Burning Man Time Lapse Video

Time lapse videos are always fun. Here is the entire 2007 Burning Man event compressed into approximately ten minutes.

What’s fun about this video is not just seeing the blinky lights and blinding sandstorms, but also the fact that you get to see the Man burn not once but twice. When there are just under seven minutes left in the video, you see a brief fire followed by a quick hose down, after which the night time scene is illuminated by floodlights. The show must go on, so they quickly rebuild the Man in order to burn him by the end of the event.

This episode brings into sharp focus the paradox of stage-managing anarchists and choreographing chaos. What sort of a church did Dionysus really preside over?

Shortly after the Civil War began in 1861, the legislators of the Confederate States of America were charged with writing a constitution for their new country. They faced a crucial question: should the right to secede, which they had so proudly exercised the month before, be guaranteed by their new constitution? Answer: no. Secession is a fine thing, but only in moderation, please. We splitters must hang together.

We all crave a little madness, but only after the curtain goes up and before it goes down. In the battle between directors and destructors, order wins every time. The force that builds the Man is stronger than the force that burns him down. That’s exactly what’s being celebrated.

[Spotted at O’Reilly Radar]

Go Sox!

As a Boston-based blogger, I can’t let the recent events in Colorado pass without a mention. At this point, I’m just wondering if there are any more National League fields named after beer companies. Beer parks have brought good luck to the Red Sox, first in Busch Stadium in 2004 and now in Coors Field. A quick review of all the parks turns up chewing gum and orange juice, but no more beers. Mmmm… chewing gum.

To my brother in Colorado, who gamely called me tonight and offered a friendly wager (so long as he was allowed to bet on the Sox), I will point out that losing to the Sox in 2004 brought good luck to the Cardinals in 2006.

UPDATE: My beer assertion above is wrong. Owing to a bleary-eyed posting oversight last night, I completely missed the Milwaukee Brewers’ Miller Park. Astute reader Chris K points out in the comments that the stars are now aligned for a Brewers/Sox showdown. Thanks Chris!

Science Tattoos

Carl Zimmer, the blogging science journalist, mentioned in a recent post that he has a biologist friend with a DNA tattoo on his shoulder. He went on to offer to post pictures of any scientific tattoos that people cared to send him. So many people sent him pictures that he started a Flickr photo set on the topic. There are currently 81 photos there.

I like this one of Darwin’s first diagram of a branching tree of speciation. Earlier this year a Darwin exhibit came to the Boston Museum of Science and I remember being mesmerized by that picture. And any fan of alchemy will appreciate this symbol of the Philosopher’s Stone.

People are sometimes surprised when they see scientists being passionate or emotional. But science, after all, is just a way for people, often passionate angry people, to come to agreement in spite of their emotions. Logic channels energy, but it can’t create it. I like these tattoos because they hint at something dark and subtle in the part of the lawn that Occam’s razor can’t trim.

Which way is the girl spinning?

Yes, I know this is a suggestive silhouette that was no doubt created by a man. BUT: see if the visual effect does not bend your brain.

Clockwise? Counterclockwise?

The question is very simple: is this figure, as viewed from the top, rotating clockwise or counterclockwise? If you’re like me, you’ll have an immediate and unshakable opinion on the matter. One glance and I was certain it was clockwise. I was so certain that I was extremely puzzled when I read that it’s possible to perceive this as rotating in the other direction. It made sense; there are no depth cues to the profile. And yet I could not imagine how I might jump start my brain into seeing it go the other way. My eye flitted away from the screen briefly, and then POP! I’m now seeing it spin counterclockwise. Now I can’t see it go the other way. Can you switch your brain from one direction to another on demand?

This short piece in the Australian Herald Sun puts a pop psychology gloss on it, which is probably about as meaningful as a horoscope, but the claim is that if you’re a clockwiser, then you’re a right-brained bearded herbal tea drinker. And you wear those weird, comfortable shoes. Otherwise, you went to MIT. Those being the only two kinds of people in the world and all.

After a little Googling, I came across this impressive site dedicated to optical illusions. His take on the spinning girl effect is that you can reverse the direction by looking at the shadow. Work for you?

