WOXY Growl notifications

A while ago I pestered the author of the WOXY playlist widget to add Growl support — I like to be able to learn what I’m listening to without opening my web browser — and he was nice enough to do so. That worked okay for a while, but I think the widget’s no longer being maintained; at the very least my copy now seems to be broken.

But two things have changed, making the kludginess of a widget unnecessary. First, a few months ago WOXY began offering a 128kbps MP3 stream, providing listenable sound quality without the use of their iTunes-unfriendly AACPlus stream. Second, it appears that last month some nice fellow on the internet patched the GrowlTunes helper app so that it actually shows notifications properly when there’s a track change in a radio stream being played by iTunes. Thanks, stranger!

your presence is requested

Just a heads-up to any DC area geeks who might be strolling by this blog: we’re still looking for good people to come work for the Sunlight Foundation. It’s a fun place to work, and jobs in the labs are that rarest of opportunities: a chance to use your technical skills for the good of (non-Azerothian) society. Python and Ruby people are especially welcome. Go, apply!

Thermal shock

The first (intentionally) leaked track got me pretty excited about the new Thermals album. Now the rest of the album has made its way onto the internet, and after spending some time with it… I donno, guys. I won’t claim to be the world’s greatest Thermalsologist, but I really liked the last album. Unfortunately, it turns out that if you remove the anger and urgency from their music, you’re left with plodding melodies and lyrics that are occasionally pretty lame (the first verse on the album certainly doesn’t get things off to a very good start).

But I’m still looking forward to their May show at the Black Cat. Here’s hoping they decide to play all their new stuff twice as fast as they recorded it — that could go a long way toward improving things.

WMATA data!

Hey! WMATA has finally released it schedule data in a usable format! Except also, it hasn’t.

I’m sure the 404 will be cleared up soon, but it’s secured by a captcha, which makes me a little worried. Throughout this process WMATA was insistent that its schedule data was so vast, complex and ever-changing that it needed to be updated on a daily basis (if not faster!), and that those low-tech hillbillies at Google didn’t seem to be up to the task. As you might imagine, I have my doubts about that. But if it’s true, they need to provide an interface for downloading the data that can be used without daily human intervention. They may have, in the form of their RSS feed — it points to the same missing URL as the one behind the license agreement. If there’s actually no security enforced by the captcha then this’ll be fine, although idiotic. If there is, then RSS won’t be sufficient. Which of these is the case won’t be clear until the data’s actually up.

On a personal note, I’m flattered by how many people have been looking in my direction for interesting uses of this new WMATA data. It’s my own fault, of course — I’ve done a bunch of Metro-related projects, and although GreaterGreaterWashington deserves all the credit for this data release, I did have at least a peripheral role in pestering WMATA for GTFS data.

But I should probably start managing expectations now: the most obvious use of the data — a mobile/iPhone app — requires a skillset I haven’t got. Not that that’ll stop me from trying, but it’s likely that someone else will beat me to market and do a better (if not cheaper) job, particularly since this window between the 2.0 and 3.0 iPhone software is a weird time to begin looking at developing map-based applications. On the web side, Google Transit itself will presumably provide a comprehensive solution.

With all that said, I certainly intend to have a look at the data and see if I can do anything neat with it. Either way, the important thing is that regardless of who manages to do it first, riding the bus in DC is about to get a lot easier.

suggestions for learning electronics

My former coworker Ben wrote to me earlier today asking whether I had any particular recommendations for books about electronics and Arduino. I was in a voluble/caffeinated mood, and ended up producing enough text that I figured I might as well throw it on the ol’ blog:

I’d suggest the book Practical Electronics for Inventors. I’ve heard others speak highly of it, too. When I first read it (and I didn’t read all of it) it didn’t make a ton of sense. This was slightly disappointing, and all the more so given that others attest to it being one of the most approachable introductions available. But it’s proven to be a useful (if at times slightly outdated) reference. And the scene-setting it provides is invaluable. I don’t think I’ve ever actually built a voltage-dividing circuit (though it’s a pretty basic thing), and to be honest I don’t even find myself using Ohm’s Law all that much — shameful, but relatively easy to avoid thanks to the Arduino’s robustness and the various online calculators that are available — but these are good things to know. Understanding passive components in terms of hydraulic analogies is extremely helpful, too, at least for me.

On to Arduino. I don’t have any books about it, which probably says it all. The online docs are totally sufficient, and it’s a much simpler topic in general than electronics. Still, it may be worth picking something up, particularly since Arduino resources are often geared toward programmers learning electronics (many microcontroller resources are set up exactly the other way, which can make them too elementary and too advanced at the same time). There’s this introductory book, which I’ve heard HacDC’s Serge Wroclawski describe as an okay Arduino/electronics combo primer for the total novice.

But he also said that it’s not advanced enough to really satisfy. For a more sophisticated alternative, I’ll note that I’ve heard good nothing but good things about Making Things Talk.

