Friday, 11 November 2016

Farewell Leonard

I have been sitting listening to the CBC Radio 2 tribute to Leonard Cohen. He has died at the age of 82. And here are 82 reasons why you should care.

He had just released a new album "You Want It Darker" and the New Yorker printed a profile in its October 17 issue. By a curious twist of fate, the magazine came to be in my mailbox, by mistake, and I took the opportunity to read it before passing it along to my neighbour, who has a subscription but was at work while I read it.

Elizabeth Renzetti has a piece in the Globe about the impact he had on her

"If you live without the comfort of religious belief, as I do, it seemed like the universe was playing a cruel joke by removing a force of light just when the world seems so broken. But the crack, as he so memorably taught us, is how the light gets in."

There is a lot on Twitter right now too. Including this image

He saw the future with unerring accuracy.  Maybe we should all have paid more attention.  

Sunday, 23 October 2016


When I saw this I laughed. The box inserted into the wall outlet (unswitched standard North American electrical socket for my English readers) is a ThingCharger. I was one of the early adopters. That meant I joined in a crowd funding scheme before any were actually made on a production line, and the company used the crowd's funds to get started in business. Some time later - quite a long time in fact - they sent me the chargers and I started using them.

Let me say at the outset that the ThingCharger is beautifully designed and carefully made. It does exactly what it says it will do and comes with clear directions and all sorts of videos about how to use it. The main benefit claimed - that you will no longer need to have cables trailing around to charge your things is true - but only so far as that goes, as the photo illustrates. We have had ThingChargers since they first started shipping and we no longer use them as designed, even though they are still plugged in around our home.

The place we used to plug in our phones and iPads  - before ThingCharger - was the kitchen counter. Why? Easy, those are the most accessible outlets. They cannot be used with the ThingCharger because of overhangs: the one on island has a shelf with an overhang above it. The one next to the stove is under a cupboard - and so on. The outlets in the bathroom are simply too perilous. Balance an iPad on a ThingCharger and it is at risk of falling into the toilet. So the places where the ThingCharger can be plugged in are outlets low on the walls of other rooms that are not hidden behind desks, tvs or stereo systems - all of which tend to have multi-outlet surge protection bars plugged in at all times.

So to use the ThingCharger, you need to bend down, and then plant the device exactly and correctly onto its power tip that protrudes from the Charger into the bottom of your Thing. If the phone or iPad is in its case, you have to be ensure that the power tip is in its intended socket and not just trapped between thing and case. There are USB ports under the ThingCharger but we have never used them as they are inaccessible in their current locations, and anyway leave cables trailing on the carpet which was what we were trying to avoid in the first place.

Yes, we no longer have cables trailing across the kitchen work surfaces where I was always convinced  I might slice through them. No, we are not using the ThingCharger. Except as noted above.

Before writing this article I did a Google search to find the links. The second item in the suggested list of searches was ThingCharger Complaints. There are many hits on that list. Here instead is a more balanced review. Which seems to reflect my experience. If your desk has a standard, flush mounted North American electrical outlet at a convenient height with nothing above it, then ThingCharger might be useful for your phone - or possibly a new iPad mini or similar. I cannot recommend its use on the old multipin Apple connector as used on older full size iPads.

UPDATE ThingCharger got into trouble. I have had several emails now from its founder, explaining what went wrong. That also cleared up why it is apparently no longer possible to get new spare tips. My partner would need a new USB C tip for her now phone if she was ever going to use the Thing again. The founder is apparently also convinced that he has another brilliant idea that he may try to crowd fund.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Day 3 at TED live stream

Yesterday I spent all morning at the Kits library watching the TED livestream. The room was much darker than previous days, I suppose because of the dreadful weather, and in any event some of the talks were more tech demonstrations - such as the one demonstrating the capabilities of drones.

One of the most useful I think was the introduction to the Google Cultural Institute but you do not need to read my clumsy notes of what Amit Sood said. Click on that link and try it for yourself. But allow lots of time: you will get sucked in, and the resource is enormous.

It does link up two things in a useful serendipity. While I was waiting for a TED session to start I was sitting in the library and my eye was caught by the spine of a huge book which shouted VAN GOGH The Life at me. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith produced the definitive biography - nearly a thousand pages published in 2011 but somehow I didn't notice that at the time.  I haven't got far with it yet but I will, and will also pass on the fact that there are no notes in the text. The are all on line with much more - so with the book, the website and the GCI I am going to be a bit occupied. As well as the increasing pace of the effort to fight the replacement of the Massey Tunnel.

