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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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!
No one likes to feel left out. And you know what’s just as bad? Getting locked out. But the very worst is getting locked out and awkwardly waiting for someone to let you back in, a diabolical combination of both fears that plays out at least once a week in the offices of The Atlantic.
We’re a modern, security-conscious workplace: Our office doors require employees to wave a fob over a reader before letting them into the main office. That means every time an Atlanticker heads to the elevators or uses the restrooms—both of which are outside the secured zone—they have to remember to take their keys along.
And I, for one, often forget. So I’m locked out. And then comes the awkwardness. Sometimes I pretend to be on my phone until someone leaves the office, at which point I’ll theatrically end my conversation and grab the door. But when that fails, there’s no getting around it: I’m reduced to knocking on the glass and sheepishly waiting for a coworker to fetch get me.
My second #MakeEveryWeek project seeks to solve this. The Atlantic essentially needed a doorbell. But not an actual doorbell; I fear that the incessant ringing of the Westminster Chimes would drive nearby coworkers to fits. My solution instead connects to Slack, our workplace chat client, and alerts a special channel that someone needs to be let into the office.
That this was easy to do is largely thanks to Amazon’s new Internet of Things Button, a customizable variant of their Dash buttons (which are hard-coded to order specific products) that connects to WiFi and sends instructions over the internet. My code (technical explanation here) includes a random quote about doors to Slack message—not only does the variety liven things up, but it also makes it easier to tell door requests apart.
Here’s what the doorbell looks like:
This project won’t protect me from forgetting my keys. But it will save me the embarrassment of admitting I forgot my keys.
I’ll probably use an Amazon IoS button for another project at some point—any suggestions?
How did a Department of Motor Vehicles become a national symbol of government incompetence? There are plenty of theories: uninterested employees, inflexible rules, interminable wait times. But one in particular caught my eye:
DMVs have an atrocious problem with uneven demand. EVERYBODY shows up at the DMV in about 3 days at the end of the month, and the first two or three days of it. Go to a DMV in the middle of the month, and you will likely find far shorter lines. But unlike many private companies, DMVs can’t easily scale staffing up and down.
This offers a window of hope. If you time your visit right, you can beat the rush and save yourself from the soul-grinding sandpaper rasp of a normal DMV experience. But how can one understand the mysterious rhythms of America’s most-visited bureaucracy?
In this week’s project, I think I’ve found a way. The DMV in Washington, D.C., kindly provides webcam feeds of its centers, like this one in Georgetown. They’re updated every minute to show you the size of the crowd before you schlep down there.
A programming concept called computer vision could help here. Computers aren’t good at intuitively understanding images—that’s why so many of those online human-checks you fill out before buying concert tickets or something involve deciphering a line of text in a picture. But they’ve gotten exponentially better at recognizing patterns. And in this case, the DMV long ago made a decision that will make determining the relative number of people in this photo very easy: They bought those goofy blue chairs.
It’s a color that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the picture. And as the waiting room fills up with people, there’s less and less blue in the photo. By downloading the camera footage at regular intervals and counting how much of the image is colored that shade of blue, I can estimate how many open seats are still available. Here, the computer has run its analysis and colored all the blue seats bright red:
Pretty good, huh? I’ve written the code (technical blog post here), and I’m now going to let the script run every minute for a few weeks so I can gather multiple datapoints for every time slot. Once I’ve built up enough information to puzzle out DMV traffic trends, I’ll visualize the results and post in this Notes series.
Richard Smith, 17, did me one better. (Disclosure: His sister, Rosa, is a new assistant editor at The Atlantic.) Last year, in Portland, Oregon, the teenager built a device that attaches to conventional bike racks and monitors how often they’re used, building a online heat map. It was a team effort with other classmates through Portland State University’s Innovation Challenge, an engineering contest for high school students. Here’s Richard:
People can lock up their own bikes with their own locks completely for free. The system would collect data about how often people lock and unlock their bikes, where they do so, and when. This would allow the system to build a “heat map” of the most popular locations around town, and at what times these lock up locations are most active. It would also provide live information on how many spots are open at any given location. All of this information can be accessed 24/7 via a smartphone app or a website.
To build the device, Richard used a Raspberry Pi and an Arduino—two credit card-sized computers—along with pressure sensors and a solar-powered battery:
I’m planning to use my own Raspberry Pi for some upcoming projects. Their invention fit well with the challenge’s prompt, writes Richard:
The prompt for our challenge was “Smarter Cities.” We were inspired to work on transportation because of how bad the traffic has become in Portland over the last decade. Because Portland is already a very bike-friendly city, we wanted to figure out a way to encourage people who don’t bike very much to do so more often—and not charge them for it either.
