Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Sabato Rodia, 60 years later

One of my strong childhood memories is of visiting the bizarrely-beautiful Watts Towers, in South Central L.A.; they were the perfect fascination for an 11-year-old boy.

Now here comes a nice article on seashells, and on Sabato Rodia, and on how we humans relate to coastlines around the world: The Symbolic Seashell.

That’s when he turned to the sea for salvation. Over the next three decades, Rodia hauled some 10,000 seashells from the coast to his property, where he built a whimsical fantasy of concrete walls, arches, and towers that soared to over 30 meters. He studded the structure with the shells, as well as with broken tools, plastic toys, glass bottles, pieces of tile, and thousands of other found objects.

"...these shells, they travel..."

Indeed.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

I love Polygon's list of the 100 best games of the 2010s

If you have any interest in modern video-gaming, you'll love The 100 best games of the decade (2010-2019)

They gave Journey too much credit, gave Portal 2 too little credit, and the game I'm playing now isn't even on the list.

And really, Far Cry 3 didn't make it onto the list at all? (good to leave FC 4 and FC 5 off the list, though!)

The thing about lists like this is: are they interesting? This list definitely is, mostly because the Polygon editors do a nice job of summarizing why they thought a particular game deserved your interest. So overall I'd agree they succeeded; it's a very solid list.

The biggest surprise of the list, to me, was Kentucky Route Zero. I gave this a pass 5 years ago, but maybe I should go back and give it another look? It's interesting to look at Metacritic's results on KRZ, which show an enormous distribution of scores.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Mistress of the Art of Death: a very short review

When I was recently at the ever-amazing Powell's City of Books, one of my selections was Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death.

Although it's quite expertly-crafted and very well-executed, Mistress of the Art of Death is also very much all over the map.

Is it a historical novel? A murder mystery? A romance?

Yes, to all three. The depiction of England during the time of the Crusades is quite vivid, and makes an entertaining backdrop to the foreground story of a serial killer terrorizing Cambridge with a string of gruesome murders.

And our heroine is quite an inventive character, a young woman from the ancient Italian city of Salerno. She is medically-trained and speaks several languages, and is known as a Mistress of the Art of Death because she got her medical training at a school which practiced autopsies, a quite rare approach at the time, at least in western medicine.

I'm not sure how interested I was in the romance.

And I'm not sure that 12th-century England is all that appealing a place to spend my idle reading hours.

But overall I liked Mistress of the Art of Death quite a lot.

I see that Franklin has written a number of additional books; perhaps I'll give them a try!

Saturday, October 26, 2019

A hard wind may blow...

NWS is worried: Red Flag Warning

Confidence is high that an offshore wind event featuring strong and dangerous winds and critically low humidity will impact the area from this evening through Monday morning. This event looks to be the strongest since the 2017 wine country fires and potentially a historic event given the strength and duration of the winds. The strongest winds are expected from late tonight into Sunday morning. Stronger winds mixing to the lower elevations will be a particular concern from late tonight through Sunday. Winds will gradually ease at lower elevations by late Sunday, but remain gusty across the higher elevations on Sunday night and into Monday morning. Latest model runs suggest winds will be stronger Sunday night than previously expected over the higher terrain.

Current forecasts indicate winds will top 80 MPH inside the fire zone.

Sonoma County Emergency Services are responding:

An evacuation order has been issued for the City of Healdsburg, the Town of Windsor, and surrounding unincorporated areas. You must leave before 4 pm this afternoon 10/26.

Please drive south. Evacuation Centers are located at the Santa Rosa Vets Hall, the Petaluma Fairgrounds, and the Petaluma Vets Hall. The closest evacuation center is located at the Santa Rosa Veterans Hall.

In addition, evacuation warnings have been issued a much wider area, including the Dry Creek Valley, Porter Creek drainage, Mark West, Larkfield areas, Fulton, Forestville, Guerneville, Occidental, Jennfer and Bodega Bay. This includes all areas west of Sebastopol, north of Bodega Highway, and south of Stewarts Point-Skaggs Springs Road.

Driving south is no fun: 101 is a parking lot.

A look at the detailed map gives you an idea of the scope of the effort.

The mandatory evacuation covers 50,000 people, and the evacuation warning covers nearly 100,000 more.

We have lots of family and friends in the area, though none (so far as I know) are in the mandatory evac at this time.

May the wind stay in the mountains, may the people and animals stay safe, and may emergency workers be careful and safe.

And may they all see Monday dawn, safe and beyond this.

UPDATE (late Sunday night):

  • Wind speeds topped 90 MPH today.
  • One firefighter has been airlifted to hospital in critical condition.
  • Nearly 200,000 people have been evacuated from the risk area. 80,000 homes are considered "threatened". (Our cousins have found space in a hotel some 50 miles south.)
  • A second, stronger, wind event is anticipated on Wednesday

Now would be a good time for some good news.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Mars Room: a very short review

About a year and a half ago, I read Rachel Kushner's first book, Telex from Cuba. It definitely left me wanting me to read more of her work, so this summer I picked up The Mars Room.

It so happened that I picked it up at Powell's in Portland, browsing through the aisles with my mother. She looked at my selection, and made no comment, until I persevered, at which point she said, "she's not exactly my cup of tea."

Actually, I'm not sure that Kushner is anyone's cup of tea.

And I don't think she wants to be.

Kushner is that sort of writer who looks you in the eye and tells you that, yes, that shirt actually doesn't fit you. And it's not your color, either. She's a brutally honest ripper-off-of-the-bandage, let's-get-on-with-it sort, given to setting forth the truth and perhaps even rubbing your nose in it as well. The women in her books run away from home, disobey orders, ride motorcycles, get tattoos, dance in cabarets.

And go to prison.

The Mars Room tells the story of Romy Hall, on her way to a Woman's Prison in the Central Valley of California. Initially, we follow the story from Romy's perspective, both in real time as she arrives at prison, as well as in flashbacks of her earlier life, leading up to this point, revealing why she is here.

Over time, we meet other people in Romy's life, and we start to learn about their stories too; not in as much depth, but more and more as the book goes on.

Some of these shifts in perspectives provide balance and structure, via different points of view.

Other times, they provide sheer horror, as when we are suddenly plunged into the head of the sexual predator at the core of Romy's story; this part of the book is particularly powerful stuff, ghastly and terrible.

As befits a book with such subject matter, this is no elegant novel filled with figurative and romantic prose. Rather, Kushner deploys a blunt style. This is the sort of book that sits across the table from you, slapping you in the face:

I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. It was nothing to do with morality. These men dimmed my glow. Made me numb to touch, and angry. I gave, and got something in exchange, but it was never enough.

Nothing ... sucked ... not ... nothing ... dimmed ... numb ... angry ... never.

Slap. Slap. Slap. You can hear it. You can feel it.

Kushner is well aware that she is telling a tale about people whose tales you never hear:

Who were those people, [...] and where did they go? A lot of history is not known. A lot of worlds have existed that you can't look up online or in any book, even as you think you have the freedom to find things out that I cannot, since I don't have access to the internet. [...] you'll find nothing, no trace, but they existed.

And if someone did remember them, someone besides me, that person's account would make them less real, because my memory of them would have to be corrected by facts, which are never considerate of what makes an impression, what stays in the mind after all these years, the very real images that grip me from the erased past and won't let go.

This is the power of great fiction, isn't it, to be free from needing to be "corrected by facts," so that it can tell the real story:

All the talk of regret. They make you form your life around one thing, the thing you did, and you have to grow yourself from what cannot be undone: they want you to make something from nothing. They make you hate them and yourself. They make it seem that they are the world, and you've betrayed it, them, but the world is so much bigger.

