Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Way of Unix

I'm enjoying my life! Switching to Linux was an excellent idea. I'm just regretting why I didn't do this earlier (I had been thinking about this for more than a year!). In many books I had read how things in Unix are, and it was all like a mystery. Now I am really experiencing the way of Unix in Linux. How is it different, you ask? My answer: Although there are a *lot* of differences, the most important thing, in my opinion, is you must learn before you can do anything. Learning is essential. For example, in my first days in Linux I made a complete mess with my package manager and a large number of packages. Many programs simply stopped working. It took me a lot of time to figure out what's wrong and a few days to fix everything. But now I know much more than before. What would I do in Windows to fix such thing? A simple reinstall! Yes, simple it is, but does it teach you not to make the same mistake again? Apparently not. And that's why many people keep reinstalling Windows every few weeks (or even more, sometimes much more).

Now that I'm talking about Linux making people learn, I remember part of Eric Raymond's How to Become a Hacker in which he says about Unix-like systems: "'ll have fun, and you'll soak up more knowledge than you realize you're learning until you look back on it as a master hacker." Now I don't mean that I've become a master hacker, but I'm beginning to realize.

Another thing I'm really enjoying in Linux is that automating tasks is a whole lot easier. There are a lot of powerful scripting languages and the whole system is much more scriptable. I learned that in Linux the solution of many problems I might have to install a program for in Windows, is a small script. A script is a program, and what else is more enjoyable for a programmer than writing programs for everyday tasks?

Unix, and today's Unix-like systems like Linux, are a dream world for a programmer. If you enjoy programming and you're still stuck to Windows, you're probably missing the most enjoyable environment a programmer can ever have.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Suitcase

I have started reading Chamedan ("The Suitcase") by Bozorg Alavi (Here's his official website, in Persian) . It is one of Alavi's early collections (first published on 1934).

We decided to read this book at a book club at university. I'll have a post about Chamedan and Alavi later.

The Silmarillion

I finally finished reading The Silmarillion. Not that I am a slow reader (I started on October 11, and the book has 455 in Persian translation), I only had little time to spend on it. In fact, I read most of the book in the time I had between my classes at the university.

The Silmarillion is a complex work and not an easy book to read. The stories contain a lot of themes, names, and various information. The Wikipedia entry on "Of the Rings of Power and the third Age" (the final part of the book) says:

The work is a fictional historical essay dealing with the preamble to the events described in Tolkien's epic novel The Lord of the Rings, and the events themselves, in the style of The Silmarillion. The fact that those events are explored in a mere handful of pages suggests that if the events described in the rest of The Silmarillion had been written in the style of The Lord of the Rings they would have filled hundreds of volumes.

For a complete understanding of the book, it is necessary to read it more than once. That is what I do for most of the books I like. I usually find many interesting points when I re-read the books I had already read. In case of Silmarillion I have a new opportunity. I read the Persian translation and now, thanks to a dear friend, I have the original English text. I can read the stories again, and this time in the original language. The Persian translation was not completely flawless and it's major problem was reading the names. In Persian, normally short vowels are not written. Of course, it is usual to write the short vowels when a new word is introduced, or provide the original foreign word as footnote, but in this case I cannot really blame the publisher because the number of new words was very much and writing all of them with short vowels would probably make the text a little ugly. Anyhow, everything is going to be fine with the original text. I guess I will start it as soon as I get rid of the mid-term exams.

The first part of the book is Ainulindalë ("The music of the Ainur"). It is the story of the creation of the universe ("Eä") in Tolkien's Legendarium and its style is somehow like that of the Old Testament which I really enjoyed --I love archaic style. The story of the creation of the world out of music, especially, is very interesting. I had already tried to compose my own versions of the creation for the fun of writing fiction, and I was fascinated that part of Ainulindalë was similiar to one of my own accounts (in mine, the life was blown into the world from the song of the First Lady --Ovëliad).

