High Tech

Writers’ choice

“Working Lunch”

“Working Lunch”

Illustration By Susan Barnes

Best place to get your daily dose of Java

eChannel Cafe
It’s not one of those upscale Internet cafes you see in movies, where Birkenstock-wearing intellectuals quietly sip lattés and browse chat rooms. It’s more of a dark dungeon filled with computers. The walls are all covered, leaving the large room cloaked in darkness except for the incandescent glow of the computer screens all around the room. It is filled not with liberal bards denouncing the government but rather with computer geeks engaged in a battle royal of simulated warfare. Instead of playing games against strangers on the Internet, they crowd the room to partake in a competition in which they actually can see their rivals. There are good, stimulating times to be had here for hours on end.
2996 Freeport Boulevard, (916) 447-2290, www.echannelcafe.com.

Best place to build your own geek creation

Fry’s Electronics
Whether you’re attempting to build the world’s greatest computer or just trying to buy a DVD player, Fry’s has every big and little thing you could possibly want in the area of electronics. The huge, warehouse-style store can completely equip anyone, from the biggest computer geek looking to improve his hard-drive performance to the casual, everyday customer merely seeking a new telephone. Spare parts are available in great abundance, meaning one theoretically could build anything from a supercomputer to a robot to a radio. The prices are what make the store unique, however. You can’t find the stuff Fry’s sells cheaper anywhere in the area.
4100 Northgate Boulevard, (916) 286-5800.

Best Capitol technological leap

Text pagers
Watch the state Legislature in action (or inaction), and you’ll probably catch someone fiddling with what looks like a Game Boy. Actually, it’s a text pager, the new fad that has pols tapping out communiqués faster than teenage girls on a Tokyo subway. Messages often come from staffers who can’t find their boss or get through on the cell phone. Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg, uses one, which is a lifesaver for staffers who don’t need to trudge around the building to find him. Instead, Canciamilla uses the diminutive typewriter-style keyboard to tap out a reply—usually within a couple minutes. Because they’re silent, BlackBerry pagers and other similar devices mean the boss isn’t unreachable during do-not-call events like, say, caucus meetings. The pagers receive e-mail, so it’s easy to drop a quick note reminding the boss that he or she is late for an appointment with a special-interest lobbyist, or to forward long, rambling e-mails from disgruntled constituents.

Best municipal Web site

City of Davis
Web sites have become government’s most important link to the people they serve, but most cities—like Sacramento—have ugly, useless, unfriendly sites. The City of Davis site, however, shines on a par with those of far larger cities. It’s elegantly designed and crammed with features. Residents can watch live or archived council meetings and get all the supporting staff reports (a rarity for cities). Twenty different e-mail newsletters deliver everything from meeting agendas to job opportunities to senior-center activities. The budget and entire municipal code are there, as is an interactive map of city bus routes. Hear sirens? The fire department’s call logs are there, along with a slick feature on firefighters’ protective gear. The beauty of it is that the site’s 7,000 different pages provide unprecedented access to municipal business, which means residents don’t need to make unnecessary calls and trips to bother the staff down at City Hall.

Best enviro-friendly high-rise

California Environmental Protection Agency building
It is that rare exception among public office buildings built in the last half-century: It is easy on the eyes. But more importantly, the new California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters at 10th and I streets is also easy on the Earth, thanks to a host of high-tech features built into the 25-story structure. The design, which maximizes the amount of natural light in work areas, includes passive photo sensors that measure brightness. On sunny days, the central energy-management computer dims overhead lights. The building uses about two-thirds the energy of a typical downtown office tower—and even generates some of its own with rooftop solar panels. And now, the three regulatory boards that meet inside are testing teleconferencing to allow for testimony from remote sites around the state. Cool landscaping and public art make it worth visiting. There’s just one hang-up: Some workers aren’t exactly embracing the waterless urinals.
1001 I Street, (916) 322-5322 for tours.

Best online resource for what’s happenin’

Fly Guide
Francois Fly, the anonymous Midtown insect behind Fly Guide, started this Web site and e-mail newsletter as a response to that oft-repeated lament that there’s nothing to do in Sacramento. Every week, he proves that sentiment wrong, zapping out a list of indie, underground, artsy-fartsy and frequently free events going down and flying around town. A random sample of a recent Fly Guide pointed subscribers to the all-night Trash Film Orgy; a free taiko-drumming show at California State University, Sacramento; spoken word, stand-up and skit comedy; award-winning flute playing; kids’ art; and an outdoor film screening. Bored Sacramentans can sign up for the e-mail bulletins—or let Francois know about an upcoming event—on the site.

