Arthur C. Clarke, Pakistan, Terror and Science Fiction

I started reading Arthur C. Clarke's novel Time's Eye the day before he died. The novel is set in the NWFP, and it is a world where Lahore has been blown up by a nuclear bomb (ouch!). Here's a page from the novel's beginning that reminded me of the recent US missile strikes inside Pakistan:

He had been just four when he had first encountered the helicopters of the west. They had come at night, a pack of them. They flew very low over your head, black on black, like angry black crows. Their noise hammered at your ears while their wind plucked at you and tore at your clothing. Market stalls were blown over, cattle and goats were terrified, and tin roofs were torn right off the houses. Moallim heard, though he did not see it for himself, that one woman’s infant was torn right out of her arms and sent whirling up into the air, never to come down again.

And then the shooting had started.

Later, more choppers had come, dropping leaflets that explained the “purpose” of the raid: there had been an increase in arms smuggling in the area, there was some suspicion of uranium shipments passing through the village, and so on. The “necessary” strike had been “surgical,” applying “minimum force.” The leaflets had been torn up and used to wipe asses. Everybody hated the helicopters, for their remoteness and arrogance. At four, Moallim did not have a word to describe how he felt.

And still the choppers came. The latest UN helicopters were supposed to be here to enforce peace, but everybody knew that this was somebody else’s peace, and these “surveillance” ships carried plenty of weaponry.

These problems had a single solution, so Moallim had been taught.

The elders had trained Moallim to handle the rocket-propelled grenade launcher. It was always hard to hit a moving target. So the detonators had been replaced with timing devices, so that they would explode in midair. As long as you fired close enough, you didn’t even need a hit to bring down an aircraft-especially a chopper, and especially if you aimed for the tail rotor, which was its most vulnerable element.

Time's Eye – Clarke & Baxter

Science fiction is not always fiction.

Installing Microsoft Reader on Linux (and why Microsoft Reader rules)

As I suddenly found myself using Linux as my primary OS last year, I had to do something about my bookworm’ey itch, and tried a few solutions to the lack of Microsoft Reader on Linux.

  • I tried using a second computer as my “book computer” – 50 minutes of work, one chapter of a book is what works for me. Too much fan noise (my PCs, like me, are pretty old by now) and sheer waste of electricity.
  • I tried a virtualbox XP installation – the problem with a virtual OS is, if I run it fullscreen, I can’t use the linux software, and if I run it windowed, the Microsoft Reader window is too small. I can dedicate my second monitor to the XP virtual installation, but that is plain inefficient.
  • I tried keeping my pocket pc with me while working, but what is the use of a large LCD when you end up reading on a 3.5 inch screen.

This weekend, I finally managed to make Microsoft Reader work on Linux with Wine. I had to waste use a couple of hours doing so, but at the end, it was worth it. So here is the fast and clean way of installing Microsoft Reader on Linux, what you need is:

  • Have a Linux installation (obviously) – I’m on Kubuntu, this should work with *buntu.
  • The following software installed: wine, msttcorefonts, cabextract – You can install it with the usual: sudo aptitude install wine msttcorefonts cabextract
  • IE for Linux – for some reason, this is a pre-requisite of Microsoft Reader on Wine.
    • Instructions on how to install IE6 for Linux can be found here:
    • You might need – in which case, just follow the link on the page, and copy the cab to the folder used by ies4linux, which was /home/rv/.ies4linux/downloads
      for me.
  • Now you need to visit the Microsoft Reader download page in IE6, and when prompted, “Open” the file from its current location. If everything goes well, you should end up with Microsoft Reader installed – now you just need to run it.
  • To run the program, you can either tinker with the Wine configuration settings to export the required wine prefix or you can create a shell script containing:
    • #!/usr/bin/env bash
      # Script to run MS Reader
      export WINEPREFIX=”/home/rv/.ies4linux/ie6″
      wine “/home/rv/.ies4linux/ie6/drive_c/Program Files/Microsoft Reader/msreader.exe”
    • Save it as something like, modify the /rv/ part (which is my username), set the file rights to a+x via: chmod a+x and perhaps, create a shortcut to the file on your desktop.
  • Running the should run MS Reader now!
  • There is the small problem of actually opening .lit files in it – you have two options. You can either:
    • Modify the script above so that the filename/complete path is passed to the shell script and used in the wine… line. This can also be set up with the ubuntu file associations so that you can open .lit files directly by clicking them. Or, you can
    • Copy the .lit files you have in your “My Library” folder (which is what I did).
    • I ended up with a library folder at: /home/rv/.ies4linux/ie6/drive_c/windows/profiles/rv/My Documents/My Library
  • Start the reader, and the new .lit files should be automatically detected and populated inside your library!

UPDATE: June 2009 One year later, things are a lot simpler with Jaunty Jackalope and Wine 1.0.1! Here are the rough steps to follow:

  • Make sure you have wine 1.0.1 – 1.1.x has issues that I was too busy to debug. If you have a later version or have the wine repository added to your sources.list. You might want to “Force Version” for that.
  • Install ie4linux using the instructions here. Ignore the wine version warning. You may have to run the script multiple times if it crashes, but you’ll get ie6 installed eventually. I had to uncheck the Flash plugin installation option.
  • Make sure you have the wine-gecko package installed (this may be a redundant step)
  • Download the MSReaderSetup.exe file from the Microsoft site using your regular browser and save it somewhere.
  • Run the installer .exe via double-clicking, or right clicking, or via command-line
  • The reader should install. The first time, try running it via command-line after going to ~/.wine/drive_c/Program Files/Microsoft Reader and typing ./msreader.exe
  • If you get an msvcirt.dll error, download the dll from here and extract the dll to your ~/.wine/drive_c/windows/system32 folder.
  • Now running the .exe again should work, and you should also be able to run it after searching for it by ALT+F2.
  • To be able to open .lit files by double-clicking, you need to set up the file associations. To do so
    • Right-click any .lit file in Dolphin and select ‘Properties’.
    • Click the settings icon besides the line Type: Unknown
    • Press the Add button to add the associated application (msreader) and use the file dialog to browse to the msreader.exe file. You will need to enclose the path in double-quotes or escape the spaces. For me it was:  “/home/rv/.wine/drive_c/Program Files/Microsoft Reader/msreader.exe”
    • Unwind the open dialogs’ stack
  • At this point, you should be able to open a .lit file by double-clicking it. If you encouter any issues or had to follow a different path, do share in the comments to help out others.

I was experimenting with tellico this weekend (which deserves its own post), and realized that in the last 20 years, I have read a lot more ebooks than paper books (which makes me happy when I think of all the trees I have saved). At this point in time, I can safely say that Microsoft Reader is the best ebook software around. Of course, you can read books in other formats, plain text, html, pdf or even doc, and there are lots of other readers (like Mobipocket) to choose from, but nothing beats Microsoft Reader so far. A few reasons why…

  • the Microsoft proprietary ClearType technology is simply the best option for long reading sessions on LCD/TFT screens. Once you get used to the lack of paper texture and the smell of an old book (one does miss it the first few months), you will probably find yourself reading more and more books on MS Reader.
  • The Microsoft .lit format works on Pocket PCs transparently, and the PPC version of Microsoft Reader comes pre-installed with most of the Windows Mobile versions. So, like an ipod, you can keep your library synchronized, and pick up on your PPC where you left off on your laptop/desktop. I can’t part with my ancient XDA II (now 5 years old), and iphone is a little bit less attractive due to Microsoft Reader – strange but true.
  • You can use the “Read in Microsoft Reader” plugin for Microsoft Word to convert most of the standard text formats that Word can open – to .lit format, and have a single interface for most of your digital library.
  • If you are comfortable with IRC and DCC, channels like #bookz, #ebooks etc. on Undernet is all you need to download and read sample hundreds of thousands of legal (and otherwise) books that are already converted to the .lit format.

It took me a couple of hours of search and experimentation (mixed with answering a few emails) to get all the steps right, so I hope this post saves somebody a few minutes of their lives.

Arthur C. Clarke Died Today

Yesterday, I started reading 'Time's Eye' – the first book of the 'A Time Odyssey' series written by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. I went to sleep after reading 22 Chapters, woke up, checked my emails and RSS feeds, and found out that Arthur C. Clarke passed away some time today at his home in Sri Lanka.

Arthur C. Clarke was one of the greatest scifi writers ever, his writing was an inspiration to millions. Besides his Odyssey, I read a lot of his short stories in the 80s. His three laws of prediction are almost as famous as Asimov's three laws of robotics, and the 3rd law is probably quoted the most:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I think I am jinxed, and should stop reading series that are not finished yet. But for now, I must move on to chapter 23 of Time's Eye.

Ender’s Game to be a … Game

'Ender's Game' is going to become a video game soon. It is probably one of the best sci-fi novels/short story of the last century, and like 'Lord of the Rings', it is bound (no pun intended) to be discovered and re-discovered by each new generation. If you haven't read it, you should download buy a copy and add it to the top of your reading queue (you do have a queue, right?). Here's the news on the Orson Scott Card official website. The game is going to be based around the "war-room" from the novel, so its probably going to be a lot like a free-form Quake III Arena CTF in zero g. Sounds fun.

A Long List of Leftover Links…

 … from last year that couldn't grow into posts. Now I can clean up my 'TO BLOG' bookmarks folder and continue pretending to be a blogger: