Globes

I got bored over the weekend and decided to try my hand at fractal art again. I used to play around with this years ago but not so much recently. I was pretty disappointed to find that nothing has really changed when it comes to the tools available for creating fractals. Most of them haven’t been updated in years and there don’t seem to be much in the way of new kids on the block that I can see either. About the only new tool I found is Chaotica which hasn’t been updated in a year and only slowly before then. I used it to create the above piece.

I’ve yet to find my ideal tool for editing fractals, particularly flame fractals. All of them focus on the details of editing all of the parameters that go into the fractal. None of them pay any attention to the workflow. I’d love to see something that let me edit fractals like Lightroom with virtual copies allowing for branching histories of edits so I can compare what my edits are doing. This is particularly important when rendering even thumbnails is slow business. Maybe I’ll just give up and write my own tool one of these days.

Got bored, built a thermostat

Well sort of. The other week we had the fun of having most of our heating ducts torn out and replaced to get rid of some asbestos and add A/C. They also gave us a new thermostat for reasons that are beyond me, the old one has exactly the same functions but is slightly easier to use. These cheap thermostats are all the same, same functionality, almost identical controls and all terrible to use. This new one requires me to set 48 different values to set the schedule and then despite clearly having a basic micro-controller in there still requires me to flip a manual switch to select between heating and cooling.

We had been offered more expensive options like Nests, but they are all way more than I need and $200 is kind of ridiculous for something that really should be set and forget. Which got me to wondering just how hard it would be to knock up something that did a decent job myself. Turns out that all most thermostats spend their lives doing is connecting wires together. There is a common line, connect the heater wire to it and the heat comes on, connect the AC line to it and the condenser comes on, etc. So all you need is a simple controller, some outputs to drive relays, some buttons for controls and of course a temperature sensor. Well I had all of that in my cupboard from other projects.

I have a basic Arduino but using an old Raspberry Pi gives me more options, like writing the code in JavaScript and using a USB Wifi dongle to allow for remote control. Add a few buttons for controls, some LEDs to represent relay switching, a small I2C display for some status and a 1-wire temperature sensor and you have everything you need. All very easy to talk to from node after I finally found the right package of node for the Pi (it is far from obvious). The only struggle was the display, while I could send it commands my only reference for the right set of commands were some C++ code for Arduino boards and it uses a slightly weird RAM indexing style that threw me for a bit.

An Xbee module mounted on a breadboard
Remote temperature sensor

Oh and an Xbee module. Might as well have some fun right? Xbee’s are fantastic little devices that are cheap and automatically form wireless mesh networks letting you transmit serial data around with next to no set-up. They also have analogue and digital input and output pins that can be read and written remotely, you don’t even need an additional micro-controller. As it happens I had a second temperature sensor handy that outputs as a simple voltage which a remote Xbee can read and periodically send updates about so with that my thermostat can sense the local temperature and the temperature in any room I put an extra Xbee into.

I got the basic code mostly working too so now I guess I get to decide if I want to do this properly or not. I’d need to add actual relays to control the HVAC systems. There is no plug outlet near the thermostat wires so it needs power too. Happily the thermostat wiring includes 24VAC just for thermostats to use, should be simple to convert that to the 5V the Pi runs off though I’m not too sure on current availability. I’d probably switch out the 1-wire temperature sensor for either a plain analogue one or an I2C option since I’m already using that for the display anyway though a bigger display would be nice too. A Pi Zero which is both smaller and more powerful than the old model B model that I’m using here would be a good idea but as far as I can tell no-one has any in stock right now.

Once you throw all that together you’re probably still getting close to $100 for the main unit and one remote sensor which is getting on the pricey side. But then since I’d have complete control of the code maybe that would be worth it.