Truck ads: good and bad

It makes sense to me that big pickup trucks are advertised during football games. That’s probably as concentrated a demographic as you can hope for when it comes to potential truck-buyers. And I should probably also say that I personally am not in the market for a pickup truck. Even so, I find almost all the football-game ads for big American pickup trucks intensely irritating, because it seems all they can do is wave the flag, show some dirt-throwin’ four-wheeling in a meaty American landscape, and recite some terse, muscular copy that implies a relationship between horsepower and patriotism. I don’t even object to this in principle. It’s just dull and sad when you see it done over and over and over. Don’t those marketers have just a little more faith in the imagination of the American consumer?

Because of all this, I was so happy to see this great ad for a pickup truck that is completely set in World of Warcraft (“Did you see me lay down the law?! I am the lawgiver!”).

At last, a truck marketer with some imagination! And… it’s for a Toyota Tundra. If I were in the market for a truck, this ad would make me want to buy Japanese. Please please please Detroit, let us out of the tiny box you think we’re in.

(also spotted on metacool)

Two faces of a moon

“Japetus is unique in the Solar System—you know this already, of course, but like all the astronomers of the last three hundred years, you’ve probably given it little thought. So let me remind you that Cassini—who discovered Japetus in 1671—also observed that it was six times brighter on one side of its orbit than the other.

“This is an extraordinary ratio, and there has never been a satisfactory explanation for it. Japetus is so small – about eight hundred miles in diameter—that even in the lunar telescopes its disk is barely visible. But there seems to be a brilliant, curiously symmetrical spot on one face, and this may be connected with TMA-1. I sometimes think that Japetus has been flashing at us like a cosmic heliograph for three hundred years, and we’ve been too stupid to understand its message.”

Arthur C. Clarke gave these words to his fictitious astronomer Heywood Floyd near the climax of his book 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like a lot of people, I read those words years ago and thought to myself: what is the dang deal with Japetus? Clarke wasn’t making up the part about the two-faced nature of Iapetus (as it is more commonly called), an oddball Saturnian moon.

The two-toned satellite is still mysterious, but now we have some quality snapshots from the visiting Cassini spacecraft. And, hoo boy! they do not disappoint. I find this APOD picture astounding: The Strange Trailing Side of Saturn’s Iapetus. Great Clarke! Look in the sky! It’s a cosmic snowball rolled in dirt… it’s a sugar-frosted chocolate space truffle… it’s… it’s a much better investment than the International Space Station. You know what we need? I’ll tell you what we need: more space robots with cameras and fewer accident-prone gold-plated Tang-sucking astro-cosmo-taikonauts.

The wallowing Olympic Voyager

Here is a video, taken from a helicopter, of a cruise ship taking a beating from massive seas.

You look at this video and you think, Good God! What must it have been like to be inside that boat?

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this kind of thing anymore, but this being the web, you jolly well can find out what it was like to be inside that boat. Here’s a link to a Spanish news video about the experience: Inside The Rough Cruise Ship Video

I once saw a TV special on the disastrous Sydney-Hobart Race of 1998. This was a big regatta that sailed straight into the teeth of an enormous storm. Boats sank, people died, and since they were rich enough to own racing yachts, this story hit the news in a big way. The funny thing I noticed from the show was this: rough seas don’t look that rough from a hovering helicopter. There was plenty of video footage of visibly frightened people clinging to boats, and it just didn’t look that bad. But I know full well that if I were plunging to the bottom of every trough, sick with apprehension about the structural soundness of my ship (not to mention seasick), I would be just as scared.

That’s one reason I was fascinated by this cruise ship video. Once again, the seas don’t look so bad until you see the dramatic effect on the wallowing barge.

So what was the real story with the cruise ship? The ship was the Olympic Voyager, and the event was a Valentine’s Day storm in 2005 that knocked out her engines. What you’re watching is a large ship (though not big by modern cruise ship standards), designed to be fast, unable to make way in a massive swell. Without enough speed to give her steerage, she’s taking the seas in a particularly bad way. Here’s the full story from MSNBC: Once-hobbled Spanish cruise ship out of danger.

