October 18th, 2012

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Bicycling thoughts

I've spent the past couple of days with a three-day pass for Hubway, as previously discussed. Some observations:

Most important: in-citing biking is *really* different from the suburbs. I'm used to having to assume that all cars are actively malicious, but there are a hell of a lot *more* of them here. The result is that biking is very different, with less opening up and more paying very active attention to everything around me. Riding in a *predictable* way seems key to safety -- not surprising the cars appears to be essential to being safe.

Trying to find consensus about the appropriate rules of the road for bicycles seems to be futile. My usual rule is "drive like the other people do", and I was figuring on doing the same with biking, but the other people are completely inconsistent. (Especially with regard to red lights.) So I'm gravitating towards what seems to be a sensible middle ground -- either I am on the bicycle, in which case I think of myself as a car, or I'm walking it, in which case I think of myself as a pedestrian. Switching back and forth is acceptable, but keeping the clear distinction seems to be safest.

Hubway as a service works smoothly and well, and I think it's a great idea, but mostly it's driving home that I need to get my own bike repaired. The thing is, while there are now Hubway stations in Somerville, they're mostly about five blocks from where I need to be. There's one in Ball Square, but it's the other end of Ball, so it's still a ten minute walk to get there. There's one near Porter, but still several blocks from Shaw's. The result is that I'm not actually saving much *time* bicycling, although I'm getting a bit of nice variation in my exercise. With my own bicycle, it would actually be a major time savings to bike instead of walking, and I'd be more likely to really do it regularly.

The Hubway technology is clever in a host of ways. I had only one snag (they don't make it very obvious that you need a new PIN every time you rent, which led to some confusion on my part), but making all relevant info available online is great. There's even a very nice smartphone app that shows all local stations on a map, so that you can track exactly where you need to go to drop it off.

Folks have remarked that the Hubway bikes are kind of bulky and heavy, and that's true but doesn't matter much -- for in-city use, having a super-light road bike just isn't as important. They do seem to be very sturdy and solid, are well-maintained, and have a lot of smart details. (For instance, it only took me about 30 seconds to figure out how to adjust the seat, and then I realized that the seat height is marked so that you can choose your bike based on that.) My only real complaint about the bikes is that, even for in-city use, three speeds is kind of dinky, especially since first gear is so low that it's not useful for anything except hill-climbing. But the shifter is easy to use and reliable, and the bikes didn't give me any trouble.

Overall, Hubway seems to be a Very Good Thing, and I recommend it to anybody who doesn't want to have their own bike -- it's a convenient and healthy supplement to the subway system. But I think I'm going to bring my own bike to Wheelworks and get a couple of years of neglect repaired...
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PSA: reaching me

Most folks already know this, but it's been pointed out to me recently that some are still trying to email me at waks.org. For the time being, please don't. While the domain still notionally gets to me, I am only checking it *very* rarely -- all the moreso because it is horribly overrun with spam. (When I checked it last week, I had 16,000 emails stacked up in my Inbox.) I hope to eventually reclaim that, but there are a lot of tricky steps involved: the domain's registrar got bought by a larger one, and the contact information for the domain is mostly a decade out of date, so it's going to be a process to get it switched to PairNIC (my usual current registrar).

In the meantime, please use my Gmail address: my usual jducoeur handle on gmail. I check that almost constantly, and the spam filtering is a thousand times better, so it's really the best way to get to me. Thanks...
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Tuesday - Home by way of Tikka Mix

[Okay, let's get this finished off, finally. Time for the last day...]

Our flight on Tuesday was late afternoon; Kate and Peter were both nervous about how much margin we needed to leave for the joys of Heathrow, but it was clear that we had a few hours to start with.

So we wandered back to Walthamstow Market (last seen, closed and quiet, on Sunday) again.Collapse )
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A Few Minutes of Querki

There's a lot of grand vision to this project, and almost too many ideas and features to absorb. So rather than drowning folks in all of those details, let me describe a few minutes of what Querki is supposed to be like in practice. Keep in mind, nothing at all has been written yet, and it'll probably take a year for us to get all of the main pieces in place. But it's important to know where we're going. So here's a scenario showing what this system is supposed to feel like once it's all up and running.

