Thursday, December 16, 2021

Project Zero on the iMessage zero-click exploit

Three months after Apple released the patch for the exploit, the Project Zero team have released a fabulous detailed description of how it worked: A deep dive into an NSO zero-click iMessage exploit: Remote Code Execution.

The Project Zero team, who most certainly have seen it all, dryly observe:

Based on our research and findings, we assess this to be one of the most technically sophisticated exploits we've ever seen

This is an extraordinarily interesting article, well worth a read. (And note that it's only part of the overall explanation; the Project Zero team promise further details in the future.)

They provide a wealth of background links and reference material as well.

Highly recommended.

Friday, December 10, 2021

WCC 2021 is complete

... and Magnus Carlsen is World Chess Champion for two more years.

After a quiet draw in the previous match, Ian Nepomniachtchi had the white pieces, and with his back completely against the wall he had to take some chances. In a wild sequence starting around move 19, Nepo forced the relatively closed position open, after which Carlsen quickly saw that he could sacrifice the exchange for a ferocious attack. 15 moves later, Nepo had defended against the attack, but ended up in a hopeless endgame which Carlsen won with seeming ease.

It was a wonderful match, overall, with many beautiful games.

And it was very exciting to see how the worldwide interest in chess continues to grow!

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Up, up, and away

As I noted just three weeks ago, the first test of the new Millenium Tower stabilization procedures was completed and "a second test will follow".

Not a promising early result from the new test, though: SF Millennium Tower Tilts Quarter Inch in Four Days

Newly released monitoring data shows that San Francisco’s Millennium Tower tilted a quarter inch during the four days it took to install the first test pile to bedrock last month.


The latest data – including the four days that the test pile was installed from Nov. 15 to Nov. 19 – shows a quarter inch of new tilt, as well as a tenth of an inch of settlement at the time the test installation occurred. At the same time, there was marked fluctuation of water pressure below the foundation on the Mission Street side of the structure.


While the data shows plunging pressure level quickly came back up, Pyke said the brief loss would likely generate settlement.


“You can accidentally remove soil that you want to stay in place,” said Rune Storesund, a geotechnical engineer who runs UC Berkeley’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management. He says the water pressure data suggests engineers could clearly do more to refine their methods. “You’re always going to get settlement, obviously you want that to be as low as possible.”

It's not like they didn't expect there would be some impact; they're just discussing how substantial the measured impact was.

I guess that if the building settles evenly, that's the most important thing; the tilt is far more of a challenge than the settling.

Not that this is easy, but it sure would be nice if the overall result were successful.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

WCC 2021: A third Carlsen victory

Carlsen has now won 3 of the last 4 games, and leads, overall, 6-3.

I'm not sure whether Carlsen needs 7 or 7.5 points in order to retain his title, but either way, he's getting close.

Game 9 was quite interesting until it, suddenly, wasn't very interesting at all.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

WCC 2021: A second Carlsen victory

After eight of the scheduled fourteen games, Carlsen now leads 5-3.

Today's match was sharp and short, compared to the epic game six marathon. In a queen-and-pawn endgame, Carlsen maneuvered crisply and won two pawns, and Nepomniachtchi resigned on move 46.

Friday, December 3, 2021

WCC 2021 Sixth game is not a draw!

The first 5 games were all King Pawn games, but on game six Carlsen opened with the Queen Pawn.

On move 26, Carlsen exchanged his Queen for two Rooks.

Then on move 80, Carlsen exchanged one Rook for a Bishop and two Pawns, leaving Carlsen with Rook, Knight, and three Pawns, while Nepomniachtchi had Queen and Pawn.

The game proceeded, well into its sixth hour by now.

On move 113, a pair of Pawns were exchanged, and it was now Rook, Knight, and two Pawns against Queen.

The game proceeded, move by agonizing move, becoming (by far) the longest game of a World Chess Championship ever, I believe?

By move 130, Carlsen's first Pawn was on the fifth rank. By move 133, it was on the sixth rank, and by move 135 the second Pawn had advanced to the fifth rank to support it.

Nepomniachtchi resigned on the 136 move.

So six of the scheduled fourteen games are complete, and the score is 5 draws, 1 win.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

WCC 2021 games 3 and 4 are complete, and all is still even.

Two more games, two more draws.

The championship is set for 14 total games, so it's still early days.

And, once again, not boring draws, not at all!

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi is underway!

The first two games of the Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi 2021 World Chess Championship are now complete.

Two draws, but neither were boring!

Everybody expects this match to be very, very close. It's hard to recall two players as (seemingly) evenly matched as these two, perhaps at least since the years (decades?) of Karpov-Kasparov.

Watch the matches on!

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Old programmers and old bugs

Why do I find old bugs so interesting? I'm not sure, but I've always really enjoyed tracking down a bug that turns out to have been present in the code for many years.

In this particular case, the code was in a program which was doing some randomized testing. We didn't need ultra-fancy cryptographically-secure randomization here, we just wanted to spread the testing out in interesting ways. So the programmer kept it simple (which is good!):

java.util.Random random = new java.util.Random();

Now we can get a random number for use in our test, whenever we want, quite simply, by just calling random.nextInt(), as in:

int randNum = random.nextInt();

For this particular test program, however, it's much more convenient to work only with non-negative numbers. Every program is different, but this particular test program didn't handle negative numbers in its other sections of the code.

So that's simple; we'll just use the absolute value of the random integer, so we change the above line very slightly:

int randNum = java.lang.Math.abs(random.nextInt());

And all was well. The test program was put into regular use, running regularly in our Continuous Integration test system, doing a variety of randomized testing after every commit. Over seven years, many trillions of invocations of this code were made.

But very occasionally (twice in the last year, which was just often enough for our automated testing tool to notice a pattern), the test failed, printing an (unfortunately) obscure message:

Row not found:-2147483648

Initially, the problem was not given much notice, lost in the cacophony of day-to-day work, but when it happened a second time, I was intrigued! Bugs which happen only once are always interesting, but bugs which happen twice, but with 9 months between them, seem to raise my hackles in strange ways.

Glancing at it, I was struck by -2147483648. As every programmer knows, this is java.lang.Integer.MIN_VALUE; that is, it is the smallest number that can be stored in a 32-bit twos-complement signed integer.

Hmmm... I said to myself. Does this mean that Math.abs() returned a negative number?

Off I went to RTFM, where I found:

Note that if the argument is equal to the value of Integer.MIN_VALUE, the most negative representable int value, the result is that same value, which is negative.

Of course! The absolute value of -2147483648 is too large to be stored in a 32 bit integer.

And, unfortunately, instead of throwing an exception at this point, the original builders of Java, nearly 30 years ago, decided to simply have Math.abs(Integer.MIN_VALUE) return Integer.MIN_VALUE.

Well, at least they documented it.

It turns out that nine months or so works out to be just enough that a one-in-four-billion chance actually occurs. And it appears that we must have increased our overall testing frequency, because until recently we weren't running enough tests to hit this condition often enough for the automated test analyzer to have two occurrences in its historical database to enable it to see a pattern worth notifying us about.

Time was on our side.

The problem was right there, hiding in plain sight! And yet, none of us saw it. Isn't that interesting?

Saturday, November 20, 2021

California Dish: a very short review

Over the summer, I happened to watch The Last Magnificent, a fairly interesting documentary of celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower.

Although Tower's particular approach to cooking, and to the restaurant business, are not really my thing, I was interested enough by the documentary, particularly by its Bay Area history aspects, to spend some time reading Tower's memoir, California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution.

