Postmodern creativity. [Weekly Head Voices #37]

Post summary: Review humour, WhatsApp, SPA3102 gadget, hiking boots, happiness in the blue zones.

So there are people on the internets who have chosen as their creative outlet the writing of superbly entertaining fictitious reviews of real products on real e-commerce sites. See for example this customer review of a tub of uranium ore that was once available on Amazon:

You used to be able to buy uranium ore on amazon. You can still read the awesome reviews:

I purchased this product 4.47 Billion Years ago and when I opened it today, it was half empty. — reviewer Patrick J. McGovern

For more examples, please do see this article on What a fantastic creative medium! One day, when I grow up, I too shall spend time honing my review writing skills.

Because I’ve just realised that this post was never going to be more than a mishmash of odd but hopefully interesting tidbits, I shall now switch to bullet-list mode:

  • I’ve slowly started developing principles against sending texts (SMS), purely because I think the telephone companies are charging way too much for these 160 character micro-messages. Even if you do have a great big SMS bundle, usually when you text overseas, you still get whacked. WhatsApp does a pretty good job at being a texting substitute: It runs in the background on Nokia, Android, iPhone or Blackberry smartphones, and allows one to send and receive unlimited SMS-like messages via one’s dataplan to other WhatsApp users. Just like texting, it only requires telephone numbers, so directly after installation, one sees a list of all one’s WhatsApp-running contacts (from the phone’s database). Big advantage over for example BlackBerry BBM (ping) is that WhatsApp runs on many more telephones. In short: Try it, you might like it!
  • On the theme of sticking it to the man (and when I say “man” I mean “telephone company”), I recently acquired a Cisco SPA3102 Voice Gateway (used to be Sipura, then Linksys). It’s a tiny little box that sits in-between your broadband connection (ADSL or cable modem) and house telephone and, if configured correctly, routes all telephone calls via SIP (voice-over-ip) providers. In short: Seriously cheap phone calls via internet, telephone company never even sees you and hence can’t really bill you. The only problem is that this little box has the most complex configuration interface I’ve ever seen. There must be at least a few hundred configuration settings, and if you get any one of them wrong, your phone system simply stops working. I’ve written up what you need to know at my Even Nerdier Blog.
  • What’s the deal with hiking boots and engineers? Hiking boots are great for hiking, but wearing them to work (or far worse, to a social event) must be the most extreme way of showing your asymptotic support of function over form. I have to admit that I myself have sinned before, but usually I have a good excuse, such as that storm outside. There are some people however (and the matching hiking boots worn by in-love engineers / nerds are the absolute worst) that don’t seem to understand that form and function do need to be in some form of balance for the world to function and for me to maintain my non-nauseous state.
  • It is important to note that Timberland boots strike this balance just perfectly, as you can see below:
This is what form and function look like when they're in perfect balance.

To conclude this post, I’d like to summarise a lifehacker summary of Dan Buettner’s book on the factors that play a role in the happiness of people living in the world’s “blue zones” (countries / regions where people live long and contented lives): 1. work less, 2. keep your commute as short as possible, 3. have regular vacations, 4. socialise with your colleagues and finally, 5. make sure you work for a good boss.

No big surprises there, but sometimes it’s nice being reminded of the stuff we should never have forgotten in the first place.

The Future is Sick [Weekly Head Voices #36]

Post summary: Conference, VXLabs, SIP, boots, backyard philosophy on you the consumer, dramatic reading. Read on for more!

Just before the weekend I spent two days at the Dutch Bio-Medical Engineering Conference in Egmond aan Zee, in a ginormous seaside hotel. Probably because I attempted to keep up with the young ones during their nightly escapades, I’m currently dealing quite badly with a serious cold, which is why this is the first sick blog post of 2011.  Besides all those germs, I also brought you this photo of said seaside right after sunset:

Sunset on the Egmond aan Zee beach. Gorgeous, innit? There’s even a dude walking on the beach so that you can wax all pensive.

The conference was an energetic and motivating affair, at which yours truly even got to chair a session, during which I tried, in spite of not getting to bed all that early the night before, to Keep Things Extremely Punctual As Well As Mildly Entertaining. I succeeded in the former, you’ll have to ask the audience about the latter.

