If in Doubt, Stick a Graph on It

The London Cycle Hire scheme launched on Friday, and whilst I’ve not actually had a chance to try it (my key appears to be duff and is being replaced), I’ve been poking around with the live availability data that drives the online map.

I set up a cronjob to fetch the HTML of the map page, once a minute, and built a little Rails 3 app which imports this data and presents it using Protovis (which is fantastic, if a little tricky to get your head around at first).

Here’s the graph for the last 24 hours at Leonard Circus in Shoreditch:

Graph of Available Bikes at Leonard Circus in Shoreditch

As you can see, there are lots of little spikes, often jumping ±3 bikes from minute to minute. That makes it seem like in the space of 5 minutes, 15 or more people are hiring and returning bikes. Even at 5:30am. That simply doesn’t tally with what I’ve observed in the wild – only 9000 people have keys so far, whilst everyone else just mills around looking interested.

These spikes are consistent across all of the stations (343) which I’ve got data for. For example, here’s Drury Lane in Covent Garden:

Drury Lane, Covent Garden

I suspect something is wrong with either the availability data that TFL are getting from the docking stations, or with the map on the web. Filtering out the spikes should be possible, but it’s tricky, and not something I can be bothered with. For now, I’ll put the project on the back burner, but keep capturing the data and revisit it if it looks like the quality improves or an official API appears.

Update: It turns out this was fairly easy to fix. If you enable cookies, all works as expected. So, in my case, the cronjob now looks like:

curl "https://web.barclayscyclehire.tfl.gov.uk/maps" --cookie ~/cyclehire/cookies.txt --cookie-jar ~/cyclehire/cookies.txt -A "Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; U; Intel Mac OS X 10_6_4; en-gb) AppleWebKit/533.16 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/5.0 Safari/533.16" -o ~/cyclehire/$(date +%s).html -s

YOU SHOULD FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER

If you’ve requested to follow me on Twitter, then please don’t mistake my silence for rudeness. It’s just that I can’t actually let anyone follow me, because of this bug that’s been around for 3 months or so.

I’m sure there’s a good reason why Twitter haven’t fixed it already. No doubt there are a lot of complexities at play. And overall, I’d say I get very good value for money from their free service.

But 3 months is a long time to not be able to ‘add friends’ on a social network. So I’m sorry about that, and I’m sorry you’re missing out on such exciting and informative short messages, such as:

Twitter / Tom Taylor: kabaddi-kabaddi-kabaddi-ka ...

Greys

I have a bad habit of rushing out grumpy blog posts that portray an argument as black or white. The internet likes those sorts of things, but the answer, of course, is that everything is shades of grey.

I didn’t mean to come across as arrogant, because I’ve “shipped”. Or to belittle those who haven’t. There are plenty of people who have released products/services/things into the public eye who are just as demanding and unsympathetic. And there are plenty of people who have never had the opportunity or desire, but can understand the trials and tribulations.

Bobbie’s point that the media is actually constantly shipping is very true. And because I’ve never experienced that world, it’s all too easy for me to stand outside it and make snarky comments.

The truth is that a good attitude to have, in any walk of life, is to assume that it’s always more complicated than it appears. And I need to remind myself of that as much as anyone.

You’ve Either Shipped or You Haven’t

You’ve either shipped, or you haven’t. You’ve either poured weeks, months or even years of your life into bringing a product or a service into the world, or you haven’t.

If you have, you’ll know what I’m talking about. You’ll have flicked a switched, cap deploy‘d, or flipped your closed sign to open, and just waited – holding your breath for whatever happens next.

And at that moment everything that’s wrong with it suddenly comes into sharp focus. All your copy is terrible, 30% of the features don’t do what people want, and another 30% aren’t actually useful. All the stuff that you forgot to include, let alone everything you dropped because you just didn’t have time.

You hit refresh on Twitter search a thousand times, waiting for someone to say something. You leave comments on blogs to say thanks to people who liked your offering, and you force yourself to close the browser window on those that don’t.

If you’re lucky, enough happens. Enough sales, enough users, enough nice words, that it all seems worthwhile.

And if you’re not, all the tradeoffs you made will turn out to be in the wrong direction, and all the bugs and issues that you hoped would be discovered by no-one will be discovered by everyone.

