Archive for July, 2005


Saturday, July 30th, 2005

One of the great difficulties in researching the intersection of activism and information and communications technologies (computers and the Internet) is that it goes by many different names. Here are just a few: virtual activism, virtual protests, virtual sit-ins, hacktivism, net activism, and cyberactivism. Unlike the hard sciences, so-called soft sciences such as sociology tend not to have standardized subject lists. Resources such as Google can only get you so far. Without the right name, one can miss major categories and examples of activities.

Here is a university graduate course that begins to explore the different characteristics comprising each word.

On the specific word, cyberactivism, students in an undergraduate sociology course at McMaster University have created a nice introduction to cyberactivism . A cyberactivism tutorial from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, shows how the Internet can be applied to each step of becoming an activist.

Famine Early Warning Systems in the News

Saturday, July 30th, 2005

The Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) recently announced an emergency for the Horn of Africa. The model now reports that 18 million people are facing severe food shortages. Most of these people are in Ethiopia.

FEWS is the best known instance of computer models that predict potential hotspots of famines. It is also an example of the extraordinary difficulty in creating reliable output at a continental or global scale. These models are very data intensive and therefore depend entirely on the quality of the data. Poor data can result in massive under- or overstatement of a crisis. The models rely heavily on remotely sensed images from which the modelers infer vegetation levels, water/rain availability, and crop conditions. The temptation is to rely primarily on the remote sensing instead of visiting the sites, which may be difficult or dangerous to reach and therefore expensive to monitor. Sophisticated models like FEWS are calibrated with ground based data. The availability of ground based data over areas like the African continent is uneven and local data can be suspect. The Sudanese government, for example, has been known to control the availability, accuracy and interpretation of datasets characterizing their country as a way to play politics with humanitarian relief agencies. So, even with the most careful methods, 18 million is a rough estimate at best. At the same time, even rough estimates can save innumerable lives.

On another matter: Reuters, which carried the story as part of its alert system for humanitarians, has an associated interactive map that I find quite wanting. When I clicked on it I expected to see some numbers related to potential famine. Nothing. Indeed, a pulldown menu, with items like the Indian Ocean tsumami or AIDS in Asia, has at most standard map layers (roads, river, city locations). No information related to the subject. Also, the legend is broken for most of the links. Come on, guys, if you want map technology related to your stories then implement something. Don’t give us a standard atlas! Actually, this interactive map contains less information than an atlas. For a much better interactive map, see the Famine Early Warning Systems site.

Arctic ice melts

Saturday, July 30th, 2005

Nothing like interpretation of remote sensed imagery to ruin your day: Scientists sound alarm on Arctic ice cap:

Satellite data for the month of June show Arctic sea ice has shrunk to a record low, raising concerns about climate change, coastal erosion, and changes to wildlife patterns. Meier says circulation patterns are bringing more storms and warmer air from the South into the region, and that’s helping to break up the ice.

“June is really the first big month of melt in the central Arctic Ocean and so it’s an indication that the melt is progressing faster than normal,” [according to Walt Meier of the U.S. based National Snow and Ice Data Centre.] . “And when you start melting the ice you’re leaving the open ocean there which absorbs much more solar energy and so it tends to heat up even more.”

Less sea ice means more moisture in the air and more rain.

It also leads to an increase in coastal erosion since the ice isn’t there to buffer the shoreline from waves.

Meier says the ice has retreated almost everywhere in the Arctic except for a small area in the East Greenland Sea.

I guess it’s time again for Canada to worry about its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.

BTW, the Centre’s site contains an enormous amount of free snow and ice data on the atmosphere, biosphere, ground level, glaciers, hydrosphere, land surfaces, oceans, even paleoclimate. If only Canada could be similarly generous in its offerings. Indeed, why is this analysis coming from the U.S.?

Where eco-friendly should not tread

Saturday, July 30th, 2005

The military has developed a “green bullet”. The eco-friendly bullet has no lead, which is apparently a problem at military bases where lots of ordance is fired. The lead leaches into the ground and contaminates the ground water. However, the green bullets, composed of tungsten and nylon, are not as environmentally friendly as first thought.

“It’s frustrating,” Col. William FitzPatrick of the National Guard’s Environmental Readiness Center said Thursday. “You’re doing what you think are the right things. As science evolves, you wonder, ‘Am I in front of the curve, or behind?”‘

?? Isn’t doing the right thing limiting the number of bullets, period?

