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.

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Father ChristmasI love the holidays, and I always have.  I grew up somewhere between the top of the lower class and the bottom of the middle class, so for me the solstice never had much of a materialistic orientation.  In my life, the holidays have always been about the things we all say they’re about:  Sharing.  Warmth.  Love.

I have to admit, though, that despite my upbringing there comes at least one occasion every holiday season upon which I feel powerfully compelled to slap someone.  This occasion is invariably when some bonehead informs me that they neglected to tell their children about Santa because they “didn’t want to lie to”, or “thought it was important to be honest with” their children.

A laudable goal.  I am a fan of honesty.  In fact, I am excruciatingly honest myself.  I say this not to extol some virtue, but simply as a datum, like the color of my eyes or the length of my hair.  It’s just the way I was raised, and I have very little control over it.  For the most part it’s a good thing, but it has been known to land me in trouble.  You’d be amazed at how many people don’t really want honest answers to their questions.  Seemingly innocent questions, too, like:  “Does this dress make me look fat?”, or “Did I make a fool of myself at the party last night?”

But there’s honesty, and then there’s honesty.  And when people tell me they deny the existence of Santa Claus in order to be ‘honest’ with their children, I know they are lying to me (and not just for the obvious reason).  I also know they are lying to their children.  I know this because their children are happy.   And if their parents really tried to be honest with them, this wouldn’t be the case.  Those children who are playing so happily on the swing set probably didn’t have their parents carefully explain to them that most humans are bad people, that evil invariably triumphs over good, and that – in the Grand Scheme of Things – all humans lead brief, pointless lives in this vale of tears before going on to become worm food.  Brutal honesty has no place in parenting, and most parents thankfully steer clear of it.  So why single out Santa?  Let’s face it – you’re not achieving some kind of moral superiority by denying the existence of Santa Claus.  You’re just being a dick.  And a dishonest dick, at that.

I have, on occasion, been asked whether or not I believe in Santa Claus.  The absurdity of this question baffles me.  Of course I believe in Santa.  I also believe in broccoli, and grout.  You’d be amazed at the number of things I believe in just because they exist.

Although I suppose ‘belief’ isn’t quite the correct word.  I don’t actually believe  in grout – I’m simply aware of its existence.  In much the same way, I don’t ‘believe’ in Santa, as such.  Neither do I ‘believe’ in trees or cars or shoes or rocks or hats or pianos or bubble gum or roller skates or blue jeans or cake or grills or chairs or any of the countless things that straightforwardly are.  Santa Claus simply is, and no one’s belief or lack thereof has any effect on this state of affairs.  Luckily, our opinions about Santa are largely immaterial to him.  The only people whose opinions really do matter to Santa are children, and they are all quite aware of him (and think rather highly of him), regardless of whatever nonsense they hear from their parents.

Truth is, it’s not the thought of lying that bothers these misguided parents so much,  but rather the thought of Santa Claus himself.  Why?  No one quite knows the reason.  It could be their heads aren’t screwed on just right.  It could  be, perhaps, that their shoes are too tight.  It could be their hearts aren’t a large enough size.  Or maybe they’re confusing Santa with some other bearded guy.

But the most likely reason of all is that one year during their childhood they really, really wanted the Captain Plastic Adventure Playset and Santa failed to deliver.  This disappointment led to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Santa, which in turn was probably fueled by a purposeful misrepresentation of Santa by their own parents (not to criticize anyone.  Parenting is hard enough.  If parents want to assess responsibility to Santa for their inability or unwillingness to secure a specific gift, who’s to blame them?).

I think a big part of the problem is that there is so much mythology surrounding Santa many people get confused and think that Santa himself is mythological.  Nothing could be further from the truth, but on some level the confusion is understandable.  Some of the myths surrounding Santa are pretty far-fetched.  There are people who actually believe Santa is a Christian (please don’t bring up the ‘birthday’ thing.  We all know the chance of December 25th actually being the day on which Christ was born is 1 in 365.  It’s the solstice that’s meaningful to Santa).

And the misconceptions don’t end there.  Children are actually taught to send ‘wish lists’ to Santa, as if he was some sort of mail-order business.  The poor kids are being told that their relationship with Santa is one of supply and demand.  They’re being taught that Christmas is about greed, jealousy and gluttony.  They’re being deceived into thinking that the gifts are a measure of Santa’s love, when in fact they are a token of it.

You see, that is what Santa does:  he loves.  He’s not about gifts.  He’s not about trees or wreaths or toys or mistletoe or milk and cookies or sleighs or carols or silver bells or any of that stuff.  What he is about is love.  The best kind of love – the unselfish, unconditional kind.  The kind of love that is blind to behavior, be it naughty or nice (let’s be clear about this:  Santa does not care whether anybody cleans their room).  The kind of love that is big enough and pure enough and… elemental enough to travel the entire world in one night to deliver gifts to children of all sorts.

And each child receives precisely one present.  Because one is all it takes.  Because the gift lies not in the object, but in what the object represents:

Santa’s pure, unconditional love.

Happy Christmas to all.

hoffmanThose of you who know me know that I have my share of issues with this whole “Occupy (Insert name of Street or City Here)” movement.  For the most part, my issues stem from a general lack of tolerance for hypocrisy.  I don’t take Teabaggers seriously because they whine about taxes while at the same time complaining about potholes that aren’t getting filled.  For much the same reasons I don’t have much use for people who wear designer jeans and drink Starbucks coffee while they Tweet on their iPhones about the evils of corporate America.

For the most part, though, my problems with OWS are not so much with the message as with the messengers.  While the issues surrounding economic inequality in this country are real and important, I don’t feel the reluctance of the white middle class to repay their student loans ranks terribly high among them.

As time has gone by, though, I find myself less and less enamored of the message behind the protests.  In fact, the entire movement has completely failed to impress me.  This concerned me at first, mainly because I felt I should be impressed.  Economic equality is just the sort of socialist idea I can really get behind, so on the surface it really appeared to be my kind of movement.  But once I looked hard at the movement – looked below the surface – I realized it’s not actually my kind of movement at all.

Why?  Because it’s got no soul.  It’s got no heart.  It is a movement that is incapable of seeing beyond itself.  Or maybe it’s just unwilling to.  It has been called an inherently selfish movement by many (myself included), although it may be more fair to call it ‘self centered’ or ‘self-absorbed’.

The 99 percent

I’ve heard the arguments – that we should endeavor to look beyond the iPhones and the designer jeans to the message beneath.  That the ‘message’ of OWS is in their words, not their behaviors (any 4-year-old can tell you differently).  Here’s a news flash:  the message is getting out to the world, and it is loud and clear.  But it isn’t necessarily the message OWS thinks it’s broadcasting.  If you bring a gun to an anti-war protest, your message is not one of peace, no matter what you say.

I have repeatedly seen attempts to compare OWS to the civil rights movement, as well as to the anti-war counterculture movements of the 1960s.  All of these attempts have failed, and in their failure they underscore the fundamental shortcomings of OWS.  Its lack of a soul.  Its absence of heart.

First off, lets dismiss any comparisons to the civil rights movement.  I’m sorry, but placing OWS into the same category with Freedom Rides is almost insulting.  Let’s face facts here, people – those actively participating in the major events of the American civil rights movement were risking a great deal more than a dose of pepper spray.  And while a faceful of pepper spray is not exactly a pleasant experience, in comparison to the civil rights movement participating in OWS is practically risk free.  They also were fighting for rights on a far different level than those claimed by OWS.  They weren’t looking for a bigger slice of the pie – they just wanted to be allowed into the restaurant.  Those occupying Wall Street may argue differently, but in the eyes of the law, the 99% have the same rights as the 1%  (in theory, at least).  This was not the case for African Americans well into the twentieth century.  Today, no African American can legally be stopped from drinking out of a public water fountain.  The importance of this statement cannot be understood by anyone who would compare OWS to the civil rights movement.

When the proponents of OWS compare it to the anti-war counterculture movements of the 1960s, they are on slightly less shaky ground.  But only slightly.  The movements of the 1960s – like OWS – were primarily white middle-class movements.  And this is pretty much where the comparisons end.  When we start looking for more similarities is when the self-absorption of OWS stands out.

In both cases, we’re talking about the (primarily white) middle class.  We’re talking about people who have every door open to them.  Who have every opportunity available to them.  Who have every right and privilege handed to them.  From this starting point, vastly different messages arose.

OWS looks to the gap between itself and the 1% and says to the world:  “This inequality is inexcusable.  We should not have to settle for what we have when these few have so much.  As a society, we should take steps to reduce what they have so that the rest of us can have more.”

In contrast, those protesting in the 1960s looked to the gap between themselves and those who had less and said to the world:  “This inequality is inexcusable.  We should not allow members of our society to have so little when we have so much.  As a society, we should take steps to increase what they have, even if it means decreasing what we have.”

The movements of the 1960s were selfless (this is not to say that there were no egos involved).  They were about ending war.  They were about treating each other fairly.  They were about striving toward equality by giving – not by taking.

Those on the ground in the 1960s also saw inherent flaws in American consumer culture.  They too saw rampant consumption and pervasive greed, and they feared the results of them.  Their response to it, though, was almost opposite to OWSers – they opted out.  When they saw a culture of avarice that they felt had eroded their society and threatened their world, their response was to turn their backs on it – not to demand more of it.  Thus the term ‘counterculture’.

If OWS had occurred in the 1960s, iPhones wouldn’t have been used to Tweet about it.  They would have been used as firewood.

The counterculture movements of the 1960s possessed something that OWS sadly lacks.  They had heart, soul and yes – even magic.  Because of this, they gave birth to greatness.  Heroes don’t give birth to movements – movements give birth to heroes.  The 1960s produced the likes of Abbie Hoffman and the rest of the Chicago Seven.  (The civil rights movement produced even bigger giants.)

This is the soul that OWS lacks. And without it I feel it is doomed to failure. Where is its Hoffman, its Dylan, its Joplin, its Baez?

Speaking of which, where in hell is the music?  How is it that this movement has inspired so little?  Oh – I know that the people on the ground have been attempting to write songs.  I’ve listened to some of them.  And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

And I was going to continue my decades-old practice of ignoring Third Eye Blind, but I will go so far as to give them 10 bonus points for offering their song as a free download.  And then I’ll take 5 of those points away because one of the places they posted it is their Facebook page.  However, you’re fooling yourself if you see their “anthem”  as anything other than a thinly-veiled attempt to resuscitate their dead careers.

The 1960s, though, produced music of a different sort.  The kind of music that never goes out of style.  The kind of music that understands that peace is the answer to war, love is the answer to hatred, and generosity is the answer to greed.  The kind of music that shines light into dark places and makes flowers grow there.

The kind of music that can somehow magically transform half a million sweaty, mud-caked, tripping hippies into Stardust.

SithThere was a time – not too long ago – when a new social media contender appeared on the horizon.  It was supposed to be the first real threat to Facebook, and it was called Diaspora (I’m not really sure what they were thinking when they chose the name.  While the word technically can simply mean a scattering of people, it’s common usage implies a scattering that takes place against the people’s will).

At first, Diaspora got a lot of press.  The guys proposing it hyped it as a privacy-minded alternative to Facebook – a social network that wouldn’t sell off our private data to the highest bidder.  This proposal was well received.  The developers asked the world for money for startup costs via Kickstarter.  They initially asked for $10,000.  They ended up receiving more than $200,000.  All this without writing a single line of code.

I watched Diaspora with interest, as it sounded like a fine idea to me.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I thought the world could use an alternative to Facebook.  I was also intrigued by the fact that Diaspora intended their code (when they finally wrote it) to be open source, thereby allowing us to run it ourselves on our own servers if we so desired.

But then Google+ hit the interwebs.  It was immediately given the title of Facebook killer, and it seemed like everybody was talking about G+ for weeks.

And nobody – but nobody – seemed to be talking about Diaspora anymore.  I even asked about it a couple of times, at Google+ as well as at Twitter, but no one seemed to have heard anything from or about Diaspora since Google+ launched.  As far as I could tell, the project seemed to be pretty much dead in the water.

Until Diaspora reappeared, just a couple weeks ago.  I first noticed activity on the official Diaspora Twitter account, shortly after which I received an email inviting me to join in on the beta.  Of course, I did so.

And I have been greatly disappointed.  Not by the software but by its user base.  See, Diaspora had a real shot at the limelight, and if they had just gotten off the pot after they received twenty times the funding they asked for, they may have given Facebook a run for its money.  But Google beat them to the punch, and it was a serious beating.

