Thursday, August 17, 2017

That Vice News Tonight mini-documentary is extremely powerful.

Wow.

Have you already watched the Vice News Tonight mini-documentary on the events in Charlottesville?

It's really powerful, really disturbing, really hard to watch. I don't know a lot about Vice News Tonight, but apparently it's an independent journalism effort receiving funding (and air time) from HBO. This is the first and only Vice News Tonight documentary I've ever watched.

I was really moved by the Vice News Tonight reportage, and by the work of correspondent Elle Reeve, about whom I knew nothing before seeing that report. She did some very fine reporting, I think.

I'm paying particular attention to this issue all of a sudden because my daughter now (since 1 month ago) lives in Richmond, Virginia, just one mile from Monument Avenue, the probable next locus of confrontation.

I haven't ever visited Richmond, but hope to do so one day, now that my daughter lives there.

In the meantime, I'm paying a lot more attention to events in Virginia that I did before.

As are we all.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Spider Woman's Daughter: a very short review

Over more than three decades, Tony Hillerman wrote a series of absolutely wonderful detective novels set on the Navajo Indian Reservation and featuring detectives Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee.

Recently, I learned that, after Hillerman's death, his daughter, Anne Hillerman, has begun publishing her own novels featuring Leaphorn, Chee, and the other major characters developed by her father, such as Officer Bernadette Manuelito.

So far, she has published three books, the first of which is Spider Woman's Daughter.

If you loved Tony Hillerman's books, I think you will find Anne Hillerman's books lovely, as well. Not only is she a fine writer, she brings an obvious love of her father's choices of setting, of character(s), and of the Navajo people and their culture.

I'm looking forward to reading the other books that she has written, and I hope she continues writing many more.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Windows Update: 1, Fallout 4: 0

I was starting to get interested in Fallout 4, which seems like a fairly interesting game.

But, I just got Windows 10 Creators Update installed.

Which, you might think, would be a good thing!

Unfortunately, it seems to have been the kiss of death for Fallout 4.

This is not the first bad experience I've had with the Fallout games. Fallout New Vegas was totally unplayable on my machine, as well.

When will I learn?

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A few things you could read about "that Google memo"

Start by reading the memo itself.

You may find it hard to read. I confess I skimmed a few parts, but I carefully read the "Suggestions" section at the end.

Then, here are some links you can chase.

Lots to think about here.

Arcadia: a very short review

I've been trying to put my finger on why Iain Pears's Arcadia is such an engrossing and entertaining book.

For one thing, it's a book that you can enjoy in many different ways:

  • Like Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog, it's a delightful piece of time travel fiction.

  • Like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, it's a collection of multiple stories, involving the "same" characters in wildly different settings, inter-twined and juxtaposed.

  • Like C.S. Lewis's Narnia series, and George Orwell's Animal Farm, it's a rumination on current events, by way of a complex fantasy allegory describing how characters work out their problems in a completely different world with completely different rules.

  • And, oh, yeah, like George Orwell's 1984, it's a dystopian novel about the dangers of science, technology, and authoritarian social structures.

Uhm, that's a lot of pretty wonderful books to compare Arcadia to.

Yet I don't feel it's unfair to put Arcadia in the midst of such a discussion; Pears is a superb writer and pulls off these various technical exploits with flair and ease.

But I'd like to suggest that Arcadia's main interest lies in a slightly different direction, something suggested less by the above comparisons but more by Yuvah Noah Harari's Sapiens.

Harari, as you will recall if you've read Sapiens, advances the premise that what makes Homo Sapiens unique is that we are creatures who can envision, imagine, and communicate about things that don't (yet?) exist. That is: Sapiens can invent fiction; Sapiens can tell stories.

I think Pears is fascinated by that most basic of questions that faces writers of fiction: can a story actually change the world?

Early on, we are introduced to our protagonist, Henry Lytten, who has had a number of careers in the past, but now entertains himself by working on his book, a passion he's had since his youth, when he used to read "tales of knights and fair maidens, of gods and goddesses, of quests and adventures."

Regularly, he meets with his friends in the pub; they are all storytellers, and they discuss their efforts. This week, it is Lytten's turn:

"Very well, gentlemen, if you could put your drinks down and pay attention, then I will explain."

"About time."

"In brief..."

"Surely not?"

"In brief, I am creating the world."

He stopped and looked around. The others seemed unimpressed. "No goblins?" one asked hopefully.

Lytten sniffed. "No goblins," he said. "This is serious. I want to construct a society that works. With beliefs, laws, superstitions, customs. With an economy and politics. An entire sociology of the fantastic."

"An entire sociology of the fantastic." Oh, my, that is a gorgeous turn of phrase.

