ongoing by Tim Bray

ongoing fragmented essay by Tim Bray

FaviconPortraits of Puppets 21 Aug 2019, 10:00 pm

If you happened to check out my Twitter feed on the weekend, you’ll know that I attended a pair of dueling rallies outside a train station in central Vancouver. On one side, a crowd in black supporting the Hong Kong protests; on the other a red-clad flag-festooned squad bringing Beijing’s message. I was dressed in black and took pictures of the other side.

Pro-Beijing demonstrators in expensive cars

The issue

It’s a no-brainer. Hong Kong isn’t perfect but it’s a civilization, with laws and with access to the world. China is a big hulking cut-off-from-the-world prison for the mind, built on systemic brutality and corruption. I admire the Hong Kongers’ courage and fear for their future. I can’t protect them from the PRC but at least I can show where I stand, and who knows, it might even make a difference if enough other people do too and the Beijing bastards decide that crushing HK might be bad for business.

People in red

I didn’t take pictures of the pro-HK side because you can bet the other side wouldn’t hesitate to use such things against them. It was probably superfluous since the Beijingers were loaded with cameras.

Pro-Beijing demonstrators

Now you’ve seen all the signs they had. It was all very uniform and organized on the Beijing side, everyone was waving the same thing. On the HK side there was an explosion of hand-lettered signs among a scattering of HK and Canadian flags. In the picture above, I particularly liked the worried-looking dude looking left through glasses, and got a nice picture of him when the sun came out.

Pro-Beijing demonstrator

He didn’t seem to be having much fun, but that’s probably a little misleading because there were definitely people on that side who were into it.

Pro-Beijing demonstrator Pro-Beijing demonstrator Pro-Beijing demonstrator

These two dudes were definitely full of that old school spirit, mind you one of them had his little camera rolling non-stop.

And you have to ask who these people were? I suspect they fell into three baskets. First, committed pro-Party people, maybe from the Consulate, maybe with less official standing, genuinely on the tyrants’ side — the rewards are good. Second, Chinese folk here in Vancouver who’ve stayed inside the Party-line bubble, there are media offerings to help. Third, people who don’t like the Party or (more likely) don’t like politics, who’ve had effortless-but-irresistable family or professional pressure applied.

Let’s just call them all puppets, because that’s how the people pulling the strings think about them. Here’s the puppeteers’ infrastructure:

Pro-Beijing demonstrators

Through the crowd, you can see the table where puppets can get their placards and posters and flags. I’d just love to know who organized that table and paid for the printing.

The shouting contest

That’s what the demonstrations turned out to be. The size of the red and black crowds was roughly equal — maybe a few more on the black side? — and the police did a good job of keeping space between them; it helped that nobody I saw apparently wanted to start a fight.

Disclosure: I thought how satisfying a sudden charge across the open space at the puppets would have been, but fortunately I’m grown-up enough to keep my fantasy life where it belongs.

In terms of faces and if you ignored the colors, a lot of the people on either side could have been transplanted to the other without anyone noticing. But the black side was a little older and more grizzled and a whole lot more spontaneous and cracked better jokes and the signs were better and by the way were on the side of freedom.

Coda, with hot cars

I was kind of in the middle of the black demo and noticed that every few minutes, there’d be a roar of approval from the puppet side, countered by a thunder of booing from ours. By watching where people were looking, I traced the source to the road going by. What was happening was that a few bright Beijing sparks were driving their expensive sports cars round and round the block waving PRC flags.

Pro-Beijing demonstrators in expensive cars Pro-Beijing demonstrators in a Ferrari

Who’s the white dude driving the Ferrari, I want to know.

Which I think kind of underlines the key point. Like Orwell said, the object of power is power. A chief pleasure of power is showing it off, and driving around in Lambos and McLarens and Ferraris is a pretty satisfying way to do that. Particularly when you can soak up applause from the plebeians on your side and jeers from your enemies.

It’s pretty simple

The people of Hong Kong don’t want to be censored, tortured, imprisoned, and killed by those whose asshole kids are driving supercars around West Coast cities across the Pacific. I’m with them.

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FaviconTalking Hong Kong Blues 18 Aug 2019, 10:00 pm

I’m imagining a discussion that might have taken place in Baidaihe at some point this month at the annual CCP summer offsite.

“Getting ugly in Hong Kong, and I’m not sure our Ms Lam is moving things in the right direction.”

“I hear from the people on the spot that what the good people want is just peace and quiet, this is just a bunch of teenage assholes making trouble.”

“Nobody wants to give their boss bad news. Haven’t you watched the BBC coverage? Maybe you’re hearing good things from your staff, but let’s suppose the gweilo TV is right? What are we going to do?”

“We’re doing one thing that’s working, going after the troublemakers’ bosses. We took down Hogg at Cathay Pacific. That’ll make every ambitious manager in HK go on the warpath to keep their employees in the office and off the damn streets. Hong Kong, it’s about three things: Money, money, and money.”

“Except for, the bad guys are getting 20% of the population out in the streets. That’ll include people who work for every fucking bank and real-estate developer and shipping company, are we gonna get every CEO in South China fired?”

“But the police say there were only 128,000 people out!”

“The HK police are idiots and in case you hadn’t notice, they’re losing in the streets.”

“I think they’re winning. There haven’t been any arrests or violence at the last three days of protests.”

“You think that’s good?! If the word starts going around that you can get away with large-scale activism as long as you keep it peaceful… do you like the idea of four million people out on the streets of Shanghai? Or a couple of million in Guangzhou?”

“What do you mean about the word getting around? The people of China are well-protected from dangerous foreign ideas, they’re not going to watching those shitty BBC liars.”

“Don’t you look at tourism figures? Fifty one million people from our side visited Hong Kong last year. They’ll all be talking to their friends and relations.”

“Yeah, well that’s maybe ten million people, a lot of them visiting every week on business. And, let’s be honest, they’re the same ones who travel overseas and already have lots of exposure to fake news from people who hate the Party. They probably all have VPNs already.”

“On top of which, those people are making good money and they owe it to us and they know it. They’ll bloody well watch what they say.”

“You guys, this is the same kind of thinking that got our 1989 leadership into trouble, letting those ‘innocent’ students stay in Tienanmen until they thought they owned it and we had to go in with the tanks and machine guns!”

“He’s right. We have the muscle all built up in Shenzen, they can be holding down Central and Tsim Sha Tsui in 72 hours and there’ll be no more of those fucking umbrellas. On top of which, the good people there will throw flowers at our guys and go back to making money in peace and quiet.”

“Suppose they don’t. Suppose there are a quarter million assholes dressed in black yelling ‘Gaa Yau!’ at each other and ‘Two Systems!’ at us and, flashing lasers and the real fringe throwing molotovs, and all with masks so we can’t ID many, and fading away into the MTR, and then another quarter million out the next day?”

“Brother, if it really comes down to them versus us, it’ll be us. Just like in 1989. It’s not just riot-control equipment waiting there in Shenzen. And any solo hero standing in front of a PLA tank this time is going to be ashes before he gets on CNN.”

“Screw CNN. It’ll be live on YouTube and Instagram and Twitter with a couple of billion people watching, and highlights of PLA tanks squishing Hong Kong patriots waiting for people who were asleep at the time.”

“So what? The people who matter need to do business with us, what do they care what kids watch on Instagram? Are they going to walk away from the chance?”

“Well, Google did.

Here’s another thing. Suppose they’re holding out in Mong Kok and every other skeezy neighborhood away from Central and there are people in all those buildings throwing shit at us from the 3rd through 20th floors, and they turn trucks sideways in those awful little streets, how are we going to get them out?”

“The PLA is not going to be stopped by a bunch of acne-faced cockroaches! Whose side are you on?”

“Western politics is weird. They eventually turned their backs on people from their own tribe in Rhodesia and South Africa in favor of a bunch of black people!

“We have our people getting our side of the story out in every Western capital; the right kind of students marching, shouting down the local HK troublemakers.”

“Give me a break, those clueless princelings haven’t the vaguest what they’re living among. I see their latest brilliant idea is to drive around in their Lambos and McLarens waving Chinese flags. Are you really really sure you want to make that bet?”

“Look, our economy is less about imports and exports every year. If the world doesn’t want us any more, then we don’t need them! We’ll just turn our backs and China will be China for Chinese, and it’ll be great.”

“Yeah, well I don’t want to miss aprés-ski in Zermatt or my place with that view in West Vancouver.”

“You might have to, because if those HK cockroaches prove they can tell us to fuck off and go on having a decent life and making money… you talk about bringing in muscle from Shenzen, what I worry about is people there starting to dress in black.”

“Yep, let’s just keep the PLA ready to roll, and hope it doesn’t have to.”

“Hope is not a strategy.”

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FaviconJeanneau 795 Review 6 Aug 2019, 10:00 pm

In Europe this boat is called the Merry Fisher 795 and in the New World, the NC 795. I’ve owned it for a few months and improved it a bit and taken it a few places and feel like sharing.

Why review?

At this point, regular readers are thinking WTF, boat review?!? I’ve only been on a handful, I’ve only owned one since 2012, I’m still occasionally baffled by nautical jargon, and my command of knots remains imperfect.

Here’s why. When you go shopping for a refrigerator or car or coffee-maker or TV or (especially) camera, there are loads of excellent detailed skeptical-voiced reviews you can read before you cough up the money. Boats (which cost more money than most of those things) are different. All the online reviews seem to be from dealers or magazine-writers on the comp, and are by and large paeans of praise.

Jeanneau 795

There are owners’ forums out there, but they tend to focus on specific problems and solutions. What’s especially missing is “I have one of these, here are the good parts and bad parts.”

I’m not completely unqualified. It’s been at my dock for a few months, I’ve installed improvements, I’ve piloted twenty-plus hours on it, motored through extreme beauty and nasty scary rough water, taken guests on pleasure cruises and a grouchy family on a tired commute, and used it as an office for a few afternoons.

So I’ll see if I can beg a few links from other 795 owners on the forums and get this a bit of GoogleJuice with the aim of better equipping other boat shoppers like me.

Facts

Jeanneau has been making boats since 1957. That link is to French Wikipedia; the English version is mostly empty and I should fix it up. The interesting, complicated story is nicely told in English by Malcolm Perrins on a Jeanneau-owners community site. The company, since its founding by Henry Jeanneau, has been sold multiple times to US and French companies and is now owned by Beneteau.

The dealer told me that the Jeanneau powerboats are built in Poland — this made him happy because for some obscure reason it leads to favorable import-tax treatment. The Jeanneau America site says “Built in America” and the first version of this piece doubted that, but a reader from Michigan wrote “We have the NC 895. It is built in Cadillac Michigan. They took the old Fourwinns plant.”

Our boat’s curtains are labeled “Made in France” and the appliances such as chargers and thrusters and fridges are Eurobuilt and their manuals have Italian or French as the first language, with English further back in the book. So I’m inclined to believe the France/Poland story in this case.

