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Mon, Jun. 6th, 2011, 10:10 pm
Cloud storage and streaming music

So, within the last few weeks, Amazon, Google, and (just today) Apple have all weighed in with new services that allow you to store "your" music in the cloud and stream it to all of your devices.

I've started to use the Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music Beta in the last few weeks, and I've read the news coverage of today's announcement of Apple's iCloud service. This posting is my review of the different services.

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Sat, Jan. 15th, 2011, 10:48 pm
Thoughts on e-books and readers

It seems that nearly everyone I know, including my 80 year old mother is considering buying an e-book reader device of some type. I'm reluctant to take this step yet, for a variety of reasons explained below. Since my mother is interested in trying one of these devices, I did some shopping with her on my recent trip to omaha. Some of you might be considering the same issues, so I thought I'd put my thoughts down in an entry here.

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Mon, Dec. 27th, 2010, 08:29 pm
Recent reading

I've spent the evening unpacking boxes of books from my trip to Los Angeles, so it's a good time to review some books that I've read recently. All of these get a positive recommendation:

Mary Doria Russell: The Sparrow. This is a "first contact" science fiction novel. The author is an anthropologist by training, and it certainly shows in this novel, which has some of the more unusual aliens ever to appear in such a novel. However, the novel actually focuses more on the human characters and the religous aspect of their journey and its tragic conclusion. I enjoyed this one and will try to find the sequel. I've also picked up an unrelated historical novel by the same author.

Paolo Bacigalupi: The Windup Girl (a Hugo and Nebula award winning novel) near future science fiction set in Thailand in a future where ecological catastrophe has left much of the world in thrall to the monopolies that create GM crops. The character in the title is a genetically engineered "new person" who has been created to serve as a Geisha and then forsaken by her Japanese businessman owner. Lots of atmosphere, but I didn't find much depth in this novel.

China Mieville: The City & The City (also a Hugo winner) Science fiction/urban fantasy/noir crime novel set in an alternative near future world where an eastern european city has magically split into two cities whose residents studiously avoid recognizing the other city that coexists with their's. Well written and somewhat thought provoking.

Charles Stross; Saturn's Children: Stross takes on the style of later Heinlein while writing an interesting bit of science fiction about a future in which humans have disappeared from the scene, leaving the robots to continue on their own without human guidance. This novel is wickedly funny and Stross has done an amazing job of mimicing the late Heinlein style. There's nothing really deep here, but it was a fun read.

Charles Stross: Wireless (including the Hugo winning novella "Palimpsest" and Locus award winning novella "Missle Gap") This is a collection of science fiction short stories and novella's. They're all good, and the individual pieces are all short enough to be read in a single setting. I like collections like these for airplane reading- the bite sized chunks work better than longer novels. Unfortunately, short fiction pays so badly that most well known authors have just stopped writing it- the money is in writing big novels.

Dean Ottati: The Runner and the Path. This book is an unusual memoir about running, business, and the meaning of life. Lots of yogic ideas appear (whether or not the author knows it...)

Sun, Oct. 10th, 2010, 10:33 am
iPod Touch trick of the day

I was irritated last night to find that my iPod Touch would no longer play music through the speaker in its dock. The symptoms were that I could plug it into the dock and it would start charging, but none of the audio controls on the dock had any effect and sound was still coming out of the speaker built into the iPod Touch instead of coming from the nicer speaker in the dock.

The solution was to reset the iPod Touch. Apparently it's little brain had gotten confused!

Wed, Sep. 22nd, 2010, 09:04 pm
Technology Options For The Nomadic Scholar II

In my last post I discussed some of the options that I was considering for internet access, cell phone, personal computing, etc. during my sabbatical leave at the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics at UCLA. This is a followup to summarize what I finally decided on and how it's working out.

IPAM has provided me with an office and a computer that dual boots Windows and Linux (Ubuntu 10.04) I keep it in Ubuntu all the time. They've even been kind enough to put my username on the sudoers list, so that I can do limited system administration tasks, such as installing Debian/Ubuntu packages. It took almost no time to get my environment setup on this machine, and I've been quite happy with it.

IPAM also provides wireless through the building, which I use with my iPod Touch and my laptop when I do bring the laptop into the office. At this point my plan is to not bring the laptop to the office except for days where I might be giving a presentation.

Speaking of laptops, I ended up buying an ASUS UL30A-A2. This is a "thin and light" laptop with a 13" 16:9 screen, 4 gigabytes of RAM, and a dual core UL7300 processor. The manufacturer claims 11 hours of battery life, and I don't feel that this is much of an exaggeration- I've used it on battery for four or five hours straight without running low. The machine feels snappy running Ubuntu, and the dual core processor works well for doing things like Skype video chats that I've found don't work very well on my older netttop machine. I'm running Ubuntu 10.04 and had a very easy install. The only configuration/setup issues that I had to deal with were the infamous "upside down video camera" problem (for which I found directions for an easy fix) and getting gpsbabel to work with my Garmin 305 GPS. I'm leaving this machine at home and using it effectively as a "desktop replacement."

