Thursday, December 7, 2017

In the Valley of Gods

Oh boy!

Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy!!!

Campo Santo return!

Campo Santo, makers of the astonishingly great Firewatch (you know, the game with that ending), have started to reveal some of the information about their next game: In the Valley of Gods.

In the Valley of Gods is a single-player first person video game set in Egypt in the 1920s. You play as an explorer and filmmaker who, along with your old partner, has traveled to the middle of the desert in the hopes of making a seemingly-impossible discovery and an incredible film.

Here's the In the Valley of Gods "reveal trailer".

Looking forward to 2019 already!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Another milestone in computer chess

This just in from the Deep Mind team: Mastering Chess and Shogi by Self-Play with a General Reinforcement Learning Algorithm

The AlphaZero algorithm is a more generic version of the AlphaGo Zero algorithm that was first introduced in the context of Go (29). It replaces the handcrafted knowledge and domain-specific augmentations used in traditional game-playing programs with deep neural networks and a tabula rasa reinforcement learning algorithm.

...

AlphaZero convincingly defeated all opponents, losing zero games to Stockfish and eight games to Elmo (see Supplementary Material for several example games), as well as defeating the previous version of AlphaGo Zero.

...

we analysed the chess knowledge discovered by AlphaZero. Table 2 analyses the most common human openings (those played more than 100,000 times in an online database of human chess games (1)). Each of these openings is independently discovered and played frequently by AlphaZero during self-play training. When starting from each human opening, AlphaZero convincingly defeated Stockfish, suggesting that it has indeed mastered a wide spectrum of chess play.

As for myself, I seem to hang pieces more frequently than I did a decade ago.

But I still love chess.

And, in that part of the world not (yet) inhabited solely by deep neural networks, That Norwegian Genius is going to play again, in London, next November: London Will Host FIDE World Chess Championship Match 2018.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Fallout 4: a very short review

Fallout 4 is pretty much centered in the sweet spot of Computer Games For Bryan:

  • It's a single-player, open-world RPG
  • With an absolutely enormous world to explore
  • Hundreds of different locations
  • Dozens of quests
  • Hundreds of NPC characters with stories and interaction
  • In a fascinating, kinda-sorta-but-not-really believable post-apocalyptic universe (Boston after the nuclear war)

So it's no surprise that it's consumed most of my game-playing time over the last six months, closing in on 75 hours of game play (I don't get all that much time to play computer games, nowadays).

It's pretty much unavoidable, for me at least, to compare Fallout 4 against The Witcher 3, and unfortunately Fallout 4 doesn't fare so well:

  • The Witcher 3 was nearly flawless, nearly bug-free, while Fallout 4 is, frankly, riddled with bugs, even if most of them are trivial and just annoying (graphic glitches, crafting disasters, audio fails, quests that get "stuck", etc.)
  • Fallout 4 is beautiful, in its stylized way, but The Witcher 3 is STUNNING.
  • The quests in Fallout 4 are fun, and the characters have interesting stories, and it's enjoyable to chase through them and find out where they go (I'm talking about you, Nick Valentine), but the quests in The Witcher 3 are heart-breaking and captivating, so much so that making the wrong choice in The Witcher 3 is something you'll think about for years afterwards

So why do I keep coming back to Fallout 4? Why haven't I moved on?

Well, I think this fun article on the Comicsverse site goes a long way to explaining what it is about Fallout 4 that gives it true staying power: 10 Ways FALLOUT 4 Will Make You Question Your Existence

Two years, and it’s still one of the most played games out there. That’s simply because FALLOUT 4 has so much to offer, way more than you’d expect from a video game. I firmly believe that this game can make people question themselves. I say this because two years later I still think about the impact it’s had on me.

Countless parts of FALLOUT 4 stand out and make it one of the greatest games released in the past few years. Several parts of this game have made me think differently about what it means to be alive. Here are ten ways FALLOUT 4 will make you question your existence

The Stockholm Octavo: a very short review

Karen Engelmann's The Stockholm Octavo is a curious nugget.

  • Is it historical fiction?
  • Is it a fantasy?
  • Is it a mystery?
  • Is it a novel of political intrigue?
  • Is it a rags-to-riches novel?
  • Is it a feminist novel? An anti-feminist novel?

Well, yes, yes, yes to all of the above. It's rather a little bit of everything.

But, somewhat like going to the casino buffet and wishing they'd spent a little bit more time making the chicken good instead of providing chicken, beef, lamb, pork, and turkey, The Stockholm Octavo tries to accomplish a lot, perhaps rather more than one ought to attempt in a single book.

Still, it's extremely enjoyable, and you certainly will never have thought so much about the role of ladies's fans in elegant society as you will when reading it.

You might consider pairing it with A Place of Greater Safety for your what-was-the-experience-like-for-people-in-Europe-during-the-French-Revolution double-header.

If you do happen to read The Stockholm Octavo, drop me a line; tell me what you think!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Another edition of HPTS

The International Workshop on High Performance Transaction Systems (HPTS) is a bit of an unusual conference:

Every two years, HPTS brings together a lively and opinionated group of technologists to discuss and debate the pressing topics that affect today's systems and their design and implementation, especially where performance and scalability is concerned. The workshop includes position paper presentations, panels, moderated discussions, and significant time for casual interaction. The presentations are not recorded, and the only publications are slide decks by presenters who choose to post them.

HPTS was created back in 1985 by Jim Gray, as conference organizer Pat Helland describes in his reflections on Gray:

In 1985, Jim and a number of other senior leaders in the field of transaction processing started the HPTS (High Performance Transaction Systems) Workshop [HPTS]. This is a biennial gathering of folks interested in transaction systems (and things related to scalable systems). It includes people from competing companies in industry and also from academia. Over the last 22 years, it has evolved to include many different topics as high-end computing morphed from the mainframe to the Internet.

The amazing thing about HPTS is that it is a collegial and supportive community in spite of the fact that many of us are competitors. We gather as old friends and catch up on life’s changes in family, friends, and work. We share almost all of the latest technology trends while holding back only the truly critical trade secrets. When someone needs a new job, there is a supportive network with common passions. This culture was based on Jim’s natural supportive, caring, and HUMAN approach to technology and persists today.

Last month saw the 17th convening of the HPTS Workshop, and you can read all about it on the HPTS site.

This year, in addition, SUNY Buffalo professor Murat Demirbas posted his notes about the conference, although as he noted, doing so is a tad controversial:

Although some people prefer to keep what happens at HPTS to stay at HPTS, I find it hard to not talk about HPTS. I learn a lot at HPTS and I want to share at least some of those. And this year I don't think there was any confidential technology discussed at all. So I don't think Pat Helland will find this post and shout at me.

I'm certain Pat found the post, but I don't think he's going to shout about it.

Here are Demirbas's notes:

(You can tell a true Computer Scientist because they start their notes from Day 0.)

I didn't attend HPTS, although a number of my colleagues did (no surprise: Pat Helland leads my team at work). Among my team, the panels of most interest were the "Verification of Systems" and "Antifragile Exercises" panels, which were both super-practical panels, focused on how to build reliable distributed systems out of unreliable components. It's super-interesting stuff, comprising both practical tools for analyzing system behavior and finding implementation errors (e.g., Jepsen) as well as practical tools for "hardening" your production systems (and personnel!) in most surprising ways (e.g., Chaos Monkey).

It sounds like it was another very successful workshop, and it was fun to get a closer view into it this year.

Maybe one day I'll attend.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Stuff I'm reading

Been Too Dang Busy To Read. Well, busy is good, I think?

  • America’s ‘Retail Apocalypse’ Is Really Just Beginning
    The reason isn’t as simple as Amazon.com Inc. taking market share or twenty-somethings spending more on experiences than things. The root cause is that many of these long-standing chains are overloaded with debt—often from leveraged buyouts led by private equity firms. There are billions in borrowings on the balance sheets of troubled retailers, and sustaining that load is only going to become harder—even for healthy chains.

    The debt coming due, along with America’s over-stored suburbs and the continued gains of online shopping, has all the makings of a disaster. The spillover will likely flow far and wide across the U.S. economy. There will be displaced low-income workers, shrinking local tax bases and investor losses on stocks, bonds and real estate. If today is considered a retail apocalypse, then what’s coming next could truly be scary.

