Time-traveling Danube Dubstep in my BBQ [Weekly Head Voices #58]

The title is pretty close to pure gobbledygook, but that’s what you get when the foundations of physics seem to have been rattled every so slightly. Let’s first take a gander at this gentleman, pointed out to me by TNR, as he rattles the foundations of absolutely insane facial expressions. He really gets going at about 23 seconds into the video:

The insane asylum soundtrack accompanying this artwork belongs to the music genre called Dubstep, music that is notoriously hard to dance well to. However, the following gentleman seems to have mastered the art just perfectly (if you’re really pressed for time, start watching at 1:13):

At this junction, as they say, you might be wondering why I’m showing you dubstep videos. Well, I have only the following to offer: Alliteration!

You see, this week I flew to Vienna (unfortunately not under my own power yet) for a meeting with some old and some new friends (Graz, my man in Vienna, Rostock, Bergen, Delft) to set up a new EU research project. It’s just grand when you sit around the table discussing the ins and outs of a research project and realise that the convenors have managed to put together a perfect team in terms of skill set but more importantly also in terms of social interaction. Cross your fingers that the thing gets granted, then I’ll be able to tell you more.

On the topic of flying, you will not have missed that CERN LHC scientists measured an ever-so-small discrepancy in the arrival time of neutrinos travelling over 732 km through the Earth (I wish I could do that) to Gran Sasso.  The neutrinos seemed to have arrived 60.7 nanoseconds earlier than they should have, had they been traveling at the speed of light.


The scientists really did their best to explain that the devastating impact of this result, were it to be true, necessitates further study to find for example hitherto unknown systematic errors that could be the cause. The media of course had great difficulty not sensationalising the whole business. Personally, my money is naturally not on faster than light travel. Whatever the case may be, this world event has resulted in the prerequisite physics jokes. My favourite is this one, via @flyosity on twitter:

“We don’t allow faster than light neutrinos in here”, said the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.

On the topic of world events, Saturday September 24 was the South African national Braai Day. BRAAI DAY PEOPLE! As is the duty and pleasure of every red-blooded Saff Efrican I fired up my BBQ on Saturday. On Sunday, I did so again, this time with some of them lovely rib-eye steaks (yes, after years of practice I make a perfect medium-rare pink-in-the-middle steak on the barbie) and, even more importantly, joined by a full complement of my super-social neighbours. Perfect weather, scorched animal parts, zillions of kids running around (not scorched), beer and friends: Life is exceptionally good.

For this week’s backyard philosophy, I wanted to bring under your attention Steven Pinker’s new book, to be released on October 4 and titled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has DeclinedPinker is a well-known experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author with a penchant for evolutionary psychology. In this book, Pinker argues that we humans currently find ourselves  in the most peaceful time of our species’ existence. Looking back through history, it becomes apparent that we’ve been becoming persistently less violent over the past hundreds of years. I find that an absolutely marvelous observation!

Let me conclude with suitable Pinker quote, found on this Pharyngula post (emphasis mine):

I think the final and perhaps the most profound pacifying force is an “escalator of reason.” As literacy, education, and the intensity of public discourse increase, people are encouraged to think more abstractly and more universally, and that will inevitably push in the direction of a reduction of violence. People will be tempted to rise above their parochial vantage point, making it harder to privilege their own interests over others. Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules. And it encourages people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, and to see violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.

Coffee addiction potpourri. [Weekly Head Voices #57]

Yes boys and girls, I was keeping back writing that Rebecca Black post, but now it’s 4 days later and I can let ‘er rip again, like I promised. This week’s post sort of reflects my week 37: Chock-full of super-dense life nuggets. Hmmm, sounds like a brilliant new high energy meta-physical chocolate bar that would probably be immediately declared illegal by the current conservative and non-thinking (excuse the tautology) batch of spineless politicians (excuse the tautology).

Let’s get today’s life lessons started with Mitch Hedberg, Comic Genius (note the captital C, and the capital G):

Hedberg’s genius unfortunately could not save him from drug addiction and his overdose-related death in 2005.

On the topic of addiction, fpixel forwarded these new findings that coffee drinking is genetic, both in terms of capacity and perhaps also in terms of addiction. Even my atoms are addicted to coffee, so that feels about right. What’s really interesting however, is that the documented study found that the genes involved in the metabolism of coffee (CYPIA1 and NRCAM, if I understand correctly) are also related to the onset of Parkinson’s disease. You see, coffee drinkers are less prone to Parkinson’s disease (as well as a whole list of other diseases including prostate cancer, type 2 diabetes and liver cancer). However, past studies of course show correlation and not causation, i.e. coffee drinking and low risk of disease X appear together, but that does not tell us anything about what causes what. This new study has made the first steps towards understanding the mechanism that actually links Parkinson’s disease and coffee drinking.

