What Happened with LEGO

My daughter recently got interested in LEGO, so this post is up my alley right now.

The author’s analysis shows that LEGO sets are not more expensive than that used to be on an inflation-adjusted basis. It is not true that licensing brands like Star Wars and Harry Potter has made LEGO sets more expensive. However, the top-of-the-line sets are now larger. Imperial Star Destroyer aside, the average set now contains about 300 pieces versus about 150 in the 1980s and 1990s. This contributes to the perception that LEGO sets are more expensive now.

Indeed, the author notes that LEGO sets have always been expensive. It’s a high-quality product that lasts for decades.

— February 23, 2020


It’s been over two years, but I still think about the eclipse of 2017. It was an amazing experience.

We took a road trip to Oregon to see it, and ended up in in Molalla, a small town near Portland, where totality would last a little over one minute. The weather was perfect, warm and not a cloud in the sky. A small crowd gathered at the library. Volunteers passed out safety glasses. Kids played at the playground and adults projected the developing eclipse onto the ground.

Nia with Eclipse glasses

The first thing we noticed was the crescent shadows. Like pinhole cameras, the gaps between leaves projected hundreds of crescent moon shaped shadows onto the ground.

crescent-shaped shadows

Perceptually, the sun stays fully bright until right before totality. What surprised me first was the chill in the air. As the eclipse progressed, it went from a warm summer day to feeling like late autumn. Avery Pennarun made a visualization of the difference between perceived heat and light during an eclipse that shows how this works.

perceived heat during an eclipse perceived light during an eclipse

At the moment of totality, the sun shut off like a light. A chorus of “Oh my God!” went up from the crowd. The inside of the moon was the deepest black. The sky was the dark of night, but strange. Stars were visible but the horizon was rimmed with twilight all around. In photos, the corona looks white, but in real life, the moon is ringed with a ghostly blue fire. I swear it moved as I watched. I watched videos and looked at photos beforehand, but pictures don’t do totality justice.

At the end of totality, volunteers shouted, “Glasses on!” As quickly as it began, it was over. I turned away after a glimpse of Bailey’s beads and spent the rest of the trip home worried I’d ruined my vision.

I didn’t bother taking any photos. I don’t have the equipment that would have made it worth it, but I did try to draw what it looked like in my notebook.

my drawing of the eclipse

My daughter was scared, not just of the sudden darkness but the shouting. I wasn’t sure if she saw the corona, but the whole way home she kept asking to “Talk about the dark.”

— February 17, 2020
A stack of tech interview books being given away

A stack of tech interview books being given away. Only in San Francisco…

— February 11, 2020

What Future?

Michelle Goldberg, The Darkness Where the Future Should Be:

[William] Gibson is famed for his sensitivity to the zeitgeist, and I asked him if he thought that part of what he’d picked up on here is a growing sense of the future as an abyss. “In my childhood, the 21st century was constantly referenced,” he said. “You’d see it once every day, and it often had an exclamation point.” The sense, he said, was that postwar America was headed somewhere amazing. Now that we’re actually in the 21st century, however, the 22nd century is never evoked with excitement. “We don’t seem to have, culturally, a sense of futurism that way anymore,” he said. “It sort of evaporated.”…

The right and the left share a sense of creeping doom, though for different reasons. For people on the right, it’s sparked by horror at changing demographics and gender roles. For those on the left, a primary source of foreboding is climate change, which makes speculation about what the world will look like decades hence so terrifying that it’s often easier not to think about it at all.

Ezra Klein, Why Democrats Still Have to Appeal to the Center, but Republicans Don’t:

Republicans are trapped in a dangerous place: They represent a shrinking constituency that holds vast political power. That has injected an almost manic urgency into their strategy. Behind the party’s tactical extremism lurks an apocalyptic sense of political stakes….

The alternative to democratizing America is scarier than mere polarization: It is, eventually, a legitimacy crisis that could threaten the very foundation of our political system. By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by 70 senators.

It is not difficult to envision an America where Republicans consistently win the presidency despite rarely winning the popular vote, where they typically control both the House and the Senate despite rarely winning more votes than the Democrats, where their dominance of the Supreme Court is unquestioned and where all this power is used to buttress a system of partisan gerrymandering, pro-corporate campaign finance laws, strict voter identification requirements and anti-union legislation that further weakens Democrats’ electoral performance. Down that road lies true political crisis.

These two pieces were published on the same day. Each one has a lot to do with the other.

— January 26, 2020

Master of Orion

The Digital Antiquarian has a great article about the history of the 1993 game Master of Orion. I didn’t play it at the time, and I haven’t really played games since Half-Life. But sometimes I have some time on my hands and I’ll play a game. I have vivid memories of playing Master of Orion, discovering the Guardian, getting wiped out by it, then designing more and more powerful Deicide-class ships until I could defeat it.

Master of Orion ship

This is the Deicide 3 design. I think I got up to Deicide 6 before it was good enough. Note the number of ships (0), because they all got destroyed.

— January 26, 2020

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


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