California’s Katrina is Coming

September 1st, 2015

You might think that the Gulf or Florida would be the likeliest location for another Katrina-scale disaster, but it seems that California ranks high on the list, as this article from Wired points out.

California’s always been for dreamers. Dreams of gold brought the forty-niners. Easy seasons and expansive arable acreage brought farmers, dreaming of an agricultural paradise. Fame, natural beauty, and the hang-loose cultural mosaic have brought dreaming millions to the state where summer never seems to end.

The summer dream has become a nightmare drought. But the years-long dry spell isn’t what keeps engineers, economists, and state water planners awake at night. No, they worry about the network of levees at the crux of California’s plumbing—a massive freshwater confluence called the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Most of the state’s water is drawn from the Delta, protected by levees that pretty much amount to mounds of dirt, even when compared to infrastructure that infamously failed New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Hurricanes don’t hit NorCal, but these levees are alarmingly susceptible to disaster. If enough were to breach—in an earthquake perhaps, or severe El Niño storm—sea water from San Francisco Bay could rush in, tainting the water supply serving two-thirds of the state. The worst-case scenario could cause up to three years of severely curtailed water for most Californians.

Even if you’re not a California dreamer, this affects you. Delta water keeps Hollywood in the movie business, Silicon Valley in the tech business, and 750,000 acres of farmland in the business of producing half of America’s veggies, fruits, and nuts. If the levees go, so goes the water for 25 million residents of the world’s seventh largest economy.

Adobe Release FrameMaker 2015 Update

August 30th, 2015

Adobe has announced the first update to FraemMaker 2015, just a few months after the initial release. As with updates to previous versions, there are some new features along with bug fixes. TechComm Central has all the details.

Along with the FrameMaker 2015 update, there are updates for RoboHelp and the Technical Communication Suite.

It’s nice to see that Adobe is continuing to pay attention to FrameMaker. May it continue.

How Tech Helps the Blind

August 27th, 2015

Years ago, I remember when the Sault Public Library got a Kurzweil reading machine for use by the blind. It cost about $50,000. Now, your smartphone can do the same thing. Assistive tech for the blind and visually impaired is advancing rapidly and there are exciting new development. This CitiLab article is a good overview of the subject.

Many features of a standard iPhone become immediately accessible to visually impaired users who turn on the VoiceOver option—which speaks text on the screen. Users can also choose from a list of potential speaking speeds and pitches. (Speeds, as shown in the screenshot at left, range from “tortoise” to “hare.”)

Hovering over display text reads it aloud. Chalkias uses this function to hear summaries of the salacious young adult novels that he devours via the Audible app. “I’m very big on escapist reading, like YA or paranormal books,” he says. “I don’t like to interact with reality any more than I have to.”

Another app, the KNFB reader, scans printed material—magazine articles, or even receipts or invoices—and reads it back. “Most of us who are blind are used to synthesized speech, so we can crank it up really fast,” says Danielsen. “You wouldn’t be able to understand it if you started today, but you could work your way up there.”

A True Visionary

August 26th, 2015

Fifty years ago Ted Nelson coined the term “hypertext”. In the modern Internet era, that may not seem like much, but remember that when he wrote his seminal paper there was no Internaet, there were no personal computers or smartphones with touch screens, and computer terminals used 80 character wide green text displays. In many respects, his vision of 50 years ago is still to be realized.

Gigaom has a long interview with Nelson. It’s a must read for anyone interested in the history of modern technology – the words of a true visionary.

So this epiphany was in 1960?

Yep. For the ensuing five years I was thinking and designing how computer screens should interact.

What kind of reaction did you get from others?

No one, absolutely no one that I met, could imagine interactive computer screens. Whereas I could see them with my eyes closed, practically touch them and make them respond. It was very sensual.

And all during the 1960s and 1970s I was trying to tell people what interactive screens would be like, in my writings and my talks. But no one got it.

My great-grandfather, for example, who was a very smart man, a science teacher—he couldn’t understand what I was talking about. No one could imagine what an interactive screen would be. No one I talked to could imagine what an interactive screen would be, whereas I saw and felt them sensually in my mind and at my fingertips. Yet to me this was an extension of literature as we had always known it.

200 Years Ago a Volcano Changed the World

August 25th, 2015

Two hundred years ago, in April 2015, the Indonesian volcano Tambora erupted with a force 100 times greater than Mount St. Helens, ten times more than Pinatubo – the largest modern eruption. The eruption created a cloud of ash and volcanic aerosols that disrupted the world’s climate leading to famine and outbreaks of disease across Asia, Europe, and North America. All of this is documented in detail in Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood, a book that I’ve just finished reading and can recommend highly. The New York Times reviews the book and describes the eruption and its consequences, one of which was the creation of Frankentein by Mary Shelley.

By 1816, Switzerland, landlocked and famously rugged, was beginning to reel from the bad weather and failed crops. Starving mobs stormed bakeries after bread prices soared. The book recounts a priest’s distress: “It is terrifying to see these walking skeletons devour the most repulsive foods with such avidity.”

That June, the cold and stormy weather sent the English tourists inside a lakeside villa to warm themselves by a fire and exchange ghost stories. Mary Shelley, then 18, was part of a literary coterie that included Percy Shelley, her future husband, as well as Lord Byron. Wine flowed, as did laudanum, a form of opium. Candles flickered.

In this moody atmosphere, Mary Shelley came up with her lurid tale of Frankenstein, which she published two years later. And Lord Byron hit on the outline of the modern vampire tale, published later by a compatriot as “The Vampyre.” The freakish weather also inspired Byron’s apocalyptic poem “Darkness.”

27 Science Feeds to Follow

August 24th, 2015

It’s hard keeping up with developments in science. Not only is there so much going on that no one person could possibly follow everything, but it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff – the Internet’s signal to noise ratio is pretty low.  The folks at Wired have helped by putting together a list of 27 feeds (web sites and blogs, podcasts, and Twitter) that covers wide areas of science. There are names you will recognize (Chris Hadfield, Neal DeGrasse Tyson) and many you probably won’t, but all look worthwhile.