Thursday, December 7, 2017

In the Valley of Gods

Oh boy!

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

Campo Santo return!

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

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

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

Looking forward to 2019 already!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Another milestone in computer chess

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

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

...

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

...

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

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

But I still love chess.

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

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Fallout 4: a very short review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stockholm Octavo: a very short review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 24, 2017

Another edition of HPTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are Demirbas's notes:

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

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

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

Maybe one day I'll attend.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Stuff I'm reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Up, up, and away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now.

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

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

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

Everyone's in a hurry.

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

After all, there are fortunes to be made.