Readings: Silicon Valley, Twitter Influence, Mark Armstrong on Reading, Cosmonaut Crash

A few good reads from this week:

1) “Silicon Valley Hiring Perks: Meals, iPads and a Cubicle for Spot” [New York Times] – a good piece reflecting the current state of Silicon Valley. I was surprised by how well Google is paying:

Then there are salaries. Google is paying computer science majors just out of college $90,000 to $105,000, as much as $20,000 more than it was paying a few months ago. That is so far above the industry average of $80,000 that start-ups cannot match Google salaries.

Perhaps the most telling line, representing the culture shift in Silicon Valley (how long has it been in the making?):

And there has been a psychological shift; many of the most talented engineers want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg not work for him.

2) “A Better Way to Measure Twitter Influence” [New York Times] – Do you think the most influential Twitter user is Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga? I agree with the premise of this post, that follower counts on Twitter mean less for influence than actual engagement (replies, retweets):

But it turns out that counting followers is a seriously flawed way to measure a person’s impact on Twitter. Even one of Twitter’s founders, Evan Williams, made the point to me recently: someone with millions of followers may no longer post messages frequently, while someone followed by mere tens of thousands may be a prolific poster whose messages are amplified by others.

According to research by Twitalyzer, the most influential Twitter user is Rafinha Bastos from Brazil. Yes, this is a surprise to me too.

3) “Mark Armstrong: What I Read” [The Atlantic] – Mark Armstrong, founder of long reads (one of my favorite sites on the Web), reveals his daily media/reading diet:

Most weekday mornings, the first thing I’m reading is my iPhone. I’ll start with a quick check of the Twitter app, dipping into the real-time stream and checking the latest stories that readers have shared using the #longreads hashtag. (It’s for sharing any outstanding story between 1,500 and 30,000 words.)

Also, Long Reads wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for the community, as Mark attests:

Twitter is also my main source for new stories that get featured on Longreads. The community is incredible when it comes to finding and sharing great stories using the #longreads hashtag: @hriefs, @michellelegro, @jaredbkeller, @sherlyholmes, @legalnomads, @katesilver, @nxthompson, @weegee, @eugenephoto, @petersm_th, all recommend excellent links—from magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic to regional publications doing outstanding journalism like Texas Monthly, 5280 Magazine, Atlanta Magazine, and alt-weeklies like Minneapolis City Pages and The Stranger.

I’ve bookmarked Mark’s post because I need to go through the links he has included in there more than a few times. Related: my most popular post on this blog is from last year, where I rounded up The Top Five Long Reads of 2010.

4) “Cosmonaut Crashed into Earth Crying in Rage” [NPR] – probably the most fascinating story I’ve read all week. If you’ve ever doubted that the space race wasn’t risky, read this story. If you click through the link, there is a disturbing photo at the top of the page. This is an incredible account of Vladimir Komarov, friend of the Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin (the first man to enter space). The background:

In 1967, both men [Komarov and Gagarin] were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn’t back out because he didn’t want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement.

But as detailed in the new book Starman, by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, Gagarin and some senior technicians had inspected the Soyuz 1 and had found 203 structural problems. Gagarin even wrote a 10-page memo on his findings, gave it to his best friend in the KGB, Venyamin Russayev, but nobody dared send it up the chain of command (to Brezhnev). So both Komarov and Gagarin knew of the dangers…but what would have happened if Komarov refused to go?

“If I don’t make this flight, they’ll send the backup pilot instead.” That was Yuri Gagarin. Vladimir Komarov couldn’t do that to his friend. “That’s Yura,” the book quotes him saying, “and he’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.” Komarov then burst into tears.

An absolutely harrowing account. A must-read.

Readings: Fourth of July Edition

Today is Independence Day in America, so here are some interesting reads related to the Fourth of July holiday in America:

1) “Star-Spangled Skepticism” [New York Times] – a wonderful photo essay in the New York Times Lens blog on Misha Erwitt’s fascination with the American flag:

The collection, “Stars and Stripes,” is a meditation on Americans and their unusually intimate relationship with their flag, an intimacy that struck him even as a boy, standing with his hand over his heart as he recited the Pledge of Allegiance at school. In the years since, Mr. Erwitt’s fascination has grown, establishing itself as an exploration of the fanfare that shadows the flag.

2) “Jefferson Changed ‘Subjects’ to ‘Citizens’ in Declaration of Independence” [The Washington Post] – a very interesting article about a certain “smear” found on The Declaration of Independence:

Scholars of the revolution have long speculated about the “citizens” smear — wondering whether the erased word was “patriots” or “residents” — but now the Library of Congress has determined that the change was far more dramatic.

Using a modified version of the kind of spectral imaging technology developed for the military and for monitoring agriculture, research scientists teased apart the mystery and reconstructed the word that Jefferson banished in 1776.

Fascinating how The Library of Congress made this discovery:

The library deciphered the hidden “subjects” several months ago, the first major finding attributed to its new high-tech instruments. By studying the document at different wavelengths of light, including infrared and ultraviolet, researchers detected slightly different chemical signatures in the remnant ink of the erased word than in “citizens.” Those differences allowed the team to bring the erased word back to life.

But the task was made more difficult by the way Jefferson sought to match the lines and curves of the underlying smudged letters with the new letters he wrote on top of them. It took research scientist Fenella France weeks to pull out each letter until the full word became apparent.

