[Microblog] Transient Tickles

A bunny named Roomba.

That would be the best thing.

[General] A dream

I dreamt that I was sitting in a dark living room with some friends.  We were listening to music and eating junk food and talking about the recent death of a friend, and who we thought was responsible.  There was a large party in town, and the suspected person was to be in attendance.  We wondered what we should do.  How should we investigate this, identify responsibility, hold the responsible party accountable.

We went to the party.  It was nice.  It was in a high school gym.  I spoke to the suspect, but he didn't seem blame-worthy to me.  Just a feeling.  I went and hung out with some friends in a room, and then started exploring a bit.  Going down a hall, I found a group of people.  They were walking together.  They were looking for me.  The suspect I spoke with earlier was found dead.  And I was there suspect.

I didn't do it.

I tried to explain this to them, at a distance.  I understood that I had spoken with him in private, that I might be the last to have seen him.  That there was good reason to suspect that I had done it.  That there was very little evidence to the contrary.  And now my own friends were connecting dots and arriving at the horrible conclusion of what I must have done.

I needed time, and freedom, to find a way to demonstrate my evidence, and to locate the real killer or killers.  I turned and fled, and they ran after me.  I turned a corner and then went through the first door, hoping they might miss me enter it.  It was to the downstairs boiler room.  I looked around for a window or something to escape through, and finding one, I heard the door I came through open.  I hadn't lost them yet.  I scrambled out through the window and saw that dawn was slowly approaching, though the sky was still dark.  I ran through the playground, through trees, finding myself on a sandy beach.

Some had come through the same window I had crawled through to get outside.  Others came out the school doors.  Someone saw me sprinting over the playground into the foliage.  I heard shouts coming closer.  I ran hard along the beach, along a firm ground at its edge.  They were after me, and some people were ahead of me already.  One was a friend.  "Stop, Richard."  I sort of knew she wouldn't help me, she wanted to capture me too.  I pushed her into the sand as I ran by, hoping I didn't hurt her, needing to slow her down. 

Ahead, my target.  A large storm drain, a pipe I could still run through, a clean sewer.  I ran in through its mouth and kept running into darkness, with a splash behind me.  I'd been in here once before, with friends, exploring, adventuring.  I needed to get to someone I could trust.  I needed to lose my pursuers and find time.  I needed to get out of town.

My heart and hopes faltered as I heard echoes running along the pipe.  Were they from ahead or behind?  I reached a service room, a random room with water running through the centre, sometimes getting a bit flooded, but with a rusty table, chair, and a closet with some equipment.  I noticed a broom in the corner and grabbed, and kept running.  I don't want to hurt anyone.  I'm not even sure I could.  But I could feel desperation devouring my future.

The echoes grew louder and in the distance, in the darkness, I could see a growing light.  They got ahead of me.  They probably drove ahead to a junction and hoped to trap me from in front and behind.  My grip on the broom tightened.  I needed to pass through this obstacle.

Turning a corner, the light got brighter, and there were five of them.  Two my own friends.  One of whom I did kendo, and was good at combat.  What to do?  The only thing I could think of was to use the broom as a jo and try to let lessons from my jodo class flow through me.  I didn't want to hurt anyone, but in jodo, a lot of choices you make in kata are to minimise damage and control threats.  Kasumi no kamae, kaeshizuki, jodan, kuritsuke.  It worked (not in that particular sequence).  I pushed them back with an intensity in my eyes and an apparent will to do what it takes to get past.  My kendo friend was the bravest, so I had to be the more intent, the more intense, the greatest will to do be meaningful.  Thrusting into his solar plexus with the broom and twisting my hips to knock him down was incredibly painful to me, but it was still a bit thrilling to see lessons had sunken in.

Enough budo.  Back to running.  They didn't immediately give chase as they regrouped.  I got to another junction and turned in the way I felt least likely to, I got to a manhole and escaped.  Whoa, was that heavy, desperation and pushing with my entire core got it moving.  I was sure I'd ruin my back, or a vehicle would pass over.  It was only now dawn outside.

I placed it back to reduce suspicion and started cutting through yards and hopping fences.  A double edge.  On the one hand, it's not a regular path I might be expected to take, on the other, it raises the suspicions of others.  Finally I made it to a busier business street, and started running.  I ran to a friend of a friend's place.  They weren't awake, and between knocking and sneaking in, I chose the latter.  If I could get this done without them even noticing, that would be best.  I check the back door and it's unlocked and I try to act natural in case any neighbours are looking.  I slide off my shoes and walk silently to a house-phone (who even has those) and I phone ... my dad.

