Blog Page 2

US/Canada Import Place

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I just remembered a sort of weird thing. For those who don’t know, I’m in Canada. You can order almost any American item, and find most of them in stores too, but now and then you run into a brick wall. For various reasons (some dumb, some logical), you just can’t get certain things shipped to Canada.

The one that’s really annoyed me in the past is that Blue Diamond Almonds only sell a limited amount of their flavours in Canada – basically just the boring ones. I’ve tried the fancier ones while visiting the US, and I love them, especially toasted coconut and salt and vinegar. I think just due to bad luck, the only businesses that ship these to Canada charge a ridiculous amount, so you would wind up paying maybe triple the correct price, or more.

Luckily, I found a place in Mississauga that lets you buy stuff on American websites, and enter an address in Niagara Falls, USA. This company receives the packages, then drives them to to Canada, and you go pick them up and pay an extra fee. I’ve used this to buy a dozen cans of almonds a couple of times now, and it’s so nice. I think the fee was $7 or $10, and in the end, I wound up paying less than if I bought almonds (even the plain flavors) in a local store.

So I’ve gotten way off course here with the almond talk. Listen, I like almonds, and I love flavoured almonds. I think I’ve somehow become desensitized to them a little now, but the first few times that I bought the toasted coconut ones, I just couldn’t control myself, they were the greatest thing I’d ever tasted. I brought a couple of cans home from the US a couple of times, and I’d tell myself that I’d only eat a few per day, and make them last for a while, but then I’d open a can and demolish it in a day. Maybe two days. It was exhilarating. Maybe exhilarating is just slightly too strong a word. It was good. They tasted so good. I loved the taste. Such a nice taste.

Sorry, I got off track again, let me get back to this tidbit. The last time I went to this cross-border place, I could see into the back, and there were hundreds of packages there. This place is doing a lot of business, and I got really curious about what everyone is bringing in. I mean, I’d guess that I’m probably the only guy importing dozens of almonds cans on a regular basis, but who knows!

I asked the guy who worked there what people brought, but I was pretty sure he’d just say it was random, so I worded it sort of like “Heeey, I know it’s probably kind of random, but what do most people bring in, are there certain things that are really popular?” I was surprised when he listed the two most popular items, without even pausing: Car tires, and Funko Pops.I understand the car tires. I don’t know anything about it, but there are a lot of items like that which cost way less in the US, and I understand people shipping them in. But Funko Pops?

If you sat me in a room and told me I couldn’t leave until I listed the 5000 most popular import products at this place, there’s zero chance I’d include Funko Pops. You could stick a Funko Pop on the desk so that I remembered they existed, and I still wouldn’t list them. Even if I got really stuck at product number 4998 or something, and I noticed the Funko Pops posters you’d put all around the room, I know I wouldn’t list it, it’s too dumb. I’d just go “What’s with this guy who locked me in this room, why did he put all the Funko Pops posters all over? This guy is a huge spaz”. I mean of course you’re a spaz if you lock me in a room and make me list 5000 things, unless you’re some sort of university researcher or something. Anyhow Funko Pops. How about that. It’s weird.

Sign Painters Movie and Book

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Sign Painters by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon
Sign Painters by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon

I watched a great movie last week. Sign Painters is a 2014 documentary, directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, about the hand painted sign industry.

Levine and Macon interview a number of people across the U.S. about all aspects of the business. A lot of the interviewees are artists who started painting back when the industry was booming, but there are a decent amount of young guys in there too.

Obviously, hand painted signs are not very common these days, and a common theme in the documentary is how computerized printers and sign cutters changed the industry (for the worse). From what I could tell from the movie, it seems like most of the work being done these days is for businesses who want a beautiful, hip sign – coffeeshops, tattoo places, theaters, restaurants, etc.

