Saturday, July 28, 2018

Broken Harbor: a very short review

The fourth volume of Tana French's brilliant Dublin Murder Squad series is Broken Harbor.

By this point, French has established a bit of a pattern, and Broken Harbor definitely fits it: a troubled detective, a troubling and complex investigation, a young partner with their own challenges, and a litany of fascinating other characters who wander in and out.

And through it all, French's amazing, almost effortless control of description, dialogue, and pace:

She had her hands wrapped around the mug again, tilting it in circles and watching the tea swirl. The smell of it was doing its job, making this alien place feel homey and safe. "Actually, it probably stopped working a long time before that. You can see it in the photos: we stop being jigsawed together like in that one there, instead we're just these elbows and knees stuck out at each other, all awkward ... We just didn't want to see it. Pat especially. The less it worked, the harder he tried. We'd be sitting on the pier or somewhere, and Pat'd be spread out till he was practically stretching, trying to keep close to all of us, make it feel like one big gang again."

With French, an ordinary paragraph from an interrogation room has it all: alliteration ("had her hands", "all awkward"), rhyme ("pier or somewhere"), sensory imagery (the touch of the mug, the taste and smell of the tea, the pictures), metaphor (the interrogation swirls like the tea in the cup), and the turn of phrase ("this alien place", "jigsawed ... elbows and knees").

Strikingly to me, with Broken Harbor French is more explicitly topical than in her previous books, dealing directly and bluntly with the consequences of the real estate collapse of 2008 and its consequences for Ireland. Broken Harbor was written in 2013, a time when I happened to be traveling in Ireland (though not in Dublin), and I saw for myself how dreadful it was.

I think French perhaps overtops it a bit with her plot: elements of it strain credibility to the limit. But, as is a recurring theme for her, Broken Harbor is deeply concerned with issues of mental health, and there can be no doubt that the Great Recession of 2008 dealt a several mental health blow to everyone who came into contact with it, even in the slightest of ways.

So I'll grant her a bit of dispensation on the farthest of the plot stretches, and content myself with another fine work of art.

How Not To Be Wrong: a very short review

I'm a sucker for popular mathematics books.

Especially good ones.

Jordan Ellenberg's How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking is a good popular mathematics book.

Although the book is wide-ranging, with many interesting topics, two particularly stand out to me.

The first is the strong treatment of the notion of "statistically significant." Ellenberg explores this notion in a number of ways, looking at ways in which it is used (correctly and incorrectly), what it means to say something is statistically significant, rigorously, and even looks at the historical background of statistical significance, tracing it back to John Arbuthnot in the late 17th century.

The second, much more entertaining if maybe not as practically useful, is Ellenberg's detailed and fascinating exploration of modern state lotteries, and how they fail. In particular, he looks at the flawed Cash WinFall lottery that was held in Massachusetts in the early 2000's, and how various parties (university students, actuaries, lottery hobbyists, etc.) found errors in the lottery rules that enabled players to profit from the lottery if they did things just right. The mathematical underpinnings here involve the notion of "expected value," and Ellenberg's treatment is extremely interesting.

If you like popular mathematics, you'll enjoy How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Thursday, July 26, 2018

There is no need for you to replicate this experiment...

... but I can report to you that,

  • if you have a Mac (in my case, running 10.13.6 "High Sierra")
  • and you happen to write some buggy software
  • which very very very rapidly fills up your entire hard disk
  • and, I mean, FILLS, to the point where it is totally 100% full
  • then even though your terminal windows are still open, and the program has died, and you know where all those files are, if you try to remove the files you get rm: no space left on device
  • even if you run the command as root

This might throw you for a loop. Your disk is full, nothing works, and you can't even remove any of the files!

It might even be scary, and you might not be able to decide what you ought to do.

Well, just hard power-cycle the machine, so that it goes through a full system restart.

Something during the system restart process manages to release JUST ENOUGH of the allocated disk space, somehow, so that after the reboot you are able to remove those files.