For internet access at my apartment, I went with Virgin Mobile's BroadBand2Go Mifi device. The service is $40 per month for unlimited data, with no contract. I've been getting about 1 Mbps up/download speeds, and I'm very happy with the service so far. It's nice that the Mifi unit works with both my laptop and my iPod Touch. I can also take the Mifi with me if I'm going somewhere that doesn't have Wifi.

On the telephony front, I've continued with my cheap Virgin Mobile pay as you go cell phone. However, I use it very seldom. At home and work I can use Google chat to place outgoing phone calls, and I have google voice setup to ring my computers on incoming calls. I'm taking nearly all of my calls on one computer or the other. I also have a conventional land line in my office at IPAM, and I've added it to my Google Voice configuration as well, so that if a call comes in while I'm at my desk I can take it on the landline phone. So far, I've been very happy with the voice quality of Google's service. For video chat with Sue, we've been using Skype.

One bit of technology that I hadn't planned on buying is a GPS navigation system. I have absolutely no need for this while driving around Socorro, and even in Albuquerque I know my way around well enough that it isn't really worth having one. However, my experience of trying to drive to Westwood Village on the way into LA was sufficiently frustrating that I decided to go ahead and purchase a GPS navigation system. Amazon was having a sale today on refurbished Magellan RoadMate 1475T units, so I ordered one that should arrive next week.

Thu, Sep. 16th, 2010, 10:23 pm
What am I doing in LaLa land?

Back in the fall of 2003 I spent my first sabbatical leave at the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM) at UCLA. From a professional perspective, the trip was very successful- I was able to wrap work on the first edition of a textbook that I was coauthoring, I learned a lot of new stuff about inverse problems (the topic of that long program at IPAM), and I made a lot of contacts that have been helpful in my research,

At a more personal level, that trip was extremely stressful, missing Sue (I was paying $0.15 per minute for cell phone calls), financial issues ($2,500 per month in rent was an enormous amount of money at the time, even if I would eventually get reimbursed for it...), and the general stress of living an unhealthy lifestyle in an incredibly stressful environment. Among other issues, that fall included no car (I'd flown to LA), a transit workers strike (making it impossible for me to get around town), a grocery store workers strike (picket lines at the one grocery store in Westwood village), and massive brush fires that left the city shrouded in smoke for several months. I remember thinking as I left town that I never wanted to return.

Once again I'm here at UCLA on sabbatical leave. So, why did I come back?

This time the theme of the semester long program is optimization, including several topics that are of particular interest to me (sparse optimization, efficient first order methods for structured convex optimization problems, and applications of semidefinite programming and conic optimization.) In addition to spending the semester learning about this exciting research, I'm planning to spend much of my time finishing up the data analysis for a project in cosmogenic nuclide dating that I've been working on for the last 5 years. I'm also working on the manuscript of the second edition of our inverse problems book, which is due at the publishers in December. There are a couple of other smaller research projects that I'd like to finish while I'm here. Professionally, I expect this trip to be at least as positive as my first trip to LA.

As Sue and I were driving across the Mojave desert last weekend, I thought about the personal aspect- in many ways my last visit to LA was very depressing, but I've changed dramatically since then. It's probably a good thing that I've taken myself out of my normal comfort zone. While I'm in this stressful environment, taking care of myself, physically, mentally, and emotionally will be a challenge, but I think I'm more capable of doing that than I was seven years ago.

Wed, Sep. 15th, 2010, 02:11 pm
Personal Tracking with Google Health

Google Health has added "wellness tracking" so that you can track stuff like weight, blood pressure, blood glucose, etc. In general, you can add new measurements as they come along and plot a graph showing how you've done over time. You can also set goals associated with these measurements. e.g. I might want to get my weight down to 155 pounds.

I already track this stuff for myself using a Google Docs spreadsheet, but having it in something like Google Health might someday make it easy for me to share such information with a physician or other medical professionals. It would also keep this data in the same place as other medical records such as test results (cholesterol, A1C, etc.)

I haven't yet decided whether to use this in place of my Google Docs spreadsheet. There are some privacy concerns, but then again, if a bad guy got a hold of my spreadsheet he could use that against me just as well...

The amusing bit was that in order to compute your BMI, it needs to know your height. You can add multiple measurements of height and even set a goal height! Gee- if I could just get to 6' tall, my BMI would drop a couple of points!

Sun, Jul. 25th, 2010, 03:38 pm
What I've Learned About GPGPU Computing

My non-computer-geek friends will probably want to skip this...

