Jungleland: In search of a lost city

Jungleland cover

Sounds fun – exploring without leaving the comfort of my office couch…

The true story Christopher S. Stewart has to tell in “Jungleland” resembles nothing so much as the set-up for one of H. Rider Haggard’s old pulp adventure novels. It’s got a fabled lost city somewhere in the midst of a trackless rainforest, intrepid explorers, stoic guides, assorted dangerous animals and sinister bad guys, and a dash of espionage. Even the local tribesmen get in on the act, issuing forth vague warnings about “forbidden” zones, the voices of the dead, evil spirits and monkey gods.

Stewart, a journalist specializing in war and organized crime, first heard about Ciudad Blanco — the White City, a magnificent ruin rumored to be buried deep in the jungles of the Mosquitia region of Honduras — while reporting on the booming Honduran drug trade in 2008. An American ex-soldier who had been involved in training the Nicaraguan contras told him about the legend while describing Mosquitia as the “shittiest, buggiest shithole jungle in the world.” Stewart was soon obsessed, and in a few months, he was on a plane for Central America.

He was far from the first to heed the call. Explorers ranging from Columbus to Cortes had taken note of the rumors, and the first Catholic bishop of Honduras informed the king of Spain that he’d heard tell of the city from the lips of an “Indian princess;” she said its aristocrats ate from solid gold plates. Charles Lindbergh claimed to have spotted the white ruins of “an amazing ancient metropolis” while flying over Central America, and many other visitors to the region have found artifacts that seem to be the remnants of a sophisticated culture. The most recent and apparently reliable eyewitness account dated back to 1940, when Theodore Morde, a 29-year-old adventurer from Massachusetts, claimed to have stumbled on the city while wandering in the heart of the jungle.

(click here to continue reading “Jungleland”: In search of a lost city – Salon.com.)

Available in a couple weeks, I’ll tell you how it is.

Apple MapsGate Continues to Dominate the Tech Press

Speak Not Of Senseless Things
Speak Not Of Senseless Things

Editors love controversy, especially when Apple is involved, and even better if Google is involved as well. Controversy leads to increased web traffic, and theoretically, salary raises for editors. Thus the minor topic of Apple’s Map app continues to dominate the tech press, and has even leaked out to general news coverage. 

Counternotions asks, as part of its Apple MapsGate FAQ, a question I asked as well, namely what was Google’s role in all this? Did Google refuse to bring parity between Android Maps and iOS Maps for a strategic reason? Or spite? or what?

Q: Then why did Apple kick Google Maps off the iOS platform? Wouldn’t Apple have been better off offering Google Maps even while it was building its own map app? Shouldn’t Apple have waited?

A: Waited for what? For Google to strengthen its chokehold on a key iOS service? Apple has recognized the significance of mobile mapping and acquired several mapping companies, IP assets and talent in the last few years. Mapping is indeed one of the hardest of mobile services, involving physical terrestrial and aerial surveying, data acquisition, correction, tile making and layer upon layer of contextual info married to underlying data, all optimized to serve often under trying network conditions. Unfortunately, like dialect recognition or speech synthesis (think Siri), mapping is one of those technologies that can’t be fully incubated in a lab for a few years and unleashed on several hundred million users in more than a 100 countries in a “mature” state. Thousands of reports from individuals around the world, for example, have helped Google correct countless mapping failures over the last half decade. Without this public exposure and help in the field, a mobile mapping solution like Apple’s stands no chance.

Q: So why not keep using a more established solution like Google’s?

A: Clearly, no one outside Mountain View and Cupertino can say who’s forced the parties to come to this state of affairs. Did Google, for example, want to extract onerous concessions from Apple involving more advertising leeway, user data collection, clickstream tracking and so on? Thanks to the largest fine in FTC’s history Google had to pay (don’t laugh!), we already know how desperate Google is for users’ data and how cavalier it is with their privacy. Maybe Apple didn’t like Google’s terms, maybe it was the other way around, perhaps both parties agreed it was best to have two separate apps available…we don’t know. After well-known episodes with Microsoft, Adobe and others, what we do know is that Apple has a justifiable fear of key third parties dictating terms and hindering its rate of innovation. It’s thus understandable why Apple would want to wrest control of its independence from its chief rival on its most important product line.

Q: Does Apple have nothing but contempt for its users?

A: Yes, Apple’s evil. When Apple barred Flash from iOS, Flash was the best and only way to play .swf files. Apple’s video alternative, H.264, wasn’t nearly as widely used. Thus Apple’s solution was “inferior” and appeared to be against its own users’ interests. Sheer corporate greed! Trillion words have been written about just how misguided Apple was in denying its users the glory of Flash on iOS. Well, Flash is now dead on mobile. And yet the Earth’s obliquity of the ecliptic is still about 23.4°. We seemed to have survived that one.

(click here to continue reading Apple Maps: The FAQ « counter notions.)

