Dispatch #4

A thoughtful collection, updated every few weeks.

📰 Articles

Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria by James Somers, The Atlantic — After scanning around 25 million books, Google was legally compelled to stop. Somewhere at Google, there's an incredible database that no one is allowed to use.

Typing the Technical Interview by Kyle Kingsbury — for anyone interested in functional programming, this is art.

📚 Books

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson — Aurora is existentially terrifying. It's like The Martian by Andy Weir, but it takes place on a generation ship en route to Tau Ceti. Robinson tells the story through the perspective of an AI that's on par with some in the Culture series by Iain Banks.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel — Mandel, I think, is a writer's writer. Since I'm often reading non-fiction or hard sci-fi, it's nice to come across a work that's more poetic. Station Eleven is about the little things.

📺 Television

The West Wing (NBC) — 7 seasons of The West Wing aired on NBC from 1999 to 2006, and it's all on Netflix now. 

 

Dispatch #3

A thoughtful collection, updated every few weeks.

📰 Articles

We Need More 'Useless' Knowledge by By Robbert Dijkgraaf, The Chronicle — if you're a fan of Neal Stephenson's Anathem, this article is about the idea of a Math. Dijkgraaf describes the impact of the Institute for Advanced Study, and its role in creating technology that shaped the modern era.

As France’s Towns Wither, Fears of a Decline in ‘Frenchness’ by Adam Nossiter, New York Times — French villages in particular are known for their charm. Nossiter captures the dismay of locals as more French move to the cities, and supermarkets replace local shops.

The Three Machines by Brad Feld — some thoughts about organizing a company, particularly at the upper levels. Feld writes that the clearest division is Product, Customer, and Company, and perhaps the CEO should only have those three representatives as direct reports.

📚 Books

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman — mythological stories always stand out to me. Perhaps there's something special that comes from telling a story over and over again, across generations — and Neil Gaiman writes an excellent story.

Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner — language learning is a huge passion of mine, and I've written a post in the past on how to get started learning a language. I was really impressed by Fluent Forever — it confirmed my suspicion that the way we talk about language learning is changing. The key points are this: start with pronunciation, use spaced repetition software (e.g. Anki), learn the most used words, practice every day.

📺 Television

The Expanse (SyFy) — I've been skeptical about shows made by SyFy in the past, but The Expanse has made me think they've changed for the better. SyFy picked up the story from Daniel Abraham and James Corey, whose book Leviathan Awakes was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2012. The visuals are on par with movies set in space, and the show holds an 85%/94% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, with an 8.2 on IMDB.

 

Dispatch #2

A thoughtful collection, updated every few weeks.

📰 Articles

Eight weeks to a better brain by Sue McGreevey — a Harvard study about the effects of meditation on the brain will be published in the next issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. Analysis of MR images found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus after participants practiced meditation for 8 weeks.

Lessons from 3,000 technical interviews by Aline Lerner — Aline aggregates a lot of anonymous data and compares that with success in interviews. The top indicators of success (in order) she found were: 1) taken a course on Coursera/Udacity, 2) worked at a top company, 3) attended a top computer science school. 

Reflecting on Haskell in 2016 by Stephen Diehl — a collection of some of the most influential articles about Haskell in 2016.

Swift: Challenges and Opportunity for Language and Compiler Research by Chris Lattner — a look ahead at the future of Swift. It's always exciting to see Chris Lattner's vision for the language.

📚 Books

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt — won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. Stephen describes the influence of the Roman philosopher Lucretius and Epicureanism on the modern world. He also tells the story of Renaissance-era humanist book-hunters, who combed through monasteries and private collections searching for the works of Romans and Greeks.

The Circle by Dave Eggers — I should have read this a long time ago, considering where I live and work. A novel about a mega-tech company that resembles a few today.

📺 Television

Westworld (HBO) — perhaps the best television show of 2016, next to Stranger Things. Based loosely on the 1973 film (written and directed by Michael Crichton). This new take raises the bar for A.I. in film.

🎞 Film

Rogue One (Disney) — the latest release in the Star Wars franchise, and the second film released after Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm. Rogue One excels more through its supporting cast than its leadings roles, and still lacks Jedi.

