Yeah, I got nothing

(Note: This will likely only be of interest to my local friends and social network buddies. It’s a response to Concerning The Suburbs, Their Raison D’etre, And How It Is Reflected In Their Planned Public Spaces, prompted by a discussion on Twitter earlier today. If you’re curious, or want the context, go read that first.

So, I’ve been staring at that essay for a good 30 minutes trying to figure out what my thesis is here. So far, I got nothing. I’m struggling because there are two separate arguments being made, intertwined in ways that make them difficult to separate. Here goes my attempt to understand, then respond.)

My impression walking away from the conversation this morning was that Josh had set an unattainable standard by which to evaluate the impact of Blue Back Square on the town of West Hartford. The essay reinforces that impression.

In particular, this rankles:

Compare it to, say, Inman Square in Cambridge, Mass.: It would not do in BBS to have buses passing right through and stopping right in front of the Cheesecake Factory, if those buses ran a route that included, say, the local district court and jail, and nearby housing projects. Nor would it do to have upscale boutiques interspersed with dollar stores and appliance repair stores and bodegas, the way you might see in a secondary commercial center in Brooklyn, like 5th Avenue in Sunset Park, or even on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

I’d quibble on the details here. I consider Blue Back to be part of West Hartford’s town center. In that scope, most of the objections of how Blue Back fosters economic exclusivity fall apart. Major bus lines run right through WH center and they go right into Hartford, past the court, even – take the 60-66. It’s not like that bus stop is prohibitively far, it’s two mini blocks east of BBS.

Businesses are not corner bodegas, but they’re mid-tier chains & indy businesses at the low end: CVS, Harry’s Pizza, Cosi, Gyro Palace, Moe’s, Subway, Ben & Jerry’s, etc. Sure, there are more upscale places, but there’s more variety than you’re allowing for.

But this is all debating the details.

If you’re arguing Blue Back could have a more economically diverse customer and visitor base, I don’t disagree with that. But I also think it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t brought in more economic diversity and created more unpredictable interaction than what was there before it. In that light, and measured against any development project in the state, I think it’s done a net positive for the area and for the town on the diversity front.

Held up to the ideal of something like Inman Square or Brooklyn, the products of organic and centuries long growth of two major American cities and their environs… well, sure, it’s not going to measure up in terms of economic diversity and retail/residential integration. But what does?

It would help to have an example of a development plan or project that provided the kind of new urbanism or whatever you’re calling this that you’re describing. I don’t know of any, especially any that have done a better job than BBS that didn’t already start in already dense construction.

And it would be nice to talk about what urban means, and what counts as “authentic urban” — I don’t agree with the narrow definition because I don’t think it’s historically valid (I also am not well educated on this topic to make the argument here… so, worthy of a conversation, I think, perhaps with others).

Why we stopped using Trello, even though we love it

I tweeted this earlier …

… which prompted a few people to ask, “Why’d you stop using Trello?”

The answer is pretty specific to us and our particular organizational inertia (such as it is for a small company like us), but here it is:

We liked Trello a lot, but we ended up switching to use Github issues. While it’s somewhat inferior to Trello, it had two features that made it compelling.

  1. We use Github for source control, and Trello really doesn’t integrate with that workflow at all. For example, we can manage Github issues from our commit messages, reference them, and comment on them in a place we already have to look.

  2. We use Campfire, and Trello didn’t have any integration with it. We could’ve built that, but Github already has it, and so laziness won the day.

In truth, Github issues is pretty nice, too, so it’s not like we’re giving up that much.

I did like Trello’s visibility and the visual metaphor. It also is a lovely app. The other great thing about it was that it was easy to throw it up on the screen and use during meetings. Github issues (or any bug tracker, really), is merely OK projected.

Anyway, all of this might be moot now. Someone did the work we didn’t want to do, and built a service that integrates Github & Trello. We may have to take a look at this. 🙂

I was on the radio

I was a guest on today’s episode of Where We Live on WNPR. The topic was on Connecticut Startup Culture. Give it a listen, and let the mocking commence (“Check it out, it’s awesome!” groan).

One thing we didn’t get to on the show (and, let’s be honest, there are probably a dozen conversations wrapped into this wax ball of a topic), was the demographic differences between CT and NYC or San Francisco. My sense is, and this is definitely anecdotal, that our mix of entrepreneurs in CT is probably a little older than the folks in those other cities. Probably doubly so in tech.

Before the show, I joked to Gitamba that the prototypical ramen diet isn’t really an option when you have a child at home. Accelerators like TechStars or Y Combinator target that frenetic pace and schedule. That makes sense for their programs, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it might not be the only or best model for areas still building up their entrepreneur base and culture.

Anyway, just an extra thought on the way out the door of the station.

Sensors, LEDs & iPhones, oh my!

Over Christmas, I hacked together my first hardware/software project. It’s been a long time since I’ve picked up a soldering iron, let alone built something worthy of sharing. It turned out to be a fun little project.

Cause, effect, agency

I got the idea to do a project over Christmas while looking for toys for my son for Christmas. I wanted to find something that would teach him simple cause and effect relationships where he could cause something (e.g. clicking red & blue blocks together) that produced an observable effect (e.g. the blocks changing color to purple). I hoped that I could prime some interest in science. I also really wanted to instill a sense that he can make things happen for himself.

For a two year old, I basically came up empty.

But for a kid slightly older, we’re living in a golden age of hackable creativity. We have 3D printers that are slowly becoming affordable. The Internet makes finding (and sharing!) instructions on building everything from customized furniture to undersea robots easy. Open source and community based tools are getting cheaper and easier to use every year. Several businesses have grown up offering easy instructions and tutorials. (Come on, these look cool, don’t they?)

