I am in debt, but I am not alone. Debt is a millstone that weighs down more than three-quarters of Americans. It can determine whether we are able to run for office, to launch a business, to quit a job we hate. But it should not—and cannot—be a disqualification for ambition.

Stacy Abrams, Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, who is facing controversy following the release of financial disclosures that show she holds $200,000 in unpaid taxes, student loans, and credit card debt.

Tesla Is in an Open Feud With NTSB Over Crash Probe

This is not the first time that Tesla has been overbearing, defensive, and quick to blame the (dead) victim in incidents involving their Autopilot system.  But they are being called on it, and this is not a good look for a company that claims to be developing the safest cars in the industry.

The Last Ten Years

In January 2008, I adopted the best cat in the world.  He was named Miso at the time, but his real name was Oscar.  He had lived a few years with another family, but his forever home was with me.

I knew this girl, Meghan, who fell in love with Oscar.  Eventually, she decided she liked me too.  In April 2009, we went on our first date, but no one told me.  I was going rock climbing in New Hampshire with some friends, and she came along, even though she was scared of heights.

Meghan introduced me to her large extended family, and taught me a different way of vacationing that involves staying in one place rather than being constantly on the move.  I showed her the Western US and later took her out of the country for the first time.

In no time at all, Meghan moved in with me, displacing my long-suffering roommate Igor.

We were very different, but in some ways much the same.  When we argued, Oscar would mediate.  When we cuddled, he demanded to be nearby.  When we came home from adventures, Oscar would be at the door to greet us and loudly complain that we had been away too long.

Meghan with engagement ring on a ski slopeWe got engaged on a ski slope.  It was her birthday, December 21, 2010.  I think Oscar was happy to finally have a mom.

In February, we bought a fixer-upper of a house in a small seaside town on Boston’s South Shore.  Our wonderful friends came out to support us.  They contributed hours of sweat (and occasionally blood), helping with demolition, carpet removal, garden maintenance, patching and painting, and lots of advice.  We paid them back with pizza, lodging, and many trips to the beach.

Oscar, always an indoor cat, saw his opportunity with the move and engaged in several daring escape attempts.  Whenever he would make it successfully past the front door, he was so overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the neighborhood that he would just freeze, allowing us to scoop him up and bring him back inside.

Then Meghan had the idea of getting him a leash.  Oscar did not like the leash.

We spent the next six years turning that house into our dream home.  It wasn’t always easy, and there were so many bumps along the way.

Meghan and I had planned to get married in September 2011, but it didn’t work out that way.  The move and the home renovation were stressful, and they exposed fault lines that we did not know existed.  Our families were wonderfully understanding, and we postponed the wedding.

We tried again, for realsies, in September 2013.  We knew that not everything was perfect, but what relationship is?  Committing fully to each other was the obvious and best path forward to achieving our dreams.  Everyone we knew came out for the ceremony, which was officiated by a dear friend and mentor of mine from college.  It was an amazing day.

The party was epic, despite some night-before misadventures with my groomsmen that are better left unexamined.  As a prank, my friends turned our car into the “Oscar I” spaceship to carry us on our journey.

After the festivities we went back home, where we found that things were pretty much the same.

Through the lens of social media, everyone’s lives are perfect.  Children are well-behaved, it never rains, and no one ever fights about money, or chores, or who should cook dinner.  Everything always goes according to plan.  And so it was, most of the time, for us, although occasionally the fault lines slipped through the carefully constructed veneer.

Real life is not a storybook, nor is it an Instagram feed.  Our arguments and disagreements are no doubt much the same as anyone else’s.  But we could never quite figure out how to move past them.  The good times were so very good, but the bad times weighed heavily on us.  How do you find a balance; what is the right ratio?  What do you do when you disagree about important things, and can’t find a shared path forward?

We took some time apart.  We discovered important truths about ourselves, and about each other.  Oscar stayed with Meghan in Hull, I ventured out to California alone.  We talked a lot about how to fix things, how to live our best lives individually and collectively.

We eventually, quietly, sadly, tiredly, decided on a path forward.  Or should I say, two paths.

There are a thousand reasons things were not working, and also no reason at all.  Sometimes that is just how it goes.  Sometimes two mature adults who love each other very much come to the conclusion that what is best for both is to be apart.

It is the worst feeling in the world.  But it is also a new beginning.  And so we started that phase of our journey.  We began to figure out how to disentangle our lives.

While Meghan and I were working out the minutia of bank accounts and mortgage payments, Oscar got sick.  My wonderful little cat, my sounding board, my stalwart companion — cancer, they said.  I had been away for an entire year.

Last week, our beloved fur ball died in Meghan’s arms, while I was three thousand miles away.  He was 13 years old.  And I was heartbroken.

Could there be a more poignant symbol of this closing chapter?  Meghan loved Oscar before she loved me.  He was with us through our entire journey together.  He brought us both so much comfort and joy, even in the darkest times.

Losing a pet is a terrible thing.  But this is fitting, somehow.  It’s like the last piece of the puzzle.  Now I have given up almost everything — my job, my house, my workshop, my garden, proximity to my friends, my neighbors, and my vast and wonderful second family.  I have given up Meghan.  And I have given up Oscar.

Maybe it is the closing of a chapter, or perhaps a whole book.  But there is another chapter to be written, or a sequel.  I still have my friends, wonderful and supportive even when far away.  I have my family.  I have an exciting new job full of possibility.  I have an apartment now, and I have made it my own.  I am meeting new people, and trying new activities, and embarking on new adventures.

Robert Frost says the only way out is through.  Ursula LeGuin says that time is never wasted, even pain counts.  I am not who I was ten years ago, none of us are.  I have learned and grown so much.  I am sad, so very sad, but I am excited as well.  I can’t wait to see what the future has in store.

Brushes with disaster

In August I started driving a Volvo XC60 with the latest generation of vehicle autonomy features. Since that time I have driven nearly 10,000 miles in the car, and the experience has been mostly positive. Early on there was one aberrant behavior where the vehicle, while running in its “Pilot Assist” mode, suddenly and inexplicably changed lanes and nearly caused a collision. I don’t know if the car lost its lane lock or it was attempting to swerve around a perceived but non-existent obstacle.

There was a second incident, also in Pilot Assist mode, when the vehicle (presumably) lost its lock on the car ahead and started accelerating. And on a few other occasions, the automatic collision braking system has kicked in when not needed.

Despite these hiccups, I have on the whole been mostly satisfied with both the vehicle and it’s built-in automation. What I miss the most is a way to interrogate the car’s computer systems to understand when and why the safety features engaged as well as view the video footage from each incident. This seems like an obvious and useful feature that I wish Volvo would include.

Today I was traveling down an open highway at close to the speed limit when a Prius going at least 30 mph slower suddenly changed lanes ahead of me. The other driver clearly had not looked before changing lanes or had not accurately judged the speed difference, because I had a very brief window to try to avoid a collision.

I slammed the brakes as soon as I saw what was happening, and narrowly avoided a crash.  The car automatically pre-tensioned my seatbelt, pulling me back, and was presumably ready to activate the airbag.  I believe it also assisted with automatic collision braking, although I’m not positive.  The burst of adrenaline kept my heart racing for several minutes afterwards, and I missed my freeway exit.

I wonder how quickly the car saw what was happening and reacted, and how many tenths of a second later I did.  I wish I could see that data and understand exactly what happened and when.  I feel that this sort of collision data, as well as aggregate statistics, would be very useful in studying road safety, improving automation, and formulating policy.  In the meantime, I’m happy to have come out of this incident unscathed, and I believe the advanced features of my car helped keep me safe.

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.

Max Krieger

Triplog: Italy (Part 5: Lake Como)

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.

Performers And Staffers At “Sleep No More” Say Audience Members Have Sexually Assaulted Them

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):

  1. Try to restrict your caloric intake;
  2. Consider shifting some of your qubits into spin 1/2;
  3. 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

What does it mean to “lose” weight?

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 breathingEighty-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

★★★★★

To the Moon

This review contains spoilers for the first half-hour or so of gameplay but nothing you wouldn’t easily derive from reading the description of the game. It also covers some of the major thematic elements.

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.

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

Robert Scoble and Me

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.

The current state of commercial vehicle autonomy, from the perspective of a casual driver

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.