TED Talk: How to take a picture of a black hole | Katie Bouman

A talk on how the process would work presented a couple years ago. Interesting how closely the actual image matches the reconstruction before they did it.

At the heart of the Milky Way, there’s a supermassive black hole that feeds off a spinning disk of hot gas, sucking up anything that ventures too close — even light. We can’t see it, but its event horizon casts a shadow, and an image of that shadow could help answer some important questions about the universe. Scientists used to think that making such an image would require a telescope the size of Earth — until Katie Bouman and a team of astronomers came up with a clever alternative. Bouman explains how we can take a picture of the ultimate dark using the Event Horizon Telescope.

What I’ve learned over the past year

A friend asked me this last night and my unprepared answer was all over the place, but I think in retrospect there was a theme. I was aware that being a parent changes the brain in the abstract. I was unprepared for the experience for how hard it hits.

Think the stepson being only a few years from being an adult gave me false expectations. He wants to be treated as a responsible adult, so I try to both hold him accountable for his behavior while explaining a big part of being an adult is sacrificing whim and short-term fun for long-term gain.

Being the father of a tiny helpless human is completely different. And her transition into taking agency and navigating how to balance them has me constantly on my toes. It has completely shifted my world view in places. And I am sure that some decisions over the past year have been completely different due to this shift.

So, this past year has been a lesson on how psychology textbooks are not completely full of abstract bullshit.

Shortcuts: Rules

(I should have recognized this in my Shortcuts series of posts. Intro > 1. Illusions > 2. Labeling > 3. Math > 4. Multitasking > 5. Rules)

Rules exist to help reduce the friction of society so that we can more easily work with strangers. Without rules, we need to have potentially damaging interactions with individuals, establish a series of data points about them to decide what kind of person they are to know how to handle them in the future. Instead, we create laws, policies, and traditions to define how we interact with each other. This frees our brains from Dunbar’s Number such that we can have larger social groups over that about 150 person limit.

We also have an instinctive bias to when others break the rules. People who severely or habitually do so need to be punished. We will claim it to be that others see that society will not tolerate the behavior, but really it is so we feel better that a rule breaker did not get away with it this time.

I started thinking about this because I had a conversation with a coworker about an odd claim about a rule. One problem with rules is there are too many for any individual to understand them all. We have specializations, so experts in an area are expected to know the rules for that knowledge domain.

People are human and may inform us about things that are less true and more desires of the way things ought to be. Traditions can sometimes fall into the latter. Sometimes when properly challenged, traditions find their way into being codified as laws or policies so that people properly behave.

Hammurabi almost 4,000 years ago solved this misunderstanding about what the rules are by writing them down. It really is a good way to handle it. One can read the rules oneself to check to see if how it was explained is correct or missing an important distinction.

And then, there is intentional rule breaking. Do you drive faster than the speed limit? Read all the terms for using a website? Criminals are deemed people who break the rules intentionally. Most of us are breaking some rules several times a day. Some intentionally, some by ignorance. Some because we were set up for failure. Some because the likelihood of being caught and punished are so low the wasted effort at complying is not worth it.

Hot cars and books

Totally flubbed the reading strategy.

  1. I have a Kindle Paperwhite for reading in the dark. It is for when lights are out, so I can read for a bit.
  2. I have a book or two in the car for reading when I go to lunch alone.
  3. October to March, it can be a hardback because the car doesn’t get warm enough to warp the cover. April to September, I read paperbacks. (Maybe a handful of times the car got hot enough to melt the glue, but that was in South Georgia when not parking in a shaded area.)

I love The Expanse series. I just got Tiamat’s Wrath in hardback a couple weeks ago. I should be done with it by now, but I keep not having it with me in the car trying to protect the cover. Leaving it in the right place is such an effective strategy.

So, I now have it in the house. I can get some reading in while the baby naps.

Teachable Moment

Like the Boondock’s N-word moment, but you know, hopefully productive. The teachable moment is an expression of how what someone said can be a mine field they are unaware of.

I should have gotten my PhD, because “Doctor Freelove” has a nice ring to it. But more than that, I love explaining things.

New server at a restaurant told me how I looked like a scary person to meet in a parking lot. He was being playful referring to a story I had told him about a person contacting me on Facebook in a weird way wanting to either meet or mail me something. On its face, it was still microaggression territory.

