Weekly Head Voices #90: The geriatric edition.

This is the 90th edition of the weekly head voices. I just looked up the very first edition – it was way back in August of 2009! (That was apparently about 285 weeks ago, meaning I’ve averaged about one post every 3.17 weeks.)

To celebrate, have some bullets:

  • Behind me are two weeks of extreme focus chasing various deadlines. I can feel my brain taking some strain switching between C++ and GPU shaders on the one side and Python and D3 on the other. I’m hoping it’s the good kind of strain.
  • Had to get the latest NVIDIA 346 drivers going on an Ubuntu 14.04 Optimus laptop (dynamic switching between Intel and NVIDIA graphics) due to very specific features required for a work project. This first led to this post fixing Ubuntu black screen on the bleeding edge and then acted as the straw that broke the camel’s back…
  • … where with “straw” I actually mean a very good excuse to buy a new PC, an event which I found so exciting that I surgically removed it from this post and inserted into a completely separate post which you can read by clicking here.
  • Here, have a summary of a really interesting article in the nytimes from which I learned at least two interesting new things:
    • Von Economo neurons, or spindle neurons, are neurons that can be four times as large as other neurons, are long and thin, and have branches that extend far across the brain. Researchers think that these neurons act as fast relays between different remote regions of the brain, which could for example help humans “manage impulses and stay focused on long term goals”.
    • In a post-mortem study on so-called SuperAgers, people who at past 80 were still as cognitively strong as healthy 50 year olds, it was found that these geriatric geniuses had five times more Von Economo neurons than normal. The burning question now is: Did they start out with more than normal, or did they just retain them better?

Just in case you sometimes doubt that the internet is, in spite of everything, an awesome force for good in the world today, I present the following evidence (via @alper):

May your Von Economo neurons live long and prosper!

meepz97: I haz a new computar machine!

WARNING: EXTREME PC hardware-related nerdiness ahead. Read at your own risk.

My most awesome employer to date (that’s the vxlabs of course!) decided to treat me with a brand new workstation. On Tuesday, February 10 of the year 2015 the new desktop PC arrived. (Around these parts, we have a long tradition of writing about new computer acquisitions, see for example 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 or 2013.)

Because this event has sparked quite some interest amongst the various groups reading this blog, management has decided to present workstation-related information in a Q and A format.

Say what?! A desktop PC and not a laptop??!

Yes people, it’s an actual desktop PC, not a laptop. They’re big boxy things that eat laptops for breakfast and they really appeal to old-school nerds like me. Plus, when I go to work at the coffee shop around the corner with a ginormous black midtower PC under my arm instead of some far-too-easy-to-carry mac laptop, the other hipsters have no choice but to concede that I am their new king.

(Beautiful and thin laptops have become completely mainstream. Even that erstwhile PC-toting bro with his suit supply suit and his excel spreadsheets and his outlook email now has one. Hehe.)

What exactly do you have in that big black box?

I’m so happy you asked. Sensitive readers might want to look away, because this is going to get fairly graphical. I hand-picked all components from the limited set available to us this far south on the African continent. This is what I came up with:

As nerdiness-fuelled retail fixes go, this rated 23 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being multiple head asplosions. Even now, multiple days later, when I look sideways at the beautiful black box, my knees turn into jelly and I blush a little bit.

What operating system have you installed on this machine?

Emacs and Linux, software of the gods.

(By the way, if you run into kernel GPFs in __slab_alloc with this hardware, remember to add intremap=no_x2apic_optout to the kernel boot parameters. It seems the BIOS is being naughty and reporting that it does not have x2apic when it in fact does.)

How fast is the Samsung 850 PRO SSD?

This SSD is STUPID FAST, there is just no other way to describe it.

Anandtech has this to say about the drive:

To be honest, there is not a single thing missing in the 850 Pro because regardless of the angle you look at the drive from, it will still top the charts.

(My employer is still smarting a little bit from the cost angle however. I’ll work extra hard to compensate.)

Are you disappointed that having to encrypt the SSD will slow it down?

Fortunately, this drive also has hardware-based full disc encryption built right in. A further major improvement over my previously favourite drives which also have hardware support for encryption, the Intel 520 SSDs, is that the Samsung 850 PRO supports the TCG Opal 2.0 standard for the configuration and unlocking of the drive encryption.

In short, all data that touches the drive is transparently encrypted, at over 500 megabytes / second (!!). When the PC boots up, it asks me for my decryption password. If I get it right, the drive unlocks itself; if I don’t it does not. If anyone (I’m not paranoid, they really ARE out to get me!) gets access to my PC by whichever means, they will most probably not be able see one bit of my or my client’s data.

If you’re interested, you can find much more detail about how this works, and I how I configured it using open source tools, in this other post I wrote over at vxlabs.com.

Are you happy now?


Weekly Head Voices #89: Xanthohumol.

I found myself in Stellenbosch this weekend, so I drove by my old student house. Fifteen odd years ago, the house used to go by the name The Far Side. It was usually inhabited by five fairly attractive yet dangerously intelligent male engineering students, who were, quite unexpectedly, also extremely modest. (In those days, prepending “male” to “engineering student” was mostly redundant.)

Well, it seems The Far Side has gone through a little transformation of its own:

Yes, there are little hearts hanging everywhere, and the little hearts have, probably in some kind of fractal frenzy, been arranged to form even larger hearts. In my mind, The Far Side was still exactly as we had left it, except with a new bunch of unexpectedly modest engineering students, thinking, saying and doing things almost like we used to, except for the occasional interjection of ideas that did not yet exist in our time, like “wifi”, “tablet” and “smartphone”.