"Dad, I can't talk now, can you pick me up at _?  It's really important."  "... Ja, I'll be there in an hour."  That's something I love about my dad, his willingness to help when it's needed.  A few years ago I was heart-broken and he wanted to drive 90 minutes directly to pick me up.  He's wonderful.

Silently, I snuck out, and headed down the street to a nearby and sat on one of their alleyway tables, hoping to not have my face noticed.  (It was probably on the news.)  I was far away from my regular stomping grounds and few would think to look for me here.  I just had inattentive strangers to fear now.

Eventually, my dad pulled up, and I was so relieved.  I got into his hatchback and we drove and I started telling him all about it.  I was afraid.  I don't usually worry my father with my problems.  He has his own concerns these days.  He instantly had my side, he was furious with friends thinking I could be responsible.

He asked where we should go, and it was true, it wasn't safe for me to go to go home with him.  There is a cabin I know, but one of the people pursuing me is associated with it.  I tried to think of people I could rely on who wouldn't be suspected, and the list was short.  Perhaps the most trustworthy and loyal friend, but he's far away in the east.  There was really only one other, someone who I haven't talked to really in several years.  I suggested them to my father, hoping he would advise against it, but instead he agreed, and we started driving quite a ways away, while I borrowed his phone.  (note: he doesn't actually have a cell phone.)

Wow, I haven't heard someone yell so much in a while.  I can't really understand the anger, but I wasn't going to dispute it.  Did they agree to help?  I don't really know.  I was still on the phone with them when my father went to get gas and a friend of mine came out of the gas bar and told me good news, that the true killer had been caught (the killer of both!) and it was the person who tried to implicate me back at the party (ha, a true frame up job).  I didn't trust them.  I said I'd head to the authorities to sort it out then, but didn't really intend to.  This could all be a ploy, and, annoyingly, now at least one person knew I was riding with my dad.  Still, it raised my hopes, and then I woke up.

[General] Too much to do, not so little time

So I have sometimes found myself crippled in the past with a sense of being overwhelmed.  I have a lot of things I want to accomplish, but I only have a few free hours in a typical day to work on them.  The rest of my time is consumed by more immediately pressing matters (work, feeding myself, cleaning, seeing the odd friend (well, most of my friends are odd)).

Iaido/jodo/kendo/budo have really helped demonstrate to me the value of incremental progress.  You really don't need to do things in huge blocks, you can spend a couple hours a week (hard to get, I know) and build up.  But where to find those couple hours?

Something I've been working on is looking at time not in large blocks but a collection of many small ones.  "I only have 2 hours between work and kendo; I can't do anything."  ACTUALLY, I have 120 minutes between the two.  I can do three German lessons in 7 minutes.  That leaves 113.  It takes me 13 minutes to bike from work to home, and 15 to bike from home to the Athletics Centre.  And that's free exercise.  I still have 85 minutes.  I can make and eat a satisfying meal in 25 minutes.  That leaves me with 60 minutes to spend on other things.  "That's only an hour!"  That's actually 3600 seconds.  Seconds go by quickly.  But not sooo quickly.  Count to 60 and tell me if you don't get bored before you're done.  (Don't actually if you already see my point.)  If you did, you'd still have 3540 seconds left.  You can fit a lot into even 60 seconds.  You can wash 3 dishes.  If you have 10 dishes in the sink, you can get that done in 4 minutes (I've timed myself), leaving 3360 seconds left.  I could read 10 pages of a book (at my modest speed) in 20 minutes (1200 seconds) and have read a book in a month.  (Better than one a semester which I was averaging back when I was looking for large chunks of time.)  How long does it take to do 30 push ups?  70 seconds for me.  30 sit ups?  110 seconds.  Whoa! 

Suddenly, with just an hour of time in a day, I feel RICH with so many things to spend it on. 

Of course, some projects want large blocks of time.  It's hard to play a video game like the Legen of Zelda in chunks less than 40-60 minutes long.  It's hard to go on a leisurely walk in fewer than 30 minutes.  It's hard to make good progress in writing software in fewer than 30 minute blocks.  Some tasks have a start-up cost and have a focus-reward (made that up just now). 

(Also, did you know that at least on Fedora Linux 20, Firefox 33, in Blogger's Compose editor, pressing ctrl-\ causes a Select All function?  Whoa!)

But still, I am benefiting from seeing time less as "so little" but instead as "so much".  I think changes in my perception of time have occurred ... over time.  When I was young, I counted almost every second, and an hour seemed interminably long.  Now if I think about an hour, it seems so short.  More tasks of mine are more complex.  I have more swimming in my head.  I get 'bogged down' by the complexity of life I now recognise around me.  Intentionally reverting to 'an hour is a looong time' also gives me more time for crafts, just like when I was a wee human.

That, and the advice to a friend 4 years ago to not worry about waking up at 1PM and feeling like you've lost the day, but instead just count hours from when you wake up.  It's not 5 hours into a day, it's 0 hours.  At 1PM or at 7AM, you start at 0 and then count one hour, two hour, (or 120 minutes (or 7200 seconds :D)).  I hadn't thought about it at that time, but I haven't despaired about when I wake up in a long time.

Perceptions of time, crippling or enhancing productivity.

(For a later post, what's up with productivity?  Why not more leisure?  Also, stereotypes of "laziness" in European countries: the bitter north versus the Mediterranean south)


[Budo] A couple things I've enjoyed reading

Boston Kendo Club's manual
Though I find their perspective on kata amusing.

Suburi and angles



In iaido yesterday, during hosoda ryu, Travis implicitly questioned the idea of having jodan at 135° (using the perspective of the study linked, normally called 45° when considering it from the other direction).

I often hear that jodan should be at 135° for a few different reasons
  • it's closer to your opponent so you'll strike sooner
  • it's more intimidating, as it looks closer, and the opponent can see the blade, so it's good for seme

Two questions to that are
  • does it even feel faster? is it actually faster?
  • would it actually be more intimidating/exert greater seme on someone more experienced, who is used to having a sword in their face, and who, importantly, may not believe it's actually faster?

Regarding actual speed, this research on suburi suggests that going further than 135° behind you is in fact faster! In fact, going a full π rad behind you, sticking it into the wall, horizontal to the ground, with your elbows behind your head, was beneficial. Why would taking a longer route be faster? As we are told in iaido, there's a benefit to the elasticity of your muscles, so that might be a factor. You thrust back as far as you can to increase elastic potential energy and then release it with greater force than if you prematurely activate your muscles to stop your sword at the top, and then activate them to force a cut down. (Note that this research considers the upswing and downswing together, rather than just the downswing when parked at jodan.)

I do have a question about that, though. In the research, they describe the power you have in your cut from 135° being from your 'hands'. I wonder whether the subjects were indeed cutting with their hands as opposed to (as we hear in iaido) closing their armpits. Anecdotally, if I practise both suburi (hands vs armpits, at 135°) here, I can appear to achieve greater speeds and force by trying to close my armpits and ignoring my hands in suburi, than by focusing on my hands. I wonder whether part of the benefit measured in going further back comes from that requiring more armpit closure than just going back to 135°. Does anyone have a high speed camera to measure that?

Also, it would be interesting to measure the psychological impact of 135° versus a greater angle hiding the shinai on kenshi across a spectrum of skill. Are beginners affected more by the sight of the monouchi and a closer edge? Does it differ when someone is holding a shinai versus a bokuto versus a iaito? In iaido we're often told that it's important to exert seme by keeping some part of the weapon visibly on your opponent at all times, whether it's the monouchi, the kissake/kensen or the tsukagashira.

If you do manage to exert greater control over your opponent through seme in this regard, perhaps the ~20ms difference in time will not be overshadowed.
There is also a nice discussion about whether you should stop your shomen strike with your right hand level with your right shoulder, or whether you should stop it with your sword level with their men. This is one of the rare times where I see someone acknowledge that the two are different. Oh my!


[Technology] Work, web automation, Firefox and Selenium

The following doesn't have a point, it's just me rambling about a software testing tool.

There is a lot I'd like to write about, but for now I'll just put notes.

At work, an unusual situation let me spend a lot of time on Selenium.   Selenium is  an open source tool set that lets you automate activities in a web browser.  It comes in two flavours; one is a browser extension, Selenium IDE, that lets you record your actions and then let's you replay them.  The other is the Selenium Web Driver, which provides a plugin or a driver for your browser that you can communicate with from many programming languages, using supporting libraries.

