Archive for December, 2007

Cheap geek: Utilities

December 11, 2007

This is the fifth and, I think, final post in my series on free software. Today’s topic is utilities: all those specialized applications that handle small but important tasks. Since I am unable to impose much order on the set of utilities I have chosen to mention, I’ll simply launch into it.

Data back-up: A few years ago I had a major failure on my sole hard drive, and I suddenly found myself without access to the important files I had been storing on my computer. It took a great deal of work and expense to recover them, and I vowed that thereafter I would take care to maintain a back-up copy of these important documents. For this purpose, I use a free utility called SyncBack Freeware. It can be easily configured to copy files to an external drive on a regular schedule. I have it scheduled to run once each day.

Backing up to an external drive protects one against disk failure, but it doesn’t protect against theft or fire. Consequently, I also back up my files over the Internet to a remote location. There are a number of services available for this purpose; I use Mozy. Mozy provides a small application that is installed locally and runs on a user-defined schedule. It encrypts all the files selected for back up and only transfers those that have changed since it last ran. Since the files are stored remotely on Mozy’s servers, you may have qualms about backing up personal information. The company promises to encrypt and securely store your files, but if you don’t trust their technology, simply use their service (as I do) in conjunction with SyncBack: configure SyncBack to encrypt the files during the local back-up, and then have Mozy transfer those already-encrypted files to the remote server! The company provides up to 2 GB of space for free; thereafter they charge $5/month for unlimited space. It’s a great service.

System monitoring: There are a number of different aspects of my system that I like to monitor. For my disk space usage I use a wonderful little tool called WinDirStat. It crawls the directory structure of the disk, summing the space consumed by each directory, sub-directory, and file, and then displays the results in a convenient (and surprisingly beautiful) graphical format. It permits one to very easily identify not only the total disk space in use, but also which directories and files are occupying the most space.

To monitor RAM usage and CPU speed, I use a tool called SysTrayMeter. It puts a small icon into the Windows tray that shows what percentage of the system’s RAM is being used, as well as how hard the CPU is working. If you’ve ever wondered why your system is so slow – at a greater level of detail than “because it’s Windows” – then this could be a really useful diagnostic tool.

My Internet service provider limits my bandwidth use each month, and I must pay a fine if I exceed the cap. This is irritating, of course, but has been made less so by a little utility called BitMeter. It produces statistics on bandwidth use over the past day, week, and month, allowing me to ration my use and avoid the fines. Here’s a free utility that is actually saving me money!

File sharing: Have you ever wanted to share a large file with a friend, but didn’t know how to do so? Gmail now permits file sizes of up to 20 MB, which is large enough for most purposes, but what about when one wants to send a large batch of photos, or a video? One option is to use an instant messaging agent, such as that which comes bundled with Skype. Usually you can drag and drop files onto the agent and they will be transferred to the other party. I’m not sure how well that method would work with very large files, however. To solve the problem, I use something called Pando. Pando establishes a peer-to-peer network between your system, the Pando servers, and any party with whom you wish to share a file. Once the network is established, your friend simply downloads the file from your system to theirs. The file is also uploaded to the Pando servers, so I wouldn’t use it to transfer personal information unless it is first encrypted. The software works great, and can be used to transfer files up to 1 GB in size.

Screen capture: I never realized how frequently I would want to capture portions of my screen until I had a good screen capture program. I use PrintKey 2000, a very simple utility that either takes a snapshot of the whole screen, or permits you to select a rectangular region for capture. One click and the image is transferred to the clipboard, from which it can be pasted wherever you choose.

System maintenance: CCleaner (formerly Crap Cleaner) is a keen little application for freeing up system resources. It has a few different types of functionality. On one hand, it will scour the system for temporary files, defunct registry keys, orphaned file associations, and so forth, and clean them out. On the other hand, it provides a clean, simple interface for selecting what applications will start when Windows boots. It also has a powerful uninstaller, for tracking down and removing all those utilities that you tried but didn’t like. CCleaner is a very useful piece of software.

Desktop management: Linux users are accustomed to the idea of having multiple workspaces on a single desktop, but Windows users typically have to crowd all their open windows onto one screen. Personally I despise cluttered screens, so the discovery of Virtual Dimension came as happy news. It allows you to define multiple workspaces and switch between them with keyboard shortcuts. I don’t know how I ever got along without it.

File conversion: Zamzar is not an application that you install on your system, but rather a free, web-based service. Upload a file in one format (.doc, for instance), and download it in another (.pdf, for instance). The service is quick, and in my experience works well. Needless to say, don’t use it to convert documents containing private information.