I’d also suggest looking at people’s projects online. Frequently they’re much simpler than you’d expect, because people like myself have muddled through and done things slightly incorrectly, but in ways that fall within the tolerances of the components. This is a good way to start — I built things that were pointless and expensive (transformers w/ bridge rectifiers? what was I thinking?) when I should’ve just done something simpler, and would have if I knew more about how others had solved the problems I was facing. Sometimes these projects cross into the realm of the dangerously stupid — see here — but as long as you stay away from the sorts of voltages coming out of your wall, you should be fine.

Above all, talk to folks who know what they’re doing. I’m happy to fill that role to the extent that I can, but I’m almost entirely a fraud. I imagine there’s probably a hacker space in your town — that’d be a great place to start. If you have any EE friends, pestering them over beers is a good idea, too. Generally you can find the information you need online, but knowing what terms or topics to search for can be tough. For instance, when I first started thinking about how to sense if a door was closed I only thought of mechanical solutions, not magnetic ones, because I simply hadn’t heard of the existence of reed switches and Hall Effect sensors. Or you might want to measure how much a knob is turned and try to do something funky with a potentiometer to do it, instead of searching for details on rotary encoders. Simply having someone mention these to you can be all you need to figure them out for yourself.

making excuses

Kriston asked Ryan and me to write about Larry Van Dyne’s article on historic preservation for DCist. This was at least half of a good idea: Ryan always has interesting things to say about the business of running cities. And for my part, I imagine Kriston was counting on me to bring my own trademark brand of techno-philistinism (“Why preserve buildings when we can just make models of them in Second Life?”).

The joke’s on him, though. The past couple of years’ worth of Ryan’s writing have been so convincing that whatever opinions I may have originally had on these matters have been almost entirely replaced with his — this happens an embarrassing amount when you have smart friends who write a lot. I’m afraid that the essay I produced is consequently just a half-baked version of the one that Ryan wrote. On the upside, I was glad to see Ryan take the potshot at the FBI building that I’d barely restrained myself from making (it’s so awful). So really, he wins on all fronts — go have a read.

I’ve been places!

Hello! I didn’t spend last night in a hotel. This has become a sufficiently unusual occurrence that I thought I should mention it.

Not that I’m trying to present myself as a cosmopolitan traveler, mind you. My destinations have included Houston and Indianapolis, and next weekend I’ll be in Atlanta. These are places which don’t qualify as America’s armpits, exactly — what are we, Goro? — but they could fairly be called the sweaty small of our great nation’s back.

There’s something to recommend each of them, though, and there was a lot to recommend Houston in particular. First, my sister lives there, and she’s very charming. Beth works for the nonprofit that manages The Orange Show and the Beer Can House (both of which are very cool), and her boyfriend Jeremy is in the business of making deadly, spider-attracting chemicals. The two of them have an extremely pleasant house in the part of Houston near the highway, which is to say I have no idea where they live. It’s right by a taco truck called Elena’s II, though, which is across the street from a taco truck called Elena’s III. I can vouch for Elena’s II — that was some of the best food I’ve had in recent memory. Elena’s III could be a crapshoot for all I know.

That was the first thing that Emily and I realized about Houston: the food’s great. We ate Mexican food at every possible opportunity and I don’t think we were ever disappointed. Real barbacoa was a revelation.

The drinking was good, too. Bought from the supermarket, Shiner and Lone Star are unremarkable beers. But placed into their proper context — say, an ice house yard filled with Sunday sun, kids shooting basketball, dogs stealing food and friendly gentlemen who genially critique visiting Yankees’ horseshoe skills while not-very-discreetly smoking joints at the corner picnic table — they become the best beers you’re ever going to taste.

Oh! We also went to the rodeo. The attached fair and livestock show are pretty much what you’d expect, except with more places selling multi-foot sausages (available with stick or without!). The actual rodeo, though, was unexpectedly great. Perhaps on repeat visits the novelty would wear off — I can imagine that the casual sexism with which the announcers discussed each barrel-riding cowgirl’s beauty might start to rankle — but the actual events were thrilling and proceeded in quick succession. There’s a lot to be said for watching a grown man leap from a horse onto a steer and wrestle it to the ground, and even more to be said for watching it twelve times in a row. Since then I have been surprised to find myself watching professional bullriding on television, and reading with credulous interest accounts of how the sport isn’t actually cruel at all. That’s how quickly this sport (see? I’m calling it a sport) can get its hooks into you.

But none of the proper rodeo events could compete with the Calf Scramble. For the uninitiated, this is an event in which our human society pits its children against those of the cows. Dozens of fresh-faced Future Farmers of America race toward a smaller crowd of confused, slightly bored calves and attempt to cajole them into submission. If you manage to subdue one of the calves you’ll be presented with a certificate good for the future purchase of such an animal, which you’ll then presumably raise. Who knows? With hard work and a little luck, in a few years you might be one of the cowboys over at the Ag Expo applying can after can of hairspray to a bull.

The charming part of the scramble is how simultaneously overmatched and excited the kids are. Emily and I watched a post-game interview with an ecstatic and disheveled young woman who had just won a calf, and no sir, she didn’t mind at all that it had stepped on her head, in fact she didn’t even remember that part!

