Saturday, November 20, 2010

Armando’s “Only in New York” for visitors

So you’re visiting my home city…you can go to the touristy stuff, or you can see some things that make New York unique among all US cities—architecturally, historically and culturally.


Things in green are free or super-cheap.


First-time visitors/Planning/Logistics


Trying to get around and find stuff on your first visit can be overwhelming, so have some kind of plan of what things you want to do each day.

 The best ways to get around are public transportation and walking, so it’s good to try to do geographically-nearby things on the same day.  Don’t even think of renting a car or driving in Manhattan. Driving is aggressive and can be intimidating if you’re not used to that, parking ranges from astronomically expensive to nonexistent, tickets are frequent and merciless, and you will spend most of your visit sitting in traffic.


The subway is the fastest way to get around. Trains run every few minutes from 6am to midnight and they don’t get stuck in traffic.  When you arrive, get a free subway map from any token booth (or use the mta.info website or iPhone-optimized site), and a multi-day unlimited MetroCard from the vending machines in all stations (they take credit cards) allowing unlimited bus & subway travel.  (Even the 7-day card is only $27, about the same as 12 individual trips.)  The best way to get around: walk if it’s close by; otherwise take the subway if there’s stations nearby (there usually are); otherwise take the bus.  (Buses can get stuck in traffic despite special bus lanes, so the subway is usually faster.)  If you’re in a hurry, taxis are easy to find (except when it’s raining or just before 8pm—theater show time), but expensive, and slow during heavy traffic hours.  The subway runs 24×7; between 6am-midnight, trains come every few minutes.  Google Maps does a good job of overlaying subway stations and lines onto the street map if you select “Transit” from the dropdown menu of things to display.


Airport transfers: Taxis to JFK or Newark are about $60 plus tip.  Or, from JFK, take the $5 AirTrain from any terminal towards Jamaica, where you can transfer to the subway (E, J) or the Long Island Railroad.  From Newark, the free AirTrain takes you to the Newark Airport train station, from which you can take the train to NY Penn Station  ($12, every 15-30 minutes, check timetable atNJTransit.com).  For LaGuardia, taxis are about $40, or take subway (E,V,G,R,7) to 74 St./Roosevelt Ave, then either a local taxi ride (around $15) or the Q33 or Q47 bus ($2.25, about 15 minutes) to the airport.


0. The Usual Suspects


These are all classic tourist attractions and well worth seeing, but they’re obvious choices and well covered by other guides, so  I won’t discuss them further: the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum  of Natural History (though it does have an exceptional dinosaur exhibit recently renamed the “Hall of Birds and their Extinct Ancestors”) and the very kid-friendly and well-done Rose Center for Earth and Space (a/k/a Planetarium) adjacent to it, the Museum of Modern Art, South Street Seaport, Central Park (about the same size as Golden Gate Park in SF).


1. See a Broadway Show


Why: Experience not only the best production values in the US, but the energy that pervades one of only two really vigorous theater districts in the world (London is the other), with dozens of shows at dozens of theaters playing on any given night.  Most shows are dark on Mondays; some have Sunday evening shows, others only Sunday matinees.


BroadwayBox.com has 25-30% discounts on advance tickets for many performances.  (Full price is typically $90-$125)  If you’re willing to play it by ear, half price tickets for many shows are available the same day (or the day before, for Sunday matinees) at two “TKTS booths”.  The one in Times Square (officially Duffy Square, 47th and Broadway) is well-known and crowded: Tickets go on sale at 3pm  (11am on matinee days for the matinee show) but people line up long before then.  The lesser known one is near South Street Seaport (subway: Fulton St/Broadway/Nassau, lines 2,3,4,5,6,A,C,J,Z, then walk straight east along Fulton St and turn right on Front St).  It opens at 11am and is frequented by Wall Street workers during lunch hour.  Its selection is slightly less than the Duffy Square booth but it’s less crowded, and it’s easy to combine a trip to this with a visit to South Street Seaport or to lower Manhattan, to/from which you can walk along the waterfront.


Note: I’m happy to serve as a recommender/consultant on what to see if you tell me your tastes, so that you don’t end up seeing some of the dreck that passes for theater these days.


Dining and drinking in the theater district: For a pricey drink with a great view before or after the show, go to the View Lounge in the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square (it can get crowded before a show).  For a quieter drink and full dinner menu, the hard-to-find Bar Centrale on 46th St. is great, but reservations a must for dinner.  If it’s full, the Hilton Hotel has a bar that overlooks Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and a munchies menu.  If you don’t mind if it gets a bit loud, Havana Central on 47th St. near Broadway has live Latin music many nights, and great Cuban food.


2. Take a boat ride


Why: The best views of the Statue of Liberty and the lower Manhattan skyline, all for free.  (But no need to do this if you’re visiting Ellis Island; see below.)


