How One Librarian Tried to Squash Goodnight Moon

On Monday the New York Public Library, celebrating its 125th anniversary, released a list of the 10 most-checked-out books in the library’s history. The list is headed by a children’s book—Ezra Jack Keats’ masterpiece The Snowy Day—and includes five other kids’ books. The list also includes a surprising addendum: One of the most beloved children’s books of all time didn’t make the list because for 25 years it was essentially banned from the New York Public Library. Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, would have made the Top 10 list and might have topped it, the library notes, but for the fact that “influential New York Public Library children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore disliked the story so much when it was published in 1947 that the Library didn’t carry it … until 1972.” Who was Anne Carroll Moore, and what was her problem with the great Goodnight Moon?

— January 24, 2020

Australia’s Infernal Denial

Even with months left to run in the Australian summer, things will, of course, return to some semblance of what we used to call “normality”: The heat will relent; it will rain, although probably not enough; winter will come. Then, before long, another catastrophe will be upon us. My hope, like the hope of many around me, is that these fires will be a catalyst for Australians everywhere—to permanent climate rage, and to an unceasing commitment to rapid, equitable, planetwide decarbonization. We are in the contest of our lives.

This moment in history is obviously an end. If we are industrious and lucky, it will be merely the end of the fossil fuel era, rather than of human civilization itself. Whether this moment also prefigures a beginning is up to us. What’s happening to our Earth is not normal and not acceptable. But resisting the temptation to merely recalibrate and go on as before will not be easy. By Monday of this week, as I came to start work on this piece, I pulled my laptop from its place on the desk in my room, where it had sat mostly undisturbed, near an open window, for days. The laptop was covered in ash. Smoke from the fires was still in the air, but I couldn’t smell it anymore.

I feel the same way as California stumbles from fire season to fire season.

— January 14, 2020

LEGO Jet

We visited my mom this fall, and now that our daughter is older, she likes to play with the LEGO that Grandma has saved up for the last 30 years. Truth is, so do I and so we had a good time building things together. Most of the LEGO comes from my old sets, including an airport and airplanes that I loved to play with when I was a kid.

One of the airplanes is a passenger jet. I got a few of the pieces together, but I couldn’t get very far without instructions. But with a bit of searching, I found that it is the LEGO Town Jet Airliner (model 6368) that was released in 1985, and from there I was able to find a scan of the instructions. All the pieces were still there, and I had a good time putting this old favorite back together.

LEGO Jet Airliner

— January 1, 2020

How William Gibson Keeps His Science Fiction Real

Speaking of William Gibson:

The ten novels that Gibson has written since have slid steadily closer to the present. In the nineties, he wrote a trilogy set in the two-thousands. The novels he published in 2003, 2007, and 2010 were set in the year before their publication. (Only the inevitable delays of the publishing process prevented them from taking place in the years when they were written.) Many works of literary fiction claim to be set in the present day. In fact, they take place in the recent past, conjuring a world that feels real because it’s familiar, and therefore out of date. Gibson’s strategy of extreme presentness reflects his belief that the current moment is itself science-fictional. “The future is already here,” he has said. “It’s just not very evenly distributed.”

The further Gibson developed his present-tense sci-fi, the more mysterious and resonant his novels became. They seemed to reveal a world within the world: the real present. The approach was risky; it put him at the mercy of events. In 2001, Gibson rushed to incorporate the September 11th attacks into his half-completed eighth novel, “Pattern Recognition,” a story about globalization, filmmaking, Internet forums, brand strategy, and informational deluge. Terrorism turned out to fit neatly within this framework; “Pattern Recognition” is often described as the first post-911 novel. The risks could pay off.

— December 15, 2019

My favorite books of 2018

This is…a bit delayed, but here are my favorite books that I read in 2018 (from the distant remove of December 2019, anyway).

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How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

This book has been inspiring for my approach to parenting. I don’t always live up to the authors’ suggestions, but I try. One simple thing from the book I practice is greeting my daughter with “I’m happy to see you” rather than “what did you do today” or something like that.

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The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers

I read Tim Powers’s book On Stranger Tides last year because I heard it was good and I was curious how a pirate fantasy novel from the 80s turned into a movie franchise based on an amusement park ride. It was good! So I decided to read another book by him. The Anubis Gates is pretty wild: Egyptian mythology, poets, time travel, magic, vicious Georgian beggar gangs…yet somehow it works and is extremely entertaining.

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Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood, Michael Lewis

This is a funny, honest, and touching collection of essays about fatherhood, exploring “the persistent and disturbing gap between what I was meant to feel what I actually felt.”

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Neuromancer, William Gibson

This was a re-read for me. It’s striking how a book from 1986 still sets the tone for cyberpunk. Gibson’s dark vision of the future feels real.

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The Elementals, Michael McDowell

I love book clubs because of selections like this. I would not have picked this book myself because I don’t read much horror, but I really enjoyed it. The book takes place on the Gulf of Mexico; the author wanted to write a horror novel where everything is bright. You can practically feel the stultifying heat along with the characters. Strange happenings turn the languid atmosphere claustrophobic and then terrifying.

My full list of books from 2018 is below. You can also review lists from previous years: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 (retroactive favorites), 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

I Heart Logs: Event Data, Stream Processing, and Data Integration, Jay Kreps

The Hike, Drew Magary

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Go Tell It On The Mountain, James Baldwin

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J. K. Rowling

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, James Gleick

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William B. Irvine

Mooncop, Tom Gauld

Underground Airlines, Ben H. Winters

Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson

The Hydrogen Sonata, Ian M. Banks

The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, Bee Wilson

The Algebraist, Ian M. Banks

Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood, Michael Lewis

Provenance, Ann Leckie

Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie

The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi

Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, Bart D. Ehrman

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson

The Prefect, Alastair Reynolds

Neuromancer, William Gibson

Algeria is Beautiful Like America, Olivia Burton and Malui Grand (illustrator)

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, Sunil Yapa

The Literary Conference, César Aira (translated by Katherine Silver)

A Night in the Lonesome October, Roger Zelazny

Further: Beyond the Threshold, Chris Robinson

The Last Days of New Paris, China Miéville

The Elementals, Micahel McDowell

Your Three-Year Old: Friend or Enemy, Louise Bates Ames and Frances L. Ilg

Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shatterly

The Cosmic Puppets, Philip K. Dick

Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, Robert Wuthnow

— December 9, 2019

Is This Thing On?

*tap tap* Uh…hello? Is this thing on?

Wow, it’s been a while since my last post. There are a couple reasons. First of all, I have been busy with our second child. But more directly relevant to this site, last winter, I started porting it from a custom-built Google App Engine site to use Hugo. I picked Hugo because it’s pretty popular, fast, and I’ve been writing a lot of Go lately. I got pretty far, but then ran smack into a major problem: Hugo did not support the URL scheme that I used.

I did some research into adding support for customizable date-based URLs, but didn’t get around to it…until now! Hugo 0.60 includes a contribution from me to allow any Go time format to be used in permalinks.

With that out of the way, I was able to finish porting the site to Hugo (with a little mod_rewrite hacking to support slash-less URLs). It is good to have a standard piece of software running things.

— November 29, 2019

Defining stupidity

Via Eugenia Cheng’s ICFP 2018 keynote address, I learned of Carlo Cipolla’s laws of stupidity (you can read his original essay here). I think Cipolla developed an insightful definition of stupidity: A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

I appreciate this definition because most of the stupid things I’ve done and the stupid things I’ve witnessed fall into this mutually destructive category.

Because of this, Cipolla argued there are stupid people everywhere! It doesn’t matter how many Ph.D.s you have, if you behave in a mutually destructive way, you are stupid.

— October 7, 2018

I’m teaching email security to Democratic campaigns. It’s as bad as 2016.

Maciej Cegłowski has been trying to teach email security to Democratic congressional campaigns. The state of the art is not good.

Setting campaigns up with security keys and training them on safe attachment handling are the most effective steps we can take to prevent a repeat of the Podesta attacks. Those in the best position to help in the weeks before the elections may be the big tech companies, which have the necessary resources and are used to acting quickly.

Someone — the government, the political establishment, Silicon Valley — needs to send trainers to campaigns in person. Firms like Google and Microsoft should also set up a dedicated phone support line that can resolve issues quickly. Knowing that such help is available will make it easier for campaigns to adopt new habits.

Google, which runs much of the nation’s email infrastructure, can take unilateral measures to protect candidates and their staff. In particular, it should set up a list of accounts that need heightened scrutiny and converts all incoming email attachments to Google docs, and let campaigns submit names of staffers for the extra protection.

Microsoft could help by expeditiously adding support for security keys in Outlook and its cloud document service. This feature is already scheduled to roll out next year, but making it available to campaigns today would make any political organizations that rely on Microsoft services significantly safer.

Taken together, these efforts could shore up every House, Senate and gubernatorial campaign in the country in a matter of weeks. The total cost of such a program would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — negligible compared to the sums already pouring in to political campaigns. The situation is an emergency, but it need not become another disaster.

— September 5, 2018

American Cities Are Drowning in Car Storage

Now new research presents credible estimates of the total parking supply in several American cities for the first time. The report from Eric Scharnhorst at the Research Institute for Housing America, an arm of the Mortgage Bankers Association, provides city-level evidence of the nation’s massively overbuilt parking supply and the staggering cost to the public….

Scharnhorst used satellite imagery and tax records to tally on-street parking, surface parking, and garage parking in five cities: New York, Seattle, Philadelphia, Des Moines, and Jackson, Wyoming. The method can be replicated to measure parking in other cities, he says.

It’s not an exaggeration to say American cities have been built for cars more than people. “After decades of requiring parking for new construction,” Scharnhorst writes, “car storage has become the primary land use in many city areas.”

In Des Moines, for example, there are 18 times as many parking spaces per acre as households — 1.6 million parking spaces and about 81,000 homes. In Philadelphia, there are 3.7 times more parking spaces than households. Of the five cities, only New York has more households than parking spaces, and New York still has 1.85 million parking spaces.

— July 14, 2018

Retroactive favorites: 2009 books

Starting with 2010, I’m going back and retroactively picking my favorite books of the year. This is necessarily colored by time. I can hardly remember many of the books I read so if a book has stuck with me after a decade, it might make it onto one of my retroactive favorites lists.

Here’s my picks from 2009, which was an eventful year for me. A little side project I was involved in got accepted to Y Combinator and I moved out to Mountain View for the summer. In the end, it didn’t work out at the cost of a lot of mental energy, but it was a formative experience.

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JavaScript: The Good Parts, Douglas Crockford

In 2018, JavaScript is one of the most popular programming languages. It runs in every browser, Node.js has made it a popular choice for server-side programming, many powerful new features have been added, and it is a host for many other languages. When Douglas Crockford wrote JavaScript: The Good Parts back in 2008, JavaScript was already one of the most popular programming languages (it powered every interactive web experience) but it was a bit of a joke, and writing it was error-prone. By showing how to write good JavaScript, this slim volume helped set the stage for the JavaScript renaissance. Personally, this book was helpful to improve my client side coding style and build better web applications.

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Years in the Making: The Time Travel Stories of L. Sprague de Camp, L. Sprague de Camp

This collection includes one of my favorite alternative history stories, Lest Darkness Fall. A early twenteth century man is transported back to 535 AD Italy. Knowing that Justinian’s Gothic War, which will devistate Italy, is about to begin, he sets out to defeat the invasion. His first step is producing brandy and introducing double entry accounting. The setup is fun and the alternative view of the “civilized” Eastern Roman Empire as a force for kicking off the Dark Ages resonated with me. A few years later I read The Ruin of the Roman Empire which makes the same argument: the real fall of Rome was due to Justinian.

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Enterprise Rails, Dan Chak

Service oriented architecture? Separation of concerns? PostgreSQL? Splitting your database to scale? This book had it all, back in 2008. I think this book was way ahead of its time, and the Rails world was not ready for it.

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The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas, Robert H. Frank

Cornell economist Robert H. Frank has his students attempt to explain puzzles like “why do some cars have fuel tanks on the right and some on the left?” and “why are buttons for men’s clothing on the right and women’s clothing on the left?” in order to get them to apply the tools econmics (more examples can be found on his website and in this New York Times review). He notes in the book that these explanatins might not be right, but they are plausible. I still think about the puzzles in this book frequently, but unlike many other pop econ books, the point of this one is to teach you how to apply economic thinking to every day life.

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The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime: Con Artists, Burglars, Rogues, and Scoundrels from the Time of Sherlock Holmes, Michael Sims (ed.)

This is a little collection of crime stories from the late 19th and early 20th century. Unlike Sherlock Homles, it mostly focuses on the crimials as protagonists, but like Homles they rely on their wits. It introduced me to Captain Gault and Arsène Lupin, which I enjoyed reading more of.

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The Family Trade, Charles Stross

This is the first novel in Stross’s Merchant Princes series. I thought the series got bogged down as it went on, but the first novel crackles. I can’t remember if it was Paul Krugman who introduced me to the novel, but I love his take on the novel. Development economics and comparative advantage are the ideas explored, except instead of countries at different levels of industrialization, it’s alternative universes. A select few people have the ability to world walk, and in a parallel universe where Christianity never arose and Vikings settled North America, these world walkers live like Gulf State princes, their wealth generated from drug trafficing in our universe.

— May 5, 2018