But: creating the world? Constructing a society? How does this actually work, in practice?

Later, Pears tries to explain this in more detail.

I spent many years reading -- really reading, I mean, in libraries at a wooden desk, or curled up on a settee with a little light, holding the book in my hands, turning the pages, glass of brandy, warm fire, all of that. Anyway, I was reading La Cousine Bette by Balzac (which I also recommend) and was struck by how convincing were both the characters and the situations he described. I wondered whether Balzac had taken them from personal observation and simply amended real people and circumstance to serve his purpose.

Then it dawned on me in a moment of such excitement I can remember it perfectly well to this day. Of course he had done that; he had transferred reality into his imagination. But -- and this was my great insight -- he must, at the same time, have transferred his imagination into reality. Clearly, in an infinite universe every possibility must exist, including Balzac's. Imagining Cousin Bette called her into being, although only potentially. The universe is merely a quantity of information; imagining a fictional character does not add to that quantity -- it cannot do so by definition -- but does reorganize it slightly. The Bette-ish universe has no material existence, but the initial idea in Balzac's brandy-soaked brain then spreads outwards: not only to those who read his books, but also, by implication, backwards and forwards. Imagining Cousin Bette also creates, in potential, her ancestors and descendants, friends, enemies, acquaintances, her thoughts and actions and those of everybody else in her universe.

This is as marvelous and compelling a vision of the power of the imagination as I could ever want.

Of course, Pears knows that it isn't, certainly, as simple as that.

Not many people, I suppose, have even the remotest chance of seeing their literary creation in the flesh. Henry is convinced that Shakespeare knew his Rosalind personally in some guise, but that is quite rare. I am sure Dickens would have jumped at the chance of some time in the pub with Mr. Pickwick. No doubt Jane Austen would have got on like a house on fire with Mr. Darcy, and what about Bram Stoker spending an evening chatting away to Count Dracula over a cup of cocoa.

Things move on, and there is some folderol about time travel, and the multiple universes hypothesis, and other notions of that sort, but really, Pears is after something simpler.

Something more fundamentally human.

Something more fundamentally powerful.

Something more fundamentally literary:

"Nothing could happen, because there was no cause of anything happening. Similarly, without effects, there could be no causes. That was to ensure it could have no past or future."

"She got it wrong?"

"No. That girl messed it up, and you don't seem to have helped just now either."

"Rosie? How?"

"She walked into it. You say hello, they say hello back, which they otherwise would not have done. Cause and effect, you see. Anyone who says hello must be real. They must have parents, grandparents, all the way back. That girl started this frozen experiment moving and developing, and that is causing it to join up to the past and future. When I arrived, the effects had already spread back that far. it is now clear the shock waves have spread very much further."

You say hello, they say hello back; anyone who says hello must be real.

What a beautiful sentiment.

What a marvelous illustration of the magnificence and wonder and joy of communication, of imagination, and of storytelling.

Arcadia is a book you can enjoy on many levels.

I certainly did.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Software Engineering Interns at Salesforce

I hope you can find a few minutes to read this wonderful article by Aditya Shetty: More Than a Brand Name and a Tech Stack: What I Learned During My Engineering Internship at Salesforce.

Aditya sat at the next desk to mine during his summer at Salesforce, and I really enjoyed getting to know him during a brief summer that went by very fast.

He's already a very good software engineer; I think he will be a great one, assuming that's what he decides to do.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Backpacking 2017: Trinity Alps, South Fork of the Salmon River

Some backpacking trips go exactly as planned.

Others do not.

This one did not go as planned, but in the end it was wonderful, in that "well, nobody was seriously hurt, after all!" way that mis-adventures sometimes happily are.

To get to the headwaters of the South Fork of the Salmon River, you need to be prepared to do a bit of driving:

  1. Make your way from wherever you may be to the quirky little town of Weaverville
  2. Head north from Weaverville, where you might decide to spend the night at the lovely little Bonanza King Resort if you wish
  3. The next morning, drive up the 20+ mile dirt road to the very end, where you'll find Big Flat Trailhead. This road will take you 75 minutes to drive. Honest.

From the Big Flat Trailhead, ready your pack, and don't forget to make sure you secure your car carefully so that it's completely boring to any California Black Bear who might wander through the campground (this is not uncommon, since the habitat of the California Black Bear is nearly a 100% overlap with the areas of California where there are campgrounds).

Once you're safely out of your car and ready, the rest is easy: walk south.

The canyon which forms the watershed which holds the headwaters of the South Fork of the Salmon River is a spectacularly beautiful mountain canyon. From the trailhead to the end of the canyon is a gentle, peaceful, 6-mile hike which starts at about 5,000 feet of elevation and climbs slowly and steadily to around 5,800 feet near the south end of the canyon.