The Staten Island Ferry (subway: South Ferry, 1; Whitehall St, N,R; Bowling Green, 4,5) is still free and runs every 15-30 minutes all day long.  You will get an awesome view of Miss Liberty (secure a place along the starboard railing early) on the way out, and a stunning view of the lower Manhattan skyline (especially at twilight/night) on the way  back.  Allow an hour for the roundtrip, including waiting times.


Combine with a walk around lower Manhattan, including Battery Park and “ground zero” (where you can see the new Freedom Tower going up on the site of the former World Trade Center).


3. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge


Why: one of the great engineering achievements of pre-WWI America, its towers were the tallest structures in America when completed in 1887.  Culturally, it knitted the area together just as the Bay Bridge knitted the East Bay and San Francisco together.


Since cars were not the focus of transportation, the pedestrian walkway is on the UPPER level and away from all the cars, affording a spectacular view all around.  Caution: the walkway has a striped-off bike lane that is VERY heavily used.  Stay out of cyclists’ way.  My favorite route is to take the subway to High St in Brooklyn (A,C), follow the signs/people to walk 2 blocks to the bridge access stairway, and then walk across the bridge into Manhattan, where you’ll end up at City Hall.  Including the subway ride from lower Manhattan, allow about an hour.


4. Experience Immigrant New York


Why: The story of New York, and America, is the story of immigrants.  Every immigration story, and every immigrant-related issue we deal with today, happened here first.  Here are two sites that tell the story vividly.


The little-known Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side takes you on a guided tour through one of the very few remaining tenement buildings in New York (preserved by designation as an historical building). The house has period furniture and fittings, and much of the finishing (paint, wainscotting, etc.) is original.  The tours bring to life the background and lifestyles of the different immigrant groups that came in waves through the Lower East Side.  Tours are about 90 minutes, have limited capacity and are required for entry, and reservations are a must.


Ellis Island (now a National Park) served as the gateway into New York for over 12 million immigrants, and is now an immigration museum.  Because it includes actual artifacts, voice interviews, etc. with people who came through Ellis Island, it’s particularly moving, and you can recreate the experience immigrants would have had as they first stepped off the boat.  There’s also facilities for looking up your own forbears who may have immigrated through Ellis.  The views from the boat ride to Ellis are comparable to those of the Staten Island Ferry, so no need to do both.  Allow 1/2 day.


Note: the same ferry that serves Ellis Island also stops at the Statue of Liberty.  You can enter the Statue’s pedestal for free (as I recall) but have to pay to climb up to the crown.  It is a strenuous climb and in summer it’s like climbing in a copper oven.  You get a beautiful view of the statue from the Staten Island Ferry, and better views of Manhattan from the top of the Empire State Building, so I’d skip this.


5.  See Grand Central Terminal


Why: GCT is one of the few Beaux Arts railroad terminals in the US that still serves as an active railroad terminal (45 tracks with 30 more planned for 2015, 286 daily commuter trains, 4 subway lines), and uniquely captures what the golden age of rail travel must have been like.  Allow 30 minutes, and it’s a good meal stop.  Subway: 4,5,6,7 to 42 St./Grand Central, or S (shuttle) from Times Square.


Pre-WWI American architecture, especially Beaux Arts, was buoyed by a civic optimism that justified creating grand public structures, on a scale not seen before or since.  (Other excellent examples of grand civic architecture are the New York Public Library main building, the Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)  It is worth stepping inside GCT just to realize that there was a time when taking a journey made you feel like you were an important person going on an important trip, rather than a potential terrorist to be patted down and then stuffed with bland fast food in a sterile waiting lounge. Ironically, for logistical reasons, most long-distance trains in and out of New York use Penn Station—formerly an even grander terminal than GCT, but reprehensibly destroyed in the 1960s to make room for the unforgivably ugly Madison Square Garden arena, with the station itself relegated to a labyrinthine warren of underground tunnels.  The food court on the lower concourse of GCT is quite good; I’ve never eaten at the famous Oyster Bar, which is featured in the opening credits of Saturday Night Live.


Bonus feature: one of the best places to enjoy a classy, leisurely cocktail is the Campbell Apartment, former office/study of New York Central Board member John Campbell.  It’s physically part of GCT but the entrance is around the outside of the building, facing Vanderbilt Ave.  No sneakers, shorts, or t-shirts.


6.  The New York Public Library


Why: Another amazing Beaux Arts structure from back when the zeitgeist was that a grand public experiment deserved grand public structures.


Just down the street from Grand Central, the main (research, noncirculating) branch of the NYPL, built on the site of the former Croton Reservoir, is a spectacular building housing the NYPL’s research collections and both permanent and rotating exhibits of historical books, maps and literary artifacts.  Admission is free; allow 30 minutes to wander around.  Walk from Grand Central, or subway: B,D,F to 42 St./Bryant Park, 7 to Fifth Ave.


