When good computers go bad

So, I mistakenly thought I was qualified to install a CPU fan by myself. Silly me. My friend built me a custom computer about three years and it has been chugging along great all this time. However, the CPU fan was loud, so I bought (with his help in selecting one) a replacement with a “silent” rating. Now, I had early misgivings about whether I would be able to pull this off or not, so I was going to wait until someone could help me. But, in a fit of misguided enthusiasm, I ended up trying to install it myself. In the end, the only thing that was still working in that stinkin’ computer was that fan.

There are probably a whole handful of things I could do to try to fix it, but in an effort to find a quick solution, I threw money at the problem and went and bought a cheap replacement tower that was actually better than the old one. I figured I could just grab the data off of the old drive and then sell the parts from the original computer to make up most of the cost of the new computer. Ah, silly me. In the end, it was probably good that I bought the new computer because I can’t even get the new computer to see the main partition on the old drive, the partition filled with my old email, gigs and gigs of mp3 and video, photographs and more.

I’m still holding onto some hope that I might be able to grab some stuff off of the drive, but I’ve slowly started rebuilding my life. Thanks to things like Ofoto and Plaxo, I’m able to recover some stuff. But alas, I doubt I’ll be ever to recover over six years of collecting digital music. Especially since iTunes doesn’t have a data-in-the-sky model. Or just a download-as-many-times-as-you-need model. The record companies win again.

Educational freedom

Jason Schultz, an EFF attorney wrote an entry in his blog about Penn State’s presentation at the EDUCAUSE policy conference on its ban on students running servers and their new Napster program. Schultz gets it right when he points out the problem with Penn State’s approach to copyright problems– they’re simply taking computing tools away from their students and hindering educational experimentation. If anything, computing has become that much more essential to student life and having computing resources not only available for use, but also for experimentation is an integral part of the educational experience today.

I recently went to a presentation/panel discussion on computing resources at Stanford during our Admit Weekend. Our department has been doing this for years and one of the main “frequently asked questions” we answer during our preliminary spiel is “Do I have to have my own computer?” We give our usual answer of “no, you don’t have to have your own computer” and point out the many public computer clusters available in every residence and in central locations all around campus. And while this answer may thankfully comfort the one or two kids who can’t afford their own computers or who don’t want to get their own computers for whatever reason, the reality is that the vast majority of students today are digital natives (see Rich Holeton’s presentation on “Generation Keyboard”). Most of the students in the incoming class we spoke to (Class of 2008) were born in 1986, some in 1987. That means that they have never known a world without the personal computer and few of them can really remember a world without the Internet. Despite all the talk about the Digitial Divide, even if some high school students don’t have computers of their own, they often have at least a “family” computer in their home or have access to computers at their schools. And no matter how old those computers or how slow those Internet connections might be sometimes, nobody is writing their papers by hand anymore like we did (remember “cursive”?) and nobody is using the five-year old encyclopedia in the library for the research either.

So, when these digital natives make it to college and are often presented with, more often than not, technology resources so much greater than they previously had, isn’t it natural to allow them to experiment, to explore, to learn? College is huge step in the pursuit of learning– young people are making the decision to be full-time students, (hopefully) committed to pursuing their course of study. Students who live on campus are even more immersed in the educational process and, as the residential life programs on many campuses reflect, their entire lives, not just the part of it they spend inside the classroom or doing classwork, is an educational experience and universities who choose to embrace this can give their students an incredibly rich and valuable experience. As Schultz mentioned in his blog, both Google and Yahoo! were started by Stanford students running their own servers. Stanford has always had a relatively liberal network usage policy specifically to encourage that type of entrepeneurship, self-learning and initiative. And it doesn’t just have to result in a multi-billion dollar IPO– there are countless ways in which students have experimented with computing resources to do great things and learn important skills, such as setting up and running a server, creating and running a Web site, learning about networking or security, and more. And the rewards we reap aren’t always through enjoyable experiences. Getting your server hacked is a valuable lesson learned early for any budding system or network administrator. When mp3 technology first became popular and students suddenly began sharing files through Windows networking, IRC and FTP, the huge bandwidth and network usage was an early lesson all those years ago to students and university staff– digital music would be an important issue in the future. We all know Napster was the work of a college student and spread like wildfire first on college campuses and while the RIAA and the MPAA might think that this is the very argument against letting students experiment, I disagree. Napster and everything like it has revolutionized the way music is distributed and sold and, more importantly, has made us stop and reevaluate unfair and, in the light of digital technology, obsolete copyright laws that have gone unquestioned for so long.

