Galaxy on the rise

Once on a camping trip in Utah, I took a picture of our group late at night. I had a tripod and used a long exposure, but not being a very skilled photographer, I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. When the pictures came back from the lab, I was in for a surprise (historical footnote: in ancient times, photographs were “developed” at remote mountaintop “laboratories” and returned to you on the backs of fast-trotting donkeys). I couldn’t find my night-time snapshot. It was a while before I realized what looked like a mid-day shot was actually taken at midnight. The sky was bright blue and the colors were vibrant. Only the tiny traces of stars in the sky and our blurry faces gave it away. It was hard to believe my little camera could see such a different world.

On Kevin Kelly’s sprawling site I came across this lovely time-lapse animation taken at a star party in Texas. Amazingly, it was taken with an SLR camera on tripod. Put on your slow eyes and watch the earth turn.

Galactic Center of Milky Way Rises over Texas Star Party from William Castleman on Vimeo.

I’m familiar with what the Milky Way looks like in dark skies, so I was watching this video thinking “It’s going to be subtle… is that it? No… is THAT it? No.” But that camera has better eyes than you or I do. When the galaxy comes up, trust me, it’s not subtle.

Of Pans and GigaPans

It’s easy to think of a camera as an artificial eye. This lets you imagine that a photograph is something your eye might see if only your equipment was better. But when you take dozens of photos and stitch them together into one giant picture, the result is a strange hybrid. It looks like a snapshot, but it’s more of an experiential perch. It’s a vista point where you can linger, zooming, panning, and constantly finding novelty in the details.

GigaPan Systems is a company that helps you make these so-called gigapan images. They sell motorized tripods and special software that makes it straightforward to create such an image. They’ve been getting a lot of good press lately; you may have seen the GigaPan image of President Obama’s inauguration. Anyone can upload images to the GigaPan site. My friend Roy bought one of their tripods in time for a trip to South Africa. Here’s his shot of Boulders Beach near Capetown. Can you find the penguins?

Once you start thinking in terms of gigapixel super zoom images, it’s not hard to apply the same idea to things other than landscapes. Here’s s picture of two leaves and a flower. Would ya look at the size of that stamen!

It doesn’t stop there. You can keep making GigaPan pictures smaller until you get NanoGigaPan images like this ant.

It’s all good fun zooming in on an ant’s facial hair, but wouldn’t a NanoGigaPan image just be a Pan image?

Good Calories, Bad Calories

Aristotle observed that an object falls at a rate that is proportional to its weight. Heavy objects fall quickly, and light objects fall more slowly. Makes sense, right? For hundreds of years Aristotle’s word on this was so widely accepted as truth that there was simply no point in performing an experiment to verify or contradict it. Why bother? It was enough to say Ipse dixit, literally “he said it.” If it was good enough for the old man, it’s good enough for me. It took the righteous and contrary Galileo to proclaim what anyone who bothered could see: Look here! I drop a grape and an orange together and they fall at the same rate. This man Aristotle is either a fool or a liar.

When we look back at this episode, Galileo is always our friend. We sit next to him on the bench and chuckle. Grinning and pointing at the Aristotelian dopes, we ask him: How can all those people be so stupid?

Galileo is right not to be so impressed with us. Now as then, it happens all the time.

To choose a more recent example, why are Americans getting so fat? The answer is obvious. We’re rich, lazy, and overfed. Case closed. But the data doesn’t support the story. Exercise and caloric intake don’t correlate with weight gain. And perversely, sometimes malnutrition, poverty, and obesity appear to be best friends. What’s going on? Science writer Gary Taubes has taken on this important subject in his book Good Calories Bad Calories. Here’s a lecture of him talking about his book.

My brother Paul is an endocrinologist who is especially taken with the book. He talks about it all the time. He talks about it so much that I asked if he’d be willing to write about the book and why it matters. Happily, he agreed, and here is the result…

Continue reading “Good Calories, Bad Calories”

To Do lists with Zenbe

I wanted a nice simple To Do list web service. I’ve been looking for ages.

In theory, it should be easy to get what I want. There are plenty of options to choose from, some of which are quite well-developed and popular. But most of the dedicated To Do managers are too fancy for me and add too much overhead. I don’t want to think about categories and subcategories and tags and expected effort and priority codes.

In order to make me happy, it only has to do a few things. I just want an easy way to make a simple list, and having created the list, I want to move the items up and down the list as needed. Also, it needs to be accessible from any computer. My Outlook task list at work is plenty good (and nicely integrated with work email), but it’s locked up inside my company firewall. I can’t get to it from home.