Jean-Louis Gassée adds re: the Apple Maps conversation a salient point, namely that Apple gave no hint that Maps was in its early stages:

The ridicule that Apple has suffered following the introduction of the Maps application in iOS 6 is largely self-inflicted. The demo was flawless, 2D and 3D maps, turn-by-turn navigation, spectacular flyovers…but not a word from the stage about the app’s limitations, no self-deprecating wink, no admission that iOS Maps is an infant that needs to learn to crawl before walking, running, and ultimately lapping the frontrunner, Google Maps. Instead, we’re told that Apple’s Maps may be  “the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever.”

After the polished demo, the released product gets a good drubbing: the Falkland Islands are stripped of roads and towns, bridges and façades are bizarrely rendered, an imaginary airport is discovered in a field near Dublin. Pageview-driven commenters do the expected. After having slammed the “boring” iPhone 5, they reversed course when preorders exceed previous records, and now they reverse course again when Maps shows a few warts.

Even Joe Nocera, an illustrious NYT writer, joins the chorus with a piece titled Has Apple Peaked? Note the question mark, a tired churnalistic device, the author hedging his bet in case the peak is higher still, lost in the clouds. The piece is worth reading for its clichés, hyperbole, and statements of the obvious: “unmitigated disaster”, “the canary in the coal mine”, and “Jobs isn’t there anymore”, tropes that appear in many Maps reviews.

(The implication that Jobs would have squelched Maps is misguided. I greatly miss Dear Leader but my admiration for his unsurpassed successes doesn’t obscure my recollection of his mistakes. The Cube, antennagate, Exchange For The Rest of Us [a.k.a MobileMe], the capricious skeuomorphic shelves and leather stitches… Both Siri — still far from reliable — and Maps were decisions Jobs made or endorsed.)

Re-reading Joe Nocera’s piece, I get the impression that he hasn’t actually tried Maps himself. Nor does he point out that you can still use Google Maps on an iPhone or iPad:

The process is dead-simple: Add maps.google.com as a Web App on your Home Screen and voilà, Google Maps without waiting for Google to come up with a native iOS app, or for Apple to approve it. Or you can try other mapping apps such as Navigon. Actually, I’m surprised to see so few people rejoice at the prospect of a challenger to Google’s de facto maps monopoly.

(click here to continue reading Apple Maps: Damned If You Do, Googled If You Don’t | Monday Note.)

Also, glad to see that others think as little of Joe Nocera as I do.

Wheel of transformation
Wheel of transformation


Spare Change
Spare Change

More on the benefits of iOS users feeding Google’s insatiable data maw – benefits for Google that is – from Fortune’s Philip Elmer-Dewitt:

Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been feeding geographical information into Google’s (GOOG) mapping database for years — searching for addresses, sharing my location, checking for traffic jams on Google Maps. Google, for its part, has been scraping that data for every nugget of intelligence its computers can extract. Without consciously volunteering, I’ve been participating in a massive crowdsourcing experiment — perhaps the largest the world has ever seen. Who knows what I might have been teaching Google Maps if I’d been navigating the surface of the planet with an Android phone in my pocket?

Apple, by building its much-loved (and now much-missed) iPhone Maps app on Google’s mapping database, has been complicit in this Herculean data collection exercise since the launch of the first iPhone in 2007. The famous Google cars that drive up and down the byways of the world collecting Street View images get most of the attention, but it’s the billions upon billions of data points supplied by hundreds of millions of users that make Google Maps seem so smart and iOS 6’s new Maps app seem so laughably stupid.

(click here to continue reading Why Apple pulled the plug on Google Maps – Apple 2.0 – Fortune Tech.)

Google Needs Apple Too


Feud is the wrong word, really, these are just competing businesses, not personal enemies, but still bears watching their competition unfold. At least this article in the NYT isn’t just trolling Apple, like Joe Nocera’s bit of vomit from yesterday.

Being kicked off the iPhone has potentially significant consequences for Google, whose Maps service earns more than half its traffic from mobile devices, and almost half of that mobile traffic has been from iPhone users. Apple’s move strikes at the heart of Google’s core business, search, because about 40 percent of mobile searches are for local places or things.

“Local is a huge thing for Google in terms of advertising dollars, and search is very tied to that,” said Barry Schwartz, an editor at Search Engine Land, an industry blog. “Knowing where you are, when you search for coffee, it can bring up local coffee shops and ads that are much more relevant for the user.”

But with maps, Google, which has long been the dominant digital mapmaker, now must adjust to a new rival, along with the loss of valuable iPhone users.

Even though Android phones far outnumber iPhones — 60 percent of smartphones run Android, versus 34 percent for iPhones, according to Canalys, a research firm — iPhone users account for almost half of mobile traffic to Google Maps.

In July, according to comScore Mobile Metrix, 12.6 million iPhone users visited Maps each day, versus 7.6 million on Android phones. And iPhone users spent an hour and a half using Maps during the month, while Android users spent just an hour.

Those users are a valuable source for Google, because it relies on their data to determine things like which businesses or landmarks are most important and whether maps have errors.