Reader Bob Williamson argues that my solution for coworkers forgetting their key fobs was too “Epimethean”—it requires users to make a mistake first. In mythology, Epimetheus accepted a cursed gift (Pandora and her box) without giving thought to its future consequences. Compare him to his brother, Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus knowing he’d be punished harshly but would reap a long-term gain. A Promethean solution, Williamson says, would protect my colleagues from forgetting their keys in the first place:
Efficient error recovery is important in engineering systems, but prevention is better.
How about an IoS button on the inside of the door that sends you a reminder to take your keys before you lock yourself out, again? At first I thought it could go on your chair and trigger when standing, but it would be nice to serve more than one distracted user. Could you identify the recipient by proximity to the exit? Ideally you’d get the message just before the door closed, but that timing could be part of the training impact of the system.
You could call this one dumbbellbot. ;-)
A good point! It’s a challenging engineering problem—getting a “do you have your keys?” notification every time you approach the door sounds a bit overwhelming—but there must be some way to make this work. Thoughts?Update from reader Wes:
I like the idea of the proximity sensor-based reminder, but I think it is predestined for failure in real use. I am reminded of various plane crashes and nuclear accidents where repeated—and therefore quickly ignored warning notices—paradoxically were contributing factors in the issue they were designed to avoid. I don’t know how the relevant safety agencies solve the problem, but it might take you down a fruitful path.
My suggestion off the top of my head is to combine the key with something you would never forget. For your house key, for example, you might velcro it to your shoes. I personally put my office key card inside my cell phone cover.
There’s a whole literary subgenre devoted to inventions that ultimately destroy their inventors. Frankenstein didn’t turn out so well for Frankenstein himself. As I recall, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ended with neither Jekyll nor Hyde still standing. Within all of us lies the potential to create the agent of our destruction.
With that in mind, let me introduce you to my own downfall: a button that, when pressed gently, orders a Sweetgreen salad. Here it is, pinned above my desk, next to a jaunty Election Day hat:
Sweetgreen is a salad chain that got its start in Washington, D.C., and specializes in delicious green stuff. It’s a go-to lunch choice for me, with a restaurant conveniently located near the The Atlantic’s Watergate offices (and thankfully, a few steps closer than the burger-and-milkshake joint). But I’m not the only one who loves it. Around lunchtime, the place gets mobbed. It’s at the point where you’re surprised when the line isn’t already out the door:
One solution? Order online ahead of time and pick up the salad when you show up. Their app is simple enough, but I wondered—how hard would it be to hook up another Amazon Internet of Things button that would automagically complete my order with one press?
Turns out, not so hard. I had to do a bit of hacking around Sweetgreen’s ordering system (technical post here, raw code here), but in the end, I coded the button so it randomly orders one of my three favorite salads and bills my account. Now, whenever I want a salad, I just tap the button and walk out the door. It’s there when I arrive.
It’s funny—this is sort of what the Amazon button was originally intended to do. So why is this a bad thing that’s destined to destroy me? Well, if you follow my love of Sweetgreen and how darn easy this button is to use to the natural conclusion, I will soon have no money.
Critics are letting their disdain for the president blind them to geopolitical realities.
When a new coronavirus emerged in China and began spreading around the world, including in the United States, President Donald Trump’s many critics in the American foreign-policy establishment were quick to identify him as part of the problem. Trump had campaigned on an “America first” foreign policy, which after his victory was enshrined in the official National Security Strategy that his administration published in 2017. At the time, I served in the administration and orchestrated the writing of that document. In the years since, Trump has been criticized for supposedly overturning the post–World War II order and rejecting the role the United States has long played in the world. Amid a global pandemic, he’s being accused—on this site and elsewhere—of alienating allies, undercutting multinational cooperation, and causing America to fight the coronavirus alone.
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?”
Widespread social-distancing measures have produced some jarring effects across land, air, and sea.
From inside her living room in London, Paula Koelemeijer can feel the world around her growing quieter.
Koelemeijer, a seismologist, has a miniature seismometer sitting on a concrete slab at the base of her first-floor fireplace. The apparatus, though smaller than a box of tissues, can sense all kinds of movement, from the rattle of trains on the tracks near Koelemeijer’s home to the waves of earthquakes rolling in from afar. Since the United Kingdom announced stricter social-distancing rules last month, telling residents not to leave their home except for essential reasons, the seismometer has registered a sharp decrease in the vibrations produced by human activity.
