Remembering Malcolm Tredinnick

I flew home from the US yesterday and when I arrived in Sydney I got a message from my husband saying that Malcolm Tredinnick had died. According to this piece by Simon Dulhunty, he was found on Monday to died at home in Sydney, possibly after a seizure, while I was at PyCon 2013.

Malcolm Tredinnick speaking to an audience

Malcolm Tredinnick speaking at DjangoCon 2008 (by Sebastian Hilling CC BY-NC)

I’ve known Malcolm slightly since my first in Sydney 2001. In late 2004 I interviewed for a job at CommSecure (since closed) where he was then working, having been a lead developer of and continuing to maintain and develop a real-time data delivery system for the Hong Kong stock exchange. (The eventual end of that contract was the reason CommSecure later closed.) He was also my boss for about half of 2005 until I left to begin my PhD in early 2006.

I still caught up with him at technical events, the last long conversation I remember with him was at PyCon AU 2011 where my husband Andrew and I had a very Malcolm conversation with Malcolm, which roved over the paperwork hassles of having no fixed address (Malcolm travelled a lot and went through periods where he housesat or lived in serviced apartments for a while), the Australasian chess community, and some gentle mutual trolling between him and Andrew over narrative testing.

What I will remember most about Malcolm is that he was a teacher at heart. I never personally had this relationship with him, but I knew several people at CommSecure and elsewhere who Malcolm had tutored or mentored in programming, often over a very long period of time. Elsewhere I know he had taught mathematics (long before I knew him, he very nearly completed a PhD in mathematics when his area suddenly became fashionable and about 50 years of work was done in 6 months by incoming mathematicians) and chess. I will also remember his dry and sadonic approach to nearly everything (for a very recent example, Malcolm gives useful parenting advice), combined with “really, how hard could it be?” used both straightforwardly and distinctly otherwise. Goodbye Malcolm.

Update, funeral plans: Ray Loyzaga who was Malcolm’s close friend, and long-time founder-CEO of CommSecure, has announced that Malcolm’s funeral will be at 2:30pm Thursday April 4, at Camellia Chapel, Macquarie Park Cemetary, North Ryde, Sydney.

Other memorials:

Malcolm online:

Acceleration, or my general relativity binge

Week 3 of the Alphabet Sufficiency: A. I’m just late this week. I’ll probably have some commentary on that at some point.

I saw the solar eclipse in November, or at least the right half of it, and thus began a six month dabbling in general relativity. It all started innocently enough, looking at astronomy websites to learn about, eg, why there isn’t a solar eclipse every month, which isn’t a relativity question at all..

Since New Moon occurs every 29 1/2 days, you might think that we should have a solar eclipse about once a month. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen because the Moon’s orbit around Earth is tilted 5 degrees to Earth’s orbit around the Sun. As a result, the Moon’s shadow usually misses Earth as it passes above or below our planet at New Moon. At least twice a year, the geometry lines up just right so that some part of the Moon’s shadow falls on Earth’s surface and an eclipse of the Sun is seen from that region.

Solar Eclipses for Beginners

Well that’s that answered, but I’d made the mistake of visiting Wikipedia, and we all know how Wikipedia works:

xkcd: The Problem With Wikipedia

Or actually, we don’t quite, because Randall Munroe apparently uses Wikipedia differently from me. If I end up on Wikipedia, I won’t be spread out among William Howard Taft and wet t-shirt contests, I will be in one of two places: poisons, or black holes. I can’t explain the poisons thing either, but black holes are pretty self-explanatory: relativity! spacetime! breaks down! infinite density! spagettification! gamma ray jets!

Or you can get your poisons and your black holes in the one place:

A supernova or hypernova produced by Eta Carinae would probably eject a gamma ray burst (GRB) out from both polar areas of its rotational axis. Calculations show that the deposited energy of such a GRB striking the Earth’s atmosphere would be equivalent to one kiloton of TNT per square kilometer over the entire hemisphere facing the star, with ionizing radiation depositing ten times the lethal whole body dose to the surface.

Wikipedia: Eta Carinae

Eta Carinae, one of the most massive star systems in the Milky Way, is 7500 light years away. So, imagine that: a radiation jet so powerful that it would deliver lethal radiation doses to us across thousands of light years, if we happened to lie in the path of the axis of rotation at the time of a supernova. Which, luckily, we probably don’t.

