Monday, April 9, 2007

I told ya...

In case you missed my little rant a few days ago, click here. After reading slashdot today, all I have to say is case in fucking point. Let's recap. Nasa exercised the same level of stupidity when they lost a satellite because they couldn't perform a conversion on imperial units; Intel couldn't get division correct on the Pentium processor when it came out; and apparently, Fermilab can't add force vectors correctly. All these mistakes cost millions of dollars and went through some level of double checking. If you are not afraid by this level of incompetence, you should be.

Saturday, April 7, 2007


I am a fan of personal avatars. My blog avatar was made by IPLv70, who has a knack for making personalized Powerpuff sprites that make great little pics. Yesterday, I was looking around and noticed a lot of people had these personalized South Park avatars. Being a huge fan of South Park, IPLv70 and I set out and found the site people were using to do this. It turns out you can find out how you get rendered "South Park style" at the South Park studio; it's a very cool little web app. Anyway, the following image is what IPLv70 and I ended up drawing from this site (with some minor photoshopping post-processing ;).

I couldn't resist photoshopping myself and my IPLv70 holding hands together. <3 style="text-decoration: underline;">

Monday, April 2, 2007

What Vista should have been.

IPLv70 and I have been living together for a few months and one of the perks of living together (Oh and there are many perks *evil grin*.) is that we've been able to work really well together in getting our machines reinstalled to their full potentials. See IPLv70 is an expert in user interface design and isn't too fond of dealing with low level software and hardware issues (she can though). I am the compliment to this; I don't know much about UI design, but I am pretty keen on working hardware and low level software. So IPLv70 sets up our themes, window managers, and user apps (and this is awesome since we have the same aesthetic tastes... to a scary extent), while I make sure the kernels, filesystems, volume managers, raid etc. are all set up and running as fast as it can be.

IPLv70 uses a nice custom built workstation, and I use a pair of Toshiba laptops. We both run ArchLinux systems with Beryl window manager interfaces; both of which IPLv70 brought to my attention. We both love ArchLinux as it takes a minimalist approach as a Linux distribution. Neither of us want a distro. that is essentially going the way of windows, i.e. developing into it's own proprietary format and interface *cough* Ubuntu *cough*. Personally, if I want to run in the windows paradigm I'll run windows. Anyway, Arch isn't for everyone; but it is awesome in terms of maximizing the potential of your available hardware.

That's all well and good, but I do like the eye-candy. This is where Beryl comes in. Beryl is a true-3D window manager that just looks incredible; it's still pretty early in it's development, but they do have stable releases. Anyway, to convey my sentiments I'm putting up some screenshots.

Here is a simple shot of my desktop. Notice that it is actually translucent. My workspace consists of five desktops arranged on a pentagonal prism.

Before going on, let me say that I don't own a $5K workstation. This interface runs on a laptop that is about a year old (centrino single core 2Ghz). I have no problem running this interface while doing kernel compiles. Usually I have 2-15 applications open at once and the system is still very responsive. I have yet to see this system break 500 megs in consumed memory (I have 1Gig). Ok, here's another plain desktop shot with two terminals.

Ok, here's a screen of an actual workspace view.

Basically, the workspace sits in a super-enclosure called the skydome, which I've given it's own background image. Beryl has eye-candy that gives your desktop water-like elements, waves, raindrops and whatnot (those are ripples in the image).

One of the really nice things about Beryl+Gnome under Arch, is you have the ability to easily fall back to Metacity. Metacity is a typical 2D window manager that requires less system resources then Beryl. This is good for long compiles or conserving battery.

Anyway, I think it's funny that you can get an interface like this that is truly 3D on a Linux machine given the state of Windows current technology (Vista). I mean, Vista simply would not run on this laptop; not even if I wanted to. Vista still uses some 2D imaging tricks to fake various 3D elements of its interface (like transulcency); that is my current understanding. This isn't to mention 'features' like copy, moving and deleting of files taking up to 100x longer on Vista machines, etc, etc. I have to laugh; I really don't understand how MS is expecting to survive. Anyway, I love Beryl because it is a faster and optimized version of what Vista was meant to be; and it is free... as in not costing literally thousands of dollars just to install. Anyway, enough ranting, I'm closing with a final screenie.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Future...

IPLv70 just finished making this awesome webpage for me to blog on and I figured what better way to christen my blog with a rant eight (count 'em eight) years in the making.

Ok, a bit of context: I am currently a Ph.D. student in Maths; and I have been teaching various parts of courses in university maths and physics for eight years now (starting in my second year of undergrad.). I have run tutorials/recitations on subjects ranging from discrete maths to graduate partial differential equations to quantum mechanics to electromagnetism on two different continents. While this is nothing special, almost every graduate student in any subject has to do some teaching, I have summarized my experience to give weight to the following statement.

I have seen the future for science and engineering and I AM AFRAID.

As you may have guessed, most of the students I've taught are of the engineering/computer science mentality. Yes, some are maths and physics majors; but they are the vast minority of my students. Anyway, I usually end up teaching differential equations to these budding, eager minds of tomorrow; this is usually the last math course many engineering students will ever have to take. It's not important to understand what differential equations are beyond the fact that they play the central role in physics which, in turn, is the base of all engineering sciences.

Let me come back to the reason why I am afraid. I would not be concerned if students struggled with differential equations; it can be a pretty tough course and quite dry for those who are not fascinated by maths like I am. I am afraid because many of these budding engineers can't do simple algebra; some can't even manipulate fractions. This isn't so prevalent with my students in Australia (where I currently go to school/teach), universities are much more selective on this continent than they are in the US (due to the fact that you can still get a nice trade job that's protected by the gov't with a HS or community college degree... but I'll go into that another time). Anyway, by the time students get into one of my classes, they have been weeded down considerably more than anything in the US system; and hence, they typically do very well in my tutorials.

Now, before I tell you about students in the US, keep in mind that is where I did my undergrad. Instead of giving you a whole long spiel, let me give you a snapshot of the last class I taught in the US. The class I was assigned to was a honors level course in partial differential equations. This was a third/fourth year course that only the most outstanding undergraduates were allowed to take. Almost all of my students were engineers. Make no mistake, this course was hard... but these were the brightest students in one of the top applied maths/engineering universities in the US (the campus was 35k-40k students). Not ONE student got a perfect score on ANY homework throughout the entire semester. That's right, there wasn't a single perfect score in that class. What was worse was something like half of those students didn't have basic algebra skills. A few couldn't consistently manipulate fractions.

So, let me recap here. What I last observed was that the very top eschelon of engineering students, students who were being groomed to go into engineering design for disciplines ranging from civil to aerospace engineering could barely do algebra in their final maths course at Uni. This SCARES me. These people will be designing the aeroplanes, cars, bridges and electronics of tomorrow and most of them don't have a mastery of the most basic levels of algebra.

If you think I'm over-reacting, take a look at this:

This was the Tacoma Narrows bridge located in Washington State. This bridge was built in 1940 and literally got blown apart due to bad civil engineering. Essentially, the winds on the canal the bridge spanned caused the bridge to start torquing and oscillating in just the right manner that caused the bridge literally to shake itself apart. Technically, the winds drove a structural resonance in the bridge that caused it to rip itself apart. This phenomena could have been avoided if the engineers did a proper analysis that is essentially based on simple differential equations. Now... if your engineers can't do algebra... they sure as heck can't do differential equations and thus they can't prevent things like this from happening. Scary huh? Now imagine the analogy for aeroplanes: if this type of phenomena isn't properly accounted for, it correlates to the wings on the aeroplane vibrating out of control (yes they can vibrate at very high frequencies) until the literally rip themselves apart. In the case of a passenger jet, this would also mean the fuselage would be ripped apart as the wing goes straight through the body of the plane. Scared yet? Oh oh! Let's not forget how Nasa lost a several million dollar satellite because engineers couldn't convert units in a thrust calculation. Not only that, when they realized the satellite was going off course, THEY DID IT AGAIN! Subsequently, that satellite was permanently lost. Yeah, Nasa engineering couldn't figure out how to multiply by a conversion factor. If you aren't scared by now, there is something wrong with you.

Personally, I love flying and used to have the highest confidence in the structure and design of modern aeroplanes. After teaching so many engineering students; I now can't help tensing up whenever I'm on a plane in turbulence.