A restrospective on HAL-PC’s end and a look to the future

So it was about seven years ago this month that HAL-PC finally called it quits. (For those of you who don’t remember it, HAL-PC was the Houston Area League of PC Users, and at least at one point, was the largest user group of its type.)

A few things have changed since then, perhaps the biggest one being the COVID-19 pandemic, which was made a lot more bearable by technology. Even if, somehow, HAL-PC was still around going into that, I’m pretty sure the COVID-19 pandemic would have finished it off.

The one thing that has not changed, though, is how to a lot of people, computers are still just another appliance. Those of us who grew up with personal computers, or otherwise witnessed the very dawn of the technological revolution they brought about, knows that is not the case. On one hand, yes, the computer is an appliance. On the other, just about every modern appliance more complicated than a very basic mechanical toaster has some type of small computer in it. It’s not going to be something that runs anything close to a traditional operating system (GNU/Linux, Windows, etc), but it’s still a computer in the nominal sense of the term.

Mobile phones were always computer-based, at least in the broader sense (unlike their landline counterparts). Even “feature phones” (the phones that predated “smart phones”) have a CPU (central processing unit); in fact, usually they have more than one. During the twilight of the dominance of the landline phones (mid- to late 1990s), most if not all of the switching units used computer technology, even those at the smaller rural telephone cooperatives. Granted, the rural co-ops may not have had the very latest and greatest, but they were still digital/computerized switches.

As it turns out, there are some computer user groups still in existence. They are mainly for users of non-mainstream operating systems and computers, particularly GNU/Linux and *BSDs, and mid-range systems like the IBM i-Series (the new branding for the AS/400, which replaced the System/38 and its predecessors) among others. The current crop of WordPress meetups are de facto user groups (with the annual WordCamp events being an extension of them). But for mainstream general purpose computing? It’s hard to justify a user group for Microsoft Windows, when the entire point of Windows is to “appliance-ify” the entire computing experience and give it all the excitement and novelty of the average vacuum cleaner. Thus, a generic computer user group is about as exciting now as a hypothetical vacuum cleaner user group would be, and arguably about as useful too. (The main difference being you would ask your friends in the vacuum cleaner user group how to fix things when they didn’t suck. But I digress…)

Apple is even worse. The idea of a Mac user group is laughable. This is a product one typically pays a premium for (as in about twice the going price of a comparable “PC compatible” system) for fancier design and the privilege of getting to use the Genius Bar at Apple’s retail stores. Out-of-warranty repairs undoubtedly cost a premium as well, and the systems that are too far gone provide an opportunity for a Genius Bar tech to upsell you on a new system. It’s great for those that own Apple stock, and perhaps a more palatable approach to computing for those with more money than sense. I’m not sure it’s as great for the typical end user not wealthy enough to afford a yacht, private jet, high-end sports or luxury car, etc. Worse, Apple has made relatively limited contributions to the free software community; the one I’m aware of most is CUPS. They list contributions to “open source” which may or may not include projects that qualify as free software; remember the entire purpose of the term “open source” is to get people talking less about freedom (something which Apple directly attacks with their design of iOS).

Taking a more detailed look back at what I wrote in 2014:

Personally, I’ve never lost sight of the magic behind computing. I’ll admit it, I get a thrill out of installing a new operating system on either brand-new or new-to-me hardware, which I’ve done for every system up until the last one I received new (the one I’m writing this post on). This one was ordered custom-built and with the operating system (Ubuntu GNU/Linux 11.04) already on it for three reasons: first, because for once, it was a realistic option to buy a computer with Ubuntu pre-installed; second, I needed to make immediate use of the computer as soon as it arrived; and third, it was a different thrill to experience the closest equivalent to how most people today get a store-bought PC. The great job Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) has done even trying to mount some kind of challenge to what is a damn-near-monopoly by Microsoft deserves a post all its own (which I may make sometime in July).

I’m still using Ubuntu for now. I’m no longer quite as enamored with Canonical and what they’ve done with the OS; it’s a viable option but way too many upsells and proprietary options are sneaking in for me to be comfortable recommending it to others. When I upgraded my laptop to Ubuntu 20.04 LTS, I wound up with a disaster. (I decided a while back to stick to LTS versions because I hate having things break on upgrade. The pace of upgrades on a six-month schedule is just too chaotic for me now.) I rolled it back to 18.04 where it will probably stay until this laptop hits end of life (the battery is effectively unusable as now it usually lasts less than 30 minutes; it never lasted longer than an hour).

