Minh’s Notes

Under Construction

I am working diligently to put a nicer-looking look and feel to this website and a more streamlined system of managing it. Please bear with me; as I can only do this during my free time, this effort will take a long time.

Speaking of construction, here’s a prehistoric under construction page for my now-defunct LSP Online.


In the meantime…

Finding Wilson Boulevard

Sunday, May 21, 2017 — An overflowing bánh mì, a tray of tender bánh da lợn, a can of soybean milk: my treat after every monthly trip to the little Vietnamese grocery across town. Mekong Market was my Sunday Bible school of Vietnamese culture in a childhood as distant from Asia as one could imagine, in Cincinnati. Snacks, sauces, and canned foods defying translation lined the shelves; in the refrigerator, a variety of mystery meats wrapped in aluminum foil each bore the same place of origin: Chicago.

One Labor Day, my family made a trip up to Chicago to finally see the bustling Vietnamese community whose clearance we had happily bought for years. We made a lot of road trips back then, often just spur-of-the-moment driving through the peaceful countryside. But since we were headed five hours away to an unfamiliar city, we needed to plan ahead. As the resident map enthusiast, I was to find directions to the Vietnamese supermarket in Chicago using our new Internet connection. We’d enjoy some phở for lunch and bring back enough fresh ingredients to avoid Mekong Market for a little while.

A search for “Vietnamese markets in Chicago” on AltaVista turned up an article from The Washingtonian describing a cluster of supermarkets, phở restaurants, and bakeries on Wilson Boulevard. I pasted the street address into MapQuest, specified “Chicago” and “Illinois” to make sure I got the right “Wilson”, and printed out the directions. (As one did back in those days: in the car, we kept a radar detector where a phone or GPS unit would normally be holstered today.)

Bánh mì thịt nguội
A Vietnamese cold cuts sandwich (bánh mì thịt nguội).

Five hours later, we arrived in Chicago and crawled up and down Wilson Avenue. If a Vietnamese supermarket or two were to be found along this street, it couldn’t have fit very easily inside any of the modest townhouses that lined the street from end to end without interruption. I noticed, too, that the entire length of the street was numbered in the 8000 range, as opposed to the 6700 block on which this supermarket supposedly stood. My father pulled the car aside and called the supermarket’s phone number on his cell phone. I could understand just enough Vietnamese to make out the voice on the other end: “I’m in Northern Virginia – what in the world do you want me to do for you?”

As my father held his tongue – Grandma was in the back seat – we wandered aimlessly around that part of town until we happened to spot some Vietnamese signage. There, just a few minutes away from Wilson Avenue, were the supermarket, phở restaurant, and bakery we had been hoping for, by sheer luck.


In the years since, I moved to San José, California, home to one of the largest populations of Vietnamese Americans in the country. Bánh mì shops here are as commonplace as cafés. In fact, the only reason I ever notice them is that I also became immersed in OpenStreetMap, an online project that draws maps the way Wikipedia writes an encyclopedia. I found a niche mapping “flyover country” and made it my mission to improve coverage of communities underserved by commercial map vendors, among them ethnic enclaves in San José, Orange County, and elsewhere.

Last month, I happened to be in Washington, D.C., and, on a lark, decided to visit Wilson Boulevard for real. It had been almost eighteen years since my last attempt, but despite having since moved to a city with a large Vietnamese population and plenty of Vietnamese food, I figured seeing this street in person would give me some closure. Fortunately, the same Metro line that took me almost to the airport also took me almost to Eden Center, the Vietnamese shopping center that had teased me back in grade school.

Parking aisles
No Vietnamese shopping center would be complete without a kitschy gate.

I had always imagined Eden Center to be more of a bazaar than a strip mall. Nonetheless, it has almost everything you’d expect from a center of Vietnamese social life: a dearth of parking, a man singing karaoke to an impromptu crowd out front, a father treating his daughters to the kumquats that hang from a decorative tree nearby. On the other hand, there are no elderly men playing cờ tướng in front of the shops, as one often finds in California. (One wall bears an enormous warning against gambling and suggests area casinos as alternatives.)

Like similar centers in Orange County, Eden Center is steeped in war history. Each aisle in the parking lot bears the name of a South Vietnamese general.

Parking aisles
At the intersection of Nguyễn Khoa Nam and Trần Văn Bá “Avenues”.

