Bees (update 1)

previously: Bees

Brood!

Yesterday I checked the hives for the first time in just over a week.

You can see white and yellow capped cells in the above picture.

The white are capped “honey”. Really, it’s the sugar water I had been feeding them. They ran out of feed a little while back and I won’t be replacing it for them… they’ve gotten the kick they needed and seem to be carrying on via foraging.

The yellow are brood cells, which means our queen is laying in full force! To the right of the main cluster of brood in the picture above, you can even see some growing larvae (look closely, they’re little while curled up horseshoe shapes at the bottom of the cell). And you can’t see in the picture but there are eggs in many more cells all over the place.

By my understanding, the bees like to keep their brood in the middle of the frame, and will pack in other resources towards the edges. This helps them keep the brood at a good temperature, amongst other things, and the food will help them last the winter (already building reserves!). You can also see pollen — which they use as a major protein source — being stored especially towards the top right of the photo (it’s the weird off-coloration stuff).

How excellent.

Royalty

 

Her majesty, the queen, is visible as the long black bee in these pictures.

For reference this is the Carniolan queen — in this checkup I checked for but didn’t locate the Italian queen in the other hive.

Drones?

 

The larger capped cells in the pictures above are drone cells (this is from the Italian hive, though both had quite a few drone cells). There are quite a lot of them across both hives.

  • Hives produce an amount of drones, especially in springtime.
  • If the hive were producing only drones, it would likely be an indication of a ‘laying worker’, and either an absent, weak, or dead queen.
  • Both hives are producing both drones and workers (by the looks of it — unsure if any have hatched yet).

So everything should be fine. (Question for more experienced beekeepers: Proportionally how many drone cells should I expect?)

I did find this queen-cup-esque thing in the hive of carnies…

 

It’s empty so this should also be fine, and I left it alone. The bees will do what they think is best, I’m not about to tell them how to do their beesiness (sorry).

Vigilantes

IMG_4685

Here you can see the girls lined up and watching me as I mess with their hive. (Note, due to recent events with my team at work, I actually have no idea what “vigilante” means anymore. Nbd.)

Advertisements

Bees

IMG_4440

I, with one of my housemates (Jack), have recently set up two honeybee hives in our backyard.

Background

While non-native to the western hemisphere, the European Dark Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) pollinates a huge portion of our fruits and vegetables, and are generally cool creatures. They operate basically as a hive mind, centered around the queen-who secretes pheromones which keep the whole hive synchronized.

Beekeeping, from everything I’ve learned so far, seems to be equal parts art and science. Everyone’s got different opinions, everyone has success stories with their particular technique, etc. 

I’d like to use this blog to chronicle some of our developments with our hives.

What we’ve got

2 Langstroth hives, each composed of
4 medium-depth boxes, each with
10 foundationless, wedged top-bar frames, ie.
80 frames total. Additionally ordered 
20 wired wax foundation frames
Leaving 10 foundation frames per hive, or 3 per box.

I like the idea of foundationless frames, but the main drawback is that without any guide, the bees have a strong chance to not build comb along the centerline of the frame… remedies are manual intervention, straightening out the comb using a hive tool and your hand before it gets too big, or cutting off the misaligned portions entirely.

IMG_4424Also learned that the bees do what the bees want to do. You can’t really force bees to do what you want them to. Bees are a force of nature.

But bees do tend to continue to build straight comb once they’ve got other straight comb built. So the few evenly interspersed frames with wax foundations should help guide the bees and it should all work out.

I ordered the two packages from the Ballard Bee Company, one Italians and one Carniolans.

Status

The two hives are next to each other in the backyard, in the corner made by the side fence and one wall of the shed. The hive on the left is inhabited by the Italians and the one on the right by the Carniolans. There are a few differences between the races: Italian bees are supposed to be more likely to rob other (especially weaker) hives, Carniolans are known for rapid growth of colony size and a slightly increased propensity to swarm (as a result of rapid growth). They’re both some of the most gentle and non-territorial races of honeybees. They are slightly different in appearance, supposedly; I am thus far unable to tell the difference.

Putting the two different races next to each other shouldn’t be a problem. There can be a tendency of bees to drift from one hive to another if one is particularly strong, but that shouldn’t happen at least initially. And as a plus, if one hive starts struggling as we enter wintertime we can donate brood and honey frames from one hive to the other (even mixing races of bees living in a given hive isn’t a problem as long as there’s only 1 queen).

We got the bees on the 15th of April, so as of my writing this we are are 5 days in. I checked on the bees this morning and saw that they had been drawing out comb nicely on both types of frame.

Currently the hives are 3 boxes high in frames, with the 4th box empty. It’s providing a nice top area for putting the ziplock bag feeders.

The bees seem to be ignoring the lowermost box and favoring the 2nd and 3rd boxes (on both hives).

Goals

  • I’m slowly working towards working without gloves. Partially because then I could use my phone camera and take more pictures of everything.
  • Producing a good batch of honey for our first year
  • Possibly setting up a stall some Saturday at Pike Market and selling our homemade honey (at huge markup)
  • Learning more about bees.
  • Get stung. Likely many times.

IMG_4434

The Socialist Utopia At The Tip of the Iceberg

I recently started working at a Large Software Company in Seattle. It’s my first job out of university, and I’ve been working on being mindful of the experience.

Increasingly it seems to me that Large Software Company is, internally, a socialist utopia. People work as much as they’re going to work, and are compensated quite handsomely… enough, I’d say, for most resources to not be scarce. Within reason.

“From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”

To me, this nominally constrained post-scarcity is what socialist and marxist thought envisioned about 100 years ago. By nominally constrained, I mean it’s not a perfect utopia. There’s no fountain of chocolate, and everyone can’t be an artist/singer/poet. It’s a socialist utopia not in the sense of some idealistic asymptotically impossible heaven on earth, but in a real-life, this-is-actually-happening sort of way. No to downplay the situation, a real utopia is more utopic than one imagined.

Here are some key points to consider, in no order:

  • Individual contributors at Software Company have job security. That is, they rarely get fired unless they’re seriously underperforming—i.e. not working according to their ability.
  • We each make enough to not need to worry* about short term finances. From the point above, we have job security, and our minds and wallets are free to wander from
  • There’s horizontal mobility within the company: individuals are free to devote their working hours to whichever pursuits fit their fancy. Again, this is in a nominally constrained sort of way… Most pursuits available to fit ones fancy involve building software, albeit across a wide range of markets and audiences. You can’t really be anything you want to within the company, but you could for instance be any type of software engineer.

* I want to emphasize financial worrying in particular. There’s some amount of research which indicates stress associated with finances can seriously reduce life expectancy, resilience to disease, and all those other Bad Things which come with constant fretting about how you’re going to put food on the table.

…But what about everyone else?

We, the employees of Large Software Company, as well as the employees of most all other large software companies, get to participate in our socialist utopia-of sorts… but what about everyone else? Most of the residents of a place don’t work for Large Company… or may even work for Other Company. With exceptions, everyone not working for a company (any sort, including non-software), is either seeking employment at a company or attempting to start their own. And even most startups seek to be “aqhired” by other, larger companies.


The web of each company’s workers permeates through a fractured society of other such webs. Tribes, each pulling together the resources for themselves to survive. Some, seeking to be gobbled up by other, larger webs. Company A employees ride the same bus and use the same grocery store as those working with Company B, but will likely never share words or thoughts with each other, even sitting 8 inches apart every morning. We each do not mix with others, we merely share the same space. And they do not mix with us.

America is a cultural wasteland. Very little unites us besides coincidence, the same borders and physical space are not the stuff of true unity. We think different thoughts, we interact with our own, and on occasion build bridges to incorporate new people and their groups in turn.