People who are buying a boat care a lot about dimensions because one of the hardest parts is finding a place that’s big enough and deep enough to park it. The 795 is 7.34m or or 24’4" long, and 2.99m or 9’9" wide, with a hull depth of a mere 0.56m or 1’10" — that’s with the outboard hoisted, which is how you normally park it.

The 795 comes with a Yamaha outboard, either 150 or 200hp, and lots of options. It’s got a modest-sized berth in the bow, a tiny but functional head (as in bathroom), and similarly tiny stove and fridge. What electronics you get apparently depends on the dealer.

Good: Engine

We have the Yamaha F200 and since it’s an outboard, there’s more room inside the boat. I’d never really been aware of this line of motors but now when I walk around any marina I see that somewhere between a third and a half of the powerboats are wearing them. So, right in the middle of the mainstream.

It’s got a very decent little electronic control screen on the dashboard and the docs are clear and comprehensive.

We set it at 4500RPM and it pushes the boat along at a little over 40km/h, depending on wind and waves. If you open it wide up on smooth water you can get up well over fifty clicks but the experience is not relaxing, or cheap either.

Good: Comfort

Not just good, excellent. The pilothouse has room for a driver and two more people in comfort, four if they’re not chunky or need extra personal space. (Protip: The aft bench is way more comfy.) The cockpit out back has forward-facing seating for three with a cushion to lean back on, and then a couple more benches but they’re less comfy. We’ve been out for a slow cruise on a warm night to watch fireworks with seven aboard and it was just fine.

Fireworks in English Bay, photographed from a Jeanneau 795

The pilothouse is really the best feature. It has a sliding “Alaska bulkhead” which means a glass door that closes, leaving the motor and its racket outside; inside, you can have a civilized conversation without shouting.

Good: Swimming platform

It’s just big enough and has a nice practical swimming ladder. We’ve used it every time we’ve been to the cabin. I shot that fireworks picture above sitting on the platform dangling my feet in the Pacific; very relaxing.

Bad: Living quarters

While they advertise two berths, realistically there’s just not enough space for more than one couple and they’d better be intimate. What with the tiny fridge and stove, I don’t think this is the boat for a lengthy family cruise up a wild coastline.

Good: Windshield

And I mean awesome. This puppy’s front glass is the size of a small European nation and when you’re sailing home with the sun behind you in a long Canadian sunset with the mountains filling the sky in front, well, there just aren’t words for that.

Vancouver through Jeanneau 795 windshield

Coming into a Vancouver from a weekend at the cottage; about two thirds of the windshield are shown. That’s the West End at the left and the Burrard Street Bridge behind the wiper. The little grey screen on the left is the Yamaha engine readout; some timing thing prevents the Pixel 2 from photographing it properly.

The wipers’ coverage isn’t that great, leaving swathes of uncleaned glass in dirty weather, but you can see the important stuff. And it comes with a windshield-washing squirter system just like your car’s, which turns out to be brilliant when you hit big waves and they splash up and want to leave sticky salt crystals where you’re trying to look out. You load it with windshield fluid from the gas station.

It’s worth mentioning the side windows too, which open and close easily and let loads of fresh air in at cruising speed without blasting your head off, and seem completely rain-proof too.

Good: Bow thruster

This is magic. We have a nice easy tie-up along the side of a dock, not crammed into a little slip, but it’s on the left as you come in and the boat wants to be tied up with its right side to the dock, so a 180° turn in tight quarters is called for. With the thruster and a light touch, it’s reasonably straightforward. The thruster is also useful as compensation for any dumb piloting errors around the dock — of course, these never happen when I’m at the wheel.

Good: It’s hackable

In the Jeanneau owners’ community I found an active boat-improvement culture; they’re always adding something or replacing something else. By dint of extensive research from primary sources, by which I mean watching YouTube videos, I have learned how to attach things to fiberglass (Protip: Get a countersink bit for your drill) and have so far improved ours by fastening the fire extinguisher to a handy bulkhead, equipping the head with a toilet-paper rod, and installing a garbage-bag holder. Call me Ishmael.

There are a variety of surfaces suitable for equipping with electronic upgrades or just decorations. We’ve decorated a couple with family photos.

Bad: Documentation

Hailing from the technology space means that I should be restrained in criticizing other professions’ end-user documentation. The boat came with a nice Jeanneau-branded satchel full of dead trees; the quality of exposition and language is, well, mixed. Highlights are the books for the Yamaha engine and the boat itself. The low point is the Lowrance navigation electronics tome, obviously executed by manic pixies on acid. The information is more or less all there but requires deep digging and Zen calm to extract.

My favorite though is the anchor-winch system, which is written in impenetrably-nautical English. Fortunately it’s accompanied by a diagram with all the parts carefully named and numbered. Unfortunately, about half the nautical names studding the text do not appear in the picture.

To be fair, I managed to figure it out well enough to anchor us (in shallow water with nearly no wind) for firework-watching.

My niece capturing a water-color of Indian Arm

My niece Anne capturing a water-color impression of Indian Arm.

Good: Piloting

The driver’s seat is comfy, the steering and throttle are crisp and responsive, and the view forward and aft is excellent. Steering at speed is a little heavier and slower than our previous inboard-outboard, but it’s plenty good enough to dodge a floating log. I’d actually like a bigger steering wheel that’s closer to me, so there’s another boat-improvement project.

Good: Access

Getting from the cockpit around to the foredeck, and up and down the sides for washing and so on, is all dead easy. The cabin is a little off-center, leaving a walkway along one side; and both sides have intelligently-placed handholds to make things easy and safe.

Bad: Flat bottom

The draft is remarkably small and the bottom, compared to the last boat, is pretty flat. This means that when you hit big waves, for example a ferry wake that you stupidly failed to notice until you were right on top of it cruising at 40km/h, you tend to skip along from wave to wave, hitting each one with a jarring “slap” of the flat bottom. This can fling passengers about a bit in a seriously uncomfortable way. Protip: Be on the sharp lookout for incoming waves and slow the hell down.

I’m not a bossy skipper but we have imposed one rule: If you want to move around the cabin, say so and we’ll slow down while you do. This after I nearly put my niece in orbit when she was going to get her backpack and I slammed on the brakes because I thought I saw some peril out front.

Good: Home office

I’m doing WFB (work from boat) one afternoon most weeks now, and it’s just terrific. The aft passenger-side bench is reasonably ergonomic and the table’s at a sane height. I often make a cup of tea and stash a snack in the fridge. I have taken conference calls, drafted and reviewed documents, reviewed code, and once (cackling with glee) checked in code to the AWS production repository.

I haven’t convinced any colleagues to come down for an in-boat meeting yet; it’s just a matter of time. But I’m just not gonna install whiteboards.

Mixed: Online community

The biggest is the Owners’ Forum, which is OK but suffers from Jeanneau having so many products. There’s also a group on Facebook, obviously. I’ve picked up valuable tips in both places.

Bad: Missing pieces

There’s no automatic bilge pump, which I find shocking, but on the other hand I have to say it stays almost bone-dry down there, even with mixed hot & cold weather, bashing through pretty rough seas, several days of heavy rain, and regular thorough washing (the honeymoon is still on).

There’s no horn; our previous boat had one and while I only ever used it once or twice, I was glad of it.

There’s no built-in heater. Our journeys typically aren’t long enough to need one on the water, but this might be an issue in home-office mode. Multiple owners have installed diesel heaters, and I have a nice little AC space heater that I’ll try out when on shore power. Similarly, there’s no air conditioner, which is more of a problem than you might think up here at 49°30'N because the pilothouse has so much glass, it’s a greenhouse.

Jeanneau 795 tied up at Keats Island

There are only two cleats, fore and aft. When you’re tying up to a floating dock for a weekend in Howe Sound (see above), which after all is part of the Pacific, you really want one and ideally two spring lines along with the basic fore and aft. Several owners have figured out how to install an extra central cleat, and I’ll look to do that.

And your conclusion is?

Count the “Good”, “Bad”, and “Mixed” headlines above. The good stuff wins, by a wide margin. I’ve got no standing to say whether or not this is a winner or loser against the competition because I haven’t owned the competition. What I can say, a few months in, is that it meets our needs very well.

Accessorizing

Here are the things I’ve purchased to improve the experience:

  1. SeaTeak 62634 Insulated Four-Drink Binocular Rack — I have two of these things velcro’ed down behind the sink. The binoc-shaped spaces also work for big coffee mugs with handles.

  2. Dell Ultra HD 4K 24-Inch Monitor P2415Q — just the right size for outboarding to my company MBPro, and comes with USB so I only need one plug to power everything. I need to install something to hang it up on the berth bulkhead when not in use, at the moment it’s lying face-down on the mattress, which is OK but takes space.

  3. 4.5" 12V Stepless Speed Car Fan — sold by different vendors in the US & Canada. Like I said, it can get toasty in the pilothouse but this guy takes care of it just by keeping the air moving.

  4. Rod Holder Mount Boat Flagpole — the 795 has two fishing-rod holders but no flagpole. Hey-presto! The Canadian flag looks great out there but we haven’t figured out which minor ensign to fly beneath it. Patti Smith fan club? Antifa emblems? Not sure.

  5. From Davis Instruments, Shockles LineSnubbers and LineGrabbers; nothing specific to this boat, just a coincidence that I discovered them recently. If you tie up where it might get rough, you need these.

Summary

My relationship with the previous boat was pretty prosaic. It got us back and forth to the cabin and was kind of charming with its wood trim, but it always needed fixing and there were important subsystems I never learned to understand. This is a whole different kettle of fish. I’m starting to develop sympathy with the oft-repeated Kenneth Grahame quote from The Wind in the Willows:

Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing… about in boats — or with boats. In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.

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FaviconGoogle Camera RAW vs JPG 27 Jul 2019, 10:00 pm

I recently wrote about how to move the excellent photos from the Google Pixel phone Camera app into a desktop Lightroom workflow. I was pleased that it’s easy to tell the camera to generate DNG “RAW” files and include them in the process. But apparently, the camera’s JPGs are better and more useful than the DNGs. That’s weird.

Here’s a pair of pictures to illustrate. This morning, the cat found a sunny corner of the back porch and was squirming around out of pure joy.

Cat on the back porch (Google Pixel DNG) Cat on the back porch (Google Pixel JPG)

The DNG is above, the JPG below. Of course they’re both JPGs now in the blog, but both are straight out of the camera, resized and JPGized by Lightroom with no sharpening or anything. It’s not that dramatic here, but flipping back and forth in Lightroom, the difference isn’t subtle. The JPG has had some lens correction, the blown-out highlights have been recovered, there’s been a bit of sharpening (look at the cat’s belly hair and the broom bristles), and the color’s been tweaked — that watering-can is dead-on in the JPG but has extra yellow in the DNG.

In this CNET piece, Marc Levoy, who invented the term “computational photography”, says “The JPEGs from the Pixel camera may actually be more detailed than the DNGs in some cases” and yeah, no kidding. In fact — and this puzzles me — the JPG is 4032x3024 in pixels while the DNG is 4016x3008, which is to say it’s 112K bigger. But I don’t think that’s what Levoy meant.

