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politics Uncategorized

The different social yardsticks of American cities

When comparing different cities, I like to bring up this little shortcut in how people in different cities seem to compare each other:

  • In New York City it’s: “How much do you make?”
  • In Boston / Cambridge it’s: “What do you know?”
  • In San Francisco it’s: “What can you make, and how many people think it’s cool?”
  • In DC it’s: “Who / how powerful is your boss?”
  • In LA it’s: “What powerful people / how many people know who you are?”

Those are the ones I have a pretty good idea about, here are others I’m less sure of:

  • Chicago: I have no idea (perhaps: “How well can you make a pierogi?”), please help me with that one!
  • Philadelphia: is tricky – it’s such a chill city that I think people just aren’t likely to care too much about comparing themselves to you
  • Seattle: likewise, although probably there it’s something like: “What awesome backpacking trip did you do last summer?”
  • Houston: some variant of “How classy is your family?” (again not much knowledge there)
  • Portland: perhaps “How organic are the vegetables you are eating and how many hours did it take you to harvest them yourself?”

Now, to be fair I did not come up with the overall idea that there’s a common yardstick that people measure themselves against – that would be the amazing Paul Graham. However I do disagree with his analysis of DC: I may know someone, but if I can’t ask them a favor or I don’t work for them, I gain no status.

tech Uncategorized

Music that is ironically good to code to

I was chatting with someone the other day who loved the soundtrack from TRON: Legacy. (This person is awesome, he is part of the amazing band Knower and creates their very-TRON-inspired visuals). He got a kick out of how I will sometimes put on that TRON soundtrack when I really need to crank out some code. This is ironic, as the main plot point relies on a computer-programmer protagonist getting so wrapped up with what he is doing that he ends up in the computer. I then realized that all the music I rely on for serious coding focus is just as ironic:

  1. TRON: Legacy Soundtrack (Daft Punk)
  2. The Social Network Soundtrack (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). Pretty obvious why this is a perfect fit, given that I’m usually listening to this while coding at a startup founded by ex-Harvard students.
  3. The soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi. This is a little more subtle – Koyaanisqatsi is a movie with no words which is scenes (usually slow-mo or time-lapse) of the intersection between humans, technology, and the environment from the late 70s into the early 80s. The title is a Hopi word that literally translates to ‘life out of balance’, and the film generally takes a very negative outlook on the frenzied pace of technological change on humanity and ecology. If you have not seen it, I highly recommend watching. If nothing else, the images of this time of rapid industrialization and mechanization are fascinating.

I suppose I do have two artists I use to focus who are not as ironic, so for full disclosure (and to promote their amazing but weird work), I also love to work to Michal Menert and John Talabot. What about you?



Adolescent drug use over time

I was talking about how different drugs had come into and out of fashion over the years with someone, and in the conversation I stated that “younger people have been using fewer and fewer illegal (and legal) drugs over time”. However I wasn’t sure that I had a reference for this, so I decided to dig a bit. Turns out that it wasn’t a myth, at least comparing to medium-term trends.

Looking at (a hardly unbiased site), the news looks dire. More youngsters using “illicit drugs”! Things are terrible!

everything is terrible

Really they are looking only to 2002, and the only increasing sector is pot, which is on its way to legality in most places and is understood by society (if not the law) to be around or less harmful than alcohol. If you zoom out a bit:

teen drug use

This is actually from that same web site, just a different post. Looking at alcohol and cigarette use, overall drug use has really been falling since the 70s.

Stuff like this is what gets me frustrated when people say things like “millennials are ungrateful and entitled”. Well, better than any generation since the 50s we respected what our elders had to say to us and followed their advice, believing the promise of a quality life after we were finished with school. I see rates of falling drug use as one datapoint of the assertions that we followed society’s advice.

It was actually surprisingly hard to track down legit answers to “how many teens have used X drug over time”, so I can’t compare well over a longer window, even just to the dawn of the war on drugs. I’d be curious to know why that is- you’d think the pro-war-on-drugs crowd would love to have a diminishing rate of use over time.

TL;DR: Teenagers since the are generally using fewer legal and illegal drugs (including tobacco and alcohol, at least since the 90s), with the exception of pot which has increased lately


Dear New York Entrepreneurs

If one of you opens up a real bagel shop in SF, you will be rich. Seriously. There’s a place called Katz which is only marginally better than Bruegger’s and is just raking it in, and is considered one of the best bagel places in the city.

Just sayin. Not only would you be rich, but you would have the admiration of the entire city. Please, help save us from this bagel drought!



A stupid article I probably shouldn’t respond to

Here’s the latest lament of a particular group of women in San Francisco.

The gist of these stories are that there’s something wrong with the men of San Francisco, as compared to other cities (generally NYC), which is why the dating scene is so bad. They cite the lack of attractive men talking to them spontaneously in bars and coffee shops, even though the ratio of men to women is in favor of women in the city.


Look, there are a lot of signals you are probably sending that we’re missing, but ultimately I think that the reason you don’t have people coming up to you is that the men of San Francisco respect your right to hang out in public and not be inundated with come-ons. When you walk into a coffee shop, maybe you just want a cup of coffee. When you are out at a bar with friends, maybe you just want to catch up. When you are on MUNI, maybe you just need to get to work.

In a city with so many single men and not that many single women, the chances that a woman you are talking to is 1) interested or 2) available are fairly small. Sure, you’re going to try to talk with someone who is not interested and as long as you are respectful, no big deal, right? Multiply this by the number of single men in the city and that’s probably someone trying to flirt with you on MUNI every morning on your way to work. Women who are reading this, do you really want that? Or is this just the louder people who do want this that get the sfgate article and the page views?

In any case, where in the best of circumstances many people are going to be bothered a lot of the time, why not use the internet to make sure that everyone involved really wants to be in the conversation?

I know this sounds fairly robotic, and I do actually enjoy flirting. I just absolutely hate the current paradigm where men must take it upon themselves to turn a regular social interaction sexual/romantic. I’m also sure that some out there say “who cares if I’m bothered- as long as you are respectful, it’s no big deal”. Perhaps. However most of us (at least those reading these words) work in an industry which is even more lopsided and has serious problems when it comes to women feeling comfortable. Our default needs to be “do not flirt, unless there are clear signals saying that it’s ok”. It’s not easy to context switch out of that on the commute home, or even in a coffee shop on the weekend (especially if we’re doing work anyway at that coffee shop). So women of San Francisco, I ask you to take the advice of someone in the article:

“Probably precisely the type of guy you’re interested in meeting would love to have a confident, attractive woman come up to him and make the first move.”


Some choice bits from Dan Geer’s RSA talk

Somehow I came across this writeup of Dan Geer’s RSA conference talk. I was blown away by it, not by what information contained in the talk but instead by the questions he was able to ask which I hadn’t even though to ask. You should absolutely read it! I don’t have time for a proper writeup, but I’ll pull out some particularly good items I appreciated from the talk:

On fragility:

‘The Gordian Knot of such tradeoffs — our tradeoffs — is this: As society becomes more technologic, even the mundane comes to depend on distant digital perfection. Our food pipeline contains less than a week’s supply, just to take one example, and that pipeline depends on digital services for everything from GPS driven tractors to robot vegetable sorting machinery to coast-to-coast logistics to RFID-tagged livestock. Is all the technologic dependency, and the data that fuels it, making us more resilient or more fragile?’

On duty:

Almost everyone here has some form of ingress filtering in place by whatever name — firewall, intrusion detection, whitelisting,and so forth and so on. Some of you have egress filtering because being in a botnet, that is to say being an accessory to crime, is bad for business. Suppose you discover that you are in a botnet; do you have an obligation to report it? Do you have an obligation to report the traffic that led you to conclude that you had a problem? Do you even have an obligation to bother to look and, if you don’t have or want an obligation to bother to look, do you want your government to require the ISPs to do your looking for you, to notify you when your outbound traffic marks you as an accomplice to crime, whether witting or unwitting? Do you want to lay on theISPs the duty to guarantee a safe Internet? They own the pipes and if you want clean pipes, then they are the ones to do it. Does deep packet inspection of your traffic by your ISP as a public health measure have your support? Would you want an ISP to deny access to a host, which might be your host, that is doing something bad on their networks? Who gets to define what is “bad?”