I thought, in high school, that I’d be a physicist one day. I read the popular works of Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman and Paul Davies. In Year 11 and 12, when NSW high school students only take English as a compulsory subject and all else is elective, I loaded up with maths, physics and chemistry. When I went to National Youth Science Forum, I asked to be placed in one of the groups for students most interested in physics. I went to the International Science School for high school students (not especially international, I might add) and poured over the pictures of physics PhDs and postdocs imagining myself among them.

And then various things happened and I’m not a physicist. I didn’t even take university physics in my first year. One of those things was a poor assignment of teacher in Year 11 physics: it was hard to dent my academic performance in high school but possible to dent my academic enthusiasms. Another of those things were that I had a lot of trouble with the intuitions of classical mechanics, especially of tension, and found myself regurgitating definitions by rote to get the right answer, and I had a lot of choices of subjects where I didn’t have to do that. (I hit similar walls with chemistry in first year university and mathematics in second and third year. Probably, like with physics, a break of a decade or two would have helped a lot: I revisited classical mechanics over a few hours with Andrew’s help about four years ago and now I know that in the idealised situations we were dealing with, the ropes and strings are rigid. Such simple things. I might be a scientist now if I’d had more age-peers.)

I don’t even especially regret this, I think my passion for physics was more a passion for strange phenomena than a passion for making novel discoveries of strange phenomena. I’m still not especially good at telling the difference between things I want to research and things I want to read about.

I imagine this isn’t an uncommon way to view one’s personal history, but I feel like I straddled two major technological transitions just as I reached adulthood. The first is the ubiquity of mobile phones: when I started university in 1999, rich kids had them. When I returned for my second year, everyone had them. The second is the Web. I remember writing reports in primary school—if allowed to choose my topic, they’d either be on astronomy or on the human brain—relying on the local library. Which to be fair, was information dense enough for me at the time.

But that’s not how I answer my questions now. Seeing the solar eclipse, meant lots of wiki walks and Google queries that ended in black holes, or at least quite near them. And frankly, for the first time ever, I started to feel like the Internet might be too close to being my mind, externalised, only with more answers. I don’t need to exert effort, I can just mainline facts. I am generally suspicious of “information diet” kind of sentiments: I usually analyse them as in part an aesthetic or moral preference for having to do labour, which I don’t think is justifiable in and of itself. Neither simplicity nor labour are in my opinion a good thing, they’re just means to ends. But… obviously I partake of the culture that creates these ideas and frankly, it’s a little spooky that there’s entire sections of the Internet set up to teach people who are apparently just like me in terms of background knowledge (some) and willingness to do work (little) about black holes and general relativity.

I had better justify the use of the ‘acceleration’ topic first:

In the physics of general relativity, the equivalence principle is any of several related concepts dealing with the equivalence of gravitational and inertial mass, and to Albert Einstein’s observation that the gravitational “force” as experienced locally while standing on a massive body (such as the Earth) is actually the same as the pseudo-force experienced by an observer in a non-inertial (accelerated) frame of reference.

Wikipedia: Equivalence principle

And so I will spend my acceleration efforts on general relativity and gravity. You see why you need to be comfortable in your own intellectual laziness on the Internet these days, don’t you?

It’s probably fairly obvious how one gets from solar eclipses to black holes, but for the record, I believe it was via a bunch of reading about solar astronomy, with a detour through Wikipedia: Health threat from cosmic rays. You don’t spend long on cosmic rays before you end up considering this baby:

The Oh-My-God particle was an ultra-high-energy cosmic ray (most likely a proton) detected on the evening of 15 October 1991… Its observation was a shock to astrophysicists, who estimated its energy to be approximately 300 exa-electron volts (3×1020 eV or 50 J)[1]—in other words, a subatomic particle with kinetic energy equal to that of a 5-ounce (142 g) baseball traveling at about 100 kilometers per hour (60 mph).

Wikipedia: Oh-My-God particle (see also xkcd what-if?)

And from there, you’re pretty much considering what happens if Eta Carinae goes supernova. And secretly worrying that whatever the quantum gravity prediction is is less cool than general relativity. Which it probably will be. I own my aesthetic preferences, and they are on Einstein’s side.

