Travel

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Unless you look out the window.

When I did that on 4 November 2007, halfway between London and Denver, I saw this:

baffin Best I could tell at the time, this was Greenland. That’s how I labeled it in this album on Flickr. For years after that, I kept looking at Greenland maps, trying to find where, exactly, these glaciers and mountains…

baffin1…were.

While I’m sure there are good maps of Greenland somewhere (Nuuk? Denmark?), Google, Bing and the rest are no help. Nor are the fat world atlases. Here’s an island the size of a continent, with lots of Fjords and islands and glaciers and mountains and stuff, many of which were surely named by the natives or visitors, and there ain’t much.

But:::: good news.

There, out my dirty and frosty window over the trailing edge of the wing, was the same long deep valley I had seen seven years before. Only now I was equipped to learn what was what, and where. My GPS and the plane’s map — there on a screen mounted in the back of the seat in front of me — agreed: we flying over the Cumberland Peninsula of Baffin Island, an Arctic landform almost twice the size of New Zealand, in Nunavut, Canada’s newest, most arctic and least populated territory.

The valley, I discovered on the ground, is called Akshayuk Pass. It connects the North and South Pangnirtung Fjords, bisecting the peninsula. Imagine a Yosemite Valley with a floor of glaciers draining into Arctic rivers, flanked for seventy miles by dozens of Half Domes and El Capitans — crossing the Arctic Circle, through an island where the last Ice Age still hasn’t ended.

On the west side of the pass is the Penny Ice Cap, a mini-Greenland inside the forbidding and spectacular Auyuittuq National Park. Wikipedia explains, “In Inuktitut (the language of Nunavut‘s aboriginal people, the Inuit), Auyuittuq (current spelling: ᐊᐅᔪᐃᑦᑐᖅ aujuittuq) means ‘the land that never melts.’” Nobody lives there. Hiking across it ranges from difficult to impossible. The only way to fully take it in is from the sky above, like I found myself doing right then. It was thrilling.

On the first flight over, I became fascinated by a mountain, just south of the Penny Ice Cap, that looked like an old tooth with fillings that had fallen out. It’s in the lower left side of this shot here from the 2007 trip:

asgard So I recognized it instantly when I saw it again two days ago. Here’s how it looked this time:

agard2 Now that I could research the scenery, I found it was Mt. Asgard, named after the realm of Norse gods. From below it looks the part. (That link is to amazing photos by Artur Stanisz, shot from Turner Glacier, which Asgard overlooks in the shot above. Fun fact: one of the great James Bond ski chase stunts was shot here. See this video explaining it. Start at about 1:33.)

So now we have all these albums:

Which join these others on Flickr:

A digression on the subject of aviation…

A bit before I started shooting these scenes, a flight attendant asked me to shade my window, so others on the plane could sleep or watch their movies. Note that this was in the middle of a daytime flight, not a red-eye. When I told her I booked a window seat to look and shoot out the window, she was surprised but supportive. “That is pretty out there,” she said.

Later, when we were over Hudson Bay and the view was all clouds, I got up to visit the loo and count how many other windows had shades raised. There were very few: maybe eight, out of dozens of windows in the economy cabin of our Boeing 777. Everybody was watching a movie, eating, sleeping or otherwise paying no attention to the scenery outside.

No wonder a cynical term used by airline people to label passengers is “walking freight.” The romance and thrill of flying has given way to rolling passengers on and off, and filling them with bad food and failed movies.

Progress is how the miraculous becomes mundane. Many of our ancestors would have given limbs for the privilege of seeing what’s on the other side of our window shades in the sky. Glad all we need is to give up our cynicism about flying.

I started using Uber in April. According to my Uber page on the Web, I’ve had fifteen rides so far. But, given all the bad news that’s going down, my patronage of the company is at least suspended. As an overdue hedge, I just signed up with Lyft. I’m also looking at BlaBlaCar here in the U.K. (where I am at the moment), plus other alternatives, including plain old taxis and car services again.

But here are a few learnings I’ve gained in the meantime.

