Monthly Archives: June 2012

No Room for Wishing

Last night I went to the first, amazing performance of an oddly titled one-man play about Occupy Boston. (You can guess who had the connection to get the ticket.) For 90 minutes, as maybe 30 different characters, Danny Bryck delivered lightly edited monologues built entirely from interviews with members of the protest camp that spent two months in front of the Federal Reserve building in downtown Boston.

The interviews were wonderfully edited to form a play presenting the natural narrative arc of the camp’s evolution, inspiration, and destruction, but the drama seemed to come straight from life. The interviewees who contributed their stories each presented a compelling viewpoint, either out of incredible personal history or sheer flair for the dramatic.

If the text as performed had simply been published verbatim (and perhaps it will be), it would have made a worthwhile book, but the most remarkable aspect of the performance was the performance. Bryck impersonated each speaker without caricature or mockery, adopting an enormous variety of tones, accents, postures, cadences, and I’m sure more other aspects of persona than I could possibly identify. It was no surprise to learn, after the show, that he’s previously served as a professional dialect coach in many other productions.

I can speak to the veracity of Bryck’s mimicry because several of his characters were there, in the audience. It was an unusual privilege to hear, in the discussion following the performance, interviewees react to their own portrayals … and to hear their immediately recognizable voices.

This performance was sort of a “beta test” for the show, which will receive more editing and focus before its real public run begins in the fall. I can recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about the Occupy movement … just so long as they don’t expect to find a take-home message any shorter than the play itself.

It’s Google

I’m normally reticent to talk about the future; most of my posts are in the past tense. But now the plane tickets are purchased, apartment booked, and my room is gradually emptying itself of my furniture and belongings. The point of no return is long past.

A few days after Independence Day, I’ll be flying to Mountain View for a week at the Googleplex, and from there to Seattle (or Kirkland), to start work as a software engineer on Google’s WebRTC team, within the larger Chromium development effort. The exact project I’ll be working on initially isn’t yet decided, but a few very exciting ideas have floated by since I was offered the position in March.

Last summer I told a friend that I had no idea where I would be in a year’s time, and when I listed places I might be — Boston, Madrid, San Francisco, Schenectady — Seattle wasn’t even on the list. It still wasn’t in March, when I was offered this position in the Cambridge (MA) office. It was an unfortunate coincidence that the team I’d planned to join was relocated to Seattle shortly after I’d accepted the offer.

My recruiters and managers were helpful and gracious in two key ways. First, they arranged for me to meet with ~5 different leaders in the Cambridge office whose teams I might be able to join instead of moving. Second, they flew me out to Seattle (I’d never been to the city, nor the state, nor any of the states or provinces that it borders) and arranged for meetings with various managers and developers in the Kirkland office, just so I could learn more about the office and the city. I spent the afternoon wandering the city and (with help from a friend of a friend), looking at as many districts as I could squeeze between lunch and sleep.

The visit made all the difference. It made the city real to me … and it seemed like a place that I could live. It also confirmed an impressive pattern: every single Google employee I met, at whichever office, seemed like someone I would be happy to work alongside.

When I returned there were yet more meetings scheduled, but I began to perceive that the move was essentially inevitable. The hiring committee had done their job well, and assigned me to the best fitting position. Everything else was second best at best.

It’s been an up and down experience, with the drudgery of packing and schlepping an unwelcome reminder of the feeling of loss that accompanies leaving history, family, and friends behind. I am learning in the process that, having never really moved, I have no idea how to move.

But there’s also sometimes a sense of joy in it. I am going to be an independent, free adult, in a way that cannot be achieved by even the happiest potted plant.

After signing the same lease on the same student apartment for the seventh time, I worried about getting stuck, in some metaphysical sense, about failure to launch from my too-comfortable cocoon. It was time for a grand adventure.

This is it.

Arboretum

Today was an almost perfect day. Sarah and I biked through the Emerald Necklace to the Arnold Arboretum (like everything else around here, part of the Harvard hegemony), about 12 miles round trip. The weather was sunny and beautiful, to show off the river-side trails to best advantage, but I was well-sunblocked and wore my excellent sunglasses throughout.

That last bit turned out to be a real problem, when we returned and discovered that my civilian glasses were nowhere to be found. Their location is still a mystery, even though I retraced a fair few of my steps.

There’s a good chance I’ll be making a detour back into the Arboretum tomorrow morning, to see if I might have left them in that picturesque shaded lawn, beneath a tree whose placard I made not the slightest effort to read.

The Sky

Last night Sarah and I went to Sky Jam at Boston Skyzone. Skyzone is every child’s dream house come to life: a place where the floor is made of endless trampolines (ok, 10,000 sq. ft.). That is essentially the whole story, although the 45-degree trampoline ring around the edge is also worth noting: bounce out, and you will simply bounce back in.

Sky Zone offers 90 minutes of jump time, pretty much any time, to anyone, for $16. The photos on the website suggest that “anyone” is mostly pretty young kids, the traditional market for trampoline-based entertainment. The Sky Jam event is the same as usual except

  • at 10 PM on Saturday nights
  • 18+ only
  • Includes two (smallish) slices of (cafeteria-grade) pizza and a can of soda, at the end once you turn in your shoes.
  • theoretically maybe the quiet background music is more dance-like

It was exhausting, exhilarating … and a little bit bruising. I’ve still got a pink spot or two from places where I rubbed the coarse trampoline fabric, and my back hurt so much when I got home that I worried I’d be making friends with a chiropractor. Nonetheless, I would recommend it to anyone to whom it sounds appealing. It certainly compares favorably to paintball; similarly injurious, perhaps, but more fun and less fear.

A few notes for those considering the trip:

  • Even with the 18+ restriction the crowd skewed pretty young; of the ~50 attendees, mine was the only bald head on display.
  • Great place for a date or with friends, but it doesn’t look like much fun alone. Surprisingly even gender balance, but not a singles’ scene because there’s no mechanism for introductions.
  • Avoid glasses (I wore my rarely-used contacts). There were a few bespectacled attendees who were all enjoying themselves, but one was doing so despite an evident cut below his left eyebrow, right where the frames must have hit him when he fell.

How to install Linux against its will

For reasons that are a long, sad, story, I needed to install RHEL/Centos/Scientific Linux to an external USB hard drive. Not a LiveUSB installer, with passwordless root, writable overlays, and all that jazz, but an honest to goodness standard install to a target that just happens to be connected via USB instead of SATA. No problem, right? Just pick your disk (they’re all SCSI as far as Linux is concerned anyway) and go for it.

Alas, no. On Scientific Linux 6.2 (and therefore presumably also RHEL and CentOS) there are an array of remarkable bugs that will prevent you from doing this. In particular, formatting the target, by any of the several available routes, will always fail, usually with an error suggestive of a race condition between the formatter and the automounter. If you preformat the drive, Disk Druid will helpfully prevent you from specifying mountpoints for the pre-existing partitions.

I spent at least a full hour probing every possible path through this thicket before I discovered the ultimate solution: run the whole thing in VirtualBox! The key insight here: VirtualBox simulated internal disk targets can actually be backed by any physical block device, including external devices. Just make a pass-through image with

sudo VBoxManage internalcommands createrawvmdk -filename ~/.VirtualBox/HardDisks/sdb.vmdk -rawdisk /dev/sdb

and then launch VirtualBox, with the LiveCD ISO loaded into the virtual CD drive (no USB install stick, or messing with unetbootin or liveusb-creator, required).

I am happy to report that the virtualized text-mode install actually worked, once I enabled PAE/NX, and so long as I was willing to ignore the upper ASCII garbage occasionally dribbled onto the screen. The resulting USB drive even booted correctly on real hardware, on the first try! I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to the creators of The Matrix.

Alas, it was all for naught. NI-SCOPE 3.1 failed in ugly fashion, whether combined with NI-KAL 2.2 (which installed fine) or not. As the whole point of the exercise was to get NI-SCOPE running, I threw up my hands in despair, wiped the disk, and proceeded to plan, uh, G or something.

Abort

On Tuesday I went to an abortion conference at Suffolk University Law School, next to the Boston Common. It consisted of about 6 15-minute speeches, given by representative from NARAL MA, the ACLU, and other organizations, about the history and status of access to abortion in Massachusetts and around the country.

There was incredible urgency and energy in the room, among an audience composed mostly of female lawyers and law students. I counted over 50 in the lecture hall.

I took copious notes detailing the long list of absurd and outrageous revelations. The Catholic Church is staging a “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign against contraception! Fraudulent “crisis pregnancy centers” fund their lies with federal abstinence-only education dollars, then escape from medical regulation because they don’t charge for their services! A proposed bill in Massachusetts (“Laura’s law”) would require reading a rape victim the father’s support obligations, and create mandatory ultrasound for women whose fetuses will be stillborn if not aborted! Republicans in the Massachusetts house have proposed to zero out teen pregnancy prevention funding!

Thankfully, I don’t have to remember the rest, because my girlfriend wrote an actual news article on the event. What a relief!

Single-serving friend report

On my flight back from Seattle two weeks ago, I sat next to a roofing contractor who grew up in Cape Cod but lives in Tacoma, flying back for his aunt’s funeral in Connecticut. He told me that he is the great great grandson of James Lorin Richards, a wealthy industrialist who paid for the first building on Northeastern University’s campus.

Since he runs a roofing contracting company, he was happy to estimate for me that he typically charges about $2.40/ft.^2 to build a roof, of which about $0.80/ft.^2 is “hard costs”, i.e. materials, not labor. I asked this question because of a question I’ve wondered about people who put solar panels on the roofs of houses. Wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper to just make the roof out of solar panels, and avoid the redundant layers and awkward installation?

Unfortunately, solar panels are simply much too expensive for this to be relevant. The cheapest panels cost about $16/ft.^2, swamping the cost of roofing materials. There would be more savings available from reducing the labor of two separate construction projects than from saving the cost of roofing materials.

But how much cheaper do solar panels have to get before this sort of logic becomes relevant? To see this, we need a little bit of algebra. Solar panels are normally characterized by two numbers: their power cost C in $/Watt, and their power density D in Watts/ft.^2. In a normal solar panel installation, there’s an additional installation cost I ($/ft.^2) representing the cost of mounting brackets and labor, for a total effective power cost of C + I/D. Thus, with a traditional over-roof installation, high density is valuable because it minimizes installation costs.

Now suppose that, instead of incurring installation costs, solar panels are actually replacing roofing material costs R in a new building under construction. Then the total effective power cost is C – R/D. In other words, at a constant power cost for the panels, when using them as building materials it might actually save money to buy panels with lower power density … panels that are traditionally regarded as the lowest tier.

Maybe I’m finally beginning to understand the enthusiasm for thin film panels, with their very low power densities but even lower cost per unit area.

P.S. … and of course, there’s a whole wikipedia section, and indeed a whole industry, around this idea. There sure are a lot of people on this planet.

Efficiency, or the lack thereof

To anyone who grew up on Mr. Wizard, solar distillation is the obvious method for purifying drinking water. Simply place the input in sunlight in a suitably shaped container, let the sun’s energy evaporate water out of the contaminated solution, and then recondense it into a drinkable liquid. In theory, it seems like a dead simple solution which, if scaled up, could turn any water source (even seawater) into clean pure H2O with a minimum of fuss.

Reality is different. Solar desalination is essentially abandoned technology, because the output has never been large enough to justify the cost. From physical principles, we can estimate limits on achievable output. Seawater is about 600 mM NaCl, which has a free energy of solvation of about 9.0 kJ/mole. It follows that desalinating 1 liter of seawater should require about 5.4 kJ of energy. At the equator, solar intensity peaks at about 1 kW/m^2, for about 24/π ≈ 7 hours = 25200 seconds (by a geometric argument). That’s a total of 25200 kJ/m^2 per day of energy, enough to desalinate 4600 liters of water.

How do actual solar still stack up to theory? Poorly. Tests under ideal conditions show results from 3 to 8 liters per m^2 per day. That’s an efficiency of less than 0.2%; over 99.8% of the incoming energy is wasted.

For scale, we can compare this to solar photovoltaics, which have typical energy conversion efficiencies of over 10% (and as high as 44%), or more generally to combustion engines, which capture fuel energy with typical efficiencies of 20-40%. Even the notoriously inefficient thermoelectric generators are still at least tenfold more efficient than a solar still. This might explain why the dominant technology for solar water purification is now solar photovoltaics driving mechanical reverse osmosis … an obnoxiously complex and expensive solution to a problem that, intuitively, should be very simple.

Maybe it’s time for an X-prize for solar distillation … or maybe this is one case where the physical limits really don’t tell us much about what engineering can achieve.

Pride

Yesterday my girlfriend Sarah took me to my first pride parade. That would be the Boston gay pride parade, at least traditionally, but in recent years the term “gay” has been dropped in the interest of inclusiveness.

We positioned ourselves at the very end of the route, amidst an orderly but enthusiastic (much clapping and yelling as each group passed) crowd of thousands, thick enough that it was difficult to find a vantage point from which the marchers were visible.

From stereotype, I had expected that the parade would be dominated by outrageously clad gays marching in uniform or gyrating on floats, and indeed there was some of both of these things. What I didn’t expect was that the majority of parade participants appeared to be mainstream straights marching in a show of support. (I think the sidelines may have been gayer than the marchers on average!) Most remarkable were the church groups. Seemingly every Unitarian and United Church of Christ congregation in the state sent a delegation, as did every hospital in Boston, every liberal politician (Barney Frank marched with Elizabeth Warren), and a large number of major employers, including Fidelity, Bank of America, Google, and Microsoft.

The dynamic of the pride parade, I think, has become a relatively straightforward transaction. Organizations like a campaign for city council or Brigham and Women’s Hospital give their support to the legitimacy of the gay community by participating in the parade, and in return receive tremendous free advertising (and accompanying good will).* The demographics of the crowd (urban, gay or gay-friendly, politically active) attracted participants such as Zipcar, Boston nightclubs, Cirque du Soleil (in costume), and an especially large delegation from Macy’s.

There were certainly some organizations that were there because of a more focused mission, from the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, Fenway Healthcare, and the Gay Fathers’ Association, to the handful of truly sex-oriented groups. Occasional prideful individuals, including a number of freshly crowned “queens”, walked through with perhaps a sash but no banner, and some marchers simply strolled along dressed to the nines (or barely dressed at all). One standout for me was a handful of bare-chested transmen who successfully made their point about gender identity without a single banner or utterance.

In a word: diverse.

*: There may be secondary benefits related to the morale of employees who enjoy the ability to represent their employer.

Oops

At a party last night I managed to tell an insensitive joke in such poor taste that I actually offended myself. I immediately retracted it, which is of course impossible.

It was a good reminder that effort is required to keep mouth and brain working in unison … and for me to be a little more forgiving of others who should know better than to say what they say. I should too.