The green broken record

2009/10/31 Comments off

The mid-sized college town where I currently reside prides itself on being a healthy, decent place to raise your kids. Decent schools, safe neighborhoods, lots of volunteerism, good old-fashioned American values. So in the spirit of civic responsibility and making the community an even better place, the university and the mayor’s office put on a couple of sustainability conferences this year. All well and good—we got to hear a bit from local officials or experts about what’s being done or what might be done to create a sustainable community, have a cookie or two (while I am not a grad student, the free cookie bribe still has a wickedly strong pull), and then meet in smaller groups to discuss possible action items. These groups were divided into higher education, business and community as a way to focus the brainstorming.

I attended the community session both times. At the first conference, quite a large number of community activists attended and the session got a little heated in the traditional diehard greenie vs. evil business owner way. The second time around, we seemed to have lost the unaffiliated community activist crowd (i.e. most attendees worked for a green business, a local or state enviro agency, a local-ish university, etc, but not the guy trying to organize folks in his neighborhood to protect green space or what have you). So the session did not involve any heated arguments and instead devolved into a different, but still traditional, let’s brainstorm about eco-friendly things we could do to make the place better. Like educate people about recycling, water and energy conservation, walkable communities, etc. The only vaguely original idea I heard was using woody biomass to supply all of the energy needs of the university (good luck with that, really).

And that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? We’re still having the same conversations; we’re still talking about the same solutions; we’re still holding on to this idea that we just need to educate people more and the problems will magically go away. Let’s take recycling, since that was one of the main themes at the session. The action item that a lot of people agreed on was that we needed more education programs to get homeowners and businesses to recycle more. Because it was a lack of awareness that’s the problem.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had recycling education in some way or another for twenty-something years. So at this point a lot of those kids who have heard about recycling and how important and easy it is for years are parents and employees. Their kids are getting the same education about recycling. And yet, the common complaint is that the neighbors aren’t recycling, just look at all of that cardboard and plastic stacked up on the curb. And these same people, educated about recycling, aren’t recycling at the office either. So, yes, absolutely, what we should do is try educating people more because we just haven’t told them enough about recycling to get the response we want.

This is when I brought up some of the things people have tried with nudges, that concept of tweaking something in the environment to get people to make the preferred choice. I was thinking about my power bill rather than recycling and comparing the experiences here with those I had in Arizona. My Arizona bill included a chart showing my usage over the last year; my current bill just acknowledges the amount I paid the previous month. So here, unless I go back to previous bills, I can’t really tell if I’m doing better or worse this month or compare this month to last year. There’s no feedback, positive or negative. (There’s a power or water company out there that experimented with adding emoticons to the bills to encourage conservation—a smiley if you conserved power or water and a frown if you hadn’t. That little addition was enough to get people to start changing their habits. And I can’t come up with the link right now, sorry.) I have the education; I know that I should conserve power, but I don’t have any easy way to see the results. Given that my life is relatively straightforward, i.e. no spouse or kids to worry about, and yet I still don’t feel like I have the time to spend tracking down previous usage totals for comparison, how do we expect people with lives to do it?

We know the answer—they’re not. And so we’ve missed an opportunity to push them towards the outcome we want. Obviously, recycling is a little trickier. It would require, probably, instituting a pay as you throw billing method and curbside pickup (seriously, if I have to pay to recycle and there are easily four different recycling pickup companies, that is kind of a lot of trouble to go through; no wonder adoption rates are low). We have to start giving people easier ways to incorporate eco-friendly actions into their daily lives. And feedback to give that little extra something to motivate them to do it.

But the session ended; my groupmates looked at me like I was nuts when I brought up nudges; and everyone went home feeling pretty good about themselves for doing something good. Status quo, really.

Update: New York Times article about zero waste waste management. Although I hesitate to call required composting and recycling and a national park’s switch to bioplastics a nudge to get people to recycle. They haven’t really made a choice to do those things.


Watersheds are everywhere

2009/10/23 Comments off

Everybody is talking about the Pacific garbage patch these days, following the return of at least one trip out to study it. Which is good because the garbage patch is a troubling thing. But this video just tweaked me a bit (view it here at Treehugger). At one point, a very earnest woman says that the landfill is in the watershed! OMG, not in a watershed! And that right there is the problem. Lady, everything is in a watershed. Every landfill, every house, every coal plant, every car. And almost every watershed is part of a larger system that eventually reaches the ocean (the Great Basin is closed, but not so many people live there so for this discussion we’ll just ignore them). So of course the landfill is in a watershed. And that means that what goes to the landfill has the potential to reach our waterways and the ocean.

That statement just had this kind of NIMBY-ish feel to it. Sort of like “The landfill is in a watershed. Watersheds are these special things. I must not be in a watershed.” You put fertilizer on your lawn—it’s in the watershed. Your neighbor sprays his fruit orchard—it’s in the watershed. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is funneled straight into the ocean. Stuff gets in the fish, in the plants and in the soil. So get a grip and remember, everything is in a watershed.

Watersheds in Massachusetts

Watersheds in Massachusetts

ModelBuilder fun

2009/10/07 Comments off

Quick tip – when ModelBuilder (ESRI ArcGIS) starts pulling the whole invalid input/input tables don’t match rigamarole, it doesn’t seem to help to just  run the validator or restart ArcMap. At least for my last model marathon, it actually wouldn’t run until the computer was rebooted. And now, no problems. Just another bit of wacky weirdness for ArcGIS.

Categories: Coding, GIS Tags: ,


2009/10/06 Comments off

I moved a few years ago from a large metro area to a medium-ish metro area. My commute dropped from 25-45 minutes each way to just over 5 minutes. Hooray for me, I’m saving the world! Well, at least some carbon. And even though it’s cut down on the driving and the gas bills, it’s come with a bit of a downside. I used to resolve a lot of design and coding issues driving and now I’m home and focusing on other things before the brain can wrap around the day’s fun. I haven’t found anything else to replace that nice chunk of time.

Alternatives for inspiration while driving:

  • shoveling snow (unfortunately cannot be relied on, even in winter)
  • raking (again, pretty seasonal)
  • showers (a traditional standby)

There must be other minimally distracting tasks that leave enough room for problem-solving out there. I definitely don’t want to shovel more snow than I have to.

Categories: Coding Tags:

Real-time twitter trends map

2009/09/22 1 comment


A new web app that displays the trending topics by location in near real-time. When you select one of the tags, the Introduction box displays a little sparkline for the region and the world as well as recent tweets with the topic. It’s pretty basic—all of the map tools are related to zooming. My main issue is with the info box on the right. That thing doesn’t move (although it does resize if the rending topic doesn’t have much to it) and it obscures part of the map. Why not just make it a column in its own right and not interfere with the map?

Anyway, it gives you an idea of the inanity of twitter without having to actually go to twitter, so there’s that.

Categories: GIS, Technology Tags: , ,

Quickly, quickly

2009/09/16 Comments off

Small rant.

Knowing that there is a button or menu (or even where the button or menu is) to do something in a GIS package does not actually mean that you how to do something in GIS. Adding the default compass image to a map does not make you a cartographer. Being able to make a surface with kriging doesn’t mean you know what that means or if it’s appropriate or why maybe the defaults aren’t the best idea for the task at hand. It’s something that is spoken about pretty often in graphic design circles—the democratization of design because the tools are so accessible leads to a whole lot of people doing a whole lot of really bad work and a whole lot of attitude. And it certainly doesn’t qualify you for an actual paying job. If you are one of those people with the one class, here’s some advice—shut up and listen to the people with more experience. Do not think that doing an assignment in a lab has really prepared you to say “I know how to do that” and not follow instructions. And don’t think that with no experience you should be running around at your job or your grad office refusing to do what you’ve assigned to do because it doesn’t interest you. You have to earn that and you earn that by doing and by making an effort to learn. Checking out one out of date book doesn’t cut it. Do something. Do it again (it probably had problems the first time around). Make it better. Don’t just keep doing something the same way that you did once over and over again (unless of course the task is spelled out for you in detail, then do that). Why exactly would you think that anyone would let you near anything more interesting to do if you haven’t shown them that you can do anything at all?

Sometimes I see kids I know have only had one mediocre class running around with chips on their shoulders and the attitude that they are GIS experts and I just picture them as the robot in Lost in Space with the arms flailing and the repetitive “Danger! Danger!” And then I think that really the world would be well served if they did in fact run around shouting “Danger! Danger!”  so that everyone understands that they in fact know just enough to be dangerous. And with limited logic so growth is unlikely.

Categories: GIS Tags:

Trying to put The Daily WTF out of business

2009/09/03 Comments off

Well, they’re no Canadians (with the always funny Corner Gas), but whoever thought that replacing the Microsoft error messages with haikus in Japan ranks pretty high on the comedy scale.

A crash reduces
Your expensive computer
To a simple stone.

This happened twice this morning:

Chaos reigns within.
Reflect, repent, and reboot.
Order shall return.

The fate of my master work schedule:

Having been erased,
The document you’re seeking
Must now be retyped.

which I did not retype. Too depressing.

Pick a flash drive or the Program Files partition (hint, IT boys, 10GB or even 20GB is not enough in these days of massive MS bloat):

Out of memory.
We wish to hold the whole sky,
But we never will.

Lost count after the morning’s crashes:

Program aborting:
Close all that you have worked on.
You ask far too much.

Pick a day, like tonight at 9 on the drive back to the office to reboot the piece of junk:

Serious error.
All shortcuts have disappeared.
Screen. Mind. Both are blank.

Oh noes, where did SharePoint go!?

Stay the patient course.
Of little worth is your ire.
The network is down.

When the Google-fu fails me:

The Website you seek
Cannot be located, but
Countless more exist.

You step in the stream,
But the water has moved on.
This page is not here.

So every time the thing crashes or the app borks:

Three things are certain:
Death, taxes and lost data.
Guess which has occurred.

I think I might get this on a shirt for Halloween. So much scarier than some random zombie.

Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.

Because, really, why would it be where you left yesterday?

With searching comes loss
And the presence of absence:
Your file, not found.

Windows and coding:

Yesterday it worked.
Today it is not working.
Windows is like that.

Size matters:

Your file was so big.
It might be very useful.
But now it is gone.

until it’s gone.

via Let ε < 0. via Laura RuneMercury H.