A Few Minutes: My Cookbook

Last night's dinner was good -- I made soft tacos, and experimentally decided to make my own Pico de Gallo. It was tasty enough that it's worth writing down.

I open up Querki, which presents me with all of my Spaces: the Comic Book database, my Contact List, my Blog, and my Cookbook. I choose the latter, and it opens up. I didn't build the format of the Cookbook myself -- one of my friends did it a couple of months ago, and shared it as an App. I picked that up for myself, getting my own Cookbook, and have been moving all my recipes into it ever since.

I select "new Recipe", and get presented with a form. I fill in the fields that the Recipe model knows about: the name, how many it serves, and so on. It asks me for ingredients, one at a time, with the quantity of each. I give it a narrative of how to make the Pico, and hit "Save"; it shows me the newly-created Recipe, all neatly formatted. (My friend who built the Cookbook app did a good job with the formatting, so that the ingredients show up as two columns; I like that touch.)

Since Recipes have a Rating property, I can say how much I like this one. I give it four stars out of five: solid, but could use some tweaking yet.

I realize, though, that the Cookbook app is actually missing something I care about. I'm all about attribution and documentation (comes with being a Laurel), so I really want to track where I got this recipe from. No problem, though: I just tell Querki to add a Sources property to my Cookbook, and to add that property to Recipes. I edit my Pico recipe again, which now shows the Sources property -- I add a few links to the web pages I used, and save it again. I tweak the Recipe format to show Sources down at the bottom, and *voila*: a list of links, which I can refer back to or query later. I go over to the Cookbook app itself, click on the Ideas and Suggestions page, and suggest that my changes get lifted into the common app so that everybody else can use it.

I've set up my Cookbook to automatically publish new entries, so a post shows up a few minutes later on my Facebook Timeline, with a pointer to the entry. It also shows up as an RSS feed in LiveJournal -- I mixed in the What's New app, so new entries basically get turned into blog posts automatically.

My friend Ailish likes the sound of it, but being Canadian she prefers things in metric units. No problem: she right-clicks on one of the ingredients, chooses "Convert to...", picks Metric, and it all shows the way she wants. (Personally, I don't use that much, except with the medieval recipes I've been working with -- I enter those with the ancient Arabic units, and then convert them to US for actual cooking.)

While I'm in my Cookbook, I remember that my friend Anna has asked me for an index of my medieval recipes. Easy enough: I pull up Querki Explorer, and build a quick filter. I tell it to list my Recipes, then filter for just the ones that are tagged "medieval", group those by the TimePeriod property that I added in, and for each one list the name of the recipe. The results look right, so I tell Querki Explorer to save that as a new "Period Recipes" page, and I send the URL over to Anna. That'll now automatically update whenever I add new Recipes, so she can get an up-to-date view any time.

What's Going on Here

The Cookbook isn't the point above, but is kind of needed to illustrate the point. Querki is a *platform*. In and of itself, it doesn't do anything. Instead, it is designed to make it easy to build apps that are useful and personalized.

Keep in mind, none of the above is rocket science. If you're a professional programmer, it's not hard to build the sort of Cookbook application I describe above. If you know all the APIs and are good with Rails, it would probably only take a couple of days to slap together.

But seriously -- why would I want to spend a couple of days on this? All we're doing here is keeping track of a little data, saying how to display that data, and tweaking it as we go. This should be *easy*, not just for the computer pros but for anybody. The Cookbook app is built by end users, not by high-priced programmers, and tweaked by others.

So that's where Querki comes in. It builds in all the boilerplate, everything from working with the social networks to managing the database to doing the fiddly page rendering. It gives me powerful tools for exploring and collating my data, with wizards to make that easy. All I do, as an end user, is say what I want to keep track of, what it consists of, and how to display it. That's not trivial, but it should be a matter of minutes or hours, not days. Moreover, the system should cope with me changing as I go, letting me add new concepts and ideas as I learn more, so that building this stuff becomes quick, fun and low-risk.