The lie of regret and of life gone off the rails. What rails. The life is the rails. It is its own rails and it goes where it goes. It cuts its own path. My path took me here.

"The world is so much bigger," indeed. And full of "history [that] is not known."

Kushner is still young, and I suspect she'll write many more books. And I suspect I'll read many of them.

What part of that bigger world will she take us to next?

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Up, up, and away (or not)

The rumors of last spring are confirmed, and the U.S. trade policy has claimed another U.S. casualty, and this time it's a pretty large one: Another Chinese Mega-Construction Project in California Is Halted, this one in San Francisco. List of Troubled or Scuttled Chinese Projects in California Grows.

The tsunami of Chinese money that washed ashore on the West Coast, and particularly in real estate in California, between 2014 and 2016, and that has done so much to inflate the commercial real estate bubble and the housing bubble, has now receded. And what is left to do is to sort through it all and figure out how to go on from here.

It's not the only project that Oceanwide is abandoning: Genworth's $3.8B Takeover By China Could Be Next Victim Of The Trade War

Nothing worked out as planned. U.S.-China political and trade tension ratcheted up as President Trump implemented a hardline approach on Chinese investments in the U.S., and China responded with retaliatory tariffs. China Oceanwide faces mounting debt problems at home and concerns about whether it can meet its funding promises to Genworth with Chinese regulators cracking down on capital outflows.

Hiring has stopped: Bay Area unemployment rates at record lows – and hiring is slowing

The nine-county region added 800 jobs last month, which turned out to be the first time in a year that the Bay Area’s monthly job gains were below the 1,000 level, according to data from the state Employment Development Department.

Restaurants are closing.

There are vacant buildings in SoMa, just blocks from the headquarters of previously sky-rocketing companies such as Slack, GitHub, CloudFlare, and DropBox (the last of which recently abandoned downtown for significantly cheaper digs in Mission Bay, near DogPatch). "Office transactions totaled $532.1 million year-to-date through August, down 79.1 percent from the same period in 2018, as half of the 33 deals completed were value-add plays.",

WeWork is near bankruptcy, AirBnB has pushed their IPO attempt out to 'sometime in 2020'.

It now seems certain that the amazing 10-year run of boom times in San Francisco is over.

In addition to the halting of investment from China, one has to wonder about the other major change, the halting of immigration visas: The Trump Administration Is Denying H-1B Visas at a Dizzying Rate, But It’s Hit a Snag

While President Donald Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants has grabbed public attention, his administration has been dismantling the work-based immigration system as well. In April 2017, Trump issued the Buy American and Hire American executive order, which he promised would reform the high-skilled immigration program to “create higher wages and employment rates for workers in the United States.” Since then, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has been denying and delaying record numbers of H-1B visa petitions. The denial rate for first time H-1B applications went up from 10 percent in 2016 to 24 percent in 2019.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, but it is stunning to see how rapidly U.S. policy changes managed to stop the booming economy of the mid-2010's dead in its tracks.

Well, on we go.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

There was a F-35 at the SF Fleet Week Air Show

This was the annual Fleet Week event here in San Francisco.

This year, the air show included Captain Andrew Olson of the F-35 Demo Team.

This was the first time I had seen the F-35, and it was a remarkable demonstration.

Military.com has a short article highlighting the 2019 air show details: F-35 Demo Team Pilot to Debut All-New Moves for 2019 Show Season

"We're going out there to showcase the jet, [and] we're doing it fully aerobatic … fully showcasing the maneuvering envelope of the F-35," Olson said.

That means a minimum of 16 maneuvers, including rolls, loops, high-degree bank turns, and inverting to be fully upside down, among other actions. There will also be two new passes with the older warbirds, including a "fun bottom-up pass where the [audience] can see the bottom of the aircraft as it arcs over the crowd," he said.

Olson said the show pulls from the strengths and maneuvers of multiple airframes that came before the F-35. For example, the F/A-18 Super Hornet is "very impressive at a slow-speed capability, being able to do things like a square loop" and the F-16 Viper demo "is very fast and agile," he said. Audiences will be able to see the F-35 do both.

The F-35 "will be able to power out of other maneuvers" more swiftly because of its F135 engine, which propels it with more than 40,000 pounds of thrust, Olson said.

He will perform a pedal turn similar to the F-22, in which the F-35 banks and climbs high, eventually simulating a somersault-like move. But Olson will not use thrust vectoring or manipulate the direction of the engine's to control altitude or velocity.

I can't say that the Blue Angels were boring, for they never are.

But Captain Olson really stole the show.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Life is Strange 2: a very short review

I didn't play Life is Strange, the first effort by Paris-based Dont Nod Studios, although my son and my grand-daughter both did, avidly.

I went directly to this year's Life is Strange 2, which isn't really a sequel despite the name.

Life is Strange 2 is not your typical video game; it's more like an interactive television show.

It's like a television show in that it's designed to be consumed episodically: I've finished 4 of the 5 episodes (Episode 5 will be released in December), and the episodes are released incrementally, so you don't get the entire game at once, but rather there are these significant gaps where you are waiting for the next episode and you get to reflect upon the story so far.

And it's interactive in the sense that the story unfolds differently, depending on the choices that you make. Different events occur; various characters behave differently; different options are available as the game progresses.

An interesting side note is that, at the end of each episode, the game tells you a little bit about how your choices compared to those of other players of the game: 43% chose to play the game this way, 16% chose that way, etc.

Although the game is clearly targeted at high-schoolers, it's fascinating for people of almost any age, although it's definitely loaded with mature topics and wouldn't be a good game for a child younger than, say 14 or 15 years old. In Life is Strange 2 we have already dealt with lots of heavy duty themes, including parenting styles, gender identity, xenophobia, drug abuse and addiction, and more.

When I play the game, the hours just fly by. It's not uncommon for me to sit down to "just play for 30 minutes", and come up for air 2 hours later, not even realizing how much time has passed.

Life is Strange 2 is definitely not for everyone, but I can't wait for the last episode to arrive!

Saturday, October 5, 2019

BuzzFeed News article on web comment spam

Wow, don't miss this dense and detailed BuzzFeed News investigative journalism piece on web comment spam: Net Neutrality Fake Comments: How Political Operatives Duped Ajit Pai's FCC

Sarah Reeves sat on her couch in Eugene, Oregon, staring at her laptop screen in furious disbelief. She was reading the website of a government agency, where her mother appeared to have posted a comment weighing in on a bitter policy battle for control of the internet. Something was very wrong.

For a start, Annie Reeves, who loved to lead children’s sing-alongs at the Alaska Zoo, had never followed wonky policy debates. She barely knew her way around the web, let alone held strident views on how it should be regulated — and, according to her daughter, she definitely didn’t post angry comments on government websites.

But Sarah Reeves had a more conclusive reason to feel sure her mother’s name had been taken in vain: Annie Reeves was dead. She died more than a year before the comment was posted.

And, as the article goes on to note, it's not just the Net Neutrality website that was manipulated in this fashion.

In February 2018, lawmakers in South Carolina were “flooded” with emails opposing legislative efforts that they said would endanger the multibillion-dollar sale of Scana Corporation to Dominion Energy.

South Carolina House Majority Leader Rep. Gary Simrill found something suspicious about the correspondence. Among the emails he received was one from his good friend, William Barron. Why would Barron — whom he speaks to often and had seen within the past week — send him a form letter? He decided to try responding to the email. But when Simrill clicked to reply, the email address that popped up was one he had never seen Barron use. Perplexed, Simrill phoned Barron.

“Someone’s impersonating me,” Barron told local reporters. “It’s very discouraging, and it reeks of fraudulence.”

Simrill notified his Republican caucus colleagues. None could find a constituent who said they had really sent the correspondence, Simrill told BuzzFeed News.

There's more. A lot more. With lots of links and background material to chase. Incidents in Texas. Incidents in New York. On and on.

Fascinating stuff.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Ghost Brigades: a very short review

Seven short years ago I read John Scalzi's Old Man's War and really liked it.

Recently I picked up book two of the Old Man's War series: The Ghost Brigades, and it was like seven years had passed in barely a week.

The Ghost Brigades is filled with action, and races along. It's a quick and entertaining read.

There are still four more books in the Old Man's War series; perhaps I should not wait 7 years between books or I may not finish them all.

Scalzi also has a web site, which I read from time to time.

Pat O'Neil thoughts

The relatively small database kernel community has lost another one of the Old Guard: I recently learned that Pat O'Neil passed away last month.

I was lucky enough to have Pat as a colleague, although briefly. My first "real job" after I graduated from college back in the mid 1980's was at Computer Corporation of America in Cambridge, MA, and I sat just down the hall from Pat and followed his work closely as he led the team building support for B+ Tree indices for Model 204.

This was the first time I learned about "the ubiquitous B-Tree." But, more importantly, it was being around Pat with his enthusiastic fascination for database kernels and file structures and access methods that launched me on my path to 40 years of being a storage systems engineer, the best career on earth in my opinion!

I left Boston for California, but 10 years later I met up with Pat again, when he invited me up to Seattle to learn about the new SQL Server team that Microsoft were setting up. Due to a variety of reasons, I didn't pursue the SQL Server opportunity, choosing instead to go work at Sybase, but I really appreciated the fact that Pat thought of me and took the time to introduce me to some fascinating engineers at Microsoft.

In addition to being brilliant, Pat was extremely nice and was a wonderful role model for a young engineer like me.

Moreover, he was extremely lucky in another way: his wife, Betty (I of course knew her as Professor O'Neil) was just as brilliant, and was a great teacher. As a fledgling graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, I took her graduate class in Operating Systems and it was a tremendous experience for me. My undergraduate work was all in pure Mathematics (Chicago didn't even have a Computer Science department at the time!), and I had no idea what a wonder a well-taught Computer Science class could be like.

Pat is, of course, best known for inventing the LSM-Tree, which is now the mainstay of many a modern DBMS, but his work on the LRU-K buffer management algorithm, his work on the C-Store, and the marvelous "A critique of ANSI Isolation Levels" are all just as powerful and just as timeless.

I didn't realize it until I looked at his Wikipedia page, but not only did Pat and I both study (decades apart) at the University of Chicago, but the odds are reasonably high that Pat was a student of my father's back in the early 1960's, at MIT. I guess perhaps Pat and I were even more connected than I knew.

I'm sorry you're gone, Pat. I'll miss you.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

In which people discuss things I don't understand

Probably most people are aware that California AB 5 has passed and has been signed by Governor Newsom.

Now comes the extremely intelligent and insightful technology industry observer Ben Thompson with his thoughts on AB 5 and how it will affect Uber, Lyft, Doordash, Postmates, etc.: Neither, and New: Lessons from Uber and Vision Fund.

The critical part of AB 5 is the 3-part test for whether a worker is an independent contractor or not.

Here's what the law actually says:

2750.3. (a) (1) For purposes of the provisions of this code and the Unemployment Insurance Code, and for the wage orders of the Industrial Welfare Commission, a person providing labor or services for remuneration shall be considered an employee rather than an independent contractor unless the hiring entity demonstrates that all of the following conditions are satisfied:

(A) The person is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact.

(B) The person performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business.

(C) The person is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.

Thompson's take is:

That is why the best solution to the employment classification question is to realize that neither of the old categorizations fit: Uber drivers are not employees, nor are they contractors; they are neither, and new. A much better law would define this category in a new way that provides the protections and revenue-collection apparatus that California deems necessary while still preserving the flexibility and market-driven scalability that make these consumer welfare-generating platforms possible.

That's a reasonable critique.

On the other hand, the law seems quite clear, and based on the law, it certainly seems like Uber drivers should be considered to be employees of Uber.

Vox has more.

I don't think this is over.

More git wisdom from Raymond Chen

Super-engineer Raymond Chen is back with another installment of his git wisdom series:

Have fun, and remember, whatever you do: "You just have to make sure to keep the octopus happy."

I guess I was a bit unclear on the concept

For the past few months, I've been receiving various fliers, online, as well as in the weekly paper:

Mitchell Johnson: Large Paintings
August 12 - October 18, 2019
555 California Street, San Francisco

Well, 555 California, also known fairly commonly as "the old Bank of America building", is just a few blocks from my office, and even though I'm not a huge Mitchell Johnson fan, it seemed like a nice opportunity to stop by and see the exhibit.

So one day this week I walked over during my lunch break and opened the door to the building lobby.

A security guard met me at the door.

"I'd like to look at the paintings," I said.

"I'm sorry, only employees who work in the building are allowed to look at the paintings," replied the guard.

So much for that.

I wonder if Mr. Johnson is aware of this. His web site says:

Please visit my exhibit of large paintings in San Francisco's iconic skyscraper, 555 California Street, August 19-October 25, 2019. The lobby is open 9-6, M-F.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been that surprised.

Oh, well.

Probably they are nice paintings, but it's a big world and I've got plenty of other things to do.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Algorithms by Jeff Erickson: a very short review

I recently followed a link from somewhere to Professor Jeff Erickson's algorithms web site. Erickson, who has been a professor at the University of Illinois for 20 years, maintains a wonderful textbook simply entitled Algorithms.

Although you can read the entire book (and many additional supplements) online, I splurged and got the paper copy, because it was easier to read on my commute.

The biggest advantage of the paper copy, besides that I can read it on my commute where it's easier to read printed material than to bring up my computer, is that it's inexpensive. Most other modern algorithms textbooks nowadays are roughly five times the price of Erickson's book.

The biggest disadvantage of the paper copy is that it is in black-and-white, so the marvelous multi-color diagrams from the online book are rendered in a sort of gray-scale. But the diagrams are carefully-enough built that you can understand them even without the color coding, and if you're really stuck on one you can go online and look at just that one diagram.

Anyway, bottom line: I really like Erickson's book. His writing style is clear and engaging (for a computer science textbook, that is!); he includes a very nice selection of modern, relevant, important algorithms, with plenty of pointers to further areas for the interested reader (many of which are also online at Erickson's site); and the exercises at the end of each chapter are very useful for practicing the techniques that have just been discussed.

Bonus links: if you find Erickson's book hard going because you're a bit out of date on some of the fundamentals, Erickson kindly links to two other great sites: Professor Margaret Fleck's Building Blocks for Theoretical Computer Science, and Lehman, Leighton, and Meyer's Mathematics for Computer Science.

Now, all I need is more time to read.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Up, up, and away

Big news here at the East Cut: Malcolm Drilling have removed the amazing Liebherr 873 mobile crane which supported their 30-month sub-project of deep-foundation work at the Oceanwide Center.

They took that crane away overnight! Monday at 4:00 PM, it was there. Tuesday at 7:30 AM, it was not. Check the link above for the sketch of what was involved in disassembling and removing it. Boy I wish I had known to be there to watch. Sigh.

Now the project changes from building down, to building up.

Things have been a bit challenging for the Oceanwide Center project. Oceanwide is a Chinese developer, and the trade war and global economic conditions have greatly complicated things. They have halted work on the partially-completed Oceanwide Plaza in Los Angeles, but the San Francisco project is still underway, it seems.

At least, there are still crews on the site in San Francisco, and a new pedestal crane was recently installed, so I think they are still moving forward.

Time will tell, I guess.

I hope that the building gets built, because we are out of room across the street and we need new office space!

Sez the Chron:

The dearth of space and continued demand from the tech industry has led to leases for future buildings that haven’t even been approved by the city, such as Salesforce’s lease at 564 Howard St. and Pinterest’s deal at 88 Bluxome St.

The 564 Howard Street site, if it gets built, will connect directly to the Salesforce Park:

The site known as Transbay Parcel F is a dirt lot. In five years, the site at 564 Howard St. is set to become a soaring 800-foot glass high-rise with space for 1,500 workers, along with 165 condos and 190 hotel rooms.

If it gets built.

I have this feeling that growth is slowing rapidly across the country, and very specifically in the tech industry, as the impending recession begins to be felt everywhere. Tech is still an enormous generator of economic activity, but the global conditions are worsening fast.

So I think all these plans from three years ago are being frantically re-thought.

Meanwhile, since across the street means the Salesforce Tower, the tallest building west of Mississippi (by some measures), you should take some time to look at this gorgeous portfolio of pictures taken by photographer Gary Leonard during the topping out of the Wilshire Grand Hotel 3 years ago.

I found Leonard's photos via this nice short Snopes article that's making the rounds right now.

Onwards and upwards!

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Some music I've been listening to...

... somewhat ranked. Sorta.

  • Local Natives: Sunlit Youth. I can't believe this band isn't getting more attention. They burst onto the scene with Gorilla Manor in 2010, followed up with Hummingbird in 2013, then Sunlit Youth in 2016, and this summer they released Violet Street.

    Every one of these albums is wonderful, but Sunlit Youth is somehow my personal favorite. I've gotta figure out a way to see them live, but their 2019 tour didn't come anywhere close to my part of the world, sigh.

  • Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell. This is probably the most heart-breakingly perfect 40 minutes of music you will ever hear. Honest, intimate, tragic, compelling, unforgettable: all of these apply to Carrie & Lowell, an album which largely consists of Stevens trying to come to grips with his feelings about his mother and her premature death.

    The only hesitation I have about this album is that, each time I play it, there is a recovery period. I have to rest, and contemplate, and reflect.

  • Lord Huron: Vide Noir. What is it about Michigan's Ben Schneider that is so compelling to me? I'm not sure, but he certainly has me hooked. Lonesome Dreams was marvelous, Strange Trails just as good, and Vide Noir builds on those successes to find something richer and more nuanced. He can somehow capture the essence of sitting around the campfire, listening to stories told by those wandering cowboys of yore.
  • Lumineers: III.

    O.M.G.

    I've been a Lumineers super-fan since their break-out debut in 2011, and, like everyone else in the world, I've been waiting eagerly for III since it was announced last winter.

    But, when it finally arrived, it just blew my mind. With III, they have taken their phenomenal musicianship and married it with a deep and introspective voyage into their souls.

    I suspect that there will be many people who find III to be the wrong album for them.

    But for me, I'm thrilled.

  • Joseph: Good Luck, Kid. Since their monster self-titled debut in 2016, Joseph have been near the top of my Bands To Watch. It was going to be very, very hard for them to top that debut album, but Good Luck, Kid is very, very good.
  • Dave Matthews Band: Come Tomorrow. For nearly 30 years, The Dave Matthews Band has been producing magnificent work. Even if Come Tomorrow isn't their strongest album ever, it's been good enough for at least 2 dozen listens this summer.
  • Elephant Revival: Break In The Clouds. I, sadly, had the bad luck to stumble upon Elephant Revival just as the band had decided to call it quits and go their separate ways; life got in the way, I guess? This is an enchanting band, nicely incorporating bluegrass, jazz, and folk influences into a lovely ensemble. I've only listened to half of the music that they managed to record during 10 lovely years. Why, oh why didn't I learn about them years ago?
  • Gregory Alan Isakov: The Weatherman. Oh, everybody knows about Isakov, I'm not telling you anything you haven't already heard elsewhere. Can a musician be both dependable and revealing simultaneously? Everybody compares him to Van Morrison, which is a bit audacious because he isn't quite there, yet. Yet.
  • Billie Eilish: WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?. A little bit funky, a little bit smooth. A little bit edgy, a little bit elegant. But really: how can a 17-year-old possibly be this good already? Where will she go from here?
  • Tame Impala: Innerspeaker. I actually got both Innerspeaker and Lonerism this summer, and, honestly, I can't tell which one I prefer. They're both atmospheric and fascinating. Tame Impala are some sort of blend of The Beatles and Pink Floyd. I guess. Or something.
  • Whitney: Forever Turned Around. Whitney were another band whose debut album just captivated me. Light Upon The Lake was a collection of hook after hook, sing-along-lyrics ("I wanna drive around/with you with the windows down/and we can run all night"), and some sort of energy that just grabbed me.

    So my expectations for album number 2 were a bit too high. Still, Forever Turned Around is growing on me. So I keep moving it up and down in my Summer 2019 list.

  • Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats: Tearing at the Seams. I love the term, "rock and soul". Rateliff is full of energy and emotion and heat. Lots and lots of heat. GREAT driving music.
  • Shakey Graves: Can't Wake up. Again, this is a sophomore effort, after his very promising And The War Came. I really like this album, but I feel like Shakey Graves still hasn't produced his best work, and I wonder if he somehow needs something to challenge him.
  • Brett Dennen: Smoke and Mirrors. This is a strong work by Dennen, who has found his groove and delivers a lovely album here.
  • Young the Giant: Home of the Strange. "Cough Syrup", the stratospheric hit from Young the Giant's debut album, was such a wonder-song that it is no surprise that whatever happened next was a bit of a letdown. I skipped Mind Over Matter and went straight to their 3rd CD. And now I'm confused. What will happen next?
  • Indigo Girls live with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. If you're a super-fan, like I am, this is lovely stuff. I need to catch up with their more recent music. But, every time I think about that, I just go put on Strange Fire or Rites of Passage, and I remember when they changed the world.
  • Better Oblivion Community Center. Conor Oberst loves to go make music with other musicians. Phoebe Bridgers is a HUGE talent who is just getting started. I think it was a good experience for her to perform with him, but she's going to make much better music in the future.
  • Santana: Africa Speaks. WTF? Well, it's not boring. Half the tracks I was fascinated by; the other half I couldn't hit "next track" fast enough.
  • Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars. Urk, what? Somebody told me that his daughter is going through a "horse phase". I guess that maybe explains this? Darkness on the Edge of Town this sure ain't.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Backpacking 2019: Ansel Adams Wilderness

It can be complicated to get the schedules of 6 different people to line up properly, so this year it turned out to be mid-September before we were able to head out on the trail.

But line up the schedules did, and so off we went!

The Ansel Adams Wilderness is a large region of the Sierra Nevada, sharing a boundary with Yosemite National Park on its north, a second boundary with the Devil's Postpile National Monument on its east, and still another boundary with the John Muir Wilderness on its south and east. The Ansel Adams Wilderness is also fascinating to backpackers because it has significant trailhead access on both the east and west sides of the Sierra Nevada.

I often refer to this part of the world as "the Heart of the Sierra", as it's full of 12,000+ foot mountains, glacier-carved valleys, pristine mountain lakes, majestic canyons with rushing waterfalls and roaring rivers: just the ticket for a perfect vacation hike!

The Ansel Adams Wilderness was originally called the Minarets Wilderness, after the sawtooth formations on the Ritter Range, which maybe you can (barely) see in this picture.

To get to the Fernandez Trailhead on the west side of the Ansel Adams Wilderness from the Bay Area, you've got a journey that breaks down into two parts.

  1. First, you zoom along on 200 miles of high speed roads from San Francisco to Oakhurst; this takes you about 3 hours.
  2. Then, you drive up past Bass Lake until you find Beasore Road, also known as the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway. (Who knew there were 50+ such National Scenic Byways in California?) This 30 miles of road will take you from elevation 2,000 feet up to elevation 7,500 feet, and will also take you about 2 hours. It's good to slow down and enjoy the road, but you should also take this into account in your planning!

In what might be a first for me, the driving directions in my 2016 printing of Sierra South were incorrect, and we ended up driving to the Norris Trailhead first, then realizing that we were at the wrong trailhead, then retracing our steps back to Beasore Road, then proceeding about 100 yards further down the road, then we found the road to the Fernandez Trailhead. I think that, perhaps, the road to the Norris Trailhead has changed since the book was written, and I just wasn't paying quite enough attention to the (faded) Forest Service road signs. It was but a momentary diversion, though.

To its credit, my Tom Harrison map of the Ansel Adams Wilderness showed the road clearly (I just didn't look at that part of the map closely until I'd already made the mistake, duh!)

Our hike from Fernandez Trailhead up to Vandeburg Lake was a straightforward climb of about 1200 vertical feet over about 4.5 miles of trail. Fatiguing, especially at 8,000 feet of elevation, but the trail was well-maintained and well-marked.

We had originally been intending to make it all the way to Lady Lake, but by the time we arrived at Vandeburg Lake it was already 4 PM, and there was a lovely existing campsite that matched our group size perfectly, so we declared victory.

We visited Lady Lake the next day, as well as visiting the Staniford lakes which were quite delightful.

One of the advantages of going backpacking after Labor Day is that the Sierra summer backpacking season is over, and so you (mostly) have the trails and campsites to yourself.

Another of the advantages of going backpacking at the end of the summer is that it is the driest part of the year, so the trails are clear and dry (if a bit dusty), the water crossings are generally not intimidating, and, to a first approximation, there are no mosquitoes!

Unfortunately, one of the downsides of it being the driest part of the year is that most of the mountain wildflowers had already disappeared for the year.

More importantly, another of the disadvantages of going backpacking in mid-September is that summer is almost over, and it is starting to get COLD! During our trip, the high temperatures were only in the mid-60's and low-70's, and the overnight lows were down in the low 30's.

There were even some snow fields within distance of the lake, so we had a snowball fight and I built a snowman.

I was glad that I had my nice new sleeping bag, rated for 15 degrees and true to its word.

Yet another disadvantage, which rather took us by surprise, is that late summer, particularly after a long wet winter, is apparently peak season for yellow jackets and other types of wasps. Each day, in the early afternoon, we found ourselves being annoyed and chased about by small swarms of these aggressive and very annoying insects. One of our party was stung twice, including once on his tongue (!), and had to have our "wilderness nurse" remove the stinger with a trusty pair of tweezers.

The UC Davis website has a lot of useful background information about these wasps,

But these are just the ups and downs of backpacking trips, I guess, and for the most part our trip was lovely.

The lakes were lovely.

The views were astounding.

Our intrepid fisherman, Rich, caught a fish! It was, I think, a rainbow trout? I don't know much about fish identification but maybe this was a Kern River Rainbow Trout? It certainly seemed much more like a Rainbow Trout than a Brown Trout, even though I think Brown Trout is typically what you find in these parts?

All in all, it was a wonderful trip.

Monday, September 2, 2019

1491: A very short review

Charles Mann would certainly be the first to admit that 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is now getting "old".

It was published 15 years ago, after all, and even though Mann has revised it a tad, that's a significant period of time, and the revelations are certainly no longer new.

With a (slightly) deeper interpretation, however, one of Mann's major points is that books such of these are of necessity always old, even the moment after they are written:

Meanwhile, new disciplines and new technologies were creating new ways to examine the past. Demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, and palynology (pollen analysis); molecular and evolutionary biology; carbon-14 dating, ice-core sampling, satellite photograph, and soil assays; genetic microsatellite analysis and virtual 3-D fly-throughs -- a torrent of novel perspectives and techniques cascaded into use. And when these were employed, the idea that the only human occupants of one-third of the earth's surface had changed little for thousands of years began to seem implausible. To be sure, some researches have vigorously attacked the new findings as wild exaggerations. ("We have simply replaced the old myth [of untouched wilderness] with a new one," scoffed geographer Thomas Vale, " the myth of the humanized landscape.") But after several decades of discovery and debate, a new picture of the Americas and their original inhabitants is emerging.

When I started reading 1491, I had no idea what genetic microsatellite analysis was, and I had to look it up (this is a pretty approachable overview), but 1491 isn't really a book about how anthropologists, historians, and other similar disciplines operate.

Rather, it's (at least) two other books:

  • It's a lively and entertaining look at what we currently know about what the Americas were when the enormous waves of immigration from Renaissance Europe began in the late 1400's
  • But it's also an attempt to help you, the reader, become a better consumer of the information you receive about how we got to this point, how the world is changing, and what it might mean for what you think you know.

Much of 1491 flies by, Mann leads us at a frenetic pace through much memorable history:

Dazzled as he was, Cortes was also aware that with a single command Motecuhzoma could order his army "to obliterate all memory of us." The Spaniards counteracted this thread by inventing a pretext to seize the tlatoani in his own palace, making him first their captive and then their puppet.

In both Europe and Mesoamerica kings ruled by the dispensation of the heavens. The Mexica reacted to the sacrilegious abduction of their leader with the same baffled horror with which Europeans later reacted to Cromwell's execution of Charles I in 1649. Not wanting to act in a way that could result in Motecuhzoma's death, the Mexica took seven months to mount a counterattack. Fearing the worst, the debased tlatoani made a begging public appearance on behalf of the Spanish. He soon died, either murdered by the Spaniards (according to Mexica accounts) or slain by his own countrymen (as Spanish chronicles tell it). Soon after came the long-delayed assault. Under the leadership of a vigorous new tlatoani, Cuitlahuac, the Indians force the invaders into narrow alleys where horses were of little advantage. Under a pitiless hail of spears, darts, and arrows, Cortes and his men retreated down the long causeways that linked the island city to the mainland. In a single brutal night the Mexica utterly vanquished Cortes, killing three-quarters of his men. Although the Alliance destroyed causeways in front of the Spaniards, the remnants of the invaders were able to cross the gaps because they were so choked with the dead that the men could walk on the bodies of their countrymen. Because the Mexica did not view the goal of warfare as wiping out enemies to the last man, they did not hunt down the last Spaniards. A costly mistake: Cortes was among the escapees.

A man of unfathomable determination, Cortes never thought of giving up. He persuaded several other vassal states to join his anti-Alliance alliance with Tlaxcala. Negotiating furiously, he assembled a force of as many as 200,000 men and built thirteen big ships in an audacious plan to assault Tenochtitlan from the water.

...

When Cortes and his Indian allies finally attacked, the Mexica resisted so fiercely despite their weakness that the siege has often been described as the costliest battle in history -- casualty estimates range up to 100,000.

Yet, I suspect that Mann began his book fascinated by the first topic, and set out to write that "first book," but along the way he became even more fascinated by how challenging it is to avoid thinking that we now know everything there is to know about the past, and so he ended up writing that "second book" as well, trying to open our eyes to just how little we know, and just how alert we should be to the possibility that what we think we know, we do not in fact know at all:

At first he did nothing about his observation. Historical demography was not supposed to be his field. Six years later, in 1959, he surveyed more archives in Hermosilla and found the same disparity. By this point he had almost finished his doctorate at Cornell and had been selected for Holmberg's project. The choice was almost haphazard: Dobyns had never been to Peru.

Peru, Dobyns learned, was one of the world's cultural wellsprings, a place as important to the human saga as the Fertile Crescent. Yet the area's significance had been scarcely appreciated outside the Andes, partly because the Spaniards so thoroughly ravaged Inka culture, and partly because the Inka themselves, wanting to puff up their own importance, had actively concealed the glories of the cultures before them. Incredibly, the first full history of the fall of the Inka empire did not appear until more than three hundred years after the events in chronicled: William H Prescott's History of the Conquest of Peru, published in 1847.

Read 1491 because it's wildly entertaining and endlessly engrossing.

But remember 1491 because it makes you a better reader, and a better thinker, in general.

One way or another, however, read 1491.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Updates from The Ocean Cleanup Project

Boyan Slat and the team at The Ocean Cleanup Project are working along, tinkering and learning.

Here's their latest report: Into the Twilight Zone

First, they remind us where they were a year ago:

Our first attempt at doing so was deployed last year: System 001, also known as Wilson. After months of testing, we took Wilson back to port in the first days of this year after it suffered a fatigue fracture. This was not ideal, but both the diagnosis and solution came quite easily.

And then, they bring us up to date on where they are now:

The more complicated challenge was the system’s inability to retain plastic; instead of consistently going faster than the plastic, it alternated between going faster and going slower than the plastic. This meant plastic would float into the system, as planned, but then float out again.

...

We launched System 001/B in late June, which was followed by a six-week testing campaign to test slowing down the system using a parachute anchor and test speeding up the system using large inflatable buoys.

...

the winning concept is the slow-down approach, in which we use a parachute anchor to slow down the system as much as possible, allowing the natural winds and waves to push the plastic into the system.

...

there’s always a twist in each episode; well, here’s ours: the plastic is currently able to cross over the cork line into The Twilight Zone. While it is technically still within the boundaries of the system, there is no screen underneath the floater pipe, so we cannot consider this plastic caught because it is not securely retained in front of the screen.

...

we will now be using three rows of 32 cm floats stacked on top of each other, creating a total height of about half a meter.

It's a wonderful article, with great diagrams and deeper explanations throughout.

This is incremental engineering at its best: start with something; it does some things properly but fails in other ways; test, improve, repeat.

I'm looking forward to more great updates!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Scrappers

I was completely enthralled by Scrappers: The Big Business of Scavenging in PostIndustrial America.

Hypnarowski later told me that his company, New Enterprise Stone and Lime, also owned some of the land where Bethlehem Steel once existed. The steel mills had been scrapped long ago, but there were still nuggets to be had — or “buttons” to be precise. Buttons are essentially giant metal boulders that weigh as much as 20 tons. When the mills were still operating, iron ore was melted and poured into great big ladles, at which point the less desirable slag would form at the bottom. This slag was then dumped onto Lake Erie’s shoreline, where it hardened and formed buttons. Together, Hypnarowski and Levin worked to salvage these buttons from the lakeside. They had, it seemed, thought of every conceivable way to mine big scrap. Over time, scrappers have remade Buffalo’s landscape. The city has survived, in part, by devouring itself.

Back when steel mills first closed, Lou Jean Fleron, an emeritus professor at Cornell’s school of industrial and labor relations, ran a series of educational programs for the workers who had been laid off. She got close with the families that became destitute. It was a very hard time, she recalled, and whenever she visited Buffalo’s waterfront, her eyes inevitably drifted toward the derelict mills. “Oh, God, it was like a ghost town — like a skeleton — a big, massive black skeleton,” she recalled. Then the demolition crews and the scrappers arrived to do their work. Now when Fleron goes down to the waterfront, she sees young families with their children having birthday parties. The scene is almost pastoral.

“It was important to take it all down,” Fleron told me. “It does make some of the pain go away.”

The hero of the story is the incredibly hard-working Adrian Paisley:

Paisley typically takes scrap from his piles and moves it inside his garage, where he processes it. This is where Paisley makes his money, by extracting the most valuable nuggets. The air-conditioner that he found, for example, was promising because it contained copper tubing, copper wiring and an ACR (an aluminum-copper radiator). The scrapyard might pay him only $4 to $6 for the air-conditioner in its current form, but if he processed it and removed the copper, he might earn three times as much. For this reason, Paisley spends much of his day surgically removing the most valuable metals. He even removes each screw and sells them together in bulk. Scrapyards are willing to pay a premium for scrap like this because it saves them the trouble of having to process it themselves.

It was great to read of Paisley's dream of one day no longer having to do this back-breaking work:

It was all crystal clear in his mind: “I want to see the fog hovering across the ground on a nice cool fall morning. And I don’t want to hear nothing but the birds, and the insects chirping. I want to stand there, man, and drink my coffee and look at the fog. Peaceful.

Amen, Mr. Paisley.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

This. Also, that.

School has started, here in the Bay Area.

Naturally, I have the sniffles, a scratchy throat, and a sinus headache.

Must. Sleep.

But, in the meantime, there's so much to read!

  • What is Haberman?
    I’d never heard of “Haberman” before. The name of the neighborhood that people who live here would recognize is Maspeth (which you can see up-and-to-the-right of Haberman). Is Haberman even a real neighborhood? Why did Google put this giant Haberman label on the map?
  • The Pin Is Mightier: Why it’s so satisfying to find—and make—fake locations in Google Maps.
    It’s chaos that Google appears hard-pressed to stop. In a June 2019 blog post, the company says it took down 3 million fake business profiles in 2018, around 85 percent of which were flagged by internal systems, and 90 percent of which were removed before users could see them. Google did not provide statistics on how many new businesses get added a year, or how many listings appear on Google Maps, but given that the service includes data from 220 countries, 3 million listings is likely a drop in the bucket. A Google spokesperson says the company has a team dedicated to Maps fraud, and has “strict policies in place” to detect fraud through “manual and automated systems,” but declined to reveal further details “so as not to tip off spammer or others with bad intent.”
  • Algorithms, by Jeff Erickson
    This web page contains a free electronic version of my self-published textbook Algorithms, along with other lecture notes I have written for various theoretical computer science classes at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign since 1998.
  • Highlights from Git 2.23
    The open source Git project just released Git 2.23 with features and bug fixes from over 77 contributors, 26 of them new. Here’s our look at some of the most exciting features and changes introduced since Git 2.22.
  • Hiring is Broken: What Do Developers SayAbout Technical Interviews?
    Posters report that these interviews cause unnecessary anxiety and frustration, requiring them to learn arbitrary, implicit, and obscure norms. The findings from our study inform inclusive hiring guidelines for technical interviews, such as collaborative problem-solving sessions.
  • Tech Interview Handbook: Carefully curated content to help you ace your next technical interview
    The Tech Interview Handbook contains carefully curated content to help you ace your next technical interview with a focus on algorithms. While there are a ton of interview resources on the internet, the best ones are either not free, or they do not cover the complete interview process, usually only focusing on algorithms.
  • How to Build Good Software
    Some core operating principles that can dramatically improve the chances of success:
    1. Start as simple as possible;
    2. Seek out problems and iterate; and
    3. Hire the best engineers you can.
    While there are many subtler factors to consider, these principles form a foundation that lets you get started building good software.
  • Every productivity thought I've ever had, as concisely as possible
    I combed through several years of my private notes and through everything I published on productivity before and tried to summarize all of it in this post.
  • They Get Fired All the Time. And They Have No Idea Why.
    Through weeks of intensive research, a singular truth emerged. People with Asperger’s syndrome, the term still commonly used for one of the most well-known forms of autism spectrum disorder, bring serious advantages to the financial markets: extreme focus, a facility with numbers, a willingness to consider unpopular opinions, a strong sense of logic, and an intense belief in fairness and justice. But, like other autistic employees, they often feel alienated from their managers, colleagues, and clients. Sometimes they simply get fired.
  • A Walk In Hong Kong
    All that prelude is to say, coming in to the Hong Kong protests from a less developed country like the United States is disorienting. If you have never visited one of the Zeroth World cities of Asia, like Taipei or Singapore, it can be hard to convey their mix of high density, mazelike design, utterly reliable public services, and high social cohesion, any more than it was possible for me or my parents to imagine a real American city, no matter how many movies we saw. And then to have to write about protests on top of it!
  • WeWTF
    In frothy markets, it's easy to enter into a consensual hallucination, with investors and markets, that you’re creating value. And it’s easy to wallpaper over the shortcomings of the business with a bull market's halcyon: cheap capital. WeWork has brought new meaning to the word wallpaper.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Weird ... what happened to the Forest Service website?

I can't get to any link for the United States Forest Service websites anymore.

All the various ranger stations, forest service campgrounds, etc., used to be at fs.usda.gov website addresses, but now all the web browsers just say:

fs.usda.gov’s server IP address could not be found.

Somebody messed up a DNS record somewhere and thousands of web pages vanished?

For example, go here and try clicking on any of the Geo-enabled PDFs in the "Topographic Maps" section.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Up, up, and away

Yesterday they welcomed buses back to the TransBay Bus Terminal, aka Salesforce Park.

Here's a nice story in Wired with lots of pictures and fascinating details: How 'Microcracks' Undermined San Francisco's New Bus Terminal

the construction process involved cutting away 8 inches of the flange right where it needed to be strongest. “The problem was the geometry of the weld access hole,” Frank says. “It has this corner on it, and it acts as a stress concentrator.”

The holes weren’t circular—they were rectangular, with rounded edges. And those corners, probably cut with a plasma cutter, acquired “microcracks” just a few hundredths of an inch deep. The investigators know they were cut with something hot, because the surfaces of the cracks were coated with a colored deposit, an oxide that could only have resulted from exposure to high heat. “You can actually see it,” Vecchio says. “It’s a very deep red, as opposed to what regular rusting of steel looks like, which is going to be more orange in color.”

Much of this story has been told before, but the Wired article is well-written and has some great pictures from the forensic studies of the failed girder.

Some bits are quite new to me:

The ability of something—steel, in this case—to resist fracture after it cracks is called “fracture toughness.” It’s measured with what’s called a Charpy impact test, basically a very precise banging on the metal until it breaks. According to spec, the steel in the Transbay Terminal was supposed to absorb 20 foot-pounds of energy before it fractured at room temperature. It did, but testing by LPI showed lower toughness deeper inside the steel. That’s where the pop-in cracks formed

And this new information appears to suggest an explanation for one of the most tantalizing questions: why did the beams fail in one part of the structure, but not in another very similar part:

That may also explain why the girders over Fremont Street cracked, but the ones over First Street did not. “The difference was the sequence of construction,” Engelhardt says. “On First Street, the welds were made first, and the holes were made after. On Fremont Street, the holes were made first. That turned out to be the decisive difference.”

This morning, the buses were again running in the terminal.

Let's hope things continue to work well now.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Stuff I'm reading, mid-summer edition

Here you go, stuff you might or might not find interesting, too.

  • DMV Strike Team Final Report
    the DMV is facing historic and unprecedented surges in demand. This increased demand has been primarily driven by the following:
    • Stringent federal identification requirements to obtain a REAL ID, which require an in-person visit to a DMV field office.
    • Motor Voter opt-out requirements, which have greatly increased the workload of DMV staff.
    The Strike Team focused its efforts on improving the processes surrounding REAL ID, with the expectation that increased efficiencies in REAL ID transactions would then translate to other areas of the DMV.

    It is clear that changes are essential if the DMV is to meet its most immediate challenge: successfully meeting increased demand for REAL ID driver licenses before the October 1, 2020 federal deadline

  • The Best Refactoring You've Never Heard Of
    We did a four step process to go from the recursive to the iterative version. First, we made it CPS so these functions appeared. And then we defunctionalized those functions. So now we have these two mutually recursive functions passing around this continuation object. We inlined one to the other. Now it's tail recursive; it becomes a loop. But, of course, the inlining is just kind of moving things around, so we can do the tail-recursion elimination. The big insight that made this all possible, the real workhorse of this transformation, was to defunctionalize the continuation!
  • Cryptographic Attacks: A Guide for the Perplexed
    Over the years, the landscape of cryptographic attacks has become a kudzu plant of flashy logos, formula-dense whitepapers and a general gloomy feeling that everything is broken. But in truth, many of the attacks revolve around the same few unifying principles, and many of the interminable pages of formulas have a bottom line that doesn’t require a PhD to understand.
  • Operating a Large, Distributed System in a Reliable Way: Practices I Learned
    This post is the collection of the practices I've found useful to reliably operate a large system at Uber, while working here. My experience is not unique - people working on similar sized systems go through a similar journey. I've talked with engineers at Google, Facebook, and Netflix, who shared similar experiences and solutions. Many of the ideas and processes listed here should apply to systems of similar scale, regardless of running on own data centers (like Uber mostly does) or on the cloud (where Uber sometimes scales to). However, the practices might be an overkill for smaller or less mission-critical systems.
  • Distributed Locks are Dead; Long Live Distributed Locks!
    For the impatient reader, here are the takeaways of this blog post:
    • FencedLock is a linearizable distributed implementation of the java.util.concurrent.locks.Lock interface with well-defined execution and failure semantics. It can be used for both coarse-grained and fine-grained locking.
    • FencedLock replicates its state over a group of Hazelcast members via the Raft consensus algorithm. It is not vulnerable to split-brain problems.
    • FencedLock tracks liveness of lock holders via a session mechanism that works in a unified manner for both Hazelcast servers and clients.
    • FencedLock allows 3rd-party systems to participate in the locking protocol and achieve mutual exclusion for the side-effects performed on them. This is the “fenced” part of the story.
    • FencedLock is battle-tested with an extensive Jepsen test suite. We have been testing its non-reentrant and reentrant behavior, as well as the monotonicity of the fencing tokens. To the best of our knowledge, FencedLock is the first open source distributed lock implementation that is tested with such a comprehensive approach.
  • Making Containers More Isolated: An Overview of Sandboxed Container Technologies
    The main difference between a virtual machine (VM) and a container is that the VM is a hardware-level virtualization and a container is a OS-level virtualization. VM hypervisor emulates a hardware environment for each VM, where the container runtime emulates an operating system for each container. VMs share the host’s physical hardware and containers share both the hardware and the host’s OS kernel. Because containers share more resources from the host, their usages of storage, memory, and CPU cycles are all much more efficient than a VM. However, the downside of more sharing is the weaker trust boundary between the containers and the host.
  • Testing the CP Subsystem with Jepsen
    Running a Jepsen test on a distributed database is like sneaking up on Superman with kryptonite while he is trying to overcome his biggest challenge. Jepsen subjects the database to various system failures while running a test case and checks whether the database is able to maintain its consistency promises. It can create chaos in many ways: make a single node or multiple nodes crash or hiccup, partition the network, or even make clocks go crazy.
  • BPF Performance Tools
    This is the official site for the book BPF Performance Tools: Linux System and Application Observability, published by Addison Wesley (2019). This book can help you get the most out of your systems and applications, helping you improve performance, reduce costs, and solve software issues. Here I'll describe the book, link to related content, and list errata.
  • Why the dockless scooter industry is going after a repossessor and a bike shop owner
    On July 1st, the City of San Diego implemented new regulations to address the scooter complaints. The regulations will require scooter companies to obtain insurance policies, free the city from all legal liability, cap speeds on the boardwalk, and obtain permits for every scooter in circulation. It’s still too early to tell whether the new regulations will make a difference.

    “We are aware that people are still riding on sidewalks, we are aware that people are colliding into people and then taking off,” San Diego Police Department Lt. Shawn Takeuchi says.

  • The Near Impossible 20-Year Journey to Translate 'Fire Emblem: Thracia 776'
    Take one common problem with fan localizations: the sheer efficiency of Japanese. You can say a lot more with fewer characters in Japanese than English. Naturally, the game’s dialogue boxes were specifically programmed with Japanese in mind, not English. When a localizer drops the dialogue translated into English, there A) might not be space for the dialogue to fit, and B) if you go over the programmed character limit, the game could crash.
  • One giant ... lie? Why so many people still think the moon landings were faked
    t took 400,000 Nasa employees and contractors to put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969 – but only one man to spread the idea that it was all a hoax. His name was Bill Kaysing.
  • The 100 Best Movies of the Decade
    Cinema is in a constant state of flux, but it’s never mutated faster or more restlessly than it has over the last 10 years. And while the decade will no doubt be remembered for the paradigm shifts precipitated by streaming and monolithic superhero movies, hindsight makes it clear that the definition of film itself is exponentially wider now than it was a decade ago. Places. Products. Mirrors. Windows. Reflections of who we are. Visions of who we want to be. A way of capturing reality. A way of changing it. If the most vital work of the 2010s has made one thing clear, it’s that movies have never been more things to more people than they are today. And our week-long celebration list of the Best Films of the 2010s has us more excited than ever about what they might be to you tomorrow.
  • Billie Eilish and the Triumph of the Weird
    Eilish has conquered the music world in part by doing everything she’s not supposed to. Her music is darker and weirder than that of most teen pop stars, with a gothy, punkish, vaguely sinister edge and nary a hint of bubblegum. For her core teen-girl fan base, she’s like the cool senior in art class who dresses and acts the way they wish they could: stylish, outrageous, maybe a little dangerous. (As her hit single “Bad Guy” puts it, “I’m the bad type, make-your-mama-sad type. . . might-seduce-your-dad type.” You get the sense that she’d love to be a “Parents Beware” segment on the 11:00 news.) Her vibe is both semi-nihilist and joyously defiant, a perfect soundtrack for a generation facing a half-dozen existential threats before first period. But she’s also playful, mischievous, vulnerable, alienated, melancholy — in other words, a teen.
  • The Ham of Fate
    What he honed in his Brussels years is the practice of political journalism (and then of politics itself) as Monty Python sketch. He invented a version of the EU as a gigantic Ministry of Silly Walks, in which crazed bureaucrats with huge budgets develop ever more pointlessly complicated gaits. (In the original sketch, the British bureaucrats are trying to keep up with “Le Marché Commun,” the Common Market.) Johnson’s Brussels is a warren of bureaucratic redoubts in which lurk a Ministry of Dangerous Balloons, a Ministry of Tiny Condoms, and a Ministry of Flavorless Crisps. In this theater of the absurd, it never matters whether the stories are true; what matters is that they are ludicrous enough to fly under the radar of credibility and hit the sweet spot where preexisting prejudices are confirmed.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Thinking, Fast and Slow: a very short review

Suppose you were to (somehow? I don't know how to do this) compile a list of all the books written by all the Nobel Prize winners.

And then, exclude the ones written by the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, because of course they write a lot of books!

And then, exclude the ones written by the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, because they write a lot of books, too.

I think at that point you're left with a pretty short list of books.

Of those, you'll find the occasional book written by a Nobel Prize winner in the hard sciences, such as James Watson's The Double Helix, or Murray Gell-Mann's The Quark and the Jaguar, but mostly what you'll find are books written by winners of the Nobel Economics Prize.

Because those economists write a lot of books, too.

And I confess that I haven't read most of those books.

But, occasionally, the Nobel Prize in Economics is awarded to somebody who isn't, strictly speaking, an economist, and Daniel Kahneman is one such. Kahneman, who had a long career as a Professor of Psychology at Princeton, takes the opportunity, with Thinking, Fast and Slow, to describe his conclusions about something that might sound trivial, but is actually quite sophisticated: how do we think?

Not, that is, how we think at some sort of physical level, with neurons and transmitters and the like, but how do we make decisions, how do we come to conclusions, how do we form judgments?

Kahneman's fundamental insight is that there are two different mechanisms at play: fast thinking, which is spontaneous and intuitive; and slow thinking, which is deliberate and effortful. In a rather awkward turn of phrase, he calls these System 1 and System 2:

I adopt terms originally proposed by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West, and will refer to two systems in the mind, System 1 and System 2.
  • System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.
The labels of System 1 and System 2 are widely used in psychology, but I go further than most in this book, which you can read as a psychodrama with two characters.

When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book. I describe System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps. I also describe circumstances in which System 2 takes over, overruling the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1. You will be invited to think of the two systems as agents with their individual abilities, limitations, and functions.

And the rest of the book, indeed, in quite readable prose and with very evocative and illuminating examples, explains these notions in considerable detail.

I think you can summarize Kahneman's book pretty reasonably as: usually, you let yourself be driven by hunches and knee-jerk reactions; yet usually, your hunches and intuitions are pretty reliable, especially in areas where you have lots of experience; sometimes, though your best guess is really bad, and you need to be aware that this can happen so that you can guard against it.

I know: that sounds pretty dry. But overall, this isn't a dry book. It's a surprisingly interesting and compelling book!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Comfort Me with Apples: a very short review

Ruth Reichl's marvelous Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table somewhat defies categorization.

It's primarily a memoir, part of a longer series that includes her earlier Tender at the Bone and her later Garlic and Sapphires and Save Me the Plums (none of which I've read).

It's also sort-of a cookbook. At least, there are actual recipes in it (none of which I've tried, although I'm itching to try both her approach to asparagus as well as a peculiar little tidbit she calls "Swiss Pumpkin" which sounds absolutely marvelous but must be made in January).

And it's definitely full of wonderful tales about celebrities of the (1980's) food world: private meals in Alice Waters's house, tagging along with Wolfgang Puck behind the scenes as he prepares to open Chinois on Main, etc.

And does she ever have stories to tell! Exciting stories from her trips around the world, hilarious tales and scandalous gossip from the heady world of California grand cuisine, warm and emotional insights into her family and her personal life, all of it written in a comfortable and appealing style that makes every page fun to read.

What struck me most about Comfort Me with Apples, however, was how vividly it arose from a very specific time and place: California in the late 1970's and early 1980's was very distinctive and awash with change. The Vietnam War was over, the oil crisis had passed, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and people were moving to California by the millions, drawn by the state's natural beauty and booming economy, attracted by visions of surfers and skateboarders and popular TV shows like CHiPs, Hart to Hart, Baywatch, and the like.

Meanwhile Berkeley was (and still is) a very unusual place, full of fervor and protest and change, and Reichl's descriptions of her life there capture the time wonderfully:

Doug wanted to make art, I wanted to write, and we moved to Berkeley so we could live cheaply and not become part of what we called the success machine. We steered clear of the stuff of ordinary existence, the clothes and cars and furniture that other people spent their money on. We chose a communal household on Channing Way because the rent was forty-five dollars a month and we could support ourselves with part-time jobs. I cooked in a restaurant; Doug did carpentry. We bought our clothes in thrift stores, borrowed our books from the library, and thought of a night at the movies as a major treat.

I'm not sure if I'll ever find the time to read Reichl's other books, but I certainly enjoyed every page of Comfort Me with Apples.