New Blog: The Story of Stuff Debate

Reza and I got into a debate over the validity of some of the contents of the Story of Stuff video. At the urging of some friends we decided to keep it online and have created a new joint blog called the Story of Stuff Debate at

It should be interesting.

Getting Grandfathered into a Google API

Warning: This post contains extremely geeky content.

A few weeks ago Google removed a feature called "inlined" from its personalized homepage API. This was a setting a Google gadget developer like myself would use to create a gadget for the home page that was capable of interacting with the rest of the page the way my toggle-google gadget does, and more importantly it allowed those gadgets to grow and shrink as their content required (like the gadget). Full details of what Google changed and how are in this email thread.

Google dropped inlined support because its a bit of a security problem. With an inlined gadget the gadget code can basically scrape any info they want out of other gadgets (like your calendar or email) and steal your valuable Nigerian scam emails before you got to read them. I know those Nigerian scam emails are fake, but still, they are your scam emails and you don't want anyone stealing them...

Google did the right thing to stop supporting inlined gadgets, but they also did another cool thing. They grandfathered any existing gadgets that were already using inlined. So some of the ones I wrote like bookmarks and the Toggle Google gadgets still are able to use inlined. I think this is the first time I've been involved in a grandfathering and I can't help but wonder if that means I'm getting old.

In the end, it probably won't matter. While Google has given my gadgets "Grandfathered" status, they seem to get shut off every once in a while and show the error message "Sorry, this gadget uses the inlining feature, which is no longer supported."

I was really surprised, but when I realized the gadgets were breaking, I really wasn't bothered or even motivated to fix the problem. That's a big change from when I was picking apart the iGoogle DOM to change parts of the page layout and then dealing with all the subtle changes to the page that Google would make every few weeks. I was really into it back then.

But times have changed. I've got 3 kids, and my ecological footprint project has got me interested in things like public policy. Its not a small topic. So I'm not planning on putting any effort into those gadgets, so they'll likely get stale and stop working some day.

It was fun while it lasted though.

Alex and Boston Museum of Science

Alex and I went to the Boston Museum of Science. We had a really good time, and since pictures are worth a thousand words here's 7000 words worth.

We headed right for the dinosaurs when we arrived.


Next we checked out the Butterfly Garden. When Alex shouted "Daddy look a Blue Morpho Butterfly!" I realized that I had no idea how he came across that bit of knowledge.


Dig Me! I'm a nature photographer!


For the next 2 hours we were having so much fun I forgot to take any pictures. At one point Alex spent 10 minutes talking to a museum employee about fiber optics and doing experiments with light trajectory through different shapes.

And of course we got our Star Wars fix...


Then it was snack time!


Alex discovered space ice cream...

and we thought about what to do next...


Alex decided it would be best to go back and race model solar cars and dig up dinosaur bones...
So few pictures... Lots o' fun.

The Story of Stuff - A Must See

George Carlin has a funny perspective on stuff but he doesn't talk about where it all comes from and where it all goes.

As I've been looking at my ecological footprint I started to get the idea that stuff (material goods) has a non-trivial impact on my environment. I was thinking about looking into it, but I wasn't sure where to start.

Then I saw the 20 minute video "The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard" last December and was blown away. It is simply spectacular. The video is a fast paced look at our materials economy from start to finish.

Now I realize that the words materials economy sound gouge-your-eyes-out-with-a-melon-baller boring, but this video is just the opposite. No melon baller needed. Not even a soup spoon. "Brilliant, awesome, and funny" are responses people have to the video and if you don't believe me check out what the critics said.

I was so impressed with the content, the way they simplified a complex topic into a clear message, and how they made it entertaining at the same time, that I'm giving this video my highest rating of five exploding balls of hydrogen.

Video Links
The Story of Stuff video is available in large format at and in a slightly more blurry version here on YouTube.

If you happen on by my house, I ripped it to my iPod, so we can watch it on our wide-screen TV. After you see the video you'll really appreciate the irony of that one. So check it out, it's a must see.

Digg Layout In Google Reader

Here's a picture of Digg in Google Reader using the yahoo pipe I cobbled together last night.


Cool Features:
  • It looks good (and a lot like Digg) in Google reader
  • Google Reader keyboard shortcuts (J=next article) make it easier to read than the Digg webpage
  • There's no clicking NEXT to get the next page of articles
  • Since articles are marked read, I always know what's new!

Uncool Features:
  • Articles that are [Reported by Diggers as Possibly Inaccurate] don't show that message in the feed. (I can't find the "Reported as Innacurate" info in the Digg API)
  • Clicking "Digg It" doesn't record a digg. Instead it takes me to the Digg page for the article and then I have to click "digg it" on that page. (As far as I can tell there's no to make a digg it link in the RSS feed due to cross site scripting restrictions enforced by bth pipes and google reader.)

Pipes & Digg

I played with pipes a bit tonight. It's an amazing powerful tool. My goal was to create a feed for digg that looked and acted like the digg website. The official digg RSS feed is light on useful content and makes you go back to the digg website when you want more info. My goal is to be able to read the feed in Google Reader where they have the ever time saving keyboard shortcuts without returning to digg to get to the full content.

I was blown away by the raw power of pipes and at the same time flabbergasted by some of the basic things they left out. There's no place to put code comments and the largest text field is about 10 characters wide. Considering that I was trying to reformat the description field of an RSS feed, that was a little small. I ended up working in a text editor and then doing a copy and paste.

Another thing I noticed was rookie developer silliness in a lot of the pipes. One pipe author (who wrote a really useful pipe) decided that "aaaa" was a sufficiently descriptive variable name to describe content he got from searching for a news story on digg. I'm a firm believer that you should be able to read a variable name and know what it's all about so "aaaa" is a bit vague for me.

Just to make sure I wasn't being too picky I ran "aaaa" by Mark (friend & guru developer). His take was "aaaa" is perfectly named if the variable is telling you if you're falling. So maybe I was being overly critical.

public boolean getAaaaa();

Anyway, the pipe I made makes a feed for digg that:
  • Links directly to the article (instead of the digg page)
  • Has the basic layout of a digg article
  • Shows the article thumbnail images from Digg.
Here's a link to the pipe:

Share and enjoy!

Rock Climing and The NH Primary

Tuesday night I went rock climbing at boulder morty's with some friends. It's been 10 years since I've been on a rock wall and I was surprised how much I remembered. It was a blast!

After we climbed for a few hours we headed over to Martha's Exchange. The place was packed and everyone was very dressed up. Except us... We showed up in shorts, and sweaty t-shirts. It used to be a lot less froofy, but we were hungry so we went in. It turned out they were hosting a private Barack Obama Finance Committee party and while we weren't Obama Finance Committee members they let us sit off to the side and order food.

We had some beers and burgers and followed the primary results on the TV. I didn't think much of the fact that we were at an Obama Party until the following happened in rapid succession.
  • Lots of women started going over to a mirror near our table and fixing their hair.
  • The secret service started showing up.
  • Someone announced that Barack would drop by as soon as he finished his speech at their campaign headquarters.
While everyone waited for him to arrive I was struck by how friendly everyone was. I think it was something about a crowd of hopeful people with a common goal that broke down the typical social barriers. Young and old, different colors and religions all dressed up and getting along great. And there I was in shorts and a sweaty shirt and they treated me exactly the same. It was surreal.

Obama arrived around 11:30, at which time I took this brilliant picture with my phone.

Obama Arrives at Martha's Exchange

People were packed in so tight that we ended up standing on tables to see him speak. He gave a really good 10 minute pep talk (this was just after his speech on TV) and then started walking around and talking to people individually. It was really exciting to see him in person.

Considering how smelly we were from climbing, it would have been easy to push our way through the crowd to meet him, but that just seemed mean. So we split.

All in all it was a fun night.

Book Review: Plug-in Hybrids

Last year I read Plug-in Hybrids The Cars that Will Recharge America. It's a book by Sherry Boschert, a 30 year veteran of medical news reporting, electric car owner and author of the Well To Wheel Emissions summary I sighted in my Plug In Electric Cars post.

Plug-in Hybrids is an entertaining and educational read that tells the stories surrounding the advent and demise of the electric car in the 80s ad 90s and fills in a lot of interesting details that they didn't cover in Who Killed The Electric Car.

The beginning is a bit frustrating when you find out how a few companies colluded to eliminate working public transportation systems so they could sell more cars, tires, and oil. (That's not a conspiracy theory, the companies weren't very subtle about how they did it.)

Even so, the book is pretty uplifting and there's a number of inspiring stories about the people around the EV1. Moreover, the last part of the book describes how plug-in hybrids are the cars that will allow America to get away from the combustion engine without having to give up the perceived benefits of gas powered cars.

After reading this book and checking out its sources I was convinced that an electric car is for me. Given my driving patterns (which are apparently similar to 90% of Americans) a plug-in is more convenient (no trips to the gas station) and produces a significantly lower environmental impact.

When I read the book, there wasn't much talk about plug-ins, but over the last year efforts like Google's and guys like Bob Lutz getting behind plug-ins makes it look like there's a chance for plug-ins to be commercially available. How cool would it be if my next car was a plug-in and I never had to go to the gas station again!

I highly recommend this book and am thus giving it 4 out of 5 exploding balls of hydrogen.

PS - I'm planning to donate this book to the Massachuetts public library since they don't have a copy yet. If you'd like to borrow it first, let me know. and a little Obama news

GlassBooth is a really useful non partisan website that provides a simple quiz that tells you which candidates your positions are most similar too and why. Here's a post on how the quiz works.

It also provides a simple way to learn about where each candidate stands on issues and is really healpful for getting around hype and campaign rhetoric. In a society where most of the coverage is on how the race is run instead of the candidates actual issues, this is an invaluable tool.

Even so, GlassBooth is not a complete answer to picking a candidate. It makes simple work of finding the candidate that you most closely align with on issues, but issues are not the entire picture.

For example I think its also important to consider the candidates ability to recognize situational nuances, work through compromise, and get things done. These are attributes that GlassBooth does not consider and along with alignment on most of the issues, they reason I'm voting for Obama. Even Kucinich is supporting Obama these days.

FYI: Obama's podcast and his speech/interview at Google are good resources for learning more about his take on getting things done. One of my favorite parts is his answer to how he would deal with special interests. Jump to the time index 57:02 and stick around for how he ties it back to health care legislation (~4 minutes total).

Anyway, GlassBooth is very good at matching you up with candidates positions on issues and it even provides contextual information that explains how candidates address issues that they decide in shades of gray.

So check out the GlassBooth website. You might be surprised what you find. And then if you decide not to vote for Obama, I'd love to debate some of the issues with you. Who knows maybe we'll both learn something.

PS - I just checked the Iowa results and it appears Obama won the democratic caucus! Here's hoping the other caucuses & primaries go this way!