Weekly Head Voices #154: It’s full of flowers!

A view from the West Coast National Park on Langebaan with Schaapen Island visible. No, we were never a Dutch colony.

This was the week from Monday september 10 to Sunday september 16.

Nerd stuff

I fought with VTK renderer window reparenting on three different platforms. Suffice to say that the 2018 is probably also not going to be the year of the Linux desktop.

Serendipitously (seems to be a theme) I came across UMAP, a great new technique for dimensionality reduction which functions in the same space (weak math pun, sorry) as t-SNE.

My first impressions are great because UMAP is fast, it can be trained, and I really enjoyed this recording of its introduction at SciPy 2018:

Outdoorsy stuff

The highlight of my week was undoubtedly the weekend visit to the West Coast National Park to go greet the brand new flowers of spring.

During my morning run I was greeted by a herd of Eland antelope.

Although enormous, they are wary of humans, especially ones running across the savannah in their general direction.

In stark contrast, the ostrich male and female I then ran into were quite vicious, running fairly aggressively to and fro across the the hiking path before me, huffing and puffing. They probably thought that I was a threat to their young.

These birds are not to be trifled with (see for example this section on wikipedia), but I had to push on, so we played the waiting and shuffling game for a few minutes before I could continue.

At least I knew for sure that I would have the privilege of taking an entirely different route home.

Sometimes one’s arrival on the west coast is perfectly timed, and other times not at all, just like life. This time, the flowers were out in full.

There were brilliant fields of yellow, orange and purple, up and down the mountain-sides.

As if the flowers were not sufficient, we were treated with stunning views of the Grecian-blue sea, and with sunsets like these:

Weekly Head Voices #153: pH < 7 dreams.

Looking back at the week from Monday September 3 to Sunday September 9, I present to you the following memories and after-effects.

Aphex Twin never left us

I serendipitously ran into T69 Collapse, the brand new track and video by Aphex Twin.

In the grand tradition of WHV intro art, I have embedded the video above.

Whether you’re a fan or not, I think it’s worth sitting through this one, preferably with the headphones and the video in full screen.

Pro-tip: This is not one of those tracks where the whole thing can be more or less predicted by viewing the first minute. There’s a thing at 1:55 and a second thing at 3:14.

I had to wonder whether the 3:14 was intentional. We’re not much into our biblical references over here as you might know, but you have to recall that Aphex Twin is the guy who, already back in 1999, hid his face in the spectrogram of a music track called:


\[\Delta M_i^{-1} = -\alpha \sum\limits_{n=1}^N D_i [n] \left[\sum\limits_{j \in C[i]} F_{ji} [n-1] + Fext_i [n^{-1}]\right]\]

That’s the actual name of the track (#2 on the famous Windowlicker EP), although most people (plebs!) refer  to it as just Function or Equation. I got sucked down that rabbit hole last night, but no-one on the internet seems to know the true meaning of the equation. Please ask RDJ if you ever run into him.

Anyways, I have embedded \(\Delta M_i^{-1} = -\alpha \sum\limits_{n=1}^N D_i [n] \left[\sum\limits_{j \in C[i]} F_{ji} [n-1] + Fext_i [n^{-1}]\right]\) below for your listening and viewing pleasure. Aphex Twin’s face appears at 5:30.

APFS encryption vs Samsung hardware encryption effective SSD speed

I ran benchmarks on my external Samsung T3 SSD comparing the speed of encrypted APFS to unencrypted APFS with Samsung’s hardware-based full disk encryption.

I used AmorphousDiskMark, BlackMagic Disk Speed Test and plain old iostat whilst copying 30GB of files to and from the disk.

There will probably soon be a detailed blog post over on vxlabs.com about this, but I’ll give you the skinny here:

  • It’s hard to get benchmarks right. BlackMagic gave wildly varying results depending on how many times I let it run its benchmark for example.
  • APFS’s software encryption looks like it causes a performance hit ranging from 5 to about 10%, with outliers in both directions.
  • Emacs can calculate over columns of data, for example from iostat’s standard out, using a simple M-x calc-grab-from-rectangle and M-x calc-vector-mean.

