Links: 2015 — 7

Some links, and then some personal news, including photos from my niece’s 2nd birthday.

  • This short video on cumulus cloud formation might well include details that are new to you.
  • Interesting article on training the brain to overcome a learned disease. (I pointed out an error in the comments, but it seems the author had stopped monitoring comments a few days before.)
  • Another interesting article on the use of vagus nerve stimulation to moderate the immune system, among other things.
  • One of the best articles I’ve seen about Emmy Noether. It doesn’t try to answer every question, but gives a sense of why the questions are significant.
  • This fifteen minute online David Attenborough documentary on plankton is not only educational, but relaxing as well.
  • Stars collided in 1670.
  • Which direction water swirls doesn’t normally depend on which hemisphere you’re in … but what if you eliminate all other variables?
  • From now on, if your balloon animals don’t look like these, you’re doing it wrong.
  • I found a tool that takes a Google Maps route and generates an elevation chart. (If you just want to know the elevation for a single location, try this.)
  • I’ve never used Python, but I’m making a note of this in case I want to some day.

On 28 May, my parents and I took my niece to Cleland Wildlife Park for her second birthday (she was born on 26 May 2013). I’ll share more anecdotes about that day if you ask, but for now, here are some photos of Elke with koalas and wallabies. More family interaction followed the next day, including some errand-running. Of particular importance to me was that I finally got my mobile phone fixed, after errant software had been draining the batteries since late last year. When the phone was new, the battery lost on average less than 5% capacity for every 8 hours of normal (i.e. mostly idle) use, and now that it is fixed I can confirm that it loses only marginally more than that. Given that it’s more than a year old and the battery has never been replaced, this must count as excellent. While it was broken, I was lucky to get two days out of it.

Links: 2015 — 6

Some links; I hope you enjoy them.

I recently bought a couple of drinks from a local bottle shop, because I enjoy experimenting with cocktails from time to time, subject to the constraints of fridge space and affordability. The drinks I chose were Frangelico and a small bottle of Baileys. Meanwhile I’ve used up the last of my Opal Nera.

From the Internet I see that the cocktail consisting of Opal Nera and Baileys (layered 50/50) is traditionally known as “Black Nipple”, but the name that came to my mind was “Elephant Hide”. The Opal Nera spontaneously spouts up into the layer of Baileys above it, creating a dynamic swirling pattern with the Baileys resembling grey elephant skin and the Opal Nera its dark wrinkles. I think the ideal ratio is 3 parts Opal Nera to 4 parts Baileys. It tastes fine (Baileys with an extra oomph) but the appeal is primarily visual.

Links: 2015 — 5

Below are links to some of the most interesting and delightful things I’ve come across online in the last month.

  • Article on the 19th Century fashion for seaweed collections.
  • A perspective on whether modern civilisation would be possible without fossil fuels.
  • This 2011 animation about living books won a bunch of awards and deserved them. Well worth 15 minutes.
  • Painting with fire. Swirls of burn from a molten glass brush in a performance well matched to the soothing cello music.
  • Human chameleon.
  • I enjoyed this whimsical short story on why drug-induced hallucinations won’t help you with your homework.

Also, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve made some progress on cleaning up the archives of this blog, and posts from 2011 are now included in my archives page.

Virtual Tour of Ireland

A few years ago, inspired by the fact that my parents were on holiday at the time, I decided to do some travelling of my own while seated on my office chair. It would be a virtual tour, using Google Street View to simulate a journey.

I chose Ireland as my destination. No doubt Ireland’s reputation as one big fairytale backdrop can sometimes cross the line into stereotyping, and I understand that its reputation as being rich in natural scenery — while absolutely true — is in large part the legacy of an uncomfortable history. But since it is rich in natural scenery, we might as well make the most of it.

I began by sketching a rough plan for the journey, starting from the notion that it would begin at the border with Northern Ireland and proceed anticlockwise. I sampled random locations around the coast, and where these pleased me most I proposed to take a predominantly coastal route, and where I felt an inland route would add more to the journey I sampled random locations along candidate routes and selected the most promising options.

That gave me a draft route to follow, which I would refine later. Preparations complete, I then entered Google Street View in Muff (just west of the border) and clicked on the road ahead to go forward.

My concept for the journey probably evolved over time a lot more than I can remember, and what it became was a quest to find the most scenic route around the Republic of Ireland that I could. I identified unmissable waypoints (coastal ones to begin with), then backtracked to find the most pleasing routes between those points — partly by random sampling to narrow down the possibilities, and partly by simulating drives along multiple routes and choosing the one I liked best. So altogether I simulated a lot of small journeys.

It became a long-term project, which I would resume once every few months when I was in the mood and had the time to spare. In contrast to a typical holiday plan (consisting of a list of destinations and the most convenient routes between them), my goal was to find a route that, as much as possible, would provide continual delights. And I recorded the route I decided upon as I went, surveying the scenery and wondering what stories were embedded in the landscape.

In the end I got as far as Donegal before tiring of the endeavour. It’s no coincidence that I stopped at a more densely populated part of the country — with two major cities, Donegal and Sligo, a mere fifty kilometres apart, and a network of towns surrounding them. I did try resuming the simulation further south but we’ll get to that shortly.

One problem I faced from the start was that linking to Google Maps is not a very stable way to save a route. All it takes is a minor change in Google’s algorithm, or for the Irish authorities to get it into their heads to upgrade a road, for the route recorded to no longer be a true record of my intentions. Worse, Google have announced that Classic Maps will soon be no longer supported, and I am deeply pessimistic about that. Last time I checked, the new Google Maps was crippled to the point of being quite impossible to use for simulating and recording a journey.

It’s been at least a couple of years since I last worked on the route, and it was always my intention to blog it someday. Having decided that now is the time, I spent several days recently re-tracing my journey from Muff to Donegal on Google Street View, refreshing my memory and making a few minor tweaks as I went. Section by section, I then recorded the route on video, holding a camera up to the monitor as I scrolled along the map. (This was an extremely frustrating process, and the resulting video is no polished production, but trust me: if you knew how many takes it took to get it to work adequately, you’d understand that perfection is not an option.) This video contains all the information one would need to mark my journey in a paper street directory and test it out in real life.

Here it is: Muff to Donegal, my way.

A few notes:

  • There’s nothing special at the marked waypoints. They are there simply to force Google to follow the route I selected.
  • I couldn’t always find continual delights. There are dead spots. But I made the best of them that I could, and they lead somewhere worthwhile in the end.
  • The route isn’t necessarily the most scenic in real life. Plenty of parochial factors influenced my choices, for example sometimes the Google Car just happened to be passing by at the perfect moment to get the most out of the landscape, with the sun shining at just the right angles.
  • Also, in some places the Google Car has recorded photographs more recently than my original journey through that region, so the reason I went one way and not another may no longer be apparent.
  • In the final approach to Donegal, I stuck to the main road (N56) and didn’t explore the sidestreets, because a lot of those sidestreets were recorded at a time of year when most of the vegetation was dead. It would have been pointless to try and choose between them.

In my early planning (back when the above was encapsulated simply by the phrase “coastal route”), I proposed that after continuing  more-or-less coastal to Westport I would follow an inland route to Galway and again to Limerick. The route I decided upon, after sampling a few possibilities, was a draft — to be refined, perhaps radically, if I ever got that far in the Street View simulation — but as with all drafts it gave me something to go on.

After my Street View simulation had stalled at Donegal, I revisited the far end of the plan I had drafted earlier and decided that Tralee would be a good place to re-join the coast. From there I started another Street View simulation en route to Dingle, where I proposed to do some sort of loop at the end of the Dingle Peninsula then follow a more-or-less coastal route to Cork. But there are still a lot of roads down that way that the Google Car has never traversed, and in at least one case its path was blocked by a giant puddle. Arriving at Cork would mark the end of my journey down the west coast of Ireland, but I did write down a vague plan for travelling onward (follow the N20 north to Mallow then the N72 east until meeting the R671, taking it north to Clonmel, then east on the N24 to Waterford).

In the following video, my draft inland route from Westport via Galway to Limerick, extended to Tralee, is appended with the route I was working on between Tralee and Dingle.

If you want, you can download slighly (but only slightly) higher resolution versions of the videos here and here. I won’t link directly to the maps, since Classic Maps is due to expire soon, but if you’re so inclined you can reconstruct them yourself.

Naturally, I am interested in hearing the opinions that Irish residents have about my virtual journey. For example: which parts of my route have you visited, which parts haven’t you visited, and which are the best places that I missed? I don’t expect anyone to test a portion of my route in real life or take on the project where I left off, but of course you’re welcome to do either. And for readers with nothing to say about Ireland, perhaps you have a pertinent comment to add about your experience with Google Maps. In any case, comments are open.

