Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Updated list of my trips with Mike

I'm going to try to use the Blogger "pages" facility to keep track of this, because it works better than having a new summary post every year: My Backpacking Trips with Mike.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Upper Rhine Valley: prelude and overture

We took an altogether-too-short but thoroughly wonderful trip to the Upper Rhine Valley region of Europe. I'm not sure that "Upper Rhine Valley" is a recognized term for this region, so please forgive me if I've abused it; more technically, we visited:

  1. The Alsace region of France
  2. The Schwarzenwald region of Germany
  3. The neighboring areas of Frankfurt, Germany, and Basel, Switzerland.
But since we were at no point more than about 40 miles from the Rhine river, and since we were several hundred miles from the Rhine's mouth in the North Sea, it seems like a pretty good description to me.

Plus, it matches up quite nicely with this map.

So there you go.

Anyway, we spent 10 wonderful days there, which was hardly even close to enough, but it was what we had.

And I, in my inimitable fashion, packed about 30 days of sightseeing into those 10 days, completely exhausting my travel companions.

Once again, no surprise.

I'll have more to write about various aspects of the trip subsequently, but here let me try to crudely summarize the things that struck me about the trip.

  • Rivers are incredibly important in Europe, much more so than here in America. Rivers provide transportation, drinking water, sewage disposal, electric power, food (fish), and form the boundaries between regions and nations. They do some of these things in America, too, but we aren't nearly as attached to our rivers as they are in Central Europe, where some of the great rivers of the world arise.
  • For centuries, castles helped people keep an eye on their rivers, and make sure that their neighbors were behaving as they should in the river valleys.
  • Trains are how you go places in Europe. Yes, you can fly, or you can drive, but if you CAN take a train, you should. And, if you can take a first class ticket on TGV, you absolutely, absolutely should. I have never had a more civilized travel experience than taking the TGV from Frankfurt to Strasbourg. (Though full credit to Lufthansa for being a much-better-than-ordinary airline. If you get a chance to travel Lufthansa, do it.)
  • To a life-long inhabitant of the American West, Central Europe is odd for having almost no animals. People live in Central Europe, nowadays; animals do not. BUT: storks!
  • France, of course, is the country that perfected that most beautiful of beverages: wine. While most of the attention to wine in France goes to Southern France, don't under-rate Alsace, for they have absolutely delicious wines of many types, and have been making wine for (at least) 2,000 years. We Californians may think we know something about wine; we don't.
  • The visible history of the Upper Rhine Valley is deeply formed by the Franks. Don't try to understand the cathedrals, villages, cities, etc. without spending some time thinking about Charlemagne, etc. And, if you were like me and rather snored through this part of your schooling, prepare to have your eyes opened.
  • The other major history of the Upper Rhine Valley involves wars. My, but this part of the world has been fought over for a long time. Most recently, of course, we can distinguish these major events:
    1. The Franco-Prussian war, which unified Germany and resulted in Alsace being a German territory
    2. World War One
    3. World War Two
    Although the most recent of these events is now 75 years in the past, the centuries and centuries of conflict over who should rule these wonderful lands has left its mark, deeply.

    So often through my visit I thought to myself: "Am I in French Germany? Or perhaps is this German France?" Just trying to form and phrase these questions in my head, I realized how little I knew, and how much there is to learn, about how people form their bonds with their land, and their neighbors, and their thoughts. Language, food, customs, politics, literature: it's all complex and it's all one beautiful whole.

    This, after all, is the land where Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, where people like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Louis Pasteur, John Calvin, and Albert Schweitzer lived and did their greatest work.

I could, of course, have been much terser:

  1. The Upper Rhine Valley is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The people who live there are very warm and welcoming, and it is a delightful place to take a vacation
  2. Early May is an absolutely superb time to go there.

I'll write more later, as I find time.

Back online

I took a break from computers.

I had a planned vacation, and so I did something that's a bit rare for me: I took an 11 day break from computers.

I didn't use any desktops or laptops. I didn't have my smartphone with me.

I went 11 days without checking my email, or signing on to various sites where I'm a regular, or opening my Feedly RSS read, or anything like that.

Now, I wasn't TOTALLY offline: there were newspapers and television broadcasts around, and I was traveling with other people who had computers.

But, overall, it was a wonderful experience to just "unplug" for a while.

I recommend it highly.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Staying up to date

One thing about having several computers, and about never having quite enough time to work on them, is that whenever I turn on a particular computer, it's almost certain that I'll have updates to perform:

  • Windows updates
  • Java updates
  • nVidia driver updates
  • Steam updates
  • etc.

In fact, I'll usually have at least 2 or 3 updates that run whenever I switch one of my computers on.

At least the updates are mostly self-sufficient, though I can never really get the hang of which updates just run automatically, and which require me to baby-sit them at least to the point where they put up a confirmation prompt requesting me to authorize them to update their own software.


Meanwhile, in the world of updates, I'm trying to figure out if Windows Subsystem for Linux has matured to the point where I can run Java 8 on it.

As best I can understand from poking around on duh Netz, it seems that:

  • Oracle's Java 8 distribution has made a number of fixes, and now can be successfully installed and run on Windows Subsystem for Linux, at least according to this StackOverflow answer
  • But Java 8 in general really seems to prefer Ubuntu 16 over Ubuntu 14,
  • And Microsoft themselves suggest that both Java 8 and Ubuntu 16 are able to be used once I have upgraded to Windows 10 Creators Update (see this MSDN blog article)

So it seems like the bottom line is that for the time being, I should continue to do my Java work using either the vanilla Windows JDK, or using my full Linux installation on my VirtualBox instance(s).

But hopefully Windows 10 Creators Update will reach my machine soon (if I get really impatient, Microsoft says I can possibly hurry the process along using the Update Assistant).

And then I can start a whole new round of updates!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

An Alameda high rise?

Alameda Magazine, which frankly is simply a Chamber of Commerce flyer, nonetheless ran this breathless article: Alameda’s First High-Rise?

A developer is proposing to build a 14-story, 589-unit housing project on the waterfront at the long-dormant Encinal Terminals site. The project, which would be constructed directly across the estuary from Oakland’s 3,100-unit Brooklyn Basin housing development now under construction, would feature the Island’s tallest building.

“We are building a world-class waterfront” that will be “a centerpiece for the estuary,” said Mike O’Hara, a representative of developer Tim Lewis Communities, or TLC. TLC recently broke ground on another 380-unit housing project on the adjoining historic Del Monte warehouse property.

I certainly would like to see the estuary waterfront opened up and reclaimed. Currently it is a wasteland of abandoned warehouses, docks, and vacant lots, mostly fenced off and sitting idle. It could be some of the most beautiful space in the Bay Area, if it is done well.

As the article notes, however, this is far from a slam dunk:

the Encinal Terminals project faces a more complicated regulatory approval than most developments. The 32-acre site includes nine submerged acres, large dilapidated wharf structures, and six acres of state tidelands. Under state law, tidelands property cannot be used for housing, so the project would require the swapping of private acreage around the perimeter of the site for tidelands property in the interior—a plan that also would have to be approved by the state.

It just so happened that I had the chance today to wander down to a similarly-long-under-used section of the San Francisco waterfront, known as "Dogpatch", where an enormous gentrification project is underway, scheduled to run for at least another 15 years.

The cities are changing. The Bay Area is changing. It's good to remember the history, but it's also good to invest in the future.

On we go.

Bad Behavior: a very short review

I was rambling around on the Internet, leafing through some random person's "book recommendations" page, when I came across a recommendation for Mary Gaitskill's Bad Behavior: Stories, and decided to take a chance on it.

What an astonishing collection of stories this is!

Of course, at this point, 30 years have passed, and so this is old news to everyone, but still. I'm not sure I've ever read somebody whose writing seemed so vivid, so real, so true.

This. Is. How. People. Really. Think. And. Act. And. Talk.

However, what goes hand-in-hand with this is that her stories are not for the faint of heart. They are raw, fearless, clear-eyed views into the very abyss of our human souls; Gaitskill neither flinches nor turns away from the truth, no matter how horrid the vision she sees.

I'm tremendously glad I read these stories, but on the other hand they're not the sort of thing I'd feel comfortable recommending to anyone.

If they're the sort of thing you'd enjoy, you've probably already found them, somehow.

Of course, I hadn't, and so I'm glad I did.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

GBooks, 15 years on

Three perspectives:

  • How Google Book Search Got Lost
    Two things happened to Google Books on the way from moonshot vision to mundane reality. Soon after launch, it quickly fell from the idealistic ether into a legal bog, as authors fought Google’s right to index copyrighted works and publishers maneuvered to protect their industry from being Napsterized. A decade-long legal battle followed — one that finally ended last year, when the US Supreme Court turned down an appeal by the Authors Guild and definitively lifted the legal cloud that had so long hovered over Google’s book-related ambitions.

    But in that time, another change had come over Google Books, one that’s not all that unusual for institutions and people who get caught up in decade-long legal battles: It lost its drive and ambition.