And you can continue to use your computer.

Where we come from

This is beautiful, as well as illuminating: 200 Years of U.S. Immigration Looks Like the Rings of a Tree

Like countries, trees can be hundreds, even thousands, of years old. Cells grow slowly, and the pattern of growth influences the shape of the trunk. Just as these cells leave an informational mark in the tree, so too do incoming immigrants contribute to the country’s shape.

These immigration “rings” expand during years when certain welcoming factors are prevalent, such as when American immigration policies become less restrictive and its economy offers greater opportunity. The “rings” tend to stay slim during years of war or economic upheaval.

Click the link for the beautiful infographic.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Telex From Cuba: two very short reviews

It's been six weeks now since I raced through Junot Diaz's vivid barely-fictionalized fever-dream of his childhood, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

And all these recent weeks, it's been sitting on my desk right in front of me, staring at me, challenging me to decide how I feel.

Why is this so hard? Well, of course, because of this, and this, and of course because of the bigger context in which those events reside.

About those big, hard, complicated topics, I have nothing new or interesting to say.

But that doesn't mean I don't think they are tremendously important.

And, meanwhile, there, on the shelf, sits Oscar Wao. And, so, how am I to feel?

As a book, as a work of art, as an accomplishment, Oscar Wao is everything everyone has said about it over the last decade: it's powerful, it's compelling, it's brilliantly-executed. It sears its way into your brain.

But clearly it stands differently in the context of 2018 than it did in the context of 2008.

I'm overjoyed that I read it, it was lingering on my list for far too long.

But I don't know how rapidly I'll go seek out Diaz's other works. I'll have to think on that.

Meanwhile, Rachael Kushner is absolutely the writer of the moment, with her latest book being the only thing anyone could talk about this spring. With her substantial East Bay heritage, her books had been on my radar for a while, but I hadn't, somehow, made a start. I decided to start at the beginning, with Telex from Cuba: A Novel.

It's so easy to see Oscar Wao and Telex From Cuba through the same prism, given that they are both fictionalized depictions of what it was like to be a child in a poor Caribbean country in the mid-20th century, whether that be Dominican Republic under Trujillo or Cuba under Batista.

And these are both superbly-crafted books.

Telex From Cuba, though it won many fewer awards (was it unjustly penalized by arriving just a few months after Diaz's wonder-work had swept the world away?), is, I think, the stronger work, and may find a more enduring audience.

It is more delicate, more subtle, more patient. Where Oscar Wao shakes you by the shoulders and says: "Wake up! Pay attention! This is important!", Telex crawls slowly into your consciousness, bit by bit.

And Telex From Cuba doesn't dilute its focus by jumping back and forth between the Caribbean experience and the Caribbean immigrant experience, as Oscar Wao does.

Is it more problematic, less "authentic", that Kushner is Anglo and American (it was her mother that was the Everly Lederer character in Telex, recalling her experiences as a child of an American manager of the United Fruit Company in Cuba), whereas Diaz is Dominican through and through? Perhaps.

If you want to, and can, read both books.

If, for whatever reason, you can only read one, read Telex From Cuba.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Complexities of modern world noted

Today: Nonprofit for Migrants Declines a Donation from Salesforce

On Monday, Ryan asked Salesforce to cancel its CBP contract. On Tuesday, the company told RAICES that it would not cancel the contract but understood the group’s position.

In his email, Ryan called Salesforce’s response to employee concerns a deflection. “When it comes to supporting oppressive, inhumane, and illegal policies, we want to be clear: the only right action is to stop,” he wrote. “The software and technical services you provide to CBP form part of the foundation that helps ICE operate efficiently, from recruiting more officers to managing vendors. While you justified continuing your contract with CBP by claiming that Salesforce software ‘isn’t working with CBP regarding the separation of families at the border,’ this is not enough.”

Also today: Zuckerberg Looks To 'Clear Up' Stance On Facebook, Fake News And The Holocaust

"I'm Jewish, and there's a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened," he said.

"I find that deeply offensive," Zuckerberg continued. "But at the end of the day, I don't believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don't think that they're intentionally getting it wrong, but I think ..."

Swisher interrupted to say, "In the case of the Holocaust deniers, they might be, but go ahead."

Seeming to view the question as primarily one of free speech, the Facebook founder said, "I just don't think that it is the right thing to say, 'We're going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.' " Zuckerberg said that rather than taking down a fake news or conspiracy post or barring the user, the company would seek to minimize it.


"Our goal with fake news is not to prevent anyone from saying something untrue — but to stop fake news and misinformation spreading across our services," Zuckerberg said. "If something is spreading and is rated false by fact checkers, it would lose the vast majority of its distribution in News Feed."

One year ago: The Moral Voice of Corporate America

for the most part, companies got political only under duress. Rarely have chief executives gone looking for a controversy. Instead, the prevailing view was one articulated by the economist Milton Friedman in The New York Times in 1970: “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”

By the 1990s, some corporate actors began taking the initiative. Apple, Disney and Xerox extended health care benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees, helping to pave the way for broader acceptance of gay rights. Still, promoting inclusion and advancing diversity were hardly part of the curriculum for emerging titans of industry.

“When I went to business school, you didn’t see anything like this,” said Marc Benioff, the founder and chief executive of Salesforce. “Nobody talked about taking a stand or adopting a cause.”

Now, Mr. Benioff is at the vanguard of a group of executives who are more connected — to customers, employees, investors and other business leaders — than ever before

Connected, ..., and experiencing that connection.

Up, up, and away!

Apparently it's still Seattle:

  • Seattle tops the nation in tower cranes for third straight year as construction reaches new peak
    new projects have broken ground while the number of developments that finished has been abnormally low, according to development data tracked by the Downtown Seattle Association.

    The area’s suburbs weren’t covered in the report, but officials in Bellevue reported 14 cranes, twice as many as its high point in 2017, as its downtown springs up with new skyscrapers and the burgeoning Spring District rises around a new light-rail station. Bellevue actually has more cranes than Boston, Phoenix or Honolulu.

    Doug Demers, managing principal of B+H Architects in Seattle, said he expects the jackhammering and concrete pouring to continue. He sees projects at their early stages, and the pipeline remains large, despite land and labor getting more expensive.

Interestingly, we were just in Seattle two weeks ago, and it didn't seem as crazy as I thought it was going to be.

But we didn't go anywhere close to South Lake Union.

Heck, I didn't even make it to The Spheres (my bad).

But I definitely noticed all the activity in Bellevue and Redmond, because we spent more time out in the Eastern 'burbs.

And our hosts noted that the nicest of those gorgeous new downtown condos are now well into the mid-7-figures.

Meanwhile, the chorus is growing, the observations are becoming sharper and clearer; just how much longer do we have? The End is Near For the Economic Boom

Frothy stocks, economic indicators pointing down, financial stability flashing red, trade war, and more—it’s a lot to worry about. It doesn’t necessarily mean calamity is just ahead. For all we know, stocks could resume rising or even “melt up,” as Grantham says. The economy may well grow impressively this year. But we don’t have to look much further out to get more nervous. No one except the Council of Economic Advisers seems to think GDP can grow at 3% over the long term, and if the recent stimulus turbocharges growth, it does so at a price that will have to be paid afterward. The economic cycle hasn’t been abolished; all evidence says we’re in the latter stages of one. And we had better be ready for the next recession, because when it arrives, economists will not have predicted it.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

WC 2018 final

What an entertaining game! 90 minutes of action, never a dull moment. Some weird things, too: fans on the pitch, goal-keeper mistakes, own goals, video-replay penalty kick.

I cannot believe how hard that Croatian team played. Outmatched from the start, they never played like it. Falling behind, they never gave up. Right down the very last minute, every single step they gave more, worked harder, over-achieved and over-achieved.

But what an astonishingly great French team this was! I may go a long time before I see another team as strong and deep as this one.

Interestingly, I thought it all changed when Kante came off for N'Zonzi. Perhaps it was Kante's yellow card, perhaps he was tired, I suspect he was hurt. Whatever it was, N'Zonzi came on and then in the span of 10 minutes it was decided. Pogba's lovely goal, followed by an equally lovely effort from Mbappe.

Vive la France! Well-earned, and well-deserved, and a most entertaining end to a most entertaining World Cup.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Talos Principle: a very short review

ICYMI, the mouse roared today, and defeated the mighty lion.

It was a joy to see my Croatian colleague as happy as I've seen him in quite some time.

Meanwhile, in other news Croat, I've been playing the lovely The Talos Principle, from the Croatian gaming studio Croteam.

I'm kind of a sucker for puzzle games.

But this is a very nice puzzle game. It's clever, clean, elegant, appealing to both the eye and ear (make sure you get the version with the nice soundtrack included), and entertaining.

As to the sci-fi part of it: well, I'm not sure how much I care about that frillery.

But it's a lovely puzzle game, and a great way to while away the hours.

Monday, July 9, 2018

WS 2018 Semifinals

We're getting down to it.

In many ways, trying to make picks isn't a lot of fun at this point. For one thing, the field contains only very strong teams, so no matter what happens, some great teams are going to lose out. For another thing, I rather like all these teams.

But, anyway:

  1. Belgium vs France

    This match is the REAL final, I think: who prevails in this match will also win on Saturday. Belgium's attacking group (Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku, Fellaini, Chadli, Witsel) are certainly as good as any cup winner in decades, and Thibaut Courtois is the goalkeeper's goalkeeper.

    But, France measure up well everywhere. Even though Belgium must be feeling quite confident after the way they dispatched Brazil, France will be the hardest test by far. If Pogba and Kante play as well as they can, France can prevail. Vive la France! If you only watch one World Cup match, make it this one! It goes to extra time, but France are able to score the decisive goal in the 97th minute.

  2. England vs Croatia

    I think that the reason that England are in the semifinals is because they have the youngest team (2nd youngest?) in the tournament. However, this is also the reason that England's tournament is about to end. Croatia showed their experience and maturity in defeating the hosts, and they will bring that same discipline and coordination and mettle to this match. The match will be long and exhausting (to watch, not only to play). By the end of the match, which will go to 120 minutes and end up with 10 vs 10 on the field, Croatia will, for the third consecutive game, prevail in the shootout, much to the dismay of the English fans who will instantly decide that the curse has returned (they should not, for this is a fine English squad and hopefully is the sign of many great things to come).

Oh, by the way, pay some attention to the referees for these matches, for you're seeing the best referees at the peak of their skill, and being a World Cup referee is a particularly interesting and unusual skill:

  1. Cüneyt Çakır
  2. Andrés Ismael Cunha Soca

I hope this means that Néstor Pitana will referee the final! (Or Björn Kuipers, too, he's great. Just not Mark Geiger.)

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Up, up, and away!

If there's a slowdown, it hasn't arrived here yet:

  • How Window Washers Almost Sunk Salesforce Tower’s Interactive Light Sculpture
    There’s a reason that most LED installations face the LEDs out—that’s easy, you just stick them on a surface. What Campbell proposed instead was really hard.

    “We had designed these rods sticking off the side of the building to hold the LED hats facing in,” Campbell says. And then “the window washers told us they would end up breaking some off every day. It took us six to 12 months to figure out what to do.”

    Campbell and his team first considered making the rods too strong to break, but realized that if they did that, a blow to a rod would end up bending the aluminum shell of the building, and that would be even worse.

  • Oakland Office Development Plan Would Rival SF Salesforce Tower
    The Eastside project would take up the entire block bordered by Telegraph, Broadway, 21st and 22nd Streets, nearly 1.6 million square feet of office space.

