Saturday, August 31, 2013

Attacking chess

Here's how the game should be played!

White is Nicky Korba, still developing as a 16 year old.

Black is Siddharth Banik, only 13 years old.

Gotta love the last 5 moves of the game!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Understanding Computation: a very short review

One of the books on my Summer Reading List for 2013 was Tom Stuart's Understanding Computation

As computer books go, Stuart's book is rather unusual.

Many computer books are tediously practical: Learn XXX in 21 Days; Advanced Programming With The YYY Platform; ZZZ Technology In Depth.


Some computer books are insightful and educational, but hard to approach: filled with dense academic prose, written to be used as textbooks in a classroom setting, short on motivation and examples. In my day, for example, we learned from The Design and Analysis of Computer Algorithms, which is as great a computer textbook as was ever written, but is certainly not the sort of book you approach lightly.

Stuart's book fits into neither category. In a relatively short, lively, friendly-yet-rigorous 300 pages, Stuart manages to educate the reader on a surpisingly broad range of core theoretical concepts:

  • By page 20, we're discussing the concepts of syntax and semantics and learning about how to use Small-Step Operational Semantics to describe the behavior of a programming language implementation for an abstract machine.
  • By page 50, we've moved on to Denotational Semantics, and we're learning to implement a language parser
  • By page 60, we're studying Deterministic Finite Automata, and by page 70 we're comparing them to Nondeterministic Finite Automata
  • By page 100, we've learned to build machines that recognize Regular Expressions, and we're introducing the concept of the Pushdown Stack into our abstract machine.

Understanding Computation continues at the same pace throughout the book, covering

  • Nondeterministic Pushdown Automata
  • Parsing, Lexical Analysis, and Syntactic Analysis
  • Turing Machines
  • Lambda Calculus
  • Partial Recursive Functions
  • Tag Systems
  • Self-referential statements
  • Programs that can refer to themselves
  • Decidability
  • The Halting Problem
  • Incompleteness and Uncomputability

Whew! All this, in a friendly, clear, lively, 300 page book!

The sections on the Lambda Calculus were particularly rewarding for me, as this is an area that I somehow never picked up in my studies, and although I've tried from time to time to comprehend it, this was the first time I really felt like I got a true understanding of what was going on, and why it has the power that it does.

This is not to say that Understanding Computation is easy. You have to be willing to read Stuart's writing carefully, and you have to stop and think about what he's saying.

But all the way through, Understanding Computation is fun to read, not heavy or dull. For example, here's Stuart talking about the practice of programming:

Programmers tend to be practical, pragmatic creatures. We often learn a new programming language by reading documentation, following tutorials, studying existing programs, and tinkering with simple programs of our own, without giving much thought to what those programs mean. Sometimes the learning process feels a lot like trial and error: we try to understand a piece of a language by looking at examples and documentation, then we try to write something in it, then everything blows up and we have to go back and try again until we manage to assemble something that mostly works. As computers and the systems they support become increasingly complex, it's tempting to think of programs as opaque incantations that represent only themselves and work only by chance.

But computer programming isn't really about programs, it's about ideas. A program is a frozen representation of an idea, a snapshot of a structure that once existed in a programmer's imagination. Programs are only worth writing because they have meaning. So what connects code to its meaning, and how can we be more concrete about the meaning of a program than saying "it just does whatever it does"? In this chapter, we're going to look at a few techniques for nailing down the meaning of computer programs and see how to bring those dead snapshots to life.

"Everything blows up and we have to go back and try again": how perfect of a description is that?!

Some programmers are just programmers: for them, programming is a job, and they are doing it to make a living. To be an industrial programmer, you don't necessarily need to Think Deep Thoughts. You acquire a certain level of competence with the widely-used technologies of the moment; you join a team; you take on certain projects; you crank out code.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with being an industrial programmer, but this book is not really for that person.

There's another sort of programmer who isn't just interested in what, but also in why, and how. Some programmers don't approach programming just as a mechanical process, but are more introspective. They think about alternatives; they wonder whether one approach is somehow better than another; they look for ways to refine and elevate practice to art. This is the person who wants to be able to explain (to themselves and to others) not just that their program works, but why it works. This is the sort of programmer that frets about abstractions, that looks for common concepts and opportunities to reuse and extend solutions that were built earlier, that speculates not just about the solution to the problem at hand, but about the solution to the problem not yet encountered.

Stuart's book will appeal to that person, to that programmer who's neither just a practical engineer nor an abstract theoretician, but is rather somewhere in between, a little bit of both, and looking always for the opportunity to combine the two approaches and demonstrate that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Does that describe you? Well, if so, give Understanding Computation a try; you might well enjoy it!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Stuff I'm reading, end-of-August edition

Already planning that Labor Day barbeque? Surely you'll need something to read, or at least some paper to provide the kindling when you stack up the briquets in your chimney starter...

  • It's finally here! 24 years after the Loma Prieta earthquake: 2013 Closure Fact Sheet
    This Labor Day weekend, the Bay Bridge will be closed to take the original East Span out of service and to open the new East Span to traffic. Work will be done at the Oakland Touchdown and the Yerba Buena Island Transition Structure to connect the new bridge to the existing Toll Plaza and Yerba Buena Island, respectively. Crews will also perform essential construction activities, including paving, striping and erecting barrier rail. Throughout the closure, maintenance will work on the West Span, replacing lighting fixtures, cleaning and painting the cable, and repairing finger joints.
    Meanwhile, Bay Bridge Celebration
    Due to the late notice regarding the opening, the planned public celebration has been postponed to a future date.
    Although, of course, it wasn't actually due to "late notice regarding the opening" at all.

  • Predator drone now part of battle against Rim Fire near Yosemite
    While unmanned aircraft have mapped past fires, use of the Predator will be the longest sustained mission by a drone in California to broadcast information to firefighters in real time.

    The plane, the size of a small Cessna, will remain over the burn zone for up to 22 hours at a time, allowing fire commanders to monitor fire activity, determine the fire's direction of movement, the extent of containment and confirm new fires ignited by lightning or flying embers.

    The drone is being flown by the 163rd Wing of the California National Guard at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside and is operating from Victorville Airport, both in Southern California. It generally flew over unpopulated areas on its 300-mile flight to the Rim Fire. Outside the fire area, it will be escorted by a manned aircraft.

    Officials were careful to point out the images are being used only to aid in the effort to contain the fire.

  • Nasdaq Blames a Surge of Data for Trading Halt
    the company highlighted more than 20 attempts by Arca, one of the exchanges run by NYSE Euronext to connect and then disconnect to the system that provides prices for recent trades in Nasdaq stocks. Those were accompanied by what Nasdaq described as a stream of quotes for inaccurate symbols from Arca, which Nasdaq’s system was forced to reject.
    As is often the case, Nanex has some much more interesting information about the incident: Nanex ~ 22-Aug-2013 ~ Quote Burst Loops
    A Theory

    ARCA's connection to the SIP breaks, so it retries, connects for a short period of time, which then breaks, another connection, which breaks, over and over in quick succession. Each connection reducing the total number of available connections (temporarily - for a few minutes), so that eventually any new connection fails. If Nasdaq is monitoring the health of the SIP via polling TCP, it won't be able to connect either (all connections are exhausted) and will think the SIP is down. But they probably see the SIP is still sending quotes from the outbound side (which, by the way, uses UDP/multicast). The engineers get the back-up SIP ready, but the back-up SIP doesn't know where the production SIP (the one not accepting connections) left off, because they can't connect to it either. The back-up SIP starts making requests to each of the 12 or so exchanges for the last 50 or so minutes of quotes (probably from the last known feed positions recorded before connections were exhausted).

    The back-up SIP request 50 minutes from EDGE, and transmits those, then requests and transmits 50 minutes from BATS, and so on. Sound familiar? It should, because that is exactly the pattern we see in the data.

