Aaron Cael

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Cheap Fixes for the MTA


“In an effort to encourage the powers that be to implement some sure-to-be-lauded changes, designer Randy Gregory is posting a different idea for improving New York City’s subway every day for the next 100 days.” – Gizmodo

This is awesome. Check out his Tumblr here.

I had a similar undeployed idea back when I belonged to a hackerspace to get a think tank together to come up with very low cost design/tech/UX improvements for the subway. I think I was calling it, alternately, 80BucksaStation and theGcouldbelesshorrible.com

The two guiding principles were: Improve calm. Improve flow. I mainly focused on ideas that could be implemented cheaply and, if neccessary, unofficially/clandestinely.

Some ideas:
>>  Walk Left, Ride Right stickers on escalator handrails.

Seriously people. The unspoken, unwritten rule is to leave one lane open for people who want to walk. In the U.S., we replicate the passing-lane by making the walking side be the left. At certain high-traffic stations that rely on precise timing (Whitehall Street/South Ferry especially), one lazy human speedbump can make dozens miss their connection and lose 30-60 minutes of their life by denying everyone behind them the ability to move. With MTA approval, this could be a stencil, sporadically renewed. If done as a guerilla campaign, stickers.

>> Mark unofficial transfers.
Hansel and Gretel left a trail of bread crumbs through the forest. We can do better. Break out the spray paint and stencils and make a little tasteful path between nearby stations not connected underground. Basically, mark a track between any stations less than a 1/8 of a mile apart that connect train lines that do not have an easy transfer. Hell, while we’re at it, why not make these stations an actual free transfer? If subway-bus transfers can be automatically calculated, there’s no reason this can’t work.

For starters, mark:

  • Fulton G to Atlantic-Pacific
  • Court Square to Queensboro Plaza
  • Lorimer JMZ to Broadway G

>> Mark the platform where the subway doors open

Yeah, I know. Human operated trains do not stop precisely at the same spot every time. But they do 90% of the time and pretty damn close the rest. Giving some cue as to where these openings are would allow passengers to better organize themselves to allow easier on-off.



Points! (motivation game system for jerks)


After a two-week summer cold, I’ve been having trouble getting back up to my old productive ways. I’ve been toying around with getting all Lifehackery and resurrecting one of the motivational schemes I’ve dabbled in. Here’s the details of something I used to do.

– – – –

In a nutshell, Points! is a system for paying myself for necessary but uncompensated labor. It’s a basic gamification scheme; necessarily basic because I’m not very game-wired. The template is the sort of arcade/Boy Scouts: accumulate points and cash them in at the trading post system that got us so many plastic army men with parachutes and whittling knives with the Boy Scouts emblem on the handle.

Points are assigned to tasks that one wants to complete on a regular basis: workouts, chores, word counts, errands, etc. Points can also be issued by other people for suitably noble gestures like favors, an hour of your time, a home-cooked meal, gifts, art. Limit these to keep others’ appreciation from messing up your system. I keep it to two points per day, issued from outside sources, more if they’re contributing to your points fund. Also: it’s bad form to solicit someone to grant you points.

Points are redeemable for various prizes, mostly useless but awesome things. Crossbow, grappling hook, robot arm, Legos, Scotch, projector, comics. You name it. The money for these purchases is already set aside at the outset so their purchase is guilt-free.

Start off by determining one action that will be directly convertible to one point. In my case, I made it 33 pushups. From there, you can assign value to other actions based upon their relative difficulty or how little you want to do them. For example, I give myself two points for taking the trash to the curb.


Work at home 1
Mango 1
Code Academy 1
Do all the dishes 1
Take out the garbage (2 points)
Send a letter 1
Make 0rphcrack CD (by wednesday) 1


Bear costume
Batman costume
Bag of LEDs
Misc electronics parts kit
Fold out cup

– – – – – –

It worked well at the time because my bathroom was painted with chalkboard paint and I could use the walls as my scoreboard/prize catalog. Eventually, the whole thing felt a bit controlling. My enthusiasm for whimsy ebbs and flows with the amount of sunlight I get so it didn’t survive the winter.

