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Archive for April, 2011

20 years of Linux

April 12, 2011 3 comments

First, the cheesy video:

Now this: the computer I’m using right now is a 5-year-old Lenovo X60 with a humble dual-core Centrino processor, which I bought used. It runs both Linux and Windows.  On rare occasions I boot it up into Windows to handle certain, very specific tasks but 99% of the time I run it with Linux.

You know how sometimes you tell your Windows computer to do something and it doesn’t even seem to respond?  But then a minute later it starts navel-gazing and the hourglass starts going, and the mouse still works but everything else is frozen for what seems like an eternity?*  It has been said; “Windows is a multi-threaded operating system” but sometimes it seems like it’s one thread for the mouse and another thread for everything else.

Not in Linux.  I tell this old computer to do something and it gets right to work.  It says “Right away boss!” and stuff starts happening that is related to what I told it.  And even if it’s a big job like “run a batch process on this folder with 350 full-size photos in it” or “download security updates and install them” I can still go on doing other stuff while that is going on.  In fact, it has multiple desktops so I can segregate tasks.

My other laptop is a 3-year-old consumer-grade machine that I bought used.  It had Windows Vista on it and had gotten so jammed up that it wouldn’t run at all.  I nuked the hard drive and now it purrs along happily in Linux.

On both machines I write prose, write code, process photos, surf the web, watch videos – you know, stuff.  So don’t be afraid to try out Linux.  My favorite flavor is Ubuntu but there are many others.

*(The only longer unit of time is when you put in a DVD and before your movie starts the FBI has to come in first to warn you that copyright exists, and sometimes just to annoy you even more there’s a little skit about how bad piracy is?  As if to remind you what a tragic mistake you made buying the legitimate version instead of just downloading it off bitTorrent. )

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Face down on the sidewalk

April 10, 2011 2 comments

Last night about quarter after eleven I was driving across town with a can of gas in the trunk. In the first really pleasant Saturday night of the semester, large groups of intoxicated students were walking from party to party having a good time*. I stopped at a red light as two groups took the near and far crossing in front of me. Lagging behind the far-crossing group were a young man and his girlfriend who was wearing high heels and a revealing black dress.

She tripped and fell right on her face.  I don’t mean “she was facing the ground”, I mean “her face was the first thing to hit the sidewalk”.  We’re talking emergency-room visit here, and a couple years of conversations with her dentist.  Her young swain walked on and, halfway across the intersection realized she was not at his side.

She lay on the ground clutching her face in both hands, still face-down. He stopped in the middle of the intersection and looked around as the rest of the group went on its way.  Finally it dawned on him that she had fallen down and he rushed… well not to her side, but to stand in front of her with his hands in his pockets.  This went on for some moments.

When the light turned green, I drove on to deliver some gasoline.  The brightly-lit street was filled with students, presumably all with cell phones.  I hoped one of them would help her.  I hoped the young man standing in front of her would take his hands out of his pockets and use them to dial his cell phone. I hope I didn’t make the wrong choice driving on.

*(I would guess they were having a good time by their facial expressions, their (somewhat uncoordinated) bodily animation and the noise they were making.  I hope they’re also capable of having a good time when not consuming large amounts of ethanol.  In some ways ours is a repressive culture with only certain approved outlets.)

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Tim Minchin’s “Storm” animation

April 9, 2011 1 comment

If you liked Tim Minchin’s wonderful beat-poem “Storm”, you’re in for an animated treat:

I try really hard not to go on rationalist rants in meatspace conversations, but sometimes fail.  The other day I went off on acupuncture in a conversation, only to find that two of the people in the group believed implicitly in it because “the Chinese have been practicing it for thousands of years”.

Oh, well when you put it that way, what do we need science for at all?  What does it matter if scientists using MRI machines and electrodes, and chemical analysis and the anatomical knowledge from centuries of microscopic-level dissection, can’t find “meridian energy lines” in the human body?  And if you’re wondering how ancient Chinese doctors found them, fire up The Google and search for “canals on Mars”.

Then I thought of Tim Minchin, and reflected on the fact that he’s a celebrated entertainer and can get away with smashing people’s beliefs on the sidewalk in everyday life, whereas I am but an ordinary office worker and have to share space with these people every day, if I want to have a life.  So I excused myself and found something else to do.

But meridian lines are still nonsense.

(h/t almost all of my friends who have either linked this video or embedded it in their own blogs.  Seriously, Minchin is awesome and animation puts icing on the cake.)

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Struggling to crystallize (not really about crystals)

April 3, 2011 1 comment
crystallization at the business end of a stalactite as it forms

crystallization at the business end of a stalactite as it forms

Stalactite at Milner Library Plaza

Stalactite at Milner Library Plaza

One of the attractions of my daily ride to work is where I hop off my bike and ascend the steps of the library plaza.  As I carry my bike up the stairs, I get a pretty good view of the underside of the plaza.  Like all flat roofs the plaza leaks, and where the water emerges below, dissolved minerals form soda-straw stalactites just like inside a cave.  They never get very big; students see them and break them off, but it is fascinating to watch them form.

In the detail shot at right you can actually see emergent crystals – calcite, probably.  The coloration of this stalactite changes halfway along its length, representing the end one month ago of heavy snow; (and the salt that is scattered around after clearing it) less salt means less rust from the reinforcing rods of the concrete plaza, so the deposited minerals shift from reddish-brown to pearly white.

Mineral crystals seem like ordinary things and they are, until you think about what’s going on as they form. Calcite forms 74° 55′ crystal surfaces, resulting from the molecular properties of calcium carbonate, which in turn emerge from deeper atomic properties. As the phase change from dissolved molecules to crystal occurs, the molecules align just so.  Just because something is ordinary doesn’t mean that, if you look at it closely enough, it isn’t wonderful.

Every dissolved mineral crystallizes differently, if at all.  Pressure and temperature affect the result: one of the crystalline forms of carbon forms a transparent octahedral lattice that is popular with young couples in love.  Or consider calcium oxalate; in complex urinary chemistry it forms jagged, pointy crystals that cause larger accumulations of it to lodge in your ureter. Now you’re on the floor writhing in pain, hoping for some morphine or if not, then hoping someone will just shoot you in the head.

Conditions have to be just right for crystals to form.  If the concentration is wrong, no crystals.  If several elements and compounds are dissolved, again crystallization may not happen, or it may result in various muddy interactions between tiny crystalline formations.  But if you want one clear, recognizable crystal, the concentration and purity have to be within a certain range.

That’s been my problem the last few weeks;  too many dissolved elements and I can’t seem to get the right concentration for anything to crystallize. Some of the elements: Russia has contracted with British Petroleum to explore for Arctic oil.  We’re attacking Lybia. Republicans seem intent on rolling us back to the Robber Baron era.  We have awesome pictures of the planet Mercury now.  And thanks to a substandard Japanese power company in denial about tsunami waves, “clean coal” fantasists have a new pet argument.   Republicans again: women in several states will have to answer to bureaucrats if they want an abortion. Big dreams are passé; as our country rusts away, no politician on either side of the aisle seems to have the courage to suggest openly that we invest in infrastructure or education. The AFA’s Bryan Fischer lumps gays, atheists, Muslims and liberals generally into one big evil gooey “Them”, which wouldn’t matter if US Senators and Congressmen didn’t curry his favor. And practically everybody is in denial about Peak Oil.

Add to all that I just have not been feeling very well lately, so concentration has been a problem.  It’s tempting to disengage; to concentrate only on my own, parochial concerns and simply ignore the larger world.  But I am not wired that way.  For one thing, issues we perceive as “local” are, like the crystals forming as water evaporates at the end of a calcite tube, only the business end of something much larger and more complex.  So I will keep trying.

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