  • Why don't DBMS's support ASSERTION
    So, why isn't ASSERTION supported by the vast majority of relational database packages? Is it soley a performance issue or is there something intrinsically hard about it?
  • Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names
    So, as a public service, I’m going to list assumptions your systems probably make about names. All of these assumptions are wrong. Try to make less of them next time you write a system which touches names.
  • The Business of Protection
    You should know this about offensive line coaches: they are large, demanding men with Falstaffian appetites, jutting jaws, and no governors on their speech engines. They eat titanic portions. They cram their lips full of dip in film study like they are loading a mortar. They drink bottled water like parched camels, and in their leisure time would consider a suitcase of beer to be a personal carry-on item for them, and them alone. They are terrifyingly disciplined in the moment, and nap like large breed dogs when allowed.
  • The money is in the Bitcoin protocol
    Hopefully it is clear from the features of the Bitcoin protocol and system that crypto-currency is just one use case. Just as the BitTorrent protocol can be used in multiple ways for peer-to-peer data transfer, so can the Bitcoin protocol open up new and different possibilities.
  • How Moral Revolutions Happen (They Had A Nightmare)
    It’s hard to be egalitarian and admit that an inegalitarian impulse makes the moral world go round, in practice, always. (It’s easier for egalitarians to want equality, after all. They get to wear it as a badge of achievement. My believies!) Whatever equality we get is going to have to arise out of a process that seems to run contrary to that. That seems true.
  • You won't find this in your phone: A 4GHz 12-core Power8 for badass boxes
    Judging from the Power8, it looks like IBM is content to keep in the same clock speed range as the Power7+ chips - around 4GHz, give or take a little. It'll also move PCI-Express 3 controllers into the chip package to keep those hungry little Power8 cores fed; these controllers will offer a coherent memory protocol to external accelerators as well as a new cache hierarchy that goes all the way out to the L4 cache.

    As expected, IBM is also goosing the number of processor threads per core with Power8, doubling it up to eight per core. IBM has been vague about how many cores it might squeeze onto a die with the 22-nanometer shrink, and it could have probably done as many as sixteen cores if it had not added so much eDRAM L3 cache memory with the Power7+ and then boosted it even further with the Power8.

    On the workloads that Big Blue is targeting with its Power Systems iron, having more cache and cores running at near peak utilisation is more important than having lots of cores on a die. Just as is the case for mainframes, at the prices that IBM has to charge for Power Systems servers, the chip has to be architected to run at close to full-tilt-boogie in a sustained manner.

The Perforce Distributed Service

My latest article is up on the Perforce corporate blog: The Distributed Perforce Service

Answering "yes" to any of these questions means you would realize benefits from a Distributed Perforce installation. And if you answered "yes" to multiple questions, the benefits could be substantial!

Check it out; let me know what you think!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Messi and Neymar

Great article in Slate about this season's pairing of Lionel Messi of Argentina, the greatest footballer I've ever seen play, and up-and-coming Brazilian superstar Neymar da Silva Santos, the most exiting new footballer of the last several years: Messi and Neymar: Will the world’s greatest player and Barcelona’s new prodigy play well together?.

Messi is adored not only for his brilliance and his results, but also for his dedication and focus:

Messi plays the kind of football that only other masters can fully appreciate. It's not simply that he's technically brilliant, with bullish strength packed into a compact frame and instant, insectlike reactions. Perfection in possession is just the beginning. Messi is also the best player in the world during the 98 percent of the game when he doesn't have the ball.

That doesn't mean he runs a lot. His central role at Barcelona allows him to stay close to the box, so he rarely has to dart more than 20 meters at a time. While others chase, Messi lurks, saving his energy for the decisive moments.

No such moment ever catches him off guard. He's in a sustained flow state that nothing can disturb (except, perhaps, a teammate hesitating a little too long over a pass). In that trance he thinks too fast for his opponents to keep up. He doesn't respond to provocation, and he doesn't play to the crowd.

And, of course, the very best thing about Messi, as Slate points out: Leo Messi Never Dives.

Neymar, meanwhile, is the best football player in Brazil, which is of course the best country at football in the world.

At 21, Neymar has already scored 161 goals for Santos, Brazil, and now Barcelona. It's a phenomenal number: twice as many as Romario had scored at the same age, and three times as many as the 21-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo.

Neymar, the prodigy, is also ahead of where Messi was at 21. He has played with successful teams, winning his state championship, his continental championship, and most recently the Confederations Cup with Brazil. He was named best individual player at that tournament, adding to a hoard of individual awards: top scorer in Brazil, Brazilian player of the year, twice South American player of the year, FIFA's Puskás Award for the best goal scored anywhere in the world in 2011, a finalist for that same award in 2012.

I've only been lucky enough to watch Neymar play a handful of times, most recently in the 2013 Confederations Cup, the warm-up tournament for next year's World Cup.

In the games I've seen, Neymar's play has been astonishing. Not only is he markedly faster than the other players on the field (no simple matter in a sport populated by the fastest runners on the earth), but his balance, agility, and power while on the ball are remarkable. Just watch as he leaves the best professional footballers on the planet lying on the ground, contorted and collapsed in disarray from trying to stop him.

Stop, start, weave, bob, SLAM!

What will it be like to have these two on the field together? Will they be able to play together? Or, as Slate wonders, will they clash and fail to mesh?

I know I'll be watching and waiting to see!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Feed the feedly

I see that Feedly is now starting to (gently?) beg for money from its users.

There is a relatively polite request on my feedly screen asking for $45/year to become a "Feedly Pro" user.

Well, I can't say I'm surprised.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes: A very short review

I just lost an entire weekend to Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes.

If you've played games like Civilization V, Heroes of Might and Magic, Command and Conquer, Warcraft, Strategic Conquest, etc., then you know what sort of game Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes is.

And, if you have played any of those games, and liked them, you're going to love this game.

Firstly, it's beautiful, and lots of fun just to look at.

Secondly, it's hard, which you know is very important for this sort of game. The computer plays very well, and the game does not make it easy on you.

Admittedly, I'm just getting started, and just learning the game, but even on the easy "beginner's" level, I probably lost a dozen games this weekend.

I'll have more to say about the game, I'm sure, after I've lost a few dozen more games, and a few hundred more hours, to it.

But now, back to fighting that Darkling War Rider army that's on my city-front...

Friday, August 23, 2013

What's on my reading list

It's another beautiful Bay Area summer afternoon, by which I mean that it's 2:00 PM and the sun has finally come out. At least, the next 5 hours will be beautiful. In the meantime, here's some of the things I'm reading this weekend:

  • Moving forward
    There is never a perfect time for this type of transition, but now is the right time. My original thoughts on timing would have had my retirement happen in the middle of our transformation to a devices and services company focused on empowering customers in the activities they value most. We need a CEO who will be here longer term for this new direction.
  • Meet the Town That's Being Swallowed by a Sinkhole
    What happened in Bayou Corne, as near as anyone can tell, is that one of the salt caverns Texas Brine hollowed out—a mine dubbed Oxy3—collapsed. The sinkhole initially spanned about an acre. Today it covers more than 24 acres and is an estimated 750 feet deep. It subsists on a diet of swamp life and cypress trees, which it occasionally swallows whole. It celebrated its first birthday recently, and like most one-year-olds, it is both growing and prone to uncontrollable burps, in which a noxious brew of crude oil and rotten debris bubbles to the surface. But the biggest danger is invisible; the collapse unlocked tens of millions of cubic feet of explosive gases, which have seeped into the aquifer and wafted up to the community. The town blames the regulators. The regulators blame Texas Brine. Texas Brine blames some other company, or maybe the regulators, or maybe just God.
  • The Cost Of Creating A New Drug Now $5 Billion, Pushing Big Pharma To Change
    A 2012 article in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery says the number of drugs invented per billion dollars of R&D invested has been cut in half every nine years for half a century. Reversing this merciless trend has caught the attention of the U.S. government. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, in 2011 started a new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences to remove the roadblocks that keep new drugs from reaching patients.
  • What Is Medium?
    All this built the idea that Medium was something more than yet another blogging platform. It was a place to be seen. Pieces that might have run on The Atlantic, The New Yorker, or Wired would pop up on Medium, and I'd be like, "Dang. How'd that happen?"
  • What Medium Is
    rich guys buy “credible” publications in order to have big platforms for their ideas.

    But, even though I like what Hughes seems to represent, and he’s seemed to have a thoughtful touch in how he’s running TNR, I’m pretty sure I’d forgotten the magazine existed by the time he bought it. I have no doubt there is a small but significant audience to whom the brand is really important, but cultural credibility is no longer based entirely on having an august old name atop of some writing.