Initial pattern-matching-driven expectations and consequent surprise aside, this was a physical reminder that even mundane matters can change quite significantly given sufficient time. This is a good thing, although the whole fractal cardiac decoration aspect was perhaps not completely called-for.

On the nerd front:

  • I wrote a vxlabs blog post on sending pretty emails with math and syntax highlighted source code, of course using emacs, org-mode and mu4e.
  • After some emacs-lisp tracing through mu4e and gnus, I finally discovered how to activate format=flowed in the default text/plain emails sent with mu4e, thus enabling reflowing of hard-wrapped emails on receiving (mobile) clients that support this. It occurred to me that the group of nerds affected by this particular behaviour in this particular software setup is extremely small. Read all about it in my github issue report on the matter.
  • I wrote an osssa blog post on the opening of the new Cape Town Open Data Portal (fantastic!) using non-open Microsoft file format standards (not so great).

Blog reader MrK sent me this sciencedaily article with the great news that there is a small but real chance that beer might protect us from neurodegenerative diseases. In lab tests it was found that xanthohumol, a compound found in hops, could potentially protect brain cells against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Of course we should be very careful jumping to conclusions based on these types of experiments performed on isolated compounds under lab conditions.

That being said, I do think that careful optimism whilst enjoying beer might be justified. As we all know, the more beer one drinks, the more intelligent one becomes, at least up to a certain optimum:


It seems there’s even a shadowy but very powerful organization built upon this exact principle. They are called The Inebriati:

Thanks for reading this. I hope that you have a great week, and I hope to see you again soon.

Weekly Head Voices #88: Just be yourself, they said.

I wish you all a zen-filled 2015! (I think zen trumps straight happiness, because zen means that you’re on your way to understanding and making peace with the mechanisms underneath the happiness, all the way down.)

So much has happened since I last stood on this soap-box. However, as Noeska explains, this means I have even less to write about than usual. (for those of you too busy to click: things further back seem far less relevant now, so less motivation to write down)

(Err oops! First rule of the blogging: We don’t talk about the blogging.)

At the start of the Christmas break, I spent a few days in my other home (that’s The Netherlands for those of you who haven’t been paying attention) taking part in the joyous occasion of the double-graduation of two Ph.D. students I had the pleasure of working with. Welcome freshly minted doctors Busking and Kok! May your learning continue every day, and may you make a continuing positive impact on the world around you!

Once back in extremely sunny South Africa, TNR, aka DWR, and family arrived for two meat-beach-beer-wine-mountain-stomping-good weeks. An interesting point of discussion during this time was whether the DWR could legally deduct all purchase of wine from his income. What a loophole! I saw parts of my neighbourhood I haven’t seen in decades (hello Paarl Mountain, you are still awe-inspiring!!) and some parts I’ve never been to before. Here’s a small selection (yes, that’s a subtle brag):

We had lunch and lots of good wine at Solms Delta in Franschoek. Beautiful place, delicious wine, fantastic service. Recommended by this blog(tm)!

I practically used to live on Paarl Mountain. Here’s a view from Paarl Rock, taken after the wind did its absolute best to try and blow us from Britannica rock.

(I also made this 360 degree photo sphere while at the very top of Britannica rock. Go look man!)

Here’s the beach in Pringle bay. Water looks lovely, but beware, it’s a GIANT ICE-BUCKET CHALLENGE!

Finally, the following is not something I personally experienced during my vacation (although some of my best friends are triangles), but just a bit of graphical backyard philosophy by Ultramegasaurus that floated over my timeline:

So that’s why I always get suspicious when successful people offer the advice of “just be yourself”! What I think we should do instead?

Be like water my friends.

Have a great week, see you on the other side!

Weekly Head Voices #87: Good Reads.

Two days ago, I received this in the mail:

Visualization of Variation and Variability by Stef Busking & Integrative Visualization of Whole Body Molecular Imaging Data by Peter Kok

For various reasons I was temporarily ever-so-slightly misty-eyed. Well-done boys, I’m SUPER proud of you!

Other books you might also like.

I’ve recently finished reading two other mind-expanding books:

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin: Liu Cixin is a wildly popular Chinese science fiction author. I found this recently translated first edition of a trilogy to be an awesome first peek into modern Chinese science fiction. The translator, Ken Liu, managed to produce an English version of this story that still managed to bring across themes of Chinese history and culture. On top of that, you also get a computer consisting of 30 million soldiers arranged into inter-connected logic gates (think that’s far-fetched?), artificially intelligent quantum entangled photons (told you), and much more. I’ll be lining up as soon as the translations of part 2 and 3 appear.

I read William Gibson’s Neuromancer probably shortly after it was published in 1984. At that stage, I compensated for lack of internet by working my way through the local library, book by book. Through the succeeding years, as the internet came onto the scene, and cyberspace became more of a reality, I’ve re-read Neuromancer a number of times. Each time, it caused more goose-bumps than the previous.

In my eyes, Gibson already deserved his status as literary author many times over. With The Peripheral, he has shown, in an exceptionally suave and absolutely in-control way, that he is the final boss of modern writing. The number of mind-bending ideas that he develops, whilst fleshing out characters that feel more real than some real people, all the while masterfully having the reader ride along with the two protagonists and having us figure out the story along with them, is nothing short of amazing. (Yes people, I am positively gushing. It’s that good.)

Other news.

  • The OSSSA core team has recently doubled in size. There are two of us now. Thanks to the extremely welcome addition, we are now actively busy gathering information on all open source software entities in South Africa, so that we can create the go-to resource for this. If you’re in SA, and you’re into OSS, please respond!
  • Due to a whole team of intrepid Dutch adventurers with fairly concrete plans, please look out for the Dutch Bicycle Repair and Pimping Shop at AfrikaBurn 2015, because you might just find us!

Have a great week people, wherever you are!