Life is a Mystery

20 November . Comments Off on Motion


There is,
in the frozen pond,
an illusion of motion.
And there is,
in the rushing highway,
an illusion of stillness.

18 November . Comments Off on Punishment and Reward for the Inexcusable

Punishment and Reward for the Inexcusable

I’ve been struggling with my own response to the Al Franken revelations this week. On the one hand I think Al’s admitted behavior is reprehensible, on the other hand I think his acknowledgement and apology are sincere and important. He did the wrong thing then, he is doing the right thing now. Do we punish him for his past behavior or reward him for his present behavior?

One of my frustrations with my fellow men is that we seem to be incapable of owning our own behavior. Not only do we do terrible things from time to time, we seem to find it impossible to acknowledge those terrible things later. In the case of assault and other less aggravated insults agains women, we compound our transgression by then accusing the women of lying about these situations, or of being unreasonable in their own responses. Just last week I was telling my sister that I wished one of these prominent men being accused could accept the accusation and simply apologize.

Here we are, a week later, and I believe Franken has more or less fulfilled my wish. After an initial resistance, he has issued a sincere public apology to Ms. Tweeden and apparently even called her to offer a private apology as well. He has admitted being an ass and not made excuses for himself. He has avoided compounding the damage he already did to Ms. Tweeden. This is the behavior I want to encourage in men, this is what owning our own past actions looks like.

None of this excuses his past action. Clearly he was a turd six years ago. He is probably still a turd now and then today. So am I. So here we all are. Do we punish him for his past behavior or reward him for his present behavior?

For the most part I’ve seen this framed in Minnesota as a question of whether Al should resign from his seat. The political calculus goes something like this: Al should resign and let our DFL (Democratic, for those of you not from around here) Governor appoint a strong woman to the seat, she can run for the partial term in 2018 which will likely be a blue year and then be in a stronger position in 2020 to win the seat outright.

My fear about this course is that it could discourage other men from responding as Franken has. If acknowledgement of and apology for an action like his results in being immediately cast aside, then why not simply resist any acknowledgement, call the women crazy, and hope to ride out the storm. In this scenario, the best of men would acknowledge their actions and be sacked for it, while the worst would further victimize their victims and be rewarded for that choice. This is more of the same, more of what we have seen for all too long.

And yet, his behavior was reprehensible. Doesn’t it deserve some consequence?

I believe that Franken would face harsh headwinds should he stand for re-election. He has been a bright light of the Democratic Party in Washington and around the country. He has used his notoriety to raise funds for candidates around Minnesota and the whole US. That Al is gone; he has lost his standing, and most likely lost any chance to carry on his career in the Senate. That is already a significant consequence.

I wonder if there is not another option available. What if Al serves out his Senate term but announces now (or soon, anyway) that he will not stand for re-election in 2020. In this case the punishment for his past behavior would be the conclusion of his Senate career (a harsher punishment than Ms. Tweeden has asked for, by the way), and the reward for his present behavior would be room for a dignified exit.

Of course, if there are further shoes to drop from Al’s past, then this path is probably precluded. Minnesota deserves a Senator working for the people, not distracted by a litany of mea culpas for a past of insensitivity, insult, and assault.

Whatever happens next, I hope that it encourages men to acknowledge how harmful they have been to women, encourages women to keep sharing their stories and holding men accountable, and results in a deep and shared understanding that sex and power are never things to be grabbed, but are gifts to be given and respected. Whatever happens next, I hope it makes our politics less toxic rather than more.

(P.S. Yes, I realize that this is not always a male/female dynamic of disrespect. Please forgive me for simplifying the picture using the most common pronouns rather than a more comprehensive accounting of perpetrators and victims.)

22 July . Comments Off on The iPhone Edge

The iPhone Edge

There’s been a lot of speculation about the next generation of iPhone widely expected this fall. The most compelling analysis for me has been John Gruber’s dive into iPhone pricing strategy. Gruber suggests that Apple will add a new tier of iPhone, a “pro” phone that is priced much higher than the iPhones we know today and allows Apple to make use of technologies that they cannot put into a phone that has to be produced in the massive quantities they usually sell. This makes a lot of sense to me. To see why, lets just look at one technology: OLED.

