Matt Heard

Software developer and philosopher in Berlin
5 Jan 2021

Across the Pond

The continents and their tectonic plates

Look closer. The right side of South America once snuggled into the left side of Africa. For hundreds of years, since the development of good global maps, we suspected it but didn't know it.

A century ago, geologists too were in a process of upheaval. In 1915, Alfred Weneger outlined this theory in The Origins of Continents and Oceans. But Weneger had more than a map: he had fossils.

Mesosaurus was too little of a croc to swim across oceans, but lived on both sides.

And Glossopteris was a seed fern whose seeds were too fat to blow so far.

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4 Jan 2021

A Brain Fog

A messy desk

I'm tired. It's not so bad. Others have it worse. But I'm tired.

Last year was quite a year, but my close friends and family didn't get COVID-19. My relationships have strengthened despite the stress. Worrying about elderly neighbours and isolating with bored children didn't wear me down.

But it wore me out.

Every day is on autopilot with dozens of easy 5-minute tasks left undone for days. A brain fog smothers me from morning til night.

The thing about walking through a fog is that you don't know where it ends. How much further do we have to go?

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26 Dec 2019

The Sixth Extinction

A painting of the Chatham penguin

Free will has a problem. Either one chooses for a reason or for no reason. Either it's not a choice but an effect or it's not a choice but a dice roll. Either way, it's hard to blame someone like that.

The Sixth Extinction surveys human irruption and decimation of other species. It doesn't lay blame. At a species level, the course of human history seems to be a mix of mere causality and being lucky. There's no call-to-action at the end of the book, because it's not clear there is an action anyone can take to reverse human nature.

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16 Dec 2019

Climate change optimism

Climate change is likely to cause hundreds of millions of extra people to die this century. Billions more will suffer. It cannot be “stopped”. In the face of this, grief is reasonable.

But preventing climate change is not binary: not only success or only failure. It is a matter of degree. With every degree increased, millions more suffer. 6° is worse than 5° and 4°.

In turn, 4° is better than 5° and 6°. With every degree averted, millions more avoid suffering. So, even small actions have tremendous impacts. Choosing to avoid meat, or cycle, or catch a train helps.

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10 Dec 2019

Cost of glue

Modularisation in software design is about breaking down simple collections of complicated components into complex collections of simple components. A complicated component acts incorrectly when you cannot understand its internal behavior. A complex collection acts unexpectedly when you cannot understand their external interactions.

All non-trivial software is both complicated and complex, and we can refactor to trade-off between complicated and complex designs. Object-oriented programmers explored these trade-offs for the last few decades and now microservice architects are exploring them too.

Since working with a few microservice designs, I'm starting to see some trade-offs, especially with tracing interactions and serialisation overhead.

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6 May 2019

Failed to vote

I missed the deadline to register to vote in Germany for the European Union elections. I am very proud of having voted in every national and local election I could, until now. I’m not proud of every vote, but proud that I voted.

I have lots of excuses for missing the registration deadline:

But they’re all bad excuses.

I knew that I could have been eligible, and should have sorted out my registration well in advance. I’m ashamed now.

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7 Mar 2017

Opportunity cost considerations

Benjamin Franklin said that time was money. You could have earned ten shillings today, but you spent half of it sitting idle. You only got five shillings for the half-day you did work. To Franklin, you spent (or threw away) the other five shillings in front of the television. Suppose we talk about ten thousand dollars instead. You would likely save a child’s life by donating ten thousand dollars worth of mosquito nets. Have you spent (or thrown away) that child’s life by not fighting for a raise? Or upgrading a good car for a newer model?

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31 Dec 2016

Questions for reflection

  1. What single thing could you do differently that will have the biggest positive impact?
  2. When was the last time you should have admitted you were wrong, but didn’t?
  3. Did you discover a hobby that you need to make more time for?
  4. Are there any books you wish you had read earlier?
  5. Any books you wish you had never read?
  6. Is there anybody you keep meaning to catch up with?
  7. Do you have any good habits that you are struggling to make stick?
  8. Do you have any bad habits that you are struggling to drop?
  9. Are you happy?

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7 Oct 2016

Muted Star Trek

Our daughter is almost two, and we now also have a two-month old son. As I settled him back to sleep after his night feeds, I watched the original series of Star Trek on mute with subtitles. After a great first season I ordered some wireless headphones and continued watching. When they arrived I excitedly set them up, but the sound was jarring; I felt like somebody had taken Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and dubbed over their original voices. Of course I knew these were their voices, but I couldn’t continue watching without feeling like the show had become corrupted.

My favourite Star Trek episodes so far:

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13 Feb 2016

Permitted moral actions

There are three categories of moral actions: forbidden, required, and permitted. Forbidden actions are those which one must not do. Required actions are those which one must do. Permitted actions are those which one may or may not do. When searching for a moral code to guide their lives, people look for a system of principles, justifications, and directions for how to act. This makes restrictive religious standards popular and powerful. Alternatively, if a moral code primarily consists of only permitted actions, people can’t use the moral code to make decisive choices because they are given too much wiggle room.

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16 Nov 2015

Provoking Islamophobic backlash

If we assume that the Islamic State coordinated the November 2015 attacks on Paris, it should be quickly obvious that such an attack intended to encourage a backlash against Islamic refugees. The cynic in me entertains the possibility that the Syrian passport found by one killer’s body was a prop to brew distrust of all Syrian refugees. It is unknown whether it belonged to the killer. All of the other suspects or identified killers appear to be Belgian or French. To retaliate against refugees who are fleeing these killers would compound the tragedy. I hope for a calm, measured response.

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25 Oct 2015

First birthday cupcakes

My daughter Evelyn turns one today. It’s a celebration for my wife and I as much as it is for our daughter, so I made cupcakes. I did the mixing with Evelyn. (She kept eating the flour.) I want to show my daughter that baking is not a “mum” activity, and cupcakes have little chance of error. They turned out slightly dry, but still great.

The only party hats the Warehouse had were “princess” themed. I was wanting something more gender-neutral, so I grabbed some gold wrapping paper and covered one. Another day in the life of a feminist dad.

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The image above was combined from photos taken by myself and my wife.

28 May 2015

Playing Catch-Up With Commercial Drones

Originally posted at Justice in Time.

It sometimes feels like every other new project on Kickstarter is a drone (or “unmanned aerial vehicle”) of some kind. A crop of drones have popped up, and are now following you with HD cameras as you pull off tricks on your BMX bike. If you want something remote-controlled, you could buy a palm-sized plastic quadcopter from a bargain bin in your local toy store.

Remotely piloted helicopters and model planes have been available for decades, but recent advances in artificial intelligence and simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM) algorithms have made autonomous drones more useful and exciting to tinker with. In the United States, the hobby of flying small vehicles has been effectively unregulated. The FAA provides some “guidance” for operating model aircraft for recreation under Section 366 of Public Law 112-95 (the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012) but this is technically not a “regulation”. The FAA apply a light touch and defer to community-defined conventions for the personal use of model aircraft.

As drones become cheaper and easier to pilot, many hobbyists are discovering opportunities to make money everywhere they look. As many as 30% of hobbyist pilots are looking for ways to turn a profit. Many hobbyists have tried their hands at taking photos and videos for weddings, mapping buildings for real estate listings, and even surveying entire fields for tracking crops and livestock. The FAA is very permissive of recreational drone piloting, but if you try to turn your hobby into a business venture, they will come down on you as hard as an octocopter that has run out of battery. Jayson Hanes from Lutz, Florida received a stern letter from the FAA because the recreational videos filmed from his drone were uploaded to YouTube and had some commercials autoplay before them. Even if your drone was flown for recreational purposes but filmed something newsworthy, you could not sell that footage to a news service because that would make the drone flight retroactively commercial.

Until last year, the FAA treated all commercial flights of unmanned aerial vehicles as if they were manned. This included requiring all vehicles to be individually registered and licenced, which could take months, and all flights to be individually approved with submitted flight plans. If you were building an autonomous drone and were testing your changes to the AI iteratively, you would need to submit a new flight plan for each test flight after each minor change to the source code. In the tech industry, where companies can fail if they are days behind their competitors, the slow approval process for commercial drones would dampen the spirits of anyone to build a speedy startup out of them.

Companies such as Amazon have had to take their experimental projects overseas. Amazon’s Prime Air announcement video was filmed in Canada and a lot of the development and testing of their delivery drones has needed to be done outside of the United States.

Since last year, the FAA has been thawing in response to the ardent hobbyist community looking to make a living off their tinkering and piloting skills. In March, the FAA announced that companies that already had commercial drone licences were no longer required to submit flight plans for flights below a ceiling of 200 feet, as long as they remained within line-of-sight of the operator. In May, the FAA made further announcements that some companies were going to be allowed to operate outside of that line-of-sight and even one company was allowed to fly drones in urban areas.

It will still be a few years before the FAA regulation of commercial drones starts to settle into something accessible and reasonable. The impending future of clouds of autonomous drones swarming through our skies will have to wait. Until then, we can watch quirky music videos straight filmed with commercial drones, even if we had to send OK Go to Japan to make them.

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3 May 2015

The ‘Wow Factor’

The second trailer to Jurassic World shows Beth (Bryce Dallas Howard) telling Owen (Chris Pratt) that the scientists have genetically modified a dinosaur to keep the park audiences interested. Owen scoffs that dinosaurs are already interesting.

“Corporate felt genetic modification would up the ‘wow factor’.”
“They’re dinosaurs. ‘Wow’ enough.”

I reacted similarly and rolled my eyes when they mentioned genetic modification in the first trailer, but now think that maybe the filmmakers are commenting on the nature of the Jurassic Park film franchise. The filmmakers clearly thought that the new film also needed something extra to keep their audiences interested.

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01 Apr 2015

Snow Crash thoughts

Immersive virtual reality experiences may be only years, if not months, away. Despite enthusiasts’ suspicion and hostility to the announcement, Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus gives it a prime position for hosting the Street-like public hub. However, the majority of social interactions will be in private rooms like the Black Sun and Hiro Protagonist’s office in Snow Crash. A federated social network could allow a heavy user to self-host and a casual user to connect through Facebook and both share the same virtual space. Rooms could establish realism standards and exclude avatars which break the immersion, encouraging investment in new designs.

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31 Mar 2015

The Post-Apocalyptic Microchip

If World War III ended with a few scrappy scavengers in a desolate, nuclear wasteland, I can imagine several technologies being easy to rebuild. A wheel is simple and could be crudely constructed by anyone. With some engineering experience, you could likely find the scraps and basic tools needed to build something like a water pump. But could even the greatest engineer in electronics rebuild or repair a CPU? Blunt tools would be insufficient for the nano-scale precision required. Some materials, such as rare earth metals, might be impossible to find. Some technology production clearly relies on multibillion dollar infrastructure.

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