Stubborn thinking

The start of the Banks-Vernonia rails-to-trail

There’s a glorious plan for a rails-to-trails project in my neck of the woods in Oregon. It’s been planned out for years and funds have been raised. For good projects like this, there are so many available grants (in the millions of dollars) that the county bought up all the necessary land easements and was set to begin construction on the trail soon. In the area, there’s basically no way to get from north to south safely, as the only paved path is a high speed 55mph narrow two-lane road with no shoulder and no bike lane.

The region is economically depressed, as there are no major employers or manufacturers, so pretty much everyone works and commutes elsewhere to larger cities. A rails-to-trail network would be a boon to the area. I saw the transformation myself with the Banks-Vernonia trail about 20 miles north of this proposed route. 15 years ago I traveled to Vernonia for an event, and being a former lumber town, I’ll never forget the day I was there because all the shops and restaurants were closed up and there was no place to get lunch on a Saturday. The place was a ghost town. I ended up getting food on the way home a few miles away. When I returned to ride the actual trail in 2014, I remember it being a tuesday afternoon and when I pulled into Vernonia on my bike, every restaurant was crowded, the streets were filled with people and I ended up getting lunch from a hot dog cart (and even that had a line).

Imagine a railway from the 1800s that has sat dormant since the 1980s, turned into a wide, flat paved off-highway road for families to enjoy while they spend their time (and money) in the region. It’s a no-brainer and a big win-win, right?

The miles of trail that will someday be used by thousands crosses through a couple dozen farms, and this being a freedom-loving conservative area, they’re not fans of any of it. While everyone has had a railroad easement on their property since the 1800s, farmers are always looking for arable land even when it’s only a couple percent of their overall space and even though the county will build fences for protecting their farms (the Banks-Vernonia trail has dozens of custom fences built and paid for by the trail).

The farmers have banded together and lobbed legal challenges at every step of the way, grinding down a lot of progress. Even now that final studies and construction plans are being drafted, they’re turning their opposition to 11. They flood county meetings talking about how trash will line the entire trail and how people running with dogs will somehow frighten or maul their livestock or that the trail will become a home for the homeless. It doesn’t matter that there is zero crime (I was at an earlier meeting where a sheriff from Banks said he’s never been called to the trail and to date had zero crime reports on the trail), no homeless, and little-to-no trash on the Banks-Vernonia trail, or that the only bike trail with homeless encampments is the one in downtown Portland with easy access to city facilities (this trail would be miles from any town where you could even get something to eat).

I really hope a couple dozen farmers don’t win this fight. They’re being extremely myopic as soon there could be thousands of families happily using this safe, off-highway trail to enjoy the region and visit the towns along the way. I have no doubt this will be a huge economic driver for an area big on winery tourism. Having a 20 mile paved path linking the region together safely will showcase everything the area has to offer and thousands of visitors will enjoy it every weekend, most likely stopping at any towns along the way to eat and drink.

If you live in Northwestern Oregon and would someday consider a trip on this completed trail, the county is asking for comments from people in support of the project. The details are all in this Facebook post with a deadline of this Thursday to hear public comment that helps drive it forward.

Optimizing for outrage

I’m dismayed to see Twitter and Quora optimizing for outrage lately in their quests to keep users engaged and using their services at any cost.

Twitter has made two recent changes that prize outrage over user happiness.

The first is inserting recent trending news into my list of notifications. For 12 years, my notifications tab has been filled with nothing but a feed of interactions on my tweets. It’s been 100% personal and customized to just me for all that time. A couple months ago, they started adding in news alerts. At first, they weren’t bad, it was a lot of CNN breaking news level things like “A major congressional hearing is now streaming” and it was kinda useful, but after a couple weeks it quickly devolved into “Trump did something” with a much lower bar. I’ve only recently unblocked Trump (tired of seeing friends RT his ugly messages into my timeline) and I have zero interest in hearing about the garbage things he says each day. If I wanted to know, I’d follow him. I’m sure there are great engagement numbers for these messages, but it’s low information, high outrage fodder to me.

At the very least, give me some control over them, or stick to the expected behavior for the last 12 years.

The second change to Twitter is finally allowing mobile users to sort their timeline by date, like it was in the early days. Last year I quit Twitter and deleted all my tweets, and I stayed away for two months when it became too much of a timesuck. When I returned, one way to keep myself sane was switching to a latest-tweets-first timeline.

The “in case you missed it” feature that is the default sort had grown to constantly stoke outrage. It would show me the most RTed and liked tweets at the top, often up to 24 hours after they were posted. In our current political climate that meant for 24hrs after any major event, I would see tons of tweets stuffed into the top of my timeline, even hours after things were debunked or stories shifted. News didn’t naturally decay as the “in case you missed it” sorting made sure I saw stuff over and over again.

