Friday, February 20, 2009

Sensitive Stuff

It used to be that if you wanted to start a really nasty argument at a family gathering or among some other group of people who were likely to disagree openly with one another, all you had to do was bring up one of two topics: politics or religion. If you wanted to make things even worse, you could bring up a topic that included both politics and religion.

These days people seem to avoid those topics whenever they can. Those arguments are mostly carried on between bumper stickers.

Of course I'm exaggerating, but where's the fun in life without a little exaggeration?

More recently the most heated arguments I've witnessed have to do with one of two things: 1) Which sports team is better than the other, and 2) What's on television.

I don't follow sports, so perhaps it would be best if I addressed the latter example.

A few people I know proclaim to anyone willing to listen that they don't own a television, and that watching television ruins your life, your mind, or something along those lines.

Some others, who do watch television, say that even though there are so many channels, there's nothing good on to watch.

To the first group, I usually just nod and smile. There really isn't much point in arguing over statements like that. I disagree, but it's another one of those cases where I don't see the point in trying to change the other person's mind.

To the second group, I would offer an opinion and some advice. In my opinion there are plenty of good things to watch; you just have to know your own tastes. My advice would be something like "Be choosy about what you watch. If you sit in front of the television for hours flipping through the channels looking for something good, the chances of finding something you'll enjoy are almost zero."

Most of what's on is garbage, at least in somebody's opinion.

Still, there are lots of things on television which will suit just about anybody's taste, from a national singing contest to a series about a bunch of guys going around the Bering Sea in rusty trawlers fishing for crab. Whatever it is that you like, there's bound to be some of it on some channel or other.

The following is a list of some of the shows which I watch regularly. I'm not recommending them to anyone. I'm only saying that I'm fairly picky about what I watch, and so if I can find some things I like, so can almost anyone else.

House M.D.: A medical mystery/drama series with lots of comedic elements. The main character, Dr. Gregory House, is a nasty person but a diagnostic genius.

Battlestar Galactica: No, no, not the horrible thing from the 1970s. That was truly bad. This is a new, re-imagined series based loosely on the original. It only has a few episodes left.

Monk: Another mystery series, about the homicide investigations done by a man who has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I've found it funny, sad, and in terms of the actual mysteries, quite interesting.

Heroes: A series about a large number of ordinary people who develop extraordinary abilities ("superpowers"), what they do with these abilities, and what happens to them. The various plots are quite complicated, and it's difficult to predict what's going to happen next.

Now that I've told some of my favorites, you can go back to arguing whether the Colts or the Mariners are going to win the Stanley Cup this year.

Hans Bricker

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Inter-cultural Anecdotes

I was going to write something about how antibiotics don't do anything for the common cold or influenza, and how people who take antibiotics for such illnesses are putting us all at risk for infection by antibiotic-resistant strains of various bacteria.

I've decided not to do that, however, for the following reasons.

1. I feel certain that anyone reading this already knows about what antibiotics do, and what kinds of infections they don't fight.

2. Also, in my experience people who do take antibiotics for the flu or a cold are convinced that they are being helped, and there really isn't anything anyone can do to convince them otherwise.

3. Finally, I think that physicians should be writing about this, and that I'm not really qualified to do so. Some physicians and medical researchers have been writing about this for years, which is good. Nevertheless, there are others (I'm looking at you, Dr. Harbinger) who hand out amoxicillin as if it were candy.

So, here are some stories instead.

Some time ago I spent a few years in Italy as a student.

On one occasion, I was at a restaurant with a friend. At a table near us were two university students, one a young man, the other a young woman. Apparently they were traveling or perhaps spending a semester in Europe. It was clear from their rather loud speech that they were from ... let's just say a certain English-speaking country. At one point the young woman asked her waiter for ranch dressing for her salad. Her waiter, who knew some English, had no idea what she was talking about. "Ranch dressing" is not used in Italy. Italians have their salad with a little olive oil and vinegar. Other things are not put on salad. The young woman became more and more insistent, even somewhat angry. She kept repeating to the waiter the words "ranch dressing" in an ever-louder voice. I don't know what eventually happened, as my friend and I soon finished eating and left.

Another time, I was having a conversation with two young Italian men. We were speaking about languages, their differences, their roots, their development, and things of that nature. At one point one of the young men informed me that in my native country people did not speak "true English." Perhaps they were taught "true English" in school, but that wasn't what they spoke at home, among their friends, etc. Once I realized that this man was telling me that I was not in fact a native English speaker, I became rather angry. Then I learned that this young man who was telling me this did not himself speak, understand, read, or write any English whatsoever. Then the entire conversation seemed ridiculous to me. I was amused and angry at the same time, about the same thing. I never did manage to convince the other man that I did, in fact, speak English.

Once, while walking down a street in Rome, some people approached me and asked for directions to the Parthenon. Naturally I was tempted to say something like "Well, first, go back to the airport ..." But I didn't do that. I told them how to find the place they were actually seeking.

A middle-aged couple from ... a certain English-speaking country once approached me and asked for directions to somewhere or other. I gave them the best directions I could. We spoke for a while, chatting casually about various things. At one point the woman asked me where I learned to speak English so well. I told her the name of the city and nation. She seemed somewhat embarrassed by my answer, and I suspect she wasn't quite sure whether or not to believe me. After a few minutes we let the subject drop, and I helped them find the bus stop they needed. I hope they found their destination with no difficulty.

I have an Italian friend from that time. His father was then, and still is, a teacher. He (the father) is a very knowledgeable and well-educated man. During one of our vacations I went with my friend to stay with his family. At some point his father and I were talking about languages (I like talking about languages). He seemed certain that in English, the letter "p" is pronounced in the word "psychologist" and other similar words. I told him that it wasn't. This disagreement was easily settled. He found his copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, looked up a few words, and then admitted to me that he was mistaken.

I have quite a few more such stories. Perhaps I'll write down some more at another time.

Hans Bricker

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Internet Hostility

If you're reading this, you're using the Internet. Also, if you read any news stories which allow registered members to post comments, you may have seen various sorts of hostile and often idiotic comments which some people make. If you've ever participated in an IRC chatroom, a help forum, or some other place where people can say what they like with some degree of freedom, you may have seen similar things.

I started using the web (i.e. the World Wide Web) back in the mid-1990s. During that time I've been called "gay" (I think in the 4th-grade sense of the term, not referring to actual homosexuality) on very many occasions, an idiot, a liar, a loser, and so on. I've been told to get a different kind of computer from the type I was using. On a number of other occasions, I've been told to (WARNING: If seeing the "f-bomb" in print bothers you, don't click the following link) RTFM.

At other times I've had my grammar or spelling corrected in a hostile way. Sometimes my grammar or spelling was faulty, sometimes not. On one occasion I told someone that in my opinion Communism was not, as he had stated, a religion, but was a non-religious ideology. This person held to his opinion. I then gave him some examples of what I thought were religions, and some other examples of what I thought were ideologies. This person (male or female, who knows) then proceeded to call into question my intelligence, my sexual orientation, my education, my parentage, along with all sorts of things which were not germane to the discussion at hand.

Such hostility has a long history on the Internet. It was there even before the web. There's actually a rule of thumb (called Godwin's Law if you want to look it up) that in any discussion of any length on the Internet, sooner or later somebody will call someone else a Nazi.

Some people become hostile in various circumstances on the Internet, very many others don't. For those who do, the following formula seems to apply: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Complete Jerk. I didn't think this up on my own. I borrowed it from the web comic Penny Arcade and sanitized the language which the comic strip used.

I've often wondered why this combination seems to bring out the worst in some people, while other people seem to be perfectly polite on the Internet.

I don't have any real answers, but I can speculate a little.

I suspect that some of the people who are hostile on the Internet are also hostile in real life, though perhaps not to the same degree. If these people were as hostile away from the net as they are on it, most likely they would be beaten bloody very often, probably enough to teach them not to behave in such an obnoxious fashion.

I also suspect that other people who are hostile in the Internet are not at all hostile in real life. It seems likely to me that these people go through their lives behaving politely or perhaps even meekly. Underneath the surface, though, they are boiling with rage and hate. The anonymity of various outlets on the Internet gives them a chance to release some of their anger, rage, hatred, belligerence, and so on, without facing any real-life consequences.

Those who behave in a polite and civilized manner on the Internet probably behave the same way in real life.

