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Never Work In Theory, Spring 2023

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Indulge me for a minute; I’d like to tell you about a conference I’m helping organize, and why. But first, I want to tell you a story about measuring things, and the tools we use to do that.

Specifically, I want to talk about thermometers.

Even though a rough understanding of basic principles of the tool we now call a thermometer are at least two thousand years old, for centuries the whole idea that you could measure temperature at all was fantastical. The entire idea was absurd; how could you possibly measure an experience as subjective and ethereal as temperature?

the Dalence Thermometer, one of the rare scientific apparatus' notable for closely resembling an angry man sneaking a bong rip.

Even though you could demonstrate the basic principles involved in ancient Greece with nothing more than glass tubes and a fire the question itself was nonsense, like asking how much a poem weighs, how much water you could pour out of a sunset.

It was more than 1600 years between the earliest known glass-tube demonstrations and Santorini Santorio‘s decision to put a ruler to the side of one of those glass tubes; it was most of a century after that before Carlo Renaldini went ahead and tried Christiaan Huygens‘ idea of measuring relative to the freezing and boiling points of water be used as the anchor points of a linear scale. (Sir Isaac Newton followed that up with a proposal that the increments of that gradient be “12”, a decision I’m glad we didn’t stick with. Andres Celcius’ idea was better.)

The first tools we’d recognize as “modern thermometers” – using mercury, one of those unfortunately-reasonable-at-the-time decisions that have had distressing long-term consequences – were invented by Farenheit in 1714. More tragically, he proposed the metric that bears his name, but: the tool worked, and if there’s one thing in tech that we all know and fear, it’s that there’s nothing quite as permanent as something temporary that works.

By 1900, Henry Bolton – author of “The Evolution Of The Thermometer, 1592-1743” – had described this long evolution as “encumbered with erroneous statements that have been reiterated with such dogmatism that they have received the false stamp of authority”, a phrase that a lot of us in tech, I suspect, find painfully familiar.

Today, of course, outside of the most extreme margins – things get pretty dicey down in the quantum froth around absolute zero and when your energy densities are way up past the plasmas – these questions are behind us. Thermometers are real, temperatures can be very precisely measured, and that has enabled a universe of new possibilities across physics and chemistry and through metallurgy to medicine to precision manufacturing, too many things to mention.

The practice of computation, as a field, is less than a century old. We sometimes measure things we can measure, usually the things that are easiest to measure, but at the intersection of humans and computers, the most important part of the exercise, this field is still deeply & dogmatically superstitious. The false stamps of authority are everywhere.

I mean, look at this. Look at it. Tell me that isn’t kabbalist occultism, delivered via PowerPoint.

This is where we are, but we can do better.

On Tuesday, April 25, and Wednesday, April 26, It Will Never Work in Theory is running our third live event: a set of lightning talks from leading software engineering researchers on immediate, actionable results from their work.

I want to introduce you to the people building the thermometers of modern software engineering.

Some of last year’s highlights include the introduction of novel techniques like Causal Fairness Testing, supercharging DB test suites with SQLancer and two approaches for debugging neural nets, and none of these are hypothetical future someday ideas. These are tools you can start using now. That’s the goal.

And it should be a lot of fun, I hope to see you there.

Never Work In Theory: https://neverworkintheory.org/

The event page: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/it-will-never-work-in-theory-tickets-527743173037

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greggrossmeier
89 days ago
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Ojai, CA, US
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A Long Term Birthday Problem

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PERSON:
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greggrossmeier
104 days ago
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Fuck effective altruism.
Ojai, CA, US
silberbaer
104 days ago
"If you really want to help the long term future of humanity, you should probably just become a communist like a normal person."
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tante
103 days ago
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Longtermists are the fucking worst.
Berlin/Germany
Nezchan
103 days ago
A real longtermist solution is that he gets the whole cake because making the rocket guy happy will in turn make those potential space children (most of whom will be virtual) will be happier.

Amazon Q4 2022 Financials

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For the last couple of years, each quarter I’ve been posting a quick analysis of Amazon’s quarterly business results in a Twitter thread. I don’t use Twitter much any more, and Mastodon doesn’t make it easy to post threads, so the blog it is. Summary: Amazon’s retail business loses money (as usual) but the AWS and Advertising businesses are huge, throw off lots of cash, and continue to grow fast. They subsidize the money-losing retail operation in a way that seems deeply unfair to me.

Source: Q4 2022 Earnings Release.

Looking at Amazon as a whole, quarterly sales are up 9% year-over-year to $149.2B, annual sales also 9% to $514B. The company as a whole had a GAAP profit of $0.3B in Q4 and loss of $2.7B for the whole year; operating incomes were $2.7B and $12.2B respectively.

“Profit” is an accounting abstraction, what concerns me more would be the negative free cash flow of $19.8B over the course of 2022. Perhaps someone more finance-literate could offer a good reason why this shouldn’t be a worry?

