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Map Ninja

There was a time when the road to Map Ninja-hood was long and perilous.  It entailed arduous journeys to spend years studying with monks in temples on Tibetan mountaintops.  Advancement came through fierce, deadly battles against Map Ninjas who ranked above you, precariously fought in windswept mountain passes or on rickety suspension bridges over precipitous chasms.

Or maybe you just had to be able to map temples on Tibetan mountaintops, windswept mountain passes and precipitous chasms.  But it was still pretty tough.  It used to take some serious hard work and dedication to become a Map Ninja.  These days, though, it’s pretty much a walk in the park.  As I discovered this morning.

This morning, my buddy Jake and I went out into the woods to map some property he owns.  We had done so once before (something like eight years ago).  Since then, one of Jake’s neighbors had had a survey done that disagreed with what we thought about their shared boundary.  Today we went out to see who was right (as it turns out, they were).

The last time we did this, I went prepared with a compass, maps, and a Garmin.  We spent an entire day gathering data.  I then spent hours (possibly even days) squeezing the data out of the Garmin and turning it into something I could use to draw a pretty map.  Today, it went like this:

The equipment I used was much the same.  A compass and maps (items I always bring into the woods with me).  Instead of a Garmin, though, this time I just took along my smartphone, which runs the Android operating system.  I installed two apps into my phone in preparation for today’s festivities.

The first one is called GPS Status and Toolbox.  It’s a very nice little nuts-and-bolts kind of GPS utility (and it also has a donation-ware version that I strongly recommend).  It tells you a ton of stuff about your location and status, includes a compass, and even has a level bubble to help you keep your device perpendicular to the planet when you’re taking a bearing.  It doesn’t allow you to store waypoints, but it does allow you to share your current location.  The second app makes this amount to the same thing as waypoint storage.

The second app is Evernote.  If you’re not familiar with Evernote, you should take steps to correct this.  It has been one of the world’s most useful utilities for years, and taking it along in your pocket makes it virtually indispensible.

Armed thus, we set out for adventure (I also tracked our progress with My Tracks, just because I could).  It was a beautiful day to be out on a mountaintop, and the data acquisition process turned out to be deliriously simple.  I started GPS Status and Toolbox running at the outset.  Any time I wanted to save a location, I simply shared it via Evernote (adding any necessary notes to myself in the process).  Since we were miles away from any form of connectivity, Evernote stored the data locally (i.e., in my phone).

Three hours later, Jake and I climbed into his truck and headed back to my house, armed with our newly acquired data (as well as a bonus slew of geo-located photographs).

This is where it goes from deliriously simple to insanely easy.  When we get back to the house, my phone connects to my wireless network.  Immediately, Evernote syncs from my phone to their servers, which in turn immediately syncs with my computer.  So by the time I walk upstairs and into my office, my computer already knows all the data I gathered in the field (if I had had connectivity while in the field, my computer would have received the data virtually as I recorded it).  I then sit down at my desk and open Evernote.  Each note I recorded in the field contains the latitude and longitude of where I was standing when I recorded it but – thanks to GPS Status and Toolbox – the notes also contain links to the exact locations marked on Google Maps.

So I open a browser and sign in to Google.  Then I go to Google Maps and create a new map under ‘My Places’ called “Jake’s Land”.  Then I click on each link stored in Evernote in turn, adding each one to “Jake’s Land” from within Google Maps.  Inside of five minutes, I have a new saved map containing markers at every point I marked while in the field.

From there it’s a simple matter to export the map as a KML (if you don’t know how to do this, it goes like this:  click on the ‘Link’ icon [the one to the right of the ‘Print’ icon].  A window will open with a link to your map already highlighted.  Copy it and paste it into the location bar of a new browser tab or window.  Add ”&output=kml” [without quotes] to the end of it and hit ‘enter’).

And now I have a KML including all the waypoints I chose to record during our outing.   Since we’re dealing with a property boundary here, there is an obvious desire to connect the dots.  There are a variety of methods to employ toward bringing this about.  For the uninitiated, there is the simple expedient of Google EarthGoogle Earth has line and polygon drawing tools built into it, so it’s a quick and easy matter to open our KML file and draw lines connecting our waypoints.  If we prefer, we can draw the entire plot of land as a polygon.

Depending on our mapping needs, we could be done at this point.  We gathered our data, drew our map, and now we have what could be considered a finished product already packed into a portable and easily shareable format (KML allows for a great deal more ‘finishing’ if we so desired).  We could send our KML attached to an email, and any recipient could open it up in Google Earth (or even Google Maps in a browser) and play with it to their heart’s content.  And there are many other applications out there that can read KML (in fact, KML is based on XML.  If you change the name of your file from ‘myfile.kml’ to ‘myfile.xml’, Excel can open it).

There are a slew of GIS applications that can read and manipulate KML files and – being the Map Dork that I am – I will use one or more of them to trick out our gathered data and produce a final map for Jake.  But the fact is that within a half hour of my arrival home I was easily able to produce a passable map.  Given another hour (and using just a little basic knowledge of KML and HTML) I could have attached a decent amount of bells and whistles to it.  And all without dipping into any of the deeper mysteries of Map Ninjutsu.

Not exactly a pitched battle on a rickety suspension bridge, but hey – I’m getting a little old for that kind of thing anyway.

NoGISI’ve got a brother who lives in Connecticut, not far from New York.  I visited him not too long after September 11th, 2001, for no particular reason.  While I was there, a 9/11 benefit concert was held in New York, and we watched it live on television.  We watched a variety of performers come and go, as well as the audience’s varying reactions to them.  Toward the end of the concert, The Who (one of my favorite bands) got up to play.  They played Won’t Get Fooled Again and Baba O’Reilly.

And the audience went nuts.  They yelled and screamed and punched the air and waved their flags and laughed and cried.  They cheered themselves hoarse for a band they believed understood their pent-up national pain and anger.  They cheered for their love of country and their faith in the future.  They cheered for America the Beautiful and for four British boys who seemed to understand.

I sat in my brother’s armchair, drinking a beer and watching this spectacle in dumbfounded horror.  Halfway through the second song, I jumped up and shouted at the television:

“Aren’t you people listening to the words?!?!”

