Flying my iPhone

Growing up, I was a serious aviation geek. I used to pedal my bike to the library every week so I could check out the latest books on flying. I eventually took flying lessons (enough to solo, but I never got a license) and I majored in aerospace engineering in college. So you might think I’d really be into computer flying simulations. But I haven’t really fallen for any. Flight simulations are extremely accurate these days and often gorgeous to look at, but it’s still hard to translate the kinesthetic sense of looking around a cockpit in three dimensions to staring at a flat screen on a desk.

So I was intrigued when I came across a little flight simulator for the iPhone called X-Plane. With the tiny screen and limited memory, you lose a lot in terms of display richness, but with the accelerometer-controlled input you get a surprisingly immersive experience. Basically, you tilt the iPhone as though it were the control column of an airplane. It sounds odd, but it works very well. It’s also entertaining for other people in the room, since the “pilot” is constantly swaying left and right while hunched over his cell phone.

Here I am flying my plane into the side of a mountain. As I said, I never actually got my private pilot’s license.


Seeing the plane in the display is pretty for the newspapers, but it’s not a good way to fly. Here’s what it looks like with the Head-Up Display.


If you prefer, you can fly with your head down in the instruments, and you can even practice some basic instrument flying by dialing in your radial to the nearest VOR station.

A note on the price. This is expensive for an iPhone app: $10. It got uniformly great reviews until the same company released two other flight simulators for only $5 each. You’d be amazed how many people who bought the $10 sim went completely apeshit cuckoo bananas insane with rage once they realized they might have paid five dollars instead of ten. Murderous, spluttering fury over less than the price of a roast beef sandwich. Micro-economics is a funny thing.

The twilight of the journal articles

Scientific journal articles serve two purposes: as a permanent record of an experimental result (which in theory is repeatable), and as a token of achievement to be exchanged at some point for more money and a nicer office. Publishing makes or breaks your career. Since the stakes are very high, people feel a need to make their papers as impressive as possible. This leads to obfuscated prose.

In fairness, journal articles are sometimes opaque because of the need for precision. But most of the jargon is unnecessary, particularly in the introductions and conclusions. Just as a person may build a house they don’t want to live in because they’re worried about the resale value to someone else, a scientist may write a paper not because they think it’s clear and persuasive, but because it uses the coded language that they imagine their all-powerful overlords want to read.

It’s just like a tenth-grade chemistry lab report really. The apparatus was old and dirty. The scale wasn’t calibrated properly, and the results you got look like crap. What to do? Dress it up in some fancy-pants language and hope for mercy. I may not be pious, but at least I can genuflect!

I hate lab-report writing. It’s a great pity that high school students are rewarded for the tortured passive voice constructions that pass for sentences, because by the time they get to college, they think that’s what smart is. Far better if more lab reports read like this masterpiece, one of my all time favorite pieces of scientific writing: Electron Band Structure In Germanium, My Ass.

Abstract: The exponential dependence of resistivity on temperature in germanium is found to be a great big lie. My careful theoretical modeling and painstaking experimentation reveal 1) that my equipment is crap, as are all the available texts on the subject and 2) that this whole exercise was a complete waste of my time.

All of this leads me to the topic of science blogs. I love science blogs because they are conversational vehicles in which working scientists try to sort out what’s really relevant and important. They’re like the conversations you have at a science conference between sessions, but I don’t get to go to many of those. So I read science blogs, and what fun!

I got started thinking about this because I was reading Neil Saunders’ blog and came across this item: Did someone just admit that journal articles don’t communicate science effectively? In it, he reflects that perhaps “the traditional journal article is increasingly ineffective as a communication tool.”


Coincidentally, I also stumbled across this entertaining presentation on How to write a great research paper (PDF) by Simon Peyton Jones at Microsoft Research. Straightforward and compelling, it’s definitely worth a read.

Conversation 2.0: Annotated vs. interrupted

Everybody has a smart phone these days, which means that everybody is constantly within hailing distance of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia, Settler of Disputes, Furnisher of Backstory, and Destroyer of Conversations.

You start with two people talking over lunch about who played the Riddler on Batman, and the next thing you know, one of them is nose-down, running silent, and plowing the prosy deep. By the time he emerges triumphant with Frank Gorshin in his teeth, the conversation is dead, and poor Frank must float slowly back to the page he came from.

I was in one of these conversations the other night. Long after we determined the length of the Triassic, or whatever it was, my interlocutor was lost in some other dark gallery, bewitched and out of reach. I took the opportunity to order another beer.

The interrupted conversation is a common enough complaint (and likely to get much more common). But there is a pleasant flip-side to the interrupted conversation: the annotated conversation. I was in one of these over lunch earlier this week. We were talking about sociology and cultural concepts of fairness and appropriate behavior. Matt had some good stories, but couldn’t quite remember a key phrase. After lunch, he sent us this email.

