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Bikeshare hills, incentives, and rewards

June 23rd, 2013 1 comment

A topographic map of Washington in 1791 by Don Alexander Hawkins. I live on the top edge of the map, on one of those hills.

I’m a generally happy user of DC’s Capital Bikeshare system — just renewed my annual membership today in fact. But I don’t use it as much as I’d like to, for one critical reason. I live on top of a hill. Riders are happy to take bikes from the neighborhood to their jobs downhill, but are much less likely to ride them uphill. As a result, the bike racks in my neighborhood are frequently completely empty by 8:00 or 8:30am, despite the many stores and businesses in the area. The only days I can reliably take a bike into work are when I leave at 7:15 for 8:00 meetings, which is thankfully not too often. On several occasions I have looked at the handy real-time map of bikeshare bikes, only to observe that there are no bikes available within a 15 minutes walk of my home!

What should Bikeshare do to solve this problem? Well, they already do one thing, which is that they hire people to put bicycles in the back of a big van, then drive them up the hill to rebalance the system. This works, but it’s expensive for the system, and it’s not very timely or efficient. In other transportation problems, incentives are used to balance demand. For instance, airlines and Amtrak use pricing to incentivize people who are flexible in their schedule to take off-peak trips. But that won’t work for Bikeshare, as most rides are free. (I pay $75/year, but all trips of 30 minutes or less are free. My rides are mostly 15-25 minutes long.) So people happily ride downhill to their downtown jobs in the mornings, but don’t ride uphill to their reverse-commute jobs, and don’t as often ride uphill in the evening home either. The end result is unhappy customers and excessive costs for the Bikeshare system.

ch_map

Rough map of a possible incentive line for North-Central DC.

So if you can’t give people the usual financial incentives to drop off bikes in the Columbia Heights rack at 8am, what can you do to reduce the need for rebalancing and provide reasons for people to want to help solve Bikeshare’s problem? I think the answer is swag. Imagine that there were lines on the Bikeshare map. Every time you crossed the line going in an uphill direction (reducing the need for rebalancing), you’d earn some points. If you earned enough points, you could redeem them for Bikeshare-branded, limited-edition swag. Imagine a t-shirt in official CaBi colors that said “I bike up hills”, available only through this point system. Who wouldn’t want that?

It’s easy for Bikeshare to figure this out, as they know exactly where you picked up each bike, and where you dropped it off. Determining whether you crossed a line, and thus biked uphill, is easy. And in addition to making people excited about biking up hills, you get them wearing branded items of clothing, which can only help market the system more broadly. They already sell swag through a Cafepress shop, so much of the infrastructure is in place. It’s a win-win.

Bikeshare people, if you read this and think it’s a good idea, please run with it!

Screenshot - 6_23_2013 , 3_08_23 PM

What the swag might look like.

 

 

On .name and third-level domains

May 15th, 2013 5 comments

And, we’re back! After being off-line for several weeks, this site is now live again! I can’t imagine you missed it.

Here’s what happened. Let’s start at the beginning. In 2003, ICANN added .name to the list of top-level domains (like .com, .edu, etc.). The idea is that individuals would use it for personal sites and email addresses. You can still do this, but (in case you haven’t noticed), it’s not very popular, and most domain name registrars don’t even sell .name addresses.

I purchased harlan.harris.name in 2003. Unlike .com addresses, you don’t generally buy second-level domains in .name, you buy third-level domains. (.name is the top-level domain, harris.name is the second-level domain, which you can’t buy, and harlan.harris.name is the third-level domain.) A cool feature is that if you buy a.b.name, you can get the email address a@b.name, not something like me@a.b.name (although you can set that up too). So my email address has been harlan@harris.name for ten years.

Fast forward to April, 2013. I notice that my personal web site (where you are now) has been replaced by a generic sales screen. You know, with a bunch of random keywords, a stock photo, and “buy this domain!” in big red print. Not good. At first I thought that my WordPress site (which hosts this blog) had gotten hacked, but no such luck. It turns out to be a convoluted mess of broken technology and confused customer support reps. The fortunate thing is that I don’t use this site extensively, and the problem with the web forwarding didn’t seem to affect my email address forwarding, so I didn’t lose any email.

The simplified version of what happened is that the company I bought the domain from in 2003, PersonalNames, merged with a company called Dotster a year or two ago. They presumably merged their technical systems together, which makes sense. But they for some reason failed to properly set up a system for third-level .name domain administration. And so my account failed to get properly transferred into their systems, and they stopped sending me notices about problems.

Although I still technically owned harlan.harris.name, I could no longer log in and administer it, and the redirection to this web site (at another company, HostGator) was reset at some point for still-unknown reasons.

It took a week and a dozen email messages and several hours on the phone for Dotster to figure out that yes, they owned this domain, but no, they didn’t have the technical chops to administer it.

I then set up an account with another company, eNom (nom, nom…), that does support third-level .name domains. Transferring the domain took another week and three attempts, due to errors on both sides. Add 48 hours for DNS forwarding to propagate around the Internet, and I’m finally back online yesterday!

Except that although my email forwarding still works, I don’t yet have control over that, because Dotster seemingly neglected to transfer email forwarding rights at the same time as the rest of the domain. So if you need me tomorrow, I’ll be back on the phone with tech support.

Sad Rain

Categories: Personal Tags: ,

Pretzel Whoopie Pies with Vanilla Stout Filling

October 22nd, 2012 No comments

My newish cooking club had a dinner yesterday with the theme American Beer. I was tasked with dessert, and came up with this recipe for Pretzel Whoopie Pies. They turned out extremely well, so I thought I’d share the recipe here.

Sources:

Ingredients:

  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/2 c minus 1 T sugar
  • 1 T light corn syrup
  • 1/2 c finely ground unsalted mini pretzels
  • 1/2 c cake flour
  • 1 t baking powder
  • 1/8 t salt
  • 4 T butter, softened
  • 1/3 c milk
  • kosher salt
  • 1 c stout beer (Breckenridge Vanilla Porter is excellent)
  • 4 T butter, softened
  • 8 oz powdered sugar

Recipe:

  1. Beat egg yolks, sugar, and corn syrup until lightened.
  2. Mix pretzel flour, cake flour, baking powder, and salt. Beat in butter and milk. Add to liquid mixture and mix thoroughly.
  3. Refrigerate dough for 30 minutes to hydrate evenly. Preheat oven to 350 F.
  4. Drop 12 evenly-shaped cookies onto a silpat-covered pan. A ring mold is helpful.  Sprinkle kosher salt over the top lightly.
  5. Bake about 14 minutes, until starting to brown around the edges, but still soft.
  6. Cool thoroughly on wire racks.
  7. Boil beer in a saucepan large enough to deal with foaming up, and reduce to 1/2 c. Cool to room temperature.
  8. Mix butter, powdered sugar, and reduced beer into a creamy, delicious frosting.
  9. Make sandwiches out of cookies and frosting.

Makes 6 whoopie pies.

Categories: Personal Tags: ,

Communication and the Data Scientist

September 23rd, 2012 No comments

I recently gave a presentation on communication issues around the terms “Data Science” and “Data Scientist”, based in part on a survey that I did with my Meetup colleagues Marck and Sean. The basic idea is that these new, extremely-broad buzzwords have resulted in confusion, which has impacted the ability of people with skills and people with data to meet and effectively communicate about who does what and what appropriate expectations should be. The survey was an attempt to bring some clarity to the issue of who are the people in this newly-reformulated community, and how do they view themselves and their skills. For more on the survey, see our post on the Data Community DC blog. Here’s the video of my presentation at DataGotham:

Apple TV and cross-device user-interface integration

November 6th, 2011 No comments

On last week’s Build and Analyze — a great podcast nominally about iOS development, but actually more about just living a tech-geek lifestyle — Marco talked a lot about the rumored “Apple TV” and whether it could actually be a groundbreaking product. He concluded that it probably couldn’t. Most people wouldn’t dump a working TV just for an Apple brand; the touch-screen interface that Apple has been using for the iPad and iPhone wouldn’t work for a TV; the only apps that would work well on a TV would be just ways of getting better content (I note that Roku apps are laughable, with the exception of Angry Birds); getting access to better content than other competitors is probably impossible, even for Apple.

