Ubuntu 12.04 Reviewed

May 30, 2012

Late last month, I posted a note here about the release of Ubuntu Linux 12.04, “Precise Pangolin”.  Ars Technica now has a review article that covers changes in this release in considerably more detail.  (Note that this covers the base Ubuntu distribution released by Canonical Ltd, and does not necessarily apply to other variants, such as Kubuntu or Xubuntu.)

The review concentrates on the desktop and user interface portions of the system, which is sensible, since they provide the major differentiating factors between versions.  (Because the architecture of the Linux OS and  desktop is much more modular than that of, say, Microsoft Windows, it is generally possible to run almost any Linux application on any contemporary Linux system.)    Since 2010, the Ubuntu project has been working on a new desktop environment, called Unity, that attempts to deliver a more consistent user interface across applications and devices, including mobile devices.

The review is, I think, well done, and the author, Paul Ryan, has done a good job of explaining how the Unity interface differs from some more familiar interfaces.  Having had a couple of weeks to try the new release, I agree with his basic conclusion that the interface is significantly improved from earlier versions, but still has a few rough edges.   This release of Unity has a new feature, called Heads Up Display [HUD], which is intended to save time for users who prefer to keep their hands on the keyboard.

Let’s suppose that I am running Firefox on Ubuntu (as, in fact, I am at the moment), and I want to see the HTML source for the page I am looking at.  The conventional way to do this, as of Firefox 12.0, is to pull down the “Tools” menu, then select “Web Developer”, and then “Page Source”.  If HUD in enabled, I can just start typing “page source”, and HUD will show me all the menu items that match.  A nice side benefit of this is that I don’t have to remember which sub-menu contains the function I want.

The new version also includes a new privacy management framework called Zeitgeist, which allows you to control the extent to which the Unity system tracks your usage of applications, files, and so on.  Although the initial implementation is not perfect, it is a step forward.   It regulates the information gathered by Unity itself, but does not affect any logging or other data capture done by individual applications.

The whole review article is worth a read if you use or are interested in Ubuntu, or even if you’re just interested in interface design.


Road Train Test

May 29, 2012

Back in January of last year, I posted a note here about some work being done by Volvo to develop the technology for “road trains”.  Using a variety of technologies, including cameras, radar, and laser tracking systems, along with wireless networking, the idea is that a group of specially equipped vehicles can travel together as an ensemble.  One “lead” vehicle, with a skilled driver, will lead the way, and the other will follow along using automated controls.  The motivation is that a road train system could reduce fuel consumption, increase safety, and possibly even relieve congestion, by allowing cars to travel safely in closer proximity.   The work is part of a European Union project, SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment).

A recent article at the Register (a UK-based technology news site) reports that the first tests of the system have now taken place on public roads: 200 km [~ 125 miles] of Spanish motorways.

Three cars have successfully driven themselves by automatically following a lorry [truck] for 125 miles on a public motorway in the presence of other, normal road users.

The average speed during the trip was slightly more than 50 mph.  The three cars stayed in line behind the lead truck, with an average separation of 6 m [~19.6 feet].   Considering that the speed (50 mph) is 70+ feet per second, this spacing would be dangerously close for human drivers; if these results hold up, there would seem to be some validity in the claim of closer proximity travel via this “platooning”.

As with Google’s “self-driving” cars, I think this technology has the potential to make auto travel safer and more efficient.  Both these technologies will also require some changes to traffic laws and people’s attitudes.

Update Tuesday, 29 May, 23:05 EDT

The “Autopia” blog at Wired also has a report on this test, which gives a bit more detail.

Google Releases Chrome 19·0·1084·52

May 24, 2012

Google has released a new version, 19·0·1084·52, of its Chrome browser, for all platforms: Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and Chrome Frame.  This new version fixes thirteen identified security flaws, nine of which Google rates as High severity, and two as Critical.  Further details are in the release announcement.

Windows and Mac users should get the new version via the built-in update mechanism.  Linux users should get the updated package from their distributions’ repositories, using their standard package maintenance tools.  You can verify that your system has been updated by clicking on the tools menu (the little wrench), and then on “About Google Chrome”.

Creative Wandering

May 23, 2012

The history of science has a number of stories (either real or apocryphal) of creative discoveries achieved at odd moments, from Archimedes in his bath to Newton and his apple.   Some new research, reported in an article at Nature, suggests that allowing one’s mind to wander may actually help to facilitate creative thought.

A team of psychological researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler, conducted an experiment with a group of undergraduates.  The 145 participants were first given two minutes to answer two “unusual uses” quizzes, in which they were to list as many uses of a few everyday objects (e.g., a toothpick) as they could think of.  They were then divided into four groups; three of the groups got a twelve-minute break, each group with a specific activity:

  1. The first group was assigned a demanding task that required their concentration.
  2. The second took a (relatively) mindless reaction-time test.
  3. The third group just rested.

The fourth group had no break.

The subjects were then assigned to do another set of four “unusual uses” quizzes.  Two were the same ones they had completed earlier, and two were new.  The researchers then compared the scored of the four sub-groups.

There was a significant difference only in the sub-group that performed the “mindless” task during their break; they did much better on the quizzes they had seen previously.

Those students who had done the undemanding activity performed an average of 41% better at the repeated tasks the second time they tried them. By contrast, students in the other three groups showed no improvement.

Seemingly, the subjects who had the opportunity to let their minds wander during the break were able to continue to work on the problems they had just seen, though they were not consciously working on them.

“The implication is that mind-wandering was only helpful for problems that were already being mentally chewed on. It didn’t seem to lead to a general increase in creative problem-solving ability,” says Baird.

This is an interesting result, and one that I find consistent with some of my own experience.  I’ve often had the experience of being asked a question, feeling sure that I know the answer, but being unable to recall it immediately.  (I’m sure some readers, especially those who are getting to middle age, have had similar experiences.)    It is almost always the case, though, that the answer will occur to me sometime later, more or less out of the blue, when I am driving, taking a shower, or walking down the street.  It’s as if the original question had launched a mental “background process” to search for the answer.  As I’ve remarked in another context, I don’t think any of us has a terribly good understanding of how we think.

The article, which is in press, will be published in Psychological Science.

Greener Cement

May 20, 2012

One of the challenges in attempting to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) is the considerable variety of emission sources.  Some, like the burning of fossil fuels for power generation and transportation, are reasonably obvious, but there are others that aren’t.   For example, it has been estimated that, in some California counties, cattle flatulence produces more greenhouse gas than motor vehicles.

Another source that might not spring immediately to mind is the production of cement, which is estimated to account for 5-6% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.  Conventionally, cement is made by heating crushed limestone (which is basically calcium carbonate, CaCO3) to a temperature of about 1500°C, where it breaks down to give calcium oxide (CaO, also called quicklime), the key ingredient of cement, and carbon dioxide.

CaCO3 -> CaO + CO2

About 60% of the carbon dioxide produced in the production of cement comes from this reaction; the balance comes from the fossil fuel burned to heat the limestone.

According to an article at Technology Review, a team at George Washington University has developed a new process that produces calcium oxide from limestone without the emission of carbon dioxide.

The new process changes the chemistry. Rather than emitting carbon dioxide, it converts the gas, using a combination of heat and electrolysis to produce oxygen and either carbon or carbon monoxide, depending on the temperatures employed.

In this process, the crushed limestone is mixed with lithium carbonate and heated to about 900°C.  The application of a relatively small electric current causes calcium oxide to form as a precipitate.

The research team believes that the heating required for the process could be provided by solar energy, and has constructed a proof-of-concept apparatus to demonstrate this.  The device uses two large Fresnel lenses to concentrate sunlight on the mixture of limestone and lithium carbonate, and a third to focus sunlight on a solar cell, which provides the electricity required.   The device makes use of about 50% of the available solar energy, which compares favorably with the ~15% efficiency of solar cells.

The technique is still at a very early stage of development, and considerable work remains to check that the process can be scaled up to industrial size.  Nonetheless, it is an intriguing idea, and another example of the value of encouraging research into alternative technologies.  Cement is not very exciting or sexy, after all; but I suspect that progress in reducing greenhouse gases will, in the end, involve a number of changes like this.

A Black Box for your Car, Revisited

May 16, 2012

About a year ago, I posted an article here about the possibility that the US government, specifically the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA], might soon require all new automobiles sold in the US to be equipped with event data recorders [EDRs]. the so-called “black boxes”.  Similar devices have been used for years on commercial aircraft. and the data obtained from them has been of great value in understanding crashes and improving safety.  As I mentioned in that earlier post, many newer cars already have electronic data recorders of some sort.  These have proved to be useful in accident investigations, although how they work and what they record has been, until quite recently, pretty much up to the automaker.

A recent article at Wired provides an update on what’s happening in this area.  At present, although there is no mandate to equip cars with EDRs, the NHTSA’s regulations do specify that, if an EDR is installed, it must collect a specified set of data.

Since 2006, NHTSA has required that consumers be informed when an automaker has installed an EDR in a vehicle, although the disclosure is typically buried on the car’s owner’s manual. More recently, NHTSA mandated that vehicles manufactured after September 1, 2011 that include the devices must record a minimum of 13 data points in a standardized format.

Congress is now considering legislation that would require EDRs to be installed on new vehicles.

[US Senate] Bill 1813 that mandates EDRs for every car sold in the U.S. starting with the model year 2015 has already passed the Senate. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to pass a version of the bill with slightly different language.

There are privacy concerns about the collection of this data.  At present, the proposed rules say that EDRs can only collect data related to vehicle safety; but it is not hard to imagine that some security agencies might think that recording GPS coordinates might be a useful little enhancement.  Then there is the question of who owns that collected data.  The pending legislation says that the data belongs to the owner or lessee of the vehicle, which is good.  But it’s likely that the devil is in the details, and the ownership rules will need to be carefully drawn.  For example, the article points out that, if a car is “totalled” in a crash, it typically becomes the property of the insurance company.  The company might, in some cases be tempted to declare the car a total loss in order to own the EDR data for use in legal proceedings.

There is a strong case, on safety improvement grounds, for collecting this kind of data.  WE just need to do our best to ensure that it is not misused.

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