Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Up, up, and away!

It's Earthquake Day today, so there's lots in the media.

Here are a few very interesting links:

  • San Francisco’s Big Seismic Gamble
    San Francisco lives with the certainty that the Big One will come. But the city is also putting up taller and taller buildings clustered closer and closer together because of the state’s severe housing shortage. Now those competing pressures have prompted an anxious rethinking of building regulations. Experts are sending this message: The building code does not protect cities from earthquakes nearly as much as you might think.
  • The HayWired Earthquake Scenario
    The HayWired scenario is a hypothetical earthquake sequence that is being used to better understand hazards for the San Francisco Bay region during and after an earthquake of magnitude 7 on the Hayward Fault. The 2014 Working Group on California Earthquake Probabilities calculated that there is a 33-percent likelihood of a large (magnitude 6.7 or greater) earthquake occurring on the Hayward Fault within three decades. A large Hayward Fault earthquake will produce strong ground shaking, permanent displacement of the Earth’s surface, landslides, liquefaction (soils becoming liquid-like during shaking), and subsequent fault slip, known as afterslip, and earthquakes, known as aftershocks.

    The most recent large earthquake on the Hayward Fault occurred on October 21, 1868, and it ruptured the southern part of the fault. The 1868 magnitude-6.8 earthquake occurred when the San Francisco Bay region had far fewer people, buildings, and infrastructure (roads, communication lines, and utilities) than it does today, yet the strong ground shaking from the earthquake still caused significant building damage and loss of life.

  • News from the HayWired fault
    Today, though, I wanted to provide some details from the original quake. In 1868 a committee was convened to create a report on the event, but it never finished a report, so whatever work they did was lost. We only know as much as we do because after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the commission set up under UC Berkeley’s Andrew Lawson to investigate it decided to add a chapter on previous earthquakes. There were enough survivors of 1868 at the time to record quite a bit of detail. So here are some tidbits from the famous Lawson Report of 1908 about the Hayward quake of 1868.
  • The California earthquake of April 18, 1906. Report of the State Earthquake Investigation Commission
    The fact that the California earthquake of April 18, 1906; occurred a little after 5 A. m., before people in general were up, is one cause why we have so little reliable information regarding the exact time at which it occurred. In answer to questions sent out by the Earthquake Commission, a very large number of replies were received, but it is quite evident, from the variations among them and from the fact that many only gave the time to minutes, that these times are very unreliable. The general descriptions show that the earthquake began with a fairly strong movement which continued with increasing strength for an interval variously estimated, but which really amounted to about half a minute; then very violent shocks occurred, and quiet was restored about 3 minutes later.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Whales!

As this afternoon's ferry was approaching the dock, the captain came on the loudspeaker and said:

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. The ferry is approaching the dock and we will be docking soon. It looks like the two whales are still out by the day mark near the dock.

We couldn't see much from the windows of the ferry itself, but once we were on shore and looked out to the day mark, sure enough, there were indeed whales! Swimming about and spouting spray from time to time!

Thirty years in Alameda and that's a first!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Happy 90th Mr. Lehrer

Here's a nice tribute from Ken Regan: Tom Lehrer At 90.

It's got some nice links, too, including:

I have to admit I heard most of my Tom Lehrer songs on Dr. Demento, but I don't think it matters how you got to Tom Lehrer, as long as you got there.

Why, we had a great discussion at the office the other day about I got it from Agnes, which I was rather red-faced to admit went totally over my head when I listened to it as a precocious 12-year-old in the early 1970s.

Faithful Place: a very short review

The third in Tana French's superb Dublin-based mystery novels is Faithful Place.

French's approach to the series is quite unusual. A supporting character in an earlier novel becomes the main character in a subsequent one, and, over time, we get to know a variety of characters who are interconnected in various ways.

But one thing this means is that the books are different, because the characters are different. When you read, for example, a Sue Grafton novel, at some point you knew what to expect.

French's books don't have that quality. Each is different, and stands on its own (though I'm going through them in order, as I think she probably expects readers to do).

Faithful Place is different from the first two works in several ways, but the most notable one is a matter of style. Whereas the earlier words were lyric, moody, enigmatic, Faithful Place is like a truck on a highway: straightforward, blunt, powerful.

There isn't, really, much of a mystery here, in a way. The mystery is more about subtler things, involving how families manipulate themselves, how grudges and hurts thought to be long overcome are still alive, and how people often struggle to do the right thing about those that they care about the most.

It's gritty, it's harsh, it's blunt, and I roared through it like that proverbial truck on a highway, pausing only briefly for rest and refreshment before moving on.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Life moves along

Does anybody know of a way that I can find out the names of the people in this amazing picture?

I recognize some of the most obvious ones: Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Coretta Scott King and her children, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis (?), Julian Bond (?), but I'm sure that somewhere, there must be a copy of this picture with everyone tagged? I'd love to know more about the picture, and more about the people in it, besides those who are of course well-known to us all. The best I found was this, which is fascinating but I was hoping for even more.

Meanwhile, in other completely unrelated, but interesting to me, news:

  • It was just as big a storm as predicted: Record April Rains Raise Rivers And Flood Concerns
    Yosemite National Park closed campgrounds and lodging in its busy Yosemite Valley because of flooding concerns, with the Merced River there expected to peak 5 feet (1.5 meters) above flood stage on Saturday.

    ...

    Bodega Bay in the county received nearly 6 inches (15.2 centimeters) of rain for the day

    ...

    Lake Oroville has been filling up all winter, and more water was coming in than flowing out Friday. The water level Friday night had topped 793 feet (242 meters). If it reaches about 830 feet (253 meters), water managers said they may open the gates to the spillway.

    ...

    California officials say they hope to avoid using the main spillway but are confident it can safely function.
  • Test Drilling Launched at the Sinking Millennium Tower
    Crews have quietly launched a $9 million exploratory drilling project at the Millennium Tower to evaluate a planned fix for the sinking and tilting structure, NBC Bay Area has learned.

    The project started earlier this month on Beale Street and involves drilling holes between 200 and 300 feet down to bedrock. The goal is to see whether the method will stabilize the troubled foundation.

    ...

    The so-called micropile strategy is not new; it was used to shore up the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, which sank some 18 inches during construction before being stabilized by more than 500 micropiles.

