Thursday, July 10, 2008

How Twitter and Google Earth Saved the 4th of July

When I say “saved 4th of July”, I really mean, “saved me from disappointing my children.” Which, as any parent would readily understand, means exactly the same thing.

We live in a new development in San Ramon (Windemere), and we didn’t move in until late July last year. Since my daughter needs to be in bed by 7 or so, having the whole family out to see the fireworks around 9:30 wasn’t really an option. I knew San Ramon had a pretty big fireworks show, but I had no idea whether we’d be able to see the fireworks from our house. As the bird flies, they’d be just 4 miles away or so… but between us and the launch site were at least two ridges.

It occurred to me that Google Earth might be able to solve this dilemma. I got the location of the fireworks (Bollinger and Alcosta), and navigated there in Google Earth. Just one problem: how tall do fireworks detonate?

I tried a couple Google searches, but the obvious attempts resulted in lots of fireworks regulations for home use, ads for fireworks, etc… not what I was looking for. So I asked my Twitter followers. Within a few minutes, I had replies from Sean, Julio and John. (John’s clearly a better Google searcher than I am. Please don’t tell anyone at work.) I love Twitter.

So, back to Google Earth. I added a polygon with an elevation of 300m at that location:

End result was a nice tall rectangle right at that spot:

For the last step, I needed to go to my house in Google Earth, enable terrain mode, and then look in the direction of the fireworks to see if I could see the polygon:

Sure enough, it looked like I’d be able to see the fireworks! (For those wondering: the satellite images of our new development are a couple years old.) Sure, they were a couple miles away, and maybe one out of four blasts happened behind the ridgeline… but the bottom line was that the boys got to see their fireworks, and Becca got to sleep (saving us all from 5th of July “fireworks” during the day).

Yep, I’m a nerd.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

McCainonomics - I'm going to be RICH

I know candidates tend to say the darndest things on the campaign trail (can you say cling? I knew you could!), but John “doesn’t really understand economics“ McCain’s latest foray into fiscal conservatism is a doozie. Kicking off his Last Economist Standing week, he explained how he’d balance the budget in his first term:

The McCain administration would reserve all savings from victory in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations in the fight against Islamic extremists for reducing the deficit. Since all their costs were financed with deficit spending, all their savings must go to deficit reduction.

More on this incredible policy announcement here and here.

Let me try and figure this out: after the Bush administration maxed out the country’s credit cards, President McCain would win the war (w00t!) quickly, and use the debt we’re not incurring (in McCainonomics, this is called “savings”) to balance the budget.

Now, I went to law school because there was no math involved. But is that really how it works? Because, if so, I’d like to make an announcement: effective tomorrow, Wednesday, July 9, I am leaving Google and will be purchasing Yahoo. Not shares of Yahoo, but Yahoo. How could I possibly afford to to buy Yahoo when Microsoft couldn’t? Glad you asked: the savings from not buying Google will more than cover my purchase price.

Next up? Microsoft. (Which I’ll pay for by not buying IBM, of course.)

See how easy this is? McCain’s a genius.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

You need to read Cory Doctorow's Little Brother

A couple weeks back, my friend Mike Marusin from Naperville updated Twitter that Cory Doctorow would be appearing at Andersen’s Bookstore in my old hometown, Naperville, IL, for a book signing. He’d just published Little Brother, and I was jealous that Mike got to meet Cory. I’ve long been an admirer of Cory’s, and a few days later I stopped by Cory’s site to check it out.

Imagine my shock to find that I could download all of Cory’s books and short stories for free, pre-formatted for ebook readers. That meant I was able to grab a copy and throw it on my Kindle… which I did, but was in the middle of reading White House Ghosts (yes, I’m a junkie) so I forgot about it. I had some time on Sunday afternoon, so I pulled out the Kindle and started Little Brother. I finished it last night, and it was spectacular.

I’ve seen other reviews peg it as a young adult novel, which I think is a load of crap. It’s a good story, pure and simple. That its protagonist happens to be a 17 year-old is immaterial, I think, to the target audience. Anyone who wants to know more about the technology shaping our society should read the book – and Cory does a great job of explaining complex issues (cryptography, hacking, open source software, tunneling, to name a few) in ways that non-techies will be able to appreciate. (I’ve seen a couple reviews knock him for these explications, suggesting it drags the narrative down… I disagree. If you’ve ever hung out with an obsessive, talented geek who is spectacularly good at this stuff, you’ll know they can spend hours explaining what they’re working on. The only difference with Cory is that his explanations often make sense to the uninitiated.)

The book is a fast read, and it’s a great ride. Cory nails the technology, the politics are spot on, and the implications about our growing surveillance society are laid out in an uncomfortable progression that you’ll want to give thought to. I told Robin last night that if I’d read this book as a teenager, it would have changed my life: Marcus (the main character) is a remarkable kid, and I have no doubt that I would have aspired to his blend of political commitment and technical mastery.

If you spend any time thinking about politics and technology (and if you don’t, what in God’s name are you doing hanging out at this blog?!), you’ll want to get yourself a copy of Little Brother.

A postscript: as I noted, Cory gives his books away for free. He’s also a full-time author, leading some to wonder why the hell he encourages people to download his books for free. From his intro:

For me — for pretty much every writer — the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity (thanks to Tim O’Reilly for this great aphorism). Of all the people who failed to buy this book today, the majority did so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free copy. Mega-hit best-sellers in science fiction sell half a million copies — in a world where 175,000 attend the San Diego Comic Con alone, you’ve got to figure that most of the people who “like science fiction” (and related geeky stuff like comics, games, Linux, and so on) just don’t really buy books. I’m more interested in getting more of that wider audience into the tent than making sure that everyone who’s in the tent bought a ticket to be there.

Ebooks are verbs, not nouns. You copy them, it’s in their nature. And many of those copies have a destination, a person they’re intended for, a hand-wrought transfer from one person to another, embodying a personal recommendation between two people who trust each other enough to share bits. That’s the kind of thing that authors (should) dream of, the proverbial sealing of the deal. By making my books available for free pass-along, I make it easy for people who love them to help other people love them.

Now here’s a particularly cool twist: Cory points out that many readers, after enjoying the free ebook, ask him if they can send him some money. He doesn’t want that – to do would be to encourage people to bypass his publisher, which he doesn’t want. Instead, he keeps a list running of librarians who need copies, and he invites readers to contribute copies to those schools/libraries.

I just bought four and had Amazon send them on their way… now 3 schools and 1 public library will have a copy of a book I think is critical for younger kids to read, and hopefully be inspired by. How cool is that?

I’ll repeat what I said four years ago: Cory Doctorow is a genius.

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