Autonomous Cars and Autonomous Ownership

I was originally going to do a Linux distribution review this month. However, when I tried a couple of distributions that I wanted to test, none of them would properly boot from a live USB, so I gave up on those. Instead, I wanted to use this space to ramble a bit on what the near-future of self-driving cars might look like. It comes from some conversations I had with my family last weekend while visiting California, after having seen the limited self-driving capabilities of a Tesla Model S (namely, its ability to autonomously pull in and out of a parking space). Moreover, as some of you who know me personally would know, I have a disability that prevents me from driving, so the sight of even minimally-autonomous cars as a present reality excites me, and I'm keeping an eye on current developments in that field/market. Given this, if you'll indulge me, then follow the jump to (not exhaustively) explore some possibilities for self-driving cars.


Review: Rebellin Linux v3 GNOME

Last week, I finished and passed my generals! This not only means that I can continue doing research here with a roof over my head and with money to feed myself; it also means that I now have the time to get back to doing reviews and posting about other things here. I'm starting this week by reviewing Rebellin Linux.

Main screen + GnoMenu
Rebellin Linux is a rolling-release distribution based on the unstable "Sid" branch of Debian. It features the GNOME or MATE DEs, and its focus is on being easy to use, with special attention paid to user support; in particular, it offers personalized lifetime support after a onetime payment of a modest ($14 as of this writing) fee, and offers free support in the form of the user manual (though that requires provision of an email address, which is a bit odd) and a Q&A section of the site in lieu of traditional forums. Looking at the website, it seems like this is largely a one-person operation, and the website design and some of the words used make it seem a little more amateurish (which is marginally off-putting for a distribution that bills itself as meaning "business"), but it seems like a decent effort from a single person, and I'd like to see what it has to offer in any case. I tried this as a live USB made with UnetBootin. Follow the jump to see what it's like.


Generals Impending

I briefly thought of doing a review or another longer post this month, but I realized that studying for my generals will require too much of my time and concentration to allow for that. Instead, I'll keep this post as an update about my upcoming generals. My generals will have two parts: the first is a standard research seminar where I get to talk about some of the stuff that I've done over the last year and more, while the second is an oral exam where the three committee members get to ask me more fundamental questions. The oral exam is tricky to prepare for because those questions could in principle be about anything; that said, from what I understand, the committee members tend to ask about things related to my research topics, my coursework, or other basic things that they expect someone in my field to understand, so I basically have to study a broad range of material and hope for the best. The research seminar is a little better, because I have a better sense of my own research than at least two out of the three committee members (the excluded member being my advisor); I just have to make sure that I know what I'm talking about (and on that same note that I don't start making stuff up), so this will require me to go a little broad but more deep into the fundamentals underlying my research.

I said in a post from two months ago that I'm working on projects involving nanoscale wetting as well as more accurate modeling of the optical response of electrons in nanoscale metal structures. Right now, I'm not so sure about the future of the second project, because there still seems to be a lot of controversy about how to properly account for boundary effects in finite metal systems, and our group is not really in the business of making those [more fundamental] decisions; instead, we'd like to use a more well-established model of optical response and hope to show some new and interesting results using novel techniques in computational electromagnetics. Given that, my research seminar is almost exclusively going to focus on the first project, which is a much better-posed and better-developed problem and has consequently led to very interesting results. (I can't really give more details until we put out a publication.)

Anyway, at this point I'm waiting to be over with generals, while studying hard for them as the days count down. I promise that I'll have a more typical post next month, after I finish both parts of generals.


Review: Black Lab Linux 7.0.2 Xfce

Main Screen + Whisker Menu
This is a review that I've been wanting to do for a while now, so I'm glad I can finally do it. Of course, after this, I'll have to buckle down again and prepare for my general exams again, so another review may not come for another month or more.

Black Lab Linux is supposed to be a distribution that focuses on being easy to use and having a consistent user interface, with the hope of attracting users new to Linux. Unlike many other distributions, it offers professional support (for a fee), and also offers computers for sale that have Black Lab Linux preinstalled. As is typical, the distribution by itself is offered as a free downloadable ISO file, so that's what I tested here. I tested the 64-bit version using a live USB system made with UnetBootin; follow the jump to see what it's like.