Some have responded to Schultz’s article and many university system and network administrators, not surprisingly, have commented that they believe Penn State’s policy to be fair and reasonable, citing liability issues. Some (in not very nice ways) try to argue that unlimited and unrestricted network usage is not a right and students should be focusing on their studies, not running servers out of their rooms or downloading music. But university policies should not be driven by fear of liability, but desire to fulfill the educational mission. And to think that coursework is the only venue in which learning can and should be pursued is shortsighted and narrow-minded. While universities, of course, may not be able to outright ignore complaints accusing students of breaking the law, they can avoid implementing policies that will, instead of protecting them from possible liability, more likely only hinder creativity, innovation, and ultimately, learning.

Opening Borders – Part 2

As Red Cross workers move into the Ryongchon area, the world seems just as surprised as I am at North Korea’s candor. While it seemed to take a whole day before the North Korean government would even acknowledge occurrence of the disaster, in a surprise move, they quickly asked for international help, opened their borders to aid workers, and released statements admitting that carelessness was behind the cause of the accident.

However, we must remember that this does not mean North Korea is looking for change– just for aid. There is no indication that the admission of carelessness will be released within the country– North Korean citizens may continue to live in the dark and be fed propaganda about the accident– and while they tell the world that over half of the casualties were schoolchildren, the North Korean government points a finger at the US, accusing us of planning to attack the isolated country. On one hand, they loosen their tight hold on their borders to let in international aid, but on the other, when the US decides to pull troops from the DMZ, the North Korean government claims this is preparation for a pre-emptive attack.

The release of these two stories on the same day is a testament to the truly unpredictable and, for lack of a better word, insane nature of the North Korean regime.

Opening borders

Amazing. Despite my predictions otherwise, the North Korean government has asked the United Nations for help. Early reports state that over 1,000 people have been injured and 50 bodies have been recovered so far.

Maybe things won’t go as badly as I thought. Maybe this will open up North Korea’s borders just a little bit and we’ll be able to find that glimmer of hope we had four years ago, before the Bush administration, before the Axis of Evil, back when for a brief moment, outsiders were allowed into the isolated country, if only to hold long lost loved ones for a few seconds before letting them go again.

Accidental death

Two fuel trains collided today at a North Korean station near the Chinese border. The crash ignited a huge explosion. Debris rained beyond a ten-mile radius and more than 20 houses were knocked down. As many as 3,000 people may have been injured or killed.

After the September 11th attacks in both New York and at the Pentagon, 3,030 people died; 2,337 were injured. While the numbers are much larger than the first estimates from today’s accident on the other side of the world, 3,000 is still a shocking number for, what it seems like, just an accident. In this day and age, it is hard to believe that two trains, on their regular routes, would somehow accidentally crash into each other so violently and cause such destruction.

But ironically, this is a country in which “self-reliance” is everything and that means one of the greatest military build-ups in history, even if the entire nation’s infrastructure is in decay and, just as an example, trains are always breaking down, often leaving crowds of people stranded until the electricity can be restored. Of course, you would think that at least fuel trains would have priority in this country, would not be run-down or decaying or susceptible to an accident of this magnitude. You would think since fuel trains are more important than, let’s say, food, they would be maintained better, function better.

In North Korea, both children and adults suffer from famine. Die from famine. How can you be self-reliant and protect your people when you cannot even feed them? No, instead, they will die and then you will only be protecting the millions of bodies of an oppressed people. But you have trained them well and they will tell you through their dying breaths that they are happy because North Korea and the North Korean people are self-reliant.

And now, with news of this horrible accident today, we must turn our gaze upon you again and watch from far away, peeking our heads over your high fences, trying to get a glimpse of what happened, what is going on. Part of it may be morbid curiosity that pushes us to peek– like slowing down as you drive past a fender bender on the side of the road. But personally, I’m watching to see how many have really been injured. How many have really been lost. And who they might have been.

Immediately after the accident, the North Korean government declared an emergency in the area, but then cut off all international phone lines. They did not want the story to leak. And by Friday morning in the northern half of the Land of Morning Calm, they had still not even mentioned the disaster.

South Korea’s acting President ordered his government to prepare aid if necessary and hospitals along the Chinese border prepare for a large influx in patients and offer help to their neighbor. But most of us know that while the aid will probably be very necessary, the request will never come. I will be surprised if the North Korean government even acknowledges the accident. We will most likely never hear a final casualty or injury count.

We mourn those who were lost or injured today not just because of this horrible disaster, but because they have been lost to us now for over fifty years– long enough for the pain to have subsided, but short enough for it to be remembered and return again sharply. While terrible accidents happen, they will suffer even more because of a terrorism that eats away within their own country against their own people. A terrorism that teaches militarism and self-reliance over feeding and educating children. A terrorism that will allow thousands to suffer after an accident just to save face, just to avoid asking for help. Just for the sake of self-reliance. How many will die because they were not found quickly enough within all the debris? How many will die because they could not be treated quickly enough or with the right type of modern medicine?

There might not be anywhere near as many casualties and injuries as there were after the September 11th attacks and perhaps, if truly an accident, at least we will not find the face of terrorism and hate behind the forces that killed our loved ones today.

Instead, we will wonder if they are alive. We– the global community– will read news reports of rumors and stories from along the Chinese border and we will wonder if our family might have been in the area. But for Koreans everywhere outside of that tiny isolated nation, the anticipation and frustration won’t be like calling the New York City area on the morning of September 11, 2001, only to hear a blaring busy signal because the phonelines were flooded. We can’t call. We can’t write. We can’t send an email. No, instead, we will wonder, again, if family members and friends left behind are still alive, whether they were in the accident or not. Whether they were even near the accident or not. We will continue to wonder like we have for over fifty years, wonder about the brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and mothers and fathers we lost in a political divide not so long ago. We will wonder if they survived the war, if they built families, have jobs or homes. We will wonder if they were lucky enough to survive all of these years of famine and isolation. We will wonder if they would recognize us if they ever saw us again. We will wonder if we could recognize them.

Civil disobedience

With so many mayors in so many cities around the country starting to perform gay marriages, legally sanctioned or not, the debate on gay marriage has finally actually started. Granted, it has been a hot topic for a while now, but because it is a political nightmare no matter where you stand on the issue, there has been no real discussion or movement. Those on the right push that the sanctitiy of marriage, defined as between a man and a woman, should be protected, including through a constitutional amendment. Those on the left usually push the idea of civil unions instead of marriage, giving gay couples many, but not all, the rights and privileges afforded to straight married couples. But when the Massachussetts court ruled that civil unions were unconstitutional and that the only real answer was gay marriage, suddenly everybody stopped just talking about it and started actually doing something, whether it was performing thousands of gay marriages or making a real effort to get the proposal to ban gay marriage out of committee.