Web research has the ability to make a story pop out of the screen into three dimensions. Because you’re able to come at things from so many different angles, from inside and outside the boat and so on, you can develop a larger sense of the events that occurred. This story was hard to track down though, because this one video was so popular that it washed everything else out of the search results. It took a while to sift through the dozens of sites that simply reposted the video along with its minimal and somewhat incorrect text description. I was pleased, though, to eventually find this review from an earlier voyage:

Much of the time it was actually quite dangerous to try to walk anywhere on the ship, because the pitching and lurching of the ship was often violent. Day after day of staggering is not a pleasant experience. The fundamental problem seems to be that the ship simply cannot handle water that is rougher than a ripple.

Speedy though she is, my advice is to avoid the Olympic Voyager.

Me on a Jon Udell podcast

Tim O’Reilly likes to quote William Gibson when he describes his approach to predicting the future: “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” In other words, if you can just find the people (O’Reilly calls them alpha geeks) who are leading the way, you can serve yourself a tasty slice of future pie before the crowds show up. I completely agree with this philosophy. One of the things I love about the current blogging culture is that I can keep up with the latest thoughts of the people, the alpha geeks, that I think are on the leading edge.

When Tim O’Reilly talks about people who can see the future before it’s very evenly distributed, he’s talking about Jon Udell. I have been a fan of Udell’s writing since his days as a columnist at Infoworld. Now he works at Microsoft. The reason for his departure is also the reason his writing is so prescient: he holds fast to his own compass, and when that compass was at variance with Infoworld’s mission, he knew it was time to move on. Few people are doing more to distribute the future than Udell. He is intensely focused on bringing the fruits of social computing and information technology in general to the broadest possible audience, whether it’s through screencasting, easy-to-use scripting languages, or underused federal databases. I know when he’s excited about something, I should learn more about it as fast as possible.

So I was especially happy that I got a chance to meet him at a recent symposium on social computing at Microsoft. I was even happier to learn that he wanted to interview me for a podcast on the programming contest that I’ve been running at The MathWorks for the past several years.

Want to listen? Tune in here: A conversation with Ned Gulley about the MATLAB Programming Contest « Jon Udell.

And if you stumbled across this post and want to learn more about the contest, you might want to read a paper that I wrote about it: In Praise of Tweaking: A Wiki-like Programming Contest.

Autism walk fundraiser on October 14th


Every year around this time, just as the leaves are starting to change color up here in New England, I put on my fundraising hat and try to convince you to give some of your money to help rid the world of a disease that my son has. It helps to have a cute picture handy, but really I want you to think about this as a great big economics problem that’s worth your investment. Taking care of autistic kids like my son Jay is extraordinarily expensive, and one way or another that cost is visited on the economy as a whole. Anything we can do to prevent autism or mitigate its effects will be hugely beneficial, even in the cold calculus of cash.

Of course it will have an incalculable benefit for those parents in the future who might thereby avoid the visit. I regularly hear about parents who have just learned of their child’s diagnosis. It makes my gut ache. The visit is the trip to the specialist on the day your life changes. The visit is when you learn that your child suffers from a severe and lifelong neurological disorder. Listen to me: you don’t want anyone you love to go through the visit. Here is your chance to help.

I close with the letter my wife sent this year. Note the link at the bottom to the website where you can donate online. And for those of you who have already given, a thousand thanks.

Dear Friends and Family,

The 2007 Greater Boston Walk Now for Autism will take place on October 14th. Once again our family will be a part of that Walk and we are asking you to join us in raising critically-needed funds for autism research by making a contribution in support of our Walk. If you live in the Boston area, we also welcome you to join Jay’s Team and thousands of other walkers at Suffolk Downs in East Boston.

We’ll walk in honor of our son Jay, who is eight years old and severely affected by autism. He is nonverbal and has significant cognitive delays and attending difficulties. He requires constant supervision to prevent dangerous behaviors, such as bolting and climbing. Despite these obstacles, Jay is making progress at school in many areas. For example, he is recognizing a few written words now and he is using an augmentative device to make requests.

