My first Divvy ride

I was riding to a party at a friends house when I heard a clattering below me. I looked down and realized that three spokes had broken, likely casualties of a winter of moisture and corrosive salts and a springtime of crater-like potholes.

I needed to get around the West Side to run a few errands and get a new wheel, so I decided to try Chicago’s Divvy bike share service as there were a number of stations that popped up around my neighborhood.

I was originally skeptical about the service because the price tag ($7/24 hours, $75/year) seemed a bit steep compared with the price of the service that I had used in Milan over the summer. But, for the utility it gave me, $7 felt pretty fair. I think the price is still steep for avid cyclists who might be visiting the city for more than a few days and wish there was a weekly option available. Similarly, the yearly pass is a good deal, but you have to wait for the service to mail you a fob. It would be nice to be able to buy a yearly membership and use it right away.

The bike felt heavy and slow compared to my usual ride, but the thick tires and upright riding position felt good and easy to navigate the craggy streets. Even though I’m short, the seat heights were set extremely low on many of the bikes at the station (if not stuck, they’re adjustable with a quick-release skewer) and I wonder how many Divvy users are losing a lot of efficiency by not adjusting the seatpost. The tires were pretty well inflated and the disk brakes worked well. It struck me that for many riders, the Divvy bikes likely offer a more comfortable, fun and safe riding experience than the poorly constructed or badly maintained bike in their garage. In some ways, the yearly membership is a good option for someone who doesn’t want to worry about purchasing, maintaining and securing a decent bike. Hopefully, the service will do a good job of maintaining the bikes.

I took a quick look at the system map and found that there were stations really close to where I needed to go. The stations are pretty visible, so I had some sense of where they were from my usual routes around the city. My favorite thing about using the Divvy bike was the way it changed my usual patterns. Since I couldn’t go directly to my destination, I was forced to walk down blocks I wouldn’t usually visit. While the primary goal of a transit system should be to get people where they need to go efficiently, I like public transportation because it’s another way to experience the city. I appreciated the interruption to my routine that having to find and dock the bikes at the stations offered.

While I enjoyed my experience with the service, I am concerned about how the service and its expansion exists within broader development dynamics in Chicago. It’s a highly visible asset that makes the city more livable to some, while big, tough problems like public education, access to affordable mental health care and residential segregation continue to persist. Meshing transportation is a need for many city residents, and Divvy could be a platform, just like other transit systems, that brings together Chicagoans from different parts of the city and different cultural and economic backgrounds on relatively equal terms. Unfortunately, there are a number of factors that mediate Divvy as a node in a social mesh for Chicago. Having nearby stations, having a credit card, having Internet access to find information or sign up, having $75 to spend all at once, having the physical ability or experience and comfort to ride in city traffic. If there are efforts to address some of these things, I’d love to know more. While these shortcomings aren’t a reason to completely hate on the service, I can’t think of the service without thinking about city priorities and who they privilege.


Notes and connections from reading “It’s Complicated”

Here are a few quotations that stood out to me as I was reading danah boyd’s recent work on youth and social media, It’s Complicated.

Since finishing the book, it’s been a useful frame for thinking about media stories about the Internet. While boyd’s focus and research practice was around youth use of social media, the book is a useful guide for navigating broader cultural narratives around media and technology. It feels as though youth have always been the focus of cultural aspirations and fears, so it makes sense that the way they use emerging media and the way they are framed with it, speaks to cultural attitudes and practices about the media at large.

Chapter 6: Inequality

Perhaps Robert Moses did not intentionally design the roadways to segregate Long Island racially and socioeconomically, but his decision to build low overpasses resulted in segregation nonetheless.  In other words, the combination of regulation and design produced a biased outcome regardless of the planner’s intention.

The first time I read about the social impact of Moses’ plans was in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities

This idea of paying attention to the outcome rather than the intention reminds me a lot of an awesome session I went to at the 2014 NICAR conference where Nikole Hannah-Jones talked about her reporting on housing segregation. It’s really amazing stuff. She contributed to the Propublica series Living Apart and a This American Life segment.

Chapter 7: Literacy

In a networked world, in which fewer intermediaries control the flow of information and more information is flowing, the ability to critically question information or media narratives is increasingly important. Censorship of inaccurate or problematic content does not provide youth the skills they will one day need to evaluate information independently.

I thought this was an interesting breakdown of how a bug in MySpace’s code provided an opportunity for youth to learn HTML/CSS/JavaScript with varying levels of sophistication. I’d hazard to guess that the goal of a custom profile compelled youth who would never choose to take or have access to a computer science class at their schols, to investigate these topics.