There’s a decent amount of stylistic diversity though. I was surprised to see that one guy, Nick Barber, still paints car dealership windows all over Southern California, in that really familiar 1970s/1980s sort of style you see in period movies and whatnot. And while everyone involved seems genuinely into the artistic side of it, Stephen Powers of NYC is the only guy interviewed who doesn’t do traditional client work, and instead does public art installations. His stuff is amazing, and it’s well worth visiting his website and checking out his shop, the couple of Tumblr pages he has (fine articysigns, marksurface) and his Instagram account. I love his fine art page so much, and I’ve put it on my shortlist of places I need to remember to visit when I’m a rich art collector.

Also interviewed is Ken Barber from House Industries, who I used to be completely obsessed with in the late 1990s and early 2000s (and I still love). House make a number of terrific fonts, but the most relevant to this movie is of course their Sign Painter font (which I am 99% sure predates the movie by at least a few years).

I loved the movie, and recommend you consider watching it. It was only $3 to rent on Google Play Movies, but it’s available on a number of Video On Demand services, best to just check out the official website for links. I know I’m going to want to watch it again, so I’m going to go back and buy the deluxe edition soon – it looks like they use VHX.tv, and you can get lifetime streaming of the movie, plus 30 minutes of bonus interviews that way, for 10 bucks.

But wait, I forgot to mention the book, which you’ve already seen at the top of this post! That’s right, there’s a whole darn book that’s just as good as the movie. One of the main characteristics of the hand painted signs throughout the movie are that they’re just so filled with great colors, and they’re so dynamic. It’s a style that translates so, so well to print, and the book is just page after page of eye candy. Do not buy the e-book version of this, don’t even consider it, pay the extra 4 bucks for the paper copy, trust me.

Guys I seem to have walking pneumonia, and I feel like I will re-read this post one day and cringe at the text being terrible and boring, so forgive me. To make up for it, I’m going to paste in a few photos of the book, so you can see how great it looks. (By the way, this is just a little tiny taster, and I picked these pages at random, this isn’t me cherry-picking the best stuff or anything.)

The work of Mike Meyer from Mazeppa, Minnesota
The work of Mike Meyer from Mazeppa, Minnesota
This sign by Ernie Gosnell of Seattle
This sign by Ernie Gosnell of Seattle
The work of John Downer of Iowa City, Iowa
The work of John Downer of Iowa City, Iowa
The work of Jeff Canham, of San Francisco
The work of Jeff Canham, of San Francisco
The work of Bob Dewhurst, of SanFrancisco
The work of Bob Dewhurst, of SanFrancisco
Colossal Media, from NYC
Colossal Media, from NYC
Part of the appendix, by Charles L. H. Wagner
Part of the appendix, by Charles L. H. Wagner
The work of Justin Green of Cincinatti, Ohio
The work of Justin Green of Cincinatti, Ohio
The work of Mark and Rose Oatis of Las Vegas
The work of Mark and Rose Oatis of Las Vegas
The work of Norma Jeanne Maloney of Austin, Texas
The work of Norma Jeanne Maloney of Austin, Texas
Gary Martin of Austin, Texas
Gary Martin of Austin, Texas
Ira Coyne of Olympia, Washington
Ira Coyne of Olympia, Washington

 

Patreon Update

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So my Patreon campaign is going about about how I expected, not incredible, but it’s early days. The way I figure it, if you’re going to make it to 1 million patrons/month, you have to start at the very bottom. I was thinking of a few ideas to pump up the campaign, here are a couple:

  1. I was thinking it’d be funny if as a reward, I sent a package to anyone who donated $1/month, every 3 months. And that package would contain $5. I’m really considering this.
  2. The other idea, which would cost me about the same, would be if every 3 months, I sent everyone a photo of $5. This way, I would keep the money. But printing and mailing a photo would cost a couple of bucks probably.

UPDATE: I just added a $1 tier for the second option. I know I will regret this.

Okay that’s all I’m going to write now, I have an actual post to finish for later today or this evening.

