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!!

Weekly Head Voices #82: Tiles and platitutes.

The reason I’m behind with blogging, is because I’m currently working on three products. One of these is already being used by real live people (!!!), and another will shortly be quite intensively interacted with by quite a large number of people, if it doesn’t melt under the load that is. The third will hopefully soon also go live in some form or another.

I might currently be at peak Django people. Peak Django!

(It also seems that my lust for programming is unnaffected by all the deadlines. Estimation on the other hand… just eeuw.)

With the time I save by not blogging that regularly, I still get to hang out with friends, drink local craft beer, and scorch meat. Here’s a photo to prove it:

Google Photos did this to my AutoBackup Android photo! (I’ve moved most of my life away from Google, but have not found a replacement for photo autobackup yet.)

During a different pleasant encounter with a different old friend at Triggerfish Brewing, enjoying some super strong locally-brewed IPAs, abovementioned old friend somehow managed to convince me to try i3. i3 is a tiling window manager. This means that it forces you to think (mostly) in a single layer on the desktop, meaning no overlapping windows. After a false start (Unity does so many things right out of the box) I’m now the happy but conflicted owner of a finely hand-tuned i3 configuration. Here’s a screenshot:

This also means that my neckbeard is probably invading my brain.

On the more wholesome front, after reading this article on the creative benefits of walking, I’ve been taking more walks at work (often with a really great old friend I have the privilege of sharing an office with these days). I can report, entirely unscientifically, that this activity has made a huge difference, especially when performed in the middle of those painfully long afternoons when one’s brain starts to feel like slowly sloshing chunky peanut butter sauce in a skull-shaped dip bowl. (oh come on, you know the feeling)

So recently a picture of the Dalai Lama with the following quote was circulating on Facebook:

The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered, ‘Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.’

Now we all know the rule for pictures with famous people and quotes on them, and especially those circulating on facebook: It’s probably BS.

In this case I was conflicted, because I secretly liked what this platitude-in-sheep’s-clothing was trying to tell us: Remember to focus on the important stuff, remember to focus on the now.

However, that rule felt nothing for my conflict. It looks like the quote is not by the Dalai Lama, but by a fellow named Jim Brown, see here and here. Take that, you quotes on pictures of important people!

Fake quotes or not, focusing on the now fortunately is still real. Have a great week kids!

Weekly Head Voices #81: Middle-aged zen.

(Warning: This post has an extremely high backyard philosophy content. Will probably greatly offend any real philosophers, and a bunch of other people I probably have not even thought about.)

I recently became middle-aged. As part of the thank you I wrote for the many kind words people posted to my facebook wall, I made a short summary of the things I had learned over the past N years. I hope you don’t mind that I post them here as well:

… here’s what I’ve picked up over the past decades (only two things, I’m a slow learner):

  1. Relationships – the most important thing (and maybe even the only thing) in the world.
  2. Kindness – it really looks like we have unlimited quantities of this to give, but somehow there’s not as much of it going around as there could be. Let’s fix this!

Since that note (I’ve skipped a number of weekly posts here as you might have noticed; really really busy) I have also been thinking about the relationship between one’s happiness, one’s circumstances, and the plasticity of one’s self.

I’ll start this little story with me during a coffee-induced zen moment:

Zen is a real thing that you can read about on wikipedia, in a billion blogs and also in BookBooks. I don’t think that I’m deviating too far from the real deal when I use zen to describe any form of personal enlightenment, or that elevated state of self I should be striving for every moment of every day, but mostly forget to do because I get caught up in life as, ironically, I am not yet zen enough.

Sometimes, I find myself in a perfect little moment of warmth and humanity with close friends or family (and/or with a perfect coffee) and I am somehow able to observe and appreciate the moment in real-time from a spot somewhere outside of the conversation, for example while I’m walking to school with my daughter on a spring morning and realise that life in these simple moments is even greater than I thought. Sometimes I am briefly able to distance myself from some perceived life complexity, a distance from which everything actually looks pretty fine and then turns out to be exactly that. Was it that way to start with, did it change, or did I change?

