Jacques Mattheij

technology, coding and business

The Raspberry Pi as a Poor Mans Transputer

One of the most interesting architectures to come out of the 1980’s was the Inmos Transputer. The idea behind it is that you string together a large number of CPU’s each with their own memory and connections to neighbouring transputers (using a series of ‘links’) into a computing fabric.

A recent comment on HN suggested using a cpu-per-process as a means of achieving very high degrees of security. This made me wonder if you couldn’t use a Raspberry-Pi Compute Module to achieve this goal, and that in turn led to researching the kind of buses that would be suitable to hook up a large number of processors.

And that in turn - inevitably - led to the Transputer and the CM1 (the Connection Machine).

The 80’s were an interesting era in the field of computing. We weren’t as much invested yet in architectures as we seem to be nowadays, the field was a proverbial Cambrian explosion of architectures and subsystems. Lots of interesting research came and went before it’s time was realy ripe.

So, this comment on HN led me down some interesting rabbit holes that I had not visited in years (I played around with Transputers in the 80’s, they were quite expensive and I could not afford the number that I would have wanted to use), and I wonder if this isn’t a very fortunate alignment of the planets.

Our understanding of massive parallel systems and compute fabrics has increased considerably in the last two decades, we have an ultra cheap platform at our disposal (the RasPi compute module sells for $30 in quantity) and we have a free operating stystem to go with it (Linux).

Running the RasPi’s fabric style with hardwired links between adjacent nodes (and the occasional uplink to a switch) should be doable, there is plenty of GPIO available for that purpose. And with 256M of ram the nodes would be fairly powerful. Say 32 nodes per backplane, with backplanes connected using multiple ethernet links, or if you want to go fabric all the way, connecting them in a plane like fasion to maintain the 2d arrangement (or a hypercube of them). There was a thread a while ago about a little board that you could connect 4 ways to its neighbours (for the life of me I can’t find it…), that might be doable if the backplane edges are fashioned as connectors.

Doing this will be some work (especially the links and drivers for them) but well worth it and possibly one of the most interesting things that you could do with the module, the longer I think about the more I realize it is just about ideal for being used as a base for a compute fabric.

If anybody builds this let me know, my own hardware design skills top out at double layer hole-through so this is definitely beyond me.

Journeyman Project Trip 1 United Kingdom

In January I came up with a weird idea, to go and visit total strangers in return for ‘food and board’ in order to do useful work for them. (see: Will Work For Food And Lodging for how and why this started).

They say no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy, and in a slight variation on the theme, in this case the battle plan did not survive first contact with the audience. One of my major mistakes was to completely underestimate how much response there would be. I figured ‘a couple’ of responses, probably not enough to fill the first year but maybe once the project got under way there would be more takers. How wrong can you be? Well over a hundred responses and counting, they’re still trickling in! And from places too that were definitely not even close to within the radius originally mentioned (1000 km around Amsterdam) (Including Indonesia, Turkey, a few in Africa, Australia, Latin America and the United States).

The second place where the plan went wrong right from the start is that I was going to take my car along. That didn’t happen, the reason for that is that there were rather a large number of responses from the UK and several of those were the first to reply. First come, first serve but after doing some research about shipping the bus to the UK I figured the easiest way to do this trip was to take a plane and then rent a car there. That shaved two days off the duration of the trip which I could use to visit one more company.

Finally, the duration of the visits. The original idea was to end up visiting 11 companies over the course of 2014 for 14 days each, but after processing just the UK part of the applications I knew that the only way that would work is if I disappointed almost everybody by selecting only a very small part of the people that applied within the parameters set. And that just didn’t feel right.

So in concert with the people visited I ended up staying a maximum of 2 days at each location. It was quite a murderous schedule, with lots of driving on the wrong side of the road (and at night, in places where you probably shouldn’t be driving at all, in the rain, on hills, in tight curves, in an unfamiliar car, with the steering-wheel definitely placed on the wrong side of the car). In the end it worked out extremely well, I managed not to kill myself by turning into a roundabout the wrong way around, and after a day or so my right hand stopped ramming into the door to shift gears every time I forgot on which side the gear shift lever was located. Incredible how much stuff we do from habit.

One by one I visited the places that I had made appointments at, and met with a series of wonderful people doing all kinds of interesting stuff (and their pets!, the UK is full of really nice dogs).

What got discussed is of course between the parties that I went to visit and myself, I’m not going to go into details here, I don’t have any secrets worth keeping but they definitely might, suffice to say that I’m pretty sure that it was educational for me and I hope that it was useful to them, any further disclosure will have to be at their discretion, not mine. All in all this is one of the most interesting things I’ve done in the last couple of years and I’m really looking forward to doing the next round of visits.

I made a ton of pictures, only very few of them were used for this article, if you just want to browse the images you can do so via the image archive.

Below is a little bit about everybody that I ended up visiting in the order in which they were visited. A few parties disqualified themselves (not in the list below) because they either weren’t taking the project serious or because they tried to get me to do what I usually do for a living for free (and that’s not in the spirit of these visits). The companies listed run the gamut from tiny to huge but they all had one thing in common, wonderful people!

Conversion Rate Experts

With their offices in a castle in Staffordshire but with global reach through a network of remote working experts in 10 countries, Conversion Rate Experts is quite an interesting undertaking founded by Karl Blanks and Ben Jesson. They help companies to optimise from visitor to customer and they are doing an excellent job of that. Their customer range from mid-size to gigantic and they have an excellent series of articles on their company blog.

