Andrew McGill is chronicling the devices and apps he’s creating this summer and invites readers to join him. Are you an inventor and want to share a project? Please drop him a note: email@example.com.
If you live in the Washington, D.C., area, you’re probably familiar with Capital Bikeshare. And if you don’t, I bet the nearest American city might have something like it: A system of public bicycles available for rent, strategically placed throughout town for point-to-point trips. If you have a membership or a credit card, you can check out a bike at a kiosk, ride it to your destination and re-dock it at the nearest Bikeshare station. It’s one of my favorite things about the D.C. area.
But! There are few things more annoying than wrapping up a satisfying ride and pulling into bikeshare dock ... that is completely full.
There are phone apps out there, like Spotcycle, that publish bike station statuses. But pulling out a smartphone in the middle of a ride doesn’t sound particularly safe. This is a perfect app for a smartwatch, however—a quick glance at your wrist could tell you if you’re headed for an empty station or a wall of docked bicycles.
Using data from Capital Bikeshare, I put together a quick app that pulls the user’s location, finds nearby bike stations and lists how many open slots they have. (Technical explanation here, code here.)
Here’s a GIF of the app in action:
I haven’t yet published the app to the Pebble store, but I’ll do that once I add a few more improvements. Nothing in the works for Apple Watches or Android products at this point, but who knows!
It’s never been easier to be a mad scientist. Back in the day, it took so much work: You had to rent a dungeon, fashion your own Tesla coils, and spend half your life reading cracked leather tomes written your equally deprived predecessors.
Not so anymore. Computers are small, fast and cheap, allowing a D.I.Y. types to slap a microprocessor on pretty much anything, and for less than $50. The internet can deliver a tutorial in an instant and any electronic component within a few days. And easy-to-program platforms have made controlling physical objects with code not only possible, but practical.
All this is great for a would-be inventor. Unless, like me, your drive to work on a project (which seemed so strong in the morning!) somehow gives way to an evening of Alias reruns night after night. Life gets in the way.
So here’s my resolution: Following the lead of WNYC journalist James Keefe, I’m resolving to buckle down and make a new thing every week this summer. It’ll ideally be a real thing—something you can see and could hold, not just ephemeral code powering an app. (Though I’m still keeping the ephemeral code door open if I hit a rough patch.) I’ll document what I’m doing through this thread, as well as more technical write-ups on my own blog. So far, I’ve built a smartwatch app that searches for nearby public bicycles and a silent doorbell for when my coworkers get locked out of the office.
Are you a time-crunched tinkerer? Please join me this summer by sharing your projects: firstname.lastname@example.org. What have you built in the past? What are you working on now? And what should I build next?
The family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many. It’s time to figure out better ways to live together.
The scene is one many of us have somewhere in our family history: Dozens of people celebrating Thanksgiving or some other holiday around a makeshift stretch of family tables—siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, great-aunts. The grandparents are telling the old family stories for the 37th time. “It was the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen in your life,” says one, remembering his first day in America. “There were lights everywhere … It was a celebration of light! I thought they were for me.”
The oldsters start squabbling about whose memory is better. “It was cold that day,” one says about some faraway memory. “What are you talking about? It was May, late May,” says another. The young children sit wide-eyed, absorbing family lore and trying to piece together the plotline of the generations.
The attorney general is working to destroy the integrity and independence of the Justice Department, in order to make Donald Trump a president who can operate above the law.
When Donald Trump chose Bill Barr to serve as attorney general in December 2018, even some moderates and liberals greeted the choice with optimism. One exuberant Democrat described him as “an excellent choice,” who could be counted on to “stand up for the department’s institutional prerogatives and … push back on any improper attempt to inject politics into its work.”
At the end of his first year of service, Barr’s conduct has shown that such expectations were misplaced. Beginning in March with his public whitewashing of Robert Mueller’s report, which included powerful evidence of repeated obstruction of justice by the president, Barr has appeared to function much more as the president’s personal advocate than as an attorney general serving the people and government of the United States. Among the most widely reported and disturbing events have been Barr’s statements that a judicially authorized FBI investigation amounted to “spying” on the Trump campaign, and his public rejection in December of the inspector general’s considered conclusion that the Russia probe was properly initiated and overseen in an unbiased manner. Also quite unsettling was Trump’s explicit mention of Barr and Rudy Giuliani in the same breath in his July 25 phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, as individuals the Ukrainian president should speak with regarding the phony investigation that Ukraine was expected to publicly announce.
How new technologies and techniques pioneered by dictators will shape the 2020 election
Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET on February 10, 2020.
One day last fall, I sat down to create a new Facebook account. I picked a forgettable name, snapped a profile pic with my face obscured, and clicked “Like” on the official pages of Donald Trump and his reelection campaign. Facebook’s algorithm prodded me to follow Ann Coulter, Fox Business, and a variety of fan pages with names like “In Trump We Trust.” I complied. I also gave my cellphone number to the Trump campaign, and joined a handful of private Facebook groups for MAGA diehards, one of which required an application that seemed designed to screen out interlopers.
The president’s reelection campaign was then in the midst of a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup. That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country, and I wanted to see it from the inside.
The Trump administration’s attempt to kill one of America’s strongest climate policies has been a complete debacle.
