Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Open source ATI drivers

A couple months ago, it was revealed to me that I didn't need the proprietary ATI drivers at all. The open source ATI drivers now have AIGLX support included and you don't need the bleeding-edge of proprietary drivers. Now, the open source drivers are WAY more stable than the proprietary ones. With those bleeding-edge drivers, I found my computer randomly freezing. However, that happens no more with the open source drivers.

The open source drivers have come a long way in the last couple of months. Now they have native AIGLX support, which means you can throw off XGL totally for compiz. However, the drivers work on these cards. I have a Radeon 9550, so mine has 3D acceleration. If yours is unsupported or 2D, you might want to stay with the proprietary ones.

In that guide, the most important (and most tricky) part is getting rid of fglrx. In addition to purging it, you should also go through Synaptic and get rid of any packages with fglrx in their name. Just do that and follow the rest of the guide, and you should be set! And the best part is, you won't have to comb ATI's site for new drivers. Ubuntu will bring 'em in as they come along.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Support the Bag Tax

Recently, I heard on the radio about a bill to create a "bag tax". A tax on grocery bags. When I first heard of the concept, I thought, "What a great idea!". This ought to get people more enthused about bringing their own bags and reducing waste. However, the group Stop the Bag Tax wants to oppose this idea. Their web site is rather sparse consisting of four sections: a description of the Bag Tax, "But will this save the planet", "Who will this affect", and a link to that audio clip I linked to.

The site claims that:
"As if the cost of gas and food isn’t enough... politicians now want to charge you $.25 on every grocery bag. That adds up to about $400 per family per year!"
Now they're getting mixed up here. The AB 2058 does NOT address a $.25 tax, that is AB 2829. AB 2058 sets up guidelines for the state's voluntary bag recycling program. However, if we do look at the CORRECT bill, we'd see its not as sly as they paint it at all. When you look at the bill itself, you notice that it acts "on and after July 1, 2006". Politicians are in no way trying to sneak a tax on us. A year is a fair amount of time to get accustomed to reducing or even eliminating use of plastic bags in favor of canvas bags. If by then you still refuse to reduce your use of plastic bags: then, my friend, you will be helping California out of its budget crisis.

Another claim the site makes is about whether the bag tax would be good for the environment: "NO. Plastic bags are fully recyclable. Grocery stores already make it easy to recycle with convenient recycle bins." The problem with comparing this with recycling is that things we typically recycle: bottles, cans, electronics, paper usually just take up space in a landfill, and that's just wasteful. However, plastic bags are MUCH more dangerous than that. In California, the state taxes bottles and cans, and pays that money back to consumers when the bottles and cans are recycled. This incentive so far has brought the recycling rate to 67%. However, with plastic bags, we want something MUCH higher. Plastic bags in the environment are deadly to wildlife, they kill thousands of marine creatures when they get to the ocean. A full-blown tax to keep people from using them would be the best way to do so.

Lastly, the site asks: "Who does this affect?" and gives this answer:
This will affect everyone, but it will be especially devastating to low income families, seniors and anyone living on a fixed income. Plus, it could cost thousands of California jobs.
I don't have much to say to that other then it seems like it was pulled out of someone's hindquarters. Yes the tax will affect everyone, but there does not seem to be a reason this would target low-income families and seniors. I mean... I'm sure they can find SOME bag to carry their groceries in, if they so desired. And the tax won't affect the store's prices. According to the bill, the store would be "authorized to retain 3% of the fee as reimbursement for any costs associated with the collection of the fee". As far as I can tell, the tax only affects the wasteful, which it darn-well should!