For a while, I was a sucker for every To Do list out there. The only one I used for any length of time was the obscure tasktoy, written by Toby Segaran. But it’s pretty crude and, as a side effort of one person, it’s clearly not going to grow up anytime soon.

I’m telling you all this because I’ve found my true love at last: Zenbe Lists. wants you to use their email and calendar. I don’t need those particular services. But the Zenbe To Do list manager at is just brilliant. Best of all, it has a very nice iPhone client. It all syncs up, and life is good.

My uncle in Italy during WWII

Sixty-five years ago this week my Uncle Bill had a terrific headache. While touring through the Italian countryside near Santa Maria Infante, a piece of metal that would have killed him hit his helmet instead. I am glad for that.

I came across some Life magazine pictures being hosted by Google, and I asked him if they looked like what he saw. He fought west of Monte Cassino, where most of these pictures were taken, but he did say that this view typified what he saw much of the time.


He graciously agreed to write down some memories of that time and let me publish them here. Thanks Uncle Bill, and happy birthday!

It might be appropriate to outline my involvement in the infamous Italian campaign. On turning 18, I was drafted, after a year in college. In the fall of 1943 I was sent for basic infantry training to Fort McClellan in Alabama. After 13 weeks of training the companies were divided into two groups, one going to Fort Ord in California for the Pacific and the other to Fort George G. Meade in Maryland for the Atlantic. After a week at home I was sent to Fort Meade and then to Camp Patrick Henry in the Hampton Roads area, embarking on a troop transport for Oran, North Africa. Naples had fallen and a British ship took me to Naples. From there I subsequently found myself in the front lines north of the Garigliano River, the Gothic Line. There I was inserted, as a replacement, into a combat division, the 88th Infantry Division, 350th Regiment, first Battalion, Company B.

In an active combat division the attrition rate is high, some 60 percent in six months. Replacements are necessary. Unfortunately, replacements are at a disadvantage. Not having trained with your comrades, replacements were strangers in the midst of veterans. You were sent up to the line, stuck in a foxhole, not even knowing your comrades in the next foxhole over.

For a couple on months the Gothic line was static. I did watch the massive bombing of Cassino in March and could see the eruption of Vesuvius to the south. It was a spectacular display but I would have appreciated a better and more comfortable seat than a foxhole. On May 11, after an unusually fierce artillery bombardment, we pushed off, headed for Anzio. I remember walking behind tanks through devastated villages. Once, near Santa Maria Infante, my helmet was hit by shrapnel. My helmet was holed and I was knocked silly but the wound was superficial and after a few hours I was sent back into the line. We eventually met the troops from the Anzio beachhead and on June 4th we entered Rome, the first infantry troops in the city.

North of Rome, progress was rapid with only sporadic German resistance. On July 14, 1944, while trying to circle around a German machine gun emplacement, I was hit in my left ankle and foot. After some hours I was evacuated to a cave, where along with other wounded soldiers and civilians, I remained for a couple of days before being carried across the valley to battalion aid station, thence to Rome for surgery, to Naples and a hospital ship home. I had been ZIed, a wound sufficient to be sent to the Zone of the Interior, home!!!

My memories of Italy have been softened and blurred by time. Sixty years puts a bit of a strain on recall. I do remember the rain, the mud, and being supplied entirely by mule trains, carrying supplies in and the dead and wounded out. I remember the isolation and fear lying in a foxhole. I remember the never ending mountains and the uncanny ability of the Germans to use this advantage in defense. I remember the dead and the wounded and the cruelty on both sides. Sherman had it right.

I also remember the freedom from fear when pulled back from the front for R & R, the walk through Rome treated as conquerors, returning to Rome and seeing the Pope at the Vatican, those were the good days. I remember the trip home on the hospital ship, the attentive nurses, fried chicken and, most improbable, all the ice cream one could eat. And I remember my parents, scraping to borrow tires to make the trip to McGuire General Hospital in Richmond to visit me.

If you’re interested in the Italian campaign, I recommend Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, which I wrote about previously here. Also, while trying to locate some information on Santa Maria Infante, I found some old newspapers that have turned up on public archives. Here’s a link to a short article on the Americans marching through Santa Maria Infante and Castellanorata, but if you zoom out, you get a fascinating glimpse into a day of news in the all-consuming story of that war.

