Saturday, August 19, 2017

P ?=? NP, attempt number 117

Professor Norbert Blum of University of Bonn has published a paper seeking to show P != NP: A Solution of the P versus NP Problem

I have no ability to critique the paper, though I did skim through parts of it. Complexity theory has progressed tremendously since I studied it as an undergraduate in the early 1980's.

But here are a few links, for those who are interested:

Thursday, August 17, 2017

That Vice News Tonight mini-documentary is extremely powerful.

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

As are we all.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Spider Woman's Daughter: a very short review

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Windows Update: 1, Fallout 4: 0

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

But, I just got Windows 10 Creators Update installed.

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

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

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

When will I learn?

Saturday, August 12, 2017

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

Start by reading the memo itself.

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

Then, here are some links you can chase.

Lots to think about here.

Arcadia: a very short review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"About time."

"In brief..."

"Surely not?"

"In brief, I am creating the world."

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

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

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

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

Later, Pears tries to explain this in more detail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something more fundamentally human.

Something more fundamentally powerful.

Something more fundamentally literary:

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

"She got it wrong?"

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

"Rosie? How?"

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

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

What a beautiful sentiment.

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

Arcadia is a book you can enjoy on many levels.

I certainly did.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Software Engineering Interns at Salesforce

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

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

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

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

Some backpacking trips go exactly as planned.

Others do not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, I should be a bit more honest.

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

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

Uhm, yeah.

That wasn't going to work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, at last, we came to our senses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Stuff I'm reading, hot days of summer edition

Never enough hours in the day for anything, sigh.

  • Millennium Tower keeps on sinking, but there may be a fix
    The LERA firm and DeSimone Consulting Engineers say the problem can be remedied by drilling 50 to 100 new piles down to bedrock from the building’s basement. Each pile would be anywhere from 10 inches to a foot in diameter.

    ...

    The high-rise’s 900 piles now descend 60 to 91 feet — well short of the 200 feet to bedrock.

    The engineering firms estimate the fix will cost $100 million to $150 million — more than your average home foundation repair, but a lot less than the billion-dollar-plus price tag that some experts have feared.

    ...

    One source told us that residents would probably be able to stay in the building while the repairs were under way.

  • Millennium Tower can survive Big One, city-ordered report says
    an engineering analysis ordered up by the city has concluded that, while the 58-story downtown high-rise continues to both sink and tilt, it can nonetheless withstand a magnitude 8.0 earthquake.
  • Structural Safety Review of the Millennium Tower
    Observations of the site conditions, geotechnical reports (Treadwell & Rollo, 2005, SAGE, 2016), building foundation drawings and settlement measurements indicate that the primary mechanism for the large vertical settlement is consolidation of the Old Bay Clay that exists at depths of roughly 90 to 220 feet beneath the ground surface. These Old Bay Clay layers underlie the Marine Sands (occurring at depths of 40 to 90 feet) into which the precast piles are driven. The deep-seated settlement occurs primarily below the building but extends gradually outside the footprint of the tower foundation. The consolidation of the clay layers is a relatively slow process, occurring over a period of years, due to the increase in effective stress in the Old Bay Clay layers. This understanding as to the mechanism of the settlement is important to help confirm that the settlement is not due to distress in the foundation piles that may affect their ability to sustain forces associated with gravity and earthquake loading demands.
  • The Hijacking of a $100 Million Supertanker
    Barely seven hours had passed since the gunmen had taken the ship. But already an international cast was activating: salvors from the region’s cutthroat ports, to scavenge millions from the wreckage; U.S. military investigators, to determine if Somali pirates had adopted brutal new tactics; and most urgently of all, an operative from the stony world of London insurance, to discover what really happened aboard his clients’ $100 million liability. Because if the hijacking of the Brillante Virtuoso wasn’t a case of fumbled piracy, it would be the most spectacular fraud in shipping history.

    The events of July 6, 2011, set in motion a tangle of lawsuits and criminal investigations that are still nowhere near conclusion. Six years after it was abandoned, the Brillante Virtuoso is an epithet among shipping veterans, one that reveals their industry’s capacity for lawlessness, financial complexity, and violence. This account is based on court evidence, private and government records, and more than 60 interviews with people involved, almost all of whom asked not to be identified, citing the sensitivities of nine-figure litigation and, in some cases, concern for their own safety. Everyone at sea that night survived. But the danger was just getting started.

  • As California’s labor shortage grows, farmers race to replace workers with robots
    Such has been the progress of ag-tech in California, where despite the adoption of drones, iPhone apps and satellite-driven sensors, the hand and knife still harvest the bulk of more than 200 crops.

    Now, the $47-billion agriculture industry is trying to bring technological innovation up to warp speed before it runs out of low-wage immigrant workers.

    California will have to remake its fields like it did its factories, with more machines and better-educated workers to labor beside them, or risk losing entire crops, economists say.

    “California agriculture just isn’t going to look the same,” said Ed Taylor, a UC Davis rural economist. “You’re going to be hard-pressed to find crops grown as labor-intensively as they are now.”

    Driscoll’s, which grows berries in nearly two dozen countries and is the world’s top berry grower, already is moving its berries to table-top troughs, where they are easier for both human and machines to pick, as it has done over the last decade in Australia and Europe.

    “We don’t see — no matter what happens — that the labor problem will be solved,” said Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s of the Americas.

  • How Uber's Hard-Charging Corporate Culture Left Employees Drained
    As interviews with more than two dozen former and current Uber employees show, the company reached such great heights by asking forgiveness, never permission, and pushing to the limits everything that it could: laws, municipalities, markets — and workers.

    These employees — all of whom shared their experiences with BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity, mostly for fear of repercussion — described impossible workloads, around-the-clock emergencies, fear of management, a total erosion of work-life balance, and a pattern of public humiliation at the hands of higher-ups as Uber pushed to become the juggernaut it is today. Many attributed panic attacks, substance abuse, depression, and hospitalizations to the stress of the job. All — even those who ultimately enjoyed their time there — recall a uniquely high-pressure environment in which employees were regularly pushed to a breaking point, but afraid to quit and leave large amounts of equity on the table.

  • The Real Legacy of Crazy Horse
    The atmosphere primes Red Cloud’s students to be both community prodigies and the young leaders of an indigenous renaissance of sorts: The reservation’s young people are driving a new wave of activism, like that seen in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s a subtle yet intense movement that promises to define the future of Pine Ridge. After all, roughly half its population is under 25.

