The FIRE approach for clearer thinking

This podcast episode of You Are Not So Smart where David McRaney interviews Spencer Greenberg was so good. Spencer discusses the difference between “system one” and “two” thought processes:

When should I use my gut, or intuition, or system one, to make a decision, and when should you not use your gut, and use what I call reflective decision making? This doesn’t mean you ignore your gut, it means your gut isn’t in charge. You’re using your reflective mind, your system two, to make the decision, and you’re querying your system one in useful ways.

FIRE is his criteria for deciding, which he defined as:

You should use your gut if it’s a fast decision. A car suddenly swerves into your lane and is about to hit you: you do not have time to use your reflection. Do you swerve away? Do you hit the brake?

Let’s say you’re at a salad place, and you think oh man, should I get carrots on my salad, I don’t know, and you’re racking your brain. It’s an irrelevant decision, it’s just not worth using your reflection on, so just go with your gut and pick something.

Our intuition and gut can get very good if we have a lot of repetition making a type of decision, with feedback. My favourite metaphor is archery: imagine you're practising, you see where your arrow hits the target, let's say it's a little to the left. Okay, now you'll try again and you'll adjust your stance. That's learning with feedback, and over time you can get an intuition about where that arrow will go when I pull back on the bow. Now imagine doing that blindfolded; shooting arrows all day like that, you'll never get good at it, because you have no feedback. Chess is another example: masters are good at using their reflective mind, but their intuition is so good that it’s mind-blowing.

We are animals, and there are certain types of predictions and decisions that are built into us. If you hear a loud noise close to your head, you'll have a startled response, and you'll jump away. It's probably a pretty good decision most of the time; maybe something's about to fall on you.

This ties into the idea I’ve been obsessed with lately that we all have a finite amount of willpower each day, which is what our conscious minds use to make informed decisions. It’s not worth expending effort on irrelevant questions, or questions with low stakes, when there are bigger fish to fry.

We don’t always need to extract maximum value

Clara and I went to a coffee shop last night for a decaf. I know saying the latter is provocative enough for certain drive-by readers, so I especially won’t divulge the name of the chain, lest I be inundated. It doesn’t matter if they were all that was open, or that I have nostalgic family memories tied up with the chain from back home. The coffee nerds, with whom I otherwise agree, would have a field day.

But I digress! I had a loyalty card, and could redeem one of the two coffees for free. Great! But then I declined the offer for a free upgrade, which puzzled them. It’s free, why wouldn’t I want it? I said I only ever get tall-sized coffee, and that a free one of those would still be great. They pressed me again if that’s what I really wanted.

I pass no judgement on the barista. I suspect if they hadn’t pushed me for the upgrade they may have got in trouble with their manager, which I don’t want. They might have thought I misunderstood, and from years of bad retail experience were covering their backs in case I realised after the fact and came back angry.

But there’s a wider point here. It’s so ingrained that we should extract the most possible money and value out of things, even if we don’t need or want it. I didn’t want a large coffee. It doesn’t matter to me if I could have got extra, it would have been wasted and poured down the drain. Maybe I should have anyway to cost Starbucks more… whoops, there’s the name of the chain. Maybe I’d be seen as a sucker, because Starbucks could then sell the difference. But why does everything have to be such a calculated, zero-sum game?

It reminds me of one of those superficially-inspiring quote memes from the mid 2000s. We’re told that we have an ATM card and the ability to withdraw $1,400 dollars a day. Naturally then, it would be foolish not to withdraw that full amount, or we’d lose out. Then we’re told that each of those dollars is a minute in a day, and that we shouldn’t waste time. I can see what they were attempting, but it still falls into the same trap; we all need to waste time lest we burn out. Or to use their metaphor, we’re not robots that can have value extracted like money from an ATM. And if we’re dealing with hypotheticals, what if extracting that money shortens your life from stress, or takes it from someone else who needs it more? Whoops, that sounds a bit like a zero-sum game too! But you get my drift.

Another somewhat-related example is rewards on credit cards. I treat credit cards like charge cards for points, insurance, and fraud protection; the balance always exists in my bank account and is auto-debited each month*. Last month I got a call from my card company telling me that I could redeem a free trip somewhere. It was my birthday and I wanted to spend time with family, so I politely declined. But it’s a limited-time offer they said. That’s fine, I’m not going to take a financial reward if it means I can’t have a beer with my dad.

(* I say this each time, because I’m worried how much credit cards have become normalised, and don’t want to perpetuate that by mentioning them here. They’re dangerous if you use them as the banks intend you to. Please be careful).

