On Austin’s Conspicuous Lack of Quality Public Space

I’ve been a Longhorn for three years now, but in all that time, Austin’s never felt like a proper city to me. Not even when hanging out downtown, watching the boisterous nightlife unfold in the shadow of the Austonian and the Frost Bank Tower.

Undoubtedly, a major factor is the soulless character of Austin’s urban form, dominated by subdivisions, strip malls, and warehouses. I first recognized that in the dawn of my freshman year, when my mom and I glided swiftly under the tall, lonely streetlights of North Lamar in our move-in rental car. I’m reminded of it each time I venture outside the confines of the university to buy groceries at the super-sized H-E-B and toiletries at the Wal-Mart Supercenter.

But I think I’ve realized what makes Austin feel especially desolate: its strange lack of quality public space. In much of the city, you’d be hard-pressed to find nearby parks, plazas, government centers, and other places where citizens can gather to socialize, organize, or just enjoy the scenery. And where such places can be found, they are often in decrepit condition. Continue reading “On Austin’s Conspicuous Lack of Quality Public Space”

Downtown Bakersfield, an Urbanist Perspective

Of all places, is downtown Bakersfield in the midst of an urban renaissance?

Ten years ago, that claim would have been laughable. Bakersfield’s economic future was clearly to the far west, where affluent new strip malls, subdivisions, and high schools were sprawling incessantly in the direction of Interstate 5. Any neighborhoods east of State Route 99 had been left on the dusty shoulder of Edison Highway, while downtown itself was on life support in Memorial Hospital.

When I was a boy, my father used to drive me down to the Kern Island Canal on 21st Street, where we fed pieces of bread to the ducks. (I shudder now at the ecological devastation that probably caused.) It was an unremarkable dirt-lined ditch back then, a relic of the nineteenth century rush to harness the Kern River, surrounded by derelict low-rise factories and warehouses. As late as the 80s, there was also a large Southern Pacific railyard nearby that occupied several city blocks.

Then, in the twenty-first century, things began to change. Continue reading “Downtown Bakersfield, an Urbanist Perspective”

A Murky Future for Self-Driving Cars

Feet-first into fire! This short essay was written in response to the 2016 Report of the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100) for CS 343H, Artificial Intelligence Honors.

Although I am ostensibly a student of computer science, I am also an urban studies minor, transportation geek, and public transit advocate. Thus, the One Hundred Year Study is of special interest to me, and its analysis of urban transportation doubly so. Continue reading “A Murky Future for Self-Driving Cars”

A Tour of Austin’s New MoPac Bike Bridge

A shiny new bicycle and pedestrian bridge opened across Barton Creek in June, right next to the MoPac expressway. I finally got a chance to check it out last Sunday morning.

Here’s a photo tour, starting from the north toward Zilker Park and moving south toward Sunset Valley. You can also check out my corresponding editorial on The Daily Texan.

Coming from Zilker Park, the cycling route is on a wide sidewalk (only Austin would call it a “multi-use trail”).

Continue reading “A Tour of Austin’s New MoPac Bike Bridge”

Placemaking in the World of Grand Theft Auto

Several weeks ago, I came across a lovely article on Kotaku about the opening act of Grand Theft Auto IV, in which immigrant protagonist Niko Bellic first arrives in a fictionalized United States and explores his newly adopted home of Liberty City.

As the author Kirk Hamilton explains, it’s a rather slow start for a GTA game. Niko undertakes some decidedly ordinary tasks — defending his cousin Roman from loan sharks, driving for his cab company, going out on a date — that ease us into the game’s driving and shooting mechanics. In the process, we are gradually introduced to Niko’s new social circle — a girlfriend, criminals to do business for, and Russian mobsters — and his surroundings, the run-down industrial neighborhood of “Hove Beach.”

While GTA IV was cautious and restrained, other Grand Theft Auto games thrust you immediately into the action. Just after the opening credits of Grand Theft Auto V, you were stealing a pair of supercars from a wealthy residence, racing through the streets of downtown Los Santos, and then escaping from the police. Similarly, 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas inserted you right in the middle of a gang war, fleeing a drive-by shooting on a BMX bike and then smashing up a local crack den.

In GTA IV, we get a sense of how the Liberty City criminal world operates before we dive into the over-the-top car chases, assassinations, and SWAT shootouts — we see the loan sharks at Roman’s throat, the neighborhood crack dealers struggling for turf, and the shopkeepers being extorted for protection money. Taking things slow allows us to connect with Niko’s brave new world in a way that the chaotic exposition in San Andreas and GTA V does not, so suggests Hamilton in a brilliant summary of his GTA IV experience:

Each time I return to GTA IV, I want to leave Hove Beach less and less. I know I’ll never feel more immersed and attached than I do in those opening hours. Nowhere else in GTA IV feels as real or familiar to me as Hove Beach. Nowhere in GTA V does, either. For all of the newer game’s candy-coated indulgences and technical wizardry, it never matched its predecessor’s powerful sense of place.

I was struck by the idea that a video game like GTA IV could have a “sense of place” — what I would call a sense of a distinct culture and community within a specific moment, location, and universe. Urbanists, geographers, and sociologists alike speak of the greatest cities as having it. Architects strive for it. As Hamilton has already noted, one way GTA IV achieves a “sense of place” is through its meticulously crafted introduction. But how else does the game outshine GTA V, its universally acclaimed sequel? Continue reading “Placemaking in the World of Grand Theft Auto”

Print Your Stuff from the Terminal with utprint.py

Recently — in the spring of 2016, I believe — the UT Austin libraries rolled out a new printing system that allows students and staff to upload documents via a web interface. This was a huge deal to me because previously, I had to get off my laptop and sign in to a library computer to print things.

