Monthly recap (Dec 2020)

Sunset at Pacifica

Major updates

  • A stay-at-home end-of-year vacation
    • Lots of driving around or walking around locally

Minor updates

  • A day trip to San Francisco (chocolates at Ghirardelli, having coffee outside Ferry Building)
  • A trip to Barnes & Noble (the only one in the whole year!)
  • Tara’s first (and second) tooth came out
  • A “christmas drive-through” at Tara’s school
  • (Finally) got a ergonomic setup going at home for a protracted WFH period (more on this later)

Watched/made/played/read

  • Queen’s Gambit
  • Tenet (!)
  • Several episodes of Hinterland
  • Read up to the first four Magic Treehouse books with Tara

Generally interesting links – Dec 2020

Browsing “without an algorithm”

Science

  • Old teeth

    These human ancestors, who roamed different patches of Eurasia roughly 1.77 million and 800,000 years ago, respectively, share a claim to fame: Their fossilized teeth harbored the oldest surviving proteins from extinct human species — molecules more than twice as old as human DNA.

  • Geeking out over cameras and lenses
  • The Open Library Explorer

    How does one faithfully compress the entire experience of a reliable, unbiased, expansive public library and its helpful, friendly staff into a 14” computer screen?
    Some sites, like Netflix or YouTube, solve this problem with recommendation engines that populate information based on what people have previously seen or searched. Consequently, readers may unknowingly find themselves caught in a sort of “algorithmic bubble.”

Gamified life

  • On Robinhood

    … the more risk Robinhood’s customers take in their hyperactive trading accounts, the more the Silicon Valley startup profits from the whales it sells their orders to. And while Robinhood’s successful recruitment of inexperienced young traders may have inadvertently minted a few new millionaires riding the debt-fueled bull market, it is also deluding an entire generation into believing that trading options successfully is as easy as leveling up on a video game.
    … Robinhood gets paid—by the quants—58 cents per 100 shares for options contracts versus only 17 cents per 100 for equities. Options are less liquid than stocks and tend to trade at higher spreads. While the company says only 12% of its customers trade options, those trades accounted for 62% of Robinhood’s order-flow revenues in the first half of 2020.

  • Revisiting (and critiquing) Baldur’s Gate

Tools for Thought

People/World

  • On modern attitudes towards free speech (Ira Glasser reminisces)

    It wasn’t until my 30s that I began to understand free speech, that the real antagonist of speech is power

Just plain weird

  • A giant headless Buddha statue, uncovered in a residential area in China.

    The two residential buildings were constructed in 1990 after the demolition of a temple at the same site, and the sculpture was uncovered during a clearing of foliage in the area.

Programming

  • An overview of Fennel (keeping an eye on it as Lua becomes a first-class scripting language for Neovim)
  • Inside the machine

    One of the most interesting aspects of programming is the ability to inspect and modify programs while they are running. We all know debuggers, but there are lots of programs which let you interact with them directly while they are running. Some programs let you run scripts via embedded interpreters, which let you extend the program, but in some instances the programs themselves are the interpreters.

A time of transition

I’ve been at Confluent for a year and half now, and it was fun in many ways, but I’ve decided upon a change, and I’m joining Sigma Computing next week.

Another instance where I was looking for a different “local maxima” but ended up finding a global maxima instead.

Everyone wants different things at different points, but Sigma feels like a sweet spot for me right now.

It’s not too big and not too small, with a rapidly growing engineering team, there is a whole different bunch of tech to learn from scratch, an opportunity to work on an end-to-end full-stack product while also having significant infrastructure challenges.

I’ve learnt a lot from the folks I’ve worked with at Confluent, and I’m excited to begin the new year on a new adventure 🙂

Human Mental Games

Was watching Queen’s Gambit today (up to four episodes now), and realized how different the attitude to chess (and perhaps Go too) would’ve been back then.

Today, in a post-Deep Blue, post-Alpha Go, post-<you-know-what> world, we don’t see any mystery about any game of thought.

We simply assume it isn’t even worth trying to get better at it, because why bother — why bother if we can never get as good as machines are?

This earlier time seems so different, because there isn’t a limit perceived to how good someone can be. Contrast this with today, when we are circumscribed somehow, by the knowledge of a “ceiling of competence”. Yes, it’s still a good sport to watch, but it means less, somehow.

What might be the equivalent of this today?

What still counts as an area where humans can compete, where the frontier is open, where we might be surprised at how good one of us is?

Nostalgia corner: Urban Assault

Showing the floating Resistance Host Station, inhabited by SDU 7
Showing the floating Resistance Host Station, inhabited by SDU 7

Many games have come and gone, and I haven’t actually played anything for about five years now (!), and looking back, I can barely recall most of what I played.

