Older blog entries for danielsmw (starting at number 11)

Seesaw: An Idea for [math4]

I’ve been trying to come up with an idea for an application to write for the math4 program. I’ve mentioned this program before, and you can find more information at their wiki page: http://wiki.sugarlabs.org/go/Math4Team.

My idea is inspired by a leaning game we used to play in elementary school in 4th and 5th grade.  We had these devices reminiscent of balance scales and we had to put different weights on one end to balance the weights on the other.  The trick, of course, is that while the left side of the balance may have had a 10 gram weight, we could only balance it with a discrete number of non-10 gram weights on the other end.  Mathematically, you  might think of it like this:

10 = X1 + X2 + … + Xi

Where each X was some weight.  The first idea of my Sugar activity was just to emulate this behavior with some basic drag-and-drop.  I think that’s a good start, but then I wondered: can this be expanded to include variables?

I think the answer is that it can.  Consider the polynomial (6X + 13).  If we need to balance this on the right side of our scale, then we need two types of weights: weights of the form nX and weights of the form n.  There’s really no way around this.  This can be explained formally with linear algebra and vector spaces, but that would be beyond the scope of our 4th grade curriculum.  On the other hand, grasping that concept in a more a priori way is something that I feel can be important to grasping the bigger idea of variables and equations.

That’s not that hard then.  We can simply have a new class of weights which take the form nX.  In fact, it could be easily expanded to include weights of the form nY, nZ, et cetera; once the kid gets the concept, they should be able to balance a polynomial of any order.

From there, we can probably do even more, but I don’t have any solid ideas yet.  I just think that the framework of using a seesaw format like this has lots of applications for understand equality.

As I wrote that last sentence, I realized that we could have a dynamically changing equality sign that demonstrates how the equation is currently balanced (a >, <, or =).  With that in mind, I’m off to start coding!

Posted in Science and Mathematics, Technology Tagged: Coding Projects, Mathematics, Technology

Syndicated 2009-03-21 07:45:08 from Reflected Pensiveness


Disclaimer #1: This is not a political blog post.  If you try to interpret it as one, then you’re interpreting it improperly.

Disclaimer #2: I’m not about to try and bash business majors or investment bankers.  I’m just making a generic point.

Many Americans probably saw President Obama on Jay Leno last night.  It was fun enough to watch, and I think was actually a good move by the president to bolster public support by dropping back down to the friendly, laughing American citizen status he had on the campaign trail instead of the all-powerful presidential aura he’s had to take on lately.

I agreed and disagreed with some things that he said, but one thing that I agree enough with to blog about is his take on the role of education and, perhaps more importantly, the tone given to the importance of certain career choices following from education.

I’m going to quote a large part of what he said last night, just so there’s some context.  You can find a full transcript at the Huffington Post website (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/20/obama-on-tonight-show-wit_n_177206.html).

Well, and part of what happened over the last 15, 20 years is that so much money was made in finance that about 40 percent, I think, of our overall growth, our overall economic growth was in the financial sector. Well, now what we’re finding out is a lot of that growth wasn’t real. It was paper money, paper profits on the books, but it could be easily wiped out.

And what we need is steady growth; we need young people, instead of — a smart kid coming out of school, instead of wanting to be an investment banker, we need them to decide they want to be an engineer, they want to be a scientist, they want to be a doctor or a teacher. And if we’re rewarding those kinds of things that actually contribute to making things and making people’s lives better, that’s going to put our economy on solid footing. We won’t have this kind of bubble-and-bust economy that we’ve gotten so caught up in for the last several years.

I can’t ignore that, as a physics major, I probably have some unavoidable bias here, but I think his argument also makes good sense.  We need to reward jobs that contribute to society and make everyone better off rather than jobs which are focused on monetary and personal gain.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t need bankers and business men; they’re obviously quite important to the business model that’s been in place for a long time.  But we do need people to want to contribute to humanity in more real ways.  At the same time, I think we would have a more enlightened culture as a whole if we focus on these types of fields. But that’s quite possibly my bias sneaking out.

And since this blog is syndicated on Fedora Planet, where everyone’s an open source contributer, I’m curious to see what everyone else thinks.  Could this sort of mentality work for the country the same way our open source communities do? (As a side note, I’ve read some stuff recently about the government looking into adopting open source software, but that’s a blog for another day.)

