On Nearly Losing a Phone in New York

October 27th, 2009 § 1 comment § permalink

Tonight had all the makings of a disastrous evening. It came arse-clenchingly close, but it did not come to pass.

I left work at 7:00 or so, and decided to take a longer route home, mostly to make a change from the West Side Greenway, which, while fast and convenient, can get a bit tedious after hammering back and forth for days on end. I headed up 8th Avenue, after dodging gaggles of pedestrians who had meandered off the sidewalk, and food vendors dragging hot-dog carts up the street. My plan was to follow the Central Park Drive counter-clockwise from Columbus Circle up to 110th Street.

I hit my stride somewhere around 89th street, near the Guggenheim Museum, cruising along just above 20mph. I had my iPhone in the pocket of my sweater, with the headphones stuffed in on top. Those headphones must have unraveled themselves, because I saw them get wrapped around my handlebars for a split second, before my right leg turned another revolution of the pedals, yanking the iPhone out of my pocket and down to the street.


I slammed on the brakes, and flipped the bike around as quickly as I could without rolling it over. I expected to see the phone on the street, fifty yards back, with the white headphones sprawled out across the asphalt. Maybe with a cracked screen or case. Instead, I found nothing. Not even any fragments of shattered glass or a torn-off earbud.

Double Shit.

OK, I thought. The phone must have bounced to the edge of the street. I zigzagged my bike up and down the street for a hundred yards in either direction, kicking up piles of leaves hoping that my phone was hiding under one of them. Still nothing. I began to think that one of the runners who had passed me had snapped up the phone in the few seconds it took me to stop and turn around.

It had been fifteen or twenty minutes at this point, and, at very least, I knew I would be home much later than antipated. As the ever-prepared computer nerd, I broke out my laptop and Sprint card, fired up Skype, and called Alex to tell her what was going on.

“Should I call your phone?” she asked.

“I don’t think there’s much point. One of the joggers could easily have picked it up and walked off with it. I’m going to keep looking for it here for a while.”

“OK”, she said. We hung up.

I un-clipped the headlamp from my bike and started walking up and down the same bit of roadway, looking for the phone. I was more or less resigned to the fact that my phone was long gone, and tomorrow I’d have to own up to my employer that I’d carelessly thrown their phone on the ground in Central Park and, worse, managed to let someone pinch it, too. I gave myself another ten minutes. If I hadn’t found it by then, I’d give up, then slink off home and begin the tedious process of changing the credentials for all the accounts that had anything stored on that iPhone.

I was in the middle of peering down into a storm drain with my headlight when someone called out to me:

“Are you Guy?”

A woman walked up to me, holding my phone. In perfect condition. I nearly passed out with relief.

It turns out that she was, indeed, one of the joggers, and had seen the phone on the ground. She had lost something in the park recently, too, and thought that she had better take the phone to the Central Park police precinct to turn in. On her way there, the phone rang. It was Alex, calling my phone anyway, just in case. Alex had described me to her (“He’s riding a bike, wears glasses, and speaks with a British accent. If someone says its their phone and doesn’t have an accent, it’s not him”), and the woman had gone back to where she found my phone, and caught up with me. Her name was Claire. I shook her hand, thanked her profusely, and she went on her way.

Anyone could have found that phone, walked off with it, and nobody would be any the wiser. Worse, they could have wreaked a little bit of havoc on my life with my stored data. If New York mythology is to be believed, the city is full of villains and miscreants, none of whom would even think twice about pocketing a valuable find. Rather, Claire bothered to pick it up and send it back to its owner. Whatever it was that she lost in Central Park, she deserves to find it. And I deserve a swift kick in the pants for being so bloody careless.

Long Beach Island, or: How a zipcar trip can end in a tow truck ride

August 23rd, 2009 § 6 comments § permalink

The cast: Guy Dickinson and Patrick Stahl, two engineer-types from New York City.

The set-up: Their girlfriends are out of town at Disneyworld. What else to do but take a drive down the Jersey Shore to Long Beach Island, Pat’s erstwhile summer home and source of copious family memories? There’s a hurricane a few hundred miles off the East Coast which promises to produce impressive surf and maybe a storm or two. They book a zipcar rental for 3:30PM on Saturday, August 22nd.

The timeline:

3:30PM, 1090 Amsterdam Avenue, NYC: Pat and Guy arrive at the appointed parking garage to pick up the vehicle, a 2007 Volkswagen Jetta with about 45,000 miles on the clock. Pat’s zipcard lets them into the car without a hitch, and they hit the road.

