There is nothing more quintessentially “American capitalism” in flavor than The Cheesecake Factory. Wealth run wild. Chaotic visual fantasies realized with no aesthetic discipline. An obsession with appearance of luxury. Gross excess that excels at feigning its quality. It feels like a relic of another era, one where such a vision was sold to the American public as a utopian concept. It, like the brief period of neoliberalistic prosperity that made it possible, is a fever dream made manifest. Enjoy it while you can.
In 2009 I posted part 1 and part 2 of my log of a family vacation in Italy. While looking for something else (Ben Folds concert location — long story), I discovered that I had composed but never published some additional entries. Part 3 (Florence) is barebones, part 4 (Cinque Terra) needs some revisions, but this final entry is basically complete. So here it is, better late than never. In keeping with my posting style of that time, it includes some Deep Thoughts at the end about Life, the Universe, and our place in it all.
There is nothing much to do at Lake Como in April. The lake, situated at the top of Italy, kisses Switzerland, and the region seems to be a popular vacation spot for the Swiss. This area is home to Bellagio and a gaggle of other small towns that are accessible by car or ferry boat.
One can visit the various towns, eat in them, shop a bit, maybe visit an old church or garden, wander along the waterfront, that sort of thing. I assume the big thing to do around here is use the lake, but now is not the season for that. No one is water skiing, para-sailing, swimming, or fishing. I know there is some climbing to be had around here, and perhaps some cliff jumping. At some point seaplane trips are on offer. And I am sure this area can be quite romantic for a young couple in love, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Our hotel was nice, the views were great, and…that’s it. I’ve got nothing. I’m not sure what to do with Lake Como. Bad planning on our part. Oh well. Here is a picture.
Anyway, Lake Como was the subdued end of our Italian vacation. We covered a good portion of the center and north of the country, and it was an amazing experience. I’ve learned some things about travel, and continue to be utterly ill at ease in places where I don’t speak the language. My natural inclination is to try and figure things out on my own, and this is hard enough in foreign environments without the language barrier. I always feel uncomfortable verging on foolish when I have to try and impose my English on locals and play the clueless tourist. Having a local guide or at least fluent speaker in my traveling party is a great help.
It is a hassle to plan foreign travel, but important to do so well in advance of arrival. I kept thinking that we’d get somewhere and it would be obvious where to go and what to do, but that is rarely the case. I guess I understand the market for travel books now. I also think it is important to spend three days in each major area, enough time so as to not feel rushed but not so long as to feel antsy.
I packed a backpack and a carry-on duffel for two weeks, and have decided that next time I will try to pack even lighter. Arriving in each new city, luggage is the biggest impediment to doing anything, and it always means finding a place to store it, or stopping at the local hotel or hostel to check-in before getting out and about. I haven’t paid enough attention to backpackers to see how they manage this particular problem.
My new little laptop, an MSI Wind, performed brilliantly, far better than the disastrous Asus Eee PC I took on my last trip. This little marvel has a good-sized and easy to use keyboard, a nice responsive trackpad, and a bright 10″ screen. The speakers and microphone suck, but you can’t have everything.
For this trip I activated the international roaming on my cell phone, and while the $1.29/minute was painful, it was darn convenient and super useful. In contrast, roaming wifi plans are pretty unreliable, since every hotspot has different policies and prices and roaming partners. Hopefully that stupidity will work itself out with time.
I’m sitting in the hotel on Lake Como, listening to American pop music on the PA and looking out at the lake. Mom, Dad, and Jessica took a taxi a couple of hours ago to the main train station in the town of Como to make their way home. As soon as I finish this entry I will catch a ferry to a different station in Como, then a couple of trains to the airport outside Milan, followed by a short-hop flight to Rome. A night wasted at a Rome airport hotel and then my international flight to Boston in the morning. Passport control, the T, and a bit of walking, and I will be home. I am looking forward to getting back, to settling into my routine, seeing my friends, playing with the cat, eating some familiar foods. I wish I could just snap my fingers and be there, but I guess the long journey home is what reminds you how far you have gone.
I’m not sure whether I’m looking forward to going back to work. I have blogged here occasionally and obliquely about problems at my job; they can be succinctly summarized as “small town vs. big city.” I like the people and the place, but I’m not sure I fit where I am. One night in Perugia I woke up suddenly at 3am with a fully-formed resumé in my head. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I went out into the hallway and banged it out. I have no idea what I am going to do with it.
I’m not sure what this is that I am feeling, now, at the end of this trip. Spending two weeks and seeing only a tiny fraction of Italy reiterates to me just how vastly massive the world is. I still have no idea of my place in it. The ancient emperors of Rome built tributes to themselves that have lasted through the millennia, but what about all of the other people who lived in their empire? We don’t even know how or why Rome fell, much less how the “commoners” lived. We know none of their stories, have no idea their impact. Are we all little insignificant specks in the universe? A universe made infinitely more vast when space is multiplied by time. Start with millennia, and work your way up to cosmic timescales. Even the stars don’t matter.
So what do we do with our lives? Do we try to make things better, in the context of our morals and cultural beliefs? Do we strive for greatness, to be remembered in tiny snippets of history, or through our works? Do we work to pass on our legacy through our children? Or should we just look for happiness and enjoyment in the now? I haven’t any idea. All I know is, I’ve got to go outside and catch that boat pointed towards home. That is step one. After that, everything is fuzzy.
I saw the original production of Sleep No More in Boston twice, as well as the New York production. The show is immersive and charged and incredible, one of the most amazing theater experiences I have ever witnessed. I was pulled aside into private spaces by actors, given objects, told by actors to go places and to do things. In one scene, an actor handed me his clothing as he undressed. I never once, not for a second, would have considered touching the actors. There is immersive theater, and then there is assault. The line, actually, is pretty clear.
I guess it is not shocking how some audience members behave, because so many human beings are terrible. But it is absolutely shocking and abhorrent the way the show management treated these incidents, and the ways in which they allowed their actors and technical staff to be abused by patrons night after night. Even worse are their feeble but repeated denials of responsibility.
[T]his week, my advice regarding time would be (in this order):
- Try to restrict your caloric intake;
- Consider shifting some of your qubits into spin 1/2;
- Accept that we’re thrown into our circumstances, regardless of how shitty they may be, and greet whatever fate rises to meet you with resolute defiance.
— Tim Carmody, summarizing the latest in longevity research
Apologies in advance to the chemists in the room, because I'm going to butcher the science on this. But the lay explanation is fascinating.
Weight loss discussions typically focus on two pathways, or both in combination: caloric restriction (i.e. eating less) and exercise. In both cases, the goal is to "burn" more calories than we take in and, thus, remove excess fat. But what does this mean in practice? Calories are a measure of heat energy, so the term "burn" seems to make intuitive sense. But the theory of conservation of mass tells us that mass cannot be created or destroyed. We are not losing weight through heat.
If the common wisdom is a lie, the next idea is that we lose weight through digestive excretions, i.e. feces. But this, also, is incorrect, for somewhat obvious reasons. The digestive system is concerned with taking in fuel, breaking it down, using it, and getting rid of all the useless bits out the other side. Nowhere in that system is there any "burning" or converting of stored energy. In short, we don't lose weight through our poop.
Losing weight actually comes down to metabolizing triglycerides, the primary component of fat. Triglycerides are essentially a bunch of carbon and hydrogen with a bit of oxygen thrown in. This is basic chemistry, and I have forgotten most of my chemistry. But wait, carbon? Hydrogen?
So, it turns out that the vast majority of "burned" calories are expelled through breathing. Eighty-six percent, to be precise. How? Well, just how we were taught in elementary school — O2 in, CO2 out! Most of the remainder, i.e. those hydrogen atoms, leaves as water, H2O coming out of all the various places that we get rid of water, such as sweat, spit, tears, and urine.
Hearing this for the first time, it seems utterly crazy. But actually it makes a lot more sense than the idea that all that fat is being magically "burned" away.
America cannot be “first,” as Trump insists. It can be a thug and a bully only in the betrayal of itself. It must be itself, a certain idea of liberty and democracy and openness, or it is nothing, just a squalid, oversized, greedy place past the zenith of its greatness.
— Roger Cohen, "If This Is America", New York Times
What if technology existed that allowed memories to be rewritten? If you could have a “do-over” on your life, would you take it? And if so, how would you change your path? To the Moon begins at a sickbed. Two technicians hook a frail, dying man to a machine that allows them to map and catalog his memories, and then to change them. Before his life ends, the man is given one brief chance to “relive” things as he wanted them to be. In doing so, he must forfeit his old, real memories. But, with only days to live, does it matter? Will the technicians make the right choices, and will the man die content?
His dying wish is to go to the moon. But he can’t articulate why: he doesn’t know! And before the wish can be granted, the man’s memories, a whole lifetime of memories — trivial and deep, happy and sad, readily apparent and deeply hidden — must be mapped, linked, and interpreted. And then changed. Deeply, profoundly changed.
This interactive story takes the form of a pixel art game with written dialog. The old-style gameplay belies the depth of the storytelling. The music is integral and captivating. The plot twists and turns, and then all the pieces lock together to reveal something beautiful and sad. I was guessing to the very end. The game is short enough you can complete it in one long evening. As soon as it ends, it starts over, and I won’t dwell on what that cyclicality means. It is worth playing through a second time to pick up on all the clues and connections. Plus, the little twist after the credits role is delicious.
Lovers of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will be well-served by this lovely, captivating game. And afterwards, you will surely want the soundtrack.
Aaron Swartz (of course, of course it was Aaron) lays everything out.
In a way, I wonder how much of this sensation was subverted by Infinite Summer. Reading this book should be a terribly lonely experience. It is so sweeping and detailed and consuming. No one outside the novel can possibly understand what you’re talking about. And if you’re reading it twice? Three times? Before the acceleration of the internet, how many similar obsessives was the average reader likely to run into? Most people don’t read this book, and most who do don’t finish. Those who did finish and find themselves trapped were in for a lot of alone time. A lot of time drawing out theories that no one else would understand on piece of paper.
— Ezra Klein on Infinite Jest
An in-depth and well-researched article about the fallout of the NSA information disclosures.
Quinn Norton’s writing is powerful as always, and this article about sexual assault by men in positions of power in the tech community does not go the direction I expected. An important read.
Selfishly, I would like to live as long as possible. The top causes of death among adults in the United States are heart disease, cancer, and automobile accidents. So I attempt to maintain a reasonably healthy diet, exercise regularly, and avoid smoking harmful substances. And I try to both limit my driving and drive in the safest available vehicles.
Living in LA for the last six months, daily long-distance driving has become unavoidable. Consequently, I have continued my studies of the latest in car safety, which, these days, primarily revolves around vehicle autonomy systems. Everything commercially available to consumers today is at SAE autonomy classification level 2 or lower, which means that the human driver must always remain in control and autonomy can only supplement or enhance human driving. Anything above SAE II (essentially anything where the driver is not in control at all times) is subject to high levels of government scrutiny and a very murky regulatory environment.
Within the SAE II and below offerings, there are a variety of systems available, each of which typically operates independently, utilizes one or two types of sensors, and focus on preventing or mitigating one specific type of collision. Examples include lane departure warnings (using the front-facing camera), blind spot vehicle detection (using ultrasonic short-range sensors), and adaptive cruise control (using a combination of front-facing radar and front-facing camera) to maintain a set distance behind the vehicle ahead.
Other fun recent additions include 360 parking assistance (stitching together views from multiple vehicle-mounted cameras with fisheye lenses to show a full view of the car’s surroundings), rear cross-traffic alerting (using ultrasonic sensors to indicate a car approaching in a parking lot), and automatic emergency braking (using camera and radar to detect and attempt to mitigate a low-speed front collision).
Finally we are starting to see more of these systems work in concert, which is beginning to look like the kind of autonomy we have been promised for years. Recent examples combine adaptive cruise control with automatic lane keeping to allow for a reasonable facsimile of autonomous driveway at high speeds on well-marked highways. Tesla’s Autopilot refers to a variety of features, but this particular combination is what most people equate it with.
I recently had a chance to spend several hundred miles testing the ACC and lanekeeping functionality of a 2017 model year Honda Ridgeline. The system was very unpleasant. Lane keeping was inconsistent and could not be relied upon. The adaptive cruise control acceleration and braking was abrupt and uncomfortable. I was using the system in Massachusetts, which means many poorly maintained roads with faded or non-existing lane markings, as well as frequent inclement weather including rain and snow. This resulted in a system that would simply not work much of the time, and was frequently unreliable when it did.
In California, I have tested a 2017 model year Toyota Prius with ACC engaged for several thousand miles. This vehicle does not have lane keeping, and does have the advantage of being used almost exclusively in good weather on wall-marked highways. The system works far better than the Ridgeline — acceleration and breaking is generally smooth and gradual, vehicle spacing is well-maintained, with the car automatically reducing distance in slower stop-and-go traffic and increasing following distance at higher speeds. However, the system is extremely poor at dealing with other vehicles changing lanes.
If a car merges ahead of me, the Prius is slow to see it and often must abruptly brake to maintain distance. On multiple occasions I avoided rear-ending a merging vehicle only by manually intervening. In other cases, the front-facing radar loses its lock on the vehicle ahead, which can cause the system to disengage and requires me to quickly retake control. A few times it has randomly lost its vehicle lock and begun rapidly accelerating, thinking the roadway is clear. Again, I have had to quickly disengage the system by braking in order to avoid a collision.
The recognized leader in vehicle autonomy at present is Tesla, but I don’t have access to test the Autopilot system. Many claim that Volvo’s Pilot Assist is next in line, so I recently test-drove a 2018 model year Volvo XC60 with the full suite of driver assistance and safety systems.
The automated parking was an interesting experience, as was the 360 camera, although I’m not sure they would be useful to me very often. I luckily and unsurprisingly did not have a chance to test features such as collision mitigation braking and pedestrian detection. But I did get a quick look at the ACC + lane keeping systems, which are state-of-the art. With the salesman at the wheel, we cruised down a city road at 35 mph. The vehicle took care of acceleration and braking as well as keeping us in our lane. It also automatically detected speed limit signs and queued up speed changes for the driver to approve, in line with SAE II requirements. To demonstrate the sophistication, the salesman took his hands off the wheel and his feet of the pedals, noting that the system would not stop at red lights automatically unless there was a car ahead — an important caveat.
Everything was going great in the brief demo until the car ahead of us switched lanes and the radar (I assume) failed to achieve a lock on the vehicle proceeding it. Just as in my Prius experience, the car began to rapidly accelerate, even as the vehicle ahead was coming to a stop at a red light. The salesman, confident in the autonomy systems, let the car do its thing for a few beats longer than he should have. At the last second, he slammed the brakes and we avoided an unfortunate accident.
I’m very impressed with the Volvo, but under the hood it is no doubt using some of the same systems, processors, and sensors as every other major vehicle manufacturer. Between the Ridgeline’s inability to work in snow, rain, and on unmarked roads, the Prius’s unfortunate tendency to want to rear-end merging vehicles, and the XC60’s dangerous hiccup during a demo, my conclusion is that we still have a long way to go before we can truly rely upon our cars to keep us safe.
The pace of innovation in this space is pretty speedy given how slowly the industry has traditionally developed. Each of the autonomy systems presents very limited and specific claims. No vehicle maker is shipping a system in which all of the various sensors and systems work together in concert, and there are no commercially available vehicles today that meet SAE autonomy level 3 or greater.
When these safety features work, they are great: a family member’s recent near fender-bender became a fender-scratcher due to automatic braking. And certainly anything that will prevent me from running into a moose in the Vermont woods, or a bicyclist in Pasadena, is a welcome improvement. But at the end of the day, the driver is still fully responsible.
It makes sense that each system has a very narrow operating range, and the default is to not trigger unless the confidence level is extremely high. After all, even a false-positive rate of 1 in 100 is enough to cause people to disable the systems as annoyances or, worse, dangerous. Still, I am disappointed at how far we still need to go, and how far off the dream of truly reliable autonomous “robocars” still seems to be.
From the “I bet you didn’t see that one coming” department.
What are the minimum necessary components for a viable and sustainable long-term colony on Mars?
First we have to get there, so we will need inexpensive and reliable rockets. They should be reusable both to keep costs down and to allow for return journeys.
Once we are there, we will need to be able to produce and store energy. This will require extremely durable solar panels hooked to efficient battery packs. We can use this energy to power our transportation — the small battery-powered vehicles (let’s call them “cars”) to transport people and supplies, and the larger heavy-duty construction equipment (“trucks”).
Mars is extremely cold and has minimal atmosphere, so it will make sense to build a a substantial portion of our colony underground. For this we will need advanced tunnel boring equipment.
With thousands of people across multiple settlements along with hundreds of vehicles and other bits of autonomous equipment, it will be critical to have an advanced communication and geolocation grid.
And we will need highly optimized mining and manufacturing techniques.
I’m surely not the first person to notice this, but Elon Musk is pursuing every single one of those goals. SpaceX has made remarkable advances in reducing the cost of spaceflight and the reusability of rocket components. Tesla (along with its SolarCity acquisition) have produced efficient electric vehicles, stationary battery packs, and have just unveiled their extremely durable solar roof tiles made of glass. The Boring Company, Musk’s latest endeavor, is aiming to improve the efficiency of tunnel boring machines by 10x or more. And as for communications, SpaceX recently announced plans to build a low Earth orbit communications satellite swarm consisting of twice as many nodes as all currently existing satellites combined.
If Musk’s master plan is to build every component necessary for successful Mars colonization, his logical next step would be to invest in breakthroughs around food production, packaging, and storage. We are also going to need environment suits, so maybe he will start looking into new types of fabrics, breathing apparatus, and the like. And of course he will eventually need to pivot from factory automation to include advanced automated manufacturing of stationary buildings.
The Musk portfolio of companies has cranked out in a little over a decade a substantial portion of the breakthrough technologies necessary to make us an interplanetary species. He is fighting a desperate battle against time as the effects of climate change compound and produce more disruption. We need to get some people off this rock before other people, driven by greed or desperation or hatred, do their utmost to destroy it.
I periodically post here, on Facebook, or elsewhere about confounding health care experiences. I’m relatively young, relatively healthy, and have very simple care needs. The failures I experience worry me because they imply that people with more complex or urgent needs are likely being even more poorly served. All of my experiences are with managed care providers. The most recent is with Kaiser Permanente.
I had symptoms that presented as a simple stomach ailment. I won’t go into the details because, as you might expect, they are not fun. After 96 hours of being barely able to eat, and having lost over 6 pounds of body weight, I decided it might be worthwhile to call the Kaiser consultation line and get an expert opinion as to whether I should take any further action or simply let it run its course. I was specifically concerned because I was going to need to travel for work, so I thought talking to a nurse would help me decide if the trip should be cancelled.
The phone tree was mystifying, as always. I kept being transferred to the wrong place, but after talking to three people I landed on a pre-screener who asked a few simple questions and, based on the answers, determined that I had no use for a phone nurse but instead needed an in-person appointment. He transferred me to appointments. They told me that none were available, and I should go to urgent care instead. And so off I went.
After the expected hour or so of waiting around and repeating my symptoms to three different people, the doctor gave me a cursory exam and confirmed that it was, indeed, a simple stomach virus which would run its course. He offered to do additional blood work, which I declined, and prescribed some medication to help with symptoms.
This is all fine, I suppose. If someone could make a cheap home combination blood pressure cuff, pulse/ox, and stethoscope that plugs into an iPhone, that would probably eliminate 20% of routine office visits. It’s the 21st century, where’s my telemedicine?
Anyway, the interesting bit is the prescription. You see, modern pharmacies have complex software to check for possible drug interactions. That’s in addition to the job of the doctor and the pharmacist, of course. I’m no expert, but reading the printout that came with the prescription immediately raised alarm bells. Dr. Internet suggests that taking this stuff could be a Very Bad Idea as in some cases it interacts with something I’m already taking to cause fun symptoms like coma. Now, I’m no expert, and I may be wrong about whether this is really dangerous. But yikes!
So I called Kaiser. The pharmacist I spoke to suggested tapering off the other medication while taking this one. I suggested that seemed ridiculous given the other med’s long biological half-life. He stumbled around a bit, and said he would have my doctor follow up. Right. In the meantime? Unclear.
Maybe it’s fine. But I’m sufficiently freaked out/miffed that I’m not touching the new stuff, and am just going to have to suffer the old-fashioned way. And I’m concerned about Kaiser’s capacity to effectively treat me while keeping me safe from iatrogenic effects.
Update (2017-05-04): I never received the promised follow-up call.
I visited this mall yesterday and enjoyed it a lot more than a standard mall. Tons of stores and food options that I’d never seen before. In a way it reminded me of my trip to Hong Kong. I was wondering what the background was and then this article popped up today. Timely!
The internet is weird. While trolling through YouTube I stumbled upon a “related” video by a channel called SourceFedNERD. The hosts were hilarious and the content enjoyable, so I clicked over to subscribe. The very next video of theirs I watched turned out to be an announcement that the channel was shutting down. It was posted last week. I could have found this channel at any point since early 2012, subscribed, participated and enjoyed their content. But instead I found it today.
This study of hiring practices by top-tier law firms comes to unsurprising conclusions. But the methodology and specifics are interesting. For example, “even though all educational and work-related histories were the same, employers overwhelmingly favored the higher-class man. He had a callback rate more than four times of other applicants and received more invitations to interview than all other applicants in our study combined. But most strikingly, he did significantly better than the higher-class woman, whose resume was identical to his, other than the first name.”
My grandfather, Ralph Silverman, trained as a chemist at Indiana University on the GI Bill after serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. In 1960 he uprooted his family and moved to California to form his own business manufacturing cleaning chemicals. Through grit, hard work, determination, and a little luck, he built a successful enterprise and gave his family a better life. It is a classic American Dream story, and fifty-seven years later, Maintex is a thriving facilities solutions company.
As a child I would go into work with my dad and help grandpa open the mail: checks in one pile, bills in another. As a teenager I worked part of my summers on the company’s catalog and web site. My first major programming accomplishment was designing a content management system for Maintex at age 14. While in college I helped maintain the servers that ran the web site, email, and FileMaker database.
While some employees assumed I would move into the family business, my parents and grandparents encouraged me to pursue my own dreams. I had the privilege of graduating from university with no debt thanks to my grandparents’ generosity, and I was able to successfully pursue a career in information technology.
The rest is well documented on this blog. I built a life in Boston, forming friendships, getting married, buying a house, and working in tech. I moved between several jobs, advancing my career but never quite satisfied with my role and level of responsibility.
All along, Maintex kept gnawing at the back of my mind — the amazing opportunity and awesome responsibility of potentially stewarding a multi-generational company. A company with a mission and purpose. A company that provides for the livelihoods of hundreds of employees.
It was a massively difficult decision. Meghan and I eventually came to the conclusion that I needed to give it a serious try. I plan to spend the next six months learning the ins and outs of the business, and contributing as much as I can. As I do so, I am very cognizant of the risks and potential pitfalls of coming into a family business in the third generation. To that end, my aim is to observe as much as possible and ask a million questions, especially in the areas where I know the least. I think I’m in a good position to do this — I have never been afraid to expose my ignorance!