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Archive for April, 2013

Scene of the (almost) crime

Remember that discussion from yesterday about stormwater pollution and NPDES permits?  I have to admit, I’m a cynical soul and I’ve had my doubts that the public education requirements would make any real difference.  Tennesseans don’t like the government telling them what is good for them.  So I was actually pretty surprised at a bit of drive-by green heckling I witnessed the other day.

To entirely appreciate this story you have to know, First Avenue in Nashville is essentially the back alley for the tourist traps and bars on Second Avenue.  All the businesses have their dumpsters back there and a lot of random garbage ends up on First and the sidewalks are sometimes unpleasant.  (It’s a really odd choice since First fronts the river with the stadium on the other side and has the potential to be really nice, but that’s a story for another time.)  It’s also a large downhill grade that bottoms out at Broadway, the other tourist trap of downtown Nashville.  So all the garbage from both often ends up at First and Broadway.

I was idling at the traffic light at First and Broadway watching an employee of Hard Rock Café hosing down the sidewalk around their dumpster.  He had quite a pile of random garbage on the sidewalk and I was hoping he wouldn’t wash it into the drain since it would be floating in the Cumberland River a few minutes later (this is literally 100 ft from the river).  Right about that time a guy in a giant pick-up drives past me leaning nearly all the way out of the window and yells at the Hard Rock guy “Why don’t you pick it up instead of washing it out into the street!”.

I was torn between delight that he noticed and anger at the level of asshole required to yell at some poorly paid employee about something that small.  Even better, right after this happened the Hard Rock employee grabbed a dust pail and started scooping up the garbage.  I don’t know if the heckling had an effect or if that was his plan all along, but I was very happy to see both of them paying attention to such a minor detail.  I’m not going to claim my cynical heart grew three sizes that day, but apparently the education efforts are working.

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Photo by Flickr user dogsbylori

Photo by Flickr user dogsbylori

These days just about every city or town in Tennessee has to have a special permit related to stormwater.  Stormwater is runoff from a rainfall, and the part that goes into those ubiquitous road drains is of particular interest because those drains are direct lines to natural waterways. In heavy urban areas stormwater can be just as polluted as the water coming into a sewage treatment plant but it doesn’t get treated before ending up in the river.

Stormwater falls into an EPA permitting program called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, generally known as NPDES.  NPDES covers A LOT of different pollution sources and you pretty much have to be a specialist to understand all the in’s and out’s of the program, but the important thing for the moment…  A few years back nearly every Tennessee city and town of any size was required to get a permit for their stormwater systems (some larger industrial sites and other entities had to get their own permits as well).  The permit requires the municipality to do its best to improve the quality of the storm runoff.  This involves things like litter programs, street sweeping, filters in curb drains, and endless other possibilities.  Cities that have programs for curbside pick-up for fall leaves or grass clippings may even get to count that since it keeps organic pollutants out of natural waterways.

untitledMost municipal NPDES stormwater permits require a certain amount of money be spent on public education.  The idea being that if people know what types of behavior cause pollution they’ll quit doing it.  The earliest efforts involved obvious things like making sure people knew those road drains go to the river because their was a common belief that the road drains went to the sewage treatment plant.  These days towns are getting creative with the public education component.  Farragut (suburb of Knoxville) has one of the more creative outreach and education efforts that I’ve heard about in Tennessee.     One of their programs invites local artists to decorate rain barrels which are then sold to the community.   The watershed signs you’ve probably seen on interstates throughout Tennessee are part of TDOT’s NPDES mandated public education efforts rather than simple government waste as some people think.

It remains to be seen just how successful the public outreach and education programs are.  I’m a bit skeptical, but I did get a free rain gage with Memphis Stormwater Department’s logo on it…

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Hugh Howey’s story ‘The Plagiarist’ has been around for awhile, but it felt pretty timely when I got around to reading it.  The gaming world has been saturated with stories about ‘Sim City’, an excellent (albeit flawed) game about planning and running a simulated city.  The Plagiarist is about a man, and an entire society, that loses itself in those same type of simulations.

