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Sunday, 12 March 2017

Posted at 08:22PM under IRLSydney 2017.

Sydney Sized

Sydney is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.

Or maybe you will, I don't know.

hello from sydney

The defining feature of Sydney for me, so far, has been its size. It's the biggest city in Australia, and it knows it, and it shows. It's easy to feel like nowhere else on this vast continent even matters, because Sydney is just so enormous.

Sydney is Australia writ large. It's the examplar. It's where most of us are, and where most of the rest stop. Melbourne will probably get cross at this, but Sydney is Australia: The City. Where Melbourne has its own culture, its own reputation for being a bit alternative, a bit cooler, Sydney is just... Australian.

Which also means that I've found it a bit tricky to latch onto an overall distinct, snappy, blogg-able descriptor. Beyond, y'know, just big. It's like a fish trying to see water. It's hard to put your fingers on differences in character when everything around you is just like you only more so.

Aside from the looming cultural mass of it all, Sydney is also just, like, physically big. Seriously. It just keeps on going forever. And the suburbs aren't just endless seas of homogenous residential. It has nodes and threads of proper city woven pretty much all the way out. It's got structure.

I haven't really had any way to get around other than walking, so maybe that's one reason why it feels so large. It's certainly the reason my feet are killing me. Well, that and the Converses.

Actually, it's probably mostly the Converses. Those things are pretty, but they are not made for distance walking.

crossing the bridge

I've also put a lot of trips on my Opal card, which I'm just now realising is probably an attempt to get in on the start-your-transit-card-brand-with-O theme that London's Oyster and Hong Kong's Octopus have got going on. Anyway.

My train trip to work and back every day takes me across the Harbour Bridge, and the novelty still hasn't worn off, and given that I'm only here for a month, I'm not sure it will.

It's been raining most of the time I've been here, but this weekend was much nicer. I took some time out to actually see some sights - I walked through the botanical gardens, did the iconic bridge/opera house photo, and took myself on a ferry trip up to Manly, where somehwat disconcertingly, the sun did not set over the water.

And that entire ferry ride, the city just kept on going past me, showing absolutely zero signs of thinning out.

the wrong sunset

As a literal function of that size and density, we come to the last really big thing about Sydney. It has a massive population, and you can feel it. It's not just most outsiders' only experience of Australia, it's many, many, Australians' only experience of Australia too.

You could spend a lifetime here and never see every part. There's a little bit of that Americans-never-leave-America vibe here. There's no compelling pull like there is in Perth, no sense that, well, if you really want to make it you've gotta leave. Sydney is a major world city. It's the biggest population center for thousands of miles in any direction. There's no need to leave.

With a population of that size, you get diversity. Not just of people, but of niches. Sydney is big enough that it can support a massive hipster strip in Newtown, and a rich yuppie district around where I'm working in Pyrmont, and a proper Chinatown with a pretty spectacular garden. Enough people live here that they can self-select into those areas and concentrate their character.

chinese garden panorama chinese garden panorama chinese garden panorama

Like New York or London, it's not human-scale. It'd be a great place to work, or visit regularly, but unless you found exactly the right niche I feel like it'd be pretty ovewhelming. As far as being a comprehensible place to live, I think I still prefer a Perth-sized city.

I've always known Perth was small, but I've never felt it like this before. All the other comparators have had something else that's different, some big cultural thing that makes the size not so noticable. Here, there is no culture shock, and so it becomes obvious: Perth is small.

And from here, it'd be so easy to think it might not even matter at all.


Friday, 03 March 2017

Posted at 07:34PM under IRLSydney 2017.

Let's talk about ramen

Hi guys! So a proper Sydney post is in the works. First, though: let's talk ramen.

four steaming bowls of delicious ramen

I've been in Sydney four days, and I've finished each of those days off with a bowl of ramen.