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—On a drizzly day in January 2018, Jeff Alson, an engineer at the Environmental Protection Agency’s motor-vehicles office, gathered with his colleagues to make a video call to Washington, D.C.
They had made the same call dozens of times before. For nearly a decade, the EPA team had worked closely with another group of engineers in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, pronounced nits-uh) to write the federal tailpipe-pollution standards, one of the most consequential climate protections in American history. The two teams had done virtually all the technical research—testing engines in a lab, interviewing scientists and automakers, and overseeing complex economic simulations—underpinning the rules, which have applied to every new car and light truck, including SUVs and vans, sold in the United States since 2012.
My son blames his father and won’t speak to him, but my husband is making matters worse by not apologizing.
My husband used to take our two dogs for walks and would let them off their leash to run in an abandoned field. Three weeks ago, he woke up early in the morning to take them out. Around 9:30, he came down to the basement, where I was working out, and said Lager, our Boston terrier, had run off.
I called a good friend to come help me look for Lager, and we searched for him until dark. We posted pictures of him on Facebook, Ring, and dog sites but heard nothing back. My son, who is 14, also went to look for him. Meanwhile, my husband went out downtown with a friend, and I was disappointed that he would leave while our dog was still missing.
The next morning, there were still no responses to our online posts about Lager, so I was sad and worried. Then my friend who had helped me look for him called to ask what color his collar was; I texted my husband, and he said it was blue. My friend put me on with dispatch, and they said Lager was deceased—he had been hit by a car while trying to come home. I was devastated and broke down, but I needed to get it together so I could tell my son. As soon as I told him, he started to cry and said he would never speak to Dad again, because he killed our dog.
Is free speech imperiled on American college campuses?
I’ve argued before that campus speech is threatened from a dozen directions, citing scores of incidents that undermine the culture of free expression and dialogue needed to seek truth and learn.
The academic Jeffrey Adam Sachs has staked out a contrastingposition at the Niskanen Center. A small number of anecdotes “have been permitted to set the terms of public debate,” he once wrote. He has also argued that “rather than collapsing into chaos, 2018 was a year of relative quiet on campuses. There were fewer deplatformings, fewer fired professors, and less violence compared to 2017. There was also more dialogue, greater respect for faculty free speech rights, and increased tolerance on both the right and the left.”
If the Trump administration is truly going all-in on competition with Beijing, it’s not clear that Trump himself is fully on board. Nor, it’s now clear, are several of America’s closest friends.
In the contest between the United States and China over who gets to shape the world in the coming century, America seems to be playing to win. But it’s running into a big problem. Despite the global network of alliances Washington has built up, it’s been unable to convince those allies to hop aboard the “great-power-competition” express and leave China behind.
U.S. officials are learning just how challenging it is to persuade friendly nations that America is a reliable partner capable of providing them with viable alternatives to what China has on offer—that the rewards of drawing closer to Washington outweigh the risks of alienating Beijing. That’s in part because of the mixed messages from the American president himself: He’s notoriously iffy about his commitment to allies, even as he often expresses his adoration of the Chinese president (notwithstanding the ongoing U.S.-China trade war).
How one writer learned an accidental lesson in the joys of silence
A striking thing happened to me the day after Christmas while I was visiting home. In the middle of a long run on a grassy levee that walls off an untamed estuary from the rest of New Orleans, my phone died. The music blaring from my Bluetooth earbuds ceased with an impolite bloop and halted me mid-stride. Already sweating, I became even clammier at the thought of running multiple miles to get back home in dead, early-morning silence. No high-bpm jams from Travis Scott or the Pretenders to ward off boredom and propel my knees along. With no other options, I began the return leg cold.
A few moments passed, with no nearby sound but the rhythm of my footsteps and my labored breathing on a loop, and it hit me that this was the first time in weeks (or was it months?) that I had actually been alone with my thoughts for more than 12 minutes.
President Donald Trump has done almost everything he can to anger Latino voters. And yet, his support among this crucial portion of the electorate remains surprisingly consistent. After the 2016 election, exit polls analyzed by the Pew Research Center showed that 28 percent of Latino voters supported Trump; today, 30 percent support him.
This percentage may not seem high. But consider what the number means for the Democrats: Displeasure with the president over the past three years has not led to an increase in support for the opposing party.
Democrats lost the 2016 election with about 66 percent of the Latino vote. Today 65 percent of registered Latino voters who are Democrats have a positive view of the party’s presidential candidates. Based on exit polling from the past three election cycles, I estimate that Democrats need about 70 percent of this vote to take back the White House.
Democracy is unlikely to break out in Beijing, but the coronavirus crisis may create an opening for a softer form of authoritarianism.
For a cottage industry of Western experts, the fall of the Chinese Communist Party is always just one crisis away. In 2008, it was the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan province that toppled shoddily constructed schools and killed 70,000 people. Later that year, 300,000 babies became sick from drinking milk made from formula tainted with melamine, which revealed the fragility of the country’s food-safety system. In 2011, it was a collision of high-speed trains in Wenzhou that showed the problems with the country’s pace of infrastructure development. Each of these catastrophes was going to be China’s version of Chernobyl, the nuclear leak that revealed and accelerated the terminal decline of the Soviet Union, but that moment has never come.