Weekly Head Voices #121: Autumn tripping.

This post right here is Monday April 3 to Sunday May 7, according to at least one of the homunculi in my head!

The first stop on our East Coast autumn break road trip was Storms River Mouth Rest Camp. With the Indian Ocean smashing the rugged rocky shores, one would have to be forgiven if one were to describe the surroundings as epic, because this really is.

After a FOMO run in the rest camp itself (PRIMAL INDIAN OCEAN SEA WIND IN THE FACE YEAH) we family-walked the first few kilometres of the Otter trail, me with GOU#3 on my back. Here’s one impression of the view we were treated with:

After the Otter-trail-taster and a short rest, we hiked through the coastal forest in the other direction, to the mouth of the Storms River. The mouth can be crossed via an awe-inspiring hanging bridge:

By the time we got there, the longest bridge was blocked by a family of baboons, led by an extremely large male. Except for the promising Darwin-award candidate who thought that he could goad one of the baboons from the bridge and was promptly blocked by an extra baboon who got on the bridge behind him (baboons: 1, human: -9), the humans fortunately realised that these primates were not to be trifled with. (Darwin-award candidate was spared by the baboons, and hence did not win the award, at least not on that day.)

After a few days with family in St Francis, including a barefoot run on the beach (divine, but foot muscles were toast afterwards), we drove up to the Addo elephant park, and got to spend the night at the new Nyathi rest camp.

Nyathi is one of those places that gently but forcefully makes you go completely quiet when you arrive. I believe the term “gobsmacked” (by nature) is entirely suitable.

Surrounded by hills, with grassy plain stretching out before you, families of zebra and baboons going about their business and absolutely no digital connectivity of any kind, the best you can do is let all of that beauty smash inwards through all of your senses.

Let us drink from the firehose of natural beauty!

After a substantial amount of the abovementioned smashing, a great beer is in order. My current favourite is the Nine Inch Ale, not only because it reminds me of my favourite musician OF ALL TIME FOR EVER AND EVER, but because it’s really really tasty. Also, Red Rock Brewing Company has a genius label designer.

After the road trip, I tried to squeeze in as many days of work as possible before my Dutch homies arrived for the Burn… the AFRIKABURN.

With a really small crew of 6+1, this year we built and ran an official themecamp called BURNIVERSITY. The idea was to try and extract the best parts of going to university, namely the delight we experience when learning together, and to transplant them into Tankwa Town.

It took off absolutely beautifully!

After class, the BURNIVERSITY faculty gets to chill in the shade(ish).

As the week advanced, our small stretch tent filled each morning with visitors, both coming to learn and to teach. Besides our Yoga (best at the Burn so there) and Mindfulness (I gave those, I’m secretly very happy with how they went) classes, we had new and old friends teach Improv Theatre, Jazz Singing (this blew my mind, thank you Max), Non-violent communication, Hip Hop, the Anthropology of AfrikaBurn, and more.

The quality and depth of interactions we had with Burners from all over were just phenomenal.

Together with the rest of our adventures, it feels like I spent four weeks together with my besties in the desert, not one.

Already I look back with much sweet wistfulness.

(I have the start of a more detailed AfrikaBurn post in the drafts folder. I’m still considering whether I should finish it or not. Let me know in the comments what you would like.)

There’s still some dust that surprises me every now and then, and still some equipment that needs cleaning up and returning. In the meantime, I’ve sort-of accidentally stopped reading twitter, and I’ve sort of accidentally started checking facebook even less regularly than usual.

It seems that a week of talking more than usual about Mindfulness, doing more breathing and focus exercises with others, and, most importantly, connecting fully with fellow human beings (partially thanks to complete digital disconnection), might have scrambled my brain a tad.

Have a great week peeps, I hope to see you again soon!

Weekly Head Voices #120: May you live in interesting times.

(Warning: Due to the momentous events of the past week, this post is 80% South African politics. If this is not your thing, eject right before the large warning further down! Maybe next week we’ll be back to our usual programming, all depending on how above-mentioned momentous events play out.)

Between all of the retinal excitement of the (gorgeous) new Justice League trailer and the release of the new Ghost in the Shell movie (pretty but soulless the reviews seem to be saying), you might have missed the new Valerian trailer.

This would be a shame, because it looks mind-expandingly stunning:

On Tuesday, March 28, 2017, when I arrived home and Genetic Offspring Unit #3 (GOU#3 for short) saw me, she all-matter-of-factly stood up and walked towards me.

My heart burst.

WARNING: What’s happening in SA politics at the moment, in 60 seconds.

One would think that one heart bursting per week is sufficient, but on Friday morning this happened again for unfortunately far less than positive reasons.

We woke up to the news that our president Jacob Zuma had fired 9 ministers shortly before midnight.

Capable ministers, especially so Pravin Gordhan, the minister of finances (who was doing a great job trying to steer our fragile economy in the right direction, often opposing deals that were bad for the economy but great for the pockets of Zuma and his bosses, the Gupta brothers) were replaced with ministers who might indeed be capable, but have clearly been selected not for that but rather for their loyalty to the Zuma network.

Amongst many other ramifications, this also means that the 1 trillion Rand nuclear deal with Russia is officially back on the table!

This was one of the many unhealthy projects blocked by Pravin Gordhan.

Besides crippling our economy and enriching Zuma, his patronage network, and the Gupta brothers (they seem to be pulling many of the strings, including those of Zuma), we really don’t need these power plants.

Our country’s renewable energy programmes will be able to supply all of our energy needs in a cost-effective way for decades to come, without any new nuclear plants in sight, thank you very much.

Nuclear power certainly has its place, but under these circumstances definitely not.

This cabinet reshuffle is the most recent in a long line of increasingly destructive moves by president Zuma and his supporters. The country is still reeling from the billions of Rands that have been and are still being extorted from the poorest of citizens by a foreign company, all right under the nose of minister Bathabile Dlamini.

Guess who did NOT get fired on Friday?

Loyalty seems to be sufficient to cancel out any amount of malice, greed and/or incompetence.

However, people in the know expect serious fireworks the coming weeks.

I am hoping that they are right, and that these will be the right sort of fireworks. With a bit of luck and the willingness of many good-hearted and talented people who have started speaking out and coming into action, our country could soon find itself with the kind of leadership that it desperately needs.

Keep your fingers crossed. I look forward to seeing you on the other side!

 

Weekly Head Voices #119: Snowcrash.

This edition of the not-quite-Weekly Head Voices covers the period of time from Monday March 6 to Sunday March 26, 2017.

As is becoming sort of a tradition around these parts, I get to show you a photo or two of our over-nerding antidote trips into the wild.

This is the path to the Koppie Alleen beach in the De Hoop Nature Reserve. Paths and photos of paths make me all pensive:

The following impression is of the De Hoopvlei. The short hiking trail along the vlei turned my morning run into an epic one.

The weekend before the De Hoop one, I spent at least half an hour sitting on the sofa just thinking.

Two things are noteworthy about this event.

  1. I had half an hour of pure, uncut, interruption-free idle time.
  2. During this time, I resisted the urge to flip out or open any information consumption device, instead electing to have my thoughts explore my internal landscape, like people used to do in the old days.

I was trying to come up with better ways to keep track of this landscape. The Deep Work phase I’m going through currently applies to work time (doh), but somehow not to free time, where I’m very much prone to latch on securely to the internet firehose for a mind-blasting gulp-athon.

Coincidentally, and perhaps even slightly ironically, the firehose deposited this insightful Scientific American article titled Warning: Your New Digital World Is Highly Addictive.

Psychology and marketing professor Adam Alter argues that the companies behind the apps and the media that we consume are naturally applying various advanced tools to ensure that we remain engaged for as long as possible.

In short, you spend so much time in Facebook (I don’t anymore haha) because Facebook employs really clever people who build systems that run continuous experiments on your viewing behaviour and figure out what to show you so that your eyeballs remain glued to that little display.

This makes absolute sense of course.

If your company’s life blood was advertising revenue, and/or user engagement was important to your company’s bottom line for some or other reason, of course you would analyse and A/B test the living daylights out of your users in order to keep them in your app / media stream for that much longer.