The book is pretty much exactly as promised on the overleaf: it's a chatty and gossipy memoir of Tower's career as a Bay Area celebrity chef during, roughly, the period 1975-2000. Although there are recipes in the book, it's definitely not a cookbook!

Although the book remained interesting enough that I turned the pages to the end, the overall approach of Tower's memoir style can be boiled down to:

  • Here's this (in)famous incident I was involved in as a chef, you may have heard about it.
  • Here's who was there, and here's the shocking thing that happened, really!
  • (almost always) And here's why it wasn't my fault

Event organizers, famous celebrities, patrons of fine cuisine, restauranteurs, politicians, businessmen, farmers, other chefs; all end up feeling the heat from Tower as somehow he bowls through madcap incident after madcap incident overcoming everybody else's mistakes and shortcomings.

Which is pretty much par for the course for a celebrity memoir, I guess.

Anyway, there is a lot of Bay Area history in California Dish, particularly cultural history of the period 1975-2000, which was a time of tremendous change in the Bay Area, and so even if I didn't learn much about which French wine to pair with grilled Tomales Bay oysters, or how to run a gourmet restaurant, I certainly had an entertaining few hours sitting at the table listening to Tower spin his absurd stories of the good old days.

Up, up, and away

Stabilization work on the Millenium Tower in San Francisco was halted in late July after the stabilization work appeared to be further destabilizing the structure.

Last month, the construction company announced that an improved stabilization technique had been successfully tested: Millennium Tower Fix Test Declared ‘Successful'

Fix designer Ron Hamburger told Millennium residents in a notice Thursday that the test was intended to “to demonstrate the Contractor’s ability to use improved procedures to install these casings without causing significant additional building settlement and tilting.”

“I am pleased to report that the test was successful,” Hamburger said. “Total building movement during the test was approximately one hundredth of an inch. This demonstrates that it is possible to install the remaining casings.”

He said a second test will follow, which involves installing a two-foot wide pile through an existing casing down to bedrock. “If this second test is successful, we look forward to a resumption of work and completion of the project.”

The city, however, is not so sure:

City officials, meanwhile, released weekly monitoring data showing that the building continues to settle despite a stop on work since Aug. 22, including an unexplained dip in early October indicating about the same settlement rate as measured before pile installation was halted in August.

Meanwhile, if you, like me, are the sort of person who can't tell the difference between Colma Sand and Old Bay Clay, here's a great overall backgrounder from Grady Hillhouse's Practical Engineering blog with a short video to catch you up on all that's been going on: What Really Happened at the Millennium Tower?

I'm certain this will not be the last status update I write about this project.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Dictionary of Lost Words: a very short review

What was it like to be a young woman in Oxford, England, during the waning years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th?

Frankly, that's not a question I'd really considered before, but Australian author Pip Williams did, and decided to treat it in a work of historical fiction: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

As a pretext, Williams takes the multi-decades effort of the Oxford University Press to create the Oxford English Dictionary, which is certainly one of the great achievements of English literature. In this time long before computers and machines, the 12-volume OED's 40-year publishing history is one of the great successes of the written word, but rather a challenge to turn into a novel.

Williams's approach is to place the enterprise in a larger historical context. She conjures up a young woman, Esme Nicholl, to serve as her imaginary heroine, and arranges for Esme to work as a clerk in James Murray's team of lexicographers and editors. And she follows Esme's life during the time period from 1885 to 1928, populating her story with a list of historically accurate characters and events: the industrial revolution, the fight for women's suffrage, World War One, and more.

There's plenty to talk about during such a period, but Williams keeps the discussions nicely rooted in the linguistic realm, as Esme experiences the world through a panoply of words. Even now, lexicographers still use approaches such as selecting the Word of the Year to recognize the deep impact that words have on our lives.

And even outside the global realms of science, commerce, and politics, words frame our lives in so many more immediate ways, as Esme comes to learn:

"Do women usually swear when they have their babies?"

She dropped the nightdress over my head. It billowed, then settled against my skin like a breeze. She helped me find the arm holes.

"If they know the right words, they can hardly help it."

"I know some quite bad words. I collect them from an old woman at the market in Oxford."

"Well, it's one thing to hear them in the market and quite another to have them roll around inside your mouth." She took my dressing gown from the back of the door and helped me into it. "Some words are more than letters on a page, don't you think?" she said, tying the sash around my belly as best she could. "They have shape and texture. They are like bullets, full of energy , and when you give one breath you can feel its sharp edge against your lip. It can be quite cathartic in the right context."

"Like when someone cuts in front of you on the way to the cricket?" I said.

She laughed. "Oh dear. Philip calls it my motormouth. I hope you weren't offended."

"A bit surprised, but I think that's when I started to really like you."

The Dictionary of Lost Words ends a little abruptly, and far too soon. I think that's one of the nicer things one can say about a book.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Steady vaccine progress

The state of California, which is a significant (~40M) size, has now been monitoring its COVID-19 data long enough that we can perhaps talk about yearly patterns.

Below are a few charts and graphs from the state's top-level dashboard.

Specifically, we look at cases, test positivity rate, and total hospitalizations, as well as (of course) vaccine progress.

For cases, in 2020 the case rate began to climb at a near-vertical pace on November 1st, but here it is mid-November and case rates continue to decline from the summer's Delta wave:

For test positivity rate, in mid-Nov 2020 the positivity rate of the tests was at 6% and climbing all November, while here in mid-November 2021 the positivity rate is 2% and has been steady at that rate for weeks:

And for hospitalizations, which are a lagging indicator but perhaps the most important indicator, in mid-November 2020 state hospitalizations were at 6,000, climbing from a value of about 3,200 at the start of Nov 2020, while in mid-November 2021 state hospitalizations are at 3,768 but they have been stable at about 4,000 for weeks and appear to be slowly declining now.

My instinct is that we have to wait at least another two weeks before we'll get solid information about whether we're going to see the same wave that California saw last winter, but the early information has to be deemed promising and optimistic.

Meanwhile, to close on that "steady vaccine progress" claim, the dashboard also shows that vaccination rates in California are actually still rising even now 10 months after vaccination began.

Vaccination is working; California's 10 months of hard data proves it.

Yay for continued progress on state-wide vaccination!

Monday, November 8, 2021

Wondo retires

After a seventeen year career and fittingly with a goal in the final game of his final season, San Jose Earthquakes legend Chris Wondolowski has retired from professional soccer.

Wondo was certainly not the most well-known of US professional soccer players, but he was durable, reliable, and always fun to watch (well maybe except during that Belgium match in the 2014 World Cup).

Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Shell Collector: a very short review

About four years ago I read Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See, and loved it. It's not for everyone, but it worked for me. Doerr has written other works, including other more recent works, but I decided to go back to the start and explore Doerr's early work, reading his short story collection from more than two decades ago: The Shell Collector: Stories.

I don't read short stories very often, but I love the format. The limited space forces an immediacy and urgency that draws you into each story quickly and deeply. In these stories, although they vary widely in their actual length, Doerr takes this urgency to extremes. He cuts and pares and replaces descriptions with hints, and even replaces hints with omissions, so that you stumble breathlessly across a gap, go back and forth over the gap several times, realize it was deliberate, and realize that you've filled in the gap yourself and indeed he didn't have to tell that part. Several times the story ends on the precipice of resolution, and Doerr is content to drop you off and allow you to compose your own conclusion.

It can be a frustrating experience to read short stories like these.

On the other hand Doerr makes up for it with the vividness of the stories, and the power of his writing.

The stories cover a broad range of topics and are set in a broad range of contexts. Several are set in the Northern Plains where Doerr lives and works. Others are set farther afield: Africa, Europe, Maine.

