Five things #6

“But who’s the real freak – the activist whose determination has single-handedly started a powerful global movement for change, or the middle-aged man taunting a child with Asperger syndrome from behind the safety of their computer screens?” Jennifer O’Connell asks why Greta Thunberg is so triggering for certain men.

Jesse Singal discusses Dave Chappelle, political correctness and cancel culture and argues that we should recognise the elitism of the Super-Woke.

David Spiegelhalter discusses the importance of statistical literacy, and plugs his book a couple of times. The book is The Art of Statistics and I do plan on reading it once the paperback edition is published.

As Rambo: Last Blood arrives on the big screen, Mark Harrison looks back at Son Of Rambow and the joys of DIY filmmaking.

And finally: Happy birthday COBOL. 60 years old this month and still surprisingly popular. There’s hope for me yet.

Five things #5

“T. K. hates a lot of things, but at the moment, it’s how she becomes the #1 target during dodgeball at gym. Everything changes, however, when she discovers that she has the ace ability to direct spherical objects — and she makes her classmates pay! But her powers are made for more than petty revenge, as she soon discovers while on a family vacation.” How to Move Spheres and Influence People is a short story set in the Wild Cards universe.

In Arctic Siberia, Russian scientists are trying to stave off catastrophic climate change by resurrecting an Ice Age biome complete with lab-grown woolly mammoths. Welcome to Pleistocene Park.

“The space between fiction and reality is where economic bubbles take shape.” Brent Goldfarb and David A Kirsch explore The economics of bubbles.

Going back a few months, Salman Rushdie discusses what Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five tells us now.

And finally, Antergos Linux is dead, long live EndeavourOS. Antergos was my main operating system for several years — I keep meaning to take a look at how well EndeavourOS has picked up the baton of being a newcomer friendly introduction to the occasionally painful world of Arch-based distributions.

Welcome to Tumbleweed

At the start of this year, I treated myself to a new PC. The first thing I do with any new PC is to scrape Windows off it and replace it with some variation of Linux, and this time I ended up going with openSUSE Tumbleweed.

I like openSUSE: it’s an unflashy and very solid distribution that reliably handles whatever demands I make of it. It comes in two flavours, Tumbleweed being the rolling release version and I’ve been hooked on rolling releases ever since I tried Sabayon way back in 2010. With a rolling release, you never need to reinstall or upgrade your operating system because the constant stream of updates keeps you completely up to date.

And so to Monday evening when a whole bunch of updates came down the pipe, including a fair bit of Gnome-related stuff. So I updated everything (which, I should note, is always a reliably quick process) and, to check that everything was still working as expected, I rebooted my PC.

At which point, this popped up on my screen.

Tumbleweed_Welcome_Screen
Welcome to openSUSE

Obviously, this is not my first time using openSUSE but the welcome screen is a nice touch. It’s a very friendly way of pointing you towards the documentation you are likely to need as well as where to find help if you need it. It’s also very consistent with my experience of openSUSE to date: friendly, helpful and (if I uncheck that ‘show on next startup’ option) completely unintrusive.

And I love the pirate gecko.

Farewell to Antergos

The developers behind the Antergos Linux distribution announced yesterday that, after seven years, they are bringing the project to an end.

As many of you probably noticed over the past several months, we no longer have enough free time to properly maintain Antergos. We came to this decision because we believe that continuing to neglect the project would be a huge disservice to the community. Taking this action now, while the project’s code still works, provides an opportunity for interested developers to take what they find useful and start their own projects.

Although I fully understand their reasoning, it will be a shame to see Antergos go. It’s a distribution that I used for five years — from August 2013 until switching to OpenSuse in December of last year — and I always found it to be a lovely operating system and a great way of getting at the power and flexibility of Arch Linux without having to actually install Arch.

Arch provides a very flexible and very powerful operating system but it does have something of a reputation for expecting its users to know what they’re doing. This is great for systems administrators but can prove a bit time consuming for someone, like me, who just wants the latest and shiniest software.

Antergos comes with a very nice graphical installer which leaves you with a very solid base from which to explore everything Arch has to offer. This also means that if you really mess things up (as I have done a few times) reinstalling is quick, painless and can get you back to where you started before the end of the evening.

And it was lovely to look at. The development team put a lot of effort into the theming of the distribution which contributed no end to its being slick, effective and a pleasure to use.

Over the past couple of months, I have been hesitating over whether or not to return to Antergos. Realistically speaking, this decision has now been made for me but I will be interested to see what, if anything, emerges from the Antergos project.

250,000 Dominoes

While William and I were looking for something completely unrelated, we stumbled across The Incredible Science Machine on YouTube.