I’m still going to ask for a smaller coffee when I get my next free one. That might make me a sucker, but it makes me happy.

Survey on the perceptions of migraines

Migraine Australia are conducting a short survey:

The purpose of this survey is to find out what people think and understand about migraine, and in particular, compare the perceptions of those who do not experience migraine with the perceptions of people who do live with migraine.

Any Australian can participate in this survey. Your name and email are not required to participate.

It is our intention to use the information gathered in this survey to help design awareness and information materials. The results will be published on our website. We may also use some of the results in our advocacy with Government and other organisations.

Despite living with migraines since childhood, I had to truthfully answer at least half the questions with “not sure”. That says something!

Please take the survey if you can.

Apologising to wpa_supplicant and FreeBSD Wi-Fi

Recently I was made aware of the obvious fact that tethering over Bluetooth is slower than Wi-Fi. I was an especially congested conference call recently, which aside from being a delightful bit of alliteration, cleared right up the moment I swapped over to Wi-Fi.

(This was regrettable, as people could then see my face on the conference call, whereas before I was a pixillated blob. But the performance point stands. As opposed to me, because I was sitting).

I always used Bluetooth for tethering on my MacBook Pro because it’s always there. I choose my work iTelephone from the Bluetooth menu on the Mac menu bar after pairing it once, and it connects every time. Just Works™ experiences are becoming fewer and further between on modern Apple hardware, so I take it when I can.

My ThinkPad and Panasonic laptops running various FreeBSDs were another story. I didn’t have Bluetooth enabled on those machines, so I used Wi-Fi. Every attempt to tether from iTelephones was a struggle, sometimes requiring me to turn on/off tethering in iOS multiple times before wpa_supplicant would detect it, connect, and DHCP. I just chalked it up to FreeBSD Wi-Fi being a bit flaky and lived with it. I sense a theme with network hardware.

Except, it wasn’t FreeBSD! On this new-ish 16-inch MacBook Pro, I had to do the same song and dance when using Wi-Fi instead of Bluetooth. It’s rare for Bluetooth to outshine anything in reliability, but for whatever reason multiple iTelephones simply can’t tether their Wi-Fi networks the first (or second, or third) time.

Now that I know it’s the phone, wpa_supplicant on FreeBSD is no slower or clumsier than the equivalent commands on my Mac. All that internal grumbling and monologue was entirely misplaced. FreeBSD was doing exactly what I was telling it, and was working with the hardware as given.

Has anyone tethered with a recent FreeBSD over Bluetooth from an obstinate Apple phone? I won’t be doing video calls on these machines, and Bluetooth is more than sufficient for terminal sessions and writing. Eventually I’d love to get an ultraportable with a SIM card, but for now I feel like this would work a treat.

Hong Kong MTR station colours

There is so much I love and miss about Hong Kong. Clara and I were reminded of another reason when we got HK-style milk tea and coffee from Tea Square in the Mandarin Centre in Sydney. Take a look behind the cash register and you can see the colours from some of the MTR’s famous stations.

Photo behind the counter of the aforementioned cafe with a 3x3 grid pattern of MTR station signs.

Hong Kong’s MTR is spectacular; it even beats Singapore’s MRT. If you give people reliable, fast, clean, efficient, and affordable mass transit, people will use it. I love the architecture of each station, the iconography, the maps, the traditional Chinese characters mixed with sans-serif Latin, everything. I could spend a week just exploring the system.

I went digging through the photos I took in 2017 to see if I had any of these stations. Here’s a bit of that Tsim Sha Tsui yellow from the middle-left on the above grid!

View down the station platform at Tsim Sha Tsui with the platform screen doors running down the left, a station master's office, and the aforementioned yellow column.

It might be hard to tell from the photos, but that colour comes from a tile pattern. I thought it was such an elegant and modern take on the traditional station tiles you would have seen in London or New York, with all the benefits of instant station recognition as you whiz by. It also let the designers built more intricate patterns, like the speckled white and grey in Yau Ma Tei, and the bands of colour in Choi Hung. Beautiful!

Some of the earlier stations on the Singapore MRT had colours, but these were deprecated for greys and whites starting with the Northeast Line. Sydney’s underground stations also had colours, but were gradually replaced with a similar pallete after the last upgrades a few years ago.

Rediscovering one of our family computers

We were an IBM-compatible family growing up. Our first machine was a 486SX tower, then we got a 90 MHz Pentium 1 when we moved to Singapore. My dad worked for a multinational that had him using PS/2s and XTs during the 1980s, then those legendary beige Toshiba laptops with the outboard trackballs. I vaguely remember the Apple IIs we used at school, and my grandfather had Commodores. But all my meaningful formative memories were formed staring at a glowing DOS prompt.