So you wear your learning smile, step back a bit, have a think, and work out what to do next.

But whatever you do next, you’ve shipped. You’ve joined the club.

And the next time someone produces an antenna with a weak spot, or a sticky accelerator, you’re more likely to feel their pain, listen to their words and trust their actions than the braying media who have never shipped anything in their lives.

Update: of course, the media is shipping all the time. I wrote some more thoughts, with the benefit of a day of sunshine.

My app and I

The Noticings iPhone app is the first paid iPhone app I wrote, and I’ve been meaning to write a bit about how that went, and what I’ve learnt.

I released it in November 2009, so it’s been ticking away for a decent while now. It’s now up to version 2.0, with version 2.1 just submitted to fix some performance issues with large photo libraries. It supports iOS 4.0, including background uploading and fast app-switching.

Since launch there have been 180 odd downloads, all at £1.79, which makes the return laughably small (I net £1.09 after Apple’s cut and VAT). This is about what I expected – it’s a niche app, for a small game, played by a handful of people. It took 5 months before I saw any money for it – Apple only pay you after you accrue $150 or equivalent.

About 50% of those sales were made in the first 48 hours or so – during which time I entered the top 10 photography apps (#6 from memory) for a while. Photography is probably not as popular as, say, games, but that gives you an idea of the kind of numbers those charts are doing.

There must be a lot of developers out there watching their software fall on its arse. And I imagine lots will be/are making their apps free, and looking to iAds as a way of making their products generate some kind of revenue.

I hope someone, somewhere is pulling hopeful app monsters out of the trough of app disillusionment.

Personally, iAds and all that isn’t for me. I’m happy keeping the app at £1.79 – that feels about right for what it is for me. It’s a good quality app that does one thing well. I use it every day. It’s on my home screen, and it’s on plenty of my friends’. I’ve not received a crash report for it in months. £1.79 is enough of a barrier to keep the users down, and my support time to a minimum.

But I also believe in open source, and like I’ve stood on the shoulders of others whilst building the app, I’d like others to be able to stand on mine.

So I’ve open sourced the code, and it’s all on Github. If you want to add features to the app, or fix a bug you find, that’d be lovely, and I’ll be sure to credit you. And if you want to use a portion of the code for another app, that’s fine too, just don’t call it “Noticings” or use our logo.

The app will still be £1.79 in the App Store, and the code will always be identical. I hope someone finds it useful.

Optimism

“The final thing I’d say about optimism is this. If we took the loopiest, most moonbeam-addled Californian utopian internet bullshit, and held it up against the most cynical, realpolitik-inflected scepticism, the Californian bullshit would still be a better predictor of the future. Which is to say that, if in 1994 you’d wanted to understand what our lives would be like right now, you’d still be better off reading a single copy of Wired magazine published in that year than all of the sceptical literature published ever since.”

Clay Shirky, in interview with Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian.

Jet! Fusion!

A few of weeks ago I was lucky enough to take a tour around not one, but two nuclear fusion reactors. The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy is big science, British style. A non-descript science park outside Oxford, just up the road from a non-descript rural station. Say hello to the non-descript security desk, walk past the Civil Nuclear Constabulary vehicle (“Defend, deny, recover.”), into the type of building that university engineering departments built in the 70s do so well.

First, some science. The largest fusion reactor we have is the Sun. Fusion generates energy by smashing together two isotypes of Hydrogen, Deuterium and Tritium at high enough temperatures that they overcome their electromagnetic repulsion and fuse together. This fusion results in a heavy helium isotype and a free neutron with lots of energy. This excess energy is then used to turn water into steam, which drives turbines and creates power on the grid. Easy.

The sorts of temperatures/energy required to overcome electromagnetic repulsion are high. The Sun’s core is about 15 million Kelvin, but due to the smaller size of an Earth based reactor, we’d need to get to about 200 million K. At those sorts of temperatures, the fuel becomes plasma, a state where the electrons are free moving.

Culham has two different experiments, MAST (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak) and JET (Joint European Torus). These are both Tokamak-type reactors, named after the torus (doughnut) shape used to contain the plasma.

