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Why is it 2017?

September 13, 2017 — Glyn Faulkner

I've written before about alternative ways to look at geography. Here I'm going to try to do something similar to the way you look at history.

We're a little over two thousand years after the epoch year of the most widely used calendar in the modern world, the Gregorian. The calendar itself dates from 1582, but it inherits its count of years from the Julian Calendar, of which it is a refinement, motivated by improved astronomical measurements available in the sixteenth century.

For four hundred year old technology, the Gregorian is an impressive achievement, accurate to within a few seconds a century. Still it has its shortcomings -- months are unequal lengths leading to "quarter-years" of unequal length, and that there are approximately 52.18 weeks in a year. Here I'll concentrate on just the count of years, which was chosen for cultural and religious reasons, and its three major shortcomings:

  1. the very fact it was chosen for cultural and religious reasons! There are a whole lot of cultures and religions in the world for which that particular year does not have any particular significance. Still others for which the significance is not a positive one. In point of fact, the best modern estimates place the birth of Jesus around 5 BC, so it even fails in its original purpose as a major Christian epoch.

  2. it doesn't express the scale of human history in a clear and meaningful way. People have an intuitive grasp of the span between different positive numbers that breaks down when you venture below zero. If you're anything like me, then while AD dates are easy to relate to each other and to your own time on this planet, BC dates kind of blur together into this amorphous zone of "long ago". This under-states the importance of all those things that happened before the dawn of Christianity.

  3. there's an awkward off-by-one error, caused by the lack of a "year zero" in the Gregorian calendar; the year one is immediately preceded by the year minus-one. This is not how numbers work, and introduces a host of exciting complications and error-introducing possibilities for anybody who needs to do accurate date calculations going back more than 2000 years!

Realistically, every attempt to put a start date on your calendar is going to be arbitrary. The possible exception being the start of the universe, but dealing with a year count in the billions is kind of impractical, plus our estimates for the age of the universe have varied a lot in the last century..

There have been a few proposals for alternative epoch years that attempt to address these issues, without requiring a complete renumbering of Gregorian years. These include Merlin Stone's After the Development of Agriculture calendar, which adds 8000 on to the AD year, and Cesari Emiliani's Holocene Calendar, which adds 10000 and is based on the approximate age of the earliest known permanent human settlements.

Calendar reform is a broad topic, and until I started reading for this post I hadn't appreciated quite how many of the things I take for granted out timekeeping are arbitrary or sub-optimal!

Tags: history

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Making Facebook less addictive

August 01, 2017 — Glyn Faulkner

Facebook is designed to be compelling. Their business model depends on it. To attract the advertisers who are their customers (you are their product) they need to keep you mindlessly scrolling down the unending wall of other people's posts, adverts and auto-play videos, and to frequently distract you from thoughts of all the other things you should be doing with real-time notifications and instant messages.

Every new post you see, and every like someone leaves on your latest comment is a little shot of dopamine to your primitive primate brain that makes you just a little more addicted to using the site.

However much you may dislike Facebook the site, or Facebook the company and its business practises, its ubiquity and its utility make leaving altogether a difficult proposition.

How then can you retain the benefits of Facebook while circumventing the design elements that make it such a time-sink?

The answer is Facebook's own mobile-basic version. It does next-to-nothing automatically. Your feed is paginated ten posts at a time, and you have to click to see the next ten. Your notifications don't update until you click something or refresh the page.

In short, it's as irritating as hell to use. Which is good, if you're serious about avoiding being sucked in. If you find yourself in need of the full site, just replace "mbasic" with "www" in the URL bar of your browser for the same page in the normal version.

Bonus power-up: access Facebook via a browser bookmark to https://mbasic.facebook.com/menu/bookmarks and you won't even see other people's posts without deliberately clicking on something!

It's a much less enjoyable experience than using the main site, but that's the whole point, right?

Tags: facebook, productivity

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A better way to walk?

July 27, 2017 — Glyn Faulkner

I knew it was you. I could tell by the way you walk.

That simple observation has some profound implications. Not only that there is more than one way to walk, but that there so are many possible ways to walk that at least a subset of people are identifiable by their gait.

With multiple possible ways a person can walk, are some ways better than others? It doesn't seem particularly reasonable to assume that there is one single "best" way to walk, but perhaps there might be some gaits that are particularly energy-efficient, or particularly suited to covering long distances quickly, perhaps affected by factors such as height and build.

Walking is such a commonplace and habitual activity, I wonder how many people have even thought about how they actually do it. Unless you have had an accident that necessitated re-learning to walk, or are an actor who had to learn to adopt the gait to suit a character you may not have paid attention to the details. Which muscles do you use at what phase of your stride? How do your feet strike the ground, and what effect does your footwear have? Do you use your legs symmetrically, or are there differences in muscle tone and control?

So the next time you notice yourself walking, see if you can work out how you do it. Ask yourself whether you could do it better.

And then ask yourself what other habitual behaviours you have never brought under the light of your conscious awareness.

Tags: walking, habits

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Life-changing art

July 13, 2017 — Glyn Faulkner

Undervalued and sometimes scorned, the Arts and the artists who create them, seem to be perpetually under fire from one direction or another. On the macro scale, arts and humanities are an easy target for politicians who want to cut funding to something in an attempt to appear fiscally responsible. On the micro scale, artists trying to earn a living from their field face a constant battle with people who think they should "do it for the exposure" instead of for, you know, actual pay.

But art, in all of its forms, is important. It can change lives. Thanks to the chaotic nature of life and the butterfly-effect of seemingly trivial decisions, a work of art can change the course of a life in profound and far-reaching ways.

Here are three artistic works that have literally changed my life.

The City of Thieves, by Ian Livingstone

For my tenth birthday, a school friend got me book five of the Fighting Fantasy series. These part-book-part-games were popular in the eighties. You read them in a non-linear manner. Each numbered section requires you to make a decision that directs you to a different section and affects the course of a story that is written in the second person ("you do x") instead of the more usual first and third person.

I enjoyed playing The City of Thieves, and played others when I found them in shops or the local library. At high school I met my best friend through a shared interest in game-books, and he introduced me to the wider world of table-top roleplaying games, a hobby which has become my most enduring. I have run games, played in them, and even written them. Many of my friends are people I met through gaming, and at several points my social life has centred around the RPG community.

All because of one book.

Down to You, by Passion Play

In late 1997 I had just graduated and was living in a shared house in Oxford (with friends I had met through the University roleplaying society). My job was a bland cocktail of tedium and misery, spiced with constant stress-inducing interruptions and a dash of mild homophobic bullying. I endured it under the mistaken belief that I couldn't possibly give up the "security" of my meagre salary. At home I was hardly sparkling company for my housemates, some of whom were dealing with issues of their own.

One night someone suggested we all go to a local pub to see a friend-of-a-friend's band; a goth trio called Passion Play. I liked them and bought their demo-tape (it was the 90s; cassette tape was how unsigned bands distributed their music).

A couple of months later, a particularly bad week at work left me so stressed that by 5pm on Friday I was experiencing palpitations. Sunday evening sitting alone in my room feeling wretched, I sought solace in music. The fear of the fall is better than waiting. Those lyrics switched on a light in my head: whatever the risks of giving up the job, it couldn't be worse than postponing the decision.

Next morning I phoned work and told them I was never going back.

I haven't had another job that bad, but on half a dozen occasions since, Down to You has served as a reminder that fear of the unknown is a poor reason for not doing something.

Star Wreck

Some time in early 2007 I stumbled across this feature-length Star Trek/Babylon 5 parody by a group of Finnish students. It sounded interesting and was freely downloadable, so I grabbed a copy, watched it and enjoyed it.

Skip ahead to spring 2008. I decided to learn a new language, just for fun. I arbitrarily picked Dutch, but changed my mind to Finnish after re-watching Star Wreck.

Now it's 2017. I still don't speak Finnish very well, but I do live in Helsinki with my Finnish girlfriend, who I would probably never have met if I hadn't started studying her native language as a result of watching one cheaply produced sci-fi comedy.

Tags: art

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New ways to look at the world

July 09, 2017 — Glyn Faulkner

Here's a map of the world, courtesy of Wikipedia. Spot anything wrong with it?

A map of the world

A map of the world

That's right, there's distortion towards the edges, an inevitable result of projecting a sphere onto a flat surface. Or maybe you weren't looking at the odd curvature of Australasia, East Asia and Alaska. Maybe you thought it was upside down?

If so, ask yourself why you thought that. The Earth is a ball floating in space, and the universe doesn't have any fixed notion of up and down. Putting north at the top is just a convention, and an arbitrary one at that. The early influential map makers lived in the northern hemisphere and noted the navigational significance of the north celestial pole, which appeared as a fixed point in the night sky. Had they lived below the equator they would perhaps have attached the same importance to the south instead.

Nevertheless, it is surprising how "wrong" the south-up world map looks, compared to upside-down text and faces. And surprises are often a sign that we have made an incorrect assumption about the world.

What other assumptions are you carrying around? What possibilities have you unconsciously ignored by accepting that things "just are" the way they are?

Tags: perspectives, geography, unconscious-bias

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Lessons learned while crocheting the perfect sock

July 08, 2017 — Glyn Faulkner

Sometimes I make things from yarn.

My mother taught me to knit when I was a child, I'm currently teaching myself naalbinding, and when I was working towards my PhD I was a member of the university knitting society, where someone kindly taught me to crochet.

Crochet is great. I like to think of it as attention-deficit knitting, because it has such an excellent effort-to-reward ratio. If a knitted item grows by five millimeters per row, something crocheted in the same yarn might grow by fifteen or twenty. Using the right stitch, you can rattle-off a very nice hat or scarf in a few hours, thank-you-very-much.

But there's a limit to how many hats and scarves one person needs, so when I felt I was ready for the next challenge, I set out to make a pair of socks, inspired by a friend who was always making the most amazing knitted socks.

Now, perhaps you've never seen a crocheted sock, but if you have, you'll appreciate that a typical crocheted fabric doesn't have the characteristics you want for a comfortable sock. It tends towards thick and lumpy with lots of little holes. And importantly it isn't stretchy in the right way. Crocheted slippers actually work quite well, but socks are a different matter.

And so began a minor odyssey of trial, error and research. It turns out you can make a thin, even, stretchy fabric with crochet, using a collection of related techniques referred to as slip-stitch crochet. Unfortunately slipstitching grows even more slowly than knitting, and requires learning a quite different technique to regular crochet in order to get the tension right.

One time I showed a fellow crocheter a swatch of test fabric I'd made. She was impressed and asked how I'd made such a nice knit-like fabric with crochet. When I told her it was slipstitched she cheerfully replied "Fuck that; life's too short!"

Of course, she was right. I should have listened. But I didn't.

So, a full year later, and with a succession of failed, mismatched, unwearable socks behind me, my crusade had become a standing joke among my peers. In the time it had taken me to not make a pair of socks, my friends had knitted jumpers and cardigans, crocheted umpteen hats, scarves and a zoo's worth of amigurumi, and one had even knitted a half-metre long, distressingly realistic octopus!

It took another six months and a couple more tries, but eventually I succeeded! I held in my grubby little hand a finished sock that I would totally be willing to wear. It was rather plain, and should probably have come a bit higher above the ankle, but was nevertheless the best crocheted sock I had ever seen anywhere.

I rejoiced!

If you're a knitter, you might be familiar with a phenomenon called second sock syndrome. That's when you've knitted a sock, and by the time you're done, you're so bored with the pattern that you never get around to making the second one.

Now, take that idea and imagine you have one foot for ever failed prototype I had made during the preceding year and a half. By this point I was -- understandably -- suffering from fifteenth sock syndrome, and never wanted to see another wretched sock in my life, let alone try and crochet one!

But now, with a bit of perspective, it's kind of gratifying to know that I'm one of the very few people in the world who can make a thin, stretchy, comfortable, good-looking sock using only yarn and a crochet hook...

...even if I never ever plan to do so.

Tags: perfectionism, failure

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Programming has become too easy

July 03, 2017 — Glyn Faulkner

On an intellectual level, I like to see good engineering. Something simple and elegant that gets the job done well never fails to bring a smile to my face. Conversely, bad engineering practice gives me Rage. A particular bugbear is when I see basic functionality of the web -- displaying text and images, clickable links, form submission... -- reimplemented in JavaScript. But that's a rant for another day. For now, suffice to say that half-arsed reinventing of perfectly good wheels is rarely a good thing.

But for all my righteous anger and indignation, I have a dirty secret.

You see, the thing I enjoy about programming is the part where I'm solving hard problems in clever ways with simple tools. Unfortunately there are a lot of things you have to do when programming that aren't "solving hard problems". But I'm a realist: I can totally deal with gnawing on the bones of this unsatisfying skeleton as long as it is there to support some meaty core problems that I can really sink my teeth into.

When you give me a modern programming language, complete with garbage collection and a huge library covering all the common use-cases, and the kind of problem that just requires me to assemble the pieces... well, you've taken the fun out of it for me.

Let me give you a concrete example: a few years ago I was working as a systems analyst, and had to develop complex web applications using a proprietary scripting system that had originally been designed in the early 1990s for producing printed mail-merge letters. Among its many flaws, it had only six user-settable variables (conveniently named GSL_TMP1 to GSL_TMP6), which could only be assigned to once at the very start of your script's execution. Conditional statements could not be nested and lacked support for else if blocks. Looping was only possible over values returned from a small subset of database tables, which you queried with an awkward and primitive DSL which was little more than a list of key=value pairs. The syntax even incorporated non-printing ASCII escape characters, effectively forcing you to do much of the development in the platform's own editor, which lacked such basic amenities as syntax highlighting and multi-level undo! The result? Even the simplest of programming tasks morphed into an intellectual exercise requiring creativity and experimentation. Sure it could be incredibly frustrating, but I never got bored, even doing the most basic of web development.

Let's be clear, if the problem is hard enough to stand alone, then I'm delighted that modern programming languages give me all the support I need to let me focus solely on the real problem I'm solving, but for more routine tasks, I'd much rather have flawed tools that required a measure of creativity to work around their shortcomings.

On a related note, here's a great Ted-Talk from the Undercover Economist Tim Harford on how frustration drives creativity in other areas.

Tags: fun, creativity, programming, engineering

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My Last Job

June 28, 2017 — Glyn Faulkner

For me at least, jobs suck.

Sure, you get a steady income and the illusion of security, but in exchange you're required to give up a huge amount of self determination. Worse, jobs breed dependency; you get your pay by following someone else's routines and not having to make important decisions. It can be be so hard to leave, even when the work or a toxic office environment is making you miserable. A few times throughout my working life I've found myself in this position, and in the process I learned that being poor, but with lots of free time and energy, makes me much less miserable than doing tedious repetitive work between the same four walls.

To be honest, even when I've had an enjoyable job, I've found that my creativity muscles quickly start to atrophy and at the end of the day I go home, drained of inspiration and with too little drive left to pursue my own personal life goals.

So when I left my last job to start a PhD I made a public commitment to friends and relatives that I was never going to write another CV or take another salaried job; I left not only my job, but the job market at large.

Of course, I still need to eat and pay the bills, and I'm (sadly!) not already independently wealthy, so there has to be something to replace the salaried job.

I've been in business on my own twice before, so being self-supporting isn't scary any more, but based on what I learned in the process I'm doing it a little differently this time.

Focussing on a single area of business, while vastly better for my mental state than a regular job, still loses its shine after a couple of years. Instead I'm building a few passive income streams to act as a safety net that will allow me to play with whatever fun new ideas that come along, whether they're potential money-makers themselves, or just random whims (like my interest in obscure historical musical instruments).

Self determination, responsibility, no externally imposed daily routine, and all while giving my creativity a regular workout. That seems to tick all the boxes.

Tags: work, entrepreneurship

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