Weekly Head Voices #162: Converse with a stranger today.

Crab on Strand beach.

This edition of the WHV looks back at the week from Monday February 4 to Sunday February 10, 2019.

It feels like this post took even longer than usual to get “done”. I think it might have to do with me breaking it up into several early morning writing sessions, which resulted in two partially formed blog posts compressing themselves quite inelegantly into this edition.

I will try to do better next time.

Anyways, the rest consists of a nerd part (which you could skip if you’re not interested in nerds or their things, but then you would miss the part where I explain why you should be using Signal instead of WhatsApp), followed by a story about conversations with strangers.

The Nerd Part

A reminder to mix up your messaging life with some privacy

By the end of 2017, WhatsApp had 1.5 billion monthly active users.

That’s a pretty serious chunk of the world population.

Down here in South Africa, WhatsApp dominates the mobile messaging space.

There’s nothing else that even comes close.

In order to communicate with the largest subset of friends and contacts, I need WhatsApp. In order to participate in school and neighbourhood groups, or to coordinate with service providers (pretty darned useful that), I have no choice but to use WhatsApp.

Unless some enormous calamity strikes, I don’t think that this is not going to change any time soon.

In January of this year, The New York Times reported that Facebook was planning to merge the underlying technical infrastructure of WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger.

Although this will result in users being able to cross-message between WhatsApp, Insta (I’m not a user, I just heard hipster kids calling it this) and Facebook Messenger, which is great, it will also enable the Facebook mothership to monitor very closely who connects with whom across all three networks.

Think about this: Facebook will be able to analyse, across all three of these giant networks, who interacts with whom and when, and sometimes in which way, and will be able to build an even more detailed and powerful social network than they have already done.

If we do nothing, everyone else will just keep on keeping everyone else on WhatsApp. This circular logic is extremely hard to beat.

If we’re even slightly concerned (ok, new we’re down to about 12 people, 5 of which read this blog), what can we do about this?

Install Signal on your phone, and use that whenever you can. (I started nagging about this in early 2016.)

Signal is one of the most secure and private messaging apps available. Importantly, there’s no company behind it that wants to mine your data for whatever reason.

Sure, you can keep on arguing that no-one else is on Signal. However, I’m here, and you can message me.

Once you install it in addition to the incumbents, you then have a great opportunity of becoming the token Signal user in your social sub-network who by the sheer power of nag-itude gets one or two of your friends to join this small but valuable network.

Whatever we can do to redirect a fraction of the world’s messaging traffic away from the Facebook behemoth is a worthwhile endeavour.

Visual Studio Code is evolving at a terrific pace

Looking at the changelog for the January release of Visual Studio Code, and the changelog for the January release of the Python extension, I was astonished by the development velocity on display.

I am the guy who got Microsoft’s Python Language Server working with the existing LSP support in Emacs, and then very fortunately two different open source projects ran with it. However, it seems like there are whole armies of programmers working on Visual Studio Code and its Python extension, which sometimes makes this feel like a micro-example of (a slightly wonky) cathedral and the bazaar.

In any case, where I used to fall back to Emacs for smaller Python projects where it wasn’t worth it firing up the PyCharm machinery, I now often reach for Visual Studio Code, which in a growing number of cases is even able to go toe-to-toe with PyCharm.

Pro-tip: Use z.lua to change directories Really Quickly

For years now I’ve been using either fasd or more recently autojump (because it installs on macOS with a one-liner more or less) to jump really quickly between recently visited directories in the shell.

However, in a stunning case of there-really-is-always-room-for-one-more-solution-to-the-same-problem, I ran into z.lua, a command-line directory jumper programmed in Lua (which I’ve always had a thing for), which is also many times faster than fasd or autojump.

Now, I simply do z blog to jump to the most frecent (frequent and recent you plebs) directory containing the word “blog”, or zf tele to show me a selectable list of the directories I’ve frecently visited containing the sub-word “tele”.

(Here’s a bonus pro-tip for macOS users: If you don’t mind scripting in Lua, hammerspoon is an amazing desktop open source automation tool. It is the spiritual successor to Mjolnir (hence its name), which you can use to script any number of shortcut-associated desktop tricks. I for example have code to resize any window to a relative portion of the current desktop, and to stick that window neatly into a specific quadrant or half of the desktop. This meant I could remove Spectacle from my machine.)

Conversations with Strangers

Thanks to lady luck, or perhaps thanks to serendipity engineering (hat tip to traveller tzhau), I have had the pleasure of some utterly unexpected but pretty epic conversations, with strangers, over the years.

(The secret is that you have to plug in to the conversation apparatus of a stranger. Just remember to configure the communication protocol to hallucin-8. No I don’t mean that you should go on a trip together. This just refers to the ancient mechanism of being able to experience vividly another’s reality via your real-time multi-sensory imagination, synchronised via the primitive but reliable speech signal.)

For example, back in WHV #84 I wrote about the fellow eternal foreigner I met at a weekend party (weekend parties are the best), who taught me the trick of applying gratefulness generously and continously.

One of the more epic conversations I never wrote about, is the two fellow travellers I met on the Final Flight back to South Africa after our brilliant Dutch adventure.

These were some of the darkest times of my recent life.

I had just watched for three days as our home was being hollowed out by the movers, until it was just an empty shell.

During that time, I slept in that empty shell, with the ever-increasing echoes of even the smallest sounds doing quite effectively the exact opposite of buoying my mood.