Who: Conversion Rate Experts, Karl Blanks, Ben Jesson

Where: Staffordshire, UK

What: Optimisation of the sales funnel

Looking for: More consultants to help deal with their growth (see: jobs )

On the web: Conversion Rate Experts

Contact: Contact page

Astral Dynamics

Astral Dynamics is a band of enterprising souls around Liam Kurmos, located in an old chapel in Wales. Wales seems to be a super interesting region, especially for water power based renewables, it is raining pretty much all the time there! Liam has started converting the Chapel to something that is a cross between living quarters, office space and a hacker/maker space. Super nice guys, we went for a walk nearby (and nearly got ourselves killed by being blown off a derelict staircase to the top of an old slate mine right next to a 1000’ drop).

Who: Astral Dynamics, Liam Kurmos, Dan Prince, Dyfan Searell and Noah Hall

Where: Deiniolen, Wales

What: Hacker / Maker / Office space for communal use

Looking for: More hands, some funds

on the web: AstralDynamics

contact: liam@astraldynamics.co.uk

Ryan O’Neill

One of the first people to respond to the call for locations to visit was Ryan O’Neill, an old school hacker from the mid-west of the UK, near the Welsh border. Ryan wanted to discuss a project to block TV advertising. I arrived in Ludlow on Sunday evening, spent the night in a pub/inn right next door to a church and presented myself in the morning. This trip seems to be mostly made up of classical buildings and super nice dogs, the O’Neill residence is no exception to that rule, meet meg and the ducks:

We worked throughout the day and the next on the project and I think we made good headway getting an MVP and a follow up product spec’d out to the point where it could be implemented.

Ryan is a blogger and would like to have a co-founder on this project that has technical and/or business skills to give the project more legs, and once the MVP is done funding will be sought to assist with the roll-out.

Who: Ryan O’Neill

Where: Ludlow (West Midlands)

What: TV Ad Blocker, software development

Looking for: Co-founder

On the web: Ryan O’Neill

Contact: r@ryanoneill.com

The Cats Whiskers

Two for the price of one! Christina O’Neill (Ryan’s wife) has a business called ‘The Cats Whiskers’, she makes custom gift boxes. They come in all shapes and sizes, from one just large enough to hold a few baby teeth to one the size of a trunk (and possibly beyond).

Who: The Cats Whiskers, Christina O’Neill

Where: Ludlow

What: gift boxes

On the Web: The Cats Whiskers

Looking for: people that want to give something unique to a child

Contact: christina@thecatswhiskers.biz

HoxtonVentures

HoxtonVentures is not your run-of-the-mill venture capital company. Extremely hands-on, investing in early stage ventures with a good track record they occupy a nice middle-ground between start-up incubators and later stage venture capital. They reside right in London (arguably the financial capital of Europe). Their mandate allows investment all over Europe, including Russia and other places where most venture capital companies would be too timid to tread.

Who: HoxtonVentures, Rob Kniaz

Where: London

What: Start-up / early stage capital

Looking for: start-ups all over Europe, people interested in positions for their portfolio companies

On the Web: (HoxtonVentures)[http://www.hoxtonventures.com/]

Contact: rob@hoxtonventures.com

GrantTree

Granttree is the company owned by Paulina Sygulska and her husband Daniel Tenner. Granttree’s business model is to give away money, this arguably is one of the easiest sales pitches ever. They have an office in the heart of London’s tech district in Shoreditch, where they work with a whole team of talented young people on the problem of applying for government grants for various programs.

Who: GrantTree, Paulina Zygulska, Daniel Tenner

Where: London

What: grant applications, tax credits

Looking for: Ever More Customers

on the web: GrantTree

Contact: team@granttree.co.uk

I loved doing this, a warm thank you to everybody that decided to take a chance on me and invited me into their homes/castles,chapels and other dwellings, it’s been a long time since I had this much fun being on the road. About 1,000 km got covered according to the odometer of the car, the whole trip took 12 days from start to finish. The single biggest cost factor was the car, gas, the next the plane ticket and a few overnight stays in hotels (most of which were covered by my hosts), all in all I’m out about 1300 Euros but it feels like this was money extremely well spent and I would do it again in a heartbeat. To be continued, in Germany for the second round somewhere in the coming weeks. I’ll send out a separate call for applications as soon as the dates are nailed down.

Will Work for Food and Lodging

In the past, the various professions were organized as guilds. If you wanted to become a cabinet maker you’d enter into an apprenticeship arrangement with a ‘master’ cabinetmaker and you’d be taught the tricks of the trade over a several year period. As your final examination you would be required to make a masterpiece (that’s where that word comes from) and then, if the master accepted your work you could call yourself a cabinetmaker. To avoid you setting up shop right next door and end up cannibalizing the person that taught you and to promote the flow of ideas within the guild you would then be discharged from your apprenticeship and your journeyman years started.

The journeyman years are an interesting concept. The newly minted cabinetmaker (or bricklayer, wheelwright, smith, whatever) would don travelling clothes (including a walking stick), pack up his tools and a knapsack and hit the road, travelling from town to town offering his services, telling stories and would be given food and a roof over his head during the nights. This period would last from 1 to 3 years, and upon completion the former apprentice, now journeyman would be permitted to settle in a spot that the guild had some say in and would be allowed to call himself a master.

As technology became more and more widespread the power of the guilds diminished and tradecrafts died out. In some isolated pockets of the world the journeyman concept still exists but it is really an anachronism. For instance, in Germany the carpenter trade still practices (a limited form) of the journeyman years and occasionally you can see them walking the roads or the streets there.

