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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.

Instagram Spam-following Experiment

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I’ve only mentioned this to a few people, but I’ve been doing an Instagram experiment for about a month. It involves my normal account, as well as a new fake account I created.

I didn’t come up with any really amazing insights or discoveries, and I wasn’t sure what to post about it, but I just read a new article from Max Chafkin in Bloomberg Businessweek that breaks down the world of Instagram fakery really well. Chafkin started with about 200 Instagram followers, and set out to make himself an influencer, with the help of an influencer agency called Socialyte, as well as some actual influencers and photographers. The article is really good, I recommend reading it.

My experiment was a lot less involved. At the beginning, I had 112 Instagram followers on my real account (@bn2b), and most photos I posted would get around 10 likes, with no more than a few ever breaking 20. For this account, my experiment was simply to follow as many people as I could, and see how many would follow me back, and possibly interact with me.

It took me about a week to follow the maximum number of people that Instagram apparently allows (7500), but I was doing it fairly casually when I had a few minutes to spare. It was surprisingly easy to follow people, partly because of a feature Instagram provides to suggest new accounts after you follow someone from their profile page. The app arranges dozens of FOLLOW buttons right next to each other, and it’s simple to click them quickly.

This interface makes mass-following quick and easy.
This interface makes mass-following quick and easy.

I mostly followed people whose accounts seemed interesting, and then all the accounts Instagram said were related to them. I probably looked at about 500-1000 actual profiles while doing this, and I would skip anything that looked terrible. Instagram’s suggestion engine is great though, and I liked most users that it showed me. I was actually disappointed when I hit the 7500 follow limit.

A few weeks after following all these people, the results seem to have stabilized. I gained 1150 new followers, and my total right now is 1271. This means almost 20% of people I followed went ahead and followed me back, which was higher than I expected.

screenshot_20161130-134711

 

What’s more interesting is that these accounts are still seeing my photos, which now regularly get from 100-200 likes after being up for a day or two. A couple of photos that were at the top of my profile while I was actively spam-following people received 270 and 380 likes:

A post shared by Andrew (@bn2b) on

A post shared by Andrew (@bn2b) on

 

For the second part of the experiment (I use that term loosely, but mainly to point out that this really wasn’t just some ego boost thing), I set up a new account, and uploaded 3 landscape photos that I hadn’t put on my real account. Then, I signed up for the three day free trial that Instagress (the leading Instagram bot follower service) provides.

I’m about to delete that account, so I won’t link directly, but I will add a screenshot. The new account gained 246 followers, after following 2249 accounts through Instagress, and leaving a bunch of spam comments.

The spam comments are interesting: Instagress, and a couple of articles about Instagram bots, suggest that you write very simple, broad messages, which the bots will post randomly to accounts that meet some sort of criteria you’ve set. I believe I set it to post comments to photos tagged with #nature, #landscape, and similar hashtags.

The irritating thing about this is just that once I had seen this advice posted a few times, I quickly realized that all the short, generic comments on my own photos were almost certainly posted by bots. My real account still receives tons of smileys, emojis and “Nice” comments, and I have strong suspicions that a lot of longer comments are bots too. Someone posted “Great. What camera did you use?” on the purple/green photo above, where I would have thought it’d be more natural to ask about post-processing or what filter I used. I also recently got a few suspect comments, including “Brilliant colors” on a black and white photo:

Brilliant Colors comment

 

I don’t know if my experiment really yielded any insight, but I have to say, I’m quite enjoying all the new people that I’m following. Instagram has one of the best algorithmic feed setups going, and the app continually shows me photos I really like, even though I’m sure I’m following some so-so photographers. I honestly wish I could follow more than 7500 people, or at least that I could just stick all the photos from a certain hashtag into my feed, and then have it show me all the best #35mm, #landscape, etc. photos.

Note: If you read this far and don’t go and follow me on IG and/or Twitter, then this was all for nothing and I’m a damn fool!

Update: There’s a really good story about this on Petapixel right now, check it out. The author did a very good, extensive write-up after 2 years of using Instagram bots. He calls it an “experiment”, but he paid Instagress 10 bucks a month for 2 years and built up a lot of followers, so I think he was a little more serious about it than he lets on, and it’s pretty funny how at the end he turns it into a battle cry of “we gotta fight against the automated bots!”

