GPG and Me #

As usual, a thoughtful essay by the awesome Moxie Marlinspike.

Realtime View of Earth from ISS #

We live in an amazing time and place. Here’s a live view of our planet from the International Space Station from the High Definition Earth Viewing experiment:

While the HDEV collects beautiful images of the Earth from the ISS, the primary purpose of the experiment is an engineering one: monitoring the rate at which HD video camera image quality degrades when exposed to the space environment (mainly from cosmic ray damage) and verify the effectiveness of the design of the HDEV housing for thermal control.

See also a nice map showing the station’s location updated in realtime at Satflare.

U.S. Digital Services Playbook #

Good advice for building good software.

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International Symbol for an Observer

Tldr; I couldn’t find an international symbol for an observer that was mentioned in an astronomy lecture, so I made one, dedicated it to the public domain and submitted it to the Unicode Consortium. This page details the rationale for my submission including files and usage examples.

UPDATE · Tuesday 3 February 2015: U+23FF Observer Eye Symbol o was accepted at UTC-142yay! ❣ ❦ ✧

Rationale

While there are many symbols for astronomical bodies and atmospheric phenomena in the Unicode Standard, there is none for an observer of these. A symbol for an observer can be useful in illustrating scientific discussions.

Baily's notes depicting the observer symbol.

An international symbol for an observer was mentioned and drawn (image above) by Charles Bailyn in ASTR-160: Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics Lecture 2 - Planetary Orbits. I went looking for it on Codepoints.net, a site dedicated to all the characters defined in the Unicode Standard, and in Unicode’s own Miscellaneous Symbols and Pictographs chart (PDF, 830kb). My search has been unsuccessful as it seems there is currently no unicode symbol for an observer.

Existing Eye Symbol

While a symbol for an eye 👁, also known as sight, does exist (U+1F441 EYE — I do not have a font in my system that displays it), I believe it is still worthwhile to have a specific symbol for an observer because the existing eye depicted in a frontal view is more representative of the organ’s anatomy rather than the act of observation, which is better represented by a profile view of an eye indicating a direction.

Examples of Existing Glyphs an Observer Symbol Would Complement

Proposed Symbol & File Downloads

Below is a symbol for an observer I made, dedicated to the Public Domain. Files in AI, EPS, PDF, PNG, PSD, SVG and TrueType formats in a ZIP archive are available for download here. In the embedded font, the version looking right is typed using a lowercase ‘o’ and the version looking left using an uppercase ‘O’:

o

Usage Examples

Observing a star and a cat:

o - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
🐈 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - O

Unicode Consortium Submissions

  1. international-observer-symbol-submission-simon-griffee.pdf
  2. observer-symbol-submission-simon-griffee-updated-20150129.pdf

I will continue providing updates here should this little project progress further.

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How Accurate Is That Number? #

From the transcript of Charles Bailyn’s ASTR 160: Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics Lecture 2: Planetary Orbits (emphasis mine):

Student: How accurate is that number?

Professor Charles Bailyn: How accurate is that number? It’s accurate to about one digit, which is why I only wrote down one digit of accuracy out front. This is a pro—excellent question thank you very much. This is appropriate because remember I’m using 7 times 10 minus 11 for G, where it’s actually 6.6. So, I’m already about 10% off from there. I did my little calculation to come up with one year equals 3 times 107 seconds. That’s about accurate to one digit or so. And so the whole thing is done to one digit accuracy. If you’re dealing with one digit accuracy, it is true that 7 divided by 4 is 2. It really is true, because if that wasn’t true, then you would have to have more digits on your unit for G or something like that. In particular, let me make an official rule for this course. Three equals π, equals the square root of 10, all right. That will solve an enormous amount of arithmetic problems and it will not get you into any serious trouble. So, we don’t have to worry about the .14159 and however many more digits you all memorized it to. And when you multiply it together you get ten. Yes?

Student: Are you expecting this kind of calculation for problem sets?