On the topic of coffee and addiction, TNR and I spent the Monday morning working (like animals) on our new parallel startup (there, I said it) at the Coffee Company in Delft. Two things:

  1. The Coffee Company makes a killer cappuccino. The milk is steamed to perfection, but it’s got the perfect espresso bomb exploding through all that milky goodness at just the right moment. BAM! HELLO THERE! Highly recommended. With every purchase, you get WiFi access for one hour, so no surprises or misunderstandings.
  2. It’s amazing what such a change of working environment does for one’s creativity.

On the topic of startups, Dr Jorik Blaas, ex PhDer, full-time genius and friend, is now the director of research and development at Synerscope (probably no relation with sinister, but my subconscious is just not behaving today), a high-potential startup that makes visualisation-based tools for fraud detection in big data (big money, IOW). Synerscope has brought together some of the top visualisation brains in the country. Personally, I can’t help but imagine it like this:

Are you in there somewhere?

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we made a quick train trip (*cough* 9 hours there due to delay thank you NS, 7+ hours back) to Magdeburg for the bi-annual German MedVis meeting. You’ll recall that I spent my first micro-sabbatical there. The city almost feels like home, and it was really great seeing many of the Magdeburg peeps again. The meeting itself was of high quality, with a number of VisWeek contributions being presented. Thomas Kroes (should I start using fictitious names and acronyms again?) presented his interactive photo-realistic volume renderer too! By the way, download it, use it (it makes fantastically beautiful renderings), spread it, and do cite the soon-to-appear article.

On Saturday, it rained (again, or still, I forget), so I decided to flip Mother Nature the bird by BBQing four juicy rib-eye steaks outside. Take that Mother Nature! The steaks were delicious, thank you. Mother Nature is not all bad though… Check this out: The Southern Lights. FROM SPACE!

Aurora Australis (thanks Bart!) FROM SPACE, taken by Ron Garan. Click on the photo to go to the original.

I’m going to wind down this post with two backyard philosophy-themed bits. The first is a quote by mathematician Alfred North Whitehead from this article on “The Skill that Matters Most” (found via Joe Botha, serial entrepreneur, currently changing the world with Trust Fabric):

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

I haven’t thought about it that way before, but it does make complete sense. The more things we humans do well in a routine fashion, the better.  Otherwise, our inconsistency is prone to lead to problems. By the way, the mentioned skill is self-control.

Finally, AJ forwarded this video called Disconnect to Connect. I’ll just let you watch and think about it for a while:

I’ll be off now. Please do have an epic week, and think of me when your level of enjoyment is at a local maximum. At these points, you might also consider jumping around randomly.

Have a cow, man! [weekly head voices #45]

Week 14 was awesome, thank you very much for asking! There are many reasons for this. The photo below is a memento of one of them, and was taken from my bicycle on Sunday, at that moment gliding gracefully through Schipluiden, genetic offspring #1 chattering away from the back:

Photo taken with telephone, loosely held in one hand, finger curling around to try and touch the little iris thingy on the touch screen, other fingers attempting to prevent said telephone from accelerating towards and coming to a sudden stop on planet earth. Don't you get any silly ideas now: The fact that my telephone has a touch screen does not mean that it has no keyboard. pffft!

The weather was gorgeous, enabling me to fulfil another of my life goals: A weekend BBQ hat trick. Yes dear readers, on three distinct occasions did I have the exquisite privilege of firing up my magical BBQ, bending time and space in the process, and as a by-product producing scorched but delectably edible animal flesh. After this singular achievement, I’m confident my motherland will now allow me to keep my green mamba (that’s insider speak for the South African passport).

In other news:

  • On Tuesday, I tweeted concerning my discontent with GMail Tasks (hey, I just blogged about a tweet), and especially the fact that it’s not even able to sort tasks alphabetically. My GTD-fu has been taking a seriously heavy beating due to me ditching Tracks for the far inferior GMail Tasks (I’m still not sure why I did so). The resourceful @_Noeska_ tweeted back (tweplied? twanswered?) that Remember The Milk could be the answer to my, err, tweets, one of its major features being having a cow as favicon. Now as you know, I like cows, especially scorched ones, so I was quickly convinced. Now I must have been operating my PC Computer blind-folded when I last evaluated RTM (that’s what Remember The Milk  people sometimes call it) in 2008 (I still found some old test tasks in my account), because this really is the bees knees, especially when the bee in question is into GTD. The webapp is extremely snappy, it even reminds me of my deadlined tasks via email, it has discrete projects, smart adding of tasks, LOTS of keyboard shortcuts, smart searches (those are brilliant!) and a cow as favicon, which I might have mentioned before.
  • Taking a step back from all of this, now that I have my GTD system fully operational again, I notice that due to it I’m spending more time on little things which probably do need to get done, but which my inferior accounting conveniently let slip during the previous few months, allowing even more time for the really important things. I plan to address this by explicitly allocating more time daily to the important things. The lab journal / planning document is instrumental in this.
  • There’s a stunning article by Jason Fried of 37signals in this month’s issue of Inc magazine on why he runs a flat company. He makes a good case for running a company with as little as possible hierarchy, i.e. no management for the sake of management. Their focus is on skill and craftmanship, and a form of democratic self-management. The person in a team that’s the best at some thing, becomes the organic leader in situations where that thing is most relevant. You should really read the article, I’ll whet your appetite with the following quote:

We’re not big fans of what I consider “vertical” ambition—that is, the usual career-path trajectory, in which a newbie moves up the ladder from associate to manager to vice president over a number of years of service. On the other hand, we revere “horizontal” ambition—in which employees who love what they do are encouraged to dig deeper, expand their knowledge, and become better at it. We always try to hire people who yearn to be master craftspeople, that is, designers who want to be great designers, not managers of designers; developers who want to master the art of programming, not management.

That’s almost it for this week’s edition of the Weekly Head Voices. Thanks for stopping by, I hope you have an awesome week! To help you get started, here is an animated movie of Tim Minchin’s beat poem Storm. If you’re into crystals, pyramids, palm reading, spirits or any other form of irrational self-delusion, you might want to avert your eyes. Otherwise, enjoy:

P.S. Rational self-delusion is of course an entirely different kettle of fish.

Weekly Head Voices #19: The time-traveller’s BBQ.

This one is dedicated to the memory of DB.

In this slightly introspective 19th edition of the Weekly Head Voices, looking in all directions in time simultaneously, but slightly ever so slightly more in the direction of week 12 of 2010, I do the usual week time break-down, win a fight with my ISP, go all out on Dropbox and Chrome, and smash through my yearly internet shopping quota, before arriving at the more extensive than usual backyard philosophy section, which today will dwell on the very much related themes of time-travel, perspective, stress and BBQs.

My time machine. Fuel on the left.

During the past week, I checked off 22 GTD tasks, spread over 10 projects.  Besides these, I had the usual 2 hours of lecture preparation, 3 hours of lecturing and 17 hours of scheduled meetings, including an absolute power networking event where I definitely was the smallest fish in the bowl (lovely that!).

If you are not of the nerdy persuasion, you might just want to skip the next few paragraphs until the bit with the backyard philosophy warning.

On the nerd front, I had a bit of a fight with my internet provider as to the stability of my line. They were full of confidence that my line needed to be throttled to 4 Mbit/s to be stable, I had a suspicion that I could get it stable at a significantly higher rate. Guess who’s the daddy? ME OF COURSE. My line is stable at 5.54 Mbit/s (I’m about 3.2 km from the exchange). I now know far more about ADSL line black magic than I ever wanted to.  Bottom line in this case is that, in cases where your line only manages between 4 and 6 Mbit/s, ADSL1 can be much more stable than ADSL2.

Further on the nerd front, my month-long evaluation of Dropbox has culminated in me signing on for a further year with a pro 50G account.  It’s just that good… Even furtherer, lastpass.com has solved my last gripe with Google Chrome, namely that its stored password database is not encrypted. As part of the bargain, my passwords are now synchronized with the Cloud! Coupled with Chrome absolutely crushing most other browsers in speed tests, and the fact that up to now it has proven extremely hard to hack, this has pushed me over the edge, into the Wonderful Land of Full-time Dedicated Google Chrome Addicts.

Warning: Excessive Backyard Philosophy Beyond This Point

On Wednesday I arrived home, all stressed out about work. Yes dear readers, some academics, like me for instance, sometimes stress out about work. Somehow, I was born without the ability to separate work from personal life. Mostly, this is an advantage: I really love my job. It’s become more a way-of-life, a philosophy if you will, than just a job. However, sometimes this means that I have great difficulty switching off my work circuits when this is necessary, for example when work finds itself in High Stress Mode (HSM) and I need to be in Relaxed Family-Person Mode (RFPM). At the end of such a work day, my body is displaced from work to home, but the contents of my head remain exactly the same. In effect, I travel through space, but not time.

Back to Wednesday: Fortunately, fate conspired to arrange for me and my BBQ to meet, under a lovely early Spring sky. My BBQ is more than just a BBQ. I have recently come to the conclusion that it is a powerful magical artifact that is able to bend time (and space). Standing there admiring the glowing coals, everything came to a peaceful stand-still. Probably due to the severe time-warping slowing down the world, I could see the whole multi-dimensional life-landscape surrounding me in its true perspective.

It’s not all that.

Work is really important, and if that’s your passion, it should remain so.  It’s definitely mine. However, there’s more, and much of the more is even more important. I’ve made  this observation often enough before, but it’s one of those things that is apparent to my cognitive self, but somehow doesn’t have a permanent effect on my natural perception. Briefly on Wednesday evening, this realisation was clear. By Thursday the feeling was starting to disappear again.


Today I received the terribly sad news that a colleague, with whom I’d been working closely together for the past months, had unexpectedly passed away on Sunday, leaving behind a young family.

One has to learn how to keep things in perspective. Life is too short not to.