In all honesty, I don’t really begrudge anyone who does this, but I think 99.9% of people are wasting their time, because there’s no way they’re going to actual get any big benefits out of it. I know a small percentage of people have gotten work/money by becoming huge on Instagram, but for most people, the result of this will just be the ego boost of seeing that you spam-followed and spam-commented your way into getting a lot of followers, who themselves just spam-followed you. But to me, I don’t care – if someone wants to create a huge spam following for themselves and it makes them feel cool then haha, why not. I do with all the damn bots would stop adding dumb, super obvious fake comments to my posts though.

I Have a Better Idea than Curing Death

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So many scientists and dotcom billionaires are working on curing death. The idea is that death by old age is a terrible bug in humanity, and something that should be fixed immediately. Preferably before these guys die.

I understand this. I know personally when I think about Baby Boomers and what they’ve done to the world, my first thought is always “these guys aren’t annoying at all, and I bet they’ll only get better if they live to be 200”, and not “Mmmmmmm”.

Transhumanists like to say things like “Old age is the #1 cause of death, and takes millions of lives every year”. It’s cute, but what it made me realize is that if you eliminate death by old age, 100% of deaths are going to be murders, accidents, diseases, etc.

Basically, any situation where someone says “Oh my god, that’s horrible, so tragic, she was so young” – that’ll still be in play, those deaths won’t stop. It’s the stuff where everyone goes “Well, it was Uncle Joe’s time to go, at least he won’t keep yelling racist stuff at the TV when we’re trying to watch basketball” – that’s what they’re focused on.

What I never see addressed is that if you cure death by natural causes, people are not going to deal with it well, and the murder rate is going to way up. A lot of elderly people are great, and fun to be around, including everyone I know (not irony), but let’s be honest, there are also tons of old cranks who only get away with being colossal dicks because everybody knows they aren’t going to be around forever. If they suddenly get an anti-old-age pill, a lot of people are going to lose patience with them.

So here’s my solution: Scientists need to stop trying to cure old age, and just focus on curing murder.

If a really old person dies in his sleep, there doesn’t need to be a fix, that’s just how it goes. If they get shot, cure them up. If they drive off a cliff because they fell asleep at the wheel or something that’s kind of age-related, maybe that’s an edge case and you give them one or two freebies, and bring the body back to life. But like, the third time driving off a cliff asleep? To me, that’s too much.

I’d go into the technical details of curing murder, but I don’t feel like finishing this entry, I already spent 20 minutes on this shit and I need to keep the rest of my argument for when I get invited to do a TED talk on it.

Deer Family

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I went to a conservation area two days ago, just for a walk, and I only took my new film camera (from this post). I’ve been to this area before, and it’s kind of cool, but I didn’t think it was that amazing.

After walking around for about 45 minutes, I came around a corner and saw a couple of people standing and looking at something near the trail. I got closer, and it was a mother deer with two smaller kid deers. I only had my slow, unbelievably loud, camera with me, and I tried to get a couple of shots, but I could tell they weren’t going to be very good.

I went back today, and I packed my digital camera, along with a super-telephoto lens I have (600m equivalent focus length), and I walked around a while. I didn’t think I’d see the deer again, but that’s never stopped me before.

At one point, there was a little information sign on the trail (talking about trees), so I stopped and started reading it. Then, I saw a squirrel in a tree, just going to town on a nut, so I zoomed in on and started filming some video, just for something to do. Squirrels aren’t that interesting, but I always like practicing holding the lens steady – if you have a really long telephoto lens, it means that you can see things that are very far away, but any little hand movement is magnified bigtime, so it’s very tough to film steady video, and it’s also very easy to take blurry photos.

As I was filming this guy, I heard a very quiet rustling behind me, and I was positive another squirrel was coming up behind me. It was like 3 or 4 leaves moving, and it seemed quite close, but I kept filming the squirrel for 10 or 15 more seconds, then I turned around and saw a big buck walking up right beside me. I mean seriously, he was about 3 feet from me, didn’t seem to notice me at all (I had been standing still for 2 or 3 minutes I guess), and just walked right by me. It honestly felt so surreal, just this big animal walking right by, so close that I could have easily taken one step and been close enough to touch his antlers.

