Testing the Windows 7 release candidate

A few weeks ago on 5 May Microsoft released the release candidate of Windows 7. It’s a free download, so I decided to give it a try. Unfortunately Windows 7, just like the older versions, will brutally overwrite the master boot record (MBR) without asking. This meant I had to restore the GRUB bootloader to the MBR to be able to start Ubuntu again. Fortunately there are very easy instructions available on how that should be done. I’ll write my thoughts about Windows 7 at a later time.

Using LaTeX for presentations

I’ve written before about using LaTeX instead of OpenOffice.org Writer, but it can also replace OpenOffice.org Impress if you use the latex-beamer package. The separation of content and layout in LaTeX is an even greater advantage if it’s used for presentations, because with latex-beamer it becomes very easy – when the learning curve has been conquered – to quickly produce a presentation which looks great as well. I only need to give presentations for the History programme I study at Utrecht University, and fortunately someone created a theme for my university for the latex-beamer package. Using LaTeX for creating presentations is superior to using OO.org Impress in my opinion.

The Cinematic mod for Half Life 2

A while ago The Orange Box was available for a discount price of € 9,99 on Steam. I quickly decided to buy it for such a bargain price, because I was interested in Half-Life 2: Episode One and Half-Life 2: Episode Two. While Episode Two has got upgraded graphics, Episode One and of course the original Half-Life 2 now look quite outdated when it comes to graphics. Because I still remembered using the Cinematic mod to get improved graphics for Half-Life 2, I decided to check if a more recent version of that mod has been released since I played it for the last time a few years ago. That was indeed the case. The most recent version is 9.51, which is mostly easily downloaded with BitTorrent here, here and here. It’s a quite large download. Version 10 is being worked on according to the the news here and here (screenshots included).

This mod gives Half-Life 2 and Episode 1 and 2 a serious graphical upgrade, while also slightly altering the gameplay and replacing the music with more a cinematic soundtrack. You might not like the artistic license taken with the models, Alyx for example looks like Adriana Lima, but you have to admit that it’s very impressive work. According to the author himself, he has reached the limits of what is possible with the game, Half-Life 2 is almost five years old now. What’s even more impressive is that the mod’s creator has done all the work himself, if I’m correct. I have a lot of respect for people who can be so productive.

Ubuntu 9.04 dropping you to an initramfs shell at startup

After successfully installing the recently released Ubuntu 9.04 a.k.a. Jaunty Jackalope on my own PC, I decided to install it on the families’ PC in my house. On that PC starting Ubuntu didn’t work however, because I got dropped to an initramfs shell after seeing the splash screen for a while. I used the Desktop CD, copied to a USB flash drive. The PC on which I wanted to install 9.04 already had 8.04 running, which didn’t have this problem during it’s installation.

A bit of searching on the Ubuntu forums quickly learned me that I was not the only one being affected by this rather serious bug. There are one, two, three, four, five topics covering the subject, with the last one being created a year ago and spanning 39 pages, because the problem apparently already manifested itself in earlier releases as well. I tried a few solutions mentioned in those topics, but none has worked. Two bug reports are mentioned to be possibly related to the issue, bug #290153 and bug #47768. I’m rather disappointed this bug slipped through Ubuntu’s quality control, but it’s doesn’t come as a surprise to me. Quite a few bug reports I filed after the call to test the Kubuntu 9.04 release candidate still are unanswered at this moment, and so have some of my bug reports filed for previous releases. I hope new CD images will be released once this bug is fixed, at least that it is fixed in the next release, 9.10. It’s annoying, but I’m not in a hurry to install the latest Ubuntu version on our families’ PC anyway.

So excited by LaTeX

At the start of this month I wrote about trying LaTeX or LyX to see if it suits my requirements better than OpenOffice. Quickly I decided to dump LyX, because it seemed like another abstraction layer which added complexity and that prevented me from being in control, so I started to use LaTeX directly. I think LaTeX is awesome. I was able to learn the basics easily by reading this LaTeX book on Wikibooks. It’s great how presentation and content is separated in LaTeX. While the basics may be easy, it gets more complicated when you want to to customise the layout. So far I didn’t need to do that, because there are different packages (add-ons for LaTeX) with a lot of options to fine tune the layout. To give some examples to illustrate the power of LaTeX, you can divide the document’s text in two columns or make it suitable for double-sided printing by merely adding an option to the document class command in the document preamble. Try doing that in OpenOffice or Microsoft Word. LaTeX can automatically hyphenate the text – also in the Dutch language if the right package is installed – which works great, OpenOffice can’t do that either.