So, besides wishing all the readers of this blog a very happy 2014 I have an offer to make. I’ll divide 2014 into 13 equal portions of 4 weeks each. 12 of those, starting the 1st of February will have one half dedicated to the things that I normally do to make a living (maintain my websites, consultancy, technical due diligence). The other half I will give away to parties within 1,000 km from my base (Amsterdam) who think they have an interesting job for me to do. There will be no payment for this, I’ll pay for my own fuel for my trusty bus, other than in the journeymans tradition that I would expect food and lodging. Though each part will be limited to two weeks there is no reason why there could not be more parties geographically close that would all want me for a bit shorter than that so feel free to request shorter things as well.

So, if you want to take me up on this offer mail me at jacques@mattheij.com with who you are, what you (or your company) wants me to do, where you are located and if there is some specific time-frame or other conditions then you should probably tell me about that too. Every 4 week period I will select one or more of the open offers and we’ll arrange for a specific date & time to visit and work on your project.

Don’t feel too limited about the kind of work that you have, I’m pretty versatile. If any tools are required for whatever you want to do and I have them (and you don’t) then I could probably bring them with me (the bus will hold about 5 cubic meters worth of stuff), however if I don’t have the tools required then I won’t be buying them. If any materials are required then that’s your problem, and of course I would expect you to be available during the time that we agree I’ll be ‘on site’. Naturally, I reserve the right to write about my experiences on the road as well as with you / your company, suitably anonimized.

This offer does not automatically constitute an obligation to accept, I will evaluate the offers on a case-by-case basis and will select those that are in my opinion and solely at my discretion the best fit.

If you want to get an idea of what I can do the rest of this blog might give you some hand-holds. I’m not limiting this offer any more than I have to so feel free to ask me to help remodel your house but chances are that there will be something a bit more aligned with my skills. Otoh if yours is the only request and it is to help remodel your house I will probably take it :)

Some stuff I’ve done over the years: ran a mid sized company (25 employees), designed a windmill, wrote the software to help design it, built the plasmacutter/mill and associated electronics that it was made on, cad/cam software, car restoration, house rebuilding and house building, electronics design, general programming, web programming (but that’s not up to 2014 standards), general problem solving (the more difficult the bigger the chance that I’ll like the challenge :) ) and so on.

I really try to live up to my favorite line from Robert A. Heinlein’s books: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

So feel free to challenge me in unexpected ways.

The Five Year Itch

I’ve read a number of articles recently on ‘nomadic techies’, people that live as sparse as possible while moving from place to place every few days, weeks or months and how this impacted their lives, a backpack, a laptop and an online business or consultancy seem to be the main ingredients.

This spate of articles has caused me to look at my own life to date in a new light and I think I too have been bitten by the nomadic bug only with me it seems to last on average five years before I reboot my existence, and I have a rather large backpack.

The major reason for this is a very simple one: I get bored. That’s it, it is no more complicated than that. I can do any job but only for so long and once the challenges are met or tamed and things become routine I find my patience runs out and I have to change. If I start looking at this over the course of my professional life to date, since the ripe old age of 17 or so sequence looks like this:

PeriodCountryCityOccupation
1982-1986NLAmsterdamEmployed by a bank, mail room, app. programming
1987-1992NL/PLAmsterdam/Rijswijk/PoznanContract work for customers
1993-1997NLIJmuidenProduct development, licensed software
1998-2003NL/CAIJmuiden/TorontoOnline services
2004-2008CA/NLSt. Josephs Island/Groningenmanual work (various houses, windmill)
2008-2013NLGroningen, Limburg, IJmondFinancial services, project management

Give or take a few months here and there and maybe a few more sidelines. So on average every 5 years I pick up those that are dear to me and some stuff and move and/or shift into a new line of business.

This is extremely hard on others, even if to me it seems to be a very natural and easy to do thing. The risks associated with these moves and shifts, the logistics of it and the financial burden is only one part (such moves, especially international ones are very expensive). The other part is how it wreaks havoc on your relationships with other people, family and friends as well as co-workers and others that you are normally in contact with because of physical proximity. I probably don’t even have 1% of the people that I know and that are dear to me within a 10 Km radius around where I live, the majority of them are at least one or several countries away, if they’re not on a different continent altogether.

It’s also hard on my children and significant other. The flip side is that all this has given us a fairly broad perspective on life, on the (western, so far) world and on the nature of friendship. Knowing a lot of people and knowing them more than just as acquaintances has enriched my life in a large number of ways, something that holidaying in all those places would have never given me. That doesn’t mean I don’t like to travel and see places. It just means that a few weeks or months is not enough to really get a feel for a place and for how living there really is. If for instance you visited Canada from May through August you’d miss the winters and those change your view on life in Canada tremendously.

Contrary to the monthly or weekly version of the techno nomad doing this on a five year roster and with a family rather than by your lonesome (maybe with a backpack and a macbook) it is a very expensive trick to perform. You’re looking at housing, vehicles, furniture and so on as well as possibly burning up a sizeable investment in those if you can’t sell your stuff (you don’t have much time once you decide to move so you will get crappy prices).

Still, the upsides (to me) far outweigh the downsides, it keeps life interesting and varied and it gives you time enough to grow some roots but not so many that you can’t uproot and move if you feel like. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep this up forever, closing in on 50 now there is a tingling sense of unease, a part of me that wants to really settle down and grow roots to stay. But then, after 5 years of doing the same thing I’m pretty sure that the same urge to do something else would surely creep in.