A common thread, though, is Doerr's physicality and his love of the outdoors, and nearly all these stories involve people and their interactions with the physical world, often as metaphor for their more abstract interactions with each other. The title story involves a blind man whose lifelong study of molluscs by touch and smell is a metaphor for his attempts to understand his adult son. July Fourth involves two groups who settle a pub dispute by going fishing. In The Caretaker, a collection of beached whales on the Oregon coast are a metaphor for the horrors of warfare that are plaguing an African immigrant refugee. In A Tangle by the Rapid River, the fisherman's efforts to detangle his fly fishing line from the riverside shrubbery are a metaphor for the near-terminal state of his failed relationship with his spouse. Mkondo draws its core strength from trail running as a metaphor for courtship and commitment.

Here's Joseph, the protagonist of The Caretaker, visited in his garden by the deaf girl Belle, talking about how he felt compelled to bury the stranded whales, only to realize he is actually talking about the pain of losing his mother during the war:

After a moment he adds, "I buried the hearts from the whales in the forest." He makes the sign for heart over his chest.

She looks at him, canting her head. Her face softens. What? she signs.

"I buried them here." He wants to say more, wants to tell her the whales' story. But does he even know it?


Her pale fingers browse among the stems, a raindrop slips down the curve of a green tomato, he has a sudden need to tell her everything. All his petty crimes, the way his mother left for the market in the morning while he slept -- a hundred confessions surge through him. He has been waiting too long; the words have been building behind a dyke and now the dyke is breached and the river is slipping its banks. He wants to tell her what he has learned about the miracles of light, the way a day's light fluxes in tides: pale and gleaming at dawn, the glare of noon, the gold of evening, the promise of twilight -- every second of every day has its own magic. He wants to tell her that when things vanish they become something else, in death we rise again in the blades of grass, the splitting bodies of seeds. But his past is flooding out: the dictionary, the ledger, his mother, the horrors he has seen.

"I had a mother," he says. "She disappeared." He cannot tell if Belle is reading his lips; she is looking away, lifting a tomato and scraping some mud from its underside, letting it back down. Joseph squats in front of her. The storm sirs the trees.

"She had a garden. Like this but nicer. More ... orderly."

It's hard to realize that Doerr was only in his early twenties when he wrote these stories; they each come to life like the work of a great writer in his prime. Remarkable.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Ted Gioia on Whitney Balliett

I really enjoyed Gioia's How to Listen to Jazz, although for some reason it seems I never wrote about his book here.

Anyway, here's a nice essay by Gioia which encompasses a number of my favorite things: The Music Critic Who Tried To Disappear

  • Jazz (of course)
  • Specifically, the amazingly productive period of the late 1950's and early 1960's when a flood of beautiful new music was written and performed
  • Public Libraries
  • Music as Literature
  • The strange way in which a few youthful interests can become lifelong passions

Gioia on what he means about what a critic might do in order to be disappearing:

This unwarranted humility came to a head in mid-career, when Balliett’s personality and opinions vanished almost completely from his writings—a disappearing act unusual for any essayist, but especially for a music critic. “Sometimes during the 70s,” Giddins wrote back in 1983, “Balliett made the draconian decision to remove all the I’s from his writing. He not only eschews the pronoun in his current work, but has expelled it when revising his older pieces.” I dare say no one else in the jazz reviewing trade had ever made such a move, or perhaps even considered it.

Did this peculiar retreat make his jazz writing less authoritative—removing all those judgments and verdicts that are the very essence of authority—or did they give it even greater force, turning his perspectives into part of the fabric of the art form, natural laws instead of subjective opinions? You could argue that point endlessly. In any event, the final result of this shift was to create a shimmering translucency to his music writing, a new effect in a very old trade. Sometimes you even walked away with the impression that the musicians and music had spoken for themselves. Whether they actually did (perhaps doubtful), or if it were merely a prestidigitator’s effect created by the critic-behind-the-scenes, is almost irrelevant. Oz is still a magical place even after you find the Wizard hiding behind the curtain.


Friday, October 22, 2021

The rain is falling!

It has been so long since it last rained, I've completely forgotten what it's like.

Here's how you can watch the rain falling, all across the state:

Pay attention to rivers such as the Pit, the Feather, and the Trinity; these are the ones that supply the most important reservoirs in the state.

The Trinity is a particularly interesting case, because it has been massively engineered by humans, over the last hundred years, to divert nearly all of its water from flowing directly out into the Pacific Ocean, to instead flowing down into the Central Valley.

And here's how you can see how the major reservoirs are doing, all across the state:

The far north of California, which is the most important for the water supply, is about six million acre feet short of where it normally is.

That's a lot of water, but: the rain is falling!

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Huichica Music Festival 2021

We went to the 2021 edition of the Huichica Music Festival, the first time we'd ever been to this particular event.

This is a very small festival, which runs over two afternoons-and-evenings across 3 stages on the grounds of Gundlach-Bundschu winery in Sonoma, CA.

Since we'd never been before, we didn't have a good yardstick, but from talking to some of the staff, I think attendance was significantly down this year, which was lovely for us attendees, but presumably quite sad for the promotors, the sponsors, the vendors, etc.

Still, the opportunity to see an act like Mac Demarco or Yo La Tengo with only a couple hundred attendees in the audience is absolutely amazing, and the weather was just glorious, so we truly enjoyed ourselves.

My favorite shows were these, in roughly descending order.

  1. Thee Sacred Souls. A lovely soul band from San Diego with a great frontman and great production values. What a great find they were!
  2. Devendra Banhart. Dev has been playing shows in the Bay Area for a long time, but this was my first chance to see him and his band. He's been to the festival before and it showed: he knew just how to match his show to the location and the audience.
  3. Wet. Wet are an East Coast (Brooklyn) band that is still finding their footing after a few lineup changes. Vocalist Kelley Zutrau has a superb voice and great stage presence, and their songs are mesmerizing electronic ballads. Read more about Kelly here.
  4. Cass McCombs. McCombs is a Bay Area native who I had somehow not known of up til now. I love his sound, and could listen to him play for hours. He reminds me of artists like Shakey Graves or Lord Huron.
  5. Whitney. I'm a huge fan of Whitney, who are from Chicago, and this was the third show of theirs that we've seen. I really hope they can put together a new album and release some new material.
  6. Mac DeMarco. I really enjoy Mac DeMarco's music, and he's got a great stage personality. They didn't deliver the best set that they're capable of this weekend, I feel, but he's got a great future ahead of him.
  7. Lauren Barth. Barth is another Bay Area native who I hadn't heard before, and she was a lot of fun to listen to.

We really enjoyed the Huichica Festival. I hope that it can return in future years, and I'm sure we'll look forward to more chances to attend.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Thoughtworks Responsible Tech Playbook

Martin Fowler talks about the newly-released Thoughtworks Responsible Tech Playbook

The playbook is a free PDF download of about 50 slides, the bulk of which is a summary of a dozen tools and methods that teams can use to better understand their responsibilities. Each summary is a couple of slides outlining the basics of the technique: what is it, who created it, when we should use it, how it works, and our perspective on its place in our development efforts.

Thoughtworks is, primarily, a consultancy which specializes in development tools and processes, and the playbook is basically links to a number of such tools and processes. Some of these tools were designed by Thoughtworks themselves, others are incorporated from outside Thoughtworks.

I definitely like the high-level three-step overview from the playbook:

  1. Open up perspectives: Solicit different points of view to think through a wider range of potential consequences and outcomes.
  2. Mitigate potential risks: Identify and address ethical challenges and vulnerabilities before they become bigger problems.
  3. Unpack stakeholder values: Ensure the technology is designed to meet the needs and support the values of those it is intended to serve.

