Happy Birthday, Nozomi!

Today Nozomi turns 7, a wonderful number that many people consider lucky. When I was seven, I was anything but. Hopefully this coming year will be better for her than it was me.

Nozomi Up Close

Over the last few months Nozomi has felt a little left out with the arrival of Leonard James, so today I'll make it up to her a bit with a nice trip to the park and some extra time together. She's been incredibly patient the last few months. Much more than I had expected.

She really is one of the nicest souls I've had the opportunity to share time with. Hopefully she'll enjoy another seven years on the Earth, sniffing every blade of grass and piece of gravel along the way.

Not Evidence of Absence

Over the last few days there have been a flurry of articles across blogs and news sites on the results of the Breakthrough Listen Project's first year. Long story short, they haven't found any definitive evidence of radio signals within the 1~2GHz band from an extraterrestrial intelligence reaching our world after 12 months of listening. As someone who has actively participated in the [email protected] project, where radio signals from beyond our atmosphere have been collected and analyzed by computers volunteered to the effort for over 15 years, this comes as no surprise to me. That said, a bunch of people seem to feel this effort is little more than a waste of money at a time when it seems that science is under siege by wealthy interest groups and willfully ignorant leaders. To these people, I'd like to remind them of the old axiom that an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia

A decade of research in the 60s and 70s identified that the most promising radio frequencies for extraterrestrial signals was somewhere within 1,000Hz and 2,000Hz as it was relatively absent of interference from naturally occurring interference throughout the known universe. As this 1GHz band has proven itself to be empty of data transmissions as we understand them, scientists are now collecting data from frequencies above 2Ghz. Considering how many radio frequencies there are to scan, we could be looking for a really, really long time.

One of the things I try to remind people of when this topic comes up is that the universe is really quite old, and our technology is really quite young. There's no reason why we should assume that an intelligent alien community would limit itself to radio frequencies that are limited by the speed of light and capable of being easily monitored by "adolescent" worlds such as ours. Our own form of communication has evolved so dramatically over the last 500 years that people during the Renaissance would have no concept of how you and I are able to communicate. Add another 500 years to our development, and the technology that people use in 2517 will appear as magical and inexplicable to us as a cell phone might to Leonardo DaVinci. If we do find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence via radio signals, then chances are they are making themselves known to technologically inferior species, or they are at roughly the same technological level as we are. Given the sheer size of the universe, it's certainly possible that there are worlds besides ours with something akin to our 21st century tools, but within a few a few hundred light years? Perhaps not.

To illustrate the point, humans have been sending radio transmissions into space mostly accidentally since Reginald Fessenden made a weak transmission of voice over the airwaves in 1900. Marconi's famous Transatlantic transmission happened in 1901. At the speed of light, that means our very first transmissions would have travelled no farther than 117 light years. The image below shows a two-hundred light year radius around the Earth in relation to the size of the Milky Way Galaxy, which is just one of billions of galaxies in the universe.

Two Centuries of Radio Broadcasts

We've barely scratched the surface of what's in our interstellar neighbourhood, let alone what's in the Milky Way, or the Local Group, or the visible universe, which is just a tiny portion of our concept of reality. People can certainly complain that the search for intelligence beyond our own atmosphere is a waste of our artificially limited resources, but to complain that we haven't found something even after decades of search is silly. The universe is a big place, and we're just starting to learn how we fit into it. As our technologies continue to evolve, so too will our investigative methodologies. We all just need to be a little patient.

The Trick Is Getting It Right

Back in the summer of 1994 I wrote my first piece of software. Not one to shy away from a challenge, it was a tiny password cracker written in Turbo Pascal that a person would put on a bootable floppy disk, insert into a computer at high school, and run after rebooting the machines. Because computers were seemingly so crashy back then, none of the teachers would look twice if a computer suddenly beeped and went through a boot cycle during the lunch hour or even mid-class. This little program, called ritz.exe, would take a look at a file located in a specific directory and reverse-out the administrator password that was used by the school board to restrict network access. With this access, we could do things like play network games and send messages through a rudimentary chat application that looked an awful lot like IRC, but lacked channels and modes. A couple of weeks after creating the little tool, I was approached by one of the teachers and asked to put an end to the silliness. There was no disciplinary action, nor was I forbidden from using the tool myself from time to time. What the teachers really wanted was for me to stop sharing it with anyone who had a spare floppy disk ... which weren't that many people in '94.

24 years later, I'm still writing all sorts of little tools to accomplish tasks, and I share a lot of them with the world. The ones that aren't shared are especially problematic, and I'm unwilling to commit the time necessary to polish the software to such a state where people who are not me would be able to use them without getting frustrated. That said, I do enjoy creating things that can be used by a wide audience of people. The sense of pride one can have when others enjoy the thing we created is a wonderful feeling. In the current online environment, however, this can be rather difficult at times. Criticism can come in much sooner than expected, and it can be worded in such a way as to completely decimate any happiness we got from sharing that creation. But this is to be expected when we make something available for the world, be it software or spongecake. So how we respond to that criticism is important.

This is something I'm incredibly poor at, so I hope the people reading this are not looking for advice. What I can say, however, is that the trick to writing really good software, making that perfectly fluffy spongecake, or creating the next billion-dollar industry is sweating the details. When we are always looking for ways to improve, we leave ourselves open for success. When we shut the world out, when we stagnate. This doesn't mean that we should open up everything we do to criticism from the global community, of course. We just need to know which people to listen to and how to listen to them. The people who want us to succeed will help us out ... though the language can be a little rough at times.

This is something I try to remember when criticism for my creations begin to pile up. Perfection is impossible. Getting it right, however, is very much within our power.

Is Scott Adams Trolling the Internet?

In the run-up to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, I started reading some of the blog posts Scott Adams would publish on Dilbert.com. Typically I skipped these, instead visiting the site just for the comics, but some of the titles and audacious statements in the snippet that appeared on the site had me click to read more, fully expecting that a smart statement refuting the initial paragraph would quickly make an appearance. There were no reversals and, sometime around August, the "alt-reality" articles were enough to keep me off the site.

Phillip J. Fry - I'm Not Sure If You're Trolling Us

Earlier this week I was sent a link to a Dilbert comic involving Asok, one of my favourite characters, speaking nonsensical jargon. Under that three-panel strip was a blog post attesting that the President of Syria did not release poison gas on the citizens of the country he rules. He goes on to make the following claims:

  • the attack was "too Hollywood" because "a little too perfect to be natural"
  • President Trump "knows this smells fishy" and so responds to "a fake war crime" with "fake response" ... and that makes him smart

Now I'm going to admit that I was not in the town of Khan Sheikhun when the bombs were dropping. I was not in Syria. Heck, I haven't even been within 5,000km of that country at any time in my life. Perhaps the whole thing was made up in a Wag the Dog fashion by certain powerful interests in order to force Trump's hand to see if he would appear weak on war crimes. But this would require one heck of a coordinated effort by a lot of people to keep the truth under wraps.

I don't know how multi-lingual Mr. Adams might be, but I typically get my news from a few different sources in order to try and have a semi-balanced view of the world. I read The Guardian based out of the UK and The National Post out of Canada. I read The Japanese versions of The Asahi Shinbun and The Daily Yomiuri from Japan. For some things, I even read the Yonhap News in English and The Chosun Ilbo in Korean out of South Korea. I do this because it's very easy to fall into an echo chamber, and having different views of the same events around the world can give a person the perspective to identify which elements of a story are probably accurate and which ones are questionable or otherwise conjecture. The amount of effort that would be required to coordinate all of these news sources to report generally the same story would be a massive undertaking.

Let's break down some of the reasons:

  • many of these news organizations have their own reporters on the ground in and around Syria
  • creating fake reporters with active social media presences is certainly doable, but very hard to maintain long-term
  • timing would be absolutely critical to ensure a news outlet did not accidentally release a story an hour or two ahead of others
  • how many journalists would not salivate at the prospect of breaking the story that dozens ... hundreds ... thousands of news outlets around the world are colluding to keep the general population of the planet unaware of what's happening while simultaneously rewriting history to favour the agendas of certain individuals or religious groups?
  • the fucking UN, other governments, along with dozens of organizations send people in afterwards to provide aid and other support. Is every human that risks their lives by going into an active war zone complicit with the supposed lies as well?

Secrets typically do not stay as such for very long when a lot of people are involved.

What's most telling about the blog post from Scott Adams is the lack of evidence backing up his belief. He links to an article on the New York Times cushioning his conspiracy theories by saying the news organization is "alleging" the historically hostile Syrian government has used a nerve agent on its own citizens. He says that the mainstream media "has been wrong about almost everything for a solid 18 months in a row" without backing it up. And he says that Bashar al-Assad would never do such a thing because it would constitute "Suicide-by-Trump" despite the very real fact that Trump's people basically said two days before the gas attacks that the U.S. was not going to interfere in the civil war that has wreaked havoc throughout Syria over the last six years.