I’ve been reminded of this fairly often as of late, most every time I encounter a discussion about the NoGIS ‘movement’.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the catchphrase, NoGIS is a term adopted by many Map Dorks to signify a perceived need for a paradigm shift within the discipline.

As a concept, NoGIS is meaningful and interesting, and its more sober and informed proponents have supplied me with some lively and enjoyable arguments and/or discussions on the subject.  Of course, these are the same people who currently tend to shy away from the term ‘NoGIS’ as being inappropriate and ill-conceived.  The problem is that the term was adopted while the concept itself was still rather nebulous and unformed.  NoGIS was chosen as a nod toward the NoSQL movement, mainly – I think – because it sounded cool.

Anyway, NoGIS reminds me of that 9/11 benefit concert because for every sober and informed proponent of the concept, there are at least a dozen idiots who have no idea what the whole thing is about but have nonetheless jumped on the bandwagon because they couldn’t pass up an opportunity to wave their flag and shout.  People who are afraid that there’s a revolution brewing and are terrified that it might pass them by.  Kind of sad, actually.

Truth is, there’s no revolution.  Nor is there a looming paradigm shift.  What is occurring is a sort of branching of the discipline.  A fork in the road, as it were.  In fact, we arrived at that fork and passed by it some time ago, but it hasn’t been until now that the need has emerged to sit down and really figure out what it means.

Today’s GIS seems to have such different demands that it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the entire discipline is due for a shake-up.  And it’s not just a question of size – while shuffling around terabytes certainly proposes certain challenges, they’re not terribly different than those presented by shuffling around gigabytes not too long ago.  All other size-related issues fall into a similar category.  While the demands get bigger and bigger, so do our capabilities.

We’re talking about other sorts of change here.  Changes in the primary purpose our data is serving.  Who is using it, how are they using it, and for what purpose?  This is the fork in the road I’m talking about.

A meaningful split occurred at that fork (this is not to imply that there is any sort of divide in the discipline.  We’re all on the same side here).  A large part of the discipline continued happily down the road GIS has been travelling along since its birth, which is why any paradigm shift that happened was not a universal one.

But the new road called for a major reorganization of worldview.  On this new road, the client became the consumer.  The project became the product.  The science of GIS became the business of GIS.

What I’m talking about here is the commoditization of geography.

Yes – it entails it different tool kit, but not a dissimilar one (we are not alone in this – any discipline that has both a theoretical and applied branch has these sorts of differences.  This is most easily seen by comparing how a discipline is practiced in the academy compared to how it is practiced in the public sphere).  And many of the tools do much the same job, but in a different way or to a different degree (a hammer and a pneumatic nailgun both drive nails).

What the flag wavers and shouters don’t seem to be noticing here, though, is that everybody wins.  This fork in the road is a very good thing for GIS.  The more directions we have research and development travelling in, the better off we all are.

As long as we all keep talking to each other.  GIS will continue to travel down both roads (and I hope there will be more to come), and the best thing for our discipline and our selves is to share our advancements so that we can build upon and refine each others’ work.

If we must make distinctions, though, let’s at least do so in a manner that makes sense.  We could apply any number of labels we desire, and many of them would make as much sense as the others.  Personally, I like Theoretical GIS and Applied GIS (I’d like to think which is which is obvious).  They’re fairly descriptive and neither one has any particular negative connotations.

I think it’s about time we drop this NoGIS crap, though.  At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to apply some meaning to geography, or to extract some meaning from it.

And that, my friends, is GIS.

internet When I attended Oxford about a decade ago, I took an amazingly interesting  class called ‘British Perspectives of the American Revolution”.  The woman who taught said class was fond of pointing out that the United States of America is really an experiment, and a young experiment at that.  Whether we can call it a successful experiment will have to wait until it reaches maturity.

I think of that statement often when the internet comes up in conversation.  If the United States is a young experiment, the internet is in its infancy.  For some reason, people today don’t seem to realize this.  Even people who were well into adulthood before the internet went mainstream somehow manage to forget that there was life before modems.  While this circumstance always makes me laugh, it becomes especially funny whenever a new Internet Apocalypse looms on the horizon.

Like this latest crap about Google/Verizon and net neutrality.  I’m sure you’ve heard about it – the interwebs are all abuzz and atwitter about it (I’m sure they’re all afacebook about it as well, but I have no way to verify it).  In a nutshell, it’s a proposal of a framework for net neutrality.  It says that the net should be free and neutral, but with notable exceptions.  You can read the proposal here.  First off, don’t let the title of the piece scare you.  Although the word ‘legislative’ is in the title, here in America we don’t yet let major corporations draft legislation (at least not openly).

Anyway, the release of this document has Chicken Little running around and screaming his fool head off.  In all his guises.  Just throw a digital stone and you’ll hit someone who’s whining about it.  One moron even believes that this document will destroy the internet inside of five years.  Why will this occur?  Ostensibly, the very possibility of tiered internet service will cause the internet to implode.  Or something like that.

Let’s put that one to rest right now.  The internet isn’t going away any time soon.  It won’t go away simply because it is a commodity that people are willing to pay for.

Allow me to repeat that, this time with fat letters: it is a commodity.  The problem we’re running into here is the mistaken belief that a neutral net is some sort of constitutionally guaranteed human right.  We’re not talking about freedom of expression here (except in a most tangential fashion).  We’re talking about a service – a service that cannot be delivered to us for free.  Truth is, net neutrality is an attempt to dictate to providers the particulars of what it is they provide.

A neutral net would be one in which no provider is allowed to base charges according to site visited or service used. Period. It’s not about good versus evil, it’s not about corporations versus the little guy, it’s not about us versus them. What it is about is who pays for what. Should I get better access than you because I pay more? Should Google’s service get priority bandwidth because they pay more?

Predictably, our initial response to these questions is to leap to our feet and shout ‘No!’ (and believe me, kids – I’m the first one on my feet).

But should we?  Seriously – what other service or commodity do we buy that follows a model anything like net neutrality?  Chances are, most of you get more channels on your TV than I do.  Why?  Because you pay for it.  I probably get faster down- and upload speeds than many of you.  Why?  Because I pay for it.  Many people today get data plans (read: internet) on their cell phones.  Why?  Because they pay for it.

Doesn’t this happen because the service provider dedicates more resources to the customers who receive more and/or better service?