Excited by the ability to create “layouts” and “backgrounds,” teens started learning enough code to modify their profiles. Some teens became quite sophisticated technically as they sought to build extensive, creative profiles. Others simply copied and pasted code that they found online. But this technical glitch–combined with teens’ passion for personalizing their MySpace profiles–ended up creating an opportunity for teens to develop some technical competency.

Wikipedia often, but not always, forces resolution of conflicting accounts. Critics may deride Wikipedia as a crowdsourced, user-generated collection of information of dubious origin and accuracy, but the service also provides a platofrm for seeing how knowledge evolves and is contested.

How we picture the issue of digital inequality also has political implications. As communication schilar Dmitry Epstein and his coauthors argue, when society frames the digital divide as a problem of access, we see government and industry as the responsible party for addressing the issue. When society understand the digital divide as a skills issue, we place the onus of learning how to manage on individuals and families. … The burden of responsibility shifts depending on how we construct the problem rhetorically and socially. The language we use matters.

Chapter 8: Searching for a public of their own

Boyd, who apparently came of age in the same region of the United States where I grew up, often uses the shopping mall to compare and contrast digital publics inhabited by youth. Early in the book, boyd writes:

I also take for granted, and rarely seek to challenge, the capitalist logic that
underpins American society and the development of social media. Although I believe that these assumptions should be critiqued, this is outside the scope of this project. **

The way in which markets mediate teen publics is huge. My first impulse was to lament the way in which public spaces for youth are now constructed for them in ways that are ultimately exploitative. Then I remembered how many of the publics I inhabited as a teenager were fundamentally commercial spaces: grocery store parking lots, record stores, clothing boutiques, basements of student housing at expensive private colleges. Ultimately, I think paying attention to the way that youth subvert the intended uses of public space is more interesting and informative than only focusing on the way in which capital mediates spaces for youth.

** On the other hand, boyd made a PDF of the book available, explaining:

My desire to be widely read is why I wanted to make the book freely available from the getgo. I get that not everyone can afford to buy the book. I get that it’s not available in certain countries. I get that people want to check it out first. I get that we haven’t figured out how to implement ‘grep’ in physical books. So I really truly get the importance of making the book accessible.

Re: a youth carefully curating his Facebook posts but feeling like Twitter is a more intimate media.

Manu’s practice contradicts the assumptions then held by adults, who often saw Facebook as a more intimate site than Twitter because of each site’s technical affordances and defaults.

What makes a particular site or service more or less public is not necessarily about the design of the system but rather how it is situated within the broader social ecosystem. … In this way, the technical architecture of the system matters less than how users understand their relationship to it and how the public perceives any particular site.

I find that a lot of times, as someone who saw the evolution of much of the Internet and feels pretty comfortable using it’s tools, I end up using the Internet and emerging social technologies in a way that’s not very pragmatic, and as a result not very emergent.

This passage of the book reminded me of this anecdote from Cory Doctorow:

My old Informationweek editor, Mitch Wagner, once discovered some young girls holding a gossipy chat in the comments section of an old blog post of his; when he asked them what they were doing there, they told him that their school blocked all social media, so every day they picked a random blog-post somewhere on the Internet and used it as a discussion board for the day.

Other notes

In one chapter, boyd tells the story of college admission officials being shocked when an academically gifted high school student whose admission essays talked about trying to escape the gangs and violence of his neighborhood, had social media profiles, which were Googled by the admissions officers, containing references to gangs and gang affiliations. boyd argues that this isn’t contradictory, or disingenuous, it’s an example of youth deftly using different channels for different audiences for survival and mobility. Voicing gang affiliations could be necessary for survival within the student’s community and peer group, the audience of the social media profiles. Their aspirations for the future would be problematic or misunderstood by their social media viewers, but really important for officials at the college they wish to attend. Problems arise when information reaches across the intended audiences that people balancing complicated identities imagine.

I thought of this anecdote and analysis immediately when a friend shared writing about the Eagles dumping player DeSean Jackson over alleged connections to gangs.

Further reading


New music


The human search engine

I’m working my way through danah boyd’s recent book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens and really enjoy it.  It describes the Internet in a way that feels like it actually is, situated somewhere between our worst fears, and highest aspirations for technology.  Framing youth through their use of social media also serves to forefront broader dynamics affecting the lives of young people.

In challenging the idea of universally high levels of youth literacy and agency with technology, boyd makes the observation that both youth and adults often have skewed notions of trust around Internet information sources. A simplified version of the observation is this: information users demonize Wikipedia articles and deify Google search results.

