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Nelson's Weblog



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Updated: 2017-07-19T22:52:00Z

 



Prescription drug prices

2017-07-19T22:52:00Z




Oculus Rift first impressions

2017-07-15T22:32:00Z

I got an Oculus Rift on a whim this week when they dropped the price of the bundle down to $400. This is my first experience with VR in a few years and 10+ since I last used a high quality rig. I’m impressed, the sense of being present in virtual space is incredibly compelling. But as everyone says the problem is there’s no great VR-specific content yet.

The hardware is good. Lag-free head and hand tracking. Sensor calibration is a hassle. Windows setup was remarkably painless. The touch controllers are essential. It allows you to have virtual hands. Definitely want “full room VR”: several tracking sensors and a 5x7’ clear space to walk around in. Sitting still and having the view pan is instant nausea but walking around a stationary virtual room is better. Even with the calmest software I get tired and headachy after about 30 minutes. Eyestrain maybe? VR sickness makes for a viscerally negative experience.

As for software, I’ve only played around for a few hours, so no deep opinions. Oculus’ own tutorials / demos are very good, the intro Dreamdeck demo had me shouting for joy. The best game I’ve played so far is Superhot VR; I’ve not played the normal version but the VR variant is really compelling. Subnautica made me sick in about five minutes, although it is very pretty. Thumper is pretty in 3d but I’d rather have a flat screen and excellent speakers. Google Earth VR was surprisingly disappointing; the imagery isn’t quite good enough. I haven’t tried Job Simulator 2050 yet, it’s quite popular. I’m also curious to try The Climb.

I took a quick look at the porn industry; all they’re offering is 3d videos and some minimal “fondle boobs with your glowing virtual hands” interaction, so they haven’t figured out VR apps either. The fact that "Waifu Sex Simulator" is one of the most popular apps gives you an idea of the target market.

So it’s a fun toy, but given the fatigue and lack of compelling content I’m not sure how long I’ll be using my Oculus Rift. We’ll see. What I really want is some easy way to build data visualizations in 3D, maybe using WebGL or something. I haven’t looked hard but my impression is that’s not fully baked yet.




My Family's Slave, Texas 1860

2017-06-19T18:13:00Z

My grandmother’s great-grandparents owned a slave. The slave schedules record that they owned a 13 year old girl in 1860.

Leonard and Melvina Ward were born in central Tennessee and early in life moved to East Texas. They had six children. They lived to old age, here is their sweetly romantic gravestone. I think they were farmers and lived pretty well. At least well enough to own a person.

(image)

Here is what I know about the person they enslaved. She was 13. She was Black (as opposed to “mulatto”). She was not a fugitive, she had not been freed, and she was not deaf, dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic. That’s all Wm P Cornelius recorded in his census. I don’t know her name, where she was born, have no easy way to research her further. All I know is she was 13 and was enslaved by my 3rd great-grandparents.

I like to imagine she’s what my grandmother called “a domestic”, cooking and doing housework. The census records no slave houses, so maybe she even lived in the family house. I’d like to think she lived another 5 years to see her emancipation, then got far away from her captors and lived a happy and comfortable life. That would be about the best outcome for a 13 year old slave girl in Texas in 1860. More realistically she was probably impoverished and lived with little freedom in rural Texas.

Today is Juneteenth, a day of national celebration for the end of slavery. Emancipation was a complicated process that took several years to be enforced. Followed by decades of indentured servitude, poverty, and deprivation for many African Americans. The legacy of slavery lives on, it is one of America’s original sins. I own a piece of that legacy.




Audi Driver Assist

2017-03-08T00:52:00Z




Disclosing newspaper edits

2017-02-10T23:17:00Z




How bad is it?

2017-01-30T17:26:00Z




Watch Dogs 2

2017-01-29T16:53:00Z

Watch Dogs 2 is a very good video game. I think it’s nearly as good as GTA V or Sleeping Dogs and better than many other open world roamers. It fixes nearly all the problems in the original Watch Dogs and finds the fun in the game design.

