Categories
Life

Happy 4th of July!

this is america

I’d like to wish my American readers a happy 4th of July!

Have a safe and fun holiday, and if you manage to find fireworks like the “This is America” ones pictured above (it’s probably the most powerful thing you can buy at a store without some kind of license – the tube is a mortar, and those things around it are the “shells”), take whatever measures you need to keep all your fingers on your hands!

Categories
Life Work

Plagiarism, Inc.

Photo: Jordan Kavoosi and two-coworkers, shirtless with the words "EWC - No homework" painted on their chests. "Whould you buy an essay from these guys?"

“Sure, it’s unethical, but it’s just a business,” says Jordan Kavoosi, who runs Essay Writing Company, one of those places where students who don’t want to write essays or term papers can have someone else do it form them. "I mean, what about strip clubs or porn shops? Those are unethical, and city-approved."

Plagiarism, Inc. is an article about Kavoosi and his company located in the Apple Valley suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul. It’s an amusing read, what with Kavoosi’s somewhat sleazy line of work, the even more sleazy way he treats his employees and the generally sleazy way in which comes across in the article.

Screenshot: Essay Writing Company's site's home page

Here are the answers to the question “Why use an essay writing company?”, which appears on Essay Writing Company’s site:

  • Essay writing can be very time consuming. The research that goes into it can be a bit overwhelming. The complexity of your assigned research paper may even discourage you from completing it. This is where Essaywritingcompany.com can help.. We can save you a lot of time and effort by taking on the task of creating a professionally written custom essay for you.
  • No matter how complex the writing assignment or a close due date, our teams of academic writing specialists are highly qualified and capable of providing you with a research paper that will make the grade.
  • Notice the difference between a normal essay and a professionally written essay.
  • Let our academic specialists provide you with a custom essay that will get you the grade you need. This will allow you the chance to continue with your life and spend more time with your friends..
  • Our professional essay writing company will do all the research that is needed for your assignment.

The real answer is much simpler and needs only one bullet point: “Because you’re unethical and lazy.”

Found via Jeff “Coding Horror” Atwood.

Categories
Life

The 24 Types of Libertarian

Comic: The 24 Types of Libertarian

Categories
Geek Life The Current Situation

Conflict Minerals and Blood Tech

conflict minerals

Say the word “silicon” and chances are, you’ll think of technology. After all, silicon’s relationship to tech – it’s part of what makes transistors and chips – has been part of popular culture for decades, from the “Silicon chip inside her head” opening line from the Boomtown Rats’ song I Don’t Like Mondays to “Silicon Valley” as the nickname for the suburban expanse between San Francisco and San Jose.

Silicon is only part of the equation, however. The chips that drive our computers, mobile phones and assorted electronica are actually a “layer cake” consisting not only of silicon, but also oxide and metal.

There’s also the matter of key non-chip components like capacitors, which momentarily store an electrical charge. They’re made of thin layers of conductive metal separated by a thin layer of insulator. We use their “buffering” capabilities to smooth out “spiky” electrical currents, filter through signal interference, pick out a specific frequency from a spectrum of them and other “cleaning up” operations.

One of the metals used in the manufacture of capacitors is tantalum, which you can extract from a metal ore called coltan, whose name is short for “columbite-tantalite”. About 20% of the world’s supply of tantalum comes from Congo, and proceeds of from the sale of coltan are how their warlords – the scum driving the world’s most vicious conflict, and who’ve turned the country into the rape capital of the world – are bankrolled.

Nichloas Kristof of the New York Times wrote about metals like tantalum purchased from Congo – conflict metals – in an op-ed yesterday:

I’ve never reported on a war more barbaric than Congo’s, and it haunts me. In Congo, I’ve seen women who have been mutilated, children who have been forced to eat their parents’ flesh, girls who have been subjected to rapes that destroyed their insides. Warlords finance their predations in part through the sale of mineral ore containing tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold. For example, tantalum from Congo is used to make electrical capacitors that go into phones, computers and gaming devices.

Electronics manufacturers have tried to hush all this up. They want you to look at a gadget and think “sleek,” not “blood.”

