Tuesday, August 14, 2018

There can be no doubt that I am extremely fortunate

I was talking to one of my colleagues, and happened to learn that he had just lost his mother.

This is now the 4th or 5th such colleague who's had this experience, in the last year or so, so I'm coming to hear this more and more often.

I don't think I know any colleagues my age (I'm 57, after all) who still have both their parents.

There can be no doubt that I am extremely fortunate.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

All The Light We Cannot See: a very short review

I was standing in the ferry line, reading Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, when a man I (casually) know asked me: "What do you think of that book?"

"Phenomenal! Amazing! Stupendous!" I replied.

He sniffed, and allowed as to how he was disappointed: "I guess, after all the things everyone was saying, I just expected something more."

No doubt! You have high, High, HIGH expectations when you embark upon All The Light We Cannot See, a book which won the Pulitzer Prize, and many other prizes, and was short-listed for every prize it didn't win, and which made everybody's 10 books of the year list, and which spent a remarkable 3 YEARS on the New York Times best-seller list.

Yes. It's that book.

Arriving, roughly, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, All The Light We Cannot See is a work of historical fiction set during World War II, and follows two simply remarkable and endlessly fascinating protagonists: Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, an orphan German boy.

What genius this is!

Suddenly, simply, and certainly, "through the eyes of a child," we have shifted from Just Another World War II Novel to something different, something special.

Doerr develops this difference, this perspective, this new vision, with a variety of simple, yet effective, techniques.

The story unfolds as a series of short chapters, sometimes as short as a few paragraphs, alternating between each story, occasionally diverting to relate the stories of a few other crucial characters, but generally just letting us experience events as Marie-Laure and Werner did.

And the story-telling is not simply chronological; it moves forward, then backward, dropping in and out of their lives as they, and the world, change.

These are well-trodden paths, and well-known approaches, to telling this story. No new literary techniques are revealed here.

And, yes, I know: you've heard this story before.

But Doerr's touch is so careful, so authentic, so pure, that you are transported, perhaps even mesmerized.

Partly, it is due to Doerr's open heart. Here he is, trying to help us understand what it is to be blind:

To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer, an older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high aobve the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry acros farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth's crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the oacean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.

And here, in a gripping depiction of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of a World War I veteran:

Now Etienne hyperventilates. At thirty-four minutes by his wrist-watch, he puts on his shoes and a hat that belonged to his father. Stands in the foyer summoning all his resolve. When he last went out, almost twenty-four years ago, he tried to make eye contact, to present what might be considered a normal appearance. But the attacks were sly, unpredictable, devastating; they sneaked up on him like bandits. First a terrible ominousness would fill the air. Then any light, even through closed eyelids, became excruciatingly bright. He could not walk for the thundering of his own feet. Little eyeballs blinked at him from the cobblestones. Corpses stirred in the shadows. When Madame Manec would help him home, he'd crawl into the darkest corner of his bed and belt pillows around his ears. All his energy would go into ignoring the pounding of his own pulse.

And here, the life of orphan siblings in pre-war Germany:

Werner and Jutta sift through glistening piles of black dust; they clamber up mountains of rusting machines. They tear berries out of brambles and dandelions out of fields. Sometimes they manage to find potato peels or carrot greens in trash bins; other afternoons they collect paper to draw on, or old toothpaste tubes from which the last dregs can be squeezed out and dried into chalk. Once in a while Werner tows Jutta as far as the entrance to Pit Nine, the largest of the mines, wrapped in noise, lit like the pilot at the center of a gas furnace, a five-story coal elevator crouched over it, cables swinging, hammers banging, men shouting, an entire mapful of pleated and corrugated industry stretching into the distance on all sides, and they watch the coal cars trundling up from the earth and the miners spilling out of warehouses with their lunch pails toward the mouth of the elevator like insects toward a lighted trap.

Although Marie-Laure is surely the more memorable and more-easily-loved of the two, my heart was wonderfully drawn to Werner, particularly the description of how he found his love for radios, and his talent for understanding how they work:

what he loves most is building things, working with his hands, connecting his fingers to the engine of his mind. Werner repairs a neighbor's sewing machine, the Children's House grandfather clock. He builds a pulley system to wind laundry from the sunshine back indoors, and a simple alarm made from a battery, a bell, and wire so that Frau Elena will know if a toddler has wandered outside. He invents a machine to slice carrots: lift a lever, nineteen blades drop, and the carrot falls apart into twenty neat cylinders.

