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 #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.

Weekly Head Voices #73: Keystroke megaphone!

In week 23 of 2014 I nerded out by writing two Emacs-related blog posts over at the vxlabs, and hacking org2blog to support WordPress image thumbnails:

Conserving keystrokes

Besides the general Emacs frenzy I’m going through at the moment, there is some method to my madness, especially the org2blog part. Through Emacs and org2blog, it has become significantly easier for me to publish a blog post. I’m in Emacs the whole day in any case (email and text notes database), so turning any piece of existing text into a blog post now takes no more than a minute or two.

Why is that interesting?

Well, in 2007, Jon Udell (we’ll forget for a while that he works for the enemy, because the man talks sense) wrote a blog post urging his readers to count their keystrokes. Here are three selected paragraphs:

When people tell me they’re too busy to blog, I ask them to count up their output of keystrokes. How many of those keystrokes flow into email messages? Most. How many people receive those email messages? Few. How many people could usefully benefit from those messages, now or later? More than a few, maybe a lot more.

From this perspective, blogging is a communication pattern that optimizes for the amount of awareness and influence that each keystroke can possibly yield. Some topics, of course, are necessarily private and interpersonal. But a surprising amount of business communication is potentially broader in scope. If your choice is to invest keystrokes in an email to three people, or in a blog entry that could be read by those same three people plus more — maybe many more — why not choose the latter? Why not make each keystroke work as hard as it can?

[converting an email to a blog post] can have powerful network effects. To exploit them, you have to realize that the delivery of a message, and the notification of delivery, do not necessarily coincide. Most of the time, in email, they do. The message is both notification and payload. But a message can also notify and point to a payload which is available to the recipient but also to other people and processes in other contexts. That arrangement costs hardly any extra keystrokes, and hardly any extra time. But it’s an optimization that can radically expand influence and awareness.

I’ve reproduced the same paragraphs that Jeff Atwood (co-creator of Stack Overflow, together with Joel Spolsky, I’M NOT WORTHY) extracted in his blog post on the matter, where he exhorted us with the question:

The next time you find yourself typing more than a few sentences on your keyboard, stop and ask: are you maximizing the value of your keystrokes?

(Scott Hanselman, like Udell also with the enemy but again a source of internet wisdom (hey, what’s up with that?!), is a strong proponent of this idea, see for example his 2010 post on the matter.)

Normal human stuff

I haven’t felt this cold in a long long time. Because winter here is usually short and/or mild and the summers are long and, err, summery, houses are not really well geared for the cold season. At night, the temperature inside my house approaches that of outside.

That’s why I’m counting down the days until June 21 (sorry Northern Hemisphere friends). It might be the middle of winter over here, but it’s also the point after which the days starting getting slowly longer and warmer.

While me wait, there are sunsets like this one on Friday, at the Stone Three company braai:

Sunset, seen from the Strand Yacht Club on Friday June 6, 2014.

… and lovely beers like this one:

Look how the sun sets ever so artfully on my Johnny Gold!

… to keep me busy.

Have a great week kids!

Weekly Head Voices #71: Vote for the future.

On Wednesday May 7, together with just over 18 million other South Africans, I voted. Afterwards, my thumb looked like this:


… and the rest of me felt like a million bucks!

Some complained about the outcome. I think we’re moving, albeit slowly, in the direction of a healthy democracy. Here are this year’s results, and here are 2009’s results. The opposition has been growing (slowly) at a national level. Interestingly, in Gauteng, smallest province with all of the money and power, the opposition is making similar progress.

Late to the party as per usual, I discovered Vagrant, a fantastic command-line tool to create, use and destroy virtual machines AT A WHIM. I was so happy with this that I created this screencast, which has the added advantage of being an effective component of insomnia treatment. (Yes, I do know about and have even played with Docker. For what I’m doing now (deploying multiple self-contained servers on on-premises servers without direct access), vagrant+virtualbox fits better.)

On the topic of nerdy software, let’s turn the dial to 11. I’ve started using emacs 24 with mu4e as my main email client now. It looks like this:

mu4e screenshot with nvpy search active
mu4e screenshot with nvpy search active

After leaving GMail, I made do for a while with Thunderbird, but wasn’t really happy with it. (It’s really an awesome email client, but my inner nerd wanted more.) I can honestly say that I’m in email heaven at the moment. My 68 thousand email archive is locally mirrored with offlineimap 0.6.5. mu4e in Emacs is able to perform search requests through the whole archive in milliseconds. It makes GMail seem positively snail-like in comparison. In addition, I can use my crappy elisp-fu to make it do the most silly things with the user interface and my email. Oh yes, and zenburn. Gaaaaaaaaaaah…

Completely accidentally, I saw Star Trek Into Darkness on Netflix the other night (no, we don’t have Netflix over here, really) and was completely BLOWN AWAY. Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan was an awe-inspiring movie villain. According to the Wikipedia page on Khan Noonien Singh (recurring villain in the Star Trek universe), Jonathan Romney of The Independent had the following to say about Cumberbatch’s voice:

[It was] so sepulchrally resonant that it could have been synthesised from the combined timbres of Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart and Alan Rickman holding an elocution contest down a well.

Dang. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what he’s talking about.

Just in case you thought that we didn’t live in the future, have a look at this live video stream of the Earth, taken by the cameras of the International Space Station, which is only floating 422km above the Earth’s surface:

(read more here)