TT with HD: Fred Posner
[Ed. note: Parking structures in Ann Arbor, Michigan, display the number of available spaces on signs located outside each structure. Based on a conversation with Ed Vielmetti, Fred Posner put together a telephone number that can be called for real-time parking availability info. It can also call you back to update you if the situation improves or deteriorates. The company that Fred works with, which provides telephone solutions like this, is called Team Forrest. There's also been previous parking geek conversation on the totter.]
EV: What's the current number?
FP: 352. 379. 7334. You can test the 212. Hopefully, they will have it back up. Once the FCC got involved, the whole number transfer ...
HD: ... it's not going to pick that up. [Ed. note: EV had placed his phone on the totter base post. Hands phone to HD, who wielded phone and video camera.]
Phone Voice: Please select the parking garage. For Ann and Ashley, press 1. For a Fourth and William, press 2. For Forest press 3. For 4th and Washington press 4. Tone. There are currently 59 spaces available.
HD: 59! We matched [the sign] exactly! I want to do it one more time.
FP: The power of real time.
HD: Crap. I hit the wrong button. [Ed. note: Multiple tests ensue not all with exact matches.]
EV: Off by one is an acceptable result.
FP: Because they only update their data every minute.
Phone Voice: To be notified when this garage has fewer than 10 spaces available, press one.
HD: All right. That was a long intro. Welcome to the teeter totter, Fred.
FP: Thank you, it's great to be here! [Ed. note: EV prepares for departure]
HD: Hey, thanks Ed! Thanks for your help and your technical assistance.
EV: I'm going somewhere warmer, and I'm never coming back.
HD: Never is a long time, Ed! Alright, so welcome. Now, I just want to paint the correct historical picture. On Wednesday last week there was a DDA board meeting and following that meeting Ed Vielmetti mentioned this idea that he had, he floated this idea. By the following morning, I learned through the magic of the internets that the prototype had been put together already, and the only missing ingredient was the live data feed from the DDA about parking availability--that was down.
FP: Yeah, actually, I spent an hour troubleshooting my problem. I couldn't figure out where in the code I had made an error. And it ended up, it was just that there was no real-time data.
HD: So your code that you wrote, what sort of programming language is this that you are working in?
FP: Tthe only type of programming language it is is Perl. I like to say that I write badly, but well.
FP: The software platform that it's running is called Asterisk. Asterisk is an open-source PBX telephony device. It's basically used to create any sort of phone system. You can use analog cards, you can use digital cards, you can use voice-over-IP, you can just connect it to your regular plain old telephone system ...
HD: ... so where does Asterisk live? Does that will live on your computer at your place, or is there some server somewhere?
FP: I'm hosting it on a server right now at a data center.
HD: Which is where?
FP: It's actually in Portland, Oregon.
HD: And you chose Portland because?
FP: I could get a server in Portland! It really made sense for me to keep it there. We run a bunch of other lines there--some office lines, some things like that, so by keeping it on that server, it just gives me a really good connection to the internet. And with the type of services that I am running, that's really important.
HD: Okay. So the actual voice interface, this is some sort of text-to-speech engine, that is reading numbers and is creating the audio ...
FP: ... it's a combination. The part that is saying the garage and the weather--I needed something to fill the time--so I put in a little weather interface ...
HD: ... right. Now we have flurries and it is really cold.
FP: Yeah, which I'd really didn't need the phone to tell me that, I guess! [laugh] That part uses something called Cepstral--is just a text-to-speech type engine. It is not open-source. It is the one aspect of this project that is not open-source. You could use an open-source module, but it is one of the worst type voices you have ever heard in your life. And I thought, at least this kind of matches some of the other sounds in the background. The other sounds in the background are actually recorded sounds, for example, the number, they just come with Asterisk. Digium, the company that created Asterisk had someone named Allison, who is a voice-over recording person--there is probably a better technical name for that. But she does recordings ...
HD: ... her name is Allison?
FP: I think her name is Allison Smith.
