Sunday, November 26, 2017

Fallout 4: a very short review

Fallout 4 is pretty much centered in the sweet spot of Computer Games For Bryan:

  • It's a single-player, open-world RPG
  • With an absolutely enormous world to explore
  • Hundreds of different locations
  • Dozens of quests
  • Hundreds of NPC characters with stories and interaction
  • In a fascinating, kinda-sorta-but-not-really believable post-apocalyptic universe (Boston after the nuclear war)

So it's no surprise that it's consumed most of my game-playing time over the last six months, closing in on 75 hours of game play (I don't get all that much time to play computer games, nowadays).

It's pretty much unavoidable, for me at least, to compare Fallout 4 against The Witcher 3, and unfortunately Fallout 4 doesn't fare so well:

  • The Witcher 3 was nearly flawless, nearly bug-free, while Fallout 4 is, frankly, riddled with bugs, even if most of them are trivial and just annoying (graphic glitches, crafting disasters, audio fails, quests that get "stuck", etc.)
  • Fallout 4 is beautiful, in its stylized way, but The Witcher 3 is STUNNING.
  • The quests in Fallout 4 are fun, and the characters have interesting stories, and it's enjoyable to chase through them and find out where they go (I'm talking about you, Nick Valentine), but the quests in The Witcher 3 are heart-breaking and captivating, so much so that making the wrong choice in The Witcher 3 is something you'll think about for years afterwards

So why do I keep coming back to Fallout 4? Why haven't I moved on?

Well, I think this fun article on the Comicsverse site goes a long way to explaining what it is about Fallout 4 that gives it true staying power: 10 Ways FALLOUT 4 Will Make You Question Your Existence

Two years, and it’s still one of the most played games out there. That’s simply because FALLOUT 4 has so much to offer, way more than you’d expect from a video game. I firmly believe that this game can make people question themselves. I say this because two years later I still think about the impact it’s had on me.

Countless parts of FALLOUT 4 stand out and make it one of the greatest games released in the past few years. Several parts of this game have made me think differently about what it means to be alive. Here are ten ways FALLOUT 4 will make you question your existence

The Stockholm Octavo: a very short review

Karen Engelmann's The Stockholm Octavo is a curious nugget.

  • Is it historical fiction?
  • Is it a fantasy?
  • Is it a mystery?
  • Is it a novel of political intrigue?
  • Is it a rags-to-riches novel?
  • Is it a feminist novel? An anti-feminist novel?

Well, yes, yes, yes to all of the above. It's rather a little bit of everything.

But, somewhat like going to the casino buffet and wishing they'd spent a little bit more time making the chicken good instead of providing chicken, beef, lamb, pork, and turkey, The Stockholm Octavo tries to accomplish a lot, perhaps rather more than one ought to attempt in a single book.

Still, it's extremely enjoyable, and you certainly will never have thought so much about the role of ladies's fans in elegant society as you will when reading it.

You might consider pairing it with A Place of Greater Safety for your what-was-the-experience-like-for-people-in-Europe-during-the-French-Revolution double-header.

If you do happen to read The Stockholm Octavo, drop me a line; tell me what you think!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Another edition of HPTS

The International Workshop on High Performance Transaction Systems (HPTS) is a bit of an unusual conference:

Every two years, HPTS brings together a lively and opinionated group of technologists to discuss and debate the pressing topics that affect today's systems and their design and implementation, especially where performance and scalability is concerned. The workshop includes position paper presentations, panels, moderated discussions, and significant time for casual interaction. The presentations are not recorded, and the only publications are slide decks by presenters who choose to post them.

HPTS was created back in 1985 by Jim Gray, as conference organizer Pat Helland describes in his reflections on Gray:

In 1985, Jim and a number of other senior leaders in the field of transaction processing started the HPTS (High Performance Transaction Systems) Workshop [HPTS]. This is a biennial gathering of folks interested in transaction systems (and things related to scalable systems). It includes people from competing companies in industry and also from academia. Over the last 22 years, it has evolved to include many different topics as high-end computing morphed from the mainframe to the Internet.

