Thu, 30 Aug 2007

god is not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything

— SjG @ 11:18 pm

Christopher Hitchens, Twelve Books, 2007

Reading this book is kind of like coming into your first freshman seminar class where you are harangued by an extremely well-read and well-educated but overbearing, bullying, and quite possibly drunk professor. It’s intimidating, impressive, and, dare I say? amusing.

From the title on, Hitchens flaunts his disdain for religion. He offers up example after example of the philosophical contradictions of various religions, skewers beliefs by pointing out logical flaws, and condemns faith by describing crimes of organized religion. Hitchens spends most of his time on “the big three” of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, but he is ecumenical in the contempt he heaps on other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism in the little time he devotes to them. He comes up swinging, winding up with a call for a new Era of Enlightenment, one without religion.

I can’t help but feel ambivalence. Yes, religious fanatics the world over are trying to create their own respective theocracies and suppress everything but their own threads of belief. I can oppose this without reservation. Yes, many of these same fanatics are ignorant, and don’t know much about their own religions. Attacking some of these people (like the kind who say “if English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me”) is shooting fish in a barrel, and doesn’t do anyone any good. The deeply faithful admire the believers for their faith, ignore their flaws, and take umbrage at the attack, while the nonbelievers already think of them as asinine idiots.

However, in what I feel is the weakest part of the book, Hitchens defends atheism from responsibility in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and Nazi Germany by casting the personality cults as religions, and, in the case of Germany, by showing how religious groups lent early and vital support to the fascists. It comes off as awfully glib. Furthermore, it seems to me that the evidence supports the idea that religion is not the problem, but that the sins of religion are symptom of a deeper pathology. The universality of the crimes suggests that the accumulation and abuse of power is hard-wired in (at least a portion of) humanity. Religion is a useful tool to incite believers into evil behavior, but tribalism, nationalism, racism, or countless other means of division have done just as well.

As a devout and pious member of the Church of Sacred Doubt, I found some of the attacks on religion appropriate, I found some of them gratuitous, and I found many of them engaging. While the book could be dismissed as an atheist preaching to the choir, it is definitely thought-provoking, and, if nothing else, entertaining.

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Wed, 15 Aug 2007

Mysterious Ruby on Rails problem — and solution

— SjG @ 1:51 pm

So, I’m working on an old RoR application, and was having a hard time getting it to work on my newer development machine.

The error dump was not at all clear:

C:\project\foo_bar_baz_quux>rake migrate --trace
(in C:/project/foo_bar_baz_quux)
** Invoke migrate (first_time)
** Invoke environment (first_time)
** Execute environment
** Execute migrate
rake aborted!
wrong number of arguments (1 for 0)
l.rb:551:in `initialize'
l.rb:551:in `new'
l.rb:551:in `scramble41'
l.rb:141:in `real_connect'
adapters/mysql_adapter.rb:316:in `connect'
adapters/mysql_adapter.rb:87:in `initialize'
adapters/mysql_adapter.rb:37:in `new'
adapters/mysql_adapter.rb:37:in `mysql_connection'
adapters/abstract/connection_specification.rb:145:in `send'
adapters/abstract/connection_specification.rb:145:in `connection_without_query_c
.rb:54:in `connection='
adapters/abstract/connection_specification.rb:106:in `retrieve_connection'
adapters/abstract/connection_specification.rb:20:in `connection'
b:178:in `migrate'
c:/ruby/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rake-0.7.2/lib/rake.rb:399:in `call'
c:/ruby/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rake-0.7.2/lib/rake.rb:399:in `execute'
c:/ruby/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rake-0.7.2/lib/rake.rb:399:in `each'
c:/ruby/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rake-0.7.2/lib/rake.rb:399:in `execute'
c:/ruby/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rake-0.7.2/lib/rake.rb:369:in `invoke'
c:/ruby/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rake-0.7.2/lib/rake.rb:362:in `synchronize'
c:/ruby/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rake-0.7.2/lib/rake.rb:362:in `invoke'
c:/ruby/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rake-0.7.2/lib/rake.rb:1935:in `run'
c:/ruby/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rake-0.7.2/lib/rake.rb:1935:in `each'
c:/ruby/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rake-0.7.2/lib/rake.rb:1935:in `run'
c:/ruby/bin/rake.bat:20:in `load'

I went through a lot of work to use older versions of Rails, etc, but none of it worked. I didn’t find much out
there that helped, either, until I finally happened across this page.

