Thursday, December 31, 2020

The UK have listened to the wise Canadians

The Guardian brings the news: Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine rollout plan changed following approval

the MHRA and the government’s advisory Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation delivered a surprise by announcing approval of a regime that was not trialled. Both the Oxford vaccine and the Pfizer/BioNTech jab which is already in use will be given to people as one shot, followed by another up to 12 weeks later, in order to extend some protection to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

Boris Johnson said at a Downing Street press conference that the benefits from the vaccine would kick in within 21 days. “What that means is we can vaccinate and protect many more people in the coming weeks,” he said.

I hope this becomes just one of many such stories. Let's do it everywhere!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The world should listen to the wise Canadians

I find this a compelling argument: New data favour administering COVID-19 vaccines as fast as possible, not reserving doses; I agree with Alex Tabarrok's short post: Wise Canadians:

The second dose, Dr. McGeer and other experts agree, is crucial to ensuring immunity lasts as long as possible. They say everyone should get the second dose on schedule, but if supply issues delay that injection by a week or two, it shouldn’t hamper how well the vaccines work.

I, of course, am not a medical professional, nor am I trained in any of the relevant disciplines.

Just a very interested observer and participant in the worldwide experiment.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Infrared Roses: a very short review

I have this weird album that I pull out of a drawer once every few years.

It’s called Infrared Roses. A guy named Bob Bralove was a sound board guy for the last decade or so of the original Dead, and he was a particular fan of those “in between “ jams, where they haven’t finished one song but are already starting the next one.

So he collected about a dozen of his favorite such segments from the tapes, gave them fanciful names ("Little Nemo in Nightland", "Silver Apples of the Moon", "Magnesium Night Light", etc.), and released it as an album.

As music, it's somewhere in the nether regions between rock, acid jazz, and experimental music.

Anyway it’s fascinating I think, it’s like a show where they took out all the songs and what you get is what was left.

Bryan sez: give it a try some day! Happy holidays 🙂

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Tiamat's Wrath: a very short review.

Tiamat's Wrath is, ahem, Book 8 of The Expanse.

By the time you get to the 8th 500+ page installment of a Science Fiction epic, there isn't much more to say about the matter, I guess. You're not at that point unless you wanted to be at that point, after all; you don't accidentally get to Book 8.

And, since the author(s) have indicated that they will tie it all up in Book 9: Leviathan Falls, you might expect that Book 8 is mostly a book which makes that tieing-up possible.

Which is pretty accurate.

But still: it was surprisingly good! There were the regular action and thrills and chills that we have come to expect from The Expanse, but also much more to chew on, with deepening involvement of several of the newest characters, lots of time with our favorite existing characters, and strange new mysteries to ponder.

Put differently, it turned out to be the perfect book to keep me distracted from Nov 1 to Dec 14, a time when I was desirous of a fair amount of distraction.

But anyway: hurry up Leviathan Falls! This is the first time in 4 years that I've been fully caught up with The Expanse and it's left me with rather a gnawing, unsatisfied feeling.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Holiday Random Reading

A little of this, a little of that.

Mostly, a lot of the other thing.

  • A Book about Aircraft Scale Drawings
    I altered here the proposed workflow, using Inkscape as my basic tool.
  • Inkscape: Draw Freely
    Inkscape is a Free and open source vector graphics editor for GNU/Linux, Windows and MacOS X. It offers a rich set of features and is widely used for both artistic and technical illustrations such as cartoons, clip art, logos, typography, diagramming and flowcharting.
  • No Cookie For You
    At GitHub, we want to protect developer privacy, and we find cookie banners quite irritating, so we decided to look for a solution. After a brief search, we found one: just don’t use any non-essential cookies. Pretty simple, really. 🤔

    So, we have removed all non-essential cookies from GitHub, and visiting our website does not send any information to third-party analytics services. (And of course GitHub still does not use any cookies to display ads, or track you across other sites.)

  • Web Conversations With the Year 2000
    ’00: How do you change the <title>?

    ’20: You can’t.
  • AlphaFold: a solution to a 50-year-old grand challenge in biology
    In his acceptance speech for the 1972 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Christian Anfinsen famously postulated that, in theory, a protein’s amino acid sequence should fully determine its structure. This hypothesis sparked a five decade quest to be able to computationally predict a protein’s 3D structure based solely on its 1D amino acid sequence as a complementary alternative to these expensive and time consuming experimental methods. A major challenge, however, is that the number of ways a protein could theoretically fold before settling into its final 3D structure is astronomical. In 1969 Cyrus Levinthal noted that it would take longer than the age of the known universe to enumerate all possible configurations of a typical protein by brute force calculation – Levinthal estimated 10^300 possible conformations for a typical protein.
  • ML Lake: Building Salesforce’s Data Platform for Machine Learning
    ML Lake is deployed in multiple AWS regions as a shared service for use by internal Salesforce teams and applications running in a variety of stacks in both public cloud providers and Salesforce’s own data centers. It exposes a set of OpenAPI-based interfaces running in a Spring Boot-based Java microservice. It uses Postgres to store application state and metadata. Data for machine learning is stored in S3 in buckets managed and secured by ML Lake.
  • Salesforce, Slack, and the future of work
    With Slack, Salesforce is blowing past those traditional departmental boundaries and entering the communication and collaboration space in the biggest way possible, enabling them to go enterprise-wide and have a new front-end for the future of work. This isn't just about the future of "collaboration." This is a new "operating system" for how knowledge workers will interact in the future, connecting the front office, back office, and customers all together in a single platform.

    For Slack, they now have the backing of one of the world's largest software companies, which means they get a major distribution advantage bringing their platform to vastly more customers globally. This is almost invariably a great thing for them. Salesforce knows how to disrupt markets and in Slack, they know they're getting a great product, which is why unlike more legacy acquirers they'll surely let the Slack team continue to do what they do best -- keep moving fast, pioneer, and innovate.
  • Salesforce Buys Slack
    It has become a better social network for me than anything else: a comfortable place for asking dumb questions that turn into brilliant discussions, a space among friends for cracking wise or venting frustration. I know that it is a serious business tool for serious business people, but I am sure that its simplicity is a key reason for its success, and the reason it has inspired so many clones.
  • How Microsoft crushed Slack
    That’s not to say that the incumbents won’t always face new challengers. But I wonder whether the low ceiling that Slack turned out to have has implications for some of the other fast-growing productivity companies of the current moment. Should Slack’s sale diminish our expectations for Airtable or Notion or Coda? Don’t get me wrong — I’m confident their investors will all get their money back, and then some — but do they have a real future outside the arms of a monolith?

    If not, then the productivity market will become as consolidated as any number of other spaces on the internet, from app stores to search engines to social networks. And as our government antitrust regulators begin to awaken after a long period of hibernation, I wonder if they’ll have anything to say about it.
  • The Strange Story Behind the Best Game of 2020
    In Kentucky Route Zero, there are no weapons, no skill trees, no items to collect, and no customizable characters, and there is no open world. The only mechanic is to point and click. Following the cursor, characters—who are animated so deceptively simply that they almost look 2D—can move from place to place, either on a set stage or via a black-and-white map, and sometimes engage in conversation. It never gets more complicated than that, but the elements—the art, the writing, the music—all coalesce into an eerie, unforgettable experience.
  • Winners of the 2020 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.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Understanding Enterprise Software Press Releases is hard ...

... luckily, there's Paul Ford to help: Let’s Skim! The Slack/Salesforce Press Release

The raw hot synergy coming off this paragraph could merge lead into gold.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Great article on the Versabar VB 10000

Doesn't Versabar VB 10000 sound like something out of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie?

It isn't, though, it's a real machine, and check out this wonderful article on Jalopnik about its recent activity off the coast of Georgia: A Chain Just Cut Through A Capsized Cargo Ship Filled With Cars And The Process Is Fascinating

They're right: it IS fascinating!

You'll want to read the entire article, but to stimulate your appetite, look at this amazing picture of a "slice" of the salvaged MV Golden Ray on the recovery barge, with all those cars still packed inside:

Reading through the entire St. Simons Sound Incident Response website is just the way to make the hours pass. Amazing!

Don't cheat, just take your time

Have a look at this lovely map and see how long it takes you to find the Missing Seven: Contiguous 41 States.

I didn't time myself, but it was about 70 seconds for me. What was the last of the 7 that you found?