So, I decided I’d use the four-day Christmas long weekend to hack together a hardware prototype (with help from my wife’s nephew).

The project

For the project, I set out to build a simple thermometer & barometer that I could check from my iPhone. I also wanted it to have some visible indicator that would be fun to look at so my son could check it. As a beginner, I also wanted something I thought I could pull off.

My project centered around an Arduino microcontroller board. An Arduino is an inexpensive open source “electronics prototyping platform” that can be programmed using nearly any computer and a USB cable. Because it’s cheap and freely documented, people have hooked up dozens (if not hundreds) of sensors & other electronics to it.

I had an old kit laying around that I rediscovered after I returned to Fanzter and started working with our resident hardware hacker extraordinaire, Josh. I recommend starting with a starter kit if you’re just getting into electronics projects. You can get several decent options from Adafruit, MakerSHED, or Sparkfun. I have an older Sparkfun Inventor’s Kit, but any from these three vendors will do.

You should go through a few of the tutorials before trying the rest of this to get familiar with the basics of Arduino programming.

Here’s the full parts list:

Tools:

In addition, if you want to get an app running on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, you’ll need to have a developer account with Apple.

The build out is really simple. The BLE shield snaps onto the Arduino board basically extending the pins and sockets on the Arduino through itself. Just make sure you line up all the pins and sockets. More details at RedBearLab if you want them.

For the LED matrix and the temperature sensor, there’s a little soldering involved. For both the soldering and the basic wiring setup, I followed the instructions in Adafruit’s tutorials:

Make sure you position the LED matrix correctly before soldering it. I got multiple warnings about that from people.

Here are the results of my soldering job:

Arduino project images

I’ll admit, I’m proud of how well that came out considering it was my first soldering project in 20 years.

Arduino project photo The only difference in my final wiring from the two tutorials is that I hooked the matrix CLK and DAT pins to the same rows containing the CLK and DAT lines from the Arduino to the temperature sensor. In the picture at left, those are the green and orange wires (Click through for a larger view). This works because they both speak a protocol called I2C and have different addresses. [1]

For power and ground, I used the breadboard instead of hooking the sensor or backpack directly to the Arduino board. This is standard, and what the kit tutorials encourage. Just thought I should mention it, since it’s not directly mentioned in the two Adafruit tutorials above.

The next step is programming the Arduino. Rather than walk you through all the details, here’s the source code. Feel free to fork the project and mess around. I’d appreciate any bug fixes if you have them. To use the source code, you’ll need to install the Arduino software & the Ino tool. I used Ino so that the github repository would have everything you need. To run the project, launch Terminal, then type ino build and then ino upload to get the project onto your Arduino. If you want to see the serial output, you can use ino serial -b 57600 to get that on your terminal screen.

I also have the iOS code available if you’d like to play with that. You’ll need to be comfortable with iOS development to use this. I may submit a version to the store if there’s enough interest. Let me know.

That’s it. The finished wiring looks like this:

Arduino project images

When lit up, it looks something like this (only 2 readings are displayed – normally there are 8):

The arduino end of this, the simple temperature station.

The iOS app is really simple:

Weekend hack: arduino weather station talking to iOS app via BLE. Boom.

Drag up to trigger a connect or disconnect. Eventually, I’ll add a pull down to trigger a temp refresh. Otherwise, it polls every minute.

Known issues

The code isn’t perfect and, as I get free time, I’m still cleaning up a few things. Here are some known issues:

  • Bluetooth reliability: For some reason, the iPhone doesn’t seem to disconnect and/or reconnect properly to the device. Pressing the reset button on the BLE shield usually fixes it, which makes me think there’s something wrong in my code.

  • Memory usage: So, the main challenge programming an Arduino is that the device only has about 2K of RAM for the sketch. Yes, that’s two kilobytes. It’s a challenging environment when I’m used to phones that have 256-512MB RAM (or more). My code is definitely not particularly optimized. The program did run out of memory regularly. I think it’s stable now, but it’s not as good as I think I can get it.

Next steps

I’m going to try and hook it up to a Raspberry Pi and put it in an weatherproof enclosure so I can leave it outside. My other goal is to change the LED Matrix to an LED strip like this so I can make it look like an actual thermometer.

I’ll update this with photos if I get that far.

Hope that helps someone out. It was a fun project, and I’m looking forward to working on this more.


 

1 I2C is a simple two-wire interface to hardware components. I2C allows the Arduino to control multiple devices over just two pins. The Wikipedia page has the gory details, but just know that each device has an address which has to be unique, and then you just wire them up in parallel. The LED Matrix backpack that Adafruit provides provides an I2C interface to the LED matrix, and the Bosch sensor comes on a board that also speaks I2C, so all the work is basically done for you.

That’s more detail than you probably need, but I thought it was neat.


Update: Two corrections above, both minor but notable. I accidentally described an Arduino as a microprocessor instead of microcontroller, but then Josh pointed out that it’s really a whole platform because the microcontroller is the specific chip at the heart of the Arduino. It’s a significant detail when you get more advanced because different versions of the Arduino might have different microcontrollers at the heart of the platform.

The other is how I described the I2C wiring in the footnote. The sensor and the LED matrix are wired in parallel, not series. I had a feeling that was the wrong word, but forgot to look that up. Minor detail, but again significant for deeper understanding.

Sorry about both of those. They’re fixed above.