The absolute highlight, for me at least, was the capstone on Friday by Professor Richard Satava, a surgeon with an amazing vision of the future. Bordering on science fiction but for a large part backed by his own and other groups’ research, his superbly delivered presentation touched on surgical operating rooms completely staffed by robots (some elements remotely controlled by a surgeon), cell engineering, surgery robots that heal troops at the scene of the crime (hehe), genetic engineering, cloning and a healthy dash of trans-humanism. By the end the whole room was collectively straining at the leash to go and genetically upgrade anything and anyone they could find. With a room full of BME researchers, that’s more dangerous than it sounds. :)

Other note-worthy items of the past two weeks can be summarised in the following neat bullet list:

  • I’ve started a new blog, called VXLabs, for matters that are too nerdy even for this blog. If you’re interested, you can start by reading the HTC Desire Z (my lovely new smartphone) review I’ve recently gotten around to writing. If you’re nerdy enough, you might consider subscribing VXLabs as well!
  • There are far cheaper ways than Skype to call telephones around the world. With SIP software, such as SIPDroid on Android, you can use cheap SIP servers that even offer free calls to many destinations. See this page for a list of just the betamax (German VOIP company) providers and the free countries that they support.
  • I was approached by a company producing Ugg-like boots to review their boots, get a free pair in the process, and get a good deal for my readers. This is probably because I went on about those BEAUTIFUL Timberland boots in one of my previous posts. Although I was flattered that the gentleman in question thought my widely-read (haha) opinion would be good for his brand and he called this a fashion blog (!!), I declined, stating that my readership probably is more into Timberlands than Uggs. That’s true, readership? Right?!
  • Micro Backyard Philosophy: After one of those late nights refreshing my Twitter, Facebook, Google Reader and GMail for the Nth time, I got to thinking about how the internet sometimes turns us into 100% consumers, leaving no room for creativity. It’s insidious, because we believe that the internet will give us exactly what we crave if we just know how to search for it, and that it should do so with that next press on the refresh button, when in fact this is hardly ever the case, especially when that which you crave is in fact to create. Remember this the next time it’s getting late and you think Just One More Refresh. Don’t push that button. Sit back and think about what you really want to do.

That’s it boys and girls, thank you very much for reading this far! You go and have yourselves a fabulous and especially creative week. If you get lonely waiting for the next edition of the Weekly Head Voices, marvel at this dramatic reading of a bad user game review, creativity at its finest:

An Inside Job. [Weekly Head Voices #33]

Hiatus: temporarily over.

My sleeping patterns are not quite what they used to be, mostly due to the latest manifestation of our little gene pool over here. Added to that, I’ve been really busy. Added to that, work has been throwing unnecessary curve-balls that have done their part in keeping me (pre)-occupied. In the end, a dash of perspective, several extremely wise friends and a generally sunny predisposition go a really long way, so here I am. :)

In this post, I’m going to touch upon the highlights of the past seven weeks (40 to 46) and I’m going to do so with bullets, seeing as I’m in a bullety-kind of mood.

  • I spent a week in Stellenbosch teaching Information Visualisation! Read all about it in this special blog post.
  • The week after that my mom came to visit us. She really has the best genes.
  • I met my new work laptop: A Dell Latitude E6410 with Core i5 M540 2.53GHz CPU, 4G ram, 500G HDD, NVidia NVS 3100m GPU with 512 MB video mem. It’s a 14″ latop (15.4″ is a completely useless format, flame me in the comments), but due to the materials used quite heavy. I like it!
  • Another one of our STW NIG research proposals has been granted. I conceived and developed this one together with colleagues from the LUMC Departments of Anatomy, of Surgery and of Orthopaedics. The title is High-definition Atlas-based surgical planning for Pelvic Surgery and we get to combine high-resolution human histology, mega-volume rendering, , biomechanical modelling and surgical simulation. With this grant we can appoint two more Ph.D. students (one in my group, one at the LUMC) for four years to work on this!!
  • The week after that I went to Salt Lake City (Utah, US and A) to attend the conference previously known as IEEE Visualization. It was AWESOME! (blog post half-written, will soon publish).
  • The week after that I had a really cool dream: I was playing high-speed catch with a bunch of people outside. The ball was randomly changing shape between rock, papers and scissors. If you wanted to catch it, you didn’t only have to be at the right place at the right time, but your hand also had to be in the right complementary configuration to catch the shape-shifting ball.
  • Now that we’re talking about dreams: I finally saw Inception and was completely blown away. It’s not about being complicated, it’s about being a well-told story and a fantastically filmed movie. What I positively adored, is the fact that Nolan doesn’t require much: He only needs you to believe that dreams can be shared, without giving away too many of the details of the mechanism, and then builds a marvellous story on that canvas. My absolute favourite scene was the waking up on the plane, just before the landing, almost at the end of the film. I loved the way in which the characters looked at each other, and the possible interpretations of their expressions.
  • On the topic of the Underworld gig in the Heineken Music Hall: I hope I have my voice back before my morning lecture tomorrow morning. Thank you Fantastic Friends!