All iPhones to date use LED screens. Apple’s LED screens are great, super high resolution, bright, lovely. But there is a new technology available, OLED, that looks like it may be even better. In addition to better colors, OLED requires a whole lot less “bezel” (the space around a screen). In fact, Apple already uses OLED screens on the Apple Watch. But Apple cannot add an OLED screen to the iPhone 7S this fall because Apple simply sells too many phones. The world cannot currently produce enough OLED phones to satisfy the demand Apple would create. If Apple tried to do this, it would end up with a huge backlog of iPhone orders.

One possible solution: create a phone with an OLED screen but sell many fewer of them. This is what Samsung does. Since so few people buy a Samsung Galaxy phone (as compared to an iPhone), Samsung can actually get their hands on enough screens to meet their demand. Their lower sales allow Samsung to sneak out closer to the future. How can Apple sell fewer phones? By making their price higher. If Apple rolls out an updated iPhone 7S with an LED screen, but also creates a new “pro” line with an OLED screen (and many other innovations), they could charge way more for the “pro” phone (Gruber guesses around $1,200) and sell correspondingly fewer of them.

So far so good. But how will you feel buying a new iPhone 7S if you also know that Apple has an even better phone that you just can’t afford? What does this do to the Apple brand, which is balanced on the tightrope of excellence (best phones you can buy) and egalitarianism (best phone anyone can buy). You feel great buying an Apple product partly because you feel great treating yourself to the best technology available. Will the “pro” phone tarnish the regular phones? Would you, maybe, wait until you can afford the “pro” phone or wait for some feature of that phone to trickle down to the regular line?

I wonder if part of the problem with this approach for the phone may be thinking of it as a “pro” model. Everybody likes to think they are a pro, especially when something like a phone is the item in question. Maybe I don’t need a “pro” iPad because I don’t think of myself as an artist, or a “pro” Mac because I don’t think of myself as a gamer or nerd, but don’t we all think of ourselves as pretty “pro” phone users? We all text. We all take pictures. We all love to hold the most beautiful object in our hands. Maybe instead of positioning this as “pro” Apple can position this new, more expensive phone as something else: risky.

There is already a precedent for this in software: beta software. We all know beta software has the cool new features, but even though it is often free, we don’t all rush to install beta software because we also know it is risky. Most of us are willing to live on the bleeding edge in some domain of our life, whether that is trying new foods, traveling to new places, reading new books, wearing new styles of clothes, driving luxury cars, or maybe buying the latest tech. But nobody lives on that edge all the time, and I believe many of us would avoid that cuts and bruises of that bleeding edge in our pocket.

So what if the new high end iPhone were marketed as a kind of cool but risky product, a kind of step into the future, like a software beta, but with Apple’s full support behind it. In this case, you pay for the privilege of living on the edge, your phone will cost more than any other. To both emphasize the riskiness and cushion you from those risks, AppleCare would always be included with this phone. In fact, instead of calling this a “pro” model, let’s call it the iPhone Edge. It points to where Apple is going, but it is intended only for those who are willing to pioneer that trail. Join Apple a little closer to the future and help refine the experience before Apple repackages it to sell to the rest of us.

This kind of high end marketing of the future is what we see in cars. Many luxury brands are well known as proving grounds for technologies that eventually end up widely deployed in mass market cars. And savvy customers realize that owning a luxury car is a riskier proposition, one that will likely result in significantly higher costs of ownership and maintenance than owning a mass market car.

The rest of us can feel good buying the stable, solid, performance model of the phone. If those with the resources want to help pioneer our future on the bleeding edge, more power to them. Just like luxury car owners, we can feel like we have been savvier consumers and leave them to their toys. We will stick to what has been proven to work.