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That is a fairly complete list of the utilities I use and appreciate. As always, I welcome comments or recommendations.

In closing, I will mention a few good sites where you can obtain free software. One is FileHippo, though note that they offer shareware as well as freeware, and shareware is generally not free. They also serve up plenty of beta versions, which could be buggy, so exercise good judgment. Another popular site is download.com, but it has some of the same problems as FileHippo, and I find it less well organized. A great site for getting specific recommendations for free or cheap software is Tech Support Alert. Gizmo Williams, the lord of the Tech Support Alert roost, is quite thorough in evaluating software, and many of the applications I use are recommended by him.

Happy free computing!

Sunday night Advent carol

December 9, 2007

“Once in Royal David’s City” is the processional hymn for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. It’s a hymn that I love, both for its superb musical setting and for its homely, endearing text. (I can overlook the closing lines, in which that famous English emotional reserve manages to convert the heavenly saints in glory into a white-robed group who “wait around”.) This recording was made in 1994 at King’s College, Cambridge. The young treble, God bless him, is named Sam Landman. (Duration: about 5 minutes. Don’t neglect to listen through; the descant in the final stanza is stupendous.)

Merry Christmas from the CBC

December 8, 2007

This evening the CBC, Canada’s tax-funded national broadcaster, will repeat a documentary that first aired earlier this week. The programme is called “The Pagan Christ”, and it is based on a 2004 book by Tom Harpur, a Canadian Anglican clergyman who holds to a version of esoteric Christianity. I have not read his book — after all, life is short — nor have I seen the documentary — after all, I have no television — but yesterday a colleague’s comments about the programme provoked me to do a little poking around to see what I could discover about Harpur and his enthusiasms.

Apparently, he believes that Christianity was originally a wholly mythical theosophy that later generations, in the third and fourth centuries, wrongly (and perhaps intentionally) took literally. He believes that Jesus never existed as a historical figure. In his view Christianity is properly a manifestation of some primordial gnosis that is also manifest in Egyptian religion. He points to various analogies between aspects of ancient Egyptian religion and Christianity as evidence.

You might think that such views would prevent his being an Anglican clergyman in good standing, but it seems that these days one can’t be too heretical to be an Anglican clergyman in good standing.

Most of Harpur’s historical views are based on the writings of two autodidact “Egyptologists”, Gerald Massey and Alvin Boyd Kuhn, both thoroughly disconnected from mainstream scholarship. From the looks of it, Harpur’s project is something like an analogue in the religious sphere of the “creation scientists” in the scientific: selective choice of evidence, undisciplined interpretation, lack of engagement with mainstream scholarship, maverick bucking of the establishment, and so forth.

It’s not easy to find scholarly discussions, favourable or unfavourable, of Harpur’s claims – he is that obscure – but here are a few:

  • Harpur’s colleague at the University of Toronto responds briefly (pp.12-13).
  • A History News Network article gives some hearsay opinions from historians.
  • Bede has a series of articles about the general theory of the non-existence of Jesus.

If you know of any other serious discussions of his ideas, let me know.

By all accounts, Harpur is a fringe figure. The fact that the CBC has chosen to make a documentary based on his ideas says more about the fishbowl of Canadian intellectual life than it does about the merit of his theories; the fact that the programme is airing on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception might seem like a deliberate affront to Christians, but that would give the CBC credit for knowing about the feast, which is probably not warranted. Sometimes one just can’t expect too little from our nation’s elite.

Then again, this programme is almost certainly airing now as a contribution to the biannual “debunk Christianity” tradition, which comes around every Christmas and Easter. Remember the James Ossuary? The lost family tomb of Jesus? The da Vinci Code? The Gospel of Judas? These things come, have their sensational splash in the media, and then go. The serious scholarship, which shows up the shoddy arguments, goes on quietly behind the scenes and rarely gets much coverage. Such is the nature of our media. I was pleased, therefore, to see an article this week in the New York Times — not usually a friend to traditional religion — demonstrating that the scandalous interpretation of the Gospel of Judas which was trumpeted last year was based on a faulty translation of the Coptic text. So dies another revolution.

Piper at the gates of dawn

December 7, 2007

The Wind in the Willows ( 1908 )
Kenneth Grahame (Everyman’s Library, 1993; A. Rackham, illus.)
249 p. First reading.

Better late than never. I read many books when I was a child, but, with the exception of The Chronicles of Narnia, few were of high quality. Certainly I’ve little interest now in returning to the vast majority of them. I am aware, however, that there are children’s books to which readers return with pleasure for their entire lives. In my recent reading of a biography of C.S. Lewis I learned that The Wind in the Willows was such a book for him, and knowing that he was a sensitive, discriminating reader I decided that I must read it for myself.