That’s it kids. If you’ve come this far, you’re now mostly up to date. Please leave me a comment, it’s good for my serotonin! I hope you have a great week. To get you off to a  good start, here’s a music video showing what an infectious idea could look like…



Weekly Head Voices #18: Refactor my dogfood.

Welcome all, to this, the 18th edition of the Weekly Head Voices, in which I discuss a number of issues that mostly have nothing specific to do with the 11th week of 2010, but which might or might not have crossed my mind during that time! Issues include good news on the EuroVis 2010 front, a new edition of the Head Voices Review featuring my completely unexpected stay in a 7 Tesla MRI scanner (as a test subject, of course)  and finally some nerdy backyard philosophy dealing with the well-known itch to Rewrite Everything From Scratch, Because What’s There Now Sucks.

First, because I have no other visual element for this week’s post, and  because I am, as you might have noticed, a method blogger, I present you with probably the best improv I’ve ever seen so far. For those of you who have been completely asleep the past few weeks, chatroulette is a new site that’s been taking the interwebs by storm. The site pairs up random strangers for webcam chats. One is allowed to move to the next random stranger with the click of a buttom (resulting in the new English verb “to next” someone..). Random hilarity (and often perversity) ensues! Here’s that mostly SFW and brilliant piano improv:

(The original video had to be pulled, after 4 million views, due to some YouTube issues. Merton, pianist, has posted this new version. Thanks to Francois for the heads-up!)

Back to business, we have just heard the great news that our two EuroVis 2010 submissions have been finally accepted for publication.  The articles are:

  1. S. Busking, C.P. Botha, and F.H. Post, “Dynamic Multi-View Exploration of Shape Spaces,” Computer Graphics Forum, 2010.
  2. P.R. Krekel, E.R. Valstar, J. de Groot, F.H. Post, R.G. Nelissen, and C.P. Botha, “Visual Analysis of Multi-Joint Kinematic Data,” Computer Graphics Forum, 2010.

Fantastic work you first authors you! Remember people: YOU HAVE TO CITE THESE SOON, AND YOU HAVE TO CITE THEM OFTEN! This also means that a number of us will be going to Bordeaux in June (I can imagine worse places to go to in June) to mingle with other scientists and to drink really good red wine.

That good news brings us to the influential WHV feature, the Head Voices Review! (My TPN is still working on the new jingle.  Hopefully it’ll be on time for our joint Vodka review feature.) In this edition, I’ll be reviewing the Philips 7 Tesla MRI scanner and the JBL Duet-200 computer speakers.

On Friday, I unexpectedly had the pleasure of trying out a state-of-the-art 7 Tesla Philips MRI scanner, as a test subject. I can report that the bore, although small, is quite comfortable. However, test subjects with claustrophobic tendencies should probably look elsewhere.  Scanning can be quite noisy, especially when a diffusion weighted imaging protocol is applied that involves scanning in 162 different gradient directions (to study the structural connectivity in my brain). However, the music that gets piped in between scanning sessions more than makes up. After scanning, it was scientifically confirmed that there is indeed a brain housed in my skull, an observation that pleasantly surprised me. Soon I hope to be able to post visualisations, made by one of our MedVis ninjas, of the structural connections in my brain.

All in all, if you have a few million euros lying around, this piece of kit is highly recommended.  To summarise:

  • Philips 7T MRI: AWESOME.

In a previous review, I was quite negative about the Logitech S3-30 speakers, for a large part due to the absolute mess of cables that it comes with. This past week I took delivery of the new JBL Duet-200 speakers I ordered, for the grand amount of 30 eurobucks, to replace it. The JBL is a single unit containing two speakers, something which might be seen as a drawback, but which I consider an advantage. In spite of its compact appearance, it packs quite a base and more than sufficient volume.  In addition, there are exactly two (2) cables: One for the power supply, and one for the audio. I can only hope that Logitech contracts JBL on their next PC speaker product design. My only (minor) gripe is that the JBL-supplied audio cable is only about 40cm long. All in all:

  • JBL Duet-200 at € 30 price-point: AWESOME.