The amazing thing about HPTS is that it is a collegial and supportive community in spite of the fact that many of us are competitors. We gather as old friends and catch up on life’s changes in family, friends, and work. We share almost all of the latest technology trends while holding back only the truly critical trade secrets. When someone needs a new job, there is a supportive network with common passions. This culture was based on Jim’s natural supportive, caring, and HUMAN approach to technology and persists today.

Last month saw the 17th convening of the HPTS Workshop, and you can read all about it on the HPTS site.

This year, in addition, SUNY Buffalo professor Murat Demirbas posted his notes about the conference, although as he noted, doing so is a tad controversial:

Although some people prefer to keep what happens at HPTS to stay at HPTS, I find it hard to not talk about HPTS. I learn a lot at HPTS and I want to share at least some of those. And this year I don't think there was any confidential technology discussed at all. So I don't think Pat Helland will find this post and shout at me.

I'm certain Pat found the post, but I don't think he's going to shout about it.

Here are Demirbas's notes:

(You can tell a true Computer Scientist because they start their notes from Day 0.)

I didn't attend HPTS, although a number of my colleagues did (no surprise: Pat Helland leads my team at work). Among my team, the panels of most interest were the "Verification of Systems" and "Antifragile Exercises" panels, which were both super-practical panels, focused on how to build reliable distributed systems out of unreliable components. It's super-interesting stuff, comprising both practical tools for analyzing system behavior and finding implementation errors (e.g., Jepsen) as well as practical tools for "hardening" your production systems (and personnel!) in most surprising ways (e.g., Chaos Monkey).

It sounds like it was another very successful workshop, and it was fun to get a closer view into it this year.

Maybe one day I'll attend.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Stuff I'm reading

Been Too Dang Busy To Read. Well, busy is good, I think?

  • America’s ‘Retail Apocalypse’ Is Really Just Beginning
    The reason isn’t as simple as Inc. taking market share or twenty-somethings spending more on experiences than things. The root cause is that many of these long-standing chains are overloaded with debt—often from leveraged buyouts led by private equity firms. There are billions in borrowings on the balance sheets of troubled retailers, and sustaining that load is only going to become harder—even for healthy chains.

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

  • The Cause and Consequences of the Retail Apocalypse
    This is a robbery in progress. Private equity firms borrow massively to buy companies, and use corporate cash reserves to pay themselves back. Workers who supply the value to the business see nothing; in fact, to service the debt, companies usually cut staff. When the retailer collapses under the borrowing weight, all workers lose their jobs. And even when sales go up, like they have by 5 percent annually in the toy sector over the past five years, dominant toy sellers like Toys“R”Us cannot compete because of the debt burden. The company’s profitability was increasing when it filed for bankruptcy.
  • When Should the Government Stockpile Software Vulnerabilities?
    Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith called out the U.S. government for “stockpiling” vulnerabilities rather than reporting them to software vendors.

    Now the government has a newly released vulnerabilities equities process charter to help guide when to stockpile and when to disclose. The 14-page document outlining how the government will make those decisions moving forward doesn’t shed a whole lot of light on which types of vulnerabilities will be kept secret for internal use by the government and which will be disclosed so that vendors can patch them. Instead, it lays out the process for making that decision—who will be involved, what factors should be considered—while still allowing for the necessary degree of secrecy and case-by-case analysis. This process itself is not brand new—it was developed in 2008 and 2009—but the government did not release the details publicly until January 2016, after the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act. Unlike the newly released charter, the previous heavily redacted version, dated February 2010 and released in 2016, did not include a list of specific considerations or questions that the government would take into account.

  • Math and Computation
    This is a draft of a book that will be published by Princeton University Press.
  • Entering the Quantum Era—How Firefox got fast again and where it’s going to get faster
    Over the past seven months, we’ve been rapidly replacing major parts of the engine, introducing Rust and parts of Servo to Firefox. Plus, we’ve had a browser performance strike force scouring the codebase for performance issues, both obvious and non-obvious.

    We call this Project Quantum, and the first general release of the reborn Firefox Quantum comes out tomorrow.

  • Preserving Malware
    Jonathan Farbowitz's NYU MA thesis More Than Digital Dirt: Preserving Malware in Archives, Museums, and Libraries is well worth a more leisurely reading than I've given it so far. He expands greatly on the argument I've made that preserving malware is important, and attempting to ensure archives are malware-free is harmful:
  • Andy Weir Visits the Moon
    We get to see Weir’s newest creation this month with the release of his new novel, Artemis. The action is set on a lunar city in the not-too-distant future, which Weir calculated as much as imagined. He estimated the cost of reaching the moon from Earth by assuming a future commercial launch industry that will reach the efficiencies of today’s airlines, then combining those numbers with an obscure and complex Earth-moon orbit called the Uphoff-Crouch Cycler. He wrote a 10-page economic analysis constructing the future lunar economy, whose currency, the slug, is based on the cost of transporting one gram from the Earth. He referenced modern-day nuclear power plant designs in determining the base’s energy production and consumption budget.
  • A Tale of Three Rankings
    The US News rankings have a long history and since they are reputation based they roughly correspond to how we see CS departments though some argue that reputation changes slowly with the quality of a department.

    US News and World Report also has a new global ranking of CS departments. The US doesn't fare that well on the list and the ranking of the US programs on the global list are wildly inconsistent with the US list. What's going on?

    75% of the global ranking is based on statistics from Web of Science. Web of Science captures mainly journal articles where conferences in computer science typically have a higher reputation and more selectivity. In many European and Asian universities hiring and promotion often depend heavily on publications and citations in Web of Science encouraging their professor to publish in journals thus leading to higher ranked international departments.

  • Brilliant Jerks in Engineering
    Should brilliant jerks be tolerated? To explore this, I described two fictional brilliant jerks
  • Card catalogs and the secret history of modernity
    Card catalogs imagine an endlessly growing collection of books and other documents. It imagines institutions capable of standardizing the treatment of those documents. And it imagines a democratic public, scholars, students, and amateurs with both the urge and the ability to seek out such materials. The card catalog is everything that is the best of the 19th and 20th centuries. And they look beautiful, and smell fantastic.
  • New Harbor Bay Ferry Schedule in effect December 4
    The new departure will provide riders with an option to the 6:30 and 7:30 AM departures while the 331 passenger M.V. Peralta is away for its mid-life refurbishment. During the Peralta’s absence, some Harbor Bay morning departures will be operated with vessels that have less passenger capacity than the Peralta. The extra trip is intended to help maintain overall system capacity while the Peralta is out. The Peralta is expected to return to service in summer 2018.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Up, up, and away

They're taking down the construction cranes at 181 Fremont, one block from my office; soon it will be the new Facebook offices in the city.

Across the bay, and closer to home, Oakland isn't missing out on the construction boom.

There are buildings being built: Emerging Oakland high-rise to cover beloved mural

The only problem with this location is that it’s also right next to Jimmy’s Deli and the Academy of Chinese Culture on 17th Street, the site of a massive mural by anonymous New England street artist Believe In People (BiP).

BiP painted the piece, titled Vintage, depicting an elderly woman rocking out to thrash metal, on the side of the building overlooking the parking lot in 2016.

And there are other buildings proposed to be built: Planning commission approves Oakland's tallest residential building

Oakland's planning commission voted Wednesday night to recommend the approval of the city's tallest housing development ever, a soaring 40-floor tower by developer Carmel Partners, that would replace the Merchant's Parking Garage at 1314 Franklin Street diagonally across form the historic Tribune Tower downtown.

Meanwhile, I unfortunately managed to miss the blockbuster 60 Minutes episode on the Millenium Tower, which sits precariously in between my office and 181 Fremont.

For now.

half a world away, in a suburb of Amsterdam, San Francisco's sinking tower came across the radar of Petar Marinkovic, an engineer who works with the European Space Agency to track earthquakes. Using signals from a satellite 500 miles above the earth, Marinkovic measures ground movements around fault lines. In 2016, he happened to be studying the Bay Area, when something caught his eye.

Later, 60 Minutes gets to the heart of the matter:

Everybody is afraid to tell the truth. Because if we get to the bottom of this, they are worried that it is going to, in some ways, slow down the building boom that is happening in San Francisco.

Everyone's in a hurry.

The time is now, and the White Rabbit is in a hurry; there's no time to waste.