By the way, this line of thought reminded me about the XO developer program that David Nalley talked about way-back-when.  You can find the project page at http://wiki.sugarlabs.org/go/Math4Team.

Posted in Philosophy, Science and Mathematics Tagged: Lifestyle, Mathematics, Philosophy, Physics, Technology

Syndicated 2009-03-20 17:42:57 from Reflected Pensiveness

Blogging from an XO-1

I’m excitedly writing this blog from an XO-1.

And I’m getting a hang of accessing journal items like these random photos of my desk. WordPress is not easy to use on this thing though. All the normally pretty buttonsa and graphics are displayed weirdly. I am using the 801-candidate build though, so I’ll cut it some slack for now.

Plans for my break this coming week: fix the User Guide, start my Sugar app for Math4, and work on my website.

Let’s hope the Publish button works…

Posted in Reviews, Technology Tagged: Fedora, Reviews, Technology

Syndicated 2009-03-13 17:16:31 from Reflected Pensiveness

Finish a book or bust

Grrrrrah! It’s come to my attention that I’m in the middle of too many books, and I’m making headway on none of them.

Current Reading List, in order of starting date:

  1. Breakfast of Champions - Kurt Vonnegut
  2. The Tao of Physics - Fritjof Capra
  3. Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist - Russell McCormmach
  4. Beyond Geometry - Peter Pesic (ed.)
  5. The Nature of Space and Time - Hawking & Penrose
  6. The Art of War - Lao Tzu
  7. King Leopold’s Ghost - Adam Hochschild
  8. Random textbooks and books I need to start…

So grr. How can we solve this problem with technology?



If I can just finish one, maybe I’ll get somewhere…

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged: Lifestyle, Literature

Syndicated 2009-03-13 13:22:10 from Reflected Pensiveness

My experience with Iomega

A few months ago, I bought a 1 TB USB Hard Drive from Iomega. I was very happy with it at the time. I used it for backups on both my Fedora box and, once I got it, my Macbook.

Then it broke.

But I wasn’t too upset. Those things happen. So I contacted Iomega and got an RMA number after troubleshooting. I sent it back, they sent me one, and I got it about a week ago. I plugged it in…

And it was broken. The replacement drive was broken. They didn’t believe me online at first. In fact, the Mac support guy basically just gave up on me. The next day, I contacted a Linux support guy, who was far more helpful and didn’t treat me like an illiterate moron. We played around with trying to reformat it using fdisk and mkfs (which I had done with the Mac guy, but he didn’t know what I was talking about). When mkfs kept giving us errors, he accepted the inevitable and gave setup a free-of-charge, next-day shipping replacement.

Well, gee, that was nice of him. I was pretty happy with that. Iomega had redeemed itself.

I opened my new hard drive with a good deal of excitement today. I plugged it into my laptop and setup a backup real quick before I had to leave. It was running fine when I got back, so I went about my business.

Always paranoid about my disk space, I ran df -H to make sure my downloads would have plenty of room to my internal hard disk. That’s when I realized that Iomega had sent me a drive 500 GB too small. So I contacted them again.

The strange thing is that the serial number on this third hard drive actually is supposed to correspond to a 1 TB drive. They probably put the wrong drive in the casing at the refurbishing center, I guess. Either way, the guy had strong evidence to not believe me. It was a Mac guy, again, and he tried to step me through all the ways I had just told him that the drive was only 500 GB. Eventually, as he was searching through his knowledge base for heaven-know-what, I showed him the partition table that fdisk gave me. Confused, not understanding what the console even was, he apologized and setup another drive shipment.

So that’s where I am. Hopefully this one will be right.

Lessons Learned:
1. Knowing how to use fdisk is well, well worth it
2. Don’t buy anything else from Iomega
3. The tech support people oftentimes are just searching through knowledge bases and don’t actually know what’s going on… unless you get the Linux guy.
4. The tech guys really are trying to be nice. Let them feel like they’re telling you what to do, and don’t let them know that you’re 10 minutes ahead.

Posted in Uncategorized

Syndicated 2009-03-13 00:01:27 from Reflected Pensiveness

First Impressions: Beyond Geometry (Peter Pesic)

The cover of Pesics Beyond Geometry, depicting a Euclidean plane projected upon a sphere. 


