So ACTA's Getting Passed After All

The title says most of it. It's supposed to be officially signed and enacted this weekend in a special ceremony. For new readers, you might notice in the sidebar a banner asking people to take action against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (also known as ACTA). Clicking on the banner will explain it to you a lot better than I ever could, but basically, there are so many problems with it, like the way it places liability on different people, how it allows for punishment just through accusation (without a fair trial), and stuff like that, just because the big recording and film industries can't adapt to the Interwebz; plus, the whole thing was negotiated in secret and repeated requests to reveal more information were turned down repeatedly for totally bogus reasons, which is completely against the openness and transparency the US is supposed to stand for.
It's official: President Barack Obama's stances on copyrights and patents when it comes to the recent bills he's signed disgust me, more than any other recent president's actions.


The Neutrino News and Science in the Public

I'm sure many of you have heard the news about the neutrinos that supposedly traveled faster than light through rocky material (though this is all still slower than light through a vacuum, which is still the ultimate speed limit). Given that I'm taking a class on relativity right now, this has made our class even more interesting than before. Our professor sent us all an email a few days ago echoing what I thought before: it would be really cool and interesting if these superluminal neutrinos weren't just an experimental error but were the real deal, but in all probability it was an experimental error that probably won't be able to be replicated, given that it also conflicts with previous neutrino data from supernovas, and in any case it should be taken with a large grain of salt.
This also got me thinking, though, about public reaction. Though admittedly I haven't been following mainstream news outlets very much since returning to college, as far as I can tell, the mainstream news media have basically hailed this as a revolution without stopping to think critically about things like systematic error and stuff like that. Along the lines of the discussion I had along with Michael Nielsen and other members of the Society of Physics Students at lunch last Friday, I think the public is basically going to say, "Look at how sure scientists were about the speed of light being the ultimate speed limit, and look now! These scientists don't know anything!" If, somehow, the result is replicated, that opinion probably won't change. If it isn't (and that is my prediction), people will probably say, "See? Look at what a big mistake scientists made with that neutrino thingy so many months ago! Can they get anything right? Why should we listen to them and their so-called 'expertise'?" It's a sad side effect of public ignorance about how the scientific process works; as a friend of mine aptly said at dinner, scientists have been persecuted for many centuries now, and that doesn't seem to be stopping anytime soon.


Featured Comments: Week of 2011 September 18

There were two posts that got a handful of comments this past week, so I'll try to repost most of those.

Star Wars and George Lucas's Overreach

Reader T_Beermonster had this explanation: "It seems fairly straight forward, George Lucas really likes money. I and many others really like Star Wars. If George Lucas wants to sell a 1080p immortalization of my happy memories in a format I can watch (so not blu-ray obviously because only a handful of people on earth own or want a blu-ray player) then I'm more than happy to hand over some cash. On the other hand if George Lucas wants to sell me a high-def mockery of my childhood enjoyment in a format nobody except a sony executive wants to give house-space to then screw him. I can spend my money on beer instead. If he's too smug about pissing on my cornflakes maybe I'll even torrent a copy of his new abortion, seed up to 1000 then delete it unwatched."
Commenter Shergill Games agreed: "I can't imagine what goes on in that guy's head. He just keeps messing around with things that don't need fixing and making the movies progressively worse. If he'd just stop, create a restored cut of the original movies without any other changes and release it in 1080p he'd make a ton of money and keep the core fans happy. I don't understand why he doesn't."

