New Year, New Blogs

Here are three clear thinkers whose blogs I’ve enjoyed discovering over the past year. Maybe you might like them too.

Tech

Julia Evans takes a complicated topic that she’d like to learn about, and just… goes and learns about it. Then she posts her findings to her blog, written in a really accessible way. She does this mainly for technical topics, but sometimes also tech leadership skills.

Completely true to form, she’s currently on a sabbatical from her job to write a profiler for Ruby. At the time of this writing, she’s publishing a weekly post on what she learned each week doing this project.

She also produces zines: short, handwritten, comic-book style explanations of technical subjects. I managed to get my hands on a paper copy of So You Want To Be A Wizard, which is a collection of tips about building up your problem-solving skills as a software engineer. The zines are also available to read for free on her website.

Julia Evans’ writing style is really what I aspire to on this blog, I just never knew it before. She takes complicated topics and demystifies them, and reading about them really makes you feel like you too can get your head around difficult things if you can just conquer your hesitation and dive in.

Politics

Benjamin Studebaker is politically a lot farther to the left than I am, and actually has written a certain number of articles that I strongly disagree with. There’s nothing that’s not well-thought-out, though, and sometimes it’s good to read things you disagree with.

However, I’ve learned a few things from this blog. One is what he calls “the core left-wing premise”: People’s actions are shaped by conditions. In other words, the left-wing approach to fighting poverty is to ask the question “How can we change the conditions in our society to make it possible for poor people to have the opportunities they need?” whereas the right-wing approach is to ask “How can we make poor people take responsibility for themselves?”

The most thought-provoking thing I’ve read here is the need to apply the core left-wing premise consistently — even to realize that we need to change the systems in our society that cause people to find various -isms (such as racism) attractive, and the -ists themselves will follow, whereas an aggressive approach will only cause the -ists to entrench their views. In Benjamin Studebaker’s words:

[W]hen we tell racists to “educate themselves” we’re no different from the conservatives who tell the homeless guy they see on the corner to “get a job”.

Media

Mike Caulfield has a blog that defies categorization. I’m calling it “media” because that seems to be the common thread. He writes a lot about one topic for a while, then moves on to another topic. (I’m actually cheating a bit because I got into this blog a few years ago when he was writing about Federated Wiki, then he moved on to the garden model versus the feed model, and on to shared resources. But it’s like a whole different blog every year!)

This past year he’s moved on to the topic of fact-checking and polarization on social media. It’s really worth going back and reading posts from the beginning of 2017, since there are too many good ones to put in just a list of highlights. The short of it is that he has written a lot about both the technical and social aspects about why ultra-polarized fake news is taking over social media platforms, why the companies behind these platforms have no incentive to change that, and the skills that we as consumers need to protect ourselves from falling into the fake news trap. One thing I especially appreciate is that he tries hard to be apolitical by including examples of fake news from all over the political spectrum.

He recently published a post of “Predictions for 2018” that in turn make me predict that his topic for 2018 will be clickbait content generated by machine learning algorithms…

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The GJS documentation is back

Aside

We have once again a set of accurate, up-to-date documentation for GJS. Find it at devdocs.baznga.org!

Many thanks are due to Everaldo Canuto, Patrick Griffis, and Dustin Falgout for helping get the website back online, and to Nuveo for sponsoring the hosting.

In addition, thanks to Patrick’s lead, we have a docker image if you want to run the documentation site yourself.

If you find any inaccuracies in the documentation, please report a bug at this issue tracker.

As long as you fight back

Here’s the text of the letter that I sent to my representatives in the US Congress today. (I don’t live in the US, but I’m a citizen of it, and I vote.)

Dear {name}:

As I’m sure you’re aware, the President’s first destructive week in office has left many Americans fearful of whether the values of our country will continue to be carried out. You are part of the last line of defense.

As a US citizen who has lived abroad for over 20 years and been through the immigration systems of two countries, the President’s recent executive order on immigration has struck a particular chord with me. It is a cheap shot to fan the flames of xenophobia, and more refugees — not some abstract concept, but real people — will likely die because of it.

I urge you, as my representative, to do everything you can to obstruct and dismantle policies that fly in the face of decency, compassion, and what our country stands for. I am asking you to go beyond what a member of Congress usually does: these are unusual times and the current administration is not playing by the same rules that you and I are. I am asking you never to compromise and never to let up the pressure. If you want to practice bipartisanship, then reach out to those few Republicans who have not sold out. Freeze out the Republicans and Democrats who have.

This will not be an easy ride for you, but as long as you fight back, you can count on my vote.

If you are a US citizen and want to do something similar, here are some links to where you can find who represents you in the Senate and the House. (Note that to find your House representative, you need to enter your address or your extended 5+4 zip code, because of congressional district gerrymandering. Both of your state’s senators represent the whole state at large, so contact both of them.)

 

Would you write a 911 location app?

John Oliver talked in his show’s most recent episode about the US emergency services phone number, 911. It seems that now nobody uses land lines anymore, sometimes the emergency services have a hard time locating people from their cell phones.

John Oliver: “And if you’re thinking, ‘wait a minute, I can find my location on my cell phone,’ you’re not alone. Dispatchers wonder the same thing.”

Dispatcher: “I can check in on Facebook and it’ll tell you exactly what building I’m in. […] But when you call 911 we don’t get that accurate location information. The technology’s out there, it’s just not getting to us at this point.”

JO: “That’s a good point, because even the Domino’s app can tell where you are, and they’ve barely mastered the technology to make a palatable pizza! So we asked […] why it seems Ubers can find you better than ambulances can, and there doesn’t seem to be a simple satisfying answer.”

Here is my best guess at that answer, as a software engineer. Our industry has a pervasive culture of rush-jobs that get 90% of the way there and then save the rest for version 2; move fast and break things, yada yada. No emergency services provider would adopt it because it would not be reliable.

It’s reasonable to think that 90% would be better than what 911 apparently has now, which according to the video is sometimes only accurate to the nearest cell tower. However, the litigious nature of US society makes that impossible. The first time the software failed, the maker would get sued out of business.

Thus we are stuck, because we teach ourselves not to go the extra mile; and even if we went it, no-one could afford to take responsibility for making things better.

Endless is Here

For the past 2.5 years I’ve been working at Endless Mobile on something that was mostly secret. You probably caught me being vague about “computers for developing countries.” Well, secret no longer. I am excited, proud, and honestly a bit relieved to be able to say that I can finally tell you what it’s all about.

“Tell you” is a bit of an exaggeration, I’ll let the videomaking skills of my coworker Taylor Morgan show you instead. The video is at the top of our Kickstarter campaign.

We’re launching our first product, via Kickstarter. It’s a computer that’s affordable for people in developing countries, and it looks like this:

Endless One

Alien Egg

I’ve been working on writing applications for this computer, and also contributing to some parts of the operating system. Some parts of this are open source, and you can view them on GitHub.

Also, I have colleagues who are really fun to work with. If you happen to like fun and are looking for a job, there are some positions open… (It’s at the bottom of that page.)

Update: Within only four days, the Kickstarter campaign hit the original goal of US$100 000. It’s incredible. My favorite part is that almost $30 000 of that money was donated by people paying to give a computer, rather than buy one for themselves. Enough people asked for the option to donate a computer directly, so it was added. Also you can now get the whole package for yourself: computer plus swag, because enough people asked for that too.

 

Wave at the camera

You have probably seen the fake advertisement for Wave, the new way of charging your iOS 8 phone in any standard household microwave. (Although I would venture that some of the responses with fried microwaves and phones are hoaxes as well.)

I admit I did giggle when I first read it — some chump microwaved their expensive phone and blew it up, funny, right? Only I realized that it’s not funny at all.

Why shouldn’t people believe that a new technology would allow them to charge their phone by microwaving it? It’s no more or less magical than any other new technology being invented every day. It just happens not to have been invented yet.

Yes, people need to think critically, check sources, use common sense, and become less science-illiterate. Is microwaving your phone a smart thing to do? No. Could the average person probably have known better? Yes. But if you are lucky enough to be in the minority for whom this is obvious, you don’t have any right to laugh at those for whom it is not.

Faster than a speeding bullet

Perhaps not the most wisely chosen title for this Scientific American newsbite, but very cool research: “Ultra High Speed Camera Records at Speed of Light

They have built a high-speed camera with a high-enough frame rate that they were able to watch a pulse of laser light traveling through a Coke bottle in slow motion. (Pause for a moment to watch this video, for it’s really impressive. I’ve linked to the juicy part.)

You should never read Youtube comments, but on this video, people are actually asking good questions, albeit with the usual Internet rudeness. There are two very confusing things said in the video and article which I think are putting people on the wrong track.

Velocity vs. rate

This can’t possibly be true! Nothing can move faster than the speed of light.

The camera does not record at the speed of light (slightly less than 300 000 000 meters per second, or 1 billion km/h). This confuses two common meanings of the word speed: ‘velocity’ and ‘rate’. It makes no sense to say that a camera records film frames at a particular velocity, much less the velocity of light; velocity means something is moving, and in this case nothing is moving fast at all. (Except for the light pulse itself, which of course travels at the velocity of light.)

Instead, by ‘recording speed’, it really means the camera is recording at the rate of 1 billion images per second (which is not the same thing as meters per second). There is a fundamental rule saying that no object can travel at a faster velocity than 300 million meters per second, but there is no such rule for rates.

(Although, if it were an old-fashioned film camera, the film would have to feed through the camera at a velocity faster than the speed of light, which would be impossible. So it’s lucky we live in the digital age.)

“We can see photons”

The other confusing thing is that the researcher says in the video that they can see photons moving through space — that’s strictly true, but not very helpful, since you are seeing photons moving through space right now too. That leads people to ask:

Hey, I thought you could only see light when it reflected off something into your eye! How can we see the photon moving through the bottle when it hasn’t hit anything yet?

Well, the thing we see moving through the bottle is a laser pulse – not one photon but a clump of trillions of them. Out of those trillions, some hit air molecules and fly off in all directions, and some of those happen to hit the camera. We say “the pulse scatters off the air.” So, it’s true, you can’t see photons directly unless they are flying right at you. What we’re actually watching is the air molecules lighting up as the laser pulse passes by.

None of this takes away from the fact that the front edge of that laser pulse travels with the speed of light — and we are watching that in slow motion! How cool is that?