For the most part, "density" is an unhelpful, unenlightening way of thinking about neighborhood conflicts. Most conflicts about "density" are really conflicts about parking or road space. Try it yourself. Next time you're thinking of using the word "density" in this context, try replacing it with "competition for parking" or "competition for space on the road." I bet you'll find it clears some things up.
Marco Arment discusses the importance of including a salary range in a job post:
A job’s salary is one of the biggest factors in whether an applicant can or should consider it at all. It’s just as important as the physical location. Dan said he was hiring for a local-only position, so location is an essential eligibility requirement for him as the employer; similarly, salary determines whether the applicant can afford to take the job, so it’s an essential eligibility requirement for the applicant.
In practice, this is incredibly rare. If you are recruiting and want candidates to take your inquiries seriously, having a salary range will make a huge difference.
Living in San Francisco, this is the time of year I feel most disconnected from friends around the country. Elsewhere, fall has arrived and the leaves have changed color (by now they've fallen, but bear with me). Here, the foggy summer recedes and it is warm and brown, though the days are still short. Soon, the rainy season will start and it will turn green, for a while.
The golden age of free MOOCs
Jenny and I have been taking some online courses lately. The flowering of college-level online courses has been a real boon to self-learners. I am not sure it will always be the case, but as startups "disrupt" the industry and traditional universities scramble to figure out the new medium, a huge number of free courses from great schools and amazing teachers is available.
I'm currently taking Introduction to Recommender Systems offered through Coursera by the University of Minnesota (my alma mater) and taught by Professor Joe Konstan and Ph.D. candidate Michael Elkstrand. This class appealed to me because I'm interested in recommender systems and I never got a chance to take a class with Professor Konstan. It's been a pretty big time commitment, but I'm enjoying the class.
Taking this class has exposed me to a number of other classes that I now want to take. There are some terrific classes like Stanford's machine learning, compilers, and database classes; the University of Texas's linear algebra class; a public speaking class from the University of Washington; and Princeton's statistics class. My main problem is figuring out a schedule that allows me to take these classes -- since many of them require 10+ hours per week of coursework, it's difficult to take more than one while working a full-time job.
A great thing about these classes is that you can learn from some of the best teachers in the world. Introduction to Recommender Systems is taught by one of the pioneers in the field. Alex Aiken created the Cool language to teach compilers. And of course, MIT's legendary 6001 computer science class is available online.
The biggest challenge with MOOCs (besides the terrible name) is the absolutely dismal completion rate. The average completion rate for MOOCs is under 7%. In a paid, for-credit trial San Jose State, Udacity managed a completion rate of 83%, but the failure rate ranged from 56-76%. I have been party to the completion problem. I dropped Udacity's Intro to Computer Science because it was too basic to be interesting (that's good news, I guess). Less happily, I bailed on Udacity's self-driving car class in the last unit because I got busy. In general, MOOCs seem to offer self-starters a good opportunity for guided learning. I would guess the outcomes are better than just buying textbooks and trying to learn from them. But the time commitment is real and the classes can be quite difficult.
That's why I am a skeptical of entirely replacing college with MOOCs. I think online classes can augment the learning experience, but the traditional classroom still provides a huge benefit for many learners (not to mention the social capital attending a particular university generates). As traditional universities scramble to get into the MOOC game, much free learning is available -- which I am happy to take advantage of -- but the ultimate goal of Udacity and Coursera is profit. Universities are looking for a way to cut costs, and outsourcing their lecturers to Stanford, Harvard and MIT may seem appealing. Or maybe Podunk State thinks they'll be exporting their lecturers to Podunker State. Good luck, this is likely to be a winner-take-most game.
Ultimately, some form of recorded instruction might offer a way out of the university cost spiral. Baumol's cost disease can be blamed for part of the eye-watering increase in college costs:
The bubble analogy does work in one respect: education costs, and student debt, are rising at what seem like unsustainable rates. But this isn’t the result of collective delusion. Instead, it stems from the peculiar economics of education, which have a lot in common with the economics of health care, another industry with a huge cost problem. (Indeed, in recent decades the cost of both college education and health care has risen sharply in most developed countries, not just the U.S.) Both industries suffer from an ailment called Baumol’s cost disease, which was diagnosed by the economist William Baumol, back in the sixties. Baumol recognized that some sectors of the economy, like manufacturing, have rising productivity—they regularly produce more with less, which leads to higher wages and rising living standards. But other sectors, like education, have a harder time increasing productivity. Ford, after all, can make more cars with fewer workers and in less time than it did in 1980. But the average student-teacher ratio in college is sixteen to one, just about what it was thirty years ago. In other words, teachers today aren’t any more productive than they were in 1980. The problem is that colleges can’t pay 1980 salaries, and the only way they can pay 2011 salaries is by raising prices.
