Friday, December 28, 2018

Just in time for New Year's Eve ...

... here's an important resource: Every Bar In Red Dead Redemption 2, Reviewed

Red Dead Redemption 2’s saloons are the hubs of their towns. Whether you want a full belly, a quick drink, a place to stay the night or even a haircut, you’ll find a saloon to meet your needs.

I think I'd better head off to Smithfield's Saloon, since my wife mentioned quietly yesterday that my beard was "looking a mite scraggly".

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Secret Place: a very short review

Tana French's The Secret Place has been sitting on my desk for an entire month now, fully-read.

Fully-read, but not fully understood, not fully resolved

Each time I read a Tana French novel, I think to myself: "this is it; her next book cannot possibly be any better than this one."

And then, the next one is better still.

In The Secret Place, French dives into that most complicated of all human complications: the mysterious transition from child to adult. More specifically, from girl to woman. The Secret Place is set in St. Kilda's, an all-girls boarding school, its partner all-boys boarding school just down the way a bit.

There's an exterior plot, of course, involving the Dublin Murder Squad detectives and their efforts to solve the case. And of course, they solve the case, and of course, nothing is really solved at all. This being Tana French and the Dublin Murder Squad, all of that is somehow almost taken for granted.

Meanwhile, the real story is about the girls at the school, as French tries her best to take us into the unfathomably complex mind of a 15-year-old girl:

Selena thinks about that. She hears all the voices from when she was little, soothing, strengthening: Don't be sacred, not of monsters, not of witches, not of big dogs. And now, snapping loud from every direction: Be scared, you have to be scared, ordering like this is your one absolute duty. Be scared you're fat, be scared your boobs are too big and be scared they're too small. Be scared to walk on your own, specially anywhere quiet enough that you can hear yourself think. Be scared of wearing the wrong stuff, saying the wrong thing, having a stupid laugh, being uncool. Be scared of guys not fancying you; be scared of guys, they're animals, rabid can't stop themselves. Be scared of girls, they're all vicious, they'll cut you down before you can cut them. Be scared of strangers. Be scared you won't do well enough in your exams, be scared of getting in trouble. Be scared terrified petrified that everything you are is every kind of wrong. Good girl.

At the same time, in a cool untouched part of her mind, she sees the moon. She feels the shimmer of what it might look like in their own private midnight.

She says, "We're different now. That was the whole point. So we need to be doing something different. Otherwise ..."

She doesn't know how to say what she sees. That moment in the glade sliding away, blurring. Them dulling slowly back to normal.

These tensions are of course common to every fifteen year old; there's nothing new about that.

Yet French manages to capture that knife-edge tightrope walk between terror and desire, and how every moment, every instant, feels like the one thing that will change everything, and how you simultaneously want everything to change, and yet you want nothing to change:

What's been coming to Becca, since this all began, is this: real isn't what they try to tell you. Time isn't. Grown-ups hammer down all these markers, bells schedules coffee-breaks, to stake down time so you'll start believing it's something small and mean, something that scrapes flake after flake off of everything you love till there's nothing left; to stake you down so you won't lift off and fly away, somersaulting through whirlpools of months, skimming through eddies of glittering seconds, pouring handfuls of hours over your upturned face.

She blots the extra ink from around the dot, spits on the tissue and dabs again. The dot throbs, a warm satisfying pain.

These nights in the grove aren't degradable, they can't be flaked away. They'll always be there, if only Becca and the others can find their way back. The four of them backboned by their vow are stronger than anyone's pathetic schedules and bells; in ten years, twenty, fifty, they can slip between the stakes and meet in the glad, on these nights.

What is real, really? What does it mean to be a grown-up, to be an adult, to be responsible? Do you remember what it was like when that concept both mesmerized and terrified you, simultaneously? French certainly does:

The lady detective and the man detective and McKenna all wait, staring at her from behind the sun-patterns slanted across the desk. They're so huge and meaty and hairy, they think they'll just squash her down till her mouth pops open and everything comes gushing out.

Becca looks back at them and feels her flesh stir and transform silently into something new, some nameless substance that comes from high on pungent-forested mountain slopes. Her borders are so hard and bright that these lumpy things are being blinded just by looking at her; she's opaque, she's impermeable, she's a million densities and dimensions more real than any of them. They break against her and roll off like mist.

Reading The Secret Place, I was so drawn in, so engaged, so captivated by the feeling of being fifteen again, being young again, being free and different and somehow not yet even born, that I didn't want the story to end. I didn't want the mystery to be solved. I wanted it to still be a mystery.

None of them say anything. They keep their eyes closed. They lie still and feel the world change shape around them and inside them, feel the boundaries set solid; feel the wild left outside, to prowl perimeters till it thins into something imagined, something forgotten.

Oh, to be young again. Just. Exactly. So.

I want to stake down time, become impermeable, and never dull slowly back to normal.

Don't we all?

As it is after every Tana French novel, I have to rest now. I know it will be several months, at least, before I can begin the next book. To do so any sooner would be, somehow, wrong. I'm not ready; I must wait.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

My wife says I shouldn't be surprised ...

... she says this happens every year ...

Get to the holidays.

Go on vacation.

Immediately get sick.

Falconer's Crusade and Falconer's Judgement: a very short review

Ian Morson has written about half-a-dozen titles in a mystery series featuring Regent Master William Falconer of Oxford University.

The books are set in the middle of the 13th century.

Morson is a skilled writer, and he knows his tradecraft.

If you are interested in medieval times, and enjoy thinking about what it was like to live in England 800 years ago, you'll probably like these books. There's lots of fine intrigue involving Papal Legates, Baronial Uprisings, the Welsh Marches, etc., and lots of careful detail about the differences between Franciscans and Dominicans and Carmelites, how the role of the Abbot or Prior or Bursar affected your status in the monastery, etc.

But, really, the Middle Ages were a pretty nasty time (even if they did produce Roger Bacon), and it's not totally clear to me why people seem to have such endless fascination for such things.

I enjoyed the first two books well enough, but I think I've had my fill of Regent Master William Falconer and his times.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Bad Blood: a very short review

How ought society feel about the Venture Capital approach to business innovation?

At this point, it's been a central part of American society for almost 60 years, getting its start late in the 1950's as various West Coast companies sought to commercialize the broad range of technological innovations that had emerged during and soon after World War II (most people cite the founding of Fairchild Semiconductor in 1959 as the start of Venture Capital as a technique for company formation).

So it's not entirely new, and you would think that at this point its approach to business decision-making is fairly well-known.

But perhaps not as well-known as you might think?

Recently, I had a trans-continental airplane round-trip over a 3-day weekend, and I brought along John Carreyrou's Bad Blood, about the rise and fall of Theranos.

The book is sub-titled: "Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup", so clearly Carreyrou intended the book to be mostly about Theranos, but also about some broader topics as well.

Carreyrou is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and it's not entirely clear how much experience he has had with Silicon Valley Startups.

I was sitting at my messy desk in the Wall Street Journal's Midtown Manhattan newsroom casting about for a new story to sink my teeth into. I'd recently finished work on a year-long investigation of Medicare fraud and had no idea what to do next.

Carreyrou doesn't blow his own horn loudly enough here: he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for his "Medicare Unmasked" articles for the WSJ.

Carryrou gets a tip from a health-care industry blogger and thinks it's right up his alley ("I'd reported about health-care issues for the better part of a decade"), so he decides to do a little digging.

What he finds shocks him! Among other things:

  • The company is full of young employees, just out of school, many with little or no experience in the areas in which they're working.
  • The company's offices are in a shabby warehouse in a bad part of town
  • There is very high turnover. Some people are quite successful and move rapidly up in responsibilities, while others are unable to fit in and soon leave or are fired.
  • People are working very long hours, nights and weekends, under tremendous pressure
  • The executives are tense and fearful. They require employees to sign onerous "non-disclosure" and "non-compete" employment contracts, deploy extensive security policies to try to contain knowledge of company secrets, and sternly lecture departing employees about their responsibilities when they leave
  • As a result, employees are often in the dark about the company's operations, and rumors and gossip spread widely.

Throughout Bad Blood, Carreyrou richly reports incidents like these, apparently feeling that, by themselves, they obviously and self-evidently indict Theranos and explain what went wrong.

But what Carreyrou apparently fails to know, is that all of the above, and more, is just Business As Usual in a Silicon Valley startup (believe me; I've been in-and-around them for three decades now).

This is what Silicon Valley startups are like.

It's a nasty, ugly, chaotic, disfunctional mess of a system.

And, putting aside the disagreeable behavior, it usually fails (it's well known that nearly all VC-funded startups go out of business before achieving success).

But, to riff on Churchill's famous line about Democracy ("it's the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time"), Venture Capital-funded startup formation is the worst form of business innovation except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

The core aspect of a startup corporation like this is that it tries to do the impossible.

