December 2008 Archives

B and I crossed the Pacific Ocean. Or rather, we just got to India. The longest leg of our journey was 14 hours, from SFO to Hong Kong. We slept much of the way, then watched movies (her), read (me), and played video games (us),

We bitch about plane travel--the food, the cost, the security restrictions, the poor customer service--but it's pretty amazing how things have changed. We both have family stories of relatives traveling from India to the UK by ship. It seems like another world. B's uncle did that journey sometime in the 1950s; we talk about the journey as a curiosity from the past. He flew back to India, decades later, married to a British woman; it's the marriage that people remarked on at the time, not the mode of transportation. Air travel has become utterly mundane; how else would you get around?

It's no joke that global warming is an inconvenient truth. Air travel is currently responsible for somewhere upwards of 3% of human-generated emissions, but is rising swiftly; the IPCC fears it may grow to as high as 15% by 2050. Assuming we actually want to slow down global warming, the facts seem inconveniently biased against air travel as we know it.

But what are the alternatives? We keep hearing of aviation tech efficiencies, but there's been no magic bullet yet. If there were, could we replace the entire global airline fleet in a matter of years?

Which brings me back to ships. It takes about a week and a half to cross the Pacific Ocean by freighter -- each hour by plane turned into almost a full day of travel. I'm tempted to try it sometime. It could be a way of exploring the past, or possibly a glimpse at part of an alternate future. Either way, it'd be a very different way of interacting with vast swaths of our "flyover" planet.

I spent a quiet Thanksgiving with family in Pennsylvania. While I was there, I reconnected with my cousin, who's helping organize a conference next spring at Penn State on the figure of the animal as seen in the context of various humanities subjects. Planning was well underway, speakers had been invited, and the tentative program was being filled in with names like Peter Singer and Donna Haraway. And yet--there was no website. Business was being conducted over the phone and by email, without any central online resource for people to find and look at.

I boggled. In the year 2008, how does anyone organize a public event with a potentially national audience without a web presence? Turns out her department at Penn State didn't necessarily have spare IT capacity, nor did anyone involved have the know-how to spend $10 to buy a domain and spend 5 minutes hosting it for free on Weebly. (Or even easier, a free quickie wiki on WetPaint or PBWiki or one of those providers.) I'm not a fan of ad hoc solutions, but some website is infinitely better than none.

The organizers seem to have been doing a perfectly fine job; it may be only me that's agitated. But I can't help but think how nice it would be if web publishing were as simple, boring, and reliable as email -- the net protocol that conference organizers did use.

Though I'm still nursing a mild grudge against Google Sites for being a third-rate replacement for the JotSpot wiki platform, I realize how important it is to have accessible self-publishing tools. The promise of the net includes publishing for everyone; we haven't gotten there if it's not incredibly simple and obvious to do.

I'm on an old Win98 SE computer, trying to get data off an unbranded 4GB USB thumb drive.

Every time I plugged in the drive, the OS would start asking me for drivers. Good grief. I'm a Mac person--how should I know where to find drivers for an antiquated Windows box? I looked around online; most sources recommended that I try to find the original manufacturer's website for drivers, but I have no idea who the manufacturer is. Back to Google.

I finally found a piece of software called Maximus Decim Native USB. I installed it, rebooted, plugged in my drive, followed the prompts, and it magically started working. Thank you Maximus Decim! I hope I never have to deal with this problem again, but if anyone else has this issue, give this tool a try. It worked for me.

Offset Consumer Offset Consumer - Top providers

I've launched a new website, Offset Consumer, to help consumers learn about researching and buying voluntary personal carbon offsets. Please check it out.

After watching An Inconvenient Truth, I pulled up a carbon calculator and tried plugging in our household numbers. B and I don't own a car, live in a relatively dense city, and rarely use heat or cooling. I was shocked to discover that not only were we not low-carbon emitters, but that we were actually in the 90th percentile of most carbon-spewing Americans that year. Oh, the shame! Those pesky plane trips, most to visit family, had thrown us over the top, and turned us into the moral equivalent of Hummer drivers.