Most hikers who enter the Trinity Alps Wilderness from this trailhead area actually headed out of the canyon, to one of a variety of destinations: southwest to the Caribou or Sapphire Lakes, south to Deer Creek, south-southeast to Ward and Horseshoe Lakes, or southeast to Bullard's Basin and the mining ghost town of Dorleska.

Instead, we decided to stay in the Salmon River headwaters canyon itself.

Well, I should be a bit more honest.

Originally, we were contemplating going to Ward Lake. But, after more study and reading, I realized that this particular destination was going to be beyond our capabilities for a one day hike:

Total Length (round-trip): 12 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,549’ to the saddle, then -460’ down to the lake
Difficulty: Moderate-to-Strenuous
or, more colorfully:
High above the densely forested moraine, just beginning to emerge against the cloudless blue, rose a massive fortress, a sheer vertical wall of gray rock, toward which our trail zig-zagged.

Uhm, yeah.

That wasn't going to work.

So instead we decided not to take the Kidd Creek trail to Ward Lake, and proceeded south, remaining in the main canyon of the South Fork of the Salmon.

Which is beautiful and delightful, and we made quite good time, until at about 3:00 PM we found ourselves at the far south end of the canyon, confronted by canyon walls on all three sides (east, south, west).

I had (sort of) a plan for this, for I had spotted on the map that the true headwaters of the Salmon River was found at Salmon Lake, a mere three quarters of a mile from where we stood.

And a mere 1,300 vertical feet above our 5,800 foot elevation at the time.

There is no trail to Salmon Lake, but we were standing on the shore of the Salmon River, looking up its course as it descended the narrow and steep canyon above us, and it seemed, tantalizingly, close.

So, with our minds probably clouded from the fatigue of the first 5.5 miles that we'd already hiked, we decided to try to go off-trail and bush-whack our way up the river canyon to the lake.

I estimate that we made it about one tenth of the way to the lake over the next 30 minutes, climbing slowly and stubbornly through dense manzanita fields that clung to scree slopes of sharp fractured shale that shifted unexpectedly and continuously underneath our feet.

And then the lightning clapped, and the thunder boomed, and the rain began.

And, at last, we came to our senses.

After we realized that our plan was hopeless, and we re-grouped back at the trail, we were soaked from the rain and a bit dispirited, even more so when we realized that the mid-slope ridgeline we were on held no decent campsites of any sort.

Worse, several of us had fallen during the bushwhacking on the wet shale, and so twisted ankles and bloodied shins were widespread.

As we sat, resting and recovering, watching a pair of trees on the opposite side of the canyon smouldering from lightning strikes, we cast our eyes below us, and realized that the canyon floor below us was beautiful, had a reliable source of water, and was almost certain to contain some spots where we could make camp.

So back down we headed, retracing our steps about a half mile down the trail until we were back to the canyon floor, then hiking another half mile or so south until we indeed found a spectacularly beautiful location to stay: not too far from water, but not too close either, with just enough trees for shelter, but just few enough to give us glorious views of the canyon ridges above.

Completely exhausted from more than 9 miles of walking with full packs, we just managed to set up camp and prepare dinner before it was fully dark and the stars were out.

Yet the next few days passed blissfully: each day dawned with blue skies and mile weather and we found many nearby areas for lovely day hikes, including an enjoyable long walk up the trail to the pass on the border of Trinity and Siskiyou counties, where we unexpectedly found a beautiful high mountain meadow, with hawks soaring and calling overhead and chipmunks and rabbits and quail busily occupying themselves amongst the meadow grasses.

Quite reliably, it thundered and lightninged and rained every afternoon, and once even delivered a dramatic 15-minute hailstorm, but after surviving our disastrous first day's hike, it all seemed like icing on an unexpectedly tasty celebration cake.

So if you ever find yourself wanting to go backpacking in the headwaters canyon of the South Fork of the Salmon River in the Trinity Alps wilderness, let me offer these simple suggestions:

  • Yes, Ward Lake is a long haul, and that ridgeline ascent is as miserable as you fear.
  • But Salmon Lake is even harder. You'd need to be a mountain goat to get there.
  • And, if you spot a lake on the map, even if it looks "close" to the trail, but when you go and search the Internet and you can't find EVEN A SINGLE PICTURE of anyone who's actually made it to the lake's shore, stop and recognize what that means: You Ain't Gonna Get to Salmon Lake
  • So just be happy exploring the beautiful Salmon River canyon instead.

That's what I have to say about that. Enjoy the pictures!