Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Sunday 31 October 2010

Beginner's guide to Linux

Well, not literally a guide. More a sort of warning really.

Recently I suggested that Linux isn't worth bothering with as an operating system. And I'm certainly correct in that assertion. As an astronomer, I've already been using it in work for years. But now I've also installed it on my home PC so that the science can keep going until I've run out of cake, giving me a little more ground to expound on my stated anti-Linux position.

Previously (at home) I had to contend with AndLinux, an impressive, nay heroic, attempt to have Linux run like any normal Windows program. But which hero ? Prometheus ? Achilles ? Steven Seagal ? Yes, that's the one. Alas, it's not the Steven Seagal from Under Siege but the Steven Seagal from Executive Decision, where he pretty quickly snuffs it due to a tragic accident involving a stealth fighter. But up until that point, he's as awesome as only Seagal can be.

Now AndLinux is a full Ubuntu* install, so you can do pretty much everything with it you can do with Linux normally. You can install other Linux programs on it and run them just fine, without the pesky need for dual-booting (an option I prefer to avoid since I don't know what I'm doing). And it's absolutely marvellous, but didn't quite install properly and so half the features didn't work. In terms of Antarctic explorers, this one is definitely Robert Falcon Scott. One suspects that if he'd had a stealth fighter he'd have been far less likely to have had a tragic demise, but we'll never know for sure.

*Unlike Windows, Linux comes in many varieties - Ubuntu, Red Hat, Fedora... all of which have meaningless names.

LINUX : latest in a very long line of doomed heroes
Still, it worked well enough for me, but won't run on 64 bit machines - such as my shiny new laptop - at all. Fortunately, it's now possible to install a full version of Linux with dual-booting without the scary need to mess around with partitions. Ubuntu's "wubi" installer creates a virtual hard drive of up
to 30 GB (more might be possible, not sure yet). And credit where credit is due - this really is as easy as installing any other Windows program.

On to Linux itself. First impressions - it's ugly as crocodile vomit. More disgusting than David Mellor, more horrific in appearance than all of the terrible Gorgons, more repugnant, even, than the default Windows 7 (it is, however, possible to make it look just like the nice version of 7 but I'm a simple man and easily confused, so I won't). Style issues aside, I find the default setup of having both top and bottom panels to be just downright weird. What's it for ? That's not rhetorical - I'd really like to know. Really. Please tell me !

Functionality then. Well, it certainly does function, most of the time. Sadly the much-vaunted massive stability of Linux over Windows is a tale worthy of Tolkien : we all wish it was true, but it isn't, and not as adaptable to a movie franchise either. It sometimes completely (and I do mean completely) crashes for the same reason babies cry : it's slightly tired, bored, or has done something unspeakable in places you'd rather not know about. Sure, Windows does the same from time to time, but unless your computer is floating in a lake, not anything remotely like as often as Linux does (and here I'm speaking both of home Linux, installed by me, and work Linux, installed by people who understand these things).

To be fair, if you want to do astronomy, Linux is the only game in town (professional astronomy software for Windows just doesn't exist). It's such a shame that game is cricket. For instance, installing things. On Windows this is simplicity itself. You download a file, you run it, you choose where the files go. Not so with Linux. Just like the rules of cricket, a whole plethora of possibilities are now open to you, which need to be described at length :

1) You use an inbuilt GUI-based program to find and install the program you want. Easy. But you don't get to decide where it will be installed. And no, it won't put a nice icon on the desktop so you can actually run the thing.

2) Same, but this time your program requires installation of other files as well, which the program can also do automatically.

3) As (2) but this time the program can't install the others automatically, so you have to find them yourself.

4) The programs are listed in the installer program but you're not allowed to install them because authenticity cannot be guaranteed. Come on ! This is my personal operating system, not the Antiques Roadshow !
Even though you have to enter a password to install programs in any case, you must now resort to...

5) Use sudo apt-get install [whatever]. This isn't a GUI, you have to physically type this command into a terminal. Provided you know the correct name of the program, this will work - even though there's still no more than a password check.
That's right people, we're back to typing in commands. What is this, a typewriter ? Looks like DOS has the last laugh after all.

6) Download and compile the source code yourself. Provided you've already got the necessary programs - and you probably will - this is generally quite simple. Except if...

7) Your program requires multiple libraries and other programs to install which must all be compiled from source code. Libraries have to be put in a specific location, otherwise it won't work or you'll have to manually edit path files. Most likely, you'll have to do a lot of digging to find out where the libraries are supposed to go.

