A Photo From the Future

A couple of nights ago, shortly after reading some classic Mr. Men stories before bed, the boy picked up a photo and asked me an interesting question. Young children often ask a number of interesting questions that adults never think about, but this one was rather unique in that it was the first time the boy showed an understanding for the fluidity of time.

この写真は未来のものですか?

Is this photo from the future?

Being four, he does have a rough concept of time. He knows that things happened before and that we live in the now and that we can enjoy long visits to the park in a few days. This question was looking well beyond days and instead at decades.

The photo in question is this one here, of my father and step-mother. The picture was taken maybe a year or two ago and has been on a bookshelf next to my bed since we received it. The boy has never met anyone from my family in person, though he does make an appearance during the occasional video call.

Dad & Henri

What I found interesting about the question, aside from the implications that come with a greater degree of temporal awareness, is that the boy could likely see some resemblance between my father and I and showed an understanding that we age with time. By looking at a picture of my father, seeing a resemblance, and having an understanding that the person in question was older, it seems logical to assume that the photo could be from the future. A four year old child knows we can have pictures of the past, so why not also of the future?

Dad, Henri, and I in Princeton, NJ

This second photo was taken almost exactly three years ago when I made the one and only trip to North America since moving to Japan. Yeah, I look a bit like my father, but I look a lot more like my mother … who I do not have any pictures of.

A Better Pastime

Last week the boy had his very first stage performance at school. As one would expect, this sort of thing gives parents a number of reasons to be less cautious with spending, particularly when that money spent can result in better-quality photos and videos. At the tail end of 2016 we picked up a Canon Kiss x7 DSLR with two lenses with the expectation that we would be taking lots of pictures of a new person as he grew up. This has proven to be a great investment as the image quality from this single-purpose camera is far superior to anything that I've seen from a cell phone1, but taking distance shots in a dim room — let alone an auditorium — has always been disappointing. The EFS 55-250mm macro lens that came with the camera is just not up to the task. So, with the purse strings loosened a bit, Reiko authorised the purchase of a prosumer-grade lens: a Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM.

To test the camera before the boy's performance, I took a number of shots at night after everyone was in bed. A photo of a living room lamp came out crystal clear despite being more than 6 metres away. Words on a thermostat could be zoomed into and read with ease from five metres. In areas of even more shadow, the lens captured enough light to take a relatively-good shot of some toys under a table. Things were looking good, but I wanted to try something interesting to see just how far the camera could get a clear shot.

I wanted a good, clear picture of the moon.

A quick image search online for pictures of the Earth's moon — or moons of other worlds in our solar system — will reveal millions of pictures, many with remarkable image quality, excellent colour balance, and near-perfect framing. These shots are all well and good for desktop backgrounds, but I wanted a photo that I took. Since I was a young boy I've always wanted a telescope. My parents couldn't afford to buy one, given there were five kids who needed food, clothes, and other necessities, and when I started earning money my priorities had changed to investing in computer equipment. However, times have changed. While the Sigma 100-400mm lens is not technically a telescope, it does have some pretty good range.

So off to the park I went, camera in hand, to take some pictures of our nearest celestial neighbour. This is one shot that I managed to grab with everything in automatic mode:

The Moon — Automatic Settings

Not a bad photo for an amateur holding a big lens in his hands rather than with a tripod. Not a great one, either. I needed to learn how to take pictures of bright objects at night.

Over the course of a couple days I read a number of photography and astronomy blogs to see how novices and professionals captured images of our moon. Patterns emerged. I quickly discovered that the first photo could never have been great because the ISO level was all wrong, as was the aperture, and the shutter speed. What I needed to do was this:

  • go all manual with the settings
  • set the aperture to f/11 or f/16
  • set the shutter speed to 1/100 or 1/125
  • set the ISO to 100
  • use a tripod2

My earlier attempts with automatic settings had all of these numbers wrong, which resulted in a large number of completely black photos with a solid-bright disc in the middle. The one semi-decent shot from the first night was just sheer luck.

So, armed with a little more knowledge, I went out to the park again tonight to see what sort of pictures could be acquired. This was the result:

Another Moon Shot

This isn't bad. Nor is it great. There's a lot of pollen and other pollutants in the atmosphere tonight. That said, this is a step in the right direction. Progress. Hopefully, by continuing to hone my skills with the camera and various lenses, I'll be ready to start taking pictures of really distant objects with a proper telescope in a couple of years when the boy starts showing an interest in planets, asteroids, nebulae, and more.


  1. Mind you, I don't know how far the image quality has come on premium phones in the last few years. They could be at near-DSLR level by now, knowing Apple, Sony, and Samsung.

  2. Subsequent trips to the park at night involved a tripod. That said, the lens is really heavy. A different mount to offset the new balance-midpoint will be needed in the near future.

Four Cans of Coffee

A common New Year pastime that people of all ages enjoy in Japan is kite flying. The tradition goes back centuries and, while people rarely build their own anymore, the distinctive sounds and bright colours of the simple wind catchers always draws a crowd. Not wanting to be left out, the boy asked if he could also fly a kite.

Sure. Why not?

A pair of yellow and blue kites were bought from the nearby mall and we made our way to a moderately empty baseball park where there was ample space and a good bit of wind. After a little bit of setup, we had flight! The sound of laughter and delight filled the park as a young person ran around, eyes to the sky, enjoying a simple pleasure that required zero glowing screens, LEDs, or batteries. The fun went in for at least twenty minutes, and I was capturing the moment with an old phone and even older set of eyes.

And then the crying started.

It took a second to see what happened, but the boy had lost his grip on the thread handle, meaning the kite was now travelling due North with zero resistance. A moment later it stopped travelling away from us but continued to buck and twist like an animal who was momentarily free, then once again constrained. The plastic handle was snared by a tree branch several meters above our heads. There was no escape for the kite anymore.

There was, however, a problem. Japan has a terrible habit of putting utility poles everywhere and running wires to and fro. Because the branch that held the kite was too thin to hold the weight of anyone older than 5, and because the height was much too high to send a five year old, we needed a way to recover the untamed sail before it wrapped itself around some wires. I tried using a makeshift hook that could wrap itself around the string lead to pull the kite to safety, but this proved to be futile. Within a matter of minutes, a brief lull in the wind sent the kite whirling around not one, not two, but four wires than ran from the utility poles to houses across the street; power and phone.

It was time to depend on the professionals.

Reiko called the power company who sent a pair of technicians out within an hour. As one would expect, the trapped kite had attracted a lot of attention and some boys from the neighbourhood were taking an interest in the operation. Fortunately there were no complications. The kite was returned, broken from the wind and with many sections of string in tatters. The boy was upset because his new toy couldn’t fly anymore. Reiko and I were relieved, because we weren’t asked to pay for the completely preventable rescue operation.

As a token of our appreciation, though, we did offer the two technicians a small reward for their efforts: four cans of coffee. Hopefully they could enjoy them while driving to their next mission.

Patterns

In the final weeks of November last year I decided to once again re-join AskUbuntu as part of an attempt to "give back" for all the good that Ubuntu Linux has brought me over the years. 150 questions were answered over a period of five weeks, resulting in 2,100+ points, a slew of badges, and a couple of seasonal hats. The majority of the interactions were productive and people would sometimes build on my answers, allowing me an opportunity to learn more about the platform that has played an important part of my digital toolkit since 2005. Being the sort of person who tends to look for patterns, a couple of things stood out that seem to be incomplete with the popular distribution.

AskUbuntu Statistics

Linux has often been portrayed as a niche operating system that caters towards the technologically interested, but there are an increasing number of "normal people" who see the value in having something that does not come from Apple or Microsoft on their computers. What this means is that people from all over the globe are installing Linux on machines that were generally designed to be platform-specific devices; running MacOS if it were an Apple, or Windows if it were anything else1. While the various Linux distributions have made great strides in ensuring hardware compatibility, certain gaps continue to be a problem.

The first is networking. On any given day, there will be several people asking their very first question on AskUbuntu saying something along the lines of:

I just installed Ubuntu on my computer and the WiFi doesn't work. Help!

Or:

I plugged a USB WiFi dongle into my computer, and Ubuntu doesn't see it. Help!

After a bit of back and forth, the community can generally work out what a person needs to do to get their machine up and running on a wireless network. The steps can sometimes be incredibly easy, consisting of changing a setting in the BIOS or editing a file, or ridiculously complicated, requiring a person clone a Git repository and compile a driver from source before installing it manually. These are hardly great experiences for anyone, including the development teams that have invested thousands of hours to get device compatibility to where it is today. Believe me when I say that setting up a fresh Linux installation used to require an entire long weekend!

However, this shows that there is still a bit of work that can go into this one area, most likely via an application written by someone outside the main distributions. The required functionality would be pretty basic:

  1. scan the machine for network devices that are using the wrong driver or have no driver at all
  2. suggest the best drivers based on the device chipsets
  3. do the necessary work to get the drivers installed

This application would need to allow a person to also download all the necessary driver files alongside the main app so that a person with no network connection at all could get online in short order. The "problem" would be keeping up with all the various unofficial driver resources that have sprung up on GitHub, BitBucket, and other places to service devices that use RealTek and some less-common Broadcom chipsets.

Does something like this already exist? It's certainly a possibility. I have not seen it, though.

Another common issue seems to involve video drivers, with Nvidia hardware being the most-common devices cited. People report all sorts of issues and often receive suggestions that involve changing kernel settings, updating the bootloader to include various modes, switching drivers from community to proprietary or vice versa, and the like. Just like the WiFi issue, this isn't something that people should have to think about. There must be a way to automate the fixes to a certain degree as there are a limited number of video cards available2. Could an auto-detection & configuration tool be built that would work alongside the device discovery code that exists in the operating systems? Most likely, and it would be well-received if it could alleviate the stress a lot of people who are new to Linux feel when technical problems like these inevitably arise.

The third most common issue that I've seen is with people messing around with Grub, the bootloader, and losing the ability to load Windows or some other operating system that is also installed on their computer. This could be solved by making an image of the bootloader and writing it to a USB stick, ideally the same one that has the Ubuntu installation files. Then, when someone messes something up so badly they need to fix it, they can restore from backup. The Ubuntu Live environment does have a bootloader repair tool, but it does not always restore a bootloader to what it was, instead repairing it based on information it finds scattered across the system. The most common complaint is when the bootloader repair tool only restores access to one operating system because the other resides on a separate storage device.

Ubuntu, and most other popular distributions, have done a remarkable amount of work to make Linux a better, more polished system today than at any point in the past, but there's still a good deal of work to be done. It will be interesting to see if any of the issues outlined above are tacked in the near future … and that first one seems like a nice little challenge for me to pick up in the spring if it hasn't been solved by then.


  1. I'm excluding the Chromebooks for now, as that's a topic for another day.

  2. Yes, we're talking thousands, but it is still a finite number that involves a limited number of chipsets.

The Other Side

After what seems like an eternity, the world is at long last starting a new calendar year. Many of the same issues that made the past twelve months frustrating and unbearable continue to plague us but, with the clock striking midnight to mark the beginning of 2021, our optimistic hopes for the next 365 days can seem plausible … at least for a while.

Optimism is what powers hope. Hope is what enables people to work through the various unwelcome challenges that life throws our way, generally by setting some goals; no matter how small. For me, there are a number of goals that I will aim to achieve before the clock strikes midnight to ring in 2022. These include:

  • publishing a book on digital textbooks and their role in geographically distributed education
  • laying the foundation to become an official Ubuntu Member
  • changing employers

The first two items have seen some consistent work since November of last year and are starting to show dividends. Time will tell whether these will continue to generate positive interest from the global community. The third is something I've been talking about "forever" but is becoming more of a critical issue. There are some great people at the day job who I genuinely enjoy working with, but there are just too many compromises that need to be made in order for me to carry on. This isn't an ideal situation for anyone involved, so moving on seems logical.

There are other hopes for 2021, of course, including the health and safety of my family and friends around the world, but these cannot easily be turned into goals.

Either way, we've made it through to the other side. Yes, there's still a lot of stress, frustration, and anxiety. Yes, there are a lot of people taking advantage of the chaos that is winding its way through communities around the world. Yes, we will all have a big mess to clean up in the very near future. That said, we're 12 months closer to completion than we were a year ago. This is something to be optimistic about.

Magniloquent

The "Word of the Day" screensaver that comes built into macOS is a lovely distraction at times. Every 24 hours there is another list of words that cycle on the screen, complete with a phonetic spelling and definition. A lot of times the selected words are ones I've known for years and occasionally new ones pop up. For reasons that are not exactly clear to me, I try to use these new words in messages and conversations that day as it's an effective way of naturally building a lexicon. Every so often I get the feeling that this practice is something a lot of people around the world ascribe to as well. A few weeks back the word "loquacious" scrolled across the screen and not a day later was an article on a well-read news site with that very same word. Coincidence? Perhaps. If it happens once. But it doesn't. This is something that I see time and time again. Not a week goes by when one of the less-common words selected for display in "Word of the Day" doesn't make an appearance elsewhere in my reading. This is a good thing, too. What better way to reinforce newly acquired language than to be exposed to it again in an Anki-like manner?

One of today's words was, as the title of this post suggests, "magniloquent". This adjective means to use high-flown or bombastic language; bombastic meaning high-sounding but with little meaning. A lot of people would probably associate magniloquent speech to that of a politician or a person who simply likes the sound of their own voice. Heck, I could be accused of speaking magniloquently during a number of recent meetings at work. Yet, when I think about the word a bit more, something different springs to mind: text-based media.

Perhaps I've just become more aware of grandstanders and soap-box preachers since leaving Twitter in 2014, but it does seem that a great number of articles online are replete with an excessive number of adjectives that are used to inflate the significance of a topic beyond what might be considered excessive. This isn't limited to any particular group or people with certain ideologies. It's everywhere. In an effort to get our ideas across the void and into other people's minds, we've had to turn the volume up to eleven. This means exacerbating the issue of bombastic writing with superfluous terms and locutions, obscuring our ultimate objectives with turgid euphemisms that give us the appearance of being intellectually on par with the likes of Martha Nussbaum, René Descartes, and Alan Watts.

Very few of us could ever hope to be so cognitively gifted; and fewer still would actually want to be.

Still, it's nice to watch the words scroll past and use them to make sentences in our head, sentences we say out loud, and sentences we put to text. Sometimes we'll use a word wrong. Sometimes we'll learn the correct meaning of a word. Sometimes we'll pick up something new. And if that new word gives us a reason to pen an archetypal article or blog post, then so be it.

Five Things ... and 3,000 Days

Earlier today I discovered that 10Centuries has now been live for 3,000 days. It was August 1st, 2012 when the server was brought online and my account created. The first version of the system ran on the v2 platform, a re-write of the Evernote-dependent software that came before it. Today 10Centuries is running on the v5 platform and it continues to see updates to make the system better, faster, and more secure as time goes on. As today is a round-number anniversary, I thought it would be fitting to look at five updates that are coming down the pipe for the coming winter.

A New Social Design

The current site design for Nice.Social has been largely unchanged for almost 900 days. Sure, there have been fixes, tweaks, and additions over time, but the underlying visual structure has remained untouched. This needs to change.

A couple of months ago I hired a UI designer to help me envision what a modern version of Nice.Social might look like. I asked for a purple colour scheme and a consistent design language. They came back with something that I believe looks quite decent. Two weeks ago I started work on making the theme come to life and I'm hoping to have it complete enough for a community vote before November. So long as there are no serious complaints, it will go live on November 1.

As with many of the 10C works-in-progress, people can see the current state by visiting beta.10centuries.org. As the URL suggests, the system may not seem all that complete at any given time.

Evernote Integration

Yep, Evernote integration is coming back … primarily because I've been using Evernote regularly again1. This will allow people to publish new posts to their blogs from a notebook of their choosing and send existing posts back to Evernote. This will allow people to always have a copy of their post locally, which is ideal for anyone who wants a local backup.

Another Blog Theme, but for Photos

This is a long time coming. I would really like to have a good photoblog -- behind a password -- that I can share with family. This will allow them to see (curated) pictures of the boy and maybe read some stories about what he did on a given day. iCloud shared photo albums work with some members of the family, but not everyone has or wants and Apple device. The theme will not have to exist behind a password, of course, as it would be designed for anyone to use and enjoy.

Blog Comments

This is self-explanatory. One of the main reasons that comments have not existed on blogs is due to the "anonymous commenter" problem. 10C does not have an anonymous persona for people who do not wish to create an account and it seems ridiculous to create one. That said, there's no reason why it shouldn't be possible for people with 10C accounts to comment on blog posts via the blog itself when people have long been able to do so from Nice.Social.

An RSS Reader

One of the big things that I'm trying to address with the social site redesign is readability. As the new design does have a lot of improvements on how people can read and interact with posts, it makes sense to make 10C's mostly-hidden RSS Reader features into the social client. This will give people an opportuntity to unify some of the streams they read. There are a couple of features that are part of the RSS reader that should save people some time when reading certian types of articles and there will be options available for people to create response posts and quotations to post on their blog(s) right from the reader itself.

This will hopefully be in place before December.

Three thousand days is not a lot of time in the grand scheme of things and 10C still has the goal of ensuring the words we publish today are available a thousand years from now. This means there are still 362,250 days to go to deliver on the promise. During this time there will be quite a bit of work done to ensure the platform remains an interesting and viable place for just about anyone to share their words with the present and the future. Hopefully some of these planned changes will appeal to people.


  1. I wanted to like Agenda, and there are a lot of things that I do like about that note-taking system. But something just doesn't quite click with me in the same way Evernote does.

Eighteen Minutes

Eighteen Minutes a Day

There are hundreds of bicycles parked at various places around the neighbourhood every day as people travel from home to work, from home to school, or from home to a bus stop. By 11:00pm at night this number drops to mere dozens, which can leave a person to wonder if the bike has been abandoned. They do move, however. Every day the regular parking spaces are used and emptied, used and emptied. Seeing this one completely alone under a pedestrian bridge just steps away from a bus stop, I wondered what the bicycle might think if it were conscious. Would it dream of exploring the world despite its unremarkable design? Would it wish to be active rather than stationary? Would it simply wait and look forward to the few minutes every day when it can ride free from its wheel locks?

Something

I Create

A lot of thought has gone into my career direction since the daily blogging came to a sudden stop. It is no secret that I've become restless with the monotony of the daily grind. Every day is more of what yesterday had to offer with very little to offer in the way of challenge. There are plenty of complex problems that require simple solutions, which one could argue is a task worthy of an undivided focus. Yet these things do not offer me the trial by fire that I seek. Like an endlessly fickle fool, I want more.

More what is less easy to define. Like almost everyone else I would like more time, more energy, and more coffee. But regardless of how much we might have, these are luxuries we soon take for granted until a stray thought reminds us yet again that we are probably not using our finite resources in an effective manner.

Instead, I'm looking for something that has a steep learning curve with a massive reward at the end; the reward being the successful completion of the thing and, if fortune favours this fool, an indication of what to do next.

Perhaps I ask too much from life.

Fixtures

There’s a man that I see almost every morning who goes out for a rather long Nordic Walk. During the cooler months he’s seen while I walk Nozomi in the park or take the boy to school. In the summertime he goes past my house no later than 7:30am. He’s what I call a “fixture” of the neighbourhood. There are other people who have their own routines who are also fixtures, doing what they do daily and bringing a sort of regularity to the community.

There goes Nishimura-san.
Isobe-san seems to be on an enka kick again.
There’s Takeuchi-san walking Shiro.

The regularity presented by these people, all retired men in their 80s, is welcome. It conveys a sense of continuity, of consistency, and of familiarity. I’ve chatted with them, laughed with them, and learned from them. Over the 30 months of living in this neighbourhood, I’ve also become one of them. I am a fixture.

Being a foreigner in any Asian country means standing out wherever you go, but this neighbourhood is different. While the land owners are 99.7% Japanese1, there is a rather large population of Portuguese-speakers in the area. Japan and Brazil have a special bond that goes back over a century and, as a result, there are often a large number of Brazilian skilled labourers who come to the country for five to ten years, earn a respectable wage, and give their families the opportunity to enjoy many of the benefits that come with living in this country. Despite this, it seems that people recognize me whenever I’m out. They ask about Nozomi. They ask about the boy. They have noticed my patterns and will let me know when things are out of stock, on the way, or discontinued. When I venture to parts of the town that are less familiar, I’ll see the occasional neighbour or person who works nearby who will stop to say hello, and they’ll let me know of a park that I might have missed, a temple I might be interested in seeing, or an unmarked walking path that is known only to locals … some of which wind through the nearby mountains and act as a shortcut to the small lake nearby.

This recognition is interesting, though I’ll admit a bit uncomfortable. In an ideal situation, I would be completely anonymous while outside. In reality, though, this is unrealistic. Much like I have identified the “fixtures” in the neighbourhood, people have identified me; a foreigner with poor Japanese-speaking skills who tends to go everywhere on foot by choice. Workers at the nearby grocery store know what kind of alcohol I prefer. Employees at the library know what kind of books I initially look through. Dog-walkers know that I’ll always stop to let their canine friends sniff the back of my hand before I scratch them behind the ear2.

Neighbours have commented on seeing me sit in all four of my preferred places, one of which I had thought to be “hidden” by the surrounding greenery. Strangers come up and say things like “Fukunaga-san in 3-chome3 tells me you’re a programmer. Can you help me with … ?” The retired man who plays basketball in the park across from the grocery store has thrown me the ball after I dropped the boy off at school and asked if I would play a quick game of 21.

I am a fixture; instantly recognizable by the foreignness of my appearance and irrepressible Canadian accent.

… And I think I’m okay with this.


  1. 99.711% of land owners in the six neighbourhoods that make up this part of the city are Japanese. 0.289% — 121 people — are foreigners with permanent residency. This is according to the recent numbers from city hall.

  2. I scratch the dogs behind their ear, not the people. That would be weird.

  3. A neighbourhood designation.