Fact is, the overwhelming majority of Facebook users are really quite happy with Facebook, warts and all.  When it comes to all the various privacy issues, the average user just doesn’t give a crap.  And for most of those who do give a crap, Google+ serves as a perfectly adequate alternative.

So when Diaspora finally hit the scene, they were no longer the only alternative to Facebook.  In fact, they were now just a feature-poor substitute offered by a relatively unknown company with comparatively no resources at their disposal.

And their pickings were pretty slim.  Of the many, many people who actually want to participate in some form of social network, Facebook had already sewn up the majority of the pie.  Of the remainder, Google+ met the needs and/or desires of all but the most rabidly paranoid of the tinfoil hat-wearing crowd, who (sadly) have flocked to Diaspora and claimed it as their own.

As you may have guessed, finding a rational discussion at Diaspora is virtually impossible.  Like previously mentioned Quora, Diaspora’s narrow and esoteric user base has led to Rule By Douchebaggerati.  I have tried a few times to engage people at Diaspora, and the universal response has been attempts to pick fights with me.  Kind of sad and laughable at the same time, especially the latest instance.

Unsurprisingly, a fair amount of the ‘discussion’ at Diaspora revolves around Facebook- and/or Google- bashing.  My latest exposure to extreme douchbaggery occurred when a guy claimed to ‘know’ of Google’s evil, due to the vast amount of ‘research’ he’s done on the subject.  I politely (really – I worked at it) asked him to share his research.

I got no response from the Google scholar, but I did get numerous responses from the rest of the tinfoil hat-wearing crowd.  Their eventual consensus was (I’m not kidding) that the ‘truth’ about Google is only meaningful to those who do the research themselves.   Seriously.  One of them even went so far as to reference a series of ‘scholarly’ works on the subject of research and how it only really ‘works’ when we do it for ourselves (I’m not really sure how this works.  How far back along the research trail do we have to go ourselves?  Should I start each day by inventing language?).  So it’s not that they can’t back up their claims, but that they choose not to.  For my own good.  And they were quite happy to explain ad nauseam the reasons for this choice.  I don’t know if they’re intensely dumb or if they just think I am.

Which got me to thinking (about Google, that is).  I have, in fact, wondered about Google.  About whether or not it is evil.  My initial assumption was that it is.  I mean – it stands to reason, doesn’t it?  It’s an enormous, ridiculously wealthy and powerful corporation – how could it not be evil?

Being the kind of guy I am, though, I took the time to look into it.  I figured an enormous, wealthy, powerful evil empire would leave some sort of conclusive, verifiable proof of evildoings.  So I looked for them.  And I didn’t find any.  So I looked harder.  And I still didn’t find any.  So I looked even harder.  And still nothing.

What I found was a company that has made a fortune off of advertising.  One way in which they have done this is by gathering data about their users (us) and selling it to the highest bidder.  As far as I can tell, Google has never tried to hide this.  And while the data they gather (data we freely hand over to them, by the way) is – technically – private data, it’s not private in the way most people think.  Google doesn’t sell our account numbers to anyone.  Nor do they sell our email addresses.  In fact, they don’t sell anything that could be called PII (personally identifiable information).  Not even here in Massachusetts, the home of insanely stringent PII legislation.  The kind of data Google gathers and sells about us is data that we generate but that we don’t generally have a use for ourselves.

Years ago, my mother was a regular participant in the Neilsen Ratings.  Every so often, she would get a package in the mail from Neilsen.  It would contain some forms, a pencil and a ridiculous fee (I’m pretty sure it was $1).  For the following couple of weeks, she would religiously (and painfully honestly) record every television program watched in our household.  When the forms were completed, she would send them back to Neilsen.  The idea behind this was to find out what shows people were actually watching so that programming and advertising dollars could be spent appropriately.  I don’t know if the system actually worked, but it came close enough to make all involved happy.

This is the sort of data Google gathers.  The kind of data advertisers really care about, but that is not terribly meaningful to most of us average users.

And Google doesn’t force this upon us.  If you don’t want to give them your personal data, all you have to do is refrain from using their products and services.  There are other search engines out there.  There are other email providers (actually, if you want to use Gmail but don’t want Google to gather your personal information while you do so, all you have to do is pay for it.  It’s the free version that gets paid for though data).  On the other hand, if you’re willing to let Google gather and use your personal data, all those products and services are the payment you receive for the deal.

The other thing I found in my travels is scores – no, hundreds (possibly even thousands) of people who know that Google is evil.  They know because they’ve seen proof.  They’ve walked the walk, they’ve done the research, and they know – beyond doubt – that Google is The Evil Empire.  And every time I have encountered one of these people I have made the same simple request:  that they share this knowledge with me.

Not a single one of them has done so.  In fact, most of them get quite angry as part of the process of not doing so.  Usually I get told how painfully obvious it is – how the universe is practically littered with the proof of it – but no one has actually gone so far as to show me the proof they profess to have, or point me to the proof they profess to have seen.  Other times (like the recent one mentioned above) I get lengthy justifications as to why they are not sharing what they know (always that they are not – never that they cannot.  An important distinction).

At first I wondered if Google was just that good at covering up their evildoing.  They’d have to be better at it than the CIA (who’ve been eating and drinking cover-up for generations), but that wouldn’t be impossible.  Just unlikely.

But that didn’t make sense in light of all the people who have seen evidence of Google’s wrongdoing (they have!  Really!).  Instead, it would mean that of all those people, not one of them was willing to put their money where their mouth is (I mean, they’re all able to, right?  It’s that they’re not willing to).  Of all those people who know how evil Google is, not a single one of them is willing to produce any real proof of it.  Not a single conclusive, verifiable piece of evidence.  Not one.

Of course, the other possibility is that they’re all a bunch of asshats and Google is just a legitimate business.

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.

CloudNote: This is the fourth and last part in a series on building your own home-brewed map server  It is advisable to read the previous installments, found here, here and here.

This is the point at which the tutorial-like flavor of this series breaks down, for a variety of reasons.  From here on, we’ll be dealing with divergent variables that cannot be easily addressed.  We’ll discuss them each as they come up.  Suffice to say that from now on I can only detail the steps I have taken.  Any steps you take will depend on your equipment and circumstances.

Having finished putting my server together, I decided it was time to give it a face to show the world.  Before I could do so, however, I had to give it a more substantial connection to that world, a process that began with establishing a dedicated address (domain).  The most common method of achieving this is to simply purchase one (i.e., http://www.myinternetaddress.com).  There are a variety of web hosts you can turn to for this.  I cannot personally recommend any of them (due only to personal ignorance).

For the purpose of this exercise I didn’t feel I needed a whole lot (all I really wanted was an address, since I intended to host everything myself), so I went to DynDNS and created a free account (thanks, Don).  DynDNS set me up with a personal address, and the use of their updater makes it work for dynamic addresses (which most routers provide).  The web site does a decent job of walking you through the process, including setting up port forwarding in your router.

Exactly how to go about forwarding a port is particular to the router in question, so I won’t go into it in detail.  I will say that it is not something that should be approached lightly.  Port forwarding can pose certain security risks.  It’s a very good idea to do some research into the process before you dabble in it.

Once I had an address and a port through which to use it, I had to choose a front end for my server.  I was tempted to go with Drupal, mainly because it has the best documented means with which to serve up TileStream, but also because I’ve been meaning to learn my way around Drupal for some time now.

In the end, I realized that my little server, despite being almost Thomas-like in its dedication and willingness to serve, just doesn’t have the cojones necessary for serving those kind of tiles.  Truth is, if I wanted my own custom base map tiles in an enterprise environment, I’d purchase MapBox’s TileStream hosting rather that serving it myself, anyway. (Umm… I really couldn’t have been more wrong about this.)

And so I decided learning Drupal could wait for another day.  Instead I chose to go with WordPress, for several reasons.  I’m reasonably familiar with it, it’s a solid, well-constructed application, it’s extremely customizable, and it has an enormous, dedicated user base who have written huge amounts of themes and plugins.  And while WordPress was originally intended to be a blogging platform (and remains one of the best), it’s easy enough to reconfigure it for other purposes.

Installing WordPress is a snap since we included LAMP (Linux Apache, MySQL and PHP) while initially installing Ubuntu Server Edition.  In the terminal, type:

sudo apt-get install wordpress

Let it do its thing.  When it asks if you want to continue, hit ‘y’.  When it gets back to the prompt, type:

sudo ln -s /usr/share/wordpress /var/www/wordpress

sudo bash /usr/share/doc/wordpress/examples/setup-mysql -n wordpress mysite.com

But replace ‘mysite.com’ with the address you created at DynDNS.

Back to Webmin.  On the sidebar menu, click on Servers→Apache Webserver→Virtual Server.  Scroll down to the bottom.  Leave the Address at ‘Any’.  Specify the port you configured your router to forward (should be port 80, the default for HTTP).  Set the Document Root by browsing to  /var/www/wordpress.  Specify the Server Name as the address you created at DynDNS (the full address – include http://).  Stop and start Apache for good measure.

Now you should be able to point your browser to your DynDNS-created address (hereafter referred to as your address) to complete your configuration of WordPress.  You will have to make many decisions.  Choose wisely.

Once you have WordPress tweaked to your satisfaction, you’re probably going to want to add some web map functionality to it.  First and easiest is Flex Viewer.  All you have to do is move the ‘flexviewer’ folder from /var/www to  /usr/share/wordpress.  The file manager in Webmin can do this easily.  Once you’re done, placing a Flex Viewer map on a page looks something like this:

<iframe style="border: none;" height="400" width="600" src="http://your address/flexviewer/index.html"></iframe>

Straightforward HTML.  Nothing fancy, once all the machinery is in place.

Which gets a little trickier for GeoServer.  By design, GeoServer only runs locally (localhost).  In order to send GeoServer maps out to the universe at large, we have to do so through a proxy.  This has to be configured in Apache.  Luckily, Webmin makes it a relatively painless process.

We’ll start by enabling the proxy module in Apache.  Click on Servers→Apache Webserver→Global Configuration→Configure Apache Modules.  Click the checkboxes next to ‘proxy’ and ‘proxy_http’, then click on the ‘Enable Selected Modules’ button at the bottom.  When you return to the Apache start page, click on ‘Apply Changes’ in the top right-hand corner.

Having done that, we can point everything in the right direction.  Go to Servers→Apache Webserver→Virtual Server→Aliases and Redirects.  Scroll to the bottom and fill in the boxes thus:

Proxy

Your server will have a name other than maps.  Most likely, it will be localhost.  In any case, you can find it by looking in the location bar when you access the OpenGeo Suite.  Apply the changes again, and you might as well stop Apache and restart it for good measure.

You can now configure and publish maps through GeoExplorer.  The only caveat is that GeoExplorer will give you code that needs a minor change.  It will use a local address (i.e., localhost:8080) that needs to be updated.  Example:

<iframe style="border: none;" height="400" width="600" src="http://localhost:8080/geoexplorer/viewer#maps/1"></iframe>

changes to

<iframe style="border: none;" height="400" width="600" src="http://your address/geoexplorer/viewer#maps/1"></iframe>

And that – as they say – is that.  Much of this has entailed individual choices and therefore leaves a lot of room for variation, but I think we’ve covered enough ground to get you up and running.  If you want to see my end result, you can find it at:

The Monster Fun Home Map Server Webby Thing

I won’t make any promises as to how long I will keep it up and running, but it will be there for a short while, at least.  Keep in mind that it is a work in progress.  So be nice.

Update:  My apologies to anyone who may give a crap. but I have pulled the plug on the Webby Thing.  It was really just a showpiece, and I just couldn’t seem to find the time to maintain it properly.  And frankly, I have better uses for the server.  Sorry.

CloudNote: This is the third part in a series on building your own home-brewed map server  It is advisable to read the previous installments, found here and here.

Last time, I walked you through installing TileMill, and I promised a similar treatment for TileStream and Flex Viewer.  I am a man of my word, so here we go.  Don’t worry – this will be easy in comparison to what we’ve already accomplished.

We’ll start with TileStream, simply because we’re going to have to avail ourselves of the command line.  Once again, you can either plug a keyboard and monitor into your server or use whatever SSH client you’ve been using thus far.

Once you’re in the terminal, take control again (‘sudo su’).  For your TileStream installation, you can follow the installation instructions as presented, except for one detail:  it’s assumed we already have an application we don’t have.  Let’s correct that:

sudo apt-get install git

And then proceed with the installation (don’t forget to hit ‘enter’ after each command):

sudo apt-get install curl build-essential libssl-dev libsqlite3-0 libsqlite3-dev

git clone –b master-ndistro git://github.com/mapbox/tilestream.git

cd tilestream

./ndistro

And that’s that (TileStream, even more than TileMill, will throw up errors during the installation.  None of them should stop the process, though, so you can safely ignore them).  Like TileMill, TileStream needs to be started before it can be accessed in a browser.  Since the plan is to run the server headless, let’s set this up in Webmin in a fashion similar the one employed for TileMill.

Back to Webmin, again open the ‘Other’ menu, and this time click on ‘Custom Commands’.  We’ll create a new Custom Command and configure it as follows (substitute your name for mine as appropriate):

TileStream Command

Save it, and you will now have a Custom Command button to use for starting TileStream (we didn’t do this for TileMill because we cannot.  The Webmin Custom Command function simply won’t accept it.  I think it has to do with the nature of the command.  I think the ‘./’ in the TileMill command confuses it).

At this point, TileStream is fully functional, but it doesn’t yet have a tileset to work with.  Using the same browser with which you just accessed Webmin, go here to download one.  Scroll down the page, pick a tileset you like and click on it to proceed to the download page (I picked World Light).  Download the file to wherever you please.  Once you have the file, go back to Webmin and open the ‘Other’ menu again.  Click on ‘Upload and Download’, then select the ‘Upload to Server’ tab.  Click on one of the buttons labeled ‘Choose File’, then browse to the tileset file you downloaded.  For ‘File or directory to upload to’, click the button and browse your way to /home/terry/tilestream/tiles (by now, you should know you’re not ‘terry’).  Click the ‘Upload’  button.

Once your tileset is finished uploading, you can point the browser to http://maps:8888 (yeah, yeah – not ‘maps’) to access TileStream.  Enjoy:

TileStream

Our last order of business is Flex Viewer (otherwise known as ‘ArcGIS Viewer for Flex’).  This is the easiest of the lot, mainly because it doesn’t actually have to be installed.  Still using the same browser, go to the download page (you’ll need an ESRI Global Account.  If you don’t have one, create one), agree to the terms and download the current version (again – download it to wherever you please).  Once you have the package, use Webmin to upload it to the server.  This time you’ll want to upload the file to /var/www and you’ll want to check the ‘Yes’ button adjacent to ‘Extract archive or compressed files?’

And you’re in.  Point the browser to http://maps/flexviewer/ (you know the drill) and play with your new toy:

Flex

You can see I have customized the flex viewer.  You should do so as well (it’s designed for it, after all).  Open the file manager in Webmin (the ‘Other’ menu again) and navigate to /var/www/flexviwer.  Select config.xml, then click the ‘Edit’ button on the toolbar.  The rest is up to you.

* * * * *

So now you have a headless Ubuntu map server up and running, and the question you are probably asking yourself is:  “Do I really need all this stuff running in my server?”  The answer is, of course, ‘no’.  The point of this exercise was to learn a thing or two.  If you’ve actually been following along and have these applications running in your own machine, you are now in a good position to poke around for a while to figure out what sort of server you’d like to run.

For instance, there’s no real reason to run TileMill on a server.  TileMill doesn’t serve tiles, it fires them.  Therefore it’s probably not the best idea to be eating up your server’s resources with TileMill (and it seriously devours resources).  The server doesn’t have a use for the tiles until they’re done being fired, at which point TileStream is the tool for the job.

That said, there’s no compelling reason why you couldn’t run TileMill on your server.  If you’d rather not commit another machine to the task (and if you’re not in any kind of hurry), why not give the job to the server?  It’ll take it a while, but it will get the tiles fired (if your server is an older machine like mine, I would strongly advise you to fire your tiles in sections, then put them together later.  I suggest firing them one zoom level at a time and combining them with SQLite Compare).

Flex Viewer and the OpenGeo Suite don’t often go together, but there’s no reason why they can’t.  Flex Viewer can serve up layers delivered via WMS – there’s nothing to say GeoServer can’t provide that service.  They are, however, very different applications, with vastly different capabilities, strengths and weaknesses.  They also have a very different ‘feel’, and we should never discount the importance of aesthetics in the decision making process.

A final – and very important – consideration in the final configuration of our home server is the nature of the face it presents to the world.  In order for a server to serve, it must connect to and communicate with the world at large.  This means some kind of front end, the nature of which will influence at least some of our choices.

Which brings us neatly to the next post.  See you there.

CloudNote:  This is the second part in a series on building your own home-brewed map server (I would tell you how many installments the series will entail, but I won’t pretend to have really thought this through.  There will be at least one more.  Probably two).  It assumes you have read the previous installment.  You have been warned.

Last time, I walked you through setting up your very own headless map server using only Free and Open Source Software.  Now, I’m going to show you how to trick it out with a few extra web mapping goodies.  The installation process will be easiest if you re-attach a ‘head’ to your server (i.e., a monitor and keyboard), so go ahead and do that before we begin (alternately, if you’re using PuTTY to access your headless server, you can use it for this purpose).

At the end of my last post, I showed you all a screenshot of my server running TileMill, TileStream and Flex Viewer, and I made a semi-promise to write something up about it.  So here we are.

I tend toward a masochistic approach to most undertakings in my life, and this one will not deviate from that course.  Whenever I am faced with a series of tasks that need completion, I rank them in decreasing order of difficulty and unpleasantness, and I attack them in that order.  In other words, I work from the most demanding to the least troublesome.

I originally intended to write a single post covering TileMill, TileStream and Flex Viewer, but a short way into this post I realized that I had to split it into two pieces.  The next post will cover TileStream and Flex Viewer.  This one will get you through TileMill.

TileMill can be a bear to install – not because you need catlike reflexes or forbidden knowledge or crazy computer skills – but simply because there are many steps, which translate into lots of room for error.  A quick glance at TileMill’s installation instructions may seem a bit daunting (especially if you’re new to this kind of thing):

Install build requirements:

# Mapnik dependencies 
sudo apt-get install -y g++ cpp \ 
libboost-filesystem1.42-dev \ 
libboost-iostreams1.42-dev libboost-program-options1.42-dev \ 
libboost-python1.42-dev libboost-regex1.42-dev \ 
libboost-system1.42-dev libboost-thread1.42-dev \ 
python-dev libxml2 libxml2-dev \ 
libfreetype6 libfreetype6-dev \ 
libjpeg62 libjpeg62-dev \ 
libltdl7 libltdl-dev \ 
libpng12-0 libpng12-dev \ 
libgeotiff-dev libtiff4 libtiff4-dev libtiffxx0c2 \ 
libcairo2 libcairo2-dev python-cairo python-cairo-dev \ 
libcairomm-1.0-1 libcairomm-1.0-dev \ 
ttf-unifont ttf-dejavu ttf-dejavu-core ttf-dejavu-extra \ 
subversion build-essential python-nose 

# Mapnik plugin dependencies 
sudo apt-get install libgdal1-dev python-gdal libgdal1-dev gdal-bin \ 
postgresql-8.4 postgresql-server-dev-8.4 postgresql-contrib-8.4 postgresql-8.4-postgis \ 
libsqlite3-0 libsqlite3-dev  

# TileMill dependencies 
sudo apt-get install libzip1 libzip-dev curl 

Install mapnik from source:

svn checkout -r 2638 http://svn.mapnik.org/trunk mapnik 
cd mapnik python scons/scons.py configure INPUT_PLUGINS=shape,ogr,gdal 
python scons/scons.py 
sudo python scons/scons.py install 
sudo ldconfig 

Download and unpack TileMill. Build & install:

cd tilemill ./ndistro 

It’s not as scary as it looks (the color-coding is my doing, to make it easy to differentiate things).  The only circumstance that makes this particular process difficult is that the author of these instructions assumes we know a thing or two about Linux and the command line.

Let’s start at the top, with the first ‘paragraph’, which begins: # Mapnik dependencies.  Translation:  We will now proceed to install all the little tools, utilities, accessories and such-rot that Mapnik (a necessary and desirable program) needs to function (i.e., “dependencies”).

It is assumed that we know the entire ‘paragraph’ is one command and that the forward-slashes (/) are not actually carriage returns and shouldn’t be followed by spaces.  It is also assumed that we will notice any errors that may occur during this process, know whether we need concern ourselves with them and (if so) be capable of correcting them.

Let’s see what we can do about this, shall we?  Since we’re installing this on our server and actually typing in the commands (rather than copying and pasting the whole thing), we have the luxury of slicing it up into bite-sized pieces.  This way the process becomes much less daunting, and it makes it easier for us to correct any errors that crop up along the way.

We’ll start by taking control.  Type “sudo su” (sans quotation marks), then provide your password.  Now we can proceed to install everything, choosing commands of a size we’re comfortable with.  I found that doing it one line at a time works pretty smoothly.  Two important points here:  start every command with “sudo apt-get install” (not just the first line) and don’t include the forward-slashes (unless you’re installing more than one line at a time).  I would therefore type in the first two lines like this (don’t forget to hit ‘enter’ at the end of each command):

sudo apt-get install –y g++ cpp

sudo apt-get install libboost-filesystem1.42-dev

You get the idea.  Continue along in this fashion until you have installed all the necessary dependencies for Mapnik.  I strongly recommend doing them all in one sitting.  It just makes it easier to keep track of what has and hasn’t been installed.

At this stage of the game, any errors you encounter will most likely be spelling errors.  Your computer will let you know when you mistype, usually through the expedient of informing you that it couldn’t find the package you requested.  When this occurs, just double-check your spelling (hitting the ‘up’ cursor key at the command prompt will cause the computer to repeat your last command.  You can then use the cursors to correct the error).  At certain points in the installation process, your server will inform you of disk space consumption and ask you to confirm an install (in the form of yes/no).  Hitting ‘y’ will keep the process moving along.

While packages install in your system, slews of code will fly by on your screen, far too fast to read or comprehend.  Just watch it go by and feel your Geek Cred grow.

By now you should have developed enough Dorkish confidence to have a go at # Mapnik plugin dependencies and # TileMill dependencies.  Have at it.

When you’re done, move on to installing Mapnik from source.  Each line of this section is an individual command that should be followed by ‘enter’.  The first line will throw up your first real error.  Simply paying attention to your server and following the instructions it provides will fix the problem (in case you missed it, the error occurred because you haven’t installed Subversion, an application you attempted to use by typing the command ‘svn’.  Easily fixed by typing sudo apt-get install subversion).  You can then re-type the first line and proceed onward with the installation.  When you get to the scons commands, you will learn a thing or two about patience.  Wait it out.  It will finish eventually.

Now we should be ready to do what we came here to do:  install TileMill.  Unfortunately, TileMill’s installation instructions aren’t very helpful at this point for a headless installation.  All they tell us is to “Download and unpack TileMill”.  There’s a button further up TileMill’s installation page for the purpose of the ‘download’ part of this, but it’s not very helpful for our situation.  We could use Webmin to manage this, but what the hell – let your Geek Flag fly (later on, we’ll use Webmin to install Flex Viewer, so you’ll get a chance to see the process anyway).

Our installation of Mapnik left us within the Mapnik directory, so let’s start by returning to the home directory:

cd~

Then we can download TileMill:

wget https://github.com/mapbox/tilemill/zipball/0.1.4 –no-check-certificate

Now let’s check to confirm the name of the file we need to unpack:

dir

This command will return a list of everything in your current directory (in this case, the home directory).  Amongst the files and folders listed, you should see ‘0.1.4’ (probably first).  Let’s unpack it:

unzip 0.1.4

Now we have a workable TileMill folder we can use for installation, but the folder has an unwieldy name (which, inexplicably, the installation instructions fail to address).  Check your directory again to find the name of the file you just unpacked (in my case, the folder was ‘mapbox-tilemill-4ba9aea’).  Let’s change that to something more reasonable:

mv mapbox-tilemill-4ba9aea tilemill

At long last, we can follow the last of the instructions and finish the installation:

cd tilemill

./ndistro

Watch the code flash by.  Enjoy the show.  This package is still in beta, so it will probably throw up some errors during installation.  None of them should be severe enough to interrupt the process, though.  Feel free to ignore them.

Once the installation is complete, we’ll have to start TileMill before we can use it.  This can be achieved by typing ‘./tilemill.js’in the terminal, but TileMill actually runs in a browser (and we’ll eventually need to be able to run it in a server with no head), so let’s simplify our lives and start it through Webmin.

Go to the other computer on your network through which you usually access your server (or just stay where you are, if you’ve been doing all this through PuTTY), open the browser and start Webmin.  Open the ‘Others’ page and select ‘Command Shell’.  In the box to the right of the ‘Execute Command’ button, type:

cd /home/terry/tilemill (substitute your own username for ‘terry’)

Click the ‘Execute Command’ button, then type in:

./tilemill.js

Click the button again (after you’ve gone through this process a couple of times, Webmin will remember these commands and you’ll be able to select them from a drop-down list of previous commands).

And now enjoy the fruits:  type http://maps:8889 into the location bar of your browser (again, substitute the name of your server for ‘maps’).  Gaze in awe and wonder at what you have wrought:

Tilemill

Take a short break and play around with the program a bit.  You’ve earned it.  When you’re done I’ll be waiting at the beginning of the next post.

CloudFellow Map Dork and good Twitter friend Don Meltz has been writing a series of blog posts about his trials and tribulations while setting up a homebrewed map server on an old Dell Inspiron (here and here).  I strongly recommend giving them a read.

At the outset, Don ran his GeoSandbox on Windows XP, but recently he switched over to Ubuntu.  While I applaud this decision whole-heartedly, I thought I’d take the extra step and build my own map server on a headless Ubuntu Server box (when I say ‘headless’, I am talking about an eventual goal.  To set this all up, the computer in question will initially need to have a monitor and keyboard plugged into it, as well as an internet connection.  When the dust settles, all that need remain is the internet connection).  The following is a quick walkthrough of the process.  I apologize to any non-Map Dorks who may be reading this.

The process begins, of course, with the installation of Ubuntu 10.04 Server Edition.  Download it, burn it to a disk, and install it on the machine you have chosen to be your server.  Read the screens that come up during installation and make the decisions that are appropriate for your life.  The only one of these I feel compelled to comment on is the software selection:

Software

The above image shows my choices (what the hell – install everything, right?).  Definitely install Samba shares.  It allows Linux machines to talk to others.  Also, be sure to install the OpenSSH server.  You’ll need it.  For our purposes, there’s no real reason to install a print server, and installing a mail server will cause the computer to ask you a slew of configuration questions you’re probably not prepared to answer.  Give it a pass.

During the installation process, you will be asked to give your server a name.  I named mine ‘maps’.  So whenever I write ‘maps’, substitute the name you give your own machine.

Once your installation is complete, you will be asked to login to your new server (using the username and password you provided during installation), after which you will be presented with a blinking white underscore (_) on a black screen.  This is a command prompt, and you need not fear it.  I’ll walk you through the process of using it to give yourself a better interface with which to communicate with your server.  Hang tight.

Let’s begin the process by taking control of the machine.  Type in “sudo su” (sans quotation marks) and hit ‘enter’.  The server will ask for your password, and after you supply it, you will be able to do pretty much anything you want.  You are now what is sometimes called a superuser, or root.  What it means is that you are now speaking to your computer in terms it cannot ignore.  This circumstance should be treated with respect.  At this stage, your server will erase itself if you tell it to (and it won’t ask you whether or not you’re sure about it – it’ll just go ahead and obey your orders).  So double-check your typing before you hit ‘enter’.

Now, let’s get ourselves a GUI (Graphical User Interface).  The server edition we’re using doesn’t have its own GUI, and for good reasons (both resource conservation and security).  Instead, we can install Webmin, a software package that allows us to connect to our server using a web browser on another computer on the same network.  We’ll do this using the command line.  Type in (ignore the bullets before each command.  They are only there to let you know where each new line begins):

And hit ‘enter’ (I’m not going to keep repeating this.  Just assume that hitting ‘enter’ is something you should do after entering commands{the dark words}).  Follow this with:

  • sudo dpkg -i webmin-current.deb

And finish it up with:

  • sudo apt-get -f install

Now we have a GUI in place.  If you open a browser on another computer on your network and type: https://maps:10000 into the location bar (remember to replace ‘maps’ with the name you gave your own server), you’ll be asked to supply your username and password, then you’ll see this (you may also be asked to verify Webmin’s certificate, depending on your browser):

Cool, huh?  Don’t get your hopes up, though.  We’re not done with the command line yet (don’t sweat it – I’ll hold your hand along the way.  Besides – you should learn to be comfortable with the command line).  For the moment, though, let’s take a look around the Webmin interface.  There is a lot this program can do, and if you can find the time and determination it would be a good idea to learn your way through it.  For now, you just really need to know a few options.  The first is that the initial page will notify you if any of your packages (Linux for ‘software’) have available updates.  It’s a good idea to take care of them.  If you want, Webmin can be told to do this automatically (on the update page you get to when you click through).  The other important features are both located under the ‘Other’ menu (on the left).  The first is the file manager (which bears a striking resemblance to the Windows File Manager of old), which gives you the ability to explore and modify the file system on your server (this feature runs on Java, so be sure the browser you’re using can handle it).  The other feature is ‘Upload and Download’ which does what it says it does.  Together, these two features give you the ability to put maps on your map server, something I assume you’ll want to do.

Please note the specs on my server (as pictured above).  It’s not terribly different than Don’s Inspiron.  I’m not suggesting you do the same, but it is worth noting that an old machine can handle this job.

Back to the command line.  Let’s get OpenGeo:

Rock and roll.  When your server is done doing what it needs to do, go back to the browser you used for Webmin and type http://maps:8080/dashboard/ into the location bar.  Check out the OpenGeo goodness.

Finally, to make your new server truly headless, you’re going to need some way to login remotely (when you turn the machine on, it won’t do a damn thing until you give it a username and password).  Since you listened to me earlier and installed the OpenSSH server, you’ll be able to do this.  All you need is an SSH client.  If you’re remotely connecting through a Linux machine, chances are you already have one.  In the terminal, just type:

  • ssh <username>@<computer name or IP address>

In my case, this would be:

  • ssh terry@maps

You’ll be asked for a password, and then you’re in (I hear this works the same in OS X, but I cannot confirm it).

If you’re using a Windows machine – or if you just prefer a GUI – you can use PuTTY.  PuTTY is very simple to use (and it comes as an executable.  I love programs that don’t mess with the registry).  Tell it the name of the computer you want to connect to and it opens a console window asking for your username and password.  Tell it what it wants to know.

It’s not a bad idea to install a new, dedicated browser for use with your new server.  I used Safari, but only because I already use Firefox and Chrome for other purposes.  Also, your network will probably give your server a dynamic IP address.  This is not an issue for you, since your network can identify the machine by name.  If you want to (and there are several valid reasons to do so), you can assign a static IP address to your server.  To find out how to do so, just search around a bit at the extraordinary Ubuntu ForumsUpdate:  It seem that Webmin provides an easy method to assign a static IP address to your server.  Go to Networking → Network Configuration → Network Interfaces → Activated at Boot.  Click on the name of your active connection, and you will then be able to assign a static IP address just by filling in boxes.

Enjoy your map server.  If I can find the time, I’ll write up a post on how I added Flex Viewer, TileMill and TileStream to the server:

And 50 bonus points to anyone who understands the image at the top of this post.

Zombies

In my time, I’ve seen my share of Zombie films.  Some of them I’ve enjoyed (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland), some I’ve actively disliked (28 Days Later), and many others have fallen somewhere in between.  Until recently, though, there was one aspect of zombie films that confused me greatly:  I couldn’t figure out why zombies displayed a form of social cohesion.

I mean – we’re talking about mindless, shambling, ravenous, flesh-eating monsters here.  Why do they run in packs?  Why do they work together?  Why, I wondered, do they cooperate?

It just seemed inexplicable that zombies would exhibit a tendency to strive toward a common goal.  I expected more anarchy and less teamwork from the shambling masses.  Just the other day, however, I began to understand the complexities of zombie social dynamics.  Unsurprisingly, this onset of comprehension coincided with my latest foray into the seedy underside of the Social Web.

It occurred to me that zombies were not born zombies but were, in fact, once human.  Therefore, their behavior patterns (both within the narrative and without) would logically fall into line with normal human behavior patterns.  And most humans, I think, are less likely to form a community and more likely to form a mob.  You know – a large group of mindless, shambling, ravenous monsters.

I take a great interest in the Social Web.  On some level, I guess you could say I am a student of it.  Because of this, I am quick to study any new movement/website/idea of the ilk that comes down the road.  This often results in membership and a trial of the newest fad, but not always (see my posts on Facebook.  Sometimes my research shows me that membership is a step I’m unwilling to take).  The Social Web is not terribly different from many other aspects of life – sometimes the best way to get to know it is to just take a deep breath and dive in.

Which is what I did with the latest fad to appear on my radar: Quora.  Quora bills itself as “a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.”  On the surface, this sounds like a good idea (unfortunately, the reality is nothing of the sort.  The general consensus over at Quora seems to be that ideas need to be edited in order to have value.  It’s more like the Ministry of Truth than the Social Web).  So I joined, looked around a bit, then posted a question.  I checked back now and again over a week or so, until I found that someone had edited my question.  Curious as to what I had misspelled, I went to have a look, and discovered that an entire paragraph had been removed.  This made me wonder about the person who had done the editing, so I clicked upon his name to check out his profile.  What I saw disturbed me a bit.  The profiles on Quora show users’ activities on the site.  Specifically, the numbers of questions asked, answers given and edits provided by the user.  This particular user had asked 6 questions, given 8 answers, and provided 1,122 edits (you read those numbers correctly).

Naturally, I assumed I was dealing with some sort of Quora troll.  Being the fan of crowdsourcing that I am (see any of my posts discussing OpenStreetMap), I leapt to the erroneous conclusion that the community’s ability to edit each others’ questions was geared toward fixing errors (like spelling and/or grammar).  It never occurred to me that other users would feel free to radically alter the content of a question.  Such behavior would seem to negate the point of posting questions at all.  How could you expect to get answers to a question if anyone could easily change its meaning?

So I posted a couple more questions to Quora.  The first simply asked if the user base was aware of this sort of thing (it turns out that they were.  Worse – they approve of it).  The second (which, of the two, I thought was less likely to offend) asked whether Quora should have more robust filters in place.  Since Quora provides space to further elaborate, I used it to describe the aforementioned troll and my desire to automatically block such users.

Enter the horde of mindless, shambling, ravenous monsters.  I was stunned by the vitriolic response my second question inspired.  While I am quite aware of the speed with which any group of humans will mutate into the Howling Mob (there’s a reason they make us read Lord of the Flies in school), I am often caught off guard by the seeming innocuous things that serve as catalyst.  I forget that the average human is a quivering mass of insecurities, and that their desperate need to belong often causes them to lash out at any perceived threat against the pony to which they’ve hitched their wagon.

As you probably know, this is not the first time I have encountered the Howling Mob online.  In fact, it seems to happen to me with alarming frequency.  Considering my own personality type, this is hardly surprising and it doesn’t actually bother me.

It did get me to wondering, though.  Since human nature is what it is, and since every aspect of the Social Web is necessarily teeming with humans, why is it that I’ve never been assaulted by the Howling Mob at my particular favorite corner of the Social Web:  Twitter?  What is it about Twitter that makes it so different from my other experiences with the Social Web?

Of course, this launched a discussion on Twitter.  After much discussion and even more thought, I think I finally figured out what the difference is:  it’s a question of exposure.  See, Quora does new users the disservice of immediately throwing them into the middle of the mob, there to claw their way to whatever position they can attain (Quora is by no means alone in this behavior.  In fact, most of the Social Web functions this way.  Just look at the stats and/or titles attached to users in any forum/group/site on the internet).  Just like in high school, newcomers are forced to find their way in an environment where all the social lines have been drawn and all the camps have been populated, their leadership positions filled.  Sometimes online communities can be open and accepting of new members.  Usually, though, the Lord of the Flies mentality prevails.

Twitter does it differently.  When you first join Twitter, you enter into their universe all alone, and you remain alone until you do something about it.  Until you start following other users, the mob doesn’t really know you exist.  And because you choose who you do and do not interact with on Twitter, the mob only enters into your life if you invite it (I’m pretty sure Facebook works in a very similar fashion, but I‘m not positive.  For obvious reasons).

Something else that sets Twitter apart is its general lack of score-keeping.  As far as I know, Twitter tracks precisely three things:  how many people you follow, how many people follow you, and how many times you have ‘Tweeted’ (posted a message).  And that’s it (again, I think Facebook is similar in this).  While this information is tracked and is accessible, it doesn’t appear as though Twitter actually does anything with it.  There never comes a time when you are ‘Super-Followed’ or become a ‘Global Tweeter’.

Herein lie the important differences.  The small area of the Social Web that works for me is the one where the group I spend time amongst is a group of my choosing.  More importantly, it’s the area where people aren’t necessarily trying to prove anything.  Where it’s more about connecting and communicating than about score-keeping and imagined popularity.

So thanks but no thanks, Quora.  If it’s all the same to you, I’ll pass on your Howling Mob and just stick with my neighborhood pub.

Twittification:

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