After that the true recognition that there are thousands and thousands of people on the Internet really established itself. Every time I thought of a question about black holes, there was some ancient FAQ (1995? dawww) that answered them.

First, ones that had puzzled me for a while. There’s extreme time dilation around black holes from the point of view of a sufficiently distant observer: do they therefore see me hovering around the black hole forever? Do I see the entire universe flash before my eyes before my time is up?

I had assumed the answers were yes and yes, but they’re actually no and no, at least if you stick to Schwarzschild black holes as more ore less everyone does. Matt McIrvin sorts this out pretty much back-to-back in his FAQ:

Won’t it take forever for you to fall in? Won’t it take forever for the black hole to even form?

Not in any useful sense. The time I experience before I hit the event horizon, and even until I hit the singularity—the “proper time” calculated by using Schwarzschild’s metric on my worldline—is finite. The same goes for the collapsing star; if I somehow stood on the surface of the star as it became a black hole, I would experience the star’s demise in a finite time…

Now, this led early on to an image of a black hole as a strange sort of suspended-animation object, a “frozen star” with immobilized falling debris and gedankenexperiment astronauts hanging above it in eternally slowing precipitation. This is, however, not what you’d see. The reason is that as things get closer to the event horizon, they also get dimmer. Light from them is redshifted and dimmed, and if one considers that light is actually made up of discrete photons, the time of escape of the last photon is actually finite, and not very large. So things would wink out as they got close, including the dying star, and the name “black hole” is justified.

As an example, take [an] eight-solar-mass black hole… If you start timing from the moment the you see the object half a Schwarzschild radius away from the event horizon, the light will dim exponentially from that point on with a characteristic time of about 0.2 milliseconds, and the time of the last photon is about a hundredth of a second later. The times scale proportionally to the mass of the black hole. If I jump into a black hole, I don’t remain visible for long…

Will you see the universe end?

If an external observer sees me slow down asymptotically as I fall, it might seem reasonable that I’d see the universe speed up asymptotically—that I’d see the universe end in a spectacular flash as I went through the horizon. This isn’t the case, though. What an external observer sees depends on what light does after I emit it. What I see, however, depends on what light does before it gets to me. And there’s no way that light from future events far away can get to me. Faraway events in the arbitrarily distant future never end up on my “past light-cone,” the surface made of light rays that get to me at a given time.

Physics FAQ

Fine then, answer all my questions. After reading that I huffed over to Google and typed in “does gravity move at the speed of light?” just to see whether the Internet is all it is cracked up to be. And a different section of the same damned FAQ actually answers this more or less in that form. Actually the answer is kind of cool: general relativity predicts that the distortions that gravity creates in spacetime propagate at the speed of light, yes, but in such a way that in most cases the source appears to be the instantaneous location of the massive object. Which is in turn super-lucky because otherwise you don’t get remotely stable orbits. Which as I recall resulted in a breather at Wikipedia: Anthropic principle but I was willing to fight on for a bit.

I wasn’t done, because I had encountered brief mentions of an interesting property of black hole event horizons, which is that inside the event horizon, one dimension of space becomes timelike, which can be informally considered as “the singularity is in your future”. I kept talking excitedly to Andrew about this late at night, I think when I was supposed to be working on something else (often cooking dinner) and the more I talked, the more I realised that I had absolutely no idea what this really meant. This required actual work on my part in terms of poking at Google queries, but luckily for this project, not very much, and it wasn’t long before I ended up at Jim Haldenwang’s Spacetime Geometry Inside a Black Hole which breaks out mathematics, and is worth a read in full. In addition to some of the mathematics, including that property of event horizons, it talks a bit about the historical development of the understanding of black holes, including the fact that the event horizon was also a singularity in the original coordinate system and it took more than thirty years to show that in some coordinate systems, it isn’t.

Frankly, I remain a little horrified at how little work I had to do to find any of this out. No overdue library books? No interacting with knowledgeable humans in real time? Some time in my 20s the future appears to have arrived with a vengeance, as it so often does. Outside of black holes, anyway.

Andrew’s adventures in Montreal

Week 2 of the Alphabet Sufficiency: M. Martin and I agreed to move the Alphabet Sufficiency deadline to first thing Friday mornings.

