Weekly Head Voices #70: Patterns in the sand.

(I just deliberately deleted the draft I was working on. It was not the best pattern.)

I want you to read this quote by Richard Dawkins, taken from the God Delusion:

Think of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all you really were there at the time, weren’t you?

How else could you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place …. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that does not make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.

Do read it again. It’s a pretty mind-expanding realization.

However, reality is perhaps even more mind-bending than you might already think. I looked up the original work on this phenomenon by Aebersold, published in the 1953 Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution. On page 232 he wrote (emphasis mine):

But radioisotope studies have called our attention to much more  amazing facts on the day-to-day operation of our bodies. Medical men used to think of the human body as an engine that takes in food, air, and water mainly as fuel to keep running on. Only a small part  of the intake was thought to go for replacement of engine wear. Investigations with isotopes have demonstrated that the body instead is much more like a very fluid military regiment which may retain its size, form, and composition even though the individuals in it are continually changing: joining up, being transferred from post to post, promoted, or demoted; acting as reserves; and finally departing after varying lengths of service.

Tracer studies show that the atomic turnover in our bodies is quite rapid and quite complete. For example, in a week or two half of the sodium atoms that are now in our bodies will be replaced by other sodium atoms. The case is similar for hydrogen and phosphorus. Even half of the carbon atoms will be replaced in a month or two. And so the story goes for nearly all the elements. Indeed, it has been shown that in a year approximately 98 percent of the atoms in us now will be replaced by other atoms that we take in in our air, food, and drink.

Yes, you read that correctly. In a single year, 98% of your whole physical manifestation, your body, is completely replaced by other atoms.

This observation has led me to think differently about myself, and about you. I indeed used to think that we were a solid body of somehow consistent matter moving through life, constructed from millions of grains of sand somehow sticking together.

Now I see us all as nothing more than the continuously changing patterns that form briefly in the grains of sand of the universe. Winds blow grains of sand around, now taking part in one pattern and then in another. At some point, your body has contained parts of your best friend, and of your worst enemy. The patterns change continually; sometimes they fade away, and sometimes new patterns emerge. All of them are dependent on the same grains of sand.

Please update your email and RSS subscriptions (cpbotha.net)

Dear readers,

I will soon be starting a new life adventure. In fact, maybe even two of them. Hence, there is a significant probability that this weblog will again be updated more frequently in 2013.

Also, I have just changed the email and RSS subscription system:

  • If you were subscribed via email, please subscribe anew via the subscribe button to the right. If you still receive emails from feedburner concerning this blog, please unsubscribe using the instructions in those emails. The idea is to stop using the feedburner email subscription (which was active for the past few years) and to start using wordpress.com for this (the new system).
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I hope that you have a fabulous vacation, and a happy and healthy 2013! I look forward to seeing you then.

The 2009 to 2010 transition post.

Holiday feeling.

Yes, that up there is my foot. Next to my beer. On my balcony. Overlooking my ocean and my clouds…

It was a ridiculously lovely holiday, with the only drawback that I wasn’t able to take more people along on it. Fear not, soon my Master Plan will come to fruition, in which my significant other will become famously rich and I’ll be able to charter a Family and Friends Boeing (or an Airbus, depending on the rules that govern such things at that time), and you’ll all be able to tag along on my Ridiculously Lovely holiday. Fear not, for I will not forget you.

2010 is now upon us. This year, I plan to create value, in as many ways as I can. I have resolved to meditate more often. I have also resolved to spend more time on meaningful communication with friends and other appreciated humans. May you have exactly the year that you desire, or the one that you need.

Starting today: Head voices, every week!

(Badly) inspired by some dude’s weekly I’m-finishing-my-PhD-blog, sent to me by the infamous francoism, I have decided that you, dear reader(s) (hey mom!), have the right to be exposed more regularly to the voices in my head.  So, in order to supplement my recent posting frequency of once per month (my global frequency seems to be higher: 349 posts over 98 months in total), I’m going to post every single week with an exceptionally entertaining summary of the week’s highlights.  I do reserve the right to slip up now and then, or to stop completely when I feel like it. :)  You then have the right to taunt me in the comments of this, or the latest post at that time.

So, with that off my chest, I can start with the highlights of this grand week, number 35 of the year 2009.

