600 Miles

December 11, 2019 • #

The goal at the start of 2019 was to hit 500 miles running this year. Tonight’s run pushed me up to 602 miles for the year, with a couple of weeks left to go.

150+ miles more than any prior year 150+ miles more than any prior year

Through the mid-summer time I was only averaging 42 to 45 miles a month, which was barely keeping me over the pace mark week to week. I would log my runs and watch the moving plus/minus number I track and see myself float above for a couple days, below for a couple days, hovering around the pace for hitting 500.

In August I made the commitment to run the Halloween Distance Classic half marathon at the end of October, so August through October had me attacking a rough training plan to prep for the race. Mileage increased up to 71 and 88 miles, respectively in August and September. That really accelerated me beyond the pace and I crested 500 before I even finished the half (which I finished with under 10 minute pace).

I haven’t yet decided what I want to target for next year. There’ll likely be a couple of races and some kind of mileage target, but nothing crazy. I’ve got too many other things I want to spend time on. But I’m glad I was able to stay healthy enough to push forward to the best health I’ve ever been in.

AWS re:Invent 2019

December 9, 2019 • #

AWS’s re:Invent conference just wrapped last week. Since we’re so deep into AWS technologies, I keep an eye out each year on the trends visible in Amazon’s product launches. They move at breathtaking speed to fill out their offering suite and keep their current momentum as the leader in the cloud space. They’re really nailing the bundling & scale economics that the likes of Microsoft and Oracle were so successful at in years past. When going upmarket, having a product for every problem outweighs the need for having the highest quality in any individual product line. Enterprises often value the ability to buy everythign they need from a single vendor higher than the quality of the products (what Ben Thompson has referred to as the “one throat to choke” phenomenon).

Here are a handful of the announcements I found most interesting, in no particular order:

AWS Outposts

AWS has finally relented to the customer base that’s been reluctant to move to the cloud for the past decade. With the scale they have now they’ve been able to productize a managed service that puts an “AWS in-a-box” type of modular system into a customer’s datacenter, ideally giving the best of all worlds of security, compliance, and exposure to the AWS services and APIs. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of adoption this gets.

SageMaker Studio

SageMaker is their service for creating, training, and deploying ML models. It’s really an umbrella brand name for about a dozen sub-products for various pieces of the ML workflow. Studio intended to be a full “IDE”-style interface for working with everything you’ve built in SM. Clear indication that this is one of their big strategic plays going forward: lowering the barrier to doing ML and having customers new to the space learning with and expanding from the AWS platform from the start.

Rekognition Custom Labels

Rekognition is AWS’s computer vision service, with endpoints for analyzing video and image data for objects, sentiment, content moderation, and search. One of the barriers for image classification tasks has been the ability to tailor the models to recognize other domain-specific content (like “what kind of part is this?” from a list of parts the customer builds). It now lets you upload your own custom labeled image datasets for training custom Rekognition models.

Amazon Builders Library

This isn’t really a service or expansion on one like the others in the list. This is more a knowledge base of content from Amazon engineers on how they internally build and operate software at scale.

Kindle for Mac

December 8, 2019 • #

Periodically I want to read on my computer, particularly when sitting at my desk. Amazon publishes a web app called Cloud Reader for reading Kindle books, which emulates pretty closely what their mobile apps look and feel like.

I found out they’ve got a full desktop client also, which seems they’ve had for years but I never discovered or tried it out. It turns out to be one of the better applications for reading ebooks I’ve seen, even though Amazon clearly hasn’t cared about it in years (if they ever really did).

Kindle for Mac

The main reading interface looks just like what you’ll see on the other Kindle apps, but with more flexibility to change the reading pane size and layout given the differences in desktop screen sizes.

Since I’m an aggressive digital highlighter and note-taker, my favorite feature on the full macOS app is the “Notes and Highlights” drawer you can pull up and browse so easily. With that, the full table of contents panel, and fast search, the navigability of books in this app is much better than the mobile apps or the actual Kindle device (I have a Paperwhite). E-books still aren’t a great format for denser material, or for books prone to page-flipping, heavy on footnotes, or with reference diagrams. Maybe this format will make some of the denser material in my library accessible for digital reading and highlighting.

Weekend Reading: The Worst Year to Be Alive, Chinese Sci-Fi, and Slack Networks

December 7, 2019 • #

🌋 Why 536 Was the Worst Year To Be Alive

You may have thought the entire 14th century was pretty bad, or maybe 1918 with its flu pandemic and millions of war casualties, but how about the 6th:

A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,” wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.” Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.

That sort of worldwide famine caused by devastating volcanic eruptions would’ve been impossible to deal with. And the Plague of Justinian was no small thing either, thought to have killed up to 25% of the global population.

Life is good these days.

👽 How Chinese Sci-Fi Conquered America

The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (translated by Ken Liu and featured here) is one of the best sci-fi works there is, regardless of origin or era. I also read and enjoyed Liu’s Paper Menagerie collection of short stories. I didn’t realize how involved he was personally in bringing so much new material here, and introducing so many Chinese authors to wider audiences:

He has found sci-fi stories in unusual corners of the internet, including a forum for alumni of Tsinghua University. Chinese friends send him screenshots of stories published on apps that are hard to access outside of China. As an emissary for some of China’s most provocative and boundary-breaking writers, Liu has become much more than a scout and a translator. He’s now a fixer, an editor and a curator — a savvy interpreter who has done more than anyone to bridge the imagination gap between the world’s current, fading superpower and its ascendant one.

His job as a translator, given the sensitivities of the material and the players involved, is a complex one:

“It’s a very tricky dance of trying to get the message that they’re trying to convey out, without painting the writers as dissidents,” Liu told me over coffee one day, as we sat in the kitchen of his home in Massachusetts. “A lot of Chinese writers are very skilled at writing something ambiguously, such that there are multiple meanings in the text. I have to ask them, how explicit do you want me to be in terms of making a certain point here, because in the original it’s very constrained, so how much do you want me to tease out the implications you’re making? And sometimes we have a discussion about exactly what that means and how they want it to be done.”

💬 Why Shared Channels Are So Cool

We’ve not scratched the surface much on Slack’s Shared Channels feature, but where we have it definitely makes staying plugged in with important tangential networks (like customers and partners) dead simple and much more engaging.

This network analysis uses some interesting visualizations to show the topology of the network, with its subnetworks creating a connection graph of communication pipes.

Also on an hourly basis, these mini-networks from the outer ring get sucked into the internal mega-network, as connections are formed between organizations on the inside and the outside. The overall result is a roiling sea of proto-networks surrounding an ever-expanding network of super-connected teams.

Microgravity Will Change How We Make Everything

December 4, 2019 • #

Bloomberg has been publishing this video series on future technologies called “Giant Leap.” It’s well-done and a nice use of YouTube as a medium.

This one explores a number of new companies doing R&D in microgravity manufacturing — from biological organ “printing” to creation of high-quality fiber optic materials. There are still some challenges ahead to unlock growth of space as a manufacturing environment, but it feels like we’re on the cusp of a new platform for industrial growth in the near future.

A Third Force

December 2, 2019 • #

It’s been a while since I wrote a book review here, and a couple months since I read any fiction. A few of Graham Greene’s works have been on my shelf for years, so I decided to pick up his 1955 novel The Quiet American to give it a go.

(Note: spoilers here, if you care about that sort of thing for a 60 year old novel)

Given that this book was written in the mid-fifties by an English writer, it surprisingly and presciently foresees the quagmire of Vietnam and the naive interventionist tactics of the Cold War.

The story follows a British journalist stationed in Saigon in the early 1950s, covering the First Indochina War and France’s colonial presence there. A seasoned veteran reporter with over 2 years of experience living in a war-torn northern Vietnam, Thomas Fowler is the story’s anchor, the perspective through which the reader sees the conflict and the events that take place. His experience in the messiness of the fighting contrasts the relative naiveté of the other primary character, the titular American Alden Pyle. Pyle is there working within the American economic aid mission, ostensibly there in support of local manufacturing industry — a humanitarian cause. Throughout the story Fowler and Pyle go through a couple of encounters together in which the experienced Fowler learns more about Pyle’s philosophy: that his ideas on intervention and involvement stem from a devotion to York Harding, a fictional author who’s published a series of works on reshaping Southeast Asia (also based on little to no actual on-the-ground experience).

“York,” Pyle said, “wrote that what the East needed was a Third Force.” Perhaps I should have seem that fanatic gleam, the quick response to a phrase, the magic sound of figures: Fifth Column, Third Force, Seventh Day. I might have saved all of us a lot of trouble, even Pyle, if I had realized the direction of that indefatigable young brain.

The Quiet American

Late in the story it’s revealed that Pyle is actually an undercover CIA operative, tasked with combating the Viet Minh through propping up a “Third Force,” supporting a rebellious general who’s fighting both the French and the communist Vietnamese. This meddling leads to some disastrous, tragic events with the general’s Caoadist militia conducting what amounts to a series of terrorist attacks in Saigon on innocent noncombatants.

The crux of the story is a warning against idealism and innocence, thinking you can enter a multi-sided conflict and “fix” the situation through theory and on-paper expertise.

I know very little about French colonial-era Vietnam and the origins of their involvement in Indochina, but the book does a remarkable job predicting much of what went wrong during US entry and involvement in Vietnam (and other places around the world since). Idealism, exceptionalism, and the like can be incredible tools for promoting freedom and progress, but at the same time dangerous when trying to impose a worldview from outside onto cultures with hundreds of years of history and their own values. The novel was a quick but impactful read. You can always tell great fiction when the ideas stick with you weeks after reading. I’m looking forward to some of Greene’s other novels in the near future.