Thursday, December 3, 2020

DBMS Transaction Logging Research

Nearly every DBMS implementation has a transaction log, where transactions write information about the changes that they are making to the database.

Transaction logs are about as foundational a technology as exists in Database Systems, and Database Systems are about as old a technology as exists in Computer Science (there are seminal notes on transaction logs dating back, I believe, to the 1950s, and papers which are still studied today which were published in the mid-1970's), so it's a little bit surprising, I think, to see that significant research is still occurring in the field of transaction logging.

Here are a few very interesting examples to back up my claim: 2 books (!) and a handful of fairly recent papers.

It's good to see that people are still working away at trying to figure out how to improve these age-old techniques, squeezing just a little bit more out of their computers, making their databases work just that much faster.

Onwards and upwards!

Friday, November 27, 2020

Happy Birthday, John

He would have been 80 this year.

Sing along to a particularly beautiful poem he wrote.

So this is Christmas and what have you done
Another year over, a new one just begun

And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones, the old and the young

A very merry Christmas and a happy new year
Let's hope it's a good one without any fears

And so this is Christmas for weak and for strong
The rich and the poor ones, the road is so long

And so happy Christmas for black and for white
For yellow and red ones let's stop all the fights

A very merry Christmas and a happy new year
Let's hope it's a good one without any fear

And so this is Christmas and what have we done
Another year over, a new one just begun

And so happy Christmas we hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones, the old and the young

A very merry Christmas and a happy new year
Let's hope it's a good one without any fear

And so this is Christmas and what have we done
Another year over, a new one just begun

Thursday, November 26, 2020

52 Loaves: a very short review

Somewhere along the way I was gifted William Alexander's 52 Loaves.

Alexander sets out to try to learn enough about baking bread to enable him to recreate, in his home kitchen, the marvelous loaf of bread he had at a fancy restaurant. He decides that he will devote a year to this goal, baking the same recipe over and over, at least once a week (hence the title).

Of course, just baking the same recipe over and over doesn't really get you anywhere, much though your ten thousand hours of practice might please Malcom Gladwell, so Alexander does much more than that. He reads books and watches videos about baking bread. He interviews bakers about their craft. He learns about his ingredients, how there are many kinds of flour, many kinds of yeast, variations of temperature and time, ratios of this to that, etc.

And he learns about the history of bread, and about the culture of bread. The cultural aspects are among the most interesting parts, as he ends up traveling to France, to Morocco, and elsewhere, to learn about how different societies include bread into their lives.

In Morocco, for example, Alexander learns that individual houses don't have their own ovens, and instead people bring their bread dough to a magnificant communally-shared wood-fired brick oven that can bake dozens of loaves at a time. He promptly decides that he needs a wood-fired brick oven of his own, and attempts to build one in his back yard, with predictably disastrous results.

It's that sort of a book.

The result is a pleasant mish-mash: you won't learn a lot about bread; you won't learn a lot about ancient French monasteries; you won't learn a lot about what's in that bag of flour you get from the supermarket, or about the differences between active yeast, cake yeast, and instant yeast; you won't learn a lot about why a boule is circular but a baguette is long and narrow, but you will learn a little bit about all these various subjects and more.

And you'll have a fair amount of fun doing so, as Alexander is a light and entertaining writer.

Moreover, since the book itself is constructed as 52 tiny chapters (an artifice, as these have little to do with the actual weeks of his bread-baking year), the book is perfect for placing in that special room in your house. You know, the one that you find yourself in with some regularity, where reading a 3.5 page chapter is just right for your time allotment.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Nice article on being mindful about the next steps along the way

Barry Ritholz is a smart fellow, and a good writer. I mostly read his writings for his observations on Finance and Markets, but he often has a broader outlook that I find helpful.

For example, here: The Halfway Point.

Think about what how unique this situation is, how rare an opportunity it presents for you — and then go take full advantage of it. What do you want this period to have meant to you? Do not lead a life full of regrets and unrequited interests…

Wide words.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Four nice things

In these stressful times, I just wanted to share some nice things:

  • It's our 35th anniversary! To treat ourselves, we took a hike suggested by the lovely Weekend Sherpa website. Complete with the site's suggested post-hike treat, the also-lovely wine bar Tasting by the Sea, which might have the most perfect location of any wine bar in the entire United States of America.
  • It's my youngest daughter's 29th birthday this week! (How can that be? I'm only 29 years old, myself!)
  • The winter rainy season has begun in Northern California, more-or-less right on schedule. All of the plants are happy.
  • My favorite Internet comic XKCD published perhaps the most beautiful strip ever: Ten Years. Congratulations, Randall Munroe, set your sights on 35!

Friday, November 13, 2020

Sisters and sisters

I have no idea how I missed this picture when it first came out years ago.

Just in case, left-to-right, this is a picture of: Sasha, Jenna, Barbara, Laura, and Malia.

It made me smile (actually it made me laugh for joy), so I wanted to share it.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Is Hurricane Eta an unusual hurricane?

In what has surely been an unusual year for hurricanes, Hurricane Eta seems it like has been particularly unusual.

Check out how it behaved in the first 10 days:

It started near the Venezuala coast, headed due west, made a ninety degree turn, traveled over Nicaragua and Honduras, then made another 45 degree turn and went back over the open ocean and traveled east northeast and last night crossed over the center of Cuba, reportedly moving 60 miles per hour at that point.

But now, it is forecast to make a 145 degree turn and head due west again, this time back into the center of the Gulf of Mexico.

Then, after spending 3 days moving at barely 10 miles per hour over the Gulf of Mexico, and returning to hurricane strength, it is forecast to make yet another 90 degree turn and head due north, towards the Florida pan handle.

Since the NHC only attempts a maximum forecast of 5 days, there still may be much more chaos to come.

What a strange and unusual hurricane!

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

American Beauty reviewed by Pitchfork

Pitchfork, the popular music website mostly located in Chicago, typically concern themselves with new music.

But every so often they go back and review something from the past. On its 50th anniversary, they cover my favorite popular music album of all time.

Pitchfork virtually never give an album a perfect 10, it is quite rare. But they picked the right one this time! Grateful Dead: American Beauty / The Angel’s Share Album Review.

Released in November 1970 and reissued for its 50th anniversary this month, American Beauty is a pure and potent representation of Dead-ness as a philosophical outlook. Earlier in the year, with Workingman’s Dead, the band made an abrupt about-face from the murk and discord of previous albums toward the bluegrass and folk that had captivated Garcia in his early days as a musician, with some Buck Owens and Merle Haggard thrown in for good measure. American Beauty, which came just five months later, uses a similarly earthy palette, but its concerns are quite different. The songs of Workingman’s Dead, filled with archetypal characters of the American West, involve a fair amount of rambling and gambling. American Beauty is more like a guided meditation, or a solitary swim in a cool, clear lake.

I found myself nodding along in agreement with the entire review, except for the one part where I had to stop and look up the meaning of "eremitic".

Happy Anniversary, American Beauty.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Jesus' Son: Stories: a very short review

I have no recollection as to when or how I found out about Denis Johnson, my guess is that I read his obituary a few years back, but somehow I ended up picking up his collection of short stories: Jesus' Son: Stories.

I believe that these are autobiographical, though fictionalized, stories that cover a period in Johnson's life when he was suffering from extreme poverty, clinical depression, substance abuse, homelessness, and more.

The stories are astonishing and vivid, and though they are years old now, they still have the immediacy and power of a bandage ripped from a wound.

Each story is like a nightmare, a nightmare in which you bolt awake, drenched in sweat, pulse pounding, gasping for breath, completely confused and baffled as to where you are and what just happened.

I doubt I'll ever forget these stories, but I'm also not sure if I'll go back to them again.

I'm somewhat afraid to (although I guess that means I need to?)

But I might try something else of his. What should I try? Train Dreams? Tree of Smoke? Nobody Move? Angels?

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Nice profile of Matt Levine in the NYT

As anyone who's spent more than 15 minutes with me knows, I think that Matt Levine is the best writer on the Internet.

Not just the best writer on finance, the best writer, period.

Levine manages to educate, entertain, and explain all at once. Moreover, he actually makes you want to learn more about finance. Which isn't something that you ever thought you wanted, but once you've had a good solid dose of Levine, you'll want to learn more and more and more about how finance actually works and how people across the world use its basic tools to come to agreement on all sorts of things.

