The beautiful, overwhelming vastness of the universe

The first public image from the James Webb telescope was made public today, and it is amazing. From the article:

Thousands of galaxies – including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared – have appeared in Webb’s view for the first time. This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.


Annual Reviews Are a Terrible Way to Evaluate Employees

Of course, on the weekend I have to write my annual self-evaluation essay for work, I read this article in the Wall Street Journal by Marcus Buckhingham. He spells out the problems with the annual review process:

The failings of the annual performance review fall into three broad buckets:

They are too infrequent. They are dehumanizing. They are irrelevant to real-world performance.

For years I have complained to my “performance advisors” about the absurdity of the annual review process. Part of the problem is that goals—even SMART goals—are often unachievable because priorities, projects, and clients change over time. Another problem is that too much time is spent ranking employees, which leads to an outside focus on areas of improvement. Not enough time is spent highlighting areas of strength. Imagine how empowering a performance review would be if it was focused on what employees are good at and on finding ways to let them do those things even more.

I thought this detail, from deep in the article, was especially well-observed:

Workers want attention, not feedback, and mostly attention on where they’ve shown glimpses of something good, and how they might show more of them.

Over the past two years I have cultivated a much better attitude about performance reviews. I believe that the managers at the various companies I have worked at want to do the right thing with performance reviews, and are doing the best they can with the tools they have available. I think the problem is that the wrong tools are being used—and have been being used, for my whole career, at every place I worked. The reason for that is that how performance reviews are performed has been baked into general workplace culture. It’s pretty much the same everywhere; blame the MBAs and management experts who developed the general processes and the ideas behind them, I guess1. No annual review process I have been a part of tries to break out of that mold and define a new culture.

In general, employers should help their employees develop their strengths and allow them to spend more time on them. It’s true that various weaknesses can and should be improved with training, coaching, and experience. In many cases, however, greater gains can be had in letting employees drop those areas of weakness and concentrate instead on further developing their areas of strength. That approach would develop the kind of employees that companies in my field want to hire: specialists with unique, world-class skills. In the market for workers, that’s what’s valuable. Why strive hard to become average in your areas of weakness when you could spend equal effort to become truly great at something?

  1. I’m an MBA with a concentration in management. Maybe I’m part of the problem. ↩︎

Crypto is winning, and Bitcoin diehards are furious about it.

Elizabeth Lopatto’s account of the Bitcoin 2022 conference in Miami Beach is a rollicking and chilling account of a conference that is supposedly centered on the granddaddy of all cryptocurrencies, but is actually centered on the number one right-wing hobbyhorse: grievance.

I’m at Miami Beach, in weather so hot and humid it feels like being inside a mouth, to try to get a sense of the vibes. I’m uncomfortable because of the heat and also the flashes of antisemitism. Tucked in the back of the expo floor, a painting for sale shows Tintin in a brown shirt with a Bitcoin logo on his sleeve, making a Sieg Heil salute. Another booth sells a T-shirt depicting a group of men sitting at a table with a pile of money in the middle, which is held up by human bodies; behind them, the pyramid found on the back of the dollar bill, with its Eye of Providence, looms. No one appears concerned.

I found it interesting to learn that there are Bitcoin diehards out there—the Bitcoin maxis—who absolutely hate crypto, NFTs, and any other blockchain technologies that are not Bitcoin. Stoking their fire—propping up Bitcoin at the expense of other, competing blockchain-based assets—seems to have been the main point of the conference.

I must admit feeling more than a little schadenfreude when reading about how half-assed the conference was, and how off-message some of its high-profile speakers were. We should expect nothing more from a grifters’ convention.

Henry Winkler Breaks the Curse of Stardom

Yesterday, The New York Times published a very well-written profile of actor Henry Winkler written by Matthew Klam:

When the producers of the HBO series “Barry” asked Henry Winkler to audition for the role of Gene Cousineau, they assured him that he was on a short list. Winkler said he was willing, as long as the list didn’t include Dustin Hoffman. “Because he’s a movie star. He’d get it. If Dustin was on the list, I wasn’t going in. They said no. I said OK.”