3:35PM, West 107th Street: While Guy makes a quick stop for a bottle of water and his camera, Pat checks out the rest of the car. The trunk contains three umbrellas and a bed-sheet, all from previous renters. The car is otherwise in fine condition.

3:40PM, West Side Highway: Some ominous clouds over the George Washington Bridge suggest that this might be a spectacular trip indeed.

4:10PM, Garden State Parkway Southbound: Guy discovers a CD left in the car from a previous occupant. It is labelled “Rap/Spliff”. Alas, it refuses to play in the car’s CD player. Pat and Guy are stuck listening to classic rock.

4:21PM, Middlesex County, New Jersey: Pat and Guy stop at Cheesequake Rest Area, an intriguingly-named place. Later, Guy will be disappointed to discover that “Cheesequake” is merely a bad Anglicization of a Native American name, and not a reference to a giant, rumbling block of milk curd.

5:50PM, Long Beach Island, New Jersey: Pat and Guy arrive at their destination. Guy is nervous that the scene is too idyllic for hurricane-induced surf, however, after stepping onto the beach, it’s clear that there are at least six-foot waves. Despite frantic warnings from the local authorities, many surfers are trying to take advantage of the situation.

There really was a hurricane offshore.

There really was a hurricane offshore.

6:15PM: Watching the ocean from the sand is insufficient for Pat. He decides he must enter the ocean, again, despite frantic warnings from the authorities. Guy declines, citing his will to live.

6:17PM: Pat enters the ocean, abandoning his clothing and the contents of his pockets on the beach. Guy stays to stand watch.

6:30PM: Pat is struck by a giant wave, which knocks him off his feet. He decides to return to shore.

Pat is dwarfed by a wave, prompting his emergence shortly after

Pat is dwarfed by a wave, prompting his emergence shortly after

Pat emerges.

Pat emerges.

6:31PM: Pat gathers up his belongings, including the zipcard, a critical access token which allows his and Guy’s access to the vehicle. He attempts to hand Guy the card to keep it safe. Guy doesn’t realize he’s being handed anything. The card is dropped to the sand, unnoticed.

The bloody zipcard.

The bloody zipcard.

6:39PM: Pat and Guy return to the car. “Open the car, will you?”, says Pat. “I don’t have the card, you do!” replies Guy. “But I gave you the card”, said Pat. “No, you didn’t.” Pat and Guy discover that neither of them has the card. Pat returns to the beach to attempt to locate it.

6:44PM: Pat declares defeat. A final, exhaustive search of pockets, shirts, and shoes reveals nothing. The zipcard is nowhere to be found.

6:45PM: The first call is placed to zipcar. Because the cars are all connected to zipcar’s central office, it should be feasible to unlock the car remotely. Pat explains the scenario, and the representative cheerily tells him that the car should now be unlocked. The car is not, in fact, unlocked. The zipcar representative cites “cellular reception issues” and puts Pat on hold while she figures out what to do next.

7:00PM: The zipcar representative informs Pat that they will need to send roadside assistance to let us back into the car. Some telephone shuffling occurs, and we are told to expect assistance to arrive in 30 minutes. Pat declares that he will eat his hat if the tow truck arrives in 30 minutes. Pat and Guy decide to wander over to the bay side of the island, where a sign informs them that they are not to disrobe, by order of the police department. Disappointed, they change their plans and head off in search of food, stopping at the first place they come to, Pinky Shrimp’s Seafood Company. They place an order for some shrimp and a crabcake sandwich and are told that there will be a one-hour wait for their food.

This sign was the only thing which prevented us from dropping our trousers.

This sign was the only thing which prevented us from dropping our trousers.

7:15PM: Pat heads back towards the car, while Guy purchases a six-pack of New Jersey Lager from the liquor store. It is brewed in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Strangely, this seems apropos. Guy returns to the car.

7:20PM: It is nearly dark. The only corrective lenses Pat has are his sunglasses, with his normal glasses locked in the car. Guy is appointed lookout for the tow truck. Beers are opened and surreptitiously drunk near the car.

It was getting dark.

It was getting dark.

7:40PM: The tow truck arrives. Pat is relieved not to have to eat his hat. Pat and Guy introduce themselves to Ray, of Stohrer’s towing. Ray is the most talkative person either of them have ever met. Pat explains the situation to Ray, who gets his tools ready to break into the car.

7:45PM: Ray successfully opens the car, which has the physical, non-zipcard car key in it.

7:45:30PM: Pat attempts to start the zipcar, which refuses to turn over.