FYI, the phrase I was looking for at lunch today was “polite fiction”. This is the passage that I remember reading:

One of my favorite concepts in anthropology is that of the polite fiction. It’s something nobody believes, but we all pretend to because it makes life so much easier. My favorite example was of a Pygmy couple. Pygmy divorce involves quite literally breaking up the home: the couple tears apart their house (it’s easy – the houses are made of leaves) and once it’s down, the union is dissolved. One anthropologist was watching a long-married couple have a fight. It escalated until the wife threatened to leave, and the husband yelled something along the lines of “Fine!” and there was nothing the wife could do but start tearing down the house. She began tearing the roof off, clearly miserable. The husband looked wretched too, but at this point neither could back down without losing face and by now the whole village was watching.

Finally, the husband called out the Pygmy equivalent of “You’re right, honey! The roof is dirty! It’ll look much better once we get those leaves washed!” The two of them started carrying leaves down to the river, soon with the help of the whole village, and then washed and rebuilt the whole roof. When the anthropologist later discreetly asked how often one washes the roof, everyone looked at him like he was a complete doofus.

For the not-work-safe context this came from, see this URL:

Oh, and here’s the parable I tried to tell:

This little note was a real gift. It was a reminder of an interesting conversation, and a resource for future ones (not to mention being blog fodder). And it didn’t interrupt the friendly flow of conversation. Rather, it recalled it after the fact. I love the Annotated Conversation. We’ll be seeing a lot more of those too.

Have you had any?

The sky in motion

Check out these beautiful time lapse movies of the nighttime sky: The Sky in Motion – Movies – Digital Images of the Sky. The quality of the photography is superb, so the movies are like butter. Like dark starry butter smeared all over the sky. Okay, there’s no such thing as dark starry butter, but if there were, it would be like that.

Be sure and click on the “playlist” link hiding on the left side of the page. Then you’ll be able to see some other movies like drowning in the clouds.

(Thanks Steve Crandall for the link)

All software is a service now

One of the fun things about using an online service, say something like Gmail or LibraryThing, is that it gets better when you’re not using it. Software that you install doesn’t have this property. Or it hasn’t until very recently.

Increasingly, even the software that lives on your computer makes it easy to see if you’re due for an update. That’s good, but given a few dozen applications, it gets to be a burden to remember to check for updates and then dutifully install them. The web browsers Google Chrome and Firefox try to remove you from the equation by upgrading themselves automatically.

We’re also seeing a rising tide of programs whose job it is to act like software sheepdogs, nipping at the heels of all your programs and telling you when they get out of line. From MakeUseOf I learned about AppUpdater, a program that looks at all your other programs and makes recommendations about what you should upgrade. The FileHippo Update Checker does much the same thing. And on the Google Operating System blog I learned about the Secunia Personal Software Inspector which is similar to the others, but with a focus on keeping your computer securely up-to-date with all the latest patches.

It’s easy enough to see where this is all headed. Whether you browse to your software on a web site or install it on your hard drive with your bare hands, it will thereafter be kept continuously up-to-date. When you buy software, you’re no longer buying a bushel of bits, but something more like a promise to behave a certain way for a certain amount of time. All software is a service now.

Pen spinning

When I was in fourth grade, I thought I was pretty darn good at the Standing Broad Jump. I would practice with a yardstick, and after every jump I would look back and admire the great distance I had flown. I had to practice because I was representing Mrs. Murphy’s class on Field Day, the day in spring when all the kids would empty onto the playing fields for competitions and popcorn eating.

I sucked at Standing Broad Jump, and it took Field Day for me to learn that.

When you don’t see what your peers are up to, you can delude yourself about how good you are. Contrariwise, when you are in constant contact with your peers, competing and trading tips, your community can improve with startling speed. Tightly linked communities of practice are achieving astonishing results. Throw in a few web sites, some Facebook, some YouTube, some Yahoo Groups, and bang! you’ve got the giantest giant pumpkins you ever saw. These turbocharged web communities are among the great wonders of our age.

And, by the way, can you spin a pen on your thumb? Think you’re pretty good at it? Watch this video and you’ll see you suck as bad as Standing Broad Jump Fourth Grade Ned.

Wow. This may be some kind of high point of our civilization.

Spotted on

The forgettable decade

On New Year’s Day, I speculated (via Twitter) that we’ve now made it through the better part of this decade without giving it a single clear name. And not for lack of trying… we’ve seen suggestions ranging from the Noughties to the Zeroes. The point is that none of these has stuck in the popular imagination. VH1 has a series of TV shows variously called “I Love the 80s” and “I Love the 90s”. What do they call the show about this decade? I Love the New Millennium. This name, I feel, will reveal certain flaws over time.

Martin Wattenberg replied to my Twitter message, “And lacking a name for the decade, no one talks about it. Sapir-Whorf redux?” I had just been pondering this. Sapir-Whorf says that the nature of our thinking is colored by the nature of our language. So, if the linguistic “handle” for the First Decade is particularly slippery, perhaps it will transitively render the things that happened that decade as less memorable.

It’s been a newsworthy decade by any measure, but I can’t help but wonder if, historically speaking, George W. Bush will get off easier than otherwise because he had the good fortune to stumble into an exceptionally forgettable decade.

Does anybody know of languages where the First Decade doesn’t present any linguistic difficulties? Presumably in such a language the first decade of each century would show to better effect in the history books.