Before, civil unions seemed like the answer– it was this kinder, gentler thing that wouldn’t challenge the religious institution of marriage while still trying to find a solution. However, the MA court ruling flipped that switch in all of our heads and we realized, hey, they’re right– civil unions aren’t enough! Separate, but equal is rarely ever equal and civil unions are a watered-down, cop out answer to this issue. If we, as a society, are going to say that sexual orientation is not a valid basis for discrimination, then we cannot bar homosexuals from the right to join together in a legally recognized union and we cannot place special conditions or limits on that institution simply because the two parties are of the same sex. Either we discriminate or we do not.

Many have been criticizing those city officials who have been performing these marriage ceremonies, saying that no one is above the law. True, (theoretically) no one is above the law– our judicial system depends on that– but it is our responsibility as citizens to challenge the laws we believe to be wrong. Unfortunately, because they are breaking the law as city officials, they can be removed from office, but at the end of the day, they are courageous and selfless in their endeavors. They truly live up to their duties and responsibilities as both civil leaders and as citizens, using their political power to give voice to those who were not being heard, even if it is at the cost of the office itself. Mayors like Gavin Newsome and Jason West are heroes in this day and age where politicians are afraid to stray from the middle and afraid to fight the fights that need fighting. West’s case is particularly compelling– technically, he was breaking the law, but haven’t all great civil rights battles been fought through civil disobedience? I find it surprising that people are so quick to say that West and his compatriots are doing wrong simply because they are breaking the law. Well duh– although marriage has not been officially defined as a union between a man and a woman, the prevailing legal practice bars gay marriage and “solemnizing” a marriage between two people of the same sex is illegal. We get that. But that’s the whole point. The fight for civil rights starts with the small things– everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks. All she did was refuse to sit at the back of the bus, but it was a beginning. West follows in the footsteps of Parks and Dr. King and Gandhi– he knew he would have to pay a price and he complied peacefully when the day came, but not without challenging the law itself and inspiring so many more through his example.

The Passion of the Christ

Partly because of the all the fuss, but perhaps more because of my own religious background, I actually decided to go and see The Passion of the Christ. This is a pretty big deal considering the last movie I bothered to see in the theater was Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and my whole plan for this weekend was to get reacquainted with my home and get my life back together. However, it’s been a long time since they’ve made a big screen retelling of the story of Christ and this one, despite all the controversy, looked like it was visually well-made. And besides, what a great title.

We all know “what happens,” so I don’t think I’m ruining anything for anyone, but I think people need to be aware of what they’re getting into when they go to see this film. The film depicts the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, from his arrest at Gesthemane (complete with Judas’s betrayal) to his crucifixion (and briefly, his resurrection three days later). The film is subtitled since all of the characters speak in the language they would have during that time– Aramaic for the Jewish characters and “street Latin” for the Roman ones. Because the movie begins so late in the story and there is little or no exposition in the film, it really helps to know, in detail, the story of the life of Jesus. You can obviously follow what is happening, but the experience is probably better if you know about and understand the significance of things like Jesus’s prediction that Peter would deny him three times, the appearance of Veronica and her famous veil, and in general, how crucifixions happened (so you could anticipate all the gruesome steps involved).

The real warning I would give movie-goers would not be about the alleged anti-semitism in the film, but the large amount of graphic violence. Granted, it’s the story of a man being beaten and crucified, so there will obviously be some inherent violence, but Gibson and company have included every gory detail of Jesus’s suffering, from his beating by Roman soldiers shortly before he is sentenced to crucifixion to his pained journey to Golgotha to his actual crucifixion. In other movies with particularly graphic violence, some directors choose to cut away at the last moment, saving the viewers the most gruesome moment and showing them only the “after,” if anything at all. However, as director, Gibson chose to show every single detail as Jesus is savagely beaten and flagellated and as nails are pounded into his hands and feet. Jesus, played by actor James Cavaziel, is extremely bloody and wounded during most of the film. Despite all of the family and children focused previews shown before the film, this film is not for children. I knew what was coming throughout the film and I could barely stand to watch the violence. Numerous people in the audience, including myself, were brought to tears during the most bloody moments of the film.