One day a neighbor's wireless goes out, and Frau Elena suggests Werner have a look. He unscrews the back plate, waggles the tubes back and forth. One is not seated properly, and he fits it back into its groove. The radio comes back to life, and the neighbor shrieks with delight. Before long, people are stopping by Children's House every week to ask for the radio repairman. When they see thirteen-year-old Werner come down from the attic, rubbing his eyes, shocks of white hair sticking up off his head, homemade toolbox hanging from his fist, they start at him with the same skeptical smirk.

The older sets are the easiest to fix: simpler circuitry, uniform tubes. Maybe it's wax dripping from the conenser or charcoal built up on a resistor. Even in the newest sets, Werner can usually puzzle out a solution. He dismantles the machine, starts into it circuits, lets his fingers trace the journeys of electrons. Power source, triode, resistor, coil. Loudspeaker. His mind shapes itself around the problem, disorder becomes order, the obstacle reveals itself, and before long the radio is fixed.

I could go on forever.

But, better, you can discover this treasure of a book yourself, or let it discover you when it is ready.

Oh, by the way:

  • There's a cursed diamond,
  • and a complex metaphor involving Captain Nemo,
  • and the most practical and sensible housekeeper ever born,
  • and a (literally) cancerous super-villain,
  • and John James Audobon's Birds of America,
  • and Clair de Lune.

And more. Oh, so, so much more.

You will surely be disappointed, after everything everyone has said.

But: you will sit; you will sigh; you will look at a snail on the wall.

And nothing will ever be the same again.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Fair Shot: a very short review

Chris Hughes has had a very unusual life: prep school and Ivy League educated, he happened to be Mark Zuckerberg's roommate at college and found himself a co-founder of Facebook. Before long, he was retired and trying to figure out what to do with his life.

To his credit, he actually gave this some thought, and tells his story in a short memoir/policy proposal called Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn.

Over the last decade, he's tried various things: becoming involved in politics during the Obama campaign; buying and running a political magazine; getting involved with various charities; eventually making a trip to Africa to try to understand how various non-profits were trying to improve the lives of African villagers.

After all of this, he learns about the ideas that have been bouncing around about "Universal Basic Income," and comes to believe this is a viable and useful approach, so he has written Fair Shot to describe the ideas in more detail.

He calls his effort the Economic Security Project; you can read more about it.

Universal Basic Income is getting a fair amount of press these days; it's an interesting idea.

And it's certainly a more useful thing to talk about than some of the other things that seem to be dominating conversations nowadays. Fair Shot didn't change my mind one way or the other, but I found it an interesting book to read.

Friday, August 3, 2018

None of this is good

Ouch. I don't exactly know what sort of celestial alignment caused me to run across these essays more-or-less simultaneously.

Feel free to turn the page now.

Or maybe not?

I don't know. I don't know what to think.

If you're still here, then here we go: from distasteful to ugly to horrific, without much of a pause I'm afraid:

  • The Political Education of Silicon Valley
    The founders they surveyed were less likely than even Democrats to embrace the core expression of the libertarian worldview—that government should provide military and police protection and otherwise leave people alone to enrich themselves. They expressed overwhelming support for higher taxes on the wealthy and for universal health care. But in other ways they deviated from progressive orthodoxy. They were far more likely to emphasize the positive impact of entrepreneurial activity than progressives and had dim views of government regulation and labor unions that were closer to that of your average Republican donor than Democratic partisan.

    If you plot those values on the matrix of conventional US politics, there appears to be a contradiction: The tech elite want an activist government, but they don’t want the government actively restricting them.

  • Uber Is Not Serious About Changing Its Toxic Culture
    The open board-chair position was a prime opportunity to lead by example and to appoint someone who embodies the idea of strength through diversity and empathy. Instead, they appointed the former CEO of Northrop Grumman—a position that requires, more than anything else, the ability to be OK with making billions of dollars even as your products maim and kill hundreds of thousands of people around the world. That’s not the kind of skill Uber needs right now.
  • In Oakland, Nia Wilson’s Death Could Never Feel “Random”
    Every killing has its own idiosyncratic story. But when a society fails to respond in any systematic way to a pattern of black death, compensatory mechanisms will emerge. There are trends at work that black communities can see and that white America refuses to recognize—painful, documented contexts whose awful contours are too familiar and well substantiated to dismiss as simple paranoia.
  • This is what the life of an incel looks like
    Feminism and leftist political discourse had made all masculinity toxic, Joey said. “Ask a feminist what is one positive masculine trait? Any example of positive masculinity?” he said. “Traditionally it would be courage, honor. But no one wants to say that because they believe that implies that women can't be courageous or honorable.” He claimed media outlets like Vice are pushing “degeneracy” and demeaning masculinity. "You guys have males who look like me though, you know? You guys don't have masculine men, I don't think, on Vice.” As Joey pulled me further into the world of incels, it became clear this brand of misogyny was a circular expression of self-hatred: I am weak, like a woman. Women have made me weak.
  • What Happened When I Tried Talking to Twitter Abusers
    Women – both online and off – are told that we are overreacting, that we brought this abuse upon ourselves, that we can just leave the platform or get a new job, that the threats aren’t real, and a litany of other arguments meant to cause us to question our own realities and experiences. Teach a woman that she can’t trust herself and she becomes infinitely easier to abuse. Those of us who do speak up are labeled difficult, humorless, shrill, caustic; not only are women mistreated, but a system is in place to ensure that they can’t call out that abuse without doing more damage to themselves.

