Thursday, April 30, 2020

Department of Mind-Blowing Theories: a very short review

One of my dear readers pointed me to a recent review of Tom Gauld's Department of Mind-Blowing Theories.

It looked like my sort of book.

And it was!

Gauld is a regular cartoonist for New Scientist and The Guardian, among others.

I won't claim that I find his cartoons to be side-splittingly funny. They're really more like Sidney Harris's work, with a fair bit of a Gary Larson style, where he looks at things sideways and often with a strong sense of the absurd.

Oh, and did I mention: they're science cartoons?

In these stressful times, we all need some stress relief. Heck, in any times, that's true.

What more is there to say?

Tom Gauld for the win.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Little Fires Everywhere: a very short review

Little Fires Everywhere is everywhere, nowadays: it's been on the top of the bestseller lists for more than a year, it's been translated into many other languages, it's been adapted into a top-rated streaming TV series, it's in every bookstore.

OK, I don't know about the bookstore part, I have been remiss in my visits to the bookstores.

I don't know if I'm going to watch the TV series, but I very much liked reading Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere

One of my reactions to reading Little Fires Everywhere was that it seemed like it was two different books.

At the start, Ng displays a graceful touch, gently and fully immersing us in the lives of a collection of related families in the town of Shaker Heights, Ohio (an upscale suburb of Cleveland):

life in their beautiful, perfectly ordered, abundantly furnished house, where the grass was always cut and the leaves were always raked and there was never, ever any garbage in sight; in their beautiful, perfectly ordered neighborhood where every lawn had a tree and the streets curved so that no one went too fast and every house harmonized with the next; in their beautiful, perfectly ordered city, where everyone got along and everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what mess lay within.
For reasons I don't really understand, the story is set about 25 years ago, during the mid 1990's. I suspect that this is because Ng herself was a certain age at that time, and finds it easiest to write about the lives and thoughts and emotions of teenagers in a setting that matches the time and place when she herself was of that age.

Whatever, I think it doesn't matter. What does matter is that Ng nails it, and within just a few pages we are flying along, becoming enmeshed in all these separate-but-intertwined stories, feeling the feelings and seeing the sights of all the various people in the story.

For example, a central theme of the book is the relationships between mothers and their children:

Everything Mrs. Richardson had put out of her mind from the hospital stay -- everything she thought she'd forgotten -- her body remembered on a cellular level: the rush of anxiety, the fear that permeated her thoughts of Izzy. The microscopic focus on each thing Izzy did, turning it this way and that, scrutinizing it for signs of weakness or disaster. Was she just a poor speller, or was this a sign of mental impairment? Was her handwriting just messy, was she just bad at arithmetic, were her temper tantrums normal, or was it something worse? As time went on, the concern unhooked itself from the fear and took on a life of its own. She had learned, with Izzy's birth, how your life could trundle along on its safe little track and then, with no warning, skid spectacularly off course. Every time Mrs Richardson looked at Izzy, that feeling of things spiraling out of control coiled around her again, like a muscle she didn't know how to unclench.

Note, too, the references to biology: "her body", "a cellular level", "microscopic", "that feeling", "a muscle". This, also, is a central theme of the book: is it the shared genome that connects parents and children, or can this relationship be formed via other means (adoption, IVF, surrogate parents, etc.)?

Somewhere around the middle of the book, though, Ng changes approach. She decides, for whatever reason, to turn the book into something between a detective story, a police procedural, and a thriller. Characters become investigators, and start to accumulate and uncover clues. Interviews are held, records are searched, accusations are made, trials are convened.

I'm not sure if Ng was impatient, wanting to cover a lot of ground quickly, and finding herself unsure about how to gently coax the various background stories out of the various characters, or if she just felt that she wanted to control how we received the enormous volume of information that is revealed in the second half of the book.

Or maybe she wanted to make a deeper point, about "people" and about "truth":

"Being a reporter," Pearl said. "I mean, being a journalist. You get to find out everything. You get to tell people's stories and figure out the truth and write about it." She spoke with the earnestness that only a teenager could truly have. "You use words to change the world. I'd love to do that." She glanced up at Mrs Richardson, who for the first time realized how very big and sincere Pearl's eyes were. "Like you do. I'd love to do what you do."

Well, the characters in this book certainly use words to change the world, but it's more like the way that a tailor uses scissors to cut fabric: something new is revealed, but irrevocable alterations have been made; and who's to say whether the result of the tailoring is any more true than the original was?