Research and Generals

I was intending to post a review this month, but I got too busy and didn't have the time to do that. Instead, I'll keep this as a short update. Right now, I'm quite occupied with doing research on two projects: one has to do with wetting at the nanoscale, and the other has to do with modeling the optical response of electrons in metals and semiconductors. They may seem divorced from each other at first, but they are both electromagnetic phenomena, and if I consider Casimir forces or heat transfer from metals or semiconductors, they both involve fluctuational phenomena as well. Concurrently with research, I am preparing for my general examinations (often called qualifying examinations elsewhere) which are coming up in April or May. Anyway, hopefully I'll have a little time next month to put a review or another sort of post like that out.


Featured Comments: Week of 2016 January 17

There was one post this past week that got a few comments, so I'll repost all of those.

Review: Solus 1.0 "Shannon"

Reader whs001 said, "Thanks very much for a thorough review of Solus. I've been paying attention to Ikey Dougherty's work ever since Linux Mint Debian Edition, and I've read quite a few reviews of Solus - yours is more thorough than many others, and the first one I've seen that mentions all the problems you found. At this point I'm relying on reviews of Solus because I can't even get it to finish booting on either of my 64-bit machines. It starts to boot, but hangs up before even getting to the logon screen. Not ready for prime time. I'm actually writing because you are the first review I've ever seen who has complained about scroll bars that jump all the way to where you click rather than just going one "page down" the way they ordinarily do. I have strange problems with that behavior. On my Dell OptiPlex desktop running Linux Lite with XFCE, most of the scroll bars work normally, but in Synaptic they jump down (or up) as you describe. On my Dell Inspiron laptop running Xubuntu, it seems as though the scrollbars in all applications have this stupid jump-down behavior. I would blame that on Ubuntu (particularly since it has a history of messing with scrollbars, giving us that dopey long, skinny place marker rather than the usual squarish one), but Linux Lite is also based on Ubuntu. In fact what I'm running is Xubuntu 14.04 and Linux Lite based on Ubuntu 14.04, so the fact that they have different forms of scrollbar misbehavior is really odd. Thanks again for the review", later clarifying in response to a question from me, "I wrote Solus onto two different USB sticks with dd, and neither one of them would finish booting on either machine."
In response to the above posts, commenter keithbluhm shared the following: "I've been checking out Solus just because, and I'm no computer hardware/software guru, but I was able to install, boot, update, use, shutdown, reboot, etc, etc, using the provided ISO within VirtualBox on Win7...zero issues. No idea what the differences would be between a VM, Live USB, and so on."
Also in response, reader Jake had the following tip: "@whs001: Sounds like an issue with uefi. Check your bios settings and ensure that uefi is first or enabled. Perhaps you need to make sure that your drive is selected as the boot device as well."

Thanks to all of those readers for those comments. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may have gathered that I'm basically posting around once per month now. That schedule is not going to change much for the next few months. It won't decrease because I do still enjoy posting from time to time, and I would personally feel a bit badly for neglecting this blog for an entire calendar month. That said, it also won't increase because this semester, having finished classes (basically), I need to prepare for my general examinations (also called qualifying examinations) which occur at the end of the semester, which will determine whether I get to stay in my PhD program or not. Anyway, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!


Review: Solus 1.0 "Shannon"

The semester has finally ended, and with that, I am officially done with all of my technical classes forever! (I still need to take an ethics class next semester, but that shouldn't be a big deal.) I've had a free weekend, so I've taken advantage of it by reviewing the recently-released Solus 1.0 "Shannon".

Raven + Budgie Menu
If you're a long-time reader of this blog, you may be wondering why I'm reviewing Solus with a version number of 1.0, if I already reviewed SolusOS 1 "Eveline" over 3.5 years ago. The reason is that this Solus is different from the SolusOS of a few years ago. The deal (as far as I can tell, so if I get parts of the story wrong, please let me know in the comments) is that for the previous SolusOS, version 2 was to be released with all sorts of cool things like an independent base, a fork of GNOME 2 supporting Compiz (separate from MATE), and so on, but then the development team ran out of funds to continue development, so SolusOS died at that point. More recently (around a year ago), the lead developer of the former SolusOS project, Ikey Doherty (along with presumably other people involved with the old SolusOS project, but I'm not too clear on that point), started working on a new lightweight DE called Budgie, built from GNOME 3 technologies to maintain compatibility with the upstream code base (in direct contrast to the forking that Cinnamon and MATE had done). He put it into an independent distribution called Evolve OS, but then a trademark dispute briefly ensued; this was quickly resolved by dropping the Evolve OS name and resurrecting the Solus name, and that is the distribution that I am reviewing today.

