15 August 2012

220. My first few lectures in Australia...and the importance of thermodynamics

I'm not an expert on anything. It's not a matter of false modesty, but an observation based on the fact that I come across new things on a regular basis, even within my field of research. When I do, I try to learn.

But to learn new things I need a toolbox - a set of skills that I rely on to put anything new into context. The toolbox for a chemist is basically thermodynamics. Simple, applied thermodynamics. As a chemist you can get away with memorising the expression for Gibbs free energy and the general expression for rate laws, and you can do a whole lot of fun/damage.

I'm only at the beginning of my current class, and I'm an inexperienced lecturer, but I had a bit of a shock today discovering that my class -- second semester of the second year at a 'good' university -- don't feel comfortable dealing with free energies and standard potentials.

The origin lies in the idea of students as clients here -- universities want pass rates in excess of 70-80%, while most of the faculty likely experienced a first year as undergraduates where the Gen Chem class (which did thermodynamics until you eyes were bleeding) had a failure rate of 60% or above.

We might have thought it was harsh to fail that many students at the very beginning, but the result was that the more inspired/motivated students made it through, and the ones who weren't willing to dedicate the effort necessary to become professionals got a kick in the pants to look for majors that actually interested and inspired them.

If something interests you it  becomes 'easy' -- either because you instinctually  understand it, or more likely, because you simply put in that extra effort to teach yourself.

Instead, the impetus to pass as many students as possible -- and to get 'good' student feedback which will help your promotion -- means that the students are never challenged. 'Difficult' topics are avoided and taught late in the course or ,increasingly, not at all.

Rumour has it that one of the reasons why some Australian universities are adopting a Bologna-inspired model is because they can use the masters section of the education to cover the things the students should have learned as undergraduates --- and thus still produce graduates with the skills that their chosen major indicates that they should have.

It's pretty damning.

The consequence is dire -- some scary example of PROFESSORS -- that is: professionals entrusted with teaching the next generation of scientists and engineers -- in the STEM fields who don't appear to understand basic thermodynamics or more specifically: entropy and the distinction between open and closed systems based on their use of thermodynamics to 'disprove' Evolution. They may be appearing to be capable professionals in every other sense and may well do 'good' research. The individuals may be appearing to do capable research in every other aspect and may be wonderful people, but their use of the 2nd law of thermodynamics as an argument against evolution is just misguided.

Andrew McIntosh -- Professor of Thermodynamics(!) and Combustion Theory at Leeds. Website.
Stuart Burgess -- Professor, Department of Engineering at Bristol. Website

In fact, the list here would presumably include mostly people of a similar persuasion. While I've seen Andrew's and Stuart's writings, I feel comfortable commenting on their opinions, but since I am not as confident about the rest of the people on the list, let's just highlight the fact that it include people from (the universities of) Sheffield, Cambridge, Liverpool and Cardiff.

Or what about this letter: http://www.bcseweb.org.uk/index.php/Main/EstelleMorris
The fact that the signatories mention their affiliations is an obvious way of trying ot use those affiliations to attach significance to their views.

Anyway, here's MC Hawking's take on it: http://www.mchawking.com/includes/lyrics/entropy_lyrics.php

14 August 2012

219. Seeing animals in metropolitan Melbourne

As a foreigner in Melbourne one of my first questions to my local pals was where I could see typical Aussie animals. The answer was 'The Zoo', which just doesn't cut it.

Well, it would've helped if I had asked the more outdoorsy types, because you can actually be fairly sure to catch glimpses of kangaroos, wallabies, bandicoots, corellas, rosellas, cockatoos and kookaburras without having to travel too far. This is biased towards the eastern suburbs, since that's where I roam.

I (almost) always see...

Kangaroos: As it turns out,  the most iconic animal of Australia is very easy to find around Melbourne. Sure, it's Grey Kangaroo and not the perhaps more famous Red Kangaroo, but they are everywhere if you know where to look, and in many places they are used to humans.
This is one kangaroo that isn't bothered by human presence. Lysterfield Lake Park on Tramline track.

On the best places is along Tram Line Track in Lysterfield Lake Park:
Lysterfield Lake Park

Tram line track is where the action's at

The walking's easy for the most part. Some of the tracks get soggy and muddy due to bikes and horses ruining them.

For the most part, the park's flat.
If you go on the smaller trails and keep quiet you may spot the odd Swamp Wallaby -- they are much smaller, solitary and tend to leg it whenever they see humans. Apart from their difference in size and fuzzier fur, you can recognise them by 1. they are (almost) always alone, 2. their tail is white-tipped and 3. their stance when hopping is different from that of kangaroos (lean forward more).

