Monday, December 28, 2009

The Darwin Fish

You've seen them, I'm sure. Those 'Jesus Fish' attachments on the backs of people's cars. Perhaps you agree with the Christian point of view, perhaps you don't. Perhaps you think it's silly to attach things to the backs of cars, such as bumper stickers and the like. Or, perhaps you are the kind of person who enjoys sharing sentiments with the world via the back of your car.

There is something I have kept quiet on, but I can't remain silent any longer.

Why do some people feel the need to attach the 'Darwin Fish' to the backs of their cars?

At first glance, one might ascribe to the Darwin Fish the basic purpose of sharing one's thoughts, same as the person who displays the Jesus Fish. But once you begin to think more about it, the Darwin Fish becomes insidious.

Ask yourself this:

If all the person wants to do is state that he or she believes in evolution, then why take a religious image and distort it? Wouldn't some other method, such as a new graphic, or a clever bumper sticker message, better serve that purpose?

The Darwin Fish is nothing more than a sarcastic mockery of what has become recognized as a Christian icon. Is there something wrong with disagreeing with Christian beliefs? Of course not. We should be free enough in this country to believe whatever we wish to believe. If you want to believe that all life on this planet originated via a statistically impossible accident of chemistry, then you should be able to cling to that idea.

However, the Darwin Fish is not just a simple statement of belief; it is an easily recognizable derision of someone else's belief system.

The Darwin Fish is indicative of something that the people who use it would never admit to. Rather than supporting their own beliefs by the simple action of tacit adherence, they feel the need to defend their ideas by attempting to denigrate a belief system that they think represents the opposing view.

Ironically, what the Darwin Fish accomplishes is the exact opposite of what is intended. With the exception of the cynical atheists who find it amusing, most people seeing it can discern the message it sends quite clearly:

"You threaten me, so I'll make myself feel more secure by mocking you."

Perhaps the frightened Darwinists can let go of the idea that the big, bad God-Wolf wants to blow their house down.

Especially since instead of a house built on a firm foundation, it's actually a houseboat without motor or sail, and it impotently shifts with the tide of public opinion.

One day it will sink from all the holes in its hull anyway, so angry gods aren't really necessary.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The most inconvenient truth of all

Much discussion has arisen from Al Gore's pet project, which culminated in the book and movie entitled, "An Inconvenient Truth." The 'inventor of the Internet' wants so badly for us to believe in his cause, but I suspect his motivation is more for generating research funds and political publicity, than actually saving the world. Just like so many other tree-hugging polemics, he is attempting to save our collective skins under the guise of the more altruistic goal of saving the entire planet.

I find it hard to believe that there are still persons out there who think the planet can't survive the influence of our species. Long after we're extinct, this planet will continue to adapt and generate life. It's obviously designed to do so, and withstanding known past catastrophes that are reflected in the geological record, it will most likely continue to do so, with or without our assistance.

Rather than throw in with the silly global warming debate, I will instead point out a more inconvenient truth in daily life; perhaps the most inconvenient truth of all in modern western culture:

God.

While God is not a truth in the sense of a tangible object or entity you can point to, God is a truth for many people in the way they perceive existence and reality. The existence of this belief itself does not automatically make God a 'physical' fact; one can reasonably admit this simple conclusion.

But the place God currently occupies, in the minds and lives of individuals living in modern western civilization, seems to be more one of uncertainty and embarrassment than comfort and joy. In other words, modern mental attitudes are becoming less and less amenable to the existence of a higher power.

There are possibly many different reasons why this phenomenon is occurring, but I think it actually comes down to one.

Peer pressure. No one wants to look foolish when the official authorities of science and intellect keep harping on the same line over and over again: that all the physical evidence points to nothing out there but random chance and blind evolution.

So God, once a foundation for purpose, existence, wisdom and moral clarity, has slowly drifted into the role of childish fantasy and cosmic boogie man. Our new, popular approach to meaning in life is based entirely on the physical 'facts,' because we've been told by state-sponsored experts for decades that only a child continues to believe in Santa Claus after the true origin of Christmas gifts is discovered.