The following day, the firehose of faux-wisdom gave me this: Tim Berners-Lee: I invented the web. Here are three things we need to change to save it.

Sir Berners-Lee is arguing that we’ve lost control of our data (“your” data belongs to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, <insert your thing here>; you should blog more it’s better) and, more importantly, that we’re being manipulated by less than benevolent actors (pronounce with melodramatic accent on the “tors”) who, again based on advanced analytics tools, manufacture and modify news in order to sway public opinion. (Read my other recent post Fake News is Just the Beginning if your tin foil hat is just getting warmed up.)

In 2011, 2012 and 2014, I wrote briefly about our innate weakness for anything new. Social media is almost the perfect poison in that respect. You keep on scrolling down, because what if, what if there’s something new that’s going to answer that question you have not even formulated yet.

Putting all of this together: The internet is a beautiful thing. However, we have evolved parts of it to target an insidious psychological weakness in ourselves. Furthermore, there is a massive commercial incentive to keep on tweaking the distractions so that they become even more addictive, negating many of the information-related advantages they might have offered.

As if that was not sufficient, there is political and commercial incentive to develop techniques that essentially subvert our cognition, thereby fairly effectively misleading us to make decisions that satisfy somebody else’s agenda.

All is not lost.

Making time to think is great. Set aside as much as you can. Stare into space. Resist the urge to check the little magic window.

Personally, I like to form habits as much as possible.

Deep Work has become a habit for me. I am going to bring in old-school glassy-eyed staring-into-space thinking as a habit also. Complementary to that, and as an answer to my search for ways of keeping track of my mental landscape, I have resolved to write / draw as much of that mental landscape as I can, at regular intervals.

More generally, I wonder if, and how, we as humankind are going to address the issue of news and opinion manipulation.

Do we have to resign ourselves to this future? Is it going to become a question of which side employs the most expensive analytics and data science, and can hence out-manipulate its opponents? Or are we humans somehow going to develop systemic immunity?

In any case, I wish you all great success and happiness staring into space!

P.S. I nominated Alexandra Elbakyan for the brand-new MIT Media Lab Disobedience Prize. If you have some time, and you feel that publically funded research results should be available to the public, please add your nomination.

 

Fake news is just the beginning.

Intrigued by the trailers of the movie The Arrival, which I have not seen yet, I read the short story compilation Stories of your life and others by Ted Chiang.

The short story Story of your life, on which the movie is based, has a fascinating premise. However, I do hear that the film does not spend that much time on her discovery of and assimilation by the alien writing system “Heptapod B”, which to me was one of the more interesting threads.

Anyways, this post is not about that story.

It’s about another story in the collection called Liking What You See: A Documentary, written way back in 2002.

Close to the end, an initially strong campaign for calliagnosia (a non-invasive and highly selective procedure to remove humans’ innate appreciation of attractiveness in others, already a great science-fiction philosophy prop) at the fictitious but influential unversity Pembleton is lost at the last minute due to a highly persuasive televised speech by the leader of the opposition.

Read the following extract for how exactly this was done:

In the latest on the Pembleton calliagnosia initiative, EduNews has learned that a new form of digital manipulation was used on the broadcast  of PEN spokesperson Rebbecca Boyer’s speech. EduNews has received files from the SemioTech Warriors that contain what appear to be two recorded versions of the speech: an original — acquired from the Wyatt/Hayes (ed: PR firm) computers — and the broadcast version. The files also include the SemioTech Warriors’ analysis of the difference between the two versions.

The discrepancies are primarily enhancements to Ms. Boyer’s voice intonation, facial expressions and body language. Viewers who watch the original version rate Ms. Boyer’s performance as good, while those who watch the edited version rate her performance as excellent, describing her as extraordinarily dynamic and persuasive. The SemioTech Warriors conclude that Wyatt/Hayes has developed new software capabable of fine-tuning paralinguistic cues in order to maximize the emotional response evoked in viewers. This dramatically increases the effectiveness of recorded presentations … and its use in the PEN broadcast is likely what caused many supporters of the calliagnosia initiative to change their votes.

I would like to remind you that Ted Chiang wrote that story in 2002.