The squeaky toy edition

Friday, July 29th, 2005

He’s alternately fascinated and horrified by it.

U.S. messing with time

Friday, July 29th, 2005

So says a leaked proposal made to the United Nations, reported in the Wall Street Journal. As you know, every so often an extra second, called a leap second, has to be added to the clocks so that time tracks the movement of the sun. Apparently the U.S. doesn’t like it because the extra time disturbs existing computer programs and navigation systems (e.g., global positioning systems). Better to have a standardized 24 hour clock and don’t worry about the drift.

Admittedly the drift is minimal. But it is upsetting to scientists,

including the Earth Rotation Service’s leap-second chief, Daniel Gambis, of the Paris Observatory. “As an astronomer, I think time should follow the Earth,” Dr. Gambis said in an interview. He calls the American effort a “coup de force,” or power play, and an “intrusion on the scientific dialogue.”…

[The U.S. proposal] has set off a wave of passionate opposition from astronomers, who argue that removing the link between time and the sun would require making changes to telescopes, changes that would cost between $10,000 and $500,000 per facility. That’s because a fancy telescope uses the exact time and the Earth’s position for aiming purposes when astronomers
tell it to point at a specific star.

[Note that there is a whiff of anti-Europeanism here because Gambis is from France and because Britain is considered to be the centre of time.]

Of course, the problem could actually be “lazy programmers”:

Deep down, though, the opposition is more about philosophy than cost. Should the convenience of lazy computer programmers triumph over the rising of the sun? To the government, which worries about safety more than astronomy, the answer is yes. In Mr. Allen’s view, absolutely not. [Steve Allen, an astronomer from University of California, runs a website about leap seconds.] “Time has basically always really meant what you measure when you put a stick in the ground and look at its shadow,” he said.


Has this happened to you?

Wednesday, July 27th, 2005

Presented without comment: Cat got your keyboard?

Are you worried that your cat is trying to delete your operating system? Does the report you stayed up all night writing contain literary gems like “ffeswwa” and “jlkikkjikiklkuh”? Has your cat made purchases on eBay?

Then you need PawSense, software that identifies and blocks your kitty’s keyboard tap-dancing. When it senses little cat feet on the keyboard, PawSense brings up a screen that says “Cat-Like Typing Detected.” Should you accidentally engage in catlike typing yourself, the screen has a box where you can type in “human” and the computer will let you proceed. PawSense was invented by Chris Niswander after his sister’s cat crashed her computer. He was awarded the IgNobel Prize for Computer Science in 2000 for his invention.

Ile Sans Fil

Wednesday, July 27th, 2005

An interesting group I’ve come across in my work over the summer, Île Sans Fil is a Montreal group trying to encourage free wireless internet access across the island of montreal, primarily through providing infrastructure support for businesses and organizations who wish to join the network by providing free wireless internet.

From what I can glean, they seem to be bilingual, free (as in speech) software advocates, are almost entirely volunteer run, and in my case with the Atwater Library, very willing to go the extra mile to get things working. They have two projects: setting up conventional wireless hotspots across the island of Montreal, and to get a free rooftop to rooftop network configured, which will be run by and for the community at large.

It does raise some questions, which they may or may not have addressed (I couldn’t find answers on their website to these concerns), about who is liable for malicious usage of the service. If all it takes to get an account is a valid e-mail address, it seems like the door is wide open for all sorts of not very nice things to occur.

In addition, it also invokes a stark contrast between the haves and have nots: at my work, those with laptops can use the internet for free, while those who don’t have them have to pay a small fee, however for most of the people who use the service, this fee is by no means trivial, whereas on the other hand, I suspect most of the laptop toting visitors could easily afford it.

Still, in general seems like a worthwhile endeavour, I shall report more as I learn it.

Billy the Window Hog

Friday, July 22nd, 2005

Get your own window.
Shouldn’t you be at work?

Extreme Ironing

Friday, July 15th, 2005

As you may or may not be aware, a new sport, Extreme Ironing, is taking the world by storm. Combining the extreme sports movement with the domestic pleasures of performing laundry, the aesthetic appeal of freshly ironed shirts in the great outdoors is not to be denied.

