Transparent map of London

The “x-ray” interface that displays two layers of information in one view is generally a cute idea that doesn’t work well in practice. To see an example of this done very well, look at the London Multimap with the aerial photo overlay at Amazing what you can accomplish with enough JavaScript. I hope this kind of view will become standard at the various mapping portals around the web. The next thing I’m waiting for is the ability to zoom in for a 3-d view of tricky intersections so I can rehearse what to look for in bizarro urban driving situations like you find in Europe (and Boston).

[Note: actual driving conversation from a summer trip to France]
NED: Are we on the road to Coulommiers?
JOE: It said “Chailly En Brie” on the sign. Is that the same direction?
NED: I don’t know. According to the map, we should be on the 402.
JOE: I haven’t seen any numbers on any of these signs. Wait! That said 209. Is that good?
NED: Let me see if I can find it. Is this Coulommiers?
JOE: Should I take this left turn or this hard left here?
NED: What? Oh, I can’t tell from this. Just keep following that truck.
JOE: We’re going in “direction Boissy-le-Chauffry” now. Is that good?
NED: I can’t find us anywhere on this map.
JOE: I think we should’ve taken that left back there.
NED: Are we on the road to Coulommiers?

American League Champions!

Not much blogging this week, because all of my late-night blogging time has been taken up with baseball. Incredible, mind-bending baseball. Tonight the Red Sox are American League champs. Since the Sox made it into the championship series last week, I have felt at various times dizzy, giddy, and sick. It’s an odd thing to me, to find myself caring this much about baseball. Growing up in North Carolina, I wasn’t much of a baseball fan, and I certainly didn’t have any affinity for Boston. My only memory of the 1975 series was that it was interesting that both the teams had “Red” in their names. In the same vague, hop-on-the-bandwagon way that I cheered for the Dolphins and the Cowboys in their 1970s powerhouse years, I remember rooting for the Yankees in 1978.

For more than a decade now I have lived in Boston. I think it would take real work to live here for that long and not become a fan; I have succumbed. But the thing that really fascinates me is how someone like me can take eighty-some years of Red Sox history so personally. While I was in college in New Jersey, I was totally indifferent to the wretched fate of the 1986 Sox. But now it feels like a personal affront, as though I suffered through it myself. How is that possible? This is what is so interesting about the Sox: the very thing that has made them so wretched has made them painfully endearing. If I had moved to New York instead of Boston thirteen years ago, would I be a Yankees fan? Probably. But I can’t imagine being caught up in the same way. The Red Sox have come to stand for longing, for endless unrequited painful desire. That is a powerful, mythic force, all the more so when shared by millions of fellow-sufferers. This history of thwarted victory is something to be embraced and honored in some profound way. Why should I care so much about baseball? Because it becomes more than baseball. We can all understand yearning; life is yearning and frustrated needfulness. Everyone in Red Sox nation is free to project onto this team a thousand things from their lives. When you win, you eventually learn that the world doesn’t change, but when you lose, you dream that some day it might. The winner awakes, but the loser gets to dream.

For the last four days, I have been lapsing occasionally into a strange dream state. It’s something like floating in a soap bubble over a barren landscape — so beautiful, so easily punctured, so disorienting. To land on my feet after that giddy flight amazes me in the extreme. I congratulate the team that brought home this victory. Tomorrow the world starts again. But tonight Boston lives the dream.

Harrowing MT upgrade

So the Red Sox managed to pull out a win in Game Five, and I was in a good mood. Then I went upstairs to complete my upgrade to Movable Type 3.1, and in the process I became convinced that I had completely hosed my entire site and database. Then I was in a bad mood. In fact, I was very nearly frantic, and it was in this state of near despair that I decided I really needed to read the directions very very carefully. For those of you following along from home, here is the important passage:

“If you are upgrading from version 2.6, 2.61, 2.62, 2.63, 2.64, 2.65, 2.66 or 2.661: Run mt-upgrade30.cgi, then mt-upgrade31.cgi.”

It did NOT go on to say that “if you don’t do this, you will become wedged in a most horrifying and spectacularly nonlinear fashion and your account will seem to vanish until you jolly well go back and get it right, you enormous butthead.” I may suggest they add this passage to the documentation for sensible though occasionally impatient folk like me. Good night.

The Red Seat

Alas, Game One was not a success for the Red Sox. Still, the seventh inning was a balm to the damaged pride of any Boston fan. Want to show your support for Johnny Damon and company? From megnut I came across this purveyor of fine sporting goods: The Red Seat. The Red Seat website is a labor of love put together by True Believers who happen to have made some fun t-shirts. Personal favorite: Fenway. Building character since 1912. I like their attitude. Here’s their take on one popular t-shirt that sells in and around the Old Yard.

Enlightenment #2. Any shirt that has that New York team’s name on it is a shirt about them. Doesn’t matter if it says that they suck. You’re thinking about them, aren’t you? Our stuff is a little different.

I completely agree. Incidentally, the actual red seat is literally a seat painted red in the bleachers at Fenway where Ted Williams planted a 502 foot home run way back in 1946. I imagine he’s sitting there in the dark right now, waiting for the lights to come up on Game Three. Go Sox!

Dick Cheney = Old man Potter?

The Vice Presidential debate is old news by now, but Rob ‘n’ Lisa of fame have put together a dandy page comparing Dick Cheney to Old Man Potter of Potterville Bedford Falls from “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The physical resemblance is uncanny, you have to admit.

I thought watching the debate was like watching the puppeteer come out from behind his box and speak directly to the audience. You could almost see W. quietly hanging from his peg in the dark backstage area. As my friend Eric says, the debate reminded him that we’re all just a heart attack away from George W. Bush being president of the United States.

Oops, I almost forgot You forgot Poland.

Infecting our neighbors

Discover magazine has a particularly good article this month on the bacteria that hitch rides on planetary exploration missions like the recent Mars rover. Titled “Seeding the Universe,” it is unfortunately not available for free reading. Here’s the basic idea: try as we might, we just can’t completely sterilize the probes that we send to other planets. In the short term, this means that a hypersensitive life-detection machine on the probe might accidentally detect something that came along for the ride, the equivalent of mistaking your reflection for somebody else. The long term prospect is much more interesting: Suppose the imported bacteria grow and thrive in their new environment? And suppose the next probe you send detects life left behind from your last visit? These issues alarm astrobiologists (that’s the fancy new word for scientists who look for life on other planets) enough to make them extra careful when assembling new spacecraft. They clean the facility often and wear surgical scrubs when they go inside. But it’s hopeless. Bacteria are everywhere. One astrobiologist in the article went looking for bugs in the “clean room” and discovered that not only are there plenty of bacteria there, but the ultraclean environment is ideally suited to select for hardy bacteria that can survive the rigors of spaceflight! In other words, the clean room is like combat training for troops getting ready to board the ships for Normandy.

If your goal is to prevent the spread of terrestrial life, you really can’t win. The only way not to infect our neighboring planets is not to go there, and hey! it’s too late for that now. I used to think it would be cool to introduce bacteria to places like Venus and Mars and watch what happens. But more and more I have become convinced this process has already begun. Like the fly that spits on you whenever he lands, we’re busy dirtying everyplace we alight. Of course if life originated on Mars, as some have suggested, then all we’re really doing is visiting the old homestead.

Bonus link: Astrobiology, “the only peer-reviewed journal that explores the secrets of life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and destiny in the universe.” Subscribe and read articles like Discrimination of Aqueous and Aeolian Paleoenvironments by Atomic Force Microscopy – A Database for the Characterization of Martian Sediments

Functional Flickr’ing in London

Last February (back when he still updated his blog) the Coffee Czar predicted that everybody would soon be talking about Flickr. I don’t how he got wise to Flickr, but a recommendation from the Coffee Czar is good enough for me, so I padded down the wire to Flickr and signed up for a free account. Even so, for a while I didn’t get what the big deal was. There are plenty of free photo sites out there. I’m already signed up for Ofoto. Why is this one different?

It’s different because they understand their model and they’ve done their usability homework. The model is sharing photos to build communities. They’re not trying to sell you photographic prints. They want you to use pictures as a means of interacting with others. This means making it easy to upload, tag, and share images is one of their most important objectives. Sure enough, it’s dead simple to do these things with Flickr.

Here’s a good example of the kind of fun thing you can do easily with Flickr. I can’t think of any other online photo service that would make this so pleasant:
London bus ticket machine, plus bus and bus user (to help explain the whole arcane process). Read all the little text boxes and you’ll get a whole story about life in London.

Now if we can only get the Coffee Czar to come out of blog limbo, maybe he’ll explain how he came across Flickr in the first place.

Jay’s team walks

Jay's Team
Sunday morning, under a cloudless sky, Jay’s Team walked 3.1 miles along the Charles River in Cambridge, thereby raising well over $5000 for autism research. Jay’s Team consisted of twelve grown-ups, four kids, and one dog. Thanks to all of you who donated or joined us for the walk! Here is a link to some pictures over on Flickr.

Almost every bit of the money donated goes directly to research, and even a small amount of progress can make a big difference when leveraged across autistic people all around the world. Jay has benefited from some biomedical research that has occurred in recent years. I like to focus on small achievable gains, but Wendy is always reminding me to think bigger. The motto she chose for this year’s walk is “Dream big, dream of a cure.” That’s a tall order, maybe a hundred years away for all I know, but it’s good to keep the ultimate prize in mind.