Strange maps

I like maps and strange things, so a blog devoted to strange maps is double treat. I first came across the site because of this nifty map matching all 50 American states with countries having commensurate GDPs. Thus California, the wealthiest state, is paired with France, and so on down to lowly Wyoming-Uzbekistan. There are some real surprises in there. Who would have guessed Tennessee is on par with Saudi Arabia? Can somebody please write a country song about that?

But the US map is downright pedestrian compared to the map about Poland’s Wry-Mouthed Duke. I’ve always liked nobility with descriptive nicknames like Ethelred the Unready and Pepin the Short, but I do wonder how the Duke came by his moniker. Maybe that can be a country song.

He was a wry-mouthed camel driver
on a hajj to Tennessee,
and he played that Dhahran dobro
like a Bedouin hillbilly…

Fossil phones and genetic atrophy

I’m reading a biology book right now, The Making of the Fittest, that talks about how much information about the past we’re able to reconstruct from the forensic record of currently available DNA. One of the things that Sean Carroll, the author, talks about is the fossil genes to be found in our genome. Fossil genes are the cratered but identifiable remains of genes that no longer code for anything. They can arise when the protein they code for no longer does anything useful. For instance, the genes that help form eyes are no longer useful among cave fish. Eyeless mutants can thrive in a sunless sea, and their nonfunctional eye genes can persist in a recognizable form for millions of years before eventually being pulverized into genomic dust.

This weekend I went to a conference (Foo Camp), and at some point my cell phone went into an unrecoverable coma. Since I needed to coordinate an after-conference visit with some friends in the Bay Area, I had to make several phone calls. Old-school mesozoic landline phone calls. This means that I needed to find public pay phones in Berkeley on a Sunday afternoon. This brings me to the topic of fossil phones, which is closely related to the topic of fossil genes.

Since the rise of Homo mobilephonicus, the selection pressure to maintain working public phones has essentially vanished. This has allowed vandalism, neglect, and cosmic rays to do their worst to existing phones. Let me save you the trouble of walking into a liquor store on San Pablo Avenue and asking for the nearest pay phone. You will be looked at as though you just asked for the whereabouts of the neighborhood gramophone purveyor.

By the time I found a phone that worked, I had stopped at no fewer than five ostensible pay phone locations. Two of these had been simply ripped off of their mounts. They’ll all be dead soon. But the fossil record will betray our ancient love for gramophones and bakelite records to a thousand generations yet to come.

2D to 3D: an impressive video

Only a couple of posts ago I was pointing to a short video demonstration of Photosynth. Now here’s a nifty video from (which maps to The Supertour stuff that you see on the website doesn’t impress me so much… QuickTime VR was there years ago, but the video is a nice piece of work. This video, combined with Photosynth at Microsoft, is enough to convince me that the photos-to-3D application has tipped and is on its way to the consumer market. If they can make it dead easy, it should be fun stuff to play with. I like the idea of building a 3-D photo album of my house.

Here’s the video. Dig that crazy Gauguin painting. Now that’s what I’m talking about.

[spotted at O’Reilly Radar]

Creatures from the Deep

Movies that depict fictional encounters with alien life forms always seem so tame compared to the weird animals here on Earth. The deep sea is one of the best places to go looking for the unusual, and the good news is that we’re getting lots of snapshots these days.

Claire Nouvian is the author of a new book called The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss. She was good enough to make a gallery of pretty pictures for those of us too cheap to buy the book. These creatures look funny, and they have funny names. If I’d gotten to name them, I’d have given them funny names too. Why, you may ask, do they call the noble Chondrochladia lampadiglobus a Ping Pong Tree Sponge? Go find the thing in the gallery and you will wonder no more.

All the while I’m gawking at these things, part of me realizes it’s just provincial bad manners to stare as I do. I imagine that somewhere in the Stygian depths there is a museum of all the strange stuff that’s drifted down from the surface.

When lions meet water buffalo

This is one of those videos you should just watch without knowing ahead of time what’s going to happen.

Okay, I can tell you that this video involves lions chasing down a water buffalo. This part is very much dog-bites-man, straight out of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. We’ve seen it all before. Then things get a little loopy. There’s some man-bites-dog action, and there’s also a splash of crocodile-pops-out-of-nowhere-and-bites-terrified-water-buffalo-calf. I’m not giving away too much to say the moral of the story is that it never pays to anger a herd of water buffalo.