The first thing about ramen here is that there's more of it. It's much easier to find places that specialise in it, and if what I've experienced so far is anything to go by, most of it is pretty dang good.

I feel like this is a much more traditional approach to ramen than what I've had before. It's certainly less elaborate. It's often much thicker broth, almost more like gravy in consistency - and actually surprisingly like gravy in flavour. You can actually tell, really tell, that it's made from reduced bone. It's almost literally gelatinous. And in a couple of places, unless you specifically order the soy or miso flavouring, you just get plain tonkotsu broth.

This kind of makes me want to renounce ever cooking ramen on my own again. I figured my recipe was an approximation. It's not. It's a travesty. The richness of this broth isn't just a base for flavour, it's a soul. My ramen approximant has no soul. It is a ramen golem.

So anyway, yeah, the ramen is pretty good.

The real question is why.

Why four nights in a row? Because I've been asking myself that question a lot too, and I think it comes down to this.

The first night, it's a bit of a tradition. A tradition with a precedent of one, but a tradition nonetheless. Ramen is kind of comfort food. It's rich and warming, and the two times I've arrived in a city all on my own, I've needed a bit of that.

The second night was for a bit of adventure. I'd settled in a bit better, had my first day at work, and I was in the mood for a bit of adventure. And as I've written before, I think following a computer-generated track through cities to claim a prize of food is a great excuse to find your way around.

The third night I did just to see if I could. I did it for the bragging rights, for the quality social media post it would make (hi, readers!) - but also because, well, here I am. I'm alone. I've got nobody else but me to take into account. I've got no strong aversion to paying for dinner out, and no strong desire to cook in a mildly grotty hostel kitchen. Why not?

But it was the fourth night, tonight, that I figured out the last reason I've been eating in ramen places. It's nothing to do with the broth, and everything to do with the culture. In ramen places, it's okay to eat alone. Some of them, in fact, seem to encourage it, seating everyone along a bar, facing the kitchen and not each other even if they are a group.

And that's not something you can say for many places, especially ones that serve real food rather than fast food.

And lo, having understood his situation for what it was, our protagonist was freed to explore deeper the culinary delights of his temporary home.


Monday, 27 February 2017

Posted at 09:03AM under Rants.

Why You Probably Shouldn't Vote Flux

Flux is a political party running in this year's state election. Here's why you shouldn't vote for them.

Flux is not giving power back to the people.

Flux claims they will be giving power back to the people, by asking them to vote on how their member should vote on any given bit of legislation. Unfortunately, that's not what they actually plan on doing.

In order to claim a seat in the Legislative Council in the first place, Flux has traded large numbers of their internal votes to other minor parties. In return, those minor parties will preference Flux higher on their voting ticket. Because of the way Flux votes accumulate more weight when they're not used, on the issues those parties care about they will essentially control the member's vote.

There is no indication of how much influence Flux has traded to minor parties - although there's some evidence that the proportion of power left for members of the public is as low as 30%:

"They had initially proposed a kind of minor party coalition, where each party gets X votes based on how highly they preference the NVB/Flux Party at elections."

This is still the proposal, just the site is angled differently to attract members instead of provide some grand, detailed, philosophical vision (much less sexy). We anticipate Flux members would probably control 20-30% of the bloc.


Flux's constitution makes reference to "Facilitat[ing] minor parties and independents' productive participation without winning a seat", and has "…no requirement that the voting system for members is the same as the voting system for minor parties.

This isn't actually a bad idea. Our parliamentary democracy allows and encourages single-issue parties to get involved in parliament, but as Senator Ricky Muir of the Motoring Enthusiast's Party discovered, there's a lot more to parliament than your single issues of choice. Banding together to have essentially a time-share senator seems like an excellent way of solving this problem.

Unfortunately, that's not how Flux is campaigning. They're keeping these associations a secret, and handing out voting rights to parties with quite frankly terrible policies (like Fluoride Free WA) with seemingly no considerations other than what will get them elected. They're not redistributing power to the public. They're redistributing it to a handful of randomly-chosen minor parties with little support and no chance of being elected on their own.

