Weekly Head Voices #143: The rider and the elephant.

Pretty autumn sunset. A few metres below, the ritual weekend-starting braai was picking up speed.

Welcome back kids!

Besides this post, which somehow turned out to be longer than I expected, my more nerdy alter ego also wrote a post titled Interactive programming with Fennel Lua Lisp, Emacs and Lisp Game Jam winner EXO_encounter 667.

#DeleteFacebook, part deux

In an unsurprising (to me) turn of events, the Cambridge Analytica scandal has not even caused a dent in Facebook usage.

#deletefacebook, also discussed in a previous edition of the WHV, never really happened.

To the contrary, it seems people even increased their usage, post-scandal. FB share price is back where it used to be, and as an interesting data point, Deutsche Bank reports that their FB-based advertising reach was unaffected by the removable of more than 500 million fake facebook accounts.

Should we deduce anything more from this than the usual 1. humans, even outraged ones, have really short memories and/or 2. most people don’t have the energy to resist, or the presence of mind to avoid, the deeply-seated social desires that are being exploited to varying degrees by the large social networks?

My personal strategy for a while now has been to make liberal use of the unfollow and the mute functions. It’s far from perfect, but with this it is possible to reduce drastically the stream of incoming information, and to make sure that what does come through has to do with friends that you have made the deliberate choice to connect with actively.

Shorter focus blocks work better

In my eternal and sometimes decidedly Sysiphean quest for more and better work focus, I recently started using Focus App (see Pro Tip #2 in WHV #126).

In short, when you activate the app’s focus mode, it kills off and then blocks anything that is remotely fun or even slightly distracting on your computer. This includes websites and applications.

In the beginning, I was enjoying longer (1 to 2 hour) focus blocks.

However, more recently I started noticing a certain recalcitrance in my focus-starting hand.

Especially late in the afternoons (prefrontal cortex GONE by then, remember?) the knowledge of that mega-block of mental exertion would result in highly undesirable procrastinatory behaviour. (Big words for “oh, I can probably fit in one more /r/emacs post!”)

Anyways, it turns out there’s another really good reason that pomodori are only 25 minutes long.

It’s much easier to start a 25 minute block of no-fun-focus, and then get stuck in the zone, than it is to start what your brain expects to be a multi-hour block of mental exertion.

Friend PK introduced me to the tiny rider trying to control the giant elephant as a metaphor for the conscious and unconscious mind (this is from the book The Happiness Hypothesis). The shorter focus block idea seems like it could be filed away under “tricks to control your stubborn elephant”.

The evolving soul of Emacs

I came across this really interesting piece by Richard Stallman about the origin of Emacs, one of my favourite and probably most-used technical artifacts. It’s the multi-tool of computer software.

But, along the way, I wrote a text editor, Emacs. The interesting idea about Emacs was that it had a programming language, and the user’s editing commands would be written in that interpreted programming language, so that you could load new commands into your editor while you were editing. You could edit the programs you were using and then go on editing with them. So, we had a system that was useful for things other than programming, and yet you could program it while you were using it. I don’t know if it was the first one of those, but it certainly was the first editor like that.

When an experienced user interacts with Emacs, they change it, and it changes them.

The opposite of instant gratification

On Friday I started on a slightly longer than usual run.

It usually takes a kilometre or two before all of my running subsystems come on line, and I find my rhythm.

Not this time.

The acclimatisation discomfort in my ankles and calves didn’t fade away as it usually does. My breathing and running cadence stubbornly refused to lock on to their usual correct settings.

My legs felt tired.

It really felt like I was not supposed to be running at all, but I pressed on because at that point there was not much else I could do.

At the turn-around point (the bridge at the entrance to Vergelegen, with beautiful trees all around) I decided to try out some youtube advice from the evening before and do a few deep squats to freshen up my legs.

I started running back on legs and calves and feet which suddenly felt like they had all been replaced with brand-new rested versions of their 2-minute-ago return-to-manufacturer selves.

The rest of the run was of the floating over the ground how-is-this-possible my-smile-might-break-my-head variety.

Super strange.

I don’t think the squats did it. That was just a sort of thought-process punctuation which somehow distracted the mind-elephant for long enough to get me running again.

Anyways, as I was floating home, I could not help but see the whole occurrence as a fairly physical but in this case fortunately quite compact reminder that some of the most worthwhile experiences simply require perseverance with initially no gratification in sight.

Life is a marathon

… so sleep well, eat as healthily as you can, exercise, and try not to stress too much.

We’re in this for the long haul.

Weekly Head Voices #142: Theory of mind.

Autumn is really pretty down here.

We’re getting back on track with the WHVs friends!

In the hardly started tradition of writing blog posts in music-backed focus blocks, I have my “upbeat thinking” playlist teed up and ready to go. The outline of this post formed itself as a Real Bullet List(tm) in my Emacs about an hour ago.

