Coal: A Human History

I’m always intrigued when someone spends time to write a book bending the span of human history through the proverbial lens of a particular substance. I thought Salt: A World History was actually rather good, so when I saw Coal: A Human History for $5 at the MIT Press loading dock sale, I knew my proverbial ship had come in at long last!

The book documents, as you might imagine, the history of coal, and how, hidden away in boilers 30 stories tall, it continues to drive much of our society even today. The Chinese first burned coal centuries before the west did, but never got the steam engine/industrial revolution thing figured the way the British finally did. After an initial false start (the rich hated the smell and got it’s burning banned for a couple of centuries, finally relenting when all the forests were chopped down), coal “ignited” the industrial revolution via the need to drain deep coal mines, resulting in the steam engine, then a whirling vortex of synergy between iron, steam engines, transportation and coal.

The book is very readable, written in a smooth conversational tone that goes down easy even in T-ride-sized nibbles. Any person moderately interested in history will appreciate the way coal is weaved into so much of modern western history.

It turns out there are numerous one-topic books of this nature – check out this Amazon list someone created a list of books about one thing.

Yahoo – a tale of two companies?

I suppose there must be a size n where for companies that reach a size greater than n, there is always some part of the company with its head crammed firmly up its ass, in spite of the ground breaking work happening elsewhere. Apparently Yahoo is at least as big as that magical size.
Tonight, I wanted to check out the new weezer video on yahoo music. Only for a mac user, that generates a pop up indicating that Netscape 4.7 is required (screenshot here) That’s a positively pre-historic browser version – it’s eight years old for crying out loud. That would be like steaming down the “information superhighway” with a Victrola on the dashboard of my buggy, whip in hand.

This goes to spite the post I was formulating in my head praising Yahoo Farechase and the new Yahoo Maps Beta (which is arguably better than google maps, for now due to cool hover effects, multiple directions, and route numbers for rural roads in directions).

Then again, since I know Yahoo bought farechase, along with their new beta email (which i doubt beats gmail, because the tired old desktop email metaphor that everyone copies is not better) it may just be that “old” yahoo is stuck in some kind of 1999 time warp, and they have to buy innovation (like Flickr, for example) rather than cook it at home.

Or maybe the Yahoo music team is too busy “innovating” ways to break tools people create to get their content to get around to making it available in contemporary browsers.

Fun with “Web 2.0”

I finally made some time Sunday night to tinker with some Javascript/DHTML using MochiKit which turns out to kick ass. Definately take a look at that if you’re doing any heavy lifting in javascript (They have a intro screencast). I don’t have anything presentable to show for my efforts – I still need to make it look pretty (which i suck at, being especially susceptible to losing hours trying to do CSS-based layout), and definately give it some curves. (Thanks Matt). Was fun to play with some rich internet application stuff, given that the application I work on by day is barely “Web 1.0”.

One cool thing I have to point out is OpenRico, which is an open source library to do some really amazing things with JS/DHTML/CSS (and most importantly, without Flash), like this cool demo. (which i always saw on and assumed was flash).

Its nice to see that browsers are becoming so capable, though I bet something as cool as Yahoo’s new (beta) mapping tool (which, is amazingly, better than google’s ) couldn’t be done today in DHTML.

Mini Rants

Here’s a couple of things that have irked me recently:

###Team sports apparel that supports all the teams at once
What is with the hats (and occasionaly ridiculous pants) with the embroidered logos of every sports team in a given major sports league? Is it so hard to come down on one side of the pressing “which team do you cheer for?” issue? It’s not complicated like universal health care or the death penalty for crying out loud!

While I’m at it, what’s with leaving the holographic stickers and tags on hats while wearing them around town? Is it to show everyone how new your hat is?

###People with an apparent lack of intellectual curiosity
Every day I ride the T to work, and there are far too many people who either sit and stare blankly, or read the crappy free non-paper, the Metro. Is it too hard to bring a book or magazine that you might be reading at home along? Is reading too hard in comparison to watching Survivor or the reality show du jour? I bet in a couple of years, everyone will have video ipods, and they’ll all be entranced by whatever crap they couldn’t get watched in the 7 hours they watched TV the night before.

