Archive for the ‘ Technology ’ Category

Maybe don’t spend 7 hours setting up a dev environment

Your first day on a new project is usually shot getting a dev environment setup. I’m usually lucky if the process only lasts one day. This is increasingly true as web development goes down the rabbit hole.

It makes me wonder if there is a better way. During a recent security audit, a very knowledgeable and unusually critical co-worker discovered that the company we were investigating used Vagrant as a way of packaging their dev environment. I remember this guy saying, “Vagrant is actually pretty cool” or something on Slack. I figured it was, indeed, pretty cool if he had complimented it.

After researching it today, it does look really useful. Basically it allows you to package a dev environment as a VM-turned-“Box” and then bring up that environment with one command. I think this would be especially useful for open source projects. These projects usually provide a lot of motivation to get started coding quickly, and they also don’t pay. So not wasting time setting up a dev environment is a good thing. I’m thinking that you replace a large chunk of this (admittedly very solid) installation documentation with a single Vagrant box download.

“But that’s a .NET project, not Linux” you ask. It looks like this is still possible, thanks to this awesome post from Matt Wrock. Visual Studio now (finally) comes with a free community edition, and you can get a free trial version of Windows Server 2012, good for 180 days and extendible if need be.

My idea is to make a Vagrant box available alongside project code in Git. Then developers can hopefully spend 7 minutes getting a dev environment setup instead of 7 hours. As an added bonus, Vagrant boxes can be pushed to Docker or even Azure, so if local development is not an option, you can just create a remote dev server to remote into.

Disclaimer: None of this has been tested yet. 😉


The Dangers of Digital Ephemera


I logged into Myspace recently. It had been years, but I still got my username and password on the first try. The site had completely changed, and although several of my photos were still there, I couldn’t find my old messages. In fact, I couldn’t even find the inbox link.

This was a sad event. Painful, in a nostalgic way. Not because I was expecting new messages from friends on a long forgotten social media site, but because I was on the hunt for old messages from my sister, who died six years ago. Previously I had searched Gmail for her various nicknames (including “sushi,” which brought up a ton of spam) but found nothing. I realized that we didn’t really communicate via email. Most of our letters back and forth were through Myspace. This was before Facebook got big, and besides, we both didn’t like Facebook that much.

When Myspace rebranded after losing the battle to the new generation of social media giants, they deleted all the old messages and posts. So those letters to and from my sister are gone forever. This is also true of my old love letters to my girlfriend. I didn’t bother to forward them from my college email account to Gmail.

The vast majority of people do not write letters anymore, nor do they print real photographs. Technology has made these things much easier, and we communicate more, but it comes with a hidden cost, or danger. All the important artifacts of our lives now exits as bits, hidden on servers owned by companies that are, in the big picture, tenuous. Myspace may have had a shorter shelf life than Facebook, but they both ultimately have a shelf life. Even the free service upon which I write this post, WordPress, may go under at some point.

Maybe free is the key word there. All of the services mentioned thus far are free, and when things are free, you can’t trust that they will be preserved. I have bit more faith in cloud storage, like Dropbox, since I actually pay for it. I guess one lesson I’ve learned from losing those Myspace messages is to back up your data. Even if I had to copy them as text, and even if they were stupid, silly, or banal, it would have been worth it.

Something doesn’t sit right with the transfer of our memories from physical materials to bits. I have a leather-bound book of photos, letters, and other ephemera from my grandfather. I open it up now and then and can actually touch the old, faded letters and hold the photos up to the light. I wonder what I will leave behind. A WordPress page with a “blog not found” message on it? A Facebook profile with the majority of friends deceased? We will have Facebook graveyards.

I think I’ll take my film camera out of its box, and start printing out some old emails.

The Beauty of Skyrim

I think I’ve always loved RPGs. It was just that 20 years went by without playing one.

It started with King’s Quest. I remember booting it up from DOS. Amazing a world could emerge from all that darkness and solitary blinking.


With the help of my teenage stepbrother, I was able to understand how games are played “these days,” and I downloaded Steam. He recommended Skyrim, and around 1am one night, I finally purchased it. I remember starting the game, and, after the initial scene, realizing that I could go wherever I wanted to. I was completely blown away. Things had come so far in 20 years. During this initial period I actually woke up in the morning excited for the day because of the game.

I’ve now played Skyrim for 65 hours, and along the way I’ve been collecting screenshots. I don’t have the best gaming laptop, nor can I even run the game with anti-aliasing, but I still admire the beauty of Skyrim.




Mapping NYC Bike Accidents

Not me. I'm not that dapper

Not me. I’m not that dapper

I was riding my bike through downtown Brooklyn, at the intersection of Jay and Tillary, when a large SUV made a right turn into me. Due to the angle of impact and maybe just luck, I came away with just some minor bruises. It was the first time I had been hit by a car while riding in NYC, though, and it changed the way I moved through the city streets. I am more cautious and a little paranoid now, especially since the SUV driver decided to be an asshole and just drive away.