But I think we are a long way from figuring out how to integrate these new ways of learning. In the short-term, if we are looking to cut costs, university administrators seem like an attractive target to me. Meanwhile, I will enjoy the free online classes and thank my lucky stars I attended college back when it was cheap.
Allan Metcalf writes about research tracing the word "dude" back to "doodle" (as in Yankee Doodle), circa 1893 (interestingly, this makes the "dood" spelling you sometimes see the original).
Etymology is fascinating by itself, but what I found most interesting about this is how much the foppish dudes of 1890s New York City seem like the hipsters of today.
. . . a new and valuable addition has been made to the slang vocabulary. … We refer to the term “Dood.” For a correct definition of the expression the anxious inquirer has only to turn to the tight-trousered, brief-coated, eye-glassed, fancy-vested, sharp-toes shod, vapid youth who abounds in the Metropolis at present. …
-- New York Mirror, February 24, 1883
What is the dude, papa?” she said, with sweet, inquiring eyes,
And to the knowledge seeking maid, her daddy thus replies:
A weak mustache, a cigarette, a thirteen button vest,
A curled rim hat—a minaret—two watch chains cross the breast.
A pair of bangs, a lazy drawl, a lackadaisy air;
For gossip at the club or ball, some little past “affair.”
Two pointed shoes, two spindle shanks, complete the nether charms;
And follow fitly in the ranks, the two bow legged arms.
An empty head, a buffoon’s sense, a poising attitude;
“By Jove” “Egad!” “But aw” “Immense!” All these make up the dude
-- Brooklyn Sunday Eagle, April 22, 1883
For more on "dude" and it's role in today's American speech, check out this short piece in The Atlantic.
Mike Hoye digs deep to attempt to get to the bottom of the 0 or 1 based indexing question. However, the most interesting part of the article is a rant about the relationship between computer programmers and the history of our field:
There are a few points I want to make here.
The first thing is that as far as I can tell nobody has ever actually looked this up.
Whatever programmers think about themselves and these towering logic-engines we’ve erected, we’re a lot more superstitious than we realize. We tell and retell this collection of unsourced, inaccurate stories about the nature of the world without ever doing the research ourselves, and there’s no other word for that but “mythology”. Worse, by obscuring the technical and social conditions that led humans to make these technical and social decisions, by talking about the nature of computing as we find it today as though it’s an inevitable consequence of an immutable set of physical laws, we’re effectively denying any responsibility for how we got here. And worse than that, by refusing to dig into our history and understand the social and technical motivations for those choices, by steadfastly refusing to investigate the difference between a motive and a justification, we’re disavowing any agency we might have over the shape of the future. We just keep mouthing platitudes and pretending the way things are is nobody’s fault, and the more history you learn and the more you look at the sad state of modern computing the the more pathetic and irresponsible that sounds.
Part of the problem is access to the historical record, of course. I was in favor of Open Access publication before, but writing this up has cemented it: if you’re on the outside edge of academia, $20/paper for any research that doesn’t have a business case and a deep-pocketed backer is completely untenable, and speculative or historic research that might require reading dozens of papers to shed some light on longstanding questions is basically impossible. There might have been a time when this was OK and everyone who had access to or cared about computers was already an IEEE/ACM member, but right now the IEEE – both as a knowledge repository and a social network – is a single point of a lot of silent failure. “$20 for a forty-year-old research paper” is functionally indistinguishable from “gone”, and I’m reduced to emailing retirees to ask them what they remember from a lifetime ago because I can’t afford to read the source material.
The second thing is how profoundly resistant to change or growth this field is, and apparently has always been. If you haven’t seen Bret Victor’s talk about The Future Of Programming as seen from 1975 you should, because it’s exactly on point. Over and over again as I’ve dredged through this stuff, I kept finding programming constructs, ideas and approaches we call part of “modern” programming if we attempt them at all, sitting abandoned in 45-year-old demo code for dead languages. And to be clear: that was always a choice. Over and over again tools meant to make it easier for humans to approach big problems are discarded in favor of tools that are easier to teach to computers, and that decision is described as an inevitability.
This isn’t just Worse Is Better, this is “Worse Is All You Get Forever”. How many off-by-one disasters could we have avoided if the “foreach” construct that existed in BCPL had made it into C? How much more insight would all of us have into our code if we’d put the time into making Miguel Chastain’s nearly-omniscient debugging framework – PTRACE_SINGLESTEP_BACKWARDS! – work in 1995? When I found this article by John Backus wondering if we can get away from Von Neumann architecture completely, I wonder where that ambition to rethink our underpinnings went. But the fact of it is that it didn’t go anywhere. Changing how you think is hard and the payoff is uncertain, so by and large we decided not to. Nobody wanted to learn how to play, much less build, Engelbart’s Violin, and instead everyone gets a box of broken kazoos.
In truth maybe somebody tried – maybe even succeeded! – but it would cost me hundreds of dollars to even start looking for an informed guess, so that’s the end of that.
It’s hard for me to believe that the IEEE’s membership isn’t going off a demographic cliff these days as their membership ages, and it must be awful knowing they’ve got decades of delicious, piping-hot research cooked up that nobody is ordering while the world’s coders are lining up to slurp watery gruel out of a Stack-Overflow-shaped trough and pretend they’re well-fed. You might not be surprised to hear that I’ve got a proposal to address both those problems; I’ll let you work out what it might be.
Boat People Problems
Streets Blog SF writes about the proposal to eliminate 51 parking spaces along the Bay Trail near the Marina. Predictably, this leads to neighborhood outrage. Considering the tony location and $10,000 slip fees, the objections are funnier than usual.
“The bicyclists pay nothing. They don’t pay taxes. They’re just out for whatever they can get. And I think it’s time that the citizens of this city say we’ve had enough,” said another man. “The fact is that we, as tenants, are paying for this whole marina and its facility, so don’t do a number on us,” he warned DPW staffers.
“There are plenty of marinas on the east coast, where I also live, that have adequate parking,” he added.
This is like The Simpsons, except he's serious:
Homer: [forced British accent] What advantages does this motor car have over, say, a train -- which I could also afford?
Zachary Townsend (who used to work for Stripe) provides an interesting insider's look at the payments industry in light of PayPal's acquisition of Braintree:
The margins in the card processing business are incredibly small. A company would be very lucky to make .5%. That’s not discounting the money lost to risk or the cost of acquiring customers.
Let’s take the biggest online example. PayPal processed $144.973B last year. If that was entirely processed over credit cards than they would have made - assuming 0.5% - $0.724B on processing itself. $724 million isn’t all that much.
PayPal actually made more like $5.6B last year because they make most of their money by having people use electronic checks (ACH) while charging them credit card like fees, and by charging customers high, and opaque, foreign exchange and transfer fees.
This is an interesting article that argues parking requirements are driving same-looking design for apartment complexes. It is about apartments in the Twin Cities, but the argument applies pretty much everywhere.
“One of the things that really drives the shape and configuration of buildings is the underground parking that sits below buildings,” Bell said. “The efficiency of how many parking spots we can get on a site determines how many units we can get on a site. What we’ve found is that buildings are between 60 and 66 feet wide because that works. Columns have to be three cars apart, which is 27 feet.”
While underground parking is a given, complexes also need surface parking, Bell said. The building is placed to provide access to the underground garage and maximize surface parking. On tight urban lots, that means a rectangular parking lot and a rectangular building.
Robb Bader, vice president of acquisitions and development for St. Louis Park-based Bader Development, says parking also “kind of drives what you build.”
“It’s really expensive to build a high-rise,” he said, explaining that costly parking ramps are required to handle the cars.
At Streets.mn, Bill Lindeke asked architects if they thought all apartments look the same and got some interesting responses.
Jeff Lin and Mike Bollinger of Bust Out Solutions and Livefront respectively have teamed up to launch a new tech education venture called Smart Factory. At launch, Smart Factory is offering classes in iOS development, Ruby on Rails, mobile UI design, and web production. The prices are quite reasonable, too.
I've done work for both Jeff and Mike and their shops are among the best in the business. I've also had the pleasure of working with several of the instructors. If you're in the Twin Cities and you are looking to upgrade your skills, check it out.