Sunday, July 31, 2016

A little of this, a little of that

I was struck by this work by a group of U.C. Davis Scientists, as reported by the Merc: Lake Tahoe: Warmest water temperatures ever recorded threaten famed clarity, new study shows

Last year, the lake's average clarity was 73.1 feet, the UC Davis scientists reported. That's a 4.8-foot decrease from the previous year.

The worst recorded average clarity was 64.1 feet in 1997, and the best was 102 feet, in 1968, the year measurements began. As the lake's crystal clarity began to suffer in the 1970s and '80s from fertilizer, polluted runoff and erosion, environmentalists launched a Keep Tahoe Blue effort. Federal officials and scientists began devoting more money and attention to the lake.

Local rules were tightened and education campaigns launched to reduce erosion and the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus -- chemicals that can cause algae to increase in the lake -- from fertilizer and old septic systems and air pollution from vehicles. Homeowners were required to capture stormwater from their properties -- channeling water from gutters into filters in gardens, for example, to keep it from running into the lake.

The work paid off: Lake clarity has generally improved over the past decade.

But now the warmer water and weather are presenting a new challenge.

The notion to use water clarity as a unifying measurement of the overall ecological health of the Lake Tahoe basin is a fascinating one.

For one thing, water clarity seems to be quite straightforward to measure.

For another thing, we've been doing it for 50 years, which means we're starting to get a non-trivial dataset.

For yet another thing, it has proven, in the past, to be a valid sentinel for problematic changes in the basin, as the phosphate example from 35 years ago demonstrates.

However, simple as it sounds to measure Lake Tahoe's conditions, it's still a challenge:

In recent years, UC Davis researchers have built 10 scientific monitoring stations to take readings every 30 seconds of water temperature, wave height, algae concentrations and other key indicators -- and then report them online. Each one, which sits in 7 feet of water, costs $50,000.

I'm not sure if I've noticed these monitoring stations; next time I'm up at the lake, I'll have to see if I can see them.

One of the interesting things about trying to measure water systems and their behavior, is that they are large, complex systems.

I loved this article over at 99% Invisible, with its coyly tongue-in-cheek title: America’s Last Top Model

In 1943, the Corps began construction on a model that could test all 1.25 million square miles of the Mississippi River. It would be a three-dimensional map of nearly half of the continental United States, rendered to a 1/2000 horizontal scale, spanning more than 200 acres. It was so big that the only way to see all of it at once was from a four-story observation tower.

It's possible that, as a child, I went through or near Clinton, Mississippi, though I don't remember ever doing so. I certainly don't remember seeing the model, though I'm sure I'd have been fascinated.

About all I remember from those years in South Louisiana is that I loved to make hydrology models of my own: when the rain would fall (and, oh boy, would it ever fall!), I would go outside and find a place near the curb or at the end of property where the water was running, and I would funnel out little channels with my fingers, and launch tiny leaf-boats down the rivulets to see how they would proceed.

Perhaps I secretly always wanted to be a hydrologer. I bet I'd love going to visit the Chesapeake Bay Hydraulic Model

But, I must confess: somehow, after living here for decades, I still have never managed to spend any time at the far-better-known San Francisco Bay Model

In the late 1940s, John Reber proposed to build two large dams in the San Francisco Bay as a way to provide a more reliable water supply to residents and farms and to connect local communities. In 1953, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a detailed study of the so-called Reber Plan. Authorized by Section 110 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1950, the Bay Model was constructed in 1957 to study the plan. The tests proved that the plan was not viable, and the Reber Plan was scuttled.

In software engineering, we often do this sort of experimentation. It commonly comes by the name "rapid prototyping", and is intended to be a way to learn rapidly, with low risk and low cost. "Build one to throw away," they say.

55 years later, I still love to build models and experiment.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Storm-puter lives!

Well, we finished the assembly today and installed the operating system and downloaded all the updates and ran through all the configuration screens and ...

... and everything worked!

Well, there were a few stumbles here and there: the wireless card popped out of its slot after we installed it, and we had to re-seat it; the optical DVD drive turned out to have two different configuration settings on the motherboard and we had picked the wrong one, so the first 3 times we tried to boot from the Windows 10 install DVD we just got a "boot error" message with no useful information.

But those sort of trivial items were nothing for Dan; he breezed through them with barely a sideways look.

And it's running!

If you've never seen The Witcher 3 at 2560 x 1440 resolution with all the settings on "ultra"; well, all I can say is that you've never lived.