Moving to latest tweets means news comes and goes. Stuff bubbles up for a couple hours and then it’s gone. But the outrageous thing about this feature is Twitter mobile pushes me back into the Top Tweets/in case you missed it sorting once every few weeks, and I have to immediately switch it back to latest first.

I have no doubt that showing just the top outrageous tweets leads to more engagement. If you’re constantly hitting people with outlandish news stories they’ll open the app more often and interact and post about what they think so the cycle continues. Latest stuff means things decay and not a lot dominates your timeline for more than a couple hours.

That Twitter feels compelled to force me into the outrage cycle baffles me. I dislike any time a service makes a change to my preferences for me.

Finally, Quora recently started pitching me on their revenue program. In order to grow their service, they’re now paying people based on questions and answers, and they give me a weekly notification and board of their top earners.

In the abstract, it’s cool they’re paying writers on their platform for their contributions, but when you build in incentives, you create a system of rewards and it’s hard to make sure that system encourages the best kinds of contributions. Ultimately you want to greatly improve your experience as a result of giving people money for their contributions.

Naturally, people like to game these kinds of systems, especially when there’s a financial reward. Going off my normally great and interesting Quora top questions emails, they’ve taken a dark turn in the past few months.

Is it because I click on questions that sound bananas according to Quora’s algorithms so they show me more outrageous things each week? Or is it because people are getting paid to make highly engaging questions that set people off? I can’t tell, but it feels like the service is measurably worse, since all Quora wants to show me are clueless questions from Trump supporters. If you look at the subjects above, it’s almost a form of sealioning as people are “just asking questions” but my weekly digest email feels more like a pit of vipers than ten interesting questions I used to like reading.

Content moderation has no easy answers

This morning I read Casey Newton’s expose of Facebook moderation problems at the Verge.

Let me be clear upfront: content moderation is tough and I have no idea how to solve it at internet scale—in fact I’m not even sure it’s possible to do on the orders of millions and billions of items to be reviewed. Stories like this started coming out about 5 years ago about facebook moderators in the Philippines having high burnout rates and I remember thinking the problem had no easy solution back then (hint: it’s even worse now).

I ran a somewhat popular indie site for 15 years, the last half or so with ample moderation. But to put the scale of the work in perspective, we were dealing with 10-15 thousand active people daily posting about 3,000 things. Slightly big numbers but still small enough you can wrap your head around them. Mostly day to day we broke up bickering matches between two grad students on the site. And even that was still a drag and after many years doing it I had to hang it up to take a break from the day to day stress.

People often say to me that Twitter or Facebook should be more like MetaFilter, but there’s no way the numbers work out. We had 6 people combing through hundreds of reported postings each day. On a scale many orders of magnitude larger, you can’t employ enough moderators to make sure everything gets a check. You can work off just reported stuff and that cuts down your workload, but it’s still a deluge when you’re talking about millions of things per day. How many moderators could even work at Google? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? A million?

YouTube itself presents a special problem with no easy solution. Every minute of every day, hundreds of hours of video are uploaded to the service. That’s physically impossible for humans to watch it even if you had thousands of content mods working for YT full time around the world.

So everyone says “I guess AI will solve it” but then you have all of AI’s problems on top of it. Baby videos get flagged as porn because there’s too much skin tone filling the screen. Subtle forms of abuse aren’t picked up because the patterns don’t exist yet in the AI and every day is a cat-and-mouse game to stay head of AI. AI is prone to the same biases in the creators and will have negative effects down the line.

I don’t know how to counteract the effects of moderation, or how to mitigate the toll it takes on people. I know this from friends working all over the tech industry, but any job that requires you to solve problems for people and express empathy for them, whether that’s in a chat window or on phone support or at a genius bar, it all takes its toll on people doing it and those jobs have high turnover rates. Many content items described in Casey’s piece are horrific and I don’t know how to you prevent it from harming employees, but aside from those special cases it’s extremely hard to keep the work from grinding people down.

Honestly, I wish there was a solution. I’d love to see Twitter do a better job keeping terrible people off their platform and stopping things like brigading where you make a joke about a public figure and then thousands of people hound you from some unknown source. I wish YouTube would get better at filtering out conspiracy nonsense and stop radicalizing people. I wish Facebook could keep their site free of brutality without permanently harming workers who have to look at it.

