Space between my ears: You Have To Be Flexible

For the last few years, I’ve been doing all my interactive mapping development using ESRI’s Flex API. If you know me really well, you’d realize that’s a pretty big deal. No, wait, that’s the mother of all big deals. Now I should give a little background – no less than five years ago, I once declared that anyone who develops in Flash should be punched in the head, kicked down a hill, and be required to write Assembly for the rest of their professional lives using nothing more than an ZX81 Sinclair Computer. You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger Flash hater than me. Yet a couple of years ago, I found myself turning to the thing I hated most to get my day to day job done. The transition wasn’t easy. I sneered and drug my heals the whole time I was learning it. I said all sorts of bad things about Adobe, about Adobe’s developers, about ESRI’s choices in business partners, even about myself. I took long showers in the morning to attempt to keep the ‘Flash stink’ off of me. I even started avoiding Jesse in the halls because he would just sigh sadly and shake his head (Sue was ok to talk to because she was doing C#, so she knew all about programming in languages nobody likes or uses :). Honestly, it was a mess.

Here’s the thing that really took me by surprise – I found out I kinda like Flex. Strike that – I actually really like Flex. Once I got used to its particularities, the code was actually fairly elegant and simple. Skinning is really cool. I love the theoretical ability to separate form from function. I say ‘theoretical’ because in practice I’ve noticed people tend to just bundle the two together. I like the mix of XML based approaches and actual scripting. The modularization is rather nice. The ability to ‘draw’ my components on the screen is unlike anything I’ve ever used before in web development. I really like the fact there are multiple ways to do things. If I can’t get the skinning to work, I can turn to CSS to get the job done. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a bunch that annoys me about Flex. For instance, datagrids just suck. They’re ugly and annoying and I hate them. And who’s bright idea was it make it impossible to access a pure database via Flex directly? I gotta drop to another language to pull it off? Annoying. But that’s not really the point of this piece. The point is that I found out Flex was actually really powerful and allowed me to quickly create Rich Internet Applications with little to no cross browser testing.

Allow me to digress for a minute and underscore that last point – little to no cross browser testing. Anyone who has developed for the web will tell you the biggest pain in the rear is getting it to work the same way on different browsers. For whatever reasons, the browser people can’t come together and agree on one rendering engine. Really, that’s all we ask as developers – make the thing work the same in all browsers. Is that too much to ask? Every minute of time I spend trying to get things to work the same in four different browsers makes me want to send a bill for my time to Microsoft, Google, Mozilla Foundation, and Apple. I’m doing their work and I’m not happy about it. But as I said, I digress.

Where am I going with all of this? The point I’m trying to make is that we developers have to remain flexible in our approaches. Right now, the whole area of Rich Internet Applications is in turmoil. Silverlight looks abandoned, Flex has been pretty much tossed aside by its creator, Adobe, and HTML 5 isn’t even technically approved as a standard until 2014. We are kind of caught jumping from one cliff to the other. A whole lot of people are talking about HTML 5 as the future, but we aren’t there right now. As of this writing, I have three browsers on my computer. When I do an HTML 5 test (http://html5test.com/), Chrome version 21 gets 437 points out of 500 for HTML 5 compatability. Firefox 15.0 gets 346 points. Internet Explorer 9 gets a depressing 138 points. You can easily see how developers are going to have to fall back into cross browser testing hell fairly quickly. That saps development time and resources that are in scarce supply. My ultimate point is that HTML 5 still isn’t prime time.

Muddying the waters even further is the whole issue of mobile. I’m not sure I’ve been in a development meeting anytime in the last year and mobile wasn’t brought up at least once. It’s out there and it’s something with which we have to contend, like it or not. Do you go HTML 5 on a mobile browser so it works everywhere (in theory)? Do you go native? Do you sink the resources to do Android AND iOS, never mind leaving people like Sue running Windows Phone out in the dark?

The truth is there is no silver bullet for today’s Rich Internet Applications, mobile or otherwise. Everyone is rightfully scared their platform of choice, be it Flex or Silverlight or any other, will go the way of Cold Fusion as a ‘used to be useful’. Recent trends in web development have underscored Responsive Web Design, which is designed to adapt your application to whatever form factor the user is using, be it a small hand held, a tablet, a desktop, or even a large CAVE environment. It’s a noble goal and I’m sure lots of people doing Responsive designs will tell you the day to day constraints of budgets and timelines have a major impact on how ‘responsive’ the final project is capable of becoming. I believe we need to adopt a Responsive Mapping Design. Certainly there are steps in this direction – the expansion of web standards to include rather advanced features like location, multimedia, or storage functions; the expansion of frameworks like dojo or jquery to make legacy technologies like javascript more responsive; and the use of more capable and ever evolving APIs, such as ESRI’s web APIs, Google’s, or social media stores like Twitter, Flickr and the like. That all helps. But again, they’re no silver bullets.

What they do is underscore the importance of responsiveness in current and future Internet Mapping projects, and by ‘responsive’, I’m referring to developers and developing environments. We have to remain ever responsive because the world in which we work is ever changing, perhaps more so than ever before. The skills we learn today may serve us little beyond the abstract tomorrow. And that’s pretty darn scary. But it’s also pretty exciting. It’s a lot of work keeping up, remaining flexible, and responding to changes. It’s also kinda rewarding.

John Snow Meme

I humbly submit to the geography faithful these two memes I just created

cholera-is-coming

you-know-nothing-john-snow

EDITED:

One of our readers, Catholicgauze as he likes to be called, has crafted this in response. Bravo!

snow 2

Let’s keep the ball rolling everyone! 🙂

The Geography of Abortion Access in the US

Obviously abortion is a hot button topic in the United States. It has become even more so with the recent passing of the 40th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that largely made it legal in the US. I won’t touch the political bent to this with a 10′ scale bar, but I do think it always helps to know the geography of the landscape, no matter your bent on an issue. The Daily Beast has a nice interactive map that shows access points and driving times for women to reach those points. You can even turn on a layer showing the female population over 15. As you mouse over the map to different clinics, the map reports the driving times for a radius from that point, and it reports the legal constraints of that particular state, as they vary greatly from state to state. If you want to see a more holistic view of those restrictions, you can click on the buttons on the left to see layers showing things like average wait times, ultrasound restrictions, or insurance issues. Again, no comment on the political issue itself, but I think it is important to be aware of the landscape.

Via io9.com.

Moon’s Gravity Mapped To The Micron

Gizmodo has a really cool article about NASA’s attempts to map the moon’s odd gravity down to the micron. Two orbiters around the moon are part of the GRAIL program have been tasked with measuring the moon’s micro gravity in an attempt to understand the moon’s interior structure. The two orbiters have been collecting data since New Year’s day, 2012, so they’re about to hit their one year mark (and thus potentially get to sign up for medical insurance 🙂 …. is this thing on?) One of the neater aspects of this program is that the orbiters are fitted with remote cameras. Middle school kids actually get to control the cameras remotely for science projects at school. It’s all part of NASA’s MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students). Man, I wish there had been stuff like this when I was in middle school….

Why Red States Are Red And Blue States Are Blue

Has anyone else given this a lot of thought? Why does red = Republican and blue = Democrat in the US? Would it surprise you to find out that convention really didn’t fully catch on until as late as 2000? I can remember as a kid seeing a sea of blue on TV when Reagan got elected in 1980. Then I remember seeing a sea of red when he won again in 1984 with 49 of the 50 states and it kinda confused me. Well my confusion has been cleared thanks to this wonderful article by The Smithsonian. Take a few minutes and read all about the history of this cartographic phenomena in US political mapping. I personally really enjoy the side stories for the ‘why’ that are easily debunked. It makes for fun reading!

Also – if you’re eligible to vote in the US, go out and vote!

Sandy Explained

NASA has given a great explanation of how and why Sandy behaved the way it did. Score several for remote sensing, climate science, and meteorology!

Via Gizmodo

Google Adds Amber Alerts to Maps and Search Results

Google has started adding Amber Alerts to its map and search results. They’re doing this through a partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Basically, they’re combining the local search information with NCMEC’s Amber Alert system. It should include any descriptive information and how to contact the system if you happen to know anything about the missing child.

It’s good to see companies using their technology to help communities and I hope other companies help these efforts in any way possible.

Scientists Convicted of Manslaughter for Failing To Predict Earthquake

We’ve been following this news item for some time, and I have to say I, for one, never dreamed these scientists would be convicted. An Italian judge has decided six scientists and one government official are criminally negligent for failing to predict the L’Aquila earthquake. They face up to 6 years in jail for their actions. The judge was quick to point out the verdict isn’t based so much on the lack of prediction as their failure to adequate phrase their warnings in a sufficiently alarming way. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say this is going to have a drastically chilling impact on scientific reporting, particularly in Italy. I’d like to say something hopeful out of this, but frankly it is all quit too depressing.

Clever Google Maps Manipulations by Christoph Niemann

The Path to Rebates

Anyone who spends more than an hour around me knows I like clever word manipulations. Yep, I find them punny. Christoph Niemann has just taken this to a whole new level with Clever Google Maps Manipulations. Some of them are funny (like My Way or the Highway) and some of them are pretty nifty visual illusions. I personally like the one above best as I’ve gotten HORRIBLY lost on Mail-In Rebate Way on more than one occasion. Either way, they’re a good reminder that maps can be as much art as information.