The South Vietnamese flag flies proudly beside the American flag. As it was the week before the anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, a banner spanning the two flagpoles honored South Vietnamese war heroes.

South Vietnamese heroes banner
The banner reads, Thành Kính Tri Ân Anh Hùng Tử Sĩ Việt Nam Cộng Hòa Vị Quốc Vong Thân (“With Gratitude We Revere the Martyred National Heroes of the Republic of Vietnam”).

I thoroughly field-surveyed Eden Center for OpenStreetMap, noting the restaurants, jewelers, beauty salons, travel agencies, and karaoke bars tucked away in the center’s “mini-malls”. Before leaving, I bought a bánh mì, a piping hot tray of bánh da lợn, and a can of soybean milk for the road.


The whole reason I got involved with “citizen mapping” is that proprietary map sources – the ones we take for granted as being complete, accurate, and up-to-date – actually fall so short when it comes to places beyond San Francisco, beyond the central business districts, beyond the tourist traps.

Eden Center on Apple Maps
Apple Maps includes only a few shops, but they’re all in the wrong places and some are no longer open.

Eden Center on Google Maps
With the same indoor mapping style it applies to every mall, Google Maps makes it look like it has spectacular coverage of Eden Center. But it’s just walls: most of the shops are still in the wrong location and some have closed.

Eden Center on Baidu Maps
I found it surprising that Baidu Maps has coverage of this area on par with Apple Maps, but it too has misplaced and outdated points of interest.

OpenStreetMap didn’t have a lot of detail about Eden Center until I ventured there last month, but now it’s complete, accurate, and up-to-date. Even the parking aisles are named.

Eden Center on OpenStreetMap, before and after
After my visit to Eden Center, OpenStreetMap gained so much detail in the area that there isn’t enough room to display most of the points of interest with proper icons and labels. (Left: before; right: after)

Eden mini-malls on OpenStreetMap, before and after
(Top: before; bottom: after)

Eden Mini Mall on OpenStreetMap, full detail
One of OpenStreetMap’s advantages as a human-curated map database is an attention to detail. The abundance of diacritical marks in Vietnamese are essential to comprehension, so this Vietnamese-American community will find it helpful that OSM includes the diacritics, even though this shopping center is located in a predominantly English-speaking city.

OpenStreetMap may have a long way to go before it can even dream of breaking people’s Google habits. But for now, I’m happy to have finally made it to Wilson Boulevard and made it easier for others to do the same – minus the detour.

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Minutes from the last minutes of 2016

Saturday, December 31, 2016 — It feels wrong to leave my blog hanging on such a brief note about new employment, especially now that I no longer have to keep nearly as many secrets about what I do in front of the computer screen. A blog post authored on December 31st is all but guaranteed to be a year in review. But I’ve procrastinated on updating this blog for well over a year, so you’ll get more than you bargained for.

As my last post suggests, I’ve been preoccupied with maps all this time. Specifically, I’ve been developing an iOS Cocoa Touch library for utterly customizable maps with an incredibly creative team. It wasn’t my intention to delve into iOS development after leaving the Cupertino orchard. After all, I had only started using a smartphone a few months prior. It was only a matter of time before I gave into temptation and ported the library to macOS. Now I have an excuse to write AppleScript!

To me, the most important feature of these map libraries is that they’re based on OpenStreetMap data. Libraries like Mapbox’s are a conduit for the OSM community’s unparalleled, mostly labor-of-love mapping to find their way into the lives of ordinary folks who don’t obsess over maps. I have a lot more to say about why OSM matters, but it would take this post far into manifesto territory, so that’ll have to wait until next year.

Last year, I got an opportunity to share ideas for nurturing the OSM community at, of all places, the United Nations headquarters in New York. It was my first time I’d ever spoken at a conference – I guess it showed. The conference scene also took me to Mexico City and San Diego, where I introduced a small sliver of the Wikimedia community to OSM and its community. The Wikimedia and OSM projects are drawing much closer together, and we’ll finally start to see some of the concrete benefits of that relationship in the new year.

AVIM, my Vietnamese input method extension for Firefox, gained some long-needed features this year, like support for multisyllabic loan words. But the future of that beautiful extension is in doubt, because Mozilla is dead-set on sunsetting the only browser extension platform that’s more than a toy. It’s a pity; the end of AVIM in Firefox will chip away at Vietnamese speakers’ ability to use their native language as a first-class citizen on the Web.

