My Visit to One of the Most Expensive Buildings in the World

Most of the top ten most expensive buildings in the world are opulent resorts or mighty skyscrapers. There is a nuclear power plant in the mix, and then there’s Apple Park. The new headquarters for my company doesn’t soar up to scrape the ionosphere’s belly, and it doesn’t drip with ridiculous lavishness. The cost came not from coating everything with gold but from building to design tolerances that the construction industry simply doesn’t do.

To make everything fit so tightly in earthquake country first meant resting the whole damn thing on shimmy-shake pads. Thinking about that puts the scale into perspective: The building is a ring; the whole of the new football stadium for the San Francisco 49’ers fits in the “garden” inside the ring.

When I first got through security and walked up to the building, the soft morning rain and the sun at my back produced a rainbow that seemed to emerge from the middle of the giant ring. One prone to symbolism might find that portentous. I took a picture, but I can’t show it to you. (I might have cheated but the picture’s not that great.)

Inside, it feels like the future. Like the fictional sets of many, many science fiction movies, but real, and… functioning. Considering that this whole thing was built on so many simulations, so many never-been-done-but-it-should-work-probably ideas, the whole thing has come together quite nicely.

I was on the third floor and I stepped out of the elevator to see the treetops of the cafeteria. The cafeteria was indoors at that moment (there are stunningly massive sliding glass doors — four stories tall — to open the cafeteria to the outside on good days), but it still felt arboreal.

One thing that enhanced that feeling was the near invisibility of the fence at the edge of the balcony looking down. Glass, clean, almost invisible, making me feel like I was floating over the space below. Happily, I am not prone to vertigo.

It is a building that glorifies glass. The stories you may have heard about distracted employees running into walls is true. Glass and pale cool stone define this quiet world.

I walked through the center of the ring, the path making satisfying crunching sounds beneath my feet. I saw places that had not been ready for the recent rains, standing water on top of newly-planted ground cover. And there is no place in the area built with Apple’s beer bashes in mind. (*WHAAT?*) Yet, there was a serenity in those rolling hills that I really enjoyed. I can imagine a monastery feeling that way.

When we started our stroll through the center of the ring the sky was offering a gentle sprinkle, but by the time we got to the path to the duck pond it was dumping rain and I was more inclined to get back inside. From the organic chaos of grass and trees and rain to the quiet, controlled world of glass and stone once more.

The people I was meeting with — now residents of this place — pointed out spots where trim was missing or small finishing tasks were incomplete. I imagine it will be a year or more before the miles-long to-do list is completed.

My group will not be moving to the new campus; even before ground was struck Apple had outgrown its new headquarters. It holds something like 13,000 people — similar to the Hewlett Packard campus that was razed to make room — but where the old buildings stood between parking lots, the Apple Campus leaves much of the real estate for parkland which I look forward to exploring. Apple was named for the local orchards; in part it was Apple’s success that destroyed them. Nice to see at least a few acres of them come back.

I may not work over there, but I will be finding excuses to visit.

2

The Purpose of the Human Race

The other day, as I was riding home from work, I had an interesting thought. One thing about riding as slowly as I do — you get plenty of time to think about stuff.

Although, when the wind is at my back, pretty much the only thought in my head is “Whee!” and when the wind is in my face the cursing leaves no space for other thought. However, during the non-raining wind-from-the-side portions of my ride, I had time to chew on an interesting thought.

It started somewhere on Homestead Avenue, when it occurred to me that the Information Age was the inevitable consequence of being an organism that uses language. Our brains are built to interpret the world around us, breaking it down into the symbols that allow us to communicate abstract thoughts. We are biologically hard-wired to process symbols that represent the world; we are as hungry for information as we are for food.

But we didn’t stop at reducing the world into symbols, we began to recreate the world, using those same symbols as the building blocks. Early religions might be the first recorded attempts at building a symbolic world on top of the observable one, but any good story is a new world.

Facing a rainy headwind while I pushed down Park Avenue (a pleasant street), those thoughts were forgotten for a while, but by the time I reached Bird they had grown. We are now creating worlds entirely out of symbols. Worlds built purely out of language. World of Warcraft is an obvious example.

While WoW is crude compared to the (presumably) atom-based world we occupy most of the time, it’s easy to imagine that as we build ever-more eloquent languages (in this case programming languages and the frameworks that provide them vocabulary, which in turn express the desires of designers who communicate with more traditional languages) we will create more “real” worlds built solely with language.

By the time I’d huffed over the Curtner Hump and turned into the cemetery, I came down to a core question: Is this what we set out to do a million years ago?

Did we grow brains that had language so we could build better worlds, or was the ability to communicate mundane information twisted to introduce fiction? Are those cave paintings we know so well simply recording history, or are they expressing something larger that we all understand — the desire to build new worlds using the symbols we developed to understand the physical world?

What happens, then, when the world is entirely composed of symbols? What comes next? Are we finished?

1

My Last Car

My faithful little Miata is getting long in the tooth; I purchased it new off the lot in the summer of 1999. Eighteen and a half years is pretty old for a car, but these days not exceptional.

Still, after spending the weekend replacing ignition components and discovering oil on my hands more than once, I have to admit that the car is not as mechanically tight as it used to be. It’s only a matter of time before it crosses the line from “reliable transportation” to “hobby”. I don’t need another hobby.

From time to time I peruse the Internet, fantasizing about the car that will replace the Miata. Convertible is an absolute requirement, two seats a preference. There are some pretty cool cars in this space, but the frontrunner remains the Mazda Miata. I could spend a lot more and get a somewhat more exciting car, but the Miata remains an excellent intersection between fun and economy, with no serious challengers.

But boy, that F-type purrs like a kitten. A tiger kitten.

As I consider the expected lifespan of my next car, the expected lifespan of me, and trends in technology, it occurred to me: It’s quite possible that this will be the last car I ever buy. Twenty years from now my driving skills will be degrading, and as long as I live in a town of any size, it’s entirely possible that self-driving on-demand cars will be significantly cheaper than car ownership, especially when you take into account how few miles I drive.

My last car. Wow. But…

I don’t really need to replace the Miata at all. There is almost never a time when both the family cars are out of the garage, and the few times it does happen could easily be handled with transport alternatives. I could rent a convertible for road trips. Perhaps I have already bought my last car. Wow.

Often, when I take the old girl out for a spin, I first have to remove the tool boxes and other items piled on top. Home repair and crafts projects lead me to pull items off the shelving next to the car and put them on the top or on the hood for access.

A typical look at the Miata

Perhaps the next four-wheeled item to occupy that slot in the garage will be something like this:

The next thing to live on the right side of the garage?

1

Fun With NORAD

The United States has a massive array of detection equipment all around the world, watching with never-blinking (we hope) vigilance to detect attacks on the US or our allies. Each year that massive network is also put to the much-more-fun purpose of tracking Santa Claus as he makes his way around the world.

The official tracking site is here, and now sports a fun and interactive way to watch the jolly elf’s progress. What a great opportunity to sit down with youngsters over a globe or an atlas and find Santa’s current location, tracking him over places the kid has heard of but may not appreciate as actual places on Earth. What a fun way to have a little geography lesson!

While you’re at it, you might enjoy reading about how this all started. NPR has a short article about how the Continental Air Command got into the Santa-tracking business. It all started with a red phone ringing on the desk of a man whose job it was to be the first to know if we were under attack. A red phone whose number was top secret. It’s a fun story.

8

Journalistic Bias: Not What, but When

There is a curve when it comes to shocking news about a candidate for office. For a couple of weeks after the damning revelations come out, the candidate takes a hit. Then, gradually, the candidate’s numbers recover. We’re seeing that right now with Roy Moore in Alabama. Voters have had time to rationalize voting for someone they would never let near their own daughters.

We’ve seen the curve with candidates from both parties in the past, from a gleefully corrupt Democrat in Louisiana who had time to charm his way out of the doghouse to a presidential candidate who went down to perfectly-timed accusations.

I think this curve is pretty well-known by now. I’ve heard of it, and I’m the last to hear about anything.

So imagine you’re the editor of the Washington Post. You have an explosive story about a candidate in an election of great importance. That election is six weeks away. The story is ready to go — facts checked, sources cross-referenced and background-checked. It’s legit.

I think it’s safe to say the editors of the Washington Post are not big supporters of the Republican Party in its current incarnation. So if you are an editor at The Post who decides when to run this huge piece, there will be a natural temptation to run it at the most damaging time possible for Moore. There would be a temptation to sit on the story for a couple of weeks, to put the sweet spot of the damage curve right on election day.

The Washington Post did not do that. There’s no way to tell if the timing of the story was based on journalistic integrity or incompetence, but they did not time the story for maximum electoral impact. I think that means something.

5

Flat-Earthers are Punking You

99% of Flat-Earthers actually believe the Earth is round. They’re just being dicks.

They’re taking great pleasure as you prove seventeen different ways that the Earth is round, just to shake their heads afterward and say, “Nope, Earth is flat.” Your continued insistence on proving the Earth is round is just plain funny to them.

Welcome to the 4chan world. 4chan is a place where people will say anything if it pisses someone off. It’s “for the lulz.” 4chan is where gamer gate came from, and the place Bannon recruited at least one of his most poisonous people.

Now they are getting all kinds of attention just for saying the Earth is flat. Virtual high-fives were shared between moms’ basements when a few idiot celebrities jumped on board. Kinda like with vaccines. But here’s what you have to understand: Every attempt to expose them, every attempt to use science to show they are wrong, just feeds them. The better your argument, the more fun the “nope”.

Only an idiot would think the Earth is flat. These people aren’t idiots. They’re assholes.

3

I Got To Use My Router Today

It was a big handyman day at Muddled Headquarters today. Relatively speaking.

For one task I needed to cut some grooves in a couple of pieces of wood. I have the perfect tool for that — a very nice router. The thing is, I haven’t used this machine in well over a decade. So a chore that would take an actual handyman maybe fifteen minutes start to finish took me closer to two hours, stretched over two days. First, I had to go to the store to get the correct bit (after searching for and failing to come up with the correct bit in my storage bins). The shopping trip took longer than necessary because I did self check-out wrong. By the time I got home it was dark, and my workshop is the back patio.

This morning(ish) I was right back at it. I have no idea how many trips I made between the garage and the patio — for instance to change the bit on the router I realized one needs a large wrench. Into the garage I went to grab my inch-based set of wrenches, only to discover that they’re all too small. Back into the garage I went to grab all my plus-sized wrenches from where they hang in an orderly row. That made two trips, just to put the right bit into the router. Then there were trips for clamps and shims and scrap-lumber guides, and a special trip for my ruler-square thingie. Then bizz-bang-buzz I was done.

Putting the router away, I pushed aside the guide attachment that would have rendered much of the other fiddling moot.

But I made the grooves. There is something deeply satisfying about a high-precision cut, the clean square groove at just the right location. Making the cut is almost an anticlimax; getting the cut right happens long before the motor of the power tool starts whirring. Carpentry is in the things you do before the blade touches the wood.

6

The Hazing

It was standard at the firm. When a new scientist or engineer was hired, they were given an impossible problem. Sure, it seemed like a reasonable task at first, until it foundered on the fundamental laws of physics. The really bright recruits would catch on in a week or so; most took longer.

Then there was Harper. Six weeks and counting. Burning the midnight oil, submitting massive computation jobs, cursing when she thought no one was listening.

The board had been nervous about Harper. Her academic performance had been good, but not the level the company expected. But Joe Petersen had had a hunch about her. “Give her a shot,” he told the board. “You won’t be sorry.” Now he would have to be the one to eat crow and admit that he had been wrong about her.

