Sunday, July 26, 2015

boy, snow, bird: a very short review

Somehow, on my nightstand (I suspect via my daughter, the insatiable reader), there appeared Helen Oyeyemi's boy, snow, bird.

(On the cover, and elsewhere on the Web, the title is capitalized, but in the book itself each page is headed boy, snow, bird, and so shall I.)

From the title, you might think this is a nature tale, some sort of Jack London youthful adventure, but you'd be wrong. Boy, Snow, and Bird are actually three separate women: Boy Novak, her stepdaughter Snow, and her birth daughter Bird.

Boy has escaped her horrifically abusive home in New York City in the early 1950's, and ends up somewhere in rural Massachusetts, where she marries Snow's father, and some time later has a daughter of her own.

There are lots of discussions of social issues, class and race and gender questions, as well as the more complicated issues that confront mothers, daughters, and (step-)sisters.

And of course, as so many reviewers have observed, it is vaguely a retelling of the fable of Snow White, though I'm not really sure that Oyeyemi cares all that much about that aspect, except insofar as it involves the complicated role that the ideal of female beauty plays in human life, and how that ties into those aforementioned class and race and gender questions.

I guess I'm making it sound rather dry, which is a shame, because boy, snow, bird is anything but dry. Oyeyemi is a marvelous young writer, absurdly talented and yet still confident enough not to flaunt that talent by rubbing your face in it.

Seemingly effortlessly, Oyeyemi produces astonishing, spellbinding passages such as this:

Bird really likes her bedroom. There are quite a few cobwebs in it and Bird has no intention of tampering with a single one of them, no matter how many times her mom says her room is a disgrace. At the very most Bird might dust a cobweb off with the tip of a feather, but only to keep it looking spick-and-span. A lot of the time there are tiny memorials on the walls, in the corner behind the wardrobe, little specks only Bird and the spiders understand the importance of. Flies and other weaker insects have fought epic battles against the spiders and they've lost, leaving behind them a layer of wing, or a thin black leg joint that holds to the wallpaper for as long as it can before drying out and peeling away. Bird enjoys the stealthy company of the spiders, and in all other respects her room is tidy. Her mom has asked her if she thinks she'll continue to enjoy the stealthy company of the spiders after one of them has taken a bite out her, and Bird answers: "We'll see." In the evening, when the street lamp just outside Bird's window switches on, the gray cobwebs quiver and glow around the blue moons. It's the kind of view that Bird doesn't mind risking a spider bite for. Back when she used to say bedtime prayers, right after she'd prayed for her mom and her dad and her grandparents and the Chens and Aunt Mia and Snow and anybody who was sick or in trouble or all alone, Bird would throw in seven words for herself: Let spiders spin webs in my hair. It'd be great if they could be persuaded to spin little hats for her, dusty towers of thread that lean and whisper.

You'll never think about spiders the same way again, even if you yourself never come to enjoy their stealthy company.

I have no idea what Oyeyemi will do next; I have this feeling she's just getting started.

Keep your eyes open for her; she's worth your attention.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Those old 3M games

It will probably come as no surprise to you to hear that I have a copy of nearly all of the games described here: The Post-It Note company's obscure boardgames.

In fact, I have TWO copies of Acquire; not quite sure how things ended up that way, but I don't mind, because one of the copies is very worn and all the paper stock nearly crumbles in your hands from play.

Our copy of Acquire has now been played by four generations of my family: my parents bought the game, and played it with me and my brother; I later kept their copy of the game and played it with my children; more recently, my wife and I still play Acquire with my grand-daughter.

Of the other games:

  • I don't have Executive Decision, and don't know why. Perhaps it never appealed to my father (who was the one who bought these games back in the late-1960's).
  • We had Quinto once, but it disappeared.
  • We still have Ploy, Jumpin, and Twixt. They are EXTREMELY abstract and, frankly, not much fun. The best thing about any of them is that fake Leonard Nimoy on the cover of Ploy, who makes that game look like it will be much more fun than it actually is.
  • As I said, we have two copies of Acquire and still play it regularly
  • Feudal, which is the one behind the gorilla and the propeller toy, might be the best of the bunch. It has these wonderful pieces which are sort of medieval toy soldiers, and you get to set them out on this chessboard-style grid and attack your opponent(s). The biggest issue with Feudal is that you really need 4 people to play it and we could never get 4 people who were willing to play it. So I'm afraid it's gathering dust somewhere.

Ah yes, those pre-Facebook days. When people entertained each other by setting up a boardgame on the table.

Try it sometime: go get Castles of Burgundy or Carcassone or Puerto Rico.

Or maybe just go check your email again.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Close readings of code

In literature class, we all learned the notion of close reading, a disciplined approach to really studying and really understanding a work of literature.