There was no particular reason to think the two-time Oscar winner would be up for the same part, but Winkler can be forgiven for indulging in a little paranoia. Across the span of his 50-year career, he has had some highs — 1970s pop-culture saturation to rival “Star Wars” and the music from “Jaws” — and lows, including a long stretch where he couldn’t get hired, filled with the sense that he’d been typecast into oblivion.

Years ago I listened to a long interview of Henry Winkler on The Nerdist podcast1 that opened my eyes to how warm, generous, and philosophical Henry Winkler is. This profile provides some insight into those qualities, and also takes a deep dive—deeper than I would normally expect from a newspaper article—into Winkler’s audition for, and his acting in an early scene, in Barry.

  1. I think it is gone from the internet now, unfortunately. ↩︎

Elon Musk acquires Twitter for roughly $44 billion

Douglas MacMillan, Faiz Siddiqu, Rachel Lerman, and Taylor Telford reported today in The Washington Post:

Elon Musk acquired Twitter for $44 billion on Monday, the company announced, giving the world’s richest person command of a highly influential social media site that serves as a platform for political leaders, a sounding board for experts across industries and an information hub for millions of everyday users.

The acquisition followed weeks of evangelizing on the necessity of “free speech,” as the Tesla CEO seized on Twitter’s role as the “de facto town square” and took umbrage with content moderation efforts he views as an escalation toward censorship. He said he sees Twitter as essential to the functioning of democracy and said the economics are not a concern.

There have been only a handful of world’s richest people in my lifetime. Of those, Elon Musk is my least favorite. While he has done some good for the world, I find his public persona exhausting. He acts like a juvenile troll who plays to the cheap seats. His credibility in geek circles as a real-life Tony Stark is almost completely unearned. He just seems irresponsible, childish, and awkward to me—the ultimate dog that caught the car.

Last week, I thought that Musk’s hostile takeover offer was mere trolling, or maybe a means to drive a pump-and-dump scam on the sizable share of Twitter stock that he recently purchased. Now that he and his backers have bought the company proves me wrong, at least in the short term. Still, I have no faith in him making Twitter more successful than it is now. It is a company that I think found its level and is destined to stay there. I think that Twitter’s board decided the company’s value would never—at least, within a reasonable timeframe—appreciate to the 20% over its stock price that Musk offered. In that position, I would have taken the buy-out, too.

I can’t even remember when I last logged into my Twitter account now, so the change in ownership will not directly affect me, but it will likely indirectly affect all of us in some way. Musk’s championing of “free speech” and openness on the platform sound like right-wing dog whistles to me, which makes me nervous (more nervous) about the future. In general, the best thing we can do collectively is leave Twitter and publish and correspond elsewhere—preferably on platforms that are not owned by amoral billionaires.

📺 Bill Hader Created a Killer to Cope

Rebecca Keegan wrote an entertaining and informative profile of Barry star and co-creator Bill Hader in The Hollywood Reporter:

In Barry, which returns to HBO for its third season April 24, Hader plays a reluctant hitman who wants to be an actor. Barry is just really great at killing. This is not so different, Berg points out, from Hader, who became a star on SNL in his 20s almost in spite of himself, fought crippling anxiety on the live broadcasts, and really just wanted to write and direct.

I am very excited that Barry is returning to HBO soon. It is a daring show on many levels. Plot-wise it flirts with show-ending (or at least show-ruining) disaster several times each season. I have no idea how the cliffhanger at the end of Season 2 will be resolved, but I am confident that the writers came up with something satisfying.

I love Bill Hader, too. He is amazing and deserves every bit of success he has had.

Will Smith hits Chris Rock over joke about Jada Pinkett Smith at Oscars

I’m super glad my wife and I didn’t bother to watch this nonsense last night. 🙄

Plaintext Sports

I found out about from a Daring Fireball post. The site’s Twitter account describes it thusly:

Live sports scores, play-by-play and boxscores, in plain text. No ads, no tracking, no loading.

I love it. It is fast and no-nonsense. Clicking on the box scores loads a page full of stats for each game. There is even a “hidden” page that lets you follow all the teams in certain cities or regions. It is laid out perfectly for smartphones. The only drawback is that you can’t make its tables a little wider on tablet or desktop browsers.

I can’t wait for baseball season to start so I can use this site for a sport I follow.