To maintain the energy levels required for the reaction, the plasma must be contained in a magnetic field. If the plasma touches the sides of the torus, it’ll lose energy to the walls. Managing this containment is one of the most difficult bits, and was described by one of the scientists as like “holding jelly with elastic bands”.

MAST is the British experiment, and the one I visited first. Its goal is to learn how the Tokamak design behaves, and to experiment with magnetic field designs and strategies.

20:32

It’s in a large warehouse, full of narrow corridors, meshed wire fencing and flashing hazard signs.

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Just looking at it is complicated. Every space is covered with sensors, pipes and wiring. Despite not being very big (maybe the size of a small truck) you can’t really take a good photo of it.

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Oddly, it feels a bit weird to watch the videos from inside MAST. There’s something about the combination of these being taken in the visible light spectrum inside a reactor, at super high speeds, with a CCTV-like aesthetic, makes me feel like I shouldn’t be able to observe what’s going on. Somehow reams of sensor data is fine, but watching the actual reaction feels… wrong. Like you’re looking into the soul of something amazing.

JET is the larger, but older European experiment. It’s huge. The size of a big house. This is just one bit of one side of it:

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Its main goal is to develop the complete reactor design into something that can be scaled up for future designs that can produce power. At the moment JET can produce power, but less than they put in. Scale is a limiting factor – the next Tokamak reactor, ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), scheduled to be built in France in 2018, is double the size of JET in every dimension and should produce a net positive energy output.

ITER will be based not just on JET, but also all on the other experiments around the world. It’s a genuinely pan-global project, with China, the EU, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the USA all contributing.

After that, DEMO will be the first reactor connected to the grid producing power continuously. But that’s not scheduled to enter operations until 2033.

JET had great warning signs:

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And there are fantastic controls and screens everywhere:

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If you’re anything like me, you’re probably thinking “I bet fusion blows up in amazing ways”. But you’d be wrong. Apparently, it’s so hard just to get the reaction going, and keeping it there, that if anything goes wrong the reaction will just fail, quietly, and you’ll have to spent a long time checking the equipment before starting it up again. There are no runaway conditions. “Well, I say that… I suppose there’s one theoretical situation…”

After the tour I was struck by two main things:

The first, that the way they describe the problems and solutions is much more like I’d expect engineers to talk, than physicists. They talk about pushing the plasma around with magnetic fields, and sub-lightspeed particles in the way that I’d expect a team of engineers to talk about carburettor design. It doesn’t mean I understand it any more, just that it’s much more practical and hands on than I expected.

And the second was that this is something genuinely inspirational. Big science, funded from numerous countries, to create something potentially human-race saving for our future. We should be proud.

Which is why the recent news that ITER might have its budgets cut or even be cancelled is so disappointing. Fusion is exactly the sort of long-term, grand vision project that we need right now. For it to be delayed or even dashed because we broke our pretend money system is, frankly, gutting. But let’s hope not, and let’s hope our children’s children will have a little piece of the sun’s core powering their lives.

Big thanks to Culham Centre for Fusion Energy for putting on the tour, and everyone who gave up their evenings to let us wander around asking stupid questions.

The rest of the photos on are Flickr.

Weeks 48 & 49

Yerba Buena

Week 48 seems a very far away place. It started with a couple of days on El Morro with BERG, wrapping up bits and pieces and turning hacky prototype code into something a little more solid. I can’t wait to see what they’ve produced whilst I’ve been away.

And then into the SXSW accelerator. Fantastic company, lots of laughter, and great to put some faces to names. A handful of good panels (Design Fiction, and Maps, Books, Spimes and Paper) made up for the social media dross. And we made a newspaper, which people seemed to like.

I remember something Matt Biddulph mentioned to me when we were talking about Dopplr once. That scaling and growing a service/site/thing isn’t a smooth curve upwards – there are inflection points where things jump forward and which force you adjust to a new state. This seems sort of obvious thinking about it, but I think Newspaper Club just experienced the first one of those.

But now I’m in San Francisco, and this is holiday. Everything is sunny and new and fresh and beautiful. F arrives in a few hours and I’ve missed her greatly. We could be here for longer I think. It would be good.

Chronicle