Oct 06

Auto Center and Zoom with YM4R

When I blogged last month about abstracting mapping with YM4R I commented:

What I’ve not yet discovered (and may not be implemented) is a way to automatically center and zoom a map. It would be very nice to be able to add a batch of points to a map and have the plugin automatically work out their mid-point. Maybe I need to work on that a little…

What I was missing was the center_zoom_on_bounds_init method. There are various ways to interact with it, but I’ve chosen:

sorted_latitudes = locations.collect(&:latitude).compact.sort
sorted_longitudes = locations.collect(&:longitude).compact.sort
  [sorted_latitudes.first, sorted_longitudes.first],
  [sorted_latitudes.last, sorted_longitudes.last]])

That mostly replaces the call to

@map.center_zoom_init([latitude, longitude], 14)

that I was previously using, though I’ve actually kept that around if there’s only one point as I was finding Google Maps’ maximum zoom didn’t show quite enough context for my tastes.

While it would be nice if the plugin had a method that performed the calculations based on the points you’ve fed in, it looks like the current implementation stores the points as javascript strings, so that’s not really an option. But with only three lines of code involved, this is a nice simple way to get the desired effect.

Oct 06

Wilco in Lansing

Last time we saw Wilco play—two years ago on the A Ghost Is Born tour—it wasn’t until the third encore that they seemed ready to relax. Having performed a remarkable, polished set and two exceedingly strong follow ups, they were called out by the fans one last time and loosened up for a rendition of The Late Greats. Friday night’s set in Lansing was an altogether different affair.

This time around it seemed that the band had hit the road not to showcase a new album but to have some fun. Their entrance and the first two songs was almost jaunty, and they played around with some arrangements including a guitar solo early on that could have become painfully self-indulgent in the hands of a lesser player than Nels Cline. Jeff Tweedy was unusually quiet on stage, a fact that he acknowledged during one of his rare comments, but he assured us that he was having a great time.

It’s far too common that people make predictions about a band’s new material based on the live sets they were playing in the run-up to the release of a new album; predictions that subsequently turn out to be entirely wrong. Wilco helped offset that by not playing much new material, simply indicating that, on the strength of their performance, the album will be well worth waiting for.

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Oct 06

Making a Profit and a Difference

The New York Times today ran a piece talking about organizations and businesses developing strong local neighbourhoods and green buildings. Their lead profile is of Guy Bazzani, President of Bazzani Associates.

Working with The Image Shoppe I’ve worked on Bazzani Associates’ website over the past eighteen months. We’re currently testing a few new features showcasing the company’s work in the local community, and it’s a shame they weren’t ready to launch before the article went to press. But Bazzani Associates are doing good work, and it’s good to see them getting deserved attention.

Oct 06

Vocational education

The news of the potential closure of my old department has led me to wondering what the future is for a subject like physics, which in turn had me thinking about its past.

While many have been worrying lately about declining interest in a number of ‘core’ academic subjects, such as physics, it is easy to forget that the subject only came into existence as a distinct discipline within the past two centuries. Many of the great heroes of physics–people like Kepler, Galileo, and Newton–would never have considered themselves physicists, probably leaning toward the term ‘natural philosophers.’ Maxwell‘s contributions to the discipline were immense, but he’s also notable for being one of the earlier practitioners to go by the name ‘physicist’.

In her final book, Dark Age Ahead Jane Jacobs argued forcefully against the move within higher education from broad, high quality education toward ‘credentialing.’ She’s far from alone in that concern, and it’s well founded. A solid grounding in the history and traditions of a discipline are as important a part of a full education as specific skills, and are necessary if we are to move forward wisely. If the decline of a subject like physics is the result of a push towards a form of vocational study that is focussed on credentials, then it is a bad thing.

