Thursday, January 28, 2010

Not Privacy

There is a whole lot of "Not Privacy" on the internet these days.

It may have started with MySpace and Friendster, which allowed people to set up their own webpage quickly and easily.  Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg claims that this is a long-term shift in the zeitgeist and that the social norms have changed.  He may be right.

Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, even GeoCities ... all of those together represent some kind of tipping point in the internet.  I was around for the Eternal September when USENET because something very different ... although I sheepishly admit to being one of the frosh, not the "Old Guard."

But that was different.  You had a handle, a reputation among the other contributors, and that was it.  When you logged off, you were gone.  Not so today.  Today's users have an online presence that represents them 24/7, whether they're paying attention to it or not.  And there are interesting stories that today's younger generation is spending more time building their online personalities than their REAL LIFE personalities. (I'm searching for a link to a recent story on NPR, but coming up dry.)

And why not?  Your online personality, as represented by your Facebook page and your Twitter account, is unencumbered by the harshness of reality.  You get to post the pictures of yourself that you like the best.  You get to compose your thoughts (inane though they may be) before broadcasting to the world.  And that broadcast is almost effortless ... you do it once, and the entire world can read it over and over again.  It's relatively easy to build an online presence to your liking, and you get to revel in your own indulgences.  It's harder to build a real-life presence, where you actually have to interact with people (the horror!) and build a reputation and personality over time.

In another year or so, Facebook and Twitter will inevitably be replaced by the next generation of always-on, instant gratification electronic communication lumped into the broad category of "social media."  I just hope it's done gracefully, and doesn't abandon millions of fragile youths, longing for their lost identity and the "good old days" on Facebook.

This blog is a little bit like that, but with some of the "Not Privacy" removed.  In other words, I'm not trying to make this a blog about John Smith, if John Smith were my real name.  I'm trying to make this a blog about things I find interesting, and hoping to build an internet presence as an internet character.  It's kind of like the old Ars Technica editors who were at first only known by their handles.  I was genuinely saddened when I learned that Hannibal and Caesar would be giving up their handles when posting stories.  Or that Cmdr guy who started some other website.  (For the record: I have no aspirations of getting to that level of readership.  I'm just saying I like the model.)  Any reasonably savvy internet user can ferret out my real name, but I'm not going to proclaim it across the top in some kind of banner.  Incidentally, those are my feet shown in the picture on the top of this blog.

There are a ton of clever, insightful, witty internet sites out there.  I only hope I can add to that discussion, maybe with some help from the peanut gallery in the comments sections.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Driving in DC #2

K Street.

World famous for its high powered lawyers and lobbyists who plant their offices on its path, K Street sits nestled between I Street and L Street.  ("What?!?" you ask.  "The letter K is between the letters J and L, not I and L.  Where is J Street?" I smugly point out another oddity of Washington DC: there is no J Street, for reasons that are not entirely clear.  I will discuss this later.)

Between 15th Street and 20th Street Northwest, K Street espouses this utterly bizarre double-boulevard approach.  In the center is your normal, opposing-traffic road, with two lanes going in each direction.  Then comes an inexplicable island on each side, and then a "turning lane."  I use "turning lane" loosely because you don't always turn in the "turning lane."

The bicyclist in the above picture is crossing the "turning lane."  To the left of him is the normal two-way traffic, to the left of that is another boulevard, and then off to the far left is the opposing traffic's "turning lane."

There are three critical flaws for drivers who attempt to use this section of K Street:

Turning Right
Suppose you are driving down the middle lanes of K street, looking to turn right onto 17th street.  When you arrive at 17th street, you are not allowed to turn right from the center lanes onto 17th street.  No, instead, you had to have anticipated your turn onto 17th street from 15th or 16th street, and merge from the center lanes into the turn lane.

But it's not always a simple merge, because some traffic is already in the "turn lane" but wants to go straight.  You have to fight and claw your way into this stream early if you want to turn, and nobody is willing to yield the right-of-way.  This is why you're not allowed to turn right from the center lanes -- you would be cutting off that traffic that is trying to go straight through the intersection from the "turn lanes."

Turning Left
Many of the intersections between 15th and 20th do not allow left hand turns, but a few do.  On those that do, the left turners must not only artfully dodge the immediate two lanes of opposing traffic, but must also navigate the opposing "turning lane" traffic.  This is especially difficult because, in a string of cars, it's impossible to see which ones have their right-turn blinkers on and which ones don't.  You have no idea what the intentions are of the opposing "turning lane" traffic, and half the time it's a guess and you hope the opposing traffic doesn't mash the gas pedal just to ram into you.