Other safe places to spot kangaroos would be Churchill national park, the area around Police Paddocks, and Cardinia Lake Park -- but Cardinia Reservoir Park tends to get really busy with people playing games and bbq:ing which tends to ruin the experience.

 Lysterfield Park north of Wellington road also has a lot of Kangaroos, but they aren't always easy to spot.

Wallabies: The Swamp Wallaby is quite common around Melbourne, but is much more shy than Kangaroos. It's also solitary -- if you spot a kangaroo you know that there are others around, but not so with wallabies.
The picture is heavily overexposed to show the wallaby hiding in the shade off of Possum Gully track in Cranbourne

The best place to spot wallabies seems to be the park surrounding the Botanical Park in Cranbourne. If you're quiet and attentive you will spot Wallabies in the sandier parts of the park before they run away. If you bring binoculars you're like to see wallabies hiding in the stands of ferns abutting the forests or in the middle of the fields. Again, they take a bit more patience to spot.

Cranbourne Botanic Gardens

Sometimes you can spot Wallabies among the fern in the more open part of the park

Otherwise, carefully walk on the sandier tracks among the scrub -- and be aware that any wallaby that sees you will either leg it, or stand absolutely still in the shade. So you need keen eyes.

I've seen wallabies up by Lysterfield Lake Park every time I go there, but you'll have to find the smaller tracks/breaks to spot them.

Crimson Rosellas: This is a typical forest parrot. Dandenong Ranges is a great place to see them, and because of their crimson red colour they aren't that difficult to spot. The young are green and tend to form flocks towards the end of summer. You sometimes see a single green young and its two parents as well earlier in the summer.
Just outside Churchill national park

The best places to spot them  is in shaded and wooded areas right at the edge of the woods. Rock track next to the golf course outside Olinda tends to be good, but in general, these birds are fairly common in the area. Typically you'd see a pair, but the young do flock at times.

A flock of crimson rosellas

Rock track

The lookout on Chalet road is a good place to park your car and start walking.

Another safe place is Grant's Picnic Ground north of Belgrave. There's an area where you can feed the parrots, and it's mostly cockatoos and rosellas. Just be warned -- they bring in bus-loads of tourists, so if you're looking for a 'wild' experience it can be a bit disappointing. The parrots are wild and free alright, but they are certainly used to the presence of humans.

Grant's picnic ground. It has some nice tracks as well.

There's a visitor centre where you can buy birdseed.

Sulphur-crested Cockatoos:
A cockatoo grazing on a football field in the morning sun

Apart from Grant's Picnic Ground (see Crimson Rosellas) where you are more or less guaranteed to find them, the area around Shepherd's bush in the Dandenong Valley area is pretty good. It also has the advantage of being easy to get to.

Eastern Rosellas: Probably the prettiest parrot I've seen. It's not always that easy to find, but it tends to be in more open areas than the Crimson Rosella. Also, it tend to forage on the ground. Normally, using your ears is the way to know where to look Rosellas have a much more melodic call than the other parrots and are easy to distinguish based on that alone.
They are small and fairly shy. The red head gives it away though.  Police Paddocks.
The best area so far seems to be Police paddocks just east of Stud Road in the city's far east, where there's a bit of open forest. You're likely to spot Kangaroos there as well.

Southern Brown Bandicoot: 
I've seen them two out of three time when visiting Cranbourne botanic gardens (See Wallabies above). They are normally around the visitor centre and the BBQ area. If you walk into the park you might see them cross the road. Going on the smaller tracks along the fence tends to be rewarding as well. Basically think of them as big rats in terms of what you're looking for -- they are less paranoid than rats, but you should still walk softly.
A large bandicoot over by the playground behind Cranbourne botanic gardens

Rainbow Lorikeets: You see them everywhere in the eastern suburbs. If you want to see them up close, look for e.g. flowering bottle brush and you might get lucky.
A rainbow lorikeet in our garden.
Kookaburras: Kookaburras aren't rare, but can be tricky to locate. The only place which has always  produced consistent sightings is Lysterfield Lake Park -- again on tramline track. Otherwise, the more open patches of forest (mountain ash) up in Dandenong ranges can yield lots of sightings depending on season. If you go along trig track up by the sky high observatory in the Dandong ranges you may spot lots of kookaburras and crimson rosellas. Otherwise, rock track over by Olinda occasionally has the odd kookaburra laughing away.
Laughing kookaburra at Cardinia Reservoir.