The second part, Valaquenta, is less like a story but it's vital to the reading of the rest of the book, as it describes the Valar (those among the Ainur who became the powers of the world), the Maiar (the lesser Ainur who came to help the Valar), and the Enemies (those fallen among the Valar and the Maiar).

The third part of the book, Quenta Silmarillion ("The Account of the Silmarils"), is the bulk of the book and describes the beginning of the world before the elves and the men, the awakening of the elves and later the men and the dwarves, and mainly the story of the Silmarils, the three star-like jewels which were made by Fëanor (one of the high elves, those who went to Valinor upon the invitation of the Valar) along with many stories narrated meanwhile. Probably the most beautiful chapter in this part is the story of Beren and Lúthien. The story was also narrated by Aragorn as a very short poem in Lord of the Rings (FotR, A Knife in the Dark).

The fourth part is named Akallabêth ("The Downfallen"). This is my favorite part, although it is quite short. Akallabêth is the story of the fall of the kingdom of Númenor after the Dúnedain are deceived by Sauron and attempt to attack the Undying Lands and the Valar (and that is why they started calling him Sauron the Deceiver later). Only a group of them, still faithful to the Valar, survive (those lead by Elendil, that Aragorn in Lord of the Rings is his descendant) and Númenor itself is completely destructed by the will of Eru Ilúvatar ("the One, Father of All"). The theme partly resembles the story of destruction of Atlantis. Interestingly, the Quenya form of Akallabêth is Atalantë.

The final part of the book, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, tells the story of the making of the rings of power (and the most noticeable among them, The One Ring) and the events that lead to the events of Lord of the Rings, as well as a short narration of Lord of the Rings itself, in Silmarillion style. The book ends with the Eldar's leaving of the Middle-earth and the beginning of a new age for men.

Final words: I strongly recommend reading The Silmarillion for anyone who likes fantasy. Especially, if you have already read Lord of the Rings, reading The Silmarillion would increase the joy of the reading of both of the books.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

New Experiences

I've been having new exciting experiences during the last few days. I finally moved to (GNU/)Linux and my transition process was amazingly painless. As a programmer, I find the new environment more convenient --everything is simply more natural. The speed of the PC is better. No more annoying lags and pauses. Although my computer is quite well equipped, the system always lagged in Windows.

In Windows, I used Firefox as my web browser, and Thunderbird as my mail client. Both of them work the same way here, and these are two of my most frequently used programs. OpenOffice is quite satisfactory for my needs, and my favorite language, Python, is just here for me. I was also surprised to see that many Windows applications run very well in Linux under an emulator (such as WINE).

For those who are not familiar with Linux, Linux is by itself only a kernel, and together with the many parts obtained from the GNU project it becomes a complete operating system (many argue that GNU/Linux is a better name for the system, and I agree, but using this long name repeatedly is quite annoying). There are many ways to mix these parts together, so there are many Linux distributions. I use Ubuntu. As I had heard, and now actually experienced, Ubuntu is a good choice for new converts! It has a very convenient environment with a selection of well-maintained packages for everyday tasks. Ubuntu was surprisingly easy to install. The installation program did everything in a few easy steps and it even set up a dual boot system for me.

With the new ADSL Internet connection, now I have a system of my dreams. I had always dreamed of having a Unix system with a direct Internet connection from a local network and that is what I actually have now. Linux is a complete Unix-like system, with much more than Unix itself, and the ADSL modem/router, in fact, gives me a network with a direct Internet connection. It is just like in the books --pretty exciting!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Azhi, the Blacksmith, and the King

We read the story of Kaveh the blacksmith, Zahhak the Azhi, and Jamshid and Fereydun, the two most praised kings of the ancient world (in Iranian mythology).