And then there are the fears about the corporate end of the spectrum.  As one pundit put it:  What would stop Verizon from getting into bed with Hulu and then providing free and open access to Hulu while throttling access to Netflix?

The short answer is:  Nothing would stop them.  The long answer adds:  Net neutrality wouldn’t stop them either.  Does anyone really believe that net neutrality would stop Verizon from emulating Facebook by forcing customers to sign into their accounts and click through 47 screens before they could ‘enable’ Netflix streaming?

And I may be missing something here, but Verizon getting into bed with Hulu and throttling Netflix sounds like a standard business practice to me.  I’m not saying I agree with it, just that it doesn’t strike me as being unusual.  The university I attended was littered with Coke machines.  Really.  Coca-Cola was everywhere on that campus.  Like death and taxes, it was around every corner and behind every door.  But Pepsi was nowhere to be found.  It simply was not possible to procure a Pepsi anywhere on the grounds of the university.  Why was it this way?  Simply because Coke ponied up more money than Pepsi did when push came to shove.  Oddly, nobody ever insisted they had a right to purchase Pepsi.

Why – exactly – do so many of us think that the internet should be exempt from the free market?

Gather ‘round children, and let me tell you a story.  It’s about a mythical time before there was television.  In the midst of that dark age, a Neanderthal hero invented the device we now know as TV.  In those early times, the cavemen ‘made’ television by broadcasting programs from large antennae built for the purpose.  Other cavemen watched these programs on magical boxes that pulled the TV out of thin air.  Because TV came magically out of thin air, it initially seemed to be free of cost.  The cavemen who made the programs and ran the stations paid for it all through advertising.

Eventually, TV became valuable enough for everyone to desire it.  This led to the invention of cable as a means to get programs to the people who lived too far away from the antennae to be able to get TV out of the air.  Because putting cable up on poles and running wire to people’s houses costs money, the people at the ends of the wires were charged for the service.

It wasn’t long before the cable providers hit upon the idea of offering cable to people who didn’t need it, but might want it.  To get more channels, or to get their existing channels at a better quality.  Unsurprisingly, there was much yelling of “I will not pay for something I can get for free!”, but as you know it didn’t last long.  In short order cable went from ‘luxury’ to ‘necessity’.

Does any of that sound familiar?  Can you see a pattern beginning to emerge?  Let me give you a hint:  It’s about money.  The internet has never been free.  It just appeared to be so because someone else was largely footing the bill (or at least it seemed that way.  Truth is, you’ve been paying for it all along, and the coin you’ve been paying with is personal data).  The internet – like so much of our world – is market-driven.  Don’t kid yourself into thinking otherwise.

And I hate to say it, folks, but it looks as though the market is moving away from net neutrality.  The simple fact that it’s being talked about so much is a clear indication that its demise is imminent.  To be honest, I’m not so sure this would be a bad thing.  In the short term, a lack of net neutrality would pretty much suck.  In the long term, though, it could very well be the best thing for us, the average consumers.

You see, while money drives the market, the market drives competition (as well as innovation).  If our Verizon/Hulu scenario actually came to pass, it wouldn’t be long before another ISP appeared in town, one who wasn’t in bed with Hulu and was willing to offer Netflix (providing, of course, that there was a demand for such a thing).  Eventually, we get to reap the benefits of price and/or service wars (much like cell service providers today).  In fact, this could help solve one of America’s largest internet-related problems – the lack of adequate broadband providers (you’d be surprised how many Americans only have one available choice for broadband).

I don’t think we really need to fear losing net neutrality, even if it is legislated away.  If enough of us truly want to have a neutral net, sooner or later someone will come along and offer to sell it to us.


The Road I came across this post the other day, and it made flashy things go on and off inside my braincase as normally underused neurons woke up and stretched lazily (do click on the blue letters and read the post).  While I agree with the crux of the above linked post, the light show inside my skull was actually related to (mostly) other ideas.  In my usual, intensely dull, Map Dorkish manner, I was thinking about data.

Really.  It’s something I think about.  A lot.  It’s a sickness.

Anyway, I got to thinking about a discussion I had with a fellow Map Dork on Twitter a short while ago, about data and GIS.  About how the majority of the GIS community spends the bulk of its time thinking about what to do with data, and not enough time thinking about the quality of the data itself.

It’s like this – whenever I make a map, there are two primary components involved in the process.  The first is the software that produces said map.  The leader in the field is far and away Esri, the company that produces ArcGIS (which used to be known as ArcView).  Esri does not produce my software of choice, for a variety of reasons, none of which should be taken as a comment on the software itself (okay – some of it should, but not a lot.  Maybe 30% or so).  Truth is that Esri wins Best In Show when it comes to proprietary software.

In Map Dorkia, though, proprietary software doesn’t carry the kind of weight it does in other fields.  You see, a fair number of Map Dorks also happen to be coders (maybe even most of them).  Because of this, the market has been flooded with a vast number of good, stable, working, free and open source alternatives.  I can’t begin to mention them all, but I will point you to this site, where someone better informed than myself has put together some good overviews (even if parts of them are bit out of date).

At the end of the day, my go-to GIS application is Quantum GIS (although it’s far from the only one I use).  Like the Esri offerings, Quantum GIS is a good, all-around GIS package (but not as feature-packed).  Unlike EsriWare, Quantum GIS has a huge, talented support base.  Everyone who’s working on Quantum GIS is doing so because they care, not just to get a paycheck.  Think about that.

The second component of any map I make is the data with which I make the map.  This data comes in many shapes and sizes, as well as different formats and/or projections.  The lion’s share of what I actually do involves taking all that crap and turning it into an accurate, useful and (hopefully) visually pleasing map.  The problem that Map Dorks run into at this point is:  Where to get the data?

Often, we turn to the federal government.  The USGS has been producing quality maps almost since the Boston Tea Party, so we tend to think of them as a pretty safe bet.  However, it’s wise to check the fine print on the quadrangle you’re looking at.  Around these parts, they generally date back to the sixties, although many of them were updated in the eighties or nineties.

Our government also provides census data, also known as TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing system) files.  TIGER data comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, and is of varying accuracy (see below).

These days, most state governments have some sort of GIS department, as do many cities and towns.  These tend to be more accurate than federal sources (although not always) due mainly to the fact that they have a much smaller area of focus.  And, of course, some are better than others.  Here in Massachusetts, we are lucky to have MassGIS.  While MassGIS can be rather quirky (their file naming conventions leave a bit to be desired), they freely offer a wealth of data that tends to be pretty accurate (I know because I’ve checked a fair amount of it on the ground).  They do have a budget, however, so some of their data gets a little old between updates.  And while they offer tons of data via WMS, their servers – well – suck.

For my money, the most accurate data around (besides the data I go out and gather myself, of course) is that which comes from OpenStreetMap.  Steve touched upon this in the post mentioned previously, but it bears repeating.  Because data sources are many and various, it is often difficult to assess the accuracy of the data in question (especially if it’s data depicting an area geographically removed from your own location).

What makes OSM (OpenStreetMap) unique among data providers is the workforce that acquires the data.  The OSM workforce isn’t comprised of people looking only for a paycheck.  The OSM workforce doesn’t daydream about something else while they’re gathering data.  The OSM workforce is extraordinarily focused on the job at hand because they are only doing it because they really want to do it. They also really want the data to be accurate.

Possibly the most important aspect of the OSM workforce is their proximity to the area they provide data about.  In the majority of cases, OSM data is collected by people who can vouch for the accuracy of their data because they can see it out their window or because they walked by it on their way home from work.  When it comes to the OSM workforce, the person who mapped any given road has most probably walked down that road.

Because of the nature of the OSM workforce, I tend to trust the accuracy of OSM data more than most.  To my mind it’s just plain common sense.  And in my experience, OSM data is at least as good as any other source, usually better.  Here’s a comparison of road data from three sources:


You can see the obvious shortcomings of the TIGER data.  You will probably also note the similarity between the MassGIS data and the OSM data.  This is because MassGIS (bless their little hearts) handed a bunch of data to OSM many moons ago (I don’t know exactly when this occurred).  While this is a great thing for Massachusetts, not all of America was so lucky.  And in my experience, even here in Massachusetts OSM data tends to be more up to date than MassGIS’s (the primary reason for this, I think, is that MassGIS dedicates the lion’s share of their budget to flashy projects.  For instance, they just finished gathering new, state-wide aerial imagery – most at 30cm/pixel, some at 15cm.  While the imagery is very cool and very useful, OSM will probably get around to utilizing it before MassGIS does).

As luck would have it, you don’t have to take my word for this.  Bing maps just rolled out a new feature:  an OpenStreetMap layer.  I did a quick comparison:


This pretty much speaks for itself.  Not only is the OSM data more accurate (note the British Rail lines on the left, as well as the placement of the Oxford Canal), but OSM provides far more information than the Bing data (without overcrowding the map).  In pretty much all ways, it’s just plain better data.

And before anyone points to the fact that OSM started in Great Britain (so of course OSM data is better over there), here’s a section of Boston I visited just the other day:


Kudos to Microsoft for including the OSM layer.  By all means head on over to Bing maps and check it out.  It’s nice to see that they’ve finally figured out what many of us Map Dorks figured out long ago:

Always use the best data you can get your hands on.


People's DRM For those of you who don’t know, DRM is an acronym for Digital Rights Management.  For the bulk of Geekdom, DRM is considered a dirty word (to Geeks, acronyms are words).  This is not so much because of what DRM is, but because of the manner in which it has been implemented.

In a pure sense, DRM is simply an offshoot of copyright.  It’s another way of saying “I created this content, and I should have control over what happens to it.”  In theory, DRM is intended to protect the interests of the creator of content, just like copyright.

Part of the confusion here comes from the ‘Digital’ part of DRM.  In days of yore, things like music and movies were recorded (by small blue trolls) on strips of magnetic tape.  It was called ‘analog’, as opposed to ‘digital’, and it was a completely different way of recording data.  The scope of these differences is far larger than I’m willing to go into here, but I will point to the most pertinent difference:  analog content degrades when it’s copied, and the degradation is cumulative.  Digital content does not degrade when copied.

If you stop and think about it, you can see why the music and movie industries were okay with cassette tapes and VCRs but got their knickers in a twist over CDs and DVDs.

And so the people who had no talent but had nonetheless made obscene amounts of money by managing and manipulating people who did have talent found themselves staring straight into the obliteration of their golden geese.  This scared the crap out of them, and they scrambled for ways to stop the inevitable.  They made the mistake of selecting the ‘Stormtrooper’ option.

It was kind of predictable, the sort of mistake made by people who think they’re in control (or even that it’s possible to be in control).  Rather than addressing the changing world, acknowledging the needs of the audience and embracing new technologies, the boneheads decided to fight it all.  I think they actually believed there is a small concrete bunker somewhere in Kansas labeled ‘Internet’ that can be seized and controlled.  Really.

So they assigned the small blue trolls to the task, and they implemented a variety of objectionable practices that have become known, collectively but inaccurately, as ‘DRM’.  Things like the infamous Sony rootkit.

As I said, these various bits of nastiness are not, precisely, DRM.  They are simply examples of DRM.  Much the way Roman Catholicism is not ‘religion’ but rather an example of religion.  And Digital Rights Management, as a concept, is not particularly evil.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with an artist desiring just compensation for their work.  I do, however, draw the line at imaginary compensation.  You know – the outrageous sums the RIAA and MPAA say they’ve ‘lost’ to pirates.  I can understand having issues with those who mass produce counterfeit content and market it, but I refuse to carry it over to the schmucks who just make a copy to play in their car.  I don’t feel artists can realistically expect a guarantee of compensation for their efforts.  But they should be able to stop others from capitalizing on it.

Now, there are those who (mistakenly) believe they occupy the other end of the spectrum.  These are the folks who have given rise to the term ‘Copyleft’, otherwise known as ‘Viral Licensing’.  One of the earliest forms of this (and probably the best known) is the GNU General Public License.  The GPL is a heavy hitter in the so-called Free and Open Source Software world (think Linux).  In a nutshell, the GPL states that code covered by the license can be freely distributed and modified, but any resultant product must also be covered by GPL.  This is where the ‘viral’ comes in.  If you want to use this ‘free’ stuff to make other stuff, your new stuff must also be ‘free’.  And this carries on if anyone else wants to take your ‘free’ stuff to make even more stuff.

