Getting off oil

backed-up interstate traffic

Traffic. September 22, 2012, Atlanta. Copyright Heather Meadows

Occasionally I ponder whether or not the US will ever get off oil as its primary source of transportation fuel. In other words, whether we will trade our gas-burning cars for otherĀ  modes of transportation, like trains and subways for longer distances and walking and cycling for shorter ones. Electric cars are perhaps a more realistic possibility, given the way our current infrastructure grossly favors cars. To switch to electric cars, we wouldn’t need to redesign roads or add rail; we’d just need to convert existing gas stations to electric substations.

I got to thinking about this today thanks to my Twitter friend Ara posting a link to an article about world gas prices, which includes this intriguing paragraph:

The world’s most expensive gas, according to the survey, can be found in Norway, where drivers pay $10.12 for a gallon of premium gas. While the country has significant oil reserves of its own, instead of using the money to subsidize vehicle fuel it goes to fund social spending such as free college education and national infrastructure.

This made me wonder if we could subsidize the shift away from oil by stepping down our subsidization of it. According to a study by the Environmental Law Institute, the US spent approximately $72 billion from 2002 to 2006 subsidizing fossil fuels. Unfortunately, this figure isn’t broken out by type, so we can assume some of this money went to coal as well. If the move was targeted toward reducing oil use, I can’t imagine ending coal subsidies at the same time. Any replacement transportation, whether it be trains or electric cars, would depend on electricity, which in this country is largely generated through burning coal. (Of course, burning coal, another fossil fuel, has many health, environmental, and non-renewable resource issues, and eventually we’ll have to get off coal as well.)

The upshot is, I’m not sure how much money we’d be able to free up for infrastructure change. And then there’s the question of how much that change would cost. Going completely to a rail-based system would be extraordinarily expensive; entire cities would have to be redesigned. Sprawl has spaced everything out so much that it’s rare for someone to be able to walk or cycle to their nearest grocery store, let alone to work. City planners would either have to come up with ways to link neighborhoods to shopping centers or to redistribute commodities along communal travel routes.

It’s hard to imagine how this would play out in rural areas, where people drive ten, 20 or 40 minutes just to get into town. Obviously there wouldn’t be a rail system to those people’s distant houses. In that situation, it doesn’t seem possible to completely replace cars with mass transit. A friend once showed me an overhead view of farming communities in South America in which homes are built around a cul-de-sac and their farms radiate out around them. While this model clusters rural residents together and makes communal transportation more feasible, it would require completely redistributing people’s land, and it would also require a huge cultural shift away from our current farm style of houses planted in the middle of their acreage.

Each city, town, incorporated area, and unincorporated area would have to come up with its own plan to reduce oil consumption. I can’t see this happening on a broad scale without a federal mandate–after all, individual states also subsidize oil–but then there would need to be federal oversight. I expect the same states that oppose national health mandates would oppose national transit mandates, so any such movement would take years just to get started.

Without more information, I can’t say whether or not this sort of thing will ever happen in the US. But I do hope our elected officials are at least thinking about it. I’d love to see us get off oil, for diplomatic as well as environmental reasons.

The tablet-laptops are on their way

I previously wrote about my new obsession with tablet-laptop hybrids, and my specific fascination with the Acer Iconia W5. Now, thanks to Sean and Ars Technica, I am aware of the Ativ Smart PC 700T1C from Samsung.

Lookit.

Samsung Smart PC Pro 700T

It’s sleeker than the W5. It also supports 64-bit Windows and has an Ivy Bridge processor. The resolution is better–1920×1080 vs. the W5’s bizarre 1366×768. The max 4GB of RAM is a concern, but this problem seems to plague all tablets.

I like that it works with a stylus (“pen”). The reviewer had concerns about the size, but I guarantee my hands are smaller than his. You can’t flip the screen around on the dock, but as I mentioned in my post on the W5, that feature was more of a bonus than a must-have.

It bothers me a little that it appears you have to buy the pen and the keyboard dock separately, meaning the list price is misleading. But I don’t think they add too much to the price–the stylus certainly doesn’t.

Ultimately I’d love to see one of these in person and get a feel for how it would be to own one.