As many weeks do, this one started with Monday. However, this particular Monday was quite special.  On that very day, we (I have really really terribly fantastic friends, family almost) were having an extremely relaxed yet already nostalgic morning, getting ready to leave the Lowlands 2009 festival grounds, after 3 days of Exceptionally Excellent Times.  Because we have an Exceptionally Strict Rule called “What Happens At Lowlands, Stays At Lowlands”, I can unfortunately not tell you much more than that.  While contemplating The Rule,  you could do worse than watch the YouTube clip below of Whitest  Boy Alive performing 1517, but why would you?:

Apart from my post-festival illness (hey, what do you expect after 3 days of Extremely Little Sleep and Far Too Much Excitement?), the rest of the week consisted of a number of research / technical meetings (these ones are nice, really) with research collaborators, and I took part as external member in the M.Sc. thesis opposition of a student who evaluated the perceived quality of several electron microscopy post-processing filters.  It raised an interesting discussion on perceived quality (of experts) vs. task performance.

Other than that, I’ve rediscovered Mendeley.  I wasn’t that impressed the previous time, but the current software version 0.9.2.1 has been greatly improved.  The free software runs on Linux, Mac and Windows, and is a kind of beefed up reference manager.  Simply drag and drop an article PDF on it, and all metadata is extracted and inserted into your database.  There’s a bookmarklet that can also slurp information from a large number of citation sites.  You get to synchronise all your references with the Mendeley mothership (website), and you can even synchronise up to 500MB in article PDFs. You can also add other academics as your friends, harr harr.

What I like most about the software, is the ease with which I can now add new references, and also the fantastic built-in PDF reader, which which I can easily annotate PDFs.  What I don’t like, is that it doesn’t yet offer a way for me to use it on multiple machines where I already have synchronised PDF directories.  For now I’m using it to synchronise a subset of my PDF articles (only collections that I’m currently working on) as that still fits in 500MB, but I’d really like to be able to use it across different machines with my own pre-synched directories.  I did add a suggestion concerning this to their feedback thingy.

I’m going to be using it as my main reference manager for a while (I’ve been using JabRef up to now), primarily because it has 90% of what I need in one system.  If you have a Mendeley account, link up with my profile man!

Academic research

That’s it for now boys and girls.  I hope you enjoyed the first weekly head voices, and I hope you have a fabulous week! I’ll see you at its other end harr harr!

What I did this, err, summer

Taking a hint from Joe, aka Swimgeek, here’s a summary of my life since the previous time we spoke:

  • The VCBM 2008 workshop, my first attempt at playing the organising conference chair, went swimmingly.  Two days of solid presentations, a lovely dinner at Van der Dussen (no Ronald McDonald in sight!) and meeting up with many old friends.  I stopped stressing during the conference dinner.
  • I joined the ranks of the intelligentsia (As opposed to the millions of plebs with iPhones – oh stop whining and look at the stats.  Can’t find the stats?  Go figure out how to copy and paste, then get back to me. :) ) and acquired a Nokia E71.  Best. Gadget. EVAR.
  • Had a fan-tas-tic holiday in South Africa.  Had profound conversations and the most raucous get-togethers with best friends and family.  Realised again how extremely lucky I am with people I’m this close with, on two different continents.  Linked up with my dad for the first time in too many years, which was cool.
  • Migrated my extremely complex todo system (I’m a foaming-at-the-mouth GTD follower) from todoist to a local installation of the open-source RoR-based Tracks software.  Todoist is really cool, but it’s very much deadline-oriented, whilst in the GTD world deadlines are just so passé.  DAMN I’m with it.
  • My laptop was sort of stolen and then returned 5 minutes later.  Besides the acute trauma that this caused, it got me wondering about the security of the Windows XP Encrypted File System thingy that I use to encrypt some of the more sensitive, err, documents on my laptop.  On Windows 2000, the fact that on a local install the administrator was the default data recovery agent (DRA), made it possible to decrypt a user’s files without having to crack that user’s password.  On a local install of XP, this is fortunately NOT the case.  I repeat, on a local install of XP there is no default recovery policy.  In other words, a laptop thief needs to crack your password to decrypt your EFS encryption.  You can double check this by downloading efsinfo and running it on your files with “efsinfo /u /r your_files”.  It should confirm that there’s no recovery agent.  You should also check the strength of your Windows passwords with ophcrack.  Your EFS is only as strong as the user password protecting it.  After my little episode, I’ve deleted most of those sensitive, err, documents from my laptop (they’re duplicated on a server at home) and encrypted even larger parts of my laptop hard drive, just in case.

Now I’m supposed to conclude this blow-by-blow with something profound.  I know, I’ll end with a quote attributed to Plato that I first saw in the PhD thesis of a friendly colleague.  At the time it made quite an impression on me:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

Heck, it still does.