A dumb devil

Faulkner and Bukowski on Creativity

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It delights me to no end that William Faulkner and Charles Bukowski see eye to eye on the issue of creativity. They don't exactly say the same thing, but they both make similar claims when it comes to the perfect setup for creativity. I first read Bukowski's poem, "air and light and time and space," as brilliantly illustrated at Zen Pencils. The poem follows below, but please be sure to see the interpretation at Zen Pencils.

"–you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,
something has always been in the
way
but now
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
the light.
for the first time in my life I’m going to have
a place and the time to
create."
 
no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
or
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
welfare,
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown
away,
you’re going to create blind
crippled
demented,
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
back while
the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,
flood and fire.
 
baby, air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses
for.

Then I read the following interview with William Faulkner in which he has the following choice quotes:

The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.

and

The writer doesn't need economic freedom. All he needs is a pencil and some paper. I've never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money. The good writer never applies to a foundation. He's too busy writing something. If he isn't first rate he fools himself by saying he hasn't got time or economic freedom. Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes.

That was taken out of context and you should read the rest of the interview. Faulkner didn't say that writers don't have any needs. But he does agree with Bukowski that if we're spending our time fussing about the art and not making our art, we're just fooling ourselves.

Illustration by Gavin Aung Than, used with permission.

Happy Birthday, Me. I got you Vim!

I used to play NetHack. The keyboard keys it uses to navigate your player are the same screen navigation keys for the editor vi. So I've always been able to make do with vi and its successor, Vim.

I've recently decided to give Vim a serious look, since it's still ubiquitous after more than 20 years, (I find myself having to ssh to remote computers more often then I expected), and I have really smart, productive colleagues who use it everyday. Somehow, it has stood the test of time. Vim is one of those tools that increases in value exponentially if you invest the time to become proficient in it.

So, in the grand tradition of giving myself strange intangible gifts like giving myself data portability a couple of years ago, this year, I decided to invest some time in Vim.

I'm still new to it, but I've tasted the change in mindset that happens as you get better and better at Vim. It feels like you're programming the act of text editing, and I mean that in the best way possible. (This is coming from a guy who spends his free time programming cron jobs.)

Time for a screen shot of what Vim looks like for me when I'm working on a shell command. Click on it to see it at full size.

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There are three "windows" in the image above. The window on the left is a tree-view of the files on disk. That window is managed by a script called, NERDTree, and it's usually closed. I only open that when I need to look at another file. On the right are two windows, one above the other. The larger one is on top, and is the "main" window that hosts the main buffer that I'm actively editing. The smaller window on the bottom is an "output" window, that prints out the results of the script I'm editing whenever I run it.

That image represents an iterative workflow where I edit (possibly multiple buffers) in the biggest window, hit <F5> to run the script, and see the output displayed in the window below. It's a workflow that works well for small scripts.

There are a few things about that window that I'd like to point out:

One:The line numbers are relative to the current position of the cursor. This is really handy because Vim's normal mode commands work nicely with line number counts. The line numbers change automatically to absolute line numbers when the window loses focus. That's accomplished by this bit in my .vimrc file:

autocmd FocusLost * if &relativenumber | set number | endif
autocmd FocusGained * if &number | set relativenumber | endif

Here's a great explanation for why to switch between relative and absolute line numbers in vim.

Two: There's a very subtle light gray column at column 70 in the image. Usually it's at column 80, but I bumped it in to take the screenshot. That column helps remind me to keep my code lines short.

Three: There are a few plugins doing work behind the scenes. You can see one called powerline just under the main window. Powerline is a very handy status line. What you can't see in the image are other plugins like taglist that help when one is developing code. Vim also support syntax completion.

Four: Vim is very customizable, and it sometimes needs it. For example, I like the behavior from setting smartindent, except when it un-indents the # character to the first column of the line. In Python, the # character starts a comment, and I want it to remain in the column in which I put it. Here's what I've added to my .vimrc file to fix that issue:

set smartindent
autocmd FileType python  inoremap # X<c-h>#

Boo that Vim doesn't always do what you want out of the box. Yay that it always can be fixed to work the way you'd prefer.

Five: Vim lets you continue to undo actions from your previous sessions with the file, if you like. Isn't that an awesome option to have? If you want it, the option to set is:

set undofile

Far better than what I've written here, I strongly recommend Steve Losh's article, Coming Home to Vim. He's got a lot more experience with Vim, and he makes a compelling case for it.

It's a work-in-progress, but I'm willing to share what I've got so far in my .vimrc file. You'll see that I customize far more than I mention here in this article. Once it's stable, I may maintain it in a repository at github.

The Well-Mannered Daemon

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The subject line is a bit of a lie. It's not a well-mannered daemon so much as it is a well-mannered cronjob. But it's more fun to say daemon.

I had to make a new cronjob. As is occasionally the way with things, NetFlix saw fit to remove their AtHomeRSS feeds. I used that feed at my lifestream, so I needed a replacement.

I rebuilt the AtHomeRSS feed, and I made the complete source code available. Disclaimer, it's code that was written between 11:00pm and 2:00am over a couple of nights. You get what you paid for.

The point of the repository over there at GitHub is the new script that makes an RSS feed by scraping email. But still, I thought it was interesting how much code was dedicated to making the cronjob be well-mannered. I expect my daemons and cronjobs to have the following attributes:

Accountable

Do the job quietly, and write a short status report on how it went. No need to interrupt me if things went fine. But I do want to be able to check-in on it, and know if anything interesting happened. My cronjob writes a line (or more) to a status file every time it checks the email. It also trims away really old entries from the file, keeping it short.

Diligent

If it does encounter a problem, I want it to let me know right away. That's not something to just put in the status report. It should ask for help and email me with any problems that it doesn't know how to handle itself.

Adaptable

When I need to give the cronjob new instructions, it should be easy. It shouldn't fastidiously insist on writing reports or sending me emails as I'm in the process of giving it new directives. This cronjob allows me to quickly test changes with a --debug flag.

Dependable

This last trait is mostly just thrown in there. It automatically applies to all software, since you only have to write it once, and all things working correctly, it'll do what you tell it to. Still, that's what's beautiful about software. Any time I find myself repeating a task, I find myself wondering, could I just automate this?

There's an interesting description that accompanies the photo that I used as the header for this image. The photo is of "Machine with Concrete." Ars Electronica writes, "Arthur Ganson (US) reminds those partaking of it that the human being is the only creature on Earth to build machines that (are meant to) outlive their creator." My daemons and cronjobs are meant to outlive me.

Photo by Ars Electronica / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Why I Returned My Chromebook

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I've long been a "true believer" in remote computing. I didn't distinguish between an internet cloud and a single remote server. What mattered to me was that all I needed near me was some sort of device to send and receive data. The smaller and thinner the local device, the better.

Ever since I'd heard that John Gage, the Chief Researcher and Vice President of the Science Office for Sun, say that "the network is the computer", I thought that the future was clear. He and I both knew where we were headed.

As soon as the first Chromebook came out, I was interested. But I didn't buy. When I spend my own discretionary money, I'm merely cutting edge, as opposed to bleeding edge. So I waited...

When ChromeOS vesion 19 and the Samsung Series 5 550 came out, it was time for me to buy. I figured they'd gotten most of the kinks out, and the device would be eminently usable.

The Chromebook arrived and I loved it. The laptop itself didn't disappoint at all. The battery life, the screen, the keyboard and touchpad - all of it was great.

I returned the Chromebook because of small missing features in ChromeOS. I knew that ChromeOS didn't support Java. I should have known that ChromeOS wouldn't support QuickTime. I could have lived with those two missing features. The third missing feature: ChromeOS doesn't support SSL VPN solutions. That means I can't even use my Chromebook for connecting to my work's network.

So, I couldn't run Java applications. I couldn't watch PATV, and I couldn't work from home. It's with a heavy heart that I realize that the state of technology isn't quite there yet, and I returned the Chromebook.

Dear Google: I'm still watching and hoping. Get to the point where I can access the networks I need on your portable network device, and you'll get my money. You're so close.

My Location Predictor

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I made a web page that predicts where I'm going. It was a fun little academic exercise, and I thought some of the challenges were interesting.

Ever since it came out that Apple was tracking and keeping location data on everyone's iPhones, and owners could get to that data my curiosity was piqued. Apple was quick to stop tracking so much data and to limit access to the database, but I saved off my phone's database of locations while I could. Later, I installed a new app, OpenPaths, that intentionally and continuously logs my phone's locations and makes that data available to me.

Now that I was logging my phone's locations in the background, I could ask myself what I wanted to do with the data. I knew what I wanted to do right away! I wanted the computer to answer the following question:

Given where I've been, where am I probably going now?

I'd make a webpage whose only job it was to display its answer to that question. It's a simple web page to look at, but the devil's in the details.

Sensible Predicting

The human brain is wonderfully better at answering that sort of question than the computer. It's a matter of pattern recognition across at least three dimesions: time and two-dimensional space.

I started with the way I'd think about answering that question:

If there aren't any notable exceptions, like travelling for work or vacation, then I follow a bi-weekly schedule more closely than a weekly schedule. So I'd look at where I was at this time of day two weeks ago.

To translate that into an algorithm for the webpage a few things need to happen. I have to codify what a "notable exception" is. Perhaps it's being more than 100 miles away from home for more than a day or two. Or, if I'm currently away on vacation, then the program shouldn't be looking at what I've been doing two weeks ago at home.

Here's the algorithm that the computer uses:

  1. If I was near here two weeks ago, consider where I was going back then at this time.
  2. Otherwise, consider where I was at this day of the week last week.
  3. If I was away on each of those occasions, then how about where I was yesterday at this time?

Simple enough. But the question of "two weeks ago at this time of day" itself is a bit ambiguous. Two things get in the way of that that the human brain just automatically figures out. One, time-of-day is local. If I am in California today, but I was in Hawaii two weeks ago, I can pretty easily calculate "breakfast time" for either. But the computer would have to first translate latitude and longitude coordinates into time-zones on the Earth. Then it'd be able to calculate relative time-of-day for either week at either location. The other issue, daylight savings time throws off the way a program might naïvely calculate "two weeks ago."

Account for daylight savings time

"Two weeks ago at this time of day" is a loaded phrase. The naïve approach for a computer that keeps track of time by incrementing seconds would be to subtract the number of seconds in a day, and do that 14 times. But that doesn't account for daylight savings time, which would throw off the results for 4 weeks out of a year.

My program uses Python, which has a library to translate time from epoch timestamps (which are used by OpenPath's library) to a calendar date and time-of-day format that's more native to the human mind. So the actual code calculates "number-of-seconds to this time-of-date two weeks ago" as follows:

now - time.mktime( (datetime.fromtimestamp( now ) - 
                    timedelta( days = 14, hours=0 )).timetuple() )

Huh, that's sort of wordy compared to the naïve alternative, but the important thing is that this approach is always correct. Once we've figured out when "two weeks ago" actually is, then we can calculate what "where" and "how far" actually mean...

Distance Calculations

If you're near the equator, then calculating short distances using latitude and longitude can be approximated by an equation based on Pythagorean Theorem. What's funny is that if you search the web looking for the algorithm in Python, you'll usually see something like the following function:

def distance(p1, p2):
    return math.sqrt((p1[0] - p2[0])**2 + (p1[1] - p2[1])**2)

But as long as you're importing the math module anyway, it'd be even more direct if you just used math's own "hypot" (short for "hypotenuse") function:

def distance(p1, p2):
    return math.hypot(p1[0] - p2[0], p1[1] - p2[1])

But that calculates planar distance, and we're not on a plane. We're essentially on a sphere. So it's better to use the Haversine formula if we want to get an accurate distance between two points defined by latitude/longitude coordinates.

