The More You Make, the More You End Up Making

Creativity has always been interesting to me, because I don’t see myself as a creative person at all. In building games, I always tended towards making the most efficient rather than the most beautiful structures. Professionally, my greatest strength is reducing the complexity of problems to more solveable issues and helping to guide others to move towards solving them. Artistically, I’ve never been able to do much at all, though I’ve tried calligraphy, playing the violin, drawing, and so on. Language seems to be my best creative skill, though not for fiction but rather for communicating clearly. All in all, I’d describe myself as quite uncreative.

One of my main issues would always be the difficulty of thinking of new ideas out of nowhere. It’s so impressive to me how somebody could look at a blank canvas and just decide what to do there. However, now with electronics, it took me just the one big project to learn the basics of electronics, and I’m starting to get more ideas. I’d run into tiny inconveniences and thought: surely, I can spend way more time solving this miniscule issue than I’d gain by just working through it? And so projects were born. Currently, I have the following ideas clunking around, with no specific timeline for when I’ll actually be working on them:

Hamstercage Lights

My current main project is to install RGB lights in all three levels of our hamstercage build. It’d both simulate a circadian rhythm for whenever we get our new hamster, and would have a manual override for when we need light. My main posts on electronics are all about this, so there’s not much new to report there.

Countdown Timer

This was inspired by the Pomodoro timer, as it’s somewhat related but for a completely different purpose. The Pomodoro timer just counts down in small half-hourish increments, to organize working time and to help remind me to take regular breaks. The Countdown Timer was born because there’d be several moments where Tracy and I are working towards a larger goal with a set deadline, such as when we originally moved over here; conversely, there’s also smaller deadlines, like deciding how much time we have until our groceries get delivered. Again, why use just a mobile phone timer when you can massively overengineer a large LED display or 7-Seg display and program it to display days, hours, minutes, and seconds?

Binary, Hexadecimal, Decimal Converter

While I was programming the Pomodoro Timer in C rather than Arduino, I started using binary and hexadecimal numbers more often to directly address memory. In particular, I’d want to set a whole register to specific bits in one go, and using hexadecimal just seems cleaner to me for some reason. What I’d end up doing is going through a datasheet, checking all the right pins for an 8-bit register, and then using a converter online to figure out what the hexademical is for that binary number. Why accept anybody else’s very convenient solution to a self-created problem when I can make it entirely more complex by spending more time? I could just make a small device that shows the same number in decimal, binary, and hexadecimal, and have several knobs or buttons so that I could change each number and the others would automatically change with it.

Bonus: Taglines For the Blog

As I was writing this, I just kept coming up with additional taglines for the blog (huh, additional task: figure out if I can have rotating taglines). Here’s a selection of my favorites:

  • Answering questions nobody asked;
  • Solving problems I created myself;
  • Solving problems nobody has;
  • Creating problems, then solving them by creating two new problems;
  • Breaking things by fixing them;
  • Fixing things by breaking them;
  • Finding out things nobody cares about;
  • Championing pointless causes;
  • Finding a problem to every solution;
  • Putting the “me” in “meaningless”.

Links on the Blog

WordPress can be somewhat obtuse at times. Or, at the least, its interface is opaque, to me. All I’m trying to do is to add a link to the right-hand menu to my GitHub page, so I can store project files on there without having to do that directly on the blog. If I were to do it on the blog, I’d have to edit some files to allow multiple types of uploads to the blog, including C-code. Considering I don’t fully know what kind of weaknesses that opens up, I’d much rather have GitHub be a place where I make these things public rather than on this server. However, despite clicking back and forth through the settings, I haven’t yet found a place to just easily add a link to the sidebar. Well, more searching online it is!

A little bit of experience

When I started this blog, I mainly did it as an outlet for my thoughts. I wanted to have a place to put my experiences, and since I’d started moving away from most social media, this was still a good place to send things out that weren’t specifically targeted at somebody (come to think of it, I do seem to write to somebody, even if that is an abstract idea of a somebody). However, when I posted about the last revision of the pomodoro timer yesterday, I started scrolling back to see what my earliest posts about it. What an experience to see the progress, not just in the design but also just in my ability to build things! Yesterday, I had the satisfaction of seeing a neatly completed product but, today, I have the joy of seeing the advancement in my own skills. A lovely little benefit to blogging.

In any case: have a look at the before-and-after yourself:

Just compare that to the second revision:

And to think there’s only really a few months between these versions!

Calculators Have Come a Long Way

I recently purchased a Casio FX-82MS for future use in the exam for the Dutch amateur radio licensing (technically not a license, but let’s just use that word for the ease of writing). The exam involves some electronics calculations, and while most seem easy enough to do without a calculator (they all tend to be tidy powers of numbers, or neat fractions), it still seems like a good idea to have a tool around in case you need it.

I have to say, calculators have come such a long way even since when I was a kid. I remember in elementary school we had a relatively basic calculator that could do most average arithmetic that you needed. Near the end of high school, the TI-83 was released, which we needed for the advanced mathematics classes. It was mindblowing to have a calculator that could make graphs for you. Ironically, though, given the types of maths we did, it was usually more convenient to just visually verify what we already saw in the equations.

The FX-82MS now just has so many simple features that are small quality of life changes. It’s so much more conventient to work with fractions on this thing than it used to be. There’s more memory scrolling buttons than I’m used to, and an easier menu interface to change some basic settings, and so on. It seems like the advances have mainly been in UI, but what wonderful advances they are.

Edit: Of course, after having bought this one, I discover that there is an even cooler calculator on offer: the Casio FX-991EX, that even has built-in converter functions for binary, decimal, and hexadecimal. D’Oh!

Personal and Collective Responsibility

Yesterday was King’s Day in the Netherlands: a collectivity holiday on the day of the king’s birthday. Aside from the fact that it’s bizarre that we still have a monarchy (why on earth do the royal family just get our tax money? Any role they fill should just be a publicly elected offic, but anyway), it was also another bizarre display of the Dutch COVID-19 response. So very few people here follow COVID-19 measures. I regularly get questions from my colleagues along the lines of “Wow, you even wear your mask outside?” – yes, that’s right, hardly anybody here wears a mask outside.

There are so many bits of misinformation that I hear around here. Children cannot get COVID-19; masks outside are unnecessary, because the open air will spread out the virus; masks might be harmful to your lungs, and so on. Worse still are the people who recognize that COVID-19 is an actual risk but seem to lack the ethics to protect others. Someone told me: “You know, you don’t have to wear your mask here, it’s okay.” Of course I don’t have to wear a facemask. None of these regulations are full-on laws, nor do the police seem to reinforce what few measures there are. I choose to wear a facemask to protect others.

The past year has really highlighted a part of Dutch culture that I don’t appreciate: its lack of collective responsibility. When the people I speak with make light of the risk they run themselves, on the face of it that seems like personal freedom. If they don’t see much risk in getting COVID-19, then they can choose to run the risk themselves. However, even a brief analysis of the idea shows that the main problem of this virus is how easily it transmits from one person to the next. So, sure, you can take a personal risk if you want but it turns into a collective risk.

Clearly, the examples I can list are all anecdotal. Maybe I just know many people whose ethics differ from mine – a highly likely scenario. However, this is a scenario that seems to be national. Hardly any Dutch person wears masks unless they are required to do so, yet the government just will not make it mandatory except for stores. Yesterday, during King’s Day, throughout the day I saw groups of drunken partiers meet up with larger groups, and hugs were exchanged among all as they shouted happily. As of today, the government is opening up bars and shops for regular business again, despite multiple hospitals warning that their intensive care units are reaching their newly-expanded capacity once again. The government’s own crisis advisory team has advised against easing restrictions.

Some of the public discourse that right-wing parties are trying to get going is that the real problem lies with the EU distribution schemes for vaccines: it’s because the EU ends up exporting the vaccine to many countries that the Netherlands doesn’t have enough vaccines, so we’re in this situation. For one, it completely ignores the repeated misinformation that these parties spread (one of the parties even organized its own anti-mask rally), but it also ignores the clear data that multiple other countries in the EU are doing much, much better than the Netherlands. Now, data is always tricky to interpret. Some journalists or Twitter users are indeed overrepresenting how poorly the Netherlands is doing in some measures, and as well the Netherlands is improving slightly, but that sidesteps the reality of the matter: we could have been in a far better situations had citizens responded better.

