Weekly Head Voices #113: Science and Creation.

(With this edition of the WHV, I’m looking back through exceptionally forgetful lenses at the period of time spanning from Wednesday November 9 to Sunday December 4, 2016.)

This post has been lying around in draft form since Sunday November 20. However, two of the bullet points I was planning to mention, one making the case for preferring short-form blogging over twitter and the other lamenting the sorry state of security on the Android operating system, somehow grew spontaneously into blog posts and then managed to make their way onto the Hacker News frontpage and various other high-traffic aggregators.

Those of you who know me a little bit, know of my strange little hobby: Getting my blog posts onto the HN frontpage. Anyways, it was a glorious week, and a very good month for this blog.

November saw almost 42000 visitors reading my stuff.

THANK YOU MANY VISITORS FOR ALL OF THE HAPPINESS YOU HAVE SUPPLIED! I TRY TO SPREAD IT AS MUCH AS I CAN!

(At the top of the right sidebar, you can make me really happy by entering your email address to be added to a shiny new weekly blog update email. Every Wednesday you’ll receive an email containing all the posts of the week up to then, saving you time and money! The old email-as-I-post list will also be maintained, but I wanted to offer more options for subscribers.)

Ghost in the Shell

Back in the day, I watched the original Ghost in the Shell anime about 102 times. For a time (picture the 90s somewhere, I’m dressed like Sonny Crockett in Miami Vice, except with really long hair, and utterly metal), the SO and I were seriously planning to use the brilliant GiTS theme song instead of the wedding march. You know, this one:

We ended up doing the wedding march because reasons. (The 90s had enough issues as it was.)

Anyways, fast forward a decade or two and a new trailer for the Ghost in the Shell Trailer live action movie has been released. I can’t help but be very excited about this. Listen, they even put some Depeche Mode in there!

Devil on my arm

(This heading should remind some of you of a certain teenage science fiction dystopian novel of the 80s. Picture me with leg warmers and a head band, exercising to a Jane Fonda VHS cassette, but with long hair and utterly metal.)

That terrible running addiction (it’s not a terrible addiction, but my running itself is terrible, doh.) I mentioned last time conspired with a local daily deal campaign to make me acquire a Samsung Gear Fit 2. This is a rather snazzy-looking (for running watches that is, the bar is not very high) timepiece with a beautiful OLED colour touch-screen, and sporting a 1 GHz CPU, 512GB RAM, 4GB of flash, a GPS, and some apps, including an MP3 player.

verge-2016-07-12_14-58-41-0
That’s the Gear Fit 2 on my arm. I wear many golden bangles when I go running.

All of this means that I can go running without my smartphone and still get full geo-located stats on my terribleness. The gadget has a suitably terrible robotic synthesised voice that encourages me, without any noticeable feeling, uttering the words <GO ON. YOU CAN DO IT. GO ON.> when I am close to the end of my route. Brilliant.

More importantly, this also means that we can have a really good giggle at the cpbotha of 2003, who wrote in a post about his new Tungsten E PDA:

If I had known 15 years ago that I would one day walk around carrying a cigarette-tin sized computer with a 126MHz CPU, a total of 160MB ram and a colour screen, I would probably have gone orbital.

13 years later, and my watch would karate chop my old PDA into orbit, if it were still around. I’m really curious in what way we’ll be laughing at me (again) in 13 years time. That is, if the Ayn Rand readers / white supremacists don’t screw everything up for us all before then. :(

Image crafting corner

This is the bit where I post carefully selected photos so that you think my life is infinitely better than it actually is.

It’s not!

This is a practical example of what happens when you (deliberately) don’t listen to Uncle Nyquist. My life is filled with ups and downs, and a great deal of flattish bits. Whatever the case may be, I do try to optimise as much as possible for the good bits. Part of this is dwelling on them for a little bit longer, like this:

Parting thought

“Post-truth” was named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. As if we don’t have enough problems in the world today, it seems that we are now in the post-truth era. Apparently objective facts have become less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

Bloody hell.

Somewhere in the future, when we’ve all calmed down a bit, I would like to try and analyse how this could have happened, and what can be done to try and fix it. (My money is on 100% accessible education for ALL (people who can afford it pay, people who can’t, don’t. Really not that complicated.)My money seems to be standing together with the statistics on Brexit and Trump voters. This is obviously completely lost on Brexit and Trump voters. OH THE IRONY.)

