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I recently installed the Subscribe to Comments plugin on this blog. However, it seems to have attracted far too much spam. I’ve therefore disabled it again until a version is developed that’s a bit more hardy against spammers. You can always subscribe to an RSS feed for the comments on any post (as you can with any Wordpress-powered blog) by appending /feed to the permalink URL for that post.

The Acid Test

Smoothie Label Fun chemistry fact of the day: Acidity regulators regulate pH in general, not just acidity. Hence (presumably) why this smoothie bottle contains Citric Acid as an acidity regulator (my first thought was: shouldn’t it be an alkali?).

This is when I wish I’d done Chemistry A-Level rather than Further Maths.

Open Mapping Becomes Viable?

A long discussion with plv the other day about open source and what it really meant got me thinking about that model when applied to other domains, such as mapping.

Google have clearly made a success of Google Maps (I’ve discussed Google Maps before as compared to Multimap - not entirely favourably - but whatever I think, the market loves the former). Plenty of competitors have also sprung up, notably from Microsoft. Incidentally, Flash Earth brings together all of these services into one ultra-slick interface; although I’d still love to see them available on Jeff Han’s touch screen (iPhone, eat your heart out - your interface is nothing on this).

However, one thing all these services have in common is that the mapping data is (as far as I can tell) commercially licensed, ultimately from a governmental institution. In the UK, we have the Ordnance Survey (who actually produce excellent paper maps, even if their customer-facing technology is a little backward). The Ordnance Survey gets its revenue from licensing data, selling maps, and so on, rather than from general taxation (which is something that as a libertarian I can almost approve of; although it does raise the question of why the government needs to be involved at all, since there’s therefore clearly a market for the data). The closest equivalent in the US appears to be the USGS (which also has other functions).

It always used to be conventional economic wisdom that mapping (or, to be more precise, surveying) was a function that had to be performed by government, because it was so astronomically expensive - in other words, it cost more than the direct revenues one could possibly obtain (presumably the indirect benefit to society is supposedly significant, which is why we engaged in it). Whether you agree with the morality of this depends on your political views, but it is at least plausible. It’s interesting to see that the Ordnance Survey no longer seem to operate on this model, but clearly many folk still believe surveying should be done centrally.

Now technology might be able to change all of this. OpenStreetMap is showing how it might be done - using cheap GPS receivers, driving along streets, and plotting the resultant data (yes, I know the receivers rely on expensive satellites; but there are only a few of them; and they’d be there anyway). Obviously there’s a long way to go, as shown by the short list of places that have been mapped. There are obviously also concerns over completeness, accuracy, and so on (although most of these have an analogy in Wikipedia, too). However, the potential for these maps is huge if the concept does take off - Google Maps mashups would have nothing on the potential richness of data available. The real concern so far has to be over how many people are really interested in creating this data and keeping it up to date.

As with all futurology (aka: guesswork), time will tell.

Update 2006-01-16: A recent edition of the BBC radio programme In Business (available as a podcast) took a rather quaint look at open-source. Worth a listen as a discussion of how hard open-source is to sell, although not as a rigorous discussion of the technological and legal issues.


(This review is about the 2004 film directed by Paul Haggis; not the controversial 1996 David Cronenberg film of the same name).

I’ve never been more in two minds about a film than with Crash.

Crash is primarily about racial tension amongst a variety of characters who pop up all over LA. As I began watching, I was getting ready to lay into it for its rather childish and simplistic treatment of these racial divisions. At times, I found it almost insulting to the intelligence. The strongest characters were the cookie-cutter car thieves, who at first seemed to be placed there for some sick comic relief - not an encouraging sign. The film ran through the usual murmurings about stereotypes and making assumptions based on them (some wrong, some right). Roger Ebert thinks this it does well because it shows victimizers being victimized. I respectfully disagree - I think that’s somewhat of a cliché and that it would be more accurate and honest to keep it simple. Scott Foundas describes this position eloquently.

But a touching scene involving a gun and a little girl literally made me cry, and that was a turning point - in those three minutes the film mostly nullified its plodding and pretentious existence up to then. It starts to lay off the racial lecturing, and focus on the human beings involved, and so it becomes touching. Even the evil cop who commits a fairly disgusting assault at the start of the movie seems a decent human being in some significant way (although Wikipedia asserts that ‘[the cop] later relieves the viewers of his racist tendencies’ - an oversimplification if I ever heard one).

Nevertheless, Crash still had plenty of flaws. None of the performances were particularly stellar, although Don Cheadle and Michael Peña put in some solid work. The editing was a bit sloppy, and the whole presentation was a bit too detached and characterless for my taste.

Especially given the bitty storyline that involved so many characters, Crash reminded me of Magnolia - although Magnolia still far outshines it as a film of complexity and beauty. It’s easy to see why one might like Crash, but it’s also easy to see how one could hate it. This is a film I’ll be pondering over for a while yet.

Blog Moved

This blog has now moved to my new domain You shouldn’t notice any change if you are using a web browser or a well-designed feedreader to read it, as all parts of the old blog (including permalinks, RSS feed, etc.) should permanently redirect to the new one. You might just want to check that your RSS reader is pointing to the new blog though, or alter your browser bookmarks. The redirection will disappear in a few months. I’d appreciate it if you can let me know if you see any problems with the new blog.

Update 2007-01-13: I should add that some feedreaders will treat all the items in the feed as new, because the GUID will have changed. Just mark them all as read. Apologies for the inconvenience.

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