Weekly Head Voices #146: You too can learn Kung Fu.

This post covers the period Monday June 11 to Sunday June 17. Read it to become rich, yawn at Lisp and Emacs, yearn to run free on the wide open plains and to learn Kung Fu. Not ambitious at all.

Front door nearby De Waal Park, in Cape Town. Photo taken on Sunday by GOU#1, age 12.

Social Democracy FTW

It turns out that your chances of becoming rich are the greatest if you had the good fortune to have been born in one of the Nordic social democracies, such as Norway, Sweden or Denmark.

The US trails these countries, at position 13, in terms of per capita individuals with net worth over $30 million.

Being a proponent of social democracy as the most humane form of currently practical human government, and often infuriating conservatives   by pointing out that many crucial aspects of social democracies can be described as socialistic, I really enjoyed the linked TEDx talk by Norwegian Harald Eia.

This material will serve me well as the source of future mischief.

Paradigms of AI Programming in Common Lisp

I am currently working my way through “Paradigms of Artificial Intelligence Programming: Case Studies in Common Lisp”, Peter Norvig’s famous 1992 book an artificial intelligence. Although modern AI has been transformed almost unrecognisably since then (THANKS DEEP LEARNING! Norvig’s PAIP retrospective) the way in which Norvig uses Lisp to model and solve real-world problems is inspiring and quite foundational.

It’s not only that though.

My inconvenient but uncontrollable infatuation with Common Lisp also seems to be pulling the strings. I should study a real language which is not 60 years old, like Rust or something.

What attracts me about Common Lisp is the liberated and pragmatic way in which it enables one to mix functional, object-oriented and procedural programming, and, perhaps most importantly, how it was designed from the ground up for iterative and interactive programming.

Tweak the defun, eval the defun, watch the system adapt. This is what I always imagined programming would be like. Except for the Lisps, it really turned out perhaps a bit more boring than it really needs to be.

interleave-mode for working through PDF books

For the fellow Emacs users, I also wanted to mention the utility of interleave-mode for working through such a programming book, if you can find it in PDF format.

In my Emacs I have the PDF on the left, and my interleave-mode-linked orgfile on the right. On any page of the PDF I hit the i-button to add a note in the orgfile, where I can of course insert and execute live code snippets.

The sections in the orgfile remain linked to the correct pages of the PDF.

For programming books this is an amazing combination. For studying other books, having your orgfile notes linked will probably also be quite useful.

On the topic of note-taking: This past week, on Friday June 15 (I made a note of that), I was able to help a colleague solve a technical problem by searching for and retrieving an org-file note, including detailed configuration settings, that I made on May 13, 2014.

Ether as currency

Although I acquired a small amount of the Ether cryptocurrency for the first time in July of 2016, I’ve never had the opportunity to actually transact with it.

Up to now, it has functioned solely as a pretty volatile store of value.

On Saturday, I used some ether for the first time to straight-up buy something on the internet, which was a pretty exciting but in practice an uneventful procedure, fortunately.

The vendor used a payment processor which presented me with an address and corresponding QR code. I scanned the QR code with the relevant mobile app (Luno in this case), paid the requested amount, and waited for a few minutes for it to be multiply confirmed by the blockchain. The sending fee was about 0.04% of the transaction.

Barefoot-style running update

On Sunday I went for a long(ish) run, bringing my total on the Luna sandals to just over 200km.

My feet, ankles and calves are much stronger than they used to be, but the barefoot conversion is clearly still has some ways to go. I have to take at the very least two rest days (instead of one) between runs to give my feet some extra time to recover.

What I have recently started doing, is that instead of trying to micro-manage my form (put your foot down like this, bend your ankle like that, let your achilles tendon shoot back like this, and so on), I am following the advice of some new random person on reddit/r/BarefootRunning who gave the advice, often echoed elsewhere by barefoot-runners, to try and maintain a cadence (steps-per-minute) of at least 180.

That sounds pretty high for a normal person like me, but it turns out that when I do that, and I try at the same time to run as silently as possible (I often just APPEAR right beside someone, hehe), my legs and feet figure out their elastic bio-kinematics all by themselves.

As yet another random reddit expert (I wish I could find the post) quipped:

You can’t overthink proprioception.

(that’s a running nerd joke)

I know Kung Fu

Do you remember this scene from The Matrix (1999)?

