Control multiple PCs at once

Synergy

Synergy is a small cross-platform tool that lets you share keyboard and mouse between several systems. How is that relevant, you ask? Well, I was looking into a dual monitor set-up, because I liked working with one at a customer’s. Somebody pointed me to Multiplicity, a Synergy-like tool, which unfortunately only works on Windows.

With Synergy though, I can attach my keyboard and mouse to both the iBook and the Windows-PC at once. This set-up lets me use the Mac as a second screen, sort of. My work involves just looking at a lot of things, whether is reading manuals and specifications on the web, or previewing the web page I am coding in a browser. I can do these on a second computer, sharing mouse and keyboard between them. Synergy lets me do these things in a manner that barely differs from using two screens for the same PC.

Of course this means I need to have two computers on at the same time, but that was already a bit of reality here, as I use my Mac as a sort of business diary.

If I am so happy about Synergy, why am I only giving it five out of ten points? The score reflects that the program still has to improve a lot, albeit mainly on small points. At the moment you have to configure, then start it, and if you want to autostart it, you have to set that up manually too. And autostarting works by no means perfect either, if the documentation is to be believed. I hope Synergy will develop into something that upon installation will autoconfigure itself, that will start looking for other computers on the network, and if they’re new, will interogate you about them. Autostart should be the default.

I may still get that second monitor, simply because the settings of my two PCs vary too wildly.

My rating: 2.5 stars
**1/2

(This review was written using Andrew Scott’s hReview plug-in.)

Farmer in the Sky

Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, has been terraformed, and enough time has passed to accept pioneers to homestead a piece of land. The conditions are horrible; lose access to outside (read: Earthly) help, and you are condemned to a certain death. But at least you get a chance to get away from overcrowded planet Earth. Have you got what it takes to be a Farmer in the Sky?

George Lerner responds to the call, and finds out much to his surprise that his son Bill wants to come along. Both belong to the second wave of homesteaders; they need not reïnvent the wheel entirely, but plenty of challenges still lie ahead: during their time on Ganymede they face the total break-down of the climate control system, which wipes out two-thirds of the fledgling population.

There is something very refreshing about the portrayal of characters in this book. Heinlein talks of strong, reasonably intelligent, yet simple folk, to whom adversity is a challenge. He is also very matter-of-fact about things like divorce; the narrator has few hang-ups, except on the topic of women, who are typically displayed as weaker than men. (To some extent this is Bill’s initial feeling about women; the fact that Heinlein attributed this prejudice to Bill, though, means that the boy lives in a sexist environment in this, Heinlein’s view of the future.)

Unfortunately, in Farmer of the Sky personality is a dichotomy; you are either a strong-willed ‘realist’, or a weak-spined complex person. And the author has no use for the latter sort: they die, or they provide comic relief, or dramatic tension, but rarely do we get to see why they operate the way they do. The only exception is formed by Bill’s father and his father’s new wife. But even they provide few insights. Instead, their complexity and weaknesses seem solely included to create the appearance of maturity.

Again, this is Bill’s view of things, but you cannot shake off the notion that Heinlein feels the same way. Bill meets many strong and simple grown-ups — officer material, so to speak. Furthermore, Ganymede is the new frontier, not a theme park ride. But if it is expected that only the strong will survive under harsh conditions, why do the weak tag along?

When finally the climate system breaks down, it is not just the strong people that survive; it almost feels like it is the strong people that deserve to surive. The disaster is at the same time a cleansing.

All in all, I found the book overly simplistic, even for a book aimed at boys. I would have given it 3/10, but the author earns two bonus points. One for portraying a type of character and a type of society that I rarely see in novels. The second because the following part displays rare insight.

(What went before; at a camp fire a number of scouts are discussing what will happen once Earth moves from merely crowded to an over-population breaking point.)

[Paul:] “Your figures are right, but your conclusions are wrong. Oh, Ganymede has to be made self-sufficient, true enough, but your bogeyman about a dozen or more shiploads of immigrants a day you can forget.”

“Why, if I may be so bold?”

