Mission Bicycle tells the story of the short-lived 1894 San Francisco to Fresno bicycle mail route. 210 miles on a fixed gear bike, split into 8 relays, the mail could be delivered in 18 hours for $0.25.
When I read stories like this, I think, were people back then just more badass than today?
Books read in 2014
Since 2006, I've been keeping track of the books I read each year (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013). In 2014, I read 37 books. The books that stuck with me as being especially good are:
I loved half of this book and found the other half to be a slog. The part about how people interact online and on mobile phones was fascinating and timely. The part about how people interact with robots was OK, but really seemed like a stretch. One of main examples was the Furby. It was interesting to read how people interacted with the Furby, but it does not seem to me that the Furby led to an explosion of lifelike robots in the home.
If you've spent any time in San Francisco, you know there is an epidemic of homelessness. I wondered why this happened (Reagan often gets the blame for closing the mental health hospitals, but the book shows this is too simplistic.). American Psychosis is an indictment of the way we treat mental illness in America. To be sure, the public mental health hospitals were terrible places, but the community mental health treatment centers were never an adequate replacement, and today, police and county jails are the front-line treatment for many mentally ill people. Torrey's solution is re-centralize treatment and expand the ability of the state to force individuals to undergo treatment. He is particularly critical of the ACLU. Involuntary treatment brings to mind the abuses of psychiatry in the Soviet Union but Torrey makes a strong case that the freedom to be insane is no freedom at all.
I found out about American Psychosis from a review in the New York Times, which is worth reading for a summary.
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer
This is a collection of stories about individuals trying to get by in New Gilded Age America, interspersed with vignettes of extraordinary people who've succeeded in the new milieu. This isn't a book that tries to explain why (as Atrios puts it) shit is fucked up and bullshit. Instead, it follows people as they try to make sense of an America where the promise that working hard means you'll have economic security has fallen apart.
The detailed story of the Damascus incident interwoven with the history of nuclear weapons and the inherent conflict between keeping nuclear weapons ready to use and under centralized control. Read this book and be astonished that no nuclear weapons accidents have occurred (yet). Along the way, Schlosser exposes the brutal folly of the nuclear arms race (lack of coordination between the services resulted massive overkill targeting). These weapons are still with us, and the possibility of an accident is almost inevitable, especially has more countries achieve nuclear capability.
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
Ancillary Justice is a solid space opera with an interesting premise. Its protagonist is a soldier who was formerly a starship -- or rather, a human who was enslaved and erased and made part of the starship's group mind. It isn't the most ground breaking science fiction novel of all time, but Leckie's universal use of the pronoun "she" for every character makes it a fascinating book and well worth reading.
Here's the complete list of books I read in 2014:
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu
Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, Atul Gawande
Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle
A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge
The Dragon Waiting, John M. Ford
Remote: Office Not Required, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System, E. Fuller Torrey
Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, John Bradshaw
The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang
Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures, Paul Lukacs
Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, David Kushner
Constellation Games, Leonard Richardson
Same Difference, Derek Kirk Kim
We Learn Nothing, Tim Kreider
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan
Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, Michael Lewis
All You Need is Kill, Hiroshi Sakurazaka (translated by Alexander O. Smith)
Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, Eric Scholosser
Tailchaser's Song, Tad Williams
The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe
The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and Ben Greenman
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
The Last Page, Anthony Huso
The Land Across, Gene Wolfe
The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Life, Lynne Twist
Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in its Own Words, Wendy Naughton
A Night in the Lonesome October, Roger Zelazny
Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge
The Causal Angel, Hannu Rajaniemi
The Human Division, John Scalzi
The God Engines, John Scalzi
Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States, Pat LaMarche
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Embassytown, China Miéville
Agile!: The Good, the Hype, and the Ugly, Bertrand Meyer
Libertarian dreams turn into organized crime nightmares on the hidden web:
Tor’s anonymity helps criminals by making it harder for the state to identify and detain them. Yet this has an ironic side-effect: it also makes it harder for them to trust each other, because they typically can’t be sure who their interlocutors are. To make money in hidden markets, you need people to trust you, so that they will buy from you and sell to you. Having accomplished this first manoeuvre, the truly successful entrepreneurs go one step further. They become middlemen of trust, guaranteeing relations between others and taking a cut from the proceeds.
To this end, entrepreneurs have found it necessary to create and maintain communities, making rules, enforcing them, punishing rule-breakers, and turning towards violence when all else fails. They have, in effect, built petty versions of the very governments they are fleeing.
Benjamin Mako Hill criticizes his fellow intellectuals for cultivating disinterest in professional sports (and decides to become a football fan):
Several years ago, I was at a talk by Michael Albert at MIT where he chastised American intellectuals for what he claimed was cultivated disdain of professional sports. Albert suggested that sports reflect the go-to topic for small talk and building rapport across class and context. But he suggested that almost everybody who used the term "working class struggle" was incapable of making small talk with members of the working class because — unlike most working class people (and most people in general) — educated people systematically cultivate ignorance in sports....
Bethany Bryson, a sociologist at JMU has shown that increased education is associated with increased inclusiveness in musical taste (i.e., highly educated people like more types of music) but that these people are most likely to reject music that is highly favored by the least educated people. Her paper’s title sums up the attitude: "Anything But Heavy Metal". For highly educated folks, it’s a sign of cultivation to be eclectic in one’s tastes. But to signal to others that you belong in the intellectual elite, it can pay in cultural capital to dislike things, like sports, that are enormously popular among the least educated parts of society.
I wouldn't say my own lack of interest in sports is exactly cultivated at this point (it's more the end result of the process of failing to acculturate to sports as a child) but he makes a good point.
[T]he city revised its transportation mode objectives, dramatically increasing the bike and pedestrian trip goals.
The new mode split goal:
50 percent motor vehicles
12 percent transit
20 percent bicycles
18 percent walking, car pools, and other forms
This is one of the most pedestrian- and bike-centric modal split objectives in the United States....
The city created a policy that allocates general fund transportation spending by mode to match the mode share percentage goals desired....
This policy mandates that our city must allocate general fund transportation spending at the same ratio as the mode share goal desired. Meaning 20 percent of funding needs to go to bicycling. (Emphasis added.)
Wow! A city could build Netherlands-level bike infrastructure with a few years of 20% funding.
Last fall, I attended the Computer History Museum's exhibition of the IBM 1401 and peripherals, including the IBM 026 punch card machine.
Back in 2012, PC World wrote a feature about ancient computers still in use, including a company in Texas that's been using the related IBM 029 to enter data into their accounting system.
Sparkler Filters of Conroe, Texas, prides itself on being a leader in the world of chemical process filtration. If you buy an automatic nutsche filter from them, though, they'll enter your transaction on a “computer” that dates from 1948.
Sparkler’s IBM 402 is not a traditional computer, but an automated electromechanical tabulator that can be programmed (or more accurately, wired) to print out certain results based on values encoded into stacks of 80-column Hollerith-type punched cards....
Of course, before the data goes into the 402, it must first be encoded into stacks of cards. A large IBM 029 key-punch machine--which resembles a monstrous typewriter built into a desk--handles that task.
Carl Kracklauer, whose father founded Sparkler Filters in 1927, usually types the data onto the punch cards. The company sticks with the 402 because it's a known entity: Staffers know how to use it, and they have over 60 years of company accounting records formatted for the device.
Pretty incredible such an old machine is still in active use (or was, a few years ago).
That “interview when you don’t intend to change jobs” advice bugs me; feels dishonest. And so disappointing when a candidate says no thanks.— Bridget Kromhout (@bridgetkromhout) February 8, 2015
My friend Bridget wrote this on Twitter, and I felt like responding with more nuance than 140 characters allows. I think interviewing frequently is good for employees so I'd like to defend the pratice somewhat.
First, though, I'd like to address the disappointment a team feels when a candidate rejects an offer. When a candidate rejects an offer, it stings.
People reject offers for a lot of reasons, and probably not because they're brushing up their interview skills. I've NOPE'd my way out of job offers after interviewing because it didn't feel right. Title, project, money, technology, commute and many other criteria can play a deciding role. If a high percentage of candidates are rejecting offers, management should try to find out why that is and fix it.
Interviewing is a two-way street: both parties need to agree that they should work together. However, the power is entirely in the company's hands. A candidate is putting on a performance, and the company must say yes or no before the candidate can accept or reject the offer. Usually, the disappointment of a rejected offer is coming from the other side.
Given that most of the time, candidates are getting rejected, how can you improve your chances at getting a job at a company you really want to work for?
Interviewing is a skill. Some people are better at it than others, and you can improve with practice. I've bombed interviews due to lack of preparation. It's a huge disappointment, and the fear of that disappointment has kept me from applying to jobs at companies where I didn't think I'd be able to pass the interview. Unfortunately this means that not only are companies missing out on good candidates due to fear, but the best candidates they see are usually people who switch jobs frequently and know the ins and outs of interviewing.
If a good opportunity arises, you need to be ready to interview well to seize it. Therefore, it makes sense to practice interviewing so you can get better at it. Where are you going to get practice? There are books but there is no subsitute for the real thing.
I agree with Bridget that taking interviews with zero intention of switching jobs simply for practice is dishonest (and a waste of the company's time). However, if a recruiter contacts you and the company sounds interesting, I think it's fair to have a conversation with them.
The other case where "practice" interviews are essential is when you've decided to switch jobs (or are looking for your first job). You're committed to joining a new company. The question is, which one?
It doesn't make sense to interview first with your dream company. If you bomb that interview, you won't get to work there. Like applying to a "safe school", it's better to interview at a few places that interest you, but aren't your top choice. You'll get more practice interviewing, which will prepare you for your top choice companies, and perhaps one of your secondary options will impress you. Hopefully after a week or two of interviewing, you're poised and confident and will receive multiple job offers which you can use as negotiating leverage.
Mark Henderson has developed an interesting system for using recruiters more effectively.
The "pull" model, where recruiters contact you, serves neither you nor the recruiters well: they contact you when you're not looking, and they don't hear from you when you are. Consider then the "push" model, an easy way to push updates to recruiters when your availability, skillset, and interests change.
When a recruiter contacts him, he asks them to sign up for his mailing list. When he's ready to look for a new gig, he sends out an email to the mailing list announcing his availability.
I'm not sure how well this would work for a full-time employee who isn't frequently looking for a job, but for a contractor or freelancer, it seems like a useful approach.
Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá and creator of cilovía, spoke in San Francisco this weekend. This is just full of gold:
Many of SF’s battles over re-allocating street space for people focus on maintaining car parking. To that, Peñalosa says, ”We should remember that parking is not a constitutional right.”
Peñalosa pointed out that there’s no other piece of personal property for which the public provides free space for its storage. When someone buys a refrigerator, for example, the public isn’t obligated to provide a kitchen.
“Having a bus in traffic is almost as absurd as having women not vote,” said Peñalosa. “Maybe it’s not the same, but clearly, if we have a democracy, a bus should never be in a traffic jam. Never. How can you justify it, having big roads for private cars and no exclusive lanes for buses?”
“Are protected bikeways a right, like sidewalks? I would say so, unless we say that only those who have a motor vehicle have a right to safe mobility without the risk of getting killed,” he said[.]
Peñalosa says immediate neighbors of the public right-of-way shouldn’t get to dictate everything about its use.
“Do you think it would be democratic, for example, for people who live on Fifth Avenue in New York — in front of Central Park, in a $20 million apartment — to have more of a right to decide what to do in Central Park than people who live in the Bronx?,” he asked.
Can he run for mayor here?
A night with the IBM 1401 (and a brush with a computer legend)
Last night Jenny and I headed to the Computer History Museum for a night with the IBM 1401. It had been a while since I checked out the exhibits there. The last time I toured the museum was in 2009 when I was living in Mountain View. At that time it was pretty much a giant warehouse with shelves full of old computers. Now, it feels more like an actual museum, with exhibits and interpretive displays.
The IBM 1401 is one of the Computer History Museum's new exhibits. They've got a restored 1401 along with peripherals like card reader, tape readers, and a printer set up in a recreation of a computer room from the 1960s. For last night's event, they bought the entire stock of punch cards (they are no longer being made) and let people punch a card with their name on it to run through the 1401.
An older gentleman helped us punch our card at the IBM 026 key punch machine.
Then we waited our turn for the demo. The volunteers showed us how the computer worked and its peripherals, then loaded up the BigPrint program cards and data cards (our names). Everyone got a print out with their name:
Afterwards, I was checking out the museum's PDP-1 exhibit. The museum has a working PDP-1 with a copy of Spacewar! (one of the first video games -- if not the first). On the video, I saw the man who had been helping me with the key punch machine. It was Steve Russell, one of the creators of Spacewar. I was amazed. The guy who wrote the first video game helped me use a punch card.