Google Maps traffic… it needs work.

I always wondered how Google Maps knew traffic conditions. Today, there’s a blog post where they explain it a bit better.

That ain't on an iPhone...
That ain't on an iPhone...

Basically, they simply have all the phones running Google Maps with GPS send back data as to a) where they are and b) how fast they’re moving. Both of which GPS gives you more or less by default.

It’s a clever idea, and I like it, but it fails in a couple of major ways, IMO.

Firstly, when I use Google Maps on my phone, I tend to not leave it open. Google Maps is fine, but it’s not a very good navigation system. It’s just a map. A real navigation app is worlds better. I recently got Navigon Mobile Navigator on the new iPhone, and it’s pretty slick. Thinking about a dashboard mount for it now, actually.

Secondly, this system relies on a lot of people having Google Maps open and running and sending back data. If nobody with Google Maps running has been on your street recently, you get no information.

What Google really needs to do is to open it up as an API. Let other navigation system manufacturers both send and receive traffic data from the Google Maps system. It doesn’t have to be complex.

Any good navigation app knows your location and speed, so a simple way to send that info could be made easily enough. The problem, of course, is allowing third parties to use the data.

Google Maps works in layers of images, which is one of its major shortcomings, IMO. The street views are images. The terrain are images. Just big sets of tiles that get displayed next to each other. And I’m almost certain that this traffic thing is just another set of images they’re generating or updating. For navigation providers that use 3d views and such, they don’t need that stuff in the form of images, they need it in the form of data. What streets are busy? How can that information be used to improve the navigation? Etc.

Google is generally pretty good at opening up their APIs to third parties. However, they’re generally not good at providing data in different forms. Most of their APIs are “this is what we use, if you need something else we don’t have it” sort of thing. Hopefully, the Google Maps team will see the light here and realize that to get good data, you have to give good data, and start pushing in that direction. Because open traffic data would be pretty cool for everybody.

WordPress 2.7 Comments Enhancements

This post has been moved here: http://ottopress.com/2008/wordpress-2-7-comments-enhancements/

WordPress 2.7 includes a lot of new enhancements, but one of the big ones is the new comment functionality. Comments can be threaded, paged, etc. This is all built in, but unfortunately, your theme must support it. So, for theme authors, I’d suggest getting to work on making your themes compatible right away.

Read on if you’re a theme author…

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New WordPress 2.7 Feature – Plugin Installation

(This post is geared more towards PHP authors and fans of WordPress, so if you’re not into that sort of thing, why not go look at some pictures of cats instead?)

So, I upgraded to the latest 2.7-bleeding edge version of WordPress on my blog today, and discovered a new feature that I had missed in my earlier readings. There was a new menu item on the Plugins menu:

New Menu Item
New Menu Item - Install Plugins!

Yes, it appears that WordPress now has plugin installation built into it. Similar to the Plugin Upgrade feature introduced in 2.5, 2.7 will be able to download and install plugins directly from WordPress.org’s plugin directory.

Naturally, I had to try this out, so read on if you want to see what it looks like…

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Minor highlights of the life of Otto…

Let’s see, haven’t posted here in a while… what to say…

Lorelle invited me to make some guest posts this month on her blog. I wrote a short little technical ditty about how to integrate Microformats and WordPress Themes. If you’re into WordPress, or CMS’s in general, it’s worth a look. Since I use this site as a sort of test bed, I might also mention that it’s currently showing nine, count ’em, nine different microformats. And a few other things that aren’t microformats as well.

Went to the Art on Tap beer festival this last weekend. Had a hell of a good time, but was rather disappointed in the food selection. Also, it was one of the only beer festivals I’ve ever seen where all the beer was poured out of bottles. The exception was the homebrews poured by The Bluff City Brewers, which were all really good. I recall getting back to the Saucer, I don’t quite recall going home. So clearly, I had a good time. Paul posted some shots of the fest, some of which include yours truly.

The Rapscallions won at Trivia tonight, amazingly enough. Pete has clearly been making the questions harder, as we only scored 79 out of a possible 160-something. Still, that was enough for a tie, and we won the tie-breaker. $50 in the pot for the next party!