AWS

What a story: Quarterly revenue growth of 20% year-over-year to $21.4B, annual revenue growth of 29% to $80.1B. The quarterly operating income was $5.2B, $22.8B annually. That income increased hardly at all, and annually was “only” up from $18.5B in 2021, so the margins, while excellent, are falling a bit.

AWS is now considerably bigger than IBM and much more profitable.

Every time I report these AWS numbers I stop and shake my head; a combination of top-line total, continuing growth, and sustainable margin at this scale is mind-boggling.

Other stuff

Advertising quarterly revenue is up to $11.5B, that’s 23% year-over-year. Note that they don’t report income, but my bet (without any inside information) is that the margin is even higher than AWS’s.

The internal structure of the retail operation is broken out, highlighting that third-party seller services is a monster business, running over $36B in the most recent quarter, growing at 24%.

Owning the store everyone shops at is a good business.

Take-away

Amazon as a whole isn’t really very profitable. Its retail sector loses money, and that loss is made up by the tens of billions of gravy coming in from AWS and Advertising.

Why is this business structure considered rational? And why is it legal for Amazon to be the prime competitor of the economy’s whole retail sector while not having to make a profit?

Obviously, foregoing profit for the sake of growth is a tried-and-true business strategy, and laudable within limits. But it seems obvious to me that Amazon is way, way past those limits.

As I’ve said since the moment I walked out Amazon’s door in May 2020, AWS should be spun off. The best time to do that was three years ago. The second best time is now.

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greggrossmeier
114 days ago
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Break up Amazon
Ojai, CA, US
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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Punch

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

Hovertext:
Note, this morning, when I have a lot of drawing to do, my stylus isn't working.


Today's News:
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brennen
121 days ago
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Arguably, if we punched _enough_ computers, we could do something about a major source of our discontent.
Boulder, CO
greggrossmeier
120 days ago
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Ojai, CA, US
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jlvanderzwan
122 days ago
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This may explain why I prefer the big bulky but indestructable thinkpads over ultrabooks
llucax
123 days ago
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I like this theory
Berlin
GaryBIshop
124 days ago
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Deep!

Decluttering: Letting go of part of my "identity"

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Today I managed to complete a major part of declutter. It was a long time coming but it's finally done. The donation is complete and I can let go of a part of my life that I'm both proud of and OK with being complete.

During the 1990s I became obsessed with video games, in particular console gaming. My main gaming computer was the Atari 8-bit computer. I used that up until I graduated college, so I missed an entire generation of games. My friend Dan actually got me into the next generation of console gaming, starting with the 3DO. I loved that console. The 3DO was one of the first consoles that had full-motion video and was an absolute delight for someone who had missed an entire generation of gaming. I started collecting games for that console. This lead to other console game collecting. I never had an Atari 2600 and it was cheap to collect for it so I started collecting for that as well. Suddenly I collected for many different consoles: Intellevision, Colecovision, Turbografx 16, Atari 5200, Atari 7800, Vectrex, Neo Geo CD, and of course, the Atari 8bit computers.

When the Sega Saturn came out I transferred my love of the 3DO to it. I started collecting for it like mad. Worse, the Sega Saturn had a lot of imported titles that didn't make it over to the states, or had better versions in Japan. We tried to modify my Saturn to play imported games, but sadly it turned into a not-great CD player. A new modified Saturn fixed that problem. I went nuts buying lots of imported games. I became a sort of expert on collecting for the system.

When the Dreamcast came out I applied the same collecting principles to that console. I grabbed every title I could.

I managed to gather a bunch of interesting titles for all of these systems. I had many rare titles for these machines. I played a bunch of these games and learned a lot from them.

I spent a lot of time seeking out new things for these machines. Part of my identity as being a video game collector. And I thought it was immutable.

I wanted to make a computing museum. I managed to score a bunch of retro computers from a friend, so I thought that it was only natural to make something that others could enjoy and learn about these magnificent machines. Over time I've realized that museums are a ton of work and expensive.

I noticed that the University of Michigan has a Computer and Video Game Archive. They have an amazing collection of games available for patrons to check out and play. Plus they also have a bunch of rarer systems for research purposes.

I could think of no better place to send off my collection. I couldn't think of a better place to realize my dreams of letting others enjoy the games that brought me joy. Plus there were games in my collection that go for unobtanium prices. A library has limited funds, so spending money to get those titles would be expensive and prevent them from putting that money to more important uses. Hopefully they can use my collection to fill in those gaps.

