Archive for June, 2011

Where there’s smoke…

30 Jun

It turns out the Los Alamos fires are world news, even making it to the front page of the BBC online (right next to the Duke and Duchess visiting Canada). Who knew? I guess everyone’s really worried that my theory of quantum gravity, which is of course sitting in my desk drawer at work, might go up in flames. My office is just below and to the left of the green glass building in this photo:

Or perhaps the world is genuinely concerned that a lab of historic significance might burn? Or maybe, and I’m going out on a limb here, everyone’s worried that the lab’s nuclear material might catch fire? A quick sanity check is in order. Most of the seriously radioactive material is in “hardened” bunkers at the lab. These are built to repel terrorist attacks and the like. They are surrounded by large buffer zones, and it would be difficult for a forest fire to get close, much less around/over the bunker, since there’s nothing flammable nearby. And, needless to say, massive slurry drops from the air would also discourage the fire from even thinking about approaching. And even if the fire did somehow surround the structure, my understanding is that the facility would survive virtually unscathed. So this material is probably safe.

In addition to the stores of radioactive material, however, there is also waste consisting of items such as gloves and the like with trace amounts of radioactive contamination (much of it left over from the cold war). This stuff is stored in 55-gallon barrels in “Area G“, which is only ~10 km from the lab boundary (which presently constitutes the edge of the fire). The barrels are being systematically transported to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Southern New Mexico. However, there are still thousands of barrels left on lab property, and this stuff isn’t housed in the same bomb-proof bunkers as the high-level radioactive material. So if the fire were to get to this material, and somehow compromise one of the barrels (which are supposed to be fire proof), it could conceivably incinerate some of the contents and generate radioactive smoke. Although highly unlikely and not an unmitigated disaster, this is nonetheless something to be avoided if at all possible. The barrels are stored on pavement surrounded by a large area which has been completely denuded of vegetation (partially because of the previous fire, and partly because of lessons learned from the previous fire). There is very little to burn in the immediate surroundings, and the fire would have to jump some canyons to get to the barrels. And, again, the potential intervention of helicopters and airplane drops of fire retardant material make it even less likely that anything could go amiss. So the general feeling is that Area G is also safe. Over the last few days the lab has been doing a remarkable job of keeping everyone apprised as to what’s happening (e.g., twitter, flicker, website; also see links in my previous post [and comments])

But, perhaps most importantly, it seems like fire fighters have gotten the upper hand over the last day or two, and the area around the laboratory and town seems to be relatively secure. Extensive fire breaks have been built, with back burns helping to clear out potential underbrush and ensure an appropriate buffer. And, in the latest positive development, this evening we had some fairly spectacular thunderstorms and rain. One side effect is that the smoke has completely dissipated, and from my living room (in Santa Fe) we now have a clear view across the Rio Grande valley to the Jemez mountains above Los Alamos. After two weeks of hearing about the fires, and seeing the smoke, now for the first time we can actually see the flames themselves. This came as quite a shock. It is a scary but strangely beautiful sight (from ~30 miles away).


How Will Change Your Search Results & What it Means for Marketers

30 Jun

search image

Jeff Ente is the director of Who’s Blogging What, a weekly e-newsletter that tracks over 1,100 social media, web marketing and user experience blogs to keep readers informed about key developments in their field and highlight useful but hard to find posts. Mashable readers can subscribe for free here.

Algorithms aren’t going away anytime soon now that websites have a better way to directly describe their content to major search engines. Earlier this month, Google, Bing and Yahoo came together to announce support for, a semantic markup protocol with its own vocabulary that could provide websites with valuable search exposure. Nothing will change overnight, but is important enough to bring the three search giants together. Websites would be wise to study the basics and come up with a plan to give the engines what they want. attempts to close a loophole in the information transfer from website data to presentation as search results. As they note on their homepage: “Many sites are generated from structured data, which is often stored in databases. When this data is formatted into HTML, it becomes very difficult to recover the original structured data.”

Simply put, hopes to create a uniform method of putting the structure back into the HTML where the spiders can read it. The implications go beyond just knowing if a keyword like “bass” refers to a fish, a musical instrument or a brand of shoes. The real value is that websites can provide supporting data that will be valuable to the end user, and they can do so in a way that most search engines can read and pass along.

How Works was born out of conflict between competing standards. Resource Description Framework (RDF) is the semantic standard accepted by The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The Facebook Open Graph is based on a variant of RDF which was one reason that RDF seemed poised to emerge as the dominant standard.

