Grant McWilliams

Tech

Tech

Tripping for Transit

My mother travels across four transit systems to go from her house to mine and in an effort to improve her quality of life we took a day trip to try out some new alternatives. Her trip usually ends up including getting on 5 buses in 5 cities and taking 4 hours. I started thinking about a way to make this trip easier and possibly faster and that usually means using rail. Buses are good for wandering through neighborhoods picking up people who want to go to the mall but not so good at carrying large numbers of people from one city to another. The Seattle area has been very weak in the mass transit area for many years. I remember watching a movie that took place in the 70s where the main characters job was to solve the transit issues in Seattle – in the 1970s! Since then not much has been done.

If you have tried riding the bus in your area you've probably become very frustrated with the bus schedules. Most buses are not consistent and run more often at one time of day then the other times making it hard to remember when to catch it. If you want some perspective just check out ITA's 603 bus that goes from Olympia to Tacoma. It happens to be the only bus that spans Fort Lewis so if you live on one side of Fort Lewis and have to get to the other side you're at complete mercy of the 603 bus schedule. This schedule makes all other buses look sane. Sometimes it stops in Lacey, sometimes it stops at the Tacoma Dome. It NEVER does both (except for that one time in the morning). It has 12 stops and it never stops at more than 7, it all depends on when you ride it which stops it stops at. It's insane, it really is.

So this brings me to Tacoma. From Tacoma to the North Seattle area things get better. A little after 4 in the afternoon there is a Sounder heavy rail train that goes from Tacoma to Seattle. Fifteen minutes after it arrives (98.8% on time) another Sounder heavy rail train leaves for Everett. This is the only time in the day that this happens. The only time you can go all the way through the other way is to leave Everett at 5:45 am and you only have a 6 minute layover in Seattle. If you miss that second train you're there for 7 hrs or continuing on the bus. To see if this was a viable way to get from Tacoma to Mukilteo we set out on a little journey riding both the rail systems in the region that we've not yet ridden – the Sounder and Tacoma Link.

 

My trip to Tacoma was as you would expect – my bus came 5 minutes early and had I not been trying to cross the street in the middle of the rain with a rolling bag and a bright red umbrella the driver wouldn't have stopped and I would have missed all my connections. He drove like a crazy person to the Lynnwood transit station and got there 10 minutes before scheduled arrival. This means all of those people trying to catch that bus are still standing out in the rain. Buses can't be early! I was supposed to have a 10 minute layover but an ST511 commuter bus pulled up as I arrived and I boarded and it pulled away. So either it was 20 minutes early or 10 minutes late. I'm not sure but I can tell you that it wasn't on time either. Sound Transit buses have an 88% on-time record. The 511 commuter at 8 in the morning was about half full and about as comfortable as a bus can be. In Seattle I walked about 4 blocks and stood under an overhang for the ST 594 which then almost empty took me to Tacoma Dome station. Total transit time – 2 hr 38 minutes. Total cost - $3.

The Tacoma Dome station looks massive on the map but in reality it's just a large parking garage for the Tacoma Dome with Pierce Transit, Intercity Transit, Sound Transit and Greyhound bus stops one side and a Tacoma Link Light Rail stop on the south side between the parking garage and the Freighthouse Square (more later). On the opposite side of the Freighthouse Square the Sounder heavy rail commuter train boards. To make things complete about a block down the street is the Amtrak station. They've done a pretty good job of having one central location for everything. It would be nice if the Amtrak station was a bit closer though just so people don't have to ask as you won't see it just by looking around.