I am convinced of the wisdom of Apple striking out into the high end market so that it can explore new technologies in a more timely way. I will be very interested to see how they market the device that opens this new ground for them.


10 July . 1 Comment

Buying a projector

I have long been a fan of projectors for video. Since moving to St. Paul in 2000 we have not bought a TV, and in 2006 I bought a great projector and screen for our house. This year Mary encouraged me to consider replacing that projector, which had grown dim over the years and was not really doing justice to today’s more moody, atmospheric content. To make a long story short, I really came to appreciate an outfit called Projector People and wanted to sing their praises a bit.

My needs are a bit peculiar, so I have to do a lot of research before buying a projector, and I need a chance to try it out before committing to it. This means I need a good return policy, which usually means I like to buy locally. Also, funds are limited and so I’m always shopping for price. In fact, in 2006 I’d bought a demo unit locally to keep the price down.

I see rainbows with almost any home DLP projector, so I’m always on the hunt for LCD which severely limits my options. I also pay close attention to projector “throw” specs (which determine whether the projector can produce an image the same size as my screen from across the room where I want to place it), and appreciate lens-shift ability (which makes projector positioning more flexible). Projector People have a wonderful web site which makes it easy to sort through options using your own constraints. I’ve used the site over the years, though I’ve never purchased from them before. As I said, I like purchasing locally to make returns easier.

This year I noticed that nobody, even locally, made returns particularly easy. Every local shop either had an “all sales final” policy for projectors, or charged a 15% restocking fee at best. While I understand the need for a restocking fee for projectors (after all, you do use the bulb when trying them out, and that bulb has a limited lifespan), this 15% fee would mean I’d spend nearly $100 just to try out a given projector. In fact, even online the lowest restocking fee I could find was 10%.

The exception to this rule was Projector People. They offer a 30-day full money back guarantee as long as you don’t use more than 4 hours of bulb life. While 4 hours is not much time, it is enough to try out placement and check to see if the projector is working properly. Moreover, they offer this same policy even on their “B-stock” items (projectors refurbished by manufacturers and the like). This return policy even covers return shipping costs, something even Amazon does not do on many items.

That policy gave me enough confidence to try out a B-stock Epson projector from them. Since this was a refurbished projector, the price was really great, hundreds of dollars less expensive than I could find anywhere else.

Unfortunately, the projector had a serious issue. Everything was great except the noise. Projectors use a fan to cool off their hot bulb, and this projector seemed to have a defective fan which always ran at full speed. I was able to measure the noise it was producing with an iPhone decibel meter app and prepared myself for the return process.

This is when Projector People really earned my fandom. Their support was fantastic. From the call to my customer service rep, to my conversation with tech support, everyone was really friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful. Tech support quickly realized they had a well documented case and contacted Epson for advice on my behalf. In the end, they arranged to send out a replacement B-stock projector, reset my 4-hour bulb clock so I could test that one out with the full return policy intact, and got an RMA for me to return the defective projector directly to Epson. It was super easy, and all shipping costs were covered.

Later I called tech support again for some advice about mounting the projector. Again they answered immediately, gave me solid helpful answers, emailed me extra documentation, and really proved they wanted my experience to be top notch.

The replacement projector has a properly working fan and I am very happy with the service and support I got from this company.

Buying a projector can be daunting. There are a thousand options, they are expensive, and they are something you really have to try in your own space to be sure they fit well. Projector People helped me every step of the way, has great policies and staff, and followed through with terrific support. Nicely done!

18 June . 3 Comments

This is what democracy looks like?

I am still processing yesterday’s Saint Paul and DFL convention, and I must say the intervening day hasn’t made it feel any better. We say that the party process helps us to select the best candidates, those who most reflect our DFL values, those with the best chance of winning office. I’ve heard people argue against the primary process because it allows the unwashed masses to dilute the party. Personally, I value primary challenges because they strengthen our candidates. Still, I understand the value of party endorsement, and conventions are a relatively participatory way to produce an endorsement.