Peak Everything

Our best predictions of the future, which is to say, when those predictions work, tend to be straight-line extrapolations based on trends that don’t change too much. Our worst predictions occur when previously stable trends start to do loopy nonlinear things. Trendquakes.

We’re in for a lot of those in the next few decades.

There’s a lot of talk about peaks of one kind or another, trends that have done nothing but grow in living memory now starting to reverse course. Peak oil has been a popular term since the publication of Ken Deffeyes’ book Hubbert’s Peak. The premise is that the rate at which we squeeze oil out of the ground has topped out and is now in a terminal decline. Tim O’Reilly has pointed out that we may also be in the era of peak consumption, or perhaps more aptly, peak waste.

In the American Scientist this month there’s an article that dwells not so much on the environmental concerns of burning all that oil as the limits to growth once that “free” energy starts to dry up: Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil. In it, the authors mention Richard Heinberg’s concept of peak everything.

One of the more interesting peaks is peak population. Everyone who was born in 1965 or before (hey, that’s me!) has seen the world’s population double to its current value of 6.8 billion. The world’s population will never double again. Peak population isn’t expected until 2050 or so, but there is an inescapable and sustained depopulation in our future, something that hasn’t happened in a thousand years.

Sustained depopulation will be new when it’s happening across the entire globe, but it’s happening already in more places than you might suspect. In Russia, it’s gotten so bad they call it “hypermortality”. Read about it in the World Affairs Journal: Drunken Nation: Russia‚Äôs Depopulation Bomb. Here’s another demographic snapshot of a changing world from the Wilson Quarterly: The World’s New Numbers. Birthrates are falling all over the world with the exception sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, Africa will become the global centroid of both Christianity and Islam.

Bionic air penguins

This little YouTube movie looks to me like it belongs in the exposition part of a science fiction movie. For some reason, it made me think of the Mr. DNA video in Jurassic Park.

The images are so surreal and the voiceover is so oleaginous that it seems like fiction. But no, it’s not fiction. It’s just German. Festo is a real company, and they’re doing some amazing stuff. Those bionic air penguins (just after a minute into the movie) are the real deal. Who, after seeing this video, can honestly say they don’t want to own a bionic air penguin? Team them up with a few Big Dogs and you’re starting to get a good approximation of video games in real life.

Journey to the bottom of the Mandelbrot set

If you want to explore the Mandelbrot set, or fractals in general, you have endless options, but you should definitely look at the Xaos Fractal Browser. It’s been super-streamlined for zooming around quickly. Lots of people use it and upload their pictures to Flickr, and Flickr, in turn, makes it easy for me to embed this dandy slideshow.

Zooming around in Mandelbrot space got me thinking about the problem of mathematical exploration in general. I did a little googling and found this news item. (Note: actually I made it up)

WASHINGTON, DC (May 1, 2009)

Government officials were scrambling this morning to put the finishing touches on what’s being touted as the “most significant exploration initiative since Apollo.” The program, called Fractal One, has been established to plant an American flag on the bottom of the Mandelbrot set. Lead mathematician for the program Curt Canneford explained: “The Mandelbrot set is a mathematical object, a fractal set of fantastic richness. The deeper you delve into it, the more mysteries you find. It’s unconscionable that, since its discovery more than twenty years ago, we still don’t know where it stops.”

Bipartisan support has been building for the initiative. As Representative Malcolm Blakey (R, Missouri) explained at a press conference yesterday, “When we heard that the French were funding an expedition to set foot on the bottom of the Mandelbrot set, we realized this was a matter of national pride and competitiveness. Why, in an age when Everest has been climbed, the Marianas trench plumbed, and the moon itself claimed for this great republic, is the Mandelbrot set still hiding secrets? This math resource should be probed and exploited. We might find oil, mineral wealth, or lots of cool pictures for American students to put up in their dorm rooms.”

Late last night, underscoring the urgency of the effort, came word of an imminent Chinese expedition, and there was an unsubstantiated claim that a Russian team was “already there.”

What will it look like at the bottom? It’s hard to say. Lead Mandelnaut Irving Bell was sanguine about the dangers. “We’re talking about extremely small numbers… the linear dimensions alone will measure less than 10 to the minus 128. The computational pressures will be enormous. The iteration counts near the bottom could pin us down for weeks, and a divergent blowout could happen at any time.”

It was a stirring scene as he and his team, against the backdrop of a large American flag, were sealed into the stainless steel Fractal One compute pod and lowered into the complex set.