  • The Cause and Consequences of the Retail Apocalypse
    This is a robbery in progress. Private equity firms borrow massively to buy companies, and use corporate cash reserves to pay themselves back. Workers who supply the value to the business see nothing; in fact, to service the debt, companies usually cut staff. When the retailer collapses under the borrowing weight, all workers lose their jobs. And even when sales go up, like they have by 5 percent annually in the toy sector over the past five years, dominant toy sellers like Toys“R”Us cannot compete because of the debt burden. The company’s profitability was increasing when it filed for bankruptcy.
  • When Should the Government Stockpile Software Vulnerabilities?
    Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith called out the U.S. government for “stockpiling” vulnerabilities rather than reporting them to software vendors.

    Now the government has a newly released vulnerabilities equities process charter to help guide when to stockpile and when to disclose. The 14-page document outlining how the government will make those decisions moving forward doesn’t shed a whole lot of light on which types of vulnerabilities will be kept secret for internal use by the government and which will be disclosed so that vendors can patch them. Instead, it lays out the process for making that decision—who will be involved, what factors should be considered—while still allowing for the necessary degree of secrecy and case-by-case analysis. This process itself is not brand new—it was developed in 2008 and 2009—but the government did not release the details publicly until January 2016, after the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act. Unlike the newly released charter, the previous heavily redacted version, dated February 2010 and released in 2016, did not include a list of specific considerations or questions that the government would take into account.

  • Math and Computation
    This is a draft of a book that will be published by Princeton University Press.
  • Entering the Quantum Era—How Firefox got fast again and where it’s going to get faster
    Over the past seven months, we’ve been rapidly replacing major parts of the engine, introducing Rust and parts of Servo to Firefox. Plus, we’ve had a browser performance strike force scouring the codebase for performance issues, both obvious and non-obvious.

    We call this Project Quantum, and the first general release of the reborn Firefox Quantum comes out tomorrow.

  • Preserving Malware
    Jonathan Farbowitz's NYU MA thesis More Than Digital Dirt: Preserving Malware in Archives, Museums, and Libraries is well worth a more leisurely reading than I've given it so far. He expands greatly on the argument I've made that preserving malware is important, and attempting to ensure archives are malware-free is harmful:
  • Andy Weir Visits the Moon
    We get to see Weir’s newest creation this month with the release of his new novel, Artemis. The action is set on a lunar city in the not-too-distant future, which Weir calculated as much as imagined. He estimated the cost of reaching the moon from Earth by assuming a future commercial launch industry that will reach the efficiencies of today’s airlines, then combining those numbers with an obscure and complex Earth-moon orbit called the Uphoff-Crouch Cycler. He wrote a 10-page economic analysis constructing the future lunar economy, whose currency, the slug, is based on the cost of transporting one gram from the Earth. He referenced modern-day nuclear power plant designs in determining the base’s energy production and consumption budget.
  • A Tale of Three Rankings
    The US News rankings have a long history and since they are reputation based they roughly correspond to how we see CS departments though some argue that reputation changes slowly with the quality of a department.

    US News and World Report also has a new global ranking of CS departments. The US doesn't fare that well on the list and the ranking of the US programs on the global list are wildly inconsistent with the US list. What's going on?

    75% of the global ranking is based on statistics from Web of Science. Web of Science captures mainly journal articles where conferences in computer science typically have a higher reputation and more selectivity. In many European and Asian universities hiring and promotion often depend heavily on publications and citations in Web of Science encouraging their professor to publish in journals thus leading to higher ranked international departments.

  • Brilliant Jerks in Engineering
    Should brilliant jerks be tolerated? To explore this, I described two fictional brilliant jerks
  • Card catalogs and the secret history of modernity
    Card catalogs imagine an endlessly growing collection of books and other documents. It imagines institutions capable of standardizing the treatment of those documents. And it imagines a democratic public, scholars, students, and amateurs with both the urge and the ability to seek out such materials. The card catalog is everything that is the best of the 19th and 20th centuries. And they look beautiful, and smell fantastic.
  • New Harbor Bay Ferry Schedule in effect December 4
    The new departure will provide riders with an option to the 6:30 and 7:30 AM departures while the 331 passenger M.V. Peralta is away for its mid-life refurbishment. During the Peralta’s absence, some Harbor Bay morning departures will be operated with vessels that have less passenger capacity than the Peralta. The extra trip is intended to help maintain overall system capacity while the Peralta is out. The Peralta is expected to return to service in summer 2018.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Up, up, and away

They're taking down the construction cranes at 181 Fremont, one block from my office; soon it will be the new Facebook offices in the city.

Across the bay, and closer to home, Oakland isn't missing out on the construction boom.

There are buildings being built: Emerging Oakland high-rise to cover beloved mural

The only problem with this location is that it’s also right next to Jimmy’s Deli and the Academy of Chinese Culture on 17th Street, the site of a massive mural by anonymous New England street artist Believe In People (BiP).

BiP painted the piece, titled Vintage, depicting an elderly woman rocking out to thrash metal, on the side of the building overlooking the parking lot in 2016.

And there are other buildings proposed to be built: Planning commission approves Oakland's tallest residential building

Oakland's planning commission voted Wednesday night to recommend the approval of the city's tallest housing development ever, a soaring 40-floor tower by developer Carmel Partners, that would replace the Merchant's Parking Garage at 1314 Franklin Street diagonally across form the historic Tribune Tower downtown.

Meanwhile, I unfortunately managed to miss the blockbuster 60 Minutes episode on the Millenium Tower, which sits precariously in between my office and 181 Fremont.

For now.

half a world away, in a suburb of Amsterdam, San Francisco's sinking tower came across the radar of Petar Marinkovic, an engineer who works with the European Space Agency to track earthquakes. Using signals from a satellite 500 miles above the earth, Marinkovic measures ground movements around fault lines. In 2016, he happened to be studying the Bay Area, when something caught his eye.

Later, 60 Minutes gets to the heart of the matter:

Everybody is afraid to tell the truth. Because if we get to the bottom of this, they are worried that it is going to, in some ways, slow down the building boom that is happening in San Francisco.

Everyone's in a hurry.

The time is now, and the White Rabbit is in a hurry; there's no time to waste.

After all, there are fortunes to be made.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sandy, we miss you

Some nice candids from a lovely event in honor of Sandy Hamilton.

Friend, colleague, inspiration.

Five observations about Stranger Things

  1. The Netflix series Stranger Things is a parable: it is about adolescence, and about the hopes, fears, and (quite literally) the demons that children wrestle with during those terrifying years when everything seems to be changing, and nobody knows why, or what things will become.

  2. The show is at its very best when it is most firmly rooted in those middle-school years, helping us see and remember what it was like to be that age, and it is most rewarding when it shows how children develop those coping mechanisms that sustain and guide us through our lives.

  3. The portrayal of the differences between those adults that "get it" (Will's mom, Sheriff Hopper, the middle school science teacher) and those that don't (pretty much everyone else) is particularly fine and elegant.

  4. The government research lab, and all the scientists that work there, are evil to the core? Bleah. Weak and cliched. But it is an easy way to stage a show that really wants to focus on the children, and keep nearly everyone else anonymous.

  5. The single worst part about Stranger Things, though, is the notion that El's power derives from her anger. Boo! Hiss! Shame on all the script writers and creatives! This is more than just vastly disappointing, it's so completely unnecessary. If they had just done this one single thing right, Stranger Things would truly be a show for the ages. Instead, it's in that list of stuff I'll watch, but won't really actively recommend to people.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Up, up, and away

As the new San Francisco Transit Center nears its grand opening, do not miss this wonderful interactive exploration of the project and all its impacts on the city, from the Architecture Desk of the San Francisco Chronicle: Symbol of a New San Francisco

... eye-popping novelties and numbers aren’t nearly as important as the long-term question of how the tower will settle into the landscape, once the shock of the new fades away.

“Ultimately, this aims to be a building about San Francisco,” Clarke said last month. He emphasizes such details as the facade’s grid of silvery aluminum sunshades, which relate more to such structural high points as Coit Tower than to the clutter of thin-skinned glass towers nearby.

“Many architects today approach tall buildings almost from a wholly artistic point of view,” Clarke said. “We’re much more comfortable with buildings that feel quietly confident and that ultimately are good citizens of their community.”

Are buildings citizens?

Probably not.

But buildings are important.

And this building is important.

And I'm pleased to see how the process is progressing.

San Francisco is evolving.

We are all evolving.

Here we go.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Tears of Autumn: a very short review

Somebody, somewhere, alerted me to Charles McCarry, and his marvelous The Tears of Autumn.

I know, I know: The Tears of Autumn was published in 1974.

And it's set in 1963.

But it is just so marvelous!