    But Google took away a lesson that helped it immeasurably as it grew and gained power: Engineering is great, but it’s not the answer to all problems. Sometimes you have to play politics, too — consult stakeholders, line up allies, compromise with rivals. As a result, Google assembled a crew of lobbyists and lawyers and approached other similar challenges — like navigating YouTube’s rights maze — with greater care and better results.

  • Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria
    What happened was complicated but how it started was simple: Google did that thing where you ask for forgiveness rather than permission, and forgiveness was not forthcoming. Upon hearing that Google was taking millions of books out of libraries, scanning them, and returning them as if nothing had happened, authors and publishers filed suit against the company, alleging, as the authors put it simply in their initial complaint, “massive copyright infringement.”


    Amazon, for its part, worried that the settlement allowed Google to set up a bookstore that no one else could. Anyone else who wanted to sell out-of-print books, they argued, would have to clear rights on a book-by-book basis, which was as good as impossible, whereas the class action agreement gave Google a license to all of the books at once.

    This objection got the attention of the Justice Department, in particular the Antitrust division, who began investigating the settlement. In a statement filed with the court, the DOJ argued that the settlement would give Google a de facto monopoly on out-of-print books. That’s because for Google’s competitors to get the same rights to those books, they’d basically have to go through the exact same bizarre process: scan them en masse, get sued in a class action, and try to settle.


    It was strange to me, the idea that somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them. It’s like that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie where they put the Ark of the Covenant back on a shelf somewhere, lost in the chaos of a vast warehouse. It’s there. The books are there. People have been trying to build a library like this for ages—to do so, they’ve said, would be to erect one of the great humanitarian artifacts of all time—and here we’ve done the work to make it real and we were about to give it to the world and now, instead, it’s 50 or 60 petabytes on disk, and the only people who can see it are half a dozen engineers on the project who happen to have access because they’re the ones responsible for locking it up.

  • Why Google Books Deserves Better Than These Obituaries
    Unfortunately, the copyright case over Google Books morphed into something larger. It became a vehicle for anxieties over how the digital era has undermined authors on a financial and cultural level. Those concerns are legitimate, but scapegoating Google Books for these fears was misguided.

    Meanwhile, groups like the Authors Guild continue to celebrate the collapse of the settlement even though no other options have emerged to replicate its potential benefits. Those benefits would have included a new market for digital copies of old books, and a solution to the problem of "orphan works"—books whose authors cannot be located that are out-of-print but still under copyright protection. Instead, there is stasis.


    But if Google is to dispel the recent mutterings about the project's decline, it must do more to raise the profile of Google Books, and offer some assurances about how it will ensure the collection—which, recall, is nothing less than the history of human knowledge—will survive. Ideally, the company should create a trust or foundation to manage it so as to ensure it endures no matter what corporate changes come at Google.

    Meanwhile, it's time for Google Books opponents to acknowledge the astonishing thing Google has built. Critics like the former head of Harvard libraries, Robert Darnton, have long suggested some university or public consortium can replicate the project. But today it's clearer than ever this is just a pipeline, and no one will muster the money, energy, and technology to do what Google did also over again.

Saturday, April 22, 2017



So it turns out that the horrible bombing attack on the Borussia Dortmund football team was in fact NOT Islamic terrorists at all.

Rather, it was something much more banal: One man’s greed behind Dortmund attack, after all

Not many -if any- had seen this coming… Something more than a week after the triple bomb attack that targeted Borussia Dortmund and led to their Champions League game against Monaco being delayed by 24 hours, police have announced that the motive behind the whole incident was pure financial greed.
The accused bought 15,000 put-options regarding the shares of Borussia Dortmund on April 11. Those options were running until June 17, 2017 and were bought with the ID of the hotel L’Arrivee (Dortmund’s team hotel)
a prosecutor made known, through a written statement, after the police arrested a 28-year-old man

The Beeb has (a bit) more: Borussia Dortmund bombs: 'Speculator' charged with bus attack

Rather than having links to radical Islamism, he was a market trader hoping to make money if the price of shares in the team fell, prosecutors say.

The suspect has been charged with attempted murder, triggering explosions and causing serious physical injury.

He has been identified only as Sergej W, and was staying in the team's hotel overlooking the scene of the attack.

There was, I should think, more than just greed involved, as clearly the man was quite mentally ill:

He was staying at the team's L'Arrivée hotel in Dortmund on the day of the attack and had moved to a room on the top floor, overlooking the street where it took place, prosecutors say.

The suspect placed the bet on 11 April using an IP address traced to the hotel, after taking out a loan for the money.

That's somewhere bordering on stalker-level obsession, I'd say.

Very sad.

But I'm glad the German police were level-headed and careful and thorough and dug down to the underlying facts of the matter.

And SHAME on all those trashy publications that threw horrid terror speculations out there.

Yes, I'm looking at you, The Sun, and The Express, and The NY Post, and Fox News and The Star, and ...

You know who you were. Shame on you all.

Three Junes: a very short review.

Julia Glass's Three Junes tells the story of an (extended) Scottish family across multiple generations, mostly set during the later decades of the 20 century.

It is beautifully written and quite emotional at times.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A break in the rain

It was a beautiful day in the city, so I wandered over to the border between Chinatown and North Beach and hooked up with some old friends for a wonderful lunch.

Thanks, all!

Cop stories

I'll read almost everything; I'm pretty voracious that way.

But certainly a good police procedural is always right up my alley.

So, two recommendations, one old, and one new:

  • The Fairy Gunmother

    Pennac's novel is set in a post-imperial Paris of the mid-1980's, rich with the complexities that entails, and benefits from a truly superb translation by Ian Monk. The result is laugh-out-loud funny while still being atmospheric and compelling.

  • Leviathan Wakes

    Although you'll find this on your Science Fiction shelves at the local bookstore (hah! is there such a thing?), it's really a police procedural set in the future, in space, as more-than-haggard Detective Miller is trying to unravel why a simple missing persons case appears to be much, much deeper than it first seemed.

Each of these is "Book 1 of a series".

And I'll be reading more of each series, straightaway.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Blue Apron

We're entering our third month as regular Blue Apron customers.

If you have no idea what Blue Apron is, here's a nice introduction which takes a business perspective but covers the overall service quite well: Inside Blue Apron’s Meal Kit Machine

Each month, Blue Apron delivers about 8 million meal kits to Americans who like to cook but would rather not waste time shopping or searching for recipes. Blue Apron boxes include cooking instructions for meals and suggested wine parings—shiitake mushroom burgers with a Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard Grenache, for example. The raw ingredients, which include such exotica as romanesco cauliflower and fairy tale eggplants, are sourced from family farms and artisans. Then they're sorted, chopped and packaged in giant fulfillment centers and delivered to homes around the country.

It's still early days for us as Blue Apron consumers, but here are some of my impressions:

  • The ingredients are high-quality, and fresh.

    This was our primary concern, since we're both rather picky shoppers. But in every meal to date, the meat has been very high quality, the produce has been equally good (and quite fresh), and we've not once been disappointed in the ingredients.

  • The service is reliable and accurate.

    The weekly carton arrives on time, with the meals as promised, precisely. Everything is clearly marked; everything is present. The little individual packages of ingredients are right-sized, even if the amount of packaging does bum me out a bit.

  • The proportions and quanties are right.

    We take the "meal for two" service. We never have too much overall, and we never have too little overall. And the individual ingredient amounts are appropriate, too. We don't find ourselves saying "there weren't enough carrots," or whatever.

  • The recipes are clear, accurate, easy to follow, and acceptably quick.

    If the meal says: "prep time 10 minutes, overall time 35 minutes," it turns out to be quite close to that. We haven't yet found ourselves confused, halfway through a recipe, by a missing step. The recipes are printed on stiff paper which stands up nicely in front of you while you're chopping and mixing. The recipes have nice pictures which illustrate the important steps.

    And, as an pleasant touch, they almost always end with a little bit of elegance, showing you how to "plate your dish" for visual appeal, and encouraging you to "enjoy!"

  • The recipes have just enough variety to be entertaining.

    We've been introduced to some ingredients we don't typically use (freekeh, farro, za'atar, labneh, etc.), and some techniques we had never even considered. For a "chicken under a brick" recipe, Blue Apron walked us through how to cook a half-chicken with a large pot of water balanced on TOP of the chicken, pressing down on it as it cooked. It worked startlingly well.

  • The recipes are fun to follow.

    At the end of a long day, you can be tired, and cranky, and not in the mood for failure. These recipes are straightforward, yet they often contain just enough new-ness, whether that be a different ingredient that you haven't used before, or a different technique, or whatever, to make the whole experience fun. Put on a nice album on the stereo, crack open the Blue Apron recipe, unwind, and make dinner together. That's pretty great.

My one complaint, so far, is that the recipes are a bit too liberal with "season with salt and pepper to taste." It's become a bit of a running joke in our house as we prepare a meal, noting that nearly every step in the instructions contains that phrase. Oh, what a nit-picker I am.

