Saturday, June 29, 2019

Yes, I just keep looking at this picture

It's pretty much the perfect picture.

Few things are as abstract and complex as finance

In America, retirement support is roughly divided into two parts:

  • Pretty much everybody has access to the Social Security system, which provides basic support when you get old or if you become disabled and cannot work. Related to Social Security is Medicare, with similar goals and restrictions.
  • A substantial, but not complete, section of the population also has access to individual retirement accounts, which are intended to provide the bulk of your retirement support.

Put more briefly, retirement support is pretty much up to you.

Your primary tool for providing for your own retirement is, usually, your company's 401K plan, which gives you tax-advantaged access to investments, and can be as good or bad as your company wants it to be.

Some companies have very good 401K plans (I'm lucky enough to work at one such company), while others have pretty bad ones, frankly. Your only choices in this area are to try to encourage your company to have the best plan it can, and to consider your company's plan as part of your considerations when you choose where to work.

But then, once you have access to a company-provided 401K plan, you still have lots of work to do, as modern 401K plans are fiendishly complicated.

And they, periodically, send you notices like this:

The new investment options are collective investment trusts (CITs) or “commingled pools.” The commingled pools will offer you similar investment strategy and risk as the mutual funds they replaced, but the expenses will be lower.

Like mutual funds, a CIT combines the money of many investors who own a share of the pool and/or trust. A fund manager invests assets on behalf of all shareholders in accordance with the pool’s stated investment objectives.

Unlike a mutual fund, a CIT is available to investors only through their workplace savings plans. Because they are not publicly traded, some information (e.g., ticker symbols, CUSIP numbers, and Morningstar ratings) is not available. A CIT is not registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It is generally governed by state banking laws and by federal agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor.


Maybe you go somewhere else to learn about CITs, and you find a little bit more information:

CITs were first introduced in 1927. Early versions of CITs required investor purchases and withdrawals to be processed manually and were valued infrequently, typically only once per calendar quarter, providing investors little access to portfolio and performance data. For this reason, the early adopters of CITs were defined benefit plans.

But starting in 2000, CITs began operating in ways that many believed were more comparable to mutual funds, providing daily valuation and standardized transaction processing, which greatly increased adoption by defined contribution plans. Then, in 2006, the Pension Protection Act provided for a new default investment election for unallocated 401(k) participant assets. These Qualified Default Investment Alternatives (QDIAs) include certain types of “approved” investment strategies and may take the form of managed accounts, target risk funds and target date funds. Many target date funds—the most widely adopted QDIA—are implemented as CITs, and as their assets have grown, so have the assets of CITs generally. Recently, CIT coverage by database vendors such as Morningstar has increased as well, providing additional transparency and reporting capabilities.

CITs have become a popular alternative to mutual funds within qualified retirement plans. Since 2012, CIT use has grown by 56% within DC plans, while the usage of mutual funds has decreased1—a trend that we expect to continue.

Basically, the fact that my company's plan now offers me new investment options which have lower expenses is a Good Thing, but every time I try to learn enough about finance to understand what the heck all these notices and documents are trying to tell me, I feel overwhelmed by the abstraction and complexity of it all.

And, as a mathematician and software engineer, I'm actually pretty good with abstraction and complexity, I think.

Oh, well, on we go.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

How to spend your June vacation

You're going to be tired after your very long airplane journey.

So you should have some Hand-rolled ice cream.

Or maybe have a cool drink on the patio at Les Crepes

Or even make a day trip to Charlottesville to take in the mountain air

Then, once everything is all set up

And you've had your rehearsal

Then it'll be time to put on your fancy clothes

(Looking good!)

And attend the real ceremony

(Even if your granddaughter finds part of it a little boring)

The end of the ceremony will involve handfasting!

And everyone will be cheering!

And then it's time for the party!

Which means spending time with family

Family, new and old

Three generations!

And spending time with friends

And other traditions, such as the father-daughter dance

And the second line parasol procession

Oh, a wonderful vacation indeed

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Google have lost my old pictures, I think

It appears that, whatever Google did recently, they have discarded my old pictures that I posted on my blog.

Whatever I did to put my pictures on my blog, they went to something like:

But those images just fail now.


Live by the cloud, die by the cloud.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Some of this, some of that

The days are long and my mind wanders.

  • An update on Sunday’s service disruption
    Google’s engineering teams detected the issue within seconds, but diagnosis and correction took far longer than our target of a few minutes. Once alerted, engineering teams quickly identified the cause of the network congestion, but the same network congestion which was creating service degradation also slowed the engineering teams’ ability to restore the correct configurations, prolonging the outage. The Google teams were keenly aware that every minute which passed represented another minute of user impact, and brought on additional help to parallelize restoration efforts.
  • Our not-so-magic journey scaling low latency, multi-region services on AWS
    CQRS is seriously good. By isolating out concerns and clearly defining which use cases you want to optimise for, it becomes possible to invest the effort in the most mission-critical services without having to drag along other functionality at the same time.
  • CQRS
    The change that CQRS introduces is to split that conceptual model into separate models for update and display, which it refers to as Command and Query respectively following the vocabulary of CommandQuerySeparation. The rationale is that for many problems, particularly in more complicated domains, having the same conceptual model for commands and queries leads to a more complex model that does neither well.
  • The Labor Movement’s Newest Warriors: Grad Students
    Hannah Kim and Natalia Piland are not your typical labor organizers. Kim, 23, has a bleached mullet, and when we met at a cafe near campus last Friday, she was wearing baggy track pants and chunky dad shoes. Piland, 29, was wearing all black, other than an iridescent fanny pack. Both of them are graduate students at the University of Chicago.

    It’s the final week of classes, but the two women have not been consumed with schoolwork. Instead, they’ve been busy organizing their peers to fight for better work conditions: On Monday, many UChicago graduate students participated in a three-day walkout, refusing to teach or grade papers.

    “What is a way for graduates to actually have power and to actually be able to push what we want our work place to look like?” Piland said. “The union is the only way that seems feasible.”

    These women, both members of Graduate Students United at UChicago, are among the new faces of unionization in America. They’re organizing what were once stable, middle class professions, which have seen wages and benefits erode precisely as positions opened up to women and minority candidates.

  • Learning Chess at 40
    Denise Park, the director of research at the University of Texas’ Center for Vital Longevity, described what was happening to me in unsettling terms. “As you get older, you actually see clear degradation of the brain, even in healthy people. Your frontal cortex gets smaller, your hippocampus—the seat of the memory—shrinks.” My brain volume is atrophying annually, my cortical thickness dropping some 0.5 percent a year.

    Where my daughter’s brain was hungrily forming new neural connections, mine could probably have a used a few new ones. “You don’t want to be pruning synaptic connections, you want to be growing them,” Park told me. My daughter’s brain was trying to efficiently tame the chaos. “For older adults,” Park said, “there’s not nearly enough chaos.”

    Back at the board, there seemed to be plenty of chaos. For one, my daughter tended to gaily hum as she contemplated her moves. Strictly Verboten in a tournament setting, but I did not want to let her think it was affecting me—and it certainly wasn’t as bad as the frenetic trash talking of Washington Square Park chess hustlers. It was the sense of effortlessness that got to me. Where I would carefully ponder the board, she would sweep in with lightning moves. Where I would carefully stick to the scripts I had been taught—“a knight on the rim is dim”—she seemed to be making things up. After what seemed a particularly disastrous move, I would try to play coach for a moment, and ask: Are you sure that’s what you want to do? She would shrug. I would feel a momentary shiver of pity and frustration; “it’s not sticking,” I would think. And then she would deliver some punishing pin on the Queen, or a deft back rank attack I had somehow overlooked. When I made a move, she would often crow: “I knew you were going to do that.”

  • Open Source Game Clones
    This site tries to gather open-source remakes of great old games in one place. If you think that something is missing from the list - please go to our GitHub repository and create an issue or even a pull request!

    Since all these projects are open-source you can help them and make this world a better place. Or at least you can play something to appreciate the effort people put in them.

  • For Remote Communities In Scotland's Outer Hebrides, Mobile Libraries Are A Lifeline
    In Stornoway, the biggest town in Scotland's Outer Hebrides islands, a yellow van sits on a narrow, one-way street. The Gaelic word leabharlann is painted on the front, back and sides, with its English translation, "library," on the front and sides.

    Driver Iain Mackenzie has loaded his books in the van, organized his customers' orders and is preparing for his last run of the week on the island of Lewis and Harris. The 16-year-old van runs three days a week, covering more than 800 miles of rugged roads to deliver books to more than 800 residents.

  • Strawberry farmers open homes for country's sole village of books
    Until recently, the village, just a few kilometres from the picturesque hill stations of Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani, was known for growing the best strawberries in the country. Now, it is a unique ‘village of books’ with 25 villagers having given up a part of their homes to set up open libraries.

    The idea was inspired by the Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye, which is informally known as the ‘town of books’, and has scores of second-hand and antiquarian bookstores. But the Maharashtra government has made the concept their own and expanded its scope. Its Marathi language department’s experts meticulously put together a collection of over 30,000 books organised under various genres. These were then distributed among the home libraries, as well as public places like temples and schools. Each home is allotted books pertaining to one genre and identified with street signs and wall paintings.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Wonder Valley: a very short review

Reading Ivy Pochoda's Wonder Valley is like ..., is like ..., is like what?

It's like being at a neighborhood 4th of July block party on a hot sweltering night, and somebody hands you a string of firecrackers and you look down at them and you see that they're already lit, and you realize: this is utterly fascinating, but I think it's about to blow up in my hands!

Wonder Valley is so startling, so vivid, so hard-core, that it may have been a long time since you read a book like this.

I found it to be simultaneously hilarious and heart-breaking, glorious and tragic all at once.

Pochoda's work reminds me of the best of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard in so many ways: larger than life characters, mixtures of all walks of life, gritty realism, and a marvelous sense of place.

Wonder Valley's main action centers around a varied cast of characters (desert rats, hippies, street preachers, entertainment executives suffering mid-life crises, failed college athletes, ex-cons, loners on the run) who end up in and around a cult compound in the Southern California desert, and then follows the light trails of these sparkling souls as they bounce around the Southern California scene following the events at the compound, illuminating the past in a blistering 48 hours of non-stop action.

What really makes the book work is that Pochoda totally groks desert rats.

Britt had met Cassidy and Gideon that morning at the Joshua Tree farmers' market where they were selling chickens inexpertly sealed in plastic. While they rambled on about the beauty of the soul and the health of the spirit to their customers, the birds' blood leaked over their forearms, running down their lariats and beads.

They were both the sort of dirty tan that comes from too much time in the desert, like the sand had worked its way into their skin. Their hair was long, dreaded in places with beads that often vanished in the tangled mess. Cassidy wore two necklaces -- one with a large feather, the other with a tooth. Gideon had a bird claw on a leather braid. Life is beautiful even in death, he'd said when he caught Britt looking at it.

And, later, as others arrive:

They drove north. The road rose and fell. The little cabins were spread out at almost regular intervals just out of sight of one another. Some had been duded up, fenced in and expanded, turned into compounds with jury-rigged satellites and dirt yards filled with old pickups and rusted trailers. But many sat empty, their windows boarded up or missing.

"Would you look at that?" Sam said as they passed a cinder-block cabin, its doors and windows gaping holes.

"Yeah," Blake said, "I'm looking."

There was nothing special about the jackrabbit homestead the Samoan settled on except that it was unremarkable -- a pale cinder-block structure with plywood for windows and a rusted chain-link fence. The interior was a single room with a battered mattress and a good-for-nothing bed frame. A black-and-white TV lay on its side, the screen spidered, the rabbit ears bent in on themselves.

I love "jackrabbit homestead," and I really love the way Pochoda quietly ties it together with the "rabbit ears" of the old television. Somehow I had never heard the phrase "jackrabbit homestead" before, but of course it's well-known: Jackrabbit Homestead: Artists, Off-Roaders, and the American Dream Writ Miniature:

One of the many land acts designed to dispose of "useless" federal lands from the public domain, the Small Tract Act authorized the lease of up to five acres of public land for recreational purpose or use as a home, cabin, camp, health convalescent, or business site to able-bodied U.S. citizens. If the applicant made the necessary improvements to his or her claim by constructing a small dwelling within three years of the lease, the applicant could file for a patent--the federal government's form of a deed--after purchasing the parcel for the appraised price (on average $10 to $20 an acre) at the regional land office. This highly popular mid-century homestead movement reflects the quintessential American desire to claim territory and own a piece of the land even if the property in question is virtually "worthless" from an economic perspective.

(Oh, man, check out the pictures at that link!)

But back to Wonder Valley. Marvelous though its sense of place is, Wonder Valley is mostly interested in how people become to be who they are, and how they decide where they want to be, and, above all, how one thing sometimes just leads to another:

It was a maddening tangle, a complex and horrifying puzzle, figuring out when she had first put her foot wrong, and which foot, and where. And how that led to all the things that put her in that car with Andy and that car rolling down the ravine and killing him or hurting him or nothing at all. Because there must have been a first error, something that set the whole disaster in motion.

You can find this moment in every blown match, that split-second what-if that might have sent the ship sailing in the right direction -- the return that didn't sail long, the second serve that clipped the line, the volley that skimmed the net, the look you didn't give your coach, the cheer from the stands you ignored. All of it discoverable, each wrong decision easily pinpointed, addressed, advised against on the next go-round. If you hadn't done that, you would have avoided the entire landslide. The descent into chaos. So it had to be there, that initial mistake.

Or, really, is that how it works? Is life just like training for your tennis match (Pochoda's bio lists her background as "a former professional squash player," surely not a common avenue to Next Great Novelist)?

I think not, and I think Pochoda knows not, herself:

"I promise you the first time I saw him was when he was running down the freeway. Then I got out of my car and chased him."


The same damn question he's been trying to answer for twenty-four hours. But the beer is helping. "Because I hate my job. Because I should have gone running over the weekend, but instead I drank too many beers and pretended to be interested in my daughter's friends' parents and their school fund-raiser. Because I have to attend the damn fund-raiser to make up for the fact that my wife and I are in the bottom tier of contributors to a school I already pay too much for my daughter to attend."


Tony's finally able to admit to himself that he had been unable to catch up to the runner. He didn't have the strength for that final acceleration, that last kick. Or maybe he did but he was too complacent, too happy to trail behind the guy instead of reaching him. Coasting, almost. Doing just enough but failing at the final hurdle. He still runs regularly but he's losing ground, letting go of the college runner he used to be. He's growing solid. Soon he'll be grounded like the commuters stuck in their cars he'd left behind on the 110.

"He's growing solid."

That's it, right there. It's that moment when what could be, what was dreamt, what was envisioned, shimmers and fades, and what is left is what is. Jackrabbit homesteads in Wonder Valley.

Pochoda's talent is immense and her vision is vivid. But most importantly, her stories and characters ring true.

I hope she writes many more books, each as wonderful in its own way as Wonder Valley

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Fifty years of Arcosanti

Here's a pretty nice article, with lots of links to chase, surveying the highs and lows of the first 50 years of the Arcosanti project: In Arizona, the Arcosanti desert utopia has become a kind of commune

In the sixties and seventies, he noted, it became somewhat common for people to see innovative or alternative thinkers as gurus or messiahs (though Soleri rejected those monikers). As late as the 90s, Bell said, people settled in Arcosanti just to be close to Soleri.

