The Bane of Communicating Succinctly

You may have noticed I have not blogged for a while. And if you do follow me on twitter you’ll note that my tweet rate has also dropped.

Ever increasingly, I find the need to share some ideas, but the ideas cannot be succinctly communicated in a pithy sentence or two. I have a lot of what I consider to be “dangerous” ideas (in the vein of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas), and I think it is imperative to be clear about the ideas.

And so I would sit down and write a blog post about it, only for it to derail into some mega long essay that is at best reads like mindless rambling (for example, see my previous post). It is in these cases that I sometimes feel I’m better off not writing. But sometimes I get passionate about a topic, and start writing a lot

Then midway through, I’d lose steam. Here are the example of titles that I have in my archive that went nowhere:

  • Why Do Ceramics Heat Up in Microwave Ovens (3997 words and I lost steam) – this article began life exactly a year ago today
  • Making Friends – A Rant (1301 words, and still incomplete, as I’m still gathering data, though I’m quite sure I’ll lose steam on that too)
  • Scrambled Eggs, The Guide (1514 words, lost steam already)
  • Logarithmic (A musing on non linear progression of things)
  • Track (A musing on being on track for a plan, and why sometimes it’s ok to let go)
  • Graveyard of Sideprojects (originally written when there was a craze over having side projects. I have 200+ side projects that I have not touched for years)
  • The Virtuous Molecule (a blog post about the fallacies of natural products)
  • Reviews: I have 3 book reviews, 2 movie reviews in my drafts, and they are nowhere

I have since concluded that it’s the length that makes me lose steam.

Yesterday I read Evan Miller’s Four Days of Go. The takeaway is that I wish I could write like him. I actually felt envious that he was able to get his point across straight, and still not be dry.

I have a problem with communicating succinctly. I look at all the work emails that I sent out – most explanation type emails have graphs, definitions and all sorts of background things. Even when I highlight the key takeaway points, written in normal English, sometimes they are missed.

…[P]erfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove

So says the oft-quoted Antoine de Saint Exupery.

The problem is I don’t know what to take away. I don’t know what to remove. The typical advice of how to improve writing is to “write more”. I’ve written this blog for more than 10 years in one form or another. I actually need to know how to improve, not just write more.

Argh.

Just Fair

Preamble: I have not blogged in a while. I have quite a few things to say, and have started at least 7 blog posts but never found the steam to complete them. Last Friday, I was having a rather interesting conversation with my colleagues, and that was cut short by a prior dinner arrangement. Having left the conversation topic unended, I decided that it’s a good point to jump off and continue blogging.

I lean slightly left towards Marxism, and I made it clear what it is that appeals to me. What appeals to me about Marxism is that it is most sci-fi in nature. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is probably one of the most Star Trek-esque thing you can say. Indeed, I dream about a future where society functions like this, and I am actively working towards making such a change in society.

Of course there are other bits of Marxism that are I think outdated – the concept of class warfare, and proleteriats needing to seize control of Das Kapital[1] is in my opinion, a very 19th century view. I do however, note a similarity between today’s society and the society that Marx lived in, one on the verge of a technological revolution[2]. Just as I note that the philosophy of Marx’s time was that people find meaning of life through work, we are similarly in a period where the same has happened. Think of how you would introduce yourself to other people – it’s your name, followed by what you do.

And there we were, seated at the table. Me, J and P were discussing my Marxist leanings. J posited a very interesting question, which I have paraphrased to omit the amount of obscenities that are wont to come about around groups of male humans speaking:

Imagine if there were two students, A and B. A is super hardworking, and does all the work during the semester. A even does extra work to understand the subject deeply. B on the other hand is a party animal, preferring to skip classes and not study, and would rather spend his time partying.

Then comes exam time. Obviously A does better than B. But here’s the twist. The lecturer for whatever reason, approaches A and proposes that A averages out his grade with B.

If you were A would you do that?

This is obviously a variant of the legendary socialism classroom experiment story that has been floating around the Internet for some time now.
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  1. [1] by that I mean, means of production. I think this is a very good pun
  2. [2] Das Kapital was published just as the dust of the Industrial Revolution was settling. Its observations of course, were made by Marx DURING what we call now the Industrial Revolution

Naming Things (They’re All Named Lucy)

Have you had an experience you couldn’t quite put to words? Or understood some things that cannot be described well, and everything you tried to describe it in feel like poor analogies of it? Or that you even have to resort to using analogies to begin with?

And then someone mentions a word that sounds familiar, and suddenly, the connection makes sense. It made sense for the word to mean the experience/series-of-events/phenomena that you had experienced/understood.

Earlier this afternoon I had that experience. I had experienced something that is really difficult to describe, and put to words. I took a lot of notes about it, but I wasn’t able to accurately or satisfactorily explain it with words. What the experience was and the topics it surrounded is not of much importance, nor is it profound because I spent the rest of the afternoon obssessing about the fact there are no names to describe exactly what I had experienced.

In fact, the whole meta-ness about names makes even writing this blog post a little difficult, but I hope I am able to express what I mean quite clearly.

Names are pretty important, because without them, we do not understand the world. In fact, when you name a colour, you actually start perceiving the colour as a separate colour, as did the Chinese and Japanese discovered when they named the colour blue.

Given that names are pretty important, there are a lot of problems with names.

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Small Languages

“I like small languages,” said a friend of mine.

“Yeah, me too. Wait. What do you mean by small languages?” I replied

“You know, small. JavaScript. Lisp. Small, stuff… Not big,” he faltered as he struggled with the rest of his sentence.

That led to a series of discussions about what a small language is. We eventually enumerated a list of languages which we knew and could classify. Languages which we mutually agree are small are listed in small fonts; languages which we mutually agree are large are listed in large fonts:

  • C
  • Scheme
  • Lua
  • Python
  • Go
  • JavaScript
  • Haskell
  • Java
  • C#

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The Dinner Party Around the World

TL;DR Last saturday I held a dinner party at my house. This is the recap, with the recipes.

For the last 3-4 months, I had been thinking a lot about holding a dinner party. I had been playing with several ideas in my head. And you know how ideas are like – they are screaming to come out of one’s head and into reality. So last month I decided to send out invites to 6 people, for a dinner party around the world.

For the dinner party I knew there had to be a theme. I originally started with the theme of “Layers”, but as time went on, I convinced myself that the theme would be too subtle. So I changed it to “Travelling Around Planet Earth”. But I still was very enamoured with the idea of layers in my dinner party. So I made a compromise. By the time the invites were sent out, the dinner party was called “A Trip Around Planet Earth”, with the theme of “Layers” Continue reading

Alternate Names For TV Shows

Earlier this afternoon I mentioned to my partner that we should watch an episode of The Adventure of WASP Girl in the Land of Systemically Biased Sampled Population. Which was of course, Orange is the New Black. She got what show that was immediately though, but I don’t think most people would get it. I then recalled a time when my housemate couldn’t find House of Cards on my home media server because I had named the folder “Derps of Capitol Hill”.

So here’s a list of funny names for TV shows I had over the years:

Show Name Nickname
Arrow drop :: Int -> [a] -> [a]
Arrow Woe is Laurel
Castle Beckett, Beckett, Beckett
Castle Caskett
Hannibal Best Cooking Show on TV
House of Cards Derps of Capitol Hill
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD Agents of Nothing
Orange is the New Black The Adventures of WASP Girl in the Land of Systemically Biased Sampled Population
Person of Interest Adventures of Batman and Brother Eye in a Post-Snowden World
Young Justice Not The Teen Titans

The Nanjing Taxi

I recently visited China (my writeup was in three parts: Part I, Part II, Part III). An incident of particular note was in a taxi in Nanjing. Picture this: The driver is on the left side of the vehicle. On left edge of the windshield, a Samsung Galaxy Note sits on windscreen mount, connected to the cigar lighter on his right. The cigarette lighter also powers another smaller feature phone which sits on top of his dashboard. Next to the air conditioner vent of the front panel, a walkie talkie sits on its cradle.

We were on a fairly long journey (about 20km ish), and the driver was talking to us, trying to upsell us his services for the whole day. We talked about the local sights, the museums and what nots. Then CRRSSSHHH, an incoming message from the walkie talkie – it was something traffic related. The driver pressed the transmit button on the walkie-talkie, acknowledging the message. Then came a different TCHSSHH sound. A woman’s voice came into hearing. She asked about lunch. The driver leaned forwards, picked up the feature phone, and pressed a button and talked into it, explaining that he was with passengers and his general direction. Upon finishing that conversation, he continued our conversation, picking up from where he left off.

This continued to happen throughout the journey – the driver would be switching between different modes of verbal communications – real life, push to talk, walkie talkie and even his mobile phone. The driver was dealing with 4 different networks at the same time (walkie talkie – some kind of trunked system, since most of it were traffic related; the push-to-talk feature phone – which I assume to be some kind of PTT powered by cellular tech; mobile phone – full duplex radio; and talking with the passengers of the car). That sparked an idea.

Here’s a bit more background. I had developed an interest in trunked radio networks and half-duplex communications when my way-more-accomplished-than-me partner was working as an E&E engineer for the telecomms industry[1]. So I had some good ideas on how CB and trunk radio networks worked.

At the same time I was having a bit of trouble with the VPN the previous night. The solution was simple – I ended up rolling my own VPN on AWS, swapping elastic IPs for the EC2 instance every few hours and updating encryption key everyday. In short, it was a mess.

So the idea was born: what if you could have an ad-hoc (read: P2P) chat network that was private (read: encrypted), and you could juggle different networks at the same time? After a few rounds of refinement of the idea, I started working on the prototype application that night.

NanjingTaxi_screenshot
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  1. [1] I think she’s more accomplished than I am, given that she’s now working for a certain search engine company while I have tried and failed at least 5 times with that same company, twice within the last 7 months

The Long Term Plan

“Bugger that plan,” Escher spat into the ground. He looked at his troops, positioned around him in a circle.

“Have heart, grandfather. The long term plan, remember?” Escher the third looked up at his grandfather.

Overhead, clear liquid from the chemical weapons used by the enemy rained down in large droplets, threatening to dissolve any organic matter that it came into contact with. Already, a pool of the corrosive liquid is gathering and slowly but surely making its way to the group sitting under the boulder.

“How! How did it come to this! We lost millions of troops just today alone!” Feeling very distraught, Escher sank to the ground. His son and grandson went up to him.

“We knew this would happen. We prepared for this. Get up – father – you gotta lead us” Escher Junior pleaded.

“You know I’m not your father. You’re clones. We’re all clones. We’re nothing but clones. You may have came from me, but we’re all still clones!” Escher’s voice cracked. He was close to giving up the battle.

“Get up! This was planned! We expected this!”. The troops separately called for their leader to regain some confidence.

“No, we never planned for our food source to retaliate! We aped what the Dictyos did, and we went too far! This war has been going on for far too long!”

“Notify the Network, son. I don’t think father is a good leader anymore. We need to take action” Escher Junior gave his son an instruction.

Escher the third separated a small distance away from the group and calmed himself down. Concentrating, Escher sensed a pulse of energy surge from within him and dissipated outwards. Almost immediately, the rest of the group felt the surge of energy. In return, each member of the group surged some amount of energy from within themselves, forming a feedback loop of energies emitted outwards. Reluctantly, even Escher re-transmitted the energy. It would be difficult to overcome aeons of evolution and bioengineering.

This wave of energy would pulsate outwards, and every living creature would feel and react to it. But it’s only the Co-Ly who can interpret this wave as a message. It reads:

Squad leader lost motivation. Under heavy fire. Request instruction.

A few seconds later, Escher the third received his reply from the Network. Every member of the Co-Ly had received the message and have voted accordingly. Despite the increased chatter on the Network of late, the results were clear and the instructions directed to him. The Network had voted. He was the Chosen.

Upon receiving the message from the Network, Trey braced himself. The pain would come. He knew. He had experienced it before. But the sacrifice was necessary, for the survival of the Colony.

Just as the thought emanated from within him, so too did vibrations from the machines deep within Trey. He could feel the wire-like device within him unravel as his midsection bloated outwards. He could feel his body generating and consuming more energy as more skin cells were rapidly forming around the distended midsection.

Soon enough Trey had all but doubled in size lengthwise. It was as if there were two of him stuck together. Then came the split. With a sudden crack and a flash of pain, Trey was back to normal, save for an unsightly scar down his entire body. The new entity flopped around the ground for a bit and then stood up.

“Father”

“Welcome to the world, Escher the Fourth. We’ve got business to do”, Trey said.

“It’s no use! You’ll all end up like me” sneered Escher.

“Let’s face it. Our torus-shaped food source plan was a bust. It may have been a good idea a few years ago to breed something larger and more complex than ourselves as a food source and live on top of them. You all remember that don’t you? We agreed to this – the Network agreed to this plan.”

One by one, the group stirred. They had all received new instructions from the Network. Only Escher is ignoring the message.

“Now they are superior. All we have is our sheer numbers and cloning ability. But their genetic variety turns out to have provided them an advantage. We thought wrong. This wasn’t supposed to happen. They weren’t supposed to develop weapons. Let’s face it, men, we have lost this war.”

Almost no one heard his ramblings. The rest of the troops were preparing to follow their new leader, his son, as voted by the Network.

“OK men. Let’s prepare to move out from underneath this cowardly boulder. We’ll leave this old rambly here.” Escher Junior turned to his father. “Whether you survive is up to you, but we’re moving out,” he spat.

“You have my memories – ” Escher interjected, then looked at the rest of the troops. “You ALL have my memories. So you know this war cannot be won this way. We need a new way”

“Move out!” came the order from Escher Junior. In an orderly fashion, the troops moved out from under the shelter of the boulder.

Presently, a large droplet of clear liquid containing the chemical weapon fell onto the troop, Trey included. He immediately felt the pain – his skin was torn apart by the chemical weapon, its ionizing capabilities led to multiple perforations on Trey’s skin. The perforations caused an imbalance of pressure, and his innards exploded outwards, right into his father’s horrified face.

Very soon too, Escher Junior succumbed to the same fate. So did Escher the Fourth, and the rest of the troops who stood exposed. All this happened within view of Escher. The troops he once led, wiped out by one single use of a chemical weapon. And here he was, sheltered by a natural formation of the landscape.

“Oh well, I guess it’s time to go,” Escher muttered to himself, all alone, as he watched the pool of liquid roll towards him. He resigned to his fate.

***

The woman had just sprayed Lysol on her countertop. She looked at the bottle. “99% bacteria eliminated,” she thought. “I wonder if it does wipe out E.Coli,” she mused as she gave the countertop a wipe down. The thought left her mind as instantaneously as it had entered her mind as she went on with her day.

A Fantastic Account of Wanting To Change The World Through Literary Devices

Ellen McGuffin heaved a heavy sigh as she uncoupled the device from the battery and pocketed it in her lab coat. Wear a lab coat, it’ll make you look more professional and more people will buy into your story, she was told.

Fat lot of help that did, she thought to herself as she walked towards the exit of the garage. She turned her head to give the car one last look, switched off the lights and left the garage for the last time. It was a lovely evening – one worthy of stopping and taking in the sight. Ellen didn’t do that. Her mind was far too clouded by the incidents today. This was her sixteenth time in her attempt to raise funds for her invention, nay her sixteenth failure. She had succeded in closing a seed round a year ago, but tomorrow the burn chart comes to an end. There would be no more future for the device.
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