Category Archives: Computers

Public Transit Adds Data Points

Here in DC, WMATA (Washington Metro Area Transit Authority) has started putting up signs at all its bus stops that have a unique stop number on them.

wmataWhat this number symbolizes is a unique ID that riders and WMATA operators can use to point to an exact location and stop.

As you can see from the sign, it’s not exactly intuitive what this number is for, but you can call that number and tell the system the unique stop ID and it would tell you when the next bus is coming.

More useful is that WMATA has put up a mobile version of the same functionality at which allows you to go on your iPhone or whatever and type in the stop # to find out when the next bus is coming.

This app also lets you check when the next trains are coming on the Metro, once you’ve entered the station.

But I think there are some interesting applications more on the bus side, what with WMATA having to add the pictured signs to ALL of its bus stops.  This is no small number; according to Wikipedia, that number is 12,301 total bus stops.

It will take some time for WMATA to get signs on some of the lesser-traveled stops, but I’ve noticed that a lot of the work’s already been done as I travel around town.

That means there are now 12,301 new data points (maybe not new to WMATA’s internal logs, but certainly new to us) that could be used.  Right now, people can’t interact actively with those data points.

But I could imagine that if the data points were all mapped onto Google Maps or OpenStreetMap, then interesting things would begin to emerge, e.g. emergency responders could be told that there’s an injured person at that location.

This might be done by turning the bus stops into communication posts:  the sign itself could be connected to a WiMAX network and thus displays the next-bus time without you having to look it up.  But it could also allow for emergency requests, or you could touch your phone or an RFID-enabled device to it to get more information on whatever was needed; this information would be primarily localized, like where the nearest convenience or grocery store was, etc.  This would make up for a lot of the shortcomings that still exist in being able to use the GPS/triangulation on your phone but still not having any context on your map that’s meaningful beyond what cross-streets you’re at.

New York supposedly is about to try out its own version of having next-bus displays at bus stops, according to the NY Times.  It’s not entirely clear to me what their technology is although they claim it is some sort of “mesh network technology” which to me sounds like it’d be fraught with errors and lost coverage.

The new data points could be used in different applications:  you could check in to FourSquare from them as you travel around town, playing its social game.  If WMATA played ball and opened up the data, you could calculate total hits on a station by a bus over a year.  Even more interesting would be if you could see how many people were on each bus, to see how congested things are over time (I can already see privacy zealots complaining about that).  How about figuring out overall transit times for Metro users?

What else could we do with this stuff?

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Filed under Communications, Computers, Design, Government, Internet, Openness, Policy, Tech, Web

Labor Costs

One of the topics I want to study more about is what we’re all going to do in the future for work and jobs.  Part of the sharp upheaval of the 20th century of rapid economic development was that a stable career was not sustainable except for certain professions.  It is true in the US that most jobs that students are being taught for, ostensibly, do not even exist yet.

The manufacturing jobs we used to have have been pushed abroad to cheaper labor markets.  Farming has been turned into a large-scale industry needing expensive fertilizer inputs and economies of scale.  Services and data processing have, for a while now, been offshored to cheaper labor markets as well.

The idealized hope was that at least with the offshored jobs, those countries that welcomed such labor-intensive tasks would develop their way into the first-world club.  That has not exactly happened the way people hoped; instead, what has happened (and which is well-documented in Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo”) is that international companies shift resources to whichever country prostrates itself by way of tax-exempt zones, cheap wages, and lax regulation.

Furthermore, as machines and robots will become increasingly capable of completing labor-intensive tasks, they will replace the vast pools of labor that we currently use.  The limits of technology have made vast human workforce scale cheaper (that is, it is still cheaper to use humans to finish sock production than to use machines, if only by pennies per sock).  But that will eventually change.

So what the hell are we all going to do?

We can at least rely on a flattening population curve, which (one would hope) will lead to international competition for higher education for newer information and programming and mapping and engineering jobs.

But what I’m hoping for is that, freed from some of the requirements of labor in order to make the world function every day (whether it’s through a massive breakthrough in energy production, perhaps through solar, or if it’s through using robots instead), that we will actually need to work fewer hours per day and can spend more time engaged in creative and teaching endeavors.

Right now among my friends in DC, it’s pretty common to work from 8 or 9AM up to 8PM or even 9PM, daily.  What on Earth takes them so long to complete tasks at work?  Why is there so much work to do?  Is it because labor costs are so high that firms choose to hire fewer people, but work them harder, knowing that American work ethic looks highly upon those who work long hours for their pay?  Is it because people are just highly inefficient workers when they put in longer hours?

