May 18th, 2009 by owenam

Hello again.

A handful of weeks ago Dreamhost, my hosting provider, detected someone trying to exploit some known vulnerabilities in the out-of-date copy of WordPress that powered Helpfully, they disabled the site and notified me. Unhelpfully, I didn’t do anything about it till now.

But look! I’ve now upgraded to the latest, indestructible version of WordPress! Helpfully, WP 2.7.1 happily sucked in and upgraded my old database so all the posts, comments, etc. are still here. Unhelpfully, it didn’t know what to make of all the little custom stuff I’d fiddled around with — i.e. the site theme and photo pages. Also, and inevitably, some part of the import/export/upgrade process screwed up all my pretty quotation marks. I’ll see what I can do about that bit. For the others, please enjoy, for the time being, the default WP theme and my flickr page.

Excuse Me While I Move To Europe

November 10th, 2008 by owenam

Doug pointed out an article that slipped past my NYT radar: European Support for Bicycles Promotes Sharing of the Wheels. Setting aside the overwrought title, it examines the astounding success European cities have had with bike-sharing programs. I’ve been following these mostly just through headlines, and am excited to see just how successful these programs have been, and how quickly they’ve grown, since Lyon kick-started the whole thing in 2005.

The sharing plans include not just Paris’s Vélib’, with its 20,000 bicycles, but also wildly popular programs with thousands of bicycles in major cities like Barcelona and Lyon, France. There are also programs in Pamplona, Spain; Rennes, France; and Düsseldorf, Germany. [...] The shared bicycles in Barcelona, Lyon and Paris are heavily used, logging about 10 rides a day, according to officials in these cities.

If we take those numbers at face value, that’s 200,000 Parisian bike trips per day that might not have happened otherwise. And what do the cities have to show for it?

Officials in Lyon, one of the first cities to institute a large technology-driven bike program, estimate that bike-sharing has eliminated tons of pollutants since its inception in 2005. But more than that, they say, it has changed the face of the city.

“The critical mass of bikes on the road has pacified traffic,” said Gilles Vesco, vice mayor in charge of the program in Lyon. “Now, the street belongs to everybody and needs to be better shared. It has become a more convivial public space.”

(I wonder if “critical mass” was an intentional word choice, or just an artifact of translation?)

Unfortunately, that point is going to be underappreciated because there aren’t any sexy statistics to go along with it. But it’s an important one. Calmer streets are safer streets, streets that people feel more comfortable using for things like walking, shopping, and dining. That could translate into a real economic benefit — but only for an area dense enough, and with land use varied enough, to realize that benefit.

So: could this work in America? There’s a program in D.C that hopes to find out. I suspect that it can if it is targeted correctly. In Minneapolis, I’d be optimistic for such a program that focused on Downtown, Uptown, Midtown, the University and near Northeast. Maybe I’m too pessimistic, but I’m not sure that, outside of those areas, the city has the density to provide enough short bike trips to allow a sharing program to succeed.

And, regarding the picture accompanying the article — are they STILL working on that damn cathedral?!

Videobama Games!

October 30th, 2008 by owenam

The Obama campaign has purchased ad space in 18 different video games, mostly racing and other sports games:

[A]ds for Obama’s presidential campaign have been spotted in Electronic Arts’ high-octane racer Burnout Paradise. An EA spokesperson today confirmed for GameSpot that the Xbox 360 version of the game has been playing host to Obama billboards since October 6. [...]

The EA representative said that the ads would appear in only 10 different states, most of them contested battleground states. Paradise City residents in Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Colorado, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, and Wisconsin are being targeted by the campaign. In the 2004 presidential election, all of those states except Wisconsin went to Republican incumbent George W. Bush.

Apparently, McCain approached Hasbro regarding the possibility of buying ad space in Scrabble but was turned down.

But seriously, I think this is genius. It’s cheap advertising aimed at increasing voter turnout among a group that is (by conventional wisdom, and likely by campaign research as well) already pro-Obama, targeted at states where this will make the biggest difference.

The ads themselves are clearly tuned for the medium and for the audience: the screenshot in the article shows a billboard with a headshot of the candidate and simple, non-issue message: “Early voting has begun /”. Including the URI was of course a no-brainer; the rest of the message shows some thought. I suspect that the Obama campaign views gamers as likely supporters who see voting as a chore to be avoided — in no small part because of the (perceived) necessity of getting up early and standing in long lines at the dumpy old VFW. Instead of simply offering Rock the Vote-style encouragement (and the accompanying guilt!), the ads attempt to remove some of those barriers.

There’s one other interesting thing going on which may not have been intended by the ad’s designers but which nevertheless works in their favor. Video games of all genres have a strong history of encouraging exploration and experimentation on the part of the player — racing games will often reward inquisitive players with hidden shortcuts, and even a straightfoward sports simulation might include humorous easter eggs. Instead of just “Vote For Obama,” which offers nothing new, the ads say “early voting has begun” — a bit more coy, but more importantly it provides an opportunity for discovery: a game-playing, Obama-supporting unlikely voter might initially visit the advertised site (especially when it is a quick alt-tab away!) merely out of curiosity about this “early voting” (is it better than the crappy VFW kind?).


October 30th, 2008 by owenam

The typically-conservative Economist gives its typically eloquent reasons for endorsing Obama:

[T]he exceptionally assured way in which he has run his campaign is a considerable comfort. It is not just that he has more than held his own against Mr McCain in the debates. A man who started with no money and few supporters has out-thought, out-organised and outfought the two mightiest machines in American politicsthe Clintons and the conservative right.

Political fire, far from rattling Mr Obama, seems to bring out the best in him: the furore about his (admittedly ghastly) preacher prompted one of the most thoughtful speeches of the campaign. On the financial crisis his performance has been as assured as Mr McCains has been febrile. He seems a quick learner and has built up an impressive team of advisers, drawing in seasoned hands like Paul Volcker, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. Of course, Mr Obama will make mistakes; but this is a man who listens, learns and manages well.

Absolutely. I love their point that the character and conduct of his campaign as a whole, and his ability to run such a campaign, was just as influential in their decision (in fact, I think they imply it was more so) than any specific issue therein — exactly the kind of thinking that eludes the typical American analysis. My sense is that an external viewpoint is even more valuable in this election than others.


October 27th, 2008 by owenam

Messing around with the blog again after much chiding. Of course that deserves a WordPress upgrade and a new semi-randomly chosen theme, about which I’m still undecided.

I’ve also removed the old Ghotifish Galleries page. As nice as D’s old photo code was, I’m moving the pictures over to flickr since the extra simplicity will (hopefully) get me posting more stuff to look at. Also, you can now go there and subscribe directly to my photostream.