MRI scanners and PC speakers: No product too big, no product too small for the Head Voices Review!

Finally, it’s time for some backyard philosophy.  This week, it’s a brief point of really nerdy philosophy, although I think the principles apply to some non-nerdy activities as well. Software developers, as well as many other engineering types, often reach a point during working on a project, when they have a hard-to-control urge to trash the whole thing and start from scratch.  There is usually a very strong belief that the project / software / product can be designed much better by starting from scratch.

It turns out that this is an insidious and mostly incorrect belief, for a large part due to all the knowledge present in the existing “ugly” product that will get thrown out. Engineers easily underestimate the importance of this knowledge. It turns out, much as we don’t like to hear this, that refactoring is, nine times out of ten, a far better answer than rewriting from scratch. Experienced developers know this, and are mostly able to suppress the rewrite from scratch itch.

Joel Spolsky wrote a really good essay on this phenomenon. Go read it!

Weekly Head Voices #17: The Eternal Foreigner.

In this edition, looking back on the 10th week of 2010, I report briefly on the lack of blog-worthy events in my life, noting that my life is undoubtedly extremely exciting, just not always in that special blog-worthy way, before concluding with some backyard psycho-philosophy on my perception of the greenness of grass as a function of its distance from the observer.  Skip to just after the YouTube clip if you want to get right to the backyard part of this blog.

Work-wise, last week was good for 2 hours of lecture preparation, 3 hours of lecturing, 12 hours of meetings, including an inspiring visit to Real Scientists at the EMC, and finally some quality time catching a monday night paper deadline in the nick of time with one of our MedVis Ninjas, whom I’m coincidentally extremely proud of at the moment.  I completed only 16 GTD tasks, down 6 from last week.

Besides not having hot water for two days due to my boiler’s operating system (yes, it has a frikking operating system) refusing to switch on the heat exchanger, forcing me to take a bath in 15 litres of hot water boiled, cowboy style, on the stove, and also experiencing first-hand the surprisingly high actual efficiency of my house’s Super Environmentally Friendly heat-retention system (everything is insulated, air is mechanically circulated at about 100 cubic metres per hour, extra heat exchanger transfers warmth from expelled air to fresh injected air) which managed to keep the internal temperature at a comfortable 18 C (outside between 1 and 8 C) without any hot water in the radiators, and also managing to write one of the longest sentences in a blog post since last Tuesday, the only other blog-worthy artifact I have to offer you is this YouTube screencast I made the other day, demonstrating how to perform a rudimentary segmentation on DICOM CT data and extract STL surface meshes using DeVIDE:

You can add this to your growing list of natural non-ingestible sleep medicine.

Last week I heard that I’d passed my Korte Vrijstellingstoets. This is a test that you, foreigner in The Netherlands, can take to demonstrate that you have sufficient knowledge of Dutch language and culture and thus don’t have to take bunches of other compulsory courses and/or exams that are far more time-consuming. This is not such a significant happening, were it not for the fact that it’s another very concrete symbol of my growing affinity with and attachment to this little patch of the planet. I can hardly avoid thinking seriously about the future of this relationship.

Further, this weekend I missed the wedding of one my best friends due to the niggling matter of 10000 kilometres conspiring with sundry but unavoidable work-related constraints. I would really have loved to be there… There will always be drawbacks, no matter where you choose to live. Especially if you choose for the excitement of a country-skipping adventure and do so for any significant length of time, you will always long for That Other Place, that special coordinate that you currently can’t occupy, and the people associated with it.  Even if you go back to where you started, irrevocably tainted with a strange culture, you don’t quite fit in and long for your acquired home. The grass is and will remain greener on the other side.

I had the good fortune of meeting a wise and well-spoken French man shortly after starting my European adventure. This man, who had done quite some country skipping, finally ending up in Lugano (one can end up in worse places than Lugano), introduced me to the concept of the Eternal Foreigner. This is what one becomes when one simply embraces the idea that, once having moved country and culture, one can never ever be at Home again. Instead of struggling to blend in, struggling to be more like one’s neighbour, or struggling to retain and manifest some warped version of one’s own culture in an environment where it’s doomed to wilt, simply accept Being From Elsewhere.

The Eternal Foreigner misses Home, but smiles, and is at peace.