Over time these machines developed problems that I could probably easily fix now, but at the time were considered too far gone. In a decision I still kick myself for not pushing back on harder at the time, my parents threw both these machines away… though mercifully not before I could salvage a few parts.

Recently I also came across a treasure trove of documentation from cleaning my dad’s house, which including technical specifications and sales orders for both these machines, along with my own first computer I built in primary school (that I still maintain to this day)! So I decided I’m going to make it a mission, among many others, to rebuild these machines as close as I can.

The cases are arguably the biggest challenge. For all the problems that restoring vintage Commodore computers introduce, you can at least be fairly sure that a 64C looks like a 64C. How do you do an eBay search for “old AT case?”

Photo from eBay showing a mini-AT beige tower bezel.

Well, turns out, I did find one of them! Once again that mythical land of Latvia entered my life, with someone selling the otherwise-unremarkable face plate for that original Pentium 1 machine. It had ten watchers on eBay, presumably owing to more than a few of us having nostalgic memories for it.

It might need a bit of a clean based on the photo on the auction above, but I’m so happy I was able to snap this up. There were a few different case designs by this company, so my hope is to source another one locally and save on international shipping, and affix this face plate to it instead.

A mini, portable display for Commodore gear?

Speaking of displays! I had a dream last night where I was using my Commodore Plus/4 out on our balcony with a little external display. I can’t remember too many details, but it was in a 3D printed beige box with a power connector, signal cable, and some card slots. This lead me down the rabbit hole of figuring out how such a display would work.

I’ve talked here before about how our balcony saved us during lockdowns, thanks to trees and fresh air and not feeling cooped up. Aside from a weather-sealed power point, it’s otherwise just like a coffee shop out here, so whatever we want to use we have to set up on the spot.

Ideally I’d want a 4:3 display that can accept composite video, which would work with the Plus/4, the C16, and the C128’s 40-column mode out here. A smaller size would make it portable, maybe something a bit bigger than what the SX64 had.

But then my wishlist started growing! What about a built in:

  • CGA2RGB converter and upscaler, for the C128’s 80-column mode?

  • SD2IEC card reader, or a Pi1541 for disk access? Maybe a datasette emulator as well?

  • A battery? Either for the screen AND the computer? What about a switching power supply for the computer as well? Would that be a stretch?

At this stage the display enclosure would be taking on everything that that Commodore computer itself doesn’t have. It’d be the luggable component, in 1980s parlance. It wouldn’t matter if it’s chunky; something I could put into a bag or stand on my balcony would be brilliant. I’d even see myself using this as a way to take my Plus/4 to my dad’s place up the coast on holidays. Or even the C128 or C16 if I were able to source a bigger bag.

To do everything above, it’d need power, two display signals cables, and one or more data lines. Maybe I could braid or heat shrink them together, with sufficient shielding on the power cable. I could set up a port replicator-style connector for the other side so it’s just one bracket being plugged into the Commodore itself, though that would limit it to just the Plus/4.

Even if nothing comes of this, I think it’ll be a fun experiment to see just how these parts would fit together, if at all. Maybe I could get a small panel form eBay or Ali Express, and get a few 3D models printed to test.

Now obsolete MacBooks still have better screens

Sami Fathi reported on MacRumors:

Apple today added the late 2012 13-inch MacBook Pro, the first 13-inch MacBook Pro to ship with a Retina display, to its list of obsolete products [..] Apple first introduced the Retina display in its Mac lineup with the 15-inch MacBook Pro released in mid-2012.

This only makes it more absurd that most PC laptops shipped today still have worse screens a decade later, either with nasty 1.5× scaling or ancient 1080p panels. It’d be like mid-1990s machines being shipped with CGA or Hercules when the Amiga and SGI machines existed.

HiDPI screens should be mandatory, and not just for accessibility.

i386 on FreeBSD 13 will be Tier 2

Michael Dexter over on FreeBSD News reminded us in February that the i386 architecture is being demoted to Tier 2 status. He linked to the original freebsd-announce mailing list thread, written by John Baldwin:

FreeBSD is designating i386 as a Tier 2 architecture starting with FreeBSD 13.0. The Project will continue to provide release images, binary updates, and pre-built packages for the 13.x branch. However, i386-specific issues (including SAs) may not be addressed in 13.x. The i386 platform will remain Tier 1 on FreeBSD 11.x and 12.x.

I absolutely empathise with their position, but it still feels like the end of an era.

My first experience with FreeBSD was on PowerPC, but I still have my 6.1-RELEASE and 6.2-STABLE ISOs from when I first ran it on x86. I even used it to test the beta releases of Parallels and VMware Fusion in the mid-2000s.

Screenshot showing the VMware Fusion beta running FreeBSD 6.2 STABLE.

I also liked that I could still put a contemporary version on my vintage x86 machines, partly for the warm fuzzies, but also so I could boot into them to transfer files over Ethernet without resorting to floppies. I had plan to move those to NetBSD/i386 anyway though.

Thanks to the FreeBSD maintainers and developers for all the work maintaining this architecture.

How I blog regularly

Wesley Moore asked this question on Mastodon:

Re: Feedback from Thomas Jensen

I also subscribed to your blog in the last couple of months (for BSD things I think) and have have been enjoying and been impressed by your post volume too. Perhaps Thomas was curious as I am, if you had any tips for being able to write so regularly?

I’m not sure if I’ll be able to impart anything broadly useful beyond just what works for me, but hopefully there’s something in this meandering post!

Habit is probably the main reason. I had a journal as a kid, which I’d maintain on a black and white Palm IIIx if you can believe it! My mum instilled the importance of keeping a record of my thoughts, which did end up being very helpful for mentally processing heavy family things. In late 2004 I realised some of what I was writing could easily be public, so I started publishing on my tiny shared web host account in Singapore at the time.

That was a long, tedious way of saying that the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Don’t worry about it being perfect, and don’t listen to all those social media experts. Your ideas are more important than arbitrary rules, and the fact you’ve already expressed an interest in writing on your own site in 2021 should be treasured. We need you!

Which leads into the second point: don’t let people tell you what you can write. I remember a self-anointed arbiter of blogging asserting in the mid 2000s that you must only ever discuss one primary topic. I internalised that edict for years, which is why I had my silly podcast, anime stuff, and shorter-form snippets in separate places. Then when I realised this was all bunkum, I started writing about whatever.

(I still get people today who tell me on HN and email that my technical posts can’t be taken seriously because of the anime mascot my girlfriend drew for me, or because I sometimes write nonsense posts about grilled cheese. They’re entitled to their opinion, just as I am to call them out for unproductive gate-keeping).

Speaking of food, it’s also important to find a place that’s conducive to writing. For me, that’s coffee shops. Almost every post for the last sixteen years has either been drafted or posted from a public cafe somewhere. I can’t blog at home, or at work, or at school back in the day. I don’t know why this works; one theory is that being surrounded by people with whom I have no social obligation to interact fulfills my human need for contact, and my introversion! Or maybe its just the coffee/tea.

If caffeine is a cheat, another is to have a constant supply of drafts that your scatterbrained mind never got around to finishing. There are weeks where I’m busy, burned out, or just tired, so I sometimes reach into my evergreen drafts directory, tidy up a post, and publish. Other weeks I may queue up and schedule posts, so I’m not spamming people with a dozen entries at once. This isn’t the only approach though; people like John Siracusa only write once or twice a year.

Technical people also need to avoid getting hung up about infrastructure. Some of the best blogs I read are hosted on Tumblr, or I personally think Ghost is the best self-hosted blog platform, or Hugo if you’re into static-site generation. But don’t feel like that your words are somehow less meaningful if you don’t write your own CMS, or host on a cloud instance or VM you maintain. There’s a certain amount of pride or cachet that people think will come from doing it “properly”, but it’s also nonsense. You own the words on your blog, so you can always export and move as well, as I’ve done many times.

(My only cautionary tale here would be to avoid writing aggregation sites like Medium if you can. Your writing is important enough to host on a platform that cares about you, not to treat you like a content cow).

But how do I find what to write about? This one is the hardest to explain, because I feel like my head is constantly full of stuff… sorry mindfulness meditation gurus! I do use RSS heavily to follow other people’s writing, and I pay for a few online newspapers. I don’t read as many books as I should, or as much manga and light novels as I used to, but I try to make the time for those too. I’m surprised how often a news story or an idea on someone else’s post will be a spark to think about something else. If all else fails, hit the Random button on Wikipedia, or ask someone what they’d be interested in reading.

(As another aside, this is why I don’t at all by the argument that blogs should only be about one topic. I can’t tell you the number of delightful and fun rabbit-holes I’ve gone down because someone I followed for one topic deviated into something else that looked interesting)!

Those were a lot of words for just a few recommendations. But that’s how I write; maybe you could summon a level of succinctness that I previously aspired to, before deciding to own my verbosity. Yay, words!