(click here to continue reading Apple’s Feud With Google Is Now Felt on the iPhone – NYTimes.com.)

I welcome the rivalry, maps will1 improve for all users as a result.

  1. should? []

Joe Nocera Trolls Apple

Tech Graveyard
Tech Graveyard

NYT columnist and Steve Jobs antagonist Joe Nocera builds a flimsy case for Apple’s decline upon a tenuous foundation in today’s paper. A few points worth responding to:

If Steve Jobs were still alive, would the new map application on the iPhone 5 be such an unmitigated disaster? Interesting question, isn’t it?

(click here to continue reading Has Apple Peaked? – NYTimes.com.)

No, not really. Are you asserting that everything Apple ever released while Steve Jobs was alive was perfect? As a Mac user from before Steve Jobs came back to Apple, I’ve followed the company pretty closely, and there were plenty of crappy applications, plenty of dud hardwares, plenty of missteps during the fifteen years of Jobs running Apple. Ping? The PowerMac G4 Cube? The so-called antenna problem with the iPhone 4? Final Cut Pro X? The hockey puck mouse? Some iterations of Mobile Me? You get the idea: Steve Jobs and Apple have failed plenty of times, releasing unpolished, unfinished or unsuccessful products. But for Joe Nocera, the alleged failure of Apple Maps 1.0 means Apple is about to crumble into pieces. Next week, Nocera is going to call for Apple to spin off their iOS division, and license the software to Nokia. 

In rolling out a new operating system for the iPhone 5, Apple replaced Google’s map application — the mapping gold standard — with its own, vastly inferior, application, which has infuriated its customers. With maps now such a critical feature of smartphones, it seems to be an inexplicable mistake.

And you can see it in the decision to replace Google’s map application. Once an ally, Google is now a rival, and the thought of allowing Google to promote its maps on Apple’s platform had become anathema. More to the point, Apple wants to force its customers to use its own products, even when they are not as good as those from rivals. Once companies start acting that way, they become vulnerable to newer, nimbler competitors that are trying to create something new, instead of milking the old. Just ask BlackBerry, which once reigned supreme in the smartphone market but is now roadkill for Apple and Samsung.

That’s one way of looking at it. But all we really know is that the license agreement between Apple and Google has ended. Perhaps Google didn’t want to license their maps to Apple anymore? Or Google raised the licensing fee to astronomical levels? After all, Google’s Android is a direct competitor to Apple’s iOS. Apple has always been more comfortable making their own versions of software so that companies don’t have leverage over Apple’s business decisions. Remember in the late ‘90s when Microsoft and Adobe almost stopped developing Microsoft Office and Photoshop for the Mac? I’d be leery of depending upon Google as well, Google has become much more cutthroat in recent years. 

Dreaming of Phone Booths for a modern Superman
Dreaming of Phone Booths for a modern Superman

And maybe that’s all it is — a mistake, soon to be fixed. But it is just as likely to turn out to be the canary in the coal mine. Though Apple will remain a highly profitable company for years to come, I would be surprised if it ever gives us another product as transformative as the iPhone or the iPad.

Part of the reason is obvious: Jobs isn’t there anymore. It is rare that a company is so completely an extension of one man’s brain as Apple was an extension of Jobs. While he was alive, that was a strength; now it’s a weakness. Apple’s current executive team is no doubt trying to maintain the same demanding, innovative culture, but it’s just not the same without the man himself looking over everybody’s shoulder. If the map glitch tells us anything, it is that.

But there is also a less obvious — yet possibly more important — reason that Apple’s best days may soon be behind it. When Jobs returned to the company in 1997, after 12 years in exile, Apple was in deep trouble. It could afford to take big risks and, indeed, to search for a new business model, because it had nothing to lose.

Fifteen years later, Apple has a hugely profitable business model to defend — and a lot to lose. Companies change when that happens. “The business model becomes a gilded cage, and management won’t do anything to challenge it, while doing everything they can to protect it,” says Larry Keeley, an innovation strategist at Doblin, a consulting firm.

Again, Nocera is trolling here. He claims to be able to see into the future, and tells us plebes that Apple will never make an innovative product again, ever! Really! And the reason that Apple is going to sour is that a first iteration of an app they released on Wednesday doesn’t please everyone. Maybe Mr. Nocera ought to switch to decaf and lay off the bath salts?

For the record, Maps seems to be ok for me, but I rarely used the Street View in Google Maps, plus Chicago is pretty well mapped. If I lived somewhere else, maybe I’d be displeased as well. But version 1 of Google Maps wasn’t so great either, and that didn’t mean that Google was about to descend into RIM/BlackBerry territory. No, instead, there were steady improvements made, and now Google Maps is fairly useful, and accurate. I still use it on my phone, by the way. In fact, I have an icon on my home screen that allows me to load it whenever I need it, or am concerned that Apple’s Map app might be wrong.

I would bet Joe Nocera $500 that Apple is going to improve its iOS Map app rapidly, and by version 3, this won’t be an issue for the majority of users. For all the negative press, I haven’t read of many people returning their iPhone because the Map app is so horrible.

