By any means necessary – Right on!

September 19, 2012

I never cease to be struck by the foam brought forth as the consumer/pop culture engine churns relentlessly,digesting everything and belching out its transformations.  Especially when it come up in the restricted area of my professional domain.


At 30,000 feet, again…

July 23, 2012

Last year, I posted about my trip to a work-related conference in San Diego, and my view of the Mississippi River system flooding I saw from the plane:  Well, I’m back.  I flew over the same terrain, and the damage of the flooding was apparent from the air.  You can see how the neat patchwork pattern of the agricultural areas has been smudged with the debris and sediment from last years flood.

Other themes of that post are recurring:  animation for one.  Then I was reading about Muybridge, friend of Leland Stanford, who did the first time-series images of a running horse.  I took a class on programming for Flex – fascinating, eh? – and sat next to a woman who works at Stanford.  Wow!  And at the museum of art, I bought a kit to make a zoetrope.  I just can’t escape myself.  The content for the toy was printed in the Sunday supplements of newspapers in the 1890s.

In my class, as I fiddle with code and talk of servers, map-services, instantiating queries, and so on, I think of the vast industry that has grown up to move large amounts of data, including the cartographic data with which I am concerned, over the Internet to consumers.  Yes, we are ‘consumers’ of map-services.  It’s as good a term as any, but does anyone wonder about how we all got to be consumers…of everything?  I get distracted by the sociology of the IT industry, and lose my place in the flow of the programming…

I took some time off to visit Balboa Park’s museums.  San Diego has something to offer other than sunshine and conventions, but it’s certainly not good coffee!  Next to the San Diego Museum of Art, where I saw a nice exhibit on German Expressionism, I visited the Timkin Museum, for free!  It’s a small collection, but there are a couple of knockout pieces of Sienese art of which I was unaware.  I particularly like the representation of the Trinity in the center of the second piece below, by Niccolo di Tomme. (Click to enlarge the images.)

Then there was this wonderful portrait by an artist I’d never see, clearly influenced by Leonardo, and newly discovered portrait by van Dyck.  The fabric and the hand seem pure Anthony van.

While shopping the museum store, I came upon a book about Yinka Shonibare, MBE, another new one for me.  He was born in London, raised in Nigeria, and now is back in the UK, producing installations, ‘paintings’, and sculpture that are filled with sly and not-so-subtle, but very exuberant, send-ups and skewerings of European culture, colonial and otherwise.  Turns out, his stuff is on exhibit there, so now I have to get back before I return to NJ.


At 30,000 feet: in 1/100th of a second

July 13, 2011

I find business travel of any sort disorienting.  Why am I here?  Just what am I doing in this place with these people?  Unmoored, my mind floats free of Earth’s gravitational pull and looses itself in philosophical maundering and pessimism.

I am in Carlsbad, CA, for the ESRI International Users Conference.  No clue?  Look here.  Yes, that’s what I do for a living, sort of.  And along with 1o,ooo members of the sometimes cultish fans cum users of ESRI software, I am here to try to learn something useful.  I’m even making a presentation.

On the flight out, I made sure to have a window seat, and my foresight was rewarded with some views of the Missouri River that looked like these below.  Floods, gotta love ‘em, they’re so grand.

I passed over arid hillscapes that were pricked here and there with giant white toothpicks – wind turbines – that seemed puny in comparison to the huge urban energy-suckers I saw.  I arrive in a new city, San Diego, and observe trucks, trains, planes, industrial zones, and crowds of people going to work – the human beehive.  It all seems so utterly pointless.  Why don’t they all just stay in their rooms, read a good book?  Is what they’re doing so great?

I recall a letter by V.I. Lenin in which he deplored the unplanned, chaotic and wasteful nature of capitalism.  Perhaps he and I share a similar visceral disgust with the nature of modern society.  Of course, his solution wasn’t as good as mine.  (Of course, I stole it from Pascal.)

On the flight, I read Freefall, an analysis of the financial debacle of 2007 by Stiglitz.  Perhaps he should read my post on the thieving state.  Well, he won a Nobel, but he is an economist after all…  I also finished reading River of Shadows, by Rebecca Solnit, which is a biography, sort of, of Eadweard Muybridge, the man who is famous for motion studies like these of horses:

and who also did many others of people which are not so widely known, such as this one of a woman simply getting into and out of bed:Obviously, Muybridge was onto something with his instantaneous photos of moving objects, and his work was an important precursor to the development of motion pictures.  Today, you can buy amusing flip-books of some of his studies that work wonderfully well.  In fact, he created an early zoetrope that combined magic lanterns with his motion studies to produce projected animations, and he was involved with Edison in creating the early kinetoscopes.  He was also an accomplished landscape photographer, and a bit of an eccentric.