Arguably, the desktop in the office should have stayed on Ubuntu 18.04 as well, but it’s still running 20.04 for the foreseeable future. I’m now looking at PureOS, and would like to be able to upgrade at least the current laptop to Purism’s Librem 14 (or Librem 15 if/when it returns to production), if not also a Librem Mini to use as my primary desktop. I tried PureOS on the current laptop and it’s not a good fit.

My “other” computer is an 8GB Raspberry Pi 4 B+, running the stock Raspberry Pi OS for the moment. I have another Raspberry Pi 4 B+, which is a 2GB model I’m mainly using for some experiments. (I’m looking at alternatives with fewer or no dependencies on proprietary drives, though I will likely at least one original Raspberry Pi around for troubleshooting purposes and to confirm to friends “yes, you can do task XYZ on a Raspberry Pi”.) There are a few Raspberry Pi user groups out there, but once again, this is mainly because the platform is not considered general purpose. It’s certainly possible to use a Raspberry Pi similarly to a traditional desktop computer (especially with the 4GB and 8GB models). I’d be a bit nervous about betting my ability to do all my computing on a microSD card not failing, though. It has actually happened to me once; the microSD card booted one moment, and didn’t boot the next. Yes, my vocabulary resembled that of Q*Bert running into a purple snake for quite a while after, as I had to rebuild my system and restore what data I could from backups.

But I think it’s a sad commentary on the state of computing that most computer users in this decade will never even think that building their own computer is a realistic option, much less doing their own operating system install […]. There is a certain degree of intimidation to overcome when it comes to staring down an empty computer case and the components that will go into it.

As someone experienced in the craft, I wouldn’t mind doing another PC build from scratch. A good bit has changed since the last time I’ve done one. That previous build was during the SATA era, at least. (However, as an aside, I’ve been around long enough to remember with some fondness the joys of PC builds and upgrades from decades past. Just to name a few: parallel ATA connectors, PS/2 keyboard and mouse connections (what we used prior to USB), debugging IRQ conflicts on an ISA bus, the botch that was ISA “Plug and Play” (thankfully obsoleted by PCI and later standards), power connectors that would fry the motherboard if hooked up wrong, and other weird and not-so-wonderful things that would make most millenials cringe.)

However, the reality is that most of the reasons I had for building my own computer no longer apply. Companies like System76, ZaReason (through 2020 November, anyway), Purism, eRacks, ThinkPenguin, and the like had either just began operations (and in a pre-Web world, were likely hard to find), or flat out didn’t exist. Typically, one’s best bet was a local computer shop and even then it was tricky, as a lot of those local shops added Windows without asking. For a long time in the 1990s, when building your own PC was a huge pain in the donkey, a lot of people just gave up and bought something off the shelf with Windows on it. Thankfully we have left those days behind, and it is now much easier to avoid what has become known as the “Microsoft tax” (a licensing fee paid on an unused copy of Windows).

Getting back more directly to the topic at hand, I would like to see computing become exciting again. I am just not sure how to do that when everyone under the age of 30 has grown up with not just computers, but rather powerful computers compared to what was available during the infancy of the technology.

Even if technically possible, it will be damned tricky to restore a lot of the late 1970s to mid-1980s type excitement to computing here in 2021. Those who make computers and their software have worked to insulate the average user from the nuts and bolts and the work that goes into programming, and likely on purpose at that. Why let someone write their own software with a BASIC interpreter that comes with the computer and its operating system, when one can sell even the simplest proprietary shrinkwrapped software for $20 (and often $100, $1000, or even $20 or more per month for however long)? It’s greed. Filthy, vile, disgusting greed; it’s the simplest form of putting profits before people. These are the same people that push back against the concept of free software by saying “what the hell are these people going to do with the source code anyway?”

Honestly, that’s a damned shame. That tells me a lot about what is wrong with the current state of technology.

Thoughts on Derek Chauvin’s sentence and its implications

For better or worse, I never wrote a post about the killing of George Floyd when it originally happened. To be fair about it, there was a lot of outrageous stuff happening in 2020, on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, so much that it was difficult to sit down and write a post about any of it.