 

Dispatch #1

A thoughtful collection, updated every few weeks.

📰 Articles

The Great A.I. Awakening by Gideon Lewis-Kraus — a long-form article about A.I., framed through advances in Google Translate. What's always been fascinating to me about machine translation is that programmers (knowing nothing about linguistics or perhaps languages other than English), can create a tool to translate between two arbitrary languages with enough data.

Out of the Tar Pit by Ben Moseley and Peter Marks — an academic paper about why software gets increasingly complex as codebases grow. They identify two drivers of complexity — state management and control flow, then talk about architectural approaches to making things simpler (hint: some sort of functional programming). 

📚 Books

Some books I've just picked up:

Functional Swift by Chris Eidhof, et al. — I've been interested in learning more about functional programming and Swift. I've seen a few of Chris' talks, and have been reading objc.io from the beginning, so I had to check this out.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes — this book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1988. It's not so much about the atomic bomb as it is about the history of modern physics, and the lives of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. Rhodes captures the many small discoveries that made 20th-century physics exciting.

Some books I've just finished:

How to Bake π by Eugenia Cheng — this was recommended to me by a friend as a good introduction to category theory. Category theory lends some crucial concepts to functional programming, so I thought I'd learn more about it.

Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe — this is a science fiction series published in the 1980s. Gene Wolfe won several "Best Novel" awards from the major sci-fi reviewers around the time of publication (Hugo, Locus, Nebula). It's set in the far future, but technology on Earth has mostly regressed to medieval-era stuff (with a few important exceptions).

📺 Television

The Grand Tour (Amazon) — it's quite possible that I've seen every episode of all 22 seasons of Top Gear. So of course, I have to watch the Grand Tour. It's okay, but not great. The humor is a bit too staged. Top Gear was about what Clarkson could appear to get away with, but now that constraint is gone.

3% (Netflix) — I thought 3% was pretty good. It's directed by César Charlone, the cinematographer from City of God. Make sure to watch in the original Portuguese with English subtitles.

🎞 Film

Arrival (Paramount) — finally, an alien movie with linguistics at the forefront! Arrival is good, but still falls into some classic alien-genre tropes that prevent it from being great. I'd recommend reading the short story from the collection that it's based on, Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang.

 

How to start learning a language

Language learning has been a hobby of mine for a while. I wasn't able to learn a second language growing up, and I think that's motivated me even more.

In the past year, I've gone from nothing to having simple conversations in German and Spanish. I think my process is replicable with almost any Western language. With CEFR as a reference, I've been able to go from A1 to B1 in both.

There are still many things I can't understand in each language, but that comes with time. I'd recommend starting by reading this popular Quora post, which is right to say: "Learning a language isn't hard. It's just LONG." 

Methodology

Memrise

Memrise is app on web and mobile that helps you through decks of flashcards. I use it for at least 15 minutes a day — it's the best thing you can do to build vocabulary. Look for decks like 5000 German Words (top 87%), or Comprehensive German Duolingo Vocabulary instead of Memrise's generic courses.

Anki is also a good alternative, but I've found it a bit more cumbersome to use.

Michel Thomas

Michel Thomas was a WWII veteran who grew up speaking Polish. As a child, he moved to Germany, then later to France (where he joined the French Resistance) when the Nazis came to power. After the war, he learned a few more languages, then moved to the United States to teach diplomats and celebrities. 

Later in life, Michel created a series of audio courses, which are incredible. They're heavily focused on speaking, and constantly challenge you to produce sentences in the language.

The sentences start out simple, but Michel aims to give you building blocks to form increasingly complex sentences. In French, you might hear something like:

  1. Je voudrais manger
  2. Je voudrais manger avec vous
  3. Je voudrais manger avec vous ce soir
  4. Je voudrais manger avec vous ce soir, mais je n'ai pas une réservation.

Fairly soon, you're speaking several sentences at a time, and you understand every part of it. You realize those parts can be used to form other sentences, which feels great. Actually producing sentences on your own is critical to develop speaking skills.

Easy Languages

Easy Languages is a YouTube channel that helps people learn through street interviews with locals. It's a good way to hear native speakers say simple things.

Each episode has a themed question. They're usually straightforward, like "quel est votre lieu préféré á Paris?" (what is your favorite place in Paris?). 

Most languages have a 100+ episodes, so they cover many topics — including the oddly morbid German episode where they asked people, "was passiert mit dir, wenn du tot bist?" (what happens after death?). 

I watch about one episode a day, but I'll usually play through it several times at 0.5x speed to really hear the pronunciation.

Netflix

Netflix has lot of good content in other languages (especially if you're savvy enough to use a proxy). If you're not in the mood to do flash cards, you might learn a little by watching a show in another language, even if you're using English subtitles. Try to pick out each word a character says, and repeat it out loud to yourself, even if you don't know what it means.

Take advantage of word frequency

Spend any time learning languages, and you'll come across the notion that some words are used much more often than others. In English, for example, it's commonly accepted that 3000 words will cover about 95% of written text, 1000 words will cover 89%, and just 25 words will get you to 33%.

There are similar curves in other languages. Lingvist, an app I'm using to learn French, includes this chart as you progress.

Make sure you're learning the most common words. Just 10 words a day for a year is already 3,650 words!

Be consistent

Momentum in language learning is huge. You will constantly forget things, and the best way to stop yourself from slipping too far is to practice. You'll be amazed at how quickly you can progress by doing something every day. Get into a routine, and stick to it.

 

Best of luck,

Austin

 

The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown was inspiring. The story follows Joe Rantz — one of the oarsmen that raced in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Brown draws many parts from a personal interview with Joe:

"It was when he tried to talk about 'the boat' that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his eyes... Finally, watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that 'the boat' was something more than just the shell or its crew."

Joe had a difficult life. He grew up during the Great Depression, and his mother passed away when he was three. At fifteen, Joe's father and step-mother left him to live by himself.

He made it through high school by chopping down trees and catching salmon. He paid for college by paving a road, and operating a jackhammer while suspended off the side of Hoover Dam.

The world today is a much different place than the one Joe grew up in. Reading The Boys in the Boat made me appreciate that.

There's a constant parallel between overcoming challenges in life and in rowing:

"It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you."

Along with Joe's story, Brown draws on a huge collection of journal entries, newspaper clippings, and radio transcripts — all of which add more detail than I could've imagined. If you're looking for a book to end the summer with, I'd recommend picking this up.

"To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both — it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience — a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it."

 

 

 

 

Advice on unplanned, international travel

I just got back from a solo-trip to Japan, and had a lot of time to think about the way I travel. Traveling in an unplanned fashion is something I'd recommend anyone try at least once, so I decided to collect some thoughts into a guide.

 

Flights

International flights can be surprisingly cheap if you follow these guidelines: 

  • Use flexible destinations — the bulk of the cost is usually getting out of the country. Once you're there, it's easy to take a train or another short flight to get where you want to go.
  • Use flexible dates — airline prices fluctuate wildly depending on the season and day of the week. Look at a grid like the one below to find the best price.
  • Use Google Flights — forget other travel websites, Google Flights is by far the best tool I've found.

Here are some Google Flights results for a trip from San Francisco to Frankfurt. You can get there for as little as $500 if you leave on a Thursday. But I've seen cheaper — SF to Stockholm for $325, SF to Tokyo for $400 — that's the same as plenty of domestic flights. 

 

Lodging

I think there's a comfortable middle ground between couch surfing and staying in hotels. I usually prefer to change it up — one night I'll stay in a hostel, the next in an Airbnb or a hotel. Remember that it's just a place to sleep, you're not there to stay in the room.

I prefer to know where I'm sleeping 2-4 nights ahead of time, but try not to plan much farther than that. 

Hostels are hit or miss. I'd recommend them only if you're traveling by yourself. There are also some upper-scale hostels, like Wombats, but you usually have to reserve early if it's high season.

Pros:

  • Meet a lot of people
  • Usually the cheapest option if you're traveling solo
  • Hostel events (e.g. bar crawls, dinners, etc.)

Cons:

  • Sleeping in the same room + sharing bathrooms with 4-12 strangers
  • Keeping your stuff in a locker, or a shared storage area
  • The best hostels are booked in advance

Airbnb has changed the game. It's by far my favorite way to stay. If you're traveling by yourself, try staying with a host in a private room. I've been invited to family dinners and gone out with hosts and their friends. If you're traveling with a group of 2-6 people, get an entire home or apartment and split the cost among the group. I've found this can often be cheaper than staying in hostels, which will charge per person.

Pros:

  • Chance to experience things with or learn from a local
  • Stay in incredible apartments, like this houseboat in Amsterdam
  • Opportunity to do laundry
  • Easy to book last-minute and almost always available

Cons:

  • Getting the keys/learning about the house can be a hassle if you're only staying for one night

Hotels — I prefer to avoid hotels, but they can sometimes be a relief because you know what to expect.

Pros:

  • Easy to book last-minute and almost always available
  • Privacy

Cons: 

  • Less of a unique experience
  • Cost

 

What to pack

I brought roughly the same stuff for a one week trip to Japan as I did for a two month trip throughout Europe. In general, I'd say the lighter the better. If you're traveling for a long time, you'll have to do laundry at some point. Washing your clothes in a sink or a bathtub isn't too difficult, but it helps to have clothes that dry quickly. I've included links to things I particularly liked.

Remember that you can always buy the small things you forget, so don't worry too much about getting everything right. Check out this post by Keegan Jones for some more advice.

As for the bag, I used the 60L Lost Coast by Boreas. 60 liters is much larger than you need if you're traveling in cities, but it's sometimes nice to have the extra-space.

 

Phones and Internet

If you're only going for two weeks, I'd recommend keeping your phone in airplane mode the whole time. Not only does this save money, but it'll also keep you from checking your phone every five minutes. WiFi is usually available in at restaurants, cafes, or wherever you chose to stay.

Something I learned — Google Maps' GPS works well in airplane mode. Search for your destination while you have Internet, then follow yourself on the map.

Don't worry

There's a lot of advice in this post, but you'd probably still have a good time if didn't listen to any of it but this — don't worry. Be in the present. Do what you want to do, and not because read about in a guidebook. Make your experience yours.

Happy travels.
 

 

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

The Power of Habit is a wake-up call. It made me more aware of the things I do without thinking, and convinced me that it's possible to change what's unhealthy or unproductive. However, perhaps more importantly, it explains how to build the habits that you want to have.

Duhigg writes that habit-formation comes from a region of the brain known as the basal ganglia. After repeating an action often enough, the basal ganglia can take the place of the prefrontal cortex. We no longer need to consciously process the action — and now the prefrontal cortex is free to handle something else.

This was great for our ancestors. It meant that we could automate complex tasks without using as much energy. But today, we often see downsides in habit-formation — especially when products take advantage of science to create habits among consumers.

The book cites a study at Duke University about how much of what we do day-to-day is done with "minimal conscious control."

[T]he pervasive effect of habits in everyday behavior is a key to understanding the difficulty people frequently experience in changing their behavior. People often fail in their attempts at changing everyday lifestyle habits such as their diet and level of exercise. Such failures are understandable given that cues such as time of day and location trigger repetition of past responses. Failures to change do not necessarily indicate poor willpower or insufficient understanding of health issues but instead the power of situations to trigger past responses.
— David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn

The idea that habit formation isn't necessarily about willpower was liberating for me. Don't direct your effort at trying to change your habits — instead, focus on setting up triggers that result in actions. Want to run more? Try putting your running shoes by your bed in the morning.

 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

In 400 pages, Yuval Noah Harari covers about 70,000 years of human history — but Sapiens is not a history book. If you enjoy Jared Diamond or Joseph Campbell, you might also like this.

Harari starts by trying to identify what separated Homo sapiens from other animals, including the related species in the Homo genus. We often forget that Homo sapiens lived alongside other species of humans — species that no longer exist today. How did Homo sapiens succeed while others failed? Harari believes it has do to with our ability to organize ourselves not by instinct, but by common beliefs.

You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.

Our ability to imagine things that are not physically real is the basis of Harari's answer. While we may have started with animism, Harari reminds us that most things affecting our daily lives are also not physically real. These myths allow us to cooperate on a scale that no other species is capable of, whether it's as company, a city, or a nation.

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

Harari then describes how myths have emerged throughout history and shape the present-day. While discussing history, he keeps the content engaging by making comparisons to current events.