    “We are part of the Seventh Generation ... prophesied to be the generation that creates those individuals that will spearhead the economic, spiritual, and social renewal,” Rosales said. The tall, slim 19-year-old sported a sharp haircut, Nike skate shoes, khaki-colored jeans, and a thick, crew-neck sweater when we spoke. Rosales was referring to a prophecy made by the Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse, who shortly before his death in the late 1800s predicted that a cultural renaissance was afoot. “We are going to be that group of people that makes that prophecy come true,” Rosales said. “Red Cloud is helping us to do that.”

  • Saving forests saves lives
    this is not “a cheap fix for climate change”: we’re going to have to do a lot more than mitigate the pace of deforestation if we want to have a chance at meeting that goal. But it is a reminder that incentives matter, and that at the margin, small sums can tilt the balance in surprisingly meaningful ways.

    What’s more, preventing deforestation has substantial benefits which have nothing at all to do with climate change.

  • BBR: Congestion-Based Congestion Control
    Rethinking congestion control pays big dividends. Rather than using events such as loss or buffer occupancy, which are only weakly correlated with congestion, BBR starts from Kleinrock's formal model of congestion and its associated optimal operating point. A pesky "impossibility" result that the crucial parameters of delay and bandwidth cannot be determined simultaneously is sidestepped by observing they can be estimated sequentially. Recent advances in control and estimation theory are then used to create a simple distributed control loop that verges on the optimum, fully utilizing the network while maintaining a small queue. Google's BBR implementation is available in the open-source Linux kernel TCP
  • Breaking open the MtGox case
    the shared keypool of the wallet.dat file lead to address reuse, which confused MtGox's systems into mistakenly interpreting some of the thief's spending as deposits, crediting multiple user accounts with large sums of BTC and causing MtGox's numbers to go further out of balance by about 40,000 BTC.
  • Current Harvard Oddness
    Sometime back, the powers-that-be at Harvard decided that they didn't like the Harvard final clubs (Harvard's kind-of-like fraternities, "social clubs" that have been around for ages, but that are not in any official way affiliated with Harvard). There's plenty of reason not to like them, but at least initially concerns about sexual assault seemed to be the motivating factor. So the powers-that-be decided that if you belonged to some private single-sex organization, they would not let you be captain of a sports team, or be approved by Harvard for a Rhodes fellowship, or things like that. A number of faculty -- perhaps most notably, Harry Lewis -- objected to this policy, on multiple grounds. (Perhaps one large one is that there are many private single-sex organizations that are quite positive, and it seems odd to put all these organizations under the same blanket policy.) So after it was clear that there was some significant faculty objections, for a bit it was temporarily shelved, and a new committee put in place to make recommendations.

    Several weeks deep in the summer, the report comes out, suggesting policies even harsher and more draconian than the original plan.

  • Maryam Mirzakhani, 1977–2017
    She made several breakthroughs in the geometric understanding of dynamical systems. Who knows what other great results she would have found if she had lived: we will never know. Besides her research she also was the first woman and the first Iranian to win the Fields Medal.
  • AI leads to reward function engineering
    With the recent explosion in AI, there has been the understandable concern about its potential impact on human work. Plenty of people have tried to predict which industries and jobs will be most affected, and which skills will be most in demand. (Should you learn to code? Or will AI replace coders too?)

    Rather than trying to predict specifics, we suggest an alternative approach. Economic theory suggests that AI will substantially raise the value of human judgment. People who display good judgment will become more valuable, not less. But to understand what good judgment entails and why it will become more valuable, we have to be precise about what we mean.

  • Inside Salesforce’s Quest to Bring AI to Everyone
    “What do I work on next?” Most of us ask that question many times every day. (And too many of us end up answering, “Check Facebook” or “See if Trump tweeted again!”) To-do apps and personal productivity systems offer some help, but often turn into extra work themselves. What if artificial intelligence answered the “next task” question for you?

    That’s what the Salesforce AI team decided to offer as Einstein’s first broadly available, readymade tool. Today Salesforce offers all kinds of cloud-based services for customer service, ecommerce, marketing and more. But at its root, it’s a workaday CRM (customer relationship management) product that salespeople use to manage their leads. Prioritizing these opportunities can get complicated fast and takes up precious time. So the Einstein Intelligence module—a little add-on column at the far right of the basic Salesforce screen—will do it for you, ranking them based on, say, “most likely to close.” For marketers, who also make up a big chunk of Salesforce customers, it can take a big mailing list and sort individual recipients by the likelihood that they’ll open an email.

  • Is Productivity Growth Becoming Irrelevant?
    Our standard mental model of productivity growth reflects the transition from agriculture to industry. We start with 100 farmers producing 100 units of food: technological progress enables 50 to produce the same amount, and the other 50 to move to factories that produce washing machines or cars or whatever. Overall productivity doubles, and can double again, as both agriculture and manufacturing become still more productive, with some workers then shifting to restaurants or health-care services. We assume an endlessly repeatable process.

    But two other developments are possible. Suppose the more productive farmers have no desire for washing machines or cars, but instead employ the 50 surplus workers either as low-paid domestic servants or higher-paid artists, providing face-to-face and difficult-to-automate services. Then, as the late William Baumol, a professor at Princeton University, argued in 1966, overall productivity growth will slowly decline to zero, even if productivity growth within agriculture never slows.

    Or suppose that 25 of the surplus farmers become criminals, and the other 25 police. Then the benefit to human welfare is nil, even though measured productivity rises if public services are valued, as per standard convention, at input cost.

  • The Long Dark -- "Make It Right" -- WINTERMUTE LAUNCH TRAILER
    Welcome to The Long Dark —an immersive survival simulation set in the aftermath of a geomagnetic disaster. Experience a unique first-person survival simulation that will force you to think and push you to your limits with its thought-provoking gameplay.

Gap in posting

Wow. I've been so busy recently! It's amazing how the time flies. Of course, we were busy...

It was a wonderful (if emotional) trip.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Modern fire management

We are now well into the 2017 fire season here in California, and there have definitely been a few scary fires already.

Meanwhile, in a completely different part of California, I'm keeping a watchful eye on the "Island Fire", which for now is being quite well-behaved:

The Island Fire is burning deep in the Marble Mountain Wilderness on the Klamath National Forest. It was ignited by lightning on Sunday June 25 and first reported on the afternoon of June 26. The fire is being suppressed under an alternative suppression approach to clean up hazardous fuels from a area that hasn't burned in a long time. There is no recorded large fire history for this portion of the Wilderness, although it is surrounded on the north, west and south by recent large fires.