Let’s go.

They grow up so fast

Theory of Mind, or ToM, is an important mental capability that we use to model and predict the thoughts and desires of fellow humans.

Just the other day, as we were going through our school morning ritual of the offspring units eating breakfast together and the adults self-administering the correct number of espressos required for normal functioning, GOU#3 calmly informed me from her mother’s lap:

Daddy, mommy would like another biscuit with her coffee.

Genetic Offspring Unit #3 only very recently turned 2.

With this request, she demonstrated surprising levels of ToM and planning ability. She inferred, entirely correctly,  what her parental unit required at that moment, and performed exactly the correct action (delegation, yikes!) to satisfy that requirement.

I am still suitably impressed.

Sketchnote your life

Sketchotes refer to a type of hand-written notes that employs both writing and drawing techniques. Here’s an example by Emacs guru and famous internet person Sacha Chua:

I’m trying to spend more time dedicated to thinking and so-called conceptualising. Sketchnotes seems like a good tool to use during these thinking sessions, so last week this formed the ideal excuse to go out and acquire a new large Moleskine with blank pages (I used to use Moleskines for all my note-taking before going digital), and a whole bunch of sketchnote-recommended pens (Pilot Hi-TecPoint 0.5 which I already had one of; Pilot G-TEC-C4 for super fine drawing, pen also turned out to have best handling of the lot despite its simplicity; Pentel Energel 0.7mm).

My first session was spent sketching out my current life landscape (thank you KvG for this tip years ago), including work, side-projects and a bunch of developing and potential opportunities, as well as the links between them.

I can report that drawing like this is a great trick to keep one’s attention glued to the page, and hence to the chosen focus, whilst at the same time maintaining sufficient mental distance to process the more substantial  thoughts and all of their interactions.

Telegram has the public group chat market cornered

For private messaging, I have a strong preference for Signal, especially over WhatsApp.

Besides the dubious future of WhatsApp’s privacy (Founder #1 Jan Koum is planning to leave while Founder #2 Brian Acton recently donated 50 million dollars to Signal), the WhatsApp web-app is more irritation than it’s worth. The fact that I have to keep my phone awake and connected to the network is a silly constraint which even the far more secure Signal desktop app does not require.

Anyways, I digress.

This section is about Telegram, another messaging app with dubious security that at least does not belong to Facebook.

Besides all of its stickers, animated gifs, and (non-)useful bots everywhere, Telegram has two additional features which are quiet compelling:

Although it requires a telephone number to be setup, you can configure a username which you can give out to people instead of your telephone number to have them contact you. This adds an extra layer of privacy which is sometimes useful.

More interestingly, Telegram has the concept of “supergroups”. These are public groups which can be joined by anyone if they have the name, and support up to 10000 (yes ten thousand) users.

This is ideal for easily starting special interest groups, and can be seen as a modern and mobile-first form of IRC. The mobile apps are generally really fast and full featured.

Anyways, on a lark we created one such group, called ZA Tech Light, for tech people (aka nerds) in ZA. If you are such a person, or you just like chatting with nerds in ZA, feel free to drop in at @zatechlight. Although primarily lark-based, this could be seen as a sort of splinter group of the much larger (because older) Slack group called ZA Tech.

Running update

Yesterday, I did my second 10km+ run in the Lunas, bringing total sandal running distance to 107km.

I am now back up to my pre-sandal standard running route distance.

That being said, my calf muscles are still complaining quite loudly after every run. The recovery perioud seems to be shortening however, and the calf muscle complaints are less convincing every time.

All of THAT being said, running barefoot- aka primitive-style feels amazing, so much so that although one does keep an eye on things, one does not perceive the above-mentioned muscle discomfort as an issue at all.

Furthermore, the patella strap I previously had to wear during running, to prevent knee pain, has been lying in my cupboard, unused for the past 107km.

The side-project dilemma

Most nerds I know have side-projects.

It’s how we learn new things and keep ourselves constructively entertained.

Up to now, I’ve usually chosen my side-projects not only on the basis of learning, but also based on their business potential. Some of them have indirectly led to revenue, partially through the business-relevance check, but so far never directly. That is, I’ve never brought a side-project to market.

This weekend I had an idea for a pretty obscure side-project. In terms of creativity and learning, and of passion and brain-fit, it scores highly, but in terms of direct business potential quite the opposite.

I’m probably at least going to start, because it’s too much fun not to.

What is your approach in situations like this? Do side-projects have to satisfy any kind of utility requirement? Which criteria do you use to select your next side-project?

Bhayi bhayi

Thanks for reading this far peeps! I hope you have a beautiful week, and that we might meet again at the end.

Weekly Head Voices #140: Koperkapel.