Partly, it's because McCarry is a very elegant writer. There is a certain way in which you are supposed to write This Sort of Book, and McCarry pulls that off as well as anyone:

In Orvieto Christopher found a coffee bar just opening and sat by the window drinking caffe latte, alone with the teen-aged boy who worked the early shift. At eight o'clock the street filled up with Italians, as though the town had been turned upside down like a sack and its people spilled into the morning. Once, after a week in Switzerland and a drive through the night over the Saint Bernard, he and Molly had arrived at the same time of day in Torino. When she saw the Italians again, shouting and gesticulating, Molly had leaped up, spread her arms as if to embrace them, and cried, "The human race!"

Christopher walked through the crowd to the post office and mailed Pigeon's confession and Dieter Dimpel's photographs and Yu Lung's horoscopes to himself in care of general delivery, Washington. The envelope would arrive by registered airmail in four days' time.

But even more than the fluidity and grace of McCarry's writing, what really sets him apart is the efficient and economical way in which he manages his story.

Imagine a modern thriller writer delivering a tale like this, spanning four continents, involving politics, culture, military affairs, language, and so much more; surely it would require seven or eight hundred pages to accomplish. But McCarry handles it in barely two hundred and fifty pages.

Yet it never feels rushed or crowded.

Instead, time and again, as our hero visits some place, talks with some person, or observes some event, what you originally take as "just" color, "merely" background, turns out to be critical information that all falls neatly and precisely into place, at just the right moment.

It's immensely satisfying.

I'm not sure if I shall find the time to dip back in to McCarry's many other books. Are they all as good as this?

I suppose there's only one way to find out.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Nothing says changing of the seasons ...

... like noticing that, while we weren't quite paying attention, a group of 8 (!!) paper wasps found their way inside the house and are all clustered against the upper window.

Do paper wasps come in through the chimney? Is there anything one can do about that?

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Abaddon's Gate: a very short review

Book three of the Expanse series is Abaddon's Gate.

Abaddon's Gate starts out as a continuation of books one and two.

Which is great, and I would have been just fine with that.

But then, about halfway through (page 266, to be exact), Abaddon's Gate takes a sudden and startling 90 degree turn, revealing that much of what you thought you knew from the first two books is completely wrong, and exposing a whole new set of ideas to contemplate.

And so, then, off we go, in a completely new direction!

One of the things I'm really enjoying about the series is the "long now" perspective that it takes. You might think that a couple thousand years of written history is a pretty decent accomplishment for a sentient species, but pah! that's really nothing, in the big picture of things.

If you liked the first two books, you'll enjoy Abaddon's Gate. If you didn't like any of this, well, you probably figured that out about 50 pages into Leviathan Wakes and that's fine, too.

Bryan's simple rules for online security

I seem to be posting a lot less frequently recently. I was traveling, work has been crazy busy, you know how it goes. Oh, well.

I was looking at some stuff while I was traveling, and reviewing what I thought, and decided it still holds, so I decided to post it here.

It ain't perfect, but then nothing is, and besides which you get what you paid for, so here are my 100% free of charge simple rules for online security:

  • Always do your banking and other important web accesses from your own personal computer, not from public computers like those in hotel business centers, coffee shops, etc.
  • Always use Chrome or Firefox to access "important" web sites like the bank, credit cards, Amazon, etc.
  • Always use https:// URLs for those web sites
  • Always let Windows Update automatically update your computer as it wants to, also always let Chrome and Firefox update themselves when they want to.
  • Stick with GMail, it's about as secure as email can get right now. Train yourself to be suspicious of weird mails from unknown senders, or with weird links in them, just in case you get a "phishing" mail that pretends to be from your bank or credit card company, etc.
  • If you get a mail from a company you care about (bank, retirement account, credit card, health care company, etc.), instead of clicking on the link in the mail, ALWAYS open up a new browser window and type in the https:// URL of the bank or whatever yourself. It's clicking the link in the email that gets you in trouble.
  • At least once a week or so, sign on and look at your credit card charges, your bank account, your retirement account, etc., just to see that everything on there looks as it should be. If not, call your bank and credit card company, dispute the charge, and ask them to send you a new credit card, ATM card, whatever it was.
  • Don't accept phone calls from people who aren't in your contacts, or whose call you didn't expect. If you accept a phone call that you think might be legitimate (e.g., from your bank or credit card company), but you need to discuss your account, hang up and call them back, using the main service number from their web site, not the number that called you. Never answer "security questions" over the phone unless you initiated the call yourself. Con artists that call you on the phone can be really persuasive, this is actually the biggest threat nowadays I think.
If you do these simple things, you have made yourself a sufficiently "hard" target that the bad guys will go find somebody who's a lot easier to attack instead of you.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

WC 2018 ? Not this year, I guess.

I can't say this was a total stunner, but still: USA Stunned by Trinidad and Tobago, Eliminated From World Cup Contention

The nightmare scenario has played out for the U.S. men's national team.

A roller coaster of a qualifying campaign ended in shambles, with a stunning 2-1 loss to Trinidad & Tobago, coupled with wins by Panama and Honduras over Costa Rica and Mexico, respectively, has eliminated the USA from the World Cup. The Americans will not be playing in Russia next summer.

Trinidad and Tobago, which hadn't won in its last nine matches (0-8-1), exacted revenge for the 1989 elimination at the hands of the United States, doing so in stunning fashion. An own goal from Omar Gonzalez and a rocket from Alvin Jones provided the offense, while Christian Pulisic's second-half goal wasn't enough to save the Americans.

Oh, my.

And it seems like there's a fair chance I won't be able to root for Leo Messi, either?

Well, what shall I do?

Let's see: there's still Iceland! They're easy to root for!

Perhaps Wales? Perhaps Costa Rica? Perhaps Chile?

I'm ready, I'm an eager Yankee, looking for a team with some charisma, some elan, some heart, some fighting spirit.

Where are you? Are you out there?

It's still a few weeks until the tournament qualifications are known.

I guess I've got time to start looking...

Saturday, October 7, 2017

In the Woods: a very short review

One of my voracious reader friends introduced me to Tana French and her Dublin Murder Squad series, of which In the Woods is the first entry.

Structurally, In the Woods is a classic mystery: something horrible has happened, and the detectives are called; evidence is collected; witnesses are interviewed; leads are developed and followed; more is learned.

Along the way, we explore issues such as gender discrimination in the workplace and the ongoing effects of the great recession of 2008.

What distinguishes In the Woods is not these basic elements, but more the style and depth with which they are elaborated and pursued.

But did I mention style? What really makes In the Woods a delight is the ferocious lyricism that French brings to her writing.

For instance, here are three children, playing follow-the-leader in the woods:

These three children own the summer. They know the wood as surely as they know the microlandscapes of their own grazed knees; put them down blindfolded in any dell or clearing and they could find their way out without putting a foot wrong. This is their territory, and they rule it wild and lordly as young animals; they scramble through its trees and hide-and-seek in its hollows all the endless day long, and all night in their dreams.

They are running into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear. Down the faint lost paths you would never find alone, skidding round the tumbled stone walls, they stream calls and shoelaces behind them like comet-trails.

How marvelous is this, at every level!

Structurally, it's almost poetry, with a natural sing-song cadence and a subtly-reinforced pattern induced by the simple rhythms ("they know...", "they rule...", "they scramble...", "they stream...").

Stylistically, each little turn of phrase is so graceful and just right ("their own grazed knees", "wild and lordly as young animals", "calls and shoelaces").

And then:

They are running into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear.

Wow.

Anyway, that's just page 2. French is just as polished and capable on page 302, and, like any good mystery, once you start, you won't want to stop, even as you know (or think you know) what lies ahead.

From what I hear, French's subsequent books are wonderful as well; I shall certainly read more.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

John Cochrane's After the ACA

All that anyone has been able to talk about recently (or so it seems), is "repeal and replace."

It's a pretty interesting topic to me, partly because, as I get older, I'm thinking more and more about healthcare, and partly just because I think it's an awfully important topic.

But I didn't feel like I learned a lot during all the recent debates.

So I wandered here, and I wandered there, and eventually I found myself looking at a John Cochrane paper: After the ACA: Freeing the market for health care

Now, Cochrane is a pretty serious fellow, with pretty serious credentials, so my expectations were fairly high, perhaps unreasonably high.

And this is a major effort: the paper is nearly 50 pages long, and covers lots of ground

At the very least, I hoped to learn something new, and certainly, the paper sets out well:

I survey the supply, demand, and market for health care, and health insurance, to think about how those markets should work to provide quality care, low cost, and technical innovation. A market-based alternative does exist, and it is realistic.

As a survey, I was surprised how narrowly-focused Cochrane seemed to be. For example, there is almost no discussion in the entire paper about the role of malpractice lawsuits in driving up healthcare cost, modulo a mostly-throwaway line about its role in constraining the outsourcing of certain medical work:

Personal-injury law firms are already lining up to sue based on the “inferior quality” of outsourced readings, with requisite horror stories.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the effect that malpractice lawsuits have had on healthcare costs. Surely he should have more to say than this?

And I was saddened that there was very little reflection about the basic fact that the biggest reason that the United States spends dramatically more on healthcare than we did 75 years ago is because of ADVANCES in healthcare: people are living longer, so over the course of their lives they get more healthcare. Moreover, many ailments which were formerly not treatable now are reliably and safely treatable, so we treat them.

More treatment, over longer life spans, equals a greater amount of resources spent on healthcare.

But this is a GOOD thing! We should be happy that people are living longer, and are having their illnesses treated. And Cochrane seems to understand this, for he notes that

We don’t want 1950s care at 1920s prices

But then he moves rapidly on, without really spending any time to discuss how we might get by with less healthcare, overall, in some sensible fashion.

I did learn a few things:

  • I had not previously been aware of the role of the "Certificate of Need." Here's how Cochrane describes it:
    In Illinois as in 35 other states, every new hospital, or even major purchase, requires a “certificate of need.” This certificate is issued by our “hospital equalization board,” appointed by the governor and, like much of Illinois politics, regularly in the newspapers for various scandals. The board has an explicit mandate to defend the profitability of existing hospitals. It holds hearings at which they can complain that a new entrant would hurt their bottom line.
  • And Cochrane makes a well-worded argument in favor of a new conceptualization of health-care insurance:
    To summarize briefly, health insurance should be individual, portable, life-long, guaranteed-renewable, transferrable, competitive, and lightly regulated, mostly to ensure that companies keep their contractual promises. “Guaranteed renewable” means that your premiums do not increase and you can’t be dropped if you get sick. “Transferable” gives you the right to change insurance companies, increasing competition.

    Insurance should be insurance, not a negotiator and payment plan for routine expenses. It should protect overall wealth from large shocks, leaving as many marginal decisions unaltered as possible.

These are both tremendously good insights, and were certainly worth the time I invested in Cochrane's essay.

But most of the rest of Cochrane's paper baffled me.

More than just baffled me; it flat-out astonished me.

Cochrane's main point seems to be that consuming healthcare should be much more like going to a restaurant, or hiring a gardening service for your house, or buying an airplane ticket, or choosing a new set of tires for your car: you should check Yelp before you make your decision; you should shop around for the best price; you should probably even try to use a coupon or negotiate for a better deal.

Is he serious?

Does he really think that selecting medical care is like these other activities? Apparently, he does:

Health care is not that different from the services provided by lawyers, auto mechanics, home remodelers, tax accountants, financial planners, restaurants, airlines or college professors.

Does he really think that it makes sense to change medical providers on an incident-by-incident basis, just like you go to one restaurant one day, and a different one the next week? He certainly doesn't seem to think that a person's medical information is very sensitive or private, dismissing that notion breezily as:

Confidentiality regulations, apparently more stringent than those for your money in the bank.

Is it possible that Cochrane has never had to have a sensitive discussion with his doctor? Never felt like he needed to have any deeper of a relationship than he has with the barista who makes his coffee in the morning? Is his life really that uncomplicated?

Even more astonishing is this notion he has of "negotiating" for your healthcare. Cochrane is a big proponent of negotiation, and wonders why it is missing in healthcare, when it is so prevalent elsewhere:

You don’t need an “insurance” company to negotiate your cellphone contract, home repair and rehab, mortgage, airline fare, legal bills, or clothes, as we do for health.

Is he serious?

I'll grant that people certainly negotiate the price they pay for their house, and there may be some people who negotiate the price they pay for their legal bills, but do you actually know anyone who negotiates their cellphone contract? Their airline fare? The price of their clothes?

And how many acquaintances do you have (other than medical professionals) who have the requisite base knowledge to negotiate, say, a reasonable price for spinal surgery?

Discussing the well-known (and, admittedly, frustrating) strawman that "a man in the ambulance on his way to the hospital with a heart attack is in no position to negotiate," Cochrane just completely dismisses it:

Our health care system actually does a pretty decent job with heart attacks.

... have they no families? If I’m on the way to the hospital, I call my wife. She’s a heck of a negotiator.

And then continues to invoke The Mighty Yelp:

In a competitive, transparent market, a hospital that routinely overcharged cash customers with heart attacks would be creamed by Yelp reviews

Is he serious?

When you have a heart attack, your wife should be negotiating with the hospital while you're in the ambulance? Or she should be browsing Yelp, deciding whether to tell the ambulance to take you to hospital A or hospital B?

Maybe all Cochrane means by "negotiate" is "shop around", and if that's true, then certainly I grant that there's a big place for that.

For example, when my parents were planning to get cataract surgery, they certainly did their homework, tried carefully to select the best surgeon. (Although, I don't think they actually used Yelp? Maybe they did?)

And it definitely seems like it used to be Common Wisdom that for any significant medical issue, you should get a second opinion, so maybe that's what Cochrane is trying to say.

Although, when people used to say "you should get a second opinion," it was typically the QUALITY of the medical advice that was of concern, not the PRICE of the medical advice.

The people that I know are generally much more concerned about the SUCCESS of that triple bypass, not about its cost.

Most of the people that I know don't even really negotiate the price of their house. Rather, they try to pick a decent real estate agent, and let the agent handle the negotiation. I do know a handful of people that are able to do this successfully on their own; a much smaller number of them enjoyed it; a smaller segment still have actually done that multiple times in their life.

Ask around about buying a car: this is really the experience you want when you need arthroscopic surgery on your knee?

What you want is for the pain to go away, and for you to be able to take up hiking again.

So, in the end, I struggle to comprehend what sort of world it is that Cochrane envisions.

It seems like his ideal is a situation in which we are all informed consumers, and have no trouble evaluating whether we are being given a good deal for duodenal atresia surgery or base cell carcinoma immunotherapy, in which we arrange to have strokes, aneurysms, broken arms and heart attacks with enough advance notice that we can consult Yelp before the ambulance arrives, and in which we respond to being told that the yearly mammogram will cost $375 by saying: "how about $225 instead?"

I guess I'm still looking for that informed, readable, clear-headed, approachable paper which explains what we, as a society, can truly and effectively do about healthcare costs.

Thank you Mr. Cochrane for trying.

But I'm afraid that, for me at least, you were not successful.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

In which people discuss things I do not understand

We all thought: "Hey! New CEO search is over! Things will be boring and normal now!"

  • God Is a Bot, and Anthony Levandowski Is His Messenger
    In 2002, Levandowski’s attention turned, fatefully, toward transportation. His mother called him from Brussels about a contest being organized by the Pentagon’s R&D arm, DARPA. The first Grand Challenge in 2004 would race robotic, computer-controlled vehicles in a desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas—a Wacky Races for the 21st century.

    “I was like, ‘Wow, this is absolutely the future,’” Levandowski told me in 2016. “It struck a chord deep in my DNA. I didn’t know where it was going to be used or how it would work out, but I knew that this was going to change things.”

  • Uber-SoftBank Deal Ensures Limits on Kalanick’s Power
    SoftBank Group Corp. has overcome a major obstacle to its planned multibillion-dollar investment in Uber Technologies Inc. The Japanese firm agreed to block any attempts to elevate Travis Kalanick, Uber’s controversial former leader, back to the company’s top ranks, according to people familiar with the discussions.

    Venture capital firm Benchmark, which led Kalanick’s ouster in June, has sought a guarantee in writing from SoftBank that it would reject reappointing Kalanick as chief executive officer and block his appointment as chairman of the board or head of one of its subcommittees, said the people.

  • Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick just appointed 2 new board members, a defiant move the company is calling a 'complete surprise'
    Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick appointed Xerox chairwoman Ursula Burns and former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain to the company's board of directors on Friday, a surprise move that's almost certain to re-ignite the bitter internal fighting that has destabilized the ride-hailing giant for months.

    Uber quickly decried the move as "a complete surprise" to both the company and its board.

    "That is precisely why we are working to put in place world-class governance to ensure that we are building a company every employee and shareholder can be proud of," an Uber spokesman told Business Insider.

  • Here’s the proposal to change Uber’s governance, which is aimed at limiting Travis Kalanick’s power
    Some of the proposal points are expected to be voted on by the board on Tuesday:

    It would institute “one share, one vote,” which would eliminate shares distributed early in the company’s history that hold “high” voting power. Those shares are held by Kalanick and also Benchmark, the venture firm that has sued him, as well as some employees.

    Sources said Kalanick wants to defend the removal of those potentially lucrative shares, without the consent of those who have them, and that it also impacts all shareholders unfairly. Sources close to the board said that a majority of those shareholders are in favor of this change.

  • London's Uber ban shows how driverless cars will cut jobs
    Driving to work in a private car imposes an average daily commuting cost on the owner of €24 per day (about $24), UBS says. In a world of robotaxis, with no need to buy a car, that cost falls to €7.2 per day. "Getting rid of their private car would enable the shared mobility user to travel about 10,000km per year in a robotaxi and save €5,000 per year," UBS calculates:

    "Robotaxis will likely price-compete with mass-transit systems. The shift towards electric autonomous vehicles, combined with more advanced fleet optimization and servicing platforms, next-generation traffic management and more intense competition, should reduce the fee charged to passengers of robotaxis by as much as 80% versus a ride-on-demand trip today. The technology to make robotaxis a reality is already available. In this new paradigm, owning a private car will cost almost twice as much as using robotaxis regularly."

    That is an extraordinary thought: An Uber ride that costs £10 today — already roughly half the price of a back cab — might cost only £2 in a few years' time, UBS says. The cost of providing cars without drivers might be so small that companies could offer rides for free, UBS speculates, and make money on the advertising inside them.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Some Saturday night stuff

This is the most beautiful time of the year in the Bay Area, so it's hard to think of all the sad things that are happening in the world.

Still, life goes on, things happen.

Anyway, here's some Saturday night stuff, the typical mixture, I suppose, of wonderful and awful.

  • A First-Person Account of the Fatal Yosemite Rockfall
    Drew and I drive to the El Capitan meadow to get a better look at the rockfall. There is a helicopter idling nearby, rescue trucks line the shoulder of the road, and Yosemite park personnel are moving about. A couple of rangers keep the traffic moving and the area clear. The SAR team is debriefing beneath a tree. Our friend, Josh Huckaby, a YOSAR veteran, gives Drew a look that means one thing: bad news.
  • Anatomy of a Moral Panic
    The implication is clear: home cooks are being radicalized by the site’s recommendation algorithm to abandon their corned beef in favor of shrapnel-packed homemade bombs. And more ominously, enough people must be buying these bomb parts on Amazon for the algorithm to have noticed the correlations, and begin making its dark suggestions.

    But as a few more minutes of clicking would have shown, the only thing Channel 4 has discovered is a hobbyist community of people who mill their own black powder at home, safely and legally, for use in fireworks, model rockets, antique firearms, or to blow up the occasional stump.

  • Illustrating Group Theory: A Coloring Book
    Math is about more than just numbers. In this "book" the story of math is visual, told in shapes and patterns.
  • NEW REPUBLIC NAMES J.J. GOULD NEW EDITOR
    Prior to The Atlantic, Gould was an editor at the Journal of Democracy, as well as with McKinsey & Company—where he worked with the public- and social-sector practices. A lecturer in history and politics at Yale University, he has written for the Washington Monthly, The American Prospect, The Chronicle Herald, The European Journal of Political Theory, and The Moscow Times.
  • Michael Cohen (1992-2017)
    Within those five minutes, it had become obvious that this was a freshman who I could—must—talk to like an advanced grad student or professor. Sadly for quantum computing, Michael ultimately decided to go into classical parts of theoretical computer science, such as low-rank approximation and fast algorithms for geometry and linear-algebra problems. But that didn’t stop him from later taking my graduate course on quantum complexity theory, where he sat in the front and loudly interrupted me every minute, stream-of-consciousness style, so that my “lectures” often turned into dialogues with him. Totally unforgivable—all the more so because his musings were always on point, constantly catching me in errors or unjustified claims (one of which I blogged about previously).

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Thinking about freezing on a hot day

Has anyone done this?

Are there pros and cons besides what's listed here?

  • The Equifax Breach: What You Should Know
    Q: So should I take advantage of the credit monitoring offer?

    A: It can’t hurt, but I wouldn’t count on it protecting you from identity theft.

    Q: Wait, what? I thought that was the whole point of a credit monitoring service?

    A: The credit bureaus sure want you to believe that, but it’s not true in practice. These services do not prevent thieves from using your identity to open new lines of credit, and from damaging your good name for years to come in the process. The most you can hope for is that credit monitoring services will alert you soon after an ID thief does steal your identity.

    Q: Well then what the heck are these services good for?

    A: Credit monitoring services are principally useful in helping consumers recover from identity theft. Doing so often requires dozens of hours writing and mailing letters, and spending time on the phone contacting creditors and credit bureaus to straighten out the mess. In cases where identity theft leads to prosecution for crimes committed in your name by an ID thief, you may incur legal costs as well. Most of these services offer to reimburse you up to a certain amount for out-of-pocket expenses related to those efforts. But a better solution is to prevent thieves from stealing your identity in the first place.

  • Consumers Union’s Guide To Security Freeze Protection
    When a security freeze is in place at all three major credit bureaus, an identity thief cannot open a new account because the potential creditor or seller of services will not be able to check the credit file. When the consumer is applying for credit, he or she can lift the freeze temporarily using a PIN so legitimate applications for credit or services can be processed.
  • How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Security Freeze
    Freezing your credit involves notifying each of the major credit bureaus that you wish to place a freeze on your credit file. This can usually be done online, but in a few cases you may need to contact one or more credit bureaus by phone or in writing. Once you complete the application process, each bureau will provide a unique personal identification number (PIN) that you can use to unfreeze or “thaw” your credit file in the event that you need to apply for new lines of credit sometime in the future. Depending on your state of residence and your circumstances, you may also have to pay a small fee to place a freeze at each bureau. There are four consumer credit bureaus, including Equifax, Experian, Innovis and Trans Union.
  • Frequently asked questions about security freeze
    Security freezes do not apply to any person or entity with whom the consumer has an existing account, nor to a limited number of other parties who may access the files for purposes not related to new accounts, such as law enforcement agencies and certain governmental agencies that need them for investigations and other statutory responsibilities.
  • Things to Consider When Deciding Whether to Place a Security Freeze
    Before opening a new account, most reputable creditors evaluate the creditworthiness of the applicant by checking the consumer credit report or credit score. A security freeze stops potential creditors from seeing the consumer's credit report and credit score unless the consumer decides to unlock the credit reporting file with a PIN. The freeze stops the new account in the name of a thief because the creditor who is considering the thief’s application can’t check the real consumer’s credit report or credit score.

    A security freeze does not stop misuse by a thief of your existing bank account or credit accounts, which is called existing account fraud. You still have to check the monthly statements on your existing accounts for any erroneous charges or debits.

  • Identity Theft, Credit Reports, and You
    Do not use the following advice to correct a problem with an account which is factually yours. If someone has stolen your credit card number and used it to buy things, you should not send letters. Just call your bank; they’ll take care of it. For reasons beyond the scope of this post, that is a really well-understood scenario that banks are very customer-friendly about. The only thing we’re talking about here is accounts / debts which were never yours.

    Was an account opened in your name without your consent? Great, you’re in the right place. The rest of this article assumes that you’ve either checked a credit report or been told by a bank that an account exists in your name which you didn’t open.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Up, up, and away!

It's about to get a whole lot busier in my little neighborhood of the city: Facebook arrives in San Francisco with city's largest office lease in three years

Facebook Inc. signed San Francisco's largest office lease in three years, taking the entire office portion of 181 Fremont in another blockbuster deal in the city.

The lease of 436,000 square feet was confirmed by Matt Lituchy, chief investment officer of landlord Jay Paul Co.

...

The space at 181 Fremont can hold between 2,000 and 3,000 employees.

...

"While Instagram's HQ will remain in Menlo Park on Facebook's campus, a small team from Instagram will be moving to San Francisco in early 2018. With this lease, we've obtained the space we need at 181 Fremont to support our growth," said Jamil Walker, a Facebook spokesman.

Facebook's deal surpasses Airbnb's 287,000-square-foot deal earlier this year and is the largest since 2014, when Salesforce took 714,000 square feet in 181 Fremont's neighbor, Salesforce Tower. (Salesforce has since taken more space in the tower.)

Over on my side of the the Transbay Transit Center, the latest news involves the public art installation that will occupy the top nine stories of the Salesforce Tower: Jim Campbell: Far Away Up Close

Campbell’s pieces are unique among artists using technology — not only because he designs and builds the computer systems that make them function. More significantly, his choice of media is conceptually linked to his message: he uses technologies developed for information transfer and storage to explore human communication and memory. His is not technology used merely to wow, but to consider the relationship of our minds to the technologies we’ve created.

To be completed within the next few months and visible for decades to come, Campbell’s artwork on the top nine stories of the exterior of San Francisco’s new Salesforce Tower — the tallest building on the West Coast — will fundamentally alter the Bay Area skyline as well as the nature and purpose of public art. Unlike any permanent public artwork to date, Campbell’s piece will change daily, as a direct reflection of the life of the city in which it exists.

Jim Campbell was born in Chicago in 1956 and moved to San Francisco after earning degrees in mathematics and engineering from MIT. He transitioned from filmmaking to interactive video installations in the mid 1980s, and began using LEDs as his primary medium in 2000. His custom electronic artworks and installations have made him one of the leading figures in the use of computer technology as an art form.

And then, right smack in between the Salesforce Tower and 181 Fremont, there is still "that building," and all the action there, nowadays, is happening in court: Lawyers Fear SF's Millennium Tower Could Tilt 10 More Inches by 2019

At its current rate, San Francisco's troubled Millennium Tower could tilt another 10 inches toward the Salesforce Tower in the next two years, lawyers for the homeowners warned in a legal filing urging a speedy trial over the sinking building.

Owners of condos in the listing tower hoped to impress upon Judge Curtis Karnow the need to push for a trial by mid-2018 and to fund a fix.

But at a hearing on Monday, Karnow put off key decisions in the complicated case until October to give the many parties – the developer, builder, engineering consultants as well as homeowners and the city – time to plot out how best to proceed.

The homeowners association wants the court to endorse its plan to drive about 150 concrete and steel piles through the tower’s 10-foot-thick foundation all the way to bedrock.

...

in its response, the legal team for the Millennium emphasized the recent findings by its consultant that the building “remains structurally and seismically safe." Homeowners would be better off going after tall buildings nearby such as Salesforce, they contend, as there is “ample evidence” that their construction and removal of water around the tower is “a significant cause of the tilt” of the building.

Millennium called the homeowners’ plan a “self-selected remedy,” that has yet to be approved or even been “meaningfully evaluated.”

Judge Karnow sounds like a pretty interesting fellow: here's a profile and short biography of him.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Java 9 !

OK, I guess I should admit: I was one of those who thought It Would Never Happen.

But here it is!

  • JDK 9: General Availability
    I'm pleased -- nay, thrilled! -- to announce that JDK 9 is now Generally Available. We've identified no P1 bugs since we promoted build 181 seven weeks ago so that is the official GA release, ready for production use.

    GPL'd binaries from Oracle are available here

  • Java 9 and IntelliJ IDEA
    Java 9 is released today, so let’s do a quick recap of the Java 9 support in IntelliJ IDEA, and have a peek at some of the upcoming features in IntelliJ IDEA 2017.3 for Java 9.
  • Java Platform, Standard Edition What’s New in Oracle JDK 9
    Java Platform, Standard Edition 9 is a major feature release. The following summarizes features and enhancements in Java SE 9 and in JDK 9, Oracle's implementation of Java SE 9.
  • Java SE 9 and Java EE 8 arrive, 364 days later than first planned
    Java EE 8 includes 13 new or updated Java Specification Requests. Oracle says the most notable changes include HTTP/2 support in Servlet 4.0, a new JSON binding API and various enhancements in JSON-P 1.1 and a new security API for cloud and PaaS based applications.

Wow.

There once was a day when a new release of Java would have been accompanied with THOUSANDS of blog posts digging into the new code, and what it enabled.

Times have changed.

Friday, September 22, 2017

In which people discuss things I don't understand

  • Top Uber Investor Resists SoftBank Deal
    The opposition by Benchmark Capital is complicating a proposal by SoftBank and its $93 billion tech-focused Vision Fund, along with partners, to buy 17% to 22% of Uber--mostly through purchasing shares from existing shareholders.

    Benchmark has told fellow investors it is unlikely to sell any of its 13% holding to the SoftBank consortium, according to people familiar with the matter. And Benchmark's representative on Uber's board, Matt Cohler, was the only one of Uber's eight directors to vote against a term sheet granting SoftBank exclusive rights to an investment deal, the people said.

  • Alphabet’s Waymo wants Uber to pay $2.6 billion in damages for a single allegedly stolen trade secret
    Uber calls Alphabet’s damages claims “inflated” and “based entirely on speculative future profits and cost savings in a nascent market.”

    The damages Alphabet is seeking for each of the nine trade secrets vary and have been redacted within the document. So there’s still no indication of which trade secret claim Alphabet is seeking $2.6 billion for, nor what amount the company is asking for the other eight trade secrets.

  • Uber has a lot of reasons to settle its lawsuit with Alphabet
    Alphabet isn’t just taking Uber for a legal ride. It wants to cause some serious damage, which some inside think is part of an effort to slow down Uber’s self-driving efforts.

    But Alphabet’s endless legal and financial resources — and determination from top execs at the company to make an example of Uber — are powerful reasons that Khosrowshahi might seek a settlement.

  • Uber Loses Its License to Operate in London
    The agency took direct aim at Uber’s corporate culture, declaring that the company’s “approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications.”
  • Uber Is Sorry for ‘Wife Appreciation Day’ Promo
    The promo, only valid on September 17, read:

    Dear husbands, a gentle reminder — today is Wife Appreciation Day. Order on uberEATS and leet your wife take a day off from the kitchen.

  • Chinese-backed rival takes on Uber in London
    Once the initial discounts end, Taxify still aims to be 10% cheaper than Uber, CEO Markus Villig told CNNMoney.

    "I think we mainly have a very strong second mover advantage," Villig said. "We don't need to do the hard work of actually establishing this market. We can rather come in, be more efficient, more lean and take a smaller cut for ourselves, and therefore undercut the existing incumbents."

Nope, never played it.

Kotaku take a long, loving look at The Notorious Board Game That Takes 1,500 Hours To Complete

The game itself covers the famous WWII operations in Libya and Egypt between 1940 and 1943. Along with the opaque rulebook, the box includes 1,600 cardboard chits, a few dozen charts tabulating damage, morale, and mechanical failure, and a swaddling 10-foot long map that brings the Sahara to your kitchen table. You’ll need to recruit 10 total players, (five Allied, five Axis,) who will each lord over a specialized division. The Front-line and Air Commanders will issue orders to the troops in battle, the Rear and Logistics Commanders will ferry supplies to the combat areas, and lastly, a Commander-in-Chief will be responsible for all macro strategic decisions over the course of the conflict. If you and your group meets for three hours at a time, twice a month, you’d wrap up the campaign in about 20 years.

There DEFINITELY was a time in my life that this would have Been My Thing.

Who knows? Perhaps that day will come again.

All is Lost: a very short review

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!

Although, if you haven't already seen All is Lost by now, you're probably never going to see it, or at least you're not going to feel too broken up by my spoilers, I hope?

I think there are probably at least two reasonable "readings" of the marvelous Robert Redford movie, All is Lost.

A straightforward reading is to see it as an adventure story, with the setting for the adventure being "solo sailing on the open ocean":

  1. What would you do if your boat was suddenly and unexpectedly damaged?
  2. How would you keep yourself alive as long as possible?
  3. What actions could you take to increase your likelihood of being discovered/found/rescued?
  4. How would you keep your mental health and motivation high under a time of great stress?

And so forth.

Another reading, perhaps equally valid, and perhaps equally interesting, is to see the movie in a more spiritual way, as a metaphor for your life and existence. You'll think this is a stretch, but consider:

  1. At the beginning of the movie, Redford is sleeping, comfortably secure and at rest in the "womb" of his sailboat.
  2. He is awoken by a fierce and terrifying event (the mid-ocean collision with the submerged shipping container) which pulls him out of his simple and trivial existence and immediately poses immediate and life-threatening problems for him to solve.
  3. As he goes, he solves one problem after another, adapting to his surroundings, using what he has been given at "birth", learning from his experiences, exploring his world.
  4. At the end, when all is, in fact, lost, and Redford is sinking below the waves, looking up, he sees first a halo (the doughnut-shaped life raft, on fire), then a bright light, then, as he reaches out, there is a disembodied hand that reaches down from above, to pull him up to his next life.

I'm sure there are other readings as well, but these are two that occurred to me.

Honestly, we aren't given an awful lot of information about how to choose a reading for this movie, which makes it very similar to another lovely-but-odd-movie-set-aboard-a-boat-with-much-symbolism, Life of Pi.

But, getting back to All is Lost, the most important input into the reading of the movie, I think, is the short speech that is delivered at the start of the movie, in a flash-forward (see, I told you this was nothing but spoilers), which goes as follows:

I'm sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't. And I know you knew this. In each of your ways. And I am sorry. All is lost here, except for soul and body, that is, what's left of them, and a half day's ration. It's inexcusable really, I know that now. How it could have taken this long to admit that I'm not sure, but it did. I fought till the end. I'm not sure what that is worth, but know that I did. I have always hoped for more for you all. I will miss you. I'm sorry.
From the reference to 'soul and body', to the topics of being 'true' and 'right' and 'hoping for more', to the overall framing of this speech as something that might occur on Judgement Day, it's quite hard to see this speech as being included in the movie for any reason other than to promote the "spiritual" reading of the movie.

The "this movie tells the story of the life of a human" reading.

I don't have much more to say about any of this (not even sure this much was worth saying), but there it is.

And, of course, this wasn't a very challenging reading: plenty of others noticed this the first time they saw it

And, of course of course, it wasn't really the best movie to learn about sailing.

But anyway: Robert Redford! Sailing! Movie!

I enjoyed watching it.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

News of the weird, part 4 (of four)

Well, this isn't exactly news, and I guess you'll have to judge for yourself whether it's weird or not.

But I thought both of these were pretty interesting.

  • How Half Of America Lost Its F**king Mind
    There's this universal shorthand that epic adventure movies use to tell the good guys from the bad. The good guys are simple folk from the countryside ...

    ... while the bad guys are decadent assholes who live in the city and wear stupid clothes.

    The theme expresses itself in several ways -- primitive vs. advanced, tough vs. delicate, masculine vs. feminine, poor vs. rich, pure vs. decadent, traditional vs. weird. All of it is code for rural vs. urban. That tense divide between the two doesn't exist because of these movies, obviously. These movies used it as shorthand because the divide already existed.

  • I Spent 5 Years With Some of Trump’s Biggest Fans. Here’s What They Won’t Tell You.
    Pervasive among the people I talked to was a sense of detachment from a distant elite with whom they had ever less contact and less in common.

    ...

    Trump has put on his blue-collar cap, pumped his fist in the air, and left mainstream Republicans helpless. Not only does he speak to the white working class’ grievances; as they see it, he has finally stopped their story from being politically suppressed. We may never know if Trump has done this intentionally or instinctively, but in any case he’s created a movement much like the anti-immigrant but pro-welfare-state right-wing populism on the rise in Europe. For these are all based on variations of the same Deep Story of personal protectionism.

News of the weird, part 3

This one, for a change of pace, does not come out of the pages of Wired.

But it's just as weird.

So let's turn the microphone over to the great chess blogger Dana Mackenzie: Scandal Ruins World Cup’s Best Day

everybody is talking about the stupid dispute that caused the Canadian player, Anton Kovalyov, to forfeit his game and withdraw from the tournament — all over a pair of shorts.

Probably most of my readers are already familiar with the sad details, but for those who haven’t heard yet, these seem to be the facts:

  • Kovalyov showed up for his game against Maxim Rodshtein wearing a pair of shorts. He had worn the same shorts for his previous four games. Yes, apparently he only packed this one pair of shorts for a potentially month-long chess tournament. Cue jokes about chess players’ dressing habits.
  • The chief arbiter spoke to him and told him that the players’ dress code (which is in a legal contract they sign before the tournament) requires more dignified wear. He told him to go back to his room and change.
  • Kovalyov went back to his room but never reappeared. His opponent played one move (1. d4) and won by forfeit.

Even from these facts, it seems to me that the FIDE approach was very heavy-handed. From a legal point of view it seems to me that they have greatly weakened their case by allowing Kovalyov to play four games (!) in the offending garment. The arbiter said that nobody noticed earlier. Come on! If it’s a rule, then enforce it from the beginning. If it’s not enforced, then it’s not really a rule.

Kovalyov is actually Ukrainian, playing as a Canadian citizen, but living in Brownsville, Texas, where he studies computer science and got a chess scholarship!.

Kovalyov later wrote about this on his Facebook page, then tried to delete what he wrote, then tried to close his Facebook account, then re-opened his Facebook account, then wrote about it some more.

More at The Guardian, where we find that the REAL issue may have involved an ethnic slur:

Azmaiparashvili refused to back down, said Kovalyov. “At this point I was really angry but tried not to do anything stupid, and asked him why he was so rude to me, and he said because I’m a gypsy,” he said.

He continued: “So imagine this, the round is about to start, I’m being bullied by the organiser of the tournament, being assured that I will be punished by FIDE, yelled at and racially insulted. What would you do in my situation? I think many people would have punched this person in the face or at least insulted him. I decided to leave.”

Assuming that is what actually happened, it's a shame, but clearly he made the right decision.

The internets took to calling this "shortsgate" for a little while.

But it has now passed from public interest.

News of the weird, part 2

There are a lot of strange, disturbing, bizarre aspects to this long book excerpt that ran on the Wired website: Meet the CamperForce, Amazon's Nomadic Retiree Army.

The article is an excerpt from an upcoming book, by the way, it's not intended to be a stand-alone article on Wired.

Still.

The article winds through a long and close examination of what it's like to chase jobs in Amazon distribution centers around the country, camping out in your R.V. at night, getting up at 4:00 A.M. to get to work on time, taking advantage of the "the free generic pain relievers on offer in the warehouse".

You won't be surprised to hear that this is No Fun At All:

Chuck was a picker. His job was to take items down from warehouse shelves as customers ordered them, scanning each product with a handheld barcode reader. The warehouse was so immense that he and his fellow workers used the names of states to navigate its vast interior. The western half was “Nevada,” and the eastern half was “Utah.” Chuck ended up walking about 13 miles a day. He told himself it was good exercise. Besides, he’d met another picker who was 80 years old—if that guy could do it, surely he could.

Barb was a stower. That meant scanning incoming merchandise and shelving it. Stowers didn’t have to walk as far as pickers did, though Barb’s muscles still ached from the lifting, squatting, reaching, and twisting motions that her job required. Much of the strain was mental. With the holiday season nearing, the warehouse’s shelves were crammed, and one day she wandered around the warehouse for 45 minutes—she timed it—looking for a place to stow a single oversized book. Barb murmured, “Breathe, breathe,” to herself to stay calm.

On days off, many of Barb and Chuck’s coworkers were too exhausted to do anything but sleep, eat, and catch up on laundry.

Much of this article won't be a surprise, as this part of America has been documented for decades (see, e.g., More retirees keep one foot in workforce for pay and play and More Help Wanted: Older Workers Please Apply and Older Workers Survey, Working Longer, Younger Employees, Dear Abby).

And, though CNBC rather sunnily quotes an expert on "Aging & Work" as saying that

"We're in a new era of retirement, and we're not going back."

He added that "most people assume that seniors keep working due to financial necessity, and some do, but the majority do it to keep active and stay alert."

the reality, clearly, is much closer the converse of that viewpoint, as bluntly explained by the AARP, or by the Times, which observes that
The recruitment efforts for the elderly are reaching a willing audience, as more older people seek work because they need extra cash and health benefits and sometimes because they miss having a 9-to-5 routine with other workers.

I mean: duh. I DO know some people who are, perhaps, deferring retirement because they really enjoy their current job and don't (yet) have enough saved up to be able to retire as they choose.

But, really?

"They don't want to go fishing; they want to stay sharp," said Jeanne Benoit, principal director of human resources at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, a military research contractor in Cambridge, Mass., that creates prototypes for aerospace projects.

Wrong.

They want to go fishing.

And they don't appreciate you telling them that they aren't sharp, you young whippersnapper.

Anyway, back to the Wired article.

One of the things that drives me crazy about this whole situation, and which seems vastly under-reported, is how people got into these situations in the first place.

And the Wired article provides some fascinating detail in this area.

For instance:

Chuck still remembers the call from Wells Fargo that brought the 2008 financial crisis crashing down on his head. He had invested his $250,000 nest egg in a fund that supposedly guaranteed him $4,000 a month to live on. “You have no more money,” he recalls his banker saying flatly. “What do you want us to do?”

And,

Bob worked as an accountant for a timber products firm, and Anita was an interior decorator and part-time caregiver. They thought they would retire aboard a sailboat, funding that dream with equity from their three­ bedroom house. But then the housing bubble burst and their home’s value tumbled. Neither could imagine spending the rest of their lives servicing a loan worth more than their house. So they bought the trailer and drove away. “We just walked,” Anita says. “We told ourselves, ‘We’re not playing this game anymore.’”

Bob blamed Wall Street. When he spoke about his decision to abandon the house, he’d rush to add that, before that moment, he’d always paid the bills on time.

I mean yes, finances are complicated!

But it doesn't take much more than elementary school mathematics to be able to look at a $250,000 "nest egg" and realize that, if you withdraw $50,000 a year, it will only last (wait for it...): 5 years.

Nor should it take much more sophistication to understand that, if your entire plan for retirement is to depend on your house doubling in value so that you can sell it and buy a sailboat, well, you're gambling. You were a professional ACCOUNTANT? And you blamed "Wall Street"?

Now, part of this shame does indeed belong to the bankers and real-estate professionals and others who sold everyone a pipe dream back in the early 2000's.

They were con artists, and a lot of pain was caused by all that speculation, lying, pyramid schemes, and "financial engineering."

But, really, part of this shame is simpler to understand; it seems undeniable that, as a country, we are clearly failing our people.

We should be teaching basic "financial sense" in elementary school.

We should be making retirement savings accounts MANDATORY.

We should be providing universal health care to all. Yes, even if you're not working. Medicare for all.

And otherwise legitimate media organizations like CNBC and The New York Times should be flat-out ashamed of themselves to publish rot about "staying alert" or "pay and play" or "staying sharp" or "missing that 9-to-5 routine."

Call it what it is: elder abuse.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

News of the weird, part 1

I read a pair of (unrelated) stories on the Wired website recently that have stuck with me, for probably the wrong reasons.

Warning, ahead of time: these are weird stories. Odd, strange, disturbing, uncomfortable.

But, I think, not incorrect. Nor are they misdirected or misleading. I think this is just an honest assessment of Our Strange Times.

So, forthwith:

A Weird MIT Dorm Dies, and a Crisis Blooms at Colleges

This starts out being a story about how things at MIT are a little odd, which isn't, really, that much of a surprise.

MIT, after all, is the home of the Smoot, a measurement unit for bridge lengths, and is the home of nearly legendary student pranks

But, something about Senior House is not quite right.

This was Senior House, the oldest dormitory on campus, built in 1916 by the architect William Welles Bosworth. For 101 years it welcomed freshman and returning students. Since the ’60s it was a proudly anarchic community of creative misfits and self-described outcasts—the special kind of brilliant oddballs who couldn’t or didn’t want to fit in with the mainstream eggheads at MIT.

If it was just brilliant oddballs, there wouldn't be an issue. Something else happened, and the question that Wired wants to discuss is: is this MIT? Or is this America, changing?

The demise of Senior House is emblematic of a larger shift on campuses across the US. Last year my own alma mater, Wesleyan University, closed down its countercultural house Eclectic, which had existed for a century. A few years ago Caltech kicked students out of its countercultural dorm Ricketts.

And what, exactly, happened at Senior House? It seems it's rather a mystery

the administration refused to disclose what precisely had happened, but Barnhart told the student newspaper The Tech that “we received highly credible reports of unsafe and illegal behavior in Senior House.”

Unsafe and illegal behavior? I am shocked!

Wired suggests that this is all due to risk-adverse administrators:

college tuition has skyrocketed and with it the competition for students who can afford it. Parents footing the bill are paying a lot more attention. The world has become more litigious and more corporate. All of this has led to an atmosphere in which university administrations have little margin for error when it comes to student safety or even bad publicity.
Money. And lawyers. And lawyers, worried about money.

or is it, rather, that you can't legislate weirdness?

groups like Senior House, which define themselves by being different, also run the risk of becoming highly conformist, Packer says. The punk rock movement is a particularly vivid example of this phenomenon. “They self-describe as being different, but from the outside they all look the same,” he says.

I'd hate to think that the weird is gone from college: discard the weird and you discard so much of what is important about school. And Wired seem to feel that way too, forecasting a rather glum future:

When school ends, they’ll head out into the big wide world, where building a nurturing community sometimes feels hard. Maybe the invisible threads of the internet will help bind them. Maybe Senior House alums will meet up in different cities to drink beer and trade stories of Steer Roasts past or find themselves across from each other at tech company boardroom tables, the memory of that shared place a secret tie between them.

One of my correspondents suggested a close parallel between the crackdown on Senior House, and the Ghost Ship backlash.

I think she makes a great point. Yes, these brilliant oddballs make us uncomfortable, and yes, they live on the edge.

But what do we sacrifice when we legislate their conformity?

I'm not betting that the invisible threads of the internet will solve this problem.

Friday, September 15, 2017

All the Wild That Remains: a very short review

We're hoping to make a trip to southern Utah sometime later this year.

It's been on my list for a long time; the last time I was in those parts was 1972, and I don't remember much.

(What? I was only 11! And, how much do you remember from 45 years ago?)

Anyway, as a bit of a warm up, I came across David Gessner's All The Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West.

Oh, this is a wonderful book!

Gessner, a literature professor and writer himself, tries, and mostly succeeds, to tie together two of the great writers of the west: Abbey and Stegner.

It turns out, that, in a bit of a coincidence, that we're approaching the 50th anniversary of Abbey's Desert Solitaire, and the 75th anniversary of Stegner's The Big Rock Candy Mountain.

So it's a wonderful occasion to spend some time thinking about Abbey and Stegner.

But Gessner manages to do more than that; his interests are broad and before we are done he has discussed water rights, the Wilderness Act of 1964, fracking, the Dust Bowl, forest fires, whether the Russian Olive or the Green Tamarisk is the less "native" plant, and many other topics.

Oh, and pronghorn.

Gessner loves pronghorn, and rightly so. Here he is, driving through the west with his daughter:

Hadley and I thanked him and pushed off for points north and west, driving out of Colorado and into Wyoming. We spent hours crossing southern Wyoming. In late afternoon we saw a herd of pronghorn antelopes gliding across the prairie. Pronghorns are the fastest land animals in the West, and the truth is it isn't even close. I told Hadley a fact I had learned from a friend: the reason pronghorns run so fast, much faster than any predator of theirs, is that they are outrunning a ghost -- the long-extinct American cheetah, which centuries ago chased them across these grasslands.

To see a pronghorn run is to want to run yourself. A more graceful animal is hard to imagine. Delicate and gorgeously bedecked with rich brown-and-white patterns, with small horns and snow-white fur on their stomachs, they glide across the land. As we drove I was worried about all the barbed-wire fences that blocked their way as they roamed, at least until I saw one pronghorn fawn jump a fence like it was nothing, flowing over it like water.

It's marvelous fun to follow along with Gessner as he revisits the lands of Abbey and Stegner, kayaking and rafting the rivers they rode, hiking the trails they followed, looking out from the summits they climbed.

But that's just the icing. The hard work of Gessner's book involves a serious consideration of whether Abbey and Stegner have staying power, whether they deserve to be read and studied and considered, even now after so much time has passed.

It's rather easier to answer this question for Stegner, whose life and work is so obviously important: winner of Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, original member of the University of Iowa Writer's Program, founder of the Stanford Creative Writing Program, author of the Wilderness Letter, inspiration for the Wilderness Act, savior of Dinosaur National Park, oh the list just goes on and on.

But Abbey? Troublemaker, rebel, outlaw, misogynist, curmudgeon? Should we still be reading and studying Abbey, as well?

Gessner's answer is an unqualified "yes":

So is Abbey passe, as dated as bad '70's hair? Obviously I wouldn't be out here tracking his spoor if I thought so. But it is difficult, at least at first, to see how his spirit might be adapted to fit our times. For instance, isn't monkeywrenching dead, not just in an FBI agent's eyes, but as a legitimate possibility for the environmental movement? I must admit that in my own grown-up life as a professor and father I don't blow a lot of things up. For most of us who care about the environment, Stegner provides a much more sensible model.

But I don't want to be so quick to toss Abbey on the scrap heap. Looked at in a different way, Abbey's ideas about freedom are exactly what is needed today. If the times have changed, the essence of what he offered has in some ways never been more relevant. Many of the things that he foresaw have come to pass: we currently live in an age of unprecedented surveillance, where the government regularly reads our letters (now called e-mails) and monitors our movements. Abbey offers resistance to this. Resistance to the worst of our times, the constant encroaching on freedom and wildness. He says to us: Question them, question their authority. Don't be so quick to give up the things you know are vital, no matter what others say.

Biography is usually not my thing; I often find it dry and dated.

But Gessner's treatment of Abbey and Stegner is warm, spirited, and refreshing.

Even though I came to it with a fondness for both writers, and for the region they both loved so well, I still found All the Wild That Remains a vivid, compelling, and lively treatment of people and topics that are just as crucial today as they were nearly a century ago.