Book review: The Pursuit of the Millennium, by Norman Cohn

This important book was first published in 1957 and has hardly ever been out of print since then. Cohn’s main intention ‘was to show how again and again, from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, some freelance prophet would proclaim that, in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth, the Jews, the clergy, or else all the property-owners, must be exterminated; and to describe what happened then’. Since Cohn wrote many studies of the subject by others have followed but this book continues to be read and discussed.  Continue reading

Mutt not weeding headers

Mutt has the command ‘h’ to hide (weed) most of the headers in emails. After an upgrade to 1.12.0 I found this wasn’t working. I emailed Stuart Henderson, the maintainer of the Mutt package for OpenBSD. He thinks this is due to a change in the code of the new version of Mutt. He advised including these lines in .muttrc:

ignore *
unignore From To CC Subject Date Reply-To Organization X-Mailer User-Agent Organisation Organization Priority Importance Mail-Followup-To

This makes ‘c’ work correctly. Thanks, Stuart.

Note added 31 May: Stuart has sent me a link which explains how the problem arose (https://gitlab.com/muttmua/mutt/issues/144). The change appeared in 1.12.0 but has now been reversed in 1.12.1 so the above lines are no longer needed.

KISS – A computer odyssey

Introduction

In a recent post on misc@openbsd.org Ingo Schwarze, an OpenBSD developer, wrote as follows.

I waste time whenever i have to select anything from any kind of menu, select any icon from any kind of iconbox or desktop background, select any file or directory from any file selection dialogue, or have to click any icon in any dialogue box.

I prefer typing commands and use as little menus, clickable icons, selection lists, and dialogue boxes as possible because it is faster, simpler, and requires less looking at the screen.

My feeling exactly. I favour the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle in computing, although it took me a long time to realise this fully. But looking back I see it’s a continuing trend.

MS-DOS to Linux

I got my first PC in 1992 to replace an Amstrad PCW, if anyone remembers that. The PC came with MS-DOS and Windows 3.0, which was replaced almost immediately by Windows 3.1. I didn’t upgrade. I didn’t see much point in Windows and continued to use DOS until, at some point in the 1990s, I began to experiment with Linux. After an initial unsuccessful attempt to use Slackware I tried Red Hat and got on better with that.

I knew nothing about Unix at this stage; in fact, I still knew very little about computers in general. But I was beginning to enjoy the intellectual challenge they offered and that was what drew me to Linux. At this time it was pretty much entirely reliant on the command line, but this wasn’t a problem for me because I was used to it from DOS and in fact preferred it. But the lack of word processors was a different matter.

Linux and word processors

My practical reason for using a computer was as a writing tool for books and articles. In my Amstrad and DOS days I’d had a word processor called Protext which I liked, but it wasn’t available for Linux. In fact, there weren’t any real word processors for Linux at the time; you pretty much had to use either Emacs or Vim. I tried both and eventually settled on Vim. Some people disliked it because it is modal (you have to alternate between Insert mode to write the text and Normal mode to modify it), but that didn’t worry me because Protext is also modal.

I still use Vim all the time, even though there are now plenty of word processors and similar programs available to me. The only one I have any use for is LyX, which I’ve used to produce seven books, but even there I usually write my text first in Vim and then paste it into LyX for final editing before printing.

Desktop environments and window managers

Together with the switch to Linux I also began to use the graphics mode, and that led me to explore the world of desktop environments. KDE and Gnome intrigued me at first but gradually I realised that I didn’t need or want either of them. Eventually I settled for a simple stacking window manager, IceWM, and was happy with that for a long time, until I tried tiling window managers. Since then I’ve been sold on them; nothing would persuade me to go back to a stacking WM. My favouring tiling WM, as I’ve explained elsewhere, is Spectrwm. (See my previous blog for details.)

From Linux to OpenBSD

I’d long had a curiosity about the Unix philosophy and I tried out FreeBSD, a couple of times, but found it rather frustrating and always went back to Linux. Then I tried OpenBSD, simply from curiosity. Over a period of about six months I became completely hooked, and four years later I still am.

