2021-01-17

"Dude, you're screwed!" - an appreciation

One of the great features about American cable TV used to be that there were so many channels, and so few shows worth watching, that you'd be forced to channel-surf until you came across something vaguely appealing on a channel that you'd likely never visit deliberately. Thus, new shows entered the American consciousness.

Now Netflix is near-ubiquitous... the same thing is happening there. It's astonishing how big the Netflix catalogue is, but less astonishing how much of it is crap. Still, there are some gems buried in the ordure, and I stumbled across one of them with a most unpreprosessing title: "Dude, You're Screwed!"

The premise of the show is simple but brilliant. There are 5-6 hosts of the show, all with a background in wilderness survival. In each episode, one host is "abducted" and dumped in the middle of the wilderness, with no idea where they are, given a survival kit with items of varying helpfulness - a giant teddy bear and a Viking shield, in one case - and have 100 hours to find "civilization" which might be a main road, houses, or just stumbling across other people. For the viewer's benefit, a suitably well-equipped cameraman accompanies the victim but cannot help them in any way. Presumably they would intervene if things went very pear-shaped, but you get the idea.

Is is staged? At least some of the takedown-and-transport parts are; if you were a Costa Rican immigration official, would you let a party into your country with one member flex-cuffed and with a bag over his head? but I think most of it is real. The victim might know what country they're in, but not where they are or where to go. But I think this misses the point, in any case. This show is fascinating in how you get an up-and-close look at wilderness environments, and how they try very hard to kill you.

Some of my favourite episodes were Iceland (Jake), Tanzania (Matt), Namibia (Jake again) and Utah (John). In all of these you get a really good look at wilderness you'd probably never see, and its peculiar wrinkles. Of all of them, the Namibian desert / Skeleton Coast was probably the best. Jake - a former Navy SEAL - fights his way through the desert only to end up on the shore where there's still nothing to eat or drink, a whole bunch of dead wildlife testifying to the hostility of the land, and the only plants are poisonous. The legendary SEAL determination shows - in the closing hours, despite being dehydrated, starved and vomiting, he's still doggedly hiking down the coast looking for civilization. Had the others not intervened, he'd have certainly died - but even then I'm still not entirely sure it would have stopped him.

What makes the show for me, though, is the interplay between the core characters: the aforementioned SEAL Jake, Green Beret Terry, wilderness survival and atlatl master Matt, and UK military SERE instructor John. They're all very different personalities but bounce off each other well in cameraderie, perspectives, and the balance between wanting to make the situation challenging while being concerned for the victim's well-being. Jake's a balls-out "beat this in the fastest time" guy, Terry is more cerebral, Matt just seems to like making things out of trees, and John is a phlegmatic Mancunian whose early priority seems to be to find something to make a hot cup of tea. There are other hosts, but these four really stand out for me.

You can probably find this on Netflix, or maybe Discovery Channel on cable. It might also be titled "Survive That!". Go take a look, you'll enjoy it. Also, stay the heck away from the Namib.

2021-01-09

Trump won yesterday

No really, he did. Hear me out.

I'm not talking about the November 2020 election; I have no idea who actually won that. I will note that, if Joe Biden was confident that he won fairly, then he'd have motivation to ask a reputable organization to conduct a thorough investigation into the election's conduct and vindicate his win. But no, I'm talking about the effect of the Trump 2017-2021 presidency.

President Donald Trump managed to drive the media, Big Tech, Democratic party and sundry establishment members so mad with everything he did in those four years, that they abandoned any pretence at fairness and yesterday went on a concerted witch hunt to shut him off mainstream social media and choke off other social media that let him and his supporters communicate. The Democrats are trying to pass articles of impeachment and invoke the 25th Amendment to remove him from the presidency before January 20th. The Capitol invasion was just the excuse - they've been talking about this for months, but only in the closing days of the presidency did they have the "courage" to do it.