Anyways, until that future time when we’ll have that mature discussion about these matters, I leave you with this:

This is what I think of "post-truth".
This is what I think of “post-truth”

Weekly Head Voices #109: GABA

  • From now on, I would like to limit WHVs to bullets (really) or to named sections, to ease reading. DOWN WITH WALLS OF TEXT!
  • After a multi-year, completely coincidental, break from medical imaging, I am back to The Real Business since the start of July. I am super excited about the plans we’re cooking up and executing. I can obviously not say too much, unless beer is involved, or you hang around here for muuuuuch longer. I think I am allowed to mention digital pathology and machine learning and beer.
  • Last week we road-tripped up the East Coast to St Francis Bay, via Oudtshoorn and the Cango Caves.
    • Pro tip: When road tripping with more than 0 (zero) children (babies count double; sick babies +5 hit points), and you have to stay overnight somewhere, invest extra in the biggest suite you (or your children’s college fund) can afford.
    • On the beach in St Francis Bay (right in the middle of winter, you still seem to get these lovely balmy beach days), it seemed that everybody was surfing. Whole families, with the mom, the dad, all the kids, and grandma and grandpa, were all on various sizes of surfboards in the sea catching some waves.
    • Here’s a photo from the furthest point on what I call “Not The Ugliest Jogging Route in The World” (in St Francis Bay):

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  • Last night I accidentally discovered that I can pinpoint the exact weekend and location when and where I first tasted my favourite trappist beer (EVER), namely Rochefort #8. It’s all written up in this 2003 post.
  • When Google send me an email this weekend asking me exactly how I would like them to use my email (yes, a few months ago I migrated my mail empire back to Google because my self-hosting experiment had started to cost me time and money) to show me custom advertisements, I was reminded that I do actually find the machine learning models they’re building about me quite creepy, and that perhaps I would prefer not also handing them 12 years of emails to make their models more accurate. There and then I migrated said 12 years of emails from GMail to FastMail. So far I’m really impressed by the product, mostly due to the speed and the user experience of the web-app. There might be a more detailed post in the near future, let me know if you’re interested.
  • Most surprising and interesting (to me) new scientific discovery of the week: A team of scientists at Northeastern University in Boston have shown that one of the many kinds of bacteria living in your stomach eats exclusively GABA, a really important brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that plays a role in keeping you calm. Based on this and other work, it looks like the bacteria in your tummy, also known as your gastrointestinal microbiota, besides being crucially important to your digestive system and your general survival, probably also play quite an important role in your psyche. I find this slightly mind-blowing.

Have a great week kids, I hope to see you on the other side.

P.S. Those bullets made for quite an impressive wall of text, didn’t they?

Weekly Head Voices #108: Gaga.

I was reminded that future me really enjoys having written these things. (Present me knows about extrapolation.)

interested in time travel

Actually present me also enjoys this, but creating sufficient amounts of time to do so is often challenging. I have most recently convinced myself that I should see this as practice so that I will later be able to write really entertaining posts in minimal time. Until then my two readers, I hope to compensate with edification.

Genetic Offspring Unit (GOU) #3, the rapidly glowing cellular mega-city that first made contact with extra-wombular (I made that up) light slightly more than three months ago, suddenly started babbling a few weeks ago. To be honest, I thought that she was going to be really quiet to compensate for the immense amount of continuous talking in my house. It turns out that her reaction has instead been one of taking this bull by the horns. SHE WILL BE HEARD. (GOU#1 and #2 are able to produce speech with an intensity that is to be heard to be believed. I have no idea where they got that from.)

Speaking of babbling, I sometimes make videos of me trying to explain nerdy programming-related tricks, and then I upload them to YouTube. My most recent creation is about using the conan.io C++ package manager to get a small SFML-based GLSL example going (that’s GPU programming). It has a soundless explosion at the end!

I came across a really interesting bit of research performed at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) on how really small, seemingly inconsequential rewards, can actually ignite people’s intrinsic motivation. This is interesting exactly because it has long been thought that extrinsic rewards diminish intrinsic motivation, a phenomenon called the overjustification effect.

