My computer crashed irrevocably yesterday (I say “my” computer; it was the desktop that Faith got from her dad, but she always uses her laptop, which may or may not soon be confiscated by her former department). I spent most of yesterday trying to fix it. It booted up all the way to Window XP once, after I came home to a BSOD (the first I’ve personally experience with XP). I saved a few files that were on the desktop and hadn’t been backed up earlier this month when I saved most of my important files. I then assumed that the problem wasn’t too dire, so I played Fantasy General (via DOSBox) for a few hours. Little did I know that the next time it froze (not BSOD, but the same freezes that had been happening with increasing regularity for several weeks) would be its dying gasp. All that progress against Aelcar the Shadow Wizard for nothing.

After getting caught in an endless loop of restarts while trying to fix the Windows installation, I went for the reformat. The hard drive, however, did not want to cooperate. I suspect it was the problem all along. Fortunately, there just happened to be a second, unconnected hard drive mounted in the computer case (which had a junky version of Windows 2000 installed). So I spent most of the night reinstalling as much as possible. I think the only thing I’ll really miss (besides videogame saves) is all the digital photos, none of which were saved. But that was a lot of cute kitty pictures, and some very good stuff from California and Nevada.

On the upside, I now have a computer that is running much more smoothly than before (thanks to a properly subordinate hard drive). I also got a chance to put some of my free software ideals to the test. After going through about 5 Windows Update restarts for all the fixes since XP circa 2002, the first hurdle I had to overcome was getting all our mp3’s (which were ripped from my CD’s over the course of about a year, representing much too large a time investment to abandon) back onto the computer. With iTunes, otherwise a near flawless program, your iPod with erase itself to match the computer if you try hook it up to one with less or different contents. Fortunately, a decent, free (as in beer only) program exists that can do just that: EphPod. I wouldn’t recommend it for much else, but it did what I needed it to.

Unfortunately, the anti-virus software CD I got from IT at OU for free a few years ago won’t work anymore. It had given me access of McAfee 7 with a perpetual license, which had been working just fine, with regular updates, since then. But I think only the gradual updates would keep it in business; whenever I’ve tried more recently to install it, it always fails to update it’s engine. Too big a jump from that version to current, apparently. So I had to explore other options, and I settled on AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, which is also not OSS, but still free. It claims to have pretty much all the features McAfee had. Of course, it’s hard to say if it’s working. It hasn’t told me of any viruses I have yet, which is either very good or very bad.

Even though I have Office 2003 (and am quite happy with its functionality, particularly Word and PowerPoint), I thought I would try OpenOffice while I was at it with all this free software. This is what really blew me away. I installed the beta 2.0 version, 1.9.m118, and took it for a quick spin. It does everything that I normally do (or might want to do) with MS Office, and in pretty much the same way. Writer does all the spellchecking, work counting, footnoting, bulleting and numbering, margin fiddling, font switching, etc., and it actually seems to be better at dealing with images in documents. It lacks a lot of the auto-formatting functions, but I would just as soon do without them in Word (I know I could turn them off, but I only get around to it for the really annoying ones. Auto-capitalize is the worst, and all the letter-inversion corrections definitely don’t help my typing or spelling skills). Even more surprising, Impress seems to have all the same bells and whistles as PowerPoint 2003, with an extremely similar interface. And it played my existing PP presentations perfectly, animations and all (which is more than can usually be said for PowerPoint, unless it’s the exact same version as the one the file was created with). In short, I fully recommend to anyone thinking of buying a new version of Office, don’t. OpenOffice can interconvert all kinds of file formats, and if you know how to use Office, you know how to use OpenOffice.

The downtime and download time also gave me a chance to get some reading done in the very interesting Darwinian Heresies, which Intelligent Design philosopher Paul Nelson recommends (he is cited favorably for his treatment of the “strong form of the argument against design”), and now, having read the first three-and-a-half chapters, I do too. Meanwhile, I finished both Kepler’s Witch and The Left Hand of Darkness a few days ago. Neither of them lived up to their hype, but I enjoyed The Left Hand of Darkness and I understand much of its appeal. As for the Kepler book (see my Amazon review), I understand all of its appeal (as it does not extend beyond the rather attractive and intriguingly-titled exterior).

Nearly as bad as that book, I bought a six-pack of Sam Adams Cherry Wheat beer. Not a mistake I’ll make again; it’s almost as bad as the Cranberry Lambic that comes in the holiday pack.

I also downloaded some songs by The Weakerthans, who piqued my interested with the song “Aside” during the Wedding Crashers credits. They’re my new favorite emo band (as long as you don’t try calling anything Chris Staples does emo).

I met with Megan for German again today… highly productive. And it turns out she’s not merely a philosopher: the reason we couldn’t meet last week was because she was in German with her art exhibition. And her husband runs a jazz venue/recording studio here in New Haven. How cool are they?

Reading: Darwinian Heresies, Kepler’s Witch, The Left Hand of Darkness

Listening: Paul Simon, Weakerthans

Watching: Bottle Rocket

More work, frisbee, movies, reading, etc. We finally put our apartment on craig’s list instead of just the Yale housing site. It seems that no one uses that any more: we only had it up for two days, and we got about 12 inquiries from craig’s list, so we won’t have to worry about not finding a tenant any more. And we’ve been assigned an apartment in Storrs, so it looks like there’s no way out of moving now.

Obviously, though, the most exciting thing in the last week was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Faith read it on Saturday, and I almost read it Sunday, but had to leave 40 pages for Monday. As everyone knew it would, it continues the dark tone of book V, but I definitely liked it better. I think that’s mostly because Harry was only an annoying, self-centered brat for one year (which is thankfully over by the beginning of book VI). And all the right romances blossom, too (you know the ones).

Faith and I saw Wedding Crashers, which is remarkably funny (though quite legitimately ‘R’). You already know pretty much the entire plot from the previews, and there aren’t any surprises in the characters of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, since they’re the exact same ones they play in every other movie. But that never stopped me from liking any other Owen Wilson movie. I can’t really describe it better than this.

On the other end of the spectrum, we waited for two movies to come out on video, and we should have waited longer (until it was free on TV for the first, until never for the second); Constantine was only slightly worse than I expected, but Man of the House was simply awful.

Somewhere in the middle, and really a pleasant surprise, was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. After about ten minutes of Depp’s Wonka, I was on the path to being extremely disappointed. But then it started to grow on me. It’s a completely different character than Gene Wilder‘s, but by the end, it makes a lot of sense and is in some ways more compelling. Oddly enough, the part of the story that really fails and fall short of the earlier version is the additionally backstory for Wonka’s childhood, which is awkward and ultimately unneccesary.

Reading: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, plus a little of each of The Left Hand of Darkness, Timaeus, Kepler’s Witch, and Creative Evolution

Listening: Barenaked Ladies, Blaster the Rocketman

Watching: Wedding Crashers, Constantine, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Man of the House

In addition to lifting boxes and making copies like a well-trained monkey, I started a new job (and technically different, so I got two job, mon!) today. I’m filing the correspondence of some famous dude I’d never heard of, William Bullitt.

Megan the (6th-year, nearly-finished) philosopher and I met yesterday to start studying German again… it’s amazing how much you lose in a week and a half. I also drove around with Matt for a little while as he schmoozed with an old Jewish taylor; he has all those politician-like skills, so I need to remember not to trust him.

At home, I’ve been distracted from my science fiction lately by two things: Halo 2 and Wikipedia. The new playlists with the new maps were released yesterday, although they have way too much Team Slayer and Territories instead of the far more fun CTF and Assault. The new maps seem really great for CTF, especially, but I’ve only played a couple games of it on any of the five new maps.

As for Wikipedia, I started scrounging through old historiographical papers in order to edit articles; I added a small bit to “Modern Evolutionary Synthesis” and a large amount (probably too much) to “Atomism.” Both articles are still pretty poor, so I want to spend some time making them good, since they are some of the few things I actually know enough about to write both intelligently and extemporaneously. Also, there is no entry at all for G. Evelyn Hutchinson, although there are short entries for even some of his more obscure students (e.g., Ursula Cowgill, for whom Hutchinson wrote comparatively lackluster recommendations, as I discovered during my research paper last semester). I hope to remedy that with a modest article.

The Wikipedia model really does seem like a valuable way for academcis to spend their time. It’s not deep, but for most academic subjects, cutting-edge work is so esoteric that only other closely-related scholars even care about, much less understand, the work going on. Whereas even the most basic encyclopedia-level introductory information is hard to come by for obscure topics.

If and when I’m a professor, I’m going to have the final paper for all my classes be to create a well-written, well-referenced Wikipedia article. I know I would have put more into that kind of project than stupid undergrad research where you know it will never be useful to anyone, anywhere. And that’s something where a few books’ worth of reading, critical thinking and careful writing can actually yield a result that has lasting value. As an added bonus, it’s a way to support the ideals of free as in speech, a phrase and a concept of which I’ve been very enamored of late.

Even though I like Microsoft a lot more now than I did before I had XP (and I don’t begrudge them the right to make money from their products, despite misgivings about corporate power), there are still things about M$ that seem counter-productive to the greater good. Regarding the relationship between capitalism, Microsoft and open-source, I recently read the so-called Halloween document and found it to be extremely interesting, even if it’s very old news.

While I don’t have any doubts that History of Science is really the way to change the world, all the time I’ve spent reading /. articles lately make me think I need to invest some time learning to program, as well.

Reading: The Man in the High Castle

Listening: The Beatles, The Preachaholicz

Watching: Fantastic Four

Faith and I saw Fantastic Four tonight. I give it 4/10 (appropriately enough, I suppose). The reasons to see it are:
1. Human Torch (humor value)
2. Jessica Alba (though not her character)

The reasons not to include:
1. the pathetic, lame, awful, thin plot
2. the one-dimensional, whiny villain (Dr. Doom, no less, who should be rather complex and anything but whiny)
3. the acting, all around

I can’t wait till Sin City comes out on DVD, with all the special features and extensions. I pretty much feel about that movie the same way as my favorite critic David Edelstein (who even likes Mystery Men). Naturally, he feels about like I do about F4.

Faith and I are still trying to work out our living situation next year. She enrolled in her UConn classes yesterday, and while we were in Storrs and Hartford, we decided that Storrs might be a better place for us to live next year, so that I would commute the full 60+ miles in the car, instead of me going from bus to train to bus to get to school from Hartford and Faith her driving. Then we’ll just move to Farmington next year when she enters medical school. I’m impressed with the Storrs campus, although apparently they have just had a recent spurt of heavy building and increased enrollment, but don’t have enough professors to teach all their courses. As you can see, Storrs and Uconn are pretty well co-extensive; this is all the university, and there’s nothing else but intermittent residences for miles.

Meanwhile, I got a job today. For this week and the next two weeks, I’ll be working in Manuscripts & Archives. The people are really friendly, and of course I already know some of them from doing research there.

I also got Daggerfall running with DOSBox… it’s really amazing how open source freeware can be vastly better than professionally developed programs. The DOS compatibility mode in windows XP is pretty poor, but DOSBox can pretty much do anything from the DOS era. Even DOS computers weren’t that backwards compatible; about three years was the farthest apart you could expect games and computers to be compatible.

[If you came here looking for how to run Daggerfall, here are the autoexec lines I use in the dosbox.conf file:

mount c c:\oldies -freesize 1000
mount d d:\ -t cdrom

Then I use the “no CD hack”: after doing the max install, I manually copy everything from the ARENA2 folder on the CD to the one in the install directory, to make sure it has everything on the CD. Then I change the “z.cfg” file so that the cdpath is the same as the other path, and run the game with the command “fall.exe z.cfg”.]

Reading: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Eye in the Sky, The Game-Players of Titan

Listening: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Watching: The Pacifier, Kinsey