Best farm gadget

Trimble Navigation’s Autopilot
Farming is hard work, but it’s getting easier. Cutting-edge Central Valley farmers are now outfitting tractors with global-positioning systems (GPSes) that let the farmers lean back and kick up their heels while their computer plows their field for them—even at night or in heavy fog. By installing Trimble Navigation’s top-of-the-line Autopilot system on a tractor, farmers can make perfectly straight rows accurate to within two centimeters and watch the Kings game. The system, on the market for two years, includes a GPS antenna, a small dashboard display screen where operators can program the specifics of the field and a steering mechanism under the hood that does the driving. Autopilot, which is distributed locally through Precision Farming Enterprises in Woodland, goes for about $45,000, but eventually, it pays for itself: Straighter rows mean more crop yield, easier harvest and less use of fertilizer, herbicide and water.
Precision Farming Enterprises, (530) 662-4343, www.precisionfarming.org.

Best state-funded eyes

The old way to inspect bridges and overpasses for fractures and corrosion was dangerous and time-consuming: Climb up and look. The new way is faster, safer and more fun: Get a flying robot to do it. California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) engineers are testing an unmanned aerial vehicle called the Aerobot, a 40-pound, 3-foot-tall cylinder that houses two contra-rotating fans. It originally was developed as a military lookout. With one person at the joystick, the aircraft flies around at the end of a 200-foot fiber-optic cable that sends control inputs up and video images down. Aerobot is made by Moller International, a small Davis company trying to make the Skycar, a four-seat aircraft that takes off vertically and cruises at 300 mph, commercially available by 2007! Caltrans was first to get the $400,000 Aerobot, but six other states and the Federal Highway Administration are also in line for theirs.
Moller International, (530) 756-5086, www.moller.com/aerobot.

Best place to pilfer Internet access

Elk Grove
Elk Grove’s tree-lined boulevards may look boring, but they’re lined with invisible doors to the Internet available to anyone with a Wi-Fi card in their laptop. According to one of Sacramento’s more knowledgeable practitioners of wardriving—the practice of driving around and sniffing out unprotected wireless networks—there’s a high concentration of signals inside the rectangle formed by Laguna Boulevard, Bruceville Road, Elk Grove Boulevard and Franklin Boulevard. After running a utility like NetStumbler, which scans the airwaves for network signals, it’s easy to get on the Net for nothing. Most networks either are open or are protected only by easily guessed default passwords like “admin” or, incredibly, “password” that nobody bothers to change. The network owner usually can’t tell that he or she is being piggybacked, which means Wi-Fi users who get a signal at home can save a bundle by canceling their DSL service. Advanced players can use a packet sniffer like eEye’s Iris to pluck e-mail and Web sites out of the airwaves. Who knew Elk Grove was so fun?

Best alternative to Amazon.com

Sacramento Public Library
Why buy when you can borrow? Next time you need a read, consider checking out the Sacramento Public Library’s Web site before visiting one of those pesky online retailers that actually expects money in exchange for goods. Library-card holders can log on, find the book they want and designate where they’d like to pick it up. With thousands of titles and 26 branches, the possibilities are darn-near endless. Once your selection is ready, library staff will notify you via e-mail and give you 10 days to fetch it. Renewals can be made online, as well. It’s quick and easy, and there’s no shipping to pay.
(916) 264-2920, www.saclibrary.org.

Best law-enforcement Web site

Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department
You’ve gotta love Lou Blanas, the imperious yet boyish Sacramento County sheriff, not for his friendly demeanor—he is a sheriff, after all—but rather for the crisp, clean, user-friendly Web site his office maintains. Louie’s right there in the upper right, beckoning you to read his missive about the county budget crunch in which the Republican whines that his agency isn’t getting all the taxpayer money it possibly can. The page also offers a cheerful invitation to join the department (“No experience necessary!”) and a yearbook-style showcase of suspects who have achieved the dubious honor of being the “Sheriff’s Most Wanted.” (Know any? Tipsters win $1,000.) The most amusing feature, however, is media-unfriendly Louie’s section of press releases, featured prominently at the top of the page. The news about drunken boaters, carjackings and shootings isn’t that entertaining in itself. But we do get a kick out of the thin-skinned press office—which stopped returning our calls after we ran articles critical of the department—publishing its own news.

