Satisfying real estate data hunger

Remember the experience, from not too many years ago, of trying to tell a travel agent where you wanted to go while they got to look at a computer screen filled with tasty information? I always found it very unsatisfying. The thing I really wanted to do was just see what the heck it was the travel agent saw. Every profession has aspects of it that relate to skill, to training, and to simple access to information. Travel agents have effectively vanished because the main thing they did was control access to secret information.

Fortune magazine recently ran a cover story on Zillow about exactly this topic. It turns out that the same guys who made the Expedia travel service went on to found Zillow. Here’s what one of them, Richard Barton, had to say about information hunger.

“When we were doing focus groups on Expedia, consumers would tell us they could hear the tap-tap-tap of the keyboard when talking to a travel agent, and they wanted to jump through the phone and look at the screen,” says Barton, sitting in his office in the company’s Seattle headquarters. “Expedia was about satisfying that impulse, and that’s also what we’re doing at Zillow. The hunger for information about real estate is infinite.”

There is a growing trend of making all kinds of data available on the web. But this leads to the problem of interpretation. What does it all mean? Is it accurate? So tools for mass interactive validation and sense-making are popping up too, tools like Swivel and IBM’s Many Eyes.

But getting back to real estate, I like this little heat map application called Neighboroo. It lets you superimpose all kinds of housing, property, and census data atop the U.S. map. As is common with these kinds of tools, a lot of it is fiddly-fiddling to demonstrate something you already knew, e.g. New York City is expensive. And there’s always the dangerous temptation of inferring causation from correlation. African American population density fits together neatly with hurricane likelihood. But where do you go from there? For all this data, do you see anything that actually surprises you?

The age of organic knowledge

If you’ve never edited a Wikipedia article, I recommend the experience. Suppose, while skimming through an article, you notice a misspelled word, stray comma, or grammatical peccadillo. Hop in there and fix it! It gives you a surprisingly warm rush. For a very small effort, you’ve made the world a better place.

Here’s the funny thing about our Modern Age: we are manufacturing legions of aimless web-addled click monkeys… but we’re also putting them to work. It takes so little effort to improve a wiki that they grow with manic speed. There has never been a better time to have attention deficit disorder. Which is a good thing because… because… where was I? Oh because there have never been more of us. Web sites that harness collective intelligence, even when it appears in tiny bursts, are working wonders.

I propose that the quantity of effort required to put a single character, one byte, into a working public document be called a “wik”. Never before in history has a wik been worth so much.

It used to be that in order to create informational value, which is to say something that would prove useful to other people, you had to write a book, or at least a news or magazine article. Writing like that requires research, extended periods of concentration, attention to detail. Very high wik counts. Word processing software helps, but mostly it saves you from the drudgery that comes after the hard work of thinking up the words. But web sites like the Wikipedia do something altogether new. In chemical terms, you might say that they lower the activation energy required for information fixing. A wiki acts as a sort of thermodynamic ratchet, enfranchising swarms of the easily distracted, people who would never add a book to a library. Let’s say a novel is half a megawik. Even a short blog post is a kilowik. But the Wikipedia, like a vast unfolding sunlit tree, rewards even one humble wik.

Information is encoded energy. These knowledge harvesting systems are like miniature windmills that capture the tiny breezes generated when one person walks past another. By analogy, consider that the energy that drives nearly all the life on earth is harvested one photon at a time by molecules of chlorophyll, each one quietly jostled by a visiting sunbeam. In this sense, we are living in the age of organic knowledge.

So get in there and do your wikworth.

Say what again: typeset dialogue

The best three-word line in Pulp Fiction is delivered by Samuel L. Jackson in the middle of a pre-hit tirade: “Say what again.”

If you can’t remember the scene, watch this brilliant example of dynamic typography.

Oh, but first:

WARNING: Scorchingly naughty language in use. May singe hair or burn exposed skin. That Samuel L. Jackson got a mouth on him, my my oh yes he does.

Now here’s the scene, as rendered by Jarratt Moody (and as seen at Motionographer): Say What Again.

If you’re in the mood for something more sedate and work-safe, here’s a nifty animated poem delivered as a typographical ballet: Lost. It’s quite wide because it’s designed to display on three large separate monitors. It was created by the Dutch studio Re*Nascent (and once again, I first saw it on Motionographer).

Earth as sandwich

Ze Frank is a web performance artist who first came to prominence back at the dawn of web time with his “how to dance properly” page. Among his many creations is something called the Earth sandwich. The idea is to imagine two people standing on opposite sides of the Earth. At the same instant, they each put a piece of bread on the ground: Earth sandwich.

This is one of my favorite Google Maps mashups. Since you can click and drag the points around so easily, you learn a lot about hemispheric geography that is hard to work out with a typical map. For instance, most of the Earth’s land is above the equator. It’s actually pretty hard to find two interesting places that make a good sandwich. Argentina and China are good antipodal friends, and Spain pairs neatly with New Zealand, but mostly it’s lots and lots of water. Australia drops straight into the Atlantic Ocean, and Africa is lost in mid-Pacific.

Not only is most of the Earth’s land in the north, most of the southern hemisphere’s land is in the northern part of that hemisphere. The Cape of Good Hope, at the very tip end of Africa, looks like it goes a long way south, but in relative terms it only dips as far below the Equator as Las Vegas is above it. All of Europe is above that latitude. Only Cape Horn, poking its godforsaken toe into the circumpolar storm belt around Antarctica, pushes into what we would normally consider high northern latitudes. At 56 degrees south, it matches up with Edinburgh and the dangling tails of Alaska.