Brave browser and the Basic Attention Token (BAT): This could be big. Or not. It’s at least interesting.

Brave is a new(ish) browser also based on the Chrome engine.

I knew they were doing something with cryptocurrency, and paying or getting paid for the consumption of content and/or advertising, but I was, as you can see, quite vague on the details.

What I learned last week taking it for a quick spin is the following:

Brave out of the box is massively privacy-focused. Without installing any plugins, it blocks every single advertisement and tracking cookie known to humankind. It also automatically switches to secure SSL wherever that’s possible.

More interestingly, in Brave you can opt in to “Brave Payments“, which looks like it might soon be renamed to Brave Rewards, but don’t quote me on that.

One part of this system, is that you as a user contribute a set amount of BAT tokens (these are tokens on the ethereum chain) per month. At the end of each month, Brave will pay out your tokens to the websites that you visited, based on the amount of time you spend on each site.

In this way, publishers can get recompensed for their content in hard cash, without having to resort to advertising. (It does look like Brave also supports the model where advertisers can pay, in BAT tokens of course, for your eyeball time.)

Brave already has 4 million monthly active users (MAU).

If they’re able to grow this user base, and get a significant portion to participate in the payment system, this could be a game changer. Imagine being able to pay your favourite content creators in this seamless way, and being able to switch off ads in  the process!

RunAlyze where have you been all my life?

I publish my runs to Strava, as I have a bunch of friends there, and I like the idea of a social network where you have pay with a bucket of sweat before you’re allowed to say anything.

However, I was also relying on Strava to keep track of my shoe mileage. Recently, it started losing the miles I put on my Xero Genesis sandals (the most unforgiving shoes in the universe), and I was not able to coax the system into correctly tracking those terrible, terrible kilometres.

Because I use HealthFit to push my data to Strava, I took a look at some of its other endpoints and then, again extremely serendipitously, ran into:

RUNALYZE

It’s a site made by two running nerds (and it really shows) from Germany.

It keeps track of my shoes (the goal of this… exercise, bad pun, sorry) but the authors have also implemented a bunch of metrics from academic papers, some metrics of their own, and they show tables of your data sliced and diced in many different ways ON ALL FOUR WALLS of their website.

<Dr Evil voice>It’s breathtaking.</Dr Evil voice>

Anyways, if you’re a running nerd too, you should probably take a peek.

Fin

See you soon brothers and sisters. I am grateful for our time together.

 

Weekly Head Voices #152: A small but highly trained team of 11 year olds.

GOU#2, age 8, made this for the blog, super special.

This edition of the Weekly Head Voices covers the period from Monday August 6 to Sunday September 2.

Somewhere during this period, I experienced my 44th birthday.

More than once since then, my partner has had to endure my brand-new joke / half-truth that I’m now as clever as a team of four smart 11-year olds. (Hey, it took a team of four smart 11-year olds to come up with that joke!)

On the big (for me) day, I cooked for a super tiny group of friends. I experienced the ritual of preparing dinner for friends to be an honest one, and filled with human warmth. 12/10 – Would do again.

The next morning, ever-so-slightly in recovery mode, I was surprised by my little brother and my little sister (in-law). MY FAMILY HAD CONSPIRED AGAINST ME WITH SUCH SUCCESS!

Somewhere during this period, I also had the fantastic privilege of going back to my other home (the one with the cheese, and the clogs, and the social democracy FTW) and spending time with my family there.

So much celebration. So much warmth.

(There is also some bitter-sweetness, but that’s the price one has to pay for having roots in different hemispheres.)

I would have liked to say more, but this is one of those WHAMPSAMP* situations.

(As part of a deal I made at AfrikaBurn with a brother, I went fully vegetarian from the Friday to the Monday. It was actually really good!)

(* WHAMPSAMP = What Happens At Mysterious Place Stays At Mysterious Place.)

Music (nerd) and/or plain nerd section.

Somewhere during that period, Evil Charl went ahead and implemented that Spotify2AppleMusic chrome plugin that Responsible Charl mentioned in a previous edition of the WHV with the explicit purpose of getting it out of our system.

It’s out there now, and it’s free, so you might as well try it the next time that you need to convert any public (or private in your account) Spotify playlist to the corresponding Apple Music playlist.

I wrote this one in TypeScript where the type interfaces were a fantastic help in writing correct code for the parsing of the various APIs that this plugin has to inter-operate with.

Nerd section: BitBar with Lua, Hammerspoon, nerd motivations.

Also somewhere during that period, but in a slightly more surprising twist, I added lua support to the open-source macOS utility called bitbar, purely because I wanted to write a network bandwidth plugin that consumed less memory and was faster than the built in shell + awk versions.

That means I’m now also an official bitbar plugin author, which I find strangely satisfying.

Well, maybe it’s not so strange. I do have a thing with producing artifacts that other people (might) use in some way. There’s even more vagueness on this topic at the bottom of this post.

(BTW, the Python version of the same plugin consumed 8 times as much memory as the lua version, which itself consumed about 30% less memory than the shell+awk version.)

(BTW, if you’re on a Mac, and you know a little bit of lua, Hammerspoon is an amazing tool for automating your desktop via its lua bindings to the mac desktop API. In a few lines of code, I was able to throw out Spectacle, which itself is a great app, but Hammerspoon, the successor of Mjolnir, scores highly on the nerd street-cred scale and has MOAR FUNCTION.)

Au revoir

I am grateful that you are here reading this, thank you!

I have recently acquired a new side-project (Evil Charl: “HELL YEAH!” BRRRAAAAAAAAMMMM <— crashes straight through office wall to the great outdoors on big motorbike. Responsible Charl: “sigh.”) which is currently sucking up a great deal of my creative output.

We all know what usually happens to side-projects. I guess the high probability of failure may even add to their attractiveness.

In either case, high or low probability outcome, I’ll eventually spill the beans over here. Suffice to say that I do seem to have a thing for setting things up and then calling them universities, and in this case it’s even allowing me to produce reasonably sized packets of usefulness that might just magically add up to a valuable whole.

I am ever-so-slightly excited.

You’ll know if your iPhone is listening. Vice should consider toning down the sensationalism.

A Vice article titled Your Phone Is Listening and it’s Not Paranoia has been doing the rounds. In it, the author explains how they did an “experiment” demonstrating that topics they discussed verbally were later reflected in Facebook ads.

Whilst it’s prudent to be careful with modern technology around one’s privacy, Vice is being a tad sensationalist. This blog post, which will optimistically be read by three to four people, tries to fill some of the holes they left.

We already know that we can’t trust Facebook in any way, so we are dependent on the telephone’s operating system to take our privacy seriously: That’s usually Android or iOS.

Android does in theory enable background recording up to and including Android O, but starting from Android P it will disable this. Unfortunately, it shouldn’t be more than about 10 years before all phones are on Android P or later.

(I have previously indicated that I’m not the biggest fan of Android’s security story. I am happy to see that they are making such progress, but the tardiness or even worse refusal of OEMs in upgrading their devices diminishes most of that.)

In iOS on the other hand, there are at least three mechanisms that protect users against this background recording abuse:

  1. The app has to ask the user explicitly for microphone permission, which the user can easily revoke at any time (Settings | App’s name | Microphone; see screenshot below for an example).
  2. The developer has to indicate explicitly and statically in their app that they intend to use background audio. Apple’s review process is quite strict and will reject outright an app that does not have a legitimate reason to make use of this function.
  3. Even when an app has been able to convince Apple’s review process that it should be allowed to record audio in the background, there are two more privacy mechanisms in place:
    1. An app can only record in the background, if it started to record audio whilst on the foreground. When the recording stops, the app will be suspended.
    2. When any app is recording, the system will display a big red bar at the top of the iOS display, much like the blue bar which displays when a location-based app such as Google Maps or Waze is active in the background. This red bar can’t be hidden.

To see this in action (another “experiment” !!), download an app like Awesome Voice Recorder which advertises background recording, start a recording, and then switch anywhere else. The red bar looks like this (I’ve switched the app permissions screen in iOS settings, so you can also see where to disable the microphone permissions):

AVR is recording in the background, so iOS shows this red bar at the top. If you tap on the red bar, it will switch to the app which is recording. This is related to the blue bar for location, and the green bar for ongoing phone calls.

With the above measures in place, it would be fairly tricky for an iOS app to perform background recording without your knowledge.

For some extra peace of mind, you can disable the app’s (a totally random example being Facebook) microphone permissions. If the app ever really needs to record, iOS will have to ask your permission again.

P.S. In iOS, under Settings | Privacy | Microphone you can find a handy list of all apps that have successfully requested microphone permissions. From here, you can also easily remove any of these permissions.

Updates

Weekly Head Voices #151: We are pleased to meet you.

The Weekly Head Voices number 151 are trying to tell you something about the week from Monday July 30 to Sunday August 5.

Prepare yourself for a slightly stranger than usual post. I have: two short programming ideas, a bad review of an outdoor security passive infrared sensor, using Jupyter Notebook for (GPU-accelerated) numerical computation when you only have a browser, computing device input latency, and an utterly unexpected bit of backyard philosophy from the gut.

Two random micro side-project ideas

I would like to start with two hobby / maker ideas that popped up in my head this week. There’s a high probability I will not get around to them, but perhaps they help you to spawn a new set of hopefully more worthwhile ideas.

Chrome or Firefox plugin to convert Spotify playlists to Apple Music using the new MusicKit JS API

I seem to see many more Spotify playlists shared than Apple Music playlists. For example, at this moment I’m listening to the official Lowlands 2018 playlist.

This is not ideal, as I am an Apple Music subscriber, but not a Spotify subscriber.

It turns out there are paid apps to convert Spotify playlists to Apple music playlists.

However, it also turns out that Apple has a new thing (still in beta) called MusicKit JS.

I briefly dissected the Spotify Playlist website.

It would be straight-forward for a Chrome or Firefox plugin (WebExtension, so same code. I’ve done this before) to go through this playlist, search for each track using the MusicKit JS API, and then recreate the playlist in the user’s Apple Music account.

This solution would be much cleaner and simpler than the current app-based ones.

An Emacs package for displaying your RescueTime productivity metric right on the mode line

I scanned the RescueTime API documentation.

I was just about to start working on it, when I came up with the bright idea to name the package ironic.el, and so I stopped.

On that topic: The struggle for practically sustainable focus is real, and it never seems to stop.

The Head Voices REVIEW(tm) the Optex HX-80 outdoor passive infrared security detector: AVOID AT ALL COSTS

From the Optex HX-80 outdoor passive infrared security detector’s web-page we have the following:

The most important element in reliable outdoor detector is accuracy to distinguish a human from a small animal. … In addition, the HX-80N’s dual PIR’s and 20 detection zones utilize the ‘AND’ detection pattern technology … This technology helps to prevent false alarms caused by a pet or small animal.

Well, I had two of these installed by trained professionals.

(There are of course interesting discussions to be had about the necessity of devices such as the HX-80, or its mythical actually working counterpart, down here.)

I can confirm that they excel at one fairly specific function: Triggering the alarm, and thus automatically calling my security company, at the most ungodly hours of the night, whenever a certain small grey cat, looking exceptionally unlike a human, decides to take a stroll outside of our house.

Oh yes, the cat is not even ours, but belongs to our neighbour.

The installation and subsequent repeated fine-tuning of our Optex HX-80 have only had the result of me having to punch in an additional key-sequence every evening to bypass the two ‘AND’-detection-pattern-technology-equipped HX-80 devices.

You will understand that the only reasonable Head Voices REVIEW(tm) of the Optex HX-80 is:

  • 100% NON-FUNCTIONING THROUGH INFERIOR DESIGN.
  • AVOID AT ALL COSTS.
  • DON’T TRUST THE MARKETING.
  • THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.
  • JUST DON’T.

Image result for just don't meme

Some more odd but perhaps useful bits

Google Colaboratory for Numerical Computation when all you have is a browser.

I’m late to the party (again), but Google Colab is really great if you need a Jupyter Notebook with some GPU power behind it.

It comes with tensorflow pre-installed (being Google and all), but getting the GPU-accelerated PyTorch 0.4.1 (latest version of the most amazing deep learning tool at the time of writing) going was a cinch.

To repeat this experiment, create new notebook with File | New Python 3 Notebook, then change Edit | Notebook Settings | Hardware accelerator to GPU.

You can then install the correct version of PyTorch by executing

!pip install http://download.pytorch.org/whl/cu80/torch-0.4.1-cp36-cp36m-linux_x86_64.whl

in a notebook cell.

What a time to be alive!

P.S. Remember, under normal (non-Colab) circumstances we keep our Notebooks as empty as possible. Prefer as much as possible of your code in Python modules. The notebooks are only there to act as glue, for visualization and sometimes for long-running jobs.

Dan Luu’s computer and mobile device input latency research

This most amazing work was recently brought to my attention by WHV reader Matthew Brecher in the comments under my 2017 Android vs iPhone performance post.

In it, Dan Luu measured the input latency of various devices, using the 240fps camera on his iPhone SE, or with the 1000 fps  Sony RX100 V camera if the device was too fast.

For the computers in his study, input latency was defined as the time between keypress and character appearing on the display. For the mobile devices, it was defined as the time between finger movement and display scrolling starting.

If you have any interest in this sort of technology and also in-depth technology journalism, the full article is definitely worth your time.

I wanted to mention two interesting points:

  1. The 1983 Apple 2e, with a CPU running at 1MHz, had significantly lower input latency (30ms between button press and character display) than any modern multi-GHz system. The comparison is of course not completely fair, but it’s still nice to see.
  2. Amongst the mobile devices, Apple dominates the fast / low latency end of the spectrum. Their devices, in terms of input lag, are ALL faster than all of the Android devices tested, including for example the 2017 Google Pixel 2XL.
    • Yes, this is me eating my hat, and some more of that yummy humble pie.
    • Android 9, code-name Pie, has just been (will soon be… err) released and has an amazing list of features. I still hope they manage they also manage to catch up with regards to some of the basics like input latency.

Yet another reason to eat more fibre

There are an estimated 100 trillion (10 to the power of 14; 100 with 12 zeroes) bacterial cells housed in each of our bodies.

Each adult human consists of on average only 37 trillion human cells, meaning there are on average almost 3 alien cells for every 1 of your own cells.

I find this a beautiful realisation: All aspects of our lives depend on this multitude of foreign visitors.

They help us digest our food, and, as it has been turning out more recently, they play a crucial role in our mood,  our behaviour and our thinking.

We (or at least the clever people) now talk about the microbiome-gut-brain axis, further underlining the importance that our bacterial visitors play in our lives.

Taking a few more steps back, thinking about the relationship between the 37 trillion human cells, and the 100 trillion visiting cells,  I ask the question:

Who am I really? Who exactly is thinking this?

I, or perhaps rather “we”, find this truly fascinating.

What I was initially planning to mention before going off on this tangent, was a recent paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Physiology, with the title Short-Chain Fatty Acids: Microbial Metabolites That Alleviate Stress-induced Brain-Gut Axis Alterations (click for PDF fulltext).

The Physiological Society press release is more digestibly (I had to) titled “Eat high fibre foods to reduce effects of stress on gut and behaviour“.

In short, fibre stimulates gut bacteria to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which, besides being the main source of nutrition for cells in this region of the body, also decrease levels of stress and anxiety, at the very least in mice.

The end

Thank you for sticking around friends!

I hope that you found something of value, even if not directly from this post.

I’ll see you next time! Until then, remember to eat your vegetables.