Boyd says, one reason for the trust in Google’s results over information in Wikipedia is the idea that an algorithm lacks the bias of human authors or editors.  Young people often lack an educational background that lets them understand how bias also exists in software and that ultimately leads to skills for critical consumption of any Internet information, regardless of the source.

Living with two teenagers, I often see how research projects are not engaging or exciting and how choosing sources feels like a process guided by confusing, unfounded rules rather than critical thinking.

This made me wonder, what would an activity look like that helps participants think critically about information on the Internet and better understand the technology that delivers it? I sketched this idea out, which I call “The Human Search Engine”.

The human search engine

Shout out: this is largely inspired by FreeGeek Chicago’s The Human Internet activity.

The idea of an algorithm is explained, possibly by having one participant or group of participants control the motion of a volunteer, robot style.

Collectively, the group brainstorms categories of good information and bad information listing these where they can all be seen.

Participants  break into smaller groups.  Each group is given or asked to find 5-10 pieces of media that would match a given search query, ideally about a topic of their choosing.

Participants then order the pieces of information in order of highest to lowest quality.  They must then consolidate their reasoning into an “algorithm” that would generalize the ranking of results in their search engine.

Finally, participants reconvene and are given another group’s search query/ results to pass through their ranking algorithm.  They rank the results and then share how their algorithm works.

Tweaks/variations

  • What practices could be used to game the search engine algorithm and elevate low-quality information the ranking?
  • How would you design an algorithm to censor certain kinds of information.

Hack for storing pot lids

I’m not particularly averse to clutter, but getting met with a landslide of pot lids when I’m trying to make food quickly can be really frustrating.  I’ve lived in a different house or apartment almost every year I’ve lived in Chicago, so the space often dictates where furniture goes and where items go on the furniture.  It’s not possible to buy furniture that matches the space and optimizes storage with every move, so things often end up on shelves in an inelegant way.

IMG_6920

I bought a used, simple wire dish rack at the thrift store for a dollar and zip-tied it to the shelf for a little added stability.  It doesn’t look any uglier than the old pile, and cleans things up nicely.

IMG_6922


Baby It’s Cold Inside

It feels as if I’ve lived in a lifetime of cold houses. As a child, the thermostat was a battleground between my parents (a battle that, if the warmth of my parents’ house on my last visit was any indicator, has been won by my mother).  While I’m sure there was some genuine concern for thrift, it feels keeping the temperature low was a way of saying that we weren’t the kind of family that was so privileged as to throw away money for excessive comfort.

My first house in Bloomington was freezing.  Despite covering all the windows in plastic, it never felt warm, the pipes froze, and when we finally crawled under the floorboards into the muddy crawlspace, we found that most of the ductwork was disconnected.

During the polar vortex, the temperature in my Chicago apartment dipped below 50 degrees.  It still felt warm compared with the outside, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant.  I was pissed at my landlord for neglecting the cranky radiators in the apartment, but also felt like a whiner, knowing that others in the city were probably in a worse situation.  In general, it felt like one more thing that was bigger than me.

My best stab at dealing with the crazy weather, and the discomfort, was to wire up an Arduino to a temperature sensor and push the temperature readings to Xively.  The Arduino code is here.

IMG_6919

I made a micro site called Baby It’s Cold Inside, to share the readings and link to resources about landlord responsibilities for keeping apartments warm.  In the future, I might try to incorporate data about no heat 311 requests that I FOIAed last year.

This project didn’t make the apartment any warmer, but it was a way to acknowledge my situation and create something out of that situation.


DIY Ping Pong Table

IMG_20140126_235510

We’re in the midst of the polar vortex so outdoor, physical activity is pretty unpleasant.  My ankle is still messed up from soccer, so I’ve been out of commission from playing soccer, and I’m starting to get stir-crazy.  Inspired by this small apartment video with all its disappearing furniture, I decided to build a table tennis table that could, without too much pain, be disassembled and stowed out of the way.

This design was inspired by this DIY Ping Pong Table Instructable.  The major difference is that I only used 3/4 of the 4′ * 8′ board and that the surface rests on the dining room table instead of having to have it’s own legs.