We've been working on lowering our carbon footprints, and have gotten much more involved in work to lower everyone's footprints through systemic change. But we also decided to buy carbon offsets, as part of the mix. Offsets are complicated. The more I read, the more clear it became that while offsets really do work (on a micro level), offsets products also vary wildly in quality and price--but nobody (besides the climate science geeks) are talking about it. It's been incredibly frustrating to see how little information there is out there for normal folks contemplating buying offsets.

The Offset Consumer website is aimed at reducing that information gap. It addresses questions everyone needs to know about offsets (pros and cons, and how to evaluate them), recommended carbon calculators, as well as a meta-analysis of top offset providers based on five separate carbon offset provider evaluators.

I'm particularly happy with the list of recommended providers. Building the list has forced me do more homework, and I'm confident in being able to tell folks they should consider getting offsets from CarbonCounter, a Portland nonprofit with a great mix of high quality offset products, at a surprisingly low price.

The process of researching the site has also helped me come to terms about my feelings about offsets. I started off more skeptical of offsets, but I'm now very confident that the top providers really do divert emissions from the atmosphere that would have been emitted, had it not been for the funded project. Global warming is a moral and humanitarian crisis. For those who are responsible (and I say this as someone very much in that camp), buying high-quality voluntary offsets can--and possibly should--go hand in hand with reducing personal emissions and working on better systemic solutions.

Try a calculator for yourself. The numbers may surprise you.

JotSpotGoogle Sites.jpg

I'm missing JotSpot. JotSpot was an enterprise wiki platform, with all the usual features (WYSIWYG editing, versioning and diff, fine-grained permissions), but with a server-side JavaScript-based application platform built-in, letting users script and develop applications based on the platform. It was surprisingly elegant and powerful. Jot was acquired by Google in 2006, at which point in time active development shut down, and engineering efforts got redirected into building Google Sites, Google's hosted wiki system. JotSpot is being shut down on January 15, leaving users scrambling to migrate content to other platforms.

Unfortunately, Google Sites is as feature-free as JotSpot was featureful. It has no export capacity, no ability to rename or clone wikis, no RSS support, zero scriptability, and no API. The lack of an API is particularly disappointing; given even a simple API, a motivated coder can build up the rest of the functionality.

I've been trying out a transfer of JotSpot content into Google Sites, and it's been like pulling teeth, painful at every step. That is, until I discovered that you can embed Google Gadgets within Sites content.

Google Sites has no ability to manage structured information, but there's always Google Spreadsheets, the pearl of the Google Docs platform. Spreadsheets works like the web. It has a flexible API with which you can get data in or out--including a JavaScript API that works with Gadgets. Gadgets are used mostly for publishing (invariably useless) content snippets on personalized Google home pages, but they're flexible little bundles of HTML and JavaScript that can be stretched to do the right thing. Unfortunately, the official IDE is Windows-only (I'm a Mac and Linux guy), and Google's web-based "IDE" is incredibly primitive.

So I took my structured data out of JotSpot, stuck it into a a spreadsheet, and proceeded to blunder my way through building a Gadget that could access spreadsheet data, and display it flexibly, in ways that I could embed throughout a Sites wiki. It took some doing, first to learn spreadsheet access, then to bundle the entire thing together. The process was slowed down throughout by the lack of debugging tools. It may have been just me, but the Gadget source was being cached between edits and error messages weren't being thrown, so I ended up going through a complicated process of creating a new gadget source file at every step, to make sure the system was seeing the latest version of my code.

23 saved versions and a few hours later, I had my Gadget built, set up to take arguments, so it can pull in appropriate structured spreadsheet data on different parts of a Google Site. I wouldn't actively recommend the process, but JotSpot developers downgrading to Google Sites could do worse, if only to maintain some basic level of automation after JotSpot goes dark on January 15.

About

Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.

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This page is an archive of entries from December 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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