The other day at the Old People Reunion, friend T. Monster, a highly capable pragmatist but also backyard theoretician, talked about how often it happened these days that you had to deal with some DIY issue, tapped or spoke the question into youtube, watched a video or two, and then fixed the issue like a pro.

This, along with my recent pseudo-expert repair of a number of stripped cabinet hinge screw holes with tooth picks and cold glue (this works, I kid you not), made me think that, although The Matrix version was perhaps far more spectacular, we in fact now find ourselves in a real, shared reality where a large subset of skills can be acquired a la carte.

Some may take longer than a few minutes, but it still is pretty amazing how far YouTube has managed to democratise so many different forms of modern Kung Fu.

 

 

Weekly Head Voices #145: The Narrating Self.

View of the False Bay from the Helderberg Nature Reserve.

The work part of the week flew by.

(I think this is the reason for the shortness of this post. As is often the case, we start with journal stuff, then nerd stuff and, hidden at the end, some backyard philosophy stuff.)

Dear diary

The weekend part on the other hand started with a welcome-back-braai (HI MOM!) on Friday, followed by a sublime oxtail potjie on Saturday and concluded today with a sublime long(ish, by my standards as always) run in the morning (showing a little solidarity with the Comrades participants whilst not completely busting my barefoot-style-acclimatising feet and ankles) plus Helderberg stroll and lunch, and is now ending with a WHV writing session.

(Sundays which start with a run, have family stuff in between, and end with WHV are automatically awarded a 12/10-would-do-again rating according to my patented How Was Your Day Honey evaluation system.)

Nerdy Pro-tip

Just in case you missed it, Google’s Gboard keyboard for iOS quietly shipped an update last week that includes as one of its new features support for Afrikaans. This brings the number of smart iOS keyboards (smart, as in AI-based) that support Afrikaans up to the total of two (2). The other is SwiftKey, which has supported Afrikaans for some years now.

(The lack of a mobile keyboard with native support for one’s language can really complicate effective communication. Preferring fully formed sentences, I’ve never really gotten the hang of SMS-speak.)

Homo Deus

After a slight detour with a number of other books that have featured on this blog, I have returned to Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus.

I am about 75% through, but I can already say that this is one of the best works I’ve read in the past decade.

The way in which Harari, a history professor, weaves together so many strands of history and present to extrapolate our planet’s future is nothing short of magical. Along the way, he takes the reader along on many mind-expanding tangents.

The one tangent I made note of to mention here, was his treatment of the illusion, which we are all brought up to entertain, that each human houses a single ego or individual.

By citing and discussing several examples of humans with separated brain hemispheres, he makes a strong case for the observation that most probably you house multiple identities.

There is a strong narrating self who tries to weave together the experiences and inputs of the other selves, and who will go to great lengths to make everything fit.

Thinking about all of the internal discussions one has throughout every day, and the seeming disagreements one can have between yesterday’s you and today’s you, Harari’s thesis starts to sound like a really good explanation.

This soon leads to interesting new questions: What would be the best way to manage one’s multiple aspects, especially in the light of the fact that “one” does not even know with certainty who is asking this question?

(Astute readers will have noticed that my choice of a title for this blog has finally been vindicated after all this time.)

See you next week, my suddenly multitudinous readers!

P.S. Harari says that intelligence and consciousness don’t necessarily go together. We are entering a future where many of us are going to be made obsolete by constructs which don’t possess consciousness but are far more intelligent than we are.

P.P.S. For one of the best hard sci-fi books dealing with our often-held but anthropocentrically flawed perspective that consciousness and intelligence go together, you can do a lot worse than Blindsight, by Peter Watts.  Read that book.

 

Weekly Head Voices #144: Eternal learner.

Welcome back friends!

(Right after the nerd news, there’s running and backyard philosophy. You can start wherever you like.)

Nerd News

The Weekly Nerd News Network (WNNN) wanted to bring the following points under your attention:

  • Emacs 26.1, the first major release since September 2016, when 25.1 came out, happened on May 28. Although Emacs reached perfection (and sentience, some say) a few decades ago, this new version does include improvements such as native line numbering for the VIM refugees and buttery smooth scrolling on X11 (read the very entertaining story behind this).
  • PyTorch (my favourite deep learning tool by far) and Caffe are merging. This is amazing because while PyTorch is some of the most dynamic and flexible deep learning software you can pay with, Caffe runs on your telephone. You’ll be able to fine-tune your deep network on PyTorch, and then click a button (or type some obscure incantation, probably) to get that network in a highly efficient compiled form on any embedded device or scaled up to run on your cloud. Although apparently not possible, this really does feel like free lunch!

Reunion

In Weekly Non Nerd News (WNNN), an old friend came to visit all the way from Omaruru, an occasion which served as the happy excuse for a mini-reunion at my place.

It’s strange to think that some of the university stories we recounted are now more than 20 years ago.

In that time, humans go from birth to fully formed adult human beings with opinions, and relationships, and stories of their own.

Thank you Omaruru Friend for bringing us all back together again.

Running mouse

The flu and/or cold virus that managed to enter through the cracks left by my immune system being under pressure from above-mentioned celebrations caused a week-long period of man flu, a period that I was only able to conclude today with a lovely winter morning run.

As one does, I continued searching until I found evidence confirming my belief that running with some remaining flu symptoms would not be irresponsible.

What I found was even better than that!

A 2005 study titled Moderate exercise protects mice from death due to influenza virus, published in the journal Brain, Behaviour and Immunity, found that in mice that had just been infected with a real influenza (i.e. not man flu) virus, moderate exercise had an additional protective effect relative to no exercise or strenuous exercise mice. The PDF full-text can be found on the sci-hub website, or via their telegram bot (the bot is really convenient, you can find and read fulltexts on your phone!).

Thanks to the internet, and lab mice, I had confidence that I was probably not going to die due to my run.

Confirmation bias aside, or not, based on more reading it looks like moderate exercise is not the worst thing you can do during or after cold or flu. The secret is to keep it relaxed, and to keep a very close eye on your heart and your temperature.

Mastery

I finally finished reading the book Mastery by George Leonard, a recommendation by LS that I am grateful for.

It can get preachy at times, but the core message is really good, and especially timeous in this era of hyper distraction.

Below is Leonard’s message, sent at least once through the old washing machine that is my brain.

Learning is a lifelong process.

More specifically, the path to mastery of any worthwhile skill usually consists of short bursts of novelty exhilaration (you often start with one of these) followed by long and seemingly boring plateaux of never-ending practice with no kick.

No kick means that many learners decide to quit, and switch to something exciting, only to repeat their cycle of not-mastery there.

If you are able to make peace with the plateaux, and keep on trudging along, you are on the path to mastery.

In a decidedly Buddhist twist, being on the path to mastery means that you are in fact an eternal learner, and you will never become a master.

The author of the book is an Aikido sensei. I especially loved the story he told of the beginners and the senseis.

When beginners practise, they ask the sensei for a new move to practice every few minutes. They try to get through as many moves as possible during their 2 hour training session.

When senseis practise, they practise the same basic move over and over for many hours, losing themselves in the universe of that single apparently straight-forward form.

The Buddhist Twist

From the Wikipedia page on Buddhism:

The Four Truths express the basic orientation of Buddhism: we crave and cling to impermanent states and things, which is dukkha, “incapable of satisfying” and painful. This keeps us
caught in saṃsāra, the endless cycle of repeated rebirth, dukkha and dying again. But there is a way to liberation from this
endless cycle to the state of nirvana, namely following the Noble Eightfold Path.

… and then later:

…. and finally passing through the gate of wishlessness (apranihita) – realizing that nirvana is the state of not even wishing for nirvana.

I can work with this.

Readers, I wish you wishlessness!

Weekly Head Voices #143: The rider and the elephant.

Pretty autumn sunset. A few metres below, the ritual weekend-starting braai was picking up speed.

Welcome back kids!

Besides this post, which somehow turned out to be longer than I expected, my more nerdy alter ego also wrote a post titled Interactive programming with Fennel Lua Lisp, Emacs and Lisp Game Jam winner EXO_encounter 667.

#DeleteFacebook, part deux

In an unsurprising (to me) turn of events, the Cambridge Analytica scandal has not even caused a dent in Facebook usage.

#deletefacebook, also discussed in a previous edition of the WHV, never really happened.

To the contrary, it seems people even increased their usage, post-scandal. FB share price is back where it used to be, and as an interesting data point, Deutsche Bank reports that their FB-based advertising reach was unaffected by the removable of more than 500 million fake facebook accounts.