8) As 7, but your program will partially function unless you do something very very specific, like running another program first, or have a particular compiler installed. Thus leaving you utterly bewildered until you blindly stumble upon whatever that something is.

Soo... it's a colossal WIN for Windows over Linux in terms of installing things. I mean, really huge. Overwhelmingly, staggeringly vast. Stunning. Which is the perfect cue for an exploitative picture, and that's exactly why there won't be one here.

Linux has multiple workspaces (desktops). AWESOME feature. Makes things 207x easier to organise. I have no complaints at all. Too many windows ? Just drag some to another workspace. True, Linux has this one licked, but it won't help you one iota if your desired program has a category 8 level of
installation problematicity.

How's about boot-up times then ? Ever since we evolved beyond the abacus, loading times have been a thorn in the very soul of mankind. For me, Linux boots in 55 seconds compared to Window's 7 more stately 3 minutes 35 seconds. That's measured from pressing the power button to entering a state of usability (i.e. being able to open a web browser). Linux shuts down faster too, in less than 10 seconds compared to Windows 25 seconds.

But is time really that important ? No. Almost every time I turn my computer on I do what all those who work with computers do with alarming frequency : I make tea, thus sparing me the unbearable nightmare of waiting for 3.5 minutes for the thing to boot up. If you really can't wait an extra 2-3 minutes to get online, see a doctor. In the words of no less of an authority than Marge Simpson : does anyone need that much pornography ?

Sure, it's faster to load and shutdown, but is it any faster to use ? For this I shall employ the awesome power of 3D-modelling software Blender. Rendering the scene below takes 62 seconds on Windows 7 but just 42 seconds on Linux. Now that's impressive. Instantly reducing render times by 25% is no mean feat, and could save many hours on longer animation renders.

1.1 million vertices using 580 MB RAM. For full-size images see here.

Except that it won't. Since Linux has the same stability levels as Chris Huhne's policies on nuclear power, there's no way I'm leaving the computer unattended for renders of any length if it's running Linux. I'd be better off microwaving the damn thing and get it over with.

For day to day computing -  web browsing, word processing, basic graphics applications, I contend that Linux is as viable an alternative to Windows as helicopters are to buses : Nice idea; ain't gonna happen.  It doesn't even come with a paint program installed by default. How ya gonna make lolcats without a paint program ?

One other point concerns security. As I mentioned previously, the world is unanimously against Window's Vista's security measures, whereas Windows 7 is without doubt superior. Is Linux more secure than Windows ? I'm not qualified to even try to answer this. But I do know that its security measures - requiring you to enter your password when installing anything - can scarcely be lauded as much fun to work with.

To summarise then, Linux is really the only choice for doing science. It's faster and gives better performance than Windows, and has multiple workspaces built-in. More importantly, most astronomy software is only written for Linux. And while it's nice to have a terminal to input commands, the fact that this is necessary rather spoils its retro charm. Moreover, Windows performs just fine for everyday use, and so utterly defeats Linux in the battle of software installation that one wonders how its designers sleep at night. This, together with Windows massively greater stability and prettiness, means that I'll continue to be enslaved to Microsoft's evil empire for some time yet.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Review : Stargate Universe - Lost in Plot Space

Let's start with the obvious : They cancelled Atlantis for this ?!? Small wonder MGM are in administration.

It appears to be a case of "let's ride the Battlestar Galactica bandwagon so hard the wheels explode". Given that BSG came up with "The Plan", this is patently unnecessary. Sure, BSG itself was fantastic. It was full of imperfect characters, political commentary, weird mystical elements no-one understands, and gratuitous typecasting. It was seldom, if ever, funny, and was perhaps even less of a sci-fi than Firefly. All of which mean that imitating the same thing in the world of Stargate, in many ways its polar opposite, is bloody daft.

Things didn't start well from the word go, with the first episode being done in a Lost-esque fashion (i.e. nothing but pointless flashbacks). It reminded me of Olive Stone's Alexander, a film which similarly seemed to have had a nasty accident with a fan in the cutting room. Mercifully, subsequent episodes didn't follow this ridiculous non-linearity.

Not that this helped much. Sure, the show is full of imperfect characters trapped in a mostly hopeless situation, just like BSG. Unfortunately, unlike BSG, virtually all of them have the riveting personalities of... well, rivets. The comic genius of Colonel O'Neil and Dr McKay has been replaced by the introspective moping of a bunch of cretinous teenage cretins who spend far more time complaining about the food than exploring a gigantic alien spaceship. Even so, you'd think that it should be at least reasonably interesting to see them trapped millions of light years away from home.

It isn't. Most episodes in Season 1 were set on Earth. In a spectacular, "we've missed our own point" move, the show's designers wrote in communication stones that let the crew swap souls with people back on Earth in order to communicate (hmm, soul swappers is a much better name, someone should tell them this). Besides being bloody daft, it turns out that everything the crew do back on Earth is criminally boring. Most of the time the show was on the verge of being "Coronation Street, but very occasionally, in space". Which isn't nearly as interesting as it sounds.

After milling about for a while, doing nothing anyone would ever care about, about halfway through Season 1* we find out that the ship is powered by flying through stars. And that's cool - it's a neat, properly sci-fi concept. Unfortunately it appears that this was only a fleeting moment of inspiration,  since the following episodes only descended further into the "Neighbours" level of talent of scriptwriting.

*Halfway through the first half, anyway. Sorry, but a "mid-season break" of 3-4 months cannot be called a break. It's a sabbatical.

Things did eventually pick up. The characters, script, acting... none of these improved in the slightest. But the plots did. Stuff actually happened. Alas this is offset but the tendency to put, at the end of each episode, a 4 minute long song so cheesy that its mind-liquefying potential could be compared to the Ebola virus. I hesitate to say it, but even the Enterprise theme tune has greater musical merit than some of Universe's selections.

I never thought I'd say that. Ever. Oh, Gods....

Almost as bad are the plot holes wide enough to sink the Lusitania. For instance, a time-travel episode apparently saw most of the cast killed, but next week they were all tickety-boo. Presumably, everything rest itself but with little exposition as to how. A few weeks later, some aliens attacked. "There's no point trying to communicate," says chief science dude Robert Carlyle, "they can't possibly understand English."

What the... ? Did you just forget the last 15 seasons of Stargate ? Every single week they'd find a new lost tribe or actual bona fide aliens, every single one of which spoke (but for some reason never wrote in) perfect English. Everyone speaks English in Stargate land. It's been a time-saving principle of the show ever since the end of the movie. Just because one of the main premises of your show is fairly ludicrous doesn't mean you can just abandon it. That'd be like remaking Star Trek but without warp drive.

One week, some of the crew get stuck on a planet with a buried Stargate. With limited time until the ship automatically leaves without them, and the gate buried in solid rock, what could possibly be the solution ?That's right... C4 ! Stargate's explosive of choice since time immemorial. Miraculously leaving the gate not only unharmed, which is believable, but also standing perfectly upright, which is not.

But the piece de resistance ? Undoubtedly this occurs at the start of season 2. The formely rather hot medic has been pregnant for some time and is now about to burst at any moment. Hmm, this could be a problem. How to avoid bringing up a baby in a dilapidated starship with no doctors and oh so many other interesting things going on all the time in this action-packed show ? Simple, have it abducted by friendly planet-building aliens.

Problem solved !

It doesn't end there. To everyone else, it appears that the baby has been lost. So has it been abducted or was it all in her head ? No, it's really been abducted, because the aliens have given her a prescient vision of a nebula which is encountered shortly after. But if that's true, then there shouldn't be a teeny tiny baby corpse in the ship's sick bay. Is there ? I don't know. This rather obvious question is simply ignored.

Which leaves me wondering as to why I'm still watching. Well, if they'd continued with what could laughably be called the Earth-based "stories", then I certainly wouldn't be. Nor am I shallow enough to watch it for the small assortment of fairly attractive members of the opposite sex. No, the reason is quite simple : there's nothing else on.

Reasons to watch Stargate Universe ? No. Unlike Loreal, they're not worth it. They're really not.

Overall, 3/10. Poor script, poor editing, poor acting, pointless plotlines. Hasn't even invented its own watershed-proof swearword. What's the frelling point ?

Wednesday 20 October 2010

I'm Living in a Plague House

There is no other explanation. I'm not generally an ill person. Normally, I might get a few colds per year. And no, I don't mean man-flu, which I'm convinced is no more than an elaborate ploy by ultra-extremist feminists* to gain some small amount of publicity by annoying the Daily Mail. I mean actual colds, which can be effectively and thoroughly treated with no more than a packet of tissues and, if need be, several tonnes of Lemsip and lots of fluffy pillows.

*Technically I suppose this is impossible. You can't be an extremist when all you aspire to is equality. But you know what I mean.

But in the last 6 months I've had no less than 3 illnesses which have involved me egesting such a prolific quantity of my innards that I might as well take up a course in home plastering, or, more lucratively, get an apprenticeship to Jackson Pollock**. And I'm writing this in the quite justified fear of catching a 4th, which has today struck down my luckless father - to such an extent that we called an emergency doctor.
EDIT : Fortunately, this turns out to be a case of non-infectious blood poisoning. Unfortunately, this means it's a case of blood poisoning.

