Is Staying In the New Going Out?

I don’t have much to add to this excellent T Magazine Article: Is Staying In the New Going Out?

Let’s strip away the censure, for a moment, by analogizing the trend to personal wealth management. If we define “capital” in this metaphor as a mixture of our time and emotional stasis, then staying in is the ultimate conservative investment. It’s like pouring your money into a savings account: You’ll grow marginally; you’ll stay safe; your expectations will be met and never exceeded. The worst-case scenario is that your delivery fries are soggy and your premium cable TV episode is a B+ instead of an A. You can always pull the ripcord on your show and go to bed early. A failed night means that you got a good night’s sleep. That’s still a win. A modest win, but a win.

Timelapse: One Year on North Paulina Street

About one year ago, I installed a camera out my street-facing window.

The timelapse below is composed of hourly still frames from 6AM-7PM between March 25th, 2015 through March 25th, 2016.

The location is North Paulina Street in Chicago, IL across from Ravenswood Elementary School.

Keep an eye out for sewer construction, parking tickets, and more. Enjoy!

Plane Tracker Project

I built an airplane tracker. You might call me a nerd, I’d say I’m just curious about what’s going on around me.

I live in Chicago, home of O’Hare International Airport (ORD). While Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta is the champion of the world in terms of passenger volume, O’Hare is perpetually fighting for the #1 spot in terms of “aircraft movements” – basically the total of arrivals and departures over the course of the year.

Regarding my location: I live close to Lake Michigan, but almost on an exact line with the O’Hare flight path coming off the lake. If you live in this neighborhood and you don’t notice all of the planes flying around, you must be blind or deaf.

Since the runway layout at O’Hare was reconfigured a couple of years ago, air traffic controllers run planes in and out of the airport according to east or west flow. 70% of the time, planes land and take off westward, leading them directly over my building at a pretty low altitude. The other 30% of the time, planes come and go facing east. Finally, a very small percentage of the time, wind and weather force ATC to use O’Hare’s diagonal runways. Here’s a picture that shows the difference between east and west flow:

O'Hare East/West Flow

Long story short, a friend passed this link on to me, detailing someone’s Raspberry Pi-powered airplane tracker in operation near LaGuardia Airport in New York.

The documentation at the original link is pretty decent, and after ordering the parts and putting everything together, I have a working airplane tracker!

Plane arriving from LAX

Here are a few of the details you’ll need besides the instructions linked in the original blog post:

  • Soldering skills: you need these to put together the Adafruit LED screen. Turns out I am terrible at soldering, but somehow just barely good enough to do this project. I had only one row of lights on the display that did not function on the first try – re-soldering one of the pins did the trick. It’s probably worth it to practice first and then try your hand on the LED display afterward.
  • Python dependencies: Jeremy’s original code references a few Python dependencies (requests>=2.7.0, geojson>=1.3.1, shapely>=1.5.13) that I did not have installed on my instance of Raspbian. You’ll need to use apt-get or pip to pull them down. I also had to change #!/usr/bin/python3 to #!/usr/bin/python in one of the code files, as I don’t have Python 3 installed on my Pi.
  • Location: within the code you’ll need to program in your home airports (KORD and KMDW in my case) and coordinates where you want the software to look for airplanes – I used to do this.
  • LED screen driver: follow the Adafruit instructions closely, especially how to install the library that makes the LED screen function (you need to run the “install” function or nothing will happen).
  • Kernel module fun: to use the RTL2832U software defined radio on my Pi, I had to run the command sudo rmmod dvb_usb_rtl28xxu before I was able to get it to operate.
  • The code currently doesn’t display international arrivals, and will always display the closest plane to your location. I’ve noticed that the screen sometimes jumps between arrival flights as they land in parallel at O’Hare and both take turns closer/farther from my building.
  • All in all, fun & cheap project to learn a little more about what’s going on in the skies just above. Special thanks to Garreth for the soldering assistance.

    My 2015 Reads

    This list is too short for my liking, to be improved in 2016. On a scale of * to ***:

    ***The Glass Cage – Automation and Us by Nicholas Carr
    ***The Martian by Andy Weir
    **How We Got to Now by Stephen Johnson
    **The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau

    (In progress) The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

    The Glass Cage

    Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage is an excellent analysis and cautionary tale about the rise of automation over the last two centuries. Carr describes how technological advances such as autopilot, self-driving cars, and (some day) robotic soldiers introduce critical moral dilemmas about automation’s role in our society. In addition, Carr proposes practical design features such as haptic feedback and elimination of superfluous system alerts. In combination with increased automation, these features ensure that human operators can intervene in situations requiring judgement, improvisation, and experience – all functions and characteristics that computers cannot (currently) replicate. A quote on the back jacket sums up the book well: “The Glass Cage should be required reading for everyone with a phone.”

    The Best Beer in the World

    Westvleteren 12, the title of the so-called “best beer in the world”, inspires awe among beer aficionados. The beer is a product of the Abbey of St. Sixtus in the town of Westvleteren, Belgium. St. Sixtus is one of few Trappist abbeys in the world and one of just six located in Belgium.

    Trappist monks devote their lives to prayer and to the work of their hands while living life in isolation and devotion to God. Thankfully for the rest of us, a select few monasteries produce beer. It’s an interesting contrast: a drink with connotations of vice is the very lifeblood of these abbeys. Without the profits from the sale of beer, the monks of St. Sixtus would not have been able to repair their roof in 2013. Beyond supporting the monastery, the brewery operation is not intended to make a profit. Because of this, the abbey produces a very limited quantity and forbids resale of the beer. St. Sixtus produces three varieties including the Westvleteren Blond, 8 and 12. In my opinion (and that of many beer nuts) the Westvleteren 12 is the only one worth flying 4,000 miles to try.

    View from the abbey

    View from the abbey

    My personal love affair with Westvleteren 12 began in 2011. I was fortunate enough to spend six months living in Brussels. I had heard off-hand of this mysterious abbey located in the West Flanders countryside about an hour and a half from the Belgian capital. By the time my six months was up I had made three visits, dialed the “beer line” hundreds of times, and even tasted the beer at a Brussels establishment that has chosen to ignore the abbey’s strict no-resale rule.

    Westvleteren 12

    The pictures in this post are from my most recent visit in June of this year. Westvleteren 12 induces a kind of high unlike anything I’ve ever drank before. Maybe it’s the peacefulness of the abbey and the surrounding farm land. Maybe it’s the French and Flemish chatter with the rare English or German conversation mixed in. Maybe it’s the whopping 10.2% alcohol content. Maybe because it’s just so darn difficult to get the beer! For those dedicated enough to try, here’s a brief guide:

    Method 1 – Reserve a crate via the “beer line”
    Step 1: Follow the instructions here and call to reserve a crate. Good luck getting through! Despite a valiant effort, I was never successful at Method 1. Tip from a friend: enlist a group and use every phone at your disposal.

    Step 2: Be in Belgium

    Step 3: Pick up crate during the designated time and enjoy!

    Method 2 – Drive or Bike
    Step 1: Be in Belgium

    Step 2: Ensure that the cafe In de Vrede is open by checking the website

    Step 3 (driving): Open Google Maps, search for In de Vrede, and enjoy the beautiful Flemish countryside. Drink all the beer you can while there! (responsibly)

    Step 3 (biking): Traveling from Brussels, take the train and connect once in Gent, again in Kortrijk, and end up in Poperinge. Walk to the center of town, find a friendly hotelier and ask to rent a bike. I rented from the Hotel Belfort after a brief misunderstanding (they thought I was trying to break into the hotel). Drink all the beer you can while there! (responsibly and retaining your ability to ride a bike)

    Step 4: Be sure to pick up a 6-pack of Westvleteren 12 to take home. If you bike, make sure you have room to carry it!

    Time to head home

    Cheque’s in the Mail

    Call me crazy but sometimes I like bureaucracy. I like the idea of another human being, most likely located in an office park or nondescript government building, receiving a letter from me and opening it. What does that person look like? Are they having a good day? Where are they going for lunch today? It’s full of mystery.

    The rules are usually well-defined. It’s like maintaining your car: put in the right type of oil, gas, and other fluids and you’ll get a smooth ride in return. In this case, I wanted a refund for the 5£ deposit I put down to purchase an Oyster transit card on a recent trip to London. Yeah, yeah, I know. All that trouble for a measly 5£? Of course, I could have stopped at a Tube station while I was still in London to return the card and get a refund. But why not give it a try from 4,000 miles away?

    I filled out a refund request form on the Transit For London (TFL) website, put on the proper postage (just over $1), threw the Oyster card in the envelope and sent it on it’s way!

    Today, a few weeks after I mailed the letter, I received this personalized note from a nice gentleman at TFL named Nico Williams. I was delighted to learn that my refund has been “authorised” and a “cheque” is on it’s way! It took about a half hour of my time to fill out the form and mail the letter. The postage paid by TFL was 1.17£ but other things like the paper, envelope, ink, and Nico’s time certainly cost something too.

    That’s the joy of bureaucracy – I put in all the right inputs and someone 4,000 miles away put a smile on my face. Here’s to you, Nico. Hope you had a great lunch today!


    An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

    I highly recommend this book by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, star of the “Space Oddity” YouTube video filmed aboard the ISS.

    While we typically think of astronauts during their “finest” moments like spacewalks, launch, and homecoming, it’s incredible to hear Hadfield describe the years of preparation and training required prior to a mission. For an astronaut, the moments of glory only come so rarely. The real job, day in and day out, is preparing and helping others on the crew to be prepared for those moments. It’s far from glamorous but helps to ensure safety and success for all involved.

    Lemons on the Trail

    Anyone who visits the Cinque Terre quickly realizes that it’s a stunningly beautiful place. While portions of the trail were closed during my visit, I hiked much of the path that runs high above the Mediterranean coastline and connects the five towns. In spite of the clouds that day, I had never experienced such a peaceful and relaxing pace of life shared by locals and even tourists who have the pleasure of visiting.

    After passing through the exquisitely picturesque Vernazza, I continued toward Monterrosso. I made my way past villas, farmhouses, and vineyards perched along the coast. Just ahead, I saw some fellow hikers stopped at what appeared to be a rustic-looking lemonade stand. It was covered in vines and had chicken wire stretched across the front. A small section of the mesh had been cut out to allow the exchange of cash for fresh-squeezed lemonade. Pulpy lemon carcasses were scattered on the table in front of the friendly vendor.

    An Australian couple had arrived just before me and purchased the last of the lemonade squeezed that day. When I learned this, the proprietor of the stand confirmed that he was out of lemonade, but did have limoncello. In my relaxed, vacation-high state of mind, I said “of course!” I didn’t know what I had just ordered but quickly got the idea when he poured the translucent yellow liquid into a shot glass. The Aussies, still nearby, turned toward me and asked, “You know that has alcohol in it, right?” Going with the flow, I responded with a resounding “Oh yeah, of course!” I didn’t actually know.

    I threw back the delicious limoncello and bought a small bottle to take home as a gift. After thanking the lemonade man, I continued on my trek to Monterroso with a fun story under my belt and a little bit of limoncello in my system.

    Today, it hit me that my dad is a master at uncovering small life-experience gems like this one. He has a way of delighting people by asking a curious question at the grocery store, at a store in Indiana’s Amish country, or anywhere for that matter. The lesson for me has been that these types of everyday experiences will not pass you by – they’re usually hidden, but there for the taking. However, without a dash of curiosity and sometimes a bit of risk-taking mixed in, you will pass them by.

    Epilogue: I went through Rome’s Ciampino airport to head home. The bottle of limoncello was above the 100ml limit permitted in carry-on baggage but I decided to “forget” about it. If it was flagged by security, I’d play the forgetful, dumb American card and, worse case, have to throw it in the trash. I was indeed flagged for a bag check and the friendly Italian security officer asked me to unpack my things. He could sense I was a little nervous and told me to take my time. He even asked where I had traveled and how I had enjoyed Italy. When I produced the good-sized bottle of limoncello, he verified that it was sealed and said “OK – you can keep it, but next time you can’t bring this. Have a good trip!”


    Self-Myofascial Release

    I never thought I’d be one of those weirdos with a foam roller, but I highly recommend it!