The Right Ride: A Collaborative Map for Safer Biking in Boston

Earlier this week, Nancy M. pointed me to a new Google mashup called The Right Ride, designed to allow users to document dangers spots for bikers by adding annotations to a map. Chris Briaotta created the site in response to the recent death of two Boston cyclists, and it gives fellow bikers a way to share important information gleaned from their everyday experience of navigating through Boston's often mean streets.

Two articles describe the site:

I find it interesting that both articles refer to the site as a "wiki" though it seems clear that the site is more accurately described as a map-based mashup, since information is not editable by everyone and revision are not tracked, etc. This fudging of terms may not matter to the averager reader, but I find it curious that the term "wiki" is used here to denote any effort at collaborative knowledge-making online,when in fact there are many web-based tools that allow for this without them being wikis.

The comments on the Boston NOW article led me to Governor Deval Patrick's website where citizens are able to post issues and invite others show their support by "voting," in this case on the issues of bike lanes: In good social media fashion, the site enabled me, to create my account and post my vote: "I'm a daily bike commuter with a fairly safe route, but I ofter bike to other parts of the city that are much less safe. Until space for biking is built into the fabric of the city, motorists will continue to treat us like second-class citizens who don't belong on the road. Bike lanes are simply the civilized thing to do. It's time for Boston to begin making changes."

While it's often difficult to sort through the overblown "Web 2.0" hype, these sites make it easier to excited about the democratic potential of participatory media to help strengthen local communities. As long as I don't allow my "vote" on the bike lane issue to substitute for other, more more substantive forms of political action, I can see how this and the Right Ride site play their part in helping us work toward change in the places that matter to us.

Weekend Music: From Framingham to South Africa

After hearing two outstanding concerts this weekend, I'm struck by how long it takes me get around to finding good music sometimes. Sunday night I made my first trip to Framingham to hear John Gorka play (Dan Coutier opening – nice job Dan), which gave me the chance to get better aqcuainted with someone I knew from his great cover of Dylan's "Girl From the North Country" on the Nod to Bob album. On Sunday night we heard the Mystic Chorale peform a concert of South African music in the historic Tremont Temple in downtown Boston, which got me back in touch with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whom I knew from Paul Simon's Graceland.

And how is it that I've lived without Miriam Makebe's “Pata Pata” to get me going on a Monday morning. It now has a permanent place in my “Happy, Funky, Soul” playlist.

It's nice to know there are some new things under the sun–at least new to me–if I take time to come out from under my rock once in a while.


Sustainable Waters in a Changing World

Yesterday I spend the day "Sustainable Waters in a Changing World " conference at UMass Amherst where I gave a presentation on "Blogging Places: Using Social Media to Foster Place Identification and Share Local Knowledge," my standard place blogging spiel revised for audience of scientists and environmentalists. Here's the abstract:

If Henry David Thoreau were alive today, would he keep a blog? Greg Perry’s site, “The Blog of Henry David Thoreau,” helps us picture what this might look like by posting daily entries from Thoreau’s journal. While Thoreau would likely feel ambivalence toward blogging for technological and political reasons, it is not difficult to imagine him finding affinity with those who today identify themselves as “place bloggers.” In much the same way that Thoreau grounded his daily journal writing in his local surroundings, so also place bloggers use the genre as a way to explore the relationship between where they are and who they are. When blogging was first gaining widespread popularity, one group of bloggers created a wiki called “Ecotone: Writing about Place” that served as a portal for those interested in discussing both place and blogging. Between 2003-2005, more than 50 bloggers from around the world contributed 350 posts on a variety of shared topics that encouraged participants to construct a deeper sense of place. More recently, the launch of such sites as reflects a growing interest in place blogging as a form of citizen journalism designed to enable people to share vital local knowledge with geographically proximate audiences. While the web has often been viewed as a disembedding mechanism that attenuates social relationships and undermines place identification, these sites suggest that place blogging can serve as a tool for re-inhabitation, creating what the Ecotone bloggers describe as an “edge effect” that blurs the real and virtual in productive ways. Place blogging can empower ordinary people to think of themselves as creators of local knowledge, whether as citizen scientists, citizen journalists, nature writers, or urban flâneurs. Because our environments are being shaped by digital networks whether we like it or not, it is incumbent upon those concerned with the health and sustainability of places to examine critically how new communication technologies might reconnect people to where they are and enable like-minded people to create and share vital local knowledge.

Also presenting in this session on "Place, Season, and Landscape Perceptions":

The Citizen Scientist: an Emerging Scientific, Social and Economic Voice in Discussions about Water Resources, Wildlife Habitats, and the Impact of Climate Change
Glorianna Davenport, The Media Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Hudson River Almanac: Creating a Electronic Network of Phenologists
Steve Stanne, New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation and Cornell University

Our session was one of three sessions in a track called "Scientific and Watershed Community Collaborations" which also included panelists presenting on a interesting range of projects incorporating everything from handheld gps devices to Googlemaps and Flicker:

The Wildlife Inventory Project: Citizens Combining the Ancient Skills of Animal Tracking with Modern Data Collection Methods to Monitor Wildlife Activity within the Watershed
Bob Metcalfe, New England Discovery

Engaging Citizen Scientists in a Digital World: The Life on the Purple Loosestrife Project
Jennifer Forman Orth, Electronic Field Guide Project, Computer Science, University of Massachusetts Boston

Disseminating Wetlands Restoration Planning Information via an Online Document with Interactive Mapping Capabilities
Beth Suedmeyer, Wetlands Restoration Program, Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management

The final session gave use time to share ideas about how we could use information technologies to help people connect with their environments and contribute useful data to larger projects to improve the health of ecosystems. It was exciting to how much my research intersected with the work of those in other fields, and it was fun to share ideas with those trying to solve real world problems using many of the same tools I've been working with and writing about for a while now.

Would Thoreau Blog?

If Henry David Thoreau were around today, do you think he would blog?

I began thinking about this after reading an interview with Greg Perry, editor of The Blog of Henry David Thoreau. The article leaves that impression that there's a kind of natural correspondence between the Journals and the blog format:

Thoreau’s journal seems particularly well-suited to the blogging format. What similarities and differences do you see between his 19th-century paper journal and our 21st-century electronic blogs?

The similarities are obvious. Daily entries. Personal notes. Natural observations. Runs the gamut really. I don’t think there are any differences except the obvious one. Thoreau wrote his journal as if others would read it eventually. So other than the immediacy of a blog, there isn’t that much different.

One of the joys of reading The Blog of Henry David Thoreau is realizing that some things haven’t changed since his time. What continuities do you see between his era and ours?

Actually, that’s the thing. Most things are the same. He is living in a technological age as well as we are. The railroad and the telegraph are changing the world he knows. The country that he lives in has changed from the primeval days of his ancestors. There is a buried past there as well. And people are people. Politicians are especially politicians. Commerce is commerce. Even farmers are joining that business.

But I wanted to get a few other thoughts on the subject, so I posed the question to a few of my friends who have spent time with Thoreau. Their initial responses are below.


Great question, Tim!

I think he'd blog, but I think he'd equivocate about why he was doing it.
Much like his famous ambivalence with the train that abutted Walden Pond (he
admired the energy of the industry as human accomplishment, but resented the
intrusion on nature and philosophic solitude for the mere sake of
connectedness), I think he'd find the Web a vexing friend.

And I don't think he'd give up journaling, at all–he might publish his
journals on his blog, in fact, in addition to whatever timely entries he was
making there.

And, of course, he'd be doing all of this on a borrowed computer, using a
DSL connection paid for by his parents.


What's a blog?

Ha ha. I'm not that ignorant.

He would not. His journals were reservoirs of material for his polished, longer work. I don't think he'd have made his writing process public. Of course, the blog form could have changed his composition process–maybe he'd still keep a journal, and write "publically" in a blog more often. But I think his informal writing/journaling was important as a place of refuge.

I also think he was fairly class-conscious–a naysayer, and one who loved to tweak the establishment, but I think he liked to do so from within, rather than from without. I would guess that a part of him would see blogging as too democratic: that is, unreferreed, lacking true craft. Of course, there's some good writing online, but he was anal about drafting and language.


Hmmm, would Thoreau blog. An interesting question.

We know that Thoreau was involved with The Dial for some time, and did publish there, so maybe today he would be a contributor to something like n+1.

But what makes me doubtful that Thoreau would be a blogger is precisely the 'timeliness' of blogging – the genre of rushed thoughts rapidly written down before their shelf life expires is something that would not appeal to him (cf. "Reading").

And yet, Thoreau did give talks at the Lyseum, "A Plea for John Brown," etc., and so perhaps today he would find The Blog to be the successor of the public talk / lecture. I'm not sure.

But if the specific question is: would Thoreau have blogged rather than kept his journal, or would he do his journaling on a blog, I think the answer is no. The journal was a writer's journal (as you know, most of Walden comes out of it), not something that existed for the sake of public perusal. Near the end of his life, however, he was going back to revise portions of the journal, seemingly deciding that they would be worth preserving.

So, in sum, I don't know. But I'd be interested to hear what others have thought.

Their responses offer a more nuanced take on what Thoreau's attitude toward blogging might be.
Anyone else want to weigh in with opinions?

Coming into Contact: New Essays in Ecocritical Theory and Practice

Coming into Contact book cover

I received a copy of Coming into Contact: New Essays in Ecocritical Theory and Practice (University of Georgia Press, 2007) in the mail early this week, several years after I wrote my contribution, "Composition and the Rhetoric of Eco-Effective Design," an ASLE conference back in 2003. It's bizarre to finally see it published after not thinking about it for so long. The more time I spend publishing content online, the longer the print cycle seems, especially for academic books. But it's good to see the book published, and it looks like an interesting collection. 

Book Description
"A snapshot of ecocriticism in action, Coming into Contact collects sixteen previously unpublished essays that explore some of the most promising new directions in the study of literature and the environment. They look to previously unexamined or underexamined aspects of literature's relationship to the environment, including swamps, internment camps, Asian American environments, the urbanized Northeast, and lynching sites. The authors relate environmental discourse to practice, including the teaching of green design in composition classes, the restoration of damaged landscapes, the persuasive strategies of environmental activists, the practice of urban architecture, and the impact of human technologies on nature.

The essays also put ecocriticism into greater contact with the natural sciences, including elements of evolutionary biology, biological taxonomy, and geology. Engaging both ecocritical theory and practice, these authors more closely align ecocriticism with the physical environment, with the wide range of texts and cultural practices that concern it, and with the growing scholarly conversation that surrounds this concern."

Spring from the Front Row

I must be in the front row. That's what I keep thinking as I bike into spring this week, getting a great view of each gradation of change as I get to work and back.

Last week at this time I was facing 6 degree temperatures with a ferocious headwind, but I felt my body had fully adjusted to these conditions. I didn't even both to cover most of my face; I just let the frost tighten and tug on my beard as it collected throughout the ride. In this kind of weather, bikers have a love/hate relationship with speed: you have to get going fast enough to generate body heat, but the faster you go the colder it seems. Five minutes into the ride you can reach a place of equilibrium, but you feel the paradox acutely until that happens.

Yesterday I rode without my jacket at the end of the day and I experienced the wind as an amiable presence, much closer in kind to my own body than the alien adversary it's been most of the winter.

The ponds have been shedding their layers this week, which Thoreau describes in his journal today:

No sooner has the ice of Walden melted than the wind begins to play in dark ripples over the surface of the virgin water. It is affecting to see nature so tender, however old, and wearing none of the wrinkles of age. Ice dissolved is the next moment as perfect water as if it had been melted a million years. To see that which was lately so hard and immovable now so soft and impressible! What if our moods could dissolve thus completely? It is like a flush of life to a cheek that was dead.

Bodily Rhythms

Yesterday we spent the day cross-country skiing up at Windblown in NH, the first time on the skis this year. After we had been out for a while and I was cruising across a level spot in the trail, my body reminded me why I love this activity so much–the rhythm of the motion is addictive. Once I start, my body just starts to crave it and doesn't want to quit. And it feels so second nature that there seems to be an perfect symbiosis between motion and environment, between the pole plant and glide and surface of the groomed trail. Once I'm in the groove, it seems strange that I would travel through space in any other way.

I've noticed that my body also craves the motion of biking, and I begin to feel off, both emotionally and physically, when I'm not able to get myself to work and back this way. While the motion stays the same year round, the environmental conditions don't, and the past month I've had to adjust to cold weather riding, constantly tweaking my apparel to find that perfect equilibrium between clothing layers and body warmth.

And lately I've been taking swimming lessons to finally get my stroke technique figured out and to feel comfortable breathing in the water. And now I'm beginning to think that the rhythm of the front crawl has gotten under my skin, since I've had it on my mind all weekend.

I look to these rhythms of movement to remind me of the mysterious connection between body and place.

Gear Report: Winter Biking Apparel

Wednesday I finally got to test out my new biking apparel with some actual winter weather (not the 69 degree temperatures last week that had me back to shorts and t-shirt). It was 7 degrees with a stiff headwind when I rode to BC and I wanted to find the right balance of clothing so that I would be warm without getting sweaty. Last time I biked in this weather, my core would get too warm with a nylon shell over fleece or wool while my extremities, especially my feet would get painfully cold.

The major improvement I've made this time around is buying an REI Neo soft-shell jacket made of stretch-woven nylon that blocks the wind but also breathes enough to avoid trapping moisture from the inside. For most weather between 30 and 50 degrees, I can wear this over a single REI polypropylene base layer and tweak my temperature with different head coverings (thin balaclava and fleece neck gator). On my lower half, I wear a pair of stretch-woven nylon pants over biking shorts, with Smartwool snow-boarding socks and Shimano biking shoes on my feet.

When the temperature dropped into the nippier range on Wednesday, I just added an thermal underwear top and bottom underneath my normal outfit. With both head coverings thin balaclava and fleece neck gator and my warm mittens, I was able to stay comfortable most of the ride after I got warmed up enough that my body heat began escaping through the only uncovered area of my body-my eyes (I'm not ready to wear ski goggles yet-that would take things to a new level of biking dorkiness). I was impressed at how warm my feet stayed thanks to the Smartwool and the Shimanos (with are thicker than my old Nikes). On the whole, this combination felt just right–not to cold, not too sweaty.

So that's the gear report for any of you who bike in the winter. I'd be interested to hear if anyone has other all-weather biking gear that they recommend.

Martin Luther King, Jr. the Pillow Fighter

Yesterday at St. James's, Harvey Cox was our guest preacher as part of a sermon series on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Cox first met King in 1956 and they became friends while worked together during Civil Rights Movement. Cox spoke movingly of the central role faith played in King's life and work, and described the profound effect King had on his life. I particularly appreciated learning more about King as real person, someone who was able to laugh at his own pretensions and who would host vigorous pillow fights in his hotel room at the end of long day of non-violent resistance. Just before King was killed, Cox recalled knocking on his hotel room to be greeted by King with disheveled hair and pillow feathers covering his shoulders. This would be Cox's last image of King, and he felt there was no better way to remember this great man.