How do you reason about a probabilistic distributed system?

In which I am stunted upon by coin flips Wasn’t too long ago that I felt pretty good about my knowledge of distributed systems. All someone really needed in order to understand them, I thought, was a thorough understanding of the paxos protocol and a willingless to reshape your brain in the image of TLA+. Maybe add a dash of conflict-free-replicated datatypes, just so you know what “eventual consistency” means. Past that it’s just some optimizations and mashups which come easily to your TLA+-addled brain. [Read More]

Meditation

Sadly my only weapon against the attention economy

This isn’t going to be a post about how adopting a several-thousand-year-old practice can make you a better servant of capital. Instead, let’s talk about when I feel the lowest of the low. It comes after spending any number of hours on my computer, maybe even a full day, endlessly circling around different websites in search of stimulation, the quick jolt that comes with learning an interesting fact or watching a funny short video or seeing someone get dunked on for having a bad political opinion. [Read More]

Taking my home work setup seriously

Ergonomics & settling in for the long haul

The headlines don’t lie. Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and a whole host of other tech companies have announced employees will be working from home until early-mid 2021. There are reasons to believe this will be pushed back; even if the staggeringly ambitious timelines for vaccine development are met, a vaccine might not be a silver bullet and the pandemic could require management for the next 2-3 years. As a software engineer in big tech’s orbit, this means it’s time to settle in for the long haul and take my home work setup seriously. [Read More]

Doing a math assignment with the Lean theorem prover

Turn back the clock to 2009: a confused physics major newly infatuated with math and computer science, I enrolled in MATH 273: Numbers and Proofs at the University of Calgary. This wasn’t my first encounter with mathematical proof; in first-year calculus I’d mastered rote regurgitation of delta-epsilon proofs. Despite writing out several dozen, their meaning never progressed beyond a sort of incantation I can summon to this day (for every \( \epsilon > 0 \) there exists a \( \delta > 0 \) such that…). [Read More]

Simulating physical reality with a quantum computer

Quantum chemistry for complete beginners

Quantum Computers: Not Just for Breaking RSA There’s no denying it, Shor’s algorithm was a blockbuster result. The thought of an exotic new computer breaking all widely-used public-key crypto plays well with the public imagination, and so you’d be forgiven for believing quantum computing is ultimately a sort of billions-dollar make-work project for software engineers: forcing our profession to relive a Y2K-like mass upgrade of old systems to new, quantum-safe encryption algorithms. [Read More]

Walking the faster-than-light tightrope

Quantum entanglement and the CHSH game

Measurement and signaling in the nonlocal world Popular understanding of quantum mechanics usually focuses on three learning objectives: At small scales, particle properties (position, momentum, spin, etc.) are in superposition - they don’t have a definite value, but instead are “smeared” across multiple possible values. Measuring a superposed particle property makes it collapse probabilistically to a specific value. We don’t simply discover the property’s pre-existing value; rather the property is forced to take on a definite value by the act of measurement. [Read More]

Checking Firewall Equivalence with Z3

Lessons I’ve learned from software engineering are uniformly cynical: Abstraction almost always fails; you can’t build something on top of a system without understanding how that system works. Bleeding-edge methods are a recipe for disaster Everything good is hype and you’ll only ever get a small fraction of the utility being promised. Imagine my surprise, then, when the Z3 constraint solver from Microsoft Research effortlessly dispatched the thorniest technical problem I’ve been given in my short professional career. [Read More]

Formal Verification, Casually Explained

Written during an interesting time in my life

Why are we here? What guarantees does formal verification provide? This question rests at the apex of a hierarchy of inquiry extending all the way down to how we can know anything at all! What do we mean by software correctness? There are precisely two different ways for a piece of software to be correct: The supreme deity of the universe descends from the heavens and decrees, with all the weight of Objective Truth, that a certain piece of software is correct. [Read More]