Solar ferry on SF Bay – efficiency is easy

A hybrid solar/diesel ferry made by an Australian company called “Solar Sailor” has been chosen to shuttle visitors to the Alcatraz national park. The ferry is twice as fuel-efficient as typical diesel ferries. They cost about $5 million, or about twice as much as traditional ferries. The vendor says that the system would save $6 million over the 15 year life span of the vehicle, so 7 year payback period, not counting the value of reduced pollution and noise.
This is the first hybrid ferry in use in the US, ever. Meanwhile, it costs $5-10k to retrofit a Prius to get 100mpg. Today, the plugin hybrid technology is costly enough to be more of a status symbol than a cost-savings (if plugin hybrids displace some sportscars as status symbols, it’s a non-problem). Putting the technology in production will help it get cheaper. It’s possible to get more energy-efficient by a factor of lots, the question is how long we have for the transition.

Socially acceptable peak oil

I was chitchatting with a fellow at a party who keeps up with middle east news by reading English versions of local papers. The conversation turned to Saudi Arabia’s support for militant islam. I mentioned as a by-the-way that Saudi Arabia is the single largest source of oil in the world, the government is the only authorized source of reserve numbers, they have incentive to lie. Meanwhile, career oil engineers have reverse-engineered the Saudi reserve figures and believe that Saudi production has peaked. He hadn’t heard this. All in a calm, neutral tone appropriate for chips and beer.

Jimmy Wales on Wikipedia Community

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, gave a talk at Stanford last week. The bits that struck me from the talk were about the human model of community that makes wikipedia work.
Jimmy described two models of online communities. In one model, people are ants. Information emerges from the unwitting contribution of the masses. Individuals are not powerful. In this model, reputation is a number. In the second model, people are a community, a few hundred active volunteers who know each other and interact based on kindness and trust. In this model, reputation is human.
Despite the high traffic – 5B page views per month at last count, Wikipedia is a tight community. 50% of edits are added by 615 people, and 73% of edits by 1746 people.
Wikipedia is a network of encyclopedias in different languages. The “tipping point” when an encyclopedia has enough critical mass to succeed is a community of 5-10 people, producing about 1000 articles. An encyclopedia gets reallyl useful at 500,000 to 100,0000 pages.
Jimmy gave two stories that showed the value of open access and community-defined process.
Say you’re going to open a restaurant, and you’re going to serve steak. There are steak knives that can be used to kill people. What do you do? You lock people in cages (he shows a very sad gorilla in a small cage on a concrete floor) By increasing barriers the barriers to doing bad things, you prevent people from doing good things.
Wikipedia has a very simple and flexible model for voting about whether a page is to be kept or deleted. It is just a wiki page, where participants note whether they believe the page should be deleted. Then an admin makes the decision. More weight is given to evidence that a topic is valid — if there are 8 people who think it’s hoax, and two people who prove with citations that the topic is valid, the page is kept. Programmers regularly ask whether they should write a voting widget, and Jimmy says no.
The wikipedia model is less common than the traditional software model, where access is restricted as much as possible, and permissions are restricted as much as possible. As wikis become more popular, some people gravitate toward the familiar pattern to manage content by keeping people out. It’s inspiring to look to wikipedia’s overwhelming success for lessons of the benefit of access, flexibility, and human community.

Mob taxonomy

Tags get buzz because they’re decentralized and bottom-up. But one of the interesting uses of tags is mob taxonomy. At events such as dcamp and sxsw, the geek mob picks and publicizes a tag which is used to aggregate blog posts, delicious bookmarks, and flickr pictures
It’s an improptu, bottom-up sort of taxonomy, where the crowd consolidates on the tag and then posts it on wall and wiki.

Comments aren’t community

via SimpleBits, Jeremy Keith posts about why not to reflexively enable comments on a blog or other app. Keith gives good examples: The comments on Digg are junk; Keith has a couple of focused blogs with great comments, and a more diverse, popular blog with comments turned off. But he doesn’t quite get to the general rule: comments aren’t community.
Small, topically focused sites can easily gather communities. Large diverse sites won’t “naturally” develop community unless their hosts and participants cultivate practices and techniques, such as real names, welcome rituals, watch lists, moderation or ratings to foster social behavior and dissuade anti-social behavior. A comments feature, or “edit this page” feature, without community cultivation, will lead to chaos.

Crashing the Gate

My favorite thing about Crashing the Gate, the book by two leading liberal bloggers, is its indictment of the Democratic political consultant class. They make their money from percentage of political advertising, whether or not they win, which is quite a racket. They have a stranglehold on the dispensation of Democratic campaign funds. According to the book, they are the main proponents of the strategyof blandness: voters will vote for Democratic politicians if we don’t understand what they say; and of pandering to swing voters with non-issues like flag-burning.
Critics say the story isn’t new; but Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong get the story out to a broader audience than the policy wonks who have known this all along.
What I didn’t like as much about the book was how Kos and Jerome talk about online organizing. Mostly, they talk about how the internet is a new source of funding — and imply that they can be the next generation of political consultants who will gatekeep the collection and use of campaign funds. They give some lip service to online organizing and activism. But they don’t tell the interesting stories about how the internet can help assemble core groups, extend the reach of online organizing to the physical world, and use online education to put pressure on candidates and lawmakers.
What I liked least was the book’s indictment of liberal special interest groups. Kos and Armstrong encourage groups to drop their interests in the environment, women’s rights, and other issues, and to instead work on together to elect liberal candidates. I agree with the authors that bipartisan tactics are sometimes short-sighted — for example, womens’ groups support for individually pro-choice republicans is risky against the big picture of the republican party’s anti-abortion strategy.
Also, the focus on building an alliance of traditional liberal groups misses opportunities to be more aggressive and build a different majority. For example: Kos and Armstrong would rather environmentalists to take a lower profile, and subsume their call against global warming for a larger progressive agenda (whatever that is). Instead, environmentalists ought to cast a larger shadow, connecting the cause to economic growth; to business interests investing in bringing clean energy mainstream; to the national security benefit of energy independence; to religious people who believe in eath stewardship. This isn’t at all about “compromise”, it’s about building a larger majority by being assertive about core principles, and reaching out to those who might belive same things for different reasons.
I think that Kos and Armstrong’s electoral focus blinds them to the more complicated relationship between issue activism and campaigning. The activities during legislative sessions and campaigns are related but different. You do issue activism when the legislature is in session and you want the politicians to listen to you on a speciific topic. And then you do electoral campaigns favoring your broader goals.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and recommend it. It provides a powerful indictment of the structures that make democrats lose; and offers a bunch of good ideas for how Democrats could do better.

Movable Type Upgrade

If this entry posts correctly, I’ve upgraded Movable Type. The process isn’t all done yet. The cms templates are somewhat messed up, I need to delete over 10,000 spam comments from the last several weeks, and need to install a new comment utility.
UPDATE: The cms template just needed a shift-refresh, and the spam comments are gone. Woo hoo! If you made a comment in the last six weeks ago, it got caught in a spring cleaning frenzy. Feel free to comment again.