Also: “Our philosophy with raw is that there should be zero compromise,” Levoy said. “We run Super Res Zoom and HDR+ on these raw files. There is an incredible amount of dynamic range.” That doesn’t match my experience, but then he was talking about the Pixel 3 and I still have a 2. Also, Stephen Shankland said: “I rather like Google’s computational DNGs from Pixel 3. They HDR-ize the raw input to create the DNG. It’s not perfect but I find it darned useful. (I also generally like the Pixel camera app’s JPEGs, though they can look overprocessed to my eye.)” So I look forward to giving Pixel 3 (or 4) DNGs a try.

Why do you want DNG anyhow?

Photographers like RAW versions of photos because they’re more editable. One of the most common editing modes is rescuing lost data from highlights or dark areas that look blown-out or dimmed-out in the original — you hear people saying that a good camera RAW is “deep”, and that’s certainly true of the files from the Fujifilm X-cameras.

Consider these three pictures. Once again, the first is the DNG, the second the JPG, and in the third, I decided to see if I could recover image in the dark area behind the hydrangea blossoms. (Not a thing I’d normally do on this shot, I like the dark framing.)

Hydrangea (Google Pixel DNG) Hydrangea (Google Pixel JPG) Hydrangea (Google Pixel JPG, edited)

I think the results speak for themselves. There’s a lot of useful data in this JPG.

Which raises one more question: By aggressively digging in with Lightroom, could I replicate what the Google camera software did, or maybe even improve on it? So I tried that, and there was progress but at no point did I think I was really replicating that tasty JPG, and I got bored trying.

So for now I think I’m going to turn off the DNG capture on the camera app. Sshhh, don’t tell any Real Photographers.

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FaviconGoogle Pixel Photo Workflow 27 Jul 2019, 10:00 pm

I recently wrote about the excessive difficulty of moving the Google Pixel phone’s excellent pictures through a Lightroom workflow. It turns out that Lightroom has a solution; herewith details, upsides, downsides, and alternatives. Also, cautionary words for Adobe on Lightroom Classic

To start with, Adobe has a page telling you how to Sync Lightroom Classic with Lightroom ecosystem.

Sidebar: “Lightroom Classic”

If you’re not sure what “Lightroom Classic” means, they also have a page whose URL suggests it’s about Lightroom Classic vs Lightroom CC — but the “CC” designation has apparently been lost, so the cloud-centric version is just Lightroom. For those of us with cameras that aren’t phones and produce huge raw files, Classic is the place to be.

Now, anyone who’s software-savvy has to be nervous about using a product with “Classic” in its name because that usually means “we don’t care about this, won’t invest in it, and will probably discontinue it.” For the moment I’m not going to worry because I suspect the Lightroom customer based is overweighted with people carrying serious cameras that really need the disk-based workflow, and Adobe just can’t afford to blow us off.

Having said that, I owe thanks to someone with an @adobe.com address who wrote me an email beginning “You are working too hard.” and outlined the How-To. But later in our exchange, they said “I do recommend the CC version, I believe that's where most of the energy is being focused.” That makes me nervous. Hey Adobe, you got a huge percentage of the world’s serious photogs to sign up for a monthly subscription; you had better treat us and our big cameras and our monster DNG files nice.

How-To: Details

That how-to-sync page is accurate as far as it goes, but I got stuck for the longest time because it says “After signing in, click your user name that now appears at the upper-left corner and ensure that the Sync With Lightroom option is turned on.” Only my Lightroom screen doesn’t have my name on it. That’s because (like many other, I bet) I run in full-screen mode. So drop out of full-screen; or just push your mouse up to the top left corner and your name will appear. Hey Adobe, why in the freaking hell is that preference hidden there instead of placed under the “Lightroom Sync” tab in the, you know, Preferences? But I digress.

The other important thing they don’t tell you is that after you’ve taken the photos, you need to wake up the Lightroom app on your Pixel and it’ll auto-magically notice the new pix and sync ’em. I’m OK with this because it lets me control when the sync happens, normally when I’m in the warm glow of home WiFi.

I used to use the Lightroom camera app (which presumably does this itself) because it had better ergonomics than Google’s, but then Google’s got the computational-photography magic where it shoots 50 times a second and combines them to produce unnaturally great pictures.

Deletion

Deleting these synced photos gets a little weird. If you do it when you’re in the “All Synced Photos” folder, you get a message about how they’re going to be deleted from Lightroom but retained in the Catalog. Near as I can tell, that’s just wrong, they vanish from your phone and lightroom.adobe.com and your desktop Lightroom. If you’ve moved them into a regular working directory you just get the normal Lightroom “Deleted Selected Master Photo” dialog, but it still takes care of cleaning up the online and on-phone versions.

Alternatives

If you go check out the comments on my last piece, there are a bunch of interesting-sounding suggestions of other ways to move stuff in general and pictures in particular between your phone and your computer. I’m not going to check them out because the Lightroom process described here works for me. If you’re interested, I’d pay particular attention to one of the Sync apps from MetaCtrl because they’re by Trun Duc Tran, one of the best developers I ever worked with.

Downsides

This whole investigation got started because, as Stephen Shankland noted, when you do this auto-syncing you no longer go through Lightroom’s “Import” process, which allows you to rename, add metadata, apply develop presets, and so on. Not an issue for me but it might be for you.

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FaviconGoogle Photos Breakage 23 Jul 2019, 10:00 pm

The camera systems in the Google Pixel phones are excellent, but Google makes it way too hard for the serious photographer to get a decent workflow going. Does someone out there know a better way? If not, let’s get together and yell at Google. [Update: I found a good way to do this.]

Vancouver’s old Post Office under renovation

Pixel.

It’s like this: Pictures you take with your Pixel migrate into Google cloud and may be found at photos.google.com. You don’t have to do anything to arrange this, it just happens. There are slideshow and sharing tools and they’re very decent. It’s a great service, I might even pay for it if Google asked.

But I — like most serious photographers — want to pull the photos, in their highest-resolution form, into a processing workflow. Mine is Lightroom-based, a popular (perhaps even majority) choice. In a real camera, when I say “highest-resolution” I mean a “RAW” format, which tend to come in proprietary flavors such as RAF for Fujifilm and CRW for Canon. It’s OK because Lightroom can handle all of them, and then there’s sort of a standard, developed by Adobe, called “DNG”. A few enlightened camera builders like Pentax generate DNG natively and hey, it turns out the Pixel can too. You go into the camera app Settings’ “Advanced” tab and enable a RAW control on the camera screen.

I’ve just started doing this and at the moment, my feeling is that the Googlecam software does a damn fine job of JPG generation and I’m not sure the DNG will help me that much. But the central problem remains the same: How do I get these files, be they DNG or JPG, into Lightroom?

Wet poppy

Pixel.

AFT

That stands for Android File Transfer, a tired old (32-bit, so my Mac whines at me) program that gives you a Finder-like interface to the Android Linux filesystem once you’ve USB-connected it to your Mac, pulled down the Android notifications, and told it to allow AFT. The JPG files are in /DCIM/Camera and the DNGs are in /Pictures/Raw. I guess what they want you to do is sort the files by date, remember where you last left off with the copying, and then select-and-drag to a staging folder in the nearest Finder window, from which you can do Lightroom input. After which you can take out your stone axe and join in the tribe’s mammoth hunt.

BTW, the Pixel will connect to the Mac in PTP mode and Lightroom can even see it, but then can’t see the pictures.

Dropbox

Using the Android file-sharing dialog, you can pick the pictures from the Photos app and send ’em to DropBox, and then after they’ve traveled from the phone on your armchair off to Dropbox’s home on the Internet and back down to your Dropbox Mac folder — this is not fast — you can go get ’em with Lightroom.

Color study

Pixel.

Dropbox is what I actually do. It’s klunky and slow, but gets the job done and has never to date actually failed to work. But we hear troubling things about Dropbox’s direction.

Google Cloud

You can get a Backup and Sync app from Google that should make some of your Google cloud files sync to your Mac. I’ve had just no end of pain with this one. You have to go mousing around in the preferences for Docs or Drive or something, a real maze of twisty little passages there, and tell it to sync photos as well as other stuff, and then last time I tried it, the process had busted the EXIF so the pictures didn’t know what time they’d been taken. Feaugh.

The other night, I was chatting with Stephen Shankland on Twitter and he seemed to have found a path through the Gcloud maze; hey Stephen, wanna blog that?

Plan D?

Anyone reading this know a better way?

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FaviconEventBridge 11 Jul 2019, 10:00 pm

The launch of Amazon EventBridge, a somewhat but not entirely new thing, has been well-covered by Jeff Barr; if you want to know what it is, go read Jeff. This piece is to provide a bit of background and context on EventBridge. I didn’t actually make any direct contributions, but was upstream from this work at the definition and early-planning stage.

CloudWatch what?

My first work at AWS was on the project that launched in January 2016 as CloudWatch Events. To us it felt like a small, simple, service — write rules to route notifications of things happening out there in AWS to Lambdas or other useful destinations. It wasn’t a big team or a big task and, when it came time to name it and find it a home, it was hard to believe it deserved top-level service billing.

EventBridge stickers

Coming soon to a laptop near you. Warning: Prepared by engineers without involvement by marketing professionals or lawyers; let’s hope they’re OK.

Since CloudWatch already offered alarming and logging, eventing seemed like a nice third leg of the tripod, so our work launched as a tab on the CloudWatch page, and we thought that was OK.

Customers apparently liked it, and over the years, CloudWatch Events accumulated a mind-boggling number of users and a lot of the things they were doing weren’t really CloudWatch-y at all. Also, the whole Event-Driven Architectures drumbeat kept growing louder and louder out there in the community.

Last year, we got the idea of helping third parties (mostly SaaS vendors) integrate with their customers on AWS, and quickly became convinced that eventing was the right way to do this — while I’m a fan of the Webhook concept, the reality has not been a smooth ride. Once we’d made that call, enhancing the CloudWatch Events APIs to meet partner needs was pretty straightforward once we’d thought through the security dimensions. Except for, this was getting waaaay outside CloudWatch territory.

Which Bridge?

So, we decided that this service deserved top-level billing and went looking for a new name. The best possible answer would be “AWS Events”, right? Wrong. Go look at aws.amazon.com/events and hey, re:Invent, re:Inforce, AWS Summits… you get the picture. Thus EventBridge, which isn’t terrible.

(By the way, all your CloudWatch Events stuff still works and none of the existing API names or semantics have changed.)

The Event Ecosystem

It’s getting pretty big. Inside AWS, Lambda and SNS are event-centric. If you check out our competitors, you’ll notice more services with “Event” in their names every year. The numbers of events flowing through our various accumulated event streams has a lot of digits.

I’m personally pretty convinced that, while you can hook everything together with APIs, there are a whole lot of scenarios where choosing events buys you so much robustness and flexibility that it’s really hard not to. Is it perfect? Of course not: There are lots of places where the API ecosystem is slicker.

