Friday, September 30, 2005

A storm in the OPML teacup

An interesting little exchange over at Scobleizer. Robert Scoble wants blogging tools to support OPML. James Robertson questions this, calling OMPL “a really crappy format”. And this sends Robert flying off the handle:

When users say they want something the correct answer isn’t to call what they are asking for “crappy” but it is to either say “here’s what you’re asking for” or it’s to say “here’s what you’re asking for and I made it even better.” Or, I guess an OK response would be “I can’t do that, sorry.”

But if you say the format is crappy that makes me wonder if you have something better up your sleeve. So, I’m gonna call you on it. Do you?
Well, I’m gonna call you on that, Robert: since when did reviewers also have to be producers?

Ebert & Roeper have the authority to call a movie crappy; is that authority dependent on them having a better movie in production? Are book reviewers required to have sold a novel before they can comment on other novelists’ works? Am I required to get a record contract before I can say that Celine Dion sucks?

Bullshit. Most reviewers form opinions based on their experience as consumers, not producers, of products. I suspect that neither I nor Robert are remotely capable of designing, building, or putting into production a car; but I’ll bet we both have well-formed opinions about our Ford Focuses.

James’s opinion on OPML is clearly formed by his experience as a consumer of the OPML specification. Isn’t that enough? Does he really need to produce a newer and better specification before he’s considered qualified to comment?

There’s a valuable insight in James’s post: it correctly identifies that Robert’s enthusiasm for OPML is an evangelism of a solution, rather than an expression of his requirements. As he puts it:

I have no idea why [Robert] thinks OPML is some magic mojo that lets him escape a browser. It’s a format, and a fairly bad one. It doesn’t enable or disable anything by itself.
Bingo. Robert says “I want OPML”, but what he really means is “I want some things that I believe using OPML will get me”: offline browsing and editing outside the confines of a web browser. This is a solution masquerading as a requirement; identifying and challenging these is part of what us software engineers do.

Like James, I’m not convinced that OPML is the magic bullet that Robert wants it to be. But I do firmly believe that shouting down critics with “do better or shut up!” is unhelpful, unproductive, and just plain rude: macho posturing at its worst.

[Updates: more comment from Robert and James. Shelley Powers has a good, and thoughtful, roundup at Burningbird. And Charles Miller, at The Fishbowl, calmly (and without using the word “crappy”) explains What’s Wrong with OPML.]

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Speeding through the night

Sudafed, and its active ingredient pseudoephedrine, are clearly not for me: I took one last night and had a terrible reaction to it.

Side effects for pseudoephedrine, according to Medline:

  • nervousness
  • restlessness
  • dizziness
  • difficulty sleeping
  • upset stomach
Yes, yes, no, yes, no. A very odd feeling: although I was physically tired, my mind was racing so fast that I couldn't get to sleep.

Says Wikipedia:

As with other phenylethylamines, [pseudoephedrine] is very chemically similar to amphetamines.
No kidding; I certainly felt like I was speeding. While the decongestant effect worked very well, the side effects rule this one out for me from now on.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

“Name two.”

I particularly like this passage from Mary Doria Russell’s A Thread Of Grace. Set in World War Two, the protagonists, Albert Blum and his teenage daughter Claudette, are Jewish refugees seeking shelter in northern Italy:

    “The people in these mountains are illiterate peasants! They’re ignorant, Claudette. Priests have been filling their heads with Christ-killer lies all of their lives!”
    She bites into one of the pears and moans. “Oh, Papa! Oh, this is beautiful! This is the best pear I ever tasted!”
    “They think we poison wells! They think we murder babies and use their blood to make matzoh! They hate us—”
    “Name two.”
    Albert blinks.
    “Whenever we said ‘they’, Mama told us to name two.” Claudette divides the lump of cheese, handing half to Albert. “Mama said if you can’t name two actual people, then you’re just being prejudiced. So name two peasants who hate us.” She takes another bite of pear, holding his eyes with her own: ocean green and guileless in a dirt-smeared face. “Mama said.”
    Albert sighs. “All right,” he says, capitulating to hunger, and to a heart-deep weariness, and to the ethical precepts of a wife whose face is more difficult to conjure as each day passes. “All right, but just this once.”
It’s a great book, well-written, and with many moments of commonplace bravery and quiet heroism.

I’m slowly working my way through the recommendations made in this MetaFilter post, which had some overlap with books I’d enjoyed previously (Audrey Nifnegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife; Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) and makes a lot of good suggestions.

One caveat though: it seems to me that often people find specific books memorable because they tell the story in some unconventional way. The Time Traveler’s Wife, on the surface at least, appears extremely non-linear; it gets away with it because underneath the time-travelling glitz is a fairly straightforward love story. Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers tells its story by cutting between the journals of its protagonists. David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas both tell multiple stories, the first tangentially and the second by nesting them like Russian dolls. And Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion often cuts between its protagonists points of view several times a paragraph; a good story, but a very confusing technique. After too many of these in a row, I started to long for a straightforward yarn with no gimmicks.

So I revisited Steinbeck. For most people my age who grew up in the UK, all we know of Steinbeck is classroom readings of Of Mice And Men, which I always found a little too sentimental. Well: East Of Eden is spectacular, very simply told, but very deep. And The Grapes Of Wrath is amazing, very different in technique—a lot of painting of vignettes—but my god, I’d forgotten how bleak it was.

Bum recommendations: Katherine Neville’s The Eight is hokum, and was obviously somewhat of a prototype for The Da Vinci Code. And Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book is solid, but rather dull, time-travelling-historians stuff.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Contra Costa Canal Trail 5: Pleasant Hill

That’s it; it’s done; I have walked every inch of the Contra Costa Canal Trail. But this last stretch was tough.

My cunning plan: take a bus to the Pleasant Hill end of the Canal Trail, walk down the trail to the junction with the Iron Horse Trail, and walk home from there. County Connection Route 102 gets me from Walnut Creek BART to the Diablo Valley College campus, which lies right on the trail some one-and-a-half miles short of the end. Route 118 connects from there and goes right past the end of the trail on Muir Road; but with a 40 minute wait for the connection. On balance, I think, I’ll walk out and back from DVC to the end of the trail and then strike out south for home.

Well, the end of the trail is a bit of a wash. It’s dry, dull, and baking hot. Not really worth the trip. And it stays hot and dusty south of DVC too. This is not much fun.

Map of Contra Costa Canal Trail at Taylor Boulevard. At Taylor Boulevard, there’s an odd little dogleg where the trail runs alongside the road for a few hundred yards to the next stoplight. A rather officious sign reads: “YOU ARE HERE FOR RECREATION. FOR YOUR OWN HEALTH AND SAFETY PLEASE TAKE THE LONG WAY.” Uh: okay.

There’s water at Las Juntas Park, which is welcome; and after Camino Juntas, the trail starts to become more shaded. At Lockwood Lane I connect with the end-point of a previous out-and-back hike, and the most pleasant stretch of the trail: wooded, quiet, and cool.

By the time I get to Oak Park Boulevard, I’m starting to think about taking the escape hatch I’d planned; the 102 route goes back along Oak Park towards Walnut Creek. I grab doughnuts and soda at Safeway, sit, eat, and contemplate my ebbing energy and aching feet. I feel restored after a rest and some food, and I reason that I’m two-thirds of the way through; it seems a shame not to finish out the hike.

So, down to Walden Park; and on down the Iron Horse to home. And getting slower all the time. It’s 9½ miles and 4 hours by the time I get home, and it’s rarely felt harder; I am bushed.

Previous hikes on the Contra Costa Canal Trail:
  1. Contra Costa Canal Trail/Ygnacio Canal Trail loop (April 2005)
  2. Heather Farm–Citrus Avenue (June 2005)
  3. Walden Park–Lockwood Lane (August 2005)
  4. Citrus Avenue–Willow Pass Road (September 2005)
Categories: Hiking

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Shaky Quakey

I experienced my first earthquake as a California resident at 4:25am this morning: this magnitude 3.2 quake, on the Hayward fault near Piedmont, actually woke me up. What did it feel like? Like someone put their foot on the side of the bed and gave it a good shove.

USGS Recent Earthquake Activity map showing magnitude 3.2 earthquake near Oakland.
USGS Community Intensity map.

The USGS takes online “did you feel it?” reports from the public; 2421 responses so far, 48 from Walnut Creek. I guess a lot of people here are earthquake watchers. I've added my report.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Night Walk Reloaded

Another day, another hike. Why so many hikes right now—three in three days? Well, Melinda’s visiting her sister in Philadelphia, which leaves me at a loose end and gives me an opportunity to get some longer hikes in. And also, I seem to have hurt my left shoulder slightly, which means less swimming and more hiking for a while.

Tonight’s hike is a rerun of the night walk of some two weeks ago, and again is led by Paul. A slightly different route this time, and a distraction: this week is the Walnut Festival, which means that Heather Farm is home to what would, in Britain, be called a fair, and here is probably a carnival. Rides; food; games; music; and so forth.

We wander up through the gardens; tonight, the fountains are lit. Paul tells us he rang the Recreation Division to ask that they be turned on earlier; the summer setting of 8:30pm is too late for twilight in fall.

And now the change. While last time we followed the trail through Diablo Hills Golf Course and onwards, tonight we walk up the golf course to one of Paul’s favourite lookout points; a hill topped by a rocky ridgeline, which I’m fairly sure is the tail end of Lime Ridge. Great views out towards Mount Diablo from here.

Satellite view and route through Diablo Hills Golf Course to the lookout point.

We head back through the park and home; again parting ways at the Iron Horse trail crossing, where I head off southwards into the dark towards Walnut Creek.

A shorter, easier walk than last time, but still: including my stretch there and back from Walnut Creek, about 7½ miles in 2½ hours.

Categories: Hiking

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Contra Costa Canal Trail 4: Concord

As I was in the Ygnacio Valley today anyway: I thought it was time to hike out to the Concord end of the Contra Costa Canal Trail.

We’ve walked part of this stretch before, from Via Montanas down to the junction with the Ygnacio Canal Trail and the California Riding and Hiking Trail. Today I’m on my own so I can stretch out for a longer hike.

Parking on Citrus Avenue near the trail crossing, I take the Contra Costa Canal Trail north towards Concord, past the City of Concord portion of Lime Ridge Open Space. After Via Montanas, the trail runs alongside a trailer park for about a mile. At Tioga Road, there’s a sharp contrast: on the left of the canal, run-down trailers. On the right of the canal, and occupying the higher ground, a smart—and gated—apartment community. Haves and have-nots; the census data for Concord gives a fair clue as to who is which. (The per-capita income statistics are particularly revealing.)

Satellite view of Tioga Road: apartments to the right, trailers to the left.

The Canal Trail continues to run north, crossing Clayton Road and Concord Boulevard, before ending at Willow Pass Road, just below the Concord Naval Weapons Station. This stretch is nondescript; flat, but not terribly interesting, and not a part of the trail I’d seek out again.

On the way back, I veer off the trail up into Lime Ridge, which is worth it for the views over the valley. My plan was to hike trails in Lime Ridge until Treat Boulevard and then walk down Treat to rejoin the Canal Trail. Well: not a good plan. Treat’s signposted at 45mph and traffic often flows considerably faster than that; and there are no sidewalks. Change of plan; I’ll cross Treat and head uphill into the Walnut Creek side of Lime Ridge.

The signage at the parking lot here verges on dangerous, directing hikers down Treat for “Trail Access across Treat”. Not so. The trail access is directly opposite to the Lime Ridge Community Center entrance, up Treat from the parking lot.

Satellite view of Treat Boulevard, Lime Ridge Open Space on either side.

Once safely across Treat, I head uphill, taking the trail which we totally failed to find going downhill last time. There’s a surprise at the top: at the very peak of the hill, a group of about 20 horses cropping the dry grass. They’re friendly, even curious. Two of them approach, give the back of my outstretched hand a good sniffing, and allow me to pet them.

My backup plan: head downhill on the California Hiking and Riding Trail, which meets the Contra Costa Canal Trail back at my start point. Well, I fail this one too, judging the correct turn as heading back too sharply towards Treat and instead heading off downhill on the Lime Ridge Trail. No big deal, I recognise my mistake and head back on the Woodlands West Trail instead; but a little annoying to have made two mistakes at the end of the hike and to have extended it a little further, and a lot more uphill, than I’d anticipated.

A touch over nine miles; and although I lost track of time a little, about three hours. Not a bad hike. But not a great one.

I now have only one stretch of the Contra Costa Canal Trail to go, out to the far end in Pleasant Hill; I have a cunning plan for accomplishing this. More later.

Previous hikes on the Contra Costa Canal Trail:
  1. Contra Costa Canal Trail/Ygnacio Canal Trail loop (April 2005)
  2. Heather Farm–Citrus Avenue (June 2005)
  3. Walden Park–Lockwood Lane (August 2005)
and see also:
Categories: Hiking

Ygnacio Valley and the Starbucks on Mars

Out to the Ygnacio Valley library this morning, for a talk by Priscilla Couden, director of the Walnut Creek Historical Society.

Ygnacio Valley, until relatively recently, was entirely agricultural; first grain, then fruit, and then nuts—walnuts, in particular. Priscilla talked mostly about the Penniman Ranch, which is now the Shadelands Ranch Museum.

Engraving: No. 59 Home & Farm of H.P.Penniman, Ignacio Valley.

At the turn of the century, it was managed by Mary Penniman, one of the daughters of the family, who sounds like a remarkable woman doing a man’s job in a man’s world.

The Shadelands Museum has correspondence between Mary and other members of her family which paint a vivid picture of the day-to-day realities of ranching. It doesn’t sound like a happy life. Fruit farming was very sensitive to weather: a dry summer could result in a poor crop, and a wet autumn could ruin the drying process. (Most ranchers dried fruit—apricots, peaches, and in particular prunes—making it easier to transport without spoilage and allowing them to sell outside the short glut season of fresh fruit.) Purchase prices varied hugely; and labour costs were always a worry. (Ranch hands in the 1900s were almost all Japanese, and would be managed by an overseer who would pay them from a share of the profits.) The work was gruelling. And Mary, who feared becoming “an old maid” was dissuaded from marrying a suitor by her disapproving family, who feared he was a gold-digger.

A fascinating view into early Walnut Creek life. My favourite moment, however, was a recollection from one of the audience members, who moved to the area in 1954:

Driving up Oak Grove Road was like driving through a tunnel; the walnut trees met overhead. And then suddenly you’d come upon the Shell gas station; so unexpected, so out of place, as if the Pathfinder robot on Mars suddenly found a Starbucks.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Shell Ridge 7: Lower Buck Trail

I never seem to get tired of Shell Ridge, despite now having walked most of its trails; there’s always good hiking to be had. Today I went back north of the ridge to explore the Lower Buck Trail, before revisiting a few favourite trails.

It’s always hard to resist climbing up onto Shell Ridge itself, both for the views and for the climb itself; but today I have other plans. Starting at the trailhead on Marshall Drive, I head around the back of the ridge on Corral Spring Trail before heading north on Deer Lake Trail. The trail loops around Deer Lake before climbing up to the Lower Buck Trail.

Shell Ridge trail map, showing Deer Lake and the Lower Buck Trail.

What’s not immediately clear from the map is that the Lower Buck Trail is actually quite high up: it winds back and forth following the contours of the hills, with great views out over the valley.

Shell Ridge trail map, showing an oxbow loop on the Ridge Top Trail. From the end of the trail, I head south on the Costanoan Trail before picking up the Ridge Top Trail heading east. There’s an odd little oxbow on the trail, where it crosses the Costanoan to loop around a hilltop. Somehow, I always feel obliged to take the loop, even though the other end of it is visible 100 yards away.

I take the Briones–Mt. Diablo Trail back west before dipping down onto the Indian Creek Trail, which is quiet and a lot cooler than the sweltering heat on the north side of the ridge. Woodpeckers love the dead trees along the creek; one trunk is being worked on by a team of four acorn woodpeckers. Ground squirrels are very active here too, the creekbed echoing with their warning calls of peek! and chi-chi-chi-chik! Almost too active: a pair of startled squirrels burst out of the undergrowth right under my feet. I think they scared me more than I scared them. As someone acutely aware that he almost trod on a rattlesnake last week, I’m rather sensitive right now to sudden movement underfoot.

And finally, back up to the trailhead on the Briones–Mt. Diablo Trail. A quick 2-hour hike, about 5½ miles, but a very satisfying one. I was in need of some recharging, and this did just the job.

Categories: Hiking

Sunday, September 18, 2005

eBay: home of the brave, land of the scared?

Jeneane Sessum laments the good old days of eBay, and points out systematic and organised spamming of participants:

Today, eBay is a mess.

Spammers have infiltrated every mechanism and intersection point between buyer and seller. I’m not talking about the spam that everyone gets—whether you buy or sell on eBay or not—but instead the very specific event-driven spam that plagues and puzzles participants to the point of driving me off eBay until they get a handle on what matters.

For instance, soon after an item sells, sellers are inundated with “fake” users claiming to have been the high bidder, threatening to call the police if the item doesn’t arrive immediately, or pretending to have contacted you by accident in their attempt to reach a seller of a similar item. Everywhere someone is daring you to email them.


What was once an elegantly simple and vibrant marketplace is now a littered parking lot.
This is alarming, but not altogether surprising. Wherever there’s an open system on the web, it’ll be gamed by the inquisitive, playful, enterprising, or nefarious.

But you don’t need to be an active eBay participant to spot the litter in the parking lot. The spam we all get is indication enough that it’s not a neighbourhood for the unwary. The sheer determined volume of phishing emails I get, every day, trying to con me into giving up my passwords to fake sites, is a huge disincentive for me ever to join eBay or PayPal. If it looks and smells that bad from the outside, I wonder, is it really worth the risk and hassle to be inside? To say nothing of the extra work: if I joined eBay, would I then have to read all those dodgy emails to determine if any of them were genuine?

Jeneane paints a picture of eBay in decay, its fabric undermined by legions of scammers and by automation technologies which favour bulk and commercial sellers over everyday individuals. I’m not sure that’s entirely true; eBay obviously works well for many millions of its customers. But in a landscape littered with spams and scams, is eBay an inviting, or exciting, prospect for new customers any more?

(And does the litter-in-the-parking-lot effect extend further? Maybe so: the phishing spams I receive frequently target the big national banks, occasionally target the larger regional banks, but never seem to target any of the small local banks. Security through obscurity, maybe. But relative freedom from the attention of scammers does make banking with a local organisation a more attractive proposition.)

[Update: more thoughts from Jeneane.]

Categories: Spam

Friday, September 16, 2005

On English spelling

As it seems to be language week: here's something I clipped from Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language while ago, which brings home how gloriously irregular the English language really is. Try reading this poem aloud at a conversational pace:

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough, and through?
Well done! And now you wish perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead—it’s said like bed, not bead—
For goodness sake, don’t call it ‘deed’.
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose—
Just look them up—and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front, and word and sword,
And do and go, and thwart and cart—
Come! Come! I’ve barely made a start!

T.G.W., Manchester Guardian, 21 June 1954.
Why is English spelling so odd? Says Deutscher:

Although the conventions of spelling might not have changed much for nearly four centuries, the peregrinations of pronunciation have carried on regardless. And it is for precisely this reason that English spelling is so infamously irrational. […] It is unfair to say that English spelling is not an accurate rendering of speech. It is—it’s only that it renders the speech of the sixteenth century.
So, English spelling is frozen in time, while pronunciation shifts around it. Somehow, this rather appeals to me.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Way We Talk Now: Politically Correct

I have been greatly enjoying Geoffrey Nunberg’s The Way We Talk Now, a collection of his commentaries on language and culture from NPR's show Fresh Air.

In particular, this piece—from 1991—on the phrase politically correct still has resonances today:

The phrase politically correct begain its life as a bit of Marxist jargon. I suspect it was a direct translation of the German phrase politisch korrect, but that may itself have been a translation of a Chinese phrase of Chairman Mao’s.

In any event, the English translation is a happy accident for the cultural right. In the original, the word correct meant simply “right” or “true,” as it does in an English sentence like “Do you have the correct time?”—a nod to the doctrinaire Marxist view of history as an exact science. But the word has another meaning in English: when it’s applied to social behaviour, it suggests a conformity to superficial rules. You might ask which fork it’s correct to use with the fish course, or whether it’s correct to use like as a conjunction. But you probably wouldn’t ask about the “correct” way to tell your son that you’re disinheriting him.

So when the phrase politically correct came into the English language, it implied that the doctrines at stake were mere matters of fashion. Rhetorically, it does the same work that radical chic did a generation ago: it drapes the cultural left in tie-died T-shirts.
Since then, of course, the conservative right has successfully claimed the phrase political correctness as a sneering weapon to wield against liberals, often tacking on the amplifiers gone wild or gone mad to make it all the clearer how nutty these lefties, with their ideas of inclusivity and sensitivity, really are. This is a discourse not of debate, but of shouting down.

The power of language to shape opinion is still being used by conservatives today. Creationism, with its negative connotations of old-school fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism, is recast as Intelligent Design, a friendlier term which sounds rational, almost scientific. And solid old-fashioned accountability, which sounds like a positive force for democracy, is recast as the blame game and as finger-pointing, negative distractions to our right-thinking leaders.

Language has power; and the choice of words is often a political act.

(Nunberg published a new collection last year, Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Controversial Times, which I’m looking forward to reading when it arrives in the library. And here's Nunberg’s recent Fresh Air commentary on the language of Katrina.)

Monday, September 12, 2005

A cache of cachet

An error I’ve noticed a number of times recently, but only in American writing: spelling cachet (a mark or quality of distinction, individuality, or authenticity) as cache (a hiding place or a store of goods or valuables concealed therein).

From the Contra Costa Times, September 10, Downtown Living Expands (registration required; bugmenot):

Walnut Creek is attracting many other housing developers who also want to capitalize on the city’s cache as a Central Contra Costa County hotspot.
Paul Brian’s Common Errors in English includes an entry on cache and cachet, but discusses only the mispronouncation of cache as cachet. Why might cachet get misspelled as cache?

I suspect the line of thinking is as follows:
  1. cash-ay is a French word, isn’t it?
  2. French usually uses an -é ending for the “ay” sound, doesn’t it?
  3. But words we adopt from French tend to lose their accents, don’t they?
Well, yes, cachet is French. And yes, in French -é does make the “ay” sound. And yes, anglicisation does tend to knock accents off foreign words: café becomes anglicised to cafe, naïve to naive.

But not in this case. cachet has the -et ending, which in French is also pronounced “ay”: think of the American prediliction for pronoucing fillet as fill-ay. And it’s survived intact, in both pronunciation and spelling.

This was probably always an error that writers made from time to time. The rise of computerised spell-checking, as an adjunct to proof-reading, means that cache for cachet is more likely to slip into print undetected.

In fact, both cachet and cache share the same Old French roots. The Old French verb cacher, to press or hide, led to the French verb cacher, to hide, and from there to cache, a hiding place or hidden store; but also to cachet, which originally meant a seal on a document—hence the derivation from “to press”—before assuming a broader meaning as a mark or quality of distinction. And just to close the loop: in French, from cacher, to hide, you get caché, hidden, which shares the same cash-ay pronunciation as cachet.

I rather miss learning, and speaking, French. You’re much more likely to hear Spanish in California; maybe I should take a class.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Lime Ridge 4: Paraiso Trail Loop

I’ve been hiking Shell Ridge a lot lately, so yesterday we headed over for a hike in Lime Ridge Open Space which turned out to be a lot more exciting than expected.

Like last time, we start from Arbolado Park and head north on the Ygnacio Canal Trail, past the golf course; but this time, instead of taking the tunnel under Ygnacio Valley Road, we turn right into Lime Ridge Open Space and head uphill on the Blue Oak Trail.

Trail map of Lime Ridge Open Space: Blue Oak Trail.

Here there are more deer than I’ve ever seen in Shell Ridge: groups of three and four foraging in the shade of trees. They’re very timid, keeping a close eye on us, and when we get too close trotting off into the undergrowth, over the nearest ridge, or, in one thrilling moment, leaping away downhill like springbok. Somehow, it’s a lot more exciting than watching the herds of deer in Windsor Great Park; the Windsor herds were semi-domesticated, whereas the deer here are genuinely wild animals.

At the end of the Blue Oak Trail we take the Ridge Trail up to the transmission towers at the peak of the ridge, for a total climb of 800 feet. It’s not as tough going as the Lime Ridge Trail was on the last hike, but it’s still enough of a sustained climb to make reaching the top quite a relief. And in some ways, it’s a more interesting route than the Lime Ridge Trail: there’s a moment when the trail drops over the east edge of the ridge giving us a sudden, and dramatic, view of the quarried side of Mount Diablo.

From the peak, we continue south on the Lime Ridge Trail, which I’ve chosen carefully because it’s a lot flatter than the Crystyl Ranch Trail. It is, however, a hikers-only trail, which means it’s narrower and sandier.

Trail map of Lime Ridge Open Space: Lime Ridge Trail. And it’s here that we have our moment of drama. Melinda suddenly stops short behind me, looking at something on the ground. I’ve obliviously stepped over a large rattlesnake, stretched motionless across the trail. But not motionless for long: it starts angrily shaking its rattle before moving slowly off the trail and into the brush, rattling all the way.

Rattlesnakes, in the flesh, sound exactly like they do in the movies. And it’s a surprisingly scary sound, provoking a strong visceral reaction. You certainly don’t feel like getting any closer to it.

We tell ourselves that the snake’s almost certainly much more scared of us than we are of it, and that it reacted because it was startled, but I’m not sure either of us are fully convinced. After it’s safely away from the trail, we continue, but treading more heavily and with eyes firmly on the ground.

So, one more mark on my “dangerous native wildlife” checklist. Apart from poisonous snakes, California also has ticks (unpleasant in themselves, but also vectors for Lyme disease), mosquitoes (ditto, West Nile Virus), poison oak, various nasty spiders, mountain lions, and—although not in the Bay Area—black bear. A bit of a change from walking in Britain, where the worst you’ll face is nettles and horseflies.

Trail map of Lime Ridge Open Space: Paraiso Trail.

After the snake incident, the rest of the hike is uneventful. We head south on the Paraiso Trail, which approaches the new, large, but very close-packed homes in the Rancho Paraiso development before looping eastwards below them. The trail is quiet, wide, and flat. The views from this southern end of Lime Ridge are different, but not as striking as from the north. Finally, the Paraiso Trail cuts across the estate and heads north back to Arbolado Park.

A 3 hour, 6½ mile hike, although both the steep climb and the snakey adrenalin burst make it feel like longer. I’m not sure I’d bother with the southern stretches of the Paraiso Trail again, but there’s a lot to enjoy around the ridge.

Previous hikes in and around Lime Ridge Open Space:
  1. Crystyl Ranch Loop (March 2005)
  2. Lime Ridge/Contra Costa Canal Trail (April 2005)
  3. Lime Ridge Trail Loop (June 2005)
Categories: Hiking

Spamflagging SaturSunday

Well, oops, I forgot about Flag Day: we went out for a longish hike (report to follow, with an exciting incident halfway through) and it slipped my mind.

But hey, better late than never. Here’s a quick 100-Next-Blog’s worth. As usual, all links are nofollow. Flag away:

    “Internet foam info”
    “Online interactive voice response articles”
  3. Internet enya guide
    “Internet enya guide”
    “Helpful inuyasha articles”
    “Your maple bat resources”
    “Indian restaurant curry secrets”
    “Your plantar fasciitis resources”
    “Free toyota corolla information”
    “Internet driving under the influence guide”
    “Internet charlie chaplin resources”
    “Internet dashboard confessional resources”
    “SurfBoard Blogsite—AutoSurf Top Picks”
    “Internet custom coin articles”
    “Your darwin guide”
    “Your e harmony info”
    “Your internet software guide”
    “Your sugar glider guide”
    “Your softball gloves resources”
    “Free tandem bicycles articles”
    “Internet shu qi articles”
    “Helpful metallica ticket resources”
    “Online skateboarders guide”
    “Your gundam wing guide”
    “Helpful home center resources”
    “Helpful mansion info”
    “Helpful digest information”
    “memory information”
    “Your anthrax guide”
    “Helpful ads guide”
    “Free china woman information”
    “Helpful love spells resources”
    “Free aquarius articles”
Well, so much for keeping spam off Next Blog; today, 33% 32% of the blogs I visited were spam. Pretty poor.

There’s an obvious pattern here: all but 3 2 of the spam blogs look alike. Green “Son of Moto” templates; “guide”, “resources”, “articles”, and “info” titles; owners with a single name, one blog, no profile information; piles of posts containing, and linking to, news articles scraped from elsewhere; and dead AdSense blocks. Someone, or something, is trying to game Google, Blogger, and AdSense on a massive scale, creating fake blogs stuffed full of keywords in an attempt to lure in surfers searching for information and tempt them into clicking adverts. It looks like the AdSense team is onto this; but Blogger clearly isn’t yet.

In related news, all the spam blogs I identified last Saturday, and the Saturday before, are still up. So much for flagging as a community anti-spam action: it seems to make no difference whatsoever.

Biz Stone, writing on Blogger Buzz earlier this week:

Spam blogs are unique in that we have no qualms about rooting them out and bringing them to a desperate and violent end.
Oh really? Well, I’m still waiting.

(And finally: what on earth is a sugar glider? A small Australiasian possum, which glides between trees like a flying squirrel.)

[Update October 23 2005: the proprietor of SurfBoard Blogsite comments to disagree with my categorisation as spam. On second viewing, I'm inclined to agree: while the subject matter and presentation still come across to me as spammy, the the content seems genuine enough. Unflagged.]

Categories: Spam

Friday, September 09, 2005

Because blogging is basically navel-gazing...

…blogging tools are big on introspection. PubSub SiteStats are awfully pretty, but are they really useful?

PubSub SiteStats graph: LinkRank and Percentage for jameskew.blogspot.comPubSub SiteStats graph: Daily InLinks to
PubSub SiteStats graph: Daily OutLinks from jameskew.blogspot.comPubSub SiteStats graph: Daily Entries from

BlogPulse Profiles tries to pull keywords out of my posts, but doesn’t do a very good job—when did I ever mention Napoleon? (Once, here.) And the fact that it fails to find any of the keywords when I click them doesn’t inspire confidence.

BlogPulse keywords: junction, hummingbird, numbered, specifications, glimpses, silken, hikers, napoleon, journalists, garlic.

It is, however, right about the hummingbirds.

And Technorati now want bloggers to tag their blogs as well as their posts. I tend to lean towards Om Malik’s views on tagging: tags benefit first Technorati; second spammers, who game popular tags just as they game every other system on the web; and last me.

But, despite high-profile grumbles, Technorati is the search engine of choice of bloggers everywhere; so, I’ve dutifully set up a profile.

And look, I’m the only hummingbirds blog:

Technorati blog search: hummingbirds.

Undeservedly so, and probably not for long; check out the hummingbird and hummingbirds tags for more hummingbird activity than you could ever imagine, and for some spectacular photography. This set of hummingbird photographs is amazing; and the furious feeding activity in this photo rather puts our record of five hummingbirds to shame…

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Canal Trails: Heather Farm Night Walk

My first hike with East Bay Casual Hiking for months. There have been fewer hikes over the summer; but also, I seem to have been in a phase lately where I prefer to do my own thing than hike in an organised group. I’m not sure why. But tonight’s evening hike caught my eye, so I turned out to support it.

Plus, I thought, although it’s a short hike, I can walk up the Iron Horse Trail to the start at Pleasant Hill BART, which gets me some extra miles of exercise.

As it turned out, we were a small group—me, Dan, Phyllis, and Paul leading us—and we managed some decent distance. Pleasant Hill BART down to the Contra Costa Canal Trail, and a meandering tour through the gardens at Heather Farm. A cut through Diablo Hills Golf Course, a scramble over a fence—oops—and a crossing of Ygnacio Valley Road. Why does it always smell of rotten eggs here? Dusk. Onto the Ygnacio Canal Trail. “Let me know when you guys are ready to turn around”, says Paul, but none of us really want to crack first…

Trail map of Iron Horse Trail, Contra Costa Canal Trail, and Ygnacio Canal Trail, around Heather Farm.

Well, we do crack eventually; it’s getting dark, the wind is picking up a bit, and it’s a bit nippy. The first time since winter that I’ve felt cold on a hike. A left on San Antonio Drive, another left on San Carlos Drive, and we’re heading back towards Heather Farm. It’s really getting quite dark now. Back through Heather Farm; a detour to see the fountains, but much to Paul’s disappointment they’re not lit tonight. Back onto the Contra Costa Canal Trail, which is now really, really dark; a pair of headlamped rollerbladers glide out of the gloom towards us and vanish back into the night behind us.

At the junction with the Iron Horse Trail, we part company. I head south towards Walnut Creek, they head north back to the BART. And back in time to have only missed 15 minutes of Lost; although yet again, they’re skipping episodes

About two hours, and taking a bit of string to the map suggests we did about five miles. And four extra miles for me for the walk in from Walnut Creek and back. All flat miles, but still: a good stretch.

Categories: Hiking

Comment spam, and a Blogger feature request

I’ve had a little flurry of comment spam recently—new posts attract one or two spam comments within 30 minutes of posting—which makes me think of a little tweak Blogger could add to make my life slightly easier.

It’s this: on Blogger’s comment notification emails, include a link to a “delete this comment” page.

This’d make deleting spam a quick, easy process. At the moment, it’s a bit of a mess: follow the link to the post; refresh the page a few times to try to convince it that yes, I am logged in, and it should add the edit and delete icons; give up and pull up the “add a comment” page, where delete buttons also lurk; delete the spam.

Blogger’s “delete comment” page.

While I’m at it, some comment policy: I operate a zero-tolerance policy for comment spam. I will spot it; I will delete it; and quickly, too. I might err on the side of over-zealous; if it smells like spam, I’ll assume it is spam, so if you’re thinking of posting a genuine comment something like “great blog! check out my site here!” you might think about making it a little more personalised and relevant. I reserve the right to laugh, or rage, at particularly awful examples of spam.

In any case, given that Blogger sanitizes links in comments, and that most BlogSpot blogs are, like mine, two-bit affairs with smallish readerships and lowish PageRank: what on earth is in it for BlogSpot comment spammers anyway?

(Yes, I’m aware of the word verification option; but captchas—aargh, another awful neologism—have accessibility issues which I’d rather avoid.)

Categories: Spam

Monday, September 05, 2005

Angry but impotent

The more I read, hear, and see about the Katrina aftermath, the angrier I get. And I’ll bet I’m not alone.

I’m most angry about the complete lack of empathy expressed by the Bush administration. While people, poor American people, were suffering and dying in New Orleans, what was Bush doing? Strumming his guitar, and daydreaming about his Southern cronies’ rebuilt mansions. Mr. Bush: the poor are your people too. You’re supposed to care for, and protect, all of the people.

Shelley Powers made a very telling observation in the second of her trilogy (1, 2, 3) of post-Katrina articles:

Our current administration’s beliefs are that people are poor because they choose to be poor. As such, they are no longer the responsibility of the collective.
As an outsider in the US, I see the fumbling, the excuses, the arrogance, and the abandoment of responsibility as shocking. This is an embarassment; a national shame; and it feels like there’s little the people of the US can do to change that.

The third of Shelley's articles points out that citizens do have a vital role to play:

How could we have let this happen?

How? Easy: we let it happen.

We don’t vote for the best person for an office, and when we do put someone in office, we don’t hold them accountable.
Us resident aliens, of course, don’t get to vote at all.

More than anything else, this is pushing me towards thinking about citizenship. As a resident spouse of an American citizen, I can naturalize after three years of residence: nicely in time for the next Presidential election. Because the next time America chooses an administration, I want a say in it.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Shell Ridge 6: Borges Ranch

A short loop in Shell Ridge today, starting at Borges Ranch, a historic ranch dating back to 1899.

Borges Ranch lies just inside the eastmost edge of Shell Ridge Open Space; to the east lies Diablo Foothills Regional Park, and further east, Castle Rock Recreation Area. The road in is narrow, single-track with passing places; about the least Californian road I’ve seen since moving here. We park at the Bob Pond trailhead.

From Bob Pond, we take a counterclockwise loop, heading south on the Borges Ranch Trail past Borges Ranch itself before turning left on the Briones–Mt. Diablo Trail and, just after entering Diablo Foothills Regional Park, left again onto the Shell Loop Trail. Here the trail is lightly wooded; and just after the junction with Shell Ridge Trail, there’s a picnic table set under the trees where we stop to eat our sandwiches.

Trail map of Borges Ranch area of Shell Ridge Open Space / Diablo Foothills Regional Park.

At the end of the Shell Loop trail, we head north on the Castle Rock Trail. The trail passes Sulfur Spring, which although it looks dry is aptly named: it smells distinctly sulphurous. Castle Rock Recreation Area, below and to the east of the trail, is full of picnic tables, sports, and games facilities; but oddly, for a holiday weekend (Monday is Labor Day), it’s completely deserted.

North of Castle Rock, the trails seem to run out of names. We follow the trail a little further north, above and around the equestrian area—lots of stables, exercise rings, and fields, which would explain why we see so many horses on the trails around here—before cutting east on a steep climb up to the ridge. From the crest, we drop down onto the Borges Ranch Trail which takes us back to the trailhead.

A quick, short loop—about 3 miles, about 90 minutes. Castle Rock’s recreation is a little too organised for me; but it looks like there’s a lot more good hiking to be had deeper into Diablo Foothills.

Categories: Hiking

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Spamflagging Saturday, redux

Well now. All six spam blogs I identified and flagged last Saturday are still up; which rather confirms my suspicion that the best way to get BlogSpot spam taken down is to complain to Blogger directly about it, rather than simply flagging it.

Blogger’s filtering out of spam blogs from the “Next Blog” button seems to be effective; tonight I surfed through fifty blogs and only spotted two that were spam (links are nofollow, as usual):

I flagged ’em anyway, for the hell of it.

So, it’d seem that Blogger’s algorithms for spotting spam blogs work pretty effectively. The Blogger Buzz announcement describes them as “artificial intelligence”, which rather overstates things I think, unless Blogger is on the verge of self-awareness. Biz Stone is more realistic, using the phrase “spam-defeating algorithms” in a post which also mentions “Blogger engineers with an almost unhealthy obsession with defeating spam”.

And in the never-quite-as-bad-as-I-imagine-it department, a nice comment on my previous post from a Google insider: “They’re not going to continue to make spam blogs visible to search engines either. […] The Next Blog steps are just what were first to be released.”

OK. One step at a time. But please: keep on stepping.

Categories: Spam

By By Byline

Here’s an odd little wrinkle that I’ve been spotting for a while in a couple of the feeds I read in Bloglines. What’s wrong with this Salon feature?

Bloglines, showing article: Anatomy of an unnatural disaster, By By Michael Scherer.

…and with this SFGate (the online home of the San Francisco Chronicle) article?

Bloglines, showing SFGate article: In City Without Rules, Is Looting Ever OK?, By By ERIN McCLAM, Associated Press Writer.

The bylines are odd: “By By Michael Scherer”, “By By Erin McClam”. Why?

Here’s the relevant item in Salon’s RSS 0.91 feed, which uses the Dublin Core dc:creator extension to state the author, as RSS 0.91 does not specify an element for item authorship:

  <title>Anatomy of an unnatural disaster</title>
  <dc:creator>By Michael Scherer</dc:creator>
  <description>With FEMA gutted for Homeland Security and flood projects delayed for lack of funding, the New Orleans nightmare should surprise no one.</description>
and here’s the item in SFGate’s RSS 2.0 feed, which uses the RSS 2.0 author element:

  <title>In City Without Rules, Is Looting Ever OK?</title>
  <description>As New Orleans has descended into chaos, desperate residents have stolen ramen noodles, loaves of bread, cases of soda _ basic survival needs in a painfully empty city. Others have taken jewelry, TVs and even guns. The devastation left behind by...</description>
  <author>By ERIN McCLAM, Associated Press Writer</author>
  <pubDate>Thu, 01 Sep 2005 11:39:58 PDT</pubDate>
  <guid isPermaLink="false">/n/a/2005/09/01/national/a111817D22.DTL</guid>
Strictly speaking, this is an incorrect usage of the author element, which is specified as containing the author’s email address; however, this seems to be a pretty common misusage. (Note also the odd underscore, which is an em-dash in the published article: maybe this is an artifact of the article’s origin as a wire story?)

In both cases we can see what’s going wrong here. Both feeds stuff a full byline into an element which should really just hold an author name. Bloglines then helpfully takes the contents of the element that it believes holds the author name, and prefixes it with “By” to form a byline. And there we go: By By who?

To be fair to Salon and SFGate, this does not happen on all articles in their feeds. At Salon, it appears to be only feature articles which acquire the extraneous “By”. At SFGate, the extra “By” appears only on articles syndicated in from Associated Press. But still: a little more attention to detail, and to the relevant specifications, would result in a more professional appearance to readers of their RSS feeds.

Spam: is Blogger missing the point?

Blogger’s peculiar new take on the spam problem: don’t remove spam, simply hide it from casual view:

Today, we put some artificial intelligence to work in an effort to make “Next Blog” fun and useful again for readers of BlogSpot blogs. This is the first of several steps we are taking to root out spam blogs from Blogger and BlogSpot. What we learn from cleaning up “Next Blog” spam can eventually be applied to other areas such as our changes file so that services which depend on this file will also enjoy less spam.
Riiiight. So, you’re going to make it harder for humans to spot spam blogs; but you're going to continue to make spam blogs visible to search engines so that they can still do their evil link-stuffing work.

Ah: but it’s link-stuffing which—if you explore the spam blogs I identified last Saturday—always seems to lead back to pages laden with Google AdSense adverts. I’m beginning to think that Doc Searls was right: maybe it is all about AdSense. And who gets revenue from this advertising? The publishers—the spammers, in this case—and the broker: Google. Feh. “Don’t be evil”, indeed.

In other spammy news: Matt Haughey suggests an organised Flag Day for flagging spam. Blogebrity picks up the baton. I’m in, if for nothing else than to try to keep my neighbourhood tidy. But I’m not sure it’s going to make a jot of difference.

(And yes, patient reader: I do intend to move on from spam shortly.)

Categories: Spam