Weekly Head Voices #116: Nothing much to see here, please move on.

This WHV is all about the weeks from Monday January 30 to Sunday February 12, 2017. I’ve mostly been in heads-down mode on two projects, so this post will be shorter than is usually the case.

I had my very first beer after the 30-day long Experiment Alcohol Zero (EAZ) on Friday, February 3. It was a good one:

EAZ has taught me that it would not be the worst idea to limit alcohol consumption slightly more.

As with many other enjoyable things, there is a price to be paid for this enjoyment. If paying that price interferes with the other enjoyable habits in your collection, it makes sense to evaluate and adjust the balance.

That reminds me of one of my favourite electronic music productions of all time: Balance 014 by Joris Voorn. He blew everyone’s minds when he decided to paint these fantastic soundscapes by mixing together more than 100 tracks, often 5 or 6 at a time.

Right at this point, just after that not-quite non sequitur, I wrote a far too long section on the relative performance of Android and iPhone, with a big “nerd content ahead” warning on it. Fortunately for you, I came to my senses before publishing and copied it out into its own little blog post: Android vs iPhone performance: A quick note.

Last weekend I dusted off my trusty old mu4e, an unbelievably attractive email client, again. This means I’m reading your mail and sending you beautifully UNformatted plain text emails right from my Emacs. As an additional bonus, I put all of the boring details about my configuration into a completely separate blog post, which you don’t have to read, titled: mu4e 0.9.18: E-Mailing with Emacs now even better.

What I will mention here and not in the other post, is that the current situation is subtly different from my previous adventure with mu4e: Where I previously synchronised all 60 thousand emails to process locally with mu4e, I am now following a more mellowed approach where I’m only synchronising the current year (and perhaps the previous year, still considering) of email. I use the fastmail web-app for searching through longer term storage.

I’m happy to report that so far it’s working out even better than the previous time. I really enjoy converting HTML emails (that’s what everyone sends, thanks GMail!) to well-behaved plain text when I reply.

Finally, after the Nth time that someone shared a clearly bogus science news post on Facebook, instantly bringing my blood to the boil, I decided to write a handy guide titled: Critical Thinking 101: Three super easy steps to spot poppycock on the internet.

This guide is 100% free, and really easy to send to your friends when you think this is necessary. Please let me know if you have any suggestions for improvement.

Ok kids, that’s it from me for now. I wish you a great week ahead. In the words of Yo-Play: Come on Mitch, don’t give up. Please try again.

Weekly Head Voices #115: So much Dutch.

Monday January 16 to Sunday January 29 of the year 2017 yielded the following possibly mention-worthy tidbits:

On Saturday, January 21, we had the privilege of seeing Herman van Veen perform live at the Oude Libertas Theatre. The previous time was a magical night many years ago in the Royal Theatre Carré in Amsterdam.

Herman van Veen is a living, extremely active and up to date legend. To most Dutch people you’ll ever meet he is a formidable part of their rich cultural landscape.

That evening, we heard so much Dutch spoken in the audience around us, it was easy to imagine that we had been teleported to a strange midsummer night’s performance, all the way back in The Netherlands.

Whatever the case may be, at 72 this artist and superb human being seems to have energy and magic flowing from every limb.

Things which running nerds might find interesting

The Dutch Watch

I had to start facing facts.

The Samsung Gear Fit 2 and I were not going to make a success of our relationship. The GF2 (haha) is great if you’re looking for a hybrid smart-fitness-watch. However, I was using it primarily for running, and then one tends to run (I’m on a roll here) into its limitations.

My inner engineer, the same guy who has a thing for hiking shoes, as they are the couture epitome of function over form, made the call and selected the TomTom Runner 3 Cardio+Music watch (the Runner 3 and the Spark 3 are identical except for styling) to replace my GF2.

Hidden in the name, there’s a subtle hint as to the focus of this wearable.

