This Week, I Give Myself a B+

Now that my server has been upgraded and seems to be running faster than Superman when he turned back time to save Lois Lane (plus no crashes), I am really starting to get back into the flow of things and get to writing and updating the site like I envisioned. This week I wrote close to 20,000 words (the equivalent of about 80 double-spaced pages) and updated most of the 5 or 6 main sites on a daily basis.

I only give myself a B+ because there were still some things I wanted to write about but didn’t get the chance to because I was being lazy, plus due to some poor planning some of the articles I wrote were rushed out the door a bit faster than I would have liked.

Still, all in all, a very successful week.

MapPoint

I love maps. Even more than looking at maps I enjoy creating maps. Before the
personal computer revolution, making maps was something that would have been
difficult for one amateur sitting at a desk to do quickly. Today, software makes
it easy and cheap to churn out tons of maps. The mapping program I used regularly
is Microsoft’s MapPoint.

MapPoint 2000 was a steal at about $100 or so retail. Unfortunately, the geniuses
at Microsoft decided to add a mapping feature so business folks can know how
to get from point A to point B, and raised the cost of MapPoint 2001 to $250
retail. That bites, but if you can find a copy of MapPoint 2000 on a shelf somewhere,
grab it (the geographic data should be accurate enough for most purposes for
at least another couple years).

MapPoint comes with assorted demographic data, but I prefer to import data
from other sources. The software makes this relatively easy. Typically I create
a spreadsheet in Excel that has the name of each country of the world in one
column and some statistic such as the per capita gross domestic product. MapPoint
imports the spreadsheet, assigning the GDP rates to the correct countries, and
then produces a color-coded map. It gives a variety of ways to show the distribution
of whatever it is I want to measure.

It can save maps as HTML pages. The maps look fine as GIF files, but like most
Microsoft products the HTML it produces is crap, so you’ll need to import this
into another program such as Macromedia Dreamweaver to tweak it to your liking.
For an example of how the HTML pages look (after massaging them with Dreamweaver),
check out my map
of GDP in Africa
.

The only real drawback is that there is no easy way to get a map of the entire
world since the interface uses a model whereby you can only see half of the
world at the time — you can rotate which part of the world you can see both
along latitude and longitude but you can never see or export a map of all countries
of the world. To get this sort of map you’d have to export one-half of the world
as GIF file and then the other and then manually stitch them together in a program
like Paint Shop Pro (i.e., probably more trouble than it’s worth).

Other than that limitation, MapPoint is an excellent product if you can find
the older 2000 version or can afford the $250 entry price for the latest model.
If you need to create a lot of maps illustrating world demographic data, like
I do, it is a lifesaver.

Is Project Entropia a Scam?

Project Entropia is billed as an on-line persistent 3D game, but this excerpt from a recent press release really makes me skeptical:

MindArk said the second universe, Project Entropia, will be governed by an extensive set of rules familiar to on-line gamers and role game players which will govern actions and possibilities. The economy system of Project Entropia is unique and subject to patent application. The cash to be handled in Project Entropia is real and convertible to any major currency of the real world. As MindArk has solved the issue of handling money in the virtual world and to transfer money from the virtual to the real world, they are able to offer access to the new universe at no cost.

I am not saying it is a scam, but the above paragraph makes no sense. If they are really going online with a system that makes it trivial to transfer money from the virtual world to the real world, and they are going to launch worldwide as they have been promising, then they are going to get shut down almost immediately by laws designed to prevent money laundering.

Plus, leaving aside the money laundering issue for a second, even using computers to handle the detailed work, there are still real costs associated with processing and keeping track of monetary transfers, especially when you start getting into fluctuating currencies. How this adds up to making the service free makes no sense.

On the other hand, if they have really found a way to make it impossible for governments to enforce laws against money laundering, more power to them — just tell me where to sign up. Somehow, though, I would bet they are either vastly overselling the capabilities of the system or the amount of money that can be transferred in and out of the virtual world is very limited or it is a scam of some sort.

Until they prove their system is superior, E-Bay and other online auction facilities are still the only way to go for all your money laundering needs (disclaimer: I do not make enough money to bother laundering it, but the Internet already makes money laundering far easier than it ever has been).

Taking its moniker seriously, I suspect the energy behind Project Entropia will quickly degrade and the ability of the game or virtual world to accomplish meaningful work will quickly disappear.

Firepad

Don Larson mentioned a Palm application called FirePad on his site a few days ago, and it was the first time I’d ever heard of it. The program is very cool.

Basically this is an application for viewing large image files on handheld screens. Convert a large image file to the FireViewer format, transfer it to your Palm, and the program lets you scroll through the image.

The company’s business model seems to be enterprise-level solutions that handle the conversion of images on the fly and can serve up images over a network, so someday you could connect to your companies Intranet and request a map last years sales figures for North America broken down by product, and have a scrollable image of that map automatically transferred to your handheld.

Very cool. Once color screens become common on handhelds there are going to be a lot of cool applications like this.

Make Your Own Darn Music Already

Slashdot posted a link to a column by Infoworld’s Nicholas Petreley, Information doesn’t want to be free — people want it to be, basically arguing if people want free information they need to go out and produce it themselves rather than stealing it from big record companies or pirating software, etc.

If you want the system to change, then change it the way Linux has changed the complexion of software. Change it by recording new music with musicians who buy in to your new way of distributing music and then give their music away.

That is a sentiment I definitely agree with, but to be fair Petreley should have also noted that a lot of companies that rely on intellectual property are trying to twist copyright and patent laws to try to make it more difficult for small content producers to compete.

Harry Potter vs. the Bible

USA Today ran a small blurb the other day about banned books (today they have a small piece about a CD compilation of banned songs), noting that because of its popularity a small group of parents and concerned citizens around the country have tried to have the Harry Potter books removed from libraries, usually at public schools. Some Christians are uncomfortable with the magical imagery and other aspects of the books. Some fans of the series have formed Muggles For Harry Potter to keep track of the attempts to ban the book and fight for its reinstatement.

This is all well and good, but I cannot help but notice there’s a reeking hypocrisy here, driven largely by how the media chooses to cover these sorts of stories. When parents try to ban a Harry Potter book from their school, USA Today covers it in their entertainment section and columnists weigh in with pieces on the intolerance of “hard right” fundamentalist Christians. On the other hand when some bureaucrat tells a young child that he can choose to read any story he wants to his class except for an excerpt from his favorite Biblical story, this gets buried in the news section and columnists either ignore it, or they tend to write how it represents the intolerance of “hard right” fundamentalist Christians.

For several years there was an ongoing controversy of the children’s book “Heather Has Two Mommie,” and the author of that book actually appeared at the university I work at to give a speech about the “reactionary” efforts to suppress her book. The liberal left press had a field day with that topic. But when, several years ago, a young man was prevented from giving his valedictorian speech because he planned to thank Jesus for helping him get through difficult times, nobody in the media seemed to care. Of course if he had been prevented from giving the valedictorian speech because he planned to talk explicitly about safe sex, that would have probably earned him a Time magazine cover.

Hey, I am an atheist and my wife is Wiccan, but it strikes even us as odd that students can talk about Hogwarts, condoms, and Heather having two mommies all day, but in many schools the most important book in Western culture, the Bible, has become verboten.