Keyhole becomes Google Earth

Because I am a registered user of Keyhole‘s “Ultimate Interface to the Planet”, also known as Keyhole 2 LT, I was invited to beta test the upcoming release of Google Earth (Keyhole was purchased by Google last October). Damn, is it good! The new Google Earth is pretty much like the old Keyhole application, but it’s a little cleaner, it’s got some Google search and directions capability built into it, and most importantly, it’s got a vastly improved picture database. As a result it’s the most incredible atlas or map reference ever. Ever ever. You can fly around the Grand Canyon, zoom over the Cascades, or hover over your neighbor’s swimming pool. I have lost many hours of useful sleep playing with this insanely addictive program. Here are some ways to blow through the time:

  • Visit every place you ever lived.
  • Visit every place you ever went on vacation.
  • Visit places that you want to go on vacation or are simply curious about (Norwegian fjords, Victoria Falls, Sugarloaf Mountain).
  • Follow the paths of explorers like Lewis and Clark.

If you are the least bit of a map-o-phile, please beware: this is strong medicine. Your productivity is at risk. It is also more evidence of how quickly the world is changing. Encyclopedias bound as books are lost causes, but now atlases are equally doomed. Google Earth is far beyond anything else remotely like it. A description of the functionality is simple enough: Fly over the surface of the entire Earth in three dimensions at (almost) any altitude. But the experience defies description until you see it.

In case you were wondering about the name Keyhole, it was the name of a secret US satellite surveillance program. It’s easy to see why the whole enterprise is being re-branded Google Earth. First of all, they had to stick the Google name on it. But as a close second, who wants to be reminded just how much privacy they’ve already lost as peeping Tom satellites lift their latches and finger their blinds? My advice is to look up and smile from time to time, and for God’s sake don’t do anything incriminating out-of-doors.

Postcard secrets

My brother-in-law sent me this one today: PostSecret. The idea is to send an unsigned postcard with a secret on it. It’s an art project, and the cards the artist has put up so far are impressive little pieces of art in themselves. I have to guess he’s filtering out all the boring postcards on which someone has scrawled “I never flush public toilets.” In fact, the cards are so nice in some cases I start to wonder if the secrets are somewhat manufactured for effect. Still, there are some nice ones that have the ring of truth. I like the one that says

I miss feeling close to God.

… sounds like someone should consider moving back home to that Red State they grew up in. All this is reminiscent of the Apology Project, an installation by artist Allan Bridge that started in 1980 as an answering machine and an ad that encouraged people to call in and apologize for something bad they had done. That project grew and flourished for 15 years before the Bridge died. Here are some sample calls, including this dandy tit-for-tat tale from a Vietnam vet.

We all need to be absolved from time to time. Even so, nobody believes in the old cultural mechanisms that used to carry the load. These days, how many people would trust a priest with their secrets? It’s good to see innovation at work on the guilt frontier.

MATLAB Contest gets Slashdotted

The MATLAB contest got Slashdotted over the weekend. The Slashdot thread linked to our contest pages but also to my paper hosted here on this site: In Praise of Tweaking: A Wiki-like Programming Contest. So we’ll see how much extra traffic I get to my site as a result.

I have always thought that the contest would be the kind of thing that Slashdot folks would like. Interestingly, the person who posted the thread observes “What makes the contest truly interesting is that the final phase is open source.” I agree with his assessment, of course, but it had the unfortunate side effect of making a lot of Slashdotters noisily point out that MATLAB itself is not open source, which is true enough, but a little beside the point. This observation ends up soaking up a lot of the conversation, but hey, it’s Slashdot. I’ll take what I can get.

Joplin ragtime lost and found

Here’s a stranger-than-fiction story about music lost and regained. Actually, it’s more like nonfiction-inspired-by-improbable-fiction. If you saw Blade Runner, you may remember how Deckard zoomed around a digital photograph with his computer until he located a tiny but critical detail with a ridiculous level of magnification. A similar scene occurs in the funny but less memorable High Anxiety by Mel Brooks.

Now for the nonfiction part: someone finally took the time to look closely at a well-known picture and often-published picture of ragtime composer Scott Joplin’s piano. There, in plain view, was an unknown rag. The Rag Time Ephemeralist has the whole story of how the music was recovered. Here is the picture in question, and here is the (fragment of) recovered music. Knowing the story gives the music a haunting air. Lost but not lost, like a musical fossil, it had been floating in information limbo for a century. Give it a listen. As a curious side note, the Ragtime Ephemeralist article was written by the inimitable cartoonist Chris Ware.

Perhaps we are witnessing the birth of the new science of paleo-photography, or photoforensics, or maybe archaeo-archivology, in which lost worlds are recovered from their inadvertent appearance in someone else’s archives. With gigapixel projects like the modern View of Delft, how much of your life is already documented on someone else’s hard drive? Would you pay to see a gallery of distant or departed loved ones if those pictures were taken by security cameras?

On the perils of travel and travel writing

Don’t Go is an anti-travel humor site. I kind of like their chirpy anti-rah-rah spirit (also, I kind of like saying “anti-rah-rah”). Anyway, I wouldn’t have heard of them, except for they asked permission to re-post one of my pieces, an anti-travel screed called Why Travel Sucks. You can find it here on the Don’t Go site, next to cheeful observations about hygienic toilet facilities and helpful riverside signs.

Soon after the piece was published on their site, I received a curious email from a woman named Anka who said a potential volunteer for her international organization bailed out, sending her, as justification, a copy of my piece. Anka continued:

If you do not want to be a stupid American doing stupids thing overseas, became a volunteer and encourage the people who read your article to became one. You, as an American, will do for once a good thing to the earth and do something good for yourself and kill the stupid ‘tourist’ you have inside.

For the record, I hereby encourage you to undertake enlightened travel and volunteer for a good cause.

MATLAB Programming Contest, v10.0

Roughly every six months we run a MATLAB programming contest in which contestants are encouraged to steal the code that other people are submitting. Naturally, most people steal code from whoever’s leading, which makes the code churn and improve very quickly. This version of the contest, number ten, involves giving instructions to ants so they can maximize the amount of sugar they bring home. The contest ends on Wednesday; stroll over and check out our ants > Mid-Contest Analysis” href=””>mid-contest analysis.

Pangram haikus

Oh boy, have I found a great way to waste your time. If I know you well (and I think I do), you’re going to blow ten minutes easy writing pangram haikus. What’s a pangram? I’ll let font designer Mark Simonson answer that one: “A pangram is a sentence or phrase which contains every letter of the alphabet.” As such it is useful to font mongers plying their wares. Quick foxes, lazy dogs, etc. I’ll give you the link to the Wikipedia page for pangrams here, but you have to promise me you won’t read the combination pangram/palindrome. Some people should really be kept away from word games.

Anyway, font hacks like Simonson make a lot of these pangrams, so he built himself a tool: the Pangrammer Helper. Then, the web being what it is, someone decided to use his tool to make pangram haikus. And now that I’ve told you about it, you have to do it too. Don’t try to stop yourself; it won’t do you any good. And when you’re done, send me a copy. Here are mine.

I started with some dreary ninth grade pseudo-Eastern stuff.

a box of olives
a jumpy vendor coughing
wizened kumquats rot

After a while I warmed up…

Jazz up your pangrams;
show some alphabetic love.
“Quick red fox” my ass.

and finally

Need a quick web fix?
Try this dazzling site, by Jove!
Pangram haikus rock.

Your turn. How about a pangram/palindrome/haiku?

Trackbacks and comments and spam

According to Plasticbag’s Tom Coates, “trackback is dead.” I’m inclined to agree. If you’re not familiar with the concept, trackbacks are a sort of blog-to-blog automatic signalling system. If I mention your blog in mine, then your blog gets notified automatically and records that fact in a visible record. The result is that your downstream influence is made evident. Only it doesn’t work so well. Or rather, it works reasonably well, but is primarily exploited for spam. I’m turning off trackbacks for my site. It’s not much of a loss, since I only ever got a few trackbacks, but comments are also close to tipping over into the domain of not-worth-the-spam-hassle.

Mucking out the spam day after day is a noxious task. I kept thinking that spammers would eventually tire of buying new domain names pointing to still more Texas Hold’em poker sites, since the old ones are being continuously blacklisted. But no, they NEVER STOP. And they seem to be onto a new strategy that has me worried: the latest domain names are mild-looking places like My guess is that they are hacking into other people’s disused sites and using them as referral waypoints to their real sites. In other words, the domain names that I’m blacklisting day after day don’t even cost them anything. Which is to say, they can play this game forever, whereas I will eventually tire.

I’m switching to some stronger anti-spam filters. Hopefully it won’t cause my real friends and readers to be blocked. Please let me know if you have any problems posting comments.

Yahoo scores some buzz

Google google google, all day, every day. It’s making the people at Yahoo crazy. But they’ve got their own buzz machine going over at Yahoo, and some good work is starting to come to light. This kind of thing makes you love capitalism-inspired competition. The latest news is Yahoo’s Video Search tool. For a long time I have been trying to find a video of Diego Maradona’s famous solo goal run against England during the 1986 World Cup. I have tried often enough over the years that I can safely say this was once a difficult task (I never succeeded). But one quick search for Maradona goal on Yahoo Video Search took me straight to the object of my desire. I watched it. It was sort of a let down. Maradona makes the whole thing look so easy that it almost seems like a high school game. And if you enjoy soccer, be sure to watch the “Hand of God” goal from the same game, videos of which are returned by the same search terms. In this play, Maradona reveals his consummate skill at swatting the ball past the keeper with his hand (and getting away with it while the world watches). Soccer, you will recall, does not ordinarily involve the swatting of the ball into the goal with one’s hand.

Anyway: Yahoo. Google. Yahoo. Google. I suppose Pepsi and Coca-Cola sounded just as stupid a hundred years ago.