Of course, if you ask for evidence from conspiracy theorists, the answer is often along the lines of "Open your eyes, man! Google that shit!" as though it's a valid response. Even if I did invest more time into researching views that contradict my understanding of the world, who's to say I would find the "right" conspiracy theories that match whatever Mr. Adams might have me believe?

I do not for a minute believe everything I read in the papers or see on TV. This is why I get news from different countries, different outlets, and in different languages. This ensure the information is "filtered" by different editors with different biases, different cultures, different backgrounds, and different agendas. Is it a perfect way to get the news? Hell, no. It's time consuming as fuck and requires me to really invest myself into understanding just how complex the political, societal, historical, and sociological problems we face today really are.

Having different opinions from various news sources is fine. Heck, it's absolutely essential if an informed populace is to keep news organizations accountable. Spewing conspiracy theories without backing up those claims with verifiable facts, however, is just downright irresponsible.

Fed Up

Over the last couple of months I've wondered just why it is that I invest so much of myself into projects at home and work. There are just some things that simply must be done a certain way and, when creativity is involved, the rules behind the creation come fast and furious. These self-imposed constraints ensure that certain criteria are met and people are generally happy with the end result, even when "people" just means me. That said, when building things that will be used by others, these constraints need to be communicated clearly in order to be understood.

Rules are often the result of past lessons and, as a result, each constraint has a great deal of backstory involved. Most people are wholly uninterested in the reasoning behind certain constraints, insisting they be removed regardless of the consequences to the rest of the creation. Examples can be insisting margarine be used instead of butter when making banana bread, or rejecting the logic structure of a data object and insisting that unrelated metadata be shoved in just to fit one tiny scenario that benefits 0.1% of the people using the creation. Most of the time I fight back, other times I ignore the demand and lie when asked about it later.

Them: Did you use margarine like I told you?
Me: Yes, of course. 20 grams, like you said.
Them: And see how good the bread came out? You should listen more often.

These arguments tend to happen quite often in everyday life, and it's a regular part of human interaction. Yet it seems that since the advent of Google-In-Your-Pocket, anyone and everyone can be an expert on anything and everything. People who couldn't tell you the difference between a spatula and a ladle will demand ingredients be swapped out of recipes. People who couldn't tell you the difference between a boolean and an integer will demand your project at the day job be shut down so that something their friends made can replace the tool and do a less-complete job at the same time.

I'm wholly fed up.

If someone doesn't like the way I make banana bread, they don't need to force it down their throat. They can say "No, thank you" like an adult and enjoy a different snack. If someone doesn't like the way I've written a certain piece of software that solves a business problem within the corporate guidelines we're all supposed to follow, they don't have to use it. They can use whatever alternative their friends are making in private like an adult without badmouthing the more mature tool that was created by reverse-engineering an undocumented CRM.

The asinine aggressions and obvious lies that people tell in the guise of "constructive criticism" generally add nothing of value or ruin what is otherwise a perfectly acceptable recipe for creation. If something can be improved, then having evidence to back up the claim is just as important as any recommendation. Unfortunately, evidence seems to be lacking from a great deal of negative and obstructive statements.

Perhaps I should relax. Perhaps I should not see the plethora of negative feedback from people who are n00bs with zero credibility on a subject as something worth paying attention to. Or perhaps the self-assessed Experts of Everything should actually make an effort of learning something before shooting down the work of others.

Cherry Blossoms

For two weeks of the year people all across Japan get to enjoy the definitive sign that spring has sprung as parks and riverbanks transform from brown and grey to green and pink. This is often accompanied by friends and family heading out to sit under a cherry blossom tree, picnicking and enjoying the company while taking in the pleasant aroma of flowers in bloom. That said, it's always a good idea to remember that age old rhyme:

April showers bring May flowers.

No sooner had the first blossoms started appearing on the trees did the grey clouds move in, drenching the ground in much-needed rain, and otherwise rendering outdoor activities in the presence of cherry blossoms all but impossible. Luckily, Nozomi and I did manage to get in a walk between showers.

The Riverside Walk.jpg

Click Here for the Full Resolution Image (6MB)

While Nozomi does not really look at the trees or sky very often, she did seem to enjoy sniffing the petals that had fallen to the ground. She may be "just a dog" to many people, but she's just as capable of enjoying the little things in life as the rest of us.

Cherry Blossoms and Rain.jpg

Click Here for the Full Resolution Image (0.7MB)

The weather forecast for this coming week does not look good for people who want to head out and photograph these lovely blossoms, but there's no reason why we shouldn't try anyway. A little rain never hurt anyone, after all.