This weighs heavily on my mind. There are large issues that need tackling. We need to dismantle the capitalist system, and we need to prevent climate change at all costs. However, that takes collective action where individuals engage with the large, abstract structures responsible for our suffering. It takes pretty much exactly the type of behavior it would have taken to alleviate the pressures of COVID-19. At times, I feel downtrodden by the view outside my window, and the careless disregard of so many fellow citizens out there.

Every now and then there’s that glimmer of hope, though. The people who do move aside to make room for passers-by. The people who are wearing masks wherever they go. The people who seriously talk about what to do about the virus. The people who talk about the benefits of working from home, and in what ways they’d like work to change once the pandemic is over. There’s not many of us, but I just hope there’s enough.

Arch Linux and Regular People

Often, when I read about Arch Linux online, there is an odd sense of gatekeeping in comment threads and articles. Arch Linux is seen as a hardcore OS to use. In fact, a common post on /r/archlinux is a proud post describing how somebody spent several hours, trying multiple times to install Arch until they finally managed to make it work. Hardcore fans disparage users of Manjaro as though using Manjaro is a display of weakness. It’s gotten to the point where “btw I use Arch” has become an Internet meme. And yet, I would really recommend Arch.

It’s easy to think that Arch Linux is for programmers; many of the posters online are, or at the least work in IT or have studied Computer Science, or something similar. I am no such thing. In fact, Linux use has taught me some basic programming skills. A common point of praise for Arch is the ability to tweak the system completely to your liking. For some, that means squeezing the absolute most out of their machines: I once read a post where people almost competed to have the quickest boot-up times, arguing over miliseconds as though it was a speedskating event. For me, it’s more about knowing what’s on my laptop. I enjoy the experience of wanting to do something, then just immediately installing a program to do it, and then to go and do that thing. What’s on my laptop is what I put on there, because I wanted it to be.

Doing things this way has taught me about computers, however. Having to learn to program taught me a little about how computers work. Having to understand the Linux filesystems has taught me about the implicit choices in filesystem hierarchies. Having to learn about user and group permissions have made me consider sharing options in Windows as well. Basically, using Linux has made me think about things that I never bothered to think about, even though it’s good to have done so.

I find I reap the benefits of this at work. Now, when we have to switch to a new system, such as when we had to make full use of Office365 when the COVID-19 lockdowns hit last March, I found it easy to adjust to new systems, because I was used to analysing how they interacted. When we needed to set up new interactions between these (such as, let’s say, Microsoft Planner and Microsoft Lists), I could see some analogues to Linux systems, and I could recognize a type of WYSIWYG-interface that tried to abstract code in the background. Despite not working in an IT environment, understanding just a little more of how these systems work has helped me bridge gaps there that I couldn’t have before.

And, on top of that, using Linux is just fun. When I’m back to using Windows 10 on my day-to-day work laptop, it surprises me how clunky Windows is as a system, and how I never noticed that before I really started optimizing my workflow on Linux using i3WM. Let alone that I never bothered to think about workflow before doing that. So, even for us non-programmer, non-IT, non-computery people, I really recommend using Linux.

It’s a putsch, not a coup

Well, this was coming for a long time. For years, left-wing activists and journalists had been warning us all that right-wing extremist groups were a danger to the United States. Last night, we saw those warnings once again becoming reality, as they have done so frequently the past years. I fear that this isn’t so much the culmination of a terrible presidency, but just the beginning of a long and tiring road leading ever to worse things. To the right-wing extremists, this wasn’t a failed putsch (it’s a coup when it’s done by the military; when the public does it, it’s a putsch), but rather it was a victory. They’ve shown that they can instill fear in the world. They don’t feel weak for not stopping the certification, they feel strong because they made an impact. I can only look on in horror, and I fear for what happens next.

Starting up work again

As always after a holiday break, it was odd starting up work again. It’s hard to get back into the groove after not having to be on a schedule for a while. It reminds me of the difference between the theories of Lunacharsky and Bakhtin. Both had theories regarding the place of culture and humanity. Summarizing very broadly and generally, Lunacharsky argued a “pressure release” theory of culture, statehood, and work: the right and correct place of a state is to organize and structure daily life, and people just need to let off a little steam once in a while to be happy; Bakhtin, on the other hand, argued a theory of the carnivalesque, where the true nature of humanity is unrestricted play, which is hampered daily by such pesky concepts as states and structure. So, to play is to return to our true state of being.