MIAR: Most Inconvenient Augmented Reality System

One failed novel ago–working title “出口 DeGuchi”–I was fooling around with a plot point that relied upon an interface somewhat like Google Glass but without the glass. This was 2006 or so, VR headsets and bulky sunglasses with little screens in them were out there but not suitably satisfying/immersive for something that would be a convincing additional to daily reality. Not to mention they were expensive, dorky, and very obvious that you were using it. And they took you out of the reality you were in, rather than adding to it. An interface for ubiquitous computing would have to be cheap, durable, and subtle.

Synesthesia was also on my mind. How it worked, how we interpret sensory input and either categorize it or let it all come rampaging in to overturn the furniture in our mental rooms. I was living in Japan at the time and had one of those 3 am chats at the bar about how Japanese stoplights were the same shades as the ones in the rest of the world but they called the bottommost color “blue” rather than “green”. Again, 3 am profundity aided by far too much Carlsberg. But it got me thinking: what if you could figure out the language of the raw sensory input before it was received and interpreted by the visual cortex? Or the auditory cortex? Could you spoof input, send errant signals? Could it be controlled well enough to make it an interface? Could you play Quake?

So I started writing about such a system. Cheap, subtle, crazy. A wearable computer generating audio cues that are interpreted by a hacked brain as visual input. Nothing more obvious than a smartphone and headphones.

The key thing, of course was using some powerful drugs to induce a synesthetic state in the user.

MIAR_drugsOh and of course, figuring out what that raw audio input would be, what it would produce. Likely, every human brain is significantly different. i.e. we’re all seeing a different blue, just it’s close enough that we can all call light of those wavelengths reflecting back “blue”.

But I’m a writer. I can write a fictional team of researchers smart enough to get around that. Thank god I don’t have to actually make such a thing.


And what would you use it for? Well, the first generation would likely be a toy. Put color overlays over things. Low resolution graphics. All part of the discovery process of what parameters you can tweak for what result. Since the human head doesn’t come with a video-out port (not even a goddamn USB), this might be the sort of thing the user has to tweak for themselves, knob twiddling to change the nature of the audio to create certain test patterns.


And of course, the sci-fi plot twist: BUT WHAT IF THE BAD GUYS GET AHOLD OF SUCH GREAT POWER? Well, then they’re most likely going to put up ads for Nabisco products and online Masters degree programs in your peripheral vision. Y’know, the Faustian bargain of modern civilization.

Anyway, since this concept was woven through the standard Holden Caufield in Osaka first time novel writing bullshit, it went down with the ship. Might have to pull this idea back out for something more interesting and shorter.


“Gilby, Later Than Now” – Short Story Fragment, Summer 2005


A year after college, I spent a few months living alone in an apartment in downtown Osaka. Having not yet succumbed to the nightlife and possessing very little Japanese for getting around, I spent a lot of nights drinking cup sake (always the red one with the calligraphy O on it) and writing short stories or scripts. This is a product of that, something I thought I’d revisit and turn into something very different but probably won’t.