Should we deduce anything more from this than the usual 1. humans, even outraged ones, have really short memories and/or 2. most people don’t have the energy to resist, or the presence of mind to avoid, the deeply-seated social desires that are being exploited to varying degrees by the large social networks?

My personal strategy for a while now has been to make liberal use of the unfollow and the mute functions. It’s far from perfect, but with this it is possible to reduce drastically the stream of incoming information, and to make sure that what does come through has to do with friends that you have made the deliberate choice to connect with actively.

Shorter focus blocks work better

In my eternal and sometimes decidedly Sysiphean quest for more and better work focus, I recently started using Focus App (see Pro Tip #2 in WHV #126).

In short, when you activate the app’s focus mode, it kills off and then blocks anything that is remotely fun or even slightly distracting on your computer. This includes websites and applications.

In the beginning, I was enjoying longer (1 to 2 hour) focus blocks.

However, more recently I started noticing a certain recalcitrance in my focus-starting hand.

Especially late in the afternoons (prefrontal cortex GONE by then, remember?) the knowledge of that mega-block of mental exertion would result in highly undesirable procrastinatory behaviour. (Big words for “oh, I can probably fit in one more /r/emacs post!”)

Anyways, it turns out there’s another really good reason that pomodori are only 25 minutes long.

It’s much easier to start a 25 minute block of no-fun-focus, and then get stuck in the zone, than it is to start what your brain expects to be a multi-hour block of mental exertion.

Friend PK introduced me to the tiny rider trying to control the giant elephant as a metaphor for the conscious and unconscious mind (this is from the book The Happiness Hypothesis). The shorter focus block idea seems like it could be filed away under “tricks to control your stubborn elephant”.

The evolving soul of Emacs

I came across this really interesting piece by Richard Stallman about the origin of Emacs, one of my favourite and probably most-used technical artifacts. It’s the multi-tool of computer software.

But, along the way, I wrote a text editor, Emacs. The interesting idea about Emacs was that it had a programming language, and the user’s editing commands would be written in that interpreted programming language, so that you could load new commands into your editor while you were editing. You could edit the programs you were using and then go on editing with them. So, we had a system that was useful for things other than programming, and yet you could program it while you were using it. I don’t know if it was the first one of those, but it certainly was the first editor like that.

When an experienced user interacts with Emacs, they change it, and it changes them.

The opposite of instant gratification

On Friday I started on a slightly longer than usual run.

It usually takes a kilometre or two before all of my running subsystems come on line, and I find my rhythm.

Not this time.

The acclimatisation discomfort in my ankles and calves didn’t fade away as it usually does. My breathing and running cadence stubbornly refused to lock on to their usual correct settings.

My legs felt tired.

It really felt like I was not supposed to be running at all, but I pressed on because at that point there was not much else I could do.

At the turn-around point (the bridge at the entrance to Vergelegen, with beautiful trees all around) I decided to try out some youtube advice from the evening before and do a few deep squats to freshen up my legs.

I started running back on legs and calves and feet which suddenly felt like they had all been replaced with brand-new rested versions of their 2-minute-ago return-to-manufacturer selves.

The rest of the run was of the floating over the ground how-is-this-possible my-smile-might-break-my-head variety.

Super strange.

I don’t think the squats did it. That was just a sort of thought-process punctuation which somehow distracted the mind-elephant for long enough to get me running again.

Anyways, as I was floating home, I could not help but see the whole occurrence as a fairly physical but in this case fortunately quite compact reminder that some of the most worthwhile experiences simply require perseverance with initially no gratification in sight.

Life is a marathon

… so sleep well, eat as healthily as you can, exercise, and try not to stress too much.

We’re in this for the long haul.

Weekly Head Voices #142: Theory of mind.

Autumn is really pretty down here.

We’re getting back on track with the WHVs friends!

In the hardly started tradition of writing blog posts in music-backed focus blocks, I have my “upbeat thinking” playlist teed up and ready to go. The outline of this post formed itself as a Real Bullet List(tm) in my Emacs about an hour ago.

Let’s go.

They grow up so fast

Theory of Mind, or ToM, is an important mental capability that we use to model and predict the thoughts and desires of fellow humans.

Just the other day, as we were going through our school morning ritual of the offspring units eating breakfast together and the adults self-administering the correct number of espressos required for normal functioning, GOU#3 calmly informed me from her mother’s lap:

Daddy, mommy would like another biscuit with her coffee.