How I Back up My Personal Files

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A friend of mine sent me a question about backing up personal files. She said this:

What is the best way to buy long-term cloud storage that is private, secure, resistant to destruction? Archival storage for personal files… maybe 1TB total, more if it’s affordable

I don’t think I’ve written about this much, but this is actually something I care about a lot, and I did a fair bit of research on this a couple of years ago.

The main tool I use is Arq, which is a desktop app for Mac and Windows. I’m going to go over the main points of this software:

Basic Setup

When you set up Arq, you choose which folders you want to have backed up. I just have back up my Photos folder, and the Developer folder where I keep all my code stuff. Arq runs in the background on my computer, and whenever I add anything to these folders, or edit something, it backs up the new file. In my experience, it’s extremely convenient, and doesn’t require any work after the initial setup (which is obviously vitally important to keeping regular backups).

Storage

Possibly the most important thing about Arq is that it lets you choose where your files are stored. You can send your files to Dropbox, Google Drive, Amazon Cloud Drive, AWS, OneDrive, an SFTP server, or an NAS. More importantly, you can set up multiple services, and you can decide what goes where. So maybe you want your most important files to be backed up to both Dropbox and Google Drive, but since your photos take so much space, you just want them to go to Amazon – that’s easy to set up. This redundancy accomplishes the resistant to destruction part of the request.

These storage choices have similar prices, and most of them have free levels. Google Drive, for example, comes with 15GB of free storage and then costs $10/month for 1TB. Arq has a chart on this page that you can use to compare.

Encryption

Arq encrypts all your data on your computer before it ever reaches any of the cloud servers. This is why it’s safe to send your data to a bunch of servers. You do need to set a passphrase, and always remember that phrase, or else your backups will be useless to you.

Pricing

Arq costs $50. I’ve been using it since late 2014 and there’s been 1 major upgrade (to version 5) that cost $25. I was happy to pay that.

In my opinion, buying Arq is completely worth it, and a great deal. I tried a couple of backup services before Arq, like Crashplan for instance, and I hated them. Their software was extremely, extremely crappy, and the upload speeds were terrible. I never had to download backups from them, but I have a strong feeling it would have been a nightmare. Arq just feels like a modern, good piece of software.

On top of what you pay for Arq, you need to pay a monthly fee to the cloud server places, as mentioned above. If you have a small amount of data to back up, this might be free, or close to free, but otherwise it’ll probably cost between $7 and $10/month per terabyte.

Other Thoughts

I like the possibility of setting up a cheap VPS (virtual private server) somewhere like Digital Ocean or Chunkhost and running an SFTP server on it. Pricing for a setup like that is going to start at $5/month for 20GB of space though (as of this writing at both those companies), so it’s not the most economical choice. This option would be a good add-on if you have a small amount of data to store. It’d also be good for someone who doesn’t want to use Google, Amazon, Dropbox or Microsoft.

As I mentioned earlier, I tried a couple of other services before settling on Arq. I forget which ones I tried exactly, but I know I tried Crashplan for a month and it was horrible. The software was some terrible Java garbage that ran insanely slow, and was confusing to use. Their network was also extremely slow, and to upload all my photos, it said it was going to take literally several months hahaha. Holy moly. I think it wound up taking a few days using Arq and Google Drive.

I actually just searched to see if Crashplan still gets a lot of complaints for being slow, and judging from the “CrashPlan is Slow” twitter account, it’s just as bad as it was when I used them. This is off-topic, but wow, if you want to see some horror stories, read through all the stuff that account retweets, yikes.

Photos and Videos

If you have a lot of photos or videos to back up, I would highly recommend using Google Photos in addition to Arq. I don’t think there’s any downloading tool, so I wouldn’t use it as my only backup tool, but it’s free, and it makes a nice last-ditch backup choice. It’s an incredibly well designed product, which makes sorting, searching and browsing your photos very easy, and I can’t say enough good things about it.