Spin the Wheel of Food at lunchtime

In answer to the annoying and oft-repeated question “I don’t know…. where do YOU want to eat?” consider spinning the Wheel of Food. The inventive Jim Bumgardner (a.k.a. KrazyDad), whose work I’ve admired here before, created a nifty Flash widget that loads nearby restaurants onto a Wheel of Fortune style spinner. Forbear preprandial procrastination: spin the wheel and close the deal. The time you save by not arguing about where to go may just score you the last good parking spot at the Hotdog Hut.

Extra bonus: hack the URL to shape the zip code and kind of food you want. Fancy a burrito in Winston-Salem, North Carolina? Take this out for a spin:

Marilyn in Distress: A Water Closet Drama

Let me begin by declaring that my daughter Carolyn can now pee-pee on the potty. But there was a stretch there when things weren’t going so well. She thoroughly despised the toilet, our encouragement notwithstanding. We tried many variations, but with no success. Then my clever wife observed that a little story might help move things along. She wrote it, and I was enlisted to illustrate it. In order to take the edge off a little bit, we gave the lead role to one of my daughter’s imaginary friends, Marilyn (Marilyn lives in Carolyn’s mirror).

I can’t really say whether this story made much of a difference, but a few days after it was created, Carolyn no longer needed it. For the record, she liked it, but was disturbed that the mommy on page 6 has no arms. Carolyn’s mom concurs, but I have decided to let the work stand in its original form. Rather than letting it languish under a stack of books, I am publishing it here. Take it, print it, adapt it, go all Peter Max coloring it. Herewith I present: Marilyn and the Potty.

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Web 2.0 movie

Everybody is posting this one, but if you haven’t seen it yet, give it a spin. Its creator, Michael Wesch, is a cultural anthropologist at Kansas. He does a terrific job of communicating a lot of information very quickly (“using high bandwidth” as we geeks like to say) about the evolution of digital media.

In the middle of the clip you see a few quotes from Kevin Kelly’s essay in Wired, We Are the Web. In it, Kelly starts off talking about the Netscape IPO, but ends with a sweeping philosophical flourish. Whether you find the wired world frightening or thrilling, there’s no denying that we are witnessing tectonic shifts in culture and civilization. And you and I both have a front row seat.

Here’s Kelly.

Three thousand years from now, when keen minds review the past, I believe that our ancient time, here at the cusp of the third millennium, will be seen as another such era. In the years roughly coincidental with the Netscape IPO, humans began animating inert objects with tiny slivers of intelligence, connecting them into a global field, and linking their own minds into a single thing. This will be recognized as the largest, most complex, and most surprising event on the planet. Weaving nerves out of glass and radio waves, our species began wiring up all regions, all processes, all facts and notions into a grand network. From this embryonic neural net was born a collaborative interface for our civilization, a sensing, cognitive device with power that exceeded any previous invention. The Machine provided a new way of thinking (perfect search, total recall) and a new mind for an old species. It was the Beginning.


The festival season is upon us. Groundhog Day may be safely out of the way, but President’s Day is ready to pounce, and Pi Day is right around the corner. Pi Day, you will recall, is celebrated each year on March 14. You’ll want to give your loved one something round, recall some of the splendid history of pi, and maybe recite a pi-ku or two.

What is a pi-ku? A pi-ku is a play on haiku. One form of pi-ku fits the number of syllables in each line to successive numbers in pi. You can find one such offering here by pi poet Mike Rollins of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

If you’re more of a purist for the haiku form, with its distinctive 5-7-5 syllabic stack, you might prefer something like this, as seen at

Unending digits…
Why not keep it simple, like
Twenty-two sevenths?

But suppose we doubly constrain the problem and use the number of letters in each word to denote the numbers in pi, while the syllables retain the haiku form. Michael Keith of Salem, Oregon, has some fine examples of this (PDF), including this one-stanza recapitulation of Poe’s “The Raven.”

Now a thud, a knock
unsettles my window panes;
The Raven intrudes.

But naturally what we really seek is a triply constrained haiku, in that it conforms to the syllabic and letter count demands while actually describing the quantity in question. Herewith I offer my own humble attempt at this numerical poetical trifecta.

Let C over D
(wheel perimeter on height)
equal its value.

Can you do better? Give it a try… it’s harder than it looks. (Thanks to my dad for filling me in on pi-kus)

Happy Groundhog Day

To all the friends of the Star Chamber, to all the readers of the Rambles, we wish you a happy and prosperous Groundhogtide. Those of you in the Northern Hemisphere have successfully made it to the halfway point between Autumn and Spring. With every passing day, Winter is waning. Congratulations!

UPDATE: David Seah over at Better Living Through Media has posted a nice piece on Groundhog Day resolutions. I thoroughly approve and may work that into my annual Groundhog Day festivities. And remember, Groundhog Day is when you are formally empowered and encouraged to remove any Christmas decorations that may be lingering in your neighborhood.

Teaching Tricks to Sea Lions

Regular Rambles readers will recall my friend Alan Kennedy‘s last contribution: RIKE ORION. In it, he recounts some of his experiences teaching English as a Second Language in New York City. He’s back this week with some more transcultural observations.

The way names move across language barriers makes for a good spectator sport. I am reminded of what my nephew Ben wrote about the English names his students chose for an English class he taught in China. The difference, for example, between Shelly and Cherry can take a few tries to work out. And I recall a conversation from long ago in which Alan told me about some frustration he had with a Russian class. Russian names require special grammatical handling depending on the context. Ordinarily an imported American name escapes this special treatment, making life for an American student of Russian slightly easier than it might otherwise be. But Alan shares his last name with a former American president, and presidents (particularly Cold War presidents) get the full name treatment. So Alan was stuck managing complicated endings for his own name. Ach du lieber Himmel!

Here’s Alan…

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