7.  Transit Museum


Why: Step into real subway cars from 1904, the year America’s largest transit system opened for business, and from every decade since then.


Maybe it’s just because I’m a transportation geek but this place is fascinating.  Built around a decommissioned subway station, a highlight of the exhibits is a collection of around a dozen subway cars covering the areas from 1904 to the recent past.  Many of these are still railworthy and are run as regular trains around the holiday season for railfans, and most still have period advertisements posted inside.  The museum itself is a few blocks from downtown Brooklyn.


8. Visit the Steinway factory


Considered by many (including me) to be the makers of the best pianos anywhere, Steinway & Sons was founded by German immigrant Heinrich Steinweg (later Henry Steinway) in New York in 1853, and has been building pianos at the Astoria factory since 1880.  Free factory tours are held two or three times a week but you must . Every Steinway sold in the US is made here, essentially by hand and taking about a year per piano, using largely the same techniques and equipment that were used in 1880.  (Steinways sold in Europe are made in the Hamburg factory, which was established later.)  The Steinway factory is 1 mile from the Ditmars Blvd. subway station (N, Q lines); unfortunately there isn’t a bus that gets you any closer.  Allow 2 hours.


9.  Greenwich Village


Funky food, great bars, varied music scene, home of New York’s “freeway revolt”, site of the “Stonewall Riots” that launched the gay rights movement, home of NYU, it combines the cultural role of SF’s North Beach with the closest New York ever got to bohemia.  The hole-in-the-wall restaurants along Bleecker and especially Macdougal are generally good bets.  The West Village is the nucleus of the gay community.  Subway: A,C,E to W. 4 St., 6 to Bleecker St., N, Q, R to W. 8th St., 1 to Christopher St./Sheridan Square.


10.  Lower Manhattan including Ground Zero


Ground Zero is still a somewhat morbid tourist attraction, but it’s interesting to see the new building going up there.  Lower Manhattan (basically, below Canal St.) is the original New York, and its twisty streets and tucked-away taverns preserve the feel of post-New-Amsterdam.  Join the Wall Street crowd for an after-work drink at the Stone Street alley near Coenties Slip, or drink where George Washington drank at Fraunces Tavern.  Subway: you can’t swing a dead cat in lower Manhattan without having it fall into a subway station.  Walk in a random direction and you’ll soon bump into a station.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Mastergeek Theater


Various movies, some documentary and some fictional, chronicle the history and social impact of our field. I thought it would be fun to watch some of these as a group and then talk about them. All are pre-screened by me, so you know they’re good.

19??-??: Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio


1941-1945: Code-breakers: Forgotten Heroes of Bletchley Park

You may think you know the story already: Bletchley Park is where Alan Turing developed techniques that were used to crack the Nazi's Enigma cipher machine (on which DES was based, incidentally). But the effort that really won the war is a story largely untold with heroes mostly unsung, because they were required to hold it in secrecy throughout the rest of their lives after the war ended.  This documentary tells the story of how rookie mathematician William Tutte came up with a technique to crack the much more sophisticated “Tunny” cipher, and how engineer Tommy Flowers designed and built the world’s first semi-programmable digital computer to automate it, shortening the war by months or years.

If you’re interested in learning more:
  • Thomas Haigh. “Colossal Genius: Tutte, Flowers, and a Bad Imitation of Turing.” CACM 60(1), January 2017, pp. 29–35. An entertaining yet substantive description of what really happened at Bletchley Park, couched in a critique of the historical inaccuracies of the 2015 movie The Imitation Game, which the author assumes is the basis of most popular knowledge of those events.
  • Jack Copeland. Colossus: The First Electronic Computer. Oxford University Press, New York, 2006. A compendium of analysis, reprinted historical documents and memoir. Contains Tutte's own description of his breakthroughs against Tunny.

1942-1950: Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII

Looking back on a little-known part of the war effort that recruited female mathematicians to work as “computers” for the U.S. Army during World War II, this eye-opening documentary sheds light on some remarkable unsung American heroines. From developing ballistics tables to programming the first electronic computer designed to improve Army efficiency, these top-secret “Rosies” made critical wartime contributions.

If you’re interested in learning more:

1941-1957: The Queen of Code

This is a well-done (albeit all too brief!) 16-minute mini-documentary about Admiral Grace Murray Hopper’s pivotal role in the development of high level languages, and a mini-portrait of this remarkable character. Available at FiveThirtyEight.

1955-1975: The Real Revolutionaries

The quintessential—and original—Silicon Valley story of the “traitorous eight” engineers who left Shockley Semiconductor, the first Silicon Valley tech company, to found Fairchild Semiconductor, where the integrated circuit was not only invented but turned into a commercial phenomenon.  In time, most of the Fairchild Eight left to form their own spin-offs (the “Fairchildren”), including Intel (Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore) and AMD (Jerry Sanders), inventing the distinctive Silicon Valley corporate culture in the process.

If you’re interested in learning more:

1961-1969:  Moon Machines—The Apollo Guidance Computer

During Project Apollo, the US managed to land men on the moon, not just once but six times.  How did we do that with a guidance computer based on 1960’s technology, whose most innovative hardware feature was the solid-state NOR gate in 4-to-a-package quad flat packs?  How did people program a machine whose ROM consisted of long “ropes” of magnetic cores strung onto braids of thin filaments?  What kind of UI can you get when the input consists of a 19-key keypad (big enough for astronauts wearing spacesuits) and the output consists of five LED 7-segment displays and a handful of “idiot light” indicators? Most intriguingly, this was the project that made NASA realize that software wasn’t an afterthought to be dealt with following the hardware design, but the “pacing item” on the critical path for a complex embedded system.  Dr. Margaret Hamilton, the Director of Software for Project Apollo, is credited with inventing the term "software engineering." In 2016 President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US's highest civilian honor.

As a bonus, you can not only check out the “Virtual Apollo Guidance Computer” open source software that does hardware-level emulation of this computer, but also view the actual source code on GitHub. (It’s a little known fact that all the source code for every Apollo mission is in the public domain, having been developed by a civilian agency at taxpayer expense. NASA intern Chris Garry has begun uploading it to GitHub.) Virtual AGC can be used to run the same bits the astronauts ran on each Apollo mission.

1975-1991: Triumph of the Nerds (released 1995)

Travel back to the 80’s with snarky Silicon Valley pundit and gossip columnist—er, podcaster—Robert X. Cringely, to learn about the roots of the PC revolution, the early days of the microprocessor, and how we ended up with a computer on every desktop.  One of the best accessible treatments of the story of the rise of the PC.
  • Part 1: Impressing Their Friends
  • Part 2: Riding the Bear
  • Part 3: Great Artists Steal
If you’re interested in learning more:
  • Accidental Empires by Robert X. Cringely, the book on which the miniseries is based
  • Insanely Great, by Steven Levy.  The story of how the Mac came to be.
  • iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon, by Steve Wozniak with Gina Smith.  Autobiographical account of the founding and early days of Apple, and the creation of the landmark Apple ][ computer.

1977-1983: 8-bit Generation: The Commodore Wars (released 2016)

The turbulent and fascinating story of Commodore, whose ruthless chairman, Holocaust survivor Jack Tramiel, successfully pursued his obsession of making "computers for the masses, not the classes." The Commodore VIC-20 was a price/performance breakthrough that really put a well-constructed (if underpowered) color computer within the reach of "the masses", and the first computer to sell a million units. Its successor, the price-shattering Commodore 64, remains the best-selling single model of personal computer of all time. But Tramiel's unconventional way of running a company—"business is war"—made him a complex and sometimes difficult man to work for.

If you're interested in learning more:

1980-1989: GET LAMP (released 2010)

“Before the first-person shooter, there was the second-person thinker.” Text adventures, or Interactive Fiction (IF), is one of the oldest categories of interactive entertainment. (Never heard of it? Read this 1-page intro.) This documentary looks at the rise and subsequent disappearance of a fascinating subgenre whose potential perhaps remains underappreciated. A gaming scholar writing in 2000 said: “Lured by the siren song of ever-improving graphics power, terrified by the risks involved with truly unique ideas in gaming, the [gaming] industry is collectively stumbling along a path well worn by Hollywood.” Watch this documentary and learn about the road not taken.
As a bonus, we’ll also play the original (1975) ADVENT text adventure (compiled from the original FORTRAN source code), play classic adventures from pioneer Infocom (including Zork) on vintage hardware, and discuss an open-source DSL & bytecode interpreter for writing platform-independent text adventures, developed in the days when “port the software” meant “rewrite the software”.

If you’re interested in learning more:
  • Zork: A Computerized Fantasy Simulation Game. IEEE COMPUTER, April 1979.  Article by the authors of the original Zork (for PDP-10) who then founded Infocom and ported ZIL (Zork Intermediate Language) and the Z-Machine interpreter to most of the microcomputers of the day, and sold a number of commercially successful text adventures.
  • The Inform Designer’s Manual.  Inform is a high-level DSL for creating adventure games that compile to ZIL interpretable by the Z-machine, created post hoc by reverse engineering ZIL.  The manual is both a language reference and a “howto” for creating interactive fiction.  Maybe someone can create an adventure that takes place in and around the RAD Lab…
  • Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave.  Digital Humanities Quarterly, Summer 2007.  After the original Crowther source code was found, this article examined the original ADVENT as a work of interactive fiction.
  • Twisty Little Passages, by Nick Montfort.  A scholarly but accessible survey of IF (interactive fiction) as a genre.

1980-1995: BBS: The Documentary

Imagine a virtual public space where anyone with a (free) account can post or reply to messages, using consumer networking equipment connected to their home PC’s, both of which were rapidly falling in price.  Some of these sites are free and operated by hobbyists; others tried to go commercial, and the site managers ranged from smart hobbyists to clueless get-rich-quick schemers who figured if they put some lame pr0n pictures on the site, people might pay a monthly fee for access.

Of course, the sites are Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes), the home PC’s were TRS-80s and Apple IIs and IBM clones, and the consumer networking equipment was analog modems at 300, 1200, 2400, and ultimately 56K baud.  It’s easy to forget that as late as the 90s, local phone service was metered, long-distance was unaffordable for most people, and having hundreds of active users meant having hundreds of modems.  All the mini-dramas of the Internet—n00bs, pr0n, warez, flame wars, stupid handles, free & open source software vs. payware, clueless inve$tor$, foreign sites circumventing local rules—happened here first.

1993-2000: Download: The True Story of the Internet

Until 1990, the Internet was for academics and researchers.  The invention of the World Wide Web in 1990 was a major turning point, but what brought the Web “to the masses” was the first point-and-click graphical Web browser, NCSA Mosaic, later commercialized as Netscape Navigator.  The story of how Netscape took the IT world by storm, and what happened when Microsoft awoke to the threat, is the subject of this fast-paced documentary that reveals as much about the personalities involved—Marc Andreessen, Jim Clark, Bill Gates—as it does about the technologies that formed the IT battleground of the late 90s. Plus you get to see a mug shot of Bill Gates taken when he was arrested for dangerous driving.

If you're interested in learning more:

1995-2000: Revolution OS

Microsoft Windows may have kicked the living daylights out of the Mac, but the war is far from over. Through interviews with Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond and others, we learn about the origins of the open-source movement, the Free Software Foundation, and how Linux became the first serious server OS to challenge Microsoft Windows NT.

1980-1995: Video Game Invasion: The History of a Global Obsession

While all those people were earnestly trying to use computers to “improve productivity,” some slackers thought computers might be fun for just playing games. The first video games predate PCs by several years, and could only be played on equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars. But video games took off when the microprocessor became mass-market—the same technology that drove the PC revolution (and was driven by it). And as PCs got more powerful, games went hand in hand. Before long, a multibillion dollar industry that dwarfs that movie business had become the dominant form of consumer entertainment. From Space Invaders and Pac-Man to movies inspired by video games, video games have been both a cultural force and a shaper of the IT industry.

If you’re interested in learning more:
  • Supercade —a killer coffee-table book with color screenshots/photos of all the major video games since Space Invaders
  • The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent—just what the title says.  Lots of good books about this topic but this is the most comprehensive.

2002-2010: The Social Network (released 2012)

What hath the Internet wrought?  In 2012, one person in 7 on Earth had an account on Facebook. In 2016, it's close to 1 in 5. WTF?  How all did that happen?  A glimpse into the post-boom startup culture, and a cameo portraying one of Prof. Fox’s grad school colleagues, and great writing by Aaron Sorkin are just three of the many reasons to watch this dramatization of Zuck’s rise from dropout to billionaire.

Trackdown

A dramatized cinematic account of Takedown, the nonfiction book by Tsutomu Shimomura with John Markoff, on how 90s hacker Kevin Mitnick was caught.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Summer reading

I always look forward to this time of year, even though it’s inevitably a sprint to get to it.  I’m preparing for our annual 2-week family vacation in Cancun (with some diving in Cozumel thrown in), the one vacation per year on which I don’t bring my laptop. What I do bring is lots to read — for me it’s a deep garbage collection and intellectual replenishment.  It’s not unusual for me to finish 8 to 12 books during the two weeks. So I invest a fair amount of time researching what to read and loading up my Kindle—since I bought it about 3 years ago, my policy is not to bring any paper books or documents on a leisure trip.

Here’s what’s on the Kindle for this trip:

Nonfiction – history: I grew up in New York and have always been fascinated with its history.  So I’ll be reading 97 Orchard, about five families who occupied the tenement building at that address on New York’s Lower East Side, which has since been turned into the Tenement Museum.  The book focuses on how immigrants who otherwise plunged into assimilating themselves into American culture retained their native cooking for comfort and identity, and includes authentic period recipes that might have been prepared by those families.  I’ll also be reading Twilight at the World of Tomorrow, a dramatization of the people and events that led to (and through) the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park, which until then had been an ash dump, and  the juxtaposition of the culture and attempted optimism of the Fair against the gloom of the Depression and the uncertainy of the brewing Second World War (during the Fair’s 18 months, several countries’ pavilions closed down as those countries were occupied by the Nazis).

More Nonfiction – evolutionary psychology: I have always enjoyed evolutionary neuropsychology when written for the popular press in books like Music, The Brain & Ecstasy (and its lighterweight cousin This Is Your Brain on Music) and the work of philosopher Dan Dennett.  I recently finished (on the recommendation of a colleague) What Science Offers the Humanities, a repudiation of the current “standard social science model” prevalent in the humanities according to which humans’ mental development can only be discussed and evaluated in terms of culture and nurture and not in any biological terms, which are taken to be arbitrary and without defensible basis.  The book makes a compelling argument against that stance, and I’ll be reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which seems to take the argument further.  In a similar but lighter spirit, I’ll be reading How We Decide (recommended by my sister-in-law and others) and maybe Nudge (the one about making better decisions, not the one about God something-or-other).

More nonfiction – American societal and cultural studies: I’m considering The Collapse of Complex Societies (which seems from the sample to be more tightly written than Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, which I found disappointingly hard to follow after the incredibly well written Guns, Germs & Steel), and Bowling Alone, a book about how community organizations across America are dying (more specifically, their members are dying, and new younger ones aren’t signing up) and the resulting loss of social capital—as someone who helps run a community theater that relies heavily on volunteers, this seems relevant.  (Update: Bowling Alone was written in 2001; evidently the same author, Robert Putnam, came out with a book last year called Better Together: Restoring the American Community.  We’ll see if I like the original enough to read the sequel.)

Fiction:  I’ve been rereading (for about the 3rd time now) Foucault’s Pendulum, the granddaddy of all conspiracy novels, which is to Dan Brown as the works of Tolkien are to the Harry Potter books.  If I don’t finish my dog-eared paperback before leaving, I’ll have to download it.

Besides the historico-conspiracy genre, which used to be reliably good until Dan Brown’s success spawned a myriad of “me too” books, I’ve always liked hard SF, and recently discovered Charles Stross and Richard K. Morgan.  I’m not as enthusiastic about Stross’s “Laundry Files” series as his previous work, but nonetheless I’ll be giving The Fuller Memorandum a whirl.  I also found a number of titles for under a dollar in the Kindle Store that sounded like they might at least be promising as hard SF, including David Derrico’s Right Ascension and various intriguing-sounding novellas by Christian Cantrell.  Hey, for under a dollar each, I’ll give them a try!  Maybe the next Isaac Asimov, Connie Willis or Arthur C. Clarke will get her/his start this way… Also in the “try it for under a buck” category, I’m also checking out Ancient Awakening by Matthew Bryan Laube, who’s been compared to H.P. Lovecraft in reader reviews.

Geek FictionFatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who Are Bringing Down the Internet is a based-on-true-stories account of the underground economy around denial-of-service and similar attacks, the latest frontier for organized crime.  The beginning grabbed me, so I’ll be reading that.  I got that recommendation from the Bookworm column in ;login, the monthly magazine of the USENIX Association, which also recommended The Myths of Security, which seemed really half-baked based on the intro and largely a marketing piece for McAfee.

Nonfiction: I have a strong interest in medieval history, and a somewhat weaker interest in classical history, so I’m checking out Susan Wise Bauer’s History of the Medieval World and History of the Ancient World.  I haven’t committed to buying them yet, but based on the samples, they are dense, no-nonsense “here’s what happened” narratives — perhaps not of huge interest to an historian who knows the periods well, but maybe suitable for a nonexpert like me who needs a good big-picture overview to contextualize the more detailed works, like Jean de Joinville’s first-person commentary Chronicles of the Crusades, which has been in the public domain for hundreds of years and is also going with me.

Speaking of the public domain, I’m also bringing William Lewis Manly’s classic travel journal Death Valley in ‘49 (I’m almost through my second rereading), the complete works of Mark Twain (I like to jump around), and probably the complete works of Shakespeare.

It’s a lot of fun to load up for a trip like this. Those of you family members who have Kindle devices registered to my account…maybe you’ll enjoy the above, in addition to the 60 or so books I’ve already purchased.

See you in Cancun!

I always look forward to this time of year, even though it’s inevitably a sprint to get to it.  I’m preparing for our annual 2-week family vacation in Cancun (with some diving in Cozumel thrown in), the one vacation per year on which I don’t bring my laptop. What I do bring is lots to read — for me it’s a deep garbage collection and intellectual replenishment.  It’s not unusual for me to finish 8 to 12 books during the two weeks. So I invest a fair amount of time researching what to read and loading up my Kindle—since I bought it about 3 years ago, my policy is not to bring any paper books or documents on a leisure trip.Nonfiction – history: I grew up in New York and have always been fascinated with its history.  So I’ll be reading 97 Orchard, about five families who occupied the tenement building at that address on New York’s Lower East Side, which has since been turned into the Tenement Museum.  The book focuses on how immigrants who otherwise plunged into assimilating themselves into American culture retained their native cooking for comfort and identity, and includes authentic period recipes that might have been prepared by those families.  I’ll also be reading Twilight at the World of Tomorrow, a dramatization of the people and events that led to (and through) the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park, which until then had been an ash dump, and  the juxtaposition of the culture and attempted optimism of the Fair against the gloom of the Depression and the uncertainy of the brewing Second World War (during the Fair’s 18 months, several countries’ pavilions closed down as those countries were occupied by the Nazis).More Nonfiction – evolutionary psychology: I have always enjoyed evolutionary neuropsychology when written for the popular press in books like Music, The Brain & Ecstasy (and its lighterweight cousin This Is Your Brain on Music) and the work of philosopher Dan Dennett.  I recently finished (on the recommendation of a colleague) What Science Offers the Humanities, a repudiation of the current “standard social science model” prevalent in the humanities according to which humans’ mental development can only be discussed and evaluated in terms of culture and nurture and not in any biological terms, which are taken to be arbitrary and without defensible basis.  The book makes a compelling argument against that stance, and I’ll be reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which seems to take the argument further.  In a similar but lighter spirit, I’ll be reading How We Decide (recommended by my sister-in-law and others) and maybe Nudge (the one about making better decisions, not the one about God something-or-other).Fiction:  I’ve been rereading (for about the 3rd time now) Foucault’s Pendulum, the granddaddy of all conspiracy novels, which is to Dan Brown as the works of Tolkien are to the Harry Potter books.  If I don’t finish my dog-eared paperback before leaving, I’ll have to download it.Nonfiction: I have a strong interest in medieval history, and a somewhat weaker interest in classical history, so I’m checking out Susan Wise Bauer’s History of the Medieval World and History of the Ancient World.  I haven’t committed to buying them yet, but based on the samples, they are dense, no-nonsense “here’s what happened” narratives — perhaps not of huge interest to an historian who knows the periods well, but maybe suitable for a nonexpert like me who needs a good big-picture overview to contextualize the more detailed works, like Jean de Joinville’s first-person commentary Chronicles of the Crusades, which has been in the public domain for hundreds of years and is also going with me.Speaking of the public domain, I’m also bringing William Lewis Manly’s classic travel journal Death Valley in ‘49 (I’m almost through my second rereading), the complete works of Mark Twain (I like to jump around), and probably the complete works of Shakespeare.It’s a lot of fun to load up for a trip like this. Those of you family members who have Kindle devices registered to my account…maybe you’ll enjoy the above, in addition to the 60 or so books I’ve already purchased.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Why Borders and other big-book retail bookstores are fcuked

Argh.

So I wanted to buy a specific title for a friend (The Soul of a New Machine, in fact) who would be in town in just 2 days.  Not wanting to pay 2-day Amazon shipping, I went online to Borders and “reserved” the book at a local Borders outlet.

When I went to pickup the book, there was nobody at the customer service desk.  While waiting for someone to show up there, I went over to the Search terminal to see if they had a copy of the DVDTriumph of the Nerds.  Searching for ‘triumph of the nerds’ returned over 13,000 hits (even when narrowed to Movies & TV).  Searching for the whole phrase returned 0 hits.  When the customer service person finally arrived (I had to go to the cashier and ask to have someone sent there), and told me that the book I had reserved would be at the cashier station, I asked him to help me with the search.  He tried without success and asked me whether I was sure the item was still available for sale.  (It is.)  I then asked if he could direct me to the section where I might find other books on the history of computers and technology.  He needed an example title to answer the question, so I suggested Insanely Great.  He did some unsuccessful searches and asked me whether I was sure the item was still available for sale.  (It’s in its second printing.)

I went home and ordered all the items from Amazon.  I’ll have to wait a couple days to get them, but (a) the search function found every item as a top hit on the first search attempt, and (b) I am paying less, even without considering sales tax.

Borders is fcuked, and probably so are the other big box stores. From now on it’s my neighborhood independent bookstore when possible, and Amazon otherwise.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A good first programming language, revisited

I’m of the “BASIC generation” and like David Brin I bellyache about there not being a good first language for kids to feel the empowerment I felt each time I could say “Look, I made the computer do something cool!”

A colleague recently asked if I had any thoughts on what would be “a good first programming language” for a precocious 9-year-old who was very  much into computers and wanted to learn programming, giving me an excuse to agonize about this again.

The executive summary of my current opinion is probably “Scratch if you want training wheels, Python otherwise”, but if this sort of thing interests you, read on.

My colleague’s question gave me an excuse to wring my hands about it some more, and even talk to some other people about it seriously, including Colleen Lewis, a Berkeley computer scientist and educator whose opinion I respect tremendously on such matters, and a bunch of smart colleagues from industry who attended the recent RAD Lab retreat.

