Chimpanzees in context

Jane Goodall and her team are still at it, observing chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, but now they, like every other primate on the face of the earth, are also blogging. What’s interesting, even beyond the bit about the chimps, is the fact that the blog appears (primarily) in Google Earth rather on a web page. This allows you to see exactly where Emily saw Fifi’s eighth child Flirt. In a more general sense, it answers the question “Okay, I know chimpanzees come from Africa, but where in Africa? It’s a big place, after all.” Seeing the Gombe preserve set among the mountains of along the shores of Lake Tanganyika and then reading about camp life provides more tangible context than the maps in National Geographic ever did. Plus it’s got news you can use: if you visit, put your shoes in the “large cage where we hang the laundry… because if you leave those things outside unprotected, you will almost certainly lose them to a crafty baboon or chimp.”

From Google maps to gene maps

One of the nifty things you can do with Google maps is grab them and move them around, sliding along a road, for example, until you come to your destination. The continuity gives you the sense that you’re actually looking at a single giant physical map, a map so big that it would cover the state of Nebraska if it were real.

There are lots of maps out there… would any others benefit from the Google maps Ajax treatment? Of course. The folks at UC Berkeley’s Holmes lab are building something they call GBrowse, for Generic Genome Browser. If you’ve ever seen the UC Santa Cruz Genome Browser, you know there’s a brutal tradeoff between available data and screen real estate. There are so many points of interest along the sequence, but you can only see so much of it. Managing the interface is button-clicky hassle. The Berkeley team has solved (or mitigated anyway) this problem by using the Google maps approach. See what you think here: Prototype Generic Genome Browser client. It’s much nicer than the Santa Cruz version. I can’t do much to interpret the data; I’m a tourist here. But it sure is fun cruising around. (Seen on Flags and Lollipops)

Toponymy – the naming of places

Linguists and sociologists have, for years, been making dialect maps on which are displayed, for example, those places where people would be likeliest to refer to a water fountain as a “bubbler.” Professor Bert Vaux keeps an excellent archive here on his website at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (where, strangely enough, people sip their water from bubblers).

Another approach, which should have been obvious but never occurred to me before, is to simply use a computer to crank through place names that are already recorded in map databases. For instance, if you looked at a great big map of the US and noted down all of the waterways called “brooks” and all of the waterways called “creeks,” would you see a geographic trend? Answer: yes you would. And here is lake vs. pond.

This work is presented on a site called pfly.com. I can’t figure out who the author is, but it’s darn good work. Here’s another good one: of the city name suffixes -burg and -ville, does -burg reveal a German immigrant trend? So many other questions you might ask: are there more “Bear” place names in the east or the west? In California, are there more Sans than Santas or Santas than Sans? And ever since that sleepless night at Devil’s Twitchy Eyelid National Monument in Wyoming, I’ve wondered how many National Park names involve the word “Devil” in one way or another. Now the answer may finally be at hand.

NEWSFLASH! Ask and it shall be granted unto you. A very cool internet-age thing has happened: I posed three speculative questions in the preceding paragraph, and pfly himself came across this post and answered my questions in the comments section. That is indeed something worth giving thanks for. Thanks, pfly!

Go read the comment, but here are the graphical results. Bear place names. San vs. Santa. Devil in the placename. I have to say, I was amazed by the number of Devil’s This-and-That places out there. I joked about Devil’s Twitchy Eyelid, but pfly did the research to show that there actually are the following Devil body parts: tailbone, toenail, windpipe, jawbone, and bottom.