Your artificially aged Earth

You know those pictures of missing kids that have been artificially aged with computer graphics? Well, suppose the earth went missing for 250 million years, and you needed to find it. Walking across a city park, you stumble across an old planet sleeping under a dirty blanket. It might be your earth, but is it? Here’s a video that I found on Kevin Kelly’s site that might help. It shows tectonic plate activity from the remote past (400 million years) and well into the distant future. I can’t vouch for the legitimacy of the geology, but it’s fun to watch south Asia take it in the shorts from the Indian subcontinent at around 30 seconds in. India comes smashing in from the south with the irresponsible speed and driving skills of a teenager texting his girlfriend.

BAM! “Yow! Right in my Himalayan flat lands!”

“Oh… sorry about those mountains, dude. That swelling will probably go down in a few million years.”

Say, now that I’m thinking about it, I wonder if the Onion has anything tasteful to say about computer-assisted age progression? Age-Progression Technology Indicates Missing Child a Prostitute By Now.

Mindful videos and slow rocket launches

Videos these days are edited for a microscopic attention span. I’d love to see some statistics on the average time between cuts, but it must be getting shorter. A good example of this is videos of rock concerts. There are so many cameras for the video editor to draw from: cameras on stage, cameras on booms, cameras in the rafters, walking steadicams, crowdcams, guitar cams. As a result, we get whipped from camera to camera with neck-snapping speed. If you have, let us say, a particular interest in Eric Clapton’s finger work during the solo, you’re out of luck. You might get a few precious seconds of guitar closeup, but then it’s time for the Dramamine again.

I don’t object to kaleidoscopic spectacle on principle, but there are times when it’s really nice to sit and focus on exactly one thing. Here’s a spectacular example of that. This is a slow-motion film (500 frames/second!) of the very bottom of the Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket as it takes off on July 16, 1969. I’m betting that on multiple occasions you’ve seen one or two seconds of this video. But you’ve never seen the whole thing. Watch it. It features some high quality commentary from Mark Gray of Spacecraft Films.

That’s the real damn deal right there. Those massive hold-down arms clamp the rocket to the ground, and when they let go, they’re the last earthly object to kiss it goodbye. I’m a certified space geek, but I learned a lot watching this. I didn’t know about the flammable ablative paint on the pad equipment, and I had always wondered about the dark skirt of flame that stretches several yards below the nozzle’s yawning bell. Now I know. Mindful, stable video with expert commentary. Yum.

Since I’m on the topic, here’s your Apollo bonus link: Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon, tells us something new about Apollo 13. Which do you prefer for your corpse: a cold eternal orbit or the fiery dispatch of a collision with your home planet?

Unseen beauty

At lunch today I saw a TED talk by Jonathan Drori on pollen. He mentioned that pollen has become extremely useful in forensics because we’re now assembling the pollen thumbprint of every part of the plant-inhabited world. One look at the pollen grains in your shirt reveals volumes about where you’ve been. But really, the thing about the talk is that these giant electron micrographs of pollen grains from various species are displayed behind the speaker throughout the talk and you can’t help but be amazed at how beautiful they are. And they’re floating around us all the time. That thing on the right is a pollen grain for Greater Stitchwort.

Tonight I came home and read about the new Solar Dynamics Observatory, a NASA satellite that specializes in looking at, as you might guess, the sun. But what pictures she sends us, this orbiting eyeball! That image on the left, that’s the sun (sporting a wicked cowlick of a prominence) as seen in far ultraviolet. And there’s lots more good stuff like this on the site. It’s the same sun we see every day, but we’re not equipped to take in the beauty.

Later still, I saw that the xkcd web comic had taken up the same theme. It’s a good thing to remember as a general principle: this beauty that you speak of, it’s everywhere. Sometimes you have to take it on faith. And there’s a good chance it’ll make you sneeze. But still! Crikey!

Capture those stories!

StoryCorps is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.” They have professional recording equipment, and they encourage you to book some time at one of their studios so you can come down and interview a friend or family member. It’s all free, including the CD that you get at the end of the process. It’s a great idea, and they’ve been so successful that by now they have a podcast and a couple of books.

The catch, of course, is that you have to be near one of their StoryBooth studios if you want to take advantage of their service. Fortunately, these days it’s not hard to do the same thing yourself. I’ve bought a few cheap digital recorders over the years, and it was always a pain to get the data off the device. Smart phones have changed all that. I have an iPhone, and it’s now trivially easy to get a high quality recording (or a pretty good recording, anyway) of you interviewing someone or just sitting back and listening to that old story that dad tells. You can keep the recording easily enough, but even better, it’s also easy these days to get a good transcription of the recording.

Here’s what I did. You should do it too, or you’ll wish you did some day. First, use your smart phone to record that story. This is absolutely the hardest part in the whole process: going out of your way to say please please sit here where it’s quiet and tell this whole story from beginning to end without interruption. After that, it’s easy. Take the sound file and send it to CastingWords. These guys are awesome and darned cheap. They’ll send you a text version of the story. It’s like magic.

Here’s my dad talking about hitchhiking his way up to the 1939 World’s Fair.

On 220 I didn’t get much leverage, not many rides. Ended up out in the middle of the country. Night was coming on and no place to lay your head. And fine, just about dark, a couple of guys picked me up in an old car.

They had been to South Carolina to buy liquor. North Carolina was dry. They had been enjoying the fruit of the vine. I was sitting in the back seat and they kept passing the bottle to me. No thank you, I am in training for football season. But they weren’t feeling any pain.

On the way to Roanoke, back then the roads were not four lane highways. These were two lane roads through the mountains. A lot of the places you could look over the side and see where you would go if things didn’t go right.

He drove pretty casually and it began to rain; dark, slippery roads at night. He didn’t keep his eye on the road much and I was biting donut holes out of the seat. Soon as I saw the first lights of Roanoke, I said this is where I am going thank you very much for the ride.

It’s easier than you think. Be your own StoryCorps, and your kids will thank you.

Headline copy-editing crash blossoms

Suppose you saw a headline like “Maine harbors concern over Bangor landing.” The story is about an airplane that lands in Bangor and ultimately causes distress among Maine politicians. But you might get four words into the headline with the mistaken impression that someone is concerned about the harbors of Maine. Then you hit the word “over” and stop short… Maine harbors concern over… huh?. You might get all the way to the last word before you fully realize a verb/noun parse error with the ambiguous word “harbors”.

Some headlines are so spectacularly ambiguous that you might read them through three or four times and still have no idea what they mean. As you might expect, the wordheads over at the Language Log have come up with name for this kind of headline parsing problem: crash blossoms. Why? Here is the story behind the name.

At Testy Copy, a worthy colleague, Nessie3, posted this headline:

Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms

(If this seems a bit opaque, and it should, the story is about a young violinist whose career has prospered since the death of her father in a Japan Airlines crash in 1985.)

It’s just a new name for an old problem, of course, but it’s still fun to collect them. Two more from the Language Log.

McDonald’s fries the holy grail for potato farmers. Yum! said Sir Galahad as he licked the ketchup and grail grease from his lips.

This one is not so much amusing as truly vexing to fully unwind: Scottish National Party signals debate legal threat.

Can you add any?

How Books Were Made

A 19th Century dictionary may be the new Rolex.

In the same way that people value fantastically complex mechanical watches ever more as electronic watches get cheaper, people may well come to value expensive hand-made books even as bookstores vanish, shelves get dumped into landfills, and reading becomes a wholly digital experience. The pick-up line of the future may be “would you like to come up to my apartment and see my … book?”

Via Neatorama I learned about Johnny Carrera, the owner of Quercus Press, a printer in Waltham, Massachusetts. That puts Quercus more or less in my back yard, which makes them pretty cool already as far as I’m concerned. Even better, Quercus has published the Pictorial Webster’s, which consists of all the illustrations from the 1859, 1864, and 1890 editions of Webster’s dictionary. Sure, you can buy the Trade Edition for $35, but Good Heavens! wouldn’t you be the man about town with your own hand-tooled Full Leather Goat Binding edition. All yours for $3500.

There’s a great story about how the project came about. Nothing makes me salivate like tasty jargon, and sentences like this just suck me in:

While I was repairing the paper, re-lining the spine, and backing it with an extended alum tawed lining which I used to attach new split boards, and covering the book with alum-tawed goat, a classmate showed me an article about the Merriam-Webster Co.

Alum-tawed goat! This is a man who owns a working 1938 Model 8 linotype machine. And knows how to use it. Now watch this movie, and be sure to at least watch the old Model 8 chugging away at around 1:40. It’s thrilling. It’s horrifying. This is the way the world used to work!

Pictorial Webster’s: Inspiration to Completion from John Carrera on Vimeo.

“Hey, babe, want to come up to my apartment and take a look at my Full Leather Goat Binding?”

Thoughtful scientist, colored water

For you scientists out there, I have a question.

When you’re contemplating an Erlenmeyer flask or beaker filled with colored water (as you scientist types so often do), what color do you prefer?

Today we’ll concentrate on orange. Here’s a picture that makes me happy for several reasons.

First of all, it’s picture of a thoughtful scientist holding insight-bestowing colored water in laboratory glassware. These always amuse me, even when they’re absurd stock photo fictions. But this one is real. This is a real scientist who is actually studying orange-colored water (a sugary orange soft drink). And it’s interesting research (high-fructose corn syrup prompts considerably more weight gain than an equivalent caloric load of sucrose). And it’s at my alma mater. And as it happens orange is one of the school colors. Man, what a great shot!

Look at the whole picture and you’ll see they’re clearly having a good time posing for the picture. You can almost hear them planning the shot: “Let’s do one of those colored-water-in-beakers photos!” I don’t know if those purple gloves were necessary for the lab work, but my, they look dandy next to the orange water.

As for showing what lab breakthroughs really look like, I enjoy Derek Lowe’s discussion here:

It doesn’t make for much of a cover shot, but if one of us ever does manage to change the world, it’ll start with a puzzled glance at a computer screen, or a raised eyebrow while looking at a piece of paper. Instead of getting noisier, everything will get a lot quieter. And if there are any purple spotlights to be seen, we won’t even notice them. . .