ProveMyPoint: the research robot yes man

As greenhouse gases go, methane is one of the most ferocious. That’s why it was big news last year when some scientists reported that plants may be generating huge amounts of it. Was our role as polluter of the ecosystem overblown? According to Carl Zimmer’s latest post, this contrarian tidbit was picked up by pundits like Rush Limbaugh, who apparently remarked, “Well, hot damn. God is to blame for global warming.” Zimmer goes on to describe how the methane conclusion was recently debunked although, predictably, this time the news cycle didn’t care.

The whole episode got me thinking about how data gets put to work in the real world. Since the dawn of civilization, people have reached their conclusions first and looked for justifying data second (see “truthiness“). Very few of us are so virtuous as to observe and then conclude. Rush Limbaugh, for example, already knows in ample gut that global warming is nothing more than the sophistry of tree-hugging crybabies. When he sees a story that supports that belief, he reports it. Any story to the contrary simply slides by unnoticed. It’s just human nature.

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In this spirit I propose a web service called ProveMyPoint in which you draw the curve or trend you believe to be true, no matter how offbeat or absurd. Push a button and my automated web service goes and finds data to support your assertion. Suppose you want to prove to your local zoning board that cell phone towers are leading to more electrical storms because of the electricity that they put into the air. Sounds plausible, eh? On ProveMyPoint.com, you would sketch a quick curve going up and to the right against the two axes for cell phone towers and electrical storms. My righteous research bots would find respectable data sources to fill in your plot.

Here’s what the output might look like for a hypothetical case in which you’d like to assert that Saddam Hussein might be up to some mischief. Given little more than the notion that bushy moustaches are menacing, my site might create this nifty piece of infographic demagoguery.

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What do you think? Would you like to invest in my little venture? I’ve got some interesting data that suggests it’s very likely to pay off big…

Two hundred wet Dutch horses

Here’s one from my Mom: a video of two hundred horses escaping from an island in the Netherlands where they had been trapped by rising water.

Now I’m going to tell you exactly what happens in this video. You see seven minutes worth of poorly shot video with some melodramatic music glued onto it in which two hundred horses trot through through shoulder-deep water until they arrive on dry land. That’s all there is to it. But: I bet you watch the whole thing. I did. My busy busy wife did. My horse-loving niece sure did, and so did my Mom.

http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docId=7208904950568913763&hl=en

Just why is it so compelling to watch? This is the thing that nobody saw coming with online user-created video. The camera work is shaky and often out of focus. The image quality is bad. The music is swabbed on with a thick drippy paintbrush. But those horses! Think of the horses and all is forgiven!

When you tire of happy horsies, watch the Old-Man-and-the-Sea action in this video: a six-foot hammerhead rips into a hundred-pound tarpon just as it’s about to be landed by some fishermen. Not a happy ending for the tarpon, but it’s just enough drama to make you sit still for three minutes and thirty nine seconds.

Production quality be damned. Big money television is screwed.

Addictive Tower Defense

I’m headed out of town for a few days, so I’ll leave you with yet another dangerously addictive game: Tower Defense. A friend of mine at work was spirited away by this game for a week. Each morning he would come in to work and explain to us his newest strategies for penetrating ever higher levels, enthusiastically diagramming his level designs at the white board. When he finally came out of his game-induced fugue state, he had no memory of the lost week. Just you consider that before you light-heartedly click that link.

Tower Defense was cited on TechCrunch, signifying its status as a genuine phenomenon. Naturally there is a collection of documentary YouTube videos where you can watch the pros at work.

I am fascinated by how sites like YouTube are quickly recruited by ad hoc communities to promote participation and set norms. A few months ago I saw a talk by instructables co-founder Eric Wilhelm on how that site supports the Knex gun community. That is to say, there is a group of people distributed across the world that specializes in making guns out of Knex toys. Want to see a Knex machine gun in action? Look at this video (YouTube, of course). And if you’re the kind of person who can be seduced by the idea of making Knex guns, you’ve now been infected.

Introducing the “Book”

If you haven’t seen this one yet, it’s definitely worth watching.

This juxtaposition of old and new makes me think of a recent post by Andrew McAfee on the flip:

One useful flip test consists of mentally switching the order of appearance of a new technology and an existing one… Let’s say the world has only e-books, then someone introduces this technology called ‘paper.’ It’s cheap, portable, lasts essentially forever, and requires no batteries. You can’t write over it once it’s been written on, but you buy more very cheaply. Wouldn’t that technology come to dominate the market?

In other words, novelty as such has a value all its own in our culture, but since novelty always fades, it pays to discount it. Take away novelty and what have you got? A bad version of the good old scroll, or a truly useful new thing called a book?

Back to the Paleo-Future

Getting the future wrong is easy. Getting the future wrong with style requires some skill.

Paleo-Future is a blog that specializes in digging up ancient visions of the future, particularly those distant futures that we now inhabit (i.e. what will life be like in the year 2000?). It’s an impressive blog, because the author, whose name is only given as Matt, really works it. He digs up predictions as old as a newspaper from 1900 (check out how it anticipates the Segway) and as recent as Apple’s 1987 Knowledge Navigator video. Lots of great videos, like Walt Disney himself explaining the GE Carousel of Progress.

Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future

Predicting the future with any accuracy is just hopeless. This explains why we are so fascinated with the clothes they wear in the future. The same thing is true for royalty: if you don’t have power, work the pomp.

I much prefer Tim O’Reilly’s approach, which is built around the famous William Gibson quote: “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.” If you don’t see people doing something now, you shouldn’t count on seeing it in the future.

(Paleo-Future seen on tingilinde)

Two tips for iPod owners: discounts and video cables

I bought my first iPod back in 2003, and it served me well for almost three years before the drive started making ominous clicking sounds. Then it kept popping into “Drive Mode” and wouldn’t come out. I tried all the tricks, read the support sites, and even asked a friend who used to work at an Apple store. It was pretty clear the drive was terminally ill and unlikely to recover.

“Let’s take it to the Genius Bar,” said my wife, referring to the smug/slick tech support desk at the Apple Store of White Zen Oneness with Merchandising. “I don’t want to take it to the damn Genius Bar,” I said, “That place gives me the creeps, and I already know this iPod is dead.”

And so we went. This is a fairly typical scenario in my house.

As expected, the nice man in the black t-shirt verified my click-clacking iPod was indeed dead, but then he told me something that made the trip worthwhile: you can turn in your old iPod (recycle it) and get a 10% discount on a new one. So my wife’s faith in the magical healing powers of the Genius Bar saved me some cash on my new video iPod.

Once at home, I wanted to try out the new video capabilities by playing back something on my TV. But I hadn’t bought the special Apple video cables that hook it to the TV. Since it’s just a matter of connecting the mini-jack on the iPod side to the RCA audio/video connectors on the TV side, I realized that I already had the cable I needed in my video camera bag. It took me a while to realize I needed to change the video output settings for the iPod, but then I ran into a more sinister problem. Even though the cables all fit together perfectly, the connection didn’t work. Why? It took a little Googling to find out: it’s because Apple sends the video signal out through the red RCA jack rather than the yellow one as God intended. Wha? What an odd move! Is there a reason for this, or is it just a cynical way to squeeze some cash out of the Apple-besotted marketplace?

Anyway, it works now, and I didn’t have to pay Apple for my video cables. Check it out: Playing iPod video on your TV for cheap – Lifehacker. Downloading content from Google Video and watching it on TV works surprisingly well.

PC Backups with Mozy

As a follow-up to a post I made in January about inexpensive backup tools, I thought I would mention that I’m now using Mozy and find it to work really well. Shortly after I posted about Jungle Disk, a couple of people (Rick at work and my cousin Peter) told me about a New York Times article in which David Pogue recommended Mozy: Fewer Excuses For Not Doing A PC Backup. It’s not nearly as cheap as Jungle Disk, but it’s cheap enough for me and it’s definitely lower hassle. And now that I’ve been using it for a few months, I can testify that it works. I’ve already used it to retrieve a recording that iTunes threw away. Actually I have no idea how the file got lost, but I’m feuding with iTunes so I prefer to blame it for the loss. The point is that Mozy got it back for me and all was made well.

At long last I can sleep the peaceful sleep of a man whose computer is regularly and automatically backed up. Now I just need to defragment my hard drive, change the oil in my car, do my taxes, paint the basement, refinish the bookshelf, upgrade my earthquake insurance, train for the modern pentathlon, re-install the AE-35 antenna stabilization unit, and touch base with Martha Stewart about the announcement of our upcoming book on Hand-Woven Peruvian Reed Easter Baskets.