A Groggy Senate Approves Making Daylight Saving Time Permanent

Luke Broadwater and Amelia Nierenberg report in The New York Times:

After losing an hour of sleep over the weekend, members of the United States Senate returned to the Capitol this week a bit groggy and in a mood to put an end to all this frustrating clock-changing.

So on Tuesday, with almost no warning and no debate, the Senate unanimously passed legislation to do away with the biannual springing forward and falling back that most Americans have come to despise, in favor of making daylight saving time permanent. The bill’s fate in the House was not immediately clear, but if the legislation were to pass there and be signed by President Biden, it would take effect in November 2023.

I am trying not to get my hopes up, but I would love it if we stopped changing the clocks twice each year.

I never really cared about it until I had kids. I learned the hard way that messing with their sleep schedule makes kids crazy, and the effect can last for weeks. Now changing the clicks is a twice-yearly curse.

I would prefer Daylight Saving Time year-round. Having sunlight in the early evening is of far greater value to me than having the sun rise earlier.

🏈 Tom Brady Barely Left and Now is Back

Kevin Draper reports for The New York Times that Tom Brady is rescinding his retirement announcement from only eight weeks ago:

Brady, the 44-year-old quarterback who has won the Super Bowl seven times, wrote on his social media accounts Sunday evening that he would return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to play his 23rd N.F.L. season.

I can only admire Tom Brady’s gumption here. His numbers last season were so good that his retirement seemed unnecessary, despite his age. I wonder if he can win another Super Bowl ring. It he does, I wonder if he would really retire right afterward, or if he would keep pushing forward until he can’t compete at all anymore.

⚾️ Apple’s big baseball deal, detailed

Jason Snell, on Six Colors, shared some interesting information about Apple’s Major League Baseball announcement on Tuesday :

Though NBCUniversal’s Peacock is rumored to be picking up ESPN’s old package for Monday and Wednesday night games, what Apple is doing is an entirely new license from Major League Baseball, containing three separate products…

He goes on to provide details about MLB Big Inning, linear and on-demand archival content, and Friday Night Baseball, which run the gamut from normal televised baseball to something akin to the NFL Red Zone.

As a lapsed baseball fan who happens to be an Apple One subscriber—mostly for the iCloud storage—I am excited about this. I bailed on my annual MLB At Bat subscription in 2020, due in large part to not having enough time to watch baseball games. I have been considering subscribing again this year, once the baseball season starts, but I am still not sure it is worth the money if I’m not going to watch a ton of games. Apple’s offerings, which I already pay for, may be just the right amount of baseball for me.

M.L.B. Cancels Games, Delaying Start of Season

James Wagner reports for The New York Times:

Major League Baseball canceled the first two series of the 2022 regular season on Tuesday after the league and the players’ union failed to reach a new collective bargaining agreement.

After nearly a year of negotiating, including nine straight days of talks between the league and the union in Florida starting Feb. 21, the sides could not come to a new pact by M.L.B.’s self-imposed deadline of 5 p.m. Tuesday in order to begin the 162-game season on March 31 as scheduled.

I strongly considered getting back into following baseball after two years away from the sport. Watching Spring Training games on MLB.TV has always been my way to get excited for the both the new baseball season and for the upcoming warm spring and summer weather. Now, with no clear idea when baseball season will start and a shortened season to look forward to, I’m not so sure I want to bother.

Maybe It’s Just a Product Nobody Wants

I love how Matt Birchler compares crypto to BitTorrent in his latest blog post, “Maybe It’s Just a Product Nobody Wants”:

I don’t think crypto is going to disappear, by the way. I think it will always have a place in the world, but much like bittorrent before it, it was new & exciting, people tried to use it for basically everything, and then it settled into being used for, well, nothing for most people. Blockchains likely have a more prominent future, but there’s a lot of spaghetti being thrown at walls right now, and I think very little of it will stick because it’s not actually making better products.

I’m a crypto skeptic who thinks a lot about blockchain for work-related reasons. I dislike blockchain technologies because I think that, in the real world, they would fail to eliminate trusted intermediaries in financial transactions. Establishing trust without intermediaries is the whole point of blockchain.