Perhaps at some point in the future we will develop some real form of Internet etiquette. I don't have any idea how this might come about, so I don't have any suggestions.

In the mean time, I imagine many people will continue to subscribe to (WARNING AGAIN: More possibly offensive language) this publication.

Hans Bricker

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Respect For The Dead

Recently there was a news item about a Detroit man found dead, encased in ice. More details about the man's death have come out since I first read the story; still, I would like to mention a few details from the original story which I read. Apparently there were some men playing ice hockey near the dead man's body. These men were the first to see him. They did nothing about the dead man's body. Even worse, they continued to play hockey. Later, somebody did call 911. According to the story which I read, this person described the man's legs sticking out of the ice as looking like "a couple of popsicle sticks."

I found this story somewhat disturbing, as I imagine you might.

In every culture of which I'm aware, some respect of some kind has always been shown to at least some of the dead. Even before recorded history, people buried their dead in a manner which they considered respectful.

Showing disrespect toward a dead body has almost always meant that the person, when living, was either an enemy or someone of so little importance that he or she deserved no respect.

When we do show respect for a dead person's remains, whether this means mummification, burial, cremation, or something else, some sort of ceremony or at least solemnity accompanies the process. This seems common to all cultures across history, and even among those who have no religious beliefs.

Now, why do we do this? Why do we show respect for the remains of a dead person?

I've already given a hint of an answer, and now I'll explain more fully.

When we show respect for a deceased person's remains, we are saying something about the person who died and something about ourselves.

What we are saying about the person who died is fairly straightforward. We are saying that this person was worthy of at least some respect while living, was liked and probably loved by at least some people, and furthermore had value as a human being. As a consequence, we show respect for what remains of that person. We honor the memory of that person.

What we say about ourselves when we show respect for the remains of someone who has died is actually quite similar. We say that we are the kind of people who value others, who love others, who show respect toward other human beings. Even if we disliked the person while alive, we often show the same respect. We are saying that we are above such minor things as dislike enough to show respect for the human being, even after death.

When we show disrespect for a person's remains, either neglectfully or deliberately, we are saying that the person in question, while alive, was either of no value or of so little value that such a person deserves no respect.

I don't think I need to explain what people who show such disrespect are saying about themselves.

Hans Bricker

Monday, February 16, 2009


When I was in the seventh grade I had a math teacher who was not only egregiously bad at what she did, but was also mean, angry, and vindictive. I don't suppose that teaching large groups of seventh-graders is likely to improve a person's disposition. Nevertheless, if someone is bad at teaching and also mean-tempered, then that person should not be teaching.

Be that as it may, she was my teacher. I had the misfortune of having to sit in the front row. When my teacher was boring us, that was all right. I did other things. When she was screaming at us, I was among a few people who bore the full brunt of her fiery wrath.

At some point during the year we were going through a particularly long boring stretch, and I overreached. I started reading in class. I mean reading things other than my math text book. I mean that I was reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, (you can look it up on Amazon or Wikipedia) partly hidden under my desk.

At some point when I wasn't paying attention my math teacher switched from boring mode to full-on screaming angry and vindictive mode. She noticed that I was reading a book, indeed a book entirely unrelated to the math problems she was "explaining" to us and writing on the chalk board.

She snatched the book from my hands, glanced at it, and screamed "MRS. FINCH AND THE RATS! WHAT!?!" After that she promptly threw my book into the trash can, after which point I received a full-on screaming lecture, spittle included. I have no idea what she screamed at me. At some point she calmed down and went back to ... er ... teaching. To my surprise I wasn't suspended or anything. At the end of class she sat at her desk while I furtively plucked my book from the garbage.

At a later point in my life, during graduate school, I had a teacher of an entirely different subject. I won't mention the subject, since I don't want to give any hint of the man's identity. He had a rather odd and often unpleasant personality. I took his courses for three years. For the first year, whenever he called on me to answer a question I was simply identified by him as "You With The Glasses." After the first year he learned my first name.

He had the habit of ridiculing students. On one occasion he told a young woman that she should have been "strangled at birth" for making a fairly common mistake about a quite difficult matter. Usually when somebody made a mistake of some kind, this teacher would make buzzes and other noises and then move on to the next person.

Outside class it was almost impossible for me or just about anybody else to have any sort of interaction with this man. I heard from various sources that there were a few exceptions, but I was never able to verify this. Whenever I tried to approach him socially he would sort of give me a sideways look (not exactly a "fisheye" kind of look, but something similar) and then walk in some other direction.

Nevertheless, students flocked to his courses. They fell in love with the subject matter. He explained things so well and in such an excited manner that it was almost impossible to fail to become excited oneself. Even the young woman who was told that she should have been murdered by her parents came back to his class (after an absence of a few weeks, but still). People came who weren't registered in the courses. This teacher didn't mind at all. He was so in love with his subject matter that he would teach it just about anywhere, at any time, for no cost.

Now I've given an example of a very bad teacher, and another example of a very good (perhaps great) teacher. Granted, the difference in the ages of the students might make some difference in these two cases, but not much, at least in my view.

There are many examples of bad teachers, both in our own lives and in the news. I think many things can make a teacher a bad one; these things are obvious to most of us, except possibly to some of us who are teachers.

What makes an excellent or even great teacher, I truly don't know. I think there must be some sort of unique gift which, when combined with the right background, produces such a person.

Still, I think we can learn something about what makes a good teacher from the examples I've given. It's not necessary to treat students as if each and every one of them were made out of gold filigree and lace. I think that much is clear. It is, however, necessary to help the students connect with the subject matter which is being taught, in such a way that it becomes as interesting as possible. In better situations, the student's interest in the subject sort of takes on a life of its own, at least for a while. At some point the student might develop a love for learning itself.

Hans Bricker

Sunday, February 15, 2009


When I was a student a classmate once said to me something to the effect that he wasn't going to read any more fiction of any kind, because he wasn't interested in knowing about things which weren't true, and furthermore he didn't see the point of other people doing so either. I can't give you a direct quotation, because it was a few years ago and my memory of his exact words is gone. Still, I think that's a pretty fair account of what my classmate said.

The man who made this statement was (and still is, I imagine) fairly stupid. I don't mean this in the sense of "I have a low IQ but I'm trying" stupid, but rather in the sense of "I'm very ignorant and happy about it" stupid.

After he said the thing about not reading any more fiction, I think I just nodded and smiled, without giving any sort of real response. I had learned by that point that with this individual there was really no point in having a discussion, because once he'd decided something he really wasn't interested in listening to what other people had to say.

I'm sure you know the type.

I only mention this event because I think it raises some interesting questions.

The first question is very involved and I won't really be able to address it here. I'll mention it, though, because I may come back to it on another occasion. Briefly: what do we mean when we say that something is "true?" Answering this question involves delving into very deep philosophical questions, however simple the question may seem at first. In this case, however, I think my classmate made a mistake which even very intelligent people can make. He equated "truth" and "fact," things which are similar in many ways and which overlap in many ways as well, but which are not really the same thing. They are not completely synonymous with each other.

In other words, in the mind of my classmate all fictional accounts are by definition non-factual, and are therefore not true. I suppose one could extend the definition of "fictional accounts" to novels, short stories, very many motion pictures, many television programs, stories written for children, and probably some other things which I can't think of right now. As I already said, the distinction between fact and truth is very interesting, but I won't address it here at this time.

Here's a different question raised by my classmate's position, which I think is also interesting and which I will address.

What, if any, is the point of reading (watching, listening to, etc.) fictional accounts?

Here's a simple and somewhat deceptive answer to that question. We read (etc.) such things because we enjoy them. I say that this is deceptive because it involves circular reasoning. At the very best it might mean we do a certain thing because we like it. That's no explanation at all, really. At worst it's equivalent to saying that we like something because we like it, which is even less of an explanation.

Now I'll give an example or analogy or two, and try to work my way around to some sort of answer.

Occasionally people ask me why I read certain novels more than once even though I already know the ending. One answer I could give is the following. "I read certain novels more than once for the same reason that you listen to your favorite songs more than once, even though you know the ending." A similar answer which I could give is "I read certain novels more than once for the same reason that you keep listening to that same damn song over and over again, now either turn down your iPod so that I can't hear it even though you have the earbuds jammed right in your ears, or I'll grab it out of your greasy little hands and smash it with a sledgehammer."