I have once seen...

Echidnas: I've seen one on a track in Cardinia Reservoir Park, and one next to the road (alive and digging) in the area surrounding the Cranbourne Botanic Gardens. You're unlikely to spot them. Instead, use your ears -- you'll hear them digging in the grass/leaves.

Normally Echidnas are camera shy, but this guy was happy to pose.

Emu: I've only seem one once, and that was just east of Cardinia Reservoir Park, while driving on Red Hill road. The emu was in the fenced off area belong to Melbourne Water.
A lone emu near Cardinia.

Corellas: from time to time I see lots of them -- they seem to be very common in the area around Monash University, but they aren't always there when I visit. Especially the corner of Blackburn road and Wellington road occasionally has flocks of them.

Little Corellas hanging out in a town along Great Ocean Road.

11 August 2012

218. The end of Gnome in Debian?

Update 12/11/2012: And we're back to gnome: http://www.phoronix.com/scan.php?page=news_item&px=MTIyNTM

This is a bit of a bombshell: http://www.phoronix.com/scan.php?page=news_item&px=MTE1NTk

Also reported here: http://www.h-online.com/open/news/item/Debian-to-use-Xfce-as-its-standard-desktop-1663868.html
and here: http://www.neowin.net/news/debian-drops-gnome-chooses-xfce-as-default-desktop
and here: http://linux.slashdot.org/story/12/08/08/1455243/debian-changes-default-desktop-from-gnome-to-xfce

UPDATE: No, I don't have any more information. However, I've been thinking a little bit about this. Debian is not a targeted distro like Ubuntu, Red Hat, SUSE or Mint. I'm not sure how the discussions among the debian package maintainers go, but I'm suspecting that it's more of a matter of ironing out reported bugs, than to focus on providing a 'user experience'. SID and Testing are rolling releases, after all. So 'dumping' gnome really won't affect anything at all very much in the short to medium term. Those who like KDE will use KDE. Those who like Gnome will use Gnome. And so on. In the long term, enough people may encounter XFCE as their first DE via Debian that it starts to change the balance in the user bases of the different DEs, but given that a great majority of both current and future debian users come to debian via other distros  -- from red hat/fedora/knoppix back in the days, then ubuntu in the late 2000s, and now perhaps mint -- many users probably both have both experience in how to set up different DEs and preferences as to which one they want to use.

So yeah. Sorry about the hyperbole in the title.

Original post:
Basically, Debian is thinking about dropping Gnome as the default desktop and replacing it with XFCE when Wheezy goes stable. The official reason is (CD ROM) space, not that there's any issues with GNOME 3.

I wouldn't be surprised if the rumoured difficulties in communicating with the Gnome crowd may have played a role, in addition to the (a bit hysterical at times) general dissatisfaction with GNOME 3.

Having 'grown up' with gnome (Baby Duck Syndrome) I think it's sad news -- gnome is pretty, functional and makes linux just different enough to give it a distinct look.

[Btw, this article about the Baby Duck Syndrome is a nice read: http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/web/library/wa-cranky50/index.html ]

XFCE, LXDE and KDE are all capable desktops, and I've played with LXDE and KDE recently. Not being that familiar with XFCE -- or even LXDE really -- it does appear to me that what really sets KDE and GNOME apart is that they come with a complete package -- KDE and GNOME all have their awkwardly named software applications: epiphany vs konqueror, evolution vs kmail etc.

Apart from lxterminal and lxmusic for lxde, and thunar for xfce, similar DE specific apps appear to be thin on the ground for LXDE and XFCE. That's not necessarily a big issue, but we've all had issues with GTK vs QT and how pieces of software using either framework look in different environments. It's hardly a disaster, but just enough to be noticeable.

It would also be interesting if the netinstall and business-card isos would ask about which specific DE to install, rather than just ask about whether a desktop is to be installed , in particular if debian is interested in experimenting.

Offering more choice would really not be that bad of an idea. Personally, and for my own biased reasons, I'm  much more interested in LXDE than XFCE, and more interested in GNOME than KDE. XFCE, the way it's implemented in Debian Squeeze, looks a bit dated -- basically like GNOME 2. While I'm not really into that, given the uproar during the past year a lot of people seem to prefer the old gnome 2 look. Besides, the strength of the old desktops is that you can theme and modify them to the point of no recognition.

And if we're talking about slim installs of debian, we really should take a look at Crunchbang (#!) as well, which uses openbox.

Finally, what about Jessie? Will GNOME be back or is this the defining moment for XFCE?