I’ve been working on upgrading my grandmother’s machine from a five or six year-old eMachine PII/300 running Windows 98 to a brand new Compaq deal I got at CompUSA along with a monitor and printer. The machine is reasonably fast, and, after I uninstalled all the crap that it came with and threw on some more reasonable software, I’m nearly at the point where it works the way she can use it.
Frustration 1. Moving files from one machine to another. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to use the network, as the old machine doesn’t have ethernet. New machine has no floppy. I could have uploaded all of the files via modem (probably get about 2 kB/sec), but that would have been painful. Easy, though, I’d use my USB memory key. Except that Win98 doesn’t natively support USB keys. Download the drivers… discover that they all want Win98SE, and won’t install. Grind teeth. Outcome: Success — finally had to use a USB CDR I had at home, since it at least had drivers on CD for Win98.
Frustration 2. Printer failure. The HP Deskjet 3915 just sits there flashing its light. Figure it’s a driver problem, so download 8MB of updates (over that mighty 2kB/sec connection). Still, nothing. Paper manual says that I should read documentation on CD. Documentation on CD says that I should consult the error code provided by the HP software. HP software says everything is fine. CD documentation’s best suggestion is to reboot. Windows thinks the driver is fine; HP thinks the printer is fine. The printer queue says it’s printing. Nothing ever happens. Reinstall drivers. Repeat. Outcome: still unsolved. Next step — call HP tech support. Oh, joy.
Frustration 3. Importing old mail from Netscape 4.8 to Thunderbird. Importing address book was simple — worked beautifully. But for old email, no such luck. There’s a tool “Wizard” for importing mail. But it doesn’t allow you to point it at files, it wants you to pick the profile. But it doesn’t see any profiles. I try putting the Netscape 4.8 user directories in all of the reasonable places (no, really. I tried all of them), but it never sees them. Documentation doesn’t yield any help. Try other directories. Try copying mail files directly into the appropriate directory in Thunderbird’s profile to no avail. Outcome: gave up.
This is a book that was recommended to me a couple of time, and which I never tried to find. The premise — the “true” history of Jesus and his formative years, as told by his not-very-bright best friend Biff — is not only tired, but not very compelling. When you add in that the reviewers often mention that there are lots of fart and fucking jokes, I thought this was one to miss.
So when it showed up lying around in the living room (a loan from Paul & Jeanette), I only opened it to confirm my doubts. Turns out, however, the book is very entertaining. Sure, it’s full of juvenile humor, crude language, anacronisms, wildly improbable plotting, and elaborately-worked retro-explanations of traditions. But, that being said, it’s charming. It winks and giggles and lets you in on the joke — which is that it’s a respectful, if untraditional, imagining of the life of Jesus.
Bryson is a very funny guy — a sort of erudite everyman, who relishes pointing out absurdity in the world and in his own behavior.
This book was written, as the title suggests, after returning to the States after living abroad. He returns, however, not to the America most of us Americans experience, but a picaresque small community in the north-east. The amusing observations, however, are more universal than this might suggest.
Bryson does not shy away form delving into political commentary, and saying essentially “what in the world has happened in the last twenty years?” Were it not for these more serious detours, the book would be “merely” an amusing collections of annecdotes, a presentation of a slice of life by a slightly cantankerous but overall benevolent spectator.
This book actually took me the better part of a year to read. In his studies of societal collapse, Diamond finds reasons for optimism; in his describing past collapses, it is difficult for me to find any.
Diamond is an engaging writer. With the exception of occasional passages where he throws out lists of numerical data, he paints very accessible pictures of civilizations both past and present.
As a researcher, Diamond loves to create enumerations (“these are the ten factors that determine success of an island society”), and, once he has them defined, he uses the model as fact. While I don’t doubt that he’s researched the factors, I’m not convinced that parameterization of highly complex, open systems is reasonable.
The most though-provoking parts of the book can be summed up by the question Diamond attributes to one of his students: “what did the Easter Islander think as he was cutting down the last tree?” Of course, by the point a single tree is left, it’s far too late to have any meaningful response. But where is the point where response is possible? When is it too late?
Diamond finds reasons to be optimistic. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that his research bears out that optimism. What do we have today that was lacked by the various failed civilizations he describes? It seems to me that we have two things: cheap, abundant energy, and widely distributed information. The former, however, is limited, and may fall into that “last tree” question above, while the information will whither without the energy to sustain its communication. Technology cannot save us without energy to drive it. And has human nature changed? Are significant numbers of people acting in a way that will lead to a sustainable population and way of life in this world? I don’t see it.