Let me observe upfront that I am writing a blog entry about a city I have never visited, in a province of a country I have also never visited, whose primary language I do not speak. My husband suggested next week’s word should be ‘anaphora’ (the subject of my honours thesis) in retaliation. But actually I have a good stock of anecdotes about Montreal, and they’re all things that have happened to my husband, who has visited several times (his sister lives there). I don’t often tell his stories in my blog, but needs must.

tl;dr: in Montreal, it is always winter, and never Christmas.

Episode 1: “I would be dead”

Andrew didn’t grow up with what I will call snow literacy. Nor beach literacy, but that’s a different story (moral thereof: not all adults know that if there aren’t any waves, but a bunch of surfers are found in it, it’s a rip current). The first or second time we visited my parents together, he shyly asked if the white frozen water on the ground was snow. It was not, it was frost. (For an Australian, I’ve seen a reasonable amount of snow in my backyard; there’s a very small and fragile snowfall about once a year on average where my parents live.) The first time he actually saw snow was walking out of the train station onto the snow fields at Perisher. And it wasn’t until we were in Prague in 2004 for their first snowfall that he really understood that wearing gloves in winter is not in fact an affectation everywhere and at all times.

The first time he ever experienced temperatures lower than about -2°C, however, was in Montreal, and I believe the conversation went something like this:

[Sign indicates the local temperature is about -8°C]
Andrew: that sign is lying!
Sister: [polite disbelief]
Andrew: Because if it was actually minus eight, I would be dead.

Episode 2: so long, HP

This is the story of how Andrew lost his first and truest love.

We are seriously bad at gadgets in this household. We acquired a wireless router in, I think, 2005, when they’d been available in consumer stores for a few years and we had had a pressing need for them that whole time. We got a MP3 player in 2009, up until then it was CDs when we were out of the house. We got smartphones during the last week of 2011 — Andrew’s was a gift from Google — after spending five months working there amusing his colleagues with his dinky Nokia Classic and its cracked screen.

So it won’t come as any surprise that we were also rather late to laptops, compared to our milieu. I impulse purchased a tiny and ancient Toshiba from Everything Linux (RIP Anthony Rumble) in late 2002, and it was an interesting challenge to get Linux to actually work on it. Andrew nevertheless took it on at least one work trip for Canonical in 2004, and while no doubt again this was a good conversation starter in terms of ancient tech, he nevertheless needed to buy a laptop, and ended up with a rather nice HP one. I was quite envious. (As is the pattern with our gadgets, I bought one for myself some months later, a Fujitsu Lifebook, in New York. As with Andrew’s HP, the first laptop is the best: I still miss it.)

But Montreal broke them up. Andrew’s laptop was stolen from a hotel during a Canonical work event there by a local. There was even some brief drama when the thief was spied again by Canonical staff, presumably returning to the gold mine, and followed, but nothing interesting such as an arrest or a shootout or a duel came of it

It ended up being quite hard on us: Canonical’s Australian payroll administrator had also failed to make Andrew’s HECS (university tuition) repayments on his behalf that year, so within a couple of weeks his laptop was stolen, his insurance claim for it was denied (because it was stolen while unattended in an unlocked room), and the Australian Tax Office sent him a bill for thousands of dollars.

Thanks Montreal.

Episode 3: beware the Montrealer offering lifts

Andrew undertook a couple of round-the-world trips for Canonical involving Montreal, the best itinerary of which involved flying from work in Montreal to a holiday in Thailand, but in the wrong direction (that is, via London) in order to use an RTW ticket. It also involved the most lethal of all timezone adjustments: Thailand and Quebec were 12 hours off each other’s time. The other was more sensible: flying west from Australia to London, then work in Montreal, then PyCon in Chicago, then home.

On that latter trip, he happened to be on the same flight out of London as a colleague, and gratefully accepted the kind offer of a lift to his sister’s place. DO NOT DO THIS. IT IS ALL LIES AND TERRIBLE. They arrived in a blizzard, went out into the long term carpark, did the not insignificant work of digging the Montrealer’s car out and then got lost trying to exit the car park due to low visibility. While you have to admire the personal growth shown over Andrew’s multiple visits to Montreal (ie, he went from fearing death at -8 to being a car unearther) it does sound easier to just get the bus into town.

For his next trick, Andrew looks forward to visiting Montreal not in winter (probably for PyCon 2014 or 2015, stay tuned).