As a Houston native, George’s death gathered a lot of local publicity, probably almost as much as it did in and around Minneapolis where it happened. I did not follow the trial all that closely. I did express relief upon learning of the guilty verdict.

While I acknowledge that I have been a frequent critic of law enforcement and the attorneys representing the public (DAs, etc), it is not lost on me that their respective jobs are difficult and potentially dangerous. Despite what may look like a bash-fest on law enforcement and those who work with them, I have tried to reserve my criticism for the most egregious and inexcusable violations of the public trust: shooting and killing defenseless animals (again), “fratboy” games regarding jury trials, law enforcement officers being told to ignore subpoenas, questionable speed traps (that don’t enhance safety, but instead destroy trust in the police), abuse of “official business” parking placards (especially with expired registration/inspection), and likely others I’m not remembering or able to find right now.

The senseless death of George Floyd, that Derek Chauvin caused for whatever reasons, is one such egregious and inexcusable violation of the public trust. In fact, I’m not even sure those words are enough to adequately describe how I feel about it: putrid, thuggish, and patently devoid of decency would be more fitting. This is, put simply, a criminal act, and the very last thing someone who enforces the law, who the public has trusted to arrest criminals and quash crime, should be doing. At the very least, causing a death like this as a law enforcement official should mean never working in law enforcement ever again–and admittedly, even that doesn’t happen anywhere near often enough.

Which brings me to the next point: is 22½ years enough for Pathetic-Excuse-for-a-Human-Being Chauvin?

It has become unfortunately rare for the miserable excuses for human beings who recklessly or intentionally killing people under the color of law to actually be held accountable for it. With that in mind I gave little thought to Thankfully-No-Longer-Officer Chauvin getting less than the maximum sentence until I sat down to write this post. Per a CBS News article:

In a news conference, the family of George Floyd reacted to the sentencing outside of the Hennepin County Government Center. Brandon Williams, Floyd’s nephew, said Derek Chauvin’s sentencing “is not enough” and that it’s “like a slap in the face to all of us.”

“I won’t celebrate this. I won’t celebrate it at all,” Williams said. “It’s funny that we got justice, but not enough justice.”

Floyd’s aunt, Angela Harrelson, told CBS News that the sentencing is “bittersweet.”

She said the judge was “too lenient” on Chauvin and that his 22 and 1/2 years behind bars is not the maximum sentence that she had hoped for. “I’m not going to let it steal my spirit and destroy my drive to continue to fight for justice,” Harrelson said.

The state’s sentencing guideline was a mere 12½ years, enhanced because Waste-of-Space Chauvin “abused a ‘position of trust and authority’ and displayed a ‘particular cruelty’ toward Floyd” as mentioned elsewhere in the same article.

My hope was for the judge to issue a maximum sentence as well. That said, 22½ years is rather close to the top end. The judge, with that sentence, sends a clear message that those who derelict the duty to serve and protect in such a putrid and vile manner will face accountability, and human decency will prevail in the end, at least as I see it.

The important thing is that with Thug-That-Used-To-Wear-a-Badge Chauvin behind bars, hopefully we can all breathe now.

Rest in power, George Floyd.

Cheating in baseball: the shift from steroids to…

As a lifelong baseball fan, it troubles me at the amount of cheating in the sport that is coming to light. The Mitchell Report almost got me to quit following baseball for good; as it was, my return to baseball fandom was slow but complete long before the historic World Series of 2017 when the Houston Astros finally took it all in seven games against the Los Angeles Dodgers (unfortunately, that season was the subject of a cheating scandal itself).

A recent Sports Illustrated article highlighted a surprising form of cheating in baseball. As the title suggests, it relates to ball doctoring. Now, ball doctoring has been banned in MLB for an entire century. At least that’s what the rules say. As to whether or not they are being enforced, that’s another story. The epidemic of “sticky stuff” has pushed batting averages down. Should the trend continue, we may see another “dead ball” era (if we are not there already).

A few select quotes from the article, to highlight just how big the problem is:

“This should be the biggest scandal in sports,” says another major league team executive.

(Given baseball’s past scandals, this says a lot by iteslf.)