Our 21st century social climate is populated by roving strandbeests we call corporations, built out of congealed sweat, blood, and hardened legalese. Mounted by the people who’ve climbed on or in, those who now fuel its Product Development furnaces and Business Marketing Decisions. Protected by our modern knights clad in the armor of Law. The machines slowly crawl over the vast swaths of employment-seeking human ants, reaching down towards the chaotic ground to selecting new members of itself, those once separate are sublimated eagerly into the whole.

In exchange for pieces of our individual self, we are given a taste of utopia.

Two Months, One Backpack: A Lightweight Packing Guide

This week I leave for a 2 month backpacking trip around Europe, with a group of friends from college and childhood. I wanted to be as lightweight as possible with what I brought on this journey — traveling is always more fun when you’re not tied down by tons of stuff. Over the last several months I’ve scoured the internet for the blogs regarding the best gear and packing choices for traveling with just one backpack for indefinite amounts of time. This post is a compilation of what I’ve learned and applied for this upcoming trip.

I partly intend this post to be a guidepost for others looking to bring less with them on their journeys. Keep in mind that traveling light is a process, I’ve been traveling my whole life, and have worked down to a bag this size. I’m also sure I could get by on less than this. Borrow from me whatever seems relevant, and ignore whatever seems excessive!

The Bag

The backpack to hold it all is a [Tom Bihn Smart Alec], with both modular packs (pictured above). The pack is 26 Liters, plus 2L and 3L from the smaller and larger add-on bags, respectively. I can’t test this claim on my own — it’d involve a lot of foam beads like what they put in bean bags — but I do trust Tom Bihn’s marketing claim. Here’s a great intro post to the general awesomeness of this bag.

Clothes

Quick Primer on Fabrics

As many (many) lightweight-oriented travel blogs will suggest, fabric choice matters a lot. The advantages of fancier fabric are myriad, they tend to be warmer in cool weather and cooler in warm, quicker drying,

Polyester is a form of extruded plastic, and therefore consists of smooth, thin, interwoven fibers. The thinness these fibers means that polyester dries very quickly and is a generally lightweight material. Gym clothes are almost exclusively polyester for this reason, as sweat is quickly wicked away and evaporated. However the smoothness of polyester fibers makes it a perfect breeding ground for bacteria–causing clothing made of polyester to quickly begin to smell (also as anyone who has gym clothes knows).

  • tl;dr: quick drying, lightweight, smells really bad really quickly.

Cotton fibers are significantly thicker than polyester, and have a rough organic outer layer (cotton is plant based). The thickness of these fibers means cotton holds more water for longer, and can take much longer to dry (think: wet jeans) than polyester. The thickness also means that cotton is quite warm and cozy. In theory this roughness of the fibers means that cotton can last longer without smelling terrible, but in my experience this is somewhat offset by the water-holding properties: bacteria like moist environments, and cotton has got that going.

  • tl;dr: Takes up more space, slower drying, potentially smells less terrible less quickly.

Wool, specifically Merino Wool. The best of both worlds, merino wool has thin fibers as well as a rough organic surface. This means merino wool is quick drying, and stays smell-free for much longer, giving us the advantages of both cotton and polyester. Merino wool also de-wrinkles itself, packs tightly, stays warm when it’s cold, and stays cool when it’s hot out. Merino wool is perfect for socks and underwear, t-shirts, as well as button-downs thanks to its anti-wrinkle properties. Downsides? Merino wool is generally very expensive.

  • tl;dr: Ideal. Expensive.

Packing lightweight means doing your own laundry, frequently. Quick drying clothing is crucial to lightweight packing, so that you’re not stuck waiting for things to dry rather than moving towards the next part of your adventure.