The cover of Pesic's Beyond Geometry, depicting a Euclidean plane projected upon a sphere.


I’ve just started reading Beyond Geometry, a collection of “classic papers from Riemann to Einstein”, which outlines the progression of the interpretation of geometry from Riemann’s time in the 1800s through the early 20th century.  The introduction opens with a quote from Albert Einstein:

Only the genius of Riemann, solitary and uncomprehended, by the middle of the last century already broke through to a new conception of space, in which space was deprived of its rigidity and in which its power to take part in physical events was recognized as possible.

The beautiful thing about this book is the metaphysical nature of the papers.  There are often technical details included, but on the whole the reader is presented with the philosophical divergence of some of the greatest thinkers since the Enlightenment.  I have only had the chance to read the introduction and two of the eleven or so papers in the compilation, but some of what I’ve read so far is fascinating.  Overly dramatic as I may sound, I think there’s something even romantic about debates over the nature of space.

According to the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, space is not only a priori but also transcendent; as Pesic writes, Kant argued that:

The truths of geometry were synthetic a priori, meaning that their validity did not stem from experience, but from a synthesis conditioned by the nature of the mind itself.

Kant argued that we naturally intuit space to be Euclidean because it is “hard-wired” into our brain to so based on the information we receive from our eyes.  This powerful argument, which is undeniably both reasonable and sensible, would undergo more than a century of critique (many geometers still debate the nature of space today).  Science and mathematics would force the immediately logical Kantian view to be replaced with the bizarre (but interesting) ideas of modern physics and geometry.  These arguments would start with Riemann, presenting his lecture “On the Hypotheses That Lie at the Foundations of Geometry” to Gauss and other German thinkers of his time, followed by Helmholtz, Klein, and eventually Einstein’s realizations of General Relativity with experimental proof to show that space is, indeed, not Euclidean.

This compendium describes what I find to be an astonishing timeline, outlining the triumph of human intuition over instinct, and a demonstration of how the groundwork of physics and mathematics is often moved by words and philosophy more than by equations and numbers.  Definitely a suggested read for the interested academic.

Posted in Philosophy, Reviews, Science and Mathematics Tagged: Literature, Mathematics, Philosophy, Physics, Reviews

Syndicated 2009-03-04 17:00:24 from Reflected Pensiveness

User Guide = {Practicum, Theory}?

The Fedora documentation team has an admirable set of articles and guides, to be sure.  But there’s something that I think is missing - something I didn’t think of until late last night.

The beginner Fedora user will almost certainly find what he needs to know for desktop usage in the User Guide. This is a good thing for we Linux proponents; once they can use the desktop properly, they will be comfortable using it as their everyday computing machine. But where in this day-to-day desktop usage is the magical superiority that these new users were promised in forums, blogs, and chat rooms?

Using OO Writer is little different than using Word; using Rhythmbox is little different than using iTunes.  So the “normal” user who has converted to Linux is now using free and open source programs which may be good for his karma, but are presumably no more functionally superior than their proprietary counterparts which - to be honest - many people don’t have to pay for anyway. (I refer not only to pirating, but mostly to how users can be licensed through their workplaces and such.)

But I think most long-time Linux users - like myself - would agree that Linux (or, at the very least, *nix-based systems) are grossly more powerful than a Windows box. So how do we teach this to the new user, rather than just proclaiming it like religious fanatics?

I think every open source group can manage this problem in their own way, but I think a good way for the Fedora Docs team to do this would be to introduce a new guide for this very purpose. I was thinking about it last night as an addition to the current User Guide, so I’ll write about it in the same context, although I’m unsure if that’s the best way to move forward.

My initial idea was that we split the User Guide into three parts.

Part I: Practicum

This part of the guide would fundamentally be the same as what the User Guide currently includes. It would be a practical guide - a cookbook, really - filled with common tasks and applications needed by a desktop user and easy to follow solutions for each of these tasks. This could include setting up email, playing music, or editing documents.

The idea is that the user can easily and quickly find the solution to a common task, just like I might quickly find a recipe in the Perl Cookbook. The guide would structure these tasks as recipes - selected, suggested methods to do something, even if other methods exist.