Turns out it’s one of those pernicious password / old style password hash issues with MySQL. Simplest solution for now: use no database password on the dev box.

Tue, 14 Aug 2007


— SjG @ 3:35 pm

Ever since I saw a “how to” in Popular Photography back in the early 80s, I always thought it would be cool to make my own super-macro lens by mounting an ordinary lens backwards.

So, on Saturday, using 58mm skylight filter, a dremel tool, hot glue gun, and camera body cap, I created a reverse mount. Into this contraption, I inserted the kit lens (28-70mm) that came with my Nikon N-80, and, tried it out on the Nikon D-70. Obviously, autofocus and automatic exposure are out of the question (although it might be interesting to run wires across from the lens’ connector to the camera. Hm… maybe it’s not out of the question!), so it entails a lot of manual twiddling of focus and looking at histograms.

It’s too much magnification (even at 70mm) to hand-hold, and, even with my old tripod, it’s hard to get a sharp image. Also, with this kind of macro, there’s not a lot of depth of field to play with. I started by taping the aperture lever at full open, and didn’t get dramatically different results when I allowed it to stop down somewhat. I tried to figure out the optics of the situation, but quickly realized that with a variable aperture and a collection of lenses, I would need to go back and hit the books to understand the physics.

Here’s the stinger of a wasp, who was found dead on the driveway:

Fri, 10 Aug 2007


— SjG @ 2:46 pm

A few years ago, we noticed a BGS (Big Green Spider, aka Peucetia viridans, or Green Lynx Spider) in the back yard, on a dead Echinacea flower. This particular BGS was getting fatter and fatter — and then, one day, it was very skinny, but sitting on what looked like a papier-mâché diatom caught in the web. The BGS guarded the diatom fiercely for a few weeks, until the diatom exploded into an amazing clump of TBSes (Tiny Brown Spiders).
BGS and Kids
The clump gradually dispersed. Whether they ate one another, or just all fled the nest, I can’t really say.

Over the last few years, we’ve noticed an increase in BGSes in the garden. In fact, this year there are several in the front, and a few in the back garden. They all seem to be about the same size when full grown, with perhaps a 1.5 or 2 inch leg-span.

Maybe I need to check on our Reactor Core to make sure it’s not leaking, because two weeks ago, I discovered a BGS in the front yard with a leg-span of easily 3 inches — maybe even bigger. I’ll have to take some pictures, although I’m a bit chary of getting close enough, especially close enough to put something in the scene to give a sense of scale.

In any case, I hereby formally initiate the acronym RFBGS, for a Really Flippin’ Big Green Spider, aka Peucetia viridans maximus.

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Thu, 9 Aug 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

— SjG @ 9:26 pm

J.K. Rowling, Scholastic, 2007.

So, based upon
my predictions
, I probably only got a C+ in Divination. Which is just as well.

Rowling managed to pull off a mostly satisfactory ending to the series. This last book abandons the leisurely pace of the previous two, and kicks into high gear right off. It accelerates from there.

I enjoyed the resolution to the Snape Question, which I thought was at least plausible within the framework that was set up. The tying up of the loose ends with regards to Horicruxes was satisfying. The body count was about what I expected, although Rowling toyed with us in a few cases. The disposition of Dobby and Kreacher and the house elves worked well, and felt like the groundwork had been well laid over the course of the previous books. The whole kerfuffle with the Elder Wand and how it plays out, on the other hand, is a little out of left field. We didn’t have much background from previous books to help with that.

I find that I have some dissatisfaction in retrospect; things that didn’t bother me while I was reading the book feel unsettled later. Some of the deaths were kept emotionally distant, or even rushed over — Harry sees bodies laid out on tables, and that’s pretty much it. Obviously, he’s got other issues at hand, but we don’t ever come back to experience any of the feelings. I would have liked the story to come closer to full circle with the Durstleys. But my strongest objections both involve scenes in train stations: the expository segment in the latter part of the Battle of Hogwarts didn’t feel right to me. We needed the information, but the circumstances felt forced. Again, I understand why the other train station scene was necessary, but the thought it generated more than any was “damn, what a bunch of breeders!”

Perhaps I’ll do what Karl’s doing, and re-read the whole series. If I do, I’ll write more, and probably with much less vague avoidance of spoilers.

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