YouTube – Battle at Kruger

It’s safe to say this is the luckiest group of camera-toting tourists to visit this place in a long time. You can hear the game-warden guy saying over and over “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

[via the Popular Science blog]

TED Talks: Photosynth demo

You may have seen the demos pages for Microsoft’s Photosynth project, but here’s an impressive video of a live demo from the latest TED conference: Blaise Aguera y Arcas on Photosynth. Photosynth is a tool for managing and aggregating photos and information about photos across whole populations of people. I like how the presenter emphasizes the fact that the true limiting factor for information display is the number of pixels on your screen, not the number of pictures you’re surveying on that screen. There’s still plenty of room to improve the systems we have now. The other thing that occurred to me is that David Weinberger is right to observe that there’s no longer any difference between data and metadata. Your beloved photo is valuable data to you, but a minor metadata reference point for me.

TED, incidentally, stands for Technology Education and Design. I’m amazed at the number of places where you can get free access to interesting videos and podcasts (see IT Conversations and SALT to name just two examples), but these TED videos stand out for their remarkably high production values. I don’t begrudge BMW their little ad in there, because they must be writing some big checks to support this.

Diligent teaspoons: how to put Captchas to work

Regenerative braking is the process by which a car like the Toyota Prius can simultaneously slow down your car and turn some of your kinetic energy into electricity. The basic insight is this: a moving car is lovely energy source, waiting to be harvested. When you step on the brakes, as eventually you must, your ordinary old pre-Prius can only convert that energy into brake heat. But if you employ some clever electromagnetic torque, you can recapture that same energy, energy that otherwise goes pouring down the entropy hole in God’s great plenty every day.

Recapturing energy otherwise lost is the idea behind the reCaptcha, as I learned from this post to the O’Reilly Radar site. To understand the reCaptcha, you first have to understand the Captcha. Captchas were invented by Louis von Ahn and others at CMU as a way of stopping naughty computer programs from masquerading as humans (Captcha is the improbable acronym for Completely Automated Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart). When, for example, Hotmail gives you a free account, they want to make sure you’re a real person. The way they do this by making you read some blurry smeared text like this.


Von Ahn’s latest brainstorm was to realize that “in aggregate these little puzzles consume more than 150,000 hours of work each day.” Like cars in motion, that’s an energy source that’s crying out to be harvested. So his new reCaptchas give you two words to decode. For one of these, he already knows the answer. But the other one is from a book scan that a computer is having a hard time reading. By deciphering the text, you’re actually helping to digitize books from the Internet Archive.

Harvesting energy one teaspoon at a time is theme that fascinates me, because it seems to promise something for nothing. Of course it’s really just a matter of spotting untapped energy sources and putting the right machine in place to capture it. Here, for example, is a New Scientist article about harvesting heat energy: Mini heat harvesters could be new energy source. This technique sometimes goes under the heading of energy scavenging, as studied by Rajeevan Amirtharajah’s group at UC Davis. “Energy scavenging” is a marvelous phrase. I think that’s what my son does to me.

Maps and Eichler houses on Zillow and Trulia

Zillow has gotten such glowing reviews of its real estate heat maps (cool blue is cheap; red hot is expensive) that it has made them available for much of the country. It’s fun to browse around at the state level looking for high contrast regions. For instance, you don’t need a realtor’s license to see that Stamford, Connecticut lacks the luster of its neighbors Greenwich and Darien. Be sure and check the little box next to “Heat Map”. The contrast is striking.

But there are some other nifty real estate visualizations out there. Trulia now has a tool for seeing when houses were built. As the slider moves through time, colored spots erupt at each new address. It’s a cool effect, and it got me thinking about places that saw dramatic housing booms. Levittown, Pennsylvania was such a place. Just after World War II it appeared so quickly it was named after developer William C. Levitt. Here’s the Trulia map. Compare this with a place like Newton, Massachusetts (of fig newton fame) that had much steadier growth.

Since I recently posted about my old house in Palo Alto, I was reminded of the many Eichler houses in and around that city. Joseph Eichler was developer with a vision of affordable luxury, and some ten thousand of his iconic Modernist homes sprouted in California during the 1950s. Here’s a brochure from around that time: Enter the Wonderful World of Eichler. This Trulia interface shows the Fairmeadow development just off East Charleston Road in Palo Alto. Dig the crazy circular road plans.

Eichlers went up fast, and they sometimes came down fast too. They were known to local firemen as eight-minute wonders for their ability to burn to the ground in less time than it takes to mix a martini and put some Sinatra on the Hi-Fi. Even so, plenty of them are still around and lovingly cared for by a community of Eichler aficionados. Here’s a nice example straight out of Fairmeadow as seen on Google Maps.

Street Views in Google Maps

Be sure and look at the new street views in Google Maps. In some neighborhoods for a few big cities, they give you the ability to “drive around” and look in any direction. Amazon had something like this, but this feels better to me.

Here, for example, is the house where I lived when I was Palo Alto. Not so interesting? Take a look at the view from the Golden Gate Bridge. Be sure and click and drag in the viewing window to change your view. Here’s the cool Ukrainian restaurant on the street where my sister used to live in New York.