Certainly some stories become uninteresting once you know the ending, but there are very many which remain interesting even after. I think this is because there is something buried deep within the human psyche* which resonates quite strongly with something I can only call narrative. Most people like jokes, particularly very funny ones. Most jokes lose their value as humor once you know the punch line, but there are also quite a few which remain interesting or even funny after you've already heard them. Other sorts of stories are entertaining, interesting, inspiring, and so on.

What this thing is in the human psyche which resonates with narrative, I don't really know. Nevertheless, I've observed it directly in myself, and indirectly in other people. Many of you reading this are familiar with the phenomenon of a child who wants to watch the same movie multiple times, day after day until his or her parents are ready to throw the DVD or videotape out the window. The child in question (though not his or her parents, at least not then) is experiencing this resonance.

Something similar and perhaps even more fundamental happens when people listen to music. Many people have a favorite song, a favorite singer or composer, a favorite type of music, and so on. Musicians produce something else which resonates within us, in a way which we can't really put into words but which we know is there. A particular song or piece makes us feel in some way better, larger than we felt before, at the same time outside ourselves and also more deeply in touch with ourselves than we otherwise feel.

There are certain novels and short stories which I never fail to enjoy. Some time might pass between readings, but I can pick up a book years after I read it the last time and enjoy it once again. I can also read a book for the very first time and know almost from the beginning that it's something worthwhile, at least to me.

If you've had this experience (whether with a joke, a novel, a short story, a movie, or some other narrative), you know what I mean. If you haven't, well ... I don't think that there's anything wrong with you, but I think you are missing something.

Hans Bricker

*Right now I'm using the term "psyche" in the ordinary dictionary sense of the word, i.e. the mind, the spirit, the soul, whatever those things are, which is another very interesting subject.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


I have what is considered, at least these days, a rather odd and quirky habit. I speak to complete strangers. I do this not out of necessity, but out of the enjoyment of meeting new people. At an earlier time in my life I was very shy. Later on, under certain circumstances which I won't describe here, I was forced to disregard my shyness and talk frequently with people I didn't know at all. I'm no longer in those circumstances, but I've retained the habit because very often it's quite enjoyable for me to spend even a few minutes speaking to someone, perhaps learning a little about that person, and then usually moving on. On a few occasions I've gained a new friend. This is a side effect, though for me a valuable one.

Some people have told me that I shouldn't engage in this behavior. For one reason or another it's considered rude, or abnormal, and might even be dangerous. I don't think those things are true, especially the part about the danger. Also, I'm not particularly interested in being "normal," whatever that is. I'm not normal, I've never been normal, and I don't want to be normal if that means giving up exchanging a few friendly words with someone and then going on my way.

Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about.

One day recently (just last week, in fact) I was in the waiting room of a doctor's office. After looking over the magazines I decided I wasn't interested in whether the United States would invade Afghanistan or not, whether or not Britney Spears was too racy in her recent Pepsi commercials, or various things about homes and gardens and whatnot.

I noticed that the woman a few seats away from mine was reading a book, so I didn't bother her. After a few moments, though, she put down her book and began looking around. Perhaps her doctor was late and she was wondering when she might get to experience the great enjoyment which only comes from being in the presence of a real physician. So, I said hello to her and asked her how she was doing. She told me that she was well. I asked her about the book she was reading, and she explained in some detail the various characters and plot elements of the story. She said something to the effect that the book was fairly good; it wasn't the best she'd ever read nor was it the worst. Then we talked about this and that, the weather, driving conditions, certain doctors, and things of that nature. At some point she mentioned that she had driven a long way to see this particular doctor, but it was worth it. I said something to the effect that I gathered she wasn't from here. It was then that she gave me the fisheye.

The fisheye is just what it sounds like. It's the sort of look that a fish might give you. Fish have eyes on the sides of their heads, as opposed to the front. When someone gives you the fisheye, that person is looking at you with only one eye, and with his or her head turned in such a way that it isn't pointed directly at you. I think that this particular woman gave me the fisheye because she suddenly became suspicious about my intentions. Perhaps she though I was gathering information about her in order to steal her identity, or something like that.

I attempted to rescue the conversation, but to no avail. The woman was now alert to my nefarious plans. She would no longer share any information with me; in fact, she muttered a few words and went back to reading her book.

On another recent occasion (also some time within the last few weeks), I was waiting at a train station, walking around, looking at the schedules and advertisements and so on. I noticed two young people, one a young man and the other a young woman, perhaps about twenty years of age or so, seated together and speaking in a language which I didn't know. The two young people were quite obviously Asian, but from which country I didn't know. I decided to introduce myself and attempt to make their acquaintance.

It turned out they were from China. I've never been to China, but have always been fascinated by it. I let them know this, and that some day I wanted to make some sort of visit to their country. They seemed quited surprised by this; it turned out that in the few months that they had spent in my country very few people had expressed any interest in their own. And so I asked them as many questions as I could summon to mind, and we talked about various things.

The young woman was more talkative than the young man. I think this was mainly because she was more proficient in English than he. Mostly she and I talked there on the train station, and she would relay my questions to him in what I think was Mandarin. Sometimes he would make a comment to her which she would then relay to me; at other times he would simply nod or smile. A few times he said something directly to me. I found his English quite easy to understand, though not as easy as hers.

During all this our train had arrived and we headed toward our respective destinations.

I learned a few things in that conversation. One thing I learned didn't surprise me at all, though it was somewhat disappointing. It turns out that when I go to dine at China Wok Cafe #47 and order my favorite dish, namely General Chang's Orange Chicken of Great Belligerence, I'm not eating anything that's at all like the things that people who live in China actually eat. As I said, this was disappointing to me. At some point in the future I would like at least to try something closer to authentic Chinese cuisine. If I never get to China, perhaps I'll find something more like real Chinese food somewhere else, possibly in New York or San Francisco.

This entire conversation lasted at most about fifteen minutes. At the end of it I had to exit the train at my destination, while they continued on. Before that happened we exchanged email addresses. Since then we've corresponded a bit. In the future I hope to see them again, or at the very least get to know them better through one form of communication or other.

There is no moral or lesson to these stories, or at least not one which I can generalize in such a way that it might apply to other people. They are simply accounts of encounters I've had with other people. One ended rather badly, the other ended rather well.

Hans Bricker

P.S. Don't order the fisheye; it's not very good.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Here's Something You Don't Want To Read

Some topics just aren't fit for ordinary conversation. They must be whispered behind the woodshed, or perhaps certain people might allude to them in an indirect fashion, so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of decent, regular people. If one does bring up such topics in ordinary conversation, one is often met with a look of loathing, as if the other people involved in the conversation were wishing that they could shrink down to the size of a small rodent and scurry away before hearing any more about it. At the very best the normal, ordinary person, by summoning an extraordinary amount of courage, might be able to change the subject to something more suitable. But still, the damage has been done. The mood has been ruined. Everyone simply wants to go home and recover from this horrific incident.

I think right now you're hoping I won't bring it up one of those things. I think right now you're praying to God (in whom you might not even believe) that I'll just skip past the subject to something less objectionable. I think inside your mind and soul, metaphorical tears are streaming down your face in agony and fear, just at the prospect that I might even mention a certain something.

But I'm going to. I'll do it. I can do it. I can do it with a word. Just. One. Word.


There it is. It's right up above this line, sitting there staring at you with it's burning eyes. You feel nausea just by glancing at it out of your peripheral vision.

Go ahead. Run away and hide in the closet. Get in your car and drive away, as far as possible. Go to Mexico and change your name.

But, ha-ha!, I'm not even going to write about it. I'm not, because I know that if I did, so many people might be hurt. I don't want to hurt people. I'm a nice guy. I like to help people. I like to listen to their problems, their worries, their fears, their hopes, their dreams. I want to offer them assistance in whatever way I can.

So instead, I'll write about something else. I'll give you a little list of some things which wouldn't exist if it weren't for the thing represented by that little word above (don't look at it, don't, Dear God just look away). Here are just some of the things which wouldn't exist: radio, television, telephones, cars, refrigeration (that includes air conditioning), computers, airplanes, the Nintendo Wii, anything else which runs on electricity, and so on. I could make a longer list, but I won't. I think you get the idea.

I would be willing to bet that just about anybody reading this values at least one of those things in that list above. I think that many people value even more than one of those things.

Of course those things wouldn't exist without certain other things as well, e.g. engineering and chemistry. For some reason these subjects, at least when mentioned only in passing, are not offensive at all. In fact, many people use the word "chemistry" to mean sexual attraction. Most people would agree, at least in principle, that "chemistry" in the sense I just mentioned is a good thing. Just don't take it too far.

Now, imagine for a moment (and this is not a digression) a smiling old man. He has a large pile of frizzy hair on his head. He has a twinkle in his eye. Perhaps he's holding a piece of chalk in his hand, perhaps a violin. He's wearing a sweater or sweatshirt. His very name has now come to mean "very intelligent person." During a long period of his life, whenever this man went somewhere he was met with glee by very many people. Large numbers would flock to the place where his ship was going to dock, shouting and sometimes even screaming in anticipation. He was a sort of pre-Beatle, except he didn't sing songs about holding hands or love-me-do or being a walrus.

Yes, I'm talking about Albert Einstein. Curiously, he is still probably the most famous practitioner of that dreaded art represented by that horrid word (don't look at it, just don't!) above. If he were alive today, most people would welcome him into their homes. That is to say, most people would welcome him into their homes on the condition that he would have some coffee or perhaps tea, play his violin a little, and talk about what's on television, or who might win the championship in a particular sport, or even about certain subjects which are often a cause of strife, such as politics or religion. Just no talk about that other subject.

If he were to bring up that other subject, even most sweet old grandmothers would show him the door, and probably even give him a nice kick to the seat of his pants on his way out.

Hans Bricker

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Gutenberg & The World Wide Web

Ask one hundred or so people the question "Who invented the printing press?" Apart from those people who simply stare at you blankly or those who shove you out of the way in order to get home in time for American Idol, you're most likely to get the answers "Gutenberg," or "John Gutenberg." One or two people might say "Johannes Gutenberg." This answer is more or less correct, though partly false and also partly imprecise.

Printing presses of various kinds existed before the time of Johannes Gutenberg. They were almost certainly invented somewhere in Asia, probably China. The printing presses used in Asia for centuries before the time of Gutenberg were, however, somewhat impractical for various reasons. Those reasons aren't important here, but are an important part of the history of printing. Perhaps I'll revisit that topic in some later writing.

The invention by Johannes Gutenberg of a certain specific kind of movable-type printing press occurred at about the same time as the arrival in Europe of another invention, i.e. paper (also, by the way, invented first in China). The convergence of these two technologies made it possible and practical for the first time in the history of the world to disseminate large amounts of information to large numbers of people.

Because of the new availability of (relatively) inexpensive paper books in Europe, there was an explosion of information which the world had never seen before. The most important development prior to this, in terms of the availability of information, was probably the invention of written language itself. Eventually printed paper books became available all over the world. We are still seeing the after-effects of this change today.

Printed paper books, available at a fairly low cost, made it possible for more than just an elite group of people to attain literacy.

Now, let's examine another kind of invention from a later period in time. In the late 1960s and in the 1970s certain technological innovations occurred; these innovations led to the development of what came to be called "the Internet." The invention of the Internet is a very complex story. We'll let it suffice for now to say that the Internet made it possible for large numbers of computers to be connected together over a vast area.

Still, the Internet was only available to a relatively small number of people. Mostly these people were in universities, the government, and the military. The Internet spread beyond the United States, eventually to the entire world, and became available to the general public a short time later. Nevertheless, computers were still quite expensive, and using them was by no means easy. For those who knew how to use a computer of one kind or another, it was possible to become connected to the Internet.

A short time after that, two inventions made it both possible and interesting for very large numbers of people to be connected to a large (eventually world-wide) network of computers. These two inventions are the graphical user interface (also known as a GUI, pronounced by some people as "gooey"), and the World Wide Web.

The kind of graphical user interface which I'm writing about here consists of windows, icons, menus, and some sort of pointer or pointing device (thus the occasional use of the term "WIMP" interface). This is set in contrast to a previous kind of interface (still in existence and used by many people), which consisted mainly of ordinary text, which many people found and still find rather difficult to use. The first development of a graphical user interface and its first introduction to the general public is also a very complicated story, and I have to leave it aside for now.

The other invention, the World Wide Web, was built to sort of ride on top of the already existing Internet. The work which made the World Wide Web possible was done by many people, and is yet another involved and complex story. A key person involved in the technology of the World Wide Web is a man named Tim Berners-Lee. He also made this technology available to the public for the first time, and so he is often called the "inventor of the World Wide Web." We'll let that go for now, for the usual reasons.

To make an already long story as short as possible, in the mid-1990s the World Wide Web became available to the general public for the first time. Over the few years since then, there has occurred once again an enormous explosion of the availability of information to a very large number of people. We are still in the very early stages of this explosion of information, and nobody really knows where it's taking us.

The analogy I've made between Gutenberg's movable-type printing press and that of the World Wide Web should be quite obvious. Both made it possible for very many people to learn more easily, have access to a great deal more information, and consequently led to the vast dissemination of a wide variety of ideas. Also in both cases, these technological innovations have been used for both good and evil purposes; this seems to be one of the few constant themes in human history.

Note #1: I am by no means the first person to make the comparison between the change brought about by Gutenberg's printing press and the invention of the World Wide Web. I simply wanted to make the connection for those who are reading this and may not have heard it before.

Note #2: I have greatly oversimplified a large number of historical events. I am sorry to have done this, but if I had told the story in anything close to full detail, it would have become the size of an encyclopedia. For those who wish to know more about these events, there are many books available in print about these matters, as well as a great deal of information which is available electronically.

Hans Bricker

Language Changes

One lesson that I've learned the hard way in recent years is that language is constantly changing. This is true of all living languages, including English. We don't have to like it, but there's nothing we can do about it except adjust. It's like the weather in this way.

I'll give a few examples, then explain some possible implications.

When I was younger, almost anything good was bound to be called "awesome" by somebody at some time. I think that sports commentators started this, as in "that was an awesome double play" or "that was the most awesome pass I've ever seen in all my many years of following football. Back to you, Howard." Now, at one time not very distant in the past, the word "awesome" meant something somewhat different. It meant something like "awe-inspiring," or perhaps "deserving of reverence or a feeling of awe." God was considered "awesome." A very beautiful painting might have been considered "awesome." These days, when I hear a young person say "awesome," I usually hear a tone of irony or sarcasm. So these young people mean "awesome," at least some of the time, in the opposite sense of what it meant when I was their age.

"I heard the exam for this class is really hard. Lots of people failed it last year."


And so on.

Another example, in this case more obscure, is the word "moot." Now, the word "moot" is related to the English word "meet." Some time ago (centuries ago), to "moot" something meant to put it up for discussion. At the very least it meant that the matter was as yet undecided.* These days when we say that a point is "moot," we usually mean that it's already been decided, so we might as well not bother with it since there's nothing we can do about it. If you were to say at a "meeting," "I would like to moot a point," at the very best people would look at you as if you had said something particularly stupid. If the other people at the meeting were "awesome," they might grab you by the neck, punch you on the ear a few times, and then throw you out of the room.

So here we have another word which has reversed it's meaning, in this case completely. How this happened I don't know, nor do I particularly care. It's a moot point.

The final example is the word "unique." Most dictionaries will tell you that the first and main meaning of the word "unique" is something like "sole, singular, the only one." One example which comes to mind is the Eiffel Tower. It's in Paris. There are many copies, large and small, but there is one, and only one, Eiffel Tower. Therefore, the Eiffel Tower is unique. In recent years, however, the word "unique" has fallen from its once high place. Very often I hear people say that something is "very unique," or "really unique," when they mean that the thing in question is not in fact the only one of its kind in existence, but merely unusual or out of the ordinary. "That vase is really unique." "That was a unique man" - meaning that he was weird or odd, but the person speaking is trying to be nice.

I think I've made my point that language changes. I could give more examples, but I don't think it's necessary. Now, a few implications.

First, I think it's clear that we change the meanings of words to suit our needs, or that the meanings of words change because their original meanings have become garbled, confused, or simply lost. Overall I think this is a positive implication, because we can use language like a tool; as the saying goes (or went the last time I checked), "the right tool for the right job." So, as long as we can get people to consent to a change in the meaning of a word, we can use it in a new or different way according to the needs of the time.

Second, a less positive implication. When the meaning of a word changes, we lose a little something. We might lose a little of our connection with the continuity of the past, because we misunderstand what, for example, Jane Austen meant when she used the word "sensibility" in the title of her book Sense and Sensibility. Over time these changes build up, and eventually you have a completely different language. This isn't an entirely bad thing, since it means that we're not imprisoned by the way things were done in the past. We do, however, have to face the consequences, one way or another, to the best of our abilities.

I could go on, giving more examples and more implications. I think I'll stop here though, since I'm nowhere near awesome enough to moot such a unique point.

*Actually, the use of the word "moot" to mean "something undecided" can be found as recently as Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851).

Hans Bricker

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

On The Bus

For a number of years now I've been using public transportation quite a bit. Where I live this means either the bus or the train. For the most part the ride is quiet and uneventful. Sometimes, however, noteworthy events occur. Here are the stories of some of the interesting things which I've experienced on the bus.

On one occasion an elderly gentleman struck up a conversation with me. The day was hot. One or the other of us mentioned something about global warming, as people often do on such days. At that point the elderly gentleman informed me quite clearly that "the whole thing started when they put that big mirror up in space." I was, I think quite naturally, curious about which mirror he meant. After asking some questions, I determined that he was talking about the mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope. As a side note, I should mention that large telescopes used for scientific purposes don't have lenses; they have mirrors. I informed the gentleman that the mirror on the Hubble was only about two meters across.* He looked at me quizzically, as if to ask whether I was trying to make some point. I almost immediately realized that the man was not familiar with the metric system of measurements. I then told him that two meters was about the same as a little over six feet. He then assured me that the mirror he was talking about was definitely miles across. He was quite forceful on this point. I decided not to argue with him. After a while he reached his stop, and, cane in hand, walked off the bus.

Another time I was present when a drunk woman had to be forcibly removed from the bus by the driver. This shouldn't have been a problem, since the drunken passenger was a rather small woman, whereas the driver was a rather large (and obviously quite strong) woman. Still, the small drunk passenger fought the driver with great ferocity, yelling and screaming the entire time. Some kicking and biting may have occurred. At some point the drunk passenger found herself standing (or rather, reeling) on the curb. At the same time the driver was speaking into her radio, I imagine to an operator, dispatcher, or somebody like that. While this was going on the drunken former passenger began to scream obscenities at the driver. Just at the time when the driver was finishing her radio communication, the woman on the curb found an empty vodka bottle and hurled it through the open door of the bus, directly at the driver. The driver managed to avoid being hit, and I think the vodka bottle shattered against something near her. At any rate the driver was not injured. Still, we all had to get off the bus and wait for either a replacement or the next bus going in our direction. In the mean time, the police arrived and escorted the drunken former passenger, who was still screaming obscenities, to their squad car. I imagine she was at least charged with some minor crime.

One day I was riding home on the bus when I saw, seated a little ahead of me, one of my professors from college. My time at the university where he taught was about ten years prior to this particular day. Still, I remembered his name and the course which he taught in which I was a student. It was a course concerning international diplomacy. His name isn't important. I decided to approach him and start a conversation, if he seemed willing. I sat across from him on the bus, caught his eye and said hello. At first he seemed slightly frightened. Maybe he was worried that I was a panhandler or some sort of missionary. Then I said his name, told him mine, and told him the name of the course which he taught which I had taken some years before that day. Then suddenly he became delighted. He seemed very excited that he had made such a deep impression on a student who had only taken one course years ago, and who not only remembered his name, but also some of the details of the course material. I was careful not to mention that even though his teaching style was very engaging, the material was rather dull. I've seen him occasionally since that day. He always remembers me (though not my name), and we always exchange at least a few pleasant words.

On still another occasion, I was riding the bus on my way to see a doctor. After a while I realized that some women seated behind me were carrying on an excited conversation about certain, shall we say, sexual matters. It was clear from their conversation that they already knew one another. After a while they began speaking quite graphically about the size of this or that, the funny thing that happened that one time, the important thing they forgot about that other time, and so on. I think you get the idea. All the while they were laughing hysterically as they recalled and recounted these various events and people. I became somewhat embarrassed and tried not to listen. This was impossible, though, because they had become at that point quite loud and quite explicit in their descriptions. Even the driver, a middle-aged man, began laughing at some point. There were no other passengers on the bus except for me and this group of five or six women. At one point I looked behind myself and confirmed what I already strongly suspected, consequently becoming even more embarrassed. All of the women were at least sixty years of age, a few of them obviously quite a bit older.

At many times on the bus I've had the opportunity to speak with various people about various matters, ranging from politics, books, religion and so forth, to things much more mundane such as the care of pets, how to avoid missing the bus, etc. A few times I've helped pregnant women or older people get off or on the bus, and a few other times I've helped some people in wheelchairs to get situated safely. Most of these events and conversations have been quite ordinary and even at times very interesting.

I hope you have enjoyed these few stories I've told. Somehow I feel that these experiences have, on the whole, enriched my life in some way.

*The mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope is actually 2.4 meters across, equivalent to almost 8 feet (more precisely, 7.87 feet).

Hans Bricker

Crazy People

Recently I mentioned to an acquaintance that I thought a certain other person was mentally ill. These two people don't know one another. Also, the person who in my opinion is mentally ill shows clear signs of mental illness. He's not dangerous in any way, except possibly to himself. He seems to hear voices that other people don't hear. He has some twitches. Many of the things he says don't make any sense, at least to me. He doesn't complete a sentence, ever. He doesn't seem to be able to connect two things together in terms of cause and effect. My honest opinion is that this man has some sort of medical problem.

Many people would call him "crazy."

My acquaintance replied to my opinion about this other man's mental illness by saying that, "if somebody doesn't conform to what most people consider normal, they're crazy."

Now I would like to tease apart a few ideas, and try to make some sense out of how we use the word "crazy." I will make some suggestions about how we might think about things differently. I hope that as a consequence of changing our way of thinking, we might be able to change our way of acting and speaking.

Often the word "crazy" is used very loosely.

I know a man who is very liberal in his political thinking. Often he refers to people who disagree with him, even just a little bit, as "crazy." If someone thinks that the death penalty is justifiable at least in some cases, this man would refer to that person as "crazy, just crazy."

I know some conservative people who would say that the liberal man is just as "crazy" as he says they are.

Very often I've heard people who have certain views about religion refer to people who think or believe differently as "crazy."

Now, I think that using the word "crazy" this way is very often an excuse for avoiding something which can be very difficult. I'll get to that in a moment. First, let me ask a few questions and say a few other things.

Some people think that the moon landings of the late 1960s were faked. Are these people crazy?

Other people think that the earth is flat, rather than spherical. Are they crazy?

Still other people think that in the distant past human beings were visited by extraterrestrials, who helped them build the pyramids and do lots of other cool things which they couldn't have done on their own. Are people who think this way crazy as well?

The following is a list of ideas (separated by commas) which are all said by various people in various places to be "crazy": The existence of God, the non-existence of God, war is sometimes justifiable, war is never justifiable, eating animal flesh is wrong, thinking that eating animal flesh is acceptable is wrong, extraterrestrials might exist, extraterrestrials don't or can't exist, free markets are good, free markets are bad, it's better to have one skin color rather than another, people of all skin colors are equal, it's better to be one nationality that another, it's not better to be one nationality than another, wearing clothes usually worn by people of the opposite sex is acceptable, or that it's not acceptable, and so on, and on, and on.

It should be clear that if holding as true even one of the ideas listed above is enough to make a person classifiable as crazy, then every single person on Earth is crazy.

Above I said that we often use the word "crazy" as an excuse to avoid something difficult. Here's why.

Now, when we label a person as "crazy," that means we can easily and rightly avoid speaking to that person, because that person is no more rational than the man I mentioned in my first paragraph. We can wash our hands of both the person and the person's ideas, and leave everything to the medical professionals.

If, on the other hand, we say that we think a person is simply wrong or mistaken, then we might have to do something. We might have to say why we think the person's ideas are wrong. We might have to say why we think are own ideas are right.

The difficult thing I mentioned above is called "rational discourse."

In order to engage in rational discourse we have to have reasons for saying what we say. Sometimes we must present evidence in some form or another that another person is wrong about something. We might have to face another human being and actually discuss something, think about something, and even consider that we ourselves might be wrong about something, rather than go home every night perfectly content with our own ideas.

I would like to suggest that we try more often to do the difficult thing rather than the easy thing, and that we avoid calling someone "crazy" unless that person actually has a mental illness in the medical sense of the term.

Hans Bricker

Monday, February 9, 2009

Never Forget

In the mid 90s I was working at a job given to me by a friend who then became my boss. The job was neither important nor demanding. At the same time I was also never excited about it, so I never even tried to be good at it. As a consequence I ended up spending a lot of time reading newspapers, news magazines, and so on, instead of actually doing my job.

On another note, which is related to what I'm writing here though the connection won't be clear for a few moments, from time to time various people have said to me things to the effect that "all parents love their children," "all mothers love their children," "parents will do anything for their children," along with other, similar statements. Some of these same people often make statements to me about my own life, including my childhood and my parents, even though often they know nothing or nearly nothing about any of that.

In 1995, while not doing my job, I read the life story of a little girl. Her name was Elisa Izquierdo. Elisa lived with her mother in New York. I imagine but don't know for a fact that Elisa was in most ways similar to most six-year-old children. I imagine that she liked to play. She probably did some things she shouldn't have done. It seems likely that she had a favorite color. She may have had a favorite toy. It seems certain to me that she had friends her own age with whom she liked to play. I am certain that she had her own thoughts and feelings, as all human beings do.

On November 22nd, 1995, Elisa's mother murdered her in a particularly brutal manner, after having abused her over a long period of time. At the time I found the story disturbing, saddening, and shocking, but not surprising. As much as most parents love their children and do everything to care for them, some parents seem to either hate their children or care so little for them that they either harm them, neglect them, or even in many cases kill them. Those truisms about parental love aren't particularly true; they are ideas which people like to believe, and because of this many people turn a blind eye toward abused children, some of whom end up losing their very lives.

Parents who abuse their children, along with other people who abuse children, are often described as "evil," "sick" or some combination of the two. I don't know the real reasons for child abuse, nor do I know what might be a solution to it, if any is at all possible. I do know that all of us who become aware of the abuse of any child must do something to protect that child. We must do whatever we can, and as soon as we can.

Elisa Izquierdo's mother killed her by beating her head against a wall. If Elisa were alive today, she would be a young woman, nearly twenty years old. I promised myself that I would never forget her. I haven't and I hope that I never do.

Elisa Izquierdo, 1989-1995. Requiescat in pace.

Hans Bricker

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Vector Linux 6 RC 4: A Brief Review

The following is a brief review of Vector Linux 6.0, Release Candidate 4

A few preliminary notes:

1. If you're not interested in computer software in general or Linux (GNU/Linux if you prefer) in particular, you should probably skip this entry.
2. If you are interested in Linux, you might want to do some more general reading about it before reading this review. Wikipedia is a pretty good start. There's a lot of information about Linux on the Web, including a variety of opinions. Sorting through all of this is a hefty chore, so try to be careful to check what is fact and what is only opinion.
3. I can't be entirely objective about this particular version (or "distribution") of Linux, since I've used it as my only desktop operating system for a few years now. Nevertheless, I will point out what weaknesses I think are there, since no software is (or can be) perfect.
4. This review is not intended to be comprehensive, since writing about such matters is not the main purpose for which I started this web log.
6. There are bound to be some problems with this release candidate of Vector Linux, since its not the final version. If you decide to install it, you might want to wait until the final version of 6.0 is out.
7. Finally, any errors of fact in this review are mine alone.


Vector Linux was started more than ten years ago in Canada by Robert S. Lange and Darrell Stavem. It is still considered a "Canadian" distribution, but I gather that there are developers and users of Vector Linux in other countries, e.g. the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, various countries on the European continent, Argentina, and probably quite a few other places. The "Standard" version is free to download over the Internet, so I imagine that no one knows how many people are using it, not to mention where they all live. Vector Linux is based on an older Linux distribution, Slackware. Slackware is thought by many in the Linux community to be stable and probably the most Unix-like of the various distributions of Linux, though it has a reputation for being difficult to install and configure. Vector Linux not only addresses some of the weaknesses of Slackware, but also has other, possibly unique, advantages.

The Standard version is known to run well on older hardware. The one other thing for which Vector Linux is known is it's very friendly and helpful user and developer community.

I. Installation

Most Linux distributions have had graphical installers for years. Version 6.0 introduces this to Vector for the first time. I've installed previous versions using the text-based installer, which I found to be very user-friendly. Most experienced Linux users would probably not have a problem with it, though people new to Linux might. Still, the graphical installer adds a new level of ease of use. It makes Vector Linux barely more difficult to install than Windows, and possibly Mac OS X, though about that I'm not sure.

Probably the most daunting thing about installing any Linux for a new user is hard drive partitioning. The Vector Linux installer makes this easy, though for anyone attempting to install it I would recommend first doing a little research about hard disk partitioning, and also backing up any important data from your current operating system. Any time you partition a hard disk, there is the danger of data loss. If you are currently a Windows user, have your Windows CD or DVD handy, or lacking that make or have at hand a set of restoration disks.

I found Vector Linux 6.0 RC 4 (from now on, simply "Vector Linux") very easy to install. Since I already have Linux partitions on my hard drive, I was able to skip the partitioning step and use already existing partitions. The installer correctly detected and installed all of my hardware, including my onboard ethernet, my video card, hard drives, and so on, with one exception, my printer. I'll write a brief note about that later. I had to answer the usual questions such as language, preferred keyboard layout, time zone, root (or "administrator") password, user accounts, monitor resolution, type of mouse, and so on. At some point I was given the choice of installing (or not) optional software. Since I had a large partition available (25 gigabytes), I chose to install everything. Then the installer proceeded to do its thing, while I played a game of xgalaga (included with the installer). After that was finished, I remember rebooting, making a few configuration choices, and then logging into my new Vector Linux installation.

2. Desktop

The Standard version of Vector Linux uses the Xfce Desktop Environment as default, with a few alteratives available at login time. I honestly don't remember what they are. Xfce does not have all of the features of KDE or GNOME, but it does have quite a few, is easy to configure with graphical tools, and requires much less in the way of system resources than KDE or GNOME. Vector Linux has also customized Xfce so that it is much nicer to look at than in its default state. In addition to that, the default theme ("gotchione") is very slick looking. The default wallpaper is also very impressive, though of course I immediately changed it to something else of my own preference.

Xfce (formerly XFCE) comes with a few useful features of its own. Among them are an easy to use settings manager, helpful for many things, Thunar (an excellent file manager), Terminal (a snappy-looking terminal emulator), Mousepad (a text editor), a full-featured panel (sometimes called a "taskbar" in other desktop environments and operating systems), and probably some other things that I can't remember or don't know about.

3. Applications

Vector Linux comes with quite a few great applications just with the initial installation. Among them are various things for web browsing, graphics editing, image viewing, email, office, games, multimedia, and so on. I won't go into detail about these things here, since the applications available are more or less the same as those available for any Linux distribution. There is one thing worth noting. There is a myth that there aren't many applications available for Slackware or Slackware-based Linux distributions, and that Slackware doesn't have dependency resolution. This simply isn't true. There may be fewer applications available for Slackware than for (just an example or two) Fedora or Ubuntu, but there are very many. There are at least hundreds, possibly thousands, and they are almost all of high quality. Dependency resolution is handled by a command-line application called "slapt-get," and in Vector Linux you can install quite a bit of software with a graphical front end known as "Gslapt."

4. System Administration

Vector Linux comes with its own very useful system administration tool known as either "vasmCC" or "vasm" or sometimes "VASMCC." I think that "vasm" stands for "Vector Administrative and Services Menu" and I know that "CC" is for control center. This small but powerful and versatile tool is useful for many tasks, among them creating new user accounts, installing and configuring hardware, adding partitions or hard disks to be mounted at boot time, network configuration, and so on. At first it's a little difficult to navigate, but once you get used to it it's quite easy. To my knowledge the version of Ubuntu that's more or less equivalent to the Standard version of Vector Linux (Xubuntu) doesn't have such an administration tool.

5. Speed

I don't know how they do it, but the Vector Linux team have made a version of Linux which runs quite quickly on older hardware, and very quickly on newer hardware. For all of the features it has, Vector Linux is the fastest distribution of which I'm aware. There are customized versions that are much smaller and run faster (Damn Small Linux comes to mind), but generally they don't have the features which Vector Linux has. If you have aging but not ancient hardware, Vector Linux might be a good operating system for you.

6. Some Problems

I've had some difficulties in configuring my firewall in Vector Linux. Linux comes with a built-in firewall, and there are various graphical tools for configuring it. VasmCC has a section for firewall configuration, but I haven't found it easy to use. There are other graphical interfaces for Linux firewall configuration, but I haven't had much luck with them. From what I can tell, the default firewall settings for Vector Linux are pretty secure for most purposes without being overly so. The main problem I've had is opening the printer port on my main machine to the other ones on my network, so that I can use the main machine as a print server. I imagine I need to do some more reading about this, and learn how to do it properly. Still, it would be nice to have an easier to use graphical tool so that I wouldn't have to worry about this.

Also, for some reason I'm having trouble getting my old cranky HP Deskjet 920c working with this release. It worked fine with the previous release (and still does, since I still have it installed in another partition).

The only other problem I've had with this release candidate is that some of the software I want is not yet available in the Vector Linux 6.0 repositories. I imagine that everything or nearly everything will become available in the near future.


I'm very happy with Vector Linux 6.0, even though this isn't the final version. The final version will probably come out soon, though I don't know exactly when. Installation was easy, administration is easy, there are plenty of applications to keep me happy, and I'm just now getting it tricked out the way I like it.

For more information about Linux, see the Wikipedia article by that title. For more information about Vector Linux, visit and For more information about Xfce, visit For more information about Free and Open Source software in general, a simple Google search should suffice. There's a lot of information out there.

A tiny little thing I want to mention last: Vector Linux, along with most Linux distributions and Linux-compatible software is both Free (in the sense of Freedom) and free (in the sense of "free of charge"). Vector Linux has both "Deluxe" and Small Office/Home Office (SOHO) versions which can be obtained for a small price. You can also make a donation to Vector Linux. At any rate, in order to get high quality software you won't have to pay the exorbitant licensing fees of proprietary software, nor will you need to break copyright law by pirating software via bittorrent or some other such method.

And very lastly, since nothing written about software is complete without at least one screenshot, here's an image of my desktop of Vector Linux 6.0 Release Candidate 4, with a few applications open.

Hans Bricker

ADDENDUM: When the final version of Vector Linux 6.0 Standard is released, I will either edit this review to fit the final release, or write an entirely new review, depending on how many changes have been made.


This essay isn't really about God; it's about atheism, which is about the existence of God. These two things aren't the same, but they are related.

The following is the question I'm addressing: Is it possible to know that God does not exist?

Some definitions: Theism: the idea or belief that there is a God. Agnosticism: the idea that it is impossible to know whether or not there is a God; a weaker form of this idea is held by people who say that they personally do not know whether there is a God. Atheism: the idea that there is no God. This is the weak version of this idea. Strong Atheism: There is no God, and in fact God cannot exist, and it is possible to know that God does not exist and cannot exist.

Let's look at the question about why atheism, theism, and so on are important right now. On September 11th, 2001, radical Muslim terrorists carried out devastating terrorist attacks on the United States. Since then, radical Muslims have been carrying out terrorist attacks all over the world. There is also religious strife in Africa and South Asia, and religious persecution in China. Other problems related to religion have occurred throughout history. The place of Christianity in society is a matter of controversy in the United States and many other places.

As a consequence of these recent events, certain proponents of "strong atheism" as defined above, have gone on the offensive. For them, the idea that God exists is a toxic one, and can be shown to be untrue. To them, people carry out violent acts because of their belief in the existence of God, or their belief that God wants them to do certain things. This form of strong atheism is an attack on religion; that's not the subject under discussion here, but it is related.

In the mind of the strong atheist, the idea that God exists or can exist is at best equivalent to believing in the existence of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, at least for an intelligent and educated adult. In their minds, the idea of God is usually much worse.

Sometimes a strong atheist, when speaking with someone who holds the idea of the existence of God to be true or at least possible, will say something condescending such as, "So, your invisible friend wants you to pray for your dead aunt. How nice." Others will say something even more insulting, such as, "I don't believe in your Invisible Sky Wizard. Just because some ignorant desert nomads (they're talking about the Hebrews of the Bible) thought that some imaginary person told them to do something doesn't make it real."

Skeptic and atheist Carl Sagan made a statement to the effect that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." I think here we have come to the heart of the matter, and need to examine several ideas very closely before drawing a conclusion.

Three Ideas Central To Understanding What "Knowing" Is

Empiricism: the notion that all human knowledge (outside the knowledge of our own minds and hearts) comes through the senses, i.e. hearing, seeing, smelling, etc. I think this idea is essentially true. Methodological Empiricism: the practice, most often used in the natural sciences, of excluding from scientific discussion anything which cannot be sensed, measured, and quantified. In the natural sciences, this idea and practice is very useful, and has led to a great deal of scientific progress. Ontological Empiricism: this is an extension of the idea behind methodological empiricism to all human knowledge. If something cannot be sensed, measured, and quantified, then not only is it excluded from scientific examination, it must be excluded from all discussion by rational people. Furthermore, not only do things which cannot be sensed, measured and quantified not exist, they cannot exist. Among these things God is a member, since by almost every definition of God, God is invisible, beyond time and space, not made of matter, and cannot, by definition, be sensed, measured, or quantified.

This idea of "ontological empiricism" is the central mistake of strong atheism. Ontological empiricism (i.e. the idea that nothing outside the world that we can sense through experience can, even in principle, exist) is so severely broken that it doesn't even qualify as wrong. Here's why, starting with a few examples:

If someone I know were to tell me that he had experienced a dream in which an angel told him to give up all material things, go find a small place in the woods in which to live, and spend the rest of his life praying for the salvation of all people, I would probably wish him well.

Here are a few reasons why I say this. Mainly, I have no way of knowing whether or not the man truly had a visitation from an angel. There is no way for me to measure, sense, quantify, or otherwise examine the angel in question, because by definition angels are not made of matter and do not exist in the same way that the objects of our ordinary sense experience (rocks, trees, dogs, cats, houses, chairs, other rocks, and so forth) exist. Also, I can't examine the contents of another person's dream.

Here's another example. If someone told me that he had experienced a visit from extraterrestrial aliens, and that they had taken him onto their spacecraft and then returned him to his home, I would doubt his claim. Not because I don't think there are any extraterrestrial aliens, nor because I think visits from extraterrestrial aliens can't happen. The real reason is that extraterrestrials can, if they are even remotely like us, be sensed, measured, and quantified. Without material evidence of such a visit, I would say that to accept such a claim as real, I would need something more. Some form of advanced technology which we don't have here would incline me in favor of the claim. A visit from a number of alien spacecraft which other people could see, and which could be examined by the scientific community to rule out a hoax, would almost certainly do the trick.


Strong atheism makes a very serious mistake about what can be known. Carl Sagan said that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." What he didn't say was that the only things which he would accept as evidence had to be able to be sensed, measured, and quantified.

What the strong atheists are claiming is that anything, including God, which cannot be sensed, measured, and quantified, not only does not exist but cannot exist. I can't see how anybody can place any value in terms of truth and fact in such a statement. It is impossible to sense, measure, or quantify a reality which is beyond our sensory experience. Therefore, it is impossible to know empirically whether or not there is such a reality, including God. This is where ontological empiricism (the central idea on which strong atheism rests) overreaches and becomes ridiculous. Therefore, it is impossible to know that God does not exist.

Hans Bricker

Friday, February 6, 2009

Why Can't Hollywood Make Good Science Fiction Movies?

Since I was a young boy, I've liked science fiction in both its written and screen varieties. Still, in all those years I've only seen a few movies which have even come close in quality to the really good written stuff, at least insofar as these movies are science fiction.

What I'm about to write really doesn't apply to any film that came out before the late 1960s. I've seen few of those, and of the ones I've seen most have been very bad. Nevertheless, I'll admit the possibility that there are some good ones. I just haven't seen enough of what is out there to make a fair judgment.

I'm not going to write about the science fiction that's been on television over the last forty years or so. Perhaps I'll do so in a later piece.

Also, I'll be using the terms film and movie interchangeably, in the usual sense of both words, i.e. motion picture.

About definitions: there are probably as many definitions of what qualifies as "science fiction" as there are readers and writers of it. I'll give you my definition. Science fiction is any fiction in which science plays a central role in the story, which is to say that the story could not be told without the scientific element. If a movie is bad as a movie or as science fiction, then it falls into the category of "bad science fiction movie." Here are a few examples to clarify what I mean. The Godfather is clearly not science fiction, whereas 2001: A Space Odyssey clearly is. This is because in the first film, no scientific element is necessary to the story, as opposed to the second example, in which a variety of scientific elements are necessary. When I was in high school, I asked a teacher of mine whether he liked The Lord of the Rings. He told me that he wasn't fond of science fiction. He and I did not share the same definition of science fiction.