First Uber isn’t about “ride sharing.” That’s just marketing gloss at this point. Instead Uber is what’s coming to be called an “app-based car service.” Let’s call it ABCS. I mean hey, if that’s what the New York Attorney General calls it, that’s what it is. At least for now.

ABCS is a new category, growing within and alongside two existing categories: taxis and livery. These are both old, established and highly regulated (in New York City for example, by the Taxi and Livery Commission).

My first few Uber drivers were dudes picking up some extra bucks, or so it seemed. The rest, including all the recent ones, have been livery drivers taking advantage of one more way to get a fare. Some had as many as three dedicated cell phones on their front seat: one for Uber, one for Lyft, and one for whatever car (livery) service they otherwise work for. Here are their names, in reverse chronological order: Jeffrey (whose real name was Afghanistani), Heriberto, Malik, Abdisalam, Fernando, Jourabek, Maleche, Namgyal, Mohammad, Rafael, Maged, Shahin, Imtiaz, Shaafi and Conrad. That last one was my first, in Santa Barbara.

Rather than being a new way to “share rides,” ABCS is a great hack on dispatch — a function of taxis and car services that has long been stuck in the walkie-talkie age — and payment ease.

But ABCS also hacks the whole car category as well. Why spend $300/month on a lease, or $30k for a car, plus the cost of gas, tolls, insurance and upkeep, when you’ll spend less just calling up rides from an app — and when every ride is friction-free and fully accountable? (Even to the extent that every charge is easy to post in an expense account.)

Cars are already becoming generic. (If you rent cars often, you know what I mean. A Toyota is a Nissan is a Chevy is a Hyundai.) And now we have a generation coming up that gives a much smaller damn about driving than did previous ones — at least in the U.S. All that aspirational stuff about independence and style doesn’t matter as much as it used to. How long before GM, Ford and Toyota start making special models just for Uber and Lyft drivers? (In a way Ford did that for livery with Lincoln Town Cars. Not coincidentally, several of my Uber drivers in New York and New Jersey have been in black Town Cars. Another fave: Toyota Avalons.

Anyway, I think we are amidst of many disruptions that caused by app-based ways to shrink the distance between supply and demand. Changes within ABCS are happening rapidly and in real time. Example: SheRides. Here’s one story about it.

Whatever else ABCS does, driving still won’t be a way to get rich. At best it will be a stepping stone to jobs that pay better and involve more marketable skills. So to me one question is, What are the next stones? And, Does the emergence of ABCS give workers on the supply side — other than those running the companies — a lift?

Civilization is a draft. Provisional. Scaffolded. Under construction. For example:

DEC. OF INDEP. 1

That’s Thomas Jefferson‘s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration hasn’t changed since July 4, 1776, but the Constitution built on it has been amended thirty-three times, so far. The thirteenth of those abolished slavery, at the close of the Civil War, seventy-seven years after the Constitution was ratified.

Today we are in another struggle for equality, this time on the Net. As Brian Grimmer put it to me, “Digital emancipation is the struggle of the century.”

There is an ironic distance between those first two words: digital and emancipation. The digital world by itself is free. Its boundaries are those of binary math: ones and zeroes. Connecting that world is a network designed to put no restrictions on personal (or any) power, while reducing nearly to zero the functional distance between everybody and everything. Costs too. Meanwhile, most of what we experience on the Net takes place on the World Wide Web, which is not the Net but a layer on top of it. The Web is built on architectural framework called client-server. Within that framework, browsers are clients, and sites are servers. So the relationship looks like this:

calf-cow

In other words, client-server is calf-cow. (I was once told that “client-server” was chosen because “it sounded better than ‘slave-master.’” If anyone has the facts on that, let us know.)

Bruce Schneier gives us another metapor for this asymmetry:

It’s a feudal world out there.

Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.

These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals.

