Friday, February 29, 2008

Where in the World Will Our Energy Come From?

Yesterday, there was a VERY informative lecture at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) about alternative energy sources. The speaker was Dr. Nate Lewis from Caltech, and he was unlike any other speaker on the subject. Of course, since the talk was about Alternative Energy Sources, global warming had to be addressed because you can't leave it out of a discussion about alternative fuel sources.

Dr. Lewis started out surprisingly about peak oil. He disagrees with those who warn about the end of the age of oil because there really is no reliable way to measure the amount of oil left in the planet. And plus, other forms of fossil fuels, like coal and natural gas can be converted to oil fairly easily, so there's no real oil crisis. He also expressed doubts about climate models. The actual climate is so complex and there are so many unknowns, that the models are unreliable. One memorable line was "There are six major models in climate science, and we draw conclusions by taking the average. However, the actual climate won't take the average, it will take one specific path, and we don't know which model, if any, is the correct one" [may not be exact]. By now, I've started thinking, "Wow, this guy sounds like a global warming 'skeptic'", and I started to take him less seriously. I mean, he even withheld judgment on those graphs plotting temperature and carbon dioxide, saying they show correlation, but not necessarily causation. If that's not a sign of a denier, I don't know what is.

That is, until this statement: "However, this is an experiment we can only perform once". This is when the talk went full-speed into global warming. At this stage, he was still cautious about his statements, not making any large leaps of alarm, but still emphasizing "this generation is the only generation that will deal with this problem". If we don't do anything, it's not absolutely CERTAIN that things will go badly, it might even be better, somehow, but do we REALLY want to find out? After making a very good argument on why global warming is important, he leads into the actual topic, alternative energy sources.

The total energy use of the world is about 15 GW (I think that's the number he used). And most of this is provided by burning fossil fuels. A really good way of tackling this problem is just conservation and efficiency. However, as effective that that could be, it can't be the only solution. You need better ways to generate electricity as well. Now, the alternative energy sources HAVE to be carbon neutral in order to stop or at least slow down global warming. There are three major energy sources that fit these requirements: nuclear power, carbon sequestration, and renewable resources. So far, nuclear power seems like the best option because it's carbon-neutral and it's capable of making more electricity than other alternative sources. However, they require HUGE investments to build, and in order to meet an acceptable level of carbon reduction, you have to build one every other day until 2050 to totally provide for our energy consumption. Not something that seems nice to do.

Next is carbon sequestration or just burying our carbon dioxide underground or undersea. Putting it in the bottom of the ocean is a problem because the ocean will acidify (more than now), and it'll be REALLY bad for marine life. Sequestration underground is also a problem because there really aren't enough reliable places to stash it. Most oil reserves and mines have holes which we'd have to plug up in order to keep the carbon dioxide in there. In one reserve in Texas, there are 1.5 million holes, won't be very practical to plug up. We could put it in aquifers, which are HUGE and allow carbon dioxide to dissolve in water, but then we'd be drinking Perrier (mineral water) which wouldn't be so good for people with braces. And plus, the actual continent would rise a few centimeters because we're basically putting gas inside of it. Might help if the oceans are rising, but otherwise, no.

Renewable resources seem good, except that there just isn't enough energy in them. If we harness ALL of the potential energy from ALL of the streams and rivers in the world plus the energy from waves in the ocean, we still wouldn't be able to power ourselves. So that takes care of hydroelectric. Same as geothermal, just not enough energy in there. Wind is nice, except it's also fairly limited, and do we REALLY want to harness ALL of the wind? The last main one is solar. The Sun should be the source of energy we should harness because we get about 150 million GW on Earth, and we only want 20 of them. However, the problem is that solar cells are too expensive to scale. If we can make a cheap solar paint or rug, THEN we'll solve our energy problem!