Keyword hell

mass of unnecessary keywordsI have spent a lot of time these past few months organizing my personal photo site at SmugMug. I made sure all the photos I wanted uploaded were uploaded; I created new Categories and Subcategories and moved galleries around; I did a bunch of captioning and keywording that I’d put off (with still more left to go).

Then I thought I’d organize my keywords to make my photos easier to browse. I knew I had some photos with the keyword “southcarolina” while others used “south carolina”, for example; I was able to go through and bulk change all of these to match each other.

keywords-130415In the process of doing this, though, I discovered something horrible.

You see, for as long as I’ve been taking photos, I’ve been renaming all my files to use a variation on the filename template of my first digital camera, the Olympus C3030 Zoom. This means photos taken today will have filenames like P04150001.jpg. I did this so I could easily view my photos locally and sort them on SmugMug in the order of my choosing–simply sorting by date taken doesn’t always work, especially with multiple photos from the same day but different cameras, or photos copied from someone else, or scanned files.

Some time back, SmugMug implemented a change that now causes keywords to be automatically generated from filenames. And ever since then, each of my photos has been tagged with an unnecessary keyword. This has resulted in a ludicrous list of keywords; I’ve made a screen capture of about one-fourth of it.

I’m not holding this against SmugMug; it seems like automated keywords would be useful for many people, and I am able to turn the feature off (and I did as soon as I realized what was happening). Unfortunately, though, this unique set of conditions has left me with a metric ass-ton of work.

You see, there is no way to manage many keywords globally at once–deleting, renaming and the like. You can manage single keywords at once, which is how I changed “southcarolina” to “south carolina” across my entire photo site. And you can of course manage keywords by gallery, which is how I assign them and edit them in the first place. But you can’t, say, select a group of keywords and hit a delete button.

What I can do is click on the keyword, which takes me to the photo, then click on the “See photo in original gallery” link. From there I can use the Caption / Keyword tool to edit all the keywords in that gallery.

However, even from that screen there is no way to delete keywords in bulk. I can’t use wildcards to find and replace or find and remove keywords. And though SmugMug has a “Remove Numeric” keyword option, it only works with keywords that are made up of all numbers, not alphanumeric keywords. So I must scroll through the entire gallery and manually delete the unnecessary keyword from each photo.

Take a look at the keyword screenshot again and try to imagine how much work this is going to be.

Actually, I can help you with the scope. I highlighted all the keywords and pasted them into Word to get a count.

There are 9,638 keywords, each of which applies to either a single or a small handful of photos.

Nine thousand, six hundred thirty-eight.

That’s nearly ten thousand keywords, with even more photos, scattered across hundreds of galleries.

Yeah, this is going to be fun.

Tablet-laptops

My current computer is a laptop from Sager. It’s fairly large. I’ve taken it on trips home to Kentucky, and I even lugged it to a web convention once, but given its size I prefer to use it at home, with speakers, a mouse, and a keyboard plugged into it. The screen is nice and big and I use the keyboard and mouse to sit a respectable distance back from it. The speakers add to the desktop feel. This is not a computer I really like taking places; I have to detach everything, crawl under my desks to unplug and slip out cords, and then pack it all up in a large laptop bag. It’s very heavy.

For some time now I’ve dreamed of owning a tiny laptop, perhaps a netbook, something I could use for the general mobile computing currently achieved through my iPhone. While the phone is very convenient for things like Twitter and Facebook and even email, I hate browsing the web or writing documents on it. After using the phone for extended periods, I sorely miss having a keyboard.

I’ve never particularly wanted a tablet. They’ve always seemed inconvenient to me; you have to hold them, typically, unless you have a stand, and the stands generally aren’t as adjustable as I’d like. I usually watch movies and such on my laptop or TV, and I do most of my digital reading on my iPhone. (In fact, though I own a Kindle, I’ve read most of my Kindle books on the iPhone Kindle app.) The only thing I’ve ever wanted a tablet for is cooking: I’ll pull up a recipe on my phone sometimes, but the screen is small and shuts off automatically, and as I don’t feel like adjusting settings every time I cook, I end up having to unlock the phone multiple times throughout the cooking process. A tablet, I’ve thought, would be nicer, something I could mount in the kitchen, something with a larger screen that would stay on and be easy to read. But since that would pretty much be the only thing I’d use it for, I could hardly see how that would be a worthwhile purchase. It would be better, I thought, to get that tiny laptop.

