Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sunnyvale politics

Perhaps now would be the time for the council to simply ban contributions from businesses that do business with the city. Then we could actually have debate on the real issues. However, for the the time being, corporate and developer contributions are allowed. So, we have to filter through this before getting to the meat of the campaign.

As for the donations, some candidates are making much ado about peanuts. In the current election, none of the candidates "need" developer contributions to run their campaign. If we exclude the "micro-financed" campaign of Gustavo Magana, all candidates are their top contributor. Excluding developers would not pose any significant hardship on the campaigns. Donations are a viable means for third parties to show support for candidates. Refusing the donations would not change the developer support for the candidate. Accepting the donation would, however, show a willingness to work with the developer for the good of the city.

Claims that these are "career politicians" that are out soliciting heavy donations could also fairly easily be debunked. Four of the candidates are middle-aged (around 50) engineers. There is also a middle-aged CEO and retirement-age investment manager. All six of these guys would likely be well past the prime age for entering a career in politics. They would also be taking a significant pay cut to do so. The only one that seems a likely candidate for a "lifer" is Magana. Alas, he has been fairly well ignored in this election.

It is not likely that developer donations play a strong role in the council decisions. But, lets suppose that they did. Suppose that city council members simply looked at their contributions and voted for the party that would benefit the most. Would this be a bad thing? We have a free market and donation information is publicly available. Opposing parties could make contributions to balance out any big developers. The mantra given by "anti-development" people is that candidates are favoring developers over "ordinary residents". Well, most candidates receive much more from individual residents than they do from developers (much less single developers.) The calculated politician would thus vote in the best interest of the "residents". However, this could very well be in line with the developer.

Pat Meyering raised another issue. Perhaps contributions influence the city to grant better contracts to companies doing business with the city. He suggested the contributions caused the Sunnyvale city council to approve some "pork" for the Smart Station operator. This case can easily be rebuffed by the facts. (Only two candidates received contributions. Even if they had recused themselves, the measure would have passed.) The nature of a "city-manager" type of government makes blatant favoritism more difficult to carry out. Most of the work is carried out by the apolitical city employees who work under the city manager. The primary role of the council is to approve these details. The garbage contract was placed on the "consent" agenda, meaning the council will typically approve it with a number of other items. Politicking only becomes involved when it is removed from this agenda. This is, in fact, exactly what Meyering did. He introduced politics into the discussion as an attempt to discredit the other councilmembers. (In the process, the city staff of Sunnyvale and neighboring cities were also assumed to be corrupt.) The details showed that the owner of the company that runs the Smart station contributed to one candidate in his most recent election, and another candidate in the previous election. Both candidates were terming out of office with no immediate intentions of seeking other office. The tie to receiving a donation is tenuous at best. (I'd saw the fact that one candidate did not receive a donation in the most recent cycle would make him likely to be prejudiced against the company.)

Once we subtract out the issue of "donations", we get to the other issue brought up by the anti-establishment candidates: "development." Development is bad. Developers are bad. City council constantly votes to violate city policy to support these evil developers. The council should stand up to developers and not let them "urbanize" our city and bring with it all the congestion and urbanization. We should try to be like Los Altos Hills or at least Los Altos. Or so the party line goes.

The comparisons can be misleading. Los Altos Hills has an idyllic, rural setting. Lot sizes are large. This limits the number of residents and requires lots of driving, but keeps traffic congestion low. It is located on the periphery of the urbanized area. While 280 passes through on a north-south axis, there is very little reason to travel east-west through the town. Housing prices there are very expensive. Most people in Sunnyvale could not afford to live there if they wanted. If Sunnyvale were to adopt similar policies, people would be priced out of Sunnyvale. There jobs would also leave the city, and overall driving distances and traffic congestion would likely increase. Sunnyvale is "in the middle", with three freeways passing through or near the city, with an additional two expressways passing and numerous major roads passing through.

Los Altos borders sections of Sunnyvale and may be a closer comparison. Los Altos has 28% of the area of Sunnyvale, but only 15% of the population. That leaves it at about half the population density of Sunnyvale. However, Los Altos is almost entirely residential, while Sunnyvale includes a large swath of industrial land. Sunnyvale is also much more diverse in land use than Los Altos. Perhaps a better comparison would be the 94087 zip code. It has a similar "mostly residential" makeup to Los Altos and about the same area, but more than 50,000 people (compared to under 30,000 in Los Altos.) Sunnyvale is just more dense than Los Altos. Los Altos home prices are higher than those in Sunnyvale. Los Altos also has higher taxes (both due to higher values and special measures for schools, libraries, etc.) Sunnyvale residents that prefer the area are more likely to be able to afford the move, however, it wouldn't be without cost. Not only does Los Altos cost more, it lacks some common amenities (like sidewalks and storm drains in most residential areas.) Los Altos has also made a decision to eschew overbuilding roads. (Just take a look at Fremont. From Foothill to expressway to the Sunnyvale border, it is a tree-lined, 2-lane 30 mph road. In Sunnyvale it expands to a 6 lane, 40 mph road. During evening rush hour, there can be a mile-long back-up in Los Altos, while the road moves freely in Sunnyvale.)

While Sunnyvale shares a short border with Los Altos, it primarily borders Cupertino, Mountain View and Santa Clara. All of those cities have approved large scale development. Santa Clara has a new 49ers football stadium. Mountain View has a giant mixed-use project at a former mall on El Camino and San Antonio. (Sunnyvale has tried to do something similar, but at a smaller scale downtown, but it has been eternally stalled.) Cupertino just approved a gigantic Apple spaceship campus right across the street from Sunnyvale. All of these cities get the tax revenue and development fees from these projects. They also have a significant say in how the projects proceed. Sunnyvale can attempt to grovel, but it has no authority in the decision process.

These developments will all produce significant traffic within Sunnyvale. Even if Sunnyvale ends development altogether, traffic will still continue to grow. Sunnyvale also has a large number of employers of its own. Simply cutting off residential development will mean people have to travel from further away to work there, also driving up city traffic congestion. There is high demand for development in the area. If it is not met in Sunnyvale, it will be met in Mountain View - or perhaps Gilroy. The further away the development, the greater the traffic.

Increasing density in a good manner can significantly reduce need for cars and driving. Density also helps to enable lower cost housing. (Simple math: house costs $1.3 million, with $1 million the cost of the land. Put 4 slightly smaller houses on the same land and now you have 4 $500,000 houses. I was disappointed to see one candidate attack density by saying that high density cities like New York have high some of the highest housing costs. This totally confuses cause and effect. New York is dense because of the high demand. Without the demand, costs would plummet. Density is a way to meet the demand. A million dollar Sunnyvale house would cost many times that in a similar-sized lot in Manhattan. People build dense to meet the demand. This makes housing more affordable.

Sunnyvale is lucky to be a core suburban area that remains in high demand. In many other metropolitan areas, cities similar to Sunnyvale are deteriorating. Development has focussed on the inner city and the new outer-ring suburbs, leaving the inner suburbs behind. Sunnyvale is lucky to still be in strong demand for employers and residents. If it were not for development, the city would simply fade in importance and be changing in the "wrong direction." If we force residents out to the central valley, eventually companies will start to locate there, and the allure of Sunnyvale will fade. Rather than fight development, the best reaction is to encourage it to be done right. The development should be coerced together to make a cohesive, walkable community (rather than a series of big box buildings.) There may be issues with development that can be resolved, but fighting development itself is nothing more than a naive sound-bite.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party

At first I thought this was a futuristic novel about a remote kingdom. Then I realized, it was historical fiction, focussing on the life of a northern slave during the time of the civil war.

Octavian grew up in an intellectual house in Boston during the pre-revolutionary time. He both studies himself and was well-studied by the other intellectuals there. The people had a degree of respect for the blacks. They didn't quite see them as equals, but saw them as people capable of intellectual achievement.

However, the patron of the house passes away. Things look good with the new patron until Octavian's mother rebuffs his advances. He promised all sorts of things in England, but she knew she would just continue to be a slave. (It turns out, that England would soon thereafter free the slaves. However, it was too late for them.)

They have a "pox party" where people are all infected with pox together in a house. The slaves are also kept there (in part to prevent the possibility of a revolt.) Octavian's mother dies, but most others make it through fine.

Shortly thereafter, Octavian runs away and aligns with revolutionary forces. He is eventually caught and brought back. (The 'intellectual' slave who spoke multiple languages and played musical instruments was easy to find.)

The story provides an interesting underside to the the American Revolution. As an attempt to defeat the insurgency in the colonies, Britain freed slaves. Had the American revolution failed, the US might have retained a population of free blacks, and never had a need for the Civil War. (Or slavery may have simply reinstated.)

There is also the subplot of dubious science. When the intellectuals received patronage from southern plantation owners, their studies were supposed to help prove blacks were inferior. This they accomplished by changing the study so that it "looked" objective, but in fact was so removed from the real world to make the results a foregone conclusion. There are always way to spin things to make extremely valid looking "lies" with science.

This story brings Octavian back to his slavery and "wraps" some things up. However, there are plenty of areas open for doing additional stories.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

The history of information can be a broad topic. Even narrowing it down to "modern" advances in uses of information still leads a lot to cover. This book focuses on the technology and theory that have changed the way that we process process and transfer information. Speech enabled more verbose communication to be shared among people. Different aspects of the language were used to communicate stories over time. Epics like the Iliad relied on a number of verbal clues to allow the bards to relate the tale.

Then came the revolution of writing. This enabled greater spreading of language across time and space. It also lead to a decrease in the abilities of the oral story-tellers. In the process, it also changed the way that we think about the world. Different means were used to record speech, including pictographs, syllabaries and alphabets.

The telegraph was one of the first modern technological advancements that enabled widespread communication. However, this in essence simply mirrored African drummers that were able to "talk" with their drums over great distances. Telegraphs required translation of speech into a digital code of "dots, dashes, short pauses and long pauses". Associated with this codes were different additional codes to "encrypt" and "compress" the information via codebooks or other shorthand phrases.

The telephone started to allow communication with analog signals. This set off a revolution where everybody could use the long-distance communicator without an intermediary. From there, the information revolution took off into high gear and never really stopped, with computers, internet and more enabling rapid communication.

This book covers all the communication and the theory behind it. Information theory, mathematics, biology, computer science and more are all covered. It even "jumps the shark" to talk about "jumping the shark". With a topic as broad as "information" it is easy to meander into all sorts of different areas from DNA to the Enigma machine. A little more focus would have been helpful. At times it can get awfully boring as the author rambles on about some topic. Then it can turn around an start to cover something interesting.

Alloy of Law

Alloy of Law is set 300 years after the previous Mistborn novels. The world has continued along since the final events of "Hero of Ages". The world is somewhat similar to our world, though with some key differences. The "magic" is present, but in a lesser degree than in the early novels. All this provides the basic setting for a crime novel.

Some people have been mysteriously robbing train shipments. Eventually they start taking other things and eventually are taking hostages.

The crime fighters had previously worked out in the "roughs", but have now returned to "civilization. Waxilliam is part of a noble family on hard times who has two powers, while Wayne has the ability to "speed time".

Eventually they solve the crimes but find the mastermind behind it all is an unexpected relative.

This seems like something that was fun to write. Sanderson had this nifty fantasy universe created and then said "hey, what if I throw in a crime story here." It made for a fun book, and leaves plenty of loose ends to continue if he still maintains the interest. If not, he can start exploring elsewhere.

Dumbest Generation

Perhaps "the Dumbest use of statistcs" would be a more apt title for this book. He begins with some anecdotes describing massively overworked students. Then he attempts to turn it on its head and cites study after study showing that kids are getting dumb today. We are bombarded with statistics and anecdotes without much coherent organization. He rants against "search engine learning" while writing a book in that exact style.

The arguments come up flat. Young people are "stupid" because they don't know the basic facts that the older generation know. Isn't that the nature of knowledge? Some facts fade in importance through history and new facts get added. Today, detailed knowledge of Sumerian leaders is not well known, but a few millenia ago, everybody in the fertile crescent could name their last few leaders. Even looking at things such as "reading" can be misleading. A few century ago, reading was a primary source of popular entertainment. Now other media sources such as TV, internet and music provide the source of entertainment. This sounds awfully similar to arguments that have been going on for thousands of years. Back in the days of ancient Greece, Socrates was worried that Greeks were getting stupid because they were writing instead of carrying on knowledge orally.

The core argument boils down to: younger people access "popular culture" in a different way than older people. If a teenager eschewed internet for newspapers and novels, he would be able to relate better to his seniors. However, he would find it difficult to relate to his peers who would expect electronic communication and knowledge of current pop culture. For teenager's life, social networks and communication with others is important. Problems of the larger world are of little importance compared to problems in individual cliques. Digital technology use mirrors these needs.

Another argument is that too much time and money is spent on technology. This is deemed as not producing useful results. Alas, this comes back to the Socrates argument. If the ancient Greeks spent a lot of time on reading and writing, yet tested the outcome on how well people could orally recite the Iliad, they would get bad results also.

Technology in the classroom is a problem, but not necessarily for the reason the author gives. Technology in the classroom is often used to simply do what could otherwise be done without technology. Add in the overhead of "starting" and "using" the technology, you end up with a net loss. Students are criticized from doing "real work" with the technology. You can see this in the recent case of the Los Angeles school district. The district gave everyone iPads, but quickly took them away when students learned to hack them to surf the web and load games. Alas, the district is removing the learning devices right when students are truly learning. Hacking requires advanced research and problem solving skills that are more directly applicable to work. Running simple "educational" apps is often just a waste of time.

He even goes on to criticize accounts of kids that do amazing things with technology as being the exception, rather than the rule. This is akin to noting a teenage novelist as being an anomaly and thus attacking the waste of time schools spend on creative writing.

Individuals now focus on many short bits of information on a screen rather than long, detailed arguments.

He had background in "the arts", and thus wants people to be interested in "the arts". But, much of the "arts" is actually popular culture from the years past. The really good stuff filters down to become the arts (as well as the seed for "contemporary art.") Involving oneself in popular culture is a way of developing the "new art".

The endless blather of cherry-picked anecdotes and studies will either have you cheering (if you agree) or seething (if you disagree; however, it does a poor job of providing any convincing argument. It is not until the final chapter when we finally breaks from the pattern and starts to express his own ideas. This actually is a compelling argument. There is some advantage of requiring adherence to a given standard. The "arts" have found their way down to our time due to a long-term filtering of the less-valuable. Alas, the many citations he gives detract rather than add to this argument.

Napoleon Hill's Golden Rules: The Lost Writing

Napoleon Hill was a popular motivational speaker and self-help author from a century ago. These writings from around 1920 remain fairly accurate today.

I enjoyed the "details" of the societal concerns of 1920s business. The country had come out of the Great War and had yet to experience the depression. Business was booming, but in a different way than it is today. It was interesting hearing about how women in garment factories worked better with music or how new inventions change the way we work.

He has a few key points in his discussion. One is the concept of "auto-suggestion". Basically, if you want to succeed at something, you need to think positively and focus on the success. Eventually this positive belief can help to bring about positive actions. Physical appearance also helps to achieve this success. Also, it works better to agree with adversaries rather than attack them. They are often expecting the attack, however, the compliment can help them to let their guard down and gradually bring them to your side.

One story of a bum he meets brings out all of those points. The man thinks that Hill can help him turn around his life. Hill says that he knows somebody right here in the office that can help him do it. He leads him through the office to a door and shows the man his reflection in a mirror. The man does eventually turn his life around and becomes a successful, well-dressed businessman.

Many of the other "teachings" contain similar bits of fairly timeless advice. If you want to succeed at something you must want it enough to put forth the effort. If you want to convince somebody to agree with you, you must first find the points where you can agree with him. At times this advice can sound like it makes somebody "fake" or not genuine. However, eventually, the "fakeness" can become a reality.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

The title "tubes" comes from a quote from the late Senator Ted Stevens who described the internet as "a bunch of tubes." In this book Andrew Blum travels the world to see the physical structures that make up our modern internet.

He starts with the story of his local internet going down because of a squirrel chewing on cables. He then goes on to describe the structure of the internet. He sees the massive switching centers, undersea cables and even data centers. The "last mile" connections from the fiber to the individual cable-modem was harder to come by, but he was able to end with some basic details of how the network finally reached his house.

The concept of peering was interesting. The internet is made up of a number of different networks. These networks all operate on their own. They must be joined somewhere to the outside world. Often this linkage will be in a big city, so you might have all traffic between two networks in Minnesota routed through Chicago. This networks may later decide to link themselves, allowing traffic to pass directly between them.

The internet is also highly redundant and decentralized. There are multiple paths to reach most destinations. This paths are typically not contained in a central location, but instead contained in individual routers. The global backbones help provide fiber-optic cable to the world.

The book was an eye-opener in the physical world of the internet. The one open question that I had was "who gets paid and who does the paying?"

Prelude to the Foundation

Asimov's foundation series was one of the most popular in science fiction. As a kid, I had heard about it. However, I preferred reading Asimov's other books. Later, I finally read the original Foundation series. It wasn't bad, but when I think about it in retrospect, the final books seemed to ramble a bit. He seemed to be done writing.

Enter Prelude to the Foundation. In the introduction he admits that he thought he was done, but was convinced by his readers and publisher to write more books. So we get this uninspiring work.

Prelude to the Foundation is a critique of 1950s cultural norms, written in the 1980s and set tens of thousands of years in the future. Just imagine a world that sees rapid technological innovations, robots, space travel, quadrillions of people, the domination of science. Yet somehow, through all of this, people still have the morals and concerns of people in the 1950s. Yuck.

A "hand on thigh" story of situational moral relativism is repeatedly referenced. Why? Perhaps he just couldn't think of anything else to bring in the point.

The plot is also held together by threads without much substance.

Hari Seldon delivers a paper on "psychohistory", a mathematical concept in which large-scale history of people can be predicted given enough data. For some reason, people are interested in this. Some people try to chase him down. Others try to help him. He always manages to escape just in time. He also comes across as brash, violating norms of different cultures in an attempt to gain more knowledge to carry out his psychohistory. Somehow these actions all end up being just what is needed. In spite of some close calls, he and his friends have just the needed fighting skills and manage to escape without any harm.

In the end, it turns out that the emperor's assistant has been controlling them all along. Only Hari is able to determine that he is in fact not a person, but a robot who has been using powers of emotion to influence everyone and attempt to protect society.

The plot is a real yawner. The characters are not believable (or appealing.) The theme about questioning the norms of societies falls flat. Perhaps the only interesting idea here is that of information. In the quest to find all that is needed to "create" psychohistory, Hari realizes that knowing what unuseful information can be discarded is the most important part of accumulating knowledge.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Stars Like Dust

A young son of a rancher is on a ship where an attempt is made on his life. He eventually sneaks away with the daughter of a sycophantal ruler and they attempt to find the rebel groups who are fighting against the local tyrants. They are caught but don't find the tyrants. Eventually, they reason that the rebel home-base is actually the girl's home planet and the rebel leader is her father. In the process there are a number of different twists and turns and a few bold leaps of intuition. It is all mildly entertaining, but not exceptional.

One part that did stretch reason a bit was the "important document" that the boy's deceased father knew about. This document was seen as being key to the revolution and the installation of power by the people instead of a ruler or oligarchy. This "old document" turned out to be the US constitution. It guess it makes it a raw-raw patriotic work. It was written in the 1950s after all.

Hero of Ages

Hero of Ages is the final book in the Mistborn triology. This is probably the first series of "big-thick-fantasy" that I have actually enjoyed. I may try checking out Robert Jordan's fantasy series (since Brandon Sanderson finished it after his death.)

This book completes the typical trilogy arc. In the first book, the heroes complete a major victory over the bad guys. Everything is nicely wrapped up, but a few threads are left to allow the possibility of additional stories. The second book knows it is in the middle. In it the heroes often do the most struggling and growing as characters as the bad guys start to gain ground. Finally, in the third book everything really gets running, with a major battle and large scale triumph of good over evil.

In Hero of Ages, the Elend and Vin Venture are the rulers of the central dominance. They both now have "mistborn" powers and have taken over much of the former empire of the Lord Ruler. However, the ash is falling heavily from the sky and bad things seem to be happening, with even the mist killing people. They are trying to locate the store of the precious metal "atium" that the Lord Ruler had left behind as well as other clues to uses of metals that can be used.

In the quest, they discover that their revolution against the Lord Ruler has had its problems. One area has simply flipped the tables with the previous slaves now oppressing the previous nobles. Other areas long for the good-old days when they were slaves and had reliable jobs and food.

They also discover a lot more about the Lord Ruler. He actually had very noble intentions. He had modeled the different classes of people after those that had existed before. He had set up many different hiding areas with food caches to help support the people in case there was a time of crisis. The ash that covers the land was actually set up to benefit people and shield the planet from the hot rays of the sun. (This was, alas, caused by an attempt to perfect the orbit of the planet.) He froze technological innovation. However, it turns out he was helping to protect the world from an even greater force, that of Ruin.

Ruin had battled with Preservation for control of the world. Ruin can control others, especially when they are pierced with metal. However, he cannot read metal. Preservation had given of himself to create man. By taking of the power of preservation, the Lord Ruler was able to help fend off Ruin. However, he was eventually freed, in part through the aid of Vin. The mists present are actually the forces of preservation. The harm they cause is in fact, the mists way of granting the mistborn powers to people.

Vin ends up taking the power of the mists (only after her ear-ring is removed by the sacrifice of Marsh, who goes against the will of Ruin) Elend and his soldiers find the huge cache of atium - and burn it all in order to launch one final battle against Ruin's armies. It is subterfuge at its greatest, because the atium is in fact part of Ruin's power, and in burning it the weaken Ruin so that he can be defeated. Both Elend and Vin die in the process.

During all this time, Sazed has been suffering self-doubt and becoming agnostic. He is part of the "Keepers" who store knowledge about everything. (The Lord Ruler himself had been of his group.) His focus was on the various religions of the world. Previously he claimed to believe all the religions of the world. However, after the woman that he loved died, he found faults with nearly every one. People had gradually helped him to overcome these doubts. However, it was only during the final battle that he realized that Vin was not the "Hero of Ages" from prophecy. As he overcomes his doubts about religion, he realizes that he is in fact the Hero of Ages. He takes the power and with it and his knowledge is able to recast the world in its proper form, eliminating the ash and restoring plant life.

The pacing is quick with plenty of action. The magic works well and the story has multiple levels of twists. (Both the Lord Ruler and "Ruin" had been outflanking each other on numerous different levels.) While Ruin is a strong "evil" power in the story, the remaining human an semi-human characters are all balanced with both good and evil sides. They mythology is also well developed without being overbearing. If only all fantasy could be this well done.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

As I Lay Dying

I've realized that I just don't like Faulkner. I want to like his work because of the style in which in writes. However, I just don't like the content. The characters are mostly dysfunctional southerners who live a type of life I can't relate to. The language of some can be even more annoying. I just can't get arouse much sympathy or even hatred for the characters - just annoyance.

In this novel, the characters plan on the fulfil the wishes of burying mother in a nearby town. Each chapter is told from the view of a different character, and each seems to have their own ulterior motives. This leads to all sorts of bizarre and comedic things happening as they try to get mother to her proper burial spot.