Catskills Conf 2017

Sunrise club at Ashokan courtesy of Ruthie Nachmany - https://twitter.com/ruthienachmany

Yawp! YAWP!
Yawp! YAWP!
Don't fall in the creek.
Hudson Valley Tech Ashokan Community.
Yawp! YAWP!
Yawp! YAWP!
Don't fall in the creek.
Be as open and present as you can be.

That was the chorus of the theme song for Castkills Conf this weekend. Yes there was a theme song. Every day started with a musical riff on the talks of the day before by Jonathan Mann, who has been posting a song-a-day, every day, to youtube for a decade. You can go watch them for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (soon). This is one of the many wonderful ways that this event was unlike any tech event I've been to, and why it just became one of my favorite tech events I've ever been to.

At a typical tech event the focus is on getting a bunch of speakers, so much content, splitting folks into tracks on the topics they would be interested in, then packing that in from 9 - 5 (or later). People are exhausted by the end of the day. They also largely attended different conferences. At a 10 track conference, the only shared experience, if it exists, is keynotes. Which for larger conferences are purchased slots.

Catskills Conf was a single speaking track. There were only 10 speakers, plus a lightning talk session with 7 lightning talks. The talks were a shared experience for everyone. They were all about technology, the tech industry, and/or the intersection of tech with other aspects of our lives. And they were all incredible. I considered it quite an honor to be a part of the speaking lineup.

And when it came to speakers, the Catskills Conf team was extremely serious about having a diverse speaker list. Of the 10 speakers, the gender split was 3 men, 6 women, and 1 non-binary. 4 of 10 speakers were people of color. The lightning talks were equally diverse. It was such a stark contrast to what you typically see at a Tech event that it was in your face refreshing.

10 talks doesn't seem like a lot for a 3 day conference, but in between them there were structured Activity times. Saturday afternoon there was a 2 hour activity block after lunch with options including black smithing, letter press, self defense, foraging, hiking (with historic interpretation of the Ashokan site), and bread making. Being a 75 degree sunny fall afternoon, I opted for the 2 hour hike, wandering through woods and along streams. I came straight back from that into my talk more energized than I've ever been for one.

These kind of breaks from sitting and listening to talks and doing something with your hands or feet gave was wonderful for processing what you were hearing. It also meant that by the end of the day instead of feeling like your brain was jelly, you had enough processing time that you were excited to talk about what you heard, or get to know the person sitting next to you at dinner and find out the fascinating things they were doing. Every night ended with a campfire and beer under the stars. Which was another place to talk and get to know more folks. You weren't so overloaded during the day that you wanted to go off and hide and decompress afterwards, even those of us that are more on the introvert side.

A couple of folks even collected for a 6am sunrise hike on Sunday morning. I joined 3 others as we hiked under flashlights, losing the trail a couple of times, to a sugar orchard and sugar shack, while discussing the work one of the hikers was doing around infectious disease modeling and experiments with mosquitos, the bio mimicry work that another was doing trying to take queues from nature and work them into built materials, discussing bird migrations, tech meetups, and just generally exploring a beautiful area.

This was the 3rd year of Catskills Conf, but the first time I could make it. I'm going to be processing the event for weeks to come. There were so many moments that I really loved that aren't here, it just doesn't all fit. But one thing is for sure. I'm extremely excited about attending and participating in the years to come.

I'll leave you with this really cool Catskills Conf 2017 wrap up video. It's not like being there, but it gives you a flavor.

Book Review: The Ends of the World

I'm going to open with, this book is flat out amazing. In school, or even through popular science journalism, we learn a bit about some key points of geologic time. But these are snap shots, Dinosaurs, Ice Ages, even Snow Ball Earth. Really interesting things on their own, but they all seem a little disjoint.

This book brings an incredible visual narrative through life on Earth, by looking at the 5 mass extinction events the planet has experienced. An extinction is only emotionally meaningful if you understand what is lost, so the author paints an incredible picture of the aliens worlds that were Earth in these previous eras. Worlds without life on land, worlds of giant insects, worlds of bus size armored carnivorous fish as apex predators. He does this by road tripping to the scientists and fossil sites where this story is being assembled, talking with experts along the way. A story as old and hidden in the fossil record needs lots of lines of evidence to point to answers, and the author does a great job of doing that, and pointing out what we seem to know, and what we've only got guesses on.

The story of life on earth is the story of carbon and climate. As volcanoes stirred up carbon from the deep, and life reclaimed it, died, and sunk it back into the Earth. When this cycle gets really out of whack, the climate goes nuts, and life is paused on planet Earth, and taken tens of thousands of years to get back on track. There are many points of reflection about how our current mining and burning of ancient sequestered carbon is impacting our world today.