It was not the sort of message one gives electronically. It was late but Petersen knew where he would find his latest hire. He knocked gently on her open door before walking into her office. She was sitting back in her chair, her dark hair a mess, deep circles under her eyes, just staring into space, nodding slowly.

“Hello, Alice,” he said.

She seemed to remember where she was. “Hi, Boss.”

“I owe you an apology,” he said. “The task I gave you —”

“I solved it.”

Even worse than he thought. “The task I gave you. It was impossible.”

“Well of course it required super-relativistic interaction between particles with mass,” she said. “Particles going back in time. I saw that right away. But the way you asked the question… It got me thinking.”

“And…?”

Alice Harper shrugged. “And I solved it. I just sent a naked quark back in time to resolve an ambiguous energy state. On paper at least. Can I go home now? I’m very tired.”

“I’ll see you Monday,” Petersen said.

1

It’s the Same Ol’ Lost-Data Story

In the last week I’ve heard from three different friends who all experienced the same heart-stopping, stomach-emptying feeling of doom. The oh-shit-I’m-hosed, no-going-back, if-only feeling of true loss.

Those friends were separated by thousands of miles, and by gulfs of temperament. They are all united in being intelligent, creative people.

In at least two of the cases, the hours of gut-wrenching agony were replaced with vast relief. But even as they expressed their joy to the world, the did not (publicly) resolve to do anything to prevent the same disaster from striking again. They still aren’t backing up their digital files. Two of the three sphincter-clenching moments I witnessed this week were sponsored by lost flash drives.

Aargh! It’s SO DAMN EASY to back your stuff up these days. And free! Dropbox is brain-dead simple and works everywhere. For most people, why do you even have a flash drive? If you DO have a flash drive, why is this little thing that can drop through a hole in your pocket the sole repository of everything you hold dear? I say again, “Aargh!”

Ok, DropBox isn’t the most private cloud storage around (though it isn’t terrible — way better than Google). You can quite easily encrypt your files on DropBox, or perhaps you would prefer tersor.it. Swiss-based DropBox, basically. And speaking of Google, if you don’t mind who reads your stuff, the Goog’s a ubiquitous and free way to back your shit up.

In the IT world, there is a saying: “If it’s not in three places, it doesn’t exist.” I can forgive someone who only keeps their data in two places.

But one place? A flash drive? Sorry, buckaroo, you’re going to have to take my sympathy with an “I told you so.”

Sometimes, You Just Gotta Go For It

My NaNoWriMo effort this year now includes a character named Dr. Jenkins. She is annoying, but she loves animals, so we can forgive a great deal.

Romance would serve no purpose in this story, but I may have to introduce some anyway. I mean, with a name like Dr. Jenkins, how can I not?

He kissed her neck and Dr. Jenkins let out a sigh. His lips moved up toward her ear, and Dr. Jenkins’ grip tightened on his arms. “Wait,” she said.

Max pulled away. “What is it, Dr. Jenkins?”

“I’ve… never felt this way before,” she confessed. Dr. Jenkins’ heart was beating too hard; she was having difficulty with even the simplest sentences.

“Nor have I, Dr. Jenkins,” Max said, his words just a breathy whisper as he nibbled on her earlobe. “Nor have I. But tonight, Dr. Jenkins, you and I will. Feel that way, I mean.”

Dr. Jenkins surrendered to his whispery voice. With a shudder that came from her very core she bent her lips to his ear, and whispered in return, “You can just call me… Doctor.”

1

Hedging Investments in Las Vegas

Usually gambling is a risky proposition, but occasionally it can be used to reduce risk.

I heard on the radio today that many months ago a Mattress Entrepreneur in Houston, Texas, said, “If the Astros win the World Series, I’ll refund all purchases over $3,000.” Tonight is a big night for Houston-area mattress buyers; if Justin Verlander pitches well a lot of refunds will be forthcoming, to the tune of $5 million.

Mattress Guy emphasizes that most of that liability is covered by insurance — his business is not at risk — but he finds himself in an interesting situation: if a sporting event comes out a certain way, he loses a lot of money. Tonight it looks like he could use a little more insurance.

Las Vegas to the rescue! By placing a substantial bet on the Astros, he can make back some of the money he loses if they win. If they lose both the next games he loses his bet, but he’s not out the five million. By placing a bet he ensures that either way he loses some money, but he won’t lose as much as he would have, should the Astros win the series.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, one of the big winners in a World Series game 7 are the ticket brokers, and apparently the Dodgers are particularly broker-friendly, releasing tons of tickets into the market. Should there be a game seven, the brokers will make millions. So what can the brokers do to improve the chances of a payout? Head to Las Vegas! By placing a big bet on there NOT being a game seven, the brokers get a guaranteed payout either way.

What these two things have in common is that wagering on the outcome of the game is the exact opposite of gambling. In one case, it is turning a potential big loss into a guaranteed-but-manageable smaller loss. In the other case it’s turning a potential big gain into a guaranteed-but-smaller gain.

Not long ago some kid became famous because he had bet on Auburn to win the college football championship game. At the time he placed his bet, no one thought Auburn had a chance to even reach the game. But holy shit, after a few amazing upset victories there they were. If they won, the kid stood to make something like $65,000. That’s a lot of clams for anyone, let alone a college kid.

Before the game, some Web site took a less-than-scientific poll asking people: Should the kid place a hedge bet to get a guaranteed $30K (less than half of his big payoff), or should he let it all ride? The results of the survey were presented by state — respondents from every state but one said “Let it ride!”. You want to guess which lonely state had a majority of respondents vote “hedge”?

That state was Nevada, of course, where people who gamble for a living reside. Auburn was winning late in the game, but ultimately lost. The kid got nothing. He failed to accept the gambler’s axiom: If you stand to gain or lose significant money over an event that other people are betting on, use that action to eliminate risk. Gamblers hate uncertainty, and feast on greed.

Unlike hedge funds — mutual funds designed to go up when the market goes down but which actually completely fail at that objective — hedge bets are a pretty cold lock, if only for a very specific circumstance. Here’s hoping that matters to one of us, someday.

1

November is Coming

In this entire mad, mad world, there are only a handful of people who have “won” NaNoWriMo every year since 2001. There were about 100 of us who won that year, and the number can only shrink from there.

So while I sit on the third blow-it-up-an-do-it-again exercise with chapter 40 of Knives, I’m also looking at November, trying to decide if my reason to participate is habit, pride, or actual creative need.

But I thought of a good moment, and the moment led to a couple of characters with a very small struggle in a vary large universe that cares not what becomes of them. Characters which, for the sake of dragging things out to 50,000 words, will have to stumble across some other, contrived, larger struggle.

In December I can maybe produce a smaller story that fits them better.

1

Swift, the Programming Language, and Why I Love It

He had me at closures. Nomadic chunks of code that show up when they’re needed.

Quick note: This episode is heavy geek.

A few years past Apple was looking for something to fill a few minutes in their presentation to their faithful developers. “Let’s tell them about Swift”, someone high up decided. I was watching that presentation, and at first I was all like, “Another language? This will be a fiasco.” Apple has a mixed (and mostly bad with one great success) record when it comes to languages. A few minutes in, I was intrigued. By the end, I was sold.

Swift built on the work of great designers of other languages, and managed to bring (most of) the best of untyped languages with (most of) the best of strongly-typed languages. In my heart, I’m a strongly-typed guy, but I’ve been using javascript long enough to appreciate its flexibility.

But there’s one place Swift went that no other language has ever tread. Nil. One of the most common problems in software is when you expect something to the there, but for whatever unexpected reason, nothing is there. This is literally the cause of every blue screen of death you have ever seen.

In Swift, when you say that variable x will be of a particular type, right from the get-go you have to decide if x can ever be nil. If you allow that x can be nil, then every time you use x you have to take the potential that it is nil into account. No getting around it. If you say that x can never be nil, then the compiler will not allow you to create any condition that x is nil.

You can, of course, punch the compiler in the face and say you know goddam well that by then x will not be nil. But, awesomely, you don’t have to be all aggro. You can be totally graceful and say, “if x is not nil, then let’s have some fun.”

Swift has many other features created with one purpose: Make the costly mistakes commonly made with other languages impossible. One of the motivators of this language was a potentially awful security flaw on iPhone a few year back, caused by a stupid missing curly brace.

The Swift compiler is almost spooky. I’m not going to go into its almost-magic ability to resolve generics, but dang.

I do have a quibble: If one is focussing a language on security and preventing bad programming patterns, I would like to see the end of “break” and “continue”. We all learned long ago how terrible “goto” is; it’s time to recognize goto’s buck-toothed kin. (In the iPhone security problem above, goto was part of the problem. I was stunned that any code from my company included that instruction.) I once sat through a long discussion on the WebKit boards while they argued about how to define constants to handle exceptional cases, when the exceptional cases themselves could have been eliminated by banishing “break”.

Programmers out there: any time you want to type “break”, there is a better answer. If you can’t find that answer, it’s time to grow. Seriously. Outside of case statements, there is no time “break” is the right answer. EVER. (Swift eliminated break in case statements for you.)

Maybe I’ll fork the Swift open source and create hard-ass Swift. The same as Swift, but without the goto’s. Or maybe I’ll just challenge my peers to embrace the spirit of Swift, and write good code.

I program in four languages day in and day out, and a few others now and then. Give me Swift.

1

Giving with Maximum Gain

In this case “gain” is used in the electronics sense. We are prepared to amplify your donation 6x. Six! X!

We can all be excused if disaster fatigue sets in; first one hurricane, then another (carrying two disasters with it), and finally fires. Hopefully finally.

But many people lost their lives and their loved ones, and many more lost their homes to the wildfires in Northern California. As someone who watched a large chunk of my home town burn down in years past, I feel for the folks up in wine country.

The fires are mostly out, or at least contained, and the weather is cooling. The first part of the disaster is over. But now comes the much more difficult part. The rebuilding. Providing shelter for thousands of people who are, unexpectedly, homeless. Some of those have enough insurance to get back on their feet (eventually), but not all.

Habitat for Humanity exists to build homes for those who need them. We’re holding a fundraiser right now, and it works like this:

You donate $10. The Official Sweetie and I match that donation (up to a total of $250). Now your donation is at $20. But then my employer gets involved. They are currently matching donations to Habitat times two.

Your humble ten bucks is now sixty mighty dollars of world-improving power.

Just so we’re clear, because you don’t give the money directly to the charity, but instead use us as a proxy, you won’t get a tax deduction. You’ll just do six times as much good.

Ready? Let’s do it!

1

The Pledge of Allegiance was Written by a Socialist

Here’s a fun fact I bet you didn’t know: The pledge of allegiance was written by a socialist. I’m not quite sure what Francis Bellamy was thinking; although he imagined all the people of the world pledging to their various flags, the result of the exercise is inevitably nationalistic.

But Bellamy was a socialist, and he wrote the pledge, and a treatise on the etiquette surrounding it. Much of that was slurped up by the flag code (although the text of the pledge has undergone two significant edits). The flag code includes language that states one should face the flag while speaking the pledge, and remove any non-religious headwear while one salutes the flag.

Uh, Whups, my original source contains the phrase “non-religious”, but the current code does not. I’m very curious when the change was made. If the flag code were on GitHub this would be much more transparent.

Most of this same etiquette has been transferred to the national anthem. So let’s get this straight. If sitting or kneeling or quietly protesting is bad, shouldn’t ignoring the whole pledge be worse? Not an act to raise awareness, just pure sloth. Sitting around, yapping to the people around you, absolutely ignoring the flag out of pure contempt should be far worse.

Right?

Tune in and watch your congress during the pledge tomorrow morning. Watch the senate. Glory in the patriotism. All those fuckers are far worse than a conscientious athlete hoping to deliver a message. Most of your elected representatives just don’t care. There is protest, and there is contempt.