Best online restaurant guide

Sacramento County Environmental Management Department
Got a date? Meeting friends? Tired of lunch at the same place? Whatever. Many online resources can help you find restaurants. But only the county health inspector’s Web site can say if it’s a place you really want to chow down at. Say you’re thinking about trying that new sushi place. It might be worth a minute of checking it out online, especially if you find that the place you were going to eat at tonight just got cited for major violations, such as not keeping its fish at the right temperature or the employees not washing their hands. The department’s Web site is easily searchable—you can enter a city and street if you don’t remember the name—and includes PDF copies of the actual inspector’s report plus the phone number, address and a map to the place where you’re going—or not going. As a bonus, for those who may ignore the department’s advice, the page also links to information about food poisoning.

Best place to see bleeding-edge technology

California State Railroad Museum
Don’t think of them as old. Before steam trains ever puffed across the empty continent, the idea of doing something like that was as far out as flying standby to the moon. But the promise that the technology to ride here from the East Coast would exist someday played a big role in bringing California into the union instead of into Mexico or Russia. Without even making it a territory first, Congress granted statehood to the remote land in 1850, nearly two decades before rails linked the Sacramento riverfront to Omaha, Neb. Some of the hardware from those days survives on permanent exhibit at the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento. But don’t look at the funny old trains as relics. Instead, get lost in their newness and the hyper-fast changes they presaged for politics, economics and technology.
111 I Street, (916) 445-6645, www.californiastaterailroadmuseum.org.

Best alternative to Clear Channel Communications

Sacto Music Station
Though there’s a lot of great radio on the Internet, Frank Vyan Walton says anyone can stick a bunch of MP3s on a Web site. He tries to go further, promoting dozens of local bands that wouldn’t get a lot of attention otherwise, by sticking them in the rotation at his spot on the Internet radio dial: Sacto Music Station. In spite of doing it on half a shoestring budget—he can’t afford his own URL right now—Walton maintains a playlist of more than 400 tracks by local bands. In addition to deejaying live on Saturdays, the information-technology guy by day shuffles between different genres for each day of the week. There are metal Mondays, punk Tuesdays, alt Wednesdays, etc., as well as an open playlist in the morning. Walton accepts submissions from local bands and sends out a regular e-mail newsletter with news about upcoming local gigs.

Best Sacramento gift to Arnold Schwarzenegger

The Motion Picture
Yes, movies really were invented at the old horse-racing track that once sprawled across the northern end of what’s now Midtown Sacramento. It’s where Leland Stanford, the robber baron, ex-governor and college founder, indulged his passion: horses. In 1872, he hired photographer Eadweard Muybridge to shoot some of his equine beauties in action to see if they got four legs up at once. (Contrary to myth, the ex-guv wasn’t trying to settle a $25,000 bet, and the horse was trotting, not running.) Back then, exposures were measured in minutes, so Muybridge essentially invented high-speed photography. It took five years. Muybridge’s work—interrupted by his trial and acquittal on charges of killing a journalist who slept with his wife—eventually concluded at Stanford’s Palo Alto farm, where a crowd watched a horse run in front of a phalanx of cameras. To show motion, Muybridge created the zoopraxiscope, which could project the photos in quick succession. Thomas Edison later patented the kinetoscope, which turned out to be the first link between an ex-governor’s film machine and someone who could be the next governor because he played machines on film.

Best free entertainment at work

The California Channel on the Web
Though the California Channel’s broadcasts of the state Legislature’s antics often end by the time most people get home from work, there is another way to catch the politicos in action, for free, in the comfort of your own cubicle. Floor sessions and committee hearings are broadcast live on the California Channel’s Web site, which also has an archive of old broadcasts. The webcasts have all the excitement of sweeps-week pandering, with elected officials showboating in committee by berating clueless bureaucrats; lawmakers using procedural tricks on the floor; and good, old-fashioned name-calling. The station, which is a public service funded by cable companies, can be viewed discreetly with headphones on any machine with a decent Web connection. And, if lawmakers keep leaving their microphones on during private meetings, there’s no telling what you could hear.