About a month later I pulled up to the same intersection and saw a guy on the ground, his bike next to him, front wheel still spinning, and people gathering around to help him. He had been hit literally in the same exact spot I had. As I rode away, I thought that it would be great to see a map of dangerous biking zones in the city.

Fortunately, NYC OpenData has a dataset from the NYPD on motor vehicle collisions. I hooked it up to Google Maps and voila! Check it out here.

My goal for this was to provide a way for people to evaluate their daily commutes and maybe find safer routes. Data can be weird, though, and what I see a lot on the map are crashes along the common bike paths, which is probably because that’s where the bikers are (duh). I’m not sure if taking alternate routes that are off the bike paths is any safer. Maybe there is still some valuable info in there though.

I’d like to expand on this map and add functionality. It’s on GitHub, if you’re interested in helping.

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Hold on to that bottle

When I moved from Oakland to NYC, recycling plastic bottles and glass bottles became a lot harder. Back in Oakland, the trash cans wore little recycling hats where you could place your bottles while out and about. Here in New York, you have to duck into a restaurant or carry the bottle back home. It’s surprising, given how NYC is really far ahead with regards to public trans.

So I decided to map the locations of all of NYC’s recycling bins. To create the map, I used a lesser-known product by Google called Fusion Tables. Fusion Tables allow you to basically upload your data to Google’s servers, render it into an Excel-like table structure, and plot the data on the map using columns (in this case, lattitude & longitude). Then you can use the Google Maps API to create a map and add a fusion table layer, linking to your data. If you have a large number of ‘markers’ for a relatively small area, I think using the fusion table layer over markers is the way to go.

As you can see from the map, there are not that many recycling bins given the population. A pilot study by the NYC Department of Sanitation justifies the small number of public recycling bins with the following:

The Department of Sanitation’s comprehensive study of residential and street basket waste looked at the contents of street basket waste, finding that over 40% consisted of materials that could be recycled. However, because street baskets contain such a small fraction of NYC’s overall waste (around 1%), even if it were possible to recycle all these materials, it won’t make a difference in the amount of waste going to disposal (40% of 1% = 0.4%).

Claiming that “it won’t make a difference” struck me as kind of odd. Isn’t the point of recycling each person making a difference on a small scale? Perhaps it didn’t make sense to invest money into new recycle bins and sorting the recycling, but even that can be argued against using the general principle above.

A Mind for the Bicycle

Man rides a bike in New York while listening to an iPhone

If you are at all interested in the history of technology, it’s worth checking out Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview. It offers a candid look into the origins of Apple and the tumultuous time around Jobs’ departure. It also gives Jobs an opportunity to offer predictions for the industry and wax philosophical a bit. He mentions a new technique called ‘object-oriented programming’ that he’s developing at NEXT, which is almost humorous given the current ubiquity of OOP. He also talks about the creation of the PC and it’s place within human history, using an example from an article he once read in Scientific American:

“I think one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.

And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”

‘A bicycle for our minds’ might sound a little corny, but it raises some interesting questions. I had never really thought about the PC in terms of human evolution. It is, in many ways, a direct descendant of stone tools and fire. Stone turning into integrated circuits and fire turning into electricity. Those stone tools and fire separated us from other species. There are other toolmakers in the animal kingdom, but it can be argued that humans are unique in that we have been significantly shaped or transformed by technology, as highlighted in this article. Fire in particular allowed for cooked food and warmth, which helped us keep our brains growing while also shedding excess hair. In short, they made modern humans.

So what does this mean for modern technology like the PC? Jobs ‘bicycle for the mind’ analogy evokes a version of transhumanism where we our bodies and abilities our amplified by modern technology, in the vein of human enhancement. This is indeed true–one recent development that comes to mind is Google Glass, which acts a perfect example. As we move through our daily life, our vision will be ‘enhanced’ by data. We’ll now know how to best pick up on that guy or girl based on the social networking interests that appear next to him or her.

However, we also have to shift our perspective a bit and recognize the other side. Modern technology is shaping us, as well. In fact, it’s hard to really distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘it.’ It has evolved right along side us, from stone tools to fire to the wheel and onward to the PC and iPhone. Jobs bicycle for the mind puts the human behind the handlebars. But we have to ask ourselves if we are really in control, and if we still hold dominion over technology. A good portion of the population sits behind computers for 8+ hours a day advancing technology, whether directly as coders and engineers or indirectly through countless other fields and industries. So as we lose our physical fitness slumped over our desks and our brains shrink, we have to wonder if we’re actually a stepping stone for technology’s evolution. Or maybe it’s one and the same. Where do you draw the line between humans and the technology they create? Only time will tell.