3) “The Mystery of the Declaration of Independence” [Art Lebedev blog] – this fascinating article is featured in a blog, but it was too good to pass up after I chanced upon it today researching about the Declaration of Independence for my photoblog entry. The central premise is why the document of such importance was titled as so:

United States of "Жmerinca"

Granted, the document was found in Kiev, but how did this error happen? The story revolves around Timothy Matlack, born as Tomislav Matlakowski:

In all likelihood, the nostalgic Matlakowski wrote the title in mixed alphabets, while Congress members didn’t notice anything wrong on the day when the Declaration was signed. But it was apparently discovered the next day by Charles Thomson, the discovery leading him to order immediately that the original be hidden from the public eye, and Matlack be demoted from the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the Congress Delegate from the same state.

To fill in the gaps, you should read the entire fascinating story. Do you believe it?

Readings: The Runaway General, Jane Goodall, A Case for Space, and Mockingbird

Here’s what I read over the last week or so.

(1) “The Runaway General” [Rolling Stone] – an already infamous piece of reporting that sent Obama to depose Stanley McChrystal as the top commander in Afghanistan. This is a very long read, quite compelling and, dare I say, entertaining (it was written for Rolling Stone, so do expect a fair share of curse words in the article). A few nuggets I found worthwhile:

A good explanation of counterinsurgency, or COIN (the term makes a recurring appearance throughout the piece):

From the start, McChrystal was determined to place his personal stamp on Afghanistan, to use it as a laboratory for a controversial military strategy known as counterinsurgency. COIN, as the theory is known, is the new gospel of the Pentagon brass, a doctrine that attempts to square the military’s preference for high-tech violence with the demands of fighting protracted wars in failed states. COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation’s government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve. The theory essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps.

What kind of a man is Stanley McChrystal?

McChrystal is a snake-eating rebel, a “Jedi” commander, as Newsweek called him. He didn’t care when his teenage son came home with blue hair and a mohawk. He speaks his mind with a candor rare for a high-ranking official. He asks for opinions, and seems genuinely interested in the response. He gets briefings on his iPod and listens to books on tape. He carries a custom-made set of nunchucks in his convoy engraved with his name and four stars, and his itinerary often bears a fresh quote from Bruce Lee. (“There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”)

Perhaps the smartest paragraph in the piece:

When it comes to Afghanistan, history is not on McChrystal’s side. The only foreign invader to have any success here was Genghis Khan – and he wasn’t hampered by things like human rights, economic development and press scrutiny. The COIN doctrine, bizarrely, draws inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory: France’s nasty war in Algeria (lost in 1962) and the American misadventure in Vietnam (lost in 1975). McChrystal, like other advocates of COIN, readily acknowledges that counterinsurgency campaigns are inherently messy, expensive and easy to lose. “Even Afghans are confused by Afghanistan,” he says. But even if he somehow manages to succeed, after years of bloody fighting with Afghan kids who pose no threat to the U.S. homeland, the war will do little to shut down Al Qaeda, which has shifted its operations to Pakistan. Dispatching 150,000 troops to build new schools, roads, mosques and water-treatment facilities around Kandahar is like trying to stop the drug war in Mexico by occupying Arkansas and building Baptist churches in Little Rock. “It’s all very cynical, politically,” says Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer who has extensive experience in the region. “Afghanistan is not in our vital interest – there’s nothing for us there.”

(2) “Jane Goodall’s 50 Years in the Jungle” [The Guardian] – an excellent profile and interview of the British anthropologist who spent the majority of her life working with chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania.

Why is Jane Goodall’s work important?

Jane Goodall made one of the most important scientific observations of modern times in that remote African rainforest. She witnessed a creature, other than a human, in the act not just of using a tool but of making one. “It was hard for me to believe,” she recalls. “At that time, it was thought that humans, and only humans, used and made tools. I had been told from school onwards that the best definition of a human being was man the tool-maker – yet I had just watched a chimp tool-maker in action. I remember that day as vividly as if it was yesterday.”

On animals having personalities:

In any case, Goodall (who got her PhD in 1965) believes it is simple nonsense to say that animals, particularly chimpanzees which are so closely related to humans, do not have personalities. “You cannot share your life with a dog, as I had done in Bournemouth, or a cat, and not know perfectly well that animals have personalities and minds and feelings. You know it and I think every single one of those scientists knew it too but because they couldn’t prove it, they wouldn’t talk about it. But I did talk about it. In a way, my dog Rusty gave me the courage of my convictions.”

(3) “A Case for Space” [DigitalMash] – a blog post which explains why you should say less, more often. An excellent read.

(4) “Don’t Mention the Mockingbird” [The Daily Mail] – Harper Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird (one of my favorite novels), talks to the British newspaper. It’s a very rare interview/profile worth reading, not least because the last time Harper Lee spoke to the press was in 2006, when she granted a brief interview to a New York Times reporter at an awards ceremony for a high-school essay contest on the subject of To Kill a Mockingbird. The most unusual part to me was that she chose to speak to a British newspaper, rather than her local paper or the New York Times again.

Trivia: Harper Lee supposedly handwrites every interview request she refuses. The author told the New York Times in 2006 that if she were to send out a form response, it would say “Hell, no”.