An AL reliever, who says he uses a mixture of sunscreen and rosin, recalls a spring-training meeting in 2019 in which the team’s pitching coach told the group, “A lot of people around the league are using sticky stuff to make their fastballs have more lift. And if you’re not using it, you should consider it, because you’re kind of behind.”

(Players have used similar logic to justify steroid use, in the pre-Mitchell Report era.)

“It’s so blatant,” says the AL manager. “It’s a big f— you. Like, what are you gonna do about it?”

(i.e. it shows disrespect for the game and, really, a lack of sportsmanship/ethics.)

“If you want to talk about getting balls in play and kind of readjusting the balance of pitching and offense, I think it’s a huge place to start,” says an NL reliever who says he does not apply anything to the baseball because he believes that is cheating. “Because it seems to have created these basically impossible-to-hit pitches.”

(Whoever this pitcher is, thanks for actually having a sense of ethics and not cheating.)

For hitters, all this suddenly acquired extra movement is catastrophic. What was an elite spin rate in 2018 is now average. The added spin means that the average four-seam fastball drops nearly two inches fewer this year than it did in ’18, according to Statcast, making it appear to hitters as if it’s rising.

“It is frustrating because there’s rules in this game,” says [Florida Marlins outfielder Adam] Duvall. “I feel like I’ve always been a guy that’s played by them, and I expect that of others, too.”

I think Adam’s quote, the last one above, is perhaps the most telling and the best summary of what’s going on with regard to “sticky stuff”. What is the point of having rules if you aren’t going to enforce them? If ball doctoring is against the rules, then MLB needs to take decisive action. If, on the other hand, “sticky stuff” is now the new normal and MLB is not going to consider it cheating, then it’s time to take the rule out of the rulebook (not what I’d really prefer as a baseball fan, but at least the rulebook would match reality).

Though it does look like maybe MLB is going to do something about it, per this quote from the article:

In March, the league sent a memo to teams to warn them that it would begin studying the problem, collecting those baseballs for analysis and using spin rate data to identify potential users of foreign substances.

Unfortunately “studying the problem” starting in March means we probably won’t see any action taken until close to the end of this season, if not 2022. But it’s a start. Maybe it means we’ll still have the prohibition on ball doctoring (spitballs, “sticky stuff”, or whatever) for decades to come. And once again, it will actually mean something rather than being a line in the rulebook that pitchers ignore.

Baseball is most fun to watch when there’s a comfortable balance between offense and defense. As a fan, I will admit I’m a bit biased towards good offense over good defense, but the reality is watching a game of “gone home run” gets as boring as a scoreless game that goes into extra innings. I’m okay with the trend shifting away from crazy offense if it happens naturally. If it’s a result of blatant cheating by pitchers, that’s a problem. It gets people to question the integrity of the game, and that’s potentially disastrous.

A case of censorship on Memorial Day in Ohio

WKYC reports on a censorship incident in Hudson, Ohio, at a Memorial Day observance. From the article:

Organizers of a Memorial Day ceremony turned off a speaker’s microphone when the former U.S. Army officer began talking about how freed Black slaves had honored fallen soldiers soon after the Civil War.

And now the American Legion of Ohio is calling for the resignations of the two people responsible.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Barnard Kemter tells 3News he thought it was an audio glitch at first, but it was no glitch at all. His microphone was purposely muted for several minutes.

Kemter said he included the story in his speech because he wanted to share the history of how Memorial Day originated. But organizers of the ceremony said that part of the speech was not relevant to the program’s theme of honoring the city’s veterans.

The story goes on to elaborate on how the retired colonel was asked to change certain portions of the speech, presumably the ones that occurred while his microphone was muted. To Barnard’s credit, he claims not to have gotten notice he was asked to edit–or perhaps I should say censor–part of his speech, and the city officials he talked to advised him to make no changes.

The particularly obscene and vile part of this censorship is that it was about African American former slaves and their role in the first Memorial Day (or as it was called then, Decoration Day) observances. That effectively makes this a racist incident, especially since Hudson prides itself as the home of an abolitionist and part of the underground railroad.

It’s a slap in the face to the people who strive to make this world a better place for everyone regardless of the color of their skin. Thankfully, something will be done about the people who decided to cut the microphone and silence what may well have been the most important part of the speech. I appreciate that the former colonel gave the organizers the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes the answer really is that such a malevolent act of censorship was done on purpose.

Violence, hockey, and the NHL’s leadership

I can’t believe what I just read over the past few days.

I don’t post about hockey that often. I’m technically a Vegas Golden Knights fan, though I will sometimes root for the Colorado Avalanche. What I’m writing about today involves neither of those teams, but is still very worrisome for the future of professional ice hockey.

Some five years and change ago, I wrote two pieces about Raffi Torres, one right after his last suspension for a dirty hit in a preseason game, the next some months later after finding out what happened to him. (Torres wound up retiring in 2016 November, a few months after the second post; I didn’t have anything new to add at that time.

Now, another incident has come up. Actually, because of how badly the NHL has handled this, it’s exploded into a huge controversy and set new NHL records for fighting. I speak of the recent incident involving Tom Wilson of the New York Rangers in a game against the Washington Capitals on May 3 (Monday).

This article from CBS Sports has a nice timeline of the events (I’ve left all the links intact):

  • May 3, 2nd period: Tom Wilson injures [Artemi] Panarin, and punches [Pavel] Buchnevich down on the ice
  • May 3, end of 3rd period: Rangers officially eliminated from playoff contention
  • May 3, postgame: Rangers coach David Quinn said Wilson crossed a line, Mika Zibanejad says the Caps player didn’t have “respect for the game and for the players”
  • May 4: Rangers release statement saying [NHL’s head of the Department of Player Safety George] Parros is “unfit to continue in his current role”
  • May 5, less than 5 hours before game time: Rangers fire Davidson and Gorton. Chris Drury is set to take over both positions
  • May 5, less than a second after the opening whistle: Three fights break out between Caps and Rangers players. Six fights would happen before the five-minute mark, including one between Brendan Smith and Wilson
  • May 5, 1st period: Wilson leaves with an upper-body injury, Caps PR Twitter account gets ratioed with schadenfreude-hungry Rangers fans, and everyone makes the same joke on Twitter
  • May 5, 2nd period: Rangers honor their injured teammate by refusing to put any effort on the ice, go down 3-0. Buchnevich gets a five minute major for cross-checking Anthony Mantha in the face, and Zdeno Chara gets a 10-minute misconduct penalty
  • May 5, 3rd period: Bit less eventful on the pushing and shoving front. Rangers scored two, and T.J. Oshie recorded a hat trick in the first game since his father’s death. Caps won, 4-2

Also of note is that the NHL fined the Rangers $250,000 (that’s 50 times what Tom Wilson was fined) for making that statement regarding George Parros. While it is a nominally subjective statement, just about every objective review of the facts shows that it makes no sense for Tom Wilson to have gotten off with only a fine and no suspension. This is a player who has been suspended multiple times in the past, and who in any other major sports league would be looking at much more severe consequences.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has the brass balls to come out and say this regarding the fine (quotes from the previous article above):

Public comments of the nature issued by the Rangers that were personal in nature and demeaning of a League executive will not be tolerated. While we don’t expect our Clubs to agree with every decision rendered by the Department of Player Safety, the extent to which the Rangers expressed their disagreement was unacceptable.

It is terribly unfair to question George Parros’ professionalism and dedication to his role and the Department of Player Safety.

My response to this: It is terribly–no, that doesn’t do it justice. It is downright obscenely and egregiously unfair to the Rangers, Artemi Panarin, and Pavel Buchnevich to basically let Tom Wilson get away with such a blatant disregard for player safety. It is a joke that the NHL even has a Department of Player Safety if the person heading that department can’t do his damn job and suspend players who do things like this and pose a danger to the rule-abiding players on the ice.

I’m absolutely disgusted. This is a failure in leadership on the part of the NHL, pure and simple.

George Parros needs to go. Clearly, this is someone who can’t do his job and protect rule-abiding players by issuing appropriate penalties to the players committing clearly malicious, dangerous, and rule-prohibited acts. Actually, Gary Bettman needs to go, too, if the team that justly criticizes such a blatant miscarriage of justice gets a ridiculous quarter-million-dollar fine for what the rest of the sports world can clearly see is justified. And Tom Wilson probably needs to go too, or at the very least massively lean up his act before he follows Raffi Torres out the retirement door. Those kind of attacks on other players are unacceptable. A mere $5,000 fine is getting off way too easy (basically, one notch below getting away with it outright).