It blows my mind that these sorts of tools are cheaply available now. When I was a kid and playing with electronics I got to use logic gates to do fun things. Maybe every once in a while a tiny barely useful micro-controller which you programmed in assembly. I remember buying a kit that attached to the ISA bus (that ages it!) of an old PC to give you I/O lines to play with. I don’t remember the cost but I know for sure it cost more than an entire Raspberry Pi costs today. The idea that you can buy basically a full computer with easily accessible inputs and outputs for just a few dollars is incredible. I can’t wait until Chloë wants to experiment with this too.

Let’s talk about social anxiety

It took me a long time to publish my last post. I spent months trying to start it until I finally felt brave enough. I must confess that for a few hours after it was published I felt my anxiety levels rising. No-one responded. Nothing on Twitter or Facebook. Was everyone horrified at what I’d said?  What had I done?

I’m glad to say that those feelings soon subsided as friends and colleagues chimed in their support both public and private. A few mentioned that seeing me talk about these things helped them too. Knowing that you’re not alone is a powerful thing. That can be hard with mental health because we don’t talk about it. When it strikes you feel alone and isolated which makes everything worse.

So I thought I might try to talk more. Many people don’t know what it is like to have a mental health problem and I didn’t go into many details. Reading up on conditions doesn’t help much. Often it is just jargon but even then most things listed as specific conditions are really just buckets of symptoms that you get slotted into. What I call social anxiety should resonate with others but the specifics can and will differ.

I think that there is a lot of crossover between introversion and social anxiety. In fact I’m not really sure where the line is technically. I see the difference being how you feel when you’re around other people. For me it is often terror that you’re judging me for what I’m doing. Here’s an example.

Two months ago all of Mozilla gathered at Disneyworld. My trip there pretty much blew. Due to delays it took nearly 24 hours to cross the U.S. and after I arrived it took another 6 hours or so for the hotel to have a room for me. So I wasn’t exactly in my best possible state. The second night there was a big party. Aside from some near panic attacks walking to the venue (I don’t do well in slow-moving queues, despite being British) I managed to have a good time. Mainly I stuck with people who I knew really well. But after I got back to the hotel I was exhausted so I resolved to have a quiet night the next day and regain my energy for the final party.

So the next night I went out to find a quick bite in the middle of working on stuff in my hotel room. But I couldn’t. Everywhere I went there were Mozilla people. All of them staring at me, wondering why I was out by myself, why I wasn’t hanging out with others like normal people. I had to make it look like I had a reason. I was going to the gift shop to look for gifts for family. I surely wasn’t going to eat by myself because what sort of recluse does that?! Everytime I thought I had found somewhere without people I knew, someone showed up and I had to escape.

It was futile. I went back to the hotel and looked over the rather poor room service menu. But then I thought, no, this is rubbish. They aren’t really staring at you, they aren’t judging you, no-one is going to bat an eyelid if you choose to eat by yourself. I knew this logically and so I just had to act on it. So I went out again. And again I failed to find food. I just couldn’t do it. It was too much. There were people everywhere. What if they asked if I wanted to join them? I’d have to come up with some excuse for why I didn’t want to without offending them. My lizard brain was telling me that I had to run away. I went back to my room and felt awful. How much of a failure was I that I couldn’t even find food by myself?

It sounds ridiculous writing about it now from the safety of my home. Why would anyone care that I’m eating alone? There are surely enough people in Mozilla that need some time to themselves here and there that it would hardly be surprising. And as much as I can tell myself that now, I couldn’t when I was out there physically walking amongst people I knew and feeling like I couldn’t do the things I wanted.

This is one of the ways social anxiety affects me, the inability to do seemingly simple and benign things when in public because I’m terrified of how others will view me.

More to come.

Me and my dumb brain

Today those polite folk from up north have been talking about mental health and how it affects them and those around them. Mental health is one of those issues that we too rarely talk about. I think it’s partly because you can’t see the problem and unless you have experienced it yourself it can be very difficult to understand. There has always been a stigma attached as if for some reason having something wrong with your mind is much worse than having any other kind of medical issue.