Without further ado, the list of clothes:

  • 2 collared button downs, both from Wool & Prince. I like their style and they make merino wool shirts. These are quite expensive, but worth it for all the wool goodness. In my experience, the most immediately useful aspect in the button-down case is that the shirts don’t wrinkle. Any minor crinkles they pick up in the pack quickly ease out of them within the first hour of wearing. This matters less with t-shirts, but is invaluable in the case of semi-formal button downs.
  • 4 t-shirts. Two of these are $6 Uniqlo cotton/polyester blend, and 2 are merino wool (one Outlier and one Wool & Prince).
  • 1 pair of khaki shorts, which I’m sad to say are totally un-optimized. What I’d like to get is a pair of the Outlier New Way Longs, or perhaps a pair of theOlivers.
  • 1 pair of black Outlier Slim Dungarees. These are easily the best pants I’ve ever owned. These are a synthetic blend rather than being wool.
  • One rain-jacket, a Marmot Mica. I was inspired to buy thanks to this Snarky Nomad post. The jacket crumples down into its own pocket, and is ridiculously light weight. I’m actually hoping it rains just so I can wear this jacket more.
  • 3 pairs of socks, all merino wool from various places including these, these, and these.
  • 3 pairs of Icebreaker Anatomica boxer briefs (purchased on amazon). These are merino wool and do much better with being washed in the sink (read: don’t start to smell) compared to the polyester ones recommended here. However, the $13 ones are equally comfortable and much cheaper.
  • Shoes: 1 pair generic sneakers (not pictured anywhere, by my own oversight), and 1 pair of Berkenstock sandals. I’d like to pick up a pair of hippie magnet vegan lightweight sandals from Earth Runners, as they look super comfy and packable, but I haven’t got them yet. Soon. Shoes go into a regular plastic grocery bag for packing.

All the shirt-type stuff fits in to an REI expandable medium-sized packing cube.

Socks and underwear all fit into an Eagle Creek quarter size packing cube, which I also picked up from REI.

Electronics

  • 13″ Retina Macbook Pro, with a protective shell. Covered in stickers.
  • Kindle Paperwhite.
  • iPhone 6, which double as the only camera I’m carrying. The second I’m convinced there’s an android phone with a superior camera, I’m switching back to android.
  • Klipsch Image S4i earbud headphones. I prefer earbuds to over-ear, mostly, and these have a built-in microphone which is most-convenient for hands-free phone calls, as well as video calls.
  • Power plug adapter. Kinda cool because of how small this thing is.

Toiletries

  • One 4oz GoToob squeezy bottle filled with the best soap. The eccentric Dr. Bronner really knows how to make soap, as well as how to make awesomely philosophical product labels. I use this soap for body, hair (although only on rare occasion), and shaving. I [prefer the almond-scented variety.
  • One 2oz tube filled with hippie toothpaste. Technically toothpaste can also come in travel sizes, but it’s more cost effective in bulk.
  • Convenient travel toothbrush.
  • Hippie deodorant, also rom Tom’s of Maine. I actually think the Mountain Spring flavor smells better than any of the non-hippie deodorants, but the ingredients list is an influencing factor too.
  • Generic disposable razor or two. (As mentioned above, I use the Dr. Bronner’s soap as shaving soap.)
  • Nail clippers, misc pills & some first aid stuff.

Miscellanea

  • REI Medium size microfiber towel. I was skeptical of these at first, but they actually do a surprisingly good job drying me off after a shower. The medium size is a measly 1′ x 2′, and packs up nice and tiny. Snarky Nomad ranks this 2nd most important for lightweight travel (after a decent backpack), and I agree. Don’t forget.
  • Sleeping bag liner, which my mom had lying around. This may come in handy for sketchy hostel beds, or even just as a blanket, and it’s small enough to fit in my pack easily. I’m interested to see if I actually use this.
  • Rubber circle sink stopper thing, which makes washing things in any sink a very convenient affair.
  • Notebook, with a couple of writing implements.
  • Steel water bottle
  • Passport
  • Sunglasses + case (not in this picture, but you can see the brown case in the overview pic)
  • And finally a couple grocery bags / ziplock bags (they come in handy)

