Back in South Africa

(I was supposed to publish this around the start of February, but then life happened, and I didn’t get to quite finish it.)

For the first time in the three weeks after having arrived back on South African soil, we find ourselves in something that we’re going to call home for the coming months. Until now we have been living out of our suitcases, spending time with various grandpas and grandmas somewhere in the Boerewors Gordyn (the Northern ‘burbs of Cape Town, to those of you not in the know), The Oven (I just made that up. It’s Paarl, the town where I grew up thinking that 40 Celsius was a normal temperature to be wearing a blazer and a tie. 40 Celsius is now my preferred outside temperature.) and in Betty’s Bay (that’s its real name. It’s really cute that way. Look at me walking the thin line of apostrophe (ab)use.) We’ve been doing our fair share of early-to-bed-early-to-rise makes John cranky and not very wise, because Genetic Offspring Unit #1 had to be taken to school in our current town of residence, from our at that point temporary residence.

So you're really planning to publish that blog post, but then you take a walk instead. TISA.

So you’re really planning to publish that blog post, but then you take a walk instead. TISA.

At the moment I’m sitting in our new home behind an extremely shaky cellular data connection (the house is like the Bermuda triangle of mobile reception. Even in this carefully chosen spot the signal dances a really silly tap dance between H, 3G and EDGE. EDGE is NOT nice, trust me. I think EDGE is actually a synonym for “no connection at all, but we just like to make you think that there has to be something”. At some vague point in the future, ADSL will hopefully be installed. Africa does not care about the timeliness of your internet connection, deal with it.).

So we have our suitcases, and a whole bunch of borrowed items until Our Ship Comes In. No really, we have a ship that’s coming in with all of our old stuff on it. Until that moment, we have a special place where meat can be scorched, also in a social context. This is quite grand.

There is also a mountain in my backyard which I can’t help gawking at whenever I return home. The mountain is majestic, and that is even more grand than the place where you can scorch your meat. I have promised myself to retain and cultivate my awe at this mountain, and at all the mind-blowing natural majesty surrounding me wherever I go in this place, for as long as I can.

See you later everyone!

The new MedVis Book is out!

For the past 2.5 years, I have been helping my friend Prof. Bernhard Preim to write the new Medical Visualization textbook. A crazy number of hours of studying scientific literature (a quick count in the bbl file yields 1880 cited references!!), trying to fit everything into a coherent conceptual framework and then trying to write all of it down as a more or less readable story has finally led to more than 1000 pages of Medical Visualization reading pleasure.

It looks like this:

The title has been changed to Visual Computing for Medicine to reflect the significant rework, and also the broader treatment of the field. The book itself is 836 pages with hundreds of colour figures. Five chapters (190+ pages) are available exclusively online, free to download.

Go to the book website (run by us) to read more about the contents of the book, and to find out where you can get your very own copy!

P.S. It was a huge pleasure working on the book together with Bernhard. (We’ve been collaborating quite intensively since the end of 2007 somewhere, when we started setting up the Eurographics Workshops on Visual Computing for Biology and Medicine, which have since then been held in 2008, 2010, 2012 and will be held again in 2014 in Vienna.) Just for the record, he definitely put a great deal more work into the book than I did. The exact ratio will remain our secret.

On leaving the Netherlands

Moving consists of leaving one place and going to another. This post is about the first part. It’s really not easy to write, but I would like for people to understand that the leaving part of this decision is one of the more difficult things I have ever had to do.

So after 13 beautiful years in this great little country, we are leaving the Netherlands.

Our life here has been exceptionally happy and fulfilling. We’ve made many great friends, and even some best friends. Our children are super happy in their little lives. Hey, we made a little family!

The single downside of the beautiful life that we’ve had here, is that leaving is complicated, and even a little painful.

It’s complicated, because that’s the way it is when one has to move a whole household and wrap up 13 years of accumulated stuff. It’s complicated, because we’re moving in the wrong direction, away from our adopted country. We can’t leave a trace behind.

It hurts, because we would love to stay with our friends here, but we have now made the choice to live far away.

We actually have no good reasons to leave, while there are many reasons to stay. The thing is, our reasons for moving are all in the going to part.

I think this might be a healthy perspective on moving. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, it’s just not the easiest.

Dearest friends, thank you for the parties, for the laughter, for the warmth and for making us feel so at home. Thank you for being the kind of human beings that never stop striving to be more human.

I would love to see you on the other side.

Creative Process Stage 5. [WHV #67]

Dear two people reading this blog on a good day: Spread the word, the Weekly Head Voices is making a comeback!

In the process of dealing with recent(ish) life-changing decisions, but probably more due to the preceding time of introspection, I was unable to enter the right state of mind for producing the weekly WHV episodes. However, because exciting new events have been scheduled for the coming months and I really look forward to writing about them, and because I’ve decided that, yes, I shouldn’t worry too much about the actual literary impact of this here blog (I wrote “bog” first, I hope that it wasn’t a Freudian slip; what I was actually intending to say between these parentheses is that I will continue to do my best to entertain and/or edify!), the time has come to get the WHV back on the road!

For the past weeks, I have been burning all kinds of midnight oil on different projects. For one of them, I’ve had to design a reusable JS architecture for customizable visualizations (of course using the awesome d3.js). During one of these weeks, I saw a rip-off of the following tweet, the original 140 character guide to the creative process:

The Creative Process by @boltcity

The Creative Process by @boltcity

The stages of the creative process are: 1) This is going to be awesome 2) This is hard 3) This is terrible 4) I’m terrible 5) Hey, not bad 6) That was awesome.

At that time, I found myself squarely in stage 4: I AM TERRIBLE.

However, just reading this and then realising that that’s just how it has to work made me feel much better. Fast-forward to a week or so later, and I seem to find myself in stage 5. Stage 5 is not the best, but man does it feel infinitely better than stage 4. (If you run into me at any of the numerous bars, parties and other social events I frequent, ask me about the design.) Remember this process the next time you’re in the middle of something complicated.

(I was not able to come up with any kind of bridge between the creative process and my next point. I’m open to suggestions in the comments! For now, just imagine some pithy or really clever literary topic-jumping device here, ok?)

As the more astute readers should know (I guess that’s both of you), I was naturally into mindfulness before it got all hip. See my 2011 post on drowning in the now, and my 2010 post on focus if you don’t believe me. However, I wanted to get into it more formally, so I acquired and started practising with one of the better books on the topic: Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world. There are at least two things I really like about mindfulness:

  1. There’s quite a bit of solid research on mindfulness and its effects on your brain. See for example the publications on the website of Prof. Mark Williams, first author of the book above.
  2. The idea that practising different ways of applying one’s intellect (conventional doing vs. the mindful being) leads to the ability to enter these modes at will, thus getting more control over one’s emotions, especially appeals to me. (Click here to meet one of my most important role models. For real.)

The mindfulness book also discusses research on the interaction between one’s body and one’s emotional state. If you’re feeling down, your body starts acting up. Conversely, your physical state has a significant influence your emotional state. The upshot of this is that if you put a smile on your face, even if you’re not feeling particularly upbeat, Science says that you’ll really start to feel happier. If you’re already happy, it’s just going to consolidate those good vibes.

With that in mind, here’s my simple suggestion for today (and the rest of the year, and maybe next year): Let’s all smile as often as we can!

Dear USA, my data has left your building.

NSA, GCHQ, Prism, FISA, Project Bullrun, Sigint.

After Edward Snowden, former CIA and NSA employee, started revealing how massively, intensely and easily we are all being spied upon by the intelligence agencies of various governments, the terms above have suddenly been spending a great deal more time in the media.



It turns out that government agencies are allowed to extract, at a whim, your and my data from service providers, such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. There is no real legal process (unless you can call a secret judge in a secret court giving a secret order a real legal process), especially if you’re not a US citizen, and the providers that have been forced to give up your data in this way are not allowed to notify you about your digital self being violated. So even if they say that you shouldn’t worry, you can never be entirely sure.

Furthermore, it has also been revealed that the NSA has for years being acquiring encryption keys via legal (secretly forcing companies to give them the keys) and extra-legal (simply hacking into company servers) means. Even worse, they have for years been deliberately introducing security weaknesses into software products and encryption software in order to be able to crack open your data even more easily.

You can read more about this state of affairs in The Guardian’s NSA files. The Guardian has been doing a sterling job of analysing and bringing to light the depths to which our governments have sunk. There’s a whole lot of information, and most of it is quite upsetting.

For me the final straw was when secure email service lavabit voluntarily shut itself down, when faced with the prospect of being forced to leak user information to the US government without being allowed to tell anyone. The message on the site is quite chilling, and concludes with the following:

This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would _strongly_ recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.

At this point, I was a super happy and pretty heavy user of a number of US-based services, including GMail (all my email, about 40000 conversations consisting of 60000 mails, that’s excluding my work email which I also hosted on GMail), Google+ Photos (all my photos, about 21000 of ‘em), Google Drive, Dropbox (50G of data spread out over 120000 files). In all cases, I still consider these to be best of class services. In putting my money where my mouth is, I was paying both Google and Dropbox for extra storage.