Whether you know it or not you’ve known people with mental health problems. Maybe chronic conditions that they will have to learn to live with for the rest of their lives, maybe just short term problems that time and therapy can help with. I’ve always been very impressed at how brave some of my friends have been to come out, as it were, to me or their community about the difficulties they face. Today it felt like it should be my turn.

For most of my adult life I’ve suffered from social anxiety. It’s never been too much of a problem but being in public spaces and interacting with people I don’t know well has been hard. In particular this affects me with phone calls and video conferences which I try to avoid wherever possible. Mostly I can push myself past this, particularly if there are a few drinks to be had to calm my nerves, but it still affects the things I will consider doing meaning I just stay at home a lot.

Some years ago though things got a little harder. Since then I’ve been suffering from IBS, a simple name for a condition that isn’t really understood and is mostly the diagnosis you get if you have chronic stomach problems and no-one can identify why. As you might expect from that there isn’t really a cure or anything that will help symptoms for everyone. For some people one thing works, for others something else will work. For some it only lasts a while, for others it lasts a lifetime. One thing that is true for many people with IBS is that it causes anxiety and depression and that has been true for me for about four years now.

Going to places I’m not familiar with, long journeys, anything where I’m expecting to be stuck somewhere and unable to go to a bathroom at short notice all trigger my anxiety. Add in the social anxiety which makes me feel pressured to not act out of the ordinary when I’m around other people when this is going on and you’ve got a great combination for me never wanting to leave the house. Add in other normally manageable life stresses and you’ve got the perfect recipe for panic attacks when I do. Oh and did I mention that stress and anxiety make IBS worse?

Thankfully I’m in the position that no one of my problems are debilitating, it is just the combination of them and other normal sources of stress and how they feed each other that makes me go through periods of extreme anxiety often with short periods of depression. Alleviating one of them helps to alleviate the others automatically. Shortly before Chloë was born my IBS was largely gone. The anxiety remained but I went into therapy and for a time things were mostly normal. Unfortunately things have taken a downturn lately.

One thing’s for sure, adding a baby to your family sure increases your stress levels and along with some medical issues with family members I’ve got caught back in the viscous cycle. And so now I’m taking anti-depressants to help stop the panic attacks and get my anxiety under control again. Medication is not something I take lightly, but it is necessary right now while I get back into therapy.I’m very proud of the family I have who have supported me since opening up about this. It’s made the difference between feeling like someone who has to hide themselves and someone who can actually be themselves, which is very important for someone with social anxiety. If someone opens up to you about something like this, please accept and support them. You may not be able to understand exactly what they’re going through but taking the pressure off by letting them know that you’ll help in any way you can means a lot.

The bizarre world of the expectant father

I don’t often blog about non-work related stuff. Actually scratch that, I don’t often blog. But I can’t help but talk about how life becomes very strange when you’re expecting. None of this is new but it is new to me so therefore you must read it again and in some cases relive it.

Random strangers are suddenly your closest friend

I don’t know how my wife copes with it at least I don’t have to wear a stamp on my forehead proclaiming me to be an expectant father. Even so the fact does occasionally slip out while I’m talking to people I don’t know. All of a sudden I’m expected to offer up details on how far along we are, how my wife is feeling, if we know the sex, what names have we picked and damnit I just want to order some new checks please I don’t need to hear about how great the schools are around here.

They’re also all experts

So far I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that the city I live in is great for kids and terrible for kids. Natural birth is way better but epidurals are the way to go. Working from home is going to be great when the baby is here but also terrible. I don’t know what it is but when it comes to raising a child people suddenly start talking like they’re an authority rather than giving you suggestions like for other subjects.

They all think that you must be excited

Of course we must. I mean we’re only a few weeks from a large change in the status quo that by all accounts nothing can prepare you for so excitement is the natural reaction right? Generally I tell people that I’m actually petrified and everyone laughs like they think I am joking.

Which is strange because they apparently also think that your life is about to become terrible

  • What’s that? You’re feeling a little tired? Haha just wait until your baby is here!
  • You went to the cinema? Better do as much of that while you still can!
  • Laundry day? When your baby is here it will be laundry hour, amirite!