A less “trolly” response from Mike Dobson:

I have spent several hours poring over the news for examples of the types of failures and find nothing unexpected in the results. Apple does not have a core competency in mapping and has not yet assembled the sizable, capable team that they will eventually need if they are determined to produce their own mapping/navigation/local search application.

Perhaps the most egregious error is that Apple’s team relied on quality control by algorithm and not a process partially vetted by informed human analysis. You cannot read about the errors in Apple Maps without realizing that these maps were being visually examined and used for the first time by Apple’s customers and not by Apple’s QC teams. If Apple thought that the results were going to be any different than they are, I would be surprised. Of course, hubris is a powerful emotion.

If you go back over this blog and follow my recounting of the history of Google’s attempts at developing a quality mapping service, you will notice that they initially tried to automate the entire process and failed miserably, as has Apple. Google learned that you cannot take the human out of the equation. While the mathematics of mapping appear relatively straight forward, I can assure you that if you take the informed human observer who possesses local and cartographic knowledge out of the equation that you will produce exactly what Apple has produced – A failed system.

The issue plaguing Apple Maps is not mathematics or algorithms, it is data quality and there can be little doubt about the types of errors that are plaguing the system. What is happening to Apple is that their users are measuring data quality. Users look for familiar places they know on maps and use these as methods of orienting themselves, as well as for testing the goodness of maps. They compare maps with reality to determine their location. They query local businesses to provide local services. When these actions fail, the map has failed and this is the source of Apple’s most significant problems. Apple’s maps are incomplete, illogical, positionally erroneous, out of date, and suffer from thematic inaccuracies.

(click here to continue reading Exploring Local » Blog Archive » Google Maps announces a 400 year advantage over Apple Maps.)

My point remains: the Apple Map app may be bad, will probably get somewhat better in the future, and this still doesn’t mean that Apple is about to turn into Sears & Roebuck, and be discarded in the tech graveyard.

Save the Endangered Globe

Miniature Office Globe
Miniature Office Globe

Personally, I’ve always had a globe around ever since I was a boy interested in cartography. I have dozens of maps and atlases around my office and home. The globe pictured above I bought circa 2005 when a previous globe was damaged via a leaky roof. I don’t see a date anywhere on it though.

actual globes are increasingly rare. When did you last see a globe in an office, or a living room? American schools, too, have seen a decline. Officials for major school systems — including Chicago and Seattle — report that most classrooms no longer have them. …

The first globes were “celestial” models of the heavens — what Atlas shoulders (it’s the sky, after all, that seems round). The first “terrestrial” globe was made around 150 B.C. (by Crates of Mallus, in case you’re ever in a barroom brawl over what the Stoic grammarians ever did for us). The oldest Earth globe that survives today is from 1492. It was spectacularly ill timed, though a colorful cast of saints, mermen and Sciapods make up for the absent Americas.

Just across the Columbian divide is the Hunt-Lenox globe, circa 1510, which features portions of the Americas, and the weighty term “New World.” The globe also bears cartography’s only known deployment of “here be dragons” (in Southeast Asia). Elizabethans, in particular, loved globes — “the whole earth, a present for a prince,” was Queen Elizabeth’s awe-struck response to a gift of a globe — and then there is the name of a certain theater. In “The Comedy of Errors,” Dromio rudely maps the portly kitchen wench: England on the chin, France on the forehead, and just you guess about the Netherlands.

Such glorious history makes the decline of globes only more perplexing. Perhaps no four-billion-year-old design can escape the occasional hiccup in brand maintenance. But there are more likely culprits. As reference tools, home globes can’t compete with detailed, up-to-date online resources (though note the Wikipedia logo, an incomplete globe). The decline of globes in schools, according to Robert Chisholm, program director for history and social studies in Boston’s public schools, is also because of the squeeze of standardized math and English testing on subjects like geography.

Mad Men Drapers Office 3

It is the absence of globes in most professional environments, though, that reveals the most about us. Don Draper of “Mad Men” has an office globe. But none of the dozen or so executives I contacted could remember when they last saw one. The more global their work, the more they found the idea of a globe unappealing. Globalization is the alleged triumph of travel, trade and connectivity over the planet’s bricks-and-mortar (or rocks-and-water) limitations. It’s a measure of globalization’s success — and hubris, perhaps — that its original icon appears literal and unsophisticated.

What’s lost when we lose sight of globes? An accurate sense of home, to start. The view of a Roman street on Google Maps is wonderful — but only after a globe has shown you Italy. And no online or paper map has yet succeeded in stretching a round planet onto a flat surface. Choose your complicated failure: Mercator? Sinusoidal equal area? Equidistant conic? Only a globe is both simple and right — simple because it’s right.

(click here to continue reading Save the Endangered Globe – NYTimes.com.)

So, perhaps buy a globe for *your* office, and spin it randomly on occasion…

Timing an Urban Stroll Isn’t a Walk in the Park

 Alhambra Seattle

Alhambra Seattle

Walking is my most frequent form of exercise, so I’ve noticed that online maps are a little suspect as far as providing good time estimates.

