Warren Ellis on How to See the Future

Let me try this on you:

The Olympus Mons mountain on Mars is so tall and yet so gently sloped that, were you suited and supplied correctly, ascending it would allow you to walk most of the way to space. Mars has a big, puffy atmosphere, taller than ours, but there’s barely anything to it at that level. 30 Pascals of pressure, which is what we get in an industrial vacuum furnace here on Earth. You may as well be in space. Imagine that. Imagine a world where you could quite literally walk to space.

That’s actually got a bit more going for it, as an idea, than exotic red deserts and canals. Imagine living in a Martian culture for a moment, where this thing is a presence in the existence of an entire sentient species. A mountain that you cannot see the top of, because it’s a small world and the summit wraps behind the horizon. Imagine settlements creeping up the side of Olympus Mons. Imagine battles fought over sections of slope. Generations upon generations of explorers dying further and further up its height, technologies iterated and expended upon being able to walk to within leaping distance of orbital space. Manufactured normalcy would suggest that, if we were the Martians, we would find this completely dull within ten years and bitch about not being able to simply fart our way into space.

Now imagine a world where space travel to other worlds is an antique curiosity. Imagine reading the words “vintage space.” Can you even consider being part of a culture that could go to space and then stopped?

If the future is dead, then today we must summon it and learn how to see it properly.

This is very, very good.

Minimalist Stuff Mantra

When I find myself wanting something, or holding something, or wanting to get rid of something, this helps.

  1. Do I love it?
  2. Do I use it?
  3. Does it work?
  4. If I were to buy the item right now how much would I pay for it?
  5. If I sold it now how much would I get for it?

(Source. Not sure where that came from, though.)

Word Transformer Lite released!

For the past few months I’ve been working on designing and shepherding Word Transformer Lite and it’s finally on the App Store! I’ve been working with Theodore Swartz, the co-founder of The Bronx Charter School for Better Learning, who wrote the initial design notes based on the works of Caleb Gattegno’s Words in Color curriculum and materials.

This is the kind of work I really like. I designed and mocked up the screens and icon, reached out to BendyWorks, who built the app following our design with a wonderful back and forth through daily meetings in Slack and Google Hangouts, and finally submitted the whole package to the App Store.

Contact me if you’re interested!

New open source project gaborgen-js

I’ve open-sourced my client-side Gabor patch generator, gaborgen-js. I made it because my online experiments expose participants to different distributions of features in stimuli like Gabor patches, and there are a lot of different values those stimuli can hold. Generating them beforehand and uploading and hosting those stimuli to a server can be annoying or restricted by participants’ limited bandwidth.

I don’t use this anymore, though. I found that hosting static stimuli on S3 is more efficient for loading times and that 8-bit grayscale Gabor patches are very small in size. Also, the compute power required to generate these can be restrictive for really old computers. But someone might find this useful or at least interesting.

Make Marked.app work with Pandoc and tufte.css

Here’s how to get Marked.app to do all the Pandoc pre-processing for you when previewing documents. It also explains how to use tufte.css as a theme in Marked, which I find to be very pretty.

This comes in really handy when you want to see what your document will look like, references and all.

Things you’ll need:

First, install the ET-Book fonts locally. They’re very pretty.

  1. Unzip the ET-book zip file
  2. Go into each subfolder
  3. Double click on each .ttf font and install using Font Book.

Configure Marked to use Pandoc as the markdown processor.

  1. Open Marked.app
  2. Open Preferences (Marked.app → Preferences)
  3. Click Advanced
  4. In the “Path” field, add /usr/local/bin/pandoc
  5. In the “Args” field, add -f markdown -t html5 -s -S --normalize --bibliography /users/username/dropbox/refs/bibliography.bib --csl /Users/username/src/Pandoc/apa.csl Replace these with your BibTeX bibliography and whatever CSL you prefer.

Next, let Marked.app know about tufte.css.

  1. Open Marked.app’s preferences
  2. Click “Style”
  3. Under “Custom Styles” click “Custom CSS Example”
  4. Click the “Reveal” button
  5. In a new Finder window, unzip the tufte-css zip file and open that folder.
  6. Delete index.html, LICENSE, README.md, and the img folder.
  7. Copy the remaining files to the folder Marked.app opened when you revealed the location of the “Custom CSS Example.”
  8. In Marked.app’s preferences, click the “+” button and drag the tufte.css file into that dialog box so you don’t have to find it manually.
  9. Change your “Default style” to tufte.css.

Now when you drag a markdown document onto Marked.app for it to watch, it’ll reference your bibliography, apply the CSL, and compile the document with Pandoc, and refresh every time you save.

Potential issues

Make sure the green dot in the lower right-hand corner is on. This indicates Marked.app is using Pandoc.

If the text column is too thin, resize the window. The tufte.css theme likes it a little smaller. I’m sure there’s some way to turn off it’s dynamic resizing in CSS, but I haven’t messed with it.

Please let me know if I left anything out or if this didn’t work for you.

How to pay someone on MTurk when things go wrong

In my dissertation research I use Amazon Mechanical Turk to recruit participants for my experiments. Yesterday someone completed my experiment but Amazon would not let them complete the HIT, probably because they tried starting on one and switched to another (still not sure why). This meant that I had their data but couldn’t pay them.

Amazon’s thought of this. They have a great guide about how to pay for non-submitted HITs.

This is mostly here for me or folks who search for things when they get a little panicky about making sure people get their dues.