Turning onto K Street
If you're coming from any of the side streets, and you turn right onto K Street, you're only allowed to turn into the "turning lane."  At the next intersection (a block or two further down), you are supposed to merge into the center lanes to get with the flow of traffic.  But be careful!  Some of the traffic is trying to merge from the center lane into your "turning lane."  Heaven help you if it's a cab and you're in his way.

I see many disadvantages to this system, and few advantages.  It is a very cruel and disorienting arrangement, particularly to drivers unfamiliar with K Street.  It's also the only street in DC that I know of to be set up this way.  It certainly wastes a lot of space; I would rather see an extra full-traffic lane or two carved out for K Street (it gets very busy and congested during rush hour), and maybe even room for a wider sidewalk.

Fortunately, I'm a pedestrian most days on K Street, so I don't have to deal with these intricacies.  But the multiple lanes of traffic sure make me feel like Frogger some days.

Post Script
I said I would talk about the absence of "J Street."  The urban legend -- and one that I subscribed to for many years -- was that Pierre L'Enfant, along with most of the rest of the country, was incensed at John Jay for signing the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation with Great Britain, that was far too kind to Great Britain and the fledgling US got nothing in return.  For punishment, Pierre removed "J Street" from the DC street grid.

However, the venerable has a different explanation: that the letters "I" and "J" were too hard to distinguish, so J was omitted.  This makes more sense than the urban legend, since Pierre was removed from his job in 1792, and the treaty wasn't signed until 1794.  This is also stated as the reason by both Wikipedia and a former DC tour guide, although it's possible that all 3 are quoting the same source.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Driving in DC #1

This is the first of a long series of posts about the joys of driving in and around Washington, DC.

Yes, that's right.  This is an actual sign marking the intersection of Virginia Lane and ... Virginia Lane.  It is a four-way intersection, although there is no stop sign to really mark it.  Kudos to the street planners who come up with creative names for different streets.

Driving in DC

Driving in Washington, DC, is an interesting experience.  In this context, "interesting" can be further refined as any of the following:
  • Terrifying
  • Confusing
  • Hopeless
  • Chaotic
  • Efficient
Often, driving in DC is about as effective at getting you from Point A to Point B as Brownian Motion.  Notice, however, that I left "efficient" as the last bullet.  To be fair, in about 5% of cases, the driver says, "Holy crap, there's [insert road] that will take me directly to where I want to go!"  Sadly, in the other 95% of cases, some serious intestinal fortitude and luck are required to get you to where you want to go.  Observe.

DC starts out with a grid pattern: numbered streets (7th, 9th, 23rd, etc) running North-South, and lettered streets (K Street, M Street, etc) running East-West.  This is a nearly wonderful idea. (The "nearly" will be explored in a later post.)  It works well for Manhattan:

In the grid pattern, if you know where you are, it's pretty simple to figure out how to get where you want to go.  (I admit to biasing this to mid-town Manhattan.  Lower Manhattan is not as orderly, but I'm willing to cut them some slack due to geographical constraints.  The island narrows down there, and it's harder to maintain a grid.)

But then Pierre L'Enfant played what is perhaps the greatest practical joke of all time: completely obfuscating another nation's Capital city and making it utterly bewildering to visitors.  He took what was said to be a "clean slate" and overlaid a haphazard arrangement of diagonal streets on top of the grid.  These are the states: Pennsylvania, Massachusettes, New York.

Taken by themselves, the diagonals aren't so bad.  But where the diagonals intersect with the grid is where it all falls apart, and you have an inscrutable network of acute and oblique angles of intersections.  And where two diagonals meet, on top of the grid, only Dante can describe it: Abandon all hope, Ye who enter here.

That's right, Dupont Circle.  I'm lookin' at you.  You will be featured prominently in these pages.

In a final touch of class, our dear Frenchman inserted a few final obstacles: parks, squares, and the maelstrom known as the Rock Creek Parkway.  Some of these are quaint -- and they go a long ways towards making the city more friendly -- but their haphazard locations, sizes, and shapes make me genuinely discombobulated as I'm trying to drive around.

A walking city?  Perhaps.  But a driving city?  Fuhgeddaboudit.

I have lived in DC for 10 years, and the Rock Creek Parkway still scares me.  There are those who claim to have mastered the RCP, and they claim to value its utility.  I don't believe them.  My general rule is:

If you don't know exactly how to get from A to B, don't even start until checking the map.  You WILL NOT be able to figure it out on the way.

