# Monday, August 31, 2020

Episode 624

Damian Brady on MLOps

Damian Brady describes how to assign the concepts of DevOps to Machine Learning projects.

Monday, August 31, 2020 7:35:00 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Sunday, August 30, 2020

The narrator of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds is a lazy student, who spends all his time in bed writing a novel about fictional author Dermot Trellis. Trellis is writing a book of his own but the characters in that book are frustrated by how poorly they are treated by their creator. At one point, Trellis invents a female character, then seduces her and fathers a fictional child. His characters become so frustrated that they drug their creator to gain some autonomy while he sleeps. Finally, Trellis's fictional son Orlick writes a story about his father in which Trellis is tortured and held on trial for his "crimes".

Sound confusing? It is supposed to be. O'Brien weaves together a complex story in which authors and their creations interact directly with one another in absurd ways. He includes tales of Irish folklore that include invisible fairies and the devil-like Pookas and empowers fictional characters with the ability to influence the author who created them.

The novel is difficult to read. Dialog is never delimited by quotation marks and the narration frequently shifts from an inner story to an outer story as characters interrupt one another in the middle of a story. Add to that the blurring between various realities and one can easily become lost. I frequently had to re-read sections to understand what was happening.

"At Swim-Two-Birds" is a novel within a novel within a novel in which the characters do not respect the boundaries of their own story. O'Brien displays enormous imagination and extraordinary discipline in keeping the stories consistent (if somewhat nonsensical) despite the multiple layers and plots.

He warns us from the start, when on page 1, O'Brien states: 

"One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings."

And he delivers with a clever work of metafiction.

Sunday, August 30, 2020 9:09:00 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Saturday, August 29, 2020

Serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett, a.k.a. H. H. Holmes was born in New Hampshire; educated in Vermont and Michigan; arrested, tried, and convicted in Philadelphia; and murdered people in multiple cities across North America.

But he is most closely associated with Chicago and the 1893 World's Fair because he lured so many of his victims to his Englewood hotel during the Fair before killing them and either disposing of their bodies or selling their skeletons to medical researchers.

Holmes's story is told in The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson. Holmes was a handsome charming sociopath. He was a liar and a polygamist who swindled almost everyone with whom he came in contact. His quick wit and charm allowed him to deflect attention away from his crimes and character flaws for years.

Alternating with Holmes's story in this book is one chronicling the race to complete and host the Fair itself - "the greatest fair in the history of the world", which was named The Columbian Exposition to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's journeys to The New World. The Expo suffered from financial problems, labor disputes, fatal fires and other disasters, construction problems, bank failures, a national recession, and even a political assassination. Architect Daniel Burnham is the star of this part of the story. The visionary architect succeeded in making the Exposition a memorable and profitable event. "The White City" refers to the expo buildings, which were all painted white and gleamed in the summer August sunshine.

L Frank Baum, Theodore Dreisel, Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan, and Dr. Alexander Graham Bell were among those influenced by their attendance at the Fair. Shredded wheat, zippers, the first Ferris wheel, Columbus Day, The Pledge of Allegiance, Juicy Fruit gum, Aunt Jemima, and Cracker Jacks are just some of the things introduced at this Exposition.

Burnham and Holmes never met and are only peripherally related by their connection to the Exposition - an event that Holmes attended only briefly. Still, Larson does a good job of weaving together their parallel stories. Each man was obsessed by the task before him - Burnham to create a memorable event that would put Chicago on the map as a world class city; and Holmes with his obsession to exercise absolute power over his victims.

The book is a work of non-fiction, but it reads like a mystery novel.

Although Larson brags that everything in quotes is directly from a written document, he does take liberties in setting scenes - even to the extent of telling the reader what is in the mind of his characters.  He also acknowledges that much about Holmes's crimes remains unknown. For instance, Holmes confessed to killing 27 people, but only 9 have been confirmed and some estimates put the number as high as 200.

So, take with a grain of salt the historical accuracy of The Devil in the White City.

But as an entertaining story it succeeds very well. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020 9:59:00 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Wednesday, August 26, 2020
# Monday, August 24, 2020

Episode 623

Glenn Block on Astrophotography

Glenn Block has been exploring the world of Astrophotography. He shares what he has learned about photographing stars, nebulas, galaxies, and deep space objects. He talks about the equipment to buy and how it is used.


