Kicking away the ladder: man’s fate and the Great Filter

How long have we got? Depending on who you ask, we’re roughly halfway through the time of tolerable tenure for life on Earth. The planet has been around for 4.6 billion years, give or take, and it’s got about that much more time before the swelling Sun boils our bathwater.

See the Universe Timeline for more numbers

Relatively speaking, it didn’t take very long for life to appear once the Earth had cooled down enough to support plenty of water. But notice that it took a surprisingly long time, something like 2.5 billion years (as indicated by the red bracket), before the first eukaryotic organisms came along. That’s a sizable fraction of the entire lifespan of the planet! Something extraordinary and improbable must have happened, something very lucky for us, since those little bugs were our ancestors. One way to put this in perspective is to say that, if life suddenly vanished from Earth right now, it’s reasonable to assume there would be enough time for it to develop again before the Earth was sterilized by the Sun. But it is much less likely that there would be enough time to get from simple bacteria to eukaryotic life again. On the plus side, if we simply kill off all the people, or even most of the vertebrates, there should be plenty of time to regroup and try a few more times and making something intelligent.

The latest issue of Technology Review magazine has a provocative essay by Nick Bostrom along these lines. Entitled Where Are They?, it touches on Fermi’s paradox regarding extraterrestrial life. Namely: if life in the universe is commonplace, then why aren’t we seeing any evidence of it? His conclusion is that some catastrophic event, call it the Great Filter, is blocking life on other planets from reaching the point where it can contact us. If you follow his reasoning this far, then you have to ask if the Great Filter is behind us or after us. Was, for example, the rise of eukaryotic complexity so singular, that we are the only planet in the entire galaxy to pull it off? On the other hand, what if the Great Filter is ahead of us? We, and every other planet like us, may well destroy ourselves with near certainty, either through suicidal violence or self-poisoning waste. Fossil fuel has given us wealth and a means of ascent into orbit, but we may well squander it and kick away the ladder.

It’s hard to argue with Bostrom’s reasoning. One thing that’s still not very clear to me: how likely is it that Earth-like civilizations in our galaxy would be able to hear our “leaking” radio frequency transmission? That is, not the messages we send intentionally, but just the noise we generate on a typical day. This seems to bear directly on this problem. Not much time has passed for other civilizations to hear us, but if they could hear us, then shouldn’t we be able to hear them? If we should be able to hear other civilizations as advanced as our own, but instead hear nothing, that seems pretty clear evidence that the Great Filter is behind us and not ahead of us. At any rate, I recommend you read the whole piece, if only to follow his rationale for the following comment:

If [on Mars] we discovered traces of some simple, extinct life-form–some bacteria, some algae–it would be bad news. If we found fossils of something more advanced, perhaps something that looked like the remnants of a trilobite or even the skeleton of a small mammal, it would be very bad news. The more complex the life-form we found, the more depressing the news would be. I would find it interesting, certainly–but a bad omen for the future of the human race.

By the way, Tim O’Reilly has a good piece about this same topic over at the O’Reilly Radar blog: Fermi’s Paradox and the End of Cheap Oil.

Heat map mashups: how do you feel about the rent?

I happened to spot these items in the same week, and it seemed a fairly obvious leap to mash them even further. Item number one is a heat map of rent and room availability in San Francisco: CraigStats. This is something that Zillow has been doing for a while, but CraigStats contains detailed information about renting (as opposed to buying with Zillow). So that’s all relatively interesting, but not exactly new.

But then I came across item number two: the BioMapping Project. What they’re doing is measuring your galvanic skin response, which is to say how sweaty you are, along with your GPS coordinates, all while you’re strolling around a neighborhood. It’s more art than science, but the intriguing premise is that you can generate some sort of aggregate emotion map of a neighborhood. Where do people get stressed out? Where are they relaxed? Here’s the data for the San Francisco emotion map.

Now you can imagine throwing these two maps together and you might get a sense for how the rent correlates with the stress level. It’s easy to guess that low-rent areas might give you the heebie-jeebies, but there might be some kind of bimodal distribution… I don’t know about you, but super-wealthy areas give me the creeps. Throw in a crime map and an ambient display on the end of your GPS-enabled walking stick, and you’ve built yourself an automatic Spidey-Sense. “On second thought, my dear, let us not stroll slowly through the Tenderloin District. I sense there’s mischief afoot.”

(via O’Reilly Radar)

Google Maps: Drag your way to good directions

I’m very impressed with the latest wrinkle over at Google Maps. They have solved one of the last remaining problems with computer-generated directions: often you are given a suggested route that is just stupid. Sometimes I want to thump the screen and say “Are you nuts? I’m not going to drive through the middle of freaking Newton to get to 128!”

If the directions were uniformly terrible, you’d never use them, and that would be that. But they are often pretty good. You just want to modify your route in a few places. Like telling it to take the Mass Pike out to 128 instead of plodding down Centre Street like a dope. For instance, suppose you were visiting your parents-in-law near Southport, North Carolina and you needed to get to the airport in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I was in exactly this situation last Sunday.

Here’s the computed route from Southport, NC to MYR. But my father-in-law had certain knowledge that South Carolina Highway 31 is beautiful, fast, and parallel to 17 for much of the trip. What’s nice is that you can now just drag the blue route line and re-calculate the trip. Now all the turn and distance information on your trip printout is accurate. Here’s the new route to Myrtle Beach. I had to insert three way points to make it behave. But it was extremely simple to do so. My father-in-law kindly thought to give us a Triple-A TripTik® Travel Planner for the same route. I feel bad for the people who make TripTiks. That thing seemed as ancient as a carved stone tablet.

Strange maps

I like maps and strange things, so a blog devoted to strange maps is double treat. I first came across the site because of this nifty map matching all 50 American states with countries having commensurate GDPs. Thus California, the wealthiest state, is paired with France, and so on down to lowly Wyoming-Uzbekistan. There are some real surprises in there. Who would have guessed Tennessee is on par with Saudi Arabia? Can somebody please write a country song about that?

But the US map is downright pedestrian compared to the map about Poland’s Wry-Mouthed Duke. I’ve always liked nobility with descriptive nicknames like Ethelred the Unready and Pepin the Short, but I do wonder how the Duke came by his moniker. Maybe that can be a country song.

He was a wry-mouthed camel driver
on a hajj to Tennessee,
and he played that Dhahran dobro
like a Bedouin hillbilly…

Maps and Eichler houses on Zillow and Trulia

Zillow has gotten such glowing reviews of its real estate heat maps (cool blue is cheap; red hot is expensive) that it has made them available for much of the country. It’s fun to browse around at the state level looking for high contrast regions. For instance, you don’t need a realtor’s license to see that Stamford, Connecticut lacks the luster of its neighbors Greenwich and Darien. Be sure and check the little box next to “Heat Map”. The contrast is striking.

But there are some other nifty real estate visualizations out there. Trulia now has a tool for seeing when houses were built. As the slider moves through time, colored spots erupt at each new address. It’s a cool effect, and it got me thinking about places that saw dramatic housing booms. Levittown, Pennsylvania was such a place. Just after World War II it appeared so quickly it was named after developer William C. Levitt. Here’s the Trulia map. Compare this with a place like Newton, Massachusetts (of fig newton fame) that had much steadier growth.

Since I recently posted about my old house in Palo Alto, I was reminded of the many Eichler houses in and around that city. Joseph Eichler was developer with a vision of affordable luxury, and some ten thousand of his iconic Modernist homes sprouted in California during the 1950s. Here’s a brochure from around that time: Enter the Wonderful World of Eichler. This Trulia interface shows the Fairmeadow development just off East Charleston Road in Palo Alto. Dig the crazy circular road plans.

Eichlers went up fast, and they sometimes came down fast too. They were known to local firemen as eight-minute wonders for their ability to burn to the ground in less time than it takes to mix a martini and put some Sinatra on the Hi-Fi. Even so, plenty of them are still around and lovingly cared for by a community of Eichler aficionados. Here’s a nice example straight out of Fairmeadow as seen on Google Maps.

Street Views in Google Maps

Be sure and look at the new street views in Google Maps. In some neighborhoods for a few big cities, they give you the ability to “drive around” and look in any direction. Amazon had something like this, but this feels better to me.

Here, for example, is the house where I lived when I was Palo Alto. Not so interesting? Take a look at the view from the Golden Gate Bridge. Be sure and click and drag in the viewing window to change your view. Here’s the cool Ukrainian restaurant on the street where my sister used to live in New York.

5000 years of Middle Eastern history

Jay Cz and my brother Tad both sent me this one: The Imperial History of the Middle East. It’s a nice idea. Watch 5000 years worth of history as it splashes paint across the Middle East.

This animated map is from a site called the Maps of War. They host a number of other interesting maps including a 90 second History of Religion with a premise similar to the one above.

Earth as sandwich

Ze Frank is a web performance artist who first came to prominence back at the dawn of web time with his “how to dance properly” page. Among his many creations is something called the Earth sandwich. The idea is to imagine two people standing on opposite sides of the Earth. At the same instant, they each put a piece of bread on the ground: Earth sandwich.

This is one of my favorite Google Maps mashups. Since you can click and drag the points around so easily, you learn a lot about hemispheric geography that is hard to work out with a typical map. For instance, most of the Earth’s land is above the equator. It’s actually pretty hard to find two interesting places that make a good sandwich. Argentina and China are good antipodal friends, and Spain pairs neatly with New Zealand, but mostly it’s lots and lots of water. Australia drops straight into the Atlantic Ocean, and Africa is lost in mid-Pacific.

Not only is most of the Earth’s land in the north, most of the southern hemisphere’s land is in the northern part of that hemisphere. The Cape of Good Hope, at the very tip end of Africa, looks like it goes a long way south, but in relative terms it only dips as far below the Equator as Las Vegas is above it. All of Europe is above that latitude. Only Cape Horn, poking its godforsaken toe into the circumpolar storm belt around Antarctica, pushes into what we would normally consider high northern latitudes. At 56 degrees south, it matches up with Edinburgh and the dangling tails of Alaska.

More real estate heat maps, including Boston

I mentioned Zillow’s real estate heat maps here several weeks ago: Zillow calculates and then maps the cost per square foot of houses in Seattle and San Francisco. Well
they’re back, and this time they brought friends. Now they’ve added New York and Boston and some other cities to the list.

Mostly something like this tells you what you already know: beach front property in San Diego is expensive, Brooklyn is cheaper than Manhattan and so on. But this is real data, and there are some things to learn. I had no idea, for instance, that Phoenix had such brutal wealth gradients. I have to bet that Scottsdale is loaded with gated communities, because that peaky cost distribution is a recipe for trouble. It’s nice that they use an absolute color scale for “heat,” because it lets you take in at a glance how absurdly expensive Silicon Valley is compared to the rest of the country.

Real estate heat maps

When you’ve got good data, heat maps can be a particularly gorgeous way to take it all in. Following links back from Paul Kedrosky’s blog to Valleywag and then Zillow, I came across these beautiful real estate price heat maps of some of the most expensive places on the planet. The folks at Zillow have worked out the price per square foot of real estate in Seattle and most of the San Francisco Bay Area. The images are remarkable, and if you know the areas covered, you can linger over them for a long time, making up stories about why houses cost so much over there but not over there. I’ve decided that’s the acid test for really great data presentation: can you pore over it for hours making up stories? If the answer is yes, then you’re on to something big.