But who can blame us for being curious?

All up and down the street the houses looked like any others -- but inside them were people who might be happy, or taking refuge, or steeling themselves to go out into the world, searching for something better. So many lives she would never know about, unfolding behind those doors.

Regardless, this middle section left me feeling a bit flat. I felt like everything was a bit forced, quite artificial, and nowhere near as elegant and personal as the early going.

The last quarter of the book is like a slow motion avalanche. We have omnisciently learned all the "truths", or at least all the "stories" have been told, and now we just plow ahead and watch what happens. Near the end, pretty much every page is a heart-breaking revelation of man's inhumanity to man, all of it with the best of intentions, all of it misguided, misdirected, misplaced. And each little tragedy is oh so unavoidable, like when you can see that somebody is about to walk right off a cliff in the fog and you know exactly what is going to occur but there's nothing you can do and you can't look away.

But in the end, Little Fires Everywhere is a surprisingly hopeful tragedy, because the deepest message of the book is that we each are who we choose to be. We make our own choices, we take our own paths, and we have one tool that is always available to use: choice.

And then she thought about the first day she'd met Mia, what Mia had asked her: What are you going to do about it? It was the first time Izzy had ever felt there was something she could do about anything. Now she remembered what Mia had said to her the last time they'd seen each other, the words that had been echoing through her head ever since: how sometimes you needed to start over from scratch. Scorched earth, she had said, and at that moment Izzy decided what she was going to do.
Little Fires Everywhere, though it has its mis-steps and its clumsiness and its sometimes heavy-handed moments, is a blazing fireball of a book, an eye-opening, stop and look at yourself mirror held up to each of us, and finishing it is like waking from a stupor and seeing everything anew.

I recommend Little Fires Everywhere to all.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Outer Worlds: a very short review

It's Fallout! In outer space! With a psychedelic color pallette!

OK, that's probably a bit too short of a review.

Fallout is a much-beloved long-running series of RPG video games, the first of which came out in (gasp!) 1997 (or even 1988 if you consider Wasteland to be the true origin of the series).

Generally, games in the series feature

  • A post-apocalyptic game world
  • A primary player (you)
  • Various companions who will accompany you on your quests
  • Character customization and development through a system of attributes, skills, and perks
  • Huge, rich, fully-developed worlds
  • A wealth of secondary quests and adventures
  • Factions who offer different visions for how the game will develop, with critical plot choices often pivoting on your decision to support one faction versus another
  • A fair amount of satire and tongue-in-cheek humor

One of the most loved in the Fallout series was Fallout New Vegas, set in the desert of the U.S. Southwest.

The studio that built Fallout New Vegas has now produced Outer Worlds, which stays true to the basic Fallout pattern but resets

  • the game world to outer space
  • your character to a marooned colonist unexpectedly awakened on a drifting colony ship

The visual aspects of the game are delightful; the writing is as snarky as ever, and the various companions, quests, and story lines are as rich and compelling as you would hope for from a Fallout video game.

I've probably put 50 hours into Outer Worlds in the last 3 weeks.

I've been a bit cooped-up, you see.

It's a good game if you are cooped-up.

Friday, April 17, 2020

I'm not sure I'm learning very much from the statistics

Of course, neither statistics nor epidemiology is my field.

But still, how can you avoid being curious?

I looked at the overall statistics for the state, which are broken down county by county.

The ranking by county is an almost perfect match for the rank of counties by population.

For my own county, I tried looking a bit for city-by-city statistics, and found a pretty reasonable list here.

These, too, seem to map quite closely by population ranking. For example, about 25% of the population of Alameda County live in Oakland, and Oakland have almost exactly 25% of the cases.

Although there is more variability here. Berkeley have about 7% of the population, but have only about 4% of the reported cases. Hayward have about 10% of the population but have almost 20% of the reported cases. Fremont have about 14% of the population but have only about 8% of the reported cases.

But with a full 20% of the reported cases being in the categories "Under Investigation", "Known Homeless", "No Address", "Jail", and "Unincorporated", all of this seems very hard to get too precise about.

And I think I've heard that Hayward, specifically, have been the most active in doing testing. I read that people drove from all around the Bay Area to Hayward because you could get tested there. So maybe Hayward have simply tested twice as many people in their city than most of the other cities have done?

I guess I should go back to things that I (think I) know more about.

So I'll go back to writing software. Hope I'm better at that.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Overstory: a very short review

Yes, I know I haven't been writing.

It's worse; I haven't been reading, either.

Well, I am still reading. I read the news, too often. I read piles and piles and piles of technical documents at work (and I write piles and piles of such, too). I read lots of dialogue in the adventure games that I play on my computer.

But, books? Yeah, I haven't been reading books in the last 6 weeks (Boo! Hiss!).

Partly, it's because of circumstances: I read books when I commute, and the 4 feet from my bedroom to my office don't count as that.

But partly it's because I recently finished a wonderful book, and I've been strangely hesitant to start the next book, for fear that it would drive Richard Powers's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Overstory from my head.

And I'm also strangely hesitant to write about The Overstory, because I know I will fail to convey things properly (as you'll see below).

I've discovered that The Overstory is a strangely charged book, among people who pay attention to books.

I've had multiple people, a surprising number of people, tell me that they "hated" The Overstory, that it "repulsed" them, that they "couldn't get into it at all." Even the person who recommended it to me was unwilling to take a stand on it; perhaps she just thought, "Bryan will really like this book," and so recommended it to me?

But she was right: I loved it!

For one thing, this book was aimed at me. I am a child of the 1970's, and a denizen of the Pacific Northwest. When we moved to Los Angeles in June, 1970, the air pollution was so dreadful that our schools would occasionally declare Smog Days when there was no school and we all had to stay indoors. One winter day, 9 months after we moved to California, a storm front briefly cleared the air and I could see the mountains, just 10 short miles from my house but previously invisible.

By the mid-70's I was spending my summers in the mountains, backpacking, swimming, marveling at it all. I went off to the Big City for college, but the draw of the forest was unyielding and before long we were in Northern California where I could walk in the ancient forests and find peace in the quiet redwood groves.

I don't want to claim too much: I'm the sort of tree-lover who can barely tell a spruce from a larch, and couldn't distinguish a beech from a hickory in an hour; my favorite thing about forests is that they exist. Yes, The Overstory was definitely aimed at me.

But less about me, more about the book.

Although it is set over a period of decades, all across the country, The Overstory takes its central plot elements from the well-known Timber Wars incidents of the late 1980's and early 1990's, which arose out of the environmental activist movements of the late 1970's, most notably the harshly polarizing Earth First!.

There was lots of drama during these events, and all sorts of colorful characters, such as Judi Bari and David Chain, and of course Julia Butterfly Hill. Powers draws heavily from the historical records, and many of his primary characters and their escapades feel like they are almost lifted from the press accounts of the time.

Powers spends much of his time, though, trying to dig back into a deeper story. Why did this collection of strange oddballs on the fringes of American society come together in such a passionate manner? What drove them to such lengths? And, in the end, what did they change?

Although such a book (and there are many such) could certainly be written as non-fiction, Powers has chosen historical fiction and thus he can bend and stretch and re-shape the story to his goals, as well as deploy his powerful writing talents.

Some of this is motivation and backstory, to help us even notice the trees all around us

Below her, past the knots of sunbathers, down a shallow auditorium slope, an asphalt path meanders in a gentle S. And just beyond the path, a zoo of trees. A voice up close in her ear says, Look the color!. More shades than there are names, as many shades as there are numbers, and all of them green. There are squat date palms that predate the dinosaurs. Towering Washingtonia with their fan fringes and dense inflorescence. Through the palms, a whole spectrum of broadleaves run from purple to yellow. Coast live oaks, for certain. Shameless, naked eucalypts. Those specimens with the odd, warty bark and exuberant compound leaves she could never find in any guidebook.
And to try to justify why somebody might choose to dedicate their entire life to trees.
She sits on her Shaker chair at the table, listening to the crickets. Long ago her father taught her an old formula, one that converts cricket chirps per minute into degrees Fahrenheit. For sixty years, the nighttime orchestra all around her has been playing one of those folk dances that keep speeding up until all the players tumble in a heap. We would be thrilled if you could talk about any role trees might play in helping mankind to a sustainable future. The conference organizers want a keynote from a woman who once wrote a book on the power of woody plants to restore the failing planet. But she wrote that book decades ago, when she was still young enough for courage and the planet still well enough to rally.

But once his characters are established, Powers turns to the central challenge of the environmental movement: nature versus progress:

These people need dreams of technological breakthrough. Some new way to pulp poplar into paper while burning slightly fewer hydrocarbons. Some genetically altered cash crop that will build better houses and lift the world's poor from misery. The home repair they want is just a slightly less wasteful demolition. She could tell them about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, and scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it's the stuff of poems. If forests were patentable, she'd get an ovation.

And how the progress itself can seem to shift from being the means to being the end:

Beyond the trees, the pastel project of the city piles up in cubes of white, peach, and ocher. It builds over the hills toward the towering center, where the buildings rise skyward and turn denser. The raw force of this self-feeding engine, the countless lives that power the enterprise down at ground level, come clear to her. Across the horizon, stands of building cranes break and remake the skyline. All the spreading, urging, testing, splitting, and regenerating course of history, the rings within rings, paid for at every step with fuel and shade and fruit, oxygen and wood ... Nothing in this city is older than a century. In seventy plus seventy years, San Francisco will be saintly at last, or gone.

This meditation on progress, and on transformation, ends up in a long and complex metaphorical examination, funneled through Neelay, a crippled (he fell from a tree as a child!) high-tech entrepeneur, about whether human beings have forgotten their ability to celebrate the wonders of the world around them, and its natural intelligence, in favor of an increasingly abstract and artificial intelligence with needs of its own:

While the prisoner thinks, innovations surge over his head, across the flyover from Portland and Seattle to Boston and New York and back again. In the time it takes the man to form one self-judging thought, a billion packets of program pass over. They course under the sea in great cables -- buzzing between Tokyo, Chengdu, Shengzhen, Bangalore, Chicago, Dublin, Dallas, and Berlin. And the learners begin to turn all this data into sense.


They split and replicate, these master algorithms that Neelay lofts into the air. They're just starting out, like the simplest cells back in the Earth's morning. But already they've learned, in a few short decades, what it took molecules a billion years to learn to do. Now they need only learn what life wants from humans. It's a big question, to be sure. Too big for people alone. But people aren't alone, and they never have been.


High above Adam's prison, new creatures sweep up into satellite orbit and back down to the planet's surface, obeying the old, first hungers, the primal commands -- look, listen, taste, touch, feel, say, join. They gossip to one other, these new species, exchanging discoveries, as living code has exchanged itself from the beginning. They begin to link up, to fuse together, to merge their cells and form small communities. There's no saying what they might become, in seventy plus seventy years.


And so Neely gets out and sees the world. His children comb the Earth tonight with one command: Absorb everything. Eat every scrap of data you can find. Sort and compare more measurements than all of humanity in all of history has yet managed.


Soon enough, his learners will see across the planet. They'll watch the vast boreal forests from space and read the species-teeming tropics from eye level. They'll study rivers and measure what's in them. They'll collate the data of every wild creatures ever tagged and map their wanderings. They'll read every sentence in every article that every field scientist ever published. They'll binge-watch every landscape that anyone has pointed a camera at. They'll listen to tall the sounds of the streaming Earth. They'll do what the genes of their ancestors shaped them to do, what all their forebears have ever done themselves. They'll speculate on what it takes to live and put these speculations to the test. Then they'll say what life wants from people, and how it might use them.

Putting these more strained observations aside for the moment, let's return to the central question of Powers's novel: did anything change?

I think the answer must be a qualified yes, and I think others would agree: When Tree Sitters Heart Lumberjacks

Schultz’s simple gesture was the latest sign that the timber wars that have raged in Northern California’s redwood country for nearly a quarter century are coming to an end. Gone is Pacific Lumber, the 145-year-old company that Charles Hurwitz and his Houston-based Maxxam Inc. took on a binge of old-growth logging in the ’80s and ’90s, making it easily the most despised lumber company in America.

This change comes slowly, and the decisions and challenges are subtler now:

Here the air was cooler, the ground carpeted with sword ferns and huckleberries. Pacific Lumber’s loggers had planned to clear the area, but Humboldt decided to cut selectively, leaving behind clumps of large trees. Adams was still coming to terms with this approach. “Clearcutting is not all bad,” he said, “as long as you don’t clearcut too much.” Graecen, meanwhile, was pondering the future. “Making this into a park wouldn’t be good for the forest,” he mused. Humboldt Redwood’s more intensive management—weeding out invasive species to nurture slow-growing firs and redwoods—could improve the land, he concluded.

Powers surely wants us to put down our phones, stop directing every spare resource into our machine learning engines, and go for a walk in the forest, and even if The Overstory is more polemic than novel, it is yet more substantially a fable of a past that could still be our future.