    By contrast, Medium is a free-for-all, with the most perversely obtuse branding for a platform since Google named its nearly-chromeless browser Chrome. There’s some amount of crap on the site, for which it’s justifiably earning criticism, but there are also paid pieces which will undoubtedly start to meet or exceed the quality of the average TNR article.

  • The Datacenter as a Computer: An Introduction to the Design of Warehouse-Scale Machines, Second edition
    It's such a far ranging book that it's impossible to characterize simply. It covers an amazing diversity of topics, from an introduction to warehouse-scale computing; workloads and software infrastructure; hardware; datacenter architecture; energy and power efficiency; cost structures; how to deal with failures and repairs; and it closes with a discussion of key challenges, which include rapidly changing workloads, building responsive large scale systems, energy proportionality of non-CPU components, overcoming the end of Dennard scaling, and Amdahl's cruel law.
  • Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It
    In Of Dice and Men, David Ewalt recounts the development of Dungeons & Dragons from the game’s roots on the battlefields of ancient Europe, through the hysteria that linked it to satanic rituals and teen suicides, to its apotheosis as father of the modern video-game industry. As he chronicles the surprising history of the game’s origins (a history largely unknown even to hardcore players) and examines D&D’s profound impact, Ewalt weaves laser-sharp subculture analysis with his own present-day gaming experiences. An enticing blend of history, journalism, narrative, and memoir, Of Dice and Men sheds light on America’s most popular (and widely misunderstood) form of collaborative entertainment.
  • The Pentagon as Silicon Valley’s Incubator
    Though Silicon Valley sees itself as an industry far removed from the Beltway, the two power centers have had a longstanding symbiotic relationship. And some say the cozy personal connections of ex-intelligence operatives to the military could invite abuse, like the divulging of private information to former colleagues in the agencies.

    “They have enormous opportunities to cash in on their Washington experience, sometimes in ways that fund further innovation and other times in ways that might be very troubling to many people,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. “Both sides like to maintain a myth of distant relations. The ties have been in place for a long time.”

  • John Carmack discusses the art and science of software engineering
    I talked a lot last year about the work that we’ve done with sta­tic analy­sis and try­ing to run all of our code through sta­tic analy­sis and get it to run squeaky clean through all of these things and it turns up hun­dreds and hun­dreds, even thou­sands of issues. Now its great when you wind up with some­thing that says, now clearly this is a bug, you made a mis­take here, this is a bug, and you can point that out to every­one. And every­one will agree, okay, I won’t do that next time. But the prob­lem is that the best of inten­tions really don’t mat­ter. If some­thing can syn­tac­ti­cally be entered incor­rectly, it even­tu­ally will be. And that’s one of the rea­sons why I’ve got­ten very big on the sta­tic analy­sis.
  • 100x faster Postgres performance by changing 1 line
    Postgres is reading Table C using a Bitmap Heap Scan. When the number of keys to check stays small, it can efficiently use the index to build the bitmap in memory. If the bitmap gets too large, the query optimizer changes the way it looks up data. In our case it has a large number of keys to check so it uses the more approximative way to retrieve the candidate rows and checks each row individually for a match on x_key and tags. All this “loading in memory” and “checking individual row” takes time (the Recheck Cond in the plan).
  • what does "Bitmap Heap Scan" phase do?
    A plain indexscan fetches one tuple-pointer at a time from the index, and immediately visits that tuple in the table. A bitmap scan fetches all the tuple-pointers from the index in one go, sorts them using an in-memory "bitmap" data structure, and then visits the table tuples in physical tuple-location order.
  • I will not do your tech interview.
    As I informally observed the track record of those pipelines in hiring great people, I began to realize that the only real predictor of great hires was if the candidate already knew someone on the team.
  • Cultivating Hybrids: 4 Key Data Architectures for Scaling Infinitely
    When a transaction happens on an in-memory data grid (IMDG), it is distributed across nodes with micro-second based latency. Of course, not all businesses require this type of performance, but thousands of simultaneous transactions per second basically mandate it. With processing via functions, procedures, or queries, each member gets a request, partial results are sent back, and they are combined. This scatter gather or MapReduce type of approach is the same model Hadoop uses, but it is in real-time with memory-level latency. Different from in-memory databases that have the entire data set replicated across each member in a cluster, IMDGs distribute parts of the data across members. The system is responsible for tracking itself and knowing where each piece of data is, making the location transparent to clients. Part of the approach to architecting and managing IMDGs is optimizing the data’s distribution and replication. For example, strongly correlated data is colocated on a peer to remove network hops within a single query. The system also distributes functions, procedures, and queries transparently to nodes hosting specific shards of data. There is still a limit here, there must be a financially reasonable way to store the entire data set in memory—petabytes can draw a limit.
  • Engineers Unplugged Series 3 Episode 9 – Overlay Networking
    While attending Cisco Live USA this year, Amy Lewis put me in the head lock and refused to let me go until I agreed to appear in a video for the current series of Engineers Unplugged.
  • Chesscademy: A fun and free way to learn chess!

Well, that should keep me busy for a few hours...

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The surveillance state, redux

Stuff that attracted my attention in the last couple days:

  • NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year, audit finds
    “We’re a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line,” a senior NSA official said in an interview, speaking with White House permission on the condition of anonymity.
  • The view from 30 years ago: The Silent Power of the NSA
    In a nation whose Constitution demands an open Government operating according to precise rules of fairness, the N.S.A. remains an unexamined entity. With the increasing computerization of society, the conflicts it presents become more important.
  • How A 'Deviant' Philosopher Built Palantir, A CIA-Funded Data-Mining Juggernaut
    Palantir lives the realities of its customers: the NSA, the FBI and the CIA–an early investor through its In-Q-Tel venture fund–along with an alphabet soup of other U.S. counterterrorism and military agencies. In the last five years Palantir has become the go-to company for mining massive data sets for intelligence and law enforcement applications, with a slick software interface and coders who parachute into clients’ headquarters to customize its programs.
  • EFF Victory Results in Release of Secret Court Opinion Finding NSA Surveillance Unconstitutional
    Issued in October 2011, the secret court's opinion found that surveillance conducted by the NSA under the FISA Amendments Act was unconstitutional and violated "the spirit of" federal law.
  • Bradley Manning and the Two Americas
    If you see America as a place within borders, a bureaucratic and imperial government that acts on behalf of its 350 million people, if you see America as its edifices, its mandarins, the careful and massive institutions that have built our cities and vast physical culture, the harsh treatment of Manning for defying that institution makes sense, even if it was, at times, brutal.

    But if you see America as an idea, and a revolutionary one in its day, that not only could a person decide her fate but that the body of people could act together as a great leader might lead — and that this is a better way to be — Manning didn’t betray that America.

  • And, of course: The Sharing Network
    Introducing a brand new way to share everything: learn more.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Groklaw shutting down?

Is this a hoax: Forced Exposure.

It sounds authentic.

The loss of Groklaw would be significant; it's one of the very best sites on the net.

Numerous web sites are carrying the news.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Making sense of Bloomberg

We're nearing the end of The Twelve Years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, latest holder of the job many people call the most practically important political job in the world. There are certainly political jobs with greater fame and glory, but in terms of day-to-day impact, being the mayor of the most important city on the planet has an immense effect on the lives of the people of the world.

So, as these final few months draw to a close, people are trying to Make Sense Of It All.

Here's a roundup:

  • In a massive special edition, the New York Times features a number of articles on The Bloomberg Years. A simply gorgeous interactive map walks you through the geography of the changes to the city over the years of his term. And in The Impossible Mayor of the Possible, Jim Dwyer runs down some of the mayor's accomplishments:
    Elected to lead a city that was the grieving, wounded site of an atrocity, he will depart as mayor of a city where artists have been able to decorate a mighty park with thousands of sheets of saffron, for no reason other than the simple joy of it; where engineers figured out how to turn sewage gas into electricity; where people are safer from violent crime than at any time in modern history.
  • In Vanity Fair, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords salutes Bloomberg for his work on gun control and violence: Michael Bloomberg
    When he might have focused on his own legacy and a post-mayoralty more about Bermuda than about background checks, he has instead chosen to work in partnership with gun owners like me and my husband, Mark, with sheriffs and police chiefs, and with veterans and moms and Americans from all over this country to protect our Second Amendment rights and keep our communities safer.
  • The New Yorker discusses another controversial Bloomberg initiate: "stop-and-frisk": Ruling on Stop-And-Frisk, Remembering Trayvon Martin
    Over the past decade, the New York City Police Department has conducted roughly 4.4 million searches, overwhelmingly of black and Hispanic young men. In eighty-eight per cent of those stops, no subsequent ticket was issued. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have called the practice integral to the city’s decreasing crime rates, crime has continued to fall even as stops have been curtailed. To critics, the policy amounts to officially sanctioned profiling of the city’s black and brown residents—and, on Monday, Judge Shira Scheindlin, in a major ruling in a federal lawsuit challenging the program, agreed.
  • In Forbes, Caleb Melby notes that Bloomberg has had many a controversial notion: Before The Ban On Sugary Drinks: 7 Other Controversial Mayor Bloomberg Initiatives
    • 1. Calorie Counting At Restaurants
    • 2. Trans-Fats Banned
    • 3. Bullying Salt
    • 4. Smoking Limits
    • 5. Hybrid Taxi Fleet
    • 6. Limiting Liquor Access
    • 7. Money For Laid Off Financiers
  • The New York Daily News notes that the various candidates to replace Bloomberg are eager to discuss which of his accomplishments they'd overturn: Foes on life after Mike: From bike lanes to smoking bans, what they’ll keep and what they’ll dump
    But not everything will remain the way Bloomberg leaves it on Dec. 31. The candidates are split on the future of the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk tactic, and some say they would convert Bloomberg’s open-office City Hall bullpen back into standard offices with walls.

    Not everyone is sold on letter grades for restaurants, and some say they would drop the appeal to a court decision that has so far blocked Bloomberg’s effort to ban large sugary drinks.

  • The website New York International, naturally, focuses on issues beyond the city limits: Mayor Michael Bloomberg: An International Retrospective
    For internationals, the mayor’s office has supported more open business investment, spearheaded reform of the immigration system, and made a point to remind people that NYC is a city built by immigrants for immigrants. Bloomberg’s legacy in NYC is almost certain not to stop simply because he leaves City Hall, and his ongoing business interests and political clout are sure to make him a voice to listen to. Overall, internationals in NYC have done well under Bloomberg, and can only hope the next incumbent continues the mayor’s efforts to make this a truly global city.
  • New York Magazine's Chris Smith, who has published dozens of major articles on Bloomberg, recalls the mayor's work during Hurricane Sandy and gives him credit for actually trying to make a difference: The Mayor in the Eye, and The Mayor and His Money
    When the history of the Bloomberg administration is written, the question to be answered won’t be whether he was out of touch with the little guy. It’ll be whether Bloomberg was hampered by the grandiosity of his thinking. There is a numbing gigantism to the mayor’s vision of the city, to all those gargantuan development plans he’s pursuing across all five boroughs.
  • In The Brooklyn Rail, John Surico analyzes the mayor's labor legacy: Mike’s Labor Legacy
    Remarkably, after eight years of stalemate with the Giuliani administration, few complained. The unions gave in to City Hall, and their paychecks, at last, increased. Through back-and-forth mediation, the businessman had settled a lengthy bargaining war between city government and its workforce.

    But the peace didn’t last. The mayor’s second term would become a succession of labor breakdowns; between 2006 and 2010, contracts for the major public sector unions began to expire. In response, the unions would begin to distance themselves from the mayor. Perhaps Bloomberg, a leader originally presumed to be more labor-tolerant than Giuliani, was not so different from his predecessor after all.

  • In Salon, David Sirota investigates Bloomberg's human rights efforts: Bloomberg’s no “Freedom Mayor”
    As mayor of the Big Apple, Bloomberg is a national political figure — and his positions supporting dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, backing gay marriage and defending the right of an Islamic center to be built in Lower Manhattan are certainly of national interest, laudable and pro-freedom. However, two of those three positions (Ai Weiwei and gay marriage) are hardly politically courageous in a socially progressive city like New York. More important, citing these three isolated examples to declare Bloomberg “The Freedom Mayor” who represents a “full-throated defense of liberty” is a propagandistic whitewashing of his larger anti-freedom record

I'm sure there's more to be written, and I'm sure I've missed some of the better work so far.

But one thing is for sure: after 12 years leading New York City, Michael Bloomberg has certainly had an interesting career, and seen the city through, as they say, "interesting times".

Hopefully whoever comes next will be worthy of the next steps in the path.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


My wife mentioned to me that I've not been gaming much recently.

It's true.

Although it hasn't been quite this long: Oldest Gaming Tokens Found in Turkey.

Found in a burial at Başur Höyük, a 820- by 492-foot mound near Siirt in southeast Turkey, the elaborate pieces consist of 49 small stones sculpted in different shapes and painted in green, red, blue, black and white.
All I can say is, those would make great meeples for my Agricola games!

I've not been watching much sports on T.V., though that will probably soon change. For one thing, the N.F.L. season begins in a few weeks, so there will be plenty of 49ers games to watch, as well as a few Raiders games to watch (and more to listen to on the radio).

For another thing, the U.S. Men's National Team is rocking, and the fans are nearing delerious ecstasy, producing articles like The Great Strike Hope: Is Jozy Altidore the first great goal scorer in U.S. soccer history?

it was Altidore's first strike that signaled something different was afoot. With the United States down a goal in the 59th minute, winger Fabian Johnson dinked a shallow pass into the box for Altidore to run onto. Well-marked by a defender, Altidore settled the ball with his right boot and, with his left, instantly whipped the ball across the goal and into the net.
All U.S. soccer fans (14 of us, counting me) are now waiting eagerly for the September 6th and September 10th matches with Costa Rica and Mexico, hoping to see the U.S. cement their World Cup bid for Brazil.

Meanwhile, in soccer with a bit more money behind it, NBC Sports has announced the schedule and format for their bold move to cover the English Premier League: WATCH: Premier League TV Schedule for opening weekend

Excitement levels are through the roof across the world as the 2013-14 PL season promises to be the most exciting in the league’s history.

And you can watch every single second of every single game live via NBC Sports Group platforms.

It's exciting, but note that those times are Eastern Time, so I'll need to be particularly motivated to catch , say, that Fulham v. Arsenal match in order to arrange to have the tube on at 4:45 A.M. Saturday morning my time.

Meanwhile, in news of another World Cup, Dana Mackenzie updates his results for his entry in the Prediction Contest in the FIDE World Chess Cup 2013. Go go Hikaru Nakamura!!

Back to gaming more close to home. It's been 9 months since we picked up any new board games. We loved Ora et Labora, but Trajan didn't seem to have much staying power. My mother-in-law will be here in a few months for a moderate-length stay, so it's time to start planning.

Here are 5 games on my list; knowing that I like games such as Puerto Rico, Agricola, Ora et Labora, and Caylus, what do you think about these:

  • Castles of Burgundy
    The game is set in the Burgundy region of High Medieval France. Each player takes on the role of an aristocrat, originally controlling a small princedom. While playing they aim to build settlements and powerful castles, practice trade along the river, exploit silver mines, and use the knowledge of travellers.
  • Terra Mystica
    Terra Mystica is a game with very little luck that rewards strategic planning. Each player governs one of the 14 groups. With subtlety and craft, the player must attempt to rule as great an area as possible and to develop that group's skills. There are also four religious cults in which you can progress. To do all that, each group has special skills and abilities.
  • Mage Knight
    The Mage Knight board game puts you in control of one of four powerful Mage Knights as you explore (and conquer) a corner of the Mage Knight universe under the control of the Atlantean Empire. Build your army, fill your deck with powerful spells and actions, explore caves and dungeons, and eventually conquer powerful cities controlled by this once-great faction! In competitive scenarios, opposing players may be powerful allies, but only one will be able to claim the land as their own. In coöperative scenarios, the players win or lose as a group. Solo rules are also included.

    Combining elements of RPGs, deckbuilding, and traditional board games the Mage Knight board game captures the rich history of the Mage Knight universe in a self-contained gaming experience.

  • Troyes
    In Troyes, recreate four centuries of history of this famous city of the Champagne region of France. Each player manages their segment of the population (represented by a horde of dice) and their hand of cards, which represent the three primary domains of the city: religious, military, and civil. Players can also offer cash to their opponents' populace in order to get a little moonlighting out of them—anything for more fame!
  • Lords of Waterdeep
    In Lords of Waterdeep, a strategy board game for 2-5 players, you take on the role of one of the masked Lords of Waterdeep, secret rulers of the city. Through your agents, you recruit adventurers to go on quests on your behalf, earning rewards and increasing your influence over the city. Expand the city by purchasing new buildings that open up new actions on the board, and hinder – or help – the other lords by playing Intrigue cards to enact your carefully laid plans.

I'm thinking that both Castles of Burgundy and Terra Mystica look good. Any opinions?

And, as long as I'm casting about for ideas, I have to confess that Dragon's Dogma just didn't quite grab me. The pawns are fascinating, but I don't quite grasp what's going on with them. I don't think it's a bad game, it just didn't work for me.

Unfortunately, so many of the new games are online MMORPGs like Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and Dragon's Crown.

I looked a little bit at Tales of Xillia.

I've also been looking quite a bit at Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.

It would be nice to get a game that my grand-daughter and I would enjoy playing together, and either of these looks possible.

I'm leaning toward Ni No Kuni. What do you think, Ni No Kuni or Tales of Xillia?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Forest Service fire lookout towers

I'm not quite sure I understand the status of the Forest Service fire lookout towers nowadays.

Originally, these towers were built to be an early warning system, to try to learn about wilderness fires as early as possible. Here's a nice page: Fire Lookouts. The fire lookout towers had clever techniques for helping the rangers determine what they were seeing:

Osborne first invented a "firefinder" in Oregon in 1911 using a rotating steel disc with attached sighting mechanisms. This instrument allowed lookouts to accurately pinpoint the geographic location of forest fires by sighting distant smoke through the device. Further modifications and technological developments were made by Osborne to the firefinder over the next 30 years. The Osborne Firefinder was widely used by Forest Service lookouts throughout the 20th century, and production of the devices by various companies continues even today.

But my understanding is that much of the wilderness fire observation duties is now handled by satellite photography, meaning that many of these lookouts are no longer used. In fact, I understand it is now routine to rent a fire lookout as a vacation cabin.

But my son, who recently returned from a glorious camping trip at French Meadows Reservoir near Lake Tahoe, took a day trip up to Duncan Peak Fire Lookout Tower, which is most certainly not closed.

In fact, while Dan and his friends were getting a tour from the ranger, who graciously took the time to show them the (still-in-use!) Osborne Firefinder in the tower, as well as the carefully labelled sight lines from every one of the windows in the 360-degree view, the ranger was actually tracking two separate fires.

These are not Dan's pictures, but they show the lookout very nicely: Duncan Peak Fire Lookout Station

So, what's the actual story? Are they phasing out these lookout towers? Or is this still How It's Done?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Young Men and Fire: a very short review

Sometimes, while you are still reading a book, you know very clearly that it is the sort of book that will be with you a long time, for years perhaps.

Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire is that sort of book. You don't just read this book: you dream it; you sweat it; you run from it; you run to it; you eat, drink, and breathe it.

Foremost, Young Men and Fire is the story of the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness on the Missouri River in western Montana, and of the great tragedy that occurred then: a crew of 15 United States Forest Service "Smokejumpers" parachuted into Mann Gulch to meet the Forest Ranger who had discovered the file, and to help him fight it; barely two hours later, all but 3 of these 16 men were dead or dying.

So Young Men and Fire is a story of death, and of tragedy; it is a book about young men.

But it is also a story of discovery: 3 men survived, and the information they shared with the world changed the practice of wilderness firefighting overnight. Secondly, then, Young Men and Fire is a history of wilderness firefighting in the last hundred years. It contains detailed information about the development of the United States Forest Service and its firefighting practices, about how the Smokejumpers came to be, about the types of fires that they fight and the ways that they fight them and the words they use to talk about them and tell us about them.

So Young Men and Fire is also a thoroughly researched and carefully presented history of wilderness firefighting; it is a book about fire.

Of course, Young Men and Fire is inspired by a most riveting and gut-wrenching mystery: how did those three men survive? What did they do right, or what did the others do wrong? And what, exactly, do we know about what happened in the critical 10 minute period during which the world turned to flame, and three men survived and thirteen died?

The most critical, and complex, of these questions involves the "escape fire" that foreman Dodge set at a critical moment, which enabled him to survive the inferno, using fire to save himself from fire. Why did the foreman survive, how did his technique work, and why, oh why, did all the members of his team pass him by, as he begged and pleaded with them to stay with him for safety?

So Young Men and Fire, of course, is a book about young men and fire.

But, finally, on some deeper level, Young Men and Fire is a meditation about truth, and fact, and history; it is about how we decide what it is that we know, and why we believe that we know it; it is about that peculiarly human need to learn, to study, to comprehend, and finally to be able to communicate that understanding to others.

It is truly a multi-level book.

It's also a book with a very odd history.

Maclean was actually near the Mann Gulch fire in 1949 just after it occurred:

I had just arrived from the East to spend several weeks in my cabin at Seeley Lake, Montana. The postmistress in the small town at the lower end of the lake told me about the fire and how thirteen Forest Service Smokejumpers had been burned to death on the fifth of August trying to get to the top of a ridge ahead of a blowup in tall, dead grass.

But then, for some reason, Maclean put the topic aside, for twenty five years. It wasn't until after he retired, and until after the publication of his famous A River Runs Through It and Other Stories that he returned to the Mann Gulch fire and began investigating it in earnest.

At that point, Maclean was 74 years old.

He continued to study the fire, contact people, conduct interviews, and visit the area, for twelve more years, until his health finally gave out when he was 86 years old, and he could work on the book no more.

Maclean died in 1990, but the story does not end there. His family found the manuscript among his effects and gave it to the University of Chicago Press, who assigned an (uncredited?) editor who performed some additional work on the book and saw it through to publication. It was published in 1992, and won the National Book Critics Circle award for General Nonfiction, beating out such giants as Edward Wilson's The Diversity of Life.

What sort of story consumes a man for 40 years, so completely that he takes the book to his grave rather than being able to finish it?

What sort of story drives a man in his late 70's to travel to a remote wilderness gulch and crawl on his hands and knees "on a hill where you need at least one hand to hang on to the grass," searching for evidence 30 years after the fact?

For one thing, it is the task of the historian to bring understanding to bewilderment, to turn a catastrophe into a story:

Although young men died like squirrels in Mann Gulch, the Mann Gulch fire should not end there, smoke drifting away and leaving terror without consolation of explanation, and controversy without lasting settlement. Probably most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died but "still alertly erect in fear and wonder," those who loved them forever questioning "this unnecessary death," and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one. This is a catastrophe that we hope will not end where it began; it might go on and become a story. It will not have to be made up -- that is all-important to us -- but we do have to know in what odd places to look for missing parts of a story about a wildfire and of course have to know a story and a wildfire when we see one. So this story is a test of its own belief -- that in this cockeyed world there are shapes and designs, if only we have some curiosity, training, and compassion and take care not to lie or be sentimental.

And, by practicing this art of the historian, Maclean hoped that, not only could he write some good history, but perhaps he could help teach others how to become historians:

It is hard to know what to do with all the detail that rises out of a fire. It rises out of a fire as thick as smoke and threatens to blot out everything -- some of it is true but doesn't make any difference, some is just plain wrong, and some doesn't even exist, except in your mind, as you slowly discover long afterwards. Some of it, though, is true -- and makes all the difference. The first half of the art of firefighting is learning to recognize a real piece of fire when you see one and not letting your supervisors talk you out of it. Some fires are more this way than others and are good practice for real life.

This question of story versus history obviously was of great concern to Maclean, a professor of English literature and an author of great fiction who was now working to bring his art to the world of non-fiction:

If a storyteller thinks enough of storytelling to regard it as a calling, unlike a historian he cannot turn from the sufferings of his characters. A storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must be able to accompany his characters, even into smoke and fire, and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when they themselves no longer knew. This story of the Mann Gulch fire will not end until it feels able to walk the final distances to the crosses with those who for the time being are blotted out by smoke. they were young and did not leave much behind them and need someone to remember them.

If we have discussed the role of the storyteller, and that of the historian, what of the role of the scientist? During his researches, Maclean met scientists, and learned about scientists no longer among us, and meditated on the different sort of understanding that a scientist can bring. Telling the story of Harry Gisborne, one of the first true scientists of wildfire, who himself died in Mann Gulch while researching the Mann Gulch fire, Maclean concludes that:

This is the death of a scientist, a scientist who did much to establish a science. On the day of his death he had the pleasure of discovering that his theory about the Mann Gulch blowup was wrong.


For a scientist, this is a good way to live and die, maybe the ideal way for any of us -- excitedly finding we were wrong and excitedly waiting for tomorrow to come so we can start over.

What is this "excitement"? What is it that we who come later are doing? Well, we are thinking, and we are looking for truth, and if we cannot do that, is there anything worth doing?

I was becoming more and more afraid I could not think when I needed to. It frightened me that this was probably my last trip into Mann Gulch and my last chance to find out the truth of its tragedy. I kept myself going by reminding myself that the only poem I had a chance of writing about the Mann Gulch fire was the truth about it.

There is a need for truth, in Maclean's view, because memory is an undependable and unreliable creature:

we don't remember as exactly the desparate moments when our lives are in the balance as we remember the moments after, when the balance has tipped in our favor and we know we are safe and have turned to helping others.
Ever been in a car crash? You'll know immediately exactly what Maclean means.

Memory, says Maclean,

has the consistency more of a giant emotional cloud that closes things together with mist, either obliterating the rest of objective reality or moving the remaining details of reality around until, like furniture, they fit into the room of our nightmare in which only a few pieces appear where they are in reality.

Struggling with his own memories of his youth in Montana, and of his own days working on fire crews with the Forest Service when he was young, Maclean tries to find more exact and more certain methods of learning the truth.

Part of Maclean's frustration is that, even with all our modern science, with our tools and methods, we still are faced with limits to our knowledge:

If mathematics can be used to predict the intensity and rate of spread of wildfires of the future (either hypothetical fires or fires actually burning but whose outcome is not yet known), why can't the direction of the analysis be reversed in order to reconstruct the characteristics of important fires of the past? Or why can't the direction be reversed from prophecy to history? The one great tragedy suffered by the Smokejumpers was fading out of memory before its outline had been cleared of the smoke of controversy, before the missing parts, perhaps some self-cultivated, had been recovered, before its deferred trial had taken place in public court, and before its suffering had finally been placed within the reach of the public that would like to remember and honor it with sympathetic understanding.

Maclean consults with Forest Service mathematicians, who help him import the basic parameters of the fire into sophisticated computer models, and show him graphs and charts and lines which intersect as the line of forest fighters races up the hill, only to intersect with the leading edge of the fire.

I found this part of the book easier to understand when I came across the wonderful Mann Gulch Fire Virtual Field Trip created by Rod Benson, science teacher at Helena High. Great work, Rod!

The methods of the scientists are precise, and when Maclean and the Forest Service team apply them to the Mann Gulch fire, the results predict very accurately the behavior of the Mann Gulch fire. By using these tools, Maclean acquires a much more detailed understanding of how the tragedy occurred, why the men were (mostly) unable to escape, and what the blowup did to trap them in the canyon.

Telling this (reconstructed) story of the final 15 minutes of the Smokejumper team in the Mann Gulch fire occupies a large section of the book, a 100 page fever dream that will pass before you in rapt hours, during which time you can scarcely take a breath.

But, in the end, Maclean finds himself unable to comprehend the tragedy with science, and returns to a tool that he's more familiar with: poetry. Drawing parallels with Thomas Hardy's The Convergence of the Twain, Maclean finds the limits of analytics:

We are beyond where arithmetic can explain what was happening in the piece of nature that had been the head of Mann Gulch. Converging geometries had created something invisible like suction to carry off a natural explanation of the attraction of geometries to each other. In between these geometries for something like four minutes it was a painfully moving line with pieces of it dropping out until there came an end to biology. Then it was pure geometry, and later still the solid geometry of concrete crosses.

It's hard to read the story of the Smokejumpers, that "painfully moving line" which met with an "end to biology", with dry eyes.

Perhaps this book just hit me at the right time, or perhaps I have some sort of inner kinship with Maclean. Sadly, his career at the University of Chicago was over a decade before I arrived there; I think I should surely have enjoyed meeting him and learning from him.

In the end, one thing I can say for sure: you won't regret the time you spend in the mountains of western Montana with Maclean and the brave men of the United States Forest Service while reading Young Men and Fire.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The surveillance state

I feel like I need to have something to say about Edward Snowden.

But I'm not sure I know how I feel.

On the one hand, I agree with those who have been frustrated that so much of the coverage is about Snowden himself, rather than about the issues he raised. For example, John Naughton, writing in the Guardian: Edward Snowden's not the story. The fate of the internet is

we have been fed a constant stream of journalistic pap – speculation about Snowden's travel plans, asylum requests, state of mind, physical appearance, etc. The "human interest" angle has trumped the real story

And because of that "journalistic pap" (and because my mind was in the mountains for two weeks), I haven't been paying enough attention to the overall story.

So, I turn to some of those who have been paying attention, and whose ideas are worth listening to.

First, Bruce Sterling: The Ecuadorian Library or, The Blast Shack After Three Years. Sterling, as usual, lights it up, but along with the entertainment he has some pretty important points to make.

For one thing, Sterling professes himself somewhat surprised and disappointed that, of all the potential allies that Snowden might have found, he ended up having to rely on the rather extreme Julian Assange:

It’s incredible to me that, among the eight zillion civil society groups on the planet that hate and fear spooks and police spies, not one of them could offer Snowden one shred of practical help, except for Wikileaks. This valiant service came from Julian Assange, a dude who can’t even pack his own suitcase without having a fit.


did they have the least idea what was actually going on with the hardware of their beloved Internet? Not a clue. They’ve been living in a pitiful dream world where their imaginary rule of law applies to an electronic frontier — a frontier being, by definition, a place that never had any laws.

But more importantly, says Sterling, it's not clear that "we", as human beings, actually know how we feel about this:

Computers were invented as crypto-ware and spy-ware and control-ware. That’s what Alan Turing was all about. That’s where computing came from, that’s the scene’s original sin, and also its poisoned apple.


Digital, globalized societies — where capital and information moves, and where labor and human flesh doesn’t move — they behave like this. That is what we are witnessing and experiencing. It’s weird because we are weird. We’re half actual and half digital now. We’re like the squirming brood of a tiger mated to a shark.

As Sterling observes, we actually like to be watched.

We post our pictures on Flickr.

We post our thoughts on Twitter.

We post our relationship status on Facebook.

On our own, we built these institutions, and willingly submitted ourselves to them:

And, yeah, by the way, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Google et al, they are all the blood brothers of Huawei in China — because they are intelligence assets posing as commercial operations. They are surveillance marketers. They give you free stuff in order to spy on you and pass that info along the value chain. Personal computers can have users, but social media has livestock.

For me, part of the problem is that there are no heroes here. Snowden is rather a worm; the NSA are aloof, secretive, and omnipotent; our political leaders are whiny and defensive; and our civil leaders are fawning and complicit. No matter which direction you look, the first thing you want to do is wash your hands.

Others seem to feel the same way.

Danah Boyd proposes that Snowden represents the modern version of a leader in civil disobedience: Whistleblowing Is the New Civil Disobedience: Why Edward Snowden Matters

he’s creating a template for how to share information. He’s clearly learned from previous whistleblowers and is using many of their tactics. But he’s also forged his own path which has had its own follies. Regardless of whether he succeeds or fails in getting asylum somewhere, he’s inspired others to think about how they can serve as a check to power.
Boyd's take is fine, as far as it goes, but I think she's overstating the case to put Edward Snowden on the level of those for whom the term "civil disobedience" was coined.

Mike Masnick has been watching the political response, and is terribly disappointed: Confessed Liar To Congress, James Clapper, Gets To Set Up The 'Independent' Review Over NSA Surveillance

that was Friday. Today is Monday. And, on Monday we learn that "outside" and "independent" actually means setup by Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper -- the same guy who has already admitted to lying to Congress about the program, and has received no punishment for doing so. This is independent? From this we're supposed to expect real oversight?!?
Indeed, it does seem like the first thoughts of our elected leaders are: consolidate, and cover up. What a sad, sad shame.

Meanwhile, both Jeff Jarvis and Bruce Schneier are taking corporate leaders to task, arguing (as you have to with businessmen) to their wallets, while simultaneously begging and pleading for these champions of industry to step into the gap and provide the needed leadership. First, Jarvis: We need Big Tech to protect us from Big Brother

At the Guardian Activate conference in London last month, I asked Vint Cerf, an architect of the net and evangelist for Google, about encrypting our communication as a defense against NSA spying. He suggested that communication should be encrypted into and out of internet companies' servers (thwarting, or so we'd hope, the eavesdropping on the net's every bit over telcos' fibre) – but should be decrypted inside the companies' servers so they could bring us added value based on the content: a boarding pass on our phone, a reminder from our calendar, an alert about a story we're following (not to mention a targeted ad).
Oh. My. God. Vint Cerf, what have you become?

And Schneier: The NSA Is Commandeering the Internet

This is why you have to fight. When it becomes public that the NSA has been hoovering up all of your users' communications and personal files, what's going to save you in the eyes of those users is whether or not you fought. Fighting will cost you money in the short term, but capitulating will cost you more in the long term.

Awkwardly, all these conversations with the titans of technology always seem to turn to a technical solution, justified by an appeal to greed, as with the Vint Cert conversation described by Jarvis above.

As I said, it is disappointing in all directions.

But that is not to say that there are no bright lights at all.

For instance, there is the ever-wonderful Brewster Kahle, who not only took on The Man, he won: What It's Like To Get A National Security Letter

Hundreds of thousands of national-security letters have been sent. But only the plaintiffs in the three successful challenges so far—Kahle; Nicholas Merrill, of Calyx Internet Access; and the Connecticut librarians George Christian, Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, and Janet Nocek—are known to have had them rescinded.
And there are others who are willing to stand up and proclaim that the Emperor wears no clothes; as Poul Henning-Kamp persuasively argues, the problems here are not algorithmic, but social: More Encryption Is Not the Solution
The only surefire way to gain back our privacy is also the least likely: the citizens of all nation- states must empower politicians who will defund and dismantle the espionage machinery and instead rely on international cooperation to expose and prevent terrorist activity.

It is important to recognize that there will be no one-size-fits-all solution. Different nation- states have vastly different attitudes to privacy: in Denmark, tax forms are secret; in Norway they are public; and it would be hard to find two nation-states separated by less time and space than Denmark and Norway.

There will also always be a role for encryption, for human-rights activists, diplomats, spies, and other "professionals." But for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the solution can only come from politics that respect a basic human right to privacy—an encryption arms race will not work.

And, of course, there is Snowden himself, who, as Roger Cohen points out, has certainly achieved something: The Service of Snowden

a long-overdue debate about what the U.S. government does and does not do in the name of post-9/11 security — the standards applied in the F.I.S.A. court, the safeguards and oversight surrounding it and the Prism program, the protection of civil liberties against the devouring appetites of intelligence agencies armed with new data-crunching technology — would not have occurred, at least not now.

All this was needed because, since it was attacked in an unimaginable way, the United States has gone through a Great Disorientation. Institutions at the core of the checks and balances that frame American democracy and civil liberties failed. Congress gave a blank check to the president to wage war wherever and whenever he pleased. The press scarcely questioned the march to a war in Iraq begun under false pretenses. Guantánamo made a mockery of due process. The United States, in Obama’s own words, compromised its "basic values" as the president gained "unbound powers."

So perhaps there is hope. But when it comes to public policy, and foreign affairs, and corporate governance, I struggle. But, as Tip O'Neill said, "all politics is local". So, what does this mean to me, and to computer scientists like me?

In this, I found Emin Gun Sirer's story quite compelling: How the Snowden Saga will End. Sirer relates a story from his early academic career, when "someone very very high up in the intelligence community" came to visit him at Cornell, and made his request:

"What if I had a graph. A really, really large graph. Billions of nodes. Trillions of edges. Let's say every node on the graph was a person. Edges between people described phone calls, interactions, stuff like that." He paused for dramatic effect, as he mentally took another puff from his non-existent cigar. "How would you find bin Laden?"
When you think about it this way, it's no surprise that computer scientists jump at the chance: "I could just write a computer program, and be a national hero? Where do I sign up?" The temptation, when challenged by that Man In A Suit, must be immense.

So Sirer reviews the deep, muddy, rotten mess we are in, but then owns up to the fact that, as computer scientists are at least partly responsible for this debacle, we need to be at least partly responsible for the solution:

we need tightened definitions for what kinds of surveillance data can be collected, as well as technical and legal measures to keep that data used solely in accordance with appropriate policies. Interestingly, there are technologies that can restrict what users, including Snowden-like "super users", can do with data. Once we re-establish our principles, we have the technical means to enact them. But first, the current era of covert, boundless data collection must come to an end.

I worry that Sirer is too optimistic about the potential of these Trustworty Computing technologies.

But I'm too much the optimist to throw in the towel and concede the inevitable Orwellian future at this point.

So I'll encourage those like Sirer who think they can build better software.

And I'll loudly praise those like Kahle and the other librarians in the trenches:

Libraries have had a long history of dealing with authoritarian organizations demanding reader records—who’s read what—and this has led to people being rounded up and killed. As a librarian, you take this very, very seriously. So, when you get demands for information about a patron’s activities, there are things that sort of flash before your mind. Where am I? What century is this? What country am I in?

And I'll hope that, even as we seem to sometimes move one step forward and two steps back, enough people will open their minds, and be willing to consider the thoughts and ideas of others, and perhaps during my lifetime we will see a retreat from xenophobia and the fear of the Unknown Terrorist, somehow.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Grouse Lake, all to ourselves

Once again, the heavens aligned, and I was lucky enough to get some unplugged time in the mountains with old friends.

This year's backpacking trip was a 4-day, 3-night adventure in the Mokelumne Wilderness, one of about 150 wilderness areas in California.

The Mokelumne ("muh-KAL-uhm-knee") Wilderness is a bit of a patchwork, tucked into the Sierra Nevada mountains about midway between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. The wilderness encloses Mokelumne Peak, as well as the headwaters of the Mokelumne River, a river I'm quite interested in since it provides the bulk of my personal drinking water at home.

To get to the Mokelumne Wilderness we headed up California Route 88, the middle of the six great modern passes across the central Sierra Nevada:

  1. U.S. I-80 (Donner Pass)
  2. U.S. 50 (Echo Pass)
  3. CA 88 (Carson Pass)
  4. CA 4 (Ebbetts Pass)
  5. CA 108 (Sonora Pass)
  6. CA 120 (Tioga Pass)

California 88 is in the middle both horizontally and vertically, as it goes up higher than routes 50 and 80, but not as high as routes 108 and 120. Route 88 leads up to Carson Pass, at 8,574 feet, so up we went. It's Carson, Carson, Carson up here, by which of course we mean Kit Carson, John Fremont's guide, for whom Carson Pass, Carson River, and Carson City are named.

The geography gets a bit twisted up here. As I said, the Mokelumne Wilderness contains the headwaters of the Mokelumne River, which flows westward from its headwaters in Indian Valley near Reynolds Peak. And yet, the Mokelumne Wilderness also contains the headwaters of the Carson River, which flows eastward from its headwaters in the Lost Lakes region of Hope Valley. And, although the Carson River is generally found to the east of the Mokelumne River, up here near the crest it is all tangled up, such that the Carson River's headwaters are a good 10 miles west of the Mokelumne River's headwaters. This map shows it all.

The Grouse Lake trail head is at Upper Blue Lake, a P.G. & E. hydro-electric reservoir at 8,100 feet. It's nice to get access to the mountains from a high trail head, as it makes for fewer feet to climb, so we parked the car at the Grouse Lake trail head and got walking.

The trail leads gently from the trail head along the creek. After three quarters of a mile, we enter the Mokelumne Wilderness proper, and two miles in we're at Granite Lake, which really should be named "Dog Lake" for its popularity with the day hikers from the enormous Blue Lakes campgrounds.

All kidding aside, Granite Lake is a beautiful lake, and we had a short rest and snack while we enjoyed the view.

Leaving Granite Lake, the trail winds westward until it reaches the rim of Snow Canyon. Although it's short, barely 1.5 miles long, Snow Canyon is an astonishingly beautiful sight, rising 1600 feet from its mouth at Meadow Lake up to its source in the springs high on Deadwood Peak. At the point where the trail reaches the canyon, a marvelous vista provides a 270-degree view of the canyons and peaks of the Mokelumne Wilderness, and we stopped for our well-deserved lunch.

After lunch, the real fun begins. Up to this point, we'd walked about 3 miles and climbed about 450 feet, from the 8,136 foot trail head to the 8,600 foot mark where we met Snow Canyon.

In the next mile, though, the trail climbs 650 feet, until it reaches Snow Canyon's upper lip at just under 9,300 feet on the shoulder of Deadwood Peak. Many choice words were uttered during this portion, as this is not an easy section of trail, foregoing switchbacks and staircases for a simple and direct path along the canyon rim.

But we persevered, reveling in the spectacular terrain, and grateful that we'd made the decision to acclimate to the altitude by spending the first night in a hotel room at the Kirkwood Resort before striking out.

The trail's peak is also the Mokelumne River's peak, as we top out at a remarkable sight: a year-round spring bubbling fresh mountain water at 9,300 feet up Deadwood Peak. In the midst of the barren terrain, well above the tree line, the wildflower meadow around the bubbling brook has to be seen to be believed!

From here, though, the trail descends, nearly as rapidly as it rose, dropping 800 feet in the final 1.5 miles down to Grouse Lake, which sits perched in a small bowl above the just-as-dramatic Summit City Creek canyon.

Grouse Lake is the picture of the perfect Sierra Nevada lake: crystal clear waters, groves of pines and firs providing shelter, and stark granite walls enclosing the pocket-sized valley. We were even more pleased when we realized that we had met all three of the parties that were camped there the night before on the trail, heading out, and nobody else was following us in, so the lake was ours to enjoy in solitude.

We spent three delightful days at Grouse Lake, meditating by the shore, exploring the lake region, climbing the nearby rocks, and soaking up the views. At night, the 8,500 foot altitude and the new moon provided a nearly perfect starscape for our pleasure, and the hardier among us stayed up til the wee hours, identifying stars and constellations, and picking out the occasional shooting star.

Perhaps due to the remoteness of the valley, perhaps due to the altitude, perhaps due to the dry winter, we encountered very little wildlife: many birds and chipmunks, a few deer, and a single very brave mouse who ventured out to collect cookie crumbs right from under our feet!

All good things must end, so on our final morning we arose early, packed up and tidied the site, and retraced our steps back to Upper Blue Lake.

A few practical notes:

  • It never rained, and the temperature was mild, from overnight lows in the 40's to mid-afternoon highs in the 70's.
  • Although the winter was dry, there was plenty of water. Both lakes were full, and there were several springs and creeks along the trail should we have needed them.
  • Our timing was perfect, as there were almost no mosquitoes
  • A small fire on the second day sent a cloud of smoke through the valley, but the smoke cleared quickly in the afternoon winds and we experienced little more than a smoky smell and a bright orange sunset. I don't know for sure, but I suspect this was the Power Fire

  • The lake water was surprisingly warm, for a Sierra lake of this altitude, probably due to the dry winter and absent snow pack. Even Bryan The Timid was a swimmer on this trip!

And, a few gear notes:

  • My year-old, barely used Lowa Zephyr Desert boots become more comfortable with every hike. My first pair of Lowas lasted me nearly a decade, and this new pair shows every sign of being just as well-designed and well-built. They're not cheap, but boy are they worth it.
  • My Alite Monarch rocking chair was the hit of the trip. It's incredibly light and comfortable, and, when collapsed into its sack, is trivial to throw in the backpack for toting along on day hikes. Most recommended.
  • I ended up not trying my Aquamira Water Treatment Drops. I didn't even carry them on the trail. This was not due to any problem with the Aquamira product; it was just that our group already had two proven SteriPEN Classic units and we didn't see the need for any additional backup. The SteriPEN devices have been our first choice for several years, and they continue to perform well.
  • I was quite pleased with my Fenix LD01 flashlight. It's extremely light, produces a clear, powerful beam, and runs for hours on a single AAA battery. Roger's Mini MAGlite AAA LED was brighter and threw its beam further, but it is also substantially heavier and larger.

It was clear on our trip that the Sierra Nevada wilderness areas are no longer the secret that they were decades ago. But these beautiful mountains have been well-protected and well-preserved, and I have every hope that, as long as I can keep mustering up the strength and willpower to explore them, there will be spectacular nooks and crannies like Grouse Lake for me to see and enjoy.

My backpacking trips with Mike

During a recent discussion (see an article coming out Real Soon Now), it emerged that I've gone backpacking with my friend Mike for more than a decade.

So we tried to remember all our trips, and here's what I can remember:

  1. Mokelumne Wilderness: Grouse Lake from the Upper Blue Lake trailhead (2013)
  2. Yosemite National Park: Rancheria Creek from the Hetch Hetchy dam trailhead (2012)
  3. Caribou Wilderness: Posey Lake from the Hay Meadow trailhead (2011)
  4. Trinity Alps Wilderness: Lilypad Lake via Poison Canyon (2010)
  5. John Muir Wilderness: Baboon Lake from the Lake Sabrina trailhead (2009)
  6. Yosemite National Park: unnamed lake below Mt Hoffman from the May Lake trailhead (2008)
  7. Emigrant Wilderness: Relief Reservoir via Kennedy Meadows trailhead, with Dan (2007?)
  8. No trip in 2006?
  9. No trip in 2005?
  10. Yosemite National Park: Rancheria Creek from the Hetch Hetchy dam trailhead (2004 -- yes, we did this trip twice)
  11. Hoover Wilderness: Robinson Lakes via the Twin Lakes trailhead (2003?)
  12. Sequoia National Park: Mosquito Lakes from the Mineral King trailhead (2002?)
  13. John Muir Wilderness: South Fork of the San Joaquin River from the Florence Lakes trailhead (2001?)
  14. Desolation Wilderness: American Lake from the Echo Lakes trailhead. (2001?)

I'm sure there's more trips. I'm sure of it.

I Just Can't Remember.

Friday, August 2, 2013

See you in a week

In an unplanned coincidence, I'm going to go follow in the footsteps of William Brewer, exactly 150 years later, for I'm headed off to the Mokelumne headwaters for some unplugged time in the wilderness.

Nice writeup of Time

Everybody who knows me knows that I adore Randall Munroe's xkcd.

On the occasion of the conclusion of the astonishing work of art, Time, Wired's Laura Hudson wrote a nice piece about the work, the community that's formed around the work, and Munroe's observations about his achievement: Creator of xkcd Reveals Secret Backstory of His Epic 3,990-Panel Comic.

The obsessive devotees of the comic-within-a-comic created a discussion thread that exceeded 1,300 pages, a “Time”-specific Wikipedia, and even made a glossary of the lexicon they invented to describe the world of “Time” and their experiences with it. While they refer to Munroe simply as “OTA” (the One True Author), a “newpic” (plural: “newpix”) is defined as the unit of time that elapses between updates, also known as “outsider minutes.” True to its name, “Time”–where a single step could last an hour, and a night could last days–took on its own internal sense of chronological speed: glacially slow for animation, but imbued with a continual sense of motion that felt utterly unique for a comic.

Munroe's attention to detail, although well-known for years, is still impressive:

Munroe researched and illustrated very specific plants and wildlife to offer readers hints about the location. “I got suggestions from botanists and herpetologists, and I had a file with details on every species the characters encountered or talked about, like dwarf palms, juniper trees, horned vipers, and sand boas.”

The last few times I tried, the frame-jumping navigator was overloaded and responding very sluggishly. I enjoy the YouTube movie, although I'm not sure if it's better to watch it with the sound turned off, since the original piece is not set to music.

Munroe's epic works are not always easy to approach, and this one is no exception, but it also rewards study and meditation; it's truly a beautiful work. It's becoming increasingly clear that Munroe will take his place as one of the great artists of my generation.