Summer 2008

Large Hadron Collider in Pictures

Technology / September 5th

As most science followers know by now, construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is nearly complete. I'm eagerly awaiting its failure to detect the Higgs Boson so that they can vindicate Heim and get to work on my starship.

I was really impressed when I came across a page of beautiful pictures of the LHC that look like something out of a science fiction movie or a video game. Also, if you're feeling really nerdy, check out the LHC Rap Video.

Researchers See Memory Happen

Technology / September 5th

I'm going to do a link and run on this, but I thought it was really fascinating. The New York Times has an article about researchers for the first time watching the brain in action as memories are first created and then recalled.

For the Brain, Remembering is Like Reliving

Moral Philosophy

Politics / August 19th

We live in a world with a wide variety of differing moral perspectives combined with base human emotions that each in turn shape our priorities and our worldview. It is interesting to consider that the overwhelming majority of our political opinion is not actually based on facts but on simple learned moral priorities. Because our moral priorities are ingrained in our psyche, they become imutable constants upon which we can build arguments and base our opinions, supporting them with facts that we give the same weight as the moral assumptions we start with.

What many fail to consider is that the moral foundation of our reasoning is not based in fact, but is actually our learned opinions, absorbed throughout our lives by our our families, friends, authorities, and our culture. We all share many of the same moral underpinnings, without which we could not have a functioning society. The differences come with the priorities we place on them. For example, consider how important it is to you that people be held accountable for their actions. Now, how important is forgiveness, charity, and leniency? Compare personal freedom to personal security. How much freedom should people have to do as they please when that very freedom could put you at risk?

Government is the embodied will of the people. That will takes the form of policy or law. The things that the government is made to do results in three things: the application of policy, the corruption of policy, and the incompetence of policy. The application of the policy is the actual thing the government set out to do being done. The corruption of policy is the result of people mis-using government to accomplish things not intended by the policy, and the incompetence of policy is the failure of the system to function as it was designed and intended due to mismanagement or poor planning. When you set aside the corruption and the incompetence (large swaths of government activity though they may be) you are left with those things that the government does that it was set to do.

What a government is set to do is entirely dependent on the moral priorities of the people in power. For democratic government to work as expected, policies should be the average of the moral priorities of the people, but that is seldom the case. Those in power each have different priorities, and they treat those priorities as self-evident facts upon which they base their decisions, where they will compromise with others, and ultimately what laws are enacted.

If those in power value personal responsibility, more people go to prison, more people go bankrupt, more people lose healthcare. They are held personally responsible. If those in power value security, more people are denied entry at the border, more people are surveilled, more people are arrested on suspicions, more is spent on military and police, and more bags are searched at the airport. Conversely, if they value leniency, more criminals go free, more deadbeats game the system, and healthcare costs rise. Personal freedom means more illegals enter the country, more criminals go undetected, more people have knives on airplanes, etc. Of course I've only highlighted negatives, but government is often just the judicious application of negative consequences. Any of these philosophies could as easily result in new social programs, departments, or programs.

Ultimately what I hope to highlight in all of this is that your own moral priorities are just that: yours. They are not universal constants, they are not facts, and they should not be treated as such. There is no moral certainty and those that believe in it are dangerous to a free society. Don't assume that people that don't share your political view are ignorant or somehow immoral. They just don't share your moral priorities.

Desktop Linux: Redux

Computing / August 13th

Back in January I described my failed efforts to get Fedora working. That was only one of many previous ultimately failed attempts to switch from Windows. However, the release of KDE 4 was compelling enough to get me to try again. KDE is one of the two major desktop environments for Linux. Both the KDE and Gnome projects have been trying for years to develop a desktop environment better than Windows or Mac, and in my opinion, KDE 4 is the first thing that actually seems to have a chance.

The Linux distribution I chose this time was openSUSE, since they jumped on the KDE 4 bandwagon before most of the others. They also had a newer version of the kernel, which I hoped meant it was more likely to work with my hardware. Right away I was impressed with the installer. Everything was attractive, the console screens were better hidden than in the past, and then the problems started.

My intention with this post isn't to chronicle each problem I encountered (though there were many), but rather to talk about the end result. After several reinstalls, editing my boot loader files, recompiling the kernel, package repository failures, much time spent at the console, many web forums visited, and hours upon hours of time, last night I was able to play a video file and an mp3 from my media drive. This may sound like a pitifully basic thing, but my media drive is a Windows-formatted RAID 5 array of sata disks running on an Intel onboard software RAID controller. MP3 is a codec that isn't supported natively in free Linux distributions because it's licensed. Version 4.1 of KDE is not the one that comes with openSUSE 11, and I didn't want to download and install one just to upgrade it.

Now, there is still a lot to do. I have to get the media drive to mount at boot and file sharing isn't completely set up. I installed Wine, but I haven't tried to get my games working yet. I have to test some other media files to make sure all of my codecs are there, and I need to install some more web plug-ins. My mouse buttons aren't configured the way I like them. I'm sure other things will crop up as well.

Knowing what I've learned through this process, I actually could have gotten all of this working without ever touching a console. The package manager has some limitations, but I can actually get almost all of my software from it, all of installed automatically without any configuration on my part, including the video driver and third party applications. All of the configuration that I needed to do could be done through gui-driven applets. The KDE 4.1 environment has a couple of glitches, but is gorgeous and very usable.

I don't know yet if I'll stay on Linux. A lot of that depends on whether I can get my games to work with Wine. Windows really hasn't given me any problems in a while, so the driver here wasn't getting off of Windows, but trying KDE 4. Say what you will about Windows, but I've gotten it the way I like it. If I can't get the same level of usability from KDE I won't stick with it. Right now it's got a long way to go, but it took a long time for me to get Windows to this point, so I'll extend it some leeway.

New LED development leads to cheaper, better light

Technology / July 22nd

Purdue University researchers have developed a new method of producing LEDs that lowers costs, increases brightness, and reduces heat. The advance could allow commercial LED lighting with costs comparable to CFLs or traditional incandescents. In addition, the new LEDs will last longer than currently available methods. The technique eliminates the need for expensive sapphire by using a protective layer that prevents reaction between the silicon wafer and the zirconium nitride used to reflect the light away from the chip.

Unlike some advances you hear about which are 3-5 years out, the scientists believe this can be in commercial products within two years. This has the potential to begin filtering quickly into lighting products that could lower energy costs and usher in a whole new array of new lighting styles and techniques. If onyl they could unveil a new industry standard home light bulb socket. The current one is from about 1909.

Purdue University news release: Advance brings low-cost, bright LED lighting closer to reality

Dr. Horrible

Cool Stuff / July 20th

Check it out before it's gone!