I received an invitation to the wedding of Chris, a friend of mine currently living in Atlanta. I kinda wonder about it, the wedding reception is at a beach resort in Alabama, but it’s in November. Anybody know what the weather is like at Gulf Shores in November?

Along with the invite, I received a summons from Zach for the Bachelor Party in October. Unfortunately, I’m told that it’s the same day as the Great Decatur Beer Tasting Festival. That’s just poor planning, man. Although, a beer tasting in the afternoon, followed by a Bachelor Party all evening… I’m not sure I’m capable of that anymore. I’m not as young as I used to be. Still, it’s doable, and damnit, I think I’m going to have to try. And then this weekend, I have the Cooper-Young festival to cope with. Along with a keg party a block away from the festivities.

Oh yeah, and Raiford’s is reopening, with Raiford back at the turntables. Now that I live about 2 blocks away from that point, I can see many 40’s in my future.

So, the fall is looking busy.

Virtual Bartender

Paul found a thing called MyFountain on somebody’s website. It’s basically an automated bartender.

Now, I’ve seen these before, but mostly as do-it-yourself type projects. The basic idea is that you get a bunch of liqour and beer and such, hook it up to a bunch of pumps and tubes, and hook those to a computer to portion each one out properly. Simple enough. The trick, of course, is programming the computer properly. Running pumps and such is no big deal.

This MyFountain thing takes it to a whole other level. The cheap version (which is still $2500 or so) is a basic bartender. It can go online to get new recipes and such, and it knows what you have in the fridge so it can tell you what you’re capable of making. The advanced version is basically geared towards managing an entire bar, in that it networks with multiple units, can estimate drinking patterns and call headquarters to schedule deliveries of more beverages automatically, etc, etc. Very clever indeed.

Still, I think it would be a fun project to build my own unit. I’ll need a mini fridge or freezer of some design to hold the beverages, but I’ll have to be willing to cut holes in the thing for the necessary tubes to pass through. So if anybody knows of a fridge/freezer design suitable for such a project, capable of holding, say, 6-10 bottles of liquor and possibly 1 or 2 mini kegs, let me know.

Fun with a Roomba

So I purchased a Roomba at the Woot off the other day. After I bought the condo, a good friend of mine (who also lives here) mentioned the device, but didn’t know the name. Being the consummate geek that I am, I knew he was talking about the Roomba, and furthermore knew that they had several flavors of it now. And the fact of the matter is that he was right, it seems perfectly suited for this place. So when I saw one at the Woot off for only $120 (+$5 shipping), it seemed like a good idea. In fact, I think it turned out to be one of the best bargains ever.

The one I got is a “Discovery 4296” which is nothing more than a word with a number, really. The thing is basically an automatic sweeper. With hardwood or low carpets/rugs (not shag) it’s clearly perfect. Basically it sweeps the floor with rotating brushes and sweeps the crap into a bin, whereupon you dump it. It’s particularly good with hair and other small debris, like the weird pebbles that keep falling out of my ceiling. It also does a decent job of dust in general, although it tends to throw it about a bit. But it seems to get it after a few passes.

One thing I do not like is the bin. It’s too small, and it’s positioned wrong. The upshot of this is that you have to use it every other day, and you have to be *extremely* careful when emptying it. The first time I emptied it, I dumped a large amount of crap onto the floor. Takes some practice, so expect it.

Naturally, being a geek, I’m interested in the algorithms involved. It has a few. They probably have technical names, but here’s the lowdown:
1. Roaming – It roams off in some random direction for a long distance. This is the primary way that it cleans the center of rooms. However, when you consider it, the center areas of rooms don’t tend to be the dirty ones.. It’s the edges that build up the mess. So it has…
2. Edge finding – I think the manual calls this wall roaming. It tends to do this a lot, however I’ve seen it walking the edge of my rug as well. Which is actually a good thing, as those edges tend to pick up debris too. Finally, it has:
3. Spot cleaning – This is an interesting mode. You can force it by placing it somewhere and hitting the “spot” button, but in normal “clean” mode, it will wander around and occasionally switch into this mode. A blue light labeled “dirt detector” comes on, and it runs around in circles for a while, eventually heading off in some random direction.

