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

Tour of the Moon

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been transmitting data since 2009. NASA used it to make this 4K tour of the moon:

— April 15, 2018

The telephone and the skyscraper

The development of the skyscraper had as much to do with the invention of the telephone as steel framing and elevator:

It may sound ridiculous to say that Bell and his successors were the fathers of modern commercial architecture—of the skyscraper. But wait a minute. Take the Singer Building, the Flatiron Building, the Broad Exchange, the Trinity, or any of the giant office buildings. How many messages do you suppose go in and out of those buildings every day? Suppose there was no telephone and every message had to carried by a personal messenger? How much room do you think the necessary elevators would leave for offices? Such structures would be an economic impossibility.

John J. Carty, 1908 (quoted in The Information by James Gleick

— April 10, 2018

My favorite books of 2017

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The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, Jacques Pépin

Jacques Pépin retired in 2016, and I learned about him after the fact from an article in Slate. Watching him work is mesmerizing, so I checked out some of his cookbooks and his masterpiece, Technique. I also stumbled across his autobiography in the library. By itself, The Apprentice might not rate a pick as one of the best books I read last year, but it stands in for Pépin’s body of work. What I like most Pépin is how unpretentious he is. He is one of the last generation to rise up through the apprentice system in France. He came to America at the right time an place to be introduced to James Beard and Julia Child. After a terrible car crash, he refocused on teaching. His story is inspiring, and the book includes some great recipes, too.

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Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Arlie Russell Hochschild

Hochschild is a sociologist at UC Berkeley who spent five years studying the Tea Party in Louisiana through the lens of environmentalism. Louisianans of all political affiliations cherish outdoor activities and sports, but the state is one of the most polluted in the country. In her time there, she became friends with many conservatives and tried to understand their sense of fatalism about the inevitability of environmental destruction. She was at the right place at the right time to catch the start of Donald Trump’s rise. She explains the appeal of conservative resentment through what she calls a “Deep Story”: people who have been patiently waiting in line for their chance at the American Dream are being pushed back by line cutters – minorities, immigrants, women – led by the Line Cutter in Chief, Barack Obama. This Deep Story makes sense to me, though I found her attempt to express the liberal Deep Story less compelling.

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Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Tim Weiner

This is a book about how the CIA has over-promised and under-delivered, going to great lengths to hide their screwups from the American people. Even their so-called successes have had wide-ranging negative side effects. Again and again, presidents have called on the CIA to solve foreign problems quietly, and the CIA has messed up. Reading this book was eye-opening, because in the countries where the CIA operates, its interference is common knowledge, but at home, people are generally ignorant.

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You & a Bike & a Road, Eleanor Davis

Cartoonist Eleanor Davis’s journal of her cross-country bike tour. Sparse and beautiful, this book captures the small moments of riding and the people she met along the way.

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Designing Data-Intensive Applications: The Big Ideas Behind Reliable, Scalable, and Maintainable Systems, Martin Kleppmann

I don’t read a lot of tech books any more. However, I made an exception for this book after watching a few of Kleppmann’s conference talks. I wish I could have read it early in my career. It would have saved me a lot of pain. Kleppmann surveys the entire field of data storage and distributed systems including data models and query languages, data storage, serialization, transactions, partitioning, consensus, and batch and stream processing. If you work on anything related to data storage, this is a must-read.

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

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, Jacques Pépin

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Unfinished Business, Anne-Marie Slaughter

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Corey Robin

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Arlie Russell Hochschild

The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, Ken MacLeod

The Corporation Wars: Insurgence, Ken MacLeod

Rhinoceros, Eugene Ionesco

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Tim Weiner

Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem

Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, Al Franken

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of 6’4”, African American, Hetrosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian, W. Kamau Bell

You & a Bike & a Road, Eleanor Davis

The Cold Between, Elizabeth Bonesteel

Empire Games, Charles Stross

Protector, Larry Niven

The Kill Artist, Daniel Silva

Soonish: Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything, Zach Weinersmith and Kelly Weinersmith

Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When they Lose Elections), Stephen Prothero

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

On Stranger Tides, Tim Powers

Designing Data-Intensive Applications: The Big Ideas Behind Reliable, Scalable, and Maintainable Systems, Martin Kleppmann

— March 10, 2018

Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read

[Faria] Sana says that often when we read, there’s a false “feeling of fluency.” The information is flowing in, we’re understanding it, it seems like it is smoothly collating itself into a binder to be slotted onto the shelves of our brains. “But it actually doesn’t stick unless you put effort into it and concentrate and engage in certain strategies that will help you remember.”

I’ve recorded all the books I’ve read for over ten years. Looking back on the lists reminds me how little I remember of most of them.

— March 2, 2018

This Code Sucks: A Story About Non-violent Communication

Nadia Odunayo speaks at Brighton Ruby Conference about Non-violent communication. This was interesting, I picked up a copy of the book to learn more.

— February 19, 2018