Friday, April 29, 2005


“Tired old cliché” is itself a tired old cliché.

In linguistic terms, it’s autological: it describes itself. Here’s more on autological words, including a long list of autonyms; more on the various nym words; and a twisty semantic paradox.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


I like living in the US, but there’s a few things which make me feel a bit squirmy: one of them is this country’s attitude towards gay rights.

Now, I wouldn’t say that the UK isn’t homophobic in parts. But I would say that people in the UK mostly see homophobia as wrong; if not in their own eyes, at least in the eyes of the society they live in. It’s different here: a large number of people in the US see homophobia as right — their God-given right.

Larry Kramer’s speech, delivered the week after last year’s Presidential election, puts this in terms both angrier and sadder than I can muster:

Almost 60 million people whom we live and work with every day think we are immoral. “Moral values” was top of many lists of why people supported George Bush. Not Iraq. Not the economy. Not terrorism. “Moral values.” In case you need a translation that means us. It is hard to stand up to so much hate. Which of course is just the way they want it. Please know that a huge portion of the population of the United States hates us. I don’t mean dislike. I mean hate. You may not choose to call it hate, but I do. Not only because they refuse us certain marital rights but because they have also elected a congress that is overflowing with men and women who refuse us just about every other right to exist as well. “Moral values” is really a misnomer; it means just the reverse. It means they think we are immoral. And that we’re dangerous and contaminated. How do you like being called immoral by some 60 million people? This is not just anti-gay. This is what Doug Ireland calls “homo hate” on the grandest scale. How do we stand up to 60 million people who have found a voice and a President who declares he has a mandate?
In December, most of the media’s “hot issues for the year ahead” lists contained the same predictable items. Terrorism. Iraq. The economy. Social Security. None mentioned gay rights. And yet as Kramer points out this is a terrible time to be gay in America: there’s a wave of repression going on, which were it based on race or religion would be a public scandal. But base it on sexual identity and oh, that’s OK, read yer Bible.

From Max Gordon’s piece, Jesusland:

I marvel at the vogue of hate today in this country; who you can freely hate these days and who you can’t. You can hate women, and gays, and fat people. You can hate poor people, and the homeless. You can’t, however, hate black people or Jews anymore, at least not on television or in print. (You can still hate blacks privately, but Jews are harder; some have blonde hair and it isn’t easy to tell if they are in the room.)

Black and white Christians have been revitalized by the same-sex ban, agreeing to suspend their hatred for each other in favor of a combined, galvanized hatred for gays.
Gordon goes on to speculate as to why homosexuality is seen so threatening to “moral values”:

Is homosexuality contagious or reaching epidemic proportions? How else can the sexuality of one section of the American population singly decide the outcome of an entire presidential election? Only one conclusion can be drawn: Gay people in the heartland are doing some serious fucking. […]

Is homosexuality so irresistible that straight men and women are leaving their homes, mesmerized and in droves, to join the gay ranks?
Theresa Nielsen Hayden riffs on the same theme, skewering Gerald Allen’s proposed bill banning books and other materials that “promote homosexuality” (shades of Section 28, no?):

If a lifetime of constant exposure to positive depictions of heterosexuality doesn’t turn children straight, how is it that an occasional depiction of homosexuality is going to turn them gay?

You know what he’s really saying, don’t you? He’s saying that gay sex has straight sex beat all hollow, that’s what. It’s stronger, sharper, more pervasive and overwhelming. Sexier. Instantly attractive. Transcendently hot. All it takes is one hint that homosexuality is survivable, that it’s something engaged in by humans rather than demons, and right away kids are going to be abandoning the straight and missionary for a life as a queer.
“Homophobe as closet homo” is a cliché, but so is “homosexuality is catching”. Not that that stops the sly application of terms both judgemental and medical: homosexuality as a “corruption” or “malignancy”.

What they’re really scared of is twofold: gays are closeted and tolerance is contagious. Let up the pressure for just a minute, give a hint that homosexuality is acceptable, and horror: an epidemic of gays coming out. And that’d never do: gay Hollywood stars? Gay corporate board members? Gay Supreme Court judges, gay senators — gays in the White House! — my goodness, how would society survive?

It seems to me it’d be a whole lot better.

But why is this all sloshing and squirming around in my brain at the moment? This story about Microsoft’s stance — or not — on discrimination. In summary: Microsoft withdraws support from a Washington anti-discrimination bill, after supporting similar legislation in previous years, and apparently after pressure from the religious right. The bill received support from other Washington companies, including Boeing, Nike, Coors, and Hewlett-Packard, but was defeated by one vote.

But here’s the interesting part: Robert Scoble, Microsoft’s most prominent blogger and evangelist, brought this further outside Microsoft’s walls by seeking, and getting, permission to post the memo on the story which Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, emailed to employees. He also stands up publicly and says “this was wrong”:

One of the reasons I came to Microsoft is because of its very strong stance on human rights.

The fact that Microsoft is even in this position makes me want to leave and join a different company that won’t be pushed around by religious folks. Is that the message you want to send?

Steve: this comes down to leadership. What kind of society do we want to live in? One where religious folks decide the society we live in?
Bravo, Robert. Ballmer’s memo makes me feel uncomfortable, too:

We are thinking hard about what is the right balance to strike — when should a public company take a position on a broader social issue, and when should it not? What message does the company taking a position send to its employees who have strongly-held beliefs on the opposite side of the issue?
Well, in this case it sends the message “Microsoft believes discrimination on sexual identity is wrong.” Not a message that Microsoft employees should be surprised by, given that Ballmer repeatedly affirms Microsoft’s commitment to non-discrimination in its internal policies:

We were one of the first companies to provide domestic partner benefits, or to include sexual orientation in our anti-discrimination policies. And just this year, we became one of the few companies to include gender identity or expression in our protection policies.


[T]he company remains strongly committed to its internal policies supporting anti-discrimination and industry-leading benefits for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees.
And in any case, why is Microsoft worried about offending bigots? Adam Barr, a Microsoft employee, nails Ballmer on the same point:

Steve, first of all, can we cut this “murderers are victims too” line of thinking? Do you agonize about hurting the feelings of employees who enjoy looking at porn on their computers? What about those who like to post internal schedules on public forums? Do you stay up at night worrying about their feelings? I doubt it.

Second, what you said is wrong. If an employee has deeply-held beliefs that women are inferior, or a certain ethnic group has negative character traits, the company certainly has no qualms (nor should it) about dismissing those beliefs, no matter how deeply held. I just did my 30-minute anti-harassment self-training that all employees are required to go through, and obviously if someone decides to run around the hallways shouting anti-gay slogans, they will be disciplined in a way that they would not if they ran around the hallways shouting anti-seafood or anti-deodorant slogans. The company supports free speech up to a point, but beyond that, when personal belief becomes harassment, the decision has already been made which one wins.
More to the point, though, Ballmer should consider this: what message does not taking a stance on a bill apparently so strongly in accord with Microsoft’s internal policies send to its employees — particularly its LGBT employees? “We believe in non-discrimination as a benefit, but not as a legal right”? Or maybe, “we believe in non-discrimination, but only to the point at which pressure is applied to us”?

Shelley Power’s summation is as usual, pithy:

A basic premise in our country is if we err, we err on the side of granting more rather than less liberty. Microsoft could have sent a message to the community and its employees who supported the bill that it recognizes there are citizens in this country who do not have full rights, and this bill would help grant some of the most basic: a right to a home and a job. Microsoft would then have sent a message to those who did not support this bill that though it understands their disagreement, supporting the bill does not lessen their existing rights, as there is no guaranteed right to bias and prejudice in the United States.
I don’t know how this one’ll play out — it could well be a storm in the blogging teacup. But it’s disturbing that Microsoft are paying lip service, not legal service, to gay rights. And it’s fascinating to watch its dirty laundry being done in public.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Lime Ridge Open Space

The East Bay Casual Hiking group is off walking the Contra Costa / Ygnacio Canal Trail loop that I walked a while ago: too recently to want to do it again, especially as the Ygnacio Canal Trail part was, well, a bit meh.

So, Melinda and I are out on our own today, for a loop suggested by that earlier hike: start on Citrus Avenue, go out through Lime Ridge Open Space, come back along the Contra Costa Canal Trail.

We park on the street on Citrus Avenue, near the trail crossing, and walk up the Canal Trail before entering Lime Ridge at the Rock Oak Road trailhead. From here, we follow the Woodlands West Trail before doubling back through the quarry on the Lime Ridge Trail, which then climbs steeply onto the ridge.

Great views back over the valley from here. And once we're over the ridge, the views to the North open up: Concord in the foreground, and further to Suisin Bay, the Concord Naval Weapons Station, the oil industry of Martinez, and further east, Pittsburg and Antioch.

The Lime Ridge Trail rejoins Woodlands North Trail and the California Riding & Hiking Trail. And here we get a bit lost. I can see the buildings of the Lime Ridge Community Center, but it's not clear from the ground how to get there, and the trails don't seem to match up to the trail map. We end up following a cow track which peters out, leaving us to scramble down a grassy hillside. Once we're down, looking back the correct route seems obvious; as indeed it is from Google's satellite view.

Trail map of Lime Ridge Open Space.
Satellite view of Lime Ridge Open Space.

The crossing over Treat Boulevard is a little hairy: the closest lights are at Navaronne Way, some 500 yards down, so we risk crossing against the traffic.

South of Treat, Lime Ridge is managed by Walnut Creek; north of Treat, it's managed by Concord. The Concord area is a little less managed, a little wilder: the trails are bordered by head-high wild mustard. And there aren't online trail maps for the Concord area: the Concord Parks webpage offers a Lime Ridge map, but rather cheekily it's a scan of the Lime Ridge page of Walnut Creek's Open Space map.

So, Google's maps to the rescue again:

Satellite view of the Concord area of Lime Ridge Open Space.

From the community center, we follow the fire road north to the trailhead at Court Lane, before heading west towards the lower end of Via Montanas. Just before the trailhead, a side trail heads north, and slightly uphill, along the edge of the Open Space, towards the car park and trailhead at the upper end of Via Montanas.

And here, suddenly, a view over downtown Concord opens up: a large development of white-roofed static homes, the BART tracks and marshalling yard, and beyond it off Detroit Avenue the huge carpark and roof of the Costco warehouse. From the trail, the Costco sign on the side of the warehouse is clearly visible.

Satellite view of downtown Concord.

At Via Montanas, we pick up the Contra Costa Canal Trail, which provides an easy and flat route — with plenty of looky-loo opportunities into people's back yards — back to Citrus Avenue. And back at Citrus, the concrete bridge over the canal is ringing with bird cries: we peek under the bridge, and see that there are lots of swallow nests plastered between the roof and the walls.

Categories: Hiking

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Earth Day at John Muir Historic Site

By happy coincidence, Earth Day falls a day after John Muir's birthday. Muir is a California hero: a naturalist and conservationist, co-founder of the Sierra Club, and highly influential in the creation of Yosemite, Sequoia, and other National Parks.

Muir lived in Martinez, and his house and part of the surrounding fruit ranch are preserved as the John Muir National Historic Site. For Earth Day, it's hosting a special event with various conservation and nature exhibitors.

There's a certain amount of beardy-wierdness at this sort of event, but it was a fun day out: lots of local volunteer and governmental organisations out to show what they do. Contra Costa Clean Water Program were showing a diorama on water protection, showing how both surface runoff (paint food colouring onto the model, spray it down with a mister) and storm drain contamination (squirt food colouring down a storm drain with a turkey baster) affect water supply. Popular with the kids, but maybe a little too popular: polluting the model looked like fun.

And the Contra Costa Mosquito and Vector Control District were pretty scary. This is the second year of West Nile Virus in the county, and they think it's going to be a bad one. West Nile Virus is tracked in several ways:
  1. Dead bird reports: some birds are particularly susceptible to WNV. The CCMVCD recommend reporting dead birds to the California Department of Health Services, who may come and pick it up for WNV testing.
  2. Mosquito pools: samples of collected mosquitoes are tested for WNV.
  3. Chicken flocks: chickens carry, but no not contract, the virus. The state maintains flocks of sentinel chickens from which blood samples are regularly taken and tested for mosquito-borne viruses.
The District does a lot of mosquito control, and a lot of education. The biggest source of mosquitoes is standing water in private backyards. And this is particularly cool: one of the controls they use is biological. The mosquitofish feeds on mosquito larvae and other insects. CCMVCD provides mosquitofish free to Contra Costa residents.

And as if West Nile wasn't enough: we also have Lyme disease to contend with, so watch out for, and take precautions against, ticks. Largely common sense: avoid tick habitats, cover your skin, and check for ticks frequently. But still, ugh: it's unnerving that there are so many nasties out on the trails.

And speaking of nasties: I really should learn what poison oak looks like, too.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Eagle Peak

Another East Bay Casual hike on the North side of Mount Diablo: the trailhead at Regency Drive/Mountaire Parkway seems popular with hiking groups, maybe because parking is free here while driving up onto Mount Diablo costs $6?

Anyway, this one was described as "moderately difficult / a good cardio workout / not for beginners". Yes, yes, and yes — although maybe shading up from "moderate" towards "strenuous". It's a steady uphill pull from the trailhead up Mitchell Rock Trail to Twin Peaks, steepening on the Eagle Peak Trail up to Eagle Peak. It's quite possibly the toughest climb I've done so far. On the way down, we take Eagle Peak Trail down to meet up with the Back Creek Trail.

But it's worth it: great views, once you've recovered enough breath to appreciate them; lots of hawks soaring around and above the rocks; and lots and lots of wildflowers. In particular, on the way down the trail passes through a slope of wild sage, all of which is in flower at the moment.

There isn't decent trail information available online for Mount Diablo: the National Parks leaflet has a very simplified map, but not enough detail to plan a hike or work out where you've been. Slightly annoying, as the EBRPD parks all have good trail leaflets available free at the park trailheads and online. But I can't complain too much: the official trail map is published by MDIA, a volunteer organisation who do a lot to maintain the park. I really should get around to buying a copy.

Categories: Hiking

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Bush's iPod

Lots and lots of fluff news coverage on the contents of Bush's iPod, a lot of it quite sniffy about his taste for country music.

Well, nothing wrong with that. More odd is how empty his iPod is: only 250 songs out of a capacity of 10,000. One of the joys of iTunes for me is the surprises it shuffles up; I guess George prefers his playlists a lot more predictable.

But Caitlin Moran nails exactly why the Bush selections made me feel slightly uneasy: they're so narrow.

The most notable aspect of Mr Bush’s fairly predictable selection of babyboomer tunes is its extraordinarily limited demographic spread — no black artists, no gay artists, no world music, only one woman, no genre less than 25 years old, and no Beatles.
No Beatles, indeed. No Dylan. No Elvis. And for a man who Rolling Stone's Joe Levy fawningly describes as "serious about his love of country music" — oh please, how serious about music can you be if you have someone else choose it for you? — no Hank Williams or Johnny Cash.

Dead drive update

Maxtor's software agrees with my diagnosis: it's dead alright. I'm claiming under warranty for the principle of the thing, although I'm not really sure what to do with the replacement they'll send. Stick it in a Firewire/USB2 box to use as a backup device, I suppose. If nothing else, it'd save the time of re-ripping all our CDs if when the new drive fails.

I did bite the bullet and buy a CD burner: and here it is.

With optical drives, the trailing edge is the place to be. My first CD-ROM drive, a 4.4x Pioneer, cost £90. By the time it failed, CD-ROM drives had become ubiquitous, with 52x the standard speed. The replacement drive, an OEM Lite-On, cost £20.

And CD-RW has obviously now become commodity too. They're all 52x/32x/52x, they're all pretty much the same, and they're all cheap. The Lite-On was one of the cheapest I found, and a good brand which I've been happy with; deal. And it's still cheaper than the drive it's replacing.

And boy, is it fast to burn, compared to the old workhorse we used to use at work. I can burn an 80-minute audio CD from iTunes in 1½ minutes. Sufficiently-advanced technology, indeed. Now I can press my own CDs to play in the car.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Contra Costa Canal Regional Trail

A solo hike today, on suburban trails, following the route of a previous East Bay Casual Hiking hike. It's an 8-mile clockwise loop, starting at Arbolado Park and following the Ygnacio Canal Trail and the Contra Costa Canal Regional Trail.

First, and to get this out of the way: "canals" here are not waterways in the UK sense of the word. The canals these trails run alongside are concrete EBMUD water and drainage channels; often bordered by wildflowers and home to families of ducks, but not quite as romantic as Britain's canal network.

The start point of Arbolado Park is the same as for a previous hike into Lime Ridge Open Space. For that hike, we parked on the street on Arbolado Drive, so I do the same today. On my way down to the trail, though, I notice that there's lots of free parking for Arbolado Park. Never mind.

The stretch on Ygnacio Canal Trail is OK; a little bit too suburban, a few too many roads to cross. (The crossing across Bancroft is particularly nasty; California law is "pedestrians first", but in practice it's still "step out and hope they stop".) But there's still a lot of wildlife: crickets chirping alongside the trail, birds drinking from the canal, and lots of rustling in the undergrowth: lizards, I think, although they move so fast that I was only sure of a few sightings. At one point, I pass a family of ducks cruising along the canal: two adults, twelve fluffy ducklings.

Near San Miguel Park, the trail merges with the Briones–Mt. Diablo Trail: a trail I've encountered before, further south, as it passes through Shell Ridge Open Space.

The trail crosses Ygnacio Valley Road, thankfully this time at a light, and then becomes hard to find again. It actually restarts slightly east along Ygnacio, running in a small fenced-off strip between the parking lots of a church and the neighbouring apartment block before running north alongside a small junkyard. Stick with it, it does get better.

Satellite view of trail near Marchbanks Drive. I lost the trail again here. From the trail map and Google's satellite view, it appears to run along the back of the restaurant and parking lot on Marchbanks Drive. On the ground, not so clear; easier simply to walk along Marchbanks Drive past the pool and the gardens. From Marchbanks Drive the trail runs north through Heather Farms Park; this stretch is nice, as part of the park is set aside as a wildlife preserve. Lot of waterbirds here: the ubiquitous ducks and geese, but I also see a grebe paddling along the canal.

North of Heather Farms, the Briones–Mt. Diablo Trail connects with the Contra Costa Canal Trail, which runs east all the way to Lime Ridge Open Space. This is a much better trail: wide, green, quiet, with few roads to cross. Lots of ducks. And it's here that I witness some rather disturbing duck behaviour: a mother duck with a brood of fourteen ducklings trailing behind her turns on one of them and drives it away. It trudges rather sadly up the opposite bank of the canal, wriggles through the fence, and disappears into the undergrowth, fate unknown. Was it one too many for her to cope with? Or maybe a tagalong stray whose cover got blown? Distressing, but that's life in the duck world I guess.

The hike saves a treat for the last few miles. At the edge of Lime Ridge Open Space, the Contra Costa Canal trail reconnects with the Ygnacio Canal Trail, which heads south back towards the start point. But it also heads upwards: not far, but far enough to give a good view back over the trees and houses down in the valley where I've just hiked.

The hills of Lime Ridge look tempting from here, too: a loop around this section of the Ygnacio Canal Trail and up into Lime Ridge would make a good hike. No formal trailhead parking here, but one could easily park on the street on Citrus Avenue or Rock Oak Road.

The trail continues south, going under Ygnacio in a long narrow tunnel; along the edge of the Boundary Oak golf course; and back to the start point at Arbolado.

In total, just short of 8 miles; and just shy of 2½ hours. I'm not sure I'd bother with the suburban stretch of the Ygnacio Canal Trail again, but I did like the stretch near Lime Ridge, and I thoroughly enjoyed the Contra Costa Canal Trail: worth returning to explore more sections of it.

Categories: Hiking

A name for everyone

Via Metafilter: Baby Name Wizard's NameVoyager is oddly compelling. An interactive visualisation of names given to American babies in the last 100 years. The raw data is from the Social Security Administration.

Graph of popularity of name JAMES.
Graph of popularity of name MELINDA.
What's immediately striking is how much the old, solid names of the early century have declined: John, James, William, Robert; Mary, Dorothy, Helen. There are fewer common names now. Everyone wants their child to be, if not unique, at least unusual.

Some names are rooted in particular decades. Gary, David and Michael ruled the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Jenifer and Jessica the 80s and 90s. Melinda's definitely a product of her era.

There's a Kirk peak in the 1960s, but I'm not sure I agree with the Star Trek interpretation MetaFilter posters put on it: I suspect it's more Kirk Douglas than Kirk, James T. After all, there's no trace of Bones or Spock — although there are a few 1970 Scottys. And there's good evidence of recently of current actors' names being chosen: Jude (hot again after a post-Beatles slump); Ethan; Leonardo.

The Baby Name Wizard blog is surprisingly good; levelheaded and scholarly. Unusual, given the general sappiness of the baby name industry. If you're in need of an antidote after too many Makenzies and Peytons — or indeed Americas, Libertys, or Justices — Baby's Named a Bad, Bad Thing is cruel but funny reading.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Close, but no...

Blogger Buzz: No More Lost Posts!

If my browser crashes while writing this post I will be so...

You will be so what? Frustrated? Wrong! You won't care because all you need to do is start it up again and click "Recover post."
Nice try, but a bit slippery. The typical problem with Blogger is not "my browser crashing while I'm writing"; it's "your servers burping after I've pressed Publish Post". Don't worry about my browser; fix your backend. And try not to trip over your own toes:

We noticed a bug in the wee hours of the night that could annoy some users so we've temporarily disabled the recover post feature.
At least this Blogger Status posting acknowleges the irony of the issue it's reporting:

We've discovered a problem with the page people use to report problems.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Lafayette–Moraga Regional Trail

Today I passed up the East Bay Casual Hikers hike at Point Pinole. I might yet try it on a weekday when it's less busy.

Instead, Melinda and I stuck closer to home and hiked a stretch of the Lafayette–Moraga Regional Trail: like the Iron Horse Trail, another trail running where train tracks once lay.

We did an out-and-back from Lafayette Community Park down to the shops at Moraga Center, just south of Moraga Commons; about 3 miles each way. It's mostly flat, a few gentle inclines; and on a Sunday, busy with walkers, dogs, and the occasional cyclist. (Oddly, hard-core cyclists tend to avoid the trail in favour of St. Mary's Road, which runs parallel to the trail; the same happens between Walnut Creek and Danville, where recreational cyclists take the Iron Horse Trail and the hard-core tangle with the traffic on Danville Boulevard.)

It's suburban, but less so than the Iron Horse. Houses nestle in the hills alongside the trail, and St. Mary's Road isn't ever too far away. But it's surprisingly quiet and green in places. Near Fredericka Avenue, there's a small waterfall tumbling from rocks above the trail; on a hot day, it's tempting to duck under it to cool down. Crickets chirp in the tree-lined sections of the trail, sounding like creaking branches. And on the way back, we witness a hummingbird's territorial display: a steep fast dive from a hover at 100 feet high.

Well worth a repeat visit; and plenty of free parking all along the trail, so you can pick and choose what stretch to walk.

Categories: Hiking

In time, search engines will look even more alike

Google (currently sporting a National Library Week logo):

Screenshot of Google.

...and Yahoo! Search (with a tip of the hat to Mark Jen for the pointer):

Screenshot of Yahoo! Search.

In time, all search engines will look alike


Screenshot of Yahoo!'s Search The Web bar.


Screenshot of MSN's Search The Web bar.

Ads and words

Something I've noticed recently in car adverts: "available" as a euphemism for "optional". A bit of Googling suggests it's also getting picked up by the motoring press. Here's a couple of examples:
"Available" here really means "on some vehicles in the range". It's a slightly sneaky way of making the entire range sound good, by touting the attributes of the top-of-the-range model.

And as a general note: TV advertising here is both less and more sophisticated than it is in the UK. Less, in that there are no subtle adverts here and very few with any wit. And more, in that the boundaries between programming and advertising are far more blurred here. It's safe to assume that any product shown distinctly in a show is a paid placement: those red Coke cups in front on the American Idol judges did not get there by accident.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Google, Maps, Mail and Microsoft

Coloured pools near Napa, CA. I wasn't the only one impressed by Google Maps' new satellite imagery; it's developed quite a buzz.

Matt Haughey talks about soil chemistry and why the south Bay is bordered by coloured pools. (I'd always wondered about these pools near Napa, which you see from the plane on the way into SFO.) Over at Flickr, they're using Google images to make memory maps. And Google Sightseeing collects landmarks, under the tagline "why bother seeing the world for real?"

Robert Scoble, typically, gives us a Microsoft tease:

Now, I've seen Microsoft's future mapping strategy and I've been sworn to secrecy. Don't count us out yet. After all, we have TerraServer and a few other things that work well on maps.

For instance, here's the front of the building I work at on TerraServer. Here's approximately the same thing on Google Maps.
Well, OK, Terraserver. Microsoft got there first. But who cares? Google Maps is attractive not because it was first (there's been mapping on the web for years) but because it's the easiest to use. And Google Maps is here now.

Google's secrets: it's very good at reliability, speed, simplicity, and cleanliness.

This has always been true of the Google home page, which is spare, attractive, and fast to load: compare Google with, for example, the cluttered Yahoo! home page. When you go to Google, you go there to search, and you want to search right now and as easily as possible. Google understands this. The page is simple, the focus is the search box, and yet the branding is strongly and immediately recognisable.

A past project of mine was a driver layer for a web-browsing set-top-box. We always demoed Google, because Google always loaded fast (especially once you've got the logo in the cache); it always looked good (even in 8-bit-per-pixel graphics); and it's obviously useful (even though for demo you pick the search term carefully to lead to results which you know you can render well). It turns out the simple design, white background, and strong colours of the Google home page are ideal for display on a television: "good enough to lick" was how we described it.

Interestingly, while the MSN homepage is cluttered, the MSN Search homepage has learnt the Google lesson. It's simple, colourful, search-focussed, and branded (the MSN colours and butterfly, and with a hint of the default Windows XP theme).

Anyway, Google's taken "fast, simple, clean" and applied it to maps. Google Maps is exceptionally easy to use. The map is very immediate, and encourages exploration and zooming. And the search is simple and broad: where other mapping sites insist on street, city, state, zip being entered in separate boxes, Google provides a single search box and does its best to understand whatever you put in it.

Google understand that if you're looking for a map, the map is the most important thing. Their maps are exceptionally clear. They occupy most of the browser. And they scale with the browser, so if you make the window bigger you get more map. Other mapping sites give you a fixed-size square of map and surround it with navigation and advertising, which is frustrating: exploring the map is like looking through a porthole.

And Google's no-reload trickery — drag the map and it'll fetch the newly-exposed times without reloading the page — is a masterstroke. Maps are about exploration, and Google's technology allows for seamless and uninterrupted navigation. Most significantly, the continuous scrolling means I can easily follow a highway without losing my place on the map.

This isn't wholly new, of course; Java-based maps have been doing this sort of thing for ages. In the UK, I was always impressed by the RAC's dynamic route-planner map (example), provided by Map24; and by's street maps (very good for getting around Paris; and guess what, they can also overlay aerial images). But again, Google have done it very well: they've made it easy and fun to use.

So, Terraserver: it's OK. It does have more detailed images. But it makes me go through a multistage search to find my home address; it shows me images through a porthole (although to be fair it does let me make the porthole pretty big); and it forces me to jump-scroll the map. Yes, it was there before Google. But in terms of usability, fun — lickability — it's now playing catchup.

Scoble further speculates:

Now, what's possibly next from Google (or MSN or Yahoo)? Use your imagination. What would you like to put on top of that map? Er, image? I got a few things. How about a sushi icon? Huh? Click the sushi icon and it takes you to all the nearest sushi restaurants. How about a camera icon? Click on that and it takes you to all the nearby photo opportunities. How about a Hospital icon? Click that and it takes you to the closest hospital. How about a blog icon?

How about a Flickr icon? A McDonalds icon? A Starbucks icon? A Sears icon? A Scobleizer icon?
How about clutter? How many different icons can you fit on that page? Google have already got it right: if you want it, search for it, and they'll put pushpins on the map for you.

Microsoft, along with everyone else with a webmail platform, is also playing catchup with Google's GMail platform. Not just in terms of space (where they're chasing GMail's 2-Gigs-and-counting allowance; good PR for Google, who know that most people use nothing like this much space) but in terms of usability. GMail is just very, very, slick.

Scoble asks a leading question:

The real question isn't who'll be first to offer two gigs of space (or the coolest AJAX UI implementation). The real question is: who'll do it for more than 150 million users first?
As a user, I disagree. How many users GMail has matters not a jot to me: what matters is that it's usable and available, and so far it's done very well on both.

And I strongly suspect that scaling is a strawman here. Why wouldn't GMail be able to serve 150M users? Google are exceptionally good at back-end scaling (taster; detail), if nothing else because they recognise that speed of response is a key attribute of their search-engine offering. It's hard to imagine that they won't be able to bring that expertise to bear on mail. (Rich Skrenta of speculated on this when GMail launched.) Google is, in fact, so highly scaled that cost and availability of power is an issue.

So, I'll stick my neck out and predict: 150M GMail users, no problem. And it'll still be bigger and slicker than Hotmail, which is what Scoble's trying to talk up here.

And if it's GMail vs Hotmail, Microsoft has another problem to overcome. By initially limiting supply and by stimulating word-of-mouth, Google have made gmail addresses cool. Hotmail addresses are not, and never were, cool. Anyone could have one; and worse, any spammer could easily get one. For anyone who's been around a while, mail in the inbox from a hotmail address has one strong immediate smell: spammy. This is a hard reputation to undo.

All the more odd, then, that Google are misstepping so badly with Blogger. Blogger's been essentially static since Google acquired it. And it's increasingly gathering a bad reputation on two fronts. Firstly, for flakiness: lots of anecdotal evidence, to which I can add my own share of timeouts and database errors on post submissions, and recently a Wired News piece skewering them on reliability.

And secondly, as a haven for spammers. This Google search gives a good feel for it. Scott at Feedster nails them. And anyone who's read Usenet recently will recognise the Greatest News Ever spams, typically from Yahoo accounts, pointing back to throwaway Blogspot pages. (This last one also seems to be spilling over into web forums; I'm surprised it hasn't started hitting blog comments also.)

Reputations like this are easy to acquire, hard to shake; Blogger's in danger of becoming marginalised unless it does something about its problems.

[Update: More Talking about Maps and Mail over at Scobelizer.]

Monday, April 04, 2005

The neighbourhood, from above

Satellite photo of 1250 Walker Avenue. Google Maps adds satellite photos. Here's my neigbourhood.

I hadn't realised from the map view, but their pushpin is slightly off. 1250 Walker Avenue is east and around the bend in the road from where they think it is: it's the large black-roofed apartment block. If you zoom in, you can just see the blue water of the swimming pool.

The trail running north to south alongside the apartments is the Iron Horse Trail, which here runs alongside a large concrete drainage channel. The trail runs north towards Concord; south towards Alamo.

The large building and parking lot to the south-east of the apartments is Safeway. Out towards the east is downtown Walnut Creek; you can see cars parked on the upper deck of the parking structure on South Broadway.

To the north-east, the large square complex with the trees in the middle is the Castlewood Apartments: nice, but expensive and no vacancies when we were apartment-hunting. Below it, the strip of brown-roofed buildings on Lincoln Avenue are the Lincoln Terrace apartments: we viewed an apartment here, but were lukewarm about it.

East on Lincoln Avenue, on the corner with North Broadway and just south of Civic Park's sports fields, is Walnut Creek Library: about 5 minutes walk from our apartment.

10 minutes to the west of the apartment, out along Walker Avenue and then on Walnut Boulevard, is Howe Homestead Park. This is the starting point for my hikes into Shell Ridge Open Space, which opens out to the west. In the satellite photos it's brown, but right now everything is still lush and green.


Submitted this today:

1040 U.S. Individual Tax Return 2004


The downside of being a resident alien is that I now have to deal with two tax systems: the US system for all worldwide income as long as I live here, and the UK system for all UK income. It's all supposed to work out so you only get taxed once; but it's fiddly.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Lafayette Ridge Trail

Another Sunday hike with the East Bay Casual Hikers; today a total turnout of 28, which according to John is a record.

Lafayette Ridge Trail starts at the southeast corner of Briones Regional Park. The trailhead is just off Highway 24, one exit east of Walnut Creek, so it's very close to home. Although the Briones webpage says parking is $5, at this trailhead it's free.

Lafayette Ridge Trail runs for several miles before it meets any other trails, which makes it a little impractical for any loop hikes. We did a straight out-and-back hike, walking the three miles to the Briones Crest Trail before turning back.

It's a stiff climb up onto the ridge to begin with, and it stays hilly once you're up. The ridge rolls up and down, so there are no really flat stages. It's not an easy six miles. A good hike for the weather, though: today was overcast, a little windy, and cold enough to encourage us to keep moving.

Despite the recent rain, the trails here were dry, except for a few muddy spots near the beginning. Choose the gravelled track, rather than the dirt trail, up onto the ridge to avoid the mud. But the advantage of the rainy winter is that it's a spectacular year for wildflowers. There were lots in bloom on this hike, with many of the slopes alongside the trail carpeted with vetch and California poppies.

It's a nice enough hike, but slightly unsatisfying. Too linear. And too close to Highway 24, so you're never completely out of earshot of freeway noise. I'll come to Briones again — there's a lot to explore here — but to the trails deeper within the park.

Categories: Hiking

Friday, April 01, 2005


Another hard drive bites the dust. Won't boot; chkdsk takes 2 hours to get to 50% before declaring it unrepairable; format takes 12 hours to get to 12%. Sounds shot to me.

11.5 months, this one lasted; not good enough, Maxtor. Now I have to work out how to run their diagnostic tool so I can claim under the remaining 2 weeks of warranty. Boot-from-floppy's not much use if, like me, you no longer have a floppy drive. I suspect it's time to bite the bullet and get a CD writer.

Nice deal at Frys on an 80G Western Digital, though: $90 with $50 of rebates.