Americans Use A Lot of Gas

There’s so much going on with this article in Jalopnik that I love. Let me break it down for you in rough order. First…. cars and geography and we all know how I feel about those. Second, the point of the article, which is to show we use a lot of gas in the US. But those are just the superficial, kinda uninteresting bits, especially to geographers.

The really cool part for me rests in a two things. This is an excellent example of how to lie with maps, or at least deceive. We know the US uses a lot of gas, but where and why is a bit of a mystery. One theory is the ‘fly over’ states tend to have older and less efficient cars and most importantly trucks. Furthermore, they tend to drive greater distances because they’re more spread out than an urban area like NY or LA. If you use the swipe bar in the middle (more on that in a second), you can flip between two views of the data. The left map shows annual gallons of gas used per capita and it clearly shows the middle of the country is the worst offenders. Again, the efficiency plus distances would make sense for the average person to use more gas than someone in an urban or suburban environment. However, the picture changes dramatically when you look at the map on the right. Here we see not per capita use, but total use, and it’s the more urban areas that tend to be the worst offenders. As Jalopnik points out in the text, the math is pretty clear – it’s because there’s more people. Even if a large number of people only drive a short distance in highly efficient cars they can still use a lot more gas per year than a small number driving large distances with inefficient cars. So how do you lower gas use? Thus far the focus has been upon fuel efficiency standards, but it looks like that might not be the only approach to take to tackle the problem. I just love the idea you can look at the same data totally differently and get a completely different compelling argument. It’s kinda awesome, I think.

And to round it out, the final really cool thing about this post is the great use of a swipe for displaying two maps. We use it a lot in our professional work as GISers, but I’d love to see more use like this ‘in the wild’ so to speak. It’s such a compelling way to present counter arguments just like this.

CAFE Standards for Cars in the US

We all know greenhouse gases are all in the news the last decade or so. On top of that, fuel dependency gets a lot of airplay. Those two things drive a lot of the decision making for car fuel economy standards. In the US, that’s translated into a rather arcane system called the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards. Jalopnik has a pretty good breakdown explaining the logic and implications behind CAFE standards. CAFE regulations have had a huge impact on car development around the world, particularly in the US. Ever wonder why small trucks like my personal favorite, the VW Rabbit Truck aren’t made anymore? Completely counter to logic, it’s actually the CAFE standards that have driven these more efficient vehicles out of production. Ever wonder why modern small cars go from pristine to ‘totaled’ even in relatively small wrecks? Again, CAFE standards drive much of this. Yet most people really don’t understand how and why CAFE standards work.

If you’re even remotely interested it either fuel economy, greenhouse gas issues, or cars, check out the link for a great breakdown. It’s really worth your time.

World’s Oldest Message In A Bottle

First, let it never be said I passed up an opportunity to make a The Police reference.

Now that we have that over, The Guinness Book of World Records has officiated the oldest note in a bottle ever found. The note is over 98 years old and it is an old National Geographic note from a 1914 scientific study concerning ocean currents. The note asks people to return the bottle to Captain C. Hunter Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation. Apparently they released nearly 1,900 bottles but only got back a bit over 300. That seems about right for survey return rates, I think 🙂

The $6,000 Car for Africa


Cars + Geography = Frank in heaven. The car company Mobius Motors has created what is for gearheads like me might be darn near perfect car. The founders of Mobius recognized that access to transportation is critical to modern existence. Anybody doing, say, site location work will tell you one of the biggest factors is how far people have to travel to get to the service. Africa isn’t known for it’s bustling transportation infrastructure and thus any cars that operate there have certain challenges. They have to be cheap. They have to do a lot of different things well. They have to be rugged. They have to be fixable. In short, they have to go like Stig. The Mobius concept is to realize all of these in one vehicle. The drive train is the garden variety Toyota that’s everywhere. The frame is everyday tube steel. The body parts are mostly flat panels you can replace with any other flat panels. It’s a solid 4×4 offroader. It’s back can seat 8 in the old school Land Rover Series 2/3 fold up seats. Fold’em up, and suddenly it’s truck. The Mobius is a true SUV, but its also a delivery truck, a hospital truck, a cab, a pickup… it’s pretty much whatever you want. And it’s super cheap for a new car – a mere $6,000.

Let me tell you, I’d LOVE to get one of these in the US, although I expect safety standards would keep it from being street legal. It seems like the perfect all around ticker with it until it rusts apart type of car. So a gearhead salute to Mobius Motors for one cool little car!

The Cost of Carbon

Ars Technica is reporting that some researchers are having issues with the US’s pricing of carbon emissions. The price of carbon emissions is notoriously difficult to pin down, but these researchers are suggesting the US might have missed the mark by as much as a factor of 12. The problem centers around the discount rate, which is the cost of not spending the money on other uses, such as interest or capital investments, for instance. Apparently the researchers claim the US is setting this rate too high. They do not seem to be factoring in certain work that’s been done not just within climate change research, but also with economics and discount rates more broadly. It seems to me this shows an interesting interplay with different social and physical disciplines. Often what’s going on in one area isn’t translated or accounted for in another. Then policy makers have to come up with some sort of semi-educated guesstimate of how to integrate all of this stuff into a cohesive policy. It’s a thorny issue that’s beyond just climate change. However, I unsurprisingly believe we geographers might be a good nexus point within disciplines for just these sort of complex issues. Perhaps we should get involved more deeply with these sorts of estimates to attempt to redress such widely variant estimations. That’s not to discount the important work geographers are already doing, but just to suggest maybe we can get a little more vocal about our great work and how we can contribute.

Space between my ears: There’s A Quality About This Stuff…

I love to cook. My wife says I’m pretty good at it, although that could just be an attempt to not have to cook herself. We don’t have cable so I don’t get to watch many cooking shows. However, occasionally when we travel, I get the Food Network… then I become a couch potato. I’m hooked on watching people compete by preparing different dishes in different ways. I especially love the ‘random box of stuff’ sort of competition where the chef needs to work out something delicious from a collection of ingredients. That’s some real creativity there.

What I don’t love about these shows is the judging part. This collection of experts sits down and looks at their food, smells their food, and tastes their food rendering a ‘this is better than that’ decision. Now I’m no expert (I’m hardly a decent cook, much less a chef or a food expert), but it all seems so arbitrary to me. However, I’ve noticed a bit of linguistic turn coming into the descriptions from the judges. There are what I’d dub ‘axis’ words, such as ‘acidic’, ‘sweet’, ‘sharp’, and ‘bright’. Then there are more descriptive words that seem to modify that a bit, such as ‘tangy’, ‘flavorful’, ‘steep’, ‘heavy’, ‘light’, etc. Finally, there are some comparison words used, most normally ‘balance’ and ‘counter’. So you might hear a description such as, “I like that you balanced the heavy sweetness with a flavorful acidic quality.” To my quantitative ear, it almost sounds like these professional chefs and judges have this sort of equation in their head that moves along the axis of acidic, bright, and sweet. It is as if there is an attempt at an extremely loose quantification of what is basically a qualitative thing. How do you impose a sort of equation on what’s basically opinion? I don’t like raw tomatoes, so anything with raw tomatoes is going to trend ‘negative’ for me personally despite their utility in providing an acidic quality to the food equation. The point being, any one person’s mileage may vary here.

Now let’s jump to geography and GIS. Lately I’ve been straddling the divide between qualitative and quantitative data. We like quantitative data because you can measure it, you can compare it, you can mathematically transform it, if it relates to space you can map it, you can color it…. you can do all sorts of things to it. Not only that, we can represent that in known ways with agreed upon conventions. Things like gradients or relative shape sizes have been reasonably well worked out. We tend to know what to expect, and in fact we recoil when they’re not what we expect. Quantitative data doesn’t present us with much challenges. Qualitative data is a whole ‘nother critter. We don’t always know what to do with qualitative data. We can’t even agree if it has much utility or not (editors note: WHAT? Blasphemy!). We certainly don’t know how to store it in transformable forms, or even how we’d like to transform the information. We don’t know how to compare it, or even if it is comparable. And the issue of representation? That’s so far out there and varied it’s barely on the radar.

You can certainly see why judges seem to be attempting to ‘quantify’ these qualitative measures. With numbers you can work out a ‘winner’ – feelings, emotions, tastes are a LOT harder because of their subjectivity. However, I think we lose so much when attempt to boil down these complex flavors and aromas into a comparable framework. How can we capture that information and still retain the ability to compare, contrast, and represent in agreed upon ways? I’m going to do the thing I hate the most and cop out because I don’t have an answer. To be honest, I don’t think there is ‘an’ answer but a series of answers we have to work out.
Continue reading “Space between my ears: There’s A Quality About This Stuff…”

What File Compression Is The Curiosity Rover Using?

It’s fair to say we over at VerySpatial are big space nerds. And it’s fair to say we’re also pretty big remote sensing nerds. When the guys over at BoingBoing got to ask any question they wanted, they asked a pretty cool one about file compression (scroll down to see the answer). Sending images from Mars and back takes a bit of work and time, which means file compression has to be used. But we all know that we want as loss less file compression as possible, so what’s NASA to do? They turned to a custom implementation that uses a wavelet approach similar to Jpeg 2000. The difference in their compression is that it’s less computationally intensive, which means lower powered CPUs (both in computing and energy needs) can be used to create the compressed images. Pretty cool, huh?

ESRI 2012 UC Livecast!

Esriuc 2012 

First, no geobloggers tables so typing here is going to be a major, major pain. So please excuse the brevity, typos and other errors.  Second, the wifi is as wonkey as you’d expect when 15k geo nerds hit it at the same time.  They’ve dimmed the lights and we’re off with the customary intro video.  Jack takes the stage.   Giving us our welcome and telling us to say howdy do to the neighbors. As normal, I’m typing this instead :). So virtual howdy do to those reading now.

  I just jury rigged a ‘desktop’ so I can type.  It’s almost comical.  All I can say is thank god Barb wear’s scarfs.  

Jack is back chatting.  He’s talking a bit about what types of things we’re doing.  Its the normal jury list of things we do – transportation, environmental conservation, energy exploration, etc.  Fun fact, for the first time ever, the Michelen Maps are done by ArcMap.  The Mars lander is using ESRI products to help find its way around (“God I hope they got the projection right” – Jack).  He’s talking about GIS infrastructure.  

We’re seeing the 2012 SAG winners – congrats to them all.  Big round of applause!  A special award is going for the Trust for Public Lands.  They want to protect public lands so people have parks to enjoy.  I’m assuming their GIS staff basically keeps track of that land.  They’re shooting for everyone to be within a 10 minute walk of a park or other outdoor recreation space.  I’m sure that was a bit of hyperbole, but good luck to them!  Next the US EPA is getting a special award for their work.  The EPA employees are standing for applause.  That was kinda cool of him doing that.  Jack picked EPA because they’ve worked hard to integrate science into public policy using GIS as the platform.
Continue reading “ESRI 2012 UC Livecast!”

We Give Directions Differently Depending on Where We Live

Europeans and Americans just give directions differently. Who knew? Researchers conducted an experiment to see if people gave directions differently if they thought the person was driving verses looking at a map. Turns out that while that does have an impact, where you’re from has a larger impact on how you describe directions. Americans tend to give directions by saying street names and giving cardinal directions, e.g. “Go North on Main St”. Europeans tend to give directions by saying the number of streets to go and whether to go left or right, e.g. “Go up two streets, then take a left”. The article proposes a number of theories as to why this might be the case, but they don’t actually test any of them fully. Still, it’s a pretty interesting finding, I think. Also, it’s yet another point suggesting that I’m secretly European and didn’t know it 🙂

More things, less stuff

Like all of us, I’m a creature of habit. I start my day off with the obligatory gallon and a half of coffee and my normal web rounds to see what’s new since I signed off the night before. One of my favorite places on the web to hit is Ikea Hackers. I love the idea that people look at these pre-built objects not as end items, but as things that can be manipulated, moved, altered, added to, and… well… ‘hacked’ into new versions. I love to study the hacks, see if I can emulate them, see if I can extend them. I even start to look at individual hacks and see if I can hack a couple hacks together. It’s like a grown up version of Lego. The pictures on the website are like the pictures on the boxes of Lego – a suggestion of where to move forward. It just thrills me to no end.

Ikea hackers works because Ikea exists. I know that’s simplistic, but it has some serious implications. Someone has gone through the hassles and problem of making things that fit together in different ways. They figured out how those things can fit together. They made (technical terms alert!) the doohickeys that make the thingies fit into the what-da-ya-call-ems. Those things just work. An allen wrench, a screwdriver, and a few off color words and you can have a bookcase or even a bed. We have this base of objects that are designed specifically to work together in very specific and defined ways. Hacking those things becomes so much easier because it’s left to the hacker to envision ways in which these things that are designed to fit together separately, can be fit together. The hacker is effectively designing new interfaces to things that already have some well defined interfaces. On top of that, they throw in an aesthetic change that can ultimately change the whole product from top to bottom… transforming the ‘hack’ into a whole ‘nother critter.

So what does hacking Ikea furniture have to do with geography and geospatial technology? A lot, I think, specifically as it applies to newer forms of representation such as virtual reality, or serious games, or whatever term you like here*. We can think of the elements in Ikea as a raw product that can be adapted, combined, reconfigured, changed, or removed as necessary for a specific outcome. It isn’t left to hackers of Ikea furniture to create the raw products – Ikea has already done that for them. Nobody goes out to a saw mill, grabs some saw dust, glues it together under pressure, slaps some white scratch resistant sheets over that new pressboard, then drills holes to hold these metal connectors they hand forged with allen heads in them so the boards can fit together. Those already exist at Ikea, so why would you?

Unfortunately I think in the virtual universe, we’re still stuck at the raw materials stage instead of the raw products stage. We have to go out and make our virtual worlds from scratch – every line, every polygon, every bit of physics, nearly every bit of texture needs to be hand created. That puts a LOT of constraint on the uptick in the virtual, I think. Some of us simply don’t have the artistic chops to put this stuff together, and even those who do often don’t have the programming chops to build the world once the models are made. Sure, we can collaborate to get the skills we’re missing, but that takes a shared space to interact and a shared objective. I can program and want to study World War I trenches. You can build models and graphics, but you’re interested in religion in early America. Let’s call the whole thing off.

Admittedly there has been some movement toward making the raw products. Google just sold their 3D modeling software to Trimble, and Adobe and Autodesk maintain applications, for instance. The problem with these products is they focus more upon the model and less upon the process. That’s great for artistically declined people like myself, but not so great for the programmatically challenged. The methods and the process are missing. Then again, even if the model exists, it might not be malleable, either because of ability, license, or source material. To turn back to my Ikea analogy, I can set a bookcase on top of a table, but that’s not the same thing as ‘hacking’ the two together, now is it? For the hacking culture to spark, grow, and expand, there needs to be something to ‘hack’, not this nebulous mass of stuff we have to work into something usable.

How do we get there? I have no idea. Does there need to be an accessible corporate vehicle that encourages this sort of hacking, ie ‘VR Ikea’? Does it have to come organically from the community? Is it the intersection of the two? Where does the spark that kicks this off come from? The current attempts at answering these questions kinda feel like old carburetor cars that would get flooded when you try to start them. We’re kinda flooded right now in the move from creating everything from scratch to ‘hacking’. I can kinda see bits and pieces of the path from flooded to fully running and it excites me. I desperately want to go into a VR Ikea and grab this model and that model and this physics approach and hack something new and innovative and interesting. I can taste it. Then again, it could just be those Swedish meatballs I’m jonesing for… who knows?

*Jesse note: I will tackle these terms at the beginning of August