Several years ago I made my first donation. That was a lot of older systems that I didn't have much affinity towards. Today I made my latest donation. My beloved 3Do, Sega Saturn, Sega Dreamcast, and Turbografx 16, and some older games that didn't manage to get included in the previous run. I was only going to donate the Turbografx 16 and the older games but I realized that I was pretty much done with being a collector of the Saturn and Dreamcast. Part of this is the collector market, which has become an expensive place to inhabit. Part of it was just holding onto systems that I barely used. And part of it was wanting to focus on machines that actually bring me joy and might help me with my programming. I'm focusing on consoles and computers that mean something to me and are machines that I have a fighting chance of programming someday. I've narrowed my focus to the essential. Maybe someday I'll narrow it more. But for now I'm content.

Maybe someday I'll get the itch to play these games again. If that's the case I can schedule some time to head on own to the CVGA and play them. But I doubt it. This was my second time making a donation to the CVGA, and my second time being there. I didn't miss the consoles and games that I donated then and I'm pretty sure that I won't miss the consoles and games that I've donated today.

The decluttering continues, but this feels like a major accomplishment. I've shed what I thought was an immutable part of my person and it feels liberating. I'm not bound by past decisions and can be more nimble with my future. I've long said that I don't want to be the curator of the museum of my bad decisions. That's still true, but perhaps I should expand that: I don't want to be the curator of the museum of my past selves. That part of me no longer resonates. Perhaps it will someday, but for now I'm OK with letting it be dormant. I need to let my collector mentality rest for a bit and allow myself to actually enjoy the things that I let into my life.

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greggrossmeier
225 days ago
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This is great and so is the UMich gaming archive. <3 you Craig.
Ojai, CA, US
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The story so far...

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This morning JoDee tested positive for COVID. This is more of a relief than anything because she's been having the same symptoms as me without having that bright purple line to say that, indeed, she has COVID. Our long house-wide nightmare is over.

Us getting COVID was inevitable. Masks have now become something you wear on Halloween, and every safety protocol has been lost to time like the forgotten rituals of yore. Only the hospital requires masks, but even that is just policed by a little kiosk asking you to put on a surgical mask. Part of this is chalked up to the "if I get it I'll be fine" cowboy mentality that pervades the USA. What isn't taken into account are the folks who have immune systems that aren't as clued-in to fighting disease as most folks. Folks who are immunocompromised are just left to twist in the wind. Folks like cancer patients. Folks like me.

I'm actually doing better than most. I've been taking Zarxio after each chemo treatment so my white blood cell count is through the freakin' roof. The biggest downside (outside of having mild COVID symptoms, which aren't great) is that my tenuous schedule of appointments for next actions for my treatment has been blown completely asunder. I had to miss chemo this week (had I not had COVID I'd be working on getting ready for chemo and not writing this post). There's the potential for some serious knock-on effects as a result. I was already navigating a thin line between having surgery to remove the more egregious "nodes" on my liver, but with this delay I might no longer be eligible. That could seriously reduce the quality of my life (dead is considered a steep quality-of-life drop-off). It may not be that dire but the potential is there.

What pisses me off the most is that our race to pre-2020 levels of normal have removed the safety measures for folks like myself. I'm relatively well-vaccinated (my last booster was in May, before the new variant vaccines were available) so I should be OK health-wise, but the knock-on effects of getting COVID at all could be life-changing. And JoDee was due to get her booster this Friday (which she's going to have to cancel). Had we left the masking provisions in place we might have avoided it (it's hard to say for certain, but I believe that our chances would have been reduced). And I get it - wearing something over my face for long periods of time isn't terribly comfortable. But even though JoDee and I have been wearing KN-95 masks wherever we go we still managed to catch the COVID-cooties. That's because masks aren't to help protect you, they're also to help limit the spread of the disease. Naturally that little tidbit gets lost in the retelling, so I'm here to remind you that it still matters.

(And of course this is assuming that folks were amenable to wearing masks in the first place, but it seems the USA is capable of taking the simplest request for public safety and turn it into a complete shit show. I'd rather keep the shit shows in this post to the ones that I have an immediate say, not systemic issues that would require a PhD in Sociology and 15 volumes of texts to fully explain. Let's just leave it at that.)

I've lamented how I feel our return to the workplace and the removal of mask mandates were ill-conceived notions of normalcy. But I'm but a small voice in the wilderness compared to the grinding wheels of capitalism. All I can do is share my experience about how COVID could affect my treatment schedule and my overall quality of life. But it shouldn't be left to the ones who are affected to have to pipe up each time to tell folks they're being affected. Folks with worse immune systems than mine have been screaming that they're being shut out because of the lowering of safety standards. We need to rethink re-adding mask mandates and safety protocols if we're ever going to move past COVID. I hope by sharing my story that folks pay attention to the ones that will be most affected by our reckless abandonment of COVID protocols.

If not for me, your old pal on the Internet, then maybe for someone else you care about. Because we're all in this together.

Wear your mask. Practice safe distancing. Don't feed after midnight.

Simple.

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greggrossmeier
254 days ago
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Ojai, CA, US
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