Worth noting is that anything you upload to Google Photos is a lot less private and secure than what you upload using Arq, since theoretically, Google could look at your photos/movies at will (or anyone who broke into your Google account). So obviously avoid this choice for any photos you wouldn’t want the public to see.


So I hope this is useful information. If you have any feedback, or other suggestions, leave a comment. This might sound like an ad for Arq or something, but it’s not, I don’t even have a lowly affiliate code to paste in (although I did with the Digital Ocean link above). If there are newer, better options, I’d love to hear them.

What Actually Is Machine Learning?

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Now that I’ve posted two things about going to the ML conference, I’ve had two people I know ask me about machine learning. For all the attention and press that the field has received, it seems that a lot of people still just don’t quite understand what it is.

I completely understand the confusion. It seems like every explanation I see focuses more on what machine learning can do, and not on what it is. For non-technical people, this is probably very helpful, but if you’re somewhat programming-savvy, I think there’s only a certain amount of times you can hear “Well do you know Siri? Siri uses machine learning to give you movie showtimes!” or whatever. At some point you might wonder what actually is going on.

I’m going to give a very simple explanation, just of Machine Learning. I’d like to give more explanations, but I find it tough to explain something like a neural network, for instance, in really simple language. I think the reason is that the concept is not easy to compare to some common human experience. If you want to explain a wig to someone, you say “You know how hair looks?” If you want to explain a plane to someone, you’d say “You know how birds fly?”.

However, even though neural networks are based on human brains, the majority of people are not going to understand “You know how neurotransmitters diffuse across a synpase?” or whatever. So many discoveries and inventions start with someone observing something in the world, and then applying it in some other way. If all the ML concepts made for simple, clear analogies to stuff that everyone understands, it wouldn’t be a field that was exploding right now in the mid-2010s. More people would have jumped onto it earlier, and it would be even more widespread already.

Anyhow, I got a bit off topic, but here’s my explanation for the whole “What is machine learning?” subject:

In traditional computer programming, most of the time you have 3 things. It might help to visualize these as boxes:

  1. An input. This is some information/data that goes into a function.
  2. A function. This is usually some kind of command/function/procedure.
  3. A result. This is what you’re searching for when you stick box 1 into box 2.

For instance, Box 1 might have a number inside, Box 2 is a programming function that doubles that number, and Box 3 is the result. Box 3 is what you’re trying to discover, it’s the unknown step.

So you stick 33 in Box 1, you put it into Box 2, and when you open Box 3, you have 66.

With Machine Learning, you are approaching the problem like this:

You start with a whole bunch of Box 1s and a whole bunch of corresponding Box 3s. Then the whole point of Machine Learning is to figure out what the function of Box 2 is. It basically looks at an input in Box 1, sees how it comes out in Box 3, and after doing this for thousands, or millions, of boxes, it makes a (very good hopefully) approximation of what Box 2 is doing. Box 2 is what you’re trying to discover, it’s the unknown step

So actually, now I’m worried I explained this confusingly, but the point is just that instead of working with a function that you know, and finding output that you don’t know, you’re flipping those things. You know what the ouput is, you just are trying to figure out what the function is.

How does this happen? Oh hell that’s complicated, and I don’t know if anyone reading this is that interested in it. I’ll see how this post goes over.

My Week at a Machine Learning Conference – Part 2, Barcelona – Day 1

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As we concluded the first part of this trip, I had left Iceland for Spain to attend NIPS (Neural Information Processing Systems) 2016.

I arrived in Barcelona at about 8:30 PM the night before the conference began. I noticed a few people on the plane who had a vague “going to a computer conference” vibe to them. One guy I was sure was going was wearing a jacket with a huge Google Brain logo. I knew, from the incredibly cheap hotel I’d booked, that December is the off-season when it comes to visiting Spain, so it made sense that a decent amount of people travelling to Barcelona would be for the conference.

As I was checking into the hotel, a guy with a thick accent was checking in with another clerk. I noticed that he showed them a Russian passport, and I immediately assumed he was probably also in town for the conference. We both wound up on the elevator together, and I said “You here for NIPS?”

