Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Estonica: March Madness

In-joke for Estonian speakers/learners: what day is it?

By LJ Havsvind, via LJ Fyysik (both are in Russian).


Saturday was hardcore: an exotic motorcycle show in the morning, and in the evening, Helena Nova at the Tartu Rock Club. Nevermind that I know the frontman, the band is actually really good. Bill themselves as Estonia's only glam rockers. Also a guest appearance by Brides in Bloom, who were excellent as well.

The coalition looks like it's sorted itself, but apparently the Greens are out. It might actually do them some good - you can't be a credible ecomentalist if you get into parliament on a surge of public support and then join the right-wing ruling class. IRL isn't getting the Foreign Ministry after all: Ansip says that it's important for the FM to be as close to the PM in political terms as possible, to efficiently project government policy. I can't really argue with that, it makes sense. Now Laar is going to be Speaker of the Riigikogu, I suppose.

The Education Terrorist

In the Philippines, a man is holding a busful of children hostage. His demands - proper education for the children in local poor communities.

Not condoning the hostage-taking, but if you absolutely have to, this cause is a damn sight better than the usual ones.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Estonica: Tarts and Ministers

The coalition talks are off. It appears that PM Ansip could not live with giving IRL the Foreign Ministry, and for Laar this is non-negotiable.

According to Postimees, the Social Democrats are getting the Finance, Education and Population ministries, and are happy with it. The Greens have been offered the soon-to-be-created Administrative ministry - James Hacker sends his regards; but Team Strandberg is shooting for either the Economic Affairs ministry (a bit out of their league) or Environment (the obvious choice).

IRL has negotiated for the position of Speaker of the Riigikogu, plus five ministries, but Ansip has now decided that both Speaker and FM is a bit rich for what is still a minority party. He did offer them Interior (important), Defense (from whom? Ze Latvians?), Social Affairs and Agriculture. IRL countered with a demand for the preferred ministerial seats for its two top men - Laar as Foreign Minister and Jaak Aaviksoo, former rector of Tartu University, as Education Minister - plus the key Economics ministry, and for some reason Agriculture.

Ansip walked out.

The PM's big worry is that Laar is a much more popular personality and signifant statesman than Ansip himself. With a majority in parliament and a tremendous personal vote of confidence, Ansip is now scared of becoming what some people have referred to as the PM in Laar's government. IRL is not behaving like the junior partner in this coalition that they are. Over all this, the shadow of a Reform-Centrist coalition looms.

I can't help but admire Ansip for calling Laar's bluff. But I would also like to see Laar as FM.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

(Two) Reasons Why You (Might Want to) Buy a Mac

The Register, a prominent British IT tabloid, has graced us today with an opinion piece listing ten reasons to buy a Mac. I read it with great attention, as I have so far singularly failed to be convinced by the hot new toy. I don't even have an iPod. On the other hand, I'm a fairly experienced PC user. I've installed countless machines from zero, replaced bits of hardware, etc. I also like to think I have a fairly good bullshit detector. The Register article set that one off.

So, in typical blog style, a response.

1. The MacBooks have aluminium cases, so they can take a fall and keep going.

This is not a reason to buy a Mac instead of a PC. This is a reason to buy a laptop with a full metal frame & case instead of one made predominantly of plastic. I've never dropped my Dell so far, but I've done bad things to my MP3 players, and I agree that an expensive gadget benefits greatly from a full metal jacket. There are PC laptops with metal cases.

Anyway, if you drop a laptop, you are very likely to fuck up its innards, in which case the sturdyness of the case becomes academic. You'll easily kill a hard drive or the screen panel, even in a MacBook.

2. Macs have those cool commercials which make them look better than PCs.

If you're a hipster with a trust fund - maybe. If you're an actual human being... Try telling a girl at a party that you have the computer advertised in that really awesome commercial, and see where that takes you.

3. You can hook up two Macs with a single cable, over FireWire, and the hard drive of one will be fully visible an external drive on the other.