This isn’t sustainable, particularly for raising children, enjoying life, being creative, being social, being helpful in the community.  Surely part of that has assisted the drastic decline in civic life in the US (again, see Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”).  But we don’t want to end up letting robots do anything while we lounge around and become fat (think Wall-E).

I watched a talk given by the host of Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe.  It takes a while for him to set up his talk, beginning with lamb castration.  But eventually Rowe, whose show has him apprenticing for people who have really dirty, labor-intensive jobs, talks about how these people tend to be really happy, satisfied people.  Rowe says that we work too hard in jobs we don’t enjoy.  He also says that “following your passion” isn’t actually good advice — more important is that you go do something that no one else is doing, to find your niche.

“We’ve declared war on work,” Rowe says.  He says that working people on TV are portrayed in horrible ways (fat plumbers as punchlines).  Rowe says that we consistently feel a longing to have more personal time, but we aggressively fight it in our culture.  We marginalize lots and lots of jobs.  Trade school enrollment is on the decline.  Infrastructure jobs are disappearing.

Think about the old NASA engineers and nuke engineers.  With the strangling of the NASA budget and the public abhorrence of nuclear power plants, those with the technical skills to remember how to build spaceships and construct programs, and create nuke plants, are dying and disappearing.  The ranks aren’t being re-filled.  As a society we are forgetting how to build things and how to do things.

What is going to happen if we run out of products to market and advertise?  What is going to happen if we’re too busy working to raise our children properly and enjoy life?  What is the standard of living that we want?  How do we balance work, family, religion, recreation, creativity, et al?  Do we even know how to measure all that yet?  We’re going to need happiness and well-being metrics on an individual and an aggregate scale.

The path of the internet’s development has shown us that software and hardware are hollowing out the core of labor within modern goods and services.  A small software company of 5 people can now use the cloud to host their data — all they’re doing is programming and internal business management and marketing/sales, pretty much.  Large-scale projects can now be done by a handful of people.  Sure, somewhere the cloud must be managed, but the costs to start a well-educated programmer/business idea are so low now.  You don’t need the capital for hiring lots of people or the capital expenditures to purchase equipment.  You can work out of your apartment.  What are 8 billion people going to do when software runs a highly-autonomous network of computer systems in the future?

Guess we better start learning to enjoy each other’s company and free time…

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Filed under Anthropology, Business, Computers, Development, Economics, Education, Globalization, Policy, Tech

Life Update Before Graduation

I am about to graduate from my master’s program but before I can do so, I have to write about 70 pages worth of papers.  25 for international negotiation (Iran), 20 for comparative democratization (Iraq), 15 for policies for poverty reduction (Ecuador’s conditional cash transfer program), and another 5-10 pages for a negotiation simulation after-action review and for a business operations in emerging markets strategy plan.


I’ve been distracted from schoolwork and blog reading lately.  Georgetown benefits from both a Spring Break and an Easter Break, which breaks up the rhythm of the semester.

I spent Spring Break studying for my final orals exam, which I passed although I don’t think I performed very well.  I got a comment from one of the panelists, “suspect hidden knowledge not articulated”.  But I got through it which is all that matters.

For Easter Break I went to Jamaica with some classmates and with my buddy MonkeyPope.  Videos are at Flickr, photos are forthcoming.

Last weekend I went down to Charlottesville with a couple classmates and stayed a night with my grandmother and my cousin at our family house.  Early on Saturday, we ran in the Charlottesville Marathon, my first.  We all did really well and finished in 4:22.  Very long race, but I haven’t felt that bad afterwards — no pain or much soreness!  I don’t think it’s sunk in yet that I ran 26.2 miles…

Afterwards, we went down to Salem and Roanoke to see where our classmate spent some of his time — downtown Roanoke in particular is very nice.

