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!

Weekly Head Voices #86: Beardy.

You could have set your watch by the appearance of this weekly blog post! Enjoy it while you can.

Here’s a random photo from my week:

I finally figured out what planking is.

Note-taking and todo system chaos (NERD WARNING).

My email-note-taking-todo-system is again slowly morphing into something strange and unknown. I once called using Trello for task management “the time management connoisseur equivalent of lying in the gutter with a cheap bottle of wine in a brown paper bag”.

Well either I was just plain wrong, or I’m lying in that gutter again and I just don’t realize it.

Because I became very frustrated with all the task systems that I tried (and committed to) because all of them (including the one I designed together with big G) insist on presenting all of my tasks in neat little project-grouped or deadline-ordered lists, whilst my brain is a chaotic spread-out network that wishes to see everything at the same time, preferably spread out and very visual, I’m back to using a giant Trello board (that 2560×1440 monitor is very slowly earning its keep).

It’s perhaps better than it sounds: When I process mail on my phone or in my Emacs, I forward the ones that need action to a secret Trello address which turns said mail into a Trello card in the “incoming” list of my tasks board, including all email attachments and images. Sometimes I’m naughty, and I reply to the sender summarising the list of actions I will attempt to undertake, and then Bcc that reply to Trello.

On that Trello board I have lists for reminding me of the important projects I have to remember to work on, and then lists for ASAP, This week, Later (scheduled) and Someday / ideas. I also have lists called Done (week WEEKNUM) into which I can move cards once I’ve taken care of them. After a few weeks, I archive the whole done list of a particular week for posterity. It also doesn’t hurt that the Trello Android app is quite beautiful.

On the notes front, I’m currently very much in love with Emacs org-mode, as you might have guessed from last week’s WHV. What I did not mention then, is that I now also have a date-stamped .org jourrnal for each project that I’m working on. From each general daily .org journal I link to the various project journal .org files for that day. Based on these daily / project-based log files, I can generate high-quality LaTeX reports, technical blog posts and even presentations, if only I can remember the exact sequence of 17 emacs keyboard shortcuts to do so. As mentioned previously, I use deft-turbo to navigate my notes database.

I still dream of an even more graphical and non-linear way of doing all of this.

Musings on beards (REAL MEN WARNING).

Besides being the sign of a true man, the internet says that the beard was “seen as the defining characteristic of the philosopher; philosophers had to have beards, and anyone with a beard was assumed to be a philosopher”. Based on extensive research, I can assure you that this is still the case.

On a slightly more serious note, I might be getting slightly beard-rospective, because my hairy face-friend might really have to disappear soon. I’m going to have to do my part in an academic committee or two, and I’m going to have to cross borders into the EU. The former might not be such an issue, but my current slightly middle-eastern look might not be the best option in terms of the latter.

In any case, before I reluctantly join the shaven masses, I would like to share with you two realizations from the perspective of a weirdly bearded man.

In my town, there are no hipsters. There probably will never be. That, plus the fact that I deviate significantly from the text-book hipster look, means I get recognized everywhere I go. I think this is partly due to appearing different from most other people I would normally be pigeon-holed with. Subtly complementary to this is the fact that my face has become a kind of a graphical icon of itself: If you were to take a photo of it, and you were to scale it down to 32×32 pixels, you’d probably still be able to recognize it. The upshot of this is that even when I’ve visited a restaurant or café only once, the next time, weeks afterwards, I am treated like a long-time regular. That’s pretty cool.

More important than this, is the fact that people now experience difficulty applying their pigeon-holing mechanism. Around these parts, there is far too much assumed piece-wise homogeneity. In other words, people are used to believing that they are able to stereotype you after one look. I have now experienced that when I have contact with locals, their little stereotyping sensors start smoking a little bit and then fizzle out. There is usually a short moment of panic, but then we start afresh, which is nice.

While (1<2).

I would like to leave you with this track from deadmau5’s latest album. I’m doing this, because it’s an extremely surprising album. You should definitely listen to the whole work, but this track should serve as an example of the while (1<2) surprise.

Weekly Head Voices #85: Gone south.

From now on I’m going to try a more fluid weekly blogging schedule. My approach up to now was to try and write up the weekly right after the weekend, at which time,however, I’m usually caught up in the usual start-of-the-week storm of, uhm, possibilities, and hence let the blog writing slip, and once you start slipping it’s a challenge to stop. So now, instead of focusing on the when (the failed after the weekend) I’m going to focus on the how often. Maybe this works better.

