Book review: The Address Book

How did your street get its name? When did we start numbering buildings? What does it mean to have an address—or to not have one? If any of these questions are interesting to you, you’ll appreciate The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deirdre Mask.

I first heard about this book on the podcast “Every Little Thing“. Mask was a guest on a recent episode and shared the story of a project to name roads in rural West Virginia. This story was relevant to a memory I had long forgotten. Although I grew up on a named road, we didn’t have a numbered address until 911 service came to the area when I was in early elementary school. Prior to that, addresses were just box numbers on rural routes.

But newly-named and newly-numbered roads are not unique to the US. Mask explores how roads were named and renamed in different places over the centuries. Naming, of course, is an expression of power so names and numbers reflect the power at the time. Even today, there are millions of people who don’t have addresses, which increasingly cuts them off from what we understand as modern society.

I’d love a book of trivia about road names. The Address Book is not that. But it’s a fascinating look at the deeper meaning behind the act of naming.

Zillow’s failure isn’t AI, it’s hubris

Zillow’s recent exit from the house-flipping arena was big news recently. In business news, the plummeting stock price and looming massive layoff made headlines. In tech circles, the talk was about artificial intelligence, and how Zillow’s algorithms failed them. And while I love me some AI criticism, I don’t think that’s what’s at play here.

Other so-called “iBuyers” haven’t suffered the same fate as Zillow. In fact, they vastly out-performed Zillow from the reporting I heard. Now maybe the competitors aren’t as AI-reliant as Zillow and that’s why. But I think a more likely cause is one we see time and time again: smart people believing themselves too much.

Being smart isn’t a singular value. Domain and context play big roles. And yet we often see people who are very smart speak confidently on topics they know nothing about. (And yes, this post may be an example of that. I’d counter that this post isn’t really about Zillow, it’s about over-confidence, a subject that have a lot of experience with.) Zillow is really good at being a search engine for houses. It’s okay at estimating the value of houses. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to being good at flipping houses.

I’m sure there are ways the algorithm failed, too. But as in many cases, it’s not a problem with AI as a technology, but how the AI is used. The lesson here, as in every AI failure, should be that we have to be a lot more careful with the decisions we trust to computers.

Other writing: October 2021

What I have been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

YouTube

Fedora

Stuff I curated

Fedora

Other writing: September 2021

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Fedora

Open Organization

Stuff I curated

Fedora

Indiana COVID-19 update: 1 October 2021

Well, here we are again. Indiana’s numbers have been consistently trending downward. I feel comfortable saying we’ve passed the delta peak. The “good” news is that given recent infections—plus people who have been vaccinated—winter will be less peak and more plateau. Let’s look at some graphs from my dashboard.

Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths

The rate of change in cases stopped increasing in early August. By early September, they were dropping week-over-week. With school starting and then Labor Day, there was a potential for a big increase. Thankfully, we did not see that. Even more thankfully, kids 5–11 may be able to get their first shots before October.

Week-over-week (blue) and week-over-two-week (red) differences in new COVID-19 cases

Hospitalizations have been falling steadily in the past few weeks. If the trend holds, we may be below 2,000 by Monday. That would be the first time since August 23. ICU beds and ventilator usage peaked around September 13. Interestingly, the ventilator usage percentage then was higher than during the worst part of last winter. I’m not sure if that’s due to a reduction in capacity or what.

Day-over-day (blue) and week-over-week (red) changes in hospitalizations

Deaths have also peaked. As of right now, it appears that the peak was September 15. However, the lag in reports seems to have increased, so it’s possible that date will shift forward a bit. In any case, the precipitous drop has become less precipitous. The peak daily death toll is near what we saw in spring 2020. I shudder to think how bad things would have been had the delta variant arrived pre-vaccine.

Daily COVID-19 deaths on a logarithmic scale.

The future

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model has varied a lot in the last month or so. The September 1 model run seems to have captured the increase the best, although it had a stronger and later peak than what is apparently the case. Although the state hasn’t made any changes, I’ve observed more people wearing masks and the state has seen an increase in vaccination. The earlier models took a pessimistic view of behavior, which may explain the difference.

Policy

The state has changed to updating its dashboard at 5pm instead of noon. This is ostensibly to allow more time for quality control and to catch missing data. Cynically, I think it’s because they’d been hours late regularly and decided to lean into it. The updates have been less reliable, too.

Given that the briefings are now being done irregularly and without the governor present, I must stick with my conclusion that he has abdicated any claim of leadership. The state seems to have no desire to give a damn about COVID-19.

Plagiarism in music

Last week I read an LA Times article about allegations of plagiarism leveled at Olivia Rodrigo. Rodrigo is a very talented artist (“good 4 u” gets stuck in my head for days at a time), but is she a thief? I haven’t heard the songs mentioned in the article, so I can’t say in this specific case.

But in the general sense, my bar for “plagiarism” in music is pretty high. The entirety of popular music is based on artists incorporating things they’ve heard before to varying degrees. Rob Paravonian’s Pachelbel rant is a great demonstration. I’ll grant that “Canon in D” has long entered the public domain. But imagine if musicians had to wait a century to reuse a few bars of music.

My personal view—which may or may not match copyright law—is that unless it’s taking audience from the previous song/artist, it’s fine. This is similar to one of the factors in fair use. As a concrete example, Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby” definitely takes from Queen & David Bowie’s “Under Pressure”. And that’s fine. The existence of “Ice, Ice Baby” hasn’t stopped anyone from listening to “Under Pressure”.

Cultural works, particularly in music and Internet discourse, rely inextricably on remixing. We should embrace a very permissive paradigm.

Indiana COVID-19 update: 5 September 2021

About a month ago, I wrote that Indiana has surrendered to COVID-19. That remains the case. As you might expect, the trends have continued in the wrong direction. Since August 9, daily deaths are up 57%, hospitalizations 85%, and cases 150%. The lone comfort is that hospitalizations aren’t rising as fast as cases and deaths are rising even less. The vaccines work, if we can only get people to take them.

Recent trends

Not only have cases been increasing since early July, but the rate of increase has increased, too. Only in the last week or so has the week-over-week new case difference started to drop.

Hospitalizations had been showing an alarmingly exponential rise. In late July, we saw the highest week-over-week since records began on April 8 of 2020. This has slowed recently, although it still rivals the increases we saw last fall.

The death rate appears to be leveling off. However, this could be due to reporting delays, so it’s a little early to feel good about it yet. Especially since COVID-19 remains the number two cause of death in Indiana in the past week.

In a Twitter thread on Friday, I used November 9, 2020 as comparison to where we are right now. That date had a comparable number of hospitalizations as we currently have and it was on the upswing. At that point, we were about three weeks away from peak hospitalization. However, the rate then was higher, so we may peak earlier. Alternatively, we may have a broader peak since we have fewer mitigations in place as we did then and—while non-zero—our vaccination rate remains infuriatingly low.

I also looked at ICU bed usage and ventilator usage. The ICU beds devoted to COVID-19 patients is about the same (27.8% of total capacity then compared to 28.4% now). Ventilator usage is higher now (10.4% compared to 8.5% then), which is a cause for concern. What’s not clear to me is if capacity is reported as physical beds and ventilators or the number that can be appropriately staffed. I suspect the state is using the physical counts, which makes me wonder what the true utilization is. Local hospitals say they’re at a breaking point, and things are likely to get worse before they get better.

Future projections

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) have increased the daily deaths in the last few model runs. However, the most recent one dialed the forecast back a bit. The bad news is that we’re tracking it pretty well so far. The good news is that their model is running high on the hospitalizations, so that may mean the death toll is over-forecast, too. We should hope this continues, because both overall hospital and ICU bed usage is forecast to enter the “extreme stress” category later this month. We did not reach that category during last winter’s surge.

It feels like there are more uncertainties now than a few months ago. The IHME model does not explicitly account for school reopenings. The note that “[t]he second Delta surge in Scotland after a peak and a decline when schools opened is potentially a warning sign on the potential for school openings to drive increases in transmission.” Additionally, while mask usage has increased, we’re only at about 25% of adults saying they mask up when they leave the house. And the percentage of Hoosiers that say they have been or probably would be vaccinated remains steady just below 60%. If either of those numbers increase significantly, things could be much less bad than expected.

What to expect

It’s clear to me that Governor Holcomb will continue to do nothing. I’m not sure what it would take at this point. In fact, his recent executive order apparently reduced quarantine requirements for schools. Someone at the state health department had a moment of clarity, which was deleted.