The RCP is never, ever, ever in the set {A, B} for any A or B.


Anyhow, enough mindless ranting.  No assertion is worth much unless it can be documented and demonstrated.  So that's what the purpose of this series is: documenting examples of the crazy, intimidating, and obtuse "sport" that is known as Driving in DC.  If you have examples of your own, shoot me an email or leave them in the comments.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The best way to get better at sit-ups is to do sit-ups.

Sage advice from a unique character in my life.  I think it applies to many things.

I've never been very good at sit-ups.  For some reason, I just wasn't made that way ... I can't curl up and crank them out like so many other people can.  30 in a minute is a good number for me, and it has been even way back in high school and college (when we're supposed to be really good at stuff like that).  To most people, it's just an inconvenience, but it nearly got me kicked out of college.

I went to school on a Navy ROTC scholarship, and each semester, we had to take the Physical Readiness Test.  Do as many sit-ups as you can in two minutes; do as many push-ups as you can in two minutes; and run 1.5 miles as fast as you can.  There was a scale that gave you P number of points for doing Q sit ups (up to a maximum), and the same for push ups and your run time.  There was also a bare minimum for each category, so you couldn't be a complete slacker in one event and crush the other two.

The bare minimum for sit ups in 2 minutes was 38.  I remember this all too well, because I had to struggle -- mightily -- to get 38.  Most of the other guys would hit the maximum of 108 easily.  In fact, many people had a goal to max out on all 3 events: 108 sit-ups, 72 push-ups, and run 1.5 miles in less than 8:35.  At my first PRT, I squeaked by with something like 39 sit ups.  My Navy supervisors noticed, and I got a nasty letter saying that if my performance didn't improve, I would be put on physical fitness probation, and would have mandatory PT at 6:00am each morning.  Failing again would get me kicked out.  Yes, I had met the minimum, but just meeting the minimum wasn't good enough for this ROTC unit.

The whole next semester I spent doing crunches, ab workouts, side bends, everything.  You name it.  I knew I wasn't going to get close to 108, but I felt confident I'd be halfway there.

Game Day comes, and I get a measly 41.  I was shocked.  Dismayed.  Bamboozled.  I had done all these unique practice methods, thousands of crunches, all these other ab routines, and I fight tooth-and-nail to get a puny 41.  One of my supervisors, an exceedingly intimidating former Force Recon Marine, yelled at my sub-par performance.  "Dammit, son, you should be getting 108."  I was exasperated, and lamented about all the other abdominal routines I had been doing.

He pointed a huge, meaty finger at me.  "The best way to get better at sit-ups is to do sit-ups."

A gong rang softly in the distance.

The advice has stuck with me ever since.  If you want to solve differential equations, practice solving differential equations.  If you want to ski in the moguls better, throw yourself down the mogul runs.  If you want to get better at meet and greets, put yourself in a social situation and just start saying "hi" to people.  It will hurt.  But nobody ever gets better at doing something by not practicing.

In later semesters, I think I got into the high 70's for situps in 2 minutes.  My body (mainly my back, it seems) just isn't built for situps.

That advice is part of the motivation for this blog.  I've now registered a domain name, established a hosting service, started a blog ... we'll see what comes next.  I'm currently leaning on the Google crutch for the blogging software (and it feels sooooo good), but maybe I'll spread my wings further later on.  If you want to get better at writing, start writing a bunch.

First Post

Ah, the canonical first post.

It’s likely that nobody will ever read the first blog post, because who goes back that far? What was the first post on Slashdot? Can anybody remember the first article to grace the pages of BoingBoing? And so our hard work and prose fades into the ether, like our first sandy footprints on a long journey getting blown away by the wind.  So I’ll use this particular section of vacuum to describe a little bit about myself and the blog.

I’m an engineer. I like to think of myself as a rationally thinking human being. I try to apply that to everyday life. Problem is, I live in Washington, DC, which is a thoroughly irrational town. Well, maybe not irrational, maybe just perversely rational. In any event, it’s weird. I’ve gotten used to it over 10 years, and now I have some weird stories to share.

Among other things, I will try to document that weirdness on these pages. As well as some general musings on engineering, design, and life in general.  As well as let this serve as a creative outlet ... once in a while, six or seven of the neurons in my right hemisphere may spring to life and do something genuinely innovative. Mind you, on the rare occasions that it happens, the left hemisphere immediately notices the right hemisphere doing something completely illogical, and begins trying to shut the left hemisphere down in a most orderly fashion.  They're short-lived, but they may live on a little longer in a medium like this.

We'll see where it goes.