Monday, March 31, 2014

Sea Ranch in the rain

It was a beautiful, though stormy, weekend, so we headed north.

We spent two delightful days in Gualala and Sea Ranch, with long walks along the ocean cliffs, drives along peaceful country roads, visits to lighthouses and quiet pastures, and lots of good food.

There were seals, osprey, dolphins, and whales.

Saturday evening, around 7:30 PM, we were seated at the beautiful bench on the lawn at Whale Watch Inn, binoculars in hand, relaxing at the end of a perfect day, when we were treated to a most amazing display by a pod of migrating whales.

One after another, whale after whale lifted up, high out of the water, then twisted and fell back into the water with a resounding splash, visible and even audible from more than half a mile away, a behavior I believe they call "breaching".

I've seen this on TV and in the movies many a time, but this was the first time ever to see it with my own eyes, and to see it a dozen times in just five minutes was truly glorious.

It even distracted us from the osprey we were following as it hunted for fish in the waves.

It was a most wonderful weekend.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

How dry is it?

It rained the last two days, after 12 days without rain before that.

How dry is it?

As they say, "a picture is worth 1,000 words": California's Historic Drought.

The year 2013 was the driest in California's recorded history, and predictions for 2014 aren't much better.

Meanwhile, I talked to my in-laws in Ann Arbor, Michigan, today. There's still almost 3 feet of snow on the ground, temperatures remain below freezing, and the Winter Snow Season ended (on the first day of Spring) just 1 inch short of the all-time record for heaviest snowfall ever.

The world is changing.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Condemned to repeat it?

Apparently, 15 years is just long enough to prove the worth of Santayana's famous saying ("Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it").

An interesting story in this weekend's San Francisco Chronicle: How tech became the enemy - then and now.

The flyer tucked on the windshield of a tech worker's car on South Van Ness didn't mince words: "The Mission has been colonized by pigs with money. ... They help landlords drive up rents, pushing working and poor people out of their homes."

The leaflet urged people to key the cars of wealthy new transplants: "Take action now!"

The year was 1999.

San Francisco, of course, is one of the few places I know of, outside Manhattan, that have some sort of rent control, and a lot of this current struggle turns out to be about money, behind the scenes:

Meanwhile, 31-year-old housing activist Erin McElroy was struggling to get the media to link housing and tech. Evictions performed using the Ellis Act peaked in 2000, and though they've risen sharply in the recent years - surging 81 percent last year alone - they haven't returned to the levels of the dot-com boom. But McElroy said more landlords were turning to buyouts and tenant harassment to get units back on the market. And she blamed it on tech money.

There are lots of things you can criticize the new tech giants for: kow-towing to the NSA, selling our personal information to marketers and advertisers, building corporate fortunes on the backs of deeply poor Asian factory workers, etc.

But it's hard to see them as the devil for providing high-paying, interesting, safe, productive jobs for young people.

I guess that's why I have trouble feeling much outrage for companies who provide safe transit for their employees.

Over here in the East Bay, I'm kind of out of the argument (though we have plenty of Google Buses here), so maybe I'm missing the whole point.

Am I? Drop me a line and let me know.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Stuff I'm reading, March Madness edition

My bracket is a shambles ... Mercer?

But here's some madness of a different sort:

  • Brief History of Latency: Electric Telegraph
    Brief look at the history of the electric telegraph - how it came to be, how it was used, and the early problems it encountered. Namely, networking congestion, which was caused by routing and queuing delays!
  • Denial of Service Attacks
    Over the last year, we have seen a large number and variety of denial of service attacks against various parts of the GitHub infrastructure. There are two broad types of attack that we think about when we're building our mitigation strategy: volumetric and complex.

    We have designed our DDoS mitigation capabilities to allow us to respond to both volumetric and complex attacks.

  • Go Concurrency Patterns: Pipelines and cancellation
    Go's concurrency primitives make it easy to construct streaming data pipelines that make efficient use of I/O and multiple CPUs. This article presents examples of such pipelines, highlights subtleties that arise when operations fail, and introduces techniques for dealing with failures cleanly.
  • Marginally Useful
    But while it may be wishful thinking to imagine Bitcoin as a true currency, it’s a highly functional and effective technology. Bitcoin’s “block chain protocol” is built atop well-understood, established cryptographic standards and allows perfect certainty about which transactions occurred when.
  • Hack
    Hack is a programming language for HHVM that interoperates seamlessly with PHP. Hack reconciles the fast development cycle of PHP with the discipline provided by static typing, while adding many features commonly found in other modern programming languages.

    Hack provides instantaneous type checking via a local server that watches the filesystem. It typically runs in less than 200 milliseconds, making it easy to integrate into your development workflow without introducing a noticeable delay.

  • Facebook Introduces ‘Hack,’ the Programming Language of the Future
    Facebook engineers Bryan O’Sullivan, Julien Verlaguet, and Alok Menghrajani spent the last few years building a programming language unlike any other.

    Working alongside a handful of others inside the social networking giant, they fashioned a language that lets programmers build complex websites and other software at great speed while still ensuring that their software code is precisely organized and relatively free of flaws — a combination that few of today’s languages even approach. In typical Facebook fashion, the new language is called Hack, and it already drives almost all of the company’s website — a site that serves more than 1.2 billion people across the globe.

  • Facebook VP of Engineering on Solving Hard Things Early
    Building great products is hard enough without allowing the ease of early management to fool founders into thinking they invented something new. Build great management, train new managers, and introduce sustainable, scalable structure now. Do not wait until world-class managers and radical re-orgs are needed to fix poor information flow or productivity problems.