The basic idea is a good one. The original product is offered at no monetary cost, and we want to protect against anyone charging people to use it or any part of it.  But it’s not exactly free, or even especially close to it (unless we narrow our definition of free to ‘without monetary cost’).  It’s rather like Robin Hood stealing from Nottingham, but only giving the proceeds to the poor if they agree to use them only for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.  It’s really only a façade of freedom.

In fact, it’s Digital Rights Management.

As stated, I don’t actually have any issues with DRM.  And I’m kind of a fan of viral licensing.  I am bothered by the use of the term ‘Copyleft’ – as though DRM of one sort is somehow morally superior to DRM of another sort.  Truth is, they are all very firmly ensconced at the right end of the spectrum.

To my knowledge, there is only one true example of ‘Copyleft’.  Woody Guthrie invoked it when writing songs in the early forties:

“This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”


Logos My Mother-in-law (Karen) loves getting new pictures of her grandchildren.  Given her choice in the matter, she would get copies of every picture ever taken of them.  Since I have a terrific relationship with Karen, I’m inclined to indulge her on this one, but until recently I didn’t have a decent method of delivery.  I tried to be good about burning her DVDs full of cute photos, but just kept forgetting and/or running out of time.  Recently, though, I finally figured out a way to make the whole process pretty much automated, and I thought I’d share it with you all in honor of Mothers’ Day.  Maybe some of you can use it to make your own Mother and/or Mother-in-law happy.

The first thing you need do is download and install Dropbox.  If you’re unfamiliar with Dropbox, I recommend you watch the introductory video linked to on the home page.  What Dropbox does, in a nutshell, is put a folder on your hard-drive that synchronizes across computers.  What this means is that you can install Dropbox in other computers, which will then also have a Dropbox folder.  Any changes made in the Dropbox folder in one computer will automatically be reflected in any and all other computers shared by the same account.  Again – watch the video.

The installation process entails creating a Dropbox account.  They offer a free one that includes 2g of storage, which will be more than enough for our purposes here.  You can purchase more storage if you need it.

Once you have Dropbox installed, open your Dropbox folder (you can access it from the start menu or from the system tray) and create a new folder, called whatever you wish (I called mine “Photos For Karen”).  Right-Click on the folder, then select Dropbox»Share This Folder from the drop-down menu:

Fig 1

This will open your browser, taking you to a dedicated Dropbox page that will ask you for the email address of the person with whom you’d like to share the folder.  Optionally, you can include a personal message.  Tell it what it wants to know.

Now for Phase 2.  The easiest way to accomplish the rest of this is with actual physical access to the computer owned by Mom and/or Mom-in-law.  If this is not possible due to distances, there are options.  There are tons of ways to remotely control a computer out there – pretty much any one of them will do.  Alternately, talking someone through this over the phone wouldn’t be too terribly difficult.

The next step is to help your Mom (I will no longer bother to make distinctions – fill in the rest yourself) download and install Dropbox (as well as creating her own account – whoohoo!), a process easily achieved through following the links provided in the email you sent as an invitation.  By doing it this way, the shared folder automagically appears in Mom’s Dropbox folder (in Karen’s case, it appeared in the ‘Photos’ folder in her Dropbox folder).

Let’s take a moment to look at what we’ve got so far.  Now I can sit in my own chair at my own computer and modify the contents of my “Photos For Karen” folder.  When I do this, the exact same changes will occur to the “Photos For Karen” folder on Karen’s computer automatically.  So I can drop the latest photos of the cute kid in a folder on my computer, and those photos will magically appear in a folder on Karen’s computer, 50 miles away (the distance is immaterial).  So we’ve already hit about a 6 on the Cool-o-meter.  Let’s take it a few steps further.

Still working on Mom’s computer, let’s now download and install Bamboo.  Bamboo is a backup/sync utility.  There are boatloads of this sort of utility, and I’m sure the bulk of them would probably serve our purposes here.  I chose to go with Bamboo for two reasons – the first is that I know it has the features we need, the second is that it’s free (although you should feel free to donate to the cause).

Once Bamboo is installed, we can set it up to transfer some files for Mom.  Run Bamboo (either automatically at the end of the installation or from the start menu), and it will inform you that you haven’t yet defined a ‘folder pair’.  Click ‘Okay’, and it will offer you options for various tasks (“Actions’).

Fig 2

Here we choose “Merge and tidy up”, and on the following screen we browse our way to the file we want to take photos from (C:\Users\Karen\My Dropbox\Photos For Karen) as well as the folder we want to move the photos to (C:\Users\Karen\Pictures).

Fig 3

On the next screen, we only need to change the first option of Step 3 to “Move to L2”.

Fig 4

Next, we’re given the option to name the folder pair, if we’re so inclined.  Feel free to be creative.  Lastly, we’re asked if we want to run this operation or not.  There’s no reason to do so at this point, so opt out.  We’re also given the opportunity to access the advanced options.  One of the advanced options is using Windows Scheduler to schedule the file transfer to occur automatically.  I opted out of this for two reasons – the first is that the scheduler doesn’t offer an option I thought would work well for Karen.  She doesn’t leave her computer on, so setting a specific time wouldn’t work.  Scheduling it to run on startup would slow down the startup process too much, and it also stood the chance of missing new photos that hadn’t finished synchronizing.  The second reason is that I wanted Karen to feel like she was a part of the process, and making this happen was quite easy.  All I had to do was right-click on the folder pair and scroll to the bottom of the menu to “Create Shortcut On Desktop”.

Fig 5

The shortcut – like any other shortcut – can be renamed to anything you like.  Double-clicking on it opens a small window with two buttons at the bottom:  “Run” and “Cancel”.  Clicking on “Run”  moves any files in the Dropbox folder into the Pictures folder.

So let’s look at what we’ve accomplished here.  I can move photos from my picture libraries into my ‘Photos For Karen’ folder in my Dropbox.  The next time Karen turns on her computer, Dropbox obligingly deposits those photos into her ‘Photos For Karen’ folder.  Whenever Karen feels like it, she can run her Bamboo folder pair, which will remove the photos from her ‘Photos For Karen’ folder and deposit them into her picture libraries.  This, in turn, will remove them from my ‘Photos For Karen’ folder, freeing up space in my Dropbox account while simultaneously informing me that Karen has backed up the photos in question.  And now Karen can open up her Windows Media Center and enjoy her new pictures at will.  As an added bonus, I know that our pictures are backed up somewhere removed from where we live.