S Town from the Rear View Mirror

Note: This post does not contain any spoilers for the S Town podcast.

Earlier today I finished the seventh and final instalment of S Town, season three of the This American Life's Serial project. Having been disappointed with the second season, I wasn't sure if this was a show that I'd find interesting. The first season of Serial revolved around the story of Hae Min Lee's murder and how the man convicted of the crime, Adnan Syed, may not have been the one to end the young woman's life. The story was incredibly well told, with me impatiently waiting a week for the next episode. I'd sometimes listen to the shows twice in an attempt to glean extra information that may have slipped past. I'd make notes and consider options and alternatives. Did Adnan really kill the girl in a fit of rage? Did Jay do it and pin the blame on his friend? Was it someone else who took advantage of the situation? The story was masterfully told, and the show received justified rave reviews from a lot of people. The second season was nothing like this. I was confused and bored during the first episode. I skipped through the last 15 minutes of the second episode. I unsubscribed halfway through the third. The story was no doubt interesting for a lot of people, but not me. This third season with it's family-friendly rendition of a place called Shit Town by the primary protagonist could have gone either way.

TL;DR: It's an incredibly well-told story. Go and listen if you're into serial radio programs.

John despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks a reporter to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.

— Brian Reed on S Town

Listening to this program, I was often reminded of my childhood and the people around me at various times. There were a number of similar members of the community. Similar habits. Similar traits. The familiarity of it all sometimes shocking me as one wouldn't expect the rural corners of Southern Ontario to resemble Alabama. In many ways they are very different. In some ways they are the same. The last few episodes really drove home just how similar the two places are, and how perspective can play a very important role in how we perceive ourselves and others.

I knew a man similar to John who had the same name. He taught me a lot about what it means to slow down and think decisions through, and how to examine a situation from multiple angles before making a judgement call. He also encouraged me to do the things I loved which, at the time, consisted of sketching, architecture, and programming. He provided temporary access to the tools for me to explore these creative pursuits and, in exchange, I'd help him on his farm on weekends. This man, like John, also encouraged people to become better with each passing day. Not just better skilled, but better people. He strongly encouraged me to leave the rural corners of the country and head to Toronto, Montreal, or San Francisco where I could put my unbridled passion and creativity to use. He also had one heck of a temper and a growing disgust with the state of the world.

This is what I saw in John, the centre figure in the podcast. Despite his strong language. Despite his distaste with society. Despite his acerbic opinions. He was a man who wanted to help others however he could. Calling either John "smart" would be selling these people short. The John in S Town was a horologist with a unique insight into anything mechanical. The John I grew up knowing was a master in a woodshop, able to make just about anything without ever once reaching for a ruler or a pencil. He could build an entire kitchen set with six fashionable, matching chairs by sight alone. I watched him do it one weekend.

The world is full of incredibly gifted, uniquely special people. Just like the rest of us they carry their secrets and inner demons. Friendships with these people can be incredibly intimate. Not in a sexual way, but in a manner where — regardless of what secrets or bad deeds you share — they will never judge you. They will never turn away from you. They'll be answer the phone the next time you call and ask you how you're doing. How the family is doing. How the dogs are doing. And all they ask in return is the same ... and a little patience when they go off on a rant about the state of the world.

I haven't thought about John very often in the last two decades. He's got to be in his 80s by now. I should give him a call ... so long as there's still time.

Not the Target Audience

After what is probably a decade, a number of industry RSS feeds have been removed from my reader as it's become clear that I am no longer the target audience. At one time these sites were places where authors would share news about W3C standards, or upcoming ideas, conferences, books, and other generally positive things. However, it seems that since sometime around mid-2014, a number of these once-interesting sites have turned into platforms for authors to encourage political activism. Being vocal about just causes can certainly be a good thing, but it's not the reason why I subscribed to the site all those years ago.

This is to be expected, of course. Objectives change over time. Readership changes. Readers, too. It does make me wonder, though. Just what sort of audience am I now?

Over the last few years I've moved away from a number of websites as topics have become incredibly biased in one direction or another. I've moved away from certain software that were once daily tools because of updates that appeal to a wider, less-specific group of customers. I've even stopped reading most serial novels as the current trend seems to involve setting the fictional universe ablaze for the most asinine of reasons.

Ultimately, these creations that I once looked forward to started to become predicable and boring. So this raises a question: at what point does a person feel they are no longer the target audience for a thing, and what can be done to stay relevant?

Tailwinds

Yesterday I wrote about how I haven't been doing too well psychologically over the last little bit as a result of being pulled in a number of directions for too long and not being able to focus on the things that I consider to be more important in life. Interestingly enough, an episode of the Freakonomics podcast talking about the perception of life's problems1 appeared on my phone a few hours after I published the blog post. The title was "Why Is My Life So Hard?" and, while I don't believe my life is particularly hard given the amount of egregious inequality in the world, the show was asking the right question at the right time. For me, I just want to create truly wonderful tools, raise a family, and enjoy some time with my dog. On the surface, these are not difficult or impossible goals.

One of the great things about listening to smart people talk about the human mind is that they ask some really good questions. This is one that got me thinking quite a bit:

Most of us feel we face more headwinds and obstacles than everyone else — which breeds resentment. We also undervalue the tailwinds that help us — which leaves us ungrateful and unhappy. How can we avoid this trap?

This describes how I feel about 10Centuries when I see other, younger networks that I perceive to have zero value pop up, earn millions in funding, and receive far more press coverage than one can shake a stick at. Does anyone remember Yo? Here's a snippet of its history, lifted from Wikipedia:

Yo was created by Israeli developer Or Arbel in eight hours, being launched on April Fools Day 2014 for Android and iOS. Originally chief technology officer of stock trading platform Stox, Arbel quit his job and has since begun working on the app full-time. The app has received USD$1 million in investment from a group of investors led by Moshe Hogeg, CEO of Mobli, who had originally asked Arbel to design a single-button app to call his assistant. [...] The app was valued at between $5 and $10 million in July 2014 and received a further $1.5 million in funding. Website IFTTT included Yo as an option for their service in July 2014.

Success stories like this frustrate me, because 10Centuries does a whole heck of a lot more than Yo, and it's not an April Fool's joke. Where are the investor inquiries into this service? Where is the press coverage? Where is the rapid growth that would put my auto-scaling mechanisms to the test? While I've often said — quite honestly — that having millions in the bank would ruin me, I would not be averse to some form of investment, given the right conditions, in order to bring in talented people who could help make the platform better for everyone.

Sour grapes, right? I agree. Because there's a lot of really good stuff happening with 10Centuries, too. The dozens of people who do find value in the project. The 2-million page views per week that are served across every public-facing site. The fact that the darn project is actually starting to break even and turn a small profit after years of hard work and serious financial investment on my part. Then there's the personal satisfaction I get from seeing the whole thing running and people making use of the service.

Are the headwinds — the challenges — facing the 10C project really getting in the way of the system's success? No. For every problem there is a solution. If I'm serious about keeping the system going for ten centuries, then I should play the long game and focus on incremental updates that continually make the system better. There's no need to rush. There's no need to compare my offerings with those of similar competing services, aside from rationally examining what other systems do better (or worse) and using those lessons to inform future decisions.

When I take a step back, breathe, and think about the things that are really bugging me, I can see that the tailwinds are far stronger than the headwinds. There are always occasional gusts that can knock a person off kilter for a while but, like most other weather patterns, they're just temporary distractions.


  1. Warning: Annoying, full-page, attention stealing advertisement will immediately get in your face.

Not Doing Too Good

The last few weeks have been pretty rough as it seems there are too many people vying for some of my time, my experience, my presence, or some combination thereof. These things are often freely available in moderation. When there are too many demands for the same resources, though, constraints can drive a person's stress levels through the roof. This is where I find myself this week.

The Sacred Bridge in Nikko

Being angry and frustrated is not a wonderful thing. Creativity cannot thrive under these conditions, yet it seems that whenever a person is under the gun to deliver before a bunch of arbitrary deadlines, creativity is needed in excess. While it's not at all realistic, I'd really like to take all 26 of my banked holidays at work and go for a walk with Nozomi every morning rather than head into the office where it seems artificial problems wait and artificial priorities jostle for artificial expedition which results in a very real lack of time for larger priorities. When asked why the larger priorities are yet to be completed, people are told about the other items that managed to jump the queue ... not that it matters. Apparently, when items are deemed "too important to wait", they are to be resolved alongside the larger projects, as though we all carry with us two or more extra arms that can be deployed in such a scenario.

It's ridiculous.

How many times must a person refocus during the day before they can begin to work on the things they're expected to complete? Given that very little of what any of us does today will be remembered in five years time, why is there always so much of a focus on artificial priorities?

We spend so much time stressed out over the imaginary objectives of people who pretend they own us that we ignore the very real objectives that drive us to get out of bed in the morning. Looking at all the things that are stacking up in front of me, I'm not even sure why I even leave the house in the morning.

I'm not doing too good.

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