My next leg was to board the Tacoma Link light rail for the grand fee of nothing. Yes it's free which I was to find out later was liberating. According to Sound Transit it costs about $3 a person to run Tacoma Link so they're losing $3 a rider. This compares favorably with the Sound Transit buses which cost $7 a person to run and they charge $2.50 resulting in a $4.50 loss. The interesting thing is they're losing $3 per rider all the while having a Sound Transit driver, attendent and Security person on board. How cheap would it be to run if there was only a driver? The Tacoma Link reminds me a great deal of Portland's MAX light rail as it runs in the street and the cars even feel familiar. I was really critical of Tacoma Link because it seemingly doesn't go anywhere and it's basically a street car that can get stuck in traffic. I'd compared it to the SLUT in downtown Seattle which also gets stuck in traffic and doesn't go anywhere (South Lake Union?). However, upon riding it I realized it goes everywhere you would want to go in Tacoma (sorry Tacoma), does so every 10 minutes, is comfortable and stress free. And it beats the buses because it gets priority it seems. The free aspect is more than just saving money. It means that you can step out of any shop, hop the Light Rail and get off at any other shop without thinking about it. They also come often enough that you don't have to think about it. There's a sort of freedom here that I like a lot.

My initial ride on the Tacoma Link took me to the Theater district to pick up my mother and daughter who'd ridden the dreadful 603 bus across the great Fort Lewis divide. For the next 4 hrs we wandered Tacoma, the Theater district, it's many antique shops, took pictures of various live performing theaters, old buildings etc... We visited the old Union Station which is now a Federal Court House, ate cupcakes at Hello Cupcake, walked the bridge of glass and generally had a great time. Freighthouse Square at the Tacoma Dome station is a pretty decent experience as well. There are many local shops housing art, crafts and even legos. There are also many vacant stores that I think in time would be filled considering the Freighthouse Square's location. Freighthouse Square also has a small food court that reminds me of Crossroads Mall in Bellevue. We ate Indian for $7 a plate which was surprisingly much better than the real Indian restaurants in Lynnwood (which to be honest is not a high bar).

Getting the Sounder back to Seattle was a very easy task. Inside Freighthouse Square there is an area where you can swipe your ORCA card if you have one or buy a ticket at in the wall kiosks. Boarding is as easy as swiping the card and walking on the train. These trains are Bombardier double decker cars that lean into the turns much like a French high speed TGV car. The Sounder is not a high speed train in the same regard as the 200 mph TGV but it could if the tracks were solid and straight enough achieve 110 mph if allowed. Currently all trains in America are limited to 79 mph because of a lack of automatic safety stop functionality. The seats in the Sounder aren't particularly comfortable nor are they large (but the aisle is huge) but they still trump the bus because you can get up and move around if you wish. Leg room is better, some groups of seats have a table between them and supposedly there's free wifi (although I couldn't get it to work). There were about 4 stops between Tacoma and Seattle including Puyallup, Auburn and Tukwila. I looked up the Tukwila stop and found it to be about a 1 mile walk to the Southcenter Mall which is closer than you'll get on the Central Link Light Rail.

We arrived at Seattle's historic King Street station and had to tap our ORCA a second time to let it know we'd ended our journey. Total cost for me was $4.75. We had 15 minutes or so to tap our ORCA cards again to get on the northbound Seattle to Everett train. The Tacoma to Seattle train was a great experience. It covered decent amount of ground in the one hour it took to get to Seattle. The train outran the cars part of the time and barely took longer than driving. Driving is only faster because the route is more direct. There are plans to improve this line with an additional 4 trains per day and an extension to Lakewood Transit Center which would be an improvement. I wish for my own selfish reasons that at least 2 of those 4 trains are during reverse commute times so I can go to Tacoma in the morning and return in the evening.