Review: Linux Mint GNOME 201109

Reader 3d Beef said, "Great review, though I have to disagree with your Firefox comments. Mozilla has adopted a silly release schedule that isn't based around security or stability. Its more about catching up to Chrome in terms of version numbers. The idea that a release is supported for only 6 weeks is asinine. Asking the Mint development team to match that foolishness doesn't make sense. Beyond that, I appreciate your work."
An anonymous commenter, in response to another anonymous commenter's question about why Debian-based distributions seem to run lighter and faster than Ubuntu-based counterparts, explained, "Ubuntu wishes to run on a lot of computers... therefore, it needs a lot of drivers, patches and so on in order to do so. This means a heavier kernel, a higher memory usage. That's why it sometimes seems a bit bloated."
Reader JB had this positive experience to share: "LMDE Gnome has been on my laptop and tower since the first release, 2010.09. In that time I had 2 update related breakages where I had to re-install. Both were prior to the 2010.12 respin and could have been fixed if not for my "linux newbness" at the time. During this past year, I have found LMDE to be my main "go-to" distro for stability and just getting things done. I tried the update packs at first, but quickly went back to straight up Debian Testing due to boredom from lack of updates! As for Gnome 3, I hated it until I started messing around with it. By adding a few extensions and some tweaks, I have somewhat replicated the Gnome 2 experience with themes, application menu, and even taskbar on the bottom, in my Arch install. If a slob like me can figure it out with a web search, imagine what the Mint devs can come up with. Otherwise, Gnome 3 has a couple more point releases to be decent OOTB, my opinion."
Commenter Travelinrob countered, "I tried to install the new release on an HP Mini 110 for a friend. I could not get a lot of things to work, like wireless and video drivers (there was no Additional Drivers section or popup - and I even asked for help on XChat) and eventually gave up (because of invested time). I resorted to installing Mint 11 Main Edition which worked flawlessly, including desktop effects. Albeit, requiring more RAM at idle."

Thanks to all those who commented on this past week's posts. This coming week, I plan to have a double review out, but I don't anticipate writing about much else. Anyway, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!


I Met Michael Nielsen!

I did it today! Woot! (And I got a picture with him!) Although he is specifically a physicist, most well known for his seminal textbook on quantum computing, he came to give a colloquium about open science in general, and it's doubly cool for me because I'm interested in both physics and things like open science. (Also, before the talk, I mentioned to him that I first read about him on Glyn Moody's blog, which you should totally read. That's how Dr. Nielsen figured out I'm a free software kind of guy. He also told me that Mr. Moody's a cool guy too.)

He talked about stuff like the development of Linux and Wikipedia through crowdsourcing, but he also discussed failures like the innumerable abandoned technical wikis intended to attract the best researchers in that field that litter the web. He also discussed how scientists' conservatism regarding releasing data openly dates back many centuries, when 200 years after the introduction of the printing press in Europe, scientists in Europe were still reluctant to release their work in print. He took that to today and how that conservatism negatively affects research progress, along with what some people have done to combat it, and in the spirit of the talk, he opened the floor to questions and also to discussion about how individual scientists can promote and do open science.

I was able to ask him a question about one thing he said about Galileo: apparently, Galileo was concerned about other people getting credit for doing the same work as him independently of him, so he only "published" his work by sending a few select other scientists his work, but scrambled into anagrams unreadable at first sight. Then, if those scientists tried to publish similar work independently, he would be able to pull out the unscrambled manuscripts and prove that he came up with those ideas first. I asked him if the scrambling was really done for that purpose, given that Galileo published his work about a heliocentric universe in vernacular Italian, as opposed to the scholarly Latin, specifically to reach the masses (and that's what got him the undue attention of the Roman Catholic Church). Dr. Nielsen replied that while that might be the case, it is clear that his intent with those scrambled letters was to ensure that credit would go to himself first, as Johannes Kepler actually begged Galileo to tell him the unscrambled message, and Galileo refused until Kepler's patron (the Holy Roman Emperor) got into the act too. It was interesting for me to hear about these two sides of Galileo. I was going to also ask him how gene patenting squared with the Bermuda Accords, which were codified into policy by many countries to force scientists to release sequenced genomes into the public domain if said sequences were more than 1000 base pairs long. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough time to ask him that.

(UPDATE: I was also lucky enough to be picked (among about 7-8 other people) to chat with him over lunch today! Yay! Our conversation started with the question of how to get people to truly trust what scientists are telling them, because unless everyone is an expert in every field that gets featured on the news, at some point some level of trust and faith in the verity of what scientists say is unfortunately required. Plus, it's no good if scientists become like fundamentalist preachers standing at the front of the room as a so-called authority dictating how people should think. I think the consensus regarding outreach in this sense is really to start with getting young kids into science, and to plant seeds of curiosity and critical thinking in people in different cities and towns, because people will probably be more open and receptive to scientific ideas if they come from the mouths of their neighbors as opposed to the mouths of outsiders.