I haven’t spent a lot of time looking for something, though. Ultimately I figured I could just deal with the hassle of moving my giant laptop when the situation warranted it. I had no pressing need for a spare laptop, anyway.

But then I was at Fry’s with friends last month and I saw the Acer Iconia W5.

Acer W510Look at that thing.

It is gorgeous.

It’s a touchscreen Windows tablet with a keyboard dock. You can bend the screen back at any angle, twist it around, flip the keyboard to serve as an adjustable stand for tablet display and use. You can undock the tablet and just use it by itself. The keyboard layout is great, and the touchscreen means there’s no need for a mouse.

It’s tiny. It’s light. It would fit in a small bag. The display, at least to me, looks great.

Upon sighting this extraordinary creation I was filled with a technological longing I haven’t experienced in perhaps a decade. Sure, I like new things, but for the most part I’m pragmatic about gadgets. I view everything with a healthy dose of do I really need that?

But this. This would do everything.

I could stand it up in the kitchen for recipes. I could take it to Kentucky instead of lugging my huge laptop. I could bring it to conferences and not take up egregious amounts of space. Heck, I could take it to coffee shops. I could run regular desktop applications, not just apps. I could install programs.

Sean has no problem budgeting for something like this, but he said I should look into other options to make sure we find the best one. Since then I’ve done a little poking around here and there, and I’m not really finding anything like the W5. There are plenty of tablets with stands, and some that come with keyboards, and some that have keyboards built into their covers, but nothing quite like this. No adjustable hinge for the screen. No built-in keyboard with standard layout (and extra battery).

Ars Technica’s review of the W5 isn’t exactly glowing, however. There are concerns about the hardware not supporting 64-bit Windows, and the plastic construction. The performance apparently isn’t as great as tablets with Intel’s Ivy Bridge processor.

I read a review of the Windows Surface Pro by Gabriel from Penny Arcade, and he says that device is great for hand-drawing and gaming, something I’m not sure the W5 can do. Then again, I don’t do either of those things. (Ars has some issues with the Surface Pro, and it doesn’t have a keyboard dock, just a case with a kickstand.)

The Asus VivoTab RT has a keyboard dock, and its construction seems to be much better than that of the W5, but it’s a Windows RT machine, meaning it runs apps, not full programs.

This brief rundown of upcoming tablets seems to indicate that there are or will be plenty of these “hybrids”, which the author says can be classified as tablets with keyboard docks or as laptops with removable screens.

At this point I’m not sure there’s anything else out there that would give me what the W5 offers. But it seems like this trend of hybrids is only beginning, so perhaps I should wait until more products are on the market.

Based on my research, I can at least conclude that I want the following features:

  • Touchscreen tablet
  • Keyboard dock
  • Form factor adjustments better than a simple kickstand; a stiff hinge is necessary, and the option to swivel and/or present the screen differently would be a bonus
  • Windows 8 full (not RT)

We have the technology

I often feel that there are so many things we could be doing. So many things we are capable of. So many things we just aren’t achieving that we should be readily able to.

Sometimes I discover that we are at least partially doing those things, but we’re not doing them in a way that people know about or can find or share easily.

This morning I heard a tornado siren. It’s only the second time I’ve heard it since I’ve lived here. The first time, nothing happened, so this time, I didn’t think much of it. An hour or so later I saw a tweet remarking on Atlanta’s “tornado-y” weather, so I thought I’d see what the deal was.

I went to my go-to weather site, The Weather Channel’s weather.com, and clicked on my local forecast, which is saved in a tile at the top of the page. Then I clicked on the Alerts, and in the drop-down I saw Tornado Watch until 4pm. That was all I needed to know, so I left the page.

Some time later, I saw this tweet:

If you follow that image link, you get…a cell phone picture of a TV screen.

A cell phone picture. Of a TV screen.