What really bothered me yesterday was that the convention appeared to be designed to make sure that no endorsement for the mayoral candidate resulted. In particular, the rules committee proposed a set of rules that would have made an endorsement very difficult. The convention body selected an alternative set of rules, more likely to result in an endorsement, offered by a minority report from the rules committee. But then that alternative set of rules was further amended so that the convention ended up with a hard stop time of 7pm.

As anyone who’s been around this kind of process for a while realizes, a hard stop is simply an encouragement for those who want no action to spend their time postponing matters. The adoption of the 7pm stop time virtually ensured that the convention would end up deadlocked and without an endorsement. And that is what happened.

The only point of holding a convention is to endorse a candidate. Designing a convention’s rules to avoid endorsement is designing a convention to waste everybody’s time. The first four hours of yesterday’s convention was spent arguing about the rules. In all the convention spent 10 hours of people’s time on a beautiful Saturday doomed to fail in it’s purpose. That was a disservice to everyone. Yes, I realize we did endorse three school board candidates in a single ballot. But the big race was the mayor’s race, and our failure to endorse in that race is an indictment of the convention process.

The Saint Paul DFL was not courageous enough to allow even its own small democratic process to play out in its convention. I believe that the adoption of ranked choice voting, along with appropriate technology to count those ranked choice ballots quickly, is a better alternative for democracy today than primaries. But even with ranked choice voting, an endorsement is a valuable asset for a candidate. We should be ashamed of ourselves in the Saint Paul DFL, that we could not design a convention that was able to produce an endorsement. I am particularly ashamed that we wasted so much of so many people’s time, and left them with such a bad taste of what our democracy looks like.

28 April . Comments Off on My Mind’s Eye

My Mind’s Eye

I am blown away by this: people can actually picture things in their heads. Up till last week I have always assumed that picturing something in your head was a metaphor of sorts, another way of saying “remembering.” After all, I have never done it. I’ve never pictured anything in my head. Last week I learned there was a name for this: aphantasia. I learned this from the New York Times, “Picture this? Some just can’t.” (I have since seen it in a few other places.)

Since I thought my condition was simply the human condition, I never remarked on it. But after reading the NYT story last week I asked Alex, “Can you actually picture things in your head? Like are they in color?” He closed his eyes and said, “Yes.” A few days later I asked Mary to close her eyes and picture Himmelblau House on Kelleys Island. She shut her eyes and began describing the grass, the water, the porch. I asked her if she could actually see the colors of those things, if it was like being there, she said that it was.

When I close my eyes and try to see Himmelblau House I see an afterimage of the screen in front of me where I’ve been typing. I see abstract dunkelbunt colors. I can remember and describe Kelleys, I can even, perhaps with some effort, construct a schematic of sorts in my head. A kind of model of Himmelblau House rebuilt from experience. But I do not see it. In fact, I always thought this reconstruction process is what “picture in your mind” meant. “Picture yourself on a beach” in a meditation sends me off reconstructing a beach scene that never really includes colors or breeze, but means in some intellectual way “beach.” I do not see pictures in my head at all.

I don’t see places I love in my head. I don’t see the people I love in my head. If Mary is away on a trip I cannot pull an image of her to my mind, though I can easily recognize her image in a photograph and know her when she returns. I am hard-pressed to describe anyone to you because I don’t see them when I describe them. I wonder if this is related to how difficult it has always been for me to remember people in general? Or anything, for that matter. My memory has always been spotty.

The odd thing is that I consider myself a visual thinker! I love drawing and designing things. I have a good sense of color and space. I can imagine things that are not there and construct them. I just cannot ever see them in my head before, during, or after I’ve made them. I can only see them when I look at them.

I accept this as who I am. I had no idea it set me apart and I consider it a gift that has allowed me to grow in ways that are uniquely Eric. I’m not asking for any pity or concern. In fact, the opposite. I am presenting this as an example of the wonder of the universe. An example of how unique each of us is and how varied the human condition can be. We can’t assume others see the world as we do. For me, I slide this in with my tinnitus, a part of me that I accept and work with, not against.