For these reasons and more, Marco suggested that there’s little that Apple, or anyone else, could do to substantially improve the TV experience, with the exception of better menu design.

I think there’s a way that Apple (or someone) could integrate modern technology into a TV that would be actually compelling, though. And in some ways it’s the same way that I earlier blogged about for MP3 players. Cross-device user-interfaces. Here’s how it might work for a television:

Read more…

making meat shares more efficient

May 9th, 2011 No comments

A personal interest I have is the ethical and sustainable production of food. I’ve been a member of and helped run Community Supported Agriculture groups, and my wife and I currently purchase the majority of our meat from a group of upstate NY pastured-livestock producers who sell their products through CSAs. It’s an ala-carte business model, where I place an order on a website, and the next week I pick up the frozen products cut and packaged as if for retail.

A related way to get meat has become fairly popular recently — the meat CSA or meat share. As the NYC Meatshare group describes it, “Looking for healthy meat raised on pasture by small local farms? It’s expensive, but by banding together to buy whole animals we can support farmers and save money.” Members of a meatshare all pitch in to buy a whole animal, which is then butchered and split among the members. Here’s how a meatshare event described the 10th of a hog each member got: “Each person will get an equal amount of bacon and sausage (about 2 lbs each), chops (center & butt), and will divide the other cuts up as equally as possible (including ham steak, loin, organs, etc.)  If you have preferences please let me know, I will do my best to accommodate.  Or, you can swap with other members at my place.”

These two business models put a substantial burden on either the farmer (in the first case) or the consumer (in the second case). The retail model requires the farmer, or a collective of farmers, to put together a retail-ordering web site, a butchery and inventory system, and a delivery and distribution system. The meat share model takes these burdens off the farmers, but requires the consumers to set up and organize the purchase and payment system, meet at a common location, and either take what is available or perform ad hoc swaps. In a more traditional producer-consumer relationship, the supply chain, payment, inventory, and preferences-matching process is taken care of by the comodification of the animals (all cows are the same) and the services provided by a retail grocery store.

One could argue that that’s the third option — Whole Foods — but it sorta defeats the purpose of non-commidified, high-quality meat, and it tends to defeat the pocketbook too. No connection with the farm, just a promise of ethical standards (probably including the pointless “organic” label), and a substantial cut by middlemen. Not really an option at all.

So what else could be done to build sustainable relationships between animal producers and people who value high-quality, ethically produced meat? Why not leverage technology? And not just selling via web sites, but the kind of logistics technology that allows Whole Foods (and UPS, and Walmart) to efficiently get huge varieties of goods from place to place? A group at a recent food-tech hack-a-thon had the start of this idea. They put together a quick demo of a front-end web site (“groupme.at” — clever!) that would allow consumers to choose smaller sets of cuts in such a way that the whole neatly ends up with a whole animal. By setting up a platform that can be easily connected with many small producers all over the country, the problem of every producer needing to be a webmaster is eliminated. And the system to get all of the pieces to add up to whole animals reduces risk for the farmer. It’s a great start. But by leveraging additional open-source tools and some ingenuity, I think it should be possible to do even more.

Imagine a similar web site, but instead of selecting a pre-selected package of cuts, you instead indicate your preferences and price range. As animals become available, you get an emailed notification of a delivery with a set of products that are very similar to the preferences you specified. You might love pork belly and boneless loin. Your neighbor might love cured pork belly (bacon) and chops. You might hate liver, but you’d accept some pig ears every once in a while for your dog. And your neighbor might really like the fatback to render for lard, while you’d find that useless. Everyone who might be sharing in an animal indicates their preferences, and the web site would automatically give everyone as much as possible of what they like the most. Equally important, all of the parts add up to whole animals, so the farmer is not stuck with the risk of unsold inventory.

Now imagine that after a few months, you’ve ranked the cuts of meat from Alice’s Farm 5 stars, but the ones from Bob’s Ranch only 3 stars. And you’ve told the system that you’re willing to pay more to get more of what you really want, but you neighbor tells the web site that he’s willing to make trade-offs to spend less money. You’ve essentially added other constraints, that if balanced well, will make everyone as happy as possible. Also, notice that I mentioned both boneless loin and pork chops? They’re more-or-less the same part of the animal cut different ways, so you can’t sell them both off the same half of the same animal. Now you have exclusive constraints to add into the mix. Maybe everyone’s better off if you get the boneless loin, or maybe everyone’s better off if your neighbor gets the chops. It’s easy to imagine collecting all of this information, but how do you combine it all and optimize the outcome in a utilitarian way?