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Mon, May. 24th, 2010, 01:14 pm
Review of "The Artist and the Mathematician" by Amir D. Aczel

This book is the biography of a "person" who never really existed!

Nicolas Bourbaki was the pseudonym adopted by a group of French mathematicians who began in the 1930's to collaboratively write a series of books that attempted to standardize mathematics on the basis of set theory. The idea was to go back to the very basics and define everything in the most abstract and general way possible. The resulting mathematics is extremely powerful, but very challenging to study.

The Bourbaki volumes had a tremendous influence on the development of pure mathematics in the mid 20th century. Their style even influenced the teaching of mathematics at the elementary school level- the "new math" that I was taught in the late 60's and 70's shows a great deal of the Bourbaki influence. In recent years the influence of the Bourbaki has declined, with pure math moving in different directions. Applied and computational mathematics were never very much affected by the Bourbaki.

Aczel does a good job of describing the development of mathematics from the 1930's through the 1950's. This provides a backdrop for the fascinating personal histories of the young mathematicians (including Andre Weil and Alexander Grothendieck) that formed the Bourbaki. Aczel also makes some interesting connections between the work of the Bourbaki and the broader intellectual movement of structuralism whose leading figure was Claude Levi Strauss.

This book is a quick read (it took me a couple of hours on a plane) and worth while if you want to learn something about Bourbaki.

Sun, May. 9th, 2010, 12:33 pm
Technology Options for the Nomadic Scholar

As I think I've told people here, I'm going to the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM) at UCLA this fall for a three month sabbatical leave. I was previously at IPAM for the fall of 2003, so I'm not completely unprepared for what to expect in terms of housing and other aspects of life at UCLA. In this post I want to discuss my computing/personal technology plans for the visit and see if my friends have any useful suggestions.

In 2003 I went to Los Angeles with a pay-as-you-go Virgin Mobile cell phone and "desktop replacement" style laptop computer running Linux. I had a desktop computer in my office at IPAM, along with wired and wireless internet access. I used the internet to access my desktop machine at NMT as well as some other machines in various places that I had to manage remotely.

The cell phone was a great alternative to a landline phone in the furnished apartment that I had rented for three months- I was using $50 to $75 per month during the visit, but after the trip I went back to my normal $20 for 90 days usage. Getting phone service for 3 months and then canceling it would have cost me a lot more.

I took the laptop to the office sometimes, but mostly I left it in my apartment and used a flash drive to shuttle data back and forth from the office. This allowed me to work "at home" in the evenings and weekends and was convenient for playing music and watching DVD's. Getting internet service in the apartment was possible, but would have cost a lot of money, so I didn't bother. I also didn't bother with cable TV.

Flash forward to 2010, and some things have changed, while others really haven't.

I'm still using a Virgin Mobile pay-as-you-go phone and I'm still happy with the service. At home and in my office in Socorro I use it very little, to the point that I typically have to add $20 to the account every three months just to keep the account active.

I still keep desktop machines at home and at work, both running an LTS version of Ubuntu (currently 8.04 but soon to be upgraded to 10.04.)

I've switched to a lightweight netbook laptop running EEEbuntu (an ASUS EEE 701 that's a bit long in the tooth), which works great for conference presentations, ssh, and some light X windows stuff (mostly displaying plots.)

I've also added an iPod touch that I carry around in my pocket- since there's Wifi at home, the brew pub, the coffee shop, and all over campus, it works nearly all of the time for me.

Now, on to my requirements:

My office work will involve writing (finishing up the manuscript for the second edition of our inverse problems textbook), coding (for various research projects), library research (although this is nearly indistinguishable from other kinds of web surfing these days), attending presentations, and giving presentations.

My daily routine involves pretty heavy use of Google Mail (I use it both as an email client for my @nmt.edu professional email address and for my personal email), Google Calendar, and Google Tasks. So
I want to have ready access to the Google cloud during most of my day and also at night and on weekends. I also need to be able to at least SSH and preferably run X windows sessions to keep tabs on various computations that will be going on at NMT and elsewhere.

Some options:

1. Replace my current pay-as-you-go phone with an iPhone or a Google Android phone and stop worrying about wired/Wifi access to the internet. This is very flexible in the short term, but requires a long term cell service contract which I won't really want or need after I return from LA.

2. Get an iPad w/3G and use it as my "carry around in my briefcase" machine and for internet access at home. The new AT&T "month at a time" data only service plan for the iPad is a huge draw here.

3. Stick with a more conventional laptop or nettop machine and get a 3G modem for it so that I can have internet access whereever I might be.

4. Get conventional DSL or Cable internet service for the apartment.

Option 2 is beginnging to look attractive to me. Any comments?

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