  • Micropile Underpinning of the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino
    The approach was to drill and install micropiles through holes cored into the mat and not bonded in the mat, so that the piles could be jacked into the ground and maintain the building at a desired level. Then structural beam supports would be installed to act as permanent attachments and jacking frames. The entire system had the capacity to lift the center of the tower if that proved to be necessary. In order to support the center core, a layout consisting of 536 micropiles (Pin Piles) was developed by the structural engineer, Lochsa Engineering. Due to the limited plan area and the fact that it would be impractical to delay elevator construction to drill inside the shafts, all piles were located outside of the shafts. The resulting system was designed to support the core as if it was one very large pile cap. All the micropiles used to support the hotel core were 200 feet deep, were fully bonded with grout to the various soil and caliche layers and were isolated from the mat. The decision to drill 200 feet was based on a fairly substantial caliche layer being encounter at the depth in a preliminary methods hole and subsequent boring also often encountering a similar layer.
  • FORM S-4 REGISTRATION STATEMENT
    On February 2, 2018, Mr. Somorjai sent an email to Mr. Schott requesting a meeting to discuss various commercial matters, including joint business development ideas.

    ...

    On February 26, 2018, Mr. Schott met with Mr. Benioff. During the course of this meeting, Mr. Benioff described the importance of an integration platform to Salesforce’s strategic plans, and observed that MuleSoft’s products could be the foundation of Salesforce’s integration platform. Mr. Benioff asked Mr. Schott if the MuleSoft board of directors would be open to the possibility of considering a combination of the two companies. Mr. Schott responded that, although MuleSoft was not for sale, the MuleSoft board of directors would consider in good faith any reasonable offer it received from Salesforce.

    ...

    Between the afternoon of March 18, 2018 and the morning of March 20, 2018, representatives of WSGR continued to negotiate and finalized the draft definitive merger agreement with representatives of Wachtell Lipton.

  • SPRING EDITION: March 2018
    Ridership on WETA’s San Francisco Bay Ferry has increased by 94 percent since 2012 to more than 2.7 million riders annually. The demand for ferry service has grown across all four service routes

    ...

    WETA has already been modernizing and expanding its fleet, investing in infrastructure improvements, and planning for new service:

    • Two of four new 400-passenger, 27-knot vessels have already entered service, with the third entering service in May and the fourth in December.
    • Three new 445-passenger, 34-knot vessels for the Vallejo/North Bay services are expected in late 2018 and 2019.
    • The North Bay Operations and Maintenance Facility in Vallejo opened in 2016, and the Ron Cowan Central Bay Operations and Maintenance Facility in Alameda is scheduled to open in Summer 2018.
    • A major expansion of ferry landing facilities at the San Francisco Ferry Building is currently under construction with two gates scheduled to open in November.
    • A Richmond ferry terminal is under construction and new service from Richmond to San Francisco is scheduled to start in Fall 2018.
  • Alameda’s Ferry Nightmare
    The city downsized parking for the ferry terminal after area neighbors complained. “We protect our property values and make sure that this is a safe place for residents and homeowners,” said Dawn Jaeger, executive director of the Harbor Bay Isle Association.

    Under the city’s new rules, four homeowners associations received parking permits for residents of the area. Ferry commuters aren’t allowed access to the permits.

    The city’s decision on ferry parking comes as the Harbor Bay ferry has been experiencing a surge in popularity. The ferry’s ridership has surged by 68 percent in the past five years, according to a city report last fall.

  • Raising the Speed Limit on Future Growth
    The final and perhaps most critical issue I want to highlight also relates to skills: We’re not adequately preparing a large fraction of our young people for the jobs of the future. Like in most advanced economies, job creation in the United States is being tilted toward jobs that require a college degree (OECD 2017). Even if high school-educated workers can find jobs today, their future job security is in jeopardy. Indeed by 2020, for the first time in our history, more jobs will require a bachelor’s degree than a high school diploma (Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl 2013).

    These statistics contrast with the trends for college completion. Although the share of young people with four-year college degrees is rising, in 2016 only 37% of 25- to 29-year-olds had a college diploma (Snyder, de Brey, and Dillow 2018). This falls short of the progress in many of our international competitors (OECD 2018), but also means that many of our young people are underprepared for the jobs in our economy.

  • Crossword
    This puzzle is a collaboration by the singer/songwriter Weird Al Yankovic, working together with Eric Berlin, a writer and puzzle editor from Milford, Conn.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Fabiano!

Well here's something that I was somewhat wondering if I'd live long enough to see: An American Will Play For The World Chess Championship

For the first time since Bobby Fischer captivated the country, a U.S. grandmaster has a shot at becoming the undisputed world chess champion.1 Fabiano Caruana, the current world No. 3 and the top American chess grandmaster, won the right today to play for the game’s most coveted prize. He’ll face the reigning world champion, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, in a 12-game, one-on-one match in London in November. It won’t be easy. Carlsen, the current world No. 1, has been champion since 2013 and became a grandmaster when he was 13 years old. He most recently defended his title in 2016 in New York City.

And, for a slightly more chess-oriented bit of coverage: Caruana Wins FIDE Candidates' Tournament

Fabiano Caruana won the 2018 FIDE Candidates' Tournament in Berlin convincingly. He defeated Alexander Grischuk in the final round with the black pieces. Sergey Karjakin blundered but held the draw vs Ding Liren, and both Kramnik-Mamedyarov and Aronian-So were also drawn.

Caruana will face Magnus Carlsen for the world chess championship in London in November.

Now I just have to wait 6 months.

At least I have 56 wonderful games to play through, to keep me busy until then.

By the way, Caruana's result is clearly the most impressive aspect of the tournament, and there's no way to understate 5 wins from 14 games in a field of this strength.

But don't overlook the amazing performance of 25-year-old Chinese superstar Ding Liren, who managed to play all 14 games without a single loss, and ended up coming in 4th, just 1.5 points behind Caruana. Absolutely phenomenal!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Plato at the Googleplex: a very short review

I happened to dig down through the stack and found Rebecca Goldstein's Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away.

Not that I, personally, was all that worried that Philosophy was going to go away.

But this is, obviously, a book for people who are interested in Philosophy, of whom there are two sorts:

  1. People who pursue, or who have pursued, Philosophy as an academic discipline.
  2. People who have a casual interest in Philosophy, and who were assigned, say, parts of The Republic during high school, or who took "Great Western Philosophers" as an elective in college

Myself, I'm more in the latter category.

Anyway, Goldstein is attempting to write for both audiences, which is rather a challenge.

The way she handles this is to, more-or-less, alternate the chapters in her book between audience one and audience two.