Some names that do stand out though (I’m sure I’m missing atleast one or two big personal time-sinks here), are:

  • Wolfenstein
  • Quake
  • Urban Assault
  • Age of Empires (2)
  • Drake: Uncharted

I was surprised (or perhaps I shouldn’t have been) to find that I wasn’t alone in the specific nostalgia for this game.

Here is a bit of gameplay as an example, though as I looked at it, I found it a bit boring now.

I don’t think it was the mechanics of the game (unique though they felt at the time) that was attractive anyway, but rather (at the risk of being too autobiographically revealing here) the backstory to it.

Update 1: I was able to track down the “Intro movie“, which is … yes, quite un-watchable today — but for some context, this came out in 1999, one year after Dark City, and the year of The Matrix.

It isn’t just the usual post-apocalyptic landscape, with warring “factions” (which feels like elements of Starcraft-like Zerg/Protoss, Star Trek TNG Borg) — the player too is post-human, transformed into a “Synaptic Donor Unit” in order to “play”, giving up their humanity forever.

In return, they get cybernetic command over every deployed piece of military hardware, able to both direct them in the “usual RTS style”, but also enter a given vehicle for a “direct FPS style”.

(Obligatory Wikipedia link for more details on the plot and characters etc)

This isn’t very novel as a general metaphor for gaming — after all, every time you “direct units” in a strategy game, who are you, if not some abstract spirit that controls these people or animals or vehicles or whatever — but it was novel in being so explicit about it.

Within the story of the game, then, you as the player are already “physically dead”, and your outcomes are bleak too: either annihilation at the hands of the enemy, or a victory that preserves the human race (but … leads to you being decommissioned?)

Of course, this backstory is over in a few minutes and the rest of the game can be played and enjoyed in complete ignorance of it too.

Update 2: I found at least one example of fan fiction for it.

Update 3: I also found the text strings used in the game

One gem from it:

“Jan says some hackers are putting together a big war machine. It’s called Synaptic Donor Unit – SDU. Jan says I better lay low at the Arcades, or else Resistance is going to come looking for me.
Weird cookbook they’ve got going: Wire together the computers of the free world, add connectivity to all automated armament plants, then upload one human. Sounds like a dream I’ve been having.”

Generally interesting links – Nov 2020

An early form of typewriter art

Computing

Programming languages/tools

Movies/TV/Music

People/world

Science

Monthly recap (Nov 2020)

Fall leaves in a plate

Major updates

  • Tara turned six !!

Minor updates

  • Lots of social trips
  • Ergonomic improvements (more on this soon)
  • Sleep schedule has not been great
  • Visited Barnes and Noble (after a year!)
  • Visited SF Zoo!

Watched/made/played/read

  • Season 4 of The Crown on Netflix
  • Read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with Tara
  • A season of a British baking show on Netflix
  • Some Minecraft on Youtube
  • A new family game: Connect Four

The weirdness and awesomeness of long-form YouTube

I found myself listening to this recently:

From the description:

This is the ambient electromagnetic signal of our Sun and Neptune which have been combined with each other and then deepened and smoothed out quite a bit.

Now I don’t know how exactly this audio version was derived, but … hey, it works for me for my “white noise needs” (certainly well enough to consider cancelling my Brain.fm subscription, more so because I’m consolidating subscriptions these days and trying to get rid of as many of these yes-its-“sub-$5”-but-do-I-really-need-it ones).

After this “space noise”, I discovered “engine noise”, which comes in a huge variety as well:

  • The ambient engine noise from the Enterprise (TNG):

 

  • Ambient engine noise from the Nostromo:

 

This is why I don’t think I can live without Youtube (deadly serious here).

I can find substitutes for Gmail, for Docs, even Google Search (DuckDuckGo has been my default on iPhone/iPad/MacBook for over two years now, I use gmail but primarily through MailMate, and I really only use Docs at work).

When it comes to Youtube, I go the opposite way: I’m willing to pay some token amount — beacuse I’d listen to engine noise without advertisements 😁

Monthly Recap (Oct 2020)

A tesseract in 3-D, with Magnatiles

Major updates

  • Gradual “actual physical school” transition for Tara
  • Halloween!

Minor updates

  • Introducing card games to Tara: War, Go Fish!
  • Misc maintenance
    • replacing hood and range in kitchen
    • AC repair
  • A new pen: TWSBI 580
  • Using Obsidian and liking it

Watched/read/made

  • Finished reading Harry Potter & Sorceror’s Stone with Tara, started on The Chamber of Secrets
  • Watching: Enola Holmes, The Old Guard, Serious Men, Rebecca
  • A few episodes of The Great British Baking Show and Somebody feed Phil
  • Lima beans science experiment for Tara’s school