And, overall, they aren't the super-fanciest of recipes. You end up making chicken and carrots and potatoes a lot, although dressed up nicely so there's pleasant variety. But you don't end up making something you'd find at a two-star Michelin restaurant. How could you, in just 30 minutes, after all? I guess what I'm saying is that I doubt that people who deliberately set out to entertain would think to themselves to choose one of these recipes. But that's not what they're for.

My wife loves to cook, and typically prefers to cook meals from scratch, so at first she was rather uncertain how she'd feel about this service. But I'd say, overall, she's as happy with it as I am.

I guess I'm not certain if it will actually survive, however; I have this feeling that it is doing well in these relatively prosperous times, with unemployment low and people feeling relatively optimistic and willing to spend on the convenience factor.

The real trick will be, if the economy should take a downturn, whether Blue Apron can endure.

But for now, we're quite pleased.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

News "flash"

Sadly, the folks who tend the Jacquie Lawson website haven't yet heard about how old technology is, eventually, abandoned.

Hopefully, they will update their site before too long, because it IS a really nice site.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A tree grows in the city

This might be the best opening line of a news article that I've read in years:

The trees are trucked to the Transbay Transit Center in the dead of night.

It's from this fascinating piece in the S.F. Chronicle: Transbay Transit Center rooftop turning into 5.4-acre City Park.

I can look down from the window in the kitchen area of my office and see (some of) the trees; specifically, I can see the area marked on the map as "Palm Garden".

I love the variety:

There are Chinese elms from Rainbow in northern San Diego County, and olive trees from Farmington in San Joaquin County. From Gilroy come island oaks, while Escondido was the source for five or six cork oaks. A Columnar Hornbeam came from a nursery outside Portland, while a rare torpedo-shaped Chilean wine palm was tracked down near San Diego.

I was particularly interested in the fact that the trees have been staged at the Valley Crest nursery in Sunol, because I know that nursery well: we drive past it on our way to Sunol Regional Wilderness, one of our favorite East Bay Regional Parks.

And, it's no doubt, the last few times we went out to the park, we were both astonished at the number and the size of the trees in the nursery.

Well, it turns out it's not just the Transbay Center that's been making use of the nursery to prep their trees: A look at Apple’s insanely ambitious tree-planting plans for its new spaceship campus.

In a cluster of East Bay nurseries, Apple has been growing more than 4,600 trees, which are nestled in large, wooden boxes. Some time later this year, Apple’s team of arborists will start shipping these trees two or three at time to Cupertino, where they will be painstakingly planted as part of the broader landscaping plan.


“Today, about 20 percent of the space is landscaping, most of it is big asphalt parking lots,” cofounder Steve Jobs said when first presenting the plans to the Cupertino City Council. “We want to completely change this and make 80 percent of it landscaping. And the way we’re going to do this – we’re going to put most of the parking underground. And you can see what we have in mind. Today there are 3,700 trees on the property, we’d like to almost double that.”

For Jobs, who grew up in the region, it was a chance to recapture the lost feel of an area that was once mostly open spaces and fruit orchards before it gave way to low-slung, drab office buildings.

“The landscape design of meadows and woodlands will create an ecologically rich oak savanna reminiscent of the early Santa Clara Valley,” Apple said in its proposal. “It will incorporate both young and mature trees, and native and drought tolerant plants that will thrive in Santa Clara County with minimal water consumption. The increase in permeable surfaces will promote natural drainage and improve water quality in Calabazas Creek. The thoughtful and extensive landscaping will recall Cupertino’s pre-agricultural and agricultural past.”

I don't know when I'll make it down to the Apple campus; it's a LONG way from my house, probably a 2.5 hour drive (each way) during a normal weekday.

But hopefully I'll get the chance, one day.

And, in the meantime, I can't wait to walk through the "mini botanical garden right downtown" when the Transbay Center opens later this summer.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Bye bye, Boing Boing

For more than a decade, I avidly followed the website BoingBoing.net.

Boing Boing was an early "group blog", with a core team of a half dozen or so writers, who contributed smart, savvy, well-thought pieces about all sorts of interesting subjects.

But something happened, 9 months or a year ago, and since then the site has utterly collapsed.

Nowadays it's nearly indistinguishable from the common rot you find all over the Internet. It's loaded with advertising, not just the overt kind that all sites sport, but also the more insidious sort of testimonial advertising that has become popular, similar to the way that radio stations think that having the regular DJ read the advertising blurb somehow lends it more respect and legitimacy. When, in fact, the opposite is true.

And even the non-advertising content seems to be selected to appeal to a less-discerning sort of reader, tending more and more to the sort of rubbish you find on places like BuzzFeed.

And the comments section? Horrific, with trolls as bad as any you'll find anywhere on the net.

It's a shame, to see how rapidly what was once one of the shining lights of the Internet is now become some sort of "E! Channel" of web sites.

Oh, well, it's not worth shedding too many tears over its demise, I suppose, even though it makes me sad.

It does make you wonder, though: if BoingBoing has fallen, can the other great independent sites of the net be far behind?

I hope not; I hope the net still somehow finds a way to be a provider of quality independent voices.

But I fear that time is soon to be gone.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Far Cry: a very short review

Over the last eight months, I've spent WAY more time than I'd like to admit playing first Far Cry 3, then Far Cry 4.

If you have any interest in these games, you already know about them; they are not new games. Far Cry 3 came out in 2012, I think, and Far Cry 4 at the end of 2014.

Far Cry 4 is DRAMATICALLY more polished. You might never see a more beautiful in-game environment than Far Cry 4's Himalayan kingdom of Kyrat. Skyrim was stunning; The Witcher was breath-taking, but Far Cry 4 puts them both to shame. This is just glorious, glorious visual beauty.

But the funny thing is: Far Cry 4 is jaw-droppingly beautiful, but Far Cry 3 is more fun.

And that's the point, after all.

Part of it is the setting: Far Cry 3 has this bizarre retro-1960's thing going on, with jungle islands, and psychedelic flashbacks, and bizarre Imperial dreams dashed to shreds in the South-east Asian jungles, while Far Cry 4 is a more nuanced story of tribal tension, religious conflict, and Zen Buddhism.

And part of it is the screen-writing: Far Cry 3's story just feels more immediate somehow: no matter how much it is a direct rip-off of Apocalyse Now (itself a fairly direct rip-off of Heart of Darkness, after all), it is still, at its core, a gripping story.

And, quite simply: in Far Cry 3, you end up getting the bad guy. While, in Far Cry 4, in the end there really are no winners (Let's hear it for realism!).

Maybe, it doesn't really matter: both games are extremely well-executed, and stand as modern classics.

But Far Cry 3, though older, and nowhere near as polished and elegant, is, in the end, the winner.

Anyway, you'll have to excuse me; I'm heading back to play some more Far Cry 4.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

This and that

It's still raining! Reports are that these early-April storms brought several FEET of additional snow to the high Sierras!

  • Turing Award 2016
    Sir Tim Berners-Lee is the latest winner of the ACM Turing Award. He was cited for “inventing the World Wide Web (WWW), the first web browser, and the fundamental protocols and algorithms allowing the web to scale.”
  • It’s Time To Unionize In Silicon Valley
    It’s no secret in Silicon Valley that programmers work well beyond the 40-hour week accounted for in their salaries. Aurora said that every one of her friends at Google works nights and weekends. During her time as a developer of Linux kernel, an operating system used in technology sold by Intel and IBM, among others, supervisors constantly assured her and fellow programmers that they love their work and that they love it so much they will do it for free. To ensure persistence and efficiency, supervisors use a complex recipe of emotional abuse and, if you play along, eternal job security.

    Many programmers, including those at Google, are told that they are prohibited from talking to the press about their work. They are lectured repeatedly about this rule and ordered to sign non-disclosure forms. Lawyers must review any papers for conferences. Supervisors hold these mandates against their employees, who typically don’t question such restrictions or speak up about harassment so they may keep their jobs. Lower-level employees, who also strive to be a part of something bigger than themselves, desire what anyone else wants in a job: the ability to feed their families, pay the mortgage and have something left over. But as the years pass and the companies grow, this working structure gains momentum at the expense of the rights of workers. Aurora referred to it as “a culture of fear.”

    “If you want to have a career in computers,” she said, “it does not pay to talk.”

  • Bertha, Seattle's SR 99 Tunneling Machine, Is Finally Done Digging
    After nearly four years underground, Seattle’s beleaguered boring behemoth clawed its way into daylight yesterday, leaving a 1.7-mile tunnel behind it. And now that its job is done, workers can at last move an aging, potentially dangerous stretch of elevated highway below the surface, and build a new public space on Seattle’s waterfront in its place.

    The tunneling machine, named for former Seattle mayor Bertha Knight Landes, boasts a 57-foot diameter and measures 325 feet long. After dropping into a pit in July 2013, it started digging the tunnel that will hold the replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated highway that was partly demolished after being damaged by a 2001 earthquake.