It’s handy being a vassal. For example, you get to use these shortcuts into websites that require logins:

social-signin

To see how much personal data you risk spilling when you click on the Facebook one, visit iSharedWhat (by Joe Andrieu) for a test run. That spilled data can be used in many ways, including surveillance. The Direct Marketing Association tells us the purpose of surveillance is to give you a better “internet experience” through “interest-based advertising—ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.” The DMA also provides tools for you to manage experiences of what they call “your ads,” by clicking on this tiny image here:

adchoicesbutton

It appears in the corners of ads from companies in the DMA’s AdChoice program. Here is one:

scottrade

The “AdChoices” text appears when you mouse over the icon. When I click on it, I get this:

scottradepopdown

Like most companies’ privacy policies, Scottrade’s says this: “Scottrade reserves the right to make changes to this Online Privacy Policy at any time.” But never mind that. Instead look at the links that follow. One of those leads to Opt Out From Behavioral Advertising By Participating Companies (BETA). There you can selectively opt out of advertising by dozens of companies. (There are hundreds of those, however. Most don’t allow opting out.)

I suppose that’s kind of them; but for you and me it’s a lot easier just to block all ads and tracking on our own, with a browser extension or add-on. This is why Adblock Plus tops Firefox’s browser add-ons list, which includes many other similar products as well. (The latest is Privacy Badger, from the EFF, which Don Marti visits here.)

Good as they are, ad and tracking blockers are still just prophylactics. They make captivity more bearable, but they don’t emancipate us. For that we need are first person technologies: ways to engage as equals on the open Net, including the feudal Web.

One way to start is by agreeing about how we respect each other. The Respect Trust Framework, for example, is a constitution of sorts, “designed to be self-reinforcing through use of a peer-to-peer reputation system.” Every person and company agreeing to the framework is a peer. Here are the five principles to which all members agree:

Promise We will respect each other’s digital boundaries

Every Member promises to respect the right of every other Member to control the Member Information they share within the network and the communications they receive within the network.

Permission We will negotiate with each other in good faith

As part of this promise, every Member agrees that all sharing of Member Information and sending of communications will be by permission, and to be honest and direct about the purpose(s) for which permission is sought.

Protection We will protect the identity and data entrusted to us

As part of this promise, every Member agrees to provide reasonable protection for the privacy and security of Member Information shared with that Member.

Portability We will support other Members’ freedom of movement

As part of this promise, every Member agrees that if it hosts Member Information on behalf of another Member, the right to possess, access, control, and share the hosted information, including the right to move it to another host, belongs to the hosted Member.

Proof We will reasonably cooperate for the good of all Members

As part of this promise, every Member agrees to share the reputation metadata necessary for the health of the network, including feedback about compliance with this trust framework, and to not engage in any practices intended to game or subvert the reputation system.

The Respect Network has gathered several dozen founding partners in a common effort to leverage the Respect Trust Framework into common use, and within it a market for VRM and services that help out. I’m involved with two of those partners: The Searls Group (my own consultancy, for which Respect Network is a client) and Customer Commons (in which I am a board member).

This summer Respect Network launched a crowd-funding campaign to get this new social login button rolling:

respect-connect-button

It’s called the Respect Connect button, and it embodies all the principles above; but especially the first one: We will respect each others’ digital boundaries. This makes itthe first safe social login button.

Think of the Respect Connect button project as a barn raising. There are lots of planks (and skills) you can bring, but the main ones will be your =names (“equals names”). These are sovereign identifiers you own and manage for yourself — unlike, say, your Twitter @ handle, which Twitter owns. (Organizations — companies, associations, governments — have +names and things have *names.)

Mine is =Doc.

Selling =names are CSPs: Cloud Service Providers. There are five so far (based, respectively, in Las Vegas, Vienna, London, New York/Jerusalem and Perth):

bosonweb-logo danube_clouds-logo paoga-logo emmett_global-logo onexus-logo

Here’s a key feature: they are substituable. You can port your =name from one to the other as easily as you port your phone number from one company to another. (In fact the company that does this in the background for both your =name and your phone number is Neustar, another Respect Network partner.)

You can also self-host your own personal cloud.

I just got back from a world tour of places where much scaffolding work is going up around this and many other ways customers and companies can respect each other and grow markets. I’ll be reporting more on all of it in coming posts. Meanwhile, enjoy some photos.

 

It Istanbul Spice Marketwould have been great to visit the Egyptian Spice Market in Istanbul with my old friend Stephen Lewis, whose knowledge that city runs deep and long. But I was just passing through the Old City by chance, waylaid en route from Sydney to Tel Aviv, and Stephen was still in Sofia, which he also knows deeply and well.

But I still enjoyed his company vicariously, though his remarkable photography, such as the shot on the right, explained in his blog post, Exuberance or Desperation? Street Vendor, Rear Wall of Egyptian Spice Market, Eminönü, Istanbul, Anno 2000. Stephen’s tags — Film-based Photography, Infrastructure, Istanbul, Public Space, Rolleiflex 6x6cm, Street Commerce, Turkey, Urban Dynamics — expose the depth and range of his knowledge and expertise on all those matters, about which he blogs at Bubkes.org.

His two prior posts, also featuring Istanbul, are Unkapani Before the Construction of the Golden Horn Metro Bridge: A Declining Neighborhood Perched Atop a Major Infrastructural Improvement and Urban Back Streets: End of Day, Samatya Quarter, Istanbul.

Before that, is Brooklyn, Late Spring: Blossoms in the Midst of a Cold Spell. There he writes,

The photos above, below, and linked to via the Read More button at the bottom of this entry, were taken during a late-day stroll in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights and a mid-day walk from Park Slope to Boerum Hill, a couple of miles to the west.  On most grounds, economic and social, I oppose the rampant gentrification that has pushed out non-white, lower-income, and gray-haired New Yorkers from swaths of northern Brooklyn.  However, when I see the revived and manicured beauty of such neighborhoods my opposition momentarily softens … that is, until I remember that, given the pace and expanse of gentrification, ordinary New Yorkers will soon be forced to live so far from the city’s lovely historic neighborhoods that they will rarely have the opportunity, time, or means to visit them.

This hits home in a literal way for me. My ancestors on the Searls side (half of which originated via German and Irish immigration) lived in New York for generations. And I am currently domiciled, at least part of the time, in a district of far-northern Manhattan that remains, as @ChrisAnnade, puts it, “Starbucks-free.” It is a high-character neighborhood of Orthodox Jews and Spanish-speaking immigrants, mostly from the Dominican Republic. It’s an inexpensive part of the city, where commercial establishments are mostly of the non-chain type and sky-bound rents are not yet the norm. But it’s nice enough that I suspect things will change as the neighborhood gets “discovered” by people with more money or fame than those who already live there.

Here in the temperate zones, summer is beaches and picnics and biking and dinner on the deck outside. It is also thunderstorms and airport delays.

Right now a line of thunderheads  is sliding northeastward across New Jersey. Here is how it looks to FlightAware‘s map of aviation and weather activity for Newark Liberty Airport:

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.46.14 PMNotice how the incoming flights are threading through and around the heaviest rain, which is where the nasty winds are. I’m sure the approaches are still bumpy, in spite of the avoidings.

You’ll notice, if you click on the map above, or this link, it says,

Newark Liberty Intl (KEWR) is currently experiencing:

  • inbound flights delayed at their origin an average of 4 hours 38 minutes due to low clouds
  • departure delays of 1 hours 46 minutes to 2 hours (and increasing) due to weather

For a national context, here is FlightAware’s MiseryMap

miserymapThat’s just a screen shot. Go to the actual map and hit the blue play button. Impressive, huh?

I also like Intellicast’s map of lightning strikes:

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.59.25 PMThe lightning is striking the ‘hood right now, and the rain is coming down hard.

I also like Intellicast‘s maps and phone and tablet apps. Check ‘em out.

And now my phone just went off like a smoke alarm. The first time I’ve ever heard a sound that grating. The screen says this:

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 6.13.57 PM

A flash flood warning.

Dark Sky, I should add, is another good app. Tells you how many minutes will pass before it rains, and then how long it will likely last.

iTransNYC is also the best of the New York transit apps. “Incident” is, I gather, a euphemism. If the problem is a police action, a sick passenger or a derailment, they say so. If it’s a worse casualty, they call it an “incident.” Averages about one a week.

Tags:

Kiglapait Mountains

Yesterday I posted some shots of the crater-shaped Kiglapait Mountains on the frozen coast of Labrador, including the one above. Here’s how views of those shots, and many others, looked in Flickr’s stats:

Flickr stats

It got 90 views. Not a lot. But a lot of other shots got a bunch of views too, and they add up to, on average, a little over 5,000 per day, and over 5 million all time. For a blog that’s not bad — and I’m beginning to think that, in a way, a blog is what Flickr is for me. I’m not crazy about how Flickr works. (It’s gotten more slick and complicated over time.) But it’s where I’ve been posting photos since 2006, it does have a lot of upsides, and I’m reasonably confident (though I’ve had my doubts) that it will stay in business.

I don’t post my photos to sell, or to show off. If I were doing either, you’d only see the ones that look best. What I’m doing instead is a form of photojournalism: providing source photos of subjects to journalists, a class of people that now includes everybody. Journalism at its best is a form of documentation, and I provide fodder for that.

Including the three other Flickr sites I contribute to (Linux Journal, Berkman Center and Infrastructure), I’ve put about 50,000 photos up so far. All of them carry permissive Creative Commons licenses. As a result, 425 of my shots have showed up on Wikimedia Commons, which is Wikipedia’s source image library. I put none of them there. Other people went looking for photos of topics that came with Creative Commons licenses that are friendly to low-friction re-use, found some of mine, and brought them over. Some haven’t been used anywhere (that I know of), and others have seen lots of use. For example, this shot of the roofline at Denver International Airport is in 27 different Wikipedia articles. This one of San Gorgonio Mountain is in three. The one at that last link is a different shot of mine.

Hardly a week goes by that a shot of mine doesn’t find its way from Flickr or Wikimedia Commons into a newspaper, a magazine or a blog post somewhere. Here’s one that ran in the NYTimes Bits blog on the 19th. Sometimes they even turn up on TV. For example, NBC’s wallpaper for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver came from some shots of ice crystals on poorly insulated windows I took at my apartment in Massachusetts a few months earlier. (No, NBC didn’t pay for them, and I was glad to give them away. NBC would have been glad to give me tickets, it turned out, but I didn’t even ask until it was too late, which was dumb on my part. And they did give me credit.)

To me the world is a fascinating place, whether I’m down in a subway or gliding through the stratosphere. Often I don’t know what I’m looking at, but discover and dig into it later. Examples:

In every case, however, I see these shots, and what I add to them, as accessories to others’ fascinations, which in sum will range far more deeply and widely than mine. And for longer as well, I hope. So: enjoy.

 

I last visited Barcelona more than twenty years ago. Back then the Sagrada Família was already impressive, but also incomplete.  All that stood were the nativity façade and some small number (four? eight?) of the Sagrada’s eventual eighteen towers. I recall nothing of the interior, perhaps because there was none. In many ways, in fact, it resembled a ruin: something not all there.

This time was different. The church, our guide told us, was about a third complete the last time we were there, and is a bit more than two thirds complete now. Still remaining are some new towers and detail work on the exterior, a proper floor for the interior (it’s mostly temporary marble now), and the final entrance: the glory façade at the south end, or the foot of the church’s cross.

Impressive and iconic as the exterior is, the interior achieves a magnificence which, to me, exceeds not only every other church I’ve seen, but every building, period. The forest of columns, which really do resemble trees, spread above oval “knots” into branches that hold up the roof the way spread out fingers might hold up a dish from below. In fact they do far more than that: they are also made to carry the weight of the Jesus tower, which will rise to five hundred and sixty feet above the ground, ranking the Sagrada as the tallest church on Earth.

And, rather than leaves, the ceiling features beautiful pores — the navels of hyperbolas — that suggest portals toward the infinite. That’s one view, above. More can be found in this photo set. The captions aren’t right yet, but the connection at our B&B here is awful, so writing — even a blog post like this — is a bit of an ordeal. So I won’t be in a position to fix things up until I get back stateside next week. Meanwhile, enjoy a visit vicariously.

To an window-sitter accustomed to flying over the American West, Catalonia from altitude looks like Utah. On the northern horizon the Pyrenees, like the Uintahs, run east-west above a dry landscape of settled alluvium, much of it reddish as the San Rafael desert. While the shapes of the ancient towns below are clearly old world in shape and style (for example, red tile roofed), and no doubt receives a greater dousing of rain, the resemblance is still striking.

As always when flying over new places, i found myself wondering about geological provenance. And that was the reverie blown straight out of my mind when a singular landform slid into view. Shaped like the upper half of an elongated football, a half-buried zeppelin, the spine of a humpback, it was deeply eroded into bulbous hoodoo shapes, like those of Utah’s arches and goblins. Yet in a more significant way it also reminded me instantly of the equally anomalous church we were sure to visit in Barcelona, to which we were on approach: Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, which I last visited twenty years ago, and would visit again two days hence, on New Years Day, 2014. (Here are some interior shots I took there.)

Was the landform an inspiration for the church? Digging around later, I found the answer was yes. Same goes for the cuevas of Majorca, which I gathered the instant I saw those as well, when I visited the island in 1998.

The landform is the Holy Mountain of Montserrat, which means “serrated mountain” in Catalan.

I’d say more, but Net connection at our Barcelona B&B is iffy at best. Evidence: I wrote this several days ago and am only getting it up today, 2 January. So the rest will just have to wait, probably until I’m back in the States next week.

Found

Getting out of a Taxi in Madrid yesterday, by mistake I picked up a coat that a prior passenger had left on the seat. Here’s the label:

The coat wasn’t exceptional except in respect to the apparent antiquity of that label. Rather than take it with me (since I’m moving on), I left it in our restaurant, the amazing Cisne Azul, which specializes in mushrooms. Highly recommended.

On the very small chance that the coat is yours, that’s where it was last spotted.

In Google sets out future for Maps — Lays down gauntlet to Nokia with plans for personalized, context-aware and ‘emotional’ maps in future, in Rethink Wireless, Caroline Gabriel begins this way:

Google may be feeling the heat from an unlikely source, Nokia, at least in its critical Maps business. The search giant has put location awareness at the heart of its business model, but Nokia has overtaken it in several respects with its cloud-based Here offering – based on the acquisition of Navteq in 2007 – and has also licensed its mapping platform to some powerful partners such as Microsoft, Amazon and a range of car makers.

Google is promising dramatic changes to its own maps to help fend off the Nokia/Microsoft alliance and also, in the Android segment at least, the challenge from Amazon to a Google-centric experience.

As usual with stories like this, the issue is framed in terms of vendor sports: big companies doing battle over some market category. Lost, also as usual, is what the individual user, or customer, might actually want.

That’s what I’m here for.

So let me start by saying I don’t want a “Google-centric experience,” whatever that is. Nor do I want Google’s (or anybody’s) Matrix-like approach to satisfying what its robotic systems think I might need. Here’s how Caroline explains that ambition:

Bernhard Seefeld, product management director for Google Maps, told the GigaOM Roadmap conference this week that future software will “build a whole new map for every context and every person”, incorporating all kinds of information about the individual and updating this constantly. He added: “It’s a specific map nobody has seen before, and it’s just there for that moment to visualize the data.”

Pushing a major theme at Google this year, Seefeld talks about applications creating emotional connections for users – “emotional maps that reflect our real life connections and peek into the future and possibly travel there”. This will involve context-aware maps that combine location and personal data, some of that taken from other Google apps, particularly its Google Now personal digital assistant – mainly seen as a response to Apple Siri, but in fact far broader in scope, and with a powerful artificial intelligence engine.

Context-aware is fine, provided I provide the context, and the context is as simple as, for example, “I am here” and “I want to go to this other place.” I don’t want guesswork about my emotions, or anything else that isn’t on the vector of what I alone know and want. Paper maps didn’t do that, and the best electronic ones shouldn’t either — not beyond what still feels as hard and useful as paper maps always did.

See, maps are fact-based descriptions of the world. Their first and most essential context is that world, and not the person seeking facts about that world. Yes, map makers have always made speculative assumptions about what a map reader might like to know. But those assumptions have always been about populations of readers: drivers, aviators, hikers, bike riders, sailors, geologists, etc. That they don’t get personal is a feature, not a bug.

A brief story that should tell you a bit about me and maps.

In October 1987, on the way back to Palo Alto after visiting my daughter at UC-Irvine, my son and I noticed it was an unusually clear day. So we decided to drive to the top of Mt. Wilson, overlooking Los Angeles. On the way we stopped at a fast food place and ate our burgers while I studied various AAA maps of Southern California and its cities. When we arrived at the top, and stood there overlooking a vista that stretched from the San Bernardino mountains to the Channel Islands, four guys from New Jersey in plaid pants, fresh from golfing somewhere, asked me to point out landmarks below, since I already was doing that for my son. The dialog went something like this:

“Where’s the Rose Bowl?”

“Over there on the right is Verdugo Mountain. See that green stretch below? In there is the Rose Bowl.”

“Oh yeah.”

“On the other side of Verdogo is the San Fernando Valley. South of that are the Hollywood Hills.”

“Is that where the Hollywood sign is?”

“Yes, on the south side, facing Hollywood. Mulholland Drive runs down the spine of the hills on the far side of the Sepulveda Pass, where the 405 passes through. The Malibu Hills are beyond that. You can see the buildings downtown to the left of that. Long Beach and San Pedro, Los Angeles’ port cities, are to the left of the Palos Verdes peninsula, which are the hills over there. You can see Santa Catalina Island off beyond that.”

“Where was the Whittier Earthquake?”

“Over there in the Puente Hills. See that low ridge?”

“Yeah. Wow. How long have you lived here?”

“I don’t. This is only my second trip through. I live up north.”

“Where are you from?”

“New Jersey, like you.”

“How do you know so much about all this around here?”

“I study maps.”

Of which I have many, now mostly mothballed in drawers. Maps collection on my iphoneI have topo maps from the U.S. Geological Survey, sectional charts from the FAA, maps atlases from the Ordnance Survey in the U.K., and many more. When I fly in planes, I follow the scene below on my laptop using Garmin Road Trip (an app that is sorely in need of an update, btw.) That’s how I can identify, literally on the fly, what I see out the window and later detail in my aerial photo collections on Flickr.

So, having presented those credentials, I rate Google’s Maps mobile app at the top of the current list. Google’s search is great, but substitutable. So are many other fine Google services. But I have become highly dependent on Google’s Maps app because nothing else comes close for providing fully useful facts-on-the-ground. Here are a few:

  • Transit options, and arrival times. Here in New York one quickly becomes dependent on them, and they are right a remarkable percentage of the time, given how uneven subway service tends to be. Hell, even in Santa Barbara, which is far from the center of the public transportation world, Google’s Maps app is able to tell me, to the minute, when the busses will arrive at a given stop. It’s freaking amazing at it.
  • Route options. Even while I’m on one route, two others are still available.
  • Re-routing around traffic. It doesn’t always work right, but when it does, it can be a huge time/hassle saver.
  • Timeliness. It couldn’t be more now, and a living embodiment of the Live Web at work.

I also like Here, from Nokia. (As you can see from my collection of maps apps, above. Note the second dot at the bottom, indicating that there’s a second page of them.) I also have enormous respect NAVTEQ, which Nokia bought a few years back. NAVTEQ has been at the map game a lot longer than Google, and is at the heart of Here. But so far Here hasn’t been as useful to me as Google Maps. For example, if I want to get from where I am now to the meeting at NYU I’ll be going to shortly, Google Maps gives me three options with clear walking and riding directions. Here gives me one route, and I can’t figure how to get the directions for taking it. (Both are on my iPhone, btw.)

So here is a message for both of them, and for everybody else in the mapping game: Don’t subordinate pure mapping functions to a lot of “emotional” and other guesswork-based variables that advertisers want more than map readers do.

This might also help: I’m willing to pay for the maps, and services around them. Not just to avoid advertising, but to make those services accountable to me, as a customer, and not as a mere “user.”

As advertising gets more and more personal, and more creepy in the process — without any direct accountability to the persons being “delivered” a “personalized experience” — a market for paid services is bound to emerge. I’ll enjoy being in the front of it.

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