In conclusion, enjoy this video of the “Casseroles” protests in May 2012:

Much as ‘anaphora’ is tempting, I wrote 10000 words on it last decade. The ‘a’ word for next week is… ‘acceleration’.

Citation delusions: “The most influential paper Gerard Salton never wrote”

In trying to finalise my PhD revisions, I am giving some background on text categorisation.

Extremely briefly, the problem of text categorisation is this: you have a document and some (usually pre-defined, unless you’re clustering) categories. For example, the categories might be news and editorial. Or academic article, newspaper article and blog entry. The choice of categories is application dependent.

Then you have a document you wish to assign to a category. Is it news, or editorial? The typical way of doing this is to assemble a set of training examples: pre-assigned news and editorial pieces. Then you measure the similarity of your new document to the pre-assigned collections, and whichever category it is most like is your document’s category. You might notice that I have not here defined “measure the similarity” and “most like”: that’s often the research question. How can you represent the collections efficiently so that they can be compared against new documents? What are good measures of similarity?

A fairly common way to picture this is (for historical reasons, as we’ll see), a vector. For each word in the vocabulary (the vocabulary being the set of terms used in every document in the training examples, typically, sometimes you might try and smooth the morphology out or similar), you construct a numerical representation. Say the vocabulary is no-good, bad, rotten, and a document reads “no-good no-good bad”, you might describe it as a vector <2 1 0>, showing two uses of the first vocabulary item, 1 of the second and none of the third. (Again, whether you count vocabulary items, or weight them in various ways, is a research question. You may also notice that this counting-of-occurences model is a “bag of words” approach, that is, it does not distinguish between “bad rotten” and “rotten bad” even though in language word order and syntactic structure is meaningful. It’s possible to transform the vectors so that this orthogonality of individual words does not hold.)

For reasons that I won’t go into here, I am trying to discuss this model briefly in my PhD thesis — actually, more briefly than I did above — and therefore looking to cite the originator of the idea. I started coming across citations in other papers that looked something like: “Gerard Salton [and others] (1975). A vector space model for information retrieval.” Sounds good. It’s got the key words in it, and quite a few citations!

I like to sight before citing though, which means I found this interesting paper:

David Dubin (2004). The Most Influential Paper Gerard Salton Never Wrote, Library Trends 52(4):748–764.

Gerard Salton is often credited with developing the vector space model (VSM) for information retrieval (IR). Citations to Salton give the impression that the VSM must have been articulated as an IR model sometime between 1970 and 1975. However, the VSM as it is understood today evolved over a longer time period than is usually acknowledged, and an articulation of the model and its assumptions did not appear in print until several years after those assumptions had been criticized and alternative models proposed. An often cited overview paper titled “A Vector Space Model for Information Retrieval” (alleged to have been published in 1975) does not exist, and citations to it represent a confusion of two 1975 articles, neither of which were overviews of the VSM as a model of information retrieval. Until the late 1970s, Salton did not present vector spaces as models of IR generally but rather as models of specific computations. Citations to the phantom paper reflect an apparently widely held misconception that the operational features and explanatory devices now associated with the VSM must have been introduced at the same time it was first proposed as an IR model.

Naturally such a subtle treatment of the history of the model is not great for my immediate purposes: I need That One Citation! (As best I can tell from Dubin, if I have to pick one it should be G. Salton, (1979). Mathematics and information retrieval. Journal of Documentation, 35(1), 1–29.) but it’s fun to come across the analysis of an idea in this form.

Update: if you want a reasonable overview of text classification/topic classification/topic assignment, the survey of choice seems to be Fabrizio Sebastiani (2002). Machine learning in automated text categorization, ACM Computing Surveys, 34(1):1–47. You know, modulo 11 years now.

Kin: the director’s commentary

Some additional or rephrased thoughts on kinship, now that I’m not working to a deadline, nor as tired.

Family of origin. There’s luck and privilege involved here, both in having a family of origin you want to have a relationship with, and that wants to have a relationship with you. When there’s choice about it, it’s most often only available to legal adults, at least when it comes to a relationship with one’s parents. I choose to have strong, central relationships with my family of origin, this is active work but work I can only do due to luck and privilege.

