Rain? In Seattle?

Yes, of course I knew that Seattle was notorious for its rainy climate. But this is ridiculous:

“Rivers in at least nine of the region’s drainage systems are expected to peak at levels up to 20 percent higher than anything on record”, said Johnny Burg, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Seattle… [D]uring a typical November, an average of 5.9 inches will be recorded at [SEATAC]… Not even a full week into the month [they’ve] recorded 7.38 inches at the airport — including about 3 inches that had fallen between midnight Sunday and 5 p.m. Monday.

USENIX OSDI is in town

[Note: shameless name-dropping follows.]
The grand-daddy of all operating systems conferences is in town this week: USENIX. 20 years ago this was a forum for trumpeting the importance of Unix in a marketplace that was still dominated by vendor-specific operating systems (VMS, Domain, MVS, and even this insignificant upstart called MS-DOS…). I remember demonstrating PC-NFS at USENIX (and the related show for “suits” called UniForum), and everybody was amazed that these toy systems could actually play with the big guys. O tempora, o mores… Today USENIX is about operating systems in general, and this week’s symposium is OSDI’06, on operating systems design and implementation. (The other big USENIX event is LISA, where sysadmins for Really Big Systems get together.)
I didn’t actually sign up to attend USENIX (Amazon.com is much more frugal about these things than Sun used to be), but several of my friends are involved in the event, and I arranged to have breakfast this morning with Jim Waldo. We were joined by Margo Seltzer, and had an interesting discussion about varieties of systemic errors in large-scale distributed systems. Jim and I had planned to meet for dinner, but during the day he emailed me to suggest that I join him for the poster session that evening. So I did. I had a great time, met a lot of old friends, and made some new acquaintances including Jim Thornton of PARC, who used to work with my Amazon.com colleague Marvin Theimer, and Liuba Shrira from Brandeis – it turned out that she was an ex-neighbour from Brookline!
I’m actually not very good at poster sessions. I find that I want to actually read the interesting ones, which usually conflicts with the expectation of the poster presenters who want to talk. And sometimes (rather too often, unfortunately), when I finish reading the poster, I realize that most of the ideas have already been incorporated in some other piece of research, or perhaps even a commercial product. It’s really hard to tell a bright-eyed grad student that they need to go back and redo the literature search phase of their project. (Marvin is better at it than I.)
Having said that, there were two initiatives that I definitely want to follow up in the cold, clear light of day: Shirako from Duke, and Plush from U.C. San Diego. The problem statements look exactly right; I’ll be interested to see how much progress they’ve made.

The best ever?

As I was walking home in the rain from tonight’s Pet Shop Boys show, I found myself thinking about all of the acts I’ve PSBseen over the last 40 years. It’s an interesting mix, from Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and the original Genesis, through Depeche Mode and OMD, to October Project and Porcupine Tree, with repeat performaces by Al Stewart, the Grateful Dead, and the Legendary Pink Dots sprinkled across the years.
But tonight was, without doubt, the best show I’ve ever been to, the one that brought me the greatest delight. It was simply splendid.
It was also the first time in their 21 year career that the Pet Shop Boys have played in Seattle, and there were a lot of people who were clearly experiencing that “they’re playing our song” feeling. Listening to the HNRG of songs like Suburbia, Opportunities, and Shopping it’s strange to realize that they were hits in the mid-80s.
The production was excellent: singers, dancers, constumes, staging, and so forth. But it was the songs that we were there for. Seven cuts from the latest album, “Fundamental”, several of the early hits, and three of the big anthems: Always On My Mind (Maybe I Didn’t Love You), Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You), and the grand finale Go West. I’m reluctant to pick any favourites, but I particularly liked the understated presentation of Rent and the relentless power of Integral.
The setlist:
Left To My Own Devices
I’m with Stupid
Can You Forgive Her?
Dreaming of the Queen
Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)
Se A Vida É (Thats The Way Life Is)/Domino dancing
Home and dry
Always On My Mind
Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You)
West End Girls
The Sodom And Gomorrah Show
So hard
It’s a Sin
Go west
Whew! The PSB always did give good value for money, didn’t they?

at the PSB

So I’m at the theatre for the Pet Shop Boys show, starting in 12 minutes. I’ve bought my t-shirts, found my seat…. And I’ve managed to navigate my blog menu in this weird little BlackBerry browser. More after the show

Kinsley on intellectual dishonesty in politics

On the eve of the US mid-term elections, Michael Kinsley diagnoses the problem at the heart of American (and, sadly,British) politics. Money quote:

The biggest flaw in our democracy is, as I say, the enormous tolerance for intellectual dishonesty. Politicians are held to account for outright lies, but there seems to be no sanction against saying things you obviously don’t believe. There is no reward for logical consistency, and no punishment for changing your story depending on the circumstances. […] And it seems to me, though I can’t prove it, that this problem is getting worse and worse.
A few days before the 2000 election, the Bush team started assembling people to deal with a possible problem: what if Bush won the popular vote but Gore carried the Electoral College. They decided on, and were prepared to begin, a big campaign to convince the citizenry that it would be wrong for Gore to take office under those circumstances. And they intended to create a tidal wave of pressure on Gore’s electors to vote for Bush, which arguably the electors as free agents have the authority to do. In the event, of course, the result was precisely the opposite, and immediately the Bushies launched into precisely the opposite argument: the Electoral College is a vital part of our Constitution, electors are not free agents, threatening the Electoral College result would be thumbing your nose at the founding fathers, and so on. Gore, by the way, never did challenge the Electoral College, although some advisers urged him to do so.
Of all the things Bush did and said during the 2000 election crisis, this having-it-both-ways is the most corrupt. It was reported before the election and is uncontested, but no one seems to care, because so much of our politics is like that. […] The only way it can be brought under control is if people start voting against it. If they did, the problem would go away. That’s democracy.

In other words, there are no consequences for exhibiting a lack of principles, for saying things that you don’t mean. The whole thing is like a high school debating club in which the arguments you advance have nothing to do with what you believe, or what the facts are, and everything to do with winning.

Updating my blogroll

As part of introducing my new blog template, I decided to do some tidying up. Among the new features on the side bar, you’ll see a dramatically reduced “Blogroll”. In the early days of this blog (particularly when many of my colleagues at Sun were also starting their blogs) it was common for two bloggers to add entries to their blogrolls as a reciprocal courtesy, just to increase each others Technorati rankings. Just because a blog was on one’s blogroll didn’t mean you were actually reading it. But after a while it gets unmanageable, and the blogroll becomes several times longer than the average posting. Several attempts to adopt a new template failed because the combined blogroll, category list, and archives sections were just too big.
So today I decided to do something radical. First, I replaced the category list and archives with drop-down menus. Then I revised my blogroll to correspond to what I actually read, based on the list of RSS feeds that I scan each morning through NetNewsWire. (There are many other RSS feeds that I track, mostly from news organizations, but they don’t belong here.)
So if you were on my blogroll and have disappeared, my apologies. It’s nothing personal.

Misc. stuff

The last few days here have been unrelentingly wet, and so I’ve been oscillating between work and the apartment without getting up to much else. Among the minor stuff:
I received and assembled the penultimate bit of furniture, the TV stand. I was able to go from:
old setup to TV stand
The 19″ Samsung monitor looks rather lost in all that space…. The sound is great, though. I finally wired up all the speakers and tested the 5.1 audio with a wonderful new DVD, Arriving Somewhere by Porcupine Tree. Highly recommended.
Other things I’ve been watching, reading and listening:

  • Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas Ricks (A relentless, devastating account of “pounding the square peg of the U.S. Army into the round hole of Iraq”.)
  • The Tragic Treasury: Songs from a Series of Unfortunate Events by The Gothic Archies (Stephin Merrit and Lemony Snicket) (My first Stephin Merrit recording: I have a feeling that in time I’m going to acquire quite a few, including 69 Love Songs.)
  • BEEP: The Definitive Guide by Marshall Rose (A geek’s book about a networking technology that, like Jini, is sadly underused.)
  • Learning the World: a Scientific Romance by Ken MacLeod (A thought-provoking first-encounter science fiction story.)
  • Woman of the Year with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (Purchased as part of this collection. (Their first joint venture, and a wonderful, sparkling, and brave film. Even though the revised ending lets it down it’s still a powerful statement. In the original, which Louis B. Mayer objected to, Spencer Tracy’s character tells Hepburn to “just be yourself”; the revised version has her cooking her husband’s breakfast…)

And finally my Washington State driver’s license has arrived. The photo is classic “deer in the headlights”, but I wasn’t looking for a work of art.