My first open-source project

Yesterday I wrote and published my first open source software, the awfully named jspsi-go-example. It is an experiment module for PsiTurk. PsiTurk makes it easy to run psychology experiments on the web using Amazon Mechanical Turk, where over half a million people do little tasks for a spot of coin. Because I don’t live where my university is, and because my project has a limited budget (as far as payout funding goes for projects with this much programming and set up) I plan on using MTurk this module as the basis of my dissertation experiment. So my little experiment module should come in handy. I even made an icon.

Before yesterday I didn’t really know anything about JavaScript, let alone CoffeeScript, which I find more pleasant and easier to understand than JavaScript because I’ve been programming off and on in Python since the mid 2000s. I also discovered it has a variant for Literate Programming, which I vastly prefer. So I learned that by translating some tutorial code from jsPsych, a JavaScript library that makes it easy to structure experiments and record data on the web. (It’s written by Josh de Leeuw, who is a graduate student at Indiana University Bloomington, my undergraduate alma mater and in the same department!)

Josh’s tutorial has some good starter code. It includes the ability to determine whether or not an answer is correct given some computed criteria, but does not pass that information back to the PsiTurk server or its database. So I wrote that bit.

Then I figured I’d open source it so others wouldn’t have to do the same thing I did. I had only used GitHub as a place to download things from, except when I was writing my masters thesis in LaTeX, where I did use a private repository as a backup system. But I’d never published code. That was very easy to learn, thanks to their great documentation and client-side GUI interface. I didn’t fork Josh’s project, which was probably a faux pas, but oh well; he starred my tweet about this so everything’s okay.

I like CoffeeScript. It makes JavaScript approachable.

(Technically it’s not really my first; I contributed a kernel patch to Linux in the early 2000s that fixed a strange bug for some weird hardware I had. I had no idea what I was doing but it worked.)

The Light Of The Classroom

I miss the cleanliness of college campuses, especially classrooms. In every classroom in every campus there is a kind of cleanliness that helps learning along its way. It’s like a mental lubrication. At IU this was very prominent, even in old builds where everything in a classroom could be made of wood, that wood was lacquered, and thickly, to be as plastic when cleaned and sprayed with whatever bleach-based thing they coated and wiped off every known surface. Something about the peacefulness in classrooms in Ballentine Hall, where my mind wandered during a lecture, was helped along by these clean rooms, when all that mattered was listening to the TA or professor, and nothing else intruded from the outside world. It was calming, especially in the morning, with coffee. Campuses, particularly during my undergrad, had a kind of focusing effect. I can’t say I ever felt that particularly well on Madison’s campus, other than in the Engineering building, which really felt like a college building. The Educational Sciences building and the Teacher education building never really felt the same as most of the buildings on IU’s campus, or particularly at Purdue’s campus, my most college of college experiences. Everything there was new, and it was all connected; there was no reality to intrude upon students walking its brick sidewalks watching and darting in and out of brick buildings.

In every other context we bemoan florescent light, but in a classroom it is somehow welcome in its neutrality. It’s like the sea the way it spreads over the ceiling and falls down walls onto a polished grey-speckled polished white floor. It renders the white or pink paper handouts before us with perfect legibility. For the most part the white light of heaven is never rendered as purely as the fluorescent overhead lights of a classroom. Heaven’s light is limned in gold, but the classroom’s isn’t at all, just pure. This clean light amplifies the cleanliness of the classroom, because in it any dirt or filth is rendered in stark contrast to everything else, and all eyes focus on it. Even stained and trampled parquet carpet seems untouched as the stains have been radiated clean by fluorescent light.

I miss this, mostly because I will never set foot in a classroom again as a student, and moments where I could appreciate all this subtle beauty would be few and far between.

On writing every day, and how spitting out crap first thing in the morning is useful

You wake up and you brush your teeth. You spit and rinse. Why don’t you do the same thing for your mind?

Almost everyone I’ve talked to who makes a living by writing (which consists mostly of scientists) cannot praise enough my habit of writing every morning. I try to spit out 500 words in the morning before I go about my other work, no matter what is pressing. It’s a useful time to write for something, or to write about something, or to simply outline in sentence format, or just let ideas slip out.

The most important part is to keep writing. No self-censorship allowed. This is the most critical part of the process. You can judge it later, and yes, it is a mere first draft, but you can hold a first draft in your hand or see it radiate illuminated before you on a screen. Don’t watch the word count. Check it when thoughts pause. You don’t have to hit 500 every time. But at least type 500. Some things don’t make sense in the morning, so destroy them, especially if they’re illegible.

All of those people you hear about when people in your field talk about ideas, and the people that have them? They write. They get their voice out somehow. And in order for any ideas banging around your dirty brain to come out and get clean, they have to be expunged from it, through your hands.

Spilling your mind in the morning frees the cruft in your head. Sometimes that falls out on the page, too. That’s okay; now you have a clean head for the rest of your day.

Every now and then you’ll dislodge something that has a nice luster to it, something worthy of polish and time. Make a note of those and revisit them.

See, I just checked my word count. It was 381. I have to fill this space somehow.

I used this method to write over 60 pages of very rough stuff for my prelim, a large literature review graduate students write in my department before becoming a dissertator. I hardly used any of it. The actual meat and bones were written in an outliner, facing dozens of open PDFs full of highlights. A messy process. But when I needed an introduction on the day before my deadline, I picked through my tidbits of morning writing and found one. I dropped it in and tweaked it slightly, and everything was fine. I now have a body of work to pull from.

Speaking of bodies of work: we write so much in college. Reuse your writing in other classes. Mix and match sections. Revise. Never throw away anything you write. Make sure you can find it later.

So write and save.