  • "Let's build a simple and powerful calculation tool for interactively analyzing data" (Lotus 1-2-3, 1984)
  • "Let's build a program that lets you sit at your PC and access computers all around the world" (Netscape, 1992)
  • "Let's build a program that lets you search all the world's computers" (Google, 1998)
  • "Let's build a system that lets people give other people short-distance car rides, and get paid for it" (Uber, 2009)
  • "Let's build a system so that people can pay $10/month to subscribe, and then they can watch as many movies in the theater as they want" (MoviePass, 2017)
All of these things were loudly and roundly deemed to be Hopeless Problems when people set out to do them. (And that last one, clearly, was hopeless!)

If the goal was straightforward, or easy to accomplish, the VC-funding approach wouldn't be necessary; you could get ordinary funding to try to build such an enterprise.

Theranos, however, had a big goal!

As Carreyrou recognizes early on, they really did want to change the world:

It didn't take Ed long to realize that Theranos was the toughest engineering challenge he'd ever tackled. His experience was in electronics, not medical devices. And the prototype he'd inherited didn't really work. It was more like a mock-up of what Elizabeth had in mind. He had to turn the mock-up into a functioning device.

The main difficulty stemmed from Elizabeth's insistence that they use very little blood. She'd inherited from her mother a phobia of needles; Noel Holmes fainted at the mere sight of a syringe. Elizabeth wanted the Theranos technology to work with just a drop of blood pricked from the tip of a finger. She was so fixated on the idea that she got upset when an employee bought red Hershey's Kisses and put the Theranos logo on them for a company display at a job fair. The Hershey's Kisses were meant to represent drops of blood, but Elizabeth felt they were much too big to convey the tiny volumes she had in mind.

Her obsession with miniaturization extended to the cartridge. She wanted it to fit in the palm of a hand, further complicating Ed's task. He and his team spent months reengineering it, but they never reached a point where they could reliably reproduce the same test results from the same blood samples.

The quantity of blood they were allowed to work with was so small that it had to be diluted with a saline solution to create more volume. That made what would otherwise have been relatively routine chemistry work a lot more challenging.

Adding another level of complexity, blood and saline weren't the only fluids that had to flow through the cartidge. The reactions that occurred when the blood reached the little wells required chemicals known as reagents. Those were stored in separate chambers.

All these fluids needed to flow through the cartidge in a meticulously choreographed sequence, so the cartridge contained little valves that opened and shut at precise intervals. Ed and his engineers tinkered with the design and the timing of the valves and the speed at which the various fluids were pumped through the cartridge.

Hey, this is hard!

This is really hard!!

This is such a hard problem, that there is no way that a brilliant young scientist is going to figure this out in their dorm room on their own.

The only way that something like this is going to come about, is if thousands of people work for years and years on it, and that will require millions and millions of dollars.

But is it a bad idea, on the face of it, to try to build such a piece of technology?

I'd say, no! It's actually rather a genius idea!

And Elizabeth Holmes sets about it in exactly the way that other VC-funded, Stanford-bred, Silicon Valley startups have: she talks to her professors, who hook her up with some deep-pocketed businessmen, and they found a company to see if they can do it.

And oh! what a company! In addition to those Stanford professors and VC investors, they recruit perhaps the finest Board of Directors that a young Silicon Valley startup has ever had:

In addition to [George] Shultz and [James] Mattis, it now included former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former secretary of defense William Perry, former Senate Arms [sic] Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn, and former navy admiral Gary Roughead.


Not to mention the fact that this board had a special adviser named David Boies who attended all of its meetings.


and two new directors: Richard Kovacevich, the former CEO of the giant bank Wells Fargo, and former Senate majority leader Bill Frist.

I mean, my goodness! None of my companies ever had two Secretaries of State and two Secretaries of Defense on their Board of Directors!

I can't think of ANY startup that I've heard of who had a Board of Directors like that!

And the company's business plan was equally impressive: they signed contracts with both Safeway and Walgreens to put their blood-testing devices into retail locations nation-wide, they worked with the U.S. military to design a version of the device that would be field-deployable with military teams overseas, and hired the legendary advertising Chiat/Day to explain to the world how Theranos was about to change it.

And they got tremendous traction.

Safeway alone, to name just one organization, invested hundreds of millions of their own company's money, and even RE-FURBISHED EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEIR GROCERY STORES TO HAVE A FANCY BLOOD-TESTING CENTER (although these have now mostly been removed or re-purposed, several of the Safeway stores in my neighborhood still have these fancy enclosures, sitting vacant in the middle of the grocery store).

And then, it all fell apart. (And it wasn't just Theranos that failed; you can make a pretty strong case that Safeway's collapse and takeover by Cerberus Capital in 2014 was due to the impact of the Theranos failure.)

So what, exactly, went wrong?

From my point of view, this is where Carreyrou fails us.

His primary thesis, as far as I can tell, is that Elizabeth Holmes lost her mental compass, or perhaps had no mental compass to begin with:

And with actions that ranged from blackmailing her chief financial officer to suing ex-employees, she had displayed a pattern of ruthlessness...

the Theranos board couldn't even reach a quorum without Holmes.


nothing could be decided or done without Holmes's assent.

it was Holmes who was the manipulator. One after another, she wrapped people around her finger and persuaded them to do her bidding.


in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs amid the gold rush of the "unicorn" boom, there came a point when she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners. Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference.

I think Carreyrou fails to make this case. (It doesn't help that Holmes declined to be interviewed for the book and so Carreyrou's strongest sources are disgruntled ex-employees and a collection of industry observers and academic commentators.)

I think you can tell the story of Theranos much more simply:

  • Elizabeth Holmes, young and tremendously ambitious, had an idea, a world-changing idea.
  • She was blessed with charisma and enormous persuasive powers, and managed to convince powerful people to support her quest.
  • Once those powerful people were involved, and had money and reputation at stake, they in turn convinced other powerful people to join in the effort. (Carreyrou's description of how this affected David Boies is perhaps the strongest part of Bad Blood)
  • The immense pressures that arise in the Silicon Valley startup scene caused people to make promises they couldn't keep, to make unjustified claims, to "fake the demo" (faking the demo, of course, has been a Silicon Valley stain of shame for decades).
  • However, simultaneously, other people, who should have known better (e.g., the board of directors at Safeway, the investment committee at Walgreens, the journalists at Fortune who plastered her on their magazine cover, all those Secretaries of State and Secretaries of Defense and Senators and Professors and CEOs), WANTED TO BELIEVE SO BADLY that they convinced themselves Theranos was farther along than it was.
  • In the end, Theranos couldn't deliver on their promise, and the company was dissolved.

Hey, that last part? That's pretty much how every Silicon Valley startup story ends.

No news there.

It's that part just before it, the "we want to believe" part, that makes the story fascinating.

And I think that Carreyrou goes astray by trying to ascribe some malicious evil intent to Elizabeth Holmes.

People just want to believe in the impossible.

It would have been a good enough story as was, if Carreyrou had just left it there, and not tried to portray Holmes as this generation's Svengali.

Oh, well.

Give Bad Blood a try, if this is of any interest to you at all. It's a fast read, and quite fascinating.

Just understand that, yeah, it's ugly when the sausage is getting made.

Up, up, and away

Well, before you go up, you have to go down!

(YouTube video link: ) Oceanwide Center - Summer 2018 Update

Friday, December 14, 2018

Up, up, and away

Onward the path of science: Holes cut into steel contributed to beams cracking at SF’s Salesforce Transit Center.

Who do you get to look at your damaged steel beams? Well, how about Robert Vecchio?

Dr. Vecchio is a licensed professional engineer in New York, Massachusetts, Kansas, Washington, and Florida, and holds a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering and Supplement in Materials Science from University of Southern California, an M.S. in Metallurgical Engineering from Lehigh University, an M.S. in Civil-Structural Engineering from Manhattan College, and a Ph.D. in Metallurgical Engineering from Lehigh University. He was recently named a Fellow of ASME.

Over the past three decades, Dr. Vecchio has participated in some of the most challenging structure and system issues including the Exxon Valdez Hull Rupture, 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Hell Gate gas main and Gramercy Park steam main explosions, the 4 Times Square scaffolding collapse, Indian Point NPP steam generator girth weld cracking, ACELA train brake failure and redesign, I-35 Minneapolis bridge collapse, FFS assessment of New World Trade Center Transportation Hub, and the tragic rescue and recovery efforts following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

That's quite the C.V.!

The Mercury News reports on Dr. Vecchio's findings:

Defects that occurred during fabrication, along with holes cut into the steel, are likely what caused two structural steel beams to crack just six weeks after the $2.2 billion Salesforce Transit Center opened to the public, officials said Thursday.

“It occurred very rapidly, and a lot of energy was released,” said Robert Vecchio, the president of New York-based LPI, Inc., which conducted a series of tests on samples taken from the steel.

The center closed in September after workers found the first crack in a four-inch-thick steel beam while installing ceiling panels. Authorities closed the center several hours later out of an “abundance of caution,” they said. A subsequent investigation revealed the second crack in an adjacent beam, both of which are in a section of the building above Fremont Street.

The cracks originated in an area where crews had cut “weld access” or “weld termination” holes. It’s unclear which type of hole the fabricators cut into the steel because they are not drawn into the shop designs.

NBC News has a slightly different take: Transbay Transit Terminal Reopening Uncertain as Engineers Continue to Examine Cracks in Critical Beams:

The cracks in critical beams that shut down the Salesforce Transbay transit terminal started at the rough edges of holes ordered cut in the four-inch thick steel during fabrication, a New York-based engineer told the project’s governing board Thursday.

NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit first reported the problems with the so-called weld access holes that crews using welding torches cut into the now cracked beams that support the terminal across Fremont Street. Engineers pointed to the corners of those holes as under particular stress.

The expert who is overseeing the testing and analysis of the cracks, Robert Vecchio of LPI Inc., said the cracks began with “a pre-existing defect that occurred during the fabrication.” He said the investigation showed tiny cracks in every sample they looked at. Cracks that “popped out” under stress. “We found these small cracks throughout all the sections that were removed from the girders.”

When the holes were cut with torches, he said, workers left behind rough surfaces. Such rough areas should be ground smooth under building codes.

The subcontractor that fabricated the beams adds more detail, or, perhaps more confusion, to the picture. NBC News reports:

Robert Hazleton, president of The Herrick Corporation, the firm that fabricated the beams, spoke after the meeting. He said the cuts were not called for in the original design plans and in some cases were cut into the structures after they were already built – so they didn’t actually serve as weld access holes as defined by code. Documents show confusion about their purpose, location and specification.

While the Merc adds more background:

Weld access holes allow workers access to the beam so they can complete the weld, said Ashwani Dhalwala, a principal of AEC Solutions who has worked extensively on the issue of fractures in steel. Weld termination holes are used in areas where girders are joined together with a perpendicular piece of steel, called the web, in order to reduce stress, which is concentrated where the pieces interest. It’s a way to provide continuity between the pieces and reduce stress, he said.

“If you have a sudden discontinuity, then you have very high stressors,” Dhalwala said.

The holes were added after shop designs were submitted for approval. So, Herrick crews first built a set of girders without the holes and then had to build a new set of girders with them included, he said.

“Why they were added, that’s more of a design issue than a fabrication issue,” Hazleton said. A representative from Thornton Tomasetti, the design firm, declined to explain the purpose of the holes.

Confused yet?

I sure am.

But it seems like the takeaway, for now, is this:

But, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the public agency in charge of building and maintaining the terminal, expects to have a plan for the repairs and an estimated reopening date in January, said Mark Zabaneh, the authority’s executive director. That plan will include bolting steel plates onto both sides of the girder to reinforce it.

I'm pretty sure we're supposed to read that as: "a plan ... in January," NOT as: "a plan ... and ... reopening ... in January."

But what do I know?

I'm just a software guy; bolting steel plates onto things is a long way from my bailiwick.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Four random Very Nice Things

Because who doesn't need some Very Nice Things, no matter what time of year it is?

  • People from all over the world are sending emails to Melbourne’s trees
    Dear Nettle,

    I just moved in three months ago and I’m very glad that I can talk to you through this system. I live in the first floor and I can actually see you through my window!

    I’m having trouble sleeping at night because of the noise of cars and ambulances at night, hope you’re not suffering that much and be able to have a good sleep.

    Thank you for blocking the noises from the street and wish the birds don’t do harm to you. Pleasant to meet you and have a nice day!


  • Flying Alongside Migrating Birds in an Ultralight
    For more than 20 years, Christian Moullec has been flying with migratory birds in his ultralight aircraft. He raises birds of vulnerable species on his farm and then when it’s time for them to migrate, he shows them how, guiding them along safe migration paths. To support his conservation efforts, Moullec takes paying passengers up with him to fly among the birds.
  • The Winners of the Information Is Beautiful Awards for 2018
    Since 2012, Information Is Beautiful has picked the best data visualizations of the year. Here are the winners of the 2018 Awards
  • Dear Curiosity: How NASA's rover makes Mars feel like home
    This essay is an entry in our "Dear Spacecraft" series, where we ask writers, scientists, and astronomy enthusiasts to share why they feel personally connected to robotic space explorers.

I could use a bit of a backup brain myself, these hazy crazy days.

I hear you’re beginning to feel your age. Your joints are growing creaky. Fine, floury Martian dust covers your every zip tie, rivet, and cable. Your wheels are cracked and haggard, your computer cobwebby. Your managers here recently switched you to a backup brain, after the one you’d been using started having issues with long-term memory.

Could you feel your mind ebb? Do you fear forgetfulness the way that I do? Does time seem to march faster with each passing sol, the way it does for me?

I hope the skies clear for you soon. I will be thinking of you. Thank you, Curiosity, for giving me Mars.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Salesforce will have a Chief Ethical Officer

This is interesting: Paula Goldman Joins Salesforce as VP, Chief Ethical and Humane Use Officer

Paula has extensive entrepreneurial experience managing frontier market businesses, ranging from managing an affordable private school in rural India to a micro-enterprise syndicate in post-war Bosnia. As founder and director of Imagining Ourselves, a project of the International Museum of Women, she led the creation of one of the world’s first online museums. Paula’s work was recognized with the Social Impact Award from the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and a Muse Award from the American Association of Museums.

Paula earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, where did a dissertation on how unorthodox ideas become mainstream. She holds a Master in Public Affairs from Princeton and a B.A. with highest honors from UC Berkeley.

There's considerable additional information on the website.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Gaming time

This is, sometimes, the time of the year when I find a few spare hours to play some games.

And, indeed, over the Thanksgiving break I managed to crack open Obduction, which I hadn't really played since the fall of 2016, and discovered that it's still beautiful, and still fun.


  • Winners of the 2018 IFComp
    The Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp) welcomes all kinds of text-driven digital stories and games, making them freely available in order to encourage the creation, play, and discussion of interactive fiction.
  • Queen Sacrifice: Ruth Haring, 1955-2018
    You can’t fill the shoes of a queen. You can only hope that another pawn will come along with the courage and persistence to promote itself to a queen. Someone with the courage and persistence of Ruth Haring.
  • The Last Chess Shop in NYC
    A film about Chess Forum and its owner, Imad Khachan, a Palestinian refugee who came to America to get a PhD in American literature and ended up as the owner/operator of a classic NYC establishment.
  • Far From a Turkey Shoot
    The sixth game, however, brought an announcement of checkmate that no one alive saw coming:

    It came from a supercomputer named Sesse running the chess engine Stockfish: Black has checkmate in 36 moves beginning 68…Bg5-h4! At first this looks suicidal since after 69.h5-h6 Black’s king is cut off and his knight and bishop look far from stopping the pawn. But after 69…Nd4-f3 (or 69…Nd4-c6) 70.h6-h7 Nf3-e5+ 71.Kg6-h6 Bg5+, White’s king is evicted and after 72.Kh6-h5 Kf8-g7 73.Bc4-g8 Kg7-h8, the compulsion to move (called Zugzwang) forces White to unguard the pawn since his king is frozen.

  • A Tiebreak Win and the Problem of Draws
    The title match tiebreaker gave 25 minutes plus an extra 10 seconds per move, the same as in the famous Melody Amber tournaments, whereas the World Rapid championships give 10 fewer minutes. My preliminary results show an average dropoff of 200–210 Elo in the Ambers and 280–290 Elo in World Rapids. Caruana’s quality of 2575 (with huge error bars from under 100 relevant moves in the three tiebreak games) was consistent with this, but here is what I measured for Carlsen:

    2945 +- 190.

    Since the error-bars are two-sigma, this was more than one standard deviation higher than Carlsen’s rating at standard time controls, and higher than his IPR for the twelve regulation games of the match. Clearly Caruana ran into a buzzsaw.

  • Hitman 2 Is My 'Forever Game'
    I first heard the term "forever game" during the press buildup for No Man's Sky. It denotes the idea of interactive infinity—a game that you can play forever, the one game to rule them all. A forever game means that you don't need any other videogames. It's the one piece of entertainment that is vast enough, complicated enough, and good enough to obviate your need for all other games, forever and ever, amen.
  • I was going to write about my most anticipated game of 2018, but I played 136 hours of 'Red Dead Redemption 2' instead
    if "Battlefield V" is a good game, "RDR2" is a fantastic game. Gorgeous visuals, a great story, a wide-open world to explore, good acting, and the general vibe of the Wild West all come together to make what is probably the best game I've played in a very long time.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Good picture to post today

That good looking fellow, second from right (the one in the glasses)?

Yep, that's my dad.

Tall Building Safety Strategy

I came across a very interesting document the other day, called the Tall Building Safety Strategy.

This report is part of a larger project, called Tall Buildings in San Francisco:

The San Francisco Tall Buildings Study is the first study in the nation to look at the impact of earthquakes on a large group of buildings higher than 240 feet. The resulting report will characterize the issues and available information; propose regulatory and procedural recommendations where appropriate; and identify areas where future studies would be helpful.

The San Francisco Office of Resilience and Capital Planning under City Administrator Naomi Kelly is working with the Applied Technology Council (ATC) to conduct the Study. ATC is a non-profit organization with a mission to develop and promote state-of-the-art, user-friendly engineering resources and applications for use in hazard mitigation. A panel including the City Administrator, Department of Building Inspection, Department of Emergency Management, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is overseeing the various work products. In addition, a broad group of tall building stakeholders and experts will meet several times during the study to provide additional feedback and review.

This is kind of new ground. As the report observes, there are a lot of topics here that haven't received much discussion.

Partly this is because the West Coast is different. New York City doesn't have earthquakes. Nor does Chicago, or Atlanta, or Houston, etc.

And, until very recently, people on the West Coast chose to spread out, rather then to increase urban density. Even in my childhood, when we moved to Los Angeles in 1970, the L.A. City Hall had until very recently been the tallest building on the West Coast.

But it's all different now. Urban density is racing upward, as people on the West Coast finally have come to understand the downsides of urban sprawl. From San Diego and Los Angeles, to San Jose and San Francisco, and all the way to Seattle and Vancouver, the West Coast's modern urban centers are being built much more along the lines of Manhattan, with extremely dense urban cores and an anticipation that these cores will not be just places of work, to which people commute to and from the suburbs, but centers of urban living.

And so the Tall Buildings Safety Strategy report poses some extremely challenging questions, for example:

Studies conducted in this project estimate that for a tall building designed to current standards, it might take two to six months to mobilize for and repair damage from a major earthquake, depending on the building location, geologic conditions, and the structural and foundation systems. Long downtimes in tall buildings can have disproportionate harmful effects on residents and businesses in San Francisco. By the City’s tentative recovery goals, even three months of downtime is unacceptably long for major employers and other recovery-critical uses.


The San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) and the Department of Emergency Management (DEM) should coordinate a study to evaluate the adequacy of automatic fire suppression and occupant evacuation systems in tall buildings for conditions following a significant earthquake. The study should be coordinated with other City departments and within the broader context of the San Francisco Emergency Response Plan to evaluate whether (1) the in-building secondary water supply for automatic fire suppression in tall buildings is sufficient to inhibit fire spread and allow safe evacuation, and (2) the building code provisions that rely on elevators for evacuation during a fire emergency will be effective following an earthquake.


Cordons or barricades are often needed to protect the areas around a damaged building. The cordoned area is generally based on the perceived level of damage and the risks posed by potential aftershocks, wind loading, time-dependent creep effects, or other factors. While cordons may be required around buildings of any height, the disruptive implications of current generic guidance for cordon distance increase dramatically with building height, potentially leading to unnecessary closure of neighboring buildings and infrastructure.


As described in the project report, the 240-foot height criterion for the initial database was somewhat arbitrary. To the extent that the San Francisco Building Code imposes elevator, fire safety, and other requirements on high-rise buildings defined as those taller than 75 feet, it would be useful to expand the database to include at least all buildings above this height.


Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

This is really complicated stuff, and it isn't going to be easy to address.

It's really fascinating to see that the City of San Francisco is targeting these problems head-on, or at least openly admitting that they exist.

Hopefully other major West Coast cities are doing the same thing, or are at least closely following this work in order to benefit from it and incorporate it into their own plans.

One day, there will be a mag-8 earthquake somewhere on the populated region of the West Coast; perhaps it will even happen during my lifetime.

I sure hope we are prepared, taking the proper time during these (relatively) easy times to prepare for what will, someday, happen.

As the ant said to the grasshopper...

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The MV Peralta is back!

It was, as A.A. Milne would say, a Blustery Day today.

As I waited for my early morning ferry, the wind was simply howling, and the rain was coming in horizontally, and the breakers were slamming into the ferry dock, and I thought to myself:

Self, this is the truth: they are not going to be able to land the Bay Breeze at the dock today; you are going to have to walk home in the wind and the rain and Work From Home today.

Then, a momentary pause in the rain and I could see, approaching, the boat. But not the Bay Breeze! No, it was the long-awaited MV Peralta, finally back from her year long re-fitting

Aluminum ferry vessels have a life expectancy of approximately 25 years with a major refit at the vessel’s quarter-life and mid-life. The M.V. Peralta, which was built in 2001, had its mid-life work divided into two phases in order to minimize the time that the vessel is out of service during the busy summer season. The first phase focused on major machinery overhauls and was completed in 2015. Phase 2, currently underway, includes: renovation of the passenger cabins, bathrooms and galley; exterior paint and coatings; electronics system upgrades; and replacement of both the steering system and a section of the hull. Engineering and design are underway for the interior passenger spaces, wheelhouse dash and main deck bar. Project work is scheduled to be complete by June 2018.

Well, it's not June 2018, but boy was she a welcome sight on this rainy, blustery morning.

Gently, smoothly, she edged up to the dock, and with barely a shudder was sound fast.

Our ride across the bay, though, was one to remember! Cell phones, briefcases, and purses were flying around the cabin, water was sheeting down the windows, and the bouncing and lurching was more than I've ever seen on the cross-bay ferry.

The Peralta is a strong boat, however, and barely 20 minutes later we were safely across the bay, snug to the Gate E dock at the Ferry Building, and I was off for another busy day of work.

Welcome back, Peralta!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Carlsen-Caruana: Carlsen retains the title

Well, that was something!

If you hadn't already heard, Magnus Carlsen annihilated Fabiano Caruana in the 4-game rapid tie-break series.

From what I could see, the first game was mostly even, although Caruana, with the black pieces, was down a pawn in a rook-and-pawns endgame around move 40 or so, and then, with neither player having more than a few seconds on their clock, Caruana made an endgame error and Carlsen pounced on it and won the game.

A decisive result!

Then something really strange happened, and Caruana just collapsed, losing the next two games in hideous ugly fashion.

Perhaps he was just completely rattled by the rapid-chess format? (He's not been known for his strength in this format, while Carlsen is just as good at rapid chess, perhaps even better at it, than he is at the full-length format.)

At any rate, it was suddenly, suddenly over.

There can be no doubt: the tie-breaks served their purpose.

And Carlsen was the worthy victor.

But Caruana played a fantastic match, and I surely hope we will see this pair contest many, many more games over the coming decades.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Carlsen-Caruana game 12: 0.5-0.5

Game 12 of the match was, indeed, drawn, and so the regular section of the match concludes tied, 6-6.

And therefore we proceed, tomorrow, to tiebreaks.

Which are complicated and chaotic, but designed to be certain to crown a champion.

But before we move on, I must share that I was as startled as any chess fancier to see Carlsen offer a draw on move 31, with such an (apparently) overwhelming advantage in both time and space. Carlsen had nearly 40 extra minutes on the clock, had an extremely powerful knight and a passed central pawn on the 5th rank, and had enormous mobility for his pieces, while Caruana was confined to his back two rows and was reduced to shuttling his rook around.

Carlsen’s Bizarre Decision Has Sent The World Chess Championship To Overtime

After Caruana’s 25th move, he was down more than 30 minutes on the clock and the equivalent of nearly two pawns, according to a supercomputer analyzing the game. The middlegame became a wild rumpus, and a scary one for fans of the American, one that neither human grandmasters nor chess superengines could make all that much sense of. Swings in advantage were wild, and time pressure was mounting.

Well, I guess the supercomputer was confused, too; I am in good company?

“I wasn’t in a mood to find the punch,” Carlsen said by way of explanation after the game.

What mood will he be in tomorrow?

"Let the wild rumpus begin!"

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Carlsen-Caruana game 11: 0.5-0.5

Maybe both players were a bit exhausted by Thursday's dramatic battle.

For whatever reason, today's game seemed rather quiet to me.

The queens were off the board by move 14, by move 25 there were just two opposite-colored bishops and a bunch of pawns, and then there were 30 more moves of quiet maneuvering, until a draw was agreed on move 55.

One game left, then tiebreaks are upon us.

Ferry yikes!

One of the big Golden Gate Ferry boats crashed yesterday afternoon, bumping into the Ferry Building itself, then slamming into Gate B: Coast Guard investigating after ferry crashes into Ferry Building in San Francisco.

The damaged ferry boat will have to be towed back to Larkspur and it'll likely happen Saturday. There are holes in the metal hull and it struck hard enough to break the concrete and metal railing on the dock.


The impact cracked the concrete, knocked over the railing, and shook The Slanted Door restaurant.

Friday, November 23, 2018

End of Endgame

Oh, this is too bad, I really enjoyed going to Endgame: IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT - ENDGAME IS CLOSING, FEBRUARY 1, 2019

Two key reasons: Fatigue, and Reality. We are all pretty exhausted. Many of us have been doing this for a long time. Some have moved on. Some remain active only behind the scenes. Some you see every day. But we are all tired. That's focused us on the reality that is knowing that when our lease extension comes around early next year, we can't afford it.

It's at least partly my fault, I'm afraid: I haven't bought a new boardgame in at least 6 months.

Well, time to schedule at least one more trip over there.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Carlsen-Caruana game 10: 0.5-0.5

OK, not to bury the lede: another draw, and the match stands 5-5.

But what a game!

Caruana had the white pieces and the game started very similarly to game 8.

But soon Caruana was pushing his queenside pawns, while Carlsen pushed his kingside pawns, and the result was a very unbalanced and sharp position.

Carlsen offered a pawn sacrifice on move 21, which Caruana declined.

But that barely eased the pressure, as Carlsen's advanced pawns gave Caruana almost no space at all, while Caruana's passed and advanced b6 pawn meant Carlsen was tied down with most of his pieces.

Late in the game, the computers thought that Carlsen had erred, and sure enough at the end Caruana had an extra pawn, but the position was much simplified and he offered the draw on move 54, after 5.5 hours of tight and thrilling chess.

Two games left. Surely the pressure must be IMMENSE at this point, as just a single decisive match will almost certainly decide the outcome.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Carlsen-Caruana game 9: 0.5-0.5

Carlsen, with the white pieces, again chose the English opening (1. c4)

Although the computer thought that Carlsen had a decent advantage by move 20 or so, Caruana never really seemed troubled.

The queens came off the board just before the time control at move 40, and although they played for another 15 moves, nothing came of it, and a draw was agreed on move 56.

We're three quarters of the way through the match.

4.5 - 4.5

It's raining

First time since May.

Boy, are we happy!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Carlsen-Caruana game 8: 0.5-0.5

Game 8 was a fascinating, bloody battle. As opposed to some of the other games, we were 22 moves into this game before either queen had even left its home square!

By move 23, Caruana, with the white pieces, had an advanced passed central d-pawn, and a viciously-well-posted knight on the 6th rank, leaving Carlsen extremely cramped and with very awkward play.

But just 5 moves later, most of the material was off the board, Carlsen had evened the position, and the result was another draw.

Most of the commentators felt that Caruana had once again held a winning position, and had been unable to convert.

Regardless, we're two thirds of the way through the 12 games of the matched, and it's been deadlocked the entire way.

Carlsen-Caruana game 7: 0.5-0.5

A fun game to play through, but the result was a 40-move draw.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Carlsen-Caruana game 6: 0.5-0.5

The match is half over, and it's tied, 3-3.

But today's game was full of drama! (As 538 put it, Chess World rattled as someone nearly wins game).

Caruana, with the black pieces, managed superbly to create a passed central pawn, and Carlsen was forced to sacrifice (?) his knight for 3 black pawns to eliminate it.

Caruana then won back two of the pawns and was, more or less, a knight ahead.

Carlsen then sacrificed a third pawn in order to get his king locked into a corner of the board in such a way that Caruana was a in danger of making a stalemate, and then, while maneuvering to try to break through, after 6 hours of play, he allowed Carlsen to force the draw.

So, there we are. What will the second half of the match bring?

Thursday, November 15, 2018

It's not just a game ...

... it's a world of individuals, going about their daily routines, doing their chores, going shopping, cooking dinner, ....

Carlsen-Caruana game 5: 0.5-0.5

OK, OK, I know: another draw.

And only 33 moves, no less: the shortest game of the match to date.

But this one was FUN!

Caruana, with the white pieces, sprung a crazy opening surprise on move 6!

Apparently Carlsen didn't watch the video, after all?

Or maybe the video didn't really exist, or it didn't cover this particular detail.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this game, even if it was a draw in the end.

I mean, you never, ever, EVER see a pawn on the 6th rank on move 14. Or on the 7th rank on move 16!

Game 6 tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Carlsen-Caruana game 4: 0.5-0.5

Do you sense a bit of a storyline growing?

4 games, 4 drawn results.

In this game, Carlsen had the white pieces, and opened c4 (the "English opening").

The queens came off the board on move 19, and soon afterwards a draw was agreed.

The length of the games so far is:

  1. 115 moves
  2. 49 moves
  3. 49 moves
  4. 34 moves

Tomorrow is a rest day.

Monday, November 12, 2018

A Version of the Truth: a very short review

Somehow, up to the top of my stack of books came A Version of the Truth.

The heroine of this romance novel, Cassie, is a bird lover who works, on and off, at the Topanga Canyon Wildlife Rescue Center (which is I think modeled on a real place), and so the book is full of ivory-billed woodpeckers, ferruginous hawks, barn owls, even an African gray parrot.

There are people, too, and something of a story.

But I suspect the authors (there are two authors) are bird-lovers themselves, and the African gray parrot is far-and-away the most fully drawn and engaging character in the book.

Carlsen-Caruana game 3: 0.5-0.5

Game 3 started out like game 1, at least for the first 5 moves, then Caruana varied slightly and the remainder of the game was very different.

The queens came off the board on move 23, and after 49 moves a draw was agreed.

Tomorrow Carlsen has the white pieces; will we see a decisive result?

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Carlsen-Caruana game 2: 0.5-0.5

Game 2 was considerably quieter than game 1, and considerably shorter.

Carlsen had the white pieces for game 2, and opened d4.

It seemed to me that Caruana came out of the opening quite comfortably, and posed some significant problems for Carlsen.

When the queens came off the board at move 24, Carlsen briefly had 2 pawns on the 6th rank, and it looked quite threatening. But his king was too far away and couldn't support the pawns and Caruana's accurate play snapped them up, at which point it was Caruana as black with an extra pawn, and the computers were giving Caruana a strong advantage.

But Carlsen quickly neutralized that threat and a draw was agreed at move 49.

Tomorrow is a rest day, with game 3 to be played on Monday!

Friday, November 9, 2018

Carlsen-Caruana game 1: 0.5-0.5

It's underway!

Game 1 was a rollicking joy, a seven-hour battle between two of the finest chess players on the planet.

Caruana had the white pieces, and opened e4 (after Woody Harrelson showed up to tip the king over to get the match underway :) ).

Carlsen played the Sicilian (c5), which is, I think, a slight surprise. But Carlsen plays more openings than anyone alive, so it's just how it goes with him I think?

The midgame was dramatic and intense, FAR above my comprehension, as Carlsen sacrificed a pawn for a ferocious attack.

Caruana ended up giving back the pawn, then another, and then continued to defend, and defend, and defend.

After seven hours, and 115 moves, the result was a drawn game.

I think Caruana probably feels happy about this, even though he had the advantage of the first game with the first move, for he is certainly the newcomer in this situation and now those first games jitters are gone.

I watched the game on, but let me recommend the wonderful coverage over at the Guardian, which never ceases to surprise (is The Guardian the finest English-language website operating right now? If not, it's among the top.).

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Here comes Carlsen-Caruana!

There's less than 48 hours until the World Chess Championship begins!

It's still not clear to me how to watch it. says I can buy an online ticket.

I poked around on and didn't see anything obvious there.

There's a note on saying that TCEC will carry coverage, and another note saying that Twitch will carry coverage.

A colleague thinks that it will be available on YouTube, but I'm not sure how to find it there.

I guess I'll look on Friday!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Sisters Brothers: a very short review

What was it like to be in California in 1851?

Well, it was three years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, and three years after gold was discovered at Sutter's sawmill.

It was one year after California had officially become a state.

The population of California was just less than 100,000 people (there are 400 times that many people in Californa now!!)

There were no cars, no trucks, not even really any roads, nor any railroads (the Sacramento Valley RailRoad Company would be founded the next year, in 1852). Even the Pony Express was still eight years in the future.

The first overland Postal Service route from Salt Lake City to Sacramento had just been inaugurated, without much success ("In November 1851, Woodward and his mail party left California for Salt Lake City. They never made it. Woodward’s body was found the following April, but no mail. ")

Insofar as they got around at all, people travelled by boat, by foot, or, most commonly, in ox-carts or horse-drawn wagons.

What was it like to be in California in 1851? I have no idea! I can barely imagine it.

Happily, though, Patrick DeWitt CAN imagine it.

What's more, Patrick DeWitt is an extremely talented writer, and his The Sisters Brothers is a tremendously entertaining romp through what California was like in 1851.

The Sisters Brothers are Eli Sisters and his older brother Charlie Sisters, a pair of outlaws under the employ of the mysterious "Commodore", who lives in Oregon, and who has dispatched Eli and Charlie on a task.

The book is narrated by Eli, and is related in such an engaging and lyrical style that words fail me in describing how much fun it was to read this book.

Now, be warned: this is not easy stuff! Life in California in 1851 was no picnic, and for Eli and Charlie it was considerably harsher than for most. There are incidents, accidents, gamblers, prostitutes, amputations, vats of radioactive chemicals, and more.

There are tragedies and bodies strewn about almost every page.

But it's like this:

We climbed out the window of my room and snuck along the overhang that ran the length of the walkway. This proved handy to us, for Tub and Nimble were housed in a stable at the far end of Mayfield, and we covered that entire distance without a soul noticing our travels. At the halfway point, Charlie paused behind a tall sign to watch the largest trapper leaning against a hitching post below us. Now the other three joined him, and the group stood in a loose circle, speaking through their dirty beards. 'Doubtless they are infamous among the muskrat community hereabouts,' said Charlie. 'But these are not killers of men.' He pointed at the leader. 'He is the one who stole the pelt, I'm sure of it. If we come up against them, I will take care of him. Watch the rest take flight at the first shot fired.'

The Sisters Brothers is now a movie.

I'm sure it's a good movie; it could hardly not be!

But, really: don't bother.

Read the book.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Nemesis Games: a very short review

I sure went zooming through book 5 of The Expanse quickly!

It's time for book 6!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Reading my way to RDR-2

We just got the email that RDR-2 will be here on October 30 ...

Meanwhile, website Polygon is trying to suggest various books that might get you into the RDR-2 mood: While you play Red Dead Redemption 2, make time to read this book.

Although the Polygon author recommends Paulette Jiles's News of the World, I was intrigued by one of the commenters who mentioned The Sisters Brothers, so that's what I picked.

I'll probably get back to News of the World.

And maybe Blood Meridian

And maybe I'll dig into some Craig Johnson...

Monday, October 22, 2018

What's up with that Bloomberg "spy chip" story?

Various people, who know a lot more than me, are coming down on the side that Bloomberg appears to be guilty of some bad journalism here. A couple random examples:

Oh, and also, Apple, Amazon, ATT, Verizon, and SuperMicro themselves are all still standing by their claims that the story is false.

It's been 3 weeks, and Bloomberg's reporting is not looking so great in this area at this point...

Barely a week to go ...

... time to start getting EXCITED!

15 Western Movies To Get You Ready For Red Dead Redemption 2.

Also, I liked this article about the pros and cons of fast travel, partly because it name-checked one of my all-time favorite games: Take the Second Left After the Field of Rocks

It’s important to acknowledge Campo Santo’s Firewatch when discussing contemporary resistance to fast travel, as Firewatch forced the player to use a map, a compass, and a set of directions in order to find their way around the Rockies. While the map in Firewatch is only a fraction of the size of most RPG maps, the limitations it imposes on the player in the form of obstacles make finding a suitable route quite tricky. The player can spend quite some time moving north before discovering that they actually ended up moving westward for a time, and followed the natural curve of the path south, leaving them further away from their destination than they were when they originally set out. There’s a certain sense of accomplishment attached to finding your own way while drinking in the nature of the game world, as your role as the player character is more dependent on your own intuition than usual. While the only thing you may need to do in some games in order to incapacitate a group of ten enemies is to mash square, finding your way through a vast and unfamiliar landscape is entirely dependent on your own sense of navigation.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

A little bit more on The Master and Margarita

So just after I finished realizing that I had nothing coherent to say about The Master and Margarita, I stumble upon this absolutely wonderful essay by Viv Grokop, from The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Got You Down? Time to Read The Master and Margarita:

While The Master and Margarita is a hugely complex novel, with its quasi-religious themes and its biting critique of the Soviet system, above all it’s a big fat lesson in optimism through laughs. If you can’t see the funny side of your predicament, then what is the point of anything? Bulgakov loves to make fun of everyone and everything. “There’s only one way a man can walk round Moscow in his underwear—when he’s being escorted by the police on the way to a police station!” (This is when Ivan Bezdomny appears, half naked, at the writers’ restaurant to tell them a strange character has come to Moscow and murdered their colleague.) “I’d rather be a tram conductor and there’s no job worse than that.” (The giant cat talking rubbish at Satan’s ball.) “The only thing that can save a mortally wounded cat is a drink of paraffin.” (More cat gibberish.)

The final joke of the book is that maybe Satan is not the bad guy after all. While I was trying to recover my sense of humor about being Polish and Jewish instead of being Russian, this was all a great comfort. Life is, in Bulgakov’s eyes, a great cosmic joke. Of course, there’s a political message here, too. But Bulgakov delivers it with such gusto and playfulness that you never feel preached at.

It's a great essay.

Perhaps I should read her entire book!

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Master and Margarita: a very short review

Well, here I go again: I finally got around to reading Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.

Of course, this is one of the great works of 20th Century literature, not just Russian Literature but any literature.

And yet.

I'm not really sure how I feel about reading The Master and Margarita. I really enjoyed reading it; it's quite the romp!

And I realized, as I was reading it, that I was reading An Important Book Of Great Import.

But the whole experience was rather like reading Alice in Wonderland, another work of great literature which is just completely bizarre and strange.

Here's the short explanation of The Master and Margarita: it's set about 100 years ago, just as the Tsarist Era in Russia is ending, and the Stalinist period is beginning.

And the plot is: the Devil has decided to make a visit to Moscow.

There are lots of crazy bizarre discussions among lots of crazy bizarre characters.

And the whole thing is very entertaining.

But it's also the sort of book that comes with a 60-page section of notes, detailing and explaining the historical, political, religious, and literary references with which the book is packed.

Kind of like reading The Annotated Alice.

I sort of went back and forth: I would just read the book itself for a while, and then I'd go and read a bunch of the notes, to try to figure out why I was reading what I was reading and what it all meant.

I'm happy I read the book.

But I'm exhausted, too.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Up, up, and away (of another sort)

Probably you didn't see this story, or if you saw it, you probably didn't pay much attention: A National Park Is Airlifting Hundreds of Mountain Goats That Have Gone Crazy for Human Pee

Successfully captured goats are blindfolded, tagged, and fitted with GPS collars. Once loaded into crates, they’re transported in pairs to nine release sites throughout Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, and on land owned by Seattle Public Utilities.

“The plan is to reach a zero population level of mountain goats in the park and adjacent Olympic National Forest lands…[removing] approximately 90 percent of the projected 2018 mountain goat population, or approximately 625 to 675 mountain goats,” the plan states.

I almost didn't notice the story, myself.

But, I did.

And, there's a story behind that.

You see, I've been paying a certain amount of attention to the goats in Olympic National Park.

Because, it turns out, I have a distant, but rather vivid, bond with another story about goats, and Olympic National Park: Mountain goat kills man in Olympic National Park

Boardman, 63, died after trying to shoo away a mountain goat at the top of Klahhane Ridge, about four miles north of the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, National Park Service officials said Sunday.

He is believed to be the first person to have died in an incident involving an animal in the park, spokeswoman Barb Maynes said. Rangers found and killed the animal, which was to be taken to Monroe for a necropsy, she said.

Accounts of the incident are murky.

Bob Boardman, let it be known, was one of my summer camp counselors, long, long ago, when I was just a wee 'un.

He taught me to play the dulcimer.

He taught me a lot of other stuff.

He was a remarkably Good Man.

It's a bit odd, to me, that I (once) knew the first man to have died in a Mountain Goat incident in an American National Park.

So, the story stuck with me.

It turned out to be a remarkably complex story, too ("Accounts of the incident are murky"): Court rejects claim over goring in Olympic National Park

In the lead opinion Monday, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain reasoned that park officials had discretion in deciding how to handle the problem goat.

But the other judge in the majority, Marsha Berzon, wrote that while she was bound by 9th Circuit precedent, she agreed with dissenting Judge Andrew Kleinfeld that “our jurisprudence in this area has gone off the rails” and needs to be reconsidered.

Bob Boardman didn't set out, that day, to force a decision on the potential liability of civil servants who exercise discretion.

He just was taking his wife and his friend for a walk in the park.

And there, unfortunately, was a 370 pound Mountain Goat which had become habituated to the chemical secretions of Homo Sapiens.

And tragedy resulted.

And now, helicopters are relocating Oreamnos americanus elsewhere.

In the big scheme of things, it's nothing special.

But to me, well ...

Fare thee well, Bob Boardman: good friend to a young and impressionable lad.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Up, up, and away

For now, at least, Fremont Street is closed, First Street is semi-closed, the terminal is closed, and the investigations are underway.

The shoring system looks like a bunch of giant car jackstands; you can see some clear pictures of the equipment here: Further Shoring Work at Transbay Transit Center Prompts More Street Closures

First Street between Howard and Mission streets will close at 9 p.m. over the next few days as crews work to reinforce the bus deck above. The stretch of street will reopen at 5 a.m. on each of the following days.

No cracks were found in steel beams above First Street but two cracks were found in steel beams on the bus deck above Fremont Street on Sept. 25, prompting the immediate closure of the transit center and Fremont Street.

Mark Zabaneh, executive director of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority said in a statement, “Because Fremont and First streets are similarly designed, to be prudent, we have decided to reinforce First Street as a proactive measure.