I think being able to take a few (or a thousand) steps back in order to better see yourself and your situation is related to one of the few fundamental zen principles: Enlightenment through growing self-knowledge. I also somehow had in my mind that there was some connection between zen and the principle of mind like water, or mizo no kokoro if you prefer its prettier ring. In searching for this link, I stumbled onto this Bruce Lee quote:

You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.

During those occasional and coincidental flashes of increased perception I mentioned above the quote, when I was both in the experience and outside, at a good distance, I was able to look inwards and see how I could best change me to suit the situation better. The better I suit the situation, the more it agrees with me. Harmony.

Let me restate that: Most often I am not able to change my environment. However, I am apparently able to train my ability to change me, which in many cases can lead to the same desired harmonious outcome.

So, sort of in addition to the things I’ve learned over the past years, here are the things I strive to have cultivated when I grow up:

  • Mindfulness, of me, the human beings I am fortunate to be surrounded with and all of the interactions between us. This includes the ability to take a thousand steps back, and to see clearly.
  • A mind like water, not to do kung fu fighting, but to be able to change and flow continuously to contribute more to harmony and happiness.

Because I’m not sure how else to do this, I’m ending this story with a photo of a beer that I took during a really sunny zen moment:

Have a beautiful and harmonious week fellow humans!

Weekly Head Voices #80: There can be only one.

Week 31 of 2014, which was otherwise pretty uneventful except for bunches of hard work, ended with a trip up to the West Coast to go see the flowers.

YES PEOPLE SPRING IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER!

I made you a photo of this ominous looking Portal To Soooooomething:

These look like the gates to some far-off fantasy plane. Instead, it’s the Geelbek Restaurant in the West Coast National Park, which does serve mysteriously delicious chocolate cake.

Just so you don’t think it was overcast and non-Springy everywhere, I can assure you that those funny clouds were only over the respawning portal. Everywhere else it looked like this 360 degree photosphere I made for you (hey, we live in the future, I can show you 360 degree pannable photos; go on, pan and zoom with your mouse, or just wave your hands if you have your VR helmet on):

(I made the photosphere at the Grootvlei Guest Farm – On the Dunes House.)

Because clever people told me so, or more probably because I misunderstood them, I thought that I needed to do my Big Thinking Tasks (BTIs, for example trying to get the architecture of a new system down) in the morning. However, by the time afternoon came around, I would be too tired to take care of the MITs (Most Irritating Tasks, usually admin), and hence would postpone them till the day after, when they would just get postponed again, ad infinitum.

I recently started taking care of a few MITs first thing in the morning. This way, I actually get them done, and the BTIs still (mostly) fit.

Just to clarify things, MITs are also used by zenhabits, except there they call them Most Important Tasks. Whoops. For the sake of exposition, and to make everything more muddy, let’s call them zMITs, and my MITs iMITs (“i” is for irritating, as in iPhone, iPad, and so forth). In any case, zMITs are also to be done first thing in the morning, and at least one of the zMITs should advance your goals, let’s call it the zOMG.

Putting all of this together, I should probably start off my day by taking care of my zOMG, then a few iMITs, some zMITs and then finally the BTIs. YEAH!

I’m going through a little reading revival. After finishing Remote last week, I’m time-slicing between the following books at the moment:

  • PostgreSQL: Up and Running – I shouldn’t be telling you this, but there is just so much wow in Postgres. I’m currently using the text analysis functionality, and noticing that my SQL needs some advancing, hence the book.
  • A Tour of C++ by Bjarne Stroustroup – Everybody’s talking about C++11 and C++14. I was curious about the newer features, and Dr Stroustroup seems to know his way around the language. (In my hobby projects, C++ and Lua are playing an increasingly important role.)
  • Programming in Scala – I don’t have serious plans with this at the moment, but felt I needed to be sufficiently informed to have vigorous arguments about its utility.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – fascinating book about how the human brain functions in two parts: fast, efficient and intuitive, vs. slow, energy-heavy and rational.
  • The Psychology of Influence by Robert Cialdini – another fascinating book about how exactly humans influence each other.