7:45:31PM: Guy recalls a previous incident during a zipcar trip to Rhode Island, wherein the car failed to start because he’d forgotten to use the zipcard to unlock the doors. Apparently, the zipcard locking mechanism requires that the car be unlocked with the card before it will start. Guy explains this to Pat.

7:50PM: Pat places another call to zipcar to figure out what to do next. While he does this, Guy returns to Pinky Shrimp to retrieve their food.

8:00PM: Guy arrives back at the car with shrimp and crabcakes. Pat has been informed that the only way to get back to New York is to tow the car, since apparently there’s something wrong with the zipcard locking system. Distance to New York: 115 miles. A last-ditch attempt to salvage the situation by transferring the reservation to Guy’s name fails. Some logistical discussions between Ray, Ray’s dispatcher, Zipcar, and some agency named Road America ensue. All apparently agree that towing the car is the only option we have left. During this, Guy eats a dozen fried shrimp and feels much better.

8:20PM: The car is loaded onto the tow truck, and Guy and Pat jump into the truck cab. They are on the way home.

8:30PM: Ray, who had not been expecting to drive to 115 miles to Manhattan and back, decides to stop at his house for water. Pat and Guy take the opportunity to take stupid pictures of the car atop the tow truck.

8:45-11:00PM: Pat and Guy ride all the way back to the garage at 1090 Amsterdam Avenue where they picked up the car. Ray does not stop talking for a moment, regaling them with tales of his previous jobs, one of which he describes as a “shit engineer”, having something to do with cleaning effluent from sewer pipes. Ray shares his opinions on popular culture, television, news, coffee, and the economy. The trip passes quickly.

11:20PM: Pat and Guy and Ray arrive back at the garage. Ray calls the attendant to explain the situation. The attendant, clearly confused, simply replies, “OK, come in”, and rolls up the gate, not understanding that a full-size tow truck will not fit into the garage. Pat and Guy are nervous that attempting to explain to the attendant the state of the zipcar will become their problem.

11:20:30PM: The garage attendant opens the door to the front office, looks nervously out, then closes it again. Pat and Guy’s nervousness increases.

11:21PM: Pat and Guy retrieve their belongings from the car, and Ray tells them that he’ll handle the garage attendant. Relieved, Pat and Guy shake hands with Ray and run away before they can cause any more trouble.

11:40PM: Pat and Guy finish the remaining four New Jersey Lagers in the safety and comfort of Pat’s living room.

On Biking in New York

June 30th, 2009 § 1 comment § permalink

When I was about seven years old, I took the National Cycling Proficiency Course. It was a six-week program which taught you how to ride your bike safely on the road, offered through my primary school. On the third or fourth week, once we had demonstrated that we could stop, start, and turn left and right around cones arranged in the playground, the instructors led us out in groups of two or three onto the road to let us practice hand signals and turning on a real street. Our route took us in a short loop around the school, which involved turning right across oncoming traffic (remember, this was the UK) from the moderately-busy street that ran through the village. Of course, this involves stopping toward the center of the road and waiting for a gap in traffic big enough to make the turn safely. When it came to be my turn, I dutifully stopped to make the appointed right turn, right hand stuck out to indicate my action. As I was waiting there, a fire engine with lights and sirens blazing crested the hill just in front of me, and came tearing by at full tilt, inches from my outstretched hand. Somehow I managed to pull myself together enough to make the turn before I wilted into a quivering mass on the curb.

At the conclusion of the course, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents award me a handsome enamel pin and an official-looking certificate which would entitle me, should I choose, to ride my bicycle to school and back.

Similar experiences are to be had daily, I’ve found, on the streets of Manhattan. Except nobody gives you a pin for your troubles. With much gratitude to Pat, I’ve recently acquired a used but quite-functional mountain bike, and I’ve been commuting to work on it for about a month now. Though I’m far from a seasoned veteran at New York bike commuting, here are a few thoughts for anyone who’s thinking about giving it a shot:

1) Wear a bloody helmet, and install some flashy lights for the evenings.

Even if you’re only riding on bike paths or bike lanes. In my relatively short time riding around the city I’ve had some close calls and seen even closer ones. Sure, you get helmet hair, but it’s better than the alternative. Also, nobody can see you in the dark unless you have lights. Install some; I found some on eBay for $7. This should be intuitive.

2) Assume all other road users are on a mission to knock you off your bike, and act accordingly.