Few other things:
– Home base – If you get the model with the home base charger, then after it’s satisfied with the area or low enough on battery, it will go home and dock for charging. This can be forced as well with the remote (if you have one). Watching it dock is a lot of fun for your average geek, because the way it does it is clearly via two infrared beams on either side of the dock. It hits them, and turns away from them, back and forth, hunting, until it finds the home point. Very clever.
– Virtual Walls – These are similar, just infrared transmitters (each takes 2 D-cell batteries!) that shoot out a beam which cause the thing to act like it hit a wall and turn. It will follow the beam just like it follows walls. The beams are a bit wide, so put them back a bit inside doorways and such.

The primary way it knows about things is hitting them. The whole front piece, about 140-150 degrees or so, is a movable bump mechanism. When it hits something, this pushes in and the thing stops and turns around some seemingly random amount, or just a bit in edge finding mode. It also appears to be able to sense distance from any wall, because in edge finding, it will follow a wall very precisely without touching it at all, which is weird, because I can’t find any obvious sensors there.

As far as cleaning goes, the one I got is basically a sweeper/vacuum. Works great on hardwood, decent on low cut rug/carpet, probably would not work on shag or similar. The gist of it is that it has a side sweeper to pull in things, a front sweeper to push things up, a rotor brush to pull things in, and a ramp to force things into the bin. There’s also a spinning mechanism inside which might produce some very minor vacuum effect, to get things “over the hump” of the bin and keep dust inside. The bin is on the back, and it sucks. Pick the thing upright before removing the bin. You’ll see the method after 1 spill, trust me.

The docking station does not work particularly well on hardwood floors. It slides, and the Roomba drags it around while trying to disengage. Put it on rug or carpet. I ended up putting it on some carpet samples underneath my bar area. Speaking of which, the dock *MUST* be in an area where it has a pretty good view of the room. Otherwise the Roomba will not find it. So forget a closet or something, it must be in the main area, somewhere.

The cat is completely freaked out by the thing, but the Roomba does not appear to mind his presence. :D

It’s loud. Not as loud as an actual vacuum cleaner, but the Roomba takes longer. However, given that mine has a scheduling feature, I can set it to work when I’m not here. Haven’t tried that yet, might try it later this week. The scheduler is cool, built into the remote. You program the times, and then send the schedule to the Roomba and to the virtual wall units. It runs for that time and the wall units turn on at the same moment. Very conservative on battery power that way.

One thing that bugs me is that the remote doesn’t offer any easy way to really remote control the thing. You can send it commands, but they’re really more like suggestions as far as I can tell. Which is frankly too much work. It covered my living room and kitchen by itself twice before running out of power, and since I didn’t follow the charging directions, it didn’t find home base when it did so. Follow the damn directions, charge it for 16 hours before the first use. Trust me on this one.

Hacking: There are myriad abilities to hack the thing. It has a serial port, and can accept commands to move around and such, as well as provide feedback of all the sensors on it. Worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m considering building a bluetooth serial link to it and hacking it a bit. With some minor effort (okay, maybe not so minor), I could control the thing and make it work much better for my specific space. Given that the unit’s more or less “random” method works pretty well, it does seem to take a while to accomplish anything. I mean, it works, but seems inefficient. I could improve that. I browsed through the documentation on irobot.com while it was working, and it’s pretty comprehensive. Worth a look if you’re the hackish type.

All in all, I’d say it’s worth the $125. Maybe $170. But not the default $220 price. Find the bargains on it, stick with those. Amazon has the remanufactured ones on the cheap (this is the same one I got). And if you’re all hardwood with no rugs/carpets, look for the one that actually mops instead of just sweeps and vacuums.

Fully Integrating Google Apps for your Domain

Having two email accounts can be a pain. I’ve been using my GMail account for a long time, but I like the niceness of my ottodestruct.com domain better. It’s cleaner, overall. A bit more professional as well.

I also use Firefox with the Google Toolbar. One of the nice things about it is the little GMail icon that checks your GMail every 10 minutes or so, and shows if you have new messages. It also lets you search your email right from the toolbar. Very handy.

However, I also use Google Apps for your Domain for my email. This basically makes all my ottodestruct.com email go through Google and their GMail interface. The Google Toolbar doesn’t work too well with that.

So I got bored and fixed all that. How to do it can be found after the jump…

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