If you want to a really good explanation of why event-driven stuff might be in your future, the AWS NYC Summit talk by Mike Deck has what you need. As I write this the day of the summit, it doesn’t seem to be online but I’ll refresh once it gets there; and I bet Mike will reprise at future AWS, uh, events.

There’ll be lots more chapters in this story.

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FaviconWealth Tax Stupidity 9 Jul 2019, 10:00 pm

Canada’s mainstream conservative biz paper The Financial Post recently published The NDP’s new tax-the-rich plan is terrible, even by their standards and it is stuffed with white-hot stupidity and bad arithmetic. Arguing against any given tax is sane — that’s what conservatives are for, innit? — but if they’re going to use math that would get you an “F” in Grade 8, they deserve a whack with the cluestick.

Here’s a Post out-take:

The proposal is for an annual one per cent tax on wealth over $20 million. This means that if an Ontario resident to whom this tax applies invests $100,000 in a 1.5 per cent GIC for one year (about the rate currently offered by big banks), he or she will earn a $1,500 nominal return on which will be owed $1,833 in tax — $833 in income tax, including the higher top marginal income tax rate, plus another $1,000 for the wealth tax.

The effective tax rate on the GIC return is 122 per cent, which is what the NDP now calls “tax fairness.”

Let’s enumerate some facts:

  1. Canada has a reasonably-typical developed-world tax regime; in the top income bracket, you pay a little over 50% in tax.

  2. Wealthy people do not put their money in 1.5% GICs, they pay investment professionals to manage it. Typically, the wealthier they are, the better returns they can get because they can hire better money managers. (There’s interesting data on this in Piketty.) Let’s say they’re going to realize 4% or so, because in fact most wealthy people do better than that. I’m a one-percenter but nowhere near the hypothetical twenty-millioner in the narrative, and I do better.

  3. A little arithmetic reveals that Mr $20M will pull in about $800K in investment income, $400K net after tax. Actually, he’ll do better because some investment income will be capital gains, taxed at half the rate, and he’ll probably do better than 4% too. But then there’s the 1% wealth tax, so subtract that for a worst-case net income of $200K if he refuses to spend any of his capital.

    Now, people with that kind of money usually have other wealth-generating activities (how else did they get there?), which is on top of the $200K. Until they retire. The conventional wisdom says that a retiree can extract 4-5% of their capital per annum, which for this person would be pushing a million, except for there are lots of tax dodges open to retirees, so while they’d still be stuck with the $200K wealth tax, they could keep more of that million.

So, the things that were wrong about that $100K-deposit story:

  1. It’s completely bogus to combine the wealth tax and the income tax and say it’s “on the GIC return”. I’d say “Data fail” but that’s too kind; the 122% figure is a filthy, stinking lie.

  2. And anyhow, the whole scenario is science fiction, the “$20 million” part just doesn’t go with the “$100K GIC” part. If a conservative advocating lower taxes has to resort to this kind of specious bullshit, you have to wonder if it’s because they can’t find better arguments.

Take-away

I think a small wealth tax, maybe starting in the low-double-digit millions, is a fine idea. I think that people subject to it will in practice remain extremely affluent. Their fortune would erode slowly over the years — having trouble seeing what’s wrong with that — but there’ll be plenty left to give their kids’ careers a rocket boost.

It’s perfectly reasonable to disagree with me. But if you’re going to resort to numerical flummery I’m going to think just you’re a greedy asshole with no intellectual legs to stand on.

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FaviconReasons to Cycle 6 Jul 2019, 10:00 pm

Recently I enthused on the life impact of getting an e-bike. The enthusiasm remains and I two-wheel to work almost every day. Often my thoughts are of the form “What makes this so great is…” Here are some of those, but there’s a very specific assumption: that your home city has decent bikelane infrastructure. Vancouver’s is not world-class but also not terrible, and I’ll toss in a few pix from my commute for non-bike-commuters who might not have seen what that means.

On 18th Ave in Mount Pleasant, Vancouver

I have 2½ blocks of regular street between home
and the nearest bike route. But it’s pretty nice.

It’s free

No charge to use the public roads or bikepaths. No charge to park, anywhere (the mind reels). The bike’s not free and I bought panniers and a lock, but compared to basically any car it’s peanuts, maintenance too (especially maintenance, actually). I have an e-bike so there are a few pennies’ worth of charging power every other week.

Public transit here is $24/week for my route, car parking is $10/day and way up, plus gas if you’re still misguidedly driving a fossil car.

On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway

One technique for making a street bike-friendly is frequent interruptions so that for cars so it’s not a direct route to anywhere. Another is a roundabout at every other corner that makes them wake up and steer. Another is to have lots of bikes on it.

It’s fast

This thing ticks along at 25km/h on the level, 20 uphill, 35-40 downhill. If I take my car and the traffic’s not bad I can get there way faster, but the traffic’s never not bad if you want to work reasonably conventional hours. You could argue that the car offers comfy seats, weather protection, and music. But…

No waiting!

Humans are born to travel; being on the road’s one of our natural conditions. (If you’ve ever doubted this, go read Chatwin’s The Songlines.) But I have never in my whole life encountered anyone who wasn’t irritated during those times when they’re trying to get somewhere and have to wait. Urban driving is all about waiting: For the light, for the other cars trying to get on the bridge or make that turn, for the slowpoke who isn’t sure where they’re going, for the pedestrians drifting across the road looking at their phones.

On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway

It’s not perfect. This is a combo crosswalk for pedestrians, who have a right-of-way over cars, and bikes, who don’t. But if you meet their eyes they usually stop and then you should give them a friendly wave so they feel virtuous.

When you’re commuting by bike, you only ever stop for traffic lights and on a well-designed bikepath there aren’t many. It’s all flow and motion, the wind in your face and the scenery hurtling backward. For my money, this is the biggest win. I’ve never claimed the virtue of patience but I don’t think I’m that unusual.

On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway

Above, probably the most dangerous part of my ride. Not because it’s shared with cars — the lanes are well-marked and there’s a stop sign at every corner. It’s because it’s a steep downhill and you can have way too much fun going fast, which in itself would be OK except that bikes have really terrible braking power, especially on wet streets, which we have a lot of in Vancouver. I skidded right through a stop sign the other day, terrifying myself, and now I take it slower than I used to.

It’s good for you

This is a little more complicated than you might think, because cyclists are several times more likely than motorists to be killed per kilometer traversed. I can testify to this; in 2000 I was hit by a car that lurched into forward motion as I was coasting through a crosswalk 18 inches in front of its bumper, severely broke my shoulder, had surgery and spent a week in hospital. But — did I mention it was complicated? — cyclists cover a lot fewer kilometers than motorists, and the death rates vary strongly with age and fitness, and the data doesn’t necessarily apply to cyclists on a modern well-designed bikepath network.

On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway

The only part of the route which is an ordinary road. It also goes right by a big cop shop, so you have to think the drivers will be a little more careful than average.

Another danger is pollution and yeah, urban cycling, during the current fossil-car interregnum, does involve inhaling exhaust.

But then there are the health benefits of getting a half-hour or more of low-impact aerobic exercise every weekday, and they are not subtle, not in the slightest.

Researchers at regular intervals over the years have tried to balance out the pros and cons. Spoiler: The upside wins, big-time. Probably the best survey I ran across researching this was Bicycling: Health Risk or Benefit? by Teschke, Reynolds, Riese, Gouge, and Winters (of UBC and SFU, here in Vancouver!) published back in 2012 but more recent papers I ran across came out about the same, and this one is nicely condensed and presented. Four of the studies they survey, from 2009 through 2012, offer numerical estimates of the ratio of benefit to risk, and those estimates are: 15:1, 9:1, 19:1, and 96:1.

On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway

I get to bicycle over the ocean twice a day, every day. The view never gets old.

On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway

This is what the bikepaths downtown look like. There’s more stopping for red lights, but they have no-nonsense concrete barriers between you and the cars.

Mentally too

Some of those studies actually call out mental-health benefits such as decreased risk of depression, and that’s interesting. But at another level, I feel intuitively that a half-hour in which I’m living in the moment, not gathering wool, not ingesting media, watching like a hawk for dorky drivers and pokey pedestrians, banking around corners and dodging potholes, pedaling hard to beat a yellow light… well, the benefit doesn’t feel subtle.

When I walk into the lobby at work I feel more alive than the mole people emerging from the car-park elevator.

On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway" />

The last lap, up Vancouver downtown’s Robson street. Which is comically vacant all the time except for a few minutes around 9AM and 5PM. Lots of times you could spread out your yoga mat for a few stretches in either lane with no worries. They really ought to make it a pedestrian/bike street.

It’s good for the planet

Well, yeah. Come on and give it a try. If you’re a little old and/or creaky, splash out for an e-bike. Call it an investment because it is, and in things that are important.

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FaviconCL XXXVIII: Refactorings 30 Jun 2019, 10:00 pm

What with our jobs and our kids, Cottage Life time has been tough in recent years. But we still believe in the place and the project enough to put money into repairing our dock and replacing our boat. Which raises issues of work-life balance and money laundering. And as always, these pieces are vehicles for pretty pictures of Keats Island and Howe Sound.

Looking north from Keats Island

This is actually from an earlier visit in April. Behind the elegant hydrangea-blossom corpses, Howe Sound and Gambier Island.

Logistics

What happened was, last winter’s windstorms got nasty, and one of them cost us the aluminum ramp connecting our dock and our float. We need a dock because Keats Island doesn’t have much by way of roads. We need to tie the boat to a float because there are more than five meters of tide in Howe Sound. We need a ramp (with hinges at the top and wheels on the bottom) connecting the two. The old ramp, a flimsy piece of indoor construction scaffolding with rails welded on, was no great loss; and we hadn’t put a penny into the system in years.

Separately, our old boat (see here and here), now 31 years in age, had reached the end of its useful life, with ballooning maintenance costs and failing subsystems. So, as of late May, we’re the owners of a Jeanneau 795, called a Merry Fisher in Europe and an NC 795 in the New World. Boats have been built under the Jeanneau name (that link’s to French Wikipedia) since 1957 and are now manufactured in Poland. Here’s ours:

Jeanneau NC 795 under Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge

That’s Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge and part of the city center behind it. We’re at the Burrard Civic Marina, which despite the great location, is Vancouver’s cheapest boat parking. It’s a city operation and definitely not a Yacht Club, as in no lounges nor daiquiris nor gala socials, nor really much in the way of amenities. But it’s competently run and location makes up for a lot.

It turns out that boat design has made advances in the last thirty years, and apparently the French are good at it. Which is to say, the new one has a lot going for it. It’s just slightly larger than the old boat end-to-end and immensely more spacious inside. It’s comfy, quiet (the old one was loud), has a lot of light inside, and given that the 795’s a popular choice in the North Sea and the famously-blustery Western Mediterranean, probably safe for our inshore-boating needs.

Funny money?

So, my boat broker called up and said “The Jeanneau dealer in Richmond has a boat you ought to look at. A 2017 and the price is good.” I liked the look and haggled a bit, the survey came up good and the test-drive (we say “sea trial”) was fine and eventually we did the deal.

Then I noticed: The boat had only 42 hours on the motor. All the cushions were encased in the original plastic. It had been kept in a boathouse, which usually signals serious money. The buyer (whom I never met) had a Chinese name.

At this point, local news connoisseurs are rolling their eyes and going “Oh yeah?” Over the last few years, it’s been revealed that Vancouver, my beloved hometown, has been one of the world headquarters for the laundering of, uh, “funds of questionable origin”. In quite a few cases, those questionable origins have been located in China, and by elaborate mechanics that I don’t fully understand, processing them through Vancouver real-estate transactions and casino gambling and luxury car sales have made them clean. You want details, go follow Sam Cooper.

I bet no regulations whatsoever get in the way of buying a nice brand-new yacht with a duffel bag full of $100 bills and, well, there’s a significant chance that I personally helped launder some money. Live and learn.

But hey, possibly the guy snapped up the boat and then got busy at work or his wife hated it or his kids were seasick or business took a bad turn and he needed the cash, could all be perfectly legit. These are times that cultivate suspicion.

WFB

That stands for “Working From Boat” and involves a lifestyle problem. Which is, I’ve been getting tired of going to work every day, and toying with thoughts of retirement. I really enjoy my job and like the people there, but there are days when the office palls. Working from home, in moderation, is perfectly OK at Amazon but isn’t really an option for me, because our house only has one office, occupied by the world headquarters of Textuality and its CEO Lauren Wood.

I’ve only had the new boat a few weeks and, well let me tell ya, the prospect of an afternoon or two a week WFB pushes the retirement option somewhat off the front burner. In fact, a majority of my job is talking with people. But there’s still time during which I’m reviewing docs or code, writing docs, or even (*gasp*) writing code. I think the boat is going to be just the ticket. The marina WiFi is only OK so I’m looking at alternatives.

On top of which, basic civic-marina moorage is cheaper than office rent.

What about “Cottage Life”?

Oh, right, the point of having a boat was access to our island retreat. A few days back, we got word that Hanson Land & Sea had our dock and ramp and float all reconnected and, since they’d probably like to be paid, it was pretty urgent that we take a look. Potential problem: My 89-year-old Mom was visiting. But the new boat (which had never been to the island at this point) is quiet and comfy, right? So we loaded up all three generations and took off.

Lunch with Mom overlooking the Pacific, and a slow walk in the forest. Ahhhh…

Forest on Keats Island Forest on Keats Island

Listen to the trees.

(By the way, the new ramp, and the work hooking everything up, seem hunky-dory, so I can recommend Hanson if you need work done in Howe Sound.)

And then, look what Lauren found on our deck. Sad, of course, but what a wondrous piece of work. [Update: Someone on social media argues that by this time of year, the nest’s work is done and since the birds will shed no tears at its fall, neither should we.]

Fallen birds-nest

If you’re in Vancouver, ping me and drop by sometime for a cup of tea at my (occasional) waterfront office.

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FaviconAuntie Beth’s Present 29 Jun 2019, 10:00 pm

My Aunt Beth died a few weeks ago. Her real name was Bertha Marian White (née Scott), here’s her obituary. I was close to her when I was a kid; she was an awfully nice person, and I’m sad. But she’d been fading for years, and in the way of death these days, Beth the person we knew pre-departed the spark of life in her body. One reason we loved her is she always gave the best birthday presents, and she did that again one last time this month.

Here’s a 1986 picture of Beth’s and my branches of the family.

Beth White and Jean Bray and their children in 1986

I’m not going to Net-publish the names of living people unless I’m pretty sure they’re OK with that. Beth is in the blue dress; beside her in glasses my Mom Jean Bray. Beth’s living sons are behind her, either side; the elder is Bill White, who we’ll be hearing more from. The woman in the front married Beth’s youngest and is holding Beth’s first grandson, who is now online at Henry White Music. At the right side of the picture, with glasses, is Beth’s now-deceased husband Ralph White, one of twelve siblings of whom ten are still living.

I’m in the red sweater and my brothers are beside me in white and with a beard in the back row. The woman in black was married to my bearded brother.

That birthday present

Beth’s memorial was on my birthday. It was so great to get together with family that, although I’m only one province over, I seldom see. What a great birthday present; thanks Beth! (And Myra, who organized it.)

Beth was a big talker and a fabulous cook, eccentric in her beliefs and habits. But I was just a kid; it never dawned on me that her regularly staying up till two in the morning on one project or another was because she was running the place, probably — this was the Sixties — with only moderate support from her all-male family.

At the memorial, I learned there were a couple of seriously tough periods when the ends really had to be stretched to meet. I’d never noticed, I was just a kid. And she lost her son Dan, who was a year older than me and I was pretty close to. He was shot by a drunk with a hunting rifle in a parking lot outside a bar. He’d been a party animal and a star athlete and I’m pretty sure he would have gone far in this world.

Beth was never ever without a smile. Now I wonder what they cost her.

The memorial event

It was in Beth’s youngest’s big house in Balzac, Alberta. That branch of the family has had five kids, of whom several are now reproducing. In the first picture Henry White, whom we saw as a baby above, sings Abide With Me, his sister accompanying. Good voice! Henry, an active Christian, also gave us a reading from Scripture (1 Corinthians 4:7-15, James 4:13-15, and Romans 5:18) and a few observations on it. Also there were personal memories and biographical notes from several of Beth’s grandkids,

Aunt Beth’s grandchildren perform at her funeral

Then Bill White, Beth’s oldest son, got up and gave us an extended tour through Beth’s life, throwing color on the facts, finding humor and sorrow. It was a masterful piece of work.

Aunt Beth’s eldest son speaks at her funeral

Then we said the Lord’s Prayer (my kids wouldn’t even know the words) and sat down with tea and good things to eat.

I’ve grown into another space — multicultural, coastal, technical — but this is my birth tribe, comfortable in their skins on the Prairies. We didn’t talk much about pipeline politics or theology, but I enjoyed every minute with every one of them. Thanks everyone.

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FaviconGo Creeping In 12 Jun 2019, 10:00 pm

I’ve seen the inside of the Google and Amazon tech stacks. There are common threads that run through them and also, I bet, through most BigTechCos. Here and there down the stack is a lot of C++ and vestigial remnants from earlier days, Perl or PHP or whatever. Out in front of humans, of course, JS. But in between, there are oceans and oceans of Java; to a remarkable degree, it runs the Internet. Except for, here and there, you find a small but steadily increasing proportion of Go.

Golang gopher

If you want to know what’s going on at Google, go follow Brad Fitzpatrick. If you want to know what’s going on at Amazon, I shouldn’t spill those beans without asking for permission, which I’ve never been good at. But I can write about what I’m hearing and seeing when I look around, both inside here and out there on the Internet.

I don’t know of any co-ordinated campaigns, here or anywhere else, aimed at walking away from Java or encouraging Go (or any other replacement) in a top-down way. I do notice good engineers just going ahead and standing up Go-based microservices.

There are a bunch of reasons for this, and lots of smart people have written wise words on the subject. But here are my perceptions.

Readability

I initially fell in love with Ruby because other people’s code was just easier to read than anything else I’d previously encountered. You needed to learn what how blocks work and what |foo| means, then it all just fell into place. Then when, based on that, you figured out Enumerable, you might have had heart palpitations.

Go takes it a step further. You need to get used to type declarations being backward and how interfaces work. Then when you learn about channels and goroutines, you might experience shortness of breath.

It’s amazing —amazing I say — how little generics are missed. To date, Go remains the small, simple language that fogies like me can remember Java being. I suppose that can’t last, but for now, I can pop open almost any .go file and if I can’t understand it pretty quick, the chances are very high that the problem is in the code not me.

Predictability

The Go runtime is garbage-collected, but the GC design is consciously optimized to be predictable and not induce latency; here’s a nice deep-dive. There’s no free lunch, so that excellent latency probably carries a price in throughput. Which for a whole lot of online services is a good bargain.

Performance isn’t a simple subject. But there’s a perception among insiders that Go’s performance is good enough and its latency is low enough. Furthermore, that you can expect pretty similar numbers for P50 and P99.9 latencies. And a Go program starts up fast, which we in the Serverless tribe really like.

Goroutines

They make it easy and idiomatic to arrange that some parts of your computation be done in parallel with other parts. And unlike other concurrency frameworks I’ve fought with, you can pretty well just fling a (potentially huge) number of tasks at goroutines, and empirically, the runtime does a good job of keeping the cores busy and the work flowing through.

And (assuming a little care with buffer sizes) it’s very unlikely that you’ll get a deadlock or an annoying race-condition bug. I’ve never had one and I’ve seen plenty in certain other languages beginning with “J”.

Executables

The fact that Go generates statically linked binaries warms greybeards’ hearts, but I’ve noticed the young pups seem to like that too. And the first time I realized I could type GOOS=linux go build on my Mac and run the output as a Lambda function I grinned from ear to ear.

Speaking of Lambda, the Go runtime has pleased me every time I’ve tried it. Also I built a custom Lambda runtime in Go and that worked great on almost the first attempt, which impressed the hell out of me.

The future?

Nope, no language is, the future is obviously polyglot. But it’s a tool I’m turning to a whole lot, and I’m not the only one.

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FaviconMicromobility 9 Jun 2019, 10:00 pm

This buzzword has been echoing round the corners of Net conversation, not loud yet but the voices are those that have seemed smart in the past. I joined in a few months back by acquiring a Super Commuter+ 7 e-bike from Trek Bikes. Count me among the converted. I concluded what will probably be the last episode of my Jaguar Diary with “It makes me happy… but a new car isn’t a life-changer”. Well, I’m here to tell you that an e-bike is. And I suspect this whole Micromobility thing has legs.

Trek Commuter+ 7 e-bike and Jaguar I-Pace electric car

Two electric vehicles.

I’ve biked to work intermittently since I started at AWS in late 2014. But I’m fickle and wimpy. My route home has a continuous sixteen-block uphill segment, and it really hurts if you’re not pretty fit. At my age, you lose fitness faster and regain it slower. So if I went on a road-trip or got a bad cold or we had heavy snow and I didn’t cycle for a few weeks, I was back in sixteen-blocks-of-pain territory.

My doctor and my wife both said they thought the e-bike would be a good idea, and then I kept reading things on the Net about dubious velo-heads being won over. Some of those discussions included the experience of inhabiting an older body that struggles for fitness. Everyone seems to think that the exercise benefits, while not up to those you get from real do-it-all-yourself-biking, are still significant.

What it’s like

It’s important to understand that you don’t sit there motionless and cruise along like on a scooter or motorbike. If you don’t pedal, you don’t go. If you pedal harder, you go faster. The power design is smoothly intuitive; you hardly ever actually feel the electric assist directly. But for any given amount of pedaling pressure, you go a lot faster than you would on an unassisted bike. Yeah, the uphills still hurt, but less; also the pain ends faster.