Conclusions:

I’d be quite remiss if I didn’t credit the blogs I’ve drawn significant inspiration from in putting together this pack. Here’s where I link out to them:

Hopefully this was helpful to anyone trying to pack light. Safe travels 🙂

The Center For Applied Rationality

This weekend I attended a workshop in Boston organized by the nonprofit Center For Applied Rationality. The workshops are focused on developing better understanding and control of our own decisions and behavior. Heavily leaning on cognitive science research, the CFAR teachers and community have developed a curriculum which seeks to teach and train useful skills, such as “how to make more accurate predictions, avoid self-deception, and use arithmetic in ways that better motivate you to action”.

It’s kind of like if you took the line of thinking introduced in Thinking Fast And Slow, combined it with a couple dozen hand-tested techniques and applications, enough to fill a semester-long college course… and then distilled it all into a weekend retreat.

Confession: I was highly skeptical of the usefulness of this retreat, coming into it. I suspected I knew a fair amount of the techniques to be offered through my own explorations in cognitive science and human rationality 1 — especially since I had read the LessWrong Sequences over the past year, and had made progress integrating the understanding into my life. Even with financial aid, the price point was high enough to make me seriously consider and reconsider my decision to go. Even after I committed, I strongly considered making up an excuse and avoiding the event.

Having done the retreat, I am now highly confident that it was worth the time and money.

The retreat was a four-day experience, with food and housing fully provided (hosted by the most gracious individuals working at the Friendly Crossways Retreat Centerin Littleton, Massachusetts). Most days had packed schedules of various types of lessons and group/pair activities, interspersed with short minute breaks and longer mealtimes.

Image credits to Anna Riedl and Jordan Tirrell

Each retreat is different as the curriculum changes. The overarching structure of this weeked was as follows:

  • Day 1: We learned what I’m calling “rationality primitives”: small pieces of tools and observations which are part of a general toolkit. We set up the System 1 vs System 2 model of cognition, where S1 is the lower, reptile mind-brain, and S2 is the higher level human brain. In a fully functional human being, we want both of these systems working in concert with each other to great success. This is nothing new to anyone who’s read Thinking Fast and Slow or the LW Sequences.One example of what I mean by “rationality primitives” is the idea of a Trigger Action Plan, or TAP. From the linked post, (which summarizes it well and bias-bustingly has no association with CFAR), “[Trigger action planning] sets triggers that later create spontaneous sub-conscious prompts to action.” In jargon, this is taking advantage of locational and situational sub-conscious ‘primes’, in order to prompt desired activity. In practice, this means selecting a desired action: “I’d like to remember to write in my journal nightly”, and linking it to a “trigger”, such as “when I put my plate in the dishwasher after dinner”. Mentally rehearsing “put plate in dishwasher, then go write in journal” sets up a sort of real-life if/then statement which programmers are familiar with. This S1 training tactic is simple enough, and interestingly something I had been doing in my own life without knowing the words/jargon for: I’d paired “do pushups” with “put towel on hook in bedroom after shower” as a way to remember to get those pushups in.

    In general, the primitives from the first day were not altogether too new or foreign, although it’s always fun to learn a couple new names for ideas I’d already been playing with. I soldiered on, knowing the cognitive danger ofthinking I knew everything already.

  • Day 2: We took what we learned the previous day, including the primitives, and combined them into higher order tactics. My cognitive-trap internal battle evaporated as we took the little independent pieces I had some familiarity with and built them into larger-scope cognitive tools and structures within which to build habits and get things done. We had lots of focused time on finding and working out fixes for “bugs” in our lives, and were strongly encouraged to take steps to execute those solutions immediately, rather than even waiting to get back to day-to-day life.The lessons of day 2 arced toward better understanding of urges and motivation, ways to break down large tasks and goals into smaller ones, mentally linking and remembering our goals in a visceral way in order to keep ourselves motivated, and more. One of the common trends I enjoyed was a more graph-y way of breaking down and analyzing ideas or goals (graph in the CS or Neuro sense, with nodes connected by directional arrows or inhibition lines).