Selenium IDE is nice because it's fairly accessible to non-programmers, though you definitely benefit from programming experience.   You can record a set of actions and save them as a test case that you can re-use, or that you can integrate into a collection of test cases, forming a test suite.  Whoa.  Then you can run the entire suite and sit back and watch while the browser simulates your activity and see whether a test succeeds or fails.  Brill.  Selenium IDE has a provide of built-in commands, such as entering text into a field, clicking an element, comparing text on the page, and even has a concept of variables, letting you store text at one point to re-use later.  One thing it lacks, though, is flow control; no looping or conditional branching by default.  (Though a go-to implementation exists for it...)

Selenium Web Driver is a bit nicer if you're comfortable with programming, because you have the benefits of file I/O, conditional logic, looping, building re-usable functions, rich exception handling, etc.  You can even built your own GUI around your Selenium test cases to cater to your specific needs.

batch administration through automation
We ended up actually using Selenium to automate a lot of administrative tasks for third-party web software that we didn't have control of the back-end, and whose interface was ... tedious.   To that end, I got to use the Web Driver to build a few classes of re-usable functions that we trivialised a lot of repetitious tasks the administrators had to handle.  (They once hired a co-op to manually go over 120 pages and make the same multi-step configuration change every time something new came up.)  Using Selenium, I helped reduce the effort involved from someone taking hours of repetition, and risking human error, to 10 minutes of writing a <10 line script, starting it, and letting it run the background in a separate instance of Firefox. :)  They thought it was magic.  I thought it was ridiculous to have software that we have to configure in such a round-about way; seriously, having access to the back-end or database would obviate the need for software to simulate a human on the client-side.   Ugh.

So that's interesting.  Openness and control.  Who owns software that a company uses.  Ideally, if you're selling proprietary software, you're trying to provide an interface that is adequate for your users, to make tasks easy.  Perhaps we just have unrealistic requirements.  This is why I ultimately prefer working with and using open source software.  No obstacles imposed by others.  Any problem just requires my attention and my time (which is not bountiful these days).

accessing data on the web
There are a lot of websites I use on a daily basis that I would love to have more direct access to my data.  Facebook, GMail, Google Calendar.  And a lot of these websites offer APIs.  They're not always convenient APIs.  They're rarely standardised.  I miss the days when Facebook allowed RSS feeds, for example.  It is honestly sometimes easier to use a client-side automation tool like Selenium to achieve larger scale operations.

Some more examples are shopping sites, where they list product information in a free-form way, often incomplete.  Sometimes, for electronics, they'll have a 'specifications' section, but the specifications will be in different formats for different devices.  Why are they not interested in standardising/normalising their data so their customers can make better decisions?  Perhaps it's because making it easier to compare would change consumer habits, making the best choice more trivial, so one supplier would receive a lot more customer attention than others, ruining some businesses.  I do believe a lot of businesses survive on the basis of consumer ignorance; if people could only see how awful a product/deal they were getting on some things (e.g. horrible smartphones), I'm sure some suppliers would have to go out of business (as smaller ones especially might find it hard to compete with the price points of the largest distributors).

That said, I would still love to be able to quickly draw all the information on hard drives at FutureShop, Staples, Canada Computers, and NCIX into a single spreadsheet so I could easily compare the characteristics that matter most to me, and also filter for my esoteric hard drive size (7mm, 2.5 shorter than the industry average).   Or see table schemas and do standard SQL queries on their data sets to obtain the information I want.

In lieu of those, I can use tools like wget and curl to automatically scrape websites for information, but sometimes the HTML you pull down does not reflect the page as you could see it to interact with.  That's where web automation tools with a programming component (like Selenium Web Driver) can really help.  They can see the live DOM and let you output what you find to files.

Sadly, this obviously requires a bit more effort than if web sites provided sane, easy access to their data.  Ah well.  Open Data for the future.

Regardless, a lot of what I like to use tools like Selenium and JMeter (from Apache) for is actual testing for quality assurance.  Websites grow, and as they become more dynamic, it becomes increasingly difficult to verify their correctness and performance by hand.  I have a private little web-app called My Daily which I use to track my daily routine.  It has helped me rise out of a few slumps, by making me more accountable to myself.  (I know I'm in dire straits when I start ignoring myself, though, and that's when I can make the most drastic changes.)  However, for a while, it's been getting more sluggish, and sometimes as I've added features, I've unwittingly broken existing features.

I enjoy using Selenium and JMeter to measure performance.  I can get average timing information.  That's heavily influenced by external factors, yes, but it's a good idea of how things are going.  I can also do things to help compensate for variable network performance.  I can have a standard, simple page that I can access a variety of times to get a base measurement for performance for the entire network, and then consider other numbers against that.  Is it taking me 9 seconds to load my 20-item task list for today because the whole network is slow or is the network in general still fast and I've introduced a slow-down somewhere?  Even if it is the former, is there anything I can do with caching or batching information or reducing overall data size to help alleviate that problem?

I can also do things like measure the size of pages that are constructed, their complexity (e.g. how many nodes), so I can try to keep things simpler for computers with memory constraints (like mobile devices).  KISS. 

Correctioness, verification of verification
I also just enjoy verifying correctness.  Selenium has VerifyText/AssertText-type commands built-in to its IDE and comparable features connected to testing frameworks for the Web Driver based on language.  It's so important whenever you're letting something operate automatically to verify your context, especially before performing actions that meaningfully affect data.  So you have a test that creates a few records, modifies them, then deletes them?  Let's be certain that the record you're about to delete is indeed the test one you created.

Look before you leap.  Metsuke before kiritsuke.  Assert before you click.  All good advice.

So, it's useful to try to create a test for each feature you invent (oh wow, what a time commitment comprehensive testing can be (and oh the perceived diminishing returns)), but it's hard to verify that tests work.  That's why you make tests for your te- oh, oh my.  Actually, I sometimes do.  Sometimes I do negative testing.  I'll intentionally test broken situations, and see what happens, but not just verifying that the system handles it correctly, but that some of the more important tests do.  "This test better actually fail when I give it- oh nope, it just passes everything :("  This situation actually arose with an auto-marker I wrote for a course I was TA'ing the other year.  As I was reviewing the marks, I noticed it strange that everyone passed a certain test.  The class was not happy to see their collective grade drop.  :D

One of the lovely things about Selenium Web Driver (and the IDE) is of course the ability to re-use parts.  The IDE isn't so great, because I tend to need to copy the test into multiple suites.  The Web Driver is a bit nicer as I have a library of common parts that I recycle.  I try to treat testing code not just as scaffolding or something quick-and-dirty at the end, but as a complete software package in itself.  (While trying to avoid Testception.)  Frameworks like JUnit can help with that, too.

Knowledge Requirements
It's a bit of a downer that rich web development tends to involve so many different languages each with a different style.  Web development is one of the most desirable areas of development for a lot of common folk, but in some ways less accessible.  Do you understand your CSS, your JavaScript, your (X)HTML, and how they interact?  How about we throw in a server-side language, its standard libraries and extra libraries for this and that.  Do you understand your server configuration?  Are you secure (oh dear Lord).  Speaking of security, Andy Wingo has a nice blog post recently on trying to setup HTTPS access for your website and how it's a gigantic mess.

Selenium IDE is nice in that you can record and play back with minimal knowledge.  That can be helpful to people who are building their website with a tool like Wordpress for example.  It would be nice if the common-folk could rely on simple, straightforward interfaces to accomplish this.  Sadly, even in Selenium IDE, it helps to understand XPath + DOM + CSS, at the very least for target disambiguation. This ties in with my earlier topic of verification, actually.  It's not hard to write a test that ends up identifying an element by a numeric offset.  "Hmm, this has the id 'box9', lets rely on that!" when in reality sometimes your Tweet Box is not just box9, but sometimes it's box8!  (Yeah, it sure would pay to have given it a more descriptive name than "box9", but let's pretend the page elements are dynamically generated and you might have a variable # of Tweet Boxes because your page shows as many as are trending on the topics of various cheeses, one for each trending cheese.  (Go Daiya!)

If you don't understand the target in use, then it's hard to understand the potential consequences of what Selenium has (somewhat intelligently) picked for you.

Closing Comments
This is just me rambling with a head full of thoughts after using Selenium for a few months.  There are a lot more technical considerations I've encountered and dwelled on, and I am sure I am not using it completely optimally (though I do find its documentation straightforward and helpful).  I just like to write unimportant rambling sometimes.

I don't have a point.


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