Professor Charles Bailyn: Yes. The question was, “Am I expecting this kind of calculation for problem sets?” The answer is “yes.” Here’s the rule about calculators. Let me put it this way: You can only use calculators if I can’t tell that you’ve done it. So, that means you can check your work to make sure you’ve it right or something. But if you start coming up with numbers like 7.1516397, that’s eight digits of accuracy and I’m pretty sure you haven’t worked it out yourself. So important, no calculators on the tests, okay? So, get some practice doing this kind of thing. And this will—this I promise you will be useful to you in everyday life because this is how you catch the politicians doing screwy things with big numbers. You do it in your head in scientific notation and you figure out whether the answer is meaningful or not.

This whole business of significant digits, I think, is badly distorted; by the way, it’s taught in high school. In high school you, and also I should say in laboratory courses sometimes at the college level, you often get situations where people say—give you a whole sheet of rules on how to figure out how many significant digits you have. This is nonsense. All you have to do is behave like a human being. We say to each other, I’ll meet you in the dining hall in ten minutes. That doesn’t mean—that means something different from I’ll meet you in the dining hall in eleven minutes and twenty-six seconds. Even if the person happens to show up in the dining hall in exactly eleven minutes and twenty-six seconds. Ten minutes means I’ll meet you there in ten minutes, we all know what that means. I’ll meet you there in eleven minutes and twenty-six seconds means you’re a character in a bad spy novel who’s just synchronized his watch. So, this shows up in science fiction too.

I don’t know how many of you are Star Trek fans, I certainly am [laughter]. And in all the different Star Trek movies [inaudible comment]—thank you. In all the different—a friend [referring to person who made comment]. In all the different Star Trek movies there’s always a second in command who isn’t a human being, right? A Vulcan or an android or some damn thing or another. And to emphasize the non-humanness of these characters, what they do is they make them use too many significant digits. And so that makes them inhuman and so the captain will say, “When are we landing on omicron M?” The second in command will say, “Well, we should assume standard orbit in 2.6395 minutes,” emphasizing somehow superior brain power or something. But it’s nonsense because it takes the guy ten seconds to say that sentence, so what is this time calculated to a 100th of a second? Does it start from when he begins the sentence? From when he ends the sentence? What’s the other end of that time interval? Can you say you assume standard orbit to the 100th of a second? What does that even mean? When you start beaming down? When you end beaming down? Also, keep in mind it takes more than a 100th of second for the sound to travel from his lips to the captain’s ears, so the whole thing is just nonsense. And so, you don’t need any special rules, just behave like a human being; don’t behave like an android. So, no androids. And that’s the only rule I’m going to give you [laughter]. These two are the only rules I’m going to give you about significant digits, just do the right thing, okay.

Two rules:

  1. 3= π= 10
  2. No androids!
Our Solar System and the Pluto Problem #

From lecture 3 in professor Charles Bailyn’s ASTR 160: Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics:

Bailyn first reminds us of the scientific method and that astronomy is an observational science. He then talks about classification and the six categories of objects in the Solar System:

  1. Sun (a star).
  2. Inner, sometimes called terrestial or rocky, planets.
  3. Asteroids.
  4. Outer, also known as Jovian, planets.
  5. Trans-Neptunian, or Kuiper Belt, objects.
  6. Comets in the outer region, or Oort cloud.

Chapter 5. Classification and Interpretation of Celestial Objects 00:35:13:

So, here are the six categories that I would claim exist in the Solar System. And here’s my problem with the whole Pluto debate. The Pluto debate was basically about whether these guys are going to count as planets. But the thing is, “planets” is already a bad description, because it contains two quite different categories; namely, these inner terrestrial planets, and the outer Jovian planets. So, it seems to me that arguing whether category five should be part of some category that already contains two fundamentally different kinds of objects is kind of a strange argument to be having. Either we should split these two things off from each other, or, if we’re going to join these two kinds of the categories, fine, bring in anything you like. I don’t care, add the asteroids, too. And, in fact, in the original proposal, one of the asteroids qualified as well. And so, it doesn’t seem to me that this controversy was really paying justice to an appropriate classification of the things in the Solar System.

We’ll soon find out much more about Pluto when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft passes by in July 2015!

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Digital Universe

A view of some stars nearby through the PartiView software which can be downloaded from the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium Digital Universe website.

