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 chess24.com!

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:

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?

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

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).