I was part of a small corner of the internet where we made it work, but it was downright tiny compared to the big internet scale platforms. That’s not to say it’s impossible so we should throw up our hands and give up, but I just want to acknowledge how hard the problem is to solve. I’ve thought about these issues for decades but there are no easy answers. I don’t let any large platform off the hook for what takes place there, but I do recognize there’s no magic solution.

Two months with Blue Apron

I’m coming to around to meal kits about five years too late, but in an effort to help share the dinner workload at home, around the new year I decided to try out Blue Apron twice a week at first, and now three times a week.

Going into this, I had almost no familiarity with meal kits or Blue Apron, as I’d only heard they’re kinda wasteful in terms of packaging and having to fly food to you overnight. I wasn’t sure if I’d learn much from them, because I figured the ingredients were probably pre-measured and prepped. I wasn’t sure if the service was worth $10 per plate, but my hope was after 6 months or so of Blue Apron that I’d have enough experience working with various proteins, vegetables, and spice combinations that I’d be a better cook in the kitchen. To date, I can only make like 3-4 very basic meals mostly involving BBQing a steak or making pasta.

The one thing that struck me from the start is that the ingredients are all given to you close to the amounts you need, but there’s considerable prep for each meal. I typically spend 15min or so skinning carrots and pressing garlic (there SO MUCH garlic in every dish). For some reason I thought Blue Apron might be Millenial Bachelor Chow with all your stuff pre-cut and pre-measured, but you do have to put in the work to get things ready to cook.

Suggested cooking times are really tight and spot-on. I always choose the middle time in a given range and I’ve had perfect meat and vegetables in every meal. Instructions are pretty straightforward and I’ve only gotten tripped up once when I confused two steps in a meal. I’ve never “ruined” a meal and every dish looks about 98% like the photos that accompany the recipe (the screenshot above is my last 14 meals showing the recipe photo of the meal then a shot of my results next to it.

I’m a bit surprised at how much cooking stuff you really need to do these recipes well. Most use a medium-sized pot and a large frying/sauce pan, but you also need at least a few knives, various strainers, measuring cups, and both a garlic press and a juice press help greatly. Sometimes the instructions would gloss over something fairly difficult to do, like chopping up shallots and I’d have to look up a YouTube video or two to figure out how to do that.

Overall I’ve been quite happy with Blue Apron. About once a week we have a meal that is utterly fantastic, with flavors that are incredible. I’ve taken to calling Blue Apron “culinary training wheels” because I’ve quickly gotten good at prepping and crushing garlic, cutting up and prepping fish and chicken, and chopping vegetables. It really does feel like a quick education in how to prep many different decent meals and I’ve learned a ton in the past two months. Even my spouse who is an expert-level home cook has been impressed with the flavor combos, seasonings and sauces, and overall taste of the dishes.

After two months, it’s been a solid hit. I’m learning how to prep tons of different ingredients and meals and we’re getting really good food that feels like it’s worth $10/plate and would be at home in a restaurant. My original plan was to get enough experience that I could bust out some cookbooks and go to the store to prep my own meals, but it’s incredibly convenient to have it all gathered for you with easy directions. I’ll likely keep doing this long term because it’s pretty fun to prepare, the recipes are easy to follow, and the results are top-notch.

Honestly, I didn’t think it would go this well. This isn’t a sponsored post and I’m not even sticking my affiliate code in a link to sign up. It’s a pretty good service that is both teaching me how to cook as well as letting me make good meals for my family.

A stupid Internet of Things story

Recently my Nest thermostat started getting aggressive about going into Eco or Away mode to save energy. Normally, it’s probably fine but our winter has been a bit chilly this year and I’ve started to notice.

I’ll be working in my home office for a couple hours and suddenly it’s freezing. I’ll check the Nest and it’ll have dropped to 65ºF in Eco mode and will take two hours to get up to 70ºF in the winter. If I don’t get up and visit my kitchen every hour or so, my Nest thinks I’m out of the house.

I realize if the Nest worked with Apple’s Homekit, I could probably figure out a way to use my phone’s location inside the house to denote my presence and keep the heat running normally when I work at home. But Nest is owned by Google, and they’re in an eternal battle with Apple, so that’s not going to happen.

I relayed this nonsense to a friend who came up with a remedy immediately: if I owned a Nest camera, and I put it in my office, it would know I was around and keep the heat on.

He was right of course, but I had to picture it to grasp it fully. In order to keep my house warm when I’m working at home away from my smart thermostat I’d need to buy a $400 camera and point it at myself in my home office so that my thermostat knew I was on the other side of the house.

This is the current state of IoT devices and ecosystems.