[…]

“A lot of people have the idea that colonization is carried on with the end purpose of relieving the pressure of people and hunger back on Earth. Nothing could be further from the truth. […] Not only is it physically impossible for a little planet to absorb the increase of a big planet, […] but there […] are never as many people willing to emigrate (even if you didn’t pick them over) as there are new people born. Most people simply will not leave home. Most of them won’t even leave their native villages.”

[…]

[Still Paul] “But let’s suppose for a moment that a hundred thousand people emigrate every day and Ganymede and the other colonies could take them. Would that relieve the situation back home — I mean, ‘back Earthside?’ The answer is, ‘No, it wouldn’t.'”

He appeared to have finished. I finally said, “Excuse my blank look, Paul, but why wouldn’t it?”

“[…] Bionomics, Bill. […] Mathematical population bionomics. […] In the greatest wars that the Earth had there were always more people after the war than there were before, no matter how many were killed. Life is not merely persistent, […] life is explosive. The basic theorem of population mathematics to which there never has been found an exception is that population increases always, not merely up to the extent of the food supply, but beyond it, to the minimum diet that will sustain life — the ragged edge of starvation. In other words, if we bled off a hundred thousand people a day, the Earth’s population would then grow until the increase was around two hundred thousand a day, or the bionomical maximum for Earth’s new ecological dynamic.”

[…]

Sergei said: “[…] What is the outcome?”

[…]

“War.”

(The deleted text consists mainly of interjections that the author added in a vain attempt to avoid the impression that he was relieving himself of an infodump.)

I started reading Heinlein after reading a number of mouth-frothing reviews of Paul Verhoeven’s interpretation of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. When Verhoeven read the book, he saw a fascist narrative; and partly in mockery of the book, he made the film one about fascism. These two diverging views of Heinlein’s work made me want to read it. Who would be right, Verhoeven or Heinlein’s fans?

For Verhoeven of course such a consideration was unnecessary. He has lived under the rule of actual Nazis, and can smell a fascist a mile away.

Farmer in the Sky has neither confirmed or denied either side’s position. There is certainly an element of the übermensch in the Heinlein novels I have read so far (which includes Between Planets). Heinlein seems to believe both in survival of the fittest and in societal engineering, and may believe that societal engineering should serve mostly the strong.

Farmer in the Sky aka Satellite Scout by Robert A. Heinlein: 5/10. Review by Branko Collin.

The Robber Bride

The Robber Bride is a very, very, very slow book. It could have easily been told in 50 pages instead of the 528 it took.

The blurbs bubble on about how witty and funny it is; I guess I completely missed what this novel is about. But perhaps I can re-tell the surface story; we follow three women in their fifties, reminiscing about the lives they led. Their contemplative mood stems from them meeting Zenia, their nemesis, who they thought dead.

Zenia is portrayed as evil, not just by the women (who are at least willing, to the point of incredible, rage-inducing naïvety, to believe she is good), but especially by the author. Zenia does not care how she derails other people’s lives, almost as if she has no conscience.

Tip: read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale instead.

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood: 4/10. Review by Branko Collin.

The Man Without a Past

I started watching this film three times. Half an hour into the third time, I noticed something odd. A quick look at the DVD box confirmed my suspicions: this is a comedy.

A man takes the train to the big city, where he gets mugged by thugs. They leave him to die in a puddle of his own blood, but he miraculously survives. But he loses his memory in the process of being mugged. The movie explores how he tries to build a new life for himself, something that is hindered by the fact that modern society requires you to have a registered identity. The MWAP doesn’t seem to let modern society get in his way too much.

The film is very slow paced, even for European standards. The humor is mostly absurdist:

MWAP: I went to the moon.

Irma: How was it?

MWAP: There was no-one there. It was a Sunday.

Irma: Why did you come back?

MWAP: I had things to do.

The director’s introduction on the DVD box might give you some insight too (warning, translation of a translation):

My last film was in black and white, and without sound. This made clear I meant business. Had I continued along that track, my next project would have required me to skip the movie itself. What would have been left; a shadow. Therefore, always ready to compromise, I decided to add dialogue, and colour to this film, and other commercial values.

I must admit that subconsciously I had hoped that taking this step would make me seem normal too. Hopefully my social, economical and political view on the state of society, on morality and on love are clear from this movie.