I do have a problem though. BibTeX offers the possibility to automatically generate the bibliography and the literary references. In principle it works great, but at my History department a rare, uncommon style for literary references and bibliographies is used. An example can be seen here. As you can see footnotes are used for literary references, and if a second reference is made it is displayed in a shorter format than the first reference. For this style of referencing literature, I haven’t been able to find a BibTeX style which resembles it exactly. The most similar one I have been able to find is the Chicago Manual of Style BibTeX style, which I found here. You can create your own BibTeX style, but that seems like rocket science to me. I think I’ll have to do the literary references manually. That would suck, but I had to do the same in OpenOffice.

I use the gedit text editor which is included with GNOME to edit LaTeX files, in combination with the LaTeX plugin. In the upcoming Ubuntu 9.04 release a.k.a. Jaunty Jackalope, it has also been packaged under the name gedit-latex-plugin, which makes it easier to install. The plugin gives error messages if you try to compile a PDF document, so I’m using the terminal to issue a pdflatex <name of my document> command to build a PDF document of my LaTeX file. On KDE you could use Kile, and there are BibTeX editors for KDE as well, KBibTeX and Kbib. Unfortunately, none of these three has been ported to KDE 4 yet.

Films seen in April 2009

This week I didn’t have much to do, so I went to the DVD rental shop and found seven DVD’s worth watching. If you rent seven, you pay the cheapest fee per DVD, but it was a bit difficult to watch all seven within one week, the period you are allowed to rent them. I also watched a film on TV, and one movie was rented a few weeks ago. This is probably all for now, because I won’t have time during the rest of April.

All were good, but There Will Be Blood was my favorite. After that come Babel and Das Leben der Anderen. I really couldn’t stand seeing Nicolas Cage with an ugly mustache in the film World Trade Center.

I appreciate The Lives of Others so much because it shows it shows how the protagonist, who is convinced that he is doing the right thing to defend the greatness of the DDR, changes his beliefs. One of my favorite scenes of this film happens at the start of the film when he is lecturing some students about the behavior of the enemies of the state. When one student dares to question what he says, he immediatly places a mark near the student’s name on a list. Later in the film my second favorite scene occurs when he’s standing in an elevator together with a child. The child asks him in it’s innocence if he works for the Stasi and tells him that his father told him the Stasi are bad people who lock others up. The protagonist is tempted to ask for the name of his father, but in the middle in his sentence he doubts, and asks for the name of the child’s ball instead. The child is confused and tells him balls have no names. Thoughout the film the protagonist loses his tunnel vision when he witnesses how the DDR damages the lives of it’s citizens. It shows the protagonist capacity for self-criticism, his ability to change his convictions. In that aspect I could see similarity between myself and the protagonist, and identify myself with him.

Global warming and measures to reduce energy consumption

In the past I had my doubts about global warming, but since I’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth I’m convinced that the danger is real. It is true that the documentary contains some errors, but those who deny climate change sometimes use these errors as a pretext to denounce An Inconvenient Truth in it’s entirety. Often they point at the other documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle, to prove that global warming is not caused by human activity. The Wikipedia article describing The Great Global Warming Swindle convinces me that it is pseudoscience, the evidence linking global warming to human causes is far more convincing to me.

Even if you are a skeptic, it never hurts to consume less energy for savings on the electricity bill or petrol costs. Recently I’ve been considering to replace the remaining incandescent light bulbs in my house with LED lamps. My parents prefer incandescent light bulbs because it’s possible to use them in combination with a dimmer, unfortunately fluorescent lamps are not compatible with the same dimmers as incandescent light bulbs. Certain LED lamps are compatible with dimmers used for incandescent light bulbs. However, LED lamps still have disadvantages. Recent research (in the Dutch language) conducted on a selection of LED lamps revealed that they do not meet their specified levels of luminous intensity (and as a consequence, neither their claimed efficiency) and that their life expectancy has not been proven. Here in the Netherlands they aren’t easy to find in stores, but there are quite some Internet stores which sell them. Unfortunately they are still very expensive, so I think it’s best to wait until improved designs are available for a lower price. I’ll make sure to replace every incandescent light bulb which does not need to be dimmed with a fluorescent lamp though.

Another important measure is using a bike or public transport instead of a car. Some of my family members still insist on using a car for short distances which can be covered with a bike. It’s hard to convince them to change, but I reduce my car usage as much as possible. My PC consumes quite a lot, an average of 180 Watt when I play a game. Saving energy is a bit more difficult here, but in the near future I want to buy an ultraportable laptop which consumes far less energy. I could also use it as an alternative for my PC in certain cases when I don’t need much processing power for gaming. When it comes to water consumption, I think I should spend less time on taking a shower, usually I take quite a long time for that.

Would you prefer a hunter-gatherer society over our society?

A lot of us probably think life in our modern society is marred because of the demands our society places on us, like stress for example. To be honestly I’m not content with my life. At the moment I experience my life as a constant war being waged with exams in order to get a bachelor’s degree. I feel too much pressure from our society to perform.

Recently I was reading the Wikipedia article on Jared Diamond. He wrote an interesting article, The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, in which he argues that our ancestors who lived in hunter-gatherer societies led much better lives than their successors who lived in agricultural societies. Not only were they more healthy, they had much more time available for leisure and lived in a more egalitairian society. Occasionally while I’m watching television I see fragments of the 2005 documentary series Tribe, which features a presenter originating from the United Kingdom spending some time living with remote tribes. The way of life of these tribes as depicted in Tribe seems good. Apparently the ideology which is in favor of returning to a primitive life style is called anarcho-primitivism.

Living a simple life without the worries we experience in our modern society, initially it might seem like a utopia to some. But I think I’m more skeptical. I saw an episode of Tribe which had the Kombai people in Papua New Guinea as it’s subject, if I’m correct. In this episode a Kombai man told the presenter, without any remorse, that he killed a man because he perceived him to be a Suangi, a witch. Endemic warfare or cannibalism might not be uncommon among remote tribes either. I think I’d rather live in our modern society with all it’s troubles instead of a hunter-gatherer society.

Aside of the Neolithic Revolution being the worst mistake in the history of mankind, I nominate the exodus of our ancestors from Africa as a serious mistake. Maybe our ancestors had good reasons to leave Africa, but most tribes living in Africa or other places with a year-round warm climate can afford to wear little or no clothing at all. In Europe we have to suffer from the cold climate and spend a lot of energy on heating buildings in the winter.

Addings tags to my posts

So far I have only used categories on this weblog, but today I’ve created tags for all posts on this weblog. I’ve also placed such a cool tag cloud widget in the sidebar. The difference between categories and tags might not be evident, I didn’t understand it either until I read this document on the WordPress.com website. In a nutshell, they are supposed to be used to describe posts in a more specific way than categories, and tags are supposed to be many and ad-hoc while categories are fewer and planned. Even though there are no advantages for search engines, I think tags could be useful for organising posts.

However, I’m not sure how far I should take them. Initially, I created tags for every place I visited in Rome for my two posts covering Rome. Some places have a name which is quite long for a tag, and the list of tags became quite long this way. I also thought the tags were too specific, and I got rid of them. How do others handle tags?

Ditching OpenOffice in favor of LyX or LaTeX?

Recently I have been trying to figure out how OpenOffice’s bibliographic reference management works, so I would no longer need to manage references manually. Especially if documents become large with a lot of references, doing it manually can become quite a burden. However, OpenOffice disappoints me again because it’s bibliographic management feature is severely lacks in usability. After I fired up Google to find solutions to a few problems I encountered with the feature, I found this and this forum topic. The conclusion seems to be that OpenOffice’s bibliography features are worthless, and that you’re better off if you use an external application for bibliography management. But I don’t think that makes things more convenient, and I have more gripes with OpenOffice besides bibliography management, so I was thinking of possible alternatives to OpenOffice. This is important to me now, because in the next quarter of my academic year I will be required to conduct research.

Then I found information about LyX, which basically is a graphical user interface which uses LaTeX under the hood. LyX seems to offer an easier way to harness it’s power than using LaTeX directly. I’ve read about LaTeX before, but I thought it was meant for the mathematicians who need to use formulas in their documents, because that is it’s greatest advantage. But apparently it should also be well suited for those who study the humanities as well, because of the appraisal of it’s bibliography management features (achieved by using BibTex) – which is exactly what I’m looking for. Documents produced with LaTeX also look a lot better to the eye than those produced with OpenOffice or Microsoft Word, because of the superior quality of typesetting provided by TeX through LaTeX. On the LyX wiki a lot of information is provided, like document classes (some sort of templates?) for those in the humanities and example theses. I’m going to give LyX a try, and I’ll report my findings here.