Harari also poses some challenging questions about human nature. When did we feel most fulfilled as a species? When were we the happiest? Could it have been as hunter-gatherers, or somewhere in between then and the present day? Given emerging biological evidence that happiness is related to a balance of chemicals in the brain, he suggests that, on average, we might have felt happier in another time period.

Nothing captures the biological argument better than the famous New Age slogan: ‘Happiness begins within.’ Money, social status, plastic surgery, beautiful houses, powerful positions – none of these will bring you happiness. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.

Sapiens is worth checking out. Harari's blend of narrative and historical analysis makes it an enjoyable read, while offering some great starting points for further discussion.

 

Getting lost

My dad’s car was in the shop, so he needed me to pick him up from work. He’s in construction, so he doesn't go to a typical office — instead, his company will move a few trailers to a place near the job site. He texted me the address since I had never been there before.

I felt a bit nervous when I got into the car because I knew that my old iPhone 5 would die right under 20 percent. This is especially true when it’s doing something power-intensive, and I’d need Google Maps open the whole way.

The job site was on highway I-35, and the trailers were about two miles from the exit. The 20 percent battery alert came as I was getting off, but I figured it would hold out for the last two or three turns.

I took the first left into an industrial complex. Coming up to the next turn, I noticed a guard rail about hundred yards down. The street was a dead end – Google Maps had let me down.

I though about warning my dad. Instead, I unlocked my phone and searched. The trailers were on a road that ran end-to-end though a wooded area behind the industrial complex. I tried to work backwards, but the route was just complicated enough for my phone to die before I had anything memorized. My dad was expecting me, and I knew neither his address nor his phone number.


I love maps — so much so that my parents gave me a hardcover Rand McNally World Atlas for Christmas one year. But I think what makes me love maps the most is the opportunity they present for design.

 

One of my favorites is Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 map of the New York subway system. This was one of the first maps to sacrifice geographical accuracy for clarity and information.

Google Maps is similar in a way. It’s accurate because our screens can zoom and pan, but we usually don’t even notice. Most of the time, we’re just paying attention to the next direction. Kevin Nguyen talks about this in The Lost World:

We don’t really get lost anymore, but we also don’t know where we’re going.

Perhaps this is why New Yorkers were angry when Vignelli’s map was first released. You could use it for subways, but was it really a map of New York?


I’ve only driven a few times in San Antonio since my parents moved there after I left for college. I didn’t know how to get back to their house from where I was, so I decided to go door-to-door looking for someone kind enough to lend me an iPhone charger.

I walked into several offices, none of which were really designed to receive visitors. It was awkward and uncomfortable.

“Hey, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’m looking for an office nearby. The address was in my phone, but my phone died, so I was wondering if anyone could let me borrow an iPhone charger for a few minutes?”

Embarrassingly, I didn't even remember the name of the road I was looking for. I had pasted it straight from my dad’s text and that was it.

With no luck, I drove back to a strip mall near the highway. There were a few restaurants and an acupuncture clinic. I preferred to avoid the former so I didn’t interrupt the waitstaff. 

Finally, the man behind the clinic counter had a charger in his car. He hooked it up to the computer in the office while I sat in the waiting room. We checked the phone after about ten minutes, but it was still dead.

Over an hour late now, I realized something I should have thought immediately — I was wearing a Pebble, which kept the address in my notification history.

I showed it to the man, who seemed both fascinated by the watch and glad that my problem was now resolved. We went to the back office together, where he typed the address into Google Maps.


As a kid, I was always impressed by the way my parents seemed to know where they were going. My mom would write down step-by-step directions on a sheet of paper before she left the house, though every outing came with the chance of getting lost.

I started driving around the time I got my first iPhone, and I’ve never had to ask for directions. I can't say I feel like I'm missing out, but I have to admit that my experience seemed surreal — especially when the problem was resolved by *more* technology. Kevin continues: 

We spend too much time being terrified of getting lost rather than embracing the chance to be confronted by something new and unknown.

I might have been able to figure out where the trailers were without my phone, but I didn't think of it at the time. Perhaps my reaction – to just get my phone working again as quickly as possible – is more telling than anything else.