After all, there are fortunes to be made.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sandy, we miss you

Some nice candids from a lovely event in honor of Sandy Hamilton.

Friend, colleague, inspiration.

Five observations about Stranger Things

  1. The Netflix series Stranger Things is a parable: it is about adolescence, and about the hopes, fears, and (quite literally) the demons that children wrestle with during those terrifying years when everything seems to be changing, and nobody knows why, or what things will become.

  2. The show is at its very best when it is most firmly rooted in those middle-school years, helping us see and remember what it was like to be that age, and it is most rewarding when it shows how children develop those coping mechanisms that sustain and guide us through our lives.

  3. The portrayal of the differences between those adults that "get it" (Will's mom, Sheriff Hopper, the middle school science teacher) and those that don't (pretty much everyone else) is particularly fine and elegant.

  4. The government research lab, and all the scientists that work there, are evil to the core? Bleah. Weak and cliched. But it is an easy way to stage a show that really wants to focus on the children, and keep nearly everyone else anonymous.

  5. The single worst part about Stranger Things, though, is the notion that El's power derives from her anger. Boo! Hiss! Shame on all the script writers and creatives! This is more than just vastly disappointing, it's so completely unnecessary. If they had just done this one single thing right, Stranger Things would truly be a show for the ages. Instead, it's in that list of stuff I'll watch, but won't really actively recommend to people.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Up, up, and away

As the new San Francisco Transit Center nears its grand opening, do not miss this wonderful interactive exploration of the project and all its impacts on the city, from the Architecture Desk of the San Francisco Chronicle: Symbol of a New San Francisco

... eye-popping novelties and numbers aren’t nearly as important as the long-term question of how the tower will settle into the landscape, once the shock of the new fades away.

“Ultimately, this aims to be a building about San Francisco,” Clarke said last month. He emphasizes such details as the facade’s grid of silvery aluminum sunshades, which relate more to such structural high points as Coit Tower than to the clutter of thin-skinned glass towers nearby.

“Many architects today approach tall buildings almost from a wholly artistic point of view,” Clarke said. “We’re much more comfortable with buildings that feel quietly confident and that ultimately are good citizens of their community.”

Are buildings citizens?

Probably not.

But buildings are important.

And this building is important.

And I'm pleased to see how the process is progressing.

San Francisco is evolving.

We are all evolving.

Here we go.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Tears of Autumn: a very short review

Somebody, somewhere, alerted me to Charles McCarry, and his marvelous The Tears of Autumn.

I know, I know: The Tears of Autumn was published in 1974.

And it's set in 1963.

But it is just so marvelous!

Partly, it's because McCarry is a very elegant writer. There is a certain way in which you are supposed to write This Sort of Book, and McCarry pulls that off as well as anyone:

In Orvieto Christopher found a coffee bar just opening and sat by the window drinking caffe latte, alone with the teen-aged boy who worked the early shift. At eight o'clock the street filled up with Italians, as though the town had been turned upside down like a sack and its people spilled into the morning. Once, after a week in Switzerland and a drive through the night over the Saint Bernard, he and Molly had arrived at the same time of day in Torino. When she saw the Italians again, shouting and gesticulating, Molly had leaped up, spread her arms as if to embrace them, and cried, "The human race!"

Christopher walked through the crowd to the post office and mailed Pigeon's confession and Dieter Dimpel's photographs and Yu Lung's horoscopes to himself in care of general delivery, Washington. The envelope would arrive by registered airmail in four days' time.

But even more than the fluidity and grace of McCarry's writing, what really sets him apart is the efficient and economical way in which he manages his story.

Imagine a modern thriller writer delivering a tale like this, spanning four continents, involving politics, culture, military affairs, language, and so much more; surely it would require seven or eight hundred pages to accomplish. But McCarry handles it in barely two hundred and fifty pages.

Yet it never feels rushed or crowded.

Instead, time and again, as our hero visits some place, talks with some person, or observes some event, what you originally take as "just" color, "merely" background, turns out to be critical information that all falls neatly and precisely into place, at just the right moment.

It's immensely satisfying.

I'm not sure if I shall find the time to dip back in to McCarry's many other books. Are they all as good as this?

I suppose there's only one way to find out.