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:

Updates

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.