So, here's what you do!
  • Find your representatives using this form (from the bagtax web site)
  • Call them and let them know that you SUPPORT the bag tax.
  • Ask them to support both AB 2058 AND AB 2829.
And it goes without saying that you should try to reduce your plastics too.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Teens On Linux

OSCON is starting up today in Portland, Oregon. I won't be going. But that doesn't mean it won't be awesome. I'm just going to say that Andrew Harris (better known to his friends as tunys) is going to be giving a talk about teens and Ubuntu. And I'm not just saying it because he's one of my really good friends and he founded Teens On Linux. And that I'm also a member of Teens On Linux and frequents the #teensonlinux channel on FreeNode. Unfortunately, due to parental issues, I'm not going to Portland, Oregon to hear him or help him with the talk. However, to anyone that would be going, I'd highly recommend going to his talk on Thursday July 24 at 4:30.

Yep! TeensOnLinux has already had more than a year's worth of history. It started out when Andrew (now known as Tunys; lojban for tuna) couldn't find a community of teens who were interested in Linux (TeenLUG existed at the time, but as the unofficial propogandist of TeensOnLinux, I'm glad he didn't find them), so he decided to make his own. He got together with some British dudes whose names are unimportant and created TeensOnLinux. It was an awesome success! I joined them on IRC about a month or so after they were founded, and haven't left. TeensOnLinux also has a web site with forums and the like, designed to be like a myspace for teens, but the web site is NOT the main activity hub for us. I frankly barely visit the web site (And since the host is not so great, it usually goes down for a day or so before anyone notices). The main place where the action goes on is on IRC.

I first got to know TeensOnLinux when I was browsing FreeNode channels on IRC. I was a not-so-recent convert to Linux, but still was looking for the right community, and found it on IRC. It turns out that #teensonlinux is in an ideal place. Since we're on FreeNode, we don't have to worry much about a lack of security; the staff are always prompt (in fact, a little too prompt usually). And also, since we have our own channel, we can do whatever the heck we want to in it (as long as it isn't malicious or detrimental in any way). There have been two main periods in #teensonlinux. Both named by me after the dominant bots during the time. First was the fredburger era. Fredburger was a supybot rBot which did all the typical IRC stuff, like larting, factoids, etc. During most of the fredburger era, the channel was mostly stable, with about the same amount of people joining and leaving. I'm not sure if this has anything to do with the bot, but I think its a characteristic of it. Then, about five months later, Tunys adopted bobsalad. Bobsalad is a pyborg, meaning he's sorta a language recognition/speaking bot. The bobsalad era overlapped with the fredburger era for about two month until, as legend has it, bobsalad slayed fredburger and covertly usurped the entire channel from the humans. Now bobsalad rules as an invisible dictator, making sure nobody steps out of line but not revealing his true power. Anyways, for anyone who wants to see the craziest of bobsalad's sayings, please visit the Salad QDB. I assure you, you will spend the whole time cracking up. The characteristic of the bobsalad era is a general crazifying of the channel. Whether that may be to show newcomers that we're just a fun place, or the dark magic of bobsalad, we're not sure.

Although, a grand experiment during the bobsalad era was the massop idea. Tunys believed that security on the channel could be guaranteed by giving everyone op capability. Newcomers generally did not receive ops until they were deemed trustworthy (which took about five minutes). Of course, I was vehemently opposed to this, and abused the massop system constantly, but Tunys still believed. However, the massop experiment failed after a conspiracy to bring in an outside person who kickbanned everyone in the room. I was not a victim of this, and did not even know it happened until afterward because I was currently kickbanned for a good-natured prank/demonstration I pulled on Tunys which he didn't exactly appreciate. But we are, in fact, back to a good ol' fashioned ChanServ maintained channel. And feel free to drop in any time you want. And definitely, if you're going to OSCON, drop in to see Andrew's talk. I ASSURE you that you won't be disappointed, knowing him.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A New View of the Universe

A story straight from the Onion! The newest observations from the Hubble Space Kaleidoscope have just been released, and they're fascinating!

