[supplied title]

what Silicon Valley could have looked like

A few days ago, The Atlantic Cities ran a piece featuring designer Alfred Twu's visualizations of "What Silicon Valley Might Look Like If All of Its Employees Actually Lived There". These are imaginary designs, of course, but they show how dense the region could be if future development were aimed at bringing in more residents and reducing the number of people who commute from San Francisco and elsewhere.

What people might not know is that there was a brief moment when the southern Bay Area could have been developed more densely in the first place. During the 1950s, the Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission investigated the possibilities for building rapid transit in the Bay Area (as one might guess from the title of the commission). Their work ultimately led to the construction of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in place today.

Back when I was a grad student in history, I did some research into the early BART planning process and ended up writing a paper on how the West Bay counties - Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Marin - ended up dropping out before any BART development got started. I don't have time to get into all the details here, but briefly: the BART Commission asked the firm Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Hall, and MacDonald (PBHM) to produce a report examining the possibilities of rapid transit for the nine Bay Area counties.

This report came out in 1956 and recommended a multi-stage development schedule.1 The first stage would have covered the urban core (SF-Oakland-Alameda-Berkeley) and stretched into Contra Costa, Alameda, Marin, and San Mateo counties. The Peninsula endpoint would have been Palo Alto. The second stage of development would have brought BART to Santa Clara County and San Jose. Obviously, only some of these plans were implemented and even now BART barely touches San Mateo county.

One of the guiding ideas behind the 1956 PBHM report and the whole early BART planning process was that rapid transit would be used principally to relieve highway congestion rather than shape new development. That might seem like an odd way to look at things, but as far as I could tell from my research, the majority of people involved in planning BART didn't think that (suburban) people would ride rapid transit without the external motivation of congested highways.

So the justification for leaving out the South Bay in the first stage of BART construction was that the area still lacked the population needed to generate the kind of car traffic that BART would then relieve. At the time, Santa Clara County was still fairly agricultural: population growth in San Jose and what would become known as Silicon Valley was just starting to take off. The PBHM report actually considered highway construction to be preferable to rapid transit in Santa Clara County in the near-term.

Karl Belser, the Santa Clara County Planning Director, saw things differently. I'm just going to quote from my paper here:

Presenting a view of rapid transit at odds with PBHM's assumptions, Belser stated that the county had already exhausted its most logical alignments for highway building and was “scraping the bottom of the barrel for added freeway lanes.”2 Instead, the county’s future growth and prosperity depended on the immediate construction of both rapid transit and highways. Belser anticipated a county population of 750,000 by 1965 and one million by 1975; PBHM’s figures projected a high of around 1.1 million only in 1990. Belser called for the “three way linkage of the San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland area by rapid transit as the means of welding these three major population concentrations together into one great metropolitan complex.” Advocating a realistic approach to planning, he pointed out that even the first stage of construction could take over ten years to complete. By that time Santa Clara clearly would need rapid transit. Furthermore, if constructed at present the line would pass through “relatively open country” without having to deal with existing development and high land costs. Now Belser came to the core of his disagreement with PBHM: freeway and rapid transit

are dynamically competitive and it is difficult enough to overcome tradition and habit without having such bents built into the physical pattern. In northern Santa Clara County and southern Alameda County the possibility of changing the direction of development and orienting it specifically to the transit system is still open. It would be possible to provide a type of urban living facility which would be primarily based on the transit system for mobility. This would…be a sort of assured patronage for the long range use of the facility…Such a new direction needs to be understood and planned for at the earliest possible time in a rapidly developing area such as ours.

Drawing comparisons with Europe – especially Paris – he thought that his county still had the chance to use transit to help build multiple-unit housing for people with lower incomes who could not afford cars – the very people many BART advocates simply ignored. Projecting future growth heavily oriented towards manufacturing, Belser worried that, “if industry locates itself hit of miss without regard to rapid transit, it becomes impossible, as it is today in Los Angeles, to locate effective desire lines on which to locate the line…Thus if the lines of the system were defined now it would be possible through proper parallel planning to connect areas of residence with areas of employment.” [end quotation from my paper]

Pretty much none of what Belser envisioned actually came to pass and in 1970, with Santa Clara County's car-oriented pattern well in place, Belser published an article called "The Making of Slurban America" lamenting what happened to the county.3

  1. Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Hall, and MacDonald, Regional Rapid Transit: A Report to the Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission 1953-1955, 1956. 

  2. Karl Belser, “Rapid Transit Extension to San Jose An Address Made By Karl J. Belser,” 11 Sep 1956, BART Commission Progress Reports, A18-1.1, California State Archives. All of the Belser quotes in this post are from this same document. 

  3. Karl J. Belser, "The Making of Slurban America," Cry California, 5 (Fall 1970): 1-21. 


I guess I could sit here and mess with the color scheme for this blog indefinitely, or I could just start writing blog posts again. I only wrote three posts in 2013, and by the end of the year I was down to just checking my site every now and then to make sure it was still online.1 I'm making a few changes that I hope will get me blogging regularly again:

1. New URL

Back in 2012, after reading a bunch of advice on choosing domain names, I decided to use my own name for my other site. Much of the advice I read boiled down to consistency and identifiability. People change blog titles all the time but personal names, while not necessarily stable, tend to have more persistence. So if you've decided to use your "real" name online and are creating a website to go with that identity, it makes sense to go with an eponymous domain. I still think that's a good idea and I still have plans to use that domain as a personal website. It might just link out to writings and projects, but that's ok.

For the blog itself, however, I found myself surprisingly uncomfortable seeing my own name out there every time I wanted to post a link. It got to the point that I didn't want to post links to my own writing, or write things that would end up with my name in the URL.2 Hence the new domain, which makes the URL match the blog title. Will I always have a blog with this title? Maybe not, but I've moved on from blog to blog before.

2. Octopress instead of Wordpress

The bigger change, which might not be that visible beyond the difference in layout/theme, is the move from Wordpress to Octopress. I'll probably put up a separate post about the differences, so I won't get into too much detail here, but essentially Wordpress is a dynamic content management system while Octopress - which I had not heard of before some friends mentioned it on twitter - is a type of static site generator. What this boils down to is that Wordpress is built on various technologies that make it possible to interact with a website on and through the web, while Octopress does a bunch of stuff on my computer that generates static files (html and css, obviously, but you can include lots of things) which are then placed on the web.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this move, most of which I'll gloss over here, but the most noticeable difference from a reading point of view is the lack of comments. Since the site is static and not backed by a database or anything like that, there's no place to save user input without using a third-party add-on. Octopress is built to work out-of-the box with the Disqus comment system, which embeds the comments interface as a third-party application at the bottom of each post, but I don't have a Disqus account and won't set one up until I've looked into their policies more closely. I have added a contact page and I welcome feedback, although I can't promise I'll be able to respond to every email.

From my point of view as someone who wants to learn some new skills, there are advantages in moving to Octopress that outweigh the loss of things like built-in comments. Octopress relies on a bunch of things that I've either never used before or used only occasionally: git, ruby, markdown, css processing with Sass, SSH and Rsync.3 I can also maintain my site entirely from the terminal if I want to, which gives me an excuse to use in-terminal text editors and shell commands more often. That all might sound like a lot of work, but this is stuff I want to learn anyway and having an ongoing project makes me more likely to stick with it. And writing simple posts like this is easy.

3. Shorter posts, if not in length, then in time spent writing

When I get started, I can write a lot fairly quickly, but all too often I end up writing long posts infrequently. I don't think the occasional longer post is a bad thing, but waiting until I have something essay-like to write has been bad for my blogging. Those posts take a long time and this has generated a feedback loop where I really want to write something but then I think I should get more background before writing and then I think about how long it will take to write and then I keep putting it off. I usually do a fair bit of the gathering background part, so I end up learning a fair amount, but then everything just stays with me and I never write it down. There are still a few longer things I want to write, but I'm going to try not to let them get in the way of other stuff. I didn't have to move to a new website to change how I approach blogging, but I figure this is a good time to start.

So that's it. In the past I'd try to think of some neat wrap-up paragraph for this post, but I think it's enough that I'm actually writing again.

  1. Meanwhile, I kept getting notices from my web host that my installation of Wordpress needed to be upgraded. I did the upgrades, at least. I also renewed my domain. So I never gave up on the site completely. 

  2. This is probably something I should have gotten over, but whatever. It's easy enough, if not free, to get a new domain for the blog and blog-related activities. 

  3. Technically, you don't have to use Rsync to publish a site with Octopress. But it's the method I'm currently using to communicate with my hosting provider. 

learning to cursive

Judith Thurman's recent post at the New Yorker blog on cursive handwriting and the Declaration of Independence reminded me of something I wrote some time ago about my own experiences learning to write and read cursive. Reading it over now, I don't think schoolkid me would have been sad to see schools decide not to teach cursive anymore.


One of my earliest memories is of being in a shopping cart. This is followed by a memory of being on the floor of a supermarket near a shopping cart, followed by a memory of being in the car, my right arm propped up against the door, on the way to the hospital where my arm was put in a cast.

I'd like to think that being right-handed and breaking my right arm when I was four is the reason handwriting was so difficult for me, but it's more likely that I simply lacked a bit of coordination at that age. I also had trouble coloring inside the lines and cutting things with scissors along the lines. And I still don't hold eating utensils correctly. For quite a while, long after the cast came off, I could grip a pencil only with the help of a triangular accessory, but eventually I got the hang of it.

I don't remember how my printing looked originally; in third or fourth grade we got to cursive. I couldn't do it. I was given extra worksheets designed to lead me into it: mostly practice with italicization, doing everything but connecting the letters. By fifth grade, when all written assignments had to be in cursive (for reasons completely and utterly unknown to me) I could manage it, but only painfully, slowly, with hideous letters. In junior high they didn't care about cursive vs. printing: they just wanted writing. I went back to printing, but my printed handwriting had by then taken on the shape of italics. I still print in italics and I still can't write decent cursive. In English, that is.

One of the things that worried me most about taking Russian before I got to the first day of my first class was learning a new alphabet. One of the things that worried me most about taking Russian after the first day of my first class was learning that Russian handwriting is pretty much all cursive. To my surprise, it turned out that I had little to worry about. My Russian cursive may not be native-writerly, but it is better than my English cursive and it took a lot less time to learn.

It is not uncommon for people working with handwritten documents to run into problems making out what the words say; it is especially difficult when you're just starting out in research. In the fall term after I first took Russian I began reading 19th century correspondence in English; even worse, the first letters I read weren't just handwritten, they were faded copies of letters in a letterpress copy book.

I know a number of people who've had similar experiences with old handwriting: taking 10, 20 minutes to read a page; wanting to give up; wondering if the 20th century is really the more interesting period; nearly fighting back tears (literally or metaphorically) to finish those first few pages. A fellow grad student a few years ago told me that upon coming across, in the handwritten meeting minutes of some organization in 19th century Germany, a discussion of whether or not to buy a typewriter, she immediately said to herself, sitting there in the archives: "Yes! Buy it, buy it now!"

I've sometimes described trying to read old handwriting as a cross between "Wheel of Fortune" and cryptography. If you can make out a few words initially you can use them to decipher the rest. If you know a word is "the", for instance, you have an idea of what "t", "h", and "e" look like - although initial letters often look different than the same letters in the middle of a word. Get enough letters in other words and you can read those words; get enough words in a sentence and you can read the sentence, or most of it.

Proper nouns can be especially difficult; so can initial capitals. Signatures are probably the worst. Once, through the careful examination of m's, o's, and w's in a group of letters written around the same time by the same author, I concluded that a word I've seen quoted in publications as "work" most likely is "Mark": not the most earth-shattering revelation, I know.

As I struggled through those first few letters that day I realized I was running into an additional problem: I had become so accustomed from my summer language course to reading cursive as Russian that I was struggling with the English letters that look like Russian ones. (Example: "m" in Cyrillic script is transliterated as/sounds like "t" in English.) Realizing this, I went up to the main desk at the archives, got a piece of scratch paper, returned to my seat, and set about forming, for the first time since grade school, a cursive list of all the letters of the English alphabet - upper and lower case - which I could then turn to as a reference sheet.