2010 01 17
Recently read: Clearing out the Backlog Edition

Posted by in: Books, Brooklyn, Math, Programming

Peter Siebel. Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming

This superb book is a collection of fifteen interviews with well-known and highly-regarded programmers (Norvig, Armstrong, Knuth, etc). Siebel (author of Practical Common Lisp) is a professional programmer with a keen sense of the (brief) history of the profession. This gives the interviews a depth and a richness that even a clever journalist could never have matched. Siebel is a consistently thoughtful interviewer who asks just the right mix of questions. In any one interview, the questions range from practical ones concerned with how the subjects debug code to more general questions about whether the nature of programming has changed over time. Across interviews, Siebel asks enough of the same questions that we can start to view the answers in comparative perspective, while also allowing what is special about the careers and interests of the subjects to emerge.

In short, if you’re interested in programming, this book is wildly engrossing. A word of warning: If you don’t have any experience programming, and some background knowledge of the field, you’re probably not going to be able to get much out of the book. Some passages were certainly over my head, as I’ve only been a professional programmer since June, when I got my green card, and if I recall correctly, only really got started teaching myself Python about a year and a half ago. But most of it was accessible and inspiring to this junior programmer.

Amy Sohn. Prospect Park West

We lived briefly in (very South) Park Slope when we first moved to Brooklyn, and although we’ve since moved out to Flatbush, we’re back in the Slope all the time. We eat at Al Di La whenever we can afford to. We’ve been members of the infamous Park Slope Food Coop for several years now, and we’re set to have a baby in the Spring. So although my expectations weren’t all that high, I pretty much had to check Prospect Park West out of the Brooklyn Public library, after waiting patiently for my turn in a queue that was over 250 holds long. Prospect Park West is set against this familiar background. The plot follows the ill-considered affair of a Park Slope mother, whose life is connected to a few other characters by a string of coincidences that I would have found far-fetched ten years ago, before I started to notice equally striking coincidences in my own life. (Always remember that odds are that life will be filled with the improbable, since there are an enormous number of possible improbable events—so many that it would be highly improbable for us to go long without another improbable event occurring. This is one reason, among several, that life is filled with strangeness and magic, if you keep an eye out for it.)

Prospect Park West is not a great work of literature, but it’s readable enough. The book’s basic outlook is misanthropic without much in the way of compensating insight. I get that some Park Slope mothers can be a bit much, but so can the author when she (in the mouths of her characters) gets going about them. The author gets points, though, for her depiction of the strange, confusing, prickly racial tension you run across in Brooklyn all the time, and which I struggle to explain to my friends back in Canada. This too was perhaps also a bit overdone, but unfortunately not by much.

One correction: A check out line at the Coop that stretches back to the bread section does not count as long. I don’t know when Sohn shops, but that’s pretty routine in my experience. Long is when it goes all the way along the produce aisle as far back as the milk section.

Charles Dickens. Oliver Twist

This is only the second Dickens novel I’ve read, the other being A Tale of Two Cities. I found A Tale of Two Cities pretty silly, but against my better judgment found the ending weirdly sublime. I didn’t have as much luck with Oliver Twist, which I read for the sole reason that we’re naming our kid “Oliver” and I figured I should at least read the book that helped make his name famous. (On my to do list: Who the hell is Oliver Cromwell?) I found the social commentary in the first part of the book entertaining enough, if heavy-handed. But as the plot advanced, the melodrama and the general absurdity of it all started to suck the fun out of it. Also, I know the book is a product of the early nineteenth century, but the fact that one of the characters is usually referred to simply as “the Jew” and even gets to be the butt of a big nose joke was driving me nuts. What’s that? Dickens was a child of his era, so cut him some slack? Well, I’m a child of my era, so take your own advice and cut me some slack while you’re at it.

Vivant Denon. Introduction by Peter BrooksNo Tomorrow

Vivant Denon was, among other things, the first director of the Louvre Museum, in charge of sorting and cataloging all the goodies that Napoleon stole from the Egyptians. A wing of the Louvre bears his name to this day. Denon was also “maybe, probably,” in the words of Peter Brooks, the author of No Tomorrow a thirty odd page long erotic masterpiece. The New York Review of Books has recently published a fine bilingual edition of the story with an introduction by Peter Brooks. The intellectual imprimatur provided by the publisher and the scholarly introduction makes it totally not skeevy that I’m writing about erotica on my blog.

There’s a lot to admire in Denon’s story and the way he tells it. As for the tale, a woman seduces a man, for pleasure, without negative consequence for either. As for the telling, Denon is delicate without ever being prudish, erotic without ever being explicit. It’s good clean fun for the adults in the family.

Surendra Verma. The Little Book of Maths, Theorems, Theories, and Things

This book covers a very wide variety of mathematical and logical puzzles and problems and more. The author even throws in a discussion of the Body-Mass Index*, presumably because it’s . . . expressed in numbers? Because it’s a little book, and because it’s trying to get to so many subjects, and because the author also likes to throw in limericks and factoids and anecdotes willy-nilly, this book treats each of its subjects in an extremely superficial way. I like limericks and factoids and anecdotes as much as the next guy, but there really wasn’t room for a lot of math in this book, or much opportunity for the author to make the case that mathematics is intrinsically interesting.

Let me also take a moment to plead with the publisher to fix the typos in this book before reprinting, if the book ever gets another shot at life. You know you’re in bad hands when you read the sentence: “No one has ever found an even number that can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers” (p. 76). Oh, really? Cause I think I might be about to make mathematical history!

* Verma tells us that knowing your BMI “can give you an idea of how healthy your weight is.” He doesn’t note that a lot of researchers think the BMI is misleading or useless.

Howls of outrage (6)

2009 02 27
Follow up: 2017 and 2023 Caton Ave.

I went out to 2017 Caton Ave last night to observe a meeting between the tenants at 2017 and 2023 Caton Ave and two of the five owners of the building, Asher Alcobi and Ami Blashkovsky. The previous day, the tenants had protested outside the real estate office co-owned by Asher Alcobi, and that morning, with the help of Michael Grinthal at South Brooklyn Legal Services, they had filed an HP order against the landlords (an action to enforce the housing code). That morning, a three quarter page story about the building’s problems and the protest, had appeared in the Daily News.

The meeting was well attended, and ran from about 8pm to 9:45pm. About 25 tenants crowded into the lobby of the building, which was noticeably cleaner than I had found it on Wednesday. They were joined by Latrice Walker, a representative from the office of Congresswoman Yvette Clarke’s, and for part of the meeting by New York City Council Member, Mathieu Eugene. Michael Grinthal and tenant organizer Aga Trojniak from the Flatbush Development Corporation were also present.

Considering the level of anger and frustration among tenants, the meeting went surprisingly smoothly, for the most part. Much of the credit for this has to go to Samantha Paige, a tenant in 2017 Caton who led the meeting in an efficient and productive way, and to Alcobi, who struck a conciliatory tone on behalf of the landlords. Paige went through a list of demands that the tenants had presented to Alcobi in his office on Wednesday. These included, among other things, a qualified superintendent for the building (which has not had a super for at least six months), that work be done by qualified, licensed tradesmen, and that problems be dealt with in an efficient, responsive, and timely way. Paige volunteered, with another tenant, to coordinate efforts to ensure that tradesmen would have access to individual apartments. Paige made it clear that the access issue was a practical matter that tenants could deal with effectively later, and kept the meeting focused on the list of demands. As a conciliatory gesture, she also stressed that tenants would need to do their part to assist in keeping the building clean and safe, and emphasized some sympathy with the landlord’s perspective a businessman.

After Paige finished, Alcobi spoke. In a rather quiet and understated way, Alcobi is clearly a gifted public speaker, and he handled the situation about as deftly as I can imagine anyone doing it. After thanking Paige for acknowledging his own perspective, he moved on to his main concerns. These included trash in the hallways, and what he described as illegal washing machines in apartments that he blamed for some of the leaks. At this point, Latrice Walker pointed out that whether the washing machines were illegal or not depended on whether they were permitted by individual leases. No one at the meeting, including Alcobi, actually knew off the top of their respective heads what the leases said, and Alcobi was forced to moderate this point.

There followed a lengthy back and forth as the tenants attempted to tie each of the demands to a date by which Alcobi would commit to fulfill the demand. Some of the deadlines were easier to fix than others. The issue of a qualified super was especially thorny, with Alcobi protesting that it was difficult to find a qualified super in short order, and tenants pointing out that they had already been waiting six months. The tenants insisted that Alcobi find a super by the next meeting with him, which was scheduled for March 18th, but Alcobi wouldn’t commit to the date, though he said he would try to find someone.

After the meeting broke up, I spoke with Alcobi briefly. I recreate the conversation from memory, because Alcobi told me that he wasn’t comfortable being taped. I asked him if he was pleased about the meeting. He said he was, but made clear that he didn’t appreciate having a different, and unrelated, business picketed the other day. (Alcobi is a part owner of the building, and a part owner and founder of Peter Ashe Real Estate.) I said that I could understand that, but that I had spoken to a number of tenants and heard a lot of horror stories. “This is a building with a lot of problems,” he told me. “A lot of problems.”

I asked Alcobi if he was pleased with the management company he had hired to handle the building’s affairs. Even with someone from the management company standing beside us, Alcobi wasn’t willing to go this far.

“I’m putting a lot of pressure on them to do things right,” he said. “Let me just say that.”

“So would you say that they’re on probation now?”

“No. Close watch. Not probation.”

He told me that firing the management company would hardly solve anything, since this would just lead to significant delays as an entirely new team worked to get up to speed. Alcobi stressed to me that he was only now learning about the seriousness of the problems in the building.

