Sandy’s gift: Ice halos over Boston

As I was about to get into the car on Saturday afternoon, I noticed a funny rainbow-like smear on the windshield. At first I thought it was something greasy on the windshield, but I looked up in case it was reflecting something in the sky. It was.

Above me, in the weirdest location and orientation, was a rainbow. Weird because there was no rain — it was a clear afternoon — and because it was upside down. Its feet were in the air! I’d never seen anything like it.

This is what I saw.

My first (incorrect) notion was that it was a glory. But you see glories when you look away from the sun. Furthermore, this was a whole constellation of delicate curves and colored arcs. I couldn’t stop looking at it.

I tweeted that anyone in Boston should go outside and look up. My friend MechanicalTim, an erstwhile physicist, sent a quick note back. It turns out he’s spent a fair amount of time thinking about the physics of rainbows, and even he was stumped. But he was able to track down a name for the phenomenon. That upside-down rainbow is a rare ice-crystal halo called a circumzenithal arc. You can tell it’s rare by its unlovely name. The high-altitude hexagonal ice crystals that put on the show were driven there ahead of Hurricane Sandy’s approaching bulk.

So Tim identified the circumzenithal arc, but what about the rest of it? In particular, what about the graceful gull-wing curve below the arc? A little more research put me onto the Ice Halo page on the Atmospheric Optics website. What a treasure of strange solar fauna! From my pictures, I worked out that I had seen the aforementioned circumzenithal arc, the supralateral arc, the upper suncave Parry arc, and the upper tangent arc. Not to mention the more common 22 degree halo and its hovering parhelic hounds, the stately Sun Dogs. In one fortunate sky, I’d bagged the whole menagerie. A veritable crepuscular jackpot! Rare and beautiful things with fancy names! It all made me very happy.

The so-called Boston ice crystal halo event was noticed by plenty of people with better cameras than me. In fact, the circumzenithal arc Wikipedia page now features a picture taken from Salem, Massachusetts on the same day.

And by the way, if you want to do ice halos the hard way, Tim recommends Greenler’s Rainbows, Halos and Glories.

All the buzzwords: robot Kickstarter 3D-printed airplane manufacturing for tomorrow!

I like airplanes. I like 3D printing. I like robots. I like Kickstarter. And it’s all coming together these days. There are Kickstarter airplanes, and 3D printed airplanes, Kickstarter robots, and many other variants. The 3D-printed airplane guys are students at the University of Virginia. After seeing their 3D-printed jet engine (an unfueled demonstrator), the Mitre Corporation gave them some money and said “Make me an airplane!” And they did.

This is all fitting into a larger story about American manufacturing that, despite its rah-rah appeal for politicians, appears to be the real deal. Here’s Mayor Bloomberg opening a Shapeways factory in Brooklyn. Shapeways is a company that specializes in 3D printing for the masses. That’s you! That’s me! It’s actually happening. I recommend some jewelry by Bathsheba Grossman. Although I have to say, after sifting through the Shapeways blog, the thing that impressed me most is this video of artist Ryan Kittleson sculpting Success Kid. Now you can have your very own.

MOOCs vs. the Ivies: Paying for your peers.

What does a college education buy you? A solid grounding in the liberal arts? The technical training to pursue a profession? A ticket to grad school? Four years of beer-soaked denial? A spouse?

It’s a complicated question with a lot of answers. Here’s a sharper question. What does a college education buy you that can’t be replaced with a free online education? Free online courses, often called MOOCs (for Massive Online Open Courses), have been making news lately, and for good reason. At first blush, it looks like you could cobble together a first rate college education for no money at all. And this at a time when college costs are skyrocketing. It seems reasonable to wonder if MOOCs are about to gut the Ivy League.

Now for the weird part. A college-level online course requires a lot of expertly assembled content. And who provides this content free of charge? I’ll tell you who: professors from expensive colleges. But wait! Doesn’t that mean they’re competing with themselves? Why should I pay $50,000 to Elite U. when I can watch the exact same instructors teach the same courses for free? Aren’t they in danger of putting themselves out of business?

Well, actually, no.

Colleges don’t worry about putting themselves out of business because they’re not selling an education. It sounds preposterous until you watch them rushing to give away their education. What they’re selling is a degree. They’re selling a brand. You can drink their wine all day as long as there’s a different label on the bottle.

You are welcome, encouraged even, to use Stanford courseware at a community college, but your diploma can’t mention Stanford. One way of thinking about this is the textbook analogy. There’s nothing surprising about using Professor Y’s textbook when you take Professor X’s class. So in the future you might also be using Professor Z’s lectures and exams. But at some point you have to ask yourself “What exactly is Professor X doing for me?” It’s another way of asking what exactly a college sells you. And ultimately you realize that the most important department in the university is Admissions.

You’re paying for your peers. Smart, well-connected, motivated peers that have been vetted by a selective admissions process. It’s the same with a good party. The bouncers make all the difference. You may never meet the hostess. But who cares as long as the place is rocking?

You’re paying to be stratified among your demographic cohort for the benefit of your future employers, and the diploma is the proof those employers will demand. The price is kept high by scarcity. There are only so many Harvard graduates every year. In a networked world, is that scarcity artificial? In a world of online courseware, we might suppose that Harvard could open up the sluiceways and churn out 100,000 graduates. Why not? The ultimate scarcity is supplied by Dunbar’s Number. You really want to get to know the peers that you paid to be with, and to do that, you really have to spend time with them. That will never be cheap.

Where does all this leave us? Will there be a revolution in the academy or not? Despite the prolonged shaking, the system stays largely intact. Elite universities will still be able to charge top dollar. The biggest shift comes in post-graduate continuing education and in pre-college secondary education. Admissions to elite universities gets harder, since everyone will have access to serious college classes before leaving high school. The quality and uniformity of education at all universities will go up dramatically. And the cost of non-elite institutions is sure to drop significantly.

It’s almost all good news for the average student, although we’ll need to watch out for the dangers of an educational monoculture.

Tim O’Reilly at Long Now

A longstanding meme in popular culture is the idea that a sufficiently complicated system or society can “wake up” as a willful super-organism version of itself. The cheery version of this is an Aquarian global consciousness linking us all. The grim version is Terminator’s Skynet.

Here’s Tim O’Reilly giving a talk at the Long Now Foundation on Birth of the Global Mind. O’Reilly starts with some personal experiences from the 70s. As Long Now host Stewart Brand says in his introduction

Global consciousness was a recurrent idea in the 1970s—from Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere and Omega point (“the Singularity of its day”) to “New Age mumbo-jumbo” such as the Harmonic Convergence.

But O’Reilly is charitable in his treatment of these loopy ideas, focusing on what they got right and the lasting impact of their optimism. He eventually dwells on augmented intelligence rather than artificial intelligence as the real smarts in the global brain.

I’ve been a longtime fan of both Brand and O’Reilly, so to me the best part of the talk is when they chat during the question period at the end. They end up touching on two topics I care a lot about: society-as-flesh and the modern pantheon of Greek-like gods. It’s an entertaining and wide-ranging conversation.