This includes police cars, buses, little old ladies crossing the street, parents pushing strollers, and other bicyclists. For some reason, nobody thinks to look for a bicycle at a crosswalk, when changing lanes, making a turn, et cetera. Assume you can’t be seen, or if you have, assume the driver/pedestrian/hipster-in-crosswalk doesn’t care. Look behind you, on both sides, before changing lanes. Ring your bell, shout, scream, and make a fuss if someone’s about to pull out or walk in front of you. Pull over if you have to. Be ready to stop quickly at all times. And for god’s sake don’t listen to your iPod on your bike.

3) Obey traffic laws

This dovetails nicely into #2. It makes you a much harder target to hit, and should you be obeying traffic laws, feel free to occupy the moral high ground when other road users attempt to kill you. Or yell, swear and/or flash dirty looks at other said road user. Your choice. Oh, and don’t wuss out and ride on the sidewalk. It’s illegal, and signifantly more dangerous given the amount of pedestrians milling about (who, don’t forget, are out to kill you).

4) Don’t get doored

I refer you again to #2. The danger from drivers does not end when the driver has taken the keys from the ignition. In fact, the oblivious driver is still unlikely to check for oncoming bicycles when he opens his car door into the bike lane. Give parked cars at least four feet lest you find out what it’s like to wear a car door internally. Be particularly wary of stopped taxis, as their passengers don’t even have to pay for the door if you break it, and don’t even have a mirror to look into before stepping out.

5) Bring a change of clothes to work

Or at least a clean shirt. Your colleagues will thank you.

6) Rock the 1980s pant-leg-rolled up look

It keeps your pant leg out of your bike chain. This will not only keep your trousers clean, it will prevent the dangerous scenario of pulling your chain off the chainwheel mid-ride because your errant pant leg got snarled up in it. You could also find a pant clip if you’re that sort of person. Or wear shorts. But if you wear bike shorts to work, please don’t come to my office. I don’t need to see that.

7) Buy a decent lock

I suggest a beefy chain and/or a beefy U-Lock. The Kryptonite brand seems to the the gold standard. An $80 lock is much cheaper than a new bike. If you have quick-release components, lock them up or take them with you. There are pages and pages on locking technique. For an good, yet irreverent video on the topic, I suggest this one by Streetsblog.

8) Enjoy yourself

I’ve found that commuting by bike makes the 30 minutes between home and work something other than dead time where I zone out and sip coffee on the train. I like that sometimes, but I always feel much more ready to actually do work when I arrive by bike. If you’re finding yourself exhausted and sweaty when you arrive, slow down. Take in the view. What’s the rush?

On Twitter.

May 10th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink

Last Friday, Alex and I went to the keynote speech and alumni reception of “Blowing up the Brand“, a conference put on by our old department at NYU, partially to say hello to some old professors and bum a few free drinks from the University. The keynote, given by Rob Walker of The New York Times Magazine‘s “Consumed” column, focused on how one can, and whether one should, think of oneself as a brand. The genesis of Mr. Walker’s remarks was a question posed to him at a conference some months ago, wherein he suggested, off-handedly, that one ought to think of oneself as a brand in order to market oneself in–I think–the employment marketplace. His speech delved into the consequences of this for personal life and, to some degree, civil society in general.

However, what struck me most about the talk, was how often–especially during Q&A–the topic turned to Twitter, the social network and online communication tool du jour. Questions went something like “What do you think of x marketing campaign on Twitter?” “Can you think of any company using Twitter effectively?” “Marketing consultants say you have to be on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, is this true?”

The questions, and their answers, indicated a greater truth than the effectiveness of any given usage of Twitter: Nobody knows how to use Twitter. Absolutely nobody. Sure, there might be interesting individual usages of Twitter that integrate with a billboard in Times Square, or through which customer service representatives respond to complaints. But nobody has a very good idea of how one ought to use this new tool. It got me wondering: what’s different about Twitter when compared with the last big online hit, say, Facebook. My thoughts go something like this:

Twitter is searchable

This is a pretty big deal. Facebook is only searchable insofar as individual users allow you to search their names or selected metadata. Twitter is full-text indexed for all its users’ content (except those users who have closed their updates to the world). What’s more, it’s not natively categorized. Sure, there are a few attempts to get users to include metadata in their posts, like hashtags, but when posts are only 160 characters long, there’s not much space for anything other than the most distilled content you can cram into one. Twitter does make arbitrary-text searching easy and fast, though, so a given company can easy find the latest instances of “Comcast” or “Skittles”, and use that data in some other application.