Easter photos

Over the Easter break I caught up with family and met my nephew Elliot for the first time.

Here he is on Friday with his mother:

P4030015 P4030021

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

With me (not looking very happy on the right, but that’s transient):

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And with Mum and Dad respectively:

P4030073 P4030082 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Big sister Elke (last photographed here and here) going for a ride in the wheelbarrow, and later on her car:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA P4030035

Playing on the swing:

P4030036 P4030038

P4030043 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And on the dolomite pile — there’s more to this than the photographs capture; on Mum’s suggestion I carved steps using gardening utensils, then helped Elke to climb up and slide down:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I took some photos of the lunar eclipse on Saturday night, but they’re not worth sharing.

On Sunday we all got together for a barbeque by the sea. The weather was unfortunate but the company made up for it, with over a dozen of my relatives present. Here’s Elke eating a chocolate Easter egg:

P4050138 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And more pictures of Elliot being hugged by my Auntie Helen:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While we were there we tried an activity in which blown and hard-boiled eggs were rolled in paint, after which we added more decorations to the three blown eggs to create a mobile for Elliot.

Our final get-together was on Tuesday, when several of us met for morning tea at a coffee shop in Ardrossan, and I made Elke a plasticine dog that lasted long enough for her to play with it and point out the ears and nose — an excellent memory on which to end a holiday. From there, Darryl and Helen drove me back to Adelaide.

Links: 2015 — 4

There are several notable things to report on this month, though unusually, that doesn’t translate to a lot of links to share.

You’ve probably heard the news that Terry Pratchett died recently. I’ve been a fan my whole adult life, and this feels like the end of an era. There’s an official announcement here, plus various news reports, opinion pieces and tributes all over the Internet. Many are well worth your time, but I’m more inclined to encourage readers to look around than link to anything specific. There’s one last book to be published posthumously (confession: I’ve never read any of the Tiffany Aching books).

My sister’s second child, Elliot Roger Smith, was born around 11:15 on Wednesday March 11. I have yet to meet my new nephew, but I hear all is well, even if his big sister has some adjusting to do.

I now have over a thousand WordPress users subscribing to this blog. This means little, because the overwhelming majority are follow spam — people who follow other blogs indiscriminantly either in the hope that it will get them some attention or because they’re the blogging equivalent of hoarders — but there must be some who subscribed because they genuinely looked at my blog and liked what they saw. If that’s you, I encourage you to make yourself known in the comments. Tell me who you are and what you found here that you liked.

The Gede Ruins in Kenya are famous not only as a historical site but also for its wildlife (especially the monkeys), and a community organisation that helps to protect the site is now using a logo that I designed (though someone else drew the animal outlines). For a few months they were rather cheekily using a draft version that I only sent — along with some other designs — to show how things were progressing, but I don’t know the whole story behind that decision, and the completed version is in use now.

Now here are some links. Not many this month (for whatever reason I’ve not seen a lot recently that compels me to archive it) but I hope you enjoy them.

Links: 2015 — 3

Here is an assortment of links that I think are worth sharing.

  • Interesting article on the historical context of the watchmaker analogy.
  • What happens when you let a toddler dress you for a week. More people should try this.
  • Lego for entomologists.
  • Neil Gaiman’s reading of A Christmas Carol.
  • Debunking of viral archery video. I’m linking to this because a few years ago I linked to another video making some of the debunked claims.

I also spent some time playing with the soundscape generators at mynoise.net. The site contains some mysticism I don’t endorse, but the generators are a lot of fun. Each soundscape has a number of components, the volume of which can be set independently. You can then share that customised soundscape by clicking the “Save in URL” link, or manually once you understand how the numbers in the URL work (it’s pretty straightforward). The animation mode adjusts the settings dynamically, and I’m not sure what the algorithm is but components that start low stay low.

The first generator I played with was Rain Noise. Where do you feel you are when you listen to that? Perhaps you’re caught in a storm whilst bushwalking, and sheltering in a cave, listening not only to the rain and the thunder but also the gurgling of a nearby river. I also played with Jungle Life and Beatae Memoriae (a spooky church/cathedral). The reason my “rain” settings are so much louder than the others is that for the latter two I used headphones. Anyway, see what you can discover, and feel free to share your favourite settings here.