One Moto

I went to the One Motorcycle Show in Portland this past weekend. It was an interesting mix of bikes of all shapes and sizes and styles. It was held in a huge warehouse with probably 7 or 8 giant rooms filled with bikes, but was choked with people and tough to move around. Also, no parking lot to speak of so you had to park a mile away and take a bus. Anyway, here are some of my favorites.

There were so many 1970s Honda CBRs done up in cafe racer styles or classic chopper styles, but I really loved the simple elegance of this one.

The other weird trend was people hot rodding old 1960s Honda Super Cubs into hilarious drag bikes considering how slow/low powered they are.

This bike was the most baffling of the day. A racer style bike with lots of fairings and deep fenders, but also knobby tires like an adventure bike, but also? Those tires have white walls (how do they stay white if you take it on dirt?). I don’t understand why someone would build this combo or where you’re supposed to adventure to with those giant knobbies but also that huge front fender. This makes no sense outside of being a goofy design exercise.

 

Emoji magic

This Emoji Mosaic site is really incredible. I don’t know how someone on a free github install created something so magical, but it takes any image and turns it into a mosaic made up of emoji. It works best with high contrast photos of recognizable things, so I fed it a bunch of plain giant emoji on a black background and what I got back was close to art.

Cars are boring af now

My legs don’t fit in a new Subaru BRZ. At all.

At the Portland Auto Show last night, I spent hours jumping into and out of pretty much every car on the show floor from every manufacturer present showing off their lines. Growing up in Southern California at the heart of car culture, I’ve been enamoured with cars my entire life. In high school my dream was to go to the automotive design program at the Art Center College of Design. Ever since, I’ve owned a dozen different cars of all shapes and sizes and continued to follow car news. Some of my favorite websites still to this day include things like Jalopnik and Bring A Trailer.

But here’s the thing: the writing is on the wall. The auto industry is less important and central to American life than it once was. It’s responsible for quite a lot of damage to the environment and it turns out single drivers in passenger cars aren’t the most efficient way to move people around. Cities are choked with cars and parking and traffic all around the world, and the only ones showing progress are the ones that expell cars from city centers and instead offer better alternatives in light rail and buses and return streets to people on foot and bikes. That’s not even taking into account our grim economic future, and how car ownership may be quickly moving towards a niche hobby for the rich.

It was never more obvious than when I was walking a massive convention show floor, having trouble telling the difference between small crossovers from 6 or 7 different car brands that I sat in and looked around and were all completely interchangeable. Zooming out, the majority of the show floor was all crossover SUVs of the small, medium, and large varieties, and looking at the finest new four door sedans I had trouble even entertaining the thought of why someone would want to own a sedan in this day and age.

I think it’s a good thing that Americans are prizing versatility. One and two car families are more the norm these days and if you’re going to have just one car, it better work at shuttling people around, but also running errands and bringing home the occasional sofa. It should work ok in the snow if you drive up to the mountains, and if we’re being honest it needs to be safe and offer a good vantage point and driving position to be able to see pedestrians at night. So it’s not a surprise that a small SUV is kind of the do-everything-but-nothing-extraordinarily-well option that most people settle on. I remember being shocked to hear Ford is discontinuing pretty much every passenger car they make to focus on SUVs and trucks starting next year, but looking at an auto show today it makes logical sense. It’s a good financial decision to constrict a car brand since that’s what consumers are doing with their buying choices.

The highlights

75% of the cars on the show floor were forgettable. They were mostly mid-market small SUVs that were certainly safe bets for any car company to sell. I was interested in things at the edges, or designs that break the mold in some way. So here’s what still felt interesting to me.

PHEVs

Plug-in hybrids might be the best-of-both-worlds cars for now. You take a regular car with a small efficient engine and you add a battery pack and electric motors to offer 10-30 miles of all-electric driving before the gas engine kicks in. For most short car trips, this means never touching fuel and it’s an attractive option for people with short commutes that live in suburbs where 2-3 mile long trips to run errands are the norm.

Just a few years ago you had only a couple options on the market but the industry is catching up with demand and there were a couple dozen options in all shapes and sizes.

The most exciting option to me was the new Subaru CrossTrek PHEV. It’s a bit more bad weather capable than a typical crossover, it has some of the flexibility and utility of a wagon, and it offers up 17 miles of electric driving. If Subaru ever moves PHEV power up their line, a future PHEV outback or forester might be the perfect all-arounder car to own.

Of all the other PHEV options I’d put the Kia Niro PHEV as another interesting mix of affordable pricing along with ample EV mileage that though it’s quite small, could be another good family car option. It’s the first car I’ve seen that reliably posts MPG numbers in the 70s and 80s for most city driving.