Solnit’s book, however, indulges in much breathless metaphysical word-spinning at every possible opportunity, and is built on the conceit that Muybridge and Leland Stanford (it was his horse, and he paid for the initial work photographing it in those famous sequences) founded the modern world in the previously Wild West.  After all, the basis of modern civilization is Hollywood (Muybridge’s part) and Silicone Valley ([Leland] Stanford University’s part).  It’s pretty tiresome after a while, but the book rewards judicious skimming.

One of the most interesting parts to me was the connection with Ernest Meissonier, the successful French salon painter known for his large canvasses showing Napoleon in what appeared at the time to be photo-realistic detail.  (He was a favorite painter of Salvador Dali.)

 

Meissonier exerted tremendous effort in studying the movements of horses, trying to get the legs right.  Muybridge’s sequences of Stanford’s racer, Occident, laid to rest the momentous question of whether or not a horse ever had all four feet off the ground at once – they do – but it also showed how complex was the movement of the legs.  Messonier was upset: he’d got them all wrong, but he was a good sport about it.  In his portrait of Stanford, a photo sequence by Muybridge is just barely visible on the table at the right.


Sugar tapping into the bit-stream

November 16, 2009

We are all connected!Sometimes in my job, I feel like I’m in a bad science fiction movie.  The one in which a technocrat is speaking to a well-heeled audience about some new computer gismo that is going to change all of our lives – for the better – while disaster looms outside…

I attended a conference today, in the grand interior rotunda of a university library, about the use of  “geospatial” technology – that’s my field, maps, GIS, location data,  etc. – and disaster preparedness planning.  One fellow, a doctor and a tireless worker in various international NGO’s, talked about all the great, whiz-bang Web locational stuff that is helping him and his peers “save some lives.”  I’ve no complaint with that!

He talked about a sugar tapper in the rainforest of Indonesia, a bona fide member of a head-hunting tribe, who has the right to tap twelve trees in this jungle, and how he was able to double his income once he received some global positioning (GPS) tools.  Since the same person spoke about how local people serve as guides to internationals because only they can find their way around the forest they have lived in all their lives, I wondered why GPS made a difference to this guy.  Born and raised to the area, wouldn’t he have all sorts of low-tech, traditional ways of keeping track of where his trees are and when it was time to visit them to collect sugar?  Isn’t that the sort of indigenous knowledge we techno-nerds of the West are always rhapsodizing about when we get bored with our toys?  I asked exactly that question, and the answer was simple.

The tapper had no problem finding his trees and organizing his work, but by selling his sugar as Certified Organic, he was able to abandon smuggling as a livelihood and enter the global market for “green” agriculture.  In order to gain access to this market, he had to produce lots of paperwork and keep detailed records, and for this, GPS, digital maps, spreadsheets, and various plug-ins and plug-outs are invaluable.

I am happy this man is able to support himself in this sustainable way, and glad that the local university is involved in helping his community overcome the technical hurdles to entering this market – it seems like a good local development effort on their part.  It is important to keep in mind, however, exactly what problem was being solved.  The farmer had no technical problem running his sugar operation.  The problem was in being accepted into the global network of selling.  How you feel about his success here depends on what you think about globalization, capitalism, organic agriculture, and a lot of other things.  I do get the feeling, though, that in these breathless presentations on the value of hi-tech spatial technology that we are often looking for ways to solve problems that the same technologies have created.

Another speaker, a professor who also runs this outfit, talked about how four or five infrastructure providers are collecting data each day on phone callers:  from where and when they place a call.  These corporations are looking for ways to use this data, “creative business opportunities, or societal-beneficial stuff ” he said.  Presented with this mass of data – the problem – they search for meaning, and create solutions to extract it.   At one point he said that using this data, we can tell who and what we are by virtue of our co-locating.  That is, you know something about people by knowing where they meet and with whom.  Except that this data just tells you where and when pretty much…

One such exercise involved graphing the volume of commuters to the financial district of San Francisco against the Dow Jones.  We see that people tend to go in to the office early when the market isn’t doing too well.  They come in later when the market seems to be trending upwards steadily.  Surprised?  Imagine, you could develop “smart advertising” targeting those people by changing digital ads in real-time on  trains, buses, and billboards! – my idea, BTW, but only in the particulars.  Unusually heavy early traffic going into the city?  Cue the bromo-seltzer and beer ads – it’s going to be a bruiser of a day on the trading floor!

I know that technology has wonderful and humane applications, but stuff like this is enough to make you a Luddite.  Part of the idolatry of the computer, and the relentless drive to draw us all into the web of the International Work (and buy) Machine.

Now, this leaves open only one question:  How do I get the four or five hundred people who visit this blog each day to pay me some money!!  How much would you pay for the privilege?




Google-herd

November 2, 2009

City Sense?

Should Google-herd be a new word in our lexicon?

Citysense is an innovative mobile application for real-time nightlife discovery and social navigation, answering the question, “Where is everybody going right now?”

…and why should we follow them..?

File this under the expanding portfolio of hi-tech computer applications intended to capture your money.  GIS cum position (al) technology, like GPS, is now a growing element in marketing.  Companies like this collect historical and current data on where people have gone, process it according to the latest market segmentation categories, and try to sell the service to other companies and us, the individual consumers.  Making it easier for us to spend our money, find those things we really want, find the people who are just like us!

Is this bad?  No.  Is it evil?  No.  It’s just business, and it’s pretty dumb. What gets me is the breathless tone of the selling that makes it sound like it’s something more than new technology being used to make a standard selling tool sexy. Gads, I hate hearing marketing stuff described as sexy. What does that say about our culture?

Yep, just file this under, International Work Machine, crank, gripe, and complain.


Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman

February 14, 2008

bill-webb-postman-meeting-lane-1965.jpg

Have you got a letter for me? Well, if I do, I can only get it to you if you have a proper address…

Sometimes the technicalities of addressing, geocoding as we call it in my profession, have earth-shaking consequences. If you don’t quite know where your target is, you might deliver the package to the wrong house. That’s what happened in Belgrade in 1999 when the NATO forces bombed the Chinese embassy instead of the intended Yugoslav military installation. Ooops! That one took a while to smooth over, too. Read the excerpt below, or read all about it here:

The officer, who wrongly assumed Belgrade’s street addresses were numbered as uniformly as, say, Manhattan’s, ended up targeting the Chinese Embassy, which is on a frontage road nearly 1,000 feet from the supply directorate that was the intended target, the officials said.

Ah, maps in the news. Lines in the sand, between Kuwait and Iraq: Where is that line? An Italian lawsuit against the US Air Force hinges on whether maps the pilot used showed the ski lift cables that his plane sliced through, sending people plunging to their deaths.

Here in the land of the grid, addresses are usually pretty logical. As long as you are in a city in the USA, chances are likely that most of it is on the grid plan. (The ‘burbs are another matter.) Manhattan is only the most well known of these orthogonal street plans – this one is from Philadelphia.

pa_grid.jpg

Not all cities in the world have such well ordered postal address systems. Slums, shantytowns, favelas…don’t, and lots of people live there. Japanese cities do not have regular numerical addresses either. Postmen must memorize the sequence of addresses in their entire route – they follow no clear or logical order. How does one give directions – by landmark, I guess. A colleague of mine wonders whether this lack of coherent addressing was a factor in the Japanese push to innovate with “location technology,” the tools that put GPS in your phone, link your phone to GoogleMaps, give you maps of the nearest shops on your phone while you drive in your GPS-directed car.

I wonder, do they have a huge junk mail marketing industry (the polite term is direct mail marketing) in Japan? How can they? It depends on drawing up lists of addresses by areas that are designated on a map. Now it’s all done with computers, GIS (my gig), but it used to be done with paper lists. They must have to compile, by hand, all the addresses that are in a given area! In New York, even before computers, a bit of research would give you the low and high numbers on streets in your area, and you could fill in the rest-even on one side, odd on the other.

As property tax maps have been an instrument critical to the growth of the central state’s power (William the Conquerer did a property survey, pronto, after taking over England. It’s called the DomesdayBook of 1086) the regular postal address sytem has been crucial to the growth of consumerism. Makes shipping the stuff easier, and makes shipping that junk mail easy as can be! We know where you are!


Odd Maps

December 4, 2007

rozell_pt_sw_ut.jpg tibet1.jpg tibetan-map-extent.gif gillray_giii.jpg

Maps are part of my business – I make them with computers using geographic information system (GIS) applications. On occasion, I cannot resist buying some old scraps of paper with interesting maps on them. I have a particular fondness for maps that don’t show much of anything. The one on the left here (click on the thumbnails to enlarge them) is a genuine United States Geological Survey (USGS) quadrangle that has nothing but water! I like to say that it’s the most accurate map in the world because it conveys virtually no information. If you wish to avoid error, say nothing.

The quad is similar to another map, more whimsical, that is shown at the wonderful blog, Strange Maps, where you can find all things weird, funny, and cartographic. The map I have in mind is from Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark. Go take a look around – you’ll never look at maps the same way again.

The middle map I have here is an 18th century chart of part of Mongolia, and, of course, there’s not too much on it either. Makes you wonder what use is was to anyone. The image to its right shows the area of the map superimposed (dark polygon) on a modern map of Asia. Quite a big area to wonder through with only that as your guide! Such was life before MapQuest and Google Earth.

Finally, once again, we have James Gillray. This is not the only image he did that involves massive deployment of turds, animal or human. And it is not the only anthropomorphic map he did either, but it is one of the best of both. Believe it or not, it is not the most unflattering portrait of George III he did. After all, here George is heroically defending the British against an invasion by Boney, and the joke is mostly on the French. Was this where Monty Python got their line (for the French) “I fart in your general direction!”


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