It’s got ten gears and four boost levels: Eco, Tour, Sport, and Turbo. I find myself leaving it on Eco, sometimes switching to Tour for those sixteen blocks, but using the gears a lot, maybe more than on a regular bike. There’s a nice little Bosch Purion computer, where by “computer” I mean a speedometer and boost control. The boost stops working at 35km/h, which is dead easy to hit on level ground or going downhill.

It comes with a 110V AC charger which I need to use every week or two. I have no idea how long it takes to charge, but the battery’s full in the morning. You can detach the battery and take it inside if that makes charging easier.

The write-ups talk about how you can cruise into work and arrive fresh as a daisy, no shower needed. I dunno, I get a little sweaty but then it’s geek-informal where I work, if a suit were involved a shower would be in order. On the long uphill road home, I get plenty overheated.

The Commuter+ 7 is a heavy thing with a bulging battery, a fat frame, and fatter tires, which make for a comfy ride and cushion pothole punishment. When you turn off the boost, it’s a klunker. Also, I have panniers on the back, I drop my computer into a sleeve and the sleeve into the pannier, and arrive at work sans backpack; an oddity in geekville.

Because of the panniers, I’ve given up taking the car on almost all local shopping trips. The bike gets there about as fast, I can park it right in front of any store, and with the panniers I can carry along quite a few groceries and still have room for some beers.

But how does it feel?

It feels wonderful! My commute, which is almost exactly 4km, takes me under twenty minutes from my front door to my desk at work, a bit more or less depending on whether I make or miss traffic lights. It helps a lot that Vancouver has pretty good (and getting better) bike-route infrastructure.

Vancouver bike map legend Central Vancouver biking map

Extracted from the official City of Vancouver cycling map.

My commute is between near the bottom center and near the top center on that map. There are only a few blocks where cars and bikes are sharing street space as “equals”: the two between my home and where I get on the bikeway, and one block that happens to be right outside the main central-city police station. The result is I feel safe. Having said that, the one time I got hit by a car — badly, with ensuing hospital time and surgery, in 2000 — was when a stopped car suddenly lurched forward into a crosswalk; so you’re never 100% safe.

The big safety problem is the cool downhill parts of the route, where I (and my cycling-commuter peers) go like hell. That route also includes leafy residential hoods and a bridge over the ocean. It’s really pretty awesome and, as in many other ways, I’m a lucky guy.

(I do experience a certain amount of guilt while blowing by people who are obviously fitter than me just because I’m e-assisted and they’re self-powered.) (But I can learn to live with it.)

The economics

An electric bike isn’t cheap - this thing lists at $3,800 US. There are cheaper e-bike choices, but also way more expensive ones. Public transit would cost about a thousand a year and takes nearly twice as long to get there. My car is electric and thus (ignoring capital cost) close to free at these ranges, but then parking is $150/month or so if you sign up for the whole month, and $15/day and up a-la-carte. Bike parking is so far one of life’s few free offerings.

Then there are the health benefits from 40 minutes of moderate cardio workout per day, and the emotional win of spending no time either squashed into a packed train or sitting alone in a traffic-jammed auto. When you’re biking you’re moving, except for those damn red lights; we hatessss them, my precioussss.

Micromobility

This is the broader category of which e-bikes are a member, but also includes scooter variations and then the variegated two- and three-wheelers, mostly electric, I saw in Beijing.

One of the voices arguing that all this is A Big Deal is that of Horace Dediu, a long-time commentator on mobile tech and Apple, who invented the term Micromobility and organizes conferences on the subject.

Is it really a big deal? It seems to scratch humans’ built-in get-there-faster itch while paving a whole lot less of paradise. And, also as Horace says:

Horace Dediu on Micromobility

My mind is open. I have a hunch that e-bikes will loom large among micromobility choices; compared to stand-up options like scooters and Segways, they’re a little safer and a little faster. Also, they embody technologies that’ve been refined since the dawn of the bicycle in the early 1800s, and continue to evolve.

Anyhow, if you’re an urban traveler I strongly recommend trying one out.

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FaviconOn SQS 26 May 2019, 10:00 pm

In my position I probably shouldn’t have a favorite AWS product, just like you shouldn’t have a favorite child. I do have a fave service but fortunately I’m not an (even partial) parent; so let’s hope that’s OK. I’m talking about Amazon Simple Queue Service, which nobody ever calls by its full name.

I’d been thinking I should write on the subject, then saw a Twitter thread from Rick Branson (trust me, don’t follow that link) which begins Queues are bad, but software developers love them. You’d think they would magically fix any overload or failure problem. But they don’t, and bring with them a bunch of their own problems. After that I couldn’t not write about queueing in general and SQS specifically.

SQS banner

SQS is nearly perfect

The perfect Web Service I mean: There are no capacity reservations! You can make as many queues as you want to, you can send as many messages as you want to, you can pull them off fast or slow depending how many readers you have. You can even just ignore them; there are people who’ll dump a few million messages onto a queue and almost never retrieve them, except when something goes terribly wrong and they need to recover their state. Those messages will age out and vanish after a little while (14 days is currently the max); but before they go, they’re stored carefully and are very unlikely to go missing.

Also, you can’t see hosts so you don’t have to worry about picking, configuring, or patching them. Win!

There are a bunch of technologies we couldn’t run at all without SQS, ranging from Amazon.com to modern Serverless stuff.

The API is the simplest thing imaginable: Send Messages, Receive Messages, Delete Messages. I love things that do one thing simply, quickly, and well. I can’t give away details, but there are lots of digits in the number of messages/second SQS handles on busy days. I can’t give away architectures, but the way the front-end and back-end work together to store messages quickly and reliably is drop-dead cool.

Why not entirely perfect? Well, SQS launched in 2006. Most parts of the service have been re-implemented at least once, but some moss has grown over the years. I sit next to the SQS team and know the big picture reasonably well, and I think we can make SQS cheaper and simpler to operate.

When it launched it cost 10¢ per thousand messages; now it’s 40¢ per million API calls. “Per-message” can be a bit tricky to work out because sending, receiving, and deleting makes three calls per, but then SQS helps you batch and most high-volume apps do. Anyhow, it’s absurdly cheaper than back then, and I wonder whether, in a few years, that 40¢/million number will look as high as 10¢/thousand does today.

The opposition

So let’s go back to Mr Branson’s tweet-rant. He raises a bunch of objections to queues which I’ll try to summarize:

  1. They can mask downstream failures

  2. They don’t necessarily preserve ordering (SQS doesn’t).

  3. When they are ordered, you probably need to shard to lots of different streams and keep track of the shard readers.

  4. They’re hard to capacity plan; it’s easy to fill up RAM and disks.

  5. They don’t exert back-pressure against clients that are overrunning your system.

Here’s his conclusion.

Anti-queue closer from Rick Branson

While there are good queues, I agree with his sentiment. If you can build a straightforward monolithic app and never think about all this asynchronous crap, go for it! If your system is big enough that you need to refactor into microservices for sanity’s sake, but you can get away with synchronous call chains, you definitely should.

But if you have software components that need to be hooked together, and sometimes the upstream runs faster than the downstream can handle, or you need to scale components independently to manage load, or you need to make temporary outages survivable by stashing traffic-in-transit, well… a queue becomes “absolutely necessary”.

The proportion of services I work on where queues are absolutely necessary rounds to 100%. And if you look at our customers, lots of them manage to get away without queues (good for them!) but a really huge number totally depend on them. And I don’t think that’s because the customers are stupid.

Mr Branson’s charges are accurate descriptions of queuing semantics; but what he sees as shortcomings, people who use queues see as features. Yeah, they mask errors and don’t exert back-pressure. So, suppose you have a retail website named after a river in Brazil, and you have fulfillment centers that deliver the stuff the website sells. You really want to protect the website from fulfillment-center errors and throttling. You want to know about those errors and throttling, and a well-designed messaging system should make that easy. Yeah, it can be a pain in the butt to capacity-plan a queue — ask anyone who runs their own. That’s why your local public-cloud provider offers them as a managed service. Yeah, some applications need ordering, so there are queuing services that offer it. Yeah, ordering often implies sharding, and so your ordered-queue service should provide a library to help with that.

But wait, there’s more!

More kinds of queues, I mean. AWS has six different ones. Actually, that page hasn’t been updated since we launched Managed Streaming for Kafka, so I guess we have seven now.

We actually did a Twitch video lecture series to help people sort out which of these might hit their sweet spot.

With a whole bunch of heroic work, we might be able to cram together all these services into a smaller number of packages, but I’d be astonished if that were a cost-effective piece of engineering.

So with respect, I have to disagree with Mr Branson. I’d go so far as to say that if you’re building a moderately complex piece of software that needs to integrate heterogeneous microservices and deal with variable sometimes-high request loads, then if your design doesn’t have a queuing component, quite possibly you’re Doing It Wrong.

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FaviconSour Times 17 May 2019, 10:00 pm

Really, they are. Our civic spaces are mis-led and full of anger, some of it even righteous. We have fouled our species’ nest and are ignoring the smoke curling out of its edges, and don’t know what’s awaiting when we fall out of the tree. I’ve been sad a lot.

For days at a time, even. I get up and find myself barking at my children for the smallest sins; just a shitty mood that I can’t shake. Introspecting, I see that I enjoy my job and get along with my family and am loved enough and have enough others to love. I like my car and my bike and my city and my garden. And eventually I had to admit that it was the lousy state of the world dragging me down.

What to do about it? You can’t and anyway shouldn’t face away from the world. We need to keep finding the courage to face the truth and work on mending what’s broken. Because in my heart and my mind I actually really don’t believe this is Ragnarök; we are not (quoting Tolkien’s Galadriel) “fighting the long defeat”. There are paths to better places and whether or not the pain and injustice and filth are our fault, finding those paths is our responsibility.

Gubeikou

Or 古北口 — it’s a town northeast of Beijing on a not-particularly great section of the Great Wall. It has a temple for the Goddess of Mercy.

Temple of the Goddess of Mercy, Gubeikou

The temple is well-maintained and the offerings fresh. That’s a no-brainer — would you prefer a just or a merciful deity?

Why am I sharing this? Just a reminder that the world, uglified though it may be this year, contains wonders; the hope is to lighten a rotten mood if only my own. What we are trying to save is worth saving! See those paintings on the Goddess’ wall? They were said to represent her attendants and are worth a look.

On the wall of the temple of the Goddess of Mercy, Gubeikou

That said…

In another part of the world, the country next to mine, sixty-five million people think Donald Trump is just fine and will probably think so again in 2020. In my own country, a morally-hollowed-out leadership is probably about to punch a bitumen pipeline through the walls of sanity to the Pacific to increase our share of carbon loading even as the carbon numbers attain levels never seen in our (or any) civilization. I could enumerate bad crazinesses in lots more timezones, but why? Anyone who troubles to find out knows.

I find it hard to deal with the fact that, and I’m phrasing this as gently as I can manage, a substantial proportion of the population seem ignorant, bigoted, and mean. Perhaps the natural proportion of Deplorables has been made larger by dysfunctional media. I’d like to believe that because media are fixable but endemic mean-spiritedness isn’t.