Thank goodness

Dan Dennett recently had emergency surgery for a dissection of the aorta. As Boing Boing reports, his friends were anxious to see what effect, if any, this experience had on his atheism. Dan’s response (which you should read in its entirety) included this:

Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say “Thank goodness!” this is not merely a euphemism for “Thank God!” (We atheists don’t believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

Beautifully put. Get well soon, Dan.

UPDATE: In a comment, Chris questioned what he called Dan’s “anthropological optimism”. I asked Dan about this; here’s his reply:

Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot about goodness during the last two weeks since surgery. In one sense it is just obvious: in every human activity there is some measure of quality control, and practically everybody takes this for granted. In the lowliest marketplace, the good food sells before the bad unless the bad is priced lower. People always care. That’s not moral goodness, just the multitudinous excellences of all things we touch and care about. Is there more goodness every day? In this sense, sure. There’s lots of junk, too, of course, but our standards for what is acceptable keep rising, and we keep taking more and more excellence for granted. What about moral excellence? This depends a lot on infrastructure: no matter how heroic you are personally, you can’t save many lives, or help many people, unless you are part of a huge system of design, manufacture and delivery of whatever you rely on in your good works. But that’s easier and easier every year. See my piece “Information, Technology and the Virtues of Ignorance” (last chapter in Brainchildren) about how we are now actually oppressed by all the can-do that science and technology has imposed on us.

Blog update time

Earlier this evening Kate told me that my blog was getting mangled in Internet Explorer. The last time I switched themes I tested it carefully under all the browsers I could find, including IE. I retested, and although most of the pages were OK, the main page was unreadable. So I decided that it was time for a change. I went looking for a really up-to-date WordPress theme that supported all of the recent 2.0 features.

Here you are. It’s the wide version of Marco Vlieg’s Lush, ported to WP by Christoph Boecken. It includes a nice touch that I know some readers will appreciate: the ability to change the font size using the palette at the top right.

While I was installing and customizing the theme, I added some extra features. The most obvious one is that if you leave a comment you can subscribe to receive notification of new comments. You’ll see other new capabilities over the next few days.

Please let me know of any problems, particularly related to browser compatibility or readability.

UPDATE: Steve and others pointed out that some of the fonts were oddly sized and hard to read (probably because they weren’t anti-aliased). There are two probable explanations: frequest use of fractional scaling, and PC-centric font preferences. I’ve fixed some of the scaling (though not all), and I’ve backed off to simple “sans-serif” for most of the fonts, so you’ll see whatever your browser is configured for. If you choose an ugly font, don’t blame me….

Finally! "Oh! What a Lovely War" on DVD

I was actually planning to go to bed early tonight… and then while scanning the TV listings I saw that Joan Littlewood’s “Oh! What a Lovely War” was being shown at 10:20. I’m not sure why, but this film has always been extraordinarily important to me. It’s hard to refer to it as a “favourite” when it evokes such a mixture of emotions, but I always watch it whenever I can… which has been rarely. For some reason it was never released on VHS or DVD, and so I had to catch it whenever I could, usually in the middle of the night.
So I stayed up and watched it, singing along quietly with some of the songs, smiling with anticipation at “They were only playing leapfrog…”, grimacing with rage at the callous stupidity of Haig, spotting celebrities (the cast list is amazing), and unashamedly weeping at the finale.
As I watched, I noticed that the film seemed brighter and crisper than I remembered, and there were a couple of scenes that felt longer. I wondered if someone had finally got around to replacing the tired prints from 1969(!) with a newly restored (and uncut) version. I guess they must have, because I just checked at Amazon.com and the DVD is being released next Tuesday! Hallelujah!!
Now if only someone would give a copy of the DVD to Bush and Rumsfeld. Unfortunately I suspect that they’d fail to see the connection. (The BBC already did a short piece entitled “Oh! What a Lovely Blair!”, skewering the Prime Minister over Iraq.) But never mind: get yourself a copy of one of the best anti-war satires ever produced. You may not enjoy all of it (the poison gas, for instance), but you’ll certainly be glad you did.