Those "recent large fires" were horrific; it's amazing how soon those memories fade.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for all of California in the wake of wildfires that killed one firefighter and drove hundreds of people from their homes.

California's record drought, now in its fourth year, has "turned much of the state into a tinderbox," he said.

The emergency declaration, which included the activation of the California National Guard, will speed up help for thousands of firefighters, Brown said Friday.

About 9,000 firefighters were battling 24 large wildfires in California on Saturday, Ken Pimlott, the chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire said in an interview.

Dry thunderstorms were expected to threaten much of Northern California through much of the the weekend, Pimlott said. Thunder storms with gusty winds and lightning strikes have ignited fires, hitting Trinity and Humboldt counties the hardest, he said.

The smoke traveled hundreds of miles; it was an inferno of heat ablaze.

Wondrous rain has changed things, and now it's hard to remember what things were like, just two years ago.

This year, we shall let (certain) fires burn, for "there is no recorded large fire history for this portion of the Wilderness".

But I'm still watching; I'm keeping my eyes open.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Up, up, and away

They've taken the construction cranes and elevators down from the Salesforce Tower, as construction is nearly complete.

Of course, those cranes go somewhere; they don't just disappear.

It turns out there's a company which pays a lot of attention to this, and issues periodic reports about where all the cranes are.

In the whole world!

Anyway, if you wanted to know, The Seattle Times digests the report for you: Seattle is again crane capital of America, but lead is shrinking

Seattle has again been named the crane capital of America, as the local construction boom shows little sign of slowing in 2017.

Seattle had 62 cranes dotting the skyline at the end of 2016, the most in the country, according to Rider Levett Bucknall, a firm that tracks cranes across the world. That’s up from 58 in the middle of last year.

The company releases tower crane counts twice a year. In the last update, Seattle had an 18-crane lead over second-place Los Angeles.

But this time, a surge in construction in Chicago has catapulted the Midwest city into second, with 56 cranes, just six shy of Seattle. Los Angeles has dropped to third on the list with 29.

So now you know: Seattle really is where it's happening.

If you're a construction crane.

If you're that other sort of crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico is where it's happening.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Let's hear it for the old guys

It's an interesting, if tangential perhaps, aspect of American Jazz music that it is an art form that appears to particularly allow for an extremely extended career.

The list of Jazz musicians who did some of their very best work at advanced ages is a long list, and it's not hard to think of examples of Jazz musicians who have been very productive in their 80's and even in their 90's.

And lovers of Jazz are well aware of this, and there is a tremendous culture of respect for your elders in Jazz, which is quite interesting and refreshing given the attitudes that some other crafts seem to show to their craftspeople.

We had a nice reminder of this recently, when we got to hear Greg Adams and East Bay Soul.

Adams, who was a founding member of the pioneering West Coast Jazz group Tower of Power, has been performing for five decades; as his bio attests, he has appeared on an astonishing six hundred records.

And, he's still composing, and recording, and performing, with a great band containing a number of other Tower of Power veterans, including Lee Thornburg and Nick Milo.

I'm no spring chicken myself, so I'm pleased to see any evidence that the old guys can be just as productive and creative and influential and imaginative as they were when they were younger.

Thank you Greg and East Bay Soul, for such a stirring example.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

That sinking feeling

I'm not really sure what to make of this: Millennium Odor Problem Could Point to Fire Risk, Experts Say

Unexplained odors inside the Millennium Tower units could be evidence of a potential fire safety risk to the 58-story sinking and tilting structure, experts tell NBC Bay Area's Investigative Unit.

...

Pretlow and several other residents report having long endured unexplained odors permeating their luxury units. Then, late last year, the building’s homeowner association commissioned consultants Allana, Buick and Bers to investigate Pretlow’s unit.

When the experts cut open several of her walls and set off smoke bombs from the unit below, they learned that smoke was getting in through gaps surrounding pipes and ducts running through holes in the concrete floors behind Pretlow’s walls.

It's a reputable publication, and the story does in some ways seem plausible.

On the other hand, the article also fills me with a certain amount of unease; it makes me feel as though the various parties to the various lawsuits are trying to have their conflicts aired in the media, rather than being settled by figuring out what is wrong with the building and how it can be repaired.

Meanwhile, I can't deny that I'm intrigued by the notion of diagnosing construction failures via odors.

In computer science, there is a reasonably-non-crackpot technique that goes by the awkward name of Code Smells.

It's an approach for developing an almost-instinctive feeling about where problems might lie in a code base, based on unpleasant attributes of the code which you can train yourself to recognize when you're reading the code.

It probably would be more accurately named "code disfigurements," but that doesn't have anywhere near the ring of Code Smells.

Maybe there is a textbook somewhere of Construction Smells.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Naming rights and plaza arrangements

The cranes and exterior elevators have come down from the tower, and the trees are arriving; the long-awaited Transbay Transit Center is nearly ready!

Only, it's not actually going to be called the Transbay Transit Center.

Salesforce buys naming rights to Transbay Transit Center

Salesforce, a software company with its headquarters and 6,600 employees in the Bay Area, has agreed to a 25-year, $110 million sponsorship of the 2½-block-long facility set to open next spring at Fremont and Mission streets. The deal includes naming rights, which means that the complex would be known as the Salesforce Transit Center.

Similarly, the 5.4-acre rooftop open space will become Salesforce Park if the board of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority approves the contract Thursday at its monthly meeting.

The cloud-like Salesforce logo that adorns two towers near the transit center would not appear on the exterior of the new facility, however. Nor would Salesforce have veto authority on events held in the park, even those of rival corporations.

Mostly, I'm excited about the park, which (I hope) will be a delightful new space, to rival such world-renowed places as the High Line, or the Greenway ("a long lawn on top of a sewer").

Meanwhile, down at ground level, change is afoot there, too: Salesforce Tower redesign trims trees, sculpture out of plaza

As Salesforce Tower nears completion, the plaza that will accompany it has been shorn of two eye-catching features: a grove of redwood trees and a 40-foot-tall sculpture made from chunks of recycled concrete.

Instead, the half-acre space at Mission and Fremont streets will be handsomely paved but almost entirely open — a change instigated by Salesforce but agreed to by public officials. They welcome the idea of an uncluttered path to the new Transbay Transit Center, which should open next spring on the plaza’s south edge.

“In retrospect, 20 redwood trees are probably not the best thing to have” between Mission Street and what will be the transit center’s main entrance, said John Rahaim, San Francisco’s planning director. “This leaves a clear passage and sight lines at both ends.”