So, now it seems like we have nothing left and we're screwed. Since no alternative source can save us. However, he says that in addition to conservation and efficiency, we should invest in ALL of these sources, and fund more research. Currently, more R&D is being done by dog food companies than energy companies, and that's just unacceptable. The energy problem will never be solved if this keeps up. So, all in all, this was the most effective lecture about global warming and energy that I've attended. It didn't rely on consequences of doom, but stuck squarely to facts, and made an even greater impact. Keep checking that site for an archive copy of the lecture. You WILL NOT be disappointed!

New ATI driver

A new ATI Catalyst driver (8.2) was released a few weeks ago. For those experiencing less-than-stellar performance running compiz with the 8.1 driver, I recommend you upgrade. The fixes in this version are:
• The X server no longer crashes if the screen
resolution is changed in horizontal or vertical desktop setup with a monitor that does not support DDC;
• The X server no longer segfaults or fails to initialize DRI if a BusID was specified in an unexpected format in xorg.conf;
• The X server no longer freezes on shutdown if atieventsd is running;
• The first OpenGL application run after starting a session on X server version 1.4 no longer hangs.

Now, I know that with me, compiz has been causing X to freeze quite a bit, so I haven't done surgery to find out exactly what the problem was, but this looks like it will at least make some improvement. You can get the driver from the web site, and my installation instructions will still work for this one. In fact, I'd recommend that way, because you leave apt to take care of all of the package managing and installation.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

An Exercise in Skepticism

Ok, I'm not sure if this video is serious or not, have a look yourself if you have 10 minutes to spare:

Can you spot all of the faults in reasoning in this video? I'm not going to go in detail and rebut it because it just seems too crazy to believe. Though here's what I think of it. The one thing that struck me most was that it said nothing about the mechanism to grow the Earth. That should set up alarm bells. You can't bring matter out of nowhere, there needs to be some way to combat gravity.

Another weird claim about science was about throwing away a hundred years worth of data. Let me tell you something. The Ptolomeic model of geocentricism was worked on for about a thousand years. People refining it, adding more and more epicycles. And then came little ol' Copernicus, who threw all of that into the trash bin by putting the Sun in the center of the Universe. A hundred years isn't going to make much of a difference if it's wrong.

However, this video also makes claims about astronomy, which I can foray into with confidence. For one thing, the video says that the plate-tectonics theory is wrong because it holds a primitive view that our planet is special. Now, we're not saying that no other planet can have plate-tectonics, they can. But no planet in our solar system DOES. Some other things you can say is that life doesn't exist on Earth because if it did, we'd be special. Or that we don't have oxygen in the air, because if we did, we'd be special. That type of logic is really flawed. And another thing I noticed. The video didn't seem to have taken into account the fact that Mars is much smaller than the Earth. Unless you believe that they formed at different times, they should be the same size. The same goes for Mercury, Venus, and probably even Pluto (though it technically isn't a planet). Of course, there are a LOT more things I can say about this video, but unless I know that it's not a parody, it wouldn't be worth using up all of the time.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sliver Time

If you don't play Magic the Gathering, you just might want to skip down to the bottom of this post.

Let me make this public. I HATE SLIVERS!!!!No, I'm not talking about those things that get caught in your skin if you handle wood. I'm talking about the creature type in Magic: The Gathering. I've hated them since I first encountered them, and I still hate them. In my opinion, they are the cheapest (in a detrimental way) type of cards ever (worse than the Un- series). At least Un- cards make the game interesting. Just stick in a couple of Ward slivers (Slivers gain protection from a color), shifting slivers (slivers are unblockable except by other slivers), and the worst, Crystalline sliver (slivers can't be the target of spells or abilities, except by other slivers). And stick in whatever other slivers you can find and tah-duh, you have a powerful sliver deck.

I swear, they've taken out all of the strategy that you need for deck-building. Normally, you need to find a theme and choose which cards to put, and more importantly, which cards NOT to put. Because if you have too many useless cards, you'll never draw the good ones and you'll lose. Even if you do draw a good card, it's still surrounded by many not-so-good cards. Plus, what may be good in some situations, might not be good in others. For example, Call of the wild (FF2: Reveal the top card of your library. If it's a creature, put it into play, if not, put it in your graveyard) would not be good in a deck full of instants and sorceries. However, if you have a ton of expensive, powerful creatures, it'll be excellent. It depends on the context of the deck. Now, slivers on the other hand, go well with other slivers, period! There's no real strategy to building a deck other than "Get as many slivers as I can". And even more, if you have one GOOD sliver, it makes all of the others good and kills the opponent by brute force.

An even worse thing is that it basically makes games boring. When you play a sliver deck, unless you kill the opponent off at the very beginning (which means less game), you're screwed and you know it. There really is no way to make a game interesting if your opponent has 10 unblockable slivers that can't be the target of spells and abilities with first strike, trample, and deal damage directly to you when blocked. Now, if you want a deck that mercilessly crushes your opponent no matter what, you might want a sliver deck. However, if you're like me, and want to have FUN! Aim for a different deck. I have to say, the only way to beat a sliver deck is to use another sliver deck. And when that happens, the game descends into a massive orgy of abilities which affect everyone and no one. That's just annoying for both players. But hey, that's just what I think! Let me just say that, except for very special cases, I don't respect sliver decks.

NOTE: If you don't play Magic the Gathering, this post would probably have meant little to nothing to you. If you want me to post some guides on how to play, I can do that. Just leave a comment.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Ok, so the past weekend at was at SCaLE (the Southern California Linux Expo), volunteering at the Ubuntu booth. And I have to tell you, it was FREAKING AWESOME! I didn't get to go to any of the talks (I got the cheap ticket, but I heard of people going anyways). But I manned the booth most of the time while I was there. If you want to see some pictures of SCaLE, Ars has some. I am not visible in his picture, I'm buried in the group of people on the left. But as you can see, we got festive in our tablecloths, and use the red, yellow, and orange Ubuntu colors! Another thing you surprisingly can't see is my computer. If you look closely on the yellow table, you might see a keyboard with my hands on it. That computer was a demo computer, and hopefully proved very helpful to people wondering about Ubuntu. All we needed was a Kubuntu and a Xubuntu, and people would have been very informed about everything. Unfortunately, we didn't have that luxury. But it's surprising how effective a hook compiz is, especially the ability to write fire on the screen.

Ok, maybe one in a million of you readers are skeptical that I was there (heh, if I had ONE skeptic I would be honored by the million readers). In that case, I give you photographic proof that I was there (and no, I'm not just showing off):Thanks to Nathan for having a camera to take this picture (he's the one on the right). I'm on the left (the one who NEVER looks good in ANY picture). And in between us is the mighty Jono Bacon (with a name like that, he's GOT to be cool!). In case you didn't know, Jono is the coordinator supreme of Canonical and Ubuntu. And that' s me! Slouched right next to him! Ok, I'll quit going on and on about Jono now.

Now Canonical was awesome for providing for us. They send a TON of promotional materials, all for free, from pens and stickers to brochures. Unfortunately, we didn't make them send us CDs, so this is where it got interesting. Now, Nathan had all of the ISO on his laptop, but just no CDs. Luckily, we had a ton of blank DVDs which we brought in case somebody wanted one. However, I don't think we anticipated initially SOOO many people wanting a CD. So, we had to co-opt our computers to become full-time CD burners. This is partly the reason I wasn't able to spend that much time going around. My computer was the Desktop, and it had a fast DVD burner, so we had to use that. Even at 2 minutes per CD, I felt like the inventory wasn't getting any higher. We REALLY underestimated the demand for Ubuntu DVDs. But we managed to get through and scrape along and provide people with their free DVDs.

Now, the actual CONVENTION was pretty cool too. We had Linux Chix right across from us, which is ALWAYS a good thing. We also had the Free Software Foundation a few booths away (though I never did pay them a visit. Oh well, there's next year). Google was wayyy down and offering cool stuff like google pens (not so cool) to Google yo-yos (really cool!) However, I'm sure, the rest of the convention meant nothing, without one, very special company (Cue romance music). Sun, you made the Expo what it was. An incredibly awesome experience. Your representative, Matt, was really awesome, and managed to stay cool even when the heat was tough. And even though I obviously wasn't a system administrator, or work for a big company, he treated me like I mattered. He answered all of the questions I had, and more. That is what I love about you, Sun. He gave me a LiveCD of openSolaris, something that I never knew existed. With that LiveCD, I SAW! I saw that openSolaris has made REAL progress in the wireless direction. I saw the openSolaris could look REALLY REALLY cool. And plus, his laptops both had version of Solaris, with Indiana and openSolaris. And I had no clue you could get compiz working so smoothly on them. I swear, it was FREAKING AWESOME! Well, Sun, I guess that's to be expected from you. All of your innovation and greatness. Not even Google, with its fancy-pants booth could match you in that. (End love song). Matt was also giving away tons of free stuff, like Java tattoos (which are just plain AWESOME), openSolaris DVDs, Sun studio DVDs, and other random stuff such as Sun bottles and Monitor mirror things... Well, that's the climax of this event. Those of you who were there, I'm sure you were expecting it. Well, if there's anything important I missed, leave a comment.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Academic Decathlon

Sorry I haven't posted in the past few weeks. I blame it on the Academic Decathlon competition which just finished on Saturday. See, I kind of had to start studying for it so I could give our school some pride, and I didn't have time for petty things like reading RSS feeds and blogging. However, now that the Decathlon is over, I have time again to blog and keep you all posted on the latest happening in science and open source! However, I'll tell you what it was like at the Decathlon.

First competition happened the Saturday before last, so on January 26. It was where we were did what are called the three "subjective" tests. The speech, interview, and essay. Different schools have different schedules. Mine turned out with the speech first. In the speech, I gave a prepared speech and an impromptu speech of their topics. I had a pretty interesting speech about the incident at Columbia University involving Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. My prepared speech was about a distant memory (the movie Contact). Both speeches I cut the time REALLY close, so that's something I'll need to improve on in the coming year.

The next was the interview, where judges basically conduct an interview to see how interesting you are. They have a sheet outlining your interests, and ask you questions, such as "Why did you join Academic Decathlon?" and other various topics. I think I did pretty well on it, though I'll have to wait for the scores to find out.

Essay was basic essay writing. We got four prompts about the Civil War, and had to write an essay about them. The one I chose was "What personal qualities of Lincoln strengthened or weakened his policy as President" or something to that degree. That was... interesting, but I managed to write, in my opinion, a pretty strong essay, even though I listed Lincoln's only personal drawback as being dead.

One week later was the objective portion. This involves about five hours of taking scantron tests about the various topics (Math, History, Science, Music, Art, Economics, Literature) at UCLA. Those were actually not that bad. I've never seen test taking move so smoothly. However, an interesting thing that I saw was that during the break, there were actually people at UCLA who played Magic. Unfortunately, I didn't bring a deck, so I didn't join them. But I was still surprised to see that game still thriving at a University. That day reinforced my confidence in humanity a little while.

Lastly came the Superquiz, which are ten measly questions. They hardly mean anything to your score. However, they're broadcast on television and shown to the public. So, even though it means next to nothing, it's incredibly important for PR. Several schools study ONLY for the Superquiz and neglect the other material because it isn't as publicized. We aren't one of them. While the Superquiz seems easy doing an armchair analysis, there really IS a lot of pressure, and that affects your performance. Your entire team and everyone on TV is watching you. In addition that pressure, you only have 7 seconds to mark your answer. So, as I said, it's TOUGH. I only got half of the questions right, and I was surprised at what I got wrong.

Well, at the end of the Superquiz, we had 38 points out of 60. Now that doesn't sound all that good, but it suffices for our purposes (beating certain rival schools). And of course, we aren't hardcore like the really competitive schools (who get 56). They do TONS of studying, like studying after school until 8 PM and on weekends. Even I have some sliver of a life and other things to do than study for Academic Decathlon. But, all-in-all, we're satisfied with our score. Don't bother us. And expect more activity later on here... our responsibility has finished!