It has a less pretty monochrome display that manages to be highly visible even in direct sunlight. It does not have a touch screen, instead opting for a less pretty directional control beneath the screen that always manages to select the correct menu option. The menu options remind me of the first TomTom car navigation we bought years ago: Not pretty, but with exactly the right functions, in this case for runs and hikes.

Most importantly, the watch has an explicit function for syncing so-called QuickGPSFix data, so that when you want to start running, it is able to acquire a GPS lock almost immediately. Importantly, the device keeps you informed of its progress via the ugly user interface.

Also, I am now able to pre-load GPX routes. Below you can see me navigating my local mountain like a pro with a sense of direction, when in reality I am an amateur with pathological absence of sense of direction:

That’s me in the corner, losing my Re-Samsung.

Anyways, after being initially quite happy with the GF2, I am now more careful with my first judgement of the Runner 3. What I can say is that the first 40km with it on my arm has been a delight of function-over-form.

P.S. Well done Dutchies. The optical heart rate sensor in the previous Spark was based on technology by South African company LifeQ. I have not been able to find a good reference for the situation in the Spark 3 / Runner 3.

Experiment Alcohol Zero early results: Not what  I was hoping

The completely subjective Experiment Alcohol Zero (EAZ) I announced in my 2016 to 2017 transition post has almost run (err… too soon?) to completion.

November of 2016 was my best running month of that year: I clocked in at 80km.

EAZ started on January 4 and will conclude probably on Friday February 3.

Although I was a much more boring person in January of 2017, I did manage to run 110 km. The runs were all longer and substantially faster than my best runs of 2016.

Subjectively, there was just always energy (and the will) available to go running, and subjectively there was more energy available during the runs. This is probably for a large part due to the vicious upward spiral of better glucose processing, better sleep, hence better exercise, rinse, repeat.

I am planning to use some of this extra energy to sweep these results right under the proverbial carpet in order to try and limit the suffering that it might lead to.

(Seriously speaking, I will have to apply these findings to my pre-EAZ habits in a reasonable fashion. :)

Things which Linux nerds might find interesting

My whole web-empire, including this blog, my serious nerd business blog, and a number of websites I host for friends and family, has been migrated by the wonderful webfaction support to a new much faster shared server in London.

The new server sports 32 Intel Xeon cores, is SSD based and has a newer Linux distribution, so I was able to move over all of my wordpress instances to PHP 7.

Upshot: This blog might feel microscopically quicker! (I am a bit worried with my empire now being stuck in the heart of Article 50. I worry slightly more about a great deal of my data that lives on servers in the USA however. Probably more about that in a future post.)

On the topic of going around the bend, I now have emacs running on my phone, and I’m able to access all of my orgmode notes from there. It looks like this:

One might now ask a pertinent question like: “So Charl, how often do you make use of this wonderful functionality?”

To which I would currently have to answer: “Including showing the screenshot on my blog? Once.”

I’m convinced that it’s going to come in handy at some point.

Things which backyard philosophy nerds might find interesting

With what’s happening in the US at the moment, which is actually just one nasty infestation of the political climate around the globe, I really appreciate coming across more positive messages with advice on how we can move forward as a human race in spite of the efforts of the (libertarian) right.

The World Economic Forum’s Inclusive Growth and Development Report 2017 is one such message. As summarised in this WEF blog post, it tries to answer the question:

How can we increase not just GDP but the extent to which this top-line performance of a country cascades down to benefit society as a whole?

In other words, they present approaches for making our economies more inclusive, thus helping to mitigate the huge gap between rich and poor.

According to the report, the answer entails that national and international economic policies should focus primarily on people and living standards. In order to do this, each country will have to work on a different mix of education, infrastructure, ethics, investment, entrepreneurship and social protection.

The countries that are currently doing the best in terms of having inclusive economies, and are generally shining examples of socialism working extremely well thank you very much, are Norway, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Austria. See the blog post for the specific different factors helping each of these countries to perform so well on the Inclusive Development Index (IDI).

