Astronomical crowdsourcing and Hanny’s Voorwerp

I once heard an interesting story about a group of scientists that had written some improbably small thing on a metal platter, something like the IBM logo written in individual xenon atoms. And here’s what they learned: it was easy enough to write something tiny, but having written it, it took them several hours to find it again so they could image it for their press release. I love the idea of something being lost at the nano scale. It may be just at the tip of my tongue, but if it’s only a few angstroms wide, it’s as good as gone.

There’s a similar problem with astronomy research. We have, via programs like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, imagery that packs 120 megapixels into 1.5 square degrees of sky. How do you find the good stuff? If you can teach a computer to find good stuff, that’s great, but if not, you’ve got a real problem. That’s where the Galaxy Zoo project comes in. Web-organized volunteers are helping to classify galaxies, something that is, apparently, still very difficult for computers to get right. And every now and then people like the Dutch schoolteacher Hanny van Arkel find weird stuff that you can’t tell a computer to look for anyway, precisely because it’s unexpected. This is Hanny’s Voorwerp

I love the fact that there’s a green goblin in the sky named after a Dutch schoolteacher and volunteer astronomer. Also, it’s fun to learn what voorwerp means in Dutch.

Book browsing with Zoomii

The idea of a zoomable user interface has been around for a long time, but I mostly find it to be an unpleasant experience in practice. So I was surprised to find myself enjoying zooming around the virtual bookstore called (which I first came across on ReadWriteWeb). A couple of things made the experience work reasonably well. First of all, there is no special client software to install, which says a lot about the state of web programming and modern browsers. It’s easy to see how this is an extension of the kind of thinking behind Google Maps. The zooming animation isn’t great, but it’s passable. Next, the spatial scaling is consistent and unambiguous, which is to say, it’s as if you’re getting closer to a farther away from real three-dimensional books. One of the things I find disorienting about zoomable interfaces is when the fonts scale differently from the rest of the geometry. I lose the sense of where I am. The navigation in Zoomii is solid. And finally, I just love browsing real books in real bookstores, and this is a pretty good proxy. And I may need to get used to it, since the existence of real bookstores tends toward zero for large values of soon.

What I’d really like to do is use this UI for my own book collection. It should be straightforward to mate Zoomii with the wonderful book managing site LibraryThing. In theory, I love grouping my books in thoughtful clusters, but in practice it’s too much of a pain, and so my books like scattered all over the house. Having them all in one big convenient virtual library would give me the best of both worlds.

Toys’ global tour: The world is your bathtub

How’s this for a sitcom pitch?

What happens when 29,000 adorable, fun-loving bath toys wash overboard in the middle of the Pacific during a routine ocean voyage? It’s Space 1999 meets Gilligan’s Island! It’s Lost meets Lost in Space! Join the “Floatee Flotilla” on Thursday nights at 8 and follow their madcap misadventures and zany antics as they mingle with whales, frolic with island girls, match wits with tugboat captains, and eventually make their way through the Northwest Passage for a rollicking romp in Merry Olde England!

Strange Maps has the whole story here: The Friendly Floatees’ World Tour.

Flags of all nations

St. Frank called my attention to some fun flag sites in two of his recent posts. Inspired by Flag Day, he wrote about the drawing of flags by third-graders (and their like) around the world. The coolest flag, as seen through the eyes of a third grade boy: definitely Mozambique, on which we see an AK-47 vying with a hoe atop a chagrined and retiring book (or in heraldic terms, AK-47 rampant with hoe per saltire a gules). The hoe has a certain Stone-Age charm, but I think the AK-47 is winning.

St. Frank’s more recent link was to an online flag quiz. I’m a sucker for online flag quizzes (and their like). What’s your best score? I managed to get to 300 before I pooped out.

I was having so much fun a-flagging, I went looking for some material on my own. I reckoned (as I have learned to do) that there must be a Google Earth resource that places the flags of all nations above their respective countries. As there must be, indeed there is. Here is an image of the result, but you can also look at the same thing flattened out for Google Maps. Here is the Caribbean basin. Displayed in their geographical context, some patterns jump out at you, like the similarities of the Nordic countries, or Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Through this lens we see evidence of boundaries otherwise invisible, like the swaths of Pan-African and Pan-Arab color schemes, not to mention the offspring of the shockingly fertile Union Jack.

Irrational gas-buying behavior?

Books on the imperfect psychology of financial decision-making are popular these days. In works like Predictably Irrational, we hear story after story about how people make bad decisions, generally along the lines of being penny wise and pound foolish.

What do you think about the following situation? With gas prices heading ever upward, web sites like have become popular. Drawing on the contributions of readers, GasBuddy will show you a nifty map of where the cheapest gas is near you. Assuming you don’t take big detours to do so, you can save money by consistently patronizing the cheapest stations. But here’s the thing: the money you save is only the difference between the best and worst price. So while your change in behavior, a change triggered by high prices, may genuinely save you money, it can’t save you any more money than it would have when the prices were low.

In other words, you could have saved that same money last year, but (relatively speaking) you weren’t pissed off about it then.

Is that irrational behavior or not?

Crowdsourcing and me

Jeff Howe, a contributing editor at Wired Magazine, is putting the finishing touches on his book Crowdsourcing. Since the book is about tapping into the resources of the public (i.e. you and me) he has essentially pre-published the book in blog form and asked for comments that might be included in the book.

This book is of more than passing interest to me for a few reasons. I find the subject matter very compelling, Howe is a good writer, and also I figure prominently in Chapter 6. Howe interviewed me regarding the collaborative MATLAB programming contest that we’ve been running for many years now. He was very generous to me regarding quotes and material associated with the contest. I also like the discussion of F.A. Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” The subsequent analysis reflects how I think of the contest: as a social game that draws out hard-to-reach local knowledge for the benefit of the group.

