I joined iPhone Nation a month or so ago. The iPod touch was my gateway drug. It seemed harmless enough at the time, but things got out of control. Now I’m one of those people. One of those iPhone people. You know the kind. Even I think we’re insufferable.
Anyway, I’ve been having fun with the applications available at the App Store, and one that caught my eye was Masayuki Akamatsu’s Compass. Here’s a little video on how it works.
In a nutshell, here’s the theory. If you know where you are, and you know which way is north, and you know what day of the year it is, you can build a sundial that keeps very accurate time. (If you don’t know what day of the year it is, you can build a sundial that’s reasonably accurate, but that’s another matter.) Stated another way, if you know what day it is, and you know where you are, and you know what time it is, then you can build a sundial that will tell you which way north is. It turns out an iPhone has all the information it needs to build just such a north-pointing sundial. Which is to say: a compass. No magnet required.
I had a similar thought four years ago when I was noodling around with some sundial code in MATLAB. I even wrote a contribution for the MATLAB Central File Exchange called Building Sundials. That contribution came with some explanatory text that closed with this statement.
Suppose you were lost in the woods, equipped with only a computer, a printer, and a copy of MATLAB. How would you orient yourself?
I meant it as a joke, but that’s essentially where the iPhone has gotten us.
Okay, I admit that a real compass is cheaper than an iPhone. And it works at night. Without batteries. And when it’s cloudy. But still… Hey, did I show you my beautiful new iPhone?
You may have seen my recent interview in the Times.
Okay, it wasn’t actually the NY Times. It was the EE Times. EE is a big city right next to NY. It’s even bigger than NY.
Right: EE Times stands for Electrical Engineering Times, and I was interviewed by chief editor Junko Yoshida as part of an article about our web community, MATLAB Central. It came out pretty well, I think: EETimes.com – Social engineers get caught in the Web. The pitch that set the story in motion was the idea that engineers aren’t social, so why are they getting social on the web? Engineers, as everyone knows, prefer to eat lunch in their cubicles and keep company with their slide rules, Boba Fett action figures, and twenty-sided dice.
Of course this idea is flawed: even the gangliest geek knows it’s no fun to play Dungeons & Dragons alone. Still, it was enough of a hook to hang a story on, which is a good thing, because we got to talk about our site. Something significant really is happening with the traffic growth we’re seeing on our community site, but I associate it with the same trends that we see everywhere else. The bottom line is that social computing works. If you can find ways to aggregate individual effort for the common good, a lot of good stuff happens. You see that in the consumer space with things like camera reviews and Netflix recommendations, and you see it in every engineering discipline. It all adds up to a lot more traffic to our File Exchange and Newsreader sites. For instance, suppose you needed to generate time-varying Rayleigh fading channels based on autoregressive models to support your fading channel simulation. Well, what would you do? I’ll tell you what you’d do. You’d end up here.
Tim O’Reilly likes to quote William Gibson when he describes his approach to predicting the future: “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” In other words, if you can just find the people (O’Reilly calls them alpha geeks) who are leading the way, you can serve yourself a tasty slice of future pie before the crowds show up. I completely agree with this philosophy. One of the things I love about the current blogging culture is that I can keep up with the latest thoughts of the people, the alpha geeks, that I think are on the leading edge.
When Tim O’Reilly talks about people who can see the future before it’s very evenly distributed, he’s talking about Jon Udell. I have been a fan of Udell’s writing since his days as a columnist at Infoworld. Now he works at Microsoft. The reason for his departure is also the reason his writing is so prescient: he holds fast to his own compass, and when that compass was at variance with Infoworld’s mission, he knew it was time to move on. Few people are doing more to distribute the future than Udell. He is intensely focused on bringing the fruits of social computing and information technology in general to the broadest possible audience, whether it’s through screencasting, easy-to-use scripting languages, or underused federal databases. I know when he’s excited about something, I should learn more about it as fast as possible.
So I was especially happy that I got a chance to meet him at a recent symposium on social computing at Microsoft. I was even happier to learn that he wanted to interview me for a podcast on the programming contest that I’ve been running at The MathWorks for the past several years.