I tried Solus (which is only usable on 64-bit systems) on a live USB written with the "dd" command, as this is the recommended method; the Solus wiki explicitly advises against using UnetBootin, and I figured that MultiSystem may not be able to handle a new independent distribution like Solus. Follow the jump to see what it's like.


Review: Chakra 2015.11 "Fermi"

Main Screen + Kickoff Menu
Not only has it been a while since I've done a Linux distribution review on this blog, but it has been an especially long time (over 2.5 years, in fact) since I've looked at Chakra. I figured that now that KDE 5 (technically incorrect terminology, I know, but please bear with me, as I'm using this for the sake of brevity) is being used in Chakra, it may be time to see how a distribution I've rather liked in the past has evolved. In case you don't remember, Chakra was originally based on Arch Linux, but a few years ago, it branched off into its own independent distribution with its own repositories, though certain tools (like the package manager Pacman) are based on things found in Arch Linux. It focuses exclusively on KDE, and it uses a semi-rolling release model in which core system packages are updated less frequently in order to maintain stability, while front-end applications seen by users most often are updated more frequently to provide a competitive desktop experience.

I tried this on a live USB using the "dd" command; as in my review from over 2.5 years ago, neither UnetBootin nor MultiSystem work anymore for reliably creating Chakra live USB media. This wasn't a terribly difficult thing to do, but in any case, the Chakra wiki contains a little more information for people who might need a little more help with these steps (especially if they are new users from Microsoft Windows who are trying a Linux distribution for the first time). Additionally, note that Chakra can only be used on 64-bit computers. Follow the jump to see what it's like.


On Transitioning into Graduate Life, One Year In

This is a post that's more about what's going on in my life right now, so if you would have liked to see a software review or an otherwise more technical/generally topical post, fear not! That shall come in at least one more post this month. This post is more about some thoughts I've had about mentally and socially transitioning to life in graduate school after a little over a year in it, so I just hope that anyone going through a similar transition may find this even mildly interesting. Follow the jump to see more.


FOLLOW-UP: Personal, Corporate, and In-Between Fraud

This is a follow-up to my post from last month about the VW emissions cheating scandal and the case of the arrest of the "clock kid" Ahmed Mohamed.

Regarding the VW emissions cheating scandal, VW executives blamed (link from AP, Reuters, NBC News) "a couple of software engineers". Given how the cheat was pretty much impossible without a collaboration between many engineers of different kinds (mechanical, software, electrical, et cetera), all I can say is the following: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Regarding the case of Ahmed Mohamed, it turns out that he and his family are moving (link from Jessica Contrera, Washington Post) to Qatar, and that this decision was supposedly made less than 24 hours after meeting President Obama in the White House. In my previous post, I pretty much unconditionally defended him against accusations of fraudulent behavior. I still don't believe that he personally would have brought the clock in just to incite the response from the school and police that transpired, because for one, that would require a massive conspiracy, and for another, that absolves the school and police of responsibility for their actions. That said, I am now less sure of his family's actions and motives following the arrest and its initial reporting. Clearly they took advantage of the massive publicity, and while I'm certainly not a fan of that sort of exploitation of publicity, I was hoping that would be the end of the story. Yet now, I can't believe that a Sudanese immigrant family, where the father has run for the presidency of Sudan before, would within the span of 24 hours decide to move to Qatar, unless they already had high-level connections there. My guess now is that while this story would have likely been widely shared regardless of the family's behavior, a lot of the publicity was probably due to the family's influence itself, and they were able to use that to move out to Qatar (and use the story to get the Qatar Foundation to provide Ahmed a scholarship to sweeten the deal). It probably wasn't because of Ahmed's inability to go back to school in his district, because there have been plenty of other cases of kids who have been in situations where they can't go back to school in their home districts because of similar high-profile incidents. In such cases, the family usually moves to another district within the state, another state, or maybe their home country if they immigrated here, as opposed to a totally different country. Anyway, I still do wish Ahmed the best in his studies of engineering, but I now feel at least partially duped in some way by this whole turn of events, and hope that this story finally dies once the family moves out of the country.