Democratizing science with Antweb

If you want to do cutting-edge science, you need access to cutting-edge data. Exciting new data is generally expensive to acquire and therefore closely guarded. Naturally whoever pays for the data wants to get the first crack at the fame-generating discoveries thereby engendered. You probably could have figured out, for instance, that Jupiter had a ring around it if you’d seen the picture first, but the people who got to write that press release had put in years of sharp-elbowed jostling to be standing in the right place when the data hose opened up.

But most jealously guarded data has a more depressing fate. Like the storybook dragon that guards the captive virgin, data owners often hoard it without any clear notion of what to do with it or how to value it. It reminds me of Harvard’s fortress-like Widener Library. It’s the world’s largest university library, and it’s carefully sealed and locked down to prevent unlicensed books from leaking out and unwashed people (that’s you and me) from sneaking in. Good job guys! Nobody’s going to be seeing those books anytime soon.

Recently, however, the world of data-intensive science has started to change, and the change is this: there’s more than enough data to go around. You can now do (real! serious!) astronomy from your computer if you’ve got the inclination and the chops. The pictures from Saturn and Mars come pouring onto your screen as fast as they do for the lead planetary scientists on the project. The human genome is all yours.

To me, an even bigger surprise than this is that field biology (field myrmecology to be precise) is also opening up to the browser-bound mouse potatoes of the world. You would think that the sweat and effort that goes into collecting ants in Madagascar, not to mention the thrill of naming new species, would keep the data locked down, but pioneering entomologist Brian Fisher is changing the game. As reported in Discover magazine, he wants you to know what he knows as soon as he knows it.

E. O. Wilson, the godfather of ant biology and the conservation movement, calls Fisher’s methods “industrial-strength taxonomy.” He means it as high praise. Fisher himself says he aspires to the time-and-efficiency thinking of a car manufacturer.

Fisher has gone so far as to create, where he’s posting pictures of what he’s finding in Madagascar as soon as he can manage it. If you switch on the community features of Google Earth, you’ll find special icons indicating where ant species have been identified. That’s how you put the data where it’ll do some good. Brian Fisher is a scientific hero for the data-rich networked age.

More real estate heat maps, including Boston

I mentioned Zillow’s real estate heat maps here several weeks ago: Zillow calculates and then maps the cost per square foot of houses in Seattle and San Francisco. Well
they’re back, and this time they brought friends. Now they’ve added New York and Boston and some other cities to the list.

Mostly something like this tells you what you already know: beach front property in San Diego is expensive, Brooklyn is cheaper than Manhattan and so on. But this is real data, and there are some things to learn. I had no idea, for instance, that Phoenix had such brutal wealth gradients. I have to bet that Scottsdale is loaded with gated communities, because that peaky cost distribution is a recipe for trouble. It’s nice that they use an absolute color scale for “heat,” because it lets you take in at a glance how absurdly expensive Silicon Valley is compared to the rest of the country.

Print that plane

People are starting to get used to the fact that unmanned aircraft, or UAVs in military parlance (for unmanned air vehicle), are being used quite a lot these days, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Generally it’s in a nonlethal spying mode, but the occasional UCAV makes an appearance, where C stands for Combat. What’s counterintuitive about these vehicles is that, despite their moniker, they actually require more people for a normal mission than a manned vehicle. Another interesting tidbit is that, while there is no human on board the aircraft, there is in fact a human pilot. He’s just sitting on the ground at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, 15,000 miles from the actual plane. Which is just amazing when you think about it.

UAVs have shown great promise, the most important of which is that they can complete a mission and never ever require you to send in a rescue team to recover a downed pilot. But they suffer from some shortcomings. First of all, the generals who buy them were all combat pilots, and they don’t much like turning pilots into videogame players. Also, they currently require too much manpower to operate. But this is beginning to change, and given the capabilities of current hardware and software these days, I’m sure it will change quickly.