    “You see a lot of parking spaces around Oakland that are being developed for housing and other things. I think people are looking at it and saying, ‘We’re this close to transit.’ Transit is an issue. We think about environmental issues. It’s an ideal place to build and could be a catalyst for Oakland in terms of bringing good quality jobs.”

    Hutson notes Oakland has gone on a housing building spree, with 4,000 units under construction right now and says the ripple effect is two-fold. People can live in Oakland and stay in the city to work, avoiding the arduous commute to Silicon Valley; or they could continue to live near BART stops across the East Bay and shorten their public transit commute by getting off in downtown Oakland.

    “Given the fact that there’s so little commercial space in the Bay Area, certainly in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and certainly looking at Oakland, I think it’s a logical gamble,” said Hutson.

  • $1 Billion Alameda Point Construction Project Shifts Access
    the former Navy facilities and heavy industrial equipment are being torn down, while major infrastructure improvements are being built including new water, sewer, electrical and gas lines, newly paved streets with bike and transit lanes, and bulkhead improvements on Seaplane Lagoon for the new ferry terminal.

    The new mixed-use community will include apartments, townhomes, parks, and nearly 100,000 square feet of space for restaurants, retailers, makers, R&D, and office users.

  • Why are there suddenly so many ships on San Francisco Bay?
    The longshoremen who load and unload cargo ships had July 4 and 5 off for Independence Day, creating a bit of a backup on moving freight.

    “We have five ships at berth this morning and five due,” Bernardo said. He added that many of the ships are oil tankers and fueling vessels not headed for the port.

    So if ship-spotting is your thing, this is a good time. And it turns out a spectacular cargo ship is due to enter the bay Monday. That’s when a 1,036-foot-long, cherry blossom magenta-colored container ship is set to arrive at the Port of Oakland from Long Beach. Named the ONE Competence, the ship is the newly branded symbol of Japan’s recently consolidated container shipping lines. The ship will depart Tuesday for Hong Kong.

    The color represents a cherry blossom tree, symbol of Japanese spring, the port said, adding that ONE plans to brand more of its 240 vessels with the vibrant hue. The ONE Competence can carry more than 8,000 20-foot containers.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

WS 2018 Quarterfinals

Oh, here we are again! Time for those picks!

I seem to have done OK on my Round-of-16 picks, but that will not stand.

Partly, this is because my ambivalence is high, because, out of the 8 teams remaining, I now have to make some Very Hard Choices.

Enough whining: here we go:

  1. Uruguay vs France.

    Oh, tragedy! My favorite two teams have to play each other! Uruguay, possessors of the greatest of World Cup history, and far-and-away the hardest working team in this World Cup, have to play France, my top pick. Drat! But, did I mention that France are my top pick? Sorry, Uruguay, France prevail 3-2 in a beauty of a game, reckoned by all as the best game of this World Cup.

  2. Brazil vs Belgium.

    Again it happens! I wanted to see several more games from each of these exciting and entertaining teams. But it is not to be. Although Belgium give Brazil everything they can handle, the game is tied after 90 and Brazil score in the 107th minute to win 2-1.

  3. Sweden vs England.

    Sweden are the "winning ugly" of this World Cup, but England's victory over Colombia is uglier than anything Sweden have come up with so far in this tournament. Will I watch? Of course I will, but I'll be shielding my eyes the entire way. England somehow win, 1-0, in regular time.

  4. Russia vs Croatia.

    I knew Denmark would be a hard battle for Croatia, and frankly it's a wonder Croatia advanced. But advance they did, and are rewarded with the hosts. Russia have been batting WAY above their average in this tournament, and finally it catches up with them, as they face their complete equal in hard-nosed, disciplined play. This one is 0-0 after 90, 1-1 after 120, and Croatia move on after Kicks From The Spot


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Not rain

Around the middle of yesterday afternoon, the skies darkened.

The sunset was deep red, terrible and angry.

This morning we awoke to a coating of ash-fall all around.

It's that time of year again.