE 8 was a particularly nightmarish release IIRC) to OK (Opera 9.* on SuSE linux 10.0 was stable enough), and its poor performance on Mac OS X made me abandon it on the iBook in favour of Safari. If not Opera on its own, then the combination of this particular release/build with this particular flavor/configuration of linux causes system freezes of the kind that are bad for my system. So rather than investigate further, I've switched all my web browsing over to Firefox and my email to Thunderbird.

I've never been fond of Mozilla Firefox, but I use it at work, and have found that it's improved quite a bit. Opera may be more innovative and comfortable, but Firefox is now very close, and any Opera feature that I use is available in a number of competing versions. I'll get used to this.

Anyway. I just thought I'd warn you. Your mileage may vary.

Server changes

November 12th, 2007 by Reinder

Apologies for the problems you may have reaching rocr.net on Sunday. Xepher, my webhost, moved to a different machine that day, and while the change had been in the works for many months, no exact date was known to me. As it happened, there were a few glitches with PHP and Perl scripts on my website, so it took a few hours for everything to fall into place even if you did get the updated DNS info early.

It all seems to be working now, at least from my point of view. The new machine is supposed to be a good deal faster and more spacious than the old one, so we should be good for a few more years.

Kubuntu Gutsy Gibbon: Second impressions, plus some stuff about Amarok

November 10th, 2007 by Reinder

Since posting my first impressions of Kubuntu Gutsy Gibbon, I've warmed to it quite a bit. It's become my main OS now, though not exactly by choice: I was shooting to multi-boot between it and SuSE 10.0, but once I'd installed Kubuntu, the boot loader could no longer find my other boot setup and all I could do was boot Kubuntu, and that only after some tweaking that I'll spare you the details of because it's not something that will apply to many other people.

However, I'm not too bothered by losing my SuSE because for the most part, Kubuntu is working pretty well for me.

What works: all the things I reported the other day, plus mp3 and mp4 support, tablet sensitivity support, wine (running Photoshop 7, Art Rage and Creature House Expression), DVD and DivX/Xvid, TV card (except sound, for which I will have to open the case to reconnect some things). The smooshiness in the screen resolution went away after a re-prod.

What doesn't work: Azureus crashes (but it's not the only bittorrent client in town). Tablet sensitivity under wine - I'll keep an eye on developments in that regard. Paint Shop Pro 8 and Painter Classic under Wine. There are some more minor issues with Photoshop under wine that I should contact winehq about, but nothing that renders it unusable. Opera is a bit unstable on this system, but that may end when there's a Gutsy-specific release. Aaaaand... that's it, really. I'll add to this list if I can think of more stuff that's broken.

Jelena had already got her own copy of regular, gnome-based Ubuntu on LiveCD, and run it on her PC there. I couldn't get it to boot on the studio PC that's attached to the scanner, but my Kubuntu CD did work, and it got the correct sane driver for my Epson GT-12000 A3 scanner. For me, this is a big plus, because what we mainly use that machine for is scanning. For Jeroen and me, if we have the scanner, internet connection and Photoshop 7, that's all we need. Anything else that works is a bonus - except maybe the printer. I forgot to test that, but will do so some other time. Having Ubuntu around could end up saving us many hundreds, possibly thousands, of Euros in the not too distant future. Having said that, we're not installing it just yet. I would like to sort out the tablet issue affecting wine at home before doing that.

Back at home, something that had been puzzling me was a problem with the music player, Amarok. I'd copied some .m4a files from my iBook, including some that I had ripped myself from CD and some from iTunes Plus. They played well and Amarok could read the tags, except sometimes they didn't and Amarok didn't read the tags. I had spent some time searching for m4a problems in linux, and performed several tests with other players in order to isolate the problem, until I saw that one of the files in my playlist queue was only 83 bytes on disk. That gave me the clue I needed quite quickly: iTunes, in its infinite wisdom, still conforms to the old Mac convention of saving every file as two files: one large one containing all the stuff you need, and one very small one containing some metadata for the OS. If I remember correctly, this was introduced back in the day to facilitate file association with the programs to run the files, a feature that's commonplace now but was pretty novel back in the DOS era. These days, it's implemented very differently on most OSes.
Anyway, those extra files start with the "." (dot) character, which causes linux file managers to hide them from the user, but which doesn't cause Amarok to skip them when looking for music files to play. So whenever Amarok encounters a file called .artist_title.m4a, it tries to add it to the collection, and it will show up in your random playlist. Solution: Make sure you can see those files in Konqueror or Dolphin, and delete them as they don't do anything useful in linux.

The fact that Amarok can play m4a files does contribute to it being a better player overall than iTunes Player, because it can play just about any audio most people will care to throw at it, whereas iTunes doesn't play nice with Ogg Vorbis, the format that most of my music is in. Sure, there's a plugin to support it*) but it slows iTunes down noticeably, and metadata display for Ogg Vorbis is still broken. Plus Amarok's interface, while not as sleek as iTunes player, flows really well, can be customized more, and doesn't depend on slightly-less-evil-than-Real Quicktime to run.

*) Of course, the plugin aspect makes for a rather unfair comparison, because technically, every codec in Amarok works as a plugin - but most of them come with the system and even the ones you have to install - which is straightforward - will then work for all of your installed linux system. From a user point of view, it all works a lot more smoothly.

Steampunk Dalek

November 6th, 2007 by Reinder


Steampunk Dalek
Concept sketch on DeviantArt by creatoooorrrr Promus-kaa, who has lots of lovely other designs as well, like the Steampunk Cyberman, the somewhat superfluous WW II nazi Dalek and the Art Deco Dalek.
Via

Unspeak

November 5th, 2007 by Reinder

Via Pete Ashton, I heard that there's such a thing as an Unspeak blog, a blog about "state-of-the-art rhetorical weaponry". So I check it out, it is there, and it is fantastic. I'm not going to single out any one post - just go read the entire archive.

For future reference: Amanda Marcotte: Fewer pieces of plastic crap may indeed not kill you

November 2nd, 2007 by Reinder

Fewer pieces of plastic crap may indeed not kill you:

Reader and frequent commenter MAJeff sent me a copy of Born to Buy by Juliet Schor, and I finally had a chance to read it this week. The book came out a few years ago, but all the trends she details in it are still going strong, namely the hyper-commercialization of childhood by marketers hungry to have a non-jaded audience that constantly replenishes itself. I found the book to mostly be fascinating, especially the second part where Schor conducts a research study on two populations of children, one in the city of Boston and one in a suburb, to see what kind of effect this increasingly commercialization had on the well-being of children, and found strong evidence that kids who watch excessive amounts of TV and otherwise engage in excessive amounts of participation in marketing to children suffered strongly for it both physically and mentally, and more to the point, that the engagement with the commercial culture caused the depression, anti-social behavior, excessive weight gain, lowered grades and other ill effects on children.

It’s an important book for this research, and I felt bad for parents because it seems that there’s really only one choice when faced with the hard evidence—limit TV-watching, exposure to fast food, toy collecting and other engagements with the mass media that markets to children. Which will cause fights and could cause your child to be unpopular and the target of bullies—seems like a real dilemma in a lot of ways.

Posted so I'll remember to read it again when I need to.