Family of choice. There’s some more freedom here, but not everyone goes into life or even into adulthood with the skills, time, energy, mindset etc to form strong bonds with unrelated people. I’ve reached 30 without really doing enough work here.

Children. In talking about the legal relationship, I’m assuming a fair bit more luck and privilege: that is, reproductive control. In that case, one is not legally required to have children in the same way that children must have parents/guardians. In either case, one’s relationship with one’s children is in an interesting place as something like family of origin (traditionally endorsed, legally recognised[1], tightly societally scripted) and like something else: a very intimate relationship with someone you don’t know at all and who will change quite a lot, very quickly. And in some circumstances, one can choose this relationship without any input from the other party (unlike being assigned your parents, in which one usually has no choice, or being assigned your siblings, in which neither sibling typically has any choice). It’s a very odd thing.

So for me my relationship with my child is somewhat outside the “family of origin”/”family of choice” narratives that I’d at least had a long time to consider. It’s not the only relationship one could have that has these features, but it’s the major one I’ve had, and I don’t know that I can write well about it until the story has played out more.

[1] Some luck and privilege here!

Kin: unchosen family as chosen project

Week 1 of the Alphabet Sufficiency: K.

Here’s a story about a ‘k’ word: my mother is a teacher, and once a child dobbed on another child for using “the k word”, and my mother asked that child “what k wor—?” and stopped herself too late. Yeah, that k word.

It’s not explicitly against the rules of this project to discuss the project, so let me note that my first choice for the ‘a’ word was going to be adulthood, until I realised I could stuff kinship and adulthood into the one piece and leave the ‘a’ field wide open for acid, acne (and/)or alcohol.

There are a lot of paths to adulthood, as I had cause to reflect on a few years ago, reading Kate Crawford’s Adult Themes: Rewriting the Rules of Adulthood, questioning the association of Australian adulthood with owning a home, having a stable job, and having children. I am pretty sure that at the time I’d had an apartment mortgaged for several years, and was pregnant. I was staving off adulthood with a PhD enrolment. See also Yatima:

None of which has anything to do with Kate [Crawford] except that she takes the set of prejudices and preoccupations I associate with people of Keith [Windschuttle]’s generation: real estate, marriage, children and so on; and deconstructs them as inadequate and meretricious cultural markers for adulthood. She is especially wry on the punitive economic structure of Australian society. It has become very, very difficult for young people to buy property, but in a home-ownership-obsessed society renters are considered sort of frivolous. Psych! Kate argues for replacing these shallow rites of passage – the excruciating wedding, the adjustable-rate mortgage – with a far more nuanced appreciation of modern adult lives, where for example your jati might take the place of a nuclear family.

It’s a terrific book, and it made me think pretty hard about how deeply I absorbed old-fashioned Australian prejudices without even realizing that I had done so. I loathed Sydney’s consensus reality while I lived there, but as soon as I got to San Francisco I got married, bought a house and squeezed out a couple of kids.

There are a lot of paths to adulthood, and I also chose that one, or it chose me, or I didn’t choose and that’s the one you end up with when you don’t choose.

I have that not-uncommon affliction of never having had an enormous amount to do with youth culture and thus feeling like I was about 30 from the time I turned 18. (I spent enough time at 16 and 17 in licenced 18+ venues that I can’t claim it any earlier.) Early in my PhD, so when I was 25 or 26, a slightly younger fellow student waxed lyrical about the joys of postponed adulthood: “I still feel like a kid, really!” I left home when I was 17, established an actual household at 19 (the economic incentives to form incredibly young de facto marriages via the same pressures that create sharehouses is an interesting footnote to modern marriage and partnership), and last took money from my parents that wasn’t a present some time before my 21st birthday. At the time of the conversation I was party to a mortgage, and I think also a marriage of the “solemnly swear” type. I felt nothing like a kid at that time, and I certainly haven’t recaptured it since.

Dominant narratives might not be necessary easy to live as such, but because I tick enough boxes (being straight is coming to mind, in particular) it is a reliable groove and doesn’t leave too many bruises. Lucky me, indeed.

I often appear to people to be a more driven person than I in fact am, because I work quite hard. From the outside, it’s easy to mistake working hard for being goal-driven. In fact I tend to find a plausible project, to date almost always chosen by someone else, and then carve a niche for myself in there and thrive, or not. The one main life project that I have chosen is kin itself: the creation and maintenance of family.

