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Damages on Netflix

Have you ever watched the TV series Damages?  I’ve been watching it on Netflix.  Usually I watch two episodes a day.  It’s a legal drama, set in New York.  The principal characters are two female lawyers, but the series also features opposing lawyers, investigators, reporters, business owners, the police, and government agents.  It does have some similarities to the series The Good Wife, but it has distinct differences as well.

In Damages, everybody can be crooked, although some people are more crooked than others.  Everybody lies.  Some are treacherous.  We can’t tell if the statement somebody made is the truth or a lie.  Everybody has hidden motives for what they say or do.  Almost everybody gives in to coersion, changing their testimony as a result.  One of the attractions of this series is the interplay of various characters as they respond to unexpected events.

It does have spurts of violence.  Many characters are attacked.  Some are killed outright.  Some recover from the attacks.  Some of them want retribution, but some never change their ways.

Dreams are prominent in this TV series.  Characters sometimes have conversations with dead people.  Sometimes bizarre events turn out to be dreams, although it may take several episodes before this is revealed.

Mysteries are piled on mysteries.  The narrative jumps around in time, sometimes forwards and sometimes backwards.  We only see glimpses of critical clues, with more being shown in subsequent episodes.  The last episode of a season is the only one that tells you what really happened.

I find this show compelling.  I’m drawn into the mystery.  I keep wondering what will happen next.  Most of the time, it’s a surprise to me, something that I never expected.  I have one more season to go on Netflix.


Snow on Victoria Day

It’s been raining all day, getting heavier as the day goes on.  The temperature is dropping.  The wind is strong and gusting.  Yesterday it was so beautiful I just had to get out for a walk.  It was warm with blue skies and sunshine, and light winds.  I enjoyed my walk.  I even went farther than I intended to.  I walk at a brisk pace.  I was overheated and looking forward to a cool glass of lemonade when I got home.  The house was warm enough from the sun that the furnace never came on.  That was yesterday.

Today, it was cool and raining.  Tomorrow is Victoria Day.  The forecast is for plunging temperatures with snow and freezing rain, starting tonight.  Winds are supposed to be very strong and gusting.  What’s going on?  This is May.  Victoria Day is supposed to be warm.  It’s supposed to be the beginning of summer.  Now I’m expecting to see snow all over the ground when I look out the window tomorrow morning.

They tell us that a Colorado low is coming through tomorrow.  Why does the weather always come from someplace else?  Sometimes we get an Alberta clipper.  Come to think of it, my grandfather used to listen to the weather reports from a Regina radio station so he could tell what was coming our way.  I suppose it really does come from someplace else.

People always say “don’t plant your garden until after Victoria Day”.  Of course that always used to be the 24th of May.  This year, Victoria Day is almost a week early.  Now they call it “the May long”.  People go camping on Victoria Day weekend.  Not this year!  It would be terrible for a family to spend two days cooped up in a tent in the rain and freezing weather.  It’s not supposed to be like this.

I once spoke to a climatologist, a fellow with a farm background.  When I mentioned that we never get normal weather, he said “that’s exactly right”.  We have a wide range of weather.  Normal weather is just an average.  Most of the time we get something different from the normal.  Normal is mostly fiction.  He also told me that we have had a frost every month of the year except for July and August.  I suppose the last frost would be in early June and the first one in late September.  “Cover your tomato plants”, they also say.

We also have extreme weather.  Tomorrow will be a day of extreme weather.  We get hot spells.  We get cold spells.  We get storms, with heavy rain or snow, sometimes even with thunder storms or tornados.  We get dry spells too.  It’s usually very pleasant here in the summer, with blue skies, moderate temperatures, and light winds.  At least, that’s what we tell the tourists.  It’s true, although you may have to wait for those pleasant summer days.

I understand that with global warming under way, we are going to have more extreme weather and less normal weather.  It’s simply because the higher temperatures will put more energy into the global atmospheric system.  I’m not looking forward to that change.


Computer Virus

Even though I was not directly involved in workstation security at my last job, I did learn a few things about it from dealing with the people in charge of installing workstations, and the people who look after security.  I’ve also kept up with the topic after I retired by reading articles on the web.  The SANS Internet Storm Center is focused on computer security.  The OS news site also has some articles on security issues.