HD: Is this the same Allison that is on Macintosh computers? There is a, I think, a voice named Allison. [Ed. note: Victoria, Vicki, Agnes, Princess, and Kathy are the voices on the MacBook HD owns. He's misremembering.]
FP: I'm not sure. She is very popular.
HD: So she's like famous for computerized voice--well, not computerized, but for ...
FP: ... for making phone voices. Absolutely. One of the more famous voices.
HD: Is there any possibility say that the quality of that voice [on the prototype] could be made more natural?
FP: Absolutely. I didn't want to put a lot of money into it--the Cepstral license for this project probably cost about $29. And I had used it on other things, so I had it lying around. You can upgrade to a much nicer voice quality.
HD: So how many dollars are we talking about for the nicer voice quality? Because I mean, to me, if I am going to call this thing, I want it to sound better than that.
FP: Yeah, absolutely.
HD: Otherwise people are just going to make fun of it.
FP: Yeah, absolutely.
FP: One of the things that we could do for free, is we could have it just record us. And you could sit there, you could record all the possible words that would be used and then just pull those words. That would just be time--so whatever time is for someone who has a nice voice.
HD: So, you could get celebrities to do it. So like, you could get the executive director of the DDA, Susan Pollay, to do the voicing for the parking data! That would seem to make sense.
FP: Or we could get Flint's own Bob Eubanks.
HD: Is Bob Eubanks from Flint??
FP: I thought he was. Maybe I got the name wrong. [Ed. note: FP is right about Eubanks being from Flint, Michigan.]
HD: So the next step from here? You've got this thing that works. For all intents and purposes, people could use this productively right now.
FP: I used it on the way in!
HD: Did you really?
HD: So is this still the 212 number?
FP: Right now the 212 number, it is pointed right now to 352 as well, so the phone number is 352-379-7334. They both go to the same thing. What we will end up doing is just getting a local number, and it won't have the first menu where you have to press , it will just go directly.
HD: So when you say you've just gotta get a local number, who is in charge of that? This is the equivalent for the telephone industry of domain names, right, whoever owns the DNS stuff?
FP: That's a pretty decent analogy. There's probably several hundred companies I could choose from, just like there are several hundred I could choose from to get a domain name.
HD: So what is the plan as far as selecting a number? It seems to me that ideally you want something that spells out something cool, like PARK-NOW. Or A2PARK.
FP: I'm assuming that's not going to happen really easily.
HD: Why is that?
FP: Because ...
HD: ... but everybody's got them, Fred. Haven't you seen this kind of thing??
HD: Yeah, I don't know, is that even the right number of letters?
FP: Yeah. It's just that it would be better with NOW-PARK. Yeah, it's seven. We could try to find one. It would be great if we could have something ending in INFO or PARK or something like that. It's just trying to find a number that fits it.
HD: But that is not a priority for you, is that what I'm hearing?
FP: You know, I have worked in phones now steadily for 2 to 3 years. And some of the best productions have the hardest-to-remember names in terms of mapping it to a name. Especially now with digital phones, or mobile phones, where you're going to have a lot of people calling, a lot of them won't have letters. So if I go to somebody and say hey, call 734-PARK-NOW ...
HD: ... they will stare at you blankly.
FP: They're probably going, How can I do this? So what we need is a good number.
HD: What we need is an iPhone application that you could just say, "Dial 1-800-PARK-NOW" and it would interpret that for you.
FP: That would be fantastic. I think there is an iPhone application, actually that does that.
HD: Well, that would be cool.
FP: One of the things I was thinking is that if you're not going to get something with letters that spells out words--which was really big ten--even up to five--years ago. Now the big thing is just get a number that is easy to remember. So you can get any double numbers, like instead of 734-274-PARK. If I could get 734-274-4444, that's a great number.
HD: So what is your next step? Are you pitching this to the DDA? Or to getDowntown? Or to the city of Ann Arbor?
FP: I am really new to the area. I have been living here since probably November. And I kind of just did this because I met up with Ed [Vielmetti] and that group for their Thursday lunch ...
HD: ... and 'that group' for the Thursday lunch, you can't remember its name??