It's bad. It's really bad. I'm not sure how it got this bad this fast, but boy is it bad.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Broken Harbor: a very short review

The fourth volume of Tana French's brilliant Dublin Murder Squad series is Broken Harbor.

By this point, French has established a bit of a pattern, and Broken Harbor definitely fits it: a troubled detective, a troubling and complex investigation, a young partner with their own challenges, and a litany of fascinating other characters who wander in and out.

And through it all, French's amazing, almost effortless control of description, dialogue, and pace:

She had her hands wrapped around the mug again, tilting it in circles and watching the tea swirl. The smell of it was doing its job, making this alien place feel homey and safe. "Actually, it probably stopped working a long time before that. You can see it in the photos: we stop being jigsawed together like in that one there, instead we're just these elbows and knees stuck out at each other, all awkward ... We just didn't want to see it. Pat especially. The less it worked, the harder he tried. We'd be sitting on the pier or somewhere, and Pat'd be spread out till he was practically stretching, trying to keep close to all of us, make it feel like one big gang again."

With French, an ordinary paragraph from an interrogation room has it all: alliteration ("had her hands", "all awkward"), rhyme ("pier or somewhere"), sensory imagery (the touch of the mug, the taste and smell of the tea, the pictures), metaphor (the interrogation swirls like the tea in the cup), and the turn of phrase ("this alien place", "jigsawed ... elbows and knees").

Strikingly to me, with Broken Harbor French is more explicitly topical than in her previous books, dealing directly and bluntly with the consequences of the real estate collapse of 2008 and its consequences for Ireland. Broken Harbor was written in 2013, a time when I happened to be traveling in Ireland (though not in Dublin), and I saw for myself how dreadful it was.

I think French perhaps overtops it a bit with her plot: elements of it strain credibility to the limit. But, as is a recurring theme for her, Broken Harbor is deeply concerned with issues of mental health, and there can be no doubt that the Great Recession of 2008 dealt a several mental health blow to everyone who came into contact with it, even in the slightest of ways.

So I'll grant her a bit of dispensation on the farthest of the plot stretches, and content myself with another fine work of art.

How Not To Be Wrong: a very short review

I'm a sucker for popular mathematics books.

Especially good ones.

Jordan Ellenberg's How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking is a good popular mathematics book.

Although the book is wide-ranging, with many interesting topics, two particularly stand out to me.

The first is the strong treatment of the notion of "statistically significant." Ellenberg explores this notion in a number of ways, looking at ways in which it is used (correctly and incorrectly), what it means to say something is statistically significant, rigorously, and even looks at the historical background of statistical significance, tracing it back to John Arbuthnot in the late 17th century.

The second, much more entertaining if maybe not as practically useful, is Ellenberg's detailed and fascinating exploration of modern state lotteries, and how they fail. In particular, he looks at the flawed Cash WinFall lottery that was held in Massachusetts in the early 2000's, and how various parties (university students, actuaries, lottery hobbyists, etc.) found errors in the lottery rules that enabled players to profit from the lottery if they did things just right. The mathematical underpinnings here involve the notion of "expected value," and Ellenberg's treatment is extremely interesting.

If you like popular mathematics, you'll enjoy How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Thursday, July 26, 2018

There is no need for you to replicate this experiment...

... but I can report to you that,

  • if you have a Mac (in my case, running 10.13.6 "High Sierra")
  • and you happen to write some buggy software
  • which very very very rapidly fills up your entire hard disk
  • and, I mean, FILLS, to the point where it is totally 100% full
  • then even though your terminal windows are still open, and the program has died, and you know where all those files are, if you try to remove the files you get rm: no space left on device
  • even if you run the command as root

This might throw you for a loop. Your disk is full, nothing works, and you can't even remove any of the files!

It might even be scary, and you might not be able to decide what you ought to do.

Well, just hard power-cycle the machine, so that it goes through a full system restart.

Something during the system restart process manages to release JUST ENOUGH of the allocated disk space, somehow, so that after the reboot you are able to remove those files.

And you can continue to use your computer.