– – – –
Gilby, Later Than Now

Gilby checked the locks on the house again, yanking on the handle until the wood groaned to his satisfaction.  All said and done, it would have been easier to kick a hole through the wall of the crumbling shack than to monkey with the locks but a fierce and abiding notion of the virtues of defending personal property prompted the locking ceremony every time Gilby passed the threshold of his tired clapboard domain.  Two ancient deadbolts and the click lock on the freshly installed brass handle were snapped into place.  Feeling the difficult bending of finger joints wrapped in a dirty t-shirt, Gilby vaguely recalled stealing the ornate door handle from a sedan parked outside the Home Depot.  It had been locked too, but who could tell a thing about what had or had not happened.  He shifted his gaze out over the gully where there were snakes and Tanner’s body still lay.  These were the things he knew for certain; everything else had its own rules.  The presence of the body and the snakes were checked upon three times a day on the long looping path back from the outhouse. This was where he was headed, for trip number two of this day with no certain name.  He began walking, accompanied by a shotgun marked with the letters “T.B.”
Gilby lived alone.  There was a school of thought that contended that this had not always been so, that the body of Tanner used to also occupy the shabby frame house, used to, in fact, prepare meals and converse at length about topics of debatable value.  This school of thought, in the face of the overwhelming evidence in favor of absolute uncertainty was pronounced heretical in the mind of Gilby and summarily sentenced to a drowning death, a punishment commenced daily by a generous ration of bourbon infused slowly and constantly.  All schools engaged in speculation about the alleged state change of the body from living to dead were not only executed but all friends, acquaintances and relations were likewise submerged by strong hands into an aggressive riptide of high quality distilled spirits.

The spirits came from the boxes, stacked to the ceiling and occupying a full half of the interior volume of the cabin.  Besides spirits, the boxes held bottled water, dehydrated fruits and vegetables, small packets of unbleached flour, and assorted dried meats, including ostrich and venison.  One box found this morning contained nothing but freeze-dried astronaut ice cream in official NASA silver packets.  There were four shipping containers of similar contents arranged around the house and a few more caches of the stuff out in the eight miles of swamp likewise arranged around the house.  Gilby spent the majority of his non-outhouse hours opening boxes and sifting through their contents.

Every day when the breeze shifted from the warming swamps to the dry areas beyond the thin pines, more boxes arrived from the sky, lobbed down to earth from the bellies of pearly airships.  Tanner had once shown him through binoculars the Japanese women who piloted these half-size zeppelins, with their brown-tinted hair, blue eye shadow and impeccable khaki uniforms.  These women stood at attention at the cramped front of the cabin, holding boxy microphones and smiling broadly while they ran through their daily monologue.  The words were most often lost to the breeze and the trees but ‘love’, ‘peace’ and ‘humanitarian’ were spread throughout like punctuation and were the only ones Gilby would usually catch.  There were never hands seen tossing out packages but rather they popped out like eggs from a turtles ass end, deploying a limp silver parachute behind them that quickly tangled in the trees after a half-hearted deployment.  After gathering the boxes, Gilby would climb the trees to slice the cords and gather chutes from halfway up a pine or cypress while scanning the heavens for any sign of the pyramid of three red diamonds that marked the airships.

Against Demons: Summary/Intro

Spent a good swath of today doing the nitty-gritty of soliciting feedback on the first section of the novel. This involved buying $36+ of postage.

Currently calling it Against Demons. I’m 80% sold on keeping that title.

As part of that, I whipped up a spoiler-free written answer to what I always get asked. “What’s it about?” Might make for a nice back of the dust jacket summary, if those things still existed.

    Will Strague is killing time. He goes through the motions of a well-constructed life, tuning his mood with a carefully calibrated diet and chemical intake. He drinks and dates and dresses carefully, showing to all a well-adjusted young man in the perpetual adolescence that is a standard model of modern city life.
But below the surface, he is a cipher. There is nothing there, all avenues of investigation dead-end. Forged addresses, fake IDs, calls that go to voicemail or are answered by paid confederates. In truth, he is not so much killing time as he is waiting for a sign. He is a sleeper with no one left to awake him. One who stays so long is a battle-ready crouch that he begins to grow moss.
The problem is, when you’re waiting for a sign, everything looks like a sign. Things start creeping in: events in the news, bits of overheard conversation, graffiti, error messages, and twists in games that seem more than just games. Things seem to be converging on a moment where action is required. Will gathers his resources and takes stock of the path that led him to here.

The 11 of you who have a copy so far… how close/useful is this description?