If you are saying to yourself, “This is beginning to sound like surveillance” or something similar, then you’re paying attention.

Relevant as skybox is doing well:

All we have to go on now is the hopeful phrase “A reasonable expectation of privacy” but what is reasonable when one inch block letters can be read from orbit? What is reasonable when all of your financial or medical life is digitized and available primarily over the Internet?

An interesting semi-prediction:

By now it is obvious that we humans can design systems more complex than we can then operate. The financial sector’s “flash crashes” are the most recent proof-by-demonstration of that claim; it would hardly surprise anyone were the fifty interlocked insurance exchanges for Obamacare to soon be another.

I love the phrasing on this:

Let me ask a yesterday question: How do you feel about traffic jam detection based on the handoff rate between cell towers of those cell phones in use in cars on the road?

Let me ask a today question: How do you feel about auto insurance that is priced from a daily readout of your automobile’s black box?

Let me ask a tomorrow question: In what calendar year will compulsory auto insurance be more expensive for the driver who insists on driving their car themselves rather than letting a robot do it? How do you feel about public health surveillance done by requiring Google and Bing to report on searches for cold remedies and the like? How do you feel about a Smart Grid that reduces your power costs and greens the atmosphere but reports minute-by-minute what is on and what is off in your home? Have you or would you install that toilet that does a urinalysis with every use, and forwards it to your clinician?

And he passed on a really interesting point that Joel Brenner made:

During the Cold War, our enemies were few and we knew who they were. The technologies used by Soviet military and intelligence agencies were invented by those agencies. Today, our adversaries are less awesomely powerful than the Soviet Union, but they are many and often hidden. That means we must find them before we can listen to them. Equally important, virtually every government on Earth, including our own, has abandoned the practice of relying on government-developed technologies. Instead they rely on commercial off-the-shelf, or COTS, technologies. They do it because no government can compete with the head-spinning advances emerging from the private sector, and no government can afford to try.

When NSA wanted to collect intelligence on the Soviet government and military, the agency had to steal or break the encryption used by them and nobody else. The migration to COTS changed that. If NSA now wants to collect against a foreign general’s or terorist’s communications, it must break the same encryption you and I use on our own devices… That’s why NSA would want to break the encryption used on every one of those media. If it couldn’t, any terrorist in Chicago, Kabul, or Cologne would simply use a Blackberry or send messages on Yahoo!

But therein lies a policy dilemma, because NSA could decrypt almost any private conversation. The distinction between capabilities and actual practices is more critical than ever… Like it or not, the dilemma can be resolved only through oversight mechanisms that are publicly understood and trusted — but are not themselves … transparent.

(spacing added for readablility)

Generally, this made me very worried about the rest of our industry. It seems living in San Francisco that everything tech-wise is under control- self-driving cars are safer than humans, our own governance is far more effective than the US government and corporations elsewhere in the country, and if only our ideas were more widely implemented, everyone’s lives would be better. Or so the party line goes. We really don’t stop to think about these things, however- we simply don’t have time. We’re either working, cranking things out, or desperately trying to make sure we haven’t squandered our 20s. Perhaps we really should slow down a bit and think about where we are going and try to make some informed decisions.


‘Braided Streets’- my proposal for how to organize traffic in SF

The fight over what our streets look like is perpetual in this city. Bicyclists love Valencia and Folsom, and want other streets to be just like them. Car-owners and taxis love Franklin, South Van Ness, Guerrero, etc. Transit (aka buses and streetcars) does well on Mission, Market, and Haight, amongst others. Pedestrians seem to like the streets that are optimized for bikes and transit.

It seems that there is a showdown brewing between the newly powerful bike coalition, the Muni supporters, and people who drive, as more and more streets get sharrows or a bike lane. However, I think we can avoid some of the strife by acknowledging that the three types of vehicles (bikes, transit, and cars) simply shouldn’t coexist on many streets- or at least, I don’t think there is a configuration that makes all parties happy. If optimized for bikes, cars and transit are slow, if optimized for cars, bikes and pedestrians are in danger, if optimized for transit bikes are in danger and both cars and bikes are slow.