Because I had the super telephoto lens, I couldn’t get a picture, he was way too close. After he went a bit farther, I tried taking a few, but he was mostly walking away from me, so it was hard to get anything but his back section. This is the best one I got:

stag-cropped

I started going down another trail, where it looked like if I could get a bit ahead of him, without scaring him, I could get a photo of him from the front. What ended up happening was he went up this hill, and as I got closer, I saw two other deer heads looking down from it. I guess it was their home or where they were hanging out for the day or something.

I tried to get some pics, but I messed up a few times and was not prepared for the situation that popped up, but I’m going to post the two best ones I got. The first is a moment when one was staring at me, and the second is a picture of two of the deer running across the trail.

I backed these up to Google Photos, and it also created a couple of animated gifs, so I’ll post those at the end, and maybe a video.

deer-staring-final deers-runningAnimated pictures and movies:

Here’s a deer running by where I couldn’t pull focus fast enough:

Here’s that squirrel:

 

 

p1070845-animation

 

The Better Alternative to Small Houses That Nobody Is Talking About

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Small houses are a big trend, and I like them, but I don’t agree with the idea that they save you money. They’re cheaper than buying big homes, but every time I see a story or TV show about them, the prices are a lot higher than I expect. I think there’s a certain base price that every house is going to cost, and you’re paying that amount no matter how big it is. It seems like your bang for buck is lower with a small house. But that’s fine, there are other advantages to small homes.

When people explain the advantages of small homes, one of the main things they say is that having a small house means you aren’t so attached to material possesions, and you will live more freely and simply, etc. They also mention lower maintenance costs, and a more unique atmosphere.

All these points are valid, but you don’t need to buy a hip small home to get all this stuff. Allow me to tell you about a little something called Shitholes.

Shitholes have all the advantages of small homes, but are not necessarily small.

  1. They’re cheap, because they’re ugly, rundown and most people agree they suck.
  2. Maintenance costs are low. I know I’m going to sound like a guy running a real estate seminar, but let me explain rule #1 here: “You don’t need to fix up a shithole!” You can fix up a shithole, but if you do, you’re sort of opting out of the whole deal. That’s on you.
  3. If you love a unique atmosphere, shitholes are for you! I have been in many, many shitholes, and no two are alike. I used to live in a shithole apartment, and someone painted the bedroom a dark forest green, and there were no lights in there. They also stuck a Genitorturers sticker to the fridge – just that sticker, nothing else. I could have painted the bedroom, or installed a light, or tried to get the sticker off, but I lived there for at least a year without doing any of these things, for two reasons: First, I value spaces with character, and atmosphere, but more importantly, say it with me folks: You don’t need to fix up a shithole!

 

Listen, I’m just throwing this out there, because I feel like nobody talks about this. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I would constantly wind up at shithole houses or apartments of friend-of-a-friends, or strangers, and I miss it. I saw a picture online tonight, of a dirty stove in a dirty kitchen, with a single lightbulb hanging from a really crappy wire, and I was like yes, this person is doing it, they’re living the life that small house people only pretend to live. They aren’t freaking out about having the best furniture or the most electronics, or wasting all their time cleaning.

Okay that’s all, I have no big conclusion or anything, I literally just saw a photo online that made me think how uncommon it is to see a crappy looking shithole house anymore. I’m sure they’re still out there, and are almost certainly under represented online, but I think they’re becoming less and less common.

 

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Ayy, follow on twitter, @bn2b – this post got really big and I forgot to add that elsewhere on this blog.

Nikon F4

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After writing the post about the designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, I did end up getting one of the cameras in the post. I did a bit of wheeling and dealing on Kijiji (which has killed Craigslist in Canada), and got a Nikon F4S from a nice guy who used to do wedding photography in the ’80s and ’90s.