Functional but frustratingly slow.

It works well enough, but as is always the case for university computer systems, it’s a little cumbersome to use. My typical workflow looked like this:

  1. Log in
  2. Upload my essay
  3. Set my standard printing options: no color, duplex

That works out to about ten clicks and a password manager access. The horror! We can do much better. We have the technology.

Over the last two weekends, I put together a Python script that can send documents straight from the command line. It stays authenticated for two weeks at a time and there’s a configuration file to specify preferred printing settings.

$ ./utprint.py ~/Documents/utcs.pdf
Print settings:
  - Full color
  - Simplex
  - Copies: 1
  - Page range: all
Logging in with saved token ... done
Uploading utcs.pdf ... done
Processing ... done
Finances:
    Available balance: $1.16
    Cost to print:     $0.42

    Remaining balance: $0.74

I’m sure it will prove useful to all the… one… UT Austin students who are handy with a terminal and do a lot of writing. Find it on GitHub.

In Defense of Boost Sonic

Sonic the Hedgehog. A video game franchise about a cool blue hedgehog who runs, jumps, and platforms through a variety of vast, intricate worlds. Sonic’s fast, thrilling gameplay was critically acclaimed during the series’ early days as a 2D sidescroller and won millions of gamers over to Sega and the Genesis console. But Sonic’s transition to the 3D world, marked by the arrival of Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, was much more divisive. Over the years, Sega experimented with many wildly different play styles, even within a single game. This lack of consistency has resulted in critical reception that ranges from “pretty good” (Sonic Generations) to “downright awful” (Sonic the Hedgehog 2006).

Sega’s first attempts at a 3D Sonic game resembled Super Mario 64 augmented with sprawling, linear levels and speed-oriented controls. Sonic could grind on rails, snap on to enemies with the “homing attack,” and gain an instant burst of speed with a charged “spin dash.” This style was featured in Sonic Adventure, its direct sequel Sonic Adventure 2, and 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog. Critical reception of the Adventure series was very positive on release, but the re-releases and ports have not fared as well. Critics praised the games’ sense of speed but criticized their uncooperative camera and physics systems. Sonic 06 was universally panned for a multitude of technical and level design issues that stemmed from a rushed release.

In 2008, Sonic Unleashed debuted a new style of 3D platforming, often referred to by fans as “boost Sonic.” Sonic gained a new signature move, the “Sonic boost,” which granted him an instant, visually spectacular burst of speed that could be sustained as long as he collected rings. Critics widely derided Unleashed for its inclusion of a “Sonic the Werehog” mode that turned Sonic into a slow, repetitive beat-em-up character. However, they were generally receptive to the new boost style, even as they chided it for a lack of polish. With minor tweaks, boosting was subsequently featured in Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations, both of which were well-received.

Sonic fans have been divided over the boost gameplay. Some really enjoy the style, but others criticize the boost for abandoning Sonic’s traditional emphasis on momentum and exploration in favor of a singular focus on speed. They usually prefer the Sonic Adventure style, which plays slower and requires some skill and finesse to build up velocity. While these critiques have some merit, I believe that boosting Sonic is the best version of Sonic that’s ever been in 3D. It succeeds in being fast and fun as well as accessible to old and new Sonic fans alike. Examining the history of the Sonic boost, from Unleashed to Colors to Generations, demonstrates how Sega has improved the gameplay style over time to make it the most polished rendition of Sonic yet — and the reason I’m excited for this year’s Sonic Forces. Continue reading “In Defense of Boost Sonic”

Prototype Sustainable Map for the UT Austin Campus

I usually keep my writings on my personal blog and The Daily Texan separate, but I’ll make an exception here: this post is an addendum to my recent opinion column on sustainability and the UT campus map.

Here’s how I think the campus map should look like. I took the visitor map from the Parking and Transportation Services website and added the UT shuttle campus circulators and some suggested bicycling routes.

(I’m not a huge fan of the segregated bike lanes on Guadalupe and Dean Keeton, but they are depicted for posterity’s sake.)

If we want to claim the mantle of a sustainable campus, a map like this is just plain common sense.

Polymathic Scholars Transit Talk

I have been meaning to publish this for awhile, but it sat on my back burner.

On March 3, I gave a talk to my fellow Polymathic Scholars on the importance public transportation. It’s sort of a hybrid presentation that explains both how to use transit and also how it’s planned.

Check out the slides here.

Hacking Piazza with Cross-Site Scripting

Piazza is a free classroom discussion service marketed for science and mathematics classes. It is best described as a hybrid wiki and forum; students can post questions, and other students can collaborate on answers. Like WordPress, content can be formatted with a rich-text editor or with plain HTML with a restricted set of features. Piazza’s distinguishing feature is the ability to post anonymously, which it claims makes underrepresented groups in the sciences more comfortable with interacting with the class. At UT, the computer science department makes extensive use of Piazza for most of its classes.

Piazza is primarily accessed through the web interface on piazza.com. Of great interest, there is also a “lite” web interface designed for mobile devices and accessible browsers at piazza.com/lite. I will demonstrate that Piazza is susceptible to common client-side web attacks, such as cross-site scripting, as a result of its reliance on web apps. (There are also native iOS and Android apps, but they are awful, and nobody uses them.) Continue reading “Hacking Piazza with Cross-Site Scripting”