As the words came out of my mouth, I realized what a terrible idea it was to use that wording. Luckily, he said that he was, and we had a short chat before I got to my floor. I still get a slight chill when I think about how badly things could have turned out, but I know in my heart that if I had to do it all again, I’d still word it that way, because I’m foolish.

In my opinion, NIPS is an unbelievably bad choice of name for a conference, but thankfully, the attendees are some of the most polite people you can imagine. There were thousands of people at the conference; I saw reports saying between 6000 and 8000.  There were lots of academic researchers, professors, students, etc. There were also lots of people from tech companies, but every one that I spoke to had quite solid academic backgrounds, and a significant number of them seemed to be fairly new to the actual tech world. I think the only time I heard anyone make anything close to an off-color comment the whole week was in one of the areas where sponsors set up booths. Some company was having a draw for a free drone, and to enter you had to let them scan a QR code on the NIPS conference pass that attendees were required to wear at all times. While I was waiting to get mine scanned, a guy ahead of me said, quite gleefully “GO AHEAD, SCAN MY NIPS!” It was so out of place for the general tone of the event, and I immediately looked at the lady who was scanning the passes, and she seemed to be having a genuine laugh at it. The guy said “I’ve been waiting to say that all week” much quieter, almost apologetically, sort of giving the impression that he was a normal guy who gave himself a quota of 1 “nips” jokes for the week.

 

Patreon

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I’ve loved Patreon for a couple of years now, but I haven’t really been creating anything for a lot of that time. Now that I’m doing this blog again, I set up a Patreon, and I wrote many words on my profile page there, so go read that if you like.

I haven’t updated much in 2017 yet, due mainly to illness (and a quick trip), but I’m almost feeling 100% now. In the next day (or maybe tonight), I’m going to post Part 2 of my trip report from the ML conference in Barcelona. I’ve also got a number of posts to write shortly after that about some graphic design topics, and who knows what else.

Steve Jobs

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I just want to post something quickly. I’ve been working on some stuff for this blog, and I should have new content quite soon, but in the meantime, I want to talk about Steve Jobs. I don’t think any blogger has ever done that.

A lot of people know about Steve Jobs, and his complicated family life. What often gets ignored, and that I think we can all learn from, is something about his brother. Now, you might know that Steve Jobs was adopted, but did you know he also had a brother who was also adopted? They grew up in very different environments, and

You know what, I don’t have the energy to write a whole paragraph or two for this joke, let me just tell you what the joke is: I was going to say that Steve Jobs had a brother who was almost completely opposite from him, and that his name was Steve Unemployments.

My Week at a Machine Learning Conference – Part 1, Iceland

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I just got home from a couple of weeks in Europe. I spent most of the time in Barcelona, at the NIPS 2016 conference, and then visited Iceland for a little bit on the way home.

On the way to Spain, I had a 12 hour stopover in Iceland. The plane arrived there at 2 AM on a Sunday morning, and since I knew everything would be closed (and I was going to come back a week later, and stay for 5 days), I wasn’t sure whether it was worth it to take a bus into Reykjavik, which is 40 minutes away from Keflavik airport.

I decided to just hang around the airport, and maybe grab some sleep. Icelandic has had a huge tourism boom in the past 5 or 10 years, and I don’t think the airport has scaled very well, but I found a relatively empty area and settled down. There was a guy a few rows away from me having a fairly audible video chat, and I noticed he had a Scala sticker on his laptop, and mentioned Peter Thiel several times. I gave it a fairly good chance he was also going to NIPS. Later in the week, I thought about this guy, because although he’d fit in any sort of startup/tech meetup, after being at the conference for a few days, I wasn’t so sure he fit the NIPS crowd. My main takeaway was that I’d been pronouncing “Thiel” incorrectly.