Not too bad.  And the possibilities are virtually endless.  I’m thinking of setting up a similar system for my own Mom, but rather than just dumping new photos into her ‘pictures’ library, Bamboo will empty and repopulate a folder dedicated to a slide-show screensaver.

Pretty slick, huh?


Justice So the next-gen iPhone scandal continues apace.  For those of you scratching your heads, the Readers’ Digest version:

An engineer from Apple reportedly ‘lost’ a prototype of the next version of the iPhone.  An unidentified man ‘found’ said iPhone (I say ‘lost’ and ‘found’ because we have only the unidentified man’s word for the veracity of this scenario).  Despite the fact that the mystery man found a plethora of information about the engineer within the iPhone itself, rather than returning the device (or turning it over to the authorities) he chose instead to sell the phone for $5,000 to Gizmodo.

Gizmodo, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, is what is commonly referred to as a Gadget Blog.  Also referred to as Technology Porn, it is one of many such blogs that make their living by gushing over the latest and greatest high-tech gadgets in the marketplace.

Jason Chen is the blogger at Gizmodo who subsequently posted an item about the iPhone.  Gizmodo even went so far as to post pictures of the iPhone in a dismantled state.  And they stepped way over the line by posting the name of the engineer who ‘lost’ the phone (the lie they told to justify this bit of sensationalist crap is that they were ‘protecting’ the engineer because Apple wouldn’t dare fire him after Gizmodo posted his name.  As if Apple wouldn’t just go ahead and fire an engineer who misplaced such a device anyway).

This all raised a pretty big stink out in the interwebs, and much discussion of the issue occurred.  And then it pretty much faded away.  That is, until Friday, when law enforcement officials showed up at Chen’s house with a warrant and took away a truckload of electronics in the form of computers, hard-drives, cameras and whatnot.  Naturally, many assume that Apple is behind the warrant.  Personally, until this development I suspected Apple of being complicit in the whole story in an attempt to garner publicity for their new device (I’m sure they could use some after the lack of excitement over the iPad).

Anyway, you can imagine the gnashing of teeth surrounding the whole affair.  The warrant evidently stated that the gadgetry seized from Chen’s residence may have been “used as a means of committing a felony” or could “show a felony has been committed.”  It seems pretty clear that Chen and Gizmodo knew damn well that they were breaking the law (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they didn’t know it was a felony).

Gizmodo, through their COO, is claiming that the warrant was invalid because Chen should be covered by state and federal ‘shield’ laws because Chen is a journalist.  Journalists’ notes, pictures, data and such are not supposed to be seizable by warrant.  Rather, courts are supposed to subpoena the journalist for such items.

I’m sorry, but I really have to draw the line at this ‘journalist’ crap.  Calling Gizmodo (or the bulk of the rest of the gadget blogs) ‘journalism’ is pure douchebaggery and an insult to all true journalists in this world.  Have you read any of these blogs?  Their ‘stories’ consist of no more than a few paragraphs (often only one) that take one of two forms:  the first is a direct copy-and-paste from a real article the ‘author’ then links to.  The second is just a hastily-scrawled, poorly written and invariably misspelled blurb (I would like to dispel the fiction that misspelled words in articles posted on the internet can be excused simply by calling them ‘typos’.  Originally, typographical errors described spelling errors that occurred during the type-setting part of the publishing process.  This was a phenomenon specific to printed media, and the distinction was made to point out that the error was beyond the author’s control.  In the case of articles published on the internet, misspellings are solely the responsibility of the author, and are indicative of a lazy and/or sloppy over-reliance on spell-checkers).

Edward R. Murrow was a journalist.  Bill Moyers is a journalist.  Journalists go to dangerous places and take personal risks to report stories that are of actual import to human beings.  Journalism is most certainly not about the latest celebrity break-up.  Nor is it about the latest shiny bauble up for sale.  There is a world of difference between news and gossip.  The business of journalists is news.  Blogs, on the other hand, are most often in the business of gossip.

If, for some bizarre reason, there are state and federal laws protecting gossips (or douchebags), then Chen should enjoy their protection.  If no such laws exist, Chen and the company he works for should get spanked.  Hard. What they do is not journalism, and they should not be allowed to wrap themselves in journalism’s protective blanket just by claiming they deserve it.  That blanket should be reserved for people who have actually earned it.


internet Living in an area rife with colleges, our lives tend to be awash in free publications.  They vary in quality from excellent to – well – crap.  Yesterday, I was perusing a paper that lands somewhere away from the excellent end of the spectrum, and I came across an article written by a guy who calls himself a ‘parenting expert’.  The oxymoronic nature of this label struck me as being so humorous I felt compelled to tweet a tweet on the subject.  One of my tweeps (not sure how I feel about that term.  On the surface, I kind of like it, but I’m generally ill-disposed toward words that don’t lend themselves to the singular) responded, calling the ‘parenting expert’ a professional delusionist. I asked permission to use the term, and it was granted (thanks, Jason).

Truth be told, I am so fond of the term Professional Delusionist that I am seriously thinking about including it on my business cards and résumé.  I’ll probably put it right after Outrageous Liar.

Anyway, the delusionist oversimplified parenting styles into two oppositional categories,  then went on to explain how his personal theory fit perfectly in the middle.  Having thus proven his idiocy, he finished up his piece with a ‘fact check’ in which he endeavored to “correct some misinformation that is out there”.  This ‘correction’ includes an admonishment to “check the records (not the Internet)”, as well as a brief discussion of how a tidbit of misinformation “ran wild on the Internet”.

Okay.  Let’s see if we can hack this to bits.  A good place to start would be the common misperception that disinformation and the Internet are conjoined twins.  The adage “Don’t believe everything you read (or hear)” was kicking around long before anyone dreamed up the Internet, and for good reason.  People lie.  They do it often, for a multitude of reasons, and in pretty much all media.  Sometimes they do it knowingly, but oft-times they do it because they think they’re doing the exact opposite.  But this is a discussion for another day.

