The Danish Syndrome or why heavy is evil

I have a fetish for statistics, numbers, formulae and technological manipulation.
What this means in practice is that I do online courses to master the intricacies of statistics  and R and spend a significant part of my working day juggling (well, wrangling) Excel. Today, I assisted an extremely competent colleague in converting spreadsheet data into a format where Excel would eat it. Small wonder that it was not easy – it was a weird date sorting… bug, I would say, but I am sure some would call it an eccentric feature. So I had dates defined as, say, 50810 to represent 05-08-2010 – the result of an automated data set from one of our systems and the addition of a pinch of Excel magic insisting that 050810 made no sense as a figure, so – 50810.
Which would not be converted into a date.
I converted the dates by asking Excel to add a 0 if the number only had 5 digits, harvest the first two characters with =LEFT, a hyphen, then the middle two with =MID, then a hyphen and ’20′ and finally the last two with =RIGHT. So, 05-08-2010. After that, no challenge.

Not exactly graceful.

It was the equivalent of trying to do origami by cutting paper and sticking the parts together with duct tape.

I wonder why I get so frustrated with the heavy-handed approach. Is it just because of training teaching us patterns instead of manual approaches? Is it because I am from a small country where maximalist solutions are frowned upon? Or is it simply a case of personal aesthetics?

Rediscoveries in recollection

There are a few things that will get me sitting down to think about life.
One thing is the Leonard Cohen tribute movie (at time of writing available here); another is, curiously, this Xkcd cartoon; and it is all amplified if I consume scotch. Today has seen all three factors, specifically featuring Wilson & Morgan House Malt. So, a couple of words.

First: My life never went a straight line. I have spent a lot of time in a pendulum between envy and disgust towards people who did education, work, career, life partner, children, all that. I broke off one education (cand.negot.), chose another (Russian language, history and literature), did fairly well initially despite being distracted by everything else, then lost momentum – and after that, I felt like a broken spring. I could have been an international-profile economist by now. I suppose I should be grateful I did not manage to. I was unemployed for a while, found work, studied IT support, let it go, went unemployed, studied technical design for a while until I gave it up (I confess I still have a weakness for CAD, at least 2D), and finally got my BA from SDU, the University of Southern Denmark (one should note that I had taken so long to finish that they renamed the university; so my degree is not actually from the university where I began my studies). Somewhere along this process I was engaged, left her, got married, got a divorce and married again. Not because it was unimportant, it was all that mattered when it happened. But life shaped me as much as I shaped it. I finally started working in public administration and have settled into that, even if I have worked in several places on the way.

What I wanted to write about today is a series of epiphanies. I am, you see, a serial spiritual reincarnator.
I grew up in a house with that diffuse combination of left-wingers who like the notion of the people (The People) but have little respect for the individual representatives of the tribe. We were smarter. And yes: My mother was very intelligent, and my father is. But there is a sort of equivalent to The White Man’s Burden when you feel it is your responsibility to educate. When my ambition broke, I got to talk to a lot of interesting people; I may have experimented with life at university, but nothing compared to what happened when I was sent into the unemployment projects. But characteristic for all the stages: I came to a realization of what I was and was not. When I was studying IT support, I saw that I had to get back to my studies; I remember sitting at university one afternoon, looking at the sun through the trees – it was in the countryside, and even if it was a huge block of concrete with rusty plates, it felt like home for a very long time; and I remember sitting there in late summer, thinking I had to move on. I found a new me.
It seems the definition is important. I have rediscovered myself as a bureaucrat. I am curiously fascinated with the term. I certainly discovered I was not to become a scientist. My good friend Kim showed the talent for the task. He deserves every scrap of success he ever gets – deserves as in having earned it through hard work. I could not do that. My mind is restless (which is a poetic dodge; my concentration is just all over the place) – he has the patience and focus, which I acknowledge and occasionally envy.

I find MOOCs seductive. I know that I am not going to be a scientist. But the method and being presented with new ideas has a magnetic effect on me. I have studied statistics, networks, rhetoric and other topics with Coursera, Stanford EdX and Open2Study. They are great.

hammer_lilleI came to a conclusion. That I will invent, reinvent and re-conclude what I am. I am fascinated with headlines and definitions, but they will only go so far to cover what I am. So I thought of three things that I want to do and always wanted: To create, shape and defend.

To create – to decide to leave behind something I have created. It can take on many shapes, physically and intellectually. A carpenter as much as a school teacher – but important because you are not just a tourist in this world, you create something that will last. It is easy to create something of use for today and tomorrow, and it is worthy to have a job to feed and shelter yourself and your family. But we should all try to leave something enduring behind. An opus, if you will.

To shape – to strive to give the world the shape it deserves. To shape is also to reshape, to split the unhealthy and and unconstructive. There are thoughts in us and around us which are not worthy. There are values in us which have not found their final form, and the creativity around is presents a potential.
So everyone has an obligation to shape and reshape oneself and the world around us in a direction of equilibrium and sustainability, so the shortsighted, the selfish and the narrowminded does not defeat us. After having children it is more clear than ever that we – as well as the world around us – have not found our final form.
Creation is ongoing, and we are all subjects and objects – with an obligation to strive for the best in ourselves and others.

To defend - to acknowledge the value of oneself and the people around you in a way to also understand the necessity of stopping the people and ideas that present a threat to you and your loved ones.
If you create your life’s work and shape the world around you, there will be those who try to pressure you – perhaps because what you do threatens their view of the world, perhaps they feel your ideas are misguided. Understanding is not the same as allowing others to decide for you. So you or the people you love are threatened on your life – physically as well as in your views – you have the right to say stop! – and resist.

Update on Slackware

From the under-staffed Department of Updates, I should note that I have expanded my page on Slackware a bit – I thought it would be useful to write down what I do post-install to make it usable, to lighten the load of it a bit and to make it prettier.

A bit of standard Slackware in there, and some general distribution goodies.

Digital hoarding

I sometimes feel that I have the online equivalent of people who just shop to have stuff. I have an archive of articles I need to read – print to PDF just to be sure – if I had not deleted hundreds of hours, I would have podcasts to fill this year and the next.

I download Linux ISOs and feel I should keep them because someone may drop by who would need the latest Opensuse, Fedora, Slackware, Arch, Frugalware et cetera.

I find Youtube videos – documentaries, shows and movies I want to watch. I download them just to be sure.

If I focused entirely on all the stuff I have pulled down and have stored, I would be occupied for a month.

I was considering getting a new hard drive – my latest Thinkpad came with the 60 gig drive that was the default when it was new.  It may just be a good idea that I do not.

Richard Feynman: The pleasure of finding things out

The people who have been reading this place pretty much from the start will remember that I did a review of the Richard Feynman biography; I would like to share a brilliant talk by Feynman – it is an interview from the BBC published by The Science Foundation. It is longer than your average Youtube video, but Feynman is so intelligent, charming and uncompromisingly scientific in his mindset that this is a good view.

The file is available for download here.

FSF Free Software Awards 2012: Jonathan Nadeau

The FSF announced they were receiving nominations for the Free Software Awards 2012.
I have sent the following nomination of Jonathan Nadeau:

 

I nominate Jonathan Nadeau for the 15th Annual Free Software Awards.
Jonathan has put great effort into promoting and advancing the efforts towards accessibility on GNU/Linux systems. The FSF will know him for this effort as part of his internship - http://www.fsf.org/about/interns/2011/jonathan-nadeau.

Jonathan has repeatedly stressed the importance of this effort as part of the Free Software ecosystem in particular and technological infrastructure in general. As a natural consequence of his focus on Free Software, he has worked with Trisquel GNU/Linux on this.

He has been the driving force behind establishing the Accessible Computing foundation – http://accessiblecomputingfoundation.org/ – for the purpose of promotion, fundraising and to serve as a rallying point for debating the implications of the issue.

Talks like his very powerful presentation at Ohio Linux Fest – http://frostbitemedia.org/node/156 – show his dedication, his humor and an always positive approach to this challenge, mixed with a firm belief that these efforts could change the lives of people all over the world as an example of how free software can help people overcome their challenges and help them provide for themselves.

The nomination of Jonathan Nadeau for this award is also a nomination of the ACM – and of Free Software as a driving force for freedom.

Sincerely,
Morten Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejér

My name is my name!

So as of recently, my name is my name.
That would be fairly straighforward for everyone else, but no such simple things in my household.

I married my Transsylvanian Hungarian wife, now Juliánna Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejér, in September of 2007. We merged our names, and my Juhl-Johansen and her Zölde-Fejér came together as something which was ours entirely – and, of course, as some have pointed out, would be a challenge to pronounce correctly in its entirety anywhere. Be that as it may, it is ours, and it is not likely to be lost in a crowd.

However: A while after we were married, she had to get a new passport. And so, she ran into some difficulties. As it turns out, the Danish naming conventions – which had obviously been used, because the state church is actually the name registrar in Denmark – offered some challenges. Thing is: In Danish, you have a first name and a last name. Anything else is your middle name. Not so in Romania – Transsylvania, which was a part of Hungary, is now part of Romania, and no, it is unlikely you can come up with a Dracula joke we have not heard – They have first names and last names. So her Danish name document was rejected. After a bit going back and forth with various authorities on this, we simply pulled out my old last name, and after that was done, I was registered in the public registry as Morten Zölde-Fejer. They had also pulled the last accent.

After our return to Europe after living in the States in 2010, we started the process with my wife applying for a Danish citizenship. Since she was from a Hungarian family, she was not particularly connected to her Romanian citizenship; she had also never been part of the country of Hungary, so being a part of this country seemed equally irrelevant. We had come back to Denmark and decided to stay here, at least until the children are older.

And so, she became a Danish citizen recently, after a longer process. And at last we could actually go through the process of syncing up our names! So the name you see at the top, here – it is actually my name now. Again. Still. At last.

The buck drops here: free and Free culture

I was watching Network, a movie that was released (unleashed?) into the world the same year I was.
I have heard it mentioned quite often in the context of critical journalism and rising tension because of an an anaemic and malnourishing production by popular culture. It is a very strong movie when it comes to pointing out the inertia of established media megacorps that will keep running despite the mold-to-gold ratio going from 1:20 to 20:1.

Anyone who has seen my podcast list will know that I consume quite a lot of audio for the price of zero. But I would like to debate this price and whether all parameters are taken into account when applying the market forces to the formula.

And, of course, with this page being what it is, I will also tell you what I think is awesome.

Being a Danish citizen, I pay a national TV license. This covers access to the national TV channels, radio – access by internet included.
Now: Danish Radio is an interesting beast in itself – as I suppose all national broadcasting services are, a mash of history, traditions, transitions and rumor; as is common, it was the only TV channel offered here for a long time, and it had a hard time trying to renew itself. In a play upon the abbreviation, DR was referred to as Dampradioen (the steampowered radio). This impression seems to linger, but DR has made a great effort towards being a modern system – offering a number of digital TV channels with a strong range of programs – and on the radio side, the shows are released as an impressive array of MP3 podcasts with RSS feeds. I am quite pleased with that. I also find it appealing that we, the Danish people, this language minority, pay for the creation of these things and make them available to everyone who understands the language.

Elsewhere in the cultural spectrum we find the other TV channels, for which I pay considerably more. The international channels that provide us with evil crap like Survivor shows, talent shows, cheap sitcoms and the like. To get access to these channels to see movies, we have paid a substantial sum. So I have changed the default subscription that came with my apartment and now pay a quarter of what I used to, cutting around $50 off that bill.
I find that there is a tendency for me to lose interest in TV, to be honest. Perhaps it is just because the children leave me with few hours to spare, and I need something that lets me do other things as well. TV requires a lot of attention, if it is going to be worthwhile.
As I mentioned in my audiobooks article, I had started listening to audiobooks back when we had the dog. As I also mentioned there: I encourage that you donate to these people who give you all these good things for free. As I said, I have changed my subscription service, because they were feeding me crap. I do not intend to spend less – I intend to spend it right! So what I want to do is give some donations to the people providing me with hours and hours of enlightening entertainment. I also want to encourage you to do the same.

Okay, so – into the meat of the story, as they say. As those who know me and this site will know, I am into science, technology, literature and international politics. This focus makes for quite a spectrum, I know. I will start with what I assume will be of more general interest.

To The Best Of Our Knowledge (website, RSS feed) is the first great example. Okay: If you are a quick-fix infojunkie, these are too long – every episode is an hour – but if you are willing and able to listen, it will be a great reward. There are two shows, one centered around culture and more current events, another of a more philosophical nature. They did an excellent Alan Turing episode, a genuinely brilliant feature on the apocalypse with a discussion spanning from the Mayan calendar over a discussion of the cold war to a great interview with Slavoj Žižek. Another great one was an anniversary feature on the life and work of Marshall McLuhan. These are just a few examples of this show getting into culture, education, politics; the show is extremely well done, and it will suck many hours from the life of a podcast addict if you start going through the archives…
Compared to other shows, this one is a somewhat – if not somber, then certainly serious show, But it is solid and intelligent, and never disappointed with anything but the realisation that it is actually hard to find time to listen to them all.
Donations can be made on the Donate page.

Radio Litopia (website, RSS feed) is the next recommendation. This extremely intelligent literary podcast can only be recommended.
It is actually several shows. The primary one is Litopia After Dark, hosted by literary agent Peter Cox. The show covers news in writing, literature and the publishing world – and is rather entertainiFreang. Another show is The Debriefer, in which lawyer and writer Donna Ballman addresses current legal issues in the publishing industry as well as emerging trends in media and copyright. Between The Lines is an interview show in which Peter Cox talks to authors about their background and their works. Open House is a show where listeners and writers who participate in the site forums, the Litopia Colony, can call in and talk, along with a number of word games – intelligent and highly entertaining. Finally, on a more serious note (despite the name) – The Naked Book, a show hosted by Philip Jones, the deputy editor of the magazine The Bookseller. This goes into challenges of the bookpublishing industry – e-books and DRM, selfpub, agency model, the future of bookstores and the like. Interesting for those interested.
All in all, it is fair to say that these shows are intelligent, entertaining and insightful. Their discussions, both serious and humorous, are something I always enjoy listening to.
Instructions for making donations can be found on the Litopia Donate page.

Freakonomics Radio (website, RSS feed) is a podcast which came as a spinoff of the book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Their tagline is ‘exploring the hidden side of everything’, which means that they usually go into some sort of economic or consumption theme which, on the outside, seems to make little sense or to react differently than you would expect, but when explored makes more sense. A recent episode named The Cobra Effect refers to what happens when you make a prize scheme for fighting pests or problems, and people react soundly with the opposite result. The title refers to a concept in Delhi, where people were rewarded for killing cobras and bringing them in. The results were that people actually started breeding cobras – they actually speak of cobra farms – and when the plan ended, there were actually no change to that population at all. A good episode was on conspicuous conservation – a trend where personal consumption is used mostly to brand oneself; they measure the significantly higher popularity of the highly recognizable Toyota Prius compared to other hybrid cars end mention a trend in certain areas of putting solar cells on the roof on the side of the house facing the street – not because it is the sunniest side, but because it is visible!
As with all of the WNYC productions, it is extremely polished. Like Radiolab, the show weaves interview with commentary. The hosts are intelligent, educated and definitely worth listening to. The shows vary in length – some are shorter and are fit in as a component of the show Marketplace.
You can support this and the other WNYC shows by donating on the WNYC donation page.

StarTalk Radio (website, RSS feed)  As mentioned in the opening of this article, there is an incredible amount of extremely cheap crap sold extremely expensively in this world. Pop in every sense of the word.
I believe then increasing disgust with this means is the reason for the trend of the rockstar scientists. I suppose that this is not exactly new, but in recent years there has been an increasing focus on a number of high-profile scientists. The most famous example would probably be Stephen Hawking, in part because of his unique situation as someone who has overcome a severely challenging physical situation to become one of the leading scientists in the world. Carl Sagan is famous for his television shows, Richard Feynman for his lectures on physics, Bill Nye as a broad science communicator.
Interestingly, I was unaware of a lot of these people until I came across the Symphony of Science, which managed to convey some very strong feelings about scientific discovery.
One of the most charismatic scientists would be astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. After I first became aware of him, he seems to turn up everywhere! Frankly, I sometimes wonder how he manages to get any work done when he turns up on talk shows, debates, news. And I recently came across Star Talk Radio.
Star Talk Radio is a good combination of entertainment and an introduction to topics on space exploration. Dr. Tyson will take in experts and discuss subjects like sending humans into space, black holes, cataloging the stars and similar topics. Occasionally he will invite actors – he interviewed Morgan Freeman on his TV show on space, Whoopi Goldberg on science interest and recently Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton on the science of Star Trek and the reason they got interested in space.
It is a lively show, and the host is eager to share his broad knowledge. As he is quoted in the Symphony of Science, sometimes you hear scientific discoveries that make you want to go out and shake people in the streets and yell “Have you heard this!?”

Work in progress.

‘casts in the description queue:

Stuff you should know podcasts
Skeptically Speaking
Radiolab
On The Media
Critical Wit

Conceptual layers of society

Kim Rasmussen has made me think of layers of society.

Many of the people in the circles I frequent are high-volume consumers of Ted Talks and podcasts like Radiolab, Freakanomics, To the best of our knowledge, Stuff To Blow Your Mind, Skeptically Speaking and a truckload of technology casts – just to mention a few examples. There is a huge load of such programs of educational entertainment.
I find that this occasionally leads to a mental disconnect where I mention things to people in passing – things that completely blew my mind when I learned about it. A recent example was a conversation I was having where I said “it is like that Dawkins thing about considering your childhood memories, where the remarkable thing is that all of your cells have been replaced over the years, so no part of your body was actually part of this memory, even if you remember experiencing it physically” – and then I continued – until I stopped, because I realised that the person I was talking to was having a mental expansion experience.

In many ways this is what happens when a politician says that there are fairly simple solutions to piracy or child pornography like, say, DNS-blocking. Since this is clearly useless, the conversation completely disconnects my brain between the starting point and an actual solution.
Same thing happens when a teacher is associating freely and comes to the epiphany that it is actually a question of making the children engage in the learning the same way as when they play video games. So I pull out maybe 15 podcast episodes discussing this, or I say ‘Since this is already being done, we should probably focus more on…’ leaving the other person disconnected.

I am not trying to guru myself here, I just have this experience frequently – and I find that this makes it difficult for me to discuss things with a lot of people who actually have an executive role where I have only just grasped the basic principles behind it.