I didn’t want to lay into him and solidify his potentially racist views. I didn’t want to make someone who feels like an ally feel alienated.

So instead, I told him some stories about my experiences. He was engaged. Others who witnessed were drawn into the conversation. Based on his comments, I think he got my points about how this stuff is something we have to carefully navigate. And it is draining to have to do so. The question is, will it help him be even just a tad more cognizant?


Podcasts updated for 2019

Back in 2016, I did a post on the podcasts to which I was listening. About six months ago, I lost everything due to my cloud-based podcasting app becoming unreachable.

It is weird to me how talking styles for radio news shows I listened to 15 years ago are unlistenable today. It makes me think maybe I should give another try to something I’ve been avoiding.

So here is my list at the moment categorized into genres:

Trusting a black box

Steven Johnson wrote in Everything Bad Is Good For You about how in video games we have to figure out the rules of the built world. We are not just exploring a virtual space but build a mental map of cause and effect.

The humor of memes about video games having prepared one when finding something random that looks like a glitch in the real world reflects this mental map concept.

Anything built without our controlling the rules works this way. Say I have a car that estimates the range. It says I have 11 miles before it runs out of gas and the fans are on full, so I see the miles dropping faster than they should. I come to doubt really have 11 miles and the gas station I can get $.40 off is 7 miles away. I might get there and I might not. So, I put a gallon in it. The range doesn’t budge.

Do I still have 11 miles? Surely I have more, but how do I know that I do? Can I trust it?

Opaque rules impair causation. See, the whole point of the tool is to allow me to predict when to take action. More gasoline SHOULD cause more actual range which should cause the gauge to show more range. Filling up the tank soon after did show the max range like it should. This event eroded my trust, which makes me worry about whether I can trust the gauge even when it does show there is plenty of gas.

P.S. the gas gauge did not move either.

Facebook Feature Request: External content datestamp

When people post a link, a Facebook bot looks at the content and finds the content of the <title> tag and creates a summary. My modest proposal is that it also locates the post datestamp to include here.

Every Facebook post has the name of the poster with when they posted it. It might be “Just now” to minutes or hours then if more than a day, the date. Then if more than a year, how many.

If Mark posts an article from 2 years ago right now, then it can appear fresh and new. Facebook also scrubs URLs so that if that indicated the publication date, one must click through to know that it is old. And, we all know in general people re-share things without doing such due diligence. This could be part of why missing persons posts get shared years after the person was found as people have no idea that the article is 1-10 years old without clicking through.

Comparing numbers

When presenting two values, I prefer to use the same scalar. I think this came from my Chemistry teacher, who is my idol. That had to do with how many decimals for calculations.

An article about the state budget made the point that cutting a sales tax on tampons would remove $9 million of a $26.9 billion budget. I would prefer to write it as $9 million and $26,900 million. (Maybe $0.009 billion and $26.9 billion.)

The idea is to present the numbers in such a way that the reader doesn’t have to do mental gymnastics. Though the difference between a million and a billion is not that intuitive. An NYT piece illustrates it as:

  • a thousand seconds is 17 minutes
  • a million seconds is 12 days
  • a billion seconds is almost 32 years

Convert Little-endian UTF-16 to ASCII

hacker screen
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

I generated some text files working with Get-Acl Powershell, but I did not know how to get Powershell to do some advanced features. (Basically, I wanted to the Select-String to include the next 2 lines and see whether a specific group was in that list. And maybe some exclusions.) So, I copied the files over to my Linux home to check there.

The basic most grep? Nothing.

I used ls -l and confirmed they have data. I used less to confirm I can see it.

I copied a string and did a grep for it. Nothing.

I did a dos2unix. That didn’t fix it. Finally, I did:

file filename.txt

That revealed the files had types of:

  1. Original: Little-endian UTF-16 Unicode text, with CRLF line terminators
  2. dos2unix converted: Little-endian UTF-16 Unicode text

Basically, this told me that the dos2unix fixed one problem but not both. The “with CRLF line terminators” means that Windows and Unix have philosophical differences in how to format text lines.

Little-endian is a geeky homage to Gulliver’s travels. It has to do with which direction one encodes the bits. But, it isn’t really the big problem here. UTF-16 is the problem because apparently, I need it to be UTF-8 for grep to read it. So, the fix is to use an encoding converting:

iconv -f utf-16 -t utf-8 filename.txt > filename_new.txt