Although program code is (usually) not literature, the techniques of close reading apply there, too.

Last winter, John Regehr's Nibble Sort Programming Contest inspired a number of truly wonderful close readings of code:

  • Nibblesort: Adventures in Optimization
    I decided to enter the contest because I don’t usually work on low-level optimization, either writing hand-tuned code or working on compiler transformations to make “normal” code execute in a more efficient way. I eventually submitted an entry that did pretty well (top half of the non-SIMD entries), and learned several “morals” about optimization along the way.
  • Parallel Nibble Sort
    I chose to implement the sort using a sorting network. I used the following minimum-depth network to sort 16 items, which was designed by David C. Van Voorhis.
  • Nibble Sort
    Being susceptible to nerd sniping, this problem stuck in my head and I ended up spending two Saturday afternoons trying to implement a fast solution.

Of the three essays, I liked Jordan Rose's the best, although all three are nice.

Let's hear it for close reading of code!

Oh, and lastly: I particularly enjoyed that the prize for the competition was a copy of Hacker's Delight, perhaps the most unusual and most wonderful, if most challenging, computer textbook ever written. I have the first edition of Warren's incredible book on my reading stand, and every so often I crack it open at a random page and disappear into half an hour of reverie...

Too bad I was never a compiler writer; I suspect I would have enjoyed it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Bloomberg interactive graphic on FIFA scandal

Oh, this is amazing: Following the FIFA Fiasco: Tracking the Charges Against FIFA's Executives and Partners

I love the way the tentacles spread out as you click on each link.

I could just click, and read, all day.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Tony Zhou on Chuck Jones

If you have any interest in cinema as an art form, you're probably already aware of Tony Zhou's superb series of video-essays, Every Frame a Painting.

Every single one of the essays in the series is wonderful, but I was completely taken by his recent work on Chuck Jones.

Chuck Jones, of course, was one of the creative visionaries behind the remarkable Looney Tunes cartoons produced during the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's.

By the time I started watching Looney Tunes, Jones and the team were already at the peak of their form, and in my opinion they don't get anywhere near enough credit. Although these are animated short features, they are still remarkable, and enduring, works of art.

And so it's great to see them get the thorough, loving, and nuanced Tony Zhou treatment.

Spend some time with Every Frame a Painting, and with the Chuck Jones feature in particular; you won't regret it.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

What I Learned: a very short review

In this modern age, with its technological marvels, it has become feasible, even straightforward, to write and publish your own book, using services such as SmashWords, LuLu, etc. And having done so, you can even make your book available to anyone who wants on a marketplace like Amazon.

My father took advantage of this capability to write a book: What I Learned.

When I think about the lives of my parents, they've always seemed divided into three segments:

  1. Before Bryan was born
  2. When I was a child, living with my parents
  3. After I grew up

And of these three segments, the middle segment swells in my viewing to assume the largest size and greatest prominence.

But of course, upon reflection, that childhood time with my parents was barely 20% of their lives.

And thus events that assume an enormous size in my own memory (e.g., our Burmese cats), and which somehow seem like a story that was an entire chapter in my life, only have time for a short paragraph in a longer tale.

So while I've heard most of the stories in the book, on and off, over the years, it turned out to be quite interesting to hear them told in a different order, from a different perspective.

Although the book is subtitled "An Autobiograpy," and tends broadly toward a mostly matter-of-fact depiction of people, places, and events, it is certainly also a memoir, colored by my father's own perception of those parts of his life that he found most worthy of relating.

And yet it also wouldn't be wrong to call the book a testament, or a creed, for some of the most interesting parts are when he points a finger at a moment when something changed for him, or when he realized a point when he had made up his mind about something.

So I could wish there was a little less of the facts and figures, which although important and significant are a tad dry in the telling, and instead could wish there were a few more pictures (and that the pictures were larger and easier to see).

And I could also wish that he had let a bit more of his personality out, granted more prominence to more strongly-issued opinions and proclamations. He has always had interesting and unusual positions about Right and Wrong and Should and Shouldn't and Cause and Coincidence, but I suspect that a 50 year career in organized public education, organized armed services, and organized civil service has forced him, over the years, to organize his life and express himself civilly.

So although it's clear by the end of What I Learned that, in fact, some quite interesting things were learned, those positions, policies, and proposals are not expressed as boldly, baldly, and aggressively as they perhaps could and should have been.

Of course, he isn't running for president, and this isn't a platform, so to observe that this book misses a few chances to Shout About Things That Matter is unfair, because my father, whatever he has been through the years, is certainly not a shouter.

Overall, it's an interesting book, and certainly a well-written one, which flows along and leaves even me, who certainly should have known my father at least as well as most people, feeling that I now know him at least a little bit better.

And so I'm glad he wrote it, and I'm glad I read it.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Stuff I'm reading, mid-July edition

At last, summer is here; the weather is beautiful.