This is, actually, awesome. It's something I'd quite like to have on my computer. Only works with two Macs though, so it won't help if you're moving stuff from your old PC to the new Apple machine, or if you want to pull something off of a friend's PC laptop.

4. It comes with drivers for a lot of smartphones and a syncing utility, built-in. And there is a third-party tool (at an extra cost) which makes the Mac talk to PDAs and Windows Mobile devices.

This is the consequence of a dire shortage of drivers for OS X. Whereas with a PC, all the software you need - drivers and utilities - come on a CD at the bottom of your smartphone's box. Proprietary syncing packages often suck, but vastly superior enthusiast-driven Open Source alternatives are only a short google away.

So the argument comes down to "the Mac can do what your PC can, and almost as well!".

5. The Mac is now based on x86 architecture, so it can use common components. This makes it cheaper than earlier, PowerPC-based Macs. Plus there are software tools that allow game developers to add support for Macs to their games.
  • iMac with a Core 2 Duo 1.83Ghz, 512mb RAM, 160gb hard drive and a 17-inch LCD: 15,990 EEK (1021 Euro).
  • PC with a Core 2 Duo 1.83 Ghz, 1gb RAM, 250gb hard drive, low-end 256mb video card, plus a 17-inch LCD, plus Vista Home Premium: 14,135 EEK (903 Euro).
Local prices, and the cheapest off-the-shelf Core 2 Duo box I found in a cursory look. The PC is cheaper and technically superior. The fact that the Mac is not as expensive as it used to be is not really a reason to switch.

As for games, the ease of creating ports doesn't even enter into it: even if Half-Life 2 comes to OS X, without mainstream and high-end dedicated video acceleration hardware the Mac will not be a viable gaming platform. To get any sort of video card at all in an iMac, you need to spend preposterous amounts of money.

6. The Mac comes with a lot of bundled applications for manipulating media.

So does Vista. What Vista can't do, or can't do well, you can find an Open Source package for.

7. Mac laptops go to sleep and wake near-instantly.

Excellent. Wish my Dell's XP Pro could do that.

8. Vista may be pretty, but OS X has been this pretty for ages.

Uh-huh. But Vista is pretty now. Why should I switch away from all the software and practices I'm used to?

9. You can run Windows on a Mac. Well, unless the Windows license agreement says you can't.

So what - I'm paying 50% extra for inferior hardware, then have to pay more for dual boot software, then have to pay for a Windows license, and I'm still doing software piracy? For what - a fancy case mod?

If you're not too squeamish about license agreements, you definitely want a PC: thanks to torrents and copy-protection cracks, every bit of software you've ever wanted (Vista Ultimate, Office Pro, the latest Photoshop with all the extras, all the new games...) are out there, for free.

10. You'll feel smug, having bought a Mac. You can't feel smug for buying a PC, whatever it is.

Quite on the contrary, I felt very smug indeed, having bought a gaming rig based around a hundred-Euro Opteron 144, which has run at 3Ghz for a year now, and is as fast as any single-core CPU out there. If you want to feel smug about overpaying for a slow computer that isn't compatible with 90% of the machines out there, so be it.

But I'm sorry, mr. Tony Smith, I'm not convinced.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Estonica: Free Ride

Left to right: policeman, company CEO and Student Bus passenger disposing of a competitor's offending vehicle.In a display of the "nobody told us it won't work" spirit that has served Estonians so well over the last decade and a half, a grassroots service has sprung up to provide students with free bus rides between Tallinn and Tartu. The domestic equivalent of a discount airline, the Student Bus uses funding from private sponsors to hire a coach & driver and run the country's busiest route on Friday and Sunday nights. They use city bus stops and dormitory parking lots to avoid terminal fees, and officially it is not a bus line, but rather a scheduled charter. Registration is by email, there are no paper tickets, and you can only ride if you have a student ID to show. The company, registered in a country village, is the brainchild of one Liis Reinhold, a South Estonian economics student. She also doubles as the model featured on the service's website.