But first I will record my impression of the opening session yesterday which started with Linus Torvalds the man responsible for Linux, Android and GIT. It was not a talk but rather an interview with Chris Anderson to encourage him to talk about himself and his work. Which he does alone, at home and mostly in his bathrobe. A bit like me though the picture showed him at a standing desk, which he said he no longer uses. From the age of 11 until he was 21 he worked alone. He wrote software - code - and developed things that he wanted to use. Like a new operating system that would be Open Source - not that he knew about that when he started - and take over much of the web. He was introduced to Open Source by a colleague, and simply offered up Linux so that people could comment. It was the first time in his life that other people gave him ideas - not code. He developed GIT as a management system for software development as the number of people offering ideas and code became unmanageable by other means.

"Every project is something I needed so as not to have to work with too many people."

He said he was "myopic" towards the needs of other people. He said that his sister describes his main quality as being stubborn. But listening to him the word that came into my mind was perseverance. But with the stress on the second syllable as used by a child psychiatrist describing the behaviour of my son. He gave him a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome. Not something I was especially pleased about but it was a great deal better than his teacher telling me he had ADD - which is quite unfounded. And there is no prescription medication for Aspergers.

"I am not a visionary. I am an engineer. There is no moonshot - I fix the pothole."

He likened himself to Edison as opposed to Tesla.

"Code either works or it doesn't."

Open Source is now becoming not just central to code but to science in general.

At one time, I used Linux (Ubuntu) to make an old PC run better. But after a while I realized that I was spending way more time doing computery than the things I am really interested in. So I switched to Mac, so I did not need to use the command line anymore. But I did get the first Android tablet and have an Android phone.

He did say that he would be useless at designing a User Interface. So there must be someone else to blame for one of the reasons that I gave up on Ubuntu.

I am not going to try to summarize Girls Who Code, the AI X prize, of what the copy editor of the New Yorker told us. I could not possibly do justice to the man who uses code to make art, or talk about the TED Radio Hour on NPR anymore than I would feel comfortable talking on behalf of Dalia Mogahed who explained what life is like now being an Islamic woman in America.

There was a whole bunch of stuff later about the importance of connectivity which made the best use so far of visual aids but seemed to me to to banal and obvious - "political geography is less important than functional geography". Well, duh!

Thank you to the larger number than usual readers. I am not going to TED today or tomorrow. As I said to the people at the library, life does get in the way. Which may well explain the low attendance at this livestream. You can of course read Lisa Johnson's professional summary of what Al Gore said last night.  TED has also blogged that too. Indeed I think you should, just as you should keep an eye on the TED channels to see which of the talks this year get broadcast. But this blog will be silent on the topic for a while, I think, just because TED does a pretty good job of spreading this stuff around already.  Later that day Al Gore spoke on why he thinks we can beat climate change.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Life Hacks from TED 2016

This is material taken from the 2:15 to 4pm session on Tuesday February 16, 2016

The session opened with an unscheduled short talk from Allen Adams on gravitational waves. I noticed that very few people in the audience at TED - or at the VPL Kits branch - were taking notes, so I just listened. He was very enthusiastic and made clear just how extraordinary the very idea of trying to listen to gravitation waves was - and how quickly the machinery of LIGO actually proved useful.

The first speaker on life hacks was Tim Urban who is a blogger and procrastinator.  He talked about the Instant Gratification Monkey who gets in the way of getting on with a task until the Panic Monster wakes up, just before deadline and lets the rational being get on with the job.
"It has always been a dream of mine to have given a TED talk." 
He explained that there were actually two types of procrastination - with and without a deadline. When there isn't a deadline there is no way to wake up the Panic Monster, so some things - which might be Very Important - do not get done.

He was very entertaining and got a standing ovation.

Adam Grant started off by talking about Warby Parker - something I confess I have never heard of but is apparently hugely successful, but he chose not to invest in, because he thought the people who created that website seemed to him to be less than fully committed, and were not giving it their undivided attention in the period before it launched. He was wrong. He calls himself a pre-crastinator: he does not wait for the deadline but has his work all done and dusted well before it is due. Even so, he has begun to recognize the value of procrastination.
"You call it procrastination. I call it 'thinking'." Aaron Sorkin
Much thinking occurs in the part of the brain that is not actively engaged in a task. While you are playing Minefield, your brain is turning over other possibilities that you may not actually be aware of. (He has researched that.) "I have a dream" was not in the script of MLK's famous speech.