I believe people and businesses are too risk-averse to do away with intermediaries like governments (who offer useful things like a legal system and deposit insurance) and the technology providers, agents, and brokers who make business work today. If crypto really takes off, and the old intermediaries are pushed out, I think that new intermediaries will pop up to fill in the gaps left behind. That future—blockchain with trusted intermediaries—is no better than what we have now, and is in many ways worse.

I learned yet another horrible thing today that I wished weren’t true

According to the superintendent of schools, some parents in my town are sending their children to school wearing “fake” masks that superficially satisfy mask wearing requirements while being completely ineffectual. These masks do not protect the wearer or anybody else from COVID or any other type of disease. They are specifically designed to be as flimsy as possible; some are even see-through. It’s a product for people who want to be assholes, pretend that COVID is not real, and thumb their noses at responsible people. Apparently it is also a product for parents who wish to teach their kids to be assholes, too.

What I am dealing with now that school is back in session

My daughter has been in school three days so far this school year. Every school day, our entire community has received an email from the superintendent of schools stating that there are new COVID cases affecting students and staff at all, or almost all, of the schools in the district.

This is from today’s email:

As stated previously, I realize that our school community has varying viewpoints on COVID-19 and specifically on mask protocols. We are going to continue to make decisions in the best interest of safety for our students and staff. In only three days of school, we already have had 21 positive student cases and 10 positive staff cases. It is essential that we stay vigilant and monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19.

I live in a mid-sized town, and each school is pretty small, and most of the elementary schools have no air conditioning. The kids are being allowed to take off masks for “excessive heat” reasons, due to a loophole in our governor’s COVID masking mandate and due to incredible pressure by a vocal faction of parents. My wife and I believe this attitude about masks is cavalier and dangerous. We hate the idea of sending our daughter into this environment with a vaccine, and also hate the idea of pulling her out of more school because being away so long already has not been good for her mental health. All of us are frustrated and exhausted by all of this, and there does not seem to be an end to the pandemic in sight.

A COVID vaccine for under-12 kids cannot come soon enough. It looks like Pfizer is a few months ahead of Moderna on this front, but it has been a frustratingly long wait. The Delta variant, which seems to be more virulent in children than o.g. COVID, has made me quite anxious.

The Lie

I missed David Rothkopf’s article, “We Still Won’t Admit Why So Many People Believe the Big Lie” on The Daily Beast, when it was published a couple weeks ago. He asks why some people believe the “Big Lie” that Donald Trump really won the 2020 presidential election. His answer is an obvious but largely unspoken truth:

…even the most modest amount of analysis and introspection will reveal that buying into the nonsense peddled by the former president and his clown college of cronies is not an aberration, not due to some momentary lapse on the part of the American electorate. We were raised on lies—including many lies that are much, much bigger than the big one that troubles us today.

Society asks us to believe all kinds of lies. We know this. We participate in it. And, with the exception of some period of adolescence when you figure out that the adult world is full of bullshit, we never rail against it or even really think about it. But we all know, in some ways, lies hold together all of human society. Don’t be surprised if people believe them. Don’t be surprised if people know they are lies and still believe them.

Apple to Pull ‘iDOS 2’ DOS Emulator From App Store

I am neither surprised or disappointed by Apple’s impending pull of “iDOS 2” from the App Store. The whole point of buying Apple hardware has always been to buy into a unique ecosystem: the “walled garden.” While the Mac has never been locked down to Apple’s Mac App Store, the iPhone has always been locked down to its App Store. It’s easy to forget now, but the iPhone grew out of Apple’s prior consumer electronics smash hit, the iPod, which was was completely locked down. It didn’t have an App Store. Neither did the iPhone at first, either.

I hate to side with one of the world’s biggest companies here, but I totally believe that the iPhone is a console, as Steve Jobs described it. I knew that going into the iPhone ecosystem, and that’s actually what I wanted, and still want, from that ecosystem. I want an apps console that (for the most part) just works, and doesn’t require a lot of my time and effort to work smoothly and securely. I came at this from the other wide: an Android users who jailbroke and hacked his phone into something completely different than what its manufacturer and mobile data provider wanted or intended. The thing is, all that customization led to a system that was unstable, and I had no idea if it was secure at all, because the code (apps and OS) came from a bunch of different places. I just had to trust, blindly, that everything was OK. The iPhone imposed guardrails on my hacking activities—guardrails that I wanted, because what I was doing wasn’t working for me anymore.

I think a lot of people chafe at the idea that their most useful device is a console because we reserve that word for entertainment devices like the Nintendo Switch and the PlayStation, or the humble cable set-top box. It doesn’t matter, though, if the iPhone is more useful and more important than a video game system, though. What matters is how it is sold.

It isn’t exactly a secret that normal customers can only download iOS software from Apple’s App Store. Beyond hardware, access to that App Store is the fundamental thing being sold by Apple. Customers should know it when they are choosing a product. I doubt any of the complainers and hand-wringers commenting on this article on MacRumors didn’t know that going into their iPhone purchase.

I would love to run Windows games on my Nintendo Switch, but I can’t because it is a console and Nintendo does not allow it. That doesn’t surprise me, or anybody else for that matter. The situation is not really different than the one with the iPhone. If you want to run DOS on your mobile phone, the far-more-open Android universe is there for you—and it’s the most dominant OS platform in the world, too. Vote for it with your wallets and your time.

The Cleveland Guardians

I like the new name of Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team. I think the team’s old name, the “Indians,” and especially its already retired Chief Wahoo logo, were problematic and absolutely needed to go. If you find the term “Indians” as applied to a ball club to be inoffensive, know that that merely means you are not among the ones who are offended by it. I am sure that, at best, a lot of negative stereotyping went into the choosing of that appellation.

I have heard that some Cleveland fans wanted to the team to go back to one of its old names, the “Spiders.” I think that would have been a mistake. Spiders may be fearsome, but they are not widely loved and are easily squished. (I find them icky, even though they are theoretically fascinating, but that’s just me.)

The best part of the “Cleveland Guardians” name, in my opinion, is its positivity. After all, to guard the city is noble and brave. It is, however, a generic word that concretely identifies nothing in particular, so it is understandable that some of their fans may be disappointed.

The team needs a memorable mascot and logo to make whatever a “guardian” is seem strong and cool. After all, what is a “guardian?” I have most often heard the word used in the phrase “parent or guardian” which is a lot less exciting than, say, “guardians of the galaxy.” (I have tremendous respect for people who are guardians—those who take care of, and look out for the best interests of, children. That really is heroic.)

While I like the name “Guardians,” I will admit it is not the best name for a baseball team. The best baseball team name is the Hartford Yard Goats, but that name was already taken.


Panic’s bright yellow pocket game system, the Playdate, looks cheerful and cute. I want one, plus the blocky stereo dock, just to put on my desk like other people place toys and figurines. Ars Technica published a review of the hardware and a preview of some of the games yesterday, which whet my interest. I don’t know if it is worth the money for me to have a geeky object d’art for my workspace, though.

What Lies Beneath Ted Lasso

Elizabeth Nelson wrote the best, most accurate take on Ted Lasso (the character) that I have ever read:

Unceasing optimism defines Ted Lasso. But roller-coaster mood storms, manic reveries, and seemingly deliberate head games also define Ted Lasso, the players’ coach, and make him one of the best and most-layered characters of the peak TV era. He’s a man who presents himself as two-dimensional, but who might actually be playing three-dimensional chess. We delight in his antics, marinate in his charm offensive, and celebrate his offbeat approach to winning the whole fucking thing. But at all times, there’s a slight worry, one that crops up in the back of our minds, about what he might be willing to do to make it happen.

People love the show’s positivity, but it also has a dark side that actually makes it good. There’s something just a little off about Ted Lasso, and that’s what makes him interesting.

While Ted wins over a bunch of potential enemies in England, his wife back in Iowa can’t stand his relentless positivity. Maybe you couldn’t either, if you were married to him.

Ted excels at darts because he spent every Sunday in a sports bar with his dad between the ages of ten and sixteen, when his father passed away. I don’t think it is normal to bring your underage son to a bar every single week. That isn’t exactly a normal childhood. Furthermore, losing a father at sixteen may have caused some emotional trauma that Ted buries deep, causing him to overcompensate with cheery paternalism in almost every interaction.

Most importantly, Ted fails. He failed at his marriage, he is trying and largely failing to be a good father, and he failed to produce a winning record for his team, or even keep them in the Premier League. As appealing as Ted is to the TV audience, what he is doing is not working—or not working yet—in the world of his story.

What made Season 1 great was the surprising complexity of what appeared to be a dumb, one-joke sitcom based on a commercial that hardly anybody remembered. Season 2 starts to air tomorrow. I hope the writers didn’t forget about the dark undercurrents that made their show about a nice guy work so well.

Pfizer says it’s time for a Covid booster; FDA and CDC say not so fast

Maggie Fox of CNN reports:

Hours after Pfizer issued its statement, the FDA and Centers for Disease and Control issued a joint statement saying Americans do not need booster shots yet.

“Americans who have been fully vaccinated do not need a booster shot at this time,” they said.

In a statement to CNN on Friday, the World Health Organization said, “We don’t know whether booster vaccines will be needed to maintain protection against COVID-19 until additional data is collected,” adding, “limited data available on how long the protection from current doses lasts and whether an additional booster dose would be beneficial and for whom.”

How you think about this comes all down to trust.

Who do you trust? The companies that developed the vaccines which appear to be far more effective against COVID-19 than we could have hoped? Or the government agencies that failed to provide the correct advice about COVID-19 prevention for months.

Who do you trust? The companies that are seeking to profit off a pandemic by pushing possibly unneeded booster shots, using scare tactics that are familiar from their marketing of other drugs? Or the government agencies who failed to coerce a huge chunk of the adult population to get vaccinated, due to a failure in messaging, incentives and coordination of rollout?

It may seem like I am arguing against the FDA, CDC, and WHO here. I don’t think I am, and I certainly have no data or expertise to refute either side’s claims. I am simply observing that these institutions are deservedly suffering from an erosion in public trust, and that is going to make any decision making based on what they say, or based on what pharmaceutical companies or health care providers say, more difficult.

Pipeline Investigation Upends Idea That Bitcoin Is Untraceable

Nicole Perlroth, Erin Griffith and Katie Benner report, in The New York Times, on how the Justice Department traced and recouped a huge ransomware payment:

Bitcoin is also traceable. While the digital currency can be created, moved and stored outside the purview of any government or financial institution, each payment is recorded in a permanent fixed ledger, called the blockchain.

That means all Bitcoin transactions are out in the open. The Bitcoin ledger can be viewed by anyone who is plugged into the blockchain.

Bitcoin was never really anonymous. It is pseudonymous, so it makes sense that transactions can be traced to some extent and tied to a unique owner or wallet.

What is interesting is not just that law enforcement can identify which Bitcoin wallet was involved in the fraud, but also that law enforcement could also crack the wallet’s password and retrieve/steal the money out of it. I wonder how. Was it a weak password? Was it social engineering? Was it a brute-force password crack? If so, was it cracked by a normal computer or by a quantum computer that no one else knows about?

Bitcoin seems fundamentally broken to me. I won’t touch it.

🎬 I can’t get enough articles about the In the Heights movie. Vulture has a fascinating one about how the “96,000” pool scene was filmed.

Many People Have a Vivid ‘Mind’s Eye,’ While Others Have None at All

I have been following stories about aphantasia with interest because I am 99% sure I have it. Carl Zimmer reports in The New York Times:

Dr. Adam Zeman didn’t give much thought to the mind’s eye until he met someone who didn’t have one. In 2005, the British neurologist saw a patient who said that a minor surgical procedure had taken away his ability to conjure images.

Over the 16 years since that first patient, Dr. Zeman and his colleagues have heard from more than 12,000 people who say they don’t have any such mental camera. The scientists estimate that tens of millions of people share the condition, which they’ve named aphantasia, and millions more experience extraordinarily strong mental imagery, called hyperphantasia.

When I read a book, I never think about what the characters look like, or what the scenery is.

When I think, it’s all words. Torrents and torrent of words.

I don’t have the best visual memory for people or places, though I have good spatial awareness.

I think I can form mental images, or at least simulacra of them (wireframes, maybe). I mean, I did pretty well in organic chemistry in college, which is a subject that is, in part, about visualizing the rotation of irregularly shaped molecules. I don’t think I saw them in my mind’s eye, though. Not really. It was long ago, so I can’t remember reliably, but I probably figured out a different way to do it.

To me, it is interesting to learn that some people “see” mental images easily and think in an incredibly visual manner, because that is not the way I experience anything.