Skyrim snort for a Friday afternoon

It's not just a game, it's an obsession: The Cheesing of Lydia.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Stuff I'm reading, midweek edition

The weather's great; the snowpack isn't. Meanwhile, I read.

  • Leslie Lamport Receives Turing Award
    “Leslie’s schemes for dealing with faults was a major area of investigation in distributed computing,” Levin says. “His work was fundamental there. Then it led to work on agreement protocols, a key part of the notion of getting processes to converge on a common answer. This is what has come to be known as Paxos.”

    Incidently, that work was independently invented at about the same time by Barbara Liskov, Turing Award winner in 2008, and her student Brian Oki.

    “Lamport’s paper [The Part-Time Parliament],” Levin adds, “explained things through the use of a mythical Greek island and its legislative body. Partly because he chose this metaphor, it was not appreciated for quite some time what was really going on there.”

    Lamport has a less diplomatic assessment.

    “With the success of Byzantine Generals, I thought, ‘We need a story.’ I created a story, and that was an utter disaster.

  • Surprise! Science!
    Chao-Lin Kuo surprises Andrei Linde and his wife with the news that gravitational waves were detected, proving Linde's theory of an inflationary universe.
  • Ernest Cline is the luckiest geek alive
    Cline spent eight years writing Ready Player One before it hit the presses in August 2011. Set in 2044, Cline’s book prophesied a future where everybody’s always plugged in to The Oasis, a virtual world hosting the Earth’s jobs, education, and secrets. Each Oasis user hooks in using a variety of haptic and visual inputs to simulate and stimulate the senses in a virtual world. Ready Player One is indebted to hundreds of other books, games, and films like The Matrix, and it wears them on its shirt-sleeve. Cline’s most original creation yet moved away from Star Wars into a world of his own, a world made out of his favorite things.
  • Why Dorian Nakamoto Probably Isn’t Satoshi
    To me, one of the weakest points in Newsweek’s argument is their assertion that Dorian had the skills and background to create Bitcoin. All they really have as evidence is that Dorian trained as a physicist, worked as an engineer, and is reputed to be very intelligent. But none of that indicates that Dorian understood cryptography or distributed algorithms well enough to devise Bitcoin and write the original Bitcoin paper.
  • Missed Alarms and 40 Million Stolen Credit Card Numbers: How Target Blew It
    On Saturday, Nov. 30, the hackers had set their traps and had just one thing to do before starting the attack: plan the data’s escape route. As they uploaded exfiltration malware to move stolen credit card numbers—first to staging points spread around the U.S. to cover their tracks, then into their computers in Russia—FireEye spotted them. Bangalore got an alert and flagged the security team in Minneapolis. And then …

    Nothing happened.

    For some reason, Minneapolis didn’t react to the sirens.

  • Worse
    This isn’t just an Amazon problem. In the last few years, Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter have all made huge attempts to move into major parts of each others’ businesses, usually at the detriment of their customers or users.
  • managers are awesome / managers are cool when they’re part of your team
    This bothered me a bit when I heard it last summer, and it’s gotten increasingly more uncomfortable since. I’ve been paraphrasing this part of the talk as “management is a form of workplace violence,” and the still-evolving story of Julie Ann Horvath suggests that the removal of one form of workplace violence has resulted in the reintroduction of another, much worse form.
  • What Your Culture Really Says
    Culture is not about the furniture in your office. It is not about how much time you have to spend on feel-good projects. It is not about catered food, expensive social outings, internal chat tools, your ability to travel all over the world, or your never-ending self-congratulation.

    Culture is about power dynamics, unspoken priorities and beliefs, mythologies, conflicts, enforcement of social norms, creation of in/out groups and distribution of wealth and control inside companies. Culture is usually ugly. It is as much about the inevitable brokenness and dysfunction of teams as it is about their accomplishments. Culture is exceedingly difficult to talk about honestly. The critique of startup culture that came in large part from the agile movement has been replaced by sanitized, pompous, dishonest slogans.

  • Welcome to the Thirsty West
    Don’t get me wrong: This has always been an extreme environment. But over the thousands of years of human civilization in this corner of the world, people have adapted to little water. Problem is: The water supply/demand calculus has never changed this quickly before. About 100 years ago, the balance started to tip. Groundwater was invested for agricultural purposes. Massive civil engineering projects pulled more water from rivers. The human presence in the desert blossomed.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Stuff I'm reading, St Patrick's Day edition

While the corned beef is boiling, take a break, pour yourself a cold green-colored beverage and read.

  • Agile Is Dead (Long Live Agility)
    Those four lines and one practice encompass everything there is to know about effective software development. Of course, this involves a fair amount of thinking, and the basic loop is nested fractally inside itself many times as you focus on everything from variable naming to long-term delivery, but anyone who comes up with something bigger or more complex is just trying to sell you something.
  • Smart Guy Productivity Pitfalls
    If my pithy advice were little more than "Be more like John Carmack" then I can imagine a lot of readers throwing up their hands and saying "Well, fuck it, I'm a lost cause, because that's not going to happen." But what I can do is relate some of the things that helped me kill off some of my underachieving habits. The point isn't to become a superstar, it's to become better, since that's always the first step.
  • The One Problem
    if you speak more than 30% in a conversation, you are boring the other person. If you forget everything I said and just remember to STFU and listen, you have a fair shot at building a product that market wants.
  • Good Riddance to Hampton, Florida?
    The town's three staff members resigned in February, and so has the police chief, who at one point was employing 17 officers ("a word loosely applied here," said the Times) for a town of 477 people. The county sheriff said he did not know how many of the 17 were actually police officers or whether any of them were actually trained in radar detection.
  • How Sony Makes Music For Your Favorite Games
    Yesterday, I was able to take a tour of Sony's state-of-the-art PlayStation Music Studio at the company's headquarters in San Mateo, Calif., where I met the guys responsible for the music in some of the best games released in the last few years.
  • NTP and the Winter of 2013 Network DRDoS Attacks
    The only information that should come in to your network from the outside should be from messages that never have your address as the “sender” — the only place such messages should come from are from within your network. An “ingress” filter at your border would block these forgeries.
  • A Plea for Architectural & Specification Stability with IPv6
    excuses for not deploying IPv6 are, to a great extent, just that: excuses. They have no relationship to the actual reason for not deploying it, which is, and has always been, "we see no benefit" (or, to a lesser extent, "our code doesn't support it", and "our code has bugs" -- both of which are temporary). These excuses mislead the IETF into thinking that the lack of IPv6 deployment means that there is somehow something wrong with the protocol. This in turn causes hand-wringing and standards-writing, but in my experience, that doesn't help: when we remove an excuse, people move on to another excuse -- because the excuse wasn't the real reason anyway.
  • Using OpenSSH Certificate Authentication
    In 2014 ssh certificates are still a fairly obscure subject, neither widely understood or used. With such an obscure subject, one could almost expect it to be either hard or complex to implement – it is neither hard nor complex, just not well documented.

    The goal of this guide is to show how easy it is to use and manage ssh certificate authentication from small to very large environments in a practical way.

  • The Infinite Lives of BitTorrent
    That’s why, among its many definitions and identities, BitTorrent is ultimately a very curious thing: a gigantic question about what startup success should look like. Most startups don’t achieve their world-changing ambitions, but the lucky ones happily settle for being acquired. BitTorrent seems to be stuck in the middle of all this--profitable, but unable to truly ever capitalize on the revolution it unleashed.

Silicon Valley Generation Gap

If you can tear yourself away from obsessing over Malaysia Air Flight 370, there's a fairly well-written article in this weekend's New York Times Magazine by Yiren Lu: Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem (In the printed copy of the magazine, the article is titled: A Tale of Two Valleys).

The article looks at the various ways you can classify the high-tech industry along different axes:

The rapid consumer-ification of tech, led by Facebook and Google, has created a deep rift between old and new, hardware and software, enterprise companies that sell to other businesses and consumer companies that sell directly to the masses.

Although these are all valid ways to discriminate and compare and contrast, the article focuses on a different breakdown, perhaps hinted at slightly by "old and new": young vs old.

This is something I've definitely noticed myself over the last 5 years or so: the times are definitely changing; the people who are building the next products and companies and organizations are a new generation, who literally grew up on the web.

My earliest memories of using a web browser on the Internet are from the summer of 1993 (it was Lynx, a completely text-mode browser, at the time), so we're roughly at the 20th anniversary of the Web, and that means that this year's college graduates probably had graphical web browsers in their homes by the time they were in kindergarden.

Lu's article poses a pretty blunt question to this fresh new generation:

This summer in San Francisco, I’m living with three roommates, also students doing tech internships in the valley, two at Google and one at the news aggregator Flipboard. For better or worse, these are the kinds of companies that seem to be winning the recruiting race, and if the traditional lament at Ivy League schools has been that the best talent goes to Wall Street, a newer one is taking shape: Why do these smart, quantitatively trained engineers, who could help cure cancer or fix, want to work for a sexting app?

It's a great question, and it makes me think of Steve Yegge's equally blunt keynote at the 2011 OSCON, in which Yegge challenges his audience to stop making "cat-picture webapps," and consider doing work that matters.

But back to Lu's article, which goes on to wonder whether we're getting what we reward:

as a group, my peers feel more restless, more constantly in search of the next big thing — in part because start-ups select for and reward these impulses, which also spur the successive exoduses from Yahoo to Google, from Google to Facebook, from Facebook to younger, hipper companies.

It does seem like it's more than just "the bubble is back." Lu, who did her undergraduate work at Harvard, has been watching the recent explosion in interest first-hand:

Tech hasn’t been pedestrianized — it’s been democratized. The doors to start-up-dom have been thrown wide open. At Harvard, enrollment in the introductory computer-science course, CS50, has soared. Last semester, 39 percent of the students in the class were women, and 73 percent had never coded before.
(I'm not sure if that's 73 percent of the women, or 73 percent of the students in the class, but either way it's a bit surprising that it's still the case that so many people are just getting into programming when they arrive at college.)

One of the watershed changes that Lu highlights is clearly a recent development: computer technology has become so advanced and powerful and inexpensive and straightforward to deploy that it's no longer necessary that a technology company be all about technology. In fact, modern "technology" companies are increasingly not about technology at all. Lu notes:

Recently, an engineer at a funded-to-the-gills start-up in San Francisco texted me to grumble about his company’s software architecture. Its code base was bug-ridden and disorganized — yet the business was enjoying tremendous revenue and momentum. “Never before has the idea itself been powerful enough that one can get away with a lacking implementation,” he wrote. His remark underscores a change wrought by the new guard that the old guard will have to adapt to. Tech is no longer primarily technology driven; it is idea driven.

But of course, much of it is not even idea-driven, it is driven by an older story, one that is all too familiar, one that could have been written by Fitzgerald or Salinger 75 years ago, or even by Dickens or Bronte 75 years before that:

One of Stripe’s founders rowed five seat in the boat I coxed freshman year in college; the other is his older brother. Among the employee profiles posted on its website, I count three of my former teaching fellows, a hiking leader, two crushes. Silicon Valley is an order of magnitude bigger than it was 30 years ago, but still, the start-up world is intimate and clubby, with top talent marshaled at elite universities and behemoths like Facebook and Google. These days, a new college graduate arriving in the valley is merely stepping into his existing network. He will have friends from summer internships, friends from school, friends from the ever-increasing collection of incubators and fellowships. His transition will be smoothed by a hefty relocation package and cheerful emails from the young female H.R. staff at his hot web-consumer start-up.

Worse than the clubbiness, it's the incessant need to be trendy and hip that seems oh so incredibly depressing and shallow:

Young people like to be among young people; they like to work on products (consumer brands) that their friends use and in environments where they feel acutely the side effects of growth.


to a software engineer in his 20s, with endless opportunities, what matters most is not salary, or stability, or job security, but cool.

Perhaps the saddest part of it all is that, in those few examples that Lu is able to find where people tried to break out of this trendy mosh-pit of social app-making startups, they chose ... Wall Street?

Andrew, was a sophomore at the University of Chicago and trying to decide on a major. He was interested in computer science, having taken the online version of CS50, Harvard’s introductory computer-science course, in his spare time. But his parents, both software engineers, wanted him to choose finance. They thought that being a software engineer meant drowning in a technical quagmire, being someone else’s code monkey. Their view of tech was shaped by their years of experience at old-guard companies, where a few cynosures (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, etc.) got most of the money and the glory.

I'm not that old, but I know I'm part of another generation now. I was around when computers were still new, when people were just starting to wonder what changes they might bring, and how the world might change.

And, in so many ways, the world did change.

It's just too bad that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Lu recalls her days at Harvard:

In 2010, the year I took the CS50, the hottest final project was a dating app called CrimsonSpark. By entering an email address, you could “spark” classmates you were interested in, and if they sparked you back, both of you would be notified.
and notes that
The central concept, though, was alluring: It connected people who wanted to sleep together.

Will I be around to see a time when Harvard undergraduates taking Computer Science classes won't choose, as their homework assignment, a hookup app?

Dunno. This is college, after all, and that behavior is surely nothing new.

So I take heart in reading (will this shock you?) this year's annual letter from none other than Bill Gates, who calls for new investment, not in a better app for getting a taxi ride home from the bar, but in things that really do matter:

It is very hard to know exactly which investments will spark economic growth, especially in the near term. However, we do know that aid drives improvements in health, agriculture, and infrastructure that correlate strongly with growth in the long run. Health aid saves lives and allows children to develop mentally and physically, which will pay off within a generation. Studies show that these children become healthier adults who work more productively.

Improvements in health care, agriculture, and education: what a concept!

It's all food for thought, and I know in some ways I'm picking on Lu's article unfairly, but the problem is real, and deserves attention, and her article inspired me to write about it.

For whatever that's worth.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Reading my way to Ireland, Part 2: travelogues

I've always been an easy mark for the travelogue.

Travel guides are fine, but they are very dry. Travelogues make no bones about it: they are personal, and opinionated, and eccentric, and everything that's wonderful about traveling.

I've been lucky to stumble across some nice travelogues about traveling in Ireland:

  • McCarthy's Bar: A Journey of Discovery In Ireland

    This book will be no surprise to anyone who's ever read anything about Ireland. Pete McCarthy was a prolific writer and a prolific traveler and rather a funny man as well. Sadly, he died only a few years after writing this book, but what a good book it is!

    Rather than take the easy way around Ireland, McCarthy goes out of his way to have a real experience. He deliberately gets lost. He sets out in the morning without knowing where he will stay that evening. He takes every opportunity to put himself in situations where he can't just be a spectator. He lives, breathes, sweats, and cries Ireland. And, all the time, you find yourself laughing and crying with him:

    I drove on, stopping a couple of times to go ferreting up mountainsides looking for mass rocks and standing stones. I know this passion for old stones is beginning to seem like an obsession, but when there are no sushi restaurants or art-house cinemas to hang out in, you have to make your own fun. At one point I followed a waterfall up the hillside through ferns and thick woods. At the top, I stopped to gaze out over the mountains, lakes and islands of Kerry, but found myself instead gazing in wonder at the beautiful emerald moss that covered the rocks at my feet. Wow, I thought. At home I go mental trying to get rid of the moss in the garden, but here I realise how beautiful it is. It was a moment of great realisation. I realised the solitude and the natural beauty were turning me soft in the head. It was time to go somewhere with lots of people and buildings, so I could get back in touch with my uncaring, cynical side. I needed quality time in a major tourist trap. I went back to the Tank and hit the road for Killarney.

    It was gorgeous moss though.

    I wish McCarthy had lived longer, to write more, but I'm pleased to have found him nonetheless.

  • Round Ireland in Low Gear

    Eric Newby is rather a well-known travel writer, though this was the first book of his I've read.

    When I read the blurb before buying the book ("Touring Ireland by bicycle in the winter is a daunting prospect even for the most seasoned backpackers, but Newby and his wife Wanda weathered it with good humor and resilience."), I anticipated that I was going to be reading some sort of adventure travel book, about a pair of 20-somethings who sleep in the fields and scale the cliffs in between epic bicycle sprints from one place to the next.

    Oh, how wrong I was!

    It turns out, at the time of this trip, Newby and his wife were in their late 60's, and were only occasional cyclers.

    Moreover, they chose the dead of winter for their trip.

    So large parts of this book involve passages like this:

    In the morning we rode out to a huge white sugar-loaf beacon known as Lot's Wife which looks across a narrow sound to Sherkin Island. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining but the wind was blowing so strongly that we could lean out on it without falling over, which meant it was Force 9. Gouts of froth streamed up the face of a precipice on the extreme edge of which a herd of cattle stood grazing, accompanied by an enormous, wily-looking goat; apparently the cattle often fall over, having neither apprehension nor fear of heights, but never the goat. Having done this there was not much else to do, the mail boat not being due to sail for Clear Island until half past two in the afternoon.

    "I'm afraid I can't go on with much more of this," said Wanda, as we sat in a deep valley leading down to the sea next door to an abandoned Morris done out in jungle camouflage with nothing inside except seatbelts. "The winds and the rains are simply killing me." And she shed a tear or two. Nevertheless she promosed to delay her decision about abandoning both me and Ireland until our return from Clear Island.

    I'm not giving much away to admit that, somehow, they persevere.

    Newby's book is delightful. He's interested in everything: history, culture, scenery, religion, art. In between the two-wheeled stretches, he discusses all sorts of topics, and his writing is fluid and natural.

    If it weren't for McCarthy's Bar, I'd be raving about Round Ireland in Low Gear.

  • Keep to the Left!: Freewheeling through Ireland

    It is, perhaps, easier for Europeans to appreciate Ireland, as they have some idea of what it is that they are seeing, and why it is there.

    We Yanks have it harder. To us, a historical building was built around 1905 or so, and clans and kings and queens are things we only learn about on TV.

    So off go Jesse and Micki Lovelace, two middle-aged Midwesterners, to Ireland, doing their best to approach things with an open mind and let Ireland show itself to them.

    Jesse takes copious notes, and is very good at re-telling what he had for breakfast, and who had the better meal at the pub. At at times it seems like all he manages to do is to make it from one door to the next.

    Our evening was another memorable pub-crawl. There were several pubs we had missed the night before, so we had to take up the slack before we left County Mayo. Our first stop was the Parting Glass.
    But when he's not simply regurgitating the facts of the matter, he has a lively appreciation for Ireland that makes his book a genuine kick to read:
    With that reassurance, we returned to Abbeyfeale for dinner. Kathleen had recommended a place called O'Riordan's and had said the food was good and reasonable. We found it, since we had noted it as a landmark a few hours earlier, and went in to have one at the bar. As we were sitting there, a big fellow sat down at the bar next to us. He bore a striking resemblance to Ronan Tynan, the Irish tenor: thin hair, round face, prominent ears (like mine) and an infectious grin.

    Since pub manners prevail, we weren't surprised (or offended) when he struck up a conversation. After the usual "How are you enjoying your holiday?," we got to chatting about things in general. He was (and I hope still is) a police officer (Garda) and had just gotten off duty and dropped into O'Riordan's to unwind. When Micki told him that she was a nurse in a small town hospital, the two of them had a grand old time comparing hairy emergency room stories. People who deal with the wreckage of humanity and the disasters that befall people have a sort of bond that defies all boundaries; they know and understand things that the rest of us are completely clueless about. It was an amazing and inspiring experience to listen to an American nurse and an Iris cop discuss the things they had in common.

    Lovelace's book isn't nearly at the level of the other two, but it's enjoyable and entertaining, and most of all it's heart-felt: Lovelace deeply treasured his trip to Ireland, and his enthusiasm is infectious and pleasing, and I can't say I regret the time I spent reading his stories of his adventures.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The water wars intensify

  • East Bay Water District Eyes Emergency Supply From Sacramento River
    It would mark the first time EBMUD has used a supply of water it first arranged to purchase from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1970. The agreement would have allowed the district to pump as much as 150,000 acre-feet of emergency water from the American River east of Sacramento. After decades of environmental litigation, the district became partners with the Sacramento County Water Agency in a $900 million project that looks much different from the original plan.

    The two agencies jointly built a pumping plant on the Sacramento River in Freeport, just south of the capital city. The plant, opened in 2011, allows EBMUD to ship water from the Sacramento through a series of canals to its Mokelumne Aqueduct, which serves the East Bay. Under its contract with the Bureau of Reclamation, EBMUD can draw on the Sacramento River supply only during dry years.

  • California to dam Delta sloughs if drought persists
    The temporary dams would consist of rock barriers piled across the entrance to three Delta channels: Sutter Slough and Steamboat Slough, branching off the Sacramento River near Courtland; and False River, branching off the San Joaquin River near Oakley.

    In the case of the first two sloughs, DWR project manager Mark Holderman said the goal is to make the most of limited freshwater outflows that might be available in the main stem of the Sacramento River. The barriers would allow that fresh water to be held in the river, rather than branching into the side channels. This would concentrate its force and better hold back sediment that naturally would creep in from San Francisco Bay as river flows dwindle because of the drought.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Gorgeous Internet maps

CNN have a beautiful gallery online: This is what the Internet actually looks like: The undersea cables wiring the Earth

The information age is powered by thin fiber-optic cables buried in the sea bed, spreading between continents to connect the most remote corners of the planet. These great arteries account for practically all of our international web traffic, and each one has been logged by Washington research firm Telegeography in its interactive Submarine Cable Map 2014. The company's research director Alan Mauldin told CNN about the world's underwater networks.

The full map is on the TeleGeography web site: Submarine Cable Map 2014.

I'd love to buy the full map for my wall at work, but it's a bit out of my price range. To be accurate, it's priced at about 10x what I'd be willing to pay.

Still, the online version of the map is simply beautiful.

Are the cables actually "buried in the sea bed"? For some reason I thought they were just resting on top of the sea floor.

Wow, has it really been 18 years since Neal Stephenson wrote Mother Earth Mother Board ? Time sure passes quickly...

Here's what Stephenson said, at the time:

The amplifiers need power - up to 10,000 volts DC, at 0.9 amperes. Since public 10,000-volt outlets are few and far between on the bottom of the ocean, this power must be delivered down the same cable that carries the fibers. The cable, therefore, consists of an inner core of four optical fibers, coated with plastic jackets of different colors so that the people at opposite ends can tell which is which, plus a thin copper wire that is used for test purposes. The total thickness of these elements taken together is comparable to a pencil lead; they are contained within a transparent plastic tube. Surrounding this tube is a sheath consisting of three steel segments designed so that they interlock and form a circular jacket. Around that is a layer of about 20 steel "strength wires" - each perhaps 2 mm in diameter - that wrap around the core in a steep helix. Around the strength wires goes a copper tube that serves as the conductor for the 10,000-volt power feed. Only one conductor is needed because the ocean serves as the ground wire. This tube also is watertight and so performs the additional function of protecting the cable's innards. It then is surrounded by polyethylene insulation to a total thickness of about an inch. To protect it from the rigors of shipment and laying, the entire cable is clothed in good old-fashioned tarred jute, although jute nowadays is made from plastic, not hemp.

Oh wait, no, there's more later (Stephenson wrote a LONG article...). Here it is:

At Tong Fuk, FLAG is encased in pipe out to a distance of some 300 meters from the beach manhole. When the divers have got all of that pipe bolted on, which will take a week or so, they will make their way down the line with a water jet that works by fluidizing the seabed beneath it, turning it into quicksand. The pipe sinks into the quicksand, which eventually compacts, leaving no trace of the buried pipe.

Beyond 300 meters, the cable must still be buried to protect it from anchors, tickler chains, and otter boards (more about this later).

Well, that wasn't it, exactly, as that's still talking about the part where the cable reaches land. How about this part:

These nozzles fluidize the seabed and thus make it possible for the giant blade to penetrate it. Along the trailing edge of the blade runs a channel for the cable so that as the blade works its way forward, the cable is gently laid into the bottom of the slit. The barge carries a set of extensions that can be bolted onto the top of the injector so it can operate in water as deep as 40 meters, burying the cable as deep as 9 meters beneath the seabed. This sufficed to lay the cable out for a distance of 10 kilometers from Tong Fuk. Later, another barge, the Chinann, will come to continue work out to 100 meters deep and will bury both legs of the FLAG cable for another 60 kilometers out to get them through a dangerous anchorage zone.

Still seems like we're talking about the part close to shore.

OK, no, here it is (I knew I remembered it):

The route between the landing station at Songkhla, Thailand, and the one at Lan Tao Island, Hong Kong, might have a certain length when measured on a map, say 2,500 kilometers. But if you attach a 2,500-kilometer cable to Songkhla and, wearing a diving suit, begin manually unrolling it across the seafloor, you will run out of cable before you reach the public beach at Tong Fuk. The reason is that the cable follows the bumpy topography of the seafloor, which ends up being a longer distance than it would be if the seafloor were mirror-flat.

Over long (intercontinental) distances, the difference averages out to about 1 percent, so you might need a 2,525-kilometer cable to go from Songkhla to Lan Tao. The extra 1 percent is slack, in the sense that if you grabbed the ends and pulled the cable infinitely tight (bar tight, as they say in the business), it would theoretically straighten out and you would have an extra 25 kilometers. This slack is ideally molded into the contour of the seafloor as tightly as a shadow, running straight and true along the surveyed course. As little slack as possible is employed, partly because cable costs a lot of money (for the FLAG cable, $16,000 to $28,000 per kilometer, depending on the amount of armoring) and partly because loose coils are just asking for trouble from trawlers and other hazards. In fact, there is so little slack (in the layperson's sense of the word) in a well-laid cable that it cannot be grappled and hauled to the surface without snapping it.

So at least when Stephenson wrote about this, twenty years ago, the cable was only buried in the seabed close to shore, to prevent it from being damaged by dragging anchors and other dangerous things that arise in the shallow ocean close to land.

Out deeper, they just laid it down on the sea floor.

So, has that changed? If you know, let me know.

Europa Universalis IV: Mat Rus

Although the first expansion pack for EU IV has now been out for more than a month, I'm still playing the base game.

(What? I've only been playing for 5 months.)

I declared the Ottomans Campaign over, and looked elsewhere for a fresh start.

This time, I'm playing as Muscovy.

I've made it to 1454 so far; the first decade is complete.

In the early game, I'm struggling to overcome tiny northern countries with names like Tver, Ryazan, Pskov, and Yaroslavl, just barely earning enough to keep my country alive in the tough frozen winters, while I try to keep peace and mostly avoid the activity of the central asian tribes to my east.

But I can already see that the only hope for prosperity lies with the trade routes and ocean access to the south, in places like Armenia, Georgia, Abkhasia, and Crimea.

It's oh, so au courant.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Reading my way to Ireland, part 1: travel guides

We're hoping to travel to Ireland before too long.

So I've been doing my typical thing: reading.

This is not the first time we've thought about visiting Ireland. So, tucked away in a closet somewhere, we had:

  • Michelin Green Guide Ireland
    THE GREEN GUIDE, the perfect travel companion: a discerning and up-to-date source of information. Practical and comprehensive, it offers suggestions on what to see and what to do, background on history and cultural heritage.

I really like the organization of this book, and the way the information is presented. It's easy to read, illustrated with lots of nice pictures, and full of useful information.

It's over a decade old at this point, and Ireland has changed a lot in the last ten years. But the editors of the Michelin Guide are to be congratulated, as the book doesn't seem very dated at all. They wisely chose to focus on more-or-less timeless topics, such as descriptions of the various towns and cities, points of interest, historical background, ideas for things to do.

But, it's ten years old.

So, I bought two other similar guides, to fill in the gaps and provide more recent information:

  • Rick Steves' Ireland 2013
    Rick’s candid, humorous advice will guide you to good-value hotels and restaurants. He’ll help you plan where to go and what to see, depending on the length of your trip. You’ll get up-to-date recommendations on what is worth your time and money. More than just reviews and directions, a Rick Steves guidebook is a tour guide in your pocket.
  • Lonely Planet Ireland (Country Travel Guide)
    You can trust our travel information because Lonely Planet authors visit the places we write about, each and every edition. We never accept freebies for positive coverage so you can rely on us to tell it like it is.

Each book has a slightly different style: the Michelin guide is very corporate in its approach, with very little personality. Dry, but useful.

The Rick Steves organization have been publishing books (and leading guided tours, which I think is where they actually got started) for many, many years. Where the Michelin team stick mostly to the facts, and are reluctant to make recommendations, the Rick Steves books are less neutral, and have a point of view.

The Rick Steves books are also more selective in what they cover. Where the Michelin guide tries to cover everything, the Rick Steves guide selects destinations that they enjoy, and provide lots of coverage of those, simply omitting the things they don't like. This means that almost everything in the book has a good rating and is a recommended choice, which gives the book an overall cheery, positive tone that makes the entire exercise of trip planning much more light-hearted.

The Lonely Planet organization have also been publishing guides for decades. They got their start focusing on trips for youth, to exotic and less-traveled destinations, but have expanded to the point that they pretty much cover everywhere.

Lonely Planet's focus on travel-for-the-young means that they tend to include a lot of coverage of hostels, low-priced eateries, public transit, and other practical matters, and rather less coverage of romantic getaways, cultural history, etc. Their guides also include pursuits like canoeing, surfing, and other outdoor activities that are clearly aimed at the younger traveler.

The Lonely Planet crew are also more willing to "tell it like it is," and will tell you if a place is likely to be "mobbed in the summer," "isolated if the unthinkable happens and it rains," or if it's an "unflinchingly honest town with a tough past."

I like having all three guides to compare and contrast. It's a lot of information, but I'd rather have too much than too little.

I'm not sure if I'll carry any of them along in the suitcase, though, as they're all a bit heavy. I'll have to think about this and see if there's one of them that seems like the best one to lug around when the actual trip arrives.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Satoshi is ...

... Satoshi?

At least, that's what Newsweek claims: The Face Behind Bitcoin

Of course, there is also the chance "Satoshi Nakamoto" is a pseudonym, but that raises the question why someone who wishes to remain anonymous would choose such a distinctive name. It was only while scouring a database that contained the registration cards of naturalized U.S. citizens that a Satoshi Nakamoto turned up whose profile and background offered a potential match. But it was not until after ordering his records from the National Archives and conducting many more interviews that a cohesive picture began to take shape.

Temple City, eh? I remember my mom used to take me to the skateboard park by the Whittier Narrows dam, which is only a mile from Temple City.

Newsweek even runs a picture.

Let the madness begin.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Dear Ester: a very short review

I'm not sure what exactly to make of Dear Esther.

Is it an adventure game?

Many would say yes, and I think I'd agree. You are placed on an island, and your controls allow you to move around the island, to explore different areas and visit different locations. You can look at items, zoom in on them, view them from different angles.

However, you can't actually interact with anything.

The closest you get to interacting is that, from time to time, the game issues a short speech, as if from an off-stage narrator.

The speeches, as you progress through the game, form a story; at least, they form the fragments of a story. It's never really clear whether the narrator of these speeches is you, or somebody who came before you. And it's never really clear whether the character being referred to in the 3rd person in these speeches is you, or whether the narrator is telling somebody else's story to you.

The story clearly takes place on the island, though.

So in that respect many would call Dear Esther a work of art, an interactive story, a computer-driven epic poem. And I think I'd agree with that, too. It's clearly a performance, and, as art, it certainly is well-crafted.

The story is a compelling one, too. It's a tragic story, one told many times before, but told quite well, both in words and in more subtle ways (e.g., via the placement of candles on the path, or the paintings on the walls of the cave). More than once I found myself overcome with emotion as the game delivered yet another glimpse into its private world.

Dear Esther also compels on a purely aesthetic level. The artwork is beautiful; the music is gorgeous. The voyage through the caves in the middle of the island is just stunning. It reminds me of the first time I played Myst, 20 years ago; during those days I was often content just to walk around the island and gaze at the scenery.

It's clear, I believe, that Dear Esther is trying to do more than "just" tell a story. The visuals and the monologues and the wandering around all work together, full of allegory and metaphor. There are biblical references: quotations from Acts are painted on objects in the game, as well as referenced in the speeches, and stories such as Lot's wife, or the pilgrimage to Damascus, are touched upon, as well as less literal, but still clear, biblical references:

I have run out of places to climb. I will abandon this body and take to the air.

And there are other literary references, such as this fairly clear nod to John Donne's No Man Is An Island:

he would have realised he was his own shoreline, as am I. Just as I am becoming this island ...

I played through Dear Esther rather quickly, thirstily, eager to push the story forward. Others, I am told, savor this journey more slowly, even re-play it to gain a different perspective. The verses delivered by the narrator are randomized, so you may find your second time through the game to be a quite different experience.

So what, then, is Dear Esther? Is it a meditation on the perils of addiction? Is it a transcendent expression of pure love? Is it a commentary on the impermanence and mortality of man as he strives to create meaning that will outlive him? Is it "simply" a work of art, simultaneously none and all of the above?

I'll close with this, my favorite speech, hoping it reveals both nothing and everything:

I’ve begun my voyage in a paper boat without a bottom; I will fly to the moon in it. I have been folded along a crease in time, a weakness in the sheet of life. Now, you’ve settled on the opposite side of the paper to me; I can see your traces in the ink that soaks through the fibre, the pulped vegetation. When we become waterlogged, and the cage disintegrates, we will intermingle. When this paper aeroplane leaves the cliff edge, and carves parallel vapour trails in the dark, we will come together.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The open plan debate, redux

Here come the open plan fanatics again, with a massive piece in this week's NYT business section: The Monuments of Tech.

software is invisible and change is high technology’s most valued commodity. Insubstantial as a cubicle seems, in the tech industry it has given way to the long tables and broad whiteboards of open-plan offices, where everyone taps into a common Wi-Fi signal. Office teams grow or shrink in these open rooms, moving work and information as quickly as possible.

"Change is high technology's most valued commodity"?

Oh, please.

I am instantly reminded of the greatest Dilbert ever.

Nevertheless, on charge the open space zealots, trumpeting their self-appointed brilliance:

The buildings hold 6,000 people. In the past, Facebook moved around as many as 1,000 of them a month, reassigning them to new short-term projects. Walkways double as spaces for ambulatory meetings, held on the go so they are short and decisive.

Casual meeting areas are set off from the open plan by squares of plywood hanging from the ceiling, a visual “under construction” reference meant to reinforce the company’s ethos. Facebook even spent money to expose its networking wires, which dangle along the ceiling.

“It’s designed to change thinking,” said John Tenanes, who oversees Facebook’s buildings as its director of real estate. “Even if the meeting doesn’t move faster, we want people coming up with new stuff.”

Yes, indeed: new stuff. I suppose that, if you are a business journalist, you spent enough time hearing about Heraclitus in your journalism classes to dispense wisdom such as

Here, as at many other tech companies, is a sense that nothing is permanent, that any product can be dislodged from greatness by something newer. It’s the aesthetic of disruption: We must all change, all the time.
Facebook’s all-night hackathons aren’t just an echo of crashing out a project before a college final: They are efforts to keep experimenting, to try something new before some scrappy start-up does.

And so the article continues, for thousands of words, slathering praise on every little eccentricity of Twitter, Facebook, and Google, full of nonsense like:

Doors now seem an impediment, slowing the making of something new.

Some of the article's observations are sensible, such as the Google Real Estate team's finding (a "result of detailed study"):

“If people are more satisfied with the temperature, they are more comfortable and creative,” Mr. Ravitz said. The goal is to make 80 percent or more of the population happy with the office climate.

Well, duh. I hope they didn't spend too much money on that detailed study (and I pity the engineers who were the unwilling subjects of that research).

And Google Real Estate's findings that office chairs matter, and that noise matters, and that air quality matters, and that lighting matters, show that perhaps common sense may, some day, prevail.

But it's just bizarre, all this breathless desire to be "short and decisive," to be ever "under construction," to always be "coming up with new stuff."

Certainly there are great engineers at Twitter and Google and Facebook, and they have indeed done some brilliant work. But not, I am certain, while sitting in "booths that look as if they were lifted from an upscale diner," nor while on "the kind of angular couches and chairs that Dick Van Dyke would be happy to use for a pratfall," nor while having to tolerate the fact that "irregular soft cubes serve as impromptu meeting areas."

And, I can guarantee you, none of these frantic "meetings, held on the go" cover the kind of work that actually matters in software.

Building a cryptographic key-exchange algorithm, a distributed consensus protocol, a secure networking library, a cache-conscious database index, or a lock-free hash table, requires deep concentration, sustained over long periods of time, with as few interruptions as possible.

Trust me: I know. I haven't done all these things, but I've done a number of them. Quietly, patiently, and without ever even once finding that "individual file cabinets on rollers that can be moved to wherever an employee will next be working" would have improved the process, or the result.

Buried at the VERY END of the article, after all the chatter about consultants from Disney, Gehry-designed buildings, multi-colored campus bicycles, and other folderol, the piece finally admits:

“The harder we work,” he said, “the more important it is to have space to get away from the chaos for a while.”


That should have been the lede, not the closer.

Meanwhile, a much smaller article, on the following page of the very same business section, but (refreshingly) free of full-color pictures and celebrity sightings (Sheryl Sandberg! Dick Costolo! Mark Zukerberg!), is a mother lode of calm reasoning: Where Sounds Have No Barrier

Auditory distraction occurs when a noise forces you to switch your attention away and then back to your work, Professor Lee said. This amounts to a “cognitive load” that makes it hard to maintain your concentration, he said. Open-plan offices are particularly challenging for the hearing-impaired, he said, because hearing aids tend to amplify noises indiscriminately, making it harder to listen selectively.

In open work spaces, even small noises have the potential to distract us, Dr. Goldsmith said: Because so much hearing occurs unconsciously, we may feel stressed from working in an open office and not know why. Noise “is really quite insidious in that sense,” he said.

Sadly, all this common sense doesn't stop the article's author from interjecting:

It’s true that when overheard conversations aren’t irritating and irrelevant, they can impart useful pieces of information and enhance collaboration. That’s one of the reasons that tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google favor open offices.

Well, sure, if those overheard conversations aren't irritating and irrelevant, they might be useful. But that's the point! They are irritating and irrelevant.

But that's not why those tech companies built offices like these.

Those tech companies did it because they thought it was cool and trendy and novel, and because it got publications like the New York Times to write long front-page articles with full-color pictures and lots of name dropping.

Perhaps, someday, when they finally realize what a disaster it was for the poor engineers who are trying to endure those zoos, they will stop seeing doors as an "impediment," will stop having the furniture "replaced with no advance warning," will stop thinking that "ample sticks and twigs on the wall" is somehow useful to an engineer.

In the meantime, at least for now, at work I'm lucky enough to have an environment where I can (mostly) sit quietly, blocked from (most) interruptions, in a very nice chair, with a thermostat I can control and a large skylight nearby, and try, somehow, to get some real work done.