Going Mythbuntu

Quite a while back, I believe in early 2006, I setup a home personal video recorder (PVR) using a Hauppauge 350 TV Tuner card, a small form-factor system and an old monitor, and MythTV. My MythTV distribution of choice, at the time, was KnoppMyth. However, after one or two scary attempts to upgrade KnoppMyth, and after some recent changes to MythTV, I decided to scrap KnoppMyth in favor of a new flavor: Mythbuntu.

In the last 6 months, driven by some very annoying problems with Fedore Cores 4-6 and their inability to boot on my new desktop machine, I switched all our home PCs to Ubuntu. Specifically, I chose Kubuntu (the KDE desktop version). Ubuntu has been great – easy to setup, easy to maintain, and for the hacker in all of us, just enough to keep us busy. It seemed sensible to switch to Mythbuntu, given that it was clear I needed to upgrade the PVR one  more time.

What happened to drive all of this? Two things. Earlier this year, the weather plugin for MythTV stopped working. Lots of folks in the MythTV user community noticed. The cause was ironic, and simple: weather data, read from MSNBC, disappeared when MSNBC changed their interface. Of course, they’re under no obligation to baby the open source community, and the developers of mythweather probably should have seen this coming, but there we were: Mythweather was broken. In the months since, it was rewritten to work with weather.com’s XML weather data system, a more well-defined format. To get this fix, I either needed to upgrade MythTV or download the new mythweather package and compile it myself.

I decided to go shopping at KnoppMyth, to see if I could just get the upgrade from their site. To my dismay, their last update was in May of this year, and the packages available by doing a network update were really behind-the-times. 

In addition, a news item on the MythTV website escaped my attention until today: channel data would no longer be available for free from the old provider, and a new non-profit group had been established by MythTV to negotiate licensing of channel data for users. At $15/3 months of data, the initial price tag was a bit much (compared to free!), but I paid it just to support the rapid and effective work of the MythTV folks. However, to get the new channel data service I needed to upgrade. KnoppMyth failed yet again.

So I shopped some more, and found Mythbuntu. Built on the latest test release of Ubuntu, and sporting the usual user-friendly installation, Mythbuntu looked perfect. I put the CDROM into the PVR, rebooted from the disc, and selected to do a new installation. Bye bye, KnoppMyth! 20 minutes later, I had a perfectly configured PVR. I put in all our program recording requests, added a few more (to get some Giants’ baseball games in there!), and we were set to go.

To boot, a few things that never worked well on KnoppMyth worked perfectly the first time with Mythbuntu. One was DVD ripping, which is essential for backing up DVDs and for making on-demand viewing a whole lot easier. That worked immediately, including transcoding the raw DVD down to a small video file with some loss of quality (not noticable on our setup). In addition, when you exit from the MythTV interface it drops you to a user login screen, where you can login as the primary system user or just wait 30 seconds for the MythTV interface to reload. The primary system user has all the programs they need to run – MythTV setup, starting and stopping of the backend, updating of channel data – available at the click of a few icons. Not bad! KnoppMyth made you type all that stuff, and their window manager was some crappy clone of Blackbox that had a thousand useless programs in its menu.

Not bad for twenty minutes’ work!

Evolving toward 2008

I’ve largely avoided the political pageantry surrounding the alleged candidates for U.S. president in 2008. This is for several reasons. The first is that I am still a little burned out on the pure doses of politics that came in 2006, during my last round of physical science outreach to Washington and the November elections. I still listen to all my favorite news programs, and we’re getting a newspaper subscription to bring to our doorstep what radio and, increasingly less, TV can bring. But I’ve not been able to force myself to watch a full “presidential candidate debate”.

I guess this is for several reasons, in the end. The foremost is the political burnout. The second is that I once participated in a speech and debate class, and what they are putting on TV is not a debate. It’s more like a “reality TV” show, where a bunch of lucky contestants (some hand-picked by the media, some there for reasons unclear) get to duke it out in a hand-raising, talking point laden chatter fest. A moderator asking candidates to raise their hands in response to an issue is far from actual debate, and I believe that somewhere an English teacher dies whenever they call this form of entertainment a real political debate.

Hand-raising can still be interesting, I suppose. As I mentioned many weeks ago, when Republican candidates were asked whether they did not believe in the theory of evolution, three raised their hands. These were Senator Sam Brownback, former Governor Mike Huckabee, and Representative Tom Tancredo. In some media reports following the event, some tried to clarify their position. It was clear from most of them that there was a deeper disconnect. These are candidates for President who cannot seem to separate a personal religious life from the study of the natural world. These can turn out to be largely incongruous pursuits, it seems, when it comes to certain political issues. Most issues involving a question – do we go to war? do we legalize a behavior? do we ban a behavior? – would be well-served by a strict fact gathering process, followed by withering peer review and a conclusion based on the evidence. That’s science, pure and simple. Personal belief systems, involving either an azure egg, a virgin birth, or a flying spaghetti monster, should have nothing to do with it.

On “Meet the Press”, Mr. Russert this morning interviewed Lance Armstrong. After his battle with cancer, Mr. Armstrong went on to win an unprecedented number of Tour de Frances and is now a leading spokesperson in the fight to fund cancer research and find cures for cancers. He spoke this morning about an upcoming forum with the ’08 candidates on cancer, in which he said he intends to ask very serious and direct questions about the candidates’ commitment to fighting the leading killer of Americans. Some candidates won’t be participating, apparently.

It occurred to me that this issue – fighting cancer – is an issue that is intimately tied to the ability of a candidate to appreciate the difference between personal belief and rigorous scientific investigation. In fact, in this particular case it is clear that a candidate who does not believe in the theory of evolution must either be an idiot or a liar if they now say that they support a rigorous publicly and privately funded  fight against cancer. By its nature, cancer is a by-product of the mechanism of evolution – mutation – and at the same time an excellent example of how a biological system unequipped to check an invasive organism matched to its own biology will perish without the hand of evolution. In the case of our species, this is technological evolution that induces biological evolution. The theory of evolution gives us a framework to attack cancer, and without it we would be huddled in our shelters, praying for a miracle that might never come.

A politician doesn’t have to give up their personal beliefs to accept and appreciate the power and majesty of evolution as a means to understand and participate in the change of nature. A politician must only accept it as a means to do so, and those who cannot set aside their personal beliefs for an indispensable universal fact are, I believe, unable to lead. Such a person cannot be trusted to appoint the right people, people who understand and are willing to support the science, to solve the problems that can directly be tackled by its application. Lance Armstrong isn’t going to ask for a “Miracle Czar” or a “Prayer Czar” – he’s going to ask for a “Cancer Czar”. Who would Tancredo, or Brownback, or Huckabee, appoint to such a position? Would you trust a person who doesn’t believe in evolution to make the right decision, a decision that will affect the lives and deaths of tens of thousands of Americans?

Winding Down in the Park

This has been a really refreshing week, quite a turn of events from the constant obsession with fundamental particles. My sister arrived on Tuesday, and after finally clearing my plate of all my last minute research items I was ready to put aside physics. We hiked, we biked, we watched the Giants and the Cubs, we ate seafood at Fisherman’s Wharf, we shopped in Chinatown. My sister left on a very early flight on Saturday, and afterward Jodi and I retired to breakfast. A friend of ours then dropped a happy bombshell in our laps: his pair of season tickets for Saturday’s Giants vs. Brewers match up. Jodi is from Wisconsin, and I’m beginning to like this baseball thing, so we accepted the tickets and headed to the city. After lunch with an old friend of mine, and a great afternoon of coffee, walking, and conversation, Jodi and I headed into the park.

I gotta say, things looked great from the seats we had for Wednesday’s game, but things looked wild from the first base line. We ate Sheboygan’s, drank some beer, ate some garlic fries, and jeered and cheered. The Giants cleaned the clocks of the Brewers, but Jodi had a good time rooting for her team (despite the Giants hat on her head). Today, we’re taking a final rest before returning to work tomorrow. Time for vacation from vacation.

$10,000 for a scientist

From Tuesday, and for the rest of this week, I am on vacation. This is my first time off in over half a year. While Europe shuts down for the month of August, and people rest or spend time with family and friends on the coast, I am trying to recover from a terribly stressful year in just a few days. I know this sounds crazy, but it’s the best I can do right now. My sister is visiting, which will hep to pry me apart from my physics obsession for a few days. The first signs of the withdrawal are already apparent – I couldn’t stop dreaming about physics analysis again last night. This has got to stop.

In an attempt to distract myself back into the world of the living, we went to the beach yesterday. It was extremely peaceful, if a little too cold. Jodi, my sister, and I lay on the sand, mocking the 12-year-olds with their mini surfboards, watching real surfers brave the chilling water to catch some modest waves, and generally just feeling our pulses slow down. It was delightful. Today, we’re going to do some hiking and then hit a ball game tonight up in the city. Hopefully, my dreams tonight will be completely empty of the siren song of physics.

As part of my vacation, I’m catching up on reading that I have been accumulating for months. I started tearing through Lloyd Alexander’s series of fantasy books featuring Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper. The basis of the Disney movie “The Black Cauldron”, these books are an excellent and short series of reads with stories grounded in Welsh mythology. It’s been a very pleasant revisiting of stories I first loved in my earlier days.

I’ve also been catching up on news publications. One issue of Newsweek, normally a forgettable rag, caught my attention a few weeks ago. “Global Warming ig a Hoax*” is proclaims in large white letters across an image of the Sun. Below the sun is the subtitle, referred to by the “*” in the main title. “* Or so claim well-funded naysayers who still reject the overwhelming evidence of climate change”. The main story in this issue deals with the history of global climate change science, and the well-paid skeptics who tried to undermine the growing consensus in the scientific community. It’s actually quite an amazing story, some of which I knew but much which was unclear.

I encourage you to actually go and read this article (I’m sure it’s available at your library). One of the things that really jumped out at me was something also bothered Senator Barbara Boxer. After the most recent report of the IPCC, the International Panel on Climate Change, concluded that the warming we see now is caused by humans with 90% or greater confidence, a “conservative think tank long funded by ExxonMobil . . . had offered scientists $10,000 to write articles undercutting the new report.” This made me mad. It also gave me a chance to think about what it means to be a real scientist, and a chance to think once more about the toolkit that we should all apply in order to be skeptical about claims and counterclaims in and against science.

“Follow the money.” This was the legendary advice from informant “Deep Throat” to Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters whose work eventually led to the collapse of the corrupt Nixon administration. It’s also very good advice for making a judgement of the validity of science. Science is a public good, and as such has largely been funded by the federal government. The basic research that is performed by this community often has not obvious benefit, but its longest term impacts can cure disease, inspire generations of new scientists, transform our social contract, and rewrite our very understanding of the universe. As such, publicly traded companies beholden to the short-term whims of its stockholders consider science a risk without benefit, a profitless pitfall that undercuts the bottom line because its view is five, 10, even 50 years out — not into the next quarter.

In my experience, a real scientist is a person who is proud to admit, “I don’t do this for the money.” There’s no way we COULD be doing this for the money. A typical post-doc, for instance, can make anywhere from $30,000 – $60,000 per year. In a place like California, this barely entitles us to rent. We can’t afford to own any property. My friends who left the field own condos, or even homes. The only physicists I know who actually own anything tend to have two median incomes, or “married up” (that goes for women and men, by the way). But the real scientist looks at it this way: “I do this work, and I happen to get paid for it.” They never seem to think, “I’ll do this work for money.”

I’ll leave you with this. Anyone who feels that in order to publish their work, they have to be paid $10,000 for it, is a phony. The work should stand for itself, both in the mind of the scientist and under the withering scrutiny of peers. If an idea is truly sound, based on data and arriving at conclusions that can be further tested, it should be able to withstand review and make it into a journal. The more you have to pre-pay for an idea, the less its actual scientific worth. Take that to the bank.