Here’s some video of the 2005 Houston Rodeo calf scramble. Unfortunately the professional rodeo videographers who shot it seem to have been intent on playing up the desperate athletic conflict of the thing. And who can blame them? They spend most of their time filming flinty cowboys as they casually, mercilessly assert their dominance over the bovine world. But most of the calf scramble is much more hapless than that, and considerably more endearing. If you had to pick a single representative image of the proceedings it would be of a girl holding on to a calf’s tail in the corner of the arena, both of them confused about what should happen next.

From Houston we went to Galveston, then to Austin via Lockhart. We had some great seafood in Galveston and stayed in a fancy hotel — it was nice! — but the town’s clearly still getting itself together from the hurricane’s aftermath. Austin was Austin — you know it’s great. Suspiciously great, in fact, like all college towns. Oh, and everything Kriston has said about barbecue in Lockhart is correct, and perhaps even understated. Kreuz Market is a monastery, and imposes vows of abstinence from sauce and forks upon visitors as soon as they walk through the door. When your server turns and reaches into the fire-flecked pit behind him to retrieve some brisket, it’s easy to imagine that he’s actually reaching into the underworld — and is that really beef? It seems too tender. What sort of barbecue sect is this, anyway? It’s all too delicious to fight, though. Accept your damnation, and be sure to try the sauerkraut.

And that was about it for Texas. I spent the past few days in Indianapolis at the Computer Assisted Reporting Conference. The conference was good: it was fun to be told embarrassing stories about my new coworkers, and to observe the extent to which journalists everywhere seem to share the same talents and affectations — many of the same ones that I suffer from and/or aspire to. These were good people, and I felt right at home.

Indianapolis, though… well, I don’t know. They’ve got some creepy, Masonic-looking monuments, which makes me think there may be some pretty good secret conspiracies going on. But the downtown is incredibly free of personality; the closest thing I observed to local color was an installation of the Weber Grill chain restaurant. On the plus side, the tapwater seemed to be extremely soft, so any travelers who are more worried about limestone scale or excessive shampooing times than about access to culinary and cultural options would do well to give Indianapolis a look.

In five days: Atlanta. I’ve been before and it was okay, although it was hard to shake the feeling that Ted Turner was singlehandedly responsible for about 90% of the city. Maybe this time will be different; I’ll report back.

I do love conspiracies

Now that Ezra’s terrible secret has been revealed, it seems safe to say that the Politico article does a pretty piss-poor job of making JournoList sound like a dire liberal conspiracy. It did leave me wondering about another point, though: whether the availability of this sort of back channel is one of the factors that’s led to the blogosphere’s diminished vibrancy.

There’s an obvious advantage to moving the social and argument-refining functions of online conversation to a venue where participants aren’t exposed to the risks of misinterpretation, prudishness or unreasonably high expectations. Opting for a listserv post instead of a trackback means no public castigation for stupid mistakes and no worrying about an occasional thoughtless (or just really funny) remark getting you in trouble with your employer. And, as Ezra points out, it’s better to have wary experts offer their wisdom in private than not at all. Besides, it’s not like participants are giving up much by foregoing the contributions of the slack-jawed commentariat during this process (aside: I remain baffled by well-meaning web triumphalists’ calls for the use of technology to enable more direct participation in the policy process — have they spent any time in blog comment sections?).

It’s hard to begrudge anyone this sort of professional conservatism, particularly when their industry is in turmoil. I certainly engage in similar behaviors when I find them advantageous. But it does seem likely to me that there’s a homogenizing effect that comes from blog-labor-saving devices like mailing lists and memeorandum. As a fan of these writers I’m glad for anything that makes their work easier, but as a member of the reading public I have to admit: it’s kind of a drag to know that the blogosphere’s efforts to improve itself have led to its audience being protected from so much interesting content.

Live! Nude! Post-humans!

I haven’t seen Watchmen yet — Emily and I were traveling last night, bound for a quick vacation in Texas. Just about the time everyone else was suffering through “Citizen Solder” I was tucking into an enormous plate of delicious blue corn tortillas. So I say this based on the comic, not the film.

But of course Phoebe’s right that there’s a double standard when it comes to female and male nudity in films, and our discomfort at either is a bit silly. Watchmen seems like an odd time to make that case, though, because here the nudity is used precisely because we’re uncomfortable with it. Dr. Manhattan wanders around naked, and that seems odd to us. But it doesn’t seem odd to him because he’s a superbeing that’s almost completely alienated from humanity. To him a body is a construct, and it’s impossible to understand the social conventions surrounding it or anything else. If the audience was similarly blasé about Dr. M striding about in his deathday suit there wouldn’t be any point to showing him doing so.

we make art not money

On the off chance that you missed it, let me encourage you to go read Matt’s post about our economic shift toward producing wealth that doesn’t generate revenue. This is a topic that fascinates me — I’ve poked at it before, but of course Matt’s take is considerably smarter and more rigorous than any conclusions I’ve ever reached. His perspective also happens to be cheerier than my own — I remain somewhat pessimistic about the ultimate economic consequences of these changes, even as I find myself looking forward to their effect on our society.

The good news, though, is that I don’t actually know anything about economics, so for now let’s all just assume that everything will be fine.