Extreme Ironing was started in Leicester, England, in 1999. The first Extreme Ironing World Championships were held in 2002 in Germany, involving 3 countries and 5 teams. Since then, Extreme Ironing has picked up a sponsor (appliance maker Rowenta), been mentioned in a wide swath of media (the BBC in particular has some good photos) , and has had a documentary made on it by Channel 4 in Britain, a review by Time Out quoted in Wikipedia seems positive:

There is a near-tearful moment as Steam, the Brit captain, struggling with his ironing-board in the middle of a fast-flowing river breaks into a verse of God Save the Queen to rally the troops. Any other sport and you would have said he holds the hopes of a nation in his hand. Here you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Wikipedia has a more in-depth history of the sport.

Indeed, Extreme Ironing’s burgeoning popularity has caused some growing pains, including an offshoot Urban Housework which includes vacuuming dirt outdoors, an activity which has raised tensions along both sides of the divide, with some accusing urban housework of being un-environmentally friendly (although as mentioned on wikipedia, UH devotees point out that the vacuum is eventually emptied).

Friday’s cat

Friday, July 15th, 2005

Mouse-eye view of Billy
A mouse’s-eye view of Billy.

The Google University Rankings

Tuesday, July 12th, 2005

I’m sure many of us come across the various university rankings from time to time, and read, discuss, then dismiss them. While being generally rediculous (oh no, my student life rating is only 13.7!), you sadly still hear them brought up fairly frequently in discussions about the relative merits of different universities.

Now, nearly all such rankings rely on ‘reputation’ or a similar category as being a large part of how they determine which universities are the best, generally by asking a few academics, maybe some leaders in business, and in some I’ve seen, high school guidance councillors. It all seems rather synthetic. Luckily for us, Google can rank anything we ask it to, based on ‘relevance’, for any keywords we give it. Thus, the top 5 university listings (i.e. primary entrance page for the university, or department) for various keywords:

University (from a bell canada IP address)

  1. Toronto
  2. McGill
  3. Waterloo
  4. Harvard
  5. Stanford

University (from an american IP address)

  1. Harvard
  2. Stanford
  3. Cambridge
  4. Toronto
  5. Yale

Computer Science (bell)

  1. MIT
  2. Carnegie Mellon
  3. Maryland
  4. Stanford
  5. Washington

Computer Science (us)

  1. Carnegie Mellon
  2. MIT
  3. Maryland
  4. Stanford
  5. Washington

Geography (bell)

  1. Simon Fraser
  2. McGill
  3. UBC
  4. Toronto
  5. Ohio State

Geography (us)

  1. Ohio State
  2. Edinburgh
  3. Leeds
  4. Penn State
  5. UCSB

Among other things, this makes me realise how heavily the Google rank of the page is affected by your location. It also makes me think that geography as a department doesn’t exist strongly at a lot of universities, as I had to go through many a results page to get those five dubious results. I didn’t list the environment results, as you have to add a few modifiers to make universities come up.

Caveats: among other things, this is obviously heavily slanted towards english universities with well formed entrance pages, in addition to being obviously heavily affected by Google’s attempt at geographic relevance.

oasis in a toxic world

Monday, July 11th, 2005

The NYTimes reports that one Arizona town provides an “oasis in a toxic world”

Snowflake (a town named for early settlers named Erastus Snow and William Flake) became a home for those suffering from chemical sensitivities in 1988, when Bruce McCreary, the electrical engineer, arrived here from Mesa. The year before, he said, chemicals in the aircraft factory where he worked had left him almost totally disabled.

About two dozen other people with multiple chemical sensitivities (M.C.S., or “environmental illness”) have joined him, and Mr. McCreary helps them construct houses without the plastics and glues that are the mainstays of modern home building. They bought their home sites for $500 to $1,000 an acre.

The townspeople are worried because a recent real estate boom may cause people without MCS to locate in the town. The newer residents may choose to use pesticides on their lawns or build driveways with asphalt.

Apparently, many of the residents are also sensitive to electromagnetic fields (EMF) and have erected elaborate devices so that they can operate electrial devices, watch TV, and access the Internet. The Aarticle links to a multimedia show that describes the lengths to which they’ll go to minimize contact with EMF.

Mapping Hacks

Monday, July 11th, 2005

From boing boing on easy to use mapping software:

This time last year, I met Rich Gibson at Dorkbot and he told me that he had just started work on a Mapping Hacks book for O’Reilly. This week, I had the opportunity to peruse the finished book, co-written with Schuyler Erle and Jo Walsh. As a “map curious” newcomer to digital cartography, I can say with certainty that it’s an engaging and downright inspiring book. From Google Maps to Dodgeball, location-enhanced technologies are all the rage these days. But it’s easy to get lost in the hype of geocoding, Geographic Information Systems, and even GPS. Fortunately, as with the other books in O’Reilly’s Hacks series, Mapping Hacks is all about learning by doing.

The hacks range from gems like #7, perfectly titled “Will the Kids Barf?” (how to create an index of road curvedness), to “#39 View Your Photo Thumbnails on a Flash Map,” to “#76 Explore the Effects of Global Warming.” I’m told that even experienced map hackers will get off on the open source GIS tricks, geocoding Web hacks, and other technical material. For me though, Mapping Hacks is a perfect compass to guide me into the realm of digital cartography with plenty of welcome rest stops and fun tourist attractions along the way.

Link to O’Reilly catalog page, Link to Mapping Hacks blog.

Google Earth

Monday, July 11th, 2005

Google Earth is a new map viewer with overlay capacity, cardinal directions and huge amounts of data, including topography, transportation (roads, railroads, transit stops), building footprints in major cities, socio-economic census data and crime statistics, business locations. Some of the data is extruded to 3-D. Most important, it’s free.

From Google’s site

Want to know more about a specific location? Dive right in — Google Earth combines satellite imagery, maps and the power of Google Search to put the world’s geographic information at your fingertips.

  • Fly from space to your neighborhood. Type in an address and zoom right in.
  • Search for schools, parks, restaurants, and hotels. Get driving directions.
  • Tilt and rotate the view to see 3D terrain and buildings.
  • Save and share your searches and favorites. Even add your own annotations.

Google Earth puts a planet’s worth of imagery and other geographic information right on your desktop. View exotic locales like Maui and Paris as well as points of interest such as local restaurants, hospitals, schools, and more.

The Washington Post has a good review of Google Earth. The article focuses on one feature that exploits the interactivity and exchange potentials of the Internet:

You can add “placemarks” for any interesting spots you find, then share them with other Google Earth users via an online bulletin board. This ought to be directly integrated with Google Earth, instead of requiring you to save a placemark as a separate file, then switch to your Web browser to attach that file to a posting in that bulletin board.

It should then show up under the “Keyhole BBS” category in Google Earth’s Layers menu, but the program neglects to explain (as a Google publicist did) that it takes about two weeks for that to happen.

Despite those roadblocks, users of Google Earth and the earlier Keyhole program have accumulated a massive library of shared placemarks that span a wide range of geo-trivia. One individual, for example, has assembled a set of placemarks that point to historic lighthouses; another is mapping the locations of publicly accessible webcams.

[The Keyhole bbs could be one of the best features of Google Earth because it creates on online community of map users and data sharers. For those of you who are not intimate users of geographic information systems (GIS), it has an excellent introduction to the software as well as FAQs posted by community members. See prior post on the wonders of Keyhole technology.]

What fascinates me is the impact that Google might have on GIS companies, particularly in the movement of GIS capability to the Internet. Not only is Google Earth offered for free but Google has value added packages as well. Google Plus has a GPS add in ($20US). Google Earth Pro, which is designed for professional and commercial users, promises to offer “the ultimate research, presentation and collaboration tool for location information” is $400 US. There is also an enterprise solution, “for on-site deployment of custom Google Earth databases in your enterprise”. Earlier, Google maps announced an api (for the geeky among you) that allows you to create mini applications. I have one sitting on my iBook desktop, a cool mapping utility for Montreal.

I’ve consistently been impressed by the user interface of Google maps, although one can get pretty tired of the ICBM-like zoom in every time you change locations. Plus you cannot really run it without a broadband connection, as the application doesn’t store the data on your computer but retrieves itas needed from its own servers. Nonetheless, the GIS community has been talking about distributed GIS for years, so we should accommodate a few glitches as it truly goes online. With all these features, the user interface, and the low, low price, I wonder if we’ll shortly be shifting to Google Earth as our standard GIS?

Free Trip to DC

Monday, July 11th, 2005

The ambitiously-named Stop Global Warming .org site has declared a Virtual March on Washington… somehow, part of me still yearns for the days of real Marches on the Hill. Virtual Marches can be ignored if you don’t have a computer, has anybody thought of that?

Pélé plays with produce

Sunday, July 10th, 2005

it's... a banana

land of the lawsuits

Thursday, July 7th, 2005

Lawsuits, like most tools, can help if used correctly.

As mentioned a few weeks ago, and as it hit the streets last summer in a big way, anti-polluter lawsuits are sifting their way through the judicial system. Now, some conclusions have been reached.