In the recent study by researchers at the WU, students were encouraged to do extra homework assignments. However, this was done by allocating an amount of extra credit which was perceived by the students as being trivial (this was measured in a separate study). Lo and behold, this perceived trivial extra credit still jump-started that group’s extra assignment submissions, and the students in that group then showed evidence of autonomously (intrinsically) motivated behaviour.

The researchers hypothesise that this could be due to the fact that the students being jump-started could not internally explain their behaviour on the basis of the negligible reward, and hence automatically came up with more intrinsically-oriented motivations, such as personal importance, interest or enjoyment).

South Africa is a really strange and wonderful place. I don’t write about it that much, because in that respect it is my place to be quiet here in the background. However, sometimes someone else writes something that, if you’re interested in the perspective of South Africans who’ve lived abroad for a significant amount of time, and have then returned, somewhat the wiser, because the country in their blood called them back, you really should read. Disco Pants, or rather her blog, helped me a whole lot when we had to decide whether we would be coming back or not. She has a new post out titled “On Surviving the Madness of South Africa”, and it’s a beaut.

On the topic of beauty, Flume has new album out. It’s called Skin, and it gets the highly coveted but completely unknown Weekly Head Voices Album of Right Now award! Here’s the first track to whet your appetite (or not):

Have a fun week listeners!

Science: Really not just for scientists.

The public’s unwillingness to learn basic scientific concepts and scientists’ inability to communicate those concepts lead the public to reject promising research (such as genetic modification), ignore serious problems (such as global warming) and embrace dangerous nonsense (such as anti-vaccination rhetoric).

— Proposition from the Ph.D. thesis of Dr Wynand Winterbach, via Francois Malan on Facebook.

(This important message was brought to you by cpbotha.net, trawling facebook for interesting tidbits so you don’t have to!)

Schloss Dagstuhl: Computer Scientist Heaven

Somewhere in a remote but picturesque location in southern Germany, there’s a special castle called Schloss Dagstuhl. Every week, the castle fills up with a smallish group of Exceptionally Privileged Computer Scientists, who can only go there Because They Have Been Invited. Every week hosts a different field; In my case this was the Scientific Visualization seminar, one of the oldest participating groups. Everything has been setup just so to guarantee a perfect computer sciencey week for all guests. Because I’ve already been boring too many people with this story in person, I thought it prudent to write it up. Let’s hope it’s not a first (and second!) rule of Fight Club situation, in which case posting frequency over here might drop quite drastically.

Schloss Dagstuhl, picture courtesy of Wikipedia.

To begin with, the meals are exquisite, three times a day, every day. As we all know, the path to a computer scientist’s heart is through buying them new gadgets, but feeding them well is a great backup plan. Another very nice touch is the fact that seating is deliberately randomised, meaning that your introvert self is forced to sit at the table with a different group of guests during each lunch and dinner, in turn meaning that even if you try otherwise, you will probably get to have a good conversation with every one of the fifty attendees.

In the case of our seminar, the working day consists of presentations in blocks of three or four, followed by a longer block of discussion on all the preceding presentations, panel style. Attendees were all asked not just to give a standard scientific presentation, but to discuss open problems and future challenges in their respective sub-fields. I (and many others, judging by the aggregated post-meeting feedback) really enjoyed this format. The presentations made one think, and the discussion blocks were long enough to really get into the details. You can check out abstracts and slides on the seminar website.

After a full day of quite intensive discussion, there were breakout sessions during which four subgroups started working on the various chapters of a new Springer book that should appear sometime early in next year. The book will deal with multi-field, uncertainty, biomedical and scalable visualization, and it has the makings of being a keeper.

The other extremely important magic bit about this castle is the abundance of real coffee machines (ones that grind coffee beans for every cup), snack corners and, uhm, beer fridges. You can’t really go anywhere, as you’re in the middle of nowhere, so after dinner the conversations tend to continue till late in the night, conversant stamina enhanced by said coffee and beer facilities. Evil science plans were made, good old-fashioned deep conversations were had and the early next morning consequences were flatly ignored. I haven’t laughed quite so much in a long time, but that part of the programme prefers, and has the right, to remain completely silent.

If you ever get the invitation, don’t hesitate for a second to accept: You shall return an exhausted but terribly happy computer nerd.