Who knows? After you read it, you may go and take a walk in the forest, yourself.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

And now it's April

March was a blur.

I was, dimly, aware of the COVID-19 issue way back at the end of December; interestingly, I learned about it from my son (!) who pays a lot more attention to certain things than I do. I remember being in a meeting at work and taking a text message from Dan, and my co-worker asked me what had so distracted me, and I said something like: "my son just asked me what I thought about this new disease in central China", and my co-worker said something like: "you know, most people don't have sons like yours."

True that!

But after that I dove back into work, and sadly was paying only casual attention. One of my habits at work is to take long mid-day walks every day, and so I walk all over downtown SF. Often I walk by Moscone Convention Center, which is just 2 blocks from my office. One day, as I was walking past the convention center, with the streets full of attendees scurrying to lunch at the local restaurants, I read about 2 upcoming tech conferences that were being cancelled because of concerns about all the international visitors coming and going to and from San Francisco.

Suddenly it was like a slap in the face: what am I doing?

The next day (March 4th) was my last day commuting into in my office in San Francisco.

Two days later, my company suggested that all employees who *could* work at home, *should* work at home. Two days after that, the company asked all employees to *please* work at home. Two days after that, the Bay Area went into the shelter-at-home protocols.

All my life in California, we have discussed shelter-at-home protocols. I can still remember when we first moved to California. I was 9 yrs old, and I remember the "duck-and-cover" drills that we did at school. I was 11 when I was in my first major earthquake (the 1972 Los Angeles quake). I remember the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake which re-shaped the entire Bay Area, destroying bridges and freeways and entire neighborhoods, and I remember the terrifying 1991 Oakland firestorm just a few miles away from our house. Much more recently, the horrors of the 2017 and 2018 forest fire seasons are still vivid, and, in fact, when they told us last month that we might want to wear a mask, it turned out that we still had a pair of pristine masks that we'd bought when the air in the Bay Area was filled with choking smoke.

But all the evidence indicates that the disease came to the U.S. on January 20, right here in the Bay Area, and six weeks later I was still calmly enjoying my mid-day walks around downtown San Francisco.

That was not smart of me.

I got very, very lucky.

To be honest, I remember very little of the rest of March. I threw myself into work, working 14+ hours a day, seven days a week, because at least it kept me from hitting "reload" on over and over all day. Donna and I made a whirlwind two day trip down to Los Angeles to check on my parents, returning home to the Bay Area only one hour before Governor Newsom announced that he was expanding the Bay Area protocols to the entire state.

As the shock and panic faded, it became clear how unbelievably lucky I am. I have a wonderful job, with great co-workers, and I'm in a field where I actually can be very effective working at home for weeks at a time. I hope that one day I will return to being a regular office attendee, because I think that the vast majority of my job is actually to be "present" for the other members of my team.

But, increasingly, I'm learning how to be present without actually being present.

If that makes any sense.

I am convinced that this approach works. I think that you can find fault with anything if you try, but I think it's extremely notable that (a) Mayor Breed of San Francisco was pretty much the first government figure in America to take vigorous action regarding the crisis, that (b) CEO Marc Benioff was pretty much the first large company CEO to completely pivot his company to respond to the crisis, (c) the Bay Area as a whole was the first place to demonstrate that shelter-at-home actually works, and (d) Governor Newsom led California to be the first state to embrace the practice state-wide. Here in the Bay Area, at least, the curve was flattened, and with every passing day we are living the example that proves it can be done.

I've said this many times before, but my experience from living in California for almost 50 years is that: new things happen first in the Bay Area. As goes the Bay Area, so goes California. As goes California, so goes the United States. People around the world are different, and nothing is simple, but the Bay Area has been leading the way for half a century, and it's been fascinating, if at times exhausting, to live in the middle of the greatest change engine on the planet. Every few years everything changes, and we change too, and this is how the future happens.

I don't know what comes next. I hope everyone can do everything they can to work together on this. Which will be hard, but the alternative is so much worse.

In the meantime, in my house, we're listening to a lot of music, binge-watching the Great British Baking Show, playing Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order and The Outer Worlds, taking the dog for plenty of walks, failing to exercise adequately but getting lots of sleep and drinking lots of water.

And working. Working, working, working.

May your hunkering down be safe and uneventful and unexpectedly productive, like mine has been so far.

Best wishes.