Scribble, scribble, scribble

I suppose this is what they call a blog. Except that blogs are supposed to be updated more often than this is.

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< January 2009 >
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Saturday 2009-01-31


Happy birthday, Schubert!

Friday 2009-01-30


(The following rather dull notes on my recent trials and tribulations with the X Window System are mostly here just in case they help someone else having similar difficulties. If you find such things boring, please just ignore them.)

One · I found that certain web pages would send Firefox into a screaming tizzy, overwriting its window with a random tiling of rectangles grabbed from elsewhere on the screen. (The common denominator appeared to be the use of CSS background images. I don't know why.)

I thought at first that the cause might be some interaction between quirks in Firefox and in my (unorthodox) window manager. It turned out, however, that Firefox misbehaved similarly in ion and KDE's window manager. Time to upgrade some stuff and see if that helps.

Two · After upgrading X to the latest version known to the FreeBSD ports system, namely version 7.4 (server version 1.5.3), X would not start up:

MGA(0): Unable to map BAR 0. Invalid argument (22)

Apparently lots of people have had this problem when trying to run a dual-head setup, but I have only one head. (Er, that is, only one monitor.)

It turns out that this is a bug in's Matrox driver: at various points it maps some memory and unmaps it again, and in one case it's possible for its idea of the size of its framebuffer to change in between the mapping and the unmapping; it gets confused, fails to unmap the memory, and then breaks the next time it tries to map it again. This bug was fixed more than a year ago, but for some doubtless excellent reason the release in the FreeBSD ports system is ancient, and in any case I only discovered that the bug had already been fixed after finding and fixing it myself.

Three · So, then my keyboard and mouse wouldn't work. There appear to have been two separate problems. The first is that they weren't being detected automatically when X thought they should be; adding

Option "AllowEmptyInput" "off"

to the ServerLayout section of my config file fixed that, though I'm sure that's not the right solution. Then it transpired that in the upgrade process the keyboard and mouse drivers (xf86-input-keyboard, xf86-input-mouse) had been built against the old version of the X server code. Forcing those to be rebuilt solved the problem. The FreeBSD ports system, convenient though it is, doesn't appear to have any way to express the fact "Any time you rebuild this port, you must also rebuild these others even if the versions you built before are still the latest versions".

Four · X was refusing to use the 1600x1200 resolution I wanted, preferring 1280x960. Since my monitor is an LCD panel whose native resolution is in fact 1600x1200, this was suboptimal. So, it turns out that if you put

Option "ModeDebug" "true"

into the Device section for your video card, your X log file contains a brief explanation of why each mode got rejected. It turns out that, for reasons I still don't understand, X was setting a maximum width and height for my display, and they were too small. I'm absolutely certain that what I've done to work around this is the wrong solution, but it works OK for me: I've put

Virtual 1600 1200

in each Display subsection of my config file.

Bletch · After 25 years of X, and 22 of X11, surely it should all be easier than this.

Anyway, Firefox no longer garbles those web pages; I don't know whether it's the X upgrade that fixed it, or something else that needed upgrading along the way. Yak successfully shaved.

Sunday 2009-01-25


Brief reviews of a few books I've read recently but don't feel like taking the time to write up properly:

Nation, by Terry Pratchett  ·  His latest; not a Discworld book. Pratchett was recently diagnosed with a horrible brain disorder. So it's natural (if callous) to ask: Does it show? The answer, I'm glad to say, is that it doesn't, not at all. Nation is a very enjoyable book, and doesn't read at all as if it was written by someone whose mind is going. It's inventive, and fun, and sometimes moving, and sometimes thought-provoking. Don't go expecting it to be like the Discworld books; it isn't. (In particular, it isn't the gag-fest that many of the earlier ones are.)

The myth of the rational voter, by Bryan Caplan  ·  Brief and unfair summary: Voters disagree a lot with economists on matters of economics, in consistent ways. This shows that they are severely irrational, because economists are unlikely to be badly wrong. Therefore, economists working on political issues, who have long consistently assumed that voters are on some level basically rational, are badly wrong.

Seriously, though, Caplan makes a pretty plausible argument that voters are systematically wrong about all sorts of important things; this is hardly surprising, at least not to cynical ol' me. He concludes from this that we need less democracy rather than more, and in particular (e.g.) that we shouldn't try to increase turnout because bothering to vote correlates with some things that correlate with thinking more like an economist. Nor should we worry if much real power is in the hands of businesses rather than politicians, for that effectively gives the power to markets, and markets do better than governments. In general, it seems he thinks that it would be better if richer, better educated, smarter people had more political power. We needn't worry that such people will vote for their own interests and thereby screw the already-underprivileged even worse than they are already screwed, because (he says) there's evidence that people vote for what they think right and not generally in their own selfish interest.

It seems to me that that last bit is absolutely critical; and that its truth is most likely highly dependent on (1) the very idea of democracy, with all the noble and possibly unrealistic sentiments that surround it, and (2) the fact that at present the privileged don't have absolutely all the political power. Therefore, although he may possibly be Repulsive but Right about the shortcomings of democracy and the likely short-term consequences of having a bit less of it, I suspect that in the longer term his faith in the reliability of markets and the virtues of the privileged is Wromantic but Wrong.

Ten moral paradoxes, by Saul Smilansky  ·  Underwhelming; Smilansky is, I think, too ready to call something a paradox when I'd just call it "mildly surprising" or "inconvenient" or "ironic". But aside from Smilansky's tendency to exaggerate the paradoxicality of the things he writes about, there are some nice things to think about here.

Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies  ·  The newspaper industry, says Davies, is hopelessly corrupt: just about all newspapers are now owned by people whose only interest is in maximizing their profits, which means that reporters have no time to research their stories properly and check their facts, and in any case are required to focus on whatever will sell best and cause least trouble; the inevitable result is a press corps easily manipulated by PR firms, governments, and others; so we far too easily see a journalistic consensus that lavishly fails to match reality. This last is what he calls "Flat Earth news". Davies isn't afraid to name names. It all seems pretty convincing, but of course I've got little more reason to trust him than to trust any other journalist on any other occasion...

Saturday 2009-01-17


In case anyone was wondering, the Gareth McCaughan who recently killed his friend in a car crash is not me. It seems a fair bet that we're related somehow, but I have no idea how; I don't think I've heard of any other Gareth McCaughan before.

Thursday 2009-01-08


In our front garden -- presumably having blown in from someone's rubbish bin -- there is one part of a piece of paper that has been torn in two. On it are the final portions of two words in very large capitals, one immediately above the other. The leftmost letter in each word is only partly present, but in each case there is no doubt what that letter is.


You'd think the two words might go together somehow, but I'm having trouble thinking of any good candidates. Uncial? Provincial? Norma? Korma? The nearest thing to a sensible combination I can come up with is "financial pro-forma", but that's not terribly impressive.

Monday 2009-01-05


(Two isn't-my-child-cute entries out of the last three. Sorry. I promise that the next will be something else.)

So, anyway, Heather was counting for some reason or other, and she went: one, two, ..., twelve, thirteen, fourteen, sixteen, sixteen, sixteen, sixteen, sixteen ...

Presumably a broken linked-list pointer triggered by overflowing a 4-bit counter somewhere.

I don't know how you reboot a toddler.