FP: A2B3! [laugh] And it was a great group of people. And it's always nice to kind of help things out, especially when something hits your area [of expertise], and you can say, Oh yeah, you know what, here's a great little interface that we could do for that, and it won't be hard, let me show you.
HD: So where were you before you came here? Someplace warm?
FP: Much warmer. I was in Florida.
HD: Wow. So you said, Hey, it's cold up there, so let me go there to Michigan??
FP: One of the big failures in life is not convincing the girlfriend that it would be better to move down to Florida than for me to move up here! [laugh]
HD: [laugh] So, she was already up here?
FP: Yeah, she's up here. And in all honesty, you know, I can work out of the house. She can't. She works for U of M, so for me to say, Okay, you know, let me be selfish and you have to move down to Florida so I can work out of my house. I really love it up here--granted the times I came up to visit before it was much warmer.
HD: So you are a trailing spouse.
FP: Yeah, absolutely. Proud of it!
HD: Is there anything else that you want to make sure gets properly conveyed about this project? I don't want to describe you as evasive, but you didn't really say what you're planning to do with this project.
FP: Oh I'm sorry about that. I truly don't know. I'm sorry about being evasive...
HD: ... no, no I'm not saying you were being evasive, I'm just saying we didn't get the question answered. [laugh]
FP: I love open-source and I try to be as open-source as possible.
HD: Yeah, I mean, you have documented exactly how this works on the web.
FP: Yeah, I truly apologize. I think the cold does freeze my brain cells little bit.
HD: No no no, I was not accusing you of being evasive. I meant to be saying you were not being evasive, but we still didn't get the answer to the question.
FP: You know, I don't know where to go. Ed [Vielmetti] knows, I think, every single person in Michigan.
HD: No, I met a guy who didn't know him. So not every single one.
FP: But he was traveling! [laugh] So I would like to see however he goes. In terms of my mind of how I would like to see it, I think this would be something perfect for--I don't want to be accused of being anti-government. Benjamin Franklin is one of my heroes, and I truly believe that things tend to be done better by the people who want to do them, and once you assign it to a government, where it just kind of fails ...
HD: ... so you really don't want to see this in the hands of government?
FP: I don't see any reason for this to be in the hands of the city, or in the hands of ...
HD: ... but I guesswhere I was headed with the topic is, you have been so open-sourcey and generous with the way you have documented exactly how to do it, so that basically anybody--well I couldn't do it because it's not within my technical skill set--but for somebody who works in this area, they could just basically say, Oh, thanks Fred, go and take it and plop it in, and the city of Ann Arbor gets it for free.
FP: The sad thing is, by publishing it and seeing how simple it was to approach, my hope would be that instead of saying, Oh, thanks Fred! that they would go, Why haven't we done this a year ago? And the answer would be: There is no excuse. Something like this is simple. We did it from an initial thought to a working prototype with this garage right here ...
HD: ... it was less than 12 hours.
FP: Yes, and the whole thing in less than probably four or five days. To the point where it calls you back!
HD: Yeah that's an important feature. We didn't actually demonstrate that functionality. So the idea is, if you are driving into town and you're half an hour away, and you call it says, There's 59 spaces--but what if that changes in a half an hour? It will call you and it will say ...
FP: ... there are fewer than 10 spots. Right now, it's just a hard-code. We could get it so that it's user-customized, I guess. So right now, 10 is the magic number. So if you're coming in, and there's fewer than 10 spots remaining, it will tell you how many spots are remaining.
HD: So like, at Washington and Fourth there are only 7 spots remaining, so instead of even trying Washington and Fourth maybe you head straight for Ann-Ashley.
FP: Because at 9 I might try it, but at 2 I am not coming here. [laugh]
FP: But the second I wrote that part I thought, Well this is stupid, what if I wanted to come in here, and there were only three, and then it opens up. So the next step would be to put in the reverse: So if you are on your way to Fourth and Washington, it will call you if spots become available.
HD: All right, well listen, thanks for joining me on the teeter totter. I am about frozen.
HD: Shall we dismount?
FP: I think we shall. Take you so much!