Monthly Archives: August 2007

Carbon off-setting

I’ve finally just got round to carbon off-setting our flights for this year. I did do it a year or so ago but after that I read in New Internationalist magazine about the down-sides of carbon off-setting, I was less eager to just go throwing money at some company to asuage my carbon guilt and felt I should do a bit more research.

While doing some filing just now, I found the latest issue of The Co-operative Membership magazine, which has an article about The Co-operative Bank and its ethical policy. The Co-operative Bank apparently uses the Climate Care scheme to off-set its carbon footprint of things like business flights. I figure that The Co-operative Bank is probably a reasonably reliable role-model in such things so I decided to just get on with it and calculate how much carbon I contributed to the world by flying this year.

I’m sticking to personal flights here and not counting my return flights to the US at Easter for business. I need to look into what IBM’s eco policy is for such things.

So, sticking to personal flights, I think I’ve done pretty badly this year in terms of the number of flights I’ve made. Tony and I went on holiday to Paxos, a Greek island, in May, which involved return flights to Corfu. Also, I flew from Southampton to Glasgow for a wedding in June, although I virtuously caught the train back (I couldn’t take the day off work to get the train both ways). And Tony and I have another three flights between us between Southampton and Edinburgh for another wedding. On the plus side, we went to Brussels for a weekend in February using the Eurostar both ways – which was not only greener but actually quicker and more pleasant in my opinion.

According to the Climate Care calculator, all that comes to the grand total of £8.96. Which doesn’t seem very much but I guess that’s because they’re all fairly short-haul flights. I can’t remember how much CO2 that was but I’ll get my PDF certificate within 5 days to remind me.

So do I feel less guilty about my flights? I’m not sure. I don’t think so. I still feel it was an excessive number of flights to take – especially when it is actually possible to catch trains to Scotland (although the 7.5+ hours it takes each way from Southampton does cause problems if you’re going just for the weekend). I try to imagine what I’d have done if low-cost internal flights weren’t available. I guess I’d have either taken more holiday from work or just not gone to the weddings. I don’t think the availability of carbon off-setting would have featured very heavily in my decision. My reason for catching the train home when I went to the wedding in Glasgow was that I wanted to try to be at least a bit greener. I’m quite happy to sit on a train for an afternoon with a book, and it was actually cheaper to catch the train than to fly. I actually wouldn’t mind paying a little more to catch the train than fly so I felt a bit smug that I’d proved wrong all the people who claim that flying is cheaper than other forms of transport to travel long-distance in the UK. I’ve recently discovered, in travelling more frequently between Southampton and Lancashire, that you can actually get pretty good train deals if you book far enough in advance.

So, my position on carbon off-setting isn’t cut and dried. I think I see carbon off-setting as the last resort, after trying to find greener methods of travelling. I like to think that I’m making a bit of an effort in that (catching the train and Eurostar when it’s possible) but I know it’s not really as big an effort as it could be yet.

Tag clouds, calenders, and more

Snap Preview Anywhere

Last night, I finally disabled the Snap Preview Anywhere feature (now know as Snap Shots) on my blog (I actually used the Snap Preview Anywhere WordPress plugin). It seemed like a good idea when I first installed it. Every external link on my blog had a little icon alongside it that you could hover over to get a thumbnail preview of the site you’d go to if you clicked the link. At first, however, it didn’t work – I just got a message saying that there was no preview available, for any link. That could have been the plugin not working properly because, after a WordPress update, some of the link previews started working, but only those that pointed to high-profile sites like Wikipedia and Flickr. Which is a bit crap because the majority of my links were still just saying that the preview wasn’t available.

Looking at the Snap website now, the description only really says that such high profile sites will be previewed. The original descriptions that I read when I first installed it on my blog suggested that the previews would work on any site as long as Snap Preview Anywhere knew about the link – and that they’d go preview new links within a short time. Maybe that was too much of a commitment for them to honour. It’s a free service so I’m not too bothered but it seemed like a good idea that’s not really happened.

Tag cloud

I’ve been thinking that although my blog/website is pretty and red, it is actually a slightly old-fashioned design now. So I was trying to work out what would be better without being dull. One of the things I wanted to do was make it a bit more Web2.0 – not that I particularly want loads of flashy drag-and-drop – more that I’d like to have fewer static-looking lists of links. Having a tag cloud is one of the things that I wanted. Partly because the categories that I had for my blog posts were pretty bad, and they have a fairly static, hierarchical feel about them. Although it’s a difficult mind-switch to make, I’d like to get away from thinking in hierarchies.

I once attended a task analysis tutorial given by Dan Diaper and one thing he said that stuck in my mind (bearing in mind my job as a technical writer) is that although we impose hierarchies on many many things (in order to categorise them), the real world isn’t hierarchical – that is, as soon as something belongs to more than one category, the hierarchy breaks down, and this happens frequently.

One thing that new, tagging-based sites like Flickr have shown is that we need to be more free with how we classify things for retrieval. On Facebook, for instance, although you post your photos in albums, you and your friends can tag the people in the photos so that it’s possible to retrieve all the photos containing a given person from across multiple albums. You aren’t restricted to a strict hierarchy of albums and sub-albums to locate an individual photo.

A similar example is some Adobe software that my Mum uses to organise her photos. She tags each photo with things like the names of the people in the photo, the location of the photo, the event taking place, and so on. The software can order the photos along a timeline so that you can pick a particular date in time and see what photos were taken on or around that day. You can also sort by tag; for example, show all the photos of pets, which is great because the software dynamically creates an album starting with the family dog when she was young, the pony she had from when she was about 15 years old until I was 15 years old, the dog she and Dad had for 17 years from before I was born, the various cats through the ages, up to their present dog and our two-year-old cats. Tony’s recently found a similar piece of Open Source software, F-spot, which aims to do something similar and which I’d like to try using to organise our photos.

So, anyway, information is all about retrieval. It’s no good me using logical but useless categories (like ‘Personal’ and ‘Opinion’) to organise my blog posts (they’re more useful for me than for other people). The trouble is that I find that when I’m thinking hierarchically, it’s difficult to decide which category or categories a post fits in to. Also, the site design that I use just lists the categories down the side of the page so the more categories I have, the longer and more boring the list. Tagging is a bit more natural an exercise, I think.

The SimpleTagging WordPress plugin provides what I want. I imported my existing categories (then decided they were terrible and deleted them all anyway), and then went through my existing blog posts and created and renamed tags to describe them. The tag cloud is a visualisation of the frequency with which each tag is used. The more popular tags (ie the topics on which I have written most) are shown in a larger, brighter font in the cloud.

What does the tag cloud show the reader? Well, apart from looking pretty, I think it gives the reader an idea of what the blog is about and, by extension, what I’m interested in writing about. I was a little bit disconcerted (though not terribly surprised) to discover that my interests seem to mostly revolve around cool or geeky stuff, though it’s nice to see that HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) is top at the moment.

On a bigger scale (though not here), the tag cloud can show what’s popular across a group of bloggers. For instance, a lot of IBMers have internal blogs at work. On there, a tag cloud can show what topics are of most interest to the IBMers who blog across the world.

What my tag cloud doesn’t show is the popularity of the posts with readers. In some ways, it might be interesting to show the relative number of comments on each post, or something like that. Though on a low-traffic blog like mine, that probably wouldn’t show enough to be that interesting.

Another interesting use of clouds is on the Nabaztag support website where the popularity of search terms is shown in a cloud so that you can just click a term in the cloud to retrieve the information instead of entering a search term. The more people who have searched on that term, the more prominently the term is displayed in the cloud. I guess the idea is that whatever problem you have, someone else has already had it and searched for a solution so you may as well benefit from their experience.

Anyway, take a look at my tag cloud, to the top-right of this post.

Archive calender

Before: an increasingly long list of months of blog archive.

After: a neat little calender in which you can click a date to view that day’s post (if there was one).

No plugin required for this one; just paste this bit of php in the right place in the WordPress theme and WordPress does the rest: <?php get_calendar(); ?>

Good eh?

Facebook badge

Finally, the last addition to my blog website today was my own personal Facebook badge – the photo of me and my Facebook status to the top-left of this post. Tony had made one of these and he showed me how. Just go to your Facebook profile page and scroll right to the bottom where there’s a link to create your Facebook badge. You get to customise the badge a bit, according to what information you want it to show. Facebook then generates the bit of HTML code that you need to paste into your blog page. And that’s it.

2500 miles…on a bike!

I’m clearly getting a bit slack at this whole blogging thing. My youngest brother, Robert, has been in the U.S. for 4 weeks now and it never occurred to me until last night to blog about what he’s up to.

Four weeks ago, he and some of his friends flew to Chicago. They stepped into Canada briefly to see Toronto and Niagara Falls then, from the border started their epic cycle ride down the East Coast of the United States. Actually, Rob is one of the sane members of the 6-strong crew; he’s driving what he lovingly calls ‘the monster truck’.

The disparity in effort involved between driving 2500 miles and cycling 2500 miles is reflected in the relative goals the team have in terms of sponsorship. You can sponsor Rob or any of the three cyclists to complete the journey. They’re raising money for a mix of charities, including WaterAid, Motor Neurone Disease Association, Van Mildert College Young Persons’ Project, Nightingale House Hospice, and Dr Kershaw’s Hospice.

They seem to have been having a whale of a time – visiting places, meeting the locals, eating ridiculous amounts of junk food, and experiencing Harry Potter mania U.S.-style. As he’s having to exert less physical effort than most of the others, Rob has been lugging his monster laptop around to maintain their official Team America 2007 blog to record their adventures. It’s been a way for their families to keep up to date with their exploits but they’re now apparently getting hundreds of hits a day, including one from a certain Bill Bryson.