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.

 

Weekly Head Voices #150: The Road not Taken.

Photo of a cotula lineariloba flower, taken by GOU#1, age 12.

This edition of the WHV covers the week from Monday, July 23 up to and including Sunday, July 29.

Running update

Strava says I’ve just passed the 300km threshold in my Luna Mono 2 sandals.

It also says I’ve done 27km in my Xero Genesis sandals, or as I have begun to call them, Xero Tolerance.

You make one mistake, and something will break. You do get to keep all the bloody pieces.

In any case, when I started on this barefoot-style / natural running adventure, I had subconsciously set myself the limit of 200km before evaluating the success of the experiment.

At 200km, the experiment was still unsuccessful (different parts of feet and ankles were taking turns complaining) so I moved the threshold to 300km, with the plan to move it to 400km if required.

I call this The Stubborn Scientific Method(tm): You keep running the experiment (harr harr) until it says what you want it to say.

To be fair, in this specific case an injury would have (and still can), stop the experiment. Most fortunately the muscles, bones and tendons in my feet, ankles and calves, although complaining quite audibly, have held up.

This past Sunday I did a long(ish) run where it felt for the first time like my feet and ankles had finally toughened up enough (and perhaps my form had also improved slightly) to just keep on propelling me forward quietly and efficiently.

Together with the brilliant sunny winter morning conditions, this conspired to reconfigure my face machine into a rather long-lasting grin.

I am carefully optimistic that I might be able to make this specific adventure a more permanent one, and that makes me really happy.

The Emacs Section

NERD-ALERT. SKIP TO THE NEXT SECTION IF YOU ARE NOT INTO TEXT EDITORS!

A friend from work sent me a ZIP file with research data.

I was super surprised that I could easily decompress the ZIP file using Emacs Dired (Dired is of course the file-manager built into Emacs, doh), but that there was no easy way to mark and extract specific files from the archive.

I found an SO answer with a piece of Emacs Lisp code that someone had put together and integrated it with my Emacs.

It worked, but it didn’t default to the opposite Dired file-list pane as all commander-style tools should do, and by default it re-created relative paths, which is the opposite of the default in most two-pane commanders I know.

As is the wont of Emacs users, I reshaped the code ever so slightly to work like I thought it should.

Shaping Emacs Lisp code has a pleasant fluid feeling to it. Code is data, code is configuration, data flows through code.

I’m telling you this story, because it was a nice little reminder of one of the reasons I like this software so much.

You can find my modified version of archive-extract-to-file.el as a github gist.

The Odd Bits of Interesting News Section

  • Differentiable Image Parameterizations, a beautiful machine learning article on Distill that surveys and showcases different techniques for generating beautiful images with deep learning. These networks sort of learn to see in order to solve specific tasks, but you can tickle them in different ways to get them to show you the insides of their visual circuitry, and it’s quite beautiful.
  • The Prophylactic Extraction of Third Molars: A Public Health Hazard is an article which was published all the way back in 2007. It makes the claim that at least two thirds of wisdom tooth extraction are unnecessary. One could say that their only function is to… extract your money. BA DUM TSSSSS! To that I would like to add: WHY DENTISTRY WHY? HAVE YOU NOT HURT US ENOUGH?!
  • A colleague at work emailed this TechCrunch post about a 3D printed neural network that diffracts light going through in order to do its trained inference work on incoming images. Although it’s a retro-futuro-mind-bending idea to do it with a whole neural network, and it smacks of hell-yeah-this-is-what-scifi-promised-me-that-AI-would-look-like, I could not help but recall a certain Very Flat Cat telling us about this sort of passive light-based computation almost 20 years ago.

The Poetry Section

GOU#1 had to select an English poem to recite for class.

From the depths of my memory bubbled up The Road not Taken by Robert Frost.

I had forgotten how much subtlety and recognisable human complexity this poem was able to pack into such a petite little frame. If you have the time, read the analysis linked above after spending some time with the poem itself.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Friends, no matter which paths you take this week, I hope that we may meet again.

Weekly Head Voices #149: I forgot to proof-read this.

Part of the Sunday morning trail. Although I really enjoy these, I’m at my happiest running down antelope on the savannah.  Antelope strictly-speaking not required, but those wide open plains on the other hand…

This, the one hundred and forty ninth edition of the Weekly Head Voices, covers the week from Monday July 16 to Sunday July 22 of the year 2018.

This week, we have apple watch running adventures, deep learning in production (finally), yet another focus tip and finally a youtube poetry reading.

Enjoy!

The Apple Watch, Vitality and You

On Monday, I became the owner of a brand new Apple Watch 3, FOR FREE(ish).

I feel that two points are worth mentioning:

  1. Having one’s work macbook unlock automatically as one prepares to put one’s hands on the keyboard, with a sweet little unlock sound emitting from one’s watch, is much more fun than I had expected.
  2. One was looking forward to using third party running apps on the watch, such as iSmoothRun which does real-time reporting of cadence, which can be shown together with a number of other stats on a number of configurable screens a la Garmin . One has had to cancel these plans, because Vitality, the shadowy organisation responsible for the FOR FREE(ish) nature of the watch, only recognises runs submitted by the built-in Workouts app.
    • The September watchOS update will include runtime (haha) cadence, which is great. However, some technical system for the support of third party apps would have been even better. I’ll live.
    • Runs logged with the built-in Workouts app can be easily and automatically submitted to other platforms, such as Strava, where many of my running peeps hang out, and even to one’s own Dropbox in FIT format, with the HealthFit iOS app, a very reasonable once-off purchase.

DeepLearning Inside(tm)

On Friday, we shipped a new version of the most important work project I am currently involved in.

Again I feel that two points are worth mentioning:

  1. We now also have deep learning, albeit a humble example, out in actual production. I was starting to feel a little left out. Anonymous shout-out (because top secret) to the team members who made this happen!
  2. They say one should never deploy or ship on Friday. Because I come from the I-won’t-do-what-you-tell-me generation, I cut the final release on Friday evening after the traditional weekend-starter braai.
    • To be honest, this was only necessary because I had promised our client that we would release, and it was only possible because we have a fairly good test-suite, with end-to-end being most crucial in this specific scenario, and a checklist-style release procedure.

SoBSoDSiT-CIPWOB-FBA

As part of my chaotic but ever-evolving constellation of systems for maintaining work focus, I have renamed the shorter focus blocks approach to the short-but-specially-defined-so-that-completion-is-possible-within-one-block focus blocks approach (SBSDSTCIPWOB-FBA).

This adds the incentive of a small but probable shot of dopamine at the end of the focus block, and sometimes even leads to its unwitting extension by the woefully undersized (not to mention super lazy) rider sometimes sitting atop my mental elephant.

It sometimes feels like I’m slowly reinventing GTD.

(This blog post is an emotional roller coaster ride for me. This is the first time I’m feeling something.)

I used to be a fan of GTD when I still believed that my function in life was to answer emails really quickly, and master multi-tasking.

Since then however, I’ve slowly had to come to the realisation that, at least in my case, the amount of email processed is more or less exactly inversely correlated to the actual value that I produce.

The impotence of proof-reading

The following poetry reading made various subsets of my neurons fire in extremely pleasant ways.

I hope that you experience similar effects. See you next time!