Until this month. went with a competing standard called microdata which is part of HTML5.

Microdata, true to its name, embeds itself deeply into the HTML. Simplicity was a key attribute used by the search engines to explain their preference for microdata, but simplicity is a relative term. Here is a basic example of how microdata works:

<div itemscope itemtype="">
<span itemprop="name">Abraham Lincoln</span> was born on

<span itemprop="birthDate">Feb. 12, 1809</span>.

He became known as <span itemprop="nickname">Honest Abe</span> and later served as <span itemprop="jobTitle">President of the United States</span>.

Tragically, he was assassinated and died on <span itemprop="deathDate">April 15, 1865</span>.


A machine fluent in Microdata would rely on three main attributes to understand the content:

  • Itemscope delineates the content that is being described.
  • Itemtype classifies the type of “thing” being described, in this case a person.
  • Itemprop provides details about the person, in this case birth date, nickname, job title and date of death.

Meanwhile, a person would only see:

“Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809. He became known as Honest Abe and later served as President of the United States. Tragically, he was assassinated and died on April 15, 1865.”

Fast forward to the web economy of 2011 and restaurants can use the same technology to specify item properties such as acceptsReservations, menu, openingHours, priceRange, address and telephone.

A user can compare menus from nearby inexpensive Japanese restaurants that accept reservations and are open late.’s vocabulary already describes a large number of businesses, from dentists to tattoo parlors to auto parts stores.

Examples of Structured Data Already in Use

Structured data in search results is not new. The significance of is that it is now going to be available on a mass scale. In other words, semantic markup in HTML pages is going prime time.

Google has so far led the way with structured data presentation in the form of “rich snippets,” which certain sites have been using to enhance their search listings with things like ratings, reviews and pricing. Google began the program in May 2009 and added support for microdata in March 2010.

A well known example of a customized structured search presentation is Google Recipe View. Do you want to make your own mango ice cream, under 100 calories, in 15 minutes? Recipe View can tell you how.

The Scary Side of

Google, Bing and Yahoo have reassured everyone that they will continue to support the other standards besides microdata, but still feels like an imposed solution. Some semantic specialists are asking why the engines are telling websites to adapt to specific standards when perhaps it should be the other way around.

Another concern is that since can be abused, it will be abused. That translates into some added work and expense as content management systems move to adapt. might also tempt search engines to directly answer questions on the results page. This will eliminate the need to actually visit the site that helped to provide the information. Publishing the local weather or currency conversion rate on a travel site won’t drive much traffic because search engines provide those answers directly. means that this practice will only expand.

Not everyone is overly concerned about this change. “If websites feel ‘robbed’ of traffic because basic information is provided directly in the search results, one has to ask just how valuable those websites were to begin with,” notes Aaron Bradley who has blogged about as the SEO Skeptic.

“The websites with the most to lose are those which capitalize on long-tail search traffic with very precise but very thin content,” Bradley says. “Websites with accessible, well-presented information and — critically — mechanisms that allow conversations between marketers and consumers to take place will continue to fare well in search.”

Three Things To Do Right Now

  • Audit the data that you store about the things that you sell. Do you have the main sales attributes readily available in machine readable form? Make sure you have the size, color, price, previous feedback, awards, etc. easily readable.
  • Review the data type hierarchy currently supported by to see where your business fits in and the types of data that you should be collecting.
  • Check your content management and web authoring systems to see if they support microdata or if they are at least planning for it. Microdata is not just a few lines of code that go into the heading of each page. It needs to be written into the HTML at a very detailed level. For some site administrators it will be a nightmare, but for others who have done proper planning and have selected the right tools, it could become an automatic path to greater search exposure.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, claudiobaba

More About: bing, business, Google, MARKETING, Schema,, Search, SEM, SEO, Yahoo

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ProPublica Launches Online Tool To Compare Public Schools

30 Jun

Non-profit investigative newsroom ProPublica has released an interactive tool that makes it easy for people to compare schools to others in their district, state or the U.S.

To create the tool, the newsroom analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, which tracks Advanced Placement, gifted and talented programs, and advanced math and science classes.

It also used data from the National Center for Education Statistics to determine the percentage of students in each school who receive free or reduced-price lunches — an indicator used to estimate poverty in schools.

“While we found some relationship between the proportion of minority students at schools and access to programs,” explains an article about the project’s methodology. “We found the strongest relationship with the percent of students getting free- reduced-price lunches.”

In some states, an increase in the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches actually coincided with a drop in the percentage of students taking AP courses. Many states in which this was not the case had instated programs that provide evening access to high-level courses.

You can use ProPublica’s interactive tool to see how your city’s schools (provided they have more than 3,000 students) stack up against others in its district and state, or against schools nearby with low and high poverty levels.

Each school’s profile shows its percentage of inexperienced teachers, number of AP courses offered, percentage of students who get free or reduced-price lunch, percentage of students who take advanced math and percentage of students who take at least one AP course.

More About: education, propublica, schools

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Guest Post: How Much Would It Cost To Buy Congress Back From Special Interests?

30 Jun

Submitted by Charles Hugh Smith from Of Two Minds

How Much Would It Cost To Buy Congress Back From Special Interests?

Here's a thought: let's buy our Congress back from the special interests who now own it.

We all know special interests own the U.S. Congress and the Federal machinery of governance (i.e. regulatory capture). How much would it cost the American citizenry to buy back their Congress? The goal in buying our Congress back from the banking cartel et al. would not be to compete with the special interests for congressional favors--it would be to elect a Congress which would eradicate their power and influence altogether.

A tall order, perhaps, but certainly not impossible, if we're willing to spend the money to not just match special interest contributions to campaigns but steamroll them.

A seat in the U.S. Senate is a pricey little lever of power, so we better be ready to spend $50 million per seat. Seats in smaller states will be less, but seats in the big states will cost more, but this is a pretty good average.

That's $5 billion to buy the Senate.

A seat in the House of Representatives is a lot cheaper to buy: $10 million is still considered a lot of money in this playground of power.
But the special interests-- you know the usual suspects, the banks, Wall Street, Big Pharma, Big Insurance, Big Tobacco, the military-industrial complex, Big Ag, public unions, the educrat complex, trial lawyers, foreign governments, and so on--will fight tooth and nail to maintain their control of the Federal machinery, so we better double that to $20 million per seat. Let's see, $20 million times 435....

That's $8.7 billion to buy the House of Representatives.

It seems we're stuck with the corporate toadies on the Supreme Court, but the President could scotch the people's plans to regain control of their government, so we better buy the office of the President, too.

It seems Obama's purchase price was about $100 million, but the special interests will be desperate to have "their man or woman" with the veto power, so we better triple this to $300 million.

Add these up and it looks like we could buy back our government for the paltry sum of $14 billion. This is roughly .0037% of the Federal budget of $3.8 trillion, i.e. one-third of one percent. That is incredible leverage: $1 in campaign bribes controls $300 in annual spending--and a global empire.

Once we bought back our government, what would be the first items on the agenda? The first item would be to eradicate private bribes, a.k.a. private campaign contributions and lobbying.

If you allow $1 in campaign contributions, then you also allow $10 million. There is no way to finesse bribery, so it has to be cut and dried: no member of Congress can accept any gift or contribution of any nature, monetary or otherwise, and all campaigns will be publicly financed.

Is this system perfect? Of course not. There is no perfect system. But the point here is that a system which allows even a $1 private contribution to a campaign cannot be restricted; after the courts have their say, then all attempted limitations prove worthless.

So it's really all or nothing: either we put our government up for auction to the highest bribe, or we ban all gifts and private campaign financing and go with public financing of all elections in the nation.

That is the only practical and sane solution. Any proposal that seeks to finesse bribery will fail, just like all previous attempts at campaign finance reform.

Any member of Congress who accepts a gift, trinket, meal, cash in an envelope, etc. will lose their seat upon conviction of accepting the gift. Once again, you can't finesse bribery. It has to be all or nothing, and the only way to control bribery is to ban it outright.

As for lobbying, thanks to a Supreme Court dominated by corporate toadies, it will be difficult to ban lobbying outright. However, that doesn't mean Congress shouldn't try to force the toadies on the Supreme Court to make a distinction between a corporation with $100 billion in assets and billions to spend on bribes and a penniless citizen.

(Those two are not coincidental; in a nation run by and for corporations, the citizens all end up penniless unless they own or manage said corporations, or work for a Federal fiefdom which can stripmine the nation at will.)