  • Sunken Barge Leaking Oil Into San Francisco Bay
    A 112-foot freight barge, the Vengeance, capsized and sank in San Francisco Bay Friday morning. It is leaking diesel fuel and hydraulic oil south of the Bay Bridge.
  • Divers Plug Oil Leak on Sunken Barge In San Francisco Bay
    "Divers from Global Diving and Salvage conducted an initial underwater assessment and plugged the leaking fuel vent Friday afternoon," a written statement from the Coast Guard reports. The boom was then removed.
  • Salesforce remakes San Francisco skyline with tallest West Coast office tower
    Builders laid the final beam Thursday for Salesforce Tower, a $1 billion skyscraper that now stands as the tallest office building west of Chicago. The 1,070-foot (326-meter) tower is set to be finished this summer and the main tenant, Salesforce.com, expects to start moving in by the end of the year.

    And some more wonderful pictures at San Francisco Skyline Reshaped by Tallest Office Building on the West Coast

  • The peregrine falcons
    Falcons have been nesting on PG&E’s 77 Beale Street headquarters most years since 2004. In 2016, three eggs hatched on April 17. Their parents, named Dan and Matilda, sat on the eggs to keep them warm and then, once they hatched, fed the birds over the next month as they grew from white fluff-balls to full-size falcons with dark feathers. Glenn Stewart, director of the UC Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, banded the young birds on May 9, a few weeks before they were ready to start flying. On that same day, PG&E announced the names of the birds: Talon, Grace and Flash. PG&E customers were asked to submit names via Twitter or email. More than 160 name entries were submitted; perhaps 600 names in total. The selected names came courtesy of Heather Wingfield’s kindergarten class at Lakeside Elementary in Los Gatos. The class of 4- and 5-year-olds provided 20 potential names, including the three winning choices.
  • Inside The World’s Newest Mega-Skyscraper
    The 123-story Lotte World Tower in Seoul may not be the tallest building in the world—it's in fifth place—but it's got a few record-breaking statistics up its sleeve. For one, it boasts the world's highest glass-bottomed observation deck in a building. Visitors can stroll onto the glass a vertigo-inducing 1,640 feet—or half a kilometer—above the ground. It's also home to the world's highest swimming pool in a building, on the 85th floor, and the world's fastest elevator, which can whisk visitors to the top in one minute.

    Other facilities at the site include a spectacular concert hall with seating for 2,000 people, an aquarium, cinema and food hall.

    (Don't miss the delightful aerial shot of Lotte World farther down the page)

  • Millennium Tower homeowners association sues for $200 million
    The troubled Millennium Tower has been hit with another lawsuit this week. The building’s homeowners association filed a civil suit on Wednesday seeking $200 million to help repair the structure’s tilting and sinking snafus.

    The list of defendants is long: Millennium Partner, Webcor, Handel Architects, Treadwell & Rollo, Langan, DeSimone Consulting Engineers, and Arup, and Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA).

    “The suit alleges that both Millennium Partners, consultants and the TJPA, which is building the adjacent Transbay Transit Center, knew that the tower was sinking and tilting and deliberately withheld that information from homeowners,” reports San Francisco Business Times. “The suit alleges negligent and fraudulent misrepresentations, breach of fiduciary duty and other civil violations. It calls for a jury trial.”

  • Millenium Litigation
    As in other construction defect cases, a substantial assessment by the HOA for investigation and legal action is likely to follow. Faced with declining property values, high assessments, and lack of marketability, some owners under similar circumstances have chosen to stop making HOA payments, and those with large loans on their property have sometimes simply abandoned them to the lenders. Faced with the taint of construction defects, the property suffers a stigma and a reputational challenge, which will result in lower pricing and more difficulty in selling. Long term, even while repairs are undertaken, the homeowners will continue to suffer damages for which compensation is legally available.


    Our litigation group has filed a class action complaint on behalf of all of the homeowners. Such an action is filed, premised on the fact that the liability of the defendants, Millennium Partners, Transbay, and others who may have caused or contributed to the damage, arises from identical facts as to each of the homeowners. That case is being brought on a contingency basis where the attorneys advance the litigation costs, and only receive fees from a settlement or recovery if there is a successful resolution. There is no charge for you to join the litigation and you will not be billed for legal services. The defendants will likely challenge the certification of the class, and if they prevail the claims of the homeowners will be required to be brought individually by each of you. The litigation group is also pursing Transbay which is a governmental agency with a claim in inverse condemnation. The claim is essentially one alleging that the governmental agency has taken, or devalued private property.

  • At Scale, Rare Events aren’t Rare
    What happened? The report was “switch gear failed and locked out reserve generators.” To understand the fault, it’s best to understand what the switch gear normally does and how faults are handled and then dig deeper into what went wrong in this case.

    In normal operation the utility power feeding a data center flows in from the mid-voltage transformers through the switch gear and then to the uninterruptible power supplies which eventually feeds the critical load (servers, storage, and networking equipment). In normal operation, the switch gear is just monitoring power quality.

    If the utility power goes outside of acceptable quality parameters or simply fails, the switch gear waits a few seconds since, in the vast majority of the cases, the power will return before further action needs to be taken. If the power does not return after a predetermined number of seconds (usually less than 10), the switch gear will signal the backup generators to start. The generators start, run up to operating RPM, and are usually given a very short period to stabilize. Once the generator power is within acceptable parameters, the load is switched to the generator. During the few seconds required to switch to generator power, the UPS has been holding the critical load and the switch to generators is transparent. When the utility power returns and is stable, the load is switched back to utility and the generators are brought back down.

  • The Conversation About Basic Income is a Mess. Here’s How to Make Sense of It.
    UBI is in fact not a single proposal. It’s a field of proposals that’s perhaps better thought of as a philosophical intervention, a new conception of macro-economic and political structure. It’s unusual to argue wholeheartedly against representative government, taxation or universal suffrage, while it is common to disagree on which party should govern, whether taxes should be raised or cut, and particular elements of voting procedure. In the same way, we shouldn’t argue all-out for or against UBI but instead inspect the make-up of each approach to it – that’s where we can find not only meaningful debate, but also possibilities for working out what we might actually want.
  • You Need To Relax, Bro: Spring Break in Isla Vista
    In the water, fluorescent bikinis and board shorts and visors move like schools of large tropical fish. Later, they come together to make a fire. There is no sense of ephemerality to their partying, only time, ongoing like the winding coast.

    Fuchsia bathing suit says a lot of people come this time of year. Kids who go to school in colder regions come for spring break. All who visit Isla Vista, for one reason or another, feel a need for spontaneity. Perhaps they, like me, felt too comfortable in a routine of school and work and want to prove their gall and youthful durability by wearing scandalous maritime garb and sleeping on questionable mattresses.

Meanwhile, Aziz Ansari Finally Revealed When Master of None Season 2 Is Coming Out:

Netflix just released the first trailer for the highly anticipated second season of its Emmy-winning show "Master of None," which will return Friday, May 12.

And, this looks like it will be a fun book, but I can't figure out how to add it to my "wish list", so I'll probably forget about it before it finally gets published in a form I can read. So please remind me about it in about 6 months, will ya?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Farewell, Mr Robot

I very much enjoyed the first season of Mr. Robot.

I thought that the show's exploration of the fine line between computer hacking and mental illness was quite interesting, and the show's production values are quite high: great music, superb acting, crisp screen-writing.

However, as we started watching Season Three, we found it was just too much mental illness, and not enough computer hacking.

So, no offense, Mr. Robot, but I'm moving on.

Your tax dollars at work

Everyone loves to complain about taxes; I'm no exception.

But once in a while you get to see your tax dollars at work. For example, The new 400 passenger MV Hydrus enters service in April.

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) is pleased to announce the arrival of the M.V. Hydrus, the first of four Hydrus Class vessels that will join WETA's San Francisco Bay Ferry fleet over the next three years. Hydrus Class vessels can carry 400 passengers and 50 bikes at an operating speed of 27 knots (31 miles per hour). The Hydrus, which is expected to enter service in early April, will replace the MV Encinal on the Alameda/Oakland/San Francisco route.

Here's a data sheet with (slightly) more details about the Hydrus, calling it "the cleanest 27 Knot, 400 Passenger Ferry in the World", which is an oddly-specific claim to fame.

The Hydrus replaces the Encinal, which is ANCIENT, by reasonable measures: it first entered service in 1985.

Here's a fascinating data sheet about the current 11-ship fleet, as well as the 7 new vessels being added over the next 3 years.

The ferry I most commonly ride is the Bay Breeze; I also regularly ride the Peralta. Both are quite nice, really, if clearly getting on in years.

After the Encinal is replaced, the Bay Breeze will be the oldest vessel in the fleet, together with the Vallejo. The Vallejo is scheduled to be retired in 2018; the Bay Breeze is scheduled to run until (at least) 2020, according to the fleet card. (Although the fleet card doesn't say what will replace the Bay Breeze; it has rather specific requirements because its regular dock is the smallest and least-protected.)

