Saturday, May 28, 2016

Inspiration in Amsterdam

Week before last: conference in Cologne. Here are some things about going to a conference in Cologne that are great:

- The public transportation. Look at this!

- Woyton Coffee, a fine local minichain that helped me deal with my jet lag, insomnia, hypomanic state, whatever it was
- Beer gardens where you can just go with a conference-group of 15 people you hardly know, and instead of "ugghhh where can we possibly go" it's "sure, come on in, and beers for everyone? great, beers for everyone. and food if you want to order it, and we can split the checks."
- Do you want to see the sights? There is kinda one sight, it is the giant cathedral, it is super pretty and worth seeing, it is right downtown next to the train station, you can see it for an hour or for a minute.

But even better, afterward I went to Amsterdam to see my friends Michael and Antonieta, and Daniel who was able to join us for a day. It was super great! Here are some things that were great:
- reuniting with my old friends
- public transport there is also great, ok
- OV-fiets! This is a bike you can rent from a place right next to the train station, for 3 euros a day, that comes with its own lock, fenders, everything you need. It is not sleek or lightweight but neither is anyone else's bike, and it works. This made my Amsterdam trip so much better.
- the coffee shops. (The ones where you drink coffee. No, really.) Between HayHutspot, Scandinavian Embassy, CT Coffee and Coconuts, and Bocca Coffee, I was well caffeinated and impressed with design.

- the Stedelijk Museum. It's their MOMA. Awesome stuff. I learned what the Amsterdam School in the 1910-1930 was (kinda like art deco + Myst), learned what Gerrit Rietveld did (think Mondriaan in 3D), saw a bunch of paintings and sculptures I liked, went inside a replica of an old bar called the Beanery, got a little disturbed and really intrigued by a Jon Rafman/Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) video ("Sticky Drama", vaguely inspired by his research in online communities like Second Life and WoW)
Karel Appel, Questioning Children #2

Rietveld, Elling Buffet

Adolf Eibink and Jan Antoine Snellebrand, a desk lamp

Jan Eisenloeffel, a table clock

A bunch of Amsterdam school lamps

Here's a thing that was not great: shopping. I tried to buy some things because a lot of my old clothes are wearing out, and I figured, I'm Dutch-sized, they should fit me well. Nah, not really! Not any better than anywhere else, it seemed. And the styles are all denim or denim-colored. Everything's jeans. And not even good jeans: skinny jeans! Those are uncomfortable, man. Shirts and jackets in shades of blue. I am not on board with the current style I guess. (It's ok, I'll be in style again in 5 years.) I went home and bought some clothes at REI.

Well, ok, these pants were cool, and not jeans. But they were also 190 euros.

Here's another thing that is great: Project Fi. I didn't have to futz with a local SIM card or anything, just showed up and everything worked and was still the same price for text and data (texting free, data $10/gb). The future is here!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Link dump posts aren't the best but it's what I've got for you now

Global warmingWhat's really warming the world? (yes, it's people.) It's good to have a few solid links on hand for debates I guess. (OTOH there's that phenomenon where showing people facts that contradict them makes them dig in their heels, not think twice... if you get a digging-in-heels response from this, what are the counterarguments though?)

Economics/basic income: Man, I was going to post some news article but as usual I could just post a much better Slate Star Codex post. This one's about how America's not the Land of Opportunity, and basic income might be the only way we might get there, though even that's not a slam dunk. And follow that link to "how bad are things"... yow.

Algorithmic fairnessThere's software used to predict future criminals. And it's biased against blacks.
UGH DUH OF COURSE IT IS... given that most companies cannot get something as simple as "serve a web page" right, of course they will not get something as subtle as "don't make your algorithm secretly hate black people" right. So what's the answer? Keep it as goddamn simple as you can, and when you have an algorithm that's as powerful as that one, at *least* require that it's open source. (This doesn't solve everything; it can be open source and complicated as hell, and open source doesn't mean that anything will ever change, but "ok company, make whatever algorithm you want, we'll use it to determine people's lives without asking too many questions" is not a solution.)
Edit: OOPS I READ THIS TOO CASUALLY; seems their algorithm is fine, or at least off the hook for now. Do stats right, please. Draw conclusions after you do the stats. Don't start off trying to prove something's racist.
Lessons learned from this whole episode:
- internet writers do things that I do not like. So do all of us. (see also: academics, in every single thing they ever write.) In the long run, we should as a society stop doing that somehow. In the short term, it's at least useful to know that this is the world you're in.
- I'm thinking of stopping using the term "racist." It's basically a swear word at this point.
- Please please do not misinterpret what I'm saying in the previous sentence. Not saying we should stop discussing racism, or that people aren't racist, or algorithms aren't racist, or that everyone should stop using the word "racist", or... any number of other stupid things. I just mean that as soon as "racism" comes up, everyone (including me) gets defensive or aggressive and the conversation (which might have otherwise gotten us somewhere) is usually no longer worth having.
- Please let me know if there are unforeseen negative consequences of the above. Also please let me know if you're a POC and find this a bad or hurtful idea.

Design on the web: Relatedly, here's a nice roundup on the subject of things that web and mobile app designers and writers do that I do not like. Noticeably absent: broad claims like "the internet is making us stupid." Present: a solid list of anti-patterns. (or "dark patterns.")

Python and NLP: On a lighter note, the amazing Allison Parrish, one of my main inspirations in creating Swot Perderder, made a sweet python library that would have saved me a solid bit of hassle: Pronouncing.

SF Rent: Eric Fischer is indeed a hero, and various versions of this article about SF rent prices have been creeping across my internet. Dear authors of the "software used to predict criminals is biased against blacks" article: you should be required to be as thorough and humble as Eric if you want to publish data journalism. (well, maybe that is an impossibly too high standard :)

Brains: Finally, and sorry to end off with a difficult one, but this is important, ok, really smart psychologist argues against the information processing model of the brain. It's gotten us somewhere, but at this point it is doing more harm than good. At first I was all like "yeah but what if you could model all the neurons" but his point about the uniqueness of it all is intriguing.

"even if we had the ability to take a snapshot of all of the brain’s 86 billion neurons and then to simulate the state of those neurons in a computer, that vast pattern would mean nothing outside the body of the brain that produced it."

Dang. Ok, that's got me thinking. Not enough to say anything wise about it yet.
Edit: ok, after conversations with friends, and rereading the article, I guess a lot of it is a giant rant by someone who doesn't actually know what computer scientists and cognitive scientists do, and assumes they're dumb. Eh. I glossed over that to get to the pull quote about simulating a brain in a computer, and that's what I took out of it. And I agree that most of the rest of it is pretty dumb; here's an entertaining take down of some of the ranty bits.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The quantum foam of our lives

Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain starts out with a guy lost in the desert babbling about "quantum foam", the super tiny low-level "fabric of the universe" made up of super-tiny particles.

Been feeling like there's a lot of that in my life right now, metaphorically speaking - little tasks that you can't even think about or enumerate, because talking about them takes more time than just doing them. But there are a lot of them, and you have to remember them all and do them all.

Here are some examples over the last week or so:
- switch the credit card I have signed up for Lastpass after my old card got frauded
- call like 3 banks to say I'm traveling (oops, forgot to do that, cards haven't been blocked yet, knock on wood)
- activate new credit card
- call bank to change address on new credit card because they still had an old address on there which was screwing me up for some reason (see? I can't even remember, it's just all foam)
- water plants
- fold laundry
- plan thing for some friends I have coming into town soon
- send a thank you note to someone at work who's done a lot of work on an old project of mine and it's finally getting published
- vote
- blog/facebook about voting
- confirm something with the videographer (what thing? I don't remember)
- decide whether to go camping with some other friends (unfortunately, no)
- plan a birthday party because I'll be in town again then
- invite friends to said birthday party, worrying all the while that I'm forgetting someone
- send Tati a venmo charge for some groceries
- reply to tweets that came in at CHI
- pick up a prescription
- plan dinner with a friend
- go to doctor because I have a sudden sore throat right before traveling (turned out to be nothing, huh)
- email a old friend
- check if the wedding venue has glassware
- investigate disposable glasses for our wedding because they don't
- worry about if anyone will think it's suuuper tacky if we have disposable glasses (answer: no, deal with it)
- pack clothes for Germany trip
- file reimbursements for previous conference
- shave
- bottle kombucha
- respond to a comment about a paper review
- update wedding registry so people can buy us more stuff, because some of the categories we've run out of. (people like to buy you fancy lodging on your trip. huh.)
- blog about a conference I just went to
- type up this blog post

By my count, 4 of these are brought on by social media increasing our feelings of responsibilities, 6 are because of a wedding, 5 are because of work, 4 are hobbies/fun things I bring upon myself. There's not even any one culprit. As a result, my brain always feels full.

Man, how do we even do anything? Yeesh.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Is Portlandia our generation's suburb?

Reading this rant about "Hot New Food Cities" and agreeing, yeah, often a neighborhood is "up and coming" exactly as much as it looks like 2007 Portland. Coffeeshops are hip if they look like early-2000s Seattle shops; bars are cool if they were novel in 2006.

I'm even losing a taste for single-origin-and-fancy-wood coffee shops. Which are my thing as much as anything is my thing. It's just, when that's everywhere, what distinguishes each one? My parents' generation can go to Chili's in any city in the US; is it that different from me going to Ritual in SF, Victrola in Seattle, and Espresso a Mano in Pittsburgh?

I mean, it is different: I want a world of Ritual and Victrola way more than a world of Chili's. It's more interesting to go to, their coffee is pretty uncontroversially better than the food is at Chili's, and I've got to imagine it's wayyy better to work at an independent shop than a chain. Taking this analogy a step further, if our vegetarian pastrami and Korean BBQ tacos are last generation's Macaroni Grill chicken parmesan, well, I'm okay with that. We've got a ton more variety and creativity going on.

But it's not enough! As a city, if all you can offer is a good "food scene," you're a little bit missing the point. Show me a city where the Korean taco vendors can afford to live and walk to work, now we're talking. (this criterion is actually a pretty decent one: for it to work, it has to be a walkable place with affordable housing and low crime. there's of course more: diversity, schools, transportation, environmental niceness, and probably a bunch of other things that aren't coming to mind right now, but it's a start.)

So my worry is this: in trying to avoid the mistakes of our parents' and grandparents' generation, we're not going to move to the suburbs. Fine. But as their folly was putting a nice quiet house with a nice quiet yard over all, are we going to make our own mistake: prioritizing the Portlandia eating-drinking-shopping wonderland over an actually well-functioning city?