Congress should pass a law banning paid-for lobbying. If a citizen wants to go to Congress and advocate a position, they are free to do so--but they can't accept money to do so. If they receive any compensation from any agency, enterprise, foreign government, other citizen, you name it, from any source, then they will be sentenced to 10 years of fulltime community service in Washington D.C., picking up trash, etc.

If the Supreme Court toadies strike down that law, then here's another approach:

Require all paid lobbyists to wear clown suits during their paid hours of work.

In addition, all lobbyists are required to wear three placards, each with text of at least two inches in height.

The first placard lists their total annual compensation as a lobbyist.

The second lists the special interest they work for.

The third lists the total amount of money that special interest spent the previous year on lobbying, regulatory capture, bribes to politicos and political parties, etc.

Every piece of paper issued by lobbyists must be stamped in large red letters, "This lobbying paid for by (special interest)", and every video, Powerpoint presentation, etc. must also be stamped with the same message on every frame.

The second item on the agenda is a one-page tax form. The form looks like the current 1040 form except it stops at line 22: TOTAL INCOME. A progressive flat tax is then calculated from that line. Once again, you cannot finesse bribery or exemptions, exclusions, loopholes and exceptions. Once you allow exemptions, exclusions, loopholes and exceptions, then you've opened Pandora's Box of gaming the system, and the financial Elites will soon plow holes in the tax code large enough to drive trucks through while John Q. Citizen will be paying full pop, just like now.

The entire charade of punishing and rewarding certain behaviors to pursue some policy has to end. Any deduction, such as interest on mortgages, ends up creating perverse incentives which can and will be gamed. It's really that simple: you cannot finesse bribery or exemptions, exclusions and loopholes, because these are two sides of the same coin.

The tremendous inequality in income, wealth, power and opportunity which is distorting and destroying our nation all flow from the inequalities enabled by bribery and tax avoidance. The only way to fix the nation is to eliminate bribery (campaign contributions and lobbying) entirely, and eliminate tax avoidance entirely by eliminating all deductions, exemptions, loopholes, etc. State total income from all sources everywhere on the planet, calculate tax, done.

When you think about how tiny $14 billion is compared to the $3.8 trillion Federal budget and the $14.5 trillion U.S. economy, it makes you want to weep; how cheaply we have sold our government, and how much we suffer under the whip of those who bought it for a pittance.


Custom maps in Processing

30 Jun

Custom map in Processing

Till Nagel teaches you how to design custom maps in Processing with TileMill. Could come in handy one day. Saving for later. [via]


An elk rescues a drowning marmot at Pocatello Zoo, Idaho….

30 Jun

An elk rescues a drowning marmot at Pocatello Zoo, Idaho. Keepers were worried when they noticed Shooter, a four-year-old elk, turning his nose up at his water. They looked on baffled as the moose tried to dip his hooves in his drinking trough - before trying to dunk his entire head in the water. But they were amazed when they saw 12-foot-tall Shooter lift his head out of the water - clutching a tiny marmot - a large ground squirrel - between his jaws. They looked on as Shooter gently nudged the rodent with his hoof, to make sure it was alive - before calmly watching it run off into the bushes.


IBM develops ‘instantaneous’ memory, 100x faster than flash

29 Jun
You've got to hand it to IBM's engineers. They drag themselves into work after their company's 100th birthday party, pop a few Alka-Seltzers and then promptly announce yet another seismic invention. This time it's a new kind of phase change memory (PCM) that reads and writes 100 times faster than flash, stays reliable for millions of write-cycles (as opposed to just thousands with flash), and is cheap enough to be used in anything from enterprise-level servers all the way down to mobile phones. PCM is based on a special alloy that can be nudged into different physical states, or phases, by controlled bursts of electricity. In the past, the technology suffered from the tendency of one of the states to relax and increase its electrical resistance over time, leading to read errors. Another limitation was that each alloy cell could only store a single bit of data. But IBM employees burn through problems like these on their cigarette breaks: not only is their latest variant more reliable, it can also store four data bits per cell, which means we can expect a data storage "paradigm shift" within the next five years. Combine this with Intel's promised 50Gbps interconnect, which has a similar ETA, and data will start flowing faster than booze from an open bar on the boss's tab. There's more detailed science in the PR after the break, if you have a clear head.