So effectively, the practicum would be a collection of well organized tutorials and how-tos for the most common desktop tasks, presented in an easy-to-browse manner.

Part II: Theory

The theory section of the guide is what I would propose to address the aforementioned problem with not properly introducing new users to Linux. The issue is that taking full advantage of Linux after moving from Windows involves the user making a paradigm shift in the way they use a computer. Easing the introduction of this new paradigm with examples, analogies, and metaphors is what I see to be the most effective way to help a new user truly understand what Linux is.

This part would focus on those learning devices, as well as exploring the radically different community structure surrounding open source software and detailing the ways in which users can get help or get involved. This section would written with more of an intent for reading front-to-back, as opposed to the isolated, browse-to-my-problem writing found in the practicum. Nevertheless, separate sections would ideally be readable without needing to read the entire thing.

Part III: Appendices & Glossary

Jargon tends to be at once both a huge deterrent to people learning a new topic and a useful tool in making writing clear and succinct to the already-initiated. Sometimes it really is just unavoidable, although we try our best to remove it as much as we can. To this end - as well as helping the user just be generally more comfortable around Linux documentation - I feel that a glossary could be helpful. Fedora already has one of these, presently titled the “Jargon Buster”. I volunteered last week to clean this up syntactically, so hopefully I’ll get a better idea of what we already have once I’ve finished that task.

That’s what I thought of initially for the guide. It may be better to split it up; we’ll see. 
Either way, comments are greatly appreciated. I’ll probably bring this up at the next Fedora docs meeting anyway.

Posted in Technology Tagged: Fedora, Linux, Literature

Syndicated 2009-03-03 19:25:55 from Reflected Pensiveness

How do you measure a year?

“In daylights?  In sunsets?  In midnights?  In cups of coffee?  In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife?” - RENT (the musical)

The Fedora Docs team voted on a new time for our steering committee meetings today.  In the midst of it all, John made a comment about reformatting the years to be based off the number 10 at each scope level of our normal time system (that’s how I interpretted what he said, anyway).  So for example, there could be 100 sec = 1 min, 100 min = 1 hour, 10 hours = 1 day, 10 days = 1 week, and so forth.  The problem, of course, is that this would mess up the 1 Earth orbit = 1 year relation which has always been the fundamental basis of time for the Gregorian calendar system.  (Scientifically, the second is defined as the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the ideal cesium-133 atom at 0 K.  I’m only half clear on what this means, though, and I’m not sure how many people really care.)

The parenthetical definition above is good because it’s the same universally (literally universally, not internationally).  But at the same time, this absurd definition was crafted to fit the old concept of the second, which represents a small fraction of the Earth’s period about the sun.  What we need to do is scrap that definition and define a new basic unit of time which is easily universally translatable.

I mean, look.  We have all these constants we could use that are universally the same.  We could use a property of hydrogen, for example.  Maybe the frequency of a period of a hydrogen atom gives us a time interval, and then we use that with the speed of light to get a basic distance unit.  Or maybe we use multiples of Planck units.  But can’t we get away from a base-12 system ancient civilizations based on moon cycles?

The big thing here is alien contact.  Any millennium now, we could be communicating and dealing with extraterrestrials. We can’t go all “our calendar is superior” on them, can we?  But both cultures can agree on the properties of the hydrogen atom, or the speed of light in a vacuum.  I know a few millennia seems a bit far off, but it did take us a while to perfect this calendar.  We may as well get started on a new one now.  Besides, we’ll all be screwed when 2038 comes around anyway, so why not invent a new calendar to be implemented then?

Posted in Philosophy Tagged: Analysis, Lifestyle, Philosophy

Syndicated 2009-03-03 09:00:52 from Reflected Pensiveness

First Impressions: Adobe Flex

My friend and I are in the process of building a website, and we’ve been looking around and all kinds of interesting platforms for delivering web content.  We’re probably doing most of it in Google’s Web Toolkit with a mix of Perl and Python on the backend, but one very neat thing we’re looking at for delivering a web chat interface is Adobe Flex.

Flex is a technology from Adobe that allows developers to write Flash applications.  People have been doing this for a while, but (from what I understand) it’s kind of been clunky, because most applications used for doing this were focusing specifically on delivering multimedia content.  But Flex is made for use specifically by developers, and so far it seems to deliver very clean, very pretty, and very easy-to-code Flash.

Besides Adobe’s provided Flickr client tutorial, I’ve been working on a chat program.  The code is in MXML/ActionScript, so it’s pretty flexible and tends to do what you tell it in the same sense that Perl does.

If you need to quickly code up a quick web application, I’d suggest Flex.  I think, but am not totally sure, that you can download the Flex developer kit for free.  The awesome Eclipse-based editor, however, is somewhere in the magnitude of $200 USD.

Would I really pay that much for it?  No.  I got it for free with a student ID. :-)

You can also try a 30-day trial, I think.  It looks like it’s much more advanced than I can comprehend right now.  Since I’ve never done any Flash coding before, I think that’s understandable.  My next task is reading up on how to do direct socket communication, which looks pretty easy via the SocketXML class.

Posted in Reviews, Technology Tagged: Coding Projects, Reviews, Technology

Syndicated 2009-03-02 20:58:09 from Reflected Pensiveness

Book Review: Biting the Sun (Tanith Lee)

A few months ago, I read Biting the Sun, a two part novel (originally published as two separate novellas) about a girl in a pseudo-utopian society in which humans have transcended the mystery of life and have the capacity to reincarnate dead souls into new and exciting bodies, effectively cheating death for eternity.

Cover image for Lees Biting the Sun.

Cover image for Lee's Biting the Sun.

I’ll admit that when my friend lent the book, I was skeptical at the first mention of utopian society.  But this book didn’t focus on the perfect, utopian parts of society nearly as much as I expected it to.  It was a thrilling read with a charismatic, confused, and dynamic main character.

I don’t want to give away too much, but I feel okay writing about the basic premise.  The book never gives you a full description of humanity in this era, but the reader can infer that mankind isn’t in the best of times - not in the conventional sense.  Society in this region has been restricted to cities protected by domes from the outside environment.  Our main character starts out in Four BEE, but also moves around to Four BAA and Four BOO, suggesting that this region - and many other regions throughout the world - have been categorized and fall under a higher authority, although this authority never appears in the book.

Humans had previously reached such a level of technological prowess to created what they called Quasi-Robots, or Q-R’s.  Q-Rs were complete, biologically functioning humans, but they couldn’t be endowed with a Life Spark - the book’s analog to the human soul.  As such, the Q-Rs were used to manage and keep order to society, while natural born humans enjoyed the pleasures of life granted to them by the advanced industrial society they lived in.

The main character is predominantly female (since people get new bodies quite often after dying, they frequently change sex, but many prefer to trend one way or another), and tells the story in the first person.  Her name is never given, but is rather referred to by her culture’s slang identifiers, such as ooma, a word analogous to “dear”.  Most of these slang words are identified with the Jang, the rebellious, teenage stage in social evolution.  Unsatisfied with her superficial Jang life, the main character attempts to find several jobs until she is eventually sent to the outside world for an archeological dig.  Experiencing the real world, with real air, mountains, water, and weather for the first time, she will never fit back into her synthetic society without experiencing the outdoors again.  This is the premise of her internal and external conflict that feeds the rest of the book, causing her to rebel against society through violence, crime, and heresy - all of which were unheard of for centuries. 

This book is simply a fun, addictive read. The style of its ‘goodness’ is somewhat more like Harry Potter than, say, The Sound and the Fury.  I doubt that in a few decades, university literary circles will be dissecting Biting the Sun for it’s thick metaphors and deep meaning (because I don’t think there’s much of that in the book).  But this doesn’t make it any less of a novel, and you can find a lot of pleasure just curling up on a couch for a few days and letting your mind fall into a fantasy novel for what may be the first time in a long time.  I know it was for me - I hadn’t had the opportunity to read any fantasy books in far too long.

You can read a sample from Amazon’s book reader here.  It’s mostly pages from the first chapter, which I admittedly found slower than the rest of the book, but it’s still worth investigating Lee’s style.  I highly suggest this book to anyone who loves fantasy, and maybe hasn’t had a chance to read it in a while.

Posted in Reviews Tagged: Analysis, Literature, Reviews

Syndicated 2009-02-25 19:47:36 from Reflected Pensiveness

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