So, anyway, I loved this nice profile of Levine that ran in the NYT a few weeks ago: A Columnist Makes Sense of Wall Street Like None Other (See Footnote).

Each weekday, Mr. Levine, 42, wakes up at 5 in the morning. He looks at what’s going on in the markets, scrolls through emails from readers and plugs into the chatter of early-to-work traders. Then he starts to write. Roughly 5,000 words later on a long-winded day, he files Money Stuff to his editor, and it’s sent to subscribers around noon. (His column is currently on a parental leave hiatus, and will return this winter.)

Mr. Levine’s favorite subjects include insider trading statutes, bond-market liquidity and the ubiquity of securities fraud, but his columns are never boring. They may be the only entertaining words a financial markets professional reads all day.

Levine's family has been growing, and he's been taking some (well-deserved) breaks, but you can find lots of his back catalog on the Internet, and hopefully he'll be back before too long helping to make sense of our crazy world for all his hundreds of thousands of followers. Me included.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Wesley So is the new US Chess Champion for 2020

Here's the scoop, direct from US Chess: Wesley So Is 2020 US Chess Champion After Crushing Performance

So kicked off the title event with five consecutive wins and never looked back, finishing undefeated plus-7 with an astounding 9/11 score. That high-mark result has only been topped twice in U.S. Championship history, both times by Robert James Fischer.

This is pretty well-known by this point, but it's been quite interesting to watch the sport of chess evolve over the last few years, accelerated of course by this year's COVID situation.

So earned his new title as America’s player-to-beat from his bedroom in Minnesota, after playing in the national championship event organized online by the Saint Louis Chess Club. This year’s crown tournament, which collected 12 of the best U.S. players, was adjusted because of COVID restrictions and featured all games with a rapid G/25+5 time control.

Chess is thriving across the planet, with nearly-universal world-wide popularity, and tremendous players from the Far East, the Pacific Islands, and Southeast Asia joining existing chess communities from Europe and North America in online tournaments enabled by the Internet.

Chess also is attracting young players of phenomenal talent. This year's entrants in the US Championship were aged: 17, 19, 19, 25, 26, 26, 28, 30, 32, 32, 35, and 36.

And, of course, there are some spectacular games available to replay and enjoy! You just gotta love the game between So and Xiong in round 9 which decided the championship.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

One Good Turn: a very short review

For no particularly important reason, I dropped into Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels at book two: One Good Turn

It took me a while to realize that Atkinson follows, at least partly, in the Donald Westlake/Carl Hiaasen/Janet Evanovitch tradition of crime fiction, in which whodunit is certainly part of the goal, but really the sport is all in the malarkey along the way, with eccentric characters at every turn and plenty of mishaps, stumbles, and bumbles on all sides.

It's the sort of book where you get lovely, yet head-spinningly bizarre, passages like these:

"Inspector Brodie," the man said, stepping forward and shaking her hand.

"An inspector calls," Gloria said. She presumed he was a fraud officer, but didn't they hunt in packs? He followed her into the living room. She wished she had kept him on the doorstep, like a Jehovah's Witness. All these unwanted visitors were an unwelcome distraction from the international banking fraud that Tatiana was committing in the kitchen, overseen by Gloria's red KitchenAid and Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course.

"Tea?" Gloria offered politely, trying to remember if he had shown her any ID. Where was his warrant card? He was saying something about road rage when Tatiana glided in from the kitchen and said, "Hello, everybody," like a poor actress in a farce.

Don't get me wrong! This is the sort of breezy reading that I adore, and I drank up every page of Atkinson's absurd story with joy. Set during a random running of the Edinburgh Fringe, the entire book unfolds in 7 chaotic days of nonstop round-the-clock action, and features a missing laptop, a housing-bubble-based organized crime ring, an aging cat, and a play-within-the-play:

The play, Looking for the Equator in Greenland, was Czech (or maybe Slovakian, Jackson hadn't really been listening), an existentialist, abstract, impenetrable thing that was about neither the equator nor Greenland (nor indeed about looking for anything).

One Good Turn suffers a bit from the old problem of "if a little bit is good, a lot must be better". There are too many characters, too many sub-plots, too many absurdities, too many half-developed thoughts tossed into the mix. It's a little bit like that person who thinks that if vodka and tomato juice seem to work well together, why not try adding bacon-wrapped shrimp and some cauliflower?

But that's really just a quibble; this is what you expect from this sort of book, and the reader is gratefully aware that, if one chapter seems to have gone just a bit too far into the deep grass, then simply turn a few more pages and something else will come along.

From what little I know about Atkinson, she had tried her hand at various other fiction categories for a number of years before writing Case Histories and inventing the Jackson Brodie character.

And then discovered that what she had thought was a one-book detour was actually her passion; she's up to five Jackson Brodie novels already, with the most recent one published just a few months ago.

I may just have to try a few more.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Ekranoplan destined for a new museum

I'd never heard of an ekranoplan (my bad).

But I dug these reports about the 35-year-old curiosity/relic and how it was recovered from the Caspian Sea:

  • The 'Caspian Sea Monster' rises from the grave
    Beached on the western shores of the Caspian Sea, it looks like a colossal aquatic beast -- a bizarre creation more at home in the deep than above the waves. It certainly doesn't look like something that could ever fly. But fly it did -- albeit a long time ago.

    After lying dormant for more than three decades, the Caspian Sea Monster has been on the move again. One of the most eye-catching flying machines ever built, it's completing what could be its final journey.
  • Watch: The 380-Ton ‘Caspian Sea Monster’ Plane Emerges From the Water for the First Time in 30 Years
    Furthermore, by taking advantage of an aerodynamic principle known as “ground effect,” it could seamlessly glide over water without actually touching it. This is a nifty characteristic of all ekranoplans, a.k.a. ground effect vehicles, which skim the surface of the water at a height of between 3 feet to 16 feet. This makes them difficult to detect by radar and perfect for seaborne attacks. The mammoth aircraft could even take off and land in tumultuous weather while facing waves of up to 8 feet.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Beautiful essay in the NYT about what we lose when we are alone

I was very struck by this passage in a beautiful essay published in the paper about a month ago: Is It Strange to Say I Miss the Bodies of Strangers?:

In the way that absence illuminates desire, and breakage illuminates function — you don’t notice the doorknob until it twists off in your hand — quarantine has made it plain to me how much I miss the daily, unspoken, casual company of strangers, the people whose names and lives I’ll never know, who populate my ordinary urban days with their bodies on the subway, their glances on the sidewalk, their stray comments at the A.T.M., their hands holding whole milk and gummy bears in front of me in the bodega line.

It was in the early months of my separation that I started to become acutely aware of this gratitude for the peculiar anonymous company that urban living offers — for the cafe just downstairs from my new apartment, where many of the same regular customers gathered each morning: the amiable elderly man chain-smoking and mansplaining trans-Atlantic politics; the mom-friends with their parked bassinets; the 20-something boys reading Bakhtin and Heidegger who never offered to help me carry my stroller up the stoop stairs. In the aftermath of my household unraveling, it was an acute and unexpected comfort to find this daily ragtag cohort just downstairs — a looser household, but a household nonetheless.

Walking late at night on Flatbush Avenue, I appreciated all the anonymous strangers I passed for the ways they suggested, even if I didn’t know their stories, how many different ways it was possible to craft a life. The man buying mangoes at the bodega just before midnight? Maybe he was a father of five. Maybe he was a single father of five. Maybe he and his husband were trying to adopt. Maybe he and his wife had been trying to have a child for years. Maybe he and his wife knew they didn’t want a child; maybe they were saving up to travel the world instead. Maybe he lived alone with his aging mother. Who could know his story? I never would. But I didn’t need to. I only needed to know, through his presence on that sidewalk, that so many plotlines for a life were possible.

When we lose the ability to live among the bodies of strangers, we don’t just lose the tribal solace of company, but the relief from solipsism — the elbow brush of other lives unfurling just beside our own, the reminder of other people’s daily survival, the reminder that there are literally seven billion other ways to be alive besides the particular way I am alive; that there are countless other ways to be lonely besides the particular ways I am lonely; other ways to hope, other ways to seek joy.

"So many plotlines for a life."


Marvelous article.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Enemy Women: a very short review

I cannot get enough of Paulette Jiles.

This summer I read News of the World; this fall I read Enemy Women. I cannot think of two finer books with which I could have occupied those rare few hours when I sit down to read.

Enemy Women is set in Southern Missouri during the Civil War, and tells the adventures of Adair Colley, a young girl living with what remains of her family on the family farm in rural Missouri. In the space of just a few days, the farm is destroyed, the family is scattered, and Adair finds herself in jail, held as a prison by the Union forces in an attempt to force her to give up secrets about the Confederate activities in the Ozarks.

Harrowing adventure after harrowing adventure proceeds, as Adair confronts and surmounts one obstacle after another, supported by little more than her treasured horse Whiskey and a fiercely burning desire to survive.

And somehow, unlikely though it often seems during these episodes, Adair does more than merely survive; she comes through her experiences realizing that what she and Whiskey have witnessed is not just a cataclysm, but perhaps a new beginning:

The next day Adair woke up to a clean sky and the sound of Whiskey devouring the new bluestem grass nearby. She sat up in her blankets. Whiskey dropped down to his side and rolled over and wallowed on his back, his feet swimming in the morning air. He jumped up and snorted and shook himself. The forests of the Ozarks had never been cut, so the yellow pine and oaks were sometimes fifteen feet around at the base. They stood far apart from one another without underbrush, and it was good traveling then, through the greening world. At the seeps and springs, there were banks of violets and fern, sweet williams and miniature wild irises whose flowers were no bigger than a person's thumb and two fingertips held together. Wild pansies looked up with lion faces, the shadows of the new leaves were faint as the shadows of an eclipse.

At the next ridge south of Mungar's was an open prairie of grasses of several acres. It was what the people called a barrens. Adair could see for a long way. The hills poured out southward, one after another. The wind tore at her hair and she felt herself lifting like a kite. She stood for a long time to listen for the sound of a mill wheel or a church bell, or foundry or circle saw squaring logs, the ringing of an anvil.

The hills were silent. She stood listening for a long space of time. There was only the long wind singing off the top of the receding ridges and their heavy forests.

It seemed all the people were gone. Soon there would be some other world and some other people to take their place. The grasses on the little barren seethed in the wind with their new seed-heads, and the wind was chill, and so they went on as the road drove downhill toward the main fork of the Black River.

The seventh day of slow traveling found them up and moving by dawn. It was very cold that morning, for it was yet early in April and she wore the Zouave jacket and the down quilt over her shoulders on top of it. They followed the road as it swung along a steep hillside in a oak forest. They were southwest of Iron Mountain, and she had no idea what was the name of the road.

I love this vaguely biblical ("seventh day of slow traveling") passage, and its lyrical, eloquent telling of how harsh change is yet intertwined with the continuity of life. I love the graceful placement of human change within its natural setting ("good traveling then, through the greening world"). I love the way Adair feels with all her senses ("see for a long way", "hills were silent", "wind tore at her hair", "thumb and two fingertips", "devouring the new bluestem grass", "lifting like a kite", "swimming in the morning air"). And I love how the passage packs an cosmological eternity ("a long way", "a long time", "a long space of time") into an instant of recognition of the change that had come upon her: "she had no idea what was the name of the road".

In an afterword, Jiles describes how writing Enemy Women was an attempt for her to imagine what might have happened with her own great-great-grandfather, who lived in the Missouri Ozarks during the Civil War but whose full story has been lost to time. The Civil War seems like a dusty old relic at times, but obviously it remains a crucial element of the country's history and development, and really, it is not so long ago: consider this remarkable observation from blogger Jason Kottke that virtually the entire history of the country can be spanned by just three generations:

Last weekend, Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. died at the age of 95. Remarkably, Lyon was the grandson of John Tyler, the 10th President of the United States. His brother Harrison Ruffin Tyler is still alive.

Jiles's Civil War is vivid, and immediate, even if she recognizes that most of what she depicts, and most of what anyone can in fact depict about the war, is the cloudy convoluted result of untold vaguely remembered tales:

She would not sleep in the tavern, either, not in any place, not in the kitchen or the woodshed but went to the barn instead with a wool U.S. Army blanket taken from Jessie's stores and slept in the barn loft over Whitkey's stall. Listened to him grind up the corn in his great molars, got up often to look and see if he were down or still standing on all four feet. For more than a week he stood with his leg drawn up and moved with great difficulty.

Still the men came. They slept in the mill loft or came to sit on their heels in front of the tavern. Many sat under the eaves and watched the rain come down, and some came in and looked at the shelves and said nothing, for they had nothing to spend. They listened to the June rain.

They talked in low voices among themselves and then there was laughter, for they were telling stories. They were making their past lives now into tales, and they were exchanging the tales so they could go and tell not only their own, but also others', and somehow this would make a sort of thin, fragile text or texture that might give way and might not, might hold, might be raveled out and be gone forever.

I love Jiles' stories, her own and those of others, and I would say that her text is certainly not thin or fragile, but rather does not give way and should hold. Adair proves to be fierce and resilient, and is (or should be) a heroine for the ages. I hope Enemy Women still finds new readers like me, decades after it was originally published.

Although it was far from her first book, Enemy Women was the book that brought Jiles her breakthrough success. Enemy Women was published when Jiles was 59 years old, but in the 20 years since then, she has certainly not slowed down, publishing five more best-sellers, including this year's Simon the Fiddler. I won't get to that one immediately, though; I've still got several more to catch up with first.

Thank you, Ms Jiles: I'm looking forward to reading many more of your wonderful books!

Friday, September 25, 2020

Robert Bechtle's photo-realistic Alameda

I only just realized, reading an obituary of him, that Bay Area artist Robert Bechtle passed away.

I wasn't really familiar with Bechtle, but I sure am familiar with his work!

Here's Alameda Gran Torino, 1974

Here's Six Houses on Mound Street, 2006

Here's Sterling Avenue, Alameda II, 1991

I visit these places every day.

And that stretch of Alameda has barely changed since 1974!

I would have liked to have learned more about Bechtle while he was alive, bad on me. But it's nice that I learned about him, eventually.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Creek Fire and Beasore Road

Here's a fascinating report from a backpacking group who had to make some complicated decisions in the middle of their one-week planned east-to-west traverse of the Central Sierras: Escape from Creek Fire. There's additional information here, though I don't know how to do a great job of Twitter linking.

I don't think I realized just how close our hike was last year to this area. The maps are a bit hard to read but I'm pretty sure that Beasore Road, our access road to the Fernandez Trailhead, has been crossed by the fire at this point.

In 2002, on a backpacking trip to Mosquito Lakes from the Mineral King trailhead, we had to cut our trip short and make a hasty exit due to a fire about 20 miles south of us.

That was dramatic, but nothing like this!

Generally we have been well-prepared for fire conditions on our backpacking trips. We are alert to the dangers, and have talked regularly about how we would handle such situations.

But we were never tested like this group was tested.

It appears that if we had been on that trip at this time, our primary plan (detect the fire early, abort the trip, hike out and leave), might not have been an option. We might have had to choose a different option (for example, we knew that an alternate plan was to hike about 10 miles north, where a trail led through a pass and into Yosemite National Park and then out through Wawona).

I'm glad they shared their experience, and their thoughts as they were reacting in real time.

Lots to think about.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Gipsy Moth Circles the World: a very short review

Continuing my Summer of Armchair Adventure, I spent the last month with Francis Chichester and his tale of sailing around the world single-handedly: Gipsy Moth Circles the World.

Chichester was really a remarkable fellow. He set off on this adventure shortly before his 65th birthday, and completed the entire trip in 226 days: 107 days to get to Sydney Australia, where he docked and repaired and re-supplied the boat; then 119 days to return to England.

He did all this in Gipsy Moth IV, a 54-foot ketch-rigged yacht which was custom designed and built for the adventure. (After years of being docked as a museum piece next to the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, Gipsy Moth has since been restored and is still actively sailed!)

Perhaps even more remarkable, Chichester had few of the tools that are used in modern-day sailing: no telephone, no GPS, no radar. He had a 75 watt radio that he could operate sparingly; he used it primarily to report regular dispatches to be published in (I think?) The Times. And he had a self-steering wind vane, which was a relatively recent innovation for ocean sailing, having been in use only for a few decades by this point.

Instead, Chichester had his bound paper copy of the Admiralty charts, two sextants (his primary one and a smaller less accurate backup sextant), and a Rolex Oyster Perpetual wristwatch (of which the Rolex corporation are justifiably proud).

You probably don't even know what a sextant is; you almost surely have never used one; you might have seen one in a museum somewhere; you're unlikely to be able to summarize how it works. But for centuries the sextant was the only way to navigate on the open seas, and if coupled with a reliable time piece it can be extremely accurate.

Moreover, Chichester literally wrote the book on how to navigate using a sextant. He so thoroughly comprehended this now-vanished skill that during WWII he taught RAF aircraft pilots in navigation, including his own adaptation of astro-navigation to a technique that allowed the pilots of single-handed fighter aircraft to navigate across Europe and back while under complete radio silence.

Anyway, enough about Chichester the adventurer; how about Chichester the writer?

Many reviews of Gipsy Moth Circles the World call it "under-stated", or "dry", and those are fair. Chichester basically developed the notes from his log book (his eight log books, more than 200,000 words across them all!) into a full-length retelling of his sail, and his style was to basically tell it like it was.

The book was, I think, principally targeted at people who have at least some appreciation for what is involved in sailing a boat on the ocean, even if they have never done it themselves, and so there are many (oh! so many!) passages filled with material like this:

I went on deck to replace the trysail with the main. The wind seemed lessening, and I felt that Gipsy Moth needed the main. I did not like that main, it was my least favourite sail. For one thing, it required too much brute force to handle, for it was always pressing against a shroud or binding on a sheet; for another I had to trot to and fro from mast to cockpit about six times during the hoisting. First I had to slack away the vangs as the sail began to rise; then to alter the self-steering trim to head more into the wind so that the head of the sail would not foul the lower aft shroud; then seveal times to slack away the sheet as the sail went up. After that the lower shroud runner had to be released, and the shroud tied forward to another shroud.

Let's be honest: you either find that fascinating (or at least comprehensible), or it's just gibberish and could have just as well be written in hieroglyphs from your point of view.

But at other times in the book Chichester's spare and straightforward approach to re-telling the story leads to passages that are as gripping and compelling as anything you'll find anywhere.

For example, here's Chichester discussing all the flak he'd received over deciding to embark on such an adventure in his mid-sixties:

People keep at me about my age. I suppose they think that I can beat age. I am not that foolish. Nobody, I am sure, can be more aware than I am that my time is limited. I don't think I can escape ageing, but why beef about it? Our only purpose in life, if we are able to say such a thing, is to put up the best performance we can -- in anything, and only in doing so lies satisfaction in living.

And here he is trying to figure out what to do about a few miscalculations that have put him in a dire position:

On Monday, October 3, I sounded the fresh water tank and found that I had only 21 gallons left, plus half a jerrycan (about 2 1/2 gallons) which Giles, my son, had made me take as a reserve.
When I started I knew that I had not enough water on board to see me through the passage to Sydney; I had allowed myself enough for all reasonable needs for six weeks, relying on getting enough rain to fill my tanks before there could be any real chance of running short. But I underestimated my use of water, particularly for the twice-daily watering of my cress-garden. And so many things needed water -- baking required it, and all dried vegetables, egg and milk powder wanted it. I could cook potatoes in seawater but not rice. With my underestimation of consumption, I seemed, too, to have overestimated the chances of rain, or at least my ability to catch it. Rain had come with the squalls from time to time, but not in catchable quantity, apparently.
What I failed to take into account was that rain usually comes with a strong wind, [...] thus ruining the water for drinking purposes.
It is normally reckoned that a man can live well enough on half a gallon (four pints) of water a day; that is of course, for drinking and preparing food -- it allows nothing for washing oneself or one's clothes.
I decided to make do on less than half a gallon a day, and to record every pint of water I used. If I could manage on a quart a day, I should have enough for 80 days.
By October 14 I was down to 16 gallons (plus the half-jerrycan of Giles's reserve). Considering that I had won 1 1/2 gallons in a squall on October 4, that meant that I was still using rather more water than I reckoned. I rationed myself more strictly.

Chichester estimates that he lost 40 pounds on the outbound leg of the voyage, and was surely dehydrated badly in the final few weeks. But nothing stops Chichester. At one point he breaks a tooth while eating a piece of particularly hard dried bread. Never fear, Chichester is here:

I got out my dentist's repair kit, and spent an hour having a go at my tooth. I succeeded in cementing the broken piece on again, but in doing so I cemented in a fragment of cotton wool from a cotton wool pad I had put in my mouth to keep my tongue away from my tooth while I was working on it. I left the bit of cotton wool in the repair -- I felt I dared not pull it for fear of pulling off the piece of tooth I had managed to stick on.
Alas, my tooth-repair did not hold. I tried it out at supper time, and it was no good -- the broken bit simply came off again as soon as I tried to bite. Perhaps the best dentists do not mix cotton wool with their cement. I had another shot at cementing, this time without cotton wool fragments, but the repair was no more successful. In the end I got a file and filed down the jagged edges of the piece of tooth still in my jaw and left it at that.

Perhaps Chichester's most astonishing aplomb occurs early in the second half of the voyage, shortly after Gipsy Moth has departed Sydney Harbor:

I think I was awake when the boat began to roll over. If not, I woke immediately when she started to do so. Perhaps when the wave hit her I woke. It was pitch dark. As she started rolling I said to myself, "Over she goes!" I was not frightened, but intensely alert and curious. Then a lot of crashing and banging started, and my head and shoulders were being bombarded with crockery and cutlery and bottles. I had an oppressive feeling of the boat being on top of me. I wondered if she would roll over completely, and what the damage would be; but she came up quietly the same side that she had gone down. I reached up and put my bunk light on. It worked, giving me a curious feeling of something normal in a world of utter chaos. I have only a confused idea of what I did for the next hour or so. I had an absolutely hopeless feeling when I looked at the pile of jumbled up food and gear all along the cabin. Anything that was in my way when I wanted to move I think I put back in its right place, though feeling as I did so that it was a waste of time as she would probably go over again. The cabin was 2 foot deep all along with a jumbled-up pile of hundreds of tins, bottles, tools, shackles, blocks, two sextants and oddments. Every settee locker, the whole starboard bunk, and the three starboard drop lockers had all emptied out when she was upside down. Water was swishing about on the cabin sole beide the chart table, but not much. I looked into the bilge which is 5 feet deep, but it was not quite full, for which I thought, "Thank God."
I am not sure when I discovered that the water was pouring in through the forehatch. What had happened was that when the boat was nearly upside down, the heavy forehatch had swung open, and when the boat righted itself the hatch, instead of falling back in place, fell forwards onto the deck, leaving the hatchway wide open to the seas.
As night fell this day I reckoned up my profit and loss account so far since leaving Sydney. The loss was severe. The boat was still in a dreadful mess, and I had sailed only 185 miles since starting. For four days I had been bumped about and thrown, twisted, accelerated and jerked as if in a tiny toy boat in a wild mountain stream, and I was sick of it all. But everything that mattered on Gipsy Moth was intact; she had capsized and righted herself. She had been through an experience which few yachts have survived intact and she could still sail.

It's remarkable how well Gipsy Moth Circles the World stands up, some 50 years later. I think this is considerable credit to Chichester's straightforward and matter-of-fact approach to telling the story. Surely he knew even then that technology would advance and people would come to look back on his adventure as somehow quaint and dated. But given the tools he had available to him, it is truly nothing short of astonishing how he fared, and certainly more importantly his stubborn perseverance and dedication to overcoming whatever obstacles he might face remain as impressive, motivational, and inspirational now as they must have been on May 28th, 1967 when he arrived safely back in Plymouth.

(And if you ever do read Chichester's book, don't miss the lovely picture of him giving Queen Elizabeth II a tour of Gipsy Moth IV just shortly after she knighted him with the same sword that Queen Elizabeth I had used to knight Francis Drake a mere 387 years earlier!)

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Mass Effect 2: a very short review

Mass Effect 2 is the second of the Mass Effect trilogy; I skipped the first game and went directly to the second one (on the advice of my video game guru, who is rarely wrong, and was certainly not wrong this time).

It is a wonderful blend of action and adventure, with a compelling story, ferocious baddies to fight, just the right number of side quests and exploration, and perhaps the most enjoyable final battle I can remember in a video game in a long, long time.

The overall game proceeds through a building stage, in which you must recruit various members of your team, and must build and explore and enhance your skills (and the skills of the members of your team). You can choose to do more or less of this, and can exit this stage at nearly any point, but I was very thorough and I recruited every member I could and finished every quest I could find.

Then you move on to the epic final sequence, which took me a solid 3 hours on a quiet Saturday morning.

An interesting part of the game is the various dialog trees, which provide real character development and force you to make some complex and thought-provoking decisions.

The voice actors are absolutely top-notch in this game, starting with Martin Sheen's voicing of The Illusive Man and continuing throughout.

It may be a ten year old game (it is a ten year old game), but it plays fresh and compelling as ever.

Reason enough to start planning your next computer purchase right now, I'd say!

Here you go: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is coming to the next generation!

Developed to take advantage of the most powerful gaming hardware, the next-gen edition of the game will feature a range of visual and technical improvements — including ray tracing, HDR and faster loading times — across the base game, both expansions, and all extra content.

It doesn't say when this new version might be available, but let's start preparing now!

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Crazy Weather

When we first moved to the Bay Area, in 1988, we packed all our inclement weather clothes with the rest of our New England belongings, and had them shipped to us.

For we knew we were heading to sunny California!

Shortly after we got here, there were 4 days of drizzly, drenchy, dull, rainy days.

And all our umbrellas, all our coats, all our nice rubber boots?

Packed away safely, in the moving van, which was somewhere around Omaha, Nebraska at that point.

Anyway, now I at least know that mid-August is Summer Monsoon weather, and when the Eastern Pacific hurricanes wander about, they can be a mite threatening:

National Weather Service San Francisco Bay Area
318 PM PDT Sun Aug 23 2020

..Elevated moisture and instability from former Hurricane Genevieve will move over the region this weekend through early next week and bring the threat of elevated thunderstorms across much of Northern California. A low pressure system off the coast may enhance and strengthen these thunderstorms allowing some to develop frequent lighting strikes and gusty erratic outflow winds. These erratic gusty outflow winds can lead to potentially dangerous and unpredictable fire behavior on existing wildfires while additional lightning strikes may result in new wildfire starts.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

I can't believe it took me so long to find this setting

Improve what shows for you on Google News

See fewer stories you won’t like
  • Under a story you don’t like, click More.
  • To see fewer stories like it, click Fewer stories like this.
  • To see no more stories from that source, click Hide stories from [the source].

(The help document is a bit confusing: instead of [the source], you select "".)

... leans back in chair ... blood pressure markedly lower ... fewer broken keys on keypad ... dog is no longer cowering in other room ...

Monday, August 17, 2020

Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada: a very short review

According to my notes, it's been well over 10 years since an entire summer went by and I didn't make it up into the mountains.

But this is an unusual year.

So, instead, I decided to spend most of August up in the mountains, through the eyes, and words, of Clarence King, and his still-relevant-after-150-years journal: Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada.

Clarence King might be one of the most interesting explorers you've never heard of. Born in New England, he studied the earth sciences at Yale University. Then, aged 21 years, in the middle of the Civil War, he tracked down his childhood friend James Terry Gardner and together they travelled all the way across the country to meet up with William Brewer and Josiah Whitney and join up with them as part of the California Geological Survey.

King and Gardner reached California just in time to join up with Professor Brewer in the 1864 Field Party survey of the central Sierra Nevada. Here's an absolutely wonderful picture of them, together with Richard Cotter, just as they are setting out on the trip.

Over the next half-dozen years, King (together with Cotter and Gardner, what a threesome they must have made!) summits many of the 14,000 foot peaks in California, making first ascents of several, including Mount Tyndall, which he gets to name, as well as Mount Shasta, Mount Langley, and of course Mount Whitney, which King discovers on the first trip and attempts to climb, but has to turn back slightly before the top (he finally reaches the summit 10 years later).

Oh, and he writes a book!

Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada was published in 1872. I don't read many 150-year-old books nowadays, and certainly I'd think twice about most 150-year-old non-fiction works, as so much has changed.

But it's quite remarkable how well Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada holds up.

There are definitely a few completely cringe-worthy parts, primarily in those sections where King veers away from Mountaineering and into discussions of the various people he meets along his trips. So just skip over those parts whenever you hit them, I suggest. (I'm not saying to forgive King for this, but certainly I was able to enjoy his book immensely by simply jumping over such sections as soon as I hit them.)

And maybe even give "Kaweah's Run" a try; that's the chapter where King describes the week-long adventure where he is chased by two robbers who pick up his trail in a foothills saloon and follow him for hundreds of miles on horseback before he finally gives them the slip. Cringe-worthy though parts of that chapter are, the overall story is remarkable.

But, oh, the mountains! King's writings about the actual experiences he had in the mountains are just wonderful!

Firstly, of course, there are the mountains themselves. Here, King and Cotter climb to the top of Mount Brewer, from which point they can then see their target, which they are soon to name Mount Tyndall:

The gorge turning southward, we rounded a sort of mountain promontory, which, closing the view behind us, shut us up in the bottom of a perfect basin. In front lay a placid lake reflecting the intense black-blue of the sky. Granite, stained with purple and red, sank into it upon one side, and a broad, spotless field of snow came down to its margin upon the other.

From a pile of large granite blocks, forty or fifty feet above the lake-margin, we could look down fully a hundred feet through the transparent water to where bowlders and pebbles were strewn upon the stone bottom. We had now reached the base of Mount Brewer, and were skirting its southern spurs in a wide, open corridor surrounded in all directions by lofty granite crags from two to four thousand feet high; above the limits of vegetation, rocks, lakes of deep, heavenly blue, and white, trackless snows were grouped closely about us. Two sounds—a sharp, little cry of martens and occasional heavy crashes of falling rock—saluted us.

Climbing became exceedingly difficult, light air—for we had already reached twelve thousand five hundred feet—beginning to tell upon our lungs to such an extent that my friend, who had taken turns with me in carrying my pack, was unable to do so any longer, and I adjusted it to my own shoulders for the rest of the day.

After four hours of slow, laborious work, we made the base of the débris slope which rose about a thousand feet to a saddle-pass in the western mountain-wall, that range upon which Mount Brewer is so prominent a point. We were nearly an hour in toiling up this slope, over an uncertain footing which gave way at almost every step. At last, when almost at the top, we paused to take breath, and then all walked out upon the crest, laid off our packs, and sat down together upon the summit of the ridge, and for a few moments not a word was spoken.

The Sierras are here two parallel summit ranges. We were upon the crest of the western ridge, and looked down into a gulf five thousand feet deep, sinking from our feet in abrupt cliffs nearly or quite two thousand feet, whose base plunged into a broad field of snow lying steep and smooth for a great distance, but broken near its foot by craggy steps often a thousand feet high.

Vague blue haze obscured the lost depths, hiding details, giving a bottomless distance, out of which, like the breath of wind, floated up a faint tremble,vibrating upon the senses, yet never clearly heard.

Rising on the other side, cliff above cliff, precipice piled upon precipice, rock over rock, up against sky, towered the most gigantic mountain-wall in America, culminating in a noble pile of Gothic-finished granite and enamel-like snow. How grand and inviting looked its white form, its untrodden, unknown crest, so high and pure in the clear, strong blue! I looked at it as one contemplating the purpose of his life; and for just one moment I would have rather liked to dodge that purpose, or to have waited, or have found some excellent reason why I might not go; but all this quickly vanished, leaving a cheerful resolve to go ahead.

From the two opposing mountain-walls singular, thin, knife-blade ridges of stone jutted out, dividing the sides of the gulf into a series of amphitheatres, each one a labyrinth of ice and rock. Piercing thick beds of snow, sprang up knobs and straight, isolated spires of rock, mere obelisks curiously carved by frost, their rigid, slender forms casting a blue, sharp shadow upon the snow. Embosomed in depressions of ice,

Yet King is not simply a man of rocks. He certainly appreciated the astonishing beauty and pageantry that are the Sierra Nevada in their full summer bloom. Here he is preparing to make his second attempt on Mount Clark, having failed two years earlier in the face of a fierce fall blizzard.

