Monday, April 30, 2007

Citizen journalism dos and don'ts

This knowledge acquired via personal gaffesexperience. More to come.
  1. Identify self, affiliation and exact purpose at the outset. It doesn't go over well, if crucial info doesn't come out until 40 minutes into the conversation.

  2. Get abundantly, stupendously clear just what the groundrules are. Again, belated surprises are not welcome.

  3. Use speakerphone or have pens and paper handy. One-handed typing does not work.

  4. The person you are interviewing (or, should you engage in mishaps#1 and 2, having a nice talk with) likely comes from a very different perspective, and will be reluctant to dispense the simple 1-sentence soundbites that are all your readers are set up to digest. Be prepared for this.
    Q: what exactly does 'being prepared' entail?
    A: beats me. tune in next time...

  5. (not a do or a don't, but it is a small world...)

And questions:

  1. If you ask someone questions and they stonewall, what's the appropriate thing to do when you run into them a) around town? b) in comments section of your or another blog? (do you re-ask the qs, do you give a gentle reminder that you're still waiting, or are you limited to commenting on the lovely weather we're having?)
    (for this q, assume that the unanswered questions are legitimate)

Friday, April 27, 2007

Trip report - electric bicycle journey to Grass Valley and back

(Grass Valley and Nevada City are about 3 miles apart as the freeway flies, more if you count the hills.)

I'm liking the electric bicycle* more and more; getting accustomed to its odd pedal-power dynamics, and while I still wish it was mountain-bike rugged, it's wonderful nonetheless. And the whoops of delight that new riders let out when they first take it uphill are mighty fine to hear.

Today was its first venture out of town; rode it from Nevada City to the GV post office and back. The trip took 90 minutes, but that included six stops, four proselytisms, two test rides and one side trip for tourism. Round trip was about 6 miles, and even at the end the battery was still going strong.
(I _wasn't_ sure how long the battery would last, so did some fairly heavy pedaling; next time I'll slack off some, and let it do more of the work.

I want someone in town to sell these bicycles; thus the trip was partly in order to show the bike off to potential sellers. No discernible interest at Sierra Motor Sports; at Briarpatch, Paul H. said possibly, after they've moved to the new store and things settle down; and while TR2 bike shop's owner wasn't in, people there said he might be interested. (Update: I've talked to him; he said he sells/installs a lot of Wilderness Energy kits, but didn't sound real enthusiastic about selling the UrbanMover bikes.)
Didn't try Tour of Nevada City since the impression I've gotten from talking to folks at that store is that they feel the same way about adding power to a bike that Boston feels about putting signs on their streets - life should be a challenge, so that the he-men may rise above the wimps.
(as one of the wimps, i do not share this point of view)

you'll be sharing the bike lane with a trailerThe ride is a little more interesting than I'd like. There isn't always a bike lane, and where there is one, you may find yourself sharing it with parked cars and trailers and luxuriant outstretched sprays of poison oak; and your tires take a beating from the pavement, which is crocodilian in some areas and pocked with utility covers (with not-exactly-seamless installation) in others, while yet other stretches - lower Searls, for one - bring to mind an asphalt rendition of "Patches ahm dependin on ya son".

Thank heavens, and all involved humans, for the repaving of Adams St; it is truly heavenly in comparison.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Far-flung Nevada County news

Two new-to-me websites, that have actually been around for quite some time -
  • The Ridge Times, from the San Juan Ridge - at present it's mostly a compendium of press releases and APPLE event listings, no local news. (what's up with Ananda these days? we never seem to hear anything about them.)
    but then there hasn't been much local news on NCFocus either...

  • And in Truckee, the online arm of Moonshine Ink. Attractive design with lots of photos, with real news from eastern Nevada County.
    request: dates for the posts, and an RSS feed?
A belated welcome to the proprietors of both.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Some handy concepts

  • Externalities
    An externality is a cost* of an action that falls upon people other than the one(s) taking the action. If Laura buys gas for her car and goes for a drive, the exhaust (and its effect on those downwind, or on those down dimension #4) is an externality. Likewise, if Bob's dog barks whenever he's gone, the noise is an externality borne by Bob's neighbors.