The Digital Universe, developed by the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, incorporates data from dozens of organizations worldwide to create the most complete and accurate 3-D atlas of the Universe from the local solar neighborhood out to the edge of the observable Universe.

I’m looking forward to going to the Hayden Planetarium for the first time tomorrow! The Director is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, host of the current version of Cosmos.

Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, curator of the current Dark Universe show at the planetarium reminds us that the museum is also a research institute:

Since 1998, the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium have engaged in the three-dimensional mapping of the Universe. This cosmic cartography brings a new perspective to our place in the Universe and redefines our sense of home.

Happily a version of the PartiView software and data sets used in the planetarium is available for download to fly around the known universe in your own computer. I will use this as a scouting tool for my next destinations in Elite!

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2015: International Year of Light #

On 20 December 2013, The United Nations (UN) General Assembly 68th Session proclaimed 2015 as the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015).

This International Year has been the initiative of a large consortium of scientific bodies together with UNESCO, and will bring together many different stakeholders including scientific societies and unions, educational institutions, technology platforms, non-profit organizations and private sector partners.

In proclaiming an International Year focusing on the topic of light science and its applications, the United Nations has recognized the importance of raising global awareness about how light-based technologies promote sustainable development and provide solutions to global challenges in energy, education, agriculture and health. Light plays a vital role in our daily lives and is an imperative cross-cutting discipline of science in the 21st century. It has revolutionized medicine, opened up international communication via the Internet, and continues to be central to linking cultural, economic and political aspects of the global society.

Columbia Astronomy Public Outreach #

Free lectures followed by guided stargazing with telescopes (weather permitting) at Columbia University.

Comedy Subverts the World of Hollow Power #

Max Cabanes:

It is our job to recognise the absurd, and to ridicule what is already absurd.

Subversion is subliminal, a state of mind, and for this reason the suppression of free speech is an expression of the way in which people are ground down economically, and the repression of humour is part of that economic repression.

Willem:

There are people attacking us who have never seen it, or think it’s only concerned with Islam. The fact is they don’t know how to read cartoons. There are people who, even if they are illiterate, know how to view a cartoon. And there are clever people with an agenda who just don’t have the culture to understand our laughter. And among the second group are these people like your prime minister and all the others calling themselves Charlie. It’s completely ridiculous, first because in the end they don’t want us, and they don’t want to be Charlie – how could they be? They hate us! And second because they are pretentious, and all pretention is false. When the king employed a fool to laugh at him, the fool was the only one allowed. Now they want no one to laugh at them, but we are free and we do. And if you abolish humour, or kill the funny people, there is nothing left – nothing.

Zineb el-Rhazoui:

People say we should respect religion, but our attitude to religion is the same as it is to any other ideology.

Every Few Years People Remember Websites Should Be Simple and Simplicity is Hard #

UX Check is a Google Chrome browser extension that helps identify usability issues based on Jacob Nielsen’s1 website usability principles:

  • Visibility of system status: The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.
  • Match between system and the real world: The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.
  • User control and freedom: Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.
  • Consistency and standards: Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.
  • Error prevention: Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.
  • Recognition rather than recall: Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.
  • Flexibility and efficiency of use: Accelerators — unseen by the novice user — may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.
  • Aesthetic and minimalist design: Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.
  • Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors: Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.
  • Help and documentation: Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

  1. I remember reading that Nielsen consulted with Google for a day when they were starting out, and his recommendations helped define the simplicity of the site in the beginning: the logo, a search bar and a few footer links. 

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Software for 2015

After seven years and a move to a new city it was time for a new computer and revisiting the software I use:

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Write the Docs #

Write the Docs is a place where the art and science of documentation can be practiced and appreciated. There are a lot of people out there who write docs, but there isn’t a good place to go to find information, ask questions, and generally be a member of a community of documenters.

Man's Ideas Upon Divinity #

Carl Sagan quoting Holbach in the preface to Cosmos’s Chapter VII, The Backbone of Night, p.167:

If a faithful account was rendered of Man’s ideas upon Divinity, he would be obliged to acknowledge, that for the most part the word “gods” has been used to express the concealed, remote, unknown causes of the effects he witnessed; that he applies this term when the spring of the natural, the source of known causes, ceases to be visible: as soon as he loses the thread of these causes, or as soon as his mind can no longer follow the chain, he solves the difficulty, terminates his research, by ascribing it to his gods… When, therefore, he ascribes to his gods the production of some phenomenon… does he, in fact, do any thing more than substitute for the darkness of his own mind, a sound to which he has been accustomed to listen with reverential awe?

— Paul Heinrich Dietrich, Baron von Holbach, Système de la Nature, London, 1770

The Group That Rules the Web #

Great piece on the W3C by Paul Ford.

Great Day for Humankind #

‪After a ten year flight, a machine we made has landed on a comet! What wonderful photographs by the orbiter and the lander parting ways! I’m opening a bottle of champagne tonight with love for the Cosmos, then venturing out in Elite: Dangerous!

Tor Project Partnering With Mozilla #

Great news.

Jazz is the Music of Open Source #

Looking forward to going to Smalls!

Django Tip: Getting Information Into Your Template’s Context #

Great tip from Reinout van Rees.

The Man Who Disobeyed His Boss And Opened The Berlin Wall #
Golgafrincham Ark Fleet, Ship B #

The B Ark is technically named “Golgafrincham Ark Fleet, Ship B”. The Golgafrincham civilization hatched a plan to eliminate its society of its most useless workers, namely its service sector and its paper shufflers. The Golgafrinchans created a legend that their world was about to be destroyed and they needed to build three arks. In Ark A they would put all the high achievers, the scientists, thinkers, artists, and important leaders. In Ark C they would put all the blue-collar workers, the people that build and make things. In Ark B they would put everyone else: hairdressers, TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives, and management consultants.

The B Ark was constructed, loaded up, and launched first. However, it was automatically set for a collision course with Earth’s sun, to finally rid Golgafrincham of these twits. And naturally, no A or C ark was ever made.

Tim Cook Speaks Up #

Part of social progress is understanding that a person is not defined only by one’s sexuality, race, or gender.

Why Wings Work #

But, even as a child, I found that it presented me with a puzzle: how can a plane fly inverted (upside down). When I pressed my 6th grade science teacher on this question, he just got mad, denied that planes could fly inverted and tried to continue his lecture. I was very frustrated and argued until he said, “Shut up, Raskin!” I will relate what happened next later in this essay.

I wish I could send this essay to the 6th grade science teacher who could not take the time to listen to my reasoning. Here’s what happened: he sent me to the principal’s office when I came in the next day with a balsa model plane with dead flat wings. It would fly with either side up depending on how an aluminum foil elevator adjustment was set. I used it to demonstrate that the explanation the class had been given must have been wrong, somehow. The principal, however, was informed that my offense was “flying paper airplanes in class” as though done with disruptive intent. After being warned that I was to improve my behavior, I went to my beloved math teacher who suggested that I go to the library to find out how airplanes fly—only to discover that all the books agreed with my science teacher! It was a shock to realize that my teacher and even the library books could be wrong. And it was a revelation that I could trust my own thinking in the face of such concerted opposition. My playing with model airplanes had led me to take a major step toward intellectual independence—and a spirit of innovation that later led me to create the Macintosh computer project (and other, less-well-known inventions) as an adult.

The Free Internet Project #

Where are internet freedoms most protected around the world?

The Edge of Forever #

Carl Sagan in the Cosmos episode The Edge of Forever:

If the cosmos is closed, there’s a strange, haunting, evocative possibility. One of the most exquisite conjectures in science or religion. It’s entirely undemonstrated, it may never be proved, but it’s stirring. Our entire universe, to the farthest galaxy, we are told, is no more than a closed electron, in a far grander universe we can never see. And that universe is only an elementary particle in another still greater universe, and so on, forever. Also, every electron in our universe, it is claimed, is an entire miniature cosmos containing galaxies and stars and life, and electrons. Everyone of those electrons contains a still smaller universe, an infinite regression up and down.

Every human generation has asked about the origin and fate of the cosmos. Ours is the first generation with a real chance of finding some of the answers. One way or another, we are poised at the edge of forever.

Nature is Speaking #

She doesn’t need people. People need her. The Ocean is the most haunting.

Humanifesto:

Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature.

Human beings are part of nature. Nature is not dependent on human beings to exist.

Human beings, on the other hand, are totally dependent on nature to exist.

The growing number of people on the planet and how we live here is going to determine the future of nature. And the future of us.

Nature will go on, no matter what. It will evolve.

The question is, will it be with us or without us?

If nature could talk, it would probably say it doesn’t much matter either way.

We must understand there are aspects of how our planet evolves that are totally out of our control.

But there are things that we can manage, control and do responsibly that will allow us and the planet to evolve together.

We are Conservation International and we need your help. Our movement is dedicated to managing those things we can control. Better.

Country by country.

Business by business.

Human by human.

We are not about us vs. them.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an American, a Canadian or a Papua New Guinean. You don’t even have to be particularly fond of the ocean or have a soft spot for elephants.

This is simply about all of us coming together to do what needs to be done.

Because if we don’t, nature will continue to evolve. Without us.

Encrypting Phones Makes The World A Safer and Better Place #

Yes. See also: The Horror of a ‘Secure Golden Key’ and iPhone Encryption and the Return of the Crypto Wars.

Isis #

By Bob Dylan.

I married Isis on the fifth day of May But I could not hold on to her very long So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away For the wild unknown country where I could not go wrong.

I came to a high place of darkness and light The dividing line ran through the center of town I hitched up my pony to a post on the right Went in to a laundry to wash my clothes down.

A man in the corner approached me for a match I knew right away he was not ordinary He said “Are you looking for something easy to catch ?” I said “I got no money”. He said “That ain’t necessary”.

We set out that night for the cold in the North I gave him my blanket he gave me his word I said “Where are we going ?” He said “We’d be back by the fourth” I said “That’s the best new that I’ve ever heard”.

I was thinking about turquoise I was thinking about gold I was thinking about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace As we rode through the canyons through the devilish cold I was thinking about Isis how she thought I was so reckless.

How she told me that one day we meet up again And things would be different the next time we wed If I only could hang on and just be her friend I still can’t remember all the best things she said.

We came to the pyramids all embedded in ice He said “There’s a body I’m trying to find If I carry it out it’ll bring a good prize” It was then that I knew what he had on his mind.

The wind it was howling and the snow was outrageous We chopped through the night and we chopped through the dawn When he died I was hoping that it wasn’t contagious But I made up my mind that I had to go on.

I broke into the tomb but the casket was empty There was no jewels no nothing I felt I’d been had When I saw that my partner was just being friendly When I took up his offer I must-a been mad.

I picked up his body and I dragged him inside Threw him down in the hole and I put back the cover I said a quick prayer and I felt satisfied Then I rode back to find Isis just to tell her I love her.

She was there in the meadow where the creek used to rise Blinded by sleep and in need of a bed I came in from the East with the sun in my eyes I cursed her one time then I rode on ahead.

She said “Where ya been ?” I said “No place special ?” She said “You look different” I said “Well I guess” She said “You been gone” I said “That’s only natural” She said “You gonna stay ?” I said “If you want me to, Yeah ”.

Isis oh Isis you mystical child What drives me to you is what drives me insane I still can remember the way that you smiled On the fifth day of May in the drizzling rain.

Milky Way from International Space Station #

Beautiful.

The Importance of The Indie Web #

Dan Gillmor:

We’re in danger of losing what’s made the Internet the most important medium in history – a decentralized platform where the people at the edges of the networks – that would be you and me – don’t need permission to communicate, create and innovate.

This isn’t a knock on social networks’ legitimacy, or their considerable utility. But when we use centralized services like social media sites, however helpful and convenient they may be, we are handing over ultimate control to third parties that profit from our work, material that exists on their sites only as long as they allow.

Even if most people don’t recognize what’s at stake – yet – I’m happy to say that a small but growing group of technologists does. And they’ve created what they call the “Indie Web” movement to do something about it, in an extended online conversation and at periodic in-person meetings.