With fewer trains, buses, and people pounding the pavement, the usual hum of public life has vanished, and so has its dependable rhythms: Before the spread of COVID-19 shut down the city, Koelemeijer could plot the seismometer’s data and see the train schedule reflected in the spikes, down to the minute. Now, with fewer trains running, the spikes seem to come at random.
Far from making Americans crave stability, the pandemic underscores how everything is up for grabs.
Fear sweeps the land. Many businesses collapse. Some huge fortunes are made. Panicked consumers stockpile paper, food, and weapons. The government’s reaction is inconsistent and ineffectual. Ordinary commerce grinds to a halt; investors can find no safe assets. Political factionalism grows more intense. Everything falls apart.
This was all as true of revolutionary France in 1789 and 1790 as it is of the United States today. Are we at the beginning of a revolution that has yet to be named? Do we want to be? That we are on the verge of a major transformation seems obvious. The onset of the next Depression, a challenge akin to World War II, a national midlife crisis—these comparisons have been offered and many more. But few are calling our current moment a revolution, and some have suggested that the coronavirus pandemic—coinciding as it has with the surge in Joe Biden’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and the decline of Bernie Sanders’s—marks the end of any such possibility. “The Coronavirus Killed the Revolution,” declared the headline of a recent essay in The Atlantic by Shadi Hamid, who argued that the COVID-19 crisis makes people crave “normalcy” over deep structural change. As a historian of 18th- and 19th-century France, I think claims like these are mistaken.
Local officials and health-care workers are losing faith in the national response, and struggling to improvise their own solutions.
The federal government’s stockpile of medical supplies, gloves, and masks is nearly exhausted, President Donald Trump admitted at a White House briefing on Wednesday. Meanwhile, individual states are scrambling, bidding against one another for the equipment they need.
“The coronavirus pandemic is a damning indictment of this country’s health-care system,” Joseph Kantor, the assistant state health officer for the Louisiana Department of Health, told me. “The richest country in the world is scrounging around for ventilators” and personal protective equipment.
Kantor is one of a dozen health professionals across the country with whom I spoke this week. Taken together, those conversations reveal a federal government that has failed to protect, supply, and prepare the country and its cities. These health-care workers are looking with horror at the chaos in New York City, as evidence of what can happen to a vibrant city in the absence of national strategy and preparedness. As they struggle to avoid a similar crisis, they’re losing faith in the federal government, and resorting to their own improvised solutions.
How the coronavirus travels through the air has become one of the most divisive debates in this pandemic.
Updated at 7:22 p.m. ET on April 4, 2020.
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.”
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 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.)*
More young people in the South seem to be dying from COVID-19. Why?
In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has gone from a novel, distant threat to an enemy besieging cities and towns across the world. The burden of COVID-19 and the economic upheaval wrought by the measures to contain it feel epochal. Humanity now has a common foe, and we will grow increasingly familiar with its face.
Yet plenty of this virus’s aspects remain unknown. The developing wisdom—earned the hard way in Wuhan, Washington, and Italy—has been that older people and sicker people are substantially more likely to suffer severe illness or die from COVID-19 than their younger, healthier counterparts. Older people are much more likely than young people to have lung disease, kidney disease, hypertension, or heart disease, and those conditions are more likely to transform a coronavirus infection into something nastier. But what happens when these assumptions don’t hold up, and the young people battling the pandemic share the same risks?
Trump is utterly unsuited to deal with this crisis, either intellectually or temperamentally.
For his entire adult life, and for his entire presidency, Donald Trump has created his own alternate reality, complete with his own alternate set of facts. He has shown himself to be erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy. None of that is new.
But we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The pain and hardship that the United States is only beginning to experience stem from a crisis that the president is utterly unsuited to deal with, either intellectually or temperamentally. When things were going relatively well, the nation could more easily absorb the costs of Trump’s psychological and moral distortions and disfigurements. But those days are behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions that can catalyze a destructive set of responses from an individual with Trump’s characterological defects and disordered personality.
The Trump administration has just released the model for the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic in America. We can expect a lot of back-and-forth about whether its mortality estimates are too high or low. And its wide range of possible outcomes is certainly confusing: What’s the right number? The answer is both difficult and simple. Here’s the difficult part: There is no right answer. But here’s the simple part: Right answers are not what epidemiological models are for.
Epidemiologists routinely turn to models to predict the progression of an infectious disease. Fighting public suspicion of these models is as old as modern epidemiology, which traces its origins back to John Snow’s famous cholera maps in 1854. Those maps proved, for the first time, that London’s terrible affliction was spreading through crystal-clear fresh water that came out of pumps, not the city’s foul-smelling air. Many people didn’t believe Snow, because they lived in a world without a clear understanding of germ theory and only the most rudimentary microscopes.