Astute readers will have noticed that another 5 year term is up. Right now I’m not in a position to move, nor has the desire to do so announced itself in a way that I can no longer ignore. But who knows where I’ll be in two years from now, it’s impossible for me to know for sure and that by itself is part of how it starts The thing that is different this time around is that I still like the work that I’m doing, I work with people that can (and do) teach me a lot, they’re interesting and nice (both to me and to others) and there is a sense of camaraderie that i so far lacked. Currently we’re in the process of evaluating ideas that are viable for our next project/company and I’m sure that once we find something and I commit to it that I’ll be able to tame the bug for long enough that I can meet my responsibilities. But if no such project can be found all bets are off!

The nomadic life-style is marked by traveling light, I can’t say I qualify for it from that perspective. After five years in one place it is amazing how much stuff gets collected. Right now I have a warehouse full of stuff in Limburg, as part of an attempt to jumpstart a business there. Just getting rid of that is a major exercise in logistics and then when it is done we still need to sell the building. But I do find that I look at the things that I have in a different light because of all this.

Things of real value:

  • sentimental stuff (pictures, paintings)

  • tools (woo if you move to a region with a different mains voltage)

  • musical instruments

  • books

But especially books are heavy, bulky and hard to move! Even so those are the categories of things that seem to travel with me where-ever I go. Unless you’re living a minimalistic life-style trying to choose which 1 metric tonne of your family-of-four you want to take with you can be a pretty revealing exercise in priorities and sentiment discovery. (oh, and tools are quite heavy!).

Another downside to this way of life is that I really no longer know where I belong. No single place feels like home or ‘motherland’ or anything like that. You learn that the grass on the other side may look greener but that it rarely ever is, that every country has its good sides and its bad sides but that there is no country that does everything right. I sometimes miss feeling ‘home’. Until I was in my mid 20’s the center of gravity would always be Amsterdam, but having lived on a nearly uninhabited island (300 people on 200 square kilometers) and some other interesting places city life no longer holds me in the way it used to. I’m not a city boy, I’m not a country boy, I’m not even sure what kind of person I am in that respect any more. I enjoyed both and I enjoy where I am today, in fact, I’ve learned to adapt fairly easily to new situations and to be able to make friends and feel good in most places.

I have no idea where the future will lead me, I’m open to moving again at some point, maybe Asia, maybe Eastern Europe or some other place not even currently on my radar. Whatever it will be I hope it will be unlike any other place that I’ve ever lived in so far, and that it will bring me new insights, new people and new experiences. Because that’s the one thing that I think that binds all nomads: Insatiable Curiosity.

The Freedom - Responsibility Trade-off for Entrepreneurs

I started my first business (a computer programming consultancy) when I was pretty young (21), in 1986. At the time I had worked for a little over a year and a half for the application programming department of a dutch bank. The department had 100 employees divided into several teams and about 35 people hired from companies such as BSO and Volmac (loosely termed ‘body shops’, not a very nice term).

The atmosphere there was very corporate, lots of suits, almost exclusively guys, programming main frames with a terribly old-fashioned development cycle (if you got 2 ect’s in on a day you were a lucky guy). It felt pretty stifling there and I longed for more freedom. In part this was caused by me actually liking programming and working really hard whereas the majority of the people there were happy to putter along as long as they got their salary. Morale there wasn’t exactly at an all time high. After talking with my manager (http://nl.linkedin.com/in/esdeleeuw hey Eddy! thanks!), we agreed that maybe banking wasn’t for me and I should try to use my skills to do my own thing. I wasn’t let go but I’m quite sure that a lot of people breathed easier when this misfit left.

Within a week of starting I’d found my first contract job and I managed to find another before that one ran out and so on. Little by little I managed to build up a reputation for delivering the goods and I got more and more work by referral.

At some point this led me to having more work than I could reasonably be expected to perform and I increased my prices to match. In 1995 I hired my first employee, by 2000 it was up to 25 employees in two offices.

This was the first time I realised that my desire for freedom had led me straight back to having less freedom than I had when I started this whole saga!

As an entrepreneur, if you are successful, you will automatically reduce your freedom as long as you haven’t sold your business. Only when you’re between projects or companies do you actually have a degree of freedom. The only other time that you have freedom is when you’re entirely alone and working in some ‘life-style’ (I hate that term) business. As soon as you’re successful, boom, freedom gone.

So if you’re planning on doing a start-up because you’d like to have more freedom, think twice. Do not aim for success, or if you do realize that you are going to give up your freedom for the foreseeable future with a chance of recouping it at some level in the future. (Hopefully, if you exit successful you’ll be able to live the good life for a bit but unless your exit is a spectacular one you’ll be back in the harness sooner or later).

Freedom at work, you can get at some 9-5 job just as easy if not easier because even though you have responsibilities, you can always quit. Founders of companies can’t quit that easily, they would have to at a minimum find a suitable replacement (very hard) or a company to sell theirs to without having to sign on for another 3 to 5 years (also very hard). There is a subtle trade-off here, with a sweet spot somewhere in the middle. A one-person company that does not aim for the stars, makes you enough in a few months to live for a few years is probably the best to aim for if you really desire freedom, if that freedom means to be able to do whatever it is that you want to do with your remaining time.

Entrepreneurship at even a moderate level of success is an endless chain of responsibilities and hardships wrapped in a foil thin layer that spells ‘freedom’, but it really isn’t all that free at all!

Happy Anniversary WWW

Today marks the 22nd birthday of the world wide web. At 21, a very short year ago, the WWW became of the age of majority in just about every country in the world. For a person to go from ‘child’ to ‘adult’ usually means losing a few illusions and getting more in touch with the real world. It wasn’t any different with the World Wide Web.