  • Reddit's Future Is the Future of the Internet
    Reddit’s conundrum is worth following not just because the site is one of the major anchors of the social web or because it attracts massive amounts of traffic - a whopping 164 million visitors each month. It’s important because the site is founded on principles that mirror the founding principles of the web itself. Reddit was conceived as an open forum, a place where conversation is self-regulated and community-driven, freedom of expression is prized above all, and authorities don’t meddle with - much less censor - content. And sometimes, wonderful things happen. But there’s also a dark side.
  • How does Shazam work
    This article is a summary of the search I did to understand Shazam.

    I’ll start with the basics of music theory, present some signal processing stuff and end with the mechanisms behind Shazam.

  • Key Takeaway Points and Lessons Learned from QCon New York 2015
    InfoQ reported from the event, and there are also numerous QCon photos on our Flickr page. This article, however, presents a summary of QCon New York as blogged and tweeted by attendees.
  • Java Annotated Monthly – July 2015
    You don’t always sign up for a free e-book about collecting garbage, but when you do, that book is by the unwavering Charles Humble at InfoQ. Within, you will find heaps of helpful pointers on monitoring and tuning, and a sweeping look at many practical topics in modern garbage collection. This book is an indispensable reference for new and old generations of Java developers alike.
  • The Java Garbage Collection Mini-Book
    The Java Garbage Collection Mini-book provides a concise, accessible guide for Java architects and senior developers who want to understand what garbage collection is, how it works, and how it impacts the execution of their programs.

    This book dives right into the details. Starting with an examination of the Java heap and pointers, safe-points, and generational collection, the book then explores each collector in turn, describing its memory structure, the basics of the algorithm, and its performance characteristics.

  • Interview: Larry Wall
    At FOSDEM 2015 in Brussels, we caught up with Larry to ask him why Perl 6 has taken so long (Perl 5 was released in 1994), how difficult it is to manage a project when everyone has strong opinions and pulling in different directions, and how his background in linguistics influenced the design of Perl from the start.
  • Getting into Linux Kernel Development
    The first thing that'll happen when you send the first version of your patchset to the mailing list is that it will be outright rejected. It's very uncommon that a patchset is merged immediately. Maybe you could've done something better, maybe you didn't grab some locks in the right order, maybe you missed a race condition, etc. It's important not to be dissuaded when your patch gets rejected. It happens to everyone, just take the feedback you got and move on.
  • IBM Cloud: it’s the infrastructure, stupid
    When everyone else in IT turned around one day and realised Amazon was going to eat their lunch just as surely as software was eating the world they had to do something about standardising and commoditising the infrastructure layers of the stack - storage, network and compute - in a topology that resembled Amazon’s own services, without directly aping them (Eucalyptus, acquired by HP, tried that route).
  • Speed Up Your Rails App by 66% - The Complete Guide to Rails Caching
    As a tip to newcomers to caching, my advice is to ignore action caching and page caching. The situations where these two techniques can be used is so narrow that these features were removed from Rails as of 4.0. I recommend instead getting very comfortable with fragment caching - which I'll cover in detail now.
  • The Web’s Cruft Problem
    Why does CNN show ads? To make money. Why does CNN include tracking services? To learn more about the reader, to show more targeted ads, to make more money. Why does CNN use social media buttons? To get people to share the article, to get more page views, to get more ad views, to make more money. Why does CNN include a weather widget? Ok I don’t get that one; they should really get rid of that.

    Again, I don’t mean to call out CNN as the "bad example," but rather use them to show a specific example of a model that has become pervasive for content on the web.

    My friend Brian Rinaldi recently wrote that the content model of the web is broken, in which he argues that we as web users thoroughly devalue content and writers. He argues that because we refuse to pay for content, content producers must resort to increasingly drastic tactics to make money off the content they produce - or have some ulterior motives to make the content production possible.

    Paywalls have failed (mostly), so we’re left with a bunch of sites that use an eclectic set of ads, tracking scripts, modals, and such, all in an attempt to scrape together enough revenue to fund the content that lives behind the cruft.

  • If You've Got Nothing to Hide...
    Because the attack on the civil registry in Amsterdam is widely appreciated as an example of the work the resistance did during the war it is still very much present in the Dutch collective consciousness (though, unfortunately, less so with the passing of time). Apparently innocent database fields suddenly came back to bite a very large group of citizens.
  • The Man With No Name, my role model for life
    The Ennio Morricone Anthology - A Fistful Of Film Music is my stranded on a desert island album of choice. It hits every emotion that I could ever want and I dare you - no - I double dare you to listen to Man With A Harmonica or Navajo Joe and tell me you feel nothing. If I listen to this collection from beginning to end, I still get goosebumps.