Hello there friends, welcome back!

Matters have started heating up around here with the final preparations for a pretty intense project that is expected to launch in about a week’s time. I would prefer saying more about it after the launch, because reasons.

I’m mentioning it here as explanation for the paucity of this post, and just in case a near-future post manages to be slightly late or even absent.

All will become clear in due time!

Sandal Running Progress Report #1

During the past week, I sneaked in three more runs(shorter-than-usual, because don’t want to spoil it) in the new Luna sandals, after their maiden voyage last Sunday. Today’s run, which included the panoramic view at the top of this post, was up and down the mountain in hot and sunny Paarl.

My calves and feet are still getting used to the additional work, but they seem to be recovering more quickly after each run.

My running form has necessarily improved quite a bit. If you don’t run correctly in sandals, your feet and your legs let you know immediately.

(When you do run correctly, the pleasure is considerable.)

At this point, I was hot and quite tired, but the view was great!

Scary snake #2

On Saturday, we had a pretty serious but fortunately bite-free encounter with a Cape Cobra.

This photo by By Bjoertvedt (Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0), click for original.

Four of our kids (GOU #2 and #3, and one of their cousins) were playing inside the house, front door open.

We were outside, enjoying the balmy late afternoon weather.

GOU#1, who was also outside, calmly informed us that a snake was making its way in through the front door.

As I was still internally remarking the fact that it was a significant specimen of snake, probably about 1 metre, my partner fortunately sprang into action and shut the front door with the snake halfway through, temporarily trapping it.

I say temporarily, because that thing is powerful and it was probably in panic, and was managing to worm itself inside, to where the youngest of the kids stood still, transfixed by the snake-like motions of its head.

After a run-around searching for suitable implements, finally assisted by cousin #2, I had a spade and was able to remove the snake from the vicinity of the humans.

Lessons learnt:

  1. A sufficiently large snake induces a visceral fear reaction. The way they move and propel themselves over the earth seems to play a large part in that.
  2. The Cape Cobra, or Naja nivea, is “one of the most dangerous species of cobra in all of Africa, by virtue of its potent venom and frequent occurrence around houses”.  (frequent occurrence around houses: CHECK!) Fatalities result due to the snake’s venom paralysing the respiratory system.
  3. In South Africa, hospitals will treat these bites with a locally developed polyvalent antivenom that is effective against puff adder, gaboon adder, rinkhals, green mamba, Jameson’s mamba, black mamba, cape cobra, forest cobra, snouted cobra and Mozambique spitting cobra. Pretty hardcore.

See you later alligator

Have fun kids! I’ll see you as soon as I can.

Weekly Head Voices #139: Luna.

Well hello there friends!

We have just returned from a ridiculously enjoyable holiday in The Drakensberg, or uKhahlamba in isiZulu.

More specifically, we started in Giant’s Castle, the place of no internet mentioned in the previous edition of the WHV, and also the subject of that post’s main image, but we spent the largest part of the week at Cathedral Peak.

Due to it having been holiday and all, the rest of this post will follow the trusty old bullet list form.

  • The mountainous surroundings are stunningly beautiful.
  • At Giant’s Peak we did the short hike to the main caves to see rock art by the San people. According to the guide the paintings we saw range in age between 100 and 3000 years. Here are two examples:
  • We did more hikes in the mountains. GOU#3, who just turned 2, was a trooper, relatively speaking. We will never again mention all of the kilometres that we had to carry her.
  • I squeezed in a number of trail runs. It’s a badly kept secret that I have absolutely no sense of direction. This, together with the routes finding themselves at 1400m altitude, made for challenging but awe-inspiring trips.
  • On the way back home, we stopped in Durban for the most amazing curries at The Oyster Box. Me = blown away.
  • At the airport, that thing I said would never happen to me, happened to me. At the security check, we discovered that I had forgotten my trusty Leatherman Wave multi-tool in my backpack, and my trusty Gerber Dime mini multi-tool in my trouser pocket. In a massively pleasant surprise turn of events, I was able to go back out through security, where the amazingly helpful British Airways check-in attendant calmly packaged up the offending tools in a spare box, labeled it, and sent it through with the checked baggage, and to return to my people all in the space of about 15 minutes.
  • We hit a thunderstorm, initially undetected by the weather radar, on our way back to Cape Town for some of the scariest turbulence I’ve ever experienced.
    • At one point, the plane dove so hard that the Kindle lying on my lap (I’m halfway through Mastery by George Leonard, thanks Leif for the recommendation!) flew up into the air, made a slow-motion arc and came crashing down on the floor.
    • It was at this point that a large number of passengers involuntarily panic-shouted, adding to the atmosphere.
    • I myself could not show any external signs of fear, primarily because I needed to comfort GOU#1, who sat next to me, and is now old enough to appreciate the potential risks of the situation we found ourselves in, but also because I had to fit in my behaviour with the narrative that YOU SIMPLY HAVE TO TRUST THE ENGINEERS.
  • During our time away, these puppies had finally made their way through customs ($115 in total for Luna Mono 2.0 sandals + tabi socks, $66 SA import duties ouch):

Yes friends, they are Huarache-style running sandals, in which you go running.