From an age of exuberance and endless possibilities in its formative years through unruly teens we now reach the age where adult matters take over, and the WWW finds itself drafted into service. And not just any service, no the WWW and the internet as well have been drafted headlong into the most comprehensive surveillance operation in the history of man to date.

The last year has seen ever more proof that the age of innocence is definitely over, culminating in the saga of the NSA, which is still playing out as I write this. To me, this has stopped to be fun&games. I feel that something has gone terribly wrong with the way the spooks have been given a free hand to put mass surveilance on unprecedented numbers of people, and what they end up doing with all that information.

The current flap is mostly about the NSA spying on Americans, rather than ‘just’ on foreigners, and all this in the name of anti-terrorism. The fall-out from this has seen a presidential plane diverted, the spouse of a journalist detained and a computer destroyed at the headquarters of a very well respected newspaper. When the free press is harassed in the name of ‘national security’ we all have something to worry about.

Besides the question of whether mass surveillance of non-Americans is ok (if it is, how would Americans react if they found out that say the Russians or the Chinese were reading all American email and kept a record of every web page Americans ever visited?), you have to wonder if we assumme the current government is benevolent how we can guarantee that all future governments will be benevolent too. I personally have a hard time believing that that will be the case. Given a long enough future at some point there will be a person in power who can not be trusted with all this intel and who could use it to seriously derail democracy. For all we know this is already happening, the ‘parallel construction’ (tipping off law enforcement with illegally gathered intel by falsifying the source) trick is ripe for various kinds of abuse.

The WWW and the internet present an immense opportunity for the world to become a much better place to live in with a degree of transparency and accountability that we have not yet seen. But the flip side of that coin is that it can be used to the same degree to monitor and control the population.

There are plenty of historical examples of how information was used in very bad ways against the general population of a country.

During World War II the Germans in the Netherlands were able to use the meticulously kept records of the citizen registry to figure out where the Jewish people lived, to round them up for extermination. A brave but ultimately not very effective attack on the registry by the resistance was a last ditch effort at reducing the effectiveness of the registry in the hands of the occupier. Unfortuntely the steel archive cabinets survived the fire and so did most of the registration cards. 12 men were executed in the dunes after the details of the plot were uncovered, and the cattle-trains kept rolling east.

Lots of citizens of former Soviet Bloc countries have - even today - a healthy dislike of anything that smacks of secret files on people, they don’t trust their rulers to always have the populations best interest at heart. The memories (and in some cases present reminders) are all to fresh.

Suppressing meaningful opposition to a government gets so much easier if you know who knows each other and what they have been writing for the last couple of years to their loved ones, friends, family and acquintances. Watergate isn’t all that long ago either, and neither is McCarthy.

In the USA that parallel construction trick is being used right now to funnel information from the NSA to the DEA.

And all this to keep us safe.

It’s been a bit of a slow realization for me, but I don’t actually want to be safe, I’d rather be free and unsafe. I think that if I have to choose between rolling the dice and possibly dying or having a loved one die in some terrorist attack, or a perfectly safe state with zero crime because all the criminals and terrorists are arrested due to perfect oversight that I’d take my chances with crime and terror if the alternative is to have everybody monitored all the time.

Freedom is like anything else that you might want, it has a price attached to it and in this case that price is probably well worth paying.

Happy Anniversary WWW, I hope that in time you will mature and grow into the role that we all had in mind for you when you were small, rather than that you will end up being drafted. Please apply for Conscientious Objector status while you still can.

Make a Bigger Haystack

The NSA apparently has the capabilities to eavesdrop on just about anything you do on the web or on the internet in general. If you haven’t read that article yet please do, it’s quite a bit of insight into the capabilities of the spying agencies. Of course, as a dirty foreigner I’m a bit more pissed of at this than a US citizen would be (they are technically exempt from such monitoring which makes it a-ok).

But other governments than the USA are publicly crying foul but privately apparently collaborate eagerly in these programs, which are of course all designed to keep us safe from terror and other significant causes of sudden and violent death. The ‘nothing to hide’ crowd is in overdrive and there seems to be no limit to the amount of data that is being hovered up. Other than maybe the technical limits to storing the data long enough.

One paragraph in the above Guardian article stood out for me:

"The XKeyscore system is continuously collecting so much internet data
that it can be stored only for short periods of time. Content remains 
on the system for only three to five days, while metadata is stored for
30 days. One document explains: "At some sites, the amount of data we 
receive per day (20+ terabytes) can only be stored for as little as 24 
hours."

So apparently even the mighty 3 letter agencies are limited by technology and funding in what they can do.

A simple solution might then be to run software on our PC’s that use all the available bandwidth to flood the channels with bogus requests. A drive-by DDOS on any and all websites that indirectly hits the NSA infrastructure hardest because they have to deal with the cumulative effect rather than with just the effect on a single website. Of course all of us website operators would pay a part of the price for this. But that may be a price worth paying in the longer term. This surveilance thing has gone on for far too long, it’s grown larger than it ever should have been and I believe strongly that it should be stopped.

Increasing the size of the haystack to the point where the signal-to-noise ratio makes it impractical to vacuum up all the data rather than to purposefully target suspects (you know, like we used to before all this madness) might be just the ticket. Ordinary people going about their ordinary every day ways should have a reasonable expectation of privacy, both online and offline.

I can see several ways in which you could do this, for instance a browser plug-in that detects that your computer is not in use that then uses your history to create plausible activity including the time you normally take to read a page, click through or back, occasionally click an ad and so on. Just replaying your behavioral patterns over a series of websites that you normally already visit, but on pages that you haven’t visited yet. For extra points make it so that it does not mess up your history when you sit back down behind your computer.