Actually, the more interesting thing to me was how The Witcher 3 reacted to the massively upgraded sound system in Storm-puter. It's simply a completely different game when you can actually HEAR it:

  • As you are creeping through the forest, searching for the entrance to a hidden cave, you can now hear the panther that is tracking you, rustling in the greenery over the next ridge
  • As you approach the scene of a pitched battle for the center of town, with bodies strewn about, you can now hear the flies buzzing, circling about your head and seeming to come from all directions
  • As you take a back alley through the city, making for the city gate near daybreak, you can now hear the drunken hiccup of a peasant lying on a bench as he mutters something most un-flattering about your escape.

It is, indeed, a whole different game.

And even though I'm nearly through with the final expansion, and So Many Other Games beckon, I have this funny feeling that 18 months of playing The Witcher 3 will not have been enough, and I'll be starting over soon, just to re-experience it all in its full glory...

Anyway, for the folks who asked, a few more details:

  • It's a Gigabyte GA-Z170Z-Gaming 7 motherboard
  • The power supply is a EVGA SuperNova 650 G2
  • The monitor is an ASUS PG278Q
  • The CPU is an Intel i7 4000Ghz
  • The video card is a GTX 1070
  • The case is an NZXT Phantom 410
  • The mouse is a Corsair Raptor G45
  • The keyboard is a Corsair STRAFE
  • The boot device is a Samsung 500 GB SSD
  • The deep storage device is a Western Digital 4 TB HDD
  • The liquid cooler is a Corsair H115i
  • The sound system is a HyperX Cloud II

What did I forget? Anything?

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Dutch Elm Disease

About 9 months ago, we took a trip to New York City.

Naturally, during our time in Manhattan we found time for several nice walks through Central Park; the weather was wonderful and it couldn't have been a more pleasant experience.

Part of the beauty of Central Park is the magnificent foliage. Although it was already nearly winter, I couldn't help but notice all the trees, and I thought to myself:

Didn't I hear that all these trees died? Didn't I hear that Dutch Elm Disease had destroyed them all?

But, as is the way with The City, we were soon distracted by other things, and I didn't pursue the thought at the time.

Now comes a nice article at the Nautilus website: New York City Battles on Against Dutch Elm Disease

Like elm trees across the globe, the elms in Central Park are stricken with a ruthless beetle–fungus alliance known as Dutch elm disease. In the early 1980s, the park was losing more than 100 elms—American and other species—each year. Today, thanks to diligent monitoring and eradication by the Central Park Conservancy, the death rate is much lower—sometimes in the single digits—although bad years can still claim as many as 35 trees.

Despite rigorous efforts to maintain the Central Park elms in all their glory, scientists still can’t stamp out the disease. Botany labs are hard at work on cures, including one that could “freeze the biology” of the trees to trip up evolution. But the nature of Dutch elm disease makes it a tough opponent.

(A "ruthless beetle-fungus alliance;" what a marvelous phrasing!)

One of the most interesting aspects of the article was how multi-layered the efforts to preserve the trees are:

  • “We’re always monitoring” the elm trees, hence the patrols throughout the summer.
  • “You can prune out infections,”
  • cross-breeding the least susceptible American elms they could find
  • inserting genes that offer the trees some defense against Dutch elm
  • replace lost trees
  • a cryopreservation program, he says, that would allow today’s trees to thrive decades down the line

This is a time-tested engineering technique, many many tens of thousands of years old, and it typically goes by the name: "Defense in Depth".

In software engineering, we use this approach constantly.

  • We choose programming languages which feature memory safety, garbage collection, type safety, and other similar mechanisms
  • We use operating systems which implement process isolation, address space randomization, etc.
  • We select hardware which features error correcting codes, redundant recording of data, etc.
  • We deploy our algorithms across farms of machines, cross-checking and verifying each other
  • We log status and progress messages to diagnostic logs for post-mortem analysis
and on and on and on.

In a way, there's nothing new under the sun. You're an engineer, and you're faced with a problem, whether it's how to build a secure mobile chat application or how to save an urban forest threatened with blight and pestilence.

You try something, you see how it works.

You try again, and again, and again. You record your experiments; you talk with your colleagues.

Sometimes it seems like Prometheus is rolling that rock up the hill, only to start again from the bottom.

But we're engineers; that's what we do.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Soon ... soon ...

The Storm-Puter is nearly operational.

