Tuesday, December 31, 2019

New Year's Eve Links

  • I can't think of a single large software company that doesn't regularly draw internet comments of the form "What do all the employees do? I could build their product myself." Benjamin Pollack and Jeff Atwood called out people who do that with Stack Overflow. But Stack Overflow is relatively obviously lean, so the general response is something like "oh, sure maybe Stack Overflow is lean, but FooCorp must really be bloated". And since most people have relatively little visibility into FooCorp, for any given value of FooCorp, that sounds like a plausible statement. After all, what product could possible require hundreds, or even thousands of engineers? A few years ago, in the wake of the rapgenius SEO controversy, a number of folks called for someone to write a better Google. Alex Clemmer responded that maybe building a better Google is a non-trivial problem. Considering how much of Google's $500B market cap comes from search, and how much money has been spent by tens (hundreds?) of competitors in an attempt to capture some of that value, it seems plausible to me that search isn't a trivial problem. [Luu]
  • Language skills are highly multi-dimensional*, so while learning a language, it's important to come at it from lots of different directions. Here are some of the tricks I've used to practice Spanish that I haven't heard so many other people use. (They're likely useful for other languages too, of course.) (1) Translate past writing you've already published in English. (2) Start a Spanish-speaking Twitter account. (3) Rewatch your favorite kids movies in Spanish. (4) Set up a quick-access translator app. (5) Opt for e-books rather than physical ones. (6) Subscribe to Spanish language podcasts and YouTube channels. (7) Use spaced repetition. (8) Word of the Day newsletters. (9) Change your phone's system language to Spanish. (10) Build muscle memory for typing accented characters. (11) It is fine to fill in the gaps with English and Spanglish. (12) Date an Argentinian. [Devon Zuegel]
  • Yes, at FedEx, we considered that problem for about three seconds before we noticed that we also needed: (1) A suitable, existing airport at the hub location. (2) Good weather at the hub location, e.g., relatively little snow, fog, or rain. (3) Access to good ramp space, that is, where to park and service the airplanes and sort the packages. (4) Good labor supply, e.g., for the sort center. (5) Relatively low cost of living to keep down prices. (6) Friendly regulatory environment. (7) Candidate airport not too busy, e.g., don't want arriving planes to have to circle a long time before being able to land. (8) Airport with relatively little in cross winds and with more than one runway to pick from in case of winds. (9) Runway altitude not too high, e.g., not high enough to restrict maximum total gross take off weight, e.g., rule out Denver. (10) No tall obstacles, e.g., mountains, near the ends of the runways. (11) Good supplies of jet fuel. (12) Good access to roads for 18 wheel trucks for exchange of packages between trucks and planes, e.g., so that some parts could be trucked to the hub and stored there and shipped directly via the planes to customers that place orders, say, as late as 11 PM for delivery before 10 AM. So, there were about three candidate locations, Memphis and, as I recall, Cincinnati and Kansas City. [Hacker News]
  • Blockchain is the world's worst database, created entirely to maintain the reputations of venture capital firms who injected hundreds of millions of dollars into a technology whose core defining insight was "You can improve on a Ponzi scam by making it self-organizing and distributed; that gets vastly more distribution, reduces the single point of failure, and makes it censorship-resistant." [Hacker News]
  • I'm mostly familiar with the Word file format, so I will restrict my comments to that. It's been more than 15 years since I did this stuff, so my memory is hazy -- specifically I can't remember how the Excel file formats work at all. Basically, the Word file format is a binary dump of memory. I kid you not. They just took whatever was in memory and wrote it out to disk. We can try to reason why (maybe it was faster, maybe it made the code smaller), but I think the overriding reason is that the original developers didn't know any better. Later as they tried to add features they had to try to make it backward compatible. This is where a lot of the complexity lies. There are lots of crazy work-arounds for things that would be simple if you allowed yourself to redesign the file format. It's pretty clear that this was mandated by management, because no software developer would put themselves through that hell for no reason. [Hacker News]
  • According to Baraghani, a good bone broth doesn't need much more than bones and a few choice aromatics, like onions, garlic, and black pepper. "Don't even get me started on carrots," he says, which add sweetness. [Bon Appetit]
  • The psychoactive ingredient in peyote was identified that same year, 1897, by the German chemist Arthur Heffter. He extracted five distinct alkaloids from the dried cactus and ingested them one by one, monitoring their effects. The most abundant, the compound he named 'mescaline', produced effects like those he had experienced after eating peyote buttons. The root word 'mescal' was applied in the 19th century to the agave spirit we now call 'mezcal', to the red 'mescal bean' (Sophora secundiflora, a seed that was ingested by some Mexican groups as a medicine) and to the peyote cactus. It was used, Jay says, as 'a portmanteau term for all local plant intoxicants' in northern Mexico and the American Southwest. [LRB]

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