  • Emergent properties
    Emergent properties are properties that emerge due to even simple interactions within a system.
    For example, given the following conditions:
    • a bad thing is happening
    • public opinion could curtail the bad thing
    • public opinion is influenced by newspaper articles
    • newspaper articles give equal voice/weight/credibility to both sides of an issue, if they can find someone to present that side.
    • Someone with wealth has a vested interest in the bad thing not being curtailed
    • people/groups exist who are willing to say that the bad thing is not happening (or not bad, or not curtailable), in exchange for some wealth
    THEN (here comes the emergent property)
    Even if there is no substantive disagreement among credible experts that the bad thing is happening, public opinion will still be that there is wide disagreement among credible experts as to whether it is happening.

    Another emergent property: for the vast majority of topics, the information in Wikipedia articles is accurate.* Exercise for the reader: how could this property emerge from a system in which almost anyone can edit almost any article?

    And another: overall, people who accord public relations the same credibility as science will emerge less well informed than those who don't.

Environmental reading list

From the current issue of Vanity Fair -
  • A Convenient Untruth - profile of global warming denialist Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute

  • Rush to Judgment ("Attacking environmentalists as hippie-dip "wackos" who care more about spotted owls than people and use polar bears for propaganda, Rush Limbaugh has blinded millions of Americans to the climate crisis.")
From elsewhere:
likely more to come...

Monday, April 16, 2007

Silent Spring

Have you noticed that this spring the "dawn chorus" of birdsong is underwhelming?

May update: more reports.

The sun is shining, the robins and Steller's jays are nesting, the insects are making a racket, but it seems the songbirds are out to lunch.

perhaps this is why the insects are making a racket.

(and honeybees seem to be sparse this year too, in my yard at least, which had me wondering if Colony Collapse Disorder had hit Nevada County. But the neighborhood beekeeper says no, hers are fine, and county honeybee expert Randy Oliver reports that to his knowledge C.C.D. is not here.)

for a final fauna report, your correspondent's first black widow spider sighting of 2007: a mere infant, still gray, with very, very long front legs.

Friday, April 13, 2007


It hit me today just how insufferable this blog must seem, to a Realpolitik guy. It's written by this pain-in-the-ass, goody-two-shoes, low-status mouse of a woman - woman - not even an alpha female woman, a mouse - who really needs to get a life*, she just goes around whining and criticizing and sticking her nose into things that are none of her business and she's obviously completely out of touch with the real world, she's scared of her own shadow and she seems to think everything ought to have a goddamn halo on it, and she's got this patronizing condescending tone and she probably thinks she's some kind of a f-ing saint...Jesus.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Riding the UrbanMover Sprite electric bicycle - product review

Apr 27 update - this is a bike that grows on you; update here. In short: I like it and do not want to give it up.

Earlier today I blogged about ordering, receiving and (manually?) pedalling this bike; now that I've used it in 'powered' mode, there's more to report.

In short: Sprites would be optimal for Lake Wildwood residents who don't want to stress their knees.

Visually, the bike is a stunner - for elegance, it's head and shoulders above the competition.

And without power (especially without the weight of the battery), the bike is usable, even for hills; if you were to run out of juice you could still make it home. Not quite as good as a mountain bike, but not bad.

But for me, unless I'm missing something, it's disappointing - it has a blind spot in the sweet spot, it seems to be designed for people who don't really want exercise.
In other words - it epitomizes the complaints of the people who're prejudiced against electric bicycles, who say "electric bikes make you lazy".

Clunky and tanklike though it may have been, my friend's E-Bike had a killer app, a 2-speed assist - low for "I just need a bit of help", high for "I need a lot". And most of the time, low was all you needed, and you could still get a workout by pedalling along.

In contrast, the Sprite is an Alpha Bicycle that's dying to show it's more powerful than you; there's no way to make it understand that you don't want much help. If the battery is 'on', anytime you pedal the power kicks in, full blast, dwarfing your efforts.