Many physics departments emphasise in their promotional materials how much society needs the skills that are found within physics. And it’s true. Most of the technological innovations we enjoy day-to-day have come to us filtered through the work of other disciplines, but their underpinnings come from physics. We so desperately need new forms of energy production, and the ideas for that are likely to come from physics. Often ‘pure’ research, free of strong practical concerns, can yield the most useful knowledge for practical progress.

But the importance of physics research and of an education connected with an historical tradition should not shield us from the fact that the labels we now assign, and the distinctions we currently make are not absolutes. The form of education and the lines between disciplines will inevitably shift in the future just as they have in the past. What is vital is that we pay attention throughout those changes and keep the emphasis on education over credentialing.

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Oct 06

Department Closure

I received an email over the weekend from the President of Reading University Students’ Union informing me that the Department of Physics (in which I studied) is being prepared for closure. Yesterday, the BBC picked up the story.

Enrollment in physics courses across the UK has been going down for years, and the fact that the department only attracted thirty-five students is a striking low. It’s not a surprise that the University’s Senior Management Board is considering drastic measures. But this is also the fourth department to be scheduled for closure in as many years. While I was working in the Student Union we were fighting the closure of the Music department, and since then they’ve closed Sociology and Mechanical Engineering.

Closing a university department is a complex business, and they tend to be phased out rather than closed suddenly. In this case, should the University Senate and Council approve the decision, they won’t close for several years but instead will stop taking new students after this year. There will be an attempt to ensure a good experience for the current students, but post grads and academic staff will naturally be looking for more secure positions so some ‘drain’ is inevitable.

Beyond that, the University of Reading needs to be very careful about these ongoing changes. Whatever economic sense it makes to close down certain departments, and however well other parts of the university might pick up their curricula, four closures in as many years is liable to breed uncertainty. How many staff or students are going to want to go to a university who have proven that they can and will pull the rug from under your department after you’ve made your commitment to it?

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Oct 06

bee there

In the comments on my entry a couple of months ago about tourb.us, Carl writes:

If you like tourb, you will love BeeThere.net. BeeThere has been live since October 2005, has the features you request here, and is clearly the site that tourb is trying to imitate. I would love to hear what you think!

Naturally, I can’t be sure exactly what inspired tourb.us but looking at BeeThere I don’t feel like Carl’s claims are fair, and having spent some time exploring his site I really don’t think it does provide the features I was requesting.

From a first impression, the design of BeeThere lacks the clarity of tourb.us. There are concerts listed for Grand Rapids, but it took me a while to find them, and when I did get there there were at least it was missing two key venues (The DAAC and Calvin College) along with several smaller ones, meaning the overall listing looked more like a corporate ticketmaster-style selection than a genuine representation of the local music scene.

I signed up for an account and tried to ‘load artist list’, expecting to be given a few different options but instead was confronted with a request to give unspecified permissions to a java applet. Dismissing that pop-up I was able to read that the site works by employing an applet that will read the contents of your itunes library.

That may be a good option for some, but not only did I found it overly invasive but as I noted in my comments on mog.com, most of my music is not stored on my primary work machine so the data wouldn’t be much use, and the machine that holds my actual collection contains so much music that methods like this are prohibitively slow. It’s entirely possible that some users may want to have the applet import their data, but it really shouldn’t be so invasive or the only method.

The final request in my piece on tourb.us was integration with musicbrainz and a clearer way to identify artists beyond just their name. The latter is a really hard thing to do right (the former is fairly straightforward with musicbrainz’ RESTful APIs). BeeThere provide some links which might help with disambiguation, such as recommendations of related artists and the option to tag the artist, but there’s nothing to distinguish their offerings from those of tourb.us.

What I have liked about the way tourb.us has developed is that by adding cities gradually they can make sure they get good coverage. You can’t list every coffee shop that hosts the occasional singer-songwriter, but by actively exploring the local music community a listings site can get a much more accurate picture of the independent music taking place locally than a site like ticketmaster will provide. As someone who loves music, rather than set-piece arena shows, that level of coverage is what I’m looking for.