Walmart Movie

I saw Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price at a hippie free showing over at Simmons College on Tuesday night. If its not obvious by my seeing it, before I criticize the movie, I want to make clear that i am *anti Walmart* for a variety of reasons, not all of them economic.

My favorite fact from the movie (one of the few with another data point for comparison) is that the Walton family has given 6% of its wealth to charity. Bill Gates: 58%.

Walmart’s anti-union behavior is quite amazing in its sophistication, and you have to see the movie to believe it.

###Anecdotal Evidence

The movie was an ok documentary, but it only stands as a parade of anecdotal evidence- even that was glammed up. I mean, you don’t need to do an interview with a former loss control manager of a Walmart while he’s driving his truck down the Las Vegas strip, do you? There could have done with quite a few less of these stories, because they were all the same really.

###Lies With Numbers

W:THCoLP tries to convince the audience with a series of numbers on top of all the interviews, but they are all completely context free. Here’s a list of major number gaffes they made:

####Walmart “associates” on welfare

Lists of the numbers of Walmart employees on welfare by state are shown, but there’s no context to tell the audience what those numbers mean. They need to be broken down by percentage of employees in the state, state population, percentage of that state’s population on welfare. What would have been better is to show a comparison to other retail chains like Target or KMart to see if any of them use the state and federal government’s social welfare programs to subsidize their low prices as Walmart does.

####Walmart Subsidies

There was some whining about the way towns throw money at Walmart to make all the infrastructure improvements to bring one to town, and a case where Walmart moved to the next town over right when its tax abatement was to expire. I’m against towns giving away things like this to sports teams and walmarts alike (especially when mom and pop store can’t get this stuff) – if only all towns would not lay down and take it for megacorp to come to town! Here’s the list of subsidies, as flashed by on the screen:

$2.1million $1.2million $300,000.00

Yes, they made the $300k look bigger by adding all the zeros, *including the cents*. Do people fall for this?

Then there was this round of bellyaching by firefighters, police officers and teachers about how the money their dumb ass elected leaders gave to Walmart could have gone to teaching kids/fighting fires/gassing up cruisers, followed by this amazing train of logic:

1. Walmart subsidies drain towns of x million dollars (that, ignoring the fungability of money, apparently came directly from the school budget

2. There are 25 something million square feet of *vacant* Walmarts (from the old tax abatement bait and switch)

1. An average classroom has X square feet of space

1. That’s enough space in vacant walmarts to teach (huge free space)/(avg space per classroom) kids to read!!

Not sure what they were smoking when they came up with that sequence of “logic”

####Overwhelming lists
There were two cases where lists of occurrances scrolled by. In the latter, at the rah-rah, Walmart is beatable, go get ’em ending – a list of towns and cities that successfully lobbied their local governments to reject Walmart’s advances, I’m pretty sure I saw the same towns scroll by two or three times.

Another was the list of all the crimes that have occurred in Walmart parking lots in the first seven months of 2005, (because apparently 80% of crimes at walmart happen in the parking lot, yet most walmarts don’t have any parking lot security) but again there was no indication of crimes happening at other retail stores, or how crime prone those areas were anyways.

So I’m all done with that list of things. I’ll leave you with a ridiculous, yet priceless quote from Ron Galloway, the director of a competing *pro*-walmart movie (Why Wal-Mart Works and Why That Drives Some People Crazy):

A hundred and thirty-eight million people vote with their feet every week to go to Wal-Mart. And Americans are pretty smart. And
I think Wal- Mart if Wal-Mart were really doing something genuinely wrong, the American people would be able to figure it out
and not go.

I think we all know that a whole lot of the American people are asleep at the proverbial switch.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Congratulations to Ed and Shana on their marriage – the wedding was beautiful and the reception was great fun. I put some pictures up on flickr. Obviously worth the trip – but I’m pooped after three out of town weekends (New Jersey for Ed’s bachelor party, North Carolina to hang with Frank, and Connecticut for Ed and Shana’s wedding) in a row. Where did the last month go?