Yet now there’s a grass-roots movement pressuring companies to keep these “conflict minerals” out of high-tech supply chains. Using Facebook and YouTube, activists are harassing companies like Apple, Intel and Research in Motion (which makes the BlackBerry) to get them to lean on their suppliers and ensure the use of, say, Australian tantalum rather than tantalum peddled by a Congolese militia.

He also points to the Enough Project’s latest video, which used humour and a reference to the “I’m a Mac / I’m a PC” TV commercials to draw the public’s attention to conflict metals and to encourage them to contact electronics manufacturers and ask them to be more vigilant when sourcing components:

The Enough Project says that auditing component supply chains at the smelters to see whether the metal was sources from “clean” places like Australia or Canada instead of lining the pockets of Congolese warlords would add about one cent to the price of a cellphone, and that this figure originates from within the industry. I’d happily pay a thousand times that for each of my devices – a mere ten bucks – to ensure that I wasn’t bankrolling rape and murder.

I’ll close this post with the closing paragraph from Kristof’s op-ed:

We may be able to undercut some of the world’s most brutal militias simply by making it clear to electronics manufacturers that we don’t want our beloved gadgets to enrich sadistic gunmen. No phone or tablet computer can be considered “cool” if it may be helping perpetuate one of the most brutal wars on the planet.

This article also appears in Global Nerdy.

Categories
Geek Life Toronto (a.k.a. Accordion City)

GovCamp’s Coming to Toronto: Thursday, June 17th

govcamp toronto

GovCamp in Toronto!

First came GovCamp in Ottawa (May 31st – June 1st), and now GovCamp is coming to Toronto! GovCamp is an “Open Government” or “Goverment 2.0” unconference with these two goals:

  1. For governments to become more open, transparent, participatory, innovative, efficient and effective
  2. For citizens to become more connected to each other around their civic passions in the place they call home

GovCamp Toronto will take place on the evening of Thursday, June 17th and will be an evening where all sorts of people, from private citizens to government officials to representatives of publicly-funded organizations will get together to talk about the intersection of:

  • Government transformation
  • Social networking software
  • Participatory approaches to public engagement
  • Open data
  • Public service renewal

Is GovCamp the sort of thing you should attend? It is if you’re one of the following:

  • A municipal, provincial or federal public servant or a public sector agency employee with an interest in these topics
  • A thought leader looking to share and connect with this community
  • A member of the community of developers, advocates and practitioners in public engagement, government communications, technology, open data, open government or "Gov 2.0"

Who’ll Be There?

Few people know more about setting up “Government 2.0” unconferences than Toronto’s favourite high-tech policy wonk Mark Kuznicki, and we’re very fortunate to have him as GovCamp Toronto’s MC and facilitator. Mark has been behind a number of similar unconferences, including ChangeCamp, TransitCamp and Metronauts.

There will be a number of special guests including:

GovCamp Toronto will be hosted by:

  • Omar Rashid, Public Sector, Microsoft Canada
  • Julia Stowell, Interoperability Lead, Microsoft Canada

Where, When and What’s Happening

appel salon

GovCamp Toronto’s venue is nice and also quite central: the Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library (789 Yonge Street, just north of Bloor).

Here’s the agenda:

5:00 Catered reception
6:00 Welcome
6:10 Opening remarks (David Eaves)
6:25 Discussion hosts introduce topics
7:00 Small group discussions and demonstrations
8:30 Closing wrap discussion
9:00 Catered reception

There are a number of ways to participate:

  • You can host a conversation. The conversations at GovCamp Toronto are created by you. We are looking for up to 20 hosts to help convene small group conversations on a variety of topics related to our theme. If you’ve got an idea for a conversation topic, propose one using the online form.
  • You can demo your web or mobile application. We’re looking for up to 6 web or mobile app demos that show the value of open public data, demonstrate what is possible in open government, or demonstrate real world application of social tools inside government. If you’ve built such an app, propose a demo using the online form.
  • You can join the conversation. You can either:

Find Out More About GovCamp

There’s lot of information, ideas and reportage from the recent GovCamp in Ottawa at the GovCamp site – be sure to check it out!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

Categories
Life

Scarred for Life

scarred for life

Titled as found – and it’s the perfect title too.