There are also just incredible moments that make you sit and think. The death of the land based mega fauna, 12,000 years ago, in North America, that still leaves ecological holes.

But the menagerie lives on in evolutionary ghosts. In North America, the fleet-footed pronghorns of the American West run laughably faster than any of their existing predators. But then, their speed isn’t meant for existing predators. It might be a vestige of their need to escape constant, harrowing pursuits by American cheetahs—until a geological moment ago. The absence was palpable to me as I rode a train past New Mexico’s Kiowa National Grassland, an American Serengeti, windswept and empty except for a lone wandering pronghorn still running from ghosts.

Other evolutionary shadows of the Pleistocene live on in the produce aisle. Seeds in fruit are designed to be eaten and dispersed by animals, but for the avocado this makes little sense. Their billiard ball–sized cores, if swallowed whole, would at the very least make for an agonizing few days of digestive transit. But the fruit makes a little more sense in a land populated by tree-foraging giants, like the sometimes dinosaur-proportioned ground sloths, who swallowed the seeds and hardly noticed them. The ground sloths disappeared a geological moment ago, but their curious fruit, the avocado, remains.

It will make me never quite look at an avocado the same way again.

There are so many things I learned which made me reconsider my whole view of dinosaurs. Like Dimetrodon, the creature with a large sale on it's back for temperature regulation, is more closely related to mammals than dinosaurs. And without the 3rd mass extinction, we'd never have seen Dinosaurs, and mammals might have ruled the Earth much earlier. And that T-rex showed up really late on the scene, filling the niche that that much more successful Allosaurs held as apex predators for most of the Jurasic era (the Allosaurs all disappeare in a more minor great extinction).

It's not often that you find a non fiction book that both reads fast, and dumps such an incredible amount of information on you. The jumping back and forth from road trip, chatting with scientists, facts, and painting pictures of the world that was, works really well. There is never a dull moment in it, and you come out the far end for a much greater appreciation for life on Earth in all its forms.

My Solar Eclipse Experience

They are right when they say there is nothing quite like a total solar eclipse. I had seen an annular eclipse in my senior year of high school as it cross over Vermont. Wandering out there with our physics teacher, looking through glasses, it was pretty cool, but it was nothing like the Sun going out.

Eclipse day for us was in Springfield, TN, as my friend's Nick and Heather were living there, and it was deep in the path of totality. We made plans to visit in May, booked our hotel then, and framed a trip around this so that we'd do four 8 hour driving days on our great eclipse road trip. Down through Cleveland to visit family, and up through Virginia on the way back to break up the drive.

On the way to Tennessee on Friday, my friend Jack was still sorting out his plans. He and his son were going to be sleeping in their car wherever they went. The weather where he was originally headed was looking dicey, and I said "well this is where we'll be, I make no promises, but I can offer you use of our hotel shower." Friday evening they decided they would join us. They arrived Sunday about 9am. In addition to bringing their wonderful selves, they had brought a solar filtered scope, a hydrogen alpha scope, and a camera rig to shoot the eclipse, and a shade tent.

We scouted a location at Nick and Heather's apartment, a flat grassy section near the apartment complex dog park. First contact was just shy of noon for us. We started setting up all the equipment at 10, were in a good state by 11.

Our setup area for the eclipse
All set up, shade tent, telescopes

First contact. The moment when you stare through those eclipse glasses and say: "wait, is that side just a little flat now? Maybe I'm imagining it. No, I really think it is. Yeah, that must be real." As the eclipse grows, your brain does this funny thing and enhances the boundary. The silhouette of the Sun seems to glow brighter than the Sun itself.

Eclipse glasses on!

After about 20 minutes, and our pacman shape ever growing, I realized we're never going to break for food (the original plan), we should bring it back down here. So I headed back upstairs with Nick, prepared a bit of our picnic food that we'd gotten the night before, and headed back provisions in hand.

A shade tent is a glorious thing when watching an eclipse on a 95 degree sunny day with few clouds. We would spend time inside the tent, drinking water, having a snack, then popping out to see how things were progressing.

Shade tent, and making new friends

With our little camp setup, folks from the complex started stopping by. Including a number of kids. Jack's a pro at the sidewalk astronomy outreach, we introduced people to the scopes, what they were looking at, and kept them pointed and in focus. One of the kids came back out with popsicles for everyone as a thank you for letting everyone see through those scopes.

Popsicle break

It was never going to get cold in Tennessee, but once we got past 75% coverage, the beating hot 95 turned into "a reasonable warm day to be outside". Maybe we dialed back to 80. The sky lost it's deep blue, and was just a muted version of itself. Everything was muted in an erie way that you can't quite describe.

As we closed in on second contact, a cloud creeped in over the Sun. It kept going away, coming back, going away, coming back, with lots of, "is that it?", "no". Then just before totality the cloud cleared, it went black, one of the neighbors yelled, "we're in!". Everyone took off their glasses. And we stared at a hole in the sky with the giant wispy corona spewing out from it.

Our eclipse, courtesy Jack Chastain

Pictures don't ever really capture what the eye sees. Most of them show a small ring around the Sun. But this was a sun flower. The corona extended at least the radius of the Sun again. It wasn't uniform, it was sweepy with a few petals poking out. It was amazing. Everyone was exclaiming in different ways, processing this true wonder of nature in a way personal to them.

Venus, Jupiter, and even dim Mercury came out to meet us. I was so focused on all of those I didn't really take the time to look for other stars. But given Mercury was dialing in at magnitude 3, there should have been plenty.

During totality

We got about two and a half minutes. It's not enough time. Not enough time to soak in this totally bizarre experience. It was about a minute longer than our daughter (not quite 3) was happy with. Both the dark, and the black hole in the sky definitely got her scared. She was not the only one, we heard another boy crying in one of the apartments behind us.

One of the neighbors gave us a countdown for the event ending. As hit the end of the countdown, I looked down at the 2 trees in front of us. No shadow, no shadow, no shadow, then with what appeared to be a swoosh... 2 shadows. Like they were dropped back into place in a cartoon.

A child crying... my child. "I want to see Venus! I want to see Venus!". Venus is a night sky friend, we've been finding it in the sky for nearly a year. Everyone was talking about how you could see it during the eclipse and now Arwen was upset that they didn't also get that chance. But at magnitude 4, Venus was easy to see even back to 90% coverage. We spent some time pointing and looking, and calming down. She's at the age where I don't know if she'll remember all of this later when she's grown up, but maybe there will be flashes of it.

The sun returns, with crescents through the bushes

And as the Sun returned, everyone dispersed. I spent the next hour helping Jack pack up and put things in his car. We all ended up back in the nice AC before the even was properly over, taking a last look at a 15% eclipse before going inside for more food and to crack a few beers.

Jack and son stayed a few hours to let the worst of the traffic clear, then headed off back to Virginia. The google map from that day is amazing. We fortunately had all the food we needed in the apartment for dinner, so dined in, made our goodbyes at about 7, headed to our hotel, and even started watching the PBS eclipse documentary that aired that night. Though after a few pictures of totality were on the screen Arwen proclaimed "that is too much for me, please turn it off."

My plan for avoiding the traffic was leaving the day after. However, there were really more people out for this event that did the same. Our 9 hour driving day, turned into 12 hours of driving thanks to constant stop and go traffic on the I-81 corridor in Virginia. We did get to our Tuesday night lodging that day, at 11:59pm. So we also get to have a traffic story for our eclipse adventure.

There really is nothing like a total eclipse. I'm now excited for 2024 (less excited about New England April weather). And, we'll see if we consider destination adventures to see another one along the way. I was exciting to share this with my daughter and wife, and friends both old and new. What a great end to the summer.

Eclipsee

OpenWest 2017 Roundup

When I first discovered the Open West conference, I was told it was the biggest US open source event that I'd never heard of, which is a pretty apt description. Open West brings together technologists interested in Open Technology in Sandy Utah, just south of Salt Lake City. This is a community regional Open Source event, run by volunteers, which means the program is much more varied than what you'd see at an event focused on a particular open source technology stack.

With up to 13 tracks happening simultaneously, there were lots of great moments for me over the course of the week. I'm just going to capture a few of them.

OpenCV Trials and Tribulations

There was a great talk by John Harrison at Lucid Charts about trying to do something interesting with OpenCV, and failing. He was giving the talk in the spirit of the Journal of Negative Results: reporting a hard problem they tried and failed at, and the dead ends they ran into.

It started as a hackfest project, could they take a screen shot with a camera of a flow chart, and use OpenCV to turn that into a symbolic flow chart in their tool. Turns out if you write all connecting lines in red, and all shapes in black, it's not a very hard problem. Also turns out, even in controlled user experiments, you can't get anyone to do that. It fails UX. And while they did build a system that worked with black lines everywhere in controlled lab environments, it worked with 0% of customer taken images, and the path to improvement wasn't clear, so after a 2 month experiment they stopped.

While they are primarily a Java shop, they did this entire project in python, because while "there are OpenCV bindings for every language you can imagine, all the interesting examples are only in python." Which goes to show how import an open and vibrant ecosystem of consuming tools is to the success of a project.

Writing Ethical Software

This was an interesting talk by James Prestwich on writing ethical software, that started with a brief history of schools of thought on ethics over the last 3000 years. The primer was just straight up informative, and the presenter actually did a quite good job being neutral through all of that.

Then we were posed with an interesting question. Software is now mostly about mediating complex interactions between people. If you look at other fields like Medicine and Law there are oaths and codes of conduct that their practitioners take because of how much their work affects people's lives.

We have collectively decided that certain things, like land mines, should not exist in the world. We have treaties on that. But as software eats the world, we're not having the conversation about what software should not exist, for any reason.

There weren't answers during this talk, it was mostly questions and attempting to start a conversation. But for anyone who works in software it's a good thought exercise to have. What are your personal ethical boundaries about software you would create or contribute to? It's also a much better conversation to have well in advance of any actual ethical conflict, because things are rarely bright lines, but long slippery slopes.

Hardware Track

There was a dedicated hardware track on the main stage for the whole conference, at least a third of the talks were related to home automation in some way, and 80% of them centered around a project that used a Raspberry Pi.

Raspberry Pi has managed to go across the entire hype curve and is now climbing away on the plateau of productivity. We went from neat idea, to unobtainium, to toy projects, to boxes full of pis in basements, to real productivity over the last 5 years. Yes, there are lots of other cheaper, neater, more powerful platforms, but the ecosystem around the pi just makes it the no brainer work horse.

I was actually a little surprised how many home grown Home Automation systems people talked about there. I did have pieces of something like that before discovering Home Assistant, but now it's hard to imagine doing all the work that the community is doing for me.

One of the projects I thought was most interesting was air quality monitoring with the esp8662. For about $30 they can build each monitoring unit, then find places throughout the community they can plug them in (need power and wifi). They are collecting it all in a
central MQTT broker and doing reports on it to try to get a better baseline on the air quality in the Salt Lake City area.

Patching People

The stand out keynote of the event was Deb Nicholson on patching people.

Any group of humans, and they ways they interact, have bugs, just like software has bugs. A people bug is like a software bug, it's unintended negative side effects of things that are happening. The point is, patching people is actually not all that different than patching software.

Filing "bugs" against people is a little harder than software, because no one likes to accept criticism. So as such, she put forward the idea of "calling in" vs. "calling out". Take the person aside, privately, and say "I think you were trying to do X, but the way it was said excluded a bunch of these people. Maybe saying it this other way would be more effective?".

The other thing to realize is none of us is above this. We all make mistakes, and need some patching from time to time.

After this talk I'm going to try to be better about calling in when I think it will help. In open source projects, they live or die by the longevity of the community, so patching the community to be more inclusive and welcoming is key.

So many more good moments...

Honestly, there were so many other good moments as well: chatting with folks about Home Assistant after my talk; seeing the state of the world on different AI cloud platforms; thinking about localization and culture in software; getting my head around the oauth model; json web tokens.

This is definitely a conference I'd love to get to again, and a great community event they've built there. Thanks to the OpenWest organizing team for such a great show.

Triple Bottom Line in Open Source

One of the more thought provoking things that came out of the OpenStack leadership training at Zingerman's last year, was the idea of the Triple Bottom Line. It's something I continue to ponder regularly.

The Zingerman's family of businesses definitely exist to make money, there are no apologies for that. However, it's not their only bottom line that they measure against they've defined for themselves. Their full bottom line is "Great Food, Great Service, Great Finance." In practice this means you have to ensure that all are being met, and not sacrifice the food and service just to make a buck.

If you look at Open Source through this kind of lens, a lot of trade offs that successful projects make make a lot more sense. The TBL for OpenStack would probably be something like: Code, Community, Contributors. Yes, this is about building great code, to make a great cloud, but it's also really critical to grow the community, and mentor and grow individual contributors as well. Those contributors might stay in OpenStack, or they might go on to use their skills to help other Open Source projects be better in the future. All of these are measures of success.

This was one of the reasons we recently switch the development tooling in OpenStack (DevStack) to using systemd more natively. Not only did it solve a bunch of long standing technical issues, that had really ugly work arounds, but it also meant enhancing our contributors. Systemd and the journal are default in every new Linux environment now, so skills that our contributors gained working with DevStack would now directly transfer to any Linux environment. It would make them better Linux users in any context, not just OpenStack. It also makes the environment easier for people coming from the outside to understand, because it looks more like what they are used to.

While I don't have enough data to back it up, it feels like this central question is really important to success in Open Source: "In order to be successful in this project you must learn X, which will be useful in these other contexts outside of the project." X has to be small enough to be learnable, but also has to be useful in other contexts, so time invested has larger payoffs. That's what growing a contributor looks like, they don't just become better at your project, they become a better developer for everything they touch in the future.

Lumosity boosts brain function by 0%

In the new controlled, randomized trial involving 128 healthy young adults, researchers found that playing Lumosity brain-training games for 30-minute sessions, five times a week for 10 weeks resulted in participants getting better at playing the games. But researchers saw no changes in participants’ neural activity and no improvements in their cognitive performance beyond those seen in controls. The same went for participants who played video games not designed with cognitive benefits in mind.

Source: Lumosity boosts brain function by 0%, the same as normal video games—study | Ars Technica UK

To the best of any studies out there, brain training games are all snake oil. There is no such thing as general intelligence booster, there is just getting better at specific skills because you do them more.

Traffic Shed for Solar Eclipse

This infographic summarizes how many people are expected to travel to the path of totality and where they will congregate. The patterns of converging lines to the path of totality represent the quickest drive paths from throughout the nation to the path. These lines are color-coded by destination state. The blue circles in the path are destinations for eclipse travelers, proportionally sized to the expected traffic impact. The black dots are metropolitan areas throughout the country scaled to population.

Source: Statistics — Total solar eclipse of Aug 21, 2017

This traffic shed diagram is interesting on so many levels. You can imagine what the congestion points might be on day of with an extra 2 million people trying to get around South Carolina.

It will also be interesting as the media starts ramping up as we get closer if more folks will decide to take this plunge, or figure that they'll be around in 7 years to catch the next one.

The 2017 Eclipse Impact on the Grid

On Monday, August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will pass over the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming etc.). The California balancing authority area will be affected by a partial eclipse between 9:02 AM and 11:54 AM PPT. As a partial eclipse, the sun will be obscured from 76% in Northern California to 62% in Southern California border area. The reduction in solar radiation will directly affect the output of the photovoltaics (PV) generating facilities and rooftop solar.

From the California ISO 2017 Solar Eclipse Report.

In looking up 2017 Eclipse stuff, I wondered if anyone had modeled the Solar Power generation drops during it. Of course they had, and I quickly found this California ISO report on it. California will probably be hit harder than this than most given their solar install base, so accurate modeling is really important.

I have yet to find anyone modeling wind for the event. As that definitely does pick up with the temperature shifts pretty heavily right around the event. But maybe it's too little of an impact to notice?

 

IoT & Home Assistant at OpenWest

I'm thrilled to be talking about the Internet of Things and Home Assistant at the OpenWest conference next week. The talk for it has come together quite nicely, and I'll hopefully be giving it a few more places over the coming year as well. The goal of the talk is to explain some of the complexity of the space, and see why it is so complex, and why the only real path forward in the short / medium term is an open source hub at the heart of everything.

For those that can't make it all the way to Utah, there is a trimmed down Article version of it up at opensource.com. The article seems to be doing well, and was #2 for this week on the site.

I will also be forever indebted to Benjamin Walker and his complete throw away line "this is why we can't have the internet of nice things" during his New York After Rent series (which is really incredible, and completely unrelated to any of this), which stuck in my brain for months afterwards, and became the seed of inspiration for this talk.

Much warmer summers

The map above, based on a new analysis from the Climate Impact Lab, shows how 95-degree days (35 degrees Celsius) are expected to multiply this century if countries take moderate climate action. In this scenario, countries would take some measures, but not drastic ones, to curb emissions — roughly the trajectory of the current pledges under the Paris climate agreement.

The resulting global warming would still cause significant shifts for many cities. In Washington, from 1986 to 2005, an average of seven days each year had temperatures of at least 95 degrees. By the end of the century, the city can expect 29 of these extremely hot days per year, on average. (The likely range is 14 to 46 hot days per year.)

Source: 95-Degree Days: How Extreme Heat Could Spread Across the World - The New York Times

Good analysis on what the impacts of the hotter days coming are going to be. 95 F is as reasonable an arbitrary measuring point as anything else, we're approaching body temperature there. The article looks at the world under the Paris agreement, as well as without it. The differences are striking.

Interestingly, commercial crop yields (specifically corn and soybeans) start to drop after 84 F. I hadn't realized that, but it makes sense. That's how hotter days, even without drought, have negative impacts on our food supply.

Exploring and discovering how things are more complicated, with a focus on climate and software