Given the general incompetence of his management company and what tenants had told me about their style of communication, I can readily believe that Alcobi hasn’t been receiving candid and regularly updated accounts of the state of his property. Still, I wasn’t convinced by the “shocked, absolutely shocked” pose Alcobi struck in both the meeting and in conversation with me. Alcobi has been contacted directly by tenants and tenant organizers repeatedly over the last few months. He arranged a meeting several months ago between tenants and management in which the management committed to fulfill a number of tenant requests that were subsequently ignored. Even if Alcobi had not conducted any active follow up on the progress of the repairs following that meeting, the steady stream of complaints to his office should have tipped him off that something was amiss. It isn’t as if the tenants suddenly jumped up one day and started to picket the man’s office in a fit of pique. They’ve been working fruitlessly for months to get basic repairs done on their apartments.

In any case, how much Alcobi knew on Wednesday morning about the condition of his property is sort of a moot point now. It is certain that he knows now, and that he’s given a commitment to fix the problems. I’ll revisit this issue in a future post to let you know how all this turns out.

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2009 02 26
Annals of Rabble Rousing: 2017 Caton Ave versus the landlords (bonus celebrity photo edition)

Some days you just feel like everything has come crashing down on your head. Olisa Holder felt that way on Monday, when a good chunk of her ceiling fell down on top of her, sending her briefly to the hospital. It sounded like freak accident to me, but I couldn’t find anyone in Holder’s building at 2017 Caton Ave in Flatbush, Brooklyn, who was willing to express surprise about it. The building and its sister building, 2023 Caton Ave, have a joint 600 violations (“and counting,” residents like to add) and a whole lot of very angry tenants. After years of fruitless attempts to convince the landlords to take the building and its maintenance seriously, they’ve recently launched a higher profile campaign for real change in their building. I went to the property yesterday to speak with some of the tenants, and then tagged along with them to the Upper East Side, where they protested outside Peter Ashe Real Estate, at 63rd and Lexington Ave. (Asher Alcobi, the President of Peter Ashe Real Estate, co-owns the building, along with Ami Blashkovsky, an agent at Peter Ashe Real Estate, and three others. The property itself has nothing to do with Peter Ashe Real Estate.)

Much more below the fold (including bonus celebrity photos!).

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Howls of outrage (7)

2007 11 17
Vertical lines, horizontal lines and a pink fire escape

At Cortelyou station

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2007 11 16
Recently read: Flatbush: The Heart of Brooklyn

Nedda C. Allbray. Flatbush: The Heart of Brooklyn

Fun stuff, if you live in my neighbourhood. If not, perhaps not your cup of tea. Anyway, this caught my eye:

The importance of easy access to rapid transit was not lost on T.B. Ackerson, the builder of Beverly Square East and West, who, during the construction process, used his political clout to get both the Beverly Road and Cortelyou stations built. Those two local stops are one block apart, the closest subway stops in the system.

And it’s true! They’re very close together—about the length of a damn subway!—as the not-very-good picture below suggests. It’s taken at Cortelyou station, looking down the tracks to Beverly station. I just knew that money and political clout had to explain the closeness of the stations.

Cortelyou, looking toward Beverly

Howls of outrage (2)

2005 04 08

I’ll bet you thought that A., of sidebar fame, has had nothing to do with Explananda in the year we’ve been group blogging. How wrong you were, jumping to conclusions like that! A. came up with the name for the site – and it’s a very good name, even if over half the people who mention or link to it spell it “explanada” (thereby revealing a shocking ignorance of Latin). She also pops up in the comments section to berate me every time I use the word “kudos,” and that’s help of a sort. Today I am happy to reveal a third contribution, a photograph she took while strolling about Redhook. In fairness to A., I should mention that she sent me the picture a few weeks ago, so technically all three of these contributions ought to count as first-year contributions, for moral as well as tax purposes.

My wife and I are mulling over a possible move to Redhook, if we can find a place that isn’t too far from the subway. This charming picture certainly adds to the allure of the neighbourhood. Now peek below the fold.
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Howls of outrage (3)

2004 08 17
Brooklyn Observations

When I first moved into my neighbourhood in Brooklyn a year and a half ago, I noticed that a bunch of Arabic speaking kids liked to play cricket in the schoolyard across the street. The other day, as I walked past I noticed that they were playing baseball. It then occurred to me that I had seen them playing baseball the day before, and the day before that, and so on. So at some point they must have dropped the one game and picked up the other. And they’ve got non-Arabic speaking kids playing along, too.

I suppose if I were Thomas Friedman I would use this as a starting point for praise of outsourcing and/or a little not-very-tough criticism of Bush’s foreign policy – stopping along the way, of course, to relate some charming anecdote told to me by some prince or other. But I think I’ll just note the observation and head out for a show.

UPDATE: See the comments section for one reason to think I’ve just got a bad ear.

Howls of outrage (3)