Howey’s story takes places in the near future where games like Sim City have been combined with artificial intelligence to a degree that the characters in the simulation are essentially people in their own right.  Universities and corporations run server farms dedicated to these artificial worlds where the software citizens are as intelligent as we are and they’re allowed to develop in their own ways.  Thanks to the time dilation (time moves quicker in the sim than in reality) scientists are able to study aspects of their fields they can’t otherwise see.  Geologists use them to study planet formation.  Psychologists and anthropoligists use them to study relationships without the observer interefering.  The simulation is so good that the simulated people have started doing their own independent research and found interesting new inventions and cures that never came up in our world.  An entire profession has sprung up where practitioners go into the simulation and bring details from these simulated advancements for use in the real world.   The protaganist is a literature professor who has a side hobby of searching the simulations for the next William Shakespeare.   The story begins at a point where the simulated worlds have started their own simulated worlds.

The Plaigarist is a very plausible extrapolation of current trends in internet usage, social media, and computing will probably take us in the near future.  It raises some very interesting questions about identity, and reality versus virtual spaces.  It’s also a great sneak peak at the ethical issues we’ll be confronting as software gets more lifelike and potentially learns to think for itself.  It’s available as an e-book .

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Tor publishing has an interesting expirement going on right now.   Tor has been publishing John Scalzi’s The Human Division weekly since mid January as an experiment in episodic fiction.  On the eve of finishing the volume (the last episode is out tomorrow), the experiment seems to be a success .  I’m not going to spend a lot of time reviewing the story itself, suffice to say it’s really good and woe be unto anyone who expects me to get work done on Tuesday mornings before I’ve finished the new installment.  I do want to spend a few words on how the weekly publication has played out for me.

 From the outset weekly publishing had one very obvious benefit for me, though I suspect I’m in the minority about this one.  The trademark Scalzi wit is snarky and irreverent with a liberal dosing of goofy.  This is, after all, the same man who wrote a story about yogurt taking over the world.  I do enjoy his work (and I’m in awe of the universe he has set up) but I’m not the biggest fan of humor in my sci-fi and too much joking gets grating after a while.  So while a week seems like a long time to wait for the next plot point, it ended up being just right for keeping me from getting tired of snark.  (This is a minority opinion on my part based on the success of Scalzi’s last novel, Redshirts.  Not to mention the complete works of Douglas Adams…)

When the episodes were announced I expected a regular novel chopped into bite size pieces, possibly with an extra cliff-hanger or two to keep readers ‘tuning in next week’.  What I got was worlds better than that.  The story is specifically designed to be presented as pieces.  Tor and Scalzi have likened it to a season of television with a semi-self-contained plot each week bound together by an over-arching story to keep readers coming back.  Even that analogy is a bit lacking because several of the episodes take place on the fringe of the main plot and don’t include the primary characters at all.  I’ve found it best described as complimentary short stories.  The jumping around was surprising but it came together well over the course of the overall story.

I do find myself wondering if the story is going to suffer from a lack of integration now that it’s going to be available as a whole.  Tor is publishing a hard back of the entire thing in novel form and I’m interested to see how those who read it all at once feel about it.  It hangs together much better as a series of stories and seems like it would be very choppy and jarring to jump around a full novel this way.  Quite a few interesting characters are presented and discarded in various weekly installations and I suspect that would be really frustrating to a reader going through it all at once.

The last benefit I want to point out is fiscal.  As the dad of twins who need TWO OF EVERYTHING I found a small dollar amount every week a lot more palatable than the $25 purchase price of a full flown novel.  All I had to do was skip a trip to the vending machine every Tuesday and I got a fun read in return.

I highly recommend The Human Division.  Anyone can enjoy it, but you’ll get a lot more out of it if you’ve read at least a little of Scalzi’s previous work in this universe (Old Man’s World, The Ghost Brigades).  I also recommend you read it with a time gap between installments.  If not a week, then at least a day or two.  If you’re on the fence, this story over at Tor introduces the major characters of The Human Division and is a good indicator of the writing style.

 I’m curious to hear what Tor and Scalzi have to say about the results of their episodic experiment, but from a reader’s point of view I’d declare it a success.  I’m not interested in giving up long form novels, but this is a great compliment to that form of reading and I hope Tor continues trying it in this form of complimentary episodes that Scalzi has pioneered for them.

 This is not strictly related to above, but I want to give a shout-out to Tor for the free short fiction on their web site.  They’re great about publishing new stories from some of my favorite authors and exposing me to new ones via stories and excerpts.

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