My desktop finally died — I suspect a motherboard issue.  But without a lot of time spent, I don’t think I’d be able to figure out what was wrong with it for sure.  So I ordered a new computer from

  • Case (  Nzxt Lexa Blackline Gaming Tower Case w/420W Power Supply Black )
  • Power Supply ( 800 Watt — Power Supply Quad SLI Ready )
  • Processor ( [=== Quad Core ===] Intel Core 2 Quad Processor Q9550 (4x 2.83GHz/12MB L2 Cache/1333FSB) )
  • Processor Cooling ( Thermaltake MaxOrb CPU Cooling Fan System Kit Silent & Overclocking Proof = Maximum cooling efficiency for quietness and performance )
  • Motherboard ( [SLI] eVGA Nvidia nForce 780i SLI Chipset w/7.1 Sound, Gb LAN, S-ATA Raid, USB 2.0, 3-Way PCI-E MB 3-Way SLI )
  • Memory ( 8 GB [2 GB X4] DDR2-800 PC6400 Memory Module Corsair-Value or Major Brand )
  • Video Card ( NVIDIA GeForce GTS 250 1GB w/DVI + TV Out Video )
  • Hard Drive ( 320 GB HARD DRIVE [Serial-ATA-II, 3Gb, 7200 RPM, 16M Cache] )
  • CD/DVD Drive ( 16x DVD-ROM Drive Black )
  • CD-RW/DVD-RW Drive ( LG 20X Dual Format/Double Layer DVD±R/±RW + CD-R/RW Drive Black )
  • Operating System ( Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium ) 64-Bit ) is pretty cool.  Very customizable through the web site, doesn’t tack on much of a premium for building your system and burning it in.  The case has a transparent window with blue and red LED lights on the fans.  I’m very happy with it, and I’m happy to have upgraded just before finals so I can have a nice big platform (dual monitors) to write my research papers on.  Doing a lot of work on a MacBook is just a pain.

The most interesting thing is that it took me very little time at all to reconnect to all my data.  Using Microsoft Live Mesh and Gmail, I was able to relink to all my cloud data and important files.  I also have an external hard drive as further backup.  This is a significant change from how things used to be, and how things still are for many people:  you can now back up your data in multiple places online and offline.

Many of my friends’ hard drives on their laptops have died and they’ve lost almost all their data.  It’s a shame that they’re still not backing up their data on the cloud (which is not 100% perfect but still a lot better).

Moving forward, I am looking for a permanent job after graduation, so that will consume much of my time.  I’m still trying to get off the ground as well, but that seems like it will be a lifelong project.

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Filed under Computers, Education

The Digital Africa Surprise

For my African Development class, I was required to write a 15-page paper on some aspect of African economic development. I chose to write about converging factors, such as the east coast Africa backbone coming online, the cloud, and cheap online tools, contributing to a surprising boom in African digital connectedness to occur in the next decade. Will people be paying attention?

Read my INAF-450 Paper 1:  “The Digital Africa Surprise”.

[I’ve also converted the paper to Google Docs if you’d like to read it. (and here’s the .doc format).]

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Filed under Africa, Communications, Computers, Economics, Education, Globalization, Government, International Affairs, Internet, Mobile, Policy, Tech, Web

Computer Lessons

I put together my new system. Here’s what I’ve learned:

I got my cable internet access, so I set up my Linksys wireless router and bought a cheap alkaline battery-run corded phone for use with it. I had to buy an extended cord for it. I just don’t like having to charge up a cordless phone and have that extra high bandwidth signal beaming through my head (and to everyone else). Vonage worked instantly. Just plug in the phone and pick it up and you get a dialtone. Hot.

I set up my PSP to access the wireless. I had to use the right 128-bit WEP key to make it work. I had first tried the PSP’s internet browser in the terminal in Spain, and it worked wonderfully.

I got a USB 2.0 PCMCIA card for my laptop because it only had on-board USB 1.1, which is extremely slow even for MP3 transfers. Now I have my external 120GB hard drive linked to my laptop, shared on my network so I can listen to MP3s on either system. I inserted the card while my laptop was on and it detected it and installed the drivers immediately. I had to add the NetBIOS protocol to both computers’ network settings so that they’d see each other.

I had a mountain of boxed OEM computer components to put together. The CoolerMaster case is very easy to work with. It has a tray for the motherboard which slides out easily. You can also take off each side panel independently with the removal of only a few screws. I inserted the power supply, disk drives, hard drives, RAM, sound card, and TV tuner. Then I put the CPU on. I took the cooling unit frame off the motherboard and attached the one that comes with the ThermalRight XP-90. I used the wrong screws at first so I bent the mobo a bit but then I found the right-sized screws. After that, I attached the heatsink with some arctic silver thermal paste on the CPU as instructed. Did I put too much on? I had to go out and buy a 92mm fan which I will replace with a better one shortly. The local stores did not have 92mm — I had to drive out pretty far to find one at a second Computer Wizards store. The employees warned me about overclocking, and told me my heatsink didn’t use 92mm. Which it did.

I plugged in all the components. No problems there once I became familiar with where the power slots on the board were and how to hook up SATA. I had some problem figuring out which jumpers were attached for power, reset, hdd, etc. The documentation didn’t match up from the DFI LanParty board’s manual to the case’s sparse manual.

The system didn’t boot up at first. Gotta move the power jumper over one row I guess. Then it started up. I ran it in BIOS a bit to watch the temperature. It got up to 37 degrees with stock settings and the case closed. Pretty high I think. With the side panel open (for accessing things I had to fix), the temperature dropped to 28 degrees. Might need to cool that better later.

I had a lot of problems finding a way to fdisk and format the drive. Fdisk didn’t support this bigger SATA drive so it said I could only make a partition of 8GB. I didn’t have a boot disk (my WinXP pro CD is in my toughbox, still in Iraq I think) so I tried to burn some and those didn’t work. When I’d try to format the drive after fdisking it, it would say “invalid drive, or format not supported”. I ran out of ideas except to find a bootable OS install CD.

Someone down the hall had an emachines WinXP Media Center CD which was actually great because I wanted Media Center. There was no footprint from emachines. When I put the CD in, it started right up and I installed the OS, as it automagically fdisks the drive and formats it also. I was saved by finding this CD! I’d been spending a day and a half trying to figure out a way into my own system.

At this point, I was glad I had a laptop connected to broadband for completing these tasks. WinXP MCE recognized all my components except for the on-board LAN, which I found drivers for on the LanParty CD. I rebooted and then had Internet access, so I went through Windows Update and dl’d everything. I added ZoneAlarm, AVG, DirectX, XViD (for DivX), and all the drivers for my components. I had to configure some settings in MCE and in the Creative software to enable 5.1 sound through the speakers. I tried to get Motherboard Monitor but it’s not being updated anymore. So I need an app that monitors CPU temperature. I got CPU-Z for checking the CPU settings.

I got Firefox. In IE there was no link to download Firefox on Mozilla’s site. Kinda weird? I added tabbrowser extensions (far better than Tab Mix Plus because of its multitude of configuration options), adblock, googlebar, bloglines,, bugmenot, google safe browsing, image zoom, and search engines for wikipedia, the M-W dictionary,, and flickr.

I installed TweakUI to fix some settings, as well as Battlefield 2, Alcohol 120% for burning, dbPowerAmp for music encoding/decoding, foobar2000 for music (much smaller footprint than WinAmp), Second Life, Doom 3, Civilization IV, EditPlus for text editing, Daemon Tools for virtual drive mounting, and WinAce for compression/extraction.

I downloaded a small app that lets you tune your ClearType. This is important because you can configure how you want your text to appear on the screen. On my 19″ LCD I sometimes catch myself marveling at how stark and crisp the text looks on screen after having tuned ClearType.

I tried running Media Center, which is notoriously fickle. I couldn’t get the cable TV feed to work — it would say that there was a decoder failure. Looking it up online didn’t yield much except recommendations to people to install DVD software like WinDVD. I tried the PowerDVD software that came with my OEM parts but Media Center didn’t like that either. Eventually I downloaded the MS Windows XP Video Decoder Checkup Utility. That showed that the two decoders I had (PowerDVD and Sonic) were not completely compatible. So then I downloaded nVidia’s decoder and that showed to be 100% compatible. My TV feed worked!

Later I ended up breaking MCE again after installing some codecs and RealPlayer. I’m not sure what caused it. But then I installed the rollup update 2 for MCE and that restored my live TV somehow. MCE is notoriously sensitive about codecs, access, and compatibilities!

Now everything works great but it took some ironing out of wrinkles that googling did not seem to solve very easily. I had to find some files that were not included with parts or the OS even though they were necessary to get things working. Strange. Oh well. I do not know how your typical computer user would have fixed all this stuff.

Time to BF2!

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New Desktop Computer

ARGH! I had to wait all fucking deployment to order the new electronic baby I’ve desired for so long! You know how much I’ve suffered, waiting… But soon, it will be mine!