The facts are all summed up by simply observing that you can't produce evidence of God in a lab. Of course, assuming things are not there because you can't see or measure them has never been exposed as spurious before; humanity, without benefit of special technology, has always known about bacteria, the complexity of biological cells, quarks, photons and dark matter, right? Wrong.

Don't we all feel so much more comfy knowing that we're better off with the ugly truth: that God is a delusion? Aren't we better off now that all those through history who were inspired to great acts of altruism and self-sacrifice for the sake of others have been exposed as foolish, silly people who wasted their emotional and intellectual lives on a ridiculous notion like God?

Wouldn't the world be better off without the horrible institution of religion, when we all know what happened during those heinous crusades or on 9/11? Especially when we've got other, much more successful atheist mass-murderers to look up to, such as Hitler, Mao Zedong, Stalin, Pol Pot... name your historical atheist dictator. All the atrocities of past churches can't really compete with these maniacs' bloodshed, but that's not what the average atheist would have you believe.

Why is it such a stretch of the imagination to put on our humble hats and admit that although the existence of a higher power is currently impossible to physically qualify or quantify, that we might simply be technologically lacking in the ability to do so? In all our amazing accomplishments and self-congratulatory arrogance, have we lost touch with the fact that we still don't know everything?

I submit to you that the atheist's objection is not based on physical facts at all. I think it comes from a desire to avoid the 'inconvenient truth' that there is Someone in charge of it all, and that one day, every one of us, regardless of earthly stature, will have to answer for what we've done to ourselves and each other. Ultimately we'll have to answer for what we've done to the aforementioned Someone, by our ever-increasing intentions of purposely ignoring the wisdom that the rest of the 'educated' deem as foolishness. Behind closed doors, is it truly only the victim who is offended?

"What kind of God would make such an imperfect world?"

This common objection to the possible existence of a creator god is stunning in its poor logic. The logic is entirely based on the assumption that God must create a perfect world, and furthermore that this perfect world must conform to our human notions of what a perfect world would be.

"What about all the suffering in the world? All the unfairness?"

I don't have conclusive answers for those questions. Easy answers to those questions tend to sound like products of tunnel vision. I will say though, that the vast majority of the suffering in the world is obviously caused by how we treat each other. The rest of the unfortunate suffering of those we deem 'the innocent,' is as confusing to me as anyone else. However, I fail to see how that same suffering is indisputable proof that God cannot exist.

Some people in the world go beyond just believing that God exists, they attempt to obey God. Too bad for them, I suppose, because obeying God in the 21st century is synonymous with being an ignorant sucker. And no one wants to be thought of as an ignorant sucker.

The 'joke' has to be on somebody, but I'll tell you one thing: I'm not going to let a bunch of arrogant know-it-alls turn me away from Something that ultimately gives life meaning. Opt for cynicism, spiritual vacuity, depression and mollifying psychoactive drugs instead? No thanks.

I prefer to do my own thinking instead of having it dictated to me by the opinions of others, popular or not.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Game Collector

I currently have 129 games installed in my computer.

It has been pointed out to me that I have spent more time finding, researching, purchasing and organizing games than I have spent actually playing them. At first, I didn't take that observation seriously; then upon closer inspection, I realized it was true.

I live a relatively simple existence. I maintain a vocation that allows me to pay my bills, and put a little away, but that's about it. My desire to collect things has been satisfied by three particular kinds of items: PC video games, books, and brainteaser puzzles. All three allow me to succumb to the hoarding instinct without a big hit to my liquid assets.

Will I ever play all the games I own? All the way through to the end of each, perhaps not. I am currently trying to install them all, one at a time, and test them out to see if they hold my attention more than a minute. I've been keeping track of what I consider to be the hits and the duds. I will eventually work my way through the 600+ games I own.

These games were all purchased at brick-and-mortar stores because I prefer to have something I can hold in my hand, instead of a mere promise from an online company that they'll always be there to allow me to install and play my game in the distant future. The ugly truth about Steam is that they have taken the EULA one more step, in the sense of reminding their consumers that they really don't own the games they just bought, they're technically only renting them. A rental status that can be easily and permanently revoked.

Yes, that's right. Owning the disk, manual and box still doesn't mean you own the game. But that's a subject for a future post, and it's not important here.

For me, video games are a form of art. That's why I collect them more than I play them. I'm not the only person who feels this way, and game design is no different than any other art form: given enough publicity and exposure, the cream eventually rises to the top.

I have decided that once I've culled the crud from my game collection, and spent sufficient time playing all the remaining games to gauge their "worthiness," I will then publish an annotated list of what I think are the greatest PC video games ever released.

My apologies in advance to developers of (and devotees to) racing games, flight simulators, sports games and MMORPGs: I don't get the allure of those genres, and I probably never will.

As for the legions of the console-platform obsessed, well... enjoy your limited, cute little toys. You can always sell them on eBay as nostalgic kitsch, ten years after purchase. Your desire to keep up with the latest console technology has effectively fulfilled the game console manufacturers' desire to milk your bank account on a regular basis.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Meter of Civility

In the future, when the (hopefully) cyclical nature of educational standards swings back toward well-instructed public school children, what will people of the world think about the United States, circa 1967-2010?

They will likely remember only a few shining lights that cast a shadow over the rest of the bulging masses of lazy, "entitled" slackers who cared more about comfort and entertainment than knowledge acquisition, work ethic or basic human purpose.

We will be remembered as not only the "me" generations, but also as the "me too" generations as well. Original thought, for the most part, seems to be on hiatus, and it won't be generated by staring at YouTube for hours on end.

For many years, we have been socially engineered in our culture to celebrate everyone, regardless of achievement; then we pause and wonder why so few people strive to actually achieve anything of worth. It does seem a bit pointless to press forward when everyone around you tells you that the smart way to get things done is to just mellow out and take it easy.

Or better yet, why bother to try harder at anything, when "everyone's a winner!" We can all just sit back, get poor grades, have pre-adolescent sex at recess, practice lazy work ethics, let our bodies soften to jelly, partake of whatever recreational drug we think will paint a brighter face on our lives, play video games or watch television all day instead of doing something constructive, go to the casino and dump another paycheck into the hands of those who know you better than you know yourself. I'm sure we could all come up with more examples to add to this embarrassing list.

If all else fails, move back home. Hey, you can always depend on your parents' work ethic to save the day, right? They're used to working for a living. All that "get up and go to work" stuff every day is just way too boring, right?

I don't know about you, but I'm fed up with watching the generations after me think they can make their mark on the world by some future, magical cosmic wish fulfillment. They will learn the hard way, as generations before them have, that there isn't always time to do later what needs to be taken care of now. All too often, time runs out.

We've now experienced decades of what appears to be a social experiment: no real consequences for under-par scholastic achievements, no serious standards for our school children to aspire to or to be held accountable for, physically and emotionally mollycoddling our youth out of fear of "trauma," taking authority away first from teachers and then parents, and allowing our popular culture to dumb down first our minds, then the minds of our kids.

Because of the sorts of jobs I've held for the last ten years, I've seen countless families in public settings. All I can say without going on too long, is basically that the vital art of parenting has been lost to all but a few. We have allowed the Enlightened Class of Psycho-babbling Intellectuals, The State, and the unscrupulously omnipotent Media Machine, to turn us and many of our children into selfish, lazy, whiny, angrily disenfranchised, unproductive consumers.

What's the answer to this dilemma? We can't put the ills of the world back into Pandora's Box, so hoping for one thing to turn it all around is naïve. There is no single answer that everyone would find acceptable.

We have, in the last three generations, set the stage for the final act. However, I still believe that the show does not ultimately have to be a tragedy. I think there is still a way, however it may be accomplished, to insure that more inspiring possibilities can be wrought from this present disappointment.

Perhaps the new "playwright" will rise from the current consumer-zombie trash heap and find a way to get us looking at the world through each others' eyes again. Because definitely, when I look around me and try to find a common denominator in all this mess, I keep coming back to our collective lack of common courtesy.

Trivial as it seems, it may be a meter of how ill our society is becoming, since general civility consistently decreases year after year in the United States.