Now that timedelta and the Haversine formula handle the "when" and "where" in my fuzzy algorithm, it's time to take a look at the presentation of the data.

The Webpage Itself

So much for the algorithm. What about the quality of the webpage itself?

Responsive Webpages

It's a small webpage. So it's only sensible and intuitive that it'd be a quick and responsive webpage, too. But the webpage wouldn't work without making relatively long queries to two remote services.

  1. Retrieve new location data from the remote OpenPaths API service.
  2. Retrieve specific map data from the Google Maps API service.

In between the two big remote queries, the program needs to perform the actual prediction for where I'm going to be based on the OpenPaths data, and send the predicted points to Google Maps. There's no way to avoid the fact that the webpage is going to take a few seconds to do all its work.

The best work-around for that is two things:

  • Ajax. The web server can quickly serve a simple HTML web page to the client which'll get displayed for the user right away. Then the browser can make another request to the server for just the data that takes a long time to calculate and retrieve.
  • Caching. Once I've retrieved raw datapoints and made the prediction calculations, then that prediction shouldn't change for a few minutes. I can save off my prediction and immediately hand it back the next time the webpage is requested, if it's requested relatively soon.

Well-behaved Webpages

It's critical to me that the webpage be small and simple. It has to get to the point as quickly as possible. But it's also important to me that I give credit to the tools and services I used to make it possible. That called for some credits to be put in a footer.

I wanted the footer to be relative to the browser's window viewing the page. But if that window was too short, then the footer would end up overwriting or being overwritten by the map or the text above the map. The fix for that was some clever CSS that put the footer at the bottom of the window, but never let it cover up the important part of the page, the map.

So far so good. But then I discovered something unexpected...

Bad Data

Sadly OpenPaths seems to collect bad data from my phone occasionally while it's at rest. All of the recorded and predicted movement in the map below is due to bogus data from OpenPaths.

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All of the points along the same angle that extends to the south east are bad data. The phone didn't go anywhere all that time. I have no idea why it sometimes pretends to travel to that part of town, but I don't like it. This called for another interesting algorithm that's better suited for a human brain:

If the datapoints smell fishy, don't use them.

It's really easy for me to detect which datapoints are bad, and not only just because I know where my phone's been. It's because there's a certain pattern, the angle and distance traveled by the bogus points. So I've got a work-in-progress algorithm the elides points that smell fishy.

A Secret Mode

The main point to the site was the prediction. But as long as I had all this historical data, it seemed like a shame if I couldn't easily look it up, too. So there's a secret mode, impossible to find and discover. (Since nowadays people don't read long blogs or actually type in the URL bar of their browsers.)

If you add an HTTP "GET" parameter, t, to the URL, the website will return a corresponding location history instead of a prediction of where it thinks I'm going to be. t can take one of three different forms, a UNIX timestamp, an RFC 2822 date and time, or a negative number of days to look back. Here are some examples:

http://david.dlma.com/location/?t=1279684897

I flew in to Los Angeles on that day. Timestamps are good if you're already dealing with them or want a relatively short token to represent an absolute time. Otherwise, they're an epoch fail waiting to happen.

http://david.dlma.com/location/?t=2012-02-20T13:30:00

Took the kids to Disneyland that day. Fun! That date format is handy if you want to browse my location history and are thinking in terms of calendar dates.

http://david.dlma.com/location/?t=-7

What'd I do last week? This is handy if I don't need an absolute time and date, but just want an offset from the current time and date.

Finally, I've got a micro site that was really fun to build and with which I'm quite pleased.

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