So it’s with mixed feelings that I careen into 2017, but only because 2015–16 was so swell. I’m sure you’re already looking forward to my next last-minute update in approximately one year.

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Mapbox

Tuesday, March 03, 2015 — Last month, I left a job tending orchards in the idyllic foothills of Cupertino, eager to finally paint. I landed at Mapbox, a startup focused on advancing open data and GIS technology. Everyone thinks they know maps: either an unwieldy relic of another era or (heh) a solved problem. But geospatial data is essential to a variety of industries, and smart tools to present and analyze it are going to be a big deal. Mapbox is leading the way, and we’re doing it the right way.

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A nation of handouts

Saturday, February 14, 2015 — Years ago, I started to collect government-issued road maps and atlases, procuring them for free mostly by stopping by roadside welcome centers and signing their guestbooks. Cartotourism requires a bit of tact: you don’t just waltz in and demand a government handout; you have to fein profound interest in the captivating state you’ve just entered. (Under the “Purpose of Visit” column: “Just passing through.”)

Pile of maps
Most states publish elegant highway maps at a cost of a few cents per copy. The more enterprising states turn them into splashy advertisements for theme parks and other attractions, easily recouping printing expenses.

Admittedly it’s a bit perverse that I would care so much about the free map amid all the signs proudly advertising free coffee, Coke, or orange juice. But evidently I’m not alone. For me, the maps proved useful during road trips, even after a GPS device displaced the family radar detector. After hours of counting cows and spotting barn ads along the most remote stretches of I-65, even the highway department could somehow keep me entertained. Something about the way they managed to cram so many names and symbols onto one large sheet of paper.

Kentucky Unfurled
For the most part, these are high-quality maps with clear cartography.

This summer, the collection grew to 58 specimens issued by 27 states, four national parks, four counties, plus Ontario and the former Metro Toronto. Some are nearly 30 years old and have the tears to prove it. The collection sports two official bike maps, a beautiful “agritourism” map, and a completely bilingual map. (Ontario’s is half in French; Louisiana’s wishes it were.) Naturally, the two maps of Texas are by far the largest in my possession. Over the years, I’ve also lost a few maps, including one that proclaimed, “There’s More Than Corn in Indiana!” Indeed: I picked it up at a rest stop nestled amid soybean fields.

Occasionally, I try to do something more interesting with the collection than keep it in a burgeoning shoebox. This time, I made it into a single U.S. map, fashioning states out of the maps they issued. It’s a map made of maps:

Map of Maps
This U.S. map is deformed to the point of resembling a cartogram.

You’ll notice that the arrangement is rather uneven. My collection is heavily skewed towards the Southeast, mostly because I traversed it almost annually during my childhood, but also because the West and New England are quite stingy when it comes to maps. I must’ve discarded California’s map; it was just a page in a travel guidebook. And the only “welcome center” I could find in Rhode Island was a Mobil station selling Mobil maps.

Map tiles
Come see the South! Play golf in North Carolina, race horses in Kentucky, smell the wildflowers in Arkansas, and admire Tennessee’s custom chrome.

Perhaps a more interesting project would be to spread out all these maps and stitch together a mosaic of the U.S. It’ll have to wait until I can find enough floor space to unfurl Texas.

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Hardly knew ye

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ready

Since my earliest days in high school, I have kept Minh’s Notes readers apprised of many things, teaching you how to manually create a snow day, dupe me and sound important in the process, and triple your learning rate. Reader, you are worth every minute I spend writing to you (or using writer’s block as an excuse for not writing to you). But if you only know me from this blog, I have been pretty mum about that nine-to-five part of me.

Today is my last day at Apple. (It’s a fruit company – heard of it?) That mostly means no more product giveaways to this blog’s most insightful commenters. In a little over three years, no one ever qualified, sorry. It also means the Xcode team has one fewer engineer to help sort through fan mail. Apparently they’re called “bug reports” outside Cupertino, which explains the… expressivity I’d see sometimes. I have a lot to get used to.

As for where I’m going, that’ll be the topic of a later note, following the same protocol whereby your bank sends you your PIN in one envelope followed by an explanation of that PIN in another envelope after you’ve misplaced the first. All I can say is it has little to do with the startup idea I had back in 2009.

But man, how cool would that’ve been!

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