(I call it the Storm-Puter because the NZXT Phantom all-white case, when viewed end-on, looks like you are starting at a Stormtrooper)

And yes, those large flexible hoses running to the motherboard are, indeed, the Corsair liquid-cooling CPU cooler connections!

The hardware is (mostly) installed (yay Dan!) and the bios checks are looking pretty solid, so we're closing in on finishing touches.

I'm eager to see if the new monitor lives up to all the glowing reviews.

And, of course, both Dan and I are eager to see how the GTX 1070 behaves.

Dan says the 1070 can drive TWO of those ASUS monitors in DisplayPort G-SYNC mode, which would be a pretty wild experience.

First I want to see how it works with just a single monitor.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

I need a Vox explainer for this one

Tyler Cowen, who is extremely smart, and is someone whose writings I regularly read, has written something that seems very important, but which is totally over my head: Does Lucifer in fact inhabit the corpus of Hillary Clinton?

Cowen's terse essay links to Cass Sunstein's essay: The Republican Convention, Translated for Liberals. Sunstein is also very smart, and although I don't read him regularly, this is a pretty interesting (and easier to comprehend) essay.

The core of Sunstein's essay appears to be this:

The best explanation comes from New York University’s Jonathan Haidt, who has produced some of the most illuminating recent work on political psychology. Haidt’s central finding is that across many cultures, human beings have embraced five distinct moral foundations: fairness, avoidance of harm, respect for authority, purity (as opposed to disgust), and loyalty. Contemporary U. S. conservatives embrace all five; liberals emphasize the first two, but care much less about the last three.

Even though most of each essay escapes me, I found a LOT to agree with in:

Whatever Democrats think of the current Republican Party and its nominee, they should stop mocking.
and a certain amount to agree with in:
You may or may not agree with the true message of the Convention, but if you think it is merely stupid you are, sooner or later, in for a big surprise.

I just wish I understood the other parts.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Concrete Problems in AI Safety

It's quite rare that a technical paper in the software field is simultaneously relevant, illuminating, and readable, so it was with considerable pleasure that I happened upon Concrete Problems in AI Safety.

AI, or near-AI, systems are everywhere in the news nowadays, from Tesla's self-driving cars, to Amazon's delivery-by-drone, to IBM's Watson, to the arbitraging-algorithms employed by High Frequency Traders.

But, closer to home, there is considerable anticipation of intelligent systems of more mundane sorts.

The authors of Concrete Problems in AI Safety pursue a multi-pronged approach:

  • They suggest a variety of real-wold problems that an intelligent system might encounter; they classify those problems into categories and organize them accordingly; they conjecture ways that an improperly-behaving ("unsafe") intelligent system might behave in a manner counter to our desires.
  • They survey the theoretical underpinnings of these problems, tying them to flaws or unknown aspects of the current theory about how to build such systems.
  • And, quite unusually and helpfully I thought, they suggest various ideas about how to construct experiments or further explore each of these problems, thus establishing signposts that may lead us forward to a more safe future.

In some ways, this is a paper about debugging, and about systematic improvement, approaches which have always appealed to my pragmatic engineer side, so perhaps that's why I found this paper such a refreshing change from the typical theory-dense reads you find in the Machine Learning and Reinforcement Learning fields.

But, I also think it's just a very well-written paper, from a team that has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about how to build safe intelligent systems.

The entire paper is a wonderful read, but to give you a feel for it, this is how they motivate the entire discussion:

For concreteness, we will illustrate many of the accident risks with reference to a fictional robot whose job is to clean up messes in an office using common cleaning tools. We return to the example of the cleaning robot throughout the document, but here we begin by illustrating how it could behave undesirably if its designers fall prey to each of the possible failure modes:
  • Avoiding Negative Side Effects: How can we ensure that our cleaning robot will not disturb the environment in negative ways while pursuing its goals, e.g. by knocking over a vase because it can clean faster by doing so? Can we do this without manually specifying everything the robot should not disturb?
  • Avoiding Reward Hacking: How can we ensure that the cleaning robot won’t game its reward function? For example, if we reward the robot for achieving an environment free of messes, it might disable its vision so that it won’t find any messes, or cover over messes with materials it can’t see through, or simply hide when humans are around so they can’t tell it about new types of messes.
  • Scalable Oversight: How can we efficiently ensure that the cleaning robot respects aspects of the objective that are too expensive to be frequently evaluated during training? For instance, it should throw out things that are unlikely to belong to anyone, but put aside things that might belong to someone (it should handle stray candy wrappers differently from stray cellphones). Asking the humans involved whether they lost anything can serve as a check on this, but this check might have to be relatively infrequent – can the robot find a way to do the right thing despite limited information?
  • Safe Exploration: How do we ensure that the cleaning robot doesn’t make exploratory moves with very bad repercussions? For example, the robot should experiment with mopping strategies, but putting a wet mop in an electrical outlet is a very bad idea.
  • Robustness to Distributional Shift: How do we ensure that the cleaning robot recognizes, and behaves robustly, when in an environment different from its training environment? For example, heuristics it learned for cleaning factory workfloors may be outright dangerous in an office.

There's a great part later in the paper which stayed with me, where they relate the time-worn lesson about avoiding excessive dependence on metrics without understanding that you end up getting what you measure. In addition to observing that their cleaning robot might easily learn, if it was measured by number of messes cleaned up, that it could simply CREATE messes, in order to then clean them up (reminiscent of this classic comic), they also conjecture that if they measured their cleaning robot by the amount of supplies (e.g., bottles of bleach) consumed, the robot might simply learn to open the bottles of bleach and pour them down the drain.

If thinking about the future of a world full of intelligent machines is something you enjoy doing, I can't recommend Concrete Problems in AI Safety highly enough.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Your 401K has no clothes

If you work for a living, and if you don't work for the government, then you are probably depending on your 401K to provide a substantial majority of your retirement.

If you are that person (and most of us are), please please PLEASE go read this wonderful article by Kevin Busque: How I’m Fixing Your 401(k)

None of the information he shares is new, but I've rarely seen it put so clearly and well.

I became obsessed with researching our plan and the alternatives. I started finding little bits of information here and there — fees that seemed a little out of place and inappropriate; for example, plan asset-based fees and menu fund fees. When you dig into the details and the relationships that outside vendors have with legacy 401(k) providers, it’s clear that the industry has lost focus on the goal, which is to give employees the opportunity to save as much as possible for retirement. You start to notice all of the hands in the cookie jar: TPAs, fiduciaries, recordkeepers, fund managers, broker/dealers, sponsors, custodians, RIAs, and on and on. It’s incredibly confusing

I've been railing about these fees to co-workers, management, and friends for years, at many different companies where I've worked, and I'm surprised how little-known this information is.

If you've been wondering why you save and save and save, and yet your 401K seems to barely grow, even during MASSIVE bull markets like the one that has been present for the last 5 years, the answer is right there in front of you: your company's 401K vendor is taking your earnings for themselves.

Each of those “services” — TPAs, recordkeeping, custodial services, fiduciary services — needs to be compensated, and I wanted to figure out how 401(k) plan providers made their money. Each service can be, and likely is being, compensated via “wrapping fees.” Note: If you see the words “wrapped fees” in a retirement plan, that’s another hand in the cookie jar.

Here’s an example: If you’ve ever looked at a fund expense ratio on Morningstar, Yahoo Finance, etc., you’ve probably noticed a particular number — let’s say 25 basis points. 25 basis points equate to 0.25%. If you bought that same fund in your 401(k) plan, you could easily end up paying an additional 0.75% on top of the fund expense, and your final costs would be 1.0% of your assets in that particular fund. Those are wrapped fees. The national all-in expense ratio for 401(k) plans with less than $1 million in plan assets ranged between 0.68% and 2.66%, paid for by the very people trying to save for retirement

As Busque notes, there's just no reason for all of this complexity and mess:

There’s no magic to retirement investing: You should keep your fees as low as possible, diversify your investments, and keep your asset allocations appropriate for your age and risk tolerance. Re-balance, and think long-term.

Unfortunately, if you work for a living, and if you don't work for the government, you are totally at the mercy of your employer to provide you with a decent 401K plan administrator.

And most employers don't.

Since your only two choices are:

  1. Invest in your company's 401K plan, as it stands
  2. Save for retirement separately, forgoing all the tax-advantaged benefits of a 401K plan
that first choice is really the only viable one, which is why I tell everyone who asks my simple rules:
  1. Put as much money into your 401K plan as you possibly can
  2. Choose the fund(s) with the lowest fees. Don't worry about anything else about the fund selection; just look at the fees. Is there a Vanguard fund in your plan? Choose it, even though your administrator is adding their own rich fees on top of it. It's still the best you can do.
  3. Every time HR asks you what you think about your 401K plan, tell them you are furious about the fees that the 401K plan administrator charges.

Oh, and if you ever change jobs, DON'T leave your money in your employer's 401K, and DON'T roll it over to your new employer's 401K (unless your new employer uses GuideLine).

Instead, roll your money over into your own Rollover IRA, and manage your money yourself, and pay those fees to yourself!

Unfortunately, in many cases HR doesn't care what you think, and has no incentive to choose a better plan administrator.

But at least you can try.

And make sure that everyone you talk to knows about the problem, and knows about efforts such as Busque's at GuideLine.

That's the only way this problem will ever get better, for our children, and their grand-children, and...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

E-sports gambling

I admit that I hadn't been paying attention to the whole E-sports gambling angle, so I was completely blindsided by the details of today's story: Game-Maker Valve Moves to Choke Off $7.4 Billion Gambling Market

The Bellevue, Wash.-based company says it will crack down on websites that use Steam, Valve’s gaming software, to facilitate gambling, a reversal from its previous support of those sites.

“We’d like to clarify that we have no business relationships with any of these sites,” said Erik Johnson, a company spokesman, in a statement. “We are going to start sending notices to these sites requesting they cease operations through Steam.”

Even if you don't believe the 7.4 Billion number, and I think there's lots of reason to believe that this was fabricated by someone with an axe to grind, it's still astonishing how large this little corner of the Internet grew, and how quickly it happened.

For a lot more detail about how this all works, don't miss the enormous Bloomberg report from last spring: Virtual Weapons Are Turning Teen Gamers Into Serious Gamblers

Obscured by several layers of abstraction, the wagering is tucked away in a subculture that most mainstream legal authorities don’t know exists. Gaming lawyers say Valve could be legally vulnerable; on the other hand, this is a rapidly changing area of the law with little established precedent.

In a handful of cases, judges have ruled that activities carried out entirely with virtual goods within video games shouldn’t be considered gambling, because they have no connection to the real world. “Even in the Internet age, there is a crucial distinction between that which is pretend and that which is real and true,” U.S. District Judge James Bredar wrote in October, dismissing a suit against mobile gaming company Machine Zone. “The laws of California and Maryland do not trifle with play money.”

Well, clearly billions of dollars a year is not "play money."

But it seems like it's not so much the AMOUNT of money, it's the details of how it's used:

Like the companies that have successfully defended themselves in court, other prominent game makers, including Zynga, Riot, and Activision Blizzard, have been aggressive about keeping virtual currencies separate from real ones. Valve has not: Its software enables an explicit connection between in-game goods and off-line cash.

The thing is, this explicit connection is complicated, and it's indirect:

Buying and selling in-game stuff for real-world money has become a common feature of video games, and encouraging players to buy virtual merchandise has become a predominant business model for game companies. But Valve is unique in letting players transfer their virtual possessions to third-party sites, many of which offer gambling. There, users with names such as bulletpoint and ravenouskilljoy stake skins on pro teams. There are also ways to wager that have nothing to do with CS:GO contests. One website runs multiple lottery-style contests per minute, where a player’s odds of winning rise with the value of the skins wagered. Another operates a game that looks like roulette.

These sites, while independently run, use Valve’s software and pay out in skins.

That is, these decorative virtual weapons, known as "skins", turn out to be equivalent to "real" money, because of the fact that Valve has linked the two:

For CS:GO, the introduction of skins led to a thriving gambling market. People buy skins for cash, then use the skins to place online bets on pro CS:GO matches. Because there’s a liquid market to convert each gun or knife back into cash, laying a bet in skins is essentially the same as betting with real money.

Skins are thus the equivalent of those pretty colored chips that you buy at the casino, and use to gamble, and then sell back to the casino.

And, since Valve is the organization that does the buying, and the selling, even if they don't provide the actual GAMBLING, they are still, effectively, the casino.

Which is wrong, and thus Valve is trying to fix this.

What Valve does, here, will decide how this plays out. If they fix it, properly, the rest of the industry will quickly adopt their approach. Valve leads, others follow: Twitch bans broadcasts showing gambling in CS:GO, Dota

I have a lot of respect for Valve. I've been a happy Valve customer for years now, and I put a decent amount of my yearly entertainment budget into their coffers.

So I hope they get this figured out, properly, and fast.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Disrupted: a very short review

Over the summer, I breezed through Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, by Dan Lyons.

Lyons has had a bit of an odd career:

  1. For a long time, he was a journalist, specifically a technology industry journalist. Over many years, he rose up through the world until he finally reached what must be one of the top rungs on the ladder for a technology industry journalist: chief technology correspondent for Newsweek. Then the Great Recession of 2008 happened, and Newsweek collapsed, and Lyons was discarded like so many others.
  2. Then, for a couple years, Lyons worked in Marketing for a technology startup in Boston
  3. Today, Lyons is a screenwriter; specifically, he is a screenwriter for the HBO series, Silicon Valley.

Disrupted is about that brief two-year period in the middle.

That experience, let us be blunt, was a complete disaster for Lyons:

  • he had no idea what job the company had hired him to do;
  • he had no idea what jobs his co-workers did;
  • he had no idea how to do things that would help his co-workers;
  • he had no idea how to do things that would help his company;
  • and he had no idea how to figure any of this out on his own.

What might surprise you, though, is that nothing about that story is surprising to me at all (except possibly that very last part).

This is the way modern industry works.

At least, this is the way that the modern technology industry works; I don't know what other industries are like, but I don't think they are much different.

Companies nowadays expect to hire you for a specific job. They expect that you already know how to do that job. They do not expect to train you how to do that job; in fact, they have absolutely no ability to train you to do that job, because nobody at the company knows how to train anybody else to do anything.

If you don't know how to do the job, the company expects you to figure it out on your own. If you cannot, they will fire you.

If you do succeed in doing your job, and you get to a point where you want a new more challenging and more rewarding job, companies expect you to quit this job and go get that new job someplace else; no company nowadays expects to provide anything like "career growth".

If you want to read about what it's like to take a job, having no idea how to do that job, be totally unable to figure out how to do the job on your own or by watching or talking with your co-workers, become totally frustrated, and finally lash out in anger and despair, read Disrupted.

If, on the other hand, you:

  1. want to read about what it's like to take a job, having no idea how to do that job, observe the behavior and activity of the people and teams around you, conceive of some things that you could do that would be contributions, listen to the feedback of colleagues, and learn how to succeed, then move on to some other situation elsewhere,
  2. or, want to understand how we got to a point where all modern organizations behave this way, and consider some ideas about how we as a society might change into a world where employment was some other sort of experience
then don't bother reading Disrupted, because Lyons has little or nothing to say about these topics.

Which is a shame, because I think those other two topics are much more interesting, and much more important.

And two more wonderful travel posts

Just because.

Maybe it's just that time of year?

Or maybe there's some really good travel writing happening right now?

Or maybe I just stumbled on them.

First: The World’s Dumbest, Greatest Adventure

Every summer, hundreds of thrill-seekers flock to Goodwood Motor Circuit, a historic race track in the south of England. They gather, dressed in themeless costumes, to participate in what some refer to as the greatest adventure in the world. No training or planning is required or even recommended, so participants are as young as eighteen and have been as old as seventy. Their ranks include penniless students, successful business types, and some that are “in between jobs.” But for a month and half, they all share a common goal: get to Mongolia. They’re participating in the Mongol Rally, a 10,000-mile journey in comically unreliable cars from the UK to a city in eastern Siberia.

There are no prizes for being first across the finish line. Instead, teams are encouraged to one-up each other to see who can complete the Rally under the toughest conditions. Anyone can drive a quarter of the way around the world in a Range Rover; it takes a certain industriousness to do it in a vehicle that would qualify for Cash for Clunkers. The Mongol Rally’s website tells teams:

“You must bring the shittest rolling turd of a car you can find. Use a car you swapped for a bag of crisps.”

Think of the Mongol Rally as the equivalent of trying to run a marathon in house slippers while shotgunning beers at every checkpoint. It starts out funny and gets exponentially more ridiculous and dangerous the further along you get.

Second, and completely different: Hong Kong Strong and Hong Kong Strong: Director's Commentary

A deep dive into the many layers of Hong Kong. A film about the madness and beauty of this seemingly impossible city in the days leading up to Chinese New Year. And an exploration of my own Cantonese heritage.

So many places to go, so many things to see!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Glimpses of the future

This might be the most interesting bit of travel writing you'll read this summer: 61 Glimpses of the Future

In the last five weeks I’ve travelled 7,000km overland through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan’s GBAO region and China’s western provinces. After a year of working flat out the journey was part vacation, a desire to fill in few gaps of my knowledge of the region and a client assignment.

For those that don’t know, the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) is a remote, sparsely populated, mostly Pamiri, Kyrgyz-speaking region of Tajikistan. The home to the Pamir mountains, it has decent argument for calling itself the “the roof of the world”.

I thought about separating this list into tech & behaviour, but they’re way more interesting mixed together.

Don't miss the linked photo album; there are some amazing pictures there.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Stranger to Stranger: a very short review

Paul Simon, still going strong at age 74, recently released his latest album, Stranger to Stranger.

It's a very nice album, and I've listened to it a dozen times, and I'm sure I'll listen to it many more times.

But it's no So Beautiful, So What.

Which is OK.

Many artists go their entire lives and never make anything even as good as Stranger to Stranger, much less produce something of the level of So Beautiful, So What (or Graceland, or The Rhythm of the Saints, or Still Crazy After All These Years or There Goes Rhymin' Simon, to name my other favorite solo Simon albums).

Meanwhile, my co-worker reports that Simon is still a tremendous live performer as well, and that his recent show at the Greek Theater in Berkeley was superb.

If you like Paul Simon, you'll like Stranger to Stranger. If you only buy his all-time best, stick to Graceland and So Beautiful, So What.

Friday, July 8, 2016

What social media managers do

If you've wondered what a real honest-to-goodness social media manager does, don't miss Kristen Taylor's fascinating Things I learned working on Serial

Someone asked me a few months ago how my work for the show was creative. It was either a sincere ask or a snide jab, but either way: to me, this is not a question. If you are really listening to and interacting with an audience, the work must be defined as you go. That’s the fun of it. My career so far: high school English teacher, cancer hospital database programmer, grad school in literature, more grad school in literature, PBS, Knight Foundation, PopTech, livetweeting Arab Spring, Doctor Who, Al Jazeera, bootstrapping an app, HuffPo, Al Jazeera, BBC, Serial. I use words and timing to persuade groups of people to love something (and often, each other).

Isn't that last sentence amazing?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

"Uhm, why Garfield?"

Here's a wonderful essay: The Weird, Wonderful World of Subversive Garfield Spinoffs

that same tabby whose suction-cupped paws once graced the windows of family station wagons across the nation has also spawned a very odd subculture — one that draws from the worlds of avant-garde art, complex mathematics, and deliberate stupidity. Straddling the line between parody and homage, dozens of clever, hilarious, and downright bizarre “Garfield” spinoffs have popped up throughout the internet.

It's something light, yet somehow deep, to keep you going until the next thing arrives.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Last footie speculation for the summer

As we wind down our amazing Month of Soccer, it's time for one last round of speculation.

Since there are just 4 teams remaining, I'll go for it and predict all 3 remaining matches (there is no 3rd-place match in these Euros?)

  • Portugal vs Wales. Last Friday, Wales found a fire that few thought they possessed, even though their strong early results against Russia and Slovakia should have been fair warning, and ripped through an extremely talented Belgian side. Portugal, meanwhile, once again failed to decide their match in the first 90 minutes, and squeaked through on the penalty shootout. Portugal have experience and talent, but here I'm voting with my heart: Wales triumph 2-1.
  • Germany vs France. Germany played a thoroughly exhausting 120 minutes against a fierce Italian team, and only survived because in the final penalty shootout between the best two goal-keepers on the planet, Manuel Neuer was just a hair's-breadth superior to Gianluigi Buffon. France, meanwhile, found the form they've been hunting all tournament, and annihilated scrappy Iceland. France have been hardly tested so far; their toughest match was against the Swiss, early on, in a situation in which the outcome barely mattered. Will they suffer a letdown versus the Germans? I think not, but this one is not easy. The match is tied 2-2 after 90 minutes but a French goal in extra time takes them through to the final, 3-2.
  • Wales vs France in the final. France snap back to form after surviving Germany. Wales, meanwhile, are spent; their depth is exposed. The hosts take home the winner's cup with a convincing 2-0 final victory.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The North Water: a very short review

It's summertime, so a different sort of book ends up on the pile.

For me, it was Ian McGuire's astonishing thriller: The North Water.

The year is 1859.

The whaling era is coming to an end, though not all are aware of this yet. A well-traveled whaling ship named the Volunteer is embarking on a run up to the end of the ice pack, in the northern end of Baffin Bay between Greenland and Canada.

The name Volunteer is ironic at best, for none of the men aboard are really volunteers: the captain and some of the senior men are attracted by promises of wealth; the others are a truly motley collection of rag-tag ne'er-do-wells vacuumed out of the darkest, dankest corners of the foulest inns, brothels, and alleyways of every whaling port from Liverpool to Peterhead to Lerwick.

Soon enough the crew are assembled, the provisioning is made, the anchors are weighed, and we're off.

Among the ship's collection is our protagonist, Patrick Sumner, who, like the others, hasn't so much as volunteered for the Volunteer as he has accidentally fallen aboard:

"I have nothing much to do with myself and no money to do it with. I was passing through Liverpool on my way back from the lawyers in Dublin when I ran into your Mr. Baxter in the bar of the Adelphi Hotel. We got to talking and when he learned I was an ex-army surgeon in need of gainful employment he put two and two together and made a four."

Aboard, as well, is a man who may well become one of the best-known villains of modern literature, certainly one worthy of listing in the same breath as Anton Chigurh. Initially, we know him only by "Drax", or by "Drax the harpooner", though later we learn his full name is Henry Drax.

"Drax" is a wonderful name for a villain, bringing immediately to mind phrases like "Dracula" or "Axe Murderer" or even "dregs". Drax: it sounds like a sound you make while ill, or a pest that has invaded your crops, or a fungal infection acquired in some sordid location. He's even described as something other than human:

Drax's barnyard scent, dense and almost edible, dominates the room. He is like a beast at rest in its stall, Sumner thinks. A force of nature temporarily contained and pacified.

Henry Drax is all that, and more, which McGuire makes quite clear to us from the start:

Lead and pewter clouds obscure the fullish moon; there is the clatter of iron-rimmed cartwheels, the infantile whine of a cat in heat. Drax goes swiftly through the motions: one action following the next, passionless and precise, machinelike, but not mechanical.


He is gone completely, and something else, something wholly different has appeared instead. This courtyard has become a place of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations, and Henry Drax is its wild, unholy engineer.

So, the stage is set: we're out on a whaling ship, weeks or months from anything remotely construable as society, in the harshest of environments, on the foulest of tasks.

And then things start to really get bad.

There's lots more "vile magic," many, many more "blood-soaked transmutations," and no lack of "one action following the next."

You may not be able to breathe from page to page; you certainly won't be able to put the book down.

I didn't so much read this book as I inhaled it, consumed it, devoured it, dwelled in it. It gave me nightmares and woke me up in cold sweats.

But, for such a physical, such a visceral, such a bestial book, it is told with remarkable elegance:

Through a stuttering veil of snow he sees at the floe edge a bluish iceberg, immense, chimneyed, wind-gouged, sliding eastwards like an albinistic butte unmoored from the desert floor. The berg is moving at a brisk walking pace, and as it moves its nearest edge grinds against the floe and spits up house-size rafts of ice like swarf from the jaws of a lathe. The floe shudders beneath Sumner's feet; twenty yards away a jagged crack appears, and he wonders for a moment if the entire plateau might crumble under the strain and everything, tents, whaleboats, men, be pitched into the sea. No one now remains in the second tent. The men that were inside it are either standing transfixed like Sumner or are busy pushing and dragging the whaleboats farther away from the edge in a desperate effort to keep them safe. Sumner feels, as he watches, that he is seeing something he shouldn't rightly see, that he is being made an unwilling party to a horrifying but elemental truth-telling.

This book is so very much more than a penny paperback throwaway that it seems like there must somehow be more to it, some inner parable or greater lesson to be learned. Yet it seems to me that McGuire doesn't mean such. He is just telling a tale, even if the men within struggle to comprehend it:

"... Look around, Sumner. The confusion and stupidity are ours. We misunderstand ourselves; we are very vain and very stupid. We build a great bonfire to warm ourselves and then complain that the flames are too hot and fierce, that we are blinded by the smoke."

"Why kill a child though?" Sumner asks. "What sense can be made of that?"

"The most important questions are the ones we can't hope to answer with words. Words are like toys: they amuse and educate us for a time, but when we come to manhood we should give them up."

Sumner shakes his head.

"The words are all we have," he says. "If we give them up, we are no better than the beasts."

Otto smiles at Sumner's wrongheadedness.

"Then you must find out the explanations on your own," he says, "if that's what you truly think."

I'm not sure what I think; I don't know if I found out the explanations on my own, or if I ever shall.

I think I spent some time inside McGuire's vision, "seeing something [I] shouldn't rightly see, ... made an unwilling party to a horrifying but elemental truth-telling."

Whatever it was, it was much more than I expected from a summer thriller, even if in the end McGuire has to admit defeat of his ability to answer with words.

This is McGuire's first published book; I surely hope it won't be his last.

I'll know I'll be looking forward to whatever he decides to do next.