I’m hoping to spend some time today adding Tippecanoe County school stats to my COVID-19 dashboard.

Other writing: August 2021

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Now you see me

  • Fedora Podcast, s02e08 — I appear on the Fedora Podcast to talk about my role as the Fedora Program Manager.

Stuff I wrote

The Open Organization

  • Fostering trust in our organization (video) — I join fellow Open Organization Ambassadors Jen Kelchner and Bryan Behrenshausen to discuss ways to help people feel empowered to propose their own solutions. I suggest leaders shut up for a little bit.
  • Open seems like it leads to hurt feelings (video) — I know that open organizations are places where people expect candid feedback and honest dialog. But that seems intimidating to me, because it seems like it can lead to harsh conversations and potentially hurt feelings. Is this true?

Fedora

Seek first to understand

One of the lessons that I’ve had to repeatedly re-learn over my career is “understand the problem before you fix it.” I try to fix a problem as quickly as I can. It’s a laudable goal, but a fix without understanding may not actually fix the problem. And it may not prevent future occurrences. If you’re particularly unlucky, it will make the problem worse.

I learned this lesson late last week. On Thursday, someone reported some HTML appearing in some Fedora documentation on translated pages. “Oh! It was probably that PR I merged yesterday,” I thought. So I reverted it.

Then I started digging into it some more. And I realized that it’s probably not that change at all. In fact, it worked locally and on the staging server. It was just broken on the production server. It’s not clear to me if both staging and production sync the translation data on the same schedule (without getting too sidetracked, the staging environment isn’t really a staging environment. It needs a better name). But I became convinced that it’s not a problem in the docs infrastructure, but in the translations. So I reverted my reversion.

This is not the first time I jumped in to fix something before I took a look around to see what’s going on. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last.

Here’s the thing: most of the time, a slight delay doesn’t matter. No one’s safety was at risk. We weren’t losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a minute. There was no real harm in spending 10 minutes to figure out what was going on. Perhaps I could try to reproduce it. After all, if you can’t reproduce the error, how do you know you’ve fixed it?

Hopefully the next time I go to fix a problem, I’ll understand the problem first. As astronauts do, I need to work the problem.

Thoughts on unlimited PTO

The idea of unlimited paid time off (PTO) has been around for a while. I wrote about it in 2015 shortly after my then-employer changed from a traditional PTO policy. But unlike many practices in the tech sector, unlimited PTO has not become ubiquitous. It’s still a matter of debate, especially since it can result in pressure to take less time off because there’s no signal about the appropriate amount.

The joys of unlimited PTO

My old company was small, engineering-focused, and fully-remote. Everyone wore a lot of hats and there wasn’t a lot of redundancy to go around. But the unlimited PTO model worked for us. Employees that were there a full year before and after the switch used, on average, about half a day more of PTO in the unlimited model.

We had a minimum policy: you had to take at least two one-week periods off each year. This helped make sure people did take time off and established that “unlimited” wasn’t a way of saying “don’t actually take time off, we just don’t want to carry this liability on our balance sheets”.

For me individually, I didn’t take much more time off than I had previously (I’m pretty bad at taking PTO to begin with). What I really liked about it wasn’t the lack of a limit, but the lack of having to think about it. Need to take a day off? Just do it. There’s no “hm. Well, should I only take half a day so that I can make sure I have some at the end of the year if I need it?”

After Microsoft acquired our company in 2017, we were back to a traditional model. We received about the same number of days off as I had been taking under the unlimited policy. But now I had to think about it. At Red Hat, we also have something like the traditional model. And I’m bad at taking it. In part because I tend to flex my work time in order to attend off-hours community events. In part because I’m just bad at it. I long for the day when I can just take time off and not worry about whether or not there will be any left for me at the end of the year.

To track or not to track?

Over the weekend, Alyss asked about tracking unlimited PTO:

I can understand the hesitancy. If your manager can reject PTO requests arbitrarily, then you don’t actually have an unlimited PTO policy. But the request/approval process can be useful for coordination. You don’t want to show up one morning to find a dozen people in your team have decided to take off for two weeks. In that sense, what’s needed more is acknowledgement than approval.

Tracking can also be abused, but I think it’s good on the whole. As a manager, if you can see that someone isn’t taking PTO, you can kick them out of the office for a week. (Not really, of course. But you can encourage them to find some time to not be at work.)