I read six more books

1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Your_Scattered_Bodies_Go

2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_God_Delusion

Book reports coming soon.

Edit 7/6/13:

3) http://www.amazon.com/Mindscan-Robert-J-Sawyer/dp/B0098SMJ04

4) http://www.amazon.com/Little-Brother-Cory-Doctorow/dp/0765323117

Edit 7/17/13:

5) 5 dysfunctions of team http://www.amazon.com/Five-Dysfunctions-Team-Large-Print/dp/0470580461

6) venture deals brad feld http://www.amazon.com/Venture-Deals-Smarter-Capitalist-ebook/dp/B005CDYQSM

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OS X is turning into Windows 98: my four top OS X pet peeves

I can’t believe the changes I’m seeing with OS X. I’ve never experienced such a graceful, simple and effective OS undergo horrible transformations right before my eyes to the point where I’ve even considered, gasp, converting back to Windows.

Here are the 4 pet peeves driving me crazy right now with OS X:

  1. HT1338-Alert-001-enApp Updates Now Available – No, these are not critical operating system updates, this is crap from third-party developers (no offense) that is neither critical nor worth my attention. What’s more, there is no apparent way to get rid of this notification except for an obscure German Apple support guide tip “You can dismiss the Notification Alert by clicking it and swiping to the right.” Thanks a lot, Apple, why didn’t I think of trying that invisible swipe technique used nowhere else on your OS X operating system?
  2. OS X Facebook notification integration. I do not want a Facebook message popping up while I’m at work, watching a movie, etc. Please stop.
  3. Scroll bar fail. I’m tired of playing “hide and seek” with the scrollbar on dark background websites. I realize Apple is trying to merge OS X and iOS and this is part of that master plan, but come on this is a basic necessity and they really messed this one up. More discussion here.
  4. BGuFy0qCEAEwFzI.png-largeForcing iCloud down our throats. The “cloud” has just jumped the shark. iCloud dialogue on TextEdit? Seriously? I just want to jot some notes. Even worse, the proposed purpose of iCloud integration on TextEdit is to make those files available on other devices, however there is no native app on iOS devices that will display those iCloud synced text files. Although you can see the existence of these files on iOS devices if you go to Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup, you can’t view or edit them. Fail.

Most concerning is the trend that these “features” keep getting pushed through from Marketing without proper design / UX testing. I’m not excited about the future of OS X.

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Book Report #7: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

#7: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman

Are you in control of your actions? In a few minutes when you’re finished reading this blog post you might get up to go to the restroom, make a midnight snack or call your mother to let her know how you’re doing. Who or what really made that decision? What does “you” really mean and what is a “personality”?

Using hundreds of documented examples, including many from patients with significant brain disorders, David Eagleman brings readers into the strange world of our brains’ inner workings to explore his thesis that our shared concept of free will is an elaborate illusion granted for our sanity. While we may rationalize the majority of actions we take as purposeful and well reasoned, most of the time we’re actually on ‘autopilot’ and don’t seem to have a say in what happens until we’ve already acted. (Don’t believe me? Read the book.)

One of my favorite concepts from this book is that our everyday thoughts, spoken words and outward actions are the result of a complex competition within a “team of rivals” — complementary and competing stored memories and actions in the neurons of our brain that compete, in an oddly cooperative fashion, to result in the neurons that eventually fire to drive motor activity that results in, for example, lifting a glass of water.

What happens when you apply the model of a “team of rivals” to our earlier question “what is a personality”? A personality is not one, fixed set of words, actions and beliefs, instead it is a conflicting lattice of billions of interconnected neurons representing often contradictory concepts and ideas, the “victor” of which bubbles up to externally represent itself to the outside world as the embodiment of your “personality” through your actions, words and conscious thoughts at a given time. But if external (or internal) conditions change, this dynamic personality made up of competing concepts may exhibit itself quite differently in different situations. I believe we see this in our own lives all the time — think how differently you would act speaking with a close friend compared to your mother or coworker.

The second half of Incognito wrestles with some slightly uncomfortable conclusions and the implications they could have on society, with a particularly heavy focus on and subsequent criticism of the American justice system and its core assumption that we are all rational actors. If physical and chemical causes prove to be behind acts of crime, what does it mean to be guilty of a crime? I’m not a particularly huge fan of our justice system and agree with many of Eagleman’s general criticisms, but I did find the focus on justice reform a bit long and distracting from some of the core messages earlier in the book.

Incognito highly complements Daniel Kahneman’s Fast and Slow, a book I read and reviewed earlier this year. Eagleman’s description of the majority of our actions and thoughts as being outside our direct control reminded me of Kahneman’s concept of the “fast” System 1. (“System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.”)

In writing this review I found it to be tougher than other books to clearly summarize and condense the author’s thesis and flow. While the book has great concepts and is definitely worth a read for those who enjoy this sort of subject, I felt it could have been a bit simpler, more focused and would benefit from cutting some of the more involved discussion of our justice system.