Flux is not the kind of party you're looking for - and they're deliberately obtuse about the kind of party they are.

Flux is not open to everyone.

A fundamental principle of democracy is that everyone should be able to participate, regardless of ethnicity, gender, wealth, or religion. Flux claims to be allowing greater participation in democracy, by opening parliament up to the entire public.

But take a look at that again. Democracy is supposed to be open to everyone - but Flux requires a smartphone app to participate. Those without the money, knowledge, or inclination to own a smartphone are barred from participation in government. This is called the digital divide, and it means that those with the least power, who need representation the most, are locked out of participating in the system.

You can't run government like a startup, because government has to work for everybody. That's why we vote on weekends, and have provisions for early and absentee voting, and make allowances for those who might have difficulty voting. Our democracy is designed to work for everybody - at the very least, as many people as possible. Perhaps it makes things slower, but it also makes them fairer.

The other fundamental principle of democracy is that the process is open and accountable. Elections are audited and scrutinised by impartial officials and by all the parties that hope to be elected. The proceedings of our parliament, with a few exceptions, are made publicly available, as are the documents and legislation it produces.

Flux has not released the source code of their app. It is not possible to examine the code responsible for controlling the actions of this elected member. There is no way to audit the vote, to determine that the vote in parliament represented the votes of the public. And Flux's constitution says that "The parameters and design choices of the system are left to the Leader, and not within the scope of this document" - they could change at any time.

Unlike the rest of our democracy, Flux is a black box, with no way of understanding the processes at work inside.

Flux is not ready.

Even if Flux was a good idea in the first place, they're not yet ready to potentially take up a Legislative Council seat come the result of the March 11 election less than two weeks from now.

There is, as yet, no sign of an app in the app store - on Android or iPhone. There is no information on whether other operating systems, like Windows or Blackberry, will be supported. There is no detail on how vote-swapping, or vote-accruing, will work in practice. No detail on how your votes can be assigned to 'experts', or who those 'experts' even are.

There is no information on how votes will be authenticated or secured, beyond vague references to 'blockchains' - a technology which even if implemented correctly is not necessarily anonymous - if this is implemented wrong, votes could be compromised, falsified, or identifiable.

There is no plan for how this representative will participate in parliament beyond voting. What about proposing legislation? What about participating in debates on the floor? What about the oversight that the upper house of parliament provides, on committees and inquiries? Will the Flux representative just… not? For a platform that is supposedly about participating in the system of democracy, that's an awful lot of not participating.

Admittedly, all of this is based only on what information could be found publicly - but isn't that the point? If you're planning to dismantle representative democracy one bit at a time, shouldn't you be clear that you have a plan to replace it, and about what that plan is? The fact that you can't find good answers to these questions says that either Flux have no plan, or that they don't want to share their plan with you - and neither of these is a particularly good sign.

Government is serious business. Lives and livelihoods really are at stake. As frustrating as the system might be, it is not to be 'disrupted' lightly, and Flux shows no signs - yet - that they are treating your vote with the respect it deserves.


Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Posted at 11:52PM under IRL.


There is something to be said for having somewhere you fit.

Here are two somewheres where I fit.

my desk

You know, they didn't have to give me a desk. I would probably have been fine working in the library, or from home. And the more I think about it, the more it seems that getting me to claim a desk was a ploy to pressure me into doing a research project.

I think it worked.

I have filled its drawers up with teabags and trinkets, but I think the most important thing in the drawers is my notebooks. They live there, and they don't come home with me. Yes, most of my work is on my computer, but the notebook is the thinking space, the page file for my brain, and that goes in the drawer at the end of the day. It's about the symbolism of the thing, more than anything.