Horrorshow

In Hong Kong, lining up for the Star Ferry across the harbor, among more tourists than locals since they put in the subway tunnel, I came face-to-face with it. In a party of otherwise-unexceptionable Americans, there was the #MAGAhead with That Hat, waddling, empty-eyed, enormously obese; folds of fat hanging out of the bottom of his golf shorts. In the warm wet Chinese air I couldn’t dig up a sane way to react or even a sane thing to say because, frankly, murder was uncoiling at the back of my brain. Fortunately for that dude, I’m a grown-up.

More temple walls

The ones without paintings are a canvas for nature to write on.

Shadows on a Chinese temple wall

Across the Pacific, nature writes in big letters. Here, from left to right, a Douglas Fir, a Western Redcedar, and a Western Hemlock.

Trees on Keats Island in Howe Sound

Get out of their way, leave them the fuck alone, and they’ll do fine. In my heart I believe that if I could learn to listen slowly enough, they’d have things to say that we’d benefit from hearing. We need to do more getting out of the way.

The Second Coming

It’s really the biggest threat. I’m talking about these lines from Yeats’ poem:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It’s so easy to say “Screw it, what can I do?” and change the channel. Let’s not. Let’s drink beers and sing songs and share pictures and sign petitions and get arrested where it might matter; Let’s bathe shameless in our world’s good things but never say “Screw it”, because those good things are worth, at the end of the day, dying for.

Wet poppy flowers

Our times are kind of particularly fucked up just now. I’d like to wear that fact like the poppies wear the raindrops. They’re tough generalists and will probably outlive Homo sapiens for a while, whatever dumb-ass things we do. But let’s try to stick around and keep them company.

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FaviconSungarden 12 May 2019, 10:00 pm

End of April, beginning of May, it’s pretty well peak time for flowers. Back in the last millennium, I used to run lots of flower pictures here, but they started blurring together in my mind in a way that made me not want to. But sometimes when the sun’s in just the right place, the flowers insist.

These trilliums are at our cabin on Keats Island. They’ve usually bloomed and gone by the first time in spring we get over. Almost painfully pure, to my eye.

Trillium blossoms on Keats Island

A few houses down the street from us, this tulip, not content behind the white pickets, strains sunward.

Tulip in spring

Don’t know exactly which tree to which these blossoms pertain.

Pink tree blossoms

The final three are from our own front yard.

Spring flowers, Vancouver

Under the magnolia.

Azalea

Azalea army.

Tulip

If you were tiny enough, you could plunge into that tulip and have a color experience so intense it might be fatal.

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FaviconJag Diary 10: Four Months In 9 May 2019, 10:00 pm

Yesterday I drove the I-Pace to Seattle and back in one day, 459.8km (285.7 miles); the second time I’ve done that. What with that, and coming up for four months ownership, I thought it was time for another, maybe the final, instalment in this diary. Mostly good news — by a wide margin the best car I’ve ever driven let alone owned — but nothing’s perfect.

Range

That’s still the biggest talking point about electric cars. But up here in the Pacific Northwest anyhow, the charging network is pretty well good enough and getting better. If I’m staying overnight in Seattle I use the Level 2 chargers in the Amazon buildings. But on single-day round-trips you need more watts. On both of those trips I used PlugShare to find fast DC chargers, and both were by EVgo. I really have no gripes, their gear seems to Just Work.

Charging the I-Pace Fast DC charger readout

The charger above is in Lynnwood, a suburb just north of Seattle. Amusingly, all the EVgo chargers have names, which actually help you to figure out which is which when they’re in a cluster. That’s “Elijah” in Lynnwood.

The screenshot is from one of the chargers (“Ceres” and “Millie”) at the REI flagship store, which at a block off I-5 is super-handy, and also a beautiful place to hang out and visit. On this particular trip I got there a little early and charged for 28 minutes before my meetings and then another 25 after, picking up a total of 41kWh, and getting home with 30km of battery to spare. EVgo charged me $16.28.

The attentive reader will note that 117A at 415V is 48.55kW. I have yet to encounter one of the rumored-to-exist 100kW chargers, but 53 minutes of charging for nearly six hours of driving at highway speeds across hilly terrain is bearable. At this point a snotty Tesla owner will point out that they have 100kW now and (for many of them) it’s free. Yeah, but your car is boring.

It’s worth noting that those fast chargers are kind of noisy; when they’re pumping 50kW into your vehicle there are heavy-duty mechanical sounds coming out; presumably fans? So you probably wouldn’t want one right next to your patio or bedroom window.

Since we’re talking about charging, obviously almost all of that happens at home. We hardly ever car-commute, with just minor puttering around town and weekend excursions, end up charging once every week or ten days. Looking at my power bill reveals I pay somewhere around $2.50/day when I don’t charge, and six or seven bucks when I do. Yeah, the car pulls twice as much as the rest of the house put together. OK, our stove and water heater are natural gas; but still.

Charging the car at home

Above is the little carport we put in because I didn’t want either the charger or the Jag out in the weather all the time. If you look close you can see the charger just behind the car. This is just after the return from Seattle, so the car’s a little cruddy.

The home “Level 2” charger is entirely silent, but then depending on the temperature the car sometimes turns on its fans to heat or cool the batteries while charging; not for long, though.

We don’t have a garage door to open, but I wired the carport light up with a LiftMaster 823lm light switch and now I can turn it on with the garage-door control on the car’s rearview when I’m coming home after dark. I also had to get a LiftMaster remote control so I could turn it back off from inside the house.

Good stuff

You just can’t drive this puppy around without smiling. It’s smooth, comfy, and amazingly athletic. Merging onto a big highway is pure joy, and taking uphill curves hard will make you laugh out loud. Even going with the flow in heavy traffic is a lot more relaxing than you’re probably used to. When I get in any gas car now, it feels klunky, noisy, and unresponsive.

You get compliments and smiles from border guards, both US and Canadian. Now that is a new experience.

Yesterday was a super-warm Spring day so now I’ve driven it in four seasons, more or less; the climate control and general comfort is uniformly excellent, and I had my first experience of cooled seats, which feel amazingly great when you’ve been driving for a couple of hours in the sun.

When I first got in the car I hated the audio, it sounded tinny and like it was coming out of the windshield. And yeah, the default settings are lousy but they’re easy enough to fiddle; now the sound’s a warm bath of rich silky chocolate.

There are 3405km on the odometer (we’re pretty urban) and I haven’t had anything go wrong. Oh wait, let me amend that. Sometimes (not very often) things will get a little weird — Android Auto won’t connect, or the radio-station list won’t be there, or whatever. So, just like any other mobile computerized device, you pull over and you turn it off and back on again, and generally then you’re OK. One time I had to reboot both the car and my phone.

Bad things

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This car’s a joybringer on any road, urban or rural or freeway, but it is a complete fucking pig to park. It’s wide, and because of the cab-forward design you totally can’t see the teeny front hood of the car at all from behind the wheel, so how in hell are you supposed to know whether you’re properly lined up at the curb or evenly between the lines? All these weeks in, I can now generally do a parallel park and end up about as straight as I’d expect from a 16-year-old trainee driver. But I often have to take two or three passes at ordinary parking-lot slots. And as for our carport, it isn’t any too big, and the alley it’s off of isn’t any too wide. I have on a single-digit number of occasions backed in straight and centered on the first try, but never when any of the neighbors or family are watching. I didn’t order the front camera option; maybe that was a mistake? Anyhow, I’m sure in another year or two I’ll be drifting into the carport.

What else can I complain about? Yeah, the infotainment software is a little slow and klunky. Six months into shipping this thing JLR still doesn’t have the software OTA working. I’m hoping that pretty soon it’ll be like my Fujifilm cameras and periodically get updates that add features and make things better.

Magnolia I-Pace

Just a car

At the end of the day, that’s all it is. It makes me happy to drive, happy to talk about, and I’m loading the atmosphere with a whole lot less carbon than I used to. But a new car isn’t a life-changer. Except for now I get a few more smiles every week.

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Favicon2019 Networking Snapshot 1 May 2019, 10:00 pm

Home networking, I mean, and by phone. Hasn’t been on my mind much, because it’s generally been good enough. But for a variety of reasons I got an Eero WiFi setup and so now I have to think about it.

What happened was, our ISP sent us a note saying “We upped your data from 150Mbps to 300.” Our home infrastructure features Cat5 installed in the last century and an old Apple Time Capsule, none of us remember when we got it. Also, we’d like the new Jaguar to get enough WiFi out in the carport to do downloads.

Wirecutter and a couple of other sites liked the Eero (I was a little surprised that the Google offering isn’t terribly competitive). Because of the car, I bought a three-box configuration although our house could probably get by with two.

On Eero generally

Haven’t had it long enough to say anything about reliability or trouble-shooting, but… what a fabulous onboarding experience. The time it took to get all three boxes live on the air was dominated by the physical unboxing. My employer is acquiring Eero and I think we should immediately double the comp of their UX people then install them in glamorous corner offices. AWS is getting better at UX, but this is next-level stuff.

Here’s the front page of their Android app.

Eero app

The only real flaw is their assumption that my cellphone ISP (the Rogers up at the top) is the same company as our home ISP, which it isn’t. Amusingly, of the three devices listed, “HTC Corporation” is my Pixel 2, “Aristophanes” is the 2014 MacBook Pro I’m writing this on, and “android-…” is my son’s beat-up old Motorola. The network’s name is “Humpback” because the one it’s replacing was “Orca”.

Down at the bottom, the performance numbers are where it gets interesting. Our ISP says we’re getting 300M, but this is peak evening time, someone’s streaming something on the TV and my son’s playing Apex Legends, and I bet similar things are happening at houses all over our local cable loop. It turns out the Eero runs network speed tests regularly, and keeps a log.

Eero network speed tests

You can see that at 5:30PM when everyone’s cooking dinner and commuting, we were actually getting the 300M the ISP claims. [Late update: It’s 11pm now and Eero says we’re getting 330 down.]

How fast?

Now, it’s not as if that 300M reaches the living room. If I go downstairs and stand near the base modem, I’ve seen as high as 280M on Speedtest.net, but I’ve never seen anything over 150 up where we live. I haven’t cared enough yet to experiment with placement. And the old Mac Pro, wired through the old Time Capsule and another switch in the basement to the cable modem, never gets near 100. I suppose I should be unsatisfied with 150 down, 15-or-so up?

And of course these days, when I’m out and about and my phone says “LTE+” up in the status bar, which it does in most civilized places, Speedtest claims to be getting 90+ down and 30 or so up. Which makes me wonder why WiFi is better. Having said that, in Canada we have a rent-seeking telecoms cartel that rakes in among the highest per-gig mobile data prices in the world.

Good news: The car gets solid WiFi out back.

What does this all mean? As an old guy, these bandwidths feel absurdly high. The blockages and slowdowns we occasionally encounter aren’t here, they’re Out There on the Net somewhere.

I do have a question, though: What in freaking hell is 5G going to offer that’ll motivate us all to lash out for new mobiles and services that’ll pay back the titanic investment it’ll take to offer it? Beats the hellouta me.