Genetic Offspring Unit #3 only very recently turned 2.

With this request, she demonstrated surprising levels of ToM and planning ability. She inferred, entirely correctly,  what her parental unit required at that moment, and performed exactly the correct action (delegation, yikes!) to satisfy that requirement.

I am still suitably impressed.

Sketchnote your life

Sketchotes refer to a type of hand-written notes that employs both writing and drawing techniques. Here’s an example by Emacs guru and famous internet person Sacha Chua:

I’m trying to spend more time dedicated to thinking and so-called conceptualising. Sketchnotes seems like a good tool to use during these thinking sessions, so last week this formed the ideal excuse to go out and acquire a new large Moleskine with blank pages (I used to use Moleskines for all my note-taking before going digital), and a whole bunch of sketchnote-recommended pens (Pilot Hi-TecPoint 0.5 which I already had one of; Pilot G-TEC-C4 for super fine drawing, pen also turned out to have best handling of the lot despite its simplicity; Pentel Energel 0.7mm).

My first session was spent sketching out my current life landscape (thank you KvG for this tip years ago), including work, side-projects and a bunch of developing and potential opportunities, as well as the links between them.

I can report that drawing like this is a great trick to keep one’s attention glued to the page, and hence to the chosen focus, whilst at the same time maintaining sufficient mental distance to process the more substantial  thoughts and all of their interactions.

Telegram has the public group chat market cornered

For private messaging, I have a strong preference for Signal, especially over WhatsApp.

Besides the dubious future of WhatsApp’s privacy (Founder #1 Jan Koum is planning to leave while Founder #2 Brian Acton recently donated 50 million dollars to Signal), the WhatsApp web-app is more irritation than it’s worth. The fact that I have to keep my phone awake and connected to the network is a silly constraint which even the far more secure Signal desktop app does not require.

Anyways, I digress.

This section is about Telegram, another messaging app with dubious security that at least does not belong to Facebook.

Besides all of its stickers, animated gifs, and (non-)useful bots everywhere, Telegram has two additional features which are quiet compelling:

Although it requires a telephone number to be setup, you can configure a username which you can give out to people instead of your telephone number to have them contact you. This adds an extra layer of privacy which is sometimes useful.

More interestingly, Telegram has the concept of “supergroups”. These are public groups which can be joined by anyone if they have the name, and support up to 10000 (yes ten thousand) users.

This is ideal for easily starting special interest groups, and can be seen as a modern and mobile-first form of IRC. The mobile apps are generally really fast and full featured.

Anyways, on a lark we created one such group, called ZA Tech Light, for tech people (aka nerds) in ZA. If you are such a person, or you just like chatting with nerds in ZA, feel free to drop in at @zatechlight. Although primarily lark-based, this could be seen as a sort of splinter group of the much larger (because older) Slack group called ZA Tech.

Running update

Yesterday, I did my second 10km+ run in the Lunas, bringing total sandal running distance to 107km.

I am now back up to my pre-sandal standard running route distance.

That being said, my calf muscles are still complaining quite loudly after every run. The recovery perioud seems to be shortening however, and the calf muscle complaints are less convincing every time.

All of THAT being said, running barefoot- aka primitive-style feels amazing, so much so that although one does keep an eye on things, one does not perceive the above-mentioned muscle discomfort as an issue at all.

Furthermore, the patella strap I previously had to wear during running, to prevent knee pain, has been lying in my cupboard, unused for the past 107km.

The side-project dilemma

Most nerds I know have side-projects.

It’s how we learn new things and keep ourselves constructively entertained.

Up to now, I’ve usually chosen my side-projects not only on the basis of learning, but also based on their business potential. Some of them have indirectly led to revenue, partially through the business-relevance check, but so far never directly. That is, I’ve never brought a side-project to market.

This weekend I had an idea for a pretty obscure side-project. In terms of creativity and learning, and of passion and brain-fit, it scores highly, but in terms of direct business potential quite the opposite.

I’m probably at least going to start, because it’s too much fun not to.

What is your approach in situations like this? Do side-projects have to satisfy any kind of utility requirement? Which criteria do you use to select your next side-project?

Bhayi bhayi

Thanks for reading this far peeps! I hope you have a beautiful week, and that we might meet again at the end.