The Northbound journey from Seattle to Everett was a bit of a mixed bag. In relation to the Tacoma – Seattle link it's slow and doesn't really stop at enough places. It's a pretty ride and still more comfortable than taking the bus but there's only 4 trips a day (as opposed to the current 9 to Tacoma which will increase to 12) and they're not really scheduled very well because they leave from Everett *very early in the morning. Return trains aren't bad. To help matters Sound Transit has partnered with Amtrak to allow passengers to go into Seattle on the two Cascades trains at 10am and then again late at night. Problem is this is only for monthly pass holders so people like me that only ride Sound Transit on occasion can't take the Amtrak trains and also they don't stop at Mukilteo making them again not very useful to me. I think the north Sounder could be improved a bit by adding a couple of stations and more trains. Both of these things are in the works but this track is very busy so there's not much else they can do. They really need to run rails down the middle of I-5 and fly the Sounder down them. I think the 45 minute trip from Everett to Seattle would be halved. That's just fantasy though. It takes Seattle years just to run trains on tracks that already exist. Another blunder by people who make transit decisions that don't ride transit is to put the parking lot between the Sounder platform in Mukilteo and the Ferry terminal. I'm sure the Sound Transit engineers didn't think much of it but people who are transferring between buses, ferries and rail have to walk between them. By putting the platform on the far end of the parking lot people need to walk across the parking lot to make the transfer adding valuable minutes onto their transfer. The reason I see this as important is because we missed our Community Transit bus. We got as far as pounding on the sides of the bus as it was pulling away. The connection time is 13 minutes if the train is on time. I've already said they have about a 99% on-time record but ours was 3 minutes late which made us miss our bus. The alternative was to catch an Everett Transit bus to Rucker and then the Swift back to Lynnwood and our local bus home adding 40 minutes to our journey. The other other solution was to wait for the next Community Transit bus which wasn't coming for another hour.

Outside of the Community Transit being incompetent (who pulls away while people are pounding on your bus?) the experiment was enlightening and positive. My suggestions to Sound Transit follow.

  1. Add more trains to the Seattle to Everett line.

  2. Add more stops to the Seattle to Everett line.

  3. Move the platform to the near side of the parking lot in Mukilteo

  4. Add trains to the schedule to allow people to travel through Seattle both directions, not just to it.

  5. Add more trains to the Seattle to Tacoma line – again see number 4.

  6. Lengthen the Seattle to Tacoma line to Lacey

Numbers 1, 2 and 4 they're working on. Number 3 will probably never happen because moving a platform to save 2 minutes doesn't make sense to someone  making decisions who doesn't have to make that transfer. An alternative would be to adjust the schedule so it arrives a 5 minutes earlier. This would relieve the stress for both bus and ferry. Sound Transit is extending the Tacoma line to Lakewood which is a start. What we really need is an alternative way to get across the Fort Lewis divide thus my recommendations to go to Lacey. With a feeder bus to Olympia I think we'd be in good shape.

Conclusion:

If you live in Tacoma or Everett use the Sounder, it's a much better experience than riding the bus. If you want to go from Tacoma to Everett that 4:25 train works really well. If you want to go back to Tacoma you're out of luck so take the bus. This whole trip was fun in that we got to try out some new forms of transportation, got to run around Tacoma and get to know it better and we're planning a future trip where we to Tacoma to see the Glass Museum, the Washington State history museum and the Tacoma Art Museum. They have a deal on Wednesdays where you get access to all three museums for $22. Add that to lunch and the Sounder trip and you're looking at $40 for a day of fun and culture.

As for satisfying my original objective I realized that including the Sounder in my mother's journey to my house isn't any faster but the experience is a great deal nicer. The would cost her about $2 more but she says that it's worth it.

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China build the worlds largest metro in 5 years

I spend enough time on Seattle Transit blogs yammering on about transit so I decided I should probably start posting something in my own transit blog. Since a blog cannot be a blog without a log.

Part of my frustration with local transit (local as in the U.S.) is that it takes forever to do anything. In the amount of time that it will take the U.S. to build it's first real high speed rail Mexico will be done with theirs. Mexico? We're competing against Mexico and losing. The reason is that Mexico decides to do something and then does it. Here in the land of the free we decide to do something then sit in commitree meetings for the next 20 years trying to address every single person's objections. The last time we had any guts we built an amazing freeway system - that was 50 years ago.

China is another one. Yes I understand the issues with human rights and all of that but we're talking about transit. in 2005 China decided to build a metro system in Shanghai. Now they have the largest metro system in the world having just passed London. By 2020 they plan on adding extensions to it that by themselves equal the size of the New York City subway!