Parts List

Component Cost Amount Total
Franklin® Sports Insta Table Tennis To Go $10.98 (on sale, list price is $14.99) 1 $10.98
3/4″ * 49″ * 97″ Melamine $22.98 1 $22.98
Wing Nut $1.18 4 $4.72
#10-32 * 1-1/2″ flat head nuts and bolts (5 pack) $1.18 2 $3.36
4″ Mending Plate (2 pack) $2.49 2 $4.98
Total  $47.02

Improvements

It seems like it would be better to countersink the screws, but I didn’t have the tools to do this.  Surprisingly, the ball doesn’t often land near the screws, so even though they’re not flush, it’s not a problem.

IMG_6916

The boards are really heavy, making it somewhat hard to assemble and disassemble.  I avoided lighter materials, because some of my preliminary research suggested that lighter or less-dense boards didn’t allow the ball to bounce.

IMG_6918

It’s difficult to unscrew the connecting screws, even though they’re wingnuts.  It might be possible to get nuts with larger wings, or to use screws with a square flange, so they won’t spin as the nuts are being removed.

The ends of the table sag a tiny bit, which causes the surface to be uneven and make for some weird bounces.  Using longer mending strips or adding one in the middle of the table might help with this.


Android emulator cheatsheet

Lately, I’ve been testing some mobile web apps using the android emulator.  It’s a piece of software that I use infrequently enough that I can’t remember some needed commands.

Launching the emulator

$PATH_TO_ADT_BUNDLE/sdk/tools/emulator -avd $AVD_NAME

~/local/adt-bundle-linux-x86-20130729/sdk/tools/emulator -avd AVD_for_Galaxy_Nexus_by_Google

Note: AVDs are stored in ~/.android/avd

Launching the Android Virtual Device (AVD) manager

$PATH_TO_ADT_BUNDLE/sdk/tools/android avd

Switching screen orientation

Switch to previous layout orientation (for example, portrait, landscape): KEYPAD_7, Ctrl-F11

Switch to next layout orientation (for example, portrait, landscape): KEYPAD_9, Ctrl-F12

Source

Accessing servers running on localhost

Use 10.0.2.2

Source

Debugging JavaScript in the Android Browser

console.log() will output to the log stream viewable with the adb logcat command.

You can filter the logs to only see the browser messages by using

adb logcat browser:* *:S

Source


Youth migrate online as they lose IRL social space

As I’ve been thinking about ad-hoc basketball hoops in my Chicago neighborhood, one of the frames for these devices is that of the creation and loss of public space for youth.  This year there’s been a ton of media coverage about how youth engage with the Internet and social media, much of it problematizing a perceived overuse of such media, or a preference toward shallower, digital interactions over face-to-face ones.  In Clive Thompson’s write-up of  research from danah boyd‘s forthcoming book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Thompson draws a clear line between the loss of public spaces and social opportunities for youth and their migration online:

It’s true. As a teenager in the early ’80s I could roam pretty widely with my friends, as long as we were back by dark. But over the next three decades, the media began delivering a metronomic diet of horrifying but rare child-abduction stories, and parents shortened the leash on their kids. Politicians warned of incipient waves of youth wilding and superpredators (neither of which emerged). Municipalities crafted anti-loitering laws and curfews to keep young people from congregating alone. New neighborhoods had fewer public spaces. Crime rates plummeted, but moral panic soared. Meanwhile, increased competition to get into college meant well-off parents began heavily scheduling their kids’ after-school lives.

The result, Boyd discovered, is that today’s teens have neither the time nor the freedom to hang out. So their avid migration to social media is a rational response to a crazy situation. They’d rather socialize F2F, so long as it’s unstructured and away from grown-ups.

Ad-hoc basketball hoops are  interesting in the context of a trend towards digital social migration because, like online communities, they’re self-organized, ephemeral, and somewhat outside adult spheres.  But, they exist in physical, hyperlocal space.  Furthermore, they’re not mediated by commercial platforms and the conflict between creating a commons and finding ways to exploit that commons to maximize profit.


Custom formatting of date and time for events in in Squarespace blocks

I’ve recently done a little bit of front-end development work on a Squarespace website.  This is my first experience with the platform, and it’s been generally positive.  It starts out with a sane content model and makes all the content available as JSON.

The system provides a number of predefined blocks that let you expose content from  collections on other pages in the site.  Unfortunately, as of January 2014, you can’t customize the markup of items in a block.

This was a problem for us because the default summary block for event content only showed the event date and we wanted to also show the start time.  Luckily, the JSON feed of the events collection provided timestamps for the start and end date/time.

I wrote Squarespace Event List, a YUI3 plugin that fetches the event collection JSON with AJAX and overwrites a block’s content with a custom-formatted event list.  You can find the JavaScript and some brief documentation on GitHub.

 


C.R.E.A.M.

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