It’s a dual-core AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ with 2GB of fast RAM for overclocking up to hopefully 2.6GHz. DVD-R/RW, 10kRPM hard drive, dual TV tuner for my PVR Tivo’ing. 19″ LCD, fancy Logitech keyboard with backlit keys and programmable LED screen, fancy Logitech gaming mouse with adjustable weights. A case that slides out for easy management. I wanted a beast and I got it. I do so much with Photoshop and desktop apps and multi-tasking, and want to get into online gaming, that it’ll fit me perfectly. I decided to spring for new interface products because they’re finally becoming worth it, with added features over your standard keyboard and mouse. I didn’t go with wireless because I hate knowing that I’ll have to replace batteries/recharge things. I went with a 19″ because it has the best price point. Fast-speed drives were for recording video quickly and for better access times since I hate any lag when I’m using my computer.

Logitech G5 gaming mouse

I ordered the parts last week from newegg, the consistently awesome online computer parts store that stocked everything I wanted. It will arrive back home before I get there, so I can pick it up from my boss’s wife (who was very generous in allowing me to ship it to her house as I do not trust the unit’s sticky-fingered mail room) and begin putting it together.

I’m still wondering what happened to some photos Julie sent to me in Iraq (uh oh) and the small Tower of Babel pendant I mailed from Iraq that I managed to get for free from an Iraqi jewelry seller by schmoozing in Arabic. Some mail room specialist is enjoying piles of confiscated customs goodies, I’m sure. If I see someone carrying this stuff on ebay, I’m sending a long-distance wake-up call, mother fucker!

I spent $2,600 on this desktop, which is a lot these days. But it is replacing a Toshiba Satellite Pro 6100 laptop that I bought about three years ago while I was still at DLI. The laptop sucked for battery life and for gaming, with a charge that only lasts for about 5 minutes now and with a video card that hardly supports games now. Three years is a long time ago for a computer geek like me, so I figured with the deployment money I’d invest in my inner geek.

Besides, this laptop has turned into that old dog with fleas and cataracts and a diseased leg that you can’t put down because, well, fuck, it has spunk. The USB ports don’t work unless you keep re-booting or plugging them in again. The wi-fi won’t enable itself on bootup so you have to enable the service manually. The blue pointer ball on the keyboard is schizophrenic so my mouse cursor will begin taking off in various directions when I type, requiring me to use my trusty Microsoft Intellimouse at all times. The laptop runs slow as fuck now, probably because its registry is bloated with software I’ve tried and removed.

Logitech G-15 Keyboard

So I have replaced the old laptop, but will probably upgrade its RAM to 1 gig and turn it into my server and MP3 player off an external hard drive now that I bought a USB 2.0 PCMCIA card for it also.

The specifications:

  • CPU: AMD Athlon64 X2 3800+, $322.00
  • Power Supply: Antec TPII-550ATX, $89.99
  • FDD: 1.44MB NEC FD1231H, $5.00
  • HD: 74GB Western Digital 10,000RPM 8MB, $155.00
  • HD: 250G Seagate 7K 8M SATA ST3250823AS, $103.00
  • DVD-ROM: LITEON SOHD-16P9SV, $19.99
  • DVD-Burner: Plextor PX-740A/SW black, $82.99
  • Heat Sink: ThermalMaster XP-90 heat sink, $51.99
  • CASE: CoolerMaster ATXM TAC-T01 black, $144.50
  • Mobo: DFI LANParty Ultra NF4, $129.99
  • Gfx: eVGA Geforce7800GT 256-P2-N516, $299.00
  • TV Tuner: Hauppage WinTV-PVR 1081, $139.00
  • Add-On: 4-port USB 2.0 card PCMCIA, $21.99
  • Keyboard: Logitech G15 gaming keyboard, $69.95
  • Monitor: Samsung LCD 19″ 8MS DVI 940b black, $335.99
  • Thermal Paste: Arctic Silver 5 3.5G%, $5.99
  • RAM: 1GBx2 Mushkin 184P D500 991483, $219.00
  • Mouse: Logitech G5, $53.65
  • Sound Card: Creative X-FI Xtreme, $115.00
  • Speakers: Logitech THX Z-5300e 5.1, $138.99

Next up? I plan to buy an Intel-Apple iBook (uhh, and a Nintendo DS and Nokia N80/Sony Ericsson 750), whenever they’re released. I want a tiny, latest-generation Mac laptop to take with me when I travel, instead of carrying around a much bigger laptop. Small screens are not a problem anymore and I just want something to check my web presence with and to maybe watch TV streamed over the Internet from home.

I am seriously lusting after what I’ll be able to do now, in terms of being more efficient and putting more ideas down into text and into reality, and carving out a piece of the world that’s mine, and finding a lot of people who will come with me on this fascinating journey!

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