At home and in the community Jay spends a lot of time in self-stimulatory activity, especially making loud noises and shaking dangling objects up and down. But he smiles a lot, has great eye contact at times, and has gradually learned routines and become more compliant over the years. He is generally better behaved in restaurants and public places than he used to be. Swinging, climbing, and swimming are still Jay’s favorite activities, after stimming. He now has a new bedroom (added to the house this Spring), with a hook in the ceiling so that he can enjoy swinging in both the basement AND his bedroom. His sister Carolyn tries hard to get his attention and he occasionally responds.

We’ll walk for Jay on October 14 because the causes of autism are still unknown and there are no specific medical treatments or cure. We walk because, despite increasing national interest and high prevalence, autism research is one of the lowest funded areas of medical research by both public and private sources. We walk because we hope for a better world for Jay and Carolyn in the future, a world without this devastating disorder.

Whatever you can give will help! I greatly appreciate your support and will let you know how much we raised after the Walk.


Wendy Gulley

Click here to get to my personal page and make a secure, online donation.

A letter to the American Chestnut Foundation

One of the last healthy American chestnut trees

Among the last of a proud breed, this Castanea dentata, or American chestnut, stands alone in a Kentucky field. It is one of the very few mature flowering chestnuts that has so far eluded the fungal disease known as chestnut blight. What you see in the picture is a tree so valuable that it is hand-pollinated by a botanist in a cherry picker. The botanist in the bucket is doing what he can to resurrect the old tree for posterity. I wish him luck.

When it comes to endangered species, the American chestnut is the botanical version of charismatic megafauna. Charismatic megafauna, those large and tragic beautiful animals like lions and gorillas, are the spokesmodels of extinction threat. The Tecopa pupfish can leave the stage unnoticed, but we can’t help but empathize with the plight of the Siberian tiger. Equally tragic and majestic is the mighty American chestnut. Call it charismatic megaflora. At one time it dominated the old-growth forest canopy in the Appalachians. And in a single generation it was gone. Or very nearly so.

The American Chestnut Foundation is dedicated to bringing back a blight-resistant version of the chestnut. As part of their campaign, ACF publications director Jeanne Coleman asked for letters from people who grew up in the shadow of the old chestnuts, people who can testify to what the trees looked like in their prime. My father is one of those people. And he sent Jeanne Coleman a letter. But Jeanne Coleman never wrote back.

So, as a public service on behalf of my father and his trees, I am posting the letter.

American Chestnut Foundation
P. O. Box 4044 Bennington, VT 05201

Dear Ms. Coleman,

In the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s I lived in a village, Crozet, at the foot of the mountains north of Charlottesville, Va. The mountains were beautifully green with great chestnut trees that marked our seasons.

In the autumn we waited for the excitement of the first frost and opening of the bur. Trips up the mountain brought home baskets of chestnuts that had that distinctive sweet firmness that lingers in memory. The fun and the flavor mingled.

This was especially true with the smaller chinquapins. I could collect a pocket full on my way to school and have a days worth of good eating as well as a supply of missiles that bedeviled the girls.

Of course those days preceded anyone’s idea of air conditioning other than a breeze through an open window. I would sleep with my head close to the window and enjoyed the panorama of the mountain. It was a great shock to see a line of brown moving day by day across the mountain. The concept of the blight was difficult for a boy to grasp and it took a considerable period of time for me to understand the inexorable march of destruction I was witnessing. I could not believe our chestnut trees would not come back.

My feelings were mixed in a way that a boy has difficulty expressing. They were a mixture of disbelief and vague grief that persist to this day. Mixed with this of course was that gift of the human spirit, hope.

I celebrate the persistent energy of the American Chestnut Foundation. I anticipate the day when my nostalgia blends into warm pleasure at your success—and the blacksmith can enjoy the shade.

Very truly yours,
Marcus M. Gulley, MD

As a footnote to this letter, I observe that the ACF describes in their FAQ two weevils that attack the chestnut. They are known as the “lesser” and the “greater”. To think, with that setup, that they attempt no joke about the lesser of two weevils… Oh the humanity! First they scorn my father’s letter, and then they forbear to use a perfect weevil-related punchline. Truly they are squandering riches.