Friday, March 26, 2010

My dreams are dumb...

Not long ago I had an idea that I wanted to retire to southern Illinois some day. Not the ”somewhre south of I-80” thing that most Chicagoans call “southern Illinois”. Real southern Illinois. Little Egypt, full of hills and forests and rivers, which I'd seen running the River to River Relay.

It is a great place to go running. But that wasn't the main reason I wanted to go. I was very worried about the problems of technological growth and whether it could be sustained. And I had an idealized version in my mind of Little Egypt where these problems didn't exist. Where people lived right, and were rewarded for it. In a place where people generally live right there's no need to set one's self in opposition to major trends in society. That appealed to me. Because setting one's self in opposition is tiring, and I'm not very good at it anyway.

Of course, it turns out southern Illinois is not quite so ideal; no place is. By the time I ran the Relay for the fifth time I was noticing major cracks in the vision. Boarded-up shops. A seeming decline in population and enthusiasm. Even the Old Fishskins didn't seem to play as well as they used to. And, of course, the most troubling effects of technological progress are hardly confined to the city. People everywhere use manufactured goods made of plastic shipped halfway across the world. Because somehow it's the cheapest. Even the initial form of my dream seemed to acknowledge this, in retrospect. I wanted to live my productive life some place I could be productive. I'm a computer programmer, so that's going to be an urban area. And then I wanted to go down and consume the relaxed atmosphere of this idealized rural place in my old age. I wanted to run from the reality of what I would really create. It was ultimately a dumb dream, fueled by my desire to believe that somewhere things are right.

I got thinking along these lines after reading Jonathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals. I've read various books about factory farming and meat production and I really recommend his because it's so different. He's a novelist and a better writer than most of the dry philosophers and non-fiction specialists that have tackled the subject in the past, so it's a fast-paced and compelling read. And rather than break new ground in ethics or expose undiscovered facts about the industry, he lays out the cases for eating meat or not that correspond to the ones people really have. He probably comes closer to expressing my views on the subject than I ever have.

One thing that becomes very clear after reading is how people want to believe that a part of their world is right. That there are powerful social and emotional forces tied in with this that compel people to eat meat. He really lays bare the difference between rhetoric and reality in modern agriculture. He may not expose any new facts, but he exposes this social truth I had never quite grasped: that while defenders of meat eating have accused vegetarians and vegans of sentimentalism for ages, the proper accusation is in the other direction.

A few years after running River to River for the fifth time I took a bike ride along the Mississippi river, on the Illinois side, from south of the St. Louis suburbs to Shawnee National Forest. I saw a totally different side of southern Illinois. Some places are growing, with exurban-style additions tacked onto little old towns. Some places are in severe decline — whole towns completely shuttered and even parks indefinitely closed. Kaskaskia, Illinois' first capitol, a near ghost town, devastated by repeated floods and cut off from the state by the new course of the river. Just across from there is a large state penitentiary; it makes its mark on the nearby town of Chester in so many ways I could see even in my brief ride-through. I had originally planned to ride all the way to Cairo but ended up not — I didn't know about a lot of what I would see on the ride, but I had read a lot about Cairo. Once its location on at the confluence of two great rivers made the town an economic powerhouse. Now, with no major employers and no exports, the town consists of those that haven't yet left. One day it may be another Kaskaskia.

There is no escape, so there can be no escapism. Every place is subject to the economic forces of the day. I live in the small-ish town of Cody, WY. It's growing like Chicago, in nostalgically-named cul-de-sacs, physically-bounded subdivisions, and continual futile escapes to the country. Sometimes things are dulled farther off the grid. But even Meeteetse, if it could not export cattle and oil, could not drive up to Cody for groceries. Which is why Wyoming has plenty of ghost towns itself. I haven't witnessed a near-ghost town like Kaskaskia or an economic ghost town like Cairo here, but I've only traveled a small part of the state.

As meat-eating goes, there is similarly no escape. Designations like “organic” and “free range”, in the context of nationally-available brands, are almost completely meaningless. The environmental damage, both local and global, caused by intensive agriculture, is real, massive in scale, several times more so for meat production, and can't be avoided by buying packages with green labels. That's no conspiracy theory. It doesn't take a conspiracy — in fact a conspiracy could never create our situation, only competition is so powerful. If you don't believe me (and why should you?) read the book.

Facebook goes after app developer; nobody surprised.

The latest scummy move by Facebook involved Fluff-Buster Purity, a Greasemonkey script allowing you to block annoying apps like Farmville. I could comment more but I won't waste my words. Quit Facebook!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Google Maps now has bike directions! Yay? Maybe. Iunno.

Bike directions, Google says, are in beta. Google's released a lot of stuff into the world as a beta and most of it has been pretty usable right off the bat. The bike directions have a few issues, but it's hard to blame them. It's a hard task. I'm going to focus on Chicago, as it's a city I know and Google seems only to be seriously trying in cities (probably a good decision).

The biggest challenge of generating bike routes is that there are so many different kinds of bikes and riders. I once thought a good way to do it would be to collect lots of data on the characteristics of various streets and let users set their own priorities (bike lanes/wide right lanes, traffic volume, speed, surface, etc). Someone that's not all that experienced and rides a mountain bike or hybrid or something won't mind dirt paths and weaving around through side streets but will freak out on a major road. I have a road bike with skinny high-pressure tires and regularly biked to work (and just about everywhere else) for a couple years in Chicago; I want to be going straight and fast on a road that gets favorable light timings. Since riders like me can figure out our own routes, they probably did the right thing by catering to the novices. I worry a bit that if people start thinking Google's routes are really the most efficient ways to get around on a bike they'll become pretty discouraged with urban cycling. Like John Forester points out in Effective Cycling, beginning cyclists are often advised to do suboptimal things at first and become discouraged and quit completely before they ever learn to do it right.

The worst thing Google does is set you weaving on side streets. Not just ducking off a major road for a while, but literally going block by block turning left, then right repeatedly. It's hard on your mind to remember all those turns, and it's hard on your body to repeatedly stop and accelerate. The question is whether cyclists will graduate from Google's routes to the realization that they should just get on Damen and go, or whether they'll putter around, get tired, and give up. Often the routes ask you to cross or make a left onto a major street where there's no light. This is frustrating even in a car; it's near impossible at certain times of day on a bike. A few experiences like that could be enough to really sour a novice's impression of urban cycling, where if the same rider had been on a major street in the first place he'd have had no problem. Some of the cases where Google does this are baffling. In one route I generated, you're on Chicago Ave. headed west and you eventually want to go south on Cicero Ave. So, naturally, you just go up there and turn left at the light, right? A few blocks before you get there Google diverts you south down a side street, west down an alley (in some areas alleys are mapped as if they were nameless streets, an odd quirk in the data), south down another alley, and then west out to Cicero on a side street at an intersection with no light. I don't expect Google to know where every stop light is, but it shouldn't need to know that to avoid generating that route.

Another big issue for generating bike routes is data. Some data on urban bike routes actually exists. The city has a great map that has just about never steered me wrong. The Active Transportation Alliance publishes a print map of the whole area that covers pretty much all of the 'burbs -- its map also distinguishes between paved and non-paved trails, a vital distinction for road bikers. And the Illinois Department of Transportation has maps for download, which are very useful for finding which rural routes are paved and in good condition (or were at time of publishing). If they can get the rights where applicable and incorporate all this data they could generate great routes all over the state. As it is they mostly just have bike lanes and bike paths plotted. This means there's no useful information on the south side or the suburbs; it seems when there's no data Google's algorithm is much more likely to send you weaving on side streets, trying to turn left onto major streets from minor ones.

One type of data that will mostly have to come from users is on obstacles. Unusually difficult intersections, unusually bad pavement, bridges with open metal grating. The first route I tried to map had me cross under the BNSF tracks in Pilsen on Wood. The potholes under there are filled with water older than me.

Friday, March 12, 2010

My message about leaving Facebook

This is my message about leaving Facebook. I had to send it to all my Facebook friends in groups of 20 because that's the most you can send to at a time. Which I guess is supposed to prevent spam somehow.

Dear all of my Facebook friends,

I will tell you all why I am leaving Facebook, but first, a story about the mayor of Chicago.

A few years ago Mayor Daley took bulldozers to the runway at Meigs Field and created a park in its place. It's a pretty good place to go running, and supposedly a decent concert venue. Has some prairie plants on it, can't argue with that. But the act of bulldozing the runways was a bald abuse of power. It was done overnight without warning anyone and stranded several aircraft at the site. People recognized that it was wrong and ranted about it for, oh, a couple days or so. Four years later he was re-elected in a landslide. Apparently Daley does enough other things well that people are willing to overlook seriously unethical behavior and vote for him. And you just know that because there are no consequences to his bad behavior he'll do whatever he wants to maintain and excercise his power.

A few years ago Facebook created the Beacon program, which would place your name and face in advertisements targeted at your friends. People were angry. They were concerned about privacy implications, for one. And, for my part, if any company wants to use my face in an ad, implying that I endorse their product, they had better have an agreement with me first, preferably one that pays me a lot of money. Otherwise it's a false representation of my endorsement. So people ranted about it for, oh, a couple days or so. And almost none of them quit Facebook. Because it does enough things well. Because quitting Facebook means leaving their friends. And you know, because Facebook said as much in a press release, that they'll try to do the same thing again and present it differently to avoid the controversy. Because no matter how badly they mess up, no matter how mad people get, they won't leave.

I hadn't even left Facebook. Not until today. I know I don't always do a great job keeping up with my friends and I thought Facebook helped me with that. But it turns out that's not true. I have this wide network of superficial Facebook friends that I barely know. Some I honestly couldn't pick out of a police lineup. It doesn't really do me a whole lot of good. And I truly believe that there should be consequences for how Facebook has used its place in our social lives.

So I want to break the spell. I know I'm not leaving any of you by leaving Facebook. Maybe I've already left you, and you're just a name in my Friends list. It happens. Or maybe we truly have things to say to eachother, and we should do it on email or something. Leaving Facebook doesn't change that, either.

Email is the best way to get in touch with me. My email address is (redacted to prevent spam; if you post a comment to my blog I'll probably read it) .

I don't want to tell you how to live your life, but if you look it over and are tired of Facebook, send out a note like this to all your FB connections and quit the site. You can use any of my text that you like. Dump the scummy timewasting marketing trap that is social networking!

Meanwhile, it just happens that Mark Zuckerberg was caught breaking into people's email using info from Facebook in the early days. What a scumbag! Seriously, when you visit Facebook all you do is make this guy richer:

With love, from Wyoming,
Al Dimond

Thursday, March 11, 2010

I am trying some layout experiments that I am not going to use

So this page will look strange for a while. Just trying some CSS stuff specifically in the context of Blogger.

Monday, March 8, 2010

It is a great time to be in Al Land

First, I quit Facebook. If you were my friend on Facebook you got a long message about why. Maybe I'll post it here.

Second, last week Jess and I completed our RPM Challenge album for this year. It's called City Steve and the Neon Lights. It is on Alonetone, in the RPM Challenge Jukebox, and you can grab a ZIP of MP3s here. The album is set in the distant future in Chicago (I had to pick a year when writing liner notes so I chose 2250). If you want a CD or higher-quality digital tracks let me know and tell me where to send it.