In Iranian mythology, Jam is the greatest king ever. He is both a king and a priest of Ahura Mazda. He teaches people how to use metals and many other materials, he teaches them how to build houses, he teaches them how to make perfumes and wine, how to mine jewelry, how to sail in the seas and much more. He orders the society and divides people into four classes: the priests, the warriors, the farmers, and the artisans. All the creatures in the world come under his rule. One day, when he is sitting on his throne the divs who serve him raise his throne and as he flies into the sky all his people see him shining brightly and after that he is called Jamshid (shid means "light" in Persian). That day, which was the first day of Spring, was then called Norooz ("new day") and it became the most important celebration of the people. Iranians, and some other nations of the Greater Iran, still celebrate Norooz as their most important celebration --the celebration of the beginning of the new year.

Jamshid had a cup (called Jām-e Jam, "Jam's Cup"), filled with the elixir of immortality, in which he could see everything in the universe. Jamshid's Cup is an important symbol in Persian literature.

Jamshid ruled the world for over three centuries, and during that time there was neither disease nor death in the world, but he was finally corrupted by his pride and hence the Farr (the imperial glory Ahura Mazda gives someone to rule the people) departed from him and so Jamshid fell to Zahhak and was later cut in two and killed by him.

The description of Zahhak (originally Aži Dahāka) slightly differs in the different sources we have, i.e. Avesta and post-Avestan older texts, and Shahnameh. In Avesta, Aži Dahāka is the greatest of the Ažis (dragons) "with three mouths, six eyes, and three heads" (presumably meaning three heads with one mouth and two eyes each). He is demonic although his other characteristics match those of a human being. Shahnameh, and many post-Avestan texts, identify him as an Arab (or at least of Semitic origin) who becomes under influence of Ahriman. He gains kingly rule after the fall of Jamshid, and although he leads the world a thousand years of misery, his reign was ultimately good since had he not become the king, the rule would have been taken by the immortal demon Xešm, and so evil would have ruled upon earth until the end of the world.

Zahhak was finally defeated by Fereydūn, a descendant of Jamshid, who took him into the mountains of Alborz and chained him up on top of Damavand where he will live until the end of the world. It is said that at the end of the world, Zahak manages to free himself and starts to destroy the world but before he can do that, Garshasp the ancient hero who killed the other dragons will wake up from death, slay him as the last living dragon and save the two thirds of the world that Zahhak has not devoured.

But Shahnameh also speaks of another figure: Kaveh. Kaveh is a unique character in Iranian mythology because he is an ordinary person, unlike most other heroes. He is brave enough to stand before the most feared Azhi and complain from him, brave enough not to sign a testimony even the highest ranking officials do not dare not to sign, brave enough to call the name of the Azhi's enemy in the public. So much brave that Zahhak himself admits (as Ferdowsi says in Shahnameh) "when Kaveh came in, as I heard his voice, it seemed to me that a wall of iron rose between us." Probably Kaveh is a symbol of the people who helped Fereydun, for although it was Fereydun who chained Zahhak up in Alborz, his army of people who accompanied him to the capital made Zahhak fear so much that he fled. If Fereydun was the key to freedom, then Kaveh (and the people he symbolizes) turned that key in the door.

The rise of Kaveh was like a spark in the darkness; a spark that set fire to a crowd. His flag, the leather apron he put on the spear, became a symbol of Fereydun and the Iranian Empire until the fall of the Sassanid dynasty during the Arab invasion when Arabs torn it into pieces (in fact, the history doubts that the real imperial flag was Kaveh's flag, and probably it was another one whose name was similar to Kaveh's, but it's no different for in fiction and mythology we are considering the world in another stage of imagination, as J.R.R. Tolkien puts it in one of his interviews).

The last word is that the above picture shows the statue of Kaveh in Esfahan. For years the Islamists have fought building statues since Islam is against building statues or paintig pictures of people. It seems that they have lost the war, although it took many statues destroyed to achieve that, for now there are many beautiful statues in Esfahan (as well as in other cities).

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Blacksmith (Final Episode)

When Kaveh comes out of the assembly, he goes streight towards the crowd. He takes a spear and puts his leather apron on it. Then he cries out:

"O People! This is a devil you are living under his rule. Who among you is going to disobey the evil? Who among you is going to call for Fereydun?"