Such discrepancies reflect teething problems for the growing industry of providing walking times. “It’s largely not a problem that anyone has solved in the world perfectly,” says Manik Gupta, senior product manager at Google Maps in Mountain View, Calif., about walking-time estimates.

Estimation of walking times poses many questions: How fast do people walk and how much does it vary? How do hills and traffic lights affect speed? Do popular walks—say through city centers—vary in time according to time of day, slowing down when other walkers congest the routes?

Various walking-time providers answer these questions differently. Their assumptions of walking speed can vary from 2.5 miles per hours to 3.1 miles per hour, and their treatments of hills varies, too. Some assume a walk in a crowded urban area will be slower than in a park, while others ignore stops at traffic lights. And most aren’t yet adjusting for congestion—a big factor when walking among thousands of spectators to Olympic venues.

Google didn’t disclose what baseline walking speed it assumes, saying journey times vary anyway based on other factors. Jim Stone, executive director of walking-advocacy group WalkSanDiego, says he has found Google can say a mile will take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the details of the route.

Walkit, a U.K. walk-routing website, adjusts for hills using Naismith’s Rule, developed by William W. Naismith, a Scottish mountaineer, in 1892. The rule adds time for uphill stretches, proportional to the elevation gained; subtracts time for downhill walks at light slopes; and adds times for steep downhill treks. The site also provides three options for walking speed—slow (two miles per hour), medium (3 mph) and fast (4 mph).

Time estimates can surprise infrequent walkers. “People think that a mile sounds really far,” says a TfL spokeswoman. “You say a mile, and they say, ‘That’s forever!’ But say it’s 20 minutes, and they say, ‘That’s achievable.’ “

How long walkers remember a journey taking can depend on factors other than time, such as variety of scenery, says Barbara McCann, founder of Washington, D.C., nonprofit National Complete Streets Coalition, which advocates street design that accommodates all users, in addition to cars. “It’s nice to provide walk times for people,” says Ms. McCann, now an independent consultant, “but you have to be aware it’s a super-subjective thing.”

(click here to continue reading Timing an Urban Stroll Isn’t a Walk in the Park – WSJ.com.)

I’ve also noticed that I walk faster when walking by myself, with just headphones, music and camera(s). Walking with someone, or with a group, inevitably slows everyone down.

GPS and the 4th Amendment

Shoveling snow apparently optional
Shoveling snow apparently optional

Our erosion of civil liberties continues apace, the police increasingly don’t even bother to get warrants before they put you in their surveillance net. For instance, in the case of suspect Antoine Jones, the police installed a GPS tracking device on his (or his wife’s) Jeep.

Jordan Smith reports on this troubling case:

When are electronic or other forms of surveillance of an individual considered a search under the Fourth Amendment — thus requiring a valid warrant to conduct such surveillance in a manner that protects the individual from “unlawful search and seizure”?

How the U.S. Supreme Court answers that question, in a case on its docket for the term starting in October, will have far-reaching implications for the power of government and for the privacy of individuals, according to lawyers and privacy rights advocates.

If the Court holds that warrants are not required for this type of surveillance, it could mean “the technological death of the Fourth Amendment,” warns Arkansas-based attorney John Wesley Hall, a leading Fourth Amendment expert…

The officers obtained a judicial warrant providing for a 10-day tracking period inside the District of Columbia. However, they actually installed the device after the 10-day window had expired — the reasons have not been brought out in court — and they did so while the Jeep was parked in a public lot in Maryland. The GPS data provided a 24/7 record of all of Jones’ movements in the Jeep over the next month — including, at times, the movements of his wife and family.

(click here to continue reading Big Brother is tracking you: GPS and the 4th Amendment – Obama’s Supreme Court Nominees | Supreme Court Justices – Salon.com.)

ACLU Constitution Free Zone
ACLU Constitution Free Zone

I’d be very surprised if the Roberts Court rules against the police, shocked in fact. Even the fact that some gun rights organizations have filed briefs decrying this destruction of the Fourth Amendment will probably not sway the Court, if history is any guide.

As Leckar1 told the Crime Report, a beeper is a “simple sense-augmenting device,” while a GPS tracking device, designed by the government for military use and only made available since 2000 for civilian applications, is “not sense augmenting; it’s sense supplanting.”

And that is one of the main reasons that in order to pass the Fourth Amendment’s legal standard a warrant is needed to conduct GPS surveillance, Leckar argues.
The “D.C. Circuit was correct to hold that pattern information is dramatically more intrusive than mere information about an individual’s discrete journeys,” his brief argued. “Indeed, the distinction between discrete bits of information and patterns of conduct is well-accepted.”

To privacy and Fourth Amendment advocates, the distinction is crucial.

In a brief supporting Jones before the D.C. Circuit, the Electronic Freedom Foundation and the ACLU, and which they are expected to revive before the Supremes, argued that GPS technology now gives police extraordinary new powers to remotely track individuals over long periods in both public and private realms.

“Without a warrant requirement, an individual’s every movement could be subject to remote monitoring, and permanent recording, at the sole discretion of any police officer,” the brief said.
Gun Owners of America, Inc., Gun Owners Foundation, and several other conservative groups have already filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court urging it to restore “the Fourth Amendment to its original text and purpose.”

  1. veteran attorney Stephen Leckar, who represents Jones []

Everyblock and the Chicago Police Department

I’ve been a long time fan of EveryBlock, from its earlier incarnation called Chicago Crime.org, through its purchase by MSNBC. I had noticed this police report information shortfall as well.

Sunday Morning Parking Lot

In Chicago, the police department declines to make any details available online to us or to EveryBlock, a five-member operation based here. EveryBlock was bought last year by MSNBC.com and cranks out daily updates for neighborhoods in 15 other cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Dallas.

The site’s frustration with Chicago underscores how scant our access is to public records at most levels of government.

Take the city’s Department of Public Health. It stopped updating its Web site last year. That means that for months, citizens haven’t been able to find out about, say, what restaurants have been hit with violations. In part, the department blames technological problems.

EveryBlock is the brainchild of soft-spoken, angular Adrian Holovaty, 29, well-known in the online world for innovations in computer code. He retains oversight and, with two colleagues, operates out of an airy but bare Ravenswood loft about a mile north of Wrigley Field.

Mr. Holovaty is asking his audience here to sign a petition, to prod the Chicago Police Department to change its ways. He links to the petition from each crime. ‘Would you like to see more information about this crime? So would we!’ he asks.”

(click to continue reading Chicago News Cooperative – In the Age of Information, the Police Department Lags Behind – NYTimes.com.)

What is strange is that the local paper The Chicago Journal has a page of police reports written in English. I guess these are hand-crafted by Chicago Journal reporters? They are not as extensive, of course.

If you have a second, take the time to sign the EveryBlock petition.

Chicago Police Bomb Squad

Chicago Police Bomb Squad

As I hinted, I love Everyblock – I receive a daily email about my 8 block area, and another email1 that contains all news in a hand-crafted area of my own choosing, plus I subscribe to an RSS feed that covers similar ground, and have the EveryBlock iPhone app installed.

Neighborhood demarcations are like country borders, they are useful sometimes, but in real life, are less meaningful. When I walk around taking photos, there is an area that I usually stick to – about a mile in some directions, but it is not a geometrically perfect circle. I walk west to Ashland, but usually not beyond, walk south to maybe Jackson, or occasionally Van Buren, but not beyond, walk north to Chicago Avenue, along the Chicago River, but not west of Halsted, walk into the Loop proper, but not too far. In other words2 my personal stomping ground includes portions of 4 or 5 different neighborhoods, but to me, it feels like one. EveryBlock allows me to mark a map and then pulls information from this marked “personal” neighborhood3.

Anyway, I strongly agree with Mr. Holovaty that the Chicago Police should open up their data for EveryBlock, I don’t see the downside for CPD.

It’s one thing to know there was a $300 theft down the street; it’s another to read the police officer’s description. “Clearly, there’s a huge difference between a random break-in and, say, an ex-boyfriend breaking into an apartment to get his stuff,” Mr. Holovaty says.

We can get those details if we go to the police station. But the department won’t make descriptions available online. The end result is ignorance, possibly about the real dangers in a neighborhood. Lack of context can breed fear and needless anxiety.

Chicago is not alone in arguing that there are privacy concerns, notably names of victims, and what can be raw descriptions replete with misspellings. But Mr. Holovaty underscores that EveryBlock, as a matter of policy, does not run people’s names on any of its listings, be they crimes, real estate transactions or granting of business licenses.

Further, he says he could devise algorithmic solutions to dealing with privacy issues like bad spelling and raw language. But he meets resistance.

“The trend in the law is fairly robust when it comes to access for the public,” said Eve Burton, vice president and general counsel for the Hearst Corporation. “But the practice among those implementing the laws is less good, and media companies are no longer putting the time, energy and resources into being the watchdog of government.”

If government wanted to live up to its obligations, technology could make everything from crime reports to restaurant inspections available. But instead, the cat-and-mouse game will continue, with government preferring secrecy and the likes of Mr. Holovaty banging on doors, or at least their data servers.

  1. overkill I know, but what can I say, I adore collecting information []
  2. for non-Chicagoans []
  3. news, photos, real estate transactions, city permits, whatever []


“The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name” (Toby Lester)

Since his name came up in a book I’m reading12 called The Fourth Part of the World

Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Jabir ibn Sinan ar-Raqqi al-Harrani as-Sabi al-Batani (Arabic محمد بن جابر بن سنان البتاني `Abū `Abd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Jābir ibn Sinān ar-Raqqī al-Ḥarrānī aṣ-Ṣābi` al-Battānī c. 858, Harran – 929, Qasr al-Jiss, near Samarra) Latinized as Albategnius, Albategni or Albatenius was an Arab astronomer, astrologer, and mathematician, born in Harran near Urfa, which is now in Turkey. His epithet as-Sabi suggests that among his ancestry were members of the Sabian sect; however, his full name affirms that he was Muslim.

One of his best-known achievements in astronomy was the determination of the solar year as being 365 days, 5 hours, 46 minutes and 24 seconds.
His work, the Zij influenced great European astronomers like Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, etc. Nicholas Copernicus repeated what Al-Battani wrote nearly 700 years before him as the Zij was translated into Latin thrice.
The modern world has paid him homage and named a region of the moon Albategnius after him.

Al Battani worked in Syria, at ar-Raqqah and at Damascus, where he died. He was able to correct some of Ptolemy’s results and compiled new tables of the Sun and Moon, long accepted as authoritative, discovered the movement of the Sun’s apogee, treated the division of the celestial sphere, and introduced, probably independently of the 5th century Indian astronomer Aryabhata, the use of sines in calculation, and partially that of tangents, forming the basis of modern trigonometry. He also calculated the values for the precession of the equinoxes (54.5″ per year, or 1° in 66 years) and the inclination of Earth’s axis (23° 35′). He used a uniform rate for precession in his tables, choosing not to adopt the theory of trepidation attributed to his colleague Thabit ibn Qurra.

His most important work is his zij, or set of astronomical tables, known as al-Zīj al-Sābī with 57 chapters, which by way of Latin translation as De Motu Stellarum by Plato Tiburtinus (Plato of Tivoli) in 1116 (printed 1537 by Melanchthon, annotated by Regiomontanus), had great influence on European astronomy. The zij is based on Ptolemy’s theory, showing little Indian influence. A reprint appeared at Bologna in 1645. Plato’s original manuscript is preserved at the Vatican; and the Escorial Library possesses in manuscript a treatise by Al Battani on astronomical chronology.

[Click to continue reading Muhammad ibn Jābir al-Harrānī al-Battānī – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]

Al-Battani’s book, On the Science of the Stars, apparently discusses

the system proposed by Bartholomeus and confirmed by the ancients, in which the places and regions of the world are noted according to latitude and longitude.

  1. on my iPad, if you are curious []
  2. thanks to a tip by phule []

Reading Around on March 13th through March 15th

A few interesting links collected March 13th through March 15th:

  • Deep Discounts on Maria Pinto, Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic – Frugalista – Photo by swanksalot, used via Creative Commons license.
  • Busy Soccer Scene Despite Looming Strike – LAist – Photo by swanksalot

    Major League Soccer made history this past week, but for all the wrong reasons. Frustrated by the lack of progress towards a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between themselves and the league, MLS players overwhelmingly voted in favor of a strike. Through their vote, players have essentially told MLS that if an agreement is not reached by March 25th, clubs shouldn’t expect to see them in their respective locker room

  • 449 – “Great Party Place, Wisconsin”, or: America’s Beer Belly « Strange Maps

    – This map represents localised references in the Google Maps directory to either grocery stores or bars. Yellow shading indicates that there are more references to grocery stores than bars at that particular location. Red indicates more references to bars.
    Yellow is generally prevalent in most of the US; one can assume that there are more grocery stores than drinking establishments in those areas. But red dots, where bars outnumber grocery stores, are dominant in a few very particular regions:
    The aforementioned party state, Wisconsin. The dotting corresponds quite closely with the Wisconsin state line, turning yellow again where northwestern Wisconsin transforms into Michigan’s northern peninsula.
    North Dakota is also heavily bar-oriented, as are significant parts of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Kansas and – ironically – Iowa.
    Illinois is also a mainly ‘red’ state, with the notable exception of Chicagoland, on the southern shore of Lake Michigan.

Reading Around on January 1st through January 3rd

A few interesting links collected January 1st through January 3rd:

  • Daily Kos: State of the Nation – Remember the Naughts – Don’t forget the naughts, because this decade, no matter what anyone on the right might say, was conservatism on trial. You want less taxes? You got less taxes. You want less regulation? You got less regulation. Open markets? Wide open. An illusuion of security in place of rights? Hey, presto. Think we should privatize war by handing unlimited power given to military contractors so they can kick butt and take names? Kiddo, we passed out boots and pencils by the thousands. Everything, everything, that ever showed up on a drooled-over right wing wish list got implemented — with a side order of Freedom Fries.They will try to disown it, and God knows if I was responsible for this mess I’d be disowning it, too. But the truth is that the conservatives got everything they wanted in the decade just past, everything that they’ve claimed for forty years would make America “great again”. They didn’t fart around with any “red dog Republicans.”
  • Ptak Science Books: Mapping the Invasion of America, 1942 – The following maps appeared in a two-page spread, detailing ways in which the Axis powers could combine their efforts, focus on America, and take over the country. Maps such as these with arrows being drawn towards America were absolutely uncommon during this time.
  • d r i f t g l a s s: “…if Christ is Not Risen – Sometimes he had to pee, but did it fountain-like, leaning backwards out the bathroom door limbo-style it with one ear cocked for the brrrring…and never flushed or washed his furry little paws for fear the white noise of running water would drown out the sound of Opportunity Calling…which is also why he hadn’t done laundry for a month, and why his sink was piled with sticky, old dishes.