Alternatively there is a wrist (twist) throttle*, that's variable strength* and that overrides the pedal-activated power, so in theory you could (I think) pedal while using it to (lightly) power the bike. But maintaining such control seems like it'd be a PITA, and also the instruction manual cautions you that using the wrist throttle gives much poorer mileage.
(are they assuming you're not pedalling? I do not know.)

Also, the Sprite is a city bike - it feels like it'd be tempting fate to ride it over our potholes.
(but this is true to some degree for all electric bicycles, IMO.)

So the next question is, how to transfer the bike to its rightful owner without voiding the warranty, which says it applies only to the original owner?
(if the original owner has only owned the bike for a day, this doesn't seem entirely fair...)

Will report back.

UrbanMover Sprite electric bicycle - ordering, shipping, assembling

Evening update: report of its behavior under power here.

I've been wanting to get an electric bicycle for years now - in a hilly town where temperatures top 100 degrees (F) in summer, pedal-powered bicycling makes for hot and sweaty travel. So even for short trips I've generally taken the car instead, enduring the consequent jeers from passers-by (you know who you are) and from my own conscience.

AFAIK nobody within 100+ miles of here sellsstocks* electric bicycles, which makes taking test drives difficult (what range will it have, on our terrain? how will it do on our hills?), which makes the decision to purchase one difficult as well.

The one electric bicycle I was able to try, an E-Bike*, was OK, and climbed our hills fine with a bit of pedaling; but then I had to give it back, leaving me once again powered by gas or my own two legs.
(when not under power, riding the E-Bike on flat ground felt like pedaling a (very) small tank, and pedaling uphill was hopeless; even so, all was forgiven when the power kicked in...)

Real Goods (owned by Gaiam) recently added two UrbanMover electric bicycles to their Electric Vehicles lineup - a street bike (the Sprite) and a folding bike (the Terrain). These bikes look attractive and bikelike, and they have NiMH* batteries rather than SLA*ones - yielding greater range, lighter weight and (AFAIK) less toxicity. The bicycles are the same price (currently $1199) as the (no pedals) eGo electric cycle.
(Real Goods doesn't yet offer my #1 preference, UrbanMover's mountain-bike style Glider model, nor UM's new, better, but lots more expensive lithium-polymer batteries.)

I'd been waffling, but finally jumped when Gaiam sent an email offering a short-term 20% discount*.

Upon phoning in the order, it was disconcerting to hear "This item is drop-shipped from the manufacturer*; it should arrive in 4 to 6 weeks." Ouch.

It arrived 6 days later - a 34" x 6 ft x 10" black-plastic-wrapped cardboard box, lying flat on the bed of a DHL truck and, fortunately, weighing much less than it appeared.

The packing and shipping were buggy:
The driver said he'd received no instructions to require a signature (also, order taker had led me to understand that I'd have advance notice before it arrived; there was none), and upon stripping off the black plastic covering, the warnings "Do not lay flat", "Keep upright" came into view, emblazoned on the cardboard underneath.

It doesn't look like there's been any real damage, but I don't know for sure - haven't ridden it under power yet, the battery's still charging*.

Without the battery, the bike weighs about 42 pounds and handles pretty much like a normal, only slightly heavier, bicycle - the only problem so far is that just 5 of its 6 speeds are accessible. Adjusting the derailleur(?) gave me the choice of either gears 1-5, or 2-6. IMO this is a minor flaw, since I tend to spend most time in #1 anyway.
update: derailleur's been readjusted, now the bike reaches all 6 gears.

The bike is a handsome, dignified dark blue, and has a plucky little "here I come" bell on the handlebars - but if you're using the brakes, you will not need the bell.
(next step - wash wheel rims and brake pads with dilute soapy water, to remove any grease that might cause the squealing)
update: the squealing went away on its own.

