Simplify Life

I am going to keep this journal entry brief. Most of us do a lot of superfluous things in our daily lives that we do not have to but want to for whatever reason. Perhaps we enjoy it or perhaps we are paid for it, or, for the lucky ones, both. But some of these things have benefits that are so entwined with our life that we hardly ever recognise, let alone acknowledge, their existence until they are gone. To me, writing is one such thing. It is something I love immensely, I occasionally get paid for my articles when they are published elsewhere, but it is not my day job, so to speak.

I recently also bought Launch Centre Pro because it was selling for only 40% of the regular price. I think it is worth it although I do not see myself using it anytime soon. The x-callback syntaxes are simple enough, but the core purpose of the software is where my problem lies. Over the past nine months I have been on an experiment to use technology more mindfully (a report marking my entire year is due by the end of October, so I will not describe specifics for the time being) and one of the results of that has been, rather unsurprisingly, a stark simplicity in the way I use technology. I therefore have no need for automating the modification of clipboard contents and then automating its use to invoke another application, or quickly viewing select 1Password entries, or building lists of contacts and the manners in which to reach them, or logging paid purchases to a cloud-based spreadsheet, or any of the myriad, unusually specific things Launch Centre Pro lets one accomplish. I understand that some may find all of this useful, but I do not.

With my research taking centre stage and with Pixel & Paper to manage now alongside Physics Capsule, my day has become somewhat hectic. Not one to compromise on any of my hobbies in their entirety, I have decided to make my journal updates here briefer than usual: 1,000 word articles in the place of 2,000, and 700 word articles in the place of 1,000, and so on. They will also be published in fewer numbers: once or twice a week instead of four times or more.

This is partly why I restructured this website with simplicity — to convey my point that the simplest, most commonplace of things can prove to be remarkable if only you open your mind to it. I have used the classic Garamond as the only typeface and I think it looks lovely. I will still publish here and nothing changes except the frequency of publishing and the fact that brevity will be held in much higher regard than usual. It is time we all simplified our lives and stopped considering busyness a sign of prestige — it is certainly not.

Comments and censorship

Over the course of this week, three things have caught my mind. First is difficulty in finalising a website, which I will talk about presently taking two case studies: Pixel & Paper, and Physics Capsule. Second is a question that has come to be one of my favourites in this era of increasing censorship: the relationship between website owners controlling comment threads and small scale censorship, specifically whether the former implies the latter. I think not, and I will explain why in a moment. Lastly, but nonetheless what I want to talk about first, is an interesting study that came out recently which used a square lattice model to study coöperation and competition among people. I have taken effort to ensure that no spoilers have crept into my brief review.

I.

A study published in the European Physical Journal B studies competition and coöperation using the snowdrift game in a lattice environment no less. The snowdrift game is a model in game theory that, simply put, involves two people at a junction in the road blocked by a snowdrift. At least one of them should clear it so both can pass on said road, and if one yields to clear it, the other must not — or need not — yield and vice versa. Alternatively, this is called a game of chicken or dove-hawk. On a more dangerous note, consider two drivers on a collision course where one must swerve and become the chicken in order for both to survive, while the other may, but does not have to, swerve.

They applied this to a lattice model and found (unsurprisingly, I would say) that the frequency of coöperation (f(c)) and the number of occupied states (\rho) had a non-monotonic relationship. I may be taking it a tad too lightly in saying this is unsurprising, but if the previous end results of each snowdrift game are the only new “knowledge” added to (f(c)) and (\rho), the change in future results should be expected manifest as either more coöperation for fear of perishing, or more competition for a bid to survive longer. However, seeing that coöperating will lead to everyone surviving the longest, that should see an increase as (\rho) falls.

Of course this is all verbal, but the paper goes over this more meticulously and is quite interesting. I will not spoilt the results for you with a more thorough explanation. Now as to what is monotonic and what is not, consider that you have some situation which has some set of possible outcomes and you have some knowledge of this system. A monotonic system is one whose possible outcomes remain untouched even as new knowledge about the system is gained — which is clearly a preferred and convenient case, but not everything is so. A non-monotonic case, on the other hand, sees variations in its possible outcomes as new information is gathered about the system, and our square lattice model described above is a great example of this.

II.