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FaviconTianjin 27 Apr 2019, 10:00 pm

It’s a chunk of China west and south of Beijing, extending to the sea, with a mere fifteen or so million or so people. It was where our walking-the-Wall sequence ended up, specifically at 黄崖关 (Huangyaguan). The wall there was OK, but there was an attached museum I really liked, and also the Eastern Qing Tombs, which are highly photogenic and full of stories. Here’s a view out over Huangyaguan from up on the Wall.

[This is part of The Surface of China series.]

View from Huangyaguan Great Wall

If you make it to Huangyaguan, don’t spend your whole time up on the wall, leave an hour or two for the Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum, which seems not to have a Web presence. It’s big, mostly open to the sky, and serene. Of the many exhibits, I’ll offer a sample from the “Garden of Longevity”. It features ten thousand character forms which can be read as some variation on “Long Life”, in a nice cloister around a serene courtyard.

The Garden of Longevity at Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum The Garden of Longevity at Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum The Garden of Longevity at Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum

Now, here’s a sidelight. We had a pretty good card-playing session going after dinner, and one of our party slunk off and came back with some liquid refreshments; sharing out a couple of these greatly increased the liquidity and joviality of the card game. I have no idea what it is.

Adult beverage purchased in Huangyaguan

The Tombs

I’m talking about the Eastern Qing Tombs; as Wikipedia says “the largest, most complete, and best preserved extant mausoleum complex in China”. They’re big all right, I suppose you could walk around them in a day but you’d be exhausted. We put in several hours and only saw a few highlights. Here’s the processional way leading in, flanked by lines of stone animals. The animals come in pairs, for each species on is standing and another resting, to show that they guarded the tombs 24/7/365.

Animal guard at the Eastern Qing Tombs Animal guard at the Eastern Qing Tombs

The variety and beauty of carved stonework is remarkable, and it’s not just sitting there, it’s actively maintained.

Maintaining the carvings at the Eastern Qing Tombs

We spent a lot of time at the tomb of the Qinlong Emperor (1711-99), one of the most successful Chinese rulers ever, said also to have been a reasonable human being. You can go underground to the actual burial chambers, whose walls are covered with really remarkable carving.

On the walls of the tomb of the Qinlong Emperor On the walls of the tomb of the Qinlong Emperor

The inscription is in Tibetan. I asked why and our local guide (a required hire, and only adequate) said “Because he was Buddhist and there are Buddhists in Tibet.” Um, OK.

There were a few merchants scattered among the tombs. This guy’s dried fruit looked excellent and I bought some, which he weighed out with charming analog technology.

Dried-fruit vendor at the Eastern Qing tombs

The dried fruit was shockingly good. I bought a lot and we brought some home (a little worried that might have been illegal); its flavor hotly intense in the mouth.

This merchant had a huge golden throne, you could dress up as Emperor and Empress and get your picture taken. This guy was getting ready for his photo and was unhappy at me snapping his picture. If the real emperor got an expression like that on his face, it’d probably be curtains for you.

Dressing up for a photo at the Eastern Qing Tombs

The Dowager Empress

The Qing dynasty was also called Manchu, for Manchurian, and their existence represents a failure of the Great Wall. Eventually the people on the other side of it came south and became China’s rulers. Theirs was the last dynasty, extending into the 20th Century and eventually ended by the Chinese Revolution.

During its fading years, the most important character was the Dowager Empress Cixi; that link is to her Wikipedia entry, which has a pretty good photo portrait. I think she was what today we would call pretty badass, and via a series of regencies was the effective ruler of China from 1861 until her death in 1908. She was from a family of the minor aristocracy , was brought into the ruling family as a concubine, and found her way to the top.

Her tomb is generally great. Here are a couple of pictures of a little shrine that has a wonderful statue of a turtle/dragon carrying a plinth with an inscription in Chinese, Manchurian, and Mongolian.

Statue at the tomb of Cixi Statue at the tomb of Cixi

And here’s her burial site, with some of the wood of her coffin showing. It wasn’t a happy period for China, with the imperial regime declining, partly under pressure from the British and other colonial land-grabbers. I’d heard of the Dowager Empress, but what I hadn’t realized that she was a fabulously accomplished artist; here are painting and calligraphy. I think I liked them better than any Chinese art that I’ve seen. Having said that, I’ve mostly seen such art reproduced in books or on my screen; being face-to-face with these big graphics is really hard-hitting.

The coffin of the Dowager Empress Cixi

It’s a great tourist site and I recommend it. Everywhere you look is a treat for the eyes.

At the Eastern Qing Tombs in Huangyaguan

Then we drove a couple of hours back to the haze and hustle of Beijing.

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FaviconWalking the Great Wall 22 Apr 2019, 10:00 pm

That was the name of the tour and that’s what we did, on each of five successive days. It was exhausting and thrilling and educational and yielded more good pictures than good stories. So herewith an illustrated narrative of what you might expect to do and see if you take this sort of tour.

[This is part of The Surface of China series.]

Tour stuff

Our party comprised 14 and our tour-guide Lijuan, of whom more later. We piled into a little minibus with our backpacks in the first couple of rows and headed north out of Beijing.

Inside the tour bus

The party included four Canadian tech geeks and their two 12-year-old daughters and a wine merchant from Sydney; The rest were from the south of England. They included a contractor/handyman, a rental-real-estate manager, four golfing friends, and young person between jobs. We were lucky; they were all good company.

The first thing you learn about the Wall is that it doesn’t run across the Chinese flatlands, but from mountaintop to mountaintop. So before you can start walking, you have to climb a mountain. Then you proceed up a steep slope to the mountain’s top, then down the other side and up to the top of the next. Which is to say, it’s tough walking.

Uphill on the Great Wall

慕田峪

In our letters, Mutianyu. It’s not the main close-to-Beijing tourist destination that World Leaders visit, but neither too distant nor too difficult. It’s pretty civilized; you can take a lift to the top of the wall and a weird sort of tube-slider down. You can buy a nice cold beer up on top and enjoy the view. We did all those things.

View from the Mutianyu Great Wall

Yeah, those views, they’re definitely the thing you’ll remember if you visit the Wall, which while impressive is basically just a wall. But the mountains and skies are different every minute. On about the twentieth occasion that after climbing up some brutally steep staircase I said “Oh… wow” a tourmate said “The views don’t get tired, do they?

箭扣

In our letters, Jiankou. After we got off the wall we drove there, not that far, to a guesthouse in the village of 西栅子 (Xizhazi), which is too small for a Wikipedia entry. Here’s the lane up to the guesthouse.

In Xizhazi village

It’s really small, and the guesthouse was, uh, rustically sincere. It’s a regular stop for climbing clubs, whose banners festooned the central courtyard.

Guesthouse in Xizhazi

Just down the lane from the guesthouse was this thing, which I had to walk right up to to figure out.

Chicken coop in Xizhazi

Chicken coop in Xizhazi.

That place may have been primitive, but they served us what I remember as the best food we got on the whole vacation, including Hong Kong and Beijing. We had lots of beers and then it turned out Mr Fong, our driver, had a karaoke machine. Festivities broke out. Lauren sang Both Sides Now. A few of the tourist ladies sang Dancing Queen and Valerie. The two twelve-year-olds sang Shut Up and Dance. Mr Fong sang a romantic Chinese song by himself — a real crooner’s voice — and then a duet with Lijuan the guide.

Karoke duet in Xizhazi

I want to stop and pay tribute to her. Lijuan Duan, is a special person, with endless expertise and energy. She also owns the Meking Cafe, a well-reviewed restaurant in Southern China, and is generally an excellent person.

Speaking of excellent people, so is Mr Fong. Among other things, a fantastically deft driver and a fine singer. Well, as far as we could make out, because he doesn’t speak much English.

It was a freezing cold night and the guesthouse was mostly unheated. We were bundled up, enjoying the company, eating and drinking, and the guesthouse owner joined us. Then I saw a lovely tired lined face looking at us from out in the unsheltered courtyard, looking amazed at the blonde people and the singing, not daring to come in. I’m betting she’s the one who made that excellent food. In the villages of China you see the occasional child but no young people.

Anyhow, we got up the next morning to start climbing, and found that it was snowing pretty hard.

Snow in Xizhazi

Fortunately, the guesthouse was not completely without heat.

Stove in Xizhazi

It was an hour’s pretty ambitious hike up to the Wall in the snow.

Climbing up to the Jiankou great wall Climbing up to the Jiankou great wall Climbing up to the Jiankou great wall

See Mr Fong there with his umbrella? What you can’t see is that he’s wearing shiny street shoes. In spite of which he was by a mile our best climber on the scary parts of the climb. And boy, were there ever a lot of them.

The Jiankou Great Wall in snow The Jiankou Great Wall in snow

I think that was our best day on the Wall. I’ll never see anything like that again.

When we came down, we were exhausted. What with all the snow and having taken a few minor tumbles and general exhaustion, my hands were sufficiently beat-up that for two solid days I couldn’t fingerprint-unlock my phone.

古北口

In our letters, Gubeikou. We drove there after we came down off the snowy Wall, and the guesthouse was a little more modern but not as welcoming nor was the food as good. But it’s got a nice little riverfront park and some excellent temples.

Cooking rice in Gubeikou Drying cabbage in Gubeikou

The Long March

The Gubeikou wall is OK, nothing special, neither the views nor the Wall itself equaled what we’d already seen. But that day was brutal. We walked for six hours cross-country along the wall, or beside it in ruined sectors, to our next stop, and it was really cold and windy nearly every step. It was about 12km, which I’d have no trouble walking horizontally at a decent temperature, neither of which applied here. Here’s our tour-group, and a section of the Wall that we walked every inch of.

Tour group on Gubeikou Great Wall Gubeikou Great Wall

Finally, we limped down the mountain, and I have rarely been as happy to see a human face as Mr Fong’s, waving “come this way!” at the bottom of the path.

金山岭

In our letters, Jinshanling. Probably the nicest and best-maintained part of the Wall. When we stumbled into our guesthouse there, it was under construction outside, but squeaky-clean inside, and in our room the heater had been turned on and set to 30°C, unreasonably warm unless you’ve just spent six hours trudging over Chinese mountaintops in a freezing wind. After 45 minutes or so, I was somewhat thawed.

Here’s the dining room, where we got in a few games of Mah Jongg. You don’t see a ceiling like that every day.

Guesthouse in Jinshanling Guesthouse in Jinshanling

If you wanted to make a one-day Wall visit and maybe didn’t want to take on the near-verticals of Jiankou, I’d say Jinshanling is the place to go.

Jinshanling Great Wall Jinshanling Great Wall Jinshanling Great Wall

There was one more day on the wall, at 黄崖关 (Huangyaguan) in Tianjin province, but meh, nothing to write home about after what we’d already seen.

Take-aways

It’s fantastic. Belongs on most bucket lists. Take a guide.

Lijuan says the best time to go is in Autumn, and I think that’s probably right. I’ll never forget those views.

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