The conversation then shifted to other random stuff, including sports, movies, and the recent discovery of neutrinos that travel faster than light through the Earth's innards (but still slower than light in a vacuum). I was able to also ask the question about gene patenting versus the Bermuda Accords, and Dr. Nielsen admitted that his understanding of gene patents was only marginally better than that of a layperson and that he didn't really know what to say about it, aside from the fact that the Accords only seem to apply to sequences of already-existing DNA. Additionally, I asked him how people getting into academia who do not yet have tenure (and the associated very high job security) could practice more open science. He conceded that he really is advocating for more thorough, comprehensive reform on the part of scientists and journals; he reminded me of how yesterday he discussed how only the most cutting-edge (in terms of making the most use of new technologies) journals accept things like YouTube videos, despite the fact that many times, it is almost trivially easy to show in a video what is otherwise almost impossible to clearly write in a paper. He said that individual scientists should publish in open-access journals if said journals exist in the field and if they are of the same quality and have the same quality standards as closed-access counterparts; in addition, if scientists truly believe that things like computer code that they write will be very widely used, they should open that code into the public domain, but asking scientists to open-source everything would be too much and, perhaps, sometimes unwise in and of itself.

The conversations I was able to have with him before and during his colloquium talk and during this lunch were incredibly satisfying and intellectually stimulating, and it makes me so glad that I'm here right now!)


Review: Linux Mint GNOME 201109

Oh man. I've wanted to do this post for quite a long time now. And now I can! So here it is.
Main Screen + System Monitor
Regular readers of this blog know that Linux Mint has been releasing snapshots of its rolling-release Debian-based distribution alongside its fixed-release Ubuntu-based distribution. A few days ago, the newest snapshots of the GNOME and Xfce editions were released. Furthermore, even before that, the developers changed from simply passing along updates from Debian Testing to thoroughly testing them and then releasing them in bundles called "update packs". While this is not something I can test given the way I do these tests, judging from the comments in the forums and the developer blog posts, the update packs have been quite successful, and they seem to have made Debian-based Linux Mint's stability on par with that of Ubuntu-based Linux Mint. This has caused the developers to make an additional small change to the update process; whereas before the Linux Mint Update Manager, which was originally built for the Ubuntu-based distribution and was initially ported over to the Debian base essentially unchanged, had a system of numbering package updates based on their safety, now those numbers are gone and replaced simply by update pack numbers and the packages in that update pack. That last point has had the additional effect of hiding dependencies that are not themselves directly used, which makes the list look a lot cleaner. All in all, there have been some pretty major changes to the way Debian-based Linux Mint handles updates, and that's due to the fact that a rolling-release distribution is fundamentally different from a fixed-release distribution.

Anyway, the GNOME and Xfce editions were released on the same day, which is in contrast to the past when the Xfce edition would be released many months after the corresponding GNOME edition; because of that, I feel like the GNOME and Xfce editions now have equal standing, so I am testing them together. This also gives further credence to the idea that the Xfce edition could become the main edition if GNOME 3 (because after all, official maintenance of GNOME 2 will end sooner or later) cannot be transformed into something like Linux Mint or if it is too difficult to maintain.
Well, I would have done that, but booting the Xfce edition gave a kernel panic. I was able to reproduce this a few times using a variety of boot options. That's really unfortunate. I don't know if it's due to a bad image, a bad burn, both, or something else, but in any case, I can't speak for the quality of the Xfce edition. I will thus focus just on the GNOME edition now.
I tested this on a live USB made with UnetBootin. I tested the installation process in VirtualBox with 1024 MB of RAM allocated to the guest OS on a Pinguy OS 11.04 Mini live USB host also made with UnetBootin. Follow the jump to see what it's like.


