My summer research project involved extensive use of Macaulay2, a computer algebra program. Essentially, what Macaulay2 does is make it easy to do computations on different types of abstract algebra objects, like rings and ideals. Since there is no native version of Macaulay2 for Windows, my options for running it these past two summers have been: run it in Windows under Cygwin or, once again, dual boot Windows and Ubuntu (or Kubuntu). Ubuntu and I have a love/hate relationship, as I have testified on this blog before. It’s been a while since I last blogged about my adventures with Linux, and now it’s time for an update.
Last year I was using Kubuntu 10.04, and the experience was immediately better than any other time I‘ve tried using Linux. Maybe it’s a truism, but with each new release, more features in Ubuntu work out of the box for me, which of course makes it much nicer to install and use. Whereas earlier versions like Hardy and Gutsy played havoc with my display or printer, Karmic Koala was actually an enjoyable operating system to use. It had one problem, however: when in Kubuntu, my network card would keep dropping wireless connections. This made using Kubuntu at home, where I connect over WiFi, almost impossible. My connection would drop, and in order to regain it I would have to reset my adapter, at which point it would work for a few minutes before dropping again. So as much as I was enjoying using Kubuntu at work (where I had a nice ethernet cord available), it was not, for me, “production ready”.
Ubuntu 11.04, or “Natty Narwhal”, was released a few days after I began my second research project in late April of this year. I had not booted into Kubuntu in a while—I used it somewhat while working on my honours thesis, because Kile is the best LaTeX editor I have found so far. Still, Kubuntu was definitely not anywhere close to being an operating system I used, let alone something that could become my primary operating system. I did a clean install of both Windows 7 and Ubuntu. Since I have used KDE for a long time, I decided I would stick with GNOME this time to see if my tastes have changed. The installations went off without a hitch; I didn’t mangle my computer, and the actual Ubuntu installation took less than half an hour. Natty was scoring points already.
Of course, when I first booted into Ubuntu, I was confronted with the new and much lamented Unity interface. My first impressions were similarly unfavourable—although I can see the argument for Unity as a desktop environment on something like a notebook, all it really did for me was get in the way. Fortunately, disposing of Unity was as simple as logging out and logging back in under the “Ubuntu Classic” option. It hasn’t been smooth sailing from there—I miss my task bar, something I have since remedied, sort of, with Cairo-Dock—but in general my experience with Ubuntu and Gnome has been very positive. Compiz’s keyboard shortcuts make me feel like some kind of wizard.
Oh, and my WiFi connection? Like a rock.
Falling in Love
Little did I know it, but I was already smitten with Natty Narwhal. Somewhat ironically, one of the first things I did was begin installing the KDE programs I’ve come to love:
- Yakuake, the drop-down terminal emulator;
- Kate, mostly for coding;
- Kile, of course, my favourite LaTeX IDE;
- which then prompted the installation of Okular for viewing PDFs; and
- Konversation, an IRC client.
There are many GNOME programs I’ve come to enjoy, however. I like Banshee, and I found an awesome app for controlling Banshee from my Android phone, replacing what I mostly used Unified Remote for on Windows (I still need to find a good slideshow remote app though). And mainstays like Dropbox and LibreOffice are available for Ubuntu, so there are very few things about Windows I miss. (With school coming back, an exception might be Evernote, but I am going to look into whether NeverNote is a suitable client for that purpose.)
Much to my surprise, but to my considerable delight, I found myself using Ubuntu at home as well as at work. This only intensifed as I resolved to learn how to use Git and I set up a development environment on my Linux side—aside from gaming and purchasing music from the iTunes store, there really is no reason for me to boot into Windows any more. I can do everything in Ubuntu that I can do in Windows, and I can usually do it faster and easier.
In particular, I’m rather pleased with my growing comfort using the command line. I will more often open up Yakuake and start using
cd to navigate among my files; I am beginning to learn how powerful commands like
sed are when it comes to quick, repetitive changes to my files. I’m most proud of how much I have become accustomed to using SSH, first to connect to SHARCNET and then to my server at A Small Orange. Finally, when I say I’ve been learning Git, I really do mean I’ve been learning how to use Git through its commands, and not just through a GUI program.
The Future is Bright
Barring some kind of catastrophic incompatibility between this computer and future versions of Ubuntu (and even in that case, I could just keep using Natty), I do not see myself switching back to Windows in the foreseeable future. I love Ubuntu. I love using an operating system that is free, both as in speech and as in beer, with updates that will always be free. I love that it is genuinely usable, and that I prefer it to Windows; I’m not just using Ubuntu out of some idealistic principles. I will keep my Windows installation around, because it is sometimes useful, but for now, Ubuntu is finally my primary operating system.