I'm trying to get my head around the gondola: what the heck?

But surely, this is progress. There was no way that 20 redwood trees were going to be feasible in that small space at the base of the tower. Open space, even though it's largely concrete open space atop a 5-level underground garage, is still open space.

Really, it's still very hard to imagine what it's all going to be like, but it has, I think, the potential to be tremendous. Yes, it's a lot of steel and glass and high-rises and urban canyons, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Being out and around on these streets during the day, the energy and activity is undeniable; hopefully that energy translates into a truly vibrant new downtown core.

The Girl on the Train: a very short review

As part of my summertime reading binge, I joined the millions who have enjoyed Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train.

Hawkins certainly knows how to craft a page-turner, and it's no surprise that her story was not only a runaway bestseller, but also became a successful movie. Entertainment, this is.

But our heroine is a severely mentally ill woman, self-destructive, with an extreme alcohol abuse problem.

And things go downhill from there: other major characters include inept and uncaring local police, a corrupt mental health professional, a lecherous and abusive colleague, etc.

It's a hard thing to finish a 400 page book without finding a single sympathetic character. I wanted the worst for all of them; I simply wanted the book to be over so I could move on.

But, I couldn't put it down.

If you like your entertainment gritty and fast-paced, this is it.

But it sure ain't a very pleasant time on the roller-coaster.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Alphabet is for Antitrust?

There's a certain amount of attention being paid to Alphabet right now, such as the huge EU outcome, and all the attention that Yelp have brought to the discussion.

And, a lot of that is, I think, quite justified.

Meanwhile, I must admit that I lost about 3 hours the other day to a bit of Alphabet frustration of a different sort.

Google Docs, when it works (and it usually does work quite well), is an amazing piece of software. Collaborative document editing in the cloud! What's not to love?

But there I was, just beating my head into a bloody pulp.

I was trying to combine 3 semi-related presentations into a single new presentation.

I started the new presentation, and wrote some introductory slides.

Then I began grabbing content from the other presentations.

I opened up several browser tabs, and picked a slide from this presentation, and copied-and-pasted it into my new presentation.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Simple, right?

Unfortunately, it wasn't working.

Normally, whenever you change a Google Docs document, it automatically initiates a background save. The message "Saving..." appears, followed after 30 seconds or so by the message "All changes saved in Google Drive."

But, not this time.

After I would paste in a slide, "Saving..." would display, and display, and display.

Until, after about 2 minutes, some completely bizarre error message would show up, and Google Docs would simply throw away all the changes I'd made to my presentation since the first "paste" action.

Sometimes the message would be something about permissions.

Sometimes it would be more generic, and would say "Google has encountered an unexpected error saving your document".

I refreshed tabs, logged back out and back in, over and over.

Made that single great presentation multiple times, only to have Google throw it away on the floor.

Searching for similar problems brought nothing.

But then, while stomping around near my desk, complaining bitterly to the air, it occurred to me: I was using Mozilla Firefox.

I went back to my computer, brought up Google Chrome, and re-performed the exact same sequence of operations.

Trouble-free.

Which is a shame, because Mozilla Firefox is really the platinum standard of browsers nowadays, and it's rare that it lets me down.

Now, in all fairness, Google Docs is an extraordinarily complex piece of software, implemented as a MASSIVE amount of Javascript, running in the browser. And Javascript is notoriously non-standardized, with many disparate and varying implementations, not the least of which is Google's own proprietary V8 engine.

So it makes a lot of sense that my problem was due to a client-side Javascript portability problem, and switching browsers fixed it.

That is, what should make me think that running Google's tools should work on any browser other than Google's own browser?

Silly me.

But, I am (becoming) an old man.

And, I'm old enough to remember when a dominant computing company had their own suite of office software which worked best (or, in some cases, only worked at all) with their own internet browser.

And, I'm also old enough to remember what happened next.

Sometimes it seems like we go though the same motions, over and over.

For the time being, I unfortunately have work that I have to get done.

So, I'm sorry, Mozilla, but I'll be using Chrome for the next few days, at least until I finish this particular project.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Corporate goddesses

I've developed a habit of taking long walks around downtown San Francisco at lunchtime. I don't have a particular set route; often I just let my feet take me where they will.

There's always a lot to see when walking around downtown San Francisco. I haven't yet had the opportunity to see flying cars, but I suspect that's not long away.

Often, when I'm walking along, I find I'm mostly looking down at the street or around me at the various shop windows and displays, or out at the vistas over the Bay.

But, sometimes, I happen to look up, as I did the other day while walking back from North Beach.

I had no idea what I was looking at, but later I remembered to track it down, and it turned out that I had seen the famous corporate goddesses of 580 California.

If you have ever wondered about the sculptures on top of this building, the sculptures were created by Muriel Castanis, an American sculptor best known for her public art installments involving fluidly draped figures. Muriel described the 12 statue on top of this building as Corporate Goddesses. In 1983, Philip Johnson commissioned her to create sculpture for the top story of 580 California. Three different heroic-size figures are repeated on each side of the building.

It's hard to describe just how peculiar these statues are, but one wonderful essay about them is JW Ocker's Grim Roofers: Muriel Castanis’s Corporate Goddesses:

There are three individual wraiths, each one 12 feet tall, and the pattern of three is repeated on each side of the building for a total of twelve wraiths. One lifts an arm like she’s a Fate and her sash is a life-string to be cut. The second has her arms thrown back like she’s about to jump into oblivion. The third is holding her sash in front of her like one of those airport car drivers looking for his passenger. That’s the most terrifying one if you think about it.

The artist who created them was Muriel Castanis, who made a career out of empty robed figures before dying in 2006. She designed them by covering models in epoxy-soaked cloths. The models then wriggled out as the clothes hardened, and Castanis used those forms as a basis for the 12-foot-tall skyscraper specters San Francisco has today.

For some more pictures, including a few which give a better feel for what it's like to see these sculptures from ground level, try this short photo-essay on SFGate.

Apparently the phrase "Corporate Goddesses" may have come from Castanis herself, at least according to this old article on SFGate:

Price is gazing out over the city as an eerie sight emerges across the way, on the rooftop of 580 California. Ghostly, faceless figures surround the building's crown, spooky women in hooded white robes. From street level, the 12-foot-tall statues are all but unseen.

They're the creation of New York artist Muriel Castanis, who was specially commissioned to create the figures for the 23-story building. She has described her work as "corporate goddesses."

