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.


“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:

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Upper Rhine Valley: chateaux

A co-worker asked me to sum up my visit to France in two words; on the spot, I chose "wineries" and "castles".

It's of course no surprise that a visit to France is rich with wineries, but when we were first thinking about traveling to Alsace I was not thinking about castles, which are more properly described as chateaux.

And for much of our time in France we were in towns and cities, and really didn't think much about either wineries or castles, but rather about cathedrals and cobblestone streets and canals and half-timbered houses and the like.

But then, one day, we went out for a drive in the country, and we stopped and had a picnic lunch.

And there we were, sitting at a picnic table next to a beautiful country winery, in a beautiful town in a part of the world where wine-making has been practiced for nearly two thousand years. And the weather was beautiful, and we were looking up at the Vosges mountains above town, and we saw, across the mountain ridges, castle after castle after castle.

Really, it's just like they promise on the chamber of commerce web site:

Anyway, this part of France is simply blanketed with these beautiful chateaux, as you can easily see for yourself by looking at the "Bas-Rhin" (lower Rhine valley) and "Haut-Rhin" (upper Rhine valley) sections of the List of castles in France page on Wikipedia. Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin, together, comprise the major part of the Alsace region, and just by skimming the Wikipedia page you can see that no other part of France is as full of castles as this.

Why is that? Well, apparently we have a father-son pair to thank: Frederick the first of Swabia, and his son Frederick ("the one-eyed"), founders of the mighty Hohenstaufen dynastic family of the Middle Ages, ruled over these parts in the 1100's and built literally dozens of castles along the ridges of the mountains on either side of the Upper Rhine Valley (the Vosges to the west, the Swabian Jura to the east).

One lovely local guidebook I read says that there is an Alsatian saying that "Frederick the One-Eyed placed chateaux around the Vosges as though he was flicking his horse's tail."

Even in ruined state, these castles are gorgeous, as you can see in this picture I took on our visit to Kastelberg, near Waldkirch, Germany:

But, really, it's very hard to understand the role of these castles in their ruined state.

You find yourself mystified: what were these places like? Why were they built? Why on the top of mountain ridges? Who lived here? What was it like to live here?

Questions like these are why Chateau Haut-Koenigsbourg is such a delight.

Although the castle is one of the Hohenstaufen constructions, and hence is almost 900 years old, and was completely destroyed during the Thirty Years War, it was beautifully and carefully restored about 130 years ago and has been carefully maintained ever since.

Taking the tour of this castle was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. The museum is superb, with lots of information displayed as you wander the massive, extensive castle from bottom to top and back down again.

We were lucky to visit on a glorious summer day, yet have the grounds mostly to ourselves (a major surprise, since the castle is said to be one of the top 10 most-visited destinations in all of France!).

We spent hours there.

In fact, I was so enthralled that I broke one of my unwritten "laws of traveling" and bought a lovely little souvenir booklet in the gift shop, which I very much enjoyed reading.

If we had a month to spend in Alsace, or better if we actually lived there, I'm sure I would go to visit as many of these beautiful chateaux as I could.

But since our time was sadly limited, I am wonderfully happy that we got to see the ones we did, and if you ever find yourself in Alsace I thoroughly recommend that you visit at least Chateau Haut-Koenigsburg, and perhaps several more as your time permits.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

It's not just a game ...

... it's a mini-series: The Witcher Is Getting A Netflix Series.

... and it's a story that stays with you, years later: Reading The Game: Witcher 3

It is the story of a man looking for his daughter. It is the story of a lot of people looking for a lot of missing things — friends, comrades, nations, history


It is rare for a big game to be so focused on the small things. Exceedingly rare for it to be made up, more or less, of a thousand trivial, funny, sad, often pointless stories which all, in their way, cut the path that the plot will ultimately follow.

Good games are epic. Great games are true. And Wild Hunt is that rarest of modern, digital myths: One that is both.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Updated list of my trips with Mike

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Upper Rhine Valley: prelude and overture

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

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

Plus, it matches up quite nicely with this map.

So there you go.

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

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

Once again, no surprise.

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

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

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

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

I could, of course, have been much terser:

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

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

Back online

I took a break from computers.

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

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

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

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

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

I recommend it highly.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Staying up to date

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 27, 2017

An Alameda high rise?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On we go.

Bad Behavior: a very short review

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

What an astonishing collection of stories this is!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

GBooks, 15 years on

Three perspectives:

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Saturday, April 22, 2017



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very sad.

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

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

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

You know who you were. Shame on you all.

Three Junes: a very short review.

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

It is beautifully written and quite emotional at times.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A break in the rain

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

Thanks, all!

Cop stories

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

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

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

  • The Fairy Gunmother

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

  • Leviathan Wakes

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

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

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Blue Apron

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

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

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

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

  • The ingredients are high-quality, and fresh.

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

  • The service is reliable and accurate.

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

  • The proportions and quanties are right.

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

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

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

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

  • The recipes have just enough variety to be entertaining.

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

  • The recipes are fun to follow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But for now, we're quite pleased.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

News "flash"

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

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

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A tree grows in the city

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

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

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

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

I love the variety:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Bye bye, Boing Boing

For more than a decade, I avidly followed the website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I fear that time is soon to be gone.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Far Cry: a very short review

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

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

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

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

And that's the point, after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 8, 2017

This and that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Farewell, Mr Robot

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

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

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

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

Your tax dollars at work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serendipitous juxtaposition

I subscribe to WAY too many newsletters.

One arrived in my mailbox the other morning.

It might have been written by an algorithm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Meanwhile, on the Internet...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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