What’s Going on with Gmail?

Writing a Blog Entry (by StarbuckGuy)

Upgrades can be annoying. Some are smooth and well tested while others are more of a setback than an upgrade. Some, like Microsoft VISTA, are an outright disaster. We brought in VISTA on Marion’s new laptop with lots of CPU horsepower and 3GB of RAM and gave it a three-day workout. Drivers broke. Some software didn’t behave well. Worse, we didn’t like the new interface at all and the OS was highly intrusive, as in “Do you really want to do that?” messages popping up frequently. It wouldn’t do wireless at all with my home setup of WEP 128-bit encryption, something that’s never bothered Boingo. Of course Boingo (at the time we tested) wouldn’t run in VISTA.

So, we “upgraded” to XP. Windows XP may not be sexy like Mac OS X, or cool like Linux, but in recent times it’s become very stable and driver support for third-party products has been excellent. It also runs faster with fewer demands on resources. Do we require 64-bit computing for a home PC? I think not.

With XP and Boingo Marion was back on our home wireless net and we managed to replace all the Dell drivers with XP versions. Things were good again.

Good, that is, until Google decided to “upgrade” Gmail. This one really hurts. I’m a big Gmail fan and converted years worth of Unix mbox-format email that I uploaded to Gmail. Now I have my entire email archives online, as well as all my mailing addresses. I like Gmail’s workstation independence and the ability to access anything from any terminal or workstation with Internet access. This has proven highly useful on trips, not to mention just moving from machine to machine in the house.

But lately what I get mostly is a progress bar saying “Loading username@gmail.com”. I’m not sure what Gmail is attempting to do during this interlude, but most of the time it fails, starts over, fails, starts over, repeating this cycle until it either works (perhaps 20% of the time) or I get fed up and click on HTML Version. The HTML version works of course, but is missing many of the niceties of the full version.

There’s an option for setting HTML as the default and I’ve used it several times. Missing the extended features though, I pop back to the advanced version once in awhile, and once in awhile it works. When it works, there’s an option of using the “Previous version” of the advanced interface, but no way of setting it as the default.

Despite looking around the Gmail website and the Help sections, there is no acknowledge of this problem or any fixes offered that I could find. A Google search (how ironic) took me to a post that suggested nuking all the current cookies in your browser. My browser is the excellent Firefox browser from Mozilla. I don’t know if this “Loading …” problem exists in Microsoft Internet Explorer because I don’t use it.

So, on my desktop machine I nuked all my existing cookies and, sure enough, Gmail loaded and worked. For a day or two. Then it went right back to being unable to load. By nuking all my cookies I lost all the auto-logins to my discussion forums which was a serious annoyance given that the suggested solution didn’t work.

Up to that point the new interface software had worked fine on my Dell portable, but soon it too stopped being able to load. No way was I going to nuke my cookies again.

So, what’s up with Gmail? I’m not running anything unusual on any of my systems and all my Gmail use has been in Windows XP, a stable, known commodity. I can only surmise that the new interface got pushed out the door with inadequate testing. Perhaps with some serious programming flaws.

It’s things like this that can make the word “upgrade” a dreaded word among computer users. I hope Google fixes its problem or simply admits the problem is widespread and offers an option to make the “Earlier version” of the Gmail interface a default setting while they work on fixing the new one.


Searching for Secular Meditation

Spring Shadows (by StarbuckGuy)

It’s been a number of years since I was last interested in meditation. I first encountered it as a student, when wandering through the stacks of the university library, looking for something for a literature course I was taking, I peeked through the bookstacks and saw a book with an intriguing title, The Way of Zen, in the next aisle. I’d heard of Zen of course. The Beat poets were fond of it and I’d seen some beautiful Japanese prints that were described to me as in the Zen tradition of art, but I didn’t know much about it. I checked out the book, by Alan Watts as it turned out, and entered what was then a new chapter of my life.

Like many a youth I was on something of a spiritual quest and the slippery Zen koans and the discipline of meditation appealed to me. I’d rather outgrown the Christianity I’d been raised with (both Protestant and Catholic) and this seemed a more sophisticated and interesting kind of spiritualism. Not that Zen should be called “spiritual” but that was my youthful take on it. A little Zen, a little pot, a little acid, a little Taoism, a little Carlos Castenada — it was the 60’s of course, and it marked a deep collective inturning toward mysticism and magic.