But isn't that something you can turn back up with your latest gadget?

No... and it never will be.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Relentless Penguin

Microsoft has screwed its users again. That's right, I said it! Other than its historical accomplishment of greatly contributing to the reality of an affordable computer in every home, the T-Rex of Redmond has a lot to answer for.

The list of offenses has grown too long. Microsoft conned Seattle Computer out of the original "86-DOS" that ended up renamed and distributed with IBM computers, engineering a machine of multibillion dollar wealth, of which Seattle Computer ultimately saw only $75,000. Microsoft Windows 1.0 was "inspired" by a preexisting Apple OS; many of the programs that ran on those first Windows iterations were equally "inspired" or stolen, depending on your point of view. Internet Explorer, which could have been an honest attempt to compete with Netscape, instead became a method to destroy Netscape via installation agreements with OEM computer makers, then later was an affront to many Windows users by needlessly integrating the browser into the operating system.

Before I get too carried away, I will fast-forward to the reason I wrote this post.

Games for Windows and Vista? Microsoft, tell me you were only joking.

Back in the days when the Games for Windows rollout would have meant something (in other words, back when console gaming was beginning to seriously encroach on the PC gaming market share), what did Microsoft do?

They gave the world yet another gaming console, and called it Xbox.

Instead of doing something revolutionary that kept their own end users' best interests in mind, they simply repeated their predictable knee-jerk behavior, and produced another "me too" product that they hoped would grab them their own piece of one more previously non-Microsoft pie.

Back in 2001, if Microsoft had instead introduced Games for Windows, and supported it more effectively than the PR disaster they foisted on the public in 2007, they would have garnered much more loyalty from the gaming community... thus ultimately insuring their OS preeminence for at least a little while longer.

Did Microsoft truly think that users would cheer and gladly pony up the dough for the (then) new OS called Vista, just because the release of Halo 2 was inexplicably restricted to Vista support only? I say 'inexplicably' because the decision defies common sense in terms of respecting the Windows consumer base; it makes perfect sense in a scenario where the faithful Windows users are merely a means to a lucrative end.

One bitter irony regarding the aforementioned decision is that Vista eventually came to be recognized as an OS that offered somewhat lousy support (in some cases, no support at all!) for many games created for previous Windows operating systems, including XP. But then again, Microsoft has never been praised for their efforts to maintain backwards compatibility. Where's the money in that, right?

I will never tire of reminding the world (and myself) of this fact:

If the vast majority of current, mainstream computer video games were not written for Windows, I would ecstatically abandon Microsoft operating systems and never, ever look back.

MS OS's are, still in 2009, intermittently unreliable and user-defiant. The much more stable (and secure!) Linux operating system has become so user-friendly and accessible, that the previous restrictions on mass migration, based on the average user's computer savvy, are almost completely extinct. Other than the gaming issue, there is no longer a compelling reason to continue using an inferior product when a superior one is literally FREE to everyone! There just hasn't been an effective marketing campaign for Linux, since the nature of open-source is more word-of-mouth, and no one "owns" Linux itself in a commercial sense.

Thanks to an eager and innovative, worldwide open-source community, there will eventually be more software available for Linux than Windows. This trend, which will continue unabated, is strengthened by Windows emulators like Wine, and will steamroller Microsoft eventually. Once a wishful pipe dream of malcontented computer users, this pending reality is now only a matter of time. This means you too, Jobs. The only thing saving Apple right now is attitude, myth, and mall shops filled with cleverly marketed electronic crack. Jobs has apparently forgotten the famous mistake in judgement by IBM, regarding hardware versus software. Anything X can do, Linux can do better, and for free.

Furthermore, mark my words very carefully, Redmond: the day that an open-source Linux emulation for Windows games is seamless and leaves no games unsupported, you will experience such a massive exodus from your operating systems that your share of the PC market will incrementally dwindle down to even less than Mac-ish proportions.

Perhaps, Microsoft, you will then finally take your lip-service project named "Games for Windows" much more seriously. Have your collective intellectual faculties actually lost track of the fact that gamers are the principle force that drives the PC hardware market? The gaming world doesn't need another console, it needs a reason to stay with Windows for PC gaming. If that reason gets taken away by an all-inclusive Windows emulator in Linux, it will only be a matter of time before the ripples of the geek reaction extend to every square inch of surface of the entire computer pond.

Then it's good-bye 90% market share. Hey, it was a great run. Though Microsoft's OS division will certainly flounder and thrash about with the predictable assistance of legal actions against specific individuals in the open-source community, these efforts will merely be the final convulsions of a once-great idea that was lost to basic greed and myopia.

Microsoft and Apple are not controlled by stupid people. I think that deep down inside, both Microsoft and Apple leaders have known for some time now that their shares of the computer operating system market would eventually bow to Linux (or some other open-source OS).

Perhaps that's why their interests have diversified into hardware and other non-OS ventures; they can't control the game anymore, but they'd still like to maintain a seat at the table.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Backup Yourself!

Windows Backup is a half-assed program disguised as an administrator's time-saving tool. I made the blunder of relying on Windows Backup recently, and I must admit that because of the way it is structured and organized, I had gained some confidence that it would come through for me when the chips were down.

I was mistaken, and the backup was useless as a recovery tool. For those fledgling computer geeks out there, yes, there are viruses that can actually defeat your prized Norton Recovery Tool or proprietary System Recovery Disk. All you need to do is visit the wrong place on the Internet, and you can say buh-bye to all your precious registry entries you amassed over months or years of software installation. Or worse yet, to other important files not residing on your C:\ drive.

A side note: for those delusional Apple users out there who are laughing right now and then later swarming around the Apple store at the mall to drool on all the latest electronic bling that Jobs is hawking via Geek Squad clones... yes, you too can suffer from unrecoverable data.

Observe an 8-year-user Apple yes-girl who finally gave in to reality:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0dohuX9Ij38


Okay, enough of that. Let's move on to the purpose of this post: I'm going to demonstrate, for my fellow unfortunate Windows users, how to write your own backup program that leaves Windows Backup flipping on its own impotent bits.

(Linux users also using Windows can skip this tutorial, if they already have knowledge of bash, xterm, konsole, etc.)

TUTORIAL:

First things first: you don't have to be a real programmer to utilize the Windows Command Prompt in XP!

Next, if you view yourself as computer savvy, but you're still using a single partition on your hard drive, then don't bother reading this tutorial - you're only kidding yourself and you need to clock "a few" more hours on the workings of your rig. Just buying the latest computer from Dell, HP or Alienware, and using P2P programs to pirate games or download porn doesn't make you a hacker.

Especially in these days of 500GB and 1.5TB hard drives, to assign the entire drive to C:\ is an error you will live to curse. If for no better reason, create smaller partitions for the sake of Defrag; do you really want to wait until the year 2019 to finish your defragmentation? Nevertheless, the most important purpose served by multiple logical drives is having a "neutral" place to store your important files.

Indeed, the essential precursor to this tutorial is a simple admonition to add multiple partitions as soon as you get your new computer or hard drive. I highly recommend a C:\ drive of no more than 20GB for Windows XP. Then, only *rarely* install new programs on C:\. Choose a different logical drive (or drives) instead for programs you install.

If you're distracted at this point because you're using Windows Vista, and still faithfully defending it because it has those super-duper awesome 3D windows... well, look again at the second paragraph of this tutorial. Vista sucks. The jury isn't out on Windows 7 yet, either; Microsoft needs a good calendar year of unofficial beta-testing on their paying customers, before they can approach a somewhat stable OS (with the ubiquitous service packs, of course). Long live Linux!

Okay, after all that, if I still have your attention, then go to Start > Run, and type in "cmd" (always without the quotes!) and click the OK button.

Do NOT type in "command" - this is an 8-character-filename vestige that won't work for our purposes here.

Once at the prompt, you can navigate to any drive and any folder on your computer. For example, just typing "C:" and hitting the Enter key on your keyboard will move you to the C:\ drive. You will probably notice on trying that out, that all you did was get a repeat line of what you already had in the window. This is because the default folder displayed when the "cmd" window opens is *already on* your C:\ drive.