"First mover" is not actually much of an advantage (he had data of the first mover failure rate)
You don't have to be first. You have to be different and better.
He is trying to recognize "Originals" - the successful ones anyway. He noted a process through which ideas go and said that it was necessary to distinguish between idea doubt and self doubt. The first is essential and the second gets in the way.

The first drafts are always crap. You need to get better by working on them. He had a simple test that seems to help identify people willing to go that extra step. If you use Internet Explorer or Safari as your browser, you accept the default. Chrome and Firefox users want to find something better. What you need to do is replace "deja vu" with "vu jade". When you experience doubt don't let it go. the biggest regrets we have in life are not the things we did, but those we failed to do. Originals are the ones who try the most and experience the most failures. Be quick to start but slow to finish.

The organizer then got both presenters to talk about their different approaches. I am not sure that added much. Nothing appears in my notes, anyway.

Brian Little was the third presenter: at this point I did my own data collection.There were 18 people present. Only two were male.

He is a psychologist and talked about "trait psychology": he used the acronym OCEAN


each one of which is a parameter. There are also three fields in which these parameters are measured: biogenic, sociogenic and idiogenic
I don't think [even] pigeons belong in pigeonholes
We need to act out of character sometimes to get results. He said that he was an introvert but he was very funny and got the first standing ovation.

Dave Larson called his talk "Learning 2.0" which started with the observation that the way we learn things are outdated and ineffective. He illustrated how we can better remember things by singing his Alzheimer's song. Basically, sitting in a lecture room, writing notes and then studying in the library does not actually produce quite the same effect as the way you pick up an "ear worm".

John MacWhorter was the first black guy in the line up, and talked about languages - why even though English is becoming universal there are benefits to learning another language. I have few notes but what stuck in my mind was his reference to "Jesus of Montreal" which features a group of francophone women forced to speak English when they get to the ER - and are no longer the witty, intelligent engaging people we have seen for most of the movie, but shadows who can barely function in the second language that they can speak but is not their own.  This had a great resonance for me, as I can speak french but very badly and so the French do not perceive me as intelligent or witty but barely coherent. If you do not understand this watch an episode of 'Allo 'Allo until the policeman appears. He said that web pages like Glossika enable you to learn a language easily and will "blow your mind".

Noah Zandan has been analyzing how people speak to help identify how to speak like a visionary. His data analysis has allowed him to produce three rules

1 Focus on the present (like Elon Musk)
2 Be Clear and Simple (sorry did not note the name of the lady)
3 use "you"and "your" a lot (like Richard Branson) enabling people to Experience the Vision

Kio Stark said that she is "obsessed with talking to strangers". We have been raised to believe in 'stranger danger' but most people are not dangerous. We need to use our senses not our fears, and do not put people into categories, which is a road to bias. We need to see them as an individual. "It's a political act."

She told a story. "I'm a New Yorker. So when I am waiting to cross the street, I stand on the stormn drain, not the curb. Like I am going to get across the street quicker. An old man said to me 'Don't stand there. You might dissapear. I could turn around and you're gone'." She felt valued - another human being had expressed concern for her, a total stranger ... cared.

She also spoke about how she teaches her daughter (four years old) how to assess a situation and recognize that some people will not welcome an approach, or should be avoided.

We expect our spouses to read our minds but with strangers we have to eliminate that expectation and explain everything. We practice "civil inattention" but other cultures have different rules. In Egypt it is rude to ignore a stranger.

So there are some simple techniques

Triangulate - refer to some third point of interest
Noticing - she recommends shoes (note: this was cited in The American President "Compliment her shoes. Girls like that.")
Dogs and babies - talk to the dog or baby directly: they are a social conduit
Disclosure encourages disclosure

I put that into action when the stream stopped. I had a very rewarding interaction with another audience member. I gave her my card. I hope she found her way and leaves a comment.

Speakers: 6 men (of which 1 black), 1 woman
Audience at Kits Library: 18, of which 2 male


Monday, 15 February 2016

My first TED conference

No, I cannot afford US $8,500 to attend the actual conference, and anyway it is sold out. But in Vancouver you can see a live stream of the conference, free, at three local libraries and Kitsilano is the closest to me. You can also pay to watch the whole thing at home or, indeed, anywhere.

When I got there this morning the large room in the basement had 60 seats, only 6 of which were occupied. I tweeted that, but we weren't overwhelmed by an instant rush. There is currently a break for lunch.  The lights were turned off at the request of those present which made notetaking tricky. Some "talks that are exclusively presented onsite and may not go online". The first session was for TED Fellows and all the talks were quite short.

It is also the case that the seats are hard plastic, no food is allowed (through I did spot some take out coffee cups in the room) and in between sessions the library intends to empty the room, to allow others to get in if things get crowded later.

Just to give you an idea of what was on offer this morning, the following is a quick summary of my notes (or what I could find online that made better sense), and now the conference is over more is appearing on the TED site.

The session opened with a performance on Philippine gongs by Susie Ibara. Then Andrew Pelling from Canada described how he uses electronic equipment - garbage rescued from dumpsters - to build machines for his research and amusement. The question occurred to him  - could biology be like hardware? Could you make human body parts out of apples? Or asparagus to repair damaged numan nerves? The answers he came up with are available as an open source online. He showed pictures of human ears made from apples - which are a lot cheaper than some of the commercial sources used for this type of material elsewhere. "Play is a key part of my scientific practice."

Bektour Iskender from Kyrgyzstan is an independent news publisher and co-founder of Kloop Media. This is both a new website and a training school for young journalists to cover politics and culture. He started off with death threats from the government, but managed the only truthful news coverage of the 2010 revolution and a number of key scoops which led to changes in government. His journalists were 15 and 16 years old!

Nicole Amarteifio now lives and works in Accra Ghana but was brought up in the USA. She is a  TV director / producer of ‘An African City,’ a hit web series that follows five successful women from Ghana navigating 21st century life in Accra. Her story was how she took "Sex and the City" and adapted it to show successful women and their relationships in Accra - but with resonance for people everywhere. She said that it is critical to change the narrative of Africa from poverty, war and famine to people living their lives. She said that there has been some debate over "who should hold the pen" (who is African) but the battle is not with each other but rather to change the conventional narrative.

Keolu Fox is a geneticist and indigenous rights activist from Hawaii. He started with the observation that Father Damian came to Hawaii to help lepers, which led Keolu to ask himself where did the leprosy come from and why did it affect natives so strongly? He believes that the human genome project needs a diverse cohort. Currently 96% of the material comes from people of European descent. But we know that people from other parts of the world metabolize drugs differently. Even so 95% of drug trials have a systemic bias to Europeans. There is also a history of distrust: some researchers took genetic material from indigenous Americans saying it would be used to study diabetes, but used it for other purposes including mental illnesses and to challenge creation stories. Some tribes now have a moratorium on genetic studies. He showed a pocket DNA sequencer which can now be used in field studies which should make it possible for future indigenomics studies to be participatory and under indigenous control.

Sandford Biggars showed some of his art works which include Buddhist symbology created from stencils of slave ship stowage to bullet damage of African sculptures of human figures shot up to symbolize the recent deaths of African American young men by police. 

Prosanta Chakrabarty is an American ichthyologist who is comparing unique species of blind cave fish. The DNA from two such species can be used to show how the continents moved apart over millennia. His studies also will help better understanding of the process of human sight and hence treatments for blindness.

Kiana Hayeri is an Iranian-Canadian "photographer exploring complex topics such as youth culture, migration and sexuality in Iran and Afghanistan, highlighting an often hidden side of life in the Middle East." She talked about Afghan millennials born after the Russian invasion who have only known a country at war and mostly under the chilling presence of the Taliban who nevertheless are developing their own culture.

Vanessa Wood is an electrical engineer and tenured professor in Switzerland. She has been using xrays to look at batteries while in a camera and the good news is that she has found a way to organize the particles in the graphite to provide a smoother path for the charged ones to move - meaning quicker charging and more useful energy. Better batteries are not just good news for cell phones and cameras, they are also key to the success of wind and solar energy systems. And electric cars.

Trevor Timm spoke about the need for and development of Securedrop a surveillance resistant method of communication for whistleblowers. 

Majala Mlagui from Kenya is a gemologist and mining entrepreneur: "founder of Thamani Gems, which works with artisanal and small-scale gemstone miners in East Africa to create sustainable livelihoods through responsible mining, ethical sourcing and access to fair trade markets." (taken from the TED web page as I was taking a much needed bathroom break while she was speaking)

Jessica Ladd (USA) is a sexual health technologist, the "founder and CEO of Sexual Health Innovations, a nonprofit dedicated to creating technology to advance sexual health in the U.S. Her most recent initiative, Callisto, provides a platform for college students to confidentially report sexual assault." She got the first standing ovation of the morning. Her statistics were remarkable: 1 in 5 women at US colleges are sexually assaulted: less than 10% will report the event. 90% of assaults are by repeat offenders, but very few are caught and even fewer punished: "there is no deterrent". Her system only provides information to authorities when there is a match between two reports: it is a form of "information escrow" which ensures that all reports are verified. This greatly increases the probability of being taken seriously and can of itself prevent 59% of assaults.

Shivani Siroya is  Indian-American,  "founder and CEO of InVenture, a mobile technology and data science company that flips the traditional credit scoring system by putting power into the hands of consumers via their mobile phone. Now, she is working to launch and test a new application which instantly scores applicants and delivers real-time credit to individuals who lack access to formal financial services."

At that point the session broke for lunch and I headed home to write the blog. 

Monday, 1 February 2016

Apple Genius Fail

There is currently a recall out for Apple's wall plug adapters.  Some of the adapters in the World Travel Adapter kit need to be replaced because they might break and create the risk of an electrical shock. There are a couple of options as to how to do that but the obviously best thing to do is

"Exchange your adapter(s) at your local Apple Store (Genius Bar reservation recommended)"

So that is what I did. There is an "Apple AC Wall Plug Adapter Exchange Program" and that is what automatically set up my Genius Bar appointment (all I had to do was pick the store, date and time). I picked a couple of days ahead, to be sure that they would have the right bits when I got there.

But that is not what happened. I got to the store, was asked to wait, and when the genius appeared (their word not mine) she looked at the box as though she had never seen one before. She took out each of the adapters, and looked at them. She checked the box descriptions to try and identify them, as her iPad did not seem to offer the help she needed. So then I told her which ones were which, and showed her the ones that needed to be changed. Another genius joined her. They spent more time rehearsing what I had said.

Eventually they said they did not have any of the parts I needed - despite having the advantage of me letting them know some days in advance I was coming in to get them. I thought Apple was a high tech whiz at issues like distribution and inventory control. They asked me for enough information when I made the appointment and they had time to get the parts.

Then they asked me to confirm my contact details - and said they would contact me when they became available. They were unable or unwilling to specify when that might be.

Waste of my time going there, but I suppose they do have to guard against people trying to get wall plugs under false pretences or something. I don't know. I felt like I was dealing with some mid 20th century communist bureaucracy.

UPDATE  Feb 4 2016 I got a canned email telling me I could "pick up the parts" now - if I bring photo ID with me.

ANOTHER UPDATE Feb 5 2016 - I get to the store and get another "genius" who admits right off that she has no clue what I am talking about. Fortunately I am sitting right next to an iMac, so I call up the Apple Support page with that illustration above, and show her the three plugs we are talking about: one each for Europe, Korea and Australia. My World Travel Adapter Kit does not have the Brazil plug. She does not ask to see my id, by the way.

So off she goes and comes back with one Europe plug. Which is progress of a sort but not exactly what is required. After some more to and fro she finds both the Korean plug and the original order which omitted to mention Australia.

So now she is going to order that last plug and we get to go through all this again in a few days time.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Speed of the Internet

We have Telus providing our home phone, tv and internet. That means when the phone rings, the number calling us shows up on our tv screen. I did not recognise it, when it rang during the CBC Vancouver News, and my partner answered it. It was Telus, wanting to know if we would like to upgrade our internet speed.

She does not know what our current speed is, and does not much care. So she did not bite on the offer of 50mb. I have been wondering about our home internet speed ever since I saw the contractors' trucks down on Valley Drive installing fibre optic cables - for Telus. It seemed to me that if we were going to see a significant change in internet speed, more money would have to change hands.

Anyway, while I was preparing dinner (spaghetti squash with bolognese sauce) she looked up her Telus bill. We are paying for Internet 25 - but when I ran the speedtest I was actually getting only ~5Mbps. But then when I went to the Telus support webpage and the key bit of information there is this advice "Connect an Ethernet cable to your modem for best results". I had been using wifi: now I am on the cable I am getting 26.71Mps - over five times faster! A bit of furniture arranging and switching of plugs and outlets later, and I am a much happier camper. I think for now she is right, we don't need 50, when I can get 25. Maybe if we used different kind of services it would be different: but if I want to watch full length video we use Apple TV and the tv set, not the laptop. Or maybe Chromecast on the bedroom tv: not that we use that much either. But for stuff like flickr and tweetdeck this will be fine, thank you.

PS I am so close to the router/wifi base now that I get the faster speed even without the ethernet cable. I was just sitting in the wrong place!