AP reports that AEP is going to pay out for it’s public nuisance. The precedent this sets is welcome, given what other cards are on the table.

still, no friends

Thursday, July 7th, 2005

Without a glimmer of hope, President Bush has decided to cut his losses and jettison and concilliatory niceties for global warming issues. He’ll just amble through the rest of the G8 summit as best he can.

Perhaps his acknowledgement of the problem (“I recognize that the surface of the earth is warmer and that an increase in greenhouse gases caused by humans is contributing to the problem.”), combined with his distaste for the Kyoto Protocol, will vault environmentalism into a new fever pitch…? For more, refer back (yet again) to the Death of Environmentalism paper.

our species, ourselves

Thursday, July 7th, 2005

A highly furstrating hurdle in environmentalism is telling people what you mean by throwing around terms like ‘biodiversity’ and ‘stability’ and ‘biodiversity for stable and sustainable ecosystems’. These are loaded word, which are nestled comfortably in the ephemeral studies of chaos & order.

So when the Endangered Species Act is looked at with scrutiny, what exactly does each section, each paragraph mean? And what purpose do they hold?

Recently, the ESA is facing a montrous overhaul. The bill being put forward, in the opinion of JR Clark, Defenders of Wildlife VP, it “”takes a wrecking ball to the whole Endangered Species Act” by changing its mission, disabling enforcement tools and loosening controls on agencies like the Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.””

Contesting this pessimism, and boasting some optimism, Jim Sims, of Partnership for the West, “said that the draft has a “common-sense” emphasis on incremental improvements that are achievable, rather than on long-term recovery that may take decades. “The aspirational change is necessary,” he said. “It’s more important to incrementally improve the species’ health as much as we can rather than set the bar at total and complete recovery, and nothing else.””

One should never forget that the ESA is an act for all seasons – the usefullness of it has stretched far and wide, to pulling to plugs of many environmentally un-sound projects.

I’m just going to quote the following straight from the Horse’s mouth, and comment below:

On the issue of what constitutes the “best available science” for making and supporting decisions under the law, the draft measure takes the unusual step of giving one scientific method preference over another. It calls for “empirical data” – which can be hard to obtain when a species’s numbers are small and scattered – to be used when possible. More common currently are studies based on statistical models of a species’s number, range and viability.

The draft legislation also sets new restrictions for mapping the territory considered essential for the recovery of an endangered species. It would limit such territory, called “critical habitat,” to areas currently occupied by the species; the law now allows for the inclusion of a larger portion of the species’s historic range. In the new proposal, expansion of the current range is possible only if that range is inadequate to prevent the species’s extinction.

“It shortchanges habitat protection,” said Ms. Clark of Defenders of Wildlife. “And habitat destruction is the primary reason for most species becoming endangered.” She added that the law “places almost overwhelming restrictions on sound science.”

Mr. Sims, in turn, argued that some of the law’s proponents care more about keeping land unused than ending threats of extinction. “This is the Endangered Species Act,” he said. “I would argue that a great majority of the American people believe that a focus on efforts to recover a species are more important than efforts to lock up land.”

Thinking back to man’s obsession with time and space, and the non-duality of duality and non-duality, some interesting social commentary materializes over the Golden Species-Area relationship. Of course, it would be foolish to pour blood, sweat, and tears into protecting the species without understanding their tenure within their habitat, how dependent they are, as well as how mobile, etc.

On a slightly different note, there is a heady cry from an anthropologist’s perspective which brings us back to the Essence of the Thing. Is it possible to protect some species if their critical numbers are so fine-tuned by herding them around as reduce them to mere statistics? That is to say, can some things fall outside the realm of mathematics? Sociologists would argue back that being able to poll people’s perceptions, happiness, and well-being would illicit exactly the statistics you need. And there are plenty more who would say that animals are a subset of human needs to begin with, so it makes perfect sense.

Unfortunately, human needs are slipping into a realm of self-sufficiency vis-a-vis artificial sustenance. For example, imagine a word in which climate change has rendered back-country hiking a health hazard, and virtual reality is unleashed from the gates to fill these niche needs in our civilization with ease.

Instead of human capital, financial capital, physical capital, etc., I’ve argued before that cultural capital shoudl play in along-side these bottom-line figures, and be blown out of proportion where necessary. I’m sure the statistics exist to give it enough Net Present Value to eclipse many petty cost-benefit analyses which put forth ideas like ‘let the markets rule the environment, instead of the ESA.”

All quotes from this NY Times article.