I had a professor in college who once asked me why I "wasted so much time reading that science fiction trash," but that's another story.

Furthermore, I would add that in order for a movie to be good science fiction, the scientific element must be at least fairly plausible. As I mentioned above, if any given movie fails to be good fiction or to have good science, then as a science fiction movie it's a failure. Two examples come to mind. The central scientific premise of Jurassic Park (the idea that if dinosaur DNA could be recovered, dinosaurs could be made to live again) is fairly plausible, but as a story it's a failure for a number of reasons. The acting is mediocre, it relies very heavily on special effects, the dialogue is stilted, and so on. As a story Star Wars (the original one, from 1977) is pretty good. Granted, the acting isn't so hot, the dialogue is kind of phony sounding if you really pay attention to it, but there's a princess, a good wizard (sorry, jedi knight), a bad one, lots of danger and excitement, comical robots, not to mention a very suspensful endgame. But the science is all over the place, sometimes even bordering on the ridiculous (look up the definition of the word parsec, then watch the movie and see how it's used).

Now I'll give a few more examples so that you'll have a clearer idea of my point of view, and then I'll answer my original question.

The Matrix has a pretty good story, some compelling dialogue, and good acting for the most part (I'm looking at you, Laurence Fishburne). One of the central scientific ideas of the movie, however, is completely idiotic. The idea that you can use human beings as a source of electrical energy without a net energy loss, is, and I'm trying to be fair, so bad that it doesn't even qualify as wrong. So that's one bad science fiction movie there.

Blade Runner, on the other hand, has (in my admittedly subjective opinion) a good story, good acting by some good actors (Harrison Ford, Edward James Olmos, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer et al.), and fairly plausible science. Genetically engineered human beings are definitely possible, just to give one example, and while flying cars seem less likely, at least they're not flat-out impossible. So I would put this one in the "good science fiction" category.

All of the Star Wars and Star Trek movies, as much as I enjoyed some of them, have very questionable science. The writers and directors know that the audiences for these movies either don't know enough science to know how bad what they're seeing is, or they're willing to put it aside because they enjoy the characters and the stories. Still, though, that's bad science fiction.

2001: A Space Odyssey has some decent acting, a good though somewhat obtuse story, and pretty solid though highly speculative scientific elements. So I think it qualifies as good science fiction (as much as some people hate it).

I don't even want to talk about Starship Troopers.

So, back to my question. Why can't Hollywood make good science fiction movies? I think the answer is that they have no real motivation to do so, and lots of motivation not to do so. The studio executives know that when they throw out another Star Trek movie, lots of people will show up for it (myself included) some of them wearing Starfleet uniforms or dressed up as Klingons.

If, on the other hand, they made a halfway decent effort of adapting The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or The Left Hand of Darkness to film, they have no idea what would happen. Maybe a lot of people would show up. Maybe nobody would show up. It would be a big gamble for them, and one thing that's certain is that they don't want to make movies that lose money.

Hans Bricker

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Coffee Snobbery

Recently I've seen in the news, as I'm sure most people have, that Starbucks has been laying off a lot of employees. I find this distressing, since some of the worst news in a recession is about people losing their jobs. The only thing I can think of right now that bothers me more is how many people have lost their homes. I know that eventually the economy is going to recover one way or another, and in the end many people will have learned some valuable lessons about frugality and the importance of family and friends, and I hope about not placing too much importance on material things.

Nevertheless, if it weren't for the job losses, I wouldn't mind if Starbucks went out of existence completely. I know that Starbucks is often the whipping boy for various causes, especially those which complain about how large franchises have driven small business out of existence in many sectors of our economy. That doesn't bother me too much. Nor am I one of those people who don't like Starbucks' coffee because it's too strong. I like coffee that has a strong flavor and enough caffeine to help me stay awake. I don't have a problem with Starbucks' prices; they're a specialty chain that sells a luxury item. They can charge what the market will bear.

The thing that bothers me is that many people I know who frequent Starbucks (and they know who they are) seem to think that having a latte or a cappucino makes them better than other people. If you drink Starbucks coffee simply because you like it, then this doesn't apply to you. If you're one of those people who think that having something from Starbucks is something to brag about, and that it makes you better than people who drink Folgers, I have some news for you. It doesn't make you better. It makes you worse. It makes you a pretentious snob who looks down on other people because of the kind of coffee you drink. That just means you're a jerk.

Some years ago I was a student in Italy. Before I went there I had never heard of these various Italian coffee concoctions. I learned about them quickly though, and began to like them over a short time. It wasn't what I was used to, but it was good, and you could get it on any street corner for a small price. This was true about the prices even in Rome, which is an expensive city.

What I didn't notice at the time but I did remember later is that in Italy, everybody drinks this stuff. I mean everybody. Office workers, construction workers, teachers, students, rich people, poor people, and so on all drink a caffè e latte or cappucino in the morning and perhaps an espresso in the afternoon. They don't think it makes them better than other people. It's just coffee to them, prepared in various ways according to what they feel like having, sort of like how a lot of people here have cream or sugar in their coffee while others don't. Some Italians do occasionally order a caffè americano. Some of those people seem to think that makes them better than those around them, which I find hilariously ironic.

Just for the record, if you look down on other people because of something you've actually accomplished, you're still a jerk and a snob. Maybe you should look down on all those coffee snobs.

Hans Bricker

On Philosophy

Last night I was reading Edmund Husserl's "Cartesian Meditations" (in English translation). I'm very interested in Phenomenology. I like it a lot more than, for example, Logical Positivism or Linguistic Analysis. Anyway, I find certain epistemological questions fascinating. In the words of Bernard Lonergan, "What am I doing when I'm knowing? Why is doing that knowing? What do I know when I'm doing it?" I seem to remember that Kant concluded that we can only really know the "phenomena" or appearances of the world, and never the "noumena," the things in themselves or, if my memory is correct, he used the term "ding an sich."

Other philosophers before and after Kant would disagree with this conclusion. I know that common sense contradicts Kant, but once you start asking certain questions it becomes clear that things are much more complicated than they first appear. Many people I know aren't even aware of these questions, think that philosophy is a waste of time, and that anybody who studies philosophy rather than something more practical such as business or engineering will end up frying hamburgers for people who have real jobs. Some of the people I know who have studied philosophy think that if there are answers to these questions, we'll never find them, so there's no point in trying.

I disagree with that. It was the Greeks who started asking these questions (in the West), around 2,500 years ago. Now, if you look at less complicated questions, such as certain mathematical problems - which are by no means easy - some of the time it takes hundreds of years for somebody to prove just one theorem. Compared to mathematics, philosophy can be much more difficult, especially since the you have to do it in ordinary human language, rather than the much more precise language of mathematics. In my view there are very few ambiguities in mathematical symbolism compared to, say, Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish or English. So for the difficulty of the problems, I don't think 2,500 years is a long time at all. Even if we never do answer the big philosophical questions, I think the effort is worth it.

I'll give a few examples which should illustrate why I think philosophy is important. The first is from history. Everyone knows who the Nazis were. Most people who aren't Nazis themselves think that the Nazis were simply evil and/or insane. History books point to economic, political, and historical reasons for the rise of the National Socialist German Workers' Party. What's most often overlooked is the influence of philosophy, most important among them misinterpretations of certain philosophers' ideas, e.g. Hegel among others. So, knowing at least something about philosophy can at least in principal help people to avoid making certain very dangerous errors in thinking, which will in turn help them to avoid making consequent errors in action. I'm not saying that correct thinking is an innoculation against doing evil, but it doesn't hurt.

The next example is a little more abstract while at the same time a little more personal. Most people I know have opinions about certain philosophical questions. Some of these people haven't done much thinking about these opinions. Among those who have done some thinking, few have studied the history of philosophy, and as a consequence tend to make similar mistakes to those who have gone before them. Philosophy addresses such questions, and even has some possible answers. If you have ever wondered "What is the nature of being human?" or "Why is there something rather than nothing?" or "When is it morally acceptable to kill another human being?," then you are asking philosophical questions. Certainly various religions offer answers to these questions, but religion has relied on philosophical thought for seeking out the answers to these questions.

There are many introductions to philosophy, dictionaries of philosophy, histories of philosophy, and so on. If you are interested in exploring these questions, I suggest you try one of them.

Hans Bricker