I’m totally ready to set my car (not that I need a car to get to the airport) on fire and not leave town for a little bit.

Playground Sports

I read somewhere an article bemoaning today’s twenty-somethings increasing refusal to act like grown ups. There’s probably something to that- cities around the US have growing numbers of people playing little kid sports like kickball and dodgeball. The beauty of these sports though, is that everyone is on a pretty level playing field – no one played division one kickball in college and want to take out their lack of pro career on the rest of us. These sports are a great way to meet people who aren’t hard-core athletes from all over that you’d probably never have met otherwise.

I’ve captained a kickball team (the Free Ballers) for the summer and fall seasons of the WAKA Minuteman division – our fall season ended last night in a cold and rainy 17-0 pummeling to eject us from the first round of the playoffs, which could be expected based on our 2-4-1 record with a run differential of -23. Now I’ve joined a dodgeball team for the off season, along with some other kickball folks, making us all cross-playground-sport athletes. Like modern day Bo Jacksons, if you will.

Too Many Wires!

This is what the side of my iBook looks like most days:

Wires Spewing from iBook

Since I went out and bought a 17″ flat panel (can you ever have enough pixels?), and then a keyboard and mouse, I’m swimming in connections – so now when I do take my iBook down to the library to do homework or on a trip, I’m unplugging all these damn wires. The other day, I thought something along the lines of “my kingdom for a docking station” – and what do you know, even though apple doesn’t provide connectors on their laptops, someone made this hacky passthru thing.

Only snag, its around 200 bucks. Which makes me think, I could just get a mac mini for not all that much more than that, and not have to throw it away next time I upgrade laptops (hopefully a powerbook next time, though I heard they aren’t going to make 12″ powerbooks anymore). Then I’ll have the keeping important files in sync problem, but that’s solvable.

I don’t think I want to buy any more mac hardware until they’re running speedy intel chips though. After seeing some benchmarks about dual core Opterons thrash the dual core intel chips, its too bad Apple didn’t go with AMD. Maybe by then the mac mini will support dual monitors. That would rule!

Creativity Support Tools

As I mentioned several weeks ago I saw a presentation by Professor Schneiderman of UMD. One of the high level themes of his presentation (and his book, Leonardo’s Laptop) is that programmers should not so much seek to make computers magically find the answers for us (and indeed, many of the “promises” of AI have never come to fruition, but should instead strive to make tools that support human creativity.

How to do that? One great application domain is sifting through mountains of data to spot hidden trends and relationships. If a computer isn’t going to do this well, then it should facilitate the user’s having the “aha” moment. People think with their eyes (indeed, the image is processed quite a bit before getting on the optic nerve) and are amazing at spotting things that don’t “fit” or belong – so show them the data in a way that isn’t row after row of numbers or text, and then let them interactively sort and filter. (and “drill-down” and “roll-up” aren’t adequate info-vis tools).

Two cool tools in this vein were demonstrated- The Hierarchical Clustering Explorer, a prototype out of the HCIL at UMD, the other, Spotfire is a commercial application. Both let you simultaneously view several different “slices” of a mountain of data, and changes you make to one view (filtering for example) are instantly reflected in the other views. One of the cool things about both tools is the capability to effortlessly stretch and shrink axes, to zoom in on subsets of the data – because, as Prof. Schneiderman said well, “A pixel is a terrible thing to waste”.

The HCIL site has a report from a Creativity Support Tools Workshop, and some other really cool work in the area of visualization.

Quick trip to North Carolina

Flew down to Raleigh last weekend,
to visit former colleague and current friend Frank. I flew down Friday and back early Sunday morning – both of which seem to be excellent times to travel,
due to mostly empty terminals and short lines.
A good time was had by all – we got caught up, laughed a lot, randomly fell upon an opportunity to attend a Boston College vs University of North Carolina football game, heckled an episode of Made, I got to try delicious Ethiopian food (which still seems like an oxymoron to me after all the images of starving Ethiopians in the 80s) and we saw Jarhead.

Ask Frank about all his innovative household uses for rubber bands 🙂

On the way back I even got to see some of the best sights in DC.