I also had no problem with Google filtering through my email to show me targeted advertising. This is the deal I had with them. I also had no problem with the possibility of someone getting my data after due legal process. However, the idea that some NSA or other government agency flunky could quite easily stick their grubby paws into my data, and that I would never know about this, was too much.

There’s probably nothing much of interest in my data. However, it has become a matter of principle; Privacy is a basic human right. Here’s an old essay by Bruce Schneier if you need to read more about why privacy is so important.

In short: It was time to extricate all of my lovely data from probably well-meaning US companies, thanks to the ridiculously powerful and secretive NSA, and thanks to all of its shadowy counterparts around the world.

Here’s how I did it:

  • Considered building another low-cost Linux server, or even a Raspberry Pi. Decided against this due to time required for configuration and acquired a Synology DS213j NAS, which is at this moment standing on the desk about 1 metre to my left. My recommendation: Just get this, you won’t be sorry.
  • Downloaded 60000 emails to Synology using Thunderbird mail client. Deleted everything from GMail. Google engineers assure me that after a few months, data will really be gone.
  • My webhoster (WebFaction) receives mail for all my domains. My Synology retrieves mail every 5 minutes via POP (you can set this up via Roundcube on the Synology) and deletes it from WebFaction.
  • Outgoing mail is relayed by the Synology via the WebFaction SMTP server. I don’t have to worry too much about blacklisting and whatnot, my hoster does this.
  • I’m back to interacting with my mail using Thunderbird and IMAP SSL. The loss of GMail conversation view was initially really REALLY painful. People have forgotten the ancient art of quoting. However, I’ve configured Thunderbird to archive all mail to year-stamped archive folders, and to put my sent mail there. Poor-man’s Conversation View! (the conversations plugin is wonky. it’s shocking how much the availability of GMail, which works really well, has stunted the development of alternative email clients) Importantly, I am now able to use OpenPGP again for the strong encryption and cryptographic signing of my emails.
  • On my Android telephone (whoops…) I am using the Kaiten IMAP client.
  • All the data I had in Dropbox is now being synced between the Synology, two laptops and a workstation using BitTorrent Sync. This peer-to-peer syncing system is still a little rough around the edges, but falls squarely in the category of “Best Things Since Sliced Bread”, and it’s FAST. CloudStation, Synology’s dropbox-inspired solution, was just far too slow on my Synology model.
  • My photos (21000 of them) have been downloaded from Google+ Photos (thank you Google Takeout) and are now being served from the Synology using PhotoStation.
  • My music (5400+ tracks) is downloading from Google Music as we speak, and will be served from the Synology using AudioStation.
  • I make incremental backups of everything to an encrypted external USB drive, using dirvish. I will probably add an extra external drive to the mix and try to keep that off site.

It’s been an interesting process moving my stuff out, and getting used to these alternative systems is sometimes slightly uncomfortable, but I am quite happy with the end result. I hope that more people will take this step, and I really hope that more and easier-to-use alternatives for secure email (such as mailpile) and for ubiquitous private data will become available.

Addendum 2013-09-16

My submission of this post spent some time on the Hacker News front page, and from there was picked up by reddit as well. This brought many comments, a number of which were positive and thoughtful, and a number of which that were far less so. It’s amazing how anonymity and comment sections can bring out the worst in people. (if you have to know, the Hacker News community is generally MILES more polite than reddit)

In any case, I wanted to clarify an issue or two: After moving my data away from GMail and Dropbox, I am not under any impression that my data is now secure. I can still be hacked. My hardware and software could be full of backdoors. My email will still be read as it jumps from server to server, probably ending up in someone else’s GMail. :) However, if more people were to move their data out to their own premises, it becomes more complicated and costly for government agencies to monitor us all. At the moment, the NSA cuts deals with a few large email and other cloud service providers, and with that they’re able to monitor large swathes of users. However, if more of those users were to move away, many more deals have to be cut and servers hacked, costing more time and more money. Add to that increased used of OpenPGP (which I do use, and mention in my post), and it becomes even more difficult. I know that I’m just a drop in a bucket, but hey, at least I am a drop in a bucket!

My goal with posting this was to show that it’s relatively easy to move much of your data away. I have the feeling that many of the most impolite anonymous commenters still store their data with cloud providers, and would really prefer to believe that there are no worthwhile alternatives, hence all the ad hominem attacks.

Fortunately, each polite and humane comment makes up for a whole pile of bad ones. :)