I'm quite familiar with some of the techniques, such as Security Threat Modeling. Many of the techniques are new to me, and some sound interesting (Data Ethics Canvas, Consequence Scanning, Ethical Explorer), while others sound a bit gimicky and forced (Tarot Cards of Tech).

There seems to be a fair amount of overlap among the approaches, so probably there is a subset that gets you much of the benefit with a relatively small impact to your current processes.

There's a lot to chew on here, and some new ideas I'll probably think about some more.

Monday, October 4, 2021

The little drone and the Big Bad Hurricane

Chalk up another success for Alameda's Saildrone Corporation, which sent a specially modified Saildrone on a most remarkable mission last week: World First: Ocean Drone Captures Video from Inside a Category 4 Hurricane

Saildrone Inc. and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have released the first video footage gathered by an uncrewed surface vehicle (USV) from inside a major hurricane barreling across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Saildrone Explorer SD 1045 was directed into the midst of Hurricane Sam, which is currently on a path that fortunately will miss the US East Coast. SD 1045 is battling 50-foot waves and winds of over 120 mph to collect critical scientific data and, in the process, is giving us a completely new view of one of Earth’s most destructive forces.

Equipped with a specially designed “hurricane wing” enabling it to operate in extreme wind conditions, SD 1045 is braving Hurricane Sam in the open ocean, collecting real-time observations for numerical hurricane prediction models, which are expected to yield new insights into how large and destructive tropical cyclones grow and intensify.

SD 1045 is one of a fleet of five “hurricane” saildrones that have been operating in the Atlantic Ocean during this hurricane season, gathering data around the clock to help understand the physical processes of hurricanes. This knowledge is critical to improving storm forecasting and is expected to reduce loss of human life through allowing better preparedness in coastal communities.

Don't miss the embedded video. Go, go, little Saildrone!

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Bad Karma: a very short review

By way of one of my oldest and dearest friends, I encountered Paul Wilson's odd yet captivating BAD KARMA: The True Story of a Mexico Trip from Hell

Wilson grew up in the San Diego suburbs in the 1960's and 1970's and became an avid surfer during those peak days of "surf culture".

So when some of the other surfers that he knew invited him to go along on a surfing adventure to a renowned surfing beach in tropical Mexico, Wilson jumped at the chance.

Then everything went wrong.

This is an unusual book. It's not really clear why Wilson waited forty years to tell his story, and of course the reader is bound to be skeptical of the unreliability of memory after such a long time.

And Wilson is not a natural writer, so the book is, as my friend so memorably put it, "rather low prose".

But Wilson's tale is so dramatic and vivid, and Wilson is so enthusiastic about the telling of the story, that you can't help but be swept up in his excitement as you read it.

For anyone who has ever come of age and done those terribly stupid and reckless things that we do when we are a certain age, you'll be entertained (and, perhaps comforted) to see that there are people out there whose dreams of adventure were even more stupid and reckless than you ever thought possible.

And he saves the most remarkable part of the adventure for the last ten pages, so the ending is great!

Monday, September 27, 2021

The Linux Programming Interface: a very short review

When I was first starting out as a professional programmer, circa 1981, I spent the first few years of my career working on IBM mainframe operating systems.

In the late 1980's, I moved out of the IBM mainframe world and started working on Unix operating systems. At that time, I learned about Unix by reading books such as The Design of the UNIX Operating System and The Design and Implementation of the 4.3 BSD UNIX Operating System.

Later, I studied the books of Richard Stevens, such as Unix Network Programming and Advanced Programming in the Unix Environment (which was generally known to engineers as APUE).

Time passed (a LOT of time ... :) ).

This summer, via a colleague, I learned about the Michael Kerrisk's The Linux Programming Interface.

Kerrisk's book is an amazing resource for professional Linux system programmers. It is organized thematically, around topics such as processes, memory, I/O, networking, etc. Individual chapters can be read (mostly) independently, so you can jump to a particular section to study a particular topic, but a (highly) motivated engineer can also read the entire book, start to finish, for a complete treatment of the various ways that a Linux programmer can access the facilities of the Linux operating system programmatically.

Of course this isn't summertime reading (although it actually was for me :) ); it is reference material. And great reference material to have!

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Slow vaccine progress

Alex Tabarrok notes that September has been a relatively good month for vaccinations, world-wide, even if here in the United States it's been rather a stinker: One Billion Vaccinations in a Month!.

... over the last 30 days the world vaccinated one billion people.

Six billion doses administered in 9 months! That's definitely progress, even if I could always wish for more.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Java marches forward

Java 17 is now generally available.

For someone like me, for whom Java is a daily programming language, but only part of my overall technology stack, keeping up with Java nowadays is an exhausting proposition.

Look at the major changes that are included in Java 17!

Look at the release notes for Java 17!

But really, for someone like me, Java 17 is just part of that picture. I'm still generally using Java 8 in my day-to-day work, with small occasions when I use Java 9 or Java 11.

So it's not just Java 17 that I'm out of date on, it's also Java 12, Java 13, Java 14, Java 15, Java 16.

Luckily, the good folks at Oracle have this covered:

JDK 17 will be a long-term-support (LTS) release from most vendors, including Oracle. If you’re upgrading from the previous LTS release, JDK 11, then you have many more JEPs to look forward to, summarized here:

And boy, that's a big list.

As the Red Queen said, though, these are just the facts of life:

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

For now, I'll keep on doing all the running I can do.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Simu Liu is having his moment

I've been a huge fan of Kim's Convenience for several years, it's one of the best "unknown" shows on TV.

It has great writing, and also a wonderful cast.

So I was thrilled when Simu Liu got a huge break as the star of the new Marvel Shang-Chi movie.

Anyway, Simu Liu is definitely having his moment.

Sorry for all the pop-ups and ads; the Huffington Post website has become a real cesspool.

Anyway, I hope he goes on to have more fine chances, he's a great actor.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Hard, hard work on the front (fire) lines

It's hard to even begin to comprehend the blood, sweat, and tears in this terse and rather bureaucratic description of the fight to save the homes of twenty five thousand people in the greater South Lake Tahoe area:

Yesterday hand crews assessed opportunities to build direct line along the fire perimeter from California State Route 89 west toward Scout Peak to reduce threats to structures in Christmas Valley. At Echo Lake firefighters were shuttled across by boat to work on structure preparations and hand crews assessed opportunities to build direct line along the fire perimeter from U.S. Highway 50 west toward Echo Lake. Near Pioneer Trail in South Lake Tahoe, dozers continued to build mechanical line along the bottom edge of the slope to keep the fire south of these communities. Engines patrolled and prepared structures that remained threatened. During night operations, specialized night flying helicopters were used to drop retardant from a mobile retardant plant to slow fire progression near Christmas Valley and hot shot crews built direct line along the fire perimeter on the northeast edge of the fire from Trout Creek toward Trimmer Peak.

Today hand crews will build direct line along the fires edge from Christmas Valley west toward Nebelhorn and from U.S. Highway 50 west toward Echo Lake and hot shot crews will continue hand line construction near Trimmer Peak at the northeastern most edge of the fire. In the community of South Lake Tahoe, dozers and hand crews will continue mechanical line preparations near Pioneer Trail and begin improving old road systems in the Cold Creek drainage. Air resources will assist firefighters on the ground with retardant and water drops to slow fire movement and cool hot spots along the fire perimeter as conditions allow.

Be safe. Be careful. We appreciate all you do.

Slow vaccine progress

As of September 1, 2021, the CA State Dashboard is now reporting that 47 million vaccine doses have been administered.

Broken down slightly more, the CA State Vaccine Dashboard is now reporting that 66.8% of the 12-and-older population is fully vaccinated, while another 10.2 percent are partially vaccinated, totaling to 77% of the 12-and-older population with some protection.

Unfortunately, the state is still recording 10 thousand new cases a day.

Given that there are approximately 34 million people ages 12-and-over in California, the 23 percent of those who are not vaccinated comprise some 7,800,000 people in California with no vaccine protection.

23 percent of a big number is a big number.

I fear we may see 10 thousand new cases a day for a long, long time.

Monday, August 30, 2021

The west is on fire

They just announced the complete evacuation of the South Lake Tahoe area.

I can't remember this ever happening before.

This is a big deal.

I hope those fire crews can catch a break soon.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Up, up, and away

Uh oh, this is not good:

  • Millennium Tower Sank More Even After Partial Work Stoppage, Documents Show
    on July 30, the homeowners association board agreed to put a two-to-four-week hold on shaft drilling work, documents show.

    But by that time, 39 shafts had already been installed. Soon, crews refocused on sinking 24-inch diameter piles along Fremont Street.

    But by mid-August, it was apparent from the data that the problem was more complex than fix engineers had hoped. Despite the pause, the building had settled another half inch – possibly due to soil being displaced during installation of the 24-inch piles. That prompted the board to put all pile installation on hold as of Monday.

    Data released by the city on Monday shows the tower is currently leaning 22 inches towards Fremont Street – compared to 17 inches when work began.
  • Millennium Tower's Accelerated Sinking Halts $100 Million Effort to Stop It
    an outside expert, Oakland-based structural engineer David Williams, tells NBC Bay Area that the new data on accelerating sinking is not nothing.

    "The trend is the thing that’s very disturbing, the fact that they have reactivated settlement,” he tells the station, adding that the speed of the new sinking is of special concern."
  • Repairs of Leaning San Francisco Skyscraper on Hold; Engineering Expert Blasts Plan
    Karp says each new piling being driven is causing more issues.

    “You never place piles or piers closer than three pier diameters apart. These are 36 feet [sic; I think the piles are 36 *inches* in diameter] so they should be nine feet apart and they’re, what? — five feet or something. As you do one, you’re disturbing the ground, then you go to the next one you’re disturbing the ground there and you go to the next one until you have a whole zone of disturbance that can’t be fixed,” Karp explained.
  • San Francisco's Millennium Tower fix halted after further sinking observed
    The fix has been likened to putting a bumper jack next to a flat tire, and involves the installation of piles 250 feet deep along the north and west sides of the tower, to be tied beneath the sidewalk to the original foundation.

From last summer, here's a picture and an article with more details on the repair that is being attempted:

  • Reviewers OK Fix for San Francisco's Leaning Millennium Tower
    The structural upgrade is designed to meet the requirements of the voluntary seismic improvements section of the San Francisco Existing Building Code.

    SGH’s Hamburger says his team selected the voluntary seismic upgrade route because it offered the easiest path through the permitting process. “The building code has provisions to allow VSUs without having to bring the building into conformance with the current code,” he says. The primary intent is to arrest settlement, but the 52 piles also will improve seismic performance, he adds.


    The existing mat is supported by 950 14-in.-square precast concrete piles. The aim is to remove 20% of the building weight from the underlying clay strata.

    The load reduction represents “what I could comfortably transfer from the new piles to the existing mat without major modification of the existing mat,” says Hamburger, whose client is Paul Hastings LLP, a lawyer retained by the tower’s developer, Mission Street Development. MSD is part of Millennium Partners.

    The system relies on loading each pile with 400 tons using a permanent hydraulic jack that reacts against a new mat extension. The jacks would be housed in a maintenance access vault above the mat. The scheme calls for a so-called indicator test pile, which is installed to scale.

    The weight loss would result in an almost immediate rebound of about 1 in. of the tower’s north and west sides. That would remove about 25% of the tilt, predicts Hamburger. “Over time, we expect another 25% to 50% of the tilt to come out through continued settlement of the south and east sides,” he says.

    Under the plan, piles would be drilled 4 ft, 9 in. on center under sidewalks—200 ft on the west side and 100 ft on the north side, just outside the tower footprint. The team has applied for an easement to work under the sidewalks, which meet at the block’s northwest corner.

    Piles would extend up through an 8-ft-wide extension of the tower’s 10-ft-thick reinforced concrete mat—4 ft from the old mat. New and old mats would be connected by chipping into the side of the old mat and coupling new and old reinforcing steel.

The plan was to install 52 new piles, and they've drilled the shafts for 39 of them, so they're about 75% done with drilling the shafts.

This troubled construction project is even more troubled now.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Backpacking 2021: Leavitt Meadows Trailhead, Hoover Wilderness

We missed our backpacking trip in 2020, but by Spring of 2021 we were all able to get our vaccinations, and we were raring to go!

Unfortunately, the horrible Dixie Fire had other plans for us, rendering our first planned destination unreachable, unbreathable, and wholly out of consideration for this year's trip. With a week to go before our planned departure, we switched to a second backup plan in Siskiyou county, but the Cronan and River Complex fires had eliminated that possibility as well.

With barely 72 hours left, we frantically searched for an alternate plan, but finding a place free of smoke and yet with permits available for last minute hikers such as ourselves was quite challenging. Finally, just as we were ready to give up, we came across a viable possibility, which was to hike up into the upper Walker River watershed in the Hoover Wilderness. Permits were available, and although there was considerable smoke in the area from the Tiltill fire, the forecast was for the winds to shift and blow the smoke elsewhere.

It was time to go, so we got up and went.

Leavitt Meadows is an enormous High Sierra meadow, stretching for several miles along the upper reaches of the Walker River. The Walker River, in turn, is one of the great rivers of the Eastern Sierras, and is well-known as one of the great fishing rivers of the Western United States.

We weren't planning on doing any fishing, but it's always a joy to hike along and camp near the great rivers of the Sierra Nevada, and the approach via Leavitt Meadows was particularly appealing as you can get several miles away from any roads or buildings just by walking the trail along the meadow. This is a very pleasant experience as you can put a lot of distance behind you with relatively little elevation gain.

Above the river we stopped for lunch at lovely Lane Lake, small but ever so picturesque.

About 1.5 miles beyond Lane Lake, we were able to make our way off the main trail and found a lovely campsite near a beautiful forty foot waterfall on Walker River. Although this has been an extremely dry year, and the river was very low, the falls were still running and very wonderful to view.

I had recently invested in a Supai backpacker's boat, and Lane Lake proved to be the perfect venue for an afternoon of High Sierra boating.

The Walker River watershed in this area is dotted with many other lakes, as well as various tributaries of the river, which has its headwaters near Forsyth Peak in Yosemite National Park. Trips both short and long are easy to fashion in this area, and we certainly enjoyed ourselves.

Because this area is so accessible and quite popular, we saw a lot of other hikers (and not a lot of other wildlife), but the watershed is large and there are plenty of secluded areas where peaceful and quiet campsites can be found.

Given the way the trip had nearly ended before it even began, we all agreed that the trip wildly exceeded our expectations, and it was certainly great to be able to go back into the wilderness again with old friends.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Shape: a very short review

Jordan Ellenberg is probably the foremost writer in the micro-niche of what I'd call "layman's mathematics books," a speciality that is perfect for people like me (math nut since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, but have very little involvement with real mathematics nowadays).

Ellenberg's latest book is Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else.

It is, like all of Ellenberg's other work, simultaneously rigorous, educational, entertaining, and approachable, which is quite a hard combination to achieve.

Shape is a serious book, 500 pages of meaty material, and you aren't likely to race through it. You'll either find it fascinating, in which case you'll be stopping every few pages to let what he says settle into your mind, or you'll decide after a few dozen pages that it's not the book for you, in which case that's that.

I enjoy Ellenberg's work, and I hope he continues to write many more such.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Klara and the Sun: a very short review

I must first admit that I had not heard of Kazuo Ishiguro before I happened to pick up Klara and the Sun; clearly I've been missing out on the work of one of the great writers of our time.

I loved this book.

I read it very fast, as it is both extremely compelling yet also quite approachable. And, as I read it, I kept having different reactions.

At first I thought: "oh, this is clever! What an interesting idea!" About a quarter of the way through the book, I thought: "I think this would have made a fine short story, but I think he's exhausted everything he came here to say."

But as I continued reading, I found that on the contrary, he had much more to say.

Klara and the Sun is, I believe, deliberately intended to be both thought-provoking and disturbing.

It is also rather topical, which makes me wonder a bit how well it will age: will it still be relevant 75 years from now? Ishiguro takes on topics such as: the ethics of artificial intelligence; the ethics of genetic editing; equity of access to health care; equity of access to education; the increasing isolation and remoteness brought upon us by technology; job displacement by technology; and much more.

It's also quite clearly drawn from the last 18 months of global shelter-in-place, as one of the main characters is a young child, confined to her home, without playmates, being educated by remote professors over video hookups, sufficiently withdrawn that her family takes her to "interaction parties" where she can (with adult supervision) learn how to interact with other home-sheltered peers.

Other aspects of the book are more universal and timeless, such as the sub-plots involving the invocation of prayer and the search for a greater power in the presence of hopelessness and pain, and the observations about human relationships and how they change as we age.

I think that many different people will find many different things to say about Klara and the Sun. For me, I think I will stop with these two observations:

  1. All along, even while I was thinking to myself that this book, so easy to read and be fascinated by, was shallow and superficial, I kept abruptly realizing, time and again, how much deeper and richer it was than I had given it credit for ("Beach reading" this is not).
  2. Disturbing though the book is, literally from start to finish, I can't help but feel that Ishiguro, overall, means the book to be hopeful. I think he wants us to realize that we can in fact influence how it turns out; we don't just need to let the future happen to us without thinking about it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

California energy efficiency laws for computers

I don't think I paid enough attention to this five years ago: Dell won't ship energy-hungry PCs to California and five other US states due to power regulations

The standards [PDF] specify energy consumption targets that cover four non-active usage modes – short-idle, long-idle, sleep and off-modes – tied to the device's "expandability score" (ES), based on the number and types of interfaces, and on additional power requirements arising from add-on capabilities (graphics cards, high-bandwidth system memory, etc.).

The requirements thus vary depending in the device's characteristics, but as a baseline, desktop computers, mobile gaming systems, and thin clients manufactured between January 1, 2019 and July 1, 2021 can consume no more than 50/80/100 kWh per year for ES scores of less than 250, 251-425, and 426-690 respectively.

For such devices manufactured after July 1, 2021, the kWh per year limit becomes 50, 60, and 75. The Alienware Aurora Ryzen Edition model cited above lists [PDF] a short-idle energy consumption of 66.29 watts and 563.01 watts when stressed.

I don't know the terms "short-idle, long-idle" and "stressed" when used in this context.

Monday, July 26, 2021

(Slow) vaccine progress

Steadily, we make progress: One millionth Alameda County resident receives COVID-19 vaccine

One million Alameda County residents are fully vaccinated from COVID-19 or two-thirds of the county population, public health officials said Friday.

Of the residents 12 years old and older, 70.7% are fully vaccinated and about 83% have had at least one dose.

"It's been a long 7-month journey to get to this remarkable milestone in one of the largest and most diverse counties in the State," said Colleen Chawla, director of the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency.

But Chawla said, "We have more work to do to get to immunity from this devastating disease and we are moving deeper into our communities to engage our residents."

Wednesday, July 21, 2021


It's been a while (more than a decade, actually) since I worked seriously in C#, and so I had rather lost track of what's going on in that community.

But recently I stumbled upon BOTR, the DotNet Book Of The Runtime.

What a great resource! Each article is clearly written and useful on its own, but most of them lead further with many references to even far more detailed information about DotNet internals.

I have no idea if or when I'll ever be back in the C# programming world again, but it is certainly pegging my geek-o-meter to dig through this treasure trove of system programming details.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Wake: a very short review

After listening to an interview with the author on NPR, I picked up a copy of Rebecca Hall's Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts.

This is a very unusual book.

First of all, it is unusual because it is a graphic novel. I don't generally read many graphic novels, and it's been a while since I read one.

It's also unusual because it is, or tries to be, non-fiction. I guess the best way to describe it is as historical fiction. Hall, who is an academic historian and professor, wrote Wake as sort of a memoir of her work in trying to learn about the role that women played in slave revolts more than 300 years ago. The non-fiction aspect of Wake concerns Hall's efforts to uncover the truth about what happened during these incidents; the historical fiction aspect of Wake takes over when Hall, having reached the limit of what can be learned from the historical record, decides that, as she puts it:

It is time for a measured use of historical imagination in order to reconstruct a story.

Wake is simply remarkable, words fail me (which is why, I suppose, the graphical novel approach works so well). I found that I had to read through the book quite slowly, taking my time with the drawings, understanding the various perspectives that Hall was bringing.

Wake is not an easy read.

But I hope it finds an enormous audience, for surely it should.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Everything is buzzing, in the wrong way

These are NOT the headlines I wanted to see today:

  • L.A. County Sees Increased Spread of COVID-19
    The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (Public Health) confirms a 165% increase of new cases over last week with 839 new cases of COVID-19.

    The County’s daily average case rate is now 3.5 cases per 100,000 people, an increase from last week’s rate of 1.74 cases per 100,000.

    Today’s daily test positivity rate is 2.5%, also an increase from last week’s rate of 1.2%.
  • Los Angeles County sees exponential growth in Covid-19 cases as Delta variant becomes dominant, worrying officials
    "We do continue to see an uptick in cases and hospitalizations," Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Thursday. "Deaths, fortunately, continue to be relatively low, but as hospitalizations continue to increase, we anticipate that deaths might also increase."
  • Average new COVID-19 cases double in Alameda County
    the county is experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases that could exceed the spring wave earlier this year.

    Officials said it’s more than doubled. The average number of new cases was as low as about 30 a day. Now the average is up to 70 a day.

    Health officer Nicholas Moss believes we aren’t seeing the impact of the 4th of July holiday just yet.

    “It takes a few days when you’ve been exposed to COVID to get sick.”

Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Marriage Plot: a very short review

Jeffrey Eugenides, famous for several books, was new to me when I picked up The Marriage Plot, a gift from my sister-in-law.

The Marriage Plot is sort of a romance, with a romantic triangle consisting of three Brown University students. One studies Biology, one is a Religious Studies student, and the third studies Semiotics. Madeleine, the Semiotics student, supplies the title for The Marriage Plot; she is writing her senior thesis on the marriage plots that underlaid the works of Austin, Bronte, Eliot, and other Victorian-era authors. Going into the book I thought this little detail was going to prove interesting and was greatly anticipating it, but it ended up being just a tossaway item, one in a fairly long list of tantalizing details of the book that only seemed to result in false hopes.

Our three protagonists finish college, travel the world, move on to graduate school, have adventures, yet somehow don't really seem to change terribly much, no matter how many earnest conversations on Derrida and Barthes ensue, or how many vivid encounters they have on their travels (one of them volunteers in one of Mother Teresa's convents in Calcutta).

One of my favorite parts of the book was an episode that occurred several times in which Madeleine experiences the odd feeling that she's somehow living out one of Ludwig Bemelmans's children's books:

On the day before they flew back to the States, Madeleine left Leonard in the room while she went out to buy him cigarettes. The summer weather was lovely, the colors of the flowers in the park so bright they hurt her eyes. Up ahead, she saw an amazing sight, a troop of schoolgirls being led by a nun. They were crossing the street, heading into the courtyard of their school. Smiling for the first time in weeks, Madeleine watched them proceed. Ludwig Bemelmans had written sequels to Madeline. In one, Madeline had joined a gypsy circus. In another, she'd been saved from drowning by a dog. But, despite all her adventures, Madeline had never gotten any older than eight.

Bemelmans, I think, made no bones about his Madeline: she was a child, and he was telling stories to children about children. But what sort of book is The Marriage Plot? At the end, it just sort of halts, having run out of steam more than anything else.

At some point, the voice also told Mitchell that, in addition to never living with Madeleine, he would never go to divinity school, either. It was unclear what he was going to do with his life, but he wasn't going to be a monk, or a minister, or even a scholar.

Eugenides appears to have just become bored of his three characters, and, having demonstrated that all failed to live up to their early promise, he washes his hands of them and walks away. The Marriage Plot seemed like an odd little book from an otherwise much-ballyhooed author. Probably I just didn't get it. Or maybe, it was just that sort of book.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

The ferries are buzzing, too

Today is the day the San Francisco Bay Ferries are back:

Yes, you read that right: more routes, more departures, lower fares.

Not often you see news like that.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Everything is just buzzing

It's been two weeks since the state re-opened, and everything is just buzzing. The roads are packed, as are restaurants, bars, etc.

And it's not just the retail world that's buzzing. Here's a thoroughly bizarre (paywalled, unfortunately) article, with a thoroughly bizarre headline: Alameda office building shopping spree widens in tech hub.

A shopping spree for office buildings in the tech and biotech hot spot of Alameda has widened with the purchase of another property on the island city by a Bay Area developer.

With the latest deal, Paceline Investors has now spent $69.3 million over the last few days for three office buildings in Alameda, focusing on an area whose tenants are primarily advanced technology and life sciences firms.

The buildings are all located in Alameda’s Harbor Bay district, an area dotted with an array of companies with cutting-edge products and services.

Real estate firms have undertaken property purchases or launched development efforts that indicate they believe the Bay Area economy will be fueled by the expansion of tech, biotech, and advanced manufacturing companies.

That neighborhood is not far from where I live, and I ride my bike through there several times a week.

Indeed, there have been a lot of development efforts in this business park.

But the buildings are standing empty!

There are at least 10 large office buildings, brand new, completely vacant. Many were built during the COVID shutdowns, but a number of them were built as long ago as 2019 and have never found tenants. Other, existing buildings are dotted with "For Sale" and "For Lease" signs.

There are two buildings that are fully occupied and very busy:

Of course, neither of these are "advanced technology and life sciences firms".

But they sure make very good coffee and wonderful bread!

I definitely don't understand how the Real Estate development world works.

Monday, June 28, 2021


While doing a bit of browsing on the Internet, I followed some links and came to a (relatively) ancient document: Pierre L'Ecuyer and Richard Simard. TestU01: A Software Library in ANSI C for Empirical Testing of Random Number Generators: User's guide, compact version. Département d'Informatique et de Recherche Opérationnelle, Université de Montréal, May 2013..

I guess it's truth-in-labelling, but I must confess that it's a bit startling when the "User's guide, compact version" runs to 219 pages!

But if you're at all interested in Random Number Generators, this is some amazing stuff. From the prologue:

TestU01 started as a Pascal program implementing the tests suggested in the 1981 edition of volume 2 of “The Art of Computer Programming”. This was around 1985. Three or four years later, a Modula-2 implementation was made, in the form of a library with a modular design. Other tests were added, as well as some generators implemented in generic form. Between 1990 and 2001, new generators and new tests were added regularly to the library and a detailed user’s guide (in french) was kept up to date. The f modules, which contain tools for testing entire families of generators, were introduced in 1997, while the first author was on sabbatical at the University of Salzburg, Austria. In 2001 and 2002, we partially redesigned the library, translated it in the C language, and translated the user’s guide in english.

These preliminary versions of the library were used for several articles (co)authored by P. L’Ecuyer, starting from his 1986 paper where he first proposed a combined LCG.

I love the brutal honesty that, after 28 years of effort, they considered that they had only achieved a "preliminary version of the library".

Random Number Generation is deep indeed, perhaps among the deepest of modern intellectual studies.

Anyway, I didn't know about this amazing effort until now, so here I am, some 36 years later, sharing it with those few who might not yet know of its existence.

Monday, June 14, 2021

There are all sorts of reasons why COVID data is hard to interpret

This detailed explanation letter from the Alameda County Public Health Department explains why overall COVID deaths in Alameda County have been restated from 1,634 to 1,223:

Alameda County previously included any person who died while infected with the virus in the total COVID-19 deaths for the County. Aligning with the State’s definition will require Alameda County to report as COVID-19 deaths only those people who died as a direct result of COVID-19, with COVID-19 as a contributing cause of death, or in whom death caused by COVID-19 could not be ruled out.

Alameda County has appx 1,671,000 people.

So, prior to this adjustment, we thought that appx 0.1% of the population had died of COVID so far; aligning the definitions with national standards shows us that 0.07% of the population has died of COVID so far.

Meanwhile, in more good news, the county continues to inch closer to complete vaccine coverage, with 1.98 million doses administered to this date.

And even closer to home, in my hometown 85% of the population aged 12+ are at least partially vaccinated; 71% are fully vaccinated. For the county as a whole, those numbers are 79% and 64%.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Vaccine Complexity

Through a combination of the amazing Tableau data analysis software, applied to the extensive California Open Data Portal datasets, you can now see an amazing breakdown of COVID-19 vaccination data down to the individual ZipCode level, across the entire state.

Spending some time with this visualization tool is amazing. Not only can you learn a lot about the situation across various areas of the state, the challenges of "vaccine equity" become crystal clear.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Less: a very short review

When I started reading Andrew Sean Greer's Less, I didn't understand why I was reading it, nor what all the fuss was about (Less won numerous prizes, including the Pulitzer).

But I found myself continuing to read, page after page, chapter after chapter, and quickly I became captivated and enchanted.

It's hard to explain why Less is so much fun to read, but almost every single page is graceful and sincere while still being outrageous and hilarious.

And that's a hard thing for a book to do!

Our hero, Arthur Less, doesn't take himself too seriously, and doesn't take the world too seriously, and yet still somehow has an entirely serious observation to make on almost everything, nestled down there in betwixt all the sly pokes and rude chuckles.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

News of the World: a (2nd) very short review.

News of the World, perhaps better known as "that movie that Tom Hanks was making when he caught COVID-19 on the set", turned out quite well, I thought.

It's nowhere near as good as the book, but I think that it did a very good job of capturing the essence of the book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Possibly vaccine progress?

It is a bit hard to see, but the diagram below, from the CA State COVID-19 dashboard, shows that the Alameda County count of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 is down to 68 patients.

Not only does that represent a 30% drop in patient count in the last 12 days, but perhaps even more importantly it is the lowest count of hospitalized patients in Alameda County since the counting began, back in March of 2020.