The transition from Linux to OpenBSD was probably easier for me because the Linux distribution I was coming from was Arch, which is often said to be the most Unix-like version of Linux. I very much doubt I shall change my operating system again. Ths Unix philosophy  is based on KISS and that’s what suits me.

Conclusion

Looking back now over almost 40 years of messing about with computers (and doing some proper work with them in the process, obviously!) I see that there has been a gradual but quite definite progression towards simplification and minimalism.  I know that at least some other people have had a similar experience. If that’s your case I hope you may find these jottings of interest.

A taste for `minimalism in computing probably reflects a more general attitude to other things in life. I’ve written a post about that as well.

Simplicity, minimalism, KISS…

Introduction

A long time ago I read a poem, ‘Alexandria’, by Lawrence Durrell which contained the lines: “As for me I move/Through many negatives to what I am.” That has stayed in my mind ever since and recently it’s occurred to e that it describes an attitude that has grown in me over the years: a taste for minimalism. Looking back, I seem to see my life as a long succession of relinquishments.

I certainly see it in the way my use of computers has evolved. But there are other examples too.

For instance

One is music. Given the choice, I’d rather listen to chamber music or soloists than to an orchestra. And I have a taste for minimalism in music too; for example, I like Steve Reich’s Drumming.

I prefers small gatherings to large parties.

Then there’s my teaching of acupuncture. I’m an advocate of what is often called Western Medical Acupuncture (WMA), which is based on the modern understanding of how the body works (and fails to work) instead of the ancient Chinese ideas. I’ve been involved in acupuncture for over 40 years and in that time I’ve progressively tried to simplify it. We we don’t need the traditional apparatus of “points” and “meridians”.

Of course, this should not be taken too far. WMA relies on the modern understanding of the nervous system, and that is a boundlessly complicated subject, but it’s a necessary kind of complication whereas the Chinese stuff is unnecessary. As Einstein may or may not have said, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”.

What about religion? I was brought up as a Catholic and that’s a pretty complicated faith. Later I got involved with Hinduism, which is even more complicated. But really I’m more sympathetic nowadays to Buddhism, although even here there are differences; Theravada Buddhism is relatively simple compared to Mahayana. Naturally, I prefer Theravada; however I’m not a Buddhist.

In fact I’ve now left all of this behind. My life seems to have been be a process of progressive simplification. Another poem which I read many years ago – I think it was in a BBC magazine of the time called The Listener – was on this theme of abandoning more and more things. The concluding lines, quoting from memory, were these: “all of it a practice run/For doing without myself”.

I could go multiplying examples of this inbuilt search for minimalism almost indefinitely,The problem isn’t finding enough examples, it’s finding too many. Which would, of course, be exactly what I want to avoid.

Acupuncture: an interesting Canadian study

As I discussed in a previous post, so-called sham acupuncture is not a good control to use in clinical trials. I recent study in Canada used a different approach.

The trial

The researchers studied patients suffering from Bell’s palsy. This is a disease which comes on acutely (suddenly) and produces paralysis of the muscles on one side of the face. Patient smile unevenly and may have difficulty in closing their eye on the affected side. The cause is unknown, though it is thought to be a virus that has caused swelling of the facial (VIIth) nerve on one side. In most cases patients recover in a few weeks, although some do so incompletely or even not at all. It is usually treated with corticosteroids (prednisolone) and this seems to improve the chance of a good outcome.

All the patients received both prednisolone and acupucture. The control group’s acupuncture was done gently and superficially; the active group received acupuncture that was sufficiently deep and vigorous to elicit the typical acupuncture sensation (de qi).

The results were assessed by three neurologists who saw videos of the patients carrying out face exercises. The neurologists did not of course know which treatment each person had received.

Results

At six months recovery was assessed to be 70% in those who had received the presumably less effective acupuncture and 90% in those who had received the more effective acupuncture. The difference was statistically significant.