250,000 Dominoes were toppled at Zeal Credit Union’s Incredible Science Machine: Game On! This event features 3 new US domino records: largest domino field, largest domino structure, and largest overall domino project in America. 19 builders from 5 countries spent 7 days (over 1,200 combined hours) building the Incredible Science Machine.

It’s spectacular

Board Game Arena and Blooms

A couple of months ago, someone mentioned Board Game Arena to me and I signed up to take a look. The site carries a huge collection of board games, all of which can be played online. You can either play in real time (live against an opponent) or (as is my preference, turn based in which each play has a day or more to make a move. Not all games lend themselves to turn-based play, but the ones that do are handled well by the site.

Board Game Arena has recently added Nick Bentley’s Blooms to the site. And this is proving to be a frighteningly addictive two-player game.

The rules are pretty simple. The game is played on a hexagonal board made up of smaller hexes. Each player has two sets of coloured stones. The first player players a single stone and in each subsequent turn players can place one or two stones onto any empty space — if you play two stones they have to be different colours. To capture a stone or ‘bloom’ of connected stones you have to surround them so that there are no empty spaces into which the bloom can expand.

And that’s it.

The game is inspired by Go in that you place stones to surround territory but differs in that the emphasis is on capturing stones rather than territory. Also, the much smaller board size makes for a much faster game.

The number of stones you have to capture varies depending on the size of the board (15 stones when it’s four hexes per side; more for bigger boards).

What makes this game really fascinating is that you have to watch out for your opponent’s pieces but also your own. Each player has two colours which means that, if you’re not careful, you can end up trapping your own pieces. This adds a whole new element to the game and one that makes it a real challenge.

I’m still terrible at this game, but the depth that emerges does leave me wanting to play more and to get a much better handle on the game. It’s a game that is easy to understand but one in which you really need to think about your moves if you want to avoid tripping over the sort of mistake that can quickly lose you the game.

It’s certainly a game worth playing, but I would suggest you avoid the four hexes per side option. This makes for a very small playing area in which the outcome is determined by whoever makes the first mistake.

Oppy: Thanks for bringing us along.

After 15 years exploring the surface of Mars, the Opportunity rover’s mission finally came to an end earlier this week.

The Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June 2018. After more than a thousand commands to restore contact, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made their last attempt to revive Opportunity Tuesday, to no avail. The solar-powered rover’s final communication was received June 10.

The Rover’s 90 day mission kept going for 15 years, during which it found proof of liquid water on the surface of the red planet and set the off-world driving record.

Opportunity sent back a huge stack of photos, which you can find all over the internet. I was goint to post some of these, but then decided to leave you with XKCD instead.

opportunity_rover

Gnome, Evolution, Nextcloud and the joy of integration

Way back in the mists of 2007, when I started using Ubuntu, the default email client was Evolution. The thing about Evolution is that it is much more than just and email client and, like Microsoft Outlook, seeks to be a full fat personal information manager with a calendar and task list built in. Back then, I was using it just for email and it always felt a bit cluttered for my needs.

Time wore on and I eventually abandoned Evolution in favour of web based email clients — namely Gmail.

A few years ago, I started to worry about just how much of my online activities were being managed by Google and started stepping away from and reducing my dependence on a single company. I started using NextCloud for my task list and calendar and moved back to a desktop email client.

I did think about going back to Evolution but, remembering how cluttered it had felt over a decade ago, started using Geary instead. And Geary is a very nice, very simple client — if you have several email accounts and want to keep track of them with a minimum of fuss then Geary really is worth a look.

At the start of this year, I replaced my laptop with a decent workstation and a much larger monitor and, on the operating system front, switched from Antergos to OpenSUSE Tumbleweed. Since Evolution is included by default, I thought I’d give it another look.

It’s Superb.

With my NextCloud account set up in Gnome, my contacts and calendars are automatically imported and setting up my email accounts is a breeze. And this means that I very quickly have everything in one place and working together very nicely indeed.

I still wouldn’t want to use it on a laptop because while Evolution is a very powerful piece of software, it does need a decent sized screen to avoid feeling cluttered.

Jengabot

This is cool. Researchers at MIT have developed a robot that can play Jenga.

At first glance, it doesn’t sound like much — computers can play chess, go and a variety of other games. What sets this apart, though, is that Jenga is a game that requires physically moving blocks around. And while this is relatively easy for humans, teaching a robot to move stacked blocks without collapsing the tower requires a collection of physical skills that has not — until now — been attempted with robots.

Combining interactive perception and manipulation – whereby the robot would touch the tower to learn how and when to move blocks – is extremely difficult to simulate and therefore the robot has to learn in the real world.

So the researchers placed a two-pronged industrial robot arm with a force sensor in its wrist by the Jenga tower and allowed it to explore rather than using traditional machine-learning techniques that could require data from tens of thousands of block-extraction attempts in order to capture every possible scenario.

It’s an impressive sight