That said, if you can muster up the competing neurons to give this a read, I’d highly recommend it.

PS. This same author wrote Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives a collection of short fiction. Check out a fantastic excerpt of one of the short stories read aloud on this Radiolab episode.

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Book Report #6: Devil in the White City

#6: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

After my surprising love affair with 1906, a historical fiction novel set during San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, I jumped right back on the wagon reading The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Set in the late 1800′s, Larson’s tale intertwines dual narratives. The first focuses on the planning and building of the 1893 World’s Fair while the second craftily reveals the exploits of a criminal benefiting from the masses of naive tourists coming to the Fair.

When my girlfriend lent me this book my only context was her assurance that, “if you liked 1906 you’ll like this.” So, with 1906 fresh on my mind, I was impressed when reading the first part of The Devil in the White City by Larson’s thorough attention to historical detail and facts intertwined with all the necessary elements of a compelling narrative. In fact, in contrast to the minor but frequent geographic slip ups and other factual leeway with which Dalessandro paints our view of 1906, Larson’s Devil is uncanny in its description of historical events down to the point of feeling like a primary record.

At one point while reading I flipped back to the front of the book to read the author’s note I had skipped prior which includes a sentence that, “anything between quotation marks come from a letter, memoir, or other written document.” This took a few minutes to sink in and realize what a magnificent accomplishment Larson created in The Devil in the White City. Not only does this book offer a compelling narrative, but it is also a gem of finely researched historical accounts. Many parts of Devil are, in fact, quoting right from the primary record.

Each subject, the 1893 World’s Fair and the tales of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a doctor, is highly compelling in its own right. The Fair itself was a powerful representation of America’s spirit to create a dream world out of nothing but weeds and a marshy grassland. Such is the general storyline of the Fair as the nation’s leading architects and grounds designers allied a team of thousands to erect a once-in-a-lifetime miniature city housing the era’s avant garde in technology, art and culture.

The importance of 1893 World’s Fair was reinforced directly and indirectly, the latter being the most pressing and memorable. Peppered throughout the novel are small hints about the lasting impacts of the fair from the prominent use of alternating current electric generators and lights, to the mention of a young man named Walt watching his father Elias work on the construction of this fantasy land of the Fair.

The H.H. Holmes storyline is gruesome but captivating, a slow motion trainwreck of criminal intrigue as we learn how much a serial killer can accomplish when everyone is focused on other things. Shocking more than sad, while reading these portions I found solace in recognizing the historical work done by the author to preserve records of these events that were on the verge of destruction.

The real sadness hit me from the closing narrative of the Fair’s ending and partial deconstruction. Midway through the book we are shown the full potential of humanity’s capabilities to create a wondrous city of our dreams, but it ends up as a fleeting ghost that quickly decays into “real life”. Why can’t real life be like the “white city”? What stands in the way of creating the ideal society we really want? If we built a prototype in less than 2 years back in the 1890′s, imagine what we could build today?

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Open Letter to Board of Supervisors re CEQA Appeal Reform

SF Supervisors

I am a local business owner in SF (10 employees in SOMA) and a former SF CTA Geary BRT CAC Board Member.

I resigned in January 2013 from the Geary BRT CAC because of lack of progress and inability of the CTA to stick to a fixed environmental review schedule to move the project forward.

A core reason for this project delay communicated to me by the CTA is the CTA’s fear of litigation after beginning construction on BRT improvements, a fear based in the poorly defined existing processes of CEQA and NEPA.

While Supervisor Weiner’s proposed legislation is not a “silver bullet” to fix CEQA and NEPA processes, it is a step in the right direction.

This is truly one of the most important issues facing our City’s transit using population and we must take the courage to promote CEQA reform. Weiner’s proposal is a great first step and I encourage you to consider its swift approval.

More information on my resignation:
http://kfarr.com/2013/01/29/why-i-resigned-from-geary-bus-rapid-transit-brt-board/

More information on Weiner’s proposed legislation:
Wiener_CEQA_Legislation_Package (PDF)

Best,
Kieran

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The future of local transportation startups: Is Uber doomed to follow in Napster’s footsteps?

A few weeks ago fellow entrepreneur and friend John Wolpert sent me a link to his thought provoking blog post, Is Uber the Napster of Transportation?

His article is definitely worth reading in its own right, but I wanted to post some reactions of my own and build a related discussion here, especially as recent events in just the past few weeks have changed my opinion quite a bit.

On first reading I didn’t agree with John’s conclusions. I was worried he was being sensational in the allusion to “Napster” and grinding an ax given his previous role in founding an Uber competitor. John was the founder and first CEO of Cabulous, now Flywheel, a mobile app that lets users find, hail and pay for taxi rides. Cabulous/Flywheel has found considerable success in its own right, and more than a year ago John handed over the reigns to a new team after a $10MM funding round and is no longer involved day-to-day with the company.*

However, in just a few weeks my opinion has changed considerably after seeing significant legal and labor challenges now facing Uber from all angles — drivers, passengers and regulators alike bringing strikes and suits against the company in multiple cities across the US. The more I read, the more I’m thinking that John might just be right: Uber is playing a crucial role in the disruption of local transportation but may ultimately be doomed to regulatory dismemberment in a very similar fashion to the rise and fall of Napster.