One indication of this change is the Polecat project recently unveiled by Lockheed Martin’s secretive Skunk Works. Polecat shows great promise by simultaneously attacking the two great problems of any new airplane: the cost of building it, and the cost of operating it. Operationally the plane will feature advanced software that more or less allows you to tell it where to go without having to pay a fancy-pants pilot to step away from the craps table. Eventually these robot planes will unionize and drive up the operational costs again, but until then, we’ll be able to fly them damn cheap (relatively speaking).

Nicer than this is the fact that this plane was designed and built from scratch in 18 months. If we are to believe this, then aviation is entering a new golden age. Typical manned aircraft these days take a good fraction of a decade to develop. I was trained as an aeronautical engineer, and this one fact more than any other made me get out of the business. Throw the man out of the plane, and everything can happen faster. Beyond not needing seats and cup-holders, Polecat was built quickly because it was literally printed out by special 3-d rapid prototyping machines. In other words, the engineer who designed the wing could, after signing off on it, simply click a button that says “Make this now.” This is where the future is headed. Initially only R&D vehicles will be built like this. Eventually, though, your own customized car will be printed at a massive car printing facility near your home. You’ll be able to pick it up the day after you order it. Assuming the robot driver lets you get in.

Why Americans Don’t Like Baseball

Now that the World Cup is over, we can finally get some respite from that quadrennial scourge, the op-ed piece on why Americans don’t like soccer. It’s an editorial staple, a lazy space-filler that practically writes itself: Americans need high scores! We need commercial breaks so we can pee and get more Budweiser out of the fridge! We hate kicking things! We love using our hands! And so on.

Now if you’re going to write The Soccer Piece, you can play it straight, like Michael Mandelbaum in the Guardian, or you can assume an intentionally combative position, like Frank Cannon and Richard Lessner in The Weekly Standard:

Our country has yet to succumb to the nihilism, existentialism, and anomie that have overtaken Europe. A game about nothing, in which scoring is purely incidental, holds scant interest for Americans who still believe the world makes sense, that life has a larger meaning and structure, that being is not an end in itself, being qua being.

Take that, Old Europe! The Economist contrasts socialist soccer to capitalist American football. Whatever.

I happen to like soccer, so naturally I’m biased to think that, just possibly, Americans can enjoy watching this sport. I think our national predilection is simply a product of history. Soccer spread at a time when Britain had the world’s greatest empire. It’s economic influence was unexcelled. It exercised direct influence over much of the world except for the US. Moreover, this British sports-culture diaspora happened during a time of worldwide nation-building and nascent nationalism. But the US was politically aloof at the time, and we were also, incidentally, making our own weird sportive inventions.

I think Marco R. della Cava, writing in USA Today, gets it right: Hey, soccer’s not so popular now, but sooner or later it will be. In the meantime, cranky Europeans should lighten up. Let us have our strange sports with long breaks and shoulder pads. Big deal. Feel good about the fact that you trounce us so easily in your favorite game. Here’s a good quote from the USA Today piece.

“Soccer is a great passion play for much of the world,” says Paddy Agnew, a Rome-based correspondent for the Irish Times who is covering the World Cup in Germany. “The people I talk to are glad the world’s only superpower isn’t much better than it is. If they won this, too, that’d be the end. What could the rest of the world aspire to?”

As for the time when that blessed hour arrives and America finally rallies around its national club and succeeds on the World Cup pitch, it will be just as easy then to write op-ed pieces about why Americans do like soccer after all. It’s always easy to justify the evident. But sometimes it’s just the opposite that makes more sense. I am convinced that Americans should, by their nature, loathe baseball. If our so-called national pastime didn’t already exist, it would never catch on now. Here’s my fantasy op-ed piece from that alternate reality.

Every four years the Baseball “World Series” rolls around, and people around the globe go apeshit for baseball. Everyone in the world except, of course, for us. And why don’t Americans get it? What’s so un-American about baseball? Here are the top reasons:

  • Red-blooded Americans need action. Most of the time nothing is happening at a baseball game. If it weren’t for The Wave, the crowd would be fast asleep.
  • We like precise time keeping for that all-important endgame drama. Look at the last-second shenanigans of basketball; consider the football field goals with zero seconds on the clock. How can you pace yourself when there’s no official clock?
  • Swatting at a little round ball with a stick? So gay. Maybe that’s okay for a round of golf at the country club, but it’s no way for a so-called athlete to earn his money.

Baseball. Just think of it as God’s way of keeping little countries busy while we run the world.

Japanese Ebonics

I saw this one a while back, and for some time I thought I wouldn’t post it, but it’s just too funny. Rude, but funny. Consider yourself warned. The topic under discussion is how one might effectively introduce an earnest visitor from Japan to the urban vernacular on, say, the mean streets of Oakland, California. From Becky’s T*Blog, I give you Off the Hook: Randall C. Miller Jr.’s Conversational Ebonics.

Don’t be a playa hater! Show me some love.

I’m sending this post out especially to my cousin Margaret in Avery County, North Carolina.

Do you know your microbiome?

A biome is a distinctive ecosystem well-adapted for a specific geographic region and climate: tundra, taiga, savanna, your mouth. Ecosystems, it turns out, are complex, well-adapted, and crowded even as you get into teeny tiny biomes like your mouth, your stomach, and your butt. Colon! I meant to say colon. Sorry about that.

Anyway, the point here is that until very recently we just never knew what was swimming in your spit. But you’ve got something like 700 species of micro-organisms in your mouth alone. Did you brush your teeth this morning? There are only 375 distinct mammalian species in all of Tanzania, home of the famous Ngorongoro Conservation Area. You’ve got a bigger zoo under your tongue! Furthermore, research by Princeton’s Bonnie Bassler and others reveals complex means of cell-to-cell communication among bacteria. Those bugs aren’t swirling around your molars in writhing chaos. In fact they are present in specific well-regulated symbiotic combinations. They make plans. They dance. They do lunch. They do your lunch, actually. And a good thing too, because you’d be pretty worthless working your way through that egg salad sandwich without a gutful of E. coli to help spin it into you and poo.

I got started thinking about this after reading a post over at The Personal Genome: Your microbiota is SOOOO agnotobiotic. In it, the author Jason Bobe serves up these tasty stats. You have:

  • 10 billion bacteria per ml of saliva (with 700 or more species in the oral cavity)
  • 100 billion micro-organisms per ml of material in the human colon
  • 1 trillion bacteria on the human skin (2 square meters total of human skin)
  • 10 trillion human cells in our bodies
  • 100 trillion micro-organisms in the human gastrointestinal tract

Think about it this way: you’re never really alone.

Just Say Hi

I’m back from a week’s vacation at the beach in North Carolina. I got home with enough daylight to give me time for a run along the Charles River near my home. The run gave me a chance to recalibrate myself to the local culture. For a week I had been in a place where people consistently smile at, maintain eye contact with, and say hello to people they do not know. I was reminded this afternoon that this kind of behavior is greeted with surprise and suspicion in metropolitan Boston. By the end of my run I was able to be tight-lipped and evasive once again.

My wife, though born in Chicago, also grew up in North Carolina (she claims her Midwestern roots whenever she needs to disavow some embarrassing aspect of Southern culture). She has grown so tired of the sour and silent avoidance of eye contact that passes for greeting around here that she is considering launching a campaign called Just Say Hi. She wants me to design a t-shirt for her new cause. I pointed out that a woman walking around with a t-shirt that says Just Say Hi may invite somewhat more attention than desired.

Still, it does make you wonder how different cultures evolve. It also makes me wonder about the geographical distribution of friendly greetings. Is there a quantitative measure of stranger-friendliness that you could plot on a heat map of the US and see, perhaps, a sharp rise across the Mason-Dixon line? And where are the inflection points of friendliness as one moves from sullen New England westward to the cheerful and welcoming Midwest?