And it comes a large crowd of people following that simple leather flag while Kaveh guides the people to the Alborz mountains where, he knows, Fereydun lives.

Fereydun from top of the mountain sees the crowd of people coming, and he perceives, "Its time had now come."

So Fereydun brings the old crown passed to him and puts it on, for it's time that someone from the royal line wear the crown of the world. And then he asks for his mother's permission to go, the one he owes his life to, more than any son owes his life to his mother. Farank, with tears upon her face, calls for Mazda's help for his son and lets him go.

Then Fereydun asks his older brothers to have a mace made for him, and they summon the greatest of the blacksmiths to make the mace. The blacksmiths make a grand mace for him with a head like that of an ox and, with his mace in hands, Fereydun leaves with his army of people for Zahhak's capital.

On their way, they reach the Arvand river. Fereydun asks the river keeper to let them pass the great river with the boats, but he refuses. "I have the word of the king of the world," he says, "that no one shall pass this river without an explicit permission.

Fereydun gets angry and, without the fear of the great river, guides his horse through the water and then everyone follows him.

So they make their way through Arvand and travel all the long way until they reach the capital where they find Zahhak has fled and left the capital.

So Fereydun enters the palace with little resistance and then he sets all the prisoners free of the jail and of Zahhak's magic and among those who were set free were Arnavaz and Shahrnavaz, the two daughtars of Jamshid and the most beautiful women of the world.

But there is Zahhak's treasurer there who, although pretends to submit, is still a slave to Zahhak and when he gets the time he goes near his master and tells him all he has seen.

When Zahhak hears of Fereydun, sitting on the throne with the daughters of Jamshid besides him, he loses his temper and rushes towards the palace.

Fereydun is looking for him when Zahhak himself comes to the palace and with a sword in his hand is going to kill Arnavaz and Shahrnavaz, but before he can manage to kill the two, Fereydun strikes him with his ox-headed mace on the shoulders, and on the heart, and on the skull, and from the Zahhak's wounds there come many vermin.

Fereydun is going to kill Zahhak that he hears the voice of Sorush, the messenger angel.

"His reign has come to an end, but not his time. Take him to Alborz."

So Fereydun takes Zahhak to Damavand and there again he hears Sorush saying,

"Have him chained up on the top of Damavand, and let him be there imprisoned until it comes the end of the world, when he will meet his end along with the others. The world will see no other harm from him before that time."

So it ends, the rule of Zahhak, and it comes the era of Fereydun. The era of delight and happiness, and Fereydun ornaments the simple flag of Kaveh with many jewels and it remains a symbol of the royal line, and of his land for a long long time.

And of Zahhak no one hears anymore, before the end of the world, except some of those who wander among the Alborz mountains --they can hear his fell voice groaning in pain and waiting for the time the hands of fate will set him free to face his final destiny.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Freedom of Choice

On the board of the so-called Ma'aref Department (the department which provides the mandatory Islamic courses for all the students in the university), I saw a list of the new courses available as well as a few comments including the following funny note:

"The students of minority religions can take the courses of their choice freely from the provided list of available courses of the Islamic Knowledge (Ma'aref-e-Eslami) department, without any limitations."

(Notice that in Iran you have to be either Muslim or a follower of one of the three recognized minority religions. The Islamic Republic does not believe any other case is possible!)

It's worth taking a look at the list those students can freely choose from: Islamic Thoughts 1, Islamic Thoughts 2, The Human Kind in Islam, Social and Political Rights in Islam, The Philosophy of Morality (of course in Islam!), Islamic Morals, The Islamic Revolution of Iran, Getting Familiar with the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Emam Khomeini's Political Way of Thought, The History of Islamic Civilization and Culture, The Analytic History of the beginning of Islam, The History of Emamat (the way of the Shi'ite imams), Topical Interpretation of the Koran, Topical Interpretation of Nahj ol-Balagheh (a book containing the speeches and letters of Ali, the first Shi'ite Imam).