My boycott of sites featuring autoplay advertising ends in just a few more days, and I have my eye on a couple of articles to share in my next collection. But they can wait.

Links: 2015 – 2

Some of the better links I’ve seen recently:

I’ll be attending a few performances at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in the second half of February, and I might report on some of them afterwards.

Incidentally, below is the colour you get if you mix one teaspoon of mulberry juice with two and a half tablespoons of icing sugar. It tastes far too sweet and I don’t intend to make it again, but you gotta experiment in life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

February website boycott

[Update 1/3/2015: This boycott is now over. During February I blocked nine domains altogether, averaging one every three days. Scroll down to see the list. I am now in theory unblocking all of those domains, although I reserve the right not to disclose the fact if I’ve decided to keep any of them permanently blocked.]

Autoplay audiovisual ads are a problem.

Online advertising per se isn’t going away, but the current environment — in which advertisers think they can get away with anything — is not acceptable. As a society we need to work out an informal contract between the advertisers and the consumers of the Internet. We need an arrangement that says: you may advertise, up to a point, but you may not cross this line.

One pillar of that arrangement must be our right to reasonable control over the number of stimuli that demand the attention of our senses. When I’m reading something online — or more rarely, listening to something — a random blast of noise (from either the same or a different browser tab) interferes with my ability to do so. I am forced to stop what I’m doing and take whatever measure is necessary to get rid of the offending advertisement. This is not an acceptable burden.

Imagine a world in which, whenever you turn the page in a newspaper, the radio automatically switches on. Or, the moment you’ve been listening to the radio for five minutes, the television automatically wakes up. But we don’t have to imagine that world — we are living it, and we want out.

So I’ve decided that I need to take some kind of action. Therefore, for the month of February 2015, I will boycott all websites on which an autoplay audiovisual advertisement appears, subject to certain qualifications, and I will name the offending sites in a list at the end of this post (to be updated as needed). Details follow.

  • First, I’m obviously well aware that online advertising is outsourced, and that individual websites are not responsible for the advertisements that appear. But … this is about not doing deals with the Devil. If the entity you outsourced your advertising space to did not offer you a choice as to whether autoplay audiovisual ads are acceptable, then we need to put pressure on them somehow.
  • Because I want to focus on the most egregious cases, some autoplay ads will be exempt. Advertisements will generally be exempt if they play within a feature video space on that web page (e.g. videos watched on Youtube or news reports consisting of a video followed by an article). But an exemption to the exemption is that even advertisements that play within a feature video space will trigger the boycott if the Pause button is unavailable or doesn’t function correctly while the advertisement plays.
  • At the end of February I will unblock all sites — unless I decide I’m better off without yours, which is my call. However, the list of offending sites at the end of this post will remain, unless I think of a reason to remove any.
  • The tool I’ll be using is the Minimal Site Block extension for Firefox. This could use a friendlier interface (you have to use wildcards, you have to include the “http”, and it’s unintuitive that you don’t need to press a button to update the blocked list), but it works, and is a good option if you want to manage your own boycott.

Obviously this is experimental. Hence the one month limit. Other people may have insights into better ways of taking action (whether a refinement of this boycott or a completely different approach), and one of my goals is to help start that conversation.


List of offenders so far:

  • www.science20.com
  • abcnews.go.com [absent Pause button: see bullet point 2]
  • www.newstatesman.com
  • www.latimes.com
  • www.dose.com
  • www.slate.com [will certainly unblock this one at the end of February]
  • www.mirror.co.uk
  • www.ibtimes.co.uk [not actually a 3rd party advertisement, but a video unrelated to the main article]
  • junkee.com

Vampire Women, a short story

I avoid sexual topics on this blog, for reasons best encapsulated in the phrase “more trouble than it’s worth“. I’d love to live in a world where a conversation about the diversity of human experience need not be approached with trepidation, but sadly, in the real world it does tend to bring out the irrational in people.

Today I’d like to lift the veil ever so slightly and share a short story I wrote in 2009. It includes the only sex scene I’ve ever written, and I’m actually quite proud of it. If you know me at all, you’ll expect a twist.

I published the story on Ficly.com, which I’ve written about before. Ficly was a site where people wrote stories in 1000 characters or less, but it has recently closed its doors — the archive is still there but you can no longer publish anything new. A new site, Ficlatté, has succeeded it, but it’s not much to look at so far.

Read the rest of this entry »