One of the big lessons the creators of the film seem to be trying to convey is that noone other than Jesus, than Christ himself, could endure and survive the persecution he experienced during those last twelve hours. Whether he survived all of that because he was destined for death by crucifixion or simply by chance is a question of faith, but the film does show us that Jesus’s suffering was no joke. All of the controversy surrounding the film focuses on whether it is anti-semitic, but more than depicting the Jews as the enemy, I think the film depicts all of the people of that time as the enemy. We not only see Caiphas (the Jewish High Priest) out for Jesus’s blood, insisting on his death by crucifixion, but we see a crowd enthusiastically choose Barabbas, a murderer, to be released instead of Jesus and Roman soldiers gleefully beat the Nazarene throughout the film. We see citizens following along as Jesus and two other criminals make their way to Golgotha and as Jesus collapses frequently under the strain of his cross and his injuries, they seize the opportunity to beat and heckle him themselves.

In the end, the film left me horrified with that period in human history itself. Granted, even if you do not believe in Jesus as Messiah, the tragedy is only amplified by the idea that a man who was teaching love and kindness was condemned and killed for it. But even if we forget about who Jesus was for a moment, the real horror is that a human society actually existed where a man, innocent or guilty, could be beaten and tortured like that by the State and religious leaders, that citizens would not only allow but enjoy such a spectacle, and that a system was in place where human beings were actually killed by such a gruesome method as crucifixion. Who knows if we are any better people today– there are most likely places in this world where equally violent and horrible things happen– but The Passion of the Christ, if anything, shows how terribly wrong human beings can be to one another.

Home sweet home

After two weeks of drama and multiple relocations, I am finally back in my apartment. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I walked through the door of my unaffected, but much missed apartment. Upon my return to my humble abode, I have learned a few things:

  • One way to remove the smoke smell from a fire-affected building is to put ozone machines around and let them run for 24 hours to deodorize the area. However, now, instead of smelling like smoke, the common areas of the building now smell like a dentist’s office– that weird bubble gum flouride scent. It gave me a headache just walking back and forth from the car to my apartment while I was moving back in. Maybe I would be less affected if I was a dentist.
  • When they say you should properly defrost your fridge when turning it off for an extended period of time, they really mean it. Despite the apartment management company entering the apartment earlier this week to empty the fridge of perishable items (i.e., almost everything save a few bottles of champagne and some cans of Diet Coke), the fridge did suffer from the sudden lack of electricity for over a week. I had a fair amount of bagged ice in the freezer and that not just melted, but leaked down into the regular fridge section, leaving a nice little puddle to clean up under and in the crisper drawers. And, even if your fridge is pretty clean, there is invariably some food molecules and such that end up lingering on the shelf surfaces and if there’s no power and therefore no refrigeration, those tiny molecules will end up spoiling and necessitating some cleanup. That was fun.*
  • Keep your sink clean of dirty dishes. There were only a few, but any lingering milk from your coffee or morning cereal will create a nice little petri dish surprise when you get back two weeks later. Yay for bleach and other harsh cleaning chemicals.
  • Plants need to be watered regularly. Seriously. My several window boxes of pansies weren’t doing that great in the first place, but they seemed to have made it through the worst especially since it rained during the second week of my absence and they are out far enough on the balcony to actually catch some rain. However, I have two very sad, very dehydrated variegated ginger plants. But I think they’re resilient– they were once one medium-sized (but still expensive) plant that over the course of six months, grew big enough to become two large plants. They are as tall as me! Granted I am a small person, but if I were a house plant, I would be a relatively big one.
  • Tivo is, in fact, one of the greatest things ever. When the power turned back on sometime late Tuesday, it just went back to doing it’s thing. So, when I returned, there was almost a week full of my favorite TV shows waiting for me, including new episodes of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and this week’s Law & Order SVU.
  • Whatever time of day, wherever you are, there is always an episode of Law & Order on . This is something I realized not when I moved back home, but as I relocated around and didn’t have my hundreds of DirecTV channels. I think I may have watched more episodes of this show in the past two weeks than I have in all of the years prior. Between reruns on TBS, TNT and USA, this has got to be the most frequently run show in history. And I never get tired of it. I still watched three Tivo-ed episodes today when I returned home.

So, it was not the worst time of my life, but this was perhaps one of the most frustrating and unsettling two weeks of my life. I love to spend time in my apartment and I love to spend time alone. I have lived in this particular apartment for a year and a half now, but I have worked hard to make it exactly the way I want it, from decorating and redecorating to setting up all the little amenities that have become an integral part of my daily life and routine. And suddenly, when I was faced with the reality that I was not going to be able to live in that home I had created for an undetermined amount of time, a frustration, stress and sadness hung over my head constantly. Yes, I had somewhere to stay, complete with all the modern conveniences of life including cable TV and high-speed Internet, but it is difficult to go through every day without a place to call home, to call your own, to know where you are going to go at the end of the day and know that it isn’t just a temporary resting place. I felt always out of place with a forced loneliness and need. I felt unsafe. I know my brief experience does not even begin to compare to what actually homeless and disadvantaged people experience, but I have learned to truly appreciate my home even more after whatever slight taste of the experience I have had.

But now, I’m tucked back in my own bed with fresh sheets and my beloved comforter. And I’d just like to thank the manager and the staff at the Hilton Garden Inn (Mountain View) for being sympathetic and a great hotel staff and hotel in general. And thanks to my manicurist and friend for being sympathetic, for getting angry and worked up on my behalf, and for getting me the name of a personal injury lawyer just in case. And finally, thanks to my friend for letting me stay with him in his one-room palace when I didn’t want to stay in the other hotel they switched me to because I didn’t feel safe and for making me feel safe and at home.

* Did you ever notice that “fridge” is spelled with a “d,” but “refrigerator” (for which fridge is an abbreviation) and “refrigeration” are not? Ah, the eccentrities of the English language.

Separate but equal is never equal

More than 1700 same-sex couples have been married under San Francisco’s little act of “civil” disobedience. Thousands more are continuing to line up before Tuesday’s hearing to determine whether the state’s ban on same-sex marriages is constitutional. Most are from the Bay Area, but couples are coming in from all over the country to get married.

That’s beautiful.

Most straight people who are together don’t want to get married, but look at how desperate so many same-sex couples want to get married and publicly declare their love and lifetime committment to each other. Someone should do a study, if they haven’t already, of same-sex couples in general or specifically, these newlywed couples and see how long they stay together after getting married, whether the legality of it sticks or not. I bet same-sex couples would have a much lower rate of divorce– you know why? When you have been denied a right for so long, you appreciate it when you are finally given it. The ban on same-sex marriage, if anything, has probably only made marriage an even more sacred and more cherished union to same-sex couples.

If the courts have now ruled that “sodomy” is no longer illegal, then the courts have declared that this type of physical interaction between members of the same sex is, for lack of a better word, “okay” (or at least the laws that make it illegal are unconstitutional and a violation of privacy). If we can recognize the “okay-ness” of the physical act, isn’t it only natural to extend that “approval” to the emotional and spiritual relationship that can accompany the act? How ironic that so many will revile homosexuals for their presumed promiscuity and unsafe sex practices, but they will not grant them the right to marriage and the opportunity to declare to the world that they are partners in life, committed and true? I bet through legalized same-sex marriage, many homosexuals will publicly disprove the negative stereotypes that have plagued them in this country.

I use to think that civil unions were the solution, but Massachusetts was right. Civil unions are not enough. We are thinking too small. Marriage, truly and completely, is the only real answer. Have we not learned that “separate, but equal” is rarely ever equal?