But, wow, I am completely blown away and still feel like someone is pulling my leg. You really see things with your eyes closed? Wow.

Journal - 48

29 November . Comments Off on A reflection for the First Sunday of Advent

A reflection for the First Sunday of Advent

Today I had the privilege of offering the reflection at the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet’s Advent Evening Prayer. I am part of the Friends of St. Joseph and St. Brigid Family Faith Formation who were participating in the service in various ways. I thought I’d share my reflection here as well.

Reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16 

The days are coming, says the Lord,
when I will fulfill the promise
I made to the house of Israel and Judah.
In those days, in that time,
I will raise up for David a just shoot;
he shall do what is right and just in the land.
In those days Judah shall be safe
and Jerusalem shall dwell secure;
this is what they shall call her:
“The Lord our justice.”


Welcome to the pregnant pause of the church. This is the start of our new year, the promise of our Lord our justice to come. This is the darkness to which we welcome a single candle. Welcome to the darkness.

We feel pretty certain that next week we will light two candles and that the week after that we will light three. We are quite certain that on December 25th we will celebrate Christmas. We generally remove the darkness from Advent, we lose it in the brightness of lights and celebration that started at Lunds a few weeks ago and was prodded along this weekend with spectacular sales and deals.

We overlook the darkness. The uncertainty of the first trimester. Black Friday indeed.

Please, spend a few minutes with me this afternoon considering that darkness because I believe that without darkness there cannot be light. What would our night sky look like if it were all light? In fact, we hardly have to imagine the answer to that since we have nearly washed the darkness from our sky with the lights of our city. The less darkness in our sky, the fewer stars we see, the less we wonder at the glory of God and our universe. Without darkness there cannot be light.

Today’s readings certainly dwell on the darkness. Even Jeremiah’s prophesy echoes the darkness of his time. “The day is coming when the Lord will fulfill the promises made to the house of Israel and Judah.” That day is not yet present, Jeremiah speaks from darkness. “I will raise up for David a just shoot, Judah shall be safe, Jerusalem shall dwell secure.” But clearly those times lie in Jeremiah’s future. Before those days come, Jerusalem will fall. His was a time of darkness.

How safe and secure are Judah and Jerusalem today? How safe and secure do Paris and Belgium feel today, or Beirut, Bamako, or Bangladesh? How safe do our neighbors on the streets of North Minneapolis feel, how secure are our homeless neighbors as the winter cold finally arrives? As in the time of Jeremiah, this is a time of darkness.

Frankly, I am not convinced that this world will ever be anything but a world of darkness, and I am not even sure that our mission is to erase that darkness. Darkness is the night sky, the universe, the context. Our mission, I believe, is to not let fear of the dark drive us. Our mission is to be light in the darkness. We are to be the candle.

It is hard to be a candle in the dark. Especially the first candle in this first trimester of doubt and uncertainty. Will our pregnancy continue, or will it miscarry as has happened so often before? Can we be hopeful enough to carry this burden, or will we despair? Can we allow ourselves to fall in love again, or will the fear of the pain that love brings isolate us? Can we be a light in the dark? And if we are, will another light join us next week? And another the week after?

Stripped of our certainty, this waiting, this Advent, is a scary thing.

Dorothy Day wrote of fear in the Catholic Worker (January 1967):

“We are warm and fed and secure,” she wrote, “We are the nation the most powerful, the most armed, and we are supplying arms and money to the rest of the world where we are not ourselves fighting. . . . Woe to the rich! We are the rich. The works of mercy are the opposite of the works of war, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, nursing the sick, visiting the prisoner. But we are destroying crops, setting fire to entire villages and to the people in them. We are not performing the works of mercy but the works of war.”

What a dark and achingly familiar world she describes. But then she prays: “Deliver us, O Lord, from the fear of our enemies, which makes cowards of us all.” She goes on: “Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them. There is plenty to do, for each one of us, working on our own hearts, changing our own attitudes, in our own neighborhoods.”

Dorothy’s world is our world.

As I said, I am not certain this darkness will ever abate. In fact, I will stand naked before you, I frequently doubt the existence of a benevolent God. At those times, in that despair, in that darkness, I try to love God and neighbor without distinction because I know my neighbor exists, and maybe if I love her, I can love God.

I try to remember that we are the body of Christ. Together we can be a loving order of radical disciples. In those times I think of the Lord as the community, as all of us bound together.

And then I revisit the lesson, with that perspective in mind.

The days are coming,
says the community,
when we will fulfill the promise
and raise up a just shoot;
In those days Judah shall be safe
and Jerusalem shall dwell secure;
this is what they shall call her:
“The community of justice.”

Can we be a candle in the dark?

11 October . Comments Off on Building a New Majority

Building a New Majority

I have been imagining what a New Majority in the US House of Representatives might be like ever since Speaker Boehner announced his retirement. What if a non-partisan majority emerged? Tonight I woke from my dreams and wrote the following letter to my representative in the House. If you believe this could work and make our country stronger, I urge you to send a sililar letter to your representative.

Betty, thank you for signing the export petition for the Export Import Bank on Friday. It is not so much the issue I care about as the principal of working together and bringing legislation to the House floor for a vote. Congratulations on the small break in the tyranny of the minority that has ruled the House for so many years. I am writing in hopes that you, my representative in Congress, can help build this small kernel of progress into a movement and a New Majority.

My dream is that a new coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats will come together around the principals of moving legislation to the floor (with committee consideration, but minimal committee blocking) and voting as a whole body (with zero party discipline). I wonder if such a majority could be built, elect a (Republican) speaker and a (Democratic) majority leader who would assign mixed (but majority R) chairs (with opposite party vice-chairs) for committees and with whipping aimed to move legislation rather than enforce party discipline. The notion would be to return majority rule, true democracy, to the House.

I know this would be unprecedented in US history, and a nearly impossible scenario. But I believe it is time to make some history and start bringing our country back from the partisan brink we stand on. I say this as a partisan, long time DFL organizer and officer of my local (SD64) DFL party. I believe you could help heal this dangerous divide. Now is the time for radical cooperation among those who simply believe the House should be a functioning and relevant body rather than a pit of partisan bile. Please, help make it so.

You will have my support and gratitude. Please help build a New Majority in the house.

Move beyond our party for all of us.


Let’s see if we can make history!


5 July . Comments Off on Adventures with a keyboard

Adventures with a keyboard

Nate is getting ready to head off to college and divesting himself of some bits that he no longer needs. One of those is a Cooler Master QuickFire TK keyboard that he has since replaced with something snazzier. I’ve been borrowing it for a while and have now decided to adopt it as my primary desktop keyboard. It reminds me a lot of another keyboard I used to use!

Quickfire TK and Original Mac

Yes, indeed, that old Mac keyboard is the only thing I have left from my original 1984 Macintosh. The sound and feel of it are almost exactly the same as the sound and feel of the Cherry MX Blue keys on the QuickFire TK. It turns out I love that feel, but I hate the graphics of the TK. The typography is horrible and the backlighting is to severe for my taste.

Luckily, the Cherry keycaps are quite common and many outfits make replacements. Unfortunately none of those feel quite right to me. I have found one company that will print custom graphics on the keyboard for me. So I started to think about what I like and miss in the keyboards I use. For one thing, I’ve always been frustrated that keyboards (at least in the US) come with words on some of the action keys like “shift” and “return” instead of the symbols. This is particularly aggravating on keys like “option” which are indicated on menu shortcuts with the ⌥ symbol, and I always forget which key that is. I also really like Apple’s new San Francisco font and would like to have that on my keycaps.

So here is my plan:

Quickfire tk 2

When I dug out the old Mac keyboard in the picture above I realized I’d instinctively drawn a lot of inspiration from it. I loved it’s offset upper-left letter placement and I like its use of small symbols (the ⌘ command key). I had even returned to some gray keys (though I keep the main letters white so that there is a chance some of the blue LED lighting will glow through to make the legends somewhat visible).

Using a Windows keyboard on a Mac

One of the challenges of this plan is that the TK is a Windows keyboard. I need to swap certain keys (option and command) to get proper Mac placement, and I need to fix certain things (numlock) so they function at all. I don’t want to use the System Preferences to swap keys, because I want these choices to be limited to the TK, not to impact Apple keyboards, for example.

The perfect tool for this turns out to be a wonderful open source project called Karabiner which allows me to control all sorts of specifics about what signals get to a Mac from a keyboard. I’ve installed Karabiner with private.xml file for settings I need to make the TK feel more Mac-like. These settings take care of the numlock fix and command-key swap when the TK keyboard is in use. There are still some minor quirks with F6, F12, F13, F14, and F15, but those are pretty minor.


WASD Keyboards prints keycaps to order, but does not have a keyboard with quite this arrangement of keys. I was able to get almost all the keys I needed from them, though, using this layout. You will note that I had to radically change the color scheme. It turns out that neither white nor gray keys transmit much light from the LEDs. The best transmission (at least of the blue LEDs on the QuickFire TK keyboard) were blue and green keys. Orange also transmitted some light. Also, they do not may R1 1×1.5 keys at all (row one, 1 by 1.5 aspect ratio), so I bought the R1 1×1.5 version of the Portal keys to be my control keys.

Here is the result, both unlit and lit up.



Note the placement of the lights under some of the longer modifier keys means that the symbols on these keys are not lit up at all. That’s unfortunate, but I can live with it.

9 April . Comments Off on Open Government Data and the case of Wiener Linien

Open Government Data and the case of Wiener Linien

Those who know me know I have a special place in my heart for Vienna. For many years I visited my Grandmother there. I attended first grade at Volksschule Mannagettagasse in Grinzing. I brought my own children to Vienna many times to visit their Great-Grandmother. I love Vienna, and I especially love Wiener Linien, Vienna’s magnificent public transit system. So I was shocked to learn, as I prepared for another visit, that Wiener Linien is virtually invisible on today’s mobile devices. Digging into the problem revealed a fundamental misunderstanding, as I see it, in the meaning of “open data.” Wiener Linien has claimed to provide “open data” but in fact provides data that nearly nobody can properly use.

I want to use this post to record what I’ve learned and make a plea that Wiener Linien step up and actually provide the data the world really needs. As you see, my conclusion is that Wiener Linien should provide GTFS data. Why this is not being done is a long story, bear with me.

Politics and Transit

In 2007 and 2009 I visited Austria and I have distinct memories of using Google Maps to plan trips around Vienna. I found it vastly helpful to use Google Maps since the Wiener Linien website was less than simple at the time. That there was a time Wiener Linien was visible on Google Maps can also be seen on the Google Maps forum. In early 2010 people started to complain there that Vienna’s public transportation had disappeared from Google. A whole Google Transit Österreich group emerged on Facebook to try to find out what broke and how to fix it. It became a news story in Austria.

It seems that in 2010 Wiener Linien and ÖBB (the Austrian railway) decided to no longer share data with Google in the format that Google was able to use. They decided to work toward some more egalitarian open data feed that would serve all providers of transit information, not just Google.

At the time, the only standardized form of data for sharing transit timetables and routes was called the “Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS).” When Google started incorporating transit routing into Google Maps in 2005, no other provider was trying to fill this niche. Google worked with the TriMet transit agency in Portland, which had developed the precursor to GTFS. Other agencies, including Vienna, eventually joined in. But some became shy of working so directly with one provider. Vienna became very shy, and pulled its data altogether in 2010.

Meanwhile, GTFS became the “General Transit Feed Specification” partly due to recognition on Google’s part that even they would be better off if other providers could use this data. While the GTFS specification is still hosted by Google, it is now used by many providers of transit data, not just by Google. And the response of public transit systems has been staggering. Hundreds of systems are now providing GTFS data, as documented at the GTFS Data Exchange.

In 2012 the lack was being noticed. Die Presse wrote about 500 cities having transit data averrable in Google Maps, but not Vienna. In Vienna, the ÖBB finally relented in 2013 and restored the GTFS feed for transit application providers. Yet this move also received criticism within Austria, one blogger lamenting the fact that ÖBB was only providing this information to Google and not as open data, and a spokesman for the Green Party complaining that this information was being made available exclusively to a mega-corporation and not openly.

This highlights the political line being drawn. There are those in Austria who feel that providing data in the format Google prefers, a format that has been adopted widely around the world, would be a political capitulation to a mega-corporation. Clearly, the Wiener Linien data is not being withheld for technical reasons, but for political reasons.

Technology and Transit

In fact, since 2010 Wiener Linien has done a remarkable job of inventing its own API to realtime and routing data. They have made a whole open data portal available with a terrific API and neat JSON responses. This is everything a web or mobile developer could want. Or is it?

I have signed up for access to this open data API and done some preliminary investigation. I was interested in seeing if I could use the Wiener Linien open data to produce the equivalent of a GTFS feed. I found the API clear and well designed, but I also found it utterly unique. It is like no other transit API, requiring a learning curve to figure out and wholly dependent on staff at Wiener Linien who could change the API or responses at any time.

I also learned that the API did not make schedule data available. While some schedule data is implicit in the routing service the API provides, the schedules themselves are not made available. This was confirmed for me in a tweet from Stefan Kriz, “Open-Data-Beauftragter” for Wiener Linien: “@efceleste @wienerlinien Fahrpläne bieten die WL nur via Routingschnittstelle an. Als Rohdaten gibt es diese nicht im open Data Portal.” In other words, while Wiener Linien makes transit schedules available to the public as PDF’s, they refuse to make this data available in the open data portal.

This means that it is impossible for me to create the equivalent of a GTFS feed. It certainly explains why despite Wiener Linien providing what it calls “open data,” Vienna stays invisible on transit applications of the web and mobile world.

There are a very few, Vienna-specific, mobile applications that provide some realtime information based on the API’s that Wiener Linien has provided. But the clear indication that Vienna’s data is unique and does not mix well with others is the fact that these apps all serve only Vienna. Vienna is not part of the world, it stands alone.

Mixing Politics and Technology

All this has made it much clearer to me that open data is about more than the data. Yes, Wiener Linien has made some data available openly. But this data is not in the format that most developers around the world have learned to use: GTFS. Because some in Austria still perceive GTFS as a “Google” format, they have missed that it is in fact now the most open and accessible format for developers of transit applications across the world. It is openly defined, and it serves hundreds of cities around the world. Paris, Munich, Prague all provide GTFS data.

While it is possible to provide GTFS data exclusively to Google, this is by no means required or desirable. GTFS data can be provided openly to the whole world, for all developers to use. In fact, this is the definition of open data: a shared format widely used around the world. Vienna is currently not providing this.

Furthermore, Wiener Linien is actively withholding the most fundamental data about its network that could be provided: schedules. Clearly Wiener Linien understands that this is fundemental public information, after all, it posts this to its own website in PDF form and includes these schedules on virtually every bus and tram stop throughout the city. Failing to provide an open data feed of this schedule information is an incredible disservice to Vienna.

If the Green Party and others who believe in open data in Austria truly mean what they say, then they should insist that Wiener Linien provide open schedule data immediately. If they understand the role of technology and care about their citizens and visiting tourists, then they should insist that this data be provided in GTFS format for all, not just for Google. These GTFS files could be posted on the existing open data portal for everyone in the world to use.

Until then, Vienna’s magnificent public transit system will remain invisible to the world.


Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 /