There are more ways to do this than to be related to people, or to have children, but again, I am going with the dominant narrative. My phone allows me to have people “bookmarked” for easier dialling. Those people are my husband, each of my parents, and my two sisters. I didn’t even realise that that said anything about me for about four weeks. I ring my parents on Sundays, which is when my parents both rang their mothers when they were alive. The tradition goes at least one generation further back on my mother’s side and quite possibly two.

I still make it sound rather like I am following a default path here, but adhering to a tradition is still work, and for once I’ve planned it, or rather, chosen it. But where the real decision comes in for me is being a parent. I have a kid (not so much squeezed out as hauled out with tongs under considerable protest, as it happens). This is a scary process while one prepares for it: how do you get ready to have new family? It’s not the family the law encourages you to have, it’s not chosen family, it’s brand new manufactured random family. And then you have to teach them to, among other things, care about your perspective, and your ability to feel pain, and your desire to sleep.

So this is my big, meaningful work, as someone to date better at the work part than the meaningful part. It’s not a very creative choice, and I don’t like it to be asserted as normative, but here it is. When I set up speed dial, I set up my family of origin, and when I planned for the future, I had a child. If I had to choose family, I don’t know where I’d start, but I’ve chosen to work on family.

The Alphabet Sufficiency

I was a little bit surprised, to be honest, when my writing tips (such as they are) resulted in the rapid creation of the Alphabet Supremacy, a year long writing project, for which Jonathan Lange and Bice Dibley will each write around 30000 words:

Here’s how it’s going to work:

  • Week 1, jml picks a word starting with ‘A’, we both write something
  • Week 2, Bice picks an ‘A’, we both write something
  • Repeat 24 more times, skipping ‘X’ because no one likes xylophones and because we want Christmas off

I was also frankly jealous because I love extended written conversations (even as loose a conversation as this). But I also wasn’t invited to play, dammit, and in any case a year-long commitment is not the thing for me right now. If the amount of personal change and variability of energy levels I experienced in 2012 continues I will be living in a leper colony on the Moon by December 2013.

However, Martin Pool has kindly agreed to a modified version, which I call the Alphabet Sufficiency. The fundamental idea is the same: once a week, one of us nominates a topic for a pre-chosen letter, and both of us write 600+ words on that topic, and then the other chooses a topic the following week. However, given the whole Moon situation, it will be a six week project, not a year-long one. We have therefore modified the rules as follows:

  • six letters have been chosen by an arcane and complicated process (see end of post), those letters being K, M, A, V, F and I (note that while X was not selected, it was eligible)
  • letters won’t repeat for two weeks: Mary will choose the K, A and F topics and Martin the M, V and I topics, but both authors will write a post for each of the six topics
  • words already chosen by the Alphabet Supremacy up to that point are not allowed as topics, although with some good faith allowance for race conditions (and as a humble copycat project, we impose no restrictions on the Alphabet Supremacy re-using our topics)
  • the first post is due before Thursday February 14 midnight Sydney time (as in 0000, so the midnight between Wednesday and Thursday!), and then weekly thereafter for 6 weeks

The ‘k’ word will be ‘kin’.

$ python
>>> import random, string
>>> random.sample(string.ascii_lowercase, 6)
['k', 'm', 'a', 'v', 'f', 'i']

Why my phone is silent during LCA talks

I don’t especially like Tasker’s interface, but setitng one’s phone to silent is nice enough to bust it out, so I thought I’d explain how I do this during

A bit of background: Tasker is an Android application (not free in either sense of the word) that does things to your phone when certain conditions (called contexts) are true. For example it could change the wallpaper (task) when you have unread text messages (context). I have, for example, Tasker tasks that turn my phone to silent between 10:30pm and 7:30am local time; and to run rsync backup (which copies the contents of my phone to my home server, ie backs it up) every time it is both on power and connected to my home wireless network.

Tasker somewhat trades between UI simplicity and power in favour of power (although even then I think there are better possible UIs for it). You can generally find specific apps that do individual Tasker-like things (for example, I would not be surprised if there was a ‘Silent at Night’ app), but Tasker lets you specify a wide variety of contexts and tasks.

First: the LCA calendar iCal is in my Google calendar, so it’s available to Tasker through its Calendar contexts. So that’s prior to setting this up.