**Except that this is impossible, because he is dead. I did not previously know this.

Bah. I can make this without even using any paint.
First, there was what seemed to have been a norovirus, best described as the flu with the added attraction of continuous puking both ends. That caused me 2 days off uni, oh what a terrible shame. Then, there was what I assume to have been another norovirus, costing me £30 as I had to rebook my theory test. Following a cold, a puking virus which also made me feel as though I'd run a marathon, causing me to miss a driving lesson a week before my practical test.

Perhaps this relates to the liberal applications of Stress Factor 12,000 I've been experiencing over the last few months. This is a lot like Max Factor but with less Max and more Stress, and also completely different in every other way. Sadly, this apparently simple explanation quite fails to explain why everyone around me is also dropping like flies. "Everyone" is not even necessarily limited to humans, with one of the dogs having what can only be described as dysentery.

Nor can it be because of my hedonistic wild partying. Hangovers aren't infectious, and in any case I haven't exactly left the house much anyway. I've been too busy sorting through 20 years of accumulated crap, an ongoing process that will probably endure through the next ice age or even the next Ice Age movie.

Now it's nothing short of madness to suggest that this spate of illnesses could be entirely due to coincidence. So there must be a logical, rational explanation for why people start chunking*** every other week or so. What can this be ? I reckon I probably disturbed an ancient Indian burial ground. But I'm still in Wales. Logically, this must mean the curse is travelling back through time for my disturbing an ancient Indian burial ground at some unknown point in the future. Makes sense.

***I'm aware that "chucking" would be the more usual expression. That's not a typo.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Win !

As if by way of compensation for the lack of a license, a PhD certificate arrived by post today. It's got a dragon on it. Surely this means I'm legally entitled, nay, obligated, to create a race of atomic monsters ! Atomic SUPERMEN ! And 50-ft tall robotic cats with lasers for eyes ! I just won't be able to drive anywhere.

Friday 15 October 2010

Fail !

So I failed my driving test, on account of mounting the kerb while trying to reverse around a corner. Annoyingly, I had this same maneuver down to a tee (or is it tea ? I've never seen that expression written down) the previous evening. So much so that my instructor didn't feel it necessary to practise it again because, he said, he couldn't have done it any better himself. In fact, it's probably the one thing my instructor was confident I wouldn't fail on. How ironic.

It might not have made any difference anyway, since my mind just seemed to go utterly blank. I know not why, I wasn't even very nervous. Perhaps there's some sort of Law of Conservation of Driving Skill, since all my other flaws were almost absent during the test. I changed gear in plenty of time for junctions and almost always remembered to take my foot off the gas when changing gear. I went nice and slowly round sharp corners, never crossed my hands over on the wheel, and never cut corners. I had 8 minor faults, 3 for steering (being too close to parked cars a couple of times), the rest for things like checking mirrors.

This is not, in fact, all that disappointing. No-one has been killed, injured, or even mildly inconvenienced as a result of my driving. No-one's going to hunt me down in years to come seeking to avenge the death of their father. No property has been smashed into dust, no pets tragically turned into a roadkill. Considering my lifelong reluctance to/morbid fear of driving, I consider that a pretty good result. And my employers, with the grace of saints, have even let me have at least one more shot at the test before I leave.

Monday 11 October 2010

WHY ?!?!

This is a question I increasingly ask myself every day. Why in all kinds of hells am I leaving to a remote island thousands of miles from proper civilisation* to study gas in galaxies so far away they will never, ever affect us, ever ? What could possibly motivate a stability freak like me to fly into a self-imposed exile ? Other people might call it exciting, but these people can go and boil their stupid fat heads. For me, it's Stress Factor 12,000, which is a lot like Stress Factor 11,000 but much worse.

*Definition : A place so unnecessarily sophisticated that it sells coaster holders and those little dishes only big enough to hold your spoon so it doesn't drip tea everywhere.

Some of you may balk at the very concept. Lots of people seem to have odd notions about the Caribbean. Unfortunately, it is neither full of pirates nor monkeys, not even pirate monkeys. It does have a tropical climate, but I find this quite distasteful. A constant 25-35 degree heat with a humidity level too high to be measured by human instruments is not my idea of pleasant. And since there's no relief come nightfall, it's a bit like living in a giant, moist oven. I'm failing to see the appeal of this.

No pirate monkeys for me. But there is rum...
So it certainly isn't the tropical climate that motivates me. Perhaps it's the thrill of starting a new life in a new, exotic land, full of strange people and a whole other culture waiting to be explored, with a wonderful new language to learn and a completely new way of looking at the world. Bugger that. I've said it before and I'll say it again : I'd rather stay home and play computer games.

Meh. At least Pac Mac is something I can actually do.
Perhaps, then, I go for the greater good of Science. Maybe the need to determine whether or not those "dark galaxies" really exist is so overwhelming that I'm prepared to leave my friends and family (be sure to read that link, it's genius) and live on an overheated island. Or perhaps, is it because I'm so obsessed with the gas content of early-type galaxies  that I'm prepared to confront my long-term fear of driving ? Well, is it ? No, it damn well isn't.

Galaxies are pretty.
 Not to say that there isn't a scientific motivation for going. There most certainly is. I spent 3 years studying this bloomin' gas and I'd really like to know what it all means. However, I can live quite happily in my own house not knowing the secrets of the Universe, but I'm not sure the opposite is true. To put it another way, if every telescope on Earth where to explode tomorrow in an fiery orgy of scientific Armageddon, I'd be a great deal happier than if it was my house that exploded.

Could be worse...
Another possibility is that I'm a money-grabbing bastard who'll trample on principles at the merest hint of funding. Possible, but while money might motivate me to confront fear, it doesn't alleviate it in the slightest. And because I'm a natural-born coward without any immediate possibility of financial destitution, well, I'd rather stay home and play computer games.

At least opting for the game means I'm not a capitalist. That's a happy thought.
What, then, could possibly cause such uncharacteristic behaviour ? Despite everything, it's more or less all of the above. The key factor is cowardice. I simply do not have the audacity to turn down $56,000 to live on a tropical island using the world's largest radio telescope for a job I can do. But sometimes I wish I did.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Brmm, brrrmmm !

Wow ! A blog post that's actually a proper blog about life and stuff !

So I was all set to write a lengthy post about the entire experience of driving, then realised this would be utterly pointless. A rather large number of people drive anyway, so what am I supposed to tell them ? And for those who don't, how am I supposed to describe something which makes absolutely no sense until you try it ? No, I think I'll just have a bit of a rant about driving courses.

I did an intensive course (9am-1pm, 5 days a week) preceded by two 2-hour sessions. The idea of an intensive course is that you can learn to drive in a week and be ready to take the test at the end of it. On some courses you drive around a track and even share with another learner - this would be absolute drivel. You might as well go and sacrifice a chocolate-covered goat to the Great God of Coconuts; it'd be just as relevant.

With hindsight I think I would have preferred a semi-intensive course - daily lessons perhaps, but maybe 2hrs per day rather than 4, supplemented with practise in my parent's car. I have to disagree with my instructor (who is a wise man and very good at his job) that you learn far more in 4 hrs; I just can't concentrate for that long. Anything much over 3 hours and I start to feel like I've been doing numerical integration in my head for about 2 days straight whilst only taking breaks to write an essay on the Platonic theory of forms*. Frankly, it gets boring. Even though I start making more mistakes and become increasingly afraid for my life, I become bored of being afraid for my life. I want to go home and play computer games.

*I'll bet you any money you like you've never heard driving described by that analogy before.

I also think I disagree that it would have been easier to learn at 17 as my instructor keeps telling me. For one thing, I don't think I learn any more slowly now than I did then, though I am far lazier. For another, I had no money at 17 ! I'd have had to have got a job as well as taking 4 A-levels**. Goodbye highly limited social life. Easy ? Should I also have taken up kick-boxing for good measure ? Or maybe just initiated a Middle East peace conference ?

**As opposed to now, when I have sufficient funds but find most of my spare time being ever more rapidly consumed in the fiery maelstrom of preparation for moving across the sea in a few weeks time.

That said, intensive courses do seem to work, at least for me. Well, kindof. I'm now capable of driving around without killing anyone, provided I'm given some instructions. Or rather I was when I finished the intensive course. After a break of 2-3 weeks from professional tuition***, I'm back to where I was about halfway through - it is, in fact, exactly like retaining knowledge having been cramming for an exam. All the basics are there, but the rest is up there somewhere in some kind of disgusting knowledge soup, and only the sieve of a professional instructor can remove the foul peas of ineptitude leaving only the delicious chicken of competence.

***To be fair most of that was spent in the firey maelstrom of preparation.

Still... driving in Puerto Rico in a few weeks ? In an automatic ? On the wrong side of the road and with all the controls on the wrong side of the car ?

Hmm. Can I do another viva instead ?