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?
Across the country, social distancing is morphing from a public-health to political act. The consequences could be disastrous.
For Geoff Frost, the first sign of the coronavirus culture war came last weekend on the golf course. His country club, located in an affluent suburb of Atlanta, had recently introduced a slew of new policies to encourage social distancing. The communal water jugs were gone, the restaurant was closed, and golfers had been asked to limit themselves to one person per cart. Frost, a 43-year-old Democrat, told me the club’s mix of younger liberals and older conservatives had always gotten along just fine—but the guidelines were proving divisive.
At the driving range, while Frost and his like-minded friends slathered on hand sanitizer and kept six feet apart, the white-haired Republicans seemed to delight in breaking the new rules. They made a show of shaking hands, and complained loudly about the “stupid hoax” being propagated by virus alarmists. When their tee times were up, they piled defiantly into golf carts, shoulder to shoulder, and sped off toward the first hole.
The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.
Three months ago, no one knew that SARS-CoV-2 existed. Now the virus has spread to almost every country, infecting at least 446,000 people whom we know about, and many more whom we do not. It has crashed economies and broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces. It has separated people from their workplaces and their friends. It has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed. Soon, most everyone in the United States will know someone who has been infected. Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche.
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”
How the coronavirus travels through the air has become one of the most divisive debates in this pandemic.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many people are now overthinking things they never used to think about at all. Can you go outside? What if you’re walking downwind of another person? What if you’re stuck waiting at a crosswalk and someone is there? What if you’re going for a run, and another runner is heading toward you, and the sidewalk is narrow? Suddenly, daily mundanities seem to demand strategy.
Much of this confusion stems from the shifting conversation around the pandemic. Thus far, the official line has been that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, could be transmitted only through close contact with infected people or contaminated surfaces. But recently, news reports have suggested that the coronavirus can spread through the air. After 60 choir members in Washington State rehearsed together, 45 fell sick, even though no one seemed symptomatic at the time. Now people who were already feeling cooped up are worrying about going outside. Many state guidelines are ambiguous, and medical advice can muddy matters further. When the writer Deborah Copaken came down with COVID-19 symptoms, her doctor chided her for riding her bike through New York City a week earlier. Going outside in the city wasn’t safe, the physician implied, with “viral load everywhere.”
America’s political dysfunction is rooted not in ideological polarization, but in the Republican Party’s conviction that it alone should be allowed to govern.
Deep into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Republican leaders had one question for President Barack Obama, as his administration sought nearly $1 trillion in funds from Congress: How are you going to pay for this?
The unemployment rate was greater than 7 percent in January 2009, and would rise above 8 percent by February. Mitch McConnell, then the Senate minority leader, insisted, “The question is not doing nothing versus doing something,” but “the appropriateness of an almost $1 trillion spending bill to address the problem.”
Others in his caucus made similar points. “If you believe this is a good process to spend $800 billion, we’re on different planets,” Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, declared. Chuck Grassley of Iowa complained that “the package's massive government spending and long-term entitlement commitments … will leave the next generation with trillion dollar deficits.” Lamar Alexander of Tennessee demanded, “Should we ask every American family to increase their $531,000 debt in order to spend money for a stimulus package to try to restart the economy?”
The extent of Oscar Health’s work on coronavirus testing hasn’t been previously reported.
On March 13, President Donald Trump promised Americans they would soon be able to access a new website that would ask them about their symptoms and direct them to nearby coronavirus testing sites. He said Google was helping.
That wasn’t true. But in the following days, Oscar Health—a health-insurance company closely connected to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner—developed a government website with the features the president had described. A team of Oscar engineers, project managers, and executives spent about five days building a stand-alone website at the government’s request, an Oscar spokesperson told The Atlantic. The company even dispatched two employees from New York to meet in person with federal officials in Washington, D.C., the spokesperson said. Then the website was suddenly and mysteriously scrapped.
The coronavirus outbreak may last for a year or two, but some elements of pre-pandemic life will likely be won back in the meantime.
Updated at 4:40 ET on March 30, 2020.
The new coronavirus has brought American life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home. All of those people must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal?
The answer is simple, if not exactly satisfying: when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person. That is the end goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there.
There are two realistic paths to achieving this “population-level immunity.” One is the development of a vaccine. The other is for the disease to work its way through the population, surely killing many, but also leaving many others—those who contract the disease and then recover—immune. “They’re just Teflon at that point,” meaning they can’t get infected again and they won’t pass on the disease, explains Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at the UC Irvine. Once enough people reach Teflon status—though we don’t yet know if recovering from the disease confers any immunity at all, let alone lifelong immunity—normalcy will be restored. (It may also turn out to be the case that people who are immune to the disease can still pass it on under certain circumstances.)*
China warned Italy. Italy warned us. We didn’t listen. Now the onus is on the rest of America to listen to New York.
In the emergency-department waiting room, 150 people worry about a fever. Some just want a test, others badly need medical treatment. Those not at the brink of death have to wait six, eight, 10 hours before they can see a doctor. Those admitted to the hospital might wait a full day for a bed.
I am an emergency-medicine doctor who practices in both Manhattan and Queens; at the moment, I’m in Queens. Normally, I love coming to work here, even though in the best of times, my co-residents and I take care of one of New York City’s most vulnerable, underinsured patient populations. Many have underlying illnesses and a language barrier, and lack primary care.
In rebuilding a broken world, we will have the chance to choose a less hurried life.
Around the year 1600, the weather in much of Europe substantially cooled, in the latter phase of what has been called the Little Ice Age. In all, it lasted 300 years. Winters were brutally cold and summers were damp and chilly, greatly curtailing the growing season. Crops failed. People starved. But the change in weather forced English, French, and Dutch fishermen to build improved boats, capable of following fish farther to the west and surviving long trips through the rough seas. Undoubtedly, some of that new boat-building craft led to the ships of today.
Innovation often arises in periods of adversity. In recent weeks, we have seen such welcome invention germinating in the horrendous crisis of the coronavirus. Consider, for example, the many new platforms for online teaching, or the use of cheap Bluetooth smart thermometers able to transmit a person’s fever and geolocation to a distant database, or members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performing together and apart from 29 different locations using their smartphones.
Backlogs at private laboratories have ballooned, making it difficult to treat suffering patients and contain the pandemic.
On the surface, the American COVID-19 testing regime has finally hit its stride. Over the past five days, the states have reported a daily average of 104,000 people tested, according to data assembled by the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer collaboration incubated at The Atlantic. Today, the U.S. reported that 1 million people have been tested for the coronavirus—a milestone that the White House once promised it would hit the first week of March.
But things are not going as smoothly as the top-line numbers might suggest. Our reporting has unearthed a new coronavirus-testing crisis. Its main cause is not the federal government, nor state public-health labs, but the private companies that now dominate the country’s testing capacity. Testing backlogs have ballooned, slowing efficient patient care and delivering a heavily lagged view of the outbreak to decision makers.
Congress should act to protect directors of the various parts of the National Institutes of Health—of whom Anthony Fauci is one—from the wrath of the president.
President Donald Trump’s coronavirus briefings are nothing if not confusing. One day, it’s “It will go away,” and another, it’s “This is a tough one because it spreads so quickly, like nothing we’ve seen.” In contrast with these mixed messages have been the candid assessments of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Fauci has dissented from Trump’s projected timetable of a few months to a year for vaccine development and his promotion of the antimalarial drug chloroquine as a potential treatment for COVID-19 despite the lack of clinical trials. Observers have wondered—“not for nothing,” as Tony Soprano would say—whether Fauci’s candor would result in his being muzzled or fired at Trump’s behest. Attacks on Fauci have become routine in the right-wing media to which Trump so often responds.