I don’t want to be too evangelical, since I know Ubuntu and Linux are not for everyone. The idea of using the command line can be scary—it was, and sometimes is still, scary to me. Even so, Ubuntu is quite a usable set up—honestly, I think the most difficult part of the learning process is just getting dual-booting working in the first place, and Ubuntu’s installer has come a long way in that sense. If you have ever thought about giving Linux I try, I encourage you to take the leap. And if you haven’t … well, keep an eye on it. Maybe you will change your mind. My experiences were never overwhelmingly positive, but one day I found that Ubuntu had jumped from “interesting but unreliable” to “my operating system of choice”. It could happen to you too.
I have rewritten my “About Me” page. It has needed some updates for a while now. I focused on making the page briefer while keeping it informative. Now people who come to my site can know who I am in a few paragraphs. If they need to know me more deeply, they will know where to stalk me.
Also, the page now includes an excellent photo that portrays my love of math and silliness. The photo comes from back in May. Our mathematics resource room received new carpet, so Aaron, Rachael, Tim, and I were drafted to remove all the books from the room and store them in our office until the carpet was replaced. Then we reshelved all of the books, and posed for some silly photos. I’ve long wanted to put a photo of myself on that page, but until now I didn’t have any that seemed adequate. I was browsing my Flickr feed in the hope of finding something suitable when this gem appeared; the moment I saw it, I yelled, “Yes!” and laughed maniacally.
This morning, we had two cats. Their names were Marble and Kaylee; they were sisters. I don’t remember exactly when we got them, for I was very young, but they must have been 12 years old or even older. So they have been around for most of my life now, and I have grown accustomed to their curmudgeonly feline ways. Upon moving into our newest residence in 2007, Marble took up the habit of sleeping on my bed, while Kaylee appropriated my new reading chair for herself. These arrangements continued for another three and a half years.
As of this afternoon, we have one cat. Marble died sometime around two o‘clock, by my reckoning. I am sorry to see her go, but she was old and ill, and I suppose it was her time.
For about a year now, Marble has not been well. She was having difficulties using the litter box, but the vet could not find anything wrong with her—our options were, essentially, switch her to some new fattening food or put her down, and I think it’s obvious there was only one option there. We tried this, and meanwhile Marble seemed stable—she did not improve, and despite the new food, she remained underweight, but she did not get any worse either. This changed in the past week, with further accidents. We had switched her litter, and on Friday I even went to buy her a new litter box that would hopefully be easier for her to use—I was worried her arthritis was giving her too much trouble.
So this has been long in coming, but even so it was a shock. Worse still, my dad is out of town on business this week. When I arrived home from driving him to the airport, Marble was lying on her side behind my computer chair. She was still breathing, but otherwise she did not make many responses to my stimulus—ordinarily she would get up and move away if I prodded her repeatedly; but she only rasped. Not good. I called the emergency number of our vet and brought Marble as fast as I could, but it was too late. By the time the vet looked at her, Marble was gone.
Suffice it to say, this has not been the day I expected it to be.
After the immediate tears and grief that I suppose are natural, not to mention the recrimination that I should have acted faster, should have been more attentive to Marble’s suffering, I feel more introspective now than anything. (This is the first time, believe it or not, that I have lost someone close to me, whether pet or human.) Although an inopportune time and certainly something I didn’t want to deal with alone, Marble’s death does mean we don’t have to watch her slowly decline further to the point where we must make that fateful decision.
Of course, I will miss Marble more than I realize right now. I am used to her presence, and it’s odd to think that I’m never going to see her pace into view of my doorway again, never going to have to shoo her off my bed so I can go to sleep, never going to have the pleasure of brushing her while watching some late night television. Because, and non-cat owners might not get this, but cats are most certainly people too.
Kaylee? She is like a Terminator—no, not in the sense that she has been sent back in time to kill John Connor, although I‘m sure she could do that if she wanted to. She just keeps going though (maybe she’s more like a predatory Energizer bunny?). I‘ve never seen her sick, and though she is the same age as Marble, she is healthy, of a good weight (perhaps too good), and always chipper—except when we haven’t fed her in the last hour. She spent most of the afternoon on her chair, as she is wont to do. I don’t think she’s noticed Marble’s absence yet—although it’s weird, because Marble was lying about a metre and a half away from where Kaylee was when I got home, and one would think she would notice and react to Marble’s distress. In any event, I am glad Kaylee is still around. She is a rock of feline normality to which I can cling for the foreseeable future.
Last Friday marked the end of my summer research term. For reasons I don’t entirely understand and don’t need to understand, Jessica made a pie to celebrate the milestone. It was raspberry (my favourite fruit) and, more importantly, it was delicious. This summer feels like it has gone by extremely quickly, and I’m not yet eagerly anticipating school. I have two weeks off now, returning early on August 29 to begin the intense final year of my concurrent education degree. My schedule does not seem all that bad, as far as classes go, but I‘m not sure what the workload will be like—I hear it’s heavy but not difficult.
As far as my research goes, I can’t help but compare this summer to last summer. Overall, I was not as interested in my project this time around—it’s the same project, so it is no longer fresh. Working on it on a full-time basis for 16 weeks was intense. This year was also quieter around the office; Jessica was not around as much, and Rachael had a research project, but it only lasted eight weeks. Aaron came in pretty consistently several days a week, despite not being on any kind of schedule. Aaron and I have been working our way through the Portal 2 co-op levels. It’s hilarious. A typical level involves me dying, followed by Aaron going, “Oops, wrong portal”, and then Aaron dying because I have terrible timing. The levels themselves are really well-designed, though, and I love some of the solutions to the puzzles. The beauty behind the physics engine is a lot more obvious when you can watch your partner go flying through the air (to his death).
This summer my supervisor and I collaborated to write a paper based on my research! Aside from my honours thesis (which is now available in the math section), I have very little experience writing about mathematics for an audience. This was the most interesting part of my research, and I really enjoyed the opportunity. We are polishing up the paper now, and then my supervisor plans to submit it to a few journals. I have no idea if it will be accepted for publication, but it was fun to write anyway.
Using SHARCNET was once again very cool, although the clusters I used this year gave me more headaches. I have begun using Git for managing my own coding projects (including this site), and SHARCNET’s clusters have Git installed. So I’ve put all the code into a Git repo, and you can view it on GitHub.
I‘m experiencing no small amount of trepidation regarding student-teaching this year. However, this summer has reaffirmed my desire to become a high school teacher. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing research! As a thank-you to my supervisor, I gave him a signed print of this xkcd comic.
With two weeks off, what do I plan to do? Read, of course! And get my life in a semblance of order before school starts—that is, I want to tidy up my room and get some other projects finished, started, or just kicked into gear. I have several blog posts I want to write, and some improvements I want to make to my site. Although I intend to drive myself in these next two weeks, my priority goals are relaxation and reading, in that order. All too soon, university will loom again. I know because they took my money last week.
Yesterday was the deadline for voting in the Hugo Awards. I submitted my final ballot on Friday. I managed to finish all of the Hugo-nominated works in the novel, novella, novelette, and short story categories. I also voted in the best related work and best dramatic presentation categories, and I voted for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Here’s an overview of my picks for this year’s Hugos.
I wrote lengthy reviews on Goodreads for all of the novel nominees, so rather than a recap blog post that just links to those reviews, I will list them here. The ballot allows us to rank each nominee by preference, so that if our first choice doesn’t receive a majority of the votes, it gets stricken from the ballot and our second choice becomes the first, and so on. So I’ve listed the nominees in order of preference:
- The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald. This did not blow me away, yet it somehow stuck with me and persuaded me to give it five stars. I hope it wins.
- Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold. My first Vorkosigan novel, I enjoyed it but don’t really think it’s Hugo Award material. Still, it is the next best book on the ballot.
- Feed, by Mira Grant. As with Cryoburn, I can’t quite see this as a Hugo winner, but it’s still a good story.
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdom, by N.K. Jemisin.
- Blackout/All Clear, by Connie Willis.
And here are my choices for the other works:
- Best Novella
- Troika, by Alastair Reynolds
- Best Novelette
- “The Emperor of Mars”, by Allen M. Steele
- Best Short Story
- “For Want of a Nail”, by Mary Robinette Kowal
- Best Related Work
- Chicks Dig Time Lords, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea
- Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
- Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
- Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
- This was difficult, because three of the five nominees were Doctor Who episodes and all very deserving. On the other hand, “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” was also nominated, and it would be totally awesome to see a YouTube video win a Hugo Award. (And it is deserving of such an award too.) In the end, I voted for the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor”, because its last ten minutes were perhaps the best part of that entire season of Doctor Who.
- Best Fan Artist
- How could I not vote for Randall Monroe?
- John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
- Saladin Ahmed
Reading the Hugo nominees meant I had no shortage of good reading material for July, even though it means I didn’t come close to meeting my goal of exhausting my to-read shelf by the end of the month! Also, this year I had a smartphone to use as an ereader, so I will soon post an evaluation of how it served me compared to print books and to reading ebooks on my computer.