Comments

Most acupuncture trials are for pain, which is assesse largely subjectively, by the patients’ reports. In this case the assessment was based on objective criteria, the patients’ abilityto perform movements. Also, all the patients had been needled at the same sites; the only difference was in the vigour of the needling. The trial therefore gets round many of the objections that critics often raise. Of course, only a few kinds of disease are suitable for assessment in this way.

Reference

Xu et al., 2 April 2013; 185(6):459. See also accompanying article by John Fletcher

 

 

 

 

 

Mispronouncing “extempore” in “Book of the Week”

Helen Bonham Carter is currently reading LEL – Lucasta Miller’s “account of an infamous female poet in ruthless times – London in the 1820s and ’30s”. She pronounced “extempore” to rhyme with “shore” instead of with “Moray”. Is this ignorance or the latest example of speak as you spell? Either way it jars. It’s all the odder because a little later she pronounced another Italian word with scrupulous correctness.

Doris Day – “que sera, sera”?

The speaker in today’s “Thought for the Day” said that Doris Day had taught him how to pronounce Spanish correctly. Actually, it should have been Italian, although it is now widely said to be Spanish. It was cited by Christopher Marlow in his 1604 play Dr Faustus.  The Italian phrase is “che sarà, sarà”, although even this is gramatically incorrect – see https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/che_sara_sara.

Book review: The Secrets of Station X, by Michael Smith

When Winston Churchill published Their Finest Hour, the second volume of his memoir of the second world war, in 1950 he made no mention of Ultra, the programme to decrypt the German cipher system that had been carried out at Bletchley Park. This was not an oversight, of course. The total secrecy that characterised this huge enterprise was not relaxed at the end of the war; not until 1974 did it become generally known.  Read more

How to make a sitemap.xml for a medium-sized site & edit it with Vim

Revised 21 June 2019

Sorry if you’ve come here because of the title; I’ve had to delete most of what I’d written because it’s no longer correct. It was based on using a site (Online Sitemap Generator) where you can make a large sitemap.xml for free (though you are encouraged to make a small donation).   I’d used it for about a year on and off and was reasonably happy with it, although I did need to edit the files quite extensively, which was the point of the post.

Things have now changed at this site; I get a lot of errors  when I try to make a sitemap.  The resulting file is unreliable so I’m no longer using the site.

I haven’t been able to find another site which offers free sitemaps for more than 500 entries. My book reviews page has almost 600 reviews so that’s no good to me. I’d be willing to pay a reasonable amount occasionally but the charges I’ve found on-line are more than I’m willing to pay on a recurring basis considering I don’t get any income from my reviews.

For the moment my solution for the book reviews page is to keep the last good sitemap I obtained and add new entries by hand. This isn’t a problem as I don’t often write more than one review a week at most.

For WordPress I’ve installed a plugin which provides a sophisticated sitemap.xml system which seems to be working well (google-sitemap-generator.4.1.0).

 

 

 

 

How to avoid problems with Vim undo & redo

Starting with Vim 7.0 this brilliant editor introduced a more powerful set of commands for Undo and Redo, using an undo tree. Being lazy, I didn’t fully get to grips with this and as a result didn’t really understand what I was doing. At times I accidentally deleted text I’d just writtenjjjk and then couldn’t recover it.

I knew the previous version of my work had to be there but I didn’t know how to get it back. After a time I realised that when things seemed to go wrong the solution was usually to use ‘g-‘ and ‘g+’ to go hack and forth in the undo tree.  But this was a bit hit & miss.

If you have had a similar experience here are a couple of useful site where things are explained clearly; Undo and Redo and Using Undo Branches.

Finally, thanks to a third page I now know why I occasionally deleted work I’d just done and couldn’t recover it. See Recover from accidental Ctrl-U. This explains why it happens  and provides a way to recover the deleted text. Better still, it tells you how to prevent it happening in future. Short cut for the impatient:  put these lines in .vimrc:

inoremap <c-u> <c-g>u<c-u>
inoremap <c-w> <c-g>u<c-w>