Archive for December, 2012

Review: Packing For Mars

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

Mary Roach loves to poke into strange corners of science and the human experience, and I hope she doesn’t stop.  I enjoyed Stiff – her exploration of cadaver experimentation – quite a bit, and it established her as a writer who can take on uncomfortable subjects with wit and intelligence.  Packing For Mars is about all the aspects of manned space travel that a drier publication would call “human factors.”  Packing is not dry.

The range of topics is surprising if you hadn’t thought about it deeply.  I didn’t really and I suspect that most people have not either, but Mary Roach is on the job for us.  The composition of food; excreting in zero-gravity; spacesickness, and its causes; interpersonal relationships in confined places; and how NASA studies all these things before they fire a couple folks into space for a week or a month all get their share of attention.

It’s all fascinating stuff – really! – but Roach does a great job making it more accessible.  She points out the problems in plain English and then underscores them with a bunch of things you didn’t know about space missions just to show she’s not making it up.  Then she charges off to get you the details on what’s being done about it and how it leads to the next problem.  That’s done by finding a bunch of interesting and engaging people to tell her about it, and often to let her try something out herself. The footnotes alone show how hard she worked on digesting this stuff and hint at what’s left out.

Of the various forces she interacts with, the one we learn the most about is probably NASA itself.  There isn’t a chapter on NASA, but it pervades so much of the narrative that one walks away with a feeling for how the manned spaceflight part of the agency functions and how that’s shaped the program.  It’s a unique view of an agency that does its best to control how it is seen.

There’s no actual packing list, but I’m willing to overlook that.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Arguably

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

It took me quite a while to develop an opinion about Christopher Hitchens’s Arguably, a collection of his essays. My recollection was that many of the essays were book reviews for the New York Times.  These are a kind of essay unto themselves, often touching only lightly on the book under review and letting the reviewer expound their ideas at length in the service of evaluating the book.  These are most interesting to read if you have a horse in the race.  For a lot of the essays in Arguably, I did not. They’re all well written, but often turn on what I would consider minutae.

Then I got to “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” That’s a well-written, completely wrong essay.  Understanding why it irritated me was a very illuminating experience, both about these essays and persuasive essays in general.  The essay in question is as good an argument as could be constructed for the position.  Hitchens points out the job statistics about numbers of professional funny women, trots out some evolutionary justification, mixes in a few personal observations and structures it all in a way that draws the reader’s attention to where his points are strong and away from where they’re not.  It combines the techniques of a good legal argument with the rhythms of a troubadour.  I just disagree with virtually all of it.

That’s where I understood that Arguably is exactly what it says on the tin.  It’s a collection of arguments – or argument starters – not a philosophy.  It’s good to remember that most opinion pieces are exactly that, and that scholarship and compositional skill do not imply one’s position is correct.

Looking at Arguably through this lens, it becomes a more interesting and less vexing experience.  There is much to like about the essays in terms of composition – and certainly in the vocabulary.  I even agree with much of what Hitchens says (that I care about anyway).  There are a lot of them here, too.


Review: Rule 34

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

I read and enjoyed Halting State, so it was only a matter of time before I picked up the sequel, Rule 34. In this series, Stross writes mostly about ideas, so Rule 34 isn’t a sequel in the sense that the characters have further adventures, but in the sense  that exciting things happen in the fictional world.  It’s much more like a Foundation story in that sense.  Foundation stories are mostly puzzles wrapped up in drama, but Rule 34 is more a drama created by ideas in conflict.

While I was most impressed by how Stross takes ideas and puts them into the world, Rule 34 is an engrossing, propulsive read.  Exciting things happen to interesting characters.  It’s mostly a police procedural so there is a murder (or murders) to solve. Old lovers surface, crusty superiors are confronted, and plucky street kids get in over their heads.  Stross brings it all alive with zippy prose.  You won’t be bored with the narrative.

Beyond a snappy story, Rule 34 takes some great ideas from the minds of futurists and shows what happens when they meet the real people who give those ideas flesh.  An engineer like me might call it a cautionary tale about the perils of implementation, but who would read that?

The big ideas are big: organization of human systems around engineering principles; micromanufacturing and 3d printers; advances in pharmacology and the marginalization of the mentally ill; the global communication network, spread of memes, and thoughtcrime.  Get a bunch of futurists in a room and they’ll talk about the pleasures and perils of these things at a dry remove.  Put Stross on the case and you’ll get an international criminal syndicate and the Edinburgh Police department organized as different startup companies clashing over distributed production of backyard viagra and horrifying sex toys.  And that’s just where he starts.

The result is a great set if meshing and clashing gears that gives the reader a fresh perspective on the future, which is what I like SF to do.

Strongly Recommended.

System 76 Lemur Ultra

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

On one of my recent work trips, my venerable IBM Thinkpad T42 finally gave up the ghost.  Even if it hadn’t failed on me, I was reaching the point where I wanted more out of my laptop.  Having the thing die the day before a demo certainly forced the issue, though.

I generally run free operating systems on my machines, including my laptops.  My desktops have been FreeBSD since I migrated from an Amiga 3000 in the early 1990s.  So, yeah, I’m one of those guys.  Laptops are a particular pain in this regard.  There always seems to be something that isn’t quite supported or that you have to tweak to get working.  Even with the T42, I wound up running Ubuntu rather than FreeBSD.  Love FreeBSD though I do, I like to be able to suspend – and the Linux install hibernated, too.

I had bought the T42 from on the theory that an older machine would be well supported.  That was true as far as it went, but older hardware does mean fewer capabilities, Rather than pick another machine that was older in the hope that the OS support would be seamless, I decided to get something more modern from a company that packaged Linux on the machines.  I suppose Dell or someone like that would also load Linux, but I would much rather support a company that supports Linux at a more grassroots level.  I poked around and decided to buy a Lemur Ultra from System 76.

The Lemur had the right mix of small size and power that I wanted.  Well it did after I upgraded to 4-core i7.  The availability and  pricing of that option lured me away from ZaReason.  I probably could have gotten equivalent hardware a little cheaper, but the price was definitely competitive. And I looked forward to a laptop where things worked out of the box.

Buying was painless, and even though I ordered the weekend before Thanksgiving, things shipped on a reasonable schedule.  They claim 5-8 business days to ship, and they certainly got it out within that time.  They also sent e-mails as the order progressed.  Not enough to annoy, but enough that I knew it was coming.  In fact, I got it the day they shipped it.  That’s one of the joys of living in SoCal, I guess.

The Lemur arrived in box-in-box packaging, with no real frills.  Ok a little frill; here’s the inner box:

Inner box

My cat took them up on the offer:

Jackson and the Box

(OK, that’s the outer box…)

Everything was well protected, but not excessively over-packaged.   Excess packaging is something we like to avoid when we can in my house, and this was all reasonable.  The contents were just what I ordered.  A laptop, a power supply, and a single paper pointing to the System 76 web site and Ubuntu docs was all that was inside.  (And 2 “Powered by Ubuntu” stickers.)

That's it...

Plug in the power brick and hit the on button, and the laptop jumps into the Ubuntu install process.  That process  is very straightforward and user friendly, and I’ve been through it a couple times.  I imagine even a complete newcomer to Linux would find it a pretty pleasant experience.

install screen

After finishing the install, things just worked.  That was a welcome change from the usual hours or days of fiddling with settings, tweaking the BIOS, or finding or modifying drivers.  Now I could fiddle to get the machine comfortable.

The Hardware

Overall I’m very pleased with the Lemur hardware.  I chose the T42 after getting sick of lugging a heavier Dell model around.   The T42 was small and solid feeling.  The Lemur is a little bigger, but feels lighter.  The materials feel thinner, somehow, but I have no indication as yet that they are any less durable.  I’ll follow up in a couple months when I’ve had more experience.

While the laptop itself is lighter, the power supply is a brick in every sense.  Upgrading to the i7 means upgrading to the 90W power supply, and any weight savings from the machine is eaten up by the brick.  Now, that’s hard to complain about.  This box has more than 4 times the processing power of the T42, and every indication is that the battery lasts twice as long, which I both like and asked for.  And the power supply itself is longer and sturdier looking.  But I wish I had a lightweight option.

Another thing I liked about the lemur was its keyboard.  The IBM Thinkpads are tough to beat for keyboard feel, but the Lemur’s keyboard is decent.  The keys have a nice travel, and feel like keys, not chicklets or buttons.  Unlike the larger System 76 laptops there is no keypad, but I don’t miss that in a laptop.  The trackpad merges seamlessly with the wrist rest.  There is literally no seam, which is pretty neat.

keyboard and trackpad

The trackpad supports edge scrolling or two-finger scrolling.  I prefer the two-finger, but am happier that both work.

One of the Lemur’s extended function keys toggles the trackpad on and off.  I haven’t had to use it, except figuring out what it does.  (I actually thought I’d broken something until I realized what the somewhat obscure symbol meant.)  The other extended function keys also work seamlessly, which is a simple thing, but much appreciated.  The only complaint I have about the controls is that there is no LED to indicate that the integrated webcam is on or off.  (There’s nothing indicating that for Bluetooth, either, but I don’t use that feature much at all).  I also miss the thinklight, but no reasonable person could condemn a machine for not having one.

The other hardware just works. Both the wireless networking and the ethernet port do exactly what they should when activated – even when used together.  The Intel 5000 graphics adapter works without tweaks, and the 720p screen looks good running Unity and playing DVDs.


I’m sure I’ll test the real performance of the system more in the coming months, but initial indications are that it does everything I need it to do.

I haven’t done an exhaustive test on the battery life.  I have had the laptop disconnected for a couple hours at a time in meetings at work, and the system projects something in excess of 3.5 hours of life doing meeting kinds of things.  Again, this is something I’ll get a better feel for as I use it in more strenuous conditions.

Overall, after only having the Lemur a couple weeks, I’m very pleased with it.  I’m enjoying tweaking Ubuntu and spending time working on and playing with the machine.  Based on this short experience, I’d recommend System 76 and the Lemur.  Check back in a couple months and we’ll see how it’s going.