My grandmother’s great-grandparents owned a slave. The slave schedules record that they owned a 13 year old girl in 1860.

Leonard and Melvina Ward were born in central Tennessee and early in life moved to East Texas. They had six children. They lived to old age, here is their sweetly romantic gravestone. I think they were farmers and lived pretty well. At least well enough to own a person.

Here is what I know about the person they enslaved. She was 13. She was Black (as opposed to “mulatto”). She was not a fugitive, she had not been freed, and she was not deaf, dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic. That’s all Wm P Cornelius recorded in his census. I don’t know her name, where she was born, have no easy way to research her further. All I know is she was 13 and was enslaved by my 3rd great-grandparents.

I like to imagine she’s what my grandmother called “a domestic”, cooking and doing housework. The census records no slave houses, so maybe she even lived in the family house. I’d like to think she lived another 5 years to see her emancipation, then got far away from her captors and lived a happy and comfortable life. That would be about the best outcome for a 13 year old slave girl in Texas in 1860. More realistically she was probably impoverished and lived with little freedom in rural Texas.

Today is Juneteenth, a day of national celebration for the end of slavery. Emancipation was a complicated process that took several years to be enforced. Followed by decades of indentured servitude, poverty, and deprivation for many African Americans. The legacy of slavery lives on, it is one of America’s original sins. I own a piece of that legacy.

life
  2017-06-19 18:13 Z

I got my first new car in 12 years, a 2017 Audi A3. Happily I was able to find one of the few A3s that has Driver Assistance, the fancy adaptive cruise control and lane holding system. Love it, so glad I got it. The feature is more common on the high end Audis, but for the A3 you have to get the “Prestige” trim level which is not commonly stocked by California dealers.

The simple part of the system is adaptive cruise control. I set my speed to the nearest 2.5mph, then it paces the car in front of me using radar sensors. You can select how close it wants to follow. It will bring the car to a full stop if it has to. It’s great in heavy traffic on I-80, the only drawback is I’m now less aggressive about switching lanes to get around someone slow. If only every car had this feature, we could smooth out a lot of traffic jams as everyone drives a constant speed.

The other fancy feature is active lane assist. The car detects highway lanes with cameras. If I start to drift out of the lane it gives a bit of a nudge to the wheel. Ostensibly it’s to remind me to hold my lane, but the nudge is strong enough it actually sends the car back in the lane by itself. It’s very much not an autopilot though, the car complains after ~10 seconds of nudges. And the sensor isn’t reliable in the face of bad paint or unusually wide lanes, you really can’t rely on it all the time.

I like how both technologies are like little daemons helping me drive. I’ve written before about the dangers of full autopilots that expect a driver to take over if something fails. The A3 systems aren’t full autopilots, I’m still engaged in the task of driving at all times. Although it does require less attention. I’m still learning to trust the daemons, sometimes when the lane holding feature moves the wheel I instinctively try to countersteer away, the exact wrong thing.

All the other electronics in the A3 are very nice too. The virtual cockpit display is beautiful. The maps are good. The stereo plays plenty of audio formats, although the 10,000 file limit on SD cards is awfully dumb. I’m even liking Apple CarPlay.

I’m hoping the next car I buy will have a full autopilot. Although once that tech reaches mainstream it may no longer make sense to buy a car.

techgood
  2017-03-08 00:52 Z

There’s a kerfuffle going on with an NYTimes article about Trump and Xi. Trump calls the article fake news, saying it doesn’t describe his phone call on Thursday with Xi. But the online article starts with that phone call! What’s going on?

The confusion is the print edition of the article does not include the call. You can see that in this screenshot of the front page I took from Newseum. The article was then later updated online to include more facts, including the call.

The current online article is excellent reporting and, I think, accurate. The print edition was probably also accurate at the time it was published; it seems likely the NYTimes had not yet been informed of the Xi call. The problem is the edit to the online article isn’t disclosed to readers. And so everyone’s left confused, including journalists. One of the article authors even retweeted a smug tweet from another NYT reporter mocking Trump’s reading comprehension. But it seems likely to me Trump simply read the older print article.

One of Trump’s weapons is creating distrust for the media. It’s important for newspapers of record to do everything they can to avoid confusion. The NYT really needs a policy of disclosing edits to online articles.

Update: Politico has a story about this.
Update 2: Newsdiffs has the edit history.
politics
  2017-02-10 23:17 Z

It’s been a terrible weekend politically, with Trump’s hateful and foolish immigration order and the backlash to it. But how bad is it really? I’ve been mulling over this terrifying essay by Yonatan Zunger that’s making the rounds of techies, Trial Balloon for a Coup?. And contrasting it to Larry Lessig's calm essay about the power of American constitutional process.

Zunger’s essay is powerful and, I think, well intentioned. He argues that the immigration circus this weekend was the Trump administration testing whether they could seize total political power. It takes some basic facts about the horrible things the Trump administration is doing and mixes them with some speculation such as the Rosneft deal and comes to a conclusion that the American Republic is about to end. If this essay is correct, the rational response is to flee the country immediately.

Lessig’s essay is a calm entreaty to resist Trump via normal legal and constitutional procedures. Specifically the need for Congress to step up and lead the fight. I agree the Democratic congressional leadership is very disappointing right now. I want Lessig’s worldview to be right, because it means my home is not about to explode in a civil war.

But which is true? I’m less certain than I’d like to be. I think the conclusion Zunger comes to is too extreme to be correct. It reads to me like “Obama’s comin’ for yer guns” or "FEMA orders $1B in coffins" rhetoric. There are some threads of truth there but they’re spun together in an inflammatory way to make the most terrifying conclusion. I think it’s bordering on irresponsible fearmongering and distracts us from meaningful resistance.

America is going to hell through constitutional means, no coup necessary. The Trump administration is using its authority to enact a series of policies that will greatly diminish this country. And they are doing so with complete contempt for truth, decency, or democratic norms. I really hope Lessig is right and that fighting back through legal means is possible. I’m not willing to believe a coup is coming, but this last weekend has me rattled.

I’ve been reading a lot about the Reichstag Fire lately.

politics
  2017-01-30 17:26 Z

Watch Dogs 2 is a very good video game. I think it’s nearly as good as GTA V or Sleeping Dogs and better than many other open world roamers. It fixes nearly all the problems in the original Watch Dogs and finds the fun in the game design.

My favorite thing about the game is the setting, the tech industry in the Bay Area. I live in San Francisco, I’ve worked in two of the offices featured in the game, I’m constantly running in to things in the game that remind me of where I live. They’ve done a remarkably good job on the re-creation of the Bay Area. Like not only do the buses in San Francisco look like SF Muni buses, but the buses in Oakland look different because of course they should, they’re AC Transit buses. The world quality extends to the game writing, both incidental stuff like random NPC dialog and significant things like the main story writing.

The main story is pretty good. It’s not great, I’d say it’s weaker than GTA V, but it’s still pretty good. Some of the characters are great and some of the set pieces are excellent. The biggest criticism I have is something a lot of reviews pointed out, which is there’s a conflict in tone between “we’re a fun hacker gang pulling pranks” and “we’re a group of murder hoboes launching grenades at FBI agents”. There’s an event that happens in the game that could explain the shift but the writing doesn’t quite pull it together. It’s not a huge problem.

Most importantly, the gameplay is fun. The magic spells hacking abilities you use are fun and powerful and innovative. The cover shooter and driving mechanics are fine (better than GTA.) Remote controlling rolling and flying drones is seriously fun. A lot of the missions have multiple solutions: puzzle solving, stealth, or straight-up guns a’blazin. I switched between those modes frequently in a natural way. Also there’s a lot to do outside the main game, including a light multiplayer mode that injects a bit of novelty. I’m still chipping away at the side missions, mostly as an excuse to continue sightseeing.

It’s a really good game! I have some screenshots and video clips on Twitter.

culturegames
  2017-01-29 16:53 Z

I went to Reed College, a wonderful small liberal arts college. It was a perfect fit for me in almost every way. Except one thing: Reed offered no computer science. Excellent math and physics program in the liberal arts tradition, but no engineering of any kind. I was fine with that tradeoff at first but got frustrated, even considered transferring to MIT.

What made Reed work for me was a tiny little computer lab tucked in the library basement, the grandly named Academic Software Development Laboratory. That was the home for a few beardy Unix nerds, some students, some staff. Gary Schlickeiser was in charge at the time (Richard Crandall set it up). Gary hired me and I spent the next four years getting paid part time and summers to learn Unix at the knee of folks like Bill Trost and Kent Black. Our official job was writing software for professors’ research projects and providing Unix support, but really my time was spent being steeped in Internet culture. Also a lot of Netrek.

My very first job was getting Netatalk working on our Ultrix 2.2 systems so they could be file servers to Macintoshes. Mind you, this is 1990, networking software back then was full of jaggy sticks and sharp rocks. I learned how to download software via UUCP, how zcat | tar worked, how to run make and read compiler errors, all sorts of wooly crap. I got it running but it didn’t work, at which point Norman Goetz taught me how to use some ancient packet sniffer (Lanalyzer?) to figure out the problem. That’s when I learned about little-endian vs big-endian and in the end all I had to do was #define MIPSEL and suddenly it all worked. That was my first month’s accomplishment.

And so I was initiated into the Unix priesthood. Ever since then I’ve traded on my ability to write software and make computer systems work. Software is not an academic discipline, certainly not a liberal art. It’s a craft. And the only way to learn craftsmanship is to apprentice to master craftsmen, to learn hands on from experts.

The D-Lab was the home for that expertise. Later I worked on more interesting projects including Mark Bedau’s artificial life research, running a Usenet daemon, setting up Reed’s first web site, etc. Those projects led directly to my career.

Reed stopped having a D-Lab around ten years ago. But two years ago a new program started, the Software Design Studio, with enthusiastic support from some alumni. Reed is also creating a computer science program that will be pretty math intensive. I hope the SDS is a place where folks can learn some of the applied craft.

tech
  2017-01-19 01:00 Z
The Internet mostly survived the leap second two days ago. I’ve seen three confirmed problems. Cloudflare DNS had degraded service; they have an excellent postmortem. Some Cisco routers crashed. And about 10% of NTP pool servers failed to process the leap second correctly.

We’ve had a leap second roughly every two years. They often cause havoc. The big problem was in 2012 when a bunch of Java and MySQL servers died because of a Linux kernel bug. Linux kernels died in 2009 too. There are presumably a lot of smaller user application failures too, most unnoticed. Leap second bugs will keep reoccurring. Partly because no one thinks to test their systems carefully against weird and rare events. But also time is complicated.

Cloudflare blamed a bug in their code that assumed time never runs backwards. But the real problem is POSIX defines a day as containing exactly 86,400 seconds. But every 700 days or so that’s not true and a lot of systems jump time backwards one second to squeeze in the leap second. Time shouldn’t run backwards in a leap second, it’s just a bad kludge. There are some other options available, like the leap smear used by Google. The drawback is your clock is off by as much as 500ms during that day.

The NTP pool problem is particularly galling; NTP is a service whose sole purpose is telling time. Some of the pool servers are running openntpd which does not handle leap seconds. IMHO those servers aren’t suitable for public use. Not clear what else went wrong but leap second handling has been awkward for years and isn’t getting better.

techbad
  2017-01-03 00:38 Z

I like maps. Some friends and colleagues are making some beautiful map and geographic based art that would make nice Christmas gifts. (For others! I’m not hinting, have these already!)

Bill Morris makes painterly prints of satellite photographs. You can read about his process in detail. In short, he takes satellite images from Planet Labs and then pushes them through customized machine learning software to render them like paintings. They’re beautiful.

Rachel Binx makes geographic style products. Jewelry, clothing, and posters all custom made for someone’s personal geography. One-off design and fabrication like this is really ambitious and she delivers well.

Benjamin Grant of the Daily Overview blog has a new coffee table book of aerial and satellite imagery. It sounds simple but he has an excellent eye and editor’s hand. It’s lovely.

Jared Prince of Muir Way made a high quality print of a map of American rivers. He was inspired by my river map but ended up recreating the whole thing from scratch with a much better result than mine. The print quality is excellent too.

culture
  2016-12-01 18:28 Z

One of our holiday treats is an egg dip that Ken makes, an old family recipe. It’s sort of like smoky deviled eggs only potato chip compatible. I like it. Here’s an approximation of the recipe; it’s not an exact thing.

  • 8 oz cream cheese
  • 3 hard boiled eggs
  • ⅓ cup of mayonnaise
  • ½ tsp Colman’s mustard
  • ½ tsp liquid smoke
  • salt

Mince the eggs. Blend with mayo and cream cheese to dip texture. Flavor with mustard, liquid smoke, and salt. The result should taste mostly like eggs, with a noticeable smoky flavor and a bit of sharpness from the mustard.

You can use ordinary wet mustard but the dry mustard without vinegar is better. Minced onion or shallot might be a nice addition. Or cayenne pepper.

culturefood
  2016-11-25 19:19 Z
Interesting pair of maps showing the route of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline

The upper map is the official map from Energy Transfer Partners. It is remarkably free of detail. Enter Carl Sack's map below, which contains a lot more detail and was designed explicitly to help oppose the pipeline. It's objectively a better map in many ways, particularly showing the locations of rivers and the Sioux Reservation.

It's also notable that Sack includes the "Unceded Sioux Territory". My understanding (and I could be wrong) is that land has disputed legal status today, the result of a broken treaty with the Sioux. The passing of this pipeline through that land is a key part of the dispute, though, and mapping it helps us understand the protest against the pipeline's passage through that land.

politics
  2016-11-21 20:13 Z