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  • Michael Krakovskiy 9:26 pm on May 15, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: beautician, , , , , , , Learning, , math teacher, , Michael Bloomberg, New York, , Richard Trethewey, , , , technology pioneer, This Old House,   

    On Learning to Code. Or Not. 

    Alert! Jeff Atwood wrote an excellent post about the “learn to code” movement.

    He starts with a tirade full of incredulity about Mayor Bloomberg’s New Years resolution to learn to code with Codeacademy.

    “Fortunately, the odds of this technological flight of fancy happening – even in jest – are zero, and for good reason: the mayor of New York City will hopefully spend his time doing the job taxpayers paid him to do instead.”

    Let’s put aside the princely sum of $1 that His Honor collects from the job. Let’s even put aside that Mayor Bloomberg is doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing – promoting New York’s bustling tech industry. More to put aside: our Mayor happens to be a technology pioneer with a ridiculous IQ.

    This all comes down to a very difficult question: should people learn nerdy things when they have little use for them, just for the sake of learning.

    I remember a Livejournal discussion that was hashed over and over in the Russian-speaking community. A math teacher was stumped by a question from his student: why was she supposed to learn about trigonometry when she wanted to become a beautician. The teacher did not come up with a good answer, but the livejournalers did dig up some awesome reasons. One well meaning pro-education-for-the-sake-of-education zelot said something to this effect: well, if you work with nail polish, tangents and cotangents figure prominently in formulas that deal with reflectiveness of thin films. That will lead to a greater understanding of how and why nail polish looks the way it does.

    On the surface it may seem that Mayor Bloomberg has about as much need to know how to code as much as a beautician needs to know about sines and cosines.

    There’s more: executives who learned a little bit about writing code at some point tend to say the following phrase “oh, I don’t know much about writing code, just enough to be dangerous”. They say it with this look on their faces:

    Jeff takes this further with the plumbing analogy: since almost everyone has a toilet, should everyone take a course at toiletacademy.com and spend several weeks learning plumbing?

    Normally I’m against education for the sake of education. I once argued for a whole hour with a co-worker who felt that _any_ education is worth _any_ amount of money. I did not know at the time that he held degrees in Psychology of Human Sexuality, Biology, Sociology and Communications. He must have been on to something: he made an amazing career while mine took a nosedive soon after that discussion.

    Here’s where Jeff is wrong (I know, this is shocking, Jeff being all wrong and such): it is better to push people to learn incongruous things then to tell them that this is a bad idea. Steve Jobs learned calligraphy in college and it turned out to be super useful. He might not have become a master calligrapher, but man, did that piece of esoteric knowledge change the world.

    When I was in college I badly wanted to take a scientific glass blowing class, but did not. I deeply regret that.

    Are there people who learned plumbing from This Old House annoying contractors? Yes. Are self-install refrigerator ice maker lines causing millions in water damage? Yes. Is the world better off because Richard Trethewey taught it some plumbing? Absolutely.

    If anything, attempting to learn to code will make people more compassionate towards coders. I do believe that people who are not already drawn to programming are not likely to become programmers, more than that, they are not likely to sit through a whole RoR bootcamp or worse. Learn to code movement is not likely to lure in bad programmers, but it might give people some understanding of what coders go through and maybe be more hesitant to have loud yelling-on-the-phone sessions near their cubes. Mayor Bloomberg, who enforces open workspace policies everywhere he works, might understand why programmers need offices. Jeff, let His Honor code a bit.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 8:11 pm on November 27, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , New York, , Q, , , stainless steel worms, steel panels, subway systems, , , , Vintage Train New York Transit Museum   

    Catching the Vintage Train 

    New York Transit Museum operates a special subway train made out of a ragtag selection of vintage trains.  Normally these trains are used as a stationary exhibit, sometimes as a vehicle for special events (like the Old City Hall station tour), but sometimes all straphangers are in for a treat: the train operates on normal subway lines.

    Most people view subway trains as uniform utilitarian objects, stainless steel worms that swallow them in point A and if everything goes well spit them out in point B. But in reality the modern NYCTA system is made out of a hodgepodge of different train models, a legacy of three different subway systems. Many old train models have been retired, like the beloved “Redbird” trains. And by retired I mean dumped into the ocean to become artificial reefs in NJ. I remember riding redbirds, and sometimes used to encounter other old trains before they have been scrapped in favor of the more technologically advanced, but poorly designed R160-style trains. The museum train is a special case of this.

    The rivets and a mishmash of large windows and steel panels give the old R1 cars look of living prehistoric creatures. Graffiti writers of the 70s hated these cars because they did not have a lot of flat surface to cover in paint and called them “ridgys”. Modern train cars mostly do away with the front windows, cutting off the whole front for a spacious machinist’s cab.

    This unfortunate design decision leaves less space for passenger and does not allow kids of all ages to get “machinist’s view”.

     

    These trains don’t sound like the new ones: they don’t make the “ding-dong” sound when the doors are closing, but produce a pleasant “ksssht-pfft” noise of a pneumatic actuator. Instead of whining a few melodic notes like the R160s, R1s roar like propeller planes.


    One unique feature is the lack of large plastic American flag stickers that were added to all trains after 9-11.

    Helvetica was not dominating the typography of the subways yet. In fact, it was not yet created.

    The alternate reality feeling permeates the cars. Dangerous looking ceiling fans, exposed incandescent lightbulbs and vinyl seats were from an era less concerned with vandalism.

    State of the art pre-war climate control: rider-accessible vents

    and futuristic fans

     

    The tiny little rattan seat behind the machinist’s cab and the completely different design of the hand strap.

    One of the biggest difference with the modern trains is how the conductor works. He operates the train with the two hand grips while standing precariously between the cars.

     

    Here’s a video that shows this a little better

    One of the coolest parts is the fact that you can ride between the cars (something that is against the modern MTA rules. “<a href=”http://www.deadprogrammer.com/looking-at-the-things-flashing-by/”>Looking at the things flashing by</a>” normally gets you a ticket, even if it’s an amazing experience.

     

    Here’s a video:

    Gold and pinstripe “CITY OF NEW YORK” signs are gorgeous, but the ad reproductions are more entertaining than authentic.

    A friend of mine who remembered these trains from his youth told me that the part that he hated the most about them were the rattan seats: they tended to fray and fragment into pin-sharp pieces of fiber. Rattan seats look beautiful and are extremely comfortable when new, but I indeed sat down on one seat that had a broken section that was uncomfortably sharp. On the other hand all of these trains feature “conversation-style seats” turned 90 degrees to each other instead of the horisontal rows of benches that are the standard today.

    Some dubious advice, although I’ve seen this happen.

    I’m pretty sure this patent ran out by now.

    Currently this train operates every Saturday through January 19th. This page lists the schedule of departures. A round trip to Queens takes about an hour. The best way to catch the train is to arrive on 2nd Avenue stop of the F line in Manhattan. The train spends about 10-20 minutes standing in the station there, so it’s easier to catch. In Queens it does not stand on the platform, but the departure times are pretty accurate. If it’s more convenient, you can just spend a 15 mintues to half an hour waiting along the weekday M train stops, like 47-50th Street/Rockefeller Center.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 12:32 am on June 27, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Alexander Pushkin, Armand-Emmanuel de Vignerot, , , City Hall building, , , electricity meters, , New York, , Pushkin monument, , sadistic gym teacher, ,   

    Odessa Close Up 

    I own a few quality Canon lenses, but 100-400 zoom lens is my favorite. 100-400 is heavy and it needs to be swapped in for something more reasonable often because it only catches a small part of the overall picture. Yes, extreme closeup is a cheesy trick: every object starts looking more significant than it already is when the focus is on it and the background disappears in a soft blur known as “bokeh“. But more often than not I do want to get rid of the clutter and take a closer look at something, to intensely focus on one thing. Sometimes looking at an object zoomed in at 400 you find something new – like a ghostly outline of the old company name hiding behind a new neon sign or a joke left in by the sculptor or notice what is going on on the tops of skyscrapers.

    100-400 seems to add a strange, otherworldly glow to things – the glow that I associate with memory.

    Here’s a series of closeup photos of my hometown, Odessa. Beware, if you are from there this might cause some serious nostalgia.

    The postal boxes were repainted a few times, but are still pretty much the same.

    A core sample is the best demonstration for watermelons

    But you have to trust the merchant’s sign that the grapes from Tairovo are sweet!sweet!

    The dish of my childhood – a tomato salad with tomatoes that taste like tomatoes.

    The building in the background is gone, but the old horse chestnut (which is probably a few hundred years old) is still around

    Here’s what you do with the leaves of acacia: you rip them off in one motion and hold them tight in your fist. Then you let go in an upward motion and try to catch as many as you can. Then you play age old game of loves me-loves me not with the remaining leaves. Well, at least that what I remember.

    Kitteh, as neglected as the city itself voices her complaint.

    A pigeon walks around in fallen acacia flowers in front of my hildhood home. I gathered a bunch of these flowers. They still smell like the city that I lost.

    These flowers in the park are still the same.

    A terrible piece of tile grafitti sprung on a refined and sophisticated building by its new owners is now covered in even cruder grafitti. Soon the slate will be wiped clean. The act of tiled vandalism always amazed me when I saw it as a kid – it was one of the first hints as to what happened in 1919.

    The staircase that leads to the sea at 13th Station of the Big Fountain. If you were brave, you could ride it down, but it lead to more sprains, scrapes, ruined pants and mis. injuries than I care to remember. Yet few kids could pass by the opportunity to ride it down.

    Seemingly indestructable electrical poles are surprisingly free of ads, but they must have carried more of them than many newspapers.

    Pushkin’s fish is still spitting into the fountain basin full of coins left by tourists.

    Corn on the cob at the beach is as spectacular as ever

    A remnant of a communal flat: after the Soviets kicked out and mostly shot the old tenants, what is known in New York as a “classic 5“, a spacious one family apartment became a 5 family apartment. The communal spirit was not complete though – all 5 bells would have been connected to separate electricity meters.

    These sturdy cast iron garbage urns might be pre-revolutionary in origin. They always reminded me of the Pushkin monument and the drinking fountain in the park (which I’ll cover further down).

    Mercury from the City Hall building stares blankly

    The iron fence of the old synagogue reminds me the fence in front of a church on 5th Avenue.

    This is where I would jump off almost every time when visiting the park

    Bullheads!

    The laurel crown of Odessa’s beloved founder, Armand-Emmanuel de Vignerot du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu, looked like a kangol-style hat to me when I was little. I guess it still does.

    Poor old lion dragged from somebody’s pre-revolutionary dacha to “the old Odessa corner”. I sat on this beast many a time for a photo, and so did probably millions of locals and tourists.

    They still use homemade brooms – I’m sure these are superior to synthetic-bristled ones. At the very least they must be cheaper.

    Wild grapes are in every other courtyard. They are extremely sour when green, but rarely survive into maturity.

    This Atlas always amused me because unlike other classical atlases he wore a working man’s belt. He is in a very bad way.

    This lion appears on dozens of buildings. I guess it was on sale two centuries ago.

    It’s pretty hard to destroy ironwork.

    I bet Alexander Pushkin tied his horses to this thing. Or something. It was good for jumping on and off it.

    These trashcans were all over the place when I was a kid – I only found one in the back of a courtyard.

    I bet this kid with a cournucopia (or just a bouquet) of flowers had a wingwang at some point.

    A piece of Soviet sculptural impotence is still memorable to me for some reason. I think it’s supposed to sybolize basketball. Or the last drop of patience or something.

    The crown of one of the last remaining cast iron ad pillars

    There were a few of these things all over the city. As a kid I was told that these were for sampling gas – I remember trying to smell it at some point.

    The entrance to the park – a place to meet after school.

    A park bench

    When I was crawling around the park as a toddler this fountain used to work. It always reminded me the Pushkin monument – it might have been cast by the same company. I still have memories of my father raising me up so I could take a drink.

    Our sadistic gym teacher made us do pull-ups on these bars.

    This is another place where no self-respecting child would walk on the ground instead of skipping on the parapet

    This lamp has seen better times

    Some people say these wells were operational at some point, others say that they were simply ornaments dragged from elsewhere where they were operational. In any case, these are reminders of the time when Odessa’s major source of water was roof-collected rain and the Fountains.

    A lamp of the Soviet vintage

    A horrible Soviet-era mosaic that is nevertheless burnt into my childhood memory

    The soccer stadium lights always made me sad for some reason

     
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