Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Last Printed Edition of the Outings Guide?

The Ogden Sierra Club Outings Guide is now being printed. If anyone out there is waiting to buy a copy, we should have them in a week or two.

The changes since the last (2004) edition are numerous but minor. I’ve squeezed in descriptions of three new trails, tweaked the descriptions of many others, and updated several of the maps. The length is unchanged (112 pages), as are the illustrations and most of the page layout.

Shown here is one of the delightful chapter-opening cartoons, which were drawn before my time (1980s or perhaps earlier) by someone I’ve never met (Richard Hogue). It’s an honor to work on a project that so many others have lovingly contributed to over the decades.

Since the Guide went to press, one person has already requested an electronic version of it. This leads me to ponder its future, and the future of books more generally, as the world rushes into the internet age.

Technology has already had a big impact on the production and appearance of the Outings Guide. The first three editions were produced with typewriter, scissors, and tape. Some of the maps were hand-drawn, while others were copied (with permission) from newspaper clippings. A copy shop then reproduced the pages using an analog photocopier.

When I took over as editor in 1998, the production process went digital. I typeset the text (using TeX, the same software I use to write physics books and class handouts), scanned the line drawings, and produced new shaded-relief maps based on digital elevation data. I recall delivering that edition to the copy shop on a Zip disk, from which they uploaded it to their digital copier. In the 2004 edition we switched to FTP and offset printing.

To the end user, however, the format of the Guide is still unchanged: a pocket-sized soft-cover black-and-white booklet, printed on dead trees.

An electronic final version would be environmentally preferable, and would make my life easier in several ways. No more agonizing over the locations of page breaks, or over how much information to try to squeeze onto a tiny black-and-white map. No more running around town making deliveries. No more having to wait until the inventory is depleted before making updates.

On the other hand, the initial creation of a usable electronic version would be a major challenge, in terms of both programming and design. Sure, it’s easy to brainstorm about full-color zoomable maps with links to and from a searchable database of trail descriptions and photos. But I’ve done enough programming and web design to know that producing such a software package wouldn’t be easy.

To their credit, Weber Pathways has put an electronic version of their trail map on the web. As you roll the cursor over an alphabetical list of trail names, the trails are highlighted on the map. You can click on a trail name to see a text description of the trail, and you can restrict the list to trails of a chosen difficulty level if desired. With a bit of patience I can even view this map on my iPhone, if I’m in a location that has service.

But the Weber Pathways electronic map isn’t perfect. The map is extremely small and can’t be zoomed. Nor can you identify a trail by pointing at it on the map. You can’t access the map while exploring the more remote parts of the county. And notably, the electronic version of the map is now out of date, compared to the latest printed edition. 

Are there better examples of electronic trail maps? If so, I’d love to see them. But I’m doubtful, because solving one problem would probably create others. A fancier web site could be prohibitively expensive to create and maintain. A stand-alone mobile app could have a slicker user interface, but would be unavailable to anyone who doesn’t have the right gadget.

The long-term maintenance issue is especially troubling. Already, the production process for our Outings Guide has become so technical that I would have a lot of trouble finding another volunteer to take it over. Switching to an electronic Guide would ratchet up the geek level a couple more notches, and might require hiring a professional programmer. And while it’s easy in principle to update an electronic document, in practice it can become a burden and even an expensive necessity, as hardware and software quickly evolve.

Then there’s the question of money. Selling Outings Guides has been our group’s main source of income over the years. But nobody is willing to pay to access a web site, and at least for now, the market for a mobile app of this type isn’t large enough to cover the cost of hiring someone to produce it. (Weber Pathways operates on a much different business model, raising money from charitable contributions and mostly staying out of politics. We need organizations like that, but they can’t do everything.)

The good news is that we’re printing enough paper copies of the Outings Guide to last another four or five years. By then technology will have progressed, and perhaps the right way to do an electronic Guide will be obvious.

I’ll promise one thing now, though: As long as I’m the editor, the Guide will continue to include Richard’s cartoons.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Collected Works from Weber County Forum

It’s now just over three years since I began blogging on Weber County Forum, and that’s still where I’m putting most of my political writing.  Today’s article, on Ogden’s utility rates, adds another to this growing list.

Oddly, Blogspot doesn’t seem to provide an easy way of pulling up all articles by a particular author. So for my own convenience, and that of anyone else out there who might want to see what I’ve written over this time, here is a mostly complete list of my Weber County Forum articles. (With one exception, this list includes only articles—not the hundreds of comments that I’ve posted over the years.)
Although some of these articles were written with the intent that they be placed on the Weber County Forum front page, others were originally posted as comments and were bumped to the front page by blogmeister Rudi. Rudi also wrote some of the titles and did some additional editing, just as a newspaper editor would.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Equal Opportunity?

At the start of each city council meeting we pledge allegiance to a Republic that provides “liberty and justice for all”. That’s not quite the same thing as equal opportunity for all, but many of us believe America should at least strive to provide equal opportunity. (Does this belief make me a liberal? Perhaps.)

The New York Times has just published two disturbing articles about the lack of equal opportunity in higher education.

First, Reed College (about as liberal as they get) has begun to base its admission decisions on ability to pay. Until now they practiced “need-blind” admissions, then provided adequate financial aid to every admitted student with demonstrated need. Now, as a result of the recession, they’ve decided to reject more than 100 students solely because they can’t afford to pay full tuition, and to accept 100 well-off students who otherwise wouldn’t have made the cut.

(My own liberal arts alma mater, Carleton College, began a similar practice about a year after I graduated--and I’ve protested by withholding charitable contributions to the them ever since. I’d rather see them spend money on financial aid than on fancy new buildings and higher faculty salaries.)

Second, the State of Illinois has launched a formal investigation into whether the University of Illinois (its most prestigious public university) has admitted hundreds of unqualified applicants in response to political pressure from state legislators and university trustees. If the allegations are true, this would be an egregious example of how it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Fortunately, my own employer can’t possibly suffer from these particular problems. Weber State University admits anyone with a high school diploma. (To borrow a cynical old Tom Lehrer quip, we’ve banned discrimination even on the basis of ability.) Does this mean we provide equal opportunity in every way? Of course not; there’s no way to be completely fair to everyone, and occasionally I hear allegations that students have been given special treatment for reasons such as family connections or gender. But overall, WSU and America’s other colleges and universities uphold much higher standards of fairness than you’ll find in the rest of our society.

Perhaps my background in higher education is part of why I get so outraged about politics, where you can almost always buy better opportunities with either money or political loyalty. Although high-profile corruption scandals draw attention to this system of unequal opportunity, for the most part the system is completely legal.

Ogden’s recent campaign finance revelations are a case in point (and a case that I’ve been obsessed with for the last few months). Just look down the list of Mayor Godfrey’s biggest campaign contributors, and you’ll see a list of people and companies who are doing business with the city. Or look at how the city attorney has the discretion to enforce campaign laws against one political faction but not against another. This is a system based on power, not equal opportunity.

Fortunately, Ogden just took a small, incremental step toward fairness, by passing a new campaign finance ordinance that will limit the largest contributions and provide more complete disclosure. Let’s hope we’ll see many more steps in the same direction.