Why, operations research and computational optimization! Write some software that plugs everyone’s constraints into a set of equations, push a button, let the computer think for a second or two, and wham, you get a solution that balances the constraints as fairly as possible! Send the cut list to the slaughterhouse and email the product lists and bills to the customers, and you’re basically done.

In the past, this sort of supply-chain optimization required massive computing power and complex software design. But now, there are open-source code bases for solving this sort of problem, at least at the scale needed to balance the preferences of a few farmers and a few dozen or hundred customers at a time.

This is the next step in leveraging technology to make at least some aspects of the supply chain for small-scale meat operations as efficient as what Purdue does, but maintaining the high quality and personal connection to the farm that many people want now. All that’s needed are some enterprising hackers to write the code and set up a scalable, configurable web platform for preference-based meatshares.

In my next post, I’ll demonstrate how to write code that uses one of those open-source optimization libraries to solve a small version of this problem. If you’re interested in reading R code, stay tuned!

Smartphones, MP3 players, and Bluetooth: the division of labor

March 27th, 2010 No comments

As more and more people get smartphones that can play MP3s or streamed music, like the iPhone or Android phone like the upcoming HTC Evo 4G (I’m gettin’ one!), fewer and fewer people are buying standalone MP3 players. Why have two gadgets when you can have just one? But I think there are good reasons to do so, but I don’t think the right combination of products are currently on the market. Here’s my thinking. Read more…

Trivia audio rounds: French, Halloween

October 29th, 2009 No comments

Turnout at Pete’s Candy Store’s Quizz-Off was thin last, night, likely due to the Yankee game. But it was fun anyway, particularly as our team was hosting! We had six rounds of brilliant trivia, two of which were audio rounds. Hear them below…

Read more…

Categories: Personal Tags:

Savory and sweet, pears and beets

October 23rd, 2009 1 comment

Hah, it rhymes! The fall haul (hah!) from the CSA inevitably means two things, root vegetables and ungodly numbers of pears. I love root vegetables, but tend to find pears to be pale imitations of apples. But when poached in red wine, or cooked with butter and sugar, pears can have some redeeming value. Recently, for the cooking club, I teamed up to make a dessert with the theme “Fall Harvest.” We were inspired by a recent recipe from the late, lamented Gourmet magazine, Beet and Pear Napoleons with Ginger Juice Vinaigrette. Roasted beets layered with pears, with flavors of ginger, citrus, tarragon, and poppy. In fact, we were so inspired by the dish, that we made it too, and started the dinner with an amuse of the original recipe:

Pear-Beet Napoleon with Ginger-Orange Vinaigrette

For the dessert itself, we took these flavors and turned them on their heads. The formerly raw pear circles were now lightly carmelized with sugar and butter. The beet, instead of being roasted, was boiled, pureed, and folded into a chocolate cake batter. The ginger juice was mixed into a buttercream instead of a vinagrette. The texture and visual impact of the poppy seeds was replaced with cocoa nibs. The result was an almost perfectly balanced mixture of fruit and butter flavors, sweet and tart, creamy and crunchy. (If I were to make it again, I’d actually add more pear!) We were very happy with the result:

Carmelized pear and beet cake napoleon, ginger buttercream, cocoa nibs

(recipe outline here)

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , ,

Welcome

September 30th, 2009 No comments

Welcome to my new web page and new blog! I will have various references about me (so far, a list of publications and a list of other sites I can be found on), as well as a blog about things I’m working on or thinking about. Posts will be categorized as Personal or Professional (or both, like this one!), and I think there’s a way to subscribe to an RSS feed of just one or the other, in case you’re uninterested in statistics or food or whatever. (google, google…) Ah, yes, you can. Here’s the Personal feed and here’s the Professional feed. I’ll figure out how to put links to them in the sidebar at some point!

Categories: Personal, Professional Tags: