is a weblog by Mike Nowak.
November 18th, 2014


As someone that spends his working time writing code to power user interfaces, a very simple form of computer thinking (if input received here, output this there), this Hacker’s Guide to Neural Networks is perhaps a little beyond my purview. At their core neural it’s doing the same as my UI code but rather than one procedure converting input to output you have a network of them. Intelligence arises from the system. This is evident in ant colonies: Ants Swarm like Brains Think. Individual ants aren’t that smart but together they can solve problems statistically, without knowing it. This is evident to anyone that has ever played SimAnt as a kid.

That which makes a network smart can also make it vulnerable. Back in those early days of MySpace, when social networks were new and browsers a little less secure for cross-site scripting, Samy Kamkar wrote a little script for fun that would put itself on the profile page of anyone that visited his profile and write “samy is my hero” there. These kinds of exploits were used for fun and to troll people for many years prior to MySpace’s existence on old insecure message forums and community sites. We laughed. We blocked script tags. We moved on and self-policed.

On MySpace, however, the network was, for its time, very, very large and the number of signed in users was astronomical. That little script spread from account to account, exponentially. Within a day over a million users had Samy as their hero. Faults in the network led to the replication, and proliferation, of bad data. A computer virus.

When we think of our brains as a network of neurons it’s probably not all that “crazy”, as the following article states, that a virus might be making some of us dumber: A Virus Might Be Changing our Cognitive Ability (Business Insider). A lot of software is vulnerable to all sorts of exploits and the best defence, as taught in basic computer security, is to never trust the input. All input should be considered tainted until proven otherwise. Our brains are no different: The Science of Why We Don’t Believe in Science (Mother Jones).

Additional reading:

A Worm’s Mind in a LEGO Body

The Mindsuckers (National Geographic) — parasitic mind controllers.

November 12th, 2014

Google, Not Now

I used to use Google Now on my Android phone. Its easy identification of my home and work locations and my daily commute was distressing but overall it was mildly useful for some weather, commute times, sports, and random internet stuff once in a while. It gave me some scores when the World Cup was going on without having to type “World Cup” into Android’s all-seeing Google search bar.

One day it started giving me the weather for Boston. I wasn’t in Boston.

It turned out that someone had booked a hotel using the wrong email address, namely mine. This happens often in my inbox. Very, very, very often, a consequence of there being a lot of M Nowaks out there. I get so much misdirected stuff that I have my own label in Gmail for it — whothefuck — and dozens and dozens of filters. At current count, the whothefuck label has 7,556 emails. The latest is a confirmation of an upcoming dental appointment for a Mary in Rome, New York.

I’ve tried unsubscribing from a lot of these but it doesn’t help. It just makes it worse.

I know all these emails aren’t for me and I filter them but Google, for all its supposed algorithmic smarts, doesn’t. So it gives me the weather in Boston. It gives me notifications about AT&T bill payments even though AT&T doesn’t operate here. It reminds me about a flight I’m not taking and tells me what time I have to leave from home to make it. It gives me even more noise on top of the noise.


I tried Google Inbox and it was more of the same. My Purchases bundle is full of stuff I didn’t buy. In GMail, all of that was automatically hidden from me via filters. In Inbox it’s all in full view. This thing that is meant to organize my stuff and make life easier — The inbox that works for you as Google says — is just giving me more to do simply because of the incorrect assumption that everything I get in my inbox is wanted. They think that everything online is wanted. It’s the opposite. Most of everything online is unwanted. All of the trackers, and beacons, and featured links, and recommendations, and share buttons, and “get our app” notifications, and subscription pay-walls, and comments, and advertisements, especially advertisements, are noise. And you can’t expect an ad company to highlight what we really want.

And Google Now is not what I want.

Related reading list:

Why Google Wants to Replace Gmail

Google Reminds You That Glass Is For the Rich—And So Is the Future

How Gmail Happened: The Inside Story of Its Launch 10 Years Ago

Facebook’s Gateway Drug

The Creepy New Wave Internet :

as human behavior is tracked and merchandized on a massive scale, the Internet of Things creates the perfect conditions to bolster and expand the surveillance state. In the world of the Internet of Things, your car, your heating system, your refrigerator, your fitness apps, your credit card, your television set, your window shades, your scale, your medications, your camera, your heart rate monitor, your electric toothbrush, and your washing machine—to say nothing of your phone—generate a continuous stream of data that resides largely out of reach of the individual but not of those willing to pay for it or in other ways commandeer it.

All Cameras are Police Cameras

Waning Anonymity

And, lastly, I just read something on the internet. Discovery is Broken

October 1st, 2014

This Month in Phone Tabs

Earlier this year we bought a new Nexus 5 to replace my old Nexus One that probably fell out of my pocket during a movie at the O2 Cineworld and someone found and didn’t return because they’re assholes. Whoever took it immediately turned the phone off after we realized it was gone — it rang and wasn’t answered, then was switched off — and I kept checking Android Device Manager for weeks hoping it would show up because of a mistake by the thief but it never did. It was a really beat up Nexus One with scratches and dents all over and my and my wife’s names crudely scratched into its soft back so I’m not sure what value it has to anyone. It was with me around the world so there’s some sentimental value there — as much as you can have for a phone — but who would steal such a, by-now, archaic phone? I don’t know.

A while ago it stopped being listed in my Android Device Manager’s list of devices. It’s gone.

After some frantic password changing, device logging off, and identity theft worries, I said “goodbye” and bought a Nexus 5 with the latest version of Android. No more stock Android 2.x browser for me. Now I can use Chrome which syncs automatically with my desktop — given the above situation that’s probably worrisome too — and can hold many tabs. Many. So much so that I realized that if you store more than 99 it changes the counter to a “:)”

I’ve since far exceeded 99 open tabs. In an effort to clear them I’m going to post them here (because try as I must I can’t fully rid myself of these digital hoarding habits) because isn’t that what a weblog is good for anyway? Giant link dumps? The following are things I meant to read, meant to save, forgot about, opened from Twitter when I had no internet connection, and so on and on and on. These were all from months ago. Since then a Chrome update deleted them all but no worries I’m up to 98 tabs again so part two in the future?



Ghosts in the Machine – A book about bugs and feelings. IO9 list of new sci-fi and fantasy books.

“Why what you do makes sense and what other people do is dumb”, what the Dunning-Kruger effect is and, more importantly, isn’t. The link between weed and schizophrenia is way more complicated than we thought. Americans are weird on why Western subjects are awful for making generalizations about (supposedly) inherent human culture and psychology.

America dumbs down: the U.S. is being overrun by a wave of anti-science, anti-intellectual thinking. Has the most powerful nation on Earth lost its mind? I don’t know, but from what I’ve seen coming from Canada lately it feels very pot/kettle, but while we’re on the subject of America: this guy saw you naked which corresponds well with all the continuing surveillance revelations this year like this old one.

The US is an “enemy of the internet“. “Anti-Net Neutrality Congresscritters made serious bank from the cable companies” and John Oliver’s Net-Neutrality rant made waves when the show was still new-ish.

Though honestly the only thing scarier than the NSA spying on you is having giant diaper companies spying on you: Big data and pregnancy.

The Day The Turkish Government Banned Itself from Twitter. The Electronic Holy War. Google’s sneaky new privacy change affects 85% of iPhone users—but most of them won’t have noticed

We’re apparently afraid of internet porn so here’s two histories of Moral panics:

Vice interviews Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield and Polygon put together an extensive oral history of Street Fighter II. Free to play has also been a topic of interest this year and here’s Wired talking with some “whales” and a “premium” game developer opining about the F2P model.

We must have been watching True Detective at the time because here’s a post about its mythos and yeah the new RoboCop was kinda shit: New RoboCop is what RoboCop meant to kill. A comic about advice from the guy that made Batman: The Animated Series.

Medieval Cone Shaped Princess Hats Were Inspired by Mongol Warrior Women

Presentations and workshops:

Activia Benz compilation if you like your music Tumblr-y.

The Oculus Rift was big news with the Facebook acquisition so there were a bunch of stories about VR: The Oculus Fairy Tale in the New Yorker; a Power Glove VR demo from the 90s; and, Virtual Reality, We Hardly Knew You.

Debunking Sunscreen Myths. Art and drone meet activism. Quoted from Sarah Kendzior’s “Surviving the Post-Employment Economy”. 10 second resume. New Meaning of Well Connected

The recovery puzzle: A new factory in Ohio struggles to match jobs to job-seekers

(Remember Heartbleed? Ah yes, those nostalgic days before Shellshock.)

Science and nature: First Life with Alien DNA and Biology of the sauropod dinosaurs: the evolution of gigantism.

There’s lots of web and general development stuff, of course:
Magic of CSS
Error Handling in Node.js
JavaScript Promises … In Wicked Detail
No more JS frameworks
You’re So Smart You Turned JavaScript into xHTML
Make weird stuff in Unity tutorial

Politics! Australian Politics! George Brandis vows not to read documents ASIO seized. Asian politics. UK/European politics. Newfoundland politics. Ontario politics (thankfully that election is now long gone.) Toronto politics (Unfortunately this one isn’t yet.)

On the difference between eggplant (aubergine in Canada/US) and aubergine (Eggplant in UK)
. Tech adoption is not increasing pace (on bad stats).

GoPro, a drone and fireworks. Morning Affirmations. GIF. Collection of gear gifs.

London: The Slow Death of Wimpy, a British Institution. 10 Budget Restaurants in Central London. Atlantic Infocus on London Crossrail.

What Gender is and What Gender Isn’t. The Culture of Shut Up. Houston, We Have a Public Domain Problem. And a Baby Name Predictor from Time.

And, appropriately, a link to a Nexus One video test recorded literally outside of my workplace for some reason. It probably came from a Google search for my phone. It never showed.

September 24th, 2013


Here we are in this post Google Reader world wondering whether our RSS feed url was transferred over to any of the replacement services (I’ve been using myself but the user interface is losing me) or if it is being published to an audience of none. Many weblogs have long since shuttered but I’m still fond of the concept of a weblog and like to add to it occasionally if only to keep a continuous record of my long-time transition from a cynical teenaged weblogger to a cynical adult weblogger to a happily married adult with some web space that he’s been paying for almost fourteen years straight now.

The road of life had many curves over the last two years but the most recent months have, relatively speaking, stabilized. We’re in a ground-floor flat in London’s north west end. I am one Jubilee Line ride away from my job in the suit-ish Canary Wharf in which I do not belong and nor does an ad agency, which explains why they’re moving next year. There, I build websites for cars I have no chance of affording.

Most of our free time in London is spent at the movies thanks to a pair of unlimited cards that get us into any Cineworld film screening at any time anywhere for a monthly fee that is basically equivalent to one and a half regular entry tickets. It is the one good deal to be found in this expensive city and Linda and I are making the most of it even if it means watching a lot of awful movies. And let me tell you, this year has been stocked full with awful.

The weird result of this constant film watching is that we’ve stayed in touch with, via cinematic tourism, our pre-UK homes. This summer it’s as though every other film we’ve seen has either been filmed in Toronto (or Canada in general, as in “Man of Steel” or “Wolverine”) or strongly featured Mexico, if for often stereotypical drug-dealer reasons. I’m not sure what it says about current American xenophobic mindsets but a lot of the Mexican characters in these films have been villains. Even in something as light as “Despicable Me 2″ do we see a Mexican antagonist. It’s tiring. “Elysium”, however, was unique in that it scored the double: it was filmed in both Mexico and Canada, despite pretending to be neither, and the Mexicans were the good guys. It’s too bad that the rest of the film was a disappointment.

A slight tinge of nostalgia colours these moments of cinematic tourism but the sentimentality fades when we leave the cinema or, more often, when we see a film set in the city we currently call home. There are many of those too. We watched Danny Boyle’s “Trance” in a theatre located literally across the street from the film’s major plot point. We watched Tim and Mary fall in love in “About Time” on the Bakerloo Line, a short hop on the 16 or 189 bus down from where we were living. We watched some stupid shit happen in Furious 6.

Seeing London on film now highlights how little home relates to something on screen. It’s all staged. They are places as real as any Alaskan or Hong Kong location filmed in Toronto’s Pinewood Studios. Landmarks might be recognizable but it’s the personal experiences that differ. Toronto was once home, but now it’s the place where I met and fell in love with Linda. Mexico was home for a little while, but now it’s where we got married. London is where we live now, and we have a home here, but the city isn’t it. Home is wherever she is — my love — and that is placeless. No film can reflect that.

I haven’t written much here lately but this is as good a time and place as any to self-promote some other online contributions over these last months.

