Connected to the World Out There,
not Just People
It's wonderful to fly while using my GPS to compare what I see in maps with what's on the ground. I'm no longer confined to the tiny metal cage in the air. It also makes me think about the all the press about blogs and blogs talking about blogs -- blogcest. There's a big world at there, the blogs are about more than just reporting, they are also a means of participating.24-Feb-2005

I wrote down these musings in response to a comment about using the new Connexion by Boeing on an SAS flight. Apparently it works well-enough to have Skype conversations even while flying over Greenland. A half-hour call is $0 above the $30/flight fee. This compares with $10/minute for using the traditional satellite phone. It's another example of the value of opportunity vs solutions. Motorola lost billions in building a satellite telephony system that could barely support phone conversations. Internet connectivity is opportunistic and can take advantage of what is available -- a far more powerful economic model.

The service is wonderful!! I wish the US carriers would provide this service instead of the lame "air phone" or being opiated by television. While it's nice that Verizon forwards my cell calls to the plane and gives me a discount because I use their cell phone service, it's a far cry from giving me a real Internet connection. I can't even rely on getting power for my laptop. Even if the system is installed it doesn't always work.

Providing technology to the passengers is a sharp contrast with the superstitious side of aviation. Sometimes I'm told I have to put away my digital camera while the plane is taxiing because it uses those dangerous electrons and can cause a crash. It's all superstitious and dangerous twaddle -- without cell phones the 9/11 incident could've been far worse. The plane that was supposed to crash into Congress was scuttled by passengers who learned what was happening via cell phones, not the air phone.

Using the Internet connection while flying made me think about my own experiences in being connected while flying, though in a very different way. When I fly I look at the window (the airplane's not the computer's) and wonder about all I see. Why did people choose to build there, is that a missile silo, what caused that geological formation and, well, why are there so many clouds blocking my view.

I've long been playing with GPS while flying and for some reason this year it started working very well. The last problem was working around the stupid serial emulation that Bluetooth does. The serial port emulation mode is really stupid -- unlike a simple IP-based protocol which could make the information readily available, the serial mode is very limited and clunky yet our success in working around the limitations of Bluetooth are used to make Bluetooth seem like a success!

Having a protocol for providing GPS information over IP would pave the way for a next generation of such services rather than trapping us illusion of success. With Bluetooth and its ilk, any failure along the chain of services will prevent us from getting the information whereas with an IP-based service any success will allow us to succeed. The reason is that Bluetooth makes us dependent upon every element in the chain while the End-To-End model of the Internet lets us connect to any source independent of whatever is in the middle. We can connect to a server in our homes while flying (via Connexion or even the air-phone) whereas Bluetooth can only communicate a few feet and has speed limitations built in. With IP we take advantage of any source of information. As I keep pointing out, those who do not understand this architectural principle tend to confuse the accidental work-arounds with effective design and then those of us who do design systems are blamed whenever this house of cards collapses.

But I have to use what is available so I make use of the Bluetooth GPS. It's taken years but it finally does work well-enough for me to get coverage during the entire flight. I'm not sure why -- whether there are more satellites or if the receiver technology has improved though I suspect the latter.

I've been using a small GPS unit from Socket (relabeled by Co-Pilot) and I just slip it under the window shade and it tracks the complete flight. I managed to track all the way to the gate because either the attendants (stewards?) didn't recognize that my TabletPC as a computer or the pilot sitting next to me looking at the flight track protected me. Now I just slip the tablet into my backpack folded back so it can track even when I get in the car.

I've got lots of such programs but am used to Delorme on the laptop. The 2004 version had some problems with the serial port handling so I've upgraded to 2005 but, more important, I also upgraded the Topo(graphic) app which I'd not been using. But now that I can have a USA DVD I can follow my trip on the topos which should be far more interesting than just seeing roads -- especially where there are no roads.

Unfortunately clouds and darkness limit the edutainment value. On the left (though I guess your rendering may differ) is the Delorme topo view of Albany Hill (or whatever it is called) in California. On the right is the Keyhole view (now a Google service) based on satellite photos and simulated elevation. You have to be connected to get the data. I wonder how well it would work via Connexion. One advantage is that it has world-wide coverage but only details in selected areas. I'm going to try to find out about getting world-coverage from Delorme. I'm surprised that it isn't more available for the serious vicarious traveler. The current product seems to be aimed at hikers with laptops or those who anally prepare their trip in every detail (or may that's not so anal -- those of us who just venture forth don't always return)

Just to show I'm not totally detached from others' reality, I'm also throwing in a photo I took from the ground this past summer though it's from the north and the other views are from the south. Note that in the topo and satellite views I exaggerated the vertical to bring it more in line with human perception. Remember that the earth is billiard ball-smooth -- a 5 mile vertical range isn't much against an 8000 mile diameter (apologies to the metricians but Americans don't use no foreign measures, especially ones from the French). {For those who take things too seriously, don't}

I'm mulling this in the context of blogs and photo rich sites like A9. I can't read a newspaper without reading about blogs, I can't watch TV without seeing blogs, I can't go to the web without blogs blogging about blogs. In a way it's like the VisiCalc phenomenon -- we got a lucky break by doing a small piece of software that appealed to people who could not just afford it but afford to invest in creating more demand. Blogs are far more viral (hmm -- does anyone say viral anymore)? After all, it's like ham radio -- if you can't talk about anything else you talk about talking about talking about ?.

It is in this context that I mull the whole idea of flying around and using all this mapping technology. I know that I miss a lot of the texture of the country when I just fly over it but I also gain perspective. It's not that one or the other is better--they are different experiences. Sometimes you see the trees and sometimes you see the forests -- you need to see both. In fact, it's when you see the forest that you can appreciate the importance of the tree -- both for building houses and as part of an ecology.

When you fly over the mysterious space between the coasts you get a sense of the context and wonder why a particular city is there or are those missile silos and why so many. The pilot I mentioned above grew up in the southwest and his stories add a lot to the experience such as pointing out "I went to camp there". Personally I think that knowing the context enriches later on-ground experiences.

The connection to the ground is a sharp contrast from the world in which we use blog to talk about blogs. More to the point, the press is excited about blogs as a phenomenon because they see their own reflect. I think of this as blogcest -- blogging about blogging. But it misses the fact that blogs are a way to participate and not just report.

The very idea of news reporting is to twentieth century. What really differentiates blogs is that they are connected to and are part of the world and each other. Of course, since they are part of the world, they are part of what is being reported but we shouldn't let the blogcest aspect distract as from the larger picture. Just as I use the maps and images to enhance my participation and experience, the blogs are part of this both in themselves and as source of more context and experience.

This blogcest is inward-looking but the attention is part of coming to terms with the integration of the net-based information and sharing with the "real world" -- of course the sharing is real too. But using all this technology to connect with other than people is important too -- it's not all about social networks and too much information.

But enough grandiosity. For me, when flying, it's also about being freed from the bounds of the tin can that carries me between point A and point B. Instead of or, perhaps, in addition to, giving me more to read, I want the computer to act as my agent and integrate the information. The maps are part of this but I want the map enriched. I don't want web pages; I want presentation and the ability to create my own.

For now we're at the stage of talking about all this stuff, actually using the technology is going to be very exciting ? we just have to figure out how to make this stuff work together in the context of a toxic environment. But that's what evolution is about -- surviving and then leveraging the environment. Stay tuned ? I wonder what the definition of "stay tuned" will mean once we get beyond the era of the spectrum police ?