Still to try: riding it in "electric" mode, and discovering how well the 'street' wheels perform when subjected to our legendary potholes.
(Also, the technical specifications say that the "gradient capacity" is 12% (FAQ says 10-14%) with pedal-assist (VPAC*); not sure what the typical max. gradient of our hilly streets is*, so it'll be interesting to see how well the bike climbs them.)
update: some streets (e.g. Nevada St) _are_ too steep; not healthy for the motor. Avoid them. OTOH, Pine St in Nevada City seems to be fine, as does Sacto St, as do Nevada City Hwy and East Main St in GV

I will report further on the Sprite, and would welcome correspondence from other current or potential electric bike owners - if you send email (to regarding the Sprite or other electric bikes, please put "UrbanMover" somewhere in the email's Subject line.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Ouch - access to public records shut off

This hurts.

Local newspaper exploits public records for voyeurism, County DA closes public access to them.

There was a case I wanted to look into; now I won't be able to.

When some act irresponsibly, we all pay.

I should clarify that I don't have any knowledge about the specifics of the particular case that triggered their decision; for all I know, printing the info might have been justified. But there _has_ seemed to be a pattern, of printing details in the police blotter (and elsewhere?) that are purely for the reader's voyeuristic entertainment, and if I were to consider making a police report, the prospect of such info appearing in the paper would dissuade me.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Who's an activist, part 2

abashed April 10 update: maybe the difference between an activist and me is that activists have good social skills and can reach and persuade people...

On the April 3 NCFocus Crowdsourced journalism in Nevada County post, Russ Steele commented (in reference to Who's an activist?) "If you are not a activist, what is this post all about."

I've been chewing on the answer for several days now.

With the caveat that this could be a rationalization, here it is:

I think the reason Russ (and other activists) view this differently from me, is that activists classify behaviors/actions differently from me, because of differences in temperament and values.

People who are fighters classify actions based on outcomes: if I take an action that affects a contested outcome, then I'm a combatant.

Whereas to me the process is what's important - fix the process, and the outcome will take care of itself.
(and by temperament I'm a chronicler and researcher, not a fighter - yes I care about the outcome, but I'm not comfortable working directly on it, and to do so feels like a hack.)
So I classify by "do you work on fixing the process, or the outcome?"

To me process vs. outcome is like science vs. public relations (for insight on this, see Goofus and Gallant do science)

So to answer Russ's literal question, here's what the Inconvenient Truth project is about:
I believe that our elected officials should be aware of crucial problems facing our society, if they aren't already. There are two ways that this can come about: either our current elected officials become aware, or voters can be given the info they need to replace these officials with "aware" candidates, should they choose to do so.
The I.T. project covers both of these possibilities: it encourages public figures to see the film, and it publicizes who does and doesn't choose to see it, and their take-home impressions.
After that, it's up to the voters to decide whether this issue is important to them and decide accordingly.

It's as close to activism as I'm comfortable getting - a bit too close, actually, but this is more than a life-or-death issue.

I was hoping our elected officials would see the film, but I don't intend to push; I want to make it as easy as possible for them, but the choice is up to them. Likewise, if they choose to stonewall when asked about it, or if they wish to state that they don't think this info should be public knowledge, that's also their choice. My focus is on reporting the results.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Philip Zimbardo on The Lucifer Effect

Quotes from The Lucifer Effect author Philip Zimbardo on the human potential for evil and for heroism:
...human behavior is more influenced by things outside of us than inside... There are times when external circumstances can overwhelm us, and we do things we never thought. If you’re not aware that this can happen, you can be seduced by evil. We need inoculations against our own potential for evil. We have to acknowledge it. Then we can change it.
When someone is anonymous, it opens the door to all kinds of antisocial behavior
if you put good apples into a bad situation, you’ll get bad apples.
Boredom is a powerful motive for evil.
Always imagine a future time when today’s deed will be on trial and no one will accept your pleas of only following orders, or everyone else was doing it.*
we all like to think that the line between good and evil is impermeable--that people who do terrible things...are on the evil side of this line and the rest of us could never cross it. But ...[studies have] revealed the permeability of that line. ... This is true not only for perpetrators of torture and other horrible acts, but for people who commit a more common kind of wrong -- the wrong of taking no action when action is called for. Whether we consider Nazi Germany or Abu Ghraib prison, there were many people who observed what was happening and said nothing.
...we have to resist the urge to rationalize inaction and develop justifications that recast evil deeds as acceptable means to supposedly righteous ends.
The banality of heroism concept suggests that we are all potential heroes...