Love to Learn (2) Highschool Horrors

A while ago I received an invitation to a high-school reunion. I didn’t go and I probably will never go to a thing like that. I’m trying hard to forget that period.

I love to learn, but it wasn’t always so.

As a small kid, up to the age of 12 I definitely did. In the summer holidays that I would spend with my grandmother in Arnhem I’d eat my way through the public library technology section, and when I was done with that I made a deal with a second hand bookstore called ‘de Slegte’ that if I could read a book I bought in the morning before closing time I could trade it in for free on another book, and if I could read that one before morning I could do it again. I read a lot of books that way and inevitably some of the stuff I read stuck and interlocked with other bits and pieces that I already knew. Communications Satellites, computers, rockets, evolution, whatever was available, I’d lap it up ever hungry for more.

Grade school was misery, lots of bullying, lots of fighting, but there was the promise of getting into the VWO, the school where you could prepare yourself for a career in science. Provided you had good grades and provided you worked hard at it. One of my uncles, who had worked for Philips Electronics in Eindhoven taught me a bit of calculus and I loved it, this went way beyond the grade school arithmetic.

Finally, in 1977 I managed to leave grade school behind me and went to high school, a school with a Christian background (even though I did not believe in any god, my mom thought it wouldn’t hurt to send me to a school with kids from an environment like that). The introduction week was pretty harsh. I ended up cycling home on my own because of all the fights. Incredible, this was supposed to be the thing I’d been looking out for for so long. Prototypical nerd, I got into trouble from day one because I stood out in every way that you could to make you impopular. Small, scrawny kid, too clever for his age, not yet interested in girls or any of the other things all the other boys were going on about.

It got worse from there. I got the highest score for the test that separates grade school from high school, and I wasn’t about to start slacking. So I worked as hard as I could on the stuff they threw at us in that introductory year. The only subject I had trouble with was French, for the rest I pretty much aced it. Even though I did work hard it didn’t look like I was working all that hard. Not long after the nicknames started. Teachers pet, professor and so on. There was one other guy in that class that scored about as good as I did on most subjects, a kid called Cornelis. He had a buddy that looked at 12 like he was 16 or so and nobody dared to pick on him (good for him!), but unfortunately because I came from another part of town I had no friends at all right in the beginning of the new school year.

Tons of fights, mostly with a small group of kids that enjoyed disturbing the lessons and that were definitely not in this school to prepare themselves for anything in life, other than that their parents thought they should go there. Everything about me was wrong to them, from my taste in music to my clothing, the fact that I actually enjoyed learning and so on.

I got through the first year with top marks but felt totally miserable. During the summer holidays I figured out (wrongly) that if I’m going to survive this school I’d have to somehow adopt some kind of camouflage. The easiest way to do this was to get bad grades. I stopped studying completely, all I took in where those things that I heard during the lessons in class, my books remained pretty much unopened that year. I flunked the year, French and now German were my weak points, I think I got a ‘1’ (the lowest mark possible, in nl marks were from 1 to 10 at that time) for it, to great anger of the teacher who saw that I was purposefully not doing anything to learn. (my German is passable these days so it all ended up well in the end).

Flunking the year was bad, but it had one silver lining, a reboot. New people, a bit younger so I wasn’t standing out as being all that scrawny anymore. The darker part of that cloud was that this particular class had a bunch of bullies that was much worse than the ones in the class that I left behind. More fighting, suspensions and other trouble because of that. But at least I finished the year because I already knew most of the material and even cracked a book every now and then. I actually liked the new classes (physics, chemistry) that that year brought and after doing the basics in terms of homework got pretty good grades for those.

On to the third year, this one went pretty good for the most part, I had found what the minimum of work was that I had to do to get the minimum grades I needed to ‘pass’. Teachers still hated me because it was pretty obvious that I could do better. I spent a lot of time in school designing electronics circuits, got a paper route and eventually bought my first real computer with it (a TRS-80 pocket computer made by Sharp, which looks like an oversized calculator). So plenty of distractions but not enough to make me fail another year.

The fourth year the bullying started again. This time it kept on escalating and it would not go away. One particular guy (who was always going on about his karate expertise) thought that it was fun to kick me out of sight of the teachers under the table during the lessons egging me on to do something about it. When I finally snapped after a couple of months of this and put him in hospital I was suspended for three months. So I failed that year as well. Right about this time my family situation detoriorated to the point where I had to leave the house I was living in to move in with my dad.

Him and his new wife did what they could to accomodate me but there was enough friction in the household that that didn’t last for more than a year (which I spent on a trade school for electronics called the ETS in Amsterdam), and after that my mom split up with the guy she’d been with and I rejoined her and went to work for a big dutch bank and my formal education stopped. I still did a year of nightschool to try to get to equivalency but the work I did was so physically exhausting that I could barely walk home, let alone do a night of clear-headed studying.

When I look back I find it almost incredible that I did not manage to at least get some diploma. From acing the tests to being a person without any formal qualifications, from loving to learn to hating to learn (fortunately I branched out into loving to learn about electronics and computers instead of the stuff I was supposed to be studying in school, which laid the groundwork for the rest of my career).

Highschool can be hell, especially when you’re looking forward to it.