The basic setup would be this:

  1. Go into Tasker.
  2. Add a Context (called eg ‘LCA activities’), select ‘State’, ‘App’, ‘Calendar Entry’.
  3. In Calendar Entry, go down to Calendar, press the search icon, select your LCA calendar.
  4. Press the tick.
  5. Now it will prompt you for the task, which is silencing your phone. Select ‘New Task’. Name the task (‘Silence’): it might be useful for other contexts!
  6. Press + to add an action. Select ‘Audio Settings’ and then ‘Silent Mode’. Turn ‘Mode’ to ‘On’. Leave ‘If’ alone. Press tick to approve the action and then tick to approve the task.

After this teeny (ahem) amount of work you now have a Tasker task that silences your phone during any event on the LCA calendar.

Fine print

My setup is a bit more complicated than this because I thought ‘wait, I want my phone to ring during meals’. This is a pain in the neck to do.

I added a second Context (long hold on the existing context), another Calendar Entry, also on the LCA calendar, but I also searched for location, selected ‘MCC Foyer’ (which is where the morning and afternoon teas are) and selected the Not tickbox, to make it a negative context. The total effect is that when there’s an event in the LCA calendar AND when there’s not an event in the LCA calendar that is in MCC Foyer, the task triggers. But that’s quite a bit nastier.

It can end up being easier to have a calendar that amounts to a ‘Do Not Disturb’ calendar, which isn’t ideal. Some people do something like “silence during anything in my work[/personal] calendar that’s marked busy”, etc etc, which would be longer lived than my LCA recipe. BUT at least my LCA recipe buys us silence for this conference!

Teach me py.test (Haecksen miniconf, Tuesday)

I didn’t manage to go speaking-free for LCA2013 after all, because I have volunteered to help out my roommate Brianna Laugher with the py.test presentation in the Haecksen miniconf.

The plan is that we will do “Teach me py.test” along the lines of Steve Holden’s “Teach Me Twisted” session at PyCon 2008 (see Catherine Devlin’s report). The idea of the session is that I (genuinely new to py.test, although not to either Python or to unit testing in general) will hook my laptop up to a projector and learn how to write tests in py.test, with Brianna teaching me.

We have pulled some of the business logic out of Zookeepr into this git repository in preparation for the talk at 16:05 in MCC6. I am not sure how much we will cover in 25 minutes, presumably not a lot, but it should be an interesting experiment in presentation style.

Cooking notes: mud cake

I made a birthday cake for my son yesterday.


The basic recipe was this mud cake recipe from Taste. Modifications:

  • we’re a three person household, so I cut the recipe in half, give or take (about 2/5ths, mostly, because I used 100g of Lindt 70% Dark chocolate)
  • I used cream, not sour cream. I am intrigued by sour cream in a chocolate cake I have to say, but Andrew doesn’t like sour cream and generally I didn’t want to mess with the sweet flavour of a kid’s birthday cake more than I was already doing by using this recipe

Since we have an espresso machine in the house I also pulled my second or third ever espresso (actually, a very long black at that volume!) which undoubtedly was terrible. I drink coffee very rarely; but of course I didn’t have to taste it directly, I just had to not get coffee grounds in the cake. The coffee taste went well in the cake and means not having to use a liqueur for a bit of zing.

The we established an ancient ritual of our culture:

Cake tasting

I cooked it in a $3 train mould from Kmart. All my love to you silicone cake trays: you’re a pain to get into the oven but a cinch to extract cooked cakes from. The “icing” is molten milk chocolate and the “decorations”, such as they are, are of a train turntable. I’m hoping to decorate cakes with a little more forethought as he gets older.

I cooked it for 20 minutes in a hot oven and another 5 minutes as the oven cooled and that was about right. If you like mudcakes slightly wet as I do 15 would probably work (for pieces of cake this size). The train pieces are a bit short: I wasn’t sure how full to fill the molds when it had self-raising flour in it and tried about 2/3, when I really should have gone nearly to the top.

While he got very excited about the sprinkles, my son actually ate half the undecorated engine with far more enthusiasm. It’s not really a cake for a toddler’s palate (and he totally has one, if everything in the world was made of butter icing he couldn’t be happier) but he didn’t seem put off.