My favorite thing about the game is the setting, the tech industry in the Bay Area. I live in San Francisco, I’ve worked in two of the offices featured in the game, I’m constantly running in to things in the game that remind me of where I live. They’ve done a remarkably good job on the re-creation of the Bay Area. Like not only do the buses in San Francisco look like SF Muni buses, but the buses in Oakland look different because of course they should, they’re AC Transit buses. The world quality extends to the game writing, both incidental stuff like random NPC dialog and significant things like the main story writing.

The main story is pretty good. It’s not great, I’d say it’s weaker than GTA V, but it’s still pretty good. Some of the characters are great and some of the set pieces are excellent. The biggest criticism I have is something a lot of reviews pointed out, which is there’s a conflict in tone between “we’re a fun hacker gang pulling pranks” and “we’re a group of murder hoboes launching grenades at FBI agents”. There’s an event that happens in the game that could explain the shift but the writing doesn’t quite pull it together. It’s not a huge problem.

Most importantly, the gameplay is fun. The magic spells hacking abilities you use are fun and powerful and innovative. The cover shooter and driving mechanics are fine (better than GTA.) Remote controlling rolling and flying drones is seriously fun. A lot of the missions have multiple solutions: puzzle solving, stealth, or straight-up guns a’blazin. I switched between those modes frequently in a natural way. Also there’s a lot to do outside the main game, including a light multiplayer mode that injects a bit of novelty. I’m still chipping away at the side missions, mostly as an excuse to continue sightseeing.

It’s a really good game! I have some screenshots and video clips on Twitter.




Reed College D-Lab

2017-01-19T01:00:00Z




Leap Second 2016-12-31

2017-01-03T00:38:00Z

(image) The Internet mostly survived the leap second two days ago. I’ve seen three confirmed problems. Cloudflare DNS had degraded service; they have an excellent postmortem. Some Cisco routers crashed. And about 10% of NTP pool servers failed to process the leap second correctly.

We’ve had a leap second roughly every two years. They often cause havoc. The big problem was in 2012 when a bunch of Java and MySQL servers died because of a Linux kernel bug. Linux kernels died in 2009 too. There are presumably a lot of smaller user application failures too, most unnoticed. Leap second bugs will keep reoccurring. Partly because no one thinks to test their systems carefully against weird and rare events. But also time is complicated.

Cloudflare blamed a bug in their code that assumed time never runs backwards. But the real problem is POSIX defines a day as containing exactly 86,400 seconds. But every 700 days or so that’s not true and a lot of systems jump time backwards one second to squeeze in the leap second. Time shouldn’t run backwards in a leap second, it’s just a bad kludge. There are some other options available, like the leap smear used by Google. The drawback is your clock is off by as much as 500ms during that day.

The NTP pool problem is particularly galling; NTP is a service whose sole purpose is telling time. Some of the pool servers are running openntpd which does not handle leap seconds. IMHO those servers aren’t suitable for public use. Not clear what else went wrong but leap second handling has been awkward for years and isn’t getting better.




Geographic art gifts

2016-12-01T18:28:00Z

I like maps. Some friends and colleagues are making some beautiful map and geographic based art that would make nice Christmas gifts. (For others! I’m not hinting, have these already!)

Bill Morris makes painterly prints of satellite photographs. You can read about his process in detail. In short, he takes satellite images from Planet Labs and then pushes them through customized machine learning software to render them like paintings. They’re beautiful.

Rachel Binx makes geographic style products. Jewelry, clothing, and posters all custom made for someone’s personal geography. One-off design and fabrication like this is really ambitious and she delivers well.

Benjamin Grant of the Daily Overview blog has a new coffee table book of aerial and satellite imagery. It sounds simple but he has an excellent eye and editor’s hand. It’s lovely.

Jared Prince of Muir Way made a high quality print of a map of American rivers. He was inspired by my river map but ended up recreating the whole thing from scratch with a much better result than mine. The print quality is excellent too.