Although the countries in the top 10 list all still have room for improvement, it’s great to see that it is actually quite a great idea to combine socialism (which is actually just another word for being further along the human development dimension) with economic survival and even success in today’s world.

(I am still hopeful that one day Gene Roddenberry’s dream of the United Federation of Planets will be realised.



Note-taking strategy early 2016

I’m probably what one might call an obsessive note-taker.

I’ve talked in the past about the importance of keeping a lab journal. Initially I produced a stack of books filled with hand-scribbled notes. Although this is my favourite authoring modality, the fact that such notes can’t be easily indexed and queried (maybe one day?!) soon leads one to try electronic solutions. Over the years I’ve experimented with a number of different tools (see under “Nerd News”) to do this.

This post summarises my current selection of tools.

For making notes with a visual aspect, for example photos of beers that I’ve tasted, and sometimes screenshots of websites, I use Google Keep. This has a really great Android app with which you can easily save a website, including screenshot, using the Android “share with” functionality. On the desktop, this has a web-app that looks like this:


One of the neat features of Keep is that you can easily have it extract and OCR text from images, for example if you’ve taken a photo of a business card. Unfortunately, the web-app is quite sluggish (this could be because I live in a bandwidth-constrained world here at the southern tip of Africa), and there’s no web clipper with which I can easily save web pages whilst on the desktop. Furthermore, I find the layout to be quite chaotic, and therefore I treat it more like my similarly chaotic digital cork board.

After a two year hiatus, I’ve returned to the SimpleNote universe as my core mobile and desktop note-taking tool. They have great apps on IOS, Android, Mac and Web. I use the super sleek, some might say austere, SimpleNote Android app (recently rewritten when Automattic, makers of WordPress, bought Simperium, makers of SimpleNote) and on the desktop I mostly use nvpy, my open source SimpleNote client. The latest greatest version (0.10.0, soon to be released) looks like this:


Because SimpleNote is text-only, and it’s a fully synced offline-capable tool, it’s nice and fast. This is the tool you want to use to store those small but useful factoids, quotes and code snippets.

For more in-depth and technical lab journals, I use GNU Emacs with Org mode. This enables me to write documents with beautifully typeset math, syntax-highlighted and in some cases even live-evaluated code blocks, and good document structure, all in plain text. Here’s a sample of my November 2015 lab journal where I started reading about and experimenting with a bit of D language:


Parts of these journals can be sent directly to your WordPress blog from within Emacs, and you can generate high quality PDFs at the press of a typical simple 12 key Emacs shortcut combo. This being Emacs, the experience can be easily customised to emulate SimpleNote in terms of interactivity, but this will not easily compete with SimpleNote proper in terms of transparent syncing between all devices and in terms of accessibility on mobile.

Using these three tools together currently takes good care of my note-taking requirements. However, I think that there might be room for a fourth type of tool that is more visual, supports rich and graphical linking between data items and even between sub-components of such items and, perhaps most importantly, enables us to build note landscapes that are natively as non-linear as our thoughts.

Weekly Head Voices #96: Never gonna give you up.

The week has resulted in a terribly nerdy list of bullets. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK! (there’s a beer recommendation or three at the end to compensate)

  • It turns out that the terrible Samsung trim bug which would eat all of your data, as discovered by Algolia, was a Linux kernel bug after all (now patched by Samsung) and that it would only affect RAID setups. Let’s hope there are no surprising new turning outs.
  • Found out that the fastest ADSL lines available at my new place are a whole 2 Mbit/s. We’ve called off the transaction and we’re now searching for a new house.
  • I’m joking. It was really shocking however to consider the world as seen through a 2 Mbit/s connection. Now it seems that I will soon be entering the wonderful world of 5 GHz wireless connectivity, which should give me a fast enough connection, at least until fibre is rolled out in the year 3047.
  • Started watching Mr Robot. I don’t normally do series, but the pilot was just that good. I like the story, I really like the socially very strangely adjusted hacker protagonist and I love the cinematography. Up to episode 3, I give it 4 out of 5 Linux Distributions!
  • Continued fighting with OSX to get it completely working with my Dvorak and Emacs keybindings, also in Java apps such as IntelliJ IDEA. Two weeks ago I mentioned karabiner as a solution to most of these problems. The final piece of the puzzle was unbinding keys like Alt+W (or Mod+W as Apple calls it) in ~/Library/KeyBindings/DefaultKeyBinding.dict to prevent OSX from turning it into a \(\Sigma\) (sigma); as everyone knows, M-w is the Emacs shortcut for copying the selected region! You can use this trick to prevent OSX from turning any of the other Mod combos into completely unwanted special characters. (My base dict file is that of Jacob Rus.)
  • I guess OSX only Just Works(tm) if your time is worth nothing. Err…
  • My first Kivy pull request, a fix for a Mac-bug (go figure), was recently merged into master. I’ve been using Kivy in the third or fourth generation of my current and probably longest running side project.
  • I’ve also been screencasting some of my night-time coding sessions using one of the more prominent livecoding sites (bonus points if you can find these sleep-inducing performances). It has been an interesting and strange experience programming with people watching over one’s shoulder as it were.
  • On Sunday, I ended up at the Root44 Market in Stellenbosch for another of those really terrible balmy winter days. I had so much fun in the sun, tasting Devil’s Peak First Light Golden Ale and their King’s Blockhouse IPA, and Stellenbrau’s Craven Lager, all from the tap, that I forgot to take a photo of the beautiful surroundings.

Have a beautiful week dear readers! Just remember, I’m never gonna give you up.

Weekly Head Voices #89: Xanthohumol.

I found myself in Stellenbosch this weekend, so I drove by my old student house. Fifteen odd years ago, the house used to go by the name The Far Side. It was usually inhabited by five fairly attractive yet dangerously intelligent male engineering students, who were, quite unexpectedly, also extremely modest. (In those days, prepending “male” to “engineering student” was mostly redundant.)

Well, it seems The Far Side has gone through a little transformation of its own:

Yes, there are little hearts hanging everywhere, and the little hearts have, probably in some kind of fractal frenzy, been arranged to form even larger hearts. In my mind, The Far Side was still exactly as we had left it, except with a new bunch of unexpectedly modest engineering students, thinking, saying and doing things almost like we used to, except for the occasional interjection of ideas that did not yet exist in our time, like “wifi”, “tablet” and “smartphone”.

Initial pattern-matching-driven expectations and consequent surprise aside, this was a physical reminder that even mundane matters can change quite significantly given sufficient time. This is a good thing, although the whole fractal cardiac decoration aspect was perhaps not completely called-for.

On the nerd front:

  • I wrote a vxlabs blog post on sending pretty emails with math and syntax highlighted source code, of course using emacs, org-mode and mu4e.
  • After some emacs-lisp tracing through mu4e and gnus, I finally discovered how to activate format=flowed in the default text/plain emails sent with mu4e, thus enabling reflowing of hard-wrapped emails on receiving (mobile) clients that support this. It occurred to me that the group of nerds affected by this particular behaviour in this particular software setup is extremely small. Read all about it in my github issue report on the matter.
  • I wrote an osssa blog post on the opening of the new Cape Town Open Data Portal (fantastic!) using non-open Microsoft file format standards (not so great).

Blog reader MrK sent me this sciencedaily article with the great news that there is a small but real chance that beer might protect us from neurodegenerative diseases. In lab tests it was found that xanthohumol, a compound found in hops, could potentially protect brain cells against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Of course we should be very careful jumping to conclusions based on these types of experiments performed on isolated compounds under lab conditions.

That being said, I do think that careful optimism whilst enjoying beer might be justified. As we all know, the more beer one drinks, the more intelligent one becomes, at least up to a certain optimum:


It seems there’s even a shadowy but very powerful organization built upon this exact principle. They are called The Inebriati:

Thanks for reading this. I hope that you have a great week, and I hope to see you again soon.