Twitter is conversational

Twitter engenders public discourse in 160-byte chunks. Find a post you agree with/disagree with/love/want to roundly excoriate? Reply @to_the_user and you can, instantly, in public. The only thing is that there are no conversation threads, like on a message board, no “Reply All” as in email, just your own voice added to the multitude. Combined with searching, this is a new way to get an idea of the general zeitgeist on a particular topic.

Twitter encourages integration

Twitter feeds and searches can be exported in XML and integrated into any application you like, from the simple (witness the twitter feed on this page), to the complicated (a billboard in Times Square that responds to tweets). Facebook and MySpace don’t allow for such fast data export and re-use over their global populations of users.

Yet, with all that, there is no specific, canonical usage of Twitter. Twitter is somewhat unique in that it is simply a tool for moving data around and searching and slicing it in interesting ways, then shipping it off to be used elsewhere. On the small, user-scale, that could be a few friends talking about where they’re going for drinks via text message. On a global scale, it could be used to pin down a global conversation about a product, service, company, politician, and so on. There are no rules, just a loose framework. Every company with a marketing budget is, apparently, trying to figure out how to use the tool to its best effect, but, to date, don’t seem to have come up with a consensus. This shouldn’t be surprising; it’s like asking “how do I use the Postal Service?” You use it however it’s useful–do you want to send a package, a letter, do direct mail, register with the Selective Service, or contact a pen pal? The postal service does all of that. Twitter is just a mechanism for moving data — it can be used as effectively as one wishes. The sooner marketing consultants realize this, the better.

Facebook and Live Search

October 7th, 2008 § 5 comments § permalink

Today, Facebook unveiled a new feature: built-in Live Search. According to a recent post to the Facebook Blog, “This is the first step in giving you the ability to find content from across the web while using Facebook”. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Microsoft made a $240 million investment in Facebook last October.

I think this is the wrong direction for Facebook, for three reasons:

First, the Facebook brand has nothing to do with searching the Web. Attempting to integrate social-networking and a wider Web search in the same site will serve only to dilute the Facebook brand. In short, nobody goes to facebook.com to search the World Wide Web. They go to Facebook to find out what their friends (and friends of friends) are doing, send a quick message, and tell their friends what they’re doing, and all the classic social-network activities. Running a comprehensive web search? No way. The above-mentioned blog post suggests that the new integrated Live search will allow users to find information about what friends are doing on-the-fly. Unfortunately, most users already have a search bar built into their browser to do that, and it probably points to Google. I know I’ve got my cmd+T, tab routine down quite nicely at this point to open a new tab and perform a search.

As much as convergence is supposed to be the new face of the Internet, Facebook should be very, very careful about extending their product beyond their area of expertise by bolting on a third-party’s application. Facebook’s very good at communicating the nitty-gritty details of my friends’ lives, but I have no idea about how good it is at searching the Internet–I’ve already got a place for that, and its proven itself to be pretty excellent at it.

Second, this feels like it’s bringing Facebook a little closer to the portal territory of web search in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Check out a page from Yahoo from archive.org from a random date in 2001:

Yahoo in 2001

Yahoo in 2001

What does this website actually do? Notice that the ‘search’ functionality is lost amid the general chatter of the site. It’s apparently a directory, it’s my email, it’s my Personals Ads, it’s my Bill Paying, it’s…well, nothing, actually, because I never used any of those features, probably because I couldn’t find any of them. To Facebook’s credit, it gracefully integrates the Live search function behind the same search box that one uses to search for a person on the social network, adding a drop-down box that (correctly) defaults to searching only Facebook. But here’s the problem: Facebook’s not a search engine. It’s a social network that’s searchable, and should be extremely careful of attempting to integrate too many services into a single interface. That’s been tried, and it didn’t work.

Third, this is almost certainly an attempt by Microsoft to boost its share in the search market, which is currently hovering at around 3% by piggybacking on Facebook’s rising-star status, using its investment as leverage. The problem is that the web search in the Facebook user interface is almost entirely unbranded, so the user has no idea who’s providing the search results. I don’t think this provides much benefit to Microsoft, as users are unlikely to gain brand loyalty to Live if they don’t know where their search is going, and at worst may feel duped that their search isn’t being performed by Facebook if they decide to look under the hood.

I’ve been on Facebook for a long time; more or less since it was first opened to users at NYU which was shortly after it expanded beyond its initial confines of Harvard. If it goes public, I’ll be first in line to buy stock. But I think the Facebook team should be extremely careful about trying to score points with its (admittedly massive) investor by trying to bolt its flailing search engine onto its otherwise excellent social network.