In this article, I’ll consider only Microsoft Windows, because that is what most people run on their desktops, at home or in business.

It used to be true that applications that only displayed information on the screen were safe because that’s all they could do.  Viewers are not safe anymore.  That’s mainly because the data files that they display are not safe anymore.  Today, many types of files can contain executable components along with the data that’s only displayed.  These components can do anything to you computer, including installing malicious software.  Sometimes they can do this without your noticing.

Viruses don’t normally attack your computer from outside on the Internet, and install themselves on your computer.  Firewalls and routers block the direct route.  Instead, they arrive as a result of some activity that you initiate.  If you use an e-mail reader that’s a local application, they can arrive as attachments in e-mail messages.  Most people don’t read e-mail this way anymore because web applications are more convenient.  Some e-mail attachments are malicious files.  Most, of course, are legitimate files that people have sent to you.  How can you tell which is which?  Don’t try.  Let your computer do it for you.  Recent versions of Microsoft Windows keep track of the origin of files and what level of access is requested by an executable file.  They will warn you when this access could be dangerous.

Malicious software often arrives when you use your web browser to visit certain web sites.  This software will sometimes exploit vulnerabilities in your web browser or various viewers to install viruses on your computer.  Your web browser is actually a viewer for HTML data and javascript data.  It may start other viewers for different types of data.  You likely have a PDF reader, an image viewer, and a video displayer.  For document data, your web browser likely starts Microsoft Word.  All of these viewers have their own bugs and their own vulnerabilities.  You can also download files with your web browser.  These are installed in your file system, to be viewed or executed later.  Microsoft calls both of these operations `Open’.  If you use a web-based e-mail reader, remember that it has exactly the same opportunities for virus installation on your computer as any other web site does.

People are often given wrong information on how to avoid computer viruses.  “Don’t open e-mail from strangers” is one.  This doesn’t work.  Everything that your e-mail reader shows you about an e-mail message can be forged by the sender.  It can seem to come from somebody that you know, even though it contains a virus.  “Don’t open e-mail attachments” is another.  This one is impossible.  Everybody sends e-mail attachments.  You have to open them.  Most of them will be legitimate.

What about anti-virus software for your computer?  It may work for old viruses, but certainly not for new ones.  The people who create viruses and let them loose do it to make money.  They test them first to make sure that none of the anti-virus software detects their new virus.  By the time the anti-virus software catches up, the creator has already made their money.

What can you do that is effective?  First, keep your computer up to date with software updates.  Doing this will eliminate vulnerabilities before the virus creator can exploit them.

Pay attention to warning messages, and above all, don’t disable them.  One famous warning says `some files can harm your computer’.  When I searched for that one to get more information on it, I found dozen of instructions on how to disable it.  In fact, the people who installed workstations at my last job did disable it.  They did it because people found it annoying.  Some people even called the help desk every time they saw the warning.  It’s a warning that something bad is about to happen to your computer.  Heed the warning!  Another similar one says `do you want to allow this program to make changes to your computer’.  Heed that one too.  The correct answer is `no’, unless you are doing something that requires configuration changes.

Also, beware of viewers.  Adobe Flash video player is one of the worst just now.  It seems to have many bugs and vulnerabilities.  If you can, don’t even install it.  Many web browsers can display video content with HTML5 video instead.  Some also have a built-in PDF viewer, so that you don’t need Adobe Acrobat reader either.

I also recommend doing all of your normal computer activities from a non-privileged user account.  Set up a separate account, often called Admin, that does have Administrator privileges.  Use it to install software and to do Windows updates.  You can also use the Administrator account itself for this purpose, by enabling desktop logins for that account.  Then remove Administrator privileges from your normal account.  When you are using the non-privileged account, you will certainly get an error message if malicious software tries to do something that you are not permitted to do.  This will protect you from many viruses.


History of God

Have you read anything by Karen Armstrong?  I just read her book A History of God.  I’d read it about five years ago, but it didn’t seem familiar this time through.  I suppose I noticed different things.

Contrary to what you might expect, the book is not about God the supernatural presence.  Instead, it’s about people’s conception of God.  Their impression does have a history, and does change with time.  It’s mainly about the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  I found that the book had way too much detail for me to assimilate.  About all I retained from reading it were generalities and commonalities along with a few curious facts.

These are all monothestic religions, but they were all preceeded by polythestic religions.  The ancient Hebrews adopted the multiple gods of the land where they resided.  As Judaism developed, they did become monotheistic, but some books of the Hebrew bible only make sense in the context of polytheism.  The ancient Romans believed in multiple gods.  As they converted to Christianity, they too became monotheistic.  The ancient Arabs also believed in multiple gods.  Once again, as they became Muslims, they accepted only one God.

People of all three religions developed two fundamentally different conceptions of God.  One Karen Armstrong calls the God of the philosophers.  People following this perspective used techiques of logic and rationality, along with a literal interpretation of the scriptures.  The result was an external God that seldom intervened in the affairs of man.  God the creator would be this sort of God.

The other she called the God of the mystics.  Followers of mysticism used techniques of dreaming, visions, and yoga-like poses, along with a symbolic interpretation of the scriptures.  They undertook an internal journey, one that required an experienced guide.  Such a journey was dangerous, perhaps leading to insanity if not carefully controlled.  The result was a personal God that resided within the individual.

I can’t recommend this book.  It’s difficult to read, with its incredible detail.  There’s even more detail if you read all the footnotes and other end material.  Still, you learn unexpected facts about each of the religions.  Maybe read it selectively as I surely did.


The Good Wife

I’ve now watched over 100 episodes of The Good Wife, thanks to Netflix.  When I have the time, I watch two episodes a day.  The show quickly became about much more than the law, but I continued to watch it.

I did notice a few things about the show that never changed.  The women were tall and slim, with very high heels.  I’m sure that’s not typical of law offices.  People wore clothes in bed, usually underwear, even in the sex scenes.  Is that how adult content is done now?  Adult children were always shorter than their parents.  They’re not going grow any more.  I suppose that’s so we can tell that they are children.  The law firm seemed to have hordes of lawyers, but only one investigator.  Incredible as it may seem, this investigator always found evidence that the police had overlooked.  They used the ticking time bomb metaphor to make the story more dramatic, although it was always a legal time limit that they had to meet.  It is dramatic, but I’m sure that most trials are quite boring.  In every criminal case, the police and the prosecution were in the wrong.  I’m sure that’s not the way it is either: often the police are right, and the accused person is guilty.

In spite of these unrealistic elements, I enjoyed the show and continued to watch it.  The acting was uniformly excellent.  I had to keep reminding myself that these were not real people, but just actors playing their parts.  The stories were full of surprises, and never predictable.  They often involved issues that were currently in the news.  The main characters were all multi-faceted.  They revealed different aspects of their personalities gradually.  Conflicts between characters happened in every episode.  Even though they had a veneer of honesty and respectability, characters often felt forced into unethical or even illegal acts.  Often something like that, that they’ve hidden, will be exposed in a future episode.  I always look forward to seeing what happens next.


What Is Natural

The reverend William Paley developed the principle of natural theology.  In his central story, he wrote about finding a pocket watch on the ground as he crossed a heath.  Just by examining the intricate construction of the watch, he was able to determine that it was not a natural object, that it must have had a designer.  He noted that parts of living creatures, like a bird’s wing or a grasshopper’s leg, were perfectly designed for what they do.  They must have also had a designer.  There was no known natural process that could create such perfection of design.  The designer must be a supernatural entity.  His principle led to the modern idea of intelligent design.

Charles Darwin identified that natural process, one that was the mechanism of evolution.  It required two agencies, natural selection and deep time.  The accumulation of minute changes over millions of generations could produce this perfection of design.  I know that it seems impossible.  I know that it defies common sense.  Still, it’s certain to be correct.  This process has been proven many times to be the primary mechanism of evolution.  Charles Darwin, by the way, did not discover evolution.  It was already known.  His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, knew about it, for example.  What Charles Darwin acutually discovered was the mechanism of evolution.

Perfection of design is not as good as some people thought.  Seeing it demands a certain amount of selectivity.  Certainly, a bird’s wing or a grasshopper’s leg are almost perfect.  Certainly, they are awesome and wonderful things.  Certainly there’s much to admire in the human body too.  If you look carefully, though, you will notice some imperfections, some legacies of our evolutionary ancestors.  The design of our spinal column, for example, has features that favoured walking on four legs rather than two.

Perfection of design is an illusion, albeit a very good one.  Evolution is the only natural process that can create such an illusion.  This principle has been reiterated by Steven Jay Gould in his book Dinosaur in a Haystack.

Darwin identified natural selection as one of the agents of evolution.  This was a good choice of words, reminding us easily of artificial selection.  We already understand how this is used in selective breeding, a technique that’s been used for centuries by plant breeders and animal breeders.  We already know how minute changes in each generation can result in plants or animals that are quite different from the original stock.

The other agent Darwin identified was deep time.  This is more difficult for us to understand since the times required are outside of our experience.  Our human lifetime is only about a hundred years.  All of human history is only about ten thousand years.  Six hundred millions years, the length of time that multi-cellular life has existed on earth, seems impossible to us.  To appreciate such things, we have to think in terms of geological times.  Fortunately, these have been well established through an enormous amount of scientific research.

When natural selection and deep time are combined, perfection of design is entirely possible, by the completely natural process of evolution.  There’s no longer any need to invoke a supernatural agent as the cause.  Nature was the designer.


A New Honda

About twelve days ago, I got a new car.  It was a 2015 Accord coupe.  I traded in my 2010 Accord.  A great deal had changed in five years.  The new car came with a thick manual, with a second smaller manual for the electronics.  I didn’t read every page of them, but I did read parts of them whenever I was not sure about how something worked.  I know that most people don’t bother reading manuals, but I always do.

I didn’t really need a new car.  My old one was working nicely.  I did like the new styling and new electronics, though.  I also liked the new colour choices, even though they were only black, white, and red.  I wanted a red one.  My dealer doesn’t order cars in that colour, only black, white, and silver.  In fact, there were none of them in the city.  The nearest one was in a different province, but that was what I wanted.  It was my red convertable, even though it wasn’t a convertable.

Many features of the new car were the same as my old one.  The pedals and the shift lever felt natural to me.  So did the light stalk on the left and the windshield stalk on the right.  The audio volume control and the cruse control on the steering wheel were the same too.  So were the window controls and the sunroof controls.  I was able to drive the car with very little to re-learn.  I got the same engine, too.  Honda has an excellent four-cylinder engine, probably the best in the industry.  It’s powerful and economical at the same time.  What more could you want.

Some features were completely different.  To unlock the car, with the key fob in my pocket, I only had to grasp the door handle.  To start the engine, I only had to step on the brake pedal, and press the big red button on the dash.  My new car had a backup camera and a power seat.  It had two display screens.  The lower one was touch-sensitive.  I only had to press the screen to change radio stations.  The CD player only held a single CD, unlike the one in my old car that was a changer.  However, my new one would play audio files from any USB device.  That’s a good trade-off.  My new one also had a continuously-variable automatic transmission.  It seemed to work just as well as before.

I liked the way that many features of the new car seemed familiar to me.  I liked the keyless entry almost immediately.  I learned to use it quickly, although I sometimes forget to leave my keys in my pocket.  I also liked the engine start button.  Still, I have to think about it for a fraction of a second before I press it.  I’m sure that will soon become an automatic action.  I’m also sure that, as I begin to use more features of the new car, I’ll grow to like them too.

I’ve been disappointed by the backup camera.  It does show me an image of what’s behind the car.  I suppose it would warn me that a child on a tricycle was behind my car.  Ordinarily though, the most prominant thing in the image are shadows on the pavement.  I don’t notice those at all when I look in the side mirrors or rear-view mirror.  Mostly, it’s confusing.  I can’t back up along my driveway by following the image from the backup camera.  It does have three different views, including one from the top.  Maybe I just need more practice with the camera.

All in all, I’m quite happy with the new car.  It’s certainly easy to drive.  It also has great looks, but I suppose that will change as the car gets older.



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