Category Archives: Uncategorized

The downtown space station

An article I read years ago, and wish I could find again, claimed that America’s first enclosed shopping malls were designed to evoke the space stations of the mid-twentieth-century sci-fi imagination. I don’t know if that’s true but they do share a common design: the long central axis, with attached pods bathed in artificial light and recirculated air.

Until we moved to Santa Rosa, I rarely visited an enclosed mall. There wasn’t (and still isn’t) one in Keene, NH, which suited me just fine. I’ve always been allergic to the experience that malls try to create.

Here, though, the Santa Rosa Plaza (5) is a obstacle I ofen encounter when I walk between our home (1) in the West End and Luann’s studio (6) in the SofA district.

There is, thankfully, an alternative. The Prince Memorial Greenway runs along both sides of Santa Rosa Creek (4). It takes you around or under both of the structures that so heinously divide our part of downtown from the main part: the 101 freeway and the mall.

I use the creek trail as often as I can. The areas under the freeway are brightened by vast painted and tiled murals. Wildlife sightings include fish, egrets, black-crowned night-herons and, one time, a merlin. I see some of my neighbors walking or biking along, and others — the homeless ones — encamped along the banks.

When I’m headed downtown, though, the path of least resistance is (1, 2, 3, 5, 7). As you can see it leads through the mall. Although 101 looks formidable, you can cross under it at many points visible in the photo: 3rd Street, 4th, 5th, and 6th. But there’s no getting around the mall! I’d have to detour south to 1st or north to 7th to avoid it.

So I end up walking through the mall a lot, along what would be 4th street if it still existed. I try to enjoy it, and if I pretend that I’m walking through a space station I almost can. But this space station has landed in the wrong place. It bisects downtown even more egregiously than the mighty 101 freeway. What the hell were they thinking?

Parking in San Francisco

Although we are country mice we do venture down to the city now and again, as we did Monday evening to meet friends for dinner. It is super uncool to arrive at a downtown San Francisco destination in a private automobile. Ambulation, Uber, skateboard, bike, even Segway would be better. But for us there isn’t a faster way to get there and back during non-commute hours so we drive. And when there’s no traffic that mostly makes sense. Mostly, of course, doesn’t include that final variable: parking.

We got to the restaurant at 7PM, pulled into Garage 1, and met the villain of our piece:

Villain: We close at 9.

Jon: OK. How much for 2 hours?

V: $25.

J: No sale.

A hundred feet south we enter Garage 2 and meet the saviour of the day:

Saviour: We close at 9.

Jon: OK. How much for 2 hours?

S: $15.

J: [thought bubble: Sold!]

S: But if you’re going to the restaurant, just park right there. [gestures at the prime spot in front of the restaurant’s entrance, marked ‘For Deliveries Only, No Parking’]

J: Thanks! [thought bubble: $0 < $15 < $25]

Not having been born yesterday I park there, and check in with the restauranteur:

Jon: That guy says I can park in front but I figured I’d check with you.

Restauranteur: Who the hell is that guy to say who parks in front of my restaurant?

J: That’s why I’m checking. So, it is OK?

R: Sure.

J: Thanks! [thought bubble: Go figure!]

Passenger rail in the North Bay

In May 1906, Collier’s published Jack London’s The Story of an Eyewitness, his report on the devastation wrought by the San Francisco earthquake. Earle Labor’s recent biography of London explains how the writer was able to commute from his home in Glen Ellen, on the slope of Sonoma Mountain, to the burning city.

“EARTHQUAKE” is the opening entry in Charmian’s diary for Wednesday, April 18, 1906.

By six o’clock Jack and Charmian were on horseback, riding up the mountain to their new ranch. From that height they could plainly see the great columns of smoke rising over San Francisco and, to the north, Santa Rosa.

That afternoon they took the train to Santa Rosa. That smaller city has been hit as hard as San Francisco and was a mass of smoking rubble. From there they went to Oakland and took the ferry over to the inferno that San Francisco had become.

They took the train, in other words, from Santa Rosa where I live now, to Glen Ellen, to Sonoma, and finally to Oakland. That mode of transportation, once taken for granted, has been gone for decades.

Last week, walking to a coffee shop in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, I took this photo:

It’s the SMART (Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit) train on one of its first trial runs. I saw it again later in the week, as I was crawling down to San Francisco in a river of traffic on 101. There, in the marshlands of Novato, on a long-abandoned track, was the SMART train cruising along.

I know little about the politics of SMART, a flawed initiative that will not, anytime soon, restore the mobility that Jack and Charmian London enjoyed more than a hundred years ago. It’s a pale reflection of how BART planners in the 1950s imagined serving the North Bay:

When SMART is operational I’ll still need to drive down to San Francisco, or take the bus, and endure insane traffic delays if I have to travel during prime commute times. Sadly, the first phase of SMART won’t even reach the Larkspur ferry.

But one day next year Luann and I will be able to walk a few blocks to Railroad Square, get on a train, ride to Petaluma, enjoy its downtown for a few hours, and return home.

Jack and Charmian, if you’re reading this somehow, I know, it’s ridiculous, and I apologize. We really did screw things up, and this is a rather pathetic step the right direction. But at least it’s a start.

Facts of Flight

This page makes me smile:

It’s from a 1963 publication called Facts of Flight: Practical Information about Operation of Private Aircraft, which was available for 50 cents from the U.S Government Printing Office. Luann found it at a thrift shop the other day, and I can’t decide what’s most charming about it. The saturated colors remind me of the children’s books I began bringing home from our public library in that same year. The graphics, quaint at first glance, turn out to be stunningly effective. The explanation of the physics of flight, equally effective, is the same as the one I got from my father who had flown a PBY Catalina during World War Two.

This enjoyable and informative book is attributed to no author. It is simply “a manual prepared by the Flight Standards Service of the Federal Aviation Agency, to provide the private pilot with information essential to the safe operation of his aircraft.” I’m delighted to know that our government was once capable of writing an enjoyable and informative book. And I love the implicit message that any U.S. citizen could be an aviator in need of a pamphlet on atmospheric pressure, lift and drag, pitch, roll, and yaw, carburetor icing.

A new lease on life

Two weeks ago I underwent surgery to replace both of my hip joints. I’d been having trouble since the summer of 2012, when running became painful and I found that I couldn’t mount my bicycle by swinging my leg over the seat. These were signs of what would be diagnosed, in April 2015, as moderate-to-severe osteoarthritis. It could have been diagnosed two years earlier, when I presented symptoms I identified as a groin pull and pain in my quads. But I was still able to be very active then and, after a round of physical therapy, regained much of the range of motion I’d lost the year before. Deep down I knew something was really wrong but I convinced my doctor and physical therapist that it was all muscular, that I’d be able to work through it, and that there was no need for an x-ray.

In reality the disease was progressing, and although I returned to cycling, hiking, and running, things never felt right. There were other signs. During my final season of firewood stacking, in the summer of 2013, I found myself sitting on a bench pitching logs. Around the same time I tried working at a standing desk but quickly abandoned that experiment. Stretching didn’t help because it couldn’t. Cartilage was eroding, bone spurs were deforming the balls of my femurs.

After our move to California last year, the signs became impossible to ignore. Halfway through a 12-mile hike at Point Reyes I had to admit I was in real trouble. I went to see Luann’s physical therapist, he leveled with me, and I just about took the poor guy’s head off. Being active is incredibly important to me, I’ve always feared loss of mobility, and I catastrophized the situation.

Conventional wisdom has been that you want to postpone surgery as long as possible. That would mean years of increasing pain and loss of function. I visited the surgeon who would ultimately fix me, Briant Smith, and learned two vital facts. First, the hardware has improved so much that there’s less incentive to delay surgery in order to avoid a repeat. Second, the anterior direct method is massively superior to earlier methods.

Direct anterior hip replacement is a minimally invasive surgical technique. This approach involves a 3 to 4 inch incision on the front of the hip that allows the joint to be replaced by moving muscles aside along their natural tissue planes, without detaching any tendons. This approach often results in quicker recovery, less pain, and more normal function after hip replacement. Because the tendons aren’t detached from the hip during direct anterior hip replacement, hip precautions are typically not necessary. This allows patients to return to normal daily activities shortly after surgery with a reduced risk of dislocation.

At that point I didn’t know when this would happen. Years? Months? Dr. Smith said: “When you can’t take it anymore, we’ll fix it.” A month later I was in San Francisco for a week-long series of events. The first morning I walked two miles, a distance that had been well within my tolerance until then, and was incapacitated. I hobbled through the week, unable to sleep, and pinged Dr. Smith. “Sometimes the progression is linear,” he said, “and sometimes you fall off a cliff.”

On my next visit we discussed tactics. Most bilateral hip replacements are done serially, so you’ve got one relatively good leg to stand on during recovery. In my case, both joints were about equally bad. Should I replace both at once? My primary doc didn’t recommend that. And Dr. Smith didn’t exactly recommend it either. But he let me know that it’s doable. “It’s a big wallop,” he said, and a slower recovery, but people in my cohort — athletic, mid-to-late fifties (I’m 58) — are having successful outcomes, and it’s great to get it over with in one go.

So I signed up for the twofer, and then had a few months to wait, research the topic, and talk to veterans of the bilateral procedure. People were reporting almost unbelievably good outcomes. One fellow I met told me that his post-surgical pain was so minor that he’d needed nothing stronger than Tylenol to control it.

And that’s exactly how it went for me. An hour after surgery I walked from the hospital bed to a recliner, using a walker for safety more than for support. The next day I walked 500 feet, not because I was pushing myself but because the physical therapist invited me to and was confident that I could do it safely. The day after that I walked 1000 feet, navigated some steps in the PT gym to ensure I’d be OK entering our house, and went home.

It really was a big wallop, and the energy that’s gone into healing hasn’t left much for higher-order brain function. I’m sleeping a lot, and only gradually getting up to speed with my work. But I’m gaining mobility, strength, and flexibility every day. I used the walker for a week, then graduated to hiking poles — again, more for security than for support. And despite having major carpentry work done to both sides of my skeleton — hammers, saws, dremels — the pain has been minimal, and I too have needed nothing stronger than Tylenol. It’s reasonable to expect that I’ll be hiking and cycling in a month or so, and doing those things pain-free for the first time in years. My range of motion is already better along some axes than it was two weeks ago, and should continue to improve. There’s residual numbness in the skin over my quads, and some puffiness around the incisions, but these effects are normal and should resolve. (No staples or stitches, if you were wondering, they use superglue now.)

What accounts for this astonishingly good outcome? It seems to be a combination of factors. Hip repair has always been more straightforward than knee or shoulder repair, and with the anterior direct method it’s radically better than it was. That’s a recent development, my surgeon only began using the technique five years ago. But the physical therapist and occupational therapist in the hospital told me that they’ve only been seeing outcomes like mine for about two years.

What changed? There’s some fancy gear involved. The Hana table, for example, enables precise positioning, but it’s been around for longer than two years. Maturation of surgical technique is clearly a key factor. When I asked Dr. Smith about this, he said: “Speed matters.” It only took three hours to upgrade both of my hips. I was reminded of Atul Gawande’s 2007 New Yorker story The Checklist, a precursor to The Checklist Manifesto. Part of that story follows a team in Austria that had tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate people who drowned or were buried in avalanches, then managed to save one person, and soon afterward several more.

One step went right after another. And, because of the speed with which they did it, she had a chance.

Another key factor, I suspect, is that surgeons are seeing more patients like me: active people in their fifties who want to stay active, and who are realizing that surgery — this one in particular — need not be postponed.

It’s still not a walk in the park. I’m moving slowly, and there’s a long road ahead. But two weeks ago, every step I took made things worse. Now every step I take makes things better. It’s miraculous, and I could not be more grateful. For most of human history my condition meant a lifetime of diminishing mobility and increasing pain that medicine could do nothing to help. Within my lifetime a fix became possible. In just the last two years it’s gotten incredibly good. I’m well aware that there’s plenty that can’t be fixed at all, never mind fixed so well. I know I’m a lucky guy to be here in 2015 and, crucially, to have health insurance. But I also think Dr. Smith is a lucky guy. Being able to improve lives in the way he has improved mine, day in and day out, has to be an amazing joy and privilege.

A Labor Day meditation on the future of work

I’ve always felt weird about my interview with Jeff Bezos. Amazon’s PR people set it up as a follow-on to a keynote he gave, in 2006, about the suite of web services then coming online: cloud-based storage, computing, and human labor (i.e. Mechanical Turk). This was for InfoWorld, back when it was a magazine printed on paper. The PR folks were determined that we would put Bezos on the cover. We’d already written about all that stuff, so that wasn’t going to happen unless the keynote yielded something new and important.

Predictably it didn’t. But as they led me to the backstage room for the interview they kept pushing for the cover. And something must have snapped. Because when I pointed my camcorder at Amazon’s CEO and began talking, I became somebody I’d never been before and have never been since: the pushy reporter who is determined to frame a narrative, who steers the interview that way, and who interrupts all efforts on the subject’s part to answer questions not asked.

I’m not linking to the video because I still feel conflicted about it, but it’s on YouTube and I watched part of it recently in the wake of the New York Times story about Amazon’s workplace culture. Mechanical Turk was top of mind for me when I did that interview. I had been a customer of a Turk-based service called CastingWords, to which I had outsourced the transcription of several of my then-weekly podcasts. To prepare for the interview I signed up as a Turker and walked a mile in the shoes of a podcast transcriber. Here’s how I reported the experience at the time:

Podcasts are chopped up into six-minute segments. Last night, the segment I transcribed was worth $1.02, which will be credited to my account (and can then be transferred to a bank account) if my work passes several quality review checks. These checks are themselves implemented as HITs [human intelligence tasks].

My encounter with Turk Work wasn’t very satisfying. There was no context, no orderly progression, no sense of collaboration, no awareness of (or pride in) a finished product. If you’re running an MTurk-enabled business, you have to focus on throughput and efficiency. That drives you toward assembly-line tactics. But as Nathan McFarland noted in our conversation, you’d also like to reward excellence:

“We’d be willing to pay certain workers more and other workers less, but that’s not an option right now.”

So for now, that’s a hard constraint. Here’s another. From my perspective as a CastingWords customer, there are clearly some transcribers who have a better feel for my material than others. I don’t know who they are, though, or who’s transcribed which parts of various podcasts. If the goal is maximum throughput, that may be necessary. But that’s not my goal. Transcribing 620 minutes of audio for $260 in six days was darned impressive, but two months later I’m still only halfway through the final polishing, which I’m tackling in fits and starts. If this winds up being a long-term relationship, I’d rather identify the transcribers who do well on my stuff and give them whole tasks. And some transcribers would likely prefer that too. I sure would. Apart from the question of whether it’s in CastingWords’ interest to allow such relationships to form, the current MTurk architecture precludes the possibility.

I pressed Bezos hard on that point. Too hard, some thought at the time. Perhaps they were right. Perhaps it was none of my business to suggest that Mechanical Turk ought to optimize for worker satisfaction as well as for throughput.

My first encounter with a digital sweatshop was in 1993, in Bombay (as it was called then). I was visiting a software industrial park. In one company’s office I saw a room full of desks at which workers were digitizing maps of US telecommunication infrastructure. It seemed like dehumanizing work. Then I looked out the window at laborers carrying piles of bricks on their heads in 100-degree-Fahrenheit heat and realized that those map digitizers, in their air-conditioned office, had some of the best jobs in town.

I have no inside knowledge of Amazon’s blue-collar or white-collar workplace cultures, so I’m in no position to judge. Given that MTurk was a forerunner of the gig economy, though, here’s the follow-up question I wish I’d asked Jeff Bezos then and would still like to ask now. Do you believe that optimizing for customer satisfaction and worker satisfaction is a zero-sum game?

“It is always quiet enough to talk”

Our favorite local spot in Santa Rosa so far is The Toad in the Hole. It’s an English-style pub on the west end of downtown, an easy walk from our house. We like their brews, we like their Cornish pasty, and most of all we like their atmosphere. Sports bars aren’t really our thing, nor is soccer, but while soccer games are often playing on TV, they’re not intrusive and not usually a focus of attention.

Toad in the Hole wants to be a place where people come together to talk. The flip side of the menu reprints a 1946 George Orwell essay, The Moon Under Water, a fictionalized amalgam of the best features of all the pubs he knew and loved. At the center of the essay is this pivotal sentence:

“In the Moon Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk.”

I’m not any kind of audiophile but I’ve long been bothered by the awful acoustics in so many establishments. It’s hard to have a conversation in a room full of music and voices bouncing off hard surfaces. And while it’s easy to mitigate those sounds with baffles, that’s rarely done. One reason Toad in the Hole lives up to Orwell’s ideal is that it gets that right. It eluded me on our first few visits, but the other night I looked up and saw this:

You can see two acoustic baffles hangling from the ceiling. There are more like that all around the perimeter. It’s a subtle thing that most patrons may not notice. But it makes a huge difference!

It’s also a nice lesson in product design. Vanish into the woodwork, solve problems that people may not even recognize in a way they may not even notice, and let them just get on with what they care about.