There's argument over how the size of metro systems are measured but no matter as this is a very large and they've done it in record time.

What keeps us from doing this? We have to take into consideration everything before pushing one shovel into the ground. How much will it cost? How much noise will it make? How will it effect the environment?  These projects are expensive but so are the alternatives. How much co2 is dumped into the air now and how much wear and tear is put on the highways in addition to the cost of expanding/widening them? How much longer would our cars last if we had a faster, more reliable way of getting to work? I'd like to see a REAL cost analysis on transportation. We have had transit projects shelved because of environmental impact. Environmental Impact of million sof drivers driving to work every day? According to the U.S. Census Bureau 77.3% of all commuters drive to work and are alone in the car. What's the environmental impact of building cars that wear out in 7 years from high mileage, producing trillions of gallons of gas a year, paving roads, repaving roads and repairing roads in addition to the impact of exhaust being dumped into the atmosphere? I'd like to see these numbers but I think that digging a trench in the ground and filling it with tracks is less than the above mentioned items. Not to mention that Paris, London and Budapest are still using their 100 year old metro systems. Cost? Spread it over the next century.

There will be more posts on China, they're also in the process of building the largest high speed rail network in the world.

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I've always wanted to do tech support calls (but would get fired).

I was digging through an old forum (OK I admit it, I googled myself!) and found a funny comic. I have always wondered how long I'd last on level 1 tech support - probably not long.

 

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Signs of the times

Sometimes if you know a few things about programming you can see mistakes other programmers have made. You could probably even find them in the code if you had it for review. A great example is of an email I got today from someone who supposedly saw me on a website. I'd assume this website was a dating site had the variable not been empty when the email went out.

Hello , I came across your profie in () and I will like us to have a good Relationship and to know much better .my name is Ann, i am single and never marriage.I will wait for your reply . you can contact me at this my email address (fakeemailinserted@live.com) so that i can send you my picture and more about myself. waiting to hear from you . PLEASE CONTACT ME DIRECTLY WITH THIS EMAIL (fakeemailinserted@live.com)

It looks like I must have been hanging out on the site called () or perhaps I'm supposed to insert something in there depending on my own online dating habits. Or perhaps the programmer isn't parsing his junk properly or maybe they got my name from some data mining source and there wasn't anything in the dating site: field so it came up blank. Interestingly the parenthesis were included in the email.  In the spirit of this post I was going to include a picture of a shirt I once bought that had a very 1950s Hollywood TV looking blond woman with a tear in her eye and the caption said "I can't believe I didn't declare my variables". Funny but the t-shirt is now gone and apparently any trace of the design on the Internet has gone missing as well.

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iphone users get laid more

We all know that Android is a cooler geek OS than iphoneOS and let's not even mention Windows CE which is plain crap. However, the question may come up with who's getting the ladies - iphone users or Android users? Maybe a robot doesn't come to mind when women think of romance and love but still. Recently the popular online dating site OKCupid did the thing they're most famous for - analyze data and find patterns. The following picture is a result of that research.

It appears that mindless drones get laid more than businessmen or tech savvy geeks. Who knew?

I also find it interesting that 20% more women using iphones are getting laid then men who use iphones. Who are they waking up next to then I might ask? I'm not saying anything about iphone users but the statistics don't lie - they might be stuck on one cellular network but they appear to be fairly open with other choices in life. ;-)

If the original study interests you (it should) head on over to OKCupid and check it out. http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/dont-be-ugly-by-accident/

 

 

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The Chinese are coming!

I've been a long time user of Nokia's Internet tablets and have been looking at upgrading to something that has a cell and/or wimax connection to the internet so today I started googling. I've heard of people getting iphones refurbished for under $100 and just signing up for a data-only plan at AT@T so they essentially have an ipod touch with a cell connection (as apposed to wifi only) for $15 a month. I considered that but have issues with Apple's policies concerning what *I can do with the device that *I own.

Anyway as you may remember from past articles I've also been looking at Nokia's n900 phone. It's more Mobile Internet Device than phone although it does make calls. This is very similar to the iphone being a better media player than phone. The n900 though is still pretty pricy and there's questions about it's future since Nokia and Intel have merged their mobile OS efforts into Meego. Some n900 owners don't know if the n900 will be able to run MeeGo or not so I'm undecided on it. However I did turn up this "N900 Style" cell phone device made in China. From a distance it's pretty convincing until you read the comments and the FAQ. I'm providing a link but also giving an excerpt.

Interesting Specs

  • Support Extend (Memory) Card  2G
  • Camera Pictrue Resolution  640×480/240×400/400×240/160×120/80×60
  • Screen Resolution VGA(240×320 pixels)

Question and Answer

Can anyone tell me if the N900 style phone being sold by LightInTheBox has the linux based Maemo operating system like the actual Nokia N900? If so this is the tech deal of the century.

Sorry - this phone is based on the MTK operating system.

Does this have resistive or capacitive touch functionality?

Sorry, but this device does not have a touchscreen function.

Does this phone has a wifi ??

Sorry, this phone doesn't have WiFi.

Interesting device but there sure a lot of sorrys in the answers. It looks like an n900 down to the bulge around the camera bezel. However, where the n900 has 32GB of ram built in with support for another 16GB this pile of crap can be *expanded to 2GB max. Instead of the 5MP camera on the n900 this thing has a .7 MP webcam. Instead of Maemo Linux this has something called MTK operating system which nobody knows anything about and more than likely is also crap. The nice thing is it only costs $125 or so. It's even compatible with your Nokia charger.

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So much for having 6 cores

No matter how fast your cpu is or how big your hard drive is you'll find a way of using it all up. Here I'm encoding videos to h.264 for my Archos 5.

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Install Xen 3.4 on CentOS 5 (64bit) the easy way

The lastest version of Xen as of this writing is 4.0 but there's been some issues with blktap2 and other things with it so I'm still holding onto Xen 3.4. This tutorial shows how to upgrade a CentOS/RHEL 5 system to Xen 3.4. As soon as Xen 4.0 is as mature as I want it I'll update it again. I'm also retesting all of this as I'm not sure I had the problems with upgrading to 3.4 that I had with 3.3. I'll update it as soon as I'm done testing.

 

1. First we need to download the YUM repository file for the updated Xen. Then uninstall the old Virtualization group and reinstall it. This will upgrade the packages.

wget http://www.gitco.de/linux/x86_64/centos/5/CentOS-GITCO.repo -O /etc/yum.repos.d/gitco.repo
yum groupremove Virtualization
yum update
yum clean all
yum groupinstall -y Virtualization

 

Yum will probably want to upgrade some other files along with the ones we've chosen.

Warning! If you get an error message from grubby this is bad!

Installing: kernel-xen                   ####################### [ 9/13]
grubby fatal error: unable to find a suitable template

This means that your grub.conf file couldn't be written to for whaterver reason so you won't be able to successfully reboot. If you get this message you need to edit your /boot/grub/grub.conf file and make the kernel lines match the kernel you installed.

Get your installed kernel version:

[ root@vs / ] rpm -q kernel-xen

kernel-xen-2.6.18-128.4.1.el5

Now edit your /boot/grub/grub.conf to match this

# grub.conf generated by anaconda
#
# Note that you do not have to rerun grub after making changes to this file
# NOTICE:  You have a /boot partition.  This means that
#          all kernel and initrd paths are relative to /boot/, eg.
#          root (hd0,0)
#          kernel /vmlinuz-version ro root=/dev/vgsys/lvroot
#          initrd /initrd-version.img
#boot=/dev/sda
default=0
timeout=5
splashimage=(hd0,0)/grub/splash.xpm.gz
hiddenmenu
title CentOS (2.6.18-128.4.1.el5xen)
root (hd0,0)
kernel /xen.gz-3.4.0
module /vmlinuz-2.6.18-128.4.1.el5xen ro root=/dev/vgsys/lvroot rhgb quiet
module /initrd-2.6.18-128.4.1.el5xen.img

4. Reboot - no really I mean it.

5. Try it out by using the xm dmesg command

[ root@vs ~ ] xm dmesg
__  __            _____ _  _    ___  
\ \/ /___ _ __   |___ /| || |  / _ \
\  // _ \ '_ \    |_ \| || |_| | | |
/  \  __/ | | |  ___) |__   _| |_| |
/_/\_\___|_| |_| |____(_) |_|(_)___/

(XEN) Xen version 3.4.0 (root@gitco.tld) (gcc version 4.1.2 20080704 (Red Hat 4.1.2-44)) Fri May 29 21:39:26 CEST 2009

That's about all. If you have any questions drop a comment here.

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Install Xen 3.4 on CentOS5 (64bit) the easy way

1. First we need to download the YUM repository file for the updated Xen. Then uninstall the old Virtualization group and reinstall it. This will upgrade the packages.

wget http://www.gitco.de/linux/x86_64/centos/5/CentOS-GITCO.repo -O /etc/yum.repos.d/gitco.repo
yum groupremove Virtualization
yum groupinstall -y Virtualization

Yum will probably want to upgrade some other files along with the ones we've chosen.

Warning! If you get an error message from grubby this is bad!

Installing: kernel-xen                   ####################### [ 9/13]
grubby fatal error: unable to find a suitable template

This means that your grub.conf file couldn't be written to for whaterver reason so you won't be able to successfully reboot. If you get this message you need to edit your /boot/grub/grub.conf file and make the kernel lines match the kernel you installed.

Get your installed kernel version:

[ root@vs / ] rpm -q kernel-xen

kernel-xen-2.6.18-128.4.1.el5

Now edit your /boot/grub/grub.conf to match this

# grub.conf generated by anaconda
#
# Note that you do not have to rerun grub after making changes to this file
# NOTICE:  You have a /boot partition.  This means that
#          all kernel and initrd paths are relative to /boot/, eg.
#          root (hd0,0)
#          kernel /vmlinuz-version ro root=/dev/vgsys/lvroot
#          initrd /initrd-version.img
#boot=/dev/sda
default=0
timeout=5
splashimage=(hd0,0)/grub/splash.xpm.gz
hiddenmenu
title CentOS (2.6.18-128.4.1.el5xen)
root (hd0,0)
kernel /xen.gz-3.4.0
module /vmlinuz-2.6.18-128.4.1.el5xen ro root=/dev/vgsys/lvroot rhgb quiet
module /initrd-2.6.18-128.4.1.el5xen.img

4. Reboot - no really I mean it.

5. Try it out by using the xm dmesg command

\ \/ /___ _ __   |___ / |___ / / _ \
\  // _ \ '_ \    |_ \   |_ \| | | |
/  \  __/ | | |  ___) | ___) | |_| |
/_/\_\___|_| |_| |____(_)____(_)___/

(XEN) Xen version 3.3.0 (root@labor.lan) (gcc version 4.1.2 20071124 (Red Hat 4.1.2-42)) Tue Sep  9 20:18:14 CEST 2008
(XEN) Latest ChangeSet: unavailable
(XEN) Command line:
(XEN) Video information:
(XEN)  VGA is text mode 80x25, font 8x16
(XEN)  VBE/DDC methods: V2; EDID transfer time: 2 seconds
(XEN) Disc information:
(XEN)  Found 1 MBR signatures
(XEN)  Found 1 EDD information structures
(XEN) Xen-e820 RAM map:

That's about all. If you have any questions drop a comment here.

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Xen from soup to nuts

This is just a beta at this point

 

1. Install CentOS from CD. Do not choose Virtualization

2. Follow installing Xen 3.4 the easy way

3. Follow installing DomU the easy way

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