That's right! As people saw how popular the Hubble Space Telescope was and its huge contributions to astronomy and astrophysics, members in NASA who studied the fairly nacent branch of astrokaleidoscopics. In fact, it has already begun to change our views of the universe. As astronomer Douglas Stetler states,
"With their unprecedented resolution, the latest images from the new kaleidoscope reveal that space, once thought to be isotropic, is actually continuously expanding, unfolding, and rearranging in a series of freaky patterns,"
I'm sure the theoretical astrophysicists are stunned by these discoveries. Who knows what else the Kaleidoscope will reveal about our Universe. Even in our own Solar System, its been discovering new things, for example, Dr. Mae Ling-Turlington described Jupiter through the Kaleidoscope as "a dazzling hexagonal array of variegated prismatic configurations, changing our very understanding of the atmospheric patterns there on the solar system's spikiest-looking planet." Who knows what other discoveries the Hubble Space Kaleidoscope could make in the coming weeks?

[In my own research] Many people don't know this, but Galileo was not only the first person to point a telescope into the sky and discovering the cosmos, but he also was the first to point a roll of toilet paper, a lead pipe, and he was the first to point a kaleidoscope into space. This experience changed him almost as much as when he used the telescope. With it he discovered the funky glow of Mercury, and the phases of the Sun. The Hubble Space Kaleidoscope is many steps away from this primitive viewing, but traces its roots back to him.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Phoenix Updates

[Note: I wrote this a week ago, and for some reason didn't post it. Well, have fun!]

Ok, so, I left off Phoenix at landing. Since then, it's done some more pretty cool stuff, and also run into a couple of problems. But don't worry, they're nothing those guys at JPL haven't been able to handle.

So, while taking a cornucopia of photos, the Phoenix team decided to practice scooping and dumping. That way, they became familiar with the soil and figured that they wouldn't screw up when they tried to actually perform experiments on the soil. It turned out that they weren't as familiar with the soil as they thought. It turned out that they'd sorta be wrong. When they actually tried to put the soil in the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA, which basically bakes the soil and analyzes the gases that are emitted), they encountered a little problem. As you can probably see to the right, the soil seems rather clumpy. And over TEGA is a sort of sieve to keep large particles out. Well, it turned out that the clumps turned out to be larger than the holes, and none of the soil could get through.
After much shaking, enough soil finally got into the analyzer so that it could heat up the sample. The result: Not much water. But, that could be expected because the sample was sitting out in the sun for a few days while the lander was trying to shake it in. At the initial heating, no water was given off. However, when they upped the temperature, really heating the soil, they detected some water, which was probably chemically bound to the minerals in the soil itself. So that's still significant, and hints that there was most likely water in the past.

After the analysis, there was a minor glitch on the lander which caused the loss of some nonsignificant science data. That was promptly fixed by the JPL team, so I'll go on to more science.

After scooping the sample for the TEGA experiment, scientists noticed a distinctive white layer in the hole left behind. Two things immediately jumped into mind: salt or ice. There would be an easy way to distinguish between the two: to wait. If after a few days, the layer is different, that indicates that the ice sublimated (changed directly from a solid to a gas). If it doesn't change, then it's probably salt. Well, after a period of anticipation, as you can see in the animation to the left, there was definitely some change, so it's probably ice! And on Mars, there are two kinds of ice, water ice and carbon dioxide ice. However, Phoenix is currently in the middle of Martian summer, so all of the carbon dioxide ice should have sublimated already (it sublimates at a lower temperature). So that leaves: water ice! That is incredible because the ice is far higher than we thought in the Martian soil. This is incredibly encouraging for the possible habitability on Mars.

Of course, Phoenix didn't stop there. There's still another main instrument to be used: the wet chemistry lab. This lab essentially dissolves the soil in some liquid water stored on board and checks how the minerals in the soil behave when dissolved. Well, it turns out that the instruments detected several familiar compounds like potassium, magnesium, and chloride. What's so exciting about those? Those minerals are found on Earth soil! So, the Martian soil is roughly similar to terrestrial soil. This will also be an important find for potential future human habitation because a colonist "might be able to grow asparagus pretty well". Instead of worrying about the soil, we could tackle other problems such as protecting plants from radiation, adapting them to the cold temperatures, and other potential Martian crop failures.