Some of the above quotes are from The Banality of Heroism (pdf, coauthored by Zimbardo)

NYTimes art. on Zimbardo here

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Crowdsourced journalism in Nevada County - an interim report

Recently the hive has been buzzing about crowdsourced journalism (including this NY Times article about Assignment Zero, a project I'm involved with), but you don't have to leave town to see crowdsourced journalism in action - it's happening here in Nevada County, where we're getting our public officials on the record.

In Summer 2006, after seeing the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth (of which Andrew Tobias rightly said "the feeling of most who go see the movie is that everybody else ought to see the movie"), I - and others - felt we had to do something. And one thing we could do was to encourage local public figures to see the film, offer them tickets to do so, and collect and report their responses.

I set up a (currently stale) weblog for the project, and assembled a number of people willing to lend their names, money and/or efforts to the cause, but it mostly came down to "super-contributors" Susan Hull and me.

After the film had been showing in town for almost two months, I went before our county Board of Supervisors, and spoke during the meeting's public comment period, asking if the Supervisors had seen the film yet, and offering them tickets in case they still wished to do so. None had seen the film, and none accepted the tickets; some said they intended to see it when it came out on video.

Fast-forward to a week ago: An Inconvenient Truth has won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, and has been out on video for over 4 months, for a total of 6 months that the film's been available to county residents. I had purchased two copies of the DVD, and went before the Board of Supervisors at their meeting last Tuesday to reprise my questions and offer of last summer.

It did not go smoothly. Our new District IV supervisor, Hank Weston, said he had seen the film. But when I commenced asking the other four supervisors if they'd seen it, Board Chairman John Spencer intervened, saying I was not permitted to ask questions during the public comment period - that I could contact my own Supervisor to ask, outside of the meeting, but (I understood his implication to be) that none of the other Supervisors were under any obligation to answer my questions.

(Another project member had sent an email to the Board asking about the film; his questions had been met with silence from 4 Supervisors and an off-the-record answer from the 5th.)

I'm fairly certain that none of them besides Mr. Weston had seen the film; only he gave any indication of having seen it.

The value journalists continue to provide in a 'disintermediated,' Net-enabled world -- when they are doing their jobs right, of course -- is to continue to ask public figures the uncomfortable questions that they won't choose to answer on their own.
- Scott Rosenberg*

But we can get answers now, by banding together. Citizens in the districts of Sue Horne, John Spencer, Nate Beason and Ted Owens are asking their respective Supervisors about An Inconvenient Truth, and will report the responses.

Stay tuned...

Related: Earth Day 2007 in Nevada County (Sun Apr 29), and
Local Non-Profit Groups to Join Forces on April 14 in Grass Valley
(to show two free solution-oriented films on climate change at the Del Oro Theater: "Too Hot Not To Handle" and "Kilowatt Ours")

Monday, April 02, 2007

Who's an activist?

Someone recently informed me that I'm an activist, or at least that others see me as such. I responded that I'm not, that "they" are wrong, and that I don't plan to accept a role that others have bestowed upon me.

But what if I'm wrong? Given the human mind's propensity for self-delusion, the idea's worth mulling over - can you be an activist and not [be willing to] know it?

To me, activists are fighters. They're organized and they work toward a common goal, and they're ready and willing to march and chant and do what it takes to reach that goal.

I respect these people, I'm well aware that we'd be up the creek without them. But I don't belong to that species - I'm not a fighter, not particularly goal oriented, and not overfond of taking marching orders that aren't apropos, particularly from someone I'm not working for. Plus marching and chanting just aren't in my behavioral repertoire.

Ergo, I am no activist. Curious, concerned, and sometimes dogged, but no activist.