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Yonatan Zunger
Distinguished Engineer on Privacy at Google
Distinguished Engineer on Privacy at Google

Yonatan's posts

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Something short and politics-free for your day, inspired by what I was eating: the physics of mixed nuts.

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Have you ever wondered how your data is stored in the Cloud? Here's the real, no-fooling answer -- involving imaginary Greek islands and sheep. Many sheep.

By the time you reach the end, you'll understand some of the trickiest ideas in modern computer science.

(Long-time readers will remember that I posted this here on G+ several years ago!)

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A really extraordinary speech, powerful and true - and worth reading. 
If you haven't read this transcript or heard the speech yet, do.

Landrieu hits the proverbial nail squarely on the head.

New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were brought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture.

America was the place where nearly 4,000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp.

So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth.

And it immediately begs the questions: why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.

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On the plus side: Thanks to +Irina T., I have found a book review of several books about owls. I have always loved owls for their grace and silence, and for the beautiful efficiency of their hunt – not the overt power of an eagle or falcon, but something far more focused on overwhelming force by complete surprise.

On the minus side: It appears that, to this day, nobody has written an overview of the Strigiformes and titled it A Companion to Owls. Ornithologists, you are letting me down.

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Wow. This is the first time I've been actively interested in watching a new Star Trek series in... I'm actually not sure how long. Since TNG, maybe. It looks exciting, well-written, and well-acted.

And honestly, I could use some Roddenberyesque optimism right about now. It would be nice to think about a future which wasn't apocalyptic, every once in a while.

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I think I'm going to be sick.

If you want to really scare an engineer, have one of the last-line backups -- the ones that nobody normal even thinks about, the ones that are meant to make sure the system fails safe if something unimaginably apocalyptic happens -- fail.

The seed vault isn't the best backup against a global apocalypse; honestly, if that happens, then the odds of us being able to use this effectively aren't great either. But it is a backup against, for example, some rapidly-spreading plant disease causing a collapse of a major food crop. These backups are what we'd need to start engineering resistant strains if contamination happened globally faster than we could catch it. That's a nontrivial failure mode of our food system, and that's why this vault is really important to have.

It was designed to be self-operating, maintained at the required -18C primarily by the cold temperatures of Svalbard. An isolated station that would let the people who worry about our food supply sleep at night. But the system never expected this scale of climate change; and with the permafrost melting, water flooded in and froze in the entryway. Thank all the gods, the vault itself remained unbreached, but the system can no longer be considered to be stable in its own right; it's being manned 24/7 until we can figure out how to stabilize it.

h/t Ursula Vernon.

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On the shores of the Bering Sea, a team from the University of Aberdeen has been working for seven years with the Yup'ik village of Quinhagaq to excavate an extraordinary trove of archaeological finds -- a collection of over 50,000 artifacts so far, including the wooden ritual masks seen below. These artifacts are extremely fragile, beginning to decay the moment they are exposed to air, and when the project first started there was no way to conserve them on-site, so they were taken -- often still covered in dirt! -- to Aberdeen to be preserved.

This is the remains of a village destroyed in a battle 400 years ago, when attackers besieged a village and smoked out its inhabitants. Today it's being recovered in a race against time: as the climate warms, the permafrost is collapsing, exposing these fragile artifacts for the first time in centuries.

You can read more about the Nunalleq site in this National Geographic article:

The dig is still going on, incidentally, and they are still accepting both students and volunteers for this summer's dig season in July and August:

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By modeling the dynamics of a T. Rex head down to the individual muscles, researchers have come up with a good estimate of how its bite worked - and showed that T. Rex was specially adapted to bite through bones, revealing the juicy marrow within. This puts it in fairly specialized company, along with modern species like the hyena and the bearded vulture; bones are a rich, but hard-to-access, source of nutrition, and a mistake while biting could cost you your teeth and thus your ability to eat. Only a few species have developed tools just for this, and in each case it has proven a valuable adaptation when resources are scarce. 

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Ladies and gentlemen, we have a special counsel appointed to head the Trump / Russia investigation on the justice department side: Robert Mueller, former director of the FBI.

Special counsel is the modern version of a special prosecutor, created after Congress let the original special prosecutor law lapse in 1999. It's far less independent than the old kind - it's still subject to the Attorney-General - but has some real independence. Combined with the (bipartisan) decision of both the House and Senate committees to start to do serious investigations this week, with Comey being asked to testify next week before both as well as produce all his records, this signifies a sea change in the political situation: there are suddenly three serious investigations going on in parallel, with leading Republicans backing both Congressional ones.

If you're interested in the differences between a special prosecutor and a special counsel, and how the Congressional investigations work, this is a good intro:

Interesting times. 

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Today, we have some political news which is made slightly better by Unicode. Let me explain how.

During his meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak earlier this week, Trump apparently revealed code-word intelligence to them.¹ In particular, he revealed intel with enough details for Russia to work out our sources and methods - the most sensitive possible level.

Except it wasn't our sources and methods. It was someone else's.

The Washington Post (who originally broke the story) is withholding sensitive details, for reasons obvious to everyone except Trump, but reading between the lines, it probably came via "Five Eyes" (our intel sharing agreement with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK²) or a similar program. Which is to say, we just blew someone else's intel sources and methods, which we had access to only under treaty.

Which, I suspect, they will not be happy about. And retaliate for, e.g. by cutting off our access. Since we have a leak.³

Now, this probably isn't illegal; the President does have the right to declassify things, after all. (Although it may violate the treaty) But what does this have to do with Unicode, you say?

Well, it turns out that Russian - specifically, the medieval Russian used in certain religious manuscripts - has a special variant of 'о' used only in the phrase "серафими многоочитїи," "many-eyed seraphim," in some 15th-century texts. It's called "multiocular O:" ꙮ Unicode added it back in 2008, just in case you needed to type an O with seven eyes in it.

So I am glad to report that there's already a symbol for when your Five Eyes turn out to have some extra (Russian) eyes in them. We might call it "Путин многоꙮчитї."

Unicode: Being prepared for every possible linguistic eventuality across a wide range of platforms. As it is written: 🇷🇺ꙮ + 🍊👺= 🇦🇺🇨🇦🇬🇧🇳🇿😤😤😤😤

¹ This was broken by a story in the Washington Post earlier today, and independently confirmed by both Reuters and BuzzFeed. National Security Advisor McMaster and Secretary of State Tillerson both publicly appeared to give Suspiciously Specific Denials of things which were not alleged by these articles, while saying nothing about what was actually alleged. The article linked below, from Lawfare, gives an excellent summary of what happened, along with plenty of context and links.

WP story:

BuzzFeed story, with the additional info that this apparently required an emergency briefing of the Senate Intelligence Committee:

Reuters story, with more details about exactly what was leaked:


³ I was wondering why we kept getting those FVEY queries about "MOOSE and SQUIRREL."

h/t to +Andreas Schou for pointing me at the story.
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