So far, all of this has been extremely exciting. I can't wait to see what other amazing things Phoenix will discover next. You can also follow along. The Phoenix Mars team has a twitter that you can follow: @MarsPhoenix . And of course, you can be friends with the Lander on Facebook. That's a good way to catch up on updates. And I'd like to say, I've been deferring this post for a couple of days now, and every day that went by meant another topic to write about. So, we are getting a TON of info from Mars. In fact, if you want to keep afloat on all the images coming from the lander, JPL is where you can get them first! There's just so much cool stuff coming from that lander!

Monday, July 07, 2008

The danger of woo

Over at Science-Based Medicine, David Gorski recalls a chilling tale of a surgeon who encountered a woman with early-detected breast cancer. Because of the early detection, her survival rate was predicted at 93%. However, the woman refused chemotherapy in favor of "alternative" treatments. She dropped off of the radar and came back three years later to that same surgeon. The result: the tumor had progressed QUICKY, and was now at a stage that was very difficult to cure. Of course, once into woo, always into woo, she refused treatment even though her condition was degrading. And right now.... Gorski predicts that she's probably dead.

This is a reminder that the world is not yet a boom de ah dah paradise. There are still problems which science hasn't been able or hasn't been allowed to solve. And this woman is a tragic case. Yet, this is a perfect rebuttal to the claim that "alternative" medicines aren't dangerous. The claim that patients will be willing to forgo medical treatment for "alternative" treatments seems speculative and unbelievable until something like this happens. A person is "successfully" conned into believing that tea is a better cure than chemotherapy.

And there's also another unfortunate thought in this situation. That most doctors can't deal with this as House, M.D. can. Which is namely to tell unwilling patients that they're being idiots and are going to die, and treat them anyway. I'm starting to wonder how many of these cases doctors have! But anyways, doctors: You have my deepest sympathies. No one should have to deal with having to see someone basically self-destruct due to ignorance and misinformation. Hopefully... and I really do hope so... science will start to be more widely accepted in this society.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


Currently, the Arecibo telescope has massive budget cuts lurking in the future. Due to a four million dollar shortfall from the National Science Foundation, the Arecibo radio telescope would not longer be able to operate. This would be horrible!

Well, the folks at SETI@home thought so too. They depend on Arecibo to collect the data for analysis. So they have a stake in this cut, which is why they came up with this handy little letter to send to your representatives to support a bill to restore the funding. All you have to do is put in your address (don't worry. SETI@home is an entirely trustworthy organization. They won't steal or sell your info.) and it'll give you a .pdf of three letters that you just print out and send to your Congessmen (two to your senators and one to your representative). Of course, if you want, you can use the sample letter to write your own personalized letter (which is what I ended up doing). But even if you don't have the time to write, if you just type, print, and send; it will make a difference. So fill out that form and save Arecibo!

Friday, July 04, 2008

The ol' Mountain, Plains, and Islands

For those of you who play Magic the Gathering, you'd recognize those colors as Red, White, and Blue: a little special thing for Independence Day. While perusing Google Analytics a few days ago (It was a while since I checked up on my stats), I found that there was a huge untapped audience interested in Magic Cards. To my surprise (and probably to most other readers), my Anti-Sliver screed has shot up in popularity with my most popular guides. So, I thought I'd make this my first official post about Magic, and just tell you my history with it.

I learned how to play Magic in fifth grade. I had a group of friends who were into it and I got into it. However, when I started out, I didn't have my own deck and used other people's decks. I was still learning the rules like attacking and tapping and all of that. However, it was a REALLY cool game. It was actually conducive to playing, unlike Pokemon, which was mainly about collecting (I'm not sure how much experience you all had with Pokemon cards, but the game itself was extremely horribly designed).

