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.

But:

“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.