For audience one, there are chapters dense with an assessment of current academic views on Philosophy in general, and on how Plato's thinking is currently received, in particular.

There are lots of footnotes in those chapters.

And passages like

In the Thaetetus, Plato moves (though somewhat jerkily) toward the definition of knowledge as "true belief with a logos," an account. This is a first approximation to a definition that philosophers would eventually give: knowledge is justified true belief. The same true proposition that is merely believed by one person can be genuinely known by another, and the difference lies in the reasons the believer has for believing. The reasons have to be good ones, providing justification for his belief, making it a rational belief. These are all evaluative notions. The definition of knowledge forces a further question: what counts as good reasons? All of these are questions that make up the field of epistemology, and they are questions Plato raised.

Which, if you're in audience one, is probably just what you were looking for!

In the other chapters, aimed more at audience two I guess, Goldstein tries a different approach, in which she imagines that Plato were somehow magically alive today, 2,500 years later, wandering around in his toga, carrying a laptop computer, and interacting with various people.

The title of the book comes from one of these chapters, in which Goldstein describes Plato's visit to the headquarters campus of Google (the "Googleplex"), where Plato is to give a speech for an audience of Google employees.

Other such chapters imagine Plato appearing on a cable talk show segment, Plato in a town hall forum at the 92nd Street YMCA in Manhattan, Plato assisting with the answers on the Ask Margo website, and Plato participating in a MRI brain-scanning experiment.

It's a clever idea, but terribly hard to pull off; Goldstein does better than I anticipated, and surely much better than I would have done myself.

But it's still pretty contrived.

I guess the bottom line is that it's an interesting book.

If you are interested in Plato, that is.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Private Equity 601

On the day that both Claire's and Toys 'R' Us file for bankruptcy, perhaps we can pause briefly and contemplate:

  • How vulture capitalists ate Toys 'R' Us
    After big success in the 1980s, Toys 'R' Us' performance turned lackluster in the 1990s. Sales were flat and profits shrank. Toys 'R' Us was a public company at the time, and the board of directors decided to put it up for sale. The buyers were a real estate investment firm called Vornado, and two private equity firms named KKR and Bain Capital. [...]

    The trio put up $6.6 billion to pay off Toys 'R' Us' shareholders. But it was a leveraged buyout: Only 20 percent came out out of the buyers' pockets. The other 80 percent was borrowed. Once Toys 'R' Us was acquired, it became responsible for paying off that massive debt burden[...]

    [...]

    Whatever magic Bain, KKR, and Vornado were supposed to work never materialized. From the purchase in 2004 through 2016, the company's sales never rose much above $11 billion. They actually fell from $13.5 billion in 2013 back to $11.5 billion in 2017.

  • Claire's Plans Bankruptcy, With Creditors Taking Over
    Claire’s Stores Inc., the fashion accessories chain where legions of preteens got their ears pierced, is preparing to file for bankruptcy in the coming weeks, according to people with knowledge of the plans.

    The company is closing in on a deal in which control would pass from Apollo Global Management LLC to lenders including Elliott Capital Management and Monarch Alternative Capital, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the matter isn’t public. Venor Capital Management and Diameter Capital Partners are also involved, the people said. The move should help ease the $2 billion debt load at Claire’s.

  • America’s ‘Retail Apocalypse’ Is Really Just Beginning
    The root cause is that many of these long-standing chains are overloaded with debt—often from leveraged buyouts led by private equity firms. There are billions in borrowings on the balance sheets of troubled retailers, and sustaining that load is only going to become harder—even for healthy chains.

    The debt coming due, along with America’s over-stored suburbs and the continued gains of online shopping, has all the makings of a disaster. The spillover will likely flow far and wide across the U.S. economy. There will be displaced low-income workers, shrinking local tax bases and investor losses on stocks, bonds and real estate. If today is considered a retail apocalypse, then what’s coming next could truly be scary.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Candidates Tournament, midway through

We're nearly halfway through the 2018 Candidates Tournament (6 of the 14 rounds have been played).

The contest is hard-fought, with not much space from first (Caruana) to last (Karjakin). There have been 9 decisive results, and 15 draws. Of the decisive results, 5 have been with the white pieces, and 4 with the black pieces. Kramnik's games have been the sharpest, as he has had 2 wins, 2 losses, and 2 draws. Only Ding Liren, the 25-year-old Chinese superstar, has no decisive results yet, playing 6 draws so far.

Meanwhile, if all these beautiful, if deep and mysterious, grandmaster chess games aren't providing you enough entertainment, perhaps you need to liven things up (and no, I don't mean you should start rooting for the University of Maryland Baltimore County Retrievers, wonderful though last night's result was)?

Rather, you could get your way over to Twitch, and tune in to the hottest e-Sport online: I Want My ChessTV

Compare that to a typical session with the Chessbrahs, the most popular chess streamers on Twitch. Over the course of one of their streams, which can last up to four hours, you might see chairs thrown amid a torrent of f-bombs, freestyle rapping mid-game, and a never-ending barrage of trash talk. This is the new, online era of chess—set to the soundtrack of dance music.

Although certainly not the same thing as the Chessbrahs, chess as an e-Sport is finding, perhaps, some real traction.

Here, locally, there's a significant e-Sports chess event just a few weeks away: PRO Chess League Finals Set For San Francisco

The world's best chess players will travel to San Francisco to compete in a live championship organized by Chess.com and Twitch, the companies announced today. This epic event will be the culmination of Chess.com's Professional Rapid Online (PRO) Chess League, a groundbreaking, season-long competition with the world's top chess players representing international regions. The two-day event kicks off at 10 a.m. on April 7 at the Folsom Street Foundry and will also be live-broadcast exclusively on Chess.com’s Twitch channel (twitch.tv/chess).

Twitch have immense resources behind them, as they are part of Amazon, now.

So, who knows? Maybe this is really a thing?

American Gods: a very short review

Once again late to the party, I came across Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

And devoured it.

My reaction to Neil Gaiman, in general, is quite similar to my reaction to Stephen King: amazing, fascinating, compelling books, but often the subject matter, or theme, or setting, is too disturbing for me and I avoid even attempting the book.

American Gods is plenty disturbing, no doubt about it.

But it is also intoxicating and absorbing.

Whenever I think about Stephen King, and how he must work, I envision that there is some moment where he suddenly gets an idea, vivid and remarkable, and then he develops it and develops it and develops it, and the result is The Dark Tower, or some such.