Once I got into middle school, then the Magic craze REALLY started. My friends were actually fairly successful in banding with older players of Magic and recruiting people into Magic cards. Of course, some of the older students made a pretty profit selling cards to us younguns, but it was a fun time nonetheless. Around 7-8th grade, a Magic the Gathering club was formed which was a place all players could officially meet twice a week to play Magic. Of course, us hardcore players played outside on days when the club didn't meet also. Magic was actually quite a successful social bonding mechanism. People got together and played, talked, and had a good time. Whenever we had any sort of free time, we'd get out our Magic cards and start playing. Oh, and by the way, it was during this period when I got my first deck and started maintaining and building it. My suppliers where I bought the cards from were the older students. My deck wasn't particularly special, but it was fun; one of my friends, on the other hand, had a particular knack for building extremely strong decks that were just about unbeatable; ranging from Elf to Goblin, to his extremely annoying deck-out deck.

Unfortunately, the period of Magic prosperity hit a wall: high school. Now, we were all too busy trying to get good grades and take as many APs as possible to play Magic. Slowly, Magic died out in our school; I'm ashamed to admit it. It wasn't until a few months ago when I wondered "What ever happened to Magic?" and attempted to reinvoke the good times that we had in middle school. However, my reception was less than appreciated. My friends were turned off to the idea of reinvigorating the card game because they realized how much time and money they invested in it when they were young (Sort of like me and Pokemon) and they didn't want to start that over again. I could understand that perspective, but what's got me worried is the younger generation. The incoming students don't have upperclassmen to learn and share Magic with, and they've started playing second-rate card games like Yu-Gi-Oh. Speaking from my opinion, Magic is much more fun than Yu-Gi-Oh, but these kids will never know that. So, I've taken to trying to introduce these younger students to Magic. So far, the results haven't been what I've expected, but I still have senior year to go. Wish me luck!

Now, about my decks. My decks tend to be obese. I can put cards into them, but it's difficult for me to take them out. In fact, I have one deck which has 200+ cards in it (though the performance is surprisingly good). I have five. My favorite one is a blue phasing deck that I sorta based off of a recipe off the Magic web site. I don't use it because it wins, I just love it because it's incredibly annoying, and that's what matters! I also have a deck I call ginormia, which is the 200+ card one. It's a red/green combo that doesn't have a particular theme. It's basically two decks I had crammed into one. Next is my "overpowered" deck, which is a green beast deck. I like to call it overpowered because the creatures are way too fricking strong. Next is my "experimental" deck, a white/blue combo. It's sort of an on-and-off deck. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn't. It really depends on the wind. I use it when I'm challenging someone new to gauge their deck and see what deck would be best on them. Lastly comes the deck I hate to use: my black zombie deck. I just have a general aversion to zombies and I use this deck when I feel like I want to lose. Unfortunately, this deck is actually better than I'm willing to admit, and when played correctly it's pretty powerful. But I still hate zombies. These decks have pretty much remained in their current state for the past couple of years. My card suppliers have long since graduated, and I haven't exactly figured out how to buy Magic cards from the store effectively. The way these students used to do it was by selling grab-bags which contained 12 cards from a mixture of sets. I've never gotten used to buying by set, so one of you professionals might have to teach me someday. Maybe when I manage to buy some cards, I'll be able to make my decks smaller and more effective. Anyways, now you know my Magic background, and I hope to make this another topic I cover on this blog.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Bad Astronomy moved!

Apparently, there's a new player in town on the Science blogging arena. In addition to ScienceBlogs, there's also Wired blogs, Nature blogs, LiveScience blogs, Scientific American blogs, and I'm sure many more. But now, I'm surprised Discover just entered onto the scene. I'm a subscriber to Discover (they're a really great publication) and really look forward to exploring what blogs they have. But, another thing that's pretty amazing. They've gotten Phil! Though, I'm pretty amazed at the transition. I follow Bad Astronomy in my feed reader, and it was so seamless, I didn't notice the change until I saw the web site itself. Usually, when people move blogs, you have to update your subscription, but strangely, not in this case. Phil (and whoever was in charge of the transition) really deserve some congrats for that. And I have to say, the new look is really appealing; though what I like most are the placement of the ads. They're tucked away in the sidebar and aren't that intrusive. Whoever designed that layout did a great job. Now, time to see what Discover blogs has to offer!