Some of the damaged material has to be removed, in order to figure out the details of the damage, before a repair plan can even be formed: Plans revealed for testing cracks in steel beams at Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco

The beams have been in place since January of 2016, fire proofing material was installed in June of 2016. TJPA says they know the cracks happened sometime after that, they just don't know when.

"As dire as the situation is it's a blessing that we're able to catch it," said Zabaneh.

During a presentation Tuesday to the TJPA board officials outlined the calendar to get the building re-opened.

Jacks will be replaced by a temporary shoring system to relieve the stress on the cracked beams. Once that's in place, Fremont Street will be re-opened; the goal by next Friday.

"At that point in time we'll be able to take a sample of the steel girder, take it to a lab and do various tests," said Zabaneh.

Those tests which will take approximately two weeks will help determine what caused the cracks. A critical piece of information not just for curiosity's sake but because the cause will dictate the fix. There will be peer reviews both before and after the permanent fix is installed.

People of course continue to argue about that most human of complaints: who pays? ne of few certainties with Transbay center: Repair costs covered by warranty

The cost of repairing the Transbay Transit Center, a task that is likely to take weeks and cost millions, will be covered by warranty, officials confirmed Wednesday.

The general contractor or its subcontractors are responsible for repairing any construction flaws, not the center’s operator, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

In the meantime?

Well, this has been Fleet Week, and it's also Hardly Strictly Bluegrass weekend, and the weather is absolutely wonderful.

And, as they say, life goes on.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Kairos Power

I somehow wasn't paying enough attention, and hadn't noticed this new arrival: Kairos Power moves headquarters to Alameda Point hangar

Kairos Power, a fast-growing East Bay company, is moving its headquarters from Oakland’s waterfront area to Alameda Point, agreeing to lease an old hangar.

The nuclear energy technology company agreed to lease 56,000 square feet at Alameda Point, the site of the shuttered former Alameda Naval Air Station.

Kairos Power will move into West Tower 9, a one-time hangar and manufacturing building constructed in the 1940s. The lease was arranged through Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial realty firm.

The building is undergoing a complete renovation ahead of the Kairos move into the old hangar.

The new building is to be both headquarters and laboratory: Nuclear Research Coming to Alameda

Kairos Power will be moving its headquarters from Oakland to this building. Kairos will occupy half the floor space that will include a newly built second floor being added by srmErnst to the interior. The research-and-development work will be done in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)

Kairos Power has apparently been underway here in the East Bay for several years, somewhat quietly: Kairos Power Is Hiring For Hybrid Natural Gas-Nuclear Power System

Their technology is a system whose major components and integration modeling has been under development for several years. The research, conducted mainly at the University of California, Berkely (UCB) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has led the developers to believe that a hybrid system that uses both nuclear fission heat and natural gas heat can be a clean, competitive source of dependable, flexible power.

The privately-held company's founders recognize that too much exposure too early can result in inflated expectations. They are experienced enough to know that nothing moves very fast in the energy industry, especially in the nuclear segment of the industry.

They have a nice, if brief, web site: Kairos Power: The Future of Nuclear Power The About Us page makes an interesting observation:

Kairos Power has identified a unique moment in our energy landscape. The unprecedented growth in natural gas generation, initiated around 2000, will begin retiring in the next two decades. Kairos Power’s highly efficient and flexible reactor technology, through its baseload and peaking operation, is uniquely suited to replace U.S. natural gas capacity while accommodating the expansion of intermittent renewable sources. Growing from a broad research effort at U.S. universities and national laboratories, Kairos Power was founded to accelerate the development of an innovative nuclear technology that has the potential to transform the energy landscape in the United States.

It's all part of the ongoing transformation of the Alameda Naval Air Station, a decades-long effort that is nicely summarized here: Urbanizing a Former Naval Air Station in San Francisco Bay

Over 556 acres (225 ha) of land remains to be redeveloped on Alameda Point west of Main Street. The city has divided that land into four subareas: a waterfront town center neighborhood surrounding the southern seaplane lagoon; a Main Street neighborhood for a mixture of housing types with supportive services; an adaptive use subarea that contains over 2 million square feet (186,000 sq m) of existing buildings; and an enterprise subarea for research, industrial, and office development.

I'm a little surprised there hasn't been more discussion and controversy around the notion of nuclear power research here in town.

On the other hand, I'm a pretty big fan of research, and I'm not sure I can see the downside of having a bunch of PhD's out on the old Navy Base thinking about how to make safe and effective power sources for the future.

I'll keep my eyes open for more news as it develops, but in the meantime: welcome, Kairos Power!

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Up, up, and away


Transbay Transit Center shut down after broken steel beam discovered

The $2.2 billion Transbay Transit Center, which opened in August, has been shut down by officials after a crack was discovered in one of the beams in the ceiling of the third level bus deck.

“Crews today discovered a fissure in one of the steel beams in the ceiling of the third level Bus Deck on the eastern side of the Salesforce Transit Center near Fremont Street,” read a statement from the Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

All transit inside the terminal, including Muni, Golden Gate Transi, and AC Transit, will temporarily move to the old temporary terminal on the block bounded by Folsom, Howard, Beale, and Main Streets.


“While this appears to be a localized issue and we have no information that suggests it is widespread, it is our duty to confirm this before we allow public access to the facility.”

The "ceiling of the third-level Bus Deck," by the way, is perhaps more accurately understood as: THE FLOOR OF THE ROOFTOP PARK.

When we first moved here, 30 years ago last month, one of the things I was fascinated by was the Kaiser Center Garage Rooftop Park:

The garden opened in 1960 as the first “true” post-World War II rooftop garden in the United States. The garden’s hardscape incorporated materials such as aluminum and cement made by Kaiser Industries for many of its large-scale projects around the world.

Ah, yes: the "hardscape."

It was apparently a pioneer in the entire concept of rooftop parks:

The primary challenges in developing the garden were drainage and weight. Drainage is provided across the sloped roof, through the use of downspouts which run through the 5 stories of parking spaces to a storm sewer in the basement. The heavy loads of mature trees were placed directly over support columns running through the garage. All of the trees chosen (olive, holly oak, japanese maple, and southern magnolia) have fibrous root systems, which I suppose makes them well suited for a shallower planting.

The Library of Congress may have more information, as part of the: Historic American Buildings Survey.

The Kaiser Center Roof Garden remains one of the nicest parts of downtown Oakland.

Let's hope that the Transbay Transit Center becomes a Historic American Building for a good reason, like the Kaiser Center Roof Garden, and not for a "shut it down! the steel is cracking! get out now!" reason...

Yes? Please?

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Deconstructing the kneel

I absolutely love this pair of essays by the Washington Post's Elizabeth Bruenig: All Colin Kaepernick ever did was ask and The NFL’s Capitalist Anthem Policy.

there’s something more, something wider and stranger, at the root of all this fury over a few athletes quietly kneeling during their country’s anthem. For one, there’s the straightforward fact that kneeling isn’t a sign of disrespect, and nobody brought up in a country with the faintest hint of Christian culture actually thinks it is. As Luke Bretherton, a professor of theological ethics at Duke University, wrote last year in The Post: “New Testament stories describe people who kneel before Jesus in supplication or lament. With their kneeling, these biblical figures say: Something is desperately wrong, please hear us and use your power to help us. Their act of submission signals their faith that healing will come and their prayers will be answered.”


it has to do with the fact that liberalism sort of makes no bones about its contempt for the weak. Simply stating: I’m subjugated, I don’t like it, you’re doing it, and I want you to stop, is met with all kinds of fury because it’s seen as an abdication of agency, which liberal capitalism equates with personhood. This is the weird, loopy way in which those at the bottom of the liberal capitalist hierarchy wind up not only blamed but hated for the situation they’re in.

This is complicated stuff, but I think Bruenig has crystalized it in a beautiful and powerful way.

Up, up, and away

My son, bless his heart, warns me to exercise caution on my lunchtime walks: SF Transit Center park — open barely a month and path already falling apart

already the visitor walkway that encircles the rooftop park is crumbling.

“No one is happy about it,” Transbay center spokeswoman Christine Falvey said.

Dozens of spots along the half-mile path have become the walking equivalent of potholes.

Okay, I don't know if that really counts as "falling apart", but hey, headline writers, don't ya know.

The walkway — which affords visitors panoramic views of the surrounding city streets as well as access to the various attractions and botanical displays at the 5.4-acre park — is made of decomposed granite rather than asphalt.

And while permeable, decomposed granite pathways have been used successfully in parks around the country, the mix here has failed to hold up even under normal foot traffic.

Here's a good resource for learning about permeable decomposed granite: Using Decomposed Granite as a Garden Paver.

Whenever gardeners talk about "decomposition", I usually think first of fertilizer, not of pathways. Gotta expand my horizons...


A long-term fix has yet to be worked out.

“They don’t know what the problem is right now,” Falvey said.

The good news is that the walkway is under warranty.

Wait, what?

The walkway is under warranty?

Wow, there's a LOT I don't know about building multi-billion dollar downtown transit centers.

I'll try to find time to go take a spin around the pathway sometime in the next few days, and I'll let you know about my hands-on inspection...

The Navigator of New York: a very short review

Is polar exploration a metaphor? This is, among other things, a question that is posed by Wayne Johnston's The Navigator of New York.

I'm a sucker for books about the Great North, an appetite that is often easily fed by hand-me-downs from my parents, who have a particular fondness for Canadian writers.

So I've wandered through a number of such books in recent years, such as The North Water and The Orenda.

The Navigator of New York is certainly a worthy entrant in whatever category this is, although in the end I found I didn't quite know what to do with it. It's historical fiction, re-telling the bizarre-but-intriguing story of the controversy around Robert Peary and Frederick Cook and who discovered the North Pole first.

Part of the problem is that I don't really care who discovered the North Pole first.

Part of the problem is that both Peary and Cook were, apparently, jerks; certainly they are both quite unappealing in The Navigator of New York

There are some very appealing parts of The Navigator of New York, most particularly the early parts of the book, when our "hero", Devlin Stead, is talking about his early life in St. John's Newfoundland.

We lived on the edge of civilization. North of St. John's there were settlements with names, but you could not call them towns. St John's was on the edge of a frontier that had not changed since it was fixed four hundred years ago. I imagined what it looked like from the sea, the last light on the coast as you went north, the last one worth investigating anyway. The forest behind the outlying houses was as dense as the forest in the core. In the woods between neighbourhoods, men set snares for rabbits, hunted birds with rifles within a hundred feet of schoolyards. Not outside the city but at some impossible-to-pinpoint place inside it, civilization left off and wilderness began.

But all too soon, via a plot device that is perhaps crucial but which I found tremendously distracting, Devlin is gone from St. John's, off on a voyage of exploration of his own, to New York City, where he tries to understand how he came to arise from that tremendous melting pot of American growth.

Looking out around the barrier, I saw that steerage passengers were disembarking over several gangplanks onto ferries that bore the name of Ellis Island. Some passengers, who seemed to think that they were being turned away from America, tried to resist, sobbing and protesting as they were dragged along by implacable officials who, I guessed, were well used to such behavior.

I knew that you could be refused admittance to America at Ellis Island if you showed signs of mental instability, an X scrawled in chalk on your shoulder or your back. My mother, had she travelled to America in steerage, might not have been admitted.

But, at odds with the book's title, The Navigator of New York has only a passing interest with New York, and even less of an interest with Newfoundland; it is all about polar exploration, and so we're off, for many hundreds of pages, to Greenland, to Ellesmere Island, to Baffin Bay, and to points beyond.

I guess it's all very well and good if you're really interested in polar exploration, and find it a hoot to imagine an alternate telling of the Peary/Cook story in which Cook is the character of most interest.

Or perhaps it is, as I suggested initially, a metaphor of some sort? (Though what sort of metaphor, I'm not sure. Something Oedipaen, perhaps?)

I can't say the The Navigator of New York is a bad book, but I sure found it odd.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow: a very short review

So it came to be that Amor Towles's A Gentleman in Moscow was sitting on my bedside table, and of course I read it.

What a surprise this book is; what an unexpected experience it is to read A Gentleman in Moscow in 2018!

In all the shrill discord of recent times, it's as though you came home, collapsed onto the couch, picked up the (electronic, nowadays) newspaper, and, instead of reading one vehement and bitter article after another about wars, ecological calamities, and disputes over taxes, religion, and culture, you instead found yourself peacefully at home with something that might have been written by Jane Austen or Henry James.

But, more striking still, as you work your way through A Gentleman in Moscow, what you realize is that this elegant story, full of grace, dignity, and charm, is told against a backdrop as tumultuous, dramatic, and violent as any we are currently experiencing: the Russian Revolution and the creation of the USSR that started in 1917 and continued through the early 1920's.

I'm sure you know the broad strokes of this overall story, whether you learned it in high school, or made your way through Ten Days that Shook the World, or Doctor Zhivago, or Reds.

But you never saw those events from this perspective, I can assure you!

A Gentleman in Moscow tells the story of Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat ("recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt ... born in St. Petersburg, 24 October 1889") from Nizhny Novgorod, who finds himself tried and found guilty by the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, and is thereby declared a Former Person:

In Russian language and culture, "former people" (Russian: Бывшие люди) are people who lost their social status, an expression somewhat similar to the English one, "has-beens". The expression went into a wide circulation in the Russian Empire after the 1897 short story of Maxim Gorky, Бывшие люди, translated in English as Creatures That Once Were Men, about people fallen from prosperity into an abyss of misery. After the October Revolution the expression referred to people who lost their social status after the revolution: aristocracy, imperial military, bureaucracy, clergy, etc.

In the particular case of Count Rostov, he finds himself sentenced to a sort of eternal confinement to his quarters in the Metropol Hotel.

That may not sound like a promising tableau on which to write a 500 page epic of a novel, but Towles rises to the task, and then above it. A Gentleman in Moscow is full of adventure, romance, heartbreak, mystery, drama, and everything you could possibly want, all of it told in the most elegant and refined manner possible.

As we go, we find ourselves, ever so gently, understanding how it is that Things Change:

Not long ago, the Count recalled, there had been three seamstresses at work in this room, each before an American-made sewing machine. Like the three Fates, together they had spun and measured and cut -- taking in gowns, raising hems, and letting out pants with all of the fateful implications of their predecessors. In the aftermath of the Revolution, all three had been discharged; the silenced sewing machines had, presumably, become the property of the People; and the room? It had been idled like Fatima's flower shop. For those had not been years for the taking in of gowns or the raising of hems any more than they had been for the throwing of bouquets or the sporting of boutonnieres.

Then in 1921, confronted with a backlog of fraying sheets, tattered curtains, and torn napkins -- which no one had any intention of replacing -- the hotel had promoted Marina, and once again a trustworthy seam was being sewn within the walls of the hotel.

"Ah, Marina," said the Count when she opened the door with needle and thread in hand. "How good to find you stitching away in the stitching room."

Marina looked at the Count with a touch of suspicion.

"What else would I be doing?"

"Quite so," said the Count.

Along the way, we have plenty of the Essays of Montaigne, plenty of Casablanca, plenty of fine wine, plenty of Mayakovsky, and plenty of Dzerzhinsky Street.

It's all marvelous, beautiful, heart-felt, and grand: I guarantee you this is far and away the most fun you will ever have reading about a man in a hotel.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Up, up, and away

Well, this is not the sort of news you want to see when you return to work after a long weekend: New Crack in San Francisco's Tilting Millennium Tower:

Residents started hearing creaking sounds followed by a loud popping noise at 2:30 a.m. Saturday. Soon afterward, one owner found the crack in his window in a 36th floor unit in the north western corner of the 58-story high-rise.

And that's definitely not the picture of your own office building that you want to see, through the broken window of the tilting skyscraper.


Meanwhile, in other news ... did I mention that the new bus terminal is open?

  • A Grand New Space for the San Francisco Bay Area
    Behind the curvature of a pearlescent lace-like awning, this brand new multi-story San Francisco landmark transforms a commuter hub into an urban destination. With interiors open to the light, it’s a sociable, open space for people to gather, topped by a leafy park where the sky is the roof.
  • Another Landmark in Benioff’s Blue: the Salesforce Transit Center in San Fransisco opens its doors!
    San Francisco Mayor London Breed said: “Our city is growing with both jobs and people, and we need to do a better job of moving everyone around this region, and this transit center will do just that. The transit center goes far beyond a transportation hub. It’s a thriving place of economic opportunity,”
  • If You Build It, Will They Sponsor?
    It has long been the status quo in the U.S. for nonprofit and public institutions to depend on private largesse, from Carnegie libraries to museum wings named for various philanthropists. Corporate naming rights are a slightly more recent phenomenon but have thrived in an era of record corporate profits, unparalleled personal wealth, and public-sector retrenchment.
  • Salesforce Park - Salesforce Transit Center
    Seventy feet above the Grand Hall, the Park runs the entire length of the Transit Center’s nearly four-block stretch. Home to 600 trees and 16,000 plants arranged in 13 different botanical feature areas, the newest public park in the San Francisco Bay Area is for the benefit and enjoyment of all...and there’s nothing else like it anywhere.

I confess to a certain amount of bias, but: the park is really nice.

My colleague, a passionate runner, told me that he's changed his routine to start coming in a bit earlier for a morning run around the park, early early, when it's not busy.

Normally, he runs along the city waterfront, with a view across toward Alcratraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge.

So it's a definite statement that he enjoys running in the park.

And, man oh man, that bus fountain is awesome!

Just in time for September and October, the nicest two months of the year in the city.

Now, please: just fix the tilting tower already!