About 2 hours into my stopover, I realized that hanging out at this cold, boring airport for another 10 hours was going to be sort of hellish, so I bought a bus ticket to downtown Reykjavik. Within an hour, I was downtown, carrying my extremely heavy carry-on bag (no wheels) and my equally heavy personal item (a leather messenger bag stuff with a laptop, a couple of cameras, battery packs, etc). I realized pretty fast that I had made a huge mistake when picking what luggage to bring, a mistake that would make me miserable for pretty much the entire trip.

A couple of months ago, before booking the trip, I asked on Twitter whether it was worth going into Reykjavik early on a Sunday morning, and a bunch of very nice, helpful people assured me that it was worth it. I don’t want to go on a tangent about the power of the Internet here, but it’s amazing what a resource it can be.

Before everybody was hooked into social networking, it would’ve been hard to find an answer to my question, but in 2016, it took maybe 20 minutes before at least 5 or 10 people had provided suggestions for things to look for, and told me that yes, it was indeed a great idea to head into town. I still find this kind of thing amazing, setting aside the fact that all these people were completely wrong. It was a terrible idea.

Reykjavik at 5 AM on a Sunday in December was cold, dark (sunrise was 11 AM), and deserted. I spent a few hours walking around, with my heavy bags, and.. I guess looked at some buildings and some ducks – I hardly remember. I did have a sandwich at some bakery. It was actually a great sandwich, and I followed it up with a big cookie, which is completely out of character for me – I guess I was trying to salvage the trip. That was actually quite a nice little moment I guess, having a pretty decadent cookie, early in the morning no less.

As I was finishing the food, I saw a very reflective piece of metal on one of the cabinets, which let me see behind the counter. There were two cheerful, friendly ladies working; I’d guess that they were students. One had just gone down some stairs with some cleaning supplies, and the other, who could easily be described as a dainty, elfy, Bjork-soundalike, took the opportunity to sit down where nobody should have been able to see her, and she gave her nose the deepest, most vigorous picking I’ve ever witnessed.

I thought later that maybe I’d seen a child pick their nose more wildly than this lady, but I don’t know if that’s actually true. Kids get a lot of runny noses, and they’re not very self conscious, and I’ve seen them do some brutal things up in those nostrils, but I think this actually may have been worse – maybe because this lady had the strength and precision of an adult. I tried to look away, but I wasn’t able – this is my fault, not hers. My only excuse is that I guess I fancy myself to be a bit of an anthropologist, and this was, in a way, an interesting look back at Iceland’s Viking heritage. I could easily imagine a group of tough sailors showing up on the Icelandic shores over 1000 years ago, surveying the land, grunting in approval, and then waiting until they had a moment alone to pillage their noses.

At around 10:30, I gave up on Reykjavik and hopped on a bus back to the airport, where I waited for 4 or 5 hours before I headed off to Barcelona.

[Continued in the next part, which is why the title of this says “Part 1” – the next part will be Part 2. There will at least be one more part after that, probably Part 3.]

Some kind of historical building I think. I’m not sure, it was closed.
This building also looked somewhat historical. I think it was a pretty nice building, architecturally, but it was hard to tell, since it was so dark. Anyway it was closed, and there was nobody around to ask.

Driving Confrontations

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This is off subject, but I just wrote the title for this post, Driving Confrontations, and is it just me or does it sound like it could be the name of a prog-rock album? I’m picturing an album cover now with three cars that have been outfitted with space shuttle wings, all coming at each other in outer space, with the members of Rush looking at each other. Hold on I’m going to mock it up in Photoshop in order to really get the idea across. I’m also going to start a stopwatch and see how much time I waste doing this. Ready set GO.

Okay, I went and did the Photoshop and it took 15 minutes and 5 seconds. I was going to just write 15:05, but given how amazingly this came out, I think most people would assume I meant 15 hours and 5 minutes. Okay here it is:

driving-confrontations

Okay after all that, I don’t even have the energy to write the original post I was going to.