Monday, August 24, 2020 9:51:00 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen is the story of Portia - a teenage orphan living in 1930s London with her half brother Thomas and his wife Anna, who are not thrilled to have her. Portia is courted by twenty-something Eddie, who tells her he loves her. But she is disappointed and disillusioned when Eddie turns out to be a cad. Portia is an awkward child, largely due to her isolated upbringing, so she doesn't understand the insensitivity of those around her. Nearly everyone in her life is courteous, but cold.

The strength of this novel is its dialogue. Bowen captures perfectly the austere tone and small talk of polite English society. Her prose also paints a clear picture of the settings and the characters.

While weak on plot, presents a satirical look at the hypocrisy and dishonesty of people across various classes. It gives the reader a feeling for Portia's disillusionment, as her expectations of those around her are shattered. It is a story of teen angst and of the shallowness of just about all the characters.

Sunday, August 23, 2020 9:01:00 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Saturday, August 22, 2020

Randle Patrick McMurphy had a plan. After being sentenced to a work farm, he grew tired of the hard labor, so he pretended to be crazy in order to be transferred to the state mental hospital.

But he did not know what he was getting into. He found himself in a ward run by Nurse Ratched, a former army nurse, who exerted absolute control over her domain. She favored order and discipline over everything else - including helping the patients under her care. McMurphy's rebellious ways and his questioning of authority conflicted with Nurse Ratched's routine and the two butted heads often. Ratched mostly used a passive-aggressive strategy to manipulate her patients, but she would stop at nothing - up to and including shock therapy and lobotomy.

McMurphy's antics inspired the other men to stand up for themselves and to think for themselves. To a man, they have been repressed and emasculated since their arrival.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey is told by "Chief" Bromden - a gentle Native American who has been in the ward for years. Everyone mistakenly believes the Chief is a deaf mute, so he observes everything and reports it to the reader with a mostly dispassionate eye.

But this is far from a dispassionate novel.

Kesey fills the ward with colorful characters, who are intimidated by Ratched, but inspired by McMurphy's free spirit to assert their own rights. They begin to demand human respect.

McMurphy is no angel. He offers no apologies for his past crimes; and he is a misogynist and he exploits those around him. But he offers hope for the emasculated victims of Nurse Ratchet. He inspires them to regain their lost dignity. And he does so at great personal risk  to himself.

And Nurse Ratched is one of the great villains in the history of literature (and in cinema; she was portrayed brilliantly by Louise Fletcher in Milos Forman's excellent 1975 adaption).

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the story of order versus chaos; of independence versus control; of the rights of individuals versus the demands of the establishment. It is about power and abuse of power.

Kesey makes us feel the pain of those who have lost their dignity and their hope. And he inspires us to regain it.

Saturday, August 22, 2020 9:25:00 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Monday, August 17, 2020

Episode 622

Jon Skeet on Programming an Electronic Drum Kit

Jon Skeet has a new electronic drum kit and has been writing code to automate its functionality.

He talks about various types of applications he has written (WPF, Console app, command-line, Blazor) and what he learne along the way.


Monday, August 17, 2020 9:15:00 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Sunday, August 16, 2020

It is doubtful that Harper Lee understood the impact of her novel To Kill a Mockingbird would have on American thought and culture. Yet the book remains in print 60 years after its original publication and has been taught and debated in school since its initial publication in 1960.

The story is told by Scout Finch - a 6-8-year old tomboy raised by her widowed father Atticus in the small fictious town of Maycomb, AL in the 1930s.  It is a story of life and morality in the rural south of the depression. Scout and her brother Jem learn about life from their father - an idealistic lawyer assigned to defend Tom Robinson - a local black man accused of raping and beating a white woman. Atticus does not shrink from his duty and delivers a convincing defense, even though he faces the anger of many of the racist townspeople. It is a lost cause that he faces unflinchingly because it is the right thing to do.

Woven through this racial drama is the story of Boo Radley - the silent (presumably autistic) neighbor who never leaves his house. Neighborhood children are fascinated and afraid of this mysterious invisible presence in their town.

But it is much more than these stories. It is about family and community relationships; and the expectations of gender roles; and why people hate one another.

Atticus is among the most noble heroes in literature. Not only does he take on an unpopular position - standing up for black rights in the deep south of the last century - but he refuses to judge his persecutors. He repeatedly turns the other cheek to those who attack him. In Atticus's own words:

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."

Maycomb is divided into a caste system: The educated whites, the poor whites, and the blacks live separately, and each group is suspicious of the other with many finding faults with those outside their group. But Atticus does not see the world this way. He tries to understand the world through the experiences of others, and he tries to teach  this to his children. Scout and Jem learn to accept those different from themselves. They lose their childhood innocence when they experience the hatred and prejudice of the community for the first time; but they are elevated by the idealism and integrity of their father, who teaches them tolerance and empathy.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a timeless morality tale! It is the story of injustice and intolerance and tolerance and morality and courage and gender roles. It is a coming-of-age novel.

Sunday, August 16, 2020 9:18:00 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Saturday, August 15, 2020

"In fact, no immigrant in American history has ever made a larger contribution than Alexander Hamilton"
-Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton was born in the Caribbean and immigrated to New York City as a young man in 1772. The illegitimate child of a Scottish Laird and a divorced woman, his father abandoned him early and his mother died young. After his arrival, young Hamilton quickly aligned himself with the revolutionaries seeking independence from Great Britain. He rose to prominence as the George Washington's top aide-de-camp (effectively his chief of staff) during the Revolutionary War; then as a leader in battle; and finally, as a skilled politician and statesman in the newly-formed republic.

During the early days of the United States, Hamilton was arguably the most powerful man in the country, other than George Washington, who served as a father figure to his young aid for much of his career.

Hamilton was an integral part of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the Washington administration. He founded the national bank, the Coast Guard, and the US Customs House.

He used his excellent skills as an orator and writer to persuade the passage of the US Constitution. James Madison was the primary author of the Constitution; but Hamilton was its most successful advocate, writing 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers - a set of pamphlets that were instrumental in convincing the public and the Congress to accept the guidelines for the new government.

As the first Secretary of the Treasury, he became a hero to the merchants of New York thanks to his ability to repeatedly avoid financial crises and maintain some degree of stability in the young economy. He was able to do so despite having no previous examples on which to draw.

Shortly after the formation of the United States, the country began to break into factions, forming the first political parties. People were divided between urban vs rural lifestyles; northern vs southern geography; slaveholders vs abolitionists; and those who believe power should be concentrated centrally or distributed among the states. Hamilton was a northern urban abolitionist, but he expended most of his energy fighting for a strong central government. As a result of his articulation of this principle, he became the leader of the Federalist Party.

Hamilton's success and strong opinions attracted the ire of numerous rivals - many of whom spread false rumours, accusing him of embezzling or attempting to create a monarchy in the US. Many of Hamilton's enemies accused him of benefitting financially from his role in government, even though no proof has ever been found to substantiate claims of professional impropriety.

But Alexander Hamilton was not without his faults. He was arrogant, short-tempered, and prone to hold a grudge. These characteristics became more pronounced after Washington's retirement. Washington and Hamilton remained close friends; but when Washington retired from public life, he no longer held the same calming influence over his protégé. Hamilton's public disputes with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison became increasingly hostile as both sides resorted more frequently to personal attacks against the other.

And, although he was faithful in his professional duties, he was a faithless husband and famous for his womanizing. This despite having a beautiful, loving, and faithful wife. One of his greatest mistakes was an affair with a married woman who later conspired with her husband to successfully blackmail Hamilton. When this became public, it damaged Hamilton's reputation greatly.

The last years of Hamilton's life were marked with tragedy. His eldest and favourite son was killed in a duel; his political influence diminished, along with the popularity of the Federalist Party; and he worked to remove himself from debt. Ultimately, his disagreements with Aaron Burr (Jefferson's Vice President) resulted in Burr blaming him for his own political failures, which led to the duel that took Hamilton's life.

Chernow does a masterful job walking the line between historian and storyteller. He presents numerous details of Hamilton's life and enhances these incidents with historical context. But he also keeps us engaged by telling Hamilton's story as the life of a real human being. Chernow is clearly a fan of Hamilton and his contributions to America; but he does a good job pointing out his weaknesses and how they hindered his personal and professional life.

Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton - the book - is a Rags-to-riches story; a love story; a story of political intrigue; and a tragic story of self-destruction.

Saturday, August 15, 2020 9:42:00 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)