To all the bullies that I encountered during that time (you know who you are): Thank you for hardening me in a way that serves me good to this day. I don’t blame you for me not finishing my education but it certainly did not help either. To all current bullies in highschool: you are damaging a lot more than you think you are, it’s not just fun and games. One of the people that found great pleasure in hounding me and a few other ‘nerds’ is still visiting a psychiatrist. I’ve long ago forgiven him, but he still hasn’t forgiven himself. Funny how life can turn around. Highschool reunions are not for me, too much horror and too good a memory are a bad recipe for rehashing old times.

The Destruction of the Web

Search engine spam was invented the moment search engines started to be good enough to send significant volumes of traffic to websites based on keyword searches.

Before the days of Google search engines used strictly ‘on page’ factors to figure out how important a page was for a certain subject or keyword. This led to all kinds of pollution on the page, such as people filling out their pages with 1000’s of copies of the keywords they wanted to rank high for.

Google dealt a huge blow to spammers and other search engines when they released their pagerank algorithm based search engine which used the structure of the web itself, the links, to figure out how important a certain page was. This principle, the scientific name for it is a ‘citation index’ is a tried and true concept in academia where it is used to figure out how important a certain scientific publication (called a paper) is.

In the scientific world there are no spammers and there is no direct commercial advantage to creating a lot of nonsense paper that cite your own paper, also there is some oversight in the world of science and the people there have a reasonably high level of integrity.

Not so in the wild-west-world-wide-web. So as soon as Google rose to ascendancy and all the old ‘on page’ tricks failed to work the tricksters shifted their attention to the structure of the web. Link farms were born, sites whose sole reason for existing is to increase the visibility of other pages from the point of view of a search engine. Comment spam appeared all over the web, inane comments that add nothing to the conversation on various fora whose sole purpose was to drop a backlink to some website or other. 10’s of millions of junk accounts were created in automated ways on free hosting sites in order to create pages that could be pointed to which in turn pointed to others with the sole purpose of increasing ‘pagerank’, which is the name Google coined to name their algorithm and the name of the 0 to 10 value assigned to any webpage that google is aware of.

Every time Google made its algorithms smarter to combat the spammers the spammers upped the ante in a never ending arms-race to gain control of who receives the traffic that hits Google looking for certain goods or services. The commercial interests are enormous and the fanaticism with which the spammers are engaging the issue means that the web as a whole is suffering. The final closing of the circle is that nobody seems to bother with placing backlinks any more to sites they appreciate, after all Google is the way people surf the web so why bother dealing a final blow to the beatiful thing that was once the web, a globe spanning network of computers linked by hyperlinks pointing to useful information.

Google seems to have dealt a really harsh blow to the spammers in their latest update cycle. So far, the only thing I’d be pestered about with some regularity is people asking if they can buy backlinks on my websites to their websites. A typical example:

From:    Bonnie <smithbacklinks@gmail.com>
To:      jacques@truetech.com
Subject: for buying backlinks :)

Willing to buy text links from your website:reocities.com

Greetings,

This is dailyshop.com, we need to buy some text links from you. Are you willing to sell? 
If you do, could you please tell us the price and the time it could be on your website? 
Could it be added on your website within one day, or how soon that could be?

If you have other resouces, you could also contact us through the ways below:

Best regards,

Bonnie

dailyshop

team



Email:smithbacklinks@gmail.com
Tel:1-650-461-9387
Skype:bonnie.backlinks

I get a couple of these per day, interesting to see how integrated into the Google ecosystem they are because even though they are clearly trying to game Google in they use a gmail.com address for the transaction!

Since the ‘Panda’ update I’m also getting another kind of email. These are by the companies that are a little more advanced on the SEO curve that are trying to undo the damage they did to themselves. A typical email (both received in the same week):

From:  Kristen Madey
To:    jacques@mattheij.com
Subject: Link Removal Request

To Whom It Make Concern,

According to our resources you are the owner of links linking to our website www.giftcards.com
and it’s pages. We own GiftCards.com and there are a few pages on your website that are 
linking to our website. We would ask that you please remove our links from these sites as soon 
as possible. Unfortunately we believe that our ranking in Google is being damaged due to 
these links & others. 

We would appreciate your cooperation. 

Thank you,
Kristen Madey & GiftCards.com

Kristen Madey | Marketing Manager
www.giftcards.com
T. 877-746-6664 x9703 | M. 412 979 5501
kristen.madey@wolfe.com

THE INFORMATION CONTAINED IN THIS E-MAIL AND ANY ATTACHED DOCUMENTATION IS INTENDED FOR THE
USE OF THE ADDRESSEE ONLY, IS CONFIDENTIAL AND MAY BE LEGALLY PRIVILEGED. ANY DISSEMINATION, 
DISTRIBUTION, COPYING, OR USE OF THIS COMMUNICATION WITHOUT PRIOR PERMISSION OF THE SENDER 
IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED. If you are not the intended recipient, you must not disclose, copy, 
or distribute, or use the information contained in this e-mail. If you have received this 
e-mail in error, please notify us immediately by return email.

Interesting because the email does not even state which domain or page the links are on. Companies that hired SEO types in the past are finding out more and more that they are penalized by Google so they now try to undo some of the damage. There is another variation to the second email where the sender basically tries to blackmail the recipient into doing a lot of work for free because otherwise they will use the Google ‘disavow’ tool.

So, Google and the SEO spammers and their employers are battling out the war for the Google traffic and legitimate website owners are caught in the middle as collateral damage, first they have to work hard to keep the SEO spam off their pages and then (for instance, in the case of reocities.com there is plenty of it that made it into the archive) when Google changes their tactics they try to strong arm those same website owners whose sites they managed to successfully pollute into working on their behalf for free ‘or else’.

It’s the destruction of the web, collateral damage. There is no method that I’m aware of which would allow a search engine to function successfully on the web the way it works today that will not result into damage to the very thing it tries to navigate. If we’re ever going to get out of this downward spiral where each new phase in the arms race reaches for bigger guns then I believe this will have to come in the form of a reboot, a protocol designed from the ground up to combat these issues and a way to search the web that makes it infeasible for a single party to control such a large volume of traffic that it becomes worthwhile for large numbers of miscreants to make a living off parasitic behaviour.

Sound Sensor Failure

Since about 6 days now, I’ve been almost completely deaf in my right ear. The reason behind it is as trivial as can be but for some reason or other it seems as though it isn’t going to clear by itself. All I did wrong was to clear my throat while lying on my side and this in one smooth movement underpressured my ear and allowed the Eustacian tube on that side to become clogged. The result: instant and near complete loss of hearing on one side, welcome to the wonderful world of barotrauma. Incredible how trivial such a debilitating condition can come in to being, that’s a serious blow against any intelligent design theory ;). I’ve had a few previews of what this is like, typically after a long flight I’m deaf on the right hand side for a short while, usually no more than an hour but sometimes it lasts for a day and then it suddenly clears. Nothing as serious as what is happening right now though.

As a youngster I would take on any odd job to make some extra money and one of these jobs was to be stand-in person to help set up equipment for pop bands. One fine evening during a sound-check in the Jaap-Edenhal in the 80’s I lost some of the capacity for hearing high tones in my left ear so that one doesn’t quite function as well as it probably should. To lose the right is a lot harder than it would have been if my left hand one had been working properly.

The side effects of this have been pretty serious, and I really hope that it will go away without having to puncture the eardrum in order to relieve the pressure differential.

  • I’m not just deaf in one ear, I’m also suddenly in the posession of a 90 degree ‘dead’ angle in vision on my right hand side. This makes driving a challenge. I never realized how much visual stuff is only picked up after there is an audio cue, it’s like having some form of tunnel vision, and to make it worse, my left ear does hear these cues and my brain still hasn’t adapted to the new situation so it will cause my head to look left, which is entirely the wrong thing to do. Very confusing, and dangerous to boot. Driving the car extra careful with great attention to mirrors and situational awareness.

  • There is an associated head-ache that lasts pretty much all day and interferes with my sleeping. This in turn makes me terribly cranky.

  • I seem to have a problem understanding stuff verbally. This is the most puzzling of all, after all, my left ear is working perfectly ok, and language processing ability normally resides in the left side of the brain. But when I think about it, if I’m on the phone and only use one ear I invariably have the phone on my right hand side, but this may be a simple result of hand dominance trumping ear dominance. The nerves from each ear are wired to only one side of the brain and if you get ‘stereo’ input both brain halves will help in the processing load. If only one ear gets the input and that’s not the ‘dominant’ ear then you will have to work a whole lot harder at extracting the information from the sounds that you pick up. I never even realized I had a ‘dominant’ ear until this happened! Learn a new thing every day I guess, wished I had learned this in some different way.

  • My environment does not adapt, I need to adapt to my environment. You can only say ‘what?’ so many times before people get irritated or simply stop talking. So I have to make a conscious effort to sit with my left ear towards them and/or to look at their lips as an extra cue of what they’ve said. That’s a lot of overhead. Making up for this is incredibly tiring, probably extra because it definitely isn’t second nature to me. And people that don’t know me at all and have not yet interacted with me of course have absolutely no clue that I can’t hear them, especially if there is some environmental noise.

  • I don’t enjoy music nearly as much. Hearing music as though it is on a badly tuned shortwave radio (in mono, of course) is really not quite as nice as hearing it in both ears with half decent quality. The fact that my left ear already had a problem with high notes probably increases this substantially. I have tried playing music a few times but after only a few moments switched it off again because it just underlines my frustration.

  • Loud sounds hurt! This is the most paradoxical, but apparently the sensitivity of my other ear gets cranked up to the max as some kind of compensation. So any loud sound will hit a lot harder than it would have if the volume on the right hand side were taken into the equation (well, technically it probably is but since it’s pegged at or near ‘0’ the computations are off by quite a bit). That’s a weird one, you’d think that such a measure would operate on a per-ear basis.

  • Bone conduction still works just fine. So I get to enjoy a contiuous concert of heartbeats, chewing sounds, teeth that touch and a thousand other things that you’d normally not be aware of such as breathing or cartilage shifting. Weirdest thing.

  • I seem to have developed a new skill, I can roughly tell what the barometric pressure is doing based on what (if any) sounds I can hear on the right hand side and how bad a headache I’ve got. The scientist in me is at odds with the rest of me here, I can’t help but see this whole situation as an opportunity to experiment but at the same time I very much wish for it to go away.

After this six day glimpse into what deafness is like (and this is only one ear, I shudder to think what it would be like to have lost hearing in both ears) I’m quite ready to go back to normal, assuming nothing got permanently damaged and this blockage will clear one of these days without requiring surgery or other tricks. Incredible how gas-tight this blockage is and how long it lasts, you’d expect some kind of relief by now due to leakage. And this episode has given me a renewed respect for those that cope with loss of sensory input, the number of ways and the severity with which this sort of thing affects your life is quite frankly incredible, and experiencing it first hand has rammed that home in a very memorable fashion.

Afterword: A very kind HN user https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5813036 gave me the hint that I needed to get this solved. I’m incredibly happy, especially by finding a simple way that did not require pressure or any tools. It did take about 20 tries to get any result so if you ever have this and try this particular method don’t give up if it doesn’t work right away. Thanks again Delyan!