Pocket Tactics: after a long hiatus during the whole moving to another continent thing, I’ve started writing there again with a couple of reviews of nice indie mobile games that I really loved: HACK-868 and Rymdkapsel. I have realized I’m a notoriously slow writer. I’m holding out hope that it is attributable to lack of recent practise, but I’m not so sure of it.

nullscapes: I’ve been contributing to my Tumblr again at which has grown into a far more focused affair than the random “stuff I like” that it used to be. At the very least this focus has got me noticed by Tumblr editors and now my face is there on Tumblr’s “Spotlight” under the dreaded “curators” category, whatever that means. If anything my Tumblr follows the above fascination with place and lack there of.

delicious: I started posting to delicious again, for some unknown reason. It just hit its 10 year anniversary (I joined up a little over a month later) which officially makes me feel ancient by internet standards, but with its new redesign it is still the best site for what it is. Except for maybe which I’m too cheap to pay for now.

music: I’m still posting weekly or semi-weekly favourite tunes to This Is My Jam and frequently liking all sorts of stuff on SoundCloud. So far this year one of my favourite albums and tracks comes from, by way of Hyperdub, Hamilton Ontario.

work: Hey, I’m still available for freelance web work if needed. Maybe I’ll have an updated (and public) portfolio before 2015. Just in time for my first completed game some time before 2025. OK, maybe I’m still a little cynical.

February 21st, 2013


2012 was a confounding year, the majority of which was spent in Mexico for reasons previously described, but an amazing one too for nothing else than because I got married to an wonderful woman. We’ve been inseparable. I love her.

In 2012 we’ve split our time between Queretaro and Mexico City, with a honeymoon sojourn in Cuba and a holiday break in Nayarit. I worked on some nice freelance projects, upgraded some of my web development skills, listened to a lot of good new music, played some quality (mostly mobile) games, and started writing at Pocket Tactics (over here.) I used to write about games a lot more often in the past, even mobile board games, so it’s nice to get back into that. In many ways 2012 feels like a foundation year. A year that sees me setting the stage for the future more than any other year in the past and a lot of that motivation stems from the fact that it’s no longer my future but our future. I couldn’t be happier to share it with her.

With that love I have no doubt that we will succeed. This year, I’ll be a better writer, I’ll be a better web developer, I’ll be a better critic, I’ll be a better photographer, and, most importantly, I’ll be a better man. We will push it and take it as far as we can. To that extent we are moving to London, England in two weeks.

It all started in 2008 when I quit my job and went to London and Paris for four months. I spent most of that time wandering those massive cities and taking photographs like a lonely flaneur. It gave me perspective. Walking those streets all alone those many years ago I never would have expected that I would move back to London with the love of my life. Funny things happen when you leave your confort zone.

June 26th, 2012

Canada <--> Mexico

I’ve been in Mexico for almost four months now. I’m happy to be here, very much so, but this isn’t what I’d call a vacation. Our new home, in between several stints in Mexico City, is the tiny city of Querétaro, metropolitan population one million. By my Canadian standards it’s a large city, but when you’re next to a city of 21 million it feels quaint and provincial. The historic centre of the city, a well preserved patchwork of narrow roads and colonial architecture, underlines that feeling of tranquility. That was the motivating factor for coming here of all places. Queretaro is a fast growing business hub, close to Mexico City and in the middle of the country along major trade routes, that has somehow managed to avoid the problems plaguing the majority of the country. There’s a lot of work and it is, as the locals say, muy tranquilo.

I’ll admit to my Canadian ignorance and say that before the decision to come here, I never heard of Queretaro. Why would I? On the list of most populous cities in Mexico it’s down at 17 which would make it the Mexican equivalent of Vaughn. If you were to search for news about Queretaro all you’d really find is maybe some sports news and some talk about a new Bombardier factory here. It doesn’t rate internationally. In many ways it’s down right boring but when faced with certain alternatives in other parts of the country it is a welcome type of mundane.

Queretaro, Plaza de Armas

We met in Toronto in what was the start of her fifth year in Canada. We hit it off immediately. Our first date was like something out of a Richard Linklater film, nearly a full day’s worth of walking and talking all around the city. By the time we spent a long weekend together in Montreal that summer, we were in love. That summer was magical. Then autumn came and it was shit. Within the span of a month I lost my mother and the love of my life was denied residency in Canada. She was forced to leave back to her native Mexico. At the end of February, I came with her.

As a first generation immigrant myself, and a refugee claimant at that (back in the days of the Cold War and martial law in my homeland, a decidedly different social climate), I had foolishly expected more from Canada. “No, why would they deny you?” I thought. “You have a business degree from a good school. You are absolutely fluent in English and you speak a bit of French. You’ve lived here for five years, working the whole time (sometimes two jobs), to support the family you came with, never once relying on any social assistance. You paid lots of taxes. Your niece is Canadian, born right here in Mississauga. Why would Canada not want you to stay?” And yet, there we were.

In the final denial she was presented with a written explanation that came across as a poorly researched grasp at straws written by a minister’s unpaid intern. It mentioned the prospect of relocation to Guadalajara, never mind that she’s from Mexico City and has very few, if any, connections to that city. It was probably the only city the staffer could think of, likely because the Pan American Games had just finished there. Guadalajara was spelled wrong multiple times. They referenced a completely inaccurate tax record, showing her income as being considerably lower than it was. The report cited the unemployment rate and noted, correctly, that it’s lower in Mexico than Canada as if that was some sort of indicator of a great standard of living. Yes, with her degree she can secure a job in Mexico easily but isn’t that missing the point? If your own unemployment rate is lagging wouldn’t you want to keep the people that work hard and pay taxes?

(The final insult came on the day we left when she privately met with an immigration official at the airport to receive her Mexican passport and confirm her departure. Expectantly emotional, she lashed out at the immigration officer in French who responded by demanding that she speak in English. Here was a federal representative in charge of immigration matters in a bilingual country that didn’t speak a modicum of French.)

The whole process seemed rushed, with an illusion of procedure to hide predetermined biases. It became clear to me based on this and other second hand stories that Canada was specifically targeting Mexicans for denial. Official figures collaborate that. The rate for accepted applications in the Mexican community was considerably lower than within other communities, especially compared to some Asian colleagues. That rate is likely to drop more with the current government planning to label Mexico a “safe” country, essentially ruling out appeals on refugee claims by turning a blind eye to any social problems here. Never mind that the government’s own travel site warns Canadians, in bold red, to “avoid non-essential travel” to a large chunk of the country.

She had the misfortune of coming to Canada in 2007, after graduating, when the massive surge of Mexicans overloaded the many Canadian immigration offices. It was unfortunate timing, unbeknownst to her back then, as that wave, mostly of Mexicans coming across from the USA, changed the refugee dynamic drastically. The acceptance percentage dropped as the rate of applicants rose by the thousands and, in an effort to combat that flow, Canada later imposed visa requirements for Mexican visitors. You know, despite being friends, continental neighbours and supposed NAFTA partners.

There were many causes for this: tightening restrictions in the USA forced many American illegals to seek asylum one border further north; the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 in the USA essentially created a new market for cross-border crystal meth production and greatly empowered Mexican drug cartels which had predominantly been trafficking intermediaries rather than producers, and the power struggles because of it greatly lowered the country’s security situation; the election of Felipe Calderon at the end of 2006 and his militaristic intervention into the drug situation in the country brought further levels of violence and instability to many parts of the country, particularly the northern border regions; and, tellingly, Canada’s own courting of Mexican immigrants in the preceding years likely contributed too (so much for that.)

Were there people that abused the system? Absolutely. I’m sure there were many. However, in taking such a blanket approach to an entire country rather than legitimately considering cases on an individual basis, Canada has shut the door on many hard-working, skilled immigrants and, even worse, doomed many valid refugee applicants to their death. I can understand that immigration offices were understaffed and unprepared to deal with the load but when a problem like that arises you throw more bodies at it, you don’t clear the slate, throw your hands in the air, and yell out “fuck it” as you delete every old and pending application.

If justice is dependent on fairness, Canada has not shown it to those wishing to call it home. The Catch-22 of the situation is that the government’s official position is that Mexico is “safe” and livable, giving them an excuse to deny most applicants, but if everything was so tranquil would there have been such a surge of migrants in the first place? Isn’t that wave telling of something and doesn’t that deserve a more nuanced approach?

I don’t know what the answers are, but I know that this fight isn’t over: it’s just beginning. I’d write the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration (though he seems to be, uhh….) I’d write my Member of Parliament. I’ll write here. I’ll sponsor her. We are evaluating our options and, sadly, some of those options don’t include Canada. We shall see.

Yes I speak from a biased position, but as a first generation immigrant myself I expected more from my adopted country. I’m proud to be Canadian and to have grown up in such an inclusive place, with friends from all over the world — indeed, I knew more people born outside of Canada than from within, not surprising as half of Toronto’s population is from another country — but now I find myself stuck between the country that accepted and fostered me, to a measurable level of success, and the woman that I love. Canada has no chance in this battle.