Today, that dynamic has changed.

"I think something that we understand as a generation, as millennials, is that everything is collaborative," Bell said. "Nothing gets done by one single person."

He added that Arcosanti residents are well aware that no single city or development solve every problem within our society.

"Soleri gave us a map and we followed that map to the edges," Bell said. "I don't think Arcosanti is the city of the future. ... There are a lot of places doing really innovative work."

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Berlin Trilogy: a very short review

Somehow I hadn't heard of the Scottish writer Philip Kerr, who died last year at the far too young age of 62, but when I stumbled across an obituary I decided I'd give his books a try, and picked up Berlin Noir: March Violets; The Pale Criminal; A German Requiem.

Now, there's hard-boiled, and there's hard-boiled. My taste in hard-boiled has mostly tended toward American authors, such as Elmore Leonard, Michael Connolly, James Lee Burke, etc., for I was born a bit too late to ever really pick up Hammett or Spillane or Chandler.

But I've also enjoyed the European style of hard-boiled writing, such as Stieg Larsson's astonishing Millenium trilogy.

So what are we to make of the audacity of a Scottish writer setting his German protagonist squarely in the middle of WWII Berlin?

On the one hand, how much more noir can you possibly get? There's no shortage of villains, no lacking for drama, no need to dream up conditions any harsher or bleaker than these. And Kerr delivers the action! These books are roller-coaster rides of twist-a-minute thriller investigations, punctuated frequently with sex, violence, and way too many all night sessions stumbling from one back-alley location to the next.

On the other hand, what I found most compelling about The Berlin Triology was how tremendously atmospheric they were. Kerr really immerses you in a very specific place and time, and the effect is very powerful. Some of my favorite parts of the books were the places where Kerr manages to artfully take a simple description and slap you across the face in just the right way, letting you see things which are simultaneously beautiful and still cruel.

For example, this visit to a fairly upscale Berlin city square quickly darkens, vividly emphasizing the rapid militarization that was changing the entire literal landscape of the society:

The houses on Herbertstrasse, in any other city but Berlin, would each have been surrounded by a couple of hectares of shrub-lined lawn. But as it was they filled their individual plots of land with little or no space for grass and paving. Some of them were no more than the front-gate's width from the sidewalk. Architecturally they were a mixture of styles, ranging from the Palladian to the neo-Gothic, the Welhelmine and some that were so vernacular as to be impossible to describe. Judged as a whole, Herbertstrasse was like an assemblage of old field-marshals and grand-admirals in full-dress-uniforms obliged to sit on extremely small and inadequate camp stools.

Or this marvelous description of post-war Vienna, that neatly tucks in an acknowledgement of how thoroughly the war had affected the city, even to the extent of the urban plants and animals:

The morning was bright, clear and chilly. Crossing the park in front of the new town hall on my way to the Inner City, a couple of squirrels bounded up to say hello and check me out for breakfast. But before they got close they caught the cloud on my face and the smell of fear on my socks. Probably they even made a mental note of the heavy shape in my coat pocket and thought better of it. Smart little creatures. After all, it wasn't so very long since small mammals were being shot and eaten in Vienna. So they hurried on their way, like living scribbles of fur.

If you're after joy, light, and hope, avoid The Berlin Trilogy, for there is none of that to be found here.

But if you're after a vivid exploration of what it was like, and you're far too young to have been there, The Berlin Trilogy delivers over and over again.

Kerr wrote these three masterpieces in a whirlwind 18 month period from mid-1989 through early 1991, then apparently took a 15 year break, before returning to pick up Bernie Gunther's story again with 8 more books written after 2006, the last one published posthumously.

I'm not sure if I'm going to follow the rest of Gunther's adventures. Maybe I'll take a 15 year break. Lots of other stuff on the shelf, after all.

But I'm not disappointed that I read these.