Okay, I could go into much more depth, but to avoid scaring you away, I'd rather just show you the simple backup "batch file" I created for myself, with explanations along the way. The beauty of this is you never even have to open up the command prompt if you've written the batch file correctly.

A batch file is a simple text file (created with Notepad, not Wordpad or Word!), where you eventually rename the file as backup.bat instead of backup.txt. The other two programs include binary formatting that will render your batch file unusable.

This batch file assumes the user name "freddie."

Each new line of a batch file is a separate command. The whole point of making one of these is to automate the copying of your irreplaceable files on the C:\ drive. That way, if a virus hoses your operating system, or you just want to start over with a fresh format of C:\, you've got all your created files saved to a neutral place for retrieval. Things like MSOffice files, mail folders, wallpapers, game saves and settings, etc.

Download the following text file, which is a copy of the batch file I actually use (including a few filename and drive adjustments to protect my computer's security without corrupting the functional potential of the file). Scan it with your Anti-Virus program for your peace of mind (I encourage that for *any* file you download from the Internet!).

backup.txt

I've renamed it backup.txt, so that when you double-click to open it, it doesn't actually run. Just remember to rename your own batch file "backup.bat" before you run it. There is another way to view a batch file without changing the extension (by right-clicking), but I'm trying to keep this simple for batch file initiates.

After you download it, open it and I will explain what's going on, so that you can alter it for your own use, or make your own from scratch. It's super easy, I promise!

Each new line is a new command, so the batch file runs each command in sequential order, from top to bottom. Examine the file closely, and don't take anything for granted (such as placement of spaces).

The first line "c:" (remember, *NO* quotes!) is to change the prompt to the C:\ drive, in case you're running it from a different logical drive (something I highly recommend!).

The next line "cd\" moves the prompt to the lowest folder of the drive (called the "root"). You need to do this to guarantee that your navigation is not situation-dependent.

Next, you'll see "cd WINDOWS" - this makes the prompt enter the C:\Windows folder, where your operating system resides. In this case, I have wallpapers (.bmp) and an Office file (powerpoint.ini) that I wish to backup.

The next line is more interesting. You're actually doing some copying. Always remember that when you execute a command that affects files or folders, you must place a space between the command and the files, as well as spaces between file types and switches. Switches are those letters at the end that have a slash next to them; they are special instructions regarding how to handle the files.

You can learn more about these switches by going to the command prompt and typing the function "help" then a space, then the name of the function. For example: "help xcopy" will display all the switches associated with xcopy, as well as an explanation of what it does. (If you'd like to view all the available commands for the Windows command prompt, just type "help" in the command window and hit Enter).

The other command you'll see used in the batch file is "cd.." - that's two periods! The function of this command is to move down one folder. What does that mean? The closer you get to the root, the further "down" you go. Example:

If your batch file is at the following folder:

C:\Documents and Settings\freddie\Desktop

And the next command is "cd.." then you will now find yourself at:

C:\Documents and Settings\freddie

Get it? "cd\" goes all the way to the root no matter where you are, but "cd.." only goes to the next folder "down."

One last thing, so the batch file makes sense to you:

"*.*" is a way to tell the command prompt that you're referring to all the files in the folder. Therefore, "*.bmp" refers to all files that have the extension ".bmp" (these are bitmaps, a format for pictures, which are what most of your wallpapers are). When accessing a single file, always remember to include the extension (as in "powerpoint.ini").

Now, after you've studied the batch file and understand the concept, then all you have to do is use Windows Explorer to seek out all the folders where your vital, irreplaceable files reside. Navigate the batch file to these folders, and copy the files you want to copy to the drive and folder(s) of your choosing. In this example my backed-up files get copied to the E:\ drive, to the folders named in the batch file.

That's it! When you're ready to backup, simply double-click on your "backup.bat" file.

Now, here's the $64,000 question:

How is it that a simple text file can be more specific (less wasteful), faster, more robust and more user-friendly than the official backup program that's included with Windows?