The new vessels appear to be American-made: Kvichak Marine is located in Seattle, while Dakota Creek is located in nearby Anacortes.

Interestingly, neither website lists any of these ferries among their "recent projects."

Anyway, the pictures of the new Hydrus look beautiful; I'm excited about soon seeing her out on the water, and will cheerfully bid a fond farewell to the Encinal.

Oh, and your tax dollars? Well, thank you very much, all who participated:

The Hydrus Project is funded by:
  • Governor’s Office of Emergency Services State Proposition 1B - $4.0 million
  • Metropolitan Transportation Commission Regional Measure 2 - $8.3 million
  • Alameda County Transportation Commission Measure B/BB - $4.7 million

Ferries are not cheap to build, nor to operate, and of course the construction and operation of these ferries is of the utmost importance.

So far, things look to be progressing well in the WETA fleet.

Serendipitous juxtaposition

I subscribe to WAY too many newsletters.

One arrived in my mailbox the other morning.

It might have been written by an algorithm.

But I suspect it was written by a (harried) human being.

Anyway, the newsletter suggested two articles that I might want to read ("based on your interests"):

  1. How I got a second degree and earned 5 developer certifications in just one year, while working and raising two kids
    I’ve done a lot in the past year. I earned two Oracle Java Certifications, two CompTia Certifications, and freeCodeCamp’s Front End Certification. Each of these take most people many months of preparation, but I did them all in three weeks each.

    And last but not least, I completed all the coursework necessary to earn a second Bachelor’s degree in software development from an accredited university, in less than six months.

    I did this all while working full-time, spending time regularly with my wife and two young kids, and volunteering in my community.

  2. there’s no glory in overworking: it’s just imminent burnout.
    I became a shell of who I once was, feeding more and more of myself to the parasite that was my job, in many desperate attempts to prove my worthiness. I couldn’t remember why I was trying so hard, or who I was doing it for. All I knew was: keep going, keep working, keep pushing.

    I clung tightly to the ‘workaholic’ badge like a life vest—it was my salvation, confirmation that I wasn’t drowning.

    In trying my hardest not to be average, I had become exactly that.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Meanwhile, on the Internet...

... when will I possibly find the time to study all this?

  • Research Debt
    The insidious thing about research debt is that it’s normal. Everyone takes it for granted, and doesn’t realize that things could be different. For example, it’s normal to give very mediocre explanations of research, and people perceive that to be the ceiling of explanation quality. On the rare occasions that truly excellent explanations come along, people see them as one-off miracles rather than a sign that we could systematically be doing better.
  • Operating System: From 0 to 1
    This book helps you gain the foundational knowledge required to write an operating system from scratch. Hence the title, 0 to 1.

    After completing this book, at the very least you will learn:

    • How to write an operating system from scratch by reading hardware datasheets. In the real world, it works like that. You won’t be able to consult Google for a quick answer.
    • A big picture of how each layer of a computer is related to the other, from hardware to software.
    • Write code independently. It’s pointless to copy and paste code. Real learning happens when you solve problems on your own. Some examples are given to kick start, but most problems are yours to conquer. However, the solutions are available online for you to examine after giving it a good try.
    • Linux as a development environment and how to use common tools for low-level programming.
    • x86 assembly in-depth.
    • How a program is structured so that an operating system can run.
    • How to debug a program running directly on hardware with gdb and QEMU.
    • Linking and loading on bare metal x86_64, with pure C. No standard library. No runtime overhead.
  • The System Design Primer
    Learning how to design scalable systems will help you become a better engineer.

    System design is a broad topic. There is a vast amount of resources scattered throughout the web on system design principles.

    This repo is an organized collection of resources to help you learn how to build systems at scale.

  • Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data
    Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:
    • Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.
    • Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.
    • Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.
    • Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.
    • Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.
    We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.
  • The Myers diff algorithm: part 1
    In this series of articles, I’d like to walk you through the default diff algorithm used by Git. It was developed by Eugene W. Myers, and the original paper is available online. While the paper is quite short, it is quite mathematically dense and is focussed on proving that it works. The explanations here will be less rigorous, but will hopefully be more intuitive, giving a detailed walk-through of what the algorithm actually does and how it works.

The end of SHA-1, one month later

As everyone already knows, the SHA-1 cryptographic hash function has been Shattered.

This is no particular suprise; as Bruce Schneier pointed out on his blog nearly five years ago, cryptography experts were well aware of the vulnerability of the SHA-1 cryptography. Schneier quoted Jesse Walker as saying:

A collision attack is therefore well within the range of what an organized crime syndicate can practically budget by 2018, and a university research project by 2021.

Pretty good estimate, I'd say, Mr. Walker.

But what does this mean, in practice?

Perhaps the most visible impact is in the area of network security, where Google has been warning about problems for quite some time, and started putting those warnings into action last fall: SHA-1 Certificates in Chrome

To protect users from such attacks, Chrome will stop trusting certificates that use the SHA-1 algorithm, and visiting a site using such a certificate will result in an interstitial warning.

Other large internet sites have followed suit; kudos to them for doing so quickly and responsibly.

Another very interesting aspect of this signature collision arises in what are known as "content-addressible file systems", of which git is the best known. This is a very significant issue, as the Shattered web site points out:

It is essentially possible to create two GIT repositories with the same head commit hash and different contents, say a benign source code and a backdoored one. An attacker could potentially selectively serve either repository to targeted users. This will require attackers to compute their own collision.

And it doesn't just affect git; subversion is vulnerable, as is Mercurial.

People are right to be worried about this.

However, when it comes to the SCM issue, I think that the issue isn't completely cut-and-dried, for several reasons:

  • Firstly, we're talking about an issue in which an attacker deliberately constructs a collision, as opposed to an accidental collision. The use of SHA-1 identifiers for git objects remains a useful, practical, and trouble-free technique for allowing people to collaborate independently on common computer files without sharing a central server (the so-called DVCS paradigm). In the 12 years that git has been in use, and the trillions of git object SHAs that have been computed, nobody anywhere in the world has reported an accidental collision in practice.
  • This strength of accidental collision detection is strengthened by the fact that git encodes certain other information into the computed SHA-1 value besides just the file's content: namely, the object type (blob/tree/commit/tag), and the object length, for blob shas, and other ancillary data such as timestamps, etc. for commit shas. I'm not saying this makes git any safer from a security point of view; after all Google arranged to have their two colliding PDF files be both exactly 422,435 bytes long. But it does mean that the accidental collision risk is clearly quite small.
  • And, of course, for the attacker to actually supplant "a benign source code" with "a backdoored one," not only does the attacker have to construct the alternate file (of identical length and identical SHA-1, but with evil content), but that backdoored file has to still be valid source code. It is no easy task to add in this additional constraint, even if you are the wealthy-enough attacker to be willing to spend "9,223,372,036,854,775,808 SHA1 computations". I'd imagine that this task gets easier, somewhat, as the size of that source file gets larger; that is, given that a certain amount of the backdoored evil source file is necessarily consumed by the source code of the evil payload itself, the attacker is forced to use the remainder of the file size for containing the rubbish that is necessary to make the SHA-1 values line up, and the smaller that remainder is, the harder it will be to generate that matching SHA-1, right? So it's one more reason to keep your individual source files small?

The above was too many words: what I'm trying to point out is:

With SSH, people use SHA-1 to provide security

With git/Mercurial, people use SHA-1 to provide decentralized object identification workflows, for easier collaboration among trusted teams.

The crucial difference between the use of SHA-1 values in validating network security certificates, versus the use of those values in assigning source code file identifiers, involves the different ways that humans use these two systems.

That is, when you connect to a valuable web site using SSH, you are depending on that SSH signature to establish trust in your mind between yourself and some remote network entity.

But when you share source code with your team, with whom you are collaborating using a tool like Mercurial, Subversion, or git, there are, crucially, other trust relationships in effect between you and the other human beings with whom you are a collaborator.

So, yes, be careful from whom you download a git repo full of source code that you intend to compile and run on your computer.

But wasn't that already true, long before SHA-1 was broken?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Assessing an estimate


Can this really be true?

Addressing Detroit’s Basic Skills Crisis

Various estimates of the scale of need for basic skills services in the region convey a crisis-level order of magnitude.
  • The National Institute for Literacy estimates that 47% of adults (more than 200,000 individuals) in the City of Detroit are functionally illiterate, referring to the inability of an individual to use reading, speaking, writing, and computational skills in everyday life situations.
  • We also know that of the 200,000 adults who are functionally illiterate, approximately half have a high school diploma or GED, so this issue cannot be solely addressed by a focus on adult high-school completion.
  • The remaining 100,000 of these functionally illiterate adults (age 25 and older) lack a high school diploma or GED, another prerequisite for employment success.

I'm not sure how this institute made this estimate.

Later, the report expands somewhat on the topic:

Generally, those adults who score at Level 1 (on a scale of 1 to 5, lowest to highest) have difficulty performing such everyday tasks as locating an intersection on a street map, reading and comprehending a short newspaper article, or calculating total costs on an order form.

It isn't clear whether their estimate was that all 47% were at "Level 1", or whether those were five levels of illiteracy (versus five levels of literacy), but no matter how you slice it, those are some astonishing claims about the literacy problem in the greater Detroit region.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

It's not just a game, ...

... close reading shows that it's an homage to many great works of art before it: 14 Greatest Witcher 3 Easter Eggs That Will Make You Wanna Replay It Immediately

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Fearless Girl

With so many things to talk about, somehow attention gets paid to: Wall Street Bull artist calls BS on ‘Fearless Girl’ statue

I love Matt Levine's observation:

There is something pleasing about the fact that the Charging Bull, a global symbol of rapacious financial capitalism, is a piece of guerrilla art installed without payment or permission -- while the Fearless Girl, an egalitarian symbol meant to challenge the bull's soulless greed, is a piece of corporate advertising commissioned by an asset-management company.

Up, up, and away

Looks pretty windy at the top, but at least the sun is shining! Salesforce Tower: Sneak Peek

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sapiens: a very short review

Yuval Noah Harari is the writer of the moment, having taken the world by storm with his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and having now finished his follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

I've now read Sapiens, which is both readable and thought-provoking, no easy accomplishment.

Harari is certainly ambitious. As I read Sapiens, I amused myself by pretending to be a library cataloger, faced with the task of trying to assign appropriate subject categories under which Sapiens should be listed.

The list would surely have to include: history; biology; archaeology; anthropology; economics; cosmology; evolutionary biology; linguistics; political science; ecology; globalism; religious studies; cognitive science; philosophy.

And surely more.

But that's not adequate either, for you'd want to be more precise that just saying "history", rather: world history; cultural history; ancient history; history of language; military history; world exploration; religious history; history of science; literary history; etc.

Oh, you could go on for hours and hours.

So, Sapiens is very much a book written by an intellectual omnivore, which will most likely appeal to omnivorous readers, by which I mean those who don't want to spend their time reading history books that get trapped for many pages on the individual details of precisely what happened on such-and-such a day, but instead feel like it's reasonable to try to cover the 100,000 year history of mankind on earth in, say, 400 pages or so.

It actually works out better than the previous sentence makes it sound, for Harari is a fine writer and he moves things along briskly.

I think that the strongest and most interesting argument that Sapiens makes is a linguistic one, rooted in the power of the concept of abstraction.

Discussing the evolution of language itself, Harari observes that many species of animal have languages and can communicate, typically using their language abilities to communicate information about food, danger, reproduction, and other universal topics. However:

the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it's the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, 'Careful! A lion!' Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to say, 'The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.' This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.

Although, superficially, this seems to be a discussion about telling entertaining stories around the campfire, or fabricating super-natural explanations as the basis for the founding of religions, Harari quickly re-orients this discussion in a much more practical direction:

fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.


Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers [...] with countless numbers of strangers.

It's that "with ... strangers" part that is so important, as Harari proceeds to demonstrate how this ability to discuss hypothetical scenarios with people who aren't part of your immediate circle of family and friends is what gives rise to things like corporate finance, systems of justice, the scientific method, etc. All of these things are built on the ability to have abstractions:

In what sense can we say that Peugeot SA (the company's official name) exists? There are many Peugeot vehicles, but these are obviously not the company. Even if every Peugeot in the world were simultaneously junked and sold for scrap metal, Peugeot SA would not disappear.


Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a 'legal fiction.' It can't be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. Just like you or me, it is bound by the laws of the countries in which it operates. It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it.

Ostensibly, Sapiens is a history; that is, it is a book about the past, helping us understand what came before, and how it led us to what is now.

But, as is perhaps universally true, Harari is not actually that terribly interested in what happened in the past, often breezily sweeping whole questions aside with a sort of "it's gone; it's forgotten; we have no accurate evidence; we cannot know for sure" superficiality that is startling.

Rather, as Harari reveals near the end of his book, he is principally interested in the future, and it's here where Sapiens takes a rather unexpected turn.

I must admit, I was wholly unprepared when, just pages before the end of Sapiens, Harari suddenly introduces the topic of "Intelligent Design".

However, it turns out that Harari doesn't mean the term in the sense in which it is typically used; he is firmly in the Darwin/Russell camp.

Rather, Harari is fascinated by the idea that scientific methods may have arrived at the point where humans will soon be capable of intelligent design in the future:

After 4 billion years of natural selection, Alba stands at the dawn of a new cosmic era, in which life will be ruled by intelligent design.


Biologists the world over are locked in battle with the intelligent-design movement, which opposes the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools and claims that biological complexity proves there must be a creator who thought out all biological details in advance. The biologists are right about the past, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future.

At the time of writing, the replacement of natural selection by intelligent design could happen in any of three ways: through biological engineering, cyborg engineering (cyborgs are beings who combine organic with non-organic parts) or the engineering of in-organic life.

If Harari painted with a broad brush when discussing the past, his descriptions of our near-term future are equally vague and loosely-grounded, and those final 25 pages of Sapiens are a rather bewildering peek into "what might be."

But, as Yogi Berra pointed out, "predictions are hard, especially about the future," so I can't fault Harari too much for wanting to have a go at what might come next.

I imagine that, eventually, I will read more of Harari's work, as it's clear he has a lot of interesting things to say.

And if you haven't read Sapiens yet, you probably won't regret it, it's quite good.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Bands I've been listening to recently ...

... ranked by the number of their albums I've got.

  • Band of Horses: 5
  • Blind Pilot: 3
  • Mumford & Sons: 3
  • Fleet Foxes: 3
  • Lumineers: 2
  • Lord Huron: 2
  • Of Monsters and Men: 2
  • Johnny Flynn: 2
  • Judah and the Lion: 1
  • The Revivalists: 1
  • Susto: 1

Who else should I be listening to? Gregory Alan Isakov? First Aid Kit? Nathanial Rateliff? Somebody else entirely?

And when will there be new work from The Lumineers, Lord Huron, Mumford & Sons, or Fleet Foxes?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Vee too, mom!

At my day job, we're nearing the end of an annual event which goes by the rather awkward jargon: "V2MOM".

V2MOM is a management planning tool that was invented by Marc Benioff himself, twenty years ago, and has been at use at Salesforce since it was first founded. A few years ago, Benioff described the genesis of his approach, and its motivation: How to Create Alignment Within Your Company in Order to Succeed

What I yearned for at Oracle was clarity on our vision and the goals we wanted to achieve. As I started to manage my own divisions, I found that I personally lacked the tools to spell out what we needed to do and a simple a process to communicate it. The problem only increased as the teams that I was managing increased.


At salesforce.com, everything we do in terms of organiza­tional management is based on our V2MOM. It is the core way we run our business; it allows us to define our goals and organize a principled way to execute them; and it takes into consideration our constant drive to evolve. The collaborative construct works especially well for a fast-paced environment.

I can greatly sympathize. It is not a great exaggeration to say that the reason I changed jobs this winter was because I realized I was no longer in alignment with my (former) company. In fact, we hadn't been aligned for nearly a year. I wanted to take the technology, and the products, and the customer base, in a certain direction, but the company had entirely different plans, and goals, and intentions.

That's fine. But what's NOT fine, is that I didn't know that at the time. Horribly, I didn't know it for nearly a year. Which is a shame, both for me, and for the company, as neither of us were well-served by that disconnect.

Famously, Parker Harris saved that original V2MOM that he and Benioff wrote, literally, on the back of an envelope

before the dinner was over, Harris walked up to Benioff and gave him a gift: a framed American Express envelope.

It was the envelope Benioff had used to scribble down Salesforce’s first-ever V2MOM — a list of management guidelines that stands for vision, values, methods, obstacles, and measures — when launching the company in 1999.

The use of V2MOM at Salesforce is fairly well-known, even though it was something I hadn't paid attention to until I joined. For example: SalesForce.com’s Greatest Secret: Art of the V2MOM

The goal of the V2MOM is create complete alignment. Immediately after writing it, share it with your top officers for input (for a startup, this is probably everyone). The brevity ensures a simplicity that is easy to digest. Clarified direction focuses collective attention on the desired outcome and eliminates anxiety in times of change. It is easy for people to connect with and scan quickly for alignment. The V2MOM is flexible enough for startups as well as public companies.
and, Growing the team and creating our very first V2MOM documents
A few months ago I had a great meeting with a good friend and one of my mentors, Mariusz, who is already running a very successful Internet company (and a lot bigger than mine). We talked about team-building and how to maintain focus and make sure the team feels like "one vehicle driving in one direction" and everyone knows they have a big role to play and depend on each other. He suggested I read the "Behind the Cloud" book by Marc Benioff and implemented the V2MOM system Marc invented. I was like "V2what?" and he explained

So, anyway, we're now nearly done with the big annual V2MOm process for this year. The process proceeds top-down:

  1. Marc writes his V2MOM, which is the V2MOM for the entire company, and publishes it
  2. Then each level down the org chart writes, and publishes, their own V2MOM, extracting, selecting, refining, and elaborating on the V2MOMs already published
  3. Eventually, we get down to people like me, and once we've published our V2MOMs, the annual publication event completes.

This is, obviously, the first time I've been through this process, so it's not clear what standing I have to comment.

But it's been interesting enough that I'd like to share a few thoughts.

EVERYONE participates. This is not an optional activity. Some people put more time into it, others less, but nobody sits out entirely. That fact, by itself, creates a curious sense of "belonging," all by itself.

This is not just an exercise for show. The company takes this process VERY seriously. People devote substantial amounts of time to drafting, discussing, revising, and editing their V2MOMs.

The plans are interesting, but much more interesting and much more important is the fact that we are PLANNING. Recall Eisenhower:

Plans are nothing; planning is everything.

At the middle levels of the organization, the V2MOMs describe, collectively, the work of teams of dozens or even hundreds of people, and they can be impressively detailed and robust. I participated in a 3 hour "readout" (a bit of business jargon which I'm told has Microsoft-heritage), in which my 50+ person team collectively reviewed a 35-page detailed description of our goals, aspirations, and worries for the year.

These are not private documents. Everyone's V2MOM is made available to the entire company (though obviously I'm not going to sit down and read 28,000 V2MOM documents).

In fact, you could say that this is perhaps the entire point, as the openness of the V2MOM process is a great example of what people mean when they talk about "transparency."

A crucial part of the V2MOM process involves ORDERING. When you choose your methods, you have to place them in a certain order, and this order conveys your priorities. Your top methods are crucial; these are the things you will fight to accomplish this year. Farther down the list, are things that you believe in, and want to do, but may not be able to achieve.

A famous cliche goes: "if everything's important, nothing's important." Placing your methods in a definite order forces you to stop and think about what REALLY matters.

And people pay attention to this order. They think about it; they arrange their own work around it; it structures the entire conversation. There is an often-retold story inside Salesforce about a very public meeting that occurred not too long after Keith Block had joined. It happened to be V2MOM time, and so Block was producing his V2MOM, and, as part of that process, it was being presented to the team, which meant that it was being presented to, more-or-less, the entire company (Block is maybe the 2nd or 3rd-most important person at the company). During this (open to all, broadcast, widely-watched) event, Block is stepping through his methods, one at a time, when a voice from the audience interrupts: Benioff himself:

Keith, here, I'm a bit puzzled: why did you prioritize this as Method 4? What makes it less important than numbers 2 and 3?

The message: this is important; this is open; nobody gets a free pass; we are all agreeing on this together.

But after all of this, I'd say that the single thing that startled me the most about the entire V2MOM process is: everybody does it!

Even in a small company, it's rare to find anything that everyone does. Corporate activities like this tend to be the sorts of thing that see 20% participation, at least in the corporate settings that I've been part of.

So the simple fact of saying that we ALL have a V2MOM is marvelously compelling.

Hey, I'm just one person out of 28,000, but I'm here! See? I'm doing something, and it's something that's actually relevant! Wanna know? Check out my V2MOM!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Following up

I haven't been writing an awful lot recently. I've been quite busy with my new day job, and we also took a delightful 3-day weekend trip to the mountains with my granddaughter.

But here's a few things I wanted to share.

  • I wrote a fairly long essay about the importance of hiring.

    As is so often true, The Awl said it simply, more crisply, and more powerfully than me: If It Walks Like A Jerk And Talks Like A Jerk: Call him an asshole, not “brilliant,” and don’t hire him.

    I’ll tell you what: first of all, stop calling him that. Brilliant is just how we excuse Jerk. It’s how he gets away with bad behavior, like sexual harassment and insubordination (and yes, he is usually a he). Let me get all third grade on you for a second here: If you’re so brilliant, then why haven’t you figured out how to be good at your job? The jury is long out on the jerks’ performance: they may be highly productive, “but they are not, however brilliant business people,” wrote Cliff Oxford in the Times. This is because good business people, strangely enough, are good people.
  • I mumbled for a while about the challenges of making a highly-reliable web service.

    Amazon, who know a lot more about this than me, released a great post-mortem about just how hard it is: Summary of the Amazon S3 Service Disruption in the Northern Virginia (US-EAST-1) Region

    We are making several changes as a result of this operational event. While removal of capacity is a key operational practice, in this instance, the tool used allowed too much capacity to be removed too quickly. We have modified this tool to remove capacity more slowly and added safeguards to prevent capacity from being removed when it will take any subsystem below its minimum required capacity level. This will prevent an incorrect input from triggering a similar event in the future. We are also auditing our other operational tools to ensure we have similar safety checks.

    Some people (although not very many) had actually prepared well enough to be able to survive this outage and remain operational: Mitigating an AWS Instance Failure with the Magic of Kubernetes

    At Spire, we’ve been using Kubernetes for a little over 9 months at this point, the last 6 of which were in production. It’s transformed our workflow and provided us with a significantly more reliable product. If you’re considering a move to Kubernetes, I highly recommend it. It’s an incredibly powerful tool that is guaranteed to leave you in awe at least a few times.

    And, of course, it's not enough for those services just to be highly reliable and available, as MIT's Technology Review observes: they have to be secure, too: Centralized Web Services Are Wonderful—Until They Go Wrong

    Cloudflare points out that the flaw meant that its servers leaked private information just once in every 3.3 million Web requests it dealt with. But such is the scale of Cloudflare’s operations that those numbers add up—and quickly. Among its clients are the likes of Uber, Fitbit, OKCupid, 4chan, and 1Password. All told, as many as 120,000 pages per day from 3,438 domains could have leaked data, and the bug remained undiscovered for over five months.
  • I worried a lot about the Oroville Dam.

    Ideasman69 has put up a stupendous series of pictures and videos about just how bad it actually was:

    Those pictures are astonishing.

  • I fretted about the amazing pace of construction near the Transbay Terminal.

    WebCor have recently updated their project page with some new architectural drawings: First and Mission (Oceanwide Center)

    the development includes the construction of two high rise towers and the renovation of two existing buildings, 78 and 88 1st Street. The 910 foot tall, 61-story 1st Street Tower will include a 4 story basement, a 7-story tall open public space on the ground level, 33 stories of office space (1.35 million square feet) and 109 ultra-luxury condos. The steel 1st Street Tower will be the second tallest building in San Francisco and will be targeting Platinum LEED Certification.

    At 610 foot tall, the concrete 54-story Mission Street Tower consist of a 169 key Waldrof Astoria hotel and 156 ultra-luxury condos. The unique façade of this tower will be natural stone with protruding glass bay windows.

    Meanwhile, one block in the other direction, at 181 Fremont, they're looking for buyers: The tallest penthouse apartment in San Francisco is going on the market for $42 million — take a look inside

    The unit rises 700 feet above the city, making it the tallest residence on the West Coast. Its price tag also makes it one of the most expensive listings San Francisco has ever seen.

    Somehow, "tallest" doesn't seem like quite the right word to use, here.

And, since I've already distracted you pretty well, a few other things that I thought worth noting:

  • A lovely essay about a wonderful author: 5 Things You May Not Know About Margaret Wise Brown
    I have long had an image in my head of what Margaret Wise Brown must have been like and Amy Gary's new book, In the Great Green Room totally blew that away. Brown was a firecracker. She was an innovator. She was amazing.
  • The utterly superb team at Double Fine is going to give VR a try: Legendary game developer Tim Schafer tells us why he's excited for more 'Psychonauts' games, virtual reality, and the new Nintendo Switch
    Schafer: The thing about using clairvoyance in Psychonauts is that it didn’t just let you teleport around, but also let you feel like you’re seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. So if you’re looking through the world through the POV of a big person or a small person or a tiny crab sandwich, or some insects, or giant creatures — you want to feel big, or you want to feel small. We want to represent that altered mental state as you see through their eyes, so it’s teleportation but also an empathy device.

I'm sure that's enough for a while; we'll talk again soon.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

It's not just a game, ...

... it's a behind-the-scenes team effort of blood, sweat, and tears: The Witcher 3's animators created 7,000 new animations in one year for the DLC

At a GDC talk on Monday, CD Projekt animation director Sebastian Kalemba put some impressive numbers to those scenes


Kalemba's talk was mostly about the obstacles his animation team faced in tackling so much work for the DLC in less time, and how they improved their workflow to make it all happen. Some of that best practices talk is more interesting for developers than us, but other parts felt like glimpsing a tiny piece of the formula that made The Witcher 3's cinematics a cut above.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Lonely Planet Travel Anthology: a very short review

The Lonely Planet Travel Anthology is, probably, just what you think it is: under the Lonely Planet brand name, the fairly-well-known travel editor Don George gathered short essays from a significant collection of other quite-well-known authors, and published them as a book.

All of the essays, unsurprisingly, take "travel" as a theme, and do so fairly faithfully.

None of the essays was a poor effort, or was a waste of time to read. Some of the essays are a little forced, but most are quite good, and a few are superb.

In particular, Rebecca Dinerstein's Small Lights in Large Darkness, about her mid-winter visit to far-northern Norway, is nearly perfect, every word a carefully-selected gem. Here, she visits the local graveyard:

Like the air, these lives had frozen their impurities away, had been preserved, had lasted. The trees rising behind the graveyard were pink because it was midday and the sun was both rising and setting. The snow was blue. As Mr Lockwood does at the conclusion of Wuthering Heights, I 'wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.' My friend wished her mormor (mother-mother, a perfectly simple construction for 'grandmother') a God Jul, a Merry Christmas.

Other stories take their delight from the plot, if not so much from the elegance of the prose. There are adventure stories, romance stories, metaphysical awakenings, and ruminations upon life and death. Our narrators encounter wild animals, struggle with language barriers, eat all sorts of different foods, confront social and cultural differences, and bring it all wonderfully to life.

Most of the stories are uplifting or at least reflective; a few are flat-out heart-breakingly tragic.

On the reflective side, I was particularly taken by Jane Hamilton's observations about the "validity" of a travel experience:

It took years, too, for the sorcery of the warden to wear off, to come to the the conclusion that no one owns the raw material of experience. It is now dangerously politically incorrect to say so but here it is: I don't believe you have to suffer in the particular way of someone else's interest group or tribe to understand suffering. The warden of Raasay, that variety of wicked queen, c'est moi. Belle Stewart, weary old singer with visions, check.

As for the story of the Dane -- that's certainly my material, and therefore it not only has a keen specificity, it now has scope: I can see how the event radiated into my future. In truth, however, it could be anyone's material. My story is merely a shape, a structure which can hold infinite variety.

Although not infinite, The Lonely Planet Travel Anthology has variety indeed, and nearly all of it worth your time.

If you should happen upon this small volume at some point, give it a try. I believe you'll enjoy it.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Five nines

In the world of cloud computing (which has recently become a big part of my professional life), the holy grail is to achieve "five nines".

Five nines has a variety of definitions, for example "no more than 1 failure per 10,000 requests", or "99.999% availability" (do you see the "five nines" in that second formulation?).

Achieving this level of availability in your service is UNBELIEVABLY hard; only a tiny handful of organizations in existence today can even aspire to that level of service.

But how do you know if you've achieved it?

Well, here's one way to know: Spanner, TrueTime and the CAP Theorem

For locking and consistent read/write operations, modern geographically distributed Chubby cells provide an average availability of 99.99958% (for 30s+ outages) due to various network, architectural and operational improvements. Starting in 2009, due to “excess” availability, Chubby’s Site Reliability Engineers (SREs) started forcing periodic outages to ensure we continue to understand dependencies and the impact of Chubby failures.

The above paragraph may have seemed like gobbledy-gook, so let me try to rephrase it:

Some of Google's internal services are now SO reliable that Google actually intentionally crashes them once in a while, just to let their engineers practice handling those failures.

"Excess availability." That's a problem that you don't ever hear about. Amazing.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Bad apples

There's a lot of stuff to think about, recently. A SHA-1 collision was displayed; a bad security bug was uncovered; and of course there's the weather.

But what's really been on my mind recently is working, as is perhaps to be expected since I just changed jobs.

It's not easy for me to select a place of employment. I spend an enormous amount of time at my office, and the people I spend my time with are among the best friends I've made. I've been lucky to have had a career, and to have had a certain amount of lucky opportunities in that career, which have allowed me to have, by and large, an extremely enjoyable professional life.

Some people, however, are not so lucky. For example, Susan Fowler: Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber

Women were transferring out of the organization, and those who couldn't transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organizational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organization.

Mike Isaac in the New York Times presents some evidence that this was not an isolated incident: Inside Uber’s Aggressive, Unrestrained Workplace Culture

Interviews with more than 30 current and former Uber employees, as well as reviews of internal emails, chat logs and tape-recorded meetings, paint a picture of an often unrestrained workplace culture. Among the most egregious accusations from employees, who either witnessed or were subject to incidents and who asked to remain anonymous because of confidentiality agreements and fear of retaliation: One Uber manager groped female co-workers’ breasts at a company retreat in Las Vegas. A director shouted a homophobic slur at a subordinate during a heated confrontation in a meeting. Another manager threatened to beat an underperforming employee’s head in with a baseball bat.

The two articles paint a truly dreadful picture.

Other writers present a more nuanced view, but still, there is clearly a severe "Brogrammer" problem going on here.

And it remains a rampant problem throughout the industry.

So, for now, let's stop talking (just) about Uber.

And let's have that broader discussion.

For my contribution, I'm going to suggest that a large part of the problem is: how we hire.

Americans are awful at figuring out how to decide who gets what job. In particular, we unconsciously (or perhaps even consciously) discriminate against old people and against people with unrelated and irrelevant other issues.

That's just a general problem, and is very hard to fix.

A much more specific, and much more fixable problem, plagues the software industry. For lack of a better term, I'll call it: "Google does it, so it must be good."

By which I mean that company after company models their hiring process on Google's.

Google are well-known for their extremely rigorous, and yet fundamentally bizarre, approach to hiring. Now, this approach seems to mostly work for Google. In service of their desire to be objective, and scientific, and precise, Google have worked very hard to make hiring as cut-and-dried and impersonal as possible.

But many other high tech companies, in their desire to be the next Google, parrot Google's every behavior, but they don't understand WHY Google do things the way they do, so the result is disasters like this: My Interview at Uber

My next interview was in yet another room. My recruiter once again came back to grab me and walked me to the new location. On the way I got to see a bunch of young Uber employees hanging out/working in various nooks and spaces that were designed to look like a mix between a Club and Google office, but were clearly neither.

Next interview consisted of two engineers (a guy and a girl, both young and smart) asking me some basic front end questions. By that point, I had a pretty good feeling that Uber was not for me, and I probably was not for Uber, but we went through the motion. The guy interviewer was so tired from “staying up last night working” that he drank two energy drinks during our interview and forgot his laptop when he left.

My next interview was in the same room, with two more engineers – an Uber old-timer and a recently hired engineer. The old-timer guy seemed completely checked out and the newer girl seemed not fully engaged. We talked for about 40 minutes about some random stuff and they passed me onto my recruiter.

This, in my opinion, is exactly where the problem resides: YOU DON'T WANT HIRING TO BE IMPERSONAL!

Software engineering is a very social, very human, very interactive occupation. A bunch of extremely smart people sit around together, and talk, and look at problems from different perspectives, and think about ways those problems could be solved, and discuss what might be good or bad about those various approaches, and after it's all said and done some software emerges.

Sometimes the software doesn't even emerge; software engineering is just that hard.

But here's the thing: software engineering is much less about coding, and much more about communication, then people think.

I'm not saying that coding is easy; it's an extremely hard thing, and you want to find people who are great coders.

But it's even MORE important that they are great PEOPLE.

If you try to take the "human" out of these "human resources", you get the Google Interview Process, with its detached, anonymous, and dispassionate panels of interviewers-in-lab-coats, and what results is this: Why I Don't Talk to Google Recruiters

I wanted to be interviewed by the person who really needed me: my future boss. That person will understand my profile and won't ask pointless questions about algorithms, simply because he or she will know what my duties will be and what kind of problems I will be capable of solving, if they hired me.

This issue goes both ways: not only is it critical for your company that you involve the people who will be your co-workers in the selection process, it's critical for the interviewee, as well. Why is that? Well, the one question that absolutely MUST be answered during the interview process, and which the Google process goes to extreme lengths to AVOID answering, is this:

Who are these people who I would be working with? Are they good people, or are they jerks? Can I communicate with them? Do they drive me crazy? Can I envision spending hours and days and weeks and months and years of my life sitting in meeting rooms with them, talking about anything and everything?

You can include this in your interview process, and yet still be very rigorous and keep very high standards. For example, at my new job, the interview process was long and involved and highly-structured; it included a multi-hour programming test, as well as several days of lengthy in-person and remote interviews with various different team members. I talked with my manager, my manager's manager, various team leads of related teams, as well as nearly every member of the team I actually joined. We spent hours sitting in conference rooms together, discussing arcane details of software engineering, alternating back-and-forth between them grilling me and me grilling them.

But there were two very important differences between this approach, and the Google approach, and these two differences were actually quite closely related:

  1. Firstly, everybody I talked with (save a few corporate administrative staff) was directly involved with the team I was being considered for, and with the project I was a candidate to join.

    That meant that they cared deeply about making sure that I was the "right" person for that role, and, conversely, I cared deeply about making sure that they were the "right" people for me to work with.

  2. Secondly, it turns out that my new company has an fundamental rule that actually outranks the criteria of selecting for technical excellence and software aptitude.

    Their number one hiring criterion is: "no bad apples" (well, internally they use a rather coarser term, but the idea is the same).

That is, you want the best employees, but "best" is a complicated thing.

And, clearly, the high tech industry as a whole is not getting it right.