When I read this, I had to sit still for a moment, thinking about all of the advanced techniques that are currently being used to analyse us all, and then to manipulate or even manufacture news with the explicit purpose of swaying public opinion in a specific direction.

My thoughts moved on to the great advances being made with deep learning based human speech synthesis, facial re-enactment (see youtube at the top of this post), cut-and-paste voice editing (Adobe’s VoCo) and much much more.

Up to now, the major mechanisms of influence have been curating which packets of information people consume. However, the tools for also modifying the contents of these packets of information seem to be ready.

We’ve been photoshopping photos of people to make those people appear more attractive since forever.

How long before we start seriously “videoshopping” televised speeches to make them more persuasive? With people consuming ever-increasing amounts of potentially personalised video, there’s an even bigger opportunity for those who desire to influence us for reasons less pure than just edification.

Weekly Head Voices #118: Accelerando.

Too much nerdery took place from Monday February 20 to Sunday March 5. Fortunately, be the end of that period, we found ourselves here:

The view from the shark lookout all the way to Hangklip.

bibtex references in orgmode

For a technical report, I thought it would be handy going from Emacs orgmode (where all my lab notes live in any case) to PDF via LaTeX.

This transformation is more or less built-in, but getting the whole machinery to work with citations from a local BibTeX export from my main Zotero database does not work out of the box.

I wrote a post on my other even-more-nerdy blog showing the extra steps needed to turn this into an easy-peasy 38-shortcut-key-combo affair.

Google GCE K80 CPUs available, cheap(ish)!

I’ve been using a cloud-hosted NVIDIA Tesla from Nimbix for my small-scale deep learning experiments with TensorFlow. This has also helped me to resist the temptation of buying an expensive new GPU for my workstation.

However, Google Compute Engine has finally shipped (in beta) their cloud-based GPU product. Using their pricing calculator, it turns out I can get a virtual machine with 8 CPU cores, 30G of RAM, 375GB of local SSD and a whole NVIDIA Tesla K80 GPU (12GB of memory) in their EU data centre for a paltry $1.32 / hour.

This is significantly less than half of what I paid Nimbix!

(That resistance is going to crumble, the question is just when. Having your stuff run locally and interactively for small experiments still beats the 150ms latency from this here tip of the African continent to the EU.)

nvpy leaves the nest :`(

My most successful open source project to date is probably nvpy, the cross-platform (Linux, macOS, Windows) Simplenote client. 600+ stars on github is not A-list, but it’s definitely also nothing to sneeze at.

nvpy stats right before the hand-over

Anyways, I wrote nvpy in 2012 when I was still a heavy Simplenote user and there was no good client for Linux.

In the meantime, Emacs had started taking over my note-taking life and so in October of 2014, I made the decision to start looking for a new maintainer for my open-source baby nvpy.

That attempt was not successful.

By the end of 2015 / early 2016 I had a bit of a Simplenote / nvpy revival, as I was using the official client on my phone, and hence nvpy on the desktop.

Emacs put a stop to that revival also by magically becoming available on my phone as well. I have to add that the Android Simplenote client also seems to have become quite sluggish.

I really was not using nvpy anymore, but I had to make plans for the users who did.

On Saturday March 4, I approached github user yuuki0xff, who had prepared a pretty impressive background-syncing PR for nvpy, about the possibility of becoming the new owner and maintainer of nvpy.

To my pleasant surprise, he was happy to do so!

It is a strange new world that we live in where you create a useful artifact from scratch, make it available for free to anyone that would like to use it, and continue working on improving that artifact for a few years, only to hand the whole thing over to someone else for caretaking.

The handing-over brought with it mixed feelings, but overall I am super happy that my little creation is now in capable and more active hands.

Navel Gaze

Fortunately, there’s a handy twitter account reminding us regularly how much of 2017 we have already put behind us (thanks G-J van Rooyen for the tip):

That slowly advancing progress bar seems to be very effective at getting me to take stock of the year so far.

Am I spending time on the right things? Am I spending just the right amount of effort on prioritising without this cogitation eating into the very resource it’s supposed to be optimising? Are my hobbies optimal?

I think the answer is: One deliberate step after the other is best.