Changes to weather radar rolling out this spring

Since this week is Severe Weather Preparedness Week in Indiana, I figured it’s a good time to have a weather post. The National Weather Service is rolling out some changes to the 159 NEXRAD weather radars sites across the country. These changes affect the Volume Coverage Patterns (VCPs) – how the radars scan the sky.

How weather radar works

To put it in the simplest terms, radars work by sending out pulses of energy and listening for the echos. The radar antenna rotates in a circle in order to get a view all around. But it doesn’t just move in a circle. The antenna also tilts upward. By moving up through increasing tilts, the radar eventually gets a 3D image of precipitation.

The key word here is “eventually”. The slowest VCP takes about 10 minutes to complete a full scan. This is generally used with clear skies or light wintry precipitation. The slow speed allows for more sensitivity and saves wear on the radar’s mechanical parts. But even the fastest scan modes take 4.5-5 minutes. During rapidly-evolving severe weather events, that can be a long time.

The changes

This spring, the weather service is rolling out changes that will introduce two new VCPs. Critically, the new software build will also remove four existing VCPs. By reduce the total number of options, forecasters will have to spend less time thinking about which radar mode to select so they can spend more time interpreting the radar data.

One of the new VCPs is focused on general precipitation and is designed to include the best parts of the patterns it replaces. The other is a new clear air pattern that shares common scan elevations with the precipitation modes and can be used for non-convective precipitation. The NWS has a paper describing the new VCPs in greater detail.

The changes will happen via software updates planned to begin later this month or in early April. It may take some time to know what the daily impact of the new patterns is. Still, it’s good to see that over 25 years after the first operational NEXRAD was deployed, the system is continuing to evolve.

Hands on with the Samsung Galaxy Note 8

A few weeks ago, my Galaxy Note 4 began misbehaving. It would freeze for a few seconds. It would spontaneously reboot. After a day where it rebooted 14 times, I decided it was time to replace it. Of course the new Galaxy devices are coming out very soon, but if you take my usual approach and buy the previous generation to save money, this is a timely blog post.

Despite the recent flakiness, I’ve been generally impressed with Samsung’s phones. When I went to the T-Mobile store, I was trying to decide between the Galaxy S8 and the Galaxy Note 8. The Note 8 is bigger – bigger even than my Note 4 – and it has the S-Pen. I’ll admit that I don’t use the S-Pen often, but when I do, it’s really nice to have. So despite a price tag that’s about as close to $1,000 as you can get without being the iPhone X, I went for it. After almost a month, here’s what I think.

What I like

  • The size. I wish my thumbs were a bit larger, but I like the size of this phone. The extra real estate allows me to condense what had been five home screens down to 3. But the curved edges make it feel narrower than my Note 4, even though they’re the same width.
  • Wireless charging. Where has this been all my life? I have an aftermarket wireless charger on my night stand which makes getting up in the middle of the night much easier. And the model I keep on my desk flips up so that I can see and use my phone easily.
  • USB-C. I’m a firm believer in the rule that it takes three tries to correctly plug in a USB cable. USB-C destroys that rule and I love it.
  • The S-Pen. The Note 8’s S-Pen feels better to grip and it seems to have more pressure sensitivity. Sometimes I’ll just doodle on the screen for fun. It feels nicer to write with than most pens I’ve used.
  • Heart monitor. This is basically unchanged from the Note 4 as far as I can tell, but I really like this. Tracking my heart rate has been key to managing my mental and physical health during the last few turbulent months.
  • Smart Switch. This app made transferring apps and data from one phone to another pretty simple. Some settings, particularly with regard to notifications and third-party accounts, didn’t carry over. That may be more the fault of my old phone rebooting than a problem with the software.
  • Camera. I haven’t taken too many pictures yet, but the camera seems much improved. Picture quality at full zoom is particularly better.

What I’m indifferent to

  • The curved screen. I don’t (intentionally) use the little side tray. Stuff at the edges generally looks fine, but I’d be okay with a normal bezel.
  • Bixby. Bixby is limited. It doesn’t work with most apps I actually use. The voice recognition is decent, and it can at least tell the difference between my voice and my wife’s, which is nice. I played around with it for a few days just to see, but I’ve stopped since. I’m generally not interested in talking to my phone anyway.
  • USB-C. I like it, but I’m also indifferent to it. Mostly because I have a bunch of micro USB cables. As I begin to have more USB-C, my indifference will fade.
  • Waterproof. I haven’t put this to the test because I don’t want to break a thousand dollar phone. But if the specs are to be believed, I don’t have to worry about what happens if I accidentally give my phone a bath while I’m giving my kids a bath. (This is how my phone-2 was lost.)
  • Fingerprint sensor location. I know some people were upset about the fingerprint sensor moving to the back of the phone. I don’t use it, and I’m used to putting my finger on the back of the phone for heart monitoring.
  • Lack of physical buttons. It took a little getting used to not having a physical home button, or back and app switch buttons with a dedicated spot. Now that I’m used to it, I don’t care either way. It’s neither good nor bad. It just is.

What I dislike

  • The speaker location. The speaker is on the bottom of the phone when held vertically. When held horizontally, it’s on the side, which often means its inadvertently under my finger. This means I often muffle the sound.
  • The headphone jack location. I like that it has a headphone jack. I would prefer if it were on the top. It’s generally not a problem, but every once in a while, I’m holding the phone in just such a way that it’s annoying.
  • RF reception. I’ve noticed the Note 8 seems to have trouble getting signal in places my Note 4 didn’t. Specifically, it doesn’t get Wi-Fi in my bathroom very well. And I had no cellular signal in much of the terminal at SEA, which made trying to pull up my boarding pass a real adventure.

Thats where I am so far. The main thing I don’t have a good sense for is the battery life. It seems to burn up a little faster than I’d like, but since I usually keep it on a charger, it’s hard to tell. We’ll see what happens when I’ve had it for a year or so and the battery is well-aged.

Making the right tool for the job

A while back I came across a post where a developer took code that ran in 5 days and shortened it to 15 minutes. My immediate reaction was to treat it as “I was doing the wrong thing, so I stopped doing that and did the right thing instead.” But it wasn’t so simple. The developer clearly wasn’t an idiot.

When someone writes a new thing, I default to assuming they’re bad at Google or would rather spend their time writing unnecessary code than doing the thing they’re ostensibly trying to accomplish. That’s not always the case, of course, but I’ve found it to be a sane default over the years.

But in this case, the post’s author clearly thought through the problem. The tools he had available were unsuitable, so he made a new tool. It works on a much narrower set of problems than the existing tools, which is why it can be so much faster. But it’s not so narrow that it will only work for this one time. It’s a good mix of general utility and specific utility.

The economics of bourbon

Could President Trump’s proposed tariffs help bourbon drinkers? Maybe! I’m no whiskeyologist, nor am I an economist, but this plays out sensibly in my head. As you may have heard, President Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum. The European Union has threatened retaliation. One good they would impose a tariff on: Kentucky bourbon.

If American bourbon distillers suddenly find themselves uncompetitive in Europe, they might lower prices. This would be good news for domestic bourbon drinkers such as myself. But it’s not quite so simple. Bourbon is not a perishable good. In fact it gets better with age. So distillers who can afford a short term loss of revenue may choose to hold their liquor until the tariff situation is worked out. Then they’d have a product that they might even be able to sell for more than they can now.

Of course, if they’re holding more back and losing money, they’re not going to invest in warehouse expansion. That means they’d need to cut back on production. Since bourbon takes several years to age, a trade war of any non-trivial length could result in bourbon shortages a few years down the line.

But the fact that bourbon takes time to age also means the impact on sales in Europe might not be so dramatic. Certainly some may choose to go with other whiskeys (Scotch is a thing, I hear) or different alcohol altogether. But others who prefer bourbon may continue to buy at the higher price. The time it takes to first build out distilling capacity and then age the whiskey means it’s unlikely that production will meaningfully increase in the short term. But if distillers outside the United States ramp up production, we could be looking at a glut in a few years time.

So if the European Union imposes a tariff on bourbon, it may or may not have an immediate impact. A few years from now, if the tariff lasts, we’ll either have very cheap or very expensive bourbon.

Who knows? Even now, it’s hard to predict. That’s why the sudden popularity of Blanton’s means I can’t get one of my favorite bourbons and it may be a few years before it’s as readily available as it used to be. I’d better stock up on my other favorites now, just in case.

Don’t tell me ahead of time

I used to think advanced notice was a good thing. As I grow older, busier, whatever-ier, I’m less inclined to hold that opinion. It turns out I draw a distinction between things I need to think about and things I need to do.

If I need to think about something, then by all means give me some time. Unlimited lead time isn’t the answer, but I prefer to have time to weigh my options. In fact, I will probably over-weigh them. But still, if I need to make a decision about something, I’d prefer some time to consider it first. Whatever I may be good at, my first instinct is often reactive and hot-tempered. (Though my no-time-to-prepare reactions when I was a floor supervisor at McDonald’s were often pretty good. I may be best-suited for that job.)

On the other hand, if I just need to do something that doesn’t require preparation, don’t tell me until I can act on it. My employer is currently running a regular company-wide survey to gauge morale and the factors that contribute to it. I received no fewer than four emails in the week prior letting me know that this survey was coming up and that I should take it. This included messages from the survey team as well as various levels of my management chain.

Now I get that this is important. But they didn’t give us the survey questions ahead of time (nor did they need to), and the survey period runs for a few weeks. Why put so much effort into telling people about it before they could act on it? That’s a good way to get them to forget to do it.

Similarly, a non-profit organization that I’m a member of sent me an email last night letting me know that it’s time to vote for the open board seats. Or rather it’s almost time. Voting starts today, which wasn’t made clear until I clicked the submit button at the end. (The dates didn’t specify a time zone, so I figured it was probably UTC.)

In both cases, I put a reminder on my to-do list with an appropriate due date. It’s just a little bit frustrating to have to do that. Instead of being able to act immediately, I had to take an intermediate step. That’s not a very friendly way to run things. I’ll stop yelling at clouds now.

Other writing – February 2018

What was I writing when I wasn’t writing here?


Dear P.J. Thompson

Dear P.J. Thompson,

Yesterday, you played your last game in Mackey Arena. You have at least two games remaining in a Purdue uniform, and perhaps as many as nine more, but they will all be happen away from the friendly confines of Keady Court.

The regular season didn’t end quite like we all might have hoped. After a 19-game winning streak, three consecutive losses cost you a chance to repeat as Big Ten Champions. It’s not your fault, but it’s no coincidence that those games were ones where you disappeared from the stat sheets.

P.J., you will not make the NBA. You’re 5’10”. You’re not a flashy scorer. You’re not a steal machine. And yet, you’re perhaps the most important player on the team. And you’re surrounded by some really damn good basketball players.

But nobody in basketball is a more solid, reliable player than you are. Even though your assist rate has gone down significantly this year, you still had twice as many assists as turnovers. We all feel safe when the ball is in your hands. And though you don’t take too many three pointers, you make nearly half of them. And you seem to have a knack for hitting a big three at just the right time.

A deep tournament run is still possible. And it’s possible in part because you are a solid-but-not-great player who works hard, helps his teammates, and works hard some more. You’re exactly what a Purdue basketball player should be.

So enjoy the tournament. You’ve earned it. And thanks for four great years representing Purdue University.

Social Security numbers: the next IPv4

Wednesday night I dreamed about Social Security numbers. Exciting, yeah? In my dream, we were running out of SSNs. I was apparently involved in the project to figure out how to address it. Some people suggested making them longer or adding alphabetic characters. “No”, I told them, “think about all of the validation that will break.”

Social Security numbers pretty quickly went from being used by the Social Security Administration to being used by everyone. These days, if it involves government or money, your SSN is likely involved at some point. My junior high school used SSNs as student ID numbers (they no longer do this). They’ve become a de facto unique identifier for Americans.

But the supply is limited. At most, there are a billion numbers in the address space. That’s less than the population of India. But in practice, the supply is smaller. Numbers that begin with 666 won’t be used. Originally one of the digits was a check digit. And like IPv4, the space was divided into suballocations based on geography. Some areas were just a few years away from exhaustion while others had plenty.

In 2011, the Social Security Administration made some changes to how numbers are allocated. It removed the geographic allocations and make number assignment random. This buys some time, but we’ll run out of numbers eventually. The SSA could decide to end the policy of not (intentionally) reusing numbers, but even then that only pushes the exhaustion further out. And it could cause all kinds of trouble.

So like IPv4 addresses, SSNs are not going to last forever. Unlike IPv4, it’s much more difficult to bring a new protocol along in parallel. IPv6 and IPv4 can coexist quite nicely, which is part of the reason that IPv6 adoption is so low decades on. Changing SSNs requires updating systems at government agencies of all levels, banks, employers, schools, etc. It’s possible to have SSNv2 alongside SSNv1, but everything will need to support it before anyone begins using it.

A friend did a quick calculation that we have another 100+ years before the current SSN system fills up. In other words: before IPv4 goes away.

Replacing food stamps with boxes

I generally avoid political posts on this blog. I hope my ones of readers will forgive me this rare indulgence. And at the end, I’ll turn it into a technology post, so maybe it’s okay. At any rate, the Trump administration included a proposal to revamp the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the recent budget proposal. Roughly half of SNAP funding would go toward providing boxes of groceries to recipients.

The administration called it a “Blue Apron-style program”. It sounds like a good idea on the surface. I was surprised by this, since I’m inclined to distrust anything coming from this White House. But what seems like a good idea on first blush doesn’t always hold up to deeper scrutiny. The proposal falls apart in a few critical ways:

  • No fresh produce. Fresh produce makes it more expensive and the goal is ostensibly to save money. But providing healthier food can lead to indirect savings by reducing healthcare costs and increasing productivity.
  • No choice. From what I’ve read about the program, it would be difficult or impossible for recipients to select what food they receive. Food allergies? Too bad! Your kids won’t eat a particular food? Oh well. Don’t know how to cook what you’re sent? Better luck next time.
  • Big government! For a party that claims to favor small government, this is a pretty big government imposition. And while grocery shopping isn’t my idea of a good time, allowing people to select their own groceries at least gives them some degree of dignity.

It’s not clear if this is meant as a serious policy proposal or a marker to compare the actual policy proposal against. At any rate, it seems like a pretty bad idea. But it doesn’t have to be. An opt-in program that included fresh produce and the ability to select what’s in the box could be a real improvement. It might cost more, but the cost of a program can’t be the only measure of its merit.

For many low-income people, just getting to the grocery store is a challenge. If they’re in a food desert and have to rely on public transportation, going to the store can be a multi-hour ordeal. If a box of groceries arrived on their doorstep once a week, the time savings could be truly meaningful. And with more time not spent trying to get to the store, that’s time they could spend helping their kids with homework, studying for night classes, etc.

But putting aside the politics of this proposal, it seems like we’re all too quick to say “oh there’s a tech company doing this, it’s clearly the right thing to do.” Blue Apron, the leader in meal kit delivery, is trading for over 60% less than their IPO price from last year. It’s losing customers and money. It may not outlast the Trump administration. It may not be the model we want to model cost-saving efforts after.

“We made this thing and it works for us, so clearly it will work for everyone” is a mindset that the tech industry struggles to overcome. But in the meantime, this proposed change to SNAP has inspired me to increase my monthly donation to my local food bank. They let clients shop and provide education to help them make the most of what they get. It’s a better investment than piling some cans of beans into a box and calling it a day.

You don’t need to have an answer to report a problem

When Alex Hinrichs retired from Microsoft, he wrote the traditional goodbye email. It was so well received that he decided to post it to LinkedIn. In his letter, Hinrichs shares 11 lessons he learned over the years. Most of the advice he shares is good, but he also included something I strongly disagree with:

If you bring a problem to your boss, you must have a recommendation. When presenting solutions to your boss, give them a menu and tell them your recommendation. “Hey boss, choose solution a, b, c, or d… I recommend a”.

​Hinrichs is not the first person to share this advice. I see it all over the place, and I hate it. I get the intent. If nothing else, coming up with the list of options and your recommendation forces you to think through the problem. It’s good practice and it makes you look good.

But it’s also a good way to suppress red flags. This is particularly true for early career and underindexed employees. For them, reporting a problem can be intimidating enough. The pressure of having to figure out a solution means they might just stay quiet instead.

Now it may turn out that what a junior employee sees as a problem that they don’t have an answer to really isn’t a problem. On the other hand, some problems are much easier to identify than they are to fix. This is particularly true with ethical and cultural problems. If your policy is “don’t come to me until you have a solution”, you’re opening yourself up to letting bad culture take root. And you’re depriving your junior employees a chance to learn from you and your team.

If someone is constantly reporting problems but not showing any willingness to address them, that’s an issue. But saying you must have a recommendation is a good way to not learn about problems until it’s too late.