A Geek’s Tour of Boston & Cambridge

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On my recent trip to Boston I had a day all to myself thanks to my lovely wife being stuck in a conference (which was the catalyst for the trip in the first place).  I took the opportunity to do a bit of a Geek's Tour of the area, some of which I've already blogged about.

The day started off in the hotel room poaching free wi-fi off a local hospital.  It's damn decent of them to offer a wi-fi hotspot free to patients and their families (and geeks who are willing to sit at an odd angle near the hotel window).  I was completing a draft of an email that I was planning to send to the mayors of Burnaby and Vancouver on the topic of municipally supported wi-fi.  The email got written up, I checked the twitter feeds (fired off a tweet or two I think) and then headed to my first destination.

I hopped on the "T" as they call it in Boston and took the Green line all into the heart of the city and Government Center.  This is the central government complex and one end of the area served by Boston's open wi-fi pilot that they're conducting with ISP Galaxy Internet.  I headed across the street to the Faneuil marketplace and parked myself on a bench.  I wasn't gonna hang around very long because it was bloody cold and windy, but I stuck it out long enough to fire off the email and quickly blog the experience.  As much as I was enjoying the free signal and 5-bar signal strength (over 90%) it was time for me to g as there were three more stops on this tour and it was already approaching 11:00am.

I re-boarded the "T" and headed out towards Cambridge.  My first stop was the MIT museum.  I got off the train and walked through the streets of Cambridge past several campus buildings.  The architecture on some was quite unique, and there were a great deal fewer old buildings in and around the area.  Much of it appeared to be mid-20th century construction or newer.  The walk from the "T" station to the museum was longer than I had anticipated but provided me a look at a side of Cambridge I wouldn't have otherwise had the chance to see.

When I arrived at the museum the first thing that struck me was the austere, spartan look of the main floor.  It was very functionally laid out, with lots of "white space".  The most interesting exhibit on the main floor was that of the CityCar.  This is a project being proposed by MIT professors and graduate students to create a pool of electrically powered cars for use in urban settings, much the same way bicycle pools exist in major European cities today.

On the upper floor was an extensive robotics exhibit and though much of the material was dated (mid-late 1990s) it gave great insight into the directions of artificial intelligence research and robotics.  I got a chance to see the original "Kismet" robot which was neat after having seen so many Discovery channel programs about it.  There was also some DNA and genetics research on display, and through I read and was able to understand the words, much of the significance escaped me this time around.

After MIT's museum, I re-boarded the "T" and headed for Harvard Square.  Once I arrived, the only thing I could contemplate was lunch, it was nearly 2:00pm after all,  On the recommendation of Miss604 via the Twtittersphere I was able to find a great place for a pint and a quick meal.  I stopped in at John Harvard's Brew House.  The atmosphere was a bit dead in the lull between lunchtime and happy hour, but I was able to get my geek on by getting some writing done on the Technological Dependence post, and it was in fact my lack of a paper map and an attempt to Google-search my way to directions (instead of asking for directions or a map) which inspired that post.  (Sidenote: I did eventually FAIL with the digital maps and find my way to one of the paper variety.)  The food was pretty good.  I followed the aforementioned recommendation and tried out the Meatloaf (in sandwich form at lunchtime) and with it a pint of the Sam Adams Nut-brown ale (they were out of the porter).  I don't know if there's enough for a Ho Yummy.com review but it was certainly a decent pub lunch.

After lunch was the final stop for the afternoon, a trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and the Peabody Museum.  This was geekery of a different kind.  I've always been a fan of history, and this gave me a chance to explore some great exhibits on geology, archaeology and to a lesser degree, palaeontology.  There wasn't a whole lot to differentiate this museum from other similar ones I've visited in the past.  In fact it was relatively small when compared to the Field museum in Chicago or even the Royal BC Museum in Victoria; however for a school museum it was very well maintained and they allowed flash photography.

All in all it was a very enjoyable day. If you're ever in Boston, take a day trip out to Cambridge and check out the sights.  They're wonderful cities, full of history, and a great place for a little geeky adventure.

Technological Dependence

At what point did I become completely dependent on my technology?  I mean, I can remember a time when I didn't carry  a cell phone.  Sure my life was simpler back then, but even doing some simple tasks today seems all to difficult without the phone.

As these devices have made their way into our lives, the concept of convergence has helped them stick.  Two hundred years ago, the only way to communicate with someone was either in person, or by post.  Then came the invention of the telegraph.  This would allow someone to send a text-message to someone in another city by way of an electrical current.  Really, this was the predecessor to email, fax and text messaging.

Seventy years later, Alexander Graham Bell was busy working on a device to help his wife hear, and in the process managed to invent the telephone.  Imagine, being able to have a conversation with someone across the country much the way you would if they were sitting in the next room.  Before long these technologies began to make their way into every home in the Western world.  You could contact anyone, at home or at their place of business and speak to them directly.  The information age was upon us.

By the time I made my way on the scene in the early 1980s phones were commonplace, analog phones were beginning to give way to faster and higher-capacity digital phone systems.  With these came the advent of the modem -- a device solely designed to translate analog telephone signals into digital signals for processing by a computer.  The age of the Internet was beginning.

This brings me to the 1990s and the start of my serious involvement with technology.  I was fascinated by the ability of computers to connect and talk to each other pretty early on.  Being able to exchange files with my friends via the local BBS was quite amazing to me at first, but soon became a primary method of communication (even if it did take an hour to download a file over ZMODEM on my 2400 baud modem!) for passing geekery, photos and games back and forth with a few friends who "got it" early on.

As technology continued to improve, so did my Internet experience.  We soon upgraded to a 56k modem which allowed us to download more than 20 times faster.  I could download the new 1.2MB Wolfenstein Demo (which wasn't really new) in only several minutes.  But this really was only beginning, because a few short years later came ADSL.  This may have been the beginning of my technological dependence.

As things were progressing on the home Internet side of things, things were also progressing with my own personal communications.  By the mid-1990s (sometime between 56k and ADSL) I managed to convince my parents to buy me a cell phone.  A communications device of my very own.  We had tried to convince our parents to get us a second phone line, just for the kids.  Something they begrudgingly did as the Internet became more popular because, well, they couldn't get or make a phone call after we came home in the evening.  But back to the cell phone, my first phone was what I liked to call the Motorola "Brick".  I don't know the exact model for it.  This phone lasted me for about three years and quickly became my constant companion.   This may also have been the beginning of my technological dependence.

When I speak of my technological dependence, I do so in the context of activities that I used to be able to do unassisted, but which now seem to require some sort of technological intervention.  Let me provide an example.  When I go to a large event, or even a shopping mall with friends or my family, often times we'll split up and explore individual activities.  If one of us has forgotten their cell phone, or has managed to run out of batteries this tends to propose a rather large problem: how will we meet up later if I can't call Jimmy on his cell phone?  In these instances I'm reminded that I haven't always had a cell phone, and at some point in the past nobody did.  How did they manage to co-ordinate their activities?  Pre-arrange a meeting time with friends?  Wow.  What a concept.

In other cases the technological dependence has taken the shape of changes in the fundamental ways that we conduct certain activities.  For this example, I'll employ an experience from a recent trip to the airport.  When checking in at the airport the airlines now have a vastly reduced number of check-in agents.  Why?  Because all they need to do now is check your bags and place a sticker on them.  Your boarding pass?  You deal with that at a computer terminal before you queue up.  Not handy with computers?  Well, you'll just have to figure it out for yourself.  The process is entirely computerized.  Add to this that all the security equipment is powered by computers and you've got a pretty technology dependent industry.  Never mind a power failure.  If there were to be a major failure in an airport's computer network (border router failure, cable cut) it would put the entire airport out of commission until it was fixed.

In still other cases our dependence shows in our inability to follow the guidelines that technology gurus have been spouting for years.  The one that comes foremost to my mind is that of "Backup! Backup! Backup!"  The majority of people who use computers on a daily basis don't back up their data regularly, if at all.  I've been guilty of this myself on occasion, and have been remarkably fortunate with relatively few disastrous events though I'm far from immune to the data-loss syndrome.  Our lack of ability to simply copy and paste data into another location is astounding.  As with most things in life it's the people who've had the most dire failures who tend to be the advocates for helping people to avoid future catastrophes, so considering their wealth of knowledge, why don't we listen?

Now despite my deliberately negative slant on the first two examples of technological dependence, the news isn't all bad.  Technological dependence is simply and indication of how society has developed technologies which are so useful that they've permeated the daily lives of billions of people around the globe.  What we need to do as a collective in the years and decades to come is to develop methods to keep the technology we use sustainable and mitigate failures of the technology so that only the most disastrous events could ever disrupt the service.  Some of these solutions will be high-tech solutions that will require investment in infrastructure or new product development.

For the airport example, and admittedly this is something that is probably already done to some degree, ensure that there are multiple points where a network connects to the outside world.  By ensuring that network infrastructure is made redundant and is kept as physically separate as possible, the airport can continue to operate with little or no time spent with systems being offline.  The same would apply for connections to the power grid.  Though simple in concept, a solution like this is relatively complex compared to those for some of the other problems I presented.

The backup problem represents trying to a fundamental behaviour in people: we're lazy.  The only backup solutions that tend to work very effectively are those which are automated and which we don't have to think about unless disaster strikes and we need to recover our data.  To solve this problem there are a few possibilities.  Backup services which with only a few clicks of the mouse we can connect to and have them store our data.  Easy enough for most people, and as long as you're happy with your information sitting on some company's servers this is a viable solution.  The second (and admittedly more complex solution) is to back up everything to an external hard drive and store that in another location.  This requires planning, forethought and at the very least a spare drawer in the desk in your office to store the drive offsite.  This also requires more up-front investment than the previous example, but doesn't have any ongoing monthly charges.  In both cases the backup can be relatively automated and off your mind.

Let's not forget about that pesky dead cellphone problem either.  There is one really easy solution for this one too.  Plan ahead.  Try it sometime, all the cool kids are doing it.  By agreeing on a predetermined time and place to meet up, you can avoid those nasty "Where's Jimmy??" scenarios and save on precious cellphone minutes to boot!  Now if anyone raises their hand and says that "but I use my cell phone to tell time?  I can't check the time if I don't have my phone!" -- I have two solutions for you, ask someone or build a sundial.  Oh wait; you probably need the Internet access from your phone to get the sundial instructions off Google... scratch that.  The second solution is to bring your iPod.

Emailing the Mayors from Boston’s Free Wi-Fi

As I promised in last night's post, I'm using Boston's free Wi-Fi network to drop a quick email to the Mayors of both Burnaby and Vancouver.  The gist: Free Wi-Fi in urban centres is a great thing.  I decided to include a copy of the email on the blog for anyone who might be interested.

Good morning Your Worships,

I'm writing this letter to you from the city of Boston where I'm currently on vacation.  The subject of this letter is also the service which is allowing me to send it; Boston's first open-Wi-Fi project.  The city has partnered with local companies to provide free Wi-Fi access to residents and visitors of the city's Faneuil Marketplace.

I would like to promote the idea of starting up a open Wi-Fi project in the Lower Mainland.  With the pending influx of international visitors to the region, providing an easy way for them to stay connected to their families and report back on their adventures in BC would cast a brilliant light on our ability to embrace new technologies and the region's vision for the future.

While covering the entire region in time for the Olympics is hardly a feasible option, placing the free access in some key locations around the region could be both cost-effective, and provide basic access to a large number of people.

A couple of examples would be: - Key Olympic Venues (GM Place, Skating Ovals etc.) - Library Square, Vancouver - Robson Square, Vancouver - Pacific Center, Vancouver - Metrotown, Burnaby - Deer Lake Park, Burnaby

I know there was talk about placing Wi-Fi access points in Vancouver a few years ago, in fact I believe it was mentioned on Mayor Sullivan's blog.  With the  coming international attention on the city, I feel this would be an excellent opportunity to showcase the region's growing technology sector and to make the Olympic and Paralympic games that much more accessible to the world.

Thank you,

Keith Murray

That's it!  I'll let everyone know if I hear back from either Mayor.  It's really windy, and I've chosen an outdoor location.  Time to run!