After I shed the 60’s, I found myself still interested in meditation and for awhile I linked up with a California-based group called Self Realization Fellowship. I joined them once a week for guided meditations and I practiced meditation on my own. At the time Carl Jung was probably my greatest influence and I sought some kind of oneness with the cosmos, at least symbolically.

I look back with fondness on that period of my life, however non-critical my thinking was then. It was a poetic period. Later I gradually became more secular and more agnostic in my beliefs. What started me in this direction was the study of natural history. I became intensely interested in birds, plants, and the world around us. As I learned about ecosystems and the evolution of life on earth (something I never doubted for I was always of a scientific persuasion that favoured evidence-based conclusions), I gradually came to see my earlier mindset as, well, youthful. I had matured, developing a humanistic, secular viewpoint that was skeptical of spiritual claims and highly doubtful of anything that smacked of the supernatural, including a belief in a god.

These days I call myself a “friendly, non-militant atheist”. In other words, I’m not a hard-core Dawkinsian type of in-your-face atheist. Although I see evidence of many of the horrible things religions have wrought, and are still wringing, I experienced its comfort and solace at a younger age, and would not dream of challenging anyone’s personal belief in something they hold sacred. As long as it doesn’t cross over into public policies and legislation. Church and state must be kept separate. Religions have no lock on morality. There are good people among the religious and non-religious alike, and evil people in both categories. We are all humans, capable of greatness and capable of atrocity.

With that background, you may understand why I have been seeking a secular form of meditation. Anything that smacks of Eastern religions or New Age mumbo-jumbo gives me the fantods. Unfortunately, most guided meditations fall into these camps. The reason I’m interested in meditation is simply for its acknowledged contribution to good health. I tend to have a streak of anxiety in my nature and I think meditation would be good for me.

To that end I downloaded some meditation podcasts. One, which I shall not name, claimed to be unaffiliated with any religion or school of thought so that’s the one I started with. When I first played it I thought something had corrupted the download, for the host’s voice sounded sibilant and distorted. Then I realized that it was a deliberate sound effect, resembling, to me, the cheap audio distortions used for aliens on the older Tom Baker Doctor Who episodes. I suppose the host wanted to sound mystic.

But I tried to persevere. The music was relaxing, creating a dreamy mood. I had no problem with that — it was rather nice. Then the host said (and repeated this several times), “feel yourself filling with infinite peace, infinite joy, infinite love.” Infinite? Crikey, not even the universe we inhabit appears to be infinite. If I recall correctly, its size has been estimated — something you can’t do with something infinite. As the host repeated this injunction my distress rose. Why infinite? I could certainly envision my heart filling with peace, love, and joy, but not the infinite variety. It’s a meaningless term.

The host then used an image that was the worst he could have picked for a recovering heart surgery patient. “Look at a lit candle. Now imagine the candle in your heart.” I could imagine it all right, and it elicited horror. End of meditation.

As I thought about this for a day or two, I recalled a book I’d read years ago called The Relaxation Response, by Herbert Benson. What I distinctly remembered about it was that although the controlled experiments confirming the efficacy of meditation were initially run on students of Transcendental Meditation, the same efficacy was found to be significant for test subjects who simply relaxed for the same period, rather than meditating on a TM mantra.

I did a little googling and found a website for Benson. In it he had a little “Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response” piece that was just what I was looking for. Sitting calmly, letting the muscles relax, then concentrating on breathing. No more, no less. Yes, this is what I was looking for. A simple, secular meditation technique with no spiritual strings attached. I don’t need my chakras to glow colourfully or white light to emit from my head to enjoy a good meditation. Nor could I believe they would anyway. Likewise I’m not interested in references to Buddha and Bodhisattvas, supposed individuals who returned from a cycle of reincarnation to be spiritual teachers to mankind. Give me a break. Meditation should be no more special, or spiritual, than taking a walk.

I should add that, for me, taking walks is very special indeed, but not for spiritual reasons, unless by “spirit” you mean that aspect of mind, a percept of the brain, that allows us to reflect on the world around us, and take joy in being one of the earth’s creatures — one that walks bipedally during its short but sweet lifetime.

Breathe in, breathe out, relax. Life is precious. As far as I can see, you only have one, so live it well. Don’t plan on an afterlife. Focus, instead, on the current, and likely only, one.

A Ramble

Bleeding Hearts (by StarbuckGuy)

I’m sitting on the front deck, sipping green tea, on the warmest day we’ve had so far (around 18C or 65F). It’s a delightful temperature for walking, sitting, and, I suppose, photography, though I’m not doing much of that. It’s been two and a half weeks since my surgery (double-bypass), and I couldn’t have picked a nicer time of year to recover, even though it wasn’t planned.

The sky has changed. Until today, the sky had an April look to it with its deep blue and not quite fluffy clouds. Today the sky is a little paler and fluffy cumulus clouds predominate, looking very Mayish. The trees are pushing out leaves and our bleeding hearts are in bloom. I’ve seen quite a few migrating warblers, kinglets, thrushes, sparrows, a pair of towhees, and yesterday, a Baltimore oriole. The robins are already nesting with the male robins singing to mark territory and, I suspect, for the sheer joy of singing. What a lovely time of year.

My recovery is going well. My ribcage is healing and I’ve had minimal soreness and pain from it. My walklets have now extended to 8-9 minutes each, 3 or 4 times a day. I put my back out today and had to call the cardiac ward to find out if I could take any muscle relaxants. The nurse on duty reviewed my meds and didn’t see any problems so I’ve taken a couple. Bad timing, but it hasn’t prevented me from walking, even if I walk with a pronounced stoop.

My friend Marty stopped by for a visit today, and I’ve had visits in the past few days from Richard and Dave as well. It’s fun to see them and catch up on their news. I tire a little, but not as much as I thought I would. I think that’s a good sign.

Marion has been doing a super job of looking after me. She makes all the meals and does all the cleanup, except for the little bits I can now do. I dislike it that she has all the responsibilities, but our roles were reversed when she had her hip replacement a bit over a year ago now. Perhaps it evens out.

Our son Trevor, who decided to learn to ride a bike just a few weeks back, at age 23, is now taking healthy bike rides almost daily. He bought a bike that we intended to share, but when I tried riding before my op, I had strong angina pains whenever I rode up any grades, even gentle ones. My goal is to be riding a bike by mid summer and taking longer bike rides along the lakeshore by autumn. With luck, the angina will no longer be with me.

I’ve not done as much reading as I thought I might but I’ve been watching some new lectures. We purchased two more courses from the Teaching Company: The Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology, by Professor John Renton, and Understanding Genetics: DNA, Genes and Their Real-World Applications, by Professor David Sadava. I’ve started with the geology course, to help fill some gaps in my understanding and appreciation of that side of natural history. It’s very interesting, though I doubt I’ll be very good at remembering many of the mineral names. The reintroduction to chemistry is a stretch as well. Good brain food, this.

I have Skype working fine on my Dell portable, using my new headset, on the Windows partition anyway. I’ve been unable so far to get the mic working in Ubuntu Linux. I’m not up for a challenging troubleshoot right now, so I’m booting into Windows more often than I like. Yesterday I had a 30-minute conversation with my friend Tim in the UK, using Skype. My brother Jim and I use it regularly. He lives in Russellville, Arkansas.

As always I’m enjoying my technologies. The iPod remains a favourite, especially for podcasts. We finally upgraded our TV to a digital LCD and we’ve enjoyed some movies and TV shows on it, though we find little to watch on live TV. My Dell portable in wireless mode allows me to avoid climbing the stairs to my office where my desktop computer resides. For photography I’ve installed the Windows version of The GIMP to match the version I use in Linux. I’m not certain whether or not my Photoshop CS3 license allows me to use it on two machines. Fortunately I’d already taken the time to learn The GIMP fairly well and I enjoy using it.

And of course there’s my little lightweight Alphasmart Neo, the little text machine I’m using to type this. It runs something like 700 hours on a set of AA batteries. It’s not fancy, but it has a great keyboard and is a writer’s dream.

I’m a lucky person. My health will be restored and modern medicines will keep me operative for a number of years to come, barring accidents and other complications. A century ago I’d probably be dead by now from my cardiac problems. I never take life for granted.

This has become a ramble but sitting out on the deck in this lovely weather as I’m healing has made me want to write. I hope you don’t mind.