Need I go on?

But naturally we’ll want a second

Without a doubt the most bizarre thing to me is how common it is for everyone from friends and family to the supermarket trolley boy to ask when we’re planning to have our second. Hold your horses there buddy the first one isn’t even cooked yet, plenty of time to be thinking about dessert later.

Sycamore Canyon, July 27th

We went for a hike through Sycamore Canyon this afternoon getting some amazing overlooks of the Pacific coast as well as seeing some very alien landscape. This canyon was one of those hit by the wildfire recently and while the firefighters clearly worked hard to keep the campsite untouched as soon as you walk out onto the trails the impact is clear. The area looks almost desolate with blackened trees littering the hills. It’s so quiet up there too, it seems that few people want to explore while the canyon is in this state but I found it quite interesting to see just how different everything is right now. It’s not all bad news, there are lots of signs of regrowth, prickly pears with green buds, agave with green shoots and many trees are showing new green leaves. I think the most spectacular thing was how a lot of the damage was clearly only skin deep. Lots of the trees there are black on the outside yes, but where the bark has started to peel away the branches are a bright red underneath, as if untouched by the heat and flames. It makes for quite a spectacular contrast. We’re planning on going back there a lot to see how everything changes.

This trail was just under 4 miles though we extended it by having to park down the road because the campsite was full. It’s mostly a loop with a spur off to follow the ridge to overlook the coast. It is amazing to be up so high and see down the coast. Today the skies were clear and the ocean was a beautiful blue making for some truly epic views. Check out the photos I took on the map below.

Wildwood Regional Park, 1st June

Last weekend a friend of ours was visiting so we took him out to one of our favourite walks in the Wildwood Regional Park. We’d spotted earlier in the week that there was a closer entrance to the park, just a few minutes drive from our house so we decided to try it from that side. From the maps it looked like we could drive quite close and by just a mile or so from paradise falls. Of course things never work out like that. One of the roads was closed to public traffic and so we ended up parking further out. We spotted the start of a trail leading up into the hills and so decided to take that instead. It ended up being a very steep climb up some 600 feet in the first hour but it was worth it for the views from up there. After we got down into the park and to the waterfall we found a flatter route back, it just involved going past a water reclamation facility so we had to put up with some bad smells for five minutes.

This is a five and a half mile hike, quite steep at first but it flattens out once you get out of the hills and into the main park. It took us three hours to complete.

 

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age

A friend recently made me a deal where he would buy me this book if I’d read it and tell him something that I learnt from it. I think this is all a cunning plan of his to get all his friends to do the same and save him having to read it himself but I’m never one to turn down a free book, especially when it is one that a former manager recommended I read. Well ok so he recommended I read the original which was written in the 1930’s. Since then there have been a number of books based on the same ideas for different audiences, even one in pink for teen girls (I am not kidding). This version attempts to bring the concepts into the modern age by using more recent examples and explaining how you can apply them to the internet age.

The title of this book always put me off. It made it sound like a textbook on manipulative practices to make people like you. That isn’t really what it’s about though. It’s more about changing your own attitudes and behaviours than it is trying to get others to change theirs. The claim is that others will react to your attitude towards them and often respond in kind so if you can change yourself for the better then you’ll see others respond to you in better ways.

The principles in this book are well worth anyone taking the time to read over and try to follow. This is particularly true of those in corporate environments and they are all vital for those who manage people. It should come as no surprise then that all of them are also covered to one degree or other in other management books that I’ve read. This means that nothing in this book was completely new to me. Some of the chapters did put some of the ideas into different contexts and had me thinking of ideas that might help me manage my teams though.