The regular intercity carriers are in a huff over this. The Tallinn-Tartu line is regular, with buses on the half hour throughout the week, but apparently it's subsidized by the profitable weekend runs and the midweek does not pay for itself. The curious thing is just how much they are bothered by the loss of a single coachful of discount fares in each direction, at the times when normal lines are massively overcrowded. Certainly demand for the Student Bus exceeds supply, but Reinhold's business model looks like it needs a lot more aggression - in-bus advertising or some such. The current funding by unnamed sponsors is surely down to novelty value, and the company has not discussed its future past April.

Yet the big national carrier is scared enough to resort to obvious bullying techniques. Last weekend, a Sebe bus mysteriously broke down in the parking lot of the Tallinn Technical University, boxing in the chartered Hansabuss. The prompt arrival of gallant police forces put a stop to the Sebe driver's mumbling excuses, and the offending coach was pushed out of the way - upon which event it was magically resurrected and stormed off in visible dismay.

Now, I can see the carriers' point, in a general sense. But there is no practical reason to dislike the Student Bus. It uses well-maintained equipment from a reputable company with experienced drivers, licensed to carry passengers, so this is not a return to the dark days of pirate deathcabs on the twisty Tallinn-Tartu dual carriageway. It caters to a segment of the population with a real need for regular travel, and even discounted bus tickets are fairly expensive. If a grassroots student organization can actually pull this off? More power to them.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Estonica: Interestinger

A couple of days ago, I asked what one would need 20 kilos of explosives to blow up in Estonia. Word on the street was the substance found by the cops was TNT. The Lasnamae bomber story from a few years back tells us that 200 grams of TNT is enough to bring down half of an apartment block.

Police are looking for two men in connection with the explosives raid. One is Aleksei Golubtsov, who was released from prison in the fall of last year after being convicted of murdering a police officer in 1994. The other is Vladimir Muraviov, who is connected to the Night Watch - the local pro-Russian group heavily involved in the Bronze Soldier mess. Both men have Russian citizenship.

I won't be so sensationalist as to claim that Night Watch was planning to blow up the Pronkssõdur, but this is disturbing. Explosives, cop-killers... that isn't supposed to be an issue in Estonia in 2007.

What we do know is that the North-Estonian police staged an unprecedented raid - cutting off traffic to a busy downtown street during Monday rush hour - in a country where the guy running the country doesn't merit so much as a squad car escort, and the national security forces had a press-conference last year to tell everyone how excited they were to finally get an armored limousine that can be used for foreign dignitaries; previously, if someone important didn't bring their own tank, we had to ask the Finns if we could borrow one.

What this does remind me of, is something that happened a few years ago - a wave of murders across Estonia by two cadets from a St. Petersburg military college. One of them was killed, the other wounded in a gunfight by a daring Polish border guard and brought to justice. The conspiracy theorists back then said that this was a sort of field training gone wrong, and that the cadets were being trained as covert agents by the Russian secret service; and that it may very well have been a test of the effectiveness of Estonian law enforcement.

Discovering 20 kilograms of TNT a week after the general elections that saw the major party playing to Russian interests driven out into opposition, a prime-minister openly hostile to the Russian interests getting an enormous vote of confidence, and a nationalist party looking like the obvious choice for a coalition partner - with its leader as likely the next foreign minister - makes one see a pattern of sorts. Russia's control apparatus is getting twitchy, faced with the end of Putin's second term next year. The EU has failed to bite on Russia's provocative behavior in regards to the Baltics, Poland, Moldova (a neighbor of new EU member Romania), the expressly pro-Western Georgia... And let's not forget the big new pipeline that is to be laid along the Baltic seabed, to pump natural gas from Russia into Central Europe, bypassing Ukraine and increasingly uncontrollable Belarus, seat of what has been described as Europe's last dictator - who, much like Tito to the Soviet Union, is refusing to fetch Putin's slippers any more.

I'm a skeptical person, and I tend to believe the simpler explanation first, but when you ask yourself not only what somebody would be doing with twenty kilos of trinitrotoluene in Estonia, but where that somebody would get it - even I start looking east with suspicion.

Interestinger and interestinger.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

On Optimism

Someone on a forum I go to mentioned how science fiction used to be popular in the 80s, but these days it's more about fantasy - Harry Potter and such.