My friend Stéfan sent me a message on Signal shortly after WHV #134, but before I had even started reading Born to Run.

Besides sporting best-in-class encryption, his message was suavely convincing:

Charl, let me bring you a pair of the magical sandals that I run in.

I was not able to purge the thought of running free like that.

When I finally realised that it was only a question of time, I decided not to wait any longer than necessary, and ordered them directly.

This morning I started with a short run, just to see what it was like, and to start acclimatising.

It was exactly like I had been dreaming for the past two nights.

Time will have to tell, but at this very moment, I’m not sure if I’ll want to run in normal running shoes again.

Weekly Head Voices #134: SCARF.

Untitled artwork by GOU#2 (age 7), who is also known as My Most Favourite Middle Child.

I somehow forgot to take photos this past week. At the very last moment, GOU#2 delivered, as if commissioned, the piece shown above.

The WHV visual element lives to fight another day!

The rest of this post is divided into three parts: One for the programming nerds, one for the running nerds and one for the arm-chair psychologists. Feel free to pick and choose!

C++ quo vadis?

This week, we spent more than a day chasing an elusive memory-related access violation (big words for “crash”) in the software we recently released.

In the end, the bug was only really reproducible on Windows 7 (not on Linux, not on macOS, and only with great difficulty and infinite patience on Windows 10). It turned out to be hidden deep in a well-tested, industry-backed open source C++ library.

This and the specific nature of this bug again demonstrated to me that C++, although I love it dearly, simply has too many well-disguised flaws (let’s call them foot-guns) which will eventually lead to even the most experienced and sharp programmer making mistakes.

In spite of the recent language renaissance (C++11, 14, 17 with 20 imminent) and a slew of improvements, it’s still too easy to write unsafe code.

With contenders like rust (rustlang AJ, rustlang!) which enable programmers to write programmes which have C++-level performance but are by default safe, could C++’s days be counted?

Run

It was time to retire my trusty pair of Asics Cumulus 18 shoes.

They had clocked just over 900km, which is perhaps a little too much. By the end, I could feel the bones in my big toe’s main joint (apparently also known as the big-toe’s MTP or metatarsophalangeal joint) crunching down with each strike.

Normally not prone to these types of visits, I had no choice but to pop out to the Run Specialist Store in Edward street on Thursday to get a new pair of activity-proof foot covers.

They let me run on a treadmill (whoohooo running!) with a high-speed video camera. In the footage, we could see that indeed my conversion to forefoot running had been successful (which was good to hear, because it had cost me about 100km of pain), but that I tended to land on the outsides of my forefeet.

The minimal shoes I had had in mind were not (yet) to be.

Instead the run doctor prescribed a pair of Saucony Kinvara 8s, which make my old Asics look like previous generation gardening shoes. I’ve since taken these out on two runs. They are super light, and super springy (everun FTW?), but I have to say that I have my doubts about the durability of the outsole. I’ll report back.

In February, I’m pretty happy that I managed to squeeze in just over 110km of running, which is not too shabby (by my standards, as always!) for the short month.

SCARF

Yes, winter is coming, but this, although also quite useful, is not that type of SCARF.

I am still reading David Rock’s book Your Brain at Work, and SCARF is his mnemonic for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

These are five social needs, the threat or confirmation of which can have profound effects on humans.

If you feel that you are being unfairly treated, for example, this triggers a low-level threat response which fundamentally complicates dealing rationally with a situation.

Conversely, if for example an interaction grants you more certainty or even better autonomy, you are magically able to contribute significantly more cognitive capacity and creativity to that interaction.

Both the fundamental threat and reward responses go for all five of these qualities. Once you know what to look for, it’s easy to go through some of your memories and to see where one or more of the SCARF needs played a role.

Although one (hopefully) mostly intuitively integrates this in one’s daily dealings, I think it’s super useful being able to enumerate the SCARF social needs like this. It helps when managing oneself in any situation (especially when your prefrontal cortex is exhausted, which is just about always), and it certainly helps when you might find yourself in position where you are able to contribute to another human’s well-being.

The end

Have a great week friends, I hope to see you again soon!

P.S. if there are any arduino uno -> hardware serial -> xbee experts in the audience, I would like to have a word. (sparkfun shield. with software serial can talk to xbee. with hardware serial, and sparkfun switch in the right position, xbee won’t respond. uno is a robotdyn clone.)