With American Gods, I wonder if the original spark for Gaiman was actually captured in the title of the book, and perhaps went something like this: Who are the American Gods? We know about Norse Gods, and Greek Gods, and Egyptian Gods, and Chinese Gods, so surely there must be American Gods?

And as he thought about this, perhaps he thought, well: people came to America, and so perhaps their gods came to America, too?

Hyacinth learned some French, and was taught a few of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Each day he cut sugar cane from well before the sun rose until after the sun had set.

He fathered several children. He went with the other slaves, in the small hours of the night, to the woods, although it was forbidden, to dance the Calinda, to sing to Damballa-Wedo, the serpent god, in the form of a black snake. He sang to Elegba, to Ogu, Shango, Zaka, and to many others, all the gods the captives had brought with them to the island, brought in their minds and their secret hearts.

And yet, gods also emerge from a place, so what sort of gods might emerge from America? Well it would depend a lot on what Americans believed in:

"I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren't true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they're true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. [...] " She stopped, out of breath.

Shadow almost took his hands off the wheel to applaud. Instead he said, "Okay. So if I tell you what I've learned you won't think that I'm a nut."

"Maybe," she said. "Try me."

"Would you believe that all the gods that people have ever imagined are still with us today?"

"... maybe."

"And that there are new gods out there, gods of computers and telephones and whatever, and that they all seem to think there isn't room for them both in the world. And that some kind of war is likely."

But what would happen as these new gods emerged? And what would happen to those old gods, here in America?

"This is a bad land for gods," said Shadow. As an opening statement it wasn't Friends, Romans, Countrymen, but it would do. "You've probably all learned that, in your own way. The old gods are ignored. The new gods are as quickly taken up as they are abandoned, cast aside for the next big thing. Either you've been forgotten, or you're scared you're going to be rendered obsolete, or maybe you're just getting tired of existing on the whim of people."

The problem is, as Gaiman observes, that America is America, and that has some pretty serious consequences, both for the old and for the new:

There was an arrogance to the new ones. Shadow could see that. But there was also a fear.

They were afraid that unless they kept pace with a changing world, unless they remade and redrew and rebuilt the world in their image, their time would already be over.

American Gods is already 17 years old, and as I read through it I thought it was fated to be a book stuck in a certain time. After all, for a book about "gods of computers and telephones and whatever," there isn't a self-driving car or a social media app or a virtual reality headset to be found anywhere in the book.

But as Gaiman, an Englishman and yet also a converted American, knows deeply in his soul, so much of what makes America America is distinct from the momentary matters of a certain time or place:

"The battle you're here to fight isn't something that any of you can win or lose. The winning and the losing are unimportant to him, to them. What matters is that enough of you die. Each of you that falls in battle gives him power. Every one of you that dies, feeds him. Do you understand?"

Laser-focused and razor-sharp, Gaiman's clarity of vision and courage to let the truth emerge from the telling produces a sure and solid result, a book that doubtless will be read and re-read decades from now, for its story, in the end, is timeless.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Candidates Tournament is underway!

The 2018 2018 Candidates Tournament is underway!

The official site is having some troubles, but you can find all the games at several other sites, including ChessBase, for example.

Kramnik is off to a strong early start, with 2.5 points from 3 games, but the action has been lively and it is far too early to see how this goes.

Must. Find. Time. To. Follow. These. Beautiful. Games!

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Ancillary Justice: a very short review

You'd probably have to be living in a cave, or be paying absolutely no attention at all to the world of Science Fiction, to be unaware of Ann Leckie and her record-shattering Ancillary Justice.

Ancillary Justice won the Hugo award, the Nebula award, the Arthur C. Clarke award, the British Science Fiction Authors award, and heaven knows how many other awards.

There's no disputing that Ancillary Justice deserved all this acclaim. If the point of Science Fiction is to warp your world-view, to push you a bit outside of your comfort zone, to make you imagine different worlds, different ways of being, different notions of existence, then Leckie has it all.

In spades.

And she manages to make it not only mind-bending, but also very entertaining.

But somehow, it is all ... a bit ... odd?

The oddness comes at you from all directions.

Why is every character referred to as "she", even though some are male, and some are female. Or something.

Why do they all wear gloves?

What is the whole sub-plot about singing/chanting/humming?

And don't even get me started on the whole topic of whether a hive-mind artificially intelligent machine can somehow rebel against itself and spontaneously bifurcate into multiple independent consciousnesses.

Ancillary Justice is certainly interesting, but I guess I was hoping for a bit more derring-do and a bit less introspection.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Loitering: a very short review

Oddly, I came across Charles D'Ambrosio's Loitering via the Acrostics puzzle in the Sunday New York Times.

However it arrived on my desk, it was truly a wonderful find!

Loitering is somewhat a re-issue: apparently D'Ambrosio had released many of these essays 15 years ago, in an alternate collection that is now out of print. So many of the essays are nearly two decades old; others are newer.

Old, new, or in-between: these are phenomenally good essays, and D'Ambrosio is a writer of startling skill.

As the greatest writers do, D'Ambrosio sees everything through the lens of language.

This can be a disconcerting experience. For example, here is D'Ambrosio, who has become interested in how mobile homes are constructed, marketed, deployed, and lived-in (perhaps he is thinking of buying one?), visiting a suburban town where a number of these homes are in use:

I stopped a couple of places to look through a few more completed houses. All along I'd been intrigued by the lack of language inside these model homes. There were no words, spoken or written, and even the few decorative books seemed mute on the shelves -- not words, but things. Language in the modular industry belongs largely to the manufacturing end of the business, and there, in technical brochures and spec sheets, it's thick and arcane, made up of portmanteaus and other odd hybrids that are practically Linnaean in their specificity. You get Congoleum and Hardipanel Siding and Nicrome Elements. At the factory all that language is assembled and given narrative development in the tightly plotted path the house takes as it progresses from chassis to truck. But once inside the finished home it ends, there's a kind of white hush, a held breath, and all narrative, defined simply as a sequence of events in time, is gone. Silence and timelessness take over so that when the door opens and you cross the threshold you feel you've stepped out of life itself.

Who tries to interpret a mobile home in terms of its language? Who contemplates "Language in the modular industry?" Who visits a mobile home assembly line and observes that "language is assembled and given narrative development?"

A writer does.

At least, a writer of D'Ambrosio's bent does.

But what is this "language inside these model homes" that he is so interested in?

As he explains, it's truly there, if you just know how to look:

In house #19 I find an icy aspect to the arrangement of family artifacts and like Keats before the Grecian Urn I can't quite puzzle out the story. Photos have been framed and set out on tables and shelves but the pictures are of those same corny people who haven't aged a bit since they came with your first cheap wallet. Who are these blonde women with unfading smiles? Whose bright kids are these? What happy family is this? In the kitchen two ice cream sundaes sit on the counter. Those sundaes will never melt, nor will they be eaten. The cookbook in the kitchen is open to a recipe for blueberry pancakes but in the living room a bottle of wine and two glasses wait on a coffee table. What time of day is it?

Yes, indeed, there is language here, and D'Ambrosio has found it.

(By the way, I love the gentle allusion to the famous first sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.")

Loitering continues along like this, nearly every essay a gem of blinding clarity that wastes nary a word, aiming directly and unerringly to the heart of the matter.

Not everything is perfect: I got very little out of the essay Hell House, except to admire its skill in execution; and the essay Misreading was a complete miss for me.

But when D'Ambrosio is on, oh boy is he on.

Take, for just one more instance, since I can't bear to let this pass un-celebrated:

... the difficulty of writing ... of capturing the sound of the sentences, a sound that isn't precious, by eliminating, as much as possible, the emotional fussiness of commas -- instead using hard consonants and the natural stresses of our largely iambic language to create the rhythm.

I mean, do you see what he just did there?

Along the way, there is plenty more. The best of the lot, I think, is an epic essay that starts with a wounded robin, spends pages in the most complex literary analysis of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye that I think I've ever read, and ends up being not an exegesis, or at least not only an exegesis, but really an investigation of the loss of D'Ambrosio's younger brother to suicide as a child.

Loitering is a book for the ages; I will surely pay attention to D'Ambrosio's other work, when I encounter it.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Oh my goodness this is complicated

I'm not in finance.

I'm a software engineer.

But, really, the two professions are not all that far apart.

So I feel like I ought to be able to grasp some of the most basic aspects of finance.

But this baffles me: Volatility Jump Has Traders Asking About VIX Note Poison Pill:

An ETP meant to mirror moves in the front of the VIX’s futures curve plunged more than 75 percent in after-hours trading following an 80 percent spike in contracts that comprise its underlying index during the trading day, potentially putting in play triggers that would enable the fund’s owners to liquidate it to avoid losses.

OK, so an "ETP" is an "Exchange Traded Product":

Exchange-traded products (ETP) are a type of security that is derivatively priced and trades intra-day on a national securities exchange. ETPs are priced so the value is derived from other investment instruments, such as a commodity, a currency, a share price or an interest rate. Generally, ETPs are benchmarked to stocks, commodities or indices. They can also be actively managed funds. ETPs include exchange-traded funds (ETFs), exchange-traded vehicles (ETVs), exchange-traded notes (ETNs) and certificates.

(Please ignore the acronym defined in terms of other acronyms, for now)

And the VIX is the "Volatility Index":

VIX is the ticker symbol for the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) Volatility Index, which shows the market's expectation of 30-day volatility. It is constructed using the implied volatilities of a wide range of S&P 500 index options. This volatility is meant to be forward looking, is calculated from both calls and puts, and is a widely used measure of market risk, often referred to as the "investor fear gauge."

But what actual ETP's are we talking about, here? Well, here they are: Comparing VIX ETFs/ETNs (XIV, SVXY)

The VIX (CBOE Volatility Index) was created in 1993 to measure the 30-day implied volatility using at-the-money S&P 100 Index option prices. In 2003, the VIX was calculated based on the S&P 500 Index, and it seeks to estimate future volatility by averaging the weighted prices of S&P 500 options over an array of strike prices. Rather than trading options or futures on VIX, sophisticated investors may consider exchange-traded products (ETPs) linked to the VIX, such as the VelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX Short-Term ETN (NYSEARCA: XIV) and the ProShares Short VIX Short-Term Futures ETF (NYSEARCA: SVXY).

Uhm, er, ok. All clear now?

Well, some people weren't: Volatility Inc.: Inside Wall Street’s $8 Billion Mess

The fallout from the implosion of this vast array of arcane bets mounted quickly on Tuesday. Credit Suisse moved to liquidate one investment product and more than a dozen others were halted after their values sunk toward zero.

The meltdown began last week when stocks started to plunge and volatility spiked to levels not seen since 2015. The VIX -- officially, the Cboe Volatility Index -- surged to 50 on Tuesday, before dropping to 30.

Well, don't feel bad. This is hard for everyone, I think.

Matt Levine takes a swing at it: People Are Worried About the Stock Market

The CBOE Volatility Index, the VIX, is a measure of short-term expected volatility in the S&P 500 Index; it closed at 17.31 on Friday and 37.32 on Monday. That is a 115.6 percent move, but, eh, you know, it is also a 20 percentage point move, and off a pretty low base.

But the great thing about modern finance is that it inexorably turns abstract quantities into prices. The VIX is not investable -- you can't buy the VIX for $17.31 or whatever -- but you can get pretty close. For instance there are VIX futures, and exchange-traded products based on those futures that attempt to capture the daily changes in the level of the VIX. If you owned the iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures exchange-traded note (ticker VXX), then you were up ... huh, well, 33.5 percent yesterday, a nice day but not quite the 115.6 percent gains you might have hoped for. (The VXX "continued to climb in post-market trading, shooting up as much as 48 percent since the close.").

If on the other hand you owned the VelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX Short-Term ETN (ticker XIV), or the ProShares Short VIX Short-Term Futures exchange-traded fund, which are meant to provide the inverse of the daily VIX performance, then you were ... hmm ... [rechecks calculations] ... yes it says here you were down 115.6 percent yesterday? I mean, you weren't. For one thing your downside is limited to 100 percent; you can't owe the ETN more money than you invested.

"Your downside is limited to 100 percent."

OK, that part I understand.

It's still pretty complicated, though.

Pseudonymous blogger Kid Dynamite takes a swing at it, too: $XIV Volpocalypse – A Sea of Disinformation and Misunderstanding

There are multiple kinds of ETPs (Exchange Traded Products).

ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds) are generally easy to understand: the ETF holds a basket of stocks (or something else), and there are APs (Authorized Participants) who can bring that basket of stuff to the issuer in exchange for new ETF shares, or bring the shares of the ETF to the issuer in exchange for the basket of stuff. This “creation/redemption” mechanism allows arbitrageurs to keep the trading price of the ETF very close to its NAV (net asset value). If the ETF trades rich (above NAV), the arbs will short the ETF, buy the basket of stuff, and create new shares by delivering the stuff to the ETF, closing out their short. If the ETF trades cheap (below NAV), arbs will buy the ETF, short the basket of stuff, and bring the ETF to the manager, receiving the basket of stuff to close out their short. Simple, right?

Then we have CEFs (Closed End Funds), which don’t have this creation/redemption mechanism. Some of them have a provision where shares can be redeemed, sometimes only at specific fractions of NAV, but with CEFs there are no Authorized Participants who can create new shares to arb situations where the CEF trades rich to its NAV.

Finally we have ETNs (Exchange Traded Notes), which are debt instruments of an issuer, whose value is tied to some underlying formula based on the performance of specific assets. With ETNs, as with CEFs, it is often only the issuer who can create new shares to arbitrage situations where the ETN is trading rich. Many ETNs also have redemption mechanisms where holders can deliver shares (in minimum block sizes) to the ETN in exchange for the underlying assets or value thereof.

Is this helping? I dunno.

Kid Dynamite himself acknowledges that this is some pretty abstract stuff, and suggests that you might have an easier go of it with an older article that he wrote: A Leveraged ETF Trading Flow Case Study: Gold Miners – $GDX $NUGT $DUST

There’s a triple leveraged INVERSE ETF – $DUST (no positions) – which seeks to deliver negative 3 times the daily return of the same index. Here’s another confusing part for some people – its rebalance flows are in the same direction, even though it’s leveraged short. Let’s walk through it, shall we?

$DUST had $209 MM in assets as of 9/30/14. That means they’d need -3*209 = -$627 MM in (short) exposure to the GDX. Today, GDX was up 6.7%, so their short hedge portfolio is now worth $42 MM more (a loss of $42 MM for $DUST), or -$669 MM (their short went up in gross notional value). Their assets are now $209 MM – $42 MM = $167 MM. For the new (tomorrow) assets number of $167 MM, they’d need -3*167 = -$501 MM in exposure – so they need to COVER $168 MM in short exposure. In other words, the leveraged short ETF ends up short too much exposure when the underlying index goes higher, so they need to cover some of their short.

"Triple-leveraged inverse ETF".

Ugh.

And I've studied mathematics most of my life!

OK, one more time, back to the ever-patient, ever-accurate, ever-useful Matt Levine, the best financial writer ever to write a daily blog: Are Banks Worthless?

the XIV is just, you know, it is complicated, there are formulas in the prospectus, etc. Another complaint is that its complication might have caused it to blow up. Actually "might" is too weak a word; as Charles Forelle pointed out, the prospectus says, bold and underlined, that "the long term expected value of your ETNs is zero." Even if the VIX goes down, the XIV -- which is a bet on the VIX going down! -- will also lose money over time. If you bought XIV to bet on vol going down, and vol went down, and you lost money anyway, you might be aggrieved. "What a complicated product," you might complain, correctly, even though you were warned.

But what actually happened is that on Monday the VIX went up by 116 percent, and the XIV went down by 93 percent, and Credit Suisse AG, XIV's sponsor, announced that it would usher XIV off into the great financial-products hereafter. If you bought XIV to bet on vol going down, and vol more than doubled in a day, then you get up from the table, you shake everyone's hand, you say "well played XIV," and you walk away with dignity. You did that! That's on you. Perhaps you didn't understand the intricacies of the formulas in the prospectus, but the intricacies of the formulas didn't matter. You made a bet on the VIX going down, the VIX went up by 116 percent, you lost. That is that.

Let's see if I got this:

  1. Stock prices were remarkably stable, mostly going up, but basically not going up or down very much.
  2. People figured out a way to speculate on stock prices continuing to go up, or at least on stock prices not going up or down very much
  3. They made money on those speculative trades, enough money that they went and borrowed large amounts of additional money, in order to make more money.
  4. Then stock prices went down. A lot.
  5. And those people were sad.

You know, in some ways I think I'm smarter after all of this.

In other ways, I think, not.

Rock with Wings: a very short review

Continuing on from her promising first effort, Anne Hillerman continues developing the tale of the Navajo Tribal Police characters created by her father, Tony, in Rock With Wings.

For the most part, detective novels follow a certain overall structure:

  1. A crime occurs, and our detective is on the job
  2. Clues are introduced, sleuthing is undertaken
  3. Obstacles arise, and blind alleys are traversed
  4. The solution is revealed, closure is achieved

Anne Hillerman, however, is walking a different path.

Clearly (and rather justifiably), Hillerman has different priorities; I suspect they go something along the lines of:

  1. Check in on Chee, Manuelito, and Leaphorn, and see how they are doing.
  2. Keep an eye on the Navajo Reservation, see what's happening
  3. Take care of the day-to-day maintenance that's part of ordinary Tribal Police life
  4. Oh, and if a crime occurs, well, that will need some attention.

If you're going to enjoy Rock With Wings (and you should), you'll need to settle into a different way of looking at the world, a way that's more aligned with the way that Officer Bernie Manuelito looks at the world.

Sure enough, there is a crime: it's something having to do with money laundering, securities fraud, and Las Vegas.

Yet we barely even hear about that crime! It figures in, here and there, and in the end the proper authorities are informed.

Meanwhile, back in the part of the world that actually matters to Hillerman:

  • A mystery involving protected and endangered miniature barrel cacti is resolved
  • A lost necklace is restored to its rightful heir
  • The complications of integrating solar panel power generators into the high desert are depicted
  • An elderly couple are educated about the complexities of tribal lands, and helped to understand how burial customs differ among cultures

And all of these tales are woven through the movies of John Ford, the mesas of Monument Valley, and, of course, the Rock With Wings itself, Tse Bit a i, Ship Rock.

You won't find pulse-pounding entertainment here.

You won't even find out who the money launderers are, and why they got into such a dispute.

What you will find, however, is a commitment to place, to character, and to time.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sixty!

It was a busy weekend.

My marvelous wife arranged a small family reunion for my parents' SIXTIETH wedding anniversary (!!).

People came from all over: Albuquerque, NM; Richmond, VA; San Diego, CA; Sonora, CA; San Antonio, TX.

The weather complied and we got some great pictures.

It was a wonderful day.

Thank you, one and all!

But especially thank you to my wonderful wife.

Cibola Burn: a very short review

Cibola Burn is Book 4 of The Expanse.

Cibola, a word not previously known to me, is a name of the location visited by Coronado's disastrous expedition to find the city of gold.

This being The Expanse, however, we're far, far away from New Mexico; our expedition to find the city of gold has taken us to New Terra, a.k.a. Ilus, a.k.a. another planet that we get to through the gate.

We're now deep into The Expanse, of course, and many aspects have become familiar, but Cibola Burn does not flag, and picks up from the slightly-disappointing third volume to return to the excitement and thrills that the series is famous for.

As any thriller must, we need a good villain, and Cibola Burn's Murtry is as foul and despicable as you could possibly want.

And there are many other great new characters, including Elvi, the best biologist-nerd-heroine to come along in quite some time:

Scientific nomenclature was always difficult. Naming a new organism on Earth and even in the greater Sol system had a lengthy, tedious process, and the sudden massive influx of samples from New Terra would probably clog the scientific literature for decades. It wasn't just the mimic lizards or the insectlike fliers. Every bacterial analog would be new. Every single-celled organism would be unfamiliar. Earth alone had managed five kingdoms of life. Six, if you agreed with the Fityani hypothesis. She couldn't imagine that the ecosphere of New Terra would turn out to be much simpler.

But in the meantime, the thing living in her eyes -- in all their eyes, except Holden's -- wouldn't even officially be a known organism for years. Maybe decades. It would be officially nameless until it was placed within the larger context of life.

Until then, she'd decided to call it Skippy. Somehow it seemed less frightening when it had a silly nickname. Not that she'd be any less dead if she bumbled into a death-slug, but at this point anything helped. And she was getting a little punchy.

You know you're reading The Expanse when we get to "the thing living in her eyes". I'm doing my best not to spoil it any more.

By this point, I guess, you either love The Expanse, or you have no interest at all, but if you're in that first category, Cibola Burn delivers.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Up, up, and away

OK, sports fans, here we go!

A Look Inside Salesforce Tower

Get an inside look through the eyes of an employee working in the building!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Oh this is a shame

For the last few years my favorite web site had become The Awl.

And now, no more.

Bummer.

I hope all those EXTREMELY talented writers and editors find good new locations elsewhere.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Artemis: a very short review

Andy Weir had the debut novel sensation that, surely, every novelist dreams of: The Martian was a world-wide best-seller, stayed on the best-seller lists for almost two years, and was then adapted to become one of the top ten movies of 2015.

You can only imagine what a life-changing experience this must have been for a guy who spent 15 years writing novels while working full time.

Anyway, Weir is now back with his second novel: Artemis.

In various creative fields, people talk about the "sophomore slump", and it surely can't have been easy for Weir to figure out how he wanted to write his next book. I'm sure he was also feeling pressure from both his readers and his publisher to hurry up and deliver another book.

So he did.

Artemis is certainly not the book that The Martian was.

However, both as a standalone effort and as a companion piece, it is quite interesting.

And, as you should probably grow to expect from Weir, it's a rollicking roller-coaster adventure ride of a book.

But while The Martian was a book about humans who were in space, and wanted to get back to Earth, Artemis is a book about people who were on Earth, and have decided that they want to live in space.

Weir is very interested in the notion of what it would mean for humans to be living somewhere other than on Earth, which is indeed a fascinating thing to think about, and Artemis is of most interest when you look at it from that viewpoint.

Artemis, as it turns out, spends most of its time spinning tales of completely ordinary experiences that have much more to do with being human beings, than with being in outer space. Rather than being just a sterile laboratory occupied by scientists, as so many "outer space" books are, Weir's outer space civilization is full of everything that makes us human. There are bars, casinos, and night clubs; there are prostitutes, drug dealers, and smugglers; there are petty rivalries, dirty laundry, and double-dealing.

But, most of all, there are complex systems, and, as was true with The Martian, it is when dealing with interesting complex systems that Weir's book is at its most interesting (even if great literature it ain't):

He wiggled his hand. "That wasn't just you. There were a lot of engineering failures. Like: Why aren't there detectors in the air pipeline for complex toxins? Why did Sanchez store methane, oxygen, and chlorine in a room with an oven? Why doesn't Life Support have its own separate air partition to make sure they'll stay awake if the rest of the city has a problem? Why is Life Support centralized instead of having a separate zone for each bubble? These are the questions people are asking.

Moreover, as Weir observes, these aren't actually engineering questions at their root; they are questions about how we organize our societies, a question which is just as important and relevant in outer space as it is here on Earth:

"The next big step is taxes."

"Taxes?" I snorted. "People come here because they don't want to pay taxes."

"They already pay taxes -- as rent to KSC. We need to change over to a property-ownership and tax model so the city's wealth is directly tied to the economy. But that's not for a while."

She took off her glasses. "It's all part of the life-cycle of an economy. First it's lawless capitalism until that starts to impede growth. Next comes regulation, law enforcement, and taxes. After that: public benefits and entitlements. Then, finally, overexpenditure and collapse."

"Wait. Collapse?"

"Yes, collapse. An economy is a living thing. It's born full of vitality and dies once it's rigid and worn out. Then, through necessity, people break into smaller economic groups and the cycle begins anew, but with more economies. Baby economies, like Artemis is right now."

Although Artemis ultimately fails as a work of literature, it is promising as a hint of what Weir is interested in, and where he might go.

Humans in space is a fascinating concept, and thinking about it realistically, rather than in some fantastic sterile implausible laboratory fashion, is how we're going to get to a point where we're actually ready to have humans in space. Building space ships and sending people out in them is just an engineering problem, and we'll solve that, probably pretty soon. But economics, politics, crime, government? These are actually HARD problems.

Writing about them, thinking about them, sharing those ideas, is one way to make it real, and for that, if for nothing else, I enjoyed reading Artemis and will look forward to Weir's next work.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Public Equity 501

A short lesson, this time; perhaps our education is nearing completion and we are moving on to become graduate students?

Clearlake Capital Acquires Perforce Software

Clearlake Capital Group, L.P. (together with its affiliates, “Clearlake”) today announced that it has acquired Perforce Software (“Perforce” or the “Company”), developer of the industry’s most flexible, scalable and secure version control and collaboration platform, from growth equity investor Summit Partners. The Company will continue to be led by Janet Dryer, CEO, and Mark Ties, COO, who will both join the Board of Directors alongside Clearlake. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Silk Roads: a very short review

Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads: A New History of the World is an extremely ambitious book.

It sets out to survey, in a single 500 page volume, some 2000+ years of history of the region which, roughly speaking, spans from Turkey and Egypt to Mongolia and Pakistan in the one direction, and from Yemen to Russia in the other.

That's a lot of land, and a lot of time, to cover.

Certainly if you, like me, struggle to distinguish Basra from Bactria, Samarkand from Sanjan, Karakorum from Kashgar, Mosul from Mashad, Dushanbe from Dunhuang, or Istanbul from Isfahan (ok, well, that last one I knew), then you'll find a lot to learn in this history of human activity in Central Asia over the last few thousand years.

And it's certainly a colorful book, full of great stories of traders, adventurers, explorers, merchants, prophets, and their interactions.

(Attila the Hun! Genghis Khan! Richard Lionheart! The Black Death! Vasco da Gama! T.E. Lawrence! Timur! Marco Polo!)

It's an immense scope, though, and Frankopan can barely get going on one episode before he races on to the next, breathless and impatient, rather like the White Rabbit: always in a hurry, but not quite sure where he's going.

I didn't mind any of the minutes I spent with The Silk Roads, but in the end I'm afraid that this part of the world is still rather a blur to me, which is a shame, because I think that's precisely the problem that Frankopan set out to solve.

Would he have been more successful (with me, at least), had he confined himself to a smaller region, or a shorter time period, the better to have used those pages to spend more time inhabiting particular incidents and characters? I'm not sure. I'm not much of a reader of histories, so I suspect this problem is just endemic to the genre, and it really just means that while his book was fascinating, I'm not really the target audience.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

RowHammer strikes again

Before we get to the main event (just be patient), I want you to first spend a little time with something that I think is actually a much MORE interesting story about computer security: The strange story of “Extended Random”

Yesterday, David Benjamin posted a pretty esoteric note on the IETF’s TLS mailing list. At a superficial level, the post describes some seizure-inducingly boring flaws in older Canon printers. To most people that was a complete snooze. To me and some of my colleagues, however, it was like that scene in X-Files where Mulder and Scully finally learn that aliens are real.

Why is this such a great story?

  1. Well, for one thing, it's been going on for more than a decade. That's a long time.
  2. For another thing, the technology involved is quite complex: multiple software systems have to interact, in quite complex ways
  3. And for another thing, at least one part of the overall vulnerability involves simply including additional COMPLETELY RANDOM DATA in your messages over the network. How is adding some extra random data a vulnerability? (You'll have to read the article for yourself)
  4. But most importantly, as opposed to most computer security vulnerabilities, this isn't simply an implementation mistake made by some systems programmer; from everything we can determine, it is actually the result of deliberate sabotage by our own government, sabotage so subtle that, fifteen years later, the best cryptographic minds in the world are still picking through the details.

Anyway, enough of that.

I know what you came here for.

You want to hear what good old RowHammer has been up to over the last couple years, right?!

Well, unless you've been living in a cave (and who reads blogs if they live in a cave?), you know that what we're talking about here is Reading privileged memory with a side-channel, also known as: "the latest amazing work by the astonishing Google Project Zero team."

Well, anyway, here are the goods:

  • Reading privileged memory with a side-channel
    We have discovered that CPU data cache timing can be abused to efficiently leak information out of mis-speculated execution, leading to (at worst) arbitrary virtual memory read vulnerabilities across local security boundaries in various contexts.
  • Meltdown and Spectre
    These hardware bugs allow programs to steal data which is currently processed on the computer. While programs are typically not permitted to read data from other programs, a malicious program can exploit Meltdown and Spectre to get hold of secrets stored in the memory of other running programs.
  • Meltdown
    Meltdown allows an adversary who can run code on the vulnerable processor to obtain a dump of the entire kernel address space, including any mapped physical memory. The root cause of the simplicity and strength of Meltdown are side effects caused by out-of-order execution.
  • Spectre Attacks: Exploiting Speculative Execution
    in order to mount a Spectre attack, an attacker starts by locating a sequence of instructions within the process address space which when executed acts as a covert channel transmitter which leaks the victim’s memory or register contents. The attacker then tricks the CPU into speculatively and erroneously executing this instruction sequence, thereby leaking the victim’s information over the covert channel. Finally, the attacker retrieves the victim’s information over the covert channel. While the changes to the nominal CPU state resulting from this erroneous speculative execution are eventually reverted, changes to other microarchitectural parts of the CPU (such as cache contents) can survive nominal state reversion.
  • Mitigations landing for new class of timing attack
    Since this new class of attacks involves measuring precise time intervals, as a partial, short-term, mitigation we are disabling or reducing the precision of several time sources in Firefox. This includes both explicit sources, like performance.now(), and implicit sources that allow building high-resolution timers, viz., SharedArrayBuffer.
  • KASLR is Dead: Long Live KASLR
    In this paper, we present KAISER, a highly-efficient practical system for kernel address isolation, implemented on top of a regular Ubuntu Linux. KAISER uses a shadow address space paging structure to separate kernel space and user space. The lower half of the shadow address space is synchronized between both paging structures.
  • The mysterious case of the Linux Page Table Isolation patches
    Of particular interest with this patch set is that it touches a core, wholly fundamental pillar of the kernel (and its interface to userspace), and that it is obviously being rushed through with the greatest priority. When reading about memory management changes in Linux, usually the first reference to a change happens long before the change is ever merged, and usually after numerous rounds of review, rejection and flame war spanning many seasons and moon phases.

    The KAISER (now KPTI) series was merged in some time less than 3 months.

  • Quiet in the peanut gallery
    I wish there were some moral to finish with, but really the holidays are over, the mystery continues, and all that remains is a bad taste from all the flack I have received for daring intrude upon the sacred WordPress-powered tapestry of a global security embargo.
  • Re: Avoid speculative indirect calls in kernel
    I think somebody inside of Intel needs to really take a long hard look at their CPU's, and actually admit that they have issues instead of writing PR blurbs that say that everything works as designed.

    .. and that really means that all these mitigation patches should be written with "not all CPU's are crap" in mind.

    Or is Intel basically saying "we are committed to selling you shit forever and ever, and never fixing anything"?

  • Today's CPU vulnerability: what you need to know
    The Project Zero researcher, Jann Horn, demonstrated that malicious actors could take advantage of speculative execution to read system memory that should have been inaccessible.

It's pretty interesting stuff.

It will take a while to dig through and think about.

But, it's important to note: this is primarily an attack against large, shared servers, which typically run software on behalf of many unrelated parties on the same physical system, using techniques such as "virtualization", or "containers".

Think "cloud computing."

Those environments are the ones which are spending the most amount of time thinking about what these new findings mean.