Vacation reflections

It's been way too long since I took a two-week vacation. It was great! I was mostly unplugged, but the ways in which my vacation did intersect with the Net were indicative of how times have changed. The killer application for me has been gmapPedometer, which was invented by a runner in order to measure training routes. It also works great for bicycle routes, and since I did a lot of riding on this vacation I used it to plan and log trips in Michigan and New Hampshire.

Clicking on one of those links invokes four services:, the gmapPedometer, Google Maps, and tinyUrl. They're loosely coupled, and that's a good thing because I've also been spending a lot of time with MSN Virtual Earth, which currently lacks layered applications but has more detailed maps. When the MSNVE applications do arrive, it should be straightforward to reuse the coordinates and waypoints embedded in URLs like It'll be more challenging to abstract the differences between the mapping APIs, so that an application like gmapPedometer can target various mapping platforms, but I expect we'll see that too.

I'm sure lots of folks will want to use this method of interactive route planning. Some of them, I hope, will also want to share those routes so that next summer I'll be able to issue this query -- -- in order to find routes in western Massachusetts and, perhaps also, to find people in that area who might like to ride those routes with me.

Soon these applications will also start to weave in geocoded photos shared on services such as Flickr. And because every channel that can be spammed will be spammed, we'll begin filtering these services using the identities of people who reliably post accurate routes and quality photos.

The need to mix services became apparent in a couple of ways. I didn't document another ride, from Petoskey to Charlevoix, because it was too hard to correlate the gmapPedometer with MSN Virtual Earth's more detailed view of the bikepath, and even MSNVE couldn't quite see everything. Several times I also wanted to use instead of, but in a Google Maps context, because Yahoo!'s coverage was more accurate, or more complete, or both.

From a user's point of view, it makes perfect sense to roll an application on the fly using Google's interactive mapper, Microsoft's satellite imagery, and Yahoo!'s local yellow pages. It makes sense from a systematic perspective too, because if all of the services try to be everything to everyone, they'll have to trade depth of coverage for breadth of coverage. Ultimately we'll want the kind of dynamic specialization discussed in The Only Sustainable Edge. It's not at all clear, though, whether behemoths like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo will be able to negotiate the necessary web of relationships.

Here are a few other notes on how life has changed since my last real vacation. Somebody sent me a copy of The Only Sustainable Edge but I leafed through it, saw lots of jargon, and set it aside. Instead, on a long bike ride one day, I listened to John Seely Brown's summation of the argument in a talk from SuperNova, courtesy of ITConversations. I may or may not wind up reading the book, but I feel like I've got the gist of it.

Another telling anecdote: five years ago I bought a Scotts Classic reel lawnmower from Clean Air Gardening. It's been a pleasure to use, and I still wear the T-shirt that came with it. Early on I had a minor problem, emailed the company, and heard back from somebody named Lars, who helpfully orchestrated an exchange. This summer I started having a much worse problem. If adjusted tightly enough to cut, the reel would jam. If adjusted to spin freely, it wouldn't cut. Again I wrote to the company, and again I heard back from Lars. He'd never heard of this problem, but hoped I'd get back to him with the solution if I found it.

When we got home from our trip I figured it out. The adjustment on these things is really sensitive. You want the blades to just barely contact the strike plate, so that they cut cleanly. An eighth-turn of an adjusting screw can completely bind the reel. Somehow I'd gotten one end of the reel out of alignment with respect to the other, so I couldn't find the sweet spot between cutting and jamming, and wound up with a lot of jamming and a lot of frustration. After some trial and error I rebalanced the reel, and now I'm a happy clean air gardener again.

I'm going to write back to Lars with a pointer to this entry, and maybe he'll add it to his website or the companion guide to reel mowers. But even if he doesn't, there is a very high probability that anyone else who runs into the same problem will be able to issue a query like "scotts classic" jamming OR binding and, search engine spam notwithstanding, find this entry. As routine as this kind of thing has become, I can't yet bring myself to take it for granted.

One final observation is that, although I took my laptop with me on our long driving trip through upstate New York, Ontario, and Michigan, I rarely needed to use it. We visited a lot of friends and family, and usually found web browsers and high-speed Internet connections along the way that enabled me to do everything I needed to do. The lone exception was updating my iPod, which made my reliance on a non-networked instance of iTunes felt rather primitive.

Many years ago I read a science fiction story that envisioned this scenario. Computers and access to the network were fungible commodities that existed everywhere. When you visited friends you'd just use their terminal interchangeably with your own at home. It seems like we're nearly there.

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