    A particularly interesting tool we learned on day 2 was dubbed “Focused Grit”. The technique is when you have a problem to solve, to set a timer andactually spend 5 minutes on the clock solving the problem. It turns out we don’t sit down and genuinely think about solving problems, we tend to allow ourselves to bounce off them and procrastinate. It’s often easy to come up with 1 idea and then be done thinking about the problem. Actually spending 5 minutes is a different thing entirely — especially if you convince yourself (your System 1) that you have to solve the problem in those five minutes, there’s no going back to it afterward, and whatever solution you come up with is the final one.

  • Day 3: The structure for this day was largely taking turns teaching each other various aspects of the techniques learned over the previous days. This served (wonderfully) to cement the understanding and coalesce the initially-seemingly-separate techniques and ideas into a coherent model of understanding. The tone of the retreat was/is such that the techniques being taught are all attempts toward condensing personal experience and cognitive science into an art & science of rationality. The instructors were all very clear that this is an open problem: we do not have all the answers yet, and we should all be working on forming better models and teaching strategies. I must have received the question “What is wrong with this retreat, what would you change?” over 5 times during the weekend, all from the organizers and volunteers. By the 50-hour point in the weekend, it felt like everyone attending had been good friends for ages. Everyone I talked to was interesting and thoughtful, and we had plenty of group silliness during and after the scheduled course-time.

  • Day 4: More life debugging, with a focus on working on problems with partners (Pair Debugging) and groups. We focused on really using and applying the techniques learned over the past days. I had some incredibly personal conversations with a few of the people I paired with and had group time with, conversations I’ll remember for a long time (and longer, thanks to memory tactics and good note-taking habits espoused by this very workshop). We took time to ask ourselves (on the clock, 5 minutes!) a barrage of big, personal, questions: If your life’s narrative was a novel, are you doing what the protagonist would do? If not, why not? What are the things that are truly important, that you want (need) to be optimizing for? And so on. After dinner there were about an hour’s worth of “lightning talks”: quick, 5-minute talks given on various rationality-related subjects, by the participants of the retreat. I gave one titled “Language Hacking”, which focused on the importance of the words we use in daily life (The map is not the territory!), and drew heavily from the work of OG rational linguist Alfred Korzybski. The whole 90-hour weekend was endcapped by tons of socializing, an alumni party in the evening, and shenanigans late into the night.

The community alone is worth it: I had an insightful conversation with every single person I talked to, both during the planned interactions and while socializing.

CFAR is teaching and refining a curriculum based on insights from cognitive psychology and behavioral economics, designed to equip attendees with the tools they need to maximize their productivity and refine their decisionmaking abilities. It’s a great use of a weekend, if you can stomach the cost. Only time (and my own agency) will tell if the retreat has implicated lasting effects in my behavior, though this following week has been wonderfully productive, so I’m hopeful.

1 For those interested in reading materials on the subject, here’s a curated shortlist:
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, aka HPMOR. This is the place to start.
Rationality: AI to Zombies, formerly the LessWrong Sequences. Read these next.
Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heurstics and Biases A classic of cog-sci.
Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Reading this one currently.
Global Catastrophic Risks. Both educational and terrifying.
MIRI Research Guide. Book list recommended by MIRI

3… 2… 1… Victory!

It doesn’t matter what you majored in*

I’ve encountered a few people recently who have been trying to personally pivot. These people are largely in my age group, and mostly seem to have spent the last several years in an academic setting studying various non-computer-related subjects. And they all seem to be trying to get into computers.

My sampling bias is sky high on this one, especially given that I’m currently attending Hacker School, which more or less says “Come here if you’re interested in learning more about computers” on the tin. But Hacker School aside, I think the trend is something wider-reaching. People want to get into tech. Programming. CS. Hacking. Software Engineering/Architecting/Gardening. Really whichever aspect of computers you could feel like referring to, there seem to be a lot of people kicking themselves for not having been in tech already.

It’s through the maybe sound-bite tech-pop mantra that “software is eating the world”, or an interest in exactly what lies beneath this ocean of complexity in the technology we use today, or even a taking-notice of the sheer profitability of the tech space at-large.

I can relate to this predicament. I started my undergrad intending on studying mechanical engineering. I wrote my first lines of real code (save MSLogo and some basic HTML) during my second semester freshman year mandatory CS course, mandatory for engineering undergrads. I met a group of great people in college, all of whom seemed to be CS majors (or close enough to it) and I began to learn huge swaths of information just through my fantastically nerdy friend group. After some time I switched my major to neuroscience, all while continuing to learn about computers. And finally I switched again, to computer science, and stuck with it long enough to graduate. For me it was in large part through my interest in the brain, in building software that interacts with humans more optimally, and constructing software which ‘thinks’ the way we do. It was also a general disenchantment with academia, and the slowly dawning realization that having programming and computer skill can mean skipping grad school, wielding a powerful, arcane, and conveneintly marketable craft, and importantly (for someone who loves travel) being able to work from anywhere in the world.

Whatever’s gotten us here, I’d really like to say: It doesn’t matter what you majored in. As long as you, and your personal, mental operating-system is installed and ready to go, you’re in the perfect place to learn more about tech.

The whole history of subject-specialization has been one where people from seemingly unrelated backgrounds pivot into new fields, and quickly rack up major contributions because they see things in a different way from the homogeneity pervading the field before their arrival.

Tech is possibly the best example of this, for a couple reasons. The first is an idea I encountered while reading the always-wise ramblings of James Hague over atprog21.dadgum.com. In short, programming knowledge has more potential growing in the fertile substrate of a mind trained in a non-pure-CS field. Hague goes so far as to say that CS shouldn’t be offered as a major in undergrad, and people should only be allowed to minor in it, with a real subject as their major.

The other main key feature with pivoting into tech is the availablility of resources. Learning about computers is one of the best things that can be done with a computer. With other fields, biology for instance, the experts don’t spend all day sitting in front of the internet, so there’s inherently less of their accumulated knowledge available online in the form of blogs, tutorials, and git repositories.

All I really mean to say, at the risk of sounding patronizing, is: don’t beat yourself up for being in your 20s, or 30s, or 40s, or whatever, and feeling sad about not having started learning about computers or programming. There’s definitely a boatload of information to learn and grok. But there’s also plenty of time and resources available and waiting for you. You’ve figured out that you want to start learning about tech, so you’re already on that path. Assuming you’ve done something you’ve found interesting with your past several years on this planet, you will have insight both new and powerful to contribute.

On that note, I’ll wrap this up. I’ve been trying to pivot myself from computers into synthetic biology, and I have an experiment to attend to… maybe I should’ve majored in biochem.

(* It also doesn’t matter if you didn’t go to or didn’t finish university.)

Hacker School

What is Hacker School?

Hacker School (now called the Recurse Center) is a three month retreat, for programmers and people interested in programming. The ‘school’ is a floor of a lower Manhattan office building, with a row of desks running down the length of the room, surrounded by office chairs. Several smaller breakout rooms line the room, each labeled with the name of an important contributor to the the computing world–such as Babbage, Church, Lovelace, Turing, and Hopper.

I use the word ‘school’ loosely, it’s not really an adequate name for what’s going on here.

There are no classes, no (explicit) teachers, no assignments, and no homework. Instead, the chairs of Hacker School are filled with individuals capable of self-determiniation; people who, when left to their own devices, teach themselves. And explore difficult concepts. And build things for fun.

The application and acceptance pipeline for Hacker School filters for this sort of mindset. While there is a filter for making sure people know at least some of the basics of programming (including writing FizzBuzz in a favorite language and an online pair-programming interview), the process also really looks for people driving themselves to learn and explore for the sake of it.

As a result, the people around me come from widely varied backgrounds (and age groups). Looking around, I can sight people with CS bachelors degrees, CS PhDs, several with backgrounds in physics, statistics, microbiology, and sociology. Some of us have worked in the software industry previously, some are in grad school, some never went to college, and some even have children. All of us are either in front of our own laptop, or staring over at a neighbors’, and all of us enjoy learning for the sake of it.

Hacker School is not really at all like Fullstack Acadamy, or Dev Bootcamp, or App Academy. Where those programs are primarily focused on the zero-to-sixty of programming–getting people in, up to speed with a given development stack, and then out the door–Hacker school is geared towards giving people with some degree of experience room to play and explore without structure.

Every morning at 10:30 there’s check-in, where we break out into the little rooms in weekly choose-your-own groups and go around in a circle, talking about what we did the previous day, and what we plan to do in the current. It’s a bit like scrum, for those who’ve done that. This is probably the most structured Hacker School gets, and if you miss checkin, no one’s coming to hold you accountable.

There are also regular seminars and workshops given both by the hacker schoolers and by the 6 more permanent “facilitators”, who run the organization. The workshops are based on interest and expertise, where those with the latter can pass information to those with only the former.

#neverGraduate.

The Experience-As-A-Whole

Four weeks in, I cannot emphasize enough how awesome this program is. This is what university should be like. I’ve learned more here in 4 weeks than I have in whole semesters of undergrad, both because of the sheer focus granted as well as the beautiful lack of structure. There’s an interesting effect at play, with a room of ~60 people all working on at-least-vaguely programming related projects. When I find myself getting distracted, I can almost draw energy from the people around me. Of course I can get this explicity, if I ask questions and get help, and unstick myself from wherever I’m mired. I can also regain focus in a more subtle way, through the vibes of raw concentration in the room. Maybe I was hanging out with the wrong groups in college (I doubt this, s/o to my Purdue buddies), but I never remember being around this many people as engrossed in and excited about their work.

Some current and former Hacker Schoolers have a hard time with this lack of structure. We in general, as modern human beings, are so used to the structure imposed by the school system or by our offices, that when left to our own devices we have no ability to self-mediate or generate focus and direction. Some say that they spent the first third of Hacker School floating, drifting from project to project, in a sense mentally coming to fully grok the actual freedom that Hacker School gives. It’s not a stretch to say that even in this float-y case, the time ostensibly wasted was well spent, as a necessary tax for the time to spin up one’s ability to work in this sort of unstructured environment. In a way, it’s empowering.

Projects I’ve worked on

Traceroute implementation in python. I did this one half for fun, and half in honor of a former hacker-schooler friend of mine who also implemented traceroute, and through whom I came to learn about Hacker School. Github.

Haskell primer. I spent a few days working on learning Haskell, doing the first several chapters of the widely acclaimed CIS-194 course, taught by Brent Yorgey. Freenode’s #haskell pointed me straight at this course when aksed about learning resources, specifically the Spring 2013 one I’ve linked. There’s a great page here on more learning resources for Haskell.

Diffie Hellman Key exchange, generalized to n-participants, in Scala. This is the secret key exchange algorithm used in SSH as well as many other secure applications. Implemented as an exercise in learning both Scala and more cryptoGithub.

GoScore, an iOS app project using OpenCV to score the board game Go. Swift, bridged through Objective C to C++ is remarkably complex. In its current state, the app detects circles reasonably well, but we (myself and another hacker schooler) decided this is the wrong / overly complicated way to go about doing this. This project is on a backburner while I work up the courage to refactor and tackle OpenCV again. Github.

Rhythmic, an album-centric music player in Scala. I listen to music as whole albums generally, and music players are generally more geared towards an individual track experience. This is an experiment in building an album-focused music player with a clean art-heavy UI. Github.