Archive for April, 2009

Conditional Commenting in LaTeX

April 22nd, 2009 2,006 comments

In my Ph.D. thesis are quite a lot of comments/reminders for myself. I defined two commands for this, one for a red footnote and one for red bold text. But if someone else is to read parts of the document, he shouldn’t necessarily see all my comments, so I was searching for a method to suppress all comments with a single flag. I found the package ifthen and it’s exactly what I was looking for. If you need to use comments for yourself in a document you’re writing, consider using the following:

% If set to true, comments will be inserted, otherwise ignored
% Internal command
% use \todo{text} for a comment within your page/section
\newcommand{\todo}[1]{\ifthenelse {\boolean{showComments}} {\todocmd{#1}} {}}
% use todof{text} for a footnote
\newcommand{\todof}[1]{\ifthenelse {\boolean{showComments}} {\footnote{\todocmd{#1}}} {}}
Categories: English, Linux & Programming Tags:

Copy Protection Mechanisms & BioShock

April 20th, 2009 457 comments

I just found a text about BioShock and it’s so brilliant, I just had to post it. You won’t really understand it though, unless you have played BioShock for yourself. Which I really recommend you to do, it’s a great game. Then I decided, to make a twofold post: One part about Copy Protection and one part about BioShock.

Copy Protection

This will be a short article,  though much more could be said about it. Basically, I think copy protection sucks and provides only disadvantages, for both sides.  Now, I’m not for piracy. If people put a lot of thought and effort in a good game, they earn to be rewarded for this. Piracy can kill the development of high quality games, like it happened on the C64 and even more on the amiga (or was it atari?). So, here’s a short list of why I think copy protection should be abandoned:

  • Most importantly, games always get cracked after a very  short time
    • So, people who want to download illegal copies are hindered to do so at most for a short time only
  • Strong copy protection mechanism often make games more difficult to use
    • You have to activate your software. This costs time and effort, and sometimes you are even only allowed to do this a couple of times.
    • You have to have the (original) CD in your drive. I hate changing CDs all the time (yes, I’m a lazy bastard).
    • Securom and similar programs prohibit you from using useful tools like CD-emulators or e.g. process explorer.
    • These restriction do not apply to cracked games, so often these are more user-friendly than the original, legal ones!

In the end, if people want to use pirated software, they cannot be stopped, but people who want to use legal software are punished. Have a look at Spore’s site at amazon and see, how using rigid copy protection (and bad game realisation) had it’s effect on the evaluation, and ultimately probably at the sales of the game. It’s just bad – no one wins.

Of course, I am biased on this topic, so I’m wondering: Do you think I’m correct? Different opinions?


Well, I will give no long introduction to the game here. It’s said being the unofficial successor of System Shock 2. I disagree. And I like SS2 more, which is in fact (one of?) the best games ever made. But it’s still a really good game, good story, fantastic graphics, and challenging gameplay. The worst thing about BioShock is its rigid copy protection, with online activation, securom prohibiting certain programs etc. But, if you played the game, you will find the following quote just hilarious:

BioShock Copy Protection Quote

Is a man not entitled to the game he buys?

NO, says the man at SecuRom. It belongs to 2K.
NO, says the man at 2K. It belongs to us.
NO, says the man at Microsoft. It belongs to our license purchasers.

I rejected those answers.

Instead, I choose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose…piracy! Where the gamer would not be censored, where the PC owner would not be bound by petty encryption, where the buyer would not be constrained by corporate greed. And with the downloading of your torrents, piracy could become your salvation.

Categories: English Tags: ,

Staying up-to-date with Web Feeds

April 13th, 2009 535 comments

This time, the article is written both in English, and German.
Diesmal gibt’s den Artikel sowohl in Englisch als auch auf Deutsch.

English version

Most, if not all of my readers are friends that know me personally. Since I am into computer science and geeky stuff, some of them know about techniques like RSS, too, but others don’t. I am sure, most of my readers are eagerly waiting all day just for a new entry in my blog, refreshing their browser every five minutes, but I have some good news: You don’t need to and will still be informed on the spot about my newest brilliant insights! Something called RSS (Really Simple Syndication) or Atom (which is basically the same) will tell you automatically when something new happened. This article will tell you how to use these, it’s easy and yet very useful – not only for this blog. It is written for firefox and thunderbird, but other browsers probably have similar features.

Built-in RSS functionality in firefox

Built-in RSS functionality in firefox

Let’s just dive into it right now, without any technical mumbo jumbo: On the right side of this blog you might have noticed a button labelled RSS feed. Open this one in a new tab, by pressing the CTRL key and clicking on it (CTRL open pages in the background, instead of in the current tab of your browser). If you have a look at the page opened, you will see an overview of all recently published articles, as well as a suggestion by firefox to subscribe to this feed. A feed is data to tell your software when there is new content, just like the rss page you just clicked on. If you subscribe to it, a new bookmark will appear. Now, if you click on it, it will not open the web site, but instead it will give you an overview of all articles/content that is currently available on the site. Furthermore, if there is new content, the icon will change automatically, so now you are always informed, if there is something new happening! Even more, it now becomes very easy to select any article previously created just using one bookmark. But, there’s also an even easier way to do this: Noticed the little icon in the address bar before? Just click on it, then firefox will allow you to subscribe to any feed it found on the page (see Screenshot). But it does not have to stop here; today, in the times of Web 2.0 (don’t get me started on the meaning of this term…), there are most web sites having regularly updated content allow you to subscribe to feeds, not only blogs. I will list some examples here, to give the idea of content subscription:

Basically, if you regularly visit an interesting site and want to be informed of its changes easily, just search the page for the term “rss” (or use the firefox icon). Often, there are also options to directly add it to personalised start pages like iGoogle or Netvibes. For myself, I prefer another option even more: a news/feed reader client like thunderbird.

Adding a RSS feed to thunderbird

Adding a RSS feed to thunderbird

Thunderbird’s RSS functionality is not much more advanced than firefox’, but I like it a bit more, though that’s just personal preference. Let’s say, you want to subscribe to the sites listed above. Open thunderbird and add a new account for News & Blogs. To do so, click the menu in the following order: File -> New -> Account -> RSS News and Blogs. Choose any name you want (default is fine) and finish. Now, there is a new account in the left side of thunderbird. Right-click on it. Now, create two new folders, one for news and one for blogs (this is optional, each feed can also have it’s site name as a folder, this is merely for aggregating different feeds into one folder). Next, right-click again and choose subsribe. Click Add, copy&paste the feed url and choose the folder it should be put into (see screenshot). If you select News & Blogs, a new folder will be created automatically. Now, every time you open thunderbird (and every half an hour), the feeds you subscribed to will be automatically checked for new content. And using the subject, you can immediately choose if you’re interested to read more, or discard it. Of course, in this blog every article is worth reading 😉 . To conclude: RSS and Atom feeds are a very elegant way to be up-to-date without much effort. Instead of having to check for new content yourself, your software will tell you when there’s something new. All your favourite sites will be checked, giving you an instant overview, interesting and uninteresting new content at once. Not only it safes a lot of time, you also will not miss anything again if not checking for some time. Personally I have subscribed eight feeds at the moment, which is not so much compared to others, but still I enjoy it a lot. Hope you found this article to be useful and maybe will try out RSS for yourself, if you haven’t yet.

Deutsche Version

Die meisten, wenn nicht sogar alle Leser meines Blogs sind Freunde, die ich persönlich kenne. Da ich selbst Informatiker bin, kennen wahrscheinlich einiger meiner Leser selbst solche Technniken wie RSS, aber andere werden es nicht kennen. Ich bin mir sicher, dass meine Leser, wenn die Zeit es zulässt, den ganzen Tag damit verbringen, auf neue Inhalte dieses Blogs zu warten, nichts anderes machend als ihren Browser alle fünf Minuten neu zu laden, aber für solche Fälle habe ich eine gute Nachricht: Das ist nicht weiter notwendig, denn es gibt einen eleganten Weg, wie ihr automatisch über die neuesten brillianten Artikel meinerseits informiert werdet!. Eine Technik namens RSS (Really Simple Syndication) oder Atom (was im wesentlichen das Gleiche bietet) leistet hier Hilfestellung. Dieser Artikel soll demonstrieren, wie man diese Techniken nutzen kann, was nicht nur einfach und nützlich ist, sondern  auch von zahlreichen weiteren Seiten angeboten wird. Ich gehe dabei von Firefox und Thunderbird aus, für andere Programme gibt es aber vermutlich ähnliche Funktionalität.

Eingebaute RSS-Funktionalität in Firefox

Eingebaute RSS-Funktionalität in Firefox

Ich fange gleich an, ohne großes technisches blah-blah. Auf der rechten Seite dieses Blogs (oben) habt ihr vielleicht einen Knopf namens RSS feed bemerkt. Öffnet diesen in einem neuen Tab, indem ihr die STRG-Taste gedrückt haltet und draufklickt (STRG öffneten Seiten in einem neuen Tab im Hintergrund, statt im gleichen Fenster). Was dort zu sehen ist, ist eine Übersicht über alle aktuellen Artikel sowie ein Vorschlag von Firefox, diesen Feed zu abonnieren. Ein Feed ist im Prinzip eine Sammlung von Daten, die einer Software sagen, wann und welche neuen Inhalte verfügbar sind. Wenn ihr diesen Feed nun abonniert, wird ein neues Lesezeichen angelegt. Wenn ihr dieses anwählt, wird es nicht wie üblich zur Seite gehen, sondern eine Auswahl aller aktuellen Artikel darstellen.  Darüber hinaus prüft Firefox jede Stunde nach neuen Inhalten und zeigt automatisch an, wenn etwas Neues verfügbar ist. Außerdem wird es so sehr einfach, vorherige Artikel mit nur einem Lesezeichen aufzurufen, ohne die Seiten durchsuchen zu müssen. Aber es gibt sogar noch einen einfacheren Weg, das zu erreichen: Ist euch das Icon in der Adressleiste aufgefallen? Dieses erscheint, wenn eine Seite Feeds anbietet. Wenn dieses Icon angeklickt wird, können ganz einfach alle Feeds der Seite abonniert werden (s. Screenshot). Aber es ist das Zeitalter des Web 2.0 (fangt bloß nicht an, mich auf die Bedeutung dieses Begriffs anzusprechen…), d.h. sinnvolle Funktionalität wird überall kopiert und überall eingesetzt. Die meisten Seiten, die regelmäßig neue Inhalte veröffentlichen, stellen Feeds zur Verfügung. Ein paar Beispiele:

Grundlegend: Wenn ihr regelmäßig eine interessante Seite besucht und euch schnell über Neuerungen informieren wollt, durchsucht die Seite einfach nach dem Begriff RSS (oder nutzt das Firefox-Icon). Oft gibt es sogar Möglichkeiten, diese direkt zu personalisierten Startseiten wie iGoogle oder Netvibes hinzuzufügen. Ich aber bevorzuge eine andere Alternative: Einen News-/Feedreader wie Thunderbird.

Hinzufügen eines RSS-Feeds zu Thunderbird

Hinzufügen eines RSS-Feeds zu Thunderbird

Zwar ist die RSS-Funktionalität von Thunderbird nicht wesentlich fortgeschrittener als die von Firefox, aber ich bevorzuge sie trotzdem, auch wenn das mehr eine persönliche Geschmacksfrage ist. Sagen wir mal, ihr wollt die oben genannten Seiten abonnieren. Also öffnet Thunderbird und legt ein neues Konto für News & Blogs an (da ich die englische Version von Thunderbird nutze, sind folgende Namen geraten, aber ihr findet euch schon zurecht). Um das zu machen, klickt euch durch’s Menü: Datei -> Neu -> Konto -> RSS News und Blogs. Wählt einen beliebigen Namen (der vorgegebene reicht aus). Nun sollte in der linken Hälfte von Thunderbird das neue Konto erschienen sein. Macht einen Rechtsklick darauf und erstellt zwei neue Ordner, einen für News und einen für Blogs (das ist optional, jeder Feed kann auch seinen eigenen Ordner haben, z.B. den Namen der Webseite. Dies dient nur der Übersichtlichkeit und Zusammenfassung verschiedener Feeds). Als nächstes wird abonniert, wieder über Rechtsklick. Wählt Hinzufügen, macht jeweils copy&paste der Feed URLs und wählt die zugehörigen Ordner aus (s. Screenshot). Falls ihr als übergeordneten Ordner News & Blogs gewählt habt, wird automatisch ein neuer Ordner erstellt. Das war’s auch schon. Jedesmal wenn ihr Thunderbird startet sowie alle halbe Stunde werden die abonnierten Feeds automatisch auf neue Inhalte geprüft. Und durch Überfliegen des Betreffs kann man sofort erkennen, ob einen der Inhalt ggf. interessiert oder nicht. Natürlich ist, was diesen Blog betrifft, es jeder Artikel wert gelesen zu werden 😉 . Zusammengefasst: RSS und Atom Feeds sind ein sehr eleganter Weg, immer auf dem Laufenden zu bleiben, ohne viel Aufwand. Anstatt selbst nach neuen Inhalten zu schauen, sagt die Software bescheid, sobald sich etwas getan hat. Alle Lieblingsseiten werden geprüft, eine Übersicht wird gegeben und man kann sofort nach potentiell interessanten oder uninteressanten Inhalten filtern. Nicht nur, dass das eine Menge Zeit sparen kann, man verpasst auch nichts mehr, wenn man längere Zeit nicht nachgeschaut hat. Momentan habe ich acht Feeds abonniert, was im Verhältnis zu anderen zwar nicht übermäßig viel ist, aber für mich persönlich dennoch sehr hilfreich und nützlich ist. Ich hoffe, ihr fandet auch diesen Artikel hilfreich und nützlich; und probiert RSS doch einfach mal mit euren Lieblingsseiten aus!

Categories: English, German, Other Tags: , , ,


April 5th, 2009 1,100 comments

It’s been three weeks now since I arrived back from Cuba. Nils was way faster than me with his blogging about Cuba. Even worse, I wrote most of this already on my flight back but didn’t make it until now to publish it. As an excuse: I need all my free time to convince myself, that my Ph.D. is going just fine 😉 ! I hope you enjoy this article, it’s probably the last about Cuba for some time.

I will put a number of pictures inside this article, totally unrelated to the content. Just some eye candy.

Back in Germany! After three weeks I have to admit to be glad to have back fast information access, supermarkets, and a bathtub. Still, it was a really interesting time and I look forward to go back one day.

The journey begins

The journey begins

So, how to write an article of my experiences… Of course, now it’s no problem to include pictures and maybe let them speak for themselves. But I’d like to write some of my thoughts about the Cuban society, economy, and way of living. These are not based on any facts or statistics, merely presenting my impressions. Two of my colleagues are thinking of writing a more scientific paper of their views especially of the Cuban (socialistic) economic systems, which I will be more than happy to link here as an addition, if they decide to provide it on line.

Let me begin by saying a big thanks to our host families in Santa Clara: They were so friendly and welcoming, never made us feel like stranger but more like a part of their families. All of us agreed that we really had a nice time with them and can declare ourselves lucky to have found such nice people.

The lot of us in hotel Inglaterra. Unfortunately there's no picture including Nils.

The lot of us in hotel Inglaterra. Unfortunately there's no picture including Nils.

In general, the people were very open minded, always helpful and communicative. I don’t know if this is connected to the social system, where people are “Socios” and have to support each other because of the scarce resources or if it originates within the Cuban culture itself, but it’s a nice aspect. Of course, there are many poor people, who just try to get your money one way or another. I’ve had more than one discussion, where someone just started to talk to me, telling my how good my (awful) Spanish is and finally starts to ask for some money. Or wants to have ridiculous prices, as soon as he sees we’re not Cubans – which is in my case being noticeable in an instant. Anyway, this is probably always the case in countries with many very poor people and I had similar experiences in Syria. But if you know how to deal with these and how to react, you will have no problem to see that the large majority are extremely helpful and interesting people.

That cows know how to life! By the way, you don't want to mess around with cows in Cuba... they are strongly protected by the government.

That cows know how to live! By the way, you don't want to mess around with cows in Cuba... they are strongly protected by the government.

On the other hand, all of them, even the academics with good jobs, will never be able to make good money. Which is one of the bad aspects of the current situation. I met a young guy in a bus, who was reading “El pistolero” from Stephen King, which is the best series he has ever done. So I asked him about it, and first of all noticed, that his English was surprisingly good, and on the other hand he really loved to read so we had a nice discussion. Because I wanted to buy some books myself earlier, I asked him during our conversation for the price of the book, his job, and his salary. He is some sort of system administrator at the university, earning about 25 Cuc/month (which is about 22 Euro) and the book cost him 10 Cuc. So, he basically has to spend a large portion of his monthly salary for just one book, though having a good job. At the university Santa Clara we saw more Job offers, all ranging in this area. To give another example, a 1-litre bottle of seven year old Habana Club, which is in my opinion one of the best Cubans rums, costs about 12-16 Cuc. So, essentially, the good rum produced by the Cuban people is not affordable by themselves, but only by foreigners (of course, even the cheaper Cuban rum is still very good).

You CAN buy western goods in Cuba, but for prices not feasible to most of the population (prices are nearly the same in Euro).

You CAN buy western goods in Cuba, but for prices not feasible to most of the population (prices are nearly the same in Euro).

This leads to many problems; I know of one case, where one Cuban academic who was supposed to study in Germany for some time, just fled as soon as he arrived on the airport. And, if I were in his situation, I do not know if would not deal the same way… despite his educational level, he would never be able to earn any high amount of money, or even have access to basic things which are easy to catch for ourselves. Cuban markets and restaurants often do not have everything that’s written on their menu, because it’s not possible to have e.g. a steady supply of cheese. Everything more “luxurious” like microwaves, car parts etc is even more expensive than in Germany, so the large majority of the population will never be able to buy any of these without the help of relatives outside the country. So, some of them try to flee to the United States, just don’t return, or maybe just resign. They have to choose between a live without too much wealth, or to never see their own country again.

If the U.S.A. want to attack by sea, Cuba is prepared!

If the U.S. want to attack by sea, Cuba is prepared!

The economic problems lead to the question whether this is a fault of the system. In my opinion, at least in general, capitalism is in one aspect just like democracy: It’s the worst system – with the exception of every other one (to be more detailed: I am a supporter of social capitalism, like we supposedly have in Germany). Yet, I do not think that a capitalistic system would have a good effect on Cuba, quite the contrary: First of all, one has to differentiate between internal and external factors affecting Cuba. The American blockade is a big issue, lowering Cuba’s chances by a big extend. Just to give one example, which is a big deal for someone as myself: The population (with exceptions e.g. for doctors) is not allowed to have internet access at home. Despite the fact that this is of course also for governmental controlling purposes, there is no other way for this, as the large internet cable connection between the U.S. and Europe is making a curve just 20 kilometres north of Cuba, just so they are not connected to fast internet. One could argue that this is a natural reaction, since Fidel nationalised the companies, which were mostly belonging to the U.S. Without going too much into detail, I think, this was the correct way to deal with the situation. The economy of Cuba was not belonging to the Cubans; the Cuban workers were merely better slaves. At the beginning of the 20th century the island was somewhat like the brothel of the U.S. All in all, I agree that the situation had to change and this was maybe the only way.

Broken pipe, no one really cares to fix.

Broken pipe, no one really cares to fix.

But, there are also internal problems, which seem to be inherent to socialistic countries, mainly the inefficiency in almost all aspects of life. On so many occasions we saw open pipes, just pouring water out of them, without anyone taking action. The bus system is pure chaos, when you don’t know it and the other people around cannot help you, you’re lost; the signs at the bus stations are almost always incorrect, and the arrival times are not even noticed, since it’s absolutely irregular anyway. When you have to deal with permissions for something, prepare to take large amounts of time for that: Everything has to be signed, be taken to a chain of superiors, and when you finally manage to get the allowance e.g. for internet access, you either don’t need it any more of found an unofficial (speak: illegal) way to deal with it.

Enough of the Cuban landscape already! Show me pictures of you giving lectures!

Enough of the Cuban landscape already! Show me pictures of you giving lectures!

Putting aside the inefficient, bureaucratic system, there is an additional fact, that would prevent a working capitalism in Cuba: In a former article I wrote how I like the relaxed way of life the Cubans have. And they really have that! One example: We were at a window to a shop, asking a guy sitting behind the counter for a bottle of water (which is quite expensive for non-Cubans like us). But he was not interested, maybe not in the mood or just taking a break. So he looked at us and made some unclear gesture. After some time we asked again, so he once again waved into the direction of a colleague, who was serving other customers. When we asked again, he just went away. They really need the money, but don’t you dare interrupting their rest, even when they are at work! In Germany this shop would probably loose all its customers, but for us it was quite funny and typical for Cuba, having it your way is more important than the money. Even though this can get on your nerves, you somehow have to admire it. But imagine this behaviour, if Cuba had to participate in the global, competitive markets.

The breakfast we got at our host families were fantastic

The breakfast we got at our host families were fantastic

With the current ways of inefficiency, bureaucracy, and relaxed way of dealing with things, a large part of the population would be unable to deal with any kind of advanced competition. The time it would require to adopt would probably also lead to the ruin of many people’s lives. And even more, I ask myself, is the growth of wealth to be expected worth a level of stress, which the Cuban culture is not used to? I am not able to answer this questions. I just can say, the socialistic system may be less effective, it may not be able to provide a high level of wealth. But would, in the Cuban case, a capitalistic system really increase the happiness of the people? I think, change has to come. The blockade should be lifted, more freedom and efficiency enforced. But no one should expect or even try to trigger this in a short period of time; this would lead to the downfall of the Cuban way of life, the crush of the Cuban society.

Heya, found a picture with Nils. I think this was one or two days before going back home, smoking cigars and drinking batido de guyaba. Good last picture, I think.

Heya, found a picture with Nils. I think this was one or two days before going back home, smoking cigars and drinking batido de guyaba. Giving a good impression for the last picture, I think.

Ok, enough of this rather jumpy evaluation of my three-week-survey of Cuba. It’s just impressions. Others may have other impressions. All I can say is, have a look at this country. Try to gain a look into the real life of them, not being confined to hotels and tourist areas. It will raise your awareness of the thing we achieved in our countries, of things we take for granted. And it will show you what we lost in our countries. And, most importantly, whether you like the Cuban system or not will ultimately play not so big a role, because anyway, in the end, you will fall in love with the kindness and friendliness of the Cuban population.

P.s: The original phrase about democracy is from Winston Churchill: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

P.p.s: In case you wondered where the title is originating from: In the almost always overcrowded busses, if people want to get to the exit, they are always saying: “permiso” in a very unique way. You cannot have a busride without someone using this expression and after some time, especially in the way they are pronouncing it, we could not help but to find it more and more funny and started saying it among ourselves. So, it’s an insider joke, sry about that 😉 .

Categories: Abroad, English Tags: , ,