We concluded that there’s a handful of absolutely fundamental concepts that are (a) common to the vast majority of programming paradigms/languages and (b) not “natural” in the sense that they have no obvious analog in non-programming-based activities and simply have to be internalized:

  • variables and assignment

  • manipulating collections of elements (arrays exist even in languages that don’t support user-defined data structures)

  • conditional evaluation

  • control flow

  • iteration

  • subprograms (i.e., procedural abstraction)


(I’ve deliberately omitted OO; while really important, it’s not fundamental in that there’s lots of programs you can write without it.)

Beyond focusing on absorbing those concepts, a “good first language” should make the young programmer feel empowered at being able to do stuff, gradually stripping away the “mystique” of how computers do the cool things they do.

Hence my concerns about Scratch, a popular GUI-based programming environment designed for teaching that we are starting to use at Berkeley for the intro-level CS class.  Colleen reassured me that it’s possible to write non-toy programs in Scratch once you ditch the GUI, that it supports constructs like lambda expressions that let you teach important concepts like closures, and that students who complete the new intro course also understand things like objects and class inheritance and are more than ready to tackle any programming language.  My concern is that the Scratch GUI environment is so amazingly rich and polished that it might diminish the sense of empowerment—even if you write a cool program, there’s still just too much magic between your program and the machine.  The nice thing about Scratch is that it’s widely used in education so (I assume) there’s lots of freely-available supplementary materials to go with the software.  (Wearing my “productivity programming” hat, I’d say Scratch is almost too productive because so much is happening beyond the code you wrote.)

The alternative seems to be Python, probably the closest thing to BASIC these days (albeit a much better language, of course).  And in fact I found a pretty good book—Hello World: Computer Programming for Kids and Other Beginners—co-authored by a programmer and his young son and written in a kid-friendly yet noncondescending way.  The downside is that while Python is a pretty nice language, like all languages it has a few quirky notations, idiosyncrasies, arbitrary-seeming behaviors, etc. While the book goes out of its way to clarify these only as much as needed, their presence might detract from a learning experience…but then, to be fair, the same was true of BASIC way back when, and probably those of us who glamorize learning it have selective amnesia about getting bitten by those idiosyncrasies and learning to work around them.

So maybe my current recommendation is: for a gentle introduction with training wheels and rubber bumpers, Scratch; for something a little more hardcore that you won’t outgrow (Python is used for lots of real programs) but comes complete with real-life idiosyncracies, Python with the above book.

The good news is that while neither is “built in” to today’s PCs like BASIC used to be, they’re both open source free downloads.

Ideas from anyone who’s actually helped their kids learn to program?  (I have no kids, only a toucan, and it’s unlikely she’ll learn to program anytime soon.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Things I still find charming about the original “Star Trek”

In a mood of indulgence doubtless fueled by pizza and wine and small-batch bourbon, I used AppleTV’s unimpeachable user interface tonight to download and watch a couple of episodes of the original Star Trek.  (Sure, it’s $1.99 per episode for something that is still broadcast on my cheap analog cable, but they’re delivered in digitally-remastered form, the sound is awesome, and I can start watching in about a minute—all unlike TiVo/Amazon wretched, indefensibly bad video-on-demand from TiVo DVR2’s).

The old Star Trek episodes are wonderful morality tales. And hey, it’s not their fault that special effects in the late 60’s weren’t very advanced, and the effects budget per episode was apparently about $50.

I smile at the cheesy effects and appreciate the storyline, but I can’t help but enumerate a few effects things that particularly tickle me as a computer scientist.  I’m blogging these so that someone blogging in 2020 can smile at my comments, and all while giving the original Star Trek the largest possible credit for couching great stories in something that the 60’s thought the future would look like (remember, the final Star Trek episodes were taped a full 2 years before the moon landing):

  1. The analog dials on the ship’s computers

  2. Computers with AI-complete speech recognition, but synthesized voices that sound terrible

  3. Computers that actually emit smoke when they fail

  4. Audio communications that fail as analog radio would (analog static and high-Q artifacts, not digital dropouts)

  5. Video that fails by getting snow or loss of analog sync (I still can’t believe people used to do all this with analog signals.  That is some studly engineering.)

  6. “Video” displays that are clearly posters

  7. Mechanical switches for controlling solid-state devices, including the transporter and the “computer”

  8. Printers that make mechanical noise when they print (like dot matrix and band printers)

  9. The presence of physical books rather than ebooksat various official proceedings

  10. Avionics that fail by bursting into flame, yet are apparently repairable at the board or component level

Note that a great many of these effects were actually accurate when viewed from the standpoint of the first computers in spaceflight—see Computers In Spaceflight: The NASA Experience for a most excellent overview and retrospective.