Pop-up pictures

I’ve seen examples of multiple pictures being stitched together into panoramas and even three dimensional models, but this work from Carnegie Mellon is particularly impressive in that it builds models from a single photograph. Be sure and check out the little movies on this page.

Somehow this makes me think of a cybernetic version of the bloodhound that can track down a criminal based only on an old handkerchief. Pretty soon, we’ll be able to take a scrap of a movie poster from Titanic, say something with just a fragment of the boat and Leonardo DiCaprio’s nose on it, and we’ll wave it at the computer and say “Come on boy! There you go! It’s melodramatic historical fiction. Now go! Go get ‘im little feller!” And after grinding and chugging for a few minutes, the computer will churn out the entire film.

How big is the Earth?

Guy Ottewell, astronomy writer and eccentric polymath, writes a well-regarded annual astronomical calendar. His Astronomical Companion is the best single book I’ve ever read on astronomy. As an inveterate teacher, he also created an exercise called the Thousand Yard Model, in which the size and relative location of the nine planets is made graphically apparent to students. If, it instructs us, the Sun is an eight-inch ball, then the Earth is a peppercorn 26 yards away and Jupiter is a chestnut 132 yards away. The name of the exercise stems from the fact that tiny Pluto is a pinhead a thousand yards away. The resulting exercise gives a visceral sense of the relative emptiness even of so crowded a region of space as our Solar System.

I thought of the peppercorn Earth model because of a nifty visualization I saw this morning on information aesthetics called The Size Of Our World. The graphics are lovely, and while you don’t get a feel for how far apart things are, you get a better sense of relative sizes with their rendered, shaded spheres than you would with flat cartoons. The bodies displayed graduate from planets to larger and larger stars until we are treated to the enormity of mighty Antares (It looks like Mars in the sky, but it’s not; it’s anti-Ares. Get it?). The very best part is the fact that the stars cast shadows on the surface beneath them. You know, I’d bet quite a lot that old Betelgeuse has never ever once in its venerable star life cast a shadow. I would go so far as to suggest that a star with a shadow is going to have some serious self-esteem issues.

Visualizing soccer

The US is out of World Cup contention, but we all knew the fun had to end some time. See you in four years! In the meantime, there’s still plenty of great soccer to watch. Ben Hammersley’s blog alerted me to a lovely Argentinian goal from their game against Serbia and Montenegro. The game was a 6-0 rout, but still, even if you don’t care much for soccer watch this video and reflect on the fact that every touch had to be just so for the last shot to go in the goal. I think of scoring in soccer as a safecracking job. You’re always turning the tumblers, turning, turning. Usually you’ve chosen a bad combination, CLUNK. But sometimes all the pieces drop into place, CLICK, and it’s just a lovely thing.

I thought of that video when I stumbled across this fun link on Information Aesthetics. It’s a Danish site that replays important World Cup plays using a game engine. The graphics aren’t terribly impressive, but the content is. You can study plays in detail from different angles, including first person views by all players, to see what went right and wrong. So herewith, I recommend the “Flyvende kamera” view for the second goal by Esteban Cambiasso in Game 21, Gruppe C.

The day the sun stood still

Happy solstice, that day on which the location of sunrise stops and reverses direction. I’m going to put another link to my Sky Clock here because I’ve added a few improvements to it. The yellow sun line can be seen crossing the blue line labeled “SS” (for summer solstice), thus signifiying the day. It must be summer! Also, the featured planets, stars, and constellations now sport tool tips and links. These links will take you off to the corresponding part of the sky on John Walker’s excellent Virtual Telescope site. Also, there’s a clock in the upper left and a moon phase display in the upper right. I’ll be adding proper horizon lines soon.

Note, by the way how close Mars and Saturn are in the western sky at sunset. It’s a sight worth going out of your way to see.

Juggling in a cone

Years ago I knew some folks who were obsessed with the Bungie game Marathon. Relative to first-person shooters today like Half-Life 2 and others, it was almost unimaginably primitive. Still, at the time it was cutting edge stuff, and it let you do fun things like play with the physics of the game. You could try the following scenario, for example: what would it be like if your weapon’s recoil violently shoved you toward whatever you were shooting at instead of away from him? Now make gravity negative, and the only way to keep from floating away is to shoot at the ground and anyone below you.

Playing around with the basic laws of physics was the first thing I thought of when I saw this video of a man juggling inside a giant cone. Yes, it’s gimmicky and a little cheesy (did you ever see the ads for the clear Champagne Glass tub in the Poconos?). Nevertheless, it is hypnotic. After a while, you start to think, cool… I want to live in that world.

Seed’s science blogs

Four years ago, I picked up a copy of the new SEED magazine (tagline: “Science is Culture”). I was unimpressed and convinced that it would speedily vanish. I was wrong. I still think it’s an odd mix of a magazine and rarely buy it, but beyond the magazine, the parent Seed Media Group has built an impressive stable of science blogs under the name, er, ScienceBlogs, or Sb for short. It’s sort of Nick Denton-esque cluster of blogs in which the scientists come across as unfiltered outspoken lively characters. I realized they must be onto something when I saw that science writer Carl Zimmer, whose blog I follow, pulled up his tent stakes at Corante and moved to Sb.

The kind of blogs hosted at Sb fill an important role that, for people like me at any rate, has long been vacant. They tell you what the real deal is with scientific papers that are in the news. I don’t have subscriptions to Science or Nature, so I never get farther than the abstracts, but now I have a way to find out what a geneticist thinks when someone publishes about the mingled heritage of humans and chimps. Fun. This motley collection of blogs authored by working scientists comes closer than the magazine to SEED’s stated goal of connecting science to society.

Spectacular sunspots

They always tell you not to point your camera toward the sun if you want good pictures, but every now and then you get lucky. Take a look at this APOD picture of sunspots in ultraviolet light: APOD: 2006 June 11 – Sunspot Loops in Ultraviolet

It’s incredible to think that this is what that bright thing up in the sky looks like all the time (assuming you had great big ultraviolet eyeballs). Ordinarily, astronomical photos of the sun tend to flatten the solar disk, but somehow this picture makes it look like you’re coming in for a landing. It looks like the very pit of Hell.

Solar closeups are getting better and better these days, and, relative to snapshots of dusty garbage heaps on old asteroids, they always seem to suggest a profound and dynamic malevolence. I know Mr. Golden Sun is our friend, but this picture reminds me of Sauron’s lidless eye. I love the tiny Earth shown to provide a sense of the monstrous scale of the sunspot. Here’s some more good stuff from SPACE.com, complete with labels and arrows indicating where the lovely twists, canals, and hairs can be found. Which is to say BIG HOT APOCALYPTIC twists, canals, and hairs.

Naturally, real scientists need to distance themselves from this kind of emotional response. Even so, sometimes a scientific debate can benefit from a show of emotion. Al Gore is making waves right now by getting people rattled by the case for global warming. But did you know that, our problems aside, the sun has got a nasty case of solar warming? I feel strangely comforted by the fact that something is going wrong somewhere in the solar system, and it’s NOT OUR FAULT.

Real estate heat maps

When you’ve got good data, heat maps can be a particularly gorgeous way to take it all in. Following links back from Paul Kedrosky’s blog to Valleywag and then Zillow, I came across these beautiful real estate price heat maps of some of the most expensive places on the planet. The folks at Zillow have worked out the price per square foot of real estate in Seattle and most of the San Francisco Bay Area. The images are remarkable, and if you know the areas covered, you can linger over them for a long time, making up stories about why houses cost so much over there but not over there. I’ve decided that’s the acid test for really great data presentation: can you pore over it for hours making up stories? If the answer is yes, then you’re on to something big.

Sounds from around the world

I have become accustomed to pictures from around the world. Even the lush, lovely, well-taken photos from exotic places.

Here is something rarer and more emotionally immediate: well-recorded sounds from around the world. The Quiet American is a collection of raw and remixed sounds by San Francisco traveler and artist Aaron Ximm. We hear extremely processed sound all the time. Like processed food, it gets a little same-y after a while. I find it very satisfying to listen to the short tracks on the Quiet American for the sonic equivalent of fresh brightly colored vegetables and spices. From Nepal, for example, we have the sounds of the forest (mp3) and of a stream high in the Himalayas. Or maybe you fancy the sounds of a Burmese ox cart? Lovely!