So now in June I climbed on a Sunday morning to my old retreat, found the same stone seat, with leaning oak-tree back, and wide, low canopy of boughs. A little down to the left, welling among tufts of grass and waving tulips, is the spring which Mrs. Fremont found for her camp-ground. North and south for miles extends our ridge in gently rising or falling outline, its top broadly round, and for the most part an open oak-grove with grass carpet and mountain flowers in wayward loveliness of growth. West, you overlook a wide panorama. Oak and pine mottled foot-hills, with rusty groundwork and cloudings of green, wander down in rolling lines to the ripe plain; beyond are plains, then coast ranges, rising in peaks, or curved down in passes, through which gray banks of fog drift in and vanish before the hot air of the plains. East, the Sierra slope is rent and gashed in a wilderness of cañons, yawning deep and savage. Miles of chaparral tangle in dense growth over walls and spurs, covering with kindly olive-green the staring red of riven mountain-side and gashed earth. Beyond this swells up the more refined plateau and hill country made of granite and trimmed with pine, bold domes rising above the green cover; and there the sharp, terrible front of El Capitan, guarding Yosemite and looking down into its purple gulf. Beyond, again, are the peaks, and among them one looms sharpest. It is that Obelisk from which the great storm drove Cotter and me in 1864. We were now bound to push there as soon as grass should grow among the upper cañons.

The air around my Sunday mountain in June is dry, bland, and fragrant; a full sunlight ripens it to a perfect temperature, giving you at once stimulus and rest. You sleep in it without fear of dew, and no excess of hot or cold breaks up the even flow of balmy delight. You see the wild tulips open, and watch wind-ripples course over slopes of thick-standing grass-blades. Birds, so rare on plains or pine-hills, here sing you their fullest, and enjoy with you the soft, white light, or come to see you in your chosen shadow and bathe in your spring.

Mountain oaks, less wonderful than great, straight pines, but altogether domestic in their generous way of reaching out low, long boughs, roofing in spots of shade, are the only trees on the Pacific slope which seem to me at all allied to men; and these quiet foot-hill summits, these islands of modest, lovely verdure floating in an ocean of sunlight, lifted enough above San Joaquin plains to reach pure, high air and thrill your blood and brain with mountain oxygen, are yet far enough below the rugged wildness of pine and ice and rock to leave you in peace, and not forever challenge you to combat.

One thing I found particularly striking in King's writing, is how much time he spent thinking about climate change.

Even in 1865, it was a major part of his thinking. As he travels, he observes over and over the effects of climate change. Glaciers have receded, marks of old rivers and lakes are still present in the driest of areas, and he repeatedly comments on the effects these changes have had on the trees, plants, animals, and birds of each region he travels through.

After the intense twenty year period that King spends in the west, his life changes dramatically. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada doesn't cover any of this, but you can find plenty of information about it in various places, and I encourage you to at least have a look, as it is certainly important to have the full picture of the man, even if, as I do, you find yourself willing to dive most deeply into just his adventures in the mountains.

I am not sure when I will get back to these lovely mountains, myself. I hope it will not be too long.

In the meantime, I am glad I took the time to listen to Clarence King's voice from 150 years ago, as he vividly led me up, down, around, and through some of the greatest landscapes that the western edge of North America has to offer.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Excellent choice!

She has very high standards, and will expect the same of everyone else.

Now go make things happen!

Friday, August 7, 2020

Who are those 13%?

I can't say I'm surprised in the slightest about most of this: Biden Leads Trump in Poll Showing 87% Unhappy at U.S. Direction, reporting on the most recent Pew Research analysis: Public’s Mood Turns Grim

As the United States simultaneously struggles with a pandemic, an economic recession and protests about police violence and racial justice, the share of the public saying they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country has plummeted from 31% in April, during the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, to just 12% today.

Really, though, there's just one thing I want to know:

Apparently, one out of eight people they surveyed shrugged their shoulders, and said: "Actually, everything's just fine."

Who are those 13%?

Nice news for a Friday

We all work remotely at my company now, so I tend to miss things that maybe would have gone a bit differently if we were all together.

So I've been working with one of my colleagues, on and off, on a particular small project.

And he sent a message about a task last night.

And I replied to that message and suggested a follow-up.

And then I got a message from him:

Hey Bryan, I will take care of that later today.

I am at my naturalization oath ceremony this morning.


Now I have happy smiles for the weekend.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Where the Crawdads Sing: a very short review

I won't be the first to tell you anything about Delia Owens's Where the Crawdads Sing. According to the latest reports, I won't even be among the first five million people to tell you about it; it's surely the publishing success story of the decade!

I've heard that Where the Crawdads Sing is regularly assigned as high school reading material, which makes a certain amount of sense to me, because there is so much to talk about.

Depending on where you sit, and what sort of mood you are in, Where the Crawdads Sing is many different sorts of books. It's:

  1. an adventure story
  2. a memoir of growing up in rural coastal North Carolina in the 1950's and 1960's.
  3. a love story.
  4. actually several different love stories, of different types
  5. a murder mystery
  6. a harrowing account of family dysfunction amidst the evils of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, misogyny, alcoholism, and child abuse
  7. a police procedural
  8. a courtroom drama
  9. a devastating tale of sexual assault and its aftermath
  10. a meditation on race relations
  11. a thoughtful and elegant love song to the natural beauties of the wetlands
  12. a hopeful tale of determination and grit

It's not all these things all at once, of course. Owens adopts the approach of structuring the book as a series of short (sometimes very short) chapters, switching themes, styles, and approaches from one topic to another as the need arises.

It's like reading Mark Twain, then William Faulkner, then John Grisham, then Zora Neale Hurston, then James Lee Burke, then Harper Lee, and so forth, bouncing around and back and here and there (and then, through multiple timelines) as we go.

It's nowhere near as chaotic as I make it sound; Owens is graceful and adept and it rarely feels forced or artifical.

She's not perfect, of course, and she handles some topics better than others, but nearly everyone will find something in Where the Crawdads Sing that speaks directly to them, while simultaneously finding very little to be boring or uninteresting. Even if you're in a stretch where your interest is flagging, it's only a page or two before you're on to something quite new and different!

For myself, I found the most lovely parts to be where Owens temporarily takes a back seat and lets the marsh do the talking. Unsurprisingly from an author who directly quotes Aldo Leopold ("There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot."), Owens has a true conservationist's deep respect for the beauty, power, and honesty of the natural world.

Listen here, as the marsh itself becomes an active character, interacting with the human denizens as it would any other:

Sand keeps secrets better than mud. The sheriff parked his rig at the beginning of the fire tower lane so they wouldn't drive over any evidence of someone driving the night of the alleged murder. But as they walked along the track, looking for vehicle treads other than their own, sand grains shifted into formless dimples with every step.

Then, at the mud holes and swampy areas near the tower, a profusion of detailed stories revealed themselves: a raccoon with her four young had trailed in and out of the muck; a snail had woven a lacy pattern interrupted by the arrival of a bear; and a small turtle had lain in the cool mud, its belly forming a smooth shallow bowl.

If Where the Crawdads Sing could be summarized in any single phrase, it would be "a profusion of detailed stories revealed themselves". There's so much going on, but underneath it all the marsh ties it all together.

Here, listen to how Owens uses the simple technique of bookending a passage with several alliterative 'S' words to beautifully draw a line between cultural and religous influences ("Spanish moss", "cavelike sanctuaries") to their physical location ("sea and sky" and "serious ground"), showing how, in the end, it's all of a piece ("Markers of death ... elements of life"):

The Barkley Cove graveyard trailed off under tunnels of dark oaks. Spanish moss hung in long curtains, creating cavelike sanctuaries for old tombstones -- the remains of a family here, a loner there, in no order at all. Fingers of gnarled roots had torn and twisted gravestones into hunched and nameless forms. Markers of death all weathered into nubbins by elements of life. In the distance, the sea and sky sang too bright for this serious ground.

After roaring off to an amazing first two years of success, will Where the Crawdads Sing still be on everyone's thoughts twenty years from now? I'm not sure. Perhaps this is this generation's Huckleberry Finn, but it may also be just too soon to tell.

Regardless of its eventual state in the canon, I didn't regret a minute I spent with Owens's spell-binding saga.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Some Oakland Airport news that really probably only I find interesting

Runway 12-30 at Oakland International Airport is a massive beast, a full 1.5 miles in length, long enough to accept any currently-flying commercial aircraft, most military aircraft, and even a few aircraft that no longer fly, such as the well-known SST, aka the Concorde.

Of course, back then, it was known as Runway 11-29, because the Earth's magnetic field was different then!

Anyway, this runway is in use 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even if nowadays it's been primarily servicing delivery flights such as UPS and FedEx. This can create challenges when work needs to be done on the runway, for example a few years ago when it was re-surfaced, there was a complicated arrangement where the adjacent taxiway was used as the main runway at times.

This spring, something similar is going on, although the details are a bit different.

This time, the issue is the plants around the runway. I suspect these plants are Spartina, which is a very tough and successful invasive plant that loves the coastal salt marshes of the California coast.

The plants are apparently so thick right now that they were becoming a hazard on the runway, so they have been closing Runway 12-30 from 8:30 AM to 1:30 PM on Mondays every week for the past few months, and using the North Field runway instead.

The North Field runway is much smaller than Runway 12-30, but it's still plenty big enough for the Boing 737s that are the typical commercial traffic through the Oakland Airport.

But one thing about the North Field runway is that it's about 1 mile inland from Runway 12-30.

Which considerably alters the flight path when the planes take off.

So, on Mondays, the airplanes during the day take off RIGHT OVER MY HOUSE AND IT SOUNDS LIKE THEY'RE ABOUT TO LAND IN MY DRIVEWAY.

That is all.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Saturday, July 18, 2020

How to be an Antiracist: a very short review

For the last month or so, I've been studying Ibram Kendi's How to be an Antiracist

I use the word "studying" rather deliberately, for Kendi's book is not the sort of book you just glide through. It stops and challenges you, it asks hard questions, it demands that you reflect.

How to be an Antiracist is not exactly a textbook, and it's not exactly an autobiography, though it has elements of both. Kendi takes a trip through his own life, looking back on various events and decisions as they occurred. Through that format, he shows how his life experiences came to shape him, and how he overcame many of those shapings to find new ways to be, new ways to see.

I found it to be deeply unsettling, as it was no doubt intended to be, and profoundly moving.

On the other hand, it's good for me to know that, personally, I still have a lot more work to do. After all, you can't fix something that you don't know about.

Kendi's book is certainly not perfect. For one thing, it can be dense and hard-going at times, particularly when he slips into the language of academic discourse, which is no easy read:

Across history, racist power has produced racist ideas about the racialized ethnic groups in its colonial sphere and ranked them -- across the globe and within their own nations. The history of the United States offers a parade of intra-racial ethnic power relationships: Anglo-Saxons discriminating against Irish Catholics and Jews; Cuban immigrants being privileged over Mexican immigrants; the model-minority construction that includes East Asians and excludes Muslims from South Asia. It's a history that began with early European colonizers referring to the Chrokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole as the "Five Civilized Tribes" of Native Americans, as compared to other "wild" tribes. This ranking of racialized ethnic groups within the ranking of the races creates a racial-ethnic hierarchy, a ladder of ethnic racism within the larger schema of racism.

We practice ethnic racism when we express a racist idea about an ethnic group or support a racist policy toward an ethnic group. Ethnic racism, like racism itself, points to group behavior, instead of policies, as the cause of disparities between groups. When Ghanaian immigrants to the United States join with White Americans and say African Americans are lazy, they are recycling the racist ideas of White Americans about African Americans. This is ethnic racism.

For another thing, he makes a deliberate attempt to be encyclopedic, framing chapter after chapter each with their own custom particular themes, which at times makes the overall effect feel rather forced. Some chapters are strong, and could have been longer. Some chapters are weak, and could have been shorter. But the overall structure forces him to tolerate some of those weaknesses.

But, please! Don't let these minor quibbles dissuade you. How to be an Antiracist is a powerful, valuable, necessary book. Kendi is a clear and piercing writer and he illustrates his points with vivid examples, making them crystal clear and immediately recognizable.

I'm tremendously glad I read How to be an Antiracist, and I hope everyone who can takes the time to read it.

Check that. I hope everyone takes the time to study it.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Sometimes there are things I realize only slowly.

Having never worked at home before, at least not in the sense of Working At Home, where you are working at home 5 days a week, 12 hours a day, for months on end, I really had no idea what it would mean.

So, content in my ignorance, I just pulled a chair up to the spare desk in the spare bedroom, plunked my computer down on it, and started Working At Home.

After only a couple days, I got myself a better chair.

After a week or two, I plugged in an old spare computer monitor, so I had two monitors.

I continued to fiddle with the setup, adding a mouse so I didn't need to use the trackpad, improving the ventilation and lighting, leveling up to a new much better monitor, etc.

One thing that I didn't understand, though, is that when two people who have been Working At The Office for decades, suddenly both decide that they are going to be Working At Home full time, there is suddenly a big shift in the space usage in the house.

That is, we brought all sorts of New Office Furniture And Gear And Stuff into the house.

And all the stuff that we already had in the house, began overflowing, stacked on counters, stuffed into closets, shoved into shelves in the garage.

You can't just bring a mountain of new stuff into the house, without displacing a more-or-less equivalent amount of Existing Stuff.

So finally, we came to our senses and admitted what was happening.

And now we have a storage locker (actually, a second storage locker) at our friendly neighborhood storage facility.

I'm telling myself that this is short-term, that in a few months we're going to jettison all this Important Office Work Stuff from the house, and bring back the Personal Stuff We Didn't Have Room For.

You know, that is, when life gets back to how it was.

Yes, I realize I'm still lying to myself.

But I'm not drowning in stuff. At least for now.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Are none of Charles Portis's books in print anymore?

After half an hour searching around the Internet, it seems like maybe all of Charles Portis's works are now available only from your local library, or as eBooks, or as (strikingly expensive) used books.

Actually, there may still be a paperback run of True Grit out there. But Gringos, Norwood, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, Escape Velocity; they all seem to be entirely out of print.

At least, if I'm reading the tea leaves accurately (how does one search for that question, exactly?)

I wonder how common this is, nowadays; are publishers finally ceasing print runs of authors even this popular?

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Chess adapts to the new online, distanced world

What a lovely story The Guardian is running about events in the main international chess tournament this week, the Chessable Masters:

Magnus Carlsen in another major final hardly rates a headline at the moment, such is the world champion’s dominance over his rivals. The 29-year-old Norwegian was at the height of his skills as he defeated America’s world No 2 and China’s world No 3 at the $150,000 Chessable Masters this week and so put himself in pole position for his fourth tournament victory in three months


[But] his semi-final against China’s Ding Liren will be remembered for a unique incident which put the match in the record books.

Ding had an easily drawn ending in their first game, but with a minute left he was disconnected and awarded a zero under the rules. The online audience of more than 50,000 showed their disappointment in the only available outlet, the comments page.

Game two, with Ding as White, opened 1 c4 e6 2 g3 Qg5? 3 Bg2 Qxd2+?? 4 Qxd2 and Carlsen resigned. He explained: “I have immense respect for Ding as a chess player and as a human being, and … I think it was the right thing to do.”

The real world may throw up roadblocks, but in the international family of Chess, may fair play and civility always prevail!

Friday, July 3, 2020

Amazing work by the National Geographic photography team

In the past, the National Geographic would routinely include maps, diagrams, and other material in special inserts inside the magazine, and some of these maps are among the most beautiful ones I've seen.

That practice seems greatly reduced nowadays, but in the latest issue there is such an insert, with a detailed map showing the major river systems and drainage basins that emanate out from the Himalayas, the Tian Shan, the Hindu Kush, and the other ranges of the Tibet Plateau.

And, on the back side of the map, is the most amazing photograph of Mount Everest that I think I've ever seen, or probably ever will see, blown up to a gorgeous six square foot image.

The photograph is panoramic, covering a 290 degree field of vision, and it is actually a composite image, stitched together from many separate pictures taken from an elevation of 27,000 feet above sea level, in mid-air.

Wait, you say! How can a picture be taken from mid-air from 27,000 feed above sea level?

The photography team hiked up to a camp at 23,000 feet at the top of East Rongbuk Glacier.

Then they deployed a camera-equipped drone and were able to pilot it 4,000 feet higher into the air, to a position where it could hover at 26,500 feet above the North Col of Mount Everest, approximately 1.5 miles away from the peak of Everest itself, and the drone took 26 ultra-high-definition images.

Then they successfully recovered the drone, took it to the National Geographic photography labs, and used computer software to stitch together the photos into the astonishing panoramic image.


Read more on the National Geographic website.