Here’s a quick list of a few of the legal and labor issues facing Uber:
- Striking drivers protest against Uber policies in SF (Does this remind anyone else of Metallica’s response to Napster?)
- Class action lawsuit by taxi driver in Boston, Class action lawsuit by taxi drivers in San Francisco, rider lawsuit in Chicago

PHASE CHECK – Where are we now?

Feel free to disagree with my admittedly over-simplified take on the history of online music distribution, but I’ll be so bold as to broadly classify digital music disruption into three distinct phases marked by brand names that typify for me attributes of those phases:

  • “Napster” – Anything goes — consumers “win” and artists “lose”. Unsustainable.
  • “Rhapsody” – The pendulum swings too far to the artists at the expense of the customers. Rhapsody was a clunky attempt at marrying artists’ revenue goals with customers’ demands for flexible licensing. (Yes, I know it still exists today but I’m referring to the original iteration launched by RealNetworks.) Artists “win” on paper, but don’t really benefit since consumers “lose” given the inconvenience of silly DRM and fragmented music libraries spread across proprietary services. I’d even classify iTunes in this category, it has never been an ideal service for music distribution in my view given the relatively high cost per song and proprietary DRM. Sustainable but not optimal for consumers.
  • “Spotify” – True sustainability – consumers “win” and artists “win”. Pandora, SoundCloud and others also join this category of innovative music distribution services loved by customers and respected by artists.

So where does local transportation stack up? I believe we’re witnessing right in front of our eyes a slow motion transition from the “Napster” phase into the “Rhapsody” phase of local transportation startups. Significant backlash is starting to surface that may very well lead to frustrating curtails in feature sets that benefit consumers. We all agree that drivers need protections, just as musical artists do/did, but my fear is that we may swing the pendulum a bit too far in the direction of over-protection as we have seen in the past with music.

What comes next?

What will the “Spotify” of local transportation turn out to be? Can Uber, Flywheel, Sidecar or Lyft survive consumer market forces and regulatory squeezes that we’re starting to see en masse? If the music industry is any guide, here’s the unsatisfying but likely most accurate answer: we have *no idea* what the “Spotify” of local transportation will be — it hasn’t been invented yet.

One thing is for sure, however: buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride.

*(Full disclosure: I also helped John raise the first round of funding for Cabulous from angel investors and advised the team for about a year as they created the first version of the product, including earning the title of first driver hailed on the system. At the time I was a part-time taxi driver in San Francisco and also working on my new startup VidCaster prior to its first round of funding. I have not been involved with the company’s operations for over 3 years but follow transportation startups very closely and am still very active in transportation advocacy.)

Posted in econ, internets, politics, taxi, tech, transit | 4 Comments

Book Report #5: 1906

#5: 1906: A Novel by James Dalessandro

1906 is a surprisingly awesome book. Surprising for me because it’s a historical fiction novel and that’s usually not my cup of tea.

The story takes place in San Francisco right before (and during) the infamous 1906 quake which leveled most of the City.

Let’s start with the goods:

  • Historical fiction – not usually my thing but there is so much rich history here that it serves as endless fodder for a narrative. I particularly loved hearing about the Palace Hotel during its heyday prior to the opening of the Fairmont.
  • Awesome city setting – this is San Francisco at perhaps its wildest in history just prior to the 1906 quake. You can’t get better than this — expansive city, wild characters, lawless ne’er-do-wells, righteous police fighting for the just cause, the list goes on. Dalessandro leverages San Francisco’s full potential as a narrative setting.
  • Characters – great characters to anchor the story and provide a face to represent wider societal influences in the city and US at the time.
  • Narrative – compelling mystery drove the action forward very quickly for me, I read through the majority of the book in just a week of part time reading.

Bads:

  • Liberties - Dalessandro takes a fair amount of liberty straying from historical accuracy for the sake of narrative cohesiveness. Not a big deal.
  • Minor errors – I recommend if possible to borrow this from the SF public library. Why? Throughout the book are small edits in pencil left by previous patrons who helpfully corrected minor geographical errors by the author (crossing out “avenue” and putting in “street” for example, or bigger errors like mistaking the Richmond for the Sunset district). It’s a funny feeling to see those corrections and realize this is *the* place to fix those errors: In the book. From the San Francisco Public Library.
  • Light on quake – If you’re looking for deep introspection of the actual earthquake and an accurate assessment of damage it caused, this is probably not the book for you. The quake didn’t even happen until more than halfway through the book. Still plenty of quake and fire carnage for me, however.

I highly recommended 1906, this should be required reading if you live in SF.

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