Pyroclastic Flow

TIL about “pyroclastic flow.” Imagine the column of gases and ash and pumice pebbles spewing 32km into the air during the eruption of Vesuvius. The column is able to grow that tall because there’s so much upward force behind it, but eventually the sheer mass of the column overwhelms the upward force and it collapses in on itself and comes crashing down. Now, instead of that 400-degree miasma pushing skyward, 32km of hell is pushing down along the ground at 300mph, toward your town. The first victims of Vesuvius died when they took shelter indoors — 18 hours of raining pumice pebbles caved in the roofs of their homes. The other two thirds died when the pyroclastic flow spewed into town, enveloping them in an instant. Nature.


Mountain biked up to Sapfinger to replace a geocache this afternoon, and bumped into an old friend on the way back. Can’t help myself from snapping this tree every time I’m up there – starkly beautiful in any light, but always reminded that what makes it so photogenic is the fact that it’s dying and leafless (pine beetles?). Today, turkey vultures were circling around and through, gliding just above its branches. Every time I visit, a few more big branches are crumbling at its feet. In a few years it’ll be just a stump, then eventually nothing, and this plateau will be a lonelier place.


Around 20 years ago, enthralled by the database-like properties of the Be File System in BeOS, I decided to see if I could use the filesystem itself as a backing database for a live web server application. I ultimately wrote TrackerBase, and served from a BeBox in my home for a few years.

The basic idea was that BeOS let you create custom filetypes with custom attributes, and provided APIs for querying those attributes. The rest was just custom database query code, but without an actual database.

Fast forward two decades. I’m all-Mac now. I recently stumbled across the original .pkg installer for TrackerBase and wanted to have a look. Discovered that there was no way to open the package from the Mac side, and reached out to the Haiku community (Haiku is the open-source successor to BeOS). Within an hour, a community member provided me with a tarball, and I was able to see that code again for the first time in a long time.

It’s always embarrassing to look back on old code, but that was especially true in this case. And Perl? What was I thinking? Anyway, these days we have github, so I’ve just published the original code on github, untouched, for posterity’s sake. MIT license.

Irrelevant as it may be today, I’m still proud of it as  a novel application of an innovative filesystem.

Damn Good Lyric

I hear the radio it’s finally gonna play *new* music
You know the British Invasion
But what about The Minutemen Flesheaters DOA Big Boys and the Black Flag?
Will the last American band to get played on the radio please bring the flag? Please bring the flag!
Glitter-disco-synthesizer night school all that noble savage drum drum drum
Astronauts go back in time to hang out with the cave people
It’s about time it’s about space it’s about some people in the strangest places
Woody Guthrie sang about b-e-e-t-s not b-e-a-t-s

– X, “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts”

Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments for Living in a Healthy Democracy

1: Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2: Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3: Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4: When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5: Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6: Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7: Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8: Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9: Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

First Experience with Sensory Deprivation

What better way to ring out the old year than to immerse oneself in a tank of body-temperature saline solution, suspended in near-perfect darkness and near-perfect quiet for an hour-plus, drifting and floating in mind and body, meditating out the old to ring in the new?

A friend and I spent New Year’s Eve floating in a pair of sensory deprivation tanks at Oakland Floats. This was my first experience with sensory deprivation and I truly didn’t know what to expect – would it be a simple relaxation session, a hallucinatory dream, a life-changing return to the womb, or …  something else?

In the end, the experience was more like my occasional experiments with meditation: A few transcendental glimmers, but mostly the ever-slippery mind weaving back and forth between calmness and thoughts of the day, as when falling asleep. At one point, I became water and the water had a softly breathing throat, breathing into the universe, which itself was represented by a slowly twirling dodecahedron of blue light. But most of the time was spent thinking about the bowl of Pho I intended to consume afterwards, the conversations I’d had with family over the break, my impending return to work, etc. Non-concentration is a hard thing to hold onto.

The tanks themselves were not fancy: Fiberglass construction, with a push-out entrance/exit flap at a 45-degree angle. Inside, I did not find perfect darkness as I had expected — for safety, a gentle purple light glimmered underwater so one could at least re-orient if claustrophobia set in,  or if one had a need to remember which way was up.

Your life experiences in water have been marked by strong temperature differentials between moisture and the surrounding air, but not here. In a sensory deprivation tank, both air and water are precisely at body temperature. That got me wondering: With almost infinite variations in the human body amongst individuals, how amazing is it that we all share almost exactly the same body temperature? In the tank, temperature is so precisely controlled that your arm feels a bit chilly when you wave it in the air. But if you remain perfectly still, you cannot “feel” the air at all.

For the first few minutes, as I transitioned into the experience, I found myself looking for a hot tub experience. Where are the bubbles? Can I turn up the heat? But this is not a hot tub – it’s something different. Once my mind quieted down and stopped looking for stimulus, the edges of my body seemed to disappear into the air and water, until I could no longer figure out where my body ended and the air/water began. This undifferentiated feeling helped me to lose myself in the experience. This experience of total support is the one that manufacturers of memory foam mattresses are trying to emulate – total support from all angles, so that the effects of gravity seem to disappear. Weightlessness, like what I feel when scuba diving, but without all of the sensory stimulus that comes with diving,

The buoyancy provided by the strong saline mixture is such that half your body is in water, while half of it is out. When I flipped over face-down for some breath-holding meditation, my butt was 100% out of water, which would never happen in the bathtub. Every now and then, as my body slowly drifted in the tank, some bit of it would touch the sides, which was a gentle but jarring reminder of where I was and what I was doing.

A “halo” of light foam is provided to rest your head in, but I realized after a bit that I didn’t need it – the buoyancy is so effective that one’s head is actually supported by the water without assistance.

After a while, I realized that I had no clear sense of how much time had passed. Had I been in for 15 minutes or an hour? With no external stimulation, I found that my time-sensing radar had become completely unplugged, which was both a disorienting and a welcome experience.

The saline solution is strong enough to sting if you have any cuts or wounds on your body — wish I’d thought in advance to cover mine with NuSkin or Vaseline. After my face-down experiment, my eyes stung a bit, even though I’d kept them closed. A squirt bottle filled with clean water is provided to flush them out if this happens, but I didn’t use it.

So what exactly is this sensory deprivation experience? A form of meditation? A salve for tired muscles? Simple relaxation? It’s anything you want or need it to be. Like anything, you get out of it what you put into it. I can’t exactly say that I emerged a different person, but I’m glad I experienced it, and would be happy to do it again. It was certainly a perfect way to say goodbye to 2018, far removed from the fireworks of the world. Yum.

Meet the Press on Climate Change

This weekend’s edition of Meet the Press took a totally new tack. Just one topic: Climate change. And the show started with an introduction: “We’re not going to debate climate change, the existence of it. The Earth is getting hotter. And human activity is a major cause, period. We’re not going to give time to climate deniers. The science is settled, even if political opinion is not. And we’re not going to confuse weather with climate.” Followed by a full hour of hard-hitting conversation. We’re going to start seeing a lot more of this. Thanks MTP for putting a stake in the ground.

Meet the Press – December 30, 2018

Meet the Press – December 30, 2018

Michael Bloomberg, Gov. Jerry Brown, Craig Fugate, Michele Flournoy, Dr. Kate Marvel, Carlos Curbello and Anne Thompson


Disappointing Elvis Costello Show

Not sure what to make of Elvis Costello’s “Look Now” tour (last night at the Masonic). His music has occupied a pretty big place in my life, mostly in his early years but on and off in decades since — Elvis is a stalwart. Of course every artist should be able to re-interpret their own music however they like, but there were a lot of moments last night when I felt like he was losing the plot in his own tracks. Butchering his own work, to be blunt. And he is faltering – missing a lot of vocal notes, playing some seriously bad guitar, and completely embarrassed himself at the piano for a while, sitting down without any apparent intent and noodling out scratch – you could feel the audience feeling embarrassed for him, and it was awkward. The Imposters felt like studio musicians, and all the real energy was coming from his backup singers. There were moments of greatness, and his voice is still both tender and punchy (when it’s not cracking). He says his recent prostate cancer surgery was blown out of proportion and that he’s fine. I’m so glad for that, but also thinking it might be time to retire gracefully. Hate to think that, but … hmm. Listening to his new album now, after the fact, and it’s heaps better than the performance was. Maybe it was just an off night? I’ve loved other performances of his over the years.

Geo contribution to Python faker lib

Like most devs, I often have a need to generate tons of fake data to fill out models – addresses, usernames, “news” content, locations, IP addresses, you name it. Data-mocking libraries are invaluable for creating data factories for use in unit tests, and for populating a site under development with realistic content. For Python, I use the Faker lib in conjunction with FactoryBoy.

Recently I was working on a site that required generating a lot of maps, and realized that randomly chosen geographical coordinates were most often over ocean (since earth is mostly water). Realizing that the right way to solve this was to include a hash of locations known to exist on land and to then pull randomly from those, I started a pull request, which evolved over the past few weeks into a whole new geo module for the lib.

I started with the open source data sets at GeoNames, converted one of their databases into a Python tuple, then extracted every fifth entry to keep the dataset down to a manageable size. Pretty certain I’ve got every country on earth represented, but let me know if you find any missing.

I ended up bringing geographic features from other Faker modules into the new geo module, and added the ability to specify the country you want random land coords for. As of this morning pull request merged!

RIP, Hardy Fox of The Residents

I’m way too late paying my respects to Hardy Fox, one of the anonymous eyeballs of The Residents, a band I stumbled upon as an adolescent browsing the dusty bins at SLO’s original Cheap Thrills in the Creamery. Duck Stab came first, but it was 1980’s “Commercial Album” that really got me – 60 tracks of exactly one minute each (ask me to recite a lyric). The intersection of surrealism and rock never let go – I still return to it from time to time. In 1989 I finally had the opportunity to see them live, in a performance that turned out to happen in a 400-yr-old German bank, floors and walls of white marble – it was the 3rd installment of the Mole Trilogy, and I was transported. Truthfully, I did not know the name Hardy Fox until he died, that’s how anonymous they were. But thank you Hardy, for a lifetime of strange music.

Hardy Fox, of the Avant-Garde Band the Residents (Maybe), Dies at 73

Hardy Fox, of the Avant-Garde Band the Residents (Maybe), Dies at 73

He never admitted that he performed with the group, whose members remained anonymous behind masks as they playfully subverted rock conventions for decades.