This past weekend, we visited Cape Point, the almost-southernmost tip of Africa, and the spot where the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean crash together for a part of the year. It’s quite beautiful, and always great to have visitors that we can take there. I took this photo of the Cape of Good Hope from the Cape Point side:

Emacs nerdery.

My first significant Emacs Lisp hacking was first blogged by Sacha Chua (Emacs goddess!) and then accepted into the org2blog upstream repository. Nerd-adrenaline-rush!

On this topic, I also published deft-turbo, my fork of the original Deft to support recursive directory searching and now also multiple file types. If you’re into Notational Velocity style note-taking and into Emacs you’ll love this.

I now use Emacs Org mode for my daily note-taking, for blogging (this post is being written in Org mode in Emacs) and since yesterday also for generating beautiful presentation slides using the fantastic org-reveal. (As you might recall, I also use Emacs with mu4e as my email client.)

It’s crazy to think that GNU Emacs was first released in March of 1985, which makes it almost 30 years old, which is practically immortal in software terms, and yet it’s still the most powerful text editor in the world today.

Finally: The cracked phone screen.

After a great number of years using smartphones without covers of any kind (they’re so beautifully designed, why cover that up?) I finally dropped my Nexus 4 from about a metre height because a WhatsApp message arrived and I thought that I could easily fumble my digital friend out of my pocket whilst typing with my other hand.

Apparently I couldn’t.

The screen acquired an impressive new crack, and the digitizer is completely dead. I’m having it repaired, because it’s still a great phone, and Android 5.0 (Lollipop) is being pushed to Nexi 4 worldwide as we speak! (Fortunately I could factory reset the phone using only the hardware buttons.)

In the meantime, I’m using a backup Motorola Atrix 4G. Thanks to Android and much open source hackage, I was able to install Android 4.4.4 (KitKat) on it, in spite of it being a 2011 phone that was practically abandoned by Motorola at the Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) stage.

The end.

If you run into me in CYBERSPACE, and I’m late with a blog post, I give you permission to badger me about it.

Have a great half-week and weekend kids!

Weekly Head Voices #84: On being grateful.

Hey, it only took three weeks this time! I’ve been working quite hard, mostly programming (oh hi there C++, I never really stopped loving you. I really like what you’ve done with the autos and the lambdas), taking care of some admin (freeagent is approximately an infinite times better for running your business in South Africa than Sage One Accounting / Pastel My Business Online, which is a textbook example of how to torture your users with an almost hilariously terrible user interface which would have been funny were it not for the fact that it is so excruciatingly painful), gearing up for open source activism (if you’re in SA and you’re into open source, please join!) and spending as much as possible free time in the beautiful surroundings.

I made you this photo sphere of the waterfall at the top of the Leopard’s Kloof trail in the Harold Porter botanical gardens, one of our favourite outdoor hangouts:

This past weekend we had the privilege of going to a weekend-long double birthday party in a place called Boggomsbaai. The subjects of said party (I didn’t want to objectify them) are two of the most interesting people I know. In spite of this foreknowledge, I was still greatly (but extremely pleasantly) surprised by the number of exceptionally interesting friends that aforementioned party subjects had managed to surround themselves with, resulting in an ever-so-slightly mind-bending gathering.

Of the many things I learnt this weekend, I would like to share these two with you:

Lesson 1 – Weekend parties are the best parties.

… we should do even more of those! It seems like the Friday warm-up-party and the Saturday morning and afternoon socialising and more warm-up, combined with a willing group of party athletes, are good ingredients for a Saturday night awesomeness crescendo! (live band and copious amounts of beer not bad ideas either)

Lesson 2 – On being grateful.

At one point I was chatting with one of the guests, a person who has done quite a bit of travelling, and who seems to have settled nicely into the role of eternal foreigner here in this strange country. Their better living tip, based on much hard-won experience, was simply this: Be grateful.

Their advice immediately made a great impression on me.

Remembering to be explicitly grateful every day (go on, identify and articulate all of the things! if you are able to read this, chances are that you have much to be grateful for) is such an elegant yet practical path to mindfulness. To boot, it fits in very nicely with being kind.

(During looking up the etymology of “to boot” on this worldwide network that interactively gives us access to just about the sum total of human knowledge whenever we want it, I just discovered that “botha” is a Gothic word meaning “advantage”. Sweet!)

Weekly Head Voices #83: Fallen Dragon

I’m still trying to find my way home out of wild deadline country (WDC), so I hope you don’t mind (again) that I crunch together two weeks of weekly head voices during these few days of recharging. Because the post ended up being quite long, I’ve inserted headings. Feel free to read any, all or none of the parts!

Software babies out in the real world

It’s great when that software system you’ve been designing gets used by real people in the real world. Check out this press release by the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS): Together with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) they are building a national digital pathology database to improve pathology education nation-wide. Cool eh?!

See the screenshot at the bottom of the press release:

It’s highly probable that the software you see running on the tablet and on the screen behind it was programmed by the very fingers typing this blog post, and their owner is stoked! I built it in very close collaboration with scientists (friends in the meantime) at the CSIR (who work closely with the NHLS) and at Stone Three. It’s a whole suite of applications which I hope I can say more about soon. (By the way, PYTHON. :)

Two science fiction recommendations

I finished Peter Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon. I’m a sucker for space opera, and I thought that I’d already read everything that Hamilton wrote, but regular commenter and old friend R brought this one to my attention. Some dollars exchanged hands (well, actually I authorized a credit card transaction to pay Amazon, but dollars changing hands sounds better) and I was off. It’s a stupendously enjoyable space opera where the human race finally goes next level due to accidental contact with a sentient artefact of the most advanced space race ever. Hamilton is sneaky, because between all of the interstellar corporate “asset realisation”, and the plotting and scheming of untouchable CEOs and the fighting of bionic soldiers, he manages to build a “boy meets girl boy loses girl forever but boy creates wormhole time loop and against all odds finds his true love again at the end and gets to keep the space ship” story, by the end of which I had a slight eye-moisture problem to contend with. Highly recommended!

Based on a random recommendation by @xsyn on FB, I picked up and absolutely could not put down Blindsight by Peter Watts. Hard science fiction is awesome. I found this one intriguing initiallly due to the promised plot of a mysterious alien incursion, then the crazy mix of characters (narrator-protagonist with no emotion (more or less) due to childhood brain surgery, a linguist with 4 cooperating split personalities, a biologist with lab equipment wired directly into his sensorium, an augmented soldier, and a vampire as a captain; in this book’s universe, vampires are a hyper-intelligent human sub-species who indeed used to hunt humans), then aliens that are probbably ever more out there in terms of weirdness than that of Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, and finally a mind-bending discussion on the very nature of consciousness and sentience vs intelligence. The only little nitpick, is that at one point Chernoff faces are employed as a serious visualization technique, an episode during which I had to employ slightly more suspension of disbelief than usual.

Mark Shuttleworth sticks it to the man!

On October 1, 2014 the South African Supreme Court of Appeal found in favour of Mark Shuttleworth in his case against the South African Reserve Bank (SARB). To summarise: Mark Shuttleworth is a South African billionaire who made the first big chunk of his wealth when he sold Thawte Consulting (for a large part the product of his ingenuity and hard work) to Verisign.

In ’99, Shuttleworth had to emigrate, because SARB’s archaic regulations were making it unncessarily complicated to run an international business from within SA. He then had to pay SARB more than R250 (about $25 million) in levies.

The court has just determined that this levy was unconstitutional and has ordered SARB to pay it back with interest. Shuttleworth has announced that he’ll put this money in a trust, and that it will be used to uphold the constitutional rights of citizens in court against the state, in South Africa and in the rest of Africa.

In the statement on his blog, he writes:

Banks profit from exchange controls, but our economy is stifled, and the most vulnerable suffer most of all. Everything you buy is more expensive, South Africans are less globally competitive, and cross-border labourers, already vulnerable, pay the highest price of all – a shame we should work to address.

… and then further down:

The World Bank found that ‘remittance fees punish poor Africans’. South Africa scores worst of all, and according to the Payments Association of South Africa and the Reserve Bank, this is ‘..mostly related to the regulations that South African financial institutions needed to comply with, such as the Financial Intelligence Centre Act (Fica) and exchange-control regulations.’

In a very limited fashion I’ve had to deal with the completely misguided regulations of the SARB. Just receiving international payment (which should be as smooth as possible!) is an unnecessarily painful process.

The most poignant bit from Shuttleworth’s post was this:

This case also has a very strong personal element for me, because it is exchange controls which make it impossible for me to pursue the work I am most interested in from within South Africa and which thus forced me to emigrate years ago. I pursue this case in the hope that the next generation of South Africans who want to build small but global operations will be able to do so without leaving the country. In our modern, connected world, and our modern connected country, that is the right outcome for all South Africans.

SA has a great constitution. This gentleman is personally taking on the state (and in this case specifically the SARB) to ensure that the regulations are in line with the constitution, and South Africans are empowered to play their role in international business. He deserves all the support we can give.

Thanks for listening peeps, and have a brilliant week!!