I understand wanting to share important information quickly. Actually, I think the ability to do that is rather important. But it astonished me that the most efficient way to rapidly share vital information online was apparently to post a picture of it.

We have the data. We have the technology. We can do better.

I went poking around weather.com to find the source of that image–better yet, something that would stay up-to-date no matter when someone got the link. First I went to the Atlanta forecast page. I clicked on things, but never saw a map like the TV picture. I did find a list of affected counties, which is useful, especially for people who can’t see pictures. But I wanted to duplicate the experience a viewer of the picture would have–duplicate and enhance it.

Finally I clicked on the Map link in the sidebar, and that took me to the interactive Weather Map. This was the same thing I’d seen on the forecast page and ignored because it didn’t have the tornado warning areas highlighted. But I gave it a chance; I clicked on Map Options. Scrolling all the way to the very bottom, I finally found the Weather Alert Overlays, and I clicked the radio button next to Severe Alerts.

And there, at last, it was.

Weather Map screencap 01/30/2013I quickly sent a link and instructions in response to the tweet. Then it occurred to me to check the link on my phone. I opened Tweetbot and tapped the link and sure enough…the interactive map doesn’t work in iOS, because it uses Flash.

Sigh.

Here’s what I want. I want a map that works regardless of the device I’m using. I want the ability to share a direct link to the view I am using–in this case, Severe Alerts–not just a generic link to the default map (which is what you currently get from those sidebar social media buttons). I want a forecast page that calls up versions of the map that are relevant to any weather alerts currently in effect.

As I said, we are capable of so many things. So many useful things. So many things that would be a genuine help to society.

The thing is, if we try to do those things, we can’t just throw something together and say we’re done. We have to make it easy.

Otherwise, people will skip right past it and keep taking pictures of their TVs.

Please help fund this Kickstarter for diabetics

I am so inspired by Nial Giacomelli’s The Diabetic Journal. This is a personal project, an application to help manage all the overwhelming variables in a diabetic’s life, that has grown beyond personal use and into something that Mr. Giacomelli wants to distribute absolutely free as a smartphone app. He’s made no profit on it and will make none. He’s looking to Kickstarter simply to allow him to focus on the app, to get it out the door with more features and a more streamlined UI.

I have no horse in this race; I’m not diabetic. But I’ve been through a lot of health-related crap. I can only imagine what it must be like for diabetics to have to manage their illness every single day for the rest of their lives.

This app would help them. And it would be free.

But things are looking bad. The word’s not getting out, or people don’t understand, or some other problem is keeping the project far from its goal.

I’m a backer and I want The Diabetic Journal to get my money.

If you’ve got anything you can send, anything at all, please. For once, here’s a Kickstarter that isn’t about personal profit or entertainment or special perks. It’s about helping people.

Isn’t that something that’s really worth Kickstarting?

Back The Diabetic Journal

A breath of fresh air

I spent this past week in Kentucky with my family, and while there I didn’t check ADN, Twitter, or Google Plus at all. I got on Facebook about three times total, to check private messages and make sure no one had posted anything important to my timeline. The day after the election I tried Facebook again, but a quick scan through the news feed made me wonder why I ever used Facebook to begin with.

I realize a lot of this is just election exhaustion, and that will pass. But I truly enjoyed spending a week not checking social media obsessively. I left my phone in my purse most of the time and didn’t use it for anything but one phone call and maybe three text messages. (I may have also played a turn in chess, but I don’t remember.) I also didn’t unpack my computer right away, and when I did I mostly used it to review Japanese on WaniKani and to watch lectures and do assignments for my Coursera Python class. I also added to my Goals document, which I started working on in October. It’s a simple list of ideas I’ve had that I want to see to fruition.

The rest of my time was spent with family members, talking or playing games or enjoying meals. I got to celebrate Halloween, Connor’s 13th birthday, an early Thanksgiving, and Daphne’s second birthday. I didn’t really go anywhere beyond my parents’ house and my brothers’ houses, but it was relaxing, and I didn’t get too stir-crazy. (When I started feeling antsy, AJ took me to a cool walking trail so I could enjoy the fall leaves. It totally rejuvenated me.)

While I was staying with my parents, I also wrote a few entries in a journal, by hand. It takes a lot longer for me to write by hand than it does for me to type. I found that I was doing more crafting so I wouldn’t write anything poorly. I also found that I had no desire to share the brief brags, complaints, and jokes that I normally would post to social media without hesitation.

I used to despair that all my thoughts were lost to the ether. When social media came around, I thought it was my salvation. Finally there was a way to chronicle everything that went through my head. This was important to me, for some reason. I’ve always wanted other people to understand me, but I’ve rarely felt like anyone does. I suppose I thought the more I shared, the more others would learn about me, and maybe eventually they would come to understand me. (This might be a large reason why I have such a problem with lying or with being misrepresented.)

I’ve gone overboard with sharing here on the blog, and I think my social media participation is probably even worse. It’s so much easier. Just taking a week off from it, I feel very different…like I have so much more time.

I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do. As a professional in the web world, I probably need to maintain a social media presence of some sort. And it would help to stay on the cutting edge with things like ADN. But of all the social media I abstained from this week, the only one I really worry about quitting completely is Facebook, due as I’ve said before to the possibility of losing touch with far-flung friends and family. Maybe I will find a way to limit my participation, perhaps by scheduling a time each week or so to “catch up”. Or maybe I’ll do something else. For right now, I’m putting that decision off, as I don’t really have any desire to get back on social media.

Social media quandary

Some time ago, I reached a point of crisis with Facebook. I was (and am) terribly unhappy with the company’s lack of respect for its users. Facebook users are not the customer; they’re the product. Mark Zuckerberg has little respect for privacy and seems only interested in pleasing advertisers. While I realize Facebook needs to make money, I don’t think that should happen at the cost of people’s feeling of personal security.

However, despite that huge issue, I continue to use Facebook, because that’s where everyone is. Or, more specifically, that’s where a majority of my far-flung real life friends are. Facebook makes it simple for me to keep up with people I otherwise wouldn’t hear from for months, years, or at all. I have always been terrible with keeping up with people myself, so this has been a godsend. And through Facebook I have developed deeper friendships with people who were once simple acquaintances. I’ve planned travel. I’ve shared and received affirmations and support. Facebook is where I go for community. It’s not a paradigm that can be replicated.

Twitter, I’ve come to discover over the past few days of trying very hard not to use it, is also an non-replicable paradigm.

I never thought I would have to try and find an experience to replace what I have on Twitter. Unlike Facebook, where I reveal information only behind tiered walls of (questionable) privacy, my tweets have always been public. Anyone is welcome to them. I have very few real followers, but I have over the years since I joined in February of 2007 curated a following list of interesting, funny people and accounts, one that enriches my life with daily musings, links to important news articles, beautiful photos, and more. I’ve also enjoyed sharing my own thoughts and occasionally receiving feedback.

As Twitter works toward profitability, things keep changing. I had always believed Twitter was more interested in its users than Facebook was, that Twitter would ultimately have its users’ backs. But one thing always bothered me: Why, if Twitter still has all my tweets as it claims, won’t it let me have them?

Unhappy that my tweets were seemingly going into a void from which they could never be recovered, I recently set up a rule with If This Then That that saves any tweet I post into a text file on Dropbox. Doing that, I was confident that at least going forward I would have access to my own content.

But then Twitter changed its API terms for developers, directly affecting my solution. IFTTT sent me an email about it, directing me to the Developer Rules of the Road and specifically this paragraph under “Twitter Content”:

You may export or extract non-programmatic, GUI-driven Twitter Content as a PDF or spreadsheet by using “save as” or similar functionality. Exporting Twitter Content to a datastore as a service or other cloud based service, however, is not permitted.

This rather creepily makes it sound like my content, the stuff I write, belongs to Twitter, not me. And as the content belongs to Twitter, I apparently have no right to use a process to save it. I would have to manually copy and paste from the GUI, if I’m reading this correctly. They know no one’s going to actually do that.

I realize this section exists to stop people from cross-posting their tweets to other services (which also seems draconian, no matter how annoying I find cross-posted content), but it effectively locks me out of my own writing, again. Let’s say I instead decide to post on some other service that allows me full access to my content, and then cross-post to Twitter. I could save the original posts I write that way, but not replies. I also wouldn’t be able to save retweets, which, while secondary, provide context to what I’m writing and insight into what I was thinking about while writing.