Of all the questions that I have received regarding this website, one of the most interesting happens to be about comment threads and censorship. I can see how they might appear to have connection at first glance — does choosing not to allow comments on a website amount to censorship? I do not think so. Censorship, by definition, must ensure that all debate against an idea — or, in this case, an article — is near impossible to have. Specifically, that nobody should be able to reach a broad audience should they wish to express their views against the idea. This requires a certain amount of geographic control offline, which, online, translates to control over networks — something that is downright impossible. The only way you can censor something on the internet is to ban parts of the internet itself, which is something only governments can do by an order directed at ISPs.

Now that we have got the idea of actual censorship out of the way, would disallowing comments on whatever section of the internet we do control, i.e. our website, also amount to censorship, if only partially? Having a comment thread on a website allows for discussion, but not having a comment thread does not bar any comments to be made whatsoever. The simple fact is that a comment thread encourages comments only on the website, which is why I shut down comments on my website. I would much prefer to see people discuss these articles, if they wish to, on their own social networks where they can have a more meaningful discussion and moderate their discussions themselves. Since the only way to discuss an article now is to share it, this also, on a personal level, ensures more eyes fall on the article rather than if the discussion involved only people who already found this article, which, in a greater sense would count as censorship. By disallowing comments on the site and encouraging sharing articles on social networks and discussing them there on a much, much larger platform, we are not censoring expression for or against the article but opening it to debate among a wider audience, which is just the opposite of censorship.

Here is how else this is not censorship: I have never refused to participate in one of these discussions myself when I came across, or was directed to, one. (My e-mail has always been open to my readers, despite the many SEO spams I receive because of this.) Understandably, not all of them involved a bunch of people happily grinning in agreement but it is precisely such disagreement that makes any debate worthwhile. I think comments are important, but they do not have to live and die beneath an article; they should thrive on the social web. There used to be a time when blogs meant short pieces with community discussions, but, like everything else, blogs grew. I even experimented for two years without a sidebar and eventually saw how they may help redirect my readers around this site, so I have a sidebar back now. My argument is simply that I see no point in competing against Twitter (my favourite) or Facebook (something I dislike) where you can have much better discussions about the same article, with the public as well as your own friends and family.

III.

This weekend saw a small redesign of Physics Capsule, the free, online physics learning website that I run with an old friend of mine. We were both partly unhappy with how things were, specifically with readability and some stylistic choices. The website now uses Proxima Nova and Adobe Text throughout. I picked Adobe Text because it blends well with Computer Modern, the typeface in which LaTeX equations are output, and which form an integral part of the website. We retain the card-based layout because that is one my ideas I happen to still really like. Since we publish articles based on one particular (often pedagogic) topic, it made little sense to lay the website out like a flashy magazine. Particularly, no article is more recent than any other, or, to put it another way, no article loses its “freshness” since they all form a set of fundamental lessons in a given section of the discipline. The idea then is for the user to pick a “card” — each of which contains discussions on a single topic — to learn from. A visit to Physics Capsule would make it extremely clear and, if you ever wanted to, you may even learn some physics.

As for Pixel & Paper, the design firm that I will be participating in along with an old acquaintance of mine, and whose website was scheduled to be released on the first of this month, has been pushed back to the second half of July. What prompted this was twofold: first, we did not want to hurry things through. We decided that if we were going to use our website as a platform that presented us in every way, we might as well do it right. Secondly, we wanted to have our business cards ready for potential clients-in-waiting, since we want to take our first client only after formally launching the website, plus look into any investment we can draw towards the firm. Unlike Physics Capsule, the website itself has not changed much, because, so far, I think that is the best embodiment of what our firm stands for and we are hoping to replicate this in everything else too well ahead of launch. In short, since we have no obligation to launch by a set date, we want to take our time and get it just right. You can visit Pixel & Paper for more.

Weekly musings: iOS 10, VSCO and Priime apps, and Warcraft

Quite a lot has happened this week, but there are three things on which I have some thoughts to share. First is Apple’s updates at WWDC this year for the rebranded macOS, some bold changes to iOS 10 etc. Second is the rather bad update (in my opinion anyway) that the VSCO iOS app recently received; it had been my photo management app of choice for years but that may change if things remain as they are now for long and Priime, the app that works beautifully and replaced VSCO entirely during my recent trip abroad, could replace it. Is that indeed a sign of things to come? Third is the new Warcraft film which I thought was brilliant, and I cannot think of a single reason why it did not do well in the USA while it did just fine here in Asia.

WWDC 2016 and iOS 10

Apple’s live stream was broken for me, being spotty at its highest consistency and unavailable otherwise. I managed to follow it hopping between the video feed and Andrew Cunningham’s live blog over at Ars Technica. The company says iOS 10 is the biggest release yet for users (bigger than the jump from iOS 6 to 7?) and ditto for developers. The latter I can understand: extensions are everywhere, Siri SDK opens up at last, and lock screen widgets can do wonders if used right. The former, though, let’s face it: bubble effects and emoji that are “3 times bigger” are not enough. Apple does make up with something they skipped at the keynote itself, namely the ability to delete most stock apps. This was something I had on my wish list since quite some time.

There are other points on my wish list that somewhat saw the light of day: control centre is now customisable albeit not in the way I had hoped it would be; there is no RAW shooting mode yet; contact books got an overhaul, but I have no idea if groups can be created on iOS yet; Siri, as I said already, is open to developers; multi-user support is nowhere to be seen yer; 3D Touch is getting better use, but I will hold off my thoughts on this till I actually use iOS 10, hopefully sometime in July; Mail seems to have a new design, but since I moved to Airmail this point is moot for me unless the redesign is massive enough to make using Mail as convenient as Airmail, so, once again, no thoughts until after July; Calendar falls in the same category as Mail, and I have no data as to whether this has seen an update yet in the first place; the Camera app was surprisingly left out of every conversation at WWDC, so I still have no word on whether the camera app has video options in it, but the slide right option to quickly access the camera from the lock screen is much better than the older method. These were on my wish list and Apple has answered them well. I still would like to see the ability to set third-party apps as defaults. Perhaps this will come with iOS 11, seeing as Apple took baby steps to finally make default apps deletable.

The re-branding to macOS was simple, but I wish it did not take up so much of the changes to Macs. In retrospect, there were hardly any big changes to Mac except Siri. This could mean I (we?) expected too much, or Apple needs to switch to an update stream once in two years so that substantial updates are made possible, while minor updates can continue to be served through the App Store — which, I hear, is getting a major re-design. Search on the App Store was especially broken requiring devilishly accurate typing to get relevant search results. Once again, it looks like Google may have spoilt us, but there is no denying that AI in search saves time. (That it may unintentionally limit one’s worldview is a whole other debate.) The bold text on the Music and News apps are a welcome change, but Apple has a notorious track record of inconsistent changes, which is a surprise considering Mr Ive is at the helm these days; consider, for example, the skeuomorphic texture leftovers in the Notes app and Reminders app, even after three whole years of changes everywhere else in the OS — and one massive overhaul in the case of the Notes app. I, for one, hope to see that bold text and clean look à la Apple Music everywhere in iOS 10.

VSCO and Priime

About five years ago when I first came across a photo editing app called VSCO, like 30 million other people, I absolutely enjoyed it. Its edits were subtle and fit perfectly into the entire philosophy of mobile photography: speed and ease of use. And then last week’s update happened which ruined a lot of VSCO for me as the end user. I think what the end users feel matters a lot, and if VSCO thinks the same, they should probably rush to correct everything disturbing about the latest version (5.x) of the app. In short, I think they went ahead and tried to fix something that was not broken and, in the process, broke it.

Here is the harsh fact, though: no matter what anyone says, there are alternatives to VSCO. Like synonyms, these alternatives may not do the exact same thing (and if they do then who needs them anyway?) but they do offer similar capabilities and retain the underlying principle of their genre of apps. That is to say, they may not have VSCO’s signature “film looks” but they do, however differently, still let you achieve the same kind of photographic darkroom edits to make your good pictures better and give them a more formal completeness. In Priime I see a successor to VSCO like I have not seen in another app. Make no mistake, VSCO is a giant, which is what is still keeping the app on my phone. They changed a lot about the app but they left the editing screens mostly untouched, and with good reason: that is the heart of VSCO, and if they ruin that, it means the end of the mobile app.

However, Priime is really good and comes dangerously close to stealing VSCO’s user base. Nonetheless, if “film looks” are not really your thing and all you need are editing capabilities, there is no reason not to jump ship to Priime right now. Its UI is better: once you swallow VSCO’s interface, which looks like their first draft somehow made it all the way to the final version, it is a little easier to use, but nothing beats actual words written on the screen. Also, Priime has shadow darkening, which VSCO does not. On the other hand, VSCO makes it easy to play with skin tones and keystone effects. All said an done, what seals it for me are Priime styles. Filters are an important part of mobile photography because they help achieve a look quickly and then make edits, whereas starting from scratch like in the traditional digital darkroom does not always make sense thanks to the time and effort involved — at least in the way most people see mobile phone photography, as on-the-spot creating, editing, and sharing. At one time I may have said that VSCO blocked itself off with only film looks, but Priime overcomes this because its styles are designed based on the works of real photographers, in collaboration with those photographers themselves. In any case, I lose nothing by leaving VSCO, because both VSCO and Priime are merely tools for my photography and if VSCO makes things harder for me with its avante garde non-functional UI, and if Priime makes things simpler and more straightforward, then Priime it is.

Warcraft — with spoilers

Ah, how some of us waited for this film. And then it flopped in the US, but that was not to move the Chinese who gave it over half of its US $300 weekend bag. I see a lot of people calling it a flop, but it is not, just because it did not do well in the US. One can sit around and nitpick about Warcraft lore and call the film on its changes, but a film is not a game and some changes simply have to be made to cater to those unfamiliar with the game itself and the fact that a game can grow on you over months and years while a film has a few hours at best. I did think the whole relationship between Lothar and his son was unnecessary, but I can see how director Duncan Jones may have intended that as a means of grounding the characters and making people connect with them more.

Gerona’s story was, personally, my favourite. Although different from the game itself, it was complex and brought a lot of dimension to the orc–human relationship among the key characters in the film. Misunderstandings have often played a big part in tragedies and this time is no different, and I think the filmmakers used it really well here. Blizzard did a good job to be honest, and this is one of the better video game films I have seen recently. The orcs and Lothar’s bird were beautifully animated — again, one can complain, but I think they deserve a lot of credit — and the CGI was generally really good. One possible reason critics may have given this film low ratings would be the fact that rather than feeling like a complete, wholesome story, this feels like it was setting up a world. It definitely has the feeling of a beginning, not the horrible feeling that Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man had, but the kind of feeling you get when you watch the first LOTR film and know there is more coming. For Warcraft, I certainly hope there is more coming, although the poor reviews in the US do little to ensure that, but with a trilogy or — dare I say it — with six films, the Warcraft can make it as big in the film world as it has in the video game industry.

So much for this week.

Drafts: On discipline, self–image and perspectives

Brian McKnight is (they say) a multi–talented musician from New York; I have never listened to his music, but I have come across something he once said, which I have found to be extremely true: “I just want people to take a step back, take a deep breath and actually look at something with a different perspective. But most people will never do that.”

As I pen this article, I see it not as a wise teacher sharing his enlightenment, but rather as a humble learner making notes of things he has found to be true: take everything with a grain of salt, or go ahead and try incorporating all this in your life and see if they help. The point it simply to understand that I am not teaching but sharing my views, which you are free to oppose, discuss, concur with, or hurl aside. You will come across quotes frequently in this article; I use them to highlight what I say. And what I hope to talk about are three: discipline, self–image and perspectives, beginning in that order, with discipline.

ONE: ON DISCIPLINE

For years I have fought to fully understand the meaning of the word discipline. Many people throw it around, tell you to be disciplined, but I have never once been told by anyone what discipline really is. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word discipline as “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience”. This definition, I think, while being semantically correct, utterly fails to capture the essence of the word itself. Parenthetically, it introduces the concept of punishment as tied to discipline, which is both untrue and sad.

In any case, discipline was a raw strictness, an almost militaristic enforcement everyone was subjected to that, as a creative and scientific thinker, I detested. Call it anarchy, but discipline held no draw to me until I came across another definition, incidentally from the collected writings of an Oxford English Dictionary contributor, Barry Popik, who found a 1951 definition of an educated man as one who “does what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, whether he wants to do it or not”. Unsurprisingly, this was later adopted into sports1 and underwent some changes, leading to the current version: “Discipline is doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, whether you want to or not.”

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The Joy of Missing Out

I had never really made the connection before this, but Sherlock Holmes practices a form of the so–called Joy of Missing Out. I’ll come to that in a moment; first we need to understand what JoMO is and, parenthetically, what FoMO is.

The Fear of Missing Out, or FoMO, was added to the Oxford English dictionary in August of 2013. It is defined as anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website. I think we can do away with that last clause: FoMO is not restricted to social media alone and is as rampant offline as it is on the web.

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