Here’s the text: Crowdsourcing: Chapter 6: The Most Universal Quality—Why Diversity Trumps Ability.

Google Earth, viewshed, and accountability

After I finished grad school, my friend and fellow graduate Larry Alder was nice enough to invite me on a rafting trip down the wild and scenic portion of the Rogue River in Oregon (here’s another story from that same trip). This was a great treat for me, because Larry, in addition to being an excellent aerospace engineer, was also a professional river guide for a whitewater rafting company. We got the royal treatment, rafting through pristine wilderness for three days… long enough to feel that civilization was far far away. When we finally pulled the boats out and started driving home, Larry took us up an obscure and steeply pitched logging road. Just as soon as we crested the ridge, we saw the forest had been completely cut to the ground. It looked like a massive abrasion wound. The contrast was shocking, but the clear-cut area was artfully situated so as to be invisible from nearby highways and especially from the happy tourists of the Wild Rogue Wilderness area. This was an exercise in viewshed management, and it was a public relations masterstroke for the logging industry.

Here’s a Google map of the area I was in. That’s the Rogue running across the bottom right. And those yellow bald patches in the middle are clear-cut regions exactly where I remember them, just out of sight over the ridge. Try switching to the “Terrain” view to see the topography.

My trip was around twenty years ago. It’s interesting to find evidence of the same practice years later, but the obvious difference is that it’s so easy to find the evidence at all. And it’s even clearer to see what I’m talking about with Google Earth:

You don’t have to use Google Earth for more than a few minutes to see that these days a ninth grader could do an impressive quantitative analysis of clear-cut logging in Oregon for a science project. The data’s all there.

Naturally, there’s no need to stop in Oregon. Look at the corrosive effect of roads on forests along the Congo River. I look forward to hearing stories about how companies and governments are being held accountable in new ways by this new evidence. A satellite has the most expansive viewshed of all.

Enigma and the Danish school teacher

Via the Mathematical Tourist I came across this article on the Enigma machine. The short version of the story is that during World War Jr. the Germans were convinced that their code machine, known as Enigma, kept their military secrets safe. It didn’t, partly through the efforts of three Polish mathematicians and partly because of the British crypto-analysts working at Bletchley Park in England (any story that involves a machine called Enigma and a place called Bletchley Park is already off to a really good start). The story is often told as if the Polish mathematicians had spirited away a physical copy of the machine, but in fact what they had was a reasonable mathematical model of how the machine worked. This they gave to the British. Goodness ensued and Hitler was vanquished.

It’s an often told story, and I mention it here because I was so impressed with this page maintained by a Danish high school teacher named Erik Vestergaard. I consider this to be the best kind of amateur reporting, and the kind of thing that really distinguishes the Age of the Web. It’s got beautiful illustrations, lovely old photos, and deep colorful piles of mathematical detail that really tell you what happened. Vestergaard figured out how Enigma worked, and now he’s telling you. No editor, not even of a specialist book with a limited print run, would let you include all that detail. “Cut out all that boring permutation crap,” says the Editor, Mr. Book, “You’re killing your market!” But Mr. Web, the imperturbable Not-An-Editor, says “Leave it in!”

Mr. Web wins again.

Changing WordPress themes

If you visit this page, as opposed to reading my RSS feed, you may have noticed me trying out various new WordPress themes. When I upgraded to the latest version of WordPress (2.5), I wanted to start tagging my posts, and that wasn’t supported by the old theme I was using. So I tried the more modern Mandigo theme for a while, but it was a little bombastic for my taste. Now I’m trying Misty Look by Sadish Balasubramanian. Actually, I just lifted the idea for both of them from Jason Kuter, so thanks for that Jason!

I was just looking for something calm and simple. But just like when you go shopping for what used to be called “tennis shoes,” you have to sift through an improbable superabundance of doodads and splashy colors just to find something simple.

Of course, if you only ever read the feed, then none of this matters to you.

The performance of visual arts

We’re familiar with the idea of sitting and watching people play musical instruments. The rock star is an iconic figure in our culture, and YouTube has made it possible for people with mad skillz to achieve widespread acclaim even if they only ever play in their bedroom. Here is the famous Pachelbel’s Canon video that’s been viewed more than 44 million times so far. Why not watch it and add a comment to the 187,702 other comments already there?

Less familiar is the concept of visual art as a performance medium. But it’s no less entertaining when done well. I remember being mesmerized as a child watching William “The Happy Painter” Alexander on public TV as he painted kitschy mountainscapes and discoursed in a wild German accent on his philosophy of art and life. Several years ago I featured on this blog a pointer to the sand art performances of Ferenc Cako and got a huge response.

Good cheap video technology is making performance visual art ever easier to produce, and I am still smitten. When I see calligraphy, I know I’m looking at a frozen performance, but what did that performance look like? It’s so cloistered and remote that I can’t fully appreciate it. That’s why videos like this are so much fun. I look at this and say “so that’s how they do it”:

It’s like watching Michelangelo pulling David from the marble. You know he’s in there, but only the artist knows exactly where he is. I found this video on i love typography, a marvelous site. Here’s another video on Pointed Pen Copperplate Calligraphy. It’s a little long, so take my advice: just go straight to 6:40 and watch him write “The End”. It’s worth it. I ask myself the same question I ask when I watch a brilliant guitarist: how did all that magic end up in that man’s fingers?

One final video, this time on time-lapse photography of sculpting, video sculpting using a program called ZBrush. And if sculpting with software doesn’t sound sufficiently compelling, really, you should just look at the video.