Spending some of these final few days with some of my best friends was truly bitter sweet.

By the time I entered the plane back to Cape Town, I was lower than I had been in a very long time.

My cunning plan at that point was to have a truly depressing flight, but fate had conspired to put me in row 44, where I found myself next to CL and CS.

I can’t remember exactly how the process started, but before I knew it we were embroiled in a solid 11+ hours of continuous and life-affirming conversation.

Besides the differences between us that made the cross-exploration that much more interesting, meeting someone on a plane usually has no to very few implications for later, so one is somehow even more free to open up and connect. In that sense, this is reminiscent of the conversations I’ve gotten involved in at AB.

(In this case, that assumption was proven wrong by pretty serious post-flight collaborations. If you’re reading this CS, thank you for that also!)

At a more recent weekend party (remember they are the best) I again found myself involved in a pretty intense conversation with a stranger.

Again, this stranger had wisdom to share, a tidbit of which I would like to reproduce here.

He referred to this guideline as not negotiating with the self.

If you’re like me, you are now making your “Huh?” face.

His example was about going to the gym, or rather, future him coming up with all kinds of excuses for not going. His rule was that in these cases future him had to go and, without any exception (there’s the non-negotation clause), complete the exercise bike session. Only then, if future him at that point still really did not want to go, was there the possibility of calling it quits.

This feels similar to what I’m trying to do with my checklists.

When I’m thinking about ways to live better, I am by definition in my rider-on-elephant state. It makes a whole lot of sense to use this time to lay reverse-traps for future me in my tired elephant-running-loose state.

The underlying idea is for Super-You to design systems, e.g. checklists, non-negotiable and easy-to-follow rules, and fully formed habits, that help Normal-Low-Energy-You to keep on functioning as well as possible.

A message from our sponsor Socrates

For edition #6431 of Really Abrupt and Sometimes Jarring WHV endings(tm) I shall end with a quote. I recently ran into this famous dictum by Socrates which I definitely resonate with:

ὁ … ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ

also known as:

The unexamined life is not worth living

Have a brilliant week kids!

Weekly Head Voices #100: Happy 2016!

Cape Town from Table Mountain, photo is copyright 2015 Charl Botha.
Cape Town photographed from the top of Table Mountain. Click for high-res.

I wish you a truly happy 2016, filled with learning and helping other people! Neil deGrasse Tyson, exemplary human, said it best:

For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And along the way, lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

Time is fun when you’re having flies! I can’t believe that four months have flown by since the previous WHV. Since then, quite a bunch has happened. Some highlights for me:

  • I spent a week in The Netherlands, my other home, taking part in a second hackathon with the Evalueserve peeps (the previous one was in Gurgaon in India). This was again loads of fun, and we managed to build a significant new shippable feature (measurable value!) almost from scratch.
  • In October, I went back to The Netherlands (it’s my other home, remember) for 2.5 days to take part in the Doctorification of a friend. Besides the doctorification process (I’ve been out of academia for a while, so my terminology might not be 100%) which went swimmingly, I had so many high-intensity interactions with some of my favourite people that I literally almost missed my flight back. Just picture me waking up in Delft at 8:30 with a flight leaving from Amsterdam at 10:00…
  • For a work project,  I started programming in Apple’s Swift. As compiled high-performance languages go, this one has a number of modern language features which make it a truly interesting addition to one’s programming toolbox.
  • Further on the nerd-front, I’m trying to get more of us to use Signal instead of WhatsApp whenever possible.
  • We spent so many weekends and the Christmas vacation doing fun outdoorsy stuff (living at the southern tip of Africa has serious perks), not least of which was a trip up Table Mountain for the first time in 15 years. See the photo up top for an impression.

I have some fun changes in mind for this blog in 2016, but you’re going to have to stick around to find out what they are, so… see you later peeps!

When we can, let’s use Signal instead of WhatsApp.

(Post updated on August 25, 2016. See section at the end.)

Screenshot of Signal.
Signal, the open source messaging and voice calling app that does end-to-end encryption.

The whole world is using WhatsApp to message each other. I often do too, because I want to inter-operate with the rest of the world.

However, WhatsApp belongs to Facebook.

Although Facebook has promised otherwise, the temptation to link all of your WhatsApp messages with Facebook logins (a straight-forward process, as they have the mobile phone numbers of a great number of their users) must be quite tempting to the people at Facebook. Imagine how well they would then be able to target their advertising, based on their access to both your Facebook profile and your private WhatsApp messages!

Fortunately, we now have an open source app, called Signal (available on Android, IOS and the desktop), which performs end-to-end encryption on all messages and voice calls that go through it. This means that absolutely no-one is able to read your messages or eavesdrop on your voice calls, except the intended recipients.

My request is that you get your contacts to install and start using Signal instead of WhatsApp wherever possible. At the very least some of our messages will not be accessible to various large corporations and any other prying eyes. If the security argument is not enough for you, there is one more extremely important topic: Signal handles animated gifs better than WhatsApp, at least on Android. (Telegram supports them on both Android on IOS, but it is by default less secure than Signal). See here the results of my experiments:


On August 25, 2016, The Verge reported that WhatsApp will now officially begin sharing data with Facebook. They will indeed link up telephone numbers and social networks, meaning that both parties will get a tremendous boost in what they know about you. I don’t want to say I told you so, but I told you so. ;)

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: http://www.amazon.com/Images-SI-Inc-Uranium-Ore/dp/B000796XXM/

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 Cracked.com. 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.