I’m all out of fiction at the moment. If you have recommendations of so-called Hard SF and/or Space Opera, I’m all ears!

Talking about Science Fiction, I ran into this marvellous clip showcasing the awesome products of Clinical Graphics:

Damnit I’m so proud of Dr Krekel and his team!

Weekly Head Voices #79: Remote-controlled mushrooms.

WELL HELLO EVERYONE!

I’m a few days late, but I did bring you this free mind trip:

Click me for an even heavier trip!

On Tuesday, I had an unexpected (I somehow read over a critical paragraph in an email) but brilliant lunch at Rust en Vreede wine estate in the erudite company of three bubbly personalities. Having a bunch of vineyards like this within lunching distance is a perk of living in these parts; The superb company was just lovely serendipity.

Right next to Rust en Vreede is a vineyard that my inner nerd could not resist taking this photo of:

It might not be the prettiest, but it’s definitely functional!

I finally got around to buying and reading REMOTE: Office not Required by Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, founders of 37signals. 37signals is the company that brought us the hipster web-framework of choice, Ruby on Rails. As if producing RoR, having a turnover of a few million dollars per year and writing the best-seller book REWORK was not enough, they had to go and write yet another bestseller documenting their experiences building a company based on mostly remote-working employees.

The book is full of valuable messages; Even if you’re absolutely NOT into remote working (yet), many of these observations apply to the office situation and can be used to improve matter. I’d like to summarise some of them very briefly in this post. Please discuss in the comments!

  • It seems that managers are under the impression that if they can see you at the office typing away, that you must be working, and conversely, that if you’re not there, you’re most probably goofing off. Let me start with HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA LOL LOL LOL LOLS. (that was me, not the book. For more lols, go to hackertyper, preferably in chrome, press F11 for fullscreen, and just type away on the keyboard as if you’re a monkey.) What the book explains very diplomatically, is that goofing off can happen anywhere, especially under the noses of said managers. A situation where employees are self-motivated, and know that they get judged on their actual output and not the amount of noise they make, is obviously desirable.
  • Working remotely, communication is for the largest part limited to channels that are controlled by both sender and receiver. In other words, employees get to determine when they get interrupted or not, by scheduling email or chat activity. This also means that one pays more attention to information that gets sent to and fro. Remember that interruptions are absolutely toxic to people in the zone. In an office environment, it’s hard to resist the temptation of walking over to colleague X and interrupting them with a question that could have waited until said colleague was ready to be interrupted. This is something that I’ll definitely try to apply at the new offices: Try to limit communication to chat and email, only interrupt people when it’s clear that they are interruptible.
  • They compare meetings to salt. When salt is used sparingly, it does wonders for your food. Too much, and everything is spoilt. In the remote situation, meetings do happen, but because they have to be planned much more carefully, they are perceived to be much more valuable, and the signal to noise ratio is much higher than is usually the case.
  • 37signals must be great employer. Besides all the other perks, they pay all of their employees big city salaries, even those that choose to work from lower cost rural areas. One of the important advantages for companies supporting remote working, as that they get to pick the most talented people, no matter what geography thinks. Paying everyone the same big city salary, means that they have shown an incredibly high employee and talent retention.
  • By getting your remote game on, you can eliminate and/or alleviate a whole bunch of commute problems. This is great for the employees in question (more time, less road rage), for the environment, for the company (more effective work time), but even for your fellow humans who really, for some or other reason, do need to be on the road during peak hours.

There’s much more in the book, but these are the issues that my memory decided to retain. I’m not convinced that 100% remote is the final answer though. Personally, I go to the office every day because I want to (I really don’t have to): There are a bunch of great people and friends hanging out together futzing on their computers in an awesome new lair and there’s a great deal of knowledge diffusion going on. I do think that having one’s systems and protocols configured fully to enable mixed remote working when convenient or required would give one a significant competitive edge.