Instead, we should have a ‘braided street’ model, where we alternate which streets are optimized for which modes of transit. We already partially have that model in the Mission, and I think it does pretty well. Going from west to east:

Street Optimized For
Sanchez Bikes
Church Transit
Dolores Cars and Bikes? Perhaps Pedestrians
Guerrero Cars
Valencia Bikes
Mission Transit
South Van Ness Cars
Folsom Bikes and Transit

It’s not strict (and doesn’t need to be) but this division helps keep everyone happy- it’s not too far from a street which is optimized for how you want to travel. If you’re a bike on Guerrero going a long distance, hopping over to Valencia is worthwhile so you don’t need to advocate for a bike lane on Guerrero. Here’s a map which overlays how the north-south streets in the Mission are currently ‘organized’:

north-south usage

North-South Current street usage

Blue is car-optimized, Green is bike-optimized, Yellow is Transit-optimized

Note that Portrero is all three, due to it being the last street before the highway.


East-west is a little less clear, possibly due to the distance not being as great- the self-selecting into different streets is not as prevalent when there is not as far to go. Also the cross streets have to interact with the light timings for the more important north-south streets.

east-west usage

East-West current street usage

Again, Blue is car-optimized, Green is bike-optimized, Yellow is Transit-optimized

Cesar Chavez is all three (although in truth less bike-friendly than I’d like) and 16th is good for both cars and transit.

I think that a more explicit understanding of this model (a model which we already are heading for as a city) could help ease some of the noise and conflict. Cyclists would realize that not all streets need to be calmed (even though calming would help out the noise for my own apartment on Guerrero, I still think Guerrero should remain optimized for cars), and cars would get over the superiority complex that they own the streets and would realize that they are guests on the non-car-optimized streets.

Thoughts? A better name for the model, perhaps?


Subvocalization – something that might be slowing you down as you read these words…

Subvocalization is when, as you read, you speak the words in your head.

Up until this week, I had no idea that Subvocalization existed beyond starting to learn a language. I thought that it was a part of proficiency in a language that you could read the words without ‘saying’ them in your head. Similarly, others who do subvocalize (at least those who were in the same room I was when I heard about it) had no idea you could read without subvocalization! It’s amazing that such a used feature of our selves is so poorly identified by everyone, let alone understood by any kind of science.

I have a few pretty unscientific thoughts. One, it seems to me that I read faster because of it, and anecdotal evidence suggests this, but academic literature seems to say it doesn’t matter and there is a lot of debate. I wish that there was more research on this topic! Two, it seems essential to learn this if it does make you read faster, as this Forbes post suggests (albeit hyperbolic-ly)

If you think about our lives, we read probably 2 hours a day of blog posts, books, emails, etc. If you include work reading as well, it is probably most of the day that I am looking at and reading text. the range of comprehension reading is around 100-300 words/minute. So that’s the difference between 12,000 and 36,000 words! 24,000 words a day is 1/4th of The Hobbit- you could easily read the equivalent in words of The Hobbit once every week if you could increase your reading speed to the top of this range.

Note that this is not “Speed Reading”. Honestly I think that is useless- you miss out on every nuance and detail, and lose the point of most of the words the author wrote! The words are (usually) not there to take up space, but instead to flesh out the ideas with tricky cases, nuance, detail, emotion, and everything else human.

Which brings me to the one thing I don’t like about trying to read quickly- you do lose out on some of the interesting stuff, even when reading at regular comprehension rates. As it is, I feel like I forget most of what I read very quickly after I read it, and that sometimes I’m just a text-processing robot that might as well read those executive recaps at the end of business books. (To be fair, business books often really only contain those bullet points interspersed with anecdotal evidence that the bullet points are not all crap, so it’s probably beneficial to read just the basic theory the author is trying to get across!) It might be better to slow down and enjoy life a little more than we let ourselves, and this includes reading.

In any case, now you know subvocalization is a thing, and can choose for yourself!


Do you capitalize the [Ii]nternet?

The “Internet” officially should be capitalized. I certainly don’t capitalize it, however. This is just a theory, but I’ll bet that there is a clear difference in who capitalizes and who doesn’t. I’ll bet that those who were born after, say,1985 would just write “the internet” without capitalization.

Why? Well, you don’t capitalize “the sky” or “the ocean” or “the highway system”. For our generation, our entire adult lives and some of our formative years has seen the internet as a pervasive network, almost natural in how it surrounds and manifests in many ways and large enough so that it takes years of study to understand it. It ceases to be a proper noun thing that needs to be identified as such and instead is just a part of the world that we refer to from time to time.

It helps that there is no longer a clear boundary of what is and is not the internet. Is your phone part of the internet? How about when in airplane mode- is it a part of the internet that is just temporarily disconnected? How about your body, bathed in wifi and 4G signals, even though it can’t understand what those signals mean. Does the transmission of these into space count as the end of the internet? Is the internet then continually expanding into space at the speed of light in an ever-expanding sphere?

I’ll bet that our grandparents capitalized the “highway system” at least at first, and that their parents never got out of the habit. When this plane lands I’ll do some research- currently it’s a temporarily disconnected section of the internet, regardless of what Delta might claim on the little light above my seat that says “wifi”.

Now that I am on the ground with actual internet access, it looks like I’m not the first to think of this:
There is even a Wikipedia page on it, which seems to suggest that lowercase is inevitable but right now the ‘official’ spelling is with an uppercase ‘I’:


A curmudgeonly view of words

Recently a few choice words have caught my ear. You see, I care more about words than someone who hasn’t ever thought about majoring in English probably should.

There are two main ways I see people abusing the English language, and I’m not happy about it:

  1. Change the meaning of words to suit your purposes
  2. Use a word in an inappropriate context to appropriate some of the associations and meanings of that word for your own purposes

The first is easy- straight 1984 Truth is Love, etc. You can see this in the different definitions the NSA uses for ‘collect’ and ‘analyze’, which any common sense check of the meaning of the word would find to be a total abuse of the language. This I am angry about, but is less easy to fight- there is something broken in our oversight system when no one said “hey, wait a minute- it doesn’t matter if a human or a computer is looking at the data – storing the data is still collecting! This is common sense!”

Instead, I’d like to talk about the second abuse of language, one which seems almost innocent at the time. Here are some examples:

  • “Come into our shop: we love you!”
  • “Here’s our list of app heroes– they’ve checked in 1000 times this week!”

I’m sure you can think of more…

Often these are marketers, although I see them in political campaigns as well. The ultimate aim of these marketers is to convince you to buy something (duh). It is, of course, impossible for a shop to love every customer that walks in the door. The owners may love the independence the shop gives them, and may appreciate greatly the patronage of their store, but they certainly do not love every customer who reads the sign, according to any measure of common sense.

“Colin, it doesn’t matter! It’s a little silly, but no harm done…” –basically everyone

I disagree. When a marketer uses these terms, they are essentially stealing from all of us for their own ends. When a retailer uses the word ‘love’ to describe someone who has a relationship that could not be love, they are cheapening the word for everyone else. Not all at once, with the first use, but over time, slowly. We should be angry at this- every small take from our culture adds up and makes the world a worse place, not one filled more with love, as the marketer might claim.

Maybe I’m a curmudgeon, but I take pretty seriously our culture- I think that one of the reasons that we feel our culture does not reflect our values often is that we don’t confront things that bother us, as trivial as they might seem.


See the template a spam commenter uses for comments

I was looking at the comments section (yes, I’ll sign up for Akismet now- I am sick of dealing with it) and saw that one spammer had miscoded their bot. The bot posts an entire wall of text which appears to be their templates for all comments! I picked out one that I received a spam comment from the day before. Check it out, below, and hope that it doesn’t ruin my SEO to have it here…

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up. The {text|wοrds} іn yοur {сontent|post|artiсle}
ѕeеm to be running οff the screwen in {Ie|Ιnternеt explorer|Chrome|Fiгefox|Safari|Operа}.

I’m not sure if this is a {format|formаtting} issue or something tо do with {web browser|inteгnet browѕer|bгowser} сompatibilіty but I {thought|figured} I’d poѕt tо let
you know. Тhe {ѕtуle аnd dеsign|dеsign anԁ stуlе|lаyout|design} looκ gгeat though!

Hopе you get the {pгoblem|issue} {solved|resolveԁ|fіxed} soon.
{Kuԁos|Cheers|Many thаnks|Τhanks}