Screen capture: the new home of the Man Without a Past.

Perhaps the most striking thing about The Man Without A Past is its styling. The director and his team went to great lengths to make a pretty movie. This is important, because this is the sort of film where you’ll be looking at the scenery, waiting for the story to continue. In this respect you can compare it to road movies, although the MWAP stays firmly in one place. A city’s dock-, wet-, and brownlands are capable of producing their own vistas.

Lucky for me; I agreed with the makers about what is pretty, and what is good. Tip: before you rent or watch this film, view some screenshots or trailers.

The Man Without a Past (orig. Mies vailla menneisyyttä, 2002) by Aki Kaurismäki, 6/10

Review of The Man Without a Past published on Oct 27, 2006 by Branko Collin.

Neuromancer

Neuromancer is about a bank job. Case used to be an ace safe cracker, until he got cocky and took off with his customer’s money. They broke both his hands in retaliation. But that is what makes him perfect for this job: nobody will suspect he is involved.

The team that is collected around him is an equally unlikely bunch. The team leader is an ex-army colonel with a grudge against the world. The driver of the get-away car is hired from a rastafari colony. And the client? Case will find out who the client is when he finds out what it is he is supposed to steal.

Except of course that Case is not a safe cracker but a computer hacker. It wasn’t his hands that were broken, but his mind. The safe is a networked system. And the rastafari colony is in an orbit around Earth. Still, doesn’t sound very original, does it? It’s still a bank job, by any other name.

You want original? How about this for original: this book coined the term cyberspace. This book coined the term matrix (and “jacking into the matrix”), long before the makers of a certain movie went on a borrowing spree. This book coined the term meatspace. It is chock-full of concepts that even today, twenty years later, when many of them are becoming reality, many people still do not understand. The author is one of the founding fathers of the Cyberpunk genre.

I should have read this 20 years ago, when I needed to read it. I won’t say that it has aged badly, but I have gotten used to the concepts of cyberspace without Neuromancer’s aid. The intimate relationship I could and should have forged with this novel is no longer possible, and what is worse is that I know this.

If you haven’t done so before, you should still read it.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson, 6/10.


Review of Neuromancer published on Aug 13, 2006 by Branko Collin.

Demolition Man

Film with Sly Stalone, Sandra Bullock, Wes Snypes, and Dennis Leary. If I got their names wrong it’s because I don’t really care. With a cast this bad, this movie can be nothing but … well, surprisingly average, actually. Sly plays a 20th century cop who is cryogenically frozen for some reason or other, only to be released as a trouble shooter in the literallest meaning of the word in the 21st when mega-criminal Snypes somehow escapes his freezer.

Gentle nods to SF classics (such as Brave New World) and some decent twists. For instance, Stalone is continuously fined by the ruling computer because of swearing, whereas Bullock gets away with her tries at emulating 20th century “cool” language: “Let’s lick his ass!”

Leary is his usual fatiguing self. Again, he is due for a nappy change, and again his mother apparently is not around to provide him with one.

Demolition Man (1993), 5/10

Review of Demolition Man published on Aug 6, 2006 by Branko Collin.

Enter Uncle Oswald

I invoke the power of my memory and proclaim this to be one of Dahl’s lesser books. Still, with Roald Dahl that still means that this is a ripping read.

Switch Bitch contains four longish short stories that all involve some kind of switching sex partners. And knowing Dahl, either the switcher or the switchee will be left off the worse at the kind.

So why does my intuitive memory proclaim this to be a lesser Dahl? I can make a few guesses. For instance, the first story leans heavily on the element of surprise, whereas the last story is painfully predictable. The third story has one of the protagonists be a sex victim, which is pretty much nails on a blackboard for me. (Although the fact that there is no redemption also makes this story for me.) The book clearly addresses 1960s’ Americans (it would not be published today for fear of offending the christian fundies). With the exception of the first the stories are pretty much forgettable–now I am writing this review I keep going back to find out what the other three were about again, even when I finished reading last week. The sex itself is described in such a roundabout way that you have to wonder whether the author has ever had any.

So, should you read Switch Bitch? Of course you should; it’s Dahl, baby! The stories are still wicked, not in any sense of “cool”, but literally wicked, evil, naughty. Dahl will rot your brain, and this book will do its part.

Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl, 1975, reviewed by Branko Collin. (The copyright notice suggests that one or more of these stories have been published before.)

Stargate SG-1: Disclosure

A short review about this SG-1 episode I saw, because there were a couple of things that I liked and that stood out for me.

In Stargate SG-1: Disclosure, several ambassadors of large nations are informed of the Stargate program by general Hammond and that irritating senator you love to hate. The ambassadors are invited to the SG complex, and Hammond talks them through all the components and the history of the program, step by step. At every step, the viewer is shown bits of previous episodes. I tend to hate episodes that are made up almost entirely of shows I have already seen, because it feels like I am being made to pay for things I already paid for. Here, however, it worked for me, and I think that is because these flash-backs actually served a purpose.

SG-1 has a very loose, but very definite overarching story line. A strong overarching story line makes its influence clear every time you watch a show. Even if you’ve missed three years of a series, you’ll be up to speed soon enough. But not so with SG-1: miss a couple of episodes, and you miss a little; miss three seasons, and you won’t know anymore what’s going on. This episode did a good job getting me up to speed.

The second thing I liked was a joke; I thought it was funny when the annoying senator complained about the haphazzard way most missions seemed to resolve; all of them ended well, but only after SG-1 put Earth or even the universe in terrible danger. SG-1 fumbles through each mission, but averts a bad ending at the very last possible minute.

This meta-humour seems to be a trademark of the Stargate franchise writers. In this case the senator almost seems to know about our world, in which we watch exciting SG-1 episodes, in Stargate Atlantis the characters actually do; the geeks in that series continually gush about Star Trek, as any geek in our time frame would.

Of course, I am stuck in an old world. Why doesn’t sci-fi channel just publish a video story line on their website, so that if I’ve missed bits, I could get a summary there?

Stargate SG-1, season 6, episode Disclosure: 7/10. Review by Branko Collin.

More on reviews

I will not always score the works I review.

When I score the works I review, I will give scores from 1 through 9, although these should be interpreted as being scores on scale of 1 to 10. Being risk-averse, I will not give the perfect mark, because something better might come along, and then what?!

I may score works that I have only experienced a tiny portion of; it is not my job to capture my attention, and if the author failed to do so, too bad. Nevertheless, I will not score extremely bad works. As a result, when I give a 1, that does not mean the same thing as when a teacher would. My 1 is a teacher’s 3. My pass mark is a 3, or a 4, or a 5. An author’s success is not contingent on me handing out pass marks (or so I hope for them).

When I give out a 6, that usually means I enjoyed the work. An 8 means I consider a work a classic. 9s are reserved for my favourites.

Yes, this means some reviews are coming up.

See also the earlier On reviews, which deals with why I review books here instead of at Amazon, and why I review movies here instead of at the IMDB.

Bad Medicine

Another story I was going to read over Christmas was Robert Sheckley’s Bad Medicine, from which I quoted the beginning:

On May 2, 2103, Elwood Caswell walked rapidly down Broadway with a loaded revolver hidden in his coat pocket. He didn’t want to use the weapon, but feared he might anyhow. This was a justifiable assumption, for Caswell was a homicidal maniac.

Sheckley writes lovely mild satire. It just happens to take place in the future. I don’t quite get the comparison with Douglas Adams, except that they are both science fiction authors who use humour. I’d compare Sheckley (just on the basis of this one story, mind!) with other satiricists, such as Ephraïm Kishon.

The story is about a homicidal jet-bus driver who represses his tendencies by robot-therapy sessions. Accidentally, he receives a robot that is pre-set to treat Martian conditions…

Definitely got me interested in his other works, several of which he published at Scifiction Magazine, a magazine closed down by its corporate owners, the infamous SciFi Channel. At the time of writing, their archives are still open though.

Bad Medicine by Robert Sheckley, 7/10. Reviewed by Branko Collin on February 22, 2006.

(There is also a human-read (by Sheckley?) audio book version of the story.)

Edit 4 June 2006: adapted this review to the hReview microformat.