"The view is best from here," Price says, gazing down on the statues. "They used to put Santa Claus hats on them at Christmastime. They don't do it anymore."

I think it's just fine to leave the Santa Claus hats off; still, the statues do apparently need some attention from time to time. A few years back, a specialty art restoration company gave the statues a much-needed freshening up:

The figure was cleaned with detergents, biocides, and denatured alcohol to remove dirt, debris, and biological growth. Deteriorated paint was removed and cracks, losses, and impact sites were repaired with Paraloid B-72 and glass fiber bulked resins. Caulk was removed from the base of the figure and pedestal. Corrosion was removed from the aluminum-clad pedestal, and the metal prepared for repainting. Embedded iron was removed from the leg of a second figure, and the material replaced with fiberglass patching material. All of the treated materials were repainted with a color-matched, industrial paint system.

I hadn't heard of Castanis before, but I have to say, I find the sculptures pretty nice, overall. I have no idea what they mean, but I think it's nice that the building included this artwork, even if it's rather unusual.

Who knows, maybe one day I'll make it up to the rooftop garden at 343 Sansome and see how the Goddesses look from that perspective.

But one thing's for sure: as I walk around the streets of the city, I'll remind myself to make more frequent glances skyward.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Aviatrix: a very short review

My daughter returned from a writer's convention having met Mary Bush Shipko, and having bought her book: AVIATRIX: First Woman Pilot for Hughes Airwest, as a gift for me.

I classify Aviatrix as a memoir, by which I mean it broadly follows this recipe:

  • The author tells various stories, of the author's choosing, and in his or her own words, about events that seemed particularly important in the author's life
  • The author explains a bit about why he or she chose these stories, and what sort of lessons you might learn from considering the author's experiences
  • The author hopes you will enjoy learning about "what it was like," which is a valuable goal, as things change so quickly nowadays.

Aviatrix certainly covers a lot of this ground.

The early years of aviation in America, starting soon after World War II ended, and developing rapidly through the 1950's and 1960's, were a very interesting time in the development of the country, and it's hard not to find this history compelling.

Shipko had a fascinating early adulthood, living in southern Florida, learning to be a pilot at a young age, flying all sorts of fascinating trips around Florida and the Caribbean. Some of these stories were delightful, such as making cargo runs to the Bahamas to pick up crates of cucumber and zucchini, or having to make a very careful landing at the airport on the Abacos Islands because there was a building on fire at the far end of the runway.

But the later part of the book, while still telling the story of Shipko's aviation history, takes a dramatic turn.

Once she mastered the cargo planes and short-hop delivery routes of south Florida, she moved on to become a jet pilot and was, as she notes, the First Woman Pilot for Hughes Airwest, a remarkable achievement.

Sadly, though, the toll it took on her was immense. Plagued by bitter co-workers and a severely polarized and caustic work environment, she endured nearly a decade of hostility and harassment until she eventually was forced out of her chosen career, simply because she was "a woman doing a man's job."

The second half of the book is not easy to read. Some of the anger she faced was searing, and it clearly still burns, 40 years later.

None of this will be much of a surprise to anyone who paid even the slightest bit of attention to events such as the Tailhook Scandal, and it won't be much of a spoiler to reveal that things still haven't much changed.

I admire Shipko for speaking up, for writing her book, for telling her story. Although it certainly doesn't qualify as "light summer reading," it was undeniably fascinating.

Silicon Valley title sequence

Here's a very nice detailed breakdown of all the inside-the-Valley references, barbs, cultural references, and other easy-to-miss aspects of the title sequence of HBO's Silicon Valley TV series.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Those were the days ...

A dear colleague of mine tracked down this wonderful picture of me with one of my favorite engineering teams:

How wonderful it was to have such brilliant co-workers to learn from!

If, in some magical way, 56-year-old Bryan could go back 23 years and talk to 33-year-old Bryan, what would I say?

Maybe something like:

Pay attention, keep listening, and work hard: you've still got a LOT left to learn.

Of course, that's just as true now.

Hmmm, maybe I just got some words of wisdom from 79-year-old Bryan, far off in the future?

As for the picture, as I recall, we were looking for a theme for a team picture, and Nat and Brian both happened to be wearing their leather coats that day, and so somebody (Rich? Ken?) suggested we all get our coats and sunglasses and "look tough". So we did...

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

All Over the Place: a very short review

Is it possible that I am the first person to tell you about Geraldine DeRuiter's new book: All Over the Place: Adventures in Travel, True Love, and Petty Theft?

If I am, then yay!

For this is a simply wonderful book, and I hope everybody finds out about it.

As anyone who has read the book (or has read her blog) knows, DeRuiter can be just screamingly funny. More than once I found myself causing a distraction on the bus, as my fellow riders wondered what was causing me to laugh out loud. Many books are described as "laugh out loud funny," but DeRuiter's book truly is.

Much better, though, are the parts of her book that aren't the funny parts, for it is here where her writing skills truly shine.

DeRuiter is sensitive, perceptive, honest, and caring. Best of all, however, is that she is able to write about affairs of the heart in a way that is warm and generous, never cloying or cringe-worthy.

So yes: you'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll look at the world with fresh new eyes. What more could you want from a book?

All Over the Place is all of that.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Ghost Ship report released

The Oakland Fire Department has released their official report on last December's Ghost Ship Fire: Origin and Cause Report: Incident # 2016-085231.

The report is long, detailed, thorough, and terribly, terribly sad.

It is vividly illustrated with many pictures, which are simultaneously fascinating and heart-breaking.

In the end, the report accepts the limits of what is known:

No witnesses to the incipient stage of the fire were located. Based on witness statements and analysis of fire patterns, an area of origin was identified in the northwest area of the ground floor of the warehouse. In support of this hypothesis, fire patterns and fire behavior were considered, including ventilation effects of door openings, and the fuel load, consisting of large amounts of non-traditional building materials. This analysis was challenged with alternate hypotheses of fire origins, away from, or communicating to an area remote from, the immediate area of fire origin. Several potential ignition sources were considered. No conclusive determination of the initial heat source or the first materials ignited was made. The fire classification is UNDETERMINED.

In their Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the fire, At least nine dead, many missing in Oakland warehouse fire ,the East Bay Times highlighted the eccentricities of the collective's building, details which are thoroughly corroborated by the OFD's detailed report.

Alemany had advertised on Facebook and Craigslist looking for renters seeking "immediate change and loving revolution," who enjoyed "poetics, dramatics, film, tantric kitten juggling and nude traffic directing." He described it as 10,000 square feet of vintage redwood and antique steel "styled beyond compare."

His 1951 purple Plymouth remained parked Saturday in front of the building that burned so hot, the “Ghost Ship” letters painted across the front had all but melted away.

"They are ex-Burning Man people and had their kids in the place -- three kids running around with no shoes," said DeL Lee, 34, who lived there for three months two years ago. "It was nuts."

He described the place as a filthy firetrap, with frequent power outages, overloaded outlets, sparks and the smell of burning wire. A camping stove with butane tanks served as the kitchen, and a hole had been chiseled through the concrete wall to access the bathroom at the adjoining automotive repair shop next door.

The staircase, which had two switchbacks to get to the second floor, was built of pallets, plywood and footholds -- like a ship’s gangplank -- and was like "climbing a fort" to get up and down, say people who had visited the building.

Pianos and old couches doubled as room dividers. Pallets covered with shingles and elaborate trim formed sculptural walls. Often, Lee said, the place was filled with the sounds of sawing and hammering as Alemany continued to build.

And the OFD report confirms that chaos:

The front staircase was located along the east wall at the front of the structure. It was constructed of various wooden planks and wooden studs, as well as portions of wooden pallets at its top where it accessed the second floor. One of two bathrooms was elevated slightly off ground level where the lower staircase landing was located. The orientation of the staircase was such that it first led eastward where it bordered the east wall, then turned north (rearward), where it then turned slightly west at the very top of the staircase at the second floor.

As the Mercury News observes, releasing the report is a milestone but it's not the last we'll hear of this; the next steps will involve the courts:

Almena and the collective’s creative director, Max Harris, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in Alameda County Superior Court. Prosecutors charge the men knowingly created a fire trap and invited the public inside. Lawyers for the two men say their clients are being used as scapegoats and say the building owner Chor Ng should be facing criminal charges.

Ng, Almena, PG&E, are named in a wrongful death lawsuit that is in its early stages. The City of Oakland is expected to be named in the suit as soon as this week.

“Of course, we’d like to have them say what the cause of the fire is but we also have our experts and they are not done with their analysis. I don’t think it’s the end of the story,” said Mary Alexander, the lead attorney for the victim’s families.

Meanwhile, as Rick Paulas writes at The Awl, the media attention has already brought many changes to the "artist collective" aspect of the Bay Area and beyond: How The Media Mishandled The Ghost Ship Fire

“It was a tragedy, then it became a tragedy on an entirely different spectrum,” said Friday. “The original was the loss of such vibrant, wonderful people. And that was forgotten and it just became about housing ordinances, and this witch hunt of warehouses.”

The hunt continues, not just in Oakland, but around the country. City governments — rather than focusing efforts on bringing warehouses up to code, of empathizing with tenants forced to live in unsafe conditions due to increasing rents and lower wages, hell, even pragmatically understanding the added value these fringe residents add to a city’s cultural cachet — are simply closing down venues, then moving on to close down the next. Two days after Ghost Ship, the tenants of Baltimore’s iconic Bell Foundry were evicted. A week after that, the punk venue Burnt Ramen in Richmond, CA was shut down. On April 27th, eight people living in an artist collective in San Francisco were evicted.

The cities say they don’t want another Ghost Ship, implying they mean another massive loss of life. But the speed at which they’re performing these evictions — and the lack of solutions they’re offering to those displaced — suggests that what they really don’t want is another Ghost Ship media event: vultures descending, camera lights illuminating the dark corners of their own institutional failures.

It's important that we not forget the Ghost Ship tragedy, but it's a hard story to (re-)read and (re-)consider, with plenty of sadness to go around.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Nice article on the Ethereum hack

Earlier this week, Bloomberg journalist Matthew Leising's in-depth article about the Ethereum smart contracts incident was published on the Bloomberg site: Ether Thief Remains Mystery Year After $55 Million Digital Heist

It's an interesting article; it's as much about social organizations as it is about computer organizations.

Once Van de Sande got in touch with Green in Germany, along with two or three others, the foundation was laid for what would become known as the Robin Hood group—white hat hackers who’d devise a bold good-guy plan to drain the remaining DAO. To save the DAO, they’d have to steal the remaining ether, then give it back to its rightful owners.

And yet as they scrambled that Friday, qualms emerged within the group. “What does it even mean to hack something?” Van de Sande asks. No one knew if what they were about to do was legal. Also, wouldn’t their hack look just as bad as the theft they were trying to stop? Then there were the practical issues. “Who pushes the button?” he remembers wondering. Doing so would initiate their counterattack and alert the community. “Someone has to push the button.”

The blockchain concepts are absolutely fascinating to me, although I became obsessed with learning about the blockchain in a rather odd way; I arrived there by studying how git compared to Perforce.

The basic notion of the blockchain is also the under-pinning of the most important versioning software in the world, git. There are many ways in which the two algorithms are similar. The most important way in which they differ is that git is designed for use by people who desire and intend to collaborate; the blockchain is designed for use by people who don't. Danno Ferrin does a much better job of explaining this here.

Some of the best coverage of Ethereum and the DAO, I think, comes from Bloomberg's Matt Levine, who has been writing about this topic for several years, including this excellent article from a year ago: Blockchain Company Wants to Reinvent Companies.

As Levine has pointed out, and continues to point out, efforts like Ethereum and the DAO are full of algorithms and computers and science, but they are also inevitably inter-twined with the social interactions of the human beings that want to use these algorithms:

Smart contracts are cool! Companies are weird bundles of contractual relationships that have become stereotyped and calcified over time, and re-imagining those relationships for a new and more technology-enabled age is a good project. But companies aren't just networks of contracts; they aren't pure agreements negotiated freely between willing participants and no one else. They are also structures that are embedded in society, with rights and responsibilities that are regulated by background rules as well as by contracts. The blockchain-y reinvention of everything in the financial world -- money, contracts, companies -- is fascinating and impressive and, viewed from a certain angle, adorable. But sometimes it could stand to learn from what has gone before. After all, the elements of finance -- money, contracts, companies -- have already been invented. Perhaps their historical development might hold some lessons for their re-inventors.

Note that, when it comes to re-inventing, you'll see that many of the links from Levine's year-old article no longer work. Web sites get re-invented all the time, as people change their minds about what they think and what they want to say.

With git and Perforce, recognizing that software is not just pure science, but exists to serve the goals of the human beings who use it, lends depth and nuance to the analysis and comparison. Yes, it's cool that everything is a SHA; on the other hand, have you ever looked at two indirectly-related commit SHAs and tried to understand the underlying history that led those repositories to get to those states? Less-efficient systems may be much easier for humans to use.

Blockchain systems often suffer from similar chasms of (un-)usability, as Leising observes:

Who, exactly, were they at war with?

No one really knows, but there are some clues. One address the attacker used is 0xF35e2cC8E6523d683eD44870f5B7cC785051a77D. Got that? Like everything else in a blockchain, a user’s address is an anonymous string of characters. But every address leaves behind a history on the blockchain that’s open for examination. Not that it makes sense to 99.9 percent of humankind, but Green gets it.

It's just an algorithm, it's just code, and it is completely accurate to note that there is a complete "history on the blockchain that's open for examination." (It's just as true with git.)

But as Levine points out, the most interesting aspects of all of this are not really the technical ones, but the human ones:

"What does it even mean to hack something" seems to be the key philosophical question of the DAO episode, and I submit to you that you probably don't want to invest your life savings in projects that raise philosophical questions like that. If your bank ever said to you "well, what does it even mean to hack something," you would worry. You know what it means! It's just that, with the DAO, the code didn't know what it means, and the whole point of the DAO was to substitute the code's judgment for yours.

And here, then, is one of the crucial differences between using git, and using a blockchain system. With git, if somebody does something disruptive, like a merge instead of a rebase, or an unwanted force push, the community using that particular collection of repositories collaborates and cooperates to repair the damage.

But blockchains are intentionally intended for situations where the users explicitly do NOT collaborate and cooperate. And, in Ethereum, there is a challenge, because some people viewed the hack as damage, and wanted to undo it, where others did not, leading to the situation described by Leising:

Then something else unexpected happened. The original ethereum blockchain, the one with the DAO attack in it, kept growing. Imagine a hard fork is a branch of a tree that sprouts in a different direction at the end of the main limb. The end of that limb is supposed to wither after a hard fork, but here it continued to grow as a small group of users continued to process transactions on that version of the blockchain. Instead of dying, this became a second form of ethereum, quickly dubbed ethereum classic, complete with a digital currency that now had value. Even in the science fiction world of blockchain, this was an unprecedented turn of events.

Computers are fascinating. Algorithms and software are fascinating.

People are more fascinating still.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Place of Greater Safety: a very short review

Somewhat with my recent trip to France in mind, I picked up Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety.

In the end, I lugged the book around Alsace, but ended up reading it both before and after the trip rather than while I was there, which was actually just fine.

Mantel is well-known to me: I adored her Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies, which are more recent work by her. A Place of Greater Safety is just celebrating its 25th birthday. But it doesn't read like an early work; she was every bit the master writer even then.

I doubt I gave A Place of Greater Safety the time and attention it deserves. At 750 pages of rather dense prose, in which you are reluctant to miss even a single word, much less a phrase or paragraph, I pushed through it as fast as I could, but still it took 2 months.

In the end, what do I think I learned?

  • In a Revolution, almost by definition, nobody is in control of events, even, perhaps most especially, not those who THINK they are in control of events.

  • The French Revolution is, nowadays, remembered as a time and a place when wondrous progress was made in the world of ideas (The Declaration of the Rights of Man, "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite", the Republic, feminism, secularism, etc.), but the actual story was much a story of people and what they said and did day-to-day. That is, nobody sat down one day and decreed the entire thing; events happened incrementally, in the heat of the moment, under pressures and in situations that it can be hard to envision.

  • People are, in the end, people. Nobody really set out to Have A Revolution, and even once it was underway, lots of other life went on at the same time: people got married, had children, had affairs, got sick, got divorced, moved house, got in arguments, all sorts of things. We might want to write A Clean Story Of The French Revolution Leaving Out All The Boring Humdrum Stuff, but that wouldn't be telling the story the way it really happened.

  • Mantel is a lovely writer, and it it is always a treat to read her books, even if one must thus read about awful events (not all the events she relates are awful; some are vividly inspirational, but there is plenty of misery to go around)

Friday, June 9, 2017

It's not just a game ...

... it's a landscape so detailed and realistic, landscape designers study it: We asked a landscape designer to analyse The Witcher 3, Mass Effect and Dishonored

The Witcher 3's recreation and representation of a range of Northern Hemisphere, European natural landscapes through their design is one of the game's finest accomplishments. Not only do the mountains look genuinely geologically convincing, the woods naturally dense, and the fields rolling, but everything down to the smallest details of the design give them an extra quality - they become believable landscapes and places. Our aesthetically-aimed eye will look at the game and instantly recognise that, of course, that mountain on the horizon looks mountainous in shape and that river bends absolutely naturally enough, but in each of the landscapes and environments created, there are elements of landscape design that would feature in the real world when re-creating a believable naturalistic look and feel.

For example, in all the wooded areas of the North, from the Skellige Isles through to Velen and White Orchard, we see a typical forest of Northern Europe represented with an accurate mix of pines and deciduous trees, underplanted faithfully with a grassy forest floor featuring low-growing, shade-tolerant plants such as ferns, and, where the light allows, more colourful herbaceous plants such as hellebores - a great example of one plant growing exactly where, and how, it should do.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Upper Rhine Valley: small towns

When I think back about our trip to France and Germany, there is no doubt that visiting the major cities of the region was a highlight. Strasbourg, Freiburg, Frankfurt, Basel: these are beautiful cities, all of them, with many fascinating things to see and do.

But just as strong in my memories are the wonderful experiences we had in the small towns we visited.

In the tiny hamlet of Hunspach, the town was closed up tight and silent on a peaceful Sunday morning. But the houses were beautiful and well-tended, and we had a most enjoyable walk up and down the quiet side streets.

In Betschdorf, we pulled into a tiny parking lot, attracted by a sign that said "Poterie". As we looked into the studio window, the craftsman himself came walking out of his house across the way, smiled at us, walked over, unlocked the studio door, and let us in. Although he spoke very little English, and we even less French, his little ceramic figurines were playful and they were instant hits with Donna, who bought several lovely pieces for her garden.

In Haslach im Kinzigtal, after a fairly long drive, we took a long leisurely walk through the beautiful town center, not in the slightest dismayed by the misting rain. To keep us fortified, we stopped at the gelato house, where I had the most delectable black-currant flavored gelato as I wandered the cobblestone lanes.

In Dambach la Ville, we somewhat surprised the young proprietor of Domaine Schaeffer-Woerly as he was repairing some household furniture in the back of his house-which-is-also-his-winery. Taken aback for only a minute, he recovered immediately and gave us a delightful tour of his winery, culminating in welcoming us into the family kitchen where his mother (!) poured us samples of the delicious wines they make.

In Kaysersberg, the birthplace of Albert Schweitzer, a steady rain had swollen the creek that runs through town, but that didn't stop me from getting out and poking my head around at the beautiful little town.

In Soufflenheim, we found we were hungry, and we stopped at the lovely Restaurant à la Couronne, where the food was delicious, the building was beautiful, and the people were as friendly as you could ever hope for.

In Rosheim, we discovered that a drizzly morning doesn't keep the regional merchants from setting up shop in the town center for the weekly market. The enthusiastic staff of the fishmarket stall were only too happy to tell us all about the different types of regional seafood that they specialize in.

In Mittelbergheim, we arrived at Domaine Alfred Wantz just as they were closing for the mid-day break, but the proprietress spotted us through the window and graciously opened back up, taking time to talk with us about the town, and the winery, and the wines, right on through her lunch break.

Oh, I could go on, and on, but I'm sure you get the idea.

It isn't just the mighty tourist spots (Chateau Haut Koenigsburg, Strasbourg Cathedral, the Freiburg Munster, ...); it's the little things that can be the most charming of all.

So if you ever get a chance to visit this part of the world, by all means visit the beautiful cities.

But try to go visit the small towns, too.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Alex Honnold pushes beyond the limits again

This is simply extraordinary: Alex Honnold Climbs Yosemite's El Capitan Without a Rope

Renowned rock climber Alex Honnold on Saturday became the first person to scale the iconic nearly 3,000-foot granite wall known as El Capitan without using ropes or other safety gear, completing what may be the greatest feat of pure rock climbing in the history of the sport.

He ascended the peak in 3 hours, 56 minutes, taking the final moderate pitch at a near run. At 9:28 a.m. PDT, under a blue sky and few wisps of cloud, he pulled his body over the rocky lip of the summit and stood on a sandy ledge the size of a child’s bedroom.

If you're having trouble coming to grips with this achievement, well, so are a lot of us: Alex Honnold casually climbed a rock higher than the world's tallest building. With no safety gear.

The feat is extraordinary without the athlete; the athlete regards it as logical and normal; by extension, the athlete is simply doing what they are there to do, and anyone watching now realizes that they are in the company of a legitimate mutant, someone whose achievements are only made normal by comparison with the extranormal person producing them. I’m out of ways to say this: Alex Honnold is human, and so are you, and that the definition includes both is proof that words are shoddy signifiers for the reality they are supposed to represent, because Alex Honnold climbed Freerider without a rope and it didn’t even seem like an unsafe, unwise thing for him to do.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The East Cut

Ah yes:

What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

Anyway, I learn today that the place where I work has a new name: New image for a slice of SF: The East Cut

History buffs will catch the reference to when Rincon Hill was bisected in 1869 to make Second Street a flat thoroughfare connecting downtown and the commercial waterfront. There’s a quest for cool as well: to identify this a place with “constant motion and evolution, serendipitous encounters, unanticipated inspiration,” according to the district website.

With the name comes a logo of three horizontal bars connected to form an abstract E. One represents Rincon Hill. Another represents what planners call the Transbay District. In the middle is Folsom Street, which the city plans to upgrade with wide sidewalks and landscaping to humanize the towers on either side.

It's not just me who works here, of course. Probably 100,000 people work inside this neighborhood, showing up every day at places like Linked In, Google, Splunk, DropBox, Mozilla, Salesforce, and on and on and on. It's an astonishingly vibrant neighborhood, with an energy and intensity and excitement that you just have to feel to believe.

Of course, it already had a name, sort of:

“I don’t know why they want to rebrand Rincon Hill, which is real and historic and accurate,” said Lauri Mashoian, who lives with her family on First Street in a restored industrial building.

But:

“Nobody really knows where Rincon Hill is, or what it is,” Robinson suggested a bit sheepishly.

Which is, of course, just crazy. Everybody should know where Rincon Hill is, and what it is. Why, just go read about it: February, 1869 The laceration of Rincon Hill

According to the Annals of San Francisco, by 1853 Rincon Hill was dotted with “numerous elegant structures” — including the little gated community of South Park. By the 1860s, the Hill was covered with mansions in a riot of architectural styles, and had become the social epicenter of the young city.

For these parts, that's a long time ago; it's what passes for history. (South Park is just beautiful, still, by the way.)

Wandering around these streets nowadays, it's terribly hard to envision what it must have been like in the 1850's, just after the Gold Rush had begun, when San Francisco was the center of the nation, if not the world: everybody who could possibly arrange it was traveling to San Francisco to Start Over, to Make Their Fortune, to be Part Of Something Big, to Change The World.

Oh, wait.

Perhaps it's not so hard to imagine those days, after all, even if it's a different sort of Gold Rush nowadays.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Freshening up my (Linux) hat

I was getting ready to do some work on Derby, and since it was a fine weekend and I had some time to spare, I decided to take the opportunity to update my development environment.

I had been running Fedora 22 for quite some time, and it's become rather out of date.

So now I'm running Fedora 25, which is much more modern.

I still have the dickens of a time trying to get Linux guest machines to recognize my video hardware via VirtualBox, so all too often I just get a 1024 x 768 display, which ain't much.

The message

VBoxClient: the VirtualBox kernel service is not running. Exiting.
should win some sort of award for "error message most likely to give you bad and useless suggestions when you Google search for it."

Still, at least I've got a more up-to-date OS on my guest.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

GVFS status report from Microsoft

The largest Git repo on the planet:

Today, I want to share our results. ... we have largely completed the rollout of Git/GVFS to the Windows team at Microsoft ... we now have about 3,500 of the roughly 4,000 Windows engineers on Git ... We knew when we rolled out Git that lots of our performance work wasn’t done yet and we also learned some new things along the way. ... over time, engineers crawl across the code base and touch more and more stuff leading to a problem we call “over hydration”. Basically, you end up with a bunch of files that were touched at some point but aren’t really used any longer and certainly never modified. This leads to a gradual degradation in performance. ... another round of performance improvements we call “O(modified)” which changes the proportionality of many key commands to instead be proportional to the number of files I’ve modified (meaning I have current, uncommitted edits on) ... we invested in building a Git proxy solution for GVFS that allows us to cache Git data “at the edge” ... 70 seconds vs almost 25 minutes is an almost 95% improvement ... working to get all of those changes contributed back to the mainline

Also interesting: Git at Scale: