From Paradise to Nowhere

We are now in Quepos, after catching a water taxi from Montezuma to Jaco this morning and then finding a bus to bring us down the coast. We are planning to catch a bus this evening to take us down to Uvita, which get us close to our goal of being on the Osa Peninsula by Monday.

Montezuma was, in one word, amazing. I’ve been few places closer to paradise. Clear running waterfalls that slip into a crashing sea over tan sand. Cool sea breezes and plenty of shade on the beach to defeat the sun, which we hadn’t seen in Costa Rica until we arrived in Montezuma.

We didn’t take any tours there, just chilled. Like New Zealand last year, I believe that our photos of the area won’t approach its true beauty. No wonder so many folks spend longer than expect in Montezuma.

Check out more photos of Montezuma here

Trying to Dry Out in a Cloud Forest

The past few days have been eventful. Yesterday, we attempted to walk to a waterfall outside of La Fortuna, only be completely soaked by several downpours while we walked the 7 KM, uphill (occasionally against a 10% grade), only to discover that the waterfall was really only so-so. And we paid $14 to just get into the waterfall, only to take a couple of pictures and leave. It wasn’t worth the walk down to the pool to swim and then the steep walk back up. I think New Zealand last year really spoiled us concerning waterfalls. Anyway, despite the challenges of the walk, the scenery was beautiful and almost made the whole thing worth it. Almost.

Kath and truk at Lake Arenal

In the afternoon, after changing out of our wet clothes, we took the jeep-boat-jeep, well, actually, van-boat-van connection to go from La Fortuna to Santa Elena, just beside Monteverde. The trip was uneventful but very beautiful, including a spectacular sunset as we neared Santa Elena, the first one we had seen since leaving Memphis. Yes, it has been that cloudy. And wet.

Sunset when nearing Monteverde

Today started with a cup of extremely good coffee at the Treetop Cafe, which is a restaurant on the main street in Santa Elena built around a massive tropical tree, which covers the entire structure. It really feels like you are a kid in a tree house. I’ve been in several places like this, especially in Australia, but I’ve never seen it done this well before.

Next, we headed off to a Don Juan Coffee Plantation tour. Kath and I usually hit wineries when we are traveling, but there really isn’t anything like that here. What is here, however, and all over the place, are coffee plants. Our guide, Marcos, stepped us through the entire process, from how they germinate the plants, nurse them, fertilize them, and pick them. Then, we saw the coffee beans removed and left to dry, natural-style, in the sun, and then moved all of the way to the roasting process. We had no idea how involved the entire process is, nor did we understand that is traditionally done on a such a small scale, including only 1 or 2 hectares of coffee plants for one coffee company. It left us with the impression that much of the best coffee never leaves the area, much less the country.

Riding the oxen cart on the coffee tour

This afternoon, we went walking in what is called a “hanging bridges” tour, which takes place in a cloud forest outside of town. While suspension bridges are involved, this is really just a hike, albeit a very pretty one, through an area that stays permanently wet, at least for 200 days a year. It rained the entire time we were on the hike, so most of the animals we would normally have been able to see showed more sense than we did and stayed hidden away and at least partially dry. The walk was enjoyable, but after a while, the lack of sunshine just starts playing tricks on your mind. Our camera really had trouble with the lighting. I think it may have been one of the most difficult places to take a clear photo that I’ve ever seen. The foggy conditions played havok on the autofocus.

Tomorrow, we are going to take a taxi to a different cloud forest and walk our way back to Santa Elena, visiting various places along the way. While it should be a good time, we are both looking forward to heading to Montezuma and the sunny coast and away from the rain.

View more of our photos of Monteverde

They Don’t Call It a Rain Forest for Nothing

Even though it is currently at the end of the rainy season in Costa Rica, it has been pouring almost relentlessly since we got to Fortuna. The clouds around the volcano have been so heavy that it has been difficult to figure out where the volcano actually is, much less check out the mouth and see any lava or steam. Regardless, we’ve been having a great time.

Katherine waiting for the tour to get going again

Yesterday was a big day, starting with a boat tour down the Rio Frio from Canas Negro and ending up at border with Nicaragua. We saw dozens of varieties of birds, including Amazonian kingfishers, wood storks, and several types of white herons. There were lotsof other creatures without wings about, too, including many turtles, a few Jesus lizards, and little crocs. Monkeys where in several of the trees, including an albino howler monkey, apparently pretty rare. We also saw some gigantic iguanas hanging out in some trees below a bridge, with the males bright orange as they get ready for the mating season. (They return to their standard green-brown afterward.) It rained most of the trip, but the sky let up on us when it mattered most, like when we disembarked for a picnic lunch.

Some big, male iguanas hanging out

In the afternoon, we hiked up the side of Volcan Arenal to the site of the 1992 eruption, which destroyed a side of the volcano and left a massive lava rock (well, boulder) field in its wake. This was the first place where I heard avalanche refering to something other than snow. The 1968 eruption destroyed a town nearby, and the government used the lava rocks from that eruption to build a dam to create Lake Arenal, which provides the entire region (including parts of Panama and Nicaragua) with electricity. Talk about making lemonade out of lemons!

truk and kath at Lake Arenal

We ended the day at a hot springs resort called Baldi, where the water is heated by the volcano, which apparently could blow again at any time. (The last eruption was in 2003.) While we didn’t get to see the volcano’s top, we definitely heard it rumble while we were at the bath. It sounded like very ominous thunder. Baldi was great, with definitely the hottest water that we’ve ever seen at a hot springs resort. Some of the baths were close to 160 degrees…

Baldi has hotter water than that around this cayman

Today, we are heading to Monteverde, which is across Lake Arenal and on the other side of the volcano. To get there, we have to take a jeep, then a boat across the lake, and then another jeep into town. We were going to take horses from the lake into Santa Elana (near Monteverde), but we are going to save our horseback riding for the cloud forests in the area. Also, with all of the rain lately, the route would have been treacherous.

More photos of this portion of the Costa Rica trip can be seen here

Livin’ La Pura Vida

Thanks to the wonderful accommodation at my job, plus the Lamberts, who are watching our dogs, and John for taking us to the airport (way too) early in the morning, Katherine and I find ourselves in Costa Rica, struggling with our Spanish and trying to stay dry at the end of the rainy season.

Katherine after enjoying her first gallo pinto,
the “Tipical Food” in Costa Rica

We flew into San Jose yesterday and immediately remembered why we haven’t spent much time in big Latin American cities. Right after leaving the airport, we were put on the wrong bus and, after getting off the right bus, we were almost robbed. (Someone got our backpack pouch open, but we got away from them before they could take anything.) Last night was not restful, as we picked a hotel near the bus we would be taking today, but that also meant it was a main drag. Oh, and across the street from a really loud nightclub.

Today (Monday) has been much better. We made our morning bus for La Fortuna, which is about 6km from Volcan Arenal, a big volcano that promises to spit lava at us when we assault its trails, sometime tomorrow. We are also planning to check out the local hot springs and maybe take in a river nature cruise.

The park in the center of La Fortuna

Right now, we are just taking it easy, trying to get into the “tico” (what Costa Ricans call themselves) way of life, which really appears pretty laid back. There is a lot of lounging around going on here, which is really what a vacation is all about anyway, isn’t it?

Panoramas and Memories

I just found a great cache of panorama images, submitted by photographers from all over the world. I especially like the Prague images:

(Note: All of these panoramas require Quicktime be installed on your system and available for use by your web browser. If they don’t load, then you probably need to just install iTunes, which will install it all for you automatically.)

My friend Dave and I bought some equipment to develop black-and-white photos while we were in Prague in 1994-95. Amazingly, the store where we bought our equipment is a subject of one of the panoramic photos.

Urban Wolf River Kayaking

Kath and I went to a great chili cook-off on Saturday afternoon and then struggled to get everything ready for the party we threw that night. The party went out without too much trouble, but we had waaaaay too much food left over, and we didn’t float the keg on the first try.

I didn’t get to bed that night until 3 AM (after going to bed at 4 AM the night before), and then I got up Sunday at 7:15 AM for an event we’ve been (barely) planning for a couple of months: a float down the Wolf River all the way across Memphis and into the Mississippi River.

The Wolf River is one of the most important river systems in west Tennessee, winding its way from north Mississippi, and slowly draining to the west after crossing the state line, eventually ending up in the outer suburbs of Shelby County until turning north and then west again for the end of its journey.

I’ve floated the Ghost River section of the Wolf twice before, starting with the Halloween float done last year with Frank. (The Wolf River Conservancy is making another trip on October 29th, and I highly recommend it, even for inexperienced paddlers.) The section we floated on Sunday is totally different than the sections between Moscow and Rossville: urban, shallow, wide, sandy, and mostly clear.

The group consisted of Frank Campagna, Richie Trenthem (the whole thing was his idea), Robert Bell, Jesse Blumenfeld, and me. We put in at Covington Pike and started immediately passing landmarks that we recognized, from the railroad bridge near Kennedy Park to the Jackson Avenue overpass.

Along the way, we discovered a big island in the middle of the river (which is clearly visable on Google Maps) and wondered exactly how many dozens of ATVs were in the woods on either side of us. Most of the river was very shallow, and it was difficult to locate the deepest channel most of the time. We were constantly having to get out of the kayaks and drag them in the channel to continue floating downstream.

We were surprised by the large variety of wildlife we saw, including at least one beaver (or otter), several huge blue herons, dozens of kingfishers, and quite a few fish. (One even jumped into the kayak at the end of the trip.) Amazingly, we only saw two or three structures during the entire trip, even though the Wolf bisects a city of over 1 million people. And we saw no other boats of any kind. The few folks up on the banks or under the bridges thought we were nuts…

As we neared the Mississippi River, the current on the Wolf slowed, and we had to paddle to make any progress (the river was up 2 feet, supposedly, and this kept the water from moving). Upon reaching the mouth, we headed out into the Mississippi and then down river until we got around the tip of Mud Island and then headed back up the Wolf River Lagoon, finally arriving at the Harbor Town Marina a little over 6 hours after setting out.

All in all, it was very enjoyable trip and one I hope to make again in the future, hopefully in the spring, when the water is a bit higher.

I’ve posted some photos and additional details of the trip here. Thanks to all of the guys for a great day…

Jeff and Katy are in London, and the Family Circus Makes the Most Sense when Written by Nietzsche

First, we have to get the most rediculous claim out of the way: The Family Circus makes the most sense when the text written to accompany the artwork is actually quotes by Nietzsche. Don’t believe me? Well, check out this site:

Now, I know that Family Circus rip-offs are nothing new, but if you click the Refresh link to get a new comic and read through a few, it all, surprisingly, makes sense.

If you haven’t read in a while, definitely check it out. Jeff and Katy are in London (for some period of time), and Jeff is blogging about their adventures. Even through we are headed to Costa Rica soon, I sure wish I could be in London now. I’ve never had the good fortune to visit the UK.

In other news, Kath and I really enjoyed our trip to Coralville, Iowa, which is just north of Iowa City, last weekend. We visited with my brother and his family. Jacob sure is cute.

Jaymie and April were wonderful hosts, and the weather was wonderful. I found Iowa pretty interesting, haven’t never visited before. It seems like the kind of place where planned suburbia actually works, unlike most places I’ve visited and lived.

Oh, and we got to navigate a corn maze! (It is harder than it sounds, or maybe the difficulty of our maze was pretty high compared to others; I have no comparison.) Click here for some photos of our trip taken by Jaymie and April. Update [October 12]: I finally got around to posting our photos of the trip.

Lastly, my birthday was a week or so ago, and some friends posted some photos of me, some of which are over 12 years old now. Yikes… Enjoy!

truk in Prague, Fall 1994

Jeff and truk leaving for Prague, August 1994

Know Exactly How Evil You Are?

Curious about how evil you are but never had an automated way to find out? Well, check out the Gematriculator:

You can type in a website URL or just paste in some text and immediately find out just how evil that website or text is using the “infallible” methods of Gematria developed by Mr. Ivan Panin. Gematria is extremely complicated, but it involves searching for patterns throughout text that can be converted to numbers and then summing the “good” numbers to see how many there are in ratio to “bad” number.

Yeah, it’s pretty kooky. But it’s all in good fun.

Or is it? 😉

This “utility” was brought to you by the same folks that developed the Kill Everyone project. Basically, on that site, you click a button to kill people. Well, virtually. One mouse click = one dead virtual person. They are nearing the actual population of the Earth, and everyone is in a race to be the person to click, eh, kill the last person on Earth.

Browse the Swarm

Previous Trivia Answer: Muhammad Ali.

Tired of finding the best website via user-submitted websites like Digg or Metafilter? Wanting more of a raw approach to finding sites that various people are visiting all around the world? Well, check out The Swarm:

This is a website where you can see what sites people are visiting at the time they are visiting them. An image of the site is provided so that you don’t have to click through to view the content unless you are really curious about a particular page. If you don’t like Flash, a text-only Swarm page is available.

Of course, there are a lot of lemons in there, as well as they occasional porn site, though Swarm browsers usually set those to be blocked pretty quickly. The more a site is visited, the closer it gets to the center of The Swarm and the more people see it. Go to The Swarm homepage to read more about it.

All of this works via a Firefox extension that anyone running Firefox as their web browser can load and use to contribute sites they browse automatically to the Swarm. (And you should be running Firefox for all web browsing if you use Windows, at the very least for your protection.) The more people that run the extension, the more sites they can find and rank, and the more interesting things we can find on the Web.

I’ve already found a site that I probably wouldn’t have found without it: Pjotro, the Man with the Musical Suit.

Combining Motion with Location, After the Fact

Previous Trivia Answer: 16th Amendment.

New Trivia Question: What famous athlete once said, “Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.” ?

OK, I’ve been pretty busy since August 2nd, way too busy to post on this site. Hopefully, things will get less busy over the next few weeks.

The Campus Technology 2006 conference in Boston was very interesting. The digital asset management panel I was on went well, and I appreciated Scott Siddall for the chance to talk about how Rhodes College has elected to store and describe digital objects. I also enjoyed meeting James Shulman and Greg Zick; their opening remarks were very interesting.

This is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a while. It’s a mash-up between Google Maps and Google Video, where you can follow a Ferrari around Paris at very high speeds from a video and overhead mapping perspective:

Eight minutes or so well spent.

Talking Tech in Beantown

Previous Trivia Answer: Hydrogen, helium, and lithium. (Sounds like an explosive, light, mellow experience.)

Today’s Trivia Question: Which amendment to the US Constitution allowed for a federal income tax?

I’ve neglected to mention in the past couple of postings what I am doing in Boston. I am attending the Campus Technology 2006 conference, which used to be known as the Syllabus conference. After sitting back, taking notes, and occasionally asking questions for a couple of days, I will be part of a panel discussion tomorrow morning that will focus on digital asset management and various software tools available for digital archiving.

Scott Siddall, from Denison University, is moderating the panel and graciously asked me to participate, so that I can explain how we are using Fedora, an open source digital asset management system, with the Crossroads to Freedom project currently underway at Rhodes College. James Shulman, the Executive Director of ARTstor, and Greg Zick, the President of DiMeMa, Inc., the maker of the CONTENTdm digital collection management software, are also part of the panel.

I’ve got a lot to say on this subject. I hope I don’t embarrass myself.

Bukowski’s in Boston

Previous Trivia Answer: Nintendo.

Today’s Trivia Question: What are the first three elements on the periodic table?

Bukowskis in BostonRarely does an establishment named in honor of an individual live up to that person’s stature in life, and rarer still is that same establishment truly symbolically linked to that person. (Monuments are another story.)

Bukowski’s Tavern in Boston bucks this trend. I found this gem just a half-block from my hotel, and expecting something mildly disappointing and not worthy of a visit from Henry Chinaski. Boy, was I wrong.

OK, the place really is a dive. I think every scrap of the inside of the place is painted black, and it’s pretty dark after the sun goes down. However, you aren’t here to take in the decor. This place is all about the beer. The kegs are local (with a lot of all over New England), microbrews, and fresh, and the staff really takes the time to clean the lines during every keg change. They also have a great selection of bottled beers from all over the world. And don’t even try to stump the bartender with trivia questions; they’ll school ya.

If you find yourself in the Back Bay area of Boston with a good book and raging thrist, do what Charles Bukowski would do: Make your way to Bukowski’s Tavern and order a $3 Pabst Blue Ribbon draft. Then have a better beer, like a Berkshire Lost Sailor IPA. And another. And another.

The Real Star Spangled Banner?

Previous Trivia Answer: Noel Redding.

Today’s Trivia Question: Famicom is the Japanese version of what brand name?

I got to see my first Major League Baseball game in-person tonight. You would think that guy from Tennessee, someone who has walked the sands of Central Asia and the Nullarbor Plains in Australia, wouldn’t see his first MLB game as all that important, but it was. Partially for how it ended, but I will get to that.

I was in Boston on business for the day, and I was enjoying the view from the 22nd story window of my hotel, when I noticed some blazing lights in the distance, not far from where some clouds had gone down only a few minutes before. I quickly realized that a Red Sox game must be going on several blocks away, so I took the elevator to the ground floor, dodged the taxis, and made my way to the general location of the stadium.

I arrived only 30 minutes into the game and then gave John Stephany a call, since he was the only person I know would appreciate the fact that I was standing outside of Fenway while the Bo Sox where in a close race for the playoffs.

While leaning against the wall of Fenway and taking to John, I suddenly realized I was in a line to buy tickets. I waited until I got to the front and realized that I was in some sort of cancer survivor line that had formed around me while I was on the phone. The ticket guy quickly realized I wasn’t dying of anything right away (at least, not yet), so he let me pay the full fare for the cheapest ticket: $45.

And it was worth it. The game was back and forth through the first 5 innings, and then everything got quiet until the 9th. In the bottom of the 9th, the Boston fan started feeling it. You know: it. They started clapping with every batter, chanting with every chance at the plate, all until there were 2 men on, and then the atmosphere was electric.

Then, David Ortiz came to the plate for the Red Sox, and then everything fell in place. After a few foul balls, Ortiz hit one just to the right of the Green Monster and into the history books.

The crowd lost it. Everyone was hugging everyone around them. The guys behind me, which had been trying to figure out who was going to be hit with foul ball next throughout the whole game, started lifting everyone in a 3-seat radius up over their heads in a bear hug, elated over the outcome. Liberals hi-fived conservatives. Suburbanites shook hands with city dwellers. Someone threw beer on me.

All was right with the world.

Neighborhood Texture Jam = Show Not to be Missed

Previous Trivia Answer: Woodrow Wilson.

Today’s Trivia Question: Who was the bassist for the Jimi Hendrix Experience?

Right after the Chess Club (CD release show), I headed over to the NTJ gig at the Hi Tone. I only heard about the show because Doug Walker, the instrumentalist for Chess Club, told me about it; otherwise, I was heading home.

For those that are dead, or just don’t visit this site a lot, I’m a big fan of Neighborhood Texture Jam. They are not only a band from my youth (I stumbled into their first album release party, for Funeral Mountain), but NTJ is also a band from the annuls of Memphis alt rock/punk history. I think I will have a serious conversation 50 years from now about what it was like to Joe Lapsley and the boys, and I will have to wax eloquent for hours on end.

For free beers, of course.

OK, if you want to see photos of what I am talking about, check out the images available here.

Still with me? Good.

I actually overheard a conversation with Joe before the show. He was pumped for it, in the same confident, yet true, way an artist may approach his piece. He was wearing what looked to be a rented tux, and the nightstick in the cumberbund made immediate sense.

NTJ performed a rock opera for the first 35 minute. The 1st act was about the racial riots in Philly in the early-70s. A chorus from a song in the 1st act went something like: “We know know to get the job done; nightstick in the cumberbund.” Did I mention that Joe had a nightstick in the cumberbund of his tux.

The 2nd act had something do to with an Oedipal complex, but I couldn’t be sure.

The 3rd act featured a 7-foot model Japanese carrier and Joe singing an entire song while poking his eyes out with sharpened drum sticks and using blood bags for effect. The very last song involved Joe singing it as a ghost, hidden under a white lace sheet, atoning for his sins and wishing all of us to avoid them.

After the rock opera, Joe said, slowly into the mic, “Thank you for listening. Now we will play our entire regular show.” He then immediately changed into a Manhole shirt (club from Chicago), and NTJ played an entire show, even more intense than usual.

All in all, a magical evening.

Chess Club Does Rock

Previous Trivia Answer: Philadelphia (strangely enough)

Today’s Trivia Question: Which U.S. president is on the $100,000 bill?

I went to the Chess Club CD release party for A Generation of Pleasure Seekers last night at Neil’s. You normally couldn’t drag me kicking and screaming into Neil’s, which is strange, because it is only of the only bars in Midtown Memphis that I just do not enjoy visiting. I think it comes from the fact that it used to be a restaurant and wasn’t converted very well to a bar. Or maybe it is their frustrating sign outside that you have to look at every time you are stopped at the Madison-McLean stoplight that reads “Free Beer Tomorrow”. They really shouldn’t tease hot and thirsty Memphis drivers in the middle of July.

I work with one of the members of Chess Club, co-founder and keys-vocalist Doug Walker, but that isn’t enough to make me see over a dozen of their shows over the past three years. There is just something in their music that is infectious. You don’t sit around craving it, but when it comes on, it pulls you somewhere else. In a lot of ways, it is like a French movie or taking in an excellent art gallery. When the show is over, you’re glad you went, you’ve changed in a way difficult to quantify, and you can’t figure out how they pulled off what they did.

A Generation of Pleasure Seekers is Chess Club’s first real record. They’ve released singles before, as well as a self-produced EP, but the new album is the real deal. Produced by Jeff Powell at Young Avenue Sound, it is evident that everyone put in a lot of hours getting everything just right. The production really lifted up the masterful, yet quirky, songwriting of Doug and guitar-lead-vocalist Jason Barnett. On songs like the melodic, catchy Leche Marron, the thoughtful Boy On a Bicycle, and the Chess Club classics, such as Hey!, Hardcore Pink Hearts, and Apes, the album gives the group just a few milliseconds of clean, pure silence throughout the songs to pull the listener back into the flow of the music. I wouldn’t call it “cleaning up the songs,” but the end result is a smooth, yet textured, sonic tapestry that makes you pay attention.

Chess Club would probably be classified by most as pop, but like most labels, this one doesn’t stick well. Check them out on iTunes and see what I’m talking about. Speaking of iTunes, A Generation of Pleasure Seekers should be available there soon, but the Chess Club EP is available there now (search for “Chess Club”). The new album should be available at record stores throughout Memphis (and hopefully beyond) this week.


Previous Trivia Answer: Chattanooga.

Today’s Trivia Question: What city in the United States has the greatest number of breweries?

Other than the Google Maps API, I’ve also been messing with Subversion (software used to automatically version and manage content, such as source code or web page objects) and Eclipse (an integrated development environment – basically, software used to help write software, though it can do a lot more). Today, I found a really useful document from IBM discussing, step-by-step, how to use Subversion inside of Eclipse.

Now, if they could just release a Mac Intel production release of Eclipse…

Kath got me some presents for our anniversary, including some very cool shirts (the girl has great taste, what can I say?) and a present that showed up yesterday: a 1 GB iPod Shuffle. (I didn’t get her anything – I am totally lame. I’ve been so busy lately that, while I didn’t forget about the anniversary, I just didn’t dedicate any time to working up a surprise present for her.) This is a reasonably good review of the Shuffle, one that I agree with.

I really have mixed feelings about the Shuffle. On positive side, it is lightweight, has no moving parts, is extremely small, can also be used to store non-music data files, inexpensive (I won’t feel terrible if I break/lose it), has great sound quality, and is very simple to operate. On the negative side, I’m slipping more and more into the Apple DRM nightmare, which ultimately will lead to a more confusing and controlled audio future. I already have hundreds of AAC files which, while they are not DRMed, force me to use a particuar advanced audio compression algorithm that is far from my first choice (AAC over, say, OGG). That is because, by default, the Shuffle, like all iPods, is restricted to playing only a limited number of audio file formats, including MP3, AAC, Apple’s own DRMed AAC, and some lossless formats).

Oh, well. There’s only so much I can do about that. However, something else does bug me about the iPod: that I have to use iTunes to get songs onto or off of it. I think that moving songs onto or off of the Shuffle should be as easy as just copying them from my computer’s hard drive to the Shuffle without any extra software. Thankfully, there does appear to be an answer for that. I’m thinking I’m giving the iPod Shuffle Database application a try. It allows you to copy your iPod-compatible audio files to the Shuffle without using iTunes and run a quick program to update the database used by the Shuffle to keep up with its songs.

Then again, I may wait for a while, just to see how annoying using iTunes is to move songs. Maybe I’m just making a mountain out of a molehill.

Google Maps and Geocoding

Previous Trivia Answer: 4. (From Wolfram Mathworld: A trapezoid is a quadrilateral with two sides parallel.)
Today’s Trivia Question: Which US city has the largest fresh water aquarium in the world?

I’ve been playing around quite a bit lately with the Google Maps API, using it to render Google maps, via HTML inline tags, inside websites I’ve been building. Suffice to say, like a lot of other stuff Google has made available to the, well, geek masses, I am really impressed with the power and flexibility of the tool. After getting a Google Maps API Key (currently free and required to use the Google Maps API to render your own maps) and reading the documentation (with its excellent examples), you can actually start creating custom maps right away and tying them into your existing location data.

Of course, I am a little concerned about the way this ties my various sites to Google, but I figure that, if you want to have this functionality, you are going to have to deal with someone. It might as well as a company with a slogan like “Do no evil.” (Seriously, that is one of the 10 things Google has found to be true and is part of its corporate philosophy.)

Recently, Google unveiled the ability to use its Maps API to do geocoding, which is the process of using non-longitude/latitude data (such as street addresses, zip codes, whatever) to get highly accurate geographical coordinates (essentially, longitude and latitude). I’m not sure if Yahoo Maps API offering geocoding to web developers was what pushed them to do it, but basically, the change allows programmers to programmatically look up locations and cache the geographical coordinates, which can be used to quickly retrieve future maps (retrieving a map is faster if you submit specific geographical coordinates over using address data, another few people think in terms of longitude/latitude; most people deal more with place names, addresses, and such).

it is really facinating to watch the intense competition going on between Google, Yahoo, and to a lesser degree, Microsoft, while they battle for the mindshare of web developers and programmers. Google definitely tends toward trying to get programmers on their side, by providing the greatest flexibility in how the underlying technology and infrastructure can be used. Yahoo has selected less technically-oriented web developers as their key customers, and they are focused more on making AJAX and Flash-based sites easier to integrate with Yahoo services. Microsoft… well, Microsoft is still really developing a strategy, but it appears to involve a close tie-in with existing Windows platform-based tools, like Visual Studio or Frontpage. Basically, you may, in the future, be able to get up a dynamic map in your Frontpage-built, IIS-served, .NET-powered web page simply by selecting that object in VS .Net. Woopie.

Photos Made Up of Other Photos

Previous Trivia Answer: Butter.
Today’s Trivia Question: How many sides does a trapezoid have?

One of the most fascinating things I’ve found on the Internet in the past couple of weeks is actually a new Getty Images (viral marketing) technique to get you to look at their photo collection (which is available, for a price, to be used in marketing materials or whatever). Check out Light, which puts you in a virtual environment to fly around and zoom into images to reveal even more images, and Information, which lets you continously zoom into an image until you have actually revealed another image, which you can then zoom into again.

(Both of these sites require Adobe Shockwave to be installed on your computer, which is a cousin to Flash, a widely-installed web plug-in. If you use Firefox as a web browser (and you should), you may need to install Shockwave manually, but you really need to have that plug in anyway.)

As you play with either of these sites, you will find out that the shading used in each of the images naturally decides the images from the collection used to make up that shading. After a while, you can start to predict the images that will appear once you have zoomed into a particular level. Still, it is pretty cool to be able to zoom into picture and see other images. Kinda reminds me of that Simpsons intro that zooms into Homer’s head, though atoms and then universes and ends up back at Homer’s head again. Anyone remember which season and show that was?

They Called It a Streak…

Previous Trivia Answer: Pete Sampras
Today’s Trivia Question: In a diner, when someone asks for “axle grease,” what are they asking for?

The Evil Petting Zoo streak is over. We had more than 6 people show up to play on the team last night for the P&H Trivia Tuesday, and so we split into two teams of 4, with one time taking the Evil Petting Zoo name, and the other team calling itself Evil Petting Zoo East (I played on that team). Well, long story short, we really ended up splitting the best trivia talent, and as a result, we both barely missed placing.

The streak consisted of at least placing (coming in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd) during each of the past 10 weeks. That means that you needed to go back to end of April to find a week where we weren’t in the money.

Oh, well. I guess it is time to start building a new streak!

A Lack of Value

Previous Trivia Answer: Brazil (which is the answer to just about any World Cup question)

Today’s Trivia Question: What men’s tennis player has won the most Grand Slam titles (14)?

Today, I meant to write about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, a new movie Kath and I saw on the Giant Screen at the Muvico Peabody 22. There actually is a lot to say about this movie, which I really liked and goes a long way to illustrate what is right and what is wrong about today’s mass media culture (of which, this site is but a totally insignificant part). However, I’m forced to put off my thoughts on the movie to address something more annoying: the lack of apparent value provided by mobile communication providers, at least in Memphis. Kath and I went to investigate getting a second cell phone after the movie, and the experience left me shaking my head.

We all know that cell phones are a ubiquitous part of modern life. Everyone has one, even young people who have few other possessions, and many people have careers that depend upon them. Over the past few years in the US, the number of mobile communication providers has been shrinking, as the larger fish have been buying up the smaller fish. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, as it is part of the normal part of doing business. Consumers have come to accept the benefits and drawbacks to consolidation in various marketplaces. In Memphis, this consolidation has slowed somewhat, and there are really only a few providers of mobile communications that people have available to them: Cingular (which is really owned by BellSouth, and now, ATT), Verizon (the monster baby bell), Cellular South, Sprint, and a few other smaller players, such as Cricket.

I’m going to focus on Cingular, as I have the most experience with that company since coming back to live in Memphis in 2002, but I think my criticism actually touches each of the larger companies. And, while I actually like the service they provide, I don’t like the direction things are moving. Yes, my calls actually get through. They very rarely get dropped, and it is almost always a problem with the person I’m calling’s carrier. They provide good billing feedback, and they have a decent website to allow for as much self-service as I would like to do. But, I’m starting to wonder, are we all getting screwed anyway?

Cingular offers two kinds of service: pay-as-you-go service (called Go) and service tied to a time-based commitment (which can expire, but you are still tied to the terms of the previous commitment when it expires). The pay-as-you-go service only makes financial sense for a very limited number of people, and most of the people that use that service are only doing it because of poor credit or a lack of understanding of what they are paying for. But even people in a time-based commitment should really give some deep thought to what they are buying and why they are paying so much for it.

Here is a fact of retail: Most companies selling you products or services make most of their money from the middle of their product offerings. What this means is that, if Company X sells one widget for $10, a slightly better widget at $25, an even better widget for $50, and a top-of-the-line widget for $200, then Company X is going to make most of their money on the $25 and $50 widgets. The $10 widget will be widely purchased, but the profit on it will be so low that it won’t make much money. The $200 widget will make a good profit, but there is only a limited number of people that can afford it over the other widgets, which largely accomplish the same goals.

The mobile communications business is a shining example of this business in action. However, unlike other businesses, when even the savvy mobile communications consumer stays away from products they don’t really need or would be paying too much for, they are increasing getting screwed. It all comes down to how you use the device. If you get the most basic phone, you are committing to essentially $50/month for 2 years (once taxes and other fees are added in), which comes out to $1200, and that is only the case if you don’t go over the limited number of minutes you are given (currently 700 for the most basic plan). Plus the cost of the phone, which is about $50. If that seems like a lot of money to simply be able to have quick conversations with people for the next 2 years, that is because it is. That is a lot to pay for what is, regardless of what people have come to think today, a convenience.

More annoying is the fact that the high-end offerings really don’t offer much beyond what they offered a few years ago. Despite all of the talk of “3G” networks and quick Internet access in the palm of our hand, the reality is that high-end mobile devices continue to be (1) too expensive, (2) too proprietary, (3) too slow, (4) clunky to use day-to-day, and (5) more designed to separate you from your money than offering real value. A Palm Treo 650 with full service from Cingular will cost you at least $90 per month, just for voice and data, which comes to about $2300 for 2 years. Plus you have to buy the device for $350.

Can you check you email from anywhere (well, from most large cities)? Sure, but with a small laptop and a wi-fi connection, you can do it much more easily and be able to better reply and deal with attachments. Can you talk on the phone? Well, sure you can do that with a much cheaper device. Can you surf the web? Sure, but the experience on such a small screen and relatively slow network (when compared to cable and DSL) is painful. A lot of Treo users just don’t bother except for very specific things. Can you keep your addresses and other contact info in the phone? Sure, but you could do the same in a cheap $100 Palm PDA for whole lot less.

In short, the pace of mobile technology, considering both the devices and the speed of the network needed to utilize them, has not kept pace with computer-based technology over the years and continues to fall behind. This is largely because of the increasing control the ever-shrinking mobile communication companies have over the marketplace. These companies dictate what kinds of devices their manufacturer partners will make for consumers. In addition, mobile communication companies maintain a pretty strong grip on how their network is used. You aren’t likely to see a problem with file sharing on a mobile network, largely because it is more efficient to do that on a standard, wired Internet connection, but also because mobile companies don’t have to put up with it. In fact, they don’t have to put up with anything that doesn’t tie their customers to them for a long time, providing them just enough features not to transfer their service to the shrinking number of other providers in the immediate area.

Unlike areas like computers, we are unlikely to see positive disruptive technologies to shake up the marketplace and make mobile communication providers give more value to their consumers. This is why Cingular and other companies turn off the wi-fi capabilities of the Treos they sell: if you use your device on another (better) network and aren’t eating your minutes, you aren’t contributing to Cingular’s bottom line. This is also why, though the branding and retail marketing of mobile devices by mobile communication companies, you aren’t likely to see any kind of truly useful unified device any time soon. You know the kind of device I mean, one that will let you communicate how and when you want, in the way that you want, and provides hooks into other types of technologies (such as GPS) that will allow you to do more with less effort.

The potential exists, technologically, for a reasonably useful and affordable unified device to be made available in about a year. However, I don’t expect them to become widely available in less than 5 years. Too much money can be made in making all of us pay through the nose for upgraded features we really don’t need while we stay in line, waiting for the marketplace to provide the answer to our prayers. But, much like the electric car, it simply isn’t in the best interest of the the shrinking number of companies that sell mobile products and services to give us what we really need, especially if we are more than willing to pay for stuff we don’t need and will reap those companies a bigger reward.

Like most of the times the marketplace fails the consumer, we have only ourselves to blame.

In the end, Kath and I walked away from getting a new mobile phone. We may look again later in the year, but I won’t get my hopes up. We simply need many more people to say, “Enough! I’m tired of paying more and more for the same old thing. Give me something new and better or I’m not going to pay you anything.” Until then, we should all just be prepared to wait.