I have watched people go crazy doing their thesis, and I have watched people take work home with them, and I am determined that that will not be me. At the end of the day - however late that day goes - I am going to put my uni work in my desk, and I am going to go home, and get some sleep. Maybe that's the real reason they gave me a desk.

I hope it works.

my genre

it feels like someone reached into my brain and found all the things I like in music and smashed them together.

In December 2014, by sheer dumb luck, I found the music genre called Post-rock. Thanks to the Spotify subscription that fluke sold me on, I've been able to dig and discover and carve out a perfect little algorithmically curated niche that... well, that reaches into my brain and sparks all the things I like in music.

Here's what I like about it.

I like that there are usually no lyrics to get in the way.

I like that it's not afraid to be epic and deep and rich and melodic

And I like that it sounds like the soundtrack to something really cool happening.

I have found music I like, and possibly for the first time in my life I don't actually care what other people think about my taste.

There is so much else going on right now that is, quite frankly, a bit chaotic. I'm going to Sydney next week to do an internship for a month, and the uni is dragging its heels on my flights and accomodation while I drag my heels on packing. I've just had my only paid published article vanish into the abyss on a defunct website, but I'm already writing a new one for its replacement. I've picked a thesis topic, but I don't want to write about what it is here - at least not yet - because it still feels too soon and I don't want to jinx it. I feel like I've only just wrapped up working on Scitech's Fringe show, and like three nights' break was not long enough. My car needs a wheel alignment, my bike has one Schraeder valve and one Presta valve and I really don't have time to fix it, and I'm a little concerned that my new shoes don't fit properly - again.

And whe I write it all out like that it looks like it must be driving me crazy, but it's not.

Because at the end of the day,

I can put the post-grad away,

and put the post-rock on to play.


Friday, 13 January 2017

Posted at 12:35PM under Fun With Neural Networks.

Why would you do that?

Why a neural network in particular? No reason at all. Neural networks are just one way of doing machine learning, but I think they're a pretty interesting one.

You take a program that's easy for another program to change. You give it lots of ways to change, and lots of chances to change, and a testable goal it's trying to achieve, with lots of examples to check against. The rest is basically trial and error on an enormous scale.

My network ran through 23650 generations, and took all night to do it. And at the end, my computer had programmed itself to write. Not just to write, but to write like me. Supposedly.

How is that not intriguing?

Neural Network

Why do this at all though? There are a couple of reasons.

Firstly, because jumping into the deep end of something is the best way to understand it. Machine learning is playing a bigger and bigger part in our world, and I think that understanding how your world works is important. Also, learning new stuff is fun!

There was definitely an element of curiosity, too. Two of the most interesting bits of the internet I watch and listen to, Idea Channel and Flash Foward, have had a go a this. In fact, that's... where I got the idea. If Idea Channel can generate interesting nonsense with five years of scripts, then surely I could get something with over ten of blogs, right?

I wanted to see what a network would think I was like. It's almost a bit of self-discovery. What patterns do I have that a network would be able to discover?

I primed the network with the phrase, 'This post was written by a neural network.', and used a 'temperature' of 0.5, where 0 is entirely unoriginal and 1 is entirely too original. I generated a couple of posts, and picked the one that made me go 'whoa' - the post which not only included correct paragraphing and punctuation, but which had generated an entirely valid image embed code. Broken, sure - the filename it links to doesn't exist - but everything else about the link was perfectly formatted.

Reading this stuff is weirdly compelling, even though it's utterly meaningless. Some of it is surprisingly poetic. I felt bad editing it, like I was changing something that someone had worked really hard on. I can't bring myself to delete any of it either, even though it's the opposite of precious - this thing could literally generate more stuff than I have time to read in a lifetime. And somehow I keep wanting to read more, to pan for gems, wondering where that train of thought was going even though I know there's nothing there doing any thinking. Something about it is close enough to real to keep you looking for personality and meaning in structured nonsense, and I think that's completely fascinating.

What was all that about?


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