The Internet, unlike most other forms of media, has the ability to correct itself.  It is a constantly-evolving creature (I hear you, Drew.  Allow me a bloody metaphor.  Possibly an analogy and/or simile).  There was a time when only geeks could effectively navigate the archipelagoes of cyberspace, but as times have changed, so has the Internet.  This manifests itself as better browsers, more intelligent search engines, more intuitive web sites and cleaner code.

Translated to human:  The Internet works better than it used to.  And anyone can use it well, if they just treat it as critically as they treat their newspaper or TV.

Allow me to demonstrate.  Open up another browser window, or just another tab.  Go to Google and search for:

Man Arrested for Wearing McCain Shirt at Obama Victory Rally

Those of you who are intensely lazy can just click on this.

Okay.  Let’s look at our results.  The first thing that should catch your eye is that the titles of all the links we’re seeing are very similar.  This is the kind of thing that should throw up warning flags.  What it’s telling us is that all those pages are either A) linking to the same source, or B) linking to each other.

We can put these results to the test.  In this case, we’re looking at page after page that discuss a McCain supporter who was arrested at an Obama victory rally just for wearing a pro-McCain T-shirt! It seems to me that if such an event actually occurred, there would be some mention of it in the news.

Let’s go back to our search page.  At the top left, you see a list:  Web, Images, Videos, Maps, News, Shopping, Gmail, more.  Click on ‘News’ and see what happens.

Nothing.  Not a single mention in the news (not even at Fox!) of this event.  Does this mean that the event did not occur?  No.  Just that it’s unlikely.

Alright.  So here’s what we just did – we started with a rumor (in blue letters above), we found out whether it was being talked about (our first search), then we checked to see if any reputable sources were talking about it (our second, ‘news’ search).  In a nutshell, we came across a rumor and determined that it was crap. And all it took us a couple of minutes.

This, my friends, is the power of the Internet.  But it only works if you couple it with a discerning mind.

Which is what far too few people do.  A friend once told me about a phenomenon he referred to as ‘barroom philosopher’.  A ‘barroom philosopher’ is a person who expresses their ideas in a room full of drunken people.  When the rest of the drunks agree with them, the ‘barroom philosopher’ thinks that they’re actually onto something.  It doesn’t occur to them to question the fact that a bunch of drunks are agreeing with them.

The Internet has a similar phenomenon, and Jason hit upon it last night.  Jason spoke of the Professional Delusionist, but the Internet is populated with a different creature.  What you find on the Internet are internet Prowling amateur delusionists.

Or iPads.


internet By now, you may have heard about the recent case concerning Net Neutrality.  It got a lot of air time on the geek sites.  Most of it was fairly accurate, some hyperbolic.  There are more than a few who termed it Bad News for the cause of Net Neutrality.  From where I’m standing, though, the decision looks like Good News for the cause.  I’ll tell you why.

First, let’s take a look at Net Neutrality.  Wikipedia has a decent article on the subject.  If you have the time and feel so inclined, give it a read.  For the rest of you, I’ll give it to you in a nutshell:

The internet is still fairly new, and therefore so are Internet Service Providers (ISPs).  At the onset of general, commercialized internet availability, ISPs simply provided a sort of blanket access.  For the most part, internet access was largely just a question of on or off.  In the early days (those dark but exciting days of dial-up), customers were often charged by usage – you may remember offers of so many minutes per month for a flat fee.  Much of this eventually graduated into unlimited usage, a move that pretty much solidified with the advent of widespread broadband.  And until fairly recently, this was the status quo.

For the providers, however, the status was not as quo as they would have liked.  The idea of charging general, flat fees put a serious twist in their knickers.  Especially because these newer ISPs were often utilities (phone and/or cable companies) that were used to fleecing customers in a highly detailed fashion.  So they focused their energies into devising new and seemingly justified ways to charge their customers more.

What they came up with was a service-based model.  The idea here is that some internet usage (the ‘service’) uses more bandwidth and therefore should cost more.  Streaming video uses more bandwidth than sending email (the argument goes), so shouldn’t the person streaming video pay more than the person sending email?

For those of you wondering, the answer is an emphatic no.  There are a variety of reasons for the fat letters, but I’ll only address my two favorites.  The first is that the connection you are paying for is already limited.  You’re already paying for a certain amount of bandwidth, and I’ll guarantee that very few of you ever approach it.  And in most cases, you’re not always receiving the bandwidth you think you’ve been promised (read the fine print).  The second – and far more important reason – is that the only way your ISP can know whether you are sending email or streaming video is if they stick their noses where they don’t belong.

And yes – you all know my position on privacy and the internet.  While there is no real privacy on the internet, this does not mean we should invite further invasion from our ISP.

Anyway, the various ‘service-based’ pricing schemes proposed are called tiered service by the ISPs.  They’re called price discrimination by those who oppose them.  And Net Neutrality is the idea that pricing by content and/or service (by any name) is a basic violation of our rights.

Okay.  Now let’s move on to the recent case.  If you’re so inclined, you can read the decision yourself (PDF).  The upshot is that a few years back, some Comcast customers found that their bandwidth was being throttled because they were sharing files peer-to-peer.  A couple of Hey-Corporate-Dirtbags-Americans-Have-Rights type organizations got involved, as did the courts and the FCC, and Comcast got spanked.

Although Comcast complied with the ruling, they also challenged it, the result of which is this recent decision.  And what the actual decision amounts to is simply this:  That the FCC does not actually have the authority to regulate an ISP’s network management practices.

This decision has been regarded by many as a blow against Net Neutrality.  I disagree, because I can’t really convince myself that taking control of internet service away from the provider and giving it to the government would constitute any sort of victory for Net Neutrality.  Especially when we look at the details.

The original ruling presumed the FCC’s authority over ISPs based on The Communications Act of 1934 (that’s right – 1934), specifically the vaguely-worded 4th Section of said Act, which states:

The Commission may perform any and all acts, make such rules and regulations, and issue such orders, not inconsistent with this chapter, as may be necessary in the execution of its functions.

This, despite the fact that a previous ruling (previous to the Comcast ruling – later than the Act of 1934) found that:

cable Internet service is neither a “telecommunications service” covered by Title II of the Communications Act nor a “cable service” covered by Title VI.

This recent ruling was about the FCC and its authority.  In the end, absolutely nothing was decided on the subject of Net Neutrality.  And I would argue that the FCC being no longer considered to have regulatory authority over internet service based solely on a vaguely-worded, ill-defined, 80-year-old Act is rather a victory for Net Neutrality.

It’s not that the FCC shouldn’t be thrust into the role of watchdog for Net Neutrality, it’s just that they should only do so if they themselves are subject to rules that are written specifically to address the issues at hand.

It’s a very, very bad idea to give a government agency a free hand.


Great Wall in Winter I studied anthropology in college.  At the particular university I attended, this entailed a certain amount of time spent hanging around the anthro lounge with other students.  There was a grassy corner outside the building housing said lounge where a curious family would occasionally take up temporary residence to harangue the students passing by.  They had a large (about 15’ tall) wooden cross they would hold (usually the father) and they would scream at the passerby about their likelihood of burning in Hell for all eternity.  Apparently, this family thought attending university was some form of especially grievous sin.  Beside the father, the family consisted of a mother and a small boy, probably around 8 years old at the time.

One day, I sat in the lounge while this family stood at their posts screaming invectives.  Dickie, a grad student, entered the lounge and flopped angrily into a chair.  I looked up and noted that he was visibly upset.

“What’s up?” I queried.

“I just feel for that little boy,” came the response.  “I just want to go out and tell him that there’s another way.”

My reaction to this statement was to question Dickie about a few things.  Specifically, why he thought he had the right to tell anyone else how to raise their children, what he thought entitled him to pass judgment on someone else’s beliefs, and whether he liked the idea of someone else telling Dickie how to raise his own children.  I didn’t do it very nicely.

I got to thinking about that family today as I was reading yet another article about China/Google.  I was thinking about them because the elephant in the room reminded me of them.

You see, in all the discussion about this scenario, I have read reams of opinions about human rights (which I’ll get to later), but I have read precious little about sovereignty.  You know – something along the lines of:  Who are we to tell China what to do?  When companies from other countries do business here in the United States (even Chinese companies), we quite rightly expect them to play by our rules.  If they fail to do things our way, we kick them out.  This is right and proper and how it should be.

But not, apparently, when China does it.  When we do it, we are a sovereign nation exercising its right to protect the interests of its people.  When China does it, they’re an evil, tyrannical empire abusing its citizens.

To quote Brian Lewis:  “God bless America. And no place else.”

Just one more damn thing I find tiresome about my country.  Which should not be taken to mean I don’t love my country.  I love my country, and I always have.  I just hold it to a higher standard than most people.

Anyway, a large part of the Great American Idiocy is the unshakable belief that everyone else in the world wants what we have (which contains a kernel of truth, but not of the sort most people think).  Americans inexplicably think that the rest of humanity would really love to have an American form of government, as well as a full set of American rights.  This is inexplicable for a variety of reasons, the largest of which being that Americans don’t even want them themselves.

Don’t believe me?  Are you actually under the impression that Americans are protective of their rights?  If so, I have one question:  Where the hell were you for the first eight years of this millennium?  You know – that dark, cold period in American history when the Bush/Cheney empire routinely erased the rights of the American people, in response to which the majority of Americans stood up and cheered.

And our form of government?  Please.  In the first place, we do not have a democracy in this country, or even anything close to it.  ‘Representative Republic’ is one of the phrases that often gets batted around in an attempt to describe what we have.  Whatever you want to call it, what we do have in this country is the ability to vote.  The actual weight our individual votes carry is an arguable point (and it varies, depending on what, exactly, we’re voting about), but in some fashion it boils down to the fact that we are freely given a real, active and meaningful voice in our government.

And yet, in the last election, only 58% of Americans who were eligible to vote actually did so.  This means that 42% of the Americans who were eligible to vote chose not to participate in the process, despite the fact that it doesn’t cost them anything, is easy to do, and directly and immediately affects their lives.

So tell me – if our form of government is so damned wonderful, why do almost half of the eligible participants choose not to play?  And please don’t try to tell me that all those Americans want our form of government, but just aren’t willing  to ‘work’ for it.  That’s just another way of saying they don’t want it.  Besides, dropping by the polls for an hour (at most) once every couple of years is not exactly work (truth be told, there are only two things that the majority of Americans really do want.  They want to be able to pick up a six-pack on their way home from work, and they want their cable to work when they get home.  If these two things are in place, the average American doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anything else).  I just don’t understand why we insist on believing the rest of the world wants a piece of our so-called ‘democracy’ when such a large percentage of Americans don’t even want it.  Seems like a bit of a stretch.

Which brings us to the subject of human rights.  We here in the Land Of Silk And Money tend to believe that the government of China routinely violates the basic human rights of the Chinese people.  Personally, I believe this to be true, but not through any firsthand (or even secondhand) knowledge.

What’s unclear to me is why we’re bringing internet censorship into the whole human rights discussion.  This is not to say I am a proponent of internet censorship (or any other sort of censorship, for that matter).  I’d like to think this is obvious.  Censorship in any form is an infringement of the freedom of expression, something I consider to be a basic human right (within reason, of course.  You know – the old saw about not yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.  Possessing a right to speak freely does not automatically confer a license to use it recklessly.  Nor does it absolve one from taking responsibility for things said).  What I’m not getting here is why we’re all pretending that the Chinese government is the only government that actively censors the information its citizens receive.  Or why we pretend that censorship only comes from ‘bad’ governments.  All governments censor information – some are just more honest about it (for which they get sent over to sit on the Group ‘W’ bench).

We here in the United States tend to place freedom of expression into the ‘basic human right’ category, I think mainly because our freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed and therefore we have more of it than most.  What we forget is just how rare this is.  The overwhelming majority of humanity does not enjoy this right, even many of the people we Americans kind of assume do have such a right – While article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights pertains to the freedom of expression, it contains the conditional: subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”. In other words, everyone should have a right to free speech, but only insofar as their government wishes to allow (Neil Gaiman wrote a great piece on this a while back).  It also should be noted that the European Convention on Human Rights is much like the United Nations – it has no muscles.  It is only enforceable if a government chooses to flex its muscles on the Convention’s behalf.

I guess my point here is simply a repetition of one of the great litanies of my life:  They are all bastards. I don’t really see how asking Google to abide by their rules makes Chinese bastards worse than all the other bastards.



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August 2020