I haven't read any detailed analysis of this data, but I've certainly been watching these numbers every day for months, wondering if and when the hospitalization count would ever drop (note how stubbornly it hovered at ~ 100 patients for the last 2.5 months, even as daily case counts plummeted during that time).

Hopefully this is a real finding, and represents real progress.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Time to upgrade that phone!

I have an iPhone 6, meaning I'm locked on iOS 12.

I recently learned about the existence of Silence Unknown Callers.

That one feature, right there, might be enough to get me to finally buy a new iPhone.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Vaccine Progress

This is what public health success looks like (from the May 25, 2021 state dashboard page):

Now, 618 new cases and 8 new deaths in a single day is still a tragedy. Hospitalization numbers remain high, and vaccination numbers are still a long way from where we'd like them to be.

But as recently as early March, California was still reporting more than 2 thousand new cases a day, as well as more than 100 new deaths a day, so the progress here is dramatic.

I hope the state is able to continue to drive millions more vaccine doses through under-served communities, and the overall progress continues at this rate.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Friday, May 14, 2021

The Hollow Places: a very short review

A friend gave me T. Kingfisher's The Hollow Places.

Generally, the horror genre isn't my thing, but the book pulled me in quickly and kept me turning the pages.

Kingfisher is a pen name, obviously at least partly an homage to Stephen King, and Kingfisher's novel reminds me of a King work. I liked the quirkiness of the setting; I liked the fortitude of our two bumbling, stumbling main characters; I liked the roller-coaster pace of the book.

I breezed through the book in about 3 days, probably faster than it deserved, but it was right for me.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Up, up and away

The City of Oakland has accepted a proposal from Houston-based Hines Corporation to build a 622-foot-tall office building in Oakland: Mega office tower proposal in downtown Oakland hops ahead.

The tower, if built, would be 50% taller than any other office tower in Oakland, so this is a dramatic step for downtown Oakland real estate, and the Oakland planning commission seems to be bubbling over with enthusiasm:

“It is about time we had some truly tall buildings here,” Planning Commissioner Leopold Ray-Lynch said. “If we can get more of these, we can truly make Oakland a city that’s on the move, more than it is now.”

Hines, who are probably best known in these parts for the (somewhat controversial) million-square-foot Parcel F project in the city, certainly have the chops to pull this off.

But will they? It's not the first time that major Oakland real estate projects have been proposed, and many in the end were never completed or were completed after being reshaped in significant ways.

Yet Oakland has dramatically changed in the last five years. Perhaps now really is the time?

One thing that's not clear from the article is if this project would mean the shuttering of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory's Oakland Scientific Facility, which currently occupies this site, I believe. The supercomputers won't care, of course, they can probably just be trucked to some new location.

The site is just across the street, cater-corner as they say, from my wife's office. I suppose if it happens, she'll have a front row seat to the project!

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Penny Lane 2007-2021

Our hearts are broken as we say goodbye to our family dog.

My granddaughter grew up with Penny. Or maybe it was Penny who grew up with Hannah. Or I guess we all grew up together.

She always thought she was a lap dog, though 80 pound Labrador Retrievers can take up the entire couch.

She was always up for a selfie.

Best. Dog. Ever.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about Penny later, when the hole in our lives isn't such a gaping wound as it is today.

So for now, let me share with you a poem, written by the lovely poet Tom Luce, titled Buy a Dog.

As is often the case with poetry, this poem isn't actually about a dog.

I had a dream, it was a good dream
you were there and so was I.
We were so happy
I did not want to open up my eyes,
and we were driving down a road;
it was a long one.
There were signs all over;
the signs said "welcome to your life".
I looked over and you were smiling.
You had a great big smile going.
You turned to me, you turned and you said:
"all your life, all your life, I got your back."

So if you want to try
we'll make it you and I
we'll never be alone
we'll buy a dog and bring him home
he'll jump up on the bed
we'll be the best of friends
I think that we should try
I picture you and I...

I had another dream
I know you think, "how convenient"
but I swear it's the truth:
we were there, yeah, I was me and you were you.
We had a good long life on this planet
when we died we went to heaven,
saw that god was really Elvis!
Anyway, our souls were in the right place,
our souls were in the right place..

So if you want to try
we'll make it you and I
we'll never be alone
we'll buy a dog and bring him home
he'll jump up on the bed
we'll be the best of friends
I think that we should try
I think that we should try

And we'll take him on walks with us everyday
(underneath the summer sun).
He can ride in the back of our car when we go away
with his head outside of the window frame
and his tongue out.

It's a miracle that we're even here and alive.
Let's buy a dog and bring him home.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

My second Pfizer shot is done!

That is all.

(Well, at least until I need a booster shot...)

Monday, April 26, 2021

Vaccine progress

California has administered 28.5 million vaccine doses; 57% of eligible Californians (those age 16 or older) have received at least one dose of vaccine.

Among all 50 states, California is now 50th (last place) in new cases per 100K population over the last 7 days.

It's hard to look at this data and not feel some hope that the two observations are causally related.

Fingers crossed that it's working.

Wow Dan Kaminski died

I never got to meet Dan Kaminski, but I loved reading his work. He was not only a brilliant engineer but also a great communicator.

What a shame. 42 is way too young.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

That which connects Alameda CA and Ann Arbor, MI

Lovely short article: You can take a magical tour of Alameda's fairy doors with this online map

The rise in fairy doors on Alameda began about seven years ago and is largely attributed to Fred Hogenboom and his granddaughter, Serena. The pair built about a dozen doors from scrap wood in Hogenboom's wood shop, then installed them on trees and telephone poles near Hogenboom's home on Oak Street. After that, “social media got a hold of it and from there it just blew up,” Hogenboom said, laughing.


Alameda is a whimsical little city, but it isn’t alone in its fascination with fairy doors. San Francisco has seen its own fairy door boom in recent years, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, has mysterious doors that have been around since 1993 (the doors even have their own Wikipedia page). There are notable fairy door communities everywhere from New York and Washington, D.C., to Kentucky and North Carolina.

It just so happens, I do in fact know some lovers of fairy doors, both in Alameda, and in Ann Arbor...

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Vaccine progress!

Courtesy of the City of Berkeley Health Department, today I got my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine!

I was extremely impressed with the way the mass vaccination site was run. They were very organized, they moved everybody through smoothly and accurately, and everybody who I talked to was friendly and helpful.

Including the 15 minute wait time after the shot, I was through the entire process in barely 25 minutes.

Great work by Curative, who operate the clinic, and the City of Berkeley HD!

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Giant Cargo Ship Traffic Jams Everywhere!

Forget highways, Bay Area's biggest traffic jam right now is on the bay

For the past few weeks, San Francisco Bay has been packed with huge cargo ships. There were 15 of them anchored south of the Bay Bridge at midweek. There is so much ship traffic that there is not enough room inside the bay for them all to anchor safely. Nine more big ships were waiting in the Pacific, steaming up and down 20 to 30 miles offshore between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay.

Everything is complicated nowadays.

Normally, a big ship like the T.Jefferson would sail up the Oakland Estuary straight from sea and not have to spend time at anchor. It would be accompanied by tugs and navigated under control of one or more pilots. The 1,200-foot-long ship would be turned 180 degrees in a basin a ways up the estuary. The turning basin has a diameter of just under 1,500 feet, so turning a 1,200-foot ship there is a delicate maneuver.

My son used to attend junior sailing classes in that turning basin, which is in the section of the estuary close to Coast Guard Island and across from the Encinal Yacht Club in Alameda.

Learning to sail those little Optimist dinghies was a wonderful memory ... I'm glad he never had to avoid the T. Jefferson!