Coming back after a holiday break, I feel a similar struggle inside. Which is the real state of being? Is work an interruption of my life where I want to pursue my own goals, or is holiday and interruption of my life where I struggle to contribute to the state? The concept that a holiday is a break from work suggest that work is the mainstay, but it’s odd to consider that this is a very capitalist structure: I am demanded to work by virtue of the capitalist system requiring me to attain its currency so I can have value for the state. Yet, if I choose to go all Thoreau and decide not to be a part of the state and just provide for myself, the state (and capitalist system) would prevent me from doing so (I would be hard pressed to find a geographical space in Europe that isn’t controlled by a state). So, do I even have freedom in that respect?

It’s the old “work to live versus live to work” struggle. Oh, and don’t get me started on “find me a job I like and I never have to work a day in my life”.

Quest for new headphones

So, a while back my old headphones, a decent pair of ATH-M50X broke. They’ve served me well for over seven or eight years or so, though they did need some work. I ended up replacing the earpads with some velour ones, as the regular ones ended up making my ears really uncomfortable. I also ran into the standard problem with ATH-M50Xs, which is the broken hinge for which I had to insert a paperclip to keep it going. And, as they all tend to do in the end, the headband started flaking off, so I had to replace that with a cover. So, now that these have broken, I have been looking around for a new pair.

One thing that’s rather important for me in headphones is easy of replacing each part. I used to buy Sennheiser headphones before I had my ATH-M50X, and invariably the cable would break, rendering the otherwise fine headphones useless. With the ATH-M50X, however, I could replace the cables twice over its lifespan, and it still worked fine, up until the actual right speaker died on me. So, my first requirement is for parts of the headphones to be replaceable, and most importantly the cable. Secondary to that would be having non-proprietary parts; one downside to the ATH-M50X is that the cable has a proprietary hinge, meaning that you heavily limit the cables you can buy.

Back when I bought my other headphones, they were pretty top-of-the-line as far as budget headphones went. Now, of course, we’re almost a decade further on, and the market has apparently moved on quite a bit as well. I’m very tempted by the AKG K702, a set of open headphones that get rather good reviews (which, incidentally, is much cheaper in the Netherlands). The advantage of open headphones, apparently, is that they have a much larger soundstage than closed headphones, resulting in much more authentic sound. The downside of this is sound bleed: because the headphones are open, you will hear more outside noises, and the outside will hear what you’re listening to as well. So, these are generally recommended for indoor use.

Before, I used headphones quite a lot while out and about, because I had a four-hour commute daily. Now that I have moved, my travel time to work is reduced to only a couple of minutes. The main use for headphones while traveling now would be for airplanes, for which open headphones are decidedly unsuitable. During COVID-19, this isn’t so much of a concern, but once this apocalypse is over, Tracy and I would like to visit her family in America again on a regular basis, so it’s a serious consideration to make.

It looks like the AKG K371s are a decent compromise to make, or possibly a pair of AKG K271 for a similar form factor to the K702 (which I do appreciate quite a lot). I’m struggling with the question whether I should sacrifice the audio quality of an open-back set of headphones for a situation which, frankly, probably isn’t happening often anymore. Before COVID-19, I would likely travel by plane two or three times per year which, added to the several hours of commute per day, did necessitate the closed-back headphones. Now, though, I may just settle for a really good pair of headphones for around the apartment, and perhaps a much cheaper set for once we start traveling again.

Incidentally, right now, I’m using a set of Bose QuietComfort 35 II and they are just awful headphones. They are not comfortable to wear for longer periods at all, and the sound quality is surprisingly low. It’s overly bassy, and sounds quite boxy, with an extremely narrow soundstage (then again, what else to expect from Bluetooth headphones?). When Tracy tried them on, she described the experience as claustrophobic. The one thing that these headphones do much better than any other set I have ever used is active noise cancelling – without a doubt they are the king in that respect. If they weren’t so expensive, I would buy a pair of these just for plane travel.

Happy New Year

Well, 2020 is finally over. What a ride. Now, I don’t really believe that 2020 is a magic number, and that somehow 2021 is going to be massively better despite very little having changed since 2020. I recall one of my brothers, decades ago, when he just started a philosophy degree, railing against what he saw as a useless discussion during one of his classes; it involved a thought experiment involved a magical door. What if you could walk through a magical door to an alternate universe, where everything was exactly the same as it is here, except you would be happier. Would you do that?

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