What I liked about the style of the book was its simplicity. It’s short and doesn’t mess around. You can see what all the techniques are from the table of contents. For many you don’t even need to read into the chapters to understand why they are important but the chapters provide useful examples of how they can be applied in certain situations. I’m planning on making a list of the chapter headings to stick up by my desk somewhere for quick reference. A couple of the chapters seem to go off the rails a little, particularly towards the end and some of the examples meant for the digital age felt a little contrived and jammed in for the sake of it. I do wonder if it might be as good to read the original and rely on yourself to figure out how to apply it to the modern world.

I think the thing I immediately drew from the book is that I am consistently too negative. I was at first going to make this post a scathing review of the book because for sure it does have some problems. But that would be ignoring all of the benefits you can get from reading it. And what would be the point? Maybe it makes me feel big and clever but it doesn’t make me look big and clever. So hopefully this is a more positive review that should convince you to take a flick through, it is certainly worthwhile if you haven’t read much like it in the past.

And now I feel big and clever for seeing that being negative only makes me feel big and clever. Ah well, can’t win them all.

500px isn’t quite Flickr yet

Since the big changes to Flickr last week I’ve been mulling over the idea of switching to a different photo sharing site. 500px had caught my eye in the past as being a very similar concept to Flickr. It has social aspects like Flickr does, maybe even more so as it supports the notion of “liking” a photo as well as making it a “favourite”. They seem to target the more professional photographer (yes Marissa Mayer, there really is still such a thing) and the curated photos that show up through their main photos section shows that. Frankly it’s a little off-putting since my photos don’t even come close to that level, but the same can be said for Flickr’s similar sections so I guess it’s not that big of a deal. So I took a day or two to upload some of my photos, put 500px through its paces and see how it measures up to Flickr. I’ve built up a fairly specific workflow for my photo uploading and I’m measuring against that so what might be show-stoppers for me may not affect others.

Ultimately if you can’t be bothered to read the details I found that 500px is a nice enough photo site and while visually it may look better than Flickr right now it is missing much of the functionality that I find important.

Basic organisation

500px lets you organise your photos similarly to Flickr. You have your photo library and you can put your photos into sets. The main difference is that while in Flickr your full library is generally visible to everyone, on 500px it isn’t. Instead the main photos you see for a person are those put into the “public photos” area, which just appears to be a special set. This is a little odd. If I want to see someone’s photos I have to click through all their sets, Flickr just lets me browse their photostream. Stranger still, sometimes photos randomly end up in the public photos set without me putting them there. I don’t know if this was something the website did or the plugin I used to upload, but after uploading two sets which overlapped all the photos that appeared in both sets were suddenly in the public photos set too.

Browsing through photos is hard on 500px. On Flickr if I go to a photo I can see which sets it appears in and easily move back and forward through any of those sets or the photostream. 500px only shows you thumbnails for the set you got to the photo through, it makes finding similar things from the same photographer more difficult. 500px also supports tags of course, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to show all the photos from a photographer with a particular tag. There doesn’t even seem to be a way to see a full-size version of a photo, just the 900px wide version on the main photo page.

Uploading

I’m not the sort to trust online sites to be the place where I store and manage my photos. I keep everything managed locally in Lightroom and rely on Jeffrey Friedl’s excellent plugin to then mirror that to Flickr, so I wanted to do the same with 500px. They have a Lightroom plugin too. Excitingly for me it is open source so while I found problems here it could be possible for me to improve it myself. 500px’s plugin is in a word “basic”. It can upload your photos tag them and name them but that is about it. It is remarkably slow to do that too. For some reason it does the upload in two passes, the first pass eats up my CPU and seemingly does nothing (maybe rendering the photos to disk somewhere?) then it goes ahead and does the upload. This is frustrating since you have no way to guess how long it might take. Probably not a problem for small uploads though. The other big problem for me is that it uploads the photos in a random order. I like my photos to be in the order I shot them but there doesn’t seem to be any way to do this at upload time with 500px’s plugin. Just the lack of options in their plugin mean I’d be spending a long time trying to make this plugin do what I really wanted, things like tagging based on rating, stripping certain metadata from photos etc.

Organisation

Once you have your photos in Flickr you can use their excellent organiser to put things into sets and arrange things how you like. As I mentioned I prefer to do this in Lightroom and just mirror that, but that doesn’t work for things like the order that photos appear in sets. Flickr makes that pretty easy, you can reorder a set manually or by various attributes like capture time. After uploading to 500px put all my photos out of order I figured I could just correct this online. Sadly the 500px equivalent is extremely basic. You can reorder manually … and that’s it. For a set of a few hundred photos that just doesn’t cut it.

Portfolios

One feature that 500px has that Flickr doesn’t is portfolios. They are effectively a custom website to show your photos off on, no 500px branding, very clean layouts that just show your photos off. They’re a little oddly implemented to my tastes, you have to create custom sets to appear in your portfolio, and those sets don’t show on the main 500px site. Want the same set in both? You have to duplicate it. I wasn’t a fan of any of the available layouts either but that is just my taste. Apparently you can go in and edit the layout and styles directly so you can probably do better things with this. Ultimately I don’t think it’s a very useful feature for me, and if I wanted it I could just use Flickr’s API to build something similar on my own site.

Stats

One of the things that scares me about Flickr dropping Pro membership is that they are probably going to be phasing out their stats. I like to be able to see how many people are looking at my photos and where they are coming from and while Flickr’s stats offering was always simplistic to say the least I could at least use it to find sites that were linking back to my photos. 500px boasts “Advanced Statistics” for the paid tiers, but I’m sad to say that this claim is pretty laughable. Flickr’s stats are poor, 500px’s stats are even worse. They track the social aspects (likes, faves, comments) over time but not the photo views which is what actually interests me. You can see the total views for each photo, but not over time. And that’s about the total of all the stats you get. 500px’s highest tier also boasts Google Analytics. Don’t be fooled though. This only extends to your portfolio views, not views of your photos through the main 500px site.

Summary

There is a recurring theme throughout this post. 500px has the basic functionality that you need for putting your photos online but not much beyond that and has nowhere near the functionality. There is another problem too that affects any site that isn’t Flickr. Flickr was the first big site in the game and has a great API. They are the Facebook of photo hosting. Almost any application or tool that does anything with photos boasts some level of integration with Flickr, support for other sites is random at best.

All of this is not terribly surprising. 500px launched just 4 years ago, Flickr has has more than twice that time to develop its feature set, user base and developer base. Maybe 500px will improve in the future but for now it just doesn’t have the features and support that I need and Flickr provides. Maybe I’ll continue looking at other options but if it comes down to Flickr or 500px, right now I’ll stick with Flickr.

Hello new Flickr, goodbye social

To say that it was a shock to find Flickr had released a massive revamp of their site is something of an understatement. Ever since Yahoo took over the reigns the site has received minimal attention leading many to believe that it wouldn’t be long before they gave up altogether. Every time Yahoo announced another set of web properties that they were discontinuing users breathed a sigh of relief to see that Flickr wasn’t on the list … yet. Now those days may be over. Love them or hate them it is clear that Yahoo have invested a lot of time and thought into the changes that they released earlier this week.

The thing that strikes me as really odd about the changes though is what they seem to be doing their best to hide, the social aspect of the site. Flickr was possibly the first social photo sharing service. Many other sites have always existed that allow you to put your photos online and show off your portfolio. Flickr though was always aimed at also making connections and discussing each others photos. You have contacts, comments, favourites not to mention information about where and how each photo was taken right alongside each shot. It seems remarkable that in this time when everyone seems to be trying to build social sites that Yahoo have decided that the social aspect is less important. When you look at a photo’s page now you see a giant version of the photo. All of the information about the photo and comments people have left are hidden below the fold. The front page suffers equally. Where before I would see a list of recent comments on my photos and thumbnails of what my contacts have uploaded recently my current page shows me one and a half pictures from my contacts.

Yahoo seem to have decided that the photo is all that is really important. I disagree, the photo is of course very important but the information about the photo and how people react to it is very important too, far too important to hide.