When I read the email from IFTTT on Thursday, I tweeted a little about it with shock and dismay, and then stopped tweeting altogether. It’s been about three days…but it feels more like a month.

In the meantime, I did what I could to get the content I enjoy on Twitter elsewhere. I went over to Google+ and added everyone I could find. I even pulled in news organizations I’m interested in and removed them from Facebook–but it looks like most of them post more to Facebook than Google+. Similarly, most of the people I followed on Google+ don’t post there much. The bulk of content is back on Twitter.

I’ve also been using App.net Alpha and the iOS app Spoonbill to participate in the new App.net-powered community that I’ll just refer to as ADN for simplicity’s sake. (App.net has the capability to support multiple communities, though I’m not sure that’s been done yet.) While that community is interesting, it’s sort of weird. (One conversation I witnessed, Person A: “Don’t you have a personal lawyer?” Person B: “Of course; I have several.”) There are a few people who, like me, talk about their lives, but for the most part I see people talking about tech trends, social media theory, marketing, and occasionally politics. It’s good content, but it’s not everything I want. Not by a long shot. There’s no @Lileks there. Little to nothing about journalism, photography, design, language, culture, or travel. @Horse_ebooks is there, but I hate @Horse_ebooks. The people I actually know who have signed up haven’t posted much of anything. It feels like a large number of the active people on ADN live in the Bay Area, adding to the sort of tech elitist ambiance. I have had very few conversations there.

So no, ADN can’t replace Twitter for me, at least not now. There isn’t enough adoption, I suppose. I even sort of feel weird posting there, like I’m spamming up a special place with my worthless thoughts. Rather the opposite of how I assumed I would feel about using a paid service that puts the users first.

ADN can’t do it, Google+ can’t do it, and I refuse to change the way I use Facebook (especially since that would give Facebook more data about me). So it would appear that I have no choice but to use Twitter, at least in terms of reading.

I’ve heard rumors that Twitter will start allowing users to download their tweets by the end of the year. But rumors like that have existed for awhile. I’ll believe it when I see it.

For now, I’ll probably keep reading Twitter. But I’m not sure I’ll be actually posting much there.

The future of content, Part 4

I’ve talked about redesigning the web into a collection of interconnected pieces of content, and I’ve discussed monetizing such a paradigm. Now I’d like to go further into the value this reconstruction would bring to content creators, sharers, and users.

The way the web works right now, content creators and sharers typically must either have their own website or use third-party services in order to build an audience and make money. Under this paradigm, the websites (or their content streams) are the main point of interest, and the onus is on the site owners and managers to “keep the content fresh”. In the case of businesses, this includes finding and hiring/contracting creators and negotiating licensing agreements with third-party content providers. The now-now-now pace puts pressure on creators to write something, anything, in order to keep people coming back to the site. This has resulted in a glut of content that is posted for the sake of having new content posted. SEO marketing has exacerbated the issue with content posted for the sake of higher search engine rankings. People are wasting more and more time reading navel-gazing content that adds little value to the human community.

With a web that is truly content-driven, the focus would shift from trying to keep thousands of disparate sites and streams “fresh” to trying to produce and share content that is meaningful, impactful, and important. With IP issues handled through robust tagging, content would be available for anyone to share. Licensing would be streamlined, and creators would be directly paid for their work. Media houses could more confidently keep creators on staff; sharing would provide an obvious metric of a creator’s value. Creators could focus on more long-form pieces, knowing that their existing work would continue to be shared and monetized. There would be less pressure to post something, anything, every day.

The web has suffered from the adoption of the “always on” mindset. If there is nothing new to report, there is no need to invent something to report. Someone, somewhere, is always producing content; it’s a big world. Rather than polluting millions of streams with junk, media companies, news organizations, marketers, and individuals should shift their focus to finding and sharing value. Simply aggregating RSS feeds or repurposing content the way we’ve been doing it so far is not enough; it does not meet the needs of the user and it does not ensure that content creators are paid for their work. We need to rebuild the system from the ground up.