Categories
It Happened to Me Life Play

Taking Montreal’s Bixi for a Spin

What is Bixi?

If you walk around downtown Montreal, you’ll eventually run into one of these:

01 bixi

It’s one of 400 docking stations for Bixi, Montreal’s public bicycle sharing system. You shouldn’t think of Bixi as a bicycle rental service – instead, you should think of it more as self-powered public transit. With Bixi, you check out a bike at the Bixi station closest to your starting point, bike to the Bixi station closest to your destination, where you check it in.

In Montreal, there are 5,000 bikes in Bixi’s system, which was introduced last summer. Since then, a number of cities have signed up to purchase and install Bixi systems, including:

  • Boston (2010)
  • London (2010)
  • Melbourne (May 2010)
  • Minneapolis (June 2010)
  • Toronto (May 2011)
  • Washington DC/Arlington (Fall 2010)
  • Washington State University (Fall 2010)

Bixi Rental Rates

02 bixi

You can rent a bike in one of two ways:

You can purchase a subscription to the service online. This entitles you to unlimited rentals. Subscriptions are available at these rates:

  • $5 per day
  • $28 per month
  • $78 per year (a killer deal, if you do the math)

With a subscription, bike rental is free if each trip between docking stations is under 30 minutes (other than the number of hours in the day, there’s no limit to the number of trips you can make). Trips longer than 30 minutes are charged as follows:

  • $1.50 for the second 30-minute period
  • $3.00 for the third 30 minute period
  • $6.00 for subsequent 30-minute periods

You can pay at the docking station on a per-use basis. This is the pricier approach, aimed at tourists and people who cycle only occasionally. The rates are:

  • $5 for the rental fee, which includes 30 free minutes
  • $1.50 for the second 30-minute period
  • $3.00 for the third 30 minute period
  • $6.00 for subsequent 30-minute periods

The increasing prices are meant to discourage people from “hogging” the bikes; they’re meant to keep them in circulation.

Checking Out a Bike

04 bixi

While in Montreal this past weekend, I decided to take a Bixi bike for a spin. I went to the docking station closest to my hotel, at the corner of Rene-Levesque and Mansfield. It’s a popular station; there were only two bikes left on that Saturday afternoon at about 4:30 p.m..

Like all Bixi stations, it had a map showing the locations of the Bixi stations, with that particular station highlighted:

12 bixi

…as well as a control panel for renting a bike.

To rent a bike at the station, you touch the screen, which prompts you to swipe a credit card. Once your credit card has been authorized, you’re given a passcode which you use to unlock a bike. You can either have the passcode displayed onscreen (which means you have to memorize it) or have it printed out on a small ticket.

Although I have great faith in my memorization skills, I have even greater faith in Murphy’s Law. I opted for the printout.

11 bixi

Once you have your passcode, it’s time to unlock your bike. The passcode is a five-digit number using only the digits 1, 2 and 3. You unlock a bike by typing that passcode using the keypad on the bike dock. If you entered your passcode correctly, you’ll see a green light and the electronic lock will release the bike.

03 bixi

The first bike I checked seemed in good shape and had full tires, so I entered my code and undocked it. I quickly adjusted the seat to match my height:

06 bixi

…and it was time to hit the road!

The Bixi Bike Experience

Here’s a look at the handlebars of a Bixi bike. The plastic covering on the handlebars serves two purposes:

  • To provide a place for additional instructions
  • To cover the brake and gear cables, protecting them from the elements and meddlesome users

The “basket” and integrated bungee cord are good for holding small packages and bags.

08 bixi

Here’s a close-up of the plastic covering over the left handbrake. It explains the finer points of returning a bike to the dock once you’re done with it:

09 bixi

Here’s a close-up of the plastic covering over the right handbrake. It shows you how to report a damaged bike when returning it to the dock:

10 bixi

Here’s a shot of the rear wheel and pedals. Note that wherever possible, mechanical parts are sealed away out of view and harm’s way.

05 bixi

Bixi bikes are three-speed; they have a Shimano grip-shifter mounted on the right handle. You’re not going to win any races nor do any serious bike courier work on these gears, but it’s more than enough for city biking.

I didn’t have anywhere to be in a hurry, so I was using the bike like a velo-flaneur, doing a lot of looking around and just wandering where the road and the occasional whim took me. I kept a casual pace and stayed mostly in second and third gear, switching only to first gear for that hill going up St-Laurent from Ste-Catherine to Sherbrooke.

The bike has nice fat nitrogen-filled tires, and I found the ride to be pretty smooth. The gears shifted smoothly, although I noticed the occasional lag between gear changes as I shifted downwards – a mild annoyance rather than a serious problem. The chain was well lubed, and pedalling took very little effort. The brakes were nice and tight, requiring only a little squeeze before they engaged – they felt like my bike’s brakes just after a tune-up. The frame itself – a one-piece aluminum affair designed by Michel Dallaire with metal provided by Rio Tinto Alcan – was light (light for a “cruiser” style bike, anyway) and solid-feeling.

I made a quick jaunt from the Queen Elizabeth Hotel (where I was staying) to Old Montreal, where I tooled about its winding streets and caught some kind of festival, through le Quartier Chinois to the shops on St-Laurent north of Sherbrooke. From there, I checked out some of my old haunts in the McGill “student ghetto”, and then it was back to the docking station where I’d checked out the bike because I had a dinner reservation to catch.

Returning the Bike

07 bixi

Returning the bike is easy – you find an empty dock and “plug” your bike into it. A green light confirms that you’ve locked the bike and that your rental session is over. If your bike is damaged in any way, you can report it by pressing the “report damage” button. I’d gone over a half-hour but was under an hour, so my total charge was $6.50.

Thoughts on Bixi

13 bixiPhoto by jonny.hunter.

Bixi is a Montreal-based company, and its bike sharing system seems to work well there. While walking about during my stay there over the past couple of days, I saw more than a dozen people on Bixi bikes, and saw even more during my Bixi bike jaunt on Saturday afternoon.

Montreal has a couple of advantages that make it suitable for a bike sharing system:

  • Dedicated two-lane bike lanes, which are separated from the street with actual physical barriers.
  • A strong attachment to public transit and cycling, which comes from its European “feel”, large student population and well-regarded public transit system.
  • Limited geography: the city is an island.

Will the Bixi experience in Montreal “translate” to Toronto? I don’t know.

Toronto is more “American” than Montreal, so many more people there perceive bikes as toys rather than serious vehicles. A number of Toronto politicians have know-nothingly painted bicycle activism as “the war on the car” and at least a couple of them have attempted to turn modest proposals to get more dedicated lanes on city streets into an issue for the upcoming mayoral election (with opposing them seen as a way of getting more votes).

There’s also the matter of city coverage. When the Bixi project launched in Montreal, they started with 300 stations and 3,000 bikes, which meant that a for a good part of the city, it was likely that there was a Bixi docking station nearby and it was likely that that station would have at least one bike available. Since then, those numbers have been boosted to 400 stations and 5,000 bikes. You see both stations and bikes (both docked and in use) everywhere.

Despite the fact that Toronto has a population larger than Montreal’s, we’re launching with 100 stations and 1,000 bikes. I assume that most of them will be in the core, with the concentrations heaviest around the streets with bike lanes or a high hipster quotient. Will it be enough stations and bikes? We’ll find out as the service launches.

Finally, there’s the question of whether the bikes will get used in the winter. One of the favourite arguments of opponents of bike lanes is that nobody bikes in the winter. While cycling is reduced, there are still many cyclists on the street of Toronto in the winter months. Toronto doesn’t get anywhere near as much snow or anywhere as cold as Montreal, and even they have a year-round biking culture. As a year-round cyclist who regularly shuttles between High Park and downtown Toronto on his bike, I can say with certainty that winter cycling in Toronto is no big deal.

I’m in Montreal every couple of months for conferences, so I think I’d end up using Bixi when visiting. These events often call for quick errands to be run, and being able to get a bike would come in handy.

Would I use Bixi in Toronto even though I live in the city and have my own bike? There are times that bike rental would come in handy. For the rare times when I drive downtown or the more frequent times when I take the subway downtown but have to run errands all over the place, Bixi would come in handy.

I’m looking forward to seeing Bixi in Toronto. We’ll have to see if it works out.