Star Wars and George Lucas's Overreach

Recently, George Lucas has made news in the tech world by announcing changes to some of the dialogue in the original Star Wars movies to make the plot and background more complete. The reaction, at least among those who watched the original movies when they were released in the theaters, is that he is needlessly meddling with the movies they love and remember so well just to satisfy his own desires, and it's time that he opened it up (Will Gompertz, BBC News) to the fans to modify and redistribute.
I agree with most of the arguments presented in that post. Basically, the idea is that the artist doesn't have sole control over what happens to a piece of art, and that part of what makes art great is how other people view, use, and build upon it. The artist can't possibly think of every way the piece of art can be used, so it's not right for the artist to simply exclude all unofficial uses; in fact, that is stealing art from the viewers, much more than "piracy" is stealing from the artist. And finally, George Lucas, by essentially writing previous versions of the movies out of official existence, is destroying pieces of art that were valuable in their own right, even if he doesn't think so.
I'd like to add to this that I think there are basically three groups of people with regard to Star Wars fandom: there are those who will regard George Lucas's word as the gospel, those who will regard only the original movies as the gospel, and those who will create their own plot and dialogue patches to satisfy themselves and their friends. So what George Lucas should do is try to continue to sell the revised movies, because those in the first group will come anyway. Leave the movie to the second and third groups, because they will probably not be significant sources of direct revenue, yet they have the right to watch the movies as they see fit. Maybe there will be competition among the official George Lucas revisions, the original unaltered movies, and the fan-made alterations, but that's something that George Lucas will have to deal with, just like any other firm does in a free competitive market.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!


Featured Comments: Week of 2011 September 11

There was one post this past week that got a couple of comments, so I'll repost all of those.

Revisited: Fuduntu 14.10.1

An anonymous reader had this tip on how the web applications are created with Google Chrome/Chromium: "Windows user here. Google Chrome, Menu, Tools and here the first entry enables me to make a "Das U-Blog" App. Suppose it works the same with various Distros. Have a nice day."
Commenter FEWT, who is also the creator and lead developer of Fuduntu, said, "Firefox 6, LibreOffice, Thunderbird 6, and lots more apps are available in the repository. Take a look at System > Preferences > Customize your Installation. :D", later adding in response to my request for further clarification, "We are rolling everything we can, that includes non-default apps. :D Take a look at our development forum to follow some of the recent releases. http://www.fuduntu.org/forum/viewforum.php?f=22".

Thanks to those who commented on that post. This week, I will have a double review (though not a comparison test) out, but I don't anticipate being able to write about anything else. Anyway, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing & commenting!


Revisited: Fuduntu 14.10.1

Main Screen + GNOME Main Menu
It has been almost exactly 6 months since I looked at Fuduntu. Since then, it has had one new minor release (version 14.9 became version 14.10) and an update to that release (version 14.10 became version 14.10.1). You would think that not much would have changed between then and now, so what's making me test this?
Before that, I apologize for the recent dearth of posts here (aside from the very recent one). First, I've been busy, second, I've been sick, and third, I haven't really thought of anything to write about. That's part of the reason why I'm writing this. Also, I can promise you that there will be a new review soon after this, and it will actually be two reviews in one (but not a comparison per se). With that, let's get on with answering that question.

So aside from the fact that I wanted to write about something here, I'm testing this because the Fuduntu lead developer made a pretty big two-in-one announcement yesterday: (1) Fuduntu is becoming a rolling-release distribution, meaning that users don't have to reinstall the latest version of Fuduntu every six months just to stay up-to-date, and (2) Fuduntu will stick with GNOME 2.X for as long as possible. These two really piqued my curiosity, so I gave it a spin.

I tested the live session using a live USB made with UnetBootin. I did not test the installation procedure because I did that before, and I haven't read about any major changes to Anaconda since then. Finally, I don't usually mention details like this, but do note that the ISO file has decreased in size from about 1.1 GB to a bit less than 950 MB; the consequences of this will become evident later. Follow the jump to see what's the same, what's different, and whether I still like Fuduntu as much as I did 6 months ago (and I will make frequent reference to that review).


First UROP: Thermophotovoltaics

I apologize for not having posted anything in a while. For one, I've already become quite busy, so I haven't had much time to do stuff like this. For another, I have been (and still am, as of now) sick for over a week, so I've just been trying to rest whenever I can.
This week, though, I started my first UROP! Yay! It regards modeling new thermophotovoltaics (thermal solar cells) that use photonic crystals. Photonics are to light what electronics are to electrons, so the idea is that photonic crystals will give enough fine-grained control over photons to make capturing more parts of incoming solar radiation even easier and more efficient; this will of course increase the overall efficiency of solar cells too. Right now, photonic crystals have a lot of room for improvement, and ceramic-metal composites called cermets are currently the best at selectively absorbing different wavelengths of solar radiation, but the idea is that with time and many improvements, photonic crystals will be the way to go.
Currently, I'm just reading up on the basics of photonic crystals, but I can't wait to begin working on a topic and in a group that have both been recently featured in Slashdot, and which will probably have a pretty big impact on renewable energy sources!


Third Semester at College

Today was the first day of my third semester at MIT! I was excited to start with the classes that I want to take (and am not just taking to meet some requirements). This semester I'm taking classes in wave mechanics, special relativity, thermodynamics, and microeconomics.
There are a couple new things I noticed. First, there seems to be a lot of restoration work. I wonder why, given that the sesquicentennial celebrations have come and gone. Second, I've noticed that a lot more on-campus Athena computers that previously used Microsoft Windows now use Ubuntu, which is cool. Related to that, the Ubuntu version used has been upgraded to version 11.04 "Natty Narwhal"; Classic GNOME as opposed to Unity is the default, though Unity is an option when logging in, as are TWM/Ratpoison, WindowMaker, and a few others.
I'm really excited for this semester not just because of the classes I'm taking, but also because I'm going to start a new research opportunity regarding solar cells. It's pretty cool stuff, and I'll probably write more about it a few weeks after I actually start.


Featured Comments: Week of 2011 August 28

There was one post that got quite a few comments this past week, so I'll repost a few from that.

Review: Mandriva 2011 "Hydrogen"

Reader DarkDuck said, "I also tried to create Live USB for Mageia and failed. It was Live CD for me that time. 400Mb is way too much even for KDE version. My Mageia only takes ~170Mb freshly booted."
Commenter Mechatotoro, whose blog about Mandriva you should all read, said, "Thanks for the review. I installed Mandriva 2011 and I'm giving it a test drive. I must say that I'm not crazy about the ROSA panel, but it the environment gets more to my liking once that the pager and the effects are enabled."
An anonymous reader said, "No codecs? I've just installed and they were all there, although mp4 files played without sound. Since this is probably aimed at the home user who double boots, I was surprised I couldn't find any tool to mount a non-Mandriva partiton. You can set a shortcut for switching workspaces, but it's buried deep in the configuration options, in the usual KDE way."
Commenter Paul, Cork had this response to the other commenters' mentions of Mageia: "i am quite disappointed with this Mageia vs Mandriva commentary, i have in the past number of years seen the mandriva team and community do some great work and a recent example being 2010.2 a fantastic and stable distro, i in the above comments not seen one comment stating that 2010.2 has extended support and if users are not happy with Mandriva 2011 how about returning back to 2010.2 and letting Mandriva community know this, i respect the Mageia fork however just remember where it came from and that it would not have existent if it were not for Mandriva, Mandriva is obviously in financial difficulty and i can not understand why attacking rather than working as a Linux community is being done a total shame and prob the reason why Linux as a Desktop will never go anymore than a hobby , to many distro's out there and not enough unity" (To be honest I felt this was fanning the same flames it supposedly intended to put out.)

Thanks to all those who commented on that post this past week. I just moved back into my dorm room, so I'll definitely have at least one post this week. I also hope to have a distribution review out whenever that distribution is released, but I don't know when that will be. Aside from that, now that I'm getting back into the swing of college and work, while I will try to post whenever I can, don't expect anything particularly. In any case, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!


Reflection: 2011 Summer

My summer has finally come to an end. Tomorrow, I'll be headed back for college, where the classes of my third semester will start next Wednesday.
All in all, it was a great summer. I was able to participate in a really fun internship at NIST for 12 weeks. I was able to hang out with friends a lot. I was able to spend a lot of time with immediate and extended family during the two weeks after my internship ended. And this last week, I was able to relax quite a bit. Now I can't wait to get back to college and meet up again with friends from last year, start my classes, and start my first in-college research opportunity!