[Side note for those who didn't take US high school civics: the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution talks about the US President being relieved of their role, voluntarily - and maybe temporarily, e.g. while undergoing medical treatment, or forcibly. The reason that it's being talked about now, with less than 2 weeks to go, is apparently (because I can't see this clearly in the text) it would prevent Trump from running for President again in 2024. It is interesting to note the the Democrats still think that Trump would be a material asset to the Republicans in 4 years time. If they really thought he was a loon and a loser, wouldn't they cheer him on for a re-run? Perhaps they remember Hilary Clinton cheering him on in the 2016 primaries, and are once bitten, twice shy.]

My personal opinion is that this was a Pyrrhic victory;

  • the Dem/BigTech/DCSwamp has demonstrated to the world that they are still terrified of Trump;
  • 70 million people voted for Trump in the most recent election, despite a 4 year coordinated campaign against him by the media (all but Fox), Establishment (Russia hoax and impeachment), Never Trump "Republicans", and recently Big Tech (Twitter and Facebook steadily increasing interference in his comms and with his supporters);
  • he has provoked the Democrats to exhibit their gun-grabbing credentials to the point that there were more background checks for firearm purchases in the first 9 months of 2020 than in any previous year, and guns and ammunition are in unprecentended short supply despite manufacturers ramping up additional plants to meet demand. I hypothesize that most of these gun and ammo buyers don't vote Democrat - and with 8M+ new firearm owners in 2020, that's a big fraction of the election base who have been 'radicalized';
  • the COVID crisis has demonstrated that Democratic leadership is completely happy to trash small business for no good reason, while fully funding their teaching and other union block to stay at home and "phone it in" at full pay rates, while governors and Senators get their hair done, eat at expensive restaurants, and generally display hypocrisy to an astounding degree.
Knowing a numbner of engineers and marketing folks at Twitter and YouTube, they are to a man non-gendered-person staunch left wing advocates, and the depth of their loathing for Trump is hard to over-state. I don't know Jack Dorsey or Susan Woiciki personally, but it would not astonish me if they had a similar attitude.

The Trump base will not go away because of the past week's changes. They're only going to get squeezed - and when you squeeze something hard enough, the internal pressure builds up until there is a "bang". JFK said those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. If the hotheads in the Democrat administration prevail, I fear that the "bang" is going to echo around the world.

I enjoy the "Monster Hunter" books of unreformed conservative author Larry Correia, but he knows a lot about guns and the gun-owning community, and his words from 2017's blog post "A handy guide for liberals who are suddenly interested in gun ownership" really resonate right now:

There is a saying that has long been common in my half of the country. There are four boxes to be used in defense of liberty, soap, ballot, jury, and ammo. Please use in that order. You can debate, vote, and go to court in order to get things changed. You only go ammo box when those other things no longer work, because once you do, there is no going back.

God willing, America never gets to that point, because if we ever go to war with ourselves again, then it will be a blood bath the like of which the world has never seen.
If the jury box doesn't defend the rights of 70M+ Americans, there's only one box left.

2020-12-18

Jill Biden is no Doctor

I posted something like the following at SDA but thought it worth a repost here for posterity.

I read through Jill Biden's Ed.D thesis. Short version: she's no Doctor. She's probably not even a Master.

Some facts:

  • Jill's actual content (introduction up to but not including references) is 80 pages, double-spaced. Interestingly, her table of contents doesn’t properly line up with the page count, but whatever.
  • Typical page (her introduction) is about 250 words, so that’s about a 20,000 word thesis excluding references and appendices.
  • a PhD thesis in the arts typically has a 80K upper word limit, Masters a 60K upper word limit. Good ones are probably half that, maybe a bit more. So Jill has written a bit more than half of a typical Masters thesis.
  • the text is significantly bulked out with e.g. material that seems like what you'd find in a Delaware Tech+Community College brochure, the full text of a student survey, and a faculty interview that should probably have been relegated to an appendix.
  • the thesis has 39 references by my count, which is what you’d expect from a medium length conference / journal paper. A Masters thesis should have more than that. A doctorate (which is supposed to advance the state of research) should have a lot more.
  • she has a boring writing style (this is technically an opinion, but I’m right) and it’s hard to figure out what she’s trying to argue. Her conclusions seem rather trite.

Opinion: if I was one of the people who signed off on this (pages 3 and 4) I would be very quiet about it if someone at a party started spouting off that Jill Biden deserves to be called “Doctor”. For the record, these are:

  • Barbara Curry, Ed.D. (Professor in charge of dissertation (executive position paper)
  • James Broomall, Ed.D. Member of dissertation committee (executive position paper)
  • Frances Leach, Ed.D. Member of dissertation committee (executive position paper)
  • Eugene Matusov, Ph.D. Member of dissertation committee (executive position paper)

2020-11-18

Unrest expected - the firearms indicator

I was at my local gunsmith on Monday - they do exist in California, you may be surprised to learn - and mentioned that I was thinking about acquiring a handgun, so I could practice short-range target shooting. Even in California it eventually gets cold and wet, and outside ranges are less attractive.
"Ah," he said, "are you in a rush for it?"
Well, not break-neck speed; something in the next 3-4 weeks would be good (allowing for the usual - and pointless - California 10 day waiting period). Not looking for anything special or custom, do you have something utilitarian in 9mm? My aim really isn't good enough to justify anything more.
"At the moment, Glock is telling me 6-8 months for a California-legal 9x19."
Wuh? Is this some issue with California's steadily increasingly insane gun restrictions?
"Not even that; I went to Las Vegas the other week, and the Nevada dealers there were having the same problem."
Ah, it must be because of the election, presumably there's a bump every 4 years?
"No man, not like this. Sure, you get a bit of a bump as a Presidential election approaches, but I've never seen anything like this. You can't get a gun anywhere except the ones that no-one with any knowledge wants."

It seems that the combination of civil unrest over the summer, the general abandonment of cities by police chiefs, and the potential election of Joe Biden with gun-grabbing Beta O'Rourke as his stooge, has soured the population on relying on the police force to defend their homes.

To give you some context, even in one of the gun-grabbiest states in the Union, the estimate in 2018 is that 4.2 million California people were gun owners, out of a population of 37 million or so, or about 1 in 7 adults. There were about 20 million firearms - so clearly the average number of firearms owned would be about 4 per owner. One can only imagine what it looks like now - and what it will look like in mid-2021 when the current order backlog is complete.

This is not peculiar to California:

Ammunition sales blew up in March because of COVID-19, said Gary's Gun Shop assistant manager Nick Meyer. But increased sales stayed steady after riots started in May in response to the death of George Floyd and ahead of the presidential election.
"Firearms and ammunition and the Second Amendment are all hot topics for election times," Meyer said, "and it always spurs a little bit of a spree."
But this year is different.
The gun shop only has 20% of its normal ammunition supply on its shelves, Meyer said.
Can confirm: ammunition is increasingly expensive, assuming you can find it. As this gentleman on YouTube notes, it started in March and has gotten increasingly bad over the year. ("Federal" in this video refers to a manufacturer name, not the federal government).

This all signals something, and it's not good for the prospect of peace in the United States.

2020-11-12

Kamala's Cornish roots

It occurred to me today that our friend Kamala Harris must feel a strong connection to Cornwall. After all, she got her political start from Willie Brown's "mound", and the largest mound in Cornwall is Brown Willie - a short distance from Camelford, as it happens.

2020-11-08

Kamala the cuckoo

I was having lunch with one of my right-wing friends today - such creatures do exist, even in the Bay Area. It was not socially distanced, of course, neither of us believes it makes a difference at this point. At some point she was commenting (of course) on the current US political situation. Specifically, Kamala Harris. "She's a cuckoo!", she remarked, disdainfully.

I misheard initially, and ventured a contrary opinion that she actually seemed pretty sane and intelligent, albeit rather lacking in morals.

"The bird, not the adjective. You must know about them, you're from the UK, you're all into birds aren't you?" I agreed that I was familiar with the avian in question. "Okay, so it sticks its egg into the nest of another unsuspecting bird, a baby cuckoo hatches and is a giant compared to the other baby birds, it progressively kicks the others out of the nest and takes over. Kamala Harris, right?"

She has a point. I don't know if I agree with her assertion that Kammie will infect Sleepy Joe with COVID-19 the first chance that she gets, but I don't give Joe that long in office. Cuck-oo. Cuck-oo.

[1] I wondered how she was acquainted with the bird in question, but it turns out that California does have some cuckoo species, though they're fairly rare and may be endangered. You learn something new every day.

2020-11-07

Never waste a crisis: COVID-19 infringes 2nd Amendment

Living in the Bay Area has its upsides and downsides, but California's general hostility towards the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution is a source of frequent amusement. Sometimes the hypocrisy can be breathtaking, such as the Santa Clara Sherriff's department apparently only approving concealed carry permits if the application came with a contribution to a political campaign. Still, the basics of 2nd amendment are there: you can apply for and own one or more guns, as long as you clear appropriate hurdles; some important (federal background check) and some completely pointless (10 day waiting period for the gun, 10 round magazine size, no "scary" rifles).

Or so I thought.

You may have seen 2020 news reports about rioting in Oakland (the disambiguation items on that page speak for themselves); these events caused your humble correspondent to re-evaluate their laziness on the matters of household protection, and go looking to acquire a firearm for household defence. Gun shops are generally open, your correspondent is an allegedly upstanding citizen, so this shouldn't have been hard. Except... California requires all firearm purchasers to hold a Firearm Safety Certificate and demonstrate safe handling. Firearm training focused on these tests can be performed at any suitable location, so I contacted one to kick this process off.

No dice, per the instructor:

All courses have been suspended until further notice. The store is open by appointment only, the range has limited use, but the classroom is not available. That won't change until Santa Clara County relaxes the regulations.
I have so many people waiting for courses, I am not taking any more names at this time.
Sounds like the Bay Area politicos are making good use of COVID, by keeping down those activities - such as gun acquisition, church attendance - which they find threatening. Bet the diversity training courses are at full throttle, though.

2020-10-09

Asian-American Lives Matter - and SF Supervisor Matt Haney is medacious

Reprising my post in May about Chinese Lives Mattering, in the context of assaults on elderly Asian folk in San Francisco, readers will not be surprised that this has continued to happen, and in fact worsen:

Now community leaders are saying the area is facing a new challenge; racially motivated violence, with a number of elderly Asian American victims the targets of unprovoked physical attacks.
"I am upset and appalled at the recent incident of an attack on a Vietnamese elder two weeks ago," said Judy Young from the Southeast Asian Community Development Center. "This should not happen."
Police say that was one of two victims, one 71-years-old, the other 78. The son of one of the victims posting photos of his mother's bruised face on Instagram.
This is, clearly, awful.

Fortunately, Supervisor for SF's Tenderloin District, Matt Haney, is on the case:

Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin, says racially charged rhetoric from the Whitehouse has helped fuel anti-Asian Pacific Islander bias and ultimately anti-Asian Pacific Islander attacks.
"There's been that type of hatred that has come from people at the top of this country, national leadership which has sent a message of hatred that has been felt by API members of our community," said Supervisor Haney.
This is... an interesting assertion. Let's break it down. Is the President beating down on Koreans? Filipinos? Hawaiians? Samoans? Vietnamese? Taiwanese? No, Matt Haney clearly means the rhetoric against ... the Chinese Communist Party and its singularly deplorable actions with regard to the Wuhan Flu.

So, clearly the miscreants assaulting Vietnamese Americans in SFO are completely separate from those assaulting Chinese Americans in SFO last year, and are in fact the MAGA-hat wearing white supremacists who are known to be endemic in SF. Right, Matty babe?

I Googled for photos of 34-year-old Michael Turner and it turns out that he is not the phenotype you would normally associate with White Supremacy. In fact, he bears a remarkable resemblance in ethnic origin to the perps of the 2019 attacks I described previously. Who knew? He also has a history of violence and larceny which indicates this might not be an out-of-character moment for him.

Entertainingly, SF's radical left District Attorney, Chesa Boudin - the son of two murdering radical left-wing terrorists - tried to play tough on this case:

"Just yesterday one of my [assistant district attorneys] convinced a judge to detain that man in jail pending trial and we will not release him until we are confident he can safely be released," said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
With Chesa having done such a sterling job to date of protecting the SF citizenship from scumballs, I'm sure we can all sleep more soundly in our beds.

I repeat my previous assertion. The Asian-American community are worried about one specific ethnic group commiting violence against them. It's not Caucasians. The fact that the local news are strenously avoiding providing any coverage of what's actually happening should not be surprising, but continues to be very depressing.

2020-10-07

NHS Track+Trace - what went wrong

By now, you've presumably seen how Public Health England screwed up spectacularly in their testing-to-identification pipeline, such that they dropped thousands of cases - because they hit an internal row limit in Excel.

Oops.

Still, how could anyone have predicted that Public Health England - who were founded in 2013 with responsibility for public health in England - could have screwed up so badly? Well, anyone with any experience of government IT in the past... 40 years, let's say. Or anyone who observed that the single most important job of a public health agency is to prepare for pandemics, which roll around every 10 years or so - remember SaRS 2003? H1N1? And that duty, as illustrated in their 2020 performance, is one that PHE could not have failed at any more badly if they'd put their best minds to it.

Simply, there's no incentive for them to be any good at what they do.

It's tempting to simply roll out the PHE leadership and have them hung from the nearest lamp post - or at least, claw back all they payments they received as a result of being associated with Public Health England. For reference, the latest page shows this list as:

  • Duncan Selbie
  • Prof Dr Julia Goodfellow
  • Sir Derek Myers
  • George Griffin
  • Sian Griffiths
  • Paul Cosford
  • Yvonne Doyle
  • Richard Gleave
  • Donald Shepherd
  • Rashmi Shukla
However, this misses the point; there's plenty more where they came from. Many of these people are actually smart, or at least cunning. None of them actively wanted tens of thousands of people in the UK to die, or the UK's coronavirus response to become an absolute laughing-stock. Yet, here we are.

When you set up a data processing pipeline like this, your working assumptions should be that:

  1. The data you ingest is often crap in accuracy, completeness and even syntax;
  2. At every stage of processing, you're going to lose some of it;
  3. Your computations are probably incorrect in several infrequent but crucial circumstances; and
  4. When you spit out your end result, the system you send it to will be frequently partially down, so drop or reject some or all of the (hopefully) valid data you're sending to it.
Given all these risks, one is tempted to give up managing data pipelines for a living and change to an easier mode of life such as a career civil servant in the Department for Education where nothing you do will have the slightest effect, yet you'll still get pay and pension. Still, there's a way forward for intrepid souls.

The insight you need is that you accept that your pipeline is going to be decrepit, leaky and contaminate your data. That's OK as long as you know when it's happening, and approximately how bad it is.

Let's look at the original problem. From the BBC article:

The issue was caused by the way the agency brought together logs produced by commercial firms paid to analyse swab tests of the public, to discover who has the virus. They filed their results in the form of text-based lists - known as CSV files - without issue.
We want to have a good estimate, for each agency, whether all the records have been received. Therefore we supplement the list of records with some of our own - which have characteristics which we expect to survive through processing. Assuming each record is a list of numerical values (say, number of virus particles per mL - IDK, I'm not a biologist) a simple way to do this is to make one or more fields in our artificial records have values that are 100x higher or lower than practically feasible. Then for a list of N records, you add one artifical record to the start, one at the end and one in the middle, so you ship N+3 records to central processing. For extra style, change the invalidity characteristic of each of these records - so e.g. you know that an excessively high viral load signals the start of a records list, and excessively low load signals the end.

The next stage:

PHE had set up an automatic process to pull this data together into Excel templates so that it could then be uploaded to a central system and made available to the NHS Test and Trace team, as well as other government computer dashboards.
First check: this is not a lot of data. Really, it isn't. Every record represents the test of a human, there's a very finite testing capacity (humans per day), and the amount of core data produced should easily fit in 1KB - 100 or more double-precision floating point numbers. It's not like they're uploading e.g. digital images of mammograms.

So the first step, if you're competent, is for Firm A to read-back the data from PHE:

  • Firm A has records R1 ... R10. It computes a checksum for each record - a number which is a "summary" of the record, rather like feeding the record through a sausage machine and taking a picture of the sausage it produces.
  • Firm A stores checksums C1, C2, ..., C10 corresponding to each record.
  • Firm A sends records R1, R2, ..., R10 to PHE, tagged with origin 'Firm A' and date '2020-10-06'
  • Firm A asks PHE to send it checksums of all records tagged 'Firm A', '2020-10-06'
  • PHE reads its internal records, identifies 10 records, sends checksums D1, D2, ... D10
  • Firm A checks that the number of checksums match, and each checksum is the same: if there's a discrepancy, it loudly flags this to a human.
This at least assures Firm A that its data has been received, is complete, and is safely stored.

If PHE wants to be really cunning then one time in 50 it will deliberately omit a checksum in its response, or change one bit of a checksum, and expect the firm to flag an error. If no error is raised, we know that Firm A isn't doing read-backs properly.

Now, PHE wants to aggregate its records. It has (say) 40 firms supplying data to it. So it does processing over all the records and for each record produces a result: one of "Y" (positive test), "N" (negative test), "E" (record invalid), "I" (record implausible). Because of our fake record injection, if 40 firms send 1000 records in total, we should expect zero "E" results, 120 "I" results, and the total of "Y" and "N" results should equal 880. If we calculate anything different, the system should complain loudly, and we send a human to figure out what went wrong.

The system isn't perfect - the aggregation function might accidentally skip 1 in 100 results, for instance, and through bad luck it might not skip an erroneous record. But it's still a good start.

I just pulled this process out of my posterior, and I guarantee it's more robust than what PHE had in place. So why are we paying the Test+Trace system £12 billion or more to implement a system that isn't even as good as a compsci grad would put in place in return for free home gigabit Ethernet, with an incentive scheme based around Xena tapes and Hot Pockets?

Nobody really cared if the system worked well. They just wanted to get it out of the door. No-one - at least, at the higher levels of project management - was going to be held accountable for even a failure such as this. "Lessons will be learned" platitudes will be trotted out, the company will find one or two individuals at the lower level and fire them for negligence, but any project manager not actually asleep on the job would have known this was coming. And they know it will happen again, and again, as long as the organisation implementing systems like this has no direct incentive for it to work. Indeed, the client (UK Government) probably didn't even define what "work" actually meant in terms of effective processing - and how they would measure it.

2020-09-10

Black Lives Matter - CBS News edition

CBS News states that Police in the U.S. killed 164 Black people in the first 8 months of 2020. Helpfully, they provide a list of their names. Let's look at the circumstances of a random selection of ten names, shall we?

Had it coming

Dreasjon Reed
High speed chase, ran away, had gun in waistband, gun was discharged twice, police shot him after Taser didn't work.
Zyon Romeir Wyche
Actually seems to have killed himself, after firing rounds at officers after a traffic stop and running away
Dominique Atwon Anderson
Attacked his brother with a machete, charged a police officer, was shot.
Malcolm Xavier Ray Williams
Grabbed a gun and shot at an officer after a routine traffic stop with his heavily pregnant partner (the driver).
Lewis Ruffin, Jr
Didn't want to go back to jail after domestic violence and weapons charges; shot at deputies, who killed him

Accident / Medical issue

Tina Marie Davis
Officers attempted to detain Davis after responding to a call about a woman breaking car windows and found her chasing one of the 911 callers with a stick; officers tasered her, she subsequently died.
Devan Austin Twilley
Car chased by police after apparently forcing his way into a house and threatening the occupants, crashed fatally.

Apparent police misconduct

Breonna Taylor
(The famous no-knock shooting case). Maybe the police didn't violate the law, but something still really needs to change in these kind of heavily armed home entries.

Seems excessive but not unjustified

Tommie Gale McGlothen
Died apparently from stimulent use / severe mental health episode, but police should have checked on him when in patrol car after he'd been tasered and mace'd.
Maurice S Gordon
Mental health episode, struggled with officer and might have gone for his gun. Needed mental health help, but it wasn't recognized.

Summary

It would be nice if CBS News actually did some journalism to highlight the specific cases that indicate a need for changes in police behavior, rather than bulking out the list with a) people who clearly had it coming and b) essentially random deaths which nothing could really prevent other than not arresting anyone who did violent things.

But I guess they're too busy shilling...