This is a symptom of the change in human society, I think. Sci-fi as we know it began its great spurt in the 60s - there were SF authors before, like H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, but most of the classics of the genre as it is today, people like Asimov, Zelazny, Heinlein etc. started out in short-story magazines in the 60s.

SF fed on the public fascination with technology, the advent of the space age, and a general optimism about humankind's ability to control its environment and expand further. The correlation can also be seen in early SF - in Victorian times, which saw a great technological breakthrough and optimism - with the origins of modern fantasy (Tolkien, obviously) rising up after WWI, when humankind generally wasn't feeling very good about itself (cf). In the Cold War days, you had a clear demarkation of Good vs. Evil and Us vs. Them, which simplified things to a great degree. (People tend to think of the 70s as a time of disillusionment, what with the anti-war protests, violence in the civil rights struggle and such, but only a relatively minor percentage of the population actively engaged in that.) So the general mentality was optimistic: we'd gone to the moon, we were well on our way to Mars, and at least within the lifetime of our children we'd have a Brave New World of flying cars and such; interstellar travel would not be far behind. One can expect confrontations, but they are likely to be upon clearly demarkated moral lines - whether an empire of good vs. an empire of evil, or a rag-tag band of adventurers against a massing horde. Heroes included space generals, intergalactic spies, and individual frontiersmen who inevitably fought on the Good Guys' side, even if they did so begrudgingly.

As the Cold War came to an end, the Berlin wall fell and the Second World was in turmoil, Francis Fukuyama did that whole "end of history" dance; science fiction became darker, with people questioning their own actions. In the music world, Nirvana and its malcontent followers started a trend for misery; similarly sci-fi briefly floundered on soul-searching and dystopian themes (for example William H Keith's Warstrider series, or David Aikman's When the Almond Tree Blossoms), but it wasn't authentic.

So, with no faith in a glorious future, people started to look for a glorious past. A time of fable, King Arthur and elves and dragons and wizards. Worlds where the heroes were flawed, and victory unsure. If sci-fi characters battled evil and won through their own efforts, fantasy has deus ex machina; just when all seems lost, a hero comes from nowhere to rescue the day. People of the 90s and noughties have no faith in themselves, and want a benevolent wizard to come and rescue them.

Harry Potter is not a Tom Sawyer, making his way in the world with nothing but his spirit and wit; he is a regular, sad kid who suddenly got superpowers and now fights off shadowy demons with the help of his friends and teachers. This is the reality of the early 21st century, where most people's consideration of the world they live in is dominated by terrorism, religious fundamentalism and global warming. All I hope is that it is cyclical; that some time soon, we will get past this phase, and once again our hero will be the Stainless Steel Rat.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Estonica: Provincial News

1) As I predicted, the coalition seems to be forming with four parties: Reform, IRL, Social Democrats and the Greens.

2) A large quantity of suspicious stuff, rumoured to be 20 kilos of explosive, was found during a police raid on an office/apartment building in downtown Tallinn today. What the hell would you be blowing up in Estonia to need twenty kilograms of explosives?

Friday, March 09, 2007

In-joke Friday

I hereby declare March 9th to be the International Pick On The Germans Day.

Find your nearest German and either make fun of his lack of a sense of humor, or tell him a "you lost the war" joke.

A bit of ammo for your fight to establish this fine holiday.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Spring Air

...that said, it is actually a very nice day. I stumbled out of bed this morning to find +6C on the thermometer, and a bright, sunny sky. It's reasonably warm, reasonably dry, and though it may seem improbable after months of slush and frost, Tartu feels like a great little town again, a town that allows you to enjoy simply being there.

Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen - we have made it through one more winter.

World's Most Preposterous Holiday

It's March 8th, and all over the postsoviet land mass it is celebrated as Women's Day.

If you thought Valentine's Day was a useless piece of garbage promoted by florists and makers of little red stuffed hearts, March 8th is even more so. It is a day on which we are meant to celebrate and appreciate women. All of them. For no other reason than the fact that they have a different chromosome from us men.

The gender opposite of this day was February 23rd, Homeland Protector Day - applicable because of universal conscription in the Soviet Union. That one's been forgotten now, as things to do with the Soviet Army are not hugely popular in Estonia, but it's still a public holiday in Russia. Women's Day around here warrants a tall red rose for every woman at the company, at the corporate expense.

Now, I can understand Mother's Day and Father's Day. I can even sort of get the point of Valentine's Day, though as long as I'm single I retain the right to be misanthropic about it. But Women's Day, March 8th, is a completely moronic piece of Soviet legacy still practiced out of sheer habit - because not enough people have said, "no, this is stupid".

So here we go: This is stupid, and I will not wish a happy holiday to any woman today.

Roll on Steak & Blowjob Day.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Beginning & Ending

A news tidbit from a few months ago: an Italian doctor that helped his terminally ill patient to die was acquitted of charges of performing euthanasia. His actions were in fact qualified as stopping treatment, which is something that every patient has the right to request. It was the case here. The patient, Piergiorgio Welby, suffered from an extremely painful condition (muscular distrophy).

The story brings forth a significant dichotomy that, I think, is important to understanding the boundaries of human life. Euthanasia vs. stopping treatment: in the first case, the patient is terminally ill, and highly uncomfortable, but is not actually dying. In the second, it is the constant work of medical machines and administration of drugs which is keeping the patient alive.

If a person is still alive only through the concentrated effort of technology, his life is somewhat less sacred that normally. Certainly the person himself has the right to request his death, and not even the Catholic church will find the request unreasonable.

(Whereas euthanasia, actively administering lethal drugs to a person that would probably die soon, but not quite yet, is highly illegal - because it is not only a crime against the person, but a crime against society.)

If this dichotomy is accepted as correct, it can be extrapolated to the abortion debate. The big question there is where human life begins. If we have established that it ends when the body cannot support itself - anything beyond that is borrowed time - then wouldn't it be reasonable to say that life begins at the moment when the body can support itself? The line at which abortion is immoral is the line at which the child could survive outside the mother's womb, without incubators.

Obviously there are complications, such as weighing the life of the mother against the life of the child, and there may be cases where the deadline is not so clear-cut. This is, of course, an issue that should be judged on the merits of each individual case: this is why we have sentience, reason and the capacity for analysis.

But it's a start.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Estonica: Post-Electoral

So, the results are in, and the 101-seat parliament has divided thusly:

Reform - 31 seats
Centrist - 29 seats
IRL - 19 seats
Social Democrats - 10 seats
Green Party - 6 seats
Rahvaliit - 6 seats

A good showing for Reform - actually better than I expected, also good result for IRL even if they did lose 16 seats compared with the current parliament. SDE got a good run. Greens actually got more voted than Rahvaliit (by a few dozen).

Andrus Ansip, the PM, got a record-breaking 19 thousand votes - more than Savisaar and more than any other candidate since 1991. In fact, he got enough votes to get into parliament on a personal mandate, not as part of the party list. This virtually guarantees that he will continue as PM.

In the evening reports and the morning news, Team Savisaar was making noises about being open to coalition talks, while Ansip and Laar had a photo-op together, talking cautiously of a right-wing coalition (Reform and IRL being natural allies). Between them, they are one vote short of a majority, so they will need to get either the Soc-Dems, or the Greens, or both, to join them. The latter will obviously join any coalition that gives them the Environmental Ministry.

Interesting quip on the morning show, where the guest mentioned sitting next to a politologist during the election night party, asking him about likely coalitions, and getting the response that whatever it is, it'll only last 2.5 years anyway. I tend to agree, despite the fact that the current ruling party got a massive vote of confidence.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Other People's Content: On Life

Couple excellent movie quotes, technically depressing ones, but they had me in fits of giggles when I heard them the first time.

From The Princess Bride:
Life is pain; anyone who says different is trying to sell you something.
And from The Departed:
'How's your mother?'
'She's on her way out.'
'We all are. Act accordingly.'


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