Really that's a diverse list! Each student has to take six of these courses.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Day University Fell

It is Aban 12 (I mean the twelfth day of the seventh month "Aban" in Iranian calendar) and it reminds me of what happened exactly two years ago in our university and how the respect of a university professor and the university itself was crushed under their feet. I don't believe most readers of my blog know about what happened in Elm-o-San'at that year, so I will provide you with a very brief account of the happenings.

On Aban 12, 1383 (November 3, 2004), Ebrahim Yazdi (secretary general of the Freedom Movement Party) and Mohammad Reza Tajzadeh (member of Islamic Iran Participation Front) were invited to the university to give lectures in Bahrami amphitheater). It was apparent even before that day that it is very probable that there will be unrest in the university upon their arrival because the two parties are part of the "opposition" body (if this word is the correct one for what if we have in Iran!) and in fact the Freedom Movement Party is mostly considered an illegal party by the ruling class.

The day before that, Mehdi Purrahim who is a political activist student met almost all the rooms in the "Inner Dormitory" and tried to persuade all in the program. The same night, announcement cards are spread across the dormitory that Basij is preparing an attack on tomorrow's program. Many students ask Purrahim to cancel the program and that the university does not need more political confrontations, but he does not accept.

The day after that (Aban 12), the program finally starts. Both Yazdi and Tajzadeh are there. There seems a lot of movement around the Basij cabin. On the other side, Ayatollah Najafi, the representative of the supreme leader in the university, is giving speech in the mosque and is saying that the program is illegal and without his counsel, and nobody cares (of course, except the members of Basij who were in fact acting on this!). One of the members of the Mohebban Group (a religious group) announces that the prayer holders in the mosque are going to go the the presidency building to protest. Suddenly a group of some 40 people leave the Basij cabin and start going towards the presidency building. A large crowd of students see everything.

Dr. Salehi (then president of the university) is leaving the building that he is interrupted by the group. They start beating and insulting and even some spit over him. Two university security officials are also beaten meanwhile.

The group move Salehi outside the university and, surprise, there is a bus awaiting them, and not a private bus but one belonging to Vahed company, government owned company in charge of inner city transport buses belonging to the municipality. They get Salehi on the bus and go away.

Holding a university professor hostage before everyone! The students cannot believe their eyes. Everyone surrounds the Basij cabin. Slowly rumor grows that the cabin should be destroyed! This is the same cabin its computer holds a lot of private information about the students, may it no longer be!

There are some 2000 students around the cabin. The students have only one demand: Dr. Salehi should be released or the cabin will be destroyed. At last, the crowd loses its patience. Many rush towards the cabin. It does not take long that the cabin ceases to exist.

Salehi was released the same day before the Science Ministry (Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, which is in charge of the universities). He is taken to a hospital.

This is a short account of what happened in the university on Aban 12 according to many students. Of course, there are many things in this account that Basij does not confirm. In fact, Basij does not confirm any direct connection with what happened on that day, although they mainly accuse the group who destroyed the Basij cabin while about Salehi, well, "he himself started everything by allowing those two enemies enter the university!" Shargh newspaper publishes a brief account of the on-goings and is immediately closed (temporarily) for "publishing lies" (I should also note that about a month ago Shargh was closed for publishing a cartoon related to what Ahmadinejad said, and this time the stoppage seems permanent).

The students stopped attending classes the next week (and so did many others in other university) to protest against Basij. A few days after that Salehi could leave the hospital and was welcomed again by a large crowd of the students; the attack brought him immediate popularity (on a basis of, "everyone who is their enemy, is our friend!"). The attackers were dismissed from the university and, ironically, were immediately accepted into Emam Hosein University (an army-owned university). A group of those who formed the attack on the Basij cabin were also "suspended" from attending the university for two semesters.

