Panama Canal time lapse

Here, as found by Google video, is a lovely time lapse movie of the Miraflores locks on the Panama Canal. Watch gigantic boats take the water elevator up and down, one after another. The canal actually defines an entire class of ship: Panamax vessels are limited 106 feet in width. In the movie it is indeed evident that these boats were designed with Panama in mind. Otherwise it would be too much of a coincidence that so many of them just squeeze through with only enough room for a deck of cards on either side. American aircraft carriers, on the other hand, are so big that effectively live in the nineteenth century. Headed to San Francisco from New York? You’ll be taking a long trip around Cape Horn in South America.

This movie also illustrates one of the happy facts about the isthmus of Panama: that it is situated in a rainy tropical part of the world. As you watch the movie, keep in mind that operating the water elevator all day long always involves draining water from the higher level to the lower level. That water isn’t pumped back up; God puts it up there (by means of intelligently designed clouds). One of the limits on traffic through the canal is actually how much fresh water is available to dump through these locks. As reported on here in the Economist, the need to better manage the freshwater resources required by the locks is having a positive effect on environmental research into the effects of deforestation. Globalization can be green once you see how things are hitched together.

Toponymy – the naming of places

Linguists and sociologists have, for years, been making dialect maps on which are displayed, for example, those places where people would be likeliest to refer to a water fountain as a “bubbler.” Professor Bert Vaux keeps an excellent archive here on his website at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (where, strangely enough, people sip their water from bubblers).

Another approach, which should have been obvious but never occurred to me before, is to simply use a computer to crank through place names that are already recorded in map databases. For instance, if you looked at a great big map of the US and noted down all of the waterways called “brooks” and all of the waterways called “creeks,” would you see a geographic trend? Answer: yes you would. And here is lake vs. pond.

This work is presented on a site called I can’t figure out who the author is, but it’s darn good work. Here’s another good one: of the city name suffixes -burg and -ville, does -burg reveal a German immigrant trend? So many other questions you might ask: are there more “Bear” place names in the east or the west? In California, are there more Sans than Santas or Santas than Sans? And ever since that sleepless night at Devil’s Twitchy Eyelid National Monument in Wyoming, I’ve wondered how many National Park names involve the word “Devil” in one way or another. Now the answer may finally be at hand.

NEWSFLASH! Ask and it shall be granted unto you. A very cool internet-age thing has happened: I posed three speculative questions in the preceding paragraph, and pfly himself came across this post and answered my questions in the comments section. That is indeed something worth giving thanks for. Thanks, pfly!

Go read the comment, but here are the graphical results. Bear place names. San vs. Santa. Devil in the placename. I have to say, I was amazed by the number of Devil’s This-and-That places out there. I joked about Devil’s Twitchy Eyelid, but pfly did the research to show that there actually are the following Devil body parts: tailbone, toenail, windpipe, jawbone, and bottom.

Nightmarish lunation

Is there a Dark Side of the Moon? Yes, the same way there’s a dark side of the Earth. It’s called night time. On the moon, night time lasts two weeks. There is, however, something more mysterious called the Far Side of the Moon. One side of the Moon always faces the Earth. It’s impressive to think that, until the Soviet Union sent Luna 3 to the Moon, no one had any notion what the far side of the Moon looked like. The odd fact that the Moon stares at us fixedly from one side probably convinced more than a few observers that it was a flat disk (and by logical extension, that the Earth was too).

In fact, though, the Moon slightly tips its hand and shows us somewhat more than a pure hemisphere. This process is called lunation, and it is akin to the Moon bowing slightly as it dances around us, watching us all the while. If you take pictures of the Moon every night of the month, you get a sense of this pitching motion. I had seen this kind of thing before, but recently NASA’s astronomy picture of the day was an intense high speed version of lunation that gave me vertigo: APOD: 2005 November 13 – Lunation. For some reason, they chose to animate it at warp speed, and the result is disturbing, something like being fed upon by giant insect lit by a strobe. Menace and the Moon are friends for a reason.

MATLAB Contest

We had another MATLAB Programming Contest, and in terms of participation it was our biggest so far. We like contest themes that fit somehow into the zeitgeist, so the puzzle this time around was a generalized version of the notorious Sudoku puzzle genre.

Aside: if you are ever in a Sudoku-solving pickle, I’ve got just the salve for your itch here: Sudoku Satori – The Sudoku Solving Assistant.

We had 3061 total entries. You can see all the sudoku > Statistics” href=””>gory statistics here if you like. One fun thing we did this time around was create a map (using the Frappr service) where people could show us where they live. Take a look. Only thirty or so brave souls (of the 168 who played) put themselves on the map, but even so you see how global the distribution is.

As usual, Matt did an excellent job summing up the activity in a contest evolution report. The distinctive zig-zag pattern in the accuracy-vs-speed plots was particularly pronounced in this contest.

Craig’s artwork

It is reasonably well known in this country that 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, but how many Vietnamese died during the same conflict? Estimates vary, but the number (including civilians) may be as much as 50 times larger. We feel bad about the Americans dying in Iraq, as we should, but consider that the toll on Iraqis is much much higher. No matter what other viewpoints or emotions you bring to the conflict, this is a point to ponder. My brother-in-law Craig is an artist who, essentially, put this issue to some high school students at the Thomas Jefferson School in St. Louis, Missouri. He created a collaborative artwork with some instructions for the students. The following is from the school’s website.

Craig sent eighty-eight packages to Thomas Jefferson School, enough for each student. Each package consisted of a small wooden grave marker and a set of printed instructions. The instructions asked each student to find the name of an Iraqi civilian who has been killed in the fighting of the last two years. When possible, each person was to select someone of about his or her own age, and someone whose name begins with the same letter as his or her own name. They were then to write that person’s name on the grave marker.

Flickr meets Ebay at Etsy

From Rob comes the Wacked User Interface of the Week: Etsy (tagline: “Your place to buy and sell all things handmade”). I can’t help but make fun of them for being over the top, but honestly, I am impressed. This is the zaniest UI I’ve ever seen in an online app that appears to be mainstream. As Rob says, it’s “Flickr meets Ebay.” I might put it this way: “The Flickr hovercraft smashed into the Ebay love-bus and they both fell into the giant psychedelic Flash tickling machine.” Poke around and you’ll see what I mean: Shop by color using colorific pulsating lava-like blobula. Shop by Geolocator, and zippity-spin your selections (and vendors) off to the four corners of the Earth. Shop by time machine and (oh the humanity!) God only knows what’s going on.

To which I say: good for them. We need more stuff like this. But I might take some Dramamine before I shop there. To be fair, if you scroll down past the Flash goodies, you can drive through the site in a pretty conventional way.

Riskless business model, Threadless t-shirts

I was at an entrepreneurship and innovation workshop earlier this week held at the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group at the MIT Sloan School. There I was lucky enough to see a presentation by the guys from SkinnyCorp who built Theirs is a beautiful story of falling into the product that the market wants you to make. If they had been more willful and goal-directed (as we’re taught to be if we want to amount to anything) I feel certain they would have failed. But they didn’t fail. They succeeded wildly. This “about us” statement gives you an sense of their approach to life and business.

What did they do? They made a t-shirt company in which visitors to the site upload designs, which visitors to the site then vote on, which visitors to the site then buy. And their business is booming. It’s mostly a slacker-hacker-ironical-snowboard-cooldude kind of groove they’ve got going, but who can argue with the numbers? They assume almost no risk, spend no money on advertising, and the money pours in. Not to make it all sound easy; they worked hard to build a very loyal community, and their site design is highly tuned to the needs of the community.

The t-shirt designs are contributed for free by aspiring designers. These guys might win cash prizes, but the real prize is getting a reputation that will lead to more design work. In certain design circles, Threadless has become the hot place to scout for talent. If you need a cover for your band’s new CD, this is the place to go. Here are some of my favorite shirt designs. Look around and waste some time.

SkinnyCorp isn’t resting on its skateboard, though. They’ve recently expanded from cooldude t-shirts into dapperdude neckties. Even snowboarders grow up, and their wallets grow up with them. If you’re feeling too grown up, you can still buy an I Park Like an Idiot bumper sticker.

World Usability Day


Quick: you’re on the fourth floor of a hotel. You want to go to the first floor, so you step into this elevator… and now which button do you press? If you’re like me, you press the big number one just below the two. It even has little triangles on either side to indicate its special status as the lobby floor. If you press it, the doors will close, but nothing else will happen. That’s exactly as the designers of the elevator intended because this isn’t the first floor button, it’s the “close doors” button. It’s also an example of bad design for usability in that it actively encourages you to do the wrong thing. I know because I stayed in this very hotel, and each time I got in the elevator to go back down to the lobby, I pressed that damn “close” button.

What can we do about making our designs more usable? One thing we can do is celebrate World Usability Day. Usability professionals (yes, there is such a thing) are always looking for ways to raise awareness about usability-related issues (and, as a not unrelated side effect, point out that they exist). The Boston Usability Professionals Association is hosting a few special events today. My favorite is the Usability R.A.C.E “where teams of researchers study the city of Boston and brainstorm solutions to issues related to signage, and other public issues.” Ha! That’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Boston could improve its signage by HAVING SOME.

Old sad electronics

When my cousin Margaret was a little girl, her mom (my Aunt Nancy) came across a whole collection of empty popcorn boxes stuffed into the back of her sock drawer. How come? As it happened, a few weeks earlier the family had been to the circus, and when the show was over, Margaret felt so sad for all the empty popcorn boxes being left behind that she gathered as many of them as she could carry and took them with her to give them a good home.

Do you ever feel sorry for inanimate objects? Things left behind and unloved, like old shoes dangling from a phone line? Here’s a site (courtesy of my friend St. Frank) that specializes in taking care of Old Sad Things. As BeeJay, the owner and chief gamekeeper of the site says: “I like old sad things.”

Do you? What’s the oldest, saddest technical thing you can recall being used as directed (i.e. not by a collector, not with irony)? I remember lots of Polaroid pictures from my childhood, and not from the fancy shmancy SX-70, but the old Model 360 with its goopy, smearing film and the pop and crinkle of its disposable flash bulbs. I still remember the shredding sound our family’s Bell & Howell projector made when our family movies slipped the sprockets. And every film ended with the rhythmic whap-whap-whap sound as the loose end of the film reel flapped freely. And the slide carousels for the slide projector… click… clickety-click click. The pictures came out upside down as often as rightside up.

It’s funny that as I sit and try to recall these old sad machines, what I call back most easily are the sounds.