Wagons > SUVs

I can’t explain why I find every form of station wagon infinitely more interesting than most crossover counterparts (maybe it’s a chromosomal trait). I checked out every wagon I could at the show, and the only fascinating option was a new Volvo V90 Cross Country.

The thing is a beast, huge on the inside and out, extremely comfortable and well appointed at the top of Volvo’s line, and has some impressive ground clearance to tackle any sort of weather. If I had a garage big enough to house it and enough money to afford it, it’d be a great versatile family luxury car that could still go anywhere.

It’s a bummer there’s no hybrid or diesel option to help the fuel economy, but I realize the market for a wagons is extremely small, so I’ll take what I can get.

There is nothing interesting in the world of trucks

Someday I might replace my current truck with something more capable, so I took extra care when looking at the trucks on offer from every company. Boy has differentiation and innovation gone out the window in the world of trucks, even though trucks are the leading seller for the companies that produce them.

Everything is big and getting bigger. What we used to call compact or mini trucks are all considered mid-sized now, but even at mid-size, the physical differences between a new Ford Ranger and a Ford F150 or a Chevy Colorado and a Chevy 1500 or a Toyota Tacoma and a Toyota Tundra are not that vast. The bigger versions feel maybe 10% bigger, and while trying to find parking for my own mid-sized truck the point wasn’t lost on me that it’s not easy to move these beasts around most US cities (even the mid-sized ones).

Nothing stood out, because there were virtually no new ideas on display. Big trucks are big sellers especially in huge vehicle fleets so all the American large trucks were out in force but no one is pushing boundaries and they all seemed interchangeable. Center dash screens and seating materials are getting bigger and better at the high ends, but there were no fuel economy standouts or new ideas on storage options. The off-road ready souped up 4x4s from Chevy and Ford and Ram were vaguely more fun and capable looking but priced way, way above the trucks they are based on.

Trucks should be an area ripe for innovation given their huge market. I think an all-electric or PHEV truck could be a gamechanger. I think an overland/expedition-ready truck could appeal to owners that never need to work at a construction site. I’d love to see more ideas for seating and layouts to ramp up the versatility beyond just a short cab or a crew cab.

Sports cars are the new Cessnas

I grew up surrounded by middle aged guys with sports cars. My neighbor was a CHP officer that collected Porsches. Across the street, my teen neighbor took a rusty barn find 1965 Mustang to showroom quality over the course of ten years. When I was a kid, every well-off white haired retired guy seemed to drive a new C4 Corvette.

Those days are long gone, and so the sporty offerings from each car company were pretty slim on the show floor. A fast fun car isn’t versatile, isn’t good at hauling family around or running errands, and is definitely trending towards being a luxury item. Even if they’re cheap, having an extra car for throwing around twisty roads on sundays is something most people don’t have the extra space or money for.

I jumped into every sports car I could but still about the only ones that seem interesting are the Civic Type-R (I will always be a sucker for cars with red interiors and especially red seat belts), The Kia Stinger (a BMW M5 clone at half the price of a new M5), and on the high end the Audi A7 is still a beautiful design as well as the new huge BMW 8-series coupe (if money is no object). The retro muscle cars from Chevy and Dodge and Ford were all yawns from me. I also found out my 6’3″ frame doesn’t even fit in most small sports cars I’ve long coveted. There will never be a BRZ/86 or a WRX STi or a Audi TTRS in my driveway because they’re too damn small.

Ten years from now, I don’t know who will be buying BMW M3 or M5 cars or laying down nearly six figures for a Nissan GTR or double that for an Acura NSX. Will any of these cars even still be made? Sports cars that don’t serve a broad purpose in our resource- and space-constrained lives feel like my weird neighbor growing up that was into his Cessna small plane. It was an expensive strange hobby that required him to drive far away to a small garage where he’d spend every weekend doing extensive upkeep while only getting to fly maybe once a month. People who race cars in parking lots might fit that same description but it feels like in 10-20 years having any kind of sports car at all will be a weird luxury fewer and fewer will be equipped to take part in.


Anyways, cars are boring and very same-same now. That’s a natural progression of a constraining market that is trending towards an identical answer for a similar set of needs, but as a fan of car design, I really miss the attempts to try new things, figure out new solutions, and see new answers to our everyday problems.

I used to pride myself on being able to identify nearly any car on the road by name, manufacturer, and year/era/generation based on silhouettes and tail lights. But today I honestly couldn’t tell you the difference between a HRV or a CX-3 or a Sportage or a RAV4 or a Tuscon or a Rogue if one flew past me on the highway.