It was a good decision. The book has so many strengths that it hardly needs me to sing its praises. The writing is so beautiful, the comedy so natural, the camaraderie so tangible and winning that I was enthralled from the first pages. I particularly loved the scene in which Mole and Rat return at Christmas to Mole’s burrow and host an impromptu feast for the young field-mice who come caroling. I hope I will never forget Grahame’s depiction of those short, piping youngsters, perched self-consciously under the gaze of Rat, their wee legs swinging nervously.

A peculiarity of the book is the manner in which Grahame blurs the boundaries between the animal and human worlds. It is more than simply the conventional device of talking animals, for when Mr. Toad dons a bonnet he can pass without difficulty as an old washerwoman. This kind of inconsistency, if that is what it is, shouldn’t work, but somehow it does, and does well.

**

If there are other children’s books as wonderful as this one, I would certainly like to know about them. But are there? I truly don’t know. So here’s a question: if you could choose just a few books to give to a child, what would they be?

Feast of St. Nicholas

December 6, 2007

Sainte Nicholaes, Godes druth,
tymbre us faiere scoone hus.
At thi birth, at thi bare,
Sainte Nicholaes, bring us wel thare.

— St. Godric (c.1170) —

Seint Nicholas was borne in the citee of Patras and was come of noble and riche kinrede. His fader was named Epiphanus and his moder Iohanna. He was begoten in the furst floure of there age, and sithe after they lived in chastite and ladden an heuenly liff. The furst day that he was born, whanne he was bathed he dressed hym vpright in the basin, and he wold neuer take the briste buy onys on the Friday and onys in the Wednisday, and in his tendre age he eschewed the vanitees of yonge children. He haunted gladli to the chirche, and after that he beganne to vnderstond holi scripture he putte it in werke after his powere. . .

And whanne the bisshop of the citee of Myra deied, thanne the bisshoppes assembelid hem togedre to purveie a bisshop to that chirche. And ther was one among other a bisshop of gret auctorite, and that same bisshop herde same nyght a voys that said to hym atte the houre of matenys that he schuld take good hede to the gates of the chirche, and that persone that furst schuld entre into the chirche, and hight Nicholas, that he schuld take hym and sacre hym as for bysshop. So it fel that atte the houre of matenys bi purveiaunce of oure Lord Nicholas come furst, and anone the bisshop toke hym and asked hym what he hight, and he anone mekely ansuered and said: “Nicholas, servaunt of youre holynesse.” Thanne with gret ioye he brought hym to his felawes, and thei sette hym in his chayer. And like as he was meke and vertues afore, so he was after, and encresed in vertues and graces.

– Jacobus de Voragine, The Gilte Legende
(translation c.1440)

The Consecration of St. Nicholas - Paolo Veronese

The Consecration of St. Nicholas – Paolo Veronese

Education and the home

December 4, 2007

“The loss of the gripping inner life vouchsafed those who were nurtured by the Bible must be primarily attributed not to our schools or political life, but to the family, which, with all its rights to privacy, has proved unable to maintain any content of its own. The dreariness of the family’s spiritual landscape passes belief. It is as monochrome and unrelated to those who pass through it as are the barren steppes frequented by nomads who take their mere subsistence and move on. The delicate fabric of the civilization into which the successive generations are woven has unraveled, and children are raised, not educated.

I am speaking here not of the unhappy, broken homes that are such a prominent part of American life, but the relatively happy ones, where husbands and wife like each other and care about their children, very often unselfishly devoting the best parts of their lives to them. But they have nothing to give their children in the way of a vision of the world, of high models of action or profound sense of connection with others. The family requires the most delicate mixture of nature and convention, of human and divine, to subsist and perform its function. Its base is merely bodily reproduction, but its purpose is the formation of civilized human beings. In teaching a language and providing names for all things, it transmits an interpretation of the order of the whole of things. It feeds on books, in which the little polity — the family — believes, which tell about right and wrong, good and bad and explain why they are so. The family requires a certain authority and wisdom about the ways of the heavens and of men. The parents must have knowledge of what has happened in the past, and prescriptions for what ought to be, in order to resist the philistinism or the wickedness of the present. Ritual and ceremony are now often said to be necessary for the family, and they are now lacking. The family, however, has to be a sacred unity believing in the permanence of what it teaches, if its ritual and ceremony are to express and transmit the wonder of the moral law, which it alone is capable of transmitting and which makes it special in a world devoted to the humanly, all too humanly, useful. When that belief disappears, as it has, the family has, at best, a transitory togetherness. People sup together, play together, travel together, but they do not think together. Hardly any homes have any intellectual life whatsoever, let alone one that informs the vital interests of life. Educational TV marks the high tide for family intellectual life.