    And so, as he sat in his stink, panic closing slowly over him as a tiny voice whispered to him that The Call wasn’t coming — that he was finally facing a long-overdue oblivion which would have engulfed him 20 years before in a Better Universe — Jokeline decided to take matters into his own hands, and do the one thing GUARANTEED according to the ancient and sacred rules of his lodge to earn him the approbation of the douchebag gatekeepers standing between him and the warm, healing light of the teevee cameras.

    Punching some imaginary hippies for nonexistent crimes.

Reading Around on December 6th through December 7th

A few interesting links collected December 6th through December 7th:

  • “Do I have the right to refuse this search?” | Homeland Security Watch – TSA Terrorism Theater is a Joke, and not the 911 kind1 “Within the last few months, I have been singled out for “additional screening” roughly half the time I step into an airport security line. On Friday, October 9, as I stepped out of the full-body scanning device at BWI, I decided I needed more information to identify why it is that I have become such an appealing candidate for secondary screening.

    Little did I know this would be only the first of many questions I now have regarding my airport experiences.

    Over these last few months, I have grown increasingly frustrated with what I view as an unjustifiable intrusion on my privacy. It was not so much the search (then) as it was the embarrassment of being singled out, effectively being told “You are different,” but getting no explanation as to why.”

  • Mark the Spot: Tell AT&T where the iPhone sucks – Well now there is an electronic version of that crosswalk button for me to push whenever my signal degrades. This app, free in the App Store lets you pinpoint your location when the call was dropped. Expect a good constellation of points around my house
  • Oxford American – The Southern Magazine of Good Writing :: Ode to a Pecan Pie – The pecan pie has been on the Brigtsen’s menu for all twenty-three years of the restaurant’s history. It is evidence of Brigtsen’s broader philosophy.

    “I wanted it to be just that: a classic Southern dessert. I am not out to change the world with my food. I am not out to reinvent the wheel. I’m only here to make people happy. And whatever it takes to do that is my goal. I also believe that just because something is one hundred years old or twenty-three years old doesn’t mean it isn’t good anymore.”

  1. or the 9/11 kind []

Reading Around on November 18th through November 19th

A few interesting links collected November 18th through November 19th:

  • North Branch Railroad Bridge Chicago and North Western Railroad Northwestern Historic Bascule Bridge – Sitting south of the Kinzie Street Bridge, this railroad bridge is always in the up position and is no longer used by trains. …On aesthetic terms, this strange movable bridge is one of only a few bascule bridges in Chicago where the counterweight is above the ground. Like the Lakeshore Drive Bridge, this bascule set records when it was built. At the time of its completion, it was the heaviest as well as the longest bascule leaf in the world! The bridge was built in 1907, with its design being provided by Joseph Strauss, who was an important person who worked to develop the bascule bridge designs, and would often be angry at Chicago since he felt the designs the city was using were to close to his patented designs. The steel superstructure was fabricated by the Toledo-Massillon Bridge Company of Toledo, Ohio. This rail-line was owned by the Chicago and North Western Railway until Union Pacific bought them out in 1995
  • Senators’ Statements — National Geographic Magazine – “To help kick off Geography Awareness Week, National Geographic invited all 100 U.S. Senators to draw a map of their home state from memory and to label at least three important places. Here’s the gallery of maps from the brave Senators who took the challenge. The maps reveal home-state pride, personal history, and even some geographic humor.” Some Senators link everything to their own history, some link to the history of the state itself.
  • Foodie Rant – Properly Sauced? Try Properly Ripped Off. – Chicagoist – Sometimes, one expects to be overcharged. If you’re having a drink at the Signature Room, you’re renting space at the top of the world. If you order a martini at Charlie Trotters, you probably don’t care about the price. On the other hand, when I walk into an average 2-star restaurant and get charged $14 for a martini, I want to go beat the bartender over the head with a bottle. If the martini is bad, as it often is, the situation deteriorates. A decent $14 cocktail is a mild insult; a bad $14 cocktail is a slap in the face.
  • This American Life-307: In the Shadow of the City – Act Three. Yes, In My Backyard.

    The story of the government cracking down on smokestack emissions at a city factory … even though the residents LIKE the emissions. We hear from Jorge Just, who explains the one, magical, special secret about Chicago no one outside Chicago ever believes is true, from Brian Urbaszewski, Director of Environmental Health Programs for the American Lung Association in Chicago; and from Julie Armitage, Manager of Compliance and Enforcement for the Bureau of Air at the Illinois State EPA. (9 minutes)

  • Ebook statistics | swanksalot | LibraryThing – ebooks available – much more than anticipated, many of them free, public domain books. If you are a Library Thing member, this link will link to your bookshttp://www.librarything.com/profile/MEMBERNAME/stats/ebooks