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To be rational in anything is great praise. [Jane Austen, in a letter to her sister Cassandra]
Thursday, November 6. 2014
The Debian users' list currently has reams and reams of posts, mostly furious, about the change to systemd. A switch to BSD is quite often suggested as an escape route but that wasn't my reason for thinking about it. I've got used to systemd on Arch, and although I don't find it better than sysvinit I can live with it. But I like the BSD philosophy. The notion of having the system as an integrated whole rather than a lot of bolted-together packages as in Linux is attractive.
That's why a year ago I installed FreeBSD, with mixed results. The ports system didn't work too well and for this and other reasons I decided to stick with Linux. Recently I had another go with the new version of FreeBSD (10.0), hoping it would be better, but it was if anything worse. Getting X to work was particularly annoying; I did get it running more or less as I wanted it but each time I tried to close it or change to a text terminal it locked up the computer and I needed to do a hard reset. The reviewer on Distrowatch reported problems with X too.
(Why not try PC-BSD, you ask, since that is FreeBSD for the desktop? Because this would install a desktop environment (Gnome, KDE etc.) by default, which I don't want. I'd need to mess around a lot to get things as I want them, so why not start with native FreeBSD?)
I hadn't thought too much about OpenBSD because I supposed it was only of interest to people running servers. Then I chanced to read this article in Distrowatch. It suggested that OpenBSD can, in fact, be useful as a desktop, at least if you don't want anything too fancy (that's me). So I decided to try it out.
OpenBSD was probably the easiest OS to install that I've ever tried. By simply following the defaults I found myself, after about 15 minutes, with a working system including X.
Everything else worked as expected too, including sound, which is often something you have to work on in Linux.
Installing third-party applications such as Firefox was equally easy. OpenBSD does have ports via a scheme borrowed from FreeBSD, but you don't need to use them since all the ported stuff also exists on OpenBSD as packages, and you are encouraged to use those instead of ports. (You only need ports when you want to modify a supplied program.) I found that nearly everything I wanted existed as a package so getting my system into order was pretty easy.
At this point I was even contemplating installing it on all my machines. But of course nothing is ever as simple as it seems at first.
Possible drawbacks with OpenBSD
1. Some of the packages are somewhat out of date. In this respect OpenBSD is different from my preferred Linux distribution (Arch), which is a rolling release giving you rapid updates of all the packages you have installed. Having slightly older versions of things doesn't usually matter, but sometimes it does: e.g. I needed to modify some files made with a later version of Lyx under Linux and these were incompatible with the older version in OpenBSD.
2. Updating OpenBSD itself is different from what you might expect. There is a"release" every 6 months, in May and November, from which you can upgrade your system. There is a "stable" branch which only gets serious errata and security fixes; you have to compile this yourself from source and there's nothing new. There is also a "current" branch, in which the developers post their new code, but following this requires a fair amount of experience and nerve. For the moment I'm sticking with the latest release (5.6). I'll watch out for errata and go to stable if necessary, but I hope it won't be.
3. Some things I want simply don't work on OpenBSD. One of these is the BBC iPlayer, which requires Flash. There is no Flash for OpenBSD and most people who use the system don't want it anyway because of safety considerations. A possible way round this is to use get_iplayer, although unfortunately the BBC seem to be trying to sabotage this valuable program and there is no guarantee that it will go on working indefinitely. Skype is also not available for OpenBSD. It might be possible to get it to work via Linux emulation but I think it would be difficult.
4. My flatbed scanner (Epson v330) needs proprietary software that isn't available for OpenBSD.
5. To get round these and similar difficulties it would seem logical to install OpenBSD and Linux on the same machine and dual boot, but although this is technically possible it's a lot harder to do than you might expect. You are probably better off using at least two machines rather than attempting to dual boot.
6.. Finally, if you want to use OpenBSD you have to be willing to learn a lot of new things. (You might say that's a feature not a drawback since it helps to keep your brain alive!) At first glance OpenBSD is quite similar to Linux but on closer acquaintance numerous differences appear. The OpenBSD folk pride themselves on their documentation and are right to do so, but you need to read it carefully and do a lot of googling rather than ask newbie questions on the mailing lists, which are a lot more technical in tone than those of most Linux flavours. (DaemonForums may be a better place to ask beginner's questions.) Absolute OpenBSD (2nd edition) by Michael Lucas (ISBN-13 978-1-59327-476-4) is certainly worth getting if you decide you want to run OpenBSD regularly on one or more machines.
I like OpenBSD a lot and want to use it as much as possible, but I need to have Linux as well, for the reasons I've described. I have 4 laptops (all Thinkpads of various kinds, mostly bought from Ebay). My desktop has just broken so I'm using the laptops exclusively. At present these are running the following systems and they are kept in sync with unison.
Thinkpad Z61M: OpenBSD
Thinkpad T42: Debian Wheezy
Thinkpad T60: OpenBSD
Thinkpad T60: ArchLinux
Wednesday, October 22. 2014
Colin McGinn is probably best know to the non-specialist reading audience with an interest in philosophy as a leading "mysterian". That is, he thinks that the philosophical difficulty of explaining consciousness is due to inherent limitations in the human mind, which means that it can never be accomplished. But that is not his main topic here.
McGinn tells us that his purpose in writing this book was to explain philosophy in a personal, engaging way. He found that the autobiographical format was the best way of doing this. He thinks that this brings out the drama and excitement of the subject but he has not sought to write a full autobiography and personal topics are included only in so far as they affected his intellectual development. But the tone is quite light generally and McGinn is an engaging writer so the book is very readable. [More]
Sir William Briwerr is writing about his youthful adventures for his grandchildren to read. He was born in 1233, the third son of a knight who held land on the Welsh March. The family he belonged to had come over with William the Conqueror and had once been great, but now it had fragmented owing to the lack of male heirs and William's father held only enough land for one son. So William, once knighted, sets forth to make his fortune. [More]
Monday, October 20. 2014
The death earlier this month of Felix Mann after a long illness marked the end of an era for me, as it no doubt did for many doctors who learnt acupuncture from him in the 1970s. I first met him when I attended his course in 1977. At that time I was interested in oriental ideas and that made me want to learn acupuncture, but I had no idea how to go about it. Then I happened to talk to a consultant who was head of the Migraine Clinic and who had recently done Felix's course. She told me it was worth while, so I registered for it.
The course was held in Felix's consulting rooms in the large house he had bought in Devonshire Place, in the West End of London. It lasted five days. There were fourteen of us. We sat in a semicircle on rather hard chairs while Felix stood in the middle and talked to us. From time to time patients would arrive to tell their stories and be treated. This was what I was expecting, but there was an early surprise.
Before starting the course we were supposed to read Felix's books. At that time they were based on traditional Chinese acupuncture and I don't think that any of us made very much of them. But this didn't matter because the first thing that Felix said to us was "I don't believe this stuff any more."
I have to admit that my initial reaction was disappointment, since, as I've said, it was an interest in Eastern ideas that had prompted me to learn acupuncture in the first place. But it was undoubtedly a relief to hear that I didn't need to struggle with all this complicated esoteric stuff, and later I was very grateful to Felix. Probably I should have come to a similar conclusion eventually, but he saved me a great deal of time. After the course I set up an acupuncture service at The Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine using the methods I had learnt from Felix. Modern medical acupuncture is still one of the main forms of treatment used there.
From our present standpoint in the second decade of the 21st century it is perhaps difficult to realise just how radical Felix's "acupuncture revolution" was. In the late 1950s people thought of acupuncture - if they thought of it at all - wholly in traditional Chinese terms. To describe it in the way he did required Felix to rethink everything he had been taught about acupuncture by all the 'experts' he had encountered.
Felix's acupuncture career
Acupuncture had been practised by quite a number of British doctors in the 1820s but had later fizzled out. By the twentieth century it was virtually unknown here, although it was still used quite extensively in mainland Europe, especially France and Germany. By this time it had become quite traditional, although that had not been the case in the nineteenth century.
As a young doctor Felix travelled abroad to widen his experience; this was easy for him because he was a good linguist and had plenty of contacts. He saw acupuncture being used and was impressed by the results, which made him want to learn it himself. He studied at Montpellier in the south of France and at Munich and Vienna. Later, he even studied Chinese with the help of sinologists in Britain so as to be able to read the classic texts. So his subsequent abandonment of the traditional system wasn't due to lack of knowledge. It was based instead on fresh thinking and exact clinical observation.
By the time I met him in 1977 he had rejected practically all the traditional ideas about acupuncture. He now regarded it as a means of altering the activity of the nervous system and as a treatment that could be explained in terms of the modern understanding of anatomy and physiology. There was no need to talk about qi or yin and yang.
According to his new view, neither acupuncture points nor the so-called meridians exist as they are usually understood. Great precision in locating 'points' is unnecessary; instead we should be thinking of areas. In many cases these could be quite large: for example, in some patients needling anywhere below the knee might have the same effect as using the classic point Liver 3 (Felix's favourite site).
He introduced other departures from tradition as well. One was the use of periosteal (bone) needling, both to treat joint pain such as that due to arthritis and also to produce more generalised effects in a wide area. Another was his recognition of a subset of patients who responded particularly strongly to acupuncture, whom he designated strong reactors. Disorders that usually don't respond to acupuncture might do so in a strong reactor. But if a strong reactor were treated too vigorously the result could be a worsening of the symptoms or a feeling of general malaise lasting for some hours or even days. <
As time went by Felix came to believe that many traditionalists over-treated their patients. Increasingly he favoured very gentle treatment, with the insertion of few needles - sometime only one - and the duration of needling being brief: seldom more than a minute or two and quite often just a few seconds.
While these ideas usually horrified traditionalists they were certainly easier for doctors trained in modern medicine to understand and accept. This was fortunate because more now wanted to learn. Felix had started teaching acupuncture to doctors in the 1960s although at first few came forward to learn. But in the 1970s the numbers increased, partly because attitudes to unorthodox treatments were beginning to change but also because advances in the scientific understanding of pain were making acupuncture seem more comprehensible in modern terms. Another influence was President Nixon's visit to China in 1972, which aroused interest in acupuncture on the part of a number of prominent British and American doctors.
Felix's former students constituted an informal medical acupuncture society. He used to circulate a yearly newsletter and each year, in November, he held an acupuncture meeting in his rooms for 70 doctors. There would be seven or eight speakers, usually including Peter Nathan, a well-known neurologist, and Felix provided an excellent lunch, with wine. Attendance was free to his former students; others paid a small fee which cannot have come even near to covering Felix's expenditure.
In 1980 matters were made more formal when the British Medical Acupuncture Society, constituted mainly by Felix's former students, was founded; he was its first President. It now has over 2000 members.
The fact that the acupuncture practised today by British health professionals is mostly non-traditional is largely thanks to Felix. Outside Britain the change has been more gradual. In much of Europe, apart from Sweden and Portugal, and in North and South America, traditional ideas are still influential. But the journal of the British Medical Acupuncture Society, Acupuncture in Medicine, is now a BMJ publication, so Felix's aim of making acupuncture an accepted form of treatment within mainstream medicine has mostly been accomplished. Perhaps most striking of all is the fact that an increasing number of the papers being submitted to the journal now come from China itself.
Felix wrote several books about his later view of acupuncture. The most important of these was Reinventing Acupuncture: A New Concept of Ancient Medicine. The first edition appeared in 1993 and the second in 2000. Here he described how his understanding of the treatment evolved and gave practical details of his methods. I still dip into it from time to time and continue to be impressed by how much my own experience agrees what he describes. All of us who use acupuncture today in a modern context are deeply indebted to him.
Monday, September 15. 2014
I just received a request for a reprint of one of ny articles. I get these from time to time; strictly speaking I shouldn't send such reprints since they infringe the copyright of the journal, but I used to do it because the requests usually came from third-world countries where people presumably couldn't easily afford the payment.
But not once did any of these correspondents bother to thank me or even acknowledge receipt, which I take ill; it's a lot less trouble for them to reply than it is for me to find the article in question and attach it to my email. So now I no longer reply to such requests, especially when, as in today's case, the requester is a professor at a university hospital in Paris, who could no doubt easily afford the fee to the journal (which probably wouldn't come out of his own pocket anyway).
Saturday, September 13. 2014
Patrick Cockburn is Middle East correspondent for The Independent and is probably the best-informed and most perceptive British commentator on that troubled region. He has previously written three books on the recent history of Iraq. This one provides an up-to-date account of the spectacular rise of ISIS (the "Islamic Caliphate"). [More]
Sunday, August 17. 2014
The subtitle of this book announces a pretty big ambition and Kurzweil is certainly not lacking in self-confidence. His main claim, in brief, is that artificial intelligence is well on its way to producing machines that will more than rival the human brain in terms of performance and which we will regard as conscious beings. He even sets a date by which this will be achieved - 2029. By the 2030s such machines will be so widespread that there will no longer be any serious debate about their status as persons. [More]
Wednesday, August 6. 2014
Many of us have a stereotypical idea of the First Word War, shaped largely by films, books, and even television comedies (Blackadder). We think of it as an immense collective folly that afflicted the whole of Europe, in which millions of brave soldiers were killed or maimed by pig-headed generals who stayed safely at the back out of harm's way (lions led by donkeys). We find it incomprehensible that so many men could serve, willingly in many cases, in the appalling conditions of trench warfare.
In this very readable account Paxman reveals the reality behind the myths that have accumulated around the war. His book is not just a history of what happened during the fighting; it is also a social history of Britain at that time, in which he shows how people came to understand themselves and their country in a different way. Many things we take for granted today - democracy, passports, vegetable allotments, and British Summer Time, for example - had their origins in the war. [More]
Monday, July 21. 2014
The Faculty of Homeopathy is drawing the attention ot supporters to "an excellent article" in The Mail Online.
This link takes you to a page where the actress Michelle Collins, who has appeared in East Enders and Coronation Street, describes how she gave up conventional medicine and moved to homeopathy to help her anxiety and depression. This was successful and she now feels much better.
But what is odd about this recommendation by the Faculty is that the article has an inset with a "Expert View" by Dr Ellie Cannon, who says that she does not reommend homeopathy to her patients because more than 150 trials have failed to show that it works.
I think that Dr Collins gets it exactly right here. Homeopathy is best regarded as a form of psychotherapy. Please see my book Homeopathy in Perspective.
Michelle's endorsement illustrates this extremely well.
Friday, July 18. 2014
I've previously reviewed several books which claim that Jesus did not exist but was a mythical figure (Deconstructing Jesus and The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, by Robert M. Price; The Jesus Puzzle, by Earl Doherty; The Jesus Mysteries, by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy).
Only one of these authors (Price) is a professional scholar in New Testament studies. The great majority of scholars don't take the 'mythicist' position seriously or discuss it in any detail. Ehrman thinks that this is a mistake, because the mythicists' claims attract attention from non-specialist readers. In this book, therefore, he considers the arguments in some detail. At least some of the mythicists do deserve to be taken seriously, he believes, although the more sensationalist representatives of the genre do not; the afore-mentioned Freke and Gandy are in that category. [More]
Wednesday, July 9. 2014
Smolin is a physicist who is probably best known for his theory of the Darwinian evolution of universes. We are invited to picture black holes continually giving birth to new universes, in many of which new black holes will form to spawn further universes in their turn. This process is supposed to be influenced by Darwinian selection to produce universes with more black holes and ever-increasing complexity.
That idea gave a central role to time, and in the present book Smolin takes this further. The idea that time is unreal, an illusion, is ancient and widespread. Truth, justice, scientific laws, and the divine realm are often said to be outside time. This was Plato's view and it was also held by Einstein. Smolin, in contrast, thinks that time is utterly real. In fact, it is the most real aspect of our perception of the world. [More]
Sunday, June 22. 2014
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