The cause of this decay of the family’s traditional role as the transmitter of tradition is the same as that of the decay of the humanities: nobody believes that the old books do, or even could, contain the truth. So books have become, at best, “culture,” i.e., boring. . . . In the United States, practically speaking, the Bible was the only common culture, one that united simple and sophisticated, rich and poor, young and old, and — as the very model for a vision of the order of the whole of things, as well as the key to the rest of Western art, the greatest works of which were in one way or another responsive to the Bible — provided access to the seriousness of books. With its gradual and inevitable disappearance, the very idea of such a total book and the possibility and necessity of world-explanation is disappearing. And fathers and mothers have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise — as priests, prophets or philosophers are wise. Specialized competence and success are all that they can imagine. Contrary to what is commonly thought, without the book even the idea of the order of the whole is lost. . .

Along with the constant newness of everything and the ceaseless moving from place to place, first radio, then television, have assaulted and overturned the privacy of the home, the real American privacy, which permitted the development of a higher and more independent life within democratic society. Parents can no longer control the atmosphere of the home and have even lost the will to do so. With great subtlety and energy, television enters not only the room, but also the tastes of old and young alike, appealing to the immediately pleasant and subverting whatever does not conform to it. Nietzsche said the newspaper had replaced the prayer in the life of the modern bourgeois, meaning that the busy, the cheap, the ephemeral, had usurped all that remained of the eternal in his daily life. Now television has replaced the newspaper. It is not so much the low quality of the fare provided that is troubling. It is much more the difficulty of imagining any order of taste, any way of life with pleasures and learning that naturally fit the lives of the family’s members, keeping itself distinct from the popular culture and resisting the visions of what is admirable and interesting with which they are bombarded from within the household itself.

The improved education of the vastly expanded middle class in the last half-century has also weakened the family’s authority. Almost everyone in the middle class has a college degree, and most have an advanced degree of some kind. Those of us who can look back to the humble stations of our parents or grandparents, who never saw the inside of an institution of higher learning, can have cause for self-congratulation. But — inevitably but — the impression that our general populace is better educated depends on an ambiguity in the meaning of the word education, or a fudging of the distinction between liberal and technical education. A highly trained computer specialist need not have had any more learning about morals, politics or religion than the most ignorant of persons. All to the contrary, his narrow education, with the prejudices and the pride accompanying it, and its literature which comes to be and passes away in a day and uncritically accepts the premises of current wisdom, can cut him off from the liberal learning that simpler folk used to absorb from a variety of traditional sources . . . . When a youngster like Lincoln sought to educate himself, the immediately available obvious things for him to learn were the Bible, Shakespeare and Euclid. Was he really worse off than those who try to find their way through the technical smorgasbord of the current school system, with its utter inability to distinguish between important and unimportant in any way other than by the demands of the market?

My grandparents were ignorant people by our standards, and my grandfather held only lowly jobs. But their home was spiritually rich because all the things done in it, not only what was specifically ritual, found their origin in the Bible’s commandments, and their explanation in the Bible’s stories and the commentaries on them, and had their imaginative counterparts in the seeds of the myriad of exemplary heroes. My grandparents found reasons for the existence of their family and the fulfilling of their duties in serious writings, and they interpreted their special sufferings with respect to a great and ennobling past. Their simple faith and practices linked them to great scholars and thinkers who dealt with the same material, not from outside or from an alien perspective, but believing as they did, while simply going deeper and providing guidance. There was a respect for real learning, because it had a felt connection with their lives. This is what a community and a history mean, a common experience inviting high and low into a single body of belief.

I do not believe that my generation, my cousins who have been educated in the American way, all of whom are M.D.s or Ph.D.s, have any comparable learning. When they talk about heaven and earth, the relations between men and women, parents and children, the human condition, I hear nothing but cliches, superficialities, the material of satire. I am not saying anything so trite as that life is fuller when people have myths to live by. I mean rather than life based on the Book is closer to the truth, that it provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things. Without the great revelations, epics and philosophies as part of our natural vision, there is nothing to see out there, and eventually little left inside. The Bible is not the only means to furnish a mind, but without a book of similar gravity, read with the gravity of the potential believer, it will remain unfurnished.”

– Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind