Entries for August, 2006

Google Spreadsheets

August 28th, 2006

I’ve been fooling around a bit with Google Spreadsheets recently, and I expect that I’ll be using them more in the future. While they’re still in the lab, however, there are a few things I’d like to see on the burner.

  • It would be nice to be able to track changes, a la writeboard, especially those made by other users.

  • It’s not quite obvious that you can go beyond the default 100 rows. You can insert more than one row at a time if you have more than one row selected, but if you have an ongoing project to keep adding to, it can be a bit annoying to keep stopping to insert rows. Not a really big deal I guess, but it breaks up “the flow.”

  • I haven’t had occasion yet to use more formulas than “sum,” but it appears that there’s a generous helping of them available. That’s a good thing, but I can’t find any assistance on syntax in the support pages. In my experience, syntax is similar but not identical in different spreadsheet software (e.g. where MS Excel uses commas, OpenOffice Calc uses semi-colons). I’m pretty sure I could figure out formulas I’m already fairly familiar with, but I find it easier to use my existing software to look up formulas I use less often than to look them up online in the absence of an easily googleable comprehensive list.

  • Spreadsheets are printable if you use “Get HTML” and print them as a webpage, but if you need a hard copy that’s more presentable, you still need to download it into your own software to format it any further.

  • I find myself mainly using Calc to create and edit spreadsheets, and then uploading and downloading them to and from google as necessary. As the main asset of web-based spreadsheets is, as googleblog pointed out, the ability to share and collaborate on a single document without the annoyance or risk of passing around multiple, out of sync copies, it’s a bit unfair to expect this or other Web 2.0-type office applications to be out-and-out replacements of their desk-top bound kin. In that case, all but the first of my points (tracking changes) don’t really matter. But then again, if I do all my work in other software and download and upload it, replacing the previous version entirely each time, I’m guessing that the potential to track changes becomes a very different matter.

    Anyway, it still seems more useful than not for collaborative projects.

    After escaping the clutches of the Illinois tollways and arriving in Madison, I got to my dad’s house, and while we were catching up I glanced over at the muted TV and saw the 10:00 local news flash “The Storm: One Year Later.” Strange to cover Katrina recovery on the local news, I thought, and then the scene cut to Stoughton, WI, where a major tornado strike (F-3 level) occurred last year on August 18. I happened to be visiting at the time; one of the touchdown points was about a half a mile from my mother’s house, and the tornado went on to tear up several homes not much farther down the road. For a week and a half, it reigned as the biggest natural disaster I had any truly personal connection to. I hadn’t forgotten it really, but it didn’t occur to me until the news came on that this is its anniversary.

    It’s interesting to see now what short- and long-term responses the tornado has prompted around here. Even though it seems so small next to a hurricane, around 80 homes destroyed altogether and dozens more severely damaged makes a big impression in the few small towns hit. FEMA turned them down for disaster assistance, but there’s a Stoughton Area Long-Term Recovery Board helping coordinate SBA and other sorts of assistance, and a Stoughton Area Tornado Relief Fund, as well as at least one resident’s more personal resource site. Even though there’s a world of difference between the storms and their impact, there do seem to be a few points of comparison between “macro” and “micro” disasters and their aftermath. Hopefully Stoughton’s recovery-related intrigue and entanglements are correspondingly smaller too.

    Reading Karen’s Who Elected the LRA? post and following its links today, I was surprised to find out (where have I been?) that just as the UNOP is supposed to be administered by the CSO, which is overseen by the NOCSF, which was in turn established by the GNOF to manage $4.5 million in grants to create a planning process (acronym and abbreviation help); the information-gathering and planning of LRA‘s long-term recovery planning initiative, “Louisiana Speaks,” is being funded significantly by the LRA Fund, which was established by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF), and will be administered by the LRA Support Foundation (created separately from the LRA Fund) once it gets its IRS qualification as a charity. (Gasp. I wish I had a flowchart) For now, as far as I can tell, the LRA Fund Committee is holding the purse-strings.

    I shouldn’t be surprised, really. A plan is required to release federal relief funding, but little or no funding is given to the creation of a detailed and comprehensive plan. The city/state/parish is left with no alternative but to look to private donors.

    What really surprises me (and maybe this shouldn’t either) is that at the bottom of its home page, the LRASF site declares: “The LRA Fund Committee has voluntarily decided to act in a manner consistent with the spirit of Louisiana Open Meetings Laws.” Kudos to the LRAFC for choosing to be open. I mean that. What concerns me though, is that a private organization that holds the linchpin to the disbursement of billions in public funds (and we’ve been seeing how much the planning of the plan can matter with the UNOP) could chose not to. To be fair, Blanco’s executive order establishing the LRA requires “a mechanism for public input and modifications based on such input,” but the UNOP’s “mechanisms for public input” to date have shown how little and dry a bone the public can be thrown.

    I don’t want to suggest at all that private foundations with influence on public spending are all necessarily nefarious evil-doers intent on selling the public lock, stock and barrel to their cronies. But they’re not necessarily saints either, any more than politicians are. Our democracy doesn’t survive by the vote alone; it’s founded on checks and balances and public accountability because it’s just plain bad policy to expect people, even good people, to deny their personal interests for the sake of public interest. Whether it’s willful corruption or the slippery slope of “I have a buddy whose company can do that,” it’s just too easy to drift away from the job you’re entrusted to do when no one is watching how you do it.

    It’s an awful lot of responsibility without much obligation I can see that’s not self-imposed. We can hope that personal integrity and/or PR help keep things relatively open (or at least “consistent with the spirit of openness”), but I’m a bit shocked that it would be legal not to.

    Parallel Universes

    August 8th, 2006

    Let the anniversary media blitz begin: front and center of today’s NY Times home page: When masters of rebuilding are residents. I don’t have time to fully digest this now, but my first impression is one of looking in a funhouse mirror — there’s a reflection there, but you could get city dysmorphic disorder from taking it face value (a little more dry fact checking seems in order as well: e.g. the public meetings did not begin on August 1). I expect we’ll be seeing plenty of alternate New Orleanses over the next month. Maybe at the end we’ll get to vote on which one we’d like to live in.

    Categorizing Wikis

    August 5th, 2006

    Since I’ve joined the editing of the New Orleans Wiki, I’ve waffled about just how to use categories. I have an initial tendency to use categories almost like tags — listing significant topics contained in the article. Maybe not quite as extensively as I’d use tags, but perhaps still a bit over-enthusiastically, in light of what I’ve recently read in the Wikipedia guidelines.

    To my understanding, it comes down to an issue of browsing vs. searching. Since categories work best for browsing for information, they should be used more narrowly and strictly than tags would be. Wikipedia recommends against creating a category with only one article in it, but since the New Orleans Wiki still has so many potential directions to grow, I’m of two minds on this. I have to agree that clicking on a category link and finding only one thing is pretty disappointing and makes a wiki (or any website) look bare, so I guess whenever possible it’s best to look for the most fitting broad category when new territory is forged until there are enough related articles to merit their own. But now and then I think it’s worth bending the rules (and maybe creating a new category is incentive to think about more articles).

    I’m still interested in the uses of tagging — such as the folksonomies they create. It might be interesting to see how relationships between articles and topics develop that way, but I haven’t been able to find anything about tagging in wikis. Then again, maybe it’s not really necessary, since articles that cite each other “tag” each other in a sense.

    The release of billions in federal funding for the recovery of New Orleans depends on the acceptance of a single, unified plan, covering everything from individual neighborhoods’ redevelopment to city-wide infrastructure. One feature of a such a unified plan must be meaningful public participation in the process, accommodating the city’s diverse citizenry and interests. Without extensive public representation, it is almost inconceivable that a plan would receive the endorsement necessary to begin disbursement of funds, in fact two prior planning attempts, the Mayor’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission, and the City Council’s Lambert-Danzey plan, failed in part because of inaccessibility to the public.

    When the announcement was made that the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF), its fiduciary committee, the New Orleans Community Support Foundation (NOCSF), City Council, the Mayor, and the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) had come to an agreement to support the NOCSF’s Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), Governor Blanco responded, “This process will be democratic and inclusive. Folks who live in the neighborhood will be integrally involved.” Mayor Nagin called the plan “democracy in action” in his own press release on the announcement. Democracy in invoked repeatedly in descriptions and discussions of the Unified New Orleans Plan, and the test of its legitimacy rests above all in the consequential inclusion of citizens. To date, there has been minimal opportunity for substantive public involvement–attendees at a July 30 meeting gave their recommendations for redrawing official neighborhood boundaries, and made their requests for the number of planners and project areas they would like their Planning Districts to have, but these decisions were limited to those in attendance. The selection of preferred neighborhood and district Planning Teams will be the first occasion for a public vote in the UNOP process. The integrity of this voting procedure, therefore, reflects on the integrity of the entire UNOP as a democratic entity and on any of its actions to follow.

    Despite less than a weeks’ notice, hundreds managed to attend the two public meetings and neighborhood groups and individuals all over the city are earnestly studying the 15 planning groups and what they have to offer. Many of the hardest-hit neighborhoods have already been working with planners for months — some with the Lambert-Danzey team and some with firms they hired themselves in the hope that when funding did come, they would be reimbursed. The Louisiana Recovery Authority will be administering the federal funds earmarked for New Orleans. With its endorsement of the UNOP and the requirement that UNOP planning teams submit neighborhood/district plans, many fear that months of work will go unfunded and come undone. Having a vote in their teams’ selection process is taken in deadly earnest by thousands of New Orleanians.

    UNOP on the New Orleans Wiki

    August 3rd, 2006

    I posted my Unified New Orleans Plan on the New Orleans Wiki tonight, edited a bit, and with a little more on what’s been happening since. The meeting descriptions could stand some fleshing out, especially since I played hooky on Tuesday to attend a couple Night Out Against Crime events in my area: the Bouligny Riverside-Faubourg Marengo-Faubourg Delachaise Triumvirate, and my own hood, Touro Bouligny. I’m pleased to say that there were no long lines to get in, I didn’t have to put a red dot on anything, and the noise level was quite pleasant.

    Anyway, if anyone has an corrections to make or anything to add to the wiki article as the process stumbles along, more editors would be much appreciated (wiki markup instructions if you’ve never done it before). Or leave me a comment and I’ll add it in.