I mentioned in the earlier post that there are two main versions of this: The F4S takes 6 AA batteries and is a fair bit taller than the F4, which takes 4 AAs. Interestingly, Nikon sold these two versions of the camera, but apart from the removable grip on each, they’re the same camera. I was lucky enough to get both grips for my copy, so I can save some weight by switching to the smaller grip, as I’ve done in this photo:

nikon-f4

The camera still weighs a lot either way, but it’s fine for me. This thing is so solid, and it just oozes quality. It’s so well designed, and so well made, you can tell when you hold it that it was very high end when it was released.

Human Consciousness

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I’ve always wanted to figure out the whole deal with human consciousness, so, a while ago, I got a book about it.

In the past week, I finally got around to reading it, and guess what: The author doesn’t know what human consciousness is. I don’t want to get too angry here, but that’s a real pile of eggs.

I think it’s fine if you don’t understand the fundamental nature or reality of human consciousness – I don’t either! – but there has to be a rule like hey, if you don’t.. then don’t write a book specifically about that subject. Come on man, not cool.

Anyway if anyone understands the totality of what human consciousness is, and wants to sum it up in the comments, I would appreciate it.

LOL

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I’ve noticed that in the last year, I’m seeing way more tweets on Twitter that have 100,000+ likes and retweets. It could be a fluke, and just a function of who I am following lately, and what they retweet, but I have a feeling it’s an actual thing.

It’s pretty interesting, because Twitter is generally feeling less and less vital as the months go on, so it seems odd for there to be a lot more mega-tweets. I guess the obvious explanation would be that Twitter has changed their discovery mechanisms (adding “While you were away” and algorithmic timeline stuff), and users are seeing a more diverse bunch of tweets. It makes sense that the most popular tweets would rise to the top of these discovery features. But anyhow, that’s not really the point of this post.

I just have an idea for a post that I bet would get a decent amount of retweets. I’m not saying it’d get thousands or anything, but I think it has a few of the different  factors that lead to big populist tweets:

  1. Fake SMS screenshot conversation.
  2. Family dynamics.
  3. Funny misunderstanding.

and then depending on how it was implemented you could of course do it in AAVE, which people seem to love in tweets (I have a few opinions why but this post isn’t about that and actually I guess it’s one opinion, that people are kind of racist).

So anyway, I just want opinions here on whether this tweet would be popular. The tweet would have text something like “I’VE BEEN SAYING LOL TO HER FOR YEARS AND FINALLY SHE SAID THIS!!” and maybe some dumb emoji or whatever, and then there’s a fake SMS screenshot that looks like this:


Mom: I guess I expect that from your uncle.

Me: LOL

Mom: I wish you’d quite calling me that honey.

Me: What you mean?

Mom: Little Old Lady.


Sound off in the comments if I’m way off base or whether this would be good. If anyone wants to try it, feel free, but do a good job I guess. I personally think it’s bad juju to make up any fake stories or conversations about your family members, so I wouldn’t advise it. Life is hard enough these days as it is, the last thing you need is bad juju.

Punctuation

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For 95% of my life, I used apostrophes when I wanted to show possession. An example:

The dog’s hat is bigger than Dan’s hat.

but in the last year, I read something that said this was incorrect. Some website about grammar explained that using apostrophes that way was a common error, and you should do it like this:

The cats car goes slower than Rebas car.

This looked completely wrong to me, and I’m sure I checked a few different sources, and they all confirmed that you don’t use apostrophes to show possession.

Well wouldn’t you know it, but I just Googled it again a few minutes ago, and now the top search results say that I was right the whole time. This is confusing, and maddening. I guess I was right for my whole life, but the Internet has once again made me stupider?

If you’ve read anything I’ve written in the last year or two, and it looked like my punctuation was crazy, please just understand that it wasn’t my fault. I mean of course it was entirely my fault, but please still like and respect me.

Ever since I started writing online, I’ve found so many things that I apparently have been doing wrong when it comes to punctuation. When I was in school, I was great at punctuation and grammar, and now I’m wondering whether I have actually gotten worse at it because of second guessing myself constantly. Just in the last sentence, as I typed it, I thought “is gotten worse correct?” and “does second guessing need a hyphen?” I am not exaggerating when I say that this stuff comes up in about 50% of the sentences I write. Life is a burden.