Continue reading IBM develops 'instantaneous' memory, 100x faster than flash

IBM develops 'instantaneous' memory, 100x faster than flash originally appeared on Engadget on Thu, 30 Jun 2011 00:01:00 EDT. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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You Are More Likely to Survive a Plane Crash than Click a Banner Ad

29 Jun

How annoying are banner ads? You know, those ubiquitous advertisements that drop down in your face when you open most news sites? The worst are the ones that expand when you scroll over them, forcing you to click on them no matter how hard to try to avoid it. If you hate banner ads as much as we do, you are not alone: most people do not click on them. Solve Media, an advertising consulting company, has discovered how much more likely you are to do even the most statistically unlikely of things than click on one of these intrusive advertisements, Business Insider reports. For example, "you are 31.25 times more likely to win a prize in the Mega Millions than you are to click on a banner ad." Not only that, "you are 87.8 times more likely to apply to Harvard and get in...112.50 times more likely to sign up for and complete NAVY SEAL training...279.64 times more likely to climb Mount Everest...and 475.28 times more likely to survive a plane crash than you are to click on a banner ad." It's unclear how they figured this out, or if the methodology is all that sound, but we're going to hazard a guess that people hate banner ads enough to enjoy the numbers anyway.


One Page Apps I Actually Use

29 Jun

There is a zillion one-page apps focused on making some little aspect of front end development easier. I think they are great. They exemplify the wonderful culture of sharing and ingenuity that our industry is known for. Each of us has slightly different jobs and slightly different skill sets. That means a little helper app that is useful to you might not be to me and vice versa. So of the probably-hundreds of these one-page apps that I've seen over the years, there are only a handful that find myself using on a regular basis. I thought I'd share those, and maybe you can share yours in the comments.

Why type out all five property/value pairs for a transition when you could just come here and copy it quick in nice formatting with comments. Even if you have it memorized, coming here will ensure you have the latest and greatest syntax as browsers evolve.

Every time I need to round some of the corners of an element but not all of them I end up here. I start at the first box, enter the value, and tab around to the other four entering values. The vendor prefixes between moz and webkit are different for specific corners (e.g. radius-topleft vs. top-left-radius) and I can never remember.

I created this one for myself. Just really common bits of HTML markup filled with "lorem ipsum" filler text. Sometimes I need a couple of average length paragraphs of text or a quick unordered-list navigation. Those things are now just a click-to-copy-to-clipboard away.

I gotta drop jQuery on this page... what's that long funky URL of where it's hosted on Google's CDN again? It's impossible to remember but through this site, you can just click on the library you need and get the script tag copied to your clipboard.

Ever need a really common symbol for a tweet or an email or website? Just come here and click to copy them. Hold alt to get multiple. Click the link at the top to toggle between encoded and unencoded.

Button Maker

If I just need some quick CSS3 to make a button I usually use this (another one by me). The style doesn't fit every scenario, but I think it's a pretty nice generic customizable style.

One of the sparks that inspired this post was that I just helped a friend slap a design on STRFTIME, a one-page app for getting those placeholder symbols for date formatting (e.g. %Y = 2011).

Advertise here with BSA

One Page Apps I Actually Use is a post from CSS-Tricks


Google Takeout Lets You Liberate Your Data From Google

29 Jun

The Data Liberation Front – a team of engineers at Google tasked with making it easier for users to move their data in and out of Google products – has announced its first service, Google Takeout.

Despite the weird team name, this is just another Google service, which you log in with your Gmail username and password. It lets you easily take your data out of several Google products. It supports Buzz, Contacts and Circles, Picasa Web Albums, Profile and Stream, but Google promises support for more services and products later on.

Once you recover your data, you’ll be able to save it in open, portable formats, so you should be able to import it to other services easily.

We’ve tried out the service, and it’s really straightforward. You can either recover all your data at once or choose individual services. Google will automatically calculate the estimated size and the number of files in the package, which will show up under the Downloads tab. You might need to enter your password again before downloading the package, which Google says is for security reasons.

For testing purposes, I recovered my Picasa Web Album files, and I quickly received a neat zip file containing all my images in several folders. As a side note, I had no idea those images were there, so you might want to try out Google Takeout just to remind yourself what data you keep on Google’s servers.

We like Takeout a lot. It’s a neat, quick and easy way to take your data from Google, whether it’s for archiving purposes or you want to move it to another service. The timing of this release is not accidental, either; Google launched Takeout shortly after showing off its new social networking service, Google+, probably to show how much it cares about user’s data and privacy. We got the hint, Google, but you’ll still have to prove yourself in the long run.

More About: Data Liberation Front, Google, Google Takeout

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