Salehi was the first (and probably last) university president after the Islamic revolution to have been chosen by a faculty election and was not appointed by a higher ranking official. He later resigned. Nothing remains currently of the Basij "spying" cabin. It has been replaced by some green fields and an ATM! There is also almost nothing remaining to remind us of what happened two years ago, and the many questions who rose in the minds of the students, if not yet vanished completely from their memories, will soon go away and then, well, nothing happened! After all, how many people remember those students who were beaten and killed in Tehran University dormitory two years ago?

The Blacksmith (Episode II)

It is the era of Jamshid, the one who had the sheed (the light) upon him and the one who hold the Farr (the imperial glory) for such a long time. There was never an era like his, nor there is going to be an era like that before the Later Day (at the end of the world). But the era of the one with the light is ending.

It is before an audience of great leaders of the world that Jamshid's fall begins. "Tell me who brought the world new order," He tells them, "who brought you good eating and peaceful sleeping and comfortable living? Who drove away the demons from your lands? Who taught you the arts and the ways of ordering your communities? The crown and the throne of the world are mine, tell me who else deserves the kingship of the world?"

And this way, the Farr departs from him. The end of the golden era of the world is coming. One can see darkness in the western horizon. Jamshid's cup shows a clouded world, but he does not bother taking a look at it.

* * *

In the west, in Arabia, Zahhak had been seduced by Ahriman and had killed his father and become the ruler of Arabs. It is for the second time that Ahriman (the evil spirit) comes to him, disguised as a good looking man, and introduces himself as a skilled cook and offers to cook Zahhak extraordinary foods. He cooks many fabulous meals and when Zahhak lets him ask something from him, he simply asks to kiss the king's shoulders. Zahhak is fool enough to let him do that and as soon as Ahriman touches Zahhak's shoulders he disappears and two serpents rise upon Zahhak's shoulders. Zahhak, frightened to death, cuts the two serpents but they grow again. Then he calls upon all the physicians of his land to cure him, but to no avail. Then for the third time Ahriman comes to him, this time disguised as a skilled physician, and tells him the only way he has is to feed the serpents with man's brain to keep them calm and maybe someday they will wither away. And Zahhak starts doing that, completing his journey towards becoming an Azhi (dragon).

* * *

When the Farr leaves Jamshid, his commanders rise up against his authority. Rebellion spreads throughout the land and when Zahhak the Azhi comes to overthrow him, he simply flees. The world has fallen.

This way, Zahhak becomes the ruler of the world. Those who did not stand against him when he rose against Jamshid realized soon that they have exchanged the bad for the worse. Little they know that they have also been saved from the worst. Anyhow, each day two men are killed to feed his serpents. Sorcery spreads the world. The ways of righteous, all those who Jamshid brought, are almost forgotten. Until one night Zahhak has a horrible dream. He wakes up scared and finds Arnavaz (Jamshid's daughter who Zahhak brought her to himself and cast a spell on her along with her sister, Shahrnavaz) besides him Arnavaz asks him, "what is it my lord? Tell me what have you seen in the dream?" Zahhak tells her, "I saw three warriors coming to me, and the youngest of them beat me with his mace and dragged me towards a tall mountain." Then he summons the wise men and the dream-readers to explain him the dream. But the men are afraid to tell anything, until Zahhak becomes angry and finally one of them tells him that his reign is coming to an end and a man, still not born from mother, is going to overthrow him. They even tell the man's name: Fereydun.

Zahhak searches all the world for Fereydun, and meanwhile Abtin, Fereydun's father, is killed to feed Zahhak's serpents, and